What does it mean if we climb the heights and no one observes it?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2012
Photo: Christopher Michel

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, best known as a poet, activist, and co-founder of the renowned City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, was a central figure in the Beat movement, and his A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling poetry books of all time. He also travelled far and wide during his adult life, and over the course of five decades recorded many of those trips in his travel journals—from Mexico to Morocco, Paris to Rome, Cuba to Haiti. On the day he wrote the following entry in 1999, 80-year-old Ferlinghetti had conquered a hill on the island of Sardinia in the blistering heat, his companions too far away to catch him waving from the summit.

The Diary Entry

July 11

At the ruins at Nora I am climbing to the Roman tower, the lighthouse on its little spit of land by the ruined thermal baths and the (perhaps) Temple of Astarte (no real proof she ever had a temple here)—I’m climbing up the hill in the burning late afternoon, in which a huge fireball hangs in the sky. The temperature must be 90°. I’ve got sunglasses and a panama hat, but the sun beats through, glares through. I’m walking up the rough scrabble, through the underbrush, up the faint twisty path, circling up to the tower. All the others in the party below and off in the distance, inspecting the ruins of the thermal baths. . . . Then I’m on a little pair of stone stairs with iron rusted railing. . . . I see sun spots, as the stairs turn directly into the glaring sun. And now I reach the top, where an iron door to the flat top of the tower is locked & barred. . . . I sit on the highest step, but there is no shade, no refuge from the burning sun. . . . I rise to the railing and wave my white panama at the distant people, friends and poets, Italians & Americans. I wave & wave, but there is no sign that anyone sees me. (No, said someone later, we didn’t see you.) What does it mean, then, if we climb the heights and no one observes it? What does it mean when a song is sung but nobody there to hear it, a poem spoken and no one to hear it, a painting done but no one to see it, truth spoken but no one to apprehend it—and after we are all gone, the sea will continue its roaring? A Beethoven symphony crashing on the shore in a storm and no one to hear the end of time…. Plato said the ideals and concepts such as Truth or Beauty still exist even if no one is there to think them; still the silence of a Chinese vase or an Egyptian frieze exists, their figures still alive in the void.

Further Reading

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s papers, travel journals included, live at the Bancroft Library at the University of California. In 2015, those journals were published as WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE: Travel Journals 1960-2013, a lovely book that also contains his some of his artwork and facsimiles of the journals themselves.

More on Ferlinghetti’s life and work:

Excerpted from WRITING ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE: Travel Journals 1960-2013 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, copyright © 2015 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Copyright © 2015 by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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