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On the side of Marcel

  • On the side of Marcel

     

     

    Places do not exist 

    “Our imagination is like a beat-up Barberia barrel-hand  Organ”

    Marcel Proust    

    The very first thing we learn from Proust, is that places do not exist. We do not need to go trough the thousands of pages of the Recherche to approach this basic truth. 
    “And so, every time I woke up at night and remembered Combray, for a long time I could see only that kind of shining patch of light amidst  a dim darkness, like the ones that  a Bengal light or a beam of a lamp  lighten or isolate, in a building while other parts remain deep in darkness.” 
    It is illusory,  if not foolish  to think they really exist, there, where a map shows them. Let’s assume that I arrive at Iliers, a hundred kilometres from Paris. Let’s assume that it is a beautiful day, that I take Avenue de la Gare from the station to get near the ruins of the castle and then  that I look for the path lined with hawthorns.  What  nonsense. I would have  been completely mistaken.  Ilier is not Combray, at the most   it looks like it.  The path leading to the hawthorns  would need a million things to come into existence. A small basket abandoned by a fishing rod (a possible clue that Mademoiselle Swann was there), the prolonged  long  note emitted  by an invisible bird. And, above all, a very clear light: “so implacable to make you  wish to avoid its attention”. 
    Places do no belong to eternity,  but to the magic of a unique  instant.  So are  photos. The maps where we really find them, are written by heart beats.
    “Then I went back and looked at  the hawthorns as if they were those masterpieces we think we can see better if you do not observe them for some minutes; it was useless to  cover my eyes with my hands so that I could gaze only at them;  the feeling they raised in me  was still obscure and vague and it tried  vainly to get free, to come and adhere  to their flowers”.
    Proust is one of the few authors who has been able to describe the violent, sensual and  gloomy   charm of places which exist in our memory, in dreams, in the waiting,   in the sound of their names and not where they are.  Or no more. 
    Just a few writers have been able to describe, as Proust did, the violent, sensual and 
    Gloomy fascination of places that exist only in our memories, in dreams, in the waiting,  in the very sound of their name and not in the place where they really are.  Or where they are not any longer. A few writers have been able to explain,  as Proust did, how the genuine , deepest nature of a place is composed of intangible elements.
    The weather, for instance. The characters in  the Recherche, starting with the Narrator, are  sensitive to weather; they continuously observe changes in the weather,  and they are  upset by these: “This evening  the clouds show such beautiful  violet and blue nuances, don’t’ you think so, my friend?” “It could rain as long as it could, but tomorrow, on the white fence in Tansonville, small heart-shaped leaves” would have been there, swaying  as usual.”  “So, if the weather was  changeable, I kept examining insistently the sky  and  considered  any omen”. 
    Places are made of air and light, of wind. (“it was so strong”, sometimes, along the Champs-Ėlysées!). In their definition there is also music, noise, the quality of silence which permeates  them. And, above all, the state of mind  we are in when we walk   across them;  the way the interior  landscape corresponds to the  external one,  interpreters it and allows us  to interpreter it. 
    The wonderful photos by Eva Tomei are searching clues du coté de chez Marcel”. Why are we caught in such amazement  while observing them? Because the photos refuse to describe what exists. Places come to our eyes when we cannot find them in geography. They are ready to become a memory; they are visions, wishes, those places have already become  almost a dream. 
    Proust writes: “Even from a simply realistic point of view, countries we yearn for have more space in every moment of our lives than countries where we actually are.” 
    These photos tell  us the truth about every yearning,  a favourite term in poetry: the Italian word for it is “vagheggiamento” which comes from “vague”: moving, precarious. Yearning: a long roving  of your eyes over the things that have attracted them. Looking intensely, with love and desire. Gazing fondly, imagining. Eva Tomei must have gazed fondly at  the places  mentioned in the Recherce for a long while. And then, she tried to reach them. They were there, but they were not there. They needed to be evoked, nurtured by imagination, transfigured, otherwise they could not come into existence as photos.
    The Bois de Boulogne, Eva Tomei shows us, is not simply the park in Paris on the western edge of the city: it is the longing for something, maybe the spirit with which Proust recalls it from afar, while alone into his bedroom. Autumn: “a sight coming to an end so abruptly that there is not enough  time to watch it”. 
    And certain lonely massive cliffs on beaches in  Normandy in these images become what the Narrator dreamed of Balbec, “in the stormy mild nights in February”, when the wind “was blowing -  in my heart which trembled like  the flames in the fireplace in my room –the suggestion for  the plan of a trip” and nourished my desire for  watching a storm at sea. 
    The close-up image of sand, of the  shiny pavé of a square where streetlamps  are turned on at dusk, the sky reflecting in a stretch of water, a sad girl’s face, horse races, the enigmatic geometry of a garden, the tables of an outdoor,   a stretch of the Champs-Ėlysées, the Doge’s Palace Ducale in Venice: all this blurs,  moves, lives in a fascinating kind of interruption. “The eternal representation of the country where I would love to live”. 
    In Eva Tomei’s photos we very often find traces of a human presence even if it is  a distant, almost imperceptible one; there is possibly the image  of a thin happy figure surrounded by the vast landscape: a  boy who  is running (the sun is setting behind the Pyramid at the Louvre).  They are like silhouettes in the darkness, or reflected in the windows of a café. Places are us who inhabit them.
    Like in the Recherce, so in these photos “from Marcel’s  side” here we find a kind of minor, homely, private legend of some places. They change, betray, they even die. And they change us and we betray them. They die together with us. But  later they can come back to life, thanks to a cup of tea, maybe,  in the unpredictable times   of    unintentional memory. But then, as Samuel Beckett observes in his essay: Proust-feelings follow their own schedule which is always slightly different from the one of real facts. Nothing is really at risk, though, as long as the organs of our senses, the deep  deposits of our “mind’s underground” support us.  We can always find again  all things long lost, or even what has never existed.  
    The places we have  known do not belong only to the space where we put them because it was the easiest way for us. They were only a thin slice among the contiguous impressions that shaped our life in those days.  Memories  of  certain images, are only the regret for  certain moments; houses, streets, avenues, are slipping by, alas, like the years of our lives”.

     

    Paolo Di Paolo

     

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