Mediterranean Winter : The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese
InMediterranean Winter, Robert D. Kaplan, the bestselling authorof Balkan GhostsandEastward to Tartary, relives an austere, haunting journey he took as a youth through the off-season Mediterranean. The awnings are rolled up and the other tourists are gone, so the damp, cold weather takes him back to the 1950s and earlier-a golden, intensely personal age of tourism. Decades ago, Kaplan voyaged from North Africa to Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece, luxuriating in the radical freedom of youth, unaccountable to time because there was always time to make up for a mistake. He recalls that journey in this Persian miniature of a book, less to look inward into his own past than to look outward in order to dissect the process of learning through travel, in which a succession of new landscapes can lead to books and artwork never before encountered. Kaplan first imagines Tunis as the glow of gypsum lamps shimmering against lime-washed mosques; the city he actually discovers is even more intoxicating.
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March 08, 2005
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Excerpt from Mediterranean Winter by Robert D. Kaplan
Divinity exists in beautiful memories: leaves like weightless bronze, engraved with the year, falling amid the trees of Rodin's sculpture garden in Paris. For Rodin, the human body was the ultimate expression of nature, and nudity the opposite of decadence because it bore the glory and pain of the universe. Inside the artist's mansion, I recall torsos that, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes, were complete even though they lacked arms, and a haggard woman with a sagging belly and crumpled breasts who was beautiful. Rodin knew that limbs and youth are superfluous to beauty. Rodin's "Old Woman" is the true goddess of travel. Her body is the tortured ruin of a lifetime, whose memories are intimated by her downward gaze. Her knowledge and experience now have no material purpose except reflection. Indeed, the sculpture may represent a courtesan brooding over her sins: travel is where we truly meet ourselves. We remember what we must in order to endure, says the philosopher Henri Bergson. That is why so much of commonplace existence is forgotten, while our journeys never are.
"The masses do not see the Sirens," Nikos Kazantzakis observes. "They do not hear songs in the air. Blind, deaf, stooping, they pull at their oars in the hold of the earth. But the more select, the captains, harken to a Siren within them...and royally squander their lives with her." Kazantzakis' siren is a "merciless voice-the TIGRESS." She is his companion on all his journeys. She "digs her claws into my brain, and we reflect on all we have seen and all we have yet to see." Robert Graves calls her the "White Goddess," who can appear as a "she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag." The test of any writer's vision, Graves says, is "the accuracy of his portrayal" of her. The goddess's physical beauty lies only in her eyes. Her allure is the life of the mind. For it is the yearning after comparisons and metaphors for each new object and landscape that sanctifies consciousness.
Leaves falling on statues were my last memory of autumn for fourteen years. That evening I boarded a train south to Marseilles and instantly consigned Rodin's garden to the past. Like all diarists, I wrote down what I felt before moving on, while the mood of the place still dominated my thoughts. Now I travel in retrospect: excavating only the most useful fragments. Thus, I will keep personal matters to a minimum. I had recently graduated from college and was working at a small newspaper in Vermont. In the summer of 1975, I watched the civil war in Lebanon on the nightly news. In the hope of becoming a foreign correspondent, I applied for a job at the wire services, the television networks, and over a dozen large metropolitan newspapers. With little experience as a journalist and a degree from a middle-of-the-pack college, my resume was forgettable. No one hired me. I was restless. My father, a truck driver, had spent his twenties riding railway cars around the United States, earning a living as a horse-racing tout in forty-three of the lower forty-eight states. After a "big score" he would check into a first-class hotel, a big cigar in hand: twenty-four hours later he would be living a hobo's existence like so many others in the 1930s. He filled me with stories of his escapades in Depression-era America, and of the conquering image of a still-pastoral and naive nation, where the scams he ran were relatively innocent and people bought you a meal when you were down and out. My father's last memory of travel was in 1942. He had just completed basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and was heading north on a troop train for dispatch to Europe. At a rail junction near Cairo, Illinois, the sun was setting in rich colors over the prairie. Other trains were then converging from several tracks onto a single line that would take the soldiers to points along the East Coast where ships awaited. Across a wide arc, all he saw were trains and more trains, with soldiers looking out through every window as each train curved toward the other against a flat and limitless landscape lit red by the sun. I had a traveling companion. Though we shared an intimacy that gave the journey its own enchantment, on another plane we remained two solitary beings filling up the pages of our respective notebooks. What follows is a record of that second, silent plane of existence, where the pronoun I is more appropriate than we. I wandered through landscapes as though down the corridors of a museum, groping toward a vocation that I had never found in college. Because I now know much more about these places than when I first saw them, my recollection cannot help but be both enhanced and distorted.
Rilke writes that the Greek and Roman galleries in the Louvre "revealed to Rodin radiant visions of an antique world of southern skies, a sea, heavy stone monuments from immemorial civilizations." Rodin had not simply copied the Greek and Roman style. He was heir to two millennia of Christian culture. His statues owe their powerful effect to the turmoil and agitation arising from the guilt of original sin. Thus, they lack the idealized serenity common to classical sculpture. I remember them because of their link to the ancient ruins and medieval churches that I saw afterwards in Tunisia and Sicily: places that drew me because of the books I read. For those who, in Kazantzakis' words, "squander their lives" with the Tigress, the great events of life come from the books, rather than the people, one comes across. Some books show us a new world, others vindicate our own experience. Books can lead you astray, they can ruin you, they can deliver you from the strictures of your environment. Because some are so important one remembers perfectly the circumstances in which one found them, and read them. You don't find the books that change your life by accident; nor by design. One finds them the way a ragpicker finds something useful in the garbage, or the way a hunter accidentally encounters his prey. The enterprise demands vigilance, says the philosopher Walter Benjamin: it takes practice to lose one's way in a city in order to discover something important about it. I had strayed into a bookshop in Hanover, New Hampshire, on an October day of intense sunlight and broken shadows, melancholy despite the electric colors of the leaves. On a back shelf I found Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo and Michel Zeraffa's Tunisia; on a table near the front of the shop was Livy's The War with Hannibal. Henceforth, I encountered civilizations and empires: Numidian, Roman, and Carthaginian; Vandal and Byzantine; Aghlabid, Zirid, and Hafsid. Also kings, generals, saints, false prophets, and wise men: Jugurtha, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal, Genseric, St. Augustine, Donatus, Justinian, Ibn Khaldun. In Salammbo, Flaubert writes of a war between Carthage and its Libyan-led mercenaries, who rebelled in 241 B.C. His chilling descriptions of an organized state defending itself against an anarchic horde made a lasting impression on me. In Flaubert's hands, Tunisia became a land of monsters and ruins, blood and sensuality. He depicts mercenaries painted with vermilion "like coral statues"; soldiers snoring "open-mouthed" beside the burnt corpses of monkeys; lions crucified along a road; barbarians smearing butter and cinnamon on the faces of idols in celebration of a victory; and the sacrifice of children to appease the pagan god Baal. When the Carthaginian priestess Salammbo finds a Libyan mercenary leader alone in his tent, her body smells of "honey, pepper, incense, and roses," while the stench of nearby elephants wafts through a tear in the canvas. Flaubert's description of the effects of a thunderstorm upon a crowd, prior to the ritual slaughter of boys, provides a rare insight into the emotions behind child sacrifice. The war that Livy records between Rome and Carthage occurred two decades after the one described by Flaubert. While many of the battles were fought in Sicily, the war climaxed in Tunisia. For millennia, Tunisia, with its command of the Sicilian Channel, guarded the whole of the western Mediterranean. That autumn I pored over maps of Tunisia and Sicily: two inviting fragments of land, with deserts, almond-clad mountains, and ruins. Their volatile inhabitants had embraced Christianity, the Donatist heresy, and Islam with equal passion. The two territories form the bottleneck of the Mediterranean, dividing it into east and west: each, as I would learn, with its own historical and cultural pattern. I would fly to France and take a boat to Tunisia, with the aim of traveling about the Mediterranean. The winter stretched ahead of me like a lifetime. How to recapture the sense of endless possibilities before the accumulation of deeds to justify: when one was unaccountable to time because there was always time to make up for a mistake?