Remembrance of places unvisited


For me, living in the frozen part of the world that the ancient Greeks (Pytheas of Massilia) and the Romans considered to be the end of the world (Scandinavia), warmer latitudes, such as those inhabited by the Greeks and Romans, have formed a constant temptation. Certainly influenced by several trips to primarily Turkey, Greece, Italy and France and later studies in classical archaeology, my thoughts often wanders to stunningly beautiful moments, towns, villages, views of the Mediterranean coast but, strangely enough, often to places that really only may be an illusion – and yet memories – since I’ve never visited them.

My “Grand Tour” began in early youth in the company of my culturally interested mother and stepfather and took us to places like Antioch, Ephesus, Pergamum, Troy, Istanbul, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Pompeii, but also many cities, places without any obvious connection to neither the Classical Antiquity nor the Renaissance world – a journey that has continued in the company of my wife and children. And, yes, I have seen most cities in Europe which the privileged traveller from previous centuries should see during his educational “rite of passage”.

Perhaps these trips created images that unconsciously have been transferred to environments that I only have read about. Places described and sung of in both poetry and prose and in breathtaking scenes in films like Mediterraneo, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and La Gloria De Mon Père. And since I’m running a website dedicated to the Mediterranean world and through this work am in constant contact with poets and authors with links to this milieu, I’ve been richly rewarded and have been able to quench my thirst for (and most certainly so been influenced by) the Mediterranean through an endless stream of wonderful texts linked to the stunning “Blue Sea” received on an almost daily basis from contributors from all over the world.

But, can illusory experiences then really create remembrance of places unvisited?

One of the unvisited places that often materialize in my “memory” and is so richly painted that I almost sense that I must have seen this city, is Alexandria. A city sung of by amazing poets and writers such as Constantine P. Cavafy, Naguib Mahfouz and not the least Lawrence Durrell in his tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell’s suite (Justine, 1957, Balthazar, 1958, Mount Olive, 1958 and Clea, 1960) presents four different perspectives on experiences and characters in Alexandria around the Second World War. The portrayal is outstandingly strong and the city, houses, streets, sea, desert and not least the people are painted in colours so powerful that they are both tempting but also frighten me. I wish that I could have been there during the period the author depicts and so would have been able to experience this melting pot. But what sins would I have performed and where would my stride have brought me? Had I been able to leave the city as a whole person?

In Mafouz novel Miramar, events in a small guesthouse in Alexandria are reflected about a decade later than in Durrell’s novels. Mafouz uses a similar narrative technique as Durrell as we may follow contemporary events depicted by different individual’s perspective. The story is centred on the beautiful servant girl Zohra at the guesthouse Miramar, a girl, perhaps a bit too handsome for her own good as she is worshiped by many admirers. Several guests at the Miramar are craving for Zohra’s love and four of them recount the story, give their version of the very same period and events. Wonderful reading on human features such as love, jealousy and painful decisions!

I read Durrell’s tetralogy for the first time when I was about 16-17 years old (Mafouz, Miramar somewhat later) and was absolutely, totally mesmerized. The Alexandria Quartet has since then been reread and like e.g. Thomas Mann’s and Marcel Proust’s novels the text rather requires “habitual visits” to explore environments and characters in order to perceive the magnitude, to try to understand or just let oneself be diverted for yet another moment.

Although I’ve travelled in the Levant I’ve not seen the classic or modern Tyre, a city which has been “sung about” by, among others, the English author and poet D. H. Lawrence. Perhaps it is not so much the site here as the picture painted by Lawrence that has etched into my “memory” – an impression, a situation that could have happened anywhere, around any water at any time. But this poem is linked to the Mediterranean I have come to love and so reinforces the illusory memory of Tyre and the woman who “pours water over her body” …

The Man of Tyre

D. H. Lawrence (1885 -1930)

The man of Tyre went down to the sea
pondering, for he was Greek, that God is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

And a woman who had been washing clothes in the pool of rock
where a stream came down to the gravel of the sea and sank in
who had spread white washing on the gravel banked above the bay,
who had lain her shift on the shore, on the shingle slope,
who had waded to the pale green sea of evening, out to a shoal,
pouring sea-water over herself
now turned, and came slowly back, with her back to the evening sky.

Oh lovely, lovely with the dark hair piled up, as she went deeper, deeper down the chan­nel, then rose shallower, shallower,
with the full thighs slowly lifting of the water wading shorewards
and the shoulders pallid with light from the silent sky behind
both breasts dim and mysterious, with the glamourous kindness of twilight between them
and the dim blotch of black maidenhair like an indicator,
giving a message to the man —

So in the cane-brake he clasped his hands in delight
that could only be god- given, and murmured:
Lo! God is one god! But here in the twilight
godly and lovely comes Aphrodite out of the sea
towards me!


So, what do I try to say with these thoughts? When I talk about remembrance of unvisited places – is it then not only memories created by good reading? Maybe so, or rather – absolutely so! But when the very same streets, silhouettes, and even smells and sounds appears again and again when one hears of a particular “unvisited place”, one must admit that the author has created images that are so rich that the remembrance becomes almost as great as – or surpass? – reality!

How wonderful that words can create a world of images that may develop a kind of memories. Not memories in the sense Proust describes and exemplifies with his Madeleine cake (memories of real, perceived moments that occurs stimulated by the tastes, smells, images, sounds or other impressions) but memories created as a conglomerate of the author’s words and images plus sensations from similar places you’ve actually experienced!

What could better describe the feelings I possess for places in the Mediterranean world that I both have visited, but also those that I just have some kind of “read-only-memory” from but hope to be able to visit some day – to finally quote these words. Words dedicated to the famous sea that I’ve come to love so dearly …

Middle of the World

D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

This sea will never die, neither will it grow old,
nor cease to be blue, nor in the dawn
cease to lift up its hills
and let the slim black ship of Dionysos come sailing in
with grape-vines up the mast, and dolphins leaping.

What do I care if the smoking ships
of the P. & O. and the Orient Line and all the other stinkers
cross like clock-work the Minoan distance!
They only cross, the distance never changes.

And now that the moon who gives men glistening bodies
is in her exaltation, and can look down on the sun,
I see descending from the ships at dawn
slim naked men from Cnossos, smiling the archaic smile
of those that will without fail come back again,
and kindling little fires upon the shores
and crouching, and speaking the music of lost languages.

And the Minoan Gods and the Gods of Tiryns
are heard softly laughing and chatting, as ever;
and Dionysos, young, and a stranger
leans listening on the gate, in all respect.

Editor / Publisher
© Anders Dahlgren 2011/12/20