During the past year our notion of proximity, especially physical closeness, was put under significant strain. I dare to think- only when it’s dark and no one can see me- that perhaps all that verbal and written chatter on how this pandemic is changing us stems from the cognitive distortion linked with our having to adapt- like never before in history- to an internal space. It all happened immensely fast and without any warning. If on New Years Eve 2019 a friend had told us that three months later we would be living under lockdown (who even knew this word by the way?) for more than a year we would probably have raised an eyebrow and made fun of them. We did not learn much from the myth: we still mock those who face the fortress of Pergamum.
How much do we seek reality when we can experience it? Gianni Celati talks about the country of the Gamunas in his book “Fata Morgana” (Feltrinelli publisher, 2005) and writes, “They say that everyone chases certain illusions and no one can help it because it’s all part of the same enchantment. They say that some mirages are fatal or put you in trouble while other ones give you the impression of satisfying hunger, thirst, carnal desires or dreams of glory. That’s what makes desert mirages so particular. They show that when you chase illusions you’re always going to get it wrong and yet you still can’t help but do it. They show that life is nothing but getting lost between various hallucinations.”
When you chase illusions you’re always going to get it wrong and yet you still can’t help but do it. They show that life is nothing but getting lost between various hallucinations. — Gianni Celati
Maybe that explains why any epic tale attracts certain men and women. They invite you to join an unreal but concrete journey and they do so at the right time. Certain stories are not loved and appreciated much in certain moments while they would be in other ones. Marco Belpoliti recently published a book, which has been in the making for twenty years, without imagining it would spark the level of interest it did. The book is titled “Pianura (Flatland)”- edited by Einaudi publisher- and talks about proximity, close encounters (Celati himself is very present in these pages) and places. This book is the map of the epic journey on the flatland of the Emilia Romagna region that Marco ventured in.
You feel small on a flatland because its borders are only the horizon, the unreachable. — Marco Belpoliti
Perhaps many read “Pianura” because it reassures about the fact that the space we all remember is not just a moment in memory but it’s also a journey, which is almost entirely hidden through the mist and the memories. It’s something that calls you to action and it gifts you with the feeling- which we have been searching for like oxygen during these months- that we are not wasting time in the suffocating stillness but, despite the immobility, we are filling our travel bag with small stones of experience.
As Marco tells me during a fresh morning chat, “The proximity I talk about is not so much about your neighbour but rather the spatial proximity of those so close to you that they share a condition, a state and a time with you- even though I think that spatial proximity takes over the temporal one.” “You know, the problem is that memories are always subjective and personal. When you express your proximity it’s always perceived as a distance. Who is truly able to share their proximity?” Yet we cannot stop sharing because we need to express ourselves, even when we are frustrated and even when we know it’s a hallucination. “I tried to do that by mapping my flatland- my proximities- with my places, my memories and my people. You feel small on a flatland because its borders are only the horizon, the unreachable. The book truly took off when one evening, in Zurich, I realised I had to switch to the second person singular- you- as that is what proximity means to me. I found the voice, which is the hardest thing one needs to get started.”
Marco had in mind an ambitious model: “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi, where the writer from Turin talks about his family. “I remember how he mentioned conversations such as ‘it seems as though your grandma had the same characteristics of mine’ where he would reply, ‘Well yeah, I borrowed them from yours’. That’s it: this is the collective process of reinventing things. Also, you know, my civil education was about abolishing the “I”s because the collective was more important than individuality. Today I am still horrified when I find articles that begin with “I”. “I” is a really difficult and awful pronoun”.
As I write this paragraph about our chat I reflect on the fact that it would be embarrassing to ask a writer why they write the things they write. It is not just because the reasons are often quite personal but, most importantly, how important can the reason why really be? It is as though we were about to climb a ladder to get to the top of a tree and we wanted to know why the carver chose to make round or squared steps.
“Celati was an extraordinary person. He was unpredictable, bizarre and so odd; he was human, too human. My narration begins from a precise moment: the day Celati presented- we are at the DAMS (School of Drama, Arts and Music) of Bologna in the Spring of 1977- the collection of texts, ‘Disoriented Alice’, which was the product of a seminar he held with his students. During the presentation he literally threw some copies of this book to us students. By the way, this is a book that can still be purchased; it is edited by Le Lettere”. “Disoriented Alice”, like us after all. In search of places to experience stories. “Anna Stefi and I are working on a book on Celati’s interviews. The notion of a unique literature that you cannot find anywhere else emerges from his interviews. Literature should not be the one you study in university but rather a way of living and being”.
In “Pianura” there are Ariosto and Boiardo, characters from the 1300, but also many other modern figures. The narrating voice addresses a “you” that talks about what happened and what he saw. The majority of the people Marco describes are friends of his, but at the same time they are known figures in the mental map of the places and years that the author experienced- Luigi Ghirri, Giuliano Scabia. All of it is true but there is no trace of intimate details. I noticed this aspect only later. I know nothing about Marco’s life by reading this book, even though it’s based on his travelling diaries.
“For example, Luigi Ghirri has the ability to show you through his photographs something you’ve always been able to see but that you’ve never looked at in that way. The idea is that proximity too might be able to be re-looked at again, but with calm. We rediscover our home and the things inside and outside of it, elements we took for granted and did not notice, such as the houses in the front and the road. Ghirri’s photography has the ability to provide an innocent gaze that turns what we saw into something magical and therefore transforms things in that way. It’s a gift. I think that beauty, intelligence and sensitivity are contagious”.
At this point I would like to push things one step further. Reality on its own is not worth anything. It’s perception that elevates it and enables it to get the dignity that comes with meaning. — Iosif Brodskij
The line between the living and the dead is not well defined and there’s proximity even there. “The encounters I report might not have taken place and might be visions from the world of appearances. Everything belongs to the world of appearances,” he tells me. It makes me think about a statement by Iosif Brodskij that I read by chance not long ago in “In Fuga da Bisanzio (Escape from Bisanzio)” (Adelphi, 2016): “At this point I would like to push things one step further. Reality on its own is not worth anything. It’s perception that elevates it and enables it to get the dignity that comes with meaning”.
The end of this map deserves Giulia Nicolai’s story. A young Giulia- a photographer that was already part of the Milan photography circles of Ugo Mulas and his friends- one day takes her camera, takes off from Lombardy and goes to Sicily for a project she wanted to work on: a session of business photographs. In just a few years she makes a name for herself in Italian and world photography. For example, she took the picture of Alberto Arbasino for the cover of “Fratelli d’Italia” (Adelphi, 2000). She also lives for some time in the United States where between various projects she gets to meet a young Kubrick and the Kennedys. As Marco states, “Back then America was definitively a more porous country than it is today. One could go anywhere”. I can only believe him, or not. “At some point she has the chance to do a photo shooting on the female African American athlete that represented everything one might give up to master sports. It was the story of a sad and alienated woman that will die young because of the excessive dedication to sports”. That’s the story that Giulia wants to capture but when an important newspaper publishes her photographs she discovers that all that meaning was cancelled. The African American girl is turned into a positive heroine model that- like the most repeated of themes- was crushed under the weight of sacrifice.
“Giulia drops everything and starts writing. She initially writes a novel that gets published and then moves to Rome where she has contact with Eco, Balestrini and Manganelli’s Group 63. She publishes poems and becomes the editorial assistant at the Quindici magazine. During these years she meets poet Adriano Spatola, moves to a windmill in the countryside with him and starts to take pictures again”. Up till here it already sounds like a Homeric song but it doesn’t end there: years later Giulia even becomes a Buddhist monk. “One day she makes an appointment with a friend at a Tibetan monastery but her friend does not show up. She goes in anyway and feels as though this monk is answering all of her deeper questions. She becomes a monk and does not speak about photography anymore”. Proximity.
“She had left most of her pictures in the windmill when she moved away after the relationship with Spatola ended. One day I invited her to a meeting with Doppiozero (the journal directed by Marco Belpoliti) and different people knew her photographs. One of them- Silvia Mazzucchelli- contacted her and they went to the old windmill together to get Giulia’s material, which had lied there for forty years. Let’s hope we’ll be able to get an exhibit with Giulia’s photographs soon and in presence, so to say”.
After spending so much time- much more than I normally do- on social networks for work and personal interest during the past year and a half I am noticing a huge need for physical proximity, hugs and scents yet to be smelled. I also feel the need for hallucinations, the contact with that world of characters that emerge from our intertwining relationships; given the dominant contact with the virtual world we did not start to understand where the world of proximity and hallucinations is taking us.