Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Archive for ‘May, 2019’

This post is my translation of an excerpt from the short article by Primo Levi entitled “Butterflies” in which he describes an exhibition on the butterflies he visited in a museum.

Why are butterflies beautiful? Certainly not for the pleasure of human beings, as Darwin’s opponents claimed: there were butterflies at least a hundred million years before the first human being. I think that our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, took its configuration over the centuries from them, as from the stars, the mountains and the sea. We have proof of this when we consider what happens when we examine the head of a butterfly under the microscope: for most observers, admiration is replaced by horror or disgust. In the absence of cultural habit, this new object baffles us; the enormous eyes without pupils, the horn-like antennae, the monstrous mouth apparatus appear to us like a diabolical mask, a distorted parody of the human face.

In our civilization (but not in all) bright colors and symmetry are “beautiful” and so are butterflies. Now, the butterfly is a true factory of colors: it transforms the foods it absorbs and even its own excretion products into dazzling pigments. Not only this: it knows how to obtain its splendid metallic and iridescent effects with pure physical means, only by exploiting the interference effects that we observe in soap bubbles and in the oil slicks floating on the water.

But the fascination of butterflies does not only come from colors and symmetry: deeper motives contribute to it. We wouldn’t call them so beautiful if they didn’t fly, or if they flew straight and fast-moving like bees, or if they stung, or especially if they didn’t cross the perturbing mystery of the metamorphosis: the latter takes on the value of a partially deciphered message in our eyes, a symbol, and a mysterious sign. It is not strange that a poet like Gozzano (“the friend of the chrysalises”) studied and loved butterflies with passion: it is strange, nonetheless, that so few poets have loved them, since the passage from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, and from this to the butterfly, projects beside itself a long admonitory shadow.

As butterflies are beautiful by definition, they are our yardstick of beauty, so the caterpillars (“insects in default”, said Dante) are ugly by definition: clumsy, slow, stinging, voracious, hairy, obtuse, they are in turn symbolic, the symbol of what is coarse, incomplete, and represents a perfection not reached.

The two documentaries that accompany the exhibition with the portentous eye of the camera show us what very few human eyes could see: the caterpillar that suspends itself in the aerial temporary tomb of the cocoon, turns into an inert chrysalis, and then comes out to light in the perfect shape of the butterfly; the wings are still inept, weak, like crumpled tissue paper, but in a few moments they become stronger, stretched, and the newborn flies off. It is a second birth, but at the same time it is a death: the one who has flown away is a psyche, a soul, and the torn cocoon that remains on the ground is the mortal body. In the deep layers of our consciousness the butterfly with a restless flight is a soul, fairy, sometimes even a witch.

The strange name it bears in English (butterfly, the “the fly of butter”) evokes an ancient Nordic belief that the butterfly is the goblin who steals butter and milk, or makes them sour; and the Acherontia Atropos, the great domestic nocturnal moth with the sign of the skull on the corselet that Guido Gozzano meets in the villa of Signorina Felicita, is a damned soul, “which brings pain”. The wings that the popular iconography attributes to the fairies are not feathery wings of a bird, but transparent and ribbed wings of a butterfly.

The furtive visit of a butterfly, which Hermann Hesse describes on the last page of his diary, is an ambivalent announcement, and has the taste of a serene premonition of death. The old writer and thinker, in his Ticinese hermitage, sees “something dark, silent and phantom” rise in the air: it is a rare butterfly, an Antiopa with dark-violet wings, and lands on his hand. «Slowly, with the rhythm of quiet breathing, the beauty shut and opened the velvet wings, holding on to the back of my hand with six very thin legs; and after a brief moment it disappeared, without my detecting its withdrawal, in the great warm light».

Bibliography

Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne, A Caterpillar. [Drawings]. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/SS7731421_7731421_11373304

Primo Levi, “Farfalle” in L’altrui mestiere. Torino: Einaudi, 1985. pp. 133-135. My translation, the original Italian follows.

 

Perché sono belle le farfalle? Non certo per il piacere dell’uomo, come pretendevano gli avversari di Darwin: esistevano farfalle almeno cento milioni di anni prima del primo uomo. Io penso che il nostro stesso concetto della bellezza, necessariamente relativo e culturale, si sia modellato nei secoli su di loro, come sulle stelle, sulle montagne e sul mare. Ne abbiamo una riprova se consideriamo quanta avviene quando esaminiamo al microscopio il capo di una farfalla: per la maggior parte degli osservatori, all’ammirazione subentra l’orrore o il ribrezzo . In assenza dell’abitudine culturale, quest’oggetto nuovo ci sconcerta; gli occhi enormi e senza pupille, le· antenne simili a corna, l’apparato boccale mostruoso ci appaiono come una maschera diabolica, una parodia distorta del viso umano.

Nella nostra civiltà (ma non in tutte) sono « belli» i colori vivaci e la simmetria e così sono belle le farfalle. Ora, la farfalla è una vera fabbrica di colori: trasforma in pigmenti smaglianti i cibi che assorbe ed anche i suoi stessi prodotti di escrezione. Non solo: sa ottenere i suoi splendidi effetti metallici ed iridescenti con puri mezzi fisici, sfruttando soltanto gli effetti di interferenza che osserviamo nelle bolle di sapone e nei veli oleosi che galleggiano sull’acqua.

Ma la suggestione delle farfalle non nasce solo dai colori e dalla simmetria: vi concorrono motivi più profondi. Non le definiremmo altrettanto belle se non volassero, o se volassero diritte e alacri come le api, o se pungessero, o soprattutto se non attraversassero il mistero conturbante della metamorfosi: quest’ultima assume ai nostri occhi il valore di un messaggio mal decifrato, di un simbolo e di un segno. Non è strano che un poeta come Gozzano ( «l’amico delle crisalidi») studiasse e amasse con passione le farfalle: è strano, anzi, che così pochi poeti le abbiano amate, dal momento che il trapasso dal bruco alla crisalide, e da questa alla farfalla, proietta accanto a sé una lunga ombra ammonitoria.

Come le farfalle sono belle per definizione, sono il nostro metro della bellezza, così i bruchi («entomata in difetto», li diceva Dante) sono brutti per definizione: goffi, lenti, urticanti, voraci, pelosi, ottusi, sono a loro volta simbolici, il simbolo del rozzo, dell’incompiuto, della perfezione non raggiunta.

I due documentari che accompagnano la mostra ci fanno vedere, col portentoso occhio della cinepresa, quanto pochissimi occhi umani hanno potuto vedere: il bruco che si sospende nella tomba aerea e temporanea del bozzolo, si muta in crisalide inerte, ed esce poi alla luce nella forma perfetta della farfalla; le ali sono ancora inette, deboli, come carta velina stropicciata, ma in pochi istanti si rafforzano, si tendono , e la neonata prende il volo. È una seconda nascita , ma insieme è una morte: chi si è involato è una psiche, un’anima, e il bozzolo squarciato che resta a terra è la spoglia mortale. Negli strati profondi della nostra coscienza la farfalla dal volo inquieto è animula, fata, talvolta anche strega.

Lo strano nome che essa porta in inglese (butterfly, la «mosca del burro») rievoca un’antica credenza nordica secondo cui la farfalla è lo spiritello che ruba il burro e il latte, o li fa inacidire; e l’Acherontia Atropos, la grande notturna nostrana con il segno del teschio sul corsaletto che Guido Gozzano incontra nella villa della signorina Felicita, è un’anima dannata, «che porta pena ». Le ali che l’iconografia popolare attribuisce alle fate non sono ali pennute di uccello, ma ali trasparenti e nervate di farfalla.

La visita furtiva di una farfalla, che Hermann Hesse descrive nell’ultima pagina del suo diario, è un’annunciazione ambivalente , ed ha il sapore di un sereno presagio di morte. Il vecchio scrittore e pensatore, nel suo romitaggio ticinese, vede levarsi in volo «qualcosa di scuro, silenzioso e fantomatico»: è una farfalla rara, unAntiopa dalle ali bruno-violette, e gli si posa su una mano. «Lenta, al ritmo di un respiro tranquillo, la bella chiudeva e apriva le ali di velluto, tenendosi aggrappata al dorso della mia mano con sei zampette sottilissime; e dopo un breve istante sparì, senza che io ne avvertissi il distacco, nella gran luce calda».

 

Leave a comment

The following is a partial translation of Hermann Hesse’s beautiful essay Über das Reisen (1904, On Traveling).

(…)

About the question of how modern man should travel there are several books and booklets, but among these I do not know any good ones. Anyone who is leaving for a leisure trip should still know what he does and why he does it. Today, the traveling citizen does not know why they do it. They travel because in summer it is too hot in the city. They travel because by changing air and people and environments they hope to find some rest from the hard work. They travel to the mountains tormented by dark nostalgia to return to nature, the land and plants; they go to Rome because it is a cultural journey. But above all, they travel because all their cousins ​​and neighbors do it, because then they will be able to talk about it and boast about it, because it is fashion and because later, at home, they will feel so pleasantly again.

(…)

Traveling should always mean experiencing, feeling deeply, and you can experience something precious only in places and environments with which you establish a spiritual relationship. A beautiful occasional excursion, a cheerful evening in any tavern, a boat trip on any lake, these are not in themselves real experiences capable of enriching our life, if they do not instill in us strong and lasting stimuli.

(…)
Before leaving travelers should inform themselves, even only on a map and in passing, about the essential characteristics of the country and the place where they are going to go, and of the relationship in which these places are located, in terms of position, territory, climate and population, with respect to the home and places familiar to them. If they go abroad they should try to empathize with what is characteristic of the region. They should contemplate mountains, waterfalls and cities not only in passing and as attractions, but learning to recognize them as necessary and appropriate to the places where they are, and therefore, beautiful.

If they develop this good will they will discover for themselves the simple secrets of the art of traveling. And (…) they will not travel to foreign countries without knowing, at least a little, his language. They will not judge landscapes, inhabitants, habits, cuisine and wines on the meter of their country, and they will not want to see stereotypes like the fiery Venetian, the silent Neapolitan, the gentle Bernese, the sweetest Chianti, the coolest riviera, the steepest lagoon coast. Instead, they will try to adapt their lifestyle to the customs and character of the place where they are; they will rise early in Grindelwald and late in Rome, and so on. And above all, they will try everywhere to get close to the local people and understand them.

(…)

The poetry of traveling does not consist in refreshment from the monotony of one’s country, from the fatigue of work and contrasts, not in the company of other people and in the contemplation of different images, nor in satisfying a curiosity. The poetry of traveling is in experience, in inner enrichment, in the organic assimilation of the innovations experienced, in the growth of our ability to understand unity in the manifold, the great intertwining made up of earth and humanity, in finding ancient truths and laws in completely new situations.

(…)

 Who in foreign regions and cities, not only chases after the famous and most surprising things, but wants to understand the truest and most profound reality and grasp it with love,  will notice how casual encounters and little things will appear covered with a special glow. When I think of Florence, the first image I remember is not the Duomo or the ancient Palazzo della Signoria, but the small pond with the goldfish in the Boboli Gardens. There, during my first Florentine afternoon, I happened to talk to some women and their children and I listened for the first time to the Florentine dialect; and it was the first time I really felt the city –that so many books had made me familiar– like something real and alive, like a city with which I could talk and which I could grasp with my hands. And this did not make me miss the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and all the monuments that made Florence famous. I actually think I lived them and made them my own in a better way and with more passion than many scrupulous tourists with their good Baedeker travel guide; these monuments come to mind in a clear, unitary way, from small marginal experiences. Even though I have forgotten some beautiful pictures of the Uffizi, I remember the evenings spent chatting in the kitchen with the landlady, or the nights spent in small taverns talking with men and boys (…). These trifles often become the fulcrum of the most precious memories.

(…)

But we must not forget, beyond the fortuitous, the essential, or beyond the romantic, poetry. Being carried around and relying on good luck is certainly a good practice, but every journey, if we want to live it with satisfaction and as a profound experience, must have a very specific content and meaning. Strolling through boredom and dull curiosity in countries whose intimate nature remains foreign and indifferent, is sacrilegious and ridiculous. Like a friendship or a love that is cultivated and for which sacrifices are made, like a book that has wisely been chosen, bought and read, so every journey of pleasure or study is an act of love that involves the desire to learn and spirit of sacrifice. Its purpose is to make a country and its people, a city or a region, the spiritual heritage of the traveler, who with love and passion must scrutinize a reality that is foreign to him and strive with perseverance to understand the mystery of its being. The rich merchant of cured meats, who for ostentation and a misunderstood sense of culture travels to Paris or Rome, does not achieve any of this. But who in the long and ardent years of youth has cultivated within himself/herself the dream of the Alps, of the sea or of the ancient cities of Italy, and has finally managed to put together some time and money, will take possession of each landmark with passion, of every wall of a monastery illuminated by the sun and covered with climbing roses, of every snowy peak and of every stretch of sea, and will not let them escape from the heart before having understood their language, before it has become alive what was dead, and gifted with speech what  was silent. He/she, in one day, will infinitely enrich his/her experience and will try many more things than a fashion representative in years of travel, and will carry with him/her for life a treasure of joy and understanding, a sense of happy fulfillment .

(…)

From the lazy contemplation of a golden summer evening and from the comforting contact with the pure and light air of the mountain to the intimate understanding of nature and landscape, there is still a very long road. It is wonderful to lie down and lounge for hours on a sun-heated lawn. But full enjoyment, a hundred times more profound and noble, is granted only to the one who is perfectly familiar with this landscape, with this meadow, with its land and its mountains, the streams, the alder woods and the chain of peaks soaring to the horizon towards the sky. To be able to read in this piece of land its laws, see the necessity of its conformation and its vegetation, grasp the bond that unites it to history, to the nature, architecture, language and customs of the inhabitants: all of this requires love, dedication, exercise. But it’s worth it.

In a country that thanks to your loving attention has become familiar to you, every meadow, every rock on which you have paused, reveals all their secrets to you and gives you the energy that is not given to others. You say that not everyone can study the piece of land on which you have chosen to spend a week as geologists, historians, dialectologists, botanists and economists. Of course not. It’s about feeling, not knowing names. Science has not yet made anyone happy. But whoever feels the need not to walk in the void, to feel constantly living in the whole and to be an integral part of the fabric of the world, spontaneously opens the eyes everywhere to what is peculiar, authentic, tied to the earth. Anywhere in the soil, in the trees, in the mountainous profiles, in the animals and in the humans living in a particular land he/she will be able to perceive a common element, a fixed point on which to concentrate all the attention, instead of pursuing the chance. One will discover that this common, typical element is also manifested in the smallest flowers, in the most delicate colors of the air, in the slightest nuances of dialect, architectural forms, dances and folk songs. Depending on one’s disposition, a popular saying or a scent of leaves or a bell tower or a small rare flower will become the formula that safely and concisely encapsulates all the essence of a landscape. And it is a formula that cannot be forgotten.

But that’s enough. Only one thing I would like to add: I do not believe in a particular “talent for travel”, which is often spoken of. Those who travel and are soon able to become familiar with a foreign country, who are able to grasp what is authentic and precious, are the same people who have been able to recognize a sense of life in themselves, and who know how to follow their star. The strong nostalgia for the sources of life, the desire to become familiar with everything that exists, work, grows, is their key to the mysteries of the world, which they pursue enthusiastically and happily not only during their journeys to distant lands, but also in the rhythm of life and everyday experience.

“Über das Reisen”, in Hermann Hesse, Betrachtungen Und Berichte I: 1899-1926. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 2003. Print, pp. 28-37. Translation by Massimo Lollini.

 

Leave a comment
%d bloggers like this: