“… sicilianized, enigmatic, elusive Italy, difficult to be synthesized into something consistent. Differently from other great countries (France, England, Spain) Italy doesn’t possess a real national unity nor is helped in this by a wide-fresco Italian literature [that could provide an overall picture of what we are, MoR].”
To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:
“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …
Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.
A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.
To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.
“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”
Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.
Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”
Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”
Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).
But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.
Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”
Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.
Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.
Roman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative,Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)
We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”
Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.
Montaigne adds a moving example:
“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”
Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)
“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.
He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.
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.”]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“Whenever anyone had mentioned the possibility of making a film adaptation [of my most famous book] my answer had always been ‘No, I’m not interested’. I believe that each reader creates his own film inside his head, gives faces to the characters, contructs every scene, hears the voices, smells the smells. And that is why whenever a reader goes to see a film based on a novel that he likes, he leaves feeling disappointed, saying: ‘The book is so much better than the film’.
In our post Guess what is better than Prozac we had stressed how reading can be a deep experience sometimes providing a full antidepressant trip, while, when we are in a bad mood and we switch on our TV, “at each zap of our remote control the consciousness of our unhappiness exponentially increases.”
This reflection had stirred some discussion with readers regarding the differences among books, movies and multimedia: Ashish, Poonam and Falcon from India; plus AutumnSnow from China.
In our blog and in Poonam’s we had also debated about movies and books. Poonam is also presenting a nice list of the top movies of 2007 (part 1 and 2), in case you are interested in knowing India’s cinema better, plus an extensive list of books as well.
Regarding multimedia and its educational effectiveness, I had said that I am not automatically in favour of books, since in some cases multimedia education can provide better results. The problem is to understand when and why multimedia is more effective than traditional media. By multimedia we mean a type of communication that combines text, audio, still images, animation, video, and interactivity, at various degrees.
I will thus refer to some research I did in 2000 when I was requested to deliver some courses on Web education basics to some Russian teachers who were skilled only in book-based education.
On that occasion I wrote a little booklet with the aim of providing them with some information about e-learning systems basics. The intent was also that of convincing them (and myself) that multimedia was an excellent tool if inserted here and there judiciously.
KS and CS.
When Learning is Smoothed Away
How can we effectively communicate our ideas to students? – I argued. Which are the best models for linking web pages to one another and how can multimedia help? We here need some concepts from the instructional communication theory such as cognitive psychologists conceive it.
According to the cognitive theory, there is a relationship between what you have to say (content) and the mode of your communication; i.e. between the knowledge structure(KS) of content and the communication structure (CS) you choose to (re)present this content to others (Antinucci F., 1993, Summa Hypermedialis – Per una teoria dell’ipermedia, in SISTEMI INTELLIGENTI / anno V, n. 2.)
I. KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURE
Examples of KS’s may be the teacher’s mental representation of:
a biological organism
a story or facts in a sequence
a computer operating system
the functioning of a car engine.
KS is a structure of concepts and information, which are interrelated. Micro KS’s are encapsulated into larger KS’s, so as to shape a person’s world view, or general KS (similar to the Weltanschaung conceived by the German philosophers). Thus, the main goal of teaching is not that of having students memorize data. It is that of modifying and enriching students’ knowledge structures or KS’s, which is the way they represent the world – or sections of it – to themselves.
II. COMMUNICATION STRUCTURE
Examples of CS’s may be:
a multimedia CD-ROM
a video game
a hyper textual and/or hyper medial Web site.
CS is a medium, like voice or a book, or a combination of media, like text + hyper-text + sound + images + animations + videos. CSs allow communication between the teachers’ and the learners’ Kss.
Unfortunately, there is no possible direct physical connection between KS’s. We have to pass through a CS, that is a communication system.
Scientists are studying ways of connecting human brains to computers and translate the information they contain into bits; after which, from computers, in a reversed process, they are trying ways of transferring everything back into other people’s brains. However weird (or horrifying) this perspective may seem, it may mean that learning in the future could be effortless. At present, we cannot but communicate via a CS, in a process similar to this:
The more encoding and decoding it takes 1) to translate a KS into a CS by the teacher and 2) to re-translate this CS back into a KS by the learners, the harder the process of instruction is (for both the teacher and the learners.)
Which means that:
If KS’s and CS’s are similar (isomorphic) the teaching/learning process is smoother, more natural and intuitive
If KS’s and CS’s on the contrary are dissimilar (allomorphic), the teaching/learning process is more difficult (Antinucci F, 1993)
Facts in temporal sequence (history, a narration etc.) are naturally linear and time lined. In this case a book or the human speech, which are also by nature linear and time lined, are very apt CS’s, being here KS and CS isomorphic.
On the other hand, writing a book on the functioning of the human organism is a more complex task. A medium like a book (CS) is in fact allomorphic vis-à-vis a biological organism. A biological organism is a system, non-linear and non-temporal (not considering its development). Hence it requires a lot of work for translating its relative KS into a linear temporal CS.
Everyone who has written a manual or a book knows this. We too, writing this paper – we argued – are experiencing the difficulty of sequencing in linear form a knowledge structure (KS) that is non linear by itself – eg being made of the several non-temporal interrelated elements that make up the distant learning system we are trying to explain. Therefore, since KS (a DL system) and CS (this linear paper) are allomorphic, the process of conversion is not without effort.
KS and CS are
Tighter with Multimedia
This relationship between KS and CS, usually very loose, since the preferred instructional medium has always been the book (except for the special case of narration), can become tighter with hyper textual and hyper media web sites, with Multimedia CD-ROMs or with educational video-games, since these new media are totally free from a predefined communication structure (CS). This is usually not the case of a book or a lecture delivered by the human speech (or via e-mails in a virtual classroom context), which are forcefully linear.
Note 1. The linear approach comes from speech and writing, which are linear by nature and follow a progression in time. The linear approach in teaching and learning saw its triumph with the revolution of printing, which allowed an enormous diffusion of books at a low cost. It was the birth of the school we have today, based on books. Before this great innovation, a book cost the equivalent of today 15,000 US $, which totally impeded a learning model based on books on a large scale. Learning and skills were hence handed down from masters to apprentices, in shops, generation after generation, using experience and live example more than logical linear thought (Antinucci, F., 1993; Derry T.K. – Williams T.I., 1960,A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, Oxford ; Parisi, D., 2000, Scuol@.it, Mondadori, Milano).
New media instead are not naturally forced into a linear type of communication, which goes from A to Z, in a logical progression. New media can be non-linear. They can manipulate links and ideas, images, symbolic 3D models and can produce interactive simulations so as to express, in intuitive ways, what books and speech can express using hundreds of words.
Note 2. See classic computer games like SimCity, The Sims, Microsoft Flight Simulator etc. They allow new types of non-linear interactive learning based not any more on logical speech or logical writing, but based on interactive experience, similar again to the experience the apprentice had in the medieval shop (Antinucci, F., 1999; Parisi, D., 2000).
As a conclusion, teachers who have to translate a book into an on-line course and/or into a multimedia product must consider this cognitive perspective. In the process of adapting a book into an e-learning product many choices are possible. Therefore a deeper understanding of the mechanisms implied in the learning process can be of help when we plan for example an educational Web site, the structure of its links and pages, the animations and multimedia presentations in it.
This will influence the final educational product and will determine its success with learners.
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 virtualSymposium 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.
“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.)
“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”.
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.
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.
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)
Before getting to the killers let us be patient and consider the concept of literary improvisation. I know I am terribly boring but I promise a lot of blood blood blood in this post – plus the relationship between literature and social life being complex we’ll have to wander a bit before we finally dive into base butchery 😉 .
Literary improvisation is not far from musical improvisation, a topic we have talked about in a previous post. We will not define the concept, being it self-explanatory.
(Can James Joyce’s stream of consciousness be in some way related to what we have said above – literary improvisation, not base butchery, in case you don’t get it wrong 😉 ? Hard to say. I don’t believe it to be very far from it. It is to be noted though that writers at times cleverly build what seems spontaneous, and in literature what counts is the final result: things do work or they do not).
Connecting literary improvisation with digression we will mention again that nice passage by J. D. Salinger where Holden, the adolescent protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, narrates how he had to undergo the oral expression lesson which consisted in letting a student speak of any topic, and each time the student didn’t stick to the point all the boys in class had to yell “Digression!!” at him (you can read this passage in a former post of ours). Holden instead liked speeches full of digressions and the novel itself, if not very similar in its structure to the above said stream of consciousness, is nonetheless so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined and even disturbed (Holden is disturbed in some way) although so vivacious and sparkling.
(Here again everything seems spontaneous and improvised but I am sure Salinger’s text resulted from a good mixture of intuition and clever construction).
Salinger’s novel has been a classic not only of the American literature (and his language is present in most dictionaries of US slang) but it has inspired the beat generation as well as numerous drop-outs who joined the utopian movements of the 1960s up to the present day.
Personally I read it by mere chance when I was 18 (I had it in inheritance from a boy who was leaving an apartment we shared in Ireland) and I was deeply impressed by it. Coming just out of adolescence I probably recognized in there plenty of the insecurities I was living in those days. But young Holden went beyond, to the extent of almost hating all the surrounding world and it was a bit worrying for people (like me), who enjoyed the book so much, to read on newspapers that David Chapman, the person “who assassinated John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter.” Also “John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.” (From Wikipedia: The Catcher in the Rye).
Well, that doesn’t mean that the novel is murder inspiring though certainly by effectively describing the difficulties of a tormented adolescence it is not illogical that some disturbed individual identified himself with the Holden character, finding comfort and inspiration in it and thus feeding his vision against everything and everybody (and refusing to stick to the point naturally becomes a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline).
However, also the non psychopath teenager identified himself/herself with Salinger’s character. So the novel became a classic for an entire generation, whether protesting against order and law or not, since adolescence is a more or less difficult period for everyone.
There is, we repeat, a subtle link between digression and the previously mentioned themes of utopia & musical improvisation. Digression as well, going against rationality, can in fact lead to inconclusiveness, i.e. to nowhere, thus unstructuring the logic of discourse – utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’.
Improvisation has been a myth of the counterculture of my generation and of the generations who followed. The idea of improvisation in art (music, literature, theatre etc.) is somewhat connected to social behaviours appeared in the counterculture of the last 50 years. A relationship, in fact, between mental and social anarchy cannot in my view be denied (like I guess it cannot be denied that there is some relationship between the crystalline clarity of Julius Caesar’s writings and his rational conduct and self-control, of which you can read something in this post of ours as well).
It is simple, after all. Facts (and history) are created by people. And people have a mind. Thence there are connections between what we think, read, write and do, whether in our social environment or in art.
[We are not anarchic and we do not belong to the counter-culture – although for a couple of years we sorta did, but that was a long time ago. As evidence of my words, we try in this blog to find inspiration from our ancient philosophies, which exalted wisdom, rationality and self control. Only ….
Things are not in black and white,
the hues of grey (and colours)
being infinite …
Forgive my horrible English poems, it’s one of my manias].
“I cannot understand Shakespeare because in absolute asymmetry I want to find symmetry. It seems to me that his plays are huge sketches, not finished paintings, roughed out by one who, so to say, can afford to do anything. I can understand those who admire his art and call it the most sublime, but I don’t like it. I can then understand those who are left speechless in front of his plays, although it looks to me we misunderstand Shakespeare when we admire him in the same way for example Beethoven is admired.”
[Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1977 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Translation by ManofRoma]
Shakespeare and the Continent
While Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein ( 1889 – 1951 ) laments a lack of symmetry in Shakespeare’s art, it is well known how French Voltaire ( 1694 – 1778 ) commented on Hamlet and his author (the French original text first, then a translation by Man of Roma):
“Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d’ Hamlet: c’est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l’Italie. […] On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l’imagination d’un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd’hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu’on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable.” (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire. Vol. IV. Paris, Garnier Freres, 1877-85. 501-502.)
“I am certainly very far from justifying in all Hamlet’s tragedy: it is an unrefined and barbarous play, that would not be tolerated by the meanest populace of France and Italy. We would believe that this work isthe fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But among all theseunrefined irregularities, which to this day make the English theater so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, by a yet greater oddity, sublime elements worthy of the greatest geniuses. It seems like nature had delight in collecting within Shakespeare’s head all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, together with what rudeness deprived of wit can contain of what is lowest and most repulsive”.
I will just add a note, the relationship between ‘the structure of a work of art’ and ‘the structure of the world’ seeming too complex a topic here. First of all I personally adore both Shakespeare and a lot of English poetry (it’s been a drug for me for really many years) although in my view – the view of a passionate dilettante – impeccably polished and musical English verses came out only from Alexander Pope on. What I mean is that this infallible taste for perfectly refined verses, which Latin writers (Italian, French etc.) seem to have almost innate but which originates from hard work as well, was attained by English and British poets only at a later time; or so it seems to me, problem probably being the pronunciation of some words changing over time which makes a few or numerous verses – even of John Milton, for example – poor in rhythm. This observation should be checked.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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 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]
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.
“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…” […]
“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 …”.
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.
‘Country Philosopher’ has been mentioned often in this blog so it is time I introduce him to readers.
His name is Dario Bernazza and what amazed me the day I read one of his books is the fact that he makes use of reason in the way the Ancients did, as if later thought almost didn’t exist.
Free from doubt, he has total faith in the absolute power of rationality and his philosophical manner is natural and naïve. He applies his ancient-like method to both big issues – the existence of God or how we can reach happiness – (see Vivere alla massima espressione) – and everyday problems, in an effort to provide answers to our contemporary void by making use of techniques similar to those utilized by Epicurean and Stoic thinkers 2000 years ago (see his image below, the best I could find to date.)
Therefore, with all due respect to professional philosophers like Fernando Savater (who will probably be invited to our Symposium,) Bernazza will be here as well though with caution, having a few flaws in my opinion, last but not least the tendency to manipulate or influence readers a bit.
The Jap Soldier in the Jungle
Bizarre example of philosophical genuineness – and cultural isolation as well, which kind of preserved him – Country Philosopher is the Japanese soldier who keeps on fighting in the jungle since ages, having no other weapon than his argumentation and being almost unaware of the fact that the times of Socrates, Plato or Zeno of Citium are no more.
CP is a survivor of the classical world.
That all this could happen is both romantic & tragic. And perhaps in no place other than this – the countryside around Rome, (Priverno, Latina), or in the Mezzogiorno – a person like him could spring.
Living Fossils of Antiquity
How many are the Italian country intellectuals? Sparse over the territory they publish their works with their own money by using small local publishing houses and having no great number of readers (the Web didn’t exist at the time of CP.)
This phenomenon is not exclusively Italian.
Here though 1) historical layers are extremely rich and 2) an important part of the classical world originated in this country, which allows us to legitimately speak of living fossils of Antiquity.
In some way, in the Central and especially South regions of Italia, many of us are like fossils, with all the inadequacies towards modernity that this may imply (corrupt patronage systems, amoral familism, clientelism etc.). We retain good qualities as well, which are not dried up yet, I do hope.
The better part of our tradition should be revalued. In the present crisis of the West, due to a great uncertainty regarding our fundamental values, these cultural fragments of the classical world – such as philosophy replacing religion to provide full meanings in life etc. – should be re-examined and updated.
We need to achieve – at a high culture level – what has already been done with peasants’ cultures at a folklore level – for example in Latium and Campania, where, recently rediscovered and re-performed ancient folk dances and tunes, reveal fascinating residues of the rites of Dionysus, among the rest.
A type of research which is actually on the way. The Festival of philosophy in Modena for example (see picture below) has been a great success with 120 thousand presences during only 3 days last year and a seventh successful 3-days edition which ended this last September 16 2007. This formula, thanks to contributions of the European Community, has been exported to both France and the Czech Republic.
As a conclusion, the great philosophers of all times can certainly guide us towards a more meaningful life, beyond any doubt. Nonetheless, these living fossils surviving in niches of a forgotten sea – of lesser value and possibly deteriorated, like prehistoric sequences of DNA – represent survivals of a past that keeps on talking to us.
They keep the fascination of our knotty olive wood, of our scented myrtle, or of the bright yellow of our ginestras.
And they mean something to us which, in spite of all, we cannot but be proud of.
The method of this blog is finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics (διαλεκτική ) possibly invented by Socrates and Plato something like 2,400 years ago.
[2014 update : much earlier, and not only in the West; see Indian dialetic]
As far as we know dialectics is primarily based on thought discussing with itself in an effort to reach constantly better conceptions, such inner dialogue being though not obvious here since what readers actually get is just a sequence of apparently unrelated writings.
The point is our posts are connected by mental links, and writings and ideas within them bounce on one another in quick or lazy succession, thus answering, contradicting, integrating one another and now and then considering previous-post themes from different angles or even entirely diverse views.
What’s more, in the context of one single post, questions and answers or different opinions can at times coexist, this conflict/dialogue being actually the core of ancient dialectics.
A further layer of complexity – as we havesaid before – is provided by the delectable game of free associations, which, pleasant or not, is part of our inborn cognitive style.
Risk of Bewitching Chaos
Thought in progress, we believe, is a better self-improvement tool than finished and sedentary conclusions. The risk here is chaos, or irrationality. We hope though to attain some consistency:
a. because of the nature of dialectics itself, tending from heterogeneity towards unity (see Dialectics 3);
b. because our ideas are not thrown down at random, links among them being stimulated by inner themes we have been meditating in the years and presumably of biographical origin;
c. because almost all our interests have come (though changing over time) from an sudden germination.
We are referring to a crucial encounter that took place in Rome, 35 years ago (see Dialectics 3).
Dialogue Among Minds
Now, reason discussing with itself doesn’t exclude dialogue with others, since dialectic sees in fertile dialogue among thinking people the highest expression of cognitive exploration.
We have conversed with people of any cultural level, even a few top brains, their ideas interacting with ours in many ways. Plus we digest tons of debates in the media.
In any case, however we put it, we cannot have what Socrates or Plato had. Being not big shots of thought we cannot invite to dinner the great intellectuals of our time on a weekly, monthly or even quarterly basis. What an awful stress it would be (we are reserved,) although, let’s be frank, it’s not that they wouldn’t accept, it’s just they wouldn’t even notice we are inviting them.
[And how silly to even think of having what Socrates or Plato had. Today even top think-tank people cannot enjoy those sublime, holistic symposiums, for the simple reason that knowledge today is too massive and appallingly – though necessarily – specialized.]
So, not being able to recreate a circle with big intellectuals, this virtual Symposiumis what is left to us. It involves a certain number of ‘virtual guests.’
A virtual guest is a quotation or just a reference to a book passage. This is exactly what we mean by a virtual guest. The ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: Writing.
Read how this young (and uncouth) Roman helps me explain this “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept. We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, we think it was worthwhile.
Quotes and Text Authority
“What are you talking about – argues Arthur Schopenhauer – quoting is copying other people’s ideas”.
Well, it can be, but my quoting is different. First of all it is the feedback and interaction with a writer’s ideas, as I said. I don’t see any copying in confrontation of ideas towards a richer knowledge.
There’s another thing though, personal this time. Take Braudel: “Great civilisation never die”. Or Augias-Zola: “Was Rome ever Christian?”. These were things inside of me since a long time and lurking their way out, i.e. trying to be expressed in clear words. I mean, when I quote an author it is often because he/she can better express what I had already felt but not verbally formulated, hence not totally clarified yet. It is a verbalization of intuitions I ask others to help me bring out. When I’m reading, I’m often struck by something. It’s cannibalism, or autism – a friend once told me. Well, I don’t really know, readers, I am not kidding.
One thing I though know is I hateexegesis of texts, a plague in Italian and foreign universities. What they call research over here is nothing but this totally moronic self-referential game of he-said-she-said, research and exams regarding “only what another earlier authority thought” (quote from John Brockman.) I really do hate exegeses, and most of the time I invoke the authority of nobody. I can invoke the big heros of thought like Goethe, and honour them as virtual guests in my living room, as a guarantee of non superficiality at least.
But my quotations can be derived from Dante, Plutarch, Dan Brown, Bugs Bunny or Homer (Simpson, lol). No matter their origin, they are interesting to me to the extent that they clarify lumpy mind stuff still at an intuition stage (= not translated into logos = reason = words). This lumpy mind stuff, well, keeps bugging me and asking to pls be let out of its irrational status.
Thus being said, it is high time we introduce this great Roman to you. Since from the day this crucial encounter took place our life changed completely, the present blog is dedicated to him.
It is dedicated to our beloved mentor, or Magister, writer, philosopher, outstanding educator.
Maybe some readers are expecting him, so here he comes. Welcome, Magister!
Dialectics 3. Magister.
The Manifold longing for Unity
My ideas started fermenting the day I encountered Magister 35 years ago. It was a rainy day. Rome is so smelly when it rains. I went to this place where he delivered lectures, close to the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. He was already very old, with long white hair and beard, eyes penetrating. Italy was all a huge debate in the roaring 1970s (I am listening to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album to relive the feel of those days.)
Magister talked softly most of the time, the silence of the audience being absolute, even embarrassing at times. When he though got angry his voice became like thunder almost, eyes flashing.
I will never forget him. I was an ugly duckling when I met him. Not that he made a swan out of me, lol, but he taught me much, basically by having me understand I had the means to be a free man by just making use of my mind and will.
I do not know if I was a good pupil.
I left family to find my fortune. Unfortunate are the young who never find magistri.
I won’t reveal his identity – not that he would mind, he being no more, his ashes scattered somewhere in this eternal city he loved so much. I adored him and I was not the only one to cry over his ashes. There are reasons for not revealing his identity.
What I can say is just repeating this: to him I really owe a lot. Last but not least this love for knowledge, this curiosity or craving, don’t know how to phrase it – this chilly charming language being so difficult for a non mother-tongue.
I mean, this cultural hedonism which tends to auto-organization and which in defiance of age is constantly growing instead of abandoning my soul (cultural = related to knowledge, as people in France, Spain, Italy mean it).
Plus, of course, I owe him this dialectic method.
From that day this process of spontaneous philosophy started going through alternate phases though basically it never stopped (well, almost never.)
Not a big deal, after all. Magister was a disciplined intellectual while I was too whimsical, too eclectic. I (re)turned to music, failing in this economically. I hence turned to high-school teaching and freelance journalism, which proved one of the best things I ever did in my life (teaching), while journalism being somewhat superficial to my taste it basically turned to be good training for writing (plus it taught me that success, even a tiny bit, is a powerful drug.)
Ok, journalism despite a bit of glory produced zero money. And teaching, well, teachers in this country are among the worst paid, the Italian ruling class caring about keeping power mostly and being not much interested in instructing the common people – who might understand how they are manipulated by all parties, left and right, and by the mass-media.
This is why I finally turned to computer engineering, which produced more money but also gave a bit of a blow to this spontaneous philosophical process. Or maybe not?
“Ok, this story about Magister is moving, your failures a bit less, being pathetic. Don’t you realise you are a digression maniac not sticking to the point and forgetting about dialectics and its tendency towards unity?”
No, I didn’t forget my point. The encounter with Magister in fact (and the sudden germination it produced) might hopefully help me to fulfill this longing for some unity which after all is the ultimate goal of any dialectics.
In other words, dear dear Magister, this imprinting I owe you makes me hope this quirky research of mine could somehow be fulfilled.
Life is a comedy, not a tragedy.
Dialogue with readers
We know too well our topics are too heavy for the common reader while too unsophisticated for the happy few. Unfortunately the interests of readers are flocking towards entertainment, actors, gossip. So how many hits will I have? Very little. Not that I care much – well, I do a bit, but not so much. I am doing this just for fun, as Linus Torvalds said in his book about Linux.
And it’s such great fun, believe me, this philosophical folly!
Although, do not take me too seriously, please. Life is a comedy, not a tragedy, it shouldn’t be zu schwer, too grave (well, it is better to see it this way. Watch Benigni’sLa vita è bella. Life is beautiful, or at least it could always be if we make use of will and imagination.
The autumn of life is a phase one should 1) do lots of sports and 2) use one’s brain extensively to keep it fit. And here, it is my opinion and personal taste, humanities & holistic thought, rather than specialised thought, are much much better for rewiring one’s synapses.
Wait, I forgot the completion element of blog dialectics:readers’ comments!
Hits might be negligible, but a few readers are arriving. The intriguing Indians came first, so unpredictable (since the Far East is really far.) Then one ex student of mine from USA, a great and totally eccentric guy living in Rome and who left one comment on my very first post. One Chinese woman too. China! She talked about mysterious things like vowels in Mandarin and Cantonese. A sweet person rich in emotions, which contradicts what many Italians think of the Chinese people, aliens with marble faces. Finally one first Italian guy (!), Massimo from Viterbo. That area is north of Rome but still in Latium, where the Etruscans lived and met the Romans. Might be promising.
In the end this blogging mixes up my ideas, authors’ ideas and readers’ ideas. [Plato’s dialectics? Yes, though revised a bit.]
Now be patient enough to listen to Man of Roma’s (delirious?) conclusion …
Dinners on a Roman Terrace.
Let us have fun!
Let us have fun, my delectable guests. Let us imagine we are in early summer when the evening sea breeze, or ponentino, is delightful. I’m inviting you all from every country, era space, location. I am inviting you ALL to this imaginary Roman terrace, overlooking the eternal city‘s glorious skyline.
Rome (loose woman and she-wolf) is watching attentive. Is she smiling?
Dinner after dinner, amid flowers perfumed and smells 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 diverse, and their gods, and their creeds, and philosophies and manners …
Right here, dear 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 needed guest, of course) and plenty of good wine and, no real objection to a pot of beer (or cervesia), once in a while.
Playing being simple, playing being easy. All it takes is good food, good music and treasured company most of all!
While I was writing, music and red vino di Montalcino were helping me to fly high.
To a Chinese IT student. “I am glad to hear that you like reading. Of course I agree on the great fun and sometimes consolation power of reading. As you have noticed, my house is packed with books. I actually consider serious reading a pretty good substitute for religion and meditation. It is a spiritual activity that can add some depth to our everyday life. I get consolation from reading books that I find special, I get also meditation from books that make me think and/or move my emotions.
Consolation and meditation usually people find in religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam etc. Especially Far-Eastern religions teach us how to meditate, but I usually do this with books that are important or special to me. These books I sometimes read out very slowly, concentrating on every single word and sentence, or I meditate on what I read in the silence of my mind.
The books that are special can differ according to who is reading them. I find special those books written by people whose minds are somewhat consonant with mine and more powerful than mine, thence capable of helping me in some way. Since I am not a VIP of thought and cannot directly converse with today’s top brains I build up my own Platonic symposium with good books.
Why, you ask, don’t you ever meet important and highly thinking people? Well, sometimes I do, but not so often, it’s not easy to meet them, plus I’m reserved, plus they’re so intelligent they might find me not interesting, or stupid; I know there are intelligent Tv debates and conferences, but I am talking about intimacy and continuous mind communication.
So I like many sorts of books and I read lots of them. Classics are though my favourites and I mentally hold intercourse with them. I adore classics. They are my lymph. They are my religion (literally lol). They resisted time. They are regarded as beneficial and/or fascinating even though decades or centuries (or thousands of years) have passed. Time is a merciless darwinian selector. I really doubt that Dan Brown’s books will be read in the centuries ahead.
Dan Brown & J.D. Salinger
Incidentally, if you like American culture (as much as I do, though it is getting too superficial) “The Catcher in the rye” by J.D. Salinger is a great little classic written by an intelligent, gifted person. I had the luck to read it in the original when I was 18. I was in Dublin at that time attending a summer English school, and this Swedish boy I was sharing the house with was about to leave. He left this book to me he had just read saying “It is full of sex and slang”, which of course made my resolution to read it rocklike. It might not be special to you. Some American people find it boring because they are obliged to study it at school. But you are Chinese.
Dan Brown‘s books are good thrillers in my view though a little bit too entertainment-oriented (in the negative sense: nothing wrong with entertainment), even if they talk about interesting things, history, religion, lots of technology and today’s stuff like NSA – a sort of IT CIA – NASA, the Vatican, which on the whole is fine, but the thing is he’s in my view making money by morally subjugating the reader with his pseudo-theories.
I am not religious but I find it ridiculous (and depressing) that some people have lost their religious faith because of his books. And it is revealing of the fact that void rules.
You told me about the low percentage of Italians who speak English. It is sadly true. We are animals in this field (animals in the negative sense: nothing wrong with being an animal,) concentrated exclusively on our culture and petty politics, though something is changing.