Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.

 

A New Sense of Freedom

You cannot imagine our surprise when a couple of weeks ago, we Italians were complimented by WHO for our approach to stem Covid-19 outbreak. It was, you know, something between being pleased and amazed at the same time, as we are not used to such kind of praises, expecially when the efficiency of our organizational model is the subject of the matter.

Our surprise turned into a shock, when we read that English Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that his country had a worse COVID-19 rate than Italy and Germany because it is a “freedom-loving country.” Freedom, this is the point. What kind freedom was he taking about? If he meant the freedom of ignoring rules, from a historical point of view we are the champions, as we may say that Italy has mostly behaved since the fall of the Roman empire as the Becky Sharp of the continent, always striving to earn a place in good European society anyhow. Or maybe he was hinting at the bloody dictatorships of the previous century, which have made obedience part of our cultural heritage. By the ways, we follow rules? Please, Sir. You must be joking.

We Italians also love freedom, but we also care about seriousness,” was the patriotic reply of our President Mattarella. Maybe he is right, after all, it has always been national sport to underestimate our “virtues”. It comes so natural. Indeed, if you asked me how we actually managed so well in this Covid matter, my first answer would be luck rather than wisdom or seriousness. Yet, I can say by daily experience that the majority of the Italians now are no longer willing to keep up with their “virtuous” behaviour, as it has recently become for many an umbearable burden, like a heavy chain that must be broken to be released from the actual state of servitute, they say. Becky Sharp wants to be free again.

Day by day I see more and more people, friends, collegues contaminated by the new “liberty denied virus”.  They don’t see themselves as negationists, of course, but rather, “libertatis vindices“, for whom social distancing is one of the ways the state controls citizens and masks are like burqas. Others claim news should break in a less scary way, softly, so that we are not afraid to go restaurants, bars, theatres etc.,  as the economy the country, rather than people’s health, has to be preserved. Of course, those who follow the rules like me are the slaves, born to be so.

Well, my dear fellows, friends, collegues, it is about time to say that your strife for all those lost liberties due to the pandemic is not guided by the love for freedom, but rather, ignorance. I don’t need a law decree to do what is right for me and the people I interact with, because of that “moral law within me”. I am free. But you are not. Since you cannot discern between what is necessary and what is not, you need somebody to take decisions for you, which, of course, are childishly interpreted as liberties denied.

So while you keep complaining, I keep the distance, wash my hands and wear my mask, which is the symbol of my free choice to stay safe as long as I can and my detachement from the rest of this foolish world, whose inhabitants look like Yahoos to me day after day.

I began last week to permit my wife to sit at dinner with me, at the farthest end of a long table; and to answer (but with the utmost brevity) the few questions I asked her. Yet, the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves. And, although it be hard for a man late in life to re-move old habits, I am not altogether out of hopes, in some time, to suffer a neighbour Yahoo in my company, without the apprehensions I am yet under of his teeth or his claws.(Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift)😏

 

 

Riccardino

It was 1994 when Camilleri’s “The Shape of Water” was published. It was the first episode of Inspector Montalbano’s saga, which, after more than 25 years, is about to end. Truly the end of an era. In fact, exactly a year after Camilleri’s death, his last work “Riccardino” will be released just tomorrow. We, Montalbano’s fans, cannot be but absolutely thrilled to discover what kind of finale Maestro Camilleri imagined for his hero. Being very close to retirement, as we ave read in the last books, will he eventually leave his beloved Vigata to join Livia, his perpetual fiancèe,  in Boccadasse? Will he die in one of his missions?

I am pretty confident that Camilleri found a way to close the curtains without being predictitable. In fact, it was 2005 when Camilleri delivered the draft of “Riccardino” to Elvira Sellerio, his publisher, but with the promise to release it in an unspecified tomorrow. In 2016, after eleven years and 15 books, Camilleri returned to those pages because he needed to “fix” the language adapting it to the times. Nothing changed in the plot and not even in the title which remained identical. In fact, differently from the essential and evocative titles of the other books like “the Shape of Water” to “The Snack Thief”, Camilleri with “Riccardino” wanted to mark an end. A definite one.

As Camilleri recounted in an old interview, at one point of his life he had to tackle with the problem of the “seriality” of his novels. A problem that many noir writers have and that he had decided to solve by making Montalbano age, thus dealing with all the changes that this would have entailed and the times that he would have lived. But it was not enough, as there was also a superstition issue, he explained. His two friends, crime writers too, JeanClaude Izzo and Manuel Vázquez Montálban, who wanted to get rid of their characters, had died before them in the end. So “I came up with another idea“:

“I wrote the end ten years ago – the writer revealed surprisingly – I found the solution I liked and I wrote it straight away, you never know if Alzheimer then comes. Therefore,  fearing Alzheimer I preferred to immediately write the ending. The thing that makes me smile most is when I hear that the manuscript is kept in the publisher’s safe … It is simply kept in a drawer.”

He then added:

“Montalbano will end, when I end, only then the last book will come out. What I can say is that it is not so fiction , but rather metafiction where the Inspector talks to me and also to the other Montalbano, the TV one. »

When he was asked if he had planned to make Montalbano die in a shooting, he just said:

“Nothing like this will happen . Montalbano will not die. No autopsy. … He will go away, he will disappear but without dying.”

With these words we have a sample Maestro Camilleri’s craft in creating interest and suspance, as he mocks us pretending to spoil his finale providing his readers with some anticipations, but he is not. Montalbano will disappear without dying, where to? What does he mean? And, if he disappears, isn’t it like dying, after all? So, a day before being released, Riccardino is a hit already. I can imagine Camilleri sneer with satisfaction, while he is lighting one last cigarette.

Il telefono sonò che era appena appena arrinisciuto a pigliari sonno, o almeno accussì gli parse. ‘Riccardino sono’, disse una voce squillante e festevole, per dargli appuntamento al bar Aurora. Ma Montalbano non conosceva nessuno con quel nome… Un’ora dopo, la telefonata di Catarella: avevano sparato a un uomo, Fazio lo stava cercando. Inutilmente il commissario cercò di affidare l’indagine a Mimì Augello, perché gli anni principiavano a pesargli; aveva perso il piacere indescrivibile della caccia solitaria, insomma da qualichi tempo gli fagliava la gana, si era stuffato di aviri a chiffari coi cretini. Si precipitò sul posto, e scoprì che il morto era proprio Riccardino”. (Riccardino. Chpt. 1)

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Sex & drugs & rock & roll”  I remember Ian Dury sang some time ago. A mantra which has constituted for more than one generation the antidote to the homologation to middle class morality and values: family, a good job, a responsible life. Dull!! I am sure any of us has enjoyed a more or less long “sex & drugs & rock & roll ” phase in their life, the rebellious phase, when you want to break the world of OLD RULES, advocating one with NO RULES, till without even realizing it, you find yourself banging your head against the wall of NECESSARY RULES (better known as compromises), so the Hegelian phase of growing up comes to an end and you have become an adult, brand new middle class, of course.

This fight against the bourgeois system of values is nothing new and actually dates back to the time when the middle class world definitely imposed itself on the old aristocrat model of society. Profit, utilitarianism, success, respectability united to a massive dose of prudery and hypocrisy became the totems of the age of the triumph of the middle class: the Victorian Age. And you know what kind of lifestyle did the rebels of the time dream of? Sex & drugs an& rock & roll. Nineteenth century style, of course.

These peculiar kinds of rebels were called “dandies”. They were easily recognizable, as they exhibited a unique refinement, which was their way to express their contempt towards the triviality, hypocrisy, materialism, in a word, the ugliness of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Aesthetics was for them a religion and as they believed that the Victorian society was desperately in want of beauty, they defied it trying to make of their lives something different, just as beautiful as a work of art and if a prudish, respectable kind of behaviour was required, well, they chose to devote themselves to the god of pleasure. Dandies never followed fashion, they did not seek for homologation, for sure. They made it. They embodied such models of elegance and sophistication, which were to be seen unattainable by anybody and no amount of money could buy.

Hence, the dandies chose to fight the system creating an antithetical model, thus proving the mediocrity of the Victorian standards of behaviour. Did they succeed? Well, yes, of course, till they banged their heads against the above mentioned wall (sooner or later it happens). However, they were not the only voices against those standards, there were some others, who were called: Bohemians.  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. They were exactly like the hippies of the end of the nineteenth century. 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. They were actually sex and drugs & rock & roll.

Did they succeed? You know the answer. Rebellions bring new lymph to any society but their life is short and their fate is inevitably homologation. Therefore, once the disuptive impetus has gone, what remains is a sort of quietness, better known as adulthood, and in this new land only the memory of a refrain remains: “sex & drugs & rock & roll”.

 

Austenland

I have to confess that I am in love with Mr Algorithm. I am fully aware of the fact that he is a sort of nosy, intrusive guy, irrespective of my privacy, but things are not always for the worst. As he knows me well, I dare say, more that I suspect, he often introduces me to new places or better, pages, I would never think of going myself. Not long ago, for example, while I was lazily scrolling some posts on fb, he gently caught my attention and said: “Maybe you may enjoy this”.

“This” was a page named ” Fans of Pride and Prejudice”. Well, I thought, I love Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular, if this makes me a fan, well, let’s take Mr Algorithm’s advice. As soos as I joined in, I understood that very likely the page I dropped by was addressed to a bit younger public, as the recurrent discussion was about who was the best actor for the role Mr Darcy and their choice fell incomprehensibly on Matthew Mcfaiden, which is a sort of heresy to me, as Mr Darcy is and will ever be Colin Firth. So, as I didn’t want to discuss the matter any longer, even because there was nothing else to discuss about, I soon quitted the group.

However, Mr Algorithm didn’t lose heart and after few days got back in with another option : “Fans de Orgullo y Prejuicio”, a page in Spanish. I have to say that beyond being nosy, intrusive and irrespective, this Mr Algorithm is by no means stubborn. I just meant to give a quick look, but unexpectedly, I found this page quite interesting and I lingered on for a while. Still the Darcy mania was the main theme, but this group was not only about pictures of the best profile, or the most romantic moments of the many movies of Pride and Prejudice, but whatever had been shot about any novel of Jane Austen, in any language, in any part of the world could be found here: an immense romantic filmography to be fully enjoyed. I quickly subscribed. So, I left for a sort of Austen world tour.  I learnt that there are movies about Pride Prejudice set in Atlanta, Seattle, Botswana, Zombieland, the jungle of Tanzania and the North Pole too. I could comfortably watch ITV ‘s adaptation of Sanditon right after the day the episode was aired and lots more, till one day, I found myself in Brazil.

One of the girl of the group was thrilled, because she had found this: “Orgulho e Paixão”, a Brazilian telenovela of Globo TV, which is the dream made reality of any Austen’s fan . It is the story of the Benedicto family,  the equivalent of the Bennets: 5 unmarried daughters and an over anxious mother, but, and this is the surprise, it is not only the Brazilian version of Pride and Prejudice, but rather the tale of some heroines of Jane Austen’s novels all together. Jane and Elizabeth are the same but the other three sisters have the traits the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, Caroline Morland from Northanger Abbey and, this was a stroke of genius in my opinion, Emma is Elizabeth’s best friend, a rich match maker just like in the original novel. The love stories interweave in the beautiful natural setting of the imaginary “Coffee Valley” and San Paulo of Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For a fan of Jane Austen, you may well understand, that such a production couldn’t but cause severe addiction. The rhythm of publication of one episode per day became soon unbearably slow for me, so, as I was hungry for more, I desperately started to search the web, till I got to Russia, where a certain Lucas had issued them all. A real lucky break. Do you want to know how many? Well, one hundred. I watched 100 episodes of one hour each in, let’s say, less that a month. Of course, my Spanish has greatly improved, my social life a little less. However, I found the “novela” really enjoyable and I have been even an enthusiast for the first 50 episodes, but unfortunately when the screenwriters left the path of Jane Austen’s narration to explore other solutions, the characters have become less plausible with the outcome of turning the final episodes into a farce.

The truth is that after more than 200 years Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines still charm the new generations of readers just like the old ones;and this makes me think that “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”, the world will always be Austenland.

 

 

“He is more myself than I am”

He is more myself than I am“, what a romantic expression, such a pity Heathcliff didn’t hear a single word of the final part of the conversation his Catherine was having with Neally Dean:

«So he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made out of, his and mine are the same». (Wuthering Heights)

No, in fact, he will never know it, as having being deeply wounded by Catherine’s previous statement: “I will degrade myself by marrying Heathcliff”, that hot-headed man rushes away without thinking twice and disappears in the night. Had he been a little less hasty, had he let his reason control his overflowing emotions, he would have given his love a chance and spared us a lot of drama; but he did not. However, would those words have had the power to cool down his spirits? Actually, they require a little pondering to be fully understood, and as we know that pondering is not exactly in Heathcliff’s nature, we will analyse them for him.

So, what does Catherine mean, when she says that Heathcliff is more herself that she is. These are striking words about the intensity of her love for him, that, somehow, surpass the universally acknowledged metaphor of those ” halves” Plato refers in his Symposium:

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves…….and when one of them meets the other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment…Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” (The Symposium)

Love, hence, is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. However, for Catherine, Heathcliff is not simply her natural other half, he is more:

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable;…” (Wuthering Heights)

So Heathcliff is not part of her, it is her, hence, she feels there cannot be a separation between the two. He is always there, in her mind and in her soul as a haunting presence, therefore, Plato’s interpretation of the nature of love cannot do for this case.

Maybe the archetypes of animus, anima and persona could help us understand. For Jung the persona is the outer or social self that faces the world. The animus is the archetype that completes women, which contains the male qualities which the female persona lacks, while the anima represents the female traits that a man’s persona lacks. The individual is rarely aware of his anima/her animus, which Jung defines “demon-familiar” , therefore, obscure, hidden, threatening.

The point is that the animus of a woman and the anima of a man take the form of a “soul-image” in the personal unconscious and when this soul-image is transferred to a real person, the latter naturally becomes the object of intense feelings, which may be passionate love or passionate hate. Wait a minute, so, what we call love and we have narrated, analized, dissected using millions of words for years and years in any part of the world is only a question of the projected soul-image of our animus/anima? I’m disappointed. Hence, Heathcliff cannot be but Catherine’s animus, as she is his anima. They are the projections of their soul-images and this explains their profound sense of connection or identity with each other. They are far more than two matching halves.

If it is so, this would also explains why there are recurrent patterns in our relationships and why we invariably keep on being attracted by the same sort of man or woman: it’s because we fall in love with the projection of our anima/animus. Consequently, if we are so unlucky to feel the charm of the womanizer type, no matter how disappointed we could be, we’ll keep on being seduced by that sort man. How can we avoid Catherine’s fate, therefore? Letting our survival instinct help us, or better, let’s call it experience. So next time an Edgar Linton’s type shows up, we’ll be clever enough to put to bed “our demon lover”, lock the door, and give the man a real chance.

To Flavia,”one of those girls who venture living of mad pulses, fill their failings with carbs and fall in love with idiots.”

 

On Blindness

Genesis 8:21 “ the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth

A man is sitting in his car waiting for the traffic light to go green. It is rush hour and he is stuck in the traffic frenzy, when all of a sudden he is stricken blind, or better he is blinded by an intense white light which doesn’t let him see anything. What coule he do? Of course, he should quickly see a doctor, but how? His car is holding up the traffic and he is overwhelmed by the sound of the horns of those impatient drivers next to him who, eager to be back home, are indifferent to his misery and wish him to move. In a second he has become a helpless creature unable to look after himself. He is completely at loss. Till a man, what a good fortune, offers to take him home, but unfortunately he turns out to be a car thief ready to take advantage of his sickness and steals his car after depositing him at home.

At least he has reached a safe place. The man tells his wife what happened to him, so the two quickly go to an ophthalmologist, with a taxi, where they find an old man with a black eye patch, a boy with the squint, accompanied by a woman and a girl with dark glasses. All of them have the same kind of blindness: a sort of sea of milk which prevents them from seeing. Even the doctor, who is unable to give a scientific explanation will be infected within a few hours. There is no cure or remedy. In a short time the whole city, which could be any city as the author never specifies its name, almost as if it were not a geographical place, is infected. Everybody, but the ophthalmologist’s wife.

This is the brilliant incipit of Jose Saramago’s “On Blindness” (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira) which, actually, hooked me. What was the meaning of that white light? Why didn’t the wife of the doctor go blind? What kind of conclusion could have the nobel prize winner author found and what message? I soon discovered that to have answers to my questions I would have been put through hell, the hell of human soul, but I was irrevocably hooked and I couldn’t but go forward. We may say, in fact, that the beginning of Blindness is a story of men, but what follows, instead, is the story of souls, of drifting souls who want to save themselves and are ready to do anything to live one more day.

The central characters are quarantined with other people in a filthy, overcrowded mental asylum where hygiene, living conditions and self-respect degrade horrifically in a very short period and page after page the reader is dragged down with them. But I was absolutely hooked, still. I must confess, that while reading this section in particular, I felt a stronger and stronger sense of unease, as the author coldly and mercilessly despoils humanity of any superstructure showing man as it is: aggressive, overpowering, beastly, in short, a Yahoo. Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels had explored the nature of man in any possible way and had come to the same conclusion.  “I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see” Saramago says, in fact even Gulliver is blind when he sees the Yahoos and fails at recognizing any likeness with himself and the culture which he represents, but their resemblance doesn’t escape the wise horses, which just see a Yahoo with clothes on, that is a beast in disguise.

The epidemic, therefore, reveals the most terribly authentic part of human nature: in the asylum first and in the city then, the world, as we believe to know it,appears reversed. A dictatorship of a few is established with violence perpetrated on the many. The bonds of blood disappear, the signs of love disappear, the only law to guide the impulses of the blind is that of the primordial instinct to survival. Killing, starving, threatening, attacking, raping become crimes that do not scare, because, as one of the protagonists says: “This is the stuff we‘re made of, half indifference and half malice.

This disease without a place (as the story could occur in any of the cities of the Earth, but above all in the indeterminate space of conscience), without time (as it could take place in every age), without faces and names (because in every character there is our dark part) has its roots in man, in his lack of solidarity, in the inability to do and think about good, in the desire for evil that makes us all blind, even when we see.

That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled “Memory” —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you — (Emily Dickinson)

Every year, on the 27th of January the world observes the Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day we are called to remember how far can the folly and cruelty of man can go. We must remember; and teach our children that the privilege of being born in such a long time of peace and wealth, at least in this part of the hemisphere, is not for granted, it may not last forever as those dangers are always behind the corner. Peace must be defended by any attack ignorance and arrogance may launch.

Some students from a school in Palermo saw those dangers and on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial day last January, they decided to put their thoughts in short video made of a few slides. The above poem by Emily Dickinson with its warnings was the elegant introduction to their work, just to say that they had actually swept that “sacred locket” with the utmost care and that in that “domain of dust” they had perceived the semblance of the same ghosts of the past still roaming in the present. Of course, they wore different clothes, their manners could seem more agreeable or even affable sometimes, but there they were. Hence, they proceeded comparing the Italian racial Laws of 1938 step by step, that is, those laws which restricted the civil rights of the Jews, to the first Security Decree of the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of 2018, which regulated the rights and protection of the immigrants in our country with the conclusion that they had similar traits. It wasn’t actually even a very original work, as a popular Italian magazine, “L’Espresso”, had already extensively compared the two measures a couple of months before. Nevertheless, this demonstrated that those students were at least well informed and displayed an uncommon poetical taste.

That article had no consequences of any kind, there is still freedom of expression as far as I know, but things didn’t work the same for what concerns those students in Palermo or better, their teacher: Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. The latter, in fact has been recently put off her job for two weeks. She was considered guilty of  having allowed her students to express their free point of view rather than censor it and require a disciplinary measure against them. Don’t rub your eyes, you’ ve read it right, she was requested to censor her students’ thoughts, thus ignoring the Statute of  Students, which in paragraph 4 of article 4 states very clearly that “in no case the free expression of opinions correctly manifested and not detrimental to the personality of others can be sanctioned, neither directly nor indirectly,  ” and in case somebody forgot:”The life of the school community is based on the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, on the mutual respect of all the people who compose it, whatever their age and condition, in the repudiation of any ideological, social barrier”. The video was clearly a free expression of opinions just like the article and the cover of the “L’ Espresso”. Hence, the teacher was punished for complying with the Students’ Statute and acting correctly.

What I find really alarming is the presence of the DIGOS (the police department dealing with political security) in a school of teenagers in Palermo. Does that mean that if a student expresses an opinion that the government dislikes, the police department that deals with political crimes or terrorism is allowed to intervene? So, am I to expect to find the police in my classroom if somebody says, that the second Security Decree, for instance, which should be approved tomorrow, goes openly against human rights, as everybody says, because it means at stopping immigration sanctioning those who go to the rescue of the immigrants at sea with fines between 3500 and 5500 euros for each migrant transported, thus condemning to death those who will try anyhow to leave their countries looking for a better future. This is but an intimidation. An attack on the freedom of students and teachers. An attack on the free and democratic school and teachers cannot be found divided or distracted this time.

At end of the video, those student asked a question: what is the point of celebrating the Holocaust Memorial Day, if we seem to forget everything, making the same errors of the past? But, they had an answer and a good one, in my opinion: commitment. Remembering is the key that should make us feel like committing ourselves more, learning from the errors of the past to create a better future, because if we choose only to be the spectators of life, we may not enjoy the show sooner or later and then it might be too late to change channel.

Two Annes for the Bard

I’ve always been intrigued by the Bard’s choice of wife and in particular by their age difference, Shakespeare was, in fact, 8 years younger than Anne Hathaway. You may say 8 years is not that much, having a toy boy as partner or husband has become quite common (Mr Run is 7 months younger than me, should I call him so?) . Think about Macron’s wife, for example, a gap in years where the woman is the older one may be considered even fashionable today. Today; but 500 years ago, when the benefits of plastic surgery, Botox, hyaluronic acid, derma rolling etc. were still unknown, women were left defenseless from the first attacks of aging. The passage from being a blossoming flower to a withered rake was faster than today. So, why did he marry a woman much older than him? Was it for love?

“…….every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:” (Sonnet XVIII)

When the bard married Anne, he was only eighteen, therefore, still a minor in the eyes of the law, in fact, he required permission from Anne’s father, Richard Hathaway, to make her his spouse; permission, I guess, that the old man did not object to grant as his girl had already a baby in her way, William’s baby. A shotgun marriage, then. If it is so, was the Bard forced into this match to avoid any scandal surrounding Anne’s pregnancy? It seems that William himself sped up proceedings by applying to the Bishop’s Court in Worcester. Two documents in the diocesan archives, in fact, establish that the marriage was actually performed in November 1582, as the following entry in the Episcopal register at Worcester  states in Latin :

 “Anno Domini 1582…Novembris…27 die eiusdem mensis. Item eodem die supradicto emanavit Licentia inter Wm Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.”

Wait a minute, Annam Whateley? Who is Annam Whateley? This clearly states that a marriage licence has been issued to one William Shakespeare and one Anne Whateley to marry in the village of Temple Grafton, but  if we give a look at the next entry in the episcopal register records there is another marriage bond granted to one Wm Shakespeare:

Dat. 28 die Novem(…… )Anno regni dominae nostrae Eliz. (…) The condition of this obligation is such that if hereafter there shall not appear any lawful let or impediment by reason of any precontract, consanguinity, affinity or by any other lawful means whatsoever, but that William Shagspere on the one party and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the diocese of Worcester, maiden, may lawfully solemnize matrimony together, and in the same afterwards remain and continue like man and wife according unto the laws in that behalf provided…

Now, we may infer that either there could have been some bureaucratic problems and that the clerk clearly suffered  from dyslexia and he misspelled the name of the lady, hence the two Annes are actually the same woman, or the woman Shakespeare loved and the woman Shakespeare finally married were two different Annes, but he was pressured into a face-saving marriage exactly the day after he had chosen to seal his happiness with the Anne from Grafton. This is how,  Anthony Burgess in “Shakespeare” , reconstructs the episode:

It is reasonable to believe that Will wished to marry a girl named Anne Whateley. The name is common enough in the Midlands and is even attached to a four-star hotel in Horse Fair, Banbury. Her father may have been a friend of John Shakespeare’s, he may have sold kidskin cheap, there are various reasons why the Shakespeares and the Whateleys, or their nubile children, might become friendly. Sent on skin-buying errands to Temple Grafton, Will could have fallen for a comely daughter, sweet as May and shy as a fawn. He was eighteen and highly susceptible. Knowing something about girls, he would know that this was the real thing. Something, perhaps, quite different from what he felt about Mistress Hathaway of Shottery. But why, attempting to marry Anne Whateley, had he put himself in the position of having to marry the other Anne? I suggest that, to use the crude but convenient properties of the old women’s-magazine morality-stories, he was exercised by love for the one and lust for the other. I find it convenient to imagine that he knew Anne Hathaway carnally, for the first time, in the spring of 1582… (57)

Whatever the option may be, the bard did marry Anne Hathaway, eventually, and they had three children, but I like to imagine that the Bard’s pangs of love for the lovely Anne Whateley from Grafton were the sparks which lighted up the fervid imagination and creativity of the poet. After all, isn’t it sorrow the best nourishment of art?

Chimney Sweepers

During the Industrial Revolution  thousands of  desperate people came to the cities seeking work, but those lucky who managed to find one soon realized that the average wage would have kept them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

For master chimney sweeps, these small, defenseless children of powerless or absent parents were the perfect victims to be exploited in their business.

“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”

 

Their apprenticeships lasted seven years or even more, but being generally unsupervised, once the papers were signed, the children were completely left under the power of their masters. Once left, their families often didn’t see them any longer. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Even if it common belief that both the master and the child apprentices were always male, this wasn’t always true, as many girls also climbed chimneys.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 new fire codes were necessarily put in place. Chimneys became smaller to burn coal and the number of turns and corners in the flues increased. The flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had, so they needed cleaning more often. The chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. Sweepers’ job was, actually, to climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows and they weren’t done till their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often unwilling to perform it, therefore, many masters used a dangerous punishment: first the child was forced up the flue and then a fire was lit. Since he couldn’t come down, he had no choice but to climb up the flue. Maybe this is where the term “light a fire under you” originated.

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 
If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue. These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sick, and learned to beg food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 
Even if some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement, the majority of them was never bathed or followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas. In London, many sweeper apprentices used to wash on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, till one of them drowned. Since then the children were discouraged from bathing in rivers.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 
Another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred in England after 1773. Parliament passed an act which said that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks, as it had been found out that death rates in both workhouses and orphanages was very high: only 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to any other business owners who were looking for cheap labor.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

 

The children risked to be stuck in the chimneys or die from burns and suffocation or even from long falls. For what concerns the boys, there was also another danger. Coal soot found its way easily into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. As the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.

 

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

 

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Experience, William Blake)