Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Voyage In

As children, when we read of voyages, we always prefer the voyage out to the voyage back again. If we're lucky, we introduce ourselves to Homer's heroes, and the thousand ships that carried the Greeks to Troy, as well as the return voyage of Odysseus. But it's no accident that The Iliad is the poem preferred by young readers, especially in the many highly readable (if flatfooted) translations into English prose available in paperback. The Trojan War lasted ten years, and Odysseus's voyage homeward lasted another ten. There are other tales of "return" telling of how the victors of the war fared upon arriving at home. Agamemnon's return to his cheating queen Clytemnestra became the centerpiece of Aeschylus's tragedy. There were probably many more such stories that have since been lost. Odysseus's story is the more famous, whether or not it was composed by Homer, by some bardic predecessor of his, or, as Samuel Butler claimed, by a woman whose name has been lost to history.

It's quite amazing that this man and this woman, Odysseus and Penelope, one married couple from an Iron Age tale whose names have come down to us across millennia, could have inspired so many poets to relive events that took place some time around the thirteenth century BCE. Scholars and adventurers have speculated about the course of Odysseus's voyage home, knowing only two points for certain: the exact locations of Troy in what is now Western Turkey and of Ithaka in the Western Aegean Sea. Because of the disfavor of one god or another (Poseidon is always angry), the voyage, which is a distance that a sailing ship could cover in a few days, took Odysseus ten years. 

But why is it that some famous readers and at least one translator (T.E. Lawrence) of The Odyssey cared so little for the conclusion of the poem, with Odysseus and Penelope at last reunited on Ithaka? In his poem, "Ithaka," Constantine Cavafy (whom E.M. Forster described as "a man in a straw hat standing at a slight angle to the universe") wished for Odysseus many more adventures, drawing out the moment of his eventual return almost indefinitely:    

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
and may you vsiit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor,Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experiences,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.(1)

This is all very lovely, but it's pure fancy. Odysseus didn't set out for Ithaka wanting to see any sights, other than the welcome sight of his island kingdom. He wasn't seeking experiences or wisdom, and would've gladly traded all the ones he hazarded upon for a non-stop ticket home. Why do so many readers always short change the beauty of Penelope and Odysseus's love for her? Cavafy wants us to believe it was Ithaka - not Penelope - to which Odysseus was striving. I won't speculate on Cavafy's (or T.E. Lawrence's) distaste for the heterosexual happy ending that Odysseus finally wins and so richly deserves. And let us not forget Odysseus's shipmates, every one of whom perished on their way home. Would they have wished for further perils to divert bored readers? When Odysseus is given a glimpse of Hades and he meets his dead shipmates there, they didn't sound very keen on another chance at life if it meant more endless struggle toward an unreachable goal.

Another Greek, but a much lesser poet, Nikos Kazantzakis, even wrote a "sequel" to The Odyssey, spiriting the hero away from home in a series of utterly spurious adventures. Kazantzakis must've known Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," in which the old man sits on the shore of his island and proudly (if a little ridiculously) boasts of voyages to come:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments.
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;                        

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough         
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades                   
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is topause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

    There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me -
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads - you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
                    Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the Western stars, until I die.(2)

For an old man, how long-winded Tennyson's Ulysses is! And how unlike him. It is one thing to be proud of one's name and one's accomplishments, but to mistake them for frolics is nothing but the bored musings of a man who has led a life in idleness. And when Tennyson's Ulysses calls on his "friends," it's clear that he's lost it.

How far Tennyson was from Lermontov, who lived the life of romanticism (he died in a duel), and who, through Pechorin, confesses his affliction in this diary extract from A Hero of Our Time:

I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig: his soul has grown accustomed to storms and battles; but, once let him be cast upon the shore, and he chafes, he pines away, however invitingly the shady groves allure, however brightly shines the peaceful sun. The livelong day he paces the sandy shore, hearkens to the monotonous murmur of the onrushing waves, and gazes into the misty distance: lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?

Tiresias, the Seer of Thebes, tells Odysseus in Book XI of his final voyage:

'But once you have killed those suitors in your home - by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze - go forth once more, you must ... carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign - unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon - a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar - then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order.   And at last your own death will steal upon you ... a painless death, far from the sea it comes   to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you. All that I have told you will come true.'


Clearly, the happy ending of The Odyssey is something of a disappointment for some readers who thrill to near-lethal encounters with gods and monsters. But to deny Odysseus the glory (and relief) of his homecoming is to misread The Odyssey. It would be just as unedifying to spare Agamemnon his homecoming to Clytemnestra. If one feels - implacably - that Agamemnon had it coming, then hadn't Odysseus, too?

Robert Fitzgerald, who wrote one of the finest translations of Homer into English verse, proclaimed in his introduction that "The Odyssey is the story of a man who loved his wife and wished to return to her." The proof of this can be found in Odysseus's long sojourn on the goddess Calypso's island, when she offers him immortality if he will stay with her forever:

"Ah great goddess, don't be angry with me,
please. All that you say is true, how well I know.
Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you,
your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all
and you, you never age or die . . .
Nevertheless I long - I pine, all my days -
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
(Fagles translation)

A man who refuses an offer of godlike immortality because he wants nothing but to return to his mortal wife is something few people today are able to comprehend. The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is an overwhelmingly heartening and justifiable conclusion to the tale, and not at all the anticlimax that some readers have called it. What some readers object to, I think, is that there should be a conclusion of any kind to Odysseus's marvelous adventures.

Only Wallace Stevens, of all people, felt sorry enough for Penelope to imagine how twenty years of waiting for her husband's return must have affected her:

The World as Meditation

Is it Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? . . . Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

Today is my birthday, the eighth that I've spent here on my island of exile. I know too well what Odysseus must have felt on Calypso's island. I, too, am beguiled here by a goddess, who wishes me to remain with her here for the rest of my life - a lot shorter than eternity, but just as interminable. When choice is taken away, even a paradise can seem more like a hell. I live here against my will, too poor to escape. And, like Odysseus, all I can think about is home, the contours of a certain familiar landscape and the faces of my brother and sister and my friends. Like most Americans, they are spread out across the country, but being home would make such distances as that between Alaska (where I am from) and Maine (where two dear friends miss me) seem familiar and manageable. I've crossed the country by car so many times, its distances - though great - are known to me, whereas the great gulf - an ocean and a continent - that separates me from home seems unbridgable, impassable.

When Odysseus found himself shipwrecked in a stormy sea, he cried out, "Rag of man that I am, is this the end of me?" But the gods, who had ordained his homecoming, spared him once again. Foundering on the shore of Nausicaa's island, having been roused to consciousness, Odysseus appeals to the princess, "Now some power has tossed me here,/doubtless to suffer still more torments on your shores./I can't believe they'll stop. Long before that/the gods will give me more, still more."  

No more, gods. Let me go home.

(1) Keeley/Sherrard translation. The full poem can be found here.
(2) Tennyson continues at some length. The full poem can be found here.

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