Ithaka

Ithaka

I wonder if it is really how it is written in books or guides, is Ithaka an island among the Ionian Islands, the one that was home of Odysseus?

The place he set sail to return after the Trojan War. The war took 10 years, what about the journey? The return will take 10 years, too, because the god of seas and storms Poseidon will not yield Odysseus’ ship, creating storms and hardship to delay his arrival home. He will struggle in the open seas for 10 years only to embrace his Ithaka at the end and take back the lead. But is Ithaka he unites with is the same Ithaka? Is the place he returned still the same place he left?

This is how Homer tells the story of the heroin Odysseus in the Odyssey. Although many people tell Penelope that they saw her husband die in the Trojan War, Penelope does not believe them, she waits for Odysseus’ return, suffering in pain. Ithaka happens to be in Homer’s saga and also one of the famous poems of Cavafy. Constantinos Cavafy (1863-1933), also known as the Alexandrian Poet, was inspired from many “Town”s, including İstanbul.

Maybe we have to ask, if Ithaka of Homer is the same Ithaka of Cavafy. The heroic saga of Homer transmutes into a eulogy for journey in Cavafy. There is neither a country to reconquer nor a battle for power nor Penelope’s pain in it. The poet does not suggest a place to arrive in his poem titled “Ithaka” that he wrote in 1911. Maybe a place like that does not even exist. Everyone’s Ithaka is different. Cavafy’s Ithaka is not a homeland, it is a journey: “When you set out for Ithaka ask that your way be long, full of adventure, full of instruction.” The journey that begins with those lines will stretch out to other towns, lands, dreams, and dreamlands: “Ask that your way be long. At many a Summer dawn to enter with what gratitude, what joy – ports seen for the first time; to stop at Phoenician trading centres, and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, and sensuous perfumes of every kind, sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can; to visit many Egyptian cities, to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.”

Everyone’s own Ithaka; everyone’s own journey. Eventually a place is to be arrived or not. Maybe the place that is arrived or thought to be arrived is actually the place destined to be arrived. It usually is not but we even hide it from ourselves. Otherwise it would mean that all those years, journeys, experiences, efforts, struggles, and hardship were in vain! Because arriving is not seeking. Arriving is the act of fixing one’s eyes on the journey; not even the desire to set off; only the wish to arrive. Just like Odysseus’ desire. It is natural, yes; the war is over; he is alive; he wishes to unite with his homeland, his other half, and his son. His desire to arrive is very understandable and so humanly. Although the same fortune in Cavafy’s another old poem titled “Town” (1910) awaits him: “No hope of another town; this is where you’ll always alight. There is no road to another, there is no ship to take you there.”   

Ithaka is the journey itself, therefore it is also the life itself. Experiences, frenzies and pleasures that are experienced, information that is received, things that enrich and make  the poem of life exist… And the things that make a person “the new Odysseus”: “Have Ithaka always in your mind. Your arrival there is what you are destined for. But don’t in the least hurry the journey. Better it last for years, so that when you reach the island you are old, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.”

Arriving is fixing your eyes on the journey; setting off is taking the risk of the journey. Finding Ithaka in one; living Ithaka in the other: “Ithaka gave you a splendid journey. Without her you would not have set out. She hasn’t anything else to give you. And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you. So wise you have become, of such experience, that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.”

Oh, if only we could have known; what do these Ithakas mean?