The Lestrygonians, Cyclopes and angry Poseidon are real and prowling once again through our world — a critical re-reading of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” on the twentieth anniversary of my ministry with the Cambridge Unitarians

The last three Cambridge ministers, l. to r.
John McLachlan (1967-1976)
Frank Walker (1976-2000)
Andrew Brown (2000-)
This Sunday, twenty years ago, I became the minister of the Cambridge Unitarian Church. When I realised this anniversary was rapidly approaching, I slipped for an hour or two into a profoundly reflective mood and began to wonder if any text were available that might be able to help me to better gauge and understand the big shifts that have occurred in my own thinking/acting which have come about thanks to the innumerable intra-actions in my life as a minister over the last two decades; a time during which religion (especially post-9/11) “as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy” and which, contrary to most liberal expectations, has “retain[ed] a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain” (Peter Thompson, introduction to Ernst Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009, p. ix).

I quickly recalled (I do not know why) that in my first year here I gave an address which took as its text, C. P. Cavafy’s (once well-known) poem “Ithaca” in Rae Dalven’s translation. The poem’s images are, of course, drawn from Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” Here it is:

—o0o—

Ithaca
C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), translation by Rae Dalven

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

—o0o—

My former, idealistic self at a church tea-party in 2000
As an idealistic, young minister (just out of ministerial training and a theology degree at Oxford University and with a liberal, white, Euro-centric, Enlightenment, Unitarian inspired utopia very much alive in my heart — aka my “Ithaca”) I suddenly found myself working in the equally privileged environment of central Cambridge. Consequently, this poem could, perhaps, only have been read by me in the optimistic, liberal and individualistic way I did. I thought that I — and the members of the Unitarian church — were best thought of as being individual people on a freely chosen journey of personal discovery and enjoyment living lives that were, in their own ways, latter-day versions of the 17th and 18th century “Grand Tour”. The general, John Rawls inspired opinion (with which I then agreed), was that as long as our thoughts remained “lofty” and we only allowed “a fine emotion” to touch our bodies and spirits we would never need to fear meeting LestrygoniansCyclopes, nor angry Poseidon along the way. Were we to meet anything like these two, man-eating monsters and this angry sea-god (more about them in a bit) it would simply be our own fault because, in early twenty-first century Britain (the Britain of Tony Blair’s increasingly neoliberal, Third Way project), they were now no more than purely internal, psychological-spiritual menaces that we, the superior, wise travellers, could and should be able to keep them at bay by the judicious use of reason (honed by my civilised encounter with learned and wise “Egyptians”) and the soothing “fine merchandise” we were able to buy at the Phoenician markets  at which we stopped now and then (like the Grand Arcade opened in that fateful year of 2008). Yes, Cavafy told us, we were to keep Ithaca in mind as we continued on our spiritual and philosophical Grand Tour, but we weren’t to worry ourselves about “hurry[ing] the voyage at all” because we could be assured that it was better to let it last for long years; and even to anchor at the isle when we were old (presumably in our comfortable, well-equipped “yachts”), rich with all that we had gained on the way and not expecting that, after all, Ithaca would be able to offer us any riches we would really then want.

But only a single year into my ministry I recall thinking about whether I should be crossing my fingers behind my back as I wove my naive, liberal, privileged nonsense on that Sunday morning some two decades ago.

With Shirley Fieldhouse at my formal service of induction, Sept. 2000
Cambridge, for all its tourist-attracting shine and bauble and balm emporia, is the most unequal and economically divided city in the UK and the Cambridge Unitarian Church lies at its centre, right opposite the city’s (laughably inadequate and poorly situated) bus station. Thanks to this, Susanna and I quickly began to come into contact with all kinds of people undertaking all kinds of journeys. Many of the travellers we met were on their own versions of Cavafy’s “Grand Tour” but many, many others were not. These others were on journeys made, not out of choice, but ones forced upon them by complex mixes of domestic violence, religious conflict, war, bankruptcy, international economic collapse, famine, drought, statelessness, homelessness, mental health breakdowns, drink and drug problems and many more things besides. Consequently, on the doorstep of the church and manse, we quickly began to encounter all kinds of homeless refugees, migrants, former servicemen and women, abused women, and bankrupts. Susanna became very involved with the charity Winter Comfort as their Volunteers Manager and I did what I could on the one-to-one, personal level that forms the basis of every city-centre, small-church ministry.  

Sharing a story with John McLachlan, minister between 1967-1976
These latter journeys were, as just indicated, not ones undertaken thanks to the pull of a beautiful and exciting adventure ahead, but enforced and truly frightening journeys undertaken because of some violent push out of places and situations where, given half-a-chance, they’d like to have stayed despite the dreadful difficulties they faced there. They were people on journeys that they all wanted to be over NOW, not on journeys to be extended for a lifetime. They were people who often couldn’t afford to buy even the basic necessities of life (let alone “fine merchandise”) and who had absolutely no opportunity to engage in the luxury of learning wisdom by lingering at the feet of “wise Egyptians.”

For them the LestrygoniansCyclopes and angry Poseidon were not only internal, psychological-spiritual menaces (though they were assuredly those as well) but also real, physical presences in their lives. When you are a vulnerable and marginalised person (especially if you are of the “wrong” colour or religion and/or look shabby and dirty) you will assuredly meet many people like the giant, man-eating, rock throwing, Lestrygonians who want to sink your boat and/or kill or drive you away from their land; you will assuredly meet giant, one-eyed Cyclopes who will force you to become a “nobody” (an “outis” who has to hide their true identity in order to survive) and who will lock you up and abuse you for being forced to beg/steal absolutely necessary provisions simply to stay alive; you will, especially if you are a migrant fleeing war and poverty from outside these dark isles, meet the angry god Poseidon in the form of the rough, life-threatening stormy sea across which you have been forced to travel and which is patrolled by boats containing crew, some of whom are assuredly Lestrygonians and Cyclopes. They are people who, on arriving at Ithaca (whether their Ithaca was the UK in general or specifically Cambridge City) are not going to be able to linger luxuriously outside in their “yachts”, wealthy with all they’ve gained on the way, but people desperate to make landfall and to experience just a little of the hoped for riches and opportunities of Ithaca itself. But on landing even that hope is quickly taken from them because Ithaca is, indeed, a poor place and they find they have been fooled, not least of all because it turns out to be another outpost of Lestrygonians and Cyclopes, and one that all too often willingly worships at the altar of the angry god Poseidon.

This latter picture has, alas, only become ever more true during the twenty years of my ministry. My experiences (all shared with Susanna who has been an endless, loving support throughout) have meant that I now cannot read Cavafy’s poem without being quietly (and occasionally, like now, less than quietly) enraged, sickened and offended by it and my own, former, way of interpreting the text. My experiences (minimal though they have been in comparison with those of other, ministerial colleagues) coupled with a careful reading of the Hispanic social-ethicist and theologian Miguel A. de La Torre, the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign following the brutal murder of George Floyd, the rapidly increasing climate emergency, the challenge to democratic forms of government and, of course, the COVID-19 event, has hammered home to me (with life-disturbing force) the vital importance of re-reading all my once cherished texts (poetic, library biblical, philosophical, theological) through the eyes of those who have been, and still are being, marginalised by our dominant culture and forcing them to become refugees and migrants (internally and externally).

To borrow and repurpose some words from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848 (one of my own, cherished, foundational texts that, of course, also needs to be reread in the light of the above) as I arrive at my twentieth anniversary I find that all which I once thought was solid has melted into air, all that I once thought was holy is profaned, and I find that I am at last being properly compelled to face with sober senses, the real conditions of my and other people’s lives, and my relationships with my fellow human beings.

From one perspective the foregoing might be read as the product of a very disappointed man. And that’s true, I neither can nor wish to deny this. But from another perspective I think the foregoing is also, therefore, the product of someone who has, at long last and thankfully, begun to wake up to (and properly intra-act with) how the world actually is, and this fact alone should, I think, be affirmed and embraced by me.

Fortunately, along with the philosopher Simon Critchley (whose work must also now be re-read) I’m a great believer that philosophy doesn’t begin in wonder (as Plato [Theaetetus 155d] and Aristotle [Metaphysics 982b] believed) but in disappointment of at least two major kinds: religious and political. Our culture’s (and my) religious disappointment arose from a loss of faith in the god/s of our forbears and which generated in turn “the problem of what is the meaning of life in the face of nihilism”. Our (and my) political disappointment has come “from the violent world we live in and raises the question of justice in a violently unjust world” (Infinitely Demanding, Verso 2007, pp. 2–3).

From where I am standing today it is precisely this deep disappointment (rather than Cavafy’s shallow wonder) that is helping to reignite my passion and drive towards achieving justice and fairness for all NOW, and that is why I choose to embrace (with huge trepidation and fear) this hugely challenging lesson.

Consequently, although I go away now on a month’s leave, severely chastened and disappointed, I go knowing, thank heavens, two things: 1) that the decks of my rather crappy, unseaworthy (philosophical/theological) boat are a great deal less cluttered with dangerous (and, frankly, useless) ideals than they were even six months ago and, 2) my ability to glimpse the world for what it is really like for most people is, just perhaps, beginning properly to emerge — though I must frankly acknowledge that my vision is still very, very poor thanks to the theological, philosophical, economic and political coma I’ve been in for most of my adult life.

So, I trust that when I return in September I’ll not only be little bit rested but also just a tiny bit more effective in finding new and better ways to join (as an enlisted Private and not an Officer) with those marginalised by our present culture and so help play a modest part in actually bringing about the kind of world Jesus thought was possible — not one founded in privileged luxury on, or at the end, of the journey (in, or moored just offshore, some mythical Ithaca) — but in people’s everyday, modest lives in the here and now. But I realise, for this to even have the faintest chance of occurring, I will be required to play my part in challenging and defeating the very real and very nasty Lestrygonians, Cyclopes and angry and ancient gods of war and violence that are again prowling through our world.

But, as we begin to do this necessary work (which will for a long time offer us all only blood, sweat, toil and tears) let’s not forget our culture’s own role in creating Lestrygonians, Cyclopes and angry and ancient gods of war and violence in the first place. The peace, justice and fairness for which we yearn can only truly come to pass when, as Jesus clearly knew, it finds ways to heal, include and involve those who were once our enemies.

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