From the 2010 Blaney lecture held during the Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 29, 2010, in New York City.
I was in Berlin a while ago, and I went to an art opening of a very famous, very celebrated, very wealthy American artist. And we were all there milling around, looking at the art, drinking wine, chatting. A man came in from the street, made his way through the crowd, stood in front of the artist and engaged him in conversation for a few moments, and then hauled off and socked him in the nose, yelling, "You sell-out!"
So, I began to get interested in this concept of "the sell-out." What does it mean to be a sell-out nowadays? Because most of us sell pretty much anything, pretty much all the time. What's the difference between mere "selling" and "selling out?" It seems to be a very thin border, and yet one that we're intuitively aware of all the time. So, anyway, I was pondering these things, and, more pertinently, since I'm a classicist and I like to trace everything back to Homer, I was wondering if the ancient Greeks had this concept of the sell-out and this concern for the very thin border.
I did some research, and, sure enough, Homer turns out to be the very first artist in our tradition, the Western tradition, to build a work of art around the question, "What is a sellout?" and to perch his hero on that very thin border. The work, of course, would be The Odyssey, and the hero, Odysseus, who, I'm going to argue, is a person who comes very close to selling out, and then at the last moment transcends himself and his own materialism, and is saved by the power of true love.
In theory then, Odysseus does not wander the world for ten years racking up stuff out of motives of avarice or greed. He brings precious things home in order to store them as treasure or give them away as gifts. Nonetheless, as any astute reader of The Odyssey will observe, Odysseus's own economic practice differs somewhat from this theory. It's true he inhabits an economic order where the parameters are set and the rules are clear, yet he does like to test that very thin border. More than any other hero of ancient epic, Odysseus seems to enjoy gaming the gift exchange system for all its worth, and sometimes takes a lenient attitude toward that pesky distinction between honorable and dishonorable profit.
There is a certain irony in his tendency, whenever he's in a tight spot and needs a fake identity, to pass himself off as a commercial salesman. What saves Odysseus from tragedy is, on the one hand, his economic attitude—this combination of gamesmanship and irony that Homer sums up by saying, "Odysseus is one who knows profit"—and on the other hand, the fact that he genuinely likes his wife. In fact, I think this may be two sides of one coin.