March 21, 2018
I find myself reading and thinking a lot these days about the ways we construct our moral and ethical foundation, our habits of empathy, sensitivity, and clarity regarding our view of the humanity and the world. And because I am privileged and honored to live alongside each of you, I think of how St. Andrew's can be a source of light, clarity, courage, and meaning in your lives.
Now, you might know that the poem "Ithaka" alludes to Odysseus' famous journey home to Ithaca as depicted in Homer's great epic The Odyssey.
I spent much of the spring vacation reading, studying, and thinking about a book entitled An Odyssey, written by Bard College Professor David Mendelsohn. In this book, Professor Mendelsohn describes his experience teaching The Odyssey to his freshmen undergraduate students and to his 81 year old father who attended and participated in the class every day during the semester.
In addition, Mendelsohn's book describes a trip he and his father made the summer after the class on The Odyssey ended: a 10-day excursion with the intention to visit many of the sites, including Ithaca, described so vividly in Homer's poem.
Therefore, Mendelsohn proposes to write about four odysseys—the one written by Homer; the odyssey of his experience teaching a seminar that included his father; the odyssey of the 10-day trip with his father; and finally the odyssey of a son and a father's slow, emerging sense of understanding, reconciliation, and confrontation with old age, illness, and death.
Implicit in Homer's work and Mendelsohn's teaching is the suggestion that our lives are in their own right heroic journeys, full of twists and turns and full of the potential for hope, promise, understanding, and recognition. Both Homer and Mendelsohn suggest our learning essentially never ends, as long as we keep living, seeking, discovering, questioning, traveling, adventuring.
Now I learned about this beautiful Greek poem "Ithaka" by CP Cavafy first through the recommendation of my friend Mr. Speers (he found it on the program of the memorial service for former Princeton President William Bowen) and again through Mendelsohn's book. Professor Mendelsohn actually delivers a lecture on the poem in the latter stages of the trip he and his father made together, precisely at the time when the cruise ship captain had announced that because of bad weather, the trip to Ithaca would not be possible. More on that detail in a few minutes...
Homer's The Odyssey resonates with the reader or listener on both literal and metaphorical levels—we are intrigued and fascinated by the plot, the drama of the story: the painful education on leadership and responsibility Telemachus must pursue as his home, family, and values are threatened; the patience, endurance, and love Penelope expresses as she refuses to give up on the possibility of her husband's return; the slow, adventure filled, laborious return of Odysseus to his home over 10 years since his departure; the first tentative, skeptical, and then joyful reunion of Odysseus with his wife Penelope, son Telemachus, father Laertes; (and his ancient and loyal dog); Odysseus' revenge and destruction of the suitors whose licentious behaviour had been so contrary to the codes and expectations of propriety and hospitality.
But the epic poem also expands metaphorically: it is easy to imagine and see our lives as an odyssey, a voyage, an endeavor to move into adulthood, to express steadfast love and loyalty, and an attempt to get back home, however we define that term. Our Ithacas (points of destination and ambition) range from the immediate (graduation, college, career) to a future exploration of love, commitment, retirement, old age, and death. And to extend Homer's metaphorical implications even more, we each have complex and dynamic relationships with our parents and guardians in our roles as sons and daughters. One moment we are Telemachus, trying to understand how to live in the shadow of a powerful and missing parent, tentatively making our way in a seemingly hostile world; the next we are Odysseus fighting to return, accomplish justice, and reunite our family. Everything, it seems, in our families is always in flux. We can be simultaneously daughter, son, mother, father, grandfather, grandmother.
This poem, "Ithaka" by CP Cavafy, reminds us eloquently that though we have a number of Ithacas (we notice the plural in the last stanza), the journey, the adventure, the discovery, the education, the research, the sheer beauty and vitality of each day, the miracle of life itself are central, elemental—much more important than the ultimate arrival. In fact, Cavafy suggests that meaning, illumination emerges in the midst of an odyssey, not at the end of it. This is a profound insight for all of us—young and older—to remember, living as we do in a culture that demands immediate answers about our specific, tangible, measurable plans and accomplishments in our lives.
To be clear, we need to bring a steady stream of energy, intention, vitality, and goodness to our lives. And if we do, the actual day to day experiences we have will be much more important and enlightening than where exactly we go from here or where we arrive in the remainder of our lives.
Our Ithacas are important as lighthouses and goals, but they can sometimes blind us and make us ignore the fact that the essential connections in our lives flourish on the journey, not on the arrival. Worse, some Ithacas in the modern world begin as goals and aspirations but end up as mirages, disguising the essential meaning, contorting the very beauty of our lives.
Let's think for a few minutes about what the poem has to say to us.
First, Cavafy disrupts our modern expectations about the pursuit of our goals and ambitions—the speaker urges us to see and embrace the journey itself as central, as an experience that is itself full of surprises, illuminations, recognitions, the kind of discoveries made either through patient and reflective education or generous and enlightened travel.
The word "adventurous" suggests a kind of liberation, an exploration that leads to moments of unexpected experiences, discoveries, and explorations. A philosophy of education that seeks to cultivate adventure, exploration, and creativity captures the very promise of the liberal arts secondary school and college; however, too often, the quest for admission, the anxiety of competition prevents the full expression of creativity and discovery. The routines of school, the ever looming college application process can block imagination, adventure, discovery.
Later in the 20th century, the American writer Mark Twain would use the word adventures in the title of his great novel about Huck Finn, a character who in his own American odyssey refuses to be bound by the limitations, rigidity hierarchy, and racism of his society and its oppressive and stifling educational practices. Huck therefore embarks on a voyage with Jim that ultimately teaches him more than any school or college could about the emptiness of the adult civilized world. By the end of the novel, Huck has seen enough—he rejects any socially defined Ithaca and lights out for the territories.
Yes, Cavafy acknowledges, there are dangers, obstacles, threats ahead of us in our lives. We may meet people (or a god like Poseidon) who seek to thwart, frustrate, and paralyze us; we may confront a Cyclops who, Ms. Furlonge suggests, is bent on decisive and obsessive destruction of us, or flee from the Laistrygonians who express a fierce destructive appetite and force. However, the speaker argues we have control over these threats, not by living small, frightened, timid lives but through the very force and energy of our wills and souls. The speaker's tone is reassuring, confident calm:
"Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don't be afraid of them: you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians and Cyclops
wild Poseidon—you won't encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you."
These lines do not deny the reality that we may face forces in our life, in our society, in our world that have the ability, intent, and historical power to threaten or even plague us, but the lines beautifully imply we have individual and collective agency, power, and courage to triumph over and defeat these antagonists. We refuse to be victims; we refuse to be silenced. We keep, the speaker says, our thoughts raised high: we hold fast to the rare excitement of life that awakens and energizes us; our soul and spirit refuse to entertain those who seek to imprison or denounce us. We are free.
Once we begin to live in this way, we are open to life, to discovery, to discernment. In the second stanza, we sense the freshness, the aroma, the peace and serenity of a new day: a summer morning and pleasure, joy at the sight of a gleaming new harbor and the collection of beautiful, delicate, and astonishing objects (mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind); we embrace the opportunity to study and learn in Egyptian cities, "gathering stores of knowledge from their scholars." The speaker encourages us to linger, to enjoy, and to embrace the very vitality, goodness, intelligence, and energy of these places, for Ithaca, our destination, it turns out, is a goal, a destination to keep in mind, but ultimately not at all a destination full of vitality and energy. It is, rather a place where we go when all our living, learning, giving, has reached its peak. Paradoxically, the speaker observes, "Ithaca has nothing left to give you now."
With wisdom and experience, we eventually understand that our lives are vibrant, energetic, discerning, and loving only when we are in the process of living: of learning of changing, of questioning, of developing.
Reflecting on this poem, Professor Mendelsohn writes that "being home in familiar surroundings rules something out from their lives." Through those words, he suggests that the heart of our moral, ethical, spiritual, educational journey should be electric, dynamic, ever changing—once we stop learning, studying, creating, becoming, we are prey to the forces that will paralyze and entrap us. The only forces that can defeat, distort, or paralyze us are those we place on ourselves.
Mendelsohn and his father never reach Ithaca, but as Cavafy's poem predicted, the real work of connection, transformation, and recognition emerged from the lessons father and son learned both in the classroom and on the voyage they undertook together. Mendelsohn in particular begins to understand the character and spirit of his father in new and vivid and astonishing detail simply by listening, asking questions, and realizing that his father had a full and complex life before he the son was ever born.
What happens when we intentionally and strategically sacrifice our vitality, credibility, humanity, compassion, and identity to force our way to Ithaca, only to discover (as Ms. Furlonge reminds me) that the physical landscape there happens to be severe, desolate, and barren?
You may have met adults or students who played the game or gamed the system to get to an undergraduate, graduate, career Ithaca, desperately convinced that the contortion of their lives would be worth it on arrival at the shore of Ithaca. That does not work all that well...
Such lives most often express and reflect frustration, cynicism, emptiness, and fragmentation.
In contrast, think of those who have pursued a passion, an idea, a cause, and made their voyage through education, personal life, and career one of creativity, discovery, and joy. That is the spirit we should be pursuing here in these days, months, and years we spend together.
Your lives are miraculous, unique, original, and creative. May St. Andrew's inspire creativity, joy, discovery, and passion long before we reach the shores of Ithaca.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.