I have always believed that, at a personal level, anything is possible, that if I desire to be a particular someone or do a particular something I can. All my desires have been realistic: no hankerings for time travel or reinvention as a theoretical physicist – though both have enormous appeal – my desires have been possibilities: working as a volunteer in Africa, joining a choir, mountaineering, falling helplessly in love, winning the Miles Franklin. The only things to stop me would be lack of ability, lack of application, and/or lack of courage – all of which, given enough time, could be worked upon and overcome.
Time, so recently as abundant as air, is now suddenly in short supply. One day everything seemed possible, and the next, my life wasn’t exactly on its knees, but neither was it leaping with anticipation.
When did it happen that all the things I planned to do became the things I will never do? I will never climb a mountain, I will never win the Miles, I will never walk across England, I will never sleep alone in the outback under a big Australian sky; even the choir and the hot love affair have gone the way of all flesh. The list of things not done, so recently sparkling with possibility, now weighs as heavy as sludge, and no matter how numerous your wins and achievements, it’s hard not to feel a failure. Harder still not to blame yourself for all this wasted opportunity.
This is not a good state of mind, not when you are planning on another quarter of a century of healthy and active living. I recall an interview I heard years ago on Late Night Live. Philip Adams was in conversation with the American sociologist Studs Terkel. Terkel, who published consistently throughout his long life (he died at the age of 96 in 2008) was in his early eighties at the time and had just published his latest book. Philip asked him how he managed to remain so productive. Terkel replied that he made a point of doing something new each day. It might be visiting a park or a gallery for the first time; it might be finding a new author or reading a new book; it might be listening to familiar music and hearing it differently (this happened, memorably, to me a couple of years ago when Andrew Davis conducted the MSO playing Mahler’s Third), or watching a spider build a web. It might be a journey, like one I made recently to Iceland, where I ventured into volcanic, snow-covered wildernesses. Being immersed in these beautiful and tranquil environments made me unusually and surprisingly happy.
Something new every day keeps building a life, keeps creating a dynamic growing you. The future might be diminishing, Terkel was saying, but you are not.
On my return from Iceland I was determined to hold on to the sense of wonder and aliveness I’d felt in that country, of being attuned to my environment: to be, as it were, a tourist at home. But it didn’t seem to work. It was as if home activated a stronger force. There was something about its comforts, its familiarity that slowed me down and, at the same time, dulled the questioning mind. I was lulled, stilled, my edges were blurred, like in a warm water bath. And the list of things not done was a constant background presence that grew into a punchy accusation.
And yet I had been ready to come home, and was, at least initially pleased to be back in my own space. But before long it felt as if I were functioning at half-strength. When I mentioned this to people of my own age they all nodded knowingly: what I was experiencing, they said, was a fact of advancing years. But I felt as if I were winding down…winding down to the end. I, who had just days before hiked over iced lakes, and held my ground on the side of a cliff in a bluster so strong that in the end I sat in a cleft of rocks so as not to be blown off; I, who had wandered snowy wildernesses alone towards unknown destinations, I had slowed up, I had slowed down. Age alone could not explain what was happening.
It was in this state that I read of a book called An Odyssey. A father, a son and an epic by the American classicist, translator and essayist, Daniel Mendelsohn. I have read and enjoyed Mendelsohn’s essays in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I checked the Readings website, the book was in stock at the Carlton store, I bought myself a copy.
Rationally, I had no special reasons for being drawn to this book. Sure, my reading group has decided on the Greek dramatists for 2018 – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – which might make me more susceptible to a book that enters the ancient Greek world, but if this were the case, surely I’d reach for Homer himself. And while I like Mendelsohn’s work, I like the work of so many of the contributors to the NYRB and I haven’t sought out their books.
There have been times in my life when the right book for the right time has simply presented itself. I never expect it, I never will it, it is an inexplicable wonder of the imagination (and heart and soul) and something for which I am deeply grateful.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey turned out to be one such book.
It tells a simple story. In the first semester of the new year, beginning in the depths of winter, Daniel will be teaching a weekly, semester-long class on The Odyssey at Bard, a liberal arts college, about 140 kilometres north of New York City. His 81-year-old father, Jay, a retired mathematician and a man heavily steeped in the sciences, asks to attend the class. Each week for a semester his father makes the long journey from NYC on the Thursday, stays with his son on Thursday night, attends the class on Friday morning and returns home by train in the afternoon. The students taking this class are under-graduates, Jay would be older than most of their grandfathers.
As a father and a very particular type of scientist there are no shades of grey for Jay*. X is X, and if it’s not then either you are wrong or you need to return to the drawing board. When it comes to Homer’s great epic two fundamentals emerge as obvious to him: so-called ‘heroic’ Odysseus is not a hero because he cheats on his wife, and, given that all his men die, the so-called ‘great leader’ is in fact a poor leader of men. This becomes a regular refrain throughout the course, Jay’s regular complaint.
During the semester Daniel and Jay take an intellectual, psychological and literary journey through Homer’s epic, and when the class finishes the two embark on a physical journey, a cruise tracing Odysseus’s travels through the Mediterranean. During the course of these two journeys Daniel comes to understand his father in new and nuanced ways. The Odyssey, or rather his father’s response to it, helps explain his father’s dogmatism, his reluctance to show any physical affection, his autocratic paternalism; it also makes sense of those rare and surprising occasions when warmth and softness do manage to seep out. Mendelsohn also takes his readers on two journeys: that of Homer’s Odysseus (and a great introduction for those who have never read Homer) and that of a modern-day father and son on a journey of their own.
Mendelsohn, a translator of Cavafy, draws attention to Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) with its emphasis on the journey rather than the destination: don’t be in a hurry, is the message of this poem, don’t be impatient, embrace the risk and surprise that infiltrates all life’s journeys, soak up all new experiences. Mendelsohn mentions an earlier version of ‘Ithaka’ called ‘Second Odyssey’ (1894), in which Odysseus, having arrived home after an absence of twenty years – ten years of the Trojan Wars, and ten years trying to get back to Ithaka – finds home dull and boring; he does not feel himself. So, too, in Tennyson’s great poem ‘Ulysses’. In this poem, after striving to return to Ithaka, to his wife and son and ageing father, despite all the dangers he faced on his travels, the set-backs that occurred, the yearnings that plagued him, Ulysses decides to leave home again. (A long-time favourite of mine, I always take a copy of this poem on my own travels.)
I put Mendelsohn’s book aside to reread Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ and search for a copy on-line for Cavafy’s ‘Second Odyssey’. (I have three different volumes of the collected Cavafy, as well as a biography, and in none of them is printed the ‘Second Odyssey’.) When I am finished I am steeped in journeying and alert to the shortcomings and deceptive pleasures of home, but most surprising of all, I feel lighter, happy even, and more energised than at any other time since my return from Iceland. And these poems I thought I knew so well, I seem to be reading them anew. Suddenly my diminished future doesn’t matter any more, and, in not mattering, neither does it feel diminished any more.
I’ve had an invigorating time these past few days with Mendelsohn, Tennyson Cavafy and, of course, Odysseus himself; all of these books and poems, these words and ideas have rejuvenated me. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Iceland as I wandered the snowy wilderness, that sense of newness, of increased understanding, of possibility – Terkel’s way. But there has been something else as well. These Odysseys of Mendelsohn, Homer, Tennyson and Cavafy have nourished me; even more, they have illuminated and provoked me; and they have armed me for the way ahead. They have been journeyings. And they’ll always be there. Books don’t die, they don’t leave you, they don’t lose their mind. They sit on their shelves waiting for you to find them again and again and again.
When you stop adventuring, when you avoid risk you feel useless. When the brain grows sluggish you feel useless. Life itself demands care and attention, work and revision. It can be difficult sometimes to find the right nourishment, after all, you can’t hop on a plane and fly to Iceland every time you feel bleak and useless. But books, your favourite books will always be there, offering something new and provocative on every reading. So easy to lose sight of this.
Home, certainly the ideal of home, is all about comfort and certainty. If you’re not careful, this can be counter-productive in one’s advancing years. ‘Don’t expect Ithaka to make you rich’, Cavafy writes. While there are rewards and fulfilment to be found at home much more are to be found when you venture beyond your front door. To have a zest for life is to relish being alive in the first place. And life is not a warm and cosy nest, though that may be part of it, life is also the clinging to the side of a cliff and feeling the wild wind in your hair.
(All poems attached below.)
*Unlike Jay Mendelsohn, many of the scientists I’ve read about are highly imaginative. Indeed they are no different from the great artists and writers when it comes to creativity. Imagining the not-yet-existent, it’s what theoretical scientists do, and poets, and novelists and composers and artists.
ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
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 sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
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.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours 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 those who know.
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 marvellous 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 experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
THE SECOND ODYSSEY (1894) – copied from the web, translated by Walter Kaiser.
A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps.
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.
Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaka was small.
The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.
And like rays they faded.
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbours you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.
The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
And so he left.
As the shores of Ithaka gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.
ULYSSES by Tennyson.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, & sleep, & feed, & know not me.
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
Through 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 all them;
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 where through
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d & wrought, & thought of 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.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis 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.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.