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Us and the Hyperboreans. 1

In Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds I had a discussion with the Commentator about how South and North Europeans see one another. Since I was planning a few posts on this topic, such a discussion can work as a starting point. Texts are abridged and edited a bit.

The Commentator

[This post] further reinforces my suspicion … of this attraction between Italy and Germany. It seems Roman civilization had a great influence on this.

Which brings me into another question. England (UK) was invaded by both Romans and Germanics (Angles, Jutes, Saxons). Yet, I do not feel there is anything that connects Britain to Italy in any way. In fact, I usually get the distinct feeling the UK has a somewhat condescending (if not superficial) view of Italy. You read it in their history books and in some cases how they interpret Italian soccer.

[…] I realize there are some Germans that hold similar views (I read somewhere that the Italian community has never been accepted in Germany) but as a general discussion, where does Britain break off from Germany when it comes to Italy?

Man of Roma

First of all, when dealing with foreigners, one has to accept bias and some sort of racism, this not being avoidable, for a number of reasons. Every person should be proud of his/her heritage, without becoming a nationalist though. […]

Thus said, I think there is a general attraction-repulsion among the folks from North and South Europe. This includes the UK and Germany and other northern European people vs South Europe and vice versa.

It is in fact a two-way thing [we'll focus on repulsion now]: not only many North Europeans dislike us, but it is also many of us disliking them. We (Italians, Spanish, Portuguese etc.) admire some of these people’s qualities, but we generally disapprove of their lack of taste and style and often see them as a bunch of depressed (and rude) drunkards. Of course this is not my view but there is some truth in this (like there is some truth in the flaws North foreigners see in us).

Goethe, a great lover of Italy, – Kennst du das Land … Do you know the land where the lemons bloom? - writes at the end of the XVIII century that he forgives ‘the Northern people who criticize Italy because these people (the Italians) are really so different from us’. It is interesting how he explains this ‘difference’ and his Italian Journey is a great book also from this point of view (see above Goethe as painted by Karl Joseph Stieler).

How can in fact exist an easy mutual understanding between the people of the Mediterranean and the Hyperboreans, namely the northern folks living in a realm of clouds, rain, cold and darkness? Such diverse climate (together with a different history) is a potent factor for creating marked differences in behaviour, mood, disposition of soul etc., all of which makes intercourse difficult (Hyperboreans is how the Greco-Romans called the people living ‘beyond Boreas’, eg the North wind, and it is sometimes used to indicate folks from cold climates in general).

I read somewhere that the Italian community has never been accepted in Germany.
I’d say the Germans have now worse problems with non-EU immigrants. In any case they had this invasion of such different people, the Italians from the Mezzogiorno, it is understandable. And there is always a difference of attitude (towards the Italians) between the so to say romanized Germans and the non romanized ones. In many parts of Northern and central (Protestant) Germany [where the Romans never arrived: see my post Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds] Italians are often disliked, it is true. The Protestant Germans, the Dutch etc. for example, didn’t want the so called Club Med (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece) to become part of the Euro zone. They basically said: “These places are just nice for a vacation, that’s all …”.

Where does Britain break off from Germany when it comes to Italy.
Well, Germans are our neighbours, while Britain is far. But I would say Britain breaks off from the entire Continent. They are islanders, they do not feel European in my opinion [a few Brits said this also here], and many people from the Continent (Italians included) return this feeling and find it hard to love them, I don’t see how it could be otherwise, since the British feel superior to continentals, not to mention Southern continentals.

But I wouldn’t say “there is nothing that connects Britain to Italy in any way.” First of all their literature is often like a hymn to Italy (take Shakespeare, Byron or E. M. Forster with his A Room with a View). Additionally many seem today very attached to their Roman past. There is like a Roman frenzy now in Great Britain. Tomorrow [last July 22] the British Museum opens up an exhibition on the Roman emperor Hadrian, the one who built the Hadrian’s Wall. Very complex and modern personality, Hadrian (see the exhibition trailer). Hundreds of UK web sites celebrate Ancient Rome. Roman.Britan.org is one of them. Also popular culture and movies (King Arthur, The Last Legion etc.) reveal like a (subterranean?) feeling that they are (well, they were) somewhat the heirs of the Romans.

Finally Italy is admired by them in many other ways, and I am convinced – also because many Brits told me – that they are a bit envious: our culture and history are richer, our food and clothing better, our towns immensely more beautiful, people here possess more charm, joy of life etc.. Ooopss, I forgot the climate lol.

Thus Byron sang in a period – the beginning of the XIX century – when Italy was at the top of her decline while Great Britain was at the apex of her world power:

The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful,
thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm that cannot be defaced.

[I love Byron, certainly not because he likes Italy, no, not for that]

As regards soccer, well, we won the World Cup, not them. Someone told me Italians are now upset because Perfidious Albion is hiring a lot of young promising Italian players. We pay a lot to raise them, then they arrive and buy them. No, I wouldn’t say they don’t like our soccer, it’s just they realise it is so different from theirs. Soccer, like any other sport, is revealing. We really ARE different people.

So what, is that a problem? Differences create richness & complementarity. They make the world a better place to live in.

Ψ

If you want to know more:

Us and the Hyperboreans. 2
Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

But also:

Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-sighted Animal? (around which an extensive discussion developed about the UK vs Italy and Europe)
Ups and Downs
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Fragments of Greek Beauty

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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).

ψ

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)

Ψ

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.

Ψ

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.

Ψ

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.

Ψ

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.

The Trumpet Sound, à la Française

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An Insightful Blog From the Renaissance

Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays, a real thoughtful blog from Renaissance (one could say):

“I can see that these writings of mine are no more than the ravings of a man who has never done more than taste the outer crust of knowledge (…) and who has retained only an ill-formed generic notion of it: a little about everything and nothing about anything, in the French style.”

He then provides us with some information on his background:

“(…) I do also know how the sciences in general claim to serve us in our lives. But what I have definitely not done is to delve deeply into them (…) I have fashioned no sustained intercourse with any solid book except Plutarch and Seneca (…). My game-bag is made of history, rather, or poetry, which I love, being particularly inclined towards it;”

And here follows a vivid depiction of poetry effectiveness:

“For (as Cleanthes said) just as the voice of the trumpet rings out clearer and stronger for being forced through a narrow tube so too a saying leaps forth much more vigorously when compressed into the rhythms of poetry, striking me then with a livelier shock.”

(I am using the Penguin Classics edition, 2003, I:26, with its outstanding translation by M. A. Screech)

Good old Montaigne, writing openly and honestly about everything regarding life and man, from small trivia and anecdotes to truly deep meditations. His words are simple yet profound and personal. I love to browse randomly into his pages where one can read thousands of insightful passages, like the ones above that hit me yesterday.

Dear old Montaigne, a true magister for meditation (and consolation). A man of the street of the French Renaissance (well, I am exaggerating, he was cultured, well-off and retired to his castle lol). A French country intellectual in some way (he was not a Paris man) and his essays so damn close to a Renaissance blog which was continuously rewritten and constantly in progress. He in fact always gets back to his writings: why a blog, from the Renaissance or from today, should be thrown down instinctively? (I know many readers will not agree; I also am wavering between these two approaches).

He makes use 1) of French as the general medium and neutral language (French is sometimes a bit neutral, I’ll admit), 2) of the Guascon dialect for the most colourful passages, and finally 3) of Latin (mainly quotes) for the most noble themes.

Of course what also attracts us is his good choice of the ancient, classical Western philosophers, he being in fact such a gold mine of information about the Stoic, Skeptic and Epicurean thoughts, the ones we have some preference for (among the rest).

But he is not only that. Since he is a little about everything and nothing about anything: à la française.

Books, Multimedia, E-learning

3D MIP of a CT scan

Italian version

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.)

ψ

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 book
  • a movie
  • a multimedia CD-ROM
  • a speech
  • a video game
  • a hyper textual and/or hyper medial Web site.
Multimedia. GNU Lesser General Public License

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:

Process of learning-teaching. KS and CS

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.

Multimedia. GNU Lesser General Public License

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.

Ψ

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).

Ψ

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.

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


A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Reagan assassination attempt. Public domain

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).

Lennon’s assassination announced. Fair use

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’.

Summarizing, improvisation is the thin link among the present post and these earlier ones, Digression vs Sticking to the Point and Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian.

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.

Flowers for John Lennon at Strawberry Fields in New Yorks Central Park. Fair use

[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].

Italian version

Other related posts:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Sacred Islam Prayer rug. Fair use

The French historian Fernand Braudel writes:

“Civilizations are not mortal. They survive transformations and catastrophes and when necessary rise up again from their ashes (…). Islam probably sprang from desert Arabia, crossed by caravans and with a long past behind, but it is above all a territory acquired by the conquest of Arabic horsemen and camel-drivers even too easily: Syria, Egypt, Iran, northern Africa. Islam is primarily a heir of the Near East, a whole series of cultures, economies and ancient sciences. Its heart lies in the narrow space that goes from Mecca to Cairo, Damask and Baghdad. (…)”

Islam Prayer. Fair use

“A civilization is in fact not only a religion – however a religion may be at the centre of any cultural system. It is an art of living as well, i.e. the reproduction of thousands of behaviours. In ‘The Arabian Nights’ saluting a king means ‘kissing before him the earth amid his hands’. Well, it is a gesture already customary at the court of the Parthian king Khosrau (531-579 AD) – Braudel continues – and it is the same gesture that in 1500 and 1600 (and later) European ambassadors in Istanbul, in Ispahan or in Delhi tried to elude finding it extremely humiliating for themselves and for the princes they represented. [The ancient Greek Historian] Herodotus, [490-425 BC] was upset by some [Ancient] Egyptian manners: ‘In the middle of the road, as a salutation, they prostrate the one in front of the other, lowering their hands down to their knees.’ “

Islamic Clothes. Fair use

“Think about the traditional costumes of the Moslems whose evolution will be very slow [see picture above]. It is already recognizable – Braudel argues – in the dress of the ancient Babylonians, described by the same Herodotus [more than] twenty-five centuries ago: ‘The Babylonians first of all wear a flax tunic down to their feet (which we would today call gandura, notes E. F. Gautier), and on top of it another wool tunic (which we would call djellaba); then they wear a short white mantle (we would say: a short white burnus); and they cover their heads with a mitre (a fez, today, or tarbush).’ And we could continue talking of the houses (pre-Islamic), and of food and superstitions: the hand of Fatima, … it already adorned the Carthaginian funeral steles (see figure below).”

Hand of Fatima used as a pendant. GNU Free Documentation License

“Islam is evidently tied to the compact historical ground of the Near East.” (…) In short – Braudel concludes – any study of our present ways of thinking necessarily has to look at the endless past of the civilizations.”

(La Mediterranée, by Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Square bracket text is by MoR)

(The end )

Italian version

Digression vs Sticking to the Point

The Catcher in the Rye. Book cover. Fair use

Holden Caulfield, wandering without any destination, depressed, expelled from school (also for this reason he had secretly come to New York where he had gone through weird experiences), visits one of the few teachers who appreciated him, Mr. Antolini, an intelligent young man who had married a woman who was rich and much older than him (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24). After the initial greetings, Antolini asks him:

“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
“Oh, I passed English all right (…) I flunked Oral Expression, though (…).
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know (…) “It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell ‘Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.”
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. (…) The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
(…) The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time – I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy (…) When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. (…) For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling ‘Digression!’ at him the whole time he was making it (…) What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff – then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm – I admit it – but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited …. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” (…).
“Holden … One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question (…). Don’t you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father’s farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle’s brace? Or, if his uncle’s brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn’t he have selected it in the first place as his subject – not the farm?”
(…).
“Yes – I don’t know. I guess he should. I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You just didn’t know this teacher, Mr. Vinson. (…) he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to.”

Holden will then run into a further letdown since, after getting to bed and going to sleep in a room of his teacher’s house, he finds out how Mr. Antolini has an interest in him which goes beyond a teacher-to-pupil relationship

Waking up suddenly in the night he sees Mr. Antolini sitting in the dark very close to him and caressing his head. This cannot but increase his alienation from the world, when even the few good masters he has met (or fathers, each new generation needing fathers in the broad sense) have interest in him for reasons different in any case from the ones he had imagined.

Italian version

Other related posts:

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

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