Alberto Manguel about Written on Site, 1.6.2019
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,”
- S. Eliot, The Waste Land
A text never exists (as we innocently like to imagine) as a sequential whole. The act of reading is instantaneous. Take your eyes of a word or a sentence, turn the page or flip the screen, and the text ceases to exist except as fodder for the reader’s memory. The priests in a small church near Milan hold a box that contains, they say, the Darkness of Egypt, and if you ask they lift the lid very slightly and let you peep inside. The ancient curse that befell the Pharaoh who hardened his heart against Moses only exists for the believers in a single memorable glimpse. Our sight can only register the moment of seeing: everything else is remembrance or dream.
Around 1350, Francisco Petrarch wrote a letter to his family recounting his ascent to Mount Ventoux, and boasting that he was the first person to have climbed a mountain “just for the view.” Whether his claim was or not exact, it is certain that Petrarch’s impulse to record what he saw as he saw it, in the moment in which he saw it, went against the reflective style of his elders. The great authors that preceded him, up to and including Dante, attempted to chronicle their experience of the world a posteriori; Dante’s Commedia is the debriefing after his astonishing road-trip. Petrarch’s impulse (like that of our selfies) of portraying himself in the here and now must have seemed wonderfully novel and even a touch arrogant to his readers.
Some of that novelty (and also of that confident arrogance) seeps through Ales Steger’s blow-by-blow report. His explicit purpose is to record the experience of travel (whether Kochi in India, Solovki in Russia. Shanghai in China or Bautzen, in the region of Germany’s Upper Lusatia) as if through the eye of a handheld camera, neither foreshadowing nor retrospectively commenting on the events. The Aymara of South America believe that time does not flow forward from the past into the future, but that time comes from what we are about to experience and that only the present can be said to exist. Steger shares this anti-Heraclitean intuition. We are (according to Steger) always in the experience proper, the only conjugation permissible is in the present tense. What has been seen and felt, what we might one day see and feel, are imaginary constructs without material validity. Memory and imagination are for Steger synonymous; foretelling and fiction-making are the same creative but unreliable act. Against the affirmations of physical science that decrees that the only place we cannot truly observe is the one on which we stand, and the only moment we can never seize is the one that occurs now because it is already past, Steger attempts to prove that, on the contrary, we can only know that corner and that time we stand, like Hamlet in his nutshell, counting ourselves kings of infinite space.
This Hamlet-core that Steger witnesses is many things at the same time: a fragment of the universal Aleph, an instant of that “dead time” that Steger sees in the watches displayed in a jeweler’s shop-window in Bautzen. For instance, when in Bautzen, Steger’s present moment causes all the chapters of History to converge: the Gelbes Elend (Yellow Misery) of Stasi days, the Lisatian Budys of the all-but- forgotten Sorbian minority, the contemporary Bautzen that recently resurrected its Nazi past. And yet Steger’s chosen place is none of these and yet it includes them all, forming impossibly thin layers of geological strata. Steger’s eye transforms this chronological sequence and this meticulous cartography into a singular universal point that is all-present always. Bautzen in Steger’s eyes stands for the perceivable universe, always within and always outside time.
Time devours. From a shared sense of endless dissolution arose, for our ancestors, the image of the old man who gobbles up his children, destroying what he has created. But though the myth told of a single event that had both an end and a beginning, the Greeks knew that time had neither, that the creation and destruction was continuous, and that the very notion of existence was inextricably entwined with that of time itself because we, who are destroyed by time, are also made of time. Heraclitus’s laconic statement that “we never descend twice to the same river” may be taken to mean not that the river changes but that we are always changed, instant after instant. Time does not pass: we pass in time, as Ronsard lamented, more than once: “Las! le temps, non, mais nous nous en allons.” But to our great regret, existence outside time is not conceivable. To be is to be in time, and when the medieval theologians conceived God as a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere, the image reflected perfectly time’s utter ubiquity. This realisation has its terrifying corollary: if time is a continuum beyond which there is nothing (or rather, nothing can be), then all events to come, and all events past, have already been decreed, and Luther was right when he told us that we are damned or saved in our cradle. Future events demand (or create) the causes of which they are already the effect.
Aristotle, in a text of dubious authorship, proposed a theory of time that would become known under the name of Eternal Recurrence. Time repeats itself and once again, we will witness the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon. If such recurrences are true, then we are not only the ancestors of our grandchildren but also of our grandparents. Several of the Church fathers rejected the concept: Origen, because it denied free will; Augustine, because it was inconceivable that Christ would be crucified again and resurrect once more. In the third century B.C.E., the stoics proposed an elegant solution: time recurs, they argued, but with small variations. Diogenes will be born again but he will not be the same Diogenes, and crafty Ulysses will undertake another journey, but the crafty man will not be the same Ulysses and his journey will be a different journey. The circles of time, the stoics suggested (as did at other times their fellow-thinkers in India and China, proving the point they were arguing,) don’t run in the same grooves, but ascend or descend in an infinite spiral, and on each of these coils there are variations that lend time the illusion of progress. Centuries later, Vico was to imagine that the circles of time were not linked, that three different ages or segments of time succeeded each other endlessly, that time leapt from one to the next without a gradual passing and that it was our will (plus a combination of providence and skilful knowledge) that allowed us to carry to one commencing segment the wisdom acquired in the previous one, from last to first again, learning and unlearning throughout eternity.
For Petrarch, Time is part of another string of circles in which Eternity engulfs Time. In a famous series of poems, I Trionfi, he celebrated the successive victories of Love, then of Chastity over Love, of Death over Chastity, of Fame over Death, of Time over Fame and finally of Eternity over Time. It is a strange concept, this continuity or totality of Time in his winged chariot vanquishing Time itself in its passing. To bring things to a full circle, Joseph Brodsky suggested that, throughout one’s life, Time addresses us in different languages –love, faith, experience, history, fatigue, cynicism, guilt, decay, etc.– of which Love “is clearly the lingua franca“. It is of this lingua franca that Quevedo spoke when, accepting death as the outcome of time, he stubbornly asserted: “I will be dust, but dust in love.” This is the dust that Steger so diligently has gathered in this book.
Of all these brave and fantastical theories, of all the wonderful and haunting metaphors which we have dreamed up over time to depict Time, the ones conceived at the end of this second millennium (itself a simple-minded and arbitrary conceit) are perhaps the poorest. A man devouring his children, a chariot-rider defeating and defeated, an infinitely changing river, a circle that coincides with God, a fountain that flows from the future, a recurrent circle or a series of recurrent circles: all these images were all dreamt up under the warning engraved beneath the hours of a Roman sun-dial: “Each one wounds, the last one kills”. Instead, our twenty-first-century iconography seems inspired by mere boredom or impatience: an e-mail received on a South Sea beach, a plane breaking the sound barrier, communication established (as the IBM ad brags) “faster than you have time to think”. The few seconds that our computers take to download a snippet of information seem to us too long: wanting our access to be instantaneous, we wish to eliminate time in its entirety. However, the vaunted virtue of the Internet is the contrary of eternal or infinite time: it is the absence of time, that is to say, the absence of existence. We strive for virtual reality, we long to assume the incorporeity of the text behind the screen. Isolated from physical contact with other human beings, locked in a universe of advertising and propaganda, concerned only with surface and never with depth, aware merely of the tempting future and oblivious to the regrettable past, we have imagined time as a hurdle to overcome, which is like conceiving life itself as an obstacle. “When was the last time you had the time to read the whole book?” asks an ad for the Net Library, a site that offers “to skim” books for you, to help you “get to the point and get on with your business”. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede mournfully imagined our life as the flight of a bird through a lit winter hall, swiftly passing from darkness into darkness. Today we would read Bede’s lament as an act of boasting.
In the case of Bautzen, the city itself is an emblem of this Bedean icon of life. Bautzen (the travel guides inform us) is today a city in what was East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a city that displays its medieval past in a range of crumbling turrets of which the most remarkable is the Alte Wasserkunst, a water tower that contains both a museum and a lookout. Steger (without mentioning it) understands that this appearance is not casual. History concentrates here in the present moment, and water is the ancient symbol of history. The Museum was for the ancient Greeks the House of the Muses who were the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory whose traditional colour, like that of Apollo, like that of the hand-decorated Sorbian Easter eggs (mentioned by Steger) that tourists want to purchase, is yellow.
From such minute observations, from Steger’s attempt to chronicle the world through the encounter of chance fragments, there follows this: that beyond the reconstruction of the whole Gestalt through a random observed part, is the deletion of a part (or several parts) to hint at the unimaginable whole. If all cannot be said then incompletion must suffice. Poets take that risk. They believe (like Steger does) that, by and large, language is a game, and that sometimes, rarely, if the stars are kind, a meaning might be conveyed in the utterance of words. In the sixth century B.C.E., for the fun of it, Lasus of Hermione excluded the letter sigma from his “Ode to the Centaurs”; ten centuries later, Cervantes included in his preface to Don Quixote a few “truncated” sonnets in which not the final but the penultimate syllable of each line carries the rhyme. Steger’s book is text caught in mid-flight, sur le pouce as the French say. Such poetry, in fact, is proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay. That we should trust jotted-down scribbles to lend meaning, or clipped observations to express thought renders explicit a faith not too far from that of those Renaissance necromancers who believed that the secret name of Rome was Roma spelled backwards.
But the gods of our everyday pantheon are seldom recognized officially. Most of our schools may no longer require a study of the ancient world, but our collective imagination refuses to relinquish the presence of that which our ancestral imagination dreamed up for us. As a society (Indian, Russian, Chinese or European) we may have decided to pursue material comfort and financial gain above all else, to make a virtue of the clear-cut and vacuous language of propaganda, and to value instantaneous information over that which requires lengthy reflection. But just outside the city walls that we’ve erected to guard ourselves against complexity and ambiguity, the old stories of revenge and love, of marvellous births and terrible deaths, of metamorphoses and foundations, of curses and quests, have pitched their tents and continue to haunt us, seeping through the cracks of our stubborn pragmatism. When Homer told the gods’ stories in his time, he gave his fellow Greeks (and all generations that followed them) merely one version of the outcome of these lengthy, complex relationships that sprang from, and in turn defined, a certain singular vision of the world.
This is the vision that Steger humbly offers us.
Roseto degli Abruzzi
1 June 2019