Rod Dreher reads the Odyssey with his son, and writes a series of posts as he progresses through the story. As you might expect, one recurring theme in his analysis is the notion of return, and how it differs from simply staying put:
My Greek friend Dimitra told me that my moving back to my birthplace is what Greeks call a nostos , or homecoming . (Thats the root of our word nostalgia.) The Odyssey is a nostos epic, of course, but not everyone has the same nostos . The first four books of The Odyssey concern Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, and how he has to leave Ithaca to find his father, and in so doing find his way to manhood. His way home requires him to leave home for a time to separate himself from his mother and his palace and all that he knows, and go out into the world searching. He cannot be a man unless he does this. I mean, its clear that if Telemachus takes the comfortable route, the route of least resistance, and stays at home, he will have failed.
This is an interesting concept, and Dreher concedes that “I dont think this is necessarily a bad thing,” perhaps because some analogy can be found in the Christian notion of pilgrimage, the goal of which is both a displacement of the individual and yet their return to the initial point of departure, with greater knowledge, so the place they left becomes more of a true home.
While I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, anyone who’s read the story in an educational setting likely knows of the multiple endings to the tale which persisted for centuries, especially in the Middle Ages when the “original” ending was missing. One of the ‘alternative endings,’ which I’ve always found fascinating, is the version in which Odysseus, firmly settled back in Ithaca, suitors having been dispatched, is once again seized with “the restless urge to roam throughout the world, exploring it.” In a way, it fits perfectly with his and his crewmates’ patterns of behavior.
In this rendition, Odysseus embarks on a final journey past the Pillars of Hercules and out of the Mediterranean. For this, Dante famously places him in the eighth circle of hell, among the fraudulent. I suspect there’s more than a glint of this same temptation in the pop-culture narrative of “getting away from it all,” or “getting out of this town.” If only we could blast down that highway, forget the people and start over, then living could really begin.
This is hardly to impugn all travel or genuinely fruitful exchanges, and perhaps the key distinction here, by which we can judge whether a journey is a pilgrimage or a delusion, is whether it results in an abdication of responsibility to the others we find around us, and consequently a kind of ingratitude and false sense of independence. We should ask whether we’re ultimately retreating from ourselves. For if the world around us is perceived to be the spring of all our ills (and some other place intrinsically happier and more virtuous), life becomes simply a matter of finding better real estate. How subtly pleasing and flattering to our ego it is to discover that we can transfer responsibility and the guilt of our sin onto an external target—we can ‘scapegoat’ geography, as it were. But as Dante discovers on his pilgrimage, and as a certain saint came to realize, it doesn’t matter how quickly you come to Carthage if you’re burning when you get there.