The novelist and island writer Lawrence Durrell believed we are each aligned with certain places.
This is where we do our best work because we resonate with the Spirit of Place.
He believed landscape is not a projection of the psyche — an interpretation of your surroundings based on your interior — but a tutelary spirit which guides the growth of personality and art.
This isn’t an original notion, though Durrell’s expression of it has linked the concept closely to his name.
The Romans called it Genius loci, and they depicted local protective spirits in their religious iconography.
We also see the concept manifested in folk tales, festivals, local beliefs and stories which are tightly bound to a specific locality.
The meaning has shifted over the centuries. Today we think of genius loci as the deeper atmosphere that clings to a place, rather than as a literal guardian deity.
For Durrell, the Spirit of Place was an aspect of the landscape itself, and it carried a weight of environmental determinism.
As he wrote in his collection of the same name, certain types of soil would always produce a certain type of wine, where a different grape would always fail.
The same could be said of people. “As long as people keep getting born Greek or Italian or French,” he wrote, “their culture will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.” You could exterminate the French entirely and resettle the land with foreign peoples, but within two generations, according to Durrell, those national characteristics — restless metaphysical curiosity, a tenderness for good living — would be back.
The idea that environments influence behaviour and culture no longer carries much scientific weight, but Durrell’s conception of it contains a deep poetic truth.
The key to understanding it is to examine the character of a people, and to observe the influence of the landscape on your own conception of yourself.
The theory seemed to hold true throughout Lawrence Durrell’s life. The Greek islands inspired him to great lyrical heights in his writing, and to poetic insights into the human spirit, modern love, and even our post-relativity notions of time.
But he could not write in Alexandria — the arid climate of Egypt seemed to have blocked his creative energies during a period of exile in the Second World War. Nor was he happy in Yugoslavia or Argentina. It was only in Greece and in the south of France that his lyrical talents flourished again.
The Western world seems to have lost its link to this mythical past. But I have traveled widely, and I know there are places where it still holds on.
Connecting to that spirit of place and capturing it in words is the highest expression of travel literature.
Have you felt that deeply personal connection to a particular landscape or location?
Or have you felt its opposite — totally alienated by a place that clashed with your deepest sensibilities?
Where do you connect to the spirit of place?