The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys

Odyssey Experience
Neil J. Smelser is University Professor of Sociology Emeritus at
the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous
books, including The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis, Problematics of Sociology, and Social Paralysis and Social Change, all from UC Press. Smelser's most recent title, The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys, was released by UC Press in February 2009. In his blog entry below, Smelser talks about his experiences on his inspirational trip to Austria.

By: Neil J. Smelser

In 1951, as a junior at Harvard, I was selected as one of four undergraduates to participate the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.  This meant living six weeks in an eighteenth-century schloss outside Salzburg, Austria, along with about 50 young European scholars and a half-dozen other Harvard students.  The essence of the experience was to attend a number of courses offered by eminent American faculty in the areas of American history, society, and culture and to mingle with the others.  The seminar had been founded several years earlier by a number of idealistic American undergraduates, thinking that such an institution could help America-European relations and contribute modestly to rebuilding a war-ravaged Europe.

I knew in advance that this was going to be a romantic adventure, but I did not realize how profound it would be.  All the participants found themselves engulfed in a journey that was far more than intellectual.  Deep personal attachments were formed; the scholars found themselves swept into a community with an unimagined solidarity; everyone seemed equal and equally involved; and the closing party was at once euphoric, sentimental and tearful.  I shared fully in these experiences, and emerged with a feeling of personal regeneration and a deep nostalgia that has never weakened.

The experience in Salzburg was a remarkable one, but I always regarded it as an event in itself, not really comparable to other experiences. Over the years, however, in living kindred experiences, and in my research as a social scientist, the idea gradually grew on me that many different episodes constitute a genre of human behavior that is widespread if not universal in personal and social life, and touches what is deepest psychologically and spiritually in the human condition. As the idea developed in my mind, I came to call it The Odyssey Experience.

As my imagination and thinking developed, I came to appreciate that the logic of the odyssey experience covered a galaxy of  experiences—religious and secular rites of passage, pilgrimages, religious conversion, intense involvement in social movements, travel and tourism, academic leaves, psychotherapy, and initiations and ordeals.  The essence of the odyssey experience is this:  a finite period of disengagement from the routines of life and immersion into a simpler, transitory, often collective and often intense period of involvement that often culminates in some kind of regeneration. 

Now, in the twilight years of my career, I have written a general book on the subject, puling together all my wanderings and thoughts on the subject, and have in that book developed a comprehensive theory of the odyssey experience.  I hope the book will contribute to our understanding of human affairs, and will excite readers’ ideas about their own involvements in life’s odysseys.