Monday, December 10, 2012

The Juggler and the Witch

Now I'd like to share with you a passage from book II of The Iliad. In a general meeting of the Achaeans, the famously ugly and cantankerous Thersites makes a very reasonable argument that Agamemnon is being a jerk about this whole Troy thing, and maybe everyone should just pack up and go home.

Odysseus gets the feeling that Thersites might be swaying the crowd. So what does he do?

He cracked the scepter across his back and shoulders.
The rascal doubled over, tears streaking his face
and a bloody welt bulged up between his blades,
under the stroke of the golden scepter's studs.
He squatted low, cringing, stunned with pain,
blinking like some idiot
rubbing his tears off dumbly with a fist.
Their morale was low but the men laughed now,
good hearty laughter breaking over Thersites' head -
glancing at neighbors they would shout, "A terrific stroke!"

The Iliad, Fagles translation, II: 309-318

There's a very interesting lesson in that. We'll come back to it.

I made the last of those brutal tax payments in July. Not long after that, we went on our first vacation in a couple of years. We went to Abruzzo, in Italy, to spend a week hanging out with Piera and Emanuele and Lorenzo.

Abruzzo is a region northeast of Rome, in the Appenine mountain chain. The older villages there are essentially single articulated buildings, mazes of limestone paths and houses and staircases built into the sides of mountains. We stayed in one such village.

This region of Italy is absolutely beautiful: the craggy mountains, the green valleys, the Escher-like white villages. Of course, most of Italy is absolutely beautiful, but each area has a different thing going on.

Abruzzo's thing

For all this beauty, and all this company of people I love, I felt very lowly the first couple of days. I am not prone to existential depressions, but when I get one, I do it with my characteristic standard of excellence.

Thus, in Abruzzo, I thought, "Here is the maximum of beauty of place, and love of people, and relaxation and good food - and it still seems totally empty to me. It seems boring and irrelevant." I had a sense of the entire universe as an essentially tedious place, throwing up a great commotion without point, putting off the only defensible conclusion: emptiness, cold, and silence. There could be no alternative to these final negations attractive enough to justify itself.

Take poor Lorenzo here - two years old, staring down the cruel prospect of filling at least seventy more years with enough to do not to die of boredom. And yet boredom is lurking around the corner of every transient delight. What an enormous and irritating task! But it cannot be avoided, if only because suicide is dishonorable. We've got to suffer what we must before we earn some peace and quiet at last...

Be that as it may, I didn't die of boredom, or anything else really. I kept on going, and soon enough, I found some things of interest.


We were talking recently about the problem of poverty, and what one can make when one has nearly nothing to make it with. And this is a special case of the more general problem - how shall we live?

I met two people in Italy who were solving this problem in interesting ways.

The first was a juggler, a street performer whose itinerant show we stumbled upon in the plaza of one of the towns we visited.

This guy had the practiced hardness of a trained clown: a lean body, tendons that jumped in his neck, a dextrous patter to his motion.

He performed several feats of balance and risk, with a smooth familiarity that dampened the drama - to him there was clearly no challenge left in it. To substitute for challenge, he deployed tricks of performance: exaggerated expressions, cartoonish gestures, invitations to applaud.

You know what he looked like to me? He looked like an intellectual who went to clown school in Rome, and had been out traveling in the provinces long enough now that his initial aesthetic enthusiasm was becoming patinated by real experience with poverty, disappointment, and futility. Which is to say, he looked like someone who had fallen helplessly from assuming a persona to inhabiting it.

We were all sitting in plastic chairs arranged around the part of the plaza where he was performing his well-rehearsed act. Here are Piera and Lorenzo, watching the show.

This kind of show always involves some audience participation. The juggler called on various people to lie down and have bikes jumped over them - to toss things in the air - to hold flaming clubs - mild stunts.

He drew Lorenzo into his performance too. He came over to Lorenzo, and held out a card to him. Lorenzo was born in 2010. Somebody holds out a card to him, he assumes he's meant to take the card, and he gets excited. So he held out his hand for the card. And the smiling juggler pulled the card away.

Lorenzo has always been very extroverted, and sensitive to social cues. For an instant, he was puzzled at this inexplicable change in the juggler's behavior. But he immediately saw the crowd of forty or fifty people, many of them small children, looking at him, and seeing how he had failed to obtain the card. And he was completely crestfallen. Then they all started laughing. His eyes teared up. Piera was furious.


I have been considering that passage from The Iliad, book II, for many years now, because I felt that there was an important truth in it that I did not really understand. Or rather, I did not allow myself to understand it. But really it is very simple. We have always found the imposition of suffering by one person on another person funny. In the current period in the Anglosphere, we have mediated it by means of actors, just as we have mediated our unlaughing lust for battle by watching team sports.

Contemporary actors specialize in pretending. Before them, we have antique actors, and clowns and jugglers and street performers. They do not pretend, but rather stylize: they aestheticize the presentation of a real phenomenon. They may curlicue the sweep of the knife, but the blood they draw is real.

This procedure only works because it is in our nature to seek its barbaric rewards. It is not a good part of our nature, but it is an inalienable part of it. We are made of many things, and brutality is one of them, and we cannot help enjoying the spectacle of suffering imposed by men.

So the nature of this worthless son of a bitch is that he is a student of that bitter strain of human nature, and an exploiter of it. He makes a living off of humiliation and pain. Tears are his butter.

He has the hard look of a man pursued by demons, but demons only pursue their own. I am pursued by demons as well, and so, most likely, are you. The juggler is a noticeable satan; but if you look in the mirror, you'll see a little satan. That's the price of freedom: the capacity for evil.

So much for the juggler. Let me tell you about the witch.

In the village where we were staying, there was a band of inhabited buildings partway up the mountain. At the top of the mountain, there was a kind of fortification from which smoke signals or whatnot were passed to fortifications atop neighboring mountains, back in the swords-and-seiges era. OK, look, here's me at the fortification. It was badass.

Between the village and the mountaintop, there was a district of abandoned villas. A few years ago, a woman moved into this district, high up among the overgrown gardens and crumbling walls, well above the rest of the town. Piera knew her, a little, somehow. She introduced us to her at the cafe in the inhabited belt where we got coffee in the morning and checked our email over the free wifi.

Like the juggler, Valeria was small and wiry. She is an educated Roman who did the very thing we all kind of think about, and never actually do: she dropped off the grid. She decided she'd simply rather live in the wilderness, growing her own food, making her own clothes, free of the burdensome demands of urban life. She damn well pulled it off.

She lives in an ancient stone house near the top of the mountain. She has a garden in the valley where she grows vegetables. She cards, spins, and dyes yarn herself. She sells produce and crafts to tourists passing through.

She has two sons, with two different men, neither of whom she is attached to any longer. Most of the year-round inhabitants of the town are older, and among them, she is considered a scandalous character. Not long after I met her, it occurred to me that there were women just like Valeria three hundred years ago and more: cultural and sexual mavericks. Back then people didn't think they were eccentric hippies. They thought they were witches.

Well, you know, we were having a lazy week, and Valeria enjoys company, so we spent a lot of time with her, up at her house, especially in the low brick-domed kitchen where she cooked enormous meals. One of her sons, and her mom, were around too. She had a steady procession of guests. We were inadvertently part of a demographic group to whom she is intensely charismatic - cultured urbanites like herself. We were American newbies; the others were old college friends, now flung across the reaches of the EU - we met architects, costumers, lawyers, and a famous violinist. They all made the trek up the mountain to the dark kitchen where Valeria held court.

We had dinner with her a few times there.

There is nothing halfway about Valeria's choice; it is consistent down to the surprising, even repellent, details. She is tiny and vaguely simian, half feral and often barefoot. Her hands are red and rough from her work, and she eats messily with them.

An ex-boyfriend of hers brought his new girlfriend on his visit. We met up with the two of them at a cold clear stream in the valley where Valeria gardens. He was in his boxers, she was in a bikini - they were swimming. Valeria hadn't been planning to swim, but when she spotted the girlfriend, she stripped down to her panties and waded in. She hasn't got an ounce of fat on her. She's barely got hips, or a waist, or breasts. She is all hard flat muscles like strips of copper. But leaving aside what she looks like - what did this mean?

I think it was an expression of power, the same as guys showing off their pecs and biceps to one another. She was overpowering her ex's poor girlfriend, establishing her fitness to reclaim him if she chose. It was animalistic, and preverbal, and it remained so - in conversation, the two women got along fine. But all of their conversation occurred in the context of Valeria having asserted alpha status.

How is this kind of dominance game categorically different from the behavior of the juggler? It isn't - it emerges from the same set of ruthless animal dynamics which underlies our politenesses. Think about this - we have some situations where we are trained to be diplomatic and mild, like introductions to the new companions of exes; and others where we are more savage, such as when driving cars. People who go against these rules - and Italy is not so different from America that the rules are strongly different - have chosen to recognize and embrace deep and untamed parts of human nature. In this respect, Valeria and the juggler are the same. It is what they do with these structures which distinguishes them.

While the juggler, it seemed to me, committed right away to cruelty, and looked to make a living from it, Valeria followed on this encounter at the stream, for instance, to create a dreamy, erotized variant of ordinary social space. We were all in the valley to have a picnic. We set our blankets at the edge of her garden, beneath the trees, a bit out of the stunning light and heat, and set out vegetables and bread and shrimp and potatoes, and picked at them for hours, sleepily. We refilled our water bottles from the mossy 16th-century fountains by the road. The children ran around and played, some of the picnickers dozed. Here any number of near-strangers laughingly piled up their feet together:

I had the slightly disconcerting experience of not being the center of attention, for once. The ex-boyfriend with the new girlfriend was clearly attracted to Charlotte. Valeria had her own studly new boyfriend in tow, and yet she was, less obviously, attracted to Charlotte as well. There was a kind of lilting implication to everything, and yet nothing quite happened.

Later on, I compared notes with Charlotte; each of us came away with the impression that we were some kind of total yankee rubes. Only together could we verify that, indeed, it was a very weird scene.

Also later, we spent time with the various people there without Valeria's company. It was not the same. The strangeness was Valeria's spell.

The dinners she hosted had a different tenor. Those involved the sort of conviviality one wishes for and rarely gets a chance to settle into: good food, solid utensils, pleasing company. Dense living.

I realize this account descends into that yankee rubishness I wondered about - "hear my tale of the exotic foreigners I met!" - and all the time, it is nothing so exotic or foreign at all. I can't get around that, if I want to share with you the ideas I came here today to share. I have spent a long time reflecting on these narrow experiences, trying to learn what they had to teach.

Valeria speaks the language of civilization, and appeals to the sons and daughters of civilization, but she has gone out seeking what is wild, and found it, and lives in dynamic equilibrium with it. This makes her a citizen of two worlds. She appeals to those of us who live in the one because we have fantasies about the other. But the other is no easy world, and her life is a hard life. Her rational self is ambivalent about it, but the deep self she worked so hard to excavate is living in its natural home. Therefore she is profoundly content.

the witch

When you are very little, you believe in magic. Then you learn to be reasonable about things, and that magic is imaginary. And then if you are paying attention, you relearn what you knew at the beginning. Of course magic is real. Life is magic, and death is magic, and we are all animals living in a mobile universe, part of an active process which is magic top to bottom.

The juggler and the witch are both magicians; they both partake of the magic of human nature and the world. Both are strange and threatening and charismatic. Both are cruel and beautiful, because nature is not merciful or fair. The juggler, in my experience of him, is wicked, and uses his mesmerism to sell dismay. The witch, in my experience of her, is good, and uses her mesmerism to line her nest with love and its accessories - slow desire, fast desire, conversation, and eating together.

These are two solutions to the problem we discussed at the beginning: how shall we live? Or, more clearly, they are the same solution, presenting itself in its faces of evil and of good. They are not the only solution, but they provide much to think about with regard to the difficult art of living.

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