There’s a very moving scene in director Wim Wenders’ film ‘Paris,Texas’ in which Harry Dean Stanton’s character, finding his long lost wife, played by Nastassja Kinski, tells her the story of their disastrous love through the medium of a one-way mirror.  She can’t see him, but he can see her. It’s a device to delay the moment of recognition so she remains receptive; this gives him the space he needs for his honest and harrowing tale. He even turns his back on the mirror, to protect himself from her reactions, and perhaps to put them both on a more equal footing.  During the telling, her empathy towards him intensifies, yet not until the final moment does the realisation of his identity become impossible for her to resist.

The one-way mirror (Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas)

In a video on YouTube, Wim Wenders talks about his respect for ‘real’ time and narrative order as a conscious aesthetic choice. In the scene above, it’s the slow pace which enables psychological realities to impress themselves on the viewer in tandem with the experience of the characters.

This interests me, as something very similar happens in the Odyssey. All the time Odysseus is lost geographically and psychologically, the narrative tacks back and forth across the boundaries of sequential time, while the pace of the story varies from high octane to almost languorous.  Yet, at the exact halfway point, when he finally arrives home at Ithaca, the pace becomes consistently calmer, and events are told in their proper order with a wealth of visual details you can run in your head like a film.

After twenty years absence at war and at sea, Odysseus is coming back to a tense situation.  Well-born thugs have invaded his palace and are eating their way through his estate and importuning his wife. Some of his servants are in cahoots with them. He needs to work out a strategy, find out who he can trust. So, he takes on the disguise of a beggar, and invents varied stories about his past to suit the person he’s talking to.  Now, you might think this not only sensible, but really smart. He’s taking responsibility, making sure he survives and will be effective. Moreover, he’s testing people according to how they treat a down-and-out. Admirable! Yet these same devices have won him a bad press as a trickster and a liar since ancient times.

This is especially so in relation to his withholding his identity from his wife, Penelope, during a long conversation they have in which she presses him for news about her husband. Their talk soon establishes a quality of candour and empathy such as two people might well have who have been very close. (They are consistently described in the epics as ‘homophrosunay’ – of like mind.)  That night, Penelope dreams of Odysseus as he was when he left, and when he wakes he has a vision of her standing by him.

It’s very touching, but to some the subterfuge is sneaky, a cruel test, unforgivable. Imagine, though, meeting someone you love deeply, but have had no contact with for twenty years, you might want to feel your way back to find that special level of connectivity. Besides, she has long been thinking him dead and isn’t the management of expectations, giving someone space in which to react, an essential component of emotional intelligence? Seriously, would you just walk back in: ‘Hi Honey, I’m home!’? Odysseus’ beggar disguise is Wenders’ mirror.

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