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An Antifascist Topography?

[Part I of a Series of Blog Posts on Modern Epigraphic Problems, tangentially related to a book project on the Pyramid in Rome.]

I took this photo in Piazza Pascoli in Matera. For those who are not familiar with this kind of sight, the picture shows an intentionally destroyed fascist monumental plaque. The erasure is such that the original persists, ghost-like. The three vertical rectangles held three white fasces. Beneath the three ghost fasces three letters can be perceived, « A XIV », a date in Roman numerals, the 14th (XIV) year (Annum) of the Fascist regime.

For comparison, consider this similar addition to the restoration of the Teatro Marcello in Rome.

From beneath the spectral remains of such iconography in Matera you can look out onto one of the most beautiful views in Italy. The temptation to look up and fuss over the messy face of the wall is minimal.

The irony of the erased monument’s transparent persistence is that it speaks to a much more general problem. The overall effect of efforts to erase fascist symbols and iconology are much the same throughout the country. While the most offensive and clear-cut insignia may have been stripped from (some) monuments and facades, the contextual evidence (be it something like what is pictured above or the massive presence of rationalist super-structures such as Rome’s Ostiense Station) speak plainly to a period that cannot be forgotten, or repressed.

Further, for a nation apparently bent on erasure, some of the most pronounced monuments persist unaffected by the attempts to reframe historical memories. We need but recall the Mussolini Obelisk of the Foro Italico.

Persistent erasures, in addition to the remainders, provide a window into a subtler, more pernicious and messy relation to history. So much of the urban topography of the city of Rome, and of Italy more broadly, was designed in the period of the Fascist regime. The aesthetic priorities of the period continue to govern our lived experience of the urban landscape, whether from a look out point like that of Matera or even in a more quotidian sense, for instance walking along the raised banks of the Tiber near Testaccio where a similar monument announces the Fascist restoration of the walkway.

Personally, I grew up by the Ostiense Station and only learned by word of mouth that it was built for Hitler’s official state visit visit to Rome and marked the beginning of his parade route that would take him past the Piramide and into the heart of the ancient pomerium. I then learned a bit more about it when I chanced upon Ettore Scola’s Una Giornata Particolare. Many Romans with whom I talk about the area do not know that Piazzale dei Partigiani used to be called Piazzale Hitler, and that Viale delle Cave Ardeatine was similarly Viale Hitler. The spaces have been renamed after Partisans and victims of Fascism–but the fact they are a specific topographical marker of Fascist urbanism is forgotten. (See here for a blog post in Italian covering more examples of streets that changed named.)

Recently, I walked around the entire Ostiense neighborhood, Testaccio included, collecting notes for a book on the Piramide and documenting visible and legible traces of the transformation in the urban landscape.

I asked myself the following question: what can I learn about recent history from the streets themselves–without a history book or the internet, but looking to the signage, the plaques, the inscriptions?

I discovered that there is no explicit signage left that connects Ostiense to its origins, explaining the history. Plaques near the Pyramid help establish–in the vaguest terms–the importance of the area in World War II. As an example, The Battle of Porta San Paolo is memorialized with a date, but is not named as such nor its significance explained.

Overall, the sense is that history took place around these spaces rather than within them. Walking through them we enter into a vacuum of sorts, as if the ghost of Fascism could be remitted to a vague past before the city, a fabricated antiquity that comes dangerously close to some of the artificial constructs of Fascism itself.

In a seeming paradox, the dilapidated plaque in Matera speaks eloquently about the past and poses sets of questions that are as timely as they are difficult–questions about the way we occupy spaces and transform them, particularly in the conversion of inimical affective environments into ones that can become the stages for public education and sites of civic reflection.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

Emma Pauly’s Bacchae at Rhetoric & Poetics (Nov 19 2020)

Recording (w/ Screen Captions)

Closed Captioning by Larry Eames.

Archival Info

The performance was preceded by an Introduction by Emma (included in the video above) and followed by a 45-min discussion with some members of the cast and select audience members (not included).

Blurb

A young person returns to their hometown for the first time in a long time, hoping to find acceptance. When they find the opposite, tempers flare, consequences ensue, and identities are questioned, changed, and dissolved. This translation of Bacchae centers a non-binary/gender non-conforming reading of Dionysus and roots itself in the worlds of gender, grief, and the family unit. 

Directed & Translated by Emma Pauly

Cast List

Dionysus: Sarah “Sam” Saltiel 

Pentheus: Claudio Sansone 

Agave: Samantha Fenno

Kadmos: Lynn Fitzgerald 

Tiresias: Eric Q. Vanderwall 

Chorus Leader: Sally Rose Zuckert 

First Messenger/Chorus: Hannah Halpern 

Second Messenger/Chorus: Amber Ace 

Soldier/Chorus: Jack Chelgren 

Performance Poster

Poster designed by John Koelle.

Homeric Kingship in Italy

The complex position occupied by King Umberto I di Savoia in Italian history is punctuated by attempts on his life, only the third of which was successful. Gaetano Bresci was the last of the three “anarchists” who set out to kill a man whose repressive policies had long impinged on the working classes, and whose conservatism grew stronger as he aged. In his trial, Bresci made clear that to his mind he had not killed Umberto I but the king, the principle of kingship.

The symbolism surrounding such figures is always complex and I have no intent to engage with that exhaustively here. Instead I want to take a look at piece of modern epigraphy from Matera (in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, near the Fontana Ferdinandea). As the title of this post suggests, there is an interesting element of Homeric reception at work here–as well as a broader background of classical material that is repurposed for this piece of very calculated political messaging. 

Plaque dedicated to Umberto I, describing him as the Homeric model of a prince

TRANSCRIPTION

A

UMBERTO I DI SAVOIA

come l’omerico modello di principe

“due cose insieme: re buono e prode guerriero”

dall’empia ferocia anarchica

crudelmente rapito alla nazione

cui più che sovrano fu tenero padre

la gioventù studiosa di Matera

col generoso concorso d’ogni ordine di cittadini

consacra questo ricordo

Il XX Settembre MCMII

TRANSLATION

To

UMBERTO I OF SAVOIA

[who was] like the Homeric model of a prince

“Two things at once: a good king and valorous soldier”

By the impious anarchic beastliness

Cruelly stolen from the nation

Of which he was more a tender father than a sovereign

The student youth of Matera

With the help of citizens of every class

consecrate this memorial

On September 20th 1902

There is not the space here to attempt a full contextualization, but lets focus on two literary observations. I hope these thoughts might make of this plaque a miniature object lesso. This document is a a little puzzling but it can occasion some serious reflection as to how the classics can be appropriated for politicized reasons, particularly conservative ones.

1. In What Way is Homer Cited?

The use of the adjective “Omerico” [Homeric] is rhetorically very powerful. It immediately draws Umberto into the rich fabric of a popular imaginary that was grounded in the classics, thanks to the importance that was and is placed on Homer and ancient authors in Italian schools and higher education. Indeed, this plaque is set up by students. But more incisively, the use of the adjective takes the establishment of a connection between Umberto and the world of Homer as practically a given–“Homeric” can now be redefined as “Umbertian,” if needed.

Indeed, the citation from Homer appears to not be very Homeric. Perhaps it harkens back to Philodemus’ On the Good King According to Homer? In any case, the slipperiness of categories is clear from the fact the quotation is in a sense invented, retrofitted to a selective impression of a Homeric world that (while it is not wildly inaccurate here) is made to serve in the place of the actual, more complex Homeric world of the Iliad and Odyssey.

2. Who Invited Aeneas to the Party?

Umberto is taken from the nation by the empia ferocia anarchica [the impious anarchic beastliness]. The contrast between pio and empio are particularly pronounced given the Virgilian heritage of a pius Aeneas–but this dynamic is emphasized by Dante’s adoption of this distinction into a Christianizing framework. To call the anarchists impious amounts to a categorical condemnation that also assumes the contours of a literary historiography.

However, in Dante the contrast of pio and empio is used to also condemn Greek heroism in contrast to Aeneas’ modeling of a non-Greek and proto-Christian heroism. The copresence of this term and the weird play on the adjective “Homeric” above is therefore profoundly odd–once again, are we being asked to remember or to forget the fabric of classical learning that is being pointed to here?

Conclusion

The use of classical tropes in a document like this can reveal several kinds of posturing–some perhaps merely intellectual (a form of showboating), others more pernicious. That which seems most obvious is also that which can lead us to some of the more complex questions about the historical context of this document, too. Why would the students especially be inserting such references? What kind of voice have they developed to accompany their proclaimed mandate?

Penelope in India: Brough’s Spurious “Translations”

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit (1968) is one of those old Penguin Classics worth picking up in a second hand shop. I bought the book when I was an undergrad and enjoyed it immensely–and I had little idea that I would one day be reading Sanskrit in the original. Since then it has been a way for me to look back at the past, and to (re)turn to the originals of poems that I have not looked at in a long while. The translations are taken from across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature, but Brough’s emphasis is on “secular verses from Classical Sanskrit.” By this I suspect he meant something along the lines of, “poems that don’t have a clear religious theme (or that do not explicitly mention any divinities). The result is a vibrant anthology of poems, most of which were then unknown to readers without Sanskrit. For more background and extracts you can turn to this old but cool blog post (lots of the best poems from the volume are posted in helpful categories there, making it an interesting remix of Brough’s own volume).

The collection is in a sense a meta-anthology. As Brough explains in the Introduction, the poems translated were anthologized themselves in antiquity, in books that collected subhashitas (Sanskrit सुभाषित; literally, “something spoken well”). As such this volume is accompanied with a detailed index that, alongside with the comments in the Introduction, make it possible for readers to trace poems back to various “original” contexts.

But the subject of this blog post is not the anthology itself, nor its favorable reception. Instead, I want to focus on two poems from the collection, numbers 93 and 94.

When I read 93 I knew there was a problem. Penelope? Café? Doesn’t sound like India to me–maybe there’s some complex literary play going over here. After all, Brough is well-known for having translated Sankrit poetry con gusto, making it sound and feel like exciting English poetry. I thought this might have been one of his more experimental attempts to make an original make sense to his Anglo-American audiences. But there were several other things that made the poem feel “off,” including its tone. 

So, I flipped to the index in the back of the book to find the source for 93. 

References were not lost for any other verse. I began to suspect I was being played. My first instinct was to think of the Homeric connection implied by the similarity of the name Amaru to that of Homer. Further, both of these “authors” are merely names attributed to works. Indeed, Brough explains as much in his Introduction: “The appearance of the name Amaru, for example, simply means that the verse in question occurs in one of the recensions of the Amaru collection, or, if it does not so occur, that it is attributed to Amaru by an anthologist” (p. 17).

To this evidence we can add the fact that Brough was quite the poet himself, and that he dedicated this collection to his wife with the following verses, in which he makes explicit that she inspired his translations. 

Perhaps this solves one mystery. Brough cheekily inserted two of his own compositions into the volume. 

But there is something more we might reflect on here, as his poems and his apparatus play out a rather specific scenario–that of being seen by the other. 

Welcome to Scholia Absurda

Scholia Absurda represents the culmination of my misdirected academic attention(s). The blog will take many forms, among which the following well-established and often praised genres:

  • Erratic & Erotic Marginalia
  • Out-of-Touch Annotations
  • Limerick-Haiku Fusions
  • Forensic Invective 
  • Impersonal Essay
  • Polemic Tweetstorms
  • Epistolary Romance
  • etc

The full range of human experience is not wide enough to encompass the lamentable quality of the writing that will be published here. But there is hope in the energy of misalignment, in the rough strokes of the pen that erase a day’s work only to see it become a legendary erasure. Thus Ezra Pound on T. S. Eliot’s drafts of The Wasteland — “Perhaps be damned.”Eliot2

I’m not recommending we take the words of a Fascist poet too closely to heart. There’s even something worth disliking here–the arrogant self-confidence with which he gave shape to someone else’s poem, even though it became one of the iconic poems of its century. 

But what we see here, and what I want to explore in this blog, is an attention to a whole variety of literary experiences that for one reason or another, occur in the margins–of a page, but also of a discipline. The people, real and living, deeply flawed and at times plain mistaken, working in and through poetry. 

Later in the drafts of The Wasteland Eliot’s wife scrawled a note beneath some verses. “What you get married for if you don’t want to have children.”

why1 (2) why (2)

I am not certain whether Eliot thought this was a critique of his marriage, a helpful suggested verse, or some ironic blend of both–but he included it in the final text, amidst other citation-as-echolalias. 

These are the kinds of literary events that I hope Scholia Absurda can try to collect and make visible. My hope is to attest to a whole range of literary experiences that it is harder to discuss in more formal academic venues, and particularly those (unlike the above) that have kinds of political valences that are also underdiscussed–and lamentably so–in academic circles.

I’d like to end on a word of thank you. Scholia Absurda is a product of the Great Quarantine of 2020 and I’d like to thank Joel Christensen for helping out with some of the technical stuff. If you don’t know his site Sententiae Antiquae, do check it out!

My plan is to write relatively regular updates (so do subscribe below!). I am also open to guest posts if people have something neat lying around they’d like to work up into a 1000-word post!