Thursday, March 1, 2018

Juliet’s Balcony

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

I’m not a big fan of fiction. At best I get through the first chapter of a novel, sometime not more than several pages. Then comes the sensation that I’ve seen it all before and that neither enlightenment nor entertainment are likely to ensue.  Alas, I feel like the fellow in the New Yorker cartoon, “The man who knew enough.”

Courtyard, Casa di Giulietta
If fiction is dying as Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, speculated a while back, I wish it a good and speedy demise. Too many novelists, it seems to me, labor mightily trying to make sense of characters who are but avatars of themselves (however much they may deny it) in what amounts to a game of amateur psychoanalysis. And an amateur psychologist who has himself for an analyst has a fool for a client.

Professional psychology, on the other hand, has achieved such remarkable levels of sophistication (some view one imminent psychologist, Steven Pinker, as a contemporary hero) that it has arguably far surpassed fiction as a means of understanding ourselves.

Real life Juliet on a Verona 
street corner. But where’s 
For example, why bother with novels based on the 20th century’s two world wars plumbing the darkness of the human soul when you can read psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (or watch the film)? Far more engrossing than Hemmingway, the Zimbardo experiment might yet be called “A Farewell to Norms.” For what it reveals about the average person’s potential for evil, yours and mine, is more compelling – and appalling – than anything to be discovered in fiction. Indeed, it’s an archetypical example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Anyway, aren’t real people always more complex and appealing than the fictive ones who crop up in novels –  from whence perfervid book reviewers gush over them as though they were long-lost acquaintances, and authors with much-studied coyness and gravitas “explain” them to credulous talk show hosts?

“Doctor, I have this acquaintance who has these hang-ups about sex…”

Or the young woman I once knew who always referred to herself as an abstraction, “my organism.”

Some novelists, of course, blame the internet for the genre's decline, but they ought look closer to home. The truly self-aware writer handy enough with prose to be actually worth reading is a rare bird indeed. Give me non-fiction any day.

Still, fiction has a long and illustrious history stretching back to the Gilgamesh tablets and other such myths, and it’ll always have its enthusiasts. Its seven or eight basic stories will be told and re-told (mainly as short stories, one hopes) forever.

Two gentlemen, Piazza Bra, central Verona
Books that treat on fiction can be just as loopy as fiction itself. Recently, I consulted Nicola J. Watson’s work, The Literary Tourist, for insight into the phenomenon of literary travel, and right away the wickets got sticky. Such travel, as she explicates it, sounds like a turn through a Disneyland for literati during which time one’s cognitive life, despite the road trip (or perhaps because of it), bleeds profusely into the imaginary (or vice versa). Indeed, it sounds like a journey from which one might not fully recoup – as though stepping into the pages of Madame Bovary whilst in Tostes or Yonville (the book’s settings), say, you find yourself hopelessly entangled in a whale bone corset with patent leather bindings and no end in sight.

Here’s Watson evoking her children’s visit to the Lake District, setting of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (I’d never heard of it either), as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the literary tourist:
“In miniature this is a description of the emotional experience of the literary tourist. It is not simply that so and so was there, but rather that so and so imagined something there, and it was and was not the same thing, just as parents are and are not, ever, children, and just as children are and are not the same thing as their parents. It is a perfect description of the eruption of the uncanny, the familiar rendered strange.”
To me, this does and, well, doesn’t make sense, may or may not add up to jamais vu. Would you very well stray into the drink during an outing at Walden, say – on account of the sudden uncanny strangeness of ponds – because you happened to read Thoreau? The credulous reader should bring water wings.

Watson again:
“Indeed to go somewhere in order to read or contemplate a particular
book just there may be one of the most direct ways we have of unsettling
our sense of the real and experiencing precisely Derrida's sense of
the non-existence of 'natural presence'.”
Maybe. Or perhaps one is just a reader with an overactive imagination and a penchant for tourist traps. You wonder to what extent some books on fiction might ought be considered fictional themselves.

Still, one can imagine a kind of merging of the real and the fanciful that for some folks might invest certain places with particular meaning, and Watson’s book does contain interesting tidbits.

The 18th and 19th century, she says, saw tourism to places connected with literature grow significantly, witnessing the rise, for example, of William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford, Robert Burns’ Alloway, and the Bronte sisters' Haworth. The phenomenon persists today so that by now there’re any number of such places to visit, e.g., 'Inspector Morse Country' and the 'Morse Bar' at the Randolph Hotel in central Oxford; King's Cross Station with J.K. Rawling's train platform for Hogwarts school marked “Platform 9 ¾,” complete with a trompe-l’oeil luggage trolley disappearing into the wall; Sherlock Holmes’ digs (a museum) at 221B Baker Street; or Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in Cornwall.

A few months ago I happened to find myself a literary tourist by default – in Verona, the setting for among other things two plays by Shakespeare.

Arriving at the Piazza dei Signori one afternoon we learned that our next stop would be Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s house, reportedly the city’s most popular tourist attraction by far. The guide then warned us to beware of pickpockets in the crowd that was likely to be packing the courtyard (Italy, you know).

According to urban legend, touching Juliet’s
breast assures eternal love and good luck. Some
might consider giving her a lick like this in poor
taste, but not this brassy lad.
And so it was. The courtyard was jammed with young folks, some apparently so eager for proximity to the famous love story they’d set about debauching the Juliet statue.

Besides the Nereo Costanti bronze of Juliet, the courtyard's other focal point is the balcony, albeit not an original feature of 13th century Casa di Giulietta. It was constructed for the benefit of tourists from pieces of a 17th century sarcophagus sometime after the house was purchased by the city of Verona in 1905.

The balcony, for that matter, is not an original feature of the play, Romeo and Juliet, either, first appearing in 18th century Drury Lane productions by actor, producer, theater manager, and Shakespeare adaptor David Garrick. Earlier productions had Juliet conversing with Romeo, not from a balcony, but a floor length or tall window.

Perhaps aroused by erotic symbolism,
Juliet takes a page from the Brothers Grim:
“Romeo, Romeo, my hair art for thou, Romeo.”
As Lois Leveen breathlessly explains in a piece for the Atlantic, balconies, especially Juliet’s, are rife with sexual symbolism, which is the reason a balcony was added to productions of the play in the first place:
“Indeed, it's become a trope in stage and film versions of Romeo and Juliet to have Romeo climb up to the balcony, an architectural mounting that anticipates the sexual mounting that will end in both characters' death. This may be precisely why the balcony has become irresistible, despite its absence from Shakespeare's play.”
If you feel this might be a bit of a stretch for modern eyes, you’re not alone. But it’s Shakespearian fiction, after all, so you can see whatever you like in the play. Anyway, it’s probably no greater a stretch to image that at some point Elizabethan set designers may have installed a few bars across the lower section of a floor length window, creating what we know today as a Juliet balcony, even if it wasn’t as sexy.

In spite of it all, I must admit to fancying certain pieces of fiction, notably the works of Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. If these stories appeared fantastic at the time they were published, today perhaps they seem just a shade less so, anticipating as they do the discoveries of quantum physics.

Love notes to Juliet plaster a courtyard wall of Casa
di Giulietta. A 2012 city ordinance imposing a find of
€ 500 for such postings appears to be little enforced.
What’s more, I have it on good account that the actual bunny hole down which the White Rabbit disappeared is to be found, not in Oxford or Godstow, but in Llandudno, Wales, of all places, and I can’t wait to go and see for myself.

Even if it seems stranger than fiction.

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