Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, New York
Here I am at the station from which I left on my first journey, it has remained as it was then, without any change. All the lives that I could have led begin here.
- Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (1979)
But how can you look at something and set your own ego aside? Whose eyes are doing the looking?
- Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar (1983)
‘Europe’ is too large and too nebulous a concept around which to forge any convincing human community. And it is not psychologically realistic to posit, along lines favored by the German writer Jurgen Habermas, a local and supranational duality of communities around which allegiances may form, prudently shorn of the dangerous emphasis on ‘identity’ associated with the historical national unit. It does not work … ‘Europe’ is more than geographical notion but less than an answer.
- Tony Just, A Grand Illusion? (1996)
The Globe in Miniature
The real adventure of travel is intellectual, because the most profound journeys are interior in nature. That is why travel at its most useful creates a bibliography. For the most affecting of landscapes invite research into their history and material culture, so that the result of a journey is that books pile up in one’s library: everything from poetry to history to philosophy to geopolitics and the legacies of empires and civilizations. For they all (and much more) flow together. Because such a bibliography knows no categories, it is a rebuke to academic specialization, even as the greatest of academic specialist build out from a narrow base to uncover a universe. It is the books of the particular specialists that guide me: they are characters in this journey as much as the landscapes I encounter. For it is the books you have read, as much as the people you have met, that constitute autobiography.
Because travel is a journey of the mind, the scope of the journey is limitless, encompassing all manner of introspection and concerned with the great debates and issues of our age. The glossy magazines, selling pure fantasy as they often do – with photo spreads of delectable fashion models set against background of Third World splendor – manifest nothing so much as a profound boredom. This has nothing to do with travel.
Travel is psychoanalysis that starts in a specific moment of time and space. And everything about that moment is both unique and sacred – everything. As Borges writes, ‘The moon of Bengal is not the same as the moon of Yemen.’ Because you stand fully conscious before a moon and a sky that are not exactly like they are in any other place, in any other time, travel is an intensified form of consciousness, and therefore an affirmation of individual existence: that you have an identity even beyond that which the world. You family, and your friend have given you. And because no one has the right to know you as you know yourself, you must seek to become more than what you are by exposing yourself to different lands, and the history and architecture that go with them.
And you must do so alone! No one should get between you and a distant shore: not even a loved one. Originality emanates from solitude: from letting your thoughts wonder in alien terrain. I boarded a ferry from Pescara to Split a half century ago to feel alive this. For this reason I am alone now in a church in Rimini in winter. The lonelier the setting, the crueler the weather, the grater the possibilities for beauty, I tell myself. Great poetry is not purple; it is severe.
Seeking out the strange and unfamiliar does not confer wisdom, of course. To see the difference between people and cultures is not the same as to find some of them, as they say, ‘exotic’ – a word that should itself be exiled. Exoticism arose as an escape from the mass society. Where everyday life is full of banality and boredom. But as industrialization and post-industrialization seep everywhere on the planet, difference between place and people must be teased out of an acquired familiarity, not an unfamiliarity. The mystery of travel involves the layers revealed about yourself as you devour such knowledge. Thus, travel must lead to self-doubt. And I am full of doubts. The more I am praised in some quarters, the more I find fault with much of what I’ve done. With doubts come guilt and self-recrimination. Now that I am old, I realize that the difference between the groups and the people about which I once reported – in specific places, in specific moment in time – are transforming and evaporating before my eyes, as humanity strives towards a synthesis.
But these are all things that I have discovered in the course of this journey: a journey that originated with the desire for solitude and introspection, but which turned out – stage by stage – as I covered more miles, and headed into more politically fragile terrain, to be a work of reporting; where I was, in the end, talking to all manners of Slovenian and Croatian thinkers and Montenegrin and Albanian strongmen. I failed my vow of silence at some geographical point where Italy merges into the Slavic world, discovering that my questions about Europe at the end of the modern age brought back the relevance of early modernism (between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution) to our own times, in which identities have once again become fluid and multiple. These questions were too urgent to be left only to books and my private thoughts. The Adriatic was an obvious place to look for answers: though overlooked by journalists and professional strategists, the Adriatic defines Central and Eastern Europe as much as the Baltic and Black Seas do.
And the further I progress in my journey, what became obvious was this:
The dichotomy between Occident and Orient, always fragile on these shores, always interwoven, registers less and less: rather than a ‘clash,’ there is a ‘concert.’ Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy and Islam, Western Rome and Eastern Rome, the Mediterranean and the Balkans, achieve a stirring fusion on the Adriatic. All of Europe is distilled here, within a geography that one can actually comprehend and therefore grasp. It is the globe in miniature. Indeed, the civilizational subtleties of the Adriatic now encompass the world. The age of populism that the media declares is merely an epiphenomenon: a swan song for the age of nationalism itself. The Adriatic, consequently, constitutes an elegy to a category of distinctions that I spent my life observing. I am certain only in my loss of certainty. It is in this way that I deconstruct myself – in the course of a journey, obviously.
My journey culminates in Corfu, where I confront through Greece’s own past the ultimate human and historical drama: that of the refugee experience. Migration is the story of humanity. It will continue to define Europe in the twenty-first century: the influx of Arabs and Africans that we have seen so far is merely the beginning. And few migrations have been as heartrending and instructive as that of over a million ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor to Greece itself in the early 1920s.
Finally, I write at the edge of a precipice. A precious, eclectic seascape that encompasses the whole of Europe – including its Orthodox and Muslim aspects – is about to become planetary, as the new and vast maritime empire of China threatens to overwhelm all of these European associations that I have sketched herein, making this journey a mere period piece, a tour-ender in old foreign correspondents’ lingo. For the Adriatic is about to be linked with the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as key elements of a burgeoning global trade, from Hong Kong to Trieste by way of Hambantota, Gwadar, and the other Indian Ocean ports.
Then there is the battle over new natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean, and the struggle over oil in war-torn Libya. More than half a dozen littoral countries are involved in both intense negotiations and military positioning to see which consortium controls these envisioned pipelines, some of which may enter Europe through the Adriatic. Truly, the Adriatic is becoming a choke point on international trade and geopolitical interests.
But how to grapple with such an overwhelming vision?
By going local, rather that global. By boring deep into the historical and aesthetic peculiarities of each place, rather that losing the texture through some bland and abstract, formulaic global approach. In the early years of the twenty-first century I traveled throughout the greater Indian Ocean, in anticipation of its christening as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ by the Pentagon. At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century I journey through the South China Sea, in anticipation of that region’s future in news headlines. And in the middle of that second decade, in 2016, I began traveling throughout the Adriatic, in anticipation of its possible destiny as the western maritime terminus of China’s Belt and Road.
But my aim has not been to theorize on the global geopolitics in light of China’s and Russia’s return to great power status. Rather, the reverse: for the macro view requires a base of granular knowledge. And thus, just at the Adriatic is about to realize a new global significance, I have decided to employ it as a geographical metaphor for an age that is passing: the modern age itself in Europe. Only by appreciating what is passing can we better analyze what is about to come.