In Coleridge‘s “Rime“, the narrating voice, the Ancient Mariner, has an arduous task to accomplish: telling his moralizing tale to a young man who is about to attend a matrimony, The Wedding Guest. As I said, it is a very arduous task indeed, because a Wedding Guest is usually not in the mood of listening to stories, in particular if recounted by a strange old man. How can it be otherwise, when you are just about to join your friends at a fabulous party to have a jolly good time! The Wedding Guest, in fact, symbolizes that transient, light, thoughtless, “I can do everything” moment of life, which is youth. When you are thus young this is more or less your vision of life: a never-ending party and no annoying adult voice has to break the magnificence of this spell. However, the Mariner is not at all intimidated, but rather, provides us teachers with some interesting tips on how capturing the attention of our students willy-nilly. Actually, his first attempt turns out to be a failure, because the Mariner decides upon using his (scarce) force to stop the Wedding Guest and “holds him with his skinny hand“, which, in case you choose to follow his example in a moment of despair, is against the law, remember. Besides, the Wedding Guest is younger and therefore stronger than the Mariner, in fact he reacts violently, yelling at him “Hold off! Unhand me!” and after setting himself free from the old man’s grasp, he sneers at him defiantly, reminding him the arrogant supremacy of his youth. For him the Mariner is only a “grey-beard loon“. That wasn’t the right way. It never is. However, when you are young, you are so absorbed by your frantic life made relations, the new experiences of the world outside etc. that it happens not to pay the due attention to meaningful details. The Wedding Guest, in fact, had noticed the strange vitality of the Mariner ‘s look in a man so old, but he had not pondered enough about it and incredulously he finds himself paralyzed by the Mariner’s charm, who “holds him with his glittering eye” and “has his will”. Now that the young man stands “still” the Mariner can finally tell him his story and it’s only in that stillness that the boy will be able to enjoy and understand the narration and its moralizing intent: a trip, a storm, an albatross, Life in Death, sin and final repentance. Is the Mariner a wizard then? Not at all, he represents the poet, that with his creative power can produce that “suspension of disbelief ” that makes everybody listen “like a three years’ child“. In that suspension, the young and the adult can meet, talk, interact. This is the point, maybe also the teacher’s effort, just like that of the poet/Mariner, should aim at creating that moment of amazement in order to involve our young Wedding Guests more. I know, it’s not easy and it can’t happen every day, but when we eventually succeed in finding the words that breach their boredom and apathy and we start to see that “glitter” in their eyes, well, it’s absolutely amazing. That’s why we teach.
When Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, published her essay “De l’esprit des traductions” in 1816, on the review “Biblioteca Italiana“, translated by Pietro Giordani , it was as if a bomb had exploded in the musty Italian Literary circles at the beginning of the nineteenth century, whose secret chambers had not been touched by the Northern, passionate, fresh winds of Romanticism yet. When the Lady claimed the importance of the habit of translation as the best means to “keep a literature from falling into banality which is a sure sign of decadence”, she was actually addressing her plea to the provincial Italian audience and incited to translate the literatures from the North, in order to resuscitate Italian letters which were imprisoned by the cobwebs of Classicism. As a matter of fact, Madame de Staël aimed at provoking social and literary changes in an Italy dominated by the Austrians after the defeat of Napoleons, and somehow she was right, because this article turned out to be the spark that lit the fire of Italian Romanticism. For many intellectuals the Lady’s words were considered outrageous and offensive for the dignity of the country, but many others soon understood the rightness of her thoughts. One of them was Giovanni Berchet, whose “Lettera semiseria di Grisostomo al suo figliolo” (1816)is considered somehow the manifesto of Italian Romanticism. In this letter he remarked the necessity of a new popular poetry opposed to the classical mythological one, and on this purpose he believed essential to form new kind of audience, someone between the “Parisians“, that is the “sophisticated”, and the “Hottentots“, that is the “grosser”. This is the point. It was not easy to be Romantic and follow the European trends in a country where there wasn’t either a common language or even an adequate audience to speak to. That something in between the “Hottentots” and the “Parisians” was the middle class, but it had to be rooted and strong enough to be able to determine the cultural taste of a country and that country was not Italy for sure, it was England. The eighteenth century English writers had celebrated the emerging middle class in the new novel form with captivating plots, whose heroes were common people who spoke a modern simple language, wrote diaries, letters, thus disclosing their hearts to a more and more fascinated audience, thus increasing the reading public. Toward the end of the century the “embourgeoisement” of common taste had affected poetry as well and became the vital force of Romanticism. In Italy, Foscolo had tried to model his “Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis” (1802) on the European epistolary trend, in particular Goethe‘s “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” , but he didn’t succeed in bringing his epistolary novel to that degree of intimacy that this genre requires, for the lack of what he calls “mediocrazia” that is, that middle class audience to whom address his speculations. Federigo Tozzi ‘s “Tre Croci” is regarded, in fact, as the first bourgeois novel in Italy, but it was published in 1920, one hundred and twenty years after “Le Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis“, that is when Italy had now become a country with a common language spoken by the majority of people.
Beauty has always been associated to goodness. Just think about it, whenever we feel the attractive power of somebody’s beauty, we instinctively believe him/her upright, trustworthy, generous and therefore superior. This is because we naturally put to use the paradigms we have been taught when we were children, through fairy tales for instance. The word fairy, in fact, comes from fair, that is righteous, virtuous, but also beautiful, light, blonde, hence the equation : beauty = good. All the heroes and heroines of fairy tales have more or less the same features, and story after story it was very simple to spot the deserving good one to love and stand with.
Yet, religion warns us against the deception of beauty. Ezekiel 28 reminds us that Satan, the fallen angel, was once the “anointed cherub“, that is the most beautiful and wisest creature God had ever created and “perfect in beauty“, the highest being created. But “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.” (Ezekiel 28:17). Satan fell because his beauty had made him proud. He desired to be God, not to be a servant of God, that’s why he was cast out of heaven. Therefore Satan is perfect in beauty on the outside, yet ugly and grotesque on the inside.
In Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, the monstrous being forged by Victor Frankenstein is exactly the opposite example. The more our modern Prometheus despises his creature’s ugliness on the outside, calling him “monstrous image“, “detested form“,”abhorred monster“, ” wretch devil” etc. the more we see the beauty of his inside and we cannot but sympathize with him.”All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things” he says to Victor. His monstrosity has isolated him from the other human beings who despise him. He is alone and he can only seek for the compassion and help of his creator, but when Victor, rather, threats to kill him, he imparts him a moral lesson remarking: “How dare you sport thus with life?” reminding him that he is not God and that he is acting against the laws of nature. However, differently from Satan, he is determined to respect who gave him life, despite his immense physical strength: “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed”. Victor is the responsible for his loneliness and unhappiness and as he is his creature ( as he repeats twice), something must be done. The deep human understanding of this character can be found in these simple words that sound like a desperate plea :”I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend”. Certainly the creature is talking for himself, but that statement seems to have a more universal meaning: is it so then? We were born good, but unhappiness, prejudice, fear, rejection turn us into monsters and evil creatures? Theologian Vito Mancuso maintains that man naturally tends towards the good – the monster himself is attracted by the goodness of the family who lives near his hut – this is what will save us in the eternal battle of good versus evil. Maybe it will, but not so soon I guess.
Cultures have always merged following a specific dynamic: the dominant ones swallow the weak ones, slowly eroding their patrimony of traditions, customs and language. In this process what is not absorbed by the prevailing civilization is inevitably swept away. This question has bewildered my students, particularly when I made them notice that nowadays our Italian culture cannot actually be regarded “dominant”, especially if we think of how easily we yield to the Anglo-saxon cultural and linguistic fascination, in fact in this country we are always ready to absorb foreign words, habits, even their food, as if we were sponges. This is a distinctive mark of cultural weakness and we cannot escape this truth. Disbelief, disappointment, denial is what I mostly read on their faces, they didn’t want to feel neither weak nor loser. I could understand them. “After all tomorrow is another day” and “tomorrow” was Halloween. When I met my students, they were all thrilled and busy at organizing the usual parties or joyfully threatening their mates with the classic “trick or treat”. They had come to school with the typical nightmarish costumes, masks, witch hats and wigs and in the evening they had already posted their pictures on Facebook proudly dressed up as beautiful sexy pumpkins or showing their worst horrific looks. They were having fun, for sure, but at the same time, they were unconsciously displaying their cultural subordination. As a matter of fact, at these latitudes, we have learnt the existence of a celebration named Halloween only recently, mostly thanks to the American movies, videos etc. and after few years it has already become part of our customs. You see, it happens slowly and one day you wake up dressed up as a pumpkin without even knowing why. Oh but, sorry I need to hurry, it will be Thanksgiving soon and I have to go for a big, fat turkey! 😉