Odyssey’s Everlasting Allure

Illustration by Golden Cosmos

The title had me at Father, and again at Odyssey (Final, not so much). My first encounter with Homer was in an advanced literature course in my last year of high school. As a father now, with a son who found his way back home to another Ithaca, after his own odyssey, I could not resist jumping right into this story. But half way through, I stopped reading it. I will not say why I stopped, but I mentioned it to Amie, who I consult on matters of an aesthetic nature, especially when they intersect with matters of a familial nature, and she had already read it to the end. She said it was important to read it all the way through. I now understand why, and must recommend the same now, whether or not you have read the Odyssey:

A FATHER’S FINAL ODYSSEY

My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer’s epic and learn its lessons about life’s journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca.

One January evening a few years ago, just before the beginning of the spring term in which I was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey, my father, a retired computer scientist who was then eighty-one, asked me, for reasons I thought I understood at the time, if he could sit in on the course, and I said yes. Once a week for the next fifteen weeks, he would make the trip from the house in the Long Island suburbs where I grew up, a modest split-level he and my mother still lived in, to the riverside campus of Bard College, where I teach. At ten past ten each Friday morning, he would take a seat among the freshmen, who were not even a quarter his age, and join in the discussion of this old poem, an epic about long journeys and long marriages and what it means to yearn for home…

…The Odyssey course ran from late January to early May. A week or so after it ended, I happened to be on the phone with my friend Froma, a classics scholar who had been my mentor in graduate school and had lately enjoyed hearing my periodic reports on Daddy’s progress in the seminar. At some point in the conversation, she mentioned a cruise that she’d taken a couple of years earlier, called “Journey of Odysseus: Retracing the Odyssey Through the Ancient Mediterranean.” “You should do it!” she exclaimed. “After this semester, after teaching the Odyssey to your father, how could you not go?”…

…The hero’s return to Ithaca is hardly the only voyage in which the Odyssey is interested. It is not for nothing that, in the original Greek, the first word in the first line of the twelve thousand one hundred and ten that make up the epic is andra: “man.” The poem begins with the story of Odysseus’ son, a youth in search of his long-lost father. It focusses next on the hero himself, first as he recalls the fabulous adventures he had after leaving Troy and then as he struggles to return home, where he will reclaim his identity as father, husband, and king, taking terrible vengeance on the suitors who tried to woo his wife and usurp his throne. And, in its final book, it gives us a vision of what a man might look like after his life’s adventures are over: the hero’s elderly father, the last person with whom Odysseus is reunited, now a decrepit recluse who has withdrawn to his orchard, tired of life. The boy, the adult, the ancient: the three ages of man. The underlying journey that the poem charts is a man’s passage through life, from birth to death. How do you get there? What is the journey like? And how do you tell the story of it?

Read the whole article here.

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