Soldiers

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

If I should die” …. a thought that must have crossed the minds of soldiers several times. Fear, sense of loss, homesickness are the common feelings that follow that painful moment of awareness, which takes the form of death. It “puzzles the will“, Hamlet mused and can make us cowards, but for Rupert Brooke the sacrifice of one’s life for his own country ought not to be feared, but quite the contrary, particularly if that country is England. In his patriotic poem, “The Soldier”, in fact, Brooke sings the love for his country, and how noble and glorious dying for that country would be and how noble and glorious an English soldier is. Just like in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” this pre-war poem is still full of the imperialistic ideal of the superiority of the English troops in their civilising missions all over the world. This English soldier seems to be a sort of god, who does not fear death. He is serene, as he believes that wherever he will die, that place will be forever England.

I can assure you that for non-English readers, this is a very striking line. The idea that and an English soldier once dead with his dust could somehow “fertilize” any “foreign land” with the seeds of Englishness, turning it into a better and richer place is  undoubtedly a powerful picture of English patriotism and nationalism. English indeed. The war Brooke images, is somewhat idyllic, there is no blood, dirt, cold, fear and death is represented only in its most glorious form. He didn’t have much time to experience how far this picture from reality was, in fact, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite while en route to Gallipoli with the Navy. He was 27.

The truth, we know, is different. There is nothing idyllic in any war, much less World War I.  Soldiers spent endless days in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side. War had prolonged too much and millions of people had already died. In July of 1917 poet Siegfried Sassoon sent the following open letter to his commanding officer and refused to return to the trenches:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
July, 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

For those who did not have enough imagination to realise the horrors of the war and continued to use the powerful means of propaganda to recruit young innocent lives, Wilfred Owen lifted the veil which covered the truth in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”

These opening lines of Owen’s poem smash Brooke’s epic narration. English soldiers are not young upright fearless Adonis, but look mostly like “beggars” and “hags” , who are “bent double” with fatigue, fear, cold, sickness and whose native “gentleness” has given way to rudeness and curse. They are young men who have become quickly old, once abruptly abandoned their world of innocence.

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”

 

This is what war is: struggle to survive, dirt, blood, pain, death. Hence, there is nothing sweet and glorious to die for one’s country, Owen concludes, quoting Horace, but it is only a  terrible lie. Owen died in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

 

“Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.”
(It feels like in autumn on the trees leaves.) (Soldati, Giuseppe Ungaretti)

 

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The Power of Letter Writing

Among the many narrative techniques which were experimented by the authors of the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was by no means the form which had the most effective and powerful impact on the mind of readers. Just guess, it was as if you could intercept some correspondence which was not addressed to you and you were free to peep into somebody else’s live, having knowledge of their emotions, secrets and confessions without even feeling guilty. You have also to consider that it was a time when people had no many other chances of diversions like today and while reading you were not distracted by notification beeps, telephone calls and modern noise in general. Therefore, letters, with their dates, names of the places, recipient names and even the time of the day, gave that sense of realism which made the reading seem more true and therefore, intense.

The greatest proof of what I’m saying  is  Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, whose impact was enormous in the Europe of the eighteenth century. Werther ‘s agonies of love were shared by an entire generation of readers, who were so affected by the overwhelming power of the emotions, which seemed uncensored as made accessible by the letter form, which provoked the first – and dangerous – process of mass imitation. Thousands of young men copied Werther’s outfit, which consisted of a strange combination of colours: custard yellow trousers and waistcoat plus an electric-blue jacket. If you wore those clothes, it meant  that you were or you wanted to be thought of as a brokenhearted, sensitive young man, exactly like their hero. Yet, this collective folly took a very dangerous turn, in fact, the imitation process didn’t stop at clothes, they wanted to live the life of their idol and even make his tragic end, therefore, The Sorrows of Young Werther led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men.

Yet, this impressive power of epistolary novel could be experimented on women as well, to convince them, for example, of the advantages of pursuing a highly moral conduct. Of course, it was a man who took a trouble to endeavour such enterprise, Samuel Richardson, who created on this purpose  two opposite characters both for station and choices of life: Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela apparently seems to be the less fortunate of the two heroines.  She is a beautiful maidservant, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, attempts to seduce and rape her multiple times, but unsuccessfully. Eventually, Mr B  changes attitude and ends up falling in love and marry her. The entire title is, in fact, “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, so the moral was that any correct behavior would have rightly compensated sooner or later. The story, you may well understand was quite unlikely to happen at those times. A rich man marry a servant at those times? Impossible. By the way,  Pamela was such a great success that Richardson  even wrote a sequel.  But what would happen if one yielded, for any reason? That was the lesson that Richardson would have imparted in his other, very long, masterpiece: “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady“.

Clarissa Harlowe is an extremely beautiful tragic heroine, who, differently from Pamela, seems to be destined to a brighter fate. She belongs to the upper class and has inherited a large sum of money from her grandfather, but she is not free. Her family wants her to marry Mr Solmes who is a rich, but ignorant and unrefined sort of person, a man she despises.  To avoid this marriage, she consents to an elopement with Mr Lovelace (nomen omen, watch out Clarissa!!), but the latter turns out to be a very violent man who will drug and rape her. She eventually manages to escape from Lovelace’s clutches, but she gets sick and finally dies like a saint. So women, choose! I you don’t want to end up like Clarissa you know what to do. By the way, I guess, Richardson must have thought it a very difficult task to convince us to behave properly, as he employed one million words to write Clarissa. Did it work? I don’t think so. I would suggest any man with such and intent to be a bit shorter, as I/we usually get lost after a thousand words. Top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on Boxing Day

When you are a child, Christmas time is fabulous. When you are a child born on the third of December, named Stefania, Christmas time is a long Dionysiac festival, a bacchanal, which starts exactly the day of your birthday and whose wild dances die out the day of the Epiphany. Well, when I was a child. I should have realized that something was about to change the moment when accidentally I was told that, from then on, the name-day present was part of the Christmas present, implying that I would have received only one gift but, of course, a more expensive one. Was it really so? I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t give much consequence to that slight change of plan, after all, the name-day present was usually really a small thing, just the emotion of unwrapping the little surprise. That was all.

By the way, after few years, I started to suspect that something was going the wrong way, when I was told that I was too old to expect the usual sock full of candies, coins and that delicious sugar in the form and colour of charcoal, which was usually given to all the bad children in the world -and I was happily one if them – along with a present by the old and scary Befana witch. Old? Old at thirty!I couldn’t believe it.

As the time went by, I realized that December had become a “problem” for all my relatives and friends, as very likely, when you are no longer a child, it is less obvious to find a present that you really need or wish, let alone 4 in a month, so, before I knew it, the four presents had become one. Now I can candidly say that being born and having my name-day celebrated in December is a bummer. Furthermore, my beloved husband Mr Run and I (?) have decided that this year we would have waited for the sale season to buy and exchange our presents. Of course, mine will be something invaluable he said, but I suspect another….bummer?

Ruth

 

“If a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.” (Moll Flanders, Chpt 4)

Can a “fallen women” be also pure, innocent? A sinless sinner? Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth is the answer to these questions. Ruth is the angel that sins without even knowing the meaning and the consequences of her action, she is a pure ray of light that brightens the entire novel and gently glides over the greyness of Victorian prudery and moralism. Ruth is an orphan of about sixteen, who works at a sweatshop and whose uncommon beauty attracts the young and rich Henry Bellingham. They form a secret friendship, which is found out by Mrs Mason, the owner of the shop, who soon dismisses her for the sake of the reputation her business. Homeless and unemployed she consents to leave with Henry Bellingham to go to London first and then to Wales. This makes her a “fallen woman” at the eyes of society, the point is that she didn’t know the meaning of it:

” She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice” (Ruth Chpt 3)

For her it had been natural to follow the man she loved and had offered protection; it was natural for to please him or entertain him; it is natural when you love. She couldn’t see anything wrong in her doings, but  the people she occasionally interacted with, oh yes, they could. Gaskell, here, is at her best when she depicts Ruth’s joyful and spontaneous world, made of expectations, true feelings and pure emotions, which strikes with the strict code of proper behavior of the Victorian society, which couldn’t but condemn the degree of moral corruption that all that meant. Only when a young boy, whose innocence had already been dented by the talks inside the family, shouts at her “naughty woman” – very likely without comprehending the meaning of his words – she catches for a moment a glimpse of reality, but she doesn’t figure it out fully. She’ll have to wake up abruptly from her dream of love, when Mr Bellingham’s mother, called by her son on the occasion of a fever, persuades him to abandon Ruth in Wales. She will remain alone with a 50 pound note and a kid on the way.

Elizabeth Gaskell never deceives her readers on the true nature of Ruth’s lover, he is a rake. Whatever point of view she uses, however genteel his manners may look or honest his intentions may be, there is always a fraction, a word that unmasks his real temper. Even when he seems to display a sort of heroic nature, saving the life of a child, we cannot trust him, in fact when he carries the boy back to his humble abode he is disgusted by the dirt and the smell of the place, and he openly says it with contempt, hurting the feelings of the boy’s grandmother.

Distraught and alone in a hostile world Ruth attempts suicide, but she is saved by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister, who offers her comfort and decides to take her to his home town to live with him, his sister Faith and Sally their housekeeper. Being pregnant, she will be introduced in the neighbourhood as Mrs Denbigh, a young widow of only 16, to protect her from tittle-tattle. Years of sorrow and expiation will follow,  which she will be able to bear thanks to the love and comfort the Benson’s give her and, of course, her son Leonard who will become the only reason of her life.

So this “fallen woman” is given a chance to rescue herself and this is the novelty of this character. She will be accepted, loved, praised and be offered a job as governess, and when Mr Bellingham reappears in her life, she has become strong enough to be no longer seduced by his words and offers. Yet, her reception in that society was based on a lie, her being a widow, and when the falsehood is discovered, she is shunned once again, but she will not go away and she will endure with patience, like a Madonna, all the consequences for the sake of her child.

Once again she will redeem herself, and the occasion will be a deadly fever. Ruth volunteers to be sick-nurse for the townspeople, as no one else was willing. As a real Madonna she’ll work hard to comfort the sick and dying. It would seem the ultimate penance for her sin, but it is not. Mr Bellingham has caught the fever and even if she is weak and tired, she revolves upon attending him. She will catch the fever and die, while he will recover. I have to confess that his is the part I have real trouble to understand fully. Even Charlotte Bronte herself said: ” Why should she die?” and I would add: “why should she go?”  The turning of a “fallen woman” into a saint with the final sacrifice must have tempted her, but to find peace and her reward in the other world is not an end that can satisfy my more modern taste. I do prefer rewards in this world.

 

The Abstract Principle of Equality

It was 1871 when Swiss philosopher Henry Frèderic Amiel  pondered on the nature of democracy in his “Journal Intime”. It is impressive how Amiel in few clear words nails effectively the problems implied by a representation where one is worth one despite merit, experience, education etc. and foresees the processes that will shape the world as we know it. Of course, he could not predict how the impact of modern means of communications would have made the development of those processes more dangerous and faster with the consequences we know worldwide, however, his intuition has become astonishingly and bitterly true.

“The masses will always be below the average. Besides, the age of majority will be lowered, the barriers of sex will be swept away, and democracy will finally make itself absurd by handing over the decision of all that is greatest to all that is most incapable. Such an end will be the punishment of its abstract principle of equality, which dispenses the ignorant man from the necessity of self-training, the foolish man from that of self-judgment, and tells the child that there is no need for him to become a man, and the good-for-nothing that self-improvement is of no account.
Public law, founded upon virtual equality, will destroy itself by its consequences. It will not recognize the inequalities of worth, of merit, and of experience; in a word, it ignores individual labor, and it will end in the triumph of platitude and the residuum.”
HENRY-FREDERIC AMIEL
Journal Intime”
12th June 1871

“Man is not Truly One but Truly Two”

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

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

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

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

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

Being Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders

What if you had been gifted of a unique talent but not allowed to express it freely because you were born woman. If Shakespeare had had a sister, endowed with the same degree of genius, or even more, what would have become of her, was Virginia Woolf’s question in “A Room of One’s Own”? Marriage, children, a woman ‘s  “career” was quite defined whatever her social status was at those times. Hence, Virginia Woolf ‘s conclusions were that had such a playwright existed, she would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed, her voice made dumb.

Sleeping Venus

Well, exactly at those times, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, a woman was struggling to gain hers as an artist. Born in Rome on 8 July 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.  Artemisia was soon introduced to painting in her father’s workshop  just like her brothers but soon Orazio saw where real talent harbored among his children and it was in those little, delicate fingers of her daughter. He encouraged her and taught her how to draw, mix color and  paint, but at the same time, she had to take her mother’s place, who had lately died, and bear the burden of the various responsibilities of family business, home management and the custody of her three little brothers. Whatever Artemisia had learnt, therefore, it was within the domestic walls. Even Caravaggio’s technique, the most popular and innovative painter of those times that had influenced her style so much, was not apprehended directly but through his father’s paintings. As woman, she was unable to enjoy the same learning paths undertaken by her male colleagues. As you can easily guess, painting was considered almost exclusively male and not feminine at that time. However; Artemisia’s talent was blossoming to such an extent that Orazio allowed her to work on his canvases. It was in 1610, at the age of 17, when she produced what, according to some critics, is the work that officially seals Artemisia’s debut into the world of art: “Susanna and the Elders“(Susanna e i Vecchioni).

The episode to which the work relates is narrated in Daniel’s book from the Old Testament. Susanna is a young and chaste girl, who is surprised naked in the bathroom by two elderly gentlemen attending her husband’s home. She is subjected to a sexual blackmail: either she will agree to submit to their appetites or the two will tell her husband that they had surprised her with a young lover. Susanna accepts the humiliation of an unjust accusation and only later Daniel will bring to light the lie of the two elders. Maybe it was a presage, but incredibly Artemisia will experience a similar event with devastating consequences in her life. In 1611, when Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi, a talented painter, to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Orazio decided to hire him to mentor his daughter privately, despite the rumors about his obscure past.  During this tutelage,Tassi raped Artemisia. 

Death of Cleopatra

Which were Artemisia’s options? Telling everything to her father? What if he had not believed her? Denounce the rapist? Bearing the consequence of public exposure and comments? She decided to be silent. She even continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, hoping he would marry her, thus restoring her dignity and future, but Tassi continually postponed the marriage, using his promise as a means of convincing her to continue sexual relations with him. Nine months had passed and rumors about the liaison reached the ear of Orazio. The two were confronted and eventually both Tassi and another “gentleman” Cosimo Quorli (who had tried but failed to rape Artemisia and had helped Agostino plan visits to her house when her father was absent) were charged. The trial lasted seven months in 1612, and received, as you can well imagine, considerable publicity.

The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, Orazio would not have been able to press charges. “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me….I have never had any sexual relations with any other person besides  Agostino..” she declared, but these were only the words of a woman, therefore; during the trial she was subjected to a gynecological examination, first to verify her testimony and then tortured with the “sibille”, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to “prove” that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which, of course, seriously injured her hands, thus risking her career, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded: “it is true, it is true.”

Orazio Gentileschi’s self portrait

During the trial Artemisia discovered that Tassi could have never married her, because he already had a wife, a wife that he had planned to murder, but still alive. Furthemore; he had been engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law and had in mind to steal some of Orazio’s painting. Not exactly a Prince Charming. After the trial he was condemned to five years of imprisonment or, alternatively, perpetual exile from Rome. Of course, he opted for the second possibility, but he managed never to move from Rome. Hence; even if Artemisia won, her  in Rome was completely undermined and  an impressive  amount of licentious sonnets that saw her as protagonist started to spread. One month after the trial, in order to save her reputation Artemisia married a painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. She and her husband separated a few years later.

What followed were years of hard work, but also fame. He travelled and made herself known all over Europe and her genius reached even the court of Charles I. Of course, the consequences of the rape and subsequent trial had left inevitably a profound impression on Artemisia’s life and art, thus  transposing the psychological consequences of the violence suffered on her canvas. Very often, “la pittora”(the woman painter) as she was called, turned to the uplifting theme of biblical heroines such as Judith, Jade, Betsabeah, or Esther, who – fearless of danger and animated by an upset and vindictive desire – triumph over the cruel enemy, and somehow, claim their right within society. In this way, Artemisia soon became a kind of protofeminist, permanently in war with the other sex and able to incarnate the desire of women to affirm themselves in society.