When I was still attending my high school in Italy, I read the book Dubliners, by James Joyce. I found the whole idea behind the book truly fascinating: every chapter constitutes a short story with its own protagonist, and the stories are connected because they all take place in Dublin.
Every chapter offers an initial portrait of how unfulfilling or problematic life in Dublin is for each protagonist. Because of this, something usually triggers the main character, causing them to have an epiphany: they must leave Dublin at all costs, as the city it is like a prison to them, it prevents them from being a better version of themselves. After this striking revelation, the character attempts to follow their desire to escape and leave Dublin behind: however, just when they are about to accomplish this, they experience a paralysis. That is to say, they are ultimately unable to leave Dublin, to change their life and their destiny. Every chapter ends with its respective main character realising that they are not actually capable of doing whatever needs to be done in order to leave the city. They are trapped. They are miserable. The end.
Joyce was notably a Dubliner himself. Just like his characters, he felt unfulfilled in Dublin, where he spent his youth. Contrarily to his characters, he left. After many years of frustrating negotiation, he managed to have Dubliners published in 1914, this event constituting a decisive initial step towards his flourishing as a writer. On top of finding the stories within the book extremely interesting, I initially found Joyce’s literary focus on Dublin, the city which he had wanted to leave so badly, strongly puzzling. Why would somebody leave a place that makes them unhappy, discover new places that actually make them happy, only to dedicate their first major work to the location of their previous misery?
I presume that we all experience, in our lifetime, something similar to what is described in Joyce’s book. The psychological process undergone by Joyce’s Dubliners in order to reach the conclusion that they need to produce a radical change in their existence is something that most people can relate to. That change does not necessarily need to be a change in physical surroundings: most of the time, that is a symbol for a psychological change instead: as the Dubliners realise that they are trapped in the mechanism of the city, they understand that they are also trapped in the psychological mechanisms that they have grown accustomed to.
I believe that that is why some people feel the strong need, from an early age, to leave their home and build a new life somewhere else. It is not the physical surroundings that we are aiming to leave behind: it is instead the psychological mechanisms that we developed in those surroundings and that, to us, are intrinsically connected to that physical space. We all have a physical or psychological equivalent of what Dublin represented to Joyce’s Dubliners. However, because his Dubliners never managed to actually leave, they never experienced what is perhaps the most interesting phase of leaving something behind: establishing a new relationship with our old home. Because the places you leave behind do not cease existing when you leave: not only do they keep existing physically, but they also keep constituting an important stage in your own psychological development. That, I believe, is the reason why it makes sense that Joyce’s literary work had such a strong focus on Dublin.
I have often been asked why I felt the need to leave my country and move to Scotland as soon as I finished high school. It is something that is hard to express. I believe that going through such a sharp change in one’s surroundings helps us see more clearly which ones of our traits are truly ours and which ones are a mere reaction to the context in which we first developed our personality. I have never felt more myself than in Glasgow. Nonetheless, my relationship with my home since after I’ve left has changed in the most interesting way. I have started appreciating things about my Italian home that I used to take for granted. I love driving to my favourite Italian beach with a book or a friend, lay on the warm sand and watch the day go by. That allows me to observe the clouds go faster when the wind raises. It allows me to smell the salty air of the sea, watch the sun disappear in the water as the day ends, and observe the stars as they shine brightly in the countryside sky. Most importantly, I can finally reunite with my family and friends after a long time.
I love the familiarity of my Italian home, but being back there also makes me feel like not a day has gone by since I’ve left. I feel like I should still wake up early to catch the bus that used to take me to high school. Most importantly, I often find myself inserted in the same dynamics that I have struggled to leave behind. My relationship to this place is one that I still to this day struggle to understand. I can’t help to be very attached to the town that constituted my whole life for my childhood and adolescence. It represents the beginning of my metaphorical itinerary, but then it was followed by many new paths, and every language and culture I have encountered so far in my life has slowly become an important part of my identity.
In this column I have attempted to express how much languages are valuable, both individually and collectively. Learning a new language means overcoming one of the many barriers that divide us from different cultures, different approaches to life. Nonetheless, it is a process that brings us closer to the new culture without assimilating it into ours: it maintains and treasures the differences instead. Not only does it allow us to communicate with people from different countries directly, but it also opens the door to a deeper understanding of the most beautiful works of foreign art and literature. Learning a new language opens up a new path in the metaphorical maze of our identity. I think about that and I know that I will soon attempt to learn yet a new language, because delving into this maze of verbal expression is one of the most exciting — albeit metaphorical — journeys I have ever been on.
[Viola Ragonese – she/her]