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Art and Eschatology


Eschatology is enjoying a heyday.
Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars, have all intensified the impression that human ‘civilization’ is accelerating towards self destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance.
In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book, political persuasion being the most obvious; it is almost a rule that the big literary prizes go to those writers involved in a political struggle or simply siding with the victims in the world’s upheavals. Indeed, a political ‘alibi’ of this kind seems almost essential for a ‘serious’ novelist nowadays.
At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding a political axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most ‘useful’ when, to all intents and purposes, most ‘irrelevant’. (Continued)

Prajapati

Prajapati was alone. He didn’t even know whether he existed or not.

I too am alone. It’s fairly early in the morning. About 8.30. I am translating a book by an Italian writer called Roberto Calasso. The book is called Ka and amounts to a creative reconstruction of Indian mythology. The lines above are the first lines of the second chapter. This chapter deals with the god Prajapati, the oldest and first god, the Progenitor, and what is worrying me is that the Italian says, ‘Non sapeva neppure se esisteva o non esisteva.’ Should I have written: ‘He didn’t even know whether he existed or didn’t exist’? Why does that sound rather odd to me in English, but not in Italian? Was the repetition of a key verb like ‘exist’ important? How far does the English auxiliary ‘didn’t’ truly recall the verb it picks up? I can’t decide. And frankly, although alone, I am very aware of existing. I tend to fidget when there’s a problem, right hand thrust in my hair, toes twitching in sandals, because the day is hot, promises to be hotter. For a moment my body gets in the way of my mind. Then I decide that the best thing you can do with an intuition is go with it. (Continued)

Hell & Back

“Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks Jesus. “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor,” is the reply, “and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” At which the rich man is sorrowful and turns away. “It is easier,” Jesus remarks to his disciples, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Some 1300 years later, banished from his native Florence and thus largely bereft of this world’s goods, Dante Alighieri, politician, poet, and philosopher, was nevertheless still having trouble threading the eye of that needle. It seems there are other attachments aside from wealth that make it difficult for us to turn our backs on this world. Passion for one: Dante had loved a woman who rejected him, married someone else, then compounded the affront by dying young and thus remaining forever desirable. Ambition was another: aside from a cycle of secular love poems, Dante had written a provocative work of political philosophy suggesting the kind of state in which man would be free to pursue perfection. It was not a scenario in which divine grace appeared to be very important. Now, quite suddenly, he found himself confused, disoriented:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

So begins the Inferno. It’s a feeling that many approach¬ing forty, as Dante was when he wrote the lines, will recognise. How to proceed? As daylight breaks in the dark wood, the poet sees a mountain before him. It is Purgatory, it is the way to Paradise. All is well. But suddenly three ferocious beasts are blocking his path. The needle’s eye is defended by a wolf, a leopard, a lion. They are lust pride and avarice, say some commentators. They are incontinence malice and mad brutishness say others. They are Dante’s Florentine enemies the French monarchy and the papacy, say yet others. Whatever or whoever, they are insuperable. (Continued)

Action Please!

The ancients loved action in their stories, and above all violent conflict, which was the testing ground of heroes. Here’s Homer:

Then royal Aias in his turn launched his long-shadowed spear. The heavy weapon struck the round shield of Priam’s son. It pierced the gleaming shield, forced its way through the ornate cuirass, and pressing straight on, tore the tunic on Hector’s flank. But he had swerved, and so avoided death. And now the pair, when each had pulled his long spear out, fell on each other like flesh-eating lions, or like wild boars, whose strength is not to be despised… (Continued)

Cleaver

In the autumn of 2004, shortly after his memorable interview with the President of the United States and following the publication of his elder son’s novelised autobiography, cruelly entitled Under His Shadow, celebrity journalist, broadcaster and documentary film-maker Harold Cleaver boarded a British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Milan Malpensa, proceeded by Italian railways as far as Bruneck in the South Tyrol and thence by taxi, northwards, to the village of Luttach only a few kilometres from the Austrian border, from whence he hoped to find some remote mountain habitation in which to spend the next, if not necessarily the last, years of his life. Ratting on your responsibilities, had been Amanda’s inter¬preta¬tion. She is the mother of his children. The responsibilities of a man at my time of life, the eminent and overweight Cleaver told his partner of thirty years, can be no more than financial, and, acting on a decision taken only hours before, he signed over to her a very considerable sum of money of which neither she nor their three surviving children could possibly have any immediate need, with the exception perhaps of the younger son Phillip who was always in need, but never accepted anything. (Continued)

Garibaldi – The Fighter

Suddenly you are looking in his eyes. Officially they’re brown, but for you they’ll always be blue. He is speaking in a soft, seductive voice. Glory if you follow, eternal shame if you don’t. Rome or Death. In a moment your destiny shifts. Incredibly, you have volunteered. You are given a red shirt an obsolete rifle, a bayonet. You are taught to sing a hymn full of antique rhetoric recalling a magnificent past, foreseeing a triumphant future. You learn to march at night under all weathers over the most rugged terrain, to sleep on the bare ground, to forget regular meals, to charge under fire at disciplined men in uniform. You learn to kill with your bayonet. You see your friends killed. You grow familiar with the shrieks of the wounded, the stench of corpses. If you turn tail in battle, you will be shot. Those are his orders. If you loot you will be shot. You write enthusiastic letters home. You have discovered patriotism and comradeship. You have been welcomed by cheering crowds, kissed by admiring young women. Italy will be restored to greatness. From Sicily to the Alps your country will be free. Then, with no warning, it’s over. A politician has not kept faith. An armistice has been signed. Your leader is furious. You hardly understand. Rome is still a dream. Disbanded, you receive nothing: no money, no respect, no help to find work. But years later when he calls again, you go. You will follow him to your death.
Such was the experience of many thousands of Italians who volunteered to fight with the insurgent, adventurer and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi in the series of uprisings, battles and full-scale wars that finally brought about a unified and independent Italy in 1860. The long and mountainous peninsula had been broken up into a dozen and more states after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Through the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance these had at least been run by Italians, but around 1500 French, Spanish and later Austrians armies moved in to place client monarchs on Italian thrones and in some cases to annex territory directly. (Continued)

Latin Lover Meets Lazio

Is there any more subtle relief than when, opening your wallet to pay some miserable bill, you find between the bank-notes a ticket for a big match: “Lazio vs Verona, Stadio Olimpico Roma. Settore ospiti.” Future pleasures assured, strong emotions guaranteed, it no longer seems so bad shelling out for some ridiculous request of the wife’s, some expensive necessity of your kids’ education.
And can there be any finer feeling than that moment, walking north along the Tiber out of Rome, when the casual Sunday passers-by are all at once transformed into a purposeful crowd, the lads with their flags, the old men with their scarves and seat cushions? People are headed for the stadium. Only an hour and a half to go before kick off.
Beer and sandwich beside me, I sat on the parapet of the Ponte Duca D’Aosta to soak up the scene and see what the local paper had to say about the game. After yet another defeat, the Hellas boys are in disarray. Their big Danish central defender Martin Laursen has accused his team-mates of not trying. Perhaps the team is about to go to pieces.
But Il Messaggero had nothing to say about the explosive situation in Verona’s dressing room. Instead the paper was concentrating all its attention on another dysfunctional family: in the small northern town of Novi Ligure a sixteen year old girl and her boyfriend had stabbed to death the girl’s mother and younger brother. “She was a completely normal and very charming girl,” says the next door neighbour. (Continued)

Night Walk

The Ston’ench, so-called, or so pronounced, closed a while back, robbing us of our only local. Now it has reopened as Il Ranch Roccie Rosse and late on a Saturday evening, under considerable pressure from a bored twelve-year-old, I and my wife Rita are being pushed out of the house to go and investigate. “At least a Coke,” she demands.
That’s the Stonehenge, for those unfamiliar with an Italian take on English names, and the Red Rock Ranch. The place is just over a mile to the south following one of the steep ridges that run down from the Alps into the north Italian plain.
“Only if you walk it,” I tell Lucia.
It’s a condition that will usually stymie any proposal coming from a daughter who is sloth incarnate. But the girl is immediately on her feet rummaging for torches. A night walk is different; especially cross-country in pitch dark or starlight. We’ll have to pass the Witches’ Fountain, the Pilotòn, the Castello di Montorio. Lucia loves horror films. She loves being safely scared. “But Dad can walk ahead,” she says slamming the door behind us, “to break the cobwebs across the path.” She hates cobwebs. (Continued)

The Players

(from A Season with Verona)

By age 10 their skills are evident. Their mothers are shrieking on the sidelines. Talent scouts are offering advice. By age 15 they are in a football college. They survive one selection after another. They see other boys leave, hanging their heads. Sensing they are destined for glory, they go to bed early, dreaming of the turf at San Siro, at the Olimpico. On the telephone Mamma and Papà urge them on. Their few old friends urge them on. They don’t drink and they don’t smoke. Their diet is controlled. The training is exhausting. By 17 or 18 they are playing in Serie C, or sitting on the bench in Serie B. Solemn men in heavy coats gamble on their future. They are bought and sold. A billion Lire this year, five billion next. They are shunted up and down the length of the bel paese, Treviso, Taranto, Palermo, Turin. They know no-one outside the world of football now. They hardly know what to say to a person who is not a player or a manager or a journalist. Or at least a fan. Is there anybody who is not a football fan? (Continued)

Girls & Goals

My friend Simone and I have been concerned for some time about a mutual friend, Massimo, a man in his fifties. His affair with a plain young Neapolitan girl, barely twenty-three, has being going on for almost three years. Every week, twice or three times, he risks all kinds of trouble with wife and family to see the girl. Exasperated, Simone, a Milanista, tells me: “I said to him, Massi, I said, I have the video of Milan beating Benfica to win the Champions Cup. Fantastic game, historic moment. Orgasm for the rossoneri. I’ve seen it, what, a dozen times? But in the end, enough is enough! Understand? How many times can you watch Frankie Rijkaard slotting it in? People start to find you weird. Get on with something else!”
How many times? In Germany on business I check into my hotel around one in the morning, pull out a beer from the fridge and turn on the television. The only channels I can get are showing pornography or football. Girls or goals. And zapping back and forth between a long-haired caveman who just goes on and on pressing his enviable torso against beauties of various ethnicities, and then all the goals in the French, Spanish and even African leagues, I’m suddenly struck by how much football and eroticism have in common. There’s an inevitable sameness about each game, each sexual encounter, yet a seemingly inexhaustible yearning to repeat. Time after time. Now the Neanderthal is crushing a cheerful little Asian girl, but he still has the same glazed look in his piggy eyes. Now it’s Zidane shooting into the top left corner, but the ecstatic embraces are always the same, likewise the goalkeeper’s remonstrations with the linesman. (Continued)