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the art & gothic psychogeography of Venice I: being earnest about Ernest, the meaning of being mean & putting a brick in your mouth to exorcise vampires

Across the River & Into the Trees to Venice

Took a train to Venice last week. On the way i read Across the River and into the TreesHemingway by Ernest Hemingway. It's been at least a decade since i've read Hemingway & this is probably the only book left of his i hadn't read. But this definitely isn't a 'save the best for last' scenario. 'Some things are better left unread' is more like it.

Which brings me to the subject of 'criticism' & my annual disclaimer to those that say i'm negative or mean-spirited—that if i don't have anything nice to say why say it at all? If you go through & count all the 'nice' things i say here i bet they'd balance out all the mean things—people just don't remember the 'nice' things. Nice things are boring. To me it's not so much a matter of nice or mean, or good or bad, but what's interesting & real. What induces you to think of something in another light (for better or worse).

& in the case of Hemingway, it doesn't matter what i say because i'm no one & he's dead. I don't think his feelings will be hurt either way. Across the River and into the Trees got a lot of bad press in it's day & evidently his feelings were deeply hurt, but maybe he's a better writer for it. Either that or it led him back, across the river & into the trees, to his hunting cabin in Ketchum, Idaho.

& this is by no means a 'review' site but merely my personal book notes that help me to formulate my own thoughts in regards to my own process. You can't believe half the shit people say anymore because 9 times out of 10 there is an ulterior motive. They are patting someone on the back to be patted back. Or petting somewhere else to be petted back. The other book i read, on the return trip, to be covered in the next post, is by a contemporary who reviews books for The Guardian so perhaps it would behoove me to say something 'nice' so he might possibly say something nice back about some Calamari Press book in the future? I know that's how the game is played but i never have the stomach for it. 5cense is a circle jerk of 1 with 0 spheres of influence.

Kinda mean how 'mean' also means 'not nice' in addition to meaning meaning it.

& i haven't even got to the bit about Venice. If you are here it is more likely as an accidental tourist. Not like you haven't seen or heard about Venice before. Or Hemingway, who had a tendency to stake claim to foreign places as if they were his own, including Venice, the setting for Across the River and into the Trees. One obvious feature about Venice is that it lacks trees, so perhaps the title implies it is more about leaving Venice for the mainland. Regardless, Across the River and into the Trees embodies everything that is dull & self-indulgent about Hemingway. An aged & dying colonel in love with a 19-year Italian beauty & all the petty pussy-whipped banter that goes with it. Sound familiar? You'd be better off reading A Farewell to Arms.

Adriana Ivancich (Renata)

The real Renata (Adriana Ivancich) in the Papa-daughter affair

Writing is more about what not to write than what to write. But it's an editor's job to tell a writer that.

I would've stopped reading were in not for the fact that it was 1 of only 2 books i had with me & it was a 3 & a half hour train ride. I didn't mind so much that it was slow & nothing happens, it's just i couldn't relate to Hemingway's tedious version of nothing—sitting around in bars ordering drinks & cooing in lovey-dovey baby-talk. Or hunting with other men, stewing, not speaking. Perhaps you need to have fought & been wounded in a world war to appreciate it (or deserve the affections of a young nymph such as Renata despite the fact that you are an old grumpy prick). But to me, in 2011, it just seemed a tired parody of Papa.

To make matters worse (or perhaps contributing to my distaste), there was a group of annoying Americans on the train talking not amongst themselves, but talking like they wanted to be heard by the entire train, as Americans often do. When people talk like they know what they're talking about they are usually full of shit & need to talk louder & louder to mask the emptiness they harbor inside, unfortunately at the expense of the rest of us. And i unfortunately forgot my iPod & the Hemingway book wasn't good enough to teleport me away from the Americans' opinionated boasting about the likes of: men's fragrances, something they saw on Oprah, their mother's eyebrow tattoos, how one of their daughter's was a slam poet, Under a Tuscan Sun, how they would fix the European economy & Eat, Drink, Pray. One guy in particular sounded all smug & authoritative like David Cross (as Tobias Fünke) only there was no tongue in his cheek—he meant every word. Thankfully they disembarked in Florence, only to be replaced by more Americans that were just as annoying & talked just as loudly, about the Mediterranean cruise they were going to take (reading from the brochure for the benefit of the rest of the train). Then they played video games, announcing out loud every action they took in the game. Where can you go in the world to escape Americans? Perhaps a hunting lodge in Ketchum.

Out the window, riding backwards, everything was hazy, blurring by from the high-speed train. The landscape was new to me after Bologna, but it was hard to make anything out of it, some wide straight rivers, lots of agriculture. If there were mountains then the train usually went under them. Italian engineers are tunnel-happy. We arrived in Venice & hopped on a vaporetto. If you don't have a mental image of Venice already then you are living under a rock, which is probably a good place to be. When you go to a place like Venice you go merely to validate all that you've seen & heard about it—it's hard to generate an original experience from it (& keeping with the trend of the last few posts, i didn't bring a camera so made no attempt to 'capture' it).

Riding through the grand canal on a vaporetto was already familiar from all the movies & pictures i've seen. It's an amazing & unique place, there's no doubt about that, a place that undermines & inverts your usual sense of urban geography. And yes being there in person is of course different than experiencing it second-hand, but don't let me be the one to tell you that. In the words of Luigi Barzini (whose book on The Italians i recently finished & will perhaps be the subject of another post—especially considering he is grandfather to Chiara Barzini, whose book i'm about to send to the printers):

It is easy to see why a young Englishman could fall in love with Venice. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man, and thousands of his countrymen have fallen in love with it through many centuries. But nobody ever fell in love with it at a distance, merely from photographs of its monuments and palazzi. What is irresistible are the ever-present pleasures of life: the swinging steps of pretty girls who have matured walking up and down the arched stone bridges, the delicious food, the cordiality of the people, the festas, the leisurely promenade under the procuratie in the piazza at the end of the day, the open-air concerts in the evening, the ever-changing crowds of foreign visitors. These are surely enough to fall in love with, to make one return time and again ...

Granted a lot of this charm has probably worn off since Barzini wrote this in 1982. Not to mention that Venice is sinking at the rate of 2 and a half inches a decade. In addition to all the typical romantic notions of Venice (my personal ones of which i'll keep to myself), there are definitely more sinister undercurrents. I thought about re-reading Death in Venice on this trip, but much as i like the title & the idea of the book, i remember the book rubbing me the wrong way when i read it a long time ago. But one can't help to think of death being surrounded by all that water—of all the disease & pestilence & stagnation it carries. Before the 1300s Venice was the commercial hub of Europe. Then Marco Polo ventured east & stole spices & pasta & with it brought back some rats & the origins of the vampire canon.

& you can't help but to think that the geography must affect the psychology, the genes even, of the people that inhabit or inhabited Venice. The psychogeography of canals, rather than streets, as arteries—as a means for transportation & commerce, or just for cruising. There's lots of islands in the world, but i can't think of any so dependent on boats. It's not as isolating as, say, the floating reed islands on lake Titicaca, but there's a dependency on boats that develops, that to someone like me, much as i like boats, the idea of them anyway, can feel claustrophobic. The best thing about Venice is that there are no cars or motorinos or even bikes—it's all pedestrian. The only problem is that there are only so many thorough-fares & they get clogged full of people, mostly tourists. And this is November—I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. I usually tend towards side-streets & alleys but more often than not the side-alleys in Venice dead-end at a canal. Exploring around requires a lot of backtracking. Besides the fact that there is hardly ever a straight path between points A & B, it's hard to find a loop to walk in. More often than not you end up back on the same crowded alley if you are trying to get anywhere in particular. Which is to say Venice is best when you have nowhere in particular to go.

How did it get to be this way—this illogical psychogeography? According to Hemingway's colonel:

''Then, after they built it [Torcello—another island near Venice], the mouth of the Sile River silted up or a big flood changed it, and all that land we came through just now got flooded and started to breed mosquitoes and malaria hit them. They all started to die, so the elders got together and decided they should pull out to a healthy place that would be defensible with boats, and where the Visigoths and the Lombards and the other bandits couldn’t get at them, because these bandits had no sea-power. The Torcello boys were all great boatmen. So they took the stones of all their houses in barges, like that one we just saw, and they built Venice. It was the boys from Torcello. The were very tough and they had very good taste in building. They came from a little place up the coast called Caorle. But they drew on all the people from the towns and the farms behind when the Visigoths overran them. It was a Torcello boy who was running arms into Alexandria, who located the body of St. Mark and smuggled it out under a load of fresh pork so the infidel customs guards wouldn’t check him. This boy brought the remains of St. Mark to Venice, and they have a cathedral there to him. But by that time, they were trading so far to the east that the architecture is pretty Byzantine for my taste...'

Indeed Byzantine, though i thought it more Moorish. Islamic. Not so different than what you might find in Amalfi or Granada, but nowhere else does gothic architecture seem so fitting—the facades of repetitive vaulted arches lining the waterfront. The bridges over the canals, the essence of gothic embodied right down to the boats, squeezing through the canals & under the arched bridges. And the columns & steps leading straight into the lapping water—the scene is the epitome of decadence, like some sort of Maxfield Parrish dreamscape.

We got off at the S. Angelo stop & went through the navigation rites requisite of finding any Venetian hotel, thankfully made easy with the advent of google maps. After all, you have to lose something in order to find it. Checked in to our B&B, which was more like a room in someone's apartment, which also seems to be the norm for Venice (this is the place if you're looking for a good place to stay in Venice). Lunched in Campo S. Angelo then went & saw the Peggy Guggenheim collection, located in her former home, where she's even buried. Lots of Pollock's including ones right before & after he starting slinging to the floor.

Robert Motherwell: Personage

Robert Motherwell: Personage (from the Peggy Guggenheim collection)

Wandered around the Dorsoduro area then back over & into piazza San Marco just as the bells were ringing—breathtaking as you can imagine, just touristy beyond belief, with Pakistani hawkers shoving shit in your face & shooting flashy noise-makers into the sky or throwing gobs of goo at the ground—all the same crap we see back in Rome. Stumbled on some place called Vini de Gigio for dinner & had tasty seafood risotto.

The next day we cruised around to some islands. First stop was the cimeterio—an island just for the dead. Just my kind of place. Some sections of the cemetery were orderly, with stacked crypts, like what you might see in Sicily, with flowers & photos & personal items laid out in offering. There was one section, i think maybe the protestant part, that was in a state of ruin with half the tombstones fallen over & sinking into the ground—everything tilted & skewed every which way. Definitely a sight to see. Stumbled across Joseph Brodsky's grave. Supposedly Ezra Pound is there too, but we didn't see it (not that i even care).

Hopped back on the ferry to Murano, which is famous for making glass. Not the kind of place you'd want to bring your pet bull—it's pretty much all fancy glass shops. Watched some guys blowing some glass, etc. Then we went onto Burano which is famous mostly for lace. The architecture on Burano is interesting though, more like Miami or Mexico than Venice—all the houses painted bright colors. Had pretty good pizza at some sports bar. Burano also has a bell-tower than leans as much if not more than the tower of Pisa. In fact, most high buildings & bell-towers in Venice & the nearby islands seem to be listing & sinking—not unlike the tombstones we saw in the cemetery.

Before coming to Venice i was reading something on this sub-sect of venetian vampire called a shroud-eater:

The Shroud Eater is a different sort of vampire, not found biting the necks of voluptuous victims, but instead found still in their grave. Believed to be a sort of undead corpse, they were known for making hideous chewing sounds and were thought to cause death and destruction from a distance. There are several theories about how this particular myth came to be, but it seems to be particularly prevalent in times of plague or disease, when one death eventually leads to many more, often of friends and family members. A Manuscript called “De Masticatione Mortuorum, Latin for “The Chewing Dead,” offered helpful tips for those facing the walking (or chewing) dead, and prescribed practical treatments such as the aforementioned brick-in-mouth.

Needless to say, when we saw Lazzaretto Nuovo as one of the stops on Vaporetto #13, we hopped aboard. We told the ticket guy where we wanted to go & he nodded reluctantly then went & told the captain. They talked in hushed tones, the captain glancing at us through the cabin window. Eventually he asked us if we'd phoned ahead. Evidently there was only person that lived on the island, some archaeologist, and you needed to arrange for a tour & even then only on saturdays. Oh well, another time. We did pass right by it though, so could see the old quarantine buildings & almost hear the hideous chewing.

vampire buried with brick in mouth

being buried with brick in mouth as a form of vampire exorcism

It's funny how gothic came to mean what we now mean by gothic—most notably in the context of gothic rock. I'm sure the Germanic Goths circa 5th century A.D. never would've imagined. Not only is Venice well-suited for gothic architecture, but it seems apt for all that is goth. Although we didn't spot any vampires (we kept our eyes peeled), we did see some hooded creature that looked like a Jawa from Star Wars, except instead of 2 light sources for eyes, there was only one. A cigarette perhaps, but it just stayed in one place in the middle of it's dark face as it stared at us from a dark alley on the edge of a canal. At another point we also saw a beggar that from one side looked normal, but from the other looked like a Mexican wolf boy.

& then there's the sub-species of American southern gothic—a whole different beast which i considered from Kenya.

After being denied a visit to 'Lazarus island' (the meaning of Lazaretto), we retreated back to main island, walked across it then went to Punta della Dogana museum, which despite the location & cool building (like an ark jutting out on the tip of the island) was disappointing—mostly overrated big-hitters like Koons. The highlight was a few paintings by Ethiopian Julie Mehretu.

Julie Mehretu: In Praise of Doubt

Julie Mehretu

Then we went to the Palazzo Grassi to see the rest of the exhibit—more of the same over-hyped monstrosities including a plush dragon thing extended up & into 3 floors. The most noteworthy thing there was a large mural by a Chinese painter named Yang Jiechang called Stranger than Paradise—essentially a big orgy of different species of animals all having sex with each other in various permutations.

animal orgy  Yang Jiechang bestial acts

Yank tiger sex  monkey on donkey sex

Yang Jiechang: details from Stranger than Paradise

We ended up at this funky place called Al Non Risorto for dinner. For all the horror stories we'd heard about the restaurants in Venice being shite & overpriced we were pleasantly surprised. You can eat pretty well for not so outrageous prices if you look around some. I think it was then, after dinner, that I found an 8 of diamonds on the steps, inches from the canal. I'm not sure what it meant, but i picked it up as a souvenir.

winged lion ex libris Another cool thing about Venice is that there's these winged lions everywhere. It must be their symbol or something. I'm not sure what lions have to do with Venice, or why they have wings, but it's a nice sign. (Just googled it & it's symbolic of St. Mark, so duh, guess that makes sense since he's like their patron saint). And if you find a 5-cent coin in the mouth of a certain lounging winged lion, that was me who put it there. And if you find any books with this stamp in it to the left, then it's probably my doing—i'll be putting this stamp in all the books i finish going forward.


continued thoughts on Venice, the Bienniale & overblown art, Christian Marclay, Lee Rourke, canals, boredom, The Cure & Sorrentino's must-be place


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