:: Article


By Adrian West.

I know nothing about Cadaqués, I know nothing about any of the places we go apart from presumptions that seem so basic, it would be ludicrous to put them to paper: that there will be people there, for example, or places to sit down and eat. Every time we travel, I complain about tourism, over and over I say that to go somewhere without any feeling for its ipseity is an act of intellectual inconsequence; but my carping never inspires me me to probe into the antiquity of places, I have tried, it always bores me. It is as if I cannot accept the truth of history, everything appears to me in light of the present. As a consequence, I am never sure why I am going anywhere. Recently I wrote a note to the author Katya Petrovskaya apologizing for my taciturn and maudlin manner at an event I had attended with her in Straelen, in the north of Germany, by the Dutch border:

… when I travel, it always seems as if I were forced to go to another world. Psychologists speak of the acquisition of object-permanence in early childhood, it may be that is something I never learned; and when I am not at home, I repeatedly think, perhaps my former life is gone forever. Naturally this is absurd, but in the words of Ernst Raupach: As aught from yesterday the dreamer knows, so knows the soul not what shall come to meet it.

The city we do not know confronts us as impenetrably as a geometric volume, I think, though I know it isn’t true; as soon as the exterior assaults us we withdraw to the safety of classifications: at the very least, we know the meaning of the shifting streetlights, the purpose of the sidewalks, the words bar and café are the same the world over. After a certain age, perceptions seem to serve no purpose at all but to divest the exterior of autonomy with relation to its self-definition.

The historical sense of place turns the visual into narrative –– the building is not a bare quantity but a projection backward into staggered propositions: the eroded, creature-laden capitals crowning the columns that hoist the stone ceiling of a gallery permit the statement it was built in such-and-such era; with our rudiments of heraldry we deduce the names and demonyms of the former owners from the coat of arms on the façade and situate them in an idea of a past colored by crude conceptions of certain lifeways and above all, by props: lances, velvet capes, and cauldrons over fires, things we have seen in films and paintings and read about in books; in this way, the idea of the palace becomes a sequence of statements to which the fact of the palace is almost incidental. If a person can make a great number of these statements, we call him cultured. Often I wonder why the knowledge of cultured persons enjoys such prestige in comparison with the similarly intricate and intermingled declarations of the mad, which are also a kind of knowledge; particularly as what was held to be true by the most judicious minds of the past is often no less outlandish than the made by the insane of the present age.

Are these propositions not pernicious to places as such? Do narratives render places obsolete? Perhaps the problem is that I have never asked myself what it is, exactly, that impels me to hoard together propositions about places, or to what degree these propositions augment my experience of place and at what point they begin to impoverish it. Or else I have never troubled to elaborate an idea of bodily truth, the truth of unadorned visual and tactile impressions, and therefore don’t know what remains of places once their propositional aspect has been depleted.

The places I have been and the propositions that surround them are not synonymous, I surmise, but only because, in my recollections of my thoughts concerning the one, I feel certain I was not thinking of the other. Yet the images I retain of the places I have visited are little more than hieroglyphs of their absence; while the propositions concerning them, no matter how intimate they are, appear in an abstract light, as impersonal and eternal as numbers.

Our eyes are greeted, as we park the car, by a vinyl poster covering the outer wall of a house. It bears the image of the town’s totem artist, Salvador Dalí, at around sixty years of age, leaning diagonally across a yacht approaching from behind; a vulgar avatar for this famous figure whose talent paled alongside his cupidity, and whose remaining devotees, appropriately enough, are composed in the main by the disaffected offspring of better-off Americans. He is being pulled through the air by his metastasized moustaches, their tips in the mouth of soaring gulls, and looks a bit like Muammar Gaddafi.

Cadaqués, like Kamakura, is a symbolic city, consisting solely of a representation of itself: it is there to be depicted on T shirts and refrigerator magnets that in turn exist only to depict it. As we take a sloping street that leads to the old town, we see a notice board advertising artistic occasions at various galleries and restaurants, and above it, someone has written in magic marker: Menys record d’art y mes obli d’art. I take a photograph of this phrase to remember it; strangely, though I travel frequently, I seem only to photograph what is written on walls. Intuitively, I agree with the sentiment; words written in defiance always seem possessed of their own moral authority; but then I recall the relation of art to the freedom of the spirit and the abjection of people ignorant thereof, those whom history has suffused with the impulse toward art while segregating them from the possibility of taking part therein in a manner commensurate with their spiritual longings. So much is a question of measure, of knowing where the freedom afforded by my reading of Aichinger or St.-John Perse grades into the oppression of someone in Cadaqués who cannot even begin to think in an artistic way amid the enervating repetition of the words Picasso, Dalí, and Miró.  Particularly as the lavishness with which the artistic heritage is preserved has largely stripped art of its power, giving rise to a culture of connoisseurship of a mock-aristocratic character, the closest analogue to which is gastronomy and whose end, as with all forms of snobbery, is actually a cultivated antipathy. It is only by escaping from obsequiousness, from the craving for omniscience, into the notion of a unique spiritual vocation, that the sense of the freedom of art can persist.

On the mountains that descend into the city, tracts of land are cordoned off by ragstone walls, oftentimes terraced for the cultivation of olive trees, lower down they are replaced by rock mounds held steady by cyclone fencing or concrete. In the harbor, the old rowboats and launches bob in the harbor beside cruisers and rubber dinghies. Does the ugliness of the modern reside in a discernible esthetic property or in the knowledge of the kind of world that was necessary to produce it, a world from which ugliness and uglification cannot be cloven? The question arises as we look from majesty of the sea to the tourists drinking beer from plastic cups, or at the ancient city centers surrounded by tower blocks, or the endless granaries and tile factories that scar the Catalan landscape.

It is hard to imagine the beach-visiting compulsion as anything other than a beach-destruction compulsion: a wish to engage in the same acts of spiritual and intellectual nullification described as relaxation, but in front of water, and with easy access to such conveniences as necessitate the slapdash erection of bars and markets by which the serenity of the seaside is ruined. Could our era’s fervid tourism be an attempt to snuff out the enchantment of existence in order to prepare ourselves for the nothingness of death?

Overhearing snippets of Italian and Brazilian Portuguese, my wife and I discuss the baneful effects of lowcost airlines and which nationality represents the lowermost stratum of the dernièrs-arrivistes whose coming marks the exhaustion of a place’s possibilities for refreshment and inner repose. I look across at the houses hugging the bay, barely indistinguishable from a type built by the upper fringe of the American middle classes in the 1950s and 60s, a type I associate with California, a place I have only seen on TV. From an aesthetic perspective, democracy can only be judged to have been a disaster, I think, as we approach the kiosk where I will have a drink in the hopes of calming my frazzled nerves. When we sit down, I watch the egress of a woman in clothing so strangely tailored as to give her limbs and torso the stubby aspect of a dwarf’s.

When our surroundings grow hideous, we take refuge in the small, we look away to the water folded over itself by the wind, to the rock pool and the mussels crusted in barnacles, and the red anemones like rubber balls embedded in depressions in the rocks with their trimming of sea froth. It is never the grand things that really touch us, grandiosity is not our calling, there is something unbecoming, even insidious, about vigor. The sense of place proper, returning to what we were thinking of before, is indistinguishable from privacy, and privacy itself a mere abstraction of the feeling of shelter and belonging.

Did primitive man enjoy natural beauty, the elegant intricacy with which the sea imbricates the slender, round-edged rocks along the shore, the hollows in the promontories, elegant in their uneven regularity, the reddish glow in the limestone where the iron deposits have begun to oxidize, all far more beautiful than the so-called attractions people come here to gawk at? Or is the sense of beauty as an aesthetic category not coterminous with the exploitative disposition by which beauty’s annihilation is brought about?

This is an unfinished task for the theory of democracy: an accounting of the existential weight of tawdriness.

Adrian West is a writer and translator from the United States. His book-length translations include the novels When the Time Comes and Natura Morta by Austrian Büchner Prizewinner Josef Winkler and the long poem cycle Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer. His fiction, essays, and shorter translations have appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including McSweeney’sWords Without Borders, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. He lives with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 19th, 2014.