Tag Archives: Italian Literature

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

Macrobius was a Roman grammarian, philosopher and author who lived and produced his most important work, the Saturnalia, in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The Saturnalia is a symposium, a conversation among friends, that takes place on the day before and three days during the Saturnalia, the festival dedicated to celebrating the harvest and the Roman god Saturn. The conversation encompasses a wide range of topics that include religion, literature, philosophy and rhetoric. In Book 1, a dinner guest describes the Egyptian belief that four important deities preside over the birth of every human (this translation is my own):

The Egyptians explain the significance of the Caduceus at the begetting of all humans, which is called genesis, by saying that there are four gods present at the birth of each person: Daimon (Spirit), Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), Ananke (Necessity). The first two they wish to be understood as the sun and the moon, because the sun is the source of spirit, heat and light and both the procreator of human life and its guardian, and thus it is the Daimon or the deity of a person being born; the moon, however, is Tyche, because she is the guardian of bodies which are thrown about by the varieties of fortune. Love is signified by a kiss; nesessity is signified by a nod.

Giorgio Agamben, in his latest short philosophical work entitled The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa), borrows these four gods from Macrobius to build his discussion and definition of the word “adventure.” And following the example of Goethe, who, in his Urworte, adds Elpis (hope), Agamben translates these deities as Demon, Event, Love, Necessity and Hope. He writes, “Every human is caught up in the adventure; for this reason, every human deals with Daimon, Eros, Ananke, and Elpis. They are the faces—or masks—that adventure—tyche—presents us with at each turn.” Agamben argues against the modern definition of adventure, which is seen as an event that is strange and out-of-the-ordinary, and wants to replace it with a more universal term that corresponds to our everyday Being and experience in the world. “The idea that adventure is something external—and therefore eccentric and bizarre—with respect to ordinary life defines its modern conception,” he asserts.

Agamben begins, as usual, with the history and etymology of the word “adventure”; previous authors have argued that the term comes from the Latin advenio as the neuter, plural, future, active participle—adventura. But, Agamben points out, there is no proof of its use in Classical Latin. He concludes, “Whether it derives from the classical and Christian Latin adventus (the advent of a prince or a messiah), as is likely, or from eventus, as the late Du Cange suggested, the term designates something mysterious or marvelous that happens to a given man, which could be equally positive or negative.” And in the love poetry of the troubadours, adventure is used to describe not only the event but also the story that is told about the event:

The aventure (or aventiure) may be marvelous or fortuitous (in which case it means “chance”), beneficial or malefic (one will then call it bonne or male aventure; the term seems to be equivalent to “fate” or “fortune”), or more or less perilous (it will thus stand as a challenge to the knight’s courage); however, it is not always easy to distinguish between the event and its transposition into words.

It is this medieval idea of adventure towards which we ought to return, Agamben argues. In the next two chapters he elaborates on the influence that Eros (Love) and Tyche (Event) have on the concept of adventure. Eros is the very thing that gives life to the demon, it is Eros that drives us to abandon ourselves to the adventure and the event without reservations. Eros and adventure are intertwined “..not because love gives meaning and legitimacy to adventure, but, on the contrary because only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love.” And, as far as the event is concerned, “Not only are the event and speech given together in the adventure but—as we saw—the latter always demands a subject to whom it must be told.” A refreshing, hopeful, even playful definition of adventure emerges from Agamben’s essay. In the concluding chapter, Elpis (Hope), is the concept that links all of the other ideas together. But this is not the modern concept of hope from silly Internet memes or self-help gurus; it is more immediate, in the here and now, the hope that affects the essence of our Being daily: “Just as hope overcomes its satisfaction, so too does it surpass salvation (and love).”

I have read this delightful book a few times since last week and one thing that has bothered me about it is the translation of the Ancient Greek word daimon as “demon.” Although it can be used as an alternative for “daemon” (a spirit or numen), demon, in the monotheistic, Christian sense, has a decidedly negative connotation as something evil. In Ancient Greek daimon is used to denote a spirit in relation to a deity, and can also be translated as “power” or “fate”. Macrobius’ description, cited above, of the Egyptians belief that it is the source of heat, light and a guardian for humans at birth is very similar to the Ancient Greek understanding of it. (I’ve discussed the word daimon more thoroughly elsewhere in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy in a review of Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides Bakkhai.) Agamben is arguing that this spirit, this Being, present at birth is the every day, driving force behind adventure. Maybe I am mistaken, but it seems that an English speaking audience would automatically assume that demon is used in the negative, Christian context. I don’t have access to the Italian text, but I wonder what the word for daimon is in Italian and if it is closer to the original Ancient Greek meaning? Perhaps it would have been more beneficial for the sake of his argument if the translator used the Latin word daemon or, better yet, left it untranslated as daimon?

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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Doing Well What Men Do: Artemisia by Anna Banti

Judith Slaying Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi. 1620.

Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Banti’s Artemisia which is translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, writes:

Aptly enough, the name Artemisia is associated with female assertiveness, with women doing well what men do.  In Greek mythology, Artemis—Artemisia means follower of Artemis—is the goddess of the hunt.  In history—Herodotus’s great History, which recounts the attempt of the Persian empire to conquer the tiny, independent Greek city-states on the northwest edge of Xerxes’s vast domains—it is the name of a queen and military leader: Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia, who joined the Persians and was put in command by Xerxes of five of his ships.

As vocations go, a Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a seventeenth-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with Biblical or classical subjects—many of which depict women’s rage and women’s victimization.

Instead of choosing to focus on Artemisia’s assault and embarrassing public trial and torture,  Banti chooses other episodes in the painter’s life that display her assertiveness and her “doing well what men do.”  This is not a traditional, linear narrative with a clean plot; Banti is having a conversation with her protagonist and chooses to recreate scenes in her life that show her independence and resilience.  For example, there is a long description of Artemisia’s time in Florence where she works on her Judith Slaying Holofernes masterpiece.  As she is painting, five Florentine society women watch her and gossip; the contrast between these silly onlookers and the artist is highlighted in Banti’s text:

She who used to be so shy if her brother even looked at a drawing of hers, had grown accustomed to the remarks these women made and to their lack of discretion with an indifference that did not even surprise her.  And sometimes, getting hurriedly to her feel and going resolutely over to the model to arrange him in a position more in keeping with her purpose, it would happen that she might trample the hem of a dress, or bump into a curved shoulder without apologizing, so little did their presence count for her.

Her painting is triumphantly presented to the Grand Duke, but, despite her growing fame, she travels back to Rome where her husband is living.  For a very brief time she is content living with Antonio, a humble, hardworking man who is kind, gentle, and loving to her.  But when she is given an apartment and is commissioned for a series of paintings for the upper classes of Rome, she rebukes him for not fitting into her new society.  This is one of the saddest parts of the story because Artemisia chooses her work over her husband who feels that he has no choice but to leave her.  For the rest of her life she is haunted by the happiness she once felt for him and wonders if she made the correct decision.

A large part of the narrative at the end of the book is taken up with her voyage by ship to London where she will live with her father at the court of the Queen.  She is scared to travel so far all alone, but once again asserts her independence and her assertiveness. The journey is a fitting scene that reflects the entirety of her itinerant life and her struggle to be accepted by her friends, family and her husband.  As the ship sways and rocks her into a state of solitary reflection she thinks to herself:

She contrived then to call to mind all her own faults: how she used to remain stubbornly silent at her husband’s attentions; how, confident of his devotion, she would bask in it without care, almost without really enjoying it, believing herself to be free, owing him nothing in return.  And how she used to reproach him for his lowly station, his wretched job, his moodiness.  And how that last time, when she had been angry, she should have realized how afraid he was of her.  He had left: but she had been sure of his love….The untouchable, external object blocks her investigation at this point, taking over as though alive.  The tears gushed forth once more, dried by the salty wind.

It is so sad and tragic that Artemisia had to choose between her art and her love.  I feel like I could read this book many times over and find different scenes in it to grab my attention. It is a difficult book to write about but would make for a very interesting discussion.  I would love to hear other opinions of the book.  What scenes stood out to you?  What themes/motifs do you remember from Banti’s narrative?

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My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella