Venice (from Smithsonian)
There is a category
of person eased
by constraint, soothed
when things cease.
It is the assault
from which they seek
release. The gorgeous
intensities of Venice
would work best
for these people
at a distance:
sitting, for example,
in a departing
train car, feeling the
1. Years ago, I was in a class on Machiavelli, hopelessly confused. – Yeah, I know. Some things never change. – A much better student, far ahead of me in knowledge and experience, confessed that the material was too obscure for him also. Machiavelli makes use of places and peoples to stand for other things; his strategy is difficult to grasp. “Isn’t Venice the City of God?” he asked rhetorically.
I had no idea how a commercial republic, an oligarchy dedicated to the love of gain, could be holy. “The entire city is on water.”
I don’t think I’m fit to comment on instances of “Venice” or “Venetians” in Machiavelli’s work, as I never bothered to confirm or deny the speculation. It was, in my mind, a perfect insight. With a bit of code, you could unravel the whole, see what he’s really talking about. Only to do so involves a horrible abstraction from the proper names, from what people thought about and felt.
2. “There is a category of person eased by constraint.” So why should I care? Why should you care? Someone feels better being told what to do, what not to do? They must not love freedom! They must be dodging responsibility!
– Ok. Let’s slow down. – “Category of person” is ambiguous. At different times in our lives, we’re different people. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to say “I’m an introvert” and say it like it is the law of non-contradiction or 2 + 2 = 4. In truth, we’ve got a fragment of everyone else in us, and we act out those fragments over time. Because we are everyone else, maybe the greatest irony of all emerges: we can be divided into distinct categories, there are human “natures.” A whole of sorts enables a respect for difference.
So “there is a category of person eased by constraint.” It’s both all of us and just a few of us. Why is it important that they, that we, are “eased by constraint?” What kind of person are we when we want limits?
3. “There is a category of person eased by constraint, soothed when things cease.” Eased by constraint, soothed when things cease. Ryan has this magical ability to invoke the topical, the current, while staying in her rarefied air. I can’t say for myself I’m “soothed when things cease.” “Eased by constraint” at first made me think of having limits in terms of needing a job, a sense of purpose given by others, a list of things to do. “Soothed when things cease” clarifies the “constraint:” she’s not talking about “constraint” as the world giving you things to do. She’s talking about constraint as a refusal to engage the world on its terms. When has any of us ever been “soothed when things cease?”
“It is the assault of abundance from which they seek release.” Again, when have we ever wanted this? What characterizes monks and hermits and the like is their otherworldliness. In a way, we don’t consider them mere mortals, and they don’t treat themselves as human beings.
4. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance.” I hope you remember that lovely Seamus Heaney poem about the monks visited by an apparition. A ship from the other side, exploring our world – as if the dead were utterly mystified by life – gets stuck on an altar.
If we’re on the outside, looking in, Venice is a miracle. It’s the most heavenly city and the most worldly city. Its business is that it floats. You peer into that murky emerald lagoon and it’s a frightening unknown, littered with the refuse of human life. And yet life rests upon it, thriving. “Gorgeous intensities” indeed, best contemplated at a distance. “Death in life and life in death,” as Yeats says.
5. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance: sitting, for example, in a departing train car, feeling the menace settle.” Neither a monk nor a hermit, she’s sitting in a train, moving away from what she just saw. It doesn’t haunt most people. They think of gondoliers and overpriced espresso at St. Mark’s and Vivaldi. You go into the interior of St. Mark’s, though, and it is a vision of heaven, Yeats’ “Byzantium.” Right on top of the primordial sludge are walls and ceilings of gleaming gold, all the angels and saints gathered. It’s weird to think of some kind of spirituality as profoundly materialistic, a forcing together of desire and goods, the dying and the dead. It is a gorgeous intensity, though, for what that’s worth.