September 28, 2017

ITHACA WEEK | Building a Home for All in Ithaca

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What would it be like to return to a home that no longer recognized you? Maybe the people you knew have packed up and left, maybe they are no longer on speaking terms, and you no longer feel at ease. Regardless, a place that you thought you could trust, into which you had invested yourself, is somehow giving you the cold shoulder.

This is all the more troubling because of how natural it is that, over time, certain parts of what we call a home etch themselves into our lived experiences, until they are grooves worn smooth by the habit of habitation. A lived-in space has fewer surprises around the corner. Hallways and doorways, entrances and exits become less things-in-and-of-themselves and instead embodied sentiment, thumbtacks on a Pavlovian roadmap: this door means sleep, this passage leads to food, so on, so forth.

But sometimes, the whole jumble, the mess of the interconnected system, grinds to a halt. It stops making sense. One scholar’s definition of the Ancient Greek conception of “pollution,” in the sacral sense of an agent despoiling a space of its sanctity, runs thus: matter out of place. Perhaps something crawls uninvited into our home. Perhaps it was always there, but only now are we able to see it.

In that vein, it is worth mentioning a gut-wrenching scene from Book XVII of Homer’s Odyssey; having finally reached his hometown of Ithaca after unspeakable ordeals, Odysseus, in disguise as a good-for-nothing beggar, mingles with the suitors wooing his wife, who has for years presumed that her in absentia husband is long dead. One such suitor, Antinous, reserves some choice words of abuse for Homer’s hero, which I present in a rough personal translation:

“τὸν δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ Ἀντίνοος ἀπαμείβετο φώνησέν τε:
‘τίς δαίμων τόδε πῆμα προσήγαγε, δαιτὸς ἀνίην;
στῆθ᾽ οὕτως ἐς μέσσον, ἐμῆς ἀπάνευθε τραπέζης,
μὴ τάχα πικρὴν Αἴγυπτον καὶ Κύπρον ἵκηαι:
ὥς τις θαρσαλέος καὶ ἀναιδής ἐσσι προΐκτης.
ἑξείης πάντεσσι παρίστασαι: οἱ δὲ διδοῦσι
μαψιδίως, ἐπεὶ οὔ τις ἐπίσχεσις οὐδ᾽ ἐλεητὺς
ἀλλοτρίων χαρίσασθαι, ἐπεὶ πάρα πολλὰ ἑκάστῳ.”

“And again Antinous answered him, and spoke:
‘What divine being sent this calamity to trouble the feast?
Stand thusly off to the middle, away from my table,
Lest you swiftly come to a bitter Egypt or Cyprus,
As you are quite a bold and shameless beggar.
You come up to everyone set out here, and they give
Thoughtlessly, since there’s no stoppage or pity
In freely giving out someone else’s things, since each man has a lot beside him.”

What is at stake for Odysseus, however, is considerably more than the wealth of his house, even as Antinous revels in its wanton consumption. It is a story as old as civilization: the one who has much clutches it close, and the have-nothings waste away. There are those within the group and those without the group, the classic us and them. Against all reason, Odysseus is suddenly the latter in his own palace. The idea of Odysseus’ home is equally under siege, its stable, reassuring aura manhandled by every bit of verbal abuse Antinous hurls at its erstwhile, rightful owner. So much for a triumphant welcome back to Ithaca.

One colloquialism I have heard applied to people in our insular-minded, staunchly liberal town of the same name is the idea of “living in the Ithaca-bubble.” It is apter than some would like to admit. An affluent, highly intellectual town with two superb institutions of higher education perched above its clean, hip-and-happening streets can only afford so much of a perspective on the human condition. But even that bubble has some ugly, gaping holes in it, try as we might to pretend that they do not exist. Ithaca is not somehow magically free of homelessness. Alienating policies of our government have decidedly concrete effects on the lives of Cornellians. The nonchalant use of racial slurs is a troubling, persistent thorn in our side.

Ithaca is, for the majority of the Cornell population, just one home. The other home, the home of family, may be in California or on Long Island, or in Puerto Rico, China, Mexico or Kenya. None of us will respond the same way if asked how we ended up on the shore of this particular glacial lake in upstate New York. We all come, however, with the same basic intention: to create in common at once a thinking-space, like Aristophanes’ φροντιστήριον, and a living space, to last us all four sleepless and expensive but tremendous years. That can only work if every Cornellian focuses on how they can actively contribute to building that idea through their interactions with others.

John Henry Newman, the great Anglo-Catholic thinker of the 19th century, puts it eloquently in his seminal The Idea of a University:

“This I conceive to be… a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.” What we say to each other matters. How we think about other people matters.

What we say to each other and what we think about each other matters. Both form the tangible substance of what is, for all intents and purposes, our home for more than half of the year. To play the Antinous is to pretend that that is not true.