Jan. 29, 2011

Psychology Today

by Darnell Arnoult

Have you ever had
     delusions of grandeur?
I read all about it
in a magazine
on the coffee table
at Dr. Broadwell's office.

Have you ever thought
you were meant for
something special?
But you were afraid.
Afraid if you tried
you'd fail?
would think you
a fool?

You might risk
only for
     delusions of grandeur?

I have.
Thought that, I mean.

"Psychology Today" by Darnell Arnoult, from What Travels with Us. © Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1996 the opera house La Fenice burned to the ground. Located in Venice, Italy, it was one of the most beautiful and important opera houses in the world, the site of premieres of many famous works. The name of the theater, in Italian, means "Phoenix" — the mythical bird that at the end of its life cycle burns itself down to ashes, regenerates, and is reborn as a young firebird to live again.

It wasn't the first time the theater had burned. It burned down in 1774, was rebuilt in 1792, destroyed by fire again in 1836, and restored the following year. In the mid-1800s, it hosted many of Verdi's premieres, including La Traviata, and for the next century and half it was a busy concert hall.

And then, 15 years ago today, it burned down completely. It was a big mystery; arson was suspected. In 2001 a Venetian court found two electricians guilty of setting the fire. They'd fallen behind on repair work that they had contracted to do, and they were facing big fines because of it. One of the electricians served a six-year sentence, and the other fled. That same year, 2001, reconstruction of La Fenice began. It was finished in 650 days.

The burning down and rebuilding of the theater in Venice, and the reactions of Venetians, are the subject of John Berendt's book The City of Falling Angels (2005), which was a New York Times No. 1 best-seller in 2005. In it, he wrote about an old glassblower who lived near the theater and helplessly witnessed the fire:

"Signor Seguso stood silently at his bedroom window, watching as the flames raced across the entire top floor of the entrance wing. He knew that, for all its storied loveliness, the Fenice was at this moment an enormous pile of exquisite kindling. Inside a thick shell of Istrian stone lined with brick, the structure was made entirely of wood — wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden walls — richly embellished with wood carvings, sculpted stucco, and papier-mâché, all of it covered with layer upon layer of lacquer and gilt."

And Berendt wrote:
"The Fenice was now ringed by a tumult of shouts and running footsteps. Tenants, routed from their houses by the police, crossed paths with patrons coming out of the Ristorante Antico Martini. A dozen bewildered guests rolled suitcases out of the Hotel La Fenice, asking directions to the Hotel Saturnia, where they had been told to go. Into their midst, a wild-eyed woman wearing only a nightgown came stumbling from her house into Campo San Fantin screaming hysterically. She threw herself to the ground in front of the theater, flailing her arms and rolling on the pavement. Several waiters came out of the Antico Martini and led her inside.

"Two fireboats managed to navigate to a water-filled canal a short distance from the Fenice. Their hoses were not long enough to reach around the intervening buildings, however, so the firemen dragged them through the kitchen window at the back of the Antico Martini and out through the dining room into Campo San Fantin. They aimed their nozzles at flames burning furiously in a top-floor window of the theater, but the water pressure was too low. The arc of water barely reached the windowsill. The fire went on leaping and taunting and sucking up great turbulent currents of air that set the flames snapping like brilliant red sails in a violent wind."

It's the birthday of William McKinley, (books by this author) born in Niles, Ohio (1843). He was the 25th American president. He was elected in 1896, re-elected in 1900, and assassinated in September 1901. He was the last Civil War veteran to become president, and the first U.S. president to ride in an automobile.

He said, "Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not in conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war."

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Comedy is a serious business," actor W.C. Fields, (books by this author) born William Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania (1880). He also wrote screenplays, including for the films The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

He ran away from home as a child, stole to survive, got in a lot of fistfights, and was arrested often. He was a fabulously skilled juggler, and at 14 he honed his juggling act and joined the carnival. He went from juggling to doing a witty comedic routine, and then to acting in films. He toured a lot, and the more famous he became, the more he drank. When he was filming movies, he kept a flask of mixed martinis near at hand, referring to it as his "pineapple juice." He quipped about his drinking a lot, saying things like, "Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water." And, "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink." And, "If I had to live life over, I'd live over a saloon."

Toward the end of his life, his career fizzled out some — he gained a reputation for being extremely hard to work with, was passed over for some coveted movie roles, and his alcoholism was taking its toll. He died Christmas Day 1946. And then his persona made a sort of comeback in the late 1960s. The Beatles even included his face in the collage on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

W.C. Fields said, "There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine, (books by this author) born in Thetford, England (1737). He's best known for writing Common Sense (1776), the pamphlet that convinced many Americans, including George Washington, to fight for independence from England. The original title Paine came up with for the pamphlet was Plain Truth.

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey, (books by this author) born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). He's best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), about a gang of four "environmental warriors" who liberate sections of the Utah and New Mexico wilderness through sabotage.

It's the birthday of writer Anton Chekhov, (books by this author) born in Taganrog, Russia (1860). Chekhov is one of the inventors of the modern short story. His stories were usually short, full of passive characters, and without much of a plot. They didn't have big emotional climaxes, and they usually ended with a moment that revealed something about the main characters' lives.

His first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885. It got horrible reviews, and he walked out on it at intermission and vowed never to write another play. But two years later, it was produced again, this time to rave reviews. The success inspired him to go on to write the plays Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904), and Uncle Vanya (1897), which are now considered classics.

Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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