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A Short Break in Edinburgh

(Eugenio Montale — Sosta a Edimburgo)

In Edinburgh, a city where the principal squares are ‘crescents’, or half-moons, both in shape and in name, stands a church all around whose many-sided perimeter runs an inscription considerably longer than those which decorated the walls of our villages until two years ago. This never-ending caption, extending from wall to wall, completing the circuit of the church and keeping the onlooker’s nose in the air, praises no worldly chief nor any glory of our mortal earth. Proceeding by learned exclusions and negations, the tightly enfolded spiral, painted in gold characters or perhaps composed of pieces of mosaic (who remembers which?), tells the passer-by, lest he forget, where the Lord of Heaven is not to be found, where it is useless to seek him. ‘God is not where…’ — and the reader has to move a few steps and confront another facet of the polygon: ‘God is not where…’ And all the places where life is apparently simple, pleasant and elevating, where in truth God should be found or be sought, are listed in long strings which follow that recurring memento: ‘God is not here, not here, not here…’

One summer day it happened that I was a long time walking around this crowded skein, continually retracing my steps and saying to myself, with anguish in my heart and dizziness in my head, ‘But, in the end, where is God? Where is he?’

Perhaps I really did utter the question out loud, because a distinguished gentleman who was crossing the crescent and whom I later found to be a colonel on leave from the Highlanders regiment, stopped next to me and firmly denied that in the vicinity of those Presbyterian walls, inside or out, written or not written, could be found the solution to the problem.

‘God is not here, sir,’ he said with an air of well-informed earnestness; and pulling from his pocket a little Bible, he began to read a few verses to me. Other people stopped and formed a circle around the reader: to begin with, a few ladies and two or three workmen; then the crowd grew, and one of the bystanders pulled another Bible from his pocket and read aloud independently, making clear his wish decisively to refute the thesis of the officer previously speaking. Before long there were three or four groups, and in each there was a ‘director of engagement’, an extempore referee who gave the floor to or cut off a speaker, summed up the pros and cons of the various arguments, and attempted perhaps impossible conciliations and mediations. Strictly observant Presbyterians, broad-minded Arminians, Baptists, Methodists, Darbyists and Unitarians, the luke-warm and the middle-of-the-road, men, women and children, bourgeois and working class, clerks and landowners: all listened or spoke with a strange light in their eye. Puzzled at having unintentionally stirred up such a mystical hornets’ nest, I withdrew a few steps, turning towards Princes Street, the great street built up only on one side, which leaves open the imposing (to the Scots) view of the Rock, a good three hundred feet high, and the Castle. In Princes Street are the exclusive clubs, membership heavily restricted, protected by double-glazed windows through which may be glimpsed severe stewards in livery. The wind is always blowing and no one is walking along this royal road, but to the side of the grand buildings there are humbler streets leading down to yet more crescents, more squares, more churches and gardens. ‘God is not where…’ Where was he? So had they found him? I felt deeply anxious, and reproved myself for not having considered the problem in precise terms in my own country for so many years. When I went back to the square with the church I found that there were still a few people there. The old colonel, who was putting his Bible back in his pocket, came up to me, commenting heartily, with vigorous courtesy, on the course of the discussion. I didn’t ask him what the result had been; nor perhaps would I have been able to deduce it from that torrent of words, the half of which were lost to my understanding.