Currently reading II

This time there are three masterpieces on my bedside table. Two of them are essays of international fame, while the third is my first Philip Roth (and one of the greatest novel ever written). So what will I be writing about in the next weeks? Here you are a preview and a few words.

Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade

A month ago I visited my favourite bookshop in Frankfurt – the British Bookshop in Börsenstrasse 17 – and strolled around in the little sanctuary. I really love this bookshop. Every time I travel to Frankfurt and get out of the Hauptwache underground station, my first thought goes to that small place packed with books: Are you still there? When could I come to visit you? Today? Tomorrow?

Because in a certain way everything, there, speaks to me of living life at a different pace: a slow pace, but at the same time truly innovative. And when I cross the threshold, I always feel that I will soon enter a new world waiting for me from the pages of a book. You must admit that such magic sensations are more and more rare at present. Bookshops are different: they don’t always excite the senses in this deep way, they don’t speak to the heart… even if they are wonderful and well-organised. But this one is like a Island quietly surrounded by the ocean: The British Bookshop – Your Independent Choice. And it’s difficult for me not to find interesting books there, even if the most interesting of all surely is the bookseller. No doubt, the quiet and fair-haired lady has read more books that those which lie on her bookshelves…

So a month ago it was raining a lot and I crossed the threshold. I didn’t know which world would have come home with me, but I felt it was the right day. I lingered on a couple of classics, then on some novelties. I looked at the “Native Americans” shelf with pure desire… but it was too high for me and there was no discreet stepladder around. Then I saw it… The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, a big book with a sacred aura. I had read something about it, I knew something about it… but what? I extracted the book from its crowded row and strictly walked towards the counter. Have you decided? , asked the fair-haired bookseller. She is so discreet, but it’s clear she would like you to buy a good book. I then showed her the cover like a happy child: Yes. She tilted her head gently to the left and read the title. Oh… that’s excellent!

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

Something very different here. Most of you U.S. readers obviously know Susan Sontag better than me, but I am quite far from the U.S. and I see her in my Italian way, as one of those indescribable creatures – artists, intellectuals, and scientists – who refused every label and are so essential in present-day global culture. I was fascinated by this essay and decided to read it because I haven’t found another writer speaking of illness in this way, yet.

(Why haven’t I found him? I don’t know. Yet illness is a great subject).

It seems to me that, nowadays, metaphors about illness are stronger than ever. It sounds strange in 2014, but just think about what follows and you will understand what I mean. I don’t think the phenomenon is entirely positive or negative; perhaps it is just the natural evolution of the history of reductive medicine. However, wherever you go you will find a growing interest in integrated, holistic medicine. This is a great thing: official medicine has realised its failures on the hyper-specialized paths and is coming back to an holistic perspective. This is a necessary movement, because a technological world has created new illnesses for which “old” medicine (the one we know, derived from scientific reductionism) is no longer efficient.

Nevertheless, a lot of metaphors have entered our everyday life together with the holistic perspective. And I am starting to observe that they are not so different from the Romantic age – when John Keats dying because of tubercolosis was in a certain way a poet dying a Poet’s Death – or from the Eighties, when hundreds of people started dying of AIDS in an aura of damnation and guilt. Nowadays, new-age disciplines – together with a number of experiences and holistic approaches to illnesses – carry their metaphors and their interpretation. And metaphors obviously carry the Moral Judgement, even if nobody says it openly.

Personally speaking, I have a strong interest in holistic approaches to illness. I am an ill person and a I have worked a lot on myself, as we usually say. I have analyzed my childhood and adolescence, the relationships within my family, my sexual experiences, my approach to food, my sleep, and the shape of my body. I have studied yoga and meditation. Nevertheless, metaphor is always there: Why don’t you go on holiday instead of taking pills? Why don’t you allow yourself to express your internal power instead of going to the doctors? You can’t breath, it’s quite obvious that you are suffocated by your mother. Your back aches: it’s quite obvious you have had a difficult relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. You are not ill, everything is in your head. You are allergic and intoxicated: that is clear, your way of life should be purified. And so on.

I must admit that every metaphor has been evocative and stimulating for me. I must admit that – probably – everything is true about the parents, the sexual experiences, the holidays, the purification of life, the head full of stuff, and the internal power. I must admit that every analytical reflection on myself has been useful. But when Susan Sontag writes I am against interpretation… perhaps I have that feeling of knowing what she meant.

We still live in an era in which Death is in some ways obscene, wrong, guilty. If we are ill, it means that we have not lived properly: we have not been deserving enough to possess health. So metaphors become our masks to protect ourselves from our real situation, from the reality, or from the others. Sometimes masks are the correct interpretation of the ghosts which animated of our personal story, but we must keep in mind that when the last mask falls down… we will face the inevitable reality. Illness exists. Death exists. And they dont’ mean nothing, they simply… ARE. We need this perspective as well, so steadily refused by our narcissistic, consumerist society.

Philip Roth, American Pastoral

This is my first novel by Philip Roth. My dad has always said to me that he is great. Read it. A person like you should read it. Well, it would be nice if you read it. Now, you have to read it actually.

And he is right, I definetly have to read it.

Thus, I won’t write about Philip Roth, because it’s patent that it’s not necessary. I will just choose an excerpt for you one of these days.

Thanks to Books, Yo for his interesting opinion and reviews about Roth.

Have a look at this interesting documentary if you find it:

4 thoughts on “Currently reading II

  1. Thanks for the shout out. I don’t often check the reader part of wordpress, but luckily I did today. I recommended starting with The Ghost Writer, and meant to mention the other day that one of the reasons for that is because it is the first Zuckerman novel [a series to which American Pastoral also belongs]. Obviously you’re starting with this one, which is fine of course, but for anyone who reads American Pastoral first [which many do], it is worth remembering that Zuckerman is narrating the novel and that he is himself a character [not actually Roth]. I think that gets lost when they are not read in sequence because Zuckerman fades out of American Pastoral after a while. I hope you do write about Roth because I think there are plenty of negative reviews and misconceptions about his work; even American Pastoral has been the subject of some controversy.

    • It is my fault. Generally, when you mention a blogger it would be courteous to advise him or her through the “request feedback” bottom. However, I published the post before requesting the feedback… and the operation was no longer possible at that point. Sorry.

      As to Roth, I know you recommended “The Ghost Writer” first, but like any good independent reader… I didn’t follow the advise. I’ve been ill for some days, the book was there, and the temptation was unavoidable. 😀

      Anyway, in “American Pastoral” it is quite clear that Zukerman is a sort of alter-ego and not the writer of the novel. I never mix a narrator up with his/her writer even in the most famous cases (V.S. Naipaul, for instance). Somewhere I read that the mere act of writing generates a sort of separation between the writer and the narrator, even in the case of an autobiography. Philosophically speaking, I agree with this idea. Even if everything you write is true, a text is something substantially different from life. And this is good for many reasons. Moreover, it is this very fact that sometimes gives the act of writing the power to heal both the writer and the reader.

      I can easily imagine dull critics on Goodreads and everywhere. I’ve heard every sort of stupid things about great authors I love and am quite relaxed. And I am so relaxed that, when I find a great author, I am so excited that I don’t even think at the possibility of people disliking him or her. But actually you are right, it could be important to write reviews about interesting, controversed authors.

      P.S. Did you know the documentary about Roth? I have the dvd. It is very interesting.

      • Ah, that wasn’t a criticism; i wouldn’t expect anyone to notify me if they mention me in a post. Yeah, I completely agree; it’s very lazy to equate what a writer puts on paper, in the mouths or minds of their characters, with their own opinions and values. In any case, what i wrote [which might seem patronising – and it probably is], was not really directed at you but more at general readers or people who might see your blog and fancy picking up the book. I come across reviews of American Pastoral all the time and so few of them acknowledge that Levov’s story is a story within a larger one [Zuckerman’s]. I find that odd, because it must shape the way one reads the novel, for me. Or ought to give Roth some leeway. Anyway, I think American Pastoral is an important book; as nearly always with Roth he probes a fascinating question: was what people were fighting for in the 1960’s worth what was lost or compromised in that battle? Or to put it another way: what exactly were people fighting for or against? Liberals want to claim the fight was against oppression, but I am not sure that is entirely the case. It wasn’t all about oppression, it was more about being for freedom, which is a slightly different thing. Sure, freedom is important, but what suffered from the pursuit of that freedom was middle American family values. I think society as a whole is still suffering from what the sixties kicked off.

        No, I didn’t know about the documentary. Is it about Roth himself or his work? I think I said in recent review that I try and avoid things about writer’s personalities or private lives.

      • Yes, yes… I had understood everything, you write clearly. The problem is that, on the contrary, in English I write like a troglodyte (with due respect to troglodytes).

        The documentary principally is about Roth’s work, but he also covers some relevant aspects of his life. Not many, actually. It is a sort of long lecture by Roth himself, like a “spoken” book. It is a long interview, nothing more. But if you are allergic to writers… it is not for you.

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