‘Like the sea to fish’

“I am a citizen of the world. I belong in the global village”, which is not a village at all – one catachresis too far.

“I am an anywhere“, according to David Goodhart’s metaphor. “My home is everywhere and nowhere, I feel comfortable and chez moi in anyone’s terroir without claiming it as my own. My identities are not ascribed, I feel no roots holding me down”. Or to quote a 14th-century Italian poet out of context, ‘to me, the whole world is a homeland, like the sea to fish’.

Here’s one of the modern mantras, part of the 21st-century Western urban catechism.

The Italian poet quoted above is none other than Dante Alighieri.

Mihi patria est mundus, velut piscibus aequor.

So he says in his book ‘On the Eloquence of the Vernacular Language’, written in the first years of the 14th century.

The Florentine poet may have been dead for 701 years and he may not convince everyone to be a man of the humanist Renaissance, and therefore a proto-modern (I for one, however, am persuaded that he is) – but he speaks the language of our world. And a much better dialect of it, to boot.

But Dante was not an anywhere, or at least not one by conviction. He ended up an anywhere when, exiled from Florence, had to wander from court to court across Italy and Europe to make a living and nurse his wounded ego. He was a reluctant fish in a hostile sea, carried away from home, uprooted and forever drifting away. In the same breath, he writes:

Though I drank from the Arno before cutting my teeth, and love Florence so much that, because I loved her, I suffer exile unjustly – and I will weight the balance of my judgement more with reason than with sentiment.

Unjustly or not, the punishment was real, and the migrant poet couldn’t find his home anywhere. The world was his homeland, but not his oyster, and certainly not his home.

Forced to adopt the life of a cosmopolitan without embracing the mentality, Dante lived the rest of his life not so much as an anywhere, but everywhere, except where it mattered to him, sovra ‘l bel fiume d’Arno a la gran villa, ‘in the great city, by the fair river Arno’, as he declares in the chilling pages of Inferno 23.

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