I have to tell you about an odd dream of mine three nights ago. A stranger is saying, “I want to be reincarnated as one of those plaster things that are used as models in drawing classes. You know, those blocks, spheres, and pyramids.” “Why?” I ask. “Because,” he replies, “none has a penis.”
Suddenly he disappears, and I’m alone, thinking about what this curious man has just said. Somehow I realize there is a connection between those white plaster models and the Chopin mazurkas I have been playing at night to mask the dreadful Forio street noise. In the dream one explains the other, but nevertheless I can’t see exactly how. Then I awaken, vaguely puzzled, and mildly anxious.
On the train to Rome the other day the dream was in my thoughts, then gradually I saw from whence some of it came. At university many years ago I studied art, and naturally we used those plaster models of cones and spheres. The professor put a bright light on them at an angle, and we were to sketch in only the shadows. Less is more, as they say.
In any event, in those classes a sad paradox about me became clear. Which is that I have a highly developed artistic sensibility, a great eye, but virtually no ability to draw or paint. Thus I became a photographer, and I might add a very successful one.
My inability to execute in art is the same in music. I have a sophisticated musical ear, which explains my employment as a music critic for a major Italian newspaper, but yet nevertheless I am absolutely incapable of playing any instrument myself. I’m always asked the same question, “Do you perform?”
And I reply that George Bernard Shaw once observed that music critics are either musicians who are not writers, or writers who are not musicians. Which usually brings an appreciative smile.
It occurred to me on the train ride that wanting to be reincarnated as a simple plaster model without a penis is another way of saying you are just tired of going after what you cannot have.
Yes, an emasculated pyramid must enjoy a rather untroubled existence. To be sure, they move you around and shine a strong light on you once in a while, but you spend most of your time quietly on a shelf. Thus peacefully static you surely would not be excited by a vision such as I saw just the other day, of a bare-breasted nymph of 17, who cavorted brazenly in the white and green surf at the beach at Citera.
As I stared out the train’s window at a herd of water buffalo grazing in a large pasture, it occurred to me there must be more to my dream, something deeper and more Freudian, so to speak. And then as the train rumbled into a dark tunnel it came to me. That crazed Englishman, D.H. Lawrence.
Yes! Lawrence hated Italy, and hated Italians, but he gained considerable attention by writing about them. What Italians find most offensive is that Lawrence repeatedly insisted they have a subconscious obsession for the prime sexual symbol, The Phallus.
Well, to give the devil his due, you need only go to the ancient city of Pompeii to see to what extent The Phallus is graphically and shamelessly displayed in statues and frescoes. I refer to the House of Vetti, where near the front door on a vertical panel stands Priapus with his grotesquely oversized organ resting on one of the dishes of a scale.
And then there is the current exhibition of Pompeian brothel frescoes, erotic art with the most carefully wrought detail, in the National Archeological Museum in Napoli. (It has just occurred to me that phallic overtones might indeed be embedded in the Chopin mazurkas, which would then make clear the connection between the music and the blocks! I should look into it, perhaps.)
But in any event, Lawrence says the secret of Italy’s attraction to foreigners, and the reason so many tourists crowd the country, is to witness. . .phallic worship! “To the Italian,” Lawrence writes, “the phallus is the symbol of individual creative immortality, to each man his own Godhead.”
Can you imagine the outrage this caused here when first published?
Well, Lawrence wasn’t the first foreign literary artist to find 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 he 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. The 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 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 found an entrance and ancient stone steps. The vegetation was 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 says, “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 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, but intensely lyrical. Lyrical! Almost Mozartian. As you well know, much of Beethoven is aggressive, angry, and somewhat heavy handed. 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 was 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 Greek 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 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.
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