What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Masters and Fridays

Robinson is by no means the forerunner of that model colonizer Kipling had in mind in his “White Man’s Burden” and certainly the one who actually demonstrates how right and natural the superiority of the white man can be. After many years of permanence on the desert island Robinson is eventually allowed to enjoy the pleasure of society again, well, a small society, as his new companion is a Carib cannibal he had rescued from being murdered and eaten by two of his mates.

Now, even if we have one big island for two people only, it is interesting to point out that the relationship between the two belongs, from the beginning, to the master and servant kind and, mind, it is not only a matter of gratitude as Robinson had saved the native’s life, it is natural:

“..he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a many antick gestures to show it.(…..)At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.”

So Robinson doesn’t even need weapons to subjugate and submit him, he finds himself with his foot on the native’s head as he instinctively understands the white man’s superiority. This act is very potent in effect and inhuman in some way, but Robinson doesn’t feel uncomfortable with it at all, and he doesn’t even attempt to remove his foot from the native’s head. That foot is exactly where it ought to be.

It is also interesting to spend a few words of the choice of proper names. The native must have his own name, but Robinson is not interested in the least in knowing it, and let alone, learn it, so, he calls him Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life. Yet, as soon as Friday can understand him, he teaches him to call  him “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.

Now that the rules of cohabitation are set, Robinson proceeds with putting successfully in place that colonizing model Kipling will outline one day. Subjugate first and then educate. Robinson starts teaching him good manners. If they had to share their meals, well, it should be done properly:

“..I gave him some milk in an earthen pot, and let him see me drink it before him, and sop my bread in it; and I gave him a cake of bread to do the like, which he quickly comply’d with, and made signs that it was very good for him.”

Of course, we teachers know that it takes a certain amount of time to learn rules and procedures properly, in fact, even if Friday seems sincerely to enjoy his bread and milk, he is still a cannibal at heart and candidly takes Robinson to the place where the two dead bodies of his captors were buried with the aim of, well, eating them, with Robinson of course:

“….at this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission.”

What a waste of good meat, Friday must have thought, but having understood to have done something his master considers wrong, he regards wiser to keep on with those acts of submission which worked so well.

Afterwards, Robinson decides to cover Friday’s nakedness giving him some clothes ” at which he seemed very glad, for he was stark naked” he presumes. Now, I suppose, being in the Caribbean, that is, very hot, Friday must always have enjoyed his nudity, as he had never associated it to sin as white men do, so there is no real reason why he should truly be very glad, but of course, Defoe couldn’t have written otherwise. The last and final step is Friday’s conversion to Christianity. Thus, Robinson accomplishes with the task of the “White Man’s Burden”, which eventually consists in wiping out the culture of the subjugated peoples, which is wrong and evil, and replacing it with the right and good one of the white rulers.

Robinson doesn’t even undergo Kurtz’s transformation once surrounded by the power of nature and the contact with the natives. He is a son of the Enlightenment ,after all, which boasted the excellence of man and the power of his reason, rather than the weakness of his soul. Robinson sees no horror, as Kurtz eventually does. The world for him is rightly divided into two categories: Masters and Fridays.


“Mistah Kurtz-he dead” (The Hollow Men. Line 1)

Conrad’s Kurtz seems, by no means, what Kipling had defined “the best ye breed”, the perfect product of Western civilization, all Europe, in fact, had contributed to the making of Kurtz, as his mother was half-English, while his father was half-French. Painter, musician, writer and even philanthropist, he exercises a powerful influence on  people with his charisma, in fact, whoever has ever known him would bet that he is destined to success. Yet, in this case “Nomen” is not “omen”, as this promising future of greatness is not reflected by his name, which, ironically, hints at a certain smallness of the man. Kurtz, in fact, means short in German.

Kurtz truly believes in the civilizing mission of the white man. Not only he had  supported it in a pamphlet he wrote, but he had also given form to his ideas in a painting, which Marlow describes with the following words:

“a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (1.57).

Kurtz’s painting, an image of a blindfolded, stately  woman surrounded by darkness, carrying a torch, obviously, represents European colonization. The torch is the “light” of culture and order that Europeans are apparently bringing to the region. The blindfolded woman is, in fact, a symbol of justice, the white man justice, of course, which causes tremendous injustices at the hands of the European colonizers, whose eyes must be well covered by a blindfold to accomplish their activities. That’s why, the effect of the light on the woman’s face for Marlow is, somehow, “sinister”.

Kurtz goes to Africa carrying a luggage full of idealism and dreams of glory, but once  far from Western civilization, Kurtz’s sophisticated masks drop one after another leaving his now defenseless self, naked and exposed to the power of the wilderness which will affect him to madness .The jungle will slowly get “into his veins” and consume “his flesh”  and soul transforming him into a totally different man. He loses any sense of decency and restraint as often repeats Marlow. Once crossed the line drawn by his ethics, he is no longer able to go back and is swallowed by his thirst of ivory, greed of power and the pleasure given by the sense of omnipotence he can experience, after having turned himself into a god for the natives. Yet, in a certain way, the natives have succeeded in ruling over him, deeply affecting his nature, that’s why they have to be exterminated, as he writes in a last shred of sanity or folly in a postscript to a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.

Once, eventually, Marlow finds a dying Kurtz on the verge of madness, his obsession for him, which had been the products of many and different narrations, gives way to an unexpected truth. That man hidden behind all his masks of grandeur, talent and success is only a small man, as his name suggested, “hollow to the core“: “shape without form. Shade without color. Paralyzed force“, as T.S.Eliot writes in his poem “The Hollow Men”.  Kurtz had not been able to find a real meaning in his life, mostly because, he was devoid of human emotion and understanding, just as other fictional heroes like Dorian Gray or Faustus and this is what gives their tragic ends a sense of “horror”.



Into the Heart of a Title

Heart of Darkness is by far one of the most suggestive title ever. Darkness is a universal archetype that we naturally associate to death, mystery, evil or a menace, but despite the dangers that we word dark excites, it ultimately attracts us like a magnet. Conrad in this novel takes us to a voyage into the heart of mysterious areas like Africa, the colonizing mission and the self.

Marlow had always been fascinated by Africa, the “dark continent” since he was a child, when he was used to fantasizing over the “blank spaces ” on the map. After returning from a six-year voyage through Asia, he comes across a map of Africa in a London shop window, an event that revives in him those old emotions. Hence, he takes the chance to make his wishes come true accepting the position of captain of a steam boat of the Belgian company which traded on the Congo River. It is metaphorically sunset, when Marlow starts to tell his story to his fellows.They are anchored at the mouth of the Thames, on the Nellie, waiting for the tide to go out.  Yet, as darkness begins to fall, the scene becomes “less brilliant but more profound”, the narrator of novel  warns us, implying that when the blinding effect of the light ceases to be, one could see the heart of things, their dark, secret side.

As the river Thames goes into London, the symbol of the heart of progress and civilization of that time, “the greatest town on earth” for Conrad, the river Congo takes Marlow to the heart of primitiveness. Yet, once there, he witnesses that the sparkling narration of the wonders of colonization hides a very embarrassing and less glorious truth. The dark side of white man’s mission there is made of wild exploitation of people and lands, ill-treatment of the natives and pointless activities. The imperial enterprise appears to his eyes in all its squalor and cruelty and European man’s settlements seem just like tiny islands, white viruses, amidst the vast darkness of the impassive, majestic jungle that surrounds them.

As Marlow penetrates the darkness of Africa, he explores the impenetrable mystery of human nature as well.  He eventually meets Kurtz an ivory dealer, the man he had been sent for,  who is reputed to be the best agent of the Company, but it seems that the wilderness has captured his soul. It is rumored he lives among the natives, shares their rites and is venerated like a god.  Even if he had always been an idealistic man of great abilities, once freed from the conventions of  European society, Kurtz, the white man, reverts to his true self, savage, instinctive, just like that Yahoo, Swift had so brilliantly anticipated. The degree of awareness of that discovery is synthesized by the last two words Kurtz pronounces before dying: “The horror! The horror!”

Yet, any secret should remain so. Nobody likes to be seen for what he really is, that’s why we always wear a mask or more to disguise our “Yahoo” nature. Even a lie may work on this purpose. So, when Marlow returns to Belgium and calls on Kurtz’s fiancée, he doesn’t feel like telling her the truth on what he really was or did in Africa. For what, after all. That’s why, when she wants to know her beloved’s last words before dying, Marlow decides to throw some light over the darkness and answers with a sweet lie: it was her name.









Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy

Heart of Darkness

If propaganda is a reality devoid of facts, a convincing narration which bewitches our reason, well, the bard of the wonder of colonization was doubtless, Kipling, while it was Conrad who lifted the veil that covered the embarassing truth. He resisted the charm of the sirens’  songs of his age and in a voyage down the river Congo, he saw with his own eyes the darkest side of the empire, its heart, a “Heart of Darkness”.

The assumption that the civilizing mission of western cultures was essentially a moral duty, was based on the rooted idea of the undiscussed superiority of the white man. By the way, as for many grand enterprises, the continuous effort in term of cost and people involved had become a “burden” in time, a noble burden, for sure, so that the Americans, as emerging power, were invited by Kipling to share with the Britons their mission in his poem:” The White Man’s Burden“. Kipling explained that the mission consisted in sending the “best breed” of a nation into “exile” to  –  pay attention – “serve”  the “captives’ needs”. Being “newly caught”, they were not able to understand the stroke of luck that had fallen on them and could be unwilling to be taught the customs of the white man.The empire’s civilizing mission apparently was at the service of the natives who were seen as “fluttered”, “wild”,”sullen”, in short  : “half devil and half child”.  It is a powerful symbology indeed, as ” devil” refers to the natives’ evil, dangerous and sinful nature, that is why the word “mission” , with its religious connotations, acquires even a higher meaning,  while their being at the same “child”  reinforces the idea of their inferiority, which is due to their naivety and ignorance. 

However, it is when Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is traveling down the river Congo through the wilderness on a steam boat and eventually manages to “open a reach” that the veil of the hypocrisy of colonization is definitely pierced.  His eyes are wide open to an unexpected reality, which metaphorically seems to blind him at first. A light is thrown on the dark side of the “mission”:

“A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

It is a ” scene of inhabited devastation”. Pointless activities have caused a “waste of excavations” and an early deforestation. Useless pieces of machinery are scattered everywhere and lie on the ground like rotten carcasses of animals. It is a scene of both physical and moral death. The natural noise of the rapids is replaced by the deafening sound of the horn which anticipates a “dull detonation” which shakes the ground. He sees the natives running away fearful, trying to find a shelter under a “clump of trees”. These men are “mostly black and naked” and move about “like ants”. Six of them pass him by. They are chained, ragged, silent :

“I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

Marlow’s conclusion does not leave room for any doubt:

“these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. ” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

But an effective storytelling could.

It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

Never leave the old road for a new one, if you don’t want to take the risk of dealing with unexpected situations and this is a truth universally acknowledged for me. I’m writing this, as, few days ago I meant to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one of my (many) classes, but I felt like doing it in a different way this time. I wanted them to focus on the opening lines of the book, so I assigned the following homework: tell me which is a truth universally acknowledged for you in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know whom this line belonged to and I never mentioned the name Jane Austen. Just asking. The name would have been revealed only afterwards.

Of course, they were puzzled and attempted to understand what I was actually expecting. None of them was crossed by the thought that those words might belong to somebody and “google” them. I thought them smarter or maybe I was too good at hiding my purposes. By the way, after a little hesitation I started to receive answers. Some of them considered safe to produce the truths universally acknowledged of the world and the universe like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the speed and position of a subatomic particle cannot be known. This concept can be found in the “Uncertainty Principle” of Heisenberg……”(Umberto P.)

Is it really so? I don’t know and I didn’t mean to check it. Another one attempted to give a scientific demonstration in his way:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a  50 cc scooter  is slower than a 125 cc  scooter…” (Vittorio F.)

Then all a sudden the answers took the form of universally acknowledged Italian truths, which mostly regarded pizza, pasta and family:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)

Actually, there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him, no onion in a good carbonara is required. Even with the following truth I agreed:

” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)

Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, as your grandmother opens the door,  you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible, but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours in advance, she will be able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think they would annoy our dear Jane?

A Matter of Time

When the twentieth century novelists decided that those plots which frame our
lives and those masks we wear every day for the sake of conventions and society were no longer “interesting”, but rather, what’s hidden behind those masks, the very first victim to be sacrificed to the altar of modern narrative was time, or
better, chronological time .

As Sterne taught us, under the mask there is not hypocrisy, but chaos, the freedom of
thought, no fear of judgement, it is exactly what we are: naked. In that precious
tabernacle which is our mind, time flows free and ruthless. Hence, whoever dared
represent it should have employed new writing techniques, as the old ones could not go under the surface, the mask. Freud, with his studies on the unconscious, Bergson,
with his theory on mental time processes called ” la Durée” and William James, who
theorized “the stream of consciousness” gave those writers what they needed to forge the modern novel.

Rather than following actions linked by a cause-effect pattern, readers were involved by the train of thoughts of the characters that caused those actions. Therefore, at the beginning of a modern novel we don’t find any longer introductory pages with all the information we need to have about the central character/s, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example:

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me(…)”. (Robinson Crusoe Chpt.1)

Or Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”(Emma Chpt.1)

The heroes that people modern novels may remain without a face or details about their personal lives for many pages till those details cross the mind of the character and only then it is possible to attempt a picture of one of them. Novels become as treasure chests that chronologically may last even one day only, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, chests that keep together the warm, virulent, indomitable power of the characters’ thoughts which freely skip from one way to another thanks to their association of ideas.

The fresh morning air of London”( What a lark! What a plunge!“) and the sound of the hinges of the doors which are to be removed to make more room for Mrs Dalloway’s party, take her to the past when she was eighteen at her summer-house by the sea and the ghost of Peter Walsh appears without any introduction, just few lines she remembers which are apparently meaningful for her, but absolutely meaningless for us :

Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh.” (Mrs Dalloway Chpt.1)

Peter Welsh is a central character of Mrs Dalloway’s life, even he is physically distant, he is constantly present in her mind, in fact he is the very first person we meet in her train of thoughts.

In Dubliners, Eveline has been motionless at the window for some time when she hears somebody’s footsteps:

“The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.”

The sound of the footsteps, which turns from cracking to crunching takes her to the red houses where once there was a field, where she used to play with her brothers and friends and was happy. In that memory the censorious shadow of her father materializes, with a “blackthorn” stick in his hands. Her father is first in her thoughts rather than Frank, the young man with whom she had consented to an elopement that very night, as it is Eveline’s relationship with him the core of the story.

In this new way of writing, pages may chronologically cover few seconds, while a
line hours, as for the individual, time may speed up or slow down even if for the clock pace remains the same. Joyce tells us that “She(Eveline) sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“, however, how long had she been sitting there? Hours? Maybe, as we are brought to understand that there was still light when she sat there, but the day had then become night as pointed out by the alliteration of the “w”, which turns into a “v”, and the vowel sound, which grows darker and darker word after word. The incoming night presses her to go while her sense of guilt keeps her there, at the window motionless. Eveline feels both as an invasion of her soul. Very likely she would have preferred a third option, but hadn’t we plunged into the secrecy of her thoughts, we would have seen only a girl sitting at the window and not a word would have been spent on her.