“On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”

St Marks Square in Venice by Canaletto

I cannot read this sonnet by Wordsworth without thinking of the plight of the United States, which has fallen so low after its postwar high. In 1797, Napoleon took Venice and apportioned her territory between Austria and France, putting an end to a once-powerful empire that had lasted almost a thousand years.

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic

Once did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.

That final couplet packs a real punch.

Serendipity: Dreams of Prisons

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri Prints

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri, or Prison Etchings

I am currently reading Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Although I remember starting it some twenty years ago, I never finished it. Turning to it once again, I am delighted by his elegant prose combined with his large-scale surrealistic dreams as a result of ingesting opium. At the same time, I love what he has to say about Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose etchings of vast imagined prisons are among my favorite prints.

When I started at UCLA in 1967 as a graduate student in the film program, I rented one of the originals of the above print for three months as part of a special program. (I can’t imagine anything so valuable being rented out to students under present circumstances.)

Here is what De Quincey wrote:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever.  Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome.  Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below.  Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here.  But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss.  Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.  With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.  In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.  From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendour—without end!
Fabric it seem’d of diamond, and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace, high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright
In avenues disposed; there towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves,
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded,—taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky.  &c. &c.

The quoted poem is from William Wordsworth’s “The Excursion.”

 

Aldous Huxley Foresees the Future

The Young Aldous Huxley

The Young Aldous Huxley

The Twentieth Century gave us two dystopias to consider: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is interesting to note, years after the fact, whose vision is closer to the reality. My vote goes to Aldous Huxley, as does the writer of this website, which compares the two point by point using comics to make their point.

In 1949, right after 1984 came out, Huxley wrote a letter to Orwell in which he doubts the latter’s vision would ever come true:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful.

My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

Corybantic Dancers on Reverse of Coin

Corybantic Dancers on Reverse of Greek Coin

Last night, I saw a DVD containing what my friend Lee Sanders claims is the only filmed interview with Huxley, shortly before his death in 1963. Considering the extent to which Huxley has been one of my gurus over the last half century, it is no surprise that I found it fascinating. During the interview, Huxley repeatedly made the point that our own intellectualism was over-rigorous. He brings up the point that the Ancient Greeks needed the frenzied Corybantic Dances to maintain their lives on an even keel.

He also quoted two related poems by William Wordsworth entitled “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned.” The the former, a visitor, thought to be Hazlitt, remonstrates with the poet, who appears to be sitting and doing nothing:

‘The eye—it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.

’Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

’Think you, ’mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

’—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.’

In “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth goes on the offensive:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Significantly, Huxley wrote a novel entitled Those Barren Leaves (1925), which I have not yet read.

Whether we fling our clothes off and engage in wild corybantic dances, or we sit still and let the world communicate with us in its own time, we are in the process sharpening and shaping our minds using all of our faculties, rather than just a few.