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entry Apr 25, 2016                          

I Love Lucian

I came across the essay "The Villa of Reggio" by Alberto Savinio (pen name of Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico, b. Athens, 1891 – d. Florence, 1952) He was a writer, painter, musician, journalist, essayist, playwright, set designer and composer, clearly one of the most wide-ranging polymaths in modern Italian cultural history. One of his interests was in what he called “Mediterranean surrealism”, particularly the bizarre fantasies and satires of Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 125 – after AD 180), (sometimes called the real father of science fiction), and particularly Lucian's True Stories (or True Fictions or True History). This will be clear from the passage I have chosen to translate. I chose it because it deals with Savinio's views on the differences between the north and the south in Italy. The original essay appeared in Italian as “Le donne-viti” [Women-grapevines] in Partita andata. Diario Calabrese (1948), Florence, Giunti, 1996.

The Villa of Reggio

by Alberto Savinio
17th cent. lithograph of Lucian   
by William Faithhorne       

I'm in the Villa of Reggio. “Villa” in Sicilian usage is a public garden. But here we're in Calabria. You can see that Sicilian customs make it across the straits [of Messina] with no help from boats. That's how San Francis of Paola did it; that is to say, he turned himself into a boat. One day Francis got to the water's edge in Calabria, trying to find passage over to Sicily. The boatsman he asked turned out, however, to be a tightwad and Francis had no money. What did he do? He took his cloak from his shoulders and spread it on the waters and climbed aboard as if it were a raft, and in spite of the currents that they call “rising oar” and “falling oar” and in spite of the whirlpools that the ancients called Scylla and Charybdis and today they call garofoli or rèfoli, made it to the other shore driven by a light and most helpful wind.

[translator's note: garofoli = a local word for carnations, here used to describe the supposed similarity between the petals of the flower and the funnel-like vortices of the water formed from opposing currents. Rèfoli = a local word for a strong wind coming from the land, strong enough to snap trees and the masts of boats. Thank you, Selene!]

There are some strange trees in the Villa of Reggio. I'd call them freaks except I see no reason to call something a freak just because it doesn't fit in with what we are used to. They talk so much about social justice; let's first try to agree on physical justice. Let's get rid of distance—the class struggle between freakish and normal. Let's think, as well, about a moral justice. Let's get rid of the distance between good and evil. Painters have already taken care of abolishing the (supposed) distance between beautiful and ugly.

Some of these trees have trunks with no branches but are studded with thorns. The statue to Hindenburg that the Germans put up between the two wars was studded with nails. Equally studded with nails was a white statue of a black woman that Paul Guillaume gave me in 1913. Those nails driven into the likeness of a warrior and into that of a celebrity idol were instruments of magic. Would the threatening thorns sticking out from the bare trunks of these trees in the Villa of Reggio also be instruments of magic? We are just beginning to discover and penetrate the psyche of man? When will we discover and penetrate the psyche of animals? And here we are talking, of all things, about the psyche of plants!

There are other plants in the villa that have pyramid-shaped trunks; these are in the palm family. Yet others, not palms, have trunks in the shape of amphora and look like pregnant women. They bear little tiny leaves with many budding flowers, like the almond tree. Now I understand better the ambiguous imagery of ancient writers and poets. Compare this passage in “The women grapevines” in Lucian's True History:

...we found something wonderful in grapevines. The part which came out of the ground, the trunk itself, was stout and well-grown, but the upper part was in each case a woman, entirely perfect from the waist up. They were like our pictures of Daphne turning into a tree when Apollo is just catching her. Out of their finger-tips grew the branches, and they were full of grapes. Actually, the hair of their heads was tendrils and leaves and clusters! When we came up, they welcomed and greeted us, some of them speaking Lydian, some Indian, but the most part Greek. They even kissed us on the lips, and everyone that was kissed at once became reeling drunk. They did not suffer us, however, to gather any of the fruit, but cried out in pain when it was plucked. Some of them actually wanted us to embrace them, and two of my comrades complied, but could not get away again. They were held fast by the part which had touched them, for it had grown in and struck root. Already branches had grown from their fingers, tendrils entwined them, and they were on the point of bearing fruit...

[This translation, paragraph above, is from A True Story by Lucian of Samasota, Loeb Classical Library No. 14, pp. 247-357, Lucian Vol. 1) English Translation by A.M. Harmon New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons 1913. It is in public domain and used with this required attribution that it was scanned by, March 2006. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. jm]

My strange impressions before these strange plants. This is my first and longest trip down to the south. Listen to me. My impressions are alive, fresh and true. Habit has not yet greyed them over or extinguished them. Here the distance between us and the tropics has shortened considerably. And you feel it. There is a much shorter distance between man and animal, between man and plant. Here the plants are already man-like and man is still plant-like. Here animals are already like men and men still like animals. Here man is still close to the ram, the bull. I don't want to be misunderstood. Here man is like the animal in the bodily sense; I'm not talking about intellectual, moral or human qualities. And the women, too. Here they are much more manifestly mammalian. Man and animal, man and plant, man and nature are closer to one another here.

Let's go back up north. Relationships loosen. Men, animals, plants are more isolated. People become more autonomous. They do everything by themselves. They make themselves by themselves. They even make the animals and plants for their own personal use, for their own mechanical use. They talk so much about mechanical society but don't think enough about it or look around enough or speak out enough against the profound transformation that mechanical society is undergoing at an ever-increasing pace at the expense of humanity and nature.

I'm in a position of privilege. I'm in Rome, between north and south. Is that why Rome is said to be “neutral”? If my impressions going from Rome to the south are alive, fresh and true, they are just as alive, fresh and true if I go north. In the south I find men close to the ruminants. In the north, they're close to the lathe, the mill, the drive-shaft. The women are less laden with mammalian heaviness; they are more mechanical, like instruments themselves. Instruments of work, instruments of travel, instruments of pleasure. Portable women, women you can disassemble or fold up. Women of tables, elevators, suitcases.

[link added - July 26, 2016 - There is an excellent article by Robert Lebling entitled "What's So Funny About Lucian the Syrian" in the July issue of Aramco World magazine at this link.]

added April 2021 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
What is a Milli-Helen?

Benét's third edition of the Reader's Encyclopedia (Harper & Row, New York, 1948) (p.586) tells us Lucian was a satirist and the "most brilliant wit of Greek letters under the Roman Empire ... later compared with Swift and Voltaire...[and]... considered the inventor of the satirical dialogue." Benét calls his work the archtype of such books as Gulliver's Travels. His Dialogues of the Dead are "particularly brilliant." Contemporaries thought he was blasphemous. You like him already, right? So you take a look at Dialogues of the Dead and read a few pages and notice something. Is there another influence? Maybe not satirical? Maybe just a great dramatic phrase in later literature? You decide.
If you are a big lit fan, you won't have any trouble with this. Who is the greatest playwright in Elizabethan literature after Shakespeare? If you have no idea, you're not as hot as you thought you were. If you say Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), you may advance to the next round. Recite anything by Marlowe, except "Come live me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove..." (He was moonlighting with Ye Olde Hallmarke Cardes. He needed money, like all writers. Too bad he didn't live longer. Marlowe was killed in a bar fight over the tab when they "took it outside." Chris lost. He was 29.) So here is a bit of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead. The two speakers are looking at skulls in Hell:

Hermes. Those bones, of which you seem to think so lightly, have been the theme of admiring poets.
Menippus. Show me Helen; I shall never be able to make her out by myself.
Hermes. This skull is Helen.
Menippus. And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece; Greeks and barbarians were slain, and cities made desolate.

Something should ring a bell. Had Marlowe been reading Lucian and then penned some of the most spectacular lines in Elizabethan
or any literature? Yes? I see your hand. Go ahead, blurt it out. Yes, that is correct. You win the styrofoam skull. Please, say it again for everyone from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:
                    "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
                     And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
                     Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."

Thus, a "millihelen" — 1/1000 of the beauty of Helen of Troy, whose beauty "launched a thousand ships" — is the amount of feminine beauty required to launch one ship.

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