A Bowler Hat

At the dawn of the golden era of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most popular on-screen character was: “the tramp”. Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy and also the Italian comedianTotò, who often played  this role ( he was actually a Neapolitan nobleman: Prince Antonio De Curtis), were those who gave life to the most memorable ones. Being no longer part of the productive system of society “the tramp” endeavours to survive taking whatever paying work is available or using cunning either to get what he needs or to escape the authority figures who wouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Somehow, he is modelled on the Spanish pícaro, a roguish character whose travels and adventures are used as a vehicle for social satire, but “the tramp” is a more clumsy, generally a good-hearted sort of man, who looks at the world with the innocent eyes of a child. Even if he has been relegated to the margin of society he endeavors to behave as much as possible with the manners and dignity of a gentleman.

The clothes he wears are the sign of his marginalization. They never fit properly as to symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system. The jackets may be too loose or too tight, the  trousers too long or too short and the shoes are often clownish. However, there is an accessory it seems they cannot do without: the bowler hat. It is that hat that makes those characters comic and tragic at the same time. The bowler had become one of the most popular hats in the early 20th century as it was more informal and practical than the top hat, thus becoming a distinctive symbol of the middle upper class of the time. The Belgian painter Magritte, who had made bowlers the protagonists of many of his paintings said:

“It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.”

On the head of those outsiders bowlers represented the memory of a more dignified past, what they used to be: middle class men, that is, part of that “anonymity” that now rejects them. Uprooted and hopeless they are doomed to try and survive in an inhospitable world. This kind of humanity thus represented fitted perfectly Beckett’s idea of the Absurd of living, that’s why he chose to model Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of ” Waiting for Godot”, on Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy .

Beckett was an enthusiast of cinema, silent films and of Stan and Ollie, in particular. He borrows, in fact, many distinctive elements of the two comedians, along with their gags and routines. Apart from wearing bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon are known by their Christian names, just like Stanley and Oliver, and use their nicknames Didi and Gogo as Stan and Ollie. We also understand from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon: “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, just like Laurel and Hardy. Many of the play’s stage directions and the slapstick routines concerning their hats or boots sound as though Beckett is quoting from a Laurel and Hardy shooting script. Even the theme of suicide by hanging  which appears at the end of each act echoes a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture: The Flying Deuces. Hardy is heartbroken because the woman he loves has rejected his marriage proposal, so he decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel to do the same :

LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!

HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?

LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.

HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.

Just like in Waiting for Godot, the two fear that one of them may live while the other dies. In this tragicomic vision Laurel and Hardy provided Beckett the key to express on stage the fear of remaining lonely in an absurd world where the presence of a companion is the only real comfort and certainty that can give you the impression of being rooted somehow. With a laughter they could exorcise for a moment the fears and the doubts of those post war generations who felt marginalized just like them and were unable to find meaning in the world they lived. Without a real prospect of a future but the illusion that a Godot one day may show up, they could not but long for that “anonymity” represented by the bowler hat they don’t want to part with.

 

 

 

 

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A Matter of Time

When the twentieth century novelists decided that those plots which frame our
lives and those masks we wear every day for the sake of conventions and society were no longer “interesting”, but rather, what’s hidden behind those masks, the very first victim to be sacrificed to the altar of modern narrative was time, or
better, chronological time .

As Sterne taught us, under the mask there is not hypocrisy, but chaos, the freedom of
thought, no fear of judgement, it is exactly what we are: naked. In that precious
tabernacle which is our mind, time flows free and ruthless. Hence, whoever dared
represent it should have employed new writing techniques, as the old ones could not go under the surface, the mask. Freud, with his studies on the unconscious, Bergson,
with his theory on mental time processes called ” la Durée” and William James, who
theorized “the stream of consciousness” gave those writers what they needed to forge the modern novel.

Rather than following actions linked by a cause-effect pattern, readers were involved by the train of thoughts of the characters that caused those actions. Therefore, at the beginning of a modern novel we don’t find any longer introductory pages with all the information we need to have about the central character/s, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example:

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me(…)”. (Robinson Crusoe Chpt.1)

Or Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”(Emma Chpt.1)

The heroes that people modern novels may remain without a face or details about their personal lives for many pages till those details cross the mind of the character and only then it is possible to attempt a picture of one of them. Novels become as treasure chests that chronologically may last even one day only, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, chests that keep together the warm, virulent, indomitable power of the characters’ thoughts which freely skip from one way to another thanks to their association of ideas.

The fresh morning air of London”( What a lark! What a plunge!“) and the sound of the hinges of the doors which are to be removed to make more room for Mrs Dalloway’s party, take her to the past when she was eighteen at her summer-house by the sea and the ghost of Peter Walsh appears without any introduction, just few lines she remembers which are apparently meaningful for her, but absolutely meaningless for us :

Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh.” (Mrs Dalloway Chpt.1)

Peter Welsh is a central character of Mrs Dalloway’s life, even he is physically distant, he is constantly present in her mind, in fact he is the very first person we meet in her train of thoughts.

In Dubliners, Eveline has been motionless at the window for some time when she hears somebody’s footsteps:

“The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.”

The sound of the footsteps, which turns from cracking to crunching takes her to the red houses where once there was a field, where she used to play with her brothers and friends and was happy. In that memory the censorious shadow of her father materializes, with a “blackthorn” stick in his hands. Her father is first in her thoughts rather than Frank, the young man with whom she had consented to an elopement that very night, as it is Eveline’s relationship with him the core of the story.

In this new way of writing, pages may chronologically cover few seconds, while a
line hours, as for the individual, time may speed up or slow down even if for the clock pace remains the same. Joyce tells us that “She(Eveline) sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“, however, how long had she been sitting there? Hours? Maybe, as we are brought to understand that there was still light when she sat there, but the day had then become night as pointed out by the alliteration of the “w”, which turns into a “v”, and the vowel sound, which grows darker and darker word after word. The incoming night presses her to go while her sense of guilt keeps her there, at the window motionless. Eveline feels both as an invasion of her soul. Very likely she would have preferred a third option, but hadn’t we plunged into the secrecy of her thoughts, we would have seen only a girl sitting at the window and not a word would have been spent on her.

 

El Diablo

Just at the end of winter, when I thought I had escaped for once the
fatal meeting with the haunting ghost of flu, there it came with its infected touch. Of course, since it was the end of the season and I was very likely one of the very last left with whom it could have a little more fun, it arrived with its best repertoire of symptoms, whatever it was necessary to make me yield. And I did yield. Therefore, in such a state, unable to do anything but lying lazily on my couch, with nothing to do but waiting for my husband Mr Run to attend me, I attempted to find entertainment watching some series on my iPad. By the way, Mr Algorithm seemed a little annoyed at my request this time, as he was too well aware that I enjoy watching the series set in the nineteenth century England, but I had practically seen them all very likely. Then, he made a try anyway: let’s keep the century and change the country. What about Mexico this time? So big brother You Tube came up with this shot saying: “We think you may like this“:

How do you know? Well, I do or better I did. It was 1993 and this picture reminds me of  my mother and my aunt eagerly looking forward to the evenings when, Corazon Salvaje, a telenovela produced by José Rendón for Televisa was on tv. This third adaptation of the novel written by the Mexican authoress Caridad Bravo Adams was an absolute hit world-wide and the very first one to be aired in prime time in Italy. Those were the happy evenings when men could safely go and play five-a-side and have a beer with their friends, as no woman entrapped in this “novela” would have ever noticed their absence. I was not one of them at first and I remember how I enjoyed mocking my mother and my aunt any time I could, till, I don’t even know how, I fell under the spell. I had watched only the last episodes of the saga, by the way, and now I had the chance and the time to view them all. And this is what I did. I watched 80 episodes for almost 70 hours in six days and then I started from the beginning again when I found the “novela” in the orignal language on DailyMotion. Now I can confess it, I am addicted.

I won’t attempt to draw a plot as there are too many twists and turns, but I can say that this is legendary story of a love triangle between two young countesses, Monica and Aimée de Altamira with the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, named Juan del Diablo. The character of Juan del Diablo is actually the reason of the heartbeats and sighs of all the female viewers of this saga. Caridad Bravo Adams succeeded, in fact, in giving life to the most amazing Alpha male of the Alpha males we have met on books or movies. He is a living oxymoron. He is a smuggler, womanizer, wild, impulsive,rude, a devil as his name suggests and the name of his ship too: Satan. But on the other side, we discover he is noble, good-hearted, a gentleman (if he wishes), terribly handsome and ready to put on slippers and make a family. He is a sort Heathcliff, Othello, Mr Rochester, Mr Thornton and even Mr Darcy in one character alone. Incredibly indeed, the fortunate lady, Monica, who eventually wins his heart, won’t use any seduction technique but true love and a rosary (never underestimate the power of the Almighty).

Good plots are never enough to make a series a hit, if there is not a great cast of actors and I have to say that, having also been able to enjoy it in the original language, they were all amazing. Eduardo Palomo as Juan and Edith Gonzales as Monica gave a super intense interpretation, that made us all dream, but also Enrique Lizalde with his awesome  baritone voice, who is Noel Mancera, the father figure who helps Juan grow and control his impulses, stands out. It is interesting to know that Enrique Lizalde acted as Juan del Diablo in the first adaptation of this “novela” in 1957.The sudden death of Eduardo Palomo only few years after Corazon Salvaje had become a global success, turned the series into myth. After 25 years there are still thousands of pages dedicated to him and to the series, that keep his memory well alive.

While I am writing this, my good friend Oscar Wilde mockingly cames to mind and keeps  whispering in my ear “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” You are right, this is what I have become after 25 years, like my mother, but, is this really a tragedy, my friend?

 

And I Had Done a Hellish Thing

The beginning of the second part of the Rime is strikingly modern in my eyes. Coleridge shows here a great insight of human nature and the dynamics that rule relations among men and I may say nowadays more than ever. The first part had ended with the Ancient Mariner’s unforeseen killing of the albatross. There is not a  particular reason that may justify such senseless and despicable action. He just did it. That is why this crime is somehow even more terrible than that of Cain, who had killed, for sure, but because he envied his brother. At least he had a reason. The killing of the albatross has no justification at all, that is why it represents absolute evil, the evil that does not need motives: ” I shot the Albatross“. Full stop. Evil is a seed  that resides in every human soul and can blossom in any moment, just responding to our basest instincts and this is a fact for Coleridge.

Particularly interesting is how the crew, who represents the Mariner’s community of friends and connections he has to interact with daily, reacts to the killing of the albatross.  Coleridge,at this point, leaves the quiet pace of the ballad made of quatrains and marks a change employing two sestets where he can better develop the repercussions of the incident on the mariners’ souls:

“And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!”

The seafarers at first blame the mariner for having killed the bird of good omen they had believed to be the cause of their good fortune, thus, managing to escape from the mist and the wondrous cold of the South Pole and move Northward. There is not a single word of condemnation on the moral implication of his action.They are just superstitious and believe that the infamous behaviour of the mariner, somehow, will have consequences on their welfare. They are 200 in all, but they speak as if they had one voice. The scenario, however, suddenly changes:

“Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.”

Against all odds, after many days of suffering and fear the glorious sun rises and under that warm and comforting light the seafarers now believe to see the truth clearly : that albatross was not the bird of good omen, but quite the contrary. They all agree, with no exception, that the killing of the Albatross was rightly done as the bird must have been the cause of their misfortune. In this way they all become accomplices to the Mariner. In these few lines Coleridge tells us how mutable human nature is.The members of the crew are prompt to change their minds according to the new situations and beliefs, but above all they move en masse. This herding behaviour makes them feel stronger and ready to attack like wolves whoever acts differently or is seen like a danger. I may say that social medias provide the most fertile ground where this kind of human attitude manifests itself nowadays.

For better or worse the killing of the Albatross places the Mariner in a condition of seclusion and solitude. Furthemore, he is the only one who realizes the extent of what he had done when he says it was a ” hellish thing“, an action that ” would work ’em woe”. In fact, pleasant warmth becomes unbearable heat and when the wind drops and the men find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean, with no water to drink, the wolves attack the Mariner again and hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

By the way, the crew is eventually punished with death for not having blamed the crime of the Ancient Mariner for its moral implications. As only survivor the Mariner is now condemned to live persecuted by the memory of his dead comrades. His punishment is even more terrible than death itself: to live in solitude, without the hope of God’s piety, with a tormented soul and in constant agitation.  Even when, eventually, he expiates his sin and manages to go back home, he is not allowed to enjoy the communion of other men. He will have the mission of admonishing them, impart the lesson he had learnt from his experience, but nothing more. He’ll remain at the margin of the feast of life, doomed to stop men, with his “glittering eye” to which no one can escape, trying to make them wiser, if possible, even if this means being sadder.

 

 

 

The Things We Said in Venice

Venice, Italy — A gondola, Venice, Italy — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

There are many reasons why we enjoy traveling. The desire to see dreamlike places, the thrill of meeting new cultures with their art, food, drinks and folklore are of course the most common ones, but sometimes for somebody traveling could also be a way to heal wounds, thus giving the scars the time they need to be barely seen. A change of scenario could reasonably be regarded as the most natural way to turn your back to a distressing past, put all the pieces together and give yourself a new chance.

This is what the two protagonists of Kristin Anderson’s novel “The Things We Said in Venice” have in mind. Sarah Turner, a high school counselor in her late thirties has recently faced a dolorous divorce. She decides to leave her job and home in Bend, Oregon to go on a six-week holiday to Europe. It is a solo adventure. During this time Sarah needs to learn to take charge of her life, to be independent, even because once in Amsterdam, her final destination, she has made plans that will radically change her future. Alone.

For Fokke van der Velt travelling has always been a significant part of his life since he is a renowned travel writer. He is on a trip with a group of friends to the Dolomites, trying to blanking out the painful memories of a betrayal. He needs the company of his mates, who with their presence and laughter try to ease his mind from the recurrent ghost of his sorrow. Sarah and Fokke have one thing in common for sure: they are not looking for new partners.

A benign fate, however, will play its cards to make the two meet. An exchange of backpacks, a snowfall, a strike and above all Sarah’s diary, which is ungentlemanly read by Fokke, will allow him to have knowledge of the most intimate and delicate aspects of her life on one side, but it will light his interest for that stranger on the other. Of course any entanglement between two people with such a painful past never runs smoothly. Having become emotionally defenseless, they are ready to set barriers whenever they smell the danger of being wounded again.

The romantic background of Venice with its alleys and canals will be the perfect set where the two develop their acquaintance, but only once in Amsterdam, Sarah’s final destination, she will have to ponder whether new plans may replace old plans. At the end of a journey we are never what we used to be at the beginning, this is the wonder of traveling, so when you get to the harbor you know that other goals must be set if you want to move on. Your choice,whether it is right or wrong, will depend on what you have learnt on that journey.

 

I would like to thank Kristin Anderson, author or “The Things We Said in Venice” and fellow blogger for having given me the opportunity of reading her novel. It has been an honor. I did all my best not to spoil the end! 😉

 

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.

 

 

Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.