Journey to Ithaca

Speaker's Corner: Jeffrey Tayler offers a lesson on life, travel and writing

08.04.10 | 10:24 AM ET


“La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora, / et la morte vien dietro a gran giornate” (Life flees, and slows not for an instant, / and death hurries along behind it)—Petrarch

No matter what age we are, it seems we never lack for well-wishers who understand just what our faults are, just what we’re doing wrong, and just what we need to do to set our lives aright. If by chance we should suffer no such lack, then our own consciences may tell us that we’re on the wrong path, that others like us have done better or achieved more, and we should follow their example. As writers, we may judge ourselves by which magazines choose to print our work, or whether the book we’ve spent so much time on has found a publisher. Ever and always, some well-traveled road beckons, the thickets of standards and convention narrow our view, and the woods rising beyond look dark and dangerous.

To be sure, there’s something to be said for listening to the opinions of others. The British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell advised us that, “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” “Unnecessary tyranny”—well put. But once we have decided to ignore convention, at least within reason, and especially if we’re writers, for whom few established routes exist, we still confront the question: How should we best live our lives? Assuming we’ve rejected or outgrown the theistic creeds, ideological credos, and treatises of self-help nonsense still propounded as saving by an unfortunately large number of our contemporaries, is there any philosophy that can help us get the most out of our brief time on this planet?

There’s no one answer, I think, but rather a variegated constellation of possibilities looming above our horizon, sparkling with the stars of literati of bygone ages. We don’t really need a classical education to consult these stars, to know the work of these men and women of letters. A start can be had by anyone just by opening a book. But one star does burn more brightly than others. The classical European tradition that forms the basis of Western culture owes its greatest debt to the Greek bard Homer, who probably lived in Ionia in the 8th or 9th century BC, and his epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

For the moment, “The Odyssey,” the most magnificent, if tough to read, travelogue of all time, will concern us here. You probably already know the plot’s outlines: Seven years after having defeated the Trojans in Asia Minor, King Odysseus, accompanied by his men, finally sets sail for his island kingdom of Ithaca, where his wife Penelope has been waiting patiently for him, not knowing whether he’s alive or dead. Along the way they confront a plethora of perils: the one-eyed Cyclops, cannibal giants called the Laistrygones, the Sirens, the Lotus-Eaters, and others. Once arrived in Ithaca, Odysseus reconnoiters, slaughters the arrogant suitors Penelope has unwillingly acquired, and retakes his throne. Homer depicts Odysseus as cunning, courageous, and noble, able to chart his course and prevail, with or without the help of the gods.

The Greeks construed the poem as a metaphor for life and a font of wisdom, and learned from it. Don’t worry, I’m not about to inflict on you an exegesis of “The Odyssey”; I never learned to love the thing myself. A 24-chapter opus in dactylic hexameter, “The Odyssey” daunts any who would approach it in ancient Greek; and even translations can be intimidating. And Odysseus, however inspiring, is a too larger-than-life hero, facing mythic challenges we aren’t going to see the likes of. But a poem loosely deriving from “The Odyssey,” “Ithaki” (Ithaca in Greek), provides us with guidance more suited to us mortals nowadays. Its author was Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet much closer to us in time and worldview than Homer.

Cavafy was born in 1863, in then British-ruled Alexandria, which in ancient times had been a peerless capital of Hellenic culture. His family, wealthy and distinguished, hailed originally from Constantinople; and Cavafy grew up a cosmopolitan, spending time there, in England, and in Alexandria. He published his verse in newspapers, and even self-published, yet eventually he became one of the most prominent poets of his era in Greece and the West. He wrote mostly in Modern Greek, the language whose literary works—in particular, Kazantzakis’s rollicking philosophical novel “Zorba the Greek”—led me, almost 30 years ago, out of my own thickets of despair to my life as a writer.

No character in any novel I’ve read has drawn me further down the path of forget-the-morrow, hard-drinking love-making than Alexi Zorba. But the hangovers can be killers, something I’ve been taking more seriously in recent years. These days, for me, there exists no better exposition on how to approach life than Cavafy’s poem “Ithaki.” Its message, contemplative and reassuring, shines through in limpid, casually cadenced verse, the verse not of a majestic bard singing of heroic exploits but of a wise elder offering friendly counsel on an evening stroll. (At 48, though, Cavafy was hardly old when he wrote the poem in 1911.) Its 36 lines I’ll recount here in Greek, followed by my translation and comments.

Sa vgeis ston pigaimo yia tin Ithaki,
Na efkhesai nanai makris o dhromos,
Yematos peripeteies, yematos gnoseis.

As you set out for Ithaca,
Wish your journey to be long,
Filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.

I needn’t clarify much here. Notice that Cavafy makes no mention of vengeance, glory, or triumph, or any other exalted desiderata of the Homeric epoch. The gods are dead, the age of heroes past. The destination is Ithaca, but as will soon become apparent, our own Ithaca. The important thing is to get moving. Living, treading the road or plying the waves, is what will count.

Tous Laistrygonas kai tous Kyklopas,
Ton thimomeno Poseidona mi fovasai,
Tetia ston dhromo sou pote sou dhen tha vreis,
An men’ i skepsis sou ipsili, an eklekti
Singinisis to pnevma kai to soma sou angizei.
Tous Laistrygonas kai tous Kiklopas,
Ton agrio Poseidona dhen tha sinandiseis,
An dhen tous kouvaneis mes stin psikhi sou,
An i psikhi sou dhen tous stinei embros sou.

Fear neither Laistrygones nor Cyclops, nor an angry Poseidon,
Such as these during your journey you will never find,
As long as you keep your thoughts high,
As long as an exquisite excitement touches your spirit and your body.
You’ll meet no Laistrygones, no Cyclops,
No savage Poseidon, if you don’t carry them in your soul,
Unless your soul raises them before you.

All those trying to inculcate in us a respect for convention (fear, in other words) or, especially, hoping to sell us something, strive to populate our lives with specters of dread and phantoms of failure sure to descend on us as soon as we diverge from the prescribed way. Early on we internalize these fears and learn to live within their bounds. To disenthrall ourselves, we need to see them for what they are: the manifestations of prejudice, cowardice, petty-mindedness, and even greed. Certainly, ignoring them involves risk, as does any truly independent activity, and we may at least initially suffer for our boldness in striking out on our own. But if adversity hits, we need to step back and remember that turning our troubles, whatever they are, into matters of cosmic import is a sure path to self-absorption and misery. Independence comes with a price to be paid, and often a high price, but the rewards of living according to one’s instinct and inclination exceed all others.

When the uncertainties and traumas involved with writing freelance and traveling have driven me close to despair, I remember that time is always short. I try to transcend myself, and recall that the sun will rise and set for me as long as I’m alive; and once I’m gone, well, I won’t be here to care. Recognizing fear as nothing more than a fleeting neurological reaction induced by passing circumstances is one way of calming down and achieving a degree of equanimity. We are as transient as our fears, our fears are as ephemeral as our joys.

Back to the poem.

Na efkhesai nanai makris o dhromos.
Polla ta kalokairina proia na einai
Pou me ti efkharistisi, me ti khara
Tha bainis se limenas protoeidhomenous;

Wish for a long journey,
May there be many summer mornings
during which, with such pleasure, such joy,
you will enter harbors seen for the first time.

Kalokairina proia, summer mornings. Cavafy is speaking as if reminiscing here. A summery halo of light and warmth often gilds our recollections of the past. Think of how many wondrous first harbors—that is, “firsts”—you’ve experienced, firsts that no one can take away from you, and that make up the core of your being: your first memory of your mother, your first time riding a bike, your first love, your first trip abroad. Cavafy is hinting at one of his poem’s themes: that life consists of experiences of intrinsic sensory merit, whether or not they’re extraordinary, whether or not they’re linked to success or failure. Only later, when we adopt the conventions pressed upon us and our sense of wonder dulls, do we begin to speak of success or failure, or set up temporal milestones to be reached, lest the quotidian occupation of existing be too tedious to bear.

Na stamatiseis s’ emboreia Foinikika,
Kai tes kales praghmateies n’apoktiseis,
Sendefia kai korallia, kekhrimbaria k’ evenous,
Kai idhonika mirodhika kathe logis,
Oso boreis pio afthona idhonika mirodhika;
Se poleis Aiguptiakes na pas,
Na matheis kai na matheis ap’ tous spoudhasmenous.

Stop in Phoenician seaports,
And acquire fine merchandise,
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
And sensuous scents of all kinds,
As many luxuriant sensuous scents as possible.
Visit Egyptian cities,
And learn and learn more from their scholars.

Twelve years in school and four years in college aren’t enough. We need more education, a lifelong devotion to our development, if we’re to keep growing and eventually confront the inevitable truths shadowing our lives. As part of our post-curricular studies, we might consider returning to the classics, the “only oracles which are not decayed,” as Thoreau wrote. Knowledge comes from abroad, from outside ourselves, from experience; experience percolates in our minds and distills, if we’re lucky and striving, into wisdom. The main thing is, we must remain students, questioning always, analyzing ever. None of which means we can’t enjoy the material side of life, the coral, scents, and amber. Or the booze, the sex, the rock ‘n’ roll, for that matter. Cavafy in his private life was no prude.

Panda ston nou sou nakheis tin Ithaki.
To fthasimo ekei ein’ o proorismos sou.

Keep Ithaca ever in your mind.
Arriving there is your destiny.

Since we each possess our own version of Ithaca, our arrival there is predestined.

Alla mi viazeis to taxidhi dhiolou.
Kallitera khronia polla na dhiarkesei;
Kai yeros pia n’araxeis sto nisi,
Plousios me osa kerdhises ston dhromo,
Mi prosdhokondas plouti na se dhosei i Ithaki.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better it last many years;
And that as an old man you cast anchor at the island,
rich with what you’ve gained along the way,
Not expecting Ithaca to grant you riches.

You may recognize the word plouti, the plural of ploutos, or wealth. The experiential riches accruing to us on our odyssey will out-value material wealth, especially if we’re writers. The longer the trip, the wealthier we’ll be. No matter what temporal goals we set—marriage by 35, earning decent money by 45, a comfortable retirement at 65—they signal nothing more than the commencement of acts in a futile drama if we haven’t learned to discover the treasure buried in our daily lives. We cannot order our lives, not for long anyway. Russell said, “The world is a higgledy-piggledy place, containing things pleasant and unpleasant in haphazard sequence. And the desire to make an intelligible system or pattern out of it is at bottom a kind of agoraphobia or dread of open spaces.” Be free, dread not, and enjoy the breeze.

I Ithaki s’edhose to oraio taxidhi.
Khoris aftin dhen thavghaines ston dhromo.
Allo dhen ekhei na se dhosei pia.

Ithaca has given you a beautiful journey.
Without her, you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing else to give you.

Cavafy’s words are clear enough. Finally:

Ki an ptokhiki tin vreis, i Ithaki dhen se yelase.
Etsi sophos pou eyines, me tosi peira,
idhi tha to katalaves i Ithakes ti simainouv.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. 
As wise as you’ve become, with so much experience behind you,
You surely now understand what Ithacas really mean.

Here the poem ends. Your odyssey’s most cherished by-product is wisdom, or sophia in Greek; the wise are sophoi. Ithaca may not turn out to be what you expected. But you’ve wised up, you’ve learned to accept the frustration and illusory nature of hope, and now absorb with equanimity what life brings your way. We know wisdom when we see it, no definition is called for. But the inscription on the Delphic oracle of Apollo comes close to one: MIDEN AGAN (NOTHING TO EXCESS).

Without claiming to have reached my Ithaca, I’ll leave Cavafy’s poem here. A good part of wisdom consists in knowing what to ignore, be it a warning against the folly of your dreams (“The odds are against your making your living as a writer”), or cynicism masked as worldliness (“Publishing is a racket, it’s all based on connections”). Ignore cant, especially the mindlessly proffered jargon of political correctness intended to enforce group-think. Ignore any proclivity you may have toward faith. Scrutinize any doctrine—here religion comes foremost to mind—that demands you suspend your critical faculty and have faith. Faith and reason never go together. Recall Occam’s razor, otherwise known as the law of economy: “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” That is, the simplest explanation, which by necessity excludes the fantasticalities of divine intervention, is likely correct. Wisdom means learning to live with reality, however plain or painful. Write the truth.

Pain may in fact be our best teacher, our most reliable guru. There’s something antithetical to wisdom in the notion that we should take a pill to assuage our pain or quell our fears. The overarching, eternal questions of life and death do frighten us, at least at first, but in overcoming our fear and beginning the search for answers we acquire wisdom.

What are the bare facts of our existence? We begin as ova and end as dust. We’re born into existential solitude, tasked to find meaning in our lives. The future and past are conceptual illusions we employ to manage our affairs; there is always, really, only the here and now. This quasi-reductionism by no means excludes the nobility hanging about one who has lived free, who refuses to submit. We might, in our last hours, aspire to deliver something like the monologue that Tennyson wrote for the aged Odysseus of his poem “Ulysses”:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea . . .

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 . . .

Our Ithaca awaits us, if only we would turn our eyes to the sea.

Delivered at the Paris American Academy on July 6, 2009.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

4 Comments for Journey to Ithaca

Roger 08.04.10 | 3:13 PM ET

Jeffrey, methinks you protest too much.

Lori 08.04.10 | 5:47 PM ET

“Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.”

Dave 08.14.10 | 4:18 PM ET

During his sad and unsatisfactory life, C.P. Cavafy wrote what is considered some of the best of modern Greek poetry. 
  In the body of his published poetry there is only one short piece — eleven lines — that deals with the Greek Church.  It begins “I love the church…” and contains the line “When I go into a church of the Greeks ...”.  But I felt there was something wrong with the poem, and this a long time bothered me.  When he goes into a church of the Greeks he doesn’t find what I expect him to find.  What the poet finds there, and celebrates in his poem, are the vestments and liturgy and incense and all the gloriousn trappings of Byzantinism.  It is the trappings that arrest the poet’s eye, and not the spirit of the thing.  It was all superficial, all outward appearances.  There was nothing of the believer lifted up toward heaven, nothing of the timeless space of the liturgy, nothing spiritual at all.  It was all appearances.  As if the poet had only seen the church, but never known its faith.

One who"has rejected or outgrown theistic creeds” will miss a great deal when he travels among people for whom these are living things.

But these are trifling cavils to a fine essay. 08.16.10 | 7:53 AM ET

This was a poetic post. 

“When the uncertainties and traumas involved with writing freelance and traveling have driven me close to despair, I remember that time is always short. I try to transcend myself, and recall that the sun will rise and set for me as long as I’m alive; and once I’m gone, well, I won’t be here to care.  Recognizing fear as nothing more than a fleeting neurological reaction induced by passing circumstances is one way of calming down and achieving a degree of equanimity. We are as transient as our fears, our fears are as ephemeral as our joys.”  I think this paragraph says it all.  Some people are afraid of their own shadow and wouldn’t think about traveling or traveling solo.  Too bad others can’t seize the day and feel the fear and travel anyway.

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