You may recall that my older son and I are reading “The Odyssey” together, along with his tutorial class. I am astonished that I’ve gotten halfway through my life without ever having done so. It is as wonderful as you suspect, and even gripping. Last night I read Book Five, which tells the riveting story of Odysseus’s departure from Calypso’s island, and his shipwreck, and it’s as thrilling as anything I’ve ever read.
My excellent and generous neighbor loaned me his copy of the Great Courses lectures on “The Odyssey” by Prof. Elizabeth Vandiver, who adds critical commentary and context for understanding the epic. In her lecture on Book Five, Vandiver talks about the moment in which Odysseus diplomatically declines the offer of immortality from the goddess Calypso, in exchange for his remaining on the island with her, telling the goddess that nothing means more to him than going home. In Vandiver’s lecture, she talks about the Greek belief that immortality is not suited for human nature, and the sense that Odysseus can only really be himself, and true to his own nature, by returning to his home.
Is this true? Do we know our true selves, paradoxically, only in relation to things not-ourselves? That is, to what extent are we ourselves only in relation to other people, to places, to institutions, and to stories? My son Matthew and I were talking about this on the long drive to his tutorial yesterday morning. “You will find when we go to France next month,” I said to him, “that you will feel strange and different, being in a foreign country, where your language is not spoken. But you will also feel yourself — I mean, you will realize the truth of the Buckaroo Banzai line, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’”
We talked about the idea of the geographical cure — the belief many people have that they can become different people in different places. It’s both true and false. It’s true in the sense that being in a different place opens up new possibilities for oneself, both in terms of courses of action, and in offering new perspectives on one’s ideas and beliefs. It’s false in that many of the problems one has aren’t problems of place, but of one’s own character.
I think we Americans are inclined to think of the individual as being more distinct from his context — his commitments, his family, his place, and so forth — than he really is. It’s part of our nature as a people. That restlessness. We are a pioneer nation, after all. We set out on a journey to find ourselves, a journey that may take us away from the people who raised us, and among who we grew up, and from many of the things that were a given for us. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. One may not know the value of what one has until one has tested oneself out in the world.
It is also possible that one might find a better way elsewhere. I told my son that I didn’t feel at home in the world in a deep sense until I went off to high school at Louisiana School. I was startled — really startled — to find a community of people who were as strange as I was. They shared my interests. I understand, I think, why gay people have historically migrated to the cities, and why many black college students prefer to go to historically black colleges. It takes a real psychological and emotional toll on one to be constantly made aware of one’s differences, of the distinctions that keep one apart from one’s community. To feel that you are among your own people is a great thing. And it is the case that for some of us, to experience that requires leaving the people who raised you. For some, to be true to one’s own nature — that is, to find one’s home — requires leaving. Would Odysseus have been Odysseus if he hadn’t left Ithaca to fight in Troy? No.
But things change. Yesterday I was having lunch with an old friend in Baton Rouge, who asked me where I saw myself in five years. “Right here in Louisiana,” I said. “I mean, why not? I’ve enjoyed every place I’ve lived, and in terms of things I like to do, there’s a lot more going on in Philadelphia, Dallas, and places like that. But they aren’t home to me. It took Ruthie’s death to bring this out, but around the time I got to middle age, I found myself longing to be around Louisiana people, the kind of people I grew up with. I don’t know why. But it was there. So why not Louisiana? Where else would I be?”
Maybe Little Steven Van Zandt had it right, in his lines from “I Am A Patriot” [N.B., the linked clip has a profanity in the opening remarks]:
I am a patriot
And I love my country
Because my country
Is all I know
I want to be with my family
With people who understand me
I’ve got nowhere else to go.
Odysseus had to go to Troy, but after his business was concluded there, he had to go back home to Ithaca. The goddess Calypso detained him. He spent all his time in her company, enjoying all the comforts of life with a beautiful goddess, including, Homer tells us, lovemaking every night. And yet, when he wasn’t with her, he wept for home. He wanted to be home so badly that he refused immortality. Better to die at home than to live forever in wealth, comfort, and pleasure. If he stayed with Calypso, he would be untrue to himself, to his nature.
You can well imagine why this story appeals to me in a particular way. My Greek friend Dimitra told me that my moving back to my birthplace is what Greeks call a nostos, or homecoming. (That’s the root of our word “nostalgia.”) The Odyssey is a nostos epic, of course, but not everyone has the same nostos. The first four books of The Odyssey concern Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, and how he has to leave Ithaca to find his father, and in so doing find his way to manhood. His way “home” requires him to leave home for a time — to separate himself from his mother and his palace and all that he knows, and go out into the world searching. He cannot be a man unless he does this. I mean, it’s clear that if Telemachus takes the comfortable route, the route of least resistance, and stays at home, he will have failed.
I think about myself and my sister, Ruthie. I left. She stayed. Both of us were true to our natures. My having come home was not an admission of regret, but an acceptance that my own journey had in it a turn that I did not anticipate. I could have stayed with Calypso back East, so to speak, but that did not seem like the path the gods (well, God) revealed to me as my own. To be true to myself at 16, I had to leave. To be true to myself at 45, I had to return.
All of this is simply to say that it’s a wonder to me how reading this ancient poem about Greek kings, princes, and gods, connects so intimately to the life I’m living, the questions I have, the journey I’m on. I thought reading The Odyssey was just going to be about helping my 12 year old son with his homework. It turns out to be the inspiration for deep conversations between us about what it means to be a man in full.
(By the way, if these questions interest you, and you’re in the upper Midwest, please consider driving to Holland, Michigan, this weekend for the annual Front Porch Republic conference.)