A Beast in Disguise

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“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.

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That’s why I don’t want to be Jane Eyre

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A couple of days ago I saw a headline on Il Corriere della Sera , which caught my attention: Perchè tutte (o quasi) vorremmo essere Jane Eyre di Charlotte Bronte” ( That’s why all of us (or almost all) would like to be Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte). It was a kind of  interesting, because, actually Jane Eyre has never been one of my favourite heroines, and certainly not one I naturally identify with,  maybe Angela Frenda, the journalist who wrote the article, had new fresh hints to offer.
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Jane Eyre belongs to category of the Bildungsroman, if fact we see her moral, psychological, and intellectual development from her early youth to a more mature age. Jane is an orphan left in the care of a cruel aunt, who gets rid of her very soon and sends her to a horrible school for girls, Lowood, to become a governess. After many years of troubles and hard work, she finishes her education and is employed at Thornfield, a name which can’t certainly be considered good omen.

images2VG97WDJThe owner of the house is Edward Rochester, a sort of Byronic hero, a mysterious, seductive, arrogant, passionate, handsome man who eventually falls in love with our plain Jane and proposes her marriage. He just forgot to mention that he was already married. It happens. His wife Bertha had gone mad shortly after the marriage, and lived in secret part of the house in the custody of a lady. Every now and then, she managed to escape the surveillance and she walked in night – veeeery Gothic indeed – spying the inhabitants of the house or trying to set  Mr Rochester’ s room  on fire, which she did. Shocked and humbled, Jane runs away penniless and is helped by a family, the Rivers, who eventually she discovers to be her cousins, and inherits a small fortune from an uncle. One night she has the impression of hearing Mr Rochester’s voice calling for her. She returns to Thornfield and finds the house burned down – it was Bertha’s doing – and Rochester blind and lame. He still loves her and now she accepts to marry him.

pictures-of-cinderella-8312Certainly our heroine doesn’t  belong to the typical prototype of Cinderella, that is I am beautiful and virtuous, therefore I deserve a prince and an easy life.  But, according to Angela Frenda : “Jane is a girl who has used no shortcuts, many of us see in her a metaphor of how life should be lived (by women, above all)”. Jane, in fact, is the kind of woman who obstinately and strenuously fights alone to reach her goal in a hostile, sometimes cruel world. Yet she accepts no compromises, she doesn’t want to use the charms and tricks, typical of the female world, but just hard work, sensibility, love and above all dignity. When Jane finds our about Mr Rochester’s wife, for example, she refuses to become his lover and leaves Thornfield without accepting any help from him.

imagesHVLYHC6UOk, I’m convinced: she is a saint, an example for us all, a metaphor, whatever, but there is one point I am firm: what is the reward for such immaculate perfection in the end? Mr Rochester? Love at last? Bah! We should remember that when Jane Eyre makes her homecoming at Thornfield, she is an independent, strong woman ( Charlotte Bronte had endowed her with a small fortune) while Mr Rochester is a weak man emotionally and physically shattered . She will have to nurse him for the rest of her life! If this is the reward, I’m sorry, but I’d rather be Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even Bridget Jones would be ok.

Cards,tarots and horoscopes

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I am not so much into horoscopes and such, but I have to admit that occasionally I succumb the impulse of reading one, even if my reason rebels to the foolishness of that impulse, suggesting that the whole world cannot be divided in twelve proto-types of people who share more or less the same character, destiny etc.. I know  that somebody would say: ” Ah,ah, what about the ascending sign?” Ok, let’s talk about it….or better, let’s not, because the question is : why do we try to sneak a glimpse at the future even if we profess ourselves agnostic in the field of divination? The answer is simple: we are weak, nobody excluded, and sometimes we need a word of hope, any word from anybody even a fortune-teller. In the Waste Land, Madame Sosostris, “a famous clairvoyant” , is defined by T.S.Eliot as “the wisest woman in Europe” .That adjective “wise“, referred to a fortune-teller, emphasizes the degree of  desperation of the post war generation who found an empty consolation only in the false certainties provided by an alleged seer “with a wicked pack of cards“, superseding in this function religion itself. It isn’t even clear whether this Madame Sosostris is actually a woman, since Eliot seems to have taken this name from a character of Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow : “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana,” who was actually a man dressed up as a woman, who played a fortune-telling gypsy at a fair. In this way Sosostris would have shown the same connotations of sexual ambiguity which foreshadow Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years. Madame Sosostris could also be a reference to Madame Blavatsky, a Russian-born scholar of esoteric who was so much in vogue at this time, that some people probably thought her “the wisest woman in Europe.” However,I wonder who we might consider wise or the wisest nowadays, because even if I try hard, I can’t find a Madame Sosostris anywhere.