28 March 2010

My Favourite Poet Lived in Venice, and All I Got Was This Lousy Sense of What It Must Be Like to Have Sex in an Alley There

So tonight I was watching the video for "Catch," by The Cure. "Catch," which is about its persona's happy memories of a girl he used to know, is twenty years old, but it's one of my favourite Cure songs because at one point Robert Smith says, "And sometimes we would spend the night / Just rolling about on the floor, / And I remember even though it felt soft at the time / I always used to wake up sore. Hee hee hee." First of all, I never can resist an intimation of obscenity, but also, he actually does say "Hee hee hee," or at least he makes a sound that sounds like someone giving a snigger. So it has charm.

ANYwho (BUEno), I was watching the video, and I noticed that when Robert Smith sings those lines he looks so sweet, and so young. To give you some sense of what I mean, here is current Robert Smith and then Robert Smith:

And I thought to myself, watching the young sweet Bob Smith of the video apparently enjoying himself, What must it have been like to be him then? What was he thinking? What DID he think? Years and years ago there was a review of an Aztec Camera concert in the NME that began "Roddy Frame: what must it be like to be as young, as sexy, as talented, and as skinny as Roddy Frame?" This line always makes me laugh, but my question wasn't like that. I wondered, as I have wondered before, what really was going on in that person's head at that time. And then I realised that (of course) I'll never know what it was like to be young Robert Smith. The obvious answer to this is that I'll never know what it's like to be middle-aged Robert Smith, either. But somehow young Robert Smith seems much more mysterious to me - perhaps because these days when I imagine Robert Smith I always imagine middle-aged Robert Smith: young Robert Smith is as vague as a half-lost memory, and thus already unknowable, never mind what he thought.

But never mind Robert Smith, young, middle-aged, or old. I went to Venice! Yes! On a four-day trip that involved staying at perhaps the dumpiest Venetian hotel available:

this was my view

And also involved going up a very tall tower (The Campanile) and looking at the vista of the city and at the tiny people in St. Mark's Square:

And doing this I realised: I love going up tall buildings and looking at the now-tiny stuff below. I know I always say I don't care for repeated vistas, and I don't much care for vistas of, say, trees, or mountains, but show me a bunch of fields or a town or a group of people viewed from way up high, and I LOVE it. When I get back the US, I'll have to go up the Empire State Building.

Byron lived in Venice for two years, and this is largely the reason I went. In fact, to be completely honest, I went because Byron begins Childe Harold IV with the lines, "I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs, / A palace and a prison on each hand." For years, the second line puzzled me: in fact, it drove me nuts. It's grammatically inaccurate! On one side of the BoS is the Doge's Palace and on the other is the prison, so it should really be "either," not "each." I'm sorry to admit that it took me in the region of five years to realise that it's meant to be a joke: The Doge's Palace is here also figured as a prison, and the prison has the potential to be a palace. Damn you, LB! Bueno, I wanted to stand on the Bridge of Sighs, too, so I booked a trip to Venice. And I went, and I did.

Now, probably the thing Byron is most famous for doing in Venice is having a ton of sex. In fact, there is a letter he writes to his friend Douglas Kinnaird (a man for whom I have a great fondness) about Don Juan in which he says, "Could any man have written it--who has not lived in the world?--and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis?--on a table? and under it?" Tooled means exactly what you think it does, and obviously one thing the letter is designed to make plain is that Byron has indeed tooled in all these places. To keep up the thin veneer that this blog is an educational device, or at least a device for garnering useful information, here are all the carriages he describes, plus the sort of gondola he means:

a post-chaise. These were the carriages that carried the mail, so
they hared along at a terrific pace. They also normally had many passengers,
and both of these raise some questions for me about
when and how, exactly, Byron might have had his...experiences in one.

a hackney coach. As you can see from the size, the trickiest
to tool in. I hope it came with the villainous-looking driver.

See how the gondola has an enclosed area. Although, oddly,
the back is completely open.

This is the only court carriage I could find on the internet.
I can't believe Byron meant something as fancy as this (although
I suppose he'd been in such a carriage in his life ) - perhaps
he just meant the style, in terms of size.

a vis-a-vis. As you can see, the people sit
face-to-face, which is where it gets its name.

I'm guessing you can imagine your own table.

In any case, it's not that difficult to imagine someone having sex in alley, but only once I got to Venice did I understand exactly how easy, and how (if you forgive the word) right, it would be to have sex in an alley in Venice. Those things are tiny! Many if not most of them are small enough that I could reach out my arms and touch both sides. Bracing yourself (which I always imagine would be the main difficulty in this exercise) would be the work of a moment: either the man or the woman, or both, could easily stick their feet against one wall while leaning up against the other, thus creating a nice stable form.

And, in fact, on my first night - while I was wandering around hopelessly lost - I saw a young couple angled up against one of these walls kissing. Just kissing. But how perfect an introduction to Venice at night can you get? It was warm that first night, and they stood silhouetted in that soft air, just the sticky sound of lips to be heard. Lovely.

As it happens I didn't spend all my time in Venice looking for things Byron. At the beginning of studying an author or a subject, everything you see or experience reminds you of that author: oh! Hawthorne wrote about gables! Oh! Henry James has a whole discussion of marital fidelity! oh! Byron calls Venice a sea Cybele! (lots of people I know stay at this stage of study no matter how old or experienced with an author they become). But after a while the author just comes to be a kind of palimpsestic underpinning, cropping up only sometimes. And I suppose when you're old in studying the author stuff like that scarcely comes up at all (just to make an aside here, this trajectory seems kind of appropriate to me, because it's also the trajectory of self in life: when you're at your beginning, you're just fascinating, and the central focus [and lots of people, even when they're adults don't outgrow this]; then you become progressively less central, but you're always a concern and an interest, always bubbling under). Yes, I kept thinking of Byron on the Bridge of Sighs and the Bridge of Sighs because of Byron, and on numerous occasions I did want to stand posed before Venice and say, "Ah, she seems a sea Cybele!" (despite the fact that I wasn't entirely sure what a Cybele was - I had to look it up when I got home), but mostly I just wandered around Venice for Venice's sake.

In fact, it's quite difficult to find anything clearly Byronic in Venice. They don't have many plaques or obvious indications. I did go to the house where he lived, but in the tradition of all my attempts to commune with Lord Byron by entering his life, it gave me no sensation of closeness to him at all. But then, also in that tradition, something utterly unexpected but vaguely related - something I saw in the corner of my mind, you might say - did. And this was it:

All Venetian palazzi have these steps in front, which you go down or come up, going from or to your gondola. As you can see, they're covered in varying degrees of algae. And as I was walking away from staring across the Grand Canal in a fruitless attempt to commune with Byronicity I looked down and saw these, and suddenly I felt what it must have been like to negotiate those steps for Byron, with your bad leg and your cane and your dignity and your insecurity, and the risk that you might slip and humiliate yourself. Of course, it occurred to me later, Byron could employ someone to scrub the algae off his Canal steps, but just for that moment I felt inside his experience.

I have a belief that all people who work in Eng. Lit. make up the authors we work on, and our readings of them, and what we make up is a reflection, really, of our own interests. My dearly loved friend J. believes that Byron was an intrepid political commentator, and that all his works contain fiendishly coded political subtexts; Michael Foot believed this, too. But J. is a devoted Marxist! And Michael Foot was a liberal politician. I believe that Byron was at heart deeply insecure, and that all his works are or contain demonstrations of his own insecurity and ways of dealing with that. But I'm hugely insecure! I sometimes think that we just replicate our own hidden, or not particularly hidden, subtexts and concerns, and we're never accessing any kind of real truth about these people at all. So my Byron, scared to slip on the algae and lose his pride, delighting in jokes and wordplay, riven and confused about the world and its meaning, is really just, well...me.

1 comment:

Incubus said...

"My Byron" liked women a lot but, aware of the enormous danger they represent, he chose to not give too much importance to them :)
Of course "my Byron" did not like men lol.
Thanks for the lesson about "places in Venice", I intend to go there soon. And I believe we all have to thank Byron for being.. so byronesque.