The Professor and the Siren


Arts & Culture

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s groundbreaking 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.” 

“The Professor and the Siren” is the only instance of fantastic fiction in Lampedusa’s scanty oeuvre, but enigmatic and brief as it is, it condenses many elements from both local and more distant folklore into a deeply strange, sometimes disturbing fable; in the manner of Giovanni Boccaccio and of The Thousand and One Nights, the tale encloses a visionary and magical adventure inside a naturalistic, quotidian frame story. In the outer frame, Paolo Corbera, a young journalist living a bit on the wild side, who comes from the same aristocratic Sicilian family—the Salina—as Don Fabrizio, the hero of Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, meets an aged fellow countryman in a dingy café in Turin in 1938. He discovers the old man is a renowned classicist and senator, Rosario La Ciura, a waspish misanthrope who is contemptuous of everything and everyone around him in the modern world. But the younger man is attracted by a quality of mystery and yearning beneath the spiky persona and grows attached to him; the feeling is mutual, though La Ciura does not let up on his withering remarks, bitter denunciations of contemporary society, and mockery of the imagined squalor of his young friend’s promiscuous adventures. Then one evening, over dinner at his house, on the eve of a sea voyage to a conference in Lisbon, La Ciura confides in Paolo the story of his first and only experience of love.

In that torrid summer of 1887, La Ciura tells Paolo, he retreated to a shack by the sea on the magnificent wild shore on the eastern side of Sicily, near the port of Augusta. One day, while he lay studying in a gently rocking boat in order to escape the ferocious heat on land, he felt the craft dip: “I turned and saw her: The smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea; two small hands gripped the gunwale. The adolescent smiled, a slight displacement of her pale lips that revealed small, sharp white teeth, like dogs.’ ” He pulls her into the boat and sees her lower body: “She was a Siren.”

The Siren announces herself: She is “Lighea, daughter of Calliope,” a name that lays a clue to the story’s deeper meaning, for Calliope is the muse of epic poetry who, in the Metamorphoses, tells the story of Proserpina, her abduction, and the transformation of her handmaidens. Through this account of her daughter’s irruption into La Ciura’s life, the overwhelming epiphany he undergoes through her love, and its lifelong aftershock, Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion.

While the name Lighea (the original title of the story in Italian) echoes the heroine of Edgar Allan Poe’s early tale of erotic haunting “Ligeia,” the coincidence is not altogether helpful; La Ciura has remained spellbound all his life by his youthful love, but Lampedusa’s story does not raise uncanny specters or relish sickly memories. The Sicilian is writing against the morbid obsession of Poe; the passion at the core of his modern mythology conjures the possibility of an earthy, pastoral ecstasy, much closer to Dionysian erotica and its legacy (Mallarmé’s “L’Après-midi d’un faune”) than to creepy high Gothic; animality recurs in the tale as an ideal. In a startling passage, La Ciura even compares the bliss he experienced with his mermaid to Sicilian goatherds coupling with their animals.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Lampedusa’s only novel, a Stendhalian historical reconstruction of Sicilian society in the tumult of the Garibaldian revolution, is one of those books that has such vivid energy of imagination it has replaced Sicilian reality in the minds of thousands. The book unfurls a fabric of luxuriantly worked detail, as encrusted and sumptuous as one of the island’s embroidered mantles of the Madonna, and its worldwide success with readers arose partly from this sensuous plenitude: Lampedusa piles on pleasurable, heady effects, as in the celebrated ball scene when he parades profiteroles, succulent Babas, and irresistible “Virgins’ cakes.” “The Professor and the Siren” likewise stimulates each of the senses—we are invited to smell and taste the siren, not just to see or touch her. The erotic avidity of the eminent, scornful professor startles his young friend, Paolo, just as it can take the reader by surprise, too. The old man wants to eat sea urchins:

“ … they are the most beautiful thing you have down there, bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed. Typhus, typhus! They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality. In Syracuse I demanded that Orsi order them immediately. What flavor! How divine in appearance! My most beautiful memory of the last fifty years!”

I was confused and fascinated: a man of such stature indulging in almost obscene metaphors, displaying an infantile appetite for the altogether mediocre pleasure of eating sea urchins!

Later, Paolo brings La Ciura some very fresh ones for supper and watches him eat them:

The urchins, split in half, revealed their wounded, blood-red, strangely compartmentalized flesh. I’d never paid attention before now, but after the senator’s bizarre comparisons they really did seem like cross sections of who knows what delicate female organs. He consumed them avidly but without cheer, with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.

The effect is a bit queasy, a collision of refinement with explicit fleshly delights. Earlier, La Ciura has quoted the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119: “What potions have I drunk of Siren tears?”

The original sonnet, however, continues in a dark Jacobean spirit, that these tears have been “Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within.” The reader may not carry libraries in his head like the author, but turning back to Shakespeare will find that the poet, overborne by “this madding fever” of his love, cries out against the clash between beauty and ugliness, desire and repulsion. La Ciura, idealizing a memory of bliss with one exceptional lover, while furiously denouncing all other women as sluts, or worse, recalls Lear who in his madness rains down curses on women’s organs: “Down from the waist they are Centaurs, / Though women all above; / But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends’: there’s hell, there’s darkness, / There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, / Stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” (King Lear, IV, 6)

In Shakespeare’s imagination, the centaurs that Lear excoriates are—like mermaids, monsters, mythic hybrids of animal and human parts—close to nature and its bounty and violence, and brimful of classical associations with untamed passions. But La Ciura is taking issue with this dichotomy and its freight of sin and disgust. He declares, “I told you before, Corbera: She was a beast and at the same time an Immortal, and it’s a shame that we cannot continuously express this synthesis in speaking, the way she does, with absolute simplicity, in her own body.”

Lighea’s marvelous duality is reflected throughout the story. The old man and his young friend—the one celibate, the other libidinous—dramatize the traditional Greek antinomy between reason and desire, the civilized and the wild. Yet, as with the mermaid’s form, Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorum at many levels—supernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight—arraying his love story in language that’s enriched by his famously wide reading across the spectrum of genres, including Calliope’s sphere, epic poetry: The imagery of his siren’s peculiar anatomy owes something to Keats’s Lamia, as well as to Homer’s Scylla. With judicious wit, Lampedusa corrects misapprehensions among his forebears; for example, in canto XIX of Purgatorio, a passage familiar to Italian readers, Dante describes a dream of an ambiguous siren, beautiful and grotesque, and remembers how he woke sharply at the stench from her exposed belly. This is the sort of puritanical horror that Lampedusa rejects utterly. When La Ciura evokes the delicious aroma of his siren, he is pointedly redressing the wrong done to the species. Above all, La Ciura’s heroine declares, “Don’t believe the stories about us. We don’t kill anyone, we only love.”

A version of this essay appears as the introduction to The Professor and the Siren, © 2014 New York Review Books Classics.

Marina Warner’s studies of religion, mythology, and fairy tales include Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Prize; Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, From the Beast to the Blonde, and No Go the Bogeyman. In 2013 she coedited Scheherazade’s Children: Global Encounters with the Arabian Nights. A Fellow of the British Academy, she is also a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.