The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

Rhythm And Poetry (RAP)

min3Greek education by the end of 450 B.C. was mostly centred on athletics, grammar but particularly on music. We understand the importance of the latter,only if we think that the word music derives from the Greek word“μουσικός”, Mousikos, that is, relative to the Muses, the goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology who were considered of the inspiration of literature, science, and the arts, hence the very were source of knowledge.The word refers also to “technique”, which also comes from the Greek word “τέχνη” / techne, therefore music is the technique or better the art of the Muses.  Originally the term did not indicate a particular art, but all the arts of the Muses, so it was referred to something “perfect” and harmonious. As Plato said:

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.

Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

min8That is why rhapsodes and aedi were held in higher estimation at those times.They were not only the living  memory of the history of  a country, but they could use the art of all arts to celebrate the deeds of their heroes to impress them in the minds of the listeners. Aedi, in particular, were sacred figures, who were also considered prophets. They were traditionally portrayed as blind, like Homer, for instance. Their blindness allowed them to sharpen their sensitive skills so that they could get in touch directly with the gods (through the eyes of the soul) that inspired them . “Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks….”. Homer invoked at the beginning of the Iliad. The Muse spoke through him.

min9Aedi were part of the so-called face-to-face society. The transmission of the text, in fact, was done orally, with a “performance” in which the aedo was in direct contact with the audience. As he did not have a written text, he became a composer in turn. Oral transmission required the use of a clear and direct language, so there is a great use of similes and the language is characterized by a formulaic style, with many repetitions and the presence in large amount of names as surnames, as well as the so-called topos, that is, the sites where the narration takes place. In case the aedo had forgotten the next stanza ,well, he could “dwell” on what he was still singing using the tools of his trade.

min2However, these figure were not typical only of the Greeks, the powerful combination of musical rhythm and poetry was well-known in other societies. For instance the Bards formed, along with the Druids and the foreseers, the three priestly castes of the Celts. The Bards were considered the guardians of knowledge and were instructed to store all the traditions and myths of the people. In some regions they were distinguishable from the other two orders for a special cloak they wore. In the Gaelic society  a bard was a professional poet, committed to compose eulogies for his lord and if  his employer refused to pay the compensation decided, the bard composed a satire against him.

In medieval Ireland there were two distinct group of poets : the bards and the fili. Despite the formers constituted a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets,  they were considered lesser class poets, not eligible for higher poetic roles as described above; while the latters were visionary poets, associated with lorekeeping, versecraft, and the memorisation of vast numbers of poems. They were also magicians, as Irish magic is intrinsically connected to poetry, and the satire of a gifted poet was a serious curse upon the one being satirised. However, it has also been argued that the distinction between filid (pl. of fili) and bards was a creation of Christian Ireland as the filid were more associated with the church.

min6In Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, the professional poet was known as a scop (“shaper” or “maker”), who composed his own poems, and sang them to the accompaniment of a harp. In a rank much beneath the scop, were the gleemen, who had no settled abode, but roamed about from place to place, earning what they could from their performances. Late in the 13th century, the term minstrel (from the Latin “ministralis” “retainer”)  began to be used to designate a performer who amused his lord with music and song. Minstrels created their own tales, but they also memorized and embellished the works of others. Love, magic, death, war, these were the themes they amused and entertained  the high society with, but as the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, therefore many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets.

We may say, therefore, that the core idea the poets sung in their poems, tales or ballads reflected the societies that produced it. Hence the evolution goes from the magical to the  heroical and finally to the domestic, while its function changes from encouragement to entertainment. And today? Who are the closest depositaries of this tradition? Fine narrators, with a mastery in rhyming, use of similes, refrains etc. Somebody who can still beautifully re-create that magic narration made of Rhythm And Poetry. Well, the answer is :the rappers. RAP is the acronym of Rhythm And Poetry, didn’t you know it?
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“I Tiresias”

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The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.

 

 

 

No Regrets!!!

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In his memorable speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs‘s words had left astounded thousands of students who were there for him in adoration. His warnings were of a peculiar nature :”Don’t forget one day you will die“, “Don’t waste your life living someone else’s life“. It had sounded bewildering at first, after all, why so young and privileged students who were just about to graduate in one of the most famous American universities should think about dying, rather than, I don’t know, how to be successful pretty soon? Because death makes life meaningful.  Life is short and we had better live it fully with no fear, that’s why Steve Jobs had invited them to follow the paths of “foolishness” rather than conformity. Life is short. We must be conscious of that. However, it’s not so easy and very often we reach the necessary degree of awareness only when we age or when it is too late, thus becoming like George Gray.

lee2This is exactly the theme of this amazing poem from the anthology of Spoon Rivers by Edgar Lee Master. We are in a cemetery and a man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone. He is dead. He is pondering the ironic design of his gravestone : a marble sailboat, which seems a most befitting symbol for a life fool of motion and adventure. His life , actually, had been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbor, 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.
Do it, before it is too late.
No regrets!!!

George Gray
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.”

 

Italian Dandyism: Gabriele D’Annunzio

da9Dandyism spread in Italy as well at the end of the nineteenth century and  Gabriele D’annunzio was its most outstanding exponent, for sure.  Aesthete, politician, journalist, playwright, poet, lover: D’Annunzio was a man of many passions, but above all the architect of himself. He studied and created his own image carefully, a mixture of exquisite taste and love for heroic actions.He was associated with the elite Arditi storm troops of the Italian Army and took part in actions such as the Flight over Vienna in 1918. Some of the ideas and aesthetics seem to have influenced Italian fascism and also the style of Benito Mussolini. However he was the Vate, the Bard, of the Italian literature during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gabriele D’Annunzio  moved to Rome, when he was but nineteen and was soon fascinated by the swirling atmosphere of the capital. He managed to open his way to that evanescent and ephemeral society that charmed him so much, working as a reporter of custom and society for La Tribuna, under the pseudonym of “Duca Minimo” (The Duke), just to make clear which ambitions he nursed, demonstrating technical competence and an uncommon style for a provincial boy.

da10The accuracy he displayed in describing a dress for a lady or giving tips on hair styles or fashion showed not only his will to fight against the mediocrity of every day life but his belief that art is only merchandise whose rules cannot be ignored by an artist. Hence, D’Annunzio  understood pretty soon that the language of fashion was absolutely innovative and powerful, that’s why, like a modern Petronius, he made himself a model of taste, the “arbiter elegantiarum” of the Roman and Italian society under King Umberto I.

D’Annunzio will define himself, in fact, a “valuable animal”  whose aesthetic education of his spirit drags him irresistibly to desire and purchase  beautiful things“, particularly high fashion clothes. You can have an idea of his expensive wardrobe only making a simple guided tour at  Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, a sort of museum which he planned and developed, adjacent to his villa at Gardone Riviera on the southwest bank of Lake Garda, between 1923 and his death. In a new space, below the Amphitheater, called  “D’Annunzio secret” there are some pieces of clothing that belonged to the Italian “Bard”.  Here we find many many shoes and boots as you may admire in the following pics; d4d6 d5

he had countless outfits,of course, and  linen . It seems he had 365 dressing gowns, one for each day.

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Examining his wardrobes his elegant taste emerged: English fabrics, hats. D ‘Annunzio dressed as the high society of his time required. French intellectuals were right when they said that he acted himself and that behaved as an impresario who was looking for buyers. His only transgression was his excessive love for details. He had thousands of identical underpants and thousands of ties all equal. He was also a fashion designer, in fact in the following pic you may see one of his most  famous creations. It is called the nightgown with a porthole and I guess it is quite explicative about the character of the Bard . 😉 d7

The poet donated the Vittoriale to the Italians because he wanted to be remember not only his literary work and his exploits of war, but also his daily life at his home. The Italian Vittoriale is not a mausoleum, but as he wanted Gabriele D’Annunzio a “House of living stones“.

The Rime of our Life

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“A wiser and sadder man, he rose the morrow morn”….”wiser and sadder”, these two words mark the passage of the young  Wedding Guest of Coleridge’s “Rime to the Ancient Mariner” into the world of adulthood, the bitter age of experience, as Blake would call it, and this is because of a weird story told by a mysterious man, an Ancient Mariner. The narration seems to have affected  the mind of the young man so much, that in the end he falters just like one who “hath been stunned” and “is of sense forlon”. He forgets about the allure of the wedding party he had so much longed to go and proceeds back  home, where after a sound sleep,  he wakes up the following day a completely new type of person: “a wiser and sadder man”, in fact. It must have been a very powerful story indeed to produce such a reaction, even if at first glance it seems only the narration of a voyage with a lot of incidents, in a magic atmosphere, with some  religious symbolism scattered here and there. So, what had the Wedding Guest understood between the lines of the story?

viaggio12First of all why Coleridge had named his young character, Wedding Guest, rather than, I don’t know….The Student, The Lover or other stereotypes we are familiar with. What is the category of the Wedding Guest Like?  What does a Wedding Guest do? Well, I guess a Wedding Guest loves parties, noise, people. He enjoys a life focused mostly on relations, symbolized by the wedding party itself and on the rites that those relations share: food, drink, music, good conversation etc. .He actually enjoys the feast of life and somehow he believes that this is what really matters. And he is young. His youth makes him arrogant, hence he despises the man who had dared stop him just to tell a ghastly story, because he is old, nay more than old: ancient.

viaggio10The generational gap between the two would be unbridgeable but for the supernatural powers the old mariner is endowed with, which help him win the will of the young man, who, from then on, will listen to the story willy-nilly like a “three-year child”. Then the old man will use all his mastery to create that “suspension of disbelief” he needs to catch the heart of the Wedding Guest.Therefore, a gallery of extraordinary characters and events takes form : an unexpected, destructive tempest, a heavenly albatross, tremendous cold and then unbearable heat,the appalling ghosts of Death and Life in Death, crawling snakes, zombies, a mysterious hermit, only to mention the most important ones. It is the story of a voyage, and what is a voyage but the most explicit metaphor of life? The old mariner wants to open the young man’s eyes to make him understand that life will be far from being a never-ending party, an incessant whirl of joyous emotions, as rubs and bitter disappointments will be always behind the corner.

viaggio13The first part of the ballad focuses on the narration of the first days of the mariner’s voyage, when he was just like the Wedding Guest, and somehow it can be considered a metaphor of youth. When you are young, you look forward to hoisting your sails and begin your journey. At first you start to glide on the tranquil waters near the harbour with all the cheerfulness  and thoughtfulness typical of innocence. As the winds start to make your boat move and you see all the familiar places far away, the adrenaline and the excitement grow .You finally feel free to experience the world and you are confident enough to believe that you will always be able to drive your boat exactly where you want. You are so sure that life will always be an exciting, marvellous adventure, that your first, unavoidable tempest will catch you by surprise and fear and wonder will overwhelm you.Before realizing what to do, you’ll find yourself in strange, unfamiliar places, far away from where you had expected to be.

viaggio14The ship of the Ancient Mariner, in fact, is driven by the blasts of a tremendous storm to the South Pole. The sudden mist that surrounds the sailor and his crew is the symbol of their disorientation, so that when huge icebergs come floating by – when you are Young your first obstacles always seem enormous and insurmountable – terror paralyzes their mind. Experience  teaches that somehow there is always a way out, especially if you manage to find the right determination to take advantage of favourable circumstances that could be both of a natural or spiritual kind. The spirituality is represented here by the coming of the Albatross, that with its presence soothes the profound solitude of the inhabitants of the ship, who see it as sign of good omen as, since its arrival, a “good wind” has started to spring. A natural helping hand which pushes the ship northward, back home.Maybe.

Typical of youth is a certain lightness of behaviour, you live for the present and you don’t think about the future consequences of your actions. Everything seems to be for granted, so when the danger of the tempest is soon forgotten and you start to sail in more tranquil waters, that shallow and arrogant traits of that age start to surface again. So the Mariner narrates to have killed one day that Albatross, that bird which had swept away the fog of their confusion and fear, giving them the comfort of hope. He did that with no apparent reason. He was a kind of…bored.
viaggio8When you are young, the making of connections is very important. They very often become more influential and trustworthy than the family itself. Being part of a community of friends makes you feel safe and accepted, but what happens when, for some reasons, you find yourself out of it? In the case of the Mariner, the Killing of the albatross places him in a condition of seclusion and solitude. He has to face the reactions of his world of connections, here symbolized by the crew. At first, the crew condemn the action the mariner as they believe that “it made the breeze to blow”, but as soon as they see the sun rise after so many days of wondrous cold, they “all averred, he had killed the bird that brought the fog and mist”. Human nature is mutable and the mariner wants the Wedding Guest to be fully aware of that, before it is too late. He must learn to rely on himself and not on people, because if things go wrong, he will pay for all and will be let alone. In fact, when they find themselves stuck in the middle of the ocean “under a hot and copper sky”, with no water to drink and their tongues “withered at the root”, the blame falls on the Mariner alone. He becomes the only scapegoat and those, who used to be his friends,hang about his neck the dead body of the albatross as stigma.

viaggio11The crew had condemned the ominous consequences the action of the Ancient Mariner had had on them, rather than its moral implications, that’s why all the sailors are punished and die, as the ghost of Death will win them all in a game of dice with the only exception of the Ancient Mariner, who will be left in the power of the other frightening ghost: Life in Death. It is the death of his youthful innocence and the beginning of a new, tiring journey that will make him grow a new awareness on the meaning and the repercussions of his actions. It will take him a long time, a time made of prayers and expiation that covers more than the half of the whole ballad, till he succeeds in going back to where he had started, but he won’t be the same person again. He couldn’t. This is what happens when we become adult, experience makes us wiser but sadder at the same time, as we grow more aware of the world that surrounds us. Then, one day, we may become parents or teachers, “modern” Ancient Mariners, willing to help our Wedding Guests in their progress to maturity.