I was thinking earlier today about Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno. It’s the one in which the pilgrim Dante meets Ulysses (Odysseus), damned for using his silver tongue to lead his crew past forbidden boundaries, where they and their boat were swallowed by a whirlpool and died. His crew just wants to go back home to Ithaca to rest, but the poet Dante gives Ulysses a great little speech in which he rallies them to do his bidding. Ulysses portrays the journey as a noble quest, and says that undertaking satisfies what is most noble in the human spirit.
In truth, Ulysses just wants to go see what’s on the other side of the forbidden line, and tells his crew what they need to hear to convince them to join him in satisfying his curiosity. Hence his damnation.
That is a valid interpretation, but today I read an alternative view that is also compelling, and gave me a lot to think about (the Commedia works that way; there are layers and layers of meaning embedded within it). Writing in the Paris Review, Alexander Aciman focuses on the restlessness and dissatisfaction with Ithaca, his home, as the genesis of his doomed quest. If you read The Odyssey, you’ll know that the entire poem is about the long, diverting journey that Odysseus (Ulysses) makes back to his home after the Trojan War. Home — Ithaca — was his goal, but in Dante’s poem, Ulysses was not satisfied to rest there. Aciman understands Dante’s Ulysses in light of a poem by the modern poet C.P. Cavafy. Excerpt:
Cavafy tells Ulysses not to rush. Ithaca is home, but it isn’t; its real gift is that it isn’t where we are now—and every waypoint and every island that stands before Ithaca is part of what Ithaca has to offer. Dante’s Ulysses arrived home too soon, and asked too much of the tiny Greek isle. Dissatisfied, he took off again. Ithaca is a purpose but not a goal—Dante’s Ulysses lost his Ithaca when he arrived in Ithaca. The difference between Cavafy and Dante is that the former is speaking to a still-wandering hero, and the latter writes as a Ulysses who had already set off a second time.
Reading Cavafy beside Dante’s text is tragic—in this light, Cavafy’s poem is no longer a piece of advice, but a lament and a cautionary tale. We, too, may one day despair upon reaching Ithaca. What if, like Ulysses, we spent far too little time at sea, and we finally arrive at Ithaca only to find it has nothing left to offer?
But did Ulysses really spend far too little time at sea? Maybe he was simply incapable of being at home anywhere. Ulysses held up Ithaca as the fixed point he used as navigation — that is, the meaning of his journeys, and everything he saw, only made sense in light of his ultimate destination, Ithaca: home. Do you follow?
I do. All of the places I lived and visited in my younger life were made special in part because they contrasted with what I had been given by my home. Cavafy tells us that the gift of travel, of being Elsewhere, only makes sense because we come from somewhere else, and we long to return there. That is, even if we don’t want to return to our literal home, we do long for a place we can truly call home, a place of rest, of stillness, of permanence.
A Christian should read this eschatologically. That is, our pilgrim journey in the mortal life only makes sense if we believe that we are going to our true and only home in the afterlife. Or, to be more metaphysical about it, the goodness of this world is guaranteed by the next one, by transcendence. But we cannot storm heaven on our own power. In Dante, Ulysses’ sin included hubris; the captain wanted to get to heaven (or rather, its antechamber, the island mountain of Purgatory) on his own terms, not those ordained by God. Hence his damnation.
The Cavafy poem, in light of Canto 26, gave me something to think about with regard to my own troubled relationship with home (or, Home). If you read How Dante Can Save Your Life, you know the story, but bear with me here. I left home and returned too early, in my mid-20s, and left again. I returned later in life, after my sister died, and found to my shock that home was not what I expected. And this is my fault, in part, because I expected more of Ithaca than it could ever give.
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t get back in my boat and set sail again, away from Ithaca. I stayed, not because I necessarily wanted to, or because it was easy, but because I had no choice. I couldn’t put my wife and kids through another move, and as difficult as it was, the struggle with my dad and others, I had a filial duty to be here with him until the end.
I wouldn’t have sailed to my damnation like Ulysses if I had left here. Or wouldn’t I have? I realized in retrospect, from a place of rest and healing, that if I had set sail again, I never would have set out on the inner quest necessary to mature. I never would have done battle with the hidden dragons lodged in the recesses of my own heart, I would never have been given the gift of spending the last week of my father’s life on earth at his bedside, and finding real and lasting peace — for me, the Grail. Had I not stayed unhappily in Ithaca, because that was my duty to my wife, children, and parents, I would have been at sea for the rest of my life … and would not have understood why.
What’s more, if I had not had my eyes on the true Ithaca — Paradise, unity with God — I would not have had the strength and sense of purpose to endure the trials of repatriation to the mortal Ithaca. I am working on a book now that, like all my books, is really about Ithaca. It has nothing at all to do with Louisiana, or me, but it’s about Ithaca. I get that now. I get what Cavafy means in the final lines of his poem:
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.