Scars, Stories, and Identity

Former Brandeis student and future Rabbi Emily Dana has a great post about how our bodies tell our stories, inspired by and engaged with Odysseus’ scar. I know she read some of Auerbach’s Mimesis recently, but she gets a bit proustian too:

Trauma leaves scars whether we like it or not. Sometimes those scars are visible, but other times we hardly know that they exist until the exact moment that they decide to present themselves to us–the word that reminds us of our scariest memory or a dispute with a friend that jerks us back into childhood, or even a certain smell that is connected to a memory.

What I deeply appreciate about the way Emily puts this is that it draws upon the powerful ambiguity of the traumatic. The Greek word trauma can mean “wound” but it also means “hurt” or “damage”. In modern English usage, trauma can denote a physical ailment (think “blunt force trauma”), but it more often refers to the invisible marks physical suffering can leaving behind.

The Etymology of the word is disputed by modern linguists, but Byzantine scholars presented a folk etymology that it is “from trô (titrôskô [“to pierce, wound”]) [with both spellings] trôma and trauma. It is etymologized from blood flowing [to rheein] through it.” (Τραῦμα: Παρὰ τὸ τρῶ, τὸ τιτρώσκω, τρῶμα καὶ τραῦμα· ἐτυμολογεῖται δὲ παρὰ τὸ ῥέειν δι’ αὐτοῦ τὸ αἷμα, Etymologicum Magnum).

I have spent some time obsessed with this scene over the past few years, seeing the word for scar in versions of Odysseus’ name and finding both wonder and horror in how Eurykleia is instrumentalized to be witness to Odysseus’ history. The scar-scene is one of several moments of recognition in the epic, opportunities for Odysseus’ identity to be confirmed and re-performed. Each one depends on an external sign that carries a story with it. A bed for Odysseus and Penelope; a grove of trees for father and son.

But I also think that beneath this is the recognition that bodies which do not tell stories–perfect, unmarked, even fictional or fictionalized bodies–present a problem in the Odyssey‘s world. The unblemished beauty of the suitors and the young princes among the Phaeacians stand almost in monstrous contrast to Odysseus. The age of his body and the scar from his youth tell his story and represent the promise of kleos to come. An unmarked body is one without a story–or one from which story has been erased.

Emily’s deeply felt post made me think of a twitter thread from last year when I talked about the Odyssey with my daughter:

 

Update: She kept going to swimming lessons…but still hesitates to wear shorts. And, thanks Emily, for reminding me.

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