Foolocracy Made Real

I voted, eventually. No need to say I am not happy about the outcome of these elections and no need to say I was not surprised about it. I will leave my comment, in fact, to a post published on this blog (with a little editing) 5 years ago. It was my very first timid attempt of writing about politics and I did it under the mask of what I am: a teacher of literature. After all I firmly believe that “all world is a stage“.

Every time it was the Fool’s turn to go on stage there was a great expectation in the audience. The most important actors wanted to play that role in fact, because he was not only one who juggled or made you laugh with trivial jokes or puns but he was also charismatic, witty, shrewd and, above all, the fool was the only character who was allowed the privilege to say whatever he liked. He was a fool after all. He could target whoever he considered worthy of contempt exposing him to ridicule, king included (with a certain prudence obviously). People laughed with him, people were with him because after all he was one of them, one who could understand their frustrations, misery, rage, disappointed hopes. With a laugh he could exorcise all that. It was a great power indeed and he knew it, but I’m sure that not even in his wildest dreams he would have ever imagined one day to use this power to become a politician and, why not, rule a country. People would have died from laughing. Yes, but it was the Middle Age, the dark age. Nowadays, in the modern age, we have smashed these prejudices and we have allowed fools of any kind to be part of the active political life. Even those who were not really born fool try clumsily to imitate them, because this seems to be what people want.

However, when fools leave the familiar setting of a theatre to seek a better fortune, they seem to suffer from a curious disease: the “all world is a stage” syndrome. Its symptoms are easily recognizable: they keep on acting or speaking  freely without realizing that in the real world acts and words have consequences on people. This happens because they can’t perceive the difference between the fictitious and real life. Problems arise when one of these fools happens to have received the responsibility of ruling a country or anyhow making or sharing a political project with the elected non-fools. He will inevitably have to face an identity crisis, because his job has been for years that of ridiculing, attacking those he is supposed to work with. A fool is very good at destroying, but once he is demanded to reconstruct,his mocking laugh fades away and he starts to display a certain agitation and becomes even aggressive, because all of a sudden he realizes that he just cannot keep on playing his favourite game off the stage. But the question is: can we expect a fool to be responsible and decide the destiny of a country? If the answer is: “Well, yes, why not?”, just follow Italy’s next political vicissitudes and we will see.

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A Portrait of an Eligible Ruler

From the comments of the previous post, everybody knows what they dislike about their rulers, but let’s try and be constructive: what makes a politician fit for being in charge of a country? Would you like him to be a sort of shrewd leader as the one suggested by Machiavelli, a heart inflaming dreamer or simply an honest anybody, as it seems to be so “en vogue” here these days? Well, my answer is: a sharp-witted accountant, and by accountant I mean somebody who knows exactly figures, understands present situations and pursues his goals according to the real possibilities the State budget offers him and nothing more. A leader with such skills would make the fortune of his country, and I know this is to be true as in the past there was a ruler I do admire, a king, that somehow had many of these characteristics: Henry VII Tudor.

When Henry became King, he had inherited a nation shattered by a long civil dynastic war between the noble families of Lancaster and York. For what concerns foreign policy, the importance of England in Europe had become quite marginal especially after the loss of the Hundred Year’s war and furthermore, he was aware that his claim to the throne was shaky, plots and conspiracies were, in fact, always behind the corner. Differently from the other European countries, we have to remember that English kings did not rule by Divine Right, hence, they could not act as freely as they would, because their actions were submitted to the Common Law and the Magna Charta. Apparently weak, in charge of a country torn to pieces, what could he do? Not much, it would seem, but Henry accepted the challenge. First of all, he didn’t search for the limelight with great, noble actions that would have made his people dream, he was not a man of dreams, but facts, hence, he put on the clothes of the inflexible “accountant” and set to work.

He targeted two main objects: unifying the country and centralizing the power in the hand of the monarchy. Being an attentive “accountant”, he accurately pondered about what was advisable to do and not to do. First of all, he aimed at avoiding troubles with foreign and more powerful countries, as any other war would have made him at the mercy of Parliament. He chose to make commercial treaties with France and The Netherlands, thus opening up trade with both countries and arranged the marriage of his children to the crowned heads of Europe forming stronger alliances.

Stability was the main goal of his domestic policy.  First of all he married Elizabeth of York thus uniting the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Then he deprived the noble families of their private armies, enforced royal taxes, modernized administration, promoted trade and the making of a fleet, thus demonstrating that he well understood what was necessary to face the new era marked by the discovery of America. When he died, he left a safe throne, a solvent government and a prosperous and reasonably united country. Of course his son Henry VIII and his grand-daughter Elizabeth I are more interesting and well-known sort of rulers, but it was Henry VII, who actually laid the foundation of modern England.

I can’t imagine of any ruler with such determianation and clarity of purpose nowadays and certainly not here in Italy. Sunday’s vote has nothing to do with innovative or clever politics of enlightened candidates, but rather, it will end up with choosing between the frying pan and the fire and we are well aware that you might get burnt with both of them, unfortunately.

 

 

 

The Sorrows of a Disenchanted Voter

Exactly in a week time, new elections will be held here in Italy and I have to say that
maybe for the first time in my life I feel a kind of unwilling to perform my duty of
citizen going to vote. Almost I year ago I confessed all my doubts in a post
about the effectiveness of the democratic system of representation and still the same issue keeps troubling my mind. It is a fact that only on the occasion of elections we are really equal despite, census, education etc. : is this really one of the greatest modern conquests? In that post I asked Socrates’s help to make my point clear and particularly I liked a passage when he affirms that “ voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is…. irresponsible“, only education may prove the best antidote to demagoguery (dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading).

However, what happens if those who do not possess that skill represent the majority of a country?  The percentage of those who have relapsed into illiteracy,
that is, those who may not completely understand meanings and concepts, is
increasing in any country and in Italy has reached the 80%, hence, who do you
think propaganda will be addressed to? Modern political speeches have lost their power of seduction, as their message doesn’t aim any longer at being thought-provoking , constructive, but rather, at being catchy, therefore: simple, short and quick. It must stick on you, avoiding the usage of reason if possible.

In my opinion, the most effective slogan I can remember belongs to Berlusconi’s era; as pioneer of Italian Private Television he was a champion of communication : “We won’t put our hands in the pockets of the Italians“. A simple image which doesn’t require to be decoded, as it is extremely effective but dangerous at the same time. In those few words the very first powerful message is that his party won’t levy taxes, which is ok, but the subtle one means that taxes are nothing but robbery, thus mining the faith in that system he would have ruled for almost 20 years ( a maybe more).

Propaganda addresses our fears – real or perceived -, impossible solutions, social envy. There is new-born party here, the so-called five-star party, which has based the entire political campaign on one word only: honesty. Effective and simple, isn’t it? However, 90% of the candidates who have been recruited are completely unexperienced in matters of political administration (and more). May I ask you a question? Would you still trust you doctor if he confessed you that he has never studied medicine, but, don’t worry : he is so honest. I guess you would immediately tear his prescription and find your way out as fast as possible. Well, you wouldn’t believe it , but it seems that one-fourth of the voters of this country is ready to rely on them only because they wave the flag of honesty. I can see Socrates turning in his grave.Rather than a political campaign we have been the witnesses here of a competition among those who rant the loudest and I fear that the winner we’ll be put in charge of the country with the consequences you may well imagine.

I have no other solution to offer than enhancing education, but I understand it is a slow process, very slow, considering the ways education policies are taking, that it seems to me more and more utopian day by day. Will I take to trouble to go to vote, then? I don’t know, yet. I’ve got a nice book to read.

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.

Primitive Modernity

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Novel Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Wilde in Naples

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

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

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

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

 

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