Now, Voyagers

François-Jospeh Navez’s “Hagar and Ismael in the Desert” (1820). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted, Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

— Walt Whitman’s “The Untold Want,” from his “Leaves of Grass”

In his seminal book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell — mythologist and onetime Sarah Lawrence College professor — writes of the journey to growth and enlightenment that is the essence of the hero’s story. The exiled
Moses wandering in the desert for 40 days before he comes to accept his life’s mission — to free the
Israelites from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land. Jesus venturing into the desert for the same period to confront earthly temptations and prepare for his ministry. The Buddha renouncing his princely powers in India and setting forth on the road to his awakening.

But you don’t have to have a name written in time to be on a quest. We are all on a journey, the greatest aspect of which is the voyage within. We head out into the world and discover what we’re made of. We dig deep within to go out and serve others. Call us Ishmael. For like Abraham’s dispossessed son and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” narrator, we are wanderers. But as J.R.R. Tolkien noted in “The Lord of the Rings,” “Not all those who wander are lost” — even if they think they are. 

In the 1942 romantic drama “Now, Voyager,” Bette Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a woman adrift in her own world of blue-blooded Boston. The unloved only daughter of a domineering matriarch (Gladys Cooper at her iciest), Charlotte is calcified in dowdy self-hatred. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, she is taken in hand by a kindly sister-in-law and an equally compassionate psychiatrist (Claude Rains). This being a Hollywood movie — the modern equivalent of the myths Campbell so loved — Charlotte is soon transformed into, well, Bette Davis at the height of her Bette Davis-eyed glamour, swathed in Orry-Kelly fashions, and sets sail on a South American cruise. On board, she meets Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), a gallant would-be architect with troubles of his own, whose love helps her to blossom. 

It’s here that the story admirably departs from the typical romance. Charlotte and Jerry do not live happily ever after, at least not conventionally so. He has an unyielding wife and a daughter, Tina, who is the unhappy child Charlotte once was. To save Tina, Charlotte must sacrifice a life with her father. Yet she finds the strength to do so. Buoyed by Jerry and the memory of their affair, Charlotte comes to understand that she is indeed worthy of love — in both the giving and receiving of it. She transforms the mausoleum of a family townhouse in Boston and Tina’s life into wellsprings of joy. But not before she confronts her mother. In perhaps the film’s most moving moment, she tells her, “I’m not afraid, Mother.” Then she looks off as if realizing something for the first time and repeats the line “I’m not afraid.” Charlotte has come full circle. She is truly home.

For others, the journey “home” leads somewhere else. “Queen Christina” (1933) tells the highly fictional story of the real-life 17th-century Swedish queen, who renounced her throne for a life of the mind as a free woman and Roman Catholic convert in Rome.

The papacy would deem the outspoken historical Christina “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith and a woman without shame.” But how could that be when she’s played by fellow Swede Greta Garbo at the height of her Garbo-esque mystique? Garbo’s Christina commands the screen in alternately sumptuous femininity and intriguing androgyny, falling for onetime real-life love John Gilbert as the Spanish envoy Antonio.

It’s all a lot of romantic hooey. But then, “Queen Christina” is really a metaphor for 1930s America — with its racist distrust of foreigners and anyone who was “other” — as well as for Garbo in all her singular self-possession. By then it was apparent to anyone who had bothered to pay attention that she would never marry Gilbert — or anyone else — anymore than she would stay in Hollywood forever. After her career fizzled in the 1940s, she became an American citizen and moved in 1953 to the city of reinvention, New York. There she lived for the rest of her life in pink-and-green comfort amid her books and multimillion-dollar art collection in a seven-bedroom apartment at 450 E. 52 St. that recently went on the market.

But not before leaving an indelible impression as Hollywood’s Swedish queen. In a twist that prevents this film, too, from becoming a conventional romance, Christina renounces the throne to run off with her lover only to find him mortally wounded by one of her countrymen on the ship bound for Spain.

What to do — turn back and recapitulate, or go on? “The tide is with us,” one of her courtiers observes.

“Oh, the tide is with us,” she says, looking upward, glimpsing something that we cannot yet see. 

And that has she has just realized:  Her lover was never the point. He was — to paraphrase the poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen — just a station on her way. Christina goes on — to bury Antonio in Spain and make a life there for herself.

Where we end is not necessarily where we began, even as we come full circle. And where we long to be we might achieve, though not in the way we expected.

None of us is promised Spain. What we are promised is the opportunity to chart our life’s destiny if we have the courage and imagination to try.

For we were born for this moment. And the tide is with us.

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