Beauty is truth, truth beauty, is this all we need to know?

There is an afternoon which has remained impressed in my mind. I was a young and quite unexperienced teacher and the following day I was to start to work at a school where the majority of the students came from disadvantaged areas often with difficult situations. That afternoon I was suggested to attend a parent / teacher conference which was scheduled for some issues concerning discipline, so that I could have been promptly informed about that class situation, before meeting the boys, well, rather than boys, it would have been more correct to say men, as the average age of  that class, the equivalent of a twelfth grade, was 18/19.

As I was sitting in a corner of that classroom, listening to a list of some of the most bewildering life school episodes I had ever heard and wondering whether I would have ever been able to elaborate the weapons to face such a reality, my attention was captured by the innumerable drawings I could see on the walls. Those students seemed to have developed the most extraordinary talent for sketching human body, male sex organs in particular. There were at least one hundred of them, of course, of different colors, sizes and even styles, I dare say. There was one in particular, a huge one, I guess the father of them all, which stretched along the entire class, wall after wall, and majestically ended right on the class register. As I closely inspected the classroom, I could see only dirt and degradation. Many of the desks were half-broken and the blackboard chipped, but nobody seemed to notice it. They were blind and perfectly at ease, but I was not. Those drawings were the unheard voices of those students’ contempt.

Then I couldn’t help but wonder: would they have been equally destructive if their school had been more clean, organized, modern and why not, beautiful? Would they have dared take their markers and besmirch the walls again or not? Maybe they wouldn’t, if they had been taught to love and respect beauty and of course, placed in a more decent context. If beauty were a subject taught in school, we would form generations of adolescents who not only would appreciate the esthetic value of things but also their hidden ethical message. Yes, ethical, because once you have understood the importance beauty and make it a value of your life, it would be intolerable, for example, to see the dirt and the holes in the streets of your town or the beautiful coasts of your country disfigured by urbanization abuses. Your sense of beauty would not allow you to be indifferent and you would instinctively do something against all this.

Peppino Impastato, a young man and journalist from Sicily, was murdered at the age of thirty after having spent his short life to fight the mafia. He had tried to awake the consciences of the people he knew in order they could find the strength to get rid of their cowardice and that conspiracy of silence which lies in the roots of their culture. But it was in vain. Peppino understood how the love and respect of beauty would have been essential in his cultural context, that is why he wrote once :”if people were taught beauty, they would be given a weapon against resignation, fear and conspiracy of silence“.  A new “conspiracy of beauty” should come to life, hence, nobody would be left alone to fight the wrongs of any society.

The following day I met the boys of that class. They were only twelve, but when they were all in, I can tell you, they seemed a crowd to me.

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Lost in Translation

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If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!

 

Just about

cupid 1What did the good Pharrel Williams say ?”Clap along if you know what happiness is to you“, well I guess he has done a lot clapping this year considering the immense success of his worldwide hit ” Happy“, however, do you know what happiness is to you, or better when? Metaphorically speaking when is the most intense moment of bliss: when you cross the finish line or the moment just before, when you are overwhelmed by that powerful combination of excitement and pain, in short, when you are “just about”?

cupid 3Just about” would have been Keats‘s prompt answer. In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, the poet is charmed by ” the leaf fringed legend ” that “haunts” the shape of an urn and focuses on the images which are depicted on its frieze . He is attracted by one scene in particular: there is a “bold lover” who is “winning near his goal “, that is, a beautiful young girl. He is just about to reach her, but unfortunately he is destined to live that frustrating condition forever, as art has stopped that moment and made it eternal.

That moment does not mean grief for the poet, but quite the contrary, for him it is the highest moment of happiness man can experience . The young boy’s love will be “for ever warm” as it is “still to be enjoyed“, and he will be ” for ever panting” for a girl whose youth and beauty will never fade away. Unfortunately time cannot be stopped, as once you eventually achieve your goal, your feelings are so overwhelming to devour that moment of bliss to leave you with “a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d, a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” looking at the ashes of what now is past.

cupid 2Canova ‘s “just about” can be admired in his magnificent statue of ” Cupid and Psyche“. “Cupid and Psyche” is a tale written by Apuleius a Latin-language prose writer. It narrates about the adventures of a young girl Psyche, who is uncommonly beautiful. Cupid, the son of Venus, desperately falls in love with Psyche and carries her to an enchanted, magnificent palace where they can secretly consume their passion, but he prohibits her to know his identity. The happiness of the young couple is threatened both by the envy of Psyche’s sisters, and by the hostility of Venus, who wouldn’t want her son to marry a mortal, whose beauty could be compared to her own, a goddess. Psyche follows the perfidious suggestions of her sisters thus disobeying Cupid, who consequently abandons her. She desperately seeks her lover, but she falls into the hands of her mother-in-law, Venus, who forces her to undergo insurmountable trials, which eventually she passes thanks to a series of extraordinary helps. A happy end follows: Jove himself will celebrate the wedding between Cupid and Psyche and will turn her into a goddess, making her immortal.

Canova represented in his statue the instant of the story, when he imagined intensity was at its pitch, that is when Cupid is “just about” to kiss Psyche. There is a slight, refined eroticism, while Cupid tenderly contemplates the face of the girl he loves, while Psyche reciprocates him with equal warmth and sweetness. You can feel that tension, before it bursts into passion. Psyche’s arms form a circle around the faces of the two lovers, which seems to frame the focal point of the statue. It’s inside that circle that the emotional tension swells and Cupid’s endless craving is close to be satisfied.He is just about.

However, experiencing that tension forever is impossible for both mortals or deities, only art can fix that moment. What comes next, then? Well, Cupid and Psyche had soon a beautiful daughter whose name was Voluptas, that is Pleasure. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

The scent of beauty

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Eighteenth century France. Grenouille‘s early life had not been easy: abandoned to die by his mother,emotionally abused, exploited; he needs to be loved but the entire world seems to ignore or feel repulsion for him. Grenouille has a peculiarity:he was born with no scent, but at the same time he has the most gifted nose in the world. One day his mind, for the first time, seems to be intoxicated by the most delicious scent he has ever encountered: that of an adolescent girl. He follows it. In the darkness of an alley he strangles her, lays her body down on the ground and smells her scent until it disappears from her body due to death. Pleasure and happiness overwhelm him. There he realizes he might create a fragrance that could stir those emotions in men, he might have made people love him. On this purpose he manages to work for a perfumer, who will teach him everything about distillation. Grenouille will create the best scents Paris has ever smelt from the essences of flowers. But this is not enough. He still keeps in mind the memory of the intoxicating odor of that girl. His obsession will make him kill 24 teenage girls in order to distill their scent. And when eventually he murders the best-smelling girl, Laure, his dream perfume is completed. From now on people will have to love him.  Quite soon Grenouille is apprehended and sentenced to death but thanks to the confounding power of the perfume he will escape execution, Laurie’s father will even offer to adopt him. Just one drop and nobody escapes the magnetic force of its spell. But there are no more scents to be discovered, no more goals to reach. He becomes suicidal. One day he decides to sprinkle the entire bottle of perfume on himself. The inebriated mob, suddenly blinded by passion and love, jump on him with the intent of keeping their object of desire for themselves, but they won’t be satisfied till they end up devouring him. A scent, beauty, love, the power of emotions is so overwhelming because instinctively in the source of those emotions we often see something more, something we believe superior to us and that’s why it may enslave our senses and consequently our mind. Dorian Gray‘ s incomparable beauty for example is worshipped by everybody, but it’s not only the perfection of his remarkable features and youth that is admired, that childish beauty seems to mirror the innocence and integrity of his soul. He is seen as the angel of goodness. Keats‘s knight is slowly entrapped by the sensuality of his “Belle Dame“. She is ” a faerie’s child” for him and quatrain after quatrain he falls under her spell of her and starts to lose the control of his actions. When he wakes up “la Belle Dame” has vanished, just like Grenouile’s scent, and realizes that he is all alone “on the cold hill-side“.

Keats’s Sehnsucht

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Sehnsucht is a German word that translates that Romantic feeling of intense longing (das Sehnen) with its addiction (die Sucht). The intensity of the emotion is given by the awareness that the object of our desires cannot be conquered, the consequent profound pain could be unacceptable for someone and eventually lead to suicide. But there is also a non pathological meaning: longing is also what makes man feel alive and happy. In Ode on a Grecian Urn the poet is attracted by the marble figures on the breede of the urn. There are trees, musicians and maidens pursued by “bold lovers“. As I said in the previous post, the urn belongs to “slow time” (eternity) so those lovers will never reach their goal. Their Sensucht will last forever. But their hopelessness is seen by Keats as the true source of happiness. Their longing is the real love, it will last forever and time will not “waste” it.The Knight-at-Arms of La Belle Dame Sans Mercì had reached his goal but when he awakes from his dream of love he finds himself alone “on the cold hill side“. A sense of emptiness replaces the longed fulfillment. There is no real happiness in the material world.

The affliction of time

The Enemy

My youth has been nothing but a tenebrous storm,
Pierced now and then by rays of brilliant sunshine;
Thunder and rain have wrought so much havoc
That very few ripe fruits remain in my garden.

I have already reached the autumn of the mind,
And I must set to work with the spade and the rake
To gather back the inundated soil
In which the rain digs holes as big as graves.

And who knows whether the new flowers I dream of
Will find in this earth washed bare like the strand,
The mystic aliment that would give them vigor?

Alas! Alas! Time eats away our lives,
And the hidden Enemy who gnaws at our hearts
Grows by drawing strength from the blood we lose!

Charles Baudelaire L’Ennemi  translated by William Aggeler.

At the very beginning of the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats draws a line between art and man. Man has the gift of creating something that may outlive him, something immortal:ART. That’s why the urn is “foster child” of slow time that is eternity and a  “bride” that will never be violated by the mortal touch of life. On the contrary, men’s destiny is to be “wasted” by “clock time” generation after generation, while the urn/art is the cold indifferent witness of our “woes”. Hamlet regarded the passing of time like a whip that leaves on our skin and flesh scars that can’t be wiped out and “scorns” us when we become old, weak and useless. We can feel the pain in these words which is both physical and psychological, while in that “wasted” there is all the nonsense of the disrespectful action of time on man, who can’t find any consolation in art. In Baudelaire ‘s L’Ennemi  time takes the semblance of a vampire which “eats away our lives” “gnaws our hearts” and sucking our blood finds its strenght. It is the cruel twilight of our dreams of a youth that very soon will become autumn.