Saturday, January 14, 2017

Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine

Two young wizards of Earthsea, Ged and Vetch (Ged is the one with the scars on his face). Behind Ged, the Shadow. A wonderful image by Paul Duffield, one of the very few images that manage to do justice to the spirit and the substance of the "Trilogy of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke)

Long ago, one of my teachers in high school said that the existence of the Middle Ages in history was justified because it had produced such a genius as Dante Alighieri and a masterpiece such as the Comedy. Surely, there is virtue in genuine enthusiasm and it is true, in my opinion, that some ages are characterized - and perhaps justified - by the literature they produce.In this light, I came to think that if the second half of the 20th century had something comparable to Dante's Comedy, that might well be Ursula Le Guin's "Trilogy of Earthsea".

It takes little effort to identify the elements of the fictional Earthsea universe that couple with the corresponding elements in our world, with magic being the Earthsea equivalent of science and technology in our world. Of course, that has to be taken with some caution: it is an old cliché that of saying, for instance, that a girl's eyes are like stars, and then go on describing stars while referring to the girl's eyes. Shakespeare could do that, but Shakespeare was Shakespeare; for a modern writer, allegory is a deadly trap. But in Le Guin's work (just as in Dante's) allegory goes way beyond banality. It has been said that true writers don't think in symbols and I am sure that Le Guin never planned the allegorical two-way correspondences in her world and ours. But, no matter what mental process produces symbols, good literature teems with them. Le Guin's writing, then, sprouts out symbols like a Medieval cathedral sprouts out gargoyles.

So, what is the Earthsea world telling us? To explain my point, I have to start from far away. Imagine that you have never been exposed to the thousands of years of accumulation of what we call "culture". Culture is a way of classifying and categorizing; it tells you that things may be organic/inorganic, hard/soft, good/bad, friendly/unfriendly, etcetera. But imagine that you are looking at the world with fresh eyes; as if seeing it for the first time. You see all sort of things: people, animals, rivers, rocks, building, mountains, and much more. And you try to make some sense of all that. So, you notice that some things move, grow, shrink, and change shape. There seems to be some hierarchy in this kind of entities; some move fast and some slow, some don't move at all, but that doesn't mean they never do (think of a volcano). Let's  say that that you could think that all things have a soul; in a way they are like you, there is a certain kinship in all things.

So, if things have a soul, then you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. You can do that also with animals; they won't talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That's the origin of what we call "religion", that's a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is the definition of God (or of the Gods).

But there is also another way of understanding the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. You can do the same with an enemy: if you bump his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of Magic; that some also call "craft". Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them.

Religion may be older than magic, but they seem to have been going in parallel in human history. Take one of the oldest Western pieces of literature, the Iliad, and you'll find Gods appearing on almost every page, but no wizard ever crosses them. But, in the "Odyssey"; you have an almost prototypical witch; Circe, who turns people into pigs, although she is also described as a Goddess. In some of the earliest literature we have, the Sumerians left us plenty of healing recipes where they freely mix invocation to Gods with herbs and other substances that surely had some healing powers of their own.

In time, Religion and Magic diverged more and more to the point that most modern religions despise magic as evil. Priests may well perform rituals to obtain something for the benefit of the faithful, but they are always careful to state that success or failure is never guaranteed. If you pray God (or the priest does that for you) you may ask Him that He would cure your ailment. If you are cured, then you are supposed to thank God for His benevolence. But the ailment doesn't disappear or you get worse, then you are not supposed to blame God for that. The divine will is unfathomable and it may be argued that it is your fault because of some sin you committed that made you unworthy of God's benevolence. A win-win condition for the priests, for sure.

Over history, magic took different paths. One was that of the Europan alchemists. They tended to renounce to all the dark incantations of old times and they became true empiricists, originators of what we call the "scientific method". Their theoretical basis was faulty and they lost a lot of time in tasks that today we recognize as impossible. But they were always in search for things that worked. Modern science is a wary of recognizing their role, but the basic idea is the same: the world is a machine: you don't need Gods to operate on it. And, in a certain way, the daughter of alchemy, science, triumphed. In most of the Western World, when people want to be cured of their sickness, they trust a doctor more than a priest; even though they may also pray God to give them a hand, just in case. But praying God is way more unreliable than taking a pill or undergoing surgery.

There is a problem with the universal machine, though. Magic, just as Science, has no moral compass: the end result of magic doesn't depend on whether it is done for a good or a bad purpose. Science-based medicine will unflinchingly cure an evil person while the best modern technologies have developed weapons that will kill anyone. And this is a big problem especially when science fails - and it does. While you can't sue God for malpractice, you can and you do that when you think a doctor did something wrong to you or to someone close to you. And modern science has been unable to maintain its promises and it is been as an evil form of black magic for having lost control on those that it did manage to deliver; think of nuclear energy as an example.

Now, let's go back to Earthsea. It is a society nearly fully based on magic, just as our modern world is nearly fully based on science. That allows Le Guin to dissect the moral dilemmas of science in a variety of narrative plots. Earthsea is a machine all based on the "old speech" that plays the same role as mathematical models in our world. This old speech, in other words, is something like an instruction manual for the world machine. Then, the novel describes idealized scientists - portraited as wizards. They are benevolent, crafty, intelligent, and always worried about not doing damage to the equilibrium of things. One wishes our scientists were like that! But, even the wise mages of Earthsea have problems. One is that they can do very little; we see them mending broken vases, curing goats' infected udders, raising - sometimes - the magewind to push boats, and curing human ailments only when they are not too serious. So, they are at times considered as useless and rejected. One of the stories of the series deals with an age in which wizardry had fell from grace and was widely despised. Just like what may soon happen to science in our world.

True, the protagonist of most of the stories, Ged, also fights dragons, but dragons are not a problem; they are more part of the danger of doing science, a little like nuclear energy. The real problem with magery in Earthsea is the same we have with science in our world: the lack of a moral compass. So, in the first story of the series, Ged's enemy is not a dragon but himself. And, later on, it will be another mage, turned evil. Over and over, the mages of Earthsea are at loss on how to deal with the Otherworld; the realm of the dead. A realm that's alien to magic and to science, but that's the natural domain of religion.

Le Guin's view of the Otherworld is nearly identical to the Sumerian one reported in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the interaction of the dead and the living is a theme that goes through the whole series; concluding it in a way that's a pure rendition of the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. The dead vanish in a puff of smoke, but the problem remains and it is one that neither science nor magic can solve.

So, Earthsea is not a Godless world; it can't be. It was created by Segoy; who maybe is a dragon, or maybe he is a God. And it is hinted that there is something more; much more than that and at least one region of Earthsea, the Kargad Lands in the North, are described as dominated by a religious vision of the world. Initially, the Kargish are just pirates and barbarians, but then they take up power and importance in the stories, hinting that their view may be on a par - perhaps superiors to their crafty Southern Neighbors. It is like that: Earthsea is a real world, it is alive. Le Guin says that she won't write more novels about it, but that doesn't matter. It was another writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who said that a writer only adds pages to a giant book that's being written by all the previous writers.

So, as I am writing these note, I am almost overwhelmed at the vastity and the complexity of what I am trying to describe. The Earthsea universe is so complex that to describe it you would need to write another complete Earthsea cycle. Something like what Borges had one of his characters trying to do, becoming capable of rewriting the Don Quixote, exactly as Cervantes had written it. Or, maybe, you need to live in Earthsea, as Ursula Le Guin has probably done. So, in the end, what's the point of creating a whole new universe which has the same problems we have with ours? Maybe creating universes is unavoidable for some people with truly awesome creative powers. Maybe there is no rational justification for doing it, it just happens. And maybe these universes are not created by anyone, they just exist and they are described by some people who have the gift of seeing them.

Maybe we should just read about Earthsea for the pure joy of doing that. Or, maybe, we can read it in order to learn something about the contradictions and the problems of our world. What's all our science for? Can it solve problems or does it just create more of them? Can we attain the "balance" that the wizards of Earthsea keep striving for? How can we keep our nuclear dragons for burning all of us to cinders? What should we do with our dull and arrogant wizards who think they know more than anyone else?

Will we ever know if the universe is a soul or a machine? Maybe not. Like Ged in his little ship, the Lookfar, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (*)” It is our destiny to follow the great current that's taking us across the ocean of time to an unknown destination. Or maybe toward Earthsea.

(*) For those who live in Earthsea and may not have heard of "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald, that book is the origin of this quote.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Magic is Back: Reading Novels Again

things change
     authors and wizards are not always to be trusted
           nobody can explain a dragon

Ursula K. Le Guin - "Tales From Earthsea" (2001)

I was afraid that the change had been definitive. That I would never be able again to read books the way I would read them in my 20s, as an avid reader of science fiction. Recently, when I had tried to reread the "Trilogy of Earthsea" - a book that has deeply shaped my view of the world - I found myself reading in the "skipping mode" that I had to develop to read internet pages full of links and advertising. The daily exposure to the Internet social media seemed to have destroyed my capability of reading a novel line by line, the way a novel is supposed to be read.

So, I had to work on it and, in the end, the magic returned. It took a certain effort, but not so much as I had feared. This morning, I looked at the low sun of a clear and chilly winter day and I told myself that I wouldn't turn on anything (no PC, no cell phone, not even the TV) until sunset. And I did just that.

I sat in the sun with the "Tales of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin in my hands and, as I went through the novel, the magic returned. Yes, I could read again a novel, one line after the other. And every line brought a description of the world of Earthsea with its oceans, islands, boats, towers, trees, wizards and everything. Every line was an invitation to imagine the world that Le Guin has imagined (and where, I think, she has lived. It cannot be otherwise.). Every line was a glimpse of a world that I thought I had lost but that was still there, that greeted me back as if I had been the prodigal son of the Bible returning home.

I was an elation that almost made me fall from the chair where I was sitting. And it was an incredible sensation of freedom. The Internet hogs all your time: no Internet means plenty of time. It means that you don't have to worry about answering mails, about writing blog posts, about following the comments. It is an unexpected freedom. When I was not reading Le Guin's book I walked around the house, noticing many small things I had to fix and to do, and that I had the time to fix things and do things. I took a walk to the woods near my home, to pay homage to the Great Oak that rules on the hills nearby, just as the Magic Grove rules on the Island of Roke, in the World of Earthsea.

I cant' say if this little Internet Ramadan is enough to cure all of us of Internet addiction. Maybe, even in my case, it was possible only because it involved some spell casting on the part of the wise wizards of Earthsea. But I'll try it again next Saturday. And I hope that the Wizards will help me again.

Monday, January 2, 2017

How we lost the silence: what's the Web doing to us?

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying, life: 
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky                   
           - The Creation of Èa

Ursula K. Le Guin, "A Wizard of Eathsea" (1968)

As I was re-reading the novels of the "Earthsea" trilogy, by Ursula Le Guin, I found that I had troubles in following the text. I had read those novels for the first time, I think, in the late 1970s and I read them again at least  two times. Yet, this time, it took me a conscious effort to read the novels in the way I remember having read them decades ago, before the age of the Internet. I had to concentrate on following each line, on savoring every word. I could do it, but at every slowdown of the action - these novels are not perfect, just as the world they describe - my mind started to lose contact, moving again to the "skipping mode" that's typical of surfing the Web.

Le Guin's prose is not slow, but dense. It is full of details; as you follow the travels of the wizard Ged, you always know the shape of the Moon, the color of the sky, the shape of the hills, the trees, the creatures, the people. It is a prose that demands a certain degree of attention; well worth dedicating for a series of novels that have been shaping my view of the world. And, at the very beginning of the first novel of the series, I found the words that I transcribed at the beginning of this post and that describe exactly what's happening. In another section of the novel, Le Guin says, "For a word to be spoken, there must be silence." And we seem to have lost the silence we need in the great cacophony of the web.

The difficulty of following prose is not the only symptom of Web addiction I noticed.  Today, I can't watch TV for more than a few minutes before getting bored (this is not so bad, actually). For years, by now, I have been unable to watch a movie all the way to its end, they all seem to me slow and boring. So, not surprising that it happens for books, too, to say nothing about the disappearance of that concentrated form of textual communication that we call "poetry". And, finally, there are my students who seem to find every hour of class as a torture to be endured before going back to texting on their cell phones.

Of course, I am not the only one with these symptoms. Andrew Sullivan wrote a hugely interesting piece about what's happening to us with our daily overexposure to the Web. We are more and more retreating to the world of the social media, continuously exposed to an endless flow of news and contacts. Faster and faster, and more and more shallow. And, as a consequence, we are losing a lot: the ability of concentrating on anything. It is a serious form of addiction; a constant form of dopamine stimulation, getting worse all the time.

Can we do something about all that, or do we have to accept it as unavoidable? Hard to say; but it is well know how difficult it is to deal with a addictions. You can make plenty of grand proposals and then you'll lapse again to the old routines. Sullivan mentions the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Sabbath as a way to attain the degree of silence that's necessary to hear the words spoken to us. Maybe we could think of an "Internet Ramadan" for the same purpose. Or, perhaps, we'll never be free again until the network collapses; everything must collapse one day or another. Then, we'll be able again to listen to each other and, maybe, to read poetry again.

Below, the text of a comment by Deric Bownd that summarizes Sullivan's article, but it is worth reading it all.

Andrew Sullivan does a striking piece, describing a process that began with his daily immersion in The Daily Dish, an early blog that was a precursor of everything to come. Here are some should read the whole article.
I was…a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
…the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day…a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego.
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it…Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades..I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
…my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time...And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.
Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves...When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.
Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety...You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away...Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.
...our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
The Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination...This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.
I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The End of Music - The End of Magic

By the white straits of Soléa
and the bowed red branches
that bent their blossoms over
her bowed head, heavy
with sorrow for the lost lover.
by the red branch and the white branch
and the sorrow unceasing
do I swear, Serriadh,
son of my mother and of Morred
to remember the wrong done
                      forever, forever

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wizard of Earthsea"

In a post on my "Cassandra's" blog I discussed about the need of closing the gap between sciences and humanities. I said that they are the same thing and we should stop this silly quarrel. That generated a comment by David Collins about the loss of some old habits, such as singing together. That, in turn,  brought back to my mind an episode in Ursula's Le Guin's trilogy "The Wizard of Earthsea" (1968). It takes place in the third book, the one titled "The Farthest Shore", where the protagonists, the mage Sparrowhawk and the young warrior Arren, embark in a quest to seek to restore magic to a land that has lost it. And they discover that not only magic has been lost, music has been lost as well. This is how Le Guin tells the story.

They were still: the bitter faces and the shrewd, the hard-worked hands and bodies. They sat still in the warm rainy Southern dusk, and heard that song like the cry of the grey swan of the cold seas of Ea, yearning, bereft. For a while after the song was over they kept still.
"That's a queer music," said one, uncertainly.
Another, reassured as to the absolute centrality of the isle of Lorbanery in all time and space, said, "Foreign music's always queer and gloomy."
"Give us some of yours," said Sparrowhawk. "I'd like to hear a cheery stave myself. The lad will always sing of old dead heroes."
"I'll do that," said the last speaker, and hemmed a bit, and started out to sing about a lusty, trusty barrel of wine and a hey, ho, and about we go! But nobody joined him in the chorus, and he went flat on the hey, ho.
"There is no more proper singing," he said angrily. "It's the young people's fault, always chopping and changing the way things are done, and not learning the old songs."
"It is not that," said the skinny man, "there's no more proper anything. Nothing goes right anymore."

And this is how David Collins describes something similar taking place in the real world, in our times.

At a dinner party ≥50 years ago, we were discussing what invention (“gadget” in your terminology) did only good. My wife proposed “record players” (stereo, hi-fi, other names of the day). The oldest man present, then a 70-something, politely demurred. He fondly remembered when people made their own music, sang their own songs.
I remembered my then-recent undergrad days at the University of Michigan (1950’s). Men’s dorms SW of Main Campus, women’s dorms NE of Main Campus; dorms ≈1 mile apart. There were closing hours for the women’s dorms, not for the men’s. Thus, when on a date, we guys never dropped our gals off at their dorms until the last moment, in a spectacle known as the “midnight show.” Then we would gather in places for guys from our dorm. When we had enuf of a group, we would walk together, singing. In harmony. (“Sloop John B” was very popular.) In 1958 this started to wane; by 1960 it was gone. We didn’t sing at parties or in the dorms any more, either. We simply turned on our Magic Boxes and listened to the professionals do it better.

This isn’t the fault of the boxes. It’s our fault because we let it happen. To sing, play a musical instrument, we need to study and practice. To use the boxes, all we need to do is spend money. As with music, thus with much other "Kultur."

Thus went the dinner conversation. After dinner, we sang. In harmony. (The wine helped.) We were trying to deny reality. (For whatever it’s worth, we men were all engineers.) The unhappy reality is that literati have been gobbled up by this Brave New World as completely as technophists.

And here we are: people don't sing together anymore. In a way, we have lost our songs and, in other ways, we have lost our magic - we are a civilization looking for a lost soul. Ursula Le Guin saw this happening with the exquisite sensitivity of a poet and she described it in her "The Wizard of Earthsea" already half a century ago. We took our path toward the "Dry Land" described the novel, patterned after the "Kur" of the ancient Sumerians, where the dead lie down like birds at dusk, eating mud and drinking dust. And it is there that we are marching to, pushed by our fears of losing what we have thus making sure that we will lose it.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Tale for Christmas

This post was published first in "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2013. I thought to republish here for the Christmas of 2016. It is not about Christmas, but it describes a story that has a magical atmosphere that reminds the original meaning of Christmas: the birth of the new year. And it remains a milestone for me, one of the stories that, in some ways, drove my life and made me what I am today.

In 1960, Vladimir Dudintsev (1918-1998) published a short novel titled "A New Year's tale."  This story greatly impressed me when I read it, many years ago, in an Italian translation in a collection titled "Russian Science Fiction"

Some 50 years ago, I received as a Christmas present a book titled "Russian Science Fiction." All the stories in that book made a deep impression on me, but there was one that has remained in my mind more than the others; a curious story titled "A New Year's Tale".

I was, maybe, 12 at that time and, of course, I couldn't understand everything of that story and I didn't pay attention to the name of the author. But, as time went by, I didn't forget it; rather, it became entrenched in my mind, progressively acquiring more meaning and more importance. I reread it not long ago, and it came back to my mind during a recent trip to Russia. So, let me tell you this story as I remember it.

"A New Year's Tale" tells of one year of life of the protagonist, a researcher in a scientific laboratory somewhere in the Soviet Union. Dudintsev manages to tell the story without ever giving specific details about anything: no place names, no names of the characters, not even of the protagonist. It is a feat of literary virtuosity; it gives to the story an atmosphere of a fairy tale but, at the same time, it is very, very specific.

It took me time before I could understand the hints that Dudintsev gives all over the text, but after many trips to Russia, everything fell into place. It is curious how Dudintsev managed to catch so well the atmosphere of a research lab in the Soviet Union; he was not a scientific researcher. But that's what makes a great story-teller, after all: understanding what one is describing - and feeling something for it.

The story starts with a debate - rather, a quarrel - that the protagonist has with someone termed "a provincial academic" (we are not told his name). This provincial academic should be nothing more than a nuisance, but the protagonist can't stop from engaging in the debate. He understands that he is losing time, that he should be doing something more useful, more important. But he just can't sit down and do his job.

While the protagonist is entangled in this useless quarrel, the chief of the laboratory (again, we are not told his name), someone who dabbles in archeology, tells to his coworkers of a research of his somewhere in the Caucasus, where they found an ancient tomb. There was an owl engraved on the tombstone and an inscription that could be deciphered. It was, "...and the years of his life were 900...."

Now, what could that mean? Could the man buried there have lived 900 years? No, of course not. But then, what does the inscription mean? Well, someone says, that must mean that this man spent his life so well and so fully that it was like his years had been 900.

The discussion goes on. What does it mean to live such a full life? The researchers try to find an answer but, at some moment, they hear the voice of someone who usually keeps silent at these reunions. We are told that he is from far away, not Russian, that is. We can imagine that this man doesn't have a Russian name, but we are not told names. So, he is an outsider and he comes with a completely different viewpoint; let me call him "the foreign scientist" even though in the old Soviet Union, theoretically, there was no such distinction. "You see, comrades," he says, "it is very simple. To live a full life, you must always choose the greatest satisfactions, the highest joys you can find."

At this point, we hear the voice of the political commissioner of the lab. Apparently, there was usually someone in scientific academies in the Soviet Union who was in charge of making sure that Soviet Scientists would not fall into doing decadent capitalist science. So, he stands up and he tells the foreign scientist, "Well, comrade, don't you think one should also work for the people or something like that?" And the foreign scientist answers, "You are so backward, comrade. Don't you understand? The greatest satisfaction, the highest joy one can have in life is exactly that: working for the people!"

After that the discussion is over, the protagonist of the story reflects on the words of the foreign scientist and he resolves to start doing something serious in his life. He decides to start doing experiments, advance his theory. We are not told exactly what he is doing, but we understand that he is working on something important; a great discovery that has to do with capturing and storing solar light. And he manages to work on that for some time. Then, his colleagues bring to him another paper written by his provincial antagonist. So, he feels he has to answer that, and then the provincial academician replies.... and the protagonist finds himself entangled again into this argument that he can't abandon.

Things are back to the silly normalcy of before, but then something happens. The protagonist finds that he is being stalked. Someone, or something, is following him all the time. When he sees it in full he discovers that it is an owl. A giant owl, almost as big as a man, looking at him. He thinks it is a hallucination, which of course it must be. But he keeps seeing this owl over and over.

So, the protagonist goes to see a doctor and the doctor asks him what made him come there. "An owl," he says, and the doctor pales. After a thorough physical examination, the doctor tells him: "you have one year to live, more or less." We are not told of what specific sickness the protagonist suffers. He asks, "but why the owl?" And the doctor answers, "we are studying that. You are not the only one. The owl is a symptom." Then, the doctor looks at the protagonist straight in his eyes and he says, "I can tell you something. Those who see the owl, have a chance to be saved."

In the meantime, there had been a long discussion between the protagonist and the foreign scientist, the one who had so well silenced the political commissioner. So, the foreign scientist had told to the protagonist his story, obliquely, yes, but clearly understandable. His fellow countrymen had not liked the idea that he had left the country to become a scientist. They are described as gangsters and criminals, but we have a feeling that there was something more at stake than just petty crimes. This man had made a choice and that had meant to make a clean break from his country and his culture; it had meant to accept the new Soviet Communist society. Now, he was spending his time in this new world trying to get his "greatest satisfactions and highest joys" by working for the people. And, because of that, his former countrymen had condemned him to death. So, he had changed his name and his identity, and he had even surgically changed his face to become unrecognizable. But he knew that "they" were looking for him and they would find him at some moment.

So, the destinies of the protagonist and of the foreign scientist are somehow parallel, they both have a limited time. After having seen the doctor, the protagonist understands the situation and he rushes to search for the foreign scientist. They can work together, they can join forces, in this way, maybe they can....  but, in horror, he discovers that the foreign scientist has been killed.

In panic, the protagonist desperately looks for the notes he had collected over the years. But the cleaning lady tells him that she had used them to start the fire in the stove. She had no idea that they could have been important. The protagonist feels like he is walking in a nightmare. Just one year and he has lost his notes. He must restart from scratch.... his great discovery.... how can he do? Yet, he decides to try.

He becomes absorbed in his work. He works harder and harder. Staying in the lab night and day and, when he goes home, he keeps working. His colleagues note the change; they are surprised that he doesn't react anymore to the attacks of the provincial academician, but he doesn't care (which is, by the way, a good lesson on how to handle Internet flames). He still sees the owl; always bigger and coming closer to him, the owl has become something of a familiar creature, almost a friend.

Then, someone appears. It is a woman with well-formed shoulders (of course, we are not told her name). The protagonist recognizes her. It is not the first time he has seen her. He remembers having seen her with the now dead foreign scientist.

The protagonist has no time for a love story. He has to work. He tries to ignore the woman, but he is also attracted to her. He can concede her just a few words. Ten minutes, maybe. So they talk and the woman tells him. "It is you, I recognize you! You can't fool me!" The protagonist remembers something that the foreign scientist had told him; that he had his face surgically changed to escape from his enemies. Now, this woman thinks that the protagonist is really her former lover, who changed again face and appearance and didn't tell that not even to her.

The protagonist tries to deny that he is the former lover of the woman, but, curiously, he doesn't succeed, not even to himself. In a way, he becomes the other, acting like him in his complete immersion in his work. The protagonist discovers that the foreign scientist had assembled a complete laboratory at home, much better than the lab they had at the academy. So he moves there, with the woman with the well-formed shoulders (and the owl comes, too, perching on a branch just outside the window). Then, the protagonist even discovers that the foreign scientist was secretly copying his notes and that he gave them to the woman. She had kept them, the notes are not lost! With these notes, the protagonist can gain months of work. Maybe he can make it in one year, maybe.....

The last part of the story goes on at a feverish pace. The protagonist becomes sicker and sicker; to the point that he has to stay in bed and it is the woman with the well-formed shoulders who takes up the work in the lab. And the owl perches on the bed head. But they manage to get some important results and that's enough to catch the attention of the lab boss. He orders to everyone in the lab to come there and help the protagonist (and the woman with the well-formed shoulders) to move on with the experiments.

In the final scene, the year has ended and we see the protagonist in bed, dying. But his colleagues show him the results of the experiment: something so bright, so beautiful; we are not told exactly what: anyway it is a way to catch sunlight in a compact form: a new form of energy, a new understanding of the working of the sun - we don't know, but it is something fantastic. Even the owl looks at that thing, curious. The protagonist hears the sound of bells from the window. A new year is starting. We are not told whether he lives or not but, in any case, it is a new beginning and, whatever it happens, they'll tell about him that the years of his life had been 900.

And here we are. You see, it is a magic story. It keeps your attention; you want to know if the protagonist lives or not and you want to know if he manages to make his great discovery. But it is also the story of the life and of the mind of scientists that I think you can't find anywhere else in novels or short stories. It is curious that Dudintsev did so well because, as I said, he wasn't a scientist; he was a literate. But he managed to catch so incredibly well the life of a scientist - of a scientist working in the Soviet Union, yes, but not just that. Dudintsev's portrait of science and scientists goes beyond the quirks of the old Soviet world.

Yes, in Soviet science there were things that look strange to us, such as having a political commissioner in the lab to watch what scientists were doing. But that's just a minor feature and, today, we have plenty of different constraints on what we do that don't involve a dumb political commissioner. The point is that scientists often work as if their life were to last just one year; at least during the productive time of their life; when they are trying to compress each year as if it were to be 900 years long. It is their lot: the search for the discovery, being so deeply absorbed in their work, being remote from everyone else; obsessed with owls that they alone can see.

And yet, Dudintsev's story is so universal that it goes beyond the peculiar mind of scientists. It is the story of all men, all over the world, of what we do and how we spend our lives. And the key of the story is the woman with the well-formed shoulders. She recognizes her former lover in the protagonist, or she feigns to recognize him. It is him or it is not him - it doesn't matter, but her devotion to her man is so touching: you perceive true love in this attitude. In the end, that's the key of the whole story: whatever we do in life, we do it for those we love.

Some of us are scientists, some aren't. But it is not a bad advice to live your life as if you wanted each year to be 900 years long. And every new year is a new beginning.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Walking around Fiesole: a post by Tatiana Yugay

Tatiana Yugay is Russian, professor of the University of Moscow, and she fell in love with Italy and with everything Italian. She owns an apartment in Italy, on the Mediterranean coast and, once, she drove all the way from Moscow to there, all alone - not a small feat!

Here, she reports on her visit to Florence and Fiesole. She is coming back for Christmas, this year. Apparently, she really likes the place!

By Tatiana Yugay, from her blog "Santa Tatiana"
I fell in love with  Fiesole even before visiting it. I first knew about this charming town from Ugo Bardi's photo blog. Ugo published there his photos with brief or sometimes long comments. I liked very much his pictures of nature and its creatures, sunrises and sunsets, historic sights, old postcards and local folks. He also wrote about historic and modern political, scientific and cultural events in Fiesole. I write in the past time because, unfortunately, Ugo didn't update his blog since December 2015. Though he wrote in Italian, I highly recommend you to visit the blog because his photos speak by themselves. It was a kind of chronicle of Fiesole's everyday life which was made with such a love and mild humor that I became dreaming to see Fiesole with my own eyes.

As a matter of fact, the Fiesolans have two strong reasons to consider themselves superior to the Florentines. Firstly,  Fiesole is much more ancient than Florence and, secondly, the town literally overlooks the Arno valley where Florence is situated.
Fiesole is a hill town located on a scenic height of 8 kilometres of distance from Florence. It spreads over two hills, San Francesco and Sant’ Apollinare, and the modern town is situated in the saddle between them. Fiesole (Etruscan - Viesul, Viśl, Vipsul) was a flourishing Etruscan city which was probably founded in the 9th century BC.  It was surrounded by an imposing ring of city walls stretching for over two and a half km which were erected to defend Fiesole from the Gauls' invasion. Even three millennia later, we can observe impressive Etruscan remnants in the town.

The Romans conquered Faesulae, as Fiesole was then known, in 283 BC. Under Roman rule, it became the seat of a famous school of augurs, and every year twelve young men were sent here from Rome to study the art of divination.
Fiesole had seen the great victory of Roman general Stilicho over Germanic hordes of the Vandals and Suebi under Radagaisus in 406. Ugo Bardi wrote in his blog “Cassandra legacy” that he had visited the battle place in order to commemorate an anniversary of this victory.  During the Gothic War (536-53), Fiesole was besieged several times and in 539 Justinus, the Byzantine general, captured it and razed its fortifications.

In the early Middle Ages, Fiesole was more powerful than Florence in the valley below, and many wars arose between them. In 1010 and 1025 Fiesole was sacked by the Florentines and was finally conquered in 1125.

Nowadays,  Fiesole is a charming and tranquil city and only landmarks of various epochs remind us about its glorious and turbulent history.
My first meeting with Fiesole took place last August when I visited the Bardis in their beautiful house near Fiesole. It was great to walk around the city with such a connoisseur of the place as Ugo. When driving to Fiesole, Ugo asked me, what would I like to see most of all. Of course, I wished to see the memorial place of  Stilicho's victory at the King's Mountain. It took us some minutes to get there. I'd better cite Ugo's post about this place.

“Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place”.

The place looked exactly as Ugo depicted it. The little white church surrounded by secular cypresses and young olive trees looked very peaceful. Only an ancient cross kept the memory of those faraway days. The impression of serenity was emphasized by a naive statue of the Madonna under a gazebo.

Surprisingly enough, we started our visit to Fiesole with so called Casa del popolo (People's House) built by local communists in the middle of 20th century. We had a nice talk with old communists who enjoyed their siesta playing chess and sipping coffee.
When Ugo parked the car near a wall made of huge wild stones, he told me that this was the best preserved fragment of ancient Etruscan walls. I was amused because they were in excellent condition and looked no older than mediaeval ones. I've seen Etruscan constructions before, namely, in Perugia and Viterbo.
Nonetheless, every time the same questions buzz in my head. How did the Etruscans manage to built such giant structures without any cement? How did these constructions survive till our days? While I was thinking about that, Ugo showed me another ancient piece of history.
He led me to the to the edge of the cliff and said that it was the best place to see the Roman amphitheater which was far bellow. And that wasn't all! Just near the parking, he showed me a fragment of an ancient Roman road. Black basalt stones were smoothly polished by centuries and half covered with grass. I'm passionate about ancient ruins and was happy to see and even touch Etruscan and Roman antiquities.

After a short walk along the Etruscan walls, we found ourselves in the mediaeval Convent of San Francesco. It seemed to me that during few minutes we were brought by the time machine from the Etruscan civilization to Ancient Rome and then to the Middle Ages.
The square in front of the church was very unusual. When we entered a lateral gate, we found ourselves in front of a sober little church and on our left there was a small loggia. The pavement was overgrown with grass and that gave the whole scene a bucolic country look. A pathway paved with big irregular stones was beginning right near the steps of the main entrance and led to the left. When we came nearer, I looked to the left and saw that there was a smooth descent to the belvedere with a breathtaking panorama. Of course, I rushed there to make photos. Florence was in full view, veiled in a haze of late afternoon light. Right below I saw the Brunelleschi cupola of the Duomo and all the city. The blue Apennine mountains could be hardly seen in the background.

The church and convent of San Francesco were founded in 1399 on the site of an Etruscan, and then Roman, acropolis. In former times, there was the church of St Mary of the Flowers which served for a small order of Florentine women called the Recluses of St Alexander.   In 1352, the ladies moved out to Pietrafitta on the Mugnone river.
The facade of a rather modest and austere Gothic church is built of blocks of light stone. The main portal is decorated by a fresco of San Francesco.  Right above the portal, there is a rose window with a clearly cut geometric flower.
I was very glad that church's interior was also designed in my favorite Gothic style. In fact, you can very seldom find a  church in Italy designed in the unique style. This happened because Italians were always fond of modernizing their churches and that sometimes resulted in a rather eclectic appearance of churches. I think that the San Francesco church has been a happy exception because it belonged from the very beginning till now to the Franciscan order.

The church has a single nave but it is divided by painted pilasters into four bays. It appeared that a small gothic-arched space is featured by four lateral altars situated in the 1st and 3rd bays.

They host beautiful paintings of late Middle Ages - the Immaculate Conception  by Piero di Cosimo, the Annunciation by Raffaellino del Garbo, the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine by Cenni di Francesco, and the Adoration of the Magi by the school of Cosimo Rosselli.
In the second bay, there are a neo-Gothic marble pulpit and the magnificent triptych of the Enthroned Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints by Bicci di Lorenzo. The fourth bay is entirely occupied by the presbytery, surrounded by a marble balustrade. Behind the main altar, there is the Crucifixion by Neri di Bicci and the Renaissance apse covered with a barrel vault.
The convent is situated to the right of the church. The building of the convent is organized around three cloisters which are simply named - the grand, the intermediate and the small cloisters. The most beautiful of them is the 15th century grand cloister. A portico surrounded by three covered galleries is decorated by a fresco of San Francesco talking to the birds, while at the center of the cloister is a picturesque stone well.

We passed the cloisters which were so peaceful and serene. I'd like to stay there much longer but Ugo wanted to show me other remarkable things.  One of them was the Franciscan Missionary Museum, which contains Egyptian and Chinese collections gathered by numerous missionary fathers to those lands. It was rather unusual to meet all these oriental artefacts in a mediaeval Tuscan monastery.
After that, Ugo assumed a mysterious air and led me up a narrow staircase. He put a finger to his lips and we silently entered a long corridor. There were monastic cells on both sides of the corridor which were preserved intact from the 15th century. They were ascetically furnished with worn wooden desks and chairs. Instead of beds, there were simple benches. In some of them, we saw an open book, a small crucifix, an inkpot and even spectacles. We observed a very modest cell of San Bernardino da Siena who was the Guardian of the Convent in 1418.

After the Convent, we made a short walk around the historic center of Fiesole. Unfortunately, there was a mass in the Duomo so we couldn't enter it. I'm going to write about the  Duomo and the historic center in my following posts.

Related posts
The King's Mountain 
The National Etruscan Museum in the Medieaval Stronghold
Dont Miss This Small but Very Rich Museum in Viterbo!

Useful links
Foto di Fiesole