What is The Meaning of Nowhere?
There are ‘errant spirits’, solitary and renegade souls, who can hardly find their ideal place on any map or destination. For those who have been living abroad for a long time, a confused and jumbled sense of belonging can be at times quite familiar. It may catch us while pensively we ask ourselves ‘Where?’ And the answer might well be ‘Nowhere’.
The late German author Christa Wolf wrote, among many, a beautiful book, whose title reads, in German ‘Kein Ort, Nirgends’. The English translation of this title ‘No Place on Earth’, in my opinion, does not have the same directness of the literal translation from German, which would be: ‘No place, Nowhere’. Wolf’s book revolves around the fictionalized account of an encounter, in 1804, between the poet Karoline von Günderrode and writer Heinrich von Kleist and it is put together from extracts of actual letters. Both Kleist and Günderrode were never really recognized or appreciated for their talent, in their own times, and both committed suicide shortly after this fictional meeting (in very highly dramatic Romantic circumstances). Günderrode, being a woman, even more so felt the inadequacy of her role as a poet and intellectual in a society where traditional gender roles had to be respected, something she was unable to come to terms with.
Christa Wolf skillfully depicted the sensitive and intense emotions of these early Romantic writers, whose idealistic beliefs crashed against an increasingly rational and materialistic society. The book also expresses Wolf’s disillusion, frustration and conflicting feelings towards the German Democratic Republic she belonged to, but where she could no longer feel comfortable living in. The ‘nowhere’ here, is representing alienation and despair, an ignominious loneliness, as well as the impossibility to fit into a world that is not recognizing its own talents.
These are some beautiful lines from Günderrode’s poem: ‘Die Einzige’:
“…Hungry amid many a guest
I sit at the joyous feast
Which Nature on the earth bestows:
Ask myself: will it soon end?
Can I then escape at last
From the nauseous repast
Which feeds other guests so lavishly,
But brings no sustenance for me?
For I have but one desire,
One longing and consuming fire;
My world is held in captive bond
By one desire, and one alone:
To possess but one, and one alone.”
There is yet another ‘Nowhere’ I would like to describe. A ‘Nowhere’ whose meaning is not alienation nor despair, but it is exile and resurrection, melancholy and dreams, the feeling of being nationless and at the same time of constituting a united and powerful minority.
I did not pick Jan Morris’ ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ because I had been to Trieste (and in fact, unfortunately, I have not). Somehow, I was attracted by this book as it was her last, and as much as I loved the queerness of its title, I knew that it would disclose a deep, rich world, typical of Morris’, where words acquire a luminous and at times even surreptitious fascination that widens their original meaning. And it was exactly so.
Morris’ prose is as always poetic, defying the description of her as a ‘travel writer’. In addition, her captivation for empires, cities by the sea, splendor and decadence, are very well reflected in her previous books, among those: ‘Pax Britannica’, ‘Hong Kong’ (which I truly enjoyed), ‘Venice’. And they can be found in this book as well.
Choosing Trieste stands as an exception though, being this one a city that, in her words, ‘offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that everyone knows’. And yet, Trieste is for Morris the arrival and the final destination. Morris arrived in Trieste as a soldier, at the end of the Second World War, when she was still a man, James Morris. Every time she went back to visit the city, it was for her an occasion to re-examine herself as well. Trieste has a seductive power on the author, as it represent the passing of time, her emotions and preoccupations, and this is exactly what takes her out of time, to nowhere.
Trieste lays on the northeastern part of Italy, at the border with Slovenia, and it has a story of its own. It had been Illyrian, Roman, a small fishing port in the hinterland of Venice, and it was later annexed by empires and states. The Austro-Hungarian Empire elected Trieste as the main sea outlet to the world, tracked the trains trough and connected Trieste to Vienna. In the XIX century, Trieste prospered from the trade with central Europe and fast became one of the world’s greatest transit ports, a major point of connection between Europe and Asia, at one point even rivaling Hong Kong. Trieste‘s historical developments became later more complex and painful, and I prefer not to delve into it. Surely, Trieste started losing its main strength as a thriving port once it lost its prime role, and a sort of decadence of the city slowly followed.
Triste’s landmark is the Miramar castle, standing proudly on a promontory. It was built by Maximilian, the younger brother of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria. In those times, Trieste wholly honoured the ‘ K u K’ concepts (‘ Kaiserlich und Königlich’, Imperial and Royal) and most of its citizens were living comfortably in a city that was modern, confident, full of opportunities and rich in cultural life. Trieste even had its own language, influenced by Venetian dialect and at the same time by idioms from other languages (curiously enough, the word ‘sonababic’ meant ‘son-of-a-bitch’). Apparently, James Joyce was fluent in it and he used it in the neo-language of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.
It was after the bodies of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, assassinated in Sarajevo, were returned to Trieste by boat, that Trieste acquired a ‘tristesse’ and a melancholy that never abandoned its shores. And Miramare expressed all this sadness. The castle was considered by some to be an ominous place. Maximilian, forced by the brother to take the throne of the newly acquired Mexican land, occupied by the French who wanted to restore a European monarchy in Central America, was shot against the wall as soon as he landed in Mexican territory. His wife Carlotta was sent back to the castle, where she went mad. Kings, dukes, ambassadors who had the chance to spend some time there, all ended up in some tragic accidents or lost their life. This melancholy, distinctive feature of Trieste, is very well expressed in the work of Umberto Saba, the ‘triestino’ poet. And even James Joyce, in his poem ‘Watching the Needle Boats at San Sabba’, clearly conveys this sense of gloom ‘…No more will the wild wind that passes return, no more return.’
Morris’ consideration of ‘exiles’ acquires a special note. What is exile? Is it being far away? From where? Is it absence, taking different forms?
Many people spent voluntary or forced exile in Trieste, but it seems that, in general, they all were looking forward to going back to where they came from, from Casanova to Egon Schiele. The most dramatic exile was Winckelman’s, the father of Neoclassicism who, having spent 8 days in the city, was murdered by a man he befriended during his stay, Francesco Arcangeli. The motives are yet unknown, although there were many sleazy speculations. Other people stayed in Trieste and found failure, like Sigmund Freud, who was sent to Trieste by the Institute of Comparative Anatomy at Vienna University to carry out a weird task: discovering how eels ‘anguilla anguilla’ copulated. He had no luck. Not even James Joyce had much good fortune in Trieste, as he promptly went into trouble with drinking, women and money. But ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was entirely written in Trieste, like the play ‘Exiles’ and most of ‘The Dubliners’. His wife Nora greatly suffered her stay in Trieste, as she- in the first place- was not at all happy with James, who was leading a lifestyle she did not share.
Morris description of all the interesting characters who passed by or lived in Trieste is very detailed and catchy. There is, in particular, a character that seems to be so un-triestine to be utterly out of place in Trieste. Sir Richard Francis Burton, chosen in 1872 by her Majesty’s Foreign Office to represent Queen Victoria as a Consul. He was a great scholar, wrote several books and had fought and lived all over the world. He was obviously dismayed once he got the news of his new appointment and felt that Trieste was unworthy of him. He had a full command of Arabic and great knowledge of the Muslim world, so he did not expect to be sent to Trieste. Despite hating the climate and feeling dispirited, Burton completed in Trieste his greatest literary work, the translation of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, which he carried out in the secluded retreat of an inn, located in the small village of Opicina. Burton, then in his late sixties, was a seedy character, attracted by pornography and sex, who was married to a devout catholic, clearly uncomfortable with his alternative interests. After the Consul’s death in Trieste, Lady Burton was determined to permanently erase what Burton considered his masterpiece, the unfinished translation of one of the most sensual Arabic poems of all ages – with Burton’s commentary rich in sexual scholarship- ‘The Perfumed Garden’. Lady Burton lighted a bonfire in the garden of their beautiful Palladian villa and burned the two manuscript volumes. She infuriated the literary world for her gesture, but nonetheless- in her view- she cleared her husband’s conscience. With this episode, Morris shows us yet other two aspects of Trieste: love and lust. These could be also retraced in Freud’s ideas that found a ready audience among Trieste’s intelligentsia, in Italo Svevo’s work, in Joyce’s frequentation of the thriving red-light quarter. In Morris‘ eyes though, even transient love and transience, a distinctive feature of Trieste, acquire a special light: ‘Certainly I sometimes think that transient love, the sort that is embodied in a one-night passion, or even a passing glance, is no less real than the lifelong sort. Even imagined love is true!’
All the times Morris visited the city, she witnessed its splendor and its decadence, and in returning before the completion of her book in 2001, she gladly perceived a sort of a ‘renaissance’. Riccardo Illy’s ( of ‘Illy Coffee’) confident administration gave a boost to Trieste. Trieste showcased new cultural initiatives, a booming tourism, an important and active university, the annual appointment of the Joyce’s School, the Third World Organization for Women in Science, which has its headquarters here. The city was, once more, young and hyperactive, as Morris put it.
Trieste remains the capital of nowhere though, where exiles – according to Morris- are made of a small minority forming a mighty nation. A nation of kind and nice people, which Morris had the chance to find in all her visits of Trieste. These people possess the best sort of patriotism: a generous spirit of love. Therefore, for those who feel themselves, like Morris (now in her third age and at the end of her writing career) – ‘an exile from normality’, Trieste represents a new freedom, as many things do not matter as they used to. ‘Kindness is what matters, all along, at any age –kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere!’
With these final considerations from the author, ‘Nowhere’ becomes a newly found land of kindheartedness and benevolence, and of all things that matter most in life, despite the rest. I could not agree more with her, and Trieste or Hong Kong or elsewhere, we shall all meet there.
A dot on the map of nothingness,
a sharp turn of our consciousness.
Nowhere can be found someplace else,
often abandoned near a steady lighthouse
or struggling in the rough sea of choices.
It never betrays us, though.
It waits for us patiently
at the junction of a doubtful and fruitless search.
Nowhere is a lone post lamp.
Where glaring illusions and hopeless delusions rejoice
Boundless deserts find their dazzling oasis
Lifeless hopes materialize
Unrequited loves meet
Scorching desires are satisfied.
We hesitate though. We linger.
Awaiting to pick and chose our here and there.
that branches of gloomy solitude and
sprouts of blue loneliness
might find their newly planted roots,
once we realize that the best somewhere
is nowhere to be found but nowhere.
( Paola Caronni 23.01.2015)