Commentary Magazine


Sailing to Ithaca

I first set foot on the island of Ithaca by swimming ashore. This was not how it was done by Odysseus, who was carried from a ship in early dawn by the sailors conveying him on the final leg of his long journey home. “Then they stepped forth on the land,” Homer tells us, “and first they lifted Odysseus out of the hollow ship . . . and laid him down on the sand, still overpowered by sleep.”1 He would have had to be sleeping quite soundly not to awake, for we have just been told that, in beaching, the ship “ran full half her length on the shore in her swift course, at such pace was she driven by the arms of the rowers.” That must have given her a powerful jolt.

One cannot beach a modern yacht, which has a keel to give it stability in the water. Ancient Greek ships lacked true keels and so—at least to judge from Homer—they often capsized in rough seas. Nor did ancient Greek harbors have docks or piers. The Greek coast is rugged and its mountains continue down to plunge beneath the water line, making the drop-off too steep to allow for the sinking of pilings in Homer's time. And while one could always moor or anchor offshore, this made loading and unloading cumbersome. The best harbor was a protected spot with enough sand or gravel for oarsmen to put a ship on.

Our yacht, chartered this summer on the nearby island of Levkos, had cast anchor in a little cove. It was morning and the turquoise transparency of the water, through which the anchor seemed to ripple on the bottom, was still unruffled by the day's breezes. The first to dive into it, I swam to land.

The beach was small and pebbly, boxed in by the headlands of the cove. At its rear, where it ran for a few more yards before starting up the mountainside, grew an olive tree and some mastic and bur-net bushes, typical scrub of the eastern Mediterranean. I could have been anywhere on the Greek or Turkish coast. But I wasn't. I was dripping wet on Ithaca, as excited as on the day when, a twenty-one-year-old student of English literature from New York City, I stepped off the Queen Elizabeth onto English soil.

What does a twenty-one-year-old student of English literature do upon disembarking at Southampton on a summer day in 1960? He takes a train to London and another to Cambridge, where he is going to study; stows his luggage with the trunk that has arrived in advance; returns to London with a backpack in which is a copy of The Canterbury Tales, and walks, like Chaucer's pilgrims, 50 miles to the cathedral in Canterbury, arriving with blisters on his feet and a sour stomach from too many unripe apples picked and eaten along the way.

In fact, English literature didn't have to wait that long. On the London underground, on my way to King's Cross Station and thence to Cambridge, I had struck up a conversation with a young man from the Caribbean. Hearing that these were my first minutes in London, he asked, quite improbably, “If there was one place in this city you would like me to take you to, what would it be?”

“You wouldn't have heard of it,” I told him.
“Try me.”
“Keats's cottage.”
“In Hampstead? Let's go!”

And so, lugging my suitcase, I got off at the next station and followed him to the home of John Keats. O England, blessed land, in which even the immigrants on your underground are versed in the lives of your great poets!

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I have always been a book-driven traveler. When I was eighteen, two weeks after obtaining my driver's license, I talked a friend into buying an old Dodge and setting out with me for Mexico on the sole strength of having read D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent. The Plumed Serpent had as much to do with the real Mexico as the Baghavad-Gita has to do with the real India, but I was quite sure that it and a Spanish grammar were the only guidebooks we needed. More precisely, I thought of Mexico as a guide to The Plumed Serpent. To my mind, countries existed as illustrations for books.

This was why, when one of my two partners in the 24-foot sailboat we own asked if I would join a group planning to cruise in the Ionian islands off the west coast of Greece, I agreed despite not caring much for yacht trips. After a day or two of them, I'm starved for solitude. Although you might think there would be plenty of that out on the water, a yacht is basically a small, floating apartment shared with several other tenants—the difference being that if you quarrel with one of them, or weary of their small talk, you can't go out for a walk. It takes a nature more gregarious than mine to look forward to that.

But the Ionian islands meant Ithaca, and Ithaca meant The Odyssey, and The Odyssey is a book I have cherished. Several years ago I made a list of the things I most wanted to do before I died. One of them was learning Greek to read The Odyssey in the language Homer wrote it in. Poetry, not just as language heightened, but as language transformed, its particles fused into rare new elements, begins with Homer. The winedark sea! The rosyfingered dawn! No book has lovelier phrasing. How could I have been so foolish in college as to major in English, which I needed no instruction to read, when I could have been studying Greek? How not sail to Ithaca now?

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When odysseus awakes on shore, the sailors are gone and he does not know at first where he is. He has been away for twenty years—ten fighting before the walls of Troy and ten striving to return to the island he once ruled and left a wife and infant son on, detained by the sea-god Poseidon whose wrath he has incurred. “Therefore,” Homer says, “all things seemed strange. . . . He sprang up and stood and looked upon his native land . . . and said, ‘Woe is me, to the land of what mortals am I now come?’ ”

Could the beach I was on be the very spot he was carried ashore at? That one also had “two protecting headlands sheer to seaward” and “a long-leafed olive tree,” plus a “pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads.” But it wasn't likely. Although Ithaca is a small island barely twelve miles long, its two halves joined by a narrow isthmus, we had already passed, sailing up its eastern coast from Levkos, several coves with beaches like this one. And from where I sat, there wasn't a cave in sight.

Indeed, there isn't a cave corresponding to the Naiads' within easy walking distance of any of Ithaca's beaches. Nor, apart from Mount Neritos, the island's dominant peak, is it possible to identify a single place from Homer's descriptions, some of which are manifestly wrong. Take the nearby and much larger island of Cephalonia, itself of literary fame since the publication of Louis de Bernières' best-selling 1994 novel Corelli's Mandolin, subsequently made into a star-studded movie. So close a neighbor is Cephalonia that its higher mountains literally cast their evening shadows over Ithaca. Yet whereas Ithaca is due east of Cephalonia, lying between it and the Greek mainland, Homer, after observing correctly that Ithaca “lies low in the sea by comparison,” positions it “further toward the dark” and away from “the dawn and the sun”—that is, to Cephalonia's west.

Two schools of thought have arisen to account for such errors. One holds that Homer knew whereof he wrote but that names have shifted in the course of history. That is, the Ithaca of Homer's age, generally assumed to have been the 8th century B.C.E., is not the Ithaca of today, and should be identified with some other island in the vicinity. The latest such theory, proposed in a new book by a team of British investigators, places the true Ithaca on the peninsula of Paliki, at the western tip of Cephalonia.2

The second school holds that present-day Ithaca, whose demotic name of Thiaki shows every sign of having been handed down from antiquity, is indeed the Ithaca of Homer—who, however, was never there and had only a hazy idea of its geography. He set much of his epic poem on an island he hadn't been to because tradition held that his hero came from there, and he researched his work by asking travelers for information. One need only suppose that some of this was inaccurate, or misremembered or garbled by him, to account for his mistakes.

The second explanation is more parsimonious, it being simpler to assume that Homer was never on Ithaca than that Ithaca was never on Ithaca. Not that, if Odysseus had lived on Cephalonia or Lev-kos, one's impressions of his physical environment would differ greatly. While Ithaca's size seems better suited to the intimate, one-town island described by Homer, its “quivering-leaved” mountains, so much greener than those of the Aegean, and its “rock-girt” coast, banded above sea level with a belt of bare limestone as if to keep it from sliding into the water, are just as typical of its neighbors—“not one of which of those that slope abruptly to the sea,” as Odysseus' son Telemachus remarks of their terrain, “is fit for driving horses, or rich in meadows, and Ithaca least of all.”

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Why care, then, if one is on the real Ithaca? And yet one does. It would make as much sense to tell someone searching for a grave in a cemetery that its exact location doesn't matter, since most tombstones look alike. The search is not for a different-looking grave, but for the right one.

Deep down, rationality aside, the dead live mysteriously on for us; this is the oldest layer of human religion and perhaps its sole ineradicable one. But like Odysseus' mother—who, when encountered by him in the underworld, proves ignorant of his wanderings while knowing all about recent events on Ithaca—the dead cannot visit new places, and return as ghosts only to where their memories can take them. This is why houses aren't haunted by those who haven't lived in them; why it mattered to think I was on Homer's Ithaca.

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Apart from the episode in Hades, the dead are not prominent in The Odyssey. Although many of Odysseus' comrades and shipmates have perished, whether at Troy or on the journey home, the steady focus of the story is on him, his wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus—now a young man of twenty who sets out, even as his long-missing father nears Ithaca's shores, in search of some trace of him.

And yet The Odyssey is about loss, and as death is the ultimate loss, all other loss is its symbol. A man is gone from his home for twenty years. No known person has seen him for the last ten of these. The island's bachelors lounge insolently in his palace, drinking his wine and feasting on his flocks while wooing his wife, each determined to wed her and be king in his place. Only she and her son, born on the eve of her husband's departure, still believe he may be alive, but as Homer's story begins, they too are on the verge of giving up hope. Surely, his return is as unlikely as a dead man's.

Every culture has its myth of the acceptance of death's finality. Ancient Greece had the story of Orpheus, who travels to the dark underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, killed by a snakebite. His love for her is so great that he is given permission to return with her to the land of the living, on the condition that he not look back as she follows him. Yet at the last moment, as he is about to step into the sunlight, he turns to make sure she is there and at once she vanishes. Who of us has not been Orpheus in our dream-lives, reunited in sleep with the dead we have loved only to lose them again to the light of day?

The Odyssey, by comparison, is a fully awake book. Despite its man-eating Cyclops, its fatal Sirens, and its other mythological figures, it takes place in a Mediterranean sunlight so strong that even the gods who are ostensibly the puppet masters of its plot fade—or so many of its readers have always felt—into insubstantiality. Homer's gods are dramatic characters whose sometimes comic, sometimes petulant speeches he grants himself full poetic license to invent; often they appear to be no more than the externalized embodiments of human moods or thoughts. It's hard to say whether he believed in them. Perhaps it would be better to call The Odyssey an almost fully awake book, written in that state after waking when one's dream images, though understood to be false, still exert a powerful impression.

Odysseus, in any case, is perfectly human. He has been away for twenty years, and he is desperate to get home, and he is worried that when he gets there he will find his wife remarried or no longer in love with him, and his son a stranger. How will he appear to them? How will they appear to him? In every age men returning from long absence have had the same fears.

Twenty lost years, though not without their adventures. And this too is a reason to worry, because of adventures in those same years Penelope has had none. She has spent them in her chamber, weaving at her loom, listening to the carousing of the suitors in the great hall of the palace. What can she still feel for the man who has been away for so long? What can they still have in common?

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When one speaks of loss, one speaks of things from the most trivial to the most terrible. The first thing I can remember losing in my life was a children's book that I loved. One day it disappeared. Nothing was more important than finding it. For years, long past the time when I would have deigned to read it, I dreamed of its reappearance. These were joyous dreams, and I awoke from them like Orpheus, clutching a ghost. Yet although I could easily have obtained another copy, that never occurred to me. Life had taken my book and, if it wished to prove its good intentions, life would return it unprompted.

There is a phenomenology of loss that goes far beyond the value of what is lost. Everyone has had the experience of misplacing everyday items—a cheap watch, a favorite pen, an old pocketknife—only to be stricken by a feeling of true grief. Presumably this is what we mean by ascribing to such things a “sentimental value,” although we rarely reflect on the nature of the sentiment.

It is the same should we happen to come across one of them. Suddenly, long after we have given up the search, there it is, in the one drawer we neglected to look in, the pocket of the winter coat we stuck it in on the last cold day of the year. Naturally we are glad. But whence the disproportionate flood of gratitude that overwhelms us, as if we had found something of inestimable worth?

Loss has its hierarchies. These may start with a children's book. Then a family heirloom. Next, a disappointment in love or at work. Higher still, a home abandoned, a ruined marriage, a child estranged from its parents. And at the top, always, death itself. But because step leads to step, the lowest prefigures the highest. The lost book is the child's first premonition that there is nothing life cannot take from him; the dream of finding it his first hope that there is nothing it cannot restore.

I don't know what makes a particular child grow up with this hope so much a part of him. The real loss must have been of something that he himself, having had a very ordinary childhood, knew only the symbols of. When he put aside children's books for real ones, however, he found that those that spoke to him most deeply were, or seemed to be in one way or another, about the restoration of loss.

And of these none more than The Odyssey, in which an exile strives to return; a woman unreasonably believes in him; a boy who never knew him trusts he will appear. And so he does appear, arriving in Ithaca to slay the insolent suitors and regain the wife he loves. Twenty years have not come between them. His son fights by his side and proves as worthy of him as he proves worthy of the boy.

Time and age are vanquished. Nothing has dulled Penelope's beauty or Odysseus' youthful looks and strength. They meet again as if parted for a month. “And when the two,” Homer relates, “had had their fill of the joy of love, they took delight in tales, speaking each to the other. She, the fair lady, told of all that she had endured in the halls. . . . But Zeus-born Odysseus recounted all the woes that he had brought on men, and all the toil that in his sorrow he had himself endured, and she was glad to listen, nor did sweet sleep fall upon her eyelids, till he had told all the tale.”

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Today, looking back, I am embarrassed to admit how a book like The Odyssey shaped me. By this I do not mean merely that I have been for most of my life, though hardly of a serene cast of mind, an optimist. Although that is true, it is not saying much. Optimists believe in happy endings, not in the restoration of loss.

What is the difference? If the child were to get a new book, one he loved more than the first, this would be a happy ending. But it would not be the restoration of loss.

If Odysseus were to return to Ithaca and find Penelope, now the mother of many children, happily wed to a man whom Telemachus adores as his father, he would be desolate. He might rage, sink into a depression, even decide to resume his wanderings. Yet suppose that, just as he was about to set despairingly out again, he met a charming young widow, fell in love, and remarried. That would be a happy ending, but not the restoration of loss.

When I was in my twenties, I had a long, torturously romantic affair with a young woman that lasted, on and off, for seven years. It should have ended long before that. We were only making each other more and more unhappy. But so much had passed between us—so much love, anguish, perseverance, guilt, anger, reconciliation, remorse—that it seemed inconceivable to have to cut our losses. Like a desperate gambler, the greater these grew, the more I doubled my bets. The wager was less on the two of us than on life itself. I would not let life be a thief. I would make it honor its debts to me.

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Largely destroyed, like much of the Ionian islands, in the great earthquake of 1953, Vathi, Ithaca's main town, consists of several streets running back from its port, which was deserted in mid-afternoon. The ports of the Greek islands fill up toward sunset, the yachts flocking to them like starlings to a roost. At night the crews crowd their restaurants, all with similar candlelit tables spread around similar waterfronts and offering similar menus. By mid-morning the next day, the roosts are empty again.

The archeologists have found no signs of a Trojan-war-period palace in Vathi, which—a naturally fortified spot at the sandy head of a bay entered by a narrow channel easily blocked from a small island in its middle—seems the logical place for a town to have stood in Odysseus' day. Possible royal ruins from the Homeric age have been unearthed near Stavros, in the island's interior, but this does not jibe with Homer's account. Besides, the taxi driver who took me to Stavros on a winding road along mountains that sloped abruptly to the sea, lifting his hands from the steering wheel between one hairpin turn and the next to snap his fingers to the Greek music on the radio, explained, after pointing out a modern bust of Odysseus in the town square, that the ruins were on a distant hilltop that it would take hours to reach on foot. I would have to forgo them.

This bust was the only awareness of The Odyssey that I saw on the island. There was mercifully no Odyssey Café, no Calypso's Tavern, no “Ithaca: Home of Homer” baseball caps or T-shirts on sale. Ithaca was not like Toledo, its souvenir stores stocked with endless figurines of Don Quixote, or Stratford with its Shakespeariana, all those tacky evocations of the past that frighten its ghosts away. The yacht crews came in the evening and left in the morning. They sought quiet beaches, good winds, and a cold beer with their moussaka or fried calamari at the end of the day. They sat in the cockpits of their yachts after dinner, conversing in low voices, as in a summer bungalow colony in which, porch after porch, men and women talk far into the night to avoid the hot, sticky bedrooms that await them.

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“Corelli's ice cream,” said a sign in Poros, our first stop in Cephalonia, clear evidence that Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz can do more for an island than all the classics courses in the world. Yet Corelli's Mandolin, which I had taken to read on our cruise, is a marvelous book. It gazes down at The Odyssey as Cephalonia gazes down at Ithaca. I finished it in Poros, reading its last chapters on deck, where I preferred to sleep, by the dawn light.

The plot is simple. An Italian captain, a talented mandolinist named Antonio Corelli, is billeted during World War II in the home of a village doctor on—as the latter puts it in a local history he is writing—“the half-forgotten island of Cephalonia,” then under Italian military occupation. Corelli and the doctor's young daughter, Pelagia, fall shyly and tenderly in love. When the German army brutally takes over the island after the anti-fascist uprising that overthrows Mussolini, the captain, saved from a close brush with death, is smuggled out of it. Before he leaves, he swears to Pelagia that he will return.

And return he does at the book's end—forty years later. He is by now an old, white-bearded man of seventy, and for years he has sent Pelagia mysterious, unsigned postcards from his wanderings all over the world. She, too, is bent and weary after a hard life. While she has a married daughter, a war foundling raised by her, she herself has never married or even had a lover. Her memories of Corelli have usurped all else. Now, forty years later, she is furious. Her first words to him are Italian curses: “Sporcaccione! Figlio d'un culo! Pezzo di merda! All my life waiting, all my life mourning, all my life thinking you were dead. Cazzo d'un cane! And you alive, and me a fool. How dare you break such promises? Betrayer!”

It is a tragi-comic moment. And to add to it, Corelli has actually been back to Cephalonia long before this. He has come as soon as the war ended, keeping his promise, only to catch sight of Pelagia, as he rounds the bend of the road to her house, holding an infant in her arms; wrongly assuming that she has married in his absence and had a child, he departs broken-heartedly. Throughout the years, he has never stopped loving her. Although they are together again, they have been robbed by a ridiculous twist of fate of the life they might have had.

An ending more bitter than sweet, this was, it struck me, a scathing commentary on The Odyssey. Homer, Corelli's Mandolin proclaims, is the liar that Plato long ago, for reasons of his own (Plato thought all poets lied), accused him of being. The warrior who comes home to his wife after twenty years, his comrades-in-arms dead, his crew drowned or slain, his ships repeatedly wrecked, cannot possibly be the man described in The Odyssey as going off to bed with Penelope “in form like unto the immortals.” Or rather, he must be exactly like the man described in The Odyssey—who, when he awakes on the shores of Ithaca, is informed by his patron goddess Athena that she will disguise him and “shrivel the fair skin on thy supple limbs, destroy the flaxen hair from off thy head, and dim thy two eyes that were before so beautiful, that thou mayest appear mean in the sight of all the wooers, and of thy wife.” It is not Athena who has done this to Odysseus but twenty years of war and wandering. The gods of The Odyssey, we have said, are often projections of human states.

And Penelope? She too could not have been “like unto Artemis or golden Aphrodite,” as Homer calls her, but old and gray herself, embittered by the wasted years of her womanhood. What happiness can she now have with this bald old man who has come back too late, puckered by sea brine and wrinkled by the sun, to erase even her dearest memories of the handsome young husband who went off to war? What “fill of the joy of love”? The truest words spoken at The Odyssey's end are hers when, responding to her husband's crestfallen anger at her initial failure to recognize him in his “disguise,” she says: “Be not vexed with me, Odysseus, for . . . it is the gods that gave us sorrow, the gods who begrudged that we two should remain with each other and enjoy our youth.”

The Odyssey is a fairytale, the most wonderful ever written, because it is untrue to life precisely in its most seemingly realistic moments. What distinguishes a true fairytale, after all, is not its fairies, much less the good luck of getting something for nothing, but, on the contrary, the principle of something for something: of love, faith, and steadfastness always having their commensurate reward. Lefum tsa'ara agra, the ancient rabbis said: “As is the suffering, so is the recompense.” But the rabbis were thinking of the World to Come. In The Odyssey, there is only this world.

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In the well-known opening chapter of Erich Auerbach's masterwork of modern literary criticism Mimesis, there is a comparison of an intricate passage from The Odyssey with the brief narration of the sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis. Writing in the early 1940's, Auerbach made the claim—astonishing for a time when biblical prose was still considered too crude to merit the attention of literary critics—that the terse minimalism of the Bible was more sophisticated in its representation of human reality than all the sumptuous detail of Homer. He wrote:

Each of the great figures of the Old Testament, from Adam to the Prophets [is chosen and formed by God] to the end of embodying His essence and will—yet choice and formation do not coincide, for the latter proceeds gradually, historically, during the earthly life of him upon whom the choice has fallen. How the process is accomplished, what terrible trials such a formation inflicts, can be seen from our story of Abraham's sacrifice. Here lies the reason why the great figures of the Old Testament are so much more fully developed, so much more fraught with their own biographical past, so much more distinct as individuals, than are the Homeric heroes. Achilles and Odysseus are splendidly described in many well-ordered words . . . but they have no development. . . . Odysseus on his return is exactly the same as he was when he left Ithaca two decades earlier. But what a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast!—between David the harp player, persecuted by his lord's jealousy, and the old king surrounded by violent intrigues. . . .

Or between, one might add, the Abraham and Isaac who set out for Mount Moriah and the Abraham and Isaac who return several days later. True, the Bible says nothing about their having changed; but then, as Auerbach observes, speech in the Bible “does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed.” Their expression is left to us.

Abraham has, at the last minute, been given back his son: the boy's life, which God commanded him to take, has been spared. While dreadful loss has not taken place in this story, but only been anticipated, in all of literature there is no more dramatic case of its restoration. Not even Odysseus' return to Ithaca can vie with it.

But what, or who, has been restored? The terrified boy who lay bound while the father he loved prepared to slaughter him is no longer the same person. Never again will he look at Abraham without a shudder; never again will he laugh or smile as he did before. He has been restored only for Abraham to lose him more profoundly. It is no accident that the “God of Abraham” is also called, in a startling verse in Genesis, “the Fear of Isaac,” or that Sarah, Abraham's wife and Isaac's mother, dies immediately after this incident; no accident that Isaac, upon marrying and having sons himself, favors the down-to-earth Esau over Jacob, who follows his grandfather's God. This God, for Isaac, is the memory of a knife blade on his throat.

Jacob, the God-destined son loved by his mother Rebecca, favors Joseph, the God-destined son of Rachel, the wife Jacob loves most. Joseph's brothers revile him for being his father's favorite as Esau reviles Jacob for stealing his birthright. Because of this, they sell him into slavery in Egypt. Because he grows wealthy and powerful there, they descend to Egypt in time of famine themselves. Because they do, their progeny is enslaved, too. . . .

In the Bible, as opposed to The Odyssey, there is nothing, as Auerbach observes, without its consequences. There is no returning to what was. Even when you think you have gotten back what was taken, you have gotten back something else.

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Like just about everywhere, the offshore winds in the Ionian islands begin to blow in late morning and reach their height in mid-afternoon. Turning into the narrow strait between Ithaca and Cephalonia on our way back to Levkos, we caught a brisk northwest breeze. The sails stiffened and the boat heeled sharply as it headed up, close-hauled, into it.

These are the best moments of sailing. Everything is taut, aquiver. You feel the force of the sea on the tiller or wheel and resist with a will of your own. Because you are facing into the wind, its speed is increased by your speed, making it seem stronger and your boat faster than they are. There is the thrill of slight danger. If the wind gusts, forcing you over further on your side, so that the bottom of your jib dips to meet the waves sloshing over the deck, you have to decide quickly whether to trust your keel to right you or to slacken the mainsheet and lose momentum in order to relieve the pressure on the sails. The boat takes the waves as if galloping beneath you. Homer had it just right when he said, describing Odysseus' homeward journey, “And as on a plain four yoked stallions spring forward all together beneath the strokes of the lash, and leaping on high swiftly accomplish their way, even so the stern of that ship leapt on high, and in her wake the dark wave of the loud-sounding sea”—“polyphleuisboio thalasses,” the loveliness of it!—“foamed mightily, and she sped safely and surely on her way.”

Every decision has its consequences. By the time one is, not in one's twenties, but in one's sixties, the consequences of what one has done—or not done, it's all the same—leave a wake stretching to the horizon.

What's lost is lost.

Yet the wake continues to lengthen. Because Israel multiplies in Egypt, Pharaoh orders its male sons killed. Hence, the newborn Moses is hidden in the bulrushes. Hence, he is found by an Egyptian princess and raised in the royal house. Hence, he cannot tolerate his people's enslavement when he reaches manhood. Hence, Israel is redeemed by him. . . .

The redemption of loss—the idea that, although nothing can be restored, everything that has happened can be changed by adding to it, so that the past is always with us and is continually still taking place—is a biblical concept. You won't find it in The Odyssey.

This, too, is different from a belief in happy endings. The life of the real Abraham and Sarah is as unlikely to have ended happily as is that of the real Odysseus and Penelope. The consequences of a man's trying to kill his own son are too great. But there is an interconnectedness of things that extends beyond Homer's ken. Because a knife was laid on Isaac's throat at Mount Moriah, Israel receives the Torah at Mount Sinai.

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Quite a few years ago, a close friend of my wife's and mine, a woman who lived in the United States, died of cancer. A frequent visitor to Israel, she loved our home, and having decided to be cremated, she asked us to bury her ashes beneath an olive tree on our property. Not far from the tree was a stone wall with a gateway, beyond which a footpath led into town, and in one of our last conversations with her she said, “I don't know how long it will take, but one day you'll pass through that wall and I'll be there.”

More than once, on my way into town, I have half-expected to see her in the sunlight. It hasn't happened yet. Nor did I encounter any ghosts on Ithaca. It was just a small, pleasantly undeveloped Greek island, and while something in me was fulfilled by being there, I did not learn much about The Odyssey that I couldn't as well have learned from books. But then again, I had only read, or re-read, the books that I did because I went to Ithaca.

It was fitting, then, that the only ghost that did appear was a book's. It was the ghost of the same book I had lost when I was little. For years, this was a blank in my memory. Apart from having lost it, I couldn't remember a thing about it. And then, as I was writing this essay, a small part of it came back to me.

It was a Donald Duck book. That is, Donald Duck was its main character; I can't recall even now who else of his comic-book entourage was with him. But I know he was on a sea voyage and crossed the Equator, because the book had a chapter—I presume it was my favorite, since it alone has surfaced in my memory—in which he had to go through the traditional equatorial ceremony of being judged by King Neptune and sentenced to a symbolic dunking. There was, I'm quite sure of it, a colorful illustration of the captain gotten up as Neptune with a trident, prodding a reluctant Donald in full dinner dress off the diving board of the ship's swimming pool.

Now the odd thing, which must be what stirred this memory from its depths, is that Neptune, the Roman god of the seas, is the Greek Poseidon, Odysseus' nemesis. Poseidon thwarts Odysseus' return to Ithaca because Odysseus has blinded his son, the one-eyed Cyclops, who prays to him for vengeance. Consequently, as Homer has Zeus say, “From that time forth Poseidon, the earth-shaker, does not indeed slay Odysseus, but beats him off from his native land.”

So I had to go to Ithaca, it would seem, to find a fragment of a children's book lost sixty years before. Things turn up where you least expect them to.

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Footnotes

1 This and all subsequent quotations from The Odyssey are from A.T. Murray's 1919 prose translation in the Loeb Classical Library.

2 Robert Bittlestone, James Diggle, and John Underhill, Odysseus Unbound (Cambridge University Press, 618 pp., $40.00).

_____________


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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