Odysseus thinks of [his return home] as a cleansing, a return to goodness, but the poem knows that the desire for sweetness has ended only in horror and mayhem. He thinks that order can be imposed by will; the poem knows that the vision of perfection brings war into a house and leaves it broken and bloodied.
It is a sobering drama, an anti-Arcadia, with a deep lesson: singular visions do not work; only by consensus and accommodation can the good world be made; returning wanderers do not have all the answers; and anything which is to be done in your own Ithaca can only be done by understanding other people’s needs and their unfamiliar desires. Complexity, multiplicity, is all and clarified solutions come at a brutal price.
Adam Nicolson, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History. This book has a title that doesn’t mean much if you’re not a British gardening aficionado (Sissinghurst Castle is a famous garden created by Nicolson’s grandparents, the writers Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West) and a truly awful cover, but it is an astonishing work of nonfiction prose. Nicolson weaves together literary history (his grandparents were adjacent to the Bloomsbury Group), family history, and the history of a place, going deep into geology, natural history, agricultural history, and more, including bits of literary insight like the passage above. And all that’s before the real story begins, of Nicolson’s attempt to change the land management practices at Sissinghurst, now owned by the big, creaky institution of the National Trust. It’s a remarkable book.