At a cafe the other day in Piazza Chiesa, near Porto Romano on the island of Ventotene, I wrote in my leather-bound journal. Here are a few excerpts:
Walked the length of the island, revisited all the places of my first encounter with this strange, spooky place. I highlighted my route on the map I got several years ago.
The trip started with overcast and light rain, but by the time the boat pulled into Porto Nuovo the sun broke through and remained shining most of the day.
I descended the steep steps of Parata Grande, a slightly smaller and less imposing a sheltered, isolated cove than Ischia’s Sorgeto. The beach was covered with dried seaweed and smooth stones. The seaweed provided a soft cushion under my towel. I swam, floated on my back, gazed up at the hazy sky. I dove down into the clear water and found two small colorful pebbles to take back with me.
The archeological site of Villa Giulia was, as before, closed but I went around the back and got some pics of the ruins over the top of the wire fence. I tried to imagine what went on here long ago.
Isola Santo Stefano out there about a mile off shore is a dreary icon of human suffering. The prison was built in 1795 to keep criminals until they died. Many of the poor wretches looked out at the blue sky and blue sea and cursed the day they were born.
Octavian Augustus exiled his daughter Giula Agripinna on this small island for her “intemperate behavior,” the tour guide euphemism for her bedding every man she fancied, and--shockingly!--more than one at a time.
In a long, long walk down Via Olivi I thought of Memoria Nera, and my difficulty placing it with a publisher. On the one hand, Katherine McNamara of the distinguished online journal Archipelago pronounced the opening chapter “good,” which is the highest praise she ever gives to any work submitted to her. And that single word—“good”—is her sole publishing criterion.
But other readers are less charitable. They are troubled by the gloomy subject material, and some have said that my narrative is “diffuse,” which I suppose means that I tend to distance myself from my subject material, as I distance myself from people generally. It's all about keeping safe.
My interaction with my father was traumatic and I suppose I’m afraid to really get into it any more than I have to. Were I to make it less diffuse and more immediate and real I might suggest to the reader that for some twisted psychological reason I wanted to be abused by that drunken, ignorant lout. But that's absurd. I wanted none of it. And in August of 1959 I left him and that empty house, never to return.
So I keep unpleasant episodes as far away as possible. But then my detachment, my unwillingness to get deeper into it, is merely a pose. I’m not detached. I’m still reeling from the experience.
Professional readers want narratives that are written by authors who are both fearless and in full command of their material. And they want to be entertained, and amused. But in my work there is little humor, because in my view there is absolutely nothing at all funny about childhood abuse.
Well, the fact is I’m attempting to deal with an enormously difficult subject. I did the best I could with Memoria Nera. Eventually I’ll do even better.
Then there's a paradox: a few readers say they have a gut feeling that Memoria Nera will be a best seller. It’s engaging, fast-paced, draws the reader right into it. But others are troubled and repelled by the unremitting gloom of it all. So perhaps the book needs some contrast, some relief. Like examples of my natural optimism and good humor.
Obviously it’s a matter of esthetics. As in music, there's the underlying necessity of contrast. Slow tempo should be followed by fast. Piano followed by forte. Soft should follow hard. Humor should follow anger and hatred. Hope should come after despair. Suffering, after all, is redemptive and undeserved suffering is redemptive absolutely.
I’m not conscious of hiding from my subject, because I’ve managed to put it all down, every detail. Maybe something is going on here that I don’t see or understand. My unconscious defense mechanisms obviously do disturb or piss “normal” people off big time. But if it’s unconscious how in hell can I make myself aware of it? All I can do is ask people for input, which I do, and they generally oblige me.
As for photography, when I raise the camera it usually is in response to the esthetics of the scene before me. But often it’s a recognition of emotional resonance. A subject may contain a revelation, but it’s always hidden, like a metaphor or an abstraction, precisely like the coded meaning of a dream. My job is to just keep taking the pics. Whatever hidden meaning embedded in the images may later be analyzed, prized out.
Interesting—so far I feel like I’m on some kind of a vision quest. Which involves a long journey, a lot of walking in the hot sun, which is physically demanding In my wearied state, I feel barriers falling. My spirit is free to emerge and roam around. Now, earlier today, on a guilt-free impulse, I went into a tobacco store and bought a five-pack of Girabaldi’s, those toxic cheroots. And I’m smoking one now. It occurs to me that I’m using strong espresso and the nicotine rush as a psychic or spiritual psyhchedelic, a spiritual stimulant, as did the Native Americans on their vision quests.
When I found this spot I sat here for a long time, lazy, not wanting to take the trouble to pull out this book and write. And actually I was getting impatient and wanted to pack up and leave this comfortable seat in the shade of trees and an umbrella.
I don’t know. But I stayed because I realized I would not find a better place. All the other bars and cafes had loud music playing, and there were people in noisy conversations, etc.
So what is the message I’m getting here at Ventotene?
Well, it’s something I’ve often thought of, which is that no meaning exists except what we impose upon what we encounter. Patterns are evocative to us because they appear to be the opposite of chaos, or randomness. We are terrified of chaos and meaninglessness, therefore we struggle mightily to make our universe meaningful. This is the essential function of philosophy, religion, astrology, and various other belief systems.
It’s clear that I must continue to examine my own process of imposing patterns and meaning, because this may lead to a better self-understanding. Or to a more effective life. Like one in which I make less stupid mistakes.
It’s the process of examination that is vastly more important than what might come of it. It’s the effort, not the result. This is the great liberating epiphany of Sisyphus, which led to his continuing his impossible task.