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. 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. Please, do. Trust me.
Mendelsohn fils is an acclaimed translator of the poetry of C.F. Cavafy, 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:
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 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, 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, 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, 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.
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 (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.