Odysseus’ physical and social separation from his home, and even from humanity, triggers his nostalgic longing for home. His emotional response to isolation, arguably, motivates the gods’ intervention and sets in motion the action of the poem (Danek 1998: 42–43, Grethlein 2017: 208–9; pace Clay 1983: 234). Despite its importance for the poem, we still do not fully grasp what is at the root of Odysseus’ persistent loneliness and why he rejects the enticements of Kalypso. Using insights from the bourgeoning interdisciplinary field of “nostalgia studies” Routledge 2016, Jacobsen 2020) and a re-examination of some key passages in the Odyssey, I argue that Odysseus’ grief is an adaptive, beneficial response to the twin existential threats of meaninglessness and loss of identity.
Nostalgia studies tends to embrace a broad definition of nostalgia, including grief like Odysseus’ on Ogygia, which we might have labelled as mere “homesickness” (Hepper et al. 2012). Odysseus’ longing for Ithaca is united with positive retrospection, and hence longing for a better past (Austin 2010: 46; Canevaro 2018: 117–29). Nostalgia of this sort has been studied by existentialist psychologists (Sedikides et al. 2004, 2008; Wildschut 2008). These scholars argue that nostalgia is “a weapon in internal confrontations with existential dilemmas” (Sedikides et al. 2004: 202–3). This work has identified, among others, two important functions of nostalgia: 1) to protect and strengthen individual identity and 2) to sustain meaning. Both of these function are prominent in Odysseus’ nostalgic longing.
Scholars have tended to discount the attractions of Kalypso’s offer to Odysseus that he could remain and be “immortal and ageless” (Od. 5.135–36). It is usually argued such a life is equivalent to death (Vernant 1982, Nussbaum 1990: 365–91, Davies 2002: 35). While there is some truth to this interpretation, it relies on a false premise that Kalypso’s offer was inherently undesirable. Contrary to the usual assumption, Homer does present some examples of figures who enjoy a happy bodily immortality (most notably, Menelaos: Od. 4.561–69), and Odysseus would seem to fit among these cases. Therefore, Odysseus’ rejection is even more striking. His continued nostalgia shows that his true concern is for the loss of identity and meaning. On Ogygia, he is quickly fading from human memory (Od. 5.11). Further, he no longer has access to the social roles of ruler, father, son that give structure to a life. Odysseus’ nostalgia allows him, first, to sustain meaning in his captivity, as he remembers his former life through a bittersweet emotional lens. (Nostalgia is usually classified as a “bittersweet”—i.e. mixed—emotion: Wildschut et al. 2008.) Second, his nostalgia, by reminding him of his former identity and projecting into his future the possible attainment of that identity again, motivates him to reject Kalypso’s attractive offer. Ultimately, Odysseus’ nostalgia in his solitude enables him to make the profound choice of certain toil and death, over assured enjoyment, for the possibility of eternal kleos and renewed social meaning on Ithaca.
The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature