The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Milton’

The Professor and the Siren

August 9, 2014 | by

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s groundbreaking mermaid.

The-Mermaid

Howard Pyle, The Mermaid, 1910

By the side of the path around the circular, volcanic crater of Lake Pergusa, near the town of Enna in the center of Sicily, a carved stone marks the spot where Proserpina, the goddess of the spring, was seized and carried off by Pluto into the underworld. “Qui, in questo luogo,” proclaims the inscription. “Proserpina fù rapita.” This is the very place:

                                          ...that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flow’rs
Herself a fairer Flow’r by gloomy Dis
Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, IV)

I was giving a lecture in Palermo in 2011 and asked to see the entrance to Hades. My hosts from the university kindly drove me; it was early summer, the lush undergrowth was starred with flowers, and the tapestry of orchids, campion, arum, acanthus, clover, wild hyacinth, thyme, and marjoram was still green, tender, and damp. Next to the monument I found another sign, which pointed beyond the chain-link fence toward “the cave from which the god issued forth in his chariot.” Again, the use of the past historic declared the event’s definite reality. In a tangle of bushes and fruit trees, some rocks were visible, but the mouth opening on the infernal regions now stands in private grounds.

Ovid tells us, in his Metamorphoses, that the young girls who were gathering flowers with Proserpina that fatal day were turned into the Sirens—the bird-bodied golden-feathered singers with female faces of the Homeric tradition—and then went wandering about over land and sea, crying out in search of their vanished playmate. In “The Professor and the Siren,” Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, picks up these echoes when he evokes a passionate love affair unfolding by the sea in the ferocious heat of the dog days in 1887. However, in this late story, which was written in January 1957, a few months before his death, Lampedusa gives his immortal heroine the body of a fish from the waist down; in this he is following the more familiar northern folklore tradition of fish-tailed mermaids; of Mélusine, seal women or selkies; and of water spirits, called undines by the alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus. But both species share the special charm of an irresistible voice. In the case of Lampedusa’s mermaid, hers is “a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides. The song of the Sirens ... does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone.” Read More »

7 COMMENTS

In Limbo

July 3, 2014 | by

A photo from the German Federal Archive: a waiting room in April 1978.

Twice this week, I was stood up. In both cases there were extenuating circumstances, attempts to communicate, and sincere apologies—which I had no trouble accepting. The truth is, I didn’t mind; the truth is, I love waiting.

Good thing, because I’m writing this from the DMV, an institution that brings us as close as we can come to Limbo, now that Limbo is no more. I can’t seem to find a pattern in the numbers being called, but I have no reason to believe mine will come anytime soon. And this is profoundly relaxing.

I have a friend who has talked about “the power of being early.” This is debatable—if anything, it’s the person who keeps another waiting who wields a certain power—but it’s certainly true that, once you’re waiting, you have surrendered control, which, as any yoga teacher will tell you, is paradoxically empowering.

I am struck by how relaxed everyone is in this DMV. The air-conditioning is on high; someone else is running things; there is a pleasant feeling of solidarity. As Milton said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” And he knew a thing or two about Limbo—if not the DMV.

Comments Off

The Beauty of the Heroine: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Poetic Portrait

August 27, 2013 | by

The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere 1874 Albumen silver print from glass negative David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1952, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, 1874, albumen silver print from glass negative, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1952, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The beauty of the heroine is evident to every one,” Julia Margaret Cameron wrote as the postscript of a letter accompanying the first copy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which she illustrated with photographs. She was speaking specifically of her image Vivien and Merlin, but, as evidenced in a show of her photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of Cameron’s greatest talents lay in animating many heroines of poetry through her unconventionally dreamy photographs. Read More »

NO COMMENTS

Part 1: The Amanuensis

October 24, 2011 | by

Photograph by Michael Childers.

A story in three parts.

Karl, the Beat Hotel’s ex-meth-addict handyman, stood at the top of a thirty-foot ladder, squirting a translucent goo with the brand name “Tanglefoot” onto one of the Hotel’s air-conditioner units. I held the ladder so that Karl did not pitch off into the sand and gravel below. The goo represented a new phase in our boss’s war with the pigeon population of Desert Hot Springs, California.

Our boss was Steve Lowe. Before starting the Beat Hotel, he’d performed with Laurie Anderson and read poetry with Allen Ginsberg. His gallery showed the best work Keith Haring ever did, and he made art with Richard Tuttle. Steve had also been William Burroughs’s amanuensis, a position that combined the duties of researcher, artist’s assistant, gallerist, and Official Writer’s-Block Breaker. Steve could tell stories about hanging out with William and Kurt Cobain and Patti Smith. He also recalled that, at Burroughs’s wake, he and Grant Hart, who was the drummer for Hüsker Dü, were the only people sober enough to be horrified when somebody threw up in the swimming pool. Read More »

5 COMMENTS