A Bowler Hat

At the dawn of the golden era of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most popular on-screen character was: “the tramp”. Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy and also the Italian comedianTotò, who often played  this role ( he was actually a Neapolitan nobleman: Prince Antonio De Curtis), were those who gave life to the most memorable ones. Being no longer part of the productive system of society “the tramp” endeavours to survive taking whatever paying work is available or using cunning either to get what he needs or to escape the authority figures who wouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Somehow, he is modelled on the Spanish pícaro, a roguish character whose travels and adventures are used as a vehicle for social satire, but “the tramp” is a more clumsy, generally a good-hearted sort of man, who looks at the world with the innocent eyes of a child. Even if he has been relegated to the margin of society he endeavors to behave as much as possible with the manners and dignity of a gentleman.

The clothes he wears are the sign of his marginalization. They never fit properly as to symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system. The jackets may be too loose or too tight, the  trousers too long or too short and the shoes are often clownish. However, there is an accessory it seems they cannot do without: the bowler hat. It is that hat that makes those characters comic and tragic at the same time. The bowler had become one of the most popular hats in the early 20th century as it was more informal and practical than the top hat, thus becoming a distinctive symbol of the middle upper class of the time. The Belgian painter Magritte, who had made bowlers the protagonists of many of his paintings said:

“It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.”

On the head of those outsiders bowlers represented the memory of a more dignified past, what they used to be: middle class men, that is, part of that “anonymity” that now rejects them. Uprooted and hopeless they are doomed to try and survive in an inhospitable world. This kind of humanity thus represented fitted perfectly Beckett’s idea of the Absurd of living, that’s why he chose to model Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of ” Waiting for Godot”, on Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy .

Beckett was an enthusiast of cinema, silent films and of Stan and Ollie, in particular. He borrows, in fact, many distinctive elements of the two comedians, along with their gags and routines. Apart from wearing bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon are known by their Christian names, just like Stanley and Oliver, and use their nicknames Didi and Gogo as Stan and Ollie. We also understand from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon: “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, just like Laurel and Hardy. Many of the play’s stage directions and the slapstick routines concerning their hats or boots sound as though Beckett is quoting from a Laurel and Hardy shooting script. Even the theme of suicide by hanging  which appears at the end of each act echoes a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture: The Flying Deuces. Hardy is heartbroken because the woman he loves has rejected his marriage proposal, so he decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel to do the same :

LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!

HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?

LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.

HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.

Just like in Waiting for Godot, the two fear that one of them may live while the other dies. In this tragicomic vision Laurel and Hardy provided Beckett the key to express on stage the fear of remaining lonely in an absurd world where the presence of a companion is the only real comfort and certainty that can give you the impression of being rooted somehow. With a laughter they could exorcise for a moment the fears and the doubts of those post war generations who felt marginalized just like them and were unable to find meaning in the world they lived. Without a real prospect of a future but the illusion that a Godot one day may show up, they could not but long for that “anonymity” represented by the bowler hat they don’t want to part with.

 

 

 

 

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El Diablo

Just at the end of winter, when I thought I had escaped for once the
fatal meeting with the haunting ghost of flu, there it came with its infected touch. Of course, since it was the end of the season and I was very likely one of the very last left with whom it could have a little more fun, it arrived with its best repertoire of symptoms, whatever it was necessary to make me yield. And I did yield. Therefore, in such a state, unable to do anything but lying lazily on my couch, with nothing to do but waiting for my husband Mr Run to attend me, I attempted to find entertainment watching some series on my iPad. By the way, Mr Algorithm seemed a little annoyed at my request this time, as he was too well aware that I enjoy watching the series set in the nineteenth century England, but I had practically seen them all very likely. Then, he made a try anyway: let’s keep the century and change the country. What about Mexico this time? So big brother You Tube came up with this shot saying: “We think you may like this“:

How do you know? Well, I do or better I did. It was 1993 and this picture reminds me of  my mother and my aunt eagerly looking forward to the evenings when, Corazon Salvaje, a telenovela produced by José Rendón for Televisa was on tv. This third adaptation of the novel written by the Mexican authoress Caridad Bravo Adams was an absolute hit world-wide and the very first one to be aired in prime time in Italy. Those were the happy evenings when men could safely go and play five-a-side and have a beer with their friends, as no woman entrapped in this “novela” would have ever noticed their absence. I was not one of them at first and I remember how I enjoyed mocking my mother and my aunt any time I could, till, I don’t even know how, I fell under the spell. I had watched only the last episodes of the saga, by the way, and now I had the chance and the time to view them all. And this is what I did. I watched 80 episodes for almost 70 hours in six days and then I started from the beginning again when I found the “novela” in the orignal language on DailyMotion. Now I can confess it, I am addicted.

I won’t attempt to draw a plot as there are too many twists and turns, but I can say that this is legendary story of a love triangle between two young countesses, Monica and Aimée de Altamira with the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, named Juan del Diablo. The character of Juan del Diablo is actually the reason of the heartbeats and sighs of all the female viewers of this saga. Caridad Bravo Adams succeeded, in fact, in giving life to the most amazing Alpha male of the Alpha males we have met on books or movies. He is a living oxymoron. He is a smuggler, womanizer, wild, impulsive,rude, a devil as his name suggests and the name of his ship too: Satan. But on the other side, we discover he is noble, good-hearted, a gentleman (if he wishes), terribly handsome and ready to put on slippers and make a family. He is a sort Heathcliff, Othello, Mr Rochester, Mr Thornton and even Mr Darcy in one character alone. Incredibly indeed, the fortunate lady, Monica, who eventually wins his heart, won’t use any seduction technique but true love and a rosary (never underestimate the power of the Almighty).

Good plots are never enough to make a series a hit, if there is not a great cast of actors and I have to say that, having also been able to enjoy it in the original language, they were all amazing. Eduardo Palomo as Juan and Edith Gonzales as Monica gave a super intense interpretation, that made us all dream, but also Enrique Lizalde with his awesome  baritone voice, who is Noel Mancera, the father figure who helps Juan grow and control his impulses, stands out. It is interesting to know that Enrique Lizalde acted as Juan del Diablo in the first adaptation of this “novela” in 1957.The sudden death of Eduardo Palomo only few years after Corazon Salvaje had become a global success, turned the series into myth. After 25 years there are still thousands of pages dedicated to him and to the series, that keep his memory well alive.

While I am writing this, my good friend Oscar Wilde mockingly cames to mind and keeps  whispering in my ear “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” You are right, this is what I have become after 25 years, like my mother, but, is this really a tragedy, my friend?

 

The Things We Said in Venice

Venice, Italy — A gondola, Venice, Italy — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

There are many reasons why we enjoy traveling. The desire to see dreamlike places, the thrill of meeting new cultures with their art, food, drinks and folklore are of course the most common ones, but sometimes for somebody traveling could also be a way to heal wounds, thus giving the scars the time they need to be barely seen. A change of scenario could reasonably be regarded as the most natural way to turn your back to a distressing past, put all the pieces together and give yourself a new chance.

This is what the two protagonists of Kristin Anderson’s novel “The Things We Said in Venice” have in mind. Sarah Turner, a high school counselor in her late thirties has recently faced a dolorous divorce. She decides to leave her job and home in Bend, Oregon to go on a six-week holiday to Europe. It is a solo adventure. During this time Sarah needs to learn to take charge of her life, to be independent, even because once in Amsterdam, her final destination, she has made plans that will radically change her future. Alone.

For Fokke van der Velt travelling has always been a significant part of his life since he is a renowned travel writer. He is on a trip with a group of friends to the Dolomites, trying to blanking out the painful memories of a betrayal. He needs the company of his mates, who with their presence and laughter try to ease his mind from the recurrent ghost of his sorrow. Sarah and Fokke have one thing in common for sure: they are not looking for new partners.

A benign fate, however, will play its cards to make the two meet. An exchange of backpacks, a snowfall, a strike and above all Sarah’s diary, which is ungentlemanly read by Fokke, will allow him to have knowledge of the most intimate and delicate aspects of her life on one side, but it will light his interest for that stranger on the other. Of course any entanglement between two people with such a painful past never runs smoothly. Having become emotionally defenseless, they are ready to set barriers whenever they smell the danger of being wounded again.

The romantic background of Venice with its alleys and canals will be the perfect set where the two develop their acquaintance, but only once in Amsterdam, Sarah’s final destination, she will have to ponder whether new plans may replace old plans. At the end of a journey we are never what we used to be at the beginning, this is the wonder of traveling, so when you get to the harbor you know that other goals must be set if you want to move on. Your choice,whether it is right or wrong, will depend on what you have learnt on that journey.

 

I would like to thank Kristin Anderson, author or “The Things We Said in Venice” and fellow blogger for having given me the opportunity of reading her novel. It has been an honor. I did all my best not to spoil the end! 😉

 

Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

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.

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!