Riccardo Caldura's text

When I received the invitation to participate with a presentation in the “Island built event” project, I first thought it was just a kind challenge. Since I had a chance to meet in Venice, the artists, the administrators and the lecturers of the University of Volos, who had organized the Greek pavilion for the recent Venice Architecture Biennale, I was aware of their interest in the inherent problematic regarding the relation between locations and their interaction with their inhabitants. In Venice, we already had the opportunity to discuss the mutual projects we were on—that was why I had invited them to take a boat tour to the Minor islands of the Venice lagoon—as well as a program I was working on at that time with the Roman “Osservatorio Normade” group’s artist and architects, who had already worked in Greece. In the past, the minor Venice islands performed out roles very difficult to maintain today. They were a challenge to anyone who wanted to build a non-invasive relation between locations, people and roles. At the same time, as far as the Venice situation is concerned, bonds now exist, which relate to the environmental protection of a very fragile natural environment, and to maintaining the history of the past, still very vivid on the islands. In the Venetian Empire Era, the island had “naturally” found its own inclination regarding certain specific functions, independent of civil society. I am referring to: (a) the function of the religious community, still active nowadays on San Francesco del Deserto, the “Desert’s island” with its motto “Beata solitude, sola beatitude” at the monastery entrance, (b) the function of the military, associated with the surveillance of the entrances to the lagoon from the sea (St. Andrew’s Castle), and (c) the public health function since, thanks to the lazarettos, the city was protected from the invading plague. The islands, because of their geographic position, served as a barrier, discovering this way their own meaning in the complex of duties belonging to an old maritime city. However, enemies no longer approach from the sea (the Italian army abandoned the islands completely in the 1970s), and there is no devastating plague to be controlled in the isolated zones, while the spiritual vocation is now very rare. Therefore, nowadays, paradoxically, the suspended situation of the Venetian islands—functions that do not exist anymore, and functions to be re-invented—underlines the uncertainty of a “desert” location in a dense society like ours. When I received the invitation to participate in a workshop on Youra island, in the Northern Sporades, I thought that the very idea of an island, before even considering its actual geographical location, (Adriatic, or Aegean, Sea), could represent a problem for contemporary culture, especially for anyone preoccupied with imagining non-invasive connections (i.e., not their being used again as sailing ports, heliports, hotels etc.) with modern society. If I had to recap the arising issues, I would summarize them in two concepts: the “island” concept, and the “connection” concept; some ideas emerge from both concepts that I hereby present. “Isolated” ideas, almost as if—as in the past, the geographic nature of the Venice islands was reflected in the dimension of their role— the image was reflected in a text made up of brief thoughts, maybe a little “fragmentary”, maybe its tone “disjointed” as well, depending on my mood at the moment I was arriving on the “island”, if I was in a philosophical or literary mood, or a sort of sociological one. I had no intention of any kind of “intention”, since the concept and the image of the island had encouraged vast production in every era, making it presumptuous to pretend to add something else, without, necessarily, saying something “trite”.(But what if that was the sign, the possible connection of the island as “common ground”?)


The meditation activity—a sort of basso continuo, that doesn’t stop, a delicate and never-ending grinding, a kind of tinnitus that is not in the ear, but is similar to the sort of murmuring one experiences when putting a shell to one’s ear—driven by the interaction of an external factor, by an opportunity presented, begins to unfold. The periplus of thinking around a certain thought defines a boundary upon which the endless activity of thinking smashes. Thinking “regarding a” removes thinking from its fluid condition. The activity of thinking and the expressed thought “regarding a”, are not the same thing. We think, for example, of the sea; a regarding thought smashes its fluidity and a form becomes evident: the “island” of thinking, surrounded by the endless action of thinking. Since thinking, as Heidegger had said, is thinking at “a thing”. What someone thinks about is where the whole idea of thinking becomes specific, and the marine fluidity concentrates on the solidity of the coast, but is also, what human beings use as a point for deliberating. Things to think about, thanks to an etymological dizziness (denken, Ding), becomes the place where (thing, in High German) people can meet. By isolating thought, it becomes a gathering place, the thought of the “object” one is about to discuss, deliberate and decide upon: res publica, towards that object, that belongs to nobody, that is ownerless, that is the marine condition of thought. The vague and marine fluidity of thought belongs to no one, is a res nullius (What is the relative law about the sea? Laws are valid only on the “island” of our thoughts; we can deliberate only regarding what we think about). But still, something about the original marine fluidity of thinking also remains for “localized”, for “insular” thought. There is no one and only thought, like there is no one and only “island”; something about the multiplicity of thinking remains in the particular singularity of the thought as well. The vague multiplicity (lack of ownership rights in thinking), pours into the multiplicity of thoughts, into their distinction (“islands” in the sea of thoughts), and into the individual opinion, on the different and specific points of view regarding things to think about. Thinking “regarding a”, makes a thought that is being increased even more dense, that is multiplying for those who are present. Every thought that renders denser the fluidity of thinking in the moment it is formed, underlined, “isolated”, is also a condition until a communication, a Mit-teilung, is possible, Mit-teilung, res publica. The “isolated” condition of thought is the place of communication and, therefore, granting, once again, an opening to a state in which many participate. But even as communication, thought is not just simply the act of thinking. The difference is not given by the “multiplicity”, but by the distinction. An “isolated” thought, is a distinct thought; thinking without edges, is an “indistinct”, a maritime, a very wide thought. The multiplicity of thinking is lacking in determinations, is fluid, without edges. It is a multiplicity without subjects; it is not a matter of the multiplicity of two or many, but of a multiplicity of something, which can neither be enumerated nor counted. The multiple condition of “isolated” thinking is different; around its edge, the marine vastity roars. The “isolated” thought, being the thought of a “thing” around which people gather or deliberate, is public. That means that in the single thought, in its distinction from the sea of the never-ending activities of thinking, the communication of others is already registered. Rights are valid only on the island, the ownership, the deliberate, the thinking: res publica’s plural condition (the two and the many). Only the “island” of thoughts permits the existence of human community. But if humanity doesn’t gather around, the “island” of thinking represents the sharpest of loneliness. If nobody is around the “thing’ of thinking, even the res publica—that is never a res nullius, sea of thinking, lacking of distinctions and of ownership—is only a no man’s land. From an island to another, from a thought to another: the sea of thinking is striated by routes to one more island, Ulysses’ final destination. His journey is the journey to the island of the common “thing”, the island of thought of a place that belongs to us, where law, ownership, deliberation, thought are valid. The islands that come before that island during the journey through the immeasurability of marine thinking are islands that do not fund communities: island/thoughts/solitude: Calypso from the shore looking at the vast sea.


During the exchanging of letters between Thomas Mann and Karoly Kereny, the latter in his letter of August 1, 1946, speaks of an “archipelagic harmony of insular voices”, as if this were an unfulfilled humanist potentiality, which unrealized brought about the “devouring loneliness of other great Germans: Hölderlin and Nietzsche”. In the Great Hungarian mythology scholar’s comments, a vast landscape opens up before us. But maybe we should rest for a while on the edge of this landscape, paying some attention to the first line of that letter, in the year 1946, and especially to the place where it was written: Tegna. Kereny, in his letter of February 22 of that same year, informs Mann, that he was married in Tegna: “situated at the mouth of the Centovalli, near Locarno”. Kereny is in Switzerland for some years now; Tegna is a very small village of Ticino, “near the studio a six-people rabble”. His two other daughters are in Hungary, and he has just received a letter from one of them, Grazia, confirming she was safe; she had survived a Nazi concentration camp, and was now in Budapest: “Here, it is unbelievable, a miracle, but Grazia is already at home” says Kereny to Mann, “…in a city—Budapest—very severely damaged from the winter difficulties and from famine”. In that same letter of 1946, Kereny recalls that the date he composed the preface for the initial part of their quoted letter exchange (September 8, 1944)—published in 1945 on the 70th anniversary of the writer’s birth, entitled “Romanedichtung und Mythologie”—“…the date of Grazia’s 19th birthday”. At that time, Grazia was in the Auschwitz concentration camp”. “My daughter”, says Kereny, explaining his joy regarding the unexpected event “sick, but on her own”, had arrived in Budapest, alone after taking leave of her Jewish comrades, who were helped “by the Hebrew community of Presburg”, going for a while with “six gypsies”. Gypsies: “Who doesn’t feel pity when thinking that gypsies had to be, and many of them were, exterminated, when we often talk about the “musicality” of the Germans?” The loneliness of his daughter in that difficult situation of her return home, reminds the humanist of his own loneliness. “There is a Jewish and a German community, a community of Swiss and of Mexican people. Is there a community of Humanists or Gypsies?”
There is, therefore, an even harsher condition than the one the Jewish people are in: “I perceive there something tragically symbolic: the destiny of those who are not even Jewish”.
To belong nowhere, to not even be a Jew, since this community has been oppressed even more than you could imagine; to be far from your own country, experiencing the cosmopolitanism of an intellectual who feels he is not fully accomplishing his duty to his own country, Hungary. That is why Kereny’s thought concerns the community of those who respond to a different order of belonging. His thoughts are thoughts motivated by what had just happened in Europe that time: what the “musical” German people had caused without reasoning is the stretched thread, the journey in the incommensurability of human thinking, which constitutes the significant evidence of the letters. The “devouring loneliness of Great Germans” becomes the warning sign that prepares for the disaster. Kereny sees in Goethe’s behaviour, in his coldness and incomprehension of the res publica doctorum virorum, behaviour that borders “between the demonic and the urbane” that marks “the humanism of court”, an example of which is Goethe’s blissful position in Weimar”.
The loneliness, the isolation of the Humanist, the sense of not even being Jewish, are due to an impossible relation with authority, or rather to the cost of sacrificium intellectus. The intellectual who intervenes “for humane reasons” in favour of the “persecuted and the oppressed”, remains alone, and that is a very harsh thing to say, “When wretched men of the past would like to change their salvation into power”.
Therefore, solidarity for solidarity, Humanism per se as the intellectual’s attitude that manifests his affection for the human being, as a prerequisite for being a Humanist, are in opposition to the changing of the character of the unfortunate, who, after avoiding misfortunes, transform their given salvation “into power”. Therefore, the humanist’s isolation (caused by the authorities, without distinguishing between “capitalists or communists”) as Kereny cites, is due to an impossible relationship with authority. When this relationship becomes possible, i.e., in the case of Goethe’s blissful position in Weimar, the intellectual is not able to feel any kind of “humanistic solidarity”. This lack of solidarity marks the intellectual’s behaviour, at the same time is demoniac and urbane (meaning the whole of polite manners, all the manners appropriate to behaving politely in society, the “appearance”, the façade of Humanism). This lack of solidarity, exemplified, according to Kereny, by “Goethe’s secret nature”, is what will be fatal “for the German spirit, or rather, for the whole of humanity”.

The points that Kereny examines, certainly not unknown to most European intellectuals, concern the relation between the humanists’ republic and the authority. Not any authority in particular, but authority per se, as if an ontological difference existed between humanism, solidarity (this latter a criterion that defines humanists), and authority in any possible form. The German disaster is a disaster that affects the role of the intellectual, if he can still be considered a “Humanist”. The devouring loneliness of Great Minds (Nietzsche, Hölderlin), is the loneliness of those who haven’t found the conditions (Goethe’s ambiguity, according to Kereny, is in the background there) for a different solution to the “influence” that an intellectual might have. An influence that obviously differs from impotence: for Kereny impotence could not be the intellectual’s answer to his lack of any relation with a “holder of authority”. Between power and impotence, for the learned, for the humanist, who is one since he is concerned with humanity, appears an utopian solution, that does not deny the singularity of individual thinking, by seeing and estimating the greatness around thinking of the “thing” in common: the participating condition of the res publica. That does not even assume any of the exclusive characteristics of the administrative power, but those of the res publica doctorum virorum: the archipelagic harmony of insular voices that forms the new condition of belonging for those who “…are not even Jewish”. In 1959, Kereny brings the letters, their number fixed “in an irrevocable way since 1955”, the year of the writer’s death, with him to the island of Andros. On the Greek island, he would, beyond all expectation, find the proof of his work on Hermes’ figure. On the island, during the 19th century, an important sculpture representing the Greek god had been found, and on the island, Kereny was noticing how “hermetical”-obscure worships could still survive. What is important here is that in his “Introductory Observations” in the edition of the second part of his complete correspondence, Kereny warmly remembers what finding “refuge and salvation in copying the letters…and in the possibility of continuing the dialogue” meant to him after the writer’s death. A dialogue that represented “…an island for me”. In the letters that Kereny and Mann had exchanged from distant places (Switzerland: Tegna, Ascona, the writer’s American exile in California) the island represents the dialogue. Kereny’s feeling the necessity to carry the letters with him on Andros may not be meaningless—for a European geography of the res publica doctorum virorum. The intellectual image of the island—representing the “archipelagic” discourse between intellectuals—is now a concrete island “a real, remote island” that may be the specific location where all his hypotheses on the existence of obscure worships could be proved, but Andros is also “a starting point for an evocative meditation of the relation those letters manifest”. A starting point, an evocation of the discourse between the insular voices “under the Greek sky”.


My starting point, in a much more prosaic way, was my brief cab journey from my place, to the “Marco Polo” airport. The taxi driver, whom I was meeting for the first time, lived in a village near Venice where I have also been living for about a year now. He knows lots of things, details about the historic buildings, what their role was, a role that nowadays has been lost, who occupied them. I hear him, early in the morning, a clear day in the beginning of summer. I listen to him and I feel a little surprised at the things he knows, that I myself do not know, because I do not, and I do not feel that I do, belong to this place. Belonging to this place, in the way the driver’s conversation clearly reveals, does not entail a period of time (a year or some, ten, twenty years…) but a condition of existence, more than of biography: to be born there, and to live there since for ever. Birth and continuity: that is what distinguishes being one of the inhabitants of the small village where I, too, now live. A belonging that becomes even more solid if our parents as well, our grand parents, and, even further back, our great-grand parents, and then our own children were born and grew up in the same place. This continuity extends, spanning more than one generation. Once, in the house of a friend who was living near Siegen, in the Ruhr district, I remember glancing through a big volume with a black cover containing the genealogy of German families; I thought it was an old book from the years of Nazism, used to define those who could be consider fully Aryan. It was not at all like that: the pages were dedicated to the country she was living in, her genealogy included her parents and in the last row under her father’s surname, the surname of the head of the family, there was her name, born in the early 1960s. I have not had any chance to see another book of that kind, even though I’ve been in Germany plenty of times; my wife is German, but her parents moved to Bavaria after escaping from what was, at the time, East Germany; they were certainly German—my father-in-law comes from a small village situated between the region of Berlin and Pomerania, my mother-in-law is from Schwerin, in the North, near the sea. They left before the construction of the wall, they had not only lost their family house, which was given to others, but their own roots as well, their contact with their birthplace. In that village of Bavaria, where they had settled, between Munich and Augsburg, the ancient roman August, they were new arrivals, even though they had built a house, and their children went to school there. There is no book to include them. Even their pronunciation betrayed them; despite her long stay in Bavaria, my mother-in-law spoke German without the typical south German speech roundings, which often make someone who has tried hard to learn the language, feel lost when trying to discern the precision grammar teaches. My mother-in-law still spoke, after twenty years in Oberbayern, a northern German, where the desinences are very clearly defined, not very “Bavarian-sounding”.


The language we use when we speak, reveals—before any sort of conversation—where we belong; the taxi-driver spoke, unequivocally, a dialect typical of the island of Venice, without pronouncing double consonants, a rough sing-song that distinguishes the dialect of the Venetian countryside from the one of the city. Is it possible to write rhymes in dialect? A rhetorical kind of question: obviously, yes it is. But does writing poems in dialect mean pointing out you belong to a place that can be identified from a geographical point of view as well as from an administrative one?
Or maybe the more local of languages, when written in verse, share, nowadays, an insular destiny? Biagio Marin (1891-1985) is the poet of the island of Grado, born when the (official) spoken language in that thin coastal strip between Friuli and Veneto was German. A place that remained a Habsburg territory till the end of World War I, with a really romantic name: Küstenland. Under the Nazi occupation, after the fall of Fascism, that name reappeared on maps. A name that no longer expressed any kind of romanticism, but the late harshness—fortunately brief—of a new kind of (official) German language invasion. Biagio Marin spoke German since he went to an Austrian high school in Gorizia, afterwards completing his studies in Vienna. But he did not serve under the two-headed eagle flag during the First World War. He deserted and became a soldier serving the Italian monarchy. His belonging to that region was not identified with the figures of civil and military authority and organisation of what was considered to be an (administrative) foreign invasion, and the language, even though he studied and loved it—the language of poets who had very much influenced him (Heine, Hölderlin)—was not his own language. But his language was not even that of the armed forces, which he, of his own free will, had decided to serve, nor was his language that of the even older invasion of the Doge of Venice: his, language was only that of his birth place, of the island of Grado in the Adriatic Sea, not far from Aquileia: a Venetian-Friulian dialect of a hundred or less words, as Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was also from Friuli, had remarked. Pasolini considered Marin’s poems to be the greatest verses written in an Italian dialect of the twentieth century, and that is why he included them in an important anthology of his. A hundred or less words composed Marin’s vocabulary, a distillation of the language spoken in a small fishermen’s village, with a fishermen-village landscape, composed of lagoons, a large sea and sky, “a sea that ends” as Gabriele D’Annunzio once said, shutting himself up in the wide gulf between Venice and Trieste, and inside that marine arch, the island of Grado, praised in many poems by its own particular poet. Biagio Marin did not leave the island of Grado; he passed away in 1985, very old, almost blind, but tenaciously bound to his rite of writing poems, one very similar to the other, like the trees in a forest; that is why it was impossible for him to put together a collection of the best ones. Thanks to Claudio Magris’ initiative, and a preface written by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a volume of his work was published, with a Nietzsche-type title in dialect, La vita xe fiama (Life is a flame), published by an important Italian publishing house (Einaudi Torino, 1970). But even for someone who never moved from his birthplace, for someone who incarnated language in its most delicate tone, there is no continuity; that calm, everyday belonging, that versesless belonging, the taxi driver who bought me to the airport had, does not exist. Even though Marin was a famous poet in Italian literature’s circles, he was an isolated man; the island was his own condition, he, just like the island, had no bond with existence anymore. To be able to compose verses in a language, even the most inward of languages, like the mother tongue of Grado, the language of the previous generations and of the neighbours, “Bisogna taiga le radise” (You have to cut off the bonds) and it’s an operation that “fa mal, mundi mal a tagiale” (hurts, hurts very badly when cutting). But only in this way is the language spoken in a place transformed into an “insular” language, made of crystals and purity: “Dal dolor me xe nati ‘sti cristali’’ (Those crystals are generated from my pain).


Somewhere there are some blessed isles, the gluckselige Inseln, about which Zarathustra speaks. These pages of Nietzsche exude an extreme, almost painful, sweetness, “It is autumn all around, the sky is clear and it is afternoon”. The landscape is where late summer fruits mature, the “tasty and sweet” figs that fall from the trees, and the light red peel bruises and permits us to see the mature pulp. Just like the air from the north that presages the arrival of autumn and causes figs to fall, in that same way Zarathustra centres around and lets fall, almost like mature figs, his teaching upon his friends who hear him. Another wind from north-east, in Hölderlin, was announcing the departure of sailors, and another fig tree, “Still well I remember this” (Noch denket das mir wohl), was growing in the yard, where “women go during festive days” (Im Hofe aber wächset ein Feigenbaum /Am Feiertagen gehn/Die braunen Frauen daselbst…”). In Rilke’s writings the autumn season marks the end of the “long summer” that his extreme legacy commands “the last fruits to be full” (Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein). The wind also blows in Rilke’s camps, summer already burned away. That same wind that made figs and the teachings of the wise fall upon the blessed isles and filled the navigators’ sails, since “in the sea richness starts” (Hölderlin). Literary images of the fullness of overwhelmed maturity, of abundance. And of detachment; maybe the most explicit conceptual passage is from Nietzsche: “Look at the fullness around us! It is nice looking at remote seas, from the abundance” (Überflusse).
From the blessed isles, one can look towards remote seas, towards that joining together of “the richness of the land and winged war” that distinguishes the trip toward remote shores in Hölderlin’s navigators. This condition, to turn one’s gaze towards infinity, beyond the defined edges of the land, once would be called “God”, but Zarathustra has taught us to say: Übermensch. What surprises is the relation between abundance (Überfluss) and the new dimension of human being, announced by Zarathustra: Übermensch. And their connection in an image about the island. Do we (always) depart from the islands “because” of their replete and perfect condition? Or, on the contrary— thinking about that boat of ours, that has moved away from the Volos shore—do we turn our eyes from the “continental” fullness towards the islands, the islands where there is nothing but the wind, the sea and maybe a rare animal? Is our tendency from continental density towards “insular” rarefaction a “superhuman” manifestation? Up to what point are we children of a technique that, beyond any sort of “humanistic” intention, we are unable to incarnate, almost as a destiny, the “superhuman” condition? I have taken some notes during the crossing from Volos to Youra island.


May 2005

May 2005
“A round trip to the Sporades, the boat allows us to get together; it is the first concrete exchange of hypotheses on what to do, or even better on what to think. Some students of the faculty of Architecture are sitting around. I’ve talked about “forcing”, which I think was written about the thoughts on a project regarding a desert island. Maybe there is no thought at all to express, but only the acceptance of what Youra actually is: an island that has been placed under protective measures, restrictive measures, since two extremely rare animal species live in its environment (the Monk seal / monachus-monachus, and a category of wild goat, called Kri-kri). The island of Youra belongs to a marine national park. A fact that resolves the matter about what the island is, and what its administrative identity and role in the contemporary world are. Between our presence around this table and the administrative identity of the island, there is an “empty space” to fill in. This starting condition imposes some limits, and only if we manage to overcome them, will we, maybe, be able to fill in the “gap”. We are searching, just like this boat between the islands and the shore, for a neutral path that will maintain equal distances from the given conditions. A desert island, a modern administrative role. What I think will be fruitful is the idea of enforcing those limits.
What is the created distance between the obscurity of a rock and the legislation in force? The island is not a “desert”. It is a microcosm of visual languages. As if we could encounter that complexity, which De Certeau perceives in common speech in common action as well, which is always an action related to “taking place” (I look at a young girl moving some rocks; around her are only some bushes, some stones and pebbles that emerge from the ground; she tidies up the rocks, rearranges them. In this way, she occupies a time and place).

Taking place defines a discontinuity in connection with the surroundings. Taking place is like “nominating” your own existence.

The net of fencing that surrounds some small buildings; the net of fencing (archetype of every frame), the decorative and apotropaic function of the goat-heads positioned by the entrances. Inside the enclosure: the small church, the custodian’s house, the vegetable garden (a cultivated garden), the grapes, the fig trees, a flower here and there in the small flowerbed, the flag pole with the Greek flag. Roles with strictly intersected symbolic aspects. An eventual work on the primary structures (functional / symbolic) taking place? (And the solar water heaters that appear on some roofs?)

I followed the group as it explored the island, a limited exploration of the areas that could be reached through small paths usually used by some custodians who take turns periodically, without remaining permanently, on the island. Some minutes before getting to the boat, anchored on the rocky shore, I left the group for a bit. I sat down on a rock close to the sea; I did not know, I learned later, that the light blue mass barely visible on the horizon was Mount Athos. I took some notes on slips of paper, receipts that I keep saving, in case they’re needed, in my wallet. I will also write down, those last scribbled notes. “Severance? Isolated island? Only calm silence, not even that since I can hear the wind—light, in brief intermittent gusts; I can hear the waves breaking, but without any trace of violence. It is rather a vast murmur. And the smell of wild plants. It is not true that nature says nothing to me. Or rather, it is true: nature says nothing to me. I am not good at describing this very vast existence. The sun heats the rocks, the plants, me. Nothing remains, nothing that could possibly be taken away”.

“A fullness that dazes, that inebriates. Chasing it with words means getting even drunker. Losing this state of being…there are other states of existence apart from the word. Yes, ‘here and now’. But there is little to say, for me to say, with respect to the vastness before and all around me.”

No comments: