Hope is the word most often searched on Google by those feeling desperate. One wants very badly to find a space or at least a place, virtual or otherwise, where hope may not glibly “spring eternal” but rather may be as it were a part of a landscape, mortar holding the brick of a garden wall that one feels a sense of security there. That is the place where someone will say and actually mean, “It’s okay. You’re safe now. You still have a future. There is—this is—a place of hope.” To get to that place, to appreciate it, most often one must go through some frightening and sobering moments, to have faced some tough times, times in which hope was nearly in full eclipse. I know the darkness of such an eclipse well, for my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes, passed away when I had just finished my sophomore year in college. For a season I lost hope.
Thus do I recall: I was reading Homer’s Odyssey not as a class assignment, for the school year had then ended. Rather, it was book envy, plain and simple, as I had not had it on the syllabus of my section of Western World Literature. For whatever reason, Professor Culp had not put the Odyssey on her syllabus, choosing instead the Iliad—an interesting introduction to college,for that thoroughly violent epic was the first thing I read at Dickinson, that gentle autumn season not so many
years removed from the last troops coming home from Vietnam.
Truth be told, it may have been the first entire book I had read for a class in quite a long time, as in high school, at least until I had taken Mrs. Sprowles senior English class, I was the master of partial preparation, pioneering then what seems to have become an art form among many precollegiate and even college students today. Yet I did know when I walked through that gate of Dickinson College that I was passing through what I would later, thanks to another text in that same class of Professor Culp, recognize as a Dantean-style gate, perhaps still adorning the Benjamin Rush campus today, with cast iron letters mounted upon an uninviting arch that read Lasciate ogne speranza (di pratica cattiva del liceo), voi ch’ intrate, which in English means “Behave yourself and study!”
And so it came to pass that well before we entered the hyperborean swath of that academic year, I encountered warriors battling along the banks of the Simois, Sarpedon’s fate hanging in the balance, brave Andromache handing baby Astyanax to her husband, Hector, as they forebodingly bade farewell, until a kingly father would beg a proud warrior for the body of his fallen son for another type of goodbye scene. That son, the selfsame Hector, would in a ghostlike apparition soon charge his comrade Aeneas to save the Trojan remnant and sail for Hesperia—yet that in what I then thought a lesser text in that selfsame class.
While I enjoyed many of these stories, the other classes, I jealously grumbled, had one better, for they were reading the Odyssey, and of this aspect of their syllabus I was more than just a bit jealous. Besides, I was learning Greek with the legendary Professor Lockhart, a professor who taught much more than merely Greek; he taught life, and expounded upon why books such as the Odyssey are important. “They’re not simply the classics,” he said, “they are the air we breathe, the water we drink; they are food for our souls.” It took me a few years to grasp this statement in any full sense, and I suppose I am still doing so.
And so it was owing to “epic envy” alone and to no other reason—for I did not yet know what an important tale the Odyssey would tell me, never having read it—that I took that book along when I went to visit my grandfather, Harry Jakes, in the hospital for what would be the last time. It was two score less four years ago this month; he died on Father’s Day. This was particularly poignant to me, for he had played an important role in my life, as I had never known my father. He was a good father to Elaine Jakes, perhaps even a better father figure to me. Thus, when Harry died I felt without hope, lost, and had there been Google then, I’m sure I would have tried to Google “hope.”
But I would not have found it, not alone at any rate, for I have learned that hope is only one strand of three, like three fates or three graces, as the Greeks and Romans believed that such ideas (and deities) came in threes. For example, there were three aspects of Diana: the goddess associated with the hunt, with childbirth, and the moon. The Graces (Charites) came in three, too: Aglaia, “radiance,” Euphrosyne, “joy,” and Thalia, “bounteous bloom.” But as joyously, radiantly, blooming bounteous as these are, together they do not form the kind of cord of which I suggest hope is but a slender, yet nonetheless strong part. The second part of that cord, the largest and most vigorous part, is Love.
Now Love is something that nearly everyone can agree about or at least say something positive about. Even in these staunchly secular times, rarely will one meet a person who says, “Love’s just an emotion,” or “You know, it’s strictly a chemical reaction of the brain,” or “What is love, anyway?” or even rarer, “Love is always self-interested, when you get right down to it.” Now I admit I have met such people, usually a dour bunch, with pursed lips and supercilious eyebrows that move up and down seemingly independently. In contrast to that small minority, I think that most folks would agree that “Love is vital” or “human” or maybe, if they like music, they would go so far as to say (or sing) “Love is all you need,” with an upbeat and in-tune pitch of voice, rendering the listener an optimistic alternative to the prune-mouthed, odd-browed realists. Even the less than musical might at least say prosaically, “Well, love’s really important.”
But that’s not what the Odyssey is about, of course, not quite. Or if it is about “love,” it’s a different kind of love. Perhaps it’s the kind that is spelled with a funny combination of letters, three vowels, three m’s, one c and two t’s. Unlike “love,” that word is not very popular, and has often delayed an engagement or two for well more than a year—though it held Penelope and Odysseus together for twenty. Yes, those of you good at word puzzles have already deduced that this kind of love is commitment, admittedly to some a word that is pedestrian, even flat-sounding, but certainly really a bit more “real” than the kind that the “we’re-all-just-a-bunch-of-chemicals” crowd objects to.
But to get back to the Odyssey: it points us homeward. It’s the story, as you likely know, of a war hero finding his way home and cleaning up the problems that accrued while he was away. It’s a text that has a timeless message, even if it is one that is cast against the backdrop of mostly outdated ideas of revenge (though even those values are, sadly, often still found in action movies). Odysseus must come home; such a journey in Greek called a “nostos.” I could not see it then, but my grandfather strongly believed that he was about to make his nostos, not to a home or a house where one can find a hope for life, but to another Home where one finds such hope realized. The commitment that he had shown throughout his life that was reflected, in part, in his love for me and my cousins, Eric and Mark—that was the second strand of the cord, the cord that, if all three strands remain, seems unbreakable to the casual observer, which I confess I was then.
But what about the third strand? Well, as that’s a matter of faith, I prefer to leave it aside for now. Perhaps I’ll come back to it in a future blog. For the time being, suffice it to say that two of the three strands are Love and Hope, and hope only can make sense if one believes that there is such a thing as unfailing love, a.k.a. commitment. Yet who am I to say all this? Well, I’m just a “might-not-have-been,” as I said in my first blog, one who happens to be a writer, who normally writes about elfin hobs or ghosts. And I, dear reader, next week, will tell you another story more along the lines of a hob or a ghost, or perhaps something entirely different but no less entertaining than a lesson in Greek literature, like this one, that involves and expounds on an archaic term such as “nostos.” Yet perhaps the Odyssey’s nostos is an adventure worth having, whether you discover it in a book or, better yet, in your life.