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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from August 1, 2014 - August 31, 2014

Sunday
Aug312014

A Warning to the Curious

As I know very little about English geography – somewhat, I suppose, to my disappointment – it was not surprising to learn that the town of Seaburgh in this tale is really the town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk (Seaburgh does sound a mite Teutonic for an Anglian port). Further research informs me that the three crowns of Anglia, allegedly to be found in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex, do not fill the tomes of legend as one might have hoped – but all this is irrelevant. We do not need ancient Anglian monarchs, invading Vikings, or pristine topographical nomenclature to enjoy this author. Yet we do need England, and that we get in spades.

The beginning will not be easy to follow, a stratagem that is wholly intentional. About our first narrator we know almost nothing save a predilection since his earliest days for the Eastern port of Seaburgh ("It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child"). Although lush details "come crowding to the point of the pencil when it begins to write of" this salt-swept town, our nameless first narrator will soon pass the baton to a second, equally anonymous storyteller who had a very odd experience in Seaburgh with his now-deceased friend Henry Long one April month not so far back in our collective memory. Long and he pass the day in quiet boredom between golf rounds in a small hotel where they are some of the few lodgers. One fine day they receive a visit from one of the only other tenants:

So the ordinary public rooms were practically empty, and we were the more surprised when, after dinner, our sitting-room door opened, and a young man put his head in. We were aware of this young man. He was rather a rabbity anaemic subject light hair and light eyes but not unpleasing. So when he said: 'I beg your pardon, is this a private room?' we did not growl and say: 'Yes, it is,' but Long said, or I did no matter which: 'Please come in.' 'Oh, may I?' he said, and seemed relieved. Of course it was obvious that he wanted company; and as he was a reasonable kind of person not the sort to bestow his whole family history on you we urged him to make himself at home.

This young man, whose name turns out appropriately enough to be Paxton, will become our third narrator, and when he buttonholes a local rector in conversation about the Ager family, we have our fourth degree of narration in as many pages. The intention of such distancing is clear: if we are to feel drawn into a world that existed twelve centuries ago, our direct experience will be less useful than a pungent relay of generations imbuing the narrative with vitality and significance. No one at any time denies Paxton his claims, which are fantastic, nor the tale of the crowns themselves, "buried in different places near the coast to keep off the Danes or the French or the Germans." Why? Because while the first crown "was dug up at Rendlesham ... and melted down before it was even properly described," and the second lost in a "Saxon royal palace ... now under the sea," the third crown has been "left doing its work, keeping off invaders." And it just so happens that our third narrator was able to guess – well, perhaps that's not quite the right word – where its work was being done.

The rest of the story has much to do with an old Latin adage about character – but anyway, back to our man Paxton. Paxton's destiny is determined by his insatiable curiosity, hence our title, but we never get a clear picture of why he is so eager to know the secrets of the past, and this is the story's masterstroke. An explanation of his motivations would have isolated him among thousands of similar dramatis personae who want to know too much, as well as made for a rather non-universal ghost story. Paxton is no better or worse than any other mild-mannered, educated person; his only flaw is that he does not comprehend what even the feeblest display of arrogance might earn him. So when a local man jowers about a church's coat of arms and Paxton correctly identifies it as the three crowns of Anglia, he is then ushered to the rector who tells him in detail of the wilting Ager family and its role as the guardians of these crowns. The last of this line is Willam Ager, "who has only died fairly recently," and who apparently lived close on the burial spot of that third jewel. "So the last of the holy crowns," concludes the clergyman, "if it's there, has no guardian now." Thus perhaps we should not snicker at Paxton's odd coincidences in the days that followed that report:

'That was what the rector told me, and you can fancy how interesting I found it. The only thing I could think of when I left him was how to hit upon the spot where the crown was supposed to be. I wish I'd left it alone. But there was a sort of fate in it, for as I bicycled back past the churchyard wall my eye caught a fairly new gravestone, and on it was the name of William Ager. Of course I got off and read it. It said "of this parish, died at Seaburgh, 19, aged 28."' There it was, you see. A little judicious questioning in the right place, and I should at least find the cottage nearest the spot. Only I didn't quite know what was the right place to begin my questioning at. Again there was fate: it took me to the curiosity-shop down that way you know and I turned over some old books, and, if you please, one was a prayer-book of 1740 odd, in a rather handsome binding.'

What they find in that prayer-book will not be revealed here, but a page is kept open – come wind or weather, literally – with a razor blade for the duration of Paxton's suffering, with the razor blade at length offering our prospector an easier exit. The second narrator and the late Henry Long are helpful in their good-natured way, but even they recognize that in divulging their plans to save Paxton, "whispering seemed the proper tone," an opinion with which the reader will likely concur. 

James is always wonderful reading, some say the best to have around a wintry hearth and deathly stillness of a snowbound night, but I will leave that decision to how well you want to sleep. There is a faithful film version extant of A Warning to the Curious, back when the BBC was cultivating programs other than moronic miniseries on moronic monarchs, and when we were not quite as skeptical of the phenomena a good haunting entails. Why be skeptical? After all, believing that our world and its endless impediments conceal another, less objective reality seems to the modern mind to be a matter of choice. Paxton acted of his own free volition and paid oh so dearly. And if fata volentem ducunt, you should see what the fates do to the unwilling.

Wednesday
Aug272014

Vallejo, "Heces"

A work ("Sediment") by this Peruvian poet.  You can read the original here.

No evening's rain has been like this; 
And life, my heart, has little aim.  
Is sweetest eve therefore to blame?
Of grace and grief, a woman's kiss? 

This evening Lima rains, while I  
Recall ungrateful, cruel caves;  
My block of poppy-crushing ice    
Shall best her words that wish my change.

My black and violent buds; the vast     
Stone hail; the glacial distance roils; 
Her calm, so dignified, has cast              
A final point in burning oils.  

As ne'er before this eve shall I,
With heart and owl, defy the rain;   
As others pass and see me wane,  
And take a part of you that hides 
Amidst my brow's deep wrinkled pain.   

Few evenings' rain have been like now; 
And life, my heart, has slipped somehow.  

Sunday
Aug242014

Match Point

I have been to England on numerous occasions (my father studied there for many years) and even at a young age was able to discern the double-decker busloads of beautiful women, above all in London. London casts a particular spell over Americans as an old city of near unprecedented culture, but also because it does not take largesse of mind to buy into the whole jingbang. It is foreign although not in language or custom; it often sides with American policies and programs; and with the robust postwar change in demographics its multiethnicity will remind many a Yankee of home. Yet what keeps luring Americans over the pond is not only the relative ease of integration, but also a societal framework that maintains what can be rudely called a caste system and what is more properly termed cleanly leveled strata. You may be the shallowest, most fatuous, and most bigoted of the people in your neighborhood, and at the same time be the richest, most influential, and most respected – such are the privileges of nobility, something that United States law has always proscribed. And you may embody these characteristics just as thoroughly as your father and grandfather, and often precisely for that reason will you save face. The Johnny-come-latelies of the world, the self-made men and women who propel capitalism to its acme (and then, more often than not, precipitate its fire-winged demise) – these are not as readily accepted in Merrie Olde England or its modern successor. The British already have their upper class and there is, as the uppermost say, only so much room at the top. And while they have money and property, and often some meaningless title that appeals to a certain type of Philistine hero worship, they might have little else. No brains, no looks, no iota of culture, and worst of all, no decency. They wander through the halls of their ancient manors and feel redeemed because despite their obvious shortcomings they deserve all this; they tend to marry their peers because their peers understand them and wallow in their own justificatory fancies. Occasionally, however, outsiders approach the fold who fascinate these old bleaters, and there invariably ensues an insufferable discussion on what a man or woman of such status should do in this kind of situation (usually, find another bleater). Most of them rightly (and quite ironically) point out that the only things going for them are their money and prestige, which do tend to attract a large number of wolves. Two such beasts converge upon the foolish fold in this subtle and enticing film.

Our first lupine is Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an erstwhile tennis pro who now earns a living teaching some bleaters a spot of racket. Wilton is also of humble origin and, like Rhys Meyers, Irish, a profile that the film not so much broaches as allows to serve as the explanation for his resentment towards his patrons. We are not given much of a chance to see Wilton at work before he gives Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) a few pointers. Tom comes from a very wealthy family and has little to show for it apart from a decent face and good height; otherwise he is hardly distinguishable from a lamp post or praying mantis. After the lesson, they drink, smoke, and chat, and when the bill arrives, Wilton initially insists on paying. He will return again and again to emphasize that he does not need anyone's charity, and there are only two kinds of people obsessed with conveying such an impression: the very proud and those desperately seeking charity. The trouble with such parasitism is that its price often means doing something in exchange – like marrying Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Tom takes Chris to the opera to make his family's acquaintance and Chloe, an impulsive, annoying, and rather stupid young woman, decides that Chris meets her collection standards and asks off-screen that her father (Brian Cox) find him some gainful employment.

The Hewetts, we immediately suspect, are the type of wealthy people who think culture can be bought, and our suspicions are well-founded. They keep up appearances with a huge and dusty library (used only for heavy boozing and family spats), a spate of opera tickets (although they consider the musical adaptation of this nineteenth-century thriller a brilliant opus), and endless greed and snobbery. The impecunious Wilton is amenable to such a setup, although his beleaguered look informs us that he understands he is not really working for Hewett as much as promising never to leave his daughter. Yet just as this new life is about to take shape, he encounters a voluptuous if equally asinine female in Tom's American fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlet Johansson). What is fascinating about Nola is exactly what occurs: whatever you may think of Johansson's attractiveness – she is far more nubile than beautiful in any way – it is hard to see the allure on the part of two men who have a broad range of dating opportunities. As she says herself: "men tend to believe that I may be something special," which is one of the most accurate and trenchant descriptions of human impulsiveness. Nola cannot hold a conversation without either drinking, smoking, lamenting her hard luck as an aspiring actress, or mentioning the long parade of alcoholics and substance abusers in her family. To his credit, Tom grows weary of this routine and dumps Nola after about a year (we first meet them at their relationship's halfway mark), at which point she vanishes only to reappear to a married but bored Chris in this museum as if she herself were a work of art. Thereupon they begin a torrid affair that had one wet and wild antecedent in a rainy field while Tom was still tolerant of Nola's schemes. 

Nola's schemes? Isn't she nothing more than a harmless young actress from Boulder, Colorado? No confirmation is ever supplied because of the dénouement of a series of decisions by the characters, yet Nola has as much to lose as Chris does from her separation from the Hewetts and, more importantly, the endless source of Hewett funds. The twists and turns in Match Point, as well as the marvelous operatic soundtrack, turn out to be far more riveting than the explicitly stated motifs – chance, sport and gamesmanship, opportunity, ruthlessness – which is what usually happens when a fine work of art develops. Having opera as the background, almost as the music in Wilton's mind and what little is left of his soul, underscores the tragic elements and, indeed, about a third of the way through the film loses its last attempts to be funny or wry. This is a tragedy, pure and simple, and tragedy informs every one of the seemingly peripheral actions: from Wilton's learning the guns of his father-in-law, to his talking about a mouse and peanut butter, to his chats with a former tennis colleague as if the latter were his conscience, to the police detective's strong Scottish accent as he constantly interrupts the tall handsome neighbor who has a chance to thwart a crime. Peanut butter, we note, is a typically American snack and Nola does resemble a mouse at times, a mouse with a wolf-like appetite out for some of the finest cheese it could possibly find. So if, to our hedonistic ears, the film's title sounds more like a dating service than a tennis term, this would explain why no one in the film seems to listen to anyone else. And in this London that contains so much beauty and so many opportunities for both the sheep and the wolf, they're all a perfect match for one another.

Thursday
Aug212014

Novalis, "Elegie auf einen Kirchhof"

A poem ("Elegy to a churchyard") by this German writer, inspired by this famous work.  You can read the original here.

O churchyard richer than gold hall, 
More precious still than human binds;
Of noble blood you hide the lines,
Of sinners you conceal the fall. 

Drink now the tears to my loves cried,             
Loves resting here and undisturbed;                      
Wherefore went hours to time's sad swerve,          
That all of us in youth allied?                         

To darkling myrtle comes tears' stain   
Which feeds our love and lets it sprout;                     
So green to gird my wilted brow,          
My sounds, which only rendered pain.           

O churchyard borne by tearful leas,   
Of gloomy boy-lost days a friend, 
D'you often hear my hoarse laments, 
As I'm abandoned choicelessly?

Saturday
Aug162014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The premise made famous in this story has been used and reused in film and literature, most recently in this rather dreary production. The simplest of searches on the intergalactic weapon known as Google would tell you exactly what that premise is, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that we are introduced into an unforgiving realm in which death taps its scythe impatiently on our windowpane, and then instantaneously released from that selfsame realm. Where we are released, if that is really the right word, forms the exquisite details of the fate of Peyton Farquhar. 

We meet Farquhar "upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama," as he is about to hanged. From his demeanor he seems, however, to be a civilian. Why would a civilian be executed? That reason is given further into our story, when a serviceman calls upon the Farquhars as they sit in their spacious garden distant enough from the turfs of battle. Apparently, the Union troops are advancing, now even into Northern Alabama, and have reached a well-known point in local geography, Owl Creek bridge. The bridge, we and Farquhar learn, is but thirty miles off, far enough to keep his family safe but close enough to allow for a little adventure. A rather risky adventure at that, since the serviceman adds that "any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged." That would be sufficient for any family man to quell his urges for combat and praise whatever he finds holy that he has yet to be summoned for the inevitable madness that is war. Farquhar, of course, is of an entirely different opinion. Despite his not having accomplished much so far during the War of the States, it was not for a lack of enthusiasm:

Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

These two passages alert the reader to cause and effect, as well as to another dictum about one's character being one's destiny. We might feel pity for Farquhar in the first third of the story because he will die far from his wife and "little ones," but this pity is tempered by his political views and zealotry. He asks the soldier sipping his water how far Owl Creek bridge might be and, more importantly, what a fly in the ointment of the Union's plans might accomplish. When he learns that a great amount of driftwood has accumulated in the bridge's vicinity – very dry driftwood  his mind and strategy unite in decision.   

Apart from its outstanding structure and clarity, the value to Bierce's story lies in the beauty to which Farquhar is exposed upon his escape. Having leapt into the river, he is beset not by fear but by physical restraints, the least of which turns out to be his shackles. His physical senses now assume a "preternaturally keen and alert" state, and he could see things once unimaginable to his tired eyes  the veining of individual leaves, "brilliant-bodied flies," the "prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass." He also notices, importantly, his former captors, the half-dozen Union men who were planning to watch his neck snap. They sway in the distance in "grotesque and horrible" movements, and soon he pays them little more heed. Avoiding grapeshot and other missiles, Farquhar inhales deeply, perhaps spending an unusual amount of time underwater, before coming to land:

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round – spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men – all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color – that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream – the southern bank – and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape  he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

There is no reason to paper over Farquhar's satisfaction at having reached a small clearing amidst the forests of Eden. Nor can we begrudge his thinking that "gray eyes were the keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them" because he is a gray in spirit and approach. And what about his name? Farquhar may refer to a famous Union naval commander, or another man who participated in a Confederate defeat. But the ultimate reference might in fact be to an Irish playwright who died young and whose most famous work (which I happened to see at this theater seven years ago) has a title to match our Confederate's boldness. So although the soldier who accosts the Farquhars that fine autumnal afternoon is garbed in gray we shouldn't be fooled. And perhaps necessity does indeed invent everything one could possibly imagine.

Tuesday
Aug122014

The Mirror of the Magistrate

The secret to this tale from this collection is that we should have been paying attention from the very beginning, which may be the lesson folded into every Father Brown story. It has been debated, by people who like these types of debates and perhaps, when his great mind drifted among the mildest of cloud-banks, even Chesterton himself, whether his intellectual sketches featuring a small Catholic priest (and sometimes not even featuring; sometimes the insignificant-looking churchman just flutters in the shadows like a bat) were superior to these legendary mysteries. Well, they most certainly are and they most certainly aren't. In terms of style, profundity, and moral insight they trump well-nigh any other fictional works of similar length in the English language. But they aren't in one, very important regard: the adventures of Father Brown are hardly adventures at all. They are philosophical exercises, psychological games that assume, however unjustifiably, that the reader will accord every last detail the same amount of intense scrutiny and from these details derive the identity of the party or parties responsible. Responsible for what, you may ask? A crime, or two, or something that surely appears to be a crime but turns out to be an eccentricity or a hoax. In that respect, the tales of Father Brown are almost impossible to set to the screen (a fact that has not dissuaded a passel of attempts), owing in no small part to Brown's adamance on being meek, inconspicuous, and quietly observant; Holmes and Watson, on the other hand, were truly born to become celebrities. With that in mind we may proceed to the sad fate of Sir Humphrey Gwynne.

It is night in a "silent and seemingly lifeless labyrinth of [a] large suburb," and the night is patrolled by two men, one a professional in nocturnal investigation, the other an amateur. The professional, a Mr. James Bagshaw, has been haranguing the amateur, a Mr. Wilfred Underhill, on the shortcomings of detective fiction: to wit, "the only trade" consistently depicted in book after book "in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong" (Bagshaw, of course, is wrong about being wrong, but not for the right reasons). Before they hear gunshots – yes, there will be gunshots, but actually only the professional will hear them – Bagshaw presents his friend a scenario on which, from its polished logic, he has clearly been ruminating for a while. The subject, to no one's surprise, is the aforementioned celebrity sleuth:

Let's take any imaginary case of Sherlock Holmes, and Lestrade, the official detective. Sherlock Holmes, let us say, can guess that a total stranger crossing the street is a foreigner, merely because he seems to look for the traffic to go to the right instead of the left. I'm quite ready to admit Holmes might guess that. I'm quite sure Lestrade wouldn't guess anything of the kind. But what they leave out is the fact that the policeman, who couldn't guess, might very well know. Lestrade might know the man was a foreigner merely because his department has to keep an eye on all foreigners; some would say on all natives, too. As a policeman I'm glad the police know so much; for every man wants to do his job well. But as a citizen, I sometimes wonder whether they don't know too much.

We can safely assume that Bagshaw has never been to the United States, where ethnic diversity has made the detection of a foreigner a near-impossible task. That said, from mannerisms and dress, and sometimes even from facial expressions, I believe an observant native can distinguish someone raised in his home country from someone who grew up under alien mores. Two shots ring out and our semi-professional duo races off in the direction of "that paradise of peace and legality," the back garden of Sir Humphrey, known popularly as Mr. Justice Gwynne, "the old judge who made such a row about spying during the war." There they find a series of odds and ends in human form: Michael Flood, an Irish journalist who decided to enter the estate by clambering up its garden wall; Green, the man-servant of Mr. Gwynne who, although quite at home in this "paradise of peace," was said to have most recently come to work by the same method as the Irish journalist; and finally, a poet by the name of Osric Orm. Orm was introduced to us much earlier, as it were, right after Bagshaw's little exemplum about what separates the professional and the amateur policeman. Orm is a "literary man of Anglo-Roumanian extraction .... one of the new poets, and pretty steep to read," which makes it clear that not only does Bagshaw have no idea who the "new poets" may be, he has also never read Orm or, for that matter, any other poet. So when Mr. Justice Gwynne is found face down in his otherwise serene garden pond and an "Anglo-Roumanian" neighbor is also found wandering about in that way so commonly incident to poets who compose while they stroll for hours, there is nothing for Mr. Bagshaw to do but take the foreigner into custody.

The story's title is an allusion to this old collection of didactic works which, I suppose, hardly anyone reads nowadays, although I should be careful not to presume too much about others' reading habits. What we can presume is that Chesterton does not think much of men of title and rank. If he did, he wouldn't make so many of them the victims and culprits in his stories (that he almost never includes significant female characters, however, does not mean that he does not think much of them; in fact, it might mean that he thinks the world of them). We do not know anything about Judge Gwynne in life since he very inconsiderately spends the entire tale deceased; what we do know is that if there were one thing the old judge could not suffer, it was treason, be it in the form of a communist (Orm gets shoved brutally into this gaping pit) or, far worse, from someone who has all the power and responsibility an Englishman could reasonably attain and yet still chooses to do ill. And ill cannot be done by doing nothing.

Monday
Aug042014

La Beatrice di Dante

The concluding part to an essay ("Dante's Beatrice") by this Italian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

In The New Life, therefore, we have a Beatrice oscillating between woman and angel; in The Banquet, a Beatrice consumptive from symbol and allegory, a creature without blood or flesh like Anacreon's cicada; in The Divine Comedy, in which everything is completed and merged, here we find ourselves face to face with a whole Beatrice, simultaneously woman and angel, sentiment and reason, symbol and reality. Sketched from the sentiment in The New Life, affected by The Banquet's syllogisms, she is represented as completely derived from the genius of The Divine Comedy, in which Faith, Science, and Art beautifully embrace one another like The Three Graces of Canova.

For sure, we do not find herein all the characteristics of a mortal creature, transported alive and palpitating from the immortal realm of art; nor are we speaking directly and powerfully to the heart like Francesca, Desdemona, or Margarete. Yet I say given such a Beatrice, this youngest of angelets, quickly vanished from the world in this way. And given all the circumstances of time and place in which she was born and in which the genius, the love, the character, and the poetry of Dante occurred, she is as she ought to have been. She is not an idea or the symbol of art embodied in a living creature, but a living creature whom Faith, Science, and Art lift upon their wings and then confuse with the light of the supernatural and the infinite.

If you were to snatch her from such an environment, she would lose both substance and life; and she would be destroyed by your hands like the delicate wings of a butterfly. Behold her from afar and leave her in that world in which she was born and where she grew up. Then you will see her drawn only against a diffuse light, like the image of the Madonna seen in dreams and depicted by Fra Angelico. This Beatrice, however, as it were, does not miraculously leap out from the brain of Dante. She is the result of a slow and extremely long elaboration, not only from the mind of our Poet, but also from tradition and the popular poetic consciousness.

Works of art in accordance with the laws are the processes of the creations of nature: isolated phenomena that do not simply appear, but rather are derived from the miraculous disruption of laws. Everything is the product of an ordered and more or less visible labor, and only in a state of superstitious ignorance could one call portentous the existence of a fact whose concatenations and projections are not known. Since art was able to reach all representations of Beatrice, the hetaera of Athens and the matron of Rome would have had to transform themselves gradually into the woman of the Gospels; that Semele and Psyche, victims of the supernatural, became the Virgin Mother, spouse of the Holy Spirit, indicate origins of divinity incarnate.

The religion of Christ provided art with two types of women: the virgin mother – the enigma – and the regenerate adulteress – the scandal. The first is thrust into flight on the art of the supernatural, that is, of mystery, and was the legitimate mother of all the madonnas sung by the medieval poets, in particular by our poets who have babbled on in this matter almost until now. The second, placing art on that spectrum between forgivable and forgiven sensuality, flies upon faith, on the florid path, to slide back ultimately into the brothel. Manon Lescaut, Marion Delorme, and La Dame aux camélias are natural outgrowths of the famous phrase: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

From all these evanescent madonnas of the Platonic Italian cycle, the firmest, most decisive and most luxuriant figure is certainly that of Beatrice, who is not a complete woman, but rather a complete creature of art. Mandetta, Selvaggia, Laura, to name only some of the most beautiful, remain inferior to the creation of Dante: they have less of the symbolic and more of the real. They are neither women nor ideas; their beloved names are repeated in all tones and with all the sweetness of their lovers. The being who is complete, human, and living, the true divination of the woman of medieval art, is Francesca. She is neither an angel nor a prostitute, but very humanly and almost fatally culpable; not wholly damned by an ascetic and Pharisee art, and not wholly regenerated by an art that is both stingily liberal and unabashedly vulgar. Thus she is a complete woman in the human and artistic sense of the word, whose fatal weakness is a piteous halo, the infinite martyrdom, and love.

After her we would be at pains to find in all of Italian poetry a perfect figure of woman. In Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, Sophronia is a statue, Erminia an idyll, Armida an animate symbol recalling both Medea and Ariadne. Ariosto's women are either extravagantly true or extravagantly beautiful: either they are stern and indifferent warriors who later evaporate in a pastoral honeymoon, or legendary figures of magic, or adventurers of seductive nakedness. The best of all of them, Olympia, is simply the restoration of two ancient pictures: one painted by Catullus on two old designs from Euripides and Apollonius of Rhodes; the other a watercolor on similar plans by Ovid.   

For the poets of the sixteenth century, woman was either a sheet of white paper on which their Platonic courtesan songs were inscribed in a beautiful hand, or a filthy sheet of paper on which, gentlemen as they were, they dared to write nothing, leaving to Marino the glory of capsizing on the splendid cornucopia of his obscenities. Among the women of modern poetry, noteworthy are only those of Leopardi; yet Eloisa, Aspasia, and Nerina do not actually live from a life of their own, as they are merely reflections of the poet's soul. 

Of the others it is better not to say a word. It is not worth mentioning that they remain figurines of decalcomania carved with the base shears of Romantic sentimentalism and badly glued to the bottom of a cooking tray, from which the only thing that might surface is the covetous scent of a prepared dish and a simpering crowd of convalescents. Very few of these accused parties, yawning, show any sign of life, because even those born with scrofula would go to take a cure at an ospizio marino.

Our poets need to persuade themselves one blessed time that they may write about their pastoral visions and their stoves, that they may descend from their clouds in which they have lived hitherto, that they may live on earth with mankind and breathe with full lungs the wholesome oxygen of reality. Woman here will not be as singularly feminine as in novels; she will not dominate them like she dominates gentlemen; she will not be an idea or a symbol as in Platonic writings. She will no longer be in the heavens or on the altar, but on earth, amid society, and first and foremost in the family, which is the true domain and perhaps the only one of her virtues.