Friday, September 1, 2017

Mata Hari's Last Dance

There are many ways to write a bad historical novel, but perhaps the most effective one is to be careless with the details. And this novel put me off from the first page; when someone asks Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari) how old she is and she answers "twenty-five". Now, this first chapter is supposed to be taking place in 1904 and Zelle was born in 1876. She was 28, not 25.

Two pages later, Mata Hari says "I learned some Hindi." That's no good, again. Margaretha Zelle is not reported having ever lived in a place where people spoke Hindi. She lived in Malang, a city in the region we call today Indonesia, in the island of Java. And they speak Javanese, there, a completely different language.

Later on, there is mention of Mata Hari dancing with a snake, something that was never reported by her biographers. We cannot say it is untrue, but it surely rings untrue.

I am sure there are more mistakes like these in the novel, but I am not going to check every page. After the first 10 pages, I just skimmed through the novel to see what it was about. And whatever it was about, it was nothing interesting. I don't know what Ms. Moran had in mind with writing this story, but the Mata Hari she describes just doesn't ring true. The novel never lifts off. For me, it was just boring.

This is a general problem in writing historical novels. It is an exceedingly difficult task and only a few writers succeed. You have to know all the details of the historical period, not so much because your novel will be read by historians, but because consistency is everything in a novel. And in a historical novel, even the casual reader is perfectly able to detect inconsistencies when they tend to accumulate because the author didn't do his/her homework.

Then, the difficulty is compounded if the author tries to tell the novel in the first person from the mouth of a known historical character. That's almost impossible, although some exceptionally gifted writers managed to succeed. An example is Marguerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian". But Ms. Moran's memories of Mata Hari, well, very sorry, no.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Where Exactly Was Mata Hari Executed?

Above: a re-enactment of Mata Hari's execution, apparently from a 1922 French movie. The scene seems to be based on the idea that Mata Hari was executed near the small hill called the "butte aux canons," or "butte de tir" in the Park of Vincennes and it may show the actual hill in the park. But there are no photograps or specific descriptions telling us where exactly the execution took place 

As the centennial of Mata Hari's death, Oct 15th, 1917, approaches, we could think that we should do something to remember the killing of an innocent woman. Maybe we should gather where she was shot and place there a small memorial of some kind. But where exactly? As it often happens when dealing with Mata Hari's story, truth always seems to be shrouded in a veil of mysterys. And that's true also for the place of her execution.

One thing we know is that during her trial, Mata Hari had been detained in the prison of St. Lazare, in Paris (and badly mistreated as she was there). On the early morning of Oct 15th, she was taken by car to the place where she was to be shot; somewhere in the military area of Vincennes, near Paris.

This much is known, but from here onward things get muddled. One problem is that we don't have photos of the execution, There is one that is sometimes described as an "actual photo" of the execution and seem to tell us that Mata Hari was shot in an open area. But there is no evidence that it really shows this specific event. Then, the various descriptions of the execution normally mention the "Caponnière," which is normally should be understood as the area between the outer wall and the central tower (the "donjon") of the castle of Vincennes (in English, the corresponding term is "scarp," as opposed to "counterscarp", which is the outside of the wall). That would imply that Mata Hari was executed inside the castle.

Other descriptions mention the "butte aux canons," (or the "butte de tir") a small hill approximately in the center of the park that used to be the emplacement of some artillery pieces. Today, it is called the "Belvedere". There is also the possibility that the term "caponnière" was used generically to indicate the whole area around the castle of Vincennes.

Both possibilities make sense. Most of us probably have no experience with firing squads, but it seems logical that if someone has to be shot, it is best done against some kind of barrier that would stop stray bullets. So, the hill of the "butte aux canons"  would nicely do the job. On the other hand, also the walls of the castle of Vincennes would do the same service.

So, was it the wall or the hill? (the caponnière or the butte?). Perhaps the most detailed description of the execution of Mata Hari is the one by Emile Massard, the commander of the Paris garrison during the Great War, as written in his 1922 book "Female Spies in Paris" ("Espionnes à Paris"). Here goes Massard, translated from French, describing how Mata Hari was taken by car to the site of the execution.

We moved at moderate speed toward the Place de la Nation et la Porte Daumesnil, when, suddenly, we were surrounded, preceded, and followed by some twenty motor cars of journalists. They decided to group together and take the lead of the column to move toward Vincennes. Midway along the avenue, they turned right to move toward the butte de tir. But that was not the way. And the street was closed.
We kept going on the right, to go to the castle. The journalists noted that we were not following them and, as we passed them, I saw them making gestures of disappointment. I understood their state and I was sincerely sorry for them.  (..)
Before leaving for the place of the execution, one always stops at the tower (of the castle of Vincennes). There, one stops for a few minutes to wait for the formation of the escort of dragoons who surround the column.
A car with some reporters had been able to enter the castle with us. I pretended not having seen it. But the commander of the castle noeted it and forced it to turn around. (..)
And there we are, on our way for the last stop. We took hidden paths and the car advanced slowly, strongly bumping. (..)
And there comes the sinister hill. At the foothil, the pole made by a thin tree trunk. 

Now, several details of this story don't make much sense. First of all, the reporters knew that Mata Hari was to be shot at the butte de tir, so they were going there; even "taking the lead" of the column; one car with Mata Hari, another as a spare vehicle. But the reporters are surprised and disappointed when they see the cars turn right and move into the Castle of Vincennes. One of the cars with the reporters manages to follow, but it is turned away by the commander of the garrison.

Later on, according to Massard, the cars with Mata Hari leave the castle again, to move to the "sinister hill." Now, wouldn't the cars with the reporters be still waiting outside the castle? Maybe they had been dispersed by the dragoons, but Massard doesn't tell us anything about that. Besides, if he knew - and he must have known - that the cars would leave the castle again, why does he tell us that he was "sincerely sorry" for the reporters left outside? And why did they made such an effort to get in?

The story would make perfect sense if the execution had been carried out inside the castle, in the caponnière intended as the space between the outer walls and the central tower. That would have a certain logic since the French officers surely wanted to make sure that the death of Mata Hari would generate no sympathy and no pity. So, no photos and no reporters at the execution.

On the other hand, Massard tells us explicitly that Mata Hari was shot at a "sinister hill" which would seem to indicate outside the castle. It is perfectly possible that Massard lies: he lies on almost every page of his book so it wouldn't be surprising that he lies about the place of the execution, too.

Overall, however, I tend to think that it is most likely that Mata Hari was really shot at the butte de tir, if nothing else because we have photographic evidence that other people were shot there. For instance, that's true for Marguerite Francillard, another (pretended) female spy executed on January 10, 1917. The picture on the right is taken from Massard's book and it clearly shows a forested hill that can only be the butte de tir. So, that was the usual place to shoot people and it is probable that the tradition was not changed for Mata Hari. But, as for many things about Mata Hari, we'll never know the truth for sure.

One interesting point that comes out from Massard's report is that the reporters were prevented from witnessing the execution of Mata Hari or, at least, kept at a considerable distance from the place. So, everything that was written about it comes from second-hand reports. Apparently, some journalists interviewed the people who were present at the execution and the result is some degree of confusion, with some details missing in some reports but appearing in others and some wild legends taking root, such as that she was wearing a "sable coat over nude flesh", a legend reported by Julie Wheelwright in her book "The Fatal Lover" (1992). 

Note also that some journalists were not so shy as to report the event as if they had been there. Below, a text written by Henry Wales, American reporter stationed in Paris. He never says that he is reporting things that he saw with his very eyes, but he clearly tries to give this impression. And yet, it has to be a second-hand story. Note that, ten years later, the same Henry Wales published a completely invented interview with Charles Lindbergh after he had landed in Paris, on May 27th, 1927. Later, Wales had to confess that it was a fake interview, but it doesn't seem that he ever admitted that his report of Mata Hari's death was fake, too.

And this shows, among other things, that "fake news" is nothing new. 

Henry Wales, International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917,

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.
The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.
Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.
The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.
The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.
As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
'The blindfold,' he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
'Must I wear that?' asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
'If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,' replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.
The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.
She did not move a muscle.
The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.
It dropped. The sun - by this time up - flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.
Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.
A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost - but not quite - against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.
Mata Hari was surely dead.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A little exercise in the archaeology of literature: "The Petrel" by Marcelle Tinayre

There was a time, a century ago or more, when reading novels was the normal thing: no TV, no Internet, no radio;  a lot of entertainment was done by means of novels and a lot of ideas were passed in that way, too. Of that period, we remember a small number of novels that we define as masterpieces, but there was much more being written and being read. Looking at this "minor" production is a way to perform a sort of an archaeological task.

So, this book by Marcelle Tinayre (1901) appeared in my hands by mere chance and I read it over a summer afternoon: 93 pages (in the Italian translation). As I said, a little exercise in literary archeology for a book that, for us, looks light, even ethereal. Not the kind of book that a modern writer would write but - I can say - one that a modern reader can read.

The story is very simple: the protagonist is a woman, Martha, living in a real place, Château-d'Oléron, a small island on the South-Western coast of France. A simple woman for a simple story. Married to a staunch but not very exciting local doctor, she falls in love with a young Parisian intellectual who visits the island. Their love story produces a child and much repentance on the part of the protagonist who, eventually, stops seeing her lover and doesn't tell anything to her husband. It also includes dramatic descriptions of the local landscape. That's it, more or less.

So, a light story for a light novel, but worth some comments. This is not the work of an amateur. It is the work of a professional writer who completely masters the trade. Marcelle Tinayre has something to say and she knows how to say it. Again, for our modern tastes, her style would appear, well, let's use the term "florid". But we are probably obsessed with a rule that we invented and that states "don't tell, show," as if every narrative text were to be a script for a sitcom. Tinayre doesn't care. She shows a lot but she also tells a lot. The narrative viewpoint is normally focused on the protagonist, Martha, but the author is omniscient and she doesn't shy from telling us what the other characters think while they act in the novel. The result is, as I said, a bit florid but perfectly readable. Tinayre knows how not to exaggerate, she knows how to maintain the narrative flow, she knows how not to lose the reader's interest.

Then, the novel is not just entertaining, it carries a message. Narrative, indeed, is a mirror of the times when it is written and "The Petrel" is no exception to the rule. Tinayre, as many writers of the time, were exploring a concept that had taken a particular importance in their time: that of the infidelity of married women. Of course, that had been the subject of much literature from Sumerian times. But, most of the times, the infidel woman had been the target of scorn and punishment. Even when treated sympathetically, typically the infidel woman had to die at the end of the story (a good example is Dante's "Paolo and Francesca").

Then, there came Flaubert and his "Madame Bovary," a true literary revolution. True, Flaubert's heroine still dies a horrible death, possibly as punishment for her sins. But, clearly, Emma Bovary is not evil, even though she has defects. She is a woman of her times and what she does deserves attention and understanding. It is clear that "The Petrel" is deeply influenced by "Madame Bovary", there are similarities in the plot: both novels tell of a young woman married to a country doctor. And the style of "The Petrel" resonates of Flaubert's, even though less perfect. Finally,  Flaubert's novel is cited in Tinayre's novel, when we are told that Martha's good husband doesn't believe in the existence of women who could be defined with the term "Bovary."

Tynaire's novel came some 50 years after Flaubert's one and it couldn't attain the same notoriety of the precursor of the genre. Yet, as Borges says, human literature is just a single book and every author adds a new chapter to it. In this ongoing effort, Tinayre's chapter is not the least beautiful, rich, and interesting chapter of this big book. And it is an ongoing story of women gaining a space in society that they didn't have before. If long ago a cheating woman was at best possessed by the devil, with the series of stories that started with Flaubert, a lot of things changed. They are still changing and the book keeps being written. And, sometimes, we take a look at a chapter written long ago and forgotten, and we can rediscover it.

Below: Marcelle Tinayre (1870-1948)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Dragon Blade: it takes as much effort to make an ugly movie as to make a beautiful one.

Over the past several years, I have been consistently unable to watch a mainstream action movie for more than a few minutes; all of them being too silly and too predictable for me. So, I thought that the fact that I managed to watch this one all the way to the end makes "Dragon Blade" at least worth a brief comment.

So, the first comment that I can make about this movie is that it takes about the same effort to make an ugly movie as to make a beautiful one. And this one surely took a lot of effort: battles, duels, mass scenes, ornate costumes, all that. The result is as ugly as a movie can be. Slow and unlikely duels, wooden dialogues, silly melodramatic scenes, gratuitous violence, costumes that look like they were borrowed from a cosplay exhibition. What else do you need in a movie to make a movie truly ugly? Yes, make it boring most of the time, and you have it: Dragon Blade.

But there was something in this movie that made it worth watching; a thread that surfaces only at the beginning, to remain hidden but occasionally flashing up during the rest of the movie. It is the different kind of story that characterizes Chinese and American movies. American action movies have the simplest theme you can imagine: good guy finds evil guy and defeats him. Chinese movies have a different theme: good guys organize to fight evil together. So, this movie is a juxtaposition of the American and the Chinese themes: at the beginning you have the Chinese theme of group solidarity that leads to peace and collaboration. It has good moments; naive, sure, but moving, such as when the young boy, Publius, sings something supposed to be the "Roman Hymn" in a sort of Latin. Then, the American theme takes over, the bad guy shows up and the rest of the movie goes trough the rear valve of the bull.

The Chinese movie industry hasn't expressed so far an author equivalent to the Japanese Hayao Miyazaki who has defined a whole century in terms of visual arts. But they might. And, if they do, it will be something to watch, indeed.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Russian Legion - How the Russians saved Messina

One of the very few existing images that show the work of the Russian sailors engaged in rescuing the survivors after the disastrous earthquake that struck the Italian town of Messina in 1908

The earthquake of Messina, in 1908, was an exceptional event for many reasons. One was it size; with some 150.000 casualties, it was one of the largest recorded in history up to then. One curious facet of this story was the role that the Russian Navy played in it. 
Yet, the Russian rescue expedition created an exceptional feeling of gratitude in Italy. There was something in the way the Russian sailors acted that left a deep impact. 
So much that Italian poets engaged in praising Russia and the Russian sailors that went on for a few years after the earthquake. Below, a poem by Tommaso Cannizzaro (1838 – 1921). As poetry, it must be said it is not so great, but it seems sincere. It shows that there is some kind of natural mutual sympathy between Italians and Russians which still exists today (unless propaganda convinces them to hate each other)

The Russian Legion
They were young, handsome and they had
On their face the ray of the stars of the Great Bear
And they jumped into the flames 
As lions into a thick forest.

And they took out of the fire the wailing people
While at their feet were falling
Walls, beams and a shiver took hold
Of the trembling crowd overlooking

Leaning down on the rubble to hear
If a rattle were coming from the bottom
Of living people to help and save,

They were there, and their efforts were blessed
By the merciful sky - Century old history
Wrote their names in its great book.

By Tommaso Cannizzaro, February 19, 1909

Eran giovani e belli e il raggio in volto
a lor della polare Orsa splendea
e si slanciâr dove l’incendio ardea
come leoni dentro il bosco folto.

E i gemebondi da le fiamme han tolto
mentre in frantumi ai loro piè cadea
la trave e il muro e un brivido correa
nel popol trepidante ivi raccolto.

Chini sulle macerie ad origliare
se dal lor fondo un rantolo salisse
di vivi da soccorrere e salvare,

stavano e i loro sforzi benedisse
pietoso il ciel – La storia secolare
il nome lor nel suo volume scrisse.

Di Tommaso Cannizzaro, 19 febbraio 1909

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The commissioner and I. A Debate on Nuclear Energy

This is a post that I had put together in 2011, just after the events it describes. At that time, I didn't publish it in Cassandra's Legacy because it seemed to me that it could have been seen as some kind of bragging on my part. After some years, I found it in the mass of unpublished posts and I thought that I could as well publish it on "Chimeras" in a novelized form, with some modifications that include the concept of "framing" that's becoming popular nowadays. So, if you think that I am praising myself too much, please accept my apologies. But it is the way things went. 

Italy, 2011

The debate on nuclear energy has been raging for months and it has been looking more and more pointless to me. The line that the government has been hammering down has always been the same: it is all decided; the choice has been made, Italy will return to nuclear energy. Yes, they keep saying, you can have all the debates you want and also this silly referendum called by this band of Greens, Communists, and assorted Subversives as if the opinion of the people mattered. But make no mistake: the government is not going to take a step back: Italy is going to have nuclear plants.

So, why did I accept to intervene in a debate on nuclear energy? Well, a friend asked me to come and I hadn't been able to find an excuse to avoid it. Some kind of a call of duty, but what's done is done and now I find myself playing the role of the "anti-nuclear" guy, a definition that I hate.

The debate takes place in a small Italian town where they seem to have a tradition of holding public debates. I am first introduced to the moderator. I know him, he is a physicist, a university professor. I know that that he is one of those physicists who seem to be still living during the "atomic age" of the 1950s and who see nuclear energy as an absolute need for humankind to keep moving along the road of progress. But, if he is the moderator, he should take a neutral position. Or so I can hope.

Then, I am introduced to my opponent; the "pro-nuclear" guy. He tells me he is the "commissioner" of an important government agency. He is in his early forties; an imposing man, wearing a double-breasted suit. His body language tells me that he is very sure of himself; he is not even wearing a tie. Evidently, he thinks he doesn't even need to look too official to win the debate. I note that and I take off my tie as a friendly gesture. He seems to appreciate that. We chat a bit; he tells me that he is a lawyer and he has been engaged in several of these debates. Apparently, he finds that he can make short shrift of the assorted ragtag band of commies and greenies opposing him. Fine, we'll see.

The auditorium is large and it slowly fills up with some 200 people coming from the nearby towns: young and old; several seem to be university students. We start, and I immediately see that it is a trap. The moderator speaks first and is not neutral at all; he is fully and totally pro-nuclear. They are playing on me the game called "the sandwich." I am supposed to speak in between my opponents and one of them will speak last. And, in this kind of games, he who speaks last is the one who wins.

But nobody can determine who will win a battle before it is fought and this one is still to be fought. As the moderator speaks, I can see that he is not doing well. He is lyrical, he speaks about Prometheus, about the nuclear fire, about the manifest destiny of humankind. Not that he is a bad speaker, but he doesn't frame his position: what is he arguing for, exactly? He is out of tune with the audience: they wanted facts and they are perplexed. He doesn't realize that as he keeps going. When he finishes, he receives some weak applause.

It is my turn. I have been looking at the audience and I think I can size them well enough. They don't seem to be politicized or already oriented on the nuclear issue. They seem to be, mostly, ordinary people, just curious about what they will hear.

I start with saying that I am not there to scare anyone, that nuclear energy should not be demonized. Of course, there are risks involved but, overall, nuclear energy has done us much less damage to people than coal and hydrocarbons. And that I think that the attempt of the Greens to scare people with threats of two-headed babies or of cancer epidemics is just plain idiocy. This seems surprise everyone, both in the audience and on the podium. It is completely different than the usual stance of the people arguing against nuclear energy. I take a quick look at the face of the commissioner. He is clearly pleased.

I continue by moving into another subject: my main field, mineral resources. So, I tell them about resource depletion, about the finite amount of uranium in the earth's crust, about the increasing costs of extraction, about the need for increasing amounts of uranium if nuclear energy production were to be expanded. I introduce the concept of EROI, energy return on energy investment and they seem to understand it. I tell them that there are many different evaluations of the EROI of nuclear energy but that, on the whole, it is not better than that of renewable energy and that it might be much worse. I also tell them that the more uranium we mine, the more expensive it is to mine, and that will necessary reduce the overall EROI or nuclear energy. I tell them that the Italian nuclear plants would have to run on 100% imported uranium that should come from countries which are not necessarily friendly to us. I ask them if they think it is wise to engage the country in such a risky adventure: if uranium becomes scarce, where are we going to find the uranium needed to fuel the new plants?

Over the years, I have developed a certain skill in understanding what the audience thinks. And, this time, I can see that the message has passed - the people in the audience understand what I am saying and they are interested. And I also developed a certain skill in passing the message: communicating is mostly about "framing."  That involves not just telling the message in ways that the audience can understand, but also taking a role that the audience can understand. In communication, the messenger is often more important than the message and, in this case, I consistently take he role of the teacher; a role that the audience is familiar with. They know that a teacher is not selling them anything nor he is trying to convince them to vote for some specific party. And so they tend to trust a teacher. It is not role-playing for me, teaching is my job. I just have to be what I am. And it works.

I finish my presentation. Now it is the turn of the commissioner to speak and he is clearly in difficulty. He keeps repeating the line that the government has taken a decision that cannot be changed.  eulogizes nuclear energy, saying that it is cheap and safe. But that's not what the audience wants from him: he should answer to the points I made, but he doesn't know how. It seems that he had never encountered this kind of objections to nuclear, he knows nothing about mineral resources, depletion, energy return, and the like. He seems to have been framing himself as a figure of authority; something like the stern father. But authority, just like respect, has to be gained. It is not enough to be a physically imposing figure. He has to demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about, and he can't. His speech is flat. The audience, clearly, is not satisfied; he finishes his speech and he receives unconvinced applause.

There follows the debate, and people have lots of questions. Their main curiosity seems to be, "if there is really a problem of availability of uranium, how come that nobody told us anything about that?" And, on this, the commissioner totally at loss. At some point, someone asks him about using thorium as fuel, isn't it true that it is more abundant than uranium? He can only answer, "I have technicians who take care of these issues". There is a perceptible gasp in the audience; their faces reveal what they are thinking, "this guy really doesn't know anything about nuclear energy". From then on, it is all downhill for me. The "sandwich" strategy has not worked, the people in the audience are asking questions mainly to me.

It is over. In the evening, we get together for dinner. The organizers are very pleased: the meeting has been lively and clearly appreciated by the public. Much less pleased is the commissioner; actually, he is still shocked. I can understand him: a lawyer to debate a scientist on nuclear energy against? Whose idea was that? But, apparently, in all the previous discussions he only had to debate people who knew nothing better than trying to win the debate by scaring the audience with the perspective of cancer and deformed children. But so it goes, we all live to learn.

As we chat amiably over a glass of wine, the commissioner stops for a moment to think of something. Then he says, "you know, the people who are against nuclear energy, they should be shot". I look at him, he looks at me. "Not you, of course," he says. I just smile. At least, I was right in thinking that these debates are useless.

In March 2011, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster shook the world. The Italian referendum on nuclear energy was held on June 11, 2011 and 94.05% of the voters voted against the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Literature as Archaeology of the Mind: A New State of Un-Consciousness?

"My Antonia" by Willa Cather was published in 1918 and acclaimed as a great novel. Today, nearly a century after, it looks as distant and remote as Egyptian or Sumerian literature

The ancient world is, by definition, past and gone and the voices of those who inhabited the past are forever lost, except in the written form that we call literature. True, some have tried to hear the voices of the ancient in the objects that arrived to us from pre-literate ages; one was Marija Gimbutas who thought she could say that the people of those remote ages practiced a gentle form of matriarchy. Maybe, but that's debatable to say the least.

So, we can explore the minds of our ancestors only from what they left to us in writing. That limits our horizon to some 5000 years in the past; with the 3rd millennium BC being the earliest age from which we written texts of some length that we can decipher. It is literature, in a sense, but also something that's hard for us to recognize as such. The solemn hymns to Inanna that were left to us by the first named author in history, the Sumerian Enheduanna, look baffling to us, even though, occasionally, Enheduanna's voice emerges strong and clear, as if she were here, in front of us.

Just as baffling for the modern reader are the epic songs of the West. Poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are still read today, but mainly because they are inflicted to generations of high-school students who couldn't care less. But, if you go in depth into them, you discover their true alienness. Julian Jaynes did just that with his "The Origin of Consciousness" where he maintains that the minds of the ancient were just different from our minds. They were not really conscious the way we are or, at least, we think to be.

I tried my own experience by reading two one-century old books: one was "My Antonia" by Willa Cather (published in 1918), the other "Remembrance of Things Past", by Marcel Proust (published in 1909). It was not an easy task. I succeeded, but it was not only hard but also not especially pleasant. I kept going, page after page, expecting something to happen, but finding only lengthy descriptions of details and more details about the environment in which the characters clumsily move.

Maybe this experience of mine would have pleased Julian Jaynes. My mind is by now focused on the Web experience; to that rapid clicking and changing that makes you wary of any text exceeding the 500 words (and, for some of us, 140 words are enough). The mind of the people writing, and reading, a hundred years ago was different. They had better concentration power, or maybe they simply had less distractions available, so that they would enjoy following the pointless adventures of Charles Swann in Proust, as well as those of Jim Burden in Cather.

A hundred years, apparently, is sufficient to make a piece of literature as remote as a Sumerian hymn. And, as for the case of a Sumerian hymn, perhaps the main virtue of those old novels is their archaeological interest. By reading them, you can have a vicarious experience of what life could be in a world without phones, without radio, without TV, to say nothing of the Internet. A completely different world, a completely different life. People would get their news only from the press and their entertainment mainly from visiting other people's homes.

And yet, it was the kind of life that our ancestors have been living for tens of thousands of years. What kind of life are we living today? Hard to say. What kind of mind is that of people who keep texting all over the day and do little more than sending each other pictures of cute cats? Perhaps, we have reached a new state of un-consciousness that, one day, a future Julian Jaynes will study and wonder about.