Myths, heroes and………..Totti.

fall-of-pha-thon-greek-mythology-2996236-800-584I’ve always enjoyed reading stories about myths, legends, courageous men ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country or even only for the beauty of a woman. The main actors of these stories where the heroes, who actually embodied the highest expression of  the values of their society: loyalty, honour, love for the country, sacrifice. With their deeds, which were narrated in long epic poems, they were the symbols of the power, pride but also ethics of their people, thus contributing, through a natural process of identification, in the making of what could be called national awareness.

192964_oHeroes could not be commoners, for sure, because the greatness of the values they embodied had a divine nature that could be found either in their breed, for example Achilles, whose mother was the nymph Thetis or in their name, as for  Beowulf. Beowulf, in fact,  means “bee wolf” (which was supposed to be a metaphor for a bear): “the wolf that eats honey“, from which it was extracted ambrosia, the food of gods. He was, therefore, one of them. The values heroes embodied were universal and worked as glue of past more primitive societies, thus creating the basis of modern ones. At this point, I always ask my students a question: are there any such heroes nowadays? Men or women that could be the expression of universal values? They usually ponder for a while, then they come up with the usual defiant answer: Totti.

tottiTotti, who? I guess you would ask. Well, Totti happens to be an Italian footballer, particularly popular here in Rome as he is the captain of A.S.Roma. The answer is quite provocative, as they know well that I am a great fan of the other team here in Rome S.S.Lazio. On Sundays , but often for the whole week, the atmosphere here is always something like, Capulets vs Montague,Guelphs vs Ghibellines,Trois vs Sparta and Lazio vs Roma. Thus, you may understand how that name can be particularly odious to me. However, despite the choice of the man, is it such a wrong answer? Can an action of a  footballer or a team have the same function of glorious heroic deeds? Yes.

7FEVER-PITCH1997_1835603iNick Hornby in his autobiographical book  Fever Pitch: A Fan’s life , well describes how football works in the mind of supporters. It is glue. Football is the common ground that allows the protagonist Paul Ashworth, an English teacher, to re-create a relationship with his father after the divorce and at the same time he finds in the other supporters of Arsenal that family he needs, with whom sharing the deeds of the present, the hopes for a better future and the stories of a glorious past. Time is felt as seasonal, therefore reassuring, cyclical, never-ending. We may discuss upon the values football expresses, however, people gather around those values and find motivations, passion, frustration but also happiness. For ninety minutes they/we feel alive in a never-ending dream.

It is sad, however, that they couldn’t spot anybody else. How could I blame them? After all the society they had been brought up fabricates powerful models, who invite to a process of identification in order to make profit (football included). The beautiful “lightness” of values is thus replaced by the “heaviness” due to the craving of things. Therefore, once men are emptied of their values, they cannot but  become just like those “dried tubers” of T.S.Eliot ‘s Waste Land, who don’t seem to find any good reason to live and just like “broken images” wander pointlessly in this world, unless……………Totti comes 😦

 

 

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Make the right wish

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Wish_List_(Magic_Lamp)If you could rub the Lamp of Aladdin and ask the genius to make one wish to come true, but only one, what would you choose? Love, success, fortune, health or what else? Are you sure you will be able to take the right decision with no regrets afterwards? I actually wouldn’t know what to pick, maybe health, however, I’m going to give you a couple of examples in literature to demonstrate that this is a question that has to be pondered carefully, before giving an answer, otherwise the consequences could be devastating.

cumaeSibyl of Cumae was a prophetess in service to Apollo and a renowned beauty. Apollo wished to take her as his lover and was ready to offer her anything she desired. Unfortunately she didn’t ponder on her answer and instinctively asked to defy death: she wanted to live forever. It was easy for Apollo to grant her wish, he was a powerful god after all, but still she refused to become his lover. Greek gods were usually of a revengeful kind, and Apollo’s revenge consisted in granting Sibyl’s wish anyway, as he knew that giving that answer she had doomed herself to misery. In fact the boon Sybil had chosen was one of a cruellest kind. She wouldn’t have died just like anybody else but she would have kept growing older and older and older.

imagesVC9Q2RUJShe lived for hundreds of years, each year becoming smaller and frailer. When Trimalchio speaks of her in the Satyricon, she is little more than a tourist attraction, tiny, ancient, confined:I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.” This is the scene Eliot quotes at the beginning of the Waste Land. The Sybil had given the wrong answer. Immortality doesn’t actually mean eternal happiness because time keeps on reminding its presence painfully “wasting” our bodies. But, had she asked for eternal beauty?

imagesUR2ZX0G4The moment  Dorian Gray may see the picture that celebrates his remarkable beauty, suddenly realizes that his charm very soon will slip away. He will never be as attractive as the portrait which stands in front of him. That picture will keep on reminding his inevitable decay. There are no gods or devils here, but his intense wish of eternal beauty is granted, therefore magically Dorian will remain young while the portrait grows old and ugly in his place. Time won’t touch his features but it will still be able to “waste”  his soul. In fact the portrait, which stands for Dorian’s conscience, will record the consequences of a life of debauchery, and every sin or crime committed will result in the disfigurement of its form. Dorian won’t bear to look at the picture any longer and he will destroy it, thus killing his true self. Therefore neither eternal youth nor immortality are the key to happiness. Ergo, what could the right answer be?

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.

The dried tuber syndrome

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The symptoms of  the dried tuber syndrome are easily recognizable: melancholy, indolence, fear of the future, sense of loss; as far as T.S.Eliot is concerned a whole generation between the two great wars suffered from the consequences of its contamination. The causes? The sense of uncertainty produced by the loss of past values and the impossibility of replacing them with new ones. If the present is not fertile enough to offer new perspectives and hopes and at the same time slowly dries whatever we used to believe in, we just become like emptied tubers that would rather stay hidden in the darkness of the earth than grow and face the oppressive light of the day. Hamlet, for example, clearly suffered of that disease. He had seen his world gradually falling apart: the death of his father, the hasty marriage of his mother with his uncle who had become in the meanwhile King of Denmark too. When the play starts Hamlet has already been deprived of many certainties: his family, the mother figure, maybe even his succession to the throne of Denmark. The first time we meet him in the play he already displays the early symptoms of the syndrome: bitterness, melancholy, dullness. So when his father’s ghost informs him that his brother, the King, had shamefully murdered him while he was sleeping in his orchard, he actually deals the final blow to Hamlet’s psyche, At first he seems to be willing to react, to revenge immediately his father and kill the infamous murderer, but when the adrenaline is off, he realizes that he just can’t do it: “Oh cursed spite/that I was ever born to set it right“, he ponders. His father’s revelation should require a prompt reaction but Hamlet delays it – in fact the ghost will have to reappear a second time to incite his son to act –  showing signs of confusion and psychological stress. The frustration deriving from his inability to accomplish what he feels a moral duty towards the memory of his father leads him also to consider suicide. He will eventually react only when he realizes he has fallen in his uncle’s trap, before dying.

Rain

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The rain is the great protagonist of the first lines of Chaucer‘s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. It’s April and the “sweet showers “ have soaked deep into the dry ground to water the roots of the flowers. The combination of this spring rain with Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, is so powerful that the “tender shoots” are quickly transformed into “buds” everywhere under the eyes of a “young sun” and with the background music of the birds singing. It is the joyful natural rebirth which also stirs man’s spiritual rebirth, that’s why spring was symbolically chosen as the perfect time of the year to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Beckett. Chaucer, therefore, gives us a vision of a man totally integrated and in harmony with the world and its natural forces. But this was more or less seven hundred years ago. When The Waste Land  was published in 1922 , the world had just witnessed the horrors and follies of  World War I and the present was only a “heap of broken images” . Among the ruins of the certainties and values of a glorious past, Eliot’s modern man is at loss, he is a “dried tuber”  forced to live a meaningless life. So when spring  comes, this time the rain has no effects neither on nature nor on man. The world is deaf to the seasonal call to life. The drops of water try to stir the roots of the flowers, but they are “dull” and would rather still be covered by the “forgetful”  winter snow. That’s why April for Eliot is “the cruellest month”: man must emerge from his hibernation to face a desolate present and the sad memories of a recent past with no hope for a better future, because no root can clutch “out of this stony rubbish“. This is the point, Eliot’s modern man has no the smallest hope, he walks in circle and fixes”his eyes before his feet”.

Here is The Waste Land, read by T.S.Eliot: