Chissà se la luna di Kiev è bella come la luna di Roma, chissà se è la stessa o soltanto sua sorella… “Ma son sempre quella! – la luna protesta – non sono mica un berretto da notte sulla tua testa! Viaggiando quassù faccio lume a tutti quanti, dall’India al Perù, dal Tevere al Mar Morto, e i miei raggi viaggiano senza passaporto.
The moon of Kiev by Gianni Rodari
Who knows if the moon of Kiev it is beautiful like the moon of Rome, who knows if it’s the same or just her sister …
“But I am always the same! – the moon protests – I’m not a nightcap on your head!
Traveling up here I light up everyone, from India to Peru, from the Tiber to the Dead Sea, and my rays travel without a passport.
without a passport “.
*Image from Adobe Stock. Education license. Roman bridge and fortress of the Calahorra Tower, Cordoba. It is a bridge in the Historic center of Córdoba, Andalusia, southern Spain, built in the early 1st century BC across the Guadalquivir river.
The reading of Dirty-boy – a myth of the Native American Okanagan– allows us to briefly analyze the religious conception of Simone Weil in the second part of the post, The Great Revelation. The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a remarkable thinker and activist who speaks to the complexities of our times. She defies the usual religious categories and remains one of the most interesting spiritual figures of the twentieth century.
The moon had taken on the aspect of a decrepit old woman in rags and the sun that of a dirty boy, with his face covered with scabs, disgusting. They had come down to earth to overcome the resistance of the beautiful daughters of the Okanagan leader.
They had rejected all the young men that her father had proposed to them in marriage. To win the chief’s daughter, Dirty-boy must participate in two skill competitions.
In the first, he has to hit an eagle in flight with an arrow, and in the second, he has to show his ability to capture an animal that lived in the mountains and was quite rare in those parts.
Dirty-boy wins both contests, despite never having used a bow and arrow and being unable to walk.
Everyone had made fun of him, and the boss had done everything possible to prevent that lousy boy from becoming the husband of his daughter. But now, he too had to yield to the evidence and give the girls in marriage to Dirty-Boy.
On their way to their future husband, the elder daughter stopped by Raven’s house and eventually decided to become the wife of the eldest son of that family. Like all the other Ravens, he was ugly and had a big head; but she thought it better to marry him than to become the wife of a dirty, sickly boy.
The younger daughter went on, entered Dirty-Boy’s lodge, and sat down by his side. The moon-old woman asked her who she was and why she had come. When the old woman had been told, she said, “Your husband is sick, and soon he will die. He stinks too much. You must not sleep with him. Go back to your father’s lodge every evening, but come here in the daytime, and watch him and attend him.”
Frida Kahlo (1942). Portrait of Lucha Maria, Girl from Tehuacán (Sun and Moon).
The younger sister paid no attention to the elder who was making fun of her with her husband. She returned every morning to help her grandmother-in-law gather firewood and attend to her sick husband.
For three days, matters remained this way. In the evening of the third day, Sun said to his sister, “We will resume our true forms tonight so that people may see us tomorrow.” That night they transformed themselves. The old mat lodge became a fine new skin lodge…
The old woman became a fine-looking person with a tall figure, clothes covered with shining stars. Dirty-Boy became a young, handsome man of light complexion. His clothes were covered with shining copper. His hair reached to the ground and shone like the rays of the sun.
When the girl arrived, she was much surprised to see the transformation. The moon-woman addressed her in a familiar voice, saying, “Come in and sit with your husband!” The girl then knew who she was.
When she entered, she saw a handsome man reclining, with his head on a beautiful parfleche. His garments and hair were decorated with bright suns. The girl did not recognize him and looked around. The woman said, “That is your husband; go and sit beside him.” Then she was glad.
Sun took his wife to the copper kettle which stood at the door. It contained a shining liquid. He pushed her head into it, and when the liquid ran down over her hair and body, lines of sparkling small stars formed on her. He told her to empty the kettle. When she did so, the liquid ran to the chief’s lodge, forming a path as of gold dust. He said, “This will be your trail when you go to see your father.” (Thomson, 120-124)
2. Simone Weil and the great Revelation
This myth of the North-American Okanagan, which I have partly recounted and partly quoted from Thomson’s Tales of the North American Indians, is one of the mythological tales analyzed by Simone Weil in her Cahiers d’Amerique. Unlike her teacher Alain, for whom myths are a creation of the human spirit, Simone Weil argues that myths are a metaphor for divine truth: “The foundation of mythology is that the universe is a metaphor of the divine truths” (First and Last Notebooks, 191).
For Simone Weil, divine truths are inscribed in the universe, and it is necessary to recognize them. Her conception of mythology appears to be linked to her religious conception, which emphasizes similar spiritual needs in all humans regardless of their spatial-temporal location.
After the rapprochement with Christ, the desire to verify the universal character of the Gospel led her to dedicate a large part of the research on mythology of the last years of her life (1940-43) to the identification of elements similar to the story of Christ in the different mythologies. Simone Weil’s religious conception is based on the idea of a “Great Revelation” according to which God and the “supernatural” are everywhere if only we can recognize them.
For Weil, all humans of all times have access to this “Great Revelation;” between them and God, there is an abyss that can be bridged thanks to the work of different forms of mediation and mediators. In myths, these mediators take the form of divine incarnations for the benefit of humanity. The incarnation is combined with the idea of suffering endowed with a spiritual value both in the form of redemptive suffering and in the form of suffering that allows access to “supernatural knowledge.”
A group of myths studied by Simone Weil in the “Great Revelation” perspective concerns the search for humans by God through the descent and the incarnation. At a certain point in the myth, the seduction of the soul by God occurs and thus leaves a sign of its passage on earth. Simone Weil is not interested in the considerable difference between the gods of ancient Greece, the cosmological beings mentioned in American Indian myths, and the historical figure of Christ. What interests her is the common essential symbolic structure of stories and myths that are very distant and different. In all these myths, as in the Greek myth of Prometheus itself, Simone Weil sees Christological figures, mediators who allow access to the supernatural.
In this light, Simone Weil also interprets the myth of the “Dirty-boy” of the North American Okanagon. For her, that myth is a myth of Incarnation and Redemption. The Sun and the Moon, once incarnated, had lost consciousness of their divine character. After all, in the sky, there was always a sun because there were days and nights. But above all, it seems remarkable to her that the chief’s young daughter must have rejected all her suitors before the sun came down to earth for her sake.
Simone Weil sees an image of Christ connected to a myth of Resurrection also in the custom of the North American Indians of not breaking the bones of animals killed in hunting and eaten to allow their resurrection. She also suggests a biblical parallel in the practice of not breaking a single bone of the paschal lamb. She points out that the bones of the slain animals were thrown into the water, which was considered a factor of resurrection, as will later happen in baptism.
In another post on this blog, the Pale mountains, we applied Weil’s ideas to a Ladin myth of the Dolomites. Here we have a divine image of the moon in the form of a princess who comes down to earth to reign with a prince who is in love with her.
The divine female lunar figure in the ancestral knowledge of many peoples, including the Greeks and the peoples of the Mediterranean, plays a mediating role between the extreme poles of life and death, indicating the possibility of rebirth and fertility in the perseverance of the life cycle. This is what the Greek myths relating to the lunar deities such as Hecate and Artemis speak of. The female deities of the earth such as Demeter and Persephone are connected to them and speak of the same vital cycle. The interpretation of Simone Weil emphasizes in these myths their prefiguration of Christ, the divine mediator who has imposed himself with Christian culture. As she writes in Letter to a Priest,
“All the mediator-gods, comparable to the Word, are lunar, bearers of horns, lyres or bows that evoke the crescent (Osiris, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, Zagreus, Eros, …). Prometheus is the exception, but in Aeschylus, Io is his counterpart, condemned to perpetual vagabondage as he is to crucifixion, and she is horned. (It is worth remarking that before he was crucified, Christ was a vagabond—and Plato depicts Eros as a miserable vagabond). If the sun is the image of the Father, the moon—perfect reflection of solar splendor, but a reflection that we may contemplate (i.e. gaze on), and which suffers diminution and disappearance—is the image of the Son. The light is then that of the Spirit” (292).
I present here some reflections initiated by a re-reading of Manzoni’s novel that I have completed in recent months during the outbreak of the Covid-19. Is there anything that this novel written two centuries ago can teach us today at the time of this Coronavirus? This question came to my mind when I realized that narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 in chapters 31 and 32 of The Betrothed, Manzoni reveals political, social, and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Coronavirus contagion. In this perspective, I thought, the reading of this 1630 story could become a mirror to look at what we can hardly see in our present.
The 1840 edition of The Betrothed also included the History of the Column of Infamy, published as an appendix, and illustrations created by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin; Manzoni himself selected these images for publication. I am using some of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco for the Biblioteca Braidense in my presentation.
The contagion in the Betrothed
Manzoni sets his novel during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. In chapter 31, he recounts the plague contagion’s origin and how the population experienced it. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague:
The contagion was brought to Lombardy by the German troops allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Tribunal of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. Still, political and medical leaders did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.
The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities they should take care of the plague because he had “more important things to think about.” Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was issued only when the plague had already entered the city, provoking thousands of deaths and the lockdown of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto.
Another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers favored the contagion’s spread. They could not renounce the public display of their powers’ symbols even in the epidemic’s lethal time. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for Prince Carlos’s birth, King Philip IV’s firstborn son. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all,” Manzoni writes.
On the other hand, Cardinal Borromeo, pressured by public authorities, authorized a solemn procession through the streets, invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city.
The following day, however, as Manzoni underlines, the disease’s deaths increased dramatically due to the faster spread of the infection through the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.
We witnessed a similar situation in early 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19. We saw the irresponsible refusal to admit the contagion’s existence by various countries’ political authorities, including permission to hold political rallies, sports events, and religious services, despite the danger represented by the multiplication of contagion opportunities. The reappearance of similar irrational and irresponsible attitudes in the middle of the 21st century is disconcerting, especially when compared to times when science and the media had not yet provided the elements for a more sophisticated perception and analyses of the contagion.
Given the public authorities’ dismissing attitude, in 1630 Milan, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. The people became angry and protested against the health authorities when they started requiring quarantine and confinement to the hospital. Then, began what historians call “conspiracy syndrome,” of which there are ample examples in the past and, as you know, in our present. This syndrome arises from the obsession with imaginary hidden enemies that would cause evil and destructive crises. This fear triggers aggression, violence, illegality, and the imposition of a state of exception.
Thus, Milan’s people started believing that particularly dreadful humans caused the plague, the untori, anointers, or plague-spreaders. Driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies, they would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy items. In this image, you can see how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral where some thought they saw people in the cathedral greasing a floorboard, as Manzoni writes.
This other drawing represents what happened in the church of St. Anthony, where an older adult prayed a little on his knees and then dusted the bench with the hood because he wanted to sit down. Mistaken for an infector, he was savagely beaten and taken to the police, where he was tortured. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).
Foreigners, especially French people but also Spaniards, were suspected as such to be responsible for the conspiracy and the spreading of the plague. People often would beat them in the street and considered them dangerous enemies of the homeland (16). This is what happened to the three young French people represented in this drawing by Gonin. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).
Similarly, today in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been the object of gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere. Not to mention the conspiracy theories we hear about and the rise of racism and xenophobia that has affected the Asian Pacific population in the United States since the pandemic began.
In seventeenth-century Milanese society, the opinion that in the end prevailed set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delínquent plot instead, with the only intent of preparing for a disorder, robbery, and looting. Some Milanese people were identified as untori by the citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion. Under torture, they admitted being guilty of something for which they were not responsible. Consequently, they were sentenced to death.
The trial and conviction of the untori anticipated in chapter 32 of the Betrothed are at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy. I analyze the latter in another publication. Here I focus on some ethical reflections that Manzoni develops in the plague chapters.
Language, ethics and compassion
First, he expresses concerns about the use of language. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to create false statements, escape from an unwanted reality, or build an “alternative reality” to avoid personal or public responsibilities. This attitude is hazardous if we consider that, as Foucault writes
“… when humans remain alienated from what happens in their language being constrained by economic and social determinations without feeling at home in the real world, they live in a culture that loses any sense of objectivity and makes pathological forms possible at all levels of society.” (Michel Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology).
Manzoni describes the process with great precision that leads to the alienation from language and reality, starting from the outbreak of the plague. At first, the political and medical authorities prohibited using the word plague and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, they admitted the idea of the disease only indirectly in the adjective. He adds,
“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction. But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (The Betrothed, ch. 31).
In recent months, we have witnessed the same linguistic denial process with the definition of Covid 19, first, as a kind of “flu;” then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu. Finally, for some political authorities, the virus became a “Chinese virus,” altering and confusing the meaning of a word that they could no longer suppress.
The general reflection on the hazards of the use of language that Manzoni develops is particularly important. It is worth pondering it with full attention. He writes that in defining
“… little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language to define the contagion) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking.” The Betrothed, ch. 31.
In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political and religious powers and their supportive crowds in using words as propaganda, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Still useful advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.
Manzoni’s recommendation is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing good and evil, but on ethics that makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. Indeed, trying to explain the scarce practice of critical attention in the use of language, he concludes by saying with some irony,
“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).
In short, he is suggesting that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier, and therefore widespread, than comparing and thinking critically. Thus, to some extent, one should excuse all human beings and, therefore, the writer himself for their mistakes. Thinking critically for Manzoni also means distinguishing between, on the one hand, human and historical truth and, on the other, eschatological, eternal truth, to which human beings have only limited access. For this reason, in his Observations on Catholic morality, Manzoni wrote that human beings never must make truth triumph. (8)
“… human beings may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph.” A. Manzoni, Observations on the Catholic Morality, “To the Reader.”
In this statement, I see a theological reformulation of ethics of truth as it emerged at the origins of Western philosophical discourse understood as an endless search for wisdom. Once he has established the distinction between historical truth and theological truth, Manzoni undertakes to transcend it in a continuous and restless movement of references to one element and the other without ever reaching a definitive synthesis from their dialectical collaboration. In this perspective, Pierantonio Frare has defined Manzoni as a writer of restlessness. I argue that from this restlessness comes his need for continuous reflections on language use, which should be considered a form of ethics of writing.
On the one hand, Manzoni underlines the difficulty of communication at all levels, and intellectuals’ responsibility. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which people using language in an uncontrolled way can contribute to unpleasant misunderstandings and violent discrimination in society, eventually ruining the lives of individuals and entire social categories. Let me provide a few examples of this ethics of writing. First, I would like to mention a memorable narrative sequence from Chapter XXVII of Manzoni’s Betrothed that stages the problem of communication from a distance
It is no coincidence that this sequence constitutes a turning point in the novel because from this moment on, Manzoni inserts Renzo and Lucia’s love story into a broader historical and tragic context—famine, the war for the Mantua succession, and finally, the plague. Separated from Lucia due to Don Rodrigo’s threats to prevent their marriage, Renzo intends to communicate with her. Still, since he is illiterate, he must hire a letter-writer. At this point, Manzoni comments that those who know the art of writing and depend on it are bound to misunderstand their interlocutors being unable to give faithful expression to their thoughts and sometimes even their own ideas. Then, he adds
“… it even happens to us who write for a press.”
Manzoni points out the difficulties and limits implicit in written communication in general and literary writing for print. By extending his writing ethics to scribes and modern authors alike, he also addresses intellectuals’ responsibility in social communication. Indeed, he recognizes here the pitfalls of intellectual statements that claim to speak in the name of illiterate people. A problem that, for his own admission affects his novel as well. This problem is also alive today as, not by chance, there still is talk of a profound rift between the intellectual elite and the people. Today, by moving away from the world of handwriting and printing towards an ever more pervasive and fast digital writing, quite often, we have done nothing but multiply the communication difficulties reported by Manzoni.
In light of today’s problems, Manzoni’s work reveals surprising, insightful, and far-sighted attention to the sociolinguistic elements that structure otherness’s marginalization. Like any great novel, as Bakhtin suggests, Betrothed also includes multiple languages and a diversity of social speech types. The language of power that excludes in Manzoni’s novel is not only the cumbersome Latin of the clergy (Don Abbondio) and the legal profession (Dr. Azzeccagarbugli) in the service of the powerful. The language of the empire, Don Ferrer’s Spanish, which deceives and dominates the crowd, also finds a significant space in the macrostructure of power. On the other hand, a local Italian dialect, which affects and discriminates against migration, also acts in power’s microstructure.
This form of discrimination is what Renzo experiences in chapter XVII; when to survive the economic disasters provoked by the war, famine, and plague, he decides to migrate to the province of Bergamo. In the absence of an Italian state, this meant migrating from Duchy of Milan under Spanish rule to Venice’s Republic.
Here he is forced to suffer the offensive slur baggiano (blockhead) with which Bergamo’s population called the Milanese migrants. Even in these sociolinguistic observations that testify to micro-aggressions against migrants, Manzoni’s novel reflects a current situation and problem. Our culture is often unaware of the terrible possibility that linguistic offense –alienating humans from reality– can lead to violence and destruction.
The most resounding example of this dreadful possibility is the use of the word untore. The process of clouding of conscience that prevented the various social actors from identifying the plague is further explored in the analysis that Manzoni conducts in the historical appendix. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that the contagion of the soul, of the human conscience is at the center of his investigation. With few exceptions, this contagion involves practically all people, including the two women who identified Guglielmo Piazza as an untore only because he had touched the wall of a house with a hand. Manzoni writes that the word untore, already full of what he calls “deplorable certainty” passed without checking or correction from the street people’s mouth into that of the judges.
Faced with the threat of the plague, everyone has silenced their ethical conscience and forgotten the meaning of justice; everyone only saw what they wanted to see and eliminated any rational inquiry by surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. Manzoni concludes,
“… fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate.” History of the Column of Infamy, ch. 1.
Reason and charity well express the two primary sources of Manzoni’s culture, rational Enlightenment and evangelical culture. Reason and charity are for Manzoni what can control the irresponsible use of language, avoid obscuring conscience, and stop the violence. Charity, that is, the recognition of the other in his most immediate and urgent needs, is what can make human conscience re-awake, bringing it closer to that reality that was previously stubbornly and selfishly denied.
Noble examples of this charity are the Capuchin friars who died with joy at the Lazaretto assisting the sick with the plague, responding directly to the extreme condition of their pain. The Capuchins did not remain prisoners of the lies about the epidemic in the collective madness that had taken Milan.
At the extreme levels, this madness revealed the dark areas of the human soul in the gratuitous and obscene violence of the monatti. These were people sentenced to death, prisoners, appointed by the municipalities to transport the sick or corpses to the hospital. They quite often saw the plague as an occasion for a macabre carnival feast.
The Capuchins are not as concerned about defining the plague as doctors, intellectuals, and politicians. They are concerned only with responding unshakably to the dire consequences of the epidemic, and in this way, with a gesture of radical altruism, they regain a sense of reality.
I cannot help but note that even today, at the time of Covid-19, the contagion’s reality often denied by some politicians, newsmakers, and ordinary people alike, was witnessed and recognized only in the reports of the front-line workers of the hospitals. They have faced their duties as caregivers tirelessly and heroically. In their compassionate gestures, they also helped re-establish contact with the language, reality, and a world where one no longer feels stranger but a participant in becoming a healer. Here then is how, in Manzoni’s writing, the plague, from an allegory of evil and madness that grips human bodies and souls, paradoxically becomes a cognitive apparatus revealing an authentic human condition, the bare life of suffering. As Artaud wrote in his The Plague and the Theater,
“… the plague, is beneficial because it impels us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall and divulging our world’s lies, aimlessness, meanness and even two-facedness. It shakes off stifling material dullness which even overcomes the senses’ clearest testimony, and collectively reveals their dark powers and hidden strength to humans, urging them to take a nobler, more heroic stand in the face of destiny than they would have assumed without it.” Antonin Artaud, The Theater and the Plague.
Artaud, Antonin, and Victor Corti. “Theathre and the plague” in The Theatre and Its Double. London: Alma Classics, 2014. Print. 9-22.
Bakhtin, M M, Caryl Emerson, and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Foucault, Michel. Mental Illness and Psychology. Foucault. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.
Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource.
Frare, Pierantonio. La Scrittura Dell’inquietudine: Saggio Su Alessandro Manzoni. Firenze: Olschki, 2006. Print.
Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.
Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.
—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print.
Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.
This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.
The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being somehow accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.
Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.
In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”
The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?
These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.
At the beginning of the precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values amid the collapse of European civil society during WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946, “when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.”
Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.
In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,
“of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.”
Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds. Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …
Giotto, Assisi, St.Francis talking to the birds
The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality
Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.
He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:
How lovely it is to cross such a boundary. The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. But the longing to get on the other side of everything already settled, this makes me, and everybody like me, a road sign to the future. If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible than borders. They’re like cannons, like generals: as long as peace, loving kindness and peace go on, nobody pays any attention to them — but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred. While the war went on, how they were pain and prison to us wanderers. Devil take them! (5)
The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.
Farmhouse, Hermann Hesse, Wandering
In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,
“Once again I love deeply everything at home, because I have to leave it. Tomorrow I will love other roofs, other cottages. I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always. I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious (6).”
Hesse’s ethical reading opens a series of important questions about the role of borders in our time.What is their function?Are they to be conceived in an absolute sense or in a relative and contextual sense?Do they remain essential for establishing individual and national identities?Has the time come to rethink the boundaries in a new, dynamic way more responsive to the needs not only of particular communities but also of the whole of humanity?