A week ago I heard Roger Lundin speak about modern narratives and the search for God.
In fifty minutes, Lundin briefly mapped the trajectory of modern stories and how the characters, in their own ways, attempt to get back to a “garden”. They’re weary of now. Characters who epitomize this ennui include Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Rabbit in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Lundin says they are so much like us—eager to acquire adult experience, and after acquiring it, eager to return to the time before they had it. But going back to a garden, to innocence, to some perfect idea of home or “magical wholeness” is nothing new.
One of the greatest epics of all time, The Odyssey, is about a restless man, Odysseus, who took 10 years to return home to his wife, Penelope, and adolescent son, Telemachus after the fall of Troy. He was absent a total of 20 years which included the Trojan War. The home he comes back to is not the same home as when he left. And it can’t be. When you leave point A to experience point B, point A is not point A anymore.
And that can lead to disillusionment, or wandering, or doing nothing. Take Telemachus. While his father is away, a houseful of suitors move in, vying for his mother’s hand in marriage. Telemachus sits in his house “imagining in his mind his great father [Odysseus], how he might come back / and all throughout the house might cause the suitors to scatter, / and hold his rightful place and be lord of his own possessions” (Odyssey 1.114-117).
Here is a character so much like us. Stuck in how things used to be and how we want them to be. Telemachus is a classic example of a bildungsroman, a German word for a “novel of formation” or coming-of-age story. These are my favourite kind of stories. I wrote an essay on Telemachus in first-year Classical Mythology, spanning his progression from inaction to action, from anonymity to heroism, arguing that he becomes a hero before his father does and when things could have so easily been otherwise. He could have stayed home, but instead, he embarks on a mission to find his lost father and bring him back.
It takes a god to light the fire under Telemachus’ butt. Athene visits him and says, “You should not go on / clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that.” (Odyssey 1.295-300).
I think Telemachus was on the cusp of 20-years old when he pursued this life-defining action. It was in this context that Lundin made the interesting point that the 20s today are becoming a succession of adolescence, no longer the transition time between childhood and adulthood where we move, act, make our mark. Instead, we delay. We ask for more time. Time for what? We don’t know. We don’t know what we’re waiting for. What age is that liminal state where we’re not reaching for the future and not looking to the past?
The question one inevitably asks as he/she is reading The Odyssey is “why does it take Odysseus so damn long to come home?” You’re waiting and waiting and waiting for over two-thirds of the novel for him to be the hero that he was in The Iliad, to take action, to drive out the suitors, to reveal himself to Penelope. You’re waiting so long that the eventual recognition scene between husband and wife is arguably the most climactic in all of literature. It makes for a great story but I don’t know if it makes for great real life.
Growth and change, aging and time have become the real enemies of modernity according to Lundin. Implicit in his lecture was a challenge to move forward, to look towards a city instead of a garden, confident that “nothing that is past is lost.” Who we were matters to who we are. In one of those rare moments when academics are exceptionally vulnerable, Lundin said near the end (I’m paraphrasing), “I considered it one of the greatest gifts when I came to faith that God chose to honour me by not obliterating me.” All the pain and loss and tragedy (and this man has been through an exorbitant amount) is not forgotten.
And if God is God, then he is in the midst of a city as much as he was in the midst of a garden.