Don’t Forget Argos

Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut, ‘Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 319-21.

Not the ancient city, home to Orestes and Clytemnestra; not the British retailer, where goods of many kinds are fetched from behind the screen; this is about Odysseus’s dog.

Sedikides and Wildschut want to rehabilitate the reputation of nostalgia. It’s not ‘an unhealthy preoccupation with one’s past’, it’s really something with ‘remarkable implications for one’s future… It strengthens approach orientation [i.e. motivation], raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles pro-sociality’. Their findings are that if feelings like nostalgia are created in experiments, then it appears that subjects look forward more positively; and those who have a disposition prone to nostalgia also show these traits. This makes sense intuitively: someone who has experienced things worth missing might be able to compose hopes for alternatives, if not a return.
      The authors prevented me spending time saying ‘er yeah? Odyssey? Homer? Odyssey?’ by tackling it head on: ‘Nostalgia, then, is a deposit in the bank of memory to be retrieved for future use. This was indeed Homer’s original view of nostalgia in his portrayal of history’s most famous itinerant’. Well, yes, and also maybe. There were other epics (now lost) about the homecomings of the heroes of the Trojan War: the Nostoi. Some of these stories were retold in the form of tragedies, like that of the homecoming of Agamemnon. Nostalgia, or a more general desire to return home (because nostalgia has to come with pain), was a powerful animating force for the epic tradition.
      Within the Odyssey, though, the hero’s wish to return home is tested and qualified in different episodes. It’s true that he is strongly impelled, but then again, why does he insist on listening to the siren’s song? (Perhaps that’s ‘approach orientation’ right there; a once-in-a-lifetime chance not missed.) Two moments came to my mind: one was the encounter with the shade of Ajax, his former, humiliated rival. Ajax won’t speak to him: you can never go back. The other comes just as Odysseus gets back to Ithaca, finally in a position to kill his wife’s suitors and retake his place.


And that’s where Argos comes in. Master and dog recognise one another as Odysseus enters the palace, passing the dunghill where the poor animal now resides. There’s no acknowledgement: one is incognito, the other too weak. I like Stephen Mitchell’s translation, printed in the New Yorker in 2013 (here). Here’s a key moment:

Odysseus wiped a tear away, turning aside
to keep the swineherd from seeing it, and he said,
‘Eumaeus, it is surprising that such a dog,
of such quality, should be lying here on a dunghill.
He is a beauty, but I can’t tell if his looks
were matched by his speed or if he was one of those pampered
table dogs, which are kept around just for show’.

It’s as if he is saying Good Dog, as strongly as he can without giving himself away, and he invites his companion to tell him further whether this is a Good Dog, and Eumaeus goes on to say that this was, in his prime, a really really Good Dog. Perhaps this message gets across and satisfies the dog’s forlorn waiting: ‘And just then death came and darkened the eyes of Argos, / who had seen Odysseus again after twenty years’. I think this tends to validate Sedikides and Wildschut in their argument: this is sad mistiming, something wished for that doesn’t quite happen, but what passes just about between the two of them is valuable, inspiring, and pushes things forward.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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