Dragoneia is the name of a village near Naples where Herling had his summertime villa.
Dragoneia, July 14, 1977
Perhaps only in the country, where contact with nature is continuing, and where it is still the essence of life, has the Evil preserved a bit of its former character of something identifiable and autonomous; and with symbolism deriving from local traditions. The area surrounding Dragoneia is The Domain of The Snake. Last year, in the deep valley behind the village I saw a group of peasants renovating the tiny abandoned church which had been built there two centuries ago above an entrance to a dark cave to commemorate the long years of struggle which took place there between The Snake and the village’s saintly eremite.
Many years ago my neighbor did meet The Snake at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle in Cava: The Snake had a feathered head and fiery eyes. My neighbor became faint, his legs gave out uder him, he was barely able to summon the strength to fire at it from his shotgun. It was at high noon, the hour of the wild fire of the sun, so he could not be sure what chased off The Snake: the gunshot, or the pealing of bells at nearby churches. He barely managed to drag himself home, half-dead, he collapsed on his bed and during the next few days was unable to speak. His speech had turned into some sort of a devilish rattle. And now – I have witnessed this ever since I have begun to live here – he keeps disappearing for a few days at a time every now and then. People say he wanders without purpose; others — that he lies in wait at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle. He is, on a small scale, the local Ahab stalking the Dragoneian White Whale.
To the faithful sons of the soil and the sea, Melville, if only they knew him, would be easy to understand and believe. There is in them, beneath the thin veneer of Christianity — in any case mainly ritualistic — a kind of pagan-cum-Old-Testament cross of the vision of Evil: not the notion of a struggle between Good and Evil taking place in the soul of each of the faithful, but of the Beast, lurking in the deep of the ocean or the soil: lying in wait for man.
Melville was a myth-maker writer, he did not care about psychology, he was attracted to Biblical parables. Moby Dick was his masterpiece, as powerful as the roar of the sea, and Billy Budd was his a short, deeply affecting swan song. Billy Budd – the incarnation of Good; Claggart – obsessed by Evil; De Vere who sacrifices an innocent boy at the Altar of the Law, like Abraham – Isaac. In this beautiful Misterium For Three Voices, the Beautiful Sailor speaks with the voice of a barbarian.
Not that Billy Budd was unable, like children, to understand death; he simply did not feel any irrational fear of death, because this fear is far more common in civilized societies than in the so-called barbarian ones, which remain far closer to Nature; and, as we have said, Billy Budd was an authentic barbarian.
Melville loved the Good Barbarian for the unadorned simplicity of his soul. The Christian soul is confused and helpless, since in her fear of death she lacks the acceptance of death. The natural soul is defined by one single inborn response: of horror before the mystery of Evil.
What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? — 2nd excerpt from Herling-Grudzinski’s Diary Written At Night-time
Alba lunare (“moon-dawn”) is a phenomenon of nature visible in several places on the planet where the air is especially clear and dry allowing the stars to be seen in the sky for several minutes after the rise of the sun.
Panarea, 24 June – 2 July 1977
The Aeolian Islands, near the shores of Sicily, or, in the language of mass tourism, the Seven Pearls: Stromboli, Panarea, Salina, Lipari, Vulcano, Filicudi, Alicudi. Twice a week a ship sails from Naples, early in the evening. Soon after you pass Capri, night falls. A short while yet the red tail of sunset drags itself along the furrow of the sea, and then it is swallowed up by blackness, pure and absolute.
The first pearl one fishes out from the sea,just before dawn, is Stromboli. As the ship drops anchor the end of night looks like the unwrapping of bandages. Layer after layer, scale after scale, the thick darkness reluctantly thins, out of the crater, briefly, a tongue of fire slips out and quickly slips back in, the transport barges grow large, the lighthouse on shelf near the island is extinguished. Now you can see Stromboli clearly. From the black sand of the beach, though the white of the houses, and the green of vegetation of unusual variety of color shades — in places nearly purple, elsewhere near yellow — up to the black cone of the volcano. The first pearl makes one think rather of a rock dug up from the bottom of the sea, a record of drilling, grinding, chipping, pulling, and finishing with colors.
The second pearl is Panarea, my goal. Much smaller – only three kilometers long and two wide, two hundred fifty residents, classical Sicilian landscape: reddish brown scree, greyish-green plates of rock, and piante grasse: the fat cactus vegetation, here and there embroidered with a flush of flower. The only proof of its antiquity is a prehistorical village on Calaiunco, the anchor-shaped peninsula. Circular “huts” made from a few rocks piled one upon the other at the edge of a high cliff, below the sapphire sea, glittering like a sheet of tinfoil, behind naked pink rock, and thistle with blood-red flowers. Guidebooks recommend another oddity, also prehistorically flavored. The moon-break, alba lunare, is known in other places, too; but perhaps only here the pale day emerges from the dull globe in such a magical way.
Outside the tourist season, life is focused on thee points: port-church-graveyard. In the graveyard I found a stone with an inscription which encompasses the whole cycle. A Panarean fisherman, “he always held the oar and the net in his hands, he worshiped God, loved life and the sea, died one hundred and ten years of age”. In the harbor people wait for ships; in front of the church – for it to open. On the day of the patron saint of the island, Saint Peter, the village procession is a procession of a handful of castaways.
There is no electricity on the island and in the evening one lights a kerosene lamp. What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? To me, it tells the tale of childhood and early youth. Things seen, discovered, perhaps only suspected, “at the threshold”, belong to our most secret mythology. Poetry’s whole point, I suppose, that in one’s adult age one tries to restore to things and feelings that uniqueness, which they otherwise are only granted at first touch. What we call evocation — going back in time — is an attempt to see anew, for the second time, the world in its unordered form. In my house on the pond there was no electricity and there the world was assembled: The World Built of Elementary Parts. A word was more than a symbol. Pond, Meadow, Forest, Mill, Hate, Fear – pure categories, in and of themselves – the noumena – gates to regions untouched by foreign foot. Later Reality opens up, and, as she does, visions, naïve symbols, and magical enchantments are all pushed aside. Then, one’s whole adult life one misses that unity, that purity, that mystery of gaze, which functions without words – until it disappears irretrievably. Irretrievably? Restoration of the gaze does happen to great writers, the creators of myths.
For many years now, the infertile soil has not been farmed, not counting a rare vegetable garden. Old vineyards and fields have gone wild, become overgrown with weeds, there is no one to take care of them. The more enterprising residents have fled for the continent, and on the island one only bakes the bread. But even those who have remained leave at the close of the season for Sicily, for temporary work. In the fall and winter the island empties out. In the area where I am staying, between the graveyard and the prehistorical village, only two families are patiently awaiting the spring. La vita se firma, tira solo vento. The life dies down and only the wind is blowing.
The Aeolian Wind.
Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (1919-2000) was a Polish novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, soldier, prisoner of the Soviet Gulag. Arrested in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Poland, he left with the Polish army formed within the Soviet Union in 1942, fought against Nazis in North Africa and Italy (Tobruk, Monte Cassino). After the war, he settled in Naples where he married one of the daughters of Croce. He was of the principal contributors to the leading Polish emigre monthly Kultura (publishing books otherwise banned in Poland under Soviet rule) where his Diary Written In Night-time was published in monthly installments over a thirty year period. A kind of journal intime of a thinking man, it is composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, imaginary dialogues, political commentary, and a few, very sparing, carefully disguised — and yet for all that very affecting — autobiographical entries — and nothing in the way of the usual “had breakfast, walked the dog” trivia which fill the diaries of the great.
Here are several of the more personal, more poetic pieces that struck me while reading Volume I. Perhaps, had the journal consisted of nothing but pieces like this, it would soon become tiresome; but scattered as they are among other, more argumentative and purposeful prose, these pieces stand out like diamonds set in a cast iron ring. The first excerpt, dated 1972, records an incident in 1945 when the soldiers of the Polish army in Italy have learned that they have been betrayed by their allies: that the US and UK had ceded their country to the Soviet Union and that there would be no free fatherland to return to after all. (Elsewhere in the diary, remembering the 1945-6 period in Rome, Herling writes: “one drank a lot in those days, drank to unconsciousness, drank to forget”).
July 16, 1972
The well known English critic Alvarez tried to take his own life. He was saved and the consequence was his book, The savage god, a study of suicide. Besides his own experiences Alvarez used as the immediate impulse for writing the story of the suicide of his friend and (excellent) poetess Sylvia Plath. The book is a huge hit in the UK and in America.
The subtitle is misleading: this supposed “study of suicide” was compiled by a literatus interested chiefly in the topic of “suicide and literature”. I see nothing wrong with this sort of narrowing of the subject, but in this case I am repulsed by the insistent, and irritating, insinuation that only “artists” are capable of “true suicide”; ordinary eaters of bread take their own life for trivial reasons; but for artists, a suicide is the conclusion of an uncontrollable “creative act”. Above the book ponderously hangs a reflection from Kierkegaard:
The whole world may be divided into those who write, and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, those who do not disapprove of it and believe in their own wisdom, but if they were capable of writing, they would write exactly the same things. At bottom, they are as desperate, but, when one does not have the chance to become someone important thanks to his own despair, then there is not much point celebrating it or showing it. Could this be the way to overcome despair?
I had no idea that Kierkegaard could be so stupid. He is perhaps explained – though not justified – by this: to him “despair” became the equivalent of “grace” in the Puritan faith, the special grace of the elect. He surrounded this “mortal disease”, this “hemophilia of the soul”, with the defensive air of blue blood.
Many years ago I happened to spend ferragosto, the culminating day of summer (August 15) celebrated by Italians, in a down-at-heel tiny hotel in Rome. The city was deserted, the heat was unbelievable. I lay naked on my wet bed, dragging myself every now and then to the sink, to stick my head under the faucet, and to look down the dark well of the courtyard. The only sound was the ugly noise of the elevator when some soldier brought up a girl from Termini for a short time. Even love-making next door took place quietly, sleepily, without moaning or squeaking of the bed. I can’t remember the lazy, unglued course of my thoughts, though I remember that they slithered here and there through the landscape of years past and that there was in them a gradually crystallizing fury (according to Kierkegaard: the chief face of despair). Around six o’clock in the evening I felt something difficult to describe, a kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void. I stood at the window. What brought me to was the pain in my hands tightly grasping the lock of the shutters. Soon thereafter the streets rippled with voices, the city came to life, in the house next door someone sang, at full throat, a popular song. In the midnight news bulletin it was reported that alle sei della sera circa four persons took their own lives in various parts of Rome.
In the vain effort to understand the Savage God a day like that weighs more than any literary “study of suicide”.
Next: an expedition to Panrea (Lipari Islands) and the tale told by the kerosene lamp.