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Plato, Whitman, Ginsberg, Morrison: Utopias, Captains and "Ships of Fools"

A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA - by ALLEN GINSBERG (1955)


What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?


I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.


Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?


Un Supermarket in California - Allen Ginsberg


Quanti pensieri ho stasera su di te, Walt Whitman, passeggiavo su strade laterali sotto gli alberi col mal di testa guardando la luna piena. Nella mia stanchezza, per far acquisti di immagini sono entrato nel supermarket sognando le tue elencazioni! Che pesche e che penombre! Intere famiglie a fare la spesa di notte! Reparti pieni di mariti! Mogli a scegliere avocados, lattanti tra i pomodori! E tu, Garcia Lorca, che facevi in mezzo ai cocomeri? Ti ho visto, Walt Whitman, senza figli, vecchio solitario, tastare i pezzi di carne nel frigo, sbirciando i commessi di drogheria. Ho sentito che facevi domande a ognuno. Chi ha ucciso le braciole di maiale? Quanto costano le banane? Sei il mio Angelo? Ho girato tra pile luccicanti di scatolette seguendoti e immaginandomi controllato dal detective della ditta. Camminavamo giù per i corridoi aperti insieme alla nostra fantasia gustando carciofi, possedendo ogni squisitezza congelata, senza mai passare dal cassiere. Dove stiamo andando, Walt Whitman? Tra un’ora qui chiudono. Da che parte punta la tua barba stasera? Prendo il tuo libro e sogno la nostra odissea nel supermarket e mi sento assurdo. Cammineremo tutta la notte per strade deserte? Gli alberi fanno ombra, con le luci spente nelle case, tutti e due saremo soli. Andremo a passeggio sognando l’America d’amore perduta, passando vicino a macchine blu in sosta, fino a casa al nostro cottage silenzioso? Ah, caro padre barbagrigia, vecchio solitario, maestro di coraggio, che America avevi tu quando Caronte smise di spingere col palo il suo traghetto, e tu approdato su una riva fumante sei rimasto a guardare la barca sparire sulle acque del fiume Lete?

 

The poem “A Supermarket in California” was written by Allen Ginsberg in 1955. In his strange layout and in his simple and trivial title lay a strong criticism toward

American society of the Fifty’s. Along with the title the setting of this poem is a supermarket crowded with whole families; in this place the poet, who is the narrator, roams halfway between reality and imagination.

This text is full of meaningful images and some metaphors which entwine themselves and give the reader the complete and deep sense of the poem.

Already in the beginning it is present a tight connection between Allen Ginsberg and the poet Walt Whitman, regarded as an idol and as the father of American poetry; in fact he is the main addresser of this poem ( vv.1, vv.5 “..dreaming of yours enumerations..”, vv. 9 ..)


The most important themes developed in this composition are:

- the sense of displacement and the loss of the role of the modern poet

- contemporary family break up

- supermarket artificiality in opposition to natural things

- loss of genuine values in a materialistic society

- the new religion of consumerism against the old “American dream” celebrated by W. Whitman

- the journey (an odyssey in a supermarket)

- the final pessimism of the poet towards American's society future


In lines 1-4 Ginsberg examines modern poet mood characterized by an “hungry fatigue” that is a kind of desperation of the poet caused by the lack of poetic

inspiration, in fact he is “shopping for images” . He continues this analysis in lines 19-20 “..I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd..”, by this sentence Ginsberg wants to underline displacement sense and poet’s disharmony condition: in a society dominated by possession of things he feels lost.

The criticism toward society continues in vv. 6-7 and it regards family structure:

“..Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes..” . This quotation reflects in this institution break up: wives, husbands and children are not together but in different places of the supermarket.

In line 3 and in line 4 is present contrast between artificial and natural world:

In fact supermarket's neon light is juxtaposed to moonlight as the stacks of cans to trees. As W. Whitman celebrates Nature Ginsberg wants to underline the genuineness of a naturalistic landscape instead of artificial ones.

The enumerations of the goods reflect the new religion of consumerism; the supermarket Is the most important place, the temple of this religion as the poet said in line 17: “..where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour…”

The “religion” idea is conveyed also by terms as “penumbras” and “aisles”, which are proper of a church.

This concept is connected with the “American dream” celebrated by W. Whitman. In fact It embodies the idea that U.S.A. is a place where everybody has power to get Rich and successful, a country where there are equal opportunity, an happy democracy.

This old dream of equality and happiness is replaced by the new American dream exactly the unrestrained consumerism.

Poet experience in the supermarket is like a journey or an odyssey , but Odyssey is written without the capital letter and it means that it is a trivial fact, since there could not be an odyssey in a place such that.

In the last three lines there is a meaningful images taken from mythology concerning with semantic area of death.

This kind of death is the old American values death succumbing under the uncontrollable consumerism's strength.


 

O Captain! My Captain!


Today we will be reading “O Captain, My Captain!” by Walt Whitman. But first, here is some information you will need to understand this poem.


Background information for the poem


Walt Whitman (1819-1892), one of America’s greatest poets, lived during the Civil War (1861-1865). He served by caring for Union soldiers injured in battle. As a strong supporter of the Union cause, Whitman greatly admired and respected Abraham Lincoln, who was president at that time. Near the end of the war, Lincoln was assassinated, prompting Whitman to write this poem in his honor.


Questions for conversation and poetry analysis

  1. What two things are being compared in the poem’s extended metaphor?

  2. What has happened to the Captain?

  3. What are the two separate moods in the poem? Explain each

  4. What words in the poem relate to the sea and sailing? List them

  5. In what ways does Lincoln’s leadership resemble a captain’s role on a ship?

  6. Draw conclusions: What kind of leader does the speaker consider Lincoln? Prove it by using a quote from the poem


O Capitano! mio Capitano! il nostro viaggio tremendo è terminato; la nave ha superato ogni ostacolo, l'ambìto premio è conquistato; vicino è il porto, odo le campane, tutto il popolo esulta, mentre gli occhi seguono l'invitto scafo, la nave arcigna e intrepida; ma o cuore! cuore! cuore! o gocce rosse di sangue, là sul ponte dove giace il mio Capitano, caduto, gelido, morto. O Capitano! mio Capitano! risorgi, odi le campane; risorgi — per te è issata la bandiera — per te squillano le trombe, per te fiori e ghirlande ornate di nastri — per te le coste affollate, te invoca la massa ondeggiante, a te volgono i volti ansiosi; ecco Capitano! amato padre! questo braccio sotto il tuo capo! è solo un sogno che sul ponte sei caduto, gelido, morto. Non risponde il mio Capitano, le sue labbra sono pallide e immobili; non sente il padre mio il mio braccio, non ha più energia né volontà; la nave è all'ancora sana e salva, il suo viaggio concluso, finito; la nave vittoriosa è tornata dal viaggio tremendo, la meta è raggiunta; esultate, coste, e suonate, campane! mentre io con funebre passo percorro il ponte dove giace il mio Capitano, caduto, gelido, morto.

 

SHIPS OF MUSICAL FOOLS


SHIP OF FOOLS (1970) by THE DOORS


The human race was dyin' out

No one left to scream and shout

People walking on the moon

Smog will get you pretty soon


Everyone was hanging out

Hanging up and hanging down

Hanging in and holding fast

Hope our little world will last


Yeah, along came Mr. Goodtrips

Looking for a new a ship

Come on, people better climb on board

Come on, baby, now we're going home

Ship of fools, ship of fools


The human race was dyin' out

No one left to scream and shout

People walking on the moon

Smog will get you pretty soon


Ship of fools, ship of fools

Ship of fools, ship of fools

Ship of fools, ship of fools, ship of fools

Hey, climb on board now

The ships gon' leave you, and I'm far behind

I gotta find my own boat, yeah

Ship of fools, ship of fools




SHIP OF FOOLS (1974) by THE GRATEFUL DEAD


Went to see the captain Strangest I could find Laid my proposition down Laid it on the line

I won't slave for beggar's pay Likewise gold and jewels But I would slave to learn the way To sink your ship of fools


Ship of fools On a cruel sea Ship of fools Sail away from me


It was later than I thought When I first believed you Now I cannot share your laughter Ship of fools

Saw your first ship sink and drown From rockin' of the boat And all that could not sink or swim Was just left there to float

I won't leave you drifting down But whoa, it makes me wild With 30 years upon my head To have you call me child


Chorus


It was later than I thought When I first believed you Now I cannot share your laughter Ship of fools

The bottles stand as empty As they were filled before Time that was in plenty But from that cup no more

Though I could not caution all I still might warn a few Don't lend your hand to raise no flag Atop no ship of fools


Chorus


It was later than I thought When I first believed you Now I cannot share your laughter Ship of fools

It was later than I thought When I first believed you Now I cannot share your laughter Ship of fools


 

PLATO’S SHIP OF FOOLS…

A boat crowded with people is a mental image bound to emerge in various different contexts. We can imagine the first dwellers in America arriving in 1492, exactly as we can see boats full of refugees disembarking on European shores on newspapers. Although separated by a huge time lapse, those images correspond to actions prompted by survival. And when survival is the goal, everyone is by themselves—even though we are all in the same boat—sailing towards some desired, although uncertain, destination.


The image of a boat crowded with people cutting ocean waters without a certain destination is one of the (few) allegories Plato evokes in The Republic, an extensive dialogue in which he presents the utopia of an ideal society. In the fourth volume of The Republic—to be more precise, on the passage from 488a to 489e—Plato describes a ship whose captain is a strong man; however, his sight and hearing are bad, and he does not master the art of sailing. His sailors are equally ignorant, but despite the fact they fight to decide who will steer the helm. Meanwhile, the ship is adrift. In Plato’s allegory, the ship is equal to the governing system and, in it, the captain represents the ship’s owner, who is the people. Due to the captain’s incapacity, the sailors fight for the control of the ship that, unfortunately for everyone on board, may crash and sink.


The allegory of a vessel adrift should not be understood as an apology of democratic government, far from it. Plato champions the idea of a stratified society where rulers are philosophers, people who have been educated from their earlier years to direct their choices by reason and unbiased search of the common good. For Plato, ruling is for highly capacitated people who have been imbued by the concept of justice. Not unexpectedly, his model of society is a utopia, something unattainable at any time or place.


Plato’s utopia has been revisited many times through history. Just like Plato, other philosophers have proposed utopias and were literally killed because of that. In the 20th Century, distorted interpretations of Platonic thought inspired political authoritarianism on both extremes of the ideological-political thought.

Plato was an author much studied in the 15th and 16th centuries, a period when the great maritime expeditions happened, when the European discovered the so-called “new worlds.” Sebastian Brant, a renowned intellectual who lived in Strasbourg, recovered the allegory of the boat adrift on a poem entitled Das Narrenschiff, or The Ship of Fools, published for the first time in 1494 in German and largely shared in Latin and English translations through the 16th Century.

 

SHIPS OF FOOLS IN LITERATURE AND VISUAL ART


Unknown, illustration for Sebastian Brandt’s book Das Narrenschiff, published in Basel in 1494. Translated into Latin by Jakob Locher in 1497 as Stultifera navis. Translated into English by Alexander Barclay in 1509 as The Ship of Fools


Hieronymus Bosch, La neuf des fous, c. 1500. Oil on wood, 58 x 33 cm [22.8 x 13 in]. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Hieronymus Bosch painted his Ship of Fools On the tracks of Sebastian Brant’s poem success, around 1500. This painting, part of the Louvre collection, is the left wing of a triptych known as The Wayfarer, whose central panel was lost.


John Alexander, Ship of Fools, 2006-7. Oil on canvas, 243,8 x 193 cm [96 x 76 in] © 2007, John Alexander. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


In these three different ships, there is a place for damnation—in all senses of the word. In Katherine Anne Porter’s The Ship of Fools novel—published in 1962 and adapted into film in 1965 by Stanley Kramer—damnation is a consequence of the passengers’ frivolous behavior on a transatlantic cruise from Mexico to Germany during a journey where their lives are superimposed and mixed together. The story happens in 1933 in the context of Nazism’s emergence, which is banally referred to by one of the main female characters. Trivialities seem to be a lesser evil, but they comprise harm caused by ignorance, by giving our backs to reason, by succumbing to unstoppable greed. The fools in Porter’s Ship are exposing themselves to disaster, but not everything is lost, the only thing they have to do is think: “The place here you’re going does not exist yet, you must build it when you get to the right spot.”


MORE SHIPS AND MORE FOOLS

Illustration by Albrecht Dürer in Stultifera navis (Ship of fools) by Sebastian Brant, published by Johann Bergmann von Olpe in Basel in 1498.


The ship of fools, depicted in a 1549 German woodcut.


Riccardo Zambon

Babylon Lingue Straniere

26 February 2022




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