The Siren Song of Nostalgia

Odysseus and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse

I’ve been reading a beautifully written book by Adam Nicolson called Why Homer Matters. I highly recommend the book. The book is mostly the memoir of Nicholson discovering that “Homerity is Humanity,” that Homer is ultimately a guide to understanding life. Nicolson was inspired to write the book after reading the story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. For Nicholson, the story of the Sirens is the main thread, the central metaphor, that connects the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a very memorable passage from his book, Nicholson describes what the story of the Sirens means:

The Sirens sing the song of the heroic past. . . . They want to draw Odysseus in with tempting stories of what he once was. . . . The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him, and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world [of the Iliad], because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.

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