Friday, 17 August 2007

Is the Earth More Free?

“…Watch the manoeuvres of the week-end hikers
Massed on parade with Kodaks or with Leicas…”
Letter to Lord Byron

At the beginning of this trip I wrote of W.H. Auden’s poem, “Dover” which caught so well the essential nature of Kent’s port town - and gateway to Europe – seventy years ago. Shortly before the poet’s stay there with Isherwood in 1937, Auden visited Iceland. Which produced the long state of the nation (seen from away, home thoughts and all that) poem: “Letter to Lord Byron.” It is a (highly sophisticated) kind of blogging in transit, and conversation across time.

“For since the British Isles went Protestant
A church confession is too high for most.
But still confession is a human want,
So Englishmen must makes theirs now by post
And authors hear them over breakfast toast.
For, failing them, there’s nothing but the wall
Of public lavatories on which to scrawl.

…I have, at the age of twenty-nine
Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.

I want a form that’s large enough to swim in,
And talk on any subject that I choose,
From natural scenery to men and women,
Myself, the arts, the European news:
And since she’s on a holiday, my muse
Is out to please, find everything delightful
And only now and then be mildly spiteful."

Auden celebrates in imitation (though not content) a man, a style, and an approach that doesn’t appear to resonate so well with our times. He echoes both Byron’s “Don Juan” and “Child Harold”.

Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know, represents the spirit of a different age, and though his “idea” has had many revivals since the early part of the nineteenth century, I reckon his stock is low at the moment. Or as Auden wrote of his own time in the mid 1930s:

“The vogue for Black Mass and the cult of devils
Has sunk. The Good, the Beautiful, the True
Still fluctuate about the lower levels
Joyces are firm and there there’s nothing new
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts
There’s been some further weakening in Prousts”

At my school in the 1970s Byron’s fellow “Romantic poets” Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge got a better press; Byron was always thought a little “light”. Reading Byron later in life his poetry comes across as remarkably modern: worldly, serious and yet effortless. His life – and certainly his loves – speaks to that rock and roll lifestyle that might have happened in the sixties and seventies, whilst his work reflects a high and subtle intelligence utterly lacking the ponderous emphasis of a Wordsworth; these days a McEwan. “Child Harold” gives us the fully rounded, fatally flawed “Byronic” hero, filled with ennui, in search of something.

Child Harold is a long verse drama; its protagonist is an English nobleman making a Tom-style grand tour of Europe, albeit with a little more action with the ladies. More than this the places he visits give up a little of their stories as he wanders, post the Napoleonic wars…

“…Gaul may champ the bit
And foam in fetters; - but is the Earth more free?”

…in search of an elusive way to be. One academic writes that these places are “a sequence of geo-historical spots with pre-existent narratives, spots that in some sense speak for themselves. Looking at it this way round Byron might be seen as a brilliantly individual amanuensis to whom the European landscape is dictating its histories, while his psychological interiority is an effect that the poem’s places produce as their histories are articulated.”

That’s the hope for all writing which encompasses the idea of travel and the individual consciousness: Tom Coryat being the “first”, and – in the end – not prepared to reveal the personal side of this journeys, preferring the studied and the observed, is rarely, save for Venice, possessed by place enough to let it dictate to him. To free his mind.

“What exile from himself can flee?
To zones though more and more remote,
Still, still pursues, where’er I be,
The blight of life – the demon Thought.”

Only when this “possession” takes place; is the starting point of observation and then communication, can what I think of as a “lost” Europeanism be grasped. It is not just the churches, (I have seen a lot in Venice, without joy, they are backdrops to photo-shoots and audio guides), the art (collected at auction, or on memory card for one-day download to I-Photo), can any description be meaningful. Or rather, can be helpful.

And all this is done in “Child Harold” without seeming effort: neither this quality, nor the light and the subtle that are Byron’s stock in trade are not high-priority in our zeitgeist now: we prefer more stolidly laboured prose; something tied far more closely to either complete fantasy or the grimly suffered; or linked with celebrity for its own sake, rather than artistic excellence. I am sure Byron would have enjoyed Richard Dawkins crusade for atheism. Would have enjoyed his celebrity though, no doubt of that.

As he claimed to have slept with 200 women in 200 days in Venice (and Italian critics still often refer to him as a homosexual: an interesting definition) what is, perhaps, most surprising is the final impact of Venice on Europe’s leading Romantic ‘trouser snake”. Venice tamed even Byron

“But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endured,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less,
Of all that flatter’d, follow’d. sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!”

Instead of the wild, womanising figure we know Venice turned Byron into a somewhat formal character; he takes up an almost “courtly” role as a “cavalier servente.” This was a very Italian institution in form, convention, pragmatism and infidelity. He became the approved “partner” of a married woman, Theresa, with the utter acceptance of her husband: his duties included carrying her bag, standing behind her at the Opera. Whilst he could write of marriage: “That moral centaur, man and wife…” he became part of the bureaucracy. Yes, Venice neutered even Byron.

It is no surprise that today Venice neuters pretty much everyone and everything.
More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Venice: Had 'em all

“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices…”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile

If you type “Venice, Loneliness” into the database at the British Library there is one result: Leo Damrosch’s fantastic biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you type in “Venice, Love”, there are many more options, many of them Mills & Boon fictions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in Venice for over a year between 1743-4. He worked as Secretary to the French Ambassador, a man named Montaigu. “I made my duties my sole pleasures,” Rousseau writes in “The Confessions”.

We are the stories we live in, as well as the ones we tell. And discovering that the Rousseau I imagined, or ignorantly created, in Chambery, a picture of a man communing with nature and his lover at “les Charmettes”, is as close to a “story” as it is a truth, isn’t a shock, but it is a reminder of how easy it can be to believe the propaganda: in this case the local tourist literature in France.

Rousseau stands to some as a romantic hero of the individual trying to find a route into “honesty”: to find him living in the Querini palace, in the Canareggio district of Venice, busily and rather badly drawing up official letters, and making the diplomatic gestures required of the de facto head of the French Embassy is strange. Strange and for me somehow rather human, proving that almost nothing is as black and white as it might seem.

Venice had lost much of its status by this time, was not the powerful trader nation of the fifteenth or even sixteenth century, nevertheless it must have fascinated Rousseau. Venetians refused to meet foreigners, its nobles were forbidden to speak outside the Republic. His employer, the Ambassador Montaigu, “wrote ineptly and spoke no Italian,” so Rousseau had a free run at many things. For six months in 1744 he ran the Embassy, whilst Montaigu was in a country house on the Brenta. His greatest pleasure here was to listen to music: perhaps it is not well known that Rousseau was an acclaimed musician, and lyricist, as well as everything else: one of this operas was played at the wedding festivals for Louis XV and Marie Antoinette. How many “revolutionaries” can claim that, I wonder?

A while ago I decided that it is the “Betwixt” that must be central to the remainder of this journey, and so I return to Rousseau here in Venice because the creation I found in Chambery is less than half the story, in fact is almost an irrelevance, however easy it is to be beguiled by the idyllic location, and the perfect house with its glorious Alpine views. Here too are such things.

Reading his works, and academic texts about him, what is striking is how much he achieved, given a late start: Rousseau’s artistic life doesn’t begin until he’s around 32, 33. Since strong claims can be made that Rousseau: developed a political theory which deeply influenced the founding fathers and the French revolutionaries; that he helped to invent modern anthropology; that he wrote highly influential theories of education; that “The Confessions” virtually created what we know as “autobiography”; and that modern psychology owes him an immense debt, then half pictures won’t suffice. And this entry is just a start.

Who would have thought of Rousseau and Venice; even more, who would have thought of Rousseau, like Tom Coryat, meeting with beautiful courtesans – and failing miserably. With one named Zulietta, he gets to her bedroom, where she shows him two pistols…”I endure their caresses, but I don’t intend to endure their insults, and I won’t miss the first one who behaves like that,” she warned him. Unsurprisingly given Rousseau’s complex sexual landscape – he enjoyed being beaten, and being “submissive” – things didn’t work with Zulieta, despite her charms, she told him: “Little John, leave the ladies alone, and study mathematics…” the thing is: Rousseau writes this in his Autobiography (the word Autobiography was not invented until the C19th) : a confession so honest as to be painful.

What sets Rousseau apart from his Enlightenment contemporaries – he was friends with Diderot, Hume and Voltaire later in life, though would fall out with each – is his social Betwixt-ness. His humble, poverty-wracked nomadic wanderings through France from an early age – which brought him twice to ChambÈry - his jobs working on a Land Registry, for a Police chief in Lyon, copying music; his being sent by his eventual lover, Madame de Warens, to a hospice in Turin (which means he made the same journey as Tom and I, over the Mont Cenis pass and down through the Susa valley) where he was probably abused, all add to the texture of a man who became a major European literary celebrity, and then a political refugee. And now – I think - something of a forgotten man. A restoration of this very “European” sensibility is required, I feel.

“Mobile and rootless, cut loose from the ties of kinship and locality, he was very much a modern, and a fundamental aspect of his modernity is that he relied on friendship to create a personal equivalent of community. But though he yearned for intimacy in friendship, he was never much good at it.” Leo Damrosch writes.

“Rousseau was unhappy all his life because he sought the kind of friend of which ten or so, perhaps, have existed from Homer’s time until our.” Stendhal said.

Casanova remembers him differently, as: “equally undistinguished either in his person or his wit…the eloquent Rousseau had neither the temperament to laugh nor the divine talent of calling forth laughter…”

One of the things this trip teaches is that everywhere has somebody, or something, they can commemorate. From the fallen Australian soldiers whose graves fleck northern France, to the mystic Hildegarde of Bingen in Germany (to come). On the other hand Venice, like Casanova - one of its more colourful sons - appears to have had them all. Not only this but Venice’s stories encompass, (or are on my mind this morning) law, race, art, sex, travel itself, music, trade, and Islam (there’s a show on now at the Duke’s Palace about the relationship Venice has enjoyed with Islam). It can throw up a Guggenheim birthday celebration (later this month) and Bob Sinclair, a famous dance DJ, doing something on the Lido.

So too the lives of the great: they are full of stories that pull interpretation one way or another. I often feel this tacking sensation when trying to appreciate Tom Coryat, who is a minor player in all this, but was the first English tourist – and that is important as I face the Venetian Tourist “experience”.

Rousseau believed that paradoxes were puzzles that exposed contradictions at the heart of experience. Much more than this, he gave us at the end of this life a stunning psychological last act, an autobiography that defines a new moment in literary honesty.

In his biography of Rousseau, Damrosch argues that: “Contemporary America talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life.” By which he means that Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography “encourages readers to construct a public life, while Rousseau’s confessions challenges them to make a journey into the self.” And “These are the fundamental tensions in modern life, and their first great analyst was Jean-Jacques Rousseau”.

The relation of the public and the journey into the self is one of the major paradoxes of Venice too. Perhaps even of blogging itself.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Guess Where

The sons of their fathers

“The only way you know you’re not in Italy, not in Venice, when you’re at The Venetian hotel [in Las Vegas]? Easy. The water is blue, not that muddy brown green of Venice, and the Gondoliers are black.”

In Padua they call Luca the “Americano”, because his girlfriend is from California. He is 25, from Treviso originally, part of the new generation of Italians who speak more than one language. A political science student, he’s finishing on the “Six Day War,” sometime soon. “It’s sad when I study to think that my subject is 40 years old now, and still there is no change there in the Middle East, there’s just no desire for a settlement, and the worst thing, the people who fought then, they’re gone, now you have new generations who are born and grow up to hate.”

It’s raining again, and Padua’s [now] famous reluctance to brave a few splashes is once again on show. “Stay at home and watch a movie, that’s what we do,” Luca says. But it is more than that, one key demographic is absent: like Tom I have missed the students, in August they are away; in term time they dominate the Piazza delle h’erbe. “Especially Wednesdays,” Lucia says – she’s a sociologist. “On Wednesdays they go mad, drinking in the streets, smoking, drugs, music. There are plans to move the students out: there’s a group of bars down by the river, the “residents” here would like to see the students moved out of the ancient part of the town and kept to the outskirts.”

“That’s the thing about the central square, it’s never really the students, nor the old people who drink here: it’s the rich. Walk around these tables on a sunny evening and you’ll see billfolds and portfolios with hundreds of Euros in them. I call these people the filli di Papa, you understand? Sons of rich fathers. They come here to show off, to be seen, to talk to other filli di Papa. That’s why there’s nobody around tonight, they’re all frightened of getting their Versace shirts a little wet.”

I tell Lucia about a scene from via Altina, two hours ago: a young woman sitting in the driving seat of a Mercedes 4x4 doing her nails whilst – inside a cosmetics shop – her boyfriend is buying goods. “Yes, that’s them,” Lucia says. “It’s a conservative town, and this is what you get for that.”

But Padua also has a radical reputation: its university is famous for politicized students. “A few months ago there were new arrests,” Luca says. “Another generation of our Red Brigade,” he shrugs. “If things are too easy then people react…”

One of the effects of cafÈ culture, I realize, is that it solidifies status: it is hard to meet anyone sitting at a table unless you approach another, and – Italians in general, certainly on this trip – are stand-offish. Now I understand the social make-up of my crowd, wealthy, pampered, a little smug (all cities in the world have them, of course) I see the problems not just for an equally pampered traveller like me, but much more importantly, for the hosts of newcomers to Italy, trying to make their way. Trying to integrate.

With the rain comes standing in the courtyard, what is now called “smirting” in London – smoking and starting conversations outside. Here we are always outside, but the rain pulls everyone together under the porticoes. It’s interesting that when I start taking to Luca or to Lucia, other Italians are listening; laugh at the jokes. Appreciate that I know who Gattuso is, or Nesta. Football: the great global leveler. But they don’t join in.

“The difference in ten years is amazing,” Luca says. “When I was at school, maybe one or two in each class were not born in Italy. Today it is like eight or nine, and many of them can’t speak English. It’s a real problem. And it’s only going to get worse.” And in Padua, otherness is more invisible than in the towns I’ve traveled through, as if – like the students – Padua’s authorities would rather keep its minorities out of sight and mind. I can’t say this is true, but it seems that way. Close to the railway station in the morning I meet a Moroccan taking the train to Verona, he shows me the way. In French he says: “They look down on us, we have our way, we still have a King. But they don’t want to know. I think they will have to learn that Europe is about, how do you say, ‘moving’?” Mobility? “Yes, if you want to make money, to live a life, you have to move to find it sometimes. At times like this. I could live in Morocco, but to do what? Work for tourists, from Italy?”

“Padua’s racist, sure,” Lucia says. “Look at these squares, old people live here, they think about their history, they don’t want anything new.” In fact there are laws: what I’ve thought of as a “scholarly” discretion with music, and entertainment in general, is on the statute books. “The ‘syndicatto’, the local government, they try to stop everything. That’s why there are no umbrellas, that’s why little music, that’s why everything finishes very early. We must be closed by 12, it’s the law.” Almost five hundred years ago Henry VIII’s “people” used the law faculty here to discover how legal their King’s divorces might be: Padua was the centre of what these days might be called “International Law.” It trained two centuries of diplomats, and it gave us not just Galilei, but the master-pieces of Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel; Donatello’s sculptures, late Renaissance riots in support of the “rational”. Today, without its Rabelesian students (I’m guessing) and with many of its inhabitants on holiday (in Morocco?) it sits Betwixt not just its seasonal rhythms but its social mix. And while around the corner in the Observatory and its modern faculty building next door some are still looking at the stars, we’re all – literally – in the gutter making something of our evening with the braver of the filli di papa.

Atalanta has a big Afro haircut. She works in a store in town: she has good English because she took an exchange year in Yorkshire. “It was horrible to start with,” she says. “I’d go to the pub and get out my book, pretend to be an intellectual, and I’d watch these men drink pint after pint. I was in a town, Tewksbury: I didn’t understand anything. Then I got it: beer, beer, beer.” Atalanta says going to London for a week – she was in Yorkshire for 15 months – “was like coming home to Padua, suddenly there was culture, and people were alive.” Perhaps that is all I am experiencing: an inevitable non-cosmopolitan zeitgeist away from the big cities: it’s as true in England or Germany or France. Or America. “I like San Francisco,” Luca says. “It’s – you know – European. New York as well. But in the middle…”

Atalanta likes to practice her English, “I’m not like most Paduans, they’re shy or too proud or arrogant to talk to strangers. But I’m half black; I have this hair. I’m different, I like to met new people.” Is that hard? “Yes, often, but I’m used to it now.”

What do young people do after midnight? “They drive out, go to some dancing place. Or else to someone’s house. That’s the way here.”

Lucia has studied sociology in Venice for five years now. “It’s the greatest city, “ she says, “but you must get away from the tourists. And from the idea of going somewhere. Just imagine what you want and start walking, that way Venice is yours. Go to the fisherman’s quarter, if you can, sit in one of their cafes: that is heaven. But don’t look for Venetians, they are gone: moved to Mestre, or just on long vacation.”

I finish another Campari-spritzer. “You know we invented this drink in the Veneto,” Luca says. “Some like it sweet, others bitter. But the big thing is that it is fashionable now. A decade ago, Campari was for old people. Now everyone drinks it, 15 years old to 70. It’s our invention. I took two bottles of the spritz to my girlfriend’s mother in California, she thought it was so sophisticated, so European.”

“I don’t know why people are so reserved,” Luca says, “I think often it’s just fear of the new. Italy is still a very old-fashioned country.” I wonder how many of us can say something different? What is for sure is that remaining “old fashioned” is increasingly a recipe for social disaster: a walling in, a “gating” of society. A claim, increasingly tenuous to sustain, that we would rather not look through the telescope thanks, we don’t know what we might see.

“I made my aboad in Padua three whole daies, Tuesday being the eleventh of June, Wednesday and Thursday, and went away hence in a Barke down the river Brenta the twenty fourth of June being Friday, about seven of the clocke in the morning, and came to Venice about two of the clocke in the afternoon. Betwixt Padua and Venice it is five and twenty miles. This River Brenta is very commodious for the citizens of Padua. For they may passÈ forth and backe in a Barke downe the river from Padua to Venice, and from Venice again to Padua very easily in the space of foure and twenty houres. When they go to Venice they passÈ downe the River secundo cursu; when they return they go adverso flumine, their Barke being drawn with horses all the way betwixt Lucie Fesina and Padua, which is twenty miles.

When I passed downe the River to Venice I saw many goodly faire houses and Palaces of pleasure on both sides of the River Brenta, which belong to the Gentlemen of Venice.

When I came to the forsaid Lucie Fessina, I saw Venice, and not before, which yeeldeth the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that ever any mortal eye beheld, such a shew as did even ravish me both with delight and admiration. This Lucie Fesina is at the uttermost point and edge of the lande, being five miles this side Venice. There the fresh and salt water would meete and be confounded together, were it not kept asunder by a sluce that is made for the same purpose, over which sluce the Barkes that go forth and backe betwixt Venice and Padua, are lifted up by a certaine crane. At this Lucie Fesina, I went out of my barke, and tooke a Gondola which brought me to Venice. Of these Gondolas I will write hereafter in my description of Venice.”