In February of this year I had “A Perfect Moment”. I was at the The Getty Villa in Los Angeles, eating a plate of figs and cheese while drinking a glass of chardonnay. The breeze was soft, the company excellent and the view sublime. All of my senses were fulfilled. But what pushed the day to “perfect” status was the opportunity to see a tiny sliver of papyrus, a bit over 2,000 years old, which held a fragment of Homer’s The Odyssey. See, I’d just undertaken a year-long read-along of The Odyssey and while I may be a book or two behind at this point, it’s been a fabulous experience. I don’t think I’ve done a close reading of a text since college so to be forced to slow down, to give the words time to sink into my bones and let the story that has been such a bedrock of western literary experiences wash over me has been a luxury.
It certainly hasn’t hurt that I chose to read Robert Fagles' translation, selected because it purported to give us a bit more domestic detail along with all the clashing armor. While there has been some criticism of Fagles’ trading authenticity for readability, there is no denying the language is sensuous and beautiful.
So, what is it about that tiny sliver of parchment that still transfixes us centuries later? Nothing really. Despite its age and rarity it’s just the medium for the real treasure: the story. And what a story – it’s been told and retold so often that it’s become a part of us. Over the years we’ve picked it apart, rebuilt it and, at times, turned it into something new. It is a story that speaks to our soul.
That is what a good story does.
Of course The Odyssey is “literature” and given the reverence and awe that “literature” deems its due. But the story started out as merely a cracking good tale filled with adventure, loss and love, told by storytellers to captivated audiences. It was the Lost or Downton Abbey or Doctor Who of its time. It didn’t become “literature” until much later.
I guess the lesson to be learned from that tiny slip of papyrus is that the medium is irrelevant. A good story is a good story whether it is delivered to us via paper, film or the internet. It has a power over us that cannot be contained by its delivery system and whose merits are earned by the emotions it generates.
And that is, pretty much, the definition of perfect.
P.S. If you really want a perfect example of the power of story, check out Chicks Dig Comics edited by my fabulous Whedonistas co-editor Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis. These amazing essays by women artists and writers will challenge you to re-examine the powerful story-telling medium of comics.