What’s in a Name?

“What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title..” (Romeo and Juliet. Act 2, Scene 2)

Dazzled by the darts of love, Juliet speculates on the nature of names. Names are immaterial, yet, they can become insurmountable obstacles. They cannot be touched or seen, yet, they belong to a man and may mark his fate, even if, of course, they cannot change his essence, whatever it may be. Therefore, names matter. If if weren’t so, my mother wouldn’t have opposed so strongly to the one which was destined to me: Rosaria. I should have been named after my grandfather Rosario, and even if the its origin, Rose, may sound evocative and sweet, here it connotes the typical woman of the South of past tradition and my mother, a modern woman of the North, would have never accepted it. That name did not fit the image she had of her daughter, that’s why she chose Stefania. Fortunately, my grandfather, a mild, sensible man, didn’t mind, after all, I was the last of his many grandchildren and some of them had already been named after him.

Names are clearly evocative, they give an impression, often deceptive, of a person. That is why writers have always chosen carefully the names of their most important heroes or heroines. Think about Heathcliff, for example. It is a name that reflects its complex nature. He is heat, that is passionate, hot, but also destructive and dangerous. He is the fire that attracts you like a magnet, but if you touch it, you’ll get burnt. As for that cliff, it evokes harshness and danger again, in fact, waves move naturally towards cliffs and inevitably break. It is their fate. Would that character have worked likewise, had he been called, Jack, for instance?

I’ll leave Gwendolen to give the answer to this question in the “Importance of Being Earnest”:

“Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.”

It is a no. Gwendolen believes that names reflect the essence of men, and she wishes that the appropriate title for her future husband should be Earnest:

“…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

Of course he is a liar, with a charming name, of course.

Even Walter Shandy, in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, believes that names are as important to a person’s character as noses are to a person’s appearance. As Dr Slop had flattened his child’s nose in performing a forceps delivery, Walter Shandy believes that a solution to compensate him from what he believes to be a clear mark of loss of masculinity, would be to give him a grand name like Hermes Trismegistus, that is, “Hermes the thrice-greatest”. So, he needs a name “three times the greatest” to make things even. Trismegistus was also the name a legendary character: the greatest king, lawgiver, philosopher, priest and engineer ever. After all, isn’t this what all parents dream for their children? A grand, successful future and a good name may be a good start. Unfortunately, Mr Shandy’s hopes are definitively crushed, as his child is accidentally christened Tristram, which comes from the French “triste”  and from the Latin “tristis,” that is “sad” in English, with a final effect which is not exactly what Walter Shandy had hoped, but, quite the reverse. Tristram himself believes that this event has radically changed the course of his fate. So, what’s in a name?

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”(L.M.Montgomery)

 

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Prudence and Obedience

Was parenting much simpler once? Who knows? But one thing I can say for sure, roles were more defined.Letter XVI from Richardson’s Clarissa is a proof of what I am saying. Clarissa has understood to be promised to old and odious Mr Solmes, a rich man, whose marriage with the girl would satisfy the social ambitions of Clarissa’s father. When the girl understands that everything has been settled, she tries  to do whatever is in her power to avoid her sad fate and decides to speak to whom she believes to be the weaker of her two parents, that is her mother, as she had found her particularly condescending at breakfast, while her father had left the house early with a “positive, angry disposition“. So much the better. Clarissa sends quickly a note to her mother to inform her that she needs to talk to her:

“I had but just got into my own apartment, and began to think of sending Hannah to beg an audience of my mother (the more encouraged by her condescending goodness at breakfast) when Shorey, her woman, brought me her commands to attend me in her closet. ( Clarissa Lett. XVI Vol. 1)

Nothing more should be said.The verbs in bold, in fact, sum up perfectly the roles and the psychological attitudes of the two characters. Clarissa’s mother is the one who commands, while the girl is expected to be submitted and humble.The meeting, which follows, in fact, respects  this pattern. Clarissa’s father had previously charged his wife to make his daughter accept the idea of marrying Mr Solmes, therefore, she approaches the meeting with the disposition of one who has to impart orders. Therefore, she mostly stands up and breaks the barrier of the roles sitting near her daughter and lowering to her level only to weak her resistance, trying to make her feel her true motherly affection with that more intimate approach, but she is ready to rise again as soon as she herself fears to yield, she is a mother after all. Clarissa, on the other side, keeps an imploring posture. She bows, kneels and eventually faints, when her mother tells her that the family, actually her father, expects her to perform her duty and that she would have soon received the visit of the head of the family whose disposition cannot certainly be defined gentle.

For a great deal of this meeting Clarissa’s mother is the only one to speak, while the girl is able to utter only few syllables, besides, whenever she essays to say something her mother doesn’t mean to be interrupted. Eventually, she lets her speak, but unheard. He is to marry Mr Solmes.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since those were the patterns of family relationships. But, how much water? What would such a meeting be like nowadays ? Well, I have no children and I cannot say, so I asked my students to give that dialogue a fresher look and these a couple of “gems” I picked:

Clarissa wants to talk with her mother about her obligation to marry a man of an important family that she doesn’t like, but the mother approaches her first.

* Clarissa, what’s the matter?

* I guess you already know what’s wrong, mom.

* Tell me.

* Mom! You know I’m so disappointed for your will to make me marry that Solmes. He’s such a creepy moron.

* Clarissa! You know it is your dad’s will, and I can’t disappoint him. And don’t use these words to describe him.

* He’s too old for me. There are many cool guys with big money in my school… and I also chat with a lot of them.

* I don’t mind.

* You can’t say that I must not marry him. It’s my life. I want to choose the man who will stay with me for the rest of my damned life.

* Clarissa, you know how it works for people like us. We can’t choose what to do about our life. It’s all about a big project for our family.

* But mom I…

* Clarissa, you are to marry him. There are no other choices.

* Go to hell mom.

Somebody shuts the door. ( Andrea T.)

You soon realize that, apart from the choice of words, this modern Clarissa is allowed to speak more than her mother and in Andrea’s imagination she cannot but have the last word. The following interpretation is more “sociopolitical” in its way, but in this case the mother prevails:

*Muuum, I have a problem, would you please come here and talk with me?

*What do you need, Clarissa? I hope it is important as  I am tidying you room!

*You already know what I want… you know… he is old and ugly… please I have a lot of suitors on Instagram!

*Yes I know but your father wants you to marry him and you are to respect and follow his will.

*I know mum but….but my friends can decide for themselves…. why can’ t I??

*Because you are different from your friends… you know… you are muslim and you are to obey or you will pay the consequences.  (Vittorio F.)

Definitely there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

 

 

On Beaters, Wooden Spoons, Belts and More….

More and more often I come across posts praising those instruments of torture which have characterized our childhood and early adolescence at least. I myself have clear memories of having experienced the entire set above and even more, as my mother – a woman half my size, who was in charge of my corporal punishments – used to throw on me whatever she found at hand, if she couldn’t have any of the above educational tools with her. I can still see the heavy, Murano glass ashtray flying towards me. She just missed me an inch that time.

The comments to those posts or pictures shared on fb are the most interesting part, as almost all of them detect a new phenomenology which is spreading among the parents of today who, actually, were the beaten children of yesterday. Those tools of awe, in fact, seem to have become in their memories sorts of magic wands in the hand of enlightened educators, who were our parents. The words are mostly  of comprehension and warm gratitude, even with a touch of melancholy.

 Now, I understand that time alters the impressions that events leave on our mind – or skin – so that we remove the worst part of it, but I would like to ask a question to all those nostalgic admirers of past and stricter systems of education:  if you do believe they worked, that somehow they helped you find the right way or become stronger,  if it is so, well, what prevents you from using them? I’ m not suggesting that your wooden spoon should become again your educational totem, it wouldn’t work and you would look like nuts, besides, there are a lot of laws to protect your children in case of injuries inflicted and THEY know it well.

The point is that today’s parents seem to be at a loss. I remember a comedian, who effectively summed up their psychological state saying that they have been the first generation to have been slapped both by their own parents and their children too. This is not far from the truth, actually, but why has it happened? What have they done to deserve such a treatment? Modern parenting has given up the idea of punishment as educational instrument in favour of a milder approach, the “let’s be friends approach” and this is very likely the core of the problem, as this orientation – and here is the observer/teacher speaking – has generated lots of confusion so far.

Educators, whether they be parents or teachers, cannot be friends of those they mean to educate. We can be friendly and listen, encourage and help, of course, but we can’t be friends, because our role naturally prevents us from being so. I know that many of you may object to this point and are ready to tell me the hours you usually spend talking with your children with – you believe – great satisfaction and success. Sorry, but  I’m afraid you are deluding yourselves. There is a line between us, a line that we adults for many reasons often pretend not to see, but it is always very visible to them. Can students be truly friend of a teacher, that is, someone who eventually judges and grades them? And for what concerns parents, do you believe that your children forget, while you are endeavouring to talk to them choosing the kindest and most loving words, that you are the one from whom depends their chance of having a new smart phone, money, Playstation etc.? That’s the line.

Trying to be friend to avoid a generational, educational conflict is a great mistake, as that conflict has always been important for the definition of characters. Growing also means to question or fight those figures whose task is to guide and teach. It has always been so. And you know what? They’ll admire your firmness , eventually – not so soon, I admit – , just like we ended up thinking our parents like heroes, forgetting the effect of the weapons the used to be so on us. They were not afraid of their role. We should do the same, unarmed, of course.

The Power of Letter Writing

Among the many narrative techniques which were experimented by the authors of the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was by no means the form which had the most effective and powerful impact on the mind of readers. Just guess, it was as if you could intercept some correspondence which was not addressed to you and you were free to peep into somebody else’s live, having knowledge of their emotions, secrets and confessions without even feeling guilty. You have also to consider that it was a time when people had no many other chances of diversions like today and while reading you were not distracted by notification beeps, telephone calls and modern noise in general. Therefore, letters, with their dates, names of the places, recipient names and even the time of the day, gave that sense of realism which made the reading seem more true and therefore, intense.

The greatest proof of what I’m saying  is  Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, whose impact was enormous in the Europe of the eighteenth century. Werther ‘s agonies of love were shared by an entire generation of readers, who were so affected by the overwhelming power of the emotions, which seemed uncensored as made accessible by the letter form, which provoked the first – and dangerous – process of mass imitation. Thousands of young men copied Werther’s outfit, which consisted of a strange combination of colours: custard yellow trousers and waistcoat plus an electric-blue jacket. If you wore those clothes, it meant  that you were or you wanted to be thought of as a brokenhearted, sensitive young man, exactly like their hero. Yet, this collective folly took a very dangerous turn, in fact, the imitation process didn’t stop at clothes, they wanted to live the life of their idol and even make his tragic end, therefore, The Sorrows of Young Werther led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men.

Yet, this impressive power of epistolary novel could be experimented on women as well, to convince them, for example, of the advantages of pursuing a highly moral conduct. Of course, it was a man who took a trouble to endeavour such enterprise, Samuel Richardson, who created on this purpose  two opposite characters both for station and choices of life: Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela apparently seems to be the less fortunate of the two heroines.  She is a beautiful maidservant, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, attempts to seduce and rape her multiple times, but unsuccessfully. Eventually, Mr B  changes attitude and ends up falling in love and marry her. The entire title is, in fact, “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, so the moral was that any correct behavior would have rightly compensated sooner or later. The story, you may well understand was quite unlikely to happen at those times. A rich man marry a servant at those times? Impossible. By the way,  Pamela was such a great success that Richardson  even wrote a sequel.  But what would happen if one yielded, for any reason? That was the lesson that Richardson would have imparted in his other, very long, masterpiece: “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady“.

Clarissa Harlowe is an extremely beautiful tragic heroine, who, differently from Pamela, seems to be destined to a brighter fate. She belongs to the upper class and has inherited a large sum of money from her grandfather, but she is not free. Her family wants her to marry Mr Solmes who is a rich, but ignorant and unrefined sort of person, a man she despises.  To avoid this marriage, she consents to an elopement with Mr Lovelace (nomen omen, watch out Clarissa!!), but the latter turns out to be a very violent man who will drug and rape her. She eventually manages to escape from Lovelace’s clutches, but she gets sick and finally dies like a saint. So women, choose! I you don’t want to end up like Clarissa you know what to do. By the way, I guess, Richardson must have thought it a very difficult task to convince us to behave properly, as he employed one million words to write Clarissa. Did it work? I don’t think so. I would suggest any man with such and intent to be a bit shorter, as I/we usually get lost after a thousand words. Top.