An excerpt from “Graffito,” one of the first stories I wrote here:
Well, D.H. Lawrence wasn’t the first foreign literary artist to find fertile material in Italy. A hundred years ago Henrik Ibsen lived not too far from my villa in the village of Forio, on the island’s west coast. It was here that the great writer found inspiration for a poem entitled “Brand,” which became a popular success in Norway.
The poem is about a rural pastor who believes he must give all of himself or nothing to God, and the pastor, in turn, expects the same from not only his parishioners but also his own family. His religious passion allows no compromise, and he is not swayed by human sympathy or warmth. He thus becomes a moral hero. . .AND a monster. At the end of the poem this obsessed wretch is engulfed by a roaring avalanche and the last he hears are words from a disembodied voice:
“He is the god of love.”
Now, Ibsen’s inspiration for the catastrophic collapse of earth that served as Divine Justice for the obsessed pastor came from Punta Imperatore, a massive promontory that sits as a Sphinx paw, its claws curling into the sea. After a long climb, Ibsen became terrified by the nearly vertical drop from the side of the narrow path to rocks far below.
Ibsen was convinced the cliff would at any moment crumble and fall into the sea. His companion, a fellow named Bergsoe, laughed. “We are in proportion to this cliff as a fly to a tower,” he said.
But Ibsen shook his head. “Even a fly,” he replied, “can bring down a tower if it were on the point of collapse.”
Not too long ago I decided to retrace Ibsen’s path up the promontory. I climbed over a fence put up by the now shut-down Posiedon Spa and found an entrance and ancient stone steps. Dense vegetation grew on both sides and arched over a steep path--a dark, twisted, intricately detailed tangle. Hundreds, thousands of different species of plants, flowers, weeds and trees. Spiky, dusty-green leaves on thin, pale white branches. Pines and birches and packed bushes, their exposed roots writhing on the vertical dropping cliff. Damp earth smells. The melancholy calling of just a few bright white gulls, who extended their wings and floated on thermals. Far below was the churning and frothing of blue-green water around black rocks.
I continued my climb, and then encountered a clearing. At the top of a slope was a vertical wall of soft, white pumice. And there, on that crumbling pale surface, I saw it. A scratched outline of an erect phallus. That crude graffito, so unexpected at this isolated spot high above the village, startled me.
Naturally I thought again of that madman, Lawrence. The Phallus is a symbol of creative divinity. “But,” Lawrence insists, “it represents only part of creative divinity. The Italian has made it represent the whole. Which is now his misery, for he has to destroy his symbol in himself.”
This is why Lawrence thought Italian men have an unashamed enthusiasm for war. Partly it is true phallic worship, for the phallic principle is to absorb and dominate all life. But at the same time it is a desire to be exposed to death, to know death, so that death may destroy in them a too strong dominion of the blood.
I stood there at the top of the promontory far above the winedark sea, the wind blowing my hair, and I laughed. Dominion of blood! Hot blood! Which precisely explained the musical performance I had seen just the day before. It was at the Basilica di Santa Maria di Loreto, by three young musicians from Parma. They played the Beethoven trio No. VII, op. 97, “L’Arciduca,” for piano, violin and violoncello.
Their execution was precise, fluid, and intensely lyrical. Lyrical! Almost Mozartian. As you well know, much of Beethoven is aggressive, angry, and somewhat heavy handed. Typically German. But yes, of course, he is capable of sentiment. I think of some of the piano sonatas, the Concerto in D. But these Italians saw only sweetness in the phrases of the seventh trio. And why? It is in their blood!
At the conclusion of my business in Rome, I had the rest of the afternoon free so I wandered about the grounds of the Villa Borghese. There, on a wall above a fountain, was a big-bellied and heavy lidded Roman god Bacchus, drunkenly grinning. I sat on a bench under an umbrella pine and I thought. After a while, as the red sun hovered low in the sky, came a mild epiphany. A quiet understanding.
What seems certain to me is that our task on earth is to find ways to overcome the obstacles our Creator has put on our path. The man in my dream found the great solution to his sexual frustration. He concluded it is better to be a white plaster block than a man inflamed. D. H. Lawrence furthers his literary career by twisting, as it were, the true facts about Italy, which of course says more about him than about his subject. Ibsen’s terror is transformed into poetry. Young musicians’ hot blood results in fluid lyricism.
And, as I discovered early in my own literary career, if you don’t succeed with one approach, devise another. Life, after all, is a game of poker. It’s not the cards you are dealt, but how you play them.