One of the most astonishing passages in Homer is the simile in Book XV of the Iliad, which describes the rapidity of Hera’s flight to Olympus (Il. XV, 79ff.):
but went back to tall Olympos from the mountains of Ida
As the thought flashes in the mind of a man who, traversing
much territory, thinks of things in the mind’s awareness,
‘I wish I were this place, or this’, and imagines many things;
so rapidly in her eagerness winged Hera, a goddess.
—trans. Richmond Lattimore
βῆ δ’ἐξ Ἰδαίων ὀρέων ἐς μακρὸν Ὄλυμπον.
ὡς ὅτ’ ἂνἀί̈ξῃ νόος ἀνέρος, ὅς τ’ἐπὶπολλὴν
γαῖαν ἐληλουθὼς φρεσὶ πευκαλίμῃσι νοήσῃ
ἔνθ’ εἴην ἢ ἔνθα, μενοινήσειέ τε πολλά,
ὣς κραιπνῶς μεμαυῖα διέπτατο πότνια Ἥρη.
The poet compares the travel of the determined goddess, not to the flight of a bird or the rush of a leopard, or to any other physical movement, but to the movement of the human mind, as it recalls past experience, ponders, and projects its will into the imagination through the optative mood of the verb, all in a split second:
ἔνθ’ εἴην ἢ ἔνθα, μενοινήσειέ τε πολλά…
Beyond the condensed formulaic expression “as fast as a thought,” found in later texts like the Odyssey, the Hymn to Apollo, and the Hesiodic Shield of Herakles, there exists little else quite like this in early Greek poetry, not even in the passages where the actions of the mind are described in direct narration. And here, presumably a concept alive in the seventh or eighth century B.C., it is used to denote the speed of a physical action, or rather the super-physical action of a divinity.
André Aciman, in a talk he recently gave at Williams, pointed out how one’s experience of place, of a particular place, especially if one has known exile, becomes a relative phenomenon. One”s most intense experience of a place, especially a place one loves, may be in remembering it in homesickness. The experience of desiring to go to a place may be more potent than satisfying the desire by actually going to the place. Aciman likes Paris. He imagined himself as a Parisian before ever visiting the city. One day, struck by a nostalgic desire for Paris, he called up a friend there and arranged to visit. With time, however, he realized that he didn’t really want to go there. It was the homesickness he savored. Aciman also spoke of yearning for Rome, although he really didn’t like the city at all. He developed the idea with a variety of different examples, different relationships to places through presence or absence. The implication of all this is that we are never in a single place at any one time. The location of our physical body has little to do with our consciousness of place. Walking down a familiar street near our home or negotiating the via del Babuino, we may find ourselves in two or three or more places at once. Of course, as for Homer’s traveler, the more we have traveled the stronger this feeling is, until we reach the point where it is impossible for us to be present in any one place at the same moment.
It is as if, by making the physical or mental acquaintance of a place, we have become the familiar of a personality who may recognize us as we recognize her, and who will remain with us in perpetuity, unless we can find some cause and means of exorcism. Usually, however, like Aciman, we cherish this companionship, even in its morbid aspect: a certain heartsickness.
Another brave traveller…but why do I assume that the “author” (or authors) of the Iliad and the Odyssey was a traveller? The content of the poems: the travels of Odysseus, the deaths of Patroclus and Achilles on foreign soil? As any survivor of freshman “great books” knows, the name Ὅμηρος means hostage, a common beginning to a life of slavery—captured in war, bought and sold to some foreign land he had never dreamed of—a true enough instance of one of the many different kinds of exile, and an extreme one at that. As a hostage, a person loses his very identity. No longer a familiar figure in his family or city, the hostage’s value is transferred to the pact he guarantees. That forfeit, he is no more than a human commodity, whose value decreases from year to year, as his physical capacities decline, unless perhaps he is a poet or philosopher. For Aciman that is the only redemption he can find: the writer creates a center, a homeland, in his work.
Another brave traveler—or exile, rather—T. S. Eliot, when exploring similar thoughts in “Portrait of a Lady” called on an exchange from The Jew of Malta to introduce a painful situation of another sort:
Thou hast committed…
Fornication? But that was in another country;
And besides the wench is dead.
In Eliot’s painful situation, the following confession has a place as “an insistent out of tune/Of a broken violin on an August afternoon”:
Yet with these April Sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace…
Here we enter into another dimension, the association of a place with a period of one’s life, even a specific moment into which that time was distilled, which, as time passes, can only jar, as an April sunset with an August afternoon, or the smoke and fog of a December afternoon. All these moments, hopeful or dismal, have settled some place or another in the interior geography of the poet’s psyche. The individual may remain an exile or a wanderer to the end of his days, but these cities of the mind are as fixed as Paris or Boston; for the lady, Eliot’s pathetic and irritating friend manquée, one is an idée fixe, and in the other she is fixed, trapped, whether by lack of means or advancing age into living a life of exile from Paris and April sunsets in what is quite probably the Beacon Hill home she grew up in. Eliot had his own longing for Paris, which made the encounters with his importunate companion all the more painful, until he himself leaves for Europe, promising to write her, while pondering her premature demise.
I lived in Cleveland for seven years and became very fond of it. Although I know I’m at home in New England, I sometimes feel nostalgia for it. Whether for that reason or some other, I can conjure up vivid images of Superior whited out in a blizzard or my former garden on a pleasant summer day, the gourd flourishing on its trellis like some wild vegetable satyr, and I can lose myself in them. I go back—physically, I mean— every few years. I wish I could go back more often. I remember meeting two kinds of native Clevelanders. Some, beginning with adolescence, yearned to leave and never come back, another, more select group, had never left the city, never wanted to, and were proud of it. If I ever meet one of these chosen few again, I’ll ask them if they ever picture themselves in another place and what is it like? Ein Land wo die Zitronen blühn?
I first met my Edinburgh friends—a couple, both painters—in Cleveland. I can remember a well-watered party in the flat of another Scottish resident of Cleveland, in which the conversation swung aback and forth between the two cities as if there were no other city in the world. This whetted my appetite for my first visit to Edinburgh a year or so later, where I also saw Eve and Ken. Among many other things we talked about friends from Cleveland. That visit lasted no more than three or four days. Research kept me within the confines of the National Gallery for most of it, and we saw little of the town.
So when I came to Edinburgh last month, I had little past with the city, little baggage, beyond a desire to see friends, who had come back permanently to live there, to revisit Poussin’s Sacraments and the Titians in the NGS, and of course my main purpose for going, to visit my son, who studies there. I was able to approach Edinburgh in a much lighter spirit than London, which is overclouded with memories, as I recounted in my last commentary. The visit was all about the present and the future, since my son envisions a future in Scotland. For me it was a place that remained to be explored. This time I was not in the center, as close to the National Gallery as possible; I was tucked away in a comfortable residential neighborhood, Canonmills, as close to Edinburgh Academy as possible. The convenience of a residential neighborhood, with all the useful little shops and cafés was reassuring, as was the aimiable guest house where I stayed. Everything was comfortable and clear. Fifteen minutes south along Dundas Street lay Prince’s Street, the National Gallery, and beyond it the Old Town. Some ten minutes north, beginning on Dundas Street was the Royal Botanic Garden and beyond it the other part of Edinburgh Academy, where the residential hall, the lower school, and the playing fields are located.
Edinburgh Academy was founded in 1824 by Lord Cockburn and Leonard Horner, in consultation with Sir Walter Scott and other distinguished men of the time, as a resource for the growing New Town and an instrument to raise the standard of classical education, especially Greek. Until the start of the new millennium, the school crest bore a bust of Homer. One can still be seen at the gate of the Upper School. The Main Building with its Doric portico was the work of William Burn. If the moderns have prevailed at the Academy, it appears to be more than redeemed by its commitment to small classes and attention to the individual student. Even with diminished Greek (although still in the curriculum), it is highly likely that this distinguished school, soon to be entirely co-ed, will continue to produce varied and brilliant graduates worthy of R. L. Stevenson, Frederick M. Bailey, the botanist, Michael Brown, the landscape architect, Lord Falconer, Magnus Magnusson (who wrote a history of the school), J. I. M. Stewart (a.k.a. Michael Inness) and Dr. Joseph Bell, the model of Sherlock Holmes.
Even after five years in the Berkshires, practising Thoreau’s prescription of rural ambulation to the letter, I confess the I am still a city walker at heart, and Edinburgh is an ideal walking city. Cities always offer a purpose, however, which vitiate the purity of art as defined by Thoreau, and I can’t say that one exactly “saunters” through its earnest streets. Nonetheless, with time, these city walks took on an inevitability which could fall somewhere within the perimeters of his definition:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
Thoreau, “Walking” §2
The crossroads between the guest house and the school exerted an irresistible pull. Facing the Old Town on Dundas Street, a left turn will lead further into Canonmills and into Bellevue, another residential neighborhood, gentrified, but showing traces of a rougher past, and full of interesting pubs, restaurants, and shops.
A right turn on to Henderson Row takes one past Edinburgh Academy into Stockbridge. Here one shouldn’t miss a diversion into Saxe Coburg Place, secluded and intimate in spite of its sober classicism. It was designed by James Milne in 1821. A Victorian bath house, the Glenogle Baths, stands on the slope at the northern end, still open as the Glenogle Swim Centre. Recent plans to turn it into flats inflamed a vigorous movement to save it as a public recreational facility. Leaving Saxe Coburg Place and continuing on to the right along Hamilton Place, you’ll find two more fine Victorian buildings, the Stockbridge Library and Stockbridge Primary School, the latter also the occasion for local public outcry, when it almost fell victim to government cutbacks in education, although it is acknowledged to be a particularly fine school, both educationally and as a building. (Of course the latter would probably enter an afterlife as luxury flats.) These are not the only examples of a lively community spirit in Edinburgh. The character of the city, it seems, depends as much on this as on North Sea Oil or the determination of the city government to put on a good face for the lucrative Edinburgh Festival. And I found no one who wasn’t open and friendly, and always willing to welcome a stranger and his opinions, especially over a pint.
At the end of Hamilton Place, to the left, taking the bridge over the Water of Leith you’ll find a conglomeration of thrift shops, including an Oxfam Bookshop—always worth a visit. In the opposite direction, upwards towards Circus Place and Howe Street, there are numerous pubs, restaurants, kitchen and design shops, all rather more upscale than those of Canonmills. But this any visitor can find on his own. My experience of Edinburgh as a walking city began minutes after my arrival, when I agreed to meet Lucas at the residential hall, about a kilometer to the north, along the handsome Stockbridge Colonies, begun in 1861, with the aim of providing low-cost housing for working people. The streets are named after those who founded the Company, including the fascinating geologist and writer, Hugh Miller (1802-56). Glenogle Road, crossing and following the lovely Water of Leith, and skirting the Botanic Garden and the playing fields. The second floor of the hall, recently sold as part of the transition to co-education, offers a fine view of the entire city. Soon enough we were back on our feet, heading back to the Upper School, this time with Lucas’ informed commentary.
There is nothing like walking for connecting one to the ground and the present. If one’s thoughts range outwards, they are centered in this activity and the sensations of the urban scene. (I see this a no more than a slightly different way of looking at the state of mind Aciman portrays in his essay “Shadow Cities,” NYRB, Vol. 44, No. 20, 12/18/97.) I confronted Edinburgh with a clear and present mind, and bilocation or trilocation tempted me little. Even talking with my friends about our common Cleveland friends brought up only feeble wisps of images. But then there were the art galleries and the concert halls. To experience a city in the purest way, to be a dedicated flâneur, one must cultivate absolute idleness, a lost art today, and never a favorite in what was once John Knox’s city. Even the Festival, which attracts hoards of artistic types, is a frenzy of purposeful activity. Still, if any city can be considered a work of art it is Edinburgh, no less than Pienza or Venice in their different ways. And today, we can can admire it not only from the top of Calton Hill or the Salisbury Crags, but poring over Google Maps, where patterns emerge, which escape more civilized resources like Modern Athens or one of the seven hills, none of which, I far as I know, offer the amenities of a café or belvedere, like the Pincio or the Janiculum, an absolute necessity of successful flânerie. A saunter through Edinburgh is as much like a visit to a gallery (most emphatically not a museum) rather than a true urban ramble, which is more random.
Over the following days, Dundas, Howe, or Bellevue were our paths to galleries, concert halls, and sights of the city center, while the Water of Leith led the way to the two Modern Art Galleries of the NGS. The National Gallery of Modern Art proper is another work of William Burn (1825-28), originally also a school. Today its front lawn has been taken over by Charles Jencks’ elegant landform. (At first I thought its shapes alien to the city, but, after looking at aerial views, it seems to me a decorative riff on Arthur’s Seat, combining perhaps the patterns of the New Town.) The other gallery, Dean House, contains the Paolozzi Bequest, and a fine collection of Surrealist art, all the more seductive as it consists more or less substantially of parts of the private collections of two focused and informed collectors, Gabrielle Keiller, “the marmalade queen,” who was once a renowned golfer, and the English painter, Roland Penrose. As one would expect from private collections, the works are intimate in scale, but—mostly—intense in expression. The Dean House galleries are also intimate and offer a most congenial environment for them, as well as the rich collections of documents and artist’s books which came with them. (But on display in the library were recent pages from Tom Phillips’ Humument.) It seems that only in Edinburgh can classical architecture find a common ground with Ernst, Magritte, Picabia, golf, marmalade, and earth sculpture.