“I Tiresias”

ti1

The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.

 

 

 

The Oyster dilemma

mala7Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce‘s alter ego, knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. He also knew that Dublin restricted society was not the most fertile soil where his artistic vein might attain and blossom. Differently from Eveline, he was determined enough to turn his back to a present made of family expectations and people who loved and knew him in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” and explore “all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). He was the Daedalus, after all, he who could flee from that labyrinth represented by Dublin. Had he stayed, he would not have been able to express his talent, thus becoming the martyr of art, as his first name seems to predict, as St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity.  But martyrdom was not in his fate, hence, once put on his wax wings, he quitted as soon as possible with not so many regrets.

mala9What would the right decision be, then? Did Joyce’s choice to go into self-exile assured him that happiness that apparently Eveline was denied by remaining at home or not? Not exactly. Freedom does not necessarily mean happiness. For example, once in Argentina, Eveline might have found out  that Frank was already married with children or that there was no trace of that home she had so longed for, but she had to live with her sick mother in law and look after her, while Frank was somewhere around the world on a ship. Hence, alone with no family and friends in such a foreign, distant land, who might have helped her?

mala10The Italian writer Giovanni Verga, would have certainly supported Eveline’s choice to stay.  Verga was convinced that all men were subjected to a merciless and cruel fate that condemn them not only to unhappiness and pain, but to a condition of immobility. Those who try to escape from the condition in which destiny has placed them cannot find the happiness dreamed, but undergo more suffering. Particularly those who belong to the group of the weak, and Eveline was one of them, need more protection and must stay connected to those family values they have grown with as an oyster clutched to a rock, in order to survive and avoid that the world, like a big powerful fish, may devour them.

mala12 Verga developed the so-called “ideal of the oyster” in his novel: I Malavoglia (1881). There is little house by a medlar tree in the picturesque little village of Aci Trezza in the Province of Catania (Sicily).  The Toscanos, a numerous family of fishermen live there. Although they are extremely hardworking, they have been nicknamed  the Malavoglia (The Reluctant Ones). The head of the family is Padron Ntoni, a widower, who lives with his son Bastian and the wife of the latter called Maria and their five children. Their main source of income is la Provvidenza (the Providence), a small fishing boat. But when Ntoni, the eldest of the children, leaves for the military service, Padron Ntoni attempts a new business and buys a large amount of lupins, in order to try and make up for the loss of income which the  absence of his nephew will cause.

mala 15Rocks are harsh and sharp, but as long as you are clutched to one them, you are safe. Starting a new business, Padron Ntoni attempts to leave his rock to swim in a new sea, hoping to find maybe a better one, but his choice will eventually lead his family to a disaster that will mine their unity. Bastian and the merchandise are tragically lost during a storm, furthermore there is the debt caused by the lupins which were bought on credit and the boat mean to repair. As this were not just enough, a long series of misfortunes will follow till the beloved house near the medlar tree, symbol of the unity of the family, has to be sold in order to repay the debt. In the end, only Alessi, the youngest of the brothers, the only one who had remained a fisherman, manages with his hard work to rebuild the family fortunes to the point at which they can repurchase the house by the medlar tree.  Padron Ntoni, who is now old and sick at the hospital, is informed of the good news. It is the last moment of happiness for the old man, who dies on the day he was to return. His last wish to die in his old house, on that harsh and sharp rock will never be granted.

The Epiphany of the Magi

eve1

eve5I guess everybody is familiar with the story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction, they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is, a moment of a sudden revelation.

eve4Actually this narration may have another symbolical interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also represent the crisis of the modern age, where men, as modern Magi, seem to have lost many of their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their hollow lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ s interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.

Joyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, therefore being unable to change their lives and reverse the routines that hamper their wishes, they are all destined to fail.

eve2For example the protagonist of Eveline, one of the short stories included in Dubliners, has the chance to radically change her life, but she hesitates  She has been sitting at the windows for hours till the night “invades” her soul, forcing her to take a decision. Time is running out: should she leave that night with her lover and re-create a new life in Buenos Aires or should she just keep on looking after her family as she had promised her mother? Happy and sad memories fill her mind and contrasted feelings as well, till she hears a “melancholy air” that reminds her of the very last moments she was at her mother’s deathbed. Everything becomes clear. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother (quidditas). She must go away.

eve3But when Eveline arrives at the docks, all her determination fades away.  The illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires is only a black mass for her (claritas)  and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas). She feels that if she left, the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.

The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

ea4

ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?

The parable of the iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about the love for fashion, he may prove wrong, as it’s about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect thing, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit, shoes or bags. It is the thrill. And for that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us in such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will satisfy us. Just like the iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, if you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, and after an hour of walk under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas. However, we were too tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. All the crabs instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move and stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues, till I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. It was a great success. The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was so proud of my experiment till a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I learned the lesson and I kept on thinking about those words. We are the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? I don’t think this will cure my “little” compulsive problem. :)ig3

The confederation of souls

pe1I guess each of us has experienced at least one or more periods of inner crisis in the course of his life. Melancholy, fear and sometimes even anger dominate your tormented soul, as you feel that for some reasons, you are no longer fit for the world you know as you used to be, but you cannot fully understand why. Even if you don’t want it, there you are, in the middle of an unknown land. Alone. Whether we like it or not, a crisis is an inevitable and important event of our life, as it is often the prelude for a transformation a metamorphosis of the ego, but the point is: can we really redefine the features of our soul and change? I know the answer, you know the answer: actually, nobody really changes, and the following extract from Pereira Maintains, a successful novel written by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi can enlighten us upon this point.

pe2Just few words about Pereira, the protagonist, who is an elderly overweight journalist for the culture column of a small Lisbon newspaper. He continuously struggles with his conscience and the restrictions of the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar. This is the narration, in fact, of the protagonist’s reluctant political awakening which will bring him to rebel eventually. Pereira’s acquaintance with Dr Cardoso marks a turning point in the novel as he explains him his theory on the confederartion of souls, and based on that theory, he foresees a deep change in Pereira’s life :

“(..) I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the medecins-philosophes? No I’m not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Theodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it was their work I studied in Paris, they are doctors and psychologists, but also philosopher, and they hold a theory I think interesting, the theory of the confederation of souls. Tell me about it, said Pereira. Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a ‘self’ as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other ‘selves’ that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has to impose its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away.”

According to this theory, therefore, we never change, but we just yield to a new ruling ego, which imposes itself,  as a consequence of new external circumstances. We put the old ego aside in the company of the others, which may surface once again and struggle at the right moment and be dominant again. Therefore a crisis marks the passage of one ruling ego to another one and the only thing we can do to get over it is just giving “ a helping hand whenever (we) get the chance” as Dr Cardoso suggests. After all “panta rei” (everything flows), even our ego.

 

 

No Regrets!!!

lee1

In his memorable speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs‘s words had left astounded thousands of students who were there for him in adoration. His warnings were of a peculiar nature :”Don’t forget one day you will die“, “Don’t waste your life living someone else’s life“. It had sounded bewildering at first, after all, why so young and privileged students who were just about to graduate in one of the most famous American universities should think about dying, rather than, I don’t know, how to be successful pretty soon? Because death makes life meaningful.  Life is short and we had better live it fully with no fear, that’s why Steve Jobs had invited them to follow the paths of “foolishness” rather than conformity. Life is short. We must be conscious of that. However, it’s not so easy and very often we reach the necessary degree of awareness only when we age or when it is too late, thus becoming like George Gray.

lee2This is exactly the theme of this amazing poem from the anthology of Spoon Rivers by Edgar Lee Master. We are in a cemetery and a man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone. He is dead. He is pondering the ironic design of his gravestone : a marble sailboat, which seems a most befitting symbol for a life fool of motion and adventure. His life , actually, had been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbor, under cover of the rough winds of Ambition, Sorrow and Love. He had always chosen the simplest and the safest route: no effort, no risk, but he couldn’t escape the uneasiness of such a life because each of us intimately “hungers” for meaning. To live is “lifting” the sails and “catching” the winds of destiny wherever they will take us, otherwise the sense of unrest will overwhelm and torture us. Only now he understands, now that it is too late, that he had never truly lived.
Do it, before it is too late.
No regrets!!!

George Gray
By: Edgar Lee Master

“I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”