Goodbyes

There is something moving when you see your students go right after the secondary high school examination. 5 years together, with ups and downs, for sure , 5 years during which you have seen boys and girls blossom and become adults . 5 years is too long to be indifferent. That is why I see what we call “Esame di Maturità” more like a ceremony, a rite of passage, rather than a real exam, where we, their teachers, let the students go to experience the world.

The “ceremony” usually ends with the final question: “ what are you plans for the future?”  That very moment we realize we belong to the past  and a sort melancholy clouds us . We would like to say one last word to the , something they can remember, a treasure to be kept.

We have discovered in time  that the language poetry on this purpose may be very effective. In fact, every end of the school year some of us enjoy playing the “Dead Poet Society” borrowing some touching lines from famous poets. Hence, poems are recited  with moved and broken voices to say the class goodbye, which sometimes for some student may sound quite disorienting,  especially if the day before they had seen you going nuts and turning into a yelling Cyclop eager not to spare even one of those rebel souls.

 I used to read a poem myself too, but I gave up as soon as I saw  everybody did it. I know, it is very snobbish of me, but if what you mean to be a magic moment turns into a habit, everybody’s habit, it cannot be magic any longer. By the ways , if you want to know it, I used  to read “George Gray”, from the anthology of “Spoon River” by Edgar Lee Master:

“I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

A  man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone . He is dead. On his gravestone there is a marble sailboat, a most befitting symbol for a life full of motion and adventure, which is a kind of ironic, as  his life had , actually,  been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbour, under cover of the rough winds of Ambition, Sorrow and Love. He had always chosen the simplest and the safest route: no effort, no risk, but he couldn’t escape the uneasiness of such a life because each of us intimately “hungers” for meaning. To live is “lifting” the sails and “catching” the winds of destiny wherever they will take us, otherwise the sense of unrest will overwhelm and torture us. Only now he understands, now that it is too late, that he had never truly lived. My message for them , as adult woman, was to embrace life as it is, as Stephen Dedalus would say: “life is to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”, don’t be afraid to err, but rather learn from your mistakes and  move ahead . But I don’t read it any longer.

This year my colleague and writer Dario Pisano preferred the end of the exams as the appropriate moment to gift the students with a very poingnant poem:  “Ithaka” by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Cavafy chose the most iconic journey ever as pattern : Ulysses’. The poet says, that each of us  keeps looking for his own Ithaca, that is the achievement of his personal supreme goals, every single day of his life. Of course, there is nothing  wrong with it, but  eventually, it is not the goal but the journey that matters, because it is the  journey that  makes us wise and gives people the richest prizes: experience, knowledge and maturity.

Yet, the journey of our students has just begun, and while I see one of them politely, but carelessly,  take the poem and leave, I cannot help but wonder: isn’t this but our final attempt not to be forgotten in their journey?

The Epiphany of the Magi

eve1

eve5I guess everybody is familiar with the story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction, they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is, a moment of a sudden revelation.

eve4Actually this narration may have another symbolical interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also represent the crisis of the modern age, where men, as modern Magi, seem to have lost many of their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their hollow lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ s interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.

Joyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, therefore being unable to change their lives and reverse the routines that hamper their wishes, they are all destined to fail.

eve2For example the protagonist of Eveline, one of the short stories included in Dubliners, has the chance to radically change her life, but she hesitates  She has been sitting at the windows for hours till the night “invades” her soul, forcing her to take a decision. Time is running out: should she leave that night with her lover and re-create a new life in Buenos Aires or should she just keep on looking after her family as she had promised her mother? Happy and sad memories fill her mind and contrasted feelings as well, till she hears a “melancholy air” that reminds her of the very last moments she was at her mother’s deathbed. Everything becomes clear. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother (quidditas). She must go away.

eve3But when Eveline arrives at the docks, all her determination fades away.  The illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires is only a black mass for her (claritas)  and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas). She feels that if she left, the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.

The Labyrinth of the soul

labyrinthThere are moments in life when you can see no way out. Responsibilities, troubles, duties seem to absorb the very essence of your being leaving no room for comfort, hopes, joy. The world that surrounds you, thus takes the form of a labyrinth that seems to engulf any desperate effort to escape. The fear of the “Minotaur” weakens any sparkle of determination to find a way to break that crystallized state of the soul and you believe yourself hopelessly doomed to misery. And yet, any labyrinth has a way out; you’ve got see it, otherwise the “Minotaur” will be there, waiting for you.

daedalus_smallJoyce‘s labyrinth was Dublin restricted society, which didn’t allow him to be what he really wanted to be: an artist. He thought that his only chance was, what he called, self-exile, that is, going  away, no matter how hard it was to leave the people who knew you, crush your family’s expectations, thus turning your back to the past in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life “(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). That’s why he chose as his alter ego in  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses the character of Stephen Daedalus. In that name there is his fate of freedom (not necessarily happiness). Stephen’s first name recalls the first martyr of Christianity – he was stoned to death for blasphemy – just to remark that he felt himself the martyr of the Irish society, in juxtaposition, his surname recalls to the mythological figure of Daedalus, who was both the inventor of the Labyrinth and the wax wings that allowed his son Icarus and himself to escape the island of Crete (his maze) and the dangerous Minotaur. Just like Daedalus, he would be brave enough to flee from the labyrinth/Dublin to find a better fortune. For one who did it, there is another one who just couldn’t escape the monster who was devouring her will: Eveline.

minotaurEveline, was only nineteen and her life had always been marked only by responsibilities, frustration, hard work and grief. Her mother had left her alone too soon and now she had to work, look after her younger brothers and protect them and herself from their violent father. She had made her mother a promise right before dying: to keep their family united as along as she could. She felt that she could, or better, should have done something to escape her maze, maybe accepting to leave with her lover for Buenos Aires to be married and have her chance to happiness; but for her and the other protagonists of the Dubliners that solution seems to be impossible. Joyce called his protagonist Eveline, to stress her fate of failure. Her name is, in fact, the combination of two words: eve and line. An ” Eve” is the day before an important day or a celebration, while “line” symbolizes life. Therefore Eveline’s destiny will be that of living in constant eve: she will never be able to act, to enjoy the feast of life.

MirandaFrom the very beginning of the short story Eveline seems to be unable to act. It is the night she has planned to leave, but there is neither emotion nor joy in her words, but rather that night that represents very likely, her only chance to leave her maze, is felt like an “invasion” of her inner self. She has been sitting at the window for hours and only when she recalls the image of her mother the night she had died, she realizes  that “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” would have been also her destiny, not only her mother’s. For an instant she finds the strength to disentangle from the tentacles of her monstrous fear and quickly leaves her house to meet Frank, her lover, at the station. But when they reach the quay and she sees the ship that will take her to her new home, her hidden Minotaur surfaces and gradually devour her weak firmness. For her the boat becomes a “black mass”  even if its portholes are illuminated, and its whistle seems like the whistle of death : “mournful“. A sort of mist start to confound her mind and she feels like drawing. Her Minotaur has won. She will remain in the labyrinth forever “like a helpless animal“.