By Eva Feld
Overexposure kills poetry. Metaphors are in danger, especially in erotica. By diminishing the power of secrecy, all mysteries become narrow shadows of what they were meant to be in literature. It was common knowledge that meanings meander between the lines as well as in the choice of words and silences picked by a writer to narrate, describe, tell or show.
It seems as if today the empire of the images and of entertainment considers the art of subtlety a menace to its domain. Sex, for example, is sex, only sex, nothing but sex. Maybe Gertrude Stein would feel a cold tremor go down her back if she came to suspect that her arch famous phrase, “A rose is a rose is a rose” could be at the root of such simplicity.
No more hiding the female genitalia under a protecting veil of poetic detours such as the Shakespearean expression velvet leaves or attributing the power of arms to the penis by calling it dart. No more complex and iconic characters, such as Gustave von Aschembach a male protagonist who painfully falls in love with a beautiful young boy through plural chapters of restraint in Death in Venice.
Death in Venice was not Thomas Mann’s most important novel, nor the reason for his Nobel Prize in 1929, but it is probably his most popular one. So popular that Luchino Visconti, one of Italian Cine Cita’s best directors of all times, turned it into a movie version, with Marcello Mastroianni playing the leading role in 1971.
Roger Ebert, the American film critic from Chicago, didn’t wait long to write about it in these terms:
I think the thing that disappoints me most about Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice" is its lack of ambiguity. Visconti has chosen to abandon the subtleties of the Thomas Mann novel and present us with a straightforward story of homosexual love, and although that's his privilege, I think he has missed the greatness of Mann's work somewhere along the way. In the novel, Count Aschenbach goes to Venice at a certain season in his life, driven by a compulsion he does not fully understand and confronted by strange presences who somehow seem to be mocking or tempting him. Once settled in his grand hotel on the Lido, he becomes aware of a beautiful boy who is also visiting there with his family from Poland. His feelings toward this boy are terribly complicated, and to interpret them as a simple homosexual attraction is vulgar and simplistic. The boy represents, above all, an ideal of perfect physical beauty apart from sexuality; the irony is that this beauty stirs emotions in a man who (in the novel) has insisted on occupying the world of the intellect. The boy's youth and naturalness become a reproach to the older man's vanity and creative sterility.
Almost a half century ago, Ebert already grasps the lack of subtleness that would prevail in the twenty-first Century, when as a conquest by feminists, gays, lesbians, transgenders, and main streamers, sex and desire are being overexposed and banalized.
A few years ago, I was lucky to assist to some of the Gay Pride week events at the University of Cincinnati, one of which was an open lecture about gay poetry where mostly all participants were homosexuals.
Many students had prepared visual backups to their readings. One of them, probably the most talented in the room, showed a succession of black and white slides of cactuses from several angles, evidently poetic references to erect virility. The words that accompanied the images were, on the contrary, direct coitus descriptions, straight accounts of rigid penises and orgasms.
The conductor of the lecture was a literature professor. He praised each and every student for their freedom to express themselves and was visibly touched. He then told about his own youth experiences, decades ago, in a small village of South America, where, in order to survive, he cruelly hid his tendencies as well as his emotions.
I stood up and addressed him: “I understand that since then there has been important progress in tolerance and acceptance, but don’t you feel that from a strictly literary perspective there is more poetry in suggesting?”
“All I feel is pure envy, I wish I had been born to be as free as my students are,” exclaimed the professor passionately.
I did not stay until the end of the lecture, which seemed to me as an escalating repetition, a blunt recurrence of adjectives and adverbs. For sure a victory for homosexuals, maybe not so much for poetry. I have also left early from many other recitals (heterosexual, feminist, political, and even title less) for the same reason. I generally have little patience for void grandiloquence and for filibusters of déjà vus and déjà entendues.
How much should be said or silenced, how much should be disguised in metaphors or embellish in allegories? How much should remain veiled or revealed? How much should be told or showed? Of the answers to these interrogations lay the best prompts for poets and philosophers. In the replies to these questions resides the depth of human nature and the sparkle for creativity.