On Borders and Monuments

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 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?
Bibliography

Giotto Assisi  Fresco 10. Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/SS37414_37414_38037347. Web.
Hermann Hesse. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. London: Triad Paladin Grafton, 1988. Print.
—. Hermann Hesse – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 16 Jul 2019. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1946/hesse/biographical/&gt; Web

On Sustainable Mountain Tourism (and Other Things)

According to historian George Duby, the contemporary situation in the Mediterranean appears to be characterized by two trends that are the result of tendencies already established in previous centuries. On the one hand, there are the consequences of European colonialism that make the difference between the North and the South, between Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world, more evident than ever. The imbalance persists and worsens in a worrying manner. The countries freed from colonialism live in growing poverty, partly linked to exuberant demography. Europe appears increasingly wary and closed to the Southern part of the Mediterranean world. The dramatic social and economic problems of our time, together with all the fundamentalist identities both cultural and religious, originate from this situation.

On the other hand, our time appears to be characterized by the moment in which tourism takes a “pathological form” both from a social and cultural point of view (30). European tourism, argues Duby, is the bearer of a closed and contemptuous sub-culture that produces serious and negative effects on local cultures. The arrogance of European tourism appears all the more marked if we consider the rigid closure that Europe opposes to the dramatic contemporary migrations from the countries of the Souths of the world. These phenomena takes place at a time when in Europe people are witnessing the crisis of the educational system that led to the affirmation of the original values of Mediterranean civilization and of the European culture. Hence the need to question oneself about these values, their origins, their death and possibly their future.

The “Gate of Europe” (2008) is a work by the artist Mimmo Paladino built on the island of Lampedusa as a commemorative memorial for all those who lost their lives in the small strip of sea that separates the island from Africa . The door in this work of art is open to the future of Europe which is in fact denied by European political, social and cultural closures. | photo by Massimo Lollini

Mountain tourism is not an exception in the race for immoderate consumption of intangible assets such as the enjoyment of the isolated beauty of a landscape. The sedimentation of the anthropocene characteristic waste has violated every hill, every mountain, every cave. The mountain has been commodified, reduced to tourist attraction, with its luxury hotels, its chair lifts and its artificial lights that obscure the night light of the starry sky.
Even on the highest peak of earth, on Mount Everest, waste is a serious threat to environmental sustainability. It is estimated that some 50 tonnes of mountaineering rubbish has accumulated beyond the Everest Base Camp ().
The human signs have “civilized” the highest peaks and most remote parts of the earth. Consequently, the mountain no longer offers itself as a unified and sublime image. Contemporary artists tend to emphasize this new dimension of the mountain landscape and the breaking of its magic. Here are two photographs by Andreas Gursky that represent the extreme human possession of the winter mountain landscape. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he is famous for representing the places of vacation and entertainment favored by tourism. The long queues of ski tourists draw the back of the mountains with serpentine waves that use the mountain as a writing medium.

AndreasGursky-Albertville, 1992

The people represented in their swarming look like a row of ants. In these photographs there is no shadow of a human personality, only a movement of nameless multitudes.

Andreas Gursky-Engadina, 1995

But there are artists who are still able to rediscover the wonder and charm of the mountains even and despite the consumerist wave of mass tourism. Georg Tappeiner, the photographer born in Merano in 1964 who lives in the Dolomites exposing himself to their magical beauty, has proved capable of catching the breath of their majestic sometimes disturbing presence on earth. In his photographs the Dolomites emerge with the force of an archaic epic poem as if they were the “heart stone of the world” that pulsates in the sky in the infinite movement of light and clouds.

The Marmolada (in the background, on the left), the Sella Group (in the center) and the Sass Ciampac (in the foreground), from the top | photo by Georg Tappeiner

The Dolominites have recently been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage for the beauty of the landscape and the importance of their geological history. This fact has led to an increase in mass tourism in these mountains. The problem therefore arises of making this new tourism sustainable to avoid what Geneviève Clastres has recently called “the tourist paradox” that produces overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets. This problem is common to all UNESCO World Heritage sites. For sure, tourism brings money, growth and hope, but at the same time can have negative consequences because visitors tend to “destroy the sites they admire wearing away the soil around the standing stones at Carnac, causing gully erosion in the Puyde-Dôme, damaging the cave paintings at Lascaux, trampling over Machu Picchu” (Clastres).

Clastres article based on the French situation closes with a pessimistic note because France does not have an independent tourism ministry since 1995 letting the commercial aspect of tourism to become very much dominant. The Nepal article on the unsustainable tourist treatment of Mt Everest also ends with a pessimistic note. He underlines that the Nepalese government earns US $3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty and is “not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted.”

These examples make it clear that it is very difficult to find a balance between ecological and commercial needs in the absence of a precise orientation in this sense from public authorities. From this point of view, it appears remarkable that the Article 9 of Italian Constitution states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” Regarding the Dolomites a first step in this direction has been taken through the process of candidacy and the consequent enrollment in the World Heritage List. The Italian State that was part of the Convention along with the regional, provincial and local administrations involved, committed to ensuring the protection, conservation, the presentation and transmission to the future generations of the Natural Heritage. In other words, they committed to develop sustainable tourism not only in the core and buffer areas of the Dolomites UNESCO, but also in the surrounding areas.

The Management Framework of the Dolomites Heritage UNESCO, document elaborated a series of indications on the sustainable tourism management of the site. Among the main objectives the document  highlights that of the “promotion of a gradual transition
from mass tourism to forms of quality tourism and responsible hiking” (Province of Belluno, Autonomous Province of Bolzano – Alto Adige / Autonomous Province of Bozen – Südtirol, Province of Pordenone, Autonomous Province of Trento, Province of Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region 2008, cited in Elmi and Wagner, 13).

Interventions and state and local government awareness in favor of responsible tourism are very important, as well as the conscience and action of each individual citizen. Similarly, the work of artists who re-create and re-invent the mountain landscape is significant, as it goes beyond pure preservation to renew its vitality in a creative way. L’Echo (2003), the video installation by Su-Mei Tse, the artist born in Luxembourg city in 1973, gives us a sense of wonder in front of a mountain landscape that also appears distant and impenetrable but at the same time responsive.

 

The artist and her cello are near the edge of a vast mountain canyon. She is still and silent then  plays, pauses and listens. The echo of the mountain reverberates establishing an intimacy between the artist and the landscape in the common musical breath. But the intimacy is only momentary and interrupted by a sublime silence.

 

Bibliography

Clastres, Geneviève. (2019, 07). “Overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets; the tourist paradox.” Le Monde Diplomatique English ed.; Paris [Paris]01 July 2019.

Duby, Georges. Los Ideales Del Mediterráneo: Historia, Filosofía Y Literatura En La Cultura Europea. Barcelona: Icaria, 1997. Print.

Elmi, Marianna and Wagner Matthias. Turismo sostenibile nelle Dolomiti. Una strategia per il bene patrimonio mondiale Unesco. Bolzano: Accademia Europea, 2013.

Sanjay Nepal. “Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems.” The Conversation, April 9, 2014.

Su-Mei Tse, L’Echo (2003), Video installation. Web. Preview from “https://vimeo.com/edouardmalinguegallery&#8221;.

 

 

The Pale Mountains

This legend explains in a fantastic way the birth of the characteristic pale color of the Dolomites and the existential importance of their flowers like the edelweiss (Star of the Alps) and the rhododendron (Alpenrose). Reading this legend you will learn how the son of the King of the Alps with the help of hundreds of dwarfs prepared for the daughter of the King of the Moon  a  world of white so that she would never have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had become a  flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the  clouds …

Once upon a time there lived the son of a King. His father’s kingdom lay in the southern territory of the Alps, with its green pastures and shady forests and sleep mountains with black rocks. The inhabitants lived as hunters and shepherds, loved their country, and considered themselves happy. One, alone, was not content with his life and the world about him – the King’s son. He felt tormented by a desire which no one could grant him – he wanted to visit the Moon. He had already consulted all the wise men of the kingdom as to what he should do in order to reach the Moon, but nobody knew how to advise him. The Prince, therefore, was discontented and sad. In vain his companions endeavored to distract him and to turn his thoughts to other things – he talked and dreamed only about the Moon. At the time of Full Moon he always became very sad.   From evening until morning he wandered restlessly around on the rocks and meadows, gazing all the time at the Moon. The most expert physicians came to the Court but no one was able to cure the strange malady of the Prince. And it continued to become worse.

One day, while hunting, the Prince left his companions and lost his way in the forests. When evening came and the sun had set he found himself in a lonely, high valley, all covered with Alproses, and surrounded on three sides by steep ridges and mighty towers of rock. No longer hoping to meet with his hunting companions again that day, the King’s son decided to spend the night there. So he lay down on a green lawn in the midst of Alprose bushes and looked thoughtfully, in the distance, at the red clouds and mountain-tops which were just fading away. As he felt very tired, however, he soon fell asleep and had a curious dream …… he stood on a meadow all covered with strange flowers, and spoke to a wonderful girl whom he had never seen before. All around, as far as the Prince could see, it was white, but he himself held some red Alproses in his hand, and gave them to the beautiful stranger.  She, smiling, accepted the flowers, asking him what this country was like, and after a while she told him that she was the daughter of the Moon King. On hearing these words the King’s son felt an indescribable joy, and awoke.

It was already past midnight; the Moon stood high, and its silver light shone into the deserted clefts and on the pointed rocks of the lonely high valley: the Prince looked up and his joy changed, becoming deep sorrow. The usual ardent longing took possession of him, and for a long time he gave free play to his sad thoughts. Finally, a gentle breeze passed through the Alproses, and the King’s son thought of what should happen if he really should meet the Moon Princess. So he began to gather the beautiful Alproses and to make a bouquet, and he was occupied with it for a long time. All at once he thought he heard someone speaking high up in the rocks. He listened, but a great silence ruled, except that in the distance a waterfall murmured.

The Prince gathered some more flowers, but for the second time he heard words, and now very clearly.The sound came down from the highest rock tower, and the top of this tower was wrapped up in a thick white cloud. Up there mountain-demons have to dwell, so the King’s son thought, and he grasped the hilt of his sword. Without putting away the Alprose bouquet he slowly strode to the tower, went around the foot of the mountain walls and began to climb up on the back wall which was not so steep. The speaking became more clear, but it was not yet possible to distinguish words. Soon the King’s son came into a cloud, the moonlight could no longer get through, and he only groped his way forward. Finally, he struck something hard, a door was opened, and the Prince stood before a brightly Illuminated little space where two very, very old men were sitting.

Rhododendron ferrugineum (also called alpenrose)

They rose, frightened; but he calmed them, excusing himself by saying that he was a hunter who had lost his way in the mountain wildness. On hearing these words both went to meet him, asking him to come in, and they became very friendly.They talked of one thing and another, and the Prince asked them if they were old men of the mountains. But the two old men replied that they were inhabitants of the Moon who had made a long journey all around the world and that they were on the point of returning to their own country. Hearing this, the King’s son became quite pale with excitement and he told them that for years and years he felt an ardent desire to make a journey to the Moon. The two old men laughed, saying that if he wished to join them they were quite content, and that they were starting immediately.

The Prince was very happy, thanking the good old men with endless words. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted from the rock summit and began to sail towards the Moon with increasing speed. During the long journey the Prince told the two old men many things concerning his father’s kingdom, and they told him how things were on the Moon, and how one had to live there. Thus, they informed him that an inhabitant of the earth could not stay for a long time on the Moon because everything there was white-plains and mountains, plants and cities – all shining in silver sheen, and an inhabitant of the earth became blind, after a time, from this dazzling brightness. So also, said they, a Moon dweller could not remain for a long time on the earth because of the dark colors of the forests and rocks, which are saddening, and if such a one could not return soon, very soon, to the Moon he would surely die from too much pining for the white fields of his country.

With such conversation and considerations did the three Moon-travellers beguile their time. At last the cloud on which they were, came down upon one of the mountains of the Moon and rested there.The first part of their journey was over, now they had to proceed on foot. The two old men explained to the Prince that they had to turn westwards, and they advised him to travel towards the east in order to reach the Capital as soon as possible. The Prince said good-bye and went down the mountain in an easterly direction. All the country around about was white, especially because of little white flowers which covered the surface of the Moon in endless numbers. But, in addition, the ground, which in some places was bare, appeared white, and even the flaming walls of rock had faint bright colors.

After a while the King’s son saw the houses and tower tops of the Capital. All these buildings, however, were made, from their foundations to their battlements, of white marble. With quick steps the Prince hastened to meet this white splendor until he was stopped by a hedge which barred the way. This hedge was made, with great skill, of sparkling metal, and its slicks bore strange decorations. Beyond the hedge a gardener was working. As soon as he noticed the stranger he advanced slowly, saluted, and inquired, in an astonished manner, as to the origin of the red flowers which the Prince was holding in his hands. These were the Alproses which he had gathered during the night. The Prince explained that he had come from the earth, and that the flowers grew there. Now, the gardener told him that in the castle, which stood in the background, lived the Moon King and his daughter. The Princess was very fond of rare and beautiful flowers, and she would surely reward the stranger in a royal manner if he would leave the red bouquet for her.

The Prince laughed and said that he would give his Alproses to the Princess with great pleasure, but that he would seek no reward for them as he himself was the son of a King. At this the astonished gardener opened the gate, and invited the stranger to enter the garden. Then he ran up to the castle. After a while here returned, breathless, begging the Prince to go with him to the castle. The King’s son followed his guide through many, many halls and corridors, looking amazedly at the walls of alabaster white, and at the bright arms which adorned them.

The Prince was received by the Moon King and his daughter in a large illuminated hall, and was welcomed in a very friendly way. The Moon King was a very old man with a long silvery white beard; but, on seeing the Princess, the Prince recognized that wonderful girl whom he had met in his night-dream. She accepted the Alproses gratefully, praising their glorious color, and asked the Prince if there were many such flowers in his country, what kind of people lived there, and how large was his father’s kingdom. It was only after a lengthy conversation that they parted, the Moon King telling the Prince that he was to consider himself as his guest.

The Prince remained then for a time at the royal castle, taking long walks through its surroundings, and became well acquainted with the Moon to which he had so often looked up with longing. After some weeks the Moon King asked his foreign guest, at lunch, how he liked the Moon. The Prince replied that the white, shining landscape of the Moon was the most beautiful he ever had seen, but its unaccustomed brightness was so affecting his eyes that he feared he would go blind if he did not return soon to his own country. The Princess interjected that she did not share the apprehension of the earth Prince, and that with time he could accustom himself to the splendor of the landscape. A wise old courtier, however, ventured to contradict the Princess, saying that it really was not advisable for an inhabitant of the earth to remain too long on the Moon. After that the Princess said no more.


At the time that the King’s son lost his way while hunting, his companions searched for him everywhere in the gloomy forests and among the pathless rocks, but though their quest lasted for many days they were unable to find him. They were obliged, then, to return to the royal castle and to inform the old King of what had happened, but he sent them away, warning them that they should not dare to appear before him again without his son. At the same time the whole kingdom was informed that anyone who could bring any tidings of the Prince might expect a great reward.

But it was all to no purpose. No one knew anything, and the Prince was not heard of again. Everyone believed that he had perished at night on the mountains, when suddenly, it was reported through the country that the Prince had come back, bringing with him the Moon King’s daughter as his wife. The simple people of the Alps were very glad, and they all went to the palace to try to see the Princess as they could not imagine what an inhabitant of the Moon should look like, but she differed only from the women of the earth in that a bright light seemed to emanate from her, and that in the meadows each tree shadow vanished as soon as she appeared. The people were astonished at the white flower which grows everywhere on the Moon, and which the Princess had brought with her. This flower spread with time over the whole Alps, and even today the bright stars salute one from the rockwalls, they are called Edelweiss.

Edelweiss

The flower’s common name ” Edelweiss”  derives from the German word “Edelweiß”, which is a compound of edel “noble” and weiß “white”. In the Italian speaking Alps the flower is referred as “Stella Alpina”, while in the French Alps as “Étoile des Alpes”, both names meaning “Star of the Alps”.

The Princess for her part was enchanted by the colored meadows and pastures of the Alps, never getting tired of admiring the variegated flowers and the green lawns. She also loved the blue mountain lakes, and, ever and always, she praised the variety of the earth surface, comparing it with the monotony of the Moon landscape, where everything was white. A proud satisfaction came over the Prince when he saw that the Moon daughter was so well and happy, and he delighted to show her everything, the valleys of the kingdom and their different curiosities, and all the beauties of the country. Both of them fell very glad and cheerful, and had no other thought but to remain like that.

Once, however, when the King’s son returned late one evening from hunting he saw his wife standing on the balcony and looking up at the Moon. He thought it was strange. He went up softly, surprising the dreamer, and asked her why she was looking up so thoughtfully at the Moon. She smiled and was silent, but on being asked again she confessed that she had been pining for the white Moon-fields. The meadows and valleys of the Alps are beautiful, she said, but the confusion of dark mountain tops which extend themselves threateningly towards the sky, like the black fists of gigantic demons, give the landscape a gloomy closeness, and this in time presses like deep sorrow upon the soul.

On hearing this complaint the Prince grew afraid, for it recalled to his mind what the two old men said to him when he went up to the Moon: they said that a Moon dweller would soon miss the white beauty of his country and die, languishing for light …..
At present, of course, there was no cause for a serious fear, and the Prince hoped to be able to release his wife from her dangerous homesickness by amusement and all kinds of diversion. He was mistaken, however, for her condition became worse little by little. Just like the Prince before his journey to the Moon, she now gazed at the Moon for hours and hours, becoming finally so pale and weak that there were grave fears for her life, and always she lamented about the black rocks which threatened down in such a ghostly way, just as if they would darken the valleys. And just as once no one was able to help the Prince, so now, also, nobody could bring deliverance. In the meantime the suffering of the Princess was becoming worse, and the words of the two old Moon dwellers seemed to be terribly true.The Prince felt desolate, and those about him were helpless.

As soon as the Moon King heard that his daughter was in danger of death, he left the Moon and came down to the earth to visit his son-in-law who told him about her terrible home-sickness, which grew worse and worse and was now about to kill her. The Moon King said he could not let his daughter die, and, therefore, that he wished to bring her back to the Moon. At the same time he invited the Prince in a very friendly way to accompany them if he wished to do so, but said that in case the Prince should be obliged to stay on the earth he would be very sorry, without, however, being able to change his resolution to take the Princess back to her country.

Now people from all parts besieged the Prince, begging him to think of the kingdom he was appointed to rule, to remain among his native mountains and to renounce his wife. They praised the great future he had before him, advising him to undertake a campaign in the beautiful south, but the Prince would listen to no such speeches, and went with his father-in-law and his sick wife to the Moon. Here she recovered her health very soon, but long before she was perfectly healthy the Prince perceived with horror that he was seeing less from day to day and that he would be blind after a short time. The old Moon King now advised him to leave the Moon before it was too late. The Prince struggled against it, but seeing the danger growing more and more apparent he finally gave it up and returned, wretched, to the earth.

Now the Moon-home-sickness took hold of him more strongly than ever. At full Moon time he was never to be seen in the castle but was wandering restlessly around on the mountains. During the day she slept in caverns and under trees, and at night he climbed high peaks, looking steadfastly up at the Moon. With the new Moon, then, the Prince would return but so changed that scarcely anyone could recognize him. Eventually it wearied him to see people at all, and he no longer went down to the valleys, so completely wild did he become. Ceaselessly he traversed the large forests and rock deserts of his kingdom, climbing every mountain-top.

Nowhere could he find consolation and peace. Many weeks had passed since the King’s son had last seen or spoken to anyone. One evening, in a rubbled valley-end, he was surprised by a thunderstorm and obliged to flee into a cavern. There he met a strange little man, hardly three shoes tall but with a long beard and a serious face and a golden crown upon his head. The Prince spoke to the little man and soon realized that he had found a fellow-sufferer, for what the little man with the golden crown had to tell about his fate was very pitiful and sad.

The little man was the king of the”Salwans” (Salwan in Ladin language, signifies cavern-inhabitant, wild man). From olden times they had inhabited a beautiful kingdom in the far east. This kingdom, having reached the height of its glory, and possessing as many inhabitants as a large forest has leaves, was subjected to an invasion of hostile foreign forces who devastated the country by fire and sword and killed so many Salwans in protracted battles that the survivors had to flee from their own country. Then the king, with the remainder of his people, marched from one neighboring kingdom to another begging for a mountain, or a marsh, or some other piece of ground so that his people could settle there. No sovereign would listen to him, however, and everywhere the Salwans were ejected with scorn. At last they found shelter in a distant country, but they were obliged to work so hard that many of them died and others escaped in order that they might not witness any longer the misery of their brothers. Thus, it was with the king.

Having related this, the little man sighed and said that no creature could be more unhappy than a sovereign whose people had entirely perished and he unable to prevent it. The Prince then sympathized with the dwarf king on the hard fate which had befallen him but he said that his own destiny was no less cruel and he, too, related his distressful history. At first the dwarf king listened with a gloomy look but, little by little, his face began to brighten, and at last he smiled, quite pleased, and when the Prince, who did not notice this, had finished, the little man jumped up, clapped his hands and cried out joyously: Prince, be happy, we are now both saved. On hearing such an unexpected exclamation the Prince was almost afraid to look at the dwarf, for he thought that the little man had surely lost his reason and gone crazy.

But the dwarf king had not spoken without reason and he now began to explain his meaning quite clearly. He pointed out that the Princess was only obliged to return to her own country because a Moon child, accustomed to light could not bear the look of the black rocks for long. If the mountains of the Alp-kingdom were of the same clear color as those on the Moon, the Princess would never have been attacked by such a home-sickness. The little Salwans, he said, are a clever and skilled people and they would be willing to cover the innumerable dark mountain tops, from head to foot, with the whiteness of the Moon landscape if only the King of the Alp-kingdom would give them permission to live there forever without being molested. This would give help to both, to the Prince as well as to the dwarf-people.

The Prince listened to this promising speech half astonished, half unbelieving, and then he said he did not think it would be difficult to obtain permission for the Salwans to remain in his kingdom but that he did not understand how they could make a dark rock wall white. The dwarf-king smiled in a superior way and then he said the Prince could rest assured about that because the dwarfs had already done things which were more difficult. The Prince then hesitated no longer, inviting the little man to come with him to the court. The Salwans agreed and in addition, as the storm had ceased, they immediately left the cavern, walking on together. They had to wander for two days through desert solitudes before they reached the principal valley and the castle.

The old King was very pleased al the return of his son but he considered the request of himself and his companion a strange one. He did not bother about to look of the mountain-tops but he thought he could not agree to the immigration of a strange people. It was only when the king of the Salwans had explained that they would never lay claim to the rich valleys, meadows and fields, but be satisfied to remain in the forests and wild rocks, that the Alp King and his advisers gave their consent. The agreement was confirmed by documents and both parties swore to observe it faithfully.

The dwarf king departed immediately to look for his poor people and to bring them the good news. Some days later the exhausted little people were seen to cross the frontiers of the kingdom in long columns and turn towards the high mountains. After having selected their dwelling places under clefts and rock sand behind waterfalls, the dwarf king sent word to the Prince that the Salwans would begin next evening the work they had undertaken by contract. The Prince who could scarcely restrain his impatience was in addition, tormented by doubts, for it seemed incredible to him that the dwarfs would be able to accomplish the difficult work. He ascended one of the highest mountain-top to await the evening.

As soon as the moon had risen, seven Salwans appeared, forming a circle and beginning to make all sorts of contorsions. Their little hands worked convulsively, like the waves of a torrent. Astonished, the Prince watched this performance; finally he asked the little men what they intended to do. They answered that they were about to weave the moon-light, and, surely enough, after a while, in the middle of a circle, one saw a clew which radiated a soft but continuing brightness. The dwarfs worked busily, the clew was growing and became a large bundle. The Prince gazed steadily at the seven little men, while hour after hour passed. Then he looked in the distance and behold, on every mountain top a point of light was glowing: everywhere stood little dwarfs who had spun the lights.

In deep astonishment the Prince looked on this wonderful picture; the stars seemed to have fallen down on the dark sea of mountains tops. Already the valley had become all black, and the Moon shone only on the highest peaks, then it sank down beyond long wavy borders. The Salwans did not rest but immediately began another task; they pulled apart their bundle of light, drawing glittering threads down from the tops over the declivities, and they went around the mountains wrapping them, little by little, into a net of light. As soon as every edge and top had been spun over, the meshes were drawn closer together until finally, every dark plain vanished and the whole ground radiated a pale glimmer.

The next day no one, down in the valley, could believe their eyes, for the high mountains all around, once towering aloft so gloomily, were now all white, and their bright color formed a strange contrast with the maze of mountains which remained black beyond the frontier. In a single night the dwarfs had covered all the mountain tops in the kingdom with the white color of the Moon-landscape. When the Prince arrived at the castle highly pleased, a messenger was brought before him with a sad message: the Moon King informed the Prince that the Princess had contracted an illness which endangered her life, and had expressed a desire to see her husband once again. The Prince made no answer, not even a single word, but when the messenger departed he was his companion.

As soon as he arrived to the Moon, he hastened towards the glittering palace. On reaching the hall the Prince was informed that the Princess was on the point of death. But he ran to her, crying that she must not die now, for all their sorrow was ended: the mountain tops of his kingdom were glittering like Moon-mountains; she must return with him once more lo the earth,  as he had prepared for her a  world of white where she would never again have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had now become a  flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the  clouds.

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These cheerful, happy words revived the spirits of the Princess, and soon it  was obvious that she had recovered again. After a  short lime the Prince was able to bring his wife back to the earth, and how joyful was the astonishment of the young Princess who had lain so near to death,  when she beheld the shining landscape: the smiling Alp-garden united in its white rocks, green meadows and variegated flowers, the Moon’s regions of light with the rich color-beauty of the earth. Never again did the Moon-daughter sigh for her own country, as it was now more beautiful on the white mountains than in the Moon.


The pale mountains are standing there today, and they are called the Dolomites. The kingdom as such has ceased to exist for a long time, but the Salwans still dwell in the wildness of the rocks and forests. But not only does an enchanting brightness still cling to those pale mountains -they are haunted by the deep home-sickness of that Moon-Princess, for anyone who has ever been there, is always called back to the marvel of the light-girded Dolomites by an infinite longing.

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The view from above

What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada? There are so many answers to this question, maybe as many as there are individuals climbing the mountains. However, there is a very ancient reflective tradition on the view from above that is still interesting today. Pierre Hadot studied this tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for ancient philosophers such as Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of exercise of physics, to the extent that – with the help of physical knowledge – the individuals conceive themselves as part of the totality of the world or of the infinity of the worlds.

Scientific knowledge in ancient culture was quite often combined with ethical reflections. Something that has been lost in the evolution of modern science. The following is a profound reflection on the view from above from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD65) in his Naturales Questiones (Natural questions), which is a combination of ethics and philosophical physics.

The soul reaches the full and perfect good of the human condition when, crushed every evil, turns upwards and penetrates the deepest breast of nature. Then, while the soul wanders among the stars, it rejoices in mocking the floors of the rich and the whole earth with his gold, and I mean not only the gold extracted and handed over to the mint to be coined, but also the gold that the earth keeps hidden for the avarice of posterity.

Only after having contemplated the whole universe can the soul truly despise grandiose porches and coffered ceilings resplendent of ivory and thickets cut with care and waterways diverted to reach wealthy palaces. In that moment, the soul, looking from above down upon this narrow world –covered for the most part by the sea, with vast regions desolate even in the emerged lands and with areas either burned or frozen,– says to itself “Is it all here the pinpoint that many people fight over with iron and fire to conquer and divide?”

Oh, how ridiculous are the borders set by men! (0 quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini)
Let our empire keep away the Dacians from the Ister (lower Danube) and confine the Thracians with the Haemus; let the Euphrates block the Parthians and the Danube mark the boundary between the territories of the Sarmatians and those of the Romans; let the Rhine place a limit for Germany, the Pyrenees raise their chain between the Gaul and the Spain, a vast desolate and sandy desert lie between Egypt and the Ethiopians.

If the human intellect was given to ants, wouldn’t they divide a single area in many provinces? When you rise to those really great realities, every time you see armies marching with unfurled flags and the knights scouting in front or going to the flanks of the army –as if they were doing something grandiose– you will want to say: “a black swarm goes through the  fields. This army is like a coming and going of ants that tire in a narrow space. What is the difference between us and them, if not the size of a tiny little body?”

That is an insignificant point on which you sail, on which you wage war, on which you create tiny kingdoms; tiny, even when the ocean meets it on both sides. On high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on condition that it carries with it as little as possible of what comes from the body, it clears all impurities, and raises free, light and content with little.

When the soul has touched those heights, it finds nourishment, it grows and, as freed from chains, it returns to its origin. A proof of its divine nature comes from the fact that it is pleasantly attracted by the divine realities, in which it participates not as alien things, but as things that belong to the soul itself. The soul calmly views the setting and rising of the stars and their orbits so different yet so harmonious; it observes the place where the stars begin to show the earth their own light, where their apogee and the highest point of their course are fund, and how far they descends. As a curious spectator the soul separates the individual details and investigates every natural and physical thing. And why should it not? The soul looking from above knows that all this, the entire universe, pertain to itself.

(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)

First page of the manuscript Questiones Naturales, made for the Catalan-Aragonese crown.  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

 

 

Bibliography

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Thomas H Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes. 7: Naturales Questiones. 1 /, Heinemann, 1971.
Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.

Butterflies

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».

 

On traveling

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.

 

 

 

 

 

International day of Forests and Poetry, March 21, 2019

What do trees and poems have in common? What do they teach us? How can we listen to them? Here are some enlightening reflections from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature.

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” (Herman Hesse, Wandering, 56-59)

 

Seeing a tree and listening to a tree means at the same time being seen and listened to by a tree that teaches us to recognize the radical intimacy hiding the unitary meaning of life and  revealing who we are. The eyes of the tree and the eyes of the poet –Emerson adds– meet and reflect each other in comprehending and integrating all the parts of the landscape including ourselves.

“When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet.

The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape.

There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 9-10)

in our time, with the emergence of Ecocriticism and Environmental studies, there is a tendency to define the poetics of trees by emphasizing the interdisciplinary perspective from which to observe and contemplate trees. Tiziano Fratus coined the term  dendrosophys.f. (from the Greek δένδρον, “tree,” and σοφία, “knowledge, awareness, love”). He defines dendrosophy as a field that unites different typologies of knowledge about history, biology, botany, forest studies anthropology, literature, etc. as they relate to trees and woods.” Moreover, Fratus’ imaginative etymology suggests that the person who practices dentrosophy is called a dendrosopher, from σοφός, ‘sage’, and that dendrosophy may also indicate “a practice of meditation that calls for immersion in a natural environment, such as nature preserves, mountain landscapes, ancient forests, deserts, in order to nurture inner peace” (“Walking Roots”, 238).  

 

Bibliography

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Bode, Carl, and Cowley, Malcolm. The Portable Emerson. Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1981. Print. Viking Portable Library.

Tiziano Fratus, “Walking Roots: Weaving Past and Future through Italy’s Woods” in Italy and the Environmental Humanities : Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies. Eds. Serenella Iovino, Enrico Cesaretti and ElenaPast. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2018. Print. Under the Sign of Nature.  235-241.

Hesse, Hermann. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. London: Triad Paladin Grafton, 1988. Print.

Bach on the Dolomites

An intimate and special concert was held on November 11, 2018 in the Paveneggio Natural Park among the trees uprooted by the windstorm that hit the Dolomite regions on October 18, 2018. The  orchestra of cellos led by Mario Brunello played Johan Sebastian Bach’s Air on the G string.

The concert  was performed to remember the million of  young people killed during WW1 and the the 12 million trees broken by the recent windstorm.  The extermination of these Dolomites’ forests,  largely caused by climate change, seems to reproduce the disaster and devastation of of WW1. 

The Paneveggio forest, located in the middle of Italy’s stunning Dolomites mountains range, holds a precious resource: its Norway spruce trees have been producing top quality resonance wood for cellos, violins and pianos for centuries. The violin-maker Antonio Stradivari sourced here the wood for his instruments.

The concert opened  the space for an intimate and profound dialogue in which the trees voices and the musical notes could not separate each other and from each other.

“The Wisdom of the Hand and the memory of a Mediterranean More than Human Humanism”

This is an essay published in  Ecocritical Approaches to Italian Culture and LiteratureThe Denatured Wild Ed. by Pasquale Verdicchio. Lanham-Boulder-New York-London: Lexinton Books, 2016. 1-30.

In my essay I first address the documentaries that Vittorio De Seta shot in Sicily between 1954 and 1955 to document, with a certain urgency, the work of peasants, tuna-fishermen and sword-fishermen, in a world that, as he clearly perceived, was about to disappear in the late 1950s. De Seta shows how both the peasants of the land cultivating wheat and the fishermen – whom he calls “contadini del mare” (peasants of the sea) fishing for tuna or swordfish in the open sea – had found meaning and purpose in their life and sought their realization by means of manual labor. Their relationship to the sea and the land, partially mediated by rudimentary tools, was at the same time intensified by a corporeal and physical immersion in the natural element.  I complement the brief analysis of three of these documentaries – Lu tempu di li pisci spada (Time of the Swordfish, 1954), contadini del mare (Peasants of the Sea, 1955) and Parabola d’oro (Gold Parable, 1955) – with a reading of Tuna fishing, an essay by great Sicilian writer Vincenzo Consolo who recently died.

In the second part, I briefly focus on De Seta’s new documentary filmed for Italian Television in 1980, La Sicilia rivisitata (Sicily revisited). This documentary bears witness to the dramatic ecological and cultural consequences of the ruins of the peasants’ and fishermen material culture. I parallel the filmic analysis with a reading of The ruins of Siracusa, an essay by Consolo, another great witness to contemporary Sicily in our globalized world.

The third, longer and last part of this essay shows how De Seta’s documentaries and Consolo’s essays can be considered late expressions of a Mediterranean humanism that has its deep cultural roots in ancient and early modern times in the works of philosophers such as Pythagoras, Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico among others, that are still relevant to contemporary environmental debates on the search for a sustainable human relationship to the environment.

 

The Ancient Roots of a Non-Anthropocentric Humanism

“The Ancient Roots of a Non-Anthropocentric Humanism: A Pythagorean Perspective.” Paper presented at the Mellon Symposium on Environmental Posthumanities in the Anthropocene on Friday, Dec. 2nd 2016 .

This paper presents part of my research on the ancient and early modern sources of a non-anthropocentric humanism that I prefer to define “more than human” rather than “posthuman.” After a brief introduction on the philosophy of Pythagoras I discussed a productive example of revival of the Pythagorean notion of metempsychosis in the recent movie by Michelangelo Frammartino’s,  Le Quattro volte (2010), and I reflected on its importance for contemporary environmental philosophy and the search for a sustainable human relationship to the environment.