The Inside and the Outside

Just as when a blue blood vessel, having been severed, issues forth red, so too might we imagine the exterior as a guardian of the interior’s true nature.

The Inside and the Outside
Photo by Grant Durr / Unsplash

The insides of things hold many secrets that can never be fully known without the doubt, attaching to and undermining even the most certain perceptions, that whatever we manage to uncover has been somehow altered in its transition from interiority to exteriority. Just as when a blue blood vessel, having been severed, issues forth red, so too might we imagine the exterior as a guardian of the interior’s true nature. Or, as when someone haphazardly rips parts from beneath the hood of an automobile, she finds herself unable to comprehend what kind of object she has removed because its nature is so closely bound up with that which previously hid it. As any surgeon can testify, we shall make no progress in our understanding of the inside without due consideration and sensitivity for the relation of interior things to the barrier that separates them from the external world.

Nor is it always obvious just what is inside and what is outside. Not even human beings have full knowledge of what lies within their own bodies. Thus someone says, I feel sorrow or gladness or pain or peace, as if these were things that had come from without, that existed outside for examination by the five senses. The person speaks of his sorrow like a cold wind, his gladness like leaves falling on his shoulders. But these emotions are, by nature, creatures of the self arising and subsiding within the fastness of the body. They may be made manifest in outward forms—through crying, for example, or smiling—but such displays are not of one kind with those things that affect a person from within. Nor is this the only way in which we are blind to the realities of our own interiors. Anatomists have mapped out the body, but we do not automatically see all of its structures in our mind’s eye. They are hidden from us and from the grasp of even the most introspective. Nor do we see the source from which are own thoughts arise, thoughts, which can think and know all about the neighbor’s house, but cannot explain their own source.

The Homeric poems present a system of representation that places a great deal of emphasis on the difference between inside and outside. Achilles claims to hate the man that ὅς χ᾽ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθῃ ἐνὶ φρεσίν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ ‘hides one thing in his mind and says another’ like the gates of Hades (Il. 9.313), as if any disparity between a person’s exterior words and interior thought could be likened to that between life and death. Odysseus, likewise, asks Zeus to send him a sign from inside his house and from outside it, so that he may be sure of his coming triumph over the suitors (Od. 20.100-101). Surely Zeus believes in the importance of interiority and exteriority also, for it is difficult to imagine that the god would answer frivolous prayers.

The diction of interior and exterior

The Odyssey understands concepts of interiority in a more restricted manner than does modern English, however. Jean Starobinski claims that under a biological and philosophical mode “an outside begins at the point where the expansion of a structuring force stops” and “an inside comes into being the moment a form asserts itself by setting its own boundaries.” This, however, does not provide us with much in the way of understanding what the Odyssey means when it speaks of “inside” and “outside,” as it differs somewhat from the way in which we think of it today. We can speak, for example, of the interior of a tree as having the xylem and phloem within, or describe a cushion with down inside. But the Greek words for “inside” or “within” never appear in such contexts. The adverb endon talks of things that are inside caves, bodies, and buildings in general and homes in particular. Words like entos and variations on the two words, such as entothen and endothen, expand the range of things that people and objects can be inside to harbors, quivers and Trojan horses, but never to something that does not have, to some degree or another, a hollow space inside. We even hear about things being inside doors (Od. 22.220), but this clearly represents the space within the house and not the wood out of which the doors are made. Even the μεσόδμης ‘box’ into which sailors set the mast is described as κοίλης ‘hollow’ (Od. 2.424).

Words that we translate as “hollow” in English also present problems, however. The Odyssey uses two: glaphuros and koilos with a subtle difference in usage and meaning between the two. The adjective glaphuros is limited to ships, lyres, caves, and rocks, whereas koilos is also connected to quivers, the hiding place for an ambush, valleys, and shorelines. The former word seems to fit more closely with our understanding of interiors and exteriors, as ships, lyres, caves, and hollow rocks all clearly have insides and outsides to them. But what can we call the “exterior” of a valley or of a bend in the shoreline? We can imagine all kinds of meanings, but none that allow us to imagine a clear membrane between what is within and what is without. And yet, koilos does describe certain interiors that have an obvious outside, such as that of a quiver or the Trojan horse’s pregnant belly. Meanwhile, glaphuros has such a limited range that it neglects numerous interiors that are crucial to the narrative, such as the hall of Odysseus or even the bag of Aeolus that is full of wind. Most importantly, the human interior, certainly an important one from our perspective, lacks this hollowness—even when the belly is empty we do not hear of a “hollow” stomach. Thus, while hollowness is closely related to the Homeric idea of interiority, it is not an inalienable feature of it.

Hollowness represents more a lack than an actual inside, a feature of the structure of the barrier between inside and out as opposed to something existing on the inside. Whenever the text speaks of hollowness, whether using glaphuros or koilos, it is always referring to the structure as a whole. Thus we have hollow ships, rocks, socket boxes, quivers and Trojan horses, but never hollow antechambers or bedrooms. Perhaps one can argue that these rooms are not hollow because they are somehow furnished, but Polyphemus’ cave is described as being hollow (Od. 9.114), even though it is quite crowded. Another objection might be that the two different words, koilos and glaphuros, refer to two different ways that hollowness is imagined—the former being from an internal perspective, and the latter from an external one. The word koilos, after all, talks of valleys (Od. 4.1) and beaches (Od. 22.385), things that one can only see from what we might term their inside. Moreover, because ships can be imagined from both inside and outside perspectives, and because Menelaus uses koilos to describe the Trojan horse as he remembers sitting on the inside (Od. 4.277), our impression of the interior vantage point of koilos might be strengthened. But this simply does not explain how a quiver might be termed koilos (Od. 21.417)—a person cannot fit inside a quiver. Indeed, both koilos and glaphuros can always be translated just as clearly, if not a little clumsily, by the appositive phrase, an object structured so as to enclose to one degree or another some empty space. The language simply does not allow such statements as The inside of the rock was hollow, or The box was hollow inside, the way that modern English does. It is always the object that is hollow, not its inside.

Whenever the Odyssey speaks of something being inside, it is referring to some object occupying this ‘hollow’ space. The space is but a lack. The object, however, never makes up part of the structure of the thing that hides it, but is generally separable and unconnected. As Telemachus marvels at the interior of Menelaus’ house, he remarks that the palace is like unto Zeus’ because of the χαλκοῦ τε στεροπὴν κὰδ δώματα ἠχήεντα / χρυσοῦ τ᾽ ἠλέκτρου τε καὶ ἀργύρου ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντος. ‘gleam of bronze and gold and silver and electrum and ivory throughout the echoing halls’ (Od. 4.72-73). Certainly the image of the echoing halls gives us some hint of the hollowness of the structure, reminding us of a lyre, but this image finds little emphasis next to the focus on the gold, silver, electrum, and ivory, all things which belong to the furnishings within, such as the golden pitchers and goblets and silver basins. (Note that here Telemachus does not mention the gleaming entryway that also amazed him and his companion; this was made, if we are to believe W. B. Stanford, out of “polished stone”.) It is precisely those objects in the interior, crafted from precious metals, that make the palace remarkable and spark in the mind of the young Telemachus a vision of the inside (endothen, Od. 4.74) of Zeus’ palace. Interiors are matched up by their contents, not the spaces they enclose.

These contents do not depend for their existence on the thing that hides them. The goblets that Telemachus and Pisistratus drink from could easily be removed from the palace without altering either goblet or building. Indeed, the very manner in which Menelaus has acquired the interior trappings of his home demonstrates this, for he received them as guest-gifts; at one point they marked the interiors of another person’s house. The system of interior objects and the structure that hides it are, in a sense, quite separable. If one removes the mast from the socket box, neither of the two will change, nor will a person change if he leaves his house, or an arrow if it is removed from the quiver. The Odyssey does not portray these interior objects as if they are part of the structure of the whole, nor as things that cannot be removed without altering the appearance or nature of the barrier between inside or out. Never do we see, for example, a pillar or an exterior wall described as endon. The interior object does not support the exterior.

Greek words for “outside,” such as ektos, confirm our understanding of insides, though they are used in a slightly looser manner. Most often the adverb ektos is used with buildings, though it can also mean to be off a road or path (Od. 17.234). The related word ektothen, however, can also describe being apart from the suitors and both ektose and ektosthen can describe the action of pulling something from the sea (Od. 5. 411, 22.385). Ektose can also be used with something falling out of a hand. While these usages are not exactly symmetrical with the words for “inside”—there is never any description of an object being inside of someone’s hand, for example, or a creature inside the sea, or a person being inside a group of people—this does not detract from our appreciation of the separateness of interior objects.

We have, of course, neglected a close analysis of many similar words, such as the prepositions en ‘in’ and ek ‘out,’ which would obviously give us a much wider range of usage and meaning. But even without such analysis, it is still clear that when something is thought of as “inside” in the Odyssey, it is not considered to be part of the same structure as its container, that they have a separateness that even fish in the ocean maintain from their environment.

The separate systems of the inside and the outside

Not only is this clear from the way in which words like endon are used, but from the manner in which exteriors remain unaltered throughout the poem, even if the inside has changed. Odysseus, when he returns home disguised as a beggar, remarks that his house is κάλ᾽ ‘beautiful’ (Od. 17.264), and, after briefly describing how it looks on the outside, claims that οὐκ ἄν τίς μιν ἀνὴρ ὑπεροπλίσσαιτο ‘no man may overcome it with arms’ or, to translate another way, ‘no man may treat it scornfully’ (Od. 17.268). Immediately and ironically, he adds

γιγνώσκω δ᾽ ὅτι πολλοὶ ἐν αὐτῷ δαῖτα τίθενται
ἄνδρες, ἐπεὶ κνίση μὲν ἀνήνοθεν, ἐν δέ τε φόρμιγξ
ἠπύει, ἣν ἄρα δαιτὶ θεοὶ ποίησαν ἑταίρην.

I can tell many men are set to the feast within it, since the steamy smell mounts up and inside resounds the lyre, which the gods made the companion of the feast (Od. 17.269-271).

He speaks of the exterior as if no person can take it by force or scorn it, while he talks of people sitting within who have taken over his palace by peaceful conquest and are actively engaged in scorning his palace, not only by devouring his meat, but by allowing the κνίση ‘steamy smell’ to rise to heaven in the absence of proper sacrifice. It is not enough that they should show such disrespect for his property, but that they should commit acts of impiety within at the same time. His house, however, once was a place of both piety and order; while the exterior reflects this past, the interior does not.

Such constancy of the exterior in the face of a changing interior can also be seen in people and gods. When Odysseus first meets Aeolus, the god is feasting. In fact, he is always feasting; nor does he prohibit Odysseus from joining his table, but rather hosts him for an entire month (Od. 10.8-14). In his kindness, he even gives Odysseus a bag that will provide him with a fair wind homeward. When Odysseus returns after his companions have foolishly opened the bag and let loose all contrary winds, he finds the god again feasting with his wife and children (Od. 10.61). Upon hearing Odysseus’ explanation for his unexpected return, Aeolus sends him from the house, claiming that Odysseus must be θεοῖσιν ἀπέχθηται μακάρεσσιν ‘hated by the blessed gods’ (Od. 10.74) and that he cannot help such a man. But Poseidon hated Odysseus long before the hero arrived at the Aeolian island the first time. Nothing in particular has changed about the situation, except for the king’s knowledge and his attitude toward his guest. Though this example may seem fairly intuitive, as it has always been common to see people ‘change their minds,’ this nevertheless marks one of the few examples in the Odyssey where the poem presents us with such a change within an individual, even though it does not show us the process of this change.

Even the bed that Odysseus fashions out of an olive tree and so anchored to the ground could theoretically be cut out and moved to the outside without bringing down the bedroom. Though rooted firmly in the ground, its removal would not affect the outward appearance of the bedchamber Odysseus built within his court. The text does not make it absolutely clear that the tree is not a part of the chamber; all it says is that he built the chamber, ἀμφιβαλὼν ‘setting it around’ the tree (Od. 23.192). This could mean that the tree trunk acted as a kind of pillar, part of the structure the removal of which would destroy the room. But this does not seem likely, as the integrity of the chamber does not appear to be an issue when Odysseus ponders whether or not someone has ταμὼν ὕπο πυθμέν᾽ ἐλαίης ‘cut up from beneath the stump of the olive tree’ (Od. 23.204). The structure of the chamber does not depend on the olive tree for support. It has an interiority on which the exterior does not depend.

It is just as common, if not more so, to see the exterior of a structure change while the interior stays the same. Mostly, we see this in people. Odysseus, of course, presents the clearest example of a man who alters his appearance, who transforms from a famous warrior to kindly guest, from a man of great fame to the Outis or “No-man” that fools the Cyclops in his anonymity, from a man made disgusting by the sea to a lordly man, like unto a god, and then back to a beggar, who infiltrates his own house in disguise. All of this, however, is coupled with the hero’s firm and unchanging inner self. “The constancy of the inside,” claims Starobinski, “the unswerving ambition to lay hold of those central places—palace, throne, bed—excuse all external fabulation, the ruses that forestall enemies until such time as the true Ulysses may regain his hearth.” His shape and appearance may shift, but always around a central core that cannot be budged.

Sometimes characters become so unlike themselves on the outside that it is hard to believe that their insides do not change as well. When Odysseus’ sailors enter into the house of Circe and, by her magic, take on the οἱ δὲ συῶν μὲν ἔχον κεφαλὰς φωνήν τε τρίχας τε / καὶ δέμας ‘heads, voices, bristles, and form of pigs’ (Od. 10. 239-240), their νοῦς ‘minds’ stay the same (Od. 10.240). Likewise, when Menelaus is tasked to keep his hold on Proteus, he is not to relent until the shape-shifter returns to the shape in which τοῖος ἐὼν οἷόν κε κατευνηθέντα ἴδησθε ‘he saw him [first] having laid to rest’ (Od. 4.421), for it is at that moment that the god will question him. Once the false exteriors have been finally removed, he can hold converse with the true and ultimately unchanging interior, now reflected in the exterior.

Deception often demands a discrepancy between interior and exterior, of course, and the Trojan horse stands as the classic model for such deception. Odysseus, in his somewhat customary disguise, wanders into the citadel of Troy and his own house dressed as a beggar. This transformation is obvious. But somewhat unusual and surprising is the way that the interior and exterior can operate so independently, that the exterior can be altered so without penalizing the interior, or vice versa. To be sure, it becomes difficult, when one has spent a great deal of time shape shifting, to establish one’s true identity, which requires “decisive signs” from the outside. To create unity and identity, the appearance of the exterior must match up with the interior. But the inside is made up of discreet things that do not necessarily have any bearing on the way in which the exterior appears from the outside.

Because of the independence of the two spheres, knowledge of the inside can be extraordinarily difficult to come by. A house can have a pleasing aspect from without, but it is only when one enters within that one finds the anthropophagous monster. Nor could we find it entirely surprising under this framework for a person to describe emotions such as anger or sadness the same way in which things are felt on the outside, for in one sense the feeling is perhaps as much a separate entity as is a distant ship. Not part of the overall structure of the self, it is enclosed by the self, as are chips in a bag. They likewise remain mysterious even to him who, controlling the barrier between inside and outside himself, does not necessarily have full knowledge of the things that sit within because they are not part of that barrier which he so understands.

Nor must we feel doubt when examining in Homer those things that make up the inside. As we remove them from the contexts in which we find them they shall to a large degree maintain their integrity when we inspect them on the outside. This, of course, does not mean that the two systems—the interior and the exterior—always exist with such independence from one another, but rather that they can and often do. But we need not fear that, in examining exteriors ‘on the outside’, so to speak, by attempting to describe their appearance and function, we shall miss their true significance. The interior objects will stay the same; we need not fear they will come out broken.

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