Giorgio De Chirico, an Italian painter who was born and raised in Volos, painted The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon in 1912. An eerie mood and strange artificiality pervades the cityscape. Gone are the expected perspectives on places full of movement and everyday incidents. Here, he presents us with the kind of haunted streets we might encounter in our dreams. This is a backdrop pregnant with symbols, its collections of objects that resemble still-lifes providing a unique vocabulary to be decoded, all of its own. Here we see De Chirico delving into our subconscious, manipulating and re-arranging our most hidden phobias, obsessions and anxieties in the manner of a theatrical set designer. The end result is a visual contrivance, a conceit, conjured out of our psyche to taunt us, accuse us, but ultimately, to console us.
Writer V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival refers to De Chirico’ painting, in a personal meditation almost as concentrated as the painting itself, one where Naipaul speaks about his own sense of dislocation, arrival and belonging, as an Indian migrant from Trinidad in London:
“He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city… Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere, he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how… At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship is gone. The traveller has lived out his life.”
Seferis, in his collection of poems Mythistorima, also paints a scene reminiscent of De Chirico’s painting, one of total, asphyxiating isolation, aridity and infertility, where the past looms large and intrudes into the present and the future, devouring it wholesale.
There is no escape, not even in death, as the clashing rocks insulate the inmates of the land from all terminal points and the torture of extraneous immortality itself:
“Our country is closed in, all mountains
that day and night have the low sky as their roof.
We have no rivers, we have no wells, we have no springs,
only a few cisterns — and these empty — that echo, and that we worship.
A stagnant hollow sound, the same as our loneliness
the same as our love, the same as our bodies.
We find it strange that once we were able to build
our houses, huts and sheep-folds.
And our marriages, the cool coronals and the fingers,
become enigmas inexplicable to our soul.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?
Our country is
closed in. The two black Symplegades
close it in. When we go down
to the harbours on Sunday to breathe freely
we see, lit in the sunset,
the broken planks from voyages that never ended,
bodies that no longer know how to love.”
In his recently published book: The Old Greeks Paul Kouvaros refers to both Naipaul and Seferis’ works, in attempting to analyse how profoundly the perceptual and emotional displacements that define migration are embedded in the discourse produced by photographic media.
He postulates that migration and the crossing of boundaries can pave the way for new forms of writing that challenge distinctions between literary genre and style, the result emerging as a new aesthetics of migration shedding light on the complex forms of human interaction surrounding photography and film.
It is easy to see why Kouvaros would be informed by Naipaul, Seferis, and ultimately by De Chirico in order to inform the migrant narrative. The migrant condition, like De Chirico’s creation, is steeped in ambiguity. We do not know whether the lonely figures are seeking to leave, or whether they are waiting for someone to arrive. They are turned away from the quayside, and escape. They have their backs to the vast wall surmounted by the strange rotunda that bars their exit. Does this mean that they have been defeated by forces that seek to pen them in, or that they themselves, too obsessed with their own self, mired in their own endoscopy, are incapable for surmounting the obstacle before them?
After all, the wall is only half a head taller than the tallest figure and they could physically jump over it, should they wish to do so. Can they? Do they want to? Are they, since they cannot see it, even aware the wall is there? Is the incline to the right of the wall a shadow or a set of stairs? Do we even know where they lead? De Chirico thus speaks to a migrant condition that makes its home in isolation even though travel is a condition precedent for its engendering.
Yet De Chirico renders the concept that travel or mobility is tantamount to freedom redundant. There is something deeply troubling about the ship in the quay. Though it appears to be moving, or about to move, its sails swell in one direction, while the flag, flutters in its complete opposite. Effectively then, he is implying two contrary winds, each cancelling each other out, making a mockery of movement and rendering it impossible. The ship then, as a mode of conveyance is an illusion, for it cannot go anywhere. There is no going back.
Equally illusory are the pensive figures that inhabit the painting, dwarfed by the tremendous edifices that dominate the cityscape. The rotunda on the other side of the wall is white and luminous, suggestive of hope and life. The building on the other side of the wall, is dark, and in contrast to the softness and roundness of the rotunda, is sharp, angular and menacing. It also appears to be as empty and hollow as the existence of the harbour dwellers of Seferis’ poem. Moreover it casts a long shadow across the chiaroscuro of the chessboard pavement. The figures on the other hand, cast no shadow. Do they even actually exist? Can one call an existence, on the margins of light and dark, between egress and regress a reality? Is this then, the diasporic condition: to maintain a half-life in limbo, a pawn, as suggested by the chessboard, in a greater game of narratives played by players much larger, unperceivable and completely incomprehensible? Does this not subvert the entire premises of the mythology of our settlement and ultimate containment upon these shores?
As migrants and descendants of migrants, we are invariably drawn to the harbours and coastlines of our arrival as much as we are drawn to the aeroplanes and airports of our departure. We travel from our place of origin to our place of abode, often increasingly unsure which is which, often realising that for all of our attempts to put down tangible roots, we abide nowhere, in the space in-between worlds, in that nightmarishly serene, enigmatic, cool, liquid, and bewitching half-world that De Chirico so presciently envisaged. Like the figures in the painting that cast no shadow, we have no identity. We do not exist.
Naipaul’s De Chirico inspired world, similarly, is a half-world, of a not-quite novel-within-the-novel – one the nameless first-person narrator dwells upon but never writes – about a visitor who arrives at an ancient port city and begins a journey of self-discovery that moves toward an unforeseen ending. It is that ending that De Chirico hints at, that both obsesses and terrifies members of the Greek community in Melbourne, especially those of the first generation. But that is a painting, and a tale, for another time.