Solitudine, positiva e negativa

Oggi parleremo della solitudine con pensieri sparsi qua e là. Solitudine in italiano ha un significato neutro, significa semplicemente lo stare da soli. Cominciamo dunque il nostro viaggio.

Può in effetti la solitudine essere positiva? In un mondo in cui i single aumentano non sembra una domanda così campata in aria. Beh, si dovrebbe prima sapere se chi vive senza un partner (il che non implica ovviamente il ritiro dalla società) sia single per scelta o no.

Comunque si vedono persone che riescono a vivere una vita positiva e dignitosa da soli mentre altre semplicemente non ce la fanno. È come se ci fosse una solitudine creativa e una solitudine distruttiva. Argomento complicato (e interessante), in ogni caso.

Il simbolo dell’estrema solitudine mi sembra l’eremita, una persona che si confina in un eremo. Nikos Kazantzakis visitò vari eremi dove i monaci vivevano in solitudine e notò che alcuni sembravano sereni mentre altri erano come distrutti dall’isolamento. Non erano più esseri umani. Erano delle larve. Era come se il loro cervello venisse digerito dai suoi stessi succhi.

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Beh, la solitudine esercita un suo fascino su di me, non c’è dubbio. Potrebbe essere un’inclinazione, potrebbe essere il mito dell’autosufficienza, il mito del saggio dell’antichità che ha dentro di sé tutto ciò di cui ha bisogno, del vecchio saggio che possiede “beni inaffondabili nella sua anima che possono fluttuare e salvarsi da ogni naufragio”, come diceva Antistene. Ci racconta Seneca che Stilpone di Megara, un filosofo socratico, perse la famiglia e tutti i beni e a chi gli chiese se ne aveva sofferto rispose: “Assolutamente no”.

(Michel de Montaigne I: 39. Della solitudine, dove abbiamo trovato ispirazione e citazioni, anche se abbiamo preso strade diverse).

Una forza disumana, direi, quella di questo Stilpone, e se nell’antichità questi casi erano citati come esempi vuol dire che erano assai rari e comunque erano relativi a minoranze di superuomini appartenenti alle classi privilegiate.

In ogni caso anche se ho scelto di vivere non da solo la solitudine mi affascina e questo è probabilmente anche il motivo per cui mi intriga un Montaigne che nel 1571 si ritira dalla vita pubblica per vivere nella torre del suo castello dove aveva una biblioteca di 1.500 libri. Lì scrisse tutte le sue stupende riflessioni sembrando a lui che il più grande favore che poteva fare alla sua mente “era quello di lasciarla in completo ozio, a prendersi cura di sé stessa, preoccupata solo di sé stessa, pensando tranquillamente sé stessa”.

In quel luogo si lasciò andare alla danza dei pensieri e si preoccupò solo di tale danza, il che può essere in verità una cosa molto pericolosa.

Penso che Montaigne abbia intuito questo pericolo poiché scrisse che la nostra mente è come un giardino con migliaia di diverse erbacce che dobbiamo soggiogare “con semi appositamente seminati per il nostro servizio”, poiché “quando l’anima è senza un preciso obiettivo si perde”: essere ovunque è come non essere in nessun luogo (I: 8. Dell’ozio).

In altre parole, aggiungerei, un buon aiuto per far sì che la solitudine diventi positiva può esser quello di porsi dei progetti, degli obiettivi. Pare in effetti che le persone le quali, una volta lasciato il lavoro, vivono nella totale inerzia muoiono prima e/o sono colte da disturbi psichici.

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Ci sono persone che dicono:

“Ma insomma, questa favola della solitudine, ma che significa? L’amore, l’affetto e la compagnia non sono sempre meglio del vivere soli?”.

Beh, sicuramente. Un mentore diceva che dobbiamo lottare contro gli impulsi antisociali che sono in noi. Posso esser d’accordo, ma molte cose si raggiungono solo se ci ritiriamo nel nostro guscio: scrivere, leggere, comporre musica, meditare ecc., tutte cose sulla cui positività c’è un consenso unanime.

La solitudine poi deve essere una libera scelta. Se siamo spesso soli perché abbiamo paura degli altri, se ci isoliamo per complessi o per qualsiasi altro possibile sentimento di inadeguatezza, questo rientra nell’ambito di quei citati impulsi antisociali contro i quali dobbiamo combattere.

 

Tagliare ogni legame

Vivere da soli può essere inoltre associato all’idea di una partenza da tutto, all’idea di tagliare qualsiasi legame che abbiamo. Ecco che ritorna l’archetipo del saggio (Jung), del saggio che lascia la famiglia e gli amici per intraprendere un viaggio spirituale (vedi il Siddhartha di Herman Hesse; o i discepoli di Gesù, che egli ha chiamato perché lascino le loro famiglie e lo seguano).

Tuttavia, tagliare ogni legame e partire può a volte significare una fuga dai problemi e dalle responsabilità. Partiamo alla ricerca dell’illuminazione anche se nel profondo stiamo solo scappando dai nostri obblighi, dalle nostre paure e dalle nostre ansie.

Decidiamo di vivere a centinaia o migliaia di chilometri da casa senza pensare che, come diceva il romano Orazio, post equitem sedet atra cura, “dietro il cavaliere in partenza siede (e quindi lo insegue) la tetra preoccupazione”.

Montaigne riferisce che Socrate rispose così a chi gli disse che un uomo non era diventato migliore partendosene via da tutto:

“Certo che non divenne migliore: era andato via con sé stesso”.

Ovunque andiamo non possiamo certo sfuggire a noi stessi. Solo quando liberiamo il nostro cuore da qualsiasi peso, problema o obbligo siamo liberi di decidere se vivere da soli o no; se stare o partire per un viaggio verso una nuova vita.

L’egoismo e la vigliaccheria vanno sempre condannati.

 

L’invidia di chi? Nikos Kazantzakis a Firenze (2)

Una risposta (cfr. brano precedente e successivo) ci viene dallo scrittore greco contemporaneo Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957). Quando era molto giovane Kazantzakis fece un lungo viaggio in Italia. Giunto a Firenze si esaltò talmente alla vista di tutti quei palazzi, statue e dipinti che sentì come se i diritti degli umani fossero stati in qualche modo oltrepassati.

Da giovane e superstizioso provinciale qual era – scrive lo scrittore nella sua autobiografia Anaforà ston Grèko, Rapporto al Greco – ne rimase terrorizzato perché “come ben sapevo, gli dei sono creature invidiose, ed è arroganza esser felice e ‘sapere di esserlo’ ”.

Quindi, al fine di controbilanciare quello stato di beatitudine, comprò un paio di scarpe strette che indossava al mattino e che lo rendevano infelice e “saltellante come un corvo”. Cambiava poi le scarpe il pomeriggio in modo da poter camminare senza peso e sfogare così tutta la sua gioia. Percorreva a grandi passi il Lungarno, saliva a San Miniato ecc., per tornare, la mattina seguente, alle sue scarpe strette (e alla sua miseria).

Catholic vs Protestant Cultures. Is Pardon the Right Thing? Yes, it is

Waldensian valleys in Piedmont, Italy. Click for credits and larger picture

Religion and culture

There are people raised in a Catholic or Protestant milieu who say: “I am an atheist, I am an agnostic, religion has no effect on me.”

I think it to be incorrect mostly. Religion is only a part of a culture but it is usually at the centre of it and it affects so many behaviours that it is difficult to escape its influence – no matter our religion or non religion -, unless we have the great power of the entirely detached sage, which is seldom the case.

Take my father. He was an atheist to the extent he died without any repentance. His family had been Waldensian (or Vaudois,) an evangelical movement close to Genevan Protestantism. Such a decent man, my father, though strict in a way hard to be found in Italy outside certain Western Alpine valleys (see map above.)

But most of all, my father could not forgive.

When I became a moderate, non violent communist – only 2 years it lasted, I was so young! – a portion of my father’s heart totally ruled me out. Those were ‘the years of lead‘ in this country. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I had to face the consequences of my act. My brother-in-law possibly. He knew all the military big shots. So when my military service days arrived I was sent to a sort of re-education military camp where they tried to break me, and almost succeeded.

For this and other reasons – such as a sunny good-natured Roman Catholic mother to whom redemption was always possible – I always had problems to accept any irrevocable condemnation.

The death penalty, for example, I consider it an unjustifiable act of barbarism, although, what a cruel irony, I’m a ruthless bastard in some corners of my soul because of this extra layer of Roman rogueness my father would have found less repugnant had he understood it was just a camouflage for something closer to him, ie related to the severe – and mostly but alas not totally extraneous to me – mountain culture he came from.

Large pitch-black eyes in the sun light

Italian grapes. Click for credits and a larger picture

I don’t want to think about this. My ancestral heritage is only partly from the austere West Alps. I want to think of where I’ve always lived.

Such a sea, such a sun – my Greek mentor now helping me to day dream – with young women vintaging in the fields, vine leaves at their temples, “their faces tightly wrapped in white wimples to keep them from being burned by the sun. They raise their heads when a person passes, and you glimpse nothing but two large pitch-black eyes flickering in the sunlight and filled with visions of men.”[Kazantzakis]

I’m bathed in the Roman country light. My life has been rich though hard and a bit tormented (which added some depth in my not so humble opinion.)

I take the responsibility for all my sins, for the good and for the evil, like every one should. Let me quote Dante albeit his verses are a bit disproportionate here (“horrible my iniquities had been” …).

Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.

Horrible my iniquities had been,
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms
That it receives whatever turns to it.

[Dante’s Manfred von Hohenstaufen, the king of Sicily son of Frederick II, Commedia II, 3,121-123; Longfellow’s translation.]

By the way, what the hell happened to the Protestants? It seems to me they focused more on those early parts of the Old Testament when the Jews were not much civilized yet and worshipped a merciless, unforgiving God.

For, if ye forgive not…

I was yesterday reading Matthew (6,14-15) in the most beautiful language ever to me.

14 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε (for if you forgive) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs,) ἀφήσει (will forgive) καὶ ὑμῖν (also to you) ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν (the father of yours) ὁ οὐράνιος (heavenly)·

15 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε (but if you forgive not) τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (men) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) αὐτῶν (of theirs), οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ (neither the father) ὑμῶν (of yours) ἀφήσει (will forgive) τὰ παραπτώματα (the sins) ὑμῶν (of yours.)

And, in the second most beautiful language to me:

Si enim dimiseritis hominibus peccata eorum, dimittet et vobis Pater vester caelestis; si autem non dimiseritis hominibus, nec Pater vester dimittet peccata vestra.

And, in the language of this blog, also extremely beautiful:

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

PS. Bragging about language knowledge, I know. Need to be pardoned for that 😦

That Pride Which Is Actually Blindness

Il Gattopardo. Film by Luchino Visconti 1963

In the preceding post we have noticed how contemporary Italian literature and cinema seldom offer wide-fresco works – they perceive the single tree more than the entire forest (read a conversation on this topic.)

Someone affirms that the secret of the forest is instead hidden in Palermo.

Palermo? Why are Palermo and Sicily so special?

While searching for an answer (in some recent Sicilian novels) we can make a guess.

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Sicily, like a warm-fleshed woman lying languidly on the sea, was disputed by Greeks and Phoenicians, Spartans and Athenians, Romans and Carthaginians, and later Normans Arabs Popes & Emperors.

Such splendid (though tormented) history might have favoured a depth, a wider look in its people and writers, that the Italian literature has experienced only at its best moments.

Rob has said that writers such as Lampedusa and Sciascia would have known why the secret of the forest may be hidden in Palermo.

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So, for a glimpse of such wider look, we’ll quote a beautiful passage from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by the Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957.)

Tomasi di Lampedusa narrates how, soon after Italy’s unification, the honest Piedmont’s official Chevalley [Piedmont, at that time an advanced region, unified Italy in 1861] was sent to implore the Sicilian Prince of Lampedusa [the author’s great-grandfather and protagonist of the novel,] to represent Sicily in the new Italian Senate, “in order to remedy the state of material poverty, of blind and moral misery in which the Sicilian people find themselves, your own people!”

The Prince, smiling and inviting Chevalley to sit down with him on the sofa for a while, answered with the same words he had uttered with some English who, before Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Palermo, were asking what all these Northern Italians, these Garibaldini, were doing in the South of Italy.

They are coming to teach us good manners – replied the Prince in English – but they won’t succeed, because we are gods.

Then in the end (with poor, decent Chevalley in total dismay because of the Prince’s denial) the aristocrat added that things in Sicily had not changed and will never change for that ‘sense of superiority that glitters in the eye of every Sicilian, that we ourselves call pride (fierezza,) but which is actually only blindness.’

An enlightening, though gloomy, reflection.

The Leopard. Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale

Note. This ‘pride which is actually blindness’ can be said of all great civilizations on earth that were (the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, Greece, Hellenic etc.Sicily …)

If we are worth for what we were, we are much much worthier for what we are.

Past greatness is a richness, and a consolation, but is not enough.

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Question. On the other hand, are these cultures / civilizations really dead? I mean, didn’t they adapt themselves still retaining some greatness?

Why Sicilians today – or  (2012 update) Romanesco Gioacchino Belli, Egyptian Naghib MahfuzNikos Kazantzakis  – see the forest and not the tree?

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Previous installment:

The Secret of the Forest

Related posts:

On Solitude

We’ll muse on solitude today with scattered thoughts. By solitude we mean the state of living alone and a bit secluded from society. We prefer the Latin term to loneliness because it sounds less negative and more neutral to us.

Can solitude be a positive choice? In a world where singles are growing, it doesn’t seem such an absurd question. Well, one should first know if the majority of those who live without a partner (which doesn’t imply seclusion from society, of course) are willing singles or not.

In any case, and apart from singles who are a special case, what we see are people who can live a good or decent life alone, while others just can’t. It’s like there were a creative solitude and a destructive one. Another point is that some people seem capable of governing their solitude while others do not. Complicated (and interesting) topic, in any case.

The symbol of extreme solitude seems to me that of the hermit, of a person who confines himself to a hermitage. Nikos Kazantzakis went to visit various hermitages where monks lived alone and he noticed that some looked serene, while others instead were like destroyed by their loneliness. They were not human beings any more. They were like larvae. It was as if their brain had been digested by its own juices.

Well, solitude exerts its charm on us, no doubt. It could be an inclination, it could be the myth of self-sufficiency, the myth of the sage of antiquity who has everything he needs within himself, of the wise old man who has “like unsinkable goods in his soul that can float out of any shipwreck”, like Antisthenes said. According to Roman Seneca, a certain Stilpo, a philosopher, lost his family and all his goods and, when asked if he had suffered any harm, he replied: no, I haven’t.

Well, this strength seems inhuman to us and it is not by chance that in Antiquity such cases were cited as examples, and in any case belonged to a minority of supermen who were members of the upper classes.

So, even though we have chosen not to live alone, we are kind of fascinated by solitude and this is probably also why we are fond of Michel de Montaigne who in 1571 retired from public life to his lands living in the tower of his château which had a library with 1,500 books. There he wrote down all his musings, seeming to him that “the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself.”

So he let his mind dance and care for its dancing only, which can be a dangerous thing indeed. I think though he clearly perceived this danger, since in fact he wrote that our mind is like a garden, with thousands of different weeds that we have to subdue “with seeds specifically sown for our service”, for, “when the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost”: being everywhere is like being nowhere (I:8. On idleness).

In other words, I would add, a good aid in governing our solitude could surely be one or more projects, one or more goals. This is why people who retire and live in slack inertia die sooner (or become lunatics).

People around me say: « Je-sus, cut out this fable about solitude, will you for Chrissake? Aren’t love, affection and company always better than living alone? ».

Well, yes, of course, and yet … darn, what I’m sure about is that, in a city like Rome, where everybody is sociable, loners do not have a place in truth and are seen like weird birds. Even just eating alone in a restaurant makes you sometimes a freak. This doesn’t happen in Germany or in the UK.

Magister kept saying we need to fight against any anti-social impulse that we have in us. I can agree, but loads of things can be achieved only if we retire to our own shell: writing, reading, composing music, meditating etc. And these are things on whose positiveness everyone agrees.

Solitude however must be a free choice. If we are often alone because we are afraid of others, because of complexes or any possible feeling of inadequacy, this falls back within the ambit of those mentioned anti-social impulses we’ve got to fight against.

Cutting All Ties

Living alone can be furthermore associated with the idea of a departure from all, with the idea of cutting any tie we have. Here comes back the archetype of the sage, of the wise man who leaves family and friends in order to go on a spiritual journey. See Herman Hesse‘s Siddhartha; or Jesus’ disciples, whom he called to leave their families and follow him.

However, cutting all ties and going on our own can sometimes mean an escape from our problems and responsibilities. We leave in search of enlightenment though deep inside we are only running away from our obligations, from our fears and anxieties.

We decide to live hundreds of miles from home without thinking that, as Roman Horace put it, post equitem sedet atra cura, “behind the departing horseman sits black care.”

Montaigne refers that Socrates thus replied to a person who told him that a man had not been improved by travelling away: “I am sure he was not: he went with himself.”
(I:39 On Solitude – where we found inspiration and quotes, though our mind took different paths.)

Wherever we go, we cannot flee from ourselves. Only when we set our heart free from any burden or problem (or obligation) are we free to decide whether to live alone or not; whether to stay or to leave on a journey for a new life.

Selfishness and cowardice are always to be condemned.

Fragments of Greek Beauty

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source
The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

Well, one might say, where has all this Beauty gone? The landscape is still there but is it true that all that was splendid and Greek has disappeared …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …?”

(quote from here).

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Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries (see the comments section for a discussion on this point.) Some fragments though have survived.

Narrowing the focus on literature, we personally are fascinated by the works of the neo-pagan sublime poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933) from Alexandria, or by those of the writer, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) from Crete, who lost the Nobel Prize to Albert Camus in 1957 by just one vote and who was spiritually restless, seeking “relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience”(Wikipedia). And we are mentioning only those we have some knowledge of.

Crete is the largest Greek island which completes from the south the Greek archipelago (1400 islands!) and which, sung by Homer, conjures up ancient legends like Minos, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, the labyrinth created by Daedalus etc. (were they mere legends?). It is an island that hosted the Minoan civilization, namely the most ancient Greek (hence European) civilization (ca. 2600–1400 BC.)

Admire the perfection of this Minoan Bull Head from the Heraklion Museum, Crete (click on this and all other pictures for source files and credits.)

Minoan Bull Head. CCommons, psmithson, Flickr.

Let us now listen to the words of Nikos Kazantzakis recalling some decisive moments from his childhood in Crete: his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire (from the starry sky.)

Earth, Sea, Woman and Fire

Kazantzakis remembers how advancing on all fours, still not able to walk, he once extended his tender head full of longing and fear in the courtyard for the very first time. Until that moment he had looked out his house windows but had seen nothing. That time though he didn’t just extend his sight, he actually saw the world for the very first time. Extraordinary revelation!

“Our little courtyard-garden seemed without limits. There was buzzing from thousands of invisible bees, an intoxicating aroma, a warm sun as thick as honey. The air flashed as though armed with swords, and, between the swords, erect, angel-like insects with colourful, motionless wings advanced straight for me. I screamed from fright, my eyes filled with tears, and the world vanished.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Earth.

(A landscape from Crete)

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He also remembers how a man with a thorny beard took him in his arms and brought him down to the port. While approaching their destination the little child started to hear like the terrible sighing and roaring of a wounded beast. He got so frightened that he tried to escape from the man’s arms, like a little trapped bird.

“Suddenly – the bitter odour of carob beans, tar, and rotten citrons. My creaking vitals opened to receive it …at a turn in the street – dark indigo, seething, all cries and smells (what a beast that was! what freshness! what boundless sigh) – the entire sea poured into me frothingly. My tender temples collapsed, and my head filled with laughter, salt, and fear.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Sea.

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He then remembers, when he was three, that a plump and pretty young woman, Anika, a neighbour with nice blond hair and large eyes, came to their little garden while he was playing around. The place smelled of summer and she, newly married and recent mother, leaning over, took him on her lap and hugged him.

“I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body: the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom. Suddenly I felt overcome by dizziness and fainted. Blushing terribly, the frightened neighbour put me down, depositing me between two pots of basil.”

After that day the woman never took him on her lap again. “She just looked at me very tenderly with her large eyes and smiled.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Woman.

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One night in summer he was in his yard again.

“I remember lifting my eyes and seeing the stars for the first time. Jumping to my feet, I cried out in fear, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ The sky seemed a vast conflagration to me; my little body was on fire.”

This was how he experienced fire (and the starry sky) for the first time in his life.

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These four terrible elements – he recognizes – imprinted on his mind to the extent that even the most abstract ideas or the most metaphysical problems, in order to be significant to him, must take on a physical form “which smells of sea, soil and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh.”

It is this special trait, this synaesthetic aptitude, among others, that makes many of Kazantzakis’s pages so vibrant and unforgettable.

References. Quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis’s autobiographical and last novel, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber 1965, translation from modern Greek by Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1965.