Home, Nostalgia, and The Odyssey

(Context: This is a part of a longer essay that I am currently writing on The Odyssey and The Iliad. After the analysis of Nostalgia, the second part would be an analysis of Home. Following that is an analysis of the portrayal of Greatness in The Iliad, and typing them together in an exposition of the three human journeys as portrayed in Homer. The 1st journey away from home in The Iliad, the second journey back home in The Odyssey, and the third journey of accepting one’s own mortality hinted near the end of The Odyssey.)

Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever

       —The Odyssey

The Odyssey is about Odysseus’ journey back home to Ithaca after the battle of Troy—a 10-year journey after 10 years of war. Odysseus survives and endures (though all of his crewmates traveling with him have perished) the anger of Poseidon, Calypso’s imprisonment, the offerings of the Lotus Eaters, the fury of the Cyclops, the temptation of the Sirens, the sweet embrace of Circe, the desire for the Cattle of the Sun, only to arrive back home with irreverent, rude, avaricious suiters courting his wife and wasting away his estate. With the help of Athena and his son Telemachus (much matured after his own journey to search for his father), Odyssey disguises as an old beggar and kills all the suitors, finally reunited with his family.

The late Roger Scruton said that in the center of The Odyssey is Nostalgia. Nostalgia is a combination of nostos, the returning to home, and algos, pain. In this essay, using The Odyssey as a starting point, I will explore the concept of Nostalgia and Home, borrowing ideas from literature and philosophy.  

I. Nostalgia

The locus of nostalgia has always been ‘home’; this can be discerned through the aforementioned Greek word nostos—the coming back home. Home need not be a physical location—like Ithaca that Odyssey tried so hard to sail back to—but it has to be the place where ‘the past’ dwells. Nostalgia is just that desire to find or to return (though every re-turn is always a re-discovery), to a place in the universe that belongs to oneself and oneself belongs. There is a sense of familiarity and knowing-your-way-around in home, but also the sense of naturally being an element within it. Nostalgia is, Dasein (as Heidegger would say) in its quest of finding itself, because Dasein “is its past, whether explicitly or not”, and it, Dasein, is that being with “historicality… [as a] determining characteristic”. [i] Nostalgia is the longing to re-join with that part of oneself—lying, now, forlorn in the past—that one loses to the steady, unrelenting flow of time. Nostalgia manifests itself, sometimes, as a wish to return to a time where everything was right and (thank God) people were not so decadent—that’s the Christian narrative of innocence—for the Paradise that was so unwittingly lost; that’s Rousseau’s story of the noble savage, a glorious time with glorious people before mankind was tainted by society; that’s the Roman looking back to a great, glorious era that once was and is now long gone.[1] [2] At the very least, nostalgia, for each individual, is that yearning for one’s past, which, though its misgivings, is painfully wonderful, for lying in the middle of all that loveliness is a ‘sweet unrest’[ii]—a pain that we are most powerless to quench because we are timely beings thrown into a rectilinear stream who, have, as our direction, a constant moving forward. The pain of Nostalgia is most brilliantly rendered in (As Kant says, we are creatures who intuit time and creates this stream in which we swim, sometimes effortlessly, sometimes less so.)[iii] Nostalgia, in this sense, is a paradoxical enterprise, for it is the search for a past, or, at the least, the salvaging of what remnant of it we can find, in the future. For the past is always past, and no longing, after the pass had passed, can make it less so.

In this sense, Odyssey has its modern counterpart in In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s masterly effort to regain the past—with all that was dear and wonderful and sad and painful there, dwelling deep in the unconscious, only to be activated by a chance detail (the so-called Proustian moment) that has not lost any of its potency precisely because it has long been. In fact, In Search of Lost Time draws out another aspect of nostalgia. It is that whatever one is salvaging is not necessarily lost to the world, but lost in oneself, and this returning back home is never the discovery of anything new, but the reawakening of whatever was forgotten and neglected. The quest, spurred by nostalgia, back home, is always a quest in understanding oneself. Nostalgia, whenever and wherever it manifests, is the pointing-toward some part of oneself has been neglected.

To develop on this point, allow me to give a synopsis of Heidegger’s philosophy. Heidegger called the being of each individual person Dasein. And Dasein is Dasein,[3] in virtue of the fact that it has an understanding of its own being. This understanding of itself is mostly un-mental (and this is the long-held distinction of man as the thinking thing that Heidegger was trying to rebel against),[4] and is manifested in doing, as know-how,[5] acquired by being in a culture with multifarious social practices and being in relation with people. A similar point is made by Wittgenstein in On Certainty, about how for most of the time we don’t think about what we do, but just do it out of habit.[6] What this has to do with Nostalgia, is that the going back home to the culture—the place, the environment, the kind of people, the way of life—that had been instrumental in determining one’s outlook and one’s sense of one’s identity—who one is, what one does, what one likes, what one wishes to achieve in life, what it means to be oneself—aids Dasein in its understanding of itself. Thinking in this sense, nostalgia, perhaps, is not as tragic and futile than I have made it seem in the paragraph above. At its most authentic (and Odysseus’ journey back home—in contrast with all the other shipmates who have all lost themselves on the way—would be the epitome of this authentic nostalgia), nostalgia can be constructive. Constructive, here, used, in the sense that nostalgia is not a completely hopeless affair, but its affect is less like construction, but archaeology: a bringing to the light of consciousness all that one understands but does not know. This nostalgia-guided ontical-archaeology is incredibly important, because it is to the extent that we bring our past, our history, our being to bear can we be autonomous. For the past is always driving us forward,[7] more so if it lies hidden from us, and it is only in understanding ourselves that we are in control of ourselves. Heidegger says, slightly after the passage that I quoted above: “Only because it [an era] is ‘historical’ can an era be unhistoriological.”[iv] [8]

This character of nostalgia, that it does not trap oneself into history, but liberates (to the extent that one is able to be liberated) oneself from the future, is perhaps the reason why in the Greek tradition, following The Odyssey, the returning home(nostos—homecoming) is always heroic. The hero is the person who leaves home (The Iliad) and returns back again.[9] Both journeys require courage. Perhaps more so for the journey back home (or else why would all of the sailors who accompanied Odysseus to Troy not have survived in this journey back?), because the past is a much more painful place than the future (though the future has its own set of concerns).

The pain of the past is nowhere more beautifully rendered than in Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Lying in the past are ‘old woes’: unhappiness, pain, grievances, that do not simply disappear when one cease to experience them, but instead lies, still, dormant in one’s memory. The journey back is a voyage through all that has once beaten one down: it is the sorting through of the unconscious, releasing what is repressed within there, confronting those terrible and demonic parts of oneself, and coming to terms with them.[v] The past is first painful because it brings to realization the essential tragedy in human striving—that most of what we seek we do not get. And it is doubly so when we realize that—because nothing human is infallible—we have not made the best use of the past (“wail my dear time’s waste”).

         Characteristic of the past is that, as I’ve mentioned before, it is past, and can never be summoned back:

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,

And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;

Although, for Shakespeare, not all is lost. There lies salvation in friendship and:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

Note, however, that to end his sorrow, the speaker need not physically see the ‘friend’, but only ‘think on’ him. Isn’t, this, then, the sweet part of nostalgia—the element of nostos, the envisioning of being back homewith one’s friends and families and all that one loves that sustains spirit and life—as the natural counterpart to algos, the pain in not being able to revisit?

Related to this, it is worth nothing that the past, throughout history, has constantly been viewed as a burden, for it is the thing that one cannot change but is nevertheless attached to oneself forever. (This is, I’ve just realized, Nietzsche’s unbearable weight of eternal recurrence.) There have been many attempts to erase the past, in Communist China, in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany—what this does is that itmakes us stranger to ourselves. And the past, if unresolved, can also lead to present conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of that. This only demonstrates the necessary return and make straight of whatever crooked thing lies dormant in the past through returning home.[10] Because to return to one’s past is to shoulder responsibility for all one had done, since, as mortals, we make mistakes, and this acknowledging, accepting, and taking responsibility of our mistakes is a process unbearable-beyond-belief—especially so, looking back far from the future, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing that I could have made a better choice, that if only I….

To return to the past is to take care of those ‘who’ whom one bears the duty to care—the suitors crowding around Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, and Odysseus father, Laertes, terribly sick because of Odysseus, are just two examples from The Odyssey—since it is in the past, not the present or the future, where duty and obligation lies.[11]

The returning back home of Nostalgia, its heroism, also lies in the willingness to put one’s imagination—what one imagines the home is to be like, how wonderful it is—with reality. Because, in some sense, it is not ‘I’, but rememberance, who remembers, in that much of the imaginings and remembrance of the past is faulty, rising out of the urge, the innate human need, for remembrance—and this is the myth of the Goldan Age (mocked by Woody Allen ingeniously in Midnight in Paris)—for we tend, in our need to remember and to have an anchor that we can always strive back on, romanticize it. A famous Chinese poem ends: 近乡情更怯,不敢问来人 (the closer to home, the more reluctant I proceed, I see him who came from home, but I dear not ask how it is), articulating the exact fear that is actualized in Odysseus’ confrontation with the suitors surrounding his wife, Penelope. When Athena revelaed to Odysseus what dangers lie in his house, Odysseus thanks her:

“God help me!” the man of intrigue [Odysseus] broke out:

“Clearly I might have died thhe same ignoble death

as Agamemnon,[12] bled white in my hown house too,

if you had never revealed this to me now,

And the later half of The Odyssey (Books 14-24), is just devoted to Odysseus’ putting his home back in order…

[1] For this I own to Hannah Arendt. See her essay on History in Between Past and Future.

[2] The Senate has authority not only because of the experience of the elderly, but due literally to them being closer temporally to the founding of Rome.

[3] For Heidegger there is a difference between Dasein, as an ontological status (a kind of being), and human, as in the DNA and the number of chromosomes and what else biology would call human. There is an interesting section in Being and Time, called, specifically, “How the analytic of Dasein is to be distinguished from anthropology, psychology, and biology”

[4] Interestingly—and this really helps to give one a sense of the Early Heidegger—Heidegger explained logos, not as ‘reason’, or ‘logic’, as one would normally translate it (and this is how Aristotle’s famous “λόγον ἔχον” is translated, as the ‘animal rationale’), but ‘speech’, as in discourse and communication with fellow human beings. In one of his lectures, he said that we can best understand what logos meant to the Greeks by comparing it with reading the newspaper (take into consideration that it was in the 1920s, so newspaper played a much more important role in the society), as in, engaging in civil life and caring about the polity.

[5] Unfortunately, there is no word corresponding to know-how (which was introduced by Dewey into English) in German, so Heidegger used a lot more words to make his point.

[6] For example, when I sit down on the chair, I do not have to first believe that a) I am not hallucinating, b) It is not a chair for just something disguised as a chair, maybe one of those pranks with a collapsible-chair, c) that the laws of physics are intact and there will be a normal force pushing me up when I sit down, and d), and e)… I just sit on the chair.

[7] The interested reader can read the preface to Between Past and Future, with a discussion on one of Kafka’s vignette, of a Human stuck between two persons, one pushing him forward from behind (the past), and another pushing him, from the front, backwards (the future). The striking thing is that it is the past that drives us forward, and future that forces us back.

[8] Freud, in some sense too, pointed at the enslaving effect of the past in his discovery of the unconscious, and Jung, even more radically, raised the past to a new height in his postulation of a Collective Unconscious. This, however, is the topic of another essay.

[9] There is, for the interested reader, also a third journey of the hero, to find peace with death, hinted at in The Odyssey, but never developed fully—

“When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to Lord Posei- don. … And death shall come to thee far from the sea, a death so gentle that it shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age.” (Odyssey 11.122-37)

[10] Incidentally, the not-always-so-sane Nietzsche, put amor fati, the love of fate, as in, accepting of that one has, and will, experience, as the one primary quality for the Übermensch, the ideal human being, and said that eternal recurrence, the constantly returning back to one’s past, is the ‘greatest burden’. In this, perhaps he is echoing Homer’s point. (Which may in fact be likely, considering his interest in the pre-Socratics.)

[11] Perhaps this is why, as mentioned in FN12 supra, the past pushes us forward.

[12] Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clemenaestra, right after coming back home. Though, he, in some sense, deserved it, as he sacrificed his young daughter to the gods in order for the wind to be in his favor.

[i] P41 english, P20 german.

[ii] Taken from Keats’ Bright Stars…

[iii] Critique of Pure Reason, A 26

[iv] English 42, German 20

[v] The interested reader on the shadow can see: Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious(London 1996).

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