Dear stranger, would you be shocked at what I say?
Look at them over there. Not a care in the world,
just lyres and tunes!
— Telemachus to Athena (as Mentor), from Homer’s The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles
When I arrived at college in 1991, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had some interests: I loved music, I played the drums, I wanted to work at the school’s radio station, but I wasn’t particularly attuned to these things. I was adrift. For instance, I thought Phish was as good as Yes.
For the first week or so of school, you could wander around to various classes before you settled on a complete schedule. One of my friends told me that she was going to sit in on a Chinese language class. Back in 1991, China was far from our country’s collective mind. Intro to Chinese had about 12 people in it. It was probably the strangest choice I could have made at the time. But I was just following my friend. I had no interest in the Chinese language at all.
When Professor Berninghausen strode into the class, the air seemed to clarify. He began speaking in Chinese to us in a strict stentorian tone tempered with a compassionate warmth. He was clearly aware how alienating this display was for us, but he set about kicking the crutches away to make way for true learning. I would say he was separating the wheat from the chaff, but that’s being too generous to the students who remained after that first class. We were to call him “Bai Laochi” (White Teacher). His students from China had named him that, so he kept it. As I remember this first class now, I struggle to make sense of that moment… but perhaps this isn’t so unusual. I had drifted through high school under the supervision of a team of highly qualified and generally uninspiring teachers. I went to a school that was obsessed with the appearance of competence while doing as little actual work as possible.
Bai Laochi made it clear that studying Chinese would be the strangest and most difficult learning experience we had faced up to that point. But he also laid out a path that if we followed, we couldn’t possibly fail. If we gave the work our sincere time and effort, we could learn the language. That first year of college was devoted to the study of Chinese. I spent four to five hours a day on it, and I did see that I was connecting with the language, and I was able to write it and speak it more and more.
It was through Berninghausen’s demonstration of the tangible results of hard work that I was able to see what was possible later when I applied myself to the drums. I would say I’m an advanced beginner when it comes to drumming. But it’s taken a lot of focus to get this far, and I owe it to Berninghausen and my father.
Berninghausen was my first mentor outside of my father. My father was an incredible role model to me growing up, but in the words of Bob Dylan from Chronicles (2004), “My father was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn’t understand me.”
Your earliest mentors want to make you into an image of themselves. Your father and mother — in the best circumstances — want you to become an idealized impression of themselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of a mentor, and what would make a good one for me currently. Because I really could use one to navigate the nightmare of the music business.
So I researched the root of the word “mentor” and learned it’s based on a character in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey is about Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War. The book starts in the kingdom Odysseus left 20 years previously. His wife Penelope and son Telemachus assume he is dead, but the lack of proof is keeping the kingdom in limbo. His wife is being assailed by suitors for her hand in marriage, because she is beautiful and also because Odysseus’s kingdom is ridiculously wealthy, and everyone wants a piece of that. But she’s trying to hold them off. As the suitors crowd around trying to vie for Penelope’s hand, they feed themselves by slaughtering the kingdom’s animals and drinking all the wine. It’s an endless party at the kingdom’s expense.
Odysseus’s son Telemachus is standing in the midst of this feast feeling helpless. He wishes his father were back from the war so he could slaughter everyone and bring order back to the realm. Telemachus is not taken seriously as a man in this context. The suitors mock him at every turn. Telemachus also doesn’t take himself or his abilities seriously. He blames the situation for his inability to act.
As we stand at the brink of art and producing art, we experience an indifferent world. Creativity is disparaged at every turn — even by the people who claim to celebrate it. In a metaphorical sense, we are Telemachus observing a banquet from the wings. The world is feeding ceaselessly on our riches… let’s call this wealth simply our lives. We wake up every morning and we slink along the dry riverbeds of roads and subways to trade our priceless spirit for a few pennies. We feel just what Telemachus feels: impotent rage, despair, helplessness. Odysseus — his protector and father — is absent. If only he were here! These savages would quake in fear of him. They would taste death and feel our vengeance. As we watch ourselves squander our gifts for the whims of others — the state, our bosses, our landlords, our banks — we cower and are abused. It’s not so flattering to our vanity, the world feels unfair and we feel as if we’re the victims of its vicissitudes. If only somehow our circumstances were different, there would be peace in our minds. We’d have the fame, success, love and money we so richly deserve.
However, it turns out that Homer (in the voice of Zeus) has something to say about this:
“Ah how shameless — the way these mortals blame the Gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
But they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.”
We elaborate the small facets of our suffering into impossible obstacles. Telemachus, at the beginning of the Odyssey, represents this kind of person.
Back at Odysseus’s castle, Telemachus sees a stranger at the door. It’s Mentes (aka Mentor), an old friend of Odysseus. However — because this is a Greek fable — Mentes is actually Athena, the Greek goddess of inspiration and war, dressed in the manner of Mentes. She has descended from Mount Olympus to inspire Telemachus to stand up to the suitors destroying his home and to go seek his father, who happens to be still alive.
Throughout the first four books of The Odyssey, Athena advises Telemachus on the steps he needs to take in order to find and rescue his father, and bring him back home to restore order to the kingdom. Whenever Telemachus expresses doubt or fear, she goads him on, sometimes quite firmly.
As each of us creative types sets out to navigate the world of being an artist, we find ourselves trapped in a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are also countless people volunteering advice and discouragement that may have more to do with their own fears and anxieties than with the task at hand.
We all start on this journey with a small inkling of who we are meant to be, but with no tools with which to realize this vision. Telemachus doesn’t believe he is the great Odysseus’s son. He doesn’t think he contains any shred of greatness or potential. But Athena tells him that he resembles his father Odysseus and that there’s no way he’s not the great man’s son. It’s a small, offhand comment that is his first step in a journey of self-discovery.
What does a mentor actually do?
A mentor is your trusted guide and companion. Some mentors have no idea they are providing this kind of service. Maybe they show you how not to represent yourself. Maybe they show up to a gig completely drunk and cancel the gig. Perhaps they are assholes to everyone they deem unworthy of their attention.
But in the best scenario the mentor sees your truth before you can grasp it yourself. She holds up a mirror that reveals your pure, undistorted truth.
The suitors tell Telemachus they don’t believe he’ll ever make the trip to find his father, he’ll just sit around at home and seek rumors of his father from his bedroom.
I would say a child is one who does not see itself. Its sense of self is blurred. He or she is like the suitors in The Odyssey; they wallow in unmediated desire without actually having the tools to attain what they seek. We might not even know that we need to be seeking something. We desire the trappings that may accompany the life of an artist. Perhaps, early in this journey, it feels like we are seeking love — the infinite love of an audience to replace the love we crave from our parents, say, or even from the universe itself. We want to be given everything we desire through the medium of our music (or name your medium).
Time and time again — in the books written by the people who’ve reached the pinnacle of fame, who crested the wave — we are told that it (it usually meaning some sort of success) does not make us whole, does not fix our problems. It may even exacerbate our troubles and magnify them to grotesque degrees. Of course, most of us don’t know fame, thankfully, but we may blindly aspire to it anyway.
But a mentor is someone who can strip away the illusions that surround these pursuits and bring the attention and energy back to yourself. He or she will reveal a few simple things. That you are already whole, that you are the only person responsible for yourself and that there is nothing on this path except the creative work itself, and sometimes there’s not even that. There’s just you — and the finite, brief moment allotted.