Homecomings and goings

Abraham and Sarah travelling to Canaan in search of (a new) home, 14th century, Paris, BnF, Français 15397 f.16r

No plant will thrive in an environment in which it doesn’t feel fitted for. We thrive and find meaning inasmuch as we feel at home in the world.

Every culture has its own ways of dealing with the way people are fitted to their environment, to rootedness and uprooting, homefulness and what some have called domicide, the lack or undermining of one’s sense of feeling or coming at home with themselves, the others and the world around them.

Yet, homefulness is always a process, the process of coming home. Of finding home, which lies deeper than house, land, space, tribe or kin.

The West, as far as I know, offered three models of homecoming, three models of the journey to a place of inner self-transcendence and self-fulfilment: the Odyssean nostos, the Abrahamic covenant, and the ancient myth of the eternal return.

In Homer, Odyssey is constantly struggling to get home. Home to his wife, his son, his world, away from a hostile world of enchantment, violence and self-delusion. On the way he found all the reasons not to come home: the pull of alienating lovers and self-alienating forgetfulness, the load of the paternal past, the terrors of nature and the entropy of destiny, and the fading power of resolve. But the Odyssey is a happy-ending story as well as a blueprint for making culture and finding peace in the midst of existential angst and the obstinate hostility of the world. Odysseus’s nostos, or homecoming, is also nostrum, it belongs to all of us, is universally valid and all-relevant. But it is deprived of hope, hope doesn’t come into it at all. The Greek hero just wants to go home.

For hope, we have to ‘wait’ for Abraham, whose homecoming is not a coming at all, but a homegoing, the covenant with a God who promises and assures to sustain. It is also a radical, subversive home-seeking, away from home, the leap into the unknown, suspended by the thin thread of hope and trust. Abraham leaves his homeland for a home of another kind, the land of promise, the beginning of a story, not the end of it. To leave home, to go home, strikes at the heart of anyone who thinks that their place in the world has been decided by the randomness of historical forces and natural contingencies.

If Odysseus is a figure of force and endurance, Abraham is an actor waiting for a phone call to start his performance. He goes out into the world, not knowing much, but clinging to a hope, making a wager.

If Abraham is looking into the abyss and Odysseus back to Ithaca, the ancients are looking around for the cyclicity of time, the eternal return to the mythical age, the existential entrapment of a time without hope, target or outgrowth. Turning around and around and around is the condition of the soul unable to raise its head over the waters, always in search of the known, the lost but recoverable golden age, the nostalgia which a sense of decadence makes painful in the heart. Home is what we think we used to have but no longer sense, the feeling of being uprooted but inevitably on the way to being replanted.

The modern world has inherited all three modes of homecoming, but perhaps we are all a bit more Abraham than anything else…

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