I would prefer not to

ba2The paths of rebellion are just few. You may choose to fight the system, aiming at destroying it or you may create antithetical models, thus proving the mediocrity of the normal standards of behaviour, just like European aesthetes did in the nineteenth century with the purpose of undermining the pillars of bourgeois values such as materialism, respectability and the pursuit of wealth. Some of them, labeled as dandies, considered themselves the depositary of taste and embodied unattainable models of elegance and savoir-vivre, some others, who were called Bohemians, chose to live marginalized. They were, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, “ artists or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” rejecting permanent residence and surviving on little material wealth.

ba3They were seen like gypsies, in fact, they were called Bohemians as it was common belief that gypsies came from Bohemia. In Paris  many of them lived at Montmartre, not far from the “Moulin Rouge”, while in London they could be seen at Chelsea or Soho. They lived solely for art and literature’s sake and their dissolute lives were often characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as open sexual freedom.  The Bohemians, in fact, felt the need to express and assert themselves, being at such a social and economic disadvantage.They aimed at defying the system, flaunting their marginality. The point is that whatever rebellious way you choose, the system cannot be ignored, as, whether we like it or not, we are active part of it.

ba4Hence, could inactivity be a way to beat a system? If we are small but functional mechanisms of a whole, whether marginalized or not, wouldn’t be just our inertia a way to make the system crack at least? This option is explored in Melville‘s short story: “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“. Melville chooses Wall Street as setting, the bustling center of business and finance, to place his inactive anti-hero to mark more his anomaly. One day a strange, mysterious, pale figure of a man appears at
a lawyer’s door. He is there for the job ad. Very little is known about his past: he
has worked for a dead letter office for years and has a letter of recommendations with very
positive remarks in his pocket. He is hired. The job is a kind of boring and his
profile seems to be fit for that dull activity: just copying documents. His name is
Bartelby. He begins well: he copies lengthy documents, works overtime with great
efficiency. He is the perfect wheel in the lawyer’s system. He had chosen well.

ba8But one day something unpredictable happens. At a banal lawyer’s request Bartelby’s reply is shocking: “I would prefer not to”. Booooom! “I would prefer……” What does it
mean? Prefer? Once you are an integrated part of a system, can you still keep your freedom of choice? Does this option really exist, without making collapse the very same system ? It existed in Bartelby’s mind. From that day on, Bartelby starts to slip away the assignments he is given, till one day he decides it is time to stop: he will do nothing more, but he will not quit he place. He will stay there.

ba7However, each part of a system has to be functional, otherwise it doesn’t work, thus the boss tries at first to reintegrate him. It is a failure. Then he does whatever is in his power to get rid of him. Nothing. In the end he will be so exasperated to move his business to another office. Bartelby will remain there, till the new owner brutally manages to remove him. He will end up in jail where he dies. It may seem a nonsensical story of a failure, but it is not. It is a story of a powerful rebellion of a modern hero that, thanks to his great denial, breaks the system forcing it somehow to change, humanizing it. The lawyer, in fact, will be so overwhelmed by guilt that in the end he will go and look for him to give him his support; but Bartelby will prefer not be helped, thus despising his philanthropic hypocrisy. Only in the end, defeated, he will understand the greatness of Bartelby’s behaviour saying :”Ah Bartelby! Ah humanity

 

Italian Dandyism: Gabriele D’Annunzio

da9Dandyism spread in Italy as well at the end of the nineteenth century and  Gabriele D’annunzio was its most outstanding exponent, for sure.  Aesthete, politician, journalist, playwright, poet, lover: D’Annunzio was a man of many passions, but above all the architect of himself. He studied and created his own image carefully, a mixture of exquisite taste and love for heroic actions.He was associated with the elite Arditi storm troops of the Italian Army and took part in actions such as the Flight over Vienna in 1918. Some of the ideas and aesthetics seem to have influenced Italian fascism and also the style of Benito Mussolini. However he was the Vate, the Bard, of the Italian literature during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gabriele D’Annunzio  moved to Rome, when he was but nineteen and was soon fascinated by the swirling atmosphere of the capital. He managed to open his way to that evanescent and ephemeral society that charmed him so much, working as a reporter of custom and society for La Tribuna, under the pseudonym of “Duca Minimo” (The Duke), just to make clear which ambitions he nursed, demonstrating technical competence and an uncommon style for a provincial boy.

da10The accuracy he displayed in describing a dress for a lady or giving tips on hair styles or fashion showed not only his will to fight against the mediocrity of every day life but his belief that art is only merchandise whose rules cannot be ignored by an artist. Hence, D’Annunzio  understood pretty soon that the language of fashion was absolutely innovative and powerful, that’s why, like a modern Petronius, he made himself a model of taste, the “arbiter elegantiarum” of the Roman and Italian society under King Umberto I.

D’Annunzio will define himself, in fact, a “valuable animal”  whose aesthetic education of his spirit drags him irresistibly to desire and purchase  beautiful things“, particularly high fashion clothes. You can have an idea of his expensive wardrobe only making a simple guided tour at  Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, a sort of museum which he planned and developed, adjacent to his villa at Gardone Riviera on the southwest bank of Lake Garda, between 1923 and his death. In a new space, below the Amphitheater, called  “D’Annunzio secret” there are some pieces of clothing that belonged to the Italian “Bard”.  Here we find many many shoes and boots as you may admire in the following pics; d4d6 d5

he had countless outfits,of course, and  linen . It seems he had 365 dressing gowns, one for each day.

d8

Examining his wardrobes his elegant taste emerged: English fabrics, hats. D ‘Annunzio dressed as the high society of his time required. French intellectuals were right when they said that he acted himself and that behaved as an impresario who was looking for buyers. His only transgression was his excessive love for details. He had thousands of identical underpants and thousands of ties all equal. He was also a fashion designer, in fact in the following pic you may see one of his most  famous creations. It is called the nightgown with a porthole and I guess it is quite explicative about the character of the Bard . 😉 d7

The poet donated the Vittoriale to the Italians because he wanted to be remember not only his literary work and his exploits of war, but also his daily life at his home. The Italian Vittoriale is not a mausoleum, but as he wanted Gabriele D’Annunzio a “House of living stones“.

The Rebellion of Taste

be4The dandy was a rebel. A rebel who wielded the weapon of his unique refinement to express his contempt toward the triviality, hypocrisy,materialism, prudery of the Victorian bourgeoisie . The dandy did not follow fashion. Such a superior being would have never accepted to be homologated to the rude, tasteless masses. What is fashion after all, but a never-ending process of homologation, which not necessarily coincides with taste. The dandy embodied unattainable models of elegance and sophistication as he was the worshipper of taste, one who elevated aesthetics to a living religion, as Charles Baudelaire affirmed, the elect ” for who beautiful things mean only beauty“. (Oscar Wilde)

be6Yet, when the word dandy first appeared, it had nothing to do with superiority and refinement, but rather, with mockery. We find word dandy, in fact, in a song, ” Yankee Doodle Dandy“, which was sung by the British troops to mock the disorganized “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian war at the end of the 18th century: “Yankee Doodle went to town Riding on a pony/ He stuck a feather on his hat / And called it macaroni/ Yankee Doodle keep it up/ Yankee Doodle dandy..…” In short the Yankees were so unsophisticated that they thought that simply sticking a feather on a cap would make them fashionable like “Macaronis”, which was the label given to those young Englishmen, who adopted feminine mannerism a highly extravagant attire . Hence, the insinuation was that the colonists were womanish and not very masculine.

Tbe2he first recognized dandy was George Bryan Brummell, who  became absolutely iconic in Regency England, so that he had the Prince Regent himself among his admirers and friends. ” Ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain dark blue coat, he was always perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted  cravat”, an accurate simplicity difficult to imitate. It seems,in fact,  that the Prince attempted in many ways to match the elegance of the famous counselor, but all his efforts proved vain.  George IV ventured to launch a new trend in order to emulate the style of Brummel, that of the waistcoat unbuttoned, but the result was a resounding failure.

be3The fact is that the Beau”, as he was soon nicknamed, was truly inimitable and not only for his attire. His personal habits, such as a meticulous attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted a great influence on the habits of the upper polite society, who began to do likewise.  His elegance was not simply based on his appearance but also on his poses and especially on his way to make conversation: essential, acute, often snobbish, with superficial humor and quick repartee. Even women found him so charming and charismatic to consider his judgment priority over the same opinion of their husbands. But he was not the kind of man  who enjoyed the excess of compliments. True to the motto of the quintessential dandy – Stay in the company for the time needed to produce an effect: when the effect is produced, go away” – Brummell used to respond to invitations to parties and receptions operating quick and discrete raids ; incursions from which he took leave with a judgment, usually a joke, intended, after his departure, to echo long in the speeches of the other guests.

Unfortunately for him, along with the passion for elegance Brummell started to be attracted by gambling, a passion that will lead him to his downfall. He lived the last years of his life on the third floor of the Hotel d’Angleterre, in Caen, where he became fallen hero for tourists who knew him and asked to have lunch next to the famous master of elegance. Not even the admiration of the people, however, changed his sad fate: The clarity of his appearance had tarnished […] when you met him on the street, he was only a shabby and dirty old man. And after the decline, madness followed. londonrem

Longing for Innocence

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1

I’m sure that every now and then, it has happened to all of us to look at our past with a certain nostalgia. Past is always warm, reassuring, bright, peopled by those we loved and cared about us, but that we have inevitably lost in the course of our life, so, if you had the chance to go back in time, which period of your life would you like to live again? How far would you go back? Well, I have no doubts. I would go back , let’s say, to five. It sounds childish, I know, but what I do really miss is that lightness of spirit, that gaiety, those eyes of wonder typical of childhood that transform triviality into beauty. Children are confident about their present and future, as they can see no evil in the world that surrounds them. I still remember, when my mother used to give me the usual warning: “don’t accept candies from strangers!”. After all children focus their attention on candies, rather that pondering on the reason why a complete stranger should give them candies. Adults ponder, children want their drives satisfied.

chim2As long as you can enjoy this happy condition, you are in what Blake called the age of ” Innocence”, which is opposite to “Experience”. It has nothing to do with ageing, or at least not only, but it is a transient state of human soul. As time goes by, the candor of innocence is slowly polluted by experience, that is knowledge, hence we start to open our eyes and we see a new reality. We start to understand, just like in story of “Little Red Riding Hood“, that under the cover of the good hunter there might be a nasty wolf hidden. At this point the world doesn’t seem so safe and welcoming as it used to be and those happy times look like an enchanted garden of heaven we are no longer admitted in. Once definitely outside, we cannot but look at it with nostalgic eyes, like Adam and Eve after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Once you have eaten it, you cannot go back.

victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton pic 05/09/2003In order to mark this passage, Blake rewrote some poems belonging to his early collection   “Songs of Innocence” and included them in the “Songs of Experience“, which was published five years later, thus giving them a different shape and perspective.The poem “The Chimney Sweeper“, for example, deals with the theme of children exploitation. In this poem there is all the disarming beauty of children’s naivety, who keep on being confident in a better future, despite the appalling condition of their lives. A child says he had lost his mother and that his father had “sold” him when he was so young that he “could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”, therefore at such a tender age he was forced to work and slept “in soot“. But children still retain the faculty of dreaming and furthermore believing in what they dream, even if there the shadow of a wolf is always hidden somewhere. The dream is the Freudian metaphor of their imprisoned youth, which is locked in “coffins of black“, which stand for the chimneys they are forced to sweep every day. In that dream an angel comes by and opens all the coffins setting them all free and restoring them to the lightness of thoughtfulness of youth, in fact, once out of those horrible coffins “down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run”.

chim4What did my mother say? “Never accept candies from a stranger!”, particularly if he comes in a shape of an angel, I would add. In fact, then the angel speaks and imparts the child the following lesson: ” if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father, and never want joy.”  Afterwards the little child, whose name is Tom, wakes up and goes to work “happy and warm” , “though the morning was cold”.  Why should Tom be happy and warm in such a dark and cold morning? Because he trusts the angel and he believes in the words the had said: he would have God as father and happiness, if he did his duty, and what is his duty? Working, here is the candy. Therefore, he is just doing the right thing.” He sees no evil in his condition.

chim5The situation completely changes in the poem Chimney Sweeper which appears in the “Songs of Experience“. In this poem there is all the loneliness and hopelessness of a child who is fully aware of the system which enslaves him. He has perfectly understood that the whole society, the church and even his family are part of a scheme whose main concern is the making of profit and constantly ignores his needs. The boy bitterly says : “and because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury”, but they have. They have stolen his youth, happiness and faith in the world and in the future. They have taught him to sing “the notes of woe” and this is irreversible. The boy had bitten the forbidden fruit, the fruit from the tree of knowledge and he had been poisoned, becoming adult too soon.