An Italian Notebook XII
Bill Long 7/10/06
Travel and the Emotions
Up to this point my travel narative has been, I hope, entertaining and informative. But as I was thinking through the remainder of my journey through Italy from June 29-July 4 (primarily in Spoleto and its environs), another topic began to loom large in my consciousness--and that is the way the emotions are kindled by and developed through travel. Actually I am not quite sure exactly where this and subsequent essays will lead, but I know I want to explore how the feelings are connected to the mind in the discovery of fresh things in travel.
Getting My Bearings
It might seem surprising but often when I try to get my emotional bearings on a new subject, I find myself repairing to Augustine's classic work of autobiography, the Confessions. Written in 396-97, when he was in his early 40s, the Confessions lays out Augustine's inner journey which led him to embrace the Catholicism of his mother, Monica. It is a stormy journey, however, as he works his way as teacher of rhetoric through the various competing intellectual traditions of the day (philosophy in general, Manicheanism, Neoplatonism) until he finds his rest in God. But what was striking to me as I recalled Augustine while thinking about my own physical journey to Italy is the way that my mind returned to his most emotional passage of the Confessions. After giving himself to God, Augustine realizes how this one act has affected his emotional life. Everything looks different to him once he has committed himself to the life of faith. He begins to read the Psalms again. Here is what he says:
"My God, how I cried to you when I read the Psalms of David, songs of faith, utterances of devotion which allow no pride of spirit to enter in...How I cried out to you in those Psalms, and how they kindled my love for you! I was fired by an enthusiasm to recite them, were it possible, to the entire world in protest against the pride of the human race. Yet they are being sung in all the world and 'there is none who can hide himself from your heat' (Psalm 18:7). What vehement and bitter anger I felt against the Manichees...As I read the fourth Psalm during that period of contemplation, I would have liked them to be somewhere nearby without me knowing they were there, watching my face and hearing my cries, to see what that Psalm had done to me" (Confessions IX.4).
I think Augustine was great in mind because he was first great in emotions. He was not afraid to recognize, as he was pursuing a spiritual retreat in Cassiciacum near Lake Como in the foothills of the Italian Alps, that it was the heart that cried out and was shaped by the dramatic wrestlings of the previous months. There would be loads of time to write about all kinds of theological intricacies in the ensuing 35 years; now it was Augustine's time to feel. And that was the way I felt about my trip, especially as I entered into the last days of it in Spoleto (June 29-July 3). First, however, a reflection on another travel writer's journey to Italy.
Goethe's Journey to Italy, 1786-1788
We often think of the travel narrative as something comparatively new. People spend a year in Tuscany, write about it poorly and then Americans flood into Tuscany. Rick Steves and other travel writers tell why he likes Vernazza (Cinque Terre) and the floodgates of tourists open. Those more versed in travel literature realize that the start of the genre in America was probably through Mark Twain's hilarious and informative Innocents Abroad (1869). But it is only when you read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), and especially his Italian Journey (written in 1816, though his Italian journey took place 30 years previously), that you truly discover the fountainhead of modern travel literature. And, Goethe, during his two-year visit to Italy, also stopped for a day in Spoleto. The next two essays will talk about Goethe and Spoleto, but let the rest of this serve to introduce us to Goethe the traveler.
He made his journey to Italy in early middle age (37), stealing away from his companions in the middle of the night (3 a.m.) on September 3, 1786 to make what would become a journey of a lifetime for him. Goethe's father had visited Italy in 1740 and had so loved the place that he wrote an extensive account of his journey in Italian. He was prepared to send his son to Italy at any time, but Johann balked for years, passed up two opportunities to make the trip while he father was alive, and finally, when he had reached an intellectual and emotional dead end while serving as a bureaucrat for Duke Carl August in Weimar, he felt he had to leave on this jouney.
One can, at a remove of more than 200 years, scarcely feel the excitement that German intellectuals felt for Italy in the late 18th century. Winckelmann had just transformed the field of art history by speaking of the "Greek Ideal" which had persisted in Roman Italy; Pompeii and Herculaneum had just been unearthed to the rising amazement of cultivated European society. Italy also represented a way to be free of the constraints of the North--almost as if the warm climate and Mediterranean lifestyle would inject a note of freedom into a life become dull through Germanic bureaucratic living. Travel to Greece was nearly impossible because it was still controlled largely by Islamic interests in Turkey; thus to Italy one would go.
What did he hope to "accomplish" through this journey to Italy? The most recent English edition of his Italian Journey has this to say:
"If he had to say what he intended to do before he left, Goethe would probaby never have gone. As it turned out, hwoever, he was to enjoy almost two years in Paradise, coming to terms with himself and refreshing himself for the rest of his life. It was not nostalgia alone which later led Goethe to claim more than once that he had never again really been happy since leaving Rome..." (Italian Journey (1989), at 3. This is vol. 6 of the 12 volume Suhrkamp edition of Goethe's works.).
That is, he "discovered himself" as he traveled.
These words begin to whet our interest to understand the emotions of the leading German man of letters of the Romantic period as he embarked on his life-transforming trip to Italy. The next essay begins to probe these emotions.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long