The Truth About My Cat And Odysseus's Dog

Mark Buchan |
Ulysses and Argus, from Alfred Church’s “The Odyssey for Boys and Girls”

I have an aging cat called Thisbe. Still a street cat at heart, she is very affectionate toward me, but tends to be wary of other humans, and gets nervous when more than one is around her. I'm about to travel to Europe for a few weeks without her, and a roommate will take over surrogate care duties. This has happened before. I have left her several times over the years, and I know, from the most recent report on a past trip, the rough contours of what will likely happen. She'll miss me for a day or two, withdraw, sleep on my bed, perhaps forsake her obsessive cleanliness to pee there once or twice. I wondered when I heard this if it was an "acting out," or mourning, and then was immediately worried I was anthropomorphizing. She is, after all, a cat. But by now she's largely domesticated, and at least in part in tune with human emotions. In a French pun once made by the French philosopher Jacques Lacan, there is a lot of "man" ("beaucoup d'homme") in domestic animals ("animaux domestiques"). The mourning likely won't last long. Quite quickly she will transfer her actions to the new food-provider. They'll get the licks, the friendly head-butts, the purrs, and this is as it should be. So far, each time I've returned, she has immediately transferred her affections back to me. I'd like to think this has something to do with "love," or perhaps even "fidelity." Or it may just be because I reclaimed the role of food-provider.

Now I'm not exactly saying I'm Odysseus, leaving and returning to my pet. Argos was a dog, not a cat, and Odysseus left him for twenty years. But I'm also not exactly denying it. The emotional confusion of the hellos and goodbyes with my cat offers some sort of window onto this famous literary episode. Odysseus' flea-ridden dog finally witnesses his master's return, recognizes him by wagging his tail, then drops his ears. Odysseus, seeing that the dog recognizes him, is unable to show any affection lest he reveal his own identity. At least he seems to feel bad about it, and wipes away a single tear. But whether in response to Odysseus' lack of affection or not, the dog dies. The story is beloved, and deemed straightforward, and I've never quite understood why. We can let Wikipedia give the party line: "The simplicity of the relationship between Argos and Odysseus allows their reunion to be immediate and sincere." How even the brief sketch I've offered is "sincere," or "immediate" is beyond me. But it is the kind of thing people love to say both about Homeric poetry and dogs - both are simple, true - which should already make us suspicious. So in what follows I'll try to show that the episode is a heady mix of half-truths and lies of omission, and emotional confusion that is extremely mediated, all fueled by the thought of the single tear I might soon be shedding for my cat.

Argos in The Odyssey is more than a dog. He's a complex metonym for the poem itself, and its leading characters. Here's Lattimore's translation of Homer's opening description of the dog, and then the dog's literary farewell. Odysseus, in disguise, has returned to Ithaka, been sheltered by his slave, the swineherd Eumaeus, and is now heading to his old palace with Eumaeus to find out more about the behavior of the suitors who have taken up residence there to woo his wife.

Now as these two were conversing thus with each other,
a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears. This was
Argos, patient-hearted Odysseus' dog, whom he himself
raised, but got no joy of him, since before that he want to sacred
Ilion. In the days before, the young men had taken him
out to follow goats of the wild, and deer, and rabbits;
but now he had been put aside, with his master absent,
and lay on the deep pile of dung…
But the doom of dark death now closed over the dog Argos
when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus. (Od.17.290–296, 326–7)

For those who choose to see the poem through Odysseus' eyes, and those, like Eumaeus and his son, who seem to share it, Argos' condition - flea-bitten, banished to the dung - is symbolic of the state of Odysseus' neglected household. The dog is a living indictment of the suitors' treatment of the house. Argos' death, after he had seen Odysseus, but also after he had seen Odysseus ignore him, complicates things a little. It anticipates the poem's final book, where Odysseus withholds love from his aging father and nearly kills him. Odysseus plays a trick on Laertes, pretending to be a stranger who knows that his son is dead, and he nearly breathes his last breath, narrowly avoiding the fate of Argos. This is straightforward literary stuff, though not exactly "simple." The dog is part of the power-struggle in Ithaka.

But it's the "sincerity" of the encounter between Odysseus and his dog I'm most interested in. Our narrator starts the episode with a clear claim about Argos that Odysseus could not possibly know - though presumably Eumaeus does: after Odysseus trained him as a pup, he left for the Trojan War and "got no joy of him." Instead, the young men got that "joy," took him hunting until they had no further use for him, and so no "joy" was possible. This detail is seemingly forgotten in the puzzling conversation between Eumaeus and Odysseus about the dog. First, Odysseus muses out loud on Argos' appearance:

The shape of him [Argos] is splendid, yet I cannot be certain
whether he had the running speed to go with this beauty,
or is it just one of the kind of table dog that gentlemen
keep, and it is only for show that their masters care for them. (Od.17.307–10)

All this is very strange. On seeing his dog, already referred to by the narrator as flea-ridden, Odysseus brushes past the ugliness and instead sees only the beauty of his form (kalos); but rather than linger over this marvel, he is immediately concerned if this beauty matches what we might call the dog's function, the ability to run and therefore hunt. Does his "outside" match his "inside"? Or, to relate it to the poem's obsession with disguise and deception, is the dog a liar? And why would Odysseus care if he was a liar? Eumaeus' answer is even stranger:

This, it is too true, is the dog of a man who perished
far away. If he were such, in build and performance,
as when Odysseus left him behind, when he went to Ilion,
soon you would see his speed and his strength for yourself. (Od.17.312–15)

The anxiety of whether outside matches the function of an aging inside is very much the aging Odysseus' worry, and the poem's climax will depend on whether he is quite the "hunting man" he once was, as he wields the bow. In this way, Odysseus' "rags" might hide not just the real Odysseus, but preserve the illusion that any "beauty" underneath still indicates his strength. Eumaeus is as yet unaware, or at least seems to be, that the man in disguise before him is Odysseus; still, his answer hints at what can, and cannot, be "said out loud" in Ithaka. Eumaeus rushes to remember the good old days: the dog ran fast once, but only at the time Odysseus left, twenty years ago. Eumaeus then fast-forwards to the present, and the lack of care shown toward the dog by the current inhabitants of Odysseus' palace, the suitors and maidservants (though curiously having nothing to say about Penelope or Telemachus' responsibility for all this). But here's the problem. Eumaeus' answer skirts around the exact answer already provided to Odysseus' question, but by the narrator. We already know Odysseus trained him, but had no "joy" of his 'function' as hunting dog; the "young men" of Ithaka got that joy - that is, the suitors of Penelope. We have commentary on the dog's youth and age, but Eumaeus' life-story of the dog is careful to omit his entire adult life. Why?

Eumaeus may not know this is Odysseus, but he seems to be protecting the stranger's feelings from the full insult of what has happened to him: he trained a dog, and the men besieging his house had their "joy" of him. The swineherd is very keen to talk up the moral horror of the suitors and maidservants, but not in a way that implicates the dog itself. Odysseus should not be allowed to know the murkier and more emotionally complex truth, that this "faithful" dog Argos had been the suitors' dog. And now, perhaps, we can begin to see how the life of the dog might relate to the other key figure in the drama in Ithaka, Penelope.

Homer's crucial phrase is "got no joy of him." The Greek word is ἀπονίναμαι, and LSJ offers the basic translation of "have no use of," and offers an example of the phrase's use earlier in The Odyssey. When Odysseus ventures to the Underworld, he meets the ghosts of a catalog of mythic heroines. One is Ariadne, who was rescued by Theseus. But before he could take her back to Athens, she died, and thus he "got no joy of her" (Od.11.324). We could compare the typical Iliadic mini-tale of Amphidamas (Il.11.220ff.), a Thracian who leaves to fight for Troy right after he is married, only to be killed by Agamemnon on the battlefield. The poet tells us he knew no "pleasure" (charis) from his wife (11.243). The more general word "have use of" links Argos to these tales of "unused" women. Just as a dog's function is running, so a woman's "function," on this implied analogy, is sex, closely linked to procreation. Ariadne dies before Theseus can have sex with her, or father a child with her. His "rescue" of her is akin to Odysseus' training of Argos: seemingly wasted labor. So what if Eumaeus' squeamishness about the suitors' "use" of Argos, throughout his most "useful" adult years, hides a similar squeamishness about Penelope, and her fidelity through the majority of her adult years? For those who prefer to keep Penelope chaste, the episode can serve as a contrast. Her "game" of keeping the suitors at bay is also a game of delaying the availability of her "use" to them. For those less sure, Eumaeus' obfuscation hints at something a good deal more complicated: no one seems too interested in telling the details of what happened in Odysseus' long absence.

Odysseus himself seems to choose the "end" of retaking Ithaca over the immediate pleasure of embracing the dog. This immediately raises the question of how much simple, forsaken pleasure can be allowed for the homecoming still to be worth it. And Argos himself? If we can be fairly sure of the meaning of the wagging tale, what of the ears he "throws down"? Modern dog behaviorists suggest this can both mean the dog invites human interest and is open for communication, but also that the dog is nervous and tense. On an optimistic note, perhaps he hopes for a new regime where the aged are taken care of despite their lack of "use value," in stark opposition to how the suitors have treated him. But does Argos also have reason to be nervous, after his years of "use," of the returning Odysseus? If so, he would be less a symptom of the house's decline, and more a participant, his death the harbinger of Odysseus' later revenge killings. In turn, this means any talk about whether Penelope (or Telemachus) were part of the crowd who left him on the dung heap becomes dangerous, threatening to pull them toward the awful fate that awaits the maidservants and suitors. So Argos is an amalgam of half-stories, not quite the same as any of the poem's characters, but not entirely different from any of them. I'm not saying I'm sure about any of this. But I'm sure it's not simple!

One person's troubling obfuscation is another person's tact, and the entire episode has a surprising sequel in a contemporary romantic tale, where the lovers also spend the great bulk of their lives apart. James Cameron's Titanic does not end with the sinking of the ship. After the story of Jack and Rose has been told by our narrator, an aging Rose, we are taken on a brief journey through her "afterlife" after Jack has drowned and their romantic story ends. Jack enjoins her, before he dies, to "grow old," live a full life, "make babies." The movie then shows this life by guiding us through a series of photographs of Rose's life in her home. She has indeed lived life to the full (there are photos of her riding horses, by an airplane), and has had children. But the tact comes in what is missing from the photos. There is no sign of the man (or men) that will replace Jack. The film leaves us with a sense of his generosity, but also preserves something of their fidelity to one another, the film's "happy ever after." A picture of a husband would destroy that. The director also spares our romantic feelings. We might think of the tact we show toward our romantic partners when discussing former lovers. What is missing from these photos is roughly akin to what Eumaeus doesn't tell Odysseus about the adult life of his dog.

I'm extremely grateful for all the friends over the years who have taken care of my cat in my absences. This essay is a tribute to the, mostly, tactful way we have negotiated the return to my role as food-provider. Sharing a pet, for however long, is an exercise in thinking through the limits and responsibilities of "ownership" in a love-relationship, but also to think through what it means to share the "joy" of an animal, while allowing it to live out its purpose. We don't want to abandon our conventions of "fidelity" or "trust" or "love," but can also sense how they might get in the way of their joy, attached as it is to their human companions. Perhaps pets give us a virtual place where we work through our emotional problems of jealousy, possessiveness, balancing them against our more generous impulses. Or perhaps all the pettiness of our human, emotional messes gain some kind of redemption in the kindness we show to our pets? It's all about as simple as Argos and Odysseus. And Penelope.


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Mark Buchan

Mark Buchan is the Editor of In Medias Res. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University.


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