Archive for the ‘Promises’ Category

Just so you know, I wrote this for my Introduction to Literature students, as our semester ends, as a kind of “goodbye and good luck,” so it’s probably more pedagogical and/or sappy than what I might otherwise have written.

Here is “Ithaka” read by Sean Connery, with score by Vangelis. (Thanks, Patrick Blanchfield, for alerting me to this craziness):

The poem begins “As you set out for Ithaka,” and when it ends, when you have (possibly) reached your destination, “you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” Two things seem to have happened along the way: a single Ithaka has become multiple “Ithakas,” and you have, or will have, come to understand what it means, or what they mean. Undoubtedly, these two things are linked. Probably, coming to understand what “Ithaka” means involves understanding that it is actually “Ithakas.” Possibly, when you understand “what these Ithakas mean,” you will understand that arriving at them is of the lowest order of importance, even if it has been your goal all along.

But to understand what “Ithaka” comes to mean by the end of the poem, or the end of the journey, we must know what “Ithaka” means at the beginning, or even before the beginning. Before this poem about Ithaka.

Ithaka – or Ithaca – is an island, an island we know about, first and most, from a poem. The first poem about Ithaka is, of course, the Odyssey. In its time, we think, the Odyssey was one of a number of long poems which we call the “epic cycle.” Several of these poems were known as nostoi. Nostos is the Greek word for return, or homecoming; the nostoi, then, were the poems about the homecomings of the Greek warriors, returning from the Trojan war. The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ homecoming, is the only one of these nostoi that survived. Odysseus’ home, which he spends nearly the entire poem trying to reach, is the island of Ithaka. It is not a large island, or a rich island. Rather, it is rocky, with a lot of goats. Still, whatever else it is, Ithaka is home. From nostos (homecoming) and algia (pain) we get the word “nostalgia” – the pain of longing for return, or homecoming. When we define nostalgia now, it is as a longing for some place or time in the past – the way things were – to which we cannot return. But Odysseus did come home, and that was the end of his story.

So, in the beginning, “Ithaka” meant “home” – home to Odysseus, where he could be, again (after twenty years) with his wife, his son, his father, sleep in his own bed. To get there, he had to make it past Laestrygonians (man-eating giants), the Cyclops (a one-eyed man-eating giant, son of Poseidon), the Sirens, Scylla (many-headed man-eating goddess), Charydis (giant man-eating whirlpool), and escape the clutches of two goddesses determined to marry him. On the way he lost all of his ships and shipmates. More than once he came close to Ithaka, only to be turned away by Poseidon, angry at Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops. So, yay for finally getting there, but not without a price.

Many people have wondered, since then, what it would actually have been like for Odysseus to be home after all that time. A lot changes in twenty years – people and places. After so long and so much, is it really possible to go home? It was a foregone conclusion that he would get to Ithaka – it was the will of Zeus that he should – but not at all guaranteed that it would feel like a homecoming. What does Ithaka mean to Odysseus, then? Home, family – maybe. The end of his story (according to Homer) – certainly.

But of all the people who’ve wondered how Odysseus, the wanderer, would deal with staying in one place for the rest of his life, some have asked: what would he have done if he didn’t go back to Ithaka? One of these wonderers was Dante Alighieri, who wrote a new ending to Odysseus’ story in the Inferno. When Dante meets Ulysses/Odysseus in hell, and desires to know what has brought him there, Ulysses answers (from out of the flame eternally consuming him) with a different tale than the one told in the Odyssey. This Odysseus never went back to Ithaka. Instead, he decided that his “longing…to gain experience of the world” was greater than his desire to return home. So he and his companions traveled, explored, and finally, when they were old and slow, came to the “gates of Hercules” – the end of the known world. As this point Odysseus addressed his fellow travelers:

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the west, to this so brief vigil of our senses that remains to us, choose not to deny experience, following the sun, of the world that has no people. Consider your origin: you were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’

With this “little speech,” he convinces them to journey on, and they finally come within sight of the mountain of Purgatory (Dante’s geography was sketchy), but a whirlwind sinks their ship and they are sent to hell. Odysseus is, essentially, punished by Dante for wanting to know to much, burned forever by the fires of his curiosity.

Cavafy’s poem is a response to Homer and to Dante. In many ways, he has returned to the Homeric story, turning away from Dante’s vision (which is also, by the way, more or less Alfred Tennyson’s view in his poem, “Ulysses”). For Cavafy, Ithaka is, again, the place Odysseus, or Ulysses, or you, or we, are all trying to get to. Ithaka stands at the end of the journey – not Purgatory (which Dante’s Ulysses was trying to get to), not the Inferno (where he ended up), and not Paradise (where Dante spends his whole poem trying to get to). Still, much has been retained from the Dantean/Ulyssean voyage. “You” are advised to “gather stores of knowledge,” to become “wise” and “full of experience.” It will be better, you are told, if you prolong your voyage as much as possible, “so you are old by the time you reach the island.” With so much of the journey of Dante’s Ulysses clinging to Cavafy’s language, it is impossible not to identify, at least a little, Ulysses’ actual endpoint with the place you are “destined” to arrive at. In other words, something of Heaven clings to Ithaka – and also something of Hell. Ithaka/Heaven is the promised destination you hold out in front of yourself, to “keep your thoughts raised high,” to “stir your spirit and your body.” The obstacles you meet – man-eaters and angry gods – they will only get in your way if “you bring them along inside your soul,” if “your soul sets them up in front of you.” When you are old, when you’ve seen many things and had many pleasures, you may, finally, arrive at Ithaka. Will it be Paradise?

No, probably not. You may, in fact, find it poor. You may find that it has little to give you. Is it, then, Hell? Maybe – but only if you were expecting Heaven. Wherever you arrive, if it is not what you were expecting, can seem like Hell. College. After college. Having a job. Having a house. Marriage. Parenthood. Having a better job. Having a nicer house. And so on. We hold many destinations out in front of ourselves in order to keep moving forward, saying, “when I get there, I’ll be happy. When I get there, I’ll rest.” When we get there, often it’s not what we thought. But there’s always another destination further into the distance. All of them Ithakas. All of them, we tell ourselves, the last place. Ithaka is always the last place. The place where the story ends. The place of rest.

So what do all these Ithakas mean? I don’t know. I’m not there yet. I can only hope that my voyage will be a long one. And I wish the same for all of you.



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I have learned that it is best not to make promises to my son, even about the smallest things. Sometimes I forget. Like, I’ll say, “I’ll bring a treat for you when I pick you up from school.” And if I remember to do that, then everything’s great. But woe betide if I forget that treat. Because you know he didn’t forget. Even if there is a treat waiting for him at home, which is only five minutes away, that broken promise offends his sense of justice so deeply that two treats probably won’t make up for it. So I really try not to do that. My husband is the first to remind me, via Derrida, that every promise carries with it the possibility that it may be broken.

I feel like I’m breaking a million promises to him – my husband – right now. He’s been in the hospital for twelve days now. What has he had to eat, in those twelve days? Well, there’s the goo from his tube-feed, going straight into his intestines to bypass the surgery they did on his upper intestine, which does not make an empty stomach feel less empty. And there was the cup of applesauce, and the cup of fruit cocktail, that the speech therapist brought to test his swallowing ability. Those were a few days ago – I can’t remember how many. I’m not even sure he can remember anything else from that long ago, but I know he remembers the applesauce really clearly. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s what he’s thinking about 90% of the time he’s awake. For days now the doctors have been saying that he should be able to eat really soon. The first time they said “probably tomorrow,” I went right ahead and told him that, because I thought it would give him something to look forward to. And it did. Until they said “no, he’s not ready yet, maybe the next day.” We’re several days past that now, and I can only try to conceive of how hungry he is in relation to how hard he tries to convince me to give him food, even though we all know he’s not allowed to have it. I feel like every day I am breaking a promise to him – although I’ve stopped saying anything about when I think they might let him eat. I’m not stupid enough to keep saying “tomorrow” every day.


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