For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea (“Maggy and Millie and Molly and May,” E.E. Cummings)
A friend of mine, an Italian expat in Delhi, was recently telling me of his trials between his home country, South Africa and India. Each time, he remembered a return to the kingdom of sorts, some or the other misadventure managed to find him, before he could find the comfortable quarters he normally expected to stumble into, immediately upon arrival.
There is something about traveling for years that unravels us so totally, estranges and yet contains us within ourselves and our communities: leaving a place might be a bit like dying, one never knows where the people they leave behind will be, how they will remember us, continue to feel about us, having witnessed something that perhaps we are liable to remember differently than them.
The next time you’re coming back home from a long journey, like Odysseus, will you be afraid that folks and familiars might not recognize you the same? You might not find your own things, or environs familiar anymore? Who will you recognize as the same, or as different?
Has your lover been faithful in your absence? Has someone else taken your seat in the hearts of the ones you know to love you? Who has had to make excuses for your absence? Who has been able to endure it and not? How will you ever make up for it? Who will you tell your story to?
This bundle of concerns has a name, and one is never alone in harbouring them.
The English word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek term ‘Nostos’
When one is recalling a trying journey or recounting another’s, longing for the shared past themselves, to an audience that is listening close, these myriad things have one common factor: memory.
The interplay between memory and the present (in its retelling) heightens the mood of the tale, as experiences, by way of personal memories and feelings, attached to the story are (re)lived in quick succession by the audience, in their narration.
This term is a crucial one to consider concerning all our popular fantasy fiction and movies, we may factor in Joseph Campell’s theorization of The Hero/Fool’s Journey, which we find in a significant number of our popular narratives, whether it is Star Wars (George Lucas and Campbell were quite chummy while the script was written) or the Harry Potter series.
Nostos is that part when the hero finally comes home. It all began with the Odyssey, which arguably may be the first occurrence of fantasy fiction in human history.
In both the Epic and Lyric forms of writing, (from where most fantasy fiction draws its tropes), the event where the hero returns home, by a trying sea voyage can be called Nostos. Nostos is happening, ongoing and not static in that it is being achieved by the hero. It is dynamic like our rich, inner lives. This is a recurrent theme across many stories, and is attributed the term. It began with the Odyssey.
In the the Odyssey, one finds this exemplified in Odysseus’ return from Troy to Ithaca, which will be our main concern here.
Other examples of Nostos can be seen in many texts of antiquity. For one, the Nostoi (one part of the Epic Cycle, also called ‘The Return of the Greeks’) written either by Agias of Troezen or by Homer–author uncertain–is a prime example. Another instance is in one part of the three fragments of the Hesiodic catalogue, that includes Agamemnon’s return and finally, there is Oresteia by Aeschylus in drama.
That is to say, Nostos may be a re-enactment/narration of the adventure by sea, as in the case of the Odyssey, but may change slightly in definition when it comes to genres other than the epic.
To illustrate, when the journey is recalled by Menelaus and Nestor, before the return of Odysseus, it bears assonance with the idea of a return from exile.
Tokens and tests are a common ornament in the performance of this return, by way of a nostos-anagnorisis, or a homecoming-recognition. One may see this in the observations of Nikolaus Politis: the dialogue between a man and a woman is said to be in reference to Odysseus and Penelope.
— My good stranger, if you are my husband, my beloved man, tell me of marks in the courtyard, and then I will believe you.
— An apple-tree grows by your door, a vine grows in your courtyard; excellent are the grapes it bears and Muscat is their wine,
and he who drinks it is refreshed and asks to drink again,
— There are marks in my courtyard and everybody knows them;
a passer-by you were and passed, you tell me what you saw,
Tell me of marks inside the house, and then I will believe you.
— Right in the midst of the bedroom there burns a golden lamp;
it gives you light while you undress and while you plait your tresses;
it gives you light at sweet daybreak, as you dress in your best.
— A wicked neighbour it must be, who told you what you know.
Tell me of marks on my body, give me tokens of love.
—You have a dark spot on your chest, a dark spot in your armpit,
and between your breasts you wear your husband’s amulet
— Good stranger, you are my husband, and you are my beloved man!
One may compare
In the actual text of the the Odyssey, the Chapter ‘Odysseus and Penelope’ includes a speech by Odysseus, discontent with the appearance of his bed, and continues to express his anguish at his wife’s inability to recognize him.
Lady! Your words are a knife in my heart! Who has moved my bed? That would be hard, even for a skilled workman, though for a god who took it into his head to come and move it somewhere else would be quite easy, not even one in his prime would find it easy to shift. A great secret went into the making of that complicated bed; and it was my work and mine alone.
Odysseus describes the olive tree in the centre of the court around which he did his stonework, carefully roofed over it and placed a ‘neatly fitted’ double door. Lopping off all branches of the tree, and trimming it all the way to the top, he rounded it smoothly with his adze and ‘trued it to the line’, turning it into his bedpost. Using the first bedpost, he constructed the rest of the bed, with an inlay of gold, silver, ivory and purple straps across the frame. He says all this to her and continues.
So I have shown you the secret, what I don’t know, lady is whether my bedstead stands where it did or whether someone has cut the tree trunk through and moved it.
Only after passing these tests may he rightfully receive his welcome. The element of recognition is crucial in this dialogue.
Typically, Nostos requires two main figures: the voyaging male at sea and the anticipating female at home. The element of deceit and disguise is embroiled in the return of the king. Penelope refers to Helen in uttering
Helen of Argos, born of Zeus, would never have slept in her foreign lover’s arms had she known that her countrymen would go to war to fetch her back to Argos. It was the gods who drove her to do this shameful deed, though not until that moment had her heart contemplated that fatal madness, the madness which was the cause of her woes and ours… you have convinced my unbelieving heart!
Here, the description of the bedroom and the marks on the body, serve as tokens of approval, and Odysseus re-earns his rightful place at home, Helen was supposedly deceived in the meantime.
To reiterate, the word ‘nostalgia’ comes from Nostos, and suggests a retelling of a trying journey by a male at sea.
Another instance of Nostos is seen in the event when Odysseus’ journey is partly retold to the Phaecians, which illustrates that the duration of the journey itself can be the most challenging element in achieving Nostos.
In Book Nine of the Iliad, Achilles expresses “My nostos has perished, but my kleos [glory, renown] will be unwilting”, this echoes a fatalism, but also carries a subtext–a past replete with epiphanies and the solitude of painful rumination and ambivalence, where he was compelled to weigh, whether to live a long, mundane life, or die fighting in glory.
This is a unique way of reconciling destiny with nostalgia, and conscience with death. He knows he will die, he also knows he has chosen his death, and he knows it’s because fate chose it for him. Therefore, the time left is short, perhaps just a moment, and the arrow strikes his heel.
He returns to himself, and surrenders to his fate. Here the comparison of Kleos (glory or renown) with Nostos is quite evident, and important.
This was precisely the choice Achilles had to make, between an earned glory by way of a shortened life, and almost certain death, or a banal tale of an existence played out in an insignificant way, meriting no place in history, offering no semblance of immortality.
Kleos suggests that which is heard about one among others, its literal meaning is renown, and the clear suggestion is glory, but the necessity is praise and gossip.
In Book Four, Menelaus speaks of his stops at Egypt among others, and he doesn’t fail to partially narrate Agamemnon’s loss, in the process, finishing off a bit of the Nostos on his behalf, he also retells some adventures of Odysseus.
In Book Three, Nestor narrates
we pondered our long sea-voyage, whether we should said over the top of rocky Chios by the island Pyros, keeping it on our left hand, or else to pass under his, by windy Mimas. We asked the god to give us some portent for a sign, and then god gave us one, and told us to cut across the middle main sea for Euboea, and so most quickly escape the hovering evil.
In this retelling, Nestor is attempting to differentiate his Nostos from that of Agamemnon which, rife with loss and devastation, is the evil that Agamemnon was unable to escape from.
Anna Bonifazi has argued that the journey (compulsorily) has to be extensive, challenging and often full of shipwrecks in alien locations and other such trials. Although, there has to be a clear distinction made between the Nostos in Tragedy and in Epic. For instance, Oresteia by Aeschylus may well be on the fence between the two forms. As in the case of Agamemnon, his Nostos involves his death, meanwhile for Odysseus, it involves recognition.
For Orestes, Nostos entails the death of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the revenge of his father’s assasination, so his kingdom may be rightfully his without the interference of the stepfather; this echoes across Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well, where death is the precondition for his Nostos.
Sophocles’ Oedipus plays have Nostos too, much like Oresteia, these are not expressed in Epic terms, in the way they are told by Odysseus and Menelaus.
Oedipus warns his son Polyneices against coming back home in an Epic register, however, Sophocles also tries to delineate Ismene and Antigone’s sense of oblivion about their own return, upon Odeipus’ demise.
Ajax draws up the very desire to come back home, yet a sense of loss for this homecoming (for without it, one is no more a hero), he finds a new home in the netherworld, with Hades, though his mother wants him to return as anything but dead. Kyriakou has argued that Ajax does not want to come back from Troy.
The treatment of homecoming in the Epic is narrated in epic terms, while in the tragedy, it is not necessarily meaningful without its context in deaths, vengeance, and lost returns.
It makes more sense to the traveling auteur in taking recourse to this history of human life, when apprehensively gazing at the quiet waters from the quay, continually challenged by its eternal ebb into the horizon.