The moving subject

by Terence MacNamee

These days the thoughts of the whole world are turned to Greece, that country of many islands. As Homer tells it in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus or Ulysses came home to the island of Ithaca after twenty years’ wandering. His story has been the archetypal myth of wandering and homecoming ever since.

Having spent ten years at the siege of Troy, it took Odysseus another ten years of patience and determination to get home to his own little island on the coast of Greece. This aspect has been commented on by many modern writers. As Camus pointed out, it was a matter of choice. Odysseus could have stayed with Calypso on her island and shared in her immortality, but he chose Ithaca and home and the life of a mortal. To Camus, this is the type of the man who realizes his limitations, his mortality, and yet chooses to live life to the full.

Among modern Greek authors, Cavafy has a striking poem about Ithaca. He says that it is the journey that matters, not the destination. The hero’s desire to return to his island prompts him to travel and to have all kinds of adventures and see different places. When he gets to Ithaca, the island seems poor in comparison with foreign places and has nothing of itself to offer. Yet it did not cheat or deceive him, or hold out a false hope. The real meaning of Ithaca is the lifetime of journeying it takes to get there.

Kazantzakis wrote a modern sequel to the Odyssey in which he relates that Odysseus, now settled at home, gets bored and restless after a while. As a result of his travelling, he has grown too big for his little island, too active for a sedentary life. So he leaves after a while in his boat, and no-one stops him – they are relieved to see him go, because he no longer fits in.

The person who travels around a lot has a different perspective on things from the person who is content to stay in one place and call it home. We think of a person as a permanent subject or personality – subject of thinking, subject of their life, always identical to themselves. All things being equal, a human subject stays in the one place and looks at the world from there – that is his perspective, his viewpoint.

Yet the subject today is often a moving subject – he experiences life in a succession of different places. His life in fact is an endless journey, and he arrives at each destination slightly changed, because as he travels, he develops, and he grows older. That is the point about the moving subject. He does not stay the same. Times and places change him as he passes. As a result, the subject who arrives at the end of the journey is not the same one who set out.

This could be a metaphor for all kinds of profound changes and developments in life, such as spiritual ones. But it is enough to say that more and more people are having this experience as they move from country to country, and culture to culture. They have become moving subjects.