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The Enigma of Arrival

James Donald

An alternative title for this short reflection might be "Confessions of a Flitting Brit". I first arrived in Australia as a migrant in mid-1997. Since then, I have spent more time on planes than I did in all my previous fifty years. I have visited colleagues and played catch-up with my family around Australia. I have flown up to Malaysia, Singapore and China in the unexpected role of university entrepreneur. I have travelled to the States and back to Europe, usually for conferences but also to remind friends and family that I am still around. All this has meant that I seem to be forever arriving back here. Last year, 2003, was especially intense, with a fellowship in Vienna bookended by stopovers in London, and then, in mid-year, a hectic escape from WA to Sydney via Brisbane. So indulge me if I think aloud about what it means to arrive in a city, and if I try to work through the feeling that I have not yet arrived in Sydney in the sense of not yet being "at home" there (whatever that means). The experience has certainly reminded me that arriving to start a new life in a new place calls on many of one?s powers of adaptation and improvisation as you have to find somewhere to live, remember to fill in all the right forms, let everyone know where you are, start a new job, and simply try to catch up with yourself. My disorientation prompts me to wonder about other people arriving, the history of millions of travellers, migrants and tourists arriving every day in cities around the globe over the past century or three. What have been the spatial, procedural, psychological and aesthetic dimensions of arrival for them? How has the experience of arriving in a city been imagined, represented, and managed?

Modern arrivals

"Arriving-in-the-city" has been a typical trope in modernity at least from Goethe and the Bildungsroman onwards. In a narrative shared by biographies and novels, the provincial hero (or heroine) comes to the capital city as a prelude to the drama of inventing a career, a self, and a life. Let me quote that quirky yet definitive modern, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His first visit, in 1732, was a bitter disappointment.

How greatly did my first sight of Paris belie the idea I had formed of it! ? I had imagined a city of a most imposing appearance, as beautiful as it was large, where nothing was to be seen but splendid streets and palaces of marble or gold. As I entered through the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but dirty, stinking little streets, ugly black houses, a general air of squalor and poverty, beggars, carters, menders of clothes, sellers of herb-drinks and old hats. All this so affected me at the outset that all the real magnificence I have since seen in Partis has not been sufficient to efface my first impression? (Rousseau, 1953:155)

For Rousseau, very much the hero of his own autobiographical Confessions, Paris was already a place of the imagination, the backdrop for his guiding fantasy of his own triumphs there. He is quite explicit about the failure of the reality to come up to scratch: "it is impossible for men, and difficult for Nature herself, to surpass the riches of my imagination." When he returned to Paris almost a decade later, in 1741, Rousseau had become wholly uninterested in the city as a place, a landscape or a spectacle. There is no description of how Paris appeared to him, no attempt to convey an atmosphere or an ethos. He is interested only in what Paris has to offer him.

I arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1741, with fifteen louis in ready money, and with my comedy Narcissus and my scheme of notation as my sole resources. I had consequently not much time to lose before trying to turn them to some advantage. I hurried to make use of my introductions. A young man who arrives in Paris with a decent appearance and advertises himself by his talents is always sure of a welcome. My good reception procured me some pleasures but did not lead to anything much. (ibid.:266)

For Rousseau at this stage of his career Paris is, in the old sense, purely society: that is, networks of influence and hierarchies of power to be negotiated, a space of possible self-advancement (and self-gratification). When Rousseau did reflect elsewhere on the city at greater length, it was often in terms of drama and masquerade. He was obsessed with how he appeared, deeply suspicious and disapproving of the opacity of his fellow-citizens, and nostalgic for the oppressive transparency of small-town Geneva, where everyone knew everyone else?s business.

I?ll jump from Rousseau?s early modern Paris to Berlin in the high noon of modernity, in the traumatic early decades of the twentieth century. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, Berlin was very much a city of arrivals. Its population almost doubled (from 1.8 million to 3.4 million) in the decades between 1880 and 1910, with most of the new citizens being migrants from small towns and the countryside. This explains why, in 1903, Georg Simmel framed his account of the psychological impact of life in the great modern city in terms of the speedier tempo and greater complexity and abstraction that would confront such newcomers.

The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. ? Lasting impressions, impressions which differ only slightly from one another, impressions which take a regular and habitual course and show regular and habitual contrasts ? all these use up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. (Simmel, 1997:175)

The implicit narrative here is still Rousseau?s biographical, and in a sense heroic, movement from the provinces to metropolis. What has changed is Simmel?s way of seeing the city. It is still almost surprisingly abstract ? still no cityscapes are evoked and Berlin is not even named ? but the city has changed from being a space of networks to be negotiated to representing an inner, subjective reality. It has become, as Simmel?s American student Robert Park put it, a state of mind. And, consciously or not, Simmel conveys that state of mind, that way of seeing, in strikingly cinematic terms. How can you not think about framing and montage when he talks about the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions ?

This perspective on arriving in the city, simultaneously sociological and cinematic, experiential and visual, can also be discerned twenty-four years later in the framing and abstracting logic of Walther Ruttmann?s film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). The opening sequence, shot from within a moving train, recalls Simmel?s identification of the sensory impact of tempo as the key to the contrast between metropolitan and small town or rural life. Ruttmann, a pioneer of abstract and formal cinema, wanted to exploit the medium?s potential for visual rhythm by manipulating the movement of shapes over time: hence the importance of tempo and rhythm in Berlin. The opening also draws out Simmel?s implicit contrast between nature (the lake and countryside; the cyclical rhythms of rural life) and culture (the sign in the terminal that names this place as Berlin; modern temporalities). In doing so, it nods towards the status of both cinema and the train as technologies that embodied and instituted those modern tempos. As early as the 1830s and 1840s, travellers had noted how the railway annihilated time and space, and over the course of the nineteenth century the railway station had become iconic of the drama of travel and arrival as well as of mechanization and progress ? think, most notably, of Monet?s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Saint Lazare Station (1877). And, of course, at the century?s end, in 1896, the Lumière Brothers had announced the arrival of cinema as a time-and-space-transforming technology with a reference to Monet?s painting in the arrival of that train at La Ciotat station.

Colonial arrivals

Although it sums up beautifully my current sense of spaced-out deracination, I cannot claim to have thought up the wonderful phrase "The Enigma of Arrival" myself. I took it from the title of V.S. Naipaul?s 1987 novel, a study of selfhood (and self-identification as a writer) being formed through multiple journeys and multiple arrivals. When I looked at the book again, I was intrigued to find that Naipaul too had borrowed rather than invented the title. He took it from a de Chirico painting that for him captures certain truths about the mystery, the abstraction, and the anxiety of arrival. But even de Chirico, it turns out, had not named the painting himself. It was one of a series that he had shown to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and which Apollinaire had named.

The protagonist of The Enigma of Arrival is a Trinidadian novelist who has migrated to England as a young man heading for Oxford ? like Naipaul himself. In middle age, he has retreated to a cottage in the countryside near Stonehenge to write. In a book he finds in the cottage, he notices a reproduction of de Chirico?s painting that inspires to consider writing a novel about arrival, exile, and displacement.

What was interesting about the painting itself, "The Enigma of Arrival", was that ? again perhaps because of the title ? it changed in my memory. The original (or the reproduction in the "Little Library of Art" booklet) was always a surprise. A classical scene, Mediterranean, ancient-Rome ? or so I saw it. A wharf; in the background, beyond walls and gateways (like cut-outs), there is the top of the mast of an antique vessel; on an otherwise deserted street in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of arrival. It spoke to me of that, as it had spoken to Apollinaire? My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator would write plainly, without any attempt at period style or historical explanation of his period. He would arrive ? for a reason I had yet to work out ? at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cut-outs. He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city (I imagined something like an Indian bazaar scene). The mission he had come on ? family business, study, religious initiation ? would give him encounters and adventures. He would enter interiors, of houses and temples. Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere; he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn?t know how. (Naipaul, 1987:91-92)

Although Naipaul?s novelist imagines a narrative taken out of modern historical time by setting it in the rhetorical timelessness of the ancient world, it nonetheless refers to the specifically the Bildungsroman?s modern formula of "arrival and self-invention in the great city". Later, he wonders how this abstracted or almost archetypal story-image ? his "fantasy of the classical world" ? might provide the seed for a more autobiographical novel about his own translation from periphery to centre. Again, the reference to Naipaul?s own arrival in London in 1950 is quite clear.

This journey began some days after my eighteenth birthday. It was the journey which ? for a year ? I feared I would never be allowed to make. So that even before the journey I lived with anxiety about it. It was the journey that took me from my island, Trinidad, off the northern coast of Venezuela, to England. (ibid.:97)

Naipaul?s autobiographical imagination is here still organised around the Bildungsroman narrative structure, although with a couple of differences. First, there is a cultural and historical specificity to it. It is not just the young provincial hero who arrives in the capital city to make a name for himself, but the colonial subject arriving in the metropolis in the twilight of empire. Second, even if the narrative structure harks back to early modernity, the texture of the description reflects the rhetoric of twentieth-century modernism ? and particularly its iconography of the train station and the cinema. There is a distinct echo of the opening of Ruttmann?s Berlin in Naipaul?s description of arriving in London.

After the grey of the Atlantic, there was colour. Bright colour seen from the train that went to London. Late afternoon light. An extended dusk: new, enchanting to someone used to the more or less equal division of day and night in the tropics. Light, dusk, at an hour which would have been night at home.
But it was night when we arrived at Waterloo station. I liked the size, the many platforms, the big, high roof. I liked the lights. Used at home to public places ? or those I knew, schools, stores, offices ? working only in natural light, I liked this excitement of a railway station busy at night, and brightly lit up. I saw the station people working in electric light, and the travellers as dramatic figures. The station gave a suggestion ? of a canopied world, a vast home interior.

After five days on the liner, I wanted to go out. I wanted especially to go to a cinema? (ibid.:117-118)

For Naipaul?s hero, the city is an intense aesthetic experience as well as a potential space for biographical self-creation ? a response for which he had been schooled in the cinemas of Trinidad long before his arrival in London. In the twentieth century, one of the consequences of cinema as a global medium was to make a certain perception of the city almost universally accessible. One of the things Naipaul?s hero regrets about his arrival in London is then a certain disenchantment.

At home I had lived most intensely in the cinema. ? In those dark halls I had dreamt of a life elsewhere. Now, in the place that for all those years had been the "elsewhere", no further dream was possible. ? I had thought of the cinema pleasure as a foretaste of my adult life. Now, with all kinds of shame in many recesses of my mind, I felt it to be fantasy. I hadn?t read Hangover Square, didn?t even know of it as a book; but I had seen the film. Its Hollywood London had merged in my mind (perhaps because of the association of the titles) into the London of The Lodger. Now I knew that London to be fantasy, worthless to me. (ibid.:124)

I?ll leave to one side all the issues about imagination, cinema and the city raised by Naipaul?s casual disdain for fantasy. Instead, I?ll just note how his changed relationship to cinema ? when he starts going to the cinema a decade later it is no longer as "a dreamer or a fantast but as a critic" ? is of a piece with the way that, beyond the scope of the novel, V.S. Naipaul has carved out a distinctive cultural persona for himself in post-imperial England. This persona, as is well known, is that of an almost caricatured cultural conservatism steeped in European tradition and contemptuous of the mediocrity and intellectual timidity he associates with today?s world. Naipaul, in short, reinvented himself as European with a vengeance.

That is why Edward Said, always a good hater, loathed Naipaul. He felt that, by identifying himself so intensely and so polemically with the cultural and political authority of metropolitan, colonial Europe, Naipaul had sacrificed the unhomely and so inherently distanced critical perspective of the traveller. For Said, the never settled traveller is able to "understand a multiplicity of disguises, masks, and rhetorics. Travellers must suspend the claim of customary routine in order to live in new rhythms and rituals? the traveller crosses over, traverses territory, and abandons fixed positions all the time" (in Howe, But, whatever the excesses of Naipaul the man, isn?t it just this process of translation and relocation that is explored in The Enigma of Arrival? The difference between Said and Naipaul maybe turns on their competing visions of how best to negotiate and live their shared experience of colonial arrival. Naipaul opts for a thoroughgoing reinvention and commitment to the traditions of the place where you arrive: "For me, a miracle had occurred in this valley and in the grounds of the manor where my cottage was. In that unlikely setting, in the ancient heart of England, a place where I was truly an alien, I found I was given a second chance, a new life, richer and fuller than any I had had anywhere else. And in that place, where at the beginning I had looked only for remoteness and a place to hide, I did some of my best work." Said, by contrast, interprets "the fact of migration" in terms of critical distance bought at the cost of existential unease: "that movement from the precision and concreteness of one form of life transmuted or imported into the other ? and then of course the whole problematic of exile and immigration enters into it, the people who simply don?t belong in any culture; that is the great modern or, if you like, postmodern fact, the standing outside of cultures" (ibid.)

Australian arrivals

When I finally made it to Sydney from Perth in July 2003, I was exhausted after all too rapid farewells to our friends in the West and tipping books and belongings yet again into cardboard boxes until the early hours. Maybe it?s time catching up with me, but this arrival certainly didn?t feel like the start of a Bildungsroman narrative. My sense of dislocation and suspension was intensified by arriving not to the modernist drama of a bustling metropolitan railway terminus, but in the bureaucratic non-place of Sydney airport?s domestic terminal at night (Fuller and Harley, 2005). Not that I was given a hard time, but the institutional and procedural apparatus of such arrivals, reinforced by the wonderfully blank boarding house room where I was lodged for my first week or so, did make me feel like some kind of comfortable and even privileged guest-worker employed in an eccentrically globalised profession. So far, it still feels more like Said?s enigmatic "standing outside of culture" than like Naipaul?s arrival at a "second chance".

In 1997, the year I arrived in Australia, the artist Immants Tillers also borrowed the title The Enigma of Arrival ? whether from Naipaul or de Chirico I don?t know ? for a show of his work. In his paintings Tillers engages, sometimes controversially, with indigenous imagery and representational practices as a way (I assume) of working through the layered and persistent difficulty of arriving in a place in which prior occupation constantly destabilizes the anxious claims and identifications of a migrant culture desperate to be at home with itself. That?s an important reminder. For someone who arrived when I did, to feel too comfortably at home in Australia could only be an act of bad faith, a disavowal of the unresolved trauma of occupation and displacement and of the way that other would-be arrivals are treated by this strangely, unnecessarily and, I suspect, unwittingly inhospitable community. Set in that broader context, arriving in a city continues to appear an historically contingent experience, shaped in major part by changes in global trade, modes of transport, travellers? tales, and patterns of migration and people-flows. What the individual arrival is like also depends on who you are. A different way of telling the history of arrivals would not be through narratives and images, but through an account of the bureaucratic discriminations entailed by the way that newcomers arriving in a strange city are described and categorised: as visitor, tourist, settler, coloniser, migrant, guest worker, refugee, or asylum seeker.


Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2005) Aviopolis: A Book about Airports, Black Dog: London

Howe, S. (2003) " Edward Said: the traveller and the exile", in, 2 October 2003

Naipaul, V.S. (1987) The Enigma of Arrival, Penguin: London

Rousseau, J. (1953) The Confessions, trans. J.M. Cohen) Penguin: London

Simmel, G. "The Metropolis and Mental Life", in Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, Frisby, D. and M. Featherstone (eds), Sage: London