The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Jo Paul
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’m going to cheat a little and choose a source that’s not ancient, but rather a modern poem inspired by Homer’s Odyssey: the poem ‘Ithaka’, by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy(1863-1933).
When did you first come across this poem?
I can’t exactly remember, but I do know that I have always been totally fascinated by how modern writers and artists of all types use the ancient world for inspiration (which is why I’ve ended up specialising in modern receptions of classical antiquity in my research career.) Whenever it was that I read it, it definitely lodged in my brain, perhaps because it engages so profoundly with the Odyssey, which was definitely the first ancient source that I ever encountered, when I began studying the classical world as an A-level student.
Can you tell me a bit about this poem and its context?
Cavafy wrote a lot of poetry that addresses ancient history and myth and this is probably one of his most famous, I think because of the way in which it takes the basic narrative thrust of the Odyssey – the long journey home – and makes it a metaphor for life itself. His central message is that, although that homecoming – the ancient Greek concept of nostos – is something that we long for, ultimately it’s the journey itself that is more important than the destination: ‘Keep Ithaka always in your mind’, he says, ‘But don’t hurry the journey at all’, because we can gain so much wisdom, so many rich experiences, from that journey, just as Odysseus himself did.
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
I think I find it comforting as a reminder that, even when our journey through life feels difficult – besieged by monsters and angry gods as well as adventures and discoveries – that journey teaches us something; we become ‘wise’, says Cavafy, ‘full of experience’ – and that’s a pretty good message to hang onto right now. Concentrating on the journey rather than the destination is also another way of expressing a key principle of present-focused mindfulness, an attitude to life that I also find very comforting at the moment. If we’re always thinking too much about what’s ahead of us, we might distort our own personal ‘Ithakas’ and imagine that they represent some glorious, rewarding future, which may in fact be always out of reach. Instead, says the poem, we shouldn’t expect our Ithaka to make us rich, but we should appreciate our homeland as the place that gives us a grounding, ‘without [which] you wouldn’t have set out’.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I have two small daughters, aged 4 and 7, so they can usually be relied upon to cheer me up with some silly dancing, or just a big smile and a hug. I also try to find time for lots of hobbies that have nothing to do with classics or work. When I really need to escape and exercise a different part of my brain, I love running, and playing my sax in the Bristol Community Big Band; and you can never ever beat the joy of getting lost in a good book.
Jo is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University, where she’s been since 2011. She works on a wide range of Classical Studies modules, particularly those to do with Latin literature and Roman culture, but her research specialism is the area of classical reception studies. She’s always been particularly interested in the ways in which contemporary popular culture engages with classical material, especially in the cinema, and she continues to publish widely on all aspects of Pompeii and its reception history.