As I prepare to leave my office on this last day of my position as Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, I recognize the temptation to dwell on the past, to note the accomplishments of our school, our staff, our faculty, our students, and our community. And there have been many in the last six years. But these successes are for the most part documented on this site and elsewhere.
I am much more interested in the future. There is much to celebrate in the coming years for the School of Arts and Humanities. Not least of these is the new Humanities Classroom and Office Building, on which we broke ground June 3. We can also look forward to several new faculty members who bring an array of much-needed expertise to our students, including two art historians (specialists in Contemporary Art and in Latin American and Latino Art History), a historian of China, a religious studies scholar of Asian religions, an instrumental director in the Music department, and a linguist of French and Spanish and Caribbean culture. The school will also be able to look forward to the new leadership of Interim Dean Liora Gubkin, whose experience as associate dean and as a community activist will be a great asset to the mission and vision of the school.
I also note, however, that today is June 16 or what some call Bloomsday, after the protagonist of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. (My literary roots are showing.)
That novel seems appropriate to note today because of the scope of Joyce’s work, which took the epic journey of Homer’s Odysseus as the structure for Bloom’s day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. We follow Bloom’s wayward and fragmented thoughts through that not especially noteworthy day and come away with a heightened sense of the life of the common man, his inner life and its interconnectedness with the sensuous world around him, his own past and the past of his people and his species.
The effect of this superimposition of the quotidian and the mythic is on one level ironic, highlighting the gap between our smallish contemporary concerns and the assumed magnitude of those of the ancients. But it is not a belittling irony: on the contrary, the common man and woman (for his wife Molly Bloom cohabits his consciousness and gets the last eloquent word) come out as much more heroic in the end than the comparatively flat epic heroes of old. How else interpret the iconic conclusion of Molly’s resounding if somewhat nostalgic “yes” to life, which is so much more convincing and complicated than Penelope’s blind acceptance of a husband who took twenty years to return from a battle for another man’s wife?
Our everyday life in the university can sometimes appear quotidian and dull. It is filled with completing small assignments and bureaucratic requirements. There are classes to attend, articles to read, and reports to write. There are the inevitable petty squabbles over time and space and symbols and reputations. But just as for Leopold Bloom, these everyday tasks can take on heroic proportions, for we all have our dilemmas, our Scyllas and Charybdises; our insurmountable monsters who turn out to be surmountable after all, our Cyclopes; and our
moments of surcease that tempt us to stop our journey short of our goal, our Lands of the Lotos-Eaters.
My friends, colleagues, and staff at the university have wished me well on the next step in what they refer to as my “journey.” And indeed, this will be for me and my family a journey of return to Louisiana, where I will take on a new position as Chief Academic Officer at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
But like Leopold Bloom, we are all on a journey, not just those of us who are leaving one place for another. The greatest journey is, like Bloom’s, the journey we take every day in the city of our own destiny, whether it is Dublin, or New Orleans, or Bakersfield.
As another great writer, an Alexandrian Greek, Constantine Cavafy pointed out in his poem “Ithaka,” we all have our destinations, our destinies, our Ithakas. And we should make sure that the journey is not hurried, that it is savored. If we take the journey in this way, educating ourselves along the way about everything along the way, our destination cannot disappoint because: “Wise as you have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
But let’s let Cavafy have the last word because there is no better poem from the past with which to confront the future:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind--
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities