PEN Journey 39: Spiritus Loci—Literature as Home
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
[From address at Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee Conference September, 2006:]
I Left My Shoes in Macedonia.
Last year at this conference, I packed in a rush, left behind a pair of shoes, but in the process got a title for a story.
I Left My Shoes in Macedonia.
I don’t yet know what story will emerge, or maybe only this brief talk will emerge, but Macedonia makes the title work, at least to my mind. I Left My Shoes in England…that doesn’t work…I Left My Shoes in France?…No. I Left My Shoes in the United States…please. I look forward to discovering who left the shoes and what the circumstances were and most of all what Macedonia has to do with the story.
Exploring the conference theme spiritus loci will be part of the journey. As writers we know the power of place in literature and in our lives. The Latin term meaning the local spirit of a place is not always easily defined, but it relates to the geography, the history, the architecture and the people, who are both shaped by and shape the place. The ancient Romans thought every location had a spirit, some benign where people would live longer, happier lives and some evil and destructive of human well-being.
Today in a world grown smaller and more connected by jet travel, the internet, the global village, the cyber global village, with the blending of cultures and commerce worldwide, spiritus loci is perhaps a more fluid concept and to a younger generation, even a digital concept. On the internet I discovered a recording studio with the name Spiritus Loci; it moved from place to place recording people’s music wherever the musicians felt most comfortable.
It is still the writer who can best capture a place and a people and render that spiritus loci for the reader. The best writers unveil the unity between location and character so that the writer’s version becomes the backdrop for understanding the place for generations to come, whether it be Tolstoy’s Russia, Balzac’s France, Dickens’ England, Achebe’s Nigeria, Toer’s Indonesia, Fuentes’ Mexico.
Through PEN we have the opportunity to know writers and their literature from around the globe and also to visit and experience the places from which they come. I’ve had the pleasure of coming to Macedonia four times and to this most beautiful city of Ohrid because of PEN.
With 144 centers in 101 countries, PEN has members who live and operate in most regions of the globe, with different histories, geographies, races, religions, cultures, but with the common spiritus loci of ideals. Today, these ideals, which were developed between World Wars, continue to promote a shared humanity on earth. PEN members work to use “what influence [we] have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect between nations…to do [our] utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the idea of one humanity living in peace in the world.” This mandate provides its own kind of spiritus loci no matter where one lives. It is a compass that points both to the ground we occupy and the future we hope to achieve.
Macedonia and its neighbors have been at the center of the struggle for those ideals in the last decade. In 2001 when the fires from the Balkan wars were still smoldering, PEN postponed its International Congress in Ohrid until the conflict in Macedonia subsided. Fortunately we were able to be hosted at a Congress in Ohrid the following fall. When PEN members look at that troubled time in Macedonia only a few years ago and at the current devastating conflicts in the Middle East, it is worth reflecting on how thought evolves, how cultures are translated to each other, and how we can best apply the spiritus loci of our ideals.
When a people find their home destroyed whether by natural disaster or by war, the concept of spiritus loci is problematic. The role of literature is especially important at that time. Literature provides a home in the mind and reveals the humanity we all share—the spiritus loci of the human spirit. Let us not underestimate this power of ideas and writing to transform.
I Left My Shoes in Macedonia. Perhaps the character will return to find the shoes and also to discover what Macedonia might teach. I am at least lucky enough to have returned, and I look forward to seeing what I will learn…wearing my new shoes.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 40: The Role of PEN in the Contemporary World
Loved it. Especially after reading, and crying, over Wade Davis’ piece in Rolling Stone.
Thank you, Florence. I’ll have to read the article.
Thank you dear Joanne for this interesting account. Next time I travel to a place like Macedonia I will make sure to leave my shoes!
Thanks, Azar. I look forward to when we can all travel again. These retrospective journeys feel like another age when the world was connected and we were connected in person to each other. I am sure/hope it will return, but we are in a quite different moment right now.
Congratulation. Personally speaking, this is one of the most favorite articles for me among your many other essays. Surely, this article encourages and inspires the whole membership of Pen International.
Incidentally, I have also been spending more than 50 years concentrating to chase the spirit of so-called “Genius Loci” similar to your terminology “Espiritu Loci” as a journalist. That is why I have visited so many ancient battle fields such as Port Author, Taxila, Dakota track, Guadalcanal and many other places by simply wanting to establish conversations with the dead soldiers. Indeed, this is the source of driving force for any writers who are in the long journeys seeking the real truth. Good on you!!!
Good to hear from you. I miss seeing you and so many PEN colleagues and friends who have worked together. I’d be interested in your Genius Loci findings. I hope we will all see each other next year at PEN’s Centenary.