Man Friday

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Was Robinson Crusoe…….ehm, gay????”  “Eh?” was my astonished reply, as the question had been seriuosly posed by one of my brightest and most diligent, sensitive students; it didn’t actually look like a kind of joke. She was also so confident about her intuition that she wanted to know whether the Puritan reading public of the age had favourably accepted the character of Robinson Crusoe. This serious statement made me giggle a little, as I found unlikely and somewhat daring that Daniel Defoe, the Dissenter, the author who is commonly regarded as the father of the English novel , would have openly exposed his very first fictional hero to a discussion on his sexuality or sex in general without a moral implication. A certain prudery, in fact, pervades the novel. I remember an episode in particular that struck me. As soon as Robinson recovers from the shock of the shipwreck and understands to be all alone on the desert island, his very first concern, before thinking about food, water or even a safe shelter, is actually his own nakedness, as his clothes are ragged and has no change. He had not realized that there were no pleasures of society to be enjoyed on a desert island yet, and clothes were, actually, quite unnecessary.

rob2However, there must have been something that had nourished the suspects of my student and the passage indicted was Robinson’s description of Friday. Friday is a twenty-six-year-old  native Caribbean and cannibal, Crusoe had saved from the hands of other cannibals. Very likely Defoe wanted his readers to favourably accept him, therefore when it came the time to introduce him, he made a very accurate but implausible portrait of a native savage, who was not so like the other savages. Crusoe tells us that Friday was “comely” and “handsome, words that, I am pretty sure, were the origin of my student’s confusion, and soon invites the reader not to listen to his prejudices, because the man is NOT what everybody would believe. He does NOT have ” a fierce and surly aspect” , but “a very good countenance” and when he smiles he has “all the sweetness and softness of a European“. His hair is NOT “curled like wool“, but long and black; his nose is NOT “flat like the negroes“, but small ; his lips are strangely thin and he can admire his beautiful set of teeth as white as ivory; his skin is NOT “quite black“, but “very tawny“, NOT  “the ugly, nauseous tawny as the Brazilians the Virginians, and other native Americans are”, but something “very agreeable“. A very tanned Italian in short. Defoe crashes even the last prejudice, telling us that Friday must be also a clever, young man,  because Robinson notices a certain sparkle in his black eyes and his forehead is very large and high, the distinctive trait of an intelligent man.

rob 3Robinson, is not attracted by Friday the man, but rather, Friday the potential slave. Robinson used to trade slaves and looks at him with the eyes of somebody who could have made a good profit from that young man standing in front of him, as he is “ perfectly well made, with straight long limbs, not too large, tall and well-shaped”, therefore strong and those beautiful set of white teeth are a sign of his good health. Therefore, the only relationship possible between Robinson and Friday, and that we are allowed to know,  is that of master and slave. It is really interesting to remark that Robinson does nothing to subjugate Friday, but rather the latter instinctively understands that the white man is naturally superior. Robinson teaches him good manners and gives him the name of Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life and as soon as he can understand him, teaches him to call “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.

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Bows, ships and godfathers

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Long long time ago, when sounds had not become words yet and syntax had not organized those words into a developed language, communication was mostly based on signs. This primitive form of non-verbal communication, which is still a distinctive trait of every true-born Italian, may use hands or the whole body to convey a message or an idea. The signs we use every day to reinforce our communication can be easily be considered our oldest “words”.

bow6The act of bowing, for example, can be regarded a gesture of “self abesement” as it seems to stem from either the will to give assurance of his own safety or revere somebody we feel superior to us for rank, breed, beauty, etc.. In Robinson Crusoe, for example, before Robinson teaches Friday to speak his language and have a proper conversation, Defoe marks the submission of the young cannibal to the white man as natural and Friday seems eager to show it with the humblest bow ever:

 

“He (Friday) came running to me (Robinson), laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of a humble, thankful disposition,   making a great many antic gestures to show it”,

And as he feared Robinson might not have understood his intentions:

“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 so long as he lived”.

Can you guess, which is the first, the “I cannot do without” word Robinson taught Friday? It’s “master”.

An aerial view shows the Costa Concordia as it lies on its side next to Giglio Island taken from an Italian navy helicopterIn time the act of bowing has become more simply a way of greeting showing a certain respect and I have to say that In Italy we are very familiar with this protocol. You may think: ” how polite these Italians must be”, and, well, indeed we are, but lately, when we mention the word “bowing” here, we do mean something else. “Bowing” in Italian is “inchino” and the shipwreck of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia was caused by an “inchino”.On 13 January 2012, the ship, carrying 4,252 people, deviated from her planned route at the Isola del Giglio, coming closer to that island, and contacted an object on the sea floor. But why should the ship go closer to the island? Well, at those times there was a sort of competition among captains to demonstrate who was the most dexterous to navigate as close as possible to the island, an “inchino” in fact. Captain Schettino did certainly his best to win it, but unfortunately in this game 32 lives were lost without considering the ecological disaster and the incredible loss of money of the company. If you want to meet the man, you may find him in prison you would say, but we are in Italy, the land of the incredible and , actually, I saw some pictures of him while he was gaily partying in Ischia or (would you believe it?) at university, yes, at university as he has recently been invited for a speech on panic management. Schettino??? He was the first to abandon the ship.

bow4Let me take you to the south of Italy now, where the word “inchino” still keeps the trait of a respectful behaviour. At this time of the year a lot of processions are held everywhere: a lot of festive people who follow the statue of a saint, carried by strong worthy men (it’s a high privilege to be chosen among the carriers) singing and praying  through the streets of the town. Well, only few weeks ago a procession in honour of “Our lady of  Mount Carmel” in Palermo unexpectedly stopped in front of the funeral home of  D’Ambrogio family, another “inchino” in fact. Why did they stop? As a tribute to Alessandro D’Ambrosio, the godfather of Porta Nuova, now in jail, who only two years ago was one of those noble carriers.

The land of saints, navigators and politeness, indeed.  🙂

Moll

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Is there anybody out there who is “ afraid of dying an old maid” just like Charlotte Lucas? I’m sure just a few, and surely because they have missed the epic adventures of the four girls from Manhattan in Sex and the City. They somehow have succeeded in increasing women’s confidence turning spinsterhood into singlehood, that is the pride, rather than the shame, of choosing an autonoumous taboo free life where men are not necessarily the only means of having a comfortable life. Moll Flanders had some modern traits in common with those girls: resolute, clever, shrewd, uninhibited, aware of her beauty and determined to use it well, but in the eighteenth century all that was not enough without a recognized position in society or a husband. For what concerns her social rank  Molly started very low as she was born in prison and that’s why when she was old enough she needed to turn herself into a husband hunter. She used all her charms and tricks on that purpose, because, as she said, beauty was not enough to secure a good match. She was well aware that a rich woman even if ugly would have had been free to choose the husband she wanted, meanwhile beauty alone could have certainly attracted some rich men but neither matrimony nor respectability. So in order to secure her own survival in such a society she needed a man to support her and that’s why married five times, even her brother. Marriage provided women with status, respectability, comforts; in one word they wanted protection and if a Mr Big came along with it, well, so much the better.

The novel recipe

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As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their life. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is after having done or seen much. They just experimented novel writing. So let’s figure out, one day Daniel Defoe took ink and paper and, while sipping a nice cup of tea, set to work and……..nothing, blank. Certainly, he had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but writing novels was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather creating an organic structure where his characters could move and interact for many pages. There was no psychoanalysis to help him, so the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient he was very lucky, because he was witness of an age of great changes where 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 bourgeous 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 a smaller space: 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 the family circle 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 flux of 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 not fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalists could give him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a rather primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel placing the preface is in the third chapter for example, then filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings,dashes 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 recipes   work without another ingredient, the most important one: “the genious touch”.