On Friendship and Solitude

I still remember a colleague of mine years ago, who boasted proudly that she had given as summer holiday read Joyce’s Ulysses to her students, Italian  students of about 17 years old, actually. “And….are you sure, they will read it?” was my dubious reply. “Of course”, she said. She had no doubts, good for her. I always envy such decided people. I moved to another school then, so I couldn’t check the outcome of that educational choice, but I would bet nobody had truly opened Joyce’s book. An easy win, I dare say. In fact,  how could half ignorant adolescents enjoy the read of such a bulky, complex novel, when I …………had not. It is time to confess that I skipped many parts of the masterpiece, read only the last pages of Molly Bloom’s famous monologue and that I have reserved the same destiny to Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Yes , I did it and I don’t mean to make amend for it. That does not mean, for sure, that both novels are not good enough for me, but rather, I am not good enough for them. The global literary knowledge I should have  – my edition of Ulysses came with  another book twice as big as the original to enlighten us mortals about the numerous literary references and interpretations – and the experimental syntax craft are just too much for my humble person.

Yet, when you allow yourself to be touched inadvertently and unprejudiced by their words, you can never be indifferent. Never. In fact, I was recently conquered by following the passage during a lecture,  before knowing it was actually Proust the source of the unexpected pleasure. I had to dive into the ocean of “In Search of Lost time” for a while, actually, before finding the passage I wanted to share with you, and here it is: so modern, so real, so thought provoking. This is how Proust deals with the theme of friendship:

“People who enjoy the capacity—it is true that such people are artists, and I had long been convinced that I should never be that—are also under an obligation to live for themselves.”

So far nothing exceptional. He was a decadent, so he shared the idea that the artist was the superior being whose talent should not be contaminated by the taste of vulgar masses, but he goes a little further here, as in those masses friends are included:

And friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self.”

Hence,  we understand that it is  wrong for an artist to consider friendship as a dispensation from that duty, as friendship is a sort of partnership in which you self is not free to expand itself, but must “abdicate” for the sake of that friendship.

“ Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime with-out doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute,”

These words may induce you to believe that Proust was a snobbish, solitary man, but he was not. He was a man who enjoyed society and much. In fact, Proust began very young to frequent the refined circles of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, thanks to the social and economic position of his family. He met illustrious writers, like Paul Valéry and André Gide, nevertheless, he found all that time spent in the habit of conversation useless and vacuous, an unpardonable weakness especially  in an artist:

whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.”

Only in the “bliss of solitude”  the artist can proceed into the depth of thought and avoid being kept at the surface by the  vacuity of light conversation and friendship works the same :

For the sense of boredom which it is impossible not to feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain ex-posed on the surface of our consciousness, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths) for those of us in whom the law of development is purely internal….”

I was wondering, how often have you felt this sense of boredom at a dinner with your friends, for example,  even if you are not one for “whom the law of development in purely internal” or experienced that “vacuity of the minute” which repeats itself ? I am sure that you have and often. Hence:

that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words uttered by our friend, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, albeit…”

Here lies the danger, we tend to believe that  what a friend says, just because he is so, may in a way enrich “our substance”, but according to Proust this is impossible:

 “we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the knot that duly appears on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage.”

No matter how clever, poignant or true the words spoken are, they are just like bricks and bricks cannot make a tree  grow. They are made of  different substances, after all. The living, creating sap may only come from within, and that must be the focus of an artist in particular and maybe men in general.

In short, the time used to cultivate friendships is not only useless but also unproductive. In the company of others we cannot be our real self  and constantly remain chained to what is superficial rather than go into the heart of things. It is a dynamic which does not allow the growth of a human being. I don’t fully agree with him, but if it is so, is  this monstrous society of “friends” connected worldwide in the never-ending practice of conversation allowing the growth of any sensible human being?

P.S. There is another question I would like to ask you and please don’t lie to me: “Is  there anyone out there who has truly read Ulysses from page one to page “too many” and enjoyed it?”

Alluring and Entertaining

I often  wonder what response I would get if I taught in the way I used to do at the beginning of my career. Because one thing teachers must learn quickly – and those who don’t will end their days behind a desk or screen bitterly disappointed –  : the communication model has to be modified again and again to be effective and have a positive feedback. Generations change and necessarily we have to change with them.  Any teacher’s repertoire, because we have one, has to be updated, refreshed, modernized in order to be appealing and above all, we always need to find new forms of expression to connect with our public. When I was a student, I was the one who had to find a way to connect with my teachers and if I did not, well, the problem was mine. Now it is just the opposite. If it was much easier to teach decades ago, I can’t say. What I know is that now we are mostly required to be entertainers, as adolescents cannot, must not be bored.

Hence, since it was time to deal with the theme of the double narrator in Wuthering Heights, I wondered how I could connect with my audience without being  boring, but catchy and  entertaining. My addiction to Netflix helped me in a way.  Recently I have noticed that the flash forward device, for example,  has become increasingly popular among series. Flash forwards are effective, if you want to create a certain suspense, which originates in the initial disorientation due to the lack of familiarity with the characters and the usual breathtaking event, of which we have only partial knowledge.  We are given just the few necessary tiles to leave us confused enough to want for more. At that point the chronological, explicative narration begins. I also noticed that if the use of such device is not well calibrated, it may often result quite annoying, as in series I loved like “How to get away with murder”  or “How I met you mother”, in fact, sometimes I found myself wishing to scream: “Enough!”

And what are the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights but one of the first experiments in using flash forwards in a narration? When the novel starts, 98% of the events have already happened. Emily Brontë chooses apparently the most unfit of narrators to introduce us to Wuthering Heights, in fact Mr Lockwood is a total stranger to the story. He has just arrived from London to go to Wuthering Heights and call on Heathcliff, the landlord whose house he has rented: Thrushcross Grange. In a way, he forces Heathcliff lo let him in, feigning to ignore his scarce sense of hospitality and due to adverse weather conditions, he is allowed to stay the night. Through the eyes of Lockwood we are introduced to the weird characters who inhabit Wuthering Heights, even those who are dead. The general  atmosphere is unfriendly and scary. That place seems to be hiding secrets everywhere. When he reads some diaries he finds in the room he has been left, we are acquainted with a certain Catherine, who will be the other central character of the novel. That very moment something seems to be tapping at the window and suddently a sequence of unexpected events follow: a scream, a ghost, Heathcliff’s tears and desperation, till dawn arrives.  

Lockwood accomplishes his task of exciting our curiosity, keeping well locked at the same time, as his name anticipates, the secrets of Wuthering Heights. To unveil all the dynamics of the story a second narrator will be needed, a witness to the entire saga, one of the few who survived, actually, as Nelly Dean, the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange, who will answer all Lockwood’s curiosities and ours. At this point we could also say that Wuthering Heights has been structured in such a way to make the first three chapters of the novel  the catalysers of the reader‘s attention and curiosity, as a good pilot episode of a modern drama series would. It is up to the reader to say whether Wuthering Heights’s novel keeps up to the expectations aroused by the three chapter pilot episode, but certainly Emily Brontë’s craft and modernity will never be questioned. It is otherwise questionable, whether such an approach may work with my public made of bored adolescents. Well, I’ll let you know about it.

The confederation of souls

pe1I guess each of us has experienced at least one or more periods of inner crisis in the course of his life. Melancholy, fear and sometimes even anger dominate your tormented soul, as you feel that for some reasons, you are no longer fit for the world you know as you used to be, but you cannot fully understand why. Even if you don’t want it, there you are, in the middle of an unknown land. Alone. Whether we like it or not, a crisis is an inevitable and important event of our life, as it is often the prelude for a transformation a metamorphosis of the ego, but the point is: can we really redefine the features of our soul and change? I know the answer, you know the answer: actually, nobody really changes, and the following extract from Pereira Maintains, a successful novel written by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi can enlighten us upon this point.

pe2Just few words about Pereira, the protagonist, who is an elderly overweight journalist for the culture column of a small Lisbon newspaper. He continuously struggles with his conscience and the restrictions of the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar. This is the narration, in fact, of the protagonist’s reluctant political awakening which will bring him to rebel eventually. Pereira’s acquaintance with Dr Cardoso marks a turning point in the novel as he explains him his theory on the confederartion of souls, and based on that theory, he foresees a deep change in Pereira’s life :

“(..) I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the medecins-philosophes? No I’m not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Theodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it was their work I studied in Paris, they are doctors and psychologists, but also philosopher, and they hold a theory I think interesting, the theory of the confederation of souls. Tell me about it, said Pereira. Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a ‘self’ as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other ‘selves’ that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has to impose its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away.”

According to this theory, therefore, we never change, but we just yield to a new ruling ego, which imposes itself,  as a consequence of new external circumstances. We put the old ego aside in the company of the others, which may surface once again and struggle at the right moment and be dominant again. Therefore a crisis marks the passage of one ruling ego to another one and the only thing we can do to get over it is just giving “ a helping hand whenever (we) get the chance” as Dr Cardoso suggests. After all “panta rei” (everything flows), even our ego.