Friday, February 12, 2010


I am at the other end of the world once more, heading back home in a couple of days, heavy snow storms permitting. Here in the silent heart of the Schwartzwald, the black forest that covers a good part of the South West of Germany, a former secret military research facility was converted, at the end of the second world war, into a more innocent use as a conference center for mathematicians. The location stayed the same: an isolated elegant glass and steel building surrounded by thick, once impenetrable, conifer woods. At this time of the year, encrusted in a shiny glass of frost and snow, they make a suggestive view. Darkness, slow moving descend of fluffy snow flakes, forest, and games of cozy indoor lights in libraries and lecture halls.

I was afraid of showing up here, on the ground of how painful my last visit to this place had been, a good three years ago. I refused to come to a meeting last fall, just to avoid incurring in more of the same pain. At this point, I only wanted to throw in the towel and stop going to any conference at all, stop having to fight, stop trying. I just wanted to prevent the pain from getting every time worse, by now nearly impossible to control: an immense unbearable pain now forever associated in my mind to names of places like Baltimore, Nashville, Bures-sur-Yvette. Nevermore, says the raven, nevermore.

What made me come here, in the end, was the promise I made to my co-organizers, to help them arrange this workshop, to give it a try. Surprisingly, for the first time in so many years, despite my fears coming from the bad memories of this place, I was able to breathe. I was able to sit in talks and listen. I was able to think about what was being said, instead of just trying all the time to control my immense desire to run away. I was able to give a talk and not feel sick while doing so. I hardly remember the last time it felt like that before.

And yet, every few hours and without warning, I still get into one of those fits of despair when I just collapse under the weight of too much pain. It comes less frequently though, it is starting to be bearable again. The dark pine trees encased in a crust of bright white snow are cast like an army of skeletons against the milky background of the sky. Those dark lines draw the shape of mountains. Snow keeps falling in slow motion over the frozen stillness of this landscape, while indoors we conjure improbable images of quantized spacetimes.

I leave one last message to the master of incommunicability, signed on the inner cover of our book in the institute library:

Ibitis Aegeas sine me Messalla per undas.
O utinam memores ipse cohorsque mei.

I was sixteen years old last time I thought of this elegy of Albius Tibullus. In the year 28 BC, the poet joined his best friend, commander Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who was sailing to the East with his entourage of mercenaries and lackeys. Somewhere along the way, Albius Tibullus falls sick, and his "best friend" promptly abandons him to die on the island of Corcyra and sails on. The hexameters and pentameters of the poem cry out the poet's deepest anguish, as he lies dying on the shore of Corcyra: "you will go on sailing without me, Messalla, on the waves of the Aegean sea. Oh, I wish that at least you and your entourage will remember me". Yet Tibullus does not die. He recovers and finds a way to return to Rome, and in the end all that went down in history about Messalla is that he was the one who left his best friend for dead and sailed away. The elegies of Tibullus, on the other hand, remained, preserved across the centuries among the finest heritage of the Latin literature.