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Homer at Last 


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
October 15, 2012

As we learned from Ulysses, victory is not even half the battle. What follows victory is the return to a home that no longer exists and possibly never existed anywhere except in one's mind. Even after such a Great Odyssey, Tennyson's famous poem gives us a Ulysses who lives merely to "mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race that hoard, and sleep, and feed." Pondering his situation, old Ulysses decides that it is "not too late to seek a newer world."

Ulysses may have been a hero, but he would have made a poor chess player. Privy to oracular powers well beyond those of the Council of Economic Advisors, Ulysses was forewarned that his return from Troy would be Homeric in scope. In a world of persistent stagnation where economic growth would not even be a concept for over two millennia, a clever guy like Ulysses should have known better than to hope that any change on the home front could be taken as an improvement. Better for him to grab Helen of divine beauty to whom Penelope was clearly second-best (romantic love had not yet been invented to seal the attachment between husband and wife and Helen's royal hubby was likely no match for Ulysses), and seek his "newer world" immediately. Perhaps Ulysses did exactly that, but Homer, in need of a sequel, went ahead and wrote the Godfather II of its day (and Cream later got a song out of it to boot).

The problem with victory is all of the physical and, even more important, the psychic damage required to achieve it. When what starts as trip to the corner store turns into an epic journey; the Cheetos do not just pass their best-by date, they are rendered irrelevant. Moreover, the mechanism of triumph is rarely as clear-cut and clever as fooling the enemy into rolling a kitschy horse through the gates of the city. The gods have been known to be a capricious and petty crew to whom "nothin' can be a real cool hand," especially when one's rivals overplay theirs through arrogance or vanity. Coolness and luck may be life's one true winning combination, but they attract neither ears nor eyeballs.

Ulysses was fortunate to have lived prior to the media age; he was long dead by the time anyone of consequence had heard his story. As events unfolded, Ulysses had to disguise himself (his personal specialty) upon his eventual return from Troy in order to get his turn on the Penelope and Her Suitors reality show. Fortunately, age had not taken a much of a toll on his archery skillz, and so over a hundred dead suitors later (full listing of names on Wikipedia), Ulysses was finally back where he started twenty years earlier. Had Ulysses lived in our day, it is likely that the suitors' mutilated corpses would have been surrounded by similar stacks of reporters, paparazzi, and bloggers. Furthermore, Ulysses, whose existence predates even Aristotle's primitive version of economics, seemed unaware of the fallacy of sunk costs. After a decade of battling the worst that Poseidon can throw at you, Ulysses could not look at the Ithaca's crumbling infrastructure and the Penelope's odious suitors and just say, "Screw this, I'm outta here."

Of course, there is no telling how accurate the reports from the man who calls himself Homer are. Notwithstanding the exaggerations and errors inherent in the oral tradition of storytelling as well as the likelihood that Ulysses never even existed, it is doubtful that our hero would have been entirely pleased with how the stories of his exploits were recorded. For all we know, Ulysses may have invented entirely new forms of warfare so technically advanced that we have yet to discover them, yet Homer decided that the horse episode in the prequel to the Odyssey was easier for listeners of the day to understand. Anyway, animal stories have always popular, just ask Aesop. Moreover, Helen already knew Ulysses would try something like that based on his past treachery, so a discerning audience (were there such things back then?) would have to wonder why Ulysses did not vary his tactics. On the other hand, Ulysses must have benefited from the journalistic whitewashing necessary to promote his brand identity. While the Circe and Calypso affairs could not just be edited away, there must have been things that happened in Troy that stayed in Troy (or its ruins). According to a quick read of Wikipedia, many subsequent writers did not buy Homer's story either and they set Ulysses on a different, more logically consistent, course that did not lead home.

Ulysses' problem was that he lived in a time when it was not only difficult to just blow everything off; there is no surviving mythological record of anyone getting away with it. The gods were there to make sure anyone who departed from the script suffered horrifying consequences and that word got out to keep the masses in line. In the case of Ulysses, he failed to acknowledge that he was but a pawn in the game of the gods and owned his success to them. Ulysses paid a price for his pride but his men, who served as object lessons for Ulysses and did not survive the return trip, paid a much larger price through no fault of their own, much like the independent contractors on the uncompleted Death Star. Destiny is a bitch, which is why free will, or at least its illusion, is so important.

Next month, wherever my personal odyssey takes me, it is time for another end-of-year wrap-up along lines of the one in 2008. With any luck I'll have some idea where I'm going by then.

Copyright 2012 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to