I Love Lucian
I came across the essay "The Villa of Reggio" by Alberto Savinio (pen name of Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico, b. Athens, 1891 – d. Florence, 1952) He was a writer, painter, musician, journalist, essayist, playwright, set designer and composer, clearly one of the most wide-ranging polymaths in modern Italian cultural history. One of his interests was in what he called “Mediterranean surrealism”, particularly the bizarre fantasies and satires of Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 125 – after AD 180), (sometimes called the real father of science fiction), and particularly Lucian's True Stories (or True Fictions or True History). This will be clear from the passage I have chosen to translate. I chose it because it deals with Savinio's views on the differences between the north and the south in Italy. The original essay appeared in Italian as “Le donne-viti” [Women-grapevines] in Partita andata. Diario Calabrese (1948), Florence, Giunti, 1996.
The Villa of Reggio
in the Villa of Reggio. “Villa” in
Sicilian usage is a public garden. But
here we're in Calabria. You can see that
Sicilian customs make it across the
straits [of Messina] with no help from
boats. That's how San Francis of Paola
did it; that is to say, he turned
himself into a boat. One day Francis got
to the water's edge in Calabria, trying
to find passage over to Sicily. The
boatsman he asked turned out, however,
to be a tightwad and Francis had no
money. What did he do? He took his cloak
from his shoulders and spread it on the
waters and climbed aboard as if it were
a raft, and in spite of the currents
that they call “rising oar” and “falling
oar” and in spite of the whirlpools that
the ancients called Scylla and Charybdis
and today they call garofoli or rèfoli, made it
to the other shore driven by a light
and most helpful wind.
[translator's note: garofoli = a local word for carnations, here used to describe the supposed similarity between the petals of the flower and the funnel-like vortices of the water formed from opposing currents. Rèfoli = a local word for a strong wind coming from the land, strong enough to snap trees and the masts of boats. Thank you, Selene!]
There are some strange
trees in the Villa of Reggio. I'd call
them freaks except I see no reason to call
something a freak just because it doesn't
fit in with what we are used to. They talk
so much about social justice; let's first
try to agree on physical justice. Let's
get rid of distance—the class struggle
between freakish and normal. Let's think,
as well, about a moral justice. Let's get
rid of the distance between good and evil.
Painters have already taken care of
abolishing the (supposed) distance between
beautiful and ugly.
Some of these trees
have trunks with no branches but are
studded with thorns. The statue to
Hindenburg that the Germans put up
between the two wars was studded with
nails. Equally studded with nails was
a white statue of a black woman that
Paul Guillaume gave me in 1913. Those
nails driven into the likeness of a
warrior and into that of a celebrity
idol were instruments of magic. Would
the threatening thorns sticking out
from the bare trunks of these trees in
the Villa of Reggio also be
instruments of magic? We are just
beginning to discover and penetrate
the psyche of man? When will we
discover and penetrate the psyche of
animals? And here we are talking, of
all things, about the psyche of
are other plants in the villa that have
pyramid-shaped trunks; these are in the
palm family. Yet others, not palms, have
trunks in the shape of amphora and look
like pregnant women. They bear little
tiny leaves with many budding flowers,
like the almond tree. Now I understand
better the ambiguous imagery of ancient
writers and poets. Compare this passage
in “The women grapevines” in Lucian's True
...we found something wonderful in grapevines. The part which came out of the ground, the trunk itself, was stout and well-grown, but the upper part was in each case a woman, entirely perfect from the waist up. They were like our pictures of Daphne turning into a tree when Apollo is just catching her. Out of their finger-tips grew the branches, and they were full of grapes. Actually, the hair of their heads was tendrils and leaves and clusters! When we came up, they welcomed and greeted us, some of them speaking Lydian, some Indian, but the most part Greek. They even kissed us on the lips, and everyone that was kissed at once became reeling drunk. They did not suffer us, however, to gather any of the fruit, but cried out in pain when it was plucked. Some of them actually wanted us to embrace them, and two of my comrades complied, but could not get away again. They were held fast by the part which had touched them, for it had grown in and struck root. Already branches had grown from their fingers, tendrils entwined them, and they were on the point of bearing fruit...
[This translation, paragraph above, is from A True Story by Lucian of Samasota, Loeb Classical Library No. 14, pp. 247-357, Lucian Vol. 1) English Translation by A.M. Harmon New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons 1913. It is in public domain and used with this required attribution that it was scanned by sacred-texts.com, March 2006. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. jm]
strange impressions before these strange
plants. This is my first and longest trip
down to the south. Listen to me. My
impressions are alive, fresh and true.
Habit has not yet greyed them over or
extinguished them. Here the distance
between us and the tropics has shortened
considerably. And you feel it. There is a
much shorter distance between man and
animal, between man and plant. Here the
plants are already man-like and man is
still plant-like. Here animals are already
like men and men still like animals. Here
man is still close to the ram, the bull. I
don't want to be misunderstood. Here man
is like the animal in the bodily sense;
I'm not talking about intellectual, moral
or human qualities. And the women, too.
Here they are much more manifestly
mammalian. Man and animal, man and plant,
man and nature are closer to one another
go back up north. Relationships loosen.
Men, animals, plants are more isolated.
People become more autonomous. They do
everything by themselves. They make
themselves by themselves. They even make
the animals and plants for their own
personal use, for their own mechanical
use. They talk so much about mechanical
society but don't think enough about it or
look around enough or speak out enough
against the profound transformation that
mechanical society is undergoing at an
ever-increasing pace at the expense of
humanity and nature.
in a position of privilege. I'm in Rome,
between north and south. Is that why
Rome is said to be “neutral”? If my
impressions going from Rome to the south
are alive, fresh and true, they are just
as alive, fresh and true if I go north.
In the south I find men close to the
ruminants. In the north, they're close
to the lathe, the mill, the drive-shaft.
The women are less laden with mammalian
heaviness; they are more mechanical,
like instruments themselves. Instruments
of work, instruments of travel,
instruments of pleasure. Portable women,
women you can disassemble or fold up.
Women of tables, elevators, suitcases.
added - July 26, 2016 - There is an
excellent article by Robert Lebling
entitled "What's So Funny About Lucian
the Syrian" in the July issue of Aramco
World magazine at
Benét's third edition of the Reader's Encyclopedia (Harper & Row, New York, 1948) (p.586) tells us Lucian was a satirist and the "most brilliant wit of Greek letters under the Roman Empire ... later compared with Swift and Voltaire...[and]... considered the inventor of the satirical dialogue." Benét calls his work the archtype of such books as Gulliver's Travels. His Dialogues of the Dead are "particularly brilliant." Contemporaries thought he was blasphemous. You like him already, right? So you take a look at Dialogues of the Dead and read a few pages and notice something. Is there another influence? Maybe not satirical? Maybe just a great dramatic phrase in later literature? You decide.
If you are a big lit fan, you won't have any trouble with this. Who is the greatest playwright in Elizabethan literature after Shakespeare? If you have no idea, you're not as hot as you thought you were. If you say Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), you may advance to the next round. Recite anything by Marlowe, except "Come live me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove..." (He was moonlighting with Ye Olde Hallmarke Cardes. He needed money, like all writers. Too bad he didn't live longer. Marlowe was killed in a bar fight over the tab when they "took it outside." Chris lost. He was 29.) So here is a bit of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead. The two speakers are looking at skulls in Hell:"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
Hermes. Those bones, of which you seem to think so lightly, have been the theme of admiring poets.
Menippus. Show me Helen; I shall never be able to make her out by myself.
Hermes. This skull is Helen.
Menippus. And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece; Greeks and barbarians were slain, and cities made desolate.
Something should ring a bell. Had Marlowe been reading Lucian and then penned some of the most spectacular lines in Elizabethan —or any— literature? Yes? I see your hand. Go ahead, blurt it out. Yes, that is correct. You win the styrofoam skull. Please, say it again for everyone —from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:
Thus, a "millihelen" — 1/1000 of the beauty of Helen of Troy, whose beauty "launched a thousand ships" — is the amount of feminine beauty required to launch one ship.