The Ancient Shore

Dispatches from Naples
By Shirley Hazzard Francis Steegmuller

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2008 Shirley Hazzard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-32201-8


Chapter One

Pilgrimage

When I was fifteen, we went to live in the Far East. Was that a pilgrimage-or merely a stroke of great good fortune? It was a destination that I had not sought, and in that way it was more like destiny. Still, there had been, always, the yearning to cross the seas, to know the world: the accessibility to pilgrimage. My childhood had been spent in Australia-a remote, philistine country in those years, and very much a male country, dominated by a defiant masculinity that repudiated the arts. Even in a large, busy city like Sydney, there was little music, there were few museums There was natural beauty, but almost no visual culture, and even a wide antipathy to painting and painters. What we did have was literature, which came through our British forebears. It was in reading that one could truly live: in one's mind, in books, in the world. A form of pilgrimage.

I traveled to Asia because my father was appointed there. We went first to Japan, and then to live in Hong Kong for two years. Thus I went by chance to live in one of the most interesting and romantic places in the world, before its city center became a money market and a thicket of skyscrapers. Hong Kong at that time was a last authentic glimpse of empire as it had been-a last glimmering of the Conradian ports, the Conradian islands. The convulsion of the Second World War was just subsiding, there was civil war in China. All Asia was in a state of seething change. When one is young, one accepts that backdrop, engrossed in one's own impressions and events, in one's own destiny. Those years and experiences have haunted me, with their accidental revelations. The contemporary Western world, grappled to its explanations, sets itself to ignore the accidental quality of our existence. For the expression of chance mysteries, we must turn to literature, to art.

Life, for me, has been a succession of such destined accidents, when what was latent in the reading mind and in the aroused imagination acquired reality in daily life. Thus one wasn't completely unprepared for extraordinary places, unpredictable events. The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through literature, as being more real than our factual origins. It was thus that pilgrimage had been set in motion.

My sister contracted tuberculosis in China, and we couldn't remain in that climate. Leaving there was a terrible parting for me. The next destination was New Zealand, again for my father's work. Since then, Australia, New Zealand-the Antipodes-have greatly changed. Distance itself has diminished with jet travel and with the relative prosperity that allows many of us to move around the world. In those postwar years, however, New Zealand seemed, at least to me, the opposite of a pilgrimage; it seemed as far as possible from where I intended to be. Those islands appeared, then, to exist within an immemorial silence as far as the world was concerned. It was, again, in books that one discovered affinity, event, extension. The city of Wellington had a handful of good small bookshops. I used to buy volumes of poets in the Faber series: new poems from Auden, MacNeice, and their contemporaries; anthologies of young British poets who had died in or survived the Second World War; and Penguins with orange covers. I found a slim volume of new translations by John Heath-Stubbs of the Italian Romantic poet Leopardi, and felt that I had to read these in the original. Far-far as could be-from Italy, I took Italian lessons.

I went to England with my parents. That was an outright pilgrimage, it had long been a dream. In London, as it was then, I could willingly have stayed forever. Destiny intervened, and we came to New York. I applied to the United Nations, and was put in the dungeons there, where I remained some years.

In 1956, because of events in the Middle East, the United Nations opened a temporary staging area at Naples. Due to my Italian lessons in the Antipodes, I was sent for a year to the city that would become part of my life ever after. Destiny, but also pilgrimage: some part of me had been working towards transformation.

I think of a beautiful poem from the 1940s by Henry Reed, called "A Map of Verona." Prevented by war from traveling to an Italian city that filled his thoughts, the poet visits it on a map, without reality-

... Yet you are there, and one day I shall go. The train will bring me perhaps in utter darkness, And drop me where you are blooming unaware That a stranger has entered your gates at last, And a new devotion is about to attend and haunt you everywhere.

In those lines there is still the ancient nature of pilgrimage: the difficulty, the long yearning; the constancy, the consummation. Arrival as an achievement that cannot be denied-arrival, with all its consequences of transformations, encounters, self-knowledge, exposures, disappointments. The destination is not in this case a sacred shrine, yet it has magnetic quality and is both a completion and a beginning. In my Australian childhood, the dream was England: six weeks by ship to reach the goal, six weeks to return. A consecration of many months, perhaps a year. People did this once in their lives, but felt that they could die happier having accomplished it. We would see friends off on those departing ships, with such food hampers, such flowers and streamers; such envy.

So many versions of pilgrimage in the world. The holy pilgrimages, to Rome, to Mecca, to the sacred sites of ancient Greece. Novelists and poets are full of pilgrimage. In War and Peace, Prince Andrei's pious young sister secretly dreams of making a devout journey to holy shrines, imagining her pure bliss, even if she dies on the way. There is the pilgrimage to lost love, lost youth, such as Thomas Hardy made to the west of England after his first wife's death: a resurrection of emotions that produced, in him, some of the great poems in our language. There can be the journey to reconciliation, the need to revisit the past or to exorcise it.

In all such journeys, Italy looms large. For northerners, for Asians, for Antipodeans, for Americans, Italy, with all its changes, remains a goal: a realization and a reprieve. "God owed me Italy," said the classical archaeologist Wincklemann in the eighteenth century, "for I had suffered so much in my youth." Goethe enters Rome with relief and joy: "All the dreams of my youth have come to life ... Everything is as I imagined it, yet everything is new." Dr. Johnson, never able to make the pilgrimage, remained aware of the lack. For the historian Burckhardt, the vitality of rich civilization was, even for foreigners, a homecoming: "It was ours by right of admiration." Those past travelers knew much solitude, silence, inconvenience. Even for the most ribald of them-Byron, Flaubert-the experience was in some measure spiritual, touching inmost things, precipitating humility, knowledge, and change. Modern visitors come in haste, in crowds. Jaunts are not pilgrimage. Destiny has no time to set her wheels in motion. Even so, since there has been a goal, there can be revelation.

"We change our skies, not our souls," Horace cautions. Some souls nevertheless bring with them a capacity for joy, an accessibility to other thoughts and tastes, an ear for other tongues, an eye for other beauty: a readiness. Revelation-so inalienable an element of travel that there is even a luggage of the name-takes multiple and often inward forms. Many a traveler departs in the hope of defining an elusive self or mislaying a burdensome one, of being literally carried away. Literature has prepared us to expect the release of new aspects of ourselves in the presence of the fabled and unfamiliar. Simply by looking on given scenes and monuments human beings have been known to become happier and wiser. Travel is an elixir, a talisman: a spell cast by what has long and greatly been, over what briefly and simply is.

Travel, according to the nineteenth-century French wayfarer Astolphe de Custine, is a means of visiting other centuries. Imagination goes with us on our journey, a thrilling and often beautiful companion. Modern purposefulness gives place to plurality of sensation; explanation is shamed-if not always silenced-by mystery. The traveler simultaneously sheds and receives, and in the very thick of the crowd may still experience the poignant reciprocity of place and person. Even the tourist who only glimpses, from a sealed bus, the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, seeks his particle of the holy relic of the world's experience. And how much passion and event have been invested in those famous sights that they should continue to yield meaning-even to the millionth and most casual eye-with unstinted generosity; assimilating decay itself as an enrichment. (A skeptical young woman of Henry James's invention, who supposes Rome to be spoiled, receives the experienced answer: "I think not. It has been spoiled so often.")

Thus the world exchanges, annually, its store of contrasts, adventure and refreshment, and almost everyone continues to feel the better for it. That the contrasts are dwindling, that adventure is often frenzied, that the modern onslaught of curiosity may itself be depleting the world's reserves of human interest-these are menaces put out of mind along with other presentiments of Armageddon. The great theater that Europe has come to constitute for tourists remains a magnet, though the summer show may sometimes offer standing room only. In the Pacific, the prophecies of Herman Melville and Victor Segalen have been fulfilled at Waikiki; and even the farthest archipelagoes:

... the satiate year impends When, wearying of routine-resorts, The pleasure-hunter shall break loose, Ned, for our Pantheistic ports

Despite such evidence, and the airport bookstall's terse announcement that "Civilization is now in paperback," the exhaustion of travel's immemorial repository of delights is apparently as unthinkable as the extinction of fossil fuels. The very precariousness and anonymity of contemporary existence and its acceleration of destruction and change create a compulsion to seize the moment. The excursion to other centuries-undertaken these days with antibiotics, credit cards, and a return ticket to the twenty-first century-has new urgency and a tinge of valediction. The modern visitor to the past may yet embrace abroad what is d��class�� at home-ripeness, grace, ceremony, repose, an acceptance of mortality: waning concepts that may never revisit our planet; while the denizens of ancient places seek, in turn, in newer nations, expansiveness, volatility, an unconcern for and even repudiation of experience. And still others take to the wilderness, for respite from all manifestations of their fellow man. Although the intention of travel is far from noncommittal, its commitment is luxuriously selective: relieved of responsibility for the failings he encounters, the traveler may still enjoy the haunting quality of the antique without its terror; the poetic emanation of past strivings without their anguish; the energy of the future without its aridity. A condition of the attraction of the unknown is that it remain, in some measure, inscrutable.

The coast of my native land supplied, in my case, a first glimpse of the unknown: in the lights-seen from a deck on the first night of sailing to the Orient-of Australian seaboard towns that lay beyond the range of my landlocked childhood excursions. Those clustered lights gave the first sensation of passing a barrier; they were at once departure and discovery. The five-week journey from Sydney to Japan-in a little, old, durable ship that made one brief stop, in a jungle cove of New Guinea, for water-was a fitting preparation for momentous change. Awakening one dawn of befogged vermilion in the Inland Sea of Japan, we were faithfully brought to port, and other travels began. I had read Conrad's "Youth," and lived, in the moment, the closing fragment of that story-waking to the East "so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise."

That East is unchanged no longer, and such rapture is itself said to come only once. In fact I have reexperienced it many times-spending a moonlit night on deck to sight the coast of Crete, the straits of Messina, the cone of Stromboli; setting foot on an oblivious Europe at Marseilles one September morning; lying off the Cornish coast at sunrise and driving at noon into London through a shambles of blitzed docks. And landing, years later, at Rome one evening in early winter-to mild air, trees in leaf and baskets of violets for sale on the then unlittered and unsullied Spanish Steps. I remember a snowbound Epiphany in hills south of Florence; blue shutters opening, near Carthage, on a turquoise sea; a hillside of narcissus at Volubilis; the dry summer grass of the Camargue.

Distant lights have retained their power. Time after time, during the transatlantic flight, I have looked out, before sunrise, for the lamps of fishing fleets off Ireland-signals of a life older than memory, perceived from the age of jet propulsion.

I, too, have visited other centuries-in Arcadia itself, in sun-baked towns south of the Atlas and under the colonial arcades of a vanished Hong Kong; I have seen old Chinese women hobble on the stumps of their bound feet, and the scholars passing, gowned and slippered, along the streets of Asia. I have shared, from Monticello, the eighteenth-century vision of America. I have watched French missionary nuns, in white and blue, red parasols aloft above their towering medieval headdress, move unconcerned through tropical rain; and country women, in ceremonial bodices and long dark skirts, stroll down the quays of Venice.

It is women, more usually, who bear such emblems into other times-as, last summer at the port of Capri, a trio of handsome matriarchs who stepped ashore from Catanzaro, gold and silver lace over their coiled hair and on their dresses of rosso antico that swept the ground. By their festive costume they honored the great occasion of travel: Their restraint, among the modern hubbub, was a form of authority, a stately humility before the wonders of this world.

If, on our travels, we are not precisely surprised by such apparitions, such enchantments, it is because we always dreamed we might see them.

The traveler equipped with even one introduction arrives with a card to play, a possible clue to the mystery. Yet those who have never experienced solitude in a strange and complex place-never arrived in the unknown without credentials, without introductions to the right people, or the wrong ones-have missed an exigent luxury. Never to have made the lonely walk along the Seine or Lungarno, or passed those austere evenings on which all the world but oneself has destination and companion, is perhaps never to have felt the full presence of the unfamiliar. It is thus one achieves a slow, indelible intimacy with place, learning to match its moods with one's own. At such times it is as if a destination had awaited us with nearly human expectation and with an exquisite blend of receptivity and detachment.

The moment comes: we intersect a history, a long existence, offering it our fresh discovery as regeneration.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Ancient Shoreby Shirley Hazzard Francis Steegmuller Copyright © 2008 by Shirley Hazzard. Excerpted by permission.
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