Saturday, July 26, 2008

It's Not the Journey, but the Destination

I am reversing the traditional maxim--it's not the destination; it's the journey--as a lead in to my thoughts on The Odyssey. I finally finished it--thank goodness, it took me less than the 20 years it took Odysseus to get home.

Having read this work (many) years ago, I was most surprised by how much I had forgotten. For example--I had completely forgotten that the work begins with Telemachus (Odysseus' son) who has grown into a fine young man. I had also forgotten that much of the action of Odysseus' journey is told to you in a kind of flashback. And finally, I had forgotten how vengeful the ending is.

A quick reprise of the main story line. The Odyssey recounts the efforts of Odysseus to return home after the end of the Trojan War. Homer, the blind poet who is credited as the author of both the Iliad (which tells about the Trojan War) and the Odyssey, no doubt was capitalizing on the success of The Iliad. In an era when literature was dependent on an oral tradition, Homer collected these hero stories, wove them together, nuanced and polished them to a fine sheen, and then sang his bardic heart out around dining halls of ancient Greece. At least, that's how I picture it.

Back to the main story line. The Trojan War was fought over a woman--Helen. She is called Helen of Troy, but she was really Helen of Sparta, the wife of King Menelaus. She was the prize in a contest that Paris, a prince from Troy, won by choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. (I am sorry--but like all Greek myths, this story gets complicated.) He whisked her off to Troy, and Menelaus, in outrage, gathers his fellow Greek warriors, and off they go to Troy to get her back. Hence, the Trojan War.

When the war is finally over (please note I am skipping the part about the Trojan horse--whereby the Greeks WON), with the Greeks triumphant and Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, the warriors begin to disperse. Some are dead--such as Achilles--and some are just trying to get home. Odysseus, who had the idea to use the Trojan horse, had the bad misfortune to anger Poseidon--oh, it's too complicated to tell you why--so on his way home, Poseidon manages to blow Odysseus and all his ships off course. It's not nice to fool Father Poseidon--he will try to get you.

The sad thing is, Odysseus was ALMOST home--he was off the coast of Ithaca, his home, and could see the green hills. Then, BAM, Poseidon strikes.

Anyway, that is the beginning of a 10 year journey. Since the war lasted 10 years, and his return trip lasted 10 years--Odysseus has been gone for 20 years. And of course, Telemachus, his son who was a babe in arms when his father left, has grown up.

So here we have some of the themes of this classic work emerging:

--what does it take to become a man, i.e. the coming of age theme

--what drives a person to seek home, the longing for place

--what is the nature of constancy, Penelope the faithful wife waiting at home for her husband.

--what things are within our control as humans, and what things are imposed upon us by the capricious will of the gods.

I was most intrigued with the characters of Telemachus and Penelope. They are far more interesting, to me, than Odysseus--and in some ways contemporary. Telemachus boldly strives to be a man, in his own right, out from under the domination of his father's memory, separate from his mother. He battles the pesky suitors--those carrion people who have gathered in Odysseus' palace, eating from the stores of meat and wine, all pressing for Penelope's hand in marriage.

Penelope is the very portrait of marital constancy. She waits patiently for Odysseus hoping that he is still alive. Year in, year out she waits. She hatches a scheme to postpone a decision on which suitor to pick--on the presumption that she must be a widow, since her husband has not returned. She says--when I finish weaving this shroud, I will decide who to marry. She weaves by day, and unweaves by night.

Meanwhile Odysseus is fighting for his very life, and (ironically) having the time of his life. Of the 10 years that he struggles to return home, seven are spent with him in the thrall of Calypso. The book is quite clear that Odysseus shares Calypso's bed--so much for marital constancy on his part. But all the while he longs to return home to Ithaca and Penelope.

I found myself much less interested in the actual trials and tribulations of Odysseus. These are the details that no doubt delighted his original audiences. The heroic battles against one-eyed monsters, encounters with the gods, shipwrecks, the whole lot!
I was drawn to the little details. For example, when Odysseus returns to his palace, in disguise, it is his old dog who recognizes him, then promptly dies.

In addition to the themes that I list above, I also found fascinating the cultural values that must have been so critical to the times. For example, hospitality rules. Time and again, it is made quite clear that you NEVER turn a visitor away. You wine them, and dine them. True--you might end up fighting them, but first you play the good host.

Another cultural value was how important it was to share news. As Telemachus goes seeking his father, he is really trying to find NEWS about him. At each stop, he asks what people have heard. That entree provides the occasion to tell and retell stories. Stories must have been so central to their lives. Of course, stories were central to Homer's life--in gathering the stories that gave rise to The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer wrote the first and second extant works in western writing.

Back to "it's not the journey, but the destination."

Here is a poem by K.P Kavafis (a Greek poet 1863-1933). This poem suggests that, had it not been for the desire to return to Ithaca, all the experiences along the way would have been missed. So, it is the journey AND the destination.


When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

-K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy), translation by Rae Dalven


Anonymous said...

Wow. You must be a really great teacher. I haven't read all of the Odyssey but you brought more out of it than any professor I've ever heard lecture on it. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Great post! Somehow grade 9 Greek Mythology was tedious to me. I had used a quote from that poem, but have not read it in its entirety. You are a good teacher because you have a passion for what you teach, something many teachers sadly lack.