The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.

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Primitive Modernity

A Scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’) 1829-30, exhibited 1831 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00403

I’ve always been of the opinion that Sterne would have been wonderfully at ease with modern means of communications: his great irony and wit would have made him a great blogger, for sure, but even twitter might have been his natural scene with its short, sharp, effective messages. And how he would have enjoyed scattering emoticons here and there throughout his “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” only if he could, but since there was nothing of the kind at his time, he used hyphens, dashes, asterisks, crosses, symbols  with the same function. He understood, in fact, that signs had a quick and powerful impact on the mind of readers, exciting their curiosity with the effect of drawing them into the story.

This is exactly what I felt when I first read Tristram Shandy,  I was part of it. The reader, in fact, is so central that very often becomes a character among characters but without a definite script. We are invited to make drawings of the people the author doesn’t feel like describing himself, share his feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, or furthermore he demands our undivided attention whenever he pretends to say something important. All of a sudden, we find ourselves part of a fictitious world just like sometimes it happens in the stagings of some modern plays, when actors arrive from the back of the theatre, thus making you feel baffled.

The characters we have to interact with have not the typical stamp of bourgeois heroes, but they are common people like us, with dreams, passions or better hobby-horses, frustrations and disappointed hopes mostly. There is nothing relevant to say, actually. In Tristram’s life, in fact, there are not grand events to be told, but incidents that make him the hero of ordinariness. Of course, his father, just like any other father, had dreamt for his son a future made of success and glory, that’s why he wanted him to be named Hermes Trismegistus, that means not one but three times great, however, it unfortunately turned out to be Tristram only because of a misunderstanding between his father and his Uncle Toby, thus descending from the Olympus of the gods and becoming one of the many, one of us.

The bits and pieces of his life are disorderly narrated and this is the other element of Sterne’s modernity. He was the very first one to focus his attention not only on the life of his protagonist, but on his “opinions”, that is: his mind. He instinctively understood that if he wanted to deal with his mental processes, he should sacrifice the backbone of the novel structure: chronological time. It is, actually, impossible to delineate its plot. Just few examples: the preface is unusually placed in third chapter, he is the ironic judge and spectator of his own conception in the first one – and what a taboo he breaks talking about his own parents having sex -, any attempt of narration is interrupted by digressions and associations, he decides to skip from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24 – he didn’t feel like writing it –  etc.  Therefore, even if Sterne couldn’t have the support of the studies of psychoanalysis, he succeeded in representing the chaos of our mind on paper anyhow, in a rather primitive way, of course, but it allowed him to have his place among the gods of English modern novel as their forefather.

 

 

The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03573

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.

Oscar Wilde in Naples

Many words can be used to describe Oscar Wilde’s genius and personality, but wise is not one of them, to be sure. Having spent two years in jail after having been charged for “gross indecency”, the echoes of the scandal were not over yet, so he decided that Paris would have been a better place to try and start over again. In those months in Paris he could work on his famous “Ballad of Reading Jail”, but the signs of hard labour on his body and the awareness of the terrible humiliation his family had suffered were not enough to make him ignore the reasons of his heart. Against his better judgement, if he had any, Wilde yielded to his desire to see again Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, the man who had brought him to a tremendous downfall, so the two decided to spent the winter in Naples as Bosie ‘s relations were already there. Of course, his friends and family were furious for his going back the man who had ruined not only his but the life of those who had been close to him.

Towards the end of September 1897 the two lovers arrived in Naples and settled at Villa del Giudice on the charming Posillipo hill. Even though he used the name of Sebastian Melmoth, his coming to Naples become soon the tittle-tattle of the moment and only a couple of weeks after their arrival Matilde Serao wrote an article about the presence in town of such a famous, irreverent artist on the most popular newspaper: Il Mattino. “The secret of Pulcinella” we would call it  here in Italy and this expression particularly fits, as Pulcinella is a character who belongs to the Neapolitan Comedy of Art. By the way, how Wilde meant to keep the secret, having started soon to attend the Neapolitan literary circles, I cannot make it out, but as I told you before, wisdom has never touched him. Of course, being in reduced circumstances he was trying to have his works translated, but the tittle-tattle could not be stopped when the couple started to be seen in the company of other men, who were not part of any artistic society. A waiter of a hotel said he had seen Wilde with five soldiers and that he had spent the entire night with them.

So very soon rumors became scandals. It was only October when the couple decided to visit Capri and lodged at Hotel Quisisana. When the Swedish doctor and writer Alex Munthe met them the following day, they looked particularly depressed as they were waiting for a boat to go back to Naples. “They denied us even bread” said Wilde laconically and Bosie explained that some Uk customers had recognized them at the hotel and as they could not tolerate their presence there and the two lovers were politely sent away by the property owner. They had tried to find shelter in another hotel but they had received the same treatment. Axel Munthe invited them to dinner and offered them to be his guests at Villa Lysis, for some days. Afterwards, Wilde went back to Naples the 18th of October 1897, while Bosie decided to remain few more days at Munthe’s “Villa San Michele”.

The fact that Wilde and Bosie were a continuous source of scandal, brought both Douglas’s and Wilde’s families first to ask, then to intimate and eventually to force the two to separate. Which was their weakest point? Money. Wilde was deprived of the small income guaranteed to him by his separated wife, while  Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Even an emissary of the Embassy of England in Rome came to Naples expressly to see Douglas and make him understand that he would have to separate from Wilde immediately and such a conduct was considered like misbehaving towards the embassy itself.

 

It might be regarded a little harsh, but the cut of the funds worked well, and shortly after, at the end of November 1897, Douglas returned home after having written a warm letter of apology to his mother, who, by the way, had paid the (many) bills left pending by the couple. Wilde even received some money from her, which he used to take a trip to Taormina. Ah, the pangs of love!

 

“Man is not Truly One but Truly Two”

Dr Jekyll had always strived to conform to the dominant values of his time. Highly respectable with a charitable disposition, he enjoys a reputation as a courteous and genial man, however, he very soon understands that the sparkling facade that he exhibits in society does not correspond to his real nature, or better, natures. “Man is not truly one , but truly two“, Dr Jekyll says , a “double being“, then, whose most secret side is more prudent to have it concealed from the eyes of the many, but at the same time it is also so dangerously attractive. Whether we call it “evil side” or “id” as Freud would define it, what’s so fascinating in the exploration of this dark, emotional world?

According to the Freudian tripartite division of the psyche, the “id” is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. That part of our psyche prevails when we are children, as we haven’t fully developed a moral conscience yet, according to the values imparted by parents or society, what Freud calls the “superego”. This development, which occurs around the age 3-5, is called the phallic age of the psychosexual development. How does it all this work, then? Well, the “superego” controls the “id” ‘s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression, for example and persuades the “ego” to turn to moralistic goals, to behave properly and to seek for perfection. Otherwise, the controlling power of the superego would take the form of conscience, thus making arouse a sense of guilt for not having being able to conform to what family and society expect from you, for not being that ideal self that you ought to become in order to be proudly integrated in the system.

So, the “id” is the instinct, whatever is forbidden and therefore evil, that is why it is so appealing, in particular to seemingly strait-laced Dr Jekyll, who would like to enjoy the drives he so painfully tries to repress. A potion will do the trick and give him the chance to tell us readers, what it feels like to fully experience that secret side of our self, to be finally the Mr Hyde each of us conceals. Well, the answer we’ll be shockingly simple: happy.

He is happy, as for the first time he we’ll be able to feel ” something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet“. Without the moral laces of the superego he feels even “younger, lighter, happier in body” like a child and in his mind “a current of disordered sensual images” runs” like a mill-race in (his) fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul”. Dr Jekyll, now Mr Hyde, is fully aware that this new self is “ more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to (his) original evil“, but there is no room for a moral condemnation here, but rather, the only thought of it is as inebriating as wine.

Having struggled all his life to improve his good side, this Mr Hyde appears to be shorter and smaller than Dr Jekyll and conforming to the canons which connote evil, he is ugly and deformed. However, when he looks upon that “ugly idol “in the mirror, he feels no repugnance but rather “a leap of welcome”. He recognizes that as his real, natural self, better than “the imperfect and divided countenance” of Dr Jekyll and even if Mr Hyde is repulsive at the eyes of other people, he doesn’t care. Why should he? After all, he finds himself now above the moral ties of the Victorian society and can enjoy freely the darkness of his soul.

On Witches and Socks

According to a Christian legend, while the Three Wise Men were on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Infant Jesus, they bumped into a very old woman and asked her if she knew were the Son of God was, as they seemed to be quite disoriented. Unfortunately she didn’t know. Nevertheless, she offered them accommodation for a night, after all, she was the best housekeeper in the village, with the most comfortable home. The following day, the Three Magi tried to convince the old lady to join them to the visit to the baby Jesus, but despite their insistence, she refused, as did not feel like leaving the house, she was too busy with her housework after all.

Yet, very soon she repented for not having gone with them. She quickly prepared a basket of sweets and left the house in search for the Three Wise Men, but in vain. She stopped at every house she found along the way, giving candies to the children she met, in the hope that one of them was the baby Jesus. Since then, she goes around the world, giving presents to all children, so that she might be forgiven.The good ones will have toys, candies or fruit, while the bad ones get only coal, onions or garlic. That’s why it is tradition here in Italy to leave empty socks next to beds of children the night of the Epiphany, so that the old lady, that is actually called Befana, may fill them with presents. Befana’s iconography is a little scary, however, as she wears a dark and wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a handkerchief or broad black hat on his head, a pair of worn slippers, all enlivened by numerous colored patches and she travels around the world flying on a broom.

🤔🤔🤔

Wait, wait, wait, but if Jesus was not born on Christmas day, even the date of his revelation to the Magi cannot be that certain. Why was it fixed on the 6th of January? Even in this case a Christian tradition actually overlapped a pagan one. We have go back to Roman Mithraic rites, again. If you remember, we have already stated that originally on the 25 th of December the winter solstice was celebrated along with Mithras, the Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, that is the day of the Epiphany, the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature was solemnized. But why after 12 days? Because the twelve days represented the twelve months of the years, therefore, the entire natural cycle. It seems that on those days, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” figure, the so-called Befana.

Now, I cannot but go and look for a capacious sock, and advice you to do the same, you’ll never know.😜

“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!”

 

 

The SimpleTruth

If somebody asked me to pick my favorite among Jane Austen’s novels I would promptly reply: Pride and Prejudice, of course, but if I were given another option,
that would undoubtedly be Persuasion.That is why I heartily recommended this novel to Chris, a fellow blogger, who last summer was experiencing the joy of exploring Jane Austen’s world. Of course, since he had many other good reads he had scheduled, it took a while to know his point of view, but he did it at last and the long-awaited review of Persuasion appeared under my WordPress tree on Christmas day.

Only, differently from what I had expected I felt that Chris had not enjoyed that novel much, not as much as Emma, to which he had dedicated three posts. Of course, it was a very neat, professional, interesting review, but I couldn’t feel in any line a shadow of the admiration he had shown for Emma and at the same time, it was as if he couldn’t understand mine (and the many other Persuasion fans who usually comment on his blog).

However, scrolling down the comments, I realized that he had actually understood the root of our fervor, only, being a true Gentleman, he didn’t want to speak his mind frankly. In his very last reply to another blogger , in fact, he hinted at something that sounds like this:”I can see the appeal of Anne as a character for us, ahem, older readers, Helen, compared to the younger Austen heroines like Lizzie, Fanny or Emma. ” Ahem, there he went, ladies, like a dagger in my self-esteem. Everything was clear, that’s why we have enjoyed Persuasion so much, because we are, I can’t say the word, well, let’s put it in this way, a little advanced in years.

Anne Elliot is, of course, the heroine that gives any mature woman hope. She is very much alike the Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice: plain, modest, accomplished, clever but too old to aspire to a good match with the bliss love. However, differently from Charlotte, Anne doesn’t settle for a Mr Collins; she, unexpectedly, has the occasion to meet again Captain Wentworth, the love of her life, the opportunity she had missed when she was much younger and in her full  bloom.The grown-up Anne has learnt to be less yielding than her younger self and this time she will be able to conquer a much deserved happy ending.

So, if this is true, we have been unmasked, ladies; therefore, when somebody next time asks you, for example, which Jane Austen heroine you would like to be🤔…..what about Lydia Bennet as an answer? 😜