Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.
Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth
transfixed by a ray of sun:
and it is suddenly evening.
Does the poet’s name ring a bell? Everyone who sees Quasimodo thinks first of a hunchback. Well, not everyone. Some think first of a poet. Some think first of the Sunday after Easter. Some, perhaps, think first of truth, and of love.
The title character in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the bell-ringer, was found abandoned as a newborn babe on the church steps on the Sunday after Easter, and he was named Quasimodo in recognition of that day, or perhaps because he was not a fully formed human but just almost like one – in the manner of one, so to speak.
Those reasons both merit explanation, and one will cover the two of them: The first Sunday after Easter is called (among other things) Quasimodo Sunday in the great tradition of naming parts of the Latin Mass after their first words. The traditional introit for that Sunday is from 2 Peter 2:2, which in the Gregorian chant begins “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” The verse in King James English is “as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” Quasi modo means “as if [=quasi] in the manner of [=modo]” (don’t confuse that modo, which is an inflected form of modus, with the one that means “just, only, just now, recently,” as in modo natum, which means “newborn”; that modo is the etymon of modern).
Where is the connection to truth and love? Let me back up to the verse before (2 Peter 2:1), which is the first part of the sentence: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and evil speakings,” and then it continues “as newborn babes” and then to the instruction to desire the word (of God and of truth).
In other words, don’t lie and hate; be truthful and loving. But what, as that Pilate fellow once said, is truth? Let me take you on a trip that passes through Washington Square and ends up in Italy. But it starts with James.
Not me. I mean William James, the philosopher and psychologist. He had opinions on truth. He was pragmatic about it: For something to be true, it has to have a correspondence to observable reality and a relation to other true things. And it has to make a difference: “There can be no difference that doesn’t make a difference.” So truth is known by its effects – or, as another fellow once said of people, “By their fruits will you know them.” Which makes even pain a gift: hurt yourself or get hurt by another and, if you understand what happened, you have learned a truth.
William James was born into a family that lived near Washington Square, in Manhattan, and he had a brother named Henry, who wrote novels (he was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times). One of those novels, written in 1880, is named Washington Square because its action mainly takes place at an address there. You may know it: It’s a story of a young woman of no great gifts whose father is rich and smart but cold. She is courted by a young man. The father decides that the young man is just after her for her money and forbids the relationship. He’s right about the young man, as it turns out, but his coldness and hardness combine with his daughter’s weakness and yearning to keep her from accepting this as truth until she learns the hard way. But in the end, she does learn from the outcomes of the hard facts – the gift of hurt.
In 1996, I spent some time at and near Washington Square, in New York City, because the subject of my dissertation, Richard Schechner, was a professor at New York University. The next year, my dissertation in the tidying-up phase, I moved to Toronto, where I left behind a bitter and lonely learning period of my life and met Aina, who, as I would soon enough learn, is my true love. I also saw the movie Washington Square, directed by Agnieszka Holland. Its soundtrack, by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, was so good I immediately bought it. I was especially taken with one song, which Ben Chaplin and Jennifer Jason Leigh sing at the piano:
Its lyrics, I learned from the soundtrack album, were a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo. That’s not a pseudonym; Quasimodo is his family name. It’s a name almost as if made for a poet.
I decided that I wanted to find out more about Quasimodo and to get poems by him. But this was 1997 and the world wide web was nowhere near as replete as it is now, and the local bookstores – though many more in number than now – did not provide. It was only three years later that I finally found a copy of his collected poems… in Florence, Italy (setting of my favourite romantic movie, A Room with a View, whose heroine, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has the opposite problem of the one in Washington Square: a wise older man tells her she is in true love with a young man, and she refuses to admit it, though she finally does). I was there with Aina, on our honeymoon.
Salvatore Quasimodo – whose last name is said with the stress on the si – is much better known in Italy. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959, at age 58.
Which, if you have been following the numbers, means that his poem is too modern for Washington Square. In fact, “Tu chiami una vita” was written more than 40 years after Washington Square. But the poem speaks of truths, of the heart, and of love and its effects, and it reflects on what happens in the story. So it is as if in the manner of a truth (quasi modo veri) to use it in the movie.
But it is neither true nor false for you if you don’t understand it. So here it is, with my attempt at a translation (remember that a translation, especially of poetry, is not like a currency exchange; it is like a bell humming when another bell of the same pitch rings nearby).
Fatica d’amore, tristezza,
tu chiami una vita
che dentro, profonda, ha nomi
di cieli e giardini.
E fosse mia carne
che il dono di male trasforma.
Labour of love, sadness,
you call a life
that within, deep, has names
of heavens and gardens.
And it had been my flesh
that the gift of hurt transforms.
That fosse is hard to translate because it is an imperfect subjunctive – a form that can mean “as if it were”: Come se nulla fosse means “As if nothing had happened.” But real-world experience transforms the quasi modo into the truth… whether the outcome be bitter (as in Washington Square) or sweet (as in A Room with a View).