The Nightingale and the Rose

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tremontiI still can’t forget one particular answer that former Minister of The Economy Giulio Tremonti, only a few years ago, gave the journalists who wanted some elucidations about the cuts in the state budget, which, as usual, concerned education, school, culture. In a country with such artistic heritage, everybody would expect the Government to raise funds, for example, to help prevent the inexorable degradation of the many archaeological sites scattered around the country just like Pompei, rather than decrease the number of the archaeologists or those who work in those sites. The Minister gave the journalists a stern, cold look and with his arrogant French “r” said: “Culture has never fed anybody“; and he went away, leaving the audience speechless.

Could he be blamable? After all even Benjamin Franklin in his essay titled “Advice to a Young Tradesman“(1748) had said : “Remember that time is money“. He actually didn’t mention the word culture anywhere. That’s why, when nineteenth century artists  understood that materialism had definitively contaminated with its values the contemporary society, they couldn’t but choose to re-define their role and tasks. What was the point of keeping on with the effort of educating to sensibility an ignorant, indifferent, arrogant audience? What for? Hence they decided to turn their backs to their public and cease any attempt of didactic or moralizing effort. They openly rejected the vulgarity of the contemporary world and refused to conform, finding a safe shelter in that exclusive place where taste and beauty ruled and Théophile Gautier‘s  “Art  for art’s sake” became their motto.

the-nightingale-and-the-roseThe story of “The Nightingale and the Rose” iby Oscar Wilde is the proof that their choice was sound. That nightingale should have followed their example and fly away to reach that shelter, rather than feeling compassion for the tears of a Student and stop to give her help. The Student seems desperate, because he is in love with girl who would accept to dance with him, only if he brough her red roses; but unfortunately it’s winter and there is no chance to have roses of any colour at that time of the year. At this point the nightingale makes the greatest error of her life. She mistakes him for a “true  lover” and therefore worthy of her help.

nightingale_and_the_rose_by_malimalia-d4mn4y7She flies from bush to bush and when eventually she finds the one which might give red roses, she is told that winter has chilled its veins and it would have no roses at all that year. But there is still a way. The nightingale can make the rose out of her music singing all night long, but her blood will make the rose red, the blood that will flow away piercing her heart with a thorn of the bush.The nightingale/artist decides to sacrifice her life for the happiness of the boy. It is amazing to see how the Student, who actually stands as symbol of the insensitive, materialistic society, is from the beginning to the end of the story totally unaware :  “The Student looked up from the grass, and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying to him, for he only knew the things that are written down in books”. The nightingale/artist doesn’t speak a language intelligible to man.  Even when the Student opens the window and finds the beautiful rose, he thinks it is only “a wonderful piece of luck” and prefers to ponder if that rose could have a Latin name, rather than reflecting on why that rose was there.

000571890That rose had cost the life of the nightingale/artist. It was her masterpiece. It had a supreme value, the value of art. Will it be understood? When the boy meets the girl she refuses to accept the rose as “the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers” (she must have been Marilyn Monroe’s forerunner, after all diamonds are girl’s best friends). The rose didn’t serve the boy’s cause, but it is beautiful so beautiful that it must have a Latin name, will the Student keep it with him? The fate of the rose is shocking: the Student “ threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it”. So, what is the function of art? “All art is quite useless“, Wilde would answer. Well, isn’t it exactly what Tremonti had said?

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.”

Charles Baudelaire, L’Albatros

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The Romantic defeat

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Do you remember those bedtime stories your parents used to read you ? Those stories where good always won over evil and made you slip into a peaceful and satisfied nap? I guess you do, so you have well understood that Oscar Wilde‘s collection The Happy Prince and the other tales does not belong to this cathegory. The rhythm is that of fairy tales, just like the characters which come mostly from the world of magic or fantastic: giants, speaking animals or statues…but the end……..the end  is shocking. It seems that Oscar Wilde wrote these stories for his children, but how, HOW could a little baby sleep after hearing that, for example, the rose for which the brave nightingale had sacrified her life had been thrown into the street, “where it fell into the gutter” and just like it wasn’t enough  “a cart-wheel went over it”? I coudn’t, for sure. The prevailing sense sadness that overwhelms you at the end of the stories is given by the unexpected harsh realism of the  real world that replaces abruplty the pampered world of magic. Wilde didn’t want to reassure his kids at all, he wanted them to see life as it was: happy ending is never for granted in a world where men are corrupted by material values and deaf to sensibility.In other words in these stories there is the defeat of the Romantic ideals. The Happy Prince is a statue placed “on a tall column”, so that now can be aware of the poverty and suffering of that world he had never seen before. He wants to do something to relieve those people of their pains, so with the help of a swallow, which seems to have missed the last “train” to Egypt he will give away all the precious stones and leaves of gold that cover his body to whoever he sees in need. But when winter comes the helpful swallow dies and the statue seems to have become ugly and shabby at the eyes of the people who count in town:”as he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful”. So they decide to pull it down. They are unaware and shallow .They cannot see that behind the ugliness of the statue there is the real beauty of his sacrifice. There is love. The deserved reward doesn’t belong to this world, in fact the dead body of the bird and the leaden heart of the Prince will be brought to God because they are the most precious things in the city. Only in the other world they will be recompensed. Maybe.