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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Penelope revisited

Well known also to the non classicists and most certainly famous to a wider public for her faithfulness and her never ending thread, Penelope is still nowadays used a stereotypical example of the trustworthy and forgiving wife, a patiently loving companion who awaits in anguish and cries aloud for her husband Odysseus to return, pushing away the uncouth attempts of very many (one hundred and eight for the records…) of unappeasable suitors.

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These qualities are very well described along the verses of The Odyssey and in several occasions they are reaffirmed and corroborated. First of all Penelope is often reported to be wise and witty:

with a grace divine her soul is blest,
And all Athena breathes within her breast
In wondrous arts than woman more renown’d,
And more than woman with deep wisdom crown’d;
Though Tyro nor Mycene match her name,
Not great Alcmena (the proud boasts of fame);
Yet thus by heaven adorn’d, by heaven’s decree
She shines with fatal excellence, to thee

She is also shrewd, when for instance she devises the famous everlasting thread; as well as when she uses the bed trick to prove her alleged husband’s identity:

The secrets of the bridal bed are known
To thee, to me, to Actoris alone
(My father’s present in the spousal hour,
The sole attendant on our genial bower).
Since what no eye hath seen thy tongue reveal’d
Hard and distrustful as I am, I yield.”

Penelope is also very beautiful and experienced at the loom, two additional fundamental qualities for an ancient Greek house-woman:

Reflecting to the queen the silver sounds.
With grief renew’d the weeping fair descends;
Their sovereign’s step a virgin train attends:
A veil, of richest texture wrought, she wears,
And silent to the joyous hall repairs.
There from the portal, with her mild command,

But most important of all she knows her place as a woman, as for instance when more than once she obeys to her son’s order to retire in her quarters and devote her to the loom and other womanly activities instead of disturbing the men’s feast:

But bold Telemachus assumed the man.
“Instant (he cried) your female discord end,
Ye deedless boasters! and the song attend;
Obey that sweet compulsion, nor profane
With dissonance the smooth melodious strain.
Pacific now prolong the jovial feast

Thus at first sight Penelope embodies all the qualities that a woman was supposed to have in accordance with the archaic – and then even classic – Greek lifestyle, tradition and social customs. Nevertheless there are several instances that reveal a different character, a perspective into which Penelope seems quite shady and to a certain extent more real and womanly than how she has been portrayed. Penelope is self conscious of her beauty and endowments and often uses them to flirt, perhaps just to satisfy her petty vanity, with her suitors:

Thus wailing, slow and sadly she descends,
On either band a damsel train attends:
Full where the dome its shining valves expands,
Radiant before the gazing peers she stands;
A veil translucent o’er her brow display’d,
Her beauty seems, and only seems, to shade:
Sudden she lightens in their dazzled eyes,
And sudden flames in every bosom rise;
They send their eager souls with every look.
Till silence thus the imperial matron broke:

Additionally she does not seem so firm in her decision of waiting for Odysseus to come back instead of marrying and starting a new life, as she simply confesses:

My mind, reflective, in a thorny maze
Devious from care to care incessant strays.
Now, wavering doubt succeeds to long despair;
Shall I my virgin nuptial vow revere;
And, joining to my son’s my menial train,
Partake his counsels, and assist his reign?

And meanwhile she is pondering as whether to get married again or not, she too often seems to manoeuvre and double cross her suitors, probably only out of female narcissism or perhaps purposely, by accepting gifts and exchanging messages with more than one of them, as Antinous says:

δη γρ τρτον στν τος, τχα δ εσι τταρτον,
ξ ο τμβει θυμν ν στθεσσιν χαιν.
πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν.
[…this is already the third year and the forth one is coming
that she deceives and makes fun of our hearts
she instills hopes and makes promises to everyone
by sending messages…]

Accordingly also Athena warns Odysseus while he is still away on the disputable behaviour of his alleged loyal wife who is playing along with each of the suitors by sending messages to them all:

πντας μν ῥ᾽ λπει κα πσχεται νδρ κστ,
γγελας προϊεσα, νος δ ο λλα μενοιν

Moreover Penelope shows even some greed, when she solicits riches by lamenting the absolute lack of gifts that the suitors are instead, according to the tradition, supposed to bring since her wedding choice/date is approaching. This witty and soft reproach will induce the suitors to profuse themselves in precious gifts that she will immediately accept and store – instead of refusing with disdain:

ς φατ ντνοος, τοσιν δ πινδανε μθος·
δρα δ ρ οσμεναι πρεσαν κρυκα καστος.
ντινόῳ μν νεικε μγαν περικαλλα ππλον,
ποικλον· ν δ ρ σαν περναι δυοκαδεκα πσαι
χρσειαι, κλησιν ϋγνμπτοις ραρυαι.
ρμον δ Ερυμχ πολυδαδαλον ατκ νεικε.
χρσεον, λκτροισιν ερμνον ἠέλιον ς.
ρματα δ Ερυδμαντι δω θερποντες νεικαν,
τργληνα μορεντα· χρις δ πελμπετο πολλ.
κ δ ρα Πεισνδροιο Πολυκτορδαο νακτος
σθμιον νεικεν θερπων, περικαλλς γαλμα.
λλο δ ρ λλος δρον χαιν καλν νεικεν.
μν πειτ νβαιν περϊα δα γυναικν,
τ δ ρ μ μφπολοι φερον περικαλλα δρα
ο δ ες ρχηστν τε κα μερεσσαν οιδν
τρεψμενοι τρποντο, μνον δ π σπερον λθεν

I guess that perhaps to better understand this rather ambiguous character it should be taken in consideration the strong educational and moral weight and importance that Homer’s poems had to have on entire generations of ancient Greeks. This would probably explain in a cultural perspective that even a positive character as the multi-quality Penelope is nevertheless always a woman, and therefore someone to be sceptic about “by principle” according to Greek moral, experience and ethic. And in fact even Odysseus, the shrewdest man known, will reveal his own identity to his wife only at the very last: she will eventually know that her husband is back only after his father, his son, his swineherd and his wet-nurse have… and when he finally unveils she justifies her coldness and scepticism by saying:

Against the fondness of my heart I strove:
’Twas caution, O my lord! not want of love.

Should we believe her?

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