The end of the geography
Ricard V. Solé

How far are we from the others? Are the inhabitants of other countries real strangers, or maybe there is an invisible link that connects us all together? Maybe, like Albert Sánchez Piñol wrote in “La pell freda”*: “We are never infinitely far away from those who we hate. For the same reason, we could believe that we will never be completely close to those who we love.”

We look around and most of the faces are strange, unknown, and despite everything, we often feel this “little world” effect: by any chance (or at least it seems so) as we speak with a stranger, he suddenly goes into our circle of acquaintances. During a journey, faraway from anywhere, maybe seated on the step of an ancient Roman’s Palace, we meet someone and after having a chat, we find out a common link. This link is often another person, someone who knows us and who sets up a bridge between us without even knowing it. It is a mutual friend, or someone we know and who met the stranger too, maybe on the stairs near the Alexandria’s remains. It is a small world! We will say surprised and at the same time pleased, because we know that geography sometimes seems not to be so important. Is it so?

The scientists found out that our world is really small, surprisingly small. Let’s imagine that two persons, who know each other, are two knots in a big net where all the human beings are connected. This spider’s web is the society and the threads that connect people will tell us who has contact with whom. This spider’s web is invisible, but we move through it and it connects us too with the others. No-one builds this spider’s web, there is not a single architect, but lots of them: each one of us takes part in it. Lost into this invisible structure, we can not suspect its significance. How is this spider’s web?

We have discovered that it is not like any geometric spider’s web we could find in a garden, but like the ones we see in the corners of a house, apparently untidy and without any structure. But despite everything, these spider’s webs do they work as well as the others even though their internal architecture seems nonexistent. The Society’s net that connects all of us does not spread out itself (as we think) over a surface, but folds up and reconnects itself into dimensions which are unclear. So, to reach someone through the thread of this spider’s web, we do not need to walk that far. In fact, in an average country with some millions of inhabitants, we should just cross six knots of this Society’s net to reach any other person. The world whether we like it or not, is really small. But not only the society: the words into the language or the neurons into our brains are little worlds too. There are not two words far enough from each other, neither two thoughts different enough.

This discovery was strong evidence thanks to some simple experiments. Stanley Milgram, an American sociologist, decided to prove if the perception of the society like a well connected net was only a subjective perception or a demonstrable fact. He used some letters addressed to the same person, who lived in an undetermined part of the Atlantic coast in the United States (only Milgram knew the address) and he distributed them to some acquaintance of him. The instructions were as clear as surprising. On the letter was written only the name of this person, and the group received only the information that this person was a lawyer from New York. This person –unknown to the members of the group- should receive the letter through a chain of contacts. Each participant should give the letter to an acquaintance that could approach the letter to its addressee. Even though the given information was clearly insufficient, these letters needed only an average of six deliveries to reach their addressee. The consequences were clear: the laws of geography are not like the society ones. This conclusion is today more evident, but not truer than when the Mediterranean was the cradle of our civilization.

The Society’s net takes up space and time. Nowadays, the net is the palpable reality, where everything is closer than we ever could dream. This net changes every day, each time when someone knows somebody or forgets him. The net grows and changes and, despite everything, if we look at it from a distance it does not look really different. The net spreads out to the past, becoming more and more dim as we move back. Looking back, the links become weaker, they fade away or disappear. Back in time the knots become blurred and their links vanished. Into the world’s big theatre, the curtain of shadows starts where the spider’s web goes into history. We look back and the net has faces that become blurred. They are our ancestors’ faces which slowly melt into other faces. In the end, these faces are frozen on the photographs of old albums and nobody can recognize them anymore. They look at us from the past, and the way that connected us with them has disappeared. This loss reminds the words that Shelley writes on Ozymandies’ tomb, king of kings, buried in the desert, in the middle of nowhere: “Watch my work, you powerful, and seeing it, wake up!”

We often think about the oblivion of the past and we think of the important figures that were, once, its major figures and often became unknown. But we seldom realize that the real oblivion is the destruction of those links that gave sense to the individuals and that connected them with their contemporaries and with us too. As long as the connections survive, the past will not really be forgotten.

Despite everything, despite the inexorable passing of time that breaks the net, cutting off its branches and tearing out its leaves, reducing it to the present, the past insists on surviving. The history books, the remains of other cultures, our common origins, they do not keep only the memory of the facts and its major figures; they constitute the net too. Its preservation saves us from turning the past into smoke of memory. When we read about the emperor Hadrian, this huge figure is not alone, in the middle of nowhere. The historical memory keeps the memories of his works and the memories of his neighbours in this spider’s web. A spider’s web, that spreads geographically to Rome, Alexandria, Thebes and Babylon. Lots of important links connected Hadrian with friends and lovers, enemies and conspirators. With all those who lived with him, or all those who were submitted by him. And between them, we find Antinous, a figure that -maybe fortuitous but unmistakable- shines full of light.

After his dead, Antinous escapes the abyss of oblivion and he settles himself in the Pantheon of the immortal figures thanks to the obsession of Hadrian, who will never be recovered from his loss. Antinous’ face, far from becoming blurred, is fixed into our collective memory with a large number of artistic expressions that have arrived until our days and that inspired writers and poets. His face appears in thousands of different places close and familiar, a frozen referent from a time where Rome came back to its Hellenistic roots. It is a distant past, but still present in our culture and in the way we look at the world, returned to us by these ancient statues and their marble faces. So, Antinous is converted into a vehicle of the “little world”.

The gaze of Antinous is our look, the look of a world without geography, where we all are close and nobody -friend or enemy- is far enough from somebody else.

*La pell freda = The cold skin.

Ricard V. Solé
Research teacher ICREA, University Pompeu Fabra