Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Friendship part 2


Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits (2011)

Having started my discussion about friendship, I now wish to add to it, hence this part 2. I will probably also write a part 3, in which I will discuss social media friends, as these are becoming the new normal, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

In part 1 I talked about friendship as discussed by Plato and Aristotle. I mentioned how for ancient Greeks friendship was something that involved men alone, women being so marginal, especially in Athenian society, and also how their concept of friendship encompassed an erotic dimension, as erotic friendships between adult men and young boys were acceptable, even though adult men would also  have wives and children. Some such friendships were true passions - how can one regulate a human relationship? - but they were usually regarded as friendships with a sexual connotation.

In our contemporary world, this kind of friendship would be inadmissible, as it would be regarded as paedophilia. Not only that. Same-sex relationships between men (and women) are acceptable provided all the people involved are over the age of consent, but they are not regarded as friendships,  they are viewed as full-blown intimate love relationships. Somehow, the concept of a friendship with an erotic dimension is generally frowned upon. 

Achilles and Patroclus, mythical loving friends 

The phenomenon of 'friends with benefits'- named after the 2011 movie with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake -  is regarded as somewhat 'unnatural'. We tend to differentiate clearly between love and friendship. We also tend to worship Romantic Love (in capitals, RL for short). Thus having sex with a friend is almost unacceptable or regarded as a poor choice. Yet sex with no love exists in abundance, it's even commercially available. Such are the contradictions of our society. Friendship is based on affection, but,  we are told, love in the context of a friendship is absolutelky non-sexual. 

This is a relatively controversial subject and ultimately there is no right or wrong view. I can only venture a personal opinion here. I am not fully convinced about the existence of RL, in my own experience, it has revealed itself to be more often than not rather chimaeric. But friendship is something that I have always felt as being very real. Obviously, not all my friendships with men do or have involved a sexual connection. Still, some have, and I have to say that without being overloaded with expectations of RL,  they were very genuine connections. Maybe I am in the minority believing that love is essentially a deep friendship.

I remember reading a while ago a  story about a now-married couple who were friends for 12 years before they decided to get together. They met at Uni, lived together as flatmates, had other relationships,. Still, their friendship was solid, and they eventually opted to have a go at conventional coupledom, as they wanted a family and viewed that as a continuation of their friendship. They are still best friends, acknowledging that being a couple works for them precisely because their solid friendship sustains the endeavour.

There are many books and articles which try to make sense of love and friendship. Many, though distinguishing between the two, also recommend that intimate relationships should be based on friendships as constitutive of love, rather than infatuation, which seems to be the basis of romantic, passionate love. In hindsight, I can say that my own infatuations never gave way to friendship. A couple of former lovers are still my best friends and that was essentially because we started off as friends.

In one of the most defining movies of the 20th century, Saturday Night Fever, the closing scenes are about invoking friendship as the basis of a meaningful relationship between a man and a woman. 

I love SNF not because of the glitter of disco music and the great dancing it displays, not because of John Travolta on whom I had a proper star crush, not even because it is an intelligent movie that  deals with significant issues, and is quite disturbing in its portrayal of violence towards women and life at the margins of society, exemplified by underclass Brooklyn youth.

Tony and Stephanie promise to be friends. Screenshot from Saturday Night Fever

I love it precisely because of those closing scenes. Stephanie asks a repentant Tony, who has fled Brooklyn for Manhattan, staying up all night, shaken by his friend's involuntary suicide and who, the night before, had tried to have sex with her without her consent, whether he can believe in friendship between a girl and a boy. Tony replies he can try, he will try. Then there is a close up on them holding each other's hand, and their embrace which is telling of so many possibilities. Yes, they might become a couple but their relationship is going to be based on the promise of friendship.  It is a powerful and positive message, a glimmer of hope for better human relationships, in a movie that remains essentially very dark in the sexism, homophobia and racism it portrays. 

As I said, there is room here for different views. Should you wish to add your own please leave a comment. 


Monday, 11 January 2021

Friendship Part 1


While rummaging among old papers I chanced on a battered typewritten piece, probably belonging to my father (I recognised his handwriting in the corrections that were added to the text). It was a discourse on friendship which he might have copied, in translation, for reasons known to him alone, from one of the ancient philosophers who wrote on friendship. I tried to make out who it could have been, but it was hard, there was no frame of reference. There was a passage that struck me, in which the author claimed that no friendship was possible between a man and a woman because friendship is based on a physiological affinity and among people of different sex the physiological element gives rise to fusions or clashes which are typical of love. If you recognise the argument, please let me know. 

My view is that only an ancient philosopher would have written that,  for friendship in the ancient world was something that pertained to men and men alone. Also 'physiological affinities' strikes me as being connected to the theory of body humors, which is associated with Hippocrates.

As I said, I could not identify the source but this reflection on friendship sent me straight to the great writings on friendship by Plato and Aristotle. Let's deal immediately with the elephant in the room: in the ancient world, women had virtually no status, thus these discussions of friendship are about men. This, however, does not mean that we should dismiss the writings of these philosophers, for indeed there is much we can derive by mining the ancients and applying their thinking to our contemporary world, with due changes. 

Friendship is a slippery concept in the day and age of social media friends, who could not be further from the φιλοι of the time of Plato and Aristotle.  Friendship ( or φιλια)  is discussed by Plato in the Lysis .  Friendship and love have much in common, says Plato, but then in the dialogue Socrates (Plato often discusses his ideas using Socrates as his main character and narrator) raises the fiollowing points:

Friendship occurs between people who are similar, interpreted by Socrates as friendship between good men.
Friendship may arise  between men who are dissimilar.
Friendship arises between men who are neither good nor bad and good men.
Friendship arises between those who are related (οἰκεῖοι "not kindred") by the nature of their souls.

The Lysis  is an early Platonic dialogue and much of what is put forward will then be elaborated further in the Symposium.  Nevertheless the Lysis is important in suggesting that desire, in itself neither good nor evil, is the primary cause of friendship, and  that desire may only occur  when there is 'congeniality'.

Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes between  genuine friendships and friendships based on mutual usefulness, and on  pleasure. Friendship based on pleasure or usefulness has a  limited shelf life whereas genuine friendship is long lasting. Friendship  takes place between good men: ‘each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves...and it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976, The Nicomachen Ethics: 263).

These theorizations of friendship have provided the blueprint for further discussion and conceptualizations, down to  our days. For us today, friendship remains an individual rather than civic tie - a dimension that was explored by Aristotle.  But as Doyle and Smith write, quoting Allan, "through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, and an important contribution to our personal identities. Friendship also helps us to integrate us into the public realm and acts as a resource for managing some of the mundane and exceptional events that confront us in our lives"

We all need friends, genuine friends. Friendship needs to be cultivated, it can die if neglected, like a beautiful plant it needs tending to. Love is always part of friendship, a disinterested kind of love and it is often the case that couple relationships begin as friendships and then change into love. 
Friends are precious, let's not forget that.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Hello 2021

It's been a very tough 2020 but the new year does not seem to begin in the most exciting way. Forget about Brexit, which to me was, and is, very sad, we are still in the grips of Covid19 and London is in tier 4. No galleries and no museums to visit, socialising is restricted and so on and so forth. 
The only thing that one can do is walk and I intend doing as much walking as possible, as the days, very slowly, rather imperceptibly, get longer. There are wonderful walks one can go on around London, all you need is a pair of comfy shoes and the will to go. For example, there is the Londinium walk, along the ancient Roman walls. My son told me that once, years ago, when he was still at uni, he accidentally found himself on it while trying to get home at some ungodly hour, two or three am, when the only transportation available was infrequent night busses. It was weird, he said, I did not know where I was, then I googled it and there I was, walking behind the  Barbican and enjoying the view.
I would not go that late (or early, depending on your POV) certainly not on my own, but I might get up at 6 am to do it, let's see. It is definitely on my check list.

Santiago de Compostela's Cathedral

You could walk from North London, where I live, to Richmond, but clearly you need time (5 hours minimum), provisions and stamina . It is good training for those who want to go on walking tours or do the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage (many people do not do it as a pilgrimage, they just go on it for the sheer joy of walking. Along the way there are special hotels and hostels to spend the night, low-cost or entirely free, but only for those who are doing the walk and have been certified as bona fide pilgrims).
So this is my New Year's resolution: walk. Other than that, I am keeping it all small, living day by day, focussing on the present, rather than make grandiose plans. 
I try not to think of all the things I miss. Let's be positive: 2021 marks a new beginning. 
Bye for now!

Update 15/01/21: such walks are not permitted as per the current rules, so I shall have to wait for better times!

Monday, 21 December 2020

Winter solstice and light

 Today marks the winter solstice of 2020, the shortest day of the year and the longest night in the Northern hemisphere. There would normally be celebrations at Stonehenge by modern pagans and modern Druids, the only time when people are allowed inside the monument, which is looked after by English Heritage. This year thanks to Covid19 no one could  congregate at Stonehenge but English Heritage live-streamed the sunrise, which you can see in the video below.

This year the solstice is very special because on this day there is an unusual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, apparently merging to form a very bright star. In reality, they continue to be billions of kilometers apart, it is an optical phenomenon, due to their alignment. This is an effect known as the 'Christmas star' and it happens every 400 years or so. 

The solstice marks the absence of light and its gradual return  - the sun 'dies' today but it is also reborn. From today onwards, days will get longer till the summer solstice in June which marks, again in the Northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year , with a  'mature' sun (in the Southern hemisphere it is exactly the opposite). The deep spiritual meaning of the solstice is precisely this rebirth. All is dark, but newborn, newly gathered energy will shine forth, allowing us to make changes and proceed on the path to enlightenment. We must not fear the winter of the soul, it marks a new beginning for us.

It has been a difficult year for most of us, because of the pandemic. It has also been, personally, a difficult year for me, with tantalising, unfulfilled  promises and enforced containment. I can but look forward to a renewal. I love the Tarot, which is part of Western esotericism,  and its deep symbolism - I would choose two cards for me: Death and the Sun. They are cards I shall reflect upon in the coming  weeks, hoping to get some insights (on the Tarot I shall soon post separately).

The whole month of December is marked by celebratory moments in which spiritual enlightenment is hinted at. On December 13th Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is celebrated in Sweden and in Italy too. It seems that according to the pre-Gregorian calendar December 13th was, in fact, the day of the solstice. Santa Lucia is the day of illumination. Christianity appropriated a likely pre-Christian  tradition. The iconography of Santa Lucia (Lucia was a Christian martyr whose eyes were torn by her torturers) is that of a beautiful young woman with a pair of eyes on a platter. Those eyes symbolise illumination, a Christian concept roughly equivalent to the Eastern enlightenment.

On the day of Santa Lucia (Lucia was also my mother's name) a friend of mine sent me a message which included the Hannukah lamp and which I took very lightly, saying I did not celebrate Hannukah being a non-Jew and saw no connection. I was  tut-tutted  for my superficiality. The connection is Light. My friend told me that December 13th meant much to him, precisely because of the spiritual meaning of light.

 In a way we could say that throughout December light, its absence and its return are variously celebrated by different festivals. Even Christmas is a celebration of light, as baby Jesus is the light of the world.

As we come to the close of 2020, I can only wish that 2021 may be a year of deeper insight and growth for all of us.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Being young and growing old

 By most of us, ageing is still perceived as a downward spiral - and in many cases it is, when one's health is bad - I personally hate seeing images of my late mother when she was ravaged by her illness and have made it a point to collect pictures of her in which she can be seen in her glorious youth.

I recently had a spat with a friend because after telling him I wished I had the same emotional engagement I had when I was twenty-three, I asked him what he missed the most about his youth. He regarded my question as being a bit daft. 'Why I miss being young, it's obvious". No, actually it is not obvious. A lot of people think of their youth as a period of intense suffering or hardship and are happy to have overcome it. Some other people, like me, do not wish for a younger appearance - I like myself and my body now, though I wish my knees were a bit stronger and that it did not take me so long to warm up when exercising.

Children by Lana Jo

 But I miss the intensity of the feelings I had when I was twenty-three. I was very much in love, back then, the kind of love that envelops you, and makes you wake up every day feeling intensely happy and thinking that life is indeed most wonderful. It was my own experience of love, not the relationship itself - to be honest, my then-partner was happy to be with me but did not feel the same intensity and a couple of years later we split up. 

I never felt like that again - of course, I have loved many more times, but never with that all-consuming passion that I felt back then. And that is what I associate with my youth, a freshness in the way one approaches interpersonal relationships, the sense of wonder one feels concerning the world. 

Perhaps feelings about youth and growing older are best expressed by the poem 'After a while', attributed to Veronica B. Shoffstall but which is apparently a part translation of Jorge Luis Borges' 'Aprendiendo' 

After a while you learn the subtle difference,
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning,
And company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts,
And presents aren’t promises.

And you begin to accept your defeats,
With your head up and your eyes open,
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child.

And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn,
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth,
And you learn and learn,
With every goodbye you learn.

There are grace and beauty in growing older, and we should aspire to the serenity of old age even while appreciating the turbulent passion of youth. And those of us who retain a sense of wonderment and a child-like quality even in their older years, are blessed.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Podcast for Sabinna and interview for Jakarta Fashion Week 2021

I am unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, here, thus this will be a short post. 

Yesterday 25th November, Sabinna. com released a podcast on ageism, a discussion of ageism in fashion, with myself, Venus Apovo and Jacynth Bassett.

You can listen to it on Spotify and also on Apple Podcasts.

Yesterday was also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020.  Journalist Julia Suryakusuma has written a piece for The Jakarta Post,  of which she is a regular columnist, to mark the day. It can be read on my Facebook page.  If you are using beauty products containing palm oil (or even food) , it might be a good idea to think of the conditions in which the women that work in palm oil plantations, where exploitation, including rape, is rampant.

Finally,  I am really happy to share the video recording of my interview with Subkhan J. Hakim, managing editor of Dewi magazine, for Jakarta Fashion week 2021, which started today. 

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The colourful exploits of a beautiful Renaissance aristocrat


Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala

You may be familiar with Gina Sanseverina, the Duchess portrayed by Stendhal in his masterpiece, The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), a novel  praised in turn by Honoré de Balzac, Lev Tolstoy, André Gide and Henry James, as groundbreaking.  It seems that Stendhal's inspiration for the character of Gina was Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala, a Renaissance woman for whom the celebrated poet Torquato Tasso (he of The Jerusalem Delivered, 1581)  composed a  theatrical prologue, and passionate sonnets, a woman of great beauty known for her ability to stage elaborate games, involving masquerades and more, in the spirit of Renaisssance court  entertainment. That the games included bedroom antics is to be taken as a given. The Duchess of Sala behaved rather freely and was a most charming, refined, sophisticated companion. Renaissance court life was lascivious, and a noblewoman's ability to entertain at all levels was highly prized.

Gigliola Fragnito

In a new biographical account, the Italian writer and academic Gigliola Fragnito, a specialist of this period, author of countless studies  and of a  biography of Clelia Farnese, set in Counter-Reformation Rome, tells us the story of Barbara Sanseverino, her penchant for and ability to entertain, her love affairs and, most of all,  her tragic death by decapitation, on a charge of lèse majesté, due to her alleged participation in a conspiracy against the ruling Duke of Parma, Renuccio.

Fragnito has a personal investment in presenting to us the multi-faceted, unconventional Duchess of Sala. From her mother's side, Fragnito is a Sanseverino of Bisignano, a branch of the family. Barbara Sanseverino, from the Caiazzo side,  had no issue, thus Fragnito is not a direct descendant. But Fragnito was always greatly fascinated by the Duchess, and indeed wrote the book while staying in a small house located in the grounds of the Palace, currently belonging to the Caiazzo family. Thus, as she says, she wrote in the knowledge that whenever she went for a stroll in the beautiful gardens she treaded on the Duchess' steps. 

Among the women of the day,  Barbara Sanseverino shone for her beauty and her ingegno (wits), living a life of unusual independence from male control and always willing to push boundaries. Several princes were infatuated with her.  Energetic and resourceful, she was a first-class reveller and an indefatigable organiser of games, which were indeed all-important at court.

As for her role in the conspiracy, this may have well been inflated, bolstered by her ludic persona. Her death was marked by indignity. The executioner failed to kill her instantly and had to change weapon, the crowd demanded that her dress be lifted and the executioner slapped her naked bottom before using a smaller axe, normally employed for animals - there was no guillotine (a French invention)  in those days. 

Severino was a pioneer and paid a high price for her freedom. As  Fragnito says,  in the sordid conspiracy affair she was a  loser,  above all, for her challenge to social conventions, despising all conformism,  and adopting behaviours that did not suit her gender within the rigid constraints of her time. It will be a longtime before  a woman will be  allowed to cross the boundaries of the narrow perimeter that social norms had assigned her and that Barbara Sanseverino repeatedly overstepped. 

This was her real crime. Today, we salute her as a strong-willed woman who asserted her independence at a time when most women had none.

Gigliola Fragnito La Sanseverino. Giochi erotici e congiure nell'Italia della controriforma  Bologna, Il Mulino, 2020

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Gentileschi and other Italian women painters of Renaissance and Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Head of Holofernes'

Before the second lockdown, I was fortunate enough to be able to view the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery. It's a great exhibition, which of course cannot be seen at the moment, but hopefully the Gallery  will reopen to the general public when this lockdown is over. 

Of Artemisia Gentileschi I have written in several blogposts, such as this one (you can do a search for the others) thus I will not repeat myself. A friend I met at the exhibition -  did not recognise him at first, it is difficult when people wear masks - wondered whether there were other famous women painters prior to the 19th and 20th century. Was Artemisia an exception? She was definitely very talented, a star among painters, but no, she was not unique. There were other women in Italy and beyond, who painted. The point is that art history books have,  by and large, been written by men - or perhaps I should say were - so it took a while for female talent to be acknowledged. 

Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self Portrait '

But women were indeed very active as painters during the Renaissance and the Baroque. In Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (1997) with 'picturing' meaning both women who painted and women as they were represented in paintings, a number of art historians of both genders discuss the phenomenon of nuns as artists, and noblewomen as patrons, and write about the celebrated Lavinia Fontana, a Renaissance painter from Bologna, daughter of a painter, who achieved fame for her portraits of nobildonne, gentlewomen, to whom she had privileged access, by virtue of being a woman. The volume highlights the role played in early modern Italian culture by women as subjects, producers, patrons and viewers of art.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque is the title of an exhibition held in Washington DC in 2007. I did not see it, but I have with me the catalogue with a number of illuminating essays. The exhibition comprised the work of 17 artists, starting with the 15th-century abbess Caterina Vigri, from Bologna and ending with Elisabetta Sirani, also from Bologna but separated from Vigri by two centuries and painting in a very different style. The others are Properzia de Rossi, Eufrasia Burlamacchi, Plautilla Necchi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lucia Anguissola (her younger sister), Diana Scultori (aka Ghisi), Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia, Lucrina Fetti, Chiara Varotari, Elisabetta Cattanea Parasole, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia e Giovanna Garzoni. All these women were figlie d'arte - daughters of art - in other words, born in a family in which painting and sculpture were the main activities. They showed talent and began to receive commissions, but their work was always regarded even by themselves as 'that of a woman', except in the case of Artemisia. In her interactions with patrons and would-be-patrons, she emphasised that hers was  a male brain (and talent) in a woman's body.  It was this perceived extraordinariness that valorised these artists' work, the underlying principle being that women, as women, could not produce excellence. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Detail Birth of the Virgin 

I am particularly interested in the women painters who made work in Naples and the South of Italy. We know that Artemisia Gentileschi was most productive when she established her bottega or atelier in Naples and we also know from art historian Ornella Scornamiglio of other women painters from Naples and surroundings such as Mariangela Criscuolo, Luisa Capomazza, Annella De Rosa, Caterina de Julianis. These are women mentioned in passing in works that discuss known male painters and one wonders about the many others who collaborated with their fathers or husbands and whose work is now lost. 

Elisabetta Sirani. Portia wounding her thigh

As Scornamiglio writes, Rosalia Novelli, Mariangiola De Matteis, Angela Maria Beinaschi, Cristina Beltrano, Angela Siscara, Angela Mansini, Elena Recco are almost totally unknown. Nothing is also known of other daughters of painters,  even in the case of the daughters of  Artemisia Gentileschi and Teresa Del Po, nor do we know of the pupils of Mariangiola Criscuolo or of Sister Maria de Dominici and many more.  The Neapolitan Baroque saw the rise of practitioners from the whole of southern Italy, among them De Rosa, Ribera, Giordano, Solimena who are regarded as part of the Barocco Leccese - but of the women of their household who worked with them, as that was the practice at the time, nothing is known. 

Why do we want to know about women artists? Clearly to redress the balance and understand that artistic talent should not be gendered, without denying that issues of gender do affect visual culture and in turn the visual culture of a given time is affected by them. 


Thursday, 5 November 2020

Alice and Peter Pan: take 2

Alice in the 2010 movie

I have been writing this blog for so long that I sometimes forget what I have written about.  As I began this post about Alice and Peter Pan,  I realised halfway through that I already wrote about them ten years ago. Not to worry, this is going to be a complementary post. 

In the intervening years between my two posts, Peter Pan as a character got a bit sullied by the association with Michael Jackson, whose ranch was called Neverland and who identified with Peter Pan. His alleged paedophilia was discussed in Leaving Neverland (2019).  I am not going to add to that discussion, it really does not pertain to this post. 

I would like to point out, at the risk of stating the obvious,  that Peter Pan has nothing to do with paedophilia, even though there have been allegations that Barrie, author of the famous play (which then became a book), had a sexual interest in young boys. Similar allegations have been made about Charles Dogdson aka Lewis Carroll, in connection with his photos of a seminude Alice Liddell, upon whom the Alice of Alice in Wonderland is based.  But as Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, comments  “the most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual” and this would be in line with the Victorian idealisation of children and childhood.

The existence of a so-called Peter Pan syndrome (not a medically acknowledged one) also turns Peter Pan into a rather unsavoury character, whereas I would like to think of Peter Pan as a free spirit. Forget the syndrome and the charges of immaturity. You can interpret Peter Pan in a more positive key. A good friend of mine, who is in fact a responsible person,  definitely not lacking by way of commitment and maturity, tells me that he feels, in his heart of heart, like a teen. A Peter Pan, in other words, as he is a free spirit, a bit of a rebel, someone who tries to live in the moment and does not worry too much about the future. For him, life is for living and experiencing and there should be room for improvisation and the unexpected, rather than plan everything in the minutest detail.

Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

There is no reason for believing, that Peter Pan could only be a boy -  traits such as those described can also be easily applied to girls.

Do I then identify with Peter Pan? No. In my case the character I identify with is  Alice, from the celebrated Alice in Wonderland.  Alice is curious and embarks on an adventure in search for knowledge and identity. Through her journey she matures and grows; she is a young woman with agency, unusually so for a Victorian girl.  

Wonderland is not Neverland. It is none other than the mad world of adults. In Wonderland, Alice learns to be herself. When she says 'you are nothing but a pack of cards' Alice displays her autonomy and agency. Alice teaches you how to go through life, approaching it with curiosity and inquisitiveness and making up your mind about who and what you encounter. It applies to me at all levels. Even my penchant for research, as an academic,  is Alice's style curiosity.  

My favourite Alice quote?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” How very true.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The 40 rules of love of Shams al Tabrizi


A page from The Works of Shams Tabrizi (‘Dīvān-e Šams-e Tabrīzī’reblogged 

It is with some trepidation that I write about Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī and his spiritual master  Shams al-din of Tabriz, as there is already so much material available and written by people with a more in-depth knowledge of Persian poetry than I have. 

 However, Rumi is not just a Persian poet, he transcends boundaries. Nowadays he is one of the most quoted poets to be found on the internet, everyone seems to have read snippets of Rumi's poems. There are websites with the 'best quotes from Rumi', and you can even get them by email every day if you sign up.  New Age gurus have appropriated Rumi, divesting him of his Islamic cultural roots, as pointed out by Rozina Ali in a 2017 article in The New Yorker.  There was even a Hollywood movie planned in 2016 about Rumi, with Leonardo Di Caprio favoured for the role - it sparked a controversy about whitewashing Rumi, but Di Caprio's agent issued a disclaimer.

There are interpretations of Rumi's love for Shams al-din of Tabriz as being homosexual physical love,  which of course have been amply rebutted.  Rumi and Shams were very close, and Rumi addressed many of his love poems to him, feeling bereft by his disappearance, when Shams was no longer to be found, possibly murdered. But their relationship was based on a spiritual bond, underpinned by Shams' allegiance to Sufi ideals of ecstasy and divine love, which he passed on to Rumi. In any case, what does it matter if they were lovers? Shams inspired Rumi who went on to be a true poet from being just another religious scholar, as a result of his meeting with the much older mystic.  Shams unlocked the poet in Rumi.  

A midsummer night's dream by William Blake

Here I cannot help thinking of another great poet and supreme playwright who sang of love, from a different tradition, that is, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's  sonnets were addressed to a young man, variedly identified by scholars.  Sonnet 20 holds some vital clues as to the sexuality of the narrator, William Shakespeare himself. 

Love was also the subject matter of another Shakespearean work A Midsummer Night's Dream and despite the comedic format, there are disquieting undertones and a depiction of the clash between dream and reality. 

(Titania's infatuation with Bottom should be a point of reference for all women  who dreamily fall in love with unsuitable men, only to wake up from their 'slumber' and  find out they have been  loving someone who was uttterly unreal. It happens to men too). 

Rumi has often been compared to Shakespeare. Some scholars have found similarities between Rumi and Shakespeare, the common thread being the influence of Neoplatonism on both.  But there is no direct connection between them even though some writers have been at pains to demonstrate that Shakespeare had read Rumi.

Source: Iran Territory

But back to Rumi and Shams in particular.  Shams Tabrizi formulated 'The 40 Rules of Love', also the title of a contemporary novel by Elif Shafak, soon a Netflix series, which focuses on the transformation brought about by love, interweaving the narrative of Rumi and Shams with that of an American housewife, part-time literary agent, who falls in love with Zahara, the author of a manuscript about the Persian poet that she had been given to appraise. Shafak intersperses the rules throughout the book.

The rules were elaborated after the two men spent a period of 40 days of intense meditation in a cave. There are beautiful Persian miniatures illustrating the 40 rules, it is a subject matter that has been amply exploredin this genre of painting. 

 Rule 11 particularly resonates with me.

"The quest for Love changes users. There is no seeker among those who search for Love who has not matured on the way. The moment you start looking for Love, you begin to change within and without".

As I said,  there is much you can find on the internet about Rumi and Shams Tabrizi from scholarly  works to blogposts.  The blog Iran Territory (link above) lists them all. 
I would recommend you do your own search. You will find something written about Rumi and Shams that speaks to you.