Thursday, April 23, 2020

Not just friends, but brothers. How Russia helped Italy in a difficult moment

An image of the relief mission from Russia to Italy. The sign says "From Russia with Love" (Dalla Russia con Amore). As a name for the mission, maybe it wasn't such a great idea. It is the title of an old James Bond movie, where Russians are demonized as the evil guys of the plot. But, apart from the name, the relief mission was a success and it was appreciated both in Russia and in Italy. 

The arrival of a relief mission from Russia in Italy at the worst moment of the COVID epidemic was described with suspicion and suspect by the Western media. Yet, it was clearly seen with gratitude by most Italians, the propaganda effort to make it look like an invasion was a flop. That might be a little strange because Italians are subjected to a daily barrage of anti-Russian propaganda (although presently more focused against China). But, apparently, the efforts to turn Russians into evil monsters in the minds of Italians mostly failed.

If we think about reciprocal feelings, we may remember that Italian troops invaded the Russian territory at least three times in history. The first was with a contingent in Napoleon's army, the second as part of the Western coalition that invaded Crimea, the third as part of the Axis armies that invaded Russia in 1941. On their part, the Russians have never invaded Italy in recent times, although, if we really want to find a historical precedent, a Russian army fought the French in Northern Italy in 1799.

But, just as propaganda was ineffective, these ancient wars seem to have been forgotten. Right now, there is no detectable hostility in the way Italians and Russians see each other. Italians and Russians don't look very similar in terms of individual characters. Nevertheless, they seem to be able to get along together. So, the current epidemic is not the only case when the Russians intervened to help Italians. They did that more than a hundred years ago, after the great Earthquake of Messina, in 1908.

The Russian mission in Messina was a long time ago, but we can still read about how it went beyond a simple relief operation. It involved true heroism and abnegation; that was noted and it is still remembered to this day both in Italy and in Russia. This story is little known in English, so I thought it was worth translating here a post by Giuseppe Iannello written for the centennial of the earthquake. Hopefully, the Russian help with the COVID epidemics will be remembered in the same way.


The Russian Sailors in Messina: Beyond the Myth

by Giuseppe Iannello - 25 Dicembre 2008
(translation by Ugo Bardi)

A Russian sailor from the ship "Slava" standing in front of the rubble of the Messina Earthquake of Dec 28th, 1908.

These were days of true glory in Messina. But organization and discipline are not enough to explain the undisputed fame of saviors and heroes of the Russian sailors 

Six days of glory. Real glory, glory able to challenge time and the judgments of the scholars in retrospect. A glory told to us by the press, but above all told by the people, by the people who saw with their eyes and heard with their ears. The Russian sailors entered the collective memory as heroes, as saviors, obscuring all the other rescuers. Why? A useless question if we ignore the narration of those six days and embark on historical and psychological analysis. Because the answer lies, in fact, in the deeds of those thousands of sailors who arrived on six ships of the Russian military fleet. 

There are many myths to dispel and "adjustments" to be made to avoid that the heroism of a people is identified with that of individual figures who, in reality, were only catalysts of needs that were born from a collective soul. We refer, for example, to generals and admirals. The command of the expedition of the Baltic Sea Fleet in the Mediterranean had been entrusted to Admiral Litvinov and while in the port of Augusta he received a request from the local authorities to provide assistance to the people of Messina. But it was not he who "decided" to move, he needed approval from his superiors, he needed an order; which would mean the loss of many hours waiting for that order. It was because his subordinates, officers, ensign, simple sailors, understood the situation and pressed to leave for the Strait of Messina. And so they did. In his memories ("The Imperial fleet of the Baltic between two wars, 1906-1914"), Garald Graf, then ensign on the Admiral Makarov, the first of the Russian ships to leave, tells us, "Litvinov was not a man who knew how to make up his mind," but in the end, he was persuaded. 

From the beginning, obedience and discipline do not explain the efficiency and the success of the Russian relief work. In "La terra trema" (the ground shakes) by Giorgio Boatti, it is even possible to talk about an "almost inhumane discipline". It is true that, during the hours of navigation from Augusta to Messina, the Russians had the time to organize themselves in teams, to prepare everything that could have been necessary for them. But the same could have been done by others. The merit of the Russians is not there. And it is not in the discipline nor in the organization, it is not in the method of their remarkable action. Michail Osorgin, a compatriot of those sailors, debunks the myth of the "method". And he does so immediately, just a month after the catastrophe, in a long correspondence from Rome for his newspaper, the "Vestnik Evropy".  The reputation of the Russian navy had been nearly destroyed by the defeat that it had suffered in the Japanese-Russian war (1905). The only idea that led the sailors was for Osorgin to save as many "souls" as possible, the difference with everyone else was this tremendous need to wrest as many people as possible from death. 

The organization was dictated by this need: the schedules, the shifts, everything was functional for this purpose, the sailors placed no value in themselves; people's lives came before the orders and the simple sailors were the ones convincing their superiors to reshape orders. On the other hand, it must have sounded really strange in the ears of a Russian to feel exalted by the organization of their army: what to say then - says the Russian journalist - about the organization and discipline of the Germans, who were also present at the place of the disaster? 

The Russian sailors became the catalyst of all the positive energies against the resignation, the discomfort, which often turned into apathy, in a sort of indifference that was often transmitted to rescuers. On the contrary, the action of the Russians was contagious and the cadets of the Sutley, the first British military ship to arrive, perhaps a few tens of minutes before the Makarov, felt it and understood how to distinguish themselves.

No stain therefore on the work of the Russians? That of the immediate shooting of the looters, thieves caught in the act: it is interesting to note how this particular is expressed only in journalistic reports and has been judged irrelevant by the collective memory, the oral and written memory handed down by the survivors from father to son, from generation to generation. The Russians did not actually deal directly with the hunting of the looters, but they used their weapons to defend themselves and defend a population totally exposed to the evil of the profiteers or to despair. The Russians (and the English) did not take care of the defense of property and property - as they did not bother to bury the dead - they took care of the people whom they heard whining under the rubble and to cure the wounds of the survivors.

We discuss this story with Tatiana Ostakhova, a researcher at the University of Messina, who lets us read something from her work in progress: the letters of Russian sailors published in Russian newspapers and other articles published in the weeks immediately following the earthquake. The letters are in part those already published by the Province of Messina in 2006, which however were based on an original edition in French. They are letters all characterized by common feelings: the inability to describe the indescribable, the horror of the scenario in which they operate, the madness of the survivors and the absurdity of which every hour are witnesses. The sailors are not exalted, they do not glorify, they only narrate and at times with amazement, they also take note of the immobility of the Italian forces. The comparisons will be made by the others, the correspondents, the other rescuers, and above all the people who will not forget the good received. And the news of those good deeds will run like the wind: in Naples, the first landing of the wounded by the Makarov turns into a sort of apotheosis for the Russian sailors, who are acclaimed. Wherever they went, they were recognized in the city, the Russian sailors could not escape warm manifestations of gratitude.

Michail Pervuchin in his article "The Russians and the Italians", translated by Ostakhova, sums up the difference between the Russians and everyone else. The people of other nations, offering their help, proved to be friends to the Italians, while the Russians turned out to be brothers. The correspondent affirms it on the basis of the testimonies gathered and of what was read in the Neapolitan newspapers: "the others certainly helped; but the Russians have not only helped, they gave everything they had to the refugees, including their spare shirts". "In Palermo and Naples - continues Pervuchin - women and children, refugees from the destroyed cities, still show off their jackets and their sailor's jackets, the officers' jackets. There are no German or English clothes on refugees. Russian clothes, yes ". Then another testimony: "all have given, but while others gave the superfluous, the surplus, the Russians, and we saw it, they gave us what was necessary to themselves, even the last thing they had. Yes, to the last thing they had. This is what struck us ".

However, good does not always begets more good. In January, the Russian sailors were told, "thank you but your help is no longer necessary". A Russian correspondent speaks of envy in this regard, Colonel C. Delmè-Radcliff, military attaché of the British Embassy in Rome, in a confidential report speaks of jealousy of the Italian authorities. The fact remains that only the Italian soldiers and a few other volunteers remained in the rubble: the gates were blocked for everyone else, including Italian civilians. The same refrain was repeated to all: there is no need for more help, because the army has taken control of the whole city. For many, many, still alive under the rubble, the fate was sealed.

Giuseppe Iannello

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The red lips of the monster: how dreams die before the civilization that created them

I can understand that someone wanted to do a sequel of the 1951 movie, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" -- it was a wonderful movie. Guillermo del Toro did that with "The Shape of Water" (2017), but what sense did it make to provide the new version of the creature with bright red lips? It truly escapes me. Did they think it made the amphibian man sexier? 

For some reason, it seems that civilizations on the brink of collapse lose the capability of seeing reality. You could say that dreams die before the civilization that created them dies. And that seems to be what's happening to us. We don't seem to be able anymore to create believable narratives. 

A good example is the recent movie "The Shape of Water" (2017) Guillermo del Toro. An interesting movie on several counts, but a narrative disaster. How is it that we can't create a decent plot anymore? It has to be something deep inside the belly of our civilization, but let me examine this movie in some detail. 
The cycle of the humanoid aquatic monsters started with the first "The Creature of the Black Lagoon" (1951). It was a good movie, considering the kind of movies produced at that time. So I can see how Guillermo del Toro wanted to start from there to pursue a related idea: to explore the sexuality of people who are handicapped or marginalized -- even seen as monsters.

The film was successful, and indeed it has good points. Mainly, it is kept together by a truly stellar cast of actors, especially the character of Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins. But, overall, the film is an abject failure in narrative terms. It has credibility holes so large that an aircraft carrier could pass through some of them. Just as an example, there is this dangerous monster kept chained in a pool in a high-security government facility. The chain is not so short that the monster can't reach people with its arms, and we see that he snapped off two fingers from one of the characters of the movie. Nevertheless, the security so poor that it can't prevent a cleaning lady from entering the room to have her lunch while sitting on the edge of the pool and befriend the monster by offering him boiled eggs -- come on!

The real problem is not so much the credibility of the plot, it is its predictability. The evil guy is evil, the good girl is good, and about the pathetic Russian spy, you can see from the first scenes where he appears that he will be betrayed by his friends -- hey, Russians are supposed to be evil, aren't they? Given these elements, the movie plods along, as exciting as a Catholic mass. 

Let me say something more about the main evil guy of the movie, the character named Strickland (a suitably evil name for an evil guy). Michael Shannon does an outstanding job playing him, but the result is disastrous nevertheless. The problem is the same: lack of subtlety, or, which is the same, predictability. As a character, Strickland is overdone from the first scene when he pees in a urinal in front of the cleaning ladies and boasts that he never washes his hands afterward. It is embarrassing for everyone, including for the viewers.

I would say that the sin of the screenwriter was to be so nasty on Stickland who is so abused, physically and mentally, in the movie that he may generate some sympathy on the part of the viewer. People have a certain dignity that you shouldn't deny anyone, not even to a character in a movie. So, Strickland has two fingers bitten off by the creature and he suffers because of that throughout the movie. In the final scene, he is hit hard on the face by another character, and then killed by the monster. Then, his privacy is invaded: what sense does it make to show him to us while having sex with his wife. That's a totally gratuitous scene: it has nothing to do with the plot, nor with the fact that Strickland is evil. Again, even a movie character should be entitled with a minimum of personal privacy. Even Strickland's brand new car is vandalized in the movie and we are shown his angry face.  

I would say that there exists a general role in literature: the mark of a bad writer lies in despising one's characters. Conversely, a good writer is someone who cares about his/her characters, no matter whether they are evil or bad. Think of the prototypical evil character of Western literature: Shakespeare's Iago in Othello. Shakespeare himself is somewhat baffled by Iago's evil behavior, but he never mocks him, nor enjoys having him suffer punishment. That's one of the good points of the plot of Othello.

An example of a writer who made the mistake I am mentioning is Gustave Flaubert when he describes the death of his heroine, Madame Bovary. Flaubert indulges in describing all sorts of gruesome details related to the death of the poor lady. in a sense a retribution for the behavior of a person who, at her time, was considered evil. But, apart from that scene, Flaubert's novel is a masterpiece in the art of storytelling. The Shape of Water instead, fails over and over in the mistake of belittling its characters. For this reason, it is only a shadow of something that could have been but wasn't. And probably never will be.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Art of Generosity - The Story of a Painter and a Benefactor

More than a century ago, in 1875, my great-grandfather Antonio Bardi -- then 13 years old -- met by chance in Florence the Brazilian artist and scientist Pedro Amerigo. For some reason, the Brazilian gentleman thought that the boy had some artistic talent and he helped him to study in the Florentine Academy of Art. This story is part of the family lore, but it also appeared in the newspapers. And, recently, Marcilio Franca wrote about it in a Brazilian newspaper.

Here it is the piece by Franca, translated into English -- the Portuguese original follows


The Art of Generosity
by Marcilio Franca
Visiting Professor at the University of Turin

It was a hot morning on Monday, August 9, 1875, when Turin's Gazzetta Piemontese newspaper brought good news to its readers.

The cover emphasized that, a few days before, a small boy was drawing in front of the Uffizi in Florence, when he happened to meet by Pedro Américo, the great Brazilian painter who, a year before, lived a few blocks from the museum created by the Medici.

The news was that, on the way to the convent of Santissima Annunziata, where he held an atelier to paint the gigantic "The Battle of Avaí", commissioned by Pedro II, Américo found a poor boy who was able to draw at ease popular drawings in exchange for the generosity of the passers-by. Americo noticed the young man's talent and asked where he was studying. The boy, described by Gazzetta as sad-eyed, thin and pale-faced, reported that he lacked the conditions to go to school. Antonio Bardi was thirteen. The boy's embarrassed response followed Pedro Américo's offer: he would pay for his studies thereafter. Yes!

A few days ago, I had a chance to exchange some words with the great-grandson of that great-uncle's son-in-law. Ugo Bardi, Professor at the University of Florence, told me that Americo made his
great-grandfather apprentice and then helped him enter the exclusive Accademia Fiorentina. Thanks to the Brazilian godfather, he broke the life of poverty that had lasted for some generations in his home.

Antonio Bardi painted for almost thirty years, until a disease in sight at the age of 45 forced him to stop. He died in 1924, married and with several children.

What neither Bardi nor Gazzetta knew was that Pedro Américo, with the gesture, revived his own destiny. A prodigal boy in the tiny Sand, in the interior of Paraíba, Americo was not even ten when, in 1852, he was discovered by the French naturalist Louis Jacques Brunet. There began the profession that led him to win the world.


A Arte da Generosidade
Marcilio Franca

Era uma manhã quente de segunda-feira, 9 de agosto de 1875, quando o jornal Gazzetta Piemontese, de Turim, chegou aos seus leitores com uma boa notícia.
A capa destacava que, dias antes, um menino franzino desenhava em frente ao Uffizi, em Florença, ao ser interpelado por Pedro Américo, o grande pintor brasileiro que, há um ano, morava a algumas quadras do museu criado pelos Medici.
A notícia dava conta de que, a caminho do convento de Santissima Annunziata, onde mantinha um ateliê para pintar a gigantesca “A Batalha do Avaí”, encomendada por Pedro II, Américo deparou-se com um garoto pobre que desenhava com desenvoltura temas de agrado popular, em troca da generosidade dos passantes. Américo notou o talento do jovem e perguntou onde ele estudava. O menino, descrito pela Gazzetta como de olhos tristes, rosto magro e empalidecido, informou que lhe faltavam condições para ir à escola. Antônio Bardi tinha treze anos. À resposta encabulada do garoto seguiu-se a oferta de Pedro Américo: pagaria seus estudos a partir de então. Sim!
Há poucos dias, tive a chance de trocar umas palavras com o bisneto daquele menino da notícia. Ugo Bardi, Professor da Universidade de Florença, contou-me que Américo fez do seu bisavô aprendiz e, depois, o ajudou a entrar na disputada Accademia Fiorentina. Graças ao padrinho brasileiro, rompeu a vida de pobreza que já durava algumas gerações em seu lar.  
Antônio Bardi pintou por quase trinta anos, até que uma doença na vista, por volta dos 45 anos, forçou-o a parar. Veio a falecer casado e com filhos, em 1924.
O que nem os Bardi nem a Gazzetta sabiam é que Pedro Américo, com o gesto, revivia o seu próprio destino. Menino prodígio na pequenina Areia, interior da Paraíba, Américo não tinha sequer dez anos quando, em 1852, foi descoberto pelo naturalista francês Louis Jacques Brunet. Começava ali a profissão que o levou a ganhar o mundo.

Professor Visitante da Universidade de Turim

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Sound of Waves

Painting by William Trost Richards 1833 - 1905)

by Ugo Bardi – 2020

Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away. – Sarah Kay

It is said that, once upon a time, there was a child in the city who woke up one morning and he spoke to his mother.

Mother, I heard a strange sound tonight.

My son, what did you hear? Were you afraid of monsters walking in the night? Or of ghosts haunting the house?

No, mother, it was not the sound of ghosts or monsters. And I was not afraid.

Then, what was this sound?

Mother, it was the sound of waves, the sound of the sea.

Oh, my son, how can you say that? You never saw the sea. And I never saw it, either. And your father never saw the sea, nor any of your relatives. The sea is far, far from the city, and some say that such a thing doesn't even exist. It is a legend, a fancy story, a dream that someone dreamed.

Mother, dear mother. I heard this sound and it was the sound of waves. I know that.

My son, be careful in what you say, because people could think ill things of you and of our family if you tell them of this strange dream of yours. Are you sure of what you heard?

Mother, I am sure that I heard the sound of the waves, I heard the swell of the waves, sometimes roaring, sometimes murmuring. And I heard the water coming and returning to the beach, as if they were mother and child, never tired to embrace each other.

Son, do promise me that you won't tell anyone.

I promise that to you, mother.
Years passed and the child became a man, and he took the name of Lugalzid, which means “strong and trusted.” And one day he went to see his mother and he spoke to her.

Mother, dearest mother, I came to say goodbye to you because I am leaving the city.

Lugalzid, my dear, I thought you would tell me that. And I know where you want to go.  It is because of the dream you had when you were a child, the sound of waves. Am I right?

You are right, mother. It is because of that. From the first time when I told you about the sound I was hearing, I heard that sound every morning. And every morning I woke up lulled by that gentle murmur of the waves crashing on the beach, one after the other. And I still hear it every morning. But I promised to you I won’t tell anyone about that, and I didn’t. But now I want to leave the city and search for the sea that they say exists on the other side of the mountains.

My son, my dear Lugalzid, I can tell you that every morning when I saw you waking up, I knew that you were hearing something that was denied to me to hear. And sometimes I thought that you were possessed by a demon who was sending that sound to you.

Mother, sometimes I thought the same, but the sound I heard was so sweet and so beautiful that I can’t believe it could have been a demon sending it to me.

And I believe that, too. My son, you are grown up and I cannot tell you anymore what to do. You are an adult and you know the path that you are to follow. But, my sweet son, my heart bleeds at the thought of the dangers that you will face. And I could die at the very thought of not having you with me anymore.

Mother, my heart bleeds too at the thought that I couldn’t see you anymore. But I had been thinking to do what I am going to do for a long time, and this is what I will do.

But you know that the way across the mountains is long and difficult. And they say that there are demons in the mountains who attack travelers.

That I heard, too, mother. But I am not afraid and I will be careful.

I know you will be careful, Lugalzid, still it will be a difficult travel over the dry mountains. And if the demons attack you, you will need the sword that belonged to your father.

A sword? Mother, I didn’t know that my father had a sword.

Lugalzid, your father was a good man who pulled water out of the well, and who worked hard in the garden. He took good care of his family, so he never needed a sword. But he had inherited a sword from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and maybe from his father, but none of them ever used it. But there was a time, long ago, when the city was rich and populous, not like it is now, half ruined and with so few people. And at that time the city had a King who led men in battle. And your ancestors were warriors, my son. This is the sword that you are inheriting from them, because at heart you are a warrior, too.

So, mother, I take this sword with pleasure in honor of my ancestors, although I hope I will never have to use it. But if my destiny will be that of being a warrior, I will follow it.

Lugalzid, do you know of the old legend that says that one day a warrior will make the river flow to the sea again?

I heard of that legend, mother.

Maybe you could be that warrior? If you heard that sound, the sound of waves, it must be because the Goddess send it to you as a sign.

This I cannot say, mother. I can only say that I heard that sound and that now I want to see if there really is a sea on the other side of the mountains.

My son, Lugalzid, do you know that they say the sea is blue?

So I have heard, mother. They say the sea is vast and deeply blue.

Dear Lugalzid, I know that I won’t see you again, but make a promise to me.that when you find the sea that you have been searching for, you will say a prayer to the Goddess for my soul.

I will do that, mother. I promise. When I found the sea, I will say a prayer for your soul to the Goddess.

They say that Lugalzid marched for many days, and months, and years. And that he fought thirst, and hunger, and cold, and strong winds, and landslides. And that, one day, he arrived at the ancient shoreline of the sea.

He marched onward and he saw that there were huts lined along the beach and that all the huts were ruined and empty, and the pathways between huts were dusty and empty, swept by the wind. And there were many strange ruined wooden hulls that he thought were what was left of very old boats. And on the ground, there were strands of what he thought were old nets. And he marched onward until he saw the sand gently sloping down. And that seemed to him that the sea should have been in front of him, but there was just brown sand all the way to the horizon. And no vast and blue sea to see, nor the sound of the waves to hear.

Lugalzid marched on the dry sand and he knelt down on the sand, bowing to the setting sun. As he was there, he heard the sound of steps behind him. He rose up and in front of him, there was a woman. Dressed in black, her head was covered by a cape and her face was covered by a scarf, but her eyes were black and penetrating. And the woman spoke to him.

Who are you, sir? What are you doing here?

Lady, my name is of no importance. I come from the city on the other side of the mountains. And I came here to see if it is true that there is a vast blue sea on the this side of the mountain. But what is your name, lady? Where do you come from?

My name is of no importance, sir. I am the last inhabitant of the village that once was full of people. And you can see by yourself that there is no sea on this side of the mountains, although once the water was arriving all the way to were you stand now. But, what were you doing, kneeling on the sand?

Lady, I waspraying the Goddess for the soul of my mother to whom I had promised I would do that once I had arrived to the sea

That was kind of you, sir. But did the Goddess send you here?

Lady, I came because I had been hearing the sound of waves in my mind from when I was a child. And my mother said it could be a sign that the Goddess sent to me, but of this I can’t say anything.

This is strange, because there is an old legend that my mother told me that says that the waters of the sea would return one day when a warrior would plow the sand with his sword. I see that you carry a sword with you, are you a warrior? Maybe you used that sword to defend yourself from the demons of the mountains?

Lady, I found no demons in the mountains. Only whirlwinds of sand, and much dryness, and I almost died of thirst and hunger, or because of the dusty wind that nearly swept me away, or because of the landslides that almost buried me alive. So, I didn’t need the sword to defend myself, but I carry it in honor of my ancestors who were indeed warriors.

But if you are a warrior, maybe the legend refers to you, sir. Would you plow the sand with your sword?

Lady, if you tell me that you would like me to do that, I can try.
And Lugalzid unsheathed his sword and stuck the blade into the sand and down it went all the way to the hilt. And the sun was slowly falling at the horizon, and a gentle wind was blowing. Lugalzid looked at the hilt sticking out of the sand, and the woman looked at the hilt sticking out of the sand. And they looked at each other, and they smiled at each other. And then they both laughed. And when they couldn’t laugh anymore, the woman spoke first.

I am sorry, sir. I told you a silly old legend.

Lady, don’t worry. It was fun to try. Who knows? The legend could have been right.

Oh, sir, we could have imagined that we won’t gain anything by planting a sword in the sand. Why don’t you take it back?

Lady, I will take the sword back, although it just encumbered me all the trip to here and it never was useful to me for anything. Yet, I think that my ancestors were proud of this sword and so, in honor to them, I’ll take it out of the sand and keep it with me

It is good that you honor your ancestors, sir, just like you honored your mother by praying for her. But I think you are tired. And you must be thirsty and hungry.

That is right, lady. I am tired, and hungry, and I have no food left and no place to rest. But I won’t impose to you to feed me and to provide rest for me. Because I saw that the village is ruined and certainly you must not live in abundance.

That’s right, kind sir, I do not live in abundance. But the goddess has been kind to me and She made sure that the well near my home never gets dry and with the water I can take from the well I can cultivate a small garden and that gives me food enough to live. And with the barley I cultivate I can make good ale, too. And I’ll gladly share this food and this ale with you. You can come with me, you eat and drink, and then rest at my home.

Lady, I accept your kind offer and I am now obliged to tell you my name, which is Lugalzid, which means the strong and trusted man. And because of your kindness in offering me food and drink, I take the vow to help you in any way I can, and that I will defend you with the sword I inherited from my ancestors.

Lugalzid, since you accepted my offer, I am obliged to tell you my name, which is Siduri, which means the woman who makes beer. And I am greatly honored because of your kindness, although I hope that there will never be a need to defend me with your sword, I am grateful to you for offering me to do that. But I would say that it would be more useful to me if you were to help me to raise water from the well, because the well is deep and sometimes my bones ache because of the effort.
And I will do this for you with pleasure, Siduri. 

And Lugalzid went with Siduri to her hut and he helped her to raise water from the well. Then, Lugalzid ate a meal in Siduri’s home and drank the beer that Siduri had made. And then Siduri took Lugalzid to the door of the home and they stood together, looking at the sea of sand lighted up by the Moon. And then Siduri spoke to Lugalzid.

Lugalzid, they say that the sea was once vast and blue, and that must have been beautiful to behold.

That is what they say in the city, too, Siduri. And, yes, it must have been beautiful to see it.

I never saw the blue sea.

Neither did I.

But you told me you can hear the sound of waves.

This I told you, and it is true.

But nobody has heard the sound of waves here for many, many years. What is it like?

Siduri, I cannot tell you exactly what the sound of waves is like. But I can tell you that it is a gentle sound, it is the sound of water crashing on the beach, it is coming and going, never stopping, it is like two lovers always searching each other and never stopping to embrace each other.

Lugalzid, maybe I know that sound.

Siduri, do you really?

Listen to me, Lugalzid. Is this the sound of waves? Listen to the sound I make as I breathe.

Siduri, it is like the sound of waves, indeed.

It is the sound of a woman in love, Lugalzid.

I can hear it, Siduri. It is like the waves that love the beach and never get tired of crashing onto the shore.

And the beach that loves the waves never gets tired of the waves crashing on it. Will you love me, kind Lugalzid?

I will, gentle Siduri.
And Siduri took down the cape she had on her head and showed to Lugalzid her black hair, shiny in the moonlight. Then Lugalzid loved Siduri many times, and then they slept together on the couch of the hut, and Lugalzid slept sound and well. And when he woke up, he heard the sound of waves as he was used to hear in the morning. But this sound was a little different. And Lugalzid opened his eyes and he saw Siduri in front of him. And Siduri took Lugalzid’s hand and she led him to the door of the hut. And there, in the bright light of the sun, the sea was vast and blue, stretching all the way to the horizon. And the waves gently crashed on the beach, murmuring and roaring as two lovers who never tire to search for each other.

And Lugalzid marveled at what he was seeing and he could not tire to look at the blue waters, and the waves, and the clouds reflecting on the water.

What happened, Siduri? How long did I sleep?

For quite some time, Lugalzid, my love. The legend was right, after all. It only referred to another kind of sword, the one you used to plow my body. And after you did that, you slept, and the clouds come, and much rain came. And you were sleeping so well, that I didn’t wake you up. And day and night, more and more rain came. And you were still sleeping so well that I didn’t wake you up. And many days passed, perhaps weeks, perhaps months, perhaps years. And then so much rain came that the mountains were dripping it in streams everywhere, and the waters from the river came in a great rush of waves, foam, and bubbles, rushing to the sea as a lovers return to each other after having been away from each other for a long time. And many more days passed, and more water flew into the sea, and the sea became full.

That must have taken a long time, Siduri.

Such a long time, Lugalzid. You slept for a hundred years, maybe.

A hundred years? But who are you, Siduri?

Lugalzid, you know that my name is Siduri, which means the woman who makes beer. But it is only one of my names. You can call me also Inanna, the Goddess of Heaven who is also the Goddess of Earth. And know, Lugalzid, that it was humankind that destroyed the sea with their greed and that a great offense to me, since I am also the Goddess of the Sea. And that's why the sea became dry and the river became dry, and men and women suffered so much. But the Goddess had sworn that she would give another chance to them if she could find a man who was worth of her love. And it was because of your kindness in honoring your mother, your ancestors, and me, that I thought you are such a man, and because of that I loved you and I still love you. And in reward for your efforts that I bestowed on humans another chance to deal with the bounty of the Earth, which is always abundant for human needs, although never sufficient for human greed. But if now they will use only what they need, then the Goddess will give them plenty more, because I am benevolent and merciful and the fruits of my benevolence flood the whole Earth.

Siduri, I am amazed at what you are telling me. Was it all because of me?

Not just because of you, Lugalzid, you were the vessel that carried the blessing of the Goddess and that blessing is now spreading in the world. But you have great merit for what you did.

I don’t think I deserve that merit, my kind Siduri.

I know that you are modest, Lugalzid, and that is one more reason why you deserve it.

But what should do, now?

You may go back to the city you came from if you like. Or you may stay here, and live as a fisherman in the village in front of the deep blue sea. Because people will come here to restart fishing and some are already here.

But, you, Siduri, what will you do?

Oh, I may go back to heaven. See, I have a palace in the clouds. But, if you like . . .

If I like what?

I can stay with you.

Really? A Goddess staying with a mere man? How could that be?

Sweet Lugalzid, a goddess can do many things. I will stay with you and you will fish for me and I’ll cook for you and make good ale for you, and we’ll stay in this nice hut and we will be happy to be husband and wife and we’ll have many happy children. Because the Goddess gives life to everything and she is loves everything and gives life to everything, and nothing and no one is too humble for Her or too small for Her. And now, come with me, my sweet husband. I want to love you again and to love you many times. Kiss me and you can go fishing tomorrow.

Note: this story is inspired by Sumerian lore, in particular by the saga of Gilgamesh. Lugalzid should be a real Sumerian name that I built mixing the terms Lu (great), gal (man), and zid (trusted), although I don’t know if such a name was ever used in Sumerian times. Siduri, instead, is a real Sumerian name and she is the “alewife” that Gilgamesh meets in his travels. “Siduri” actually means “young woman” in Accadic, but in the saga she is both a goddess and a woman who makes beer. The hero sleeping for a hundred years is inspired by the Japanese children story “Urashima Taro”.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Fantastic: Mata Hari's Pinball from 1978!

Mata Hari is a Physical Pinball Table designed by Jim Patla with artwork by Dave Christensen. It was released by Bally in 1978, just as the company was switching over from electro-mechanical pinballs to solid state.

Inspired by the Real Life Mata Hari, the game depicts the exotic dancer and spy performing her duties. The pinball backglass shows her lounging in her chambers, handing a small folded map to a gentleman identified only as The Baron. On the playfield, Mata Hari is passing off documents stamped Top Secret, and is featured stepping out from behind a gigantic knife while framed by oversized feathers and snakes. The sides of the cabinet eschew all subtlety, with Hari pointing at a silhouette of the skull and crossbones while preparing to strike with her dagger.

Below, an image of the playing board and of an imagined Mata Hari's face on the side of the machine.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Masked World and the Virus: What Have we Done to Ourselves?

This beautiful and eerie clip by seven7lives suddenly acquires new meaning with the arrival of the epidemics. Note the theme of the face mask all over the clip, worn by the soldiers and by the workers. And the red piece of cloth held by the girl acquires an even more specific link to freedom, it is freedom from the need of wearing a de-humanizing face mask. 

Note how, toward the end of the clip, a woman faces a masked soldier before being blindfolded and executed. 

Freedom is a state of the mind, but the mind is easily enslaved and forcing us to wear a face mask is a good way to turn us into slaves. Slavery is another state of the mind. 

And it is not even that we are forced into slavery by an evil dictator. Right now, with the epidemic ongoing, we are so terrified that we want to wear face masks, we want to see everyone else wearing a face mask, we want to become slaves. 

But it is not because of a virus. Everything is correlated, everything has a reason. The virus is not an accident of nature, not an act of God. We already lost our freedom when we destroyed most of the natural world around us. And now we see the consequences of what we have done.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why I still buy Paper Books: It is the Same Strategy that Women use with Men

I know that e-books are less expensive and take much less space than paper books. Nevertheless, I seem to be stuck with paper books and I am the first to ask myself why.

I think I found an answer with the book above, that I actually read as an e-book. I was not looking for a seduction manual for men, I was searching for "swarm intelligence" which is in the title of this book but, alas, is never discussed in the text! (this is an advantage of e-books, they are searchable).

I got this book for free as part of my subscription with Amazon and I even read some of it. I didn't find it very interesting: not a bad book, but overlong and saying things that I mostly I already knew. But I got a few ideas from this brief experience and I have to say that I found that the author frames very well the problem he tackles with the example of a restaurant.

Think about this: how do you select your dish from the menu of a restaurant? Florian Willet examines two possible strategies depending on whether the restaurant is expensive or cheap. If it is expensive, you'll be probably very careful in choosing the dishes that seem to be the best and, positively, you won't order more than you can eat, that would be a big waste of money. Conversely, if the restaurant is cheap, let's say it is a buffet, then you have no such worry, you can nibble a little of this and a little of that, try all items and when you are full, you don't care if you left some good food untouched in your plate.

Willet's idea is that these two strategies define how -- respectively -- women choose men and men choose women. For a man, sex is not an expensive choice and the ideal strategy would be to try as many women as possible, one after the other. That depends on how expensive women are and this explains why some men tend to aim at lower social status women -- less expensive in terms of the effort needed. Male doctors, for instance, tend to have affairs with female nurses rather than with female doctors. For women, instead, sex is an expensive choice if related to procreation. So, men are expensive not so much in themselves but for the consequences of the decision. According to Willet, a woman tends to choose a man with the same care that you would expend in choosing the best dish on the menu of a fancy restaurant (if she can).

All that is not especially new, as I said, but the curious thing is that I found myself applying Willet's theory to Willet's book. I would never have chosen it if it hadn't been free, I was just nibbling at it just as if I was standing in front of a buffet. It was the equivalent of a one-night stand with a woman in a faraway town where you just happen to be passing by.

And then something flashed in my mind: I love reading books, but like a woman who can't have too many partners together, I can read only a limited number of books. So I tend to choose books as if I were choosing a dish at a fancy restaurant or as a woman tries to choose a partner for life, or at least for an extended relationship. And that's why I buy paper books: they are more expensive. So, I carefully select what I think is best for me, then I pay for what I buy, and I am committed to reading the book I bought.

I think I'll keep staying with paper books -- economic science tells me that! Too bad it has nothing to do with swarm intelligence