Why My Blog Is Called 'Ithaca'
Updated: Feb 6
When I set out to write a blog, I decided to call it ‘Ithaca’ and there is a story behind that:
I have always loved Homer's epic poem The Odyssey in which his Greek hero, Odysseus, tries to return home to the island of Ithaca after the Trojan War.
Odysseus is a very human character; he is flawed and he makes dubious choices and we now see his voyage home as an archetypal story which reflects the journey of self-discovery.
In the 20th century, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger explored this in his own writings. He concluded that all philosophising was about 'homecoming' - which he defined as the search for 'truth and meaning'.
But of course the search is just as important as the destination - perhaps even more so. Odysseus' story is certainly more thrilling on the journey with its encounters with lotus-eaters, the six-headed monster Scylla and the captivating witch-goddess Circe.
When I first read the Odyssey, I questioned whether Odysseus even wanted to return home. As Homer writes, 'a man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far, enjoys even his sufferings after a time.'
Odysseus yearns for a life free of war and suffering and for the love of his wife Penelope. He has no idea if and when he will get home or what he will find when he gets there and as the story develops, home begins to take on a mythological status.
The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa captures this in his posthumous work The Book of Disquiet:
'The feelings that hurt the most, the emotions that sting the most, are those that are absurd - the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world's existence. All these half-tones of the soul's consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.'
The idea of 'home' - a 'secure base' or a 'safe haven' - is a powerful one. It is also a fundamental 'need'. The French philosopher Simone Weil - who was forced to leave France during the Second World War - wrote: 'To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.'
The 'home' she writes about does not just have to be a physical place and often that is not even possible. It is a sense of belonging which we experience when we are loved. In the same period, Hollywood was exploring this very idea in films such as It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz - after all ‘there’s no place like home’, which as Dorothy discovers, is not so much the physical place of Kansas, rather it is the love of her friends and family.
Freud explored this concept too. Nationalism had become a powerful force by the beginning of the 20th Century - even he was not immune to it - but the horrors of the First World War and the rise of Nazism with its focus on a physical sense of belonging - Fatherland - the Reich - taught him that, 'the promised land' or 'Utopia' really exists in the human mind. That message has never been more relevant as we navigate the complexities of the 21st Century.
As for Odysseus, at times he is literally adrift on the seas. Many of us have had a sense of being adrift at some point or another in our lives - the routines of everyday life feel meaningless - the certainties of politics, ideology and globalisation have been found wanting - or perhaps we have been forced adrift though change and uncertainty. Like Odysseus, we have an idea of what we need - of what we think we should do - yet we continue searching, striving, yearning - looking for our own Ithaca.
Here is a thought, perhaps the answer is to let go and be 'adrift'? In his book, Care of The Soul, Thomas Moore writes, 'the soul requires that we sustain the experiences of absence, wandering, longing, melancholy, separation, chaos, and deep adventure. There is no shortcut ...'
As Homer writes, 'the journey is the thing' - as we engage with this, we begin to understand that it is not the destination rather it is the search where we discover 'meaning'.
I leave it to Maya Angelou who reminds us: 'You are only free when you realise you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.'
* If you enjoy the story of Odysseus and Greek myths and legends can I recommend the following:
Circe - Madeline Miller
The Odyssey - Homer - new translation by Emily Wilson
Myths of Greece and Rome - Thomas Bulfinch
Mythos - Stephen Fry