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A painter and a painting

It was Klingsor’s last summer. 

Klingsor was an artist: a painter – a painter enthralled by beauty, a painter of vivid colour,  passionately, fervently, endlessly seeking to express his love of everything the world could reveal. No day could ever be reclaimed; Life was precious – every moment was precious, irrevocable, a glory and, in its passing, a tragedy …

One evening in that last year of his life he left his studio; and, from a balcony he looked, through his artist’s eyes, into the cool darkness of the night:

It is then that a narrator tells us:

In a year perhaps or sooner, these eyes would be blind and the fires in his heart extinct. No: no human being could endure his flaming life for long. Not even he could, not even Klingsor …Nobody could go on for a long time having all his candles burning day and night, working feverishly for many hours everyday, spending many hours every night in feverish thoughts … forever creating, forever with all his senses and nerves wide awake and alert, like a palace behind whose every window music rings out day after day, while night after night a thousand candles twinkle. It would come to an end …

The narrator continues by tracing out some of the details of Klingsor’s last year: we learn about his intense experiences, his quenchless hunger for life, his relations with a handful of friends, his swings of mood, his moral freedom and his veniality. But we are alert to the fact that his days are numbered. Then, in September of that year Klingsor painted his last self-portrait, and, of this painting, the narrator tell us that:

This frightening, yet so magically beautiful painting, the last of his works to be entirely finished, came at the end of that summer’s labours, at the end of an incredibly fervid tempestuous period of work, and was its crowning glory.’ 

And how did he paint this work?

He painted seated and from memory; only now and then, and almost always during pauses in his work, would he go to the large, old fashioned mirror on the north wall, its frame painted with climbing roses. Standing before the mirror he would stretch his head forward, open his eyes wide … he saw many many faces behind the Klingsor face in the big mirror … and he painted many faces into his picture; sweet and wondering children’s faces, young manhood’s brow and temples full of dreams and ardour, scoffing drinker’s eyes, lips a’thirsting, persecuted, suffering, the seeking libertine of an enfant perdu. But he built up the head majestically brutally, made it into a jungle idol, a jealous infatuated Jehovah, a totem to whom new born babes and virgins mighty be sacrificed. Those were a few of his faces. Another was the face of a doomed and denying man who accepted his fate: moss grew on his skull, the old teeth stood askew, cracks ran through the white skin, and scales and mould grew in the cracks. These are the features his friends particularly love in the painting: They say: this is the man, ecce homo, here is the weary, greedy, wild, childlike, and sophisticated man of our late dying European age who wants to die, overstrung by every longing, sick from every vice, enraptured by the knowledge of his doom, ready for any kind of progress, ripe for any kind retrogression … at once Faust and Karamazov, beast and sage, wholly exposed, wholly without ambition, wholly naked, filled with childish dread of death and filled with weary readiness to die.

We do not know how he dies. 

States of mind

Ever since my Latin teacher gave me a copy of Carl Jung’s ‘Memories, dreams, reflections’ the study of our different modes of consciousness has intrigued me. That same Latin master sometimes used the term ‘a brown study’ to refer to that state of being in which one or more of his pupils had seemingly departed from any obvious sensory contact with the world and had entered a mood of rather vague contemplation. On the other hand, he highlighted those moments when his same pupils evidenced something of a poet’s sensibility during which they marvelled and even extolled the beauties of the world around them.

There is, I think, an enjoyable difference between a form of deep contemplation and a kind of spiritual openness and its allied fulfilment. The former is determined by an almost mysterious stillness of thought; it is not a rumination, nor an activation of logic; it is more like a kind of quiet dreamy wonderment in which idea and image reside on the very edges of consciousness; it is as if the soul temporarily leaves the body. By contrast, the mood of spiritual openness (the poet’s sensibility) remains touched by the phenomena of the world itself; to that extent it is image-laden and more or less connected to sense experience.

The mood of deep contemplation is highlighted by Dostoyevsky in his ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; he provides us with its description in relation to an enigmatic character named Smerdyakov; we learn that ‘on occasion’ Smerdyakov, notwithstanding whatever he had hitherto been engaged upon, would come to a halt and remain standing ‘quite still’ for a few minutes. A study of his features would suggest that he was engaged in ‘some form of contemplation’ and Dostoyevsky continues:

There is by the artist Kramskoy a certain remarkable painting that goes under the title, ‘The contemplator’: depicted is a forest in winter, and there, all alone, on a roadway, in a ragged old kaftan and bast shoes, stands a wretched little muzhik (a Russian peasant ) who has wandered there in deepest solitude, who stands seemingly in reflection, yet is not thinking but is apparently ‘contemplating.’ Were you to jog his elbow he would start and look at you as though he had just awoken … To be sure he would at once recover his wits, but were you to ask him what he had been standing there thinking about, he would doubtless be unable to remember any of it …

However, it is not a state without ‘content’: some residue of this experience would remain for Dostoyevsky adds that whatever it is that has taken place, the ‘impressions’ that may have arisen during this mood of contemplation ‘are dear to him’ and may re-surface at some point in the future.

There is an almost perfect description of spiritual openness and a kind of accompanying ecstasy – that is partly associated with the beauty of the world as it presents itself – in Dostoyevsky’s same novel: The young Aloysha Karamazov has just paid his last respects to his guide and mentor, the revered head of a monastery, and has suddenly left the dead man’s monastic cell; we are told that:

He did not even stop in the porch-way but swiftly went down the steps. His soul, filled with ecstasy, thirsted for freedom, space, latitude. Above him wide and boundless, keeled the cupola of the heavens, full of quiet brilliant stars. Doubled from zenith to horizon ran the Milky Way, as yet unclear. The cool night, quiet to the point of fixity, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral sparkled in the sapphire sky. In the flowerbeds the luxuriant autumn flowers had fallen asleep until morning. The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars …

These beautiful descriptions nicely exemplify the pleasures that might freely be yielded through such contrasting aspects of our mental lives. They appear on pages 144 and 417 respectively of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Penguin Classic edition of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, a novel first published in 1880.

Montaigne – on living and dying

Michel de Montaigne begins a relatively long essay entitled, ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’ by adhering closely to Cicero’s ‘Tuscan Disputations’ and observes without further delay that: ‘… philosophising is nothing other than getting ready to die.’ (Montaigne 1991: 89) Immediately he develops his subject by conjecturing that: ‘… all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is teach us not to be afraid of dying.

He then proceeds to discuss the inevitability of death and, somewhat in the tradition of Cicero, to propose that we should face up to this inevitability and prepare ourselves for a life in which death is omnipresent. Montaigne though is never depressing nor gloomy. He studied carefully the great classical writers (both Greek and Roman) and applied their counsel to understanding more fully both those around him and himself; he based his self-understanding on the unswerving details of his own lived experience.

He recognises that the ‘end’ to which a life aims is that of happiness or pleasure – and that it would be faintly absurd to imagine that this was not the case; for example, our ‘reason’ would scarcely tell us to aim towards pain and misery – and if it did, then we would surely wish to reject this ‘mood’ or expression of reason itself! Montaigne then reflects on the nature of virtue – which is not something oppressive and life-constraining: it, too, takes as its ultimate aim, ‘pleasure’. He has a vigorous and life-enhancing concept of virtue and adds that one of its ‘main gifts is contempt for death’.

However, he finds that, by and large people, are afraid of death, fail to accommodate it in their lives and are more inclined to deny it than to bring into full consciousness the fact that ‘the end of our course is death’. Montaigne, in the light of his acquired knowledge and the inescapable data of his personal experience, acknowledges that since we do not know ‘where death awaits us, let us wait for death everywhere’. And he thinks that if we do this, if we prepare ourselves in this way, we liberate our mind and body: he asserts that:

To practice death is to practice freedom.

In essence, he means that we should not constrain ourselves and avoid the fullness of living because we fear death but should embrace life to the full – precisely because we have, as it were, made ‘friends’ with death – and, co-extensive with this, we should not allow our psychology to deny death and therefore to feel overwhelmed when someone close to us dies.

In this way, Montaigne finds a close relationship between the practical philosophy of the ancients, who advocated a life orientated towards happiness, the practice of virtue (as the expression of vigour for and in life), and freedom, a state which would truly emerge once a person had fully integrated the fact that death was intrinsic to their very being:

Your death,’ he notes ‘is a part of the order of the universe, it is part of the life of the world’ and he adds that ‘From the day you were born your path leads to death as well as to life.’

He concludes his essay with a series of reflections on various aspects of a life in which death is an existential given and advises his readers not to resist the approach of death but to prepare to leave this life since ‘all days lead to death’ but ‘the last one gets you there.

Montaigne was a great liberal humanist who preferred to base his practical philosophy of life on the foundations established by Plato and Aristotle as well as the great Roman thinkers – such as Seneca and the happy eclecticism of Cicero. He applied their precepts to his own experience and is sometimes credited as a forerunner of the enlightenment. I certainly have enjoyed, through reading his wonderful essays, some very good and sympathetic and insightful company.

The cherry blossom and the rose – On reading Dostoyevsky

Individuals and collectives – words and pictures

Little by little, bit by bit, I have been patiently reading Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; the book was published in 1880 and certain critics and academics refer to it as his ‘major accomplishment’. As I have been reading this very long work I have been reminded of Iris Murdoch’s remark that authors no longer write in this style. There is a feverish, pyretic, and sometimes delirious tone which often distinguishes the mood and conduct of the various people we meet in his absorbing text. Heightened passion and moments of hysteria are not uncommon as the narrative unfolds. After a while, and once one has become accustomed to this, the effect is compelling! (I think she, Iris Murdoch, also suggested that no one now can really achieve the kind of literary and intellectual heights that writers such as Dostoyevsky once attained.)

Apart from elucidating the existential challenges facing his characters, treating us to the brilliance with which which he depicts their personalities, and, the detailed discourses he elaborates on the meaning of the Christian religion, he also identifies a ‘spirit of the age’ that he discerns in Russia and beyond; his observations are particular interesting because they appear to foreshadow, by way of contrast, the mood and hopes of the subsequent revolution in Russia – but they also, in certain respects, apply to our own times. I have selected a particular passage which appears on page 349 of my ‘Penguin classics’ edition. The remarks are made by Zosima, the elder of a monastery; the discourse he gives occurs a few hours before he dies. As he speaks he refers to the words of a ‘mysterious and earnest man’ – a man who carries with him an unconscionable secret.

Zosima tells us that:

‘In order for the world to be transformed into a new mould it is necessary that human beings themselves shall psychically turn on to another path. Until you really make yourself the brother to all, brotherhood will not arrive. Never, prompted by science or self-interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property, their privileges in harmless fashion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another.

You ask when what I describe will come true. It will come true, but first there must be a period of human solitariness. ‘What kind of solitariness do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘The kind that reigns everywhere now, particularly in our own time, though it has not yet established itself universally, and its hour has not yet come. For each now strives to isolate his person as much as possible from the others, wishing to experience within himself life’s completeness, yet from all his efforts there result’s not life’s completeness, but a complete suicide, for instead of discovering the true nature of their being they lapse into total solitariness. For in our era all are isolated into individuals, each retires solitary within his burrow, each withdraws from the other, conceals himself and that which he possesses, and ends being rejected of men and by rejecting them. He amasses wealth in solitariness, thinking: how strong I am now and how secure, yet he does not know, the witless one, that the more he amasses, the further he will sink into suicidal impotence. For he has become accustomed to relying upon himself alone and has isolated himself from the whole as an individual, has trained his soul not to trust in help from others, in human beings and mankind, and is fearful only of losing his money and the privileges he has acquired.

In every place today the human mind is mockingly starting to lose its awareness of the fact that a person’s true security consists not in his personal, solitary effort but in the common integrity of human kind. But it will certainly be the case that this terrible solitariness will come to an end, and all will comprehend at once how unnaturally they have divided themselves one from the other. Such will be the spirit of the age, and they will be astonished that they have sat in darkness for so long without seeing the light.’

Well, I think it’s a striking piece of writing. Plainly it stands in contrast to what appears to be the prevailing spirit of our time. History also seems to tell us that the ‘common integrity’ of ‘human kind’ is a chimera. Or is it?

Time and meaning

From a long time ago …

I was recently given the task of responding creatively to the phrase ‘Time sinking‘. I would have far preferred to address a different topic because I have never spent much time dwelling on the concept of time. And the idea of ‘time sinking’ seemed to raise the particular problem of what I imagined was a kind of ‘directed’ or ‘directional’ time. In the end I began to resolve this by imagining how my times have, in a sense, been sinking. (Fading away) In this respect I thought, for example, of the time past that I had experienced in Paris in 1960, then Venice in 1970 and finally New York during the year 2000. But whilst I was puzzling over how to give creative expression to the idea that my times were and are sinking I was also reading Elena Ferrante’s novel, ‘The story of a new name‘. Her striking and acutely perceptive text noted some of the different ways in which we experience ourselves in time: sometimes, for example, it is fluid, sometimes it is glue-like … some of us live in a linear and sequential unfolding of time, whilst other lives are characterised by ruptures, schisms, retrogressions and so on …

However, at the very end of the novel, Ferrante – quite possibly in an autobiographical moment – makes an observation about time and meaning. She does this as we follow the life trajectory of her central character, Lenu Greco, who has returned, from the north of Italy, in order to visit her family in Naples.

During this visit, Lenu, who is fresh from enjoying singular and brilliant academic success and who, in her early 20s, is about to have her first novel published, decides to go to see her long-standing childhood friend, the fascinating and mesmerising Lila Cerullo. Lila, by contrast, is working in the dreadful conditions of a sausage factory.

They meet in the factory and Lenu notices that Lila is ‘bundled up, dirty and scarred’ whilst she has ‘dressed herself’ as if ‘disguised as a young lady of a good family.’ They are now, as it were, inhabitants of different worlds. Their exchanges are both affectionate but always testing and sometimes harsh. On leaving the beautiful Lila, and after their brief meeting, Lenu, in a moment of terrible insight says to herself:

I had made the journey [to see her] mainly to show her what she had lost and I had won … But … she was explaining to me that I had won nothing – that in this world there is nothing to win … and that time simply slipped away without any meaning …

On reading this paragraph I put the book down and thought, for a long time, about the implications of that almost chilling closing remark: Time sinking – or time slipping away – ‘without any meaning’ …

If on a winter’s night a traveller – and more …

The cover of a book

Titles? Titles make a difference; often, they can help make sense of a work of art or they can simply evoke a fascinating or enticing image – a prelude to an unknown ‘something’; they can be delightfully memorable: amongst the titles I have particularly liked are ‘Those who leave and those who stay’, ‘Darkness at noon’, ‘The waste land’, ‘Famous blue raincoat’, and ‘After the gold-rush’.

By chance I have to hand a copy of Italo Calvino’s ‘novel’ or text which has one of the best titles I could ever imagine: It is: ‘If, on a winter’s night, a traveller.’ It’s a great title because I can actually imagine ‘a winter’s night’ and ‘a traveller’. And the title leaves me in a mood of anticipation: What is going to happen?

But then, as I began to read his text I realised that his introduction to the book applies to me! Directly to me! As Calvino prepares a reader for the experience of reading his new novel he tells us about a person (who is now a version of me, myself) and their (my) anticipation of his text:

As if speaking for me, he writes:

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything from anything.

There are plenty younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the general conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs.

What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

Yes – this is more or less how I look at things; just as Italo Calvino’s subject (me), despite his habitual but albeit limited pessimism or stoicism, still has the pleasure of expectation vis-a-vis a new book, so I, too, have a certain pleasure of expectation at the prospect of opening a book and getting stuck in.

At the moment I am reading two astonishingly good books. The first is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. The second is Elena Ferrante’s ‘The story of a new name’ – which is the second volume in her ‘Naples quartet’.

Dostoyevsky’s work tells us the story of the three Brothers Karamazov, namely, Dmitry, Ivan and Aleksey; his characterisations of the brothers – as well as the many other persons who feature in the book – are virtually unsurpassed. In addition he furnishes us with an image of an old and strangely enduring Russian culture as well as a lesson in applied theology. Iris Murdoch observed of this genre of literature that ‘we don’t write like this anymore’ – and she is correct: The Brothers Karamazov requires patient engagement and a willingness to grapple with the often complex debates that are threaded throughout the text. Some pages have not one paragraph and this makes for demanding reading. And, on top of this, people don’t seem to conduct themselves like his characters anymore. They are often portrayed in the grip of intense emotion – the like of which are not so commonplace in our modern world.

At the same time I find it a relief and a pure form of enlightenment to read Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary portrayal of Neapolitan culture and relationships – as it is experienced by children and young adults. In her ‘The story of a new name‘ she also manages to underline why it is that ‘we’, wherever we are, benefit from an education that cultivates the mind and shapes perception accordingly.

So, I too, continue to share Calvino’s reader’s optimism – and positive expectation – when it comes to reading a new novel or an old and critically-acclaimed one.

A tiny gnome-like reflection on kitsch.

A choir of gnomes – somewhere in the south of England

Kitsch remains to me something of a mystery; I have the sense that it increasingly permeates reality and, the oddest thing of all is that I even begin to ‘see’ that the art that is supposed to be serious overlaps with or looks like Kitsch.

By chance I came across a short note on Kitsch that helped me grasp more clearly its identity: written by the conservative and traditionalist philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, it neatly summarised the reaction against all-things kitsch that was part of the modernist agenda. The modernists of the early 20th century devalued any art that beautified or prettified the world; Instead, art was to eschew sentimentalism (and all those big dewy eyes) and show ‘things as they are’; in the course of this a new sensibility emerged, a sensibility that expressed derangement, horror, disfigurement, angst and cruelty. (In other words, lots of artists made things that looked horrible.) And this modernist agenda was shared across the arts: So, as the high-priests of culture such as T.S. Eliot insisted, ‘The task of the poet was not to provide nostalgic dreams but to wake us up to reality.’

Scruton finds that in their quest to reject the old ways of doing things the artist had, at all costs, to avoid kitsch and this ‘became the first precept of the modernist artist in every medium’; Kitsch was reviled, tabooed and made abject. It follows that the fear of kitsch is one reason why so much contemporary art is deliberately offensive or disturbing. In doing this it satisfies the requirement not to be kitsch. Scruton goes on to claim that despite the fact we cannot easily define kitsch we recognise it when we come face-to-face with its manifestations. He provides the following examples:

The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. And, unsurprisingly, he mentions that at Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch. And we are! (I will underline this shortly.)

What, though is going on as ‘we’ engage with the kitsch-ridden things, objects, places and kitch-laden moments of this world. In a key passage in the text Scruton writes:

‘Kitsch … is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.’

His analysis continues with his observation that this transfer of emotion from object to subject – of the loss of precise and real emotion and its replacement by a ‘vague and self-satisfied substitute’ is why modernist artists had such a horror of kitsch. (The real had given way to a curious hybrid.) And Scruton drives a stake further into the heart of kitsch-dom by declaring that:

‘Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all.’

Nonetheless it turns out that it is difficult to avoid kitsch because the very business of trying to avoid it – by being ‘truthful’ (perhaps in the style of Nietzsche) or subversive (in the mood of Warhol) – can, itself, easily lead to another version of fakery: fake significance, fake originality, fake sincerity and a kind of loud ‘look at me’ advertising. None of this, as Scruton observes ‘touches the deepest regions of the human heart.’

Another strategy adopted by contemporary artists is the genre of ‘pre-emptive kitsch’ – a kitsch that is so obvious that it isn’t real kitsch but a meta-kitsch – kitsch commenting on kitsch. This can earn you a lot of money and cultural cachet – and that’s where it’s all gone pear or gnome-shaped. On this I agree with Scruton.

So, what are we to do? I really don’t know. I find myself watching TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and marvelling at the sheer spectacle, the over-the-top-ness of it all. Is it real kitsch, or is it just pure aesthetic spectacle? And are all those Father Christmases and gnomes on sale for Christmas a way of poking fun at ourselves. After all they are, as objects, rather fetching – faintly ludicrous and relatively harmless. I wonder: is it the case that if we simply get so used to a phenomenon over time it becomes part of the reassuring furniture of our lives. And perhaps that is a good thing.

International kitsch – from somewhere in China

Time Past and Time Present

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna – interior (2020)

The church of St. John the Baptist (Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista) is a very small, simple building situated in the Piazza S.Giorgio at the heart of the beautiful town of Varenna on the eastern shores of Lake Como. It is so undemonstrative – so nondescript – that it can easily pass unnoticed; indeed, even should it be noticed it is not obviously a church. Most visitors to Varenna do not ‘register’ the building because, from the outside it is constructed out of grey stone with no adornments. It could, I imagine be taken as an old workshop, a place for carpentry and wood-turning, perhaps a pottery or or even a garage.

However the Romanesque building dates back to the eleventh century and, despite its modest retiring self-effacing exterior, the interior tells a different story. The inside walls are graced by fourteenth century frescoes and although they are in an advanced state of deterioration they have come to reflect a far more contemporary aesthetic of beauty-in-decay. Sixteenth century frescoes in the apse are in a somewhat better condition.

When I visited the church in the late summer of 2020 (in the course of exploring how objects are displayed or presented for whasotever their purposes might be) I was lucky enough, soon after entering, and glancing at the frescoes, to come face to face with a sacred text. It was placed before the altar. I was immediately struck by the dignity, simplicity and sheer presence of the book itself. It was not specially illuminated nor was there any supporting text to explain or enhance its presence. The book was simply there, resting on a lectern and directly in front of me.

As I contemplated the book, the altar behind, the subtleties of light and shadow and the history-suffused environing walls of the church, I felt a quiet delight at the way time-past and time-present can be combined in a perfect synthesis.

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna (2019)

Novels and the meaning of things

Ever since I had read some of the great works of world literature I increasingly came to the view that it was through such reading that I learned most about human psychology. Later my basic understanding of the motivations, values and conduct of people was enhanced through the unique courses of study offered by the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey. But without such courses I still continue to be educated through the provision and presence of the often acute insights and characterisations of people that are intrinsic to good literature.

In the last few months I have been developing a particularly personal museum which features 20 objects all of which, in various ways, have special meaning and significance for me. As I developed my ‘museum’ project I noticed that a basic aspect of what I was trying to do was expressed through the genius of the writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante pinpoints the way intelligence and the use of language combine to heighten our engagement with the materials and phenomena of the world – including the actions of people. Thus,  in her now famous novel, ‘My brilliant friend’ (the novel that I happened to be reading) she tell us that her protagonist the young Elena Greco comes to a realisation about her similarly young friend Raffaella Cerullo; the two girls had just experienced, as Elena puts it, ‘wonderful conversations’ and, as a result, Elena ‘looked’ at Raffaella, thought about their friendship and the special intellectual powers of Raffaella and concluded:

It seemed to me … that … she was developing a gift I was already familiar with; more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts, and in a natural way, charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realised, with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same …” (Ferrante, E. 2020: 130) 

The first time I read this part of the text I did what I usually do when a piece of writing appears to speak directly to me and at the same time seems to herald something basic to enhancing my (our) consciousness. I stopped, I closed the book, I found a quiet space and thought about what she had written. I applied her observation to my own work and experience:

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘It’s true; reality  – the things, the objects of the world can be readily and easily passed over or, by contrast, intensified and injected with energy. It’s this latter process that makes the world an endlessly fascinating ‘place’ in which to live.’ 

And then in relation to my project I could see more clearly that, in a similar way, my museum of seemingly disparate entities had taken a number of objects, objects already charged with meaning, had focused upon them a narrative – and, as a result, they have also, as in Elena Ferrante’s acute observation, had taken on a kind of tension and an injection of energy. 

The tension has been a kind of vibration between the personal-and-emotional and issues of philosophical reflection.  

Reference: Ferrante, E. (2020) ‘My brilliant friend’ London, Europa editions

How things are shown: In memoriam

My research trip studying the various ways the things and objects made by our cultures are shown or presented to the world included a visit to the beauty of Lake Como in northern Italy. I think this must surely be one of the most perfect and aesthetically complete environments in the world.

I had chosen to stay in an Italian ‘Agriturismo’ place situated on the outskirts of the small town of Schignano, a town with just over 850 inhabitants. The view from my bedroom window looked down upon the lake, a view made even better from the balcony adjoining the room. Nearby church bells sounded their hourly reminder to the faithful. The lovely informal buildings of the town presented themselves in those beautiful Italian shades of ochre, sienna, a pale dusky pink, and burnt orange.

One morning, under a sky that was turning from early morning yellow to crystal-blue and then a sun-dazzled white, it had become very warm and so I decided to take a walk along the shaded tracks of the nearby woods. I had been told that I could find edible mushrooms there but I simply wanted to enjoy the slow rhythms of nature and enjoy the presence of the many legend-graced trees. It was a long walk and, at its end, the track joined a narrow road upon which a few vehicles of various descriptions would pass by. Away from the cities I have often noticed how the inhabitants of small rural and mountain settlements keep their cars ‘alive’ for as long as they can. Here was no exception: a delightful old Fiat and then a decades-old Lancia drove past me! I stayed close to the mossy banks that edged the road itself and then, after a while, I saw beside me the reminder of a tragedy: it was a memorial to the life of a young man. His name was Guido Peduzzi. He was aged 18 when he had died in 1973. I recognised the distinctive look – the style – we, the young men of those days, used to adopt.

If there were details as to how Guido Peduzzi had died, they were obscured by a pretty bunch of flowers. And, through this, his family and friends showed how they would never abandon him. The memorial included a candle – and I noticed how the inscribed marble was protected by two flat stones which adjoined, directly, the exposed rock of the bank. It seemed as if this gesture was underlining his enduring connection to the locality – to the place of Schignano.

Two days later, whilst I was doing the shopping in the single small supermarket of Schignano, I walked past the modest war memorial that was situated in a small square – an open space – in the centre of the town. Amongst the many names of those who had perished in the war were several with the surname ‘Peduzzi.’ As I tried to imagine the awful tragedy of still more young lives lost, of the tragedies which lie at the heart of Schignano, the church bells sounded one again. They continued to do their best to hold out both hope and consolation.