IWSG—May odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

Have any of your readers ever responded to your writing in a way that you didn’t expect? If so, did it surprise you?

As I’ve mentioned a number of times prior, a few people in writing groups have point-blank hated my Cinnimin, one even wanting something really bad to happen to her and being happy to learn her dad dies when she’s young. It did shake me to hear such strong words about a character I’ve been with since we were eleven years old and whom so many other people have loved.

Cinni is who she is, even after significantly toning down, radically reworking, or outright removing content from my Atlantic City books which I grew to see as wildly age-inappropriate, way too over the top, and/or mean-spirited. She’s far more spice than sugar, fiesty, sassy, a straight shooter, brutally honest, at times mouthy, a self-admitted daddy’s girl.

I wouldn’t recognize Cinni if she, e.g., hugged someone who taunted her about how her dad is living on borrowed time and proceeded to sing “Kumbaya” instead of punching and yelling at that other girl. I don’t write goody-goodies with charmed, idyllic lives.

More people have loved Cinni and praised her as a great character than have hated her. Not all our stories or characters will resonate with everyone, and that’s perfectly fine.

As expected, my wordcount for Camp NaNo wasn’t that great. I set a lowball goal of only 10K to make sure I wouldn’t fail too badly. My project was continuing my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last. Also included were a few blog posts for May.

I didn’t do any proofing of the books I’m preparing for hardcover editions in April, but I know I’m overdue to get back to them and finish up the final spot-checks already!

Also included in my wordcount were most of the notes I made for my alternative history. Seeing as I’ve never written anything Medieval before, and amn’t nearly as back-of-my-hand familiar with the 13th and 14th centuries as I am with the 19th and 20th, it’s really important to get familiar with my setting. Not just the real people and places who’ll appear, but stuff like clothing, education, and food.

Just think, no one in Medieval Europe knew chocolate existed, and Italian cuisine didn’t have tomato sauce. Eating breakfast was looked down upon by the Church as a bad habit, except for small children. There were no nightclothes. People slept nude or in garments like undershirts.

I knew this Peter Pauper Press notebook was the right one for my notes because of the peacock. According to legend, Dante’s mother, Gabriella (Bella), had a dream when she was pregnant with him that she gave birth under a laurel tree by a spring, and her son ate the berries that fell from the tree. Then he drank from the spring and turned into a peacock. This was believed to be a portent of his future greatness.

Peacocks have very positive symbolism across so many different cultures. Among other things, they represent renewal, eternal life, immortality, creativity, joy, nobility, and transcendence.

I’m really looking forward to working on this new project during JuNoWriMo. Seventeen years after I thought of the idea, I finally have a detailed story trajectory and plot points.

My tagline is “What if one of the most famous love stories in history wasn’t unrequited?”

A to Z Reflections 2021

This was my tenth year doing the A to Z Challenge, and my eighth with two blogs. For the third year running, I didn’t begin writing my posts till March. In years past, I researched, wrote, and edited my posts many months in advance.

I did the posts on my main blog first, since I knew they’d take more time and effort than the short and to the point posts for my names blog.

I began putting my list of topics for this theme together in March 2016, knowing I had five more years to prepare for it. Fittingly, in March 2016 I was finishing up writing and editing A to Z posts about names from The Divine Comedy for my secondary blog. I suppose I could’ve saved that theme for Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so both my blogs’ themes in 2021 would directly relate to him, but it is what it is. My names blog featured Medieval Tuscan and Italian names this year, which is relation enough.

Topics I considered but opted against included Purgatory, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, Riccardo Zandonai, the Dante Society of America (which I’m a member of), and Eclogues. My choice of topics was somewhat more limited, since my theme was so specific, and Italian doesn’t have certain letters.

Luckily, I found art, music, and concepts related to Dante for some of the trickier letters.

For whatever reason, I’ve tended to have bad luck when clicking on links in the master A to Z list the last few years. Many bloggers gave up early or never started, and I even found one without a link. The theme sounded great, but there was no way to check it out from a hyperlink!

Also annoying are blogs without the option to comment or where we have to sign up with a unique-to-the-blogger commenting service, or a really uncommon commenting interface.

As other people have been noticing, participation does seem down in recent years. Then again, the medium of blogging itself has undergone a lot of changes over the past decade. Many of the bloggers I knew 5–10 years ago have entirely stopped blogging or moved to a much more infrequent schedule.

Post recap:

Dante Alighieri
Beatrice Portinari
The Battle of Campaldino
The Divine Comedy
Empyrean
Florence (Firenze), Italy
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines
Hell
Italian language
Jacopo Alighieri
Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss
Brunetto Latini
De Monarchia
Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta
Ovid
Pietro Alighieri
Quartan fever
Ravenna, Italy
A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy
Terza rima
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca
Virgil
The Wood of the Self-Murderers
Xenia
Yesterdays
Zealotry

Since this is Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit year, I’ve got a bunch more thematic posts on tap for the upcoming months. I’m also working very hard on memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno (up to the first 27 lines as of Sunday night), in both Italian and English, and if I master them in time, I’m going to make a video of myself reciting them on Dante’s Jahrzeit.

I have at least seven more future A to Z themes on tap for my main blog, and I hope I can eventually resume more research-heavy themes on my names blog.

Zealotry

The Zealots were a band of resistance fighters in Roman Judea, active from 6–73 CE, who sought to expel the occupying Romans by any means necessary. A subgroup, called Sicarii (Violent Men or Dagger Men) in Latin, killed people opposed to this war.

According to historian Josephus, the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans or keep fighting on under siege, but modern archaeological investigation has revealed this probably didn’t happen. Regardless, because of this probable urban legend, the word “zealot” now refers to any rigid fanatic for a political, religious, or other cause.

Medieval Italy was beset by zealots, in the form of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. They’d been fighting since 1125, the result of a German power struggle between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spilling over into another region. Even long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, people continued fighting and drawing rigid lines for the next few centuries.

Each side believed they were in the right and that the other side was unacceptably wrong, to the point of needing to be quashed and brought to heel. They saw no room for compromise or agreeing to disagree peacefully. When Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Ghibelline, married his daughter to a Guelph to try to secure his power against hostile enemies, he instantly became persona non grata and started down the tragic, violent path which ultimately led to his starvation death in prison.

Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830

Even after the Guelphs emerged victorious as the leaders of Florence (Firenze) after the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, it still wasn’t good enough. Before long, they began bickering among themselves and split into White and Black factions.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Black Guelphs teamed up with Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, to seize control of Florence while Dante was with a White Guelph delegation to the Pope in Rome. Much of Florence was destroyed during their dominance-asserting rampage, and many White Guelphs were tried on phony charges, found guilty by kangaroo courts, heavily fined, killed, and/or condemned to exile. Some, like Dante, were tried in absentia.

Dante had his property and money seized, which meant he had no way of paying that huge fine even if he’d wanted to. After he refused a 1315 offer of amnesty, on the grounds that it would mean admitting to crimes he was innocent of, orders were put out to behead him if he were caught.

When his four children came of legal age, they were sent into exile too, deemed guilty by association.

There’s a teaching that the Second Temple, while obviously physically destroyed by the Romans, was truly destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This internecine bickering tore apart the Jewish community from within. Sects like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots constantly clashed, and were unable to unite as a single front against their common enemy.

Too many times throughout history, people have forgotten we’re all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, a Divine spark within each of us. They divide the world into Self and Other, and never the twain shall meet. Once zealously committed to a cause, it’s a quick leap to dehumanising and mistreating the other side.

In De Monarchia, Dante idealistically dreams of a unified world ruled by an enlightened Emperor guided by pure love, charity, justice, and selflessness. When we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine potential, since we were created in the image of God, and God is one.

Dante believed God created us to make full use of our highest intellectual potential, and that it’s easier to do this when we have universal peace. We can’t accomplish this beautiful, lofty ideal very easily if we’re beset by strife, wars, political fights, and rigid zealots who can’t accept any views but their own.

Let us strive to see beauty and truth in everything and everyone instead of behaving like zealots. Our every step should be guided by the force behind everything in creation, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

Yesterdays

Yesterdays in 2009; Image made by Katusya of WikiCommons, from photos taken by Péter Birta

Yesterdays, a symphonic prog-rock band from Cluj-Napoca, Romania, might seem the furthest thing in the world related to Dante, but they’ve contributed a song to each of the 4-CD boxed sets based on The Divine Comedy.

Their Inferno song, from November 2008, was done with Jonas Reingold of Swedish band The Flower Kings and drummer David Speight (who currently works with former Yes guitarist Peter Banks). Their song on the Purgatorio boxed set, released October 2009, is based on Canto XXX, where Dante breaks down upon realising Virgil is gone, and soon faces an upbraiding from his lost love Beatrice on account of his perceived sins. For the first and only time in the entire poem, Dante is addressed by name.

The Paradiso boxed set came out in October 2010, on which Yesterdays did a song based on Canto XXXIII and appropriately entitled “33.” In that canto, Dante has an intense, indescribable vision of Divine Light and perceives the nature of God and everything in the Universe. He realises Love is the mechanism behind all creation.

A total of 34 bands participated in each boxed set.

The current members of Yesterdays are Ákos Bogáti-Bokor (vocals, keyboard, guitar), Gábor Kecskeméti (flute), and Stephanie Semeniuc (lead singer). Dávid Kósa (percussion) is a former member, and keyboardist Zsolt Enyedi passed away of a stroke on 11 May 2020.

Yesterdays have released three studio albums (two of which have had multiple remastered editions), two EPs, and eight singles. They’ve also contributed songs to five other compilations besides the Divine Comedy boxed sets.

The band was founded in 2000, and won First Prize at the now-defunct Félsziget Festival’s talent competition in Târgu Mureş, Romania. Their first album was released in 2006. In response to their great sales, esteemed French record label Musea snapped them up the next year.

In February 2007, Yesterdays organised the first MiniProg festival in Budapest, with Dutch band Flamborough Head and British band Harmony in Diversity. The latter band is the project of former Yes guitarist Peter Banks.

As of 2021, their fourth album is being written and recorded.

Xenia

Highland Hospitality, John Frederick Lewis, 1832

Xenia is a code of hospitality originating in Ancient Greece, and is sometimes translated as “guest-friendship” or “ritualized friendship.” It’s the root of the million-dollar English adjective xenial, hospitable. Ultimately, it comes from xenos (stranger), itself the root of more familiar words like xenophobic and xenophile, and other words including xenograft, xenoblast, xenolithic, xenobiotic, xenogamy, and xenogeny.

Side note: It’s such a shame most primary and secondary schools no longer teach Ancient Greek or Latin, either as electives or mandatory subjects. So much of the English language comes from them, and it’s so easy to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words or names when you know Latin and Greek. Command of one’s native language is greatly enriched by knowing the languages which most contributed to its development.

Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1620–25

Xenia was taken very seriously by the Greeks. The above painting depicts Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercury) visiting an old couple in the city of Tyana (now Kemerhisar, Turkey), disguised as peasants. Baukis (the wife) and Philemon (the husband) were the only people who gave them a place to spend the night.

Though their cottage was small and simple, they nevertheless welcomed the strangers to their table and showered them with generosity far surpassing that of their rich neighbours who’d bolted their doors and treated Zeus and Hermes very abusively.

Jupiter und Merkur bei Philemon und Baucis, possibly by Stefano Tofanelli or Pietro Benvenuti, 18th or 19th century

Baukis realised the visitors were gods when she saw the wine pitcher was still full, despite refilling the cups many times. Philemon wanted to kill their guard goose to feed these worthy guests, but it fled to safety in Zeus’s lap. Zeus told them not to kill their goose, and advised them to split town, since Tyana would be destroyed due to its lack of xenia.

The couple climbed a mountain with Zeus and Hermes, and when they were allowed to look back on the summit, they saw Tyana wiped out by a flood and their cottage transformed into a grandiose temple. They asked to be guardians of the temple and to die at the same time. Both wishes were granted, and they became intertwined oak and linden trees upon death.

Philémon et Baucis, David Ryckaert III, 17th century

For the Greeks, xenia wasn’t just a nice thing to do or the right thing to do, but a sacred moral obligation. It also created a reciprocal relationship between guest and host. The story of Baukis and Philemon demonstrates a special type of xeniatheoxenia.

Many religions and cultures have similar stories of gods, goddesses, sages, and saints disguising themselves in very lowly forms to test people’s righteousness and discover the measure of their character. Those who warmly, lovingly received the stranger, even when they barely had anything to give, are richly rewarded.

In return, those who grossly violated xenia, like Ixion (seen below), received terrible punishment. He murdered his father-in-law, and repaid Zeus for having pity on him and inviting him to dine at Olympus by making advances on Hera.

The Torture of Ixion, Giovanni Battista Langetti, 17th century. Love the random, conveniently-placed cloth!

As Greek society grew more opulent and advanced, people with the means to do so created guesthouses and guest apartments stocked with ample food and drink, comfy beds, and lavish dining rooms. A xenodochium is a building for the reception of strangers, and the adjective is xenodochial. In Modern Greek, the word for “hotel” is xenodocheio.

The tradition of the xenodochium continued through the Middle Ages all across Europe and the Byzantine Empire, providing free room, board, and food to pilgrims, strangers, refugees, and Bubonic Plague sufferers.

During his almost twenty years of painful exile, Dante was the recipient of xenia in the many cities he stayed. He had to rely on the kindness and hospitality of strangers, though no city he passed through ever felt like his true home.