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Regaining foreignness

When I first came to London eleven years ago, everybody around me sang like a bird. My English was so poor that I could hardly understand what the locals were saying, and overhearing their conversations on a bus or in the pub resembled standing silent in a forest hearing the birds sing. “How many wonderful things they must be saying!” I used to think then. But the most wonderful thing of all, was the unique intonation of each speaker, resounding ever more strongly as it was unpolluted by the meaning of their words. Even though I couldn’t fathom the content of their songs, their voice alone told me something about each speaker. Back then, if I had been a musician, I could have composed a piece of programme music based on the sound of people chattering, like Vivaldi did on the changing sound of seasons.

As my grasp of the English language improved, I started to recognise the content within each vocal message, until the content was almost the only thing that I could hear in a conversation. I remember well the disappointment caused by this supposed improvement. It was like when I started to understand the meaning of those English songs that I used to sing back in Italy. As the lead singer in an atrocious teenage punk-rock band, English lyrics used to be little more than the vague drawing of a sonic landscape. The meaning of it was all in my (poor) vocal interpretation, and thus my ‘intention’ coloured and gave substance to each passage. When I finally began to understand their actual meaning, it was as if I had suddenly been turned into the unwilling bearer of an underwhelming message. As during my stay in the UK, it was only my condition as a foreigner that endowed me with the vision of a wonderful landscape.

A few years later, well into my residence in the UK yet before the birth of my son (that decreed once and for all my long-term permanence here), I started feeling the urge to migrate once again. I no longer wanted to live in London, not because it didn’t feel like home to me, but precisely because it did. Despite my foreign name and my unrepentant Italian accent, I was becoming a true Londoner, and my foreignness was rapidly vanishing. Birds were no longer singing, neither in language nor in the world around me. My plans to move abroad were dashed by my new family situation, and the unfolding political events forced me to take up British citizenship – yet my desire to regain my foreignness didn’t whither. Even if I couldn’t get back the material conditions of foreigness, I could still strive to create within myself the filter of a mental foreignness. This is, if you wish, a self-directed form of détournement, whose object is not the world (which after all, is always ‘local’ to itself), but my own presence within it.

How to proceed along this journey, though? The first inspiration came to me from a quote by 12th century mystic Hugh of Saint Victor, much loved by Edward Said: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” Considered in its original context, this epigram meant to convey the state of a mystic, whose true ‘home’ is not the material but the celestial world. Applied to my situation, however, its scope became more modest. I read Hugh of Saint Victor’s admonishment as if it was directed against an easy temptation: that of becoming foreign to a certain land, while retaining one’s allegiance to another. What would be the point of inhabiting my foreignness to Britain, say, if I retained Italy as my motherland? Neither here, nor there: that should be my home. But how to inhabit such a fleeting home?

The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade came to my aid in tackling this problem. According to Eliade, the original function of a home was not confined to providing shelter, but lay in its function as a ‘centre of the world’. A recurrent theme in Eliade’s production, the notion of ‘centre’ allows us to imagine an unrooted place, akin to the negative space of a door or of a window. The centre is the place of passage through which runs the axis mundi (axis of the world), connecting the different dimensions of reality. Like the sacred pole that held up the opening at the top of a nomad’s tent, a centre is the vertical highway that binds together the celestial, the terrestrial and the chthonic realm, while opening each of them to the others. Like a traditional home was conceived around its function as a centre – and there can be infinite such centres – so the ‘home’ of an aspiring foreigner can become such a peculiar structure. Not a fortress, but a moving path, at once an infrastructure and a vehicle.

Inhabiting the ‘centre of the world’ and adopting it as one’s own home, means relating to the world from a position that is always partly elsewhere – it means being a vector, rather than a mere geometrical point. Seen from this perspective, the world appears always as if rushing back into the distance. Each voice is perennially escaping us, subsisting more as a fading memory than as an archivable object. The others, too, appear in their relative motion to the constant shuffling between realms that constitutes the essence of a centre of the world. And our relationship to each other consists in a form of ‘running together’ along this path, so that two foreigners can be at home with each other if they harmonise their respective oscillations.

But what does it mean, in practice? As I walk down the street, how can I look at it as if I was a foreigner – not only to the culture, but to the land itself? Developing one’s foreignness to a culture is fairly easy, at least in theory. It is a matter of an ‘unlearning’ of sorts, a wilful ignorance that wishes not to know something, but to listen to it. Returning advertising posters and street signs to their visual element, blurring out one’s vision of the neat sequence of words that innervate them. Recognising the chains of black ants that march along a newspaper’s page, listening to their ink-soaked steps rather than chasing their alphabetic direction. Doing with one’s ears what we can do with our eyes, as we wilfully lose the focus of our gaze towards an object – so that the sound of people chattering is returned to its being a form of warbling, and the city where it takes place is returned to being a wood. Looking at oneself in the mirror with enough irony to see the great joke that we carry within ourselves, the key to understanding the Yiddish proverb “Mann Tracht, Und Gott Lacht” (“Man plans, and God laughs”). Inhabiting one’s own name as if it was another’s, like Fernando Pessoa inhabited his heteronyms.

But this is the easy part. More difficult is to become a foreigner to the land itself. How can we listen to an actual bird singing, as if we were foreign to it too? “Do what you can to forget all of God’s creations and all their actions, so that your thoughts and desires are not directed and do not reach out towards any of them, in general or in particular. But leave them alone, and pay no heed to them. […] You yourself are cleansed and made virtuous by this work more than by any other. And yet it is the easiest work of all and the soonest completed, when a soul is helped by grace in the desire it feels; but otherwise it is hard, and you can do it only by miracle. Do not give up, then, but labour at it till you fell desire. For the first time you do it, you will find only a darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing, you do not know what, except that you feel in your will a naked purpose. […] And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for Him you love; for if you are ever to feel or see Him, so far as is possible in this life, it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.” (1) Thus preached the anonymous 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

In lower and more secular terms, we can suggest that foreignness towards things themselves, towards ‘nature’, can be achieved by an overall ‘suspension of judgement’ – a metaphysical version of that epoché promoted in antiquity by the Pyrrhonist school of scepticism. Whenever we face an object, its very presence facing us places us in a state of krisis, that is, etymologically, a position in which we are called to ‘judge’ (from the Greek krinein) what that object is, thus immediately assigning a name to it. By approaching the phenomenal emergence of things as a krisis, we tame the world into a stable environment, ready to be reclaimed as one’s own familiar homeland. It is this false familiarity, born of crisis, what ultimately dissolves one’s foreignness to the world. Conversely, if we manage to resist the urge to immediately ‘judge’ and tame the world, developing instead a practice of metaphysical epoché, we might be able to retain that ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which the world reveals itself as at once distant and near, and ourselves as at once inhabitants of the world and foreign to it.

This is, after all, what a painter does when looking at an object. Oblivious to its name and function, often even to its individuality, a painter sees the combination of light-volume-colour instead of the familiar instance of a linguistic entity. Likewise with birdsongs: recognising them unequivocally as music, rather than as animal calls, allows us to approach them with that ‘naked purpose’ that alone can guide us through the ‘darkness’ of a foreign world. Rediscovering the purely aesthetic dimension of the world, rather than its linguistic logos, places us in a position of foreignness, which is akin to the contemplation of a mystic, a painter, a musician or a poet. Foreignness is born out of desire and it is first embodied in a particular attitude of our senses, in turn shaping our existential experience of the world. “It is the easiest work of all and the soonest completed, when a soul is helped by grace in the desire it feels; but otherwise it is hard, and you can do it only by miracle.”

It remains to discuss what we can understand as ‘grace’…

(1) 14th century Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by A. C. Spearing, London: Penguin, 2001, chapter 3, pp. 21-22.

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