I recently returned from Athens, Greece—a place I encountered first as a student ten years ago, then five years later with a lover, and this time to stay with a friend. Wandering back through strangely familiar streets, I thought of Odysseus just before he reaches the island of the Phaeacians:
...During his meditation, a heavy surge was taking him straight to the rocks. He [would have] been flayed there, and his bones broken, had not grey-eyed Athena instructed him: he gripped a rock-ledge with both hands in passing and held on, groaning as the surge went by, to keep clear of its breaking. Then the backwash hit him, ripping him under and far out. An octopus, when you drag one from his chamber, comes up with suckers full of tiny stones: Odysseus left the skin of his great hands torn on the rock-ledge as the wave submerged him. And now at last Odysseus would have perished, battered inhumanly, but he had the gift of self-possession...
The grip goes many ways, and though visceral the situation holds some promise.
Shipwrecked and raw, Odysseus is ready to deliver an eloquent speech.
Such a traveller stands up singing. Distinct from the tourist, who brings pieces of distant lands back, a pilgrim must leave part of herself in the place traveled to. You can pick them out by a bearing both violent and graceful, like that of young lovers.
Pilgrims were people glad to tear off their clothes, which were on fire (Anne Carson).
Contrary to conventional accounts, many pilgrims do not set out in search of anything.
A pilgrim is in fact a wanderer glorified by some private understanding.
Carrying the secret of a daily world but somewhat freed from it, stretching against the horizon of possible experience to draw from place some fitting action—for a time relieved of the duty of being that which they have been.
Like the octopus, a pilgrim is known for her sense of touch, intelligence, and behavioral flexibility. Theognis instructs: my heart, adapt your versatile character to different friends, blending your disposition with that of each. Maintain the disposition of the crafty octopus, who assimilates its aspect to the rock to which it clings. Follow one model one day, and the next, adopt another: wisdom prevails over inflexibility.
A pilgrim has a necessary relationship to ink.
The greatest danger of pilgrimage is the ability to lie. A pilgrim must fight to change without suturing herself into a different life, as Locke does in Antonioni’s The Passenger: to keep moving without existential suicide. A pilgrim must be relentless in her commitment to one world.
Philoxenus, a dithyrambic poet renowned for his elaborate work and forthrightness, was said to have been excessively fond of fish. In Syracuse, according to Machon, he bought an octopus over three feet wide, prepared it, and ate all but the head. He was so sick to his stomach afterwards that a doctor came—only to tell him he should put his things in order, as he would not live long. Philoxenus said he had already arranged for his poems to be cared for. Sensing the ferryman near, he expressed his desire to go down into death with his belongings: “Doctor,” he said, “fetch me the rest of my octopus!”
It is understood he was in Syracuse in the entourage of a tyrant.
Working with all of the exhaustion and agony (but none of the content) of thought, of feeling.
Perhaps a pilgrim goes too far...
A pilgrim expects nothing. She hears the clear song of the blackbird and is vigilant. She hands herself over willingly to circumstance, since her life would be impossible without provisions given or won along the way. Self-possession is one such provision.
The loosely conditional but animate bond between pilgrims is another, filling with light the hour and its road. They muster questions in the lowest circles of hell.
It takes a long time to know the heart of another—yet one pilgrim leans easily on another when the time comes.
Little is said of pilgrims returning home. Maybe they keep going, or die. Maybe they return silent: their feet roughed up, hands blistered, eyes distant. If they are said to return, one assumes it is to repeat their journey: undoing their last arrival with the extended possibility of yet further returns.
Yet some must go home, to win back their dogs and weed their gardens.
Looking out of the window at a quiet street where some ghost-self glances back, going past.
Such a traveller gets up and sets the water to simmer for the evening’s fish.