American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

Our conversations take us wherever they like so before talking about my instructional experience in Russia I’ll present a few passages by Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) written in the 1930s while he was in prison.

Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism [a thing, to say the truth, that remained in his mind and was never realised.]

All his works, and notably his Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks, are not only amazingly valuable for their intellectual & moral depth – acute analyses of Italian & European history, literature, theatre, philosophy, linguistics, political strategy etc. -, they have also been recognized since their appearance in 1947 as masterpieces of our language and literature.

His powerful brain was feared by both the Fascists and the Russians, and it pained me so much to learn that his Russian wife Julka or Julia Schucht (see her below with their sons, Delio and Giuliano,) together with her sister Tatiana Schucht, were probably spies for the Gpu (Kgb.) [Also a few of Gramsci’s and Julka’s descendants confirmed that.]

[Magister and Gramsci were the mentors who saved me from being a savage – although I am still a bit: you migh read here]

I was surprised to find the words – Gramsci’s words -, that to me best describe the importance of classical education in our country – ie the connection to our roots, this blog’s theme -, in the inspiring web pages of a certain Max Gabrielson, a Latin & Greek teacher at the Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut, considered one of Connecticut top performer schools according to the Wikipedia.

With such words from his Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to the classical education delivered in the Italian Ginnasio and Liceo that, compared to his school days, had been changed a bit by the first important reform of Italian education (Gentile‘s & Croce‘s, 1923) after the unification of Italy 60 years earlier (1860-70.)

[An education that didn’t change much even until my days and my daughters’ days. No change at all? Well, it progressively became comprehensive mass education (with its pros and cons) so that its solidity, like a merum from the ancients, was diluted in the years – the wine being still there, but its inebriating effects having almost dissolved]

Let us listen to Antonio Gramsci describing the deep meaning of such education:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principlefor the humanistic ideal, symbolized by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar [criticised by Croce and Gentile, MoR] was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learned for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilization […] Pupils learned Greek and Latin in order to know at first hand the civilization of Greece and Rome — a civilization that was a necessary precondition to our modern civilization: in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.

‘In order to be themselves, to know themselves consciously …”

ψ

Gramsci criticises in 1932 the multiplication of vocational schools that in his view aimed at perpetuating social differences. Moreover, a true democracy needed adequate people:

“The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) …”

As for K-12 education we see today a tendency to focus on 3-4 subjects only in countries such as Great Britain with students aged 15, a big mistake in my view especially now that we have to compete with lands that do most of the basic manufacturing to the extent that we need extra added-value creativity in our products.

Gramsci would certainly have agreed. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu, with big family and health problems, his intellectual success influenced his view that a more comprehensive education of the working class was possible.

He was in fact irritated by his wife’s inclination to guess specialised interests in their 2 very young sons (one time she thought Delio could become an engineer, another time a poet etc.)

Gramsci’s wife, Jiulia Schucht, with the 2 sons, Delio (on the right) and Giuliano. She was – hideous detail – a spy for the Gpu (Kgb). Amazing how Giuliano resembles his father.

Gramsci wrote to her from his cell:

“To say the truth, I don’t much believe in such precocious display of tendencies and I haven’t much faith in your capability of discerning what professional aptitudes they might have. I should think that in both our sons, as in all children, there are likely to be found all sort of inclinations – the practical side, the theory and the imagination, and that it would consequently be more appropriate to guide them towards a more harmonious blend of all intellectual and practical faculties, since the time will come when specialisation in one or the other of these will occur on the basis of a personality vigorously formed and totally integrated.”

Gramsci then continues, expressing to her his humanistic faith in human possibilities and his 1930s ideal of the fully developed man:

“Modern man should be a synthesis of the qualities which are traditionally embodied in these national characters: the American engineer, the German philosopher and the French politician, thus recreating so to speak the Italian man of the Renaissance, the modern Leonardo da Vinci become ‘mass man’ and ‘collective man’ without sacrificing his own strong personality and individual originality.”

Post Scriptum. Gramsci reflected on many aspects of the American society (his notes on Americanism and Fordism are crucial) while he was quite worried about what was happening in the Soviet Union after 1930.

Differently from his mentor, Neapolitan Benedetto Croce, basically Hegelian, Gramsci was very much connected not only to German Kultur (he was into Hegel too and had a perfect knowledge of German – plus French, English, Russian, Latin and possibly other languages) but also to French culture: thanks to ascholarship won in 1911 he had studied in Piedmont at the University of Turin.

In 1921 he co-founded the Italian Communist Party. He then spent 2 years in the Soviet Union where in a sanatorium (his health was precarious) he ‘strangely’ met a beautiful woman, Jiulia (Julka) Schucht, who will become his wife. Back to Italy in 1924 he became head of the party. Being no orator but making use of a one-by-one-persuasion strategy he had won the majority of party delegates by totally fascinating them.

In the same year he was elected at the Italian Parliament. In the Fall of 1926, at the age of 35, he was arrested at 10:30 pm in his home located outside Porta Pia, a nice Roman area efficaciously depicted by the Italian poet Grabriele D’Annunzio. He will die at 46 after 11 years of prison.

Soon after the arrest he wrote to his wife:

“I am sure you will be strong and courageous, as you have always been. Now you will have to be even more than in the past, so that our sons may grow well and be in all worthy of you [italic is mine, MoR.]”

More on Antonio Gramsci:

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

An interesting discussion over the dangers menacing our democracies was kicked off by our latest postWill Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.

Most participants asked themselves whether democracy is at a turning point in many countries.

I am fortunate to have such great commentators.  I’m also glad I received additional insight on the American mind I always found fascinating also because elements of it are not that easy to be grasped by Europeans (the collectivism vs individualism thing, for example.)

I’ll freely transcribe here a few sentences of the said dialogue where the dear-to-me topic education in a democracy stands out a bit.

A scene from Videocracy, by Erik Gandini, an Italian Swedish film director

The idea behind this is a follow-up post on a work experience I had in Russia where I was sent in the year 2000 in order to carry out a TACIS* financed educational project for the integration of military personnel into civil society.

It seems very much to the point since it regards the topics discussed in the said conversation, ie individualism, collectivism, education in democracies or in flawed (or almost non existent) democracies.

[*TACIS was a programme financed by the EU for “grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia”]

MoR: Is fascism coming back in a way or another? We see “the contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates etc.”

Paul: I’m afraid [fascism] has never been very far below the surface. [Paul’s blog]

Douglas: “I cannot think of any true democracies. Republics, yes, but democracies, no. [Douglas’ blog]

MoR: I agree. Demo-cracies are often aristo-cracies, ie the rule of the happy few. There is in fact a prerequisite imo for a democracy to work correctly: a solidly educated people. Without such prerequisite, demo-cracy degenerates into dem-agogy, ie a rule manipulative of the people via their emotions, fears, bias etc. The health care debate in America is an example of that I presume. Berlusconian Italy a much bigger one.

Andreas: Nobody actually fears fascism will win in America. But the rancor, the shrillness, the animosity obscuring reason and thought: that is everywhere. [Andreas’s blog]

Cheri: On both sides of the aisle, I might observe. [Cheri’s blog]

[Everybody seems to agree that it is not a Left or Right thing. The attack to freedom after all has historical roots in political ‘churches’ of any colour, and often in churches tout court (and, alas, especially in one Church)]:

ZeusIsWatching: Fascism is the kissing cousin of communism, the similarities are clear enough. [Zeus‘ blog]

Sledpress: Fascism [will live] with us as long as authority and submission are considered vital components of human culture … conditioning from birth onward … [cult of] “strong leadership” … We’ve all seen people bounce from Catholicism to Communism or whatever. [Sledpress’ blog]

Douglas: [he gets back to the educational thing] Do you really believe, MoR, that any country will produce a solidly educated people? …I think that as long as education is in the hands of the government ….there will only be people educated to support that government.

An image from the Italian TV. Click for credits

MoR: I understand America is suspicious of any state intervention in society …continental Europe, and possibly French Canada, have a rationalist, non empiricist, tradition (‘reason’ moulds society or kinda) so that a state should be ethical enough to try help the ‘losers’ of societal Darwinian competition, ie the poor, the uneducated etc

Portions of the sotosay winners’ income – a widespread mentality here, not necessarily leftist – should go to the less wealthy, without condoning tho those who take advantage of such a system (many of course do, tons of money gets wasted to the extent of foolishness).

While (almost) not spending a euro I have an excellent medical care, I myself once was a state school teacher trying to do something for the uneducated in the poorest districts of Rome.

And in Russia, a great but nightmarish place where I worked in 2000 (a moment when ALL was crumbling down there,) the masses were nonetheless amazingly educated in S&T and were reading Tolstoy, Pushkin in second class trains. Education didn’t save them from many forms of tyranny, big and small, which they accepted as their tradition, but I’m sure after these 10 years they are still bearing their tyrannies but must have copied the worst from us and are now reading crap in trains as well, as we do in moronic Berlusconian Italy.

Ana Téran: [a Mexican writer I just met at Andreas’.] Public will is a powerful weapon. Why in the hell don’t we use it MoR?

Lichanos: The “masses?” I wonder what percentage of people were reading Tolstoy and Pushkin. On the other hand, I meet lots of technically educated Russians who are surprised to find that I, an American engineer, know their history and literature, as they know ours. So, clearly there is a difference. [Lichanos’ blog]

Ψ

The final twist of the conversation brings me then to talk about Russia a bit. A marvellous (but puzzling) place from any point of view. See you soon then.

Ψ

Related posts:

[The 3 posts below illustrate – with really ample discussions – the notion of ‘personal knowledge’ related to what I mean by ‘solid education’, ie specialisation plus general knowledge. There is for example a difference (diminishing, alas) between the Latin countries plus Germany and Austria, on one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other hand.

As Magister wrote, before the young are inserted into specialised activities they should first attain “a certain amount of maturity, of capacity of autonomy, orientation, initiative.” The last 30 years have seen in Italy the debacle of any effective education – both the Left and the Right having responsibilities, but Berlusconi added a big cherry on the pie by the propagation of a degrading culture in which he sincerely believes, it seems. I invite you all to get a copy of Videocracy. Here is the film’s official web site.

We had good ‘general culture’ orientation according to Italian traditions (but less specialization, a flaw, ok,) but now we have none of the two. AND Berlusconi has now convinced many Italians that priority num 1 is a reform of the constitution that will give him the power of a French (or American) President without any French or US counterbalance. And the economy? And unemployment? If this is not manipulation ….]

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

How To Easily Learn Ancient Greek and Latin (1). Poems Assemblage

Modica, a comune in the Province of Ragusa, Sicily. It was the original Greek polis of Μότουκα. It's my picture. I give it to the public domain (the next one too)

[I asked Mario and Extropian for some fun. They helped me to write what I was too lazy to write]

Ψ

Along We Are, Together On A Journey

I often try to learn and teach to myself and to others. I’ve always been a teacher.

“A misguiding one” Mario and Extropian are telling me now.

Well, my readers are adult and vaccinated and have supported this rogue of Rome. With only 139 posts to date (a book of 400 pages?) we’ve been engaged in conversations totalling more than 2,300 comments, many of which extremely long (a book of 1500 pages just the comments? More? Less?)

So dear readers, you surely have accompanied me on a mind journey mixing past and present and starting from the viewpoint of a homo medius de Roma. And mind: the journey has just begun.

Brushing Up Ancient Greek And Latin

Since its beginning my research assumed a brushing up of the Ancient Greek and Latin languages, among the rest. Of them I had knowledge albeit rusty and forgotten mostly, after 16 years of Information Technology.

Latin and Greek are important to understand the Greco-Romans.

The Ear of Dionysius carved out in Syracuse's limestone (Sicily). Dionysius I (432–367 BC) used the cave as a prison and possibly liked to hear the amplified screams of his prisoners. The Latomìe close by, made of the same limestone, were the horrible stage where the flower of the Athenian youth found its death.

Not that those who can’t read these 2 languages are not capable of understanding antiquity. I’m not saying that. As for my experience I understood enough of the Russians just by reading their great novels in Italian.

However, it is undeniable, the feel of a folk a language can provide is not only part of the fun of any journey, whether in space or time. Such feel also transmits deep experiences that, in a world increasingly shallow, are precious currency beyond any doubt – or so it seems to me.

Big Poems. Two, Actually

Mario [*exasperated*]: “You wanna defeat Latin and Greek at your age and MAKE US ALL CRAZY??? You wanna do that??? Tell us WTH is your dirty little secret for miracles then.”

MoR: Oh, my dirty little secret. I have a couple. So do me the favour to listen to me:

I propose the construction of two long gradual poems, one in Latin and one in Greek.

How? Via the assemblage of wisely picked passages from the two respective literatures.

With bits of motivation (and dogged spirit) Latin and Greek will be leisurely, leniently, delicately (and deeply) SHOT into our blood, electrifying it wholly.

Extropian: “WOW! Electricity into BLOOD! How stupid of me not having thought of that.”

Poetry is Music, Pure Magic

Muse with lyre, Musée du Louvre, Paris (ca 360 - 340 BC). Fair use

I like poetry immensely, also because it is so close to music. Months ago I met this blog of poems from a certain ‘Woman in a window‘.

“Wow – I said – this woman knows how to reverberate esoteric emotions through words. I adore her and want to write poems too.”

Not that easy, I can’t. And not just in this hyperborean language, but in my own native bastard Latin neither.

Collage game. So I invented the ‘collage game’. I did a little experiment with Walt Whitman, one of my favourite poets.

Every game has its rules. Here were mine:

Walt Whitman, US poet (1819 – 1892)

1) Collection of emotional verbal materials (CEVM). One randomly leafs through Walt Whitman’s (or any other poet’s) pages and when something strikes an emotional note one jots it down and continues until ‘emotional materials’ collected are enough to make her/him happy.

2) Assemblage of  collected (emotional) materials (ACEM). After collecting it’s due time for assembling. Lines get broken down to attain rhythms following our whims plus we add editing. That all should suit our mood & taste is crucial since, if we comply to CEVM and ACEM, the final outcome will magically reflect our feelings and result in sincere poetry expressed with gorgeous words.

COOL isn’t it? Poetry made easy through plagiarism.

Ψ

Extropian: “You will be caught.”
Mario (the Neapolitan):
“Caught? Everybody is stealin’ from everybody man. Go ahead!”
MoR:
“Whitman is long buried and won’t protest but don’t want to wrong him. It was only an experiment, 80% Whitman, 20% me. Emotions? Fifty-fifty possibly. I had pig flu so I was down. It influenced the tone making it all compliant with CEVM and ACEM btw.

BUT, the whole point is THE experiment, not the result (bad).”

Extropian: “Actually I don’t see the point of the experiment.”
MoR:
“Me neither, would I be Man on Roma if I did? Now shut that helluva mouth up and listen to my canzone.”

Ψ

I raise a voice to sing today
With foreign words
A song.

I would like to sing the amplest of poems
And to say of the moon that descends on the Capitol.
But I am no man, my strength is dried up.

“Lift up your head man.”
Oh my strength is dried up
And I am confounded,
My body in deep pain.

“Lift up your heart you man.”
Oh but I am a worm, no man, and
Who are you by the way
to talk to me like that?

[MoR gets upset a bit, but the voice fades away, never to be heard]

Whoever you are I will say:

He’s no man
Whose life was consumed
with chimeras and dreams

and with etc. etc. etc.

Ψ

Two Gradual Ancient Poems Going Backwards

Leaving Whitman behind, our 2 poems will be assembled so as to be gradual in their difficulty, from the easiest to the hardest. We’ll go backwards in time, starting from late debased Latin & Greek [the Greek Septuagint and the Jerome’s Vulgate translations of the Bible] that are much closer to modern languages, hence a lot easier (baby’s talk often, compared to Plato or Cicero.) We’ll then gradually proceed towards the most pure and  classical.

Mario: “A dantesque ascent from impurity to purity?”
MoR:
“No, no, only in language, not content. How can the Bible be impure? Although from a strict linguistic viewpoint the progression from impurity to purity is undeniable.
Mario:
“You wanna disrupt phrases and words as you did with Whitman?”
MoR:
“No. Whitman was just an experiment. The 2 poems will be respectful of the originals. The collage will only imply a choice sequence of appropriate passages – we’ll see along the way.

Readers as well – it is important – will be asked to contribute with passages chosen by them.

We’ll build 2 long poems. It will be fun!”

Extropian: “And the grammar? Nobody learns a language by hurling headlong on texts without any formal preparation.

MoR: “THAT’s my dirty secret, what did you think? Read my post on the nonconscious acquisition of languages.”

The two draft poems are about to arrive.

The Clementine version (1592) of the Vulgate, from the Wikimedia. Click for a larger picture

(to be continued)



The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. 🙂
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! 😉

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

Merry Christmas! Great German Music With the Humour of Mr Bean. Enjoy

The British comedian, actor and writer Rowan Atkinson. Click for credits and to enlarge. GNU Free Documentation License

I once wrote that good food will not be missing in our discussions, together with good music and plenty of delicious wine.

Ok, wine, I have in my hand, a good Primitivo di Puglia.
Good pasta, I’ve just had, Spaghetti al pomodoro con pecorino.

And music?

Watch and listen to THIS.

[Felt like paying a little tribute to the German culture and to the British humour – delightful but irreverent sketch, Paul notes below in his comment. Pretty nice contrast the Germans and the British, I’d add, so many little neuroses dividing this petty though adorable Europe…

… too much wine …]

Ψ

**Merry Christmas to ALL of you, dear readers!**

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Days ago I was revising my blog’s categories. I realized how lazy I had been.

‘Culture’ for example indicated both:

  1. the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or group  (it’s the Unesco definition)  and
  2. the general knowledge and refinement a person can attain through education.

The former, anthropological, relates to groups, while the latter, humanistic, relates to individuals. So my category ‘culture’ has been split in two: culture and knowledge & refinement.

I’ll tell you, my impression is that ‘culture’ in English has progressively lost meaning num 2, which was instead well alive in the past if we have to believe J. C. Shairp, a Scottish man of letters, who wrote in the 19th century:

“What the Greeks expressed by their paideia, the Romans by their humanitas, we less happily try to express by the more artificial word culture.”

Well, if paideia and humanitas were better, culture is better than nothing in any case.

Of course European cultures (anthropological) are very much interrelated. In countries such as France Italy and Germany, for example, people continue to refer to culture also as personal, individual refinement: we have ‘cultura’ in Italian, ‘culture’ in French and ‘Kultur’ in German, which the German Duden dictionary explains with Bildung and verfeinerte Lebensart (refined way of life.)

I’m wondering why the English-speaking countries have retained only the anthropological use of culture. Don’t they like gli uomini di cultura generale any more?

According to my friend jurist cultura was a high culture ideal that mirrored social elitism, so the English-speaking countries, basically more pluralistic, bit by bit moved on. Very good point, but I’m not entirely convinced, there must be something else too.

This thing being more complicated than it seems, I am now asking my readers for insight.

In the meanwhile, I’ll soon post a nice discussion occurred a few days ago where some kind of replies have surfaced: a dialogue among a civil engineer from NYC, an Indian Canadian from Quebec – about to start a career in the film industry – and MoR.

Arrivederci a presto dunque.

ψ

See next installment:

The Last Days of the Polymath

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

Calcagni’s Memoirs. Perplexities About the Family Inheritance (3)

Medieval houses at Santa Cecilia, Trastevere, painted by Roesler Franz in 1880 ca.

Third excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Read the original version in Italian.

Read all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.

ψ

I never really knew how these things went because my father shrank from talking about them and he used to say that all that didn’t matter since in this world one has to work for a living and must not count on others or on ephemeral hopes.

He told us: birth doesn’t matter, only work and honesty do. Look at our Lord: he has worked, he has toiled as a carpenter in the shop of Nazaret and then aside, quiet, by himself: yet he was from the stock of David.

The important fact, that always has roused my suspicion about some wrongdoing, some abuse or indelicacy from our relatives in the division, or actual assignment, of the hereditaments of the Calcagni family, is this: my father, who was adored by his relatives for his qualities of character and festivity, and who was by them greatly sought after, never lavished much affection on them.

He paid visits to the rich relation, sometimes bringing us along with him, he remained a ten minutes, greatly rejoiced and rejoicing, then he suddenly went away without almost saying goodbye and all was postponed until several months later. Certainly there must be a latent and suppressed conflict, maybe of interests, which is most powerful to disunite, embitter and bring along grief.

There was actually an unbridgeable gulf between my father’s way of life and judgement and that of all the paternal relatives I have known.

Villa Mondragone, once a famous Jesuit school. CLick for credits
Villa Mondragone near Frascati, once a famous Jesuit collegio for young aristocrats. Click for credits and to enlarge

For example, when at a certain age the possibility was aired among the relatives of a first class collegio [boarding school or college, MoR] for the education of us small males of the kinsfolk more or less of the same age, a sort of family meeting was held. They told my father they thought of sending three or four young boys to Mondragone, the renowned collegio of the Jesuits near Frascati [see image above,] and they had my father understand that in case he wanted to send his boy (me) along with the others, as regarded the expenses they would all get together for a facilitation, for a helping hand.

My father replied:
“Thanks for the thought but I will bring up my son by myself.”
“Bravo!!! You will bring him up on the banks of the river …”
And my father:
“Yes, on the banks of the river, but with me … And we’re going to see who will better succeed.”

It is not to me to judge people who are partly dead and partly have drifted rather badly about the world; but certainly my education did not, and does not, suffer from any substantial deficiency compared to the education provided and received even in the best collegi. Quite the contrary …

The emblem of the Trastevere rione

Original version in Italian

Next chapters:

Calcagni’d Memoirs. Poverty and Father’s Funeral … (4)
Calcagni’s Memoirs. Elvira, the Eldest Sister … (5)
Calcagni’s Memoirs. Two Brats Meet Pope Leo XIII (6)

Calcagni. Suddend Death of Granfather. His father is Left to Himself (2)

Church of Santa Maria di Plestia, Serravalle del Chienti. Click for credits

Second excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Read the original version in Italian.

My family was then very big: 6 beefy children who needed so many things to grow up – food, clothes, shoes, manners and education. But, if as far as birth, parentage and social condition, my father was certainly above the average, high above it, as for financial resources he was really deprived of everything except the bare – almost too bare – minimum necessary for life. Why? How? I don’t know well because they never told me, my father always tried to pass over the subject.

A Noble Guard of the VaticanIn ancient days the family had lands in Velletri, where in the proximity to that town a hill exists that bears yet the name of Colle Calcagni and a palace in Rome near piazza Nicosia, the respectable and beautiful block which is now the Cardelli palace. My grandfather, count Filippo Calcagni, engineer, had been Noble Guard of His Holiness [see a noble guard on the left.] One day he resigned from the Corps and undertook the free career becoming among the rest engineer of the SS Palaces. When Gregory XVI [Pope from 1831 to 1846, MoR] went on a trip about the provinces of his State, the Palace engineer was entrusted to inspect the roads that the Pope would have to cover.

On the long slope which from Serravalle del Chienti goes downward to Tolentino my grandfather had a deadly coach accident. The horse took to flight down the hill. Two were on the coach, one kept himself glued to the carriage, paralysed by fright; my grandfather instead trying to save himself jumped out to the ground, hit his head and remained senseless. He didn’t die immediately. A few days later, a week perhaps, he passed away in the arms of his wife, who had raced to his bedside, without regaining consciousness.

He is buried in the church of Serravalle; a big gravestone on the middle of the left-side wall calls to mind the sad event with emphatic style. My grandmother, countess Carlotta Negroni, was just 23-year-old at that time, and she had my 3 year-old dad only and was pregnant of my aunt Maria.

My father therefore did not receive any education from his father and lived between his mother, inconsolable widow, and his sister Maria whom he greatly adored, a well explainable idolatry. As for material means, none, or very little, received from the rich relation, very little indeed I believe, while certain and definite was the very miserable condition of the poor relation, uncomfortable and painful.

Naturally – it is well understandable – all care and moral and material help from the rich relation were provided to the benefit of the female, aunt Maria, very young and very beautiful, while the male, Nino, my father, had to do things himself.

And in fact he did: as soon as he was 19, not having completed his studies at the celebrated Collegio Romano – studies of grammar, rethoric, philosophy and humanities – he applied for joining the Noble Guard Corps of His Holiness. His application was accetped.

[Next time: Calcagni’s Memoirs. Perplexities About the Family Inheritance (3)]

The emblem of the Trastevere rione

Original version in Italian

The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

The Appian Way, the Queen of the Roads. Click for credits and larger picture

Found In The Appian Way

Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.

From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:

“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”

Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:

Marbe statue of a young Roman woman. Click for credits and larger size“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:

“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”

Palazzo dei Conservatori with its new façade by Michelangelo

Jacob Burckhardt‘s (1818 – 1897) comment on the whole episode is remarkable:

“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.

Yes, touching, and revealing.

She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.

Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome

Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?

A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.

Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.

“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …

In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”

A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.

Classicism Towards The Future

The School of Athens by Raphael, Rome, the Vatican. Click for credits

I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:

“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.

Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.

The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.

Ψ

Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.

She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

References

Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009

Note on a Calabrian Greek

There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.

[See our two posts on the Grikos (1 & 2), South Italians descending from the Greeks of Magna Graecia and Byzantium]

Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)

He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.

Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.

Ψ

As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.

Ψ

Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog

A part of MoR's Home Library

Here is a list of the tools I use when I write in English. They are not the best tools but only the ones I like, so any suggestion from readers is welcome. I have also added a few reference tools and encyclopaedias, due to the nature of this blog.

Whatever help one can find in a dictionary, a thesaurus or any other resource, it is our mind & taste that have to make the appropriate choice, so here again a good reading experience of valuable texts is the key to decent writing.

Bilingual tools are also included. Why? Aren’t monolingual tools better?  Yes, they surely are since they force us to think in the new language, but here in my blog the protagonist is not a language, but ideas, history, philosophy etc. even though expressed in simple ways. Sometimes I need to brainstorm in Italian when topics become complex, thence the need of a few translation tools.

Bilingual tools

  • Wordreference.com. A good web resource I use daily with bilingual dictionaries of Italian, English, French, German, Greek, Romanian, Russian etc. Much quicker than any paper dictionary (which is unfortunate, because I love to leaf through dictionary pages).
  • The Lexilogos translation web portal, a French (French Canadian?) resource with automatic translators for almost every language on earth (Chinese, Arabic and Indian languages included). I dislike computer translations for their total weirdness and I seldom use them, but they can suggest unexpected solutions. Again, the right choice depends on us. The site comprises the Reverso.net, Google and Yahoo Babel fish translators. I’m told that Power Translator is also a good software for automatic translations.

Monolingual tools

  • The Merriam-Webster pocket dictionaries. Many years ago I stumbled upon an excellent Merriam-Webster paperback edition (based on the Collegiate edition, if I’m not wrong). Since then I am a Merriam-Webster aficionado and do not regret it. That magic compact book, now lost, helped me effectively with any text, from comics to English and American literature.
    I now use the Home and Office Collegiate-based paperback edition of 1995 (the second from the bottom left in the picture above).
    Merriam-Webster is to me THE monolingual dictionary, with word definitions written with admirable concinnitas.
  • The huge Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Dorset & Baber 1972. I bought it in Boston in 1993 for a bargain price. A sort of monster, or bambinone (big boy.) The link is to the latest edition.
  • The dictionaries page of Lexilogos, a web portal again from France, with tons of links to almost every on-line great dictionary, such as Oxford Oald, Cambridge, Oxford Compact, Collins, Etymonline, American Heritage, etc.
  • The on-line Cambridge dictionary. Another daily resource which helps me to contain mistakes with prepositions, such as to, for, of, in, by, on etc.
    English and the Latin languages use prepositions in a very different way. For example, which of the two is correct: Participate *to* a discussion or *in* a discussion? Italian and French prefer the former, English the latter. When my language experience is not enough, I need these (time-consuming) checks.
  • The Gnome Dictionary on Linux. An excellent tool I’m addicted to. It is a DICT client written by the Italian geek Emmanuele Bassi. I use it when I’m on Linux, which I can dual-boot on my mobile as an alternative to Windows XP. It allows quick access to numerous dictionaries including the fascinating Webster 1913 edition. I wonder if I’ll ever find a Windows version.
    Update:
    here is the Dict.org web page, which is of course platform (OS)-independent. Great tool, also for English mother-tongues I believe, and a way of tasting Linux software big power.
  • The Thesaurus.com web page, which also has a dictionary and a reference section (Ask.com). The Roget’s Thesaurus is a classic for synonyms I used a lot in the past, but I now prefer this on-line resource based on the Roget’s Thesaurus II. I also possess the Webster’s Thesaurus in book form (the first from the bottom-left) but I don’t like it much. A searchable on-line Roget’s Thesaurus (1911) can be found here.
    Synonyms are a treasure for writing, like the word thesaurus suggests, but they are of little help if you don’t “feel” which is the right word among a long list of synonyms. Experience, again, matters.

Reference & Encyclopedias

  • Enciclopedia Italiana dell’Istituto Treccani, 1939, which I find among the best for topics regarding the humanities. La Piccola Treccani, 1995, is more up-to-date but it is much smaller.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. I have the 1965 Edition, 23 volumes, quite good. I sometimes prefer the 1911 Britannica although this on-line version contains lots of errors. The on-line Britannica is excellent, always up-to-date and not too expensive yearly.
  • The Wikipedia. I am a great fan of this remarkable tool, possibly the biggest encyclopaedia ever created (see a discussion in the comments section).
  • Answers.com. A very good on-line tool, both a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, with excerpts from the Wikipedia as well. I’m getting addicted to it also because of the add-on for the Firefox browser (Answers), which enables to alt-click on any word for dictionary and encyclopaedia immediate reference.

Note. Links on this post are not provided for commercial purposes.

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger

American, British, French and Italian flags in New York City. Click for credits

This blog is written in a language that is not my own. They say that the older we grow the closer we get to the womb. While I was more drawn to the Germanic languages in my youth I now prefer my mother tongue or any Latin language. Writing in English is hence sometimes a pain to me although English being the first foreign language I got into in my adolescence it’s like a first love one cannot easily forget.

Toiling with Words and Sentences

At times I write directly in English without any problem. Other times I also directly write in English but I am unsure of myself. I continuously correct and rewrite sentences in blog writings and comments. I often paste a passage into a new clean white page, which refreshes my imagination. Sometimes it takes many new white pages to reach a passage that satisfies me, although I’m never satisfied. When I’m tired or when I’m writing something complicated I first write in Italian and I later translate all into English. This also happens when, afraid to let an idea slip away, I quickly jot it down in Italian.

Languages Contain Elements of a Culture

I have stopped blogging in both Italian and English although it has been an instructive experience. Working tightly with two languages was a little bit like thinking with two brains. A language contains elements of a culture. A language brings along a mentality, it brings along attitudes, values and also phrases often with no equivalent in other languages. It is also one good example where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, since for instance – and focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course with globalization such differences are getting less evident.

Latin Words in English

English contains a lot of Latin words, but its core is Germanic. The return to the Latin womb brings me to prefer English words from Latin, although I cannot always predict the effect they will have on my readers. ‘Comprehensible’ instead of ‘understandable’ sounds warmer to me, but the effect is formal instead. I mean, it’s not that easy to control the colouration (connotation) of words in a foreign language. Even the main meaning of a word (denotation) can be a problem. The same Latin words in English and Italian are sometimes false friends, namely words that are similar but have a different meaning. Actual for example means real in English but up-to-date in Italian (attuale), while preservative is an additive in English and, well, a condom in Italian (preservativo).

Prose and Rhythm

Writing is hard discipline in any language

I like prose with a rhythm. It is something beautiful which I can hope to attain in my language, not so much in a foreign language I learned through toil. At times I rewrite my English sentences until I find a rhythm that satisfies me. Reading good prose can be of great help and classics are always the best. Which brings me to the last point of this writing, the natural learning of languages.

The Input Method

When I was 14 I flunked English so I had to spend a bitter summer studying. For some weird reason instead of studying grammar I started reading American comic books (Superman) and the Longman series in easy English (now probably absorbed into the Penguin Readers graded collection). I discovered a new world!

I was absolutely delighted by colloquial American English and by these great English literary texts made so easy. My progress was sudden. I therefore applied this method to the study of ancient Greek and Latin by reading the Bible, the only easy text available in these two languages at that time. My progress here was amazing as well and my marks boosted up, much to my schoolmates’ astonishment.

A few years ago I was surprised to see that some people had sort of made a theory out of all this. It is sometimes called the input method in language learning. One learns a language by constant exposure to language input (reading and listening): texts, possibly good, and movies, TV etc. Output (writing and speaking) will come out naturally. It is after all how babies learn a language: they silently listen a lot, then they start speaking as if by miracle. Grammar can be useful at a later stage, to sort out things a bit (and in fact children later go to school). Some people even skip grammar. I once met a French-Canadian who was fluent in 9 languages: “I’m proud I didn’t touch any grammar“ he said.

ψ

I’ve talked a bit about my English blogging experience and about my relationship with this beautiful language. In 3-4 days I will provide infos and links about the tools I use everyday in order to produce decent enough English texts. Hard toil, yes, but great fun as well.

ψ

Other related posts:

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

On Black Sabbath and Indian Classical Music

Dio - Black Sabbath. Photo by NYCArthur

I habitually post once a week. Last week I spent all my available time in a short trip and in replying to comments here or in posting comments on other blogs. All I can do now is reporting some of these conversations by splitting them in a sequence of posts, this being the first one.

It’s not a vile expedient. A dialogue or conversation to me is important, my method post being evidence of it.

The people involved in the conversation(s) are Ashish, an Indian young man from Maharastra; Poonam Sharma, an Indian young woman from New Delhi; the Commentator, a Canadian of Italian origin from Quebec; Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, from Quebec as well.

Texts in square brackets are notes by MoR. For the original conversation see the previous post’s comment section.

Saving a Friend From Metal Rock?

Poonam Sharma. Yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music… All songs [proposed in MoR’s previous post] are new for me, so my unaccustomed ear will have a try at them.

MoR. So far the effect on him of my music preaching has been negligible.

A person like Ashish cannot be caged by Black Sabbath forever! Maybe the works by Bach proposed though are too complicated. Bach is severe but being mystical he might appeal to Indian minds like yours and Ashish’s.

Ashish. Thank you! [referring to my last post meant to redeem him] I also just begun on Indian Classical music with Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s Call of the Valley. Can’t wait to start on this … yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music. I think it’s too late for that! You don’t know the beauty of listening to Heaven and Hell, then Stargazer and jumping to Ahir Bhairav just yet!!

MoR. It’s not that I don’t like rock, I’m still listening to it now and then. It’s just that a mind needs all types of nourishment. I’m sure you’ll find depths in Indian classical music unknown to Sabbath. Ahir bhairav? I checked, it seems to be a Hindustani classical raga. I wish I had some knowledge of Indian ragas. Why then don’t you flood me with links? Why don’t you become just a bit (or a lot) a Man of India – instead of repeating of yourself: ‘The British left, but left him’ …? 🙂

The Power of Sabbath

(Sabbath. Heaven and Hell – Neon Knights. Live. From this post by Ashish)

Ashish. Alright, this needs some explaining.

You see, I am NOT a music person. All this passion for music started when we started the cyber cafe as background music when I worked. The problem was that the hindi (Indian) songs were too much intrusive and I couldn’t concentrate so I loaded up my playlist with English ones. Slowly I listened to the music, started liking it and when I bought a new MP3 player I started listening a week.

Currently, on my holiday’s I usually go out for long walks early in the morning for I dislike meeting people. So what to do during the day when for the most part of 12 hours there is no electricity? How to relieve myself from the world? Thats where rock saves me.  😉

It’s not like I “hate” Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused. Whoever has the best voice wins. Heck, I even dislike modern rock as you know and prefer the 70’s or 80’s act meself. It’s the music.. so much different, myriad filled with epics, dragons (Ronnie Dio happens to be my favourite vocalist) or drugs!

As for becoming Man of India well there are too many Men of India preaching this and that. I prefer not being tied to a region or place. The world is free I think to live wherever I want, like whatever I want, eat whatever I want. (This is a rant not for you but for everyone who advises in regionalism..)…

Paul. Ashish, try to get «Beatles go baroque», Naxos 8.990050F, original Beatles’s songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney arranged by Peter Breiner in the styles of Handel, Vivaldi or J.S. Bach. A real treat. It was recorded in 1992, in Bratislava by the Slovak Philarmonic. The beat and the music is there with a special flavor.

Ashish. Paul, thanks for that! Thats seems like some Beatles I can stomach! (I have their greatest hits package but don’t listen to it that much.) Will try to find this! Thanks very much! 🙂

The Commentator. (…) I’m starting to like Ashish. He pulls out the Sabbath. I like to listen to hard stuff every once in a while. Why, just today I was blasting The Ramones. But what a long walk from the beautiful masterpieces of Western classical music to rock.

Let’s see Western musical heritage: classical, ragtime, jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock, hard rock, motown, disco, punk, techno, grunge – interesting evolution. I know. An incomplete list and definitions. But you get the picture.

Ashish. LOL thank you Commentator. I’m just getting into the stuff actually. There is so much music and so little time!

Sarinda, Indian bow string instrument

MoR. Ashish, you say: “It’s not like I hate Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused.”

Voice, ok. But as far as I know there are lots of instruments as well, complex and exciting. Percussions are very rich, plus we have bow string instruments like Sarinda (see above) and Sarangi, stringed instruments like the Sitar (a great myth of my generation because of the Beatles and Ravi Shankar) and many others I don’t know the names of.

Probably Indian music is monodic, so melody plays a great role, and of course voice can be central, though not only I think. What I like very much is the way the Indians treat the melody (vocal or instrumental), fascinating for its sensual ornaments and especially quarter tones (!!), so exotic to Western ears!

Ashish. Nay, you’re talking Indian Classical music. I was talking about the regular – which is mostly film music and most all of which is vocal focused. But like I said above, the bug of classical music has bitten me now and I’m ready to dive in that ocean.

Bolly Songs and Classical Ragas

MoR. Great. I loved the music you presented in your post: the songs reminded me of my stay in India but the classical Ahir Bhairav type of music you present [which can be listened here] is much more profound, there is a total difference in depth. Depth is to be experienced especially at your age, since it’ll get deeper into your blood. [What I am not at all able to figure out is how, according to these Hindustani ragas, the music is slowly building up in more and more complex variations, I mean in which ways, according to which rules.]

Ashish. That is what I liked about it, depth. You could just lay back and watch as the music danced in front of your eye with varied textures.

Oriental Quarter tones

(We can finish with the Man of Roma talking about things he knows nothing about)

MoR. Oriental and Indian music has quarter tones, I can dare say. In the first notes of the song Hur Hura Asathe you have embedded in your post – I might be wrong – one experiences quarter tones.

On a keyboard, the distance in pitch between for example a C note and a D note (two white keys) is called a whole tone and this tone is cut into two halves (2 semitones) by classical Western music (C-C#; C#-D).

So between a C and a D we have only one possible note in between: C#.

In Oriental music instead a whole tone is cut into 4 different notes, 4 quarter tones.

It is one reason why the first notes of the said song (see the movie below) sound vague to a Western ear, which increases their fascination. I don’t think it is by chance by the way that the Italian word vago (= vague) means both vague and beautiful.

This whole inter-cultural thing is of course fascinating.

ψ

Related post (and conversation):

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Virtual Dinners on a Roman Terrace

Roman Night Forum Skyline

I am on a trip around California. Having no time for writing, I’ll propose again a few lines from my method post that express the initial inspiration of this blog.

A sort of naïve enthusiasm is to be noted. Well, nothing can be achieved without enthousiasmos, a Greek word meaning “a rapturous inspiration like that caused by a god.” Big words, I know.

Let us Have Fun, my Delectable Guests

“Let us have fun, my delectable guests. Life should be fun! Let us imagine we are in early summer when the evening sea breeze, or ponentino, is so delightful. I’m inviting you all from every civilization, country, era space location. I am inviting you ALL to this virtual Roman terrace, overlooking the eternal city’s magnificent skyline.

Rome, loose woman and she-wolf, is watching attentive. Is she smiling?

Dinner after dinner, amid flowers perfumed and aromas from dishes exquisite, in front of a breathtaking spectacle of glories and defeats, coming from a civilization of hard & refined conquerors, who always accepted those who were – and are – diverse, and their gods, and their creeds, and philosophies and manners …

… here, sweet guests of mine, let us enjoy our life a bit! Away from all the sorrows, away from all the pains, let us discuss on themes light, silly and severe. Good food will not be missing, together with good music (another guest of ours, of course) and plenty of delicious wine and, naturally, no real objection to a pot of good beer (or cervesia), once in a while.

Playing being simple, playing being easy: all it takes is good food, good music, and good good company, most of all!

PS
While I was writing, music and red vino di Montalcino were helping me to fly high.”

See you soon.

MoR

Italian version

Ψ

Other related posts:

Method and Encounter with Magister
Locking Horns with a Young Roman

On Health and Serenity of Soul

So-called Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze now at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy. Self-made by Massimo Finizio.
A so-called Seneca. Ancient Roman bronze kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Click to enlarge and for credits

In Living to our Fullest Potential we wrote about Dario Bernazza‘s list of the 30 major issues we must necessarily solve in the best possible way in order to diminish life sufferings and live a fruitful life. After no. 1 in his list (Defining a purpose in life) we will here consider no. 2 and no. 3, namely:

2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul

Good health

According to Bernazza (I am summarizing freely) health is more precious than wealth or power. It is a prerequisite for a fruitful and happy life. “It is the condition without which the edifice of happiness cannot be built or, if it is already in place, its falling apart cannot be avoided”. Better to be an unknown man who is in good health, than being a successful man who is sick. Good health is a way of delaying old age and fighting back death.

We should abstain ourselves from intemperance and dissolute living, because the pleasure of wellbeing is by far greater than that of revels of any kind that will later make us sick and will endanger our health. Bernazza condones a few exceptions – as, it is my thought, our civilization always did: from Roman Saturnalia to modern Carnivals.

So here we can quote, since Bernazza doesn’t, the Roman poet Horace who teaches to “mingle a little folly with your wisdom: a little nonsense now and then is pleasant.”

Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:
Dulce est desipere in loco.

(Horace: 4 Odes, xii. 28.)

(Don’t know who translated Horace’s verses into English. Now and then makes good rhythm and is fine to me as a concept, but a better translation of in loco should be “at a proper time”.)

As a conclusion, a minimum advice from Bernazza on how to keep our good health: a walk at a good pace of 2-3 km every day in a park or green area.

Serenity of soul

Attaining serenity of soul is an effective weapon against life liabilities, namely all the sufferings that life inflicts upon us without mercy. But how can we attain it?

We first have to better understand life sufferings.

Physical sufferings can be diminished by taking care of our health, as we said before – argues Country Philosopher (this is how we like to call Dario Bernazza.)
As for psychical sufferings, some originate from the consequences of our bad choices, others from events we do not have control over, like the death of someone we love or people’s wicked actions.

As regards both types of suffering, to learn how to control nervous over excitability can be of great benefit, argues CP, and especially over excitability negative side, which is anger (the positive side of overexcitability being joy.) The less we get angry – and generally overemotional, in a negative sense -, the less we suffer. The more we get angry – and overemotional -, the more we suffer.

Well, is it possible to always avoid anger and nervous overexcitement?

Only the strictest stoics and the strictest oriental religious gurus deem it possible – argues CP. But that would mean to have the psyche of a corpse, which is not possible, unless we really are a corpse. What we can do is limiting our nervous overexcitement to such an extent that real negative overexcitement is not possible any more. “This means reaching a status of psychic calmness more or less unalterable, thence a substantial serenity of soul.”

It is an immense, invaluable benefit, it is clear – argues CP – because in this way we can highly diminish psychic sufferings which are the sufferings that mostly plague our life.

But how can we possibly attain this?

Exercise creates a habit

“Socrates – argues Bernazza – teaches us how: through exercise, since exercise creates a habit, any habit. And how long must this exercise last? Until the day we really get into the habit of not getting angry and overemotional any more. It is a long exercise and not an easy one and it cannot but last a few years.”

But, even if we fail and get now and then overemotional let us remember to never give up, this being highly important, since perseverance will certainly allow us to attain our positive result – there is no doubt about it, there is really no doubt (I told you CP keeps repeating this phrase.)

Note. As regards anger, Bernazza follows the tradition of the Greek and Roman philosophers who generally were in favour of self control and were hostile to anger. To Seneca and Galen uncontrolled anger was similar to madness. Anger to Seneca was useless, even in war. He praised the disciplined Roman armies who were capable of beating the Germans who were instead famous for their fury.

Ψ

PS
Following is a list of our writings on Dario Bernazza:

Country Philosopher
Ethical Confusion & Ancient Teachings
Assets and Liabilities in Life
Living to Our Fullest Potential
Health and Serenity of Soul
From Friendship to Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right

And here a post on anger (a bit on the ‘wild soliloquy’ side, I’ll admit):
Force & Anger. Ghosts in the Mind

Living to Our Fullest Potential

Living A Worthy Life

In “Vivere alla massima espressione” (Living to our fullest potential) Dario Bernazza provides a list of the major problems we have to solve in order to live a life “worthy of being lived”.

[Dario Bernazza, Vivere alla massima espressione, Editrice Partenone – Luciano Bernazza & C – Roma 1989]

It is the first of Bernazza’s books we stumbled upon and the reason we were first captured (and which kept us reading) was the fact that a similar list was handed over to us by our mentor since the first days of our encounter (above you can see The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787.)

Well, not that we think Bernazza is like Socrates. He though refers a lot to Socrates’ thought, plus certainly Magister, our mentor, was a bit like a Socrates to us.

When Suffering Exceeds Joy

Leaving memories behind and getting back to Country Philosopher‘s book (this is how we like to call Bernazza), we saw in an earlier post how there is like a balance in life.

If liabilities (sufferings) exceed the assets (every pleasant moment, satisfaction or success) our life is a failure (and it would be preferable not to have come into this world). If the contrary occurs, our life is happy and fruitful (or advantageous, as CP puts it).

Liabilities though are not avoidable and are inflicted on us without any mercy, while the assets are not given us as a gift, and we must earn them day by day, bit by bit.

How?

By providing the best possible solution to the major problems of our life. This is our only way of diverting or softening our life liabilities.

The Happiness List

Let us then look at these major issues which, according to CP, we must necessarily address in the best possible way. They are 20. Yes, 20. Exactly. Bernazza is always a bit categorical. Here is the list.

1. Defining a purpose in life
2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul
4. Friendship
5. Marriage
6. Children
7. Sex
8. Being reasonably well-off
9. Enjoyment, beauty and the exquisite
10. Loneliness, ennui and feeling of emptiness
11. Choice of studies, job, career
12. Choosing where to live
13. Our behaviour towards others
14. Embracing ‘good’ as an irreversible choice
15. Excess and vice
16. Being equipped with an adequate ethical instrumentation
17. Happiness is a long, sensible (and attainable) personal conquest
18. Will is power
19. Being convinced of the enormous power of honesty
20. The necessity of carefully planning our life

Since we cannot report on every single point of the list, only 2-3 points will be analysed (here and in future posts). As far as the rest, we will only touch upon the things that struck us most.

1. The Purpose of Life

Our life, like a long and complex journey, has to set its goal. So, which is this goal and how can we define it? The argumentation of CP is clear and simple (and probably naïve, but I cannot but feel some truth in it):
Since our life is the only chance of existing we have, after which we will disappear (CP is an agnostic who considers probable our annihilation after death), one should be really convinced that the most irreparable of errors is that of not trying our best to live to the highest possible degree. If our existence is nothing but a blink between two eternities (theories of modern physicists do not seem to interest CP) the purpose of life is necessarily that of living this sole life we have to our fullest potential.

Every single day must be lived to our best, and we must continuously improve this capacity of living to our fullest. This is why we should not ask ourselves – says CP – “why do I exist” (a question we can answer via the twisted efforts of our imagination only) but rather: “how do I exist?”.

The problem is that very few people know what is most convenient to us in our everyday choices, i.e. we do not know what actions shall bring us happiness or sorrow (this previous post discusses this point). If we knew – argues CP – the number of unhappy people around would be smaller. This is why learning how to solve the main problems of life (the list, again) will diminish our life’s liabilities and allow us to live in the best possible way.

Ψ

The discussion on Bernazza’s list is continued here:
Health and Serenity of Soul
From Friendship to Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right”

See also:
Assets and Liabilities in Life

Locking Horns with a Young Roman

Locking Horns. Fair use

In an earlier post we had said that our writings are finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue we carry out 1) within our mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with readers.

As far as point 2) since we are not important persons, hence not in a position to recreate at our place a circle with top intellectuals, this virtual Symposium is what is left to us.

Which involves a certain number of virtual guests, a virtual guest being “a quotation or just a reference to a book passage“. Id est, the ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: writing.

A Roman Warrior?

I was trying to explain this whole “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept to this young (and uncouth) Roman, some time ago.

We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, I really think it was worthwhile, beyond a doubt.

Here is therefore the conversation we had on this topic.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“What??? – said this 22-year-old dear student of mine while he was reading my method post. “How horribly dull this whole thing is! Just intellectual masturbation!”.

Romans are blunt, no doubt. Understatement has no home here.

Being hit by what he had said, I played it cool and replied:

” You are entirely wrong, and I’ll prove it to you. People usually think that the Internet was one of the greatest revolutions, allowing for example almost lightspeed communication or e-learning.”

“I know it too well cazzo“.

Being a web programmer trying to learn ‘Operating Systems’ from me he started raising his voice (he’s such a good boy but he can get pretty emotional.)

“We were talking about intellectual masturbation, what the f*** has this to do…”.

“Wait a moment– I snapped – what I do mean is we forget a much bigger revolution. We forget the invention of writing. And why was it a major breakthrough? Because it allowed for the first time storage of human knowledge (accounting, math, inventions, manuals, encyclopedias, thoughts etc.). Storage of knowledge: think of it, per Bacco! What the hell would they invent computers for, if writing wasn’t there??”

I realised my voice was rising too. I can get pretty emotional as well. I saw he was starting to be sort of conquered, but people in their twenties have endless energy.

“We were talking about a Symposium. Where are you aiming at prof, eh?”.

“Be patient, I am sticking to the point”. My voice was getting pretty authoritative (although he was right, of course.)

Stonehenge. Fair use

“We know nothing about Stonehenge people – I said firmly – or about who invented fire. From the day writing was invented in Mesopotamia we know all, or enough, of what has happened. This miracle started roughly from the end of the 4th millennium BC onward, in the region where today are Irak and Kuwait, huge hard disks and server farms being only a simple consequence of this.”

He was getting nervous, I clearly felt it.

“Here in the West first came volumina, rolls of papyrus or animal skin. Later, in the II century AD, appeared the books we all know. People could read and learn what other people had thought from different parts of the world, even from different eras. This was the revolution. A big one. Humanity boosted forward. Experiences added incrementally. Reading the works of Plato in ancient Rome was a sort of Distant Learning, although nobody called it that way.”

I made a pause. He was quiet now.

“Another great invention was then added, printing, making the whole thing explode. When we think that printing was only starting in 1450 AD, but that around 1500 AD 40,000 books were already produced and catalogued, we have an exact idea of the effects that a further big technological leap like printing had added in the context of human culture: during only 50 years, more books were produced than those created during the previous 2000 years! Of course the big thing was writing, not printing, though printing added a lot of fuel to the fire, boosting the whole process tremendously. Did you get what I mean boy?

He was not nervous any more, he was actually staring.

“The process could not be stopped – I continued implacable. Napoleon kept Caesar‘s De Bello Gallico (or Homer’s Iliad) on his bedside table and became every day a better general. I am reading Just for fun by Linus Torvalds and delving more and more into Linux, leaving Microsoft behind. I will never meet this Linus Torvalds superstar, but is it that important? He has already told me the essentials of his mind”.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

I made another pause. Longer this time. I perceived he had started reflecting so much though he was trying to hide his feelings to me. Mine was a dirty trick, of course, since I know he’s crazy about Linux, although it is true I have almost finished great Torvald’s book. I sort of perceived he was conquered. A seasoned teacher always knows when it happens.

After some silence he said:

“You mean your symposium is communication among minds thru books, beyond space and time?”

“Yes, Massimo, exactly. I talk to people this way. This is my Greek Symposium: having great (medium or even small) minds interact with mine.”

Massimo was still staring at me apparently conquered although I somewhat underestimated the tremendous force deriving from youth, exactly like the Romans felt the barbarians were conquered, but they were not. He in fact abruptly backfired, in a style typical of male competition: it is biological, but there’s affection in these games.

“You comparing yourself with Napoleon eh? This is not the point though. You know what excites me about this whole thing Prof ? You know what?” he said.

“Tell me Massimo”.

I was starting to get a bit worried, though my voice kept calm and controlled.

“Well, since I guess most of these people are dead, it is like you having intercourse with corpses or mummies, isn’t it, Prof. Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted, Prof, don’t you think? Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted ah ah ah”.

Sometimes people from villages around Rome or in Latium love to repeat things twice.

ψ

Gosh was I stunned (though amused, I’ll confess.) His laughing was so crass. Romans can be so terribly crass, to tell you the truth. Additionally, he said this in such vulgar Roman slang (a bit closer to Latin than Italian) I do not dare to translate it here.

I soon had to tolerate his laughing loudly again while he was leaving classroom (time for a break), together with his ancient malicious look, which sort of hid a feeling of sympathy, which I clearly felt, not many doubts about it, type of man-to-man thing.

Holy S***! This new generation of Italians! Besides, another CSI fan?

I hate CSI. I really do. It corrupts youth. There can be no doubt about it. There can really be no doubt.

Ψ

References. Antinucci, F. (1993) Summa Hypermedialis (per una teoria dell’ipermedia), in SISTEMI INTELLIGENTI / anno V, n. 2. (Francesco Antinucci is a valid Roman intellectual, psychologist and writer. We will talk about him again: see the post Books, Multimedia and E-learning)
Derry T.K. – Williams T.I., (1960), A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, Oxford (old though still an outstanding text on history of technology and its influences on human culture & education)

Guess What is Better than Prozac

Prozac. Fair use

An investigation by The Guardian, mentioned a couple of years ago by the Rome daily La Repubblica, revealed that many of its readers make use of books as tranquillizers, i.e. instead of antidepressants like Prozac etc. (I couldn’t find the original Guardian articles and I can’t read the author’s name – and date – of the Italian article).

Italians read little instead, argues La Repubblica, and when they are in a bad mood they switch on their TV set, with devastating effects. Then La Repubblica goes on saying that there are hot and cool media (probably distorting some of McLuhan’s concepts) i.e. “those [media] already baked and those you’ve got to bake yourself. Those where all is already represented and you can sit there and watch without adding anything, with no participation of yours (= TV, cinema); and those which need your brain in order to take shape, and need your imagination and collaboration, and if you provide this collaboration then you fly high breaking loose from the real world and totally forgetting yourself (= books)”.

“People who are not used to reading imagine this ability like a spell or esoteric exercise, which it is, in some way, since you have to start, then you have to open the book, read the first lines, then the following lines and so on and on until you forget you are reading. You are just inside the book story and out of your life story. It is a full antidepressant trip, while at each zap of your remote control, the consciousness of your unhappiness increases exponentially.”

PS
I find this reflection interesting, which of course doesn’t mean I do not like movies and other media, this is not the point. Although I know too well 80% of my (now obsessed) readers will not agree.

Italian version

The Most Unique is the Most Universal

Mr Sarvepalli RADHAKRISHAN

Days ago I was talking with a friend about this blog.

This guy is very sharp-minded and he is always looking north and west, ie always relating to Northern Europeans and to the USA while his attitude towards other regions of the world is not very open-minded in my view, to say the least.

I told him I of course liked the West too but my blog having like a will of its own it kind of brought me to the Far East and to an intense dialogue with the Indians and a few Chinese.

He said:

“How can you connect to your Roman roots while interacting all the time with the Indians & the Chinese, with folks so different from the Romans, the Italians and the Europeans? It is a contradictory behaviour.”

I tried to explain that if I am able to rediscover my heritage I am also able to bring a contribution to others who are diverse. I also said this process is two-ways, ie the same thing can happen at the other side of the dialogue.

He didn’t sound very convinced.

So I remembered a passage by a big Indian thinker. I wonder if this quote can help me to explain things a little further.

Ψ

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an Indian philosopher and statesman, argued in Living with a Purpose (Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1976, p. 9-10):

“Great classics of literature spring from profound depths in human experience. They come to us who live centuries later in vastly different conditions as the voice of our own experience. They release echoes within ourselves of what we never suspected was there.
The deeper one goes into one’s own experience
, facing destiny, fighting fate, or enjoying love, the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others in climes and ages.

**The most unique is the most universal.**

The dialogues of Buddha or of Plato, the dramas of Sophocles, the plays of Shakespeare are both national and universal.
The more profoundly they are rooted in historical traditions, the more uniquely do they know themselves and elicit powerful responses from others.
There is a timeless and spaceless quality about great classics.”

Kalidasa, Sanskrit great poet and dramatist, Kavikulaguru (Preceptor of All Poets)
Kalidasa, national & universal

Kalidasa is the great representative of India’s spirit, grace and genius. The Indian national consciousness is the base from which his works grow. Kalidasa has absorbed India’s cultural heritage, made it his own, enriched it, given it universal scope and significance. Its spiritual directions, its political forms and economic arrangements, all find utterance in fresh, vital, shining phrases.

We find in his works at their best, simple dignity of language, precision of phrase, classical taste, cultivated judgement, intense poetic sensibility and fusion of thought and feeling …. his works belong to the literature of the world. Humanity recognizes itself in them though they deal with Indian themes. In India Kalidasa is recognized as the greatest poet and dramatist in Sanskrit literature … Tradition associates Kalidasa with King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini who founded the Vikrama era of 57 B.C.”

[all font emphasis is from MoR, not from the original text]

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Note. I am happy I could retrieve this passage. Radhakrishan has been my Indian mentor in some way since my very first trip to India [occurred a long time ago to say the truth.]

A great author and an excellent bridge, it has been said, between Eastern and Western thought. In Wikipedia I read “he wrote books on Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, and made Indian philosophy worthy of serious consideration in the West”. A western-centric statement possibly but much to the point.

What I mean is that Radhakrishan’s inspired words (he belonging to the great generation that built the Indian nation) can further explain and somewhat be linked to a few ideas expressed in this blog plus elucidate the apparent contradiction my friend told me about.

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Allow me some ‘idea linking’ now.

1) In my very first post I had written:

“I hope on comments from Western and non-Western people, since Rome and the Romans have a mediation nature that comes from the Mediterranean.” […]
“It is a great privilege to be born and be raised here [in Rome]… to the extent that something must have penetrated, something peculiar and worth to be transmitted, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.” […]
“In this blog fragments of this special [Roman] identity are inserted in a bottle and sent through the WWW…” […]

2) In xntricpundits‘ valuable blog (now erased by WordPress I don’t know why) I was attracted by this quote by Jiddu Krishnamurthy:

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind … a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system…he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

I commented: “Violence is horrible but to me humanity is too abstract: all of us have roots, how can we forget them? I am writing here not because you are just mankind, but because you are Indian …”. Of course J. Krishnamurti’s passage was focusing on how to tackle violence engendered by diversity.

3) In another post I had underlined the importance of reading good books and of how classics of literature can be our best companions. In Poonam’s blog (a good place where, among the rest, she fights against wrongs in India, like the exploitation of untouchables) I had with horrible prolixity commented on a long list of books she had provided (How Many Books Have You Read? ) and I had made a comparison between Joyce and Dante. This guy (or woman?) told me: “It is unfair on your part to compare two authors of different eras …”.

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Poonam’s posts – the said one and others – have a lot of discussion. Ashish’s posts as well (meet such a great commentator of this blog at the discussion area below.)

I wish to both really all the best since they are a good example of how the young are constructing India’s future.

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Conosci te stesso, Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Nosce te ipsum. Pitagora, Apollo (e Hegel)