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Before Ithaca

By on April 2, 2024

by Dean Kalimniou*

Odysseus, noble son of Laertes, stop this warful strife, or Zeus will be angry with you.” Homer, the Odyssey.

The summary of perhaps Cavafy’s most famous poem ‘Ithaca,’ “It’s not the journey but the destination,” has been so often quoted that it has passed beyond the realms of the trite and well and truly entered the territory of the cliché.

Cavafy drew from the Homeric epic return journey of Odysseus for his inspiration. According to most readings, the idea of nostos, homecoming, is a particularly powerful one. We all seek a return, one that will see us venture out into the unknown, gain a wealth of experiences that will, to use the most contemporary buzzwords, enrich us, expand our skill sets and enable us to grow.

As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.”

Odysseus’ journey was a particularly lengthy one. Because he inadvertently angered the gods by appropriating their wagyu beef, they made sure that the wily but hapless traveler took a decade to reach his home after a series of harrowing near death experiences. Rather than being a paean to the idea that immersed in lives of haste, and easy, instantaneous rewards, it is easy to forget that the path, or any kind of process, is not only that which can teach us the most but that which is also the most enjoyable, one cannot help shake off the suspicion that the polysemic Cavafy is actually engaging in the type of deadpan irony that is latent in all of his work.

Laestrygonians, 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.
Laestrygonians, 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.
Hope your road is a long one.”

The usual reading of these lines entail the conviction that perils are endogenous, that in fact, our own demons impede us in the process of achieving our goals. Apparently, this motivational advice is of significant ontological implication, to be applied to the simplest and most mundane of life’s processes, with surprising, illuminating results. It has among certain practitioners of mindfulness, led to the creation of a philosophy of life, that relates in a profound way to meditation, to the work of keeping our minds in the present.

Except that Odysseus’ actual experience was acutely different. He met, through no real fault of his own, not only Laestrygonians and Cyclopes, but also Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis and the particularly ardent Circe and Calypso who imprisoned him and used him for carnal pursuits. Having escaped from the perils of these vicious monsters (Scylla for example, was a frightful beast with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark’s teeth, while her body consisted of twelve tentacle-like legs and a cat’s tail, while six dog’s heads ringed her waist,) and borderline psychotic women by the skin of his teeth, a traumatised Odysseus could only take Cavafy’s pious wish: “Hope your road is a long one,” as a travesty in the poorest of tastes. To suggest to someone that has just avoided being eaten by one-eyed giants, killed by singing winged female assassins, enveloped by a whirlpool created by the belching of a sea-monster, and metamorphosed into a pig by a precursor to Doctor Moreau, that they could have avoided their ordeal had they maintained a positive outlook, is the epitome of insensitivity, one that would have required Odysseus, had he lived in the present, to indulge in years of therapy, soy lattes and interminable attempts at body art, in order to recover.

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,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.”

Gaining experiences that will change and assist one to evolve is the yardstick of growth in life, in accord with modern conceptions of life-long learning and re-skilling. Yet Cavafy well knows that Odysseus’ sojourn in Egypt was occasioned in the context of a violent and failed raid of that country by him. In the Odyssey, Odysseus makes no representation that he learnt anything from the erudite Egyptians. Instead, he claims simply not only of having been spared in the wake of the Egyptian raid, but of spending a subsequent seven years in the land of the pharaohs, during which he gathered great wealth. Similarly, in the Odyssey, while he praises their skills at craftmanship, calling them polydaedalic, Homer is ambivalent about the Phoenicians, having Odysseus tell the plausible lie that the Phoenicians stole steal all his accumulated wealth from the Trojan war and left him stranded. Time and time throughout the text, Homer depicts them as scheming traders obsessed with material wealth as opposed to the heroism of the Greeks and Trojans. By subverting the myth, Cavafy is clearly making the opposite point to that which is commonly wrung from these lines: that pursuit, of whatever substance, is often futile, or tainted by motivation.

Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ culminated with its grandiloquent conclusion:
Keep Ithaca 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 marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.”

Stay the course, eyes on the prize, play the long game, never forget your goal but enjoy the journey, no pain, no gain: these are the clichés that are commonly employed to encapsulate the meaning of these magical stanzas. Yet Odysseus arrived in his home, to find that not even his father recognised him. His faithful dog died at his feet. His house was overrun by suitors lusting after his wife and property and he was compelled to engage in wholesale slaughter in order to set his house in order. The people of Ithaca, enraged at the killing, rise up against him as an interloper and he is only saved by divine intervention. We gain no insight on the change in the relationship between Odysseus and his faithful Penelope, but in subsequent classical embellishments of the myth such as the Telegonia, we learn that rather than arrive, wise but worn at his tranquil terminal point, Odysseus can find no peace in Ithaca. He travels to Thesprotia, marries another woman Kallidike, and finally is killed by Telegonus, the son he had while a sex-slave to Circe. Ithaca is thus not a home but a symbol of the loss of home and rootlessness, a source of eternal torment. It is only when keeping Odysseus’ final fate in mind that we can understand the true message of the ambivalent Cavafy: “you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.” Rather than serving an inspirational new-age influencer, Cavafy has instead, cleverly rendered, an artful, but nonetheless sick parody of human existence and aspiration.

In penning his paean to pessimism, Cavafy seems to have been closely responding to a little known poem penned by Joachim Du Bellay in 1558, in Middle French, that barely rates a mention in most discussions about Cavafy’s Ithaca. However, the parallels are compelling; Du Bellay makes mention of the return journey, and of the acquisition of wisdom. He also maintains that it is better to be poor at home than living in splendour elsewhere:

“Happy he who like Ulysses has returned
successful from his travels, or like he
who sought the Golden Fleece, to rest well earned –
wise to the world – amongst his family.
When shall I see again my place of birth,
its chimney smoke, and at what time of year,
when seen that little, modest, plot of earth
which means far more to me than I draw here.
I’m drawn far more to my ancestral home
than to a Roman palace fine and proud,
prefer fine slate to marble, rather roam
along the Loire than sport midst Tiber’s crowd.
My Liré I prefer to Palatine,
and to sea air, soft climate Angevine.”

Du Bellay’s work does lend itself to the reading almost universally applied to that of Cavafy’s response to it. Yet Cavafy’s response is infinitely more layered and displaying deep insights into the original Homeric texts that underlies both poems, constitutes a nuanced and psychologically complex analysis, affirmation and simultaneous negation of time, fate and trajectory and humanity’s relationship to it. Viewed from this perspective, that of the work that engendered it, and gauging the extent of Cavafy’s departure from it, the power of his equivocal vision of humanity and the majesty of his contrapuntal treatment of the foundation texts of its civilization, are granted stark clarity.

*) Dean Kalimniou (Kostas Kalymnios) is an attorney, poet, author and journalist based in Melbourne Australia. He has published 7 poetry collections in Greek and has recently released his bi-lingual children’s book: “Soumela and the Magic Kemenche.” He is also the Secretary of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia.

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