Being Here

Alberto Manguel

In the world between here and there, what place does one call home?

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” —Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

Northrop Frye once told the now well-known story of a doctor friend who, travelling on the Arctic tundra with an Inuit guide, was caught in a blizzard. In the icy cold, in the impenetrable night, feeling abandoned by the civilized world, the doctor cried out: “We are lost!” His Inuit guide looked at him thoughtfully and answered: “We are not lost. We are here.”

“Here,” however, is a concept more easily pronounced than apprehended. The terrible Heisenberg uncertainty principle, stating that the object observed is changed by the presence of the observer, applies to ourselves and to the place we live in. Of all the marvels in the world, “here” and “I” are the only two things of which we cannot speak with certainty because, every time we look upon our self or our home, what we see is inhabited by our presence. It requires physical energy, intelligence and technology to explore the uncharted territories of outer space, but a greater determination and recalcitrance to investigate our face in the mirror and the neighbourhood in which we live. We can hardly be surprised by our ignorance of the universe; what we don’t know about our village is always astonishing. In spite of what we might suppose, we are more cognizant of our macrocosm than of our microcosms.

Our histories seem to follow this pendular motion between the vastness of which we have a more or less objective knowledge and Rimbaud’s “dear bit of the world,” which is overwhelmingly subjective. From moments in which we perceive the world as a galaxy of interconnected illuminations, to others in which each point seems an island unto itself, we proceed as if our learning kept changing its scope to include or exclude as much as possible. If the Athens of Pericles saw itself as a compendium of all the arts and sciences, the rightful domain of every citizen, a century later the Alexandria of the Ptolemies decreed that its celebrated library would serve individual scholars individually, each specializing in a different area of knowledge. The ecumenism that Paul proposed in Ephesus became the divided territory of the Churches of East and West, and later the many litigious subdivisions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

The much-vaunted Renaissance man, with a finger in every area of human experience, was whittled down to the specialist exalted by the Enlightenment, when singular tools demanded singular craftsmen who could wield them with authority and expertise. Closer to our time, the omnivorous nineteenth century, with its Casaubons and Ruskins, as well as its Bouvards and Pécuchets, set no limits to exploration and inquiry, and glorified its cabinets of curiosities as models of the multi-faceted world, while the twentieth century saw not only an accelerated subdivision of scholarly subjects but also an increase in specialized jargons, in both the sciences and the arts. And while today Europe proclaims itself a conglomeration of equal nations, each village seems to vaunt its private identity, distinct from all others, even those lying a stone’s throw away. As in the ancient Talmudic illustrations that show our position in the universe, passing from the small circle of the earth to the vast circles of the skies, we swing from macrocosm to microcosm and back, closing in and out and in again, from the spectacle of the outer world to a recondite place we call home.

Today I find it impossible to decide whether we are in a period of inclusiveness or exclusiveness. On the one hand, the Web has given us the illusion that we are all Athenians, and that all available knowledge, on every matter whatsoever, is at our disposal. On the other hand, the vertiginous progress in every area of science, demanding further and further specialization, and the increasing confidentiality of the arts, restricting aesthetic understanding to a small circle of cognoscenti, far surpasses in its restrictions any measures adopted in Alexandria. A curious observer today is confronted simultaneously with the unlimited expanse of the electronic playing field and with the exclusive enclosures of creativity and investigation. We can navigate cyberspace, but unless we are technological wizards, we are constrained to follow established programs and visit authorized sites. We can look into any scientific question but unless we train long and hard, comprehension of the problems, let alone the solutions, must escape us. We can visit solid or virtual museums and libraries, but unless we have the latest lingo (in the case of the arts) and the ability to read effectively (in the case of literature), we might as well be deaf and blind. Maybe we inhabit unrevealed wonderlands and magic kingdoms, tiny settlements in which at this very moment men and women are making discoveries and thinking new thoughts that will change our threatened future. We (I mean those of us who lack the special training and knowledge) are like King Midas, whose ability to turn everything he touched into gold irredeemably condemned him to hunger and thirst.

Perhaps no literary work better reflects this tension between inclusion and exclusion than Dante’s Commedia. Dante wrote the Commedia in exile, banished from his beloved Florence by political conspiracies and petty acts of revenge. He died in Ravenna in 1321, leaving his work seemingly incomplete. However, some time later, the last thirteen cantos of Paradise were discovered by Dante’s son Jacopo, who said that his father had appeared to him in a dream and had pointed to a niche in the wall in the poet’s last bedroom, where the end of the poem had been hidden. It is fitting that a dream revealed for us the end of literature’s greatest dream.

After descending into Hell and climbing Mount Purgatory, Dante is miraculously transported to the first circle of Paradise. Here he finds himself confronted by several blessed souls who, faintly at first and with dazzling clarity afterwards, greet him with beatific smiles. His beloved Beatrice explains that while all souls in Paradise are not touched by the same measure of grace, all experience their portion of grace with equal bliss, and therefore inhabit the same place as God in Heaven. But in order to appear before Dante’s human eyes, the souls have politely assumed different places in the nine-step cartography of Paradise. Commentators have long mused on this divine uneven-handedness and its resulting democracy of feeling, but few seem to have noticed that Dante, in having the souls come forward in shared bliss but according to their degree of beatitude, has given each soul a symbolic home, distinct from God’s all-inclusive empyrean. It is as if, aware that all souls (all saved souls, in this case) have by divine decree a common place in the macrocosm, Dante also remembered that although he was made welcome in a number of places in Italy, he always longed for just one place, his house in Florence. Seven centuries later, another otherworldly wanderer would sum up this sentiment upon returning from the Land of Oz to her aunt and uncle in Kansas: “There is no place like home.” Dante’s Paradise illuminates Dorothy’s cliché by lending it the weight of a symbol: a small, private “here” for the self in our overpopulated universe.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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