Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Through the Gate of Wonder

 Through the Gate of Wonder

And she goes out
white-sparked, radiant
in the dark vault of evening's sky
star-steps in the street
through the Gate of Wonder
From Inanna and Ebih, by Enheduanna (translated by Betty De Shong Meador)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

When Jerusalem was in Tuscany: The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

Did you know that in Tuscany there is a place called "Jerusalem in Tuscany?" In the monastery of "San Vivaldo" you can find a 16th century sanctuary structured in such a way to make pilgrims go through an experience similar to that they would have by visiting the real Jerusalem. The sanctuary is still very much the same it was when it was built, centuries ago, and it tells us something of the plight of the Catholic Church of the time, desperately trying to maintain its cultural and political dominance in Europe. It was a bold attempt to develop a new language. It didn't work, but it anticipated some of our modern trends, such as our icon-based signs and our comic strips.

Imagine yourself in Europe during the late Middle Ages -- it was a different world for many reasons but one would perhaps be the most striking: language. Today, Europe is organized in terms of sharp borders of linguistic areas that usually correspond to national states. Inside the borders, there is one -- and only one -- "correct" language while dialects or minority languages are at best tolerated and often despised. But, in the world of the Middle Ages, languages varied smoothly as you moved from one village to another and, after a few hundred kilometers, people could barely understand each other. And, of course, there were fuzzy boundaries for the main language areas: the Latin, the Germanic, the Celtic, the Greek, the Slavic, and other minor ones. Europe was truly a babel.

But there was a lingua franca that connected the various areas of Europe: Latin, an inheritance of the dead Roman Empire. The Romans had created a nearly homogeneous Latin-speaking language area that included most of Western Europe and of North Africa, while the rest of the Empire spoke Greek. That language unity had been lost with the fading of the empire, disappearing when its dominance tool, gold-based currency, had disappeared with the depletion of its gold mines. But the loss had been only partial. In Western Europe, Latin was still thriving and, in a certain sense, the Empire was still alive. A new organization had taken the place of the Roman Empire, the Church, which proclaimed itself "Catholic" ("universal" from καθολικός) and used many of the same tools: its structure was patterned on the Imperial one, with the Pope in Rome playing the role of the Emperor, the overseers (bishops) playing the role of the Roman governors, and with Latin remaining the universal language, at least for Western Europe.

The difference was that the Church couldn't use military force to maintain its dominance: legionnaires had to be paid and in the metal-poor Europe of Middle Ages, that wasn't possible. So, the Church never directly ruled Europe. It was, mainly, a supporting structure for Feudal Rulers who used churchmen as overseers, interpreters, counselors, accountants, and the like. Latin was a fundamental tool for this role: a monk from Ireland would speak Gaelic with the other monks of his monastery, but he could speak in Latin with a visiting priest from Italy. And both could advise their local kings when it was the time for negotiations with some foreign warlord. All over Western Europe, a Church-based latinized area had developed and it was the main cultural feature of Europe of the time (together with the Gothic cathedrals).

But things always change and, sometimes, change fast. Europe's population kept growing during the Middle Ages, not smoothly but in a series of collapses and rebounds. By the mid 14th century, the "black death" had killed some 30 million Europeans, about one-third of the population of the time. Half a century later, Europe had recovered and the population was skyrocketing up. It was the time of the great explorations, of the discovery of new lands, and of the return of abundant currency with gold coming from the Americas. The new wealth was creating new political structures: states much more powerful than the ragtag feudal kingdoms that had dominated Europe in earlier times.

With the economic changes, there came cultural changes. More people could afford to learn how to read and write and the monopoly of the Church on cultural matters was being threatened. Already during the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote his "Comedy" not in Latin, the language of the intellectuals, but in Vernacular Italian: a language that the people of Florence could understand. But it was with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, in the mid 15th century, that things really took a different path. As long as a book had to be laboriously copied by hand by a scribe, it was an expensive tool for a class of specialists and it made no sense to write it in a language that wasn't Latin. The printing press made books affordable by people who were not part of the Church's clergy.

Revolutions always bring unexpected changes: the 15th-century European bourgeoisie who could afford printed books were not professional clergymen and few of them had studied Latin. Suddenly, a new market appeared: that of books printed in vernacular languages. Already in the late 15th century, Bibles in German were being printed and you know how Martin Luther published a German version of the Bible in 1522. That was, possibly, his most revolutionary act. With Bibles in their language, people didn't need anymore a priest to interpret the holy scriptures for them. The Latin-based Catholic Empire had suddenly become obsolete.

Of course, the Catholic Church didn't just sit and watch as it was being pushed into the waste bin of history. You know about the counter-reformation movement, the Council of Trento (1545- 1563), and the thirty-years war, up to recent times the bloodiest confrontation recorded in human history. With the counter-reformation, the Church reaffirmed the primacy of Latin as the language of choice, truly the sacred language of Europe.

But that couldn't work. Latin could be a lingua franca, a tool for understanding each other, but it was hardly a sacred language. Moslems could claim that God had spoken in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. But never in the Christian scriptures you could read that God had spoken in Latin to anyone, He had spoken in Hebrew or, at most, in Aramaic. And the Christian prophets of the New Testament had used Greek. Latin could provide translations, but it wasn't the real thing.

So, the Catholic Church was fighting an impossible battle. It must be said that it put up a spirited resistance and that, during the 18th century, there was an attempt to revive Latin as a cultured language, for instance Isaac Newton wrote his "Principia" in Latin in 1687. But it was a brief revival, the tumultuous growth of Nation States in Europe destroyed all attempts to keep Latin as a universal language. By the late 19th century, Europe was what it is today: something that could be likened to a party of drunken psychopaths, each one armed to the teeth and ready to start shooting at the others at the slightest hint of a provocation. Engaged in their local quarrels, the European States were unable to stop the expansion of the American Empire and that led to the dominance of English during the second half of the 20th century. At that point, Latin had become a language as dead as ancient Sumerian.

During the transition, for the Catholic Church it was impossible to maintain the fiction of universality. During the Great War, Catholic Priests were blessing the Austrian and the Italian soldiers and encouraging them to kill each other all in the name of the same God and the same church. That made no sense, obviously, and the Church eventually admitted defeat with the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965), when permissions were granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages. It was the end of an age: the Catholic (universal) Church was not universal anymore. Even though theoretically still a structure dominated by the Roman Papacy, it was to become what it is now: a loose network of national churches, not unlike the Protestant Churches it had been battling against so strongly. The Catholic cycle of Western European history had lasted more than a millennium -- now it was over.

But let's go back to the 16th century, when the battle lines were just starting to be drawn. The Catholic Church didn't just resist change, it tried to fight back. It did so by using the weapons it had, in particular, its rich and varied tradition of iconography. There was a reason for this tradition: the Church had been using a language - Latin - that was completely alien to many of its followers, so it had used images as a way to buttress and expand the faith of the believers. In this sense, Christianity had followed a different path than Islam, which had instead capitalized on the capability of the Ummah of understanding, at least in part, Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran. So, when the Latin-based claims to universality were threatened, the Church reacted by trying to develop a new universal language: a purely iconographic one. 

This is what the sanctuary of San Vivaldo was: a bold and original attempt to develop a new language, one that would bypass the Protestant target of the literate elites to speak directly to the illiterate masses (as we would call them today). The images of the sanctuary show strictly no text -- they are purely visual icons, based on color, movement, postures, expressions. They are very simple and direct: perhaps the earliest expression in history that we may see as similar to our modern comic strips.

We can imagine that the visitors of the various chapels were accompanied by guides explaining to them what they were seeing in their vernacular language -- these guides would play the role of the "text balloons" in our modern comics. And the full-immersion experience would have been remarkable in a world that had none of the modern graphical tricks: movies and newspapers. 

Did it work as planned? For us, some five centuries after that San Vivaldo was created, it is difficult to judge. There are many "Holy Mountains" in Europe which attempt to provide the same kind of emotional experience that San Vivaldo does, all based on simple and high-impact dioramas. At least one more "Italian Jerusalem" exists in Val Sesia, the Holy Mount of Varallo. (Link to the sanctuary site)

With the development of the popular press and of TV, these sanctuaries lost importance and became obsolete, although many of them still exist, scattered all over Europe. But the basic idea remains that of providing a non-text communication that bypasses the need for translation. Isn't it exactly what we are doing with the icon-based signs that you can find in all modern airports?  

Then, the development of machine translation may soon make universal languages obsolete. Maybe the new communication technologies will make speech fully user-transparent: the interface will transform our input in whatever vernacular we happen to speak into a different vernacular understood by the person on the other side of the system. Is this the ultimate Esperanto? And what effect will it have on the seemingly all-powerful nation-states of today, so fond of warring and of killing people? 

Impossible to say, but, as usual, we are running into the future without ever wondering if we really want to go there. 


Note: I went to San Vivaldo in 2017, the place is truly impressive and nearly unknown. If you have a chance to visit Tuscany, by all means take this less beaten path and take a look at this special jewel of Tuscan history.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

How do you Write a Novel set in the 13th Century? Simple: you use Magic

A good front cover for a novel -- Hildegard and the Mystery of the Archer -- that faces a gigantic challenge: describing the world of the time of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century in Europe. Despite some stylistic problems, the author, Elide Ceragioli, succeeds in mastering her task: the novel works. It is the magic of narrative.

My explorations of Novel-space are leading me to discover vast spaces where the unknown reigns. It is truly a travel among sideral archipelagos. In my latest report, I told you about how the sexual habits of Plutonians could be related to waitresses who talk with God every day - not a small twist in the space-time fabric.

Here, let me tell you of how Hildegard of Bingen, Christian intellectual of the 12th century, materialized in the suburbs of my town, Florence, in the work of Ms. Elide Ceragioli who also materialized in front of me for a brief encounter just a couple of weeks ago: the mysteries of sidereal archipelagos.

Writing a novel set in the past is extremely difficult for the simple reason that you never lived there -- and with the best of good will, you never will (unless you are a mad professor who invents a time machine). Then, the more you go backward in the past, the more difficult it is. Could you write a novel set in ancient Sumeria, 5000 years ago? Some people do, one day I'll read one of the novels set in Sumeria by Jesse Hudson and report about that to you, but the task is truly nightmarish.

The task that Elide Ceragioli set for herself is gigantic: a novel where the protagonist is Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179), Medieval intellectual, writer, poet, nun, and mystic. Fascinating, but an unbelievably difficult task for someone who is not a Medieval nun.

So, how does Ms. Ceragioli succeed? Well, let's say first of all that the novel has serious problems in style and structure. In terms of style, it illustrates my opinion that the "Omniscient Point of View" (POV) in a novel worked well for Leon Tolstoy, but if one is not Leon Tolstoy it is better not to attempt it. The narrative thread in "Ildegarda" wanders from one character to the other, often providing classic examples of the problem that's called sometimes "head hopping." Omniscient POV is simply tiresome for the reader and that's what happens here.

But, curiously, whereas we know the inner thoughts of every character of the story, we never glimpse what Hildegard herself is thinking. Which is good: it makes Hildegard a little aloft, but it gives focus to the whole story, with all the other characters sort of orbiting around the strong figure of the benevolent abbess.In addition, despite the head-hopping that pervades the text, we do have a "narrative voice" -- unfortunately intermittent, but effective. It is the character of Eunice, the healer nun who "is a little mad, speaks with stones, with plants, and also with bones." I have met Ms. Ceragioli only once and for no more than 10 minutes, but that was sufficient for me to understand that Eunice is her alter-ego in the novel. All novels have an alter-ego of the author, this one is no exception. Whenever Eunice is on stage, the plot gains focus, speed, and interest.

There would be more to be said about the structure of the novel: it has more defects: excessive violence and blood, the slow advancing of the plot, some characters who are just not believable, such as the murderer archer, the attempt of setting a murder-mystery plot in a cultural situation where it wasn't even conceivable, and the plot split into two novels, one following the other.

But all that doesn't detract from the fact that the novel works. That's the miracle of narrative: if an author really feels for what he/she is telling, then even a slow-moving novel can't fail. This is the essential point of Hildegard and the Mystery of the Archer. If you read it, you can't avoid being taken it by the deep fascination of story-telling. Novel writing means to work magic and this novel is an example of it. True magic.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Valerian is a Spoiled Brat, a Son of a Bitch, and a Dirty Racist

The Boulan Bathors (you see  one of them in the lower left of the image above) are an especially ugly feature of Luc Besson's movie "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" For a science fiction lover, as I am, this movie has been a big disappointment despite the attempts of Cara Delevingne (above in the role of Laureline) to do something to improve it.

Movie reviews is not exactly what this blog is about, but I thought that this movie, "Valerian," deserved a little rant for being so bad. Really. Very. Bad.

One thing that bothered me a lot is the racist taint that affects almost every scene of the movie. Really, all the good guys are white, or even pearl-white, such as the sappy alien good guys/gals, whereas the bad guys are almost all dark skinned. Especially ugly and offensive are the brown-skinned "Boulan Bathors" shown as fat, ugly, stupid, and evil people, as well as displaying disgusting eating habits -- they look very much the way black Africans were described in movies up to the 1930s. And since they are so ugly they can be killed without regret by the protagonists.

Maybe I am exaggerating, but something that bothered me even more is how nobody, nowhere, seems to have noticed this racist scenes of the movie, at least in writing. Which, I think, tells us something of the current cultural views. We seem to have returned to the time when Walt Disney made movies of funny black people with a bone stuck in the nose and nobody thought there was something wrong with that.

At this point, I guess you won't be surprised if I tell you that the movie is stupid and uninteresting. It is. You see a lot of noisy explosions, spaceship chases, flashes of laser light, aliens running, and more, but the whole doesn't make much sense. The whole story rotates around a couple of totally uninteresting characters, Valerian and Laureline, who behave like spoiled children, quarreling with each other for no understandable reason while they keep running we don't know where, occasionally killing other characters or letting them die without showing any sign of regret. (must say that Cara Delevingne in the role of Laureline manages to do a decent job in giving a minimum of interest to her character).

Again, noting how bad a movie can be wouldn't seem to be so interesting to deserve a blog post, but nothing can be so bad that you can't at least learn something from it. In this case, you may learn something if you ask yourself something like "what the hell has happened that has destroyed the concept of 'narrative' from our culture?" Apart from the racism, apart from the nastiness, the real trouble with this movie is that it has no plot, no story, no narrative. It is as sophisticated in terms of plot as a running race: everybody runs, one wins. But, at least, in a race everyone runs in the same direction. In this movie, they seem to be running in all possible different directions and nobody knows where's the finish line.

Now, that's really bothersome -- I can't think of any past civilization that made no attempt of telling at least some kind of a story in its cultural manifestations (except, maybe, the late Roman Empire if you happen to read Claudianus). From the time of Gilgamesh, the gist of telling a story was to give a challenge to the hero, see him fulfill is obligation, suffer and learn something in the process, and finally, get a reward. All that has disappeared from our culture -- don't ask me why, because I can't answer that.

I can only note that at the end of the Valerian movie, the hero asks the heroine if she wants to marry him and she answers "maybe." And that's a senseless close for a senseless movie.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mata Hari Series by Dark Horse Comics: The Reasons of a Failure

Dark Horse Comics published a 5-volume comics series on Mata Hari. Potentially a good idea but, in the end, a failure. What went wrong, exactly? Difficult to say, but clearly the series moved in bumps and jumps like a truck on a Mexican country road: sometimes speedy moving onward, sometimes making you seasick. The problems were equally bad with the story and with the imagery. Considering only the latter, in the first volume we had truly beautiful images, like this one:

Now, THIS is true to the image that Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was trying to project of herself as her alias, the creature named "the light of the day" in Malay, Mata Hari. An exotic, eerie, beautiful, mysterious, and even aggressive creature. In the pictures we have, Mata Hari was often shown dancing while holding swords and lances, sometimes even the kind seen above, the "Kriss".

But, then, as I said, the images in the series are unequal, they change in style and aspect. In the cover of the last volume, you see Mata Hari transformed into a clumsy creature, short-legged, a little fat, and with ridiculous heart-shaped lips. This is not Mata Hari, it is more Minnie Mouse.

And, in the 5th volume, they could do even worse. This image of the execution is truly an insult to Mata Hari's memory.

How could they create such a mess? I think I have an explanation but, first, let me show you an image (Paris 1905):

This is the real Mata Hari: look at the bearing, look at the expression, look at the way she is moving. This is real class: Mata Hari never was anything like a Barbie doll. She was an assertive woman in all her manifestations, in her dance as in life. And everything she did, she did with class. Great class.

So, I think that with the Dark Horse series they simply tried to drag the story too much: Mata Hari's life doesn't contain so much material that you could make five volumes out of it. Apart for her grand finale - the execution - her life story was not so dramatic. She was, mainly, a performer with a strong personality and a keen sense of self-promotion. You can describe her life in just a few sentences: she traveled to an exotic place, she divorced her husband, she came back to Europe, she had several lovers, she made some money, and she squandered most of it -- that's it, more or less.

Then, the story that she was a spy, well, it is more ridiculous than passionating. Poor Margaretha had the misfortune of finding herself as the target of both the German and the French secret services. The Germans tried to make the French look bad by having them kill an innocent woman, the French needed a scapegoat for their military failures. In the end, the enemies in the battlefield collaborated with each other in order to bring Margaretha Zelle in front of the firing squad. Bad luck aplenty for her, but not much of a "story" here.

What makes Mata Hari still remembered today is not what she did, but what she was. For sure not everybody loved her, but her personality was so strong and so powerful that it transcended the limits of the Dutchwoman Margaretha Zelle to turn her into the Goddess of the Sun, Mata Hari. All her glory showed up and faded in the single moment of the execution. And all she had done in her life, good and bad, found a justification when she stood in front of the firing squad, sending a kiss to the soldiers who were shooting her, and telling them, "Thank You."

In doing so, she truly transformed herself into the avatar of the Goddess, the sacrificial victim, and she thanked the mortals who were killing her for allowing her to return to the celestial realms where she came from. Not to everyone it is permitted to transcend their human nature in their last moments of life, but some have this destiny. Perhaps it is a blessing, perhaps it is a curse, but this is what we remember Mata Hari for.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Crying Women of Kiev.

It seems to be a real photo and it is incredible how it manages a perfect composition of foreground and background: the crying women in the foreground, more worried faces in the background, and, farther away, burning buildings -- destroyed during the battle for Kiev, in 1941.

It looks eerily similar to some Renaissance paintings, like this one, by an unknown Lombard painter, showing Mary, mother of Jesus, and the pious women around her, crying.

Much art is about suffering -- and many masterpieces show it. But it is not suffering in itself that makes a masterpiece -- it is the feeling about suffering. I have been thinking on this point, and I believe I can cite John Gardner in his "The Art of Fiction" - it is about literature but it is more general than that. So, here is what Gardner says:
Nothing in the world is inherently interesting -- that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. [..] by the nature of our mortality we care about what we know and might possibly lose (or have already lost), dislike what threatens what we care about, and feel indifferent toward that which has no visible bearing on our safety or the safety of the people and things we love. [..] Since all human being have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our symphaty to be roused is that the writer commincate with power and convinction the similarity in his character's experience and our own. 
And so is the secret of so much art - be it writing, painting, or photographing. It is all about sharing an experience. And suffering is something we all experience. So, the crying women of Kiev are us, and the bell tolls for them and for us at the same time.

(another piece of mine about Ukraine)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mata Hari: The Meme Grows

We can get some idea of how the Mata Hari meme has evolved over the years using Google Ngrams. The image below is for the corpus in French.

It is remarkable how the "Mata Hari" meme has been growing in the past two decades. The "blip" from 1990 to ca 1998 may be related to something different than the Dutch dancer, or to some glitch or the Google counting algorythm, but the increase in interest is clear anyway.
In English, the trend is less clear, but it is there:

So, what we are seeing is the slow evolution of a meme. Note that most memes do not even remotely have this kind of persistence - most memes flare up and disappear in days. A meme lasting a century is rare, and the Mata Hari one is still growing. We have to see how it will evolve and how it will affect us.

Note also how the meme has changed its polarity: up to not many years ago, the commonly accepted version was that Mata Hari had been an evil femme fatale, now we see her as an innocent victim of an ugly propaganda machine. A meme - or a myth - is like a living being, it grows, it changes, it evolves. And so does Mata Hari, her ghost is still haunting us.