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The Metaphysics of America

America, humid heat. Past the sultry barrier of the Gulf Stream one enters the atmosphere of a steam bath and instantly experiences, as a reaction, a violent nostalgia for dryness, for Tuscan olive branches and Tuscan cigars; these are craved with particular intensity, since the whole steamship is saturated with the distasteful aroma of Anglo-Saxon tobacco, which smells like honey and dry figs.

One of my travelling companions, on his way to California where he runs an important company that produces counterfeit Chianti and fake Barolo, had repeatedly described the exceptional view enjoyed by the traveller, from a distance, when the ship approaches the city of New York, adding each time: “Provided there is no fog!”

It is curious, I pondered, how ordinary people, whose thoughts are not usually absorbed by artistic, poetic, spiritual, or intellectual concerns in general, speak frequently about the beauty of nature, or of cities, of views, etc. In the inns and hotels of vacation resorts one often finds written: “magnificent panorama, marvellous vista on the lake” and so on. As for me, both in the country and in the city, l have never opened a window longing for a “magnificent panorama” or to enjoy “marvellous vista” over a lake or anything of that sort. Much to the delight of my companion there was no fog when we arrived, and the white, regular, and geometrical buildings of New York appeared exactly as l had seen them so often at the movies: first far away, then closer at hand on the still and silent ocean which resembles an immense pond. A vision of a very old city, inhabited by human beings who have already gone a long way in the realm of mechanical progress. Steam clouds and smoke spirals emanate from the tops and sides of skyscrapers; it seemed to me as if something were cooking or boiling over there, as if l could hear a buzzing sound through glass – an undefined noise, like a distant pounding of clubs on mattresses.

In America, there is a lack of dryness in everything, not just in the air; one can never hear a noise or sharp blow; a padded-like sensation is felt everywhere. It looks as though even metals and hard matter have become soft, lukewarm, damp, and when they fall down, we expect them to sound like soft bodies colliding with a soft surface; the roads and sidewalks are not hard, and even the buses are soft, and the black guns carried by policemen seem to be made of rubber. By an association of ideas, one ends up sensing that everything is slightly deformed and warped, and one invariably feels that by touching anything – the door of an elevator, the wall of a skyscraper, the metal chair in a self service restaurant – one will inevitably cause indents and bumps, or leave the imprint of one’s hand. If a car stops and leaves again, we feel that where the car stood the ground has sunk a little. When we see traffic jams caused by an exceptionally dense circulation of people and vehicles finally let up, it seems that when the cars, trolleys, etc., and the men, women and children, start flowing and moving on, some have developed bumps, slumps, or even a double shinbone or a collapsed hip. Upon coming out of such jams, cars seem deformed: some have bigger wheels on one side than on the other, some have concave doors, others convex as the sides of a cylinder. Then one hears a barely perceptible noise – a vague, dull, soft sound, like the enormous hands of a giant baker endlessly working, kneading a soft, damp, and sticky dough.

From the day of my arrival, as a whole, this gave me the impression of being in a dream and also of being a little dead. l thought that to leave this dream, this midnight, behind me, and to wake up, I must travel to the other side, I must again cross the long and warm barrier of the Gulf Stream. But it happens, at times, that in a dream we know that we are dreaming, and this gives us a sense of reassurance and great freedom of movement (everything is allowed, we think). We do a lot of things, we come and we go, and imagine that we have greater energy to accomplish things that we are unable to do when we are awake.

Strolling down the streets of New York, I used to pretend to take off in flight, to swim in midair – a thing we all do in dreams up to a certain age and a talent that we lose later in life. l imagined that through the air I swam the breaststroke, or sailor’s style, or on my back facing the sky, blue and cloudy during the day, full of stars at night, like the Man depicted by Ovid. l soared up to certain romantic and vertiginous balconies which jutted frighteningly out of the side of some building at the twenty-fifth floor. From there I would peek through windows without blinds or curtains.

One must note that Americans have an aversion to shutters, blinds, curtains, coloured glass in short, of anything that can give intimacy to an ambience and make its dwellers feel sheltered from prying eyes and any other annoyance from the outside. Therefore, from the street at night one often sees brightly lit apartments and rooms, like the grand windows of shops and bazaars. I never understood why Americans and Anglo-Saxons, who so much prize the home, do not experience the primordial need, innate even to the most humble Italian peasant, who locks the door, closes the shutters, and draws the curtains when he returns home. At night, therefore, the vast apartments on the city streets, lit against the dark backdrop of the night, appear as windows displaying elegant, motionless, and smiling characters, with whom you will never be able to converse, nor will they ever be able to hear your voice or answer your questions. They live on this side of time and beyond time, but never in time. Their glances and smiles aptly convey a ghostly image, the demeanour of those who know that there is nothing to be known. They have never heard of the last days of Pompeii, nor of Saint Bartholomew’s night, they do not know what a Doric column is, a steam machine, a ploughed field, an iron bridge. They do not know where they are or where you come from; if they discuss perspective they cannot tell you what perspective variation would ensue from this rather than that rule; they cannot – or, rather, must not – dwell on what surrounds them and try to understand its remote language. They seem to utter, without moving their lips or batting an eyelid: “When you master the art of listening to the voice of things, then you will begin to know how to draw.” And they also seem to say: “Remember that the disagreeable term ‘natura morta’, used in painting to describe the representation of dead animals and inanimate objects, corresponds, in another language, to a much deeper, truer, gentler poetic expression: ‘still-life’. The way and purpose of art is to listen, perceive and learn to express the remote voice of things. “And when this silent speech is finished, then you see them smiling ineffably, staring at your temples, your cheekbones, at the curve of your shoulders, the side pockets of your jacket – in short, looking at you with an irresolute gaze which never strikes at the centre of a being or of an object. Today this is can be seen among many of those who are concerned with the art of painting, especially modern painting, whenever they are in front of a work.

In New York the most powerful metaphysical sense emanates from its architecture; this is most surprising and even if it were the only reason for crossing the ocean and feeling seasick, it would be worth it. In the buildings and houses of New York l have found that which l had felt and expressed through a great part of my artistic production: homogeneity and harmonious monumentality achieved by disparate and heterogeneous elements. As in my Seated Mannequins, characters slumped in couches or resting on plinths and stools, upon the trunks of which motionless turquoise sea waves capped with solidified foam ascend and take root, as do ruined aqueducts, temples closed to all forms of liturgy, fragments of ancient columns sitting as inseparable companions in fields swept by countless historical events steered by the firm wrist and straight reins of the Destiny’s chariot. Maritime pine trees, both healthy and infirm, tall ogives of dismal hospices and heraldic figures are inexorable keepers of ancient loyalties and ancient nostalgias as occurs in Saint Mark’s church in Venice, where one finds variations, colours, curves, spirals, arches, and circles of all styles forming together a compact and highly suggestive block. Analogously, in the buildings of New York one experiences the drama of all construction over the years: there is a medieval tower and an English cottage, a Greek temple and a Byzantine church, a Roman arch and a chateau on the Loire, a Florentine and a Venetian palace – all joined, piece by piece, with great mastery; raised, smoothed down, nuanced, veiled, fused, amalgamated so that there is nothing left to add. This is one facet of New York architecture; there is another, the architecture of skyscrapers, or of those huge buildings, which, though not actually skyscrapers, impress one for their exceptional proportions. It is, above all, from this second aspect that the enigmatic breath of the autumn afternoon proceeds – the nostalgic and Nietzschean serenity of buildings brightened by the autumnal sun and suffused with the convalescent lightness of the sky and earth after the great fever of summer has past. There, one’s spirit can soar to the highest spheres, spheres unattained even by the great individuals whom History has classified, and continues to classify, as intellectual giants and whose effigy one finds, along with a more or less lengthy piece of biography, in the historical section of pictorial dictionaries.

Hotel Pierre on Fifth Avenue, on that long and very elegant street which marks the boundary between the East and the West sides of New York, is the prototype of these highly and metaphysical buildings. Vast terraces adorned with statues, flags of soft or brilliant colours fluttering at the ocean’s breath on top of the building, endow this hotel with the immense nostalgia of certain vast paintings of the Venetian school, by Tintoretto and Veronese; high skies and distant horizons, the other side of the sky, the other side of the world, which we perceive, or which reveals itself, through the arches or the gap between columns, through windows open on the serene air, through windows on the side of the building hidden from your sight, but through which you can see the sky and the fleeting clouds because they are in the same visual line as the window on the side facing you. Parts of the world reveal themselves, behind high walls. And inside you know that the hotel is full of beautiful and elegant things. You know there are works of art, polished sculptures, paintings set in wide, beautiful, golden frames that superbly decorate the vast salons dressed with fabrics and heavy rugs.

In September afternoons these nostalgias achieve such sweetness that they become ineffable consolations, and then you can finally understand the solemn and hermetic hymn of societies (I mean clubs) where throngs of wise gentlemen, sitting in marvellous leather chairs in the salons on the ground floor, next to huge windows overlooking streets bustling with vehicles and pedestrians, await, with tickets in their pockets, the departure time of a Europe-bound steamship. Fully equipped, their luggage ready, they know that they can be serene and happy. They know that a short while back, in a German pharmacy downtown, they have purchased all sorts of little tubes, boxes and tiny jars containing tablets and pills against any kind of ailment, little disks of medicinal substances which offer assurance for a voyage into the dense forest of the Future, which holds in store all kinds of ills. In the stationary store they have purchased notebooks and pencils with pencil caps, agendas, and durable fountain pens. They have examined their watches to make sure they work properly and feel perfectly content, well-equipped, solid and light. After all, when everything is ready and one knows he has not forgotten anything he feels totally happy and at ease, one experiences the utmost joy of departure and the nostalgia of separation. We take a walk, go into a restaurant, stop in front of window of a bookshop, a gunsmith, a seller of embalmed animals. Everything is a pretext to experience pure joy and profound amusement; all of which is done with the feeling that our weight has been reduced; we feel like winged Mercuries whose steps come effortlessly, grazing the earth in a state of imperceptible levitation, fleeing on a straight line like mechanical hares in greyhound races. During these moments, these afternoons, when one feels that a heavy burden has been tossed behind with the heat of the summer, with its bitter perspiration and sour smells, with the skin of a watermelon devoured by flies and the cover of a thermometer forgotten on a nightstand, then beautiful perspectives open up in front of us, promises of short days and of rooms stuffed with rugs, with paintings, with furniture and with the many objects and memories that tie us to our past and fill our soul with ineffable consolation. Then New York’s lofty metaphysics reveals itself to us in all its splendour; then we see Man dressed in pure wool, upright in front of windows, where the inseparable Dioscuri wearily sleep next to their exhausted horses; we see Man dressed in pure wool, wearing shoes with double, triple, even quadruple soles, motionless in front of walls behind which seas open up and take you to other continents; we see Man dressed in pure wool wearing a raincoat, a windproof hat, with umbrella and gloves, walking without hope, without fear, between the Devil and Death, toward the piers, where huge black steamships are smoking, and where the insistent call of sirens mounts incessantly toward the clear sky, which is brighter on the horizon, where slowly, like icebergs adrift, white clouds float.

When you observe nature in this strange country, the experience of dream seems stronger. The dissimilarities between nature here and in Europe are not as defined and marked as they are with South America and some areas of Africa or Asia. Leaves, trees, herbs, plants do not bear that monstrous, twisted, swollen, hypertrophic, toxic, tentacular aspect that they do in Brazil, for example. But they are different, perhaps only slightly, from those in Europe. They are and, at the same time, are not the same; there is the same difference and resemblance among them that one notices among brothers or between the appearance of a person in a dream and the same person in real life. For instance, you look at a tree and they tell you that it is an oak tree. In fact, on the ground you find its very suggestive fruit, the acorn, like a hard olive perfectly fitted in its thimble of soft wood, you find, l say, that same acorn that from our most remote childhood has been a delight, a gentle and poetic toy that we obtain without risk or effort; it does not cost anything and awakens in us biblical memories of ragged and repentant sons who throw themselves, choking with tears, into the paternal arms open in a gesture of forgiveness. But when you lift your eyes you see those branches, and the anatomy of those boughs, and when you look at that trunk you immediately realize that something is off. Then you remember that you are in a different world, and sadness settles in you. Sunrises and sunsets are like those in Europe, but then you feel that the rays of that sun, which is the same sun after all, pass through a different atmosphere, and every day a strange trepidation pervades you – something like the fear that one day the sun might not set anymore –, that it might halt on the smoking line of the horizon, like a red motionless disk engulfed by vapours emanating from the water and the earth.

The clouds are also the same, but you feel that in order to be real they ought to be different. Essentially, what occurs is the same phenomenon observed at the movies while watching historical films. When actors wearing costumes move through real landscapes, a tree, field, mountain, any true aspect of nature appears counterfeit next to the costumed character. When we see a character from the last century; from sixty or seventy years ago, the contrast is perhaps not so strong; a character from a hundred years ago enhances this phenomenon, which is further intensified when the characters are from the seventeenth or eighteenth century; with characters from the Middle Ages it becomes worse yet, and with Greeks and Romans it is a real catastrophe. I have observed that in these cases the discrepancy between character and nature is stronger when one sees grass, plants, and especially branches blowing in the wind; one presumes that before, in past centuries, leaves must not have moved in such a way. Everything changes when the landscape is painted, the scene designed; then everything appears real and natural. I recommend, therefore, to directors both here and abroad, if they do not want to do things that look odd and unintelligent, if they want to make historical pictures, that they exclusively use sets and avoid natural landscapes as much as they can.

The strange, dreamlike, uncanny feeling that breathes over nature in America always prompted me to seek enclosed, sheltered, and lavishly furnished and decorated environments. In New York, l used to feel much safer in the dining rooms of the Waldorf Astoria, among the baroque plasters and pseudo-Tiepolo panels, than on the paths and under the trees of Central Park or on the beaches and rocks of Long Island.

It is in this strange nature, through this rarefied air, through this greenhouse and fish-tank glow that the bells of New York sound: entire concerts, sweet Protestant-like melodies, persuade one to be good, to meditate, to pray. And in the public gardens, during beautiful afternoons, strange squirrels with thin coats and anaemic tails jump among the passersby’s feet, with such faith in human beings that one would think that New York and America are inhabited by millions of Saint Frances’; squirrels come and eat from the hands of children, they let themselves be petted, they let children pull on their tails. Their mothers’ eyes are moist with tenderness at the sight of these gentle spectacles. But then you know that this occurs along with something else, and you remember that a short while back, walking in front of a newspaper stand, you saw a magnificent photograph on the cover of a magazine which depicted a street scene in front of a bank: a few robbers’ bodies, hit by police bullets, covered by cloths stained with blood, lying there near the passing trollies, cars and pedestrians. Children just like those who offer nuts to the squirrels were inquisitively scrutinizing those inert bodies with a smile, as they would look at whale adrift on the shore of a vacation resort.

In New York dogs and children are omnipotent. Dogs have been loved, petted, praised, begged for, cared for, protected, forgiven, tolerated, admired in so many ways and manners, to such an extent that they have completely changed aspect; they have acquired a different expression; they are indifferent, contemptuous, arrogant. If you try to pet a dog he grumbles and walks away, and you can deem yourself lucky if he does not bite you; if his master calls him he does not go; if he solicits the dog to play with him, if he throws a ball for the dog to fetch, the dog comfortably sits down, places his muzzle between his front paws and does not move. Even the gaze of this animal, traditionally regarded as a friend of man, is different in America; he looks rather annoyed and distant. Children wear their roller skates and are off, making a hellish sound, on the sidewalks of the city streets, where the crowds are the thickest; they fly by, with the risk of sending pedestrians head over heals; old people, old ladies walking with a cane tremble in fear as those little devils, some of whom tower over one metre and eighty centimetres high, advance; everybody, however, steps considerately and hastily out of the way, smiling with loving indulgence.

In autumn there is a constant danger of torrential rains. The sturdiest umbrella, even a hooded raincoat, is totally useless. New York is thoroughly cleansed: the streets that descend to the river are transformed in unremitting streams, and the old Hudson paints itself gray and looks, under a violent and gusty wind, as if it were being boiled by an underground heater. But after these rainstorms, which turn midday into midnight, the deep songs of autumn return to the skies. There again, on the high terraces of the Hotel Pierre the brilliant or soft coloured flags blow in the ocean’s breezes, and one can hear to the calling of that far away city, of that energetic city, of that quiet city, of that ghostly city, where, like tired migrating birds, memories of that world left behind come back – memories of that old world, beyond the vast sea.

Essay published in «Omnibus», 8 October 1938; English translation in De Chirico and America, exhibition catalogue edited by Emily Braun, The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College of the City University of New York, 10 September – 26 October 1996, Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome, Umberto Allemandi & C., Turin 1996, pp. 138-144; now in Nature According to de Chirico, exhibition catalogue edited by A. Bonito Oliva, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, 9 April – 11 July 2010, 24 ORE Cultura, Milan 2010, pp. 276-278.