The American photographer, writer and critic Teju Cole spent his summers between 2014 and 2019 in Switzerland, exploring the signs and spaces between the country’s ubiquitous mountains. The result is “Fernweh”, a book taking its title from the German term meaning a longing to be far away – and a work that resounds even louder in a time of isolation.
The timing couldn’t be more (in)auspicious. As “Fernwehexternal link” was being launched, in February, isolation measures were rapidly being put in place in almost all European countries, including Switzerland, to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Suddenly, what was supposed to be a visual and atemporal exploration of the spaces of Switzerland in all their silent and empty glory became a sort of dark mirror of the most immediate reality.
Invited by Zurich’s Literaturhaus to take up an artistic residency, Teju Cole spent half of 2014 travelling and snapping pictures around the country while writing a project related to Lagos, Nigeria, where he spent his childhood.
There could be nothing more antipodal for Cole: “I grew up mountainless, close to the lagoon and the sea, in a city where the only heights were high-rises. I was familiar with the extremes of city life: the crowds, the traffic, the energy, the crime. But nature’s extremes, of violent weather or vertiginous terrain, were unknown to me.”
During his stay in Switzerland, Cole says, he never felt bored at all. Being a complete stranger on the move, he revelled in the sensation of being suspended in time, cruising in solitude in a sort of non-place. The word 'Fernweh' is difficult to translate: it is the opposite of the usual 'Heimweh' (“homesickness”) – it’s the longing for being far away.
Fernweh and Heimweh, according to Teju Cole
The German word for homesickness is Heimweh. Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the 15th century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elevation of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called Heimweh.
The intense psychosomatic disorder was first treated in 1688 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer [Editor’s note: Hofer was a French medical student studying in Basel, Switzerland], who also gave it the Greek name ‘nostalgia’ [Editor’s note: Hofer put two Greek words together, Nostos and Algos, to make the new word]. It entered the English language in the late 18th century as ‘homesickness’.
Heimweh, having been absorbed into standard German, acquired an antonym, Fernweh. Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge.
Wanderlust is rooted in the German Romantic tradition and is strongly tied to walking out in nature. Think of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of a lone hiker in spectacular landscapes, communing with the overwhelming greatness and intricacy of nature.
Fernweh is a bit more imprecise. One simply wishes to be far away. Fernweh: the syllables sigh.end of infobox
After his first stay, he spent the next five summers back in the exotic Alpine country, convinced that in order to understand Switzerland one has to understand its mountains. Previous material to peruse, on this topic, was never a problem.
The crossing of the Alps, before and after the Gotthard tunnel, was an adventure that inspired and challenged some of the best European minds, artists and writers. An ideal of Switzerland is present throughout European arts and literature, and has also spread to the wider world; for example, Switzerland has been for decades now the prime setting of romantic musical scenes in Indian Bollywood movies.
For all its pride in its long national 'modern' history, spanning over 700 years, Switzerland cannot avoid being wrapped up in the idea that others have made of it.
Indeed, it can be argued that Switzerland was effectively invented by the British tourism industry in the 19th century as an exotic and cheap destination for a growing bourgeois middle class. Before that, throughout the 17th century up to the 19th, Switzerland occupied a high spot in British aristocratic imagery as part of the Grand Tour, a journey through continental Europe that young noblemen (and also women, accompanied by a chaperone) would undertake as a rite of passage to becoming world-savvy ladies and gentlemen.
The country lived up to the projected expectations – but it definitely didn’t get remain cheap.
Teju Cole, for his part, is very well aware of the imagined Switzerland, its history and geography. He is also very candid about his doubts and not so sure whether what he is trying to do will ever pay off, intellectually and creatively.
Cole uses images and texts to expand on long-standing notions of Switzerland. His thoughts and musings loom alongside a gallery of seemingly tedious images, bringing them to life.
Whatever the impression he manages to project, one thing is certain: Teju Cole has definitely joined the club of world artists and thinkers that shape the mental Swiss postcards in our collective unconscious.
(*): All captions are excerpts from Teju Cole's essay Far Away from Hereexternal link (New York Times Magazine, 27.09.2015).