The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.

Act V

Greek theatre ignored the division into acts. Greek representations consisted of several distinct parts, called protasis (introduction), epitasis (main action), catastasis (climax), and catastrophe (final resolution), but actually no interlude separated the individual parts. When the main actors left the scene, they were replaced by the choir, who sang or spoke their lines in unison, a collective, universal voice which commented on the dramatic action. Acts are, actually, never mentioned by ancient authors, not even Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to such a division.

It was Roman drama critic Horace, three hundred years after Aristotle, who advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica: “A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts” and by the beginning of the first century it had become conventional in Rome. All Seneca’s plays, for example, were structured in five separate acts with musical interludes between them. The German critic, Guystav Freytach (1816-1895), attempted to rationalise the five act structure. In his model the first act is the exposition, where characters, character’s backstories, setting are introduced and it usually ends with the play’s significant piece of action.The second act takes that action and complicates it: that’s the rising action. In the third act there is a climax, the turning point, where the fortunes of the character or characters are reversed – either good to bad or bad to worse. In the fourth act the results of the reversal are played out and the hostility of the counter-party affects the hero in many ways. This is the falling action. In the fifth act the hero meets his logical destruction and that is the catastrophe. These ups and downs seem to follow the sequence of breathing: inhale/exhale. In a way we may say that drama is modelled on human nature.

Shakespeare’s plays do not exactly fit any pattern described above. They do not conform to the Aristotelian one and even if they may somehow resemble Freytach’s scheme, they do not completely fit into it. Shakespeare did not even divide the plays into acts and scenes, as it was done for the first time by the playwright Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), in his six volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays he edited in 1709. Shakespeare put on stage the dynamic of the world he knew with the sensibility of the genius he was, regardless of defined rules and patterns. His stories were based on the alternation of order and chaos. At the beginning of any Shakespearian play there is an order which is usually broken by the evil action of a villain, fate or  a war, till eventually another order is achieved. In this alternation we keep moving forward, as the order attained at the end of the final act after the catastrophe is completely different from the previous one. This consideration should “give us pause“.

Hence, what we learn is that once, for any reason, a situation of stability is undermined, it is foolish to dream to restore it as it was. At the end of Act five, we can only expect to tackle the first act of another play. Every time we wonder about when we can ” go back to normal” after this pandemic, I fear we have to be ready to figure an entirely new “normality” . A normality made of masks, social distance, unemployment, disputes among countries and who knows what else to the next catastrophe.This is life and this proves that after all, the bard was right,”all world is a stage“.

On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

The social wolf

lupo 1It’s nine o’clock of a foggy morning and just like every single day a crowd of desperate souls flows over London Bridge to reach their workplace. They keep on walking “up the hill and down King William Street ”  with their head bowed and their “eyes fixed before their feet as if they had neither past nor future. This famous section belongs to Eliot’s Waste Land, but today would Eliot really conceive the same scene to stress the meaninglessness and hopelessness of modern society? Would it still work? I guess he would need to think about something else and you know why? All these lost souls would hold a fancy smartphones in their hands as remedy to their loneliness and stare at the colorful screens in rapture rather than fix their toes.

lupo3Modern man is “social” and happy to be so, there is no more loneliness, since the web can provide you with a good bunch of friends, a community you can chat with, ready to help you mitigate your sorrows or dissolve your doubts. It is in this new modern dimension that  man seems to express better his natural tendency to associate with others. But is it really so?  Many philosophers have always been controversial about the “social” nature of man. Aristotle, for example, was one of those who was convinced that men associate with one another instinctively, it is in their DNA and they do it for two reasons: to satisfy the reproductive instinct which leads men and women to unite and  the self-preservation instinct, which causes master and slave to come together for their mutual benefit. For Aristotle the state is a natural society and the proof that nature intended man to lead a social life is his faculty of speech, which no other animal possesses. And nature does nothing in vain, does it?

lupo 4Aristotle seemed to have some good points about it, but Hobbes along with Rousseau and Locke refuted Aristotle’s thesis one by one, dismantling his optimistic view. Hobbes in particular held that societies were not a product of a primeval instinct, but rather an explosive mixture of mutual fear and need, which, if it weren’t disciplined by a strong authority, the State, it would lead to an uncontrollable series of abuses and violence. Man is  “homo, homini, lupus“, that is a dangerous animal, a wolf, who actually displays the following characteristics, which seems to be in antithesis with the idea of “homo socialis“:
1) he is competitive, that’s why he is dominated by feelings such envy, hatred which lead eventually to war;
2) man develops private interest and he is happy, when he compares himself to others in order to excel/prevail;
3) man, being endowed with reason, is inclined to criticize the behaviours and actions of others and in particular of those who rule, as he is convinced that they if he were in their shoes, he would do much better. Such a conduct leads to divisions and civil wars;
4) this final point is the one I love the most and made me ponder a lot. Aristotle’s observation upon man’s faculty of speech seemed incontrovertible, but Hobbes disintegrates it, pointing out that man is the only one in nature to use his communicative  faculty to lie.
Hence, the contract which is at the basis of any human society is not natural but artificial.

Therefore, I cannot help but wonder: is the web the place where men can perform their honest social instinct or that fertile land where they can become more esily wolves?