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Ithaca And All Our Odysseys

Well, after a dismal afternoon of sleeping, trying to keep the flu at bay, I happened upon this piece of unalloyed joy: Daniel Mendelsohn’s account of teaching The Odyssey to his octogenarian father.  [1] The old man, who has since died, was a cranky retired mathematician. His son is a scholar and teacher at Bard College. Mendelsohn père asked to join his son’s class one semester back in 2011. Here’s how it went:

It was at this point that my father raised his head and said, “Hero? I don’t think he’s a hero at all.”

He pronounced the word “hero” with slight distaste, turning the “e” into an extended aih sound: haihro. He did this with other words—“beer,” for instance. I remember him telling my brothers and me, after his father died, that he hadn’t been able to look into the open casket, because the morticians had rouged his father’s cheeks. Then he said, “When I die, I want you to burn me, and then I want you boys to go to a bar and have a round of baihrs and make a toast to me, and that’s it.”

When we’d first talked about the possibility of his sitting in on the course, he’d promised me that he wasn’t going to talk in class. Now he was talking. “I’ll tell you what I think is interesting,” he said.

Nineteen heads swivelled in his direction. I stared at him.

He sat there with his hand in the air. A curious effect of his being in the room with these young people was that now, for the first time, he suddenly looked very old to me, smaller than I remembered him being.

“O.K.,” I said. “What do you think is so interesting? Why isn’t he a hero?”

“Am I the only one,” he said, looking around at the students, as if for support, “who’s bothered by the fact that Odysseus is alone when the poem begins?”

“What do you mean, ‘alone’?” I couldn’t see where he was going with this.

“Well,” he said, “he went off twenty years earlier to fight in the Trojan War, right? And he was presumably the leader of his kingdom’s forces?”

“Yes,” I said. “In the second book of the Iliad, there’s a list of all the Greek forces that went to fight at Troy. It says that Odysseus sailed with a contingent of twelve ships.”

My father’s voice was loud with triumph. “Right! That’s hundreds of men. So my question is, what happened to the twelve ships and their crews? Why is he the only person coming home alive?”

After a moment or two, I said, “Well, some died in the war, and, if you read the proem carefully, you’ll recall that others died ‘through their own recklessness.’ As we go through the poem, we’ll actually get to the incidents during which his men perished, different groups at different times. And then you’ll tell me whether you think it was through their own recklessness.”

I looked around the room encouragingly, but my father made a face—as if he could have done better than Odysseus, could have brought the twelve ships and their crews home safely.

“So you admit that he lost all his men?”

“Yep,” I said, a little defiantly. I felt like I was eleven years old again and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.

Now my father looked around the table. “What kind of leader loses all his men? You call that a hero?”

The students laughed. Then, as if fearful that they’d overstepped some boundary, they peered down the length of the seminar table at me, as if to see how I’d react. Since I wanted to show them I was a good sport, I smiled broadly. But what I was thinking was, This is going to be a nightmare.

After the class ends, the two end up going on a ten-day Mediterranean cruise meant to retrace Odysseus’s journey. I won’t quote from any of that tale, because I don’t want to spoil one bit of it. Read the whole thing. [1] Please, do. Trust me.

Mendelsohn fils is an acclaimed translator of the poetry of C.F. Cavafy [2], an Alexandrian Greek poet of the early 20th century. Here is Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s best known poem, “Ithaca” (which, as readers of the Odyssey will know, is the home to which the epic’s hero spends ten years trying to reach):

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

As I read him, the poet is saying that the journey itself is more important than the destination. That is a cliche, of course, but I think Cavafy is saying more than that. He is saying that all of life is a journey towards some kind of home — that the yearning for home is what propels us through life. Could home (“home”) be a kind of Eden, a utopia that we can never reach, but the longing for which inspires our many adventures?

There’s a difference between someone who seeks home, and someone who is merely moving around from place to place, looking for excitement and pleasure. The first is a pilgrim; the second is a tourist. A pilgrim has somewhere to get to, and that gives weight and meaning to his journey. Dante’s journey through the afterlife in the Commedia would have been meaningless had he not been going somewhere.

Come to think of it, there’s a great canto of Purgatorio, the 28th, in which the pilgrim Dante has entered into the Garden of Eden. He meets there a woman named Matelda, who tells him:

Perhaps those poets of long ago who sang

the Age of Gold, its pristine happiness,

were dreaming on Parnassus of this place.


The root of mankind’s tree was guiltless here;

here, in an endless Spring, was every fruit,

such is the nectar praised by all these poets.”

Back in 2014, I wrote of this passage on this blog [3]:

The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared. Ovid and all the classical poets were not entirely deceived, though their moral imagination was fallen. Still, they captured in their art glimmerings of the real world beyond our own. Here in Eden, the dreams of the poets are made innocent again, and fulfilled. Dante’s mental images of the natural world and how to read it are being restored.

You’ll remember the prophetic dream Dante had in his last night sleeping on the holy mountain. Matelda appeared to him as Leah, the first wife of Jacob. She was fertile, and loved the active life. But she was not the woman Jacob most desired. That was Rachel, the contemplative (but barren) sister, who became Jacob’s second wife after seven more years of service to their father, Laban. In the Purgatorio, Matelda represents the active life of the soul. If Matelda is Leah, then who is Rachel, the contemplative life of the soul? We will soon find out.

I continued with this update:

Still reflecting on this canto this morning, and using it to make sense of some things I’ve been struggling with. It’s made me realize that I had certain expectations about coming back to my hometown, expectations in part predicated on homecoming stories celebrated by our culture — in particular, the story of the Prodigal Son. These stories did not prepare me for what actually happened. In fact, the Prodigal Son story was particularly misleading. A friend points out this morning that the Prodigal Son story is explicitly a story about the Kingdom of God, not a story about this world. It’s the way this world ought to be, not the way things (usually) are. The stories — the parables — the Jesus told are images of Paradise; we are meant to use them as icons to redeem our own imagination.

If the fallen world has corrupted our own imagination, as Matelda indicates, then isn’t it the case that the incorrupt world can at times cause us to read the world falsely, through our hopes? Matelda speaks of the longing of the poets for a Golden Age as being an ancestral memory of Eden — that is, a lost world that can never be fully regained in mortality. I’m thinking that my own nostalgic bent, and my deep and abiding longing for Home, comes from this. Reading and thinking about Canto 28, I’m thinking about how I need to recalibrate my own inner vision. The point is not to become cynical, but rather to educate one’s hope, tempering it with a sense of what is possible in this fallen world, versus what is only really achievable in heaven. To be sure, we can, through grace and by conforming our wills to Christ’s, incarnate heaven in our own hearts and lives to a certain degree; that’s what Dante’s entire pilgrimage is about.

But we will not fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven in this life, and we must be careful about how we allow the images and stories we admit into our imagination to frame our expectations. As I wrote the other day, on Canto XXVII, realizing earlier in my life that I had accepted a false icon of womanhood, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and turning away from it, was instrumental in the purgation of false images from my own moral imagination, and the purification of my heart. It seems to me that the purification of images is not only about casting out false images and replacing them with true ones, but also to regard the true ones rightly. With regard to the Church, and with regard to matters of family and homecoming, I have been guilty of what Flannery O’Connor warned about: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”

Later, as you know, I wrote a book about how going with Dante on his pilgrimage helped me make sense of the arduous pilgrimage [4]I was making at the time through my own troubled heart, and in my life with my father after I returned home. Reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s lovely recollection of the voyage he took with his elderly father brings all this to mind tonight. My own Ithaca did not really exist, not as I imagined, though I didn’t know that until I reached it. I learned through bitter (but redemptive) experience what that Ithaca really meant.

Much of my own writing has been driven by a desire to find my way Home. I had thought, somehow, that this was a geographical place, or an emotional place — a place of harmony and rest. When I arrived at my actual birthplace, it was not what I thought it was, not at all. And as I discovered, it never would be. But see, this was a purgation, a painful but necessary liberation from the idolization of Home. I came to perceive that both my father and I had been captive to the beautiful but false idea that we can create a permanent home for ourselves on this earth.

For him, I believe it was a bulwark against death. Though he would never have articulated it this way, I believe he thought — no, didn’t think, but rather felt in his bones — that if he built a well-ordered life for himself on this piece of Louisiana ground, that death could not touch him. This is why he made idols of Family and Place, and demanded that they be things that they could not be. He was forever finding fault with the family, and with people in this place; they never lived up to his high expectations. Then fate dealt him a terrible blow: his beloved daughter, the one who shared his vision of the world, the one who had stayed home, and done all the right things, was struck down by terminal cancer. She died, while the son who did not share his worldview, and who did all the wrong things (mostly, leaving home), not only lived, but prospered.

When I came home, he was grateful, but also frustrated by me. I would not be who he wanted me to be, and he could not think of that as anything other than a failure of love. It must be admitted, though, that I suffered from a version of the same malady. I believed — no, I felt in my bones — that something was wrong with me because I did not harmonize with Family and Place, as defined by my father. The pain of that disjuncture — between the real and the ideal, and between each other — was a fracture that could not heal.

When my father died in 2015, he passed at home, surrounded by family, with me holding one of his hands and my mother holding the other. I recently published here the epilogue to the story I told in How Dante, [5] about how Daddy and I reached a place of peace with each other before his passing. For me, it was only possible to get there once I gave up the idea of Ithaca as a place that exists in this world. I have an earthly home, but Home is paradise, in eternity — and that is the true Ithaca. For me, this was hard-won wisdom. St. Benedict has no use for monks who flit from monastery to monastery; his rule of stability requires his monks to make their earthly homes permanently in one monastery. He does this so they will not be distracted by the empty search for an earthly paradise, but so they can be freed to make their way towards heaven.

It’s a paradox, I guess: the only way we can fully inhabit this world is by recognizing that we are only passing through here on our way to the real and only Ithaca. The deep tragedy of my family is that mistaking our own rural Louisiana Ithaca for Paradise made the fracture irreversible, and we thereby lost it all.

One more thing, about how the search for Home inspires creativity. Here’s a clip from an older post of mine [6], in which I discovered that the real home I was searching for was not my father’s hearth, but the orchard cabin of my great-great aunts (the sisters of my great-grandmother):

Three years ago, a visit to the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia provoked a powerful emotional response from me, related to my childhood with the old aunts and their house and orchard, for reasons I didn’t fully understand until I wrote about it on my old Beliefnet blog [7], and two commenters observed that for me, the old aunts’ house and orchard was a “sacred grove.” That’s exactly what it was; earlier, I had described the ruin of the sacred grove in this old Beliefnet post [8].

Reading “A Worn Path” as myth makes me think about the personal myth I live with, related to the old aunts. What they revealed to me was an imaginative world that became the basis for my own dreams, hopes, aspirations, and delight. I well remember walking with Loisie through her orchard, her bony, birdlike hand, roped with thick blue veins, gripping her bamboo cane as she taught me about japonicas and chestnuts and King Alfreds and all the other plants in her orchard. I didn’t love the flowers and nuts as much as I loved the words for them — loved saying the words, loved turning them over in my mind. And inside the cabin, reading their books and magazines and newspapers, I learned words like “Kissinger” and “Moscow,” words that had a magical effect on me. These weren’t words and concepts that were part of our daily life in the country, except at Lois and Hilda’s place. I wanted to know more. And they taught me so much about the world, especially France, where they had lived as young women during the Great War, and I received all this eating pecan cookies and cupcakes that Loisie made for us kids. Sometimes I helped her cook, and it was so comforting to little me, sitting in my old aunt’s lap, stirring the batter in her FireKing mixing bowl.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that in that sacred grove was born my vocation as a writer.

Every writer dreams of what he would do with the money should his book become a big success, as unlikely as that is. When I’ve thought about what I would do should The Little Way of Ruthie Leming [9] (in which I write about Lois and Hilda and their influence on me, but also how they didn’t connect in the same way with Ruthie) become a success, I’ve imagined building a certain kind of house, and situating it in a certain kind of garden, and filling it with books and art objects and maps, and the smell of delicious things cooking. I’ve thought about this a lot. What I’m doing, I realize, is imagining that I can recreate the Sacred Grove, and live, in some sense, that myth, that dwelling in blessedness, in Arcadia. The aunts were bound by their age, infirmity, and relative poverty to that house and that orchard, but they were the quite possibly the most free people I’ve ever known. Any beauty I’ve been able to conjure as a writer comes from this personal myth. I cannot imagine how much poorer my life would be without it. I owe those old women everything.

Here’s the cabin:

And here are Aunt Hilda and Aunt Lois, holding me in the yard outside their cabin, circa 1968:

That cabin, and that entire world, has disappeared.

36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "Ithaca And All Our Odysseys"

#1 Comment By J. H. On April 20, 2017 @ 2:18 am

Looks like the beliefnet links are broken.

#2 Comment By Du Bartas On April 20, 2017 @ 2:35 am

Someone who searches for home is a Homer.

#3 Comment By Liam On April 20, 2017 @ 7:56 am

Hebrews 11….

We salute our ultimate destination from afar.

Meanwhile, my father is still trying to die (so far as I am aware), but sent his sons to their respective homes on Easter Monday morning (“all go home”), after we completed the tasks on his mental punch list, we think…. Fortunately, I’ve never had an expectation of being at my parents’ bedside at their very hour of death, so I do not cling to that as an ego-need. It’s about him, not us.

#4 Comment By William Tighe On April 20, 2017 @ 8:03 am

“That cabin, and that entire world, has disappeared.”

Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit
Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Noch spür ich ihren Atem auf den Wangen:
Wie kann das sein, daß diese nahen Tage
Fort sind, für immer fort, und ganz vergangen?

Dies ist ein Ding, das keiner voll aussinnt,
Und viel zu grauenvoll, als daß man klage:
Daß alles gleitet und vorüberrinnt.

Und daß mein eignes Ich, durch nichts gehemmt,
Herüberglitt aus einem kleinen Kind
Mir wie ein Hund unheimlich stumm und fremd.

Dann: daß ich auch vor hundert Jahren war
Und meine Ahnen, die im Totenhemd,
Mit mir verwandt sind wie mein eignes Haar,

So eins mit mir als wie mein eignes Haar.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 20, 2017 @ 9:05 am

The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared.

I guess this point is where the post loses me. Maybe I’m too skull cracklingly literal minded, but Eden never existed. Even as a metaphor it is losing its currency.

#6 Comment By KD On April 20, 2017 @ 9:19 am

Thank you for this offering.

#7 Comment By Liam On April 20, 2017 @ 9:24 am

Update to my previous comment: My father has been released from his suffering.

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world 
in the name of God the almighty Father, 
who created you, 
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, 
who suffered for you, 
in the name of the Holy Spirit, 
who was poured out upon you, 
go forth, faithful Christian. 
May you live in peace this day, 
may your home be with God, 
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, 
with Joseph, 
and all the angels and saints.

[NFR: May his memory be eternal. — RD]

#8 Comment By Procopius On April 20, 2017 @ 9:27 am

I heard a sermon on the Odyssey once. The priest suggested that we are all, each one of us, on a similar journey to our Heavenly home. And that like Odysseus, we must each overcome a series of temptations in our way. Each of us face the temptation of the lotus eaters, and most of us know someone who succombed to that temptation and was ensnared by addiction. Each of us face a Circe, and each one at some point will hear the sirens song and some of is will fall.

Like Odysseus, to reach home will require of us that we adopt the humility of the swineherd.

#9 Comment By John Burzynski On April 20, 2017 @ 9:29 am

Rod, thank you for that New Yorker link…..what a wonderful story about a father and a son.

I think that you and your father, at least from what I have ready in your books and blog posts, went through your own Odyssey-like journey, much similar to this New Yorker story, except the places and names are changed?

Father-son relationships are so complicated, I see it with me and my father and how our relationship has evolved, with him first parenting me, and now me ‘parenting’ him as he deals with serious dementia issues (thank God for full time nursing home care, I couldn’t do it on my own!); there are days that I have spoon fed both my granddaughter and my father, a span of 4 generations, in the same day! And I see the complications as I have accompanied my 3 sons into adulthood, too, good and bad complications.

Your post and that article really got me to reflecting this morning, thank you again.

#10 Comment By Mark C On April 20, 2017 @ 9:30 am

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

#11 Comment By kevin On April 20, 2017 @ 9:38 am


#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 20, 2017 @ 10:08 am

Mendelsohn, pere, has a valid point. Furthermore, although I loved Odysseus as a child — he is, after all, CAST as the hero and the story is told from his perspective — he’s a brutal pillager, proud of what he has inflicted upon and stolen from others along the way. He is, in short, the consummate Cosimanian Orthodox. (Charles will be please with that, you’re welcome Charles). Odysseus NEVER adopted the humility of any swineherd, and his journey is not exactly “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

As for the ancient poet’s longing for a Golden Age, from a Marxist perspective this is the memory of a classless society that predates the brutal imposition of kings and nobility and a professional warrior caste. But in terms of life expectancy, food supply, etc., it wasn’t exactly Golden.

#13 Comment By Colin Chattan On April 20, 2017 @ 10:30 am

“When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb.”

– Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb”

#14 Comment By Robert H. McGowan On April 20, 2017 @ 10:35 am

Rod: I’m also a sentimental homeseeker, finally coming to rest where I am. These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses are meaningful to me:

“Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
for ever and forever when I move.”

#15 Comment By David J. White On April 20, 2017 @ 10:37 am

Re: Odysseus as the “hero”:

I think part of the problem for modern readers is that the ancient Greeks had a far different notion of what constitutes a “hero” than we do. We want the “hero” to be someone to look up to, to emulate, or at least to admire. For the Greeks, the “hero” was someone who had the favor of the gods and who was destined to be a winner, or at least to be remembered, even if he had to suffer along the way. Whether he was morally admirable was beside the point, though physical bravery was expected. So when Odysseus is presented to modern readers as the “hero,” we hear that word with all of the cultural associations we attach to it. But the ancient Greeks would not have thought of it in the same way.

#16 Comment By David J. White On April 20, 2017 @ 10:43 am

Re: father and son:

Some years ago I saw an adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations on PBS. There is a scene at the end where Pip visits Magwich in prison (he has been arrested because he returned to England to see Pip, in violation of his sentence of transportation).

Magwich asks Pip to tell him what he has been doing with himself, with the education that Magwich (as Pip’s mysterious benefactor) had paid for). Pip, who has been studying classics, then starts reciting something in Greek. It was the passage from the end of the Odyssey where Odysseus is reunited with his father, Laertes. It was an acknowledgement that Pip had come to regard Magwich as being, in a way, a father figure.

It’s been decades since I read the novel, and I don’t remember whether this is something taken from the book or was done for this adaptation, but I thought it was a beautiful moment, beautifully done.

#17 Comment By Oss Ickle On April 20, 2017 @ 10:46 am

The Mendelsohns’ charms elude me. The father appears to be a cliched, egotistical Herzog type, and the son uses the non-word “proem” without apparent shame.

Ah well, “Ithaca” is a nice poem at least.

[NFR: But [11]. It means “foreword” or “preamble” to the poem. — RD]

#18 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On April 20, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

great post, Rod.

#19 Comment By William Harrington On April 20, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

Secular. Misanthropist

Eden probably did exist, under the persian gulf when, during the end of the last ice age, four rivers, including the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowed into a rich and well watered land. Perhaps the problem is that you are not literal enough.

#20 Comment By minimammal On April 20, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

I’d say I have three childhood “Sacred Groves,” all of which provided escapes from my bland suburban hometown:

First, my aunt and uncle’s house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Their house is full of vintage furniture and all kinds of bohemian artifacts. Most everything there seems to be at least twenty years old and it all has charm and character – or at least kitsch value. A lot of their art and decor is island-themed, which, combined with the reggae they often play during parties that I would listen to from the top of their bamboo treehouse at the end of their dirt backyard, gave me the exotic yet cozy feeling of being on a secluded island.

Second, my uncle’s old house in Pasadena. It was a two-story house from the ’20s or ’30s which was now surrounded by auto mechanics and cheap apartments (this also gave me that aforementioned cozy secluded island feeling – a piece of domesticity amid the industrial sea). The house was a bit dilapidated but I liked it for its charm nonetheless. We would often go there for a big New Year’s Eve party since the house was a short walk from the Rose Parade route, so my memories of my uncle’s house are tinged with wild family festivities and the feeling of being at the center of a major celebration.

And third, my grandma’s house in Los Altos. All of Los Altos, with its dense groves of mature oak trees, feels like a forest, but my grandma’s backyard in particular was my own personal forest to explore. I would tromp amid the ferns and ivy under her towering oaks and lift stones to find all kinds of creatures crawling around underneath. Some of these critters I would try feeding to the koi in the small pond my grandma used to have. Once, I even dropped a poor small, gray newt into the pond, thinking it was a worm. There used to be a traditional Japanese-style house across the street which was built in the 1940s and was complete with a tea house, a swimming pool, and a large koi pond. I was lucky enough to go swimming there before it was, sadly, demolished to build mini mansions. There also used to be a little farm down the street that would turn into a pumpkin patch in October and is now also long gone for more charmless real estate.

And so, because of these places, I’ve aspired to fulfill in my own life the bohemian curatorial quality of my aunt and uncle’s house, the festive centrality of my uncle’s house, and the sylvan escapism of my grandma’s house. But, as Rod said, I understand the yearnings these Sacred Groves instilled in me are never completely realizable, suffused as they are with nostalgia.

#21 Comment By Christoph Allin On April 20, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

‘The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared.’

Of course, as we all know, the Christian longing for Eden is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Hesiod’s Golden Age. Dante and all the Christian poets were not entirely deceived, though their moral imagination was fallen.

Translating another people’s mythology into your own is a pervasive, and quite unavoidable, human tendency. But I think you do some violence to their texts when you insist that *your* cultural/religious/mythological tradition, which was unknown to them, is the correct interpretation of *theirs*. I believe one should try to understand each on its own terms.

Thank you, however, for another lovely meditation on your Sehnsucht, and the Christian way of understanding it. It make me wonder whether whether the Eden/Golden Age type of myth it is common because it expresses something innate in the human psyche, or because it just happened to arise somewhere and then spread from one people to another and, in doing so, moulded their psyches to it. And I certainly have no idea whether it tells us anything about God.

#22 Comment By just a prof On April 20, 2017 @ 2:30 pm


In paradisum deducant ejus Angeli; in eius adventu suscipiant martyres, et perducant eium in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum illum suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeat requiem.

#23 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 20, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

@William Harrington, I assume when Rod talks about Eden he means a state of union with God that Adam and Eve experienced before the fall. When I say it never existed, I mean that we are not an act of special creation, and evolved from our hominid ancestors. Their lives were even more harsh, brutish, and short than ours.

I don’t think there was ever a place on Earth were natures red in tooth and claw conditions didn’t apply. In fact my living room is probably one the best places for human habitation that has ever existed.

#24 Comment By Liam On April 20, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

Rod and Just a Prof,

Many thanks.

#25 Comment By keeponwalking On April 20, 2017 @ 4:46 pm

We spend our lives going backward or forward toward Eden.

I feel the same way about my grandmother as you do toward your aunts. We took my grandparents’ heavy old metal bed to the mission charity store last weekend. I think all their children were conceived and born on it.
The grandchildren remodeled the house and attached satellite tv.

I will myself to look forward to the great cloud of witnesses and not back to it.

#26 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 20, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

(Charles will be please with that, you’re welcome Charles). Odysseus NEVER adopted the humility of any swineherd, and his journey is not exactly “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Thank you Siarlys. We will have to include Odysseus among the sainted progenitors of Cosimanian Orthodoxy.

#27 Comment By Antonia On April 20, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

The poem Ithaca may be about the journey of life, but it really falls apart when you connect it to Odysseus himself.
The poem’s recommendation
“But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years”
becomes horribly selfish. It’s the journey of life for an isolated person. But recall that Odysseus was journeying home to those he loved – his wife and son. He wasn’t taking his time – he was hurrying back to them as fast as he could, even if it did take 10 years (thanks to the childish Greek gods).

#28 Comment By Jimbobla On April 20, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

I hope to pass in a field; with the birds and wildlife as my witness, indifferent to any passing suffering I may be experiencing. Unencumbered by worldly or familial concerns, focused on the business at hand. Free at last.

#29 Comment By Wilfred On April 20, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

Agree with Siarlys; the father was very perceptive. Odysseus, though a hero to the Greeks for his cleverness, was not so admired by the Romans. (At least, I read so, somewhere). They thought he was too devious. Examples: Feigning madness to try to avoid going to war in the first place; the trick of jumping onto his shield as his ship first beached near Troy (an oracle had foretold the first Greek to “touch Trojan soil” would die in battle); the whole fake horse thing. (Maybe these aren’t in the Odyssey proper, but they are part of the associated legend. I am sure folks more educated than I can name further examples of Odysseus’ craftiness). Didn’t the Romans prefer their heroes to be more straightforward?

#30 Comment By edr On April 20, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

Very provoking essay.

Christoph Allin says:
April 20, 2017 at 2:26 pm

‘The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared.’

Of course, as we all know, the Christian longing for Eden is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Hesiod’s Golden Age. Dante and all the Christian poets were not entirely deceived….”

This reminded me of Karl Popper’s interpretation of Eden and all Golden Ages as he explains Plato in “The Free Society.” He says it’s the desire to stop change and the convulsions of the age or of our lives, to return to that pristine time of youth, when all was well with the world, whether its the 50s of imagination or a simple uncomplicated time, or maybe simply less complicated.

#31 Comment By Oss Ickle On April 21, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

I accept your correction with embarrassment. It’s such an ugly word, I hastily guessed it was a neologism, but I see it goes back centuries. Mea culpa!

[NFR: Well, if it makes you feel any better, I thought it was an ugly, made-up word too, until I looked it up when reading the Mendelsohn piece for the first time. My thought was, “If a guy writing for the New Yorker uses it, maybe it’s a real thing.” Sure enough. So you weren’t alone. — RD]

#32 Comment By Antonia On April 21, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

“Feigning madness to try to avoid going to war in the first place”
Another reason to like Odysseus, in my opinion. He didn’t always fall in with the warrior culture, nor with using it as an excuse for destroying a territorial and economic rival. He had some other values (home and family).

#33 Comment By David J. White On April 22, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

I accept your correction with embarrassment. It’s such an ugly word, I hastily guessed it was a neologism, but I see it goes back centuries. Mea culpa!

[NFR: Well, if it makes you feel any better, I thought it was an ugly, made-up word too, until I looked it up when reading the Mendelsohn piece for the first time. My thought was, “If a guy writing for the New Yorker uses it, maybe it’s a real thing.” Sure enough. So you weren’t alone. — RD]

It’s from Greek: προοίμιον. The word is found in Greek literature as far back as Aeschylus and Pindar. It literally means something like “prelude.”

#34 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 22, 2017 @ 9:59 pm

Another reason to like Odysseus, in my opinion. He didn’t always fall in with the warrior culture, nor with using it as an excuse for destroying a territorial and economic rival.

Are we talking about “Odysseus, Sacker of Cities”? The man who loved women and left them all over the Mediterranean while his wife remained chastely at home for twenty years awaiting his return? Or is there another Odysseus whose gotten a bad rap over sharing the name of this bad hombre?

#35 Comment By David J. White On April 23, 2017 @ 7:49 am

The man who loved women and left them all over the Mediterranean while his wife remained chastely at home for twenty years awaiting his return?

Name one “woman” whom Odysseus “loved” during his journey home. Calypso and Circe are goddesses, not women. The distinction may seem trivial to us but would have been important to Homer’s original audience. One doesn’t, or can’t, say no to a goddess. All the time Odysseus was shacked up with Calypso, he sat on the beach crying and wanting to return home. As for Nausicaa, he may possibly have been tempted to stay with her, but he emphatically didn’t.

#36 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 23, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

“One doesn’t, or can’t, say no to a goddess.”

Unless you want donkey ears, or worse.