A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

Faultess Despite Many Faults

I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, was Jane Austen’s famous comment about the main character of her novel, Emma. I have to say that this remark fitted pretty well my first reading of the book.  It was more than twenty years ago now and still I can remember how I was annoyed by her match making efforts and all that never-ending tittle-tattle about it. When I finished it, I quickly put it back in the library, never tempted to touch it again, till recently, my good blog friend Chris (Calmgrove) posted not one, but three enthusiastic reviews on the book one after another. Such genuine display of admiration and praise convinced me eventually to give the novel another try. Hence; I would rephrase the incipit  as follows:“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” the very first time you are acquainted with her, but you will change your opinion as soon as you will give her/yourself another chance.

Therefore; I would like to focus my attention on the main character here, as this time I couldn’t but notice some features in the making of this heroine, which I had previously missed, but that now made me better appreciate the exquisite wonder of Jane Austen’s craft even in this novel. I shall start by saying that Emma is very different from almost all the other female characters of Jane Austen’s world, who are mostly concerned in one way or another with one issue only: marriage. In this story there are not the threatening shades of a Mr Collins or a Mr William Elliot ready to dispossess the lady in question of her inheritance as soon as her father ceases to be, thus making marriage a necessity. There is no such danger at Hartfield, as Emma is the mistress of the house, the heiress with a fortune of 30.000 pounds. Furthemore she is” handsome, clever, with a happy disposition” with some little faults, by the way: ” the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself“. However, how can it be that such a young woman at the age of 21 still knows nothing about love? As far as we know, she has never been the protagonist a love reverie typical of her age but rather she prefers to fantasize on other people’s chance of making a match, pretending to be their Cupid, as if they were her dolls in Highbury playground. To her friend Harriet Emma confesses, that she will never marry and she is not afraid of being considered an old maid like Miss Bates, she will never be like her, because she is rich, showing that she is well aware of her social status and what is due to her.

So, if on the one hand we may say that she doesn’t need to marry, on the other we wouldn’t be too far from the truth if we added that she can’t as well, or better she feels she can’t. She has been looking after her old father since her elder sister’s marriage and he depends upon her. It is interesting here the parallelism with old maid Miss Bates who, just like her, is in charge of her mother, but without the comfort money can give. By the way, Mr Woodhouse is a hypochondriac “ easily depressed…hating change of any kind“, particularly any change in the vast, amazing world of human experience, whether it may be a short trip to Box Hill, for example, or an attachment to a man, especially if it regards her daughter. Emma is quite provincial, indeed. She has never travelled or seen the seaside as she says to her nephews, she has never been to London where her sister lives, she has never experience the feeling of love. When, eventually, she imagines herself intrigued by Mr Churchill, Mrs Weston’s step-son, who is so much talked of in the small circle of Highbury even before being introduced to everybody, she confesses to herself that she doesn’t want to fall to the temptation of even thinking about him. Hence; somehow Mr Woodhouse manages to keep her at the pubertal stage of her life.

Having lost her mother at a too young an age and having been in charge of her father for some years, the two figures who have guided her during her adolescence are Miss Taylor, her governess and Mr Knightley, her brother-in-law 16 years older than Emma. As surrogate father and mother, they are often engaged on parental like discussions on Emma’s education as they  seem to have different points of view about it. The proof that she needs guidance can be seen soon after the loss of one of these two figures, that is, when Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. At first Emma tries to replace her company with Harriet Smith, but she is socially not her equal and too young to have any influence on her at all, then she starts to misbehave under the influence of young Frank Churchill. Mr Knightley often tries to correct her lecturing and scolding her, but he understands that his role, as it has been till then, cannot fit him any longer, as, despite his sharp insight and the goodness of his advice, his reasons are not entirely honest as he has found himself in love with Emma and  jealous of Frank Churchill . That is why Austen gives him  the task to guide her from adolescence to womanhood but no longer as a brother or friend but as a husband and what a husband, since Donwell Abbey, his estate, includes most of the property in Highbury. Ah, Lucky Emma!

 

 

 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, is this all we need to know?

There is an afternoon which has remained impressed in my mind. I was a young and quite unexperienced teacher and the following day I was to start to work at a school where the majority of the students came from disadvantaged areas often with difficult situations. That afternoon I was suggested to attend a parent / teacher conference which was scheduled for some issues concerning discipline, so that I could have been promptly informed about that class situation, before meeting the boys, well, rather than boys, it would have been more correct to say men, as the average age of  that class, the equivalent of a twelfth grade, was 18/19.

As I was sitting in a corner of that classroom, listening to a list of some of the most bewildering life school episodes I had ever heard and wondering whether I would have ever been able to elaborate the weapons to face such a reality, my attention was captured by the innumerable drawings I could see on the walls. Those students seemed to have developed the most extraordinary talent for sketching human body, male sex organs in particular. There were at least one hundred of them, of course, of different colors, sizes and even styles, I dare say. There was one in particular, a huge one, I guess the father of them all, which stretched along the entire class, wall after wall, and majestically ended right on the class register. As I closely inspected the classroom, I could see only dirt and degradation. Many of the desks were half-broken and the blackboard chipped, but nobody seemed to notice it. They were blind and perfectly at ease, but I was not. Those drawings were the unheard voices of those students’ contempt.

Then I couldn’t help but wonder: would they have been equally destructive if their school had been more clean, organized, modern and why not, beautiful? Would they have dared take their markers and besmirch the walls again or not? Maybe they wouldn’t, if they had been taught to love and respect beauty and of course, placed in a more decent context. If beauty were a subject taught in school, we would form generations of adolescents who not only would appreciate the esthetic value of things but also their hidden ethical message. Yes, ethical, because once you have understood the importance beauty and make it a value of your life, it would be intolerable, for example, to see the dirt and the holes in the streets of your town or the beautiful coasts of your country disfigured by urbanization abuses. Your sense of beauty would not allow you to be indifferent and you would instinctively do something against all this.

Peppino Impastato, a young man and journalist from Sicily, was murdered at the age of thirty after having spent his short life to fight the mafia. He had tried to awake the consciences of the people he knew in order they could find the strength to get rid of their cowardice and that conspiracy of silence which lies in the roots of their culture. But it was in vain. Peppino understood how the love and respect of beauty would have been essential in his cultural context, that is why he wrote once :”if people were taught beauty, they would be given a weapon against resignation, fear and conspiracy of silence“.  A new “conspiracy of beauty” should come to life, hence, nobody would be left alone to fight the wrongs of any society.

The following day I met the boys of that class. They were only twelve, but when they were all in, I can tell you, they seemed a crowd to me.

Assisted suicide in Utopia

Think about a young man who for his entire life had pursued an ideal of freedom made of unconventional experiences, travels, sport and a great passion for music. A man hungry for life, a life which for him had to be a whirl of emotions rather than a sequence of strict rules of convenience and duty. That was the life he had wanted for himself and the woman he loved and the only one he had believed worth living for.Then, one day: darkness. He opened his eyes and found himself blind and quadriplegic after a car accident.

Fabiano, that was his name, tried any sort of therapy with the  hope of regaining a little independence and avoiding  being a complete burden to his family and partner. He desperately did anything he had in his powers. Nothing could ease his pain. Then, he understood: that was the only possible life he had to expect for himself for the rest of his days. He had been condemned to live in an “endless night“- these are his words – whose only way out was a door which had the name of death on. This is what he had understood and day by day the thought of death became sweeter and sweeter and even started to taste like that freedom he had dreamed for all his entire life. Of course, for anybody in his condition, it was impossible to reach that door alone, he needed the support of his family and friends, but that was not enough, as here in Italy euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal, and anybody who had endeavoured to help him would have risked 12 years in jail. He  would have needed the support of all those parliamentarians who had avoided the trouble to discuss that law which had been lying in some secret drawer for years. He wanted to die, but he couldn’t and despite the clamor on tv and newspapers, everything remained intolerably still. Till one day a helping hand from a foundation, took him to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, and set him free.

In 2017 the question about whether a man has the right to put an end to his own life, whatever the nature of his decision is, really sounds so medieval to me and the restrictions of laws absolutely pitiless.  However, it was 1516, therefore 500 years ago, when Thomas More,  a churchman, in his book “Utopia” dealt with issue of the end of life with more mercy. In Utopia “nothing is left undone” to help the sick, but for those who become terminally ill and suffer greatly “the priests and magistrates” therefore, the law and the Church hand in hand – “repair to them and exhort them, since they are unable to proceed with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and all about them, and have in reality outlived themselves, they should not cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die since they cannot live but in great misery; being persuaded, if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or allow other to do it, they shall be happy after death”.

Well, but is this not a sin from a religious point of view? Not in Utopia, as those who decide to put and end to their life “act reasonably” and “consistently with religion for they follow the advice of their priests, the expounders of God’s will”. Hence, “those who are wrought upon by these persuasions , either starve themselves or take laudanum”. Of course, “nobody is compelled to end his life thus” and those who do not accept such an option are treated as kindly and tenderly as before. However; in case somebody commits suicide without the assent of ” the priests and senate,they honour not the body with a decent funeral, but throw it into a ditch”.

Well, despite the creepy ending, these are the most reasonable words I have ever read about the subject. After the emotional tide caused by the death of Fabiano, that law from that secret drawer was eventually taken and discussed in Parliament. There were only 20 MPs in that day.

 

 

 

Lost in Translation

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If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!

 

The Barbarians

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It is undeniable that the new technological connected world has brought to the collapse the past idea of relation, politics, education, art and somehow given voice and shape to a very long gallery of people who would have barely seen the light before: scarcely educated, rude, arrogant, tasteless, they flood the world with their superficial, trivial, sometimes violent but incredibly effective messages. As barbarians they implacably destroy our certainties and nothing seems it can be done but walking hopelessly among those ruins of the past. The point is: are these barbarians ruthless destroyers or maybe is this only the way we perceive and fear change ? After all, whatever cannot be fully understood is often seen as a threat. Am I just growing old and losing touch with the new? Maybe, we should just modulate the way we look at things rather than feeling continuously under attack.

bar2This is what suggests Alessandro Baricco, Italian novelist and essayist, for whom the barbarians represent innovation rather than violence and destruction. In his ” The Barbarians: an essay on the mutation of culture“, Baricco remarks that the beginners of a new era have always been considered barbarians by their contemporaries, because they smashed past tradition. What they had in common was a good degree of that foolishness so dear to Steve Jobs: the clear perception of change. In the past Diderot and D’Alembert must have seemed barbarians at the eyes of the intellectual elite of the ancient regime, let alone the revolutionary music of Mozart and Romantic poetry, of course, which in fell swoop destroyed all the canons of classicism.The use of simple, unelaborated language, common themes, blank verse, for the purist of the age was a barbaric act on classic form. Actually, I myself have often  thought while reading Wordsworth‘s “Daffodils”, for example: “uhm , so puerile” and quite annoying all that flood of synonyms of the word “happy” (bliss, joy, jocund…)  as  if that were the only way to communicate the reader how happy he felt, but rather, resulting in my mind as a sort of Pharrell William walking in that wood singing and dancing wildly “because I’m happy“. And pray, don’t be offended by the word “puerile”, I borrowed it from Shelley‘s comment on the poem. All these people had to vandalize past canons to let their genius explode.

bar-3You wouldn’t believe it, but even Beethoven was considered a barbarian for his age. The critic of the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review used the following words to review his most celebrated ninth symphony in 1825: Elegance, purity and measures, which were the principles of our art, have gradually surrendered to the new style, frivolous and affected, that these days of superficial talent  have adopted. Brains that, for education and habit, cannot think of anything else but clothes, fashion, gossip, reading novels and moral dissipation, are struggling to experience the more elaborate and less febrile pleasures of science and art. Beethoven writes for those brains, and in this he seems to have some success, if I have to believe the praise that, on all sides, I bloom for his latest work.” And even the American reviews did not spare negative comments:”…very much like Yankee Doodle,” sniffed a Providence, R.I. newspaper in 1868 and “Unspeakable cheapness,” declared Boston’s Musical Record in 1899. Hence; Beethoven was only endowed with a superficial talent for them and treated like a pop musician.

bar6Baricco says that nowadays modern Barbarians are people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin who were only twenty when they invented Google and had never read Flaubert,of course; Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple world and that touch technology which is so typically childlike;  or Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has formalized the primacy of speed over accuracy. These people sincerely did not reject all the past, yet, at the time of designing the future rather than using the tools of tradition, they employed new standards with the side effect of destroying to the root, entire estates of knowledge and sensitivity that lie in a shared heritage of civilization.

So far, then, I understand that this sense discomfort that pervades me depends only on my inability of accepting the mutation of this age, as, put it in this way, the barbarians seem to be absolutely necessary for the evolution of our civilization to the same degree they accomplish the precious function of fuelling with young blood  and energy the world of ideas. But then, Baricco introduces a new category and everything becomes more clear to me. The presence of the barbarians has a physiological consequence: the growth of the numbers of the barbarized. This phenomenon has always occurred, but in an age of mass communication where everything happens so rapidly, the barbarized may eventually prevail and change the course of events, before the revolutions of the barbarians might be effectively rooted in society. Furthemore, differently from other ages, the barbarized are no longer hidden and victim of the contempt of the refined, but they are fiercely visible on tv, social media etc., some of them has even pursued a career in politics. Hence, is this what the new world is going to be like? A world in the hand of the barbarized?

 

On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

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In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see that we are about to put in charge of the Italian vessel a comedian, a fool, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?