Changing Temples Pt. 21 What Condition Our Condition

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition
with Glen Campbell on Guitar. 1968

I like to think that it is some form of artistic sensibility in operation, but I have always had what can only charitably be described as an over-active . . . . .. Ah! how I would love to probe your mind to see what word(s) you might use to fill in that blank. Whether because you know me (too well) or you have a sense of the human condition, if you guessed “libido” you would have been wrong (though that is also certainly true). No, my fill-in was fantasy life. Is there a difference?

If truth be told, I have had to constantly (and I can count decades of such constancy) reign and constrain. Keeping a “present mind” has always been a great challenge – greater than my capacities, but, like the Light Brigade, I keep charging into the the canon fire of reality. Seemingly vast sections of the “self-help” section of any real or ether book store are aimed at present mind, in one form or another. I’ve done my fair share of sampling over the years. I am a New Age Sensitivity Training survivor.

With the “use by” date rather visibly imprinted on my particular corporeal package, I sometimes feel that I will have it all well figured out on the day I die, for I certainly have not demonstrated such comprehension to date – no matter how often I’ve been reminded or recognized the perishability of the contents of that package.

So here I sit in ancient, or is it modern, Istria watching as Romans or is it Venetians or Croats walk by. They and many others have walked this street over the ages. The human parade is what I fantasize walks along these streets, the composition of which makes one entirely unsure which age he is observing. I do not abide by the conception that humans have changed over the last . . . well, how long do you think humans have retained the characteristics we see – like fantasizing? Let me be blunt, my unapologetic bias is that technological change can be a very specious indicator of change in the fundamental nature of the human condition – that condition which operates from the inside out.

One of my favorite indicators of this abiding condition, that I cannot be sure whether I watch 1st. C. Romans, 17th. C. Venetians, or 21st. C. Croats, comes from an Ancient Greek named Hesoid (who lived sometime between 750-650 BC, about the same generation as Homer). He said: “The dilatory man is always suffering calamities”. I first found this reference in Michele Montaigne, who cited it to show it was certainly an active human attribute in the late 1500’s when he was writing his famous Essays. So, some 2700 years after Hesiod, some 425 years after Montaigne, what is not true about that insight into the human condition? What could be more true of that parade than that we continue to manifest that same characteristic some 2700 years later?

Somewhere in our ancient past we became this conscious being, this compilation of more than just instinct but a being of compiled faculties: projection, reflection, contemplation, communication, fantasy – all constructed or interwoven so as to satisfy wants and desires that transcend the mere organic implementation of skills to survive and perpetuate – how else can Art, for one, be explained? Are not the human wants and desires we see in the Pageant not merely fantasy in different guises?

We now have some verifiable, identifiable thousands of years of in kind variations of individuals walking in the parade: Theseus and his 13 companions marching into the city of Minos for his rendezvous with the Minotaur, Odysseus walking into the welcoming arms of the Phaeacians offering their boat for the last leg of his journey home, Aeneas marching into Latium to be wooed by two fighting groups – descendants of Troy and descendants of “those who several generations before had descended from the trees” – and in choosing would bring about the transformation that would become the great Roman Empire, the Gallic prisoners of Caesar walking behind him in his Triumph in Rome (a uniquely special parade only decreed/allowed by the Roman Senate for great victories – but accompanied, as was the tradition, by a man standing behind him in his chariot whose responsibility was to whisper in his ear “remember, you are mortal”), or Wayne marching on Denver in protest of war: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh”, “Hell no we won’t go”. Each of these was fantasy trying to interweave with reality.

Our universal, human parade is one of fantasizing about our obligation to end the scourge of the Minotaur, to never forget the importance of home and hearth, to recognize the necessity of escape from Troy, to acquire the power of Caesar, to end a wrong headed war. Our condition is to incorporate fantasy into intention. We imaginatively conceptualize. We create a digestible mix of fantasy, obligation, responsibility. I would add that the very oldest of records or rememberant myth show that in every culture our condition is to dose ourselves with any substance capable of disguising for a brief moment the vast indifference of Nature to the fantasies we began to weave when we wake up the next morning. Consequently, perhaps the hardest fantasy of all is acceptance that the parade will go on without us. It is perhaps that fantasy which is part of the very condition when seeks to bring a sober depth to our attempts at making this life significant.

Continued . . .

Changing Temples – Pt. 20 Women of Venice

What is true of two very special women of Venice may be true of any woman one is attracted to – they are known only by representation. The first I spotted on the island Cemetery of San Michele in Venice. She emerges in high relief from what I swore upon seeing her for the first and second time was green alabaster or marmo verde more precious than many a gemstone. In reality, she is cast from mere bronze, but some how made alabaster or marble scrumptious by the patina of oxidation and the startling detail: obviously gorgeous hair piled, piled, circled, and pined; slender, oh so very appealing body draped in a gauzy, but permanent negligee sufficiently modest for a tomb. She lies upon a divan, the almost breathtaking beauty of a young woman in light repose; head turned toward you with lips that practically speak: “kiss me”, “wake me, Dear Lover”. She makes one believe the story of Pygmalion, where the poor fellow chipped, chiseled, and sanded so much love and beauty and heart into ivory that even Venus took pity and gave it a life of womanhood, motherhood, and death. Or the story of Daedalus using quicksilver to give his statutes voice. One aches to hear her voice, to know her womanhood, to age with her into death.

The representational facts are sparse: “Sonia” is engraved on the stone accompanied only by “Born 20 Febbraio 1885 a Za Bomgewka, RU. Died 6 Febbraio 1907 a Venezia”. Below, on the flagstone is Russian writing. Merely sharing her story and a picture was sufficient to convince several Italian University friends to join up for a second trip and to bring along a Russian speaking colleague to help ferret out more facts. Miscommunication prevented the rendezvous, but a mid-twenty something Italian woman named Mariagrazia accompanied me. She was intrigued by my effusiveness and desirous of visiting the grave of a recently deceased friend for whom she had made all the arrangements.

Mariagrazia looked at Sonia while I was waxing eloquent about all the poetic, romantic possibilities. She looked for awhile and said: “she committed suicide and drank something to do it”. I was not dismissive, but it did make me laugh for its ingenious inventiveness. I was skeptical, but it was an intriguing idea. Given all my predilections, this Sonia and that scenario seemed just too implausible. The next day I received an email from Mariagrazia with Google search results showing the astounding, surreal nature of her intuition. Sonia Kalinskey was, by one account, of Russian aristocratic origins who came to Venice during carnival and died from a self-administered dose of laudanum in the magnificent, Five-Star (then and now) Danieli Hotel “due to a disappointment in love”.

There is another whole story about the deep intuitive soul of Mariagrazia, but best left for a separate episode. I now wish I had asked her who she thought loved Sonia so much he dedicated his own, smaller version of Taj Mahal riches in order to realize such a careful, oh so very loving, homage. I say “he” because I was convinced from the first glance that no one but a lover would have scoured the Venezia Terra Firma for a modern Pygmalion. Perhaps that lover was the sculptor himself, though the evidence speaks against it. We know he was Enrico Butti (1847-1932). His age, the other sculptures he was creating throughout Europe at the time speak of solely a commission. Some patron, someone ensured that mere bronze was imbued with something so close to Sonia, so very close to a woman who would break any man’s heart that, like the Ivory Girl, she too emerges almost capable of being palpably touched, kissed, and very tenderly loved; A beauty who would otherwise have merely taken her forgettable place in that common parade of aging, birthing, laughing, suffering and disappearing into just another Mausoleum shelf – the kind of shelf where her long gone, loving representer resides unknown. But, his caring and his obvious love has left her to me these one hundred years hence – a dynamic specialness, a ravishing hint of companionship.

It is entirely possible, of course, that my conviction was entirely wrong. Perhaps longing obscures the deeply loving father or mother wounded the wound that life will never cure; parents forever diminished at the loss of so precious a child, at the loss of their young Darling on the cusp of bringing those deeper joys adult children bring into the life of the aging. Perhaps their sorrow was the love that gave her her last form from which she might well be saying: “Wake me to the day Dear Papa”. “Oh Mama, kiss your girl into life”.

Continued . . .

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Changing Temples Pt. 19 – Magical Exceptionality

Magical Exceptionality

I did not know what else to call it but a gift from the Gods – in this case the Roman versions. A fine, life-loving Venetian named Davide, did a much, much better job than I – he called it “the magical side of an exceptional moment”. That moment was an electricity failure. Usually not an event one would categorize as auspicious or a gift from Olympus. That moment was an out door cafe in a broad street of three to four story 16th and 17th Century buildings, green window shutters thrown open to catch even the faintest of breezes on a 93 degree evening with high humidity. The various pastels of the buildings are nicely toned by the soft street lights and ever softening light of day. The cafes all have full tables spread out on either side of the street; one just down the way filled with a family and friends crowd of at least 40. The street is filled with many casual walk-abouts. Everyone is drinking something! The ambient sound is the buzz of laughter and talking, good humored social engagement.

Then, as middle dusk is settling in, the Spritz before me is mellowing my jitters from having just finished a long travel day from Odessa. I remember distinctly my breathing deeply and observing with consciousness yet one more time the deep ambience of Via Garibaldi and thinking about how much I love that particular scene and how much I want to imprint it into my memory. That moment was eliciting a pleasure in my soul that escapes the poet’s best efforts. Then the lights in the long street flickered, flickered and disappeared. All of a sudden, I felt ever so deeply a part of an exceptional out of time moment that returned me to what I believed in my heart Venice of 500 years ago would have been like with her beautiful pastels and greens and marbles highlighted by the fading daylight.

I extricated myself from friends whose interest was in finding artificial light. I wandered abroad in the now early nightfall neighborhoods. Stunned is the only word I have for it. In the last fifteen years or so I utter the word “Wow” when seeing something or hearing something of extraordinary specialness – Titian’s “Assumption of Mary”, Rembrandt’s “Saint Anne”, an exceptional moment where light and flower and shadow combine into absolute beauty. It is not a particularly intelligent expression, but it usually jumps out of my inner self unsolicited, untainted. Occasionally, I will catch myself repeating it because I can find no way of letting the joy loose from my heart. It is a weak, New Age, burned-again hippie kind of word, but it is my way of acknowledging a beautiful Zen moment, of reveling in this beauty that surrounds our daily existence. That street light deprived night was the first time I have ever caught myself saying “Wow” again and again and again and again; the complete sensory overload of antiquity, history, artistic sentiment in marble and mortar and architecture, softness, and ancestral humanity knocked that word out of me over and over again.

This was the Venice experienced by Lord Byron or Albrect Durer or Rousseau or Edward DeVere or Goethe. As I wandered the streets, I felt I was wandering with them, particularly with their sensibilities. Interestingly, our way would be lit by someone with a torch, with a “link boy”, who would be paid a small sum for the task. Shakespeare’s Falstaff makes reference to such a lad when teasing Bardolph about his shining red face: “Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern.” (Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act III, scene 3).

Occasionally people hurry past me, modern link boys, but oblivious to all but their modern torch being used to get to somewhere else. They leave behind them the last twilight showing steps of a bridge inviting one to say “Wow” and to keep walking in the midst of the Ancien RĂ©gime or any period when this city was what it has been for so many hundreds of years.

There was also an additional stillness – no air conditioners, refrigerator condensers, a lessening of foot traffic. Restaurant tables now dotted the way with candles. People were subdued, not so much by the lacking but by the magic of antiquity totally unadorned, unaltered, unfiltered, lighted by the last remnants of day. Windows showed the flickering of candles finally able to cast their shadows in complete abandon. A woman sits on a bench in a now near dark Campo. I am totally in the middle of the hundredth “Wow”, so I say, “Fantastico, Non?” “Yes”, she replies in English, “it is extraordinary”. How tempted I was to sit and share with this stranger who understood and who could speak English! But I did not want the apprehension of a strange man to unsettle such a divine moment; on I walked.

While I happen to cherish my own Romanticism, I think it is fair to ask whether this was truly such a unique experience aside from the cries of joy and pleasure in my soul? The first power plant in Italy was built in Milan in 1883 for the purpose of illuminating La Scala, the famous Opera House. Soon after, Molino Stucky coverted his giant flour mill in Venice from gas to electricity. The Arc lights used at La Scalla would have been in the range of 2000-3000 candle power. Modern, ordinary street lights are 250-440 candle power while an “ornamental” street light is around 400 candle power. So, for at least one hundred years my romanticism would be misapplied.

The torch light of reality also shows that romantic misapplication for many hundreds more years. According to one source, the oldest system of street lighting in the world was established in Venice during the 12th century. The Doge declared the lighting of the streets necessary due to the rash of robberies and murders which were easily carried out in the dark and twisting alleyways of the city. At first devotionals to various Saints held candles at each corner, later followed by oil lamps at the state’s expense. Another source has it that the Arabs had street lamps in Cordoba, Al-Andalus in 1000. Neither source noted the Chinese who, of course, beat everyone, and the word lamp is from the Greek meaning torch, so “lighting” by humans certainly predated even my romantic projections of a “natural” evening.

But I think it fair to say that even a few candles or torches here and there would not have rendered my wild imaginings less romantic during that brief twilight time. All in all I guess it just sheds a little light on something I find more and more convincing as I experience this city. It is best expressed in Davide’s final thought, “we don’t have the quality as humans to forget Venice”.

Continued . . .

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