What women want…

Due to some strange reason, which I am still attempting to gauge, a noteworthy number of my girlfriends (meaning, naturally, female friends of mine…) indulge me with the honour of sharing their sentimental plights and grace me by soliciting my opinion and advice applicable to their love relationships. I find this peculiar circumstance both gratifying and worrisome at the same time: I do not deem myself the Antonio de Nebrija of love affairs as, because of my age and my average love life, I cannot possibly be particularly qualified to steer anyone’s assessment and decision within the highly intricate romantic field.

Nevertheless I confess that many have been so far the cases submitted to my wise estimation and in reference to which I have been warmly requested to express my reflections and contribute with my discernment; and pretty various have been the knotty, dire and thorny situations I have had the chance to encounter and hear, as well as quite diverse and well assorted is the gallery of their unfortunate female protagonists: being them such a greatly heterogeneous set of samples in so far as temperament, character, age and background are concerned. Yet, in conscience I believe it would be by all means accurate to affirm that – regardless the different state of affairs and scenarios – the main sources of their pains and grief can all be easily clustered under a sole and main paramount question: “Why do I always pick the wrong man?”

In truth I have some knowledge of stochastic analysis and therefore I cannot scientifically admit that this planet could be largely – if not solely – populated by Bireno’s comrades and poor Olimpia’s companions, and thus it cannot possibly be acceptable that each and every damsel’s customary doom is to awake stranded on a desert beach on an island off Scotland finding out her loved one is gone away to Zealand as Ludovico Ariosto narrates:

“Né desta né dormendo, ella la mano
per Bireno abbracciar stese, ma invano.
Nessuno truova: a sé la man ritira:
di nuovo tenta, e pur nessuno truova.
Di qua l’un braccio, e di là l’altro gira;
or l’una, or l’altra gamba; e nulla giova…
…Corre di nuovo in su l’estrema sabbia,
e ruota il capo e sparge all’aria il crine;
e sembra forsennata, e ch’adosso abbia
non un demonio sol, ma le decine;
o, qual Ecuba, sia conversa in rabbia,
vistosi morto Polidoro al fine.
Or si ferma s’un sasso, e guarda il mare;
né men d’un vero sasso, un sasso pare.”

[Between wake and sleep her arm she gently moves
Bireno to embrace whom she so love, but in vain.
There’s no-one there; her hand again she tends;
She gropes once more; then, finding no-one still,
First one and the another leg extends,
This way and that, but all to no avail…
… Again she runs along the sandy shore,
Hither and thither; not Olimpia
She seems, but some mad creature by a score
Of demons driven, or like Hecuba,
A prey to frenzy when her Polydore
She found there lying dead; and then afar
Olimpia gazes seawards, like a stock,
Standing so still a rock upon a rock.”]

Clearly I am fully aware that scoundrels, gold-diggers, social-climbers and adventure-seekers of both sexes do actually exist and do sadly roam around; yet this is to be considered more the exception rather than the rule; besides this is not the case I am hereby contemplating. With unambiguous reference to sound and morally unbiased relations – and thus excluding shallow petty Don Giovanni and hysterical post-feminists women – I am indeed more inclined to believe that, in spite of the spreading higher level of education and of the conquests of social emancipation, still misconceptions, misconstructions, miscommunication and misunderstandings tend inexorably to lead and send astray too many interactions between good-natured and well-intentioned men and women.

Among the vast number of hardly comprehensible causes I am firmly convinced that, regardless the numerous possibilities, occasions and instruments of social contact and dialogue, there is still a great deal of authentic solitude, diffidence and seclusion around. A circumstance that affects the concrete perception and vision of real life, stimulates dangerous over-speculations, encourages treacherous idealisations, inspires highly judgmental attitudes, rises expectations up to an unrealistic sphere and altogether consequently enfolds into a bundle of stiff preconceptions the entire framework of human relations and easily leads to the frustrations of Gautier’s chevalier d’Albert:

“Cela tient peut-être à ce que je vis beaucoup avec moi-même, et que les plus petits détails dans une vie aussi monotone que la mienne prennent une trop grande importance. Je m’écoute trop vivre et penser : j’entends le battement de mes artères, les pulsations de mon cœur ; je dégage, à force d’attention, mes idées les plus insaisissables de la vapeur trouble où elles flottaient et je leur donne un corps. – Si j’agissais davantage, je n’apercevrais pas toutes ces petites choses, et je n’aurais pas le temps de regarder mon âme au microscope, comme je le fais toute la journée. Le bruit de l’action ferait envoler cet essaim de pensées oisives qui voltigent dans ma tête et m’étourdissent du bourdonnement de leurs ailes : au lieu de poursuivre des fantômes, je me colletterais avec des réalités ; je ne demanderais aux femmes que ce qu’elles peuvent donner : – du plaisir, – et je ne chercherais pas à embrasser je ne sais quelle fantastique idéalité parée de nuageuses perfections. – Cette tension acharnée de l’œil de mon âme vers un objet invisible m’a faussé la vue. Je ne sais pas voir ce qui est, à force d’avoir regardé ce qui n’est pas, et mon œil si subtil pour l’idéal est tout à fait myope dans la réalité… Peut-être aussi que, ne trouvant rien en ce monde qui soit digne de mon amour, je finirai par m’y adorer moi-même, comme feu Narcisse d’égoïste mémoire. ”

Even though this sort of unconsciously secluded sentimental life, this άβιος βίος is a genderless widely diffused state nowadays, women who truly believe to be ill-fated because they chance to date always and only wrong partners are most likely the very same individuals who tend  to be prey of this perilous enmeshment and thus somehow they are more prone in driving away any – even earnest – pursuer:

“Les honnêtes femmes, même lorsqu’elles le sont moins, ont une façon rechignée et dédaigneuse qui m’est parfaitement insupportable. Elles vous ont l’air toujours prêtes à sonner et à vous faire jeter à la porte par leurs laquais ; – et il me semble, en vérité, qu’un homme qui prend la peine de faire la cour à une femme (ce qui n’est pas déjà aussi agréable qu’on veut le croire) ne mérite pas d’être regardé de cette manière-là.”

Without any shade of doubt it is far from my aim to recommend that an unadorned and straightforward love declaration (or rather a business proposition…) such as the one declaimed by Cervantes’ personage of Doña Estefanía de Caicedo would have miraculous effects on anyone’s love twinges:

”Señor alférez Campuzano, simplicidad sería si yo quisiese venderme a vuesa merced por santa: pecadora he sido, y aun ahora lo soy, pero no de manera que los vecinos me murmuren ni los apartados me noten. Ni de mis padres ni de otro pariente heredé hacienda alguna, y con todo esto vale el menaje de mi casa, bien validos, dos mil y quinientos escudos; y éstos en cosas que, puestas en almoneda, lo que se tardare en ponellas se tardará en convertirse en dineros. Con esta hacienda busco marido a quien entregarme y a quien tener obediencia; a quien, juntamente con la enmienda de mi vida, le entregaré una increíble solicitud de regalarle y servirle; porque no tiene príncipe cocinero más goloso ni que mejor sepa dar el punto a los guisados que le sé dar yo, cuando, mostrando ser casera, me quiero poner a ello. Sé ser mayordomo en casa, moza en la cocina y señora en la sala; en efeto, sé mandar y sé hacer que me obedezcan. No desperdicio nada y allego mucho; mi real no vale menos, sino mucho más cuando se gasta por mi orden. La ropa blanca que tengo, que es mucha y muy buena, no se sacó de tiendas ni lenceros; estos pulgares y los de mis criadas la hilaron; y si pudiera tejerse en casa, se tejiera. Digo estas alabanzas mías porque no acarrean vituperio cuando es forzosa la necesidad de decirlas. Finalmente, quiero decir que yo busco marido que me ampare, me mande y me honre, y no galán que me sirva y me vitupere. Si vuesa merced gustare de aceptar la prenda que se le ofrece, aquí estoy moliente y corriente, sujeta a todo aquello que vuesa merced ordenare, sin andar en venta, que es lo mismo andar en lenguas de casamenteros, y no hay ninguno tan bueno para concertar el todo como las mismas partes”.

Nonetheless if women would include within their seduction weapons together with mascara, lip-gloss and stay-ups a sound dose of wise lenience and prudent forbearance, accompanied by a sensible non-over-judgemental attitude in accepting their partners for what they are and truly value the efforts they endeavour to please them – this could become quite a clever and judicious move. As brilliantly stated in Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s “Der Schwierige” within an interesting dialogue between a rather dreary brother and his witty sister:

HANS KARL BÜHLMy dear, I take my hat off to your energetic resolutions, but men are not this simple, thank God!
CRESCENCE BÜHL - My dear, men – thank God! – are simple; if women take them with simplicity.

As to the final outcome: well, let us all rely on an old master – Heraclitus:

“ἐὰν μὴ ἔλπηται͵ ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει͵ ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον”

“If you do not hope, you will not find that which is not hoped for; since it is difficult to discover and impossible to attain.”

Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

homeric-hero-virtues-arete-metis

The Homeric poems and some legends and myths narrated by posthumous authors are the only literary source we can rely on in order to assess the main features and events of the dawn of Greek civilisation. The lack of very organised information, rather fragmentary and only partially comforted by archaeological discoveries, still now puzzles scholars, academics and amateurs passionate about archaic Greece. Nevertheless, the attentive reading of these sources has revealed some evident characteristics and aspects of Hellenic archaic culture that can aid us to draw the basic sketch of virtues and values, of morally correct behaviour and socially accepted and praised conduct: some of the paradigmatic main lines of a civilised society.

Accordingly, hospitality can be considered the very first duty and virtue within and among the ancient tribes who populated the archaic Greek terra-firma, islands and the Ionian colonies.  Protection, hosting and gifts were rituals deeply rooted and consistently honoured for generations. An interesting instance is reported in Iliad’s dialogue between Glaucus and Diomedes:

But Hippolochus begat me and of him do I declare that I am sprung; and he sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers, that were far the noblest in Ephyre and in wide Lycia. This is the lineage and the blood whereof I avow me sprung.” So spoke he, and Diomedes, good at the warcry, waxed glad. He planted his spear in the bounteous earth, and with gentle words spoke to the shepherd of the host: “Verily now art thou a friend of my father’s house from of old: for goodly Oeneus on a time entertained peerless Bellerophon in his halls, and kept him twenty days; and moreover they gave one to the other fair gifts of friendship. Oeneus gave a belt bright with scarlet, and Bellerophon a double cup of gold which I left in my palace as I came hither. But Tydeus I remember not, seeing I was but a little child when he left, what time the host of the Achaeans perished at Thebes. Therefore now am I a dear guest-friend to thee in the midst of Argos, and thou to me in Lycia, whenso I journey to the land of that folk. So let us shun one another’s spears even amid the throng; full many there be for me to slay, both Trojans and famed allies, whomsoever a god shall grant me and my feet overtake; and many Achaeans again for thee to slay whomsoever thou canst. And let us make exchange of armour, each with the other, that these men too may know that we declare ourselves to be friends from our fathers’ days.”

Recognizably in the Homeric poems physical power, bravery, strength and cleverness on the battlefield are remarkably emphasised and rewarded. The effort and commitment aimed at the conquest of eternal glory are summarised within the utmost virtue for an Homeric hero: excellenceAρετή. This is brilliantly described in this brief dialogue between Sarpedon and Glaucus during the siege of Troy:

“Even so did his spirit then urge godlike Sarpedon to rush upon the wall, and break-down the battlements. Straightway then he spoke to Glaucus, son of Hippolochus: “Glaucus, wherefore is it that we twain are held in honour above all with seats, and messes, and full cups in Lycia, and all men gaze upon us as on gods? Aye, and we possess a great demesne by the banks of Xanthus, a fair tract of orchard and of wheat-bearing plough-land. Therefore now it behoveth us to take our stand amid the foremost Lycians, and confront the blazing battle that many a one of the mail-clad Lycians may say: “Verily no inglorious men be these that rule in Lycia, even our kings, they that eat fat sheep and drink choice wine, honey-sweet: nay, but their might too is goodly, seeing they fight amid the foremost Lycians. Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle we were for ever to be ageless and immortal, neither should I fight myself amid the foremost, nor should I send thee into battle where men win glory; but now—for in any case fates of death beset us, fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us. So spoke he, and Glaucus turned not aside, neither disobeyed him, but the twain went straight forward, leading the great host of the Lycians.”

This rather complex concept of ἀρετή (arete) is not solely straightforwardly affirmed, but per contrapasso is ulteriorly stressed by the pending oppression of the shame caused by any possible display of cowardice and ineptitude – as Hector clearly states before his duel with Achilles:

“Then, mightily moved, he spoke unto his own great-hearted spirit: “Ah, woe is me, if I go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened not—verily it had been better far! But now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have shame of the Trojans, and the Trojans’ wives with trailing robes, lest some other baser man may say: ‘Hector, trusting in his own might, brought ruin on the host.’ So will they say; but for me it were better far to meet Achilles man to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously before the city.”

To exercise just vengeance to a personal or social offence is another greatly demanded virtue, unquestionably also part of the sense of honour and courage that an Homeric hero is naturally supposed to possess – as Athena warmly reminds to Telemachus:

“First go to Pylos and ask Nestor; thence go on to Sparta and visit Menelaos, for he got home last of all the Achaeans; if you hear that your father is alive and about to achieve his homecoming, you can put up with the waste these suitors will make for yet another twelve months. If on the other hand you hear of his death, come home at once, celebrate his funeral rites with all due pomp, build a grave marker to his memory, and make your mother marry again. Then, having done all this, think it well over in your mind how, by fair means or foul, you may kill these suitors in your own house. You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer Aigisthos? You are a fine, smart looking young man; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story. Now, however, I must go back to my ship and to my crew, who will be impatient if I keep them waiting longer; think the matter over for yourself, and remember what I have said to you.”

And as it is very sadly lamented by Helen when speaking of Paris’ spinelessness:

“Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills, would that I had been wife to a better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings. But this man’s understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter; thereof I deem that he will e’en reap the fruit”.

Yet warfare skills, fierce revenge and combating courage seem of course admittedly necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the excellence and the consequent of endless glory. The Homeric hero must be also a master of the dialogue, able to gain consensus with his words and submit masses with his charismatic speech, virtues highly praised in both Iliad and Odyssey:

“Then among them spoke Thoas, son of Andraemon, far the best of the Aetolians, well-skilled in throwing the javelin, but a good man too in close fight, and in the place of assembly could but few of the Achaeans surpass him, when the young men were striving in debate”.

Nevertheless when force and/or speech cannot obtain success the Homeric hero has to count on the absolute and most sophisticated virtue – Μτις (metis): a multifaceted and articulated ability implying wit, inventiveness, audacity and shrewdness, whose master of course is Odysseus. IN fact not only a mortal: king Nestor, who knowledgeably lectures his son Antilochus on how to win the cart race:

“The horses of the others are swifter, but the men know not how to devise more cunning counsel than thine own self. Wherefore come, dear son, lay thou up in thy mind cunning of every sort, to the end that the prizes escape thee not. By cunning, thou knowest, is a woodman far better than by might; by cunning too doth a helmsman on the wine-dark deep guide aright a swift ship that is buffeted by winds; and by cunning doth charioteer prove better than charioteer. ”

notwithstanding his own old age, intelligence and experience, confesses Ulysses’ artful deceptiveness superiority; but even the goddess Athena, almost proudly and appreciatively, admits Odysseus’ insuperable foxiness in conceiving and fulfilling ingenious plans:

Athena smiled and caressed him with her hand. Then she took the form of a woman, fair, stately, and wise, “He must be indeed a shifty and deceitful person,” said she, “who could surpass you in all manner of craft even though you had a god for your antagonist. Daring that you are, full of guile, unwearying in deceit, can you not drop your tricks and your instinctive falsehood, even now that you are in your own country again? We will say no more, however, about this, for we both of us know craftiness upon occasion – you are the best counsellor and orator among all humankind, while I for diplomacy and crafty ways have fame among the gods.


Love letters from Ancient Greece

Oftentimes success is linked to mere unexpected factors, sometimes these happen to be quite trivial circumstances far away from your remotest aims and plans. This is most certainly the case of “Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, a volume edited by C. H. Charles Ph. D. and published in London in 1924, which features love epistles by Madame Recamier, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (a.k.a. George Sand), Marie Bashkirtseff, Benjamin Constant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alfred de Musset, William Congreve, Horace Walpole, Multatuli, Lord Nelson’s Lady Hamilton, dandy Beau Brummell, Guy de Maupassant, Stendhal, Camille Desmoulins, Madame de Stael, Esther Vanhomrigh, Duke of Choiseul. This rather vast and various harvest has been just recently exhumed and presented to the attention of the greater – and rather consumerism-oriented – public who is literally devouring this new paperback edition. I leave to my readers’ personal judgment as whether it really matters or not that it was “Carrie Bradshaw” (and her “Mr. Big”) to arouse this unforeseen interest: I do favour any endeavour, whichever is its source, intended to awake attention towards good writings.

On the other hand I presume that what the greater public is most likely not entirely aware of is that the writing and publication for entertainment purposes of real/fictitious letters of famed characters was already highly popular – almost a fashionable genre – in I and II century A.D.; and consequently involving brilliant authors like Lucian (Lucianus) of Samosata (Λουκιανός ο Σαμοσατεύς) a renowned orator, one of the earliest novelist ever and a true master in fictional narrative, Aristaenetus a very famous epistolographer and Alciphron (Αλκίφρων), a sophist and unparalleled fiction letter writer. Of this latter in particular we have circa 120 letters clustered by senders/addressees and namely gathering imaginary correspondence between fishermen, peasants, courtesans and parasites. All the letters have the IV century b.C. Athens (and its outskirts and countryside) as scenario, are written in pure Attic dialect, and portray various situations with sometimes ironic, mocking or funny tones, as well as a few times also shade some sorrowful, moving and passionate tenor – often the fiction involves real characters of that age.

When it comes to the theme of love, Alciphron presents us with marvellous examples of Attic prose and expression of feelings, which nowadays we may without much hesitation call romantic, in particular the fictitious correspondence between Menander (Μένανδρος), the most famous playwright of 4th century B.C. (originator of the New Comedy) and his lover Glycera. The preamble is that Menander was invited by Ptolemy Soter (or Lagus) King of Egypt, founder of the library and school of Alexandria – together with his rival play writer Philemon – where endless success and great riches were promised to both of them, but:

MENANDER to GLYCERA:

“By the Eleusinian goddesses and their mysteries, by which I have often sworn with you only, dear Glycera, I swear that, in making this avowal in writing, I have neither desire to praise myself nor to divide from you.

What happiness could I benefit from staying apart from you? In what could I take more contentment than in your love? Thanks to your tenderness and good character, even true old age shall seem youth to me. Let us be both young and then old together, and, by the gods, when time comes let us be together in death, without even realising that we are leaving this world; may jealousy never be buried with either of us into the grave, may never one survivor enjoy any other’s love. May it never be my misfortune to see you die before me; for then, what delight would be left for me?

I am presently staying in Piraeus due to my ill-health… and the reasons which have persuaded me to write to you, while you are staying in the city for the sacred festival of Demeter, the Haloa, are the following: I have received a letter from Ptolemy, King of Egypt, in which he beseeches me, promising me right regally all the good things of the world, and invites me to visit him, together with Philemon, to whom also, they say, a letter has been sent. In fact, Philemon has sent it on to me: it is to the same effect as mine, but not so ceremonious or splendid in the promises it holds out, since it is not written to Menander. Let him think about and contemplate what he wishes to do; but I will not wait for his opinion, for you, my Glycera, are my guidance, my Areopagus, my Heliaea, by Athena, you have ever been, and shall ever be my all.

So I am sending you the King’s letter; but, in order to prevent you from going through the reading of both my letter and his, I wish you also to know what reply I have determined to formulate to it. By the twelve great gods, I could not even consider sailing to Egypt, a realm so far remote from us; but, not even if Egypt was as close as Aegina. I could not even then dream of leaving my kingdom of your love, and the wandering alone in the middle of the busy inhabitants of Egypt, in a crowded desert, as it would seem to me without my Glycera. I prefer your hugs, which are sweeter and less dangerous than the special treatment of all the kings and satraps. Loss of freedom is loss of safety; flattery is shameful: the favours of Fortune are not to be trusted.

I swear it by Dionysus and his ivy-wreaths, with which I would rather be crowned, in the presence of my Glycera seated in the theatre, than with all the diadems of Ptolemy.

Shall I leave Glycera and move to Egypt? And to what purpose? To obtain gold and silver and other riches? And with whom am I to share my pleasure in it? With Glycera away from me separated by such a wide and dangerous sea? Won’t all this be plain poverty to me without her? And should I hear that she has entrusted her love to someone else, will not all these possessions be to me no more than dust and ashes? And, when I die, shall I not carry away with me my grief to the grave, and leave all my treasures a prey to those who are ever waiting to grab hold of them?

Is it so great an honour to live with Ptolemy and his satraps and others with like idle names, whose familiarity is not to be trusted, and whose enmity is perilous? If Glycera is irritated with me, I embrace her in my arms and snatch a kiss; if she is still angry, I press her further, and, if she is still resentful or rancorous, I shed tears; then she can no longer resist my grief, but beseeches me in her turn; because she has neither soldiers, nor lancer, nor guards, but I am all in all to her.

So let Philemon go to Egypt and have the benefit of the joy that is promised to me, because Philemon has no Glycera; perhaps he is not even worthy of such a blessing. And do you, my dear Glycera, I implore you, without delay after the Haloan celebrations, get on your mule and run to me, because I have never known a festival that seemed to last longer, or one more inopportune. Demeter: I beseech your favours!”

Thus starting from the real plead of the Egyptian King and Mecenate Ptolemy, confirmed by (Caius Plinius Secundus) Pliny the Elder, who reported it in his Naturalis Historia:

magnum et Menandro in comico socco testimonium regum Aegypti et Macedoniae contigit classe et per legatos petito, maius ex ipso, regiae fortunae praelata litterarum conscientia”.

[A strong testimony, too, was given to the merit of Menander, the famous comic poet, by the kings of Egypt and Macedonia, in sending to him a fleet and an embassy; though, what was still more honourable to him, he preferred enjoying the converse of his literary pursuits to the favour of kings].

and just like any modern fiction writer – by the way it is worth to reveal that Pliny does not mention anything about the invitation to Egypt extended also to Philemon, which is probably a fiction escamotage smartly used by the author to have him as an anti-hero… – Alciphron imagines and composes this correspondence between the two lovers that, apparently, no distance, prospect success or promised riches can tear apart because they decide together about their nest and consequent future.

Such an interesting key to read the correlation between love and distances as well as the changing of perspectives under different moods, very much resembling the love letters exchanged between Lord Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, namely soon after they fell in love:

“This Venice, without flowers, without trees, without perfumes, without birds, that I never liked before, with her depressing gondolas instead of my horse-carriage now seems to me the dwelling of life and lights, like heaven on earth”. Teresa

and before him departing for Greece:

“In that word, marvellous in every language, but above them all in yours – Amor mio – there lies my entire existence, now and from now onward. I feel I exist here and I am afraid here I shall exist in the future – to which purpose you will decide: my destiny depends upon you… think about me sometimes when the mountains and the Ocean will try to separate us, but I know they will never succeed, unless you want them to.” Byron

Books: love and hatred

It is very difficult to describe in depth and in detail my great love for books, nevertheless I am sure that those who are true book-lovers can understand and acknowledge the kind of feelings and emotions books can inspire: that fantastic sense of immanence and overpower when entering in a new huge library, the petty curiosity of surfing through the book-shelves in somebody’s apartment, the silly delight of cherishing and peeping at a newly bought volume still in its shop-bag and the happiness when removing its shrink-wrap and then inhaling the fresh scent of ink and paper perusing its untainted pages, the pleasure of feeling lost in time while sitting comfortably and exploring colourful art-book pages in a tiny but familiar bookstore and the bliss of having unexpectedly found an old book browsing through a flea-market. As well as I am sure that real book-lovers will understand me when I say that the only sad consideration about books I can think of is the overwhelming question that I often ask to myself and that, alas! already contains a despondent answer: “will I ever be able to read them all”?

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As a logical consequence I truly understand, love and strongly sympathise with Don Quixote: an extraordinary sensitive personality, a remarkably imaginative soul endowed with an indescribable delicate spirit and a rare generous heart. I am really fond of this intense and emotional man who went “mad” – albeit, can we actually and really call it madness? – because of avidly reading about armoured heroes, sweetest and candid damsels, fierce combats and noble duels and thus losing his sense of reality:

En resolución, él se enfrascó tanto en su letura, que se le pasaban las noches leyendo de claro en claro, y los días de turbio en turbio; y así, del poco dormir y del mucho leer, se le secó el celebro, de manera que vino a perder el juicio. Llenósele la fantasía de todo aquello que leía en los libros, así de encantamentos como de pendencias, batallas, desafíos, heridas, requiebros, amores, tormentas y disparates imposibles; y asentósele de tal modo en la imaginación que era verdad toda aquella máquina de aquellas soñadas invenciones que leía, que para él no había otra historia más cierta en el mundo.

Thus consequently and eventually he, a quiet and inoffensive squire, resolved to start a brand new life as a wandering knight, facing any sort of perils with the noblest of the intents: defending the distressed ones; and concomitantly receive honour and glory:

En efeto, rematado ya su juicio, vino a dar en el más estraño pensamiento que jamás dio loco en el mundo; y fue que le pareció convenible y necesario, así para el aumento de su honra como para el servicio de su república, hacerse caballero andante, y irse por todo el mundo con sus armas y caballo a buscar las aventuras y a ejercitarse en todo aquello que él había leído que los caballeros andantes se ejercitaban, deshaciendo todo género de agravio, y poniéndose en ocasiones y peligros donde, acabándolos, cobrase eterno nombre y fama.

The power of books is boundless, as the power of love, as Don Quixote does not simply find inspiration in his readings, he does not solely feel delight by recalling and quoting by heart his books and he does not merely seek for comfort when immerging himself in those written adventures; he actually finds in his beloved volumes, verses and novels the strength to face the reality, his sad reality – of course in his own extravagant way – and by either imitating or even impersonating their protagonists he is literally able to cope with and overcome the difficulties and pains that his ordinary countryside life brings along:

Viendo, pues, que, en efeto, no podía menearse, acordó de acogerse a su ordinario remedio, que era pensar en algún paso de sus libros; y trújole su locura a la memoria aquel de Valdovinos y del marqués de Mantua, cuando Carloto le dejó herido en la montiña, historia sabida de los niños, no ignorada de los mozos, celebrada y aun creída de los viejos; y, con todo esto, no más verdadera que los milagros de Mahoma. Ésta, pues, le pareció a él que le venía de molde para el paso en que se hallaba; y así, con muestras de grande sentimiento, se comenzó a volcar por la tierra y a decir con debilitado aliento lo mesmo que dicen decía el herido caballero del bosque: -¿Donde estás, señora mía, que no te duele mi mal? O no lo sabes, señora, o eres falsa y desleal.

Y, desta manera, fue prosiguiendo el romance hasta aquellos versos que dicen: ¡Oh noble marqués de Mantua, mi tío y señor carnal! Y quiso la suerte que, cuando llegó a este verso, acertó a pasar por allí un labrador de su mesmo lugar y vecino suyo, que venía de llevar una carga de trigo al molino; el cual, viendo aquel hombre allí tendido, se llegó aél y le preguntó que quién era y qué mal sentía que tan tristemente se quejaba. Don Quijote creyó, sin duda, que aquél era el marqués de Mantua, su tío; y así, no le respondió otra cosa si no fue proseguir en su romance,donde le daba cuenta de su desgracia y de los amores del hijo del Emperante con su esposa, todo de la mesma manera que el romance lo canta.

El labrador estaba admirado oyendo aquellos disparates; y, quitándole la visera, que ya estaba hecha pedazos de los palos, le limpió el rostro, que le tenía cubierto de polvo; y apenas le hubo limpiado, cuando le conoció yle dijo: -Señor Quijana -que así se debía de llamar cuando él tenía juicio y no había pasado de hidalgo sosegado a caballero andante-, ¿quién ha puesto a vuestra merced desta suerte?Pero él seguía con su romance a cuanto le preguntaba.

In truth Don Quixote’s love for books is amply counterbalanced by his household members’ hate against the volumes he covets in his library. This base and wicked hatred masterly portrays the ever existed revulsion of the uneducated and especially of the insensitive ones against literature and figurative arts. They eventually will decide – while Don Quixote is asleep – to burn almost his entire precious book collection once and for all, blaming his mental distress on the books; but in my opinion they perform this unforgivable murder more credibly for both the sake and the shame of their ignorance and absolute lack of sensibility: something to a certain extent also confirmed by observing that the chief inquisitors of this innocent volumes’ death sentence are the barber and the vicar, and their actual executioner is the house-keeper:

…nuestro ingenioso hidalgo el cual aún todavía dormía. Pidió las llaves, a la sobrina, del aposento donde estaban los libros, autores del daño, y ella se las dio de muy buena gana. Entraron dentro todos, y la ama con ellos, y hallaron más de ciencuerpos de libros grandes, muy bien encuadernados, y otros pequeños; y, asícomo el ama los vio, volvióse a salir del aposento con gran priesa, y tornóluego con una escudilla de agua bendita y un hisopo, y dijo:“Tome vuestra merced, señor licenciado: rocíe este aposento, no esté aquí algún encantador de los muchos que tienen estos libros, y nos encanten, en pena de las que les queremos dar echándolos del mundo.”

The “Household Inquisition” in order to complete this shameful expurgation process builds a wall where the library door was previously located; thus I can imagine and share, like any book-lover who lost his/her volumes would, Don Quixote’s panic and desolation for losing his library. When he wakes up – of course his first thought is to go to his library and meet his beloved books – he finds out that the objects of his love are not there any more or probably they never existed, which is even worse:

Uno de los remedios que el cura y el barbero dieron, por entonces, para el mal de su amigo, fue que le murasen y tapiasen el aposento de los libros, porque cuando se levantase no los hallase -quizá quitando la causa, cesaría el efeto-, y que dijesen que un encantador se los había llevado, y el aposento y todo; y así fue hecho con mucha presteza. De allí a dos días se levantó don Quijote, y lo primero que hizo fue ir a ver sus libros; y, como no hallaba el aposento donde le había dejado, andaba de una en otra parte buscándole. Llegaba adonde solía tener la puerta, y tentábala con las manos, y volvía y revolvía los ojos por todo, sin decir palabra; pero, al cabo de una buena pieza, preguntó a su ama que hacia qué parte estaba el aposento de sus libros. El ama, que ya estaba bien advertida de lo que había de responder, le dijo:

“¿Qué aposento, o qué nada, busca vuestra merced? Ya no hay aposento ni libros en esta casa, porque todo se lo llevó el mesmo diablo.”

The grave and sad mourning of the author for the sin that has been committed sounds like a strong denounce tout court against culture enemies of all times:

Aquella noche quemó y abrasó el ama cuantos libros había en el corral y en toda la casa, y tales debieron de arder que merecían guardarse en perpetuos archivos

Fortunately hatred – to which naturally I join also shallow ignorance or ignoble insensitiveness – against books and fine arts in general does not necessarily always bring true talents to death. On the contrary the remarkably unfavourable attitude and harsh adverse treatment of some authors and their productions oftentimes have brought to quite opposite results: making a famous martyr of a truly gifted artist and a long-lasting masterpiece of his memorable compositions:

“libros per aedilis cremandos censuere patres: set manserunt, occultati et editi. quo magis socordiam eorum inridere libet qui praesenti potentia credunt extingui posse etiam sequentis aevi memoriam. nam contra punitis ingeniis gliscit auctoritas, neque aliud externi reges aut qui eadem saevitia usi sunt nisi dedecus sibi atque illis gloriam peperere” [Tacitus]

Besides, ultimately I am firmly convinced that all those who believe that they can extinguish a true passion by simply sending far away its source, and defeat a true love by either moving its protagonist out of sight or out of reach, have never felt real passion or love at all, and for this I truly pity them:

Γιατί τα σπάσαμε τ’ αγάλματά των,
γιατί τους διώξαμε απ’ τους ναούς των,
διόλου δεν πέθαναν γι’ αυτό οι θεοί.
[K.P. Kavafis]
[Even if they smash their statues
or chase them away from their temples
this won’t mean that the Gods are dead.]

Dedicated to…

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Farewell Jean-Pierre Vernant

Jean-Pierre Vernant, one of the most renowned scholars of the ancient world has left us last Wednesday in Sèvres, he was ninety three and yet I feel he still had more to give us. He leaves a sense of emptiness within the community of Ancient Greece lovers, both academics and non academics, which we all will try to fill in by re-reading and re-studying all his writings.

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Vernant was born in Provins in 1914, and soon became an orphan, as his father died during the Great War. After attending secondary school and gymnasium at Carnot and Louis-le-Grand in Paris he went to University at Sorbonne, where he and his brother brilliantly completed their classical studies in 1937. During these years at Sorbonne he met Prof. Ignace Meyerson (1888-1983) a Polish refugee who would have soon joined the French resistance against the Nazis and become a close friend of his. After the University, Jean-Pierre and his brother were in the army in Narbonne until 1940, when he left the army and was appointed as teacher of philosophy in a school in Touluse. Meanwhile he founded the Armée Secrète (1942), and assuming the identity of Colonel Berthier, he organised the resistance movement for the entire Haute-Garonne carrying out the liberation of Toulouse (1944).

By the end of the War Vernant would have gone back to teach if Prof. Meyerson and Louis Gernet (1882-1962), famous historian, philologist and sociologist would have not succeeded to convince him to join the National Centre of Scientific Research which he did in 1948. He began to work to a dissertation about the notion of work in Plato, and carried out researches into Greek civilisation from a social and psychological perspective as suggested by Prof. Ignace Meyerson. He was trying to seek a general vision – from the ancient Greek man perspective – of all the typical and common expressions of human nature like time, space, memory, power of will, fantasy and sacrifice. He also tried to figure diversities in these concepts between the Greeks and the other ancient societies, as well as between ancient Greeks and the modern Western world.

He was admitted (1958) to École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he joined Fernand Braudel. He was in those years an eclectic scholar studying on a comparative basis ancient anthropology and philology.

His first masterpiece, Les origines de la pensée grecque, was issued in 1962 and obtainied an extraordinary success. However he had already written extensively before and his past essays and articles were then harvested in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (1965). Since then all his writings were wonderful examples of deep research and passion for the ancient Greek world. His last book, Entre mythe et politique, was published in 2004.

In 1964 he founded his own research centre on comparative research on ancient societies. His group included expert historians and anthropologists on ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Africa and gave to religion a pivotal role in studying the various aspect of all societies. His centre was considered a real school of thought in comparative ancient anthropology and sociology. Nonetheless with time the researches became more focused on the classical world and in 1969 he handed over its direction to his friend and collaborator Pierre Vidal-Naquet (who died 29th July last year). His centre has become one of the most eminent schools of Greek and Roman history.

From 1975 he was Professor of comparative history of ancient religions at the Collège de France, where he was able to continue demonstrating the validity of his comparative approach. He used to say that focusing only on one culture makes you tend to forget the rest, and so you start and keep studying like there is no other possible culture. Nevertheless as soon as you widen your vision and compare the culture you are studying with others like Indian or Assyrian or Babylon’s, the whole perspective changes. The comparative method does not mean just compare diverse cultures, but mainly to change completely the way you approach the culture you are studying.

Vernant did not take for granted any classical Greek assumption. He was not simply one of the many praising ancient Greek culture, he wanted to understand the conscience and the feelings of the human beings immersed in that time and space, over two thousands years ago. His aim was to revitalise for research purposes, somehow, the social context of that golden Age by measuring the uniqueness, capabilities as well the gaps between the Greek man and us – who he considered his heirs… He was convinced that when comparing, differences should push the researcher to understand, to deepen and to comprehend the very reasons of diversity. Following his credo Vernant devoted all his life to study the Greek man, in any and all his expressions: religion, philosophy, conflict, literature, poetry, art, architecture, urbanistic, politics, science, exploration and technique, as he was positive that the Greek man cannot be considered separated by the social and urban structure he had lived in.

He said that man as we find as protagonist of the Greek tragedy is still particularly modern and present; meaning the enigmatic man, the man who has no choice but to follow the stream of the events; the man that contemplates, ponders and decides between two or more courses of action and yet afterwards recognises that the choice he made, and thought was the best one, is the worst. Often modern man – just like the heroes of ancient tragedy – when planning his life and goals tries to build up an ideal world, and yet probably reaches involuntarily the very opposite aim. This tragic feeling is stronger in our days since many things we gave for granted in the past now are not as certain as we supposed.

People should have come by now to realise that the efforts in programming their future, as history shows, may be vain and even, sometimes, disappointing.

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