In a short story about the fictional Prince Roman, Joseph Conrad provides us with the following description of the hero’s attempts to “move on” from the premature death of his beloved wife:
“What were men to him with their sorrows, joys, labors, and passions from which she who had been all to him had been cut off so early?
“They did not exist; and he would have felt completely lonely and abandoned as a man in the toils of a cruel nightmare if it had not been for the countryside where he had been born and spent his happy boyish years. He knew it well — every slight rise crowned with trees amongst the plowed fields, every dell concealing a village. The dammed streams made a chain of lakes set in the green meadows. Far away to the north the great Lithuanian forest faced the sun, no higher than a hedge and to the south, the way to the plains, the vast brown spaces of the earth touched the blue sky.
“And this familiar landscape associated with the days without thought and without sorrow, this land the charm of which he felt even without looking at it soothed the pain, like the presence of an old friend who sits silent and disregarded in some dark hour of life.”
There are a number of things about this passage that are worth reflecting upon. To begin with it is pure poetry written by a man working in his third language, a man who had spent the majority of this adult life at sea. But it also speaks about the lost sense of connection with the earth that so many of us experience without realizing it, a connection with the earth-mother, as Jung would have it, She from whom we all came and to whom we will all return. A spirit and a place we seem determined to destroy in our blind pursuit of profit.
But, more than this, perhaps, is the lost sense of home that so many of us seem to be experiencing, we who are in a tizzy to go somewhere else, to turn our backs on the familiar. I do wonder sometimes if we as a culture that is in such rapid motion might have lost something precious in disconnecting with the earth and having no place to call home — no place, really. No place like Prince Roman’s at any rate.
In my own case, if you will allow, I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and had moved more than a half-dozen times before I was sixteen years of age — “uprooted” as we say (and note the term). It seemed to me we were always packing and going somewhere else. As a Freshman in high school I was enrolled in three different schools. And I transferred as a Sophomore to a fourth. Even after high school I moved more than eight times until reaching a place in a small town that I can honestly call “home.” And, significantly, here in this small town I am surrounded by many families that go back several generations. And while my case may be a bit extreme, I dare say it is not uncommon in what students of culture have characterized as a “mobile” society. As a people we seem always to be in a hurry, on the move, going somewhere where we are not, where the grass is greener, we hope. It must, certainly, contribute to the general malaise we all feel. I do wonder.
In reading Conrad’s story I have the sense that there is a piece missing in the puzzle we call “life.” A piece that we might all benefit from finding again — if we can. An “old friend” who sits beside us in “some dark hour of life.”