Nabi Khazri (Nabi Alekper ogly Babaev) is the national poet of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The poem that I translated into English was rendered into Russian by Anatoly Peredreev. The Garden of Rocks is, obviously, the famous Ryōan-ji.
Sit down, take off your shoes,
Don’t say a word
While in the company
Of sand and white rocks,
And let this boundless silence be the ocean –
Immerse yourself in it.
Stay herewith the clouds most serene,
Don’t say a word
Next to the sand and rocks,
And ages set in stone.
May those rocks be isles in the ocean?
Or may they be the clouds most serene?
Can you not see the glow of days finite?
The moss, as green as everlasting life,
Is sparkling with the emerald of spring.
Meanwhile the wind discusses death and life
With the gently touched by sun sakura tree.
Once, like the wind, you’ll fly away in sorrow
And earthly life that you once here led
Will turn into a particle of this white sand
That now lies in silence between the stones.
You’re going… Wait… Eternity is speaking!
Here the sky, forever so blue,
And silence, and infinity are speaking…
Listen to them – for they all speak to you…
И в молчанье посиди
Наедине с песком и белым камнем.
И в тишину
Как в океан войди
И растворись в безбрежном океане.
В тишайшем мире облаков
С окаменевшими веками…
Не груда ль
Не острова ли в океане –
Не свет ли в них
Как жизни знак бессмертный,
Весною изумрудною горит,
С веткой сакуры рассветной
О жизни и о смерти говорит…
И ты, как ветер, улетишь,
И век земной,
Что был тобой прожит,
В тот песок хрустальный,
Что меж камней
В безмолвии лежит…
И мира бесконечность
С тобою говорят…
С тобой… С тобой…
Авторизованный перевод с азербайджанского Анатолия Передреева.
Tichborne’s Elegy a well-known poem by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in conspiracy against Elizabeth I
I have never asked English-speaking readers what or how they felt about Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy. It is a well-known poem, written by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth I. It is a tearful meditation on the brevity and fatality of life.
The Translator’s Labour’s Lost
I suspect that it is the poem’s melancholy and romantic feel that has made it so popular among contemporary Russian translators. On the web one can find some 5 or 6 variations, all different. Nothing wrong with this, except one thing: the majority of attempts are based around external (=obvious) characteristics of the poem. Translators have found that “Elegy” consists of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words. This obviously makes the poem very unique, and, because we’re reading a Renaissance poem – and Renaissance is well-known for its fascination with symbols and riddles – the monosyllabic words are (mis)taken for an authorial intent. Tichborne was contemplating the brevity of life, and so he used monosyllabic words to emphasise the point.
There are two problems with such interpretation. First, even when we translate prose, we still miss out on certain symbolic features in the destination text. However good we are as translators, losses are sometimes inevitable. In the end, a written text is a rhetorical exercise, and therefore we still want to entertain the reader with our translation. If it closely follows the original text but is cumbersome and distasteful, then the reader will be tired, annoyed, and not at all pleased. This means that we cannot aim for a complete lexical equivalence in translation, but rather we should aim to translate (i.e. negotiate) something else.
Russian is my native language, which I know in depth, and yet even I would struggle to provide monosyllabic equivalents to all the English monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s Elegy. And even if I did manage to find them all, the result would hardly possess much literary merit because I wouldn’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.
The second problem with putting too much emphasis on monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s poem is that we’re clearly trying to add to what is already contained in the poem. For some reason we are not satisfied with the fact that “Elegy” is about the fatality and shortness of one’s life, so we think we must find that which would further stress this. Let’s not think about the poem; let’s look at what I’ve just said. “We think we must find that which would further stress this“; “let’s not think about the poem“; “let’s look at what I’ve just said“. Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of words in those phrases are monosyllabic. Because I am the living and breathing author of those phrases, I certainly declare that I didn’t plan to use monosyllabic words to stress my point. The point is very simple: there are many monosyllabic words in the English language, and a lot of them happened to be used in Tichborne’s “Elegy“. Rather than assuming that Tichborne conspired (excuse the pun) to use monosyllabic words in his final poem, one should better look at this as a kind of linguistic peculiarity. It certainly adds to the poem’s feel; but, as far as I am concerned, it cannot be viewed as the poem’s most distinct feature, let alone it cannot dictate how we translate the poem.
As far as the Anglo-Saxon origin of the words goes, again I personally believe we’re walking a useless extra mile in trying to establish the uniqueness of the poem. I think so purely because I am careful of not infusing the poem with my knowledge. This is the biggest disservice I can do to myself as translator and to my readers. The question on these occasions must not be “do I know these words are Anglo-Saxon?” but “did Tichborne know these words were Anglo-Saxon?” I bet the historic origin or the etymology of the words didn’t matter to him in the hours before the execution. Someone may think differently but the question to ask is: would the origin of the words matter to you in Tichborne’s circumstances?
Tichborne’s Elegy Intent
I argued in a short essay in Russian about the complications of translating “Elegy” that it is actually a very easy poem to translate, thanks to the Russian lyrical tradition. Mysticism, melancholy, romantic troubles, forlorn love is what often distinguishes Russian poetry. Tichborne’s “Elegy” could easily be written by a Romanticist poet like Lermontov, should he have found himself in prison awaiting execution. Given Lermontov’s caliber as a poet, his poem would well exceed Tichborne’s in literary merit, but in tone and mood it could be very similar.
Last but not least, the misfortunes of translators who tried to translate “Elegy” have entirely to do with the problem of identifying the context and the intent of the poem. I have already pointed out to the problem of context: we’re placing the poem in the context of the language, whereas we must place it in the context of its own time. The themes of Tichborne’s poem are the brevity of life, fatality, death, and the inevitability of punishment, however unjust and cruel. These very themes were widely discussed not only in contemporary literature, but were explored by painters. In my Russian text I compared the colours of “Elegy” to the palette of Tintoretto’s “Marriage at Cana”: the colours are rich but dim, as if covered by the ‘frost of cares‘. There is a similar kind of melancholy and sadness in Michelangelo’s sonnets, and the whole topic of brevity of life was labeled vanitas in both painting and literature. Seen in this context, “Elegy” is a bridge between Renaissance exuberance and lust for life and Baroque melancholy, presented in a rather beautiful and peculiar lyrical form.
Tichborne’s intent is quite easy to comprehend. It is known that he was practising poetry, so, in addition to writing a letter to his darling wife, what could be a better way to bid farewell to this earthy life? And the poem’s intent has to do with the context in which we should read it. Again, this is not the context of the language, but of the time. Tichborne wasn’t teaching us a lesson in the English language; he wasn’t trying to tell us how many monosyllabic words there were in the English language, let alone how many of them were Anglo-Saxon. Instead, he suddenly found himself in a prison cell, and, given that he travelled to the Continent and obviously had the chance to view the works of Italian painters, all the images of vanitas, hour-clocks, and hovering deathly shadows rushed into his mind. If, like Dostoevsky in the 19th c, Tichborne had been suddenly pardoned in 1586, “Elegy” could become a stepping stone for a poetic talent. Instead, it became the last and only manifestation of any literary promise. If Tichborne was indeed practising poetry during his life, then this poem also contains his understanding that he could no longer develop his gift, and this should have been distressing also. Therefore, when we translate “Elegy“, we must strive to convey this emotional component of the original text. And, in case you wonder, this is exactly what I did in my translation.
I much prefer the films like The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese) and The Passions of Christ (dir. Mel Gibson) for the simple fact: they divert our attention to the life of a man, rather than a semi-God. In the first film we see a man struggling with and yet still pursuing his mission of a Messiah (note the connection between the two words), and in the second film we are made to watch this man suffer with our eyes wide open – pretty much like Alex from The Clockwork Orange had his eyelids fixed open and was made to watch different atrocities in order to rethink his attitude to aggression and terror. I do think that in the official ecclesiastical “discource” far too big an emphasis is made on the performance of Jesus as a son of God, and much lesser attention is given to his life as man.
Even less attention we give to God himself. Some deny Him altogether, others await miracles. A true deus ex machina, He is expected to turn to a man’s every whim, to stop wars, to heal wounds, to grant success, to bring love, etc, etc. But what if He was not quite as we thought him to be? Can He not be tired of our whims and prayers?
This is what Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean Nobel-winning poet and feminist, contemplated in a beautiful poem El Dios Triste. The poem is set in autumn when Nature sheds colours and leaves, barring trees and earth, and washing every surface with the last rain before succumbing to the winterly sleep under the snow. But just as Huizinga imagined the European 15th century as the autumn of the Middle Ages, so does Mistral see Nature’s figurative sunset as God’s autumn. The final stanza, in which the lyrical hero abandons all demands in her sympathy for the sad God, is one of the most profound expressions of misericordia – mercy and compassion.
Gabriela Mistral – EL DIOS TRISTE
Mirando la alameda de otoño lacerada,
la alameda profunda de vejez amarilla,
como cuando camino por la hierba segada
busco el rostro de Dios y palpo su mejilla.
Y en esta tarde lenta como una hebra de llanto
por la alameda de oro y de rojez yo siento
un Dios de otoño, un Dios sin ardor y sin canto
¡y lo conozco triste, lleno de desaliento!
Y pienso que tal vez Aquel tremendo y fuerte
Señor, al que cantara de locura embriagada,
no existe, y que mi Padre que las mañanas vierte
tiene la mano laxa, la mejilla cansada.
Se oye en su corazón un rumor de alameda
de otoño: el desgajarse de la suma tristeza.
Su mirada hacia mí como lágrima rueda
y esa mirada mustia me inclina la cabeza.
Y ensayo otra plegaria para este Dios doliente,
plegaria que del polvo del mundo no ha subido:
“Padre, nada te pido, pues te miro a la frente
y eres inmenso, ¡inmenso!, pero te hallas herido”.
A beautiful Russian translation:
Габриэла Мистраль – Грустный Бог
Под ветхий шорох осени-калеки, где дряхлость рощ прикрыта желтизною, я подымаю горестные веки, и мой Господь встает перед мною.
Глухих часов медлительные слезы, кармин листвы и золото заката. Осенний Бог забыл псалмы и грозы, в его глазах смятенье и утрата.
И мнится мне, что Тот, в огне и громе, воспетый слепо, с опьяненьем страсти, едва ли есть; да есть ли кто-то, кроме того, кто сам нуждается в участьи!
Поблекли щеки, руки ослабели, а в сердце — рощей стонет непогода, туманный взгляд не достигает цели, и нас Ему не видно с небосвода.
И я из человеческого ада иду к Нему с молитвой небывалой: — Верь, Отче наш, нам ничего не надо, наш всемогущий, хрупкий и усталый!
In 1544, a handsome 15-year-old boy named Cecchino (Francesco) Bracci died, leaving his uncle Luigi del Riccio shattered. At the time Luigi was a close friend and counsellor to Michelangelo Buonarotti, whom he kindly asked to execute a tomb for Cecchino and compose an epitaph.
I was reading a book by Sigmund Freud recently, and the Austrian narrated a story of how a young scientist asked him to review his work. Freud agreed; however, he couldn’t force himself to do it; eventually, he accepted that he didn’t actually want to do the review, and excused himself from the task.
Believe it or not, in 1540s in Italy Michelangelo was in the exact Freud’s position. He barely knew the boy, and it turned out that, in spite of his famous beauty, Cecchino never sat for a portrait. The only source of knowledge and inspiration was supposed to be Cecchino’s uncle, Luigi.
A kind soul as it seems, Michelangelo took to the job. Luigi sent generous hampers to feed a rather indifferent Muse, which gifts the artist sometimes acknowledged in the draft epitaphs and sketches he’d sent back to del Riccio. Indeed, the texts we have demonstrate the hard times Michelangelo could have when the subject failed to ignite his poetic flame. Even the words stumble, and the lack of acquaintance with the boy fully manifests itself. Several months and almost fifty epitaphs later, Michelangelo pulled out from the job. And yet, in 1545 he’d sent Luigi a beautiful sonnet. It is a short study of the poet labour’s lost, with a beautiful ending that actually re-interprets one of the draft epitaphs, pointing out to the fact that it is a lover who preserves the image of the beloved. In spite of what we know of the Renaissance homoerotism, and Michelangelo’s in particular, I insist that Love here needs to be understood as a pure affection, not a hint at any sexual interest.
The tomb was eventually made by another artist and can be seen at the church dell’Aracoeli in Rome. In 1962, David Hockney painted In Memoriam Cecchino Bracchi. This post also includes the sketches by Michelangelo that were eventually used as the basis for the tomb. The final epitaph was composed in Latin.
The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky also translated two of the epitaphs on the death of Cecchino. I guess the interest in this series of epitaphs lies in several facts. The genre of an epitaph is unique in itself, and when a famous artist-cum-poet composes the whopping 42 quatrains, it does attract attention. Cecchino’s death devastated “the whole of Rome”, according to his uncle, although the age at which the boy died was likely the main reason. And even though Michelangelo’s pen and Muse refused to work together, he nonetheless appears to have been excited at the opportunity to explore one of the favourite themes of the early Baroque poetry, namely vanitas and preference given to the other life.
I didn’t try to translate the epitaphs. Yet back in 2008, when I discovered the 1545 sonnet, it captivated me so that I had to translate it. I must admit, I fully experienced Michelangelo’s own hardships, it was the first time I was translating from Italian, and as always before my task was to try and preserve the original rhythm and melody in the Russian translation. I was, however, satisfied with the result. It is included below, together with the English translation by John Addington Symonds.
In 2013 my Russian translation was awarded the First Diploma in the “Poetry” nomination in Music in Translation competition.
Michelangelo Buonarotti – Sulla morte di Cecchino Bracci
A pena prima aperti gli vidd’io
i suo begli occhi in questa fragil vita,
che, chiusi el dì dell’ultima partita,
gli aperse in cielo a contemplare Dio.
Conosco e piango, e non fu l’error mio,
col cor sì tardi a lor beltà gradita,
ma di morte anzi tempo, ond’è sparita
a voi non già, m’al mie ’rdente desio.
Dunche, Luigi, a far l’unica forma
di Cecchin, di ch’i’ parlo, in pietra viva etterna,
or ch’è già terra qui tra noi,
se l’un nell’altro amante si trasforma,
po’ che sanz’essa l’arte non v’arriva,
convien che per far lui ritragga voi.
John Addington Symonds – English Translation
Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes,
Which to your living eyes were life and light,
When, closed at last in death’s injurious night,
He opened them on God in Paradise.
I know it, and I weep — too late made wise:
Yet was the fault not mine; for death’s fell spite
Robbed my desire of that supreme delight
Which in your better memory never dies.
Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine
To make unique Cecchino smile in stone
For ever, now that earth hath made him dim,
If the beloved within the lover shine,
Since art without him cannot work alone,
You must I carve to tell the world of him.
Julia Shuvalova – Russian Translation
Я только раз взглянул в глаза того,
В чьем взоре ты черпал и жизнь, и свет,
Как в вечном сне он их сомкнул, чтоб впредь
Смотреть в раю на Бога самого.
Как глуп я был! И плачу оттого!
Но, право же, моей вины в том нет.
А ты хранишь вовеки счастья след,
Хотя бы Смерть и унесла его.
Но любящий любимого творит,
И, раз уж Муз дела идут не шибко,
Тебя мне должно взять за образец.
В июне 1544 г. в Риме умер юный Франческо (Чеккино) Браччи, племянник поэта Луиджи дель Риччо. Луиджи, хорошо знакомый с Микеланджело, обратился к поэту-художнику с просьбой создать надгробие для мраморного памятника Чеккино, а также написать текст эпитафии. Микеланджело согласился. До нас, действительно, дошли четыре эпитафии. Однако ни одна из них не украсила надгробие Чеккино, да и сам памятник, в конце концов, был успешно создан другим мастером.
Причина, по которой Микеланджело уклонился от исполнения договора, вероятнее всего изложена им самим в приведенном сонете. Вопреки тому, что можно прочесть в популярных статьях о глубине отношений Микеланджело и Чеккино, степень близости была невелика, что и подчеркивает первая строка сонета. Несмотря на то что Чеккино славился своей красотой, ни один художник, похоже, не соизволил запечатлеть его при жизни. Переводы нескольких набросков эпитафий, сделанные А. М. Эфросом, демонстрируют бесплодные усилия пера Микеланджело, которое дель Риччо изо всех сил старался подпитать – в прямом смысле этого слова:
Здесь рок послал безвременный мне сон,
Но я не мертв, хоть и опущен в землю:
Я жив в тебе, чьим сетованьям внемлю,
За то, что в друге друг отображен.
– Не хотел посылать вам это, потому что скверно вышло,
но форели и трюфели одолели бы и само небо. Вверяю себя вам.
К благой судьбе я смертью приведен:
Бог не желал меня увидеть старым,
И так как рок не властен большим даром,
Все, кроме смерти, было б мне в урон.
– Теперь, когда обещание пятнадцати надписей выполнено,
я больше уже не повинен вам ими, разве что придут
они из рая, где он пребывает.
Рисовать эскиз надгробия оказалось еще тяжелее: “Посылаю вам с запиской дыни, рисунка же пока нет, но я изготовлю его непременно со всем искусством, на какое способен”. И однако же искусства было мало:
Чеккино – в жизни, ныне – я у Бога,
Мирской на миг, небесный навсегда;
Счастливая вела меня звезда:
Где стольким в смерть, мне в жизнь была дорога.
– Так как поэзия этой ночью молчала, посылаю вам
четыре надписи, за три пряника скряги и вверяю себя
Андрей Вознесенский также перевел две из этих эпитафий:
Я счастлив, что я умер молодым.
Земные муки – хуже, чем могила.
Навеки смерть меня освободила
и сделалась бессмертием моим.
Я умер, подчинившись естеству.
Но тыщи дум в моей душе вмещались.
Одна на них погасла – что за малость?!
Я в тысячах оставшихся живу.
Проведя не один месяц в творческих муках, Микеланджело отклонил заказ дель Риччо. Но в 1545 г. написал для него вышеприведенный сонет. При отсутствии каких-либо изображений юноши, Луиджи, как любящий дядя и воспитатель, для которого смерть Чеккино явилась тяжелым ударом, мог бы единственным “источником” вдохновения для художника. На это и намекает Микеланджело, с присущими его веку изяществом и легким юмором предлагая изваять самого дель Риччо, дабы сохранить в веках память о Чеккино. Одновременно в этом сонете сходятся многие темы, поднятые Микеланджело в черновых вариантах эпитафий, в частности, в этих строках: “Я жив в тебе, чьим сетованьям внемлю, за то, что в друге друг отображен”.
История жизни и смерти Чеккино Браччи, о которой известно ровно столько, сколько можно извлечь из этих коротких посланий Микеланджело, послужила источником вдохновения для английского художника Дэвида Хокни (In Memoriam Cecchino Bracci, 1962).
В 2013 г. за перевод этого сонета я получила диплом I степени в номинации “Поэзия” на международном конкурсе перевода “Музыка перевода”.
I‘m taking part in a photography project by Kirill Kuzmin, Bloggers’ Portraits. This Internet moves in mysterious ways, and I cannot even remember now how I came across Kirill’s blog, but my decision to take part was instant. Yesterday I visited his studio where for the first time I met two other Russian bloggers, and between the four of us we seem to have produced some awesome, if odd, work. The mention of improvising is necessary, as along the way we swapped some “accessories”: I lent my cap, while in the end I got to put on the image I’ve always secretly wanted to wear.
The photos will be available in a short while, and my plan is to shed more light on the project, but in the meantime here are the heroes of the yesterday’s session (arranged, hatted and snapped by Kirill).
Не успела я приехать в родные пенаты, как мне довелось участвовать в проекте Кирилла Кузьмина “Портреты блогеров” (условия проекта и галереи участников). Пути Интернета сего неисповедимы, и я совершенно не помню, каким образом меня “вынесло” на блог Кирилла, но решение принять участие было моментальным. Вчера же я, наконец, приехала в его студию, где, кроме меня, оказалась еще пара блогеров-рунетчиков, и на четверых мы сообразили нечто замечательное, хоть и немного странное порою. Упоминание об импровизации обязательно, ибо по ходу съемки мы “махнулись” предметами одежды и бутафорией. Я одолжила Евгению свою любимую черную кепку (которую я во время оно безуспешно искала в Манчестере, Лондоне и Оксфорде, но обрела-таки в пригороде Лондона). А потом Евгений предложил дополнить мои Hosenträger головным убором и очками из коллекции Михаила. Так неожиданно я примерила на себя образ, который меня давно интриговал.
Фотографии и прочие материалы будут доступны в скором времени. Пока же – несколько моих портретов (снимал tesey) и групповое фото троих вчерашних героев (взято у shok_darvina).
I’m interviewing Kirill, talking about the project
The poem is a lullaby; the Poet tells the story of a secret room where, under the lock, are stored all the wonders of the world. Medieval landscape and feel of Czech and Slovak cities and towns are vivid, which is the reason why to me this poem has long epitomised the experience of being in an old European town.
Я упоминала это стихотворение в одном из постов “Llandudno Diaries” на русском. Действительно, именно оно стало и остается для меня настоящим ключом к атмосфере старых европейских городков, особенно чешских и словацких.
It is not true that children shouldn’t think of romantic adventures; the tale of Nutcracker is a good example of how this juvenile adventurism can do magic. In Valek’s collection of poems, The Wisemen of Tramtaria, there is one beautiful poem, reading which I eventually gulped. This kind of story is exactly what happens to children sometimes. They wholeheartedly believe in something, yet those-who-know-better outdo themselves trying to persuade “kids” that there is no point in believing. Even as we grow up, the opportunities to be told off abound. But you know what? Children believe for a reason, and rather often than not, their dreams do come true. The poem is a story of a Snowgirl who patiently waits for her Snowman, while sceptical voices are trying to dissuade her by explaining that the Snowman has long melted into a stream; but the Poet witnesses how, amidst the blizzard, the Snowman does come to his beloved.
Это одно из “романтических”, лирических стихотворений словацкого поэта Мирослава Валека, напечатанное в сборнике “Мудрецы из Трамтарии” (Москва, 1973, перевод Романа Сефа). В нем как нельзя лучше прослеживается влияние Жака Превера. Ожидание Снегурки, над тщетностью которого смеются окружающие, есть не что иное как “детский” конфликт со “взрослыми”, неоднократно запечатленный Превером (например, в стихотворении “Птица”). И только мудрый поэт, не тронутый всеобщим неверием, сам ребенок в душе, замечает исполнение мечты, совершение чуда…
И в метельной канители
Белые дома летели
А заснеженные ели
И виднелся еле-еле
Через пелену метели
Белый борт грузовика,
И в метельной карусели
Странные слова звенели:
В самом деле
Не придет он,
Не придет он,
И через год он,
Он давно растаял где-то,
Стал прохладным ручейком.
То заброшенное место,
Где бежит ручей,
И в метельной канители
Обняла его Снегурка,
Улыбнулся я слегка.
I have discovered that someone landed on the blog while searching for Miroslav Valek‘s poem, Little Mice. To serious students of poetry, especially in Slavic languages, the name of Valek (1927-1991) needs no introduction; this January marks his 20th death anniversary. Singlehandedly, he modernised Slovak literature by enriching it with the best of French Symbolist and surrealist poetry (S. Mallarmé, G. Apollinaire, and J. Prévert). In spite of heading the Slovak Ministry of Culture for many years, Valek surprisingly escaped the tenets of ideology, leaving behind the body of work characterised, first and foremost, by its focus on humanity, compassion, and romanticism.
An important part of his work were poems for children. The book called The Wisemen of Tramtaria was published in Moscow in 1973, quite awhile before I was born; it previously belonged to my cousin. I have just looked through the book, and I now realise how and when the seeds of love for Western European towns with their castles, eerie cobbled streets, elegant weathercocks, and the omnipresent feeling of mystery and romantic adventures were planted. I grew up loving this A4 book, illustrated by a Russian minimalist artist, Evgeny Monin. Valek’s poems were rendered in Russian by one of the best Soviet children’s poets, Roman Sef. The poem is in Russian, I’m afraid; it is a small sketch about “mice” that disguises a story of how seasons change. I am sure, however, it will be of great help for those who were searching for it.
I wrote the essay below in the early 2006 when I worked as a researcher for one British company. While I’m thinking of the different ways to “add value” to the text, I wanted to share what I’ve written all those years ago. Commissions are welcome; criticism is even more so, as I’m sure I’ve missed some aspects of contemplating the ever-lasting connection between politics and sex. However, even though I was thinking of sharing the text for a long time, I was practically compelled to do this after I found out that somebody was searching for ‘burlesconi‘. Given that in the text below I also had to consider the impact of burlesque performers on the modern attitudes, I thought it was a calling… you know what I mean.
A small note: I’ve just realised the text is heavily marked by Italian connections. In the BBC series mentioned below Lady Thatcher was played by Greta Scacchi, an Italian-Australian actress born in Milan. Oh Italia, amore!
On 1 December, 2002, the BBC1 screened a drama Jeffrey Archer: The Truth. It was a fictional rendering of the ‘real’ story behind Archer’s perjury case. According to the plot, Archer first claimed that he spent a night with Baroness Thatcher (still the Prime Minister when Archer’s case broke out), but then changed it to a far-fetched tale of a love affair with Princess Diana, all to provide himself with an alibi for the time he spent with a prostitute. The Western Mail, published in Cardiff, gave out a few details to its readers shortly before the premiere. It said that Thatcher would seduce Archer by performing a striptease on the desk in her cabinet, and that she would also have her hip adorned with a heart tattoo with the letters JA. As the film’s director, Guy Jenkin explained, “…the whole piece is a joke about Jeffrey Archer’s tendency for inaccurate precis”.
So, this would-be obnoxious romp turned out to be a political satire. The BBC used the archaic expression ‘political body’ literally, and admittedly, Archer’s body did not behave ‘politically correctly’ when he was committing adultery. It must yet be noted that in the film Archer did not deny the fact of cheating; he denied the fact of cheating with a prostitute. Bearing in mind that the PM was wearing a tattoo and performed a striptease, one certainly have to ask, exactly what the difference was between her and the prostitute on that occasion. Such confusion shows that today a human body and politics become increasingly intertwined as both can be engaged in “dirty” activity. To treat this as a novelty would be a mistake. One only has to look back at the burlesque tradition in the United States or at the cabaret tradition in Europe, to see the roots of political humiliation through the use of overtly sexual imagery. Overall, however, today notices the tendency to reject the outdated (?) cultural values and identities and to substitute these with the fleeting virtual identities and values, to the extent when politics begins to be perceived as an irrational activity. Let us consider various examples how watching or displaying bodies can in fact be a manifestation of a political stance.
Horrible Prettiness: Social Hierarchy, Burlesque and the Body Politics.
The trait of being ethically rigid is attributed to the English society during so-called Victorian times, but in fact it was never a typically English or a typically Victorian trait. What is interesting, however, is that in the 19th c. across the Continent and across America a sterile mainstream morality co-existed with what Richard Grant White called “the defiance of a system”. The burlesque culture in America represented such defiance. A burlesque performer was a construction of what was called the “low other”: “something that is reviled by and excluded from the dominant social order as debased, dirty, and unworthy, but that is simultaneously the object of desire and/or fascination”.
It can be argued that main political issues of the turn of the 19th and 20th c. were not those related to geopolitics, but those gender-related. Woman was revered and despised at once, and it was arguably down to the artistic movements of the time to support this duality in attitudes. Katie Chopin, an American writer, in the novel The Awakening depicted a sexual self-discovery of a female protagonist, which put her in a strong opposition to the social norms. One of the iconic representatives of the art nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome, showing the reader a horribly beautiful woman who through her outstanding performance murdered the prophet. It is noticeable that these women did not survive the end of the books that told their stories. But it is also evident that women were gradually being invested with power either to define their lives, or to define the lives of the others. The image and story of Salome can be regarded as the best historical example and perhaps an inspiration to the entire culture of female performance that ensued. At any event, the turn of the centuries saw the beginning of power-struggle between men and women. And while it is correct to say that in the English political context the decisive victory came with the right to vote for women, culturally, women found themselves ‘on top’ of men in many continental cabarets and American clubs that offered ‘exotic dancing’.
It is significant that the burlesque culture succeeded in establishing female power through stripping women of their femininity. But although, as Allen tells us, such well-known traits of burlesque as strippers, runways and candybutchers did not appear until 1920s, burlesque and cabaret accentuated the way women could rule men – through offering them satisfaction to their sexual needs. Dance was the ultimate expression on this occasion, as watching it gave both aesthetic and sexual pleasure to the male viewer.
Burlesque is important all the more because it was the arena of acting out the persistent cultural contradiction: women were often mistreated, but without them men would be left unfulfilled. The question “What it means to be a woman?” amply defined the popular objectification of woman as a sexual object that contradicted a common-place hierarchy.
One cannot fail noticing that the burlesque culture at the beginning of its existence did not imbue the same strength of sexual energy, as it came to do at the later stage. What stands out is that these early performers were professional entertainers. However, it is perhaps the later burlesque that shows how feminism would eventually come into being. Whereas before the clubs and cabarets a woman was suppressed as a man’s household ‘slave’, the erotic performance enslaved her sexually. On the other hand, erotic performance in the form of striptease also enslaved men who began to be increasingly regarded as sex-driven creatures, as portrayed with disgust by Valerie Solanas.
Nevertheless, at the beginning the exotic performance was the defiance of an emotionally repressed and hypocrite system, and as such it was effective in attaining a goal that was largely political. At the very least, burlesque performers succeeded in gradually making the society gender-oriented, rather than sex-oriented. It contributed to the fact that today none of the spheres of life is possible without equality in gender representation, which also includes politics.
A Porn Star in Parliament: A Descent in Values or a Political Advance?
In 1987 a Hungarian-born Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, was elected to the Italian Parliament, as a Radical Party candidate. While one may have had a vague idea of Ilona, they would definitely know who Cicciolina was, – one of the leading Italian porn actresses of the 1970s and 1980s. Cicciolina has been an amazingly active politician: “she campaigns for a safe future without nuclear energy and with absolute sexual freedom including the right to sex in prisons. She is against all forms of violence including the death penalty and the use of animals for fur or scientific experimentation. She is for the decriminalization of drugs, against censorship of any kind, in favour of sex education in schools, and for objective information about AIDS. She has proposed a tax on automobiles to reduce the damages of smog and fund the defence of nature”. Her recent intention was to run for a post of mayor of Milan in the 2006 elections. When she announced her plans in 2004, she was going to rekindle the city’s economy by opening a casino in a medieval palace in the city centre – despite the fact that the palace is a regular cultural venue.
While an MP, Cicciolina made history by baring her left breast or performing a striptease during press-conferences. A conclusion about her as one of the highly controversial ‘political bodies’ would be an obvious one, but Cicciolina was virtually eager to use her body in the strictly political means: to stop Saddam Hussein, for example, during the Gulf War. It is certainly significant that she was reluctant to use her real name and referred to a better-known stage-name, albeit notorious. And in spite of her ongoing political engagements and a long-ended film career, Cicciolina maintains the website, with zones of explicit content, available to members only.
The question that rises from this sketch is – how should one regard the fact that a hardcore porn actress not only entered the Parliament, but was re-elected despite her explicitly indecent behaviour? Should this point out to the descent in moral values, or is this in fact the proof of political tolerance? The answer will be ambivalent. One can remember Mata Hari, an erotic dancer, who was later convicted as a spy, in which case Cicciolina’s example can be examined from the same perspective. On the other hand, one can remember Madonna’s videoclip on her song American Dream, which was an open critique of the Bush government and the protest against the war in Iraq. As Mrs Ritchie constantly reminds us these days, one of her ambitions was to prove that a woman can be beautiful, sexy and clever all at once. Such view does not exclude a possible involvement in political activity, and Cicciolina is therefore the proof of the society’s recognition of a political potential of a woman.
If we get back to our discussion of how burlesque contributed to the social and political emancipation of a woman, we will notice that it was largely nonsensical. The viewer was never told what he has to make from watching the performer. But what he was expected to do is to throw away any conventionality, because this was the purpose of burlesque: to break social and cultural convention. This is no wonder, for example, that in today’s irreligious or religiously apathetic society a burlesque performer can appear in the nun’s dress only to reveal a heavily tattooed torso. Another example is a performer who swallowed a neon sword. Sword-swallowing is a popular form of entertainment, but it was normally a male prerogative. On this occasion, however, both ‘masculinity’ and seriousness of such performance are mocked, because the sword is not made of steel.
Therefore, one may conclude that when Cicciolina bared her breasts naked, she did not mean to inflict anger – she simply bared her breasts, without any compelling reason or perhaps because she was proud of her previous job, or of her own body. As she said on one occasion, her breasts did the world less harm than Bin Laden’s terrorism. What is indubitable is that through this act she was defying a ‘regular’ image of female politicians, and that she was quite explicitly demonstrating the fact that a half-naked woman can also be a successful and active politician.
Observing these examples, makes one think exactly how we perceive politics and those engaged in it. First of all, it seems that in a democracy where the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression are vigilantly monitored by watchdogs and the public alike, it is difficult to reserve a ‘political space’ for politics and politicians, i.e. such space in the social or cultural discourse where politics can be unapproachable. The problem, obviously, is not whether Mrs Thatcher ever had a tattoo or performed a striptease; it is whether the public can or should see a politician’s body bared naked, even in a fictional story. It is also significant that while before it was largely men who were committing adulteries or were engaged in illicit behaviour, women now take an equal share in such activities.
This means not only that everyone can now discuss politics from whatever point of view, but also that everyone can take part in it. Eventually, political ‘wisdom’ that used to be mandatory for any kind of politician in the past is gradually being substituted by ‘common sense’, which opens the doors into politics for representatives of popular culture. What tends to happen, however, is that the public does not want to let go of the traits it cherished in these representatives, and so it wishes the showmen-turned-politicians to preserve these traits, despite the fact that they contradict the ‘serious’ nature of politics. But then, is it not the favourite popular challenge to the ‘old’ culture – to strip it off conventions? If so, then it means that probably politics is no longer serious, – or perhaps that sex no longer matters.