Saturday, August 27, 2011

Nathaniel Hawthorne, on Rome

Rome ever get you down? You are not alone! It's not easy to live (or even be a tourist in, sometimes) this city. I hear my fellow expatriates (myself included) complain often about any number of frustrating things about this crazy city, from the bureaucracy nightmares to the dishonest cab drivers and everything in between. But for so many of us, something connects us with this city, often something we can't describe. Many long-time expats will leave the city, exasperated beyond remedy and--not all--but many cannot help returning eventually. Apparently this love/hate relationship so many of us have with Rome is nothing new. In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne (a distant relation on my father's side) wrote what I consider possibly the greatest quotation on Rome ever written. Make sure you read to the end! (It's only one sentence, after all.)

"When we have once known Rome, and left her where she lies, like a long-decaying corpse, retaining a trace of the noble shape it was, but with accumulated dust and a fungous growth overspreading all its more admirable features--left her, in utter weariness, no doubt, of her narrow, crooked, intricate streets, so uncomfortably paved with little squares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage; so indescribably ugly, moreover so cold, so alley-like, into which the sun never falls, and where a chill wind forces its deadly breath into our lungs--left her, tired of the sight of those immense seven-storied, yellow-washed hovels, or call them palaces, where all that is dreary in domestic life seems magnified and multiplied, and weary of climbing those staircases, which ascend from a ground floor of cook-shops, cobblers' stalls, stables and regiments of cavalry, to a middle region of princes, cardinals, and ambassadors, and an upper tier of artists, just beneath the unattainable sky--left her, worn out with shivering at the cheerless and smoky fireside by day, and feasting with our own substance the ravenous population of a Roman bed at night--left her, sick at heart of Italian trickery, which has uprooted whatever faith in man's integrity had endured till now, and sick at stomach of sour bread, sour wine, rancid butter and bad cookery, needlessly bestowed on evil meats--left her, disgusted with the pretense of holiness and the reality of nastiness, each equally omnipresent--left her, half lifeless from the languid atmosphere, the vital principle of which has been used up long ago or corrupted by myriads of slaughters--left her, crushed down in spirit by the desolation of her ruin, and the hopelessness of her future--left herein short, hating her with all our might, and adding our individual curse to the infinite anathema which her old crimes have unmistakably brought down--when we have left Rome in such a mood as this we are astonished by the discovery, by and by, that our heartstrings have mysteriously attached themselves to the Eternal City, and are drawing us thitherward again, as if it were more familiar, more intimately our home, than even the spot where we were born."
Excerpt from The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1860.
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  1. i think the ending says nothing more about Rome than it does about any other place where a person might spend time outside of where they were born. It's a very romantic idea from this work of fiction that despite all the hideousness described here, Rome would still then feel like home. But how would Hawthorne know that, he spent just three years touring through Italy AND France. What would he know about whether or why it would start to feel like home? You know i'm probably more cynical than most expats (and other humans), but it seems to me that those of us who stay here short-term find it romantic and think we always want to come back. Those of us who stay here long term, i think it's usually because we either don't know how to or are afraid to leave.

  2. Firstly, (feel free to dismiss anything I say because I am incredibly biased toward Rome. I think we can both agree I'm obsessed with this city.)I think living here even a few months can make someone already feel like Rome is home. I did almost immediately. I'm not sure exactly how long Hawthorne spent in Rome, but you don't have to be here ten years to grow attached. But despite that, the genius of a great writer is that he doesn't have to live something fully to understand it and write about it brilliantly. Otherwise, no one could write more than one or two really great books, because how much can one person fully experience in their lifetime? How amazing is it that after not an excessive amount of time, Hawthorne was able to get Rome, that is, get all the miserable things about her that most people who stay for a short time don't notice. And also get that mysterious bond that keeps them here.

    I think what Hawthorne describes at the end is certainly not unique to Rome, but I would say it rarely happens in other cities. I know many people, with far from cushy lifestyles, who would probably be leading much more materially successful lives elsewhere, who put up with so much from this city, because they can't get it out of their systems.

    I'm sure you're right that some people stay because they don't know how to leave, but not all of us. At least not me. I definitely have my moments of complaining about this city, but I thank God every day that I am lucky enough to live here, because to me it is the most inspiring place on earth.

    For those of us who truly love Rome, the amazing thing is that we love her IN SPITE of her many, many defects. Because she is unique. There's no other place in the world quite like her. And even though we may curse her out a hundred times a day, in the end we stay because life would simply not be as rich anywhere else.

  3. Lovely post. Thanks for the reminder :) Carla

  4. My pleasure, sweet Carla! This quote pretty much sums up my love-hate relationship with this wonderful, maddening city. And I know I'm not alone!


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