Michele Curatolo – A Journey with the Master

 

The Master is a living median reincarnation between Yoko Ono and John Lennon, as if in his features, in his gestures, and even in his clothes, he was mysteriously imprinted with the mark of the most extravagant couple of rock. Of the “great yellow bitch” he has the indecipherable look, the slightly slant eyes and that oblique smile, so typical of the Japanese. Of the Liverpool MBE he has the hairy lip, the round eyeglasses, the fatness barely visible under his sweater. Very Lennon-like is also his self-centered and slightly provocative manner, halfway between a guru’s and a political agitator’s. Only his Fiorello1-like ponytail spoils the whole effect! How could he mix John and Yoko’s look with the hairstyle of the former animator of the Augusta tourist villages, now an undisputed star of the modern Society of the Spectacle?

At the end of his creative writing course, the Master has gathered his students for the last lesson before the summer break. It is a warm late spring evening: we have all come to Castel Mella city hall, kindly provided by the Lega Nord2 municipal council. Yearning as fawns at the spring, we listen to the Master, and water at his wisdom. But from his first words, I immediately understand where he is going to: I can already hear in the air those so typical expressions of an era now lost along the River of Time. The Sixties have passed almost half a century ago, but the Master tells us phrases similar to those that John Lennon, under the double influence of Indian culture and LSD, wrote in 1966 in Tomorrow Never Knows, the last enigmatic Revolver episode:

Turn off your mind relax and float downstream
It is not dying it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts surrender to the void
It is shining it is shining
That you may see the meaning of within
It is being it is being

In this way, I bet that in his words we will soon hear the echo of the duet between Ravi Shankar’s sitar and George Harrison’s guitar, like in Sergeant Pepper (Year of Grace 1967).

Wait, wait. What is the Master doing now? He goes to a stereo in a corner of the hall and, inspired, fiddles with it, presses a button and, O wonder!, a dreamy piano music really begins to spread! And what else then? He turns the light off! Mamma mia! Definitely, he is out of his head. You’ll see that in a moment he’ll be offering us a joint… But we are in Castel Mella, where Lega Nord has just declared the “zero tolerance” policy against all the drug dealers, especially if non-EU! And Yoko Ono, being Japanese, is from outside the EU! Should the members of the Padanian Patrols accidentally arrive in the hall, we would be screwed!

Mind you, Master, we aren’t in the 1967 San Francisco Summer of Love, we don’t belong to the beautiful people, most of us have no memory of Charles Manson. We are in the practical, industrious province of Brescia, alien, at least in words, to any transgression, devoted to money, proud of its efficiency, lover of fast and solid cars, far from any fantasy. Oh, he doesn’t. The Master insists: no joints, but a last exercise; while the music is spreading softly, he speaks like this:

«Imagine, my boys and girls, imagine. Immerse yourselves in your fantasies. Think of a forest, an immense forest at the edge of the city. It is black and mysterious, perhaps fearful, but you don’t care. You, each of you, have decided to enter it. Here» the Master whispers, «you have entered and each of you, following his own path, has found the old house, hidden in the depths of the ancient woods».

Oh no! This was all we needed: the immense forest at the edge of the city! It may be a metaphor, but it’s not very appropriate, I’m afraid. Doesn’t the Master know that in the Po Valley (or, as we say today, in Padania) forests were cut down centuries ago? Or thousands of years ago? Perhaps by the fearless Celts, whom the Romans destroyed at the time of the Second Punic War or, more modestly, by the Benedictines, those Ora et labora holy monks?

«Now each of you is in front of the house. You look at it in silence and think. You are surprised to find it there, but it’s as if you had always known. It’s as if that house was your own, and indeed, it’s as if you were that house!».

Fancy that! Changed into a house…

«The door is open, it creaks on its hinges. Enter the house, my boys and girls, please do. Do you see that hatch in the middle of the only room? Approach it, and you will see a ladder. A long ladder going down, dark and deep. Follow it and you too get down, get down, get down! Here you are, you have reached the bottom, and you find yourself in an even smaller, even darker room. And there, close to the wall, you can see the coffers, barely illuminated by a phosphorescent light. As many coffers as you are. To each his own».

The coffers glowing in the dark? Unicuique suum? What kind of lesson is this?

«Approach the coffers, my boys and girls, approach them. Each is engraved with your name. The coffers are yours, and indeed you are the coffers. Do you see yours, Riccardo?».

I nod in silence. Well, yes, let me say I’m seeing my coffer, Master. But once again, your metaphor is wrong. I don’t mind at all being compared to a coffer. But, what would the girls in the class think of you? It’s not very polite telling them that they have suddenly been turned into coffers. They will be offended.

«Do you see the coffers? Wooden, with rusty iron studs. You try to open the covers, but in spite of your efforts, you don’t succeed. All the coffers are locked. Now slip your hand into your pocket, my boys and girls. What do you find? A key, to each his own key. The keys are yours, indeed, pay attention to these words of mine, the keys are you, or even better, YOU ARE THE KEY!».

Yes, ok! Houses in the forest, doors, coffers, keys. But what is this, Alice in Wonderland? Before long the White Rabbit will turn up, and the Queen of Hearts with her “Off with his head!” phrase!

«Now the key is in your hands, insert it in the lock of your coffer, turn it, and then trigger the mechanism. Here, you have opened the hood. Can you see what’s inside the coffer? Secrets, your secrets, and indeed…».

You are your secrets!

«Quiet, please, Riccardo… Indeed, you are your secrets. Now I want you to close your eyes and, in the deepest silence, to throw on your secrets the light of your mind. It doesn’t matter if you write now. You’ll write at home. Just think: from you I want images, sounds, colors…».

Just like George Harrison in Within You Without You, the Master has invited us to close our eyes, to clear our minds from thoughts, to yield to our inner images, to discover the life that flows within us and without us:

Try to realise it’s all within yourself
no-one else can make you change
and to see you’re really only very small
and life flows on within you and without you

So be it, let’s well discover the life that flows in the coffers. If The Beatles managed with the Maharishi in Rishikesh ashram, I myself could do it with the Master in Castel Mella council hall. But tonight it will be really tough. And then, not with this music! The Master’s choice really sucks. Bah! I’m not talking about a concert of Indian music (I know by experience that, after ten minutes of sitar, the only thing you feel is the desire to run away) but, if he really wanted to go back to the Sixties, he could have proposed something different. I would have well accepted even The Beach Boys, or better, The Doors, but these cheesy piano phrasings mixed with his words, I just cannot take it.

But, of course, the Master has a profound understanding of the human mind, and of ours in particular. Through years and years of study and experience he has perfectly investigated it. Actually, this music and his words really seem to have an effect on us. I look around, in the dim light of Castel Mella city hall, a small town in Lombardy ruled with a landslide majority by Lega Nord, and surprisingly I see that all the students have closed their eyes, and have relaxed on their chairs, immersed in deep meditation. So, does the Master want images? Does he want secrets? Memories? All right! Since everyone about the place is doing it, I too close my eyes and try:

A wide indistinct sea, not clear though, not calm: murky, muddy, seething, dark. With whirlpools on its surface, in fact, one large swirling Maelstrom. And from the Maelstrom emerge, and immediately sink, remains of a large shipwreck: from its ectoplasmic texture people arise, as well as thoughts, objects, events.

Damn, it’s so hard! Tonight, more than a creative writing course, it seems I’m attending the meeting of a sect: we are no longer the Master’s students, we are his followers. But if I weren’t prone to adoration, like all adepts are, in my blasphemy I would certainly think that the Master is just out of his mind.

I knew I was in the presence of a superior mind, but this time from superior that mind has turned into supreme. I have been attending his classes for months looking for a craftsman’s techné, a quiet and effective way to design, to rearrange my ideas, simple schemes full of common sense around which to focus my thoughts, and what is the Master doing? He’s confusing my quiet Brescian approach and inviting me to the inner journey, without even providing me with some acid… No, we’d better not take acid. There are Padanian Patrols around here. And also the acid is out of fashion, in the new millennium. Now in Brescia, in full agreement with the local customs, we prefer cocaine, the drug that makes you go faster.

Yet, The Master is succeeding! Music and words are making the miracle. Even though I clearly realize that the situation is the opposite of common sense, I feel I’m about to yield to the high-wonder tide of my thoughts. It all seems so stupid, but the evoked Maelstrom is pulling me towards the bottom of myself. For a while, before surrendering, the words of Hermann Goering, the most fatuous of Adolf’s comrades, turn up in my mind when, right in the Bundestag, in boots and brown shirt, looking at the intellectuals who sat on the opposition benches, with a flash of placid sarcasm in his pale blue pig-eyes, he carelessly pronounced the distich (I am paraphrasing):

When I hear the word culture

I pull off the safe from my Browning

And while I’m getting lost into the whirlpool, I barely have the time to think that, although everything separates me from the chubby Hermann, in one thing I cannot really blame him. The intellectuals, what a shame!

The taste of the bleach I drank when I was two, eluding my mother’s watchful surveillance, and the hot milk she gave me soon after to make me vomit. A bicycle, and a cement-bottomed yard, a fall and a piercing scream, and the ride to the hospital, my father’s hand holding mine, while the doctor was operating on my leg. And faces: the nun at the kindergarten, with smoke-lensed black glasses, who gathered us blasting on a whistle (a cylindrical whistle, made of wood, with a silver mouthpiece) whose shrill sound terrified me so. The bespectacled teacher towering gigantic above me. The English teacher in middle high school who kicked me out of the classroom. And that exam at university with the mellifluous assistant insisting with the professor to convince me to come back next time, which he promptly did.

The Master demanded images and colors of us. But nothing has come to me. I usually dream in black and white, if I really dream. Also, I have always forgotten my dreams upon waking. Neither images nor color: only memories like lightning in a thunderstorm at night. Shining cracks into the past, clusters of words, fragments of real life. I can’t get the meaning of The Master’s task. And above all, I can’t understand how useful it could be to me.

The yellow skis that I owned as a boy, and the tumbles I took in the snow, not on the ski slopes but even from the ski lift. I was so hopeless! And those teenager party evenings. That time we prepared everything to perfection: turntables, low lights, decorations, sandwiches and Coca-Cola and then, out of shyness, none of us had the courage to invite the girls. So we stood there all alone, lost and disappointed, looking sadly at each other until late at night. And when the girls finally had been invited, our weird amazement to the most skilled at rubbing against them, as we remained in the dark, solitary and quiet, thinking that one day we would have done exactly the same. But then, in fact, we did not ever act that way, but when it happened, we were the first to be surprised that a stranger was laying low within ourselves, waking up from time to time, and troubled us with his uncontrollable outbursts.

And the guilt feelings: my parents’ spinster friend to whom I candidly told that the reason why she couldn’t find anyone to marry was because she was really ugly, and she changed expression in front of me, filled with offended dignity, and for the first time I had the perception of pain and loneliness; and the girl I pitched into one afternoon while doing homework, and her horrified recoiling: that was the day when I began to feed the first doubts about my appearance. And the great, absolute, despotic ruler of my life: Fear! And the sad wonder that still gets me today, as I think of not having mastered it yet.

And then things for which it is worth to carry on: life itself, each single day kaleidoscopic, not good nor bad, only fluent in its flow. The thin germ of hope rebirthing every morning, a minimum hope, by now, but still nutritious. And, yes, the obvious things, they all say: love, friendship, pleasure, music, cinema, art, football, and England and, yes, them, books, the cursed little monsters that still imprison me in their paper marsh, binding me with their ink strings, preventing me from getting out of the rooms more and more shrinking around me.

The life I’ve lived, the life I will live: the desire for glory, the desire for serenity. Where do I come from? Where am I? Where will I go? I am wearing myself out while existing, swirling in the muddy circle of the great Maelstrom. I’m scared! I exist, I am consumed, I will be dissolved! Why am I not immortal?

Enough! It’s over. The Master has turned on the light again, and stopped the music. I sort of come out of a nightmare, and feel ashamed for having got lost in these stupid teenage outbursts. I take control of myself again. But something has changed in me. This thought seizes me right when The Master, with his witty and nonchalant tone, asks me:

«Riccardo, can you please explain to the others, and above all to yourself, what emotions has this exercise raised in you?».

Exercise? If he even didn’t want us to write a single line! We have only been forced to think. And why that cheesy music? What’s the meaning of this incongruous self-immersion in psychedelia, with a forty-year delay? of these mental journeys without even a chemical helper? Typical of the Master, the question! His desire to surprise and confuse you with allusive and carefully measured provocations is one of his faults.

Now I’ll fix him. I’ll answer this way, cold and sharp as a knife blade, analyzing my feelings with detached and slightly sour attitude, fully controlling my actions and my words, penetrating, letting nobody see the turmoil that is still holding me:

«Objectively», (what a smart adverb to begin with) I say «it seemed to me rather an extravagant exercise, midway between Joyce’s stream of consciousness, and third-rate psychology. Things already seen, already heard, already experienced, already written by others. I haven’t felt any emotion!».

Here it is, Master! Catch this clear sign of my opposition. The Master looks at me from behind his lennonian glasses, with a fully yoko-onian smile. I’ve never seen him so Far Eastern. He simply asks me, as if he had already realized everything:

«Are you sure about that, Riccardo? Don’t say anything more now, but try to think about it. And all of you, my boys and girls, think about it, and maybe write about it» he says closing the meeting. «It is the last lesson for this year. If you are able to meditate on it and pour it into your work, my course will have been a bit useful».

Now, am I sure of what I said? Well, no I’m not, Master. I know that what I’ve just said doesn’t match what I’ve felt. If you were aiming at arising a sequence of emotions in me, well, you did it, though in a very weird way.

While driving back to Brescia, I really try to think about it. As The Master has suggested, emotion hit me, that’s for sure, but I didn’t like it. Why? Because of the ambiguous relationship between emotion and writing, perhaps? Yes, it’s true… emotion is not a loyal friend of writing: emotion flatters it, of course, but only to force, to distort, to pollute it. Like a thief in the night, emotion silently robs writing of that sense of absolute which is its most precious asset. It’s not emotion what I’m searching for.

Emotion hit me, it’s true, as it always does when I think of the wrecks of the past, and reflect on its effects on the present. Such a small and spurious emotion, I would say, since I have been even too used to this kind of thoughts. For many years. Really I would like something different from this minimal emotion. I would like to transcend, to overcome, to sublimate it. I’d want something more. Something better. But what?

And suddenly, the Enlightenment! Emotion will be useless to me, if I don’t find inside myself the secret word to express and tell it. Not only to tell it to myself, as if I renewed the same inner speech, but to give my stories a universal, forever new breath. So, my journey with The Master has been useful, in some way! To this goal I have been taken: Instantly it’s clear to me, as if I had always known, that images, sounds, colors are worthless if they remain inside. The most important thing, what from which everything comes, what by which everything is created, the primordial breath of an Absolute Being that is moving the whole universe, is for me the Word, the Word to be told to everybody.

THE WORD. It builds worlds, constructs lives, creates, pulses, living since the beginning of time. This is what is giving sense to the rough emersion of remains from the depths of my being. That’s what can know the Unknowable. What can reveal the secret. What overcomes, disclosing it, every possible emotion. THE WORD. Divine gift allowing those who are able to use its powers to speak the language of angels and demons. THE WORD. White. Dazzling. Absolute. In it, not in emotion, I want to abandon myself. THE WORD.

In principio erat Verbum
Et Verbum erat apud Deum
Et Deus erat Verbum

And now, my gratitude for The Master spontaneously springs from my exultant bosom! How I had misjudged him! O Master! You’re better than Yoko Ono (this is not difficult), you’re better than John Lennon (yes, this is hard). Now that I have been enlightened, I clearly understand that nothing earthly and maybe heavenly can be compared to your millenary wisdom. You are greater than the Mahatma, you’re more shining than a living Avatar, you’re more revealing than a papal encyclical. All that dark apparatus through which tonight you have toughened our consciences, it did make sense, after all. It was thanks to you, thanks to your unthinkable psycho-intellectual stray topics, that I unfairly condemned borrowing the easy sarcasm from a Nazi, that I was able to descend into the depths of myself. Like the castaway who lands ashore, I brought to the surface, and gave a meaning, to the scattered materials laying inside myself. Before you came they meant nothing, even though they haunted me with their calls. It was you, Master, who revealed me what unifies them, what expresses them, what explains them: THE WORD.

Thanks to your revelation now I feel ready to venture into the field of writing. Thanks to you I finally realized that, beyond emotions, there is something higher, deeper, more true: there are the stories. And if the stories exist, then will also exist somebody who will be listening to them. This is where I will start from, in search of ever-changing events to tell. And my first one will be the story of tonight, the story of my turmoil, of my enlightenment, of my rejoicing. It will be the story of my Journey with the Master. The one that is ending here right now.

THE END

 Translation by Anna Anzani and Silvia Accorrà 

Notes
1 Fiorello – an Italian TV showman.
2 Lega Nord (Northern League) – an Italian political party aiming at the autonomy of Northern Italy from the rest of the country.