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Montaigne in Sacramento

Lovers of Montaigne's "Essays" will have been pleased to note sightings in a variety of places in recent months. First, and perhaps most surprising, Montaigne was pressed into service by California Governor Jerry Brown in his "State of the State" speech, delivered in Sacramento on January 24. Then again, on February 16, Montaigne popped up twice on the same day in the New York Times Op-Ed pages. First, Philip Lopate championed the essay as the genre of humility (while humbly not mentioning his own new book of essays, which was then hitting the stands). In the same issue, Adam Etinson quoted Montaigne to suggest that ethnocentrism is a problem, and come to the conclusion that we might solve it by humbly acknowledging that we're all in some measure ethnocentric.

To some extent this may be the influence of Sarah Bakewell's recent popularization of Montaigne, "How to Live?" Fans of Bakewell (like me) appreciate the clever ways in which her book stresses implicitly the usefulness the "Essays" for our current age of religious war and political paralysis. But the more general interest in Montaigne could be part of a larger cultural trend in which the extended essay may have begun to grab a certain number of readerly attentograms (attentogram=n. a small quantum unit of the dwindling store of available attention) away from such hegemonic cultural forms as, say, talk radio, cinematic distortions of American history, or novels with multiple unreliable narrators.

But Brown's turn to Montaigne is the most interesting.  Read More 

Wordbook: A Word from the Poet Louise Labé

The French Renaissance poet Louise Labé was from Lyon, a city in the southeastern part of France. In the sixteenth century it was very near the border with the Italian states. A center for printing and banking, Lyon was, in effect, the doorway through which the Italian Renaissance came up to France--and, we might add, to the rest of Northern Europe. Labé's slight output--25 sonnets, three elegies, and a dialogue between Love and Folly--was published in the mid 1550s.

Labé has gone down in history as a voice of singular passion and intensity. The poet Rilke, who translated her into German in the early twentieth century, called her, in a letter in 1912, one of the great "women lovers" (along with Gaspara Stampa and Marianna Alcoforado). She has become especially prominent in the past two decades as an important "voice" in the history of womens' writing. Recently, in a powerful revisionist argument, the eminent French scholar Mireille Huchon has suggested that she might, in fact, not have existed at all, but simply been a "creation" of a group of male poets. (See Huchon's fascinating book, "Une créature de papier").

Given Labé's/Lyon's position--geographically--on the border between France and Italy, we should not be completely surprised to find that she--or whoever wrote her poems-- begins with a sonnet written in Italian. Here is the beginning of Labé's first sonnet, followed by a translation by me:

Non havria Ulysse o qualunqu'altro mai
Più accorto fu, da quel divino aspetto
Pien di gratie, d'honor et di rispetto,
Sperato qual i' sento affani e guai.

Neither Ulysses, or anyone even more
Perceptive, could have foreseen the pain
And misery I suffer from that divine face,
Full of grace, honor, and respect.

I've smoothed out the diction. In Italian this first stanza is like a pretzel sandwich. It begins and ends with two parts of the beginning of a sentence. "Nobody--not even somebody smarter than the great hero Ulysses--. . .could have foreseen what I have suffered." Between the two halves of this convoluted reference to Ulysses we find the introduction of Labé's beloved. He's evoked with a phrase as simple as the rest of the stanza is twisted. He's present by virtue of his face, which is full of grace, honor, and respect--three clichés for describing beloved types (usually female) in the poetic tradition that Labé inherits.

This stanza traces an awkward sentence. But it makes a powerful argument about the history of literature. Ulysses is in here as the typical example of the cagey hero--the cleverest guy around, who can outwit the Sirens, the Cyclops, and all manner of unpleasant characters. However, here he gets cut down to size. It turns out he's not so smart after all. For one thing, he's just one among many (there are others "more perceptive"). More important, he couldn't even foresee a passion like mine (forget Penelope, forget Circe). Indeed, Homer's entire epic--one of the "great" poems of Antiquity--gets downgraded by Labé's little sonnet, which claims to express an experience beyond the imagining of the Ancients. My passion is so great that, compared with it, these classical authorities are clueless. She shrink wraps the Ancients.

So much for Antiquity, so much for handsome and clever men. Yet the real fun begins when we get to stanza two. Read More 
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Wordbook: The Most Beautiful Word

The most beautiful word is Madamina. It is a word that does not exist in any language. It lives between them, a self-conscious mongrel. It is half-French and half-Italian, a blending of "Madame" and "Signorina." It most definitely cannot be translated into English as "little lady."

"Madamina" is a word used by Leporello in Act 1 of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto, so it is his invention. The servant Leporello addresses the high-born Donna Elvira, who has been seduced by his master Don Giovanni and has followed him to try to make him honor his promise of marriage. This is the beginning of the famous "list aria," in which Leporello recalls all of the women that Don Giovanni has seduced, 1003 in Spain alone: "Madamina, il catalogo è questo/ delle belle ch'amò il padre mio./ Un catalogo è c'ho fatto io,/Osservate, leggete con me." [Madamina, here is the catalogue of the beautiful ladies loved by my master. I have made this catalogue. Pay attention, read along with me.]

What Donna Elvira "observes" in this scene of communal reading (we read along too), is the evidence of her own humiliation. She is only one of over a thousand. And the list is the reason for her despair. There has been no mistake. It is clear in documentary form. She is ruined.

This is why Leporello calls her "Madamina." It is a word that lies between French and Italian. It calls to mind the entire world of aristocratic European culture of which Mozart's operas are the greatest creation--a world in which Italian and French are known at least in some measure to every educated noble. It calls forth a world in which sophisticated cosmopolitanism shapes wit in conversation and underpins the outlandish ironic fictions that make up the tradition of grand opera. In one sense it is the world of Don Giovanni himself, who can travel the European continent on the strength of his noble breeding, from Seville, to Paris, to Vienna, to Venice. It is the world of Don Giovanni's real-life double, Giacomo Casanova, born in Venice, yet destined to write his own memoirs (his own personal "list aria") in French and die in Transylvania. It is the world familiar to the librettist da Ponte, who was born in Venice, worked with Mozart in Vienna, met Casanova in Paris, and ended up teaching Italian at Columbia University in New York. (His name means "bridge"; now we know why!)

But "Madamina" calls forth more than this.  Read More 
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