The Professor and the Siren, an Exploration
Unusual memories and the primordial root of nobility
She spoke and thus was I overwhelmed, after her smile and smell, by the third and greatest of her charms: her voice. It was a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides. The song of the Sirens, Corbera, does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone.
I want to call attention to a curious short story written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa which has to do with the relationship between a professor and a siren, a literal mermaid. If you know Lampedusa you are probably familiar with his singular and acclaimed novel, The Leopard, an introspective and melancholic exploration of the decline of a great Sicilian family and the eclipse of their exquisite tradition-bound world by the forces of progress. The novel is a massively eminent and haunting read, the culmination of a lifetime of literary immersion (Lampedusa spent his life reading but did not begin to write until just a few years before his death), and if you have not read it or watched the 1963 film adaption you really must, but today I want to explore his only other complete and much-lesser known work: “The Professor and the Siren,” which, despite numbering only a scant few dozen pages, in many ways is even more ambitious than his novel and emerges freshly relevant to the currents of online culture. “La Sirena,” as it was published in Italian, offers a story that plumbs the depths of Sicily’s lost pagan past to offer the promise of total, beautiful, and terrible transformation.
It’s also a summer story, replete with romance and longing and the sea. It has to do with impossible love, and men and the nature of women; it’s ideal for reading aloud to a lover in the post-coital languors of the early evening. If only for this reason alone you should read it, but of course there is much more to its lovely depths. Be warned, from here forward you can expect spoilers. Men, be further advised: once you read this story you might find yourself irrevocably mermaid-pilled, forever unsatisfied with earthly relations and possessed with a longing which only the sea can answer. Thus cautioned, we proceed.
Lampedusa was a prince. Born in 1896 as the heir to the Duke of Palma, he grew up in a world of palaces, with sprawling gardens, servants, visits from traveling nobles who anchored their yachts in the bay before Palermo in their tours about the Mediterranean, and most of all, literature, for Lampedusa was an only child. After the sad death of his sister he was raised entirely in the company of adults and spent long hours immersed in reading, a habit that came to define his life, first as a pastime, and then as the decline of his family became evident in his adulthood, as a passion and retreat from the diminishment they suffered as their holdings were broken up and their influence obsolesced over the course of decades. For this reason it is impossible to separate Lampedusa from his work; his great novel is an attempt to capture the fullness of the old traditions and the great characters of his fading aristocratic world and preserve them in literary form against the corrosive forces of modernity. The novel is unbearably beautiful but also melancholic: many contemporary critics, while recognizing its merits, accused it of hopelessness, of painting a beautiful picture of dignity amidst decline with no redeeming mechanism for redemption. In this, both the critics and Lampedusa can be forgiven: how would it be possible to conceive of the continuation of the old Sicilian aristocracy against the titanic forces of liberalism which swept the globe, and even bombed his childhood home? There’s just no possible way to imagine it, so Lampedusa paints the image of a proud noble, last of his line, who like Spengler’s soldier at Pompeii, ‘bravely follows his path to the destined end’ and so achieves the epitome of that old ideal of the Roman nobility: a good death, which is won not only for his character Don Fabrizio, but for Lampedusa himself in the act of making this final account of his life and class.
But while The Leopard is massive, fatalistic and final, The Siren is the little codicil that casts the prior testament in different light entirely, the quicksilver door that offers the possibility of escape. For if the Leopard is an attempt to reconcile the decline of the Christian aristocracy to modernity, The Siren encloses even this history by reaching directly to an even remoter pagan past which offers the hope of renewal.
For Lampedusa’s Siren is not a monster, she is a lover. She is half god and half beast, with nothing human about her, but explicitly carnal. She reveals to the young Professor not only in her words, but in her body, a knowledge of nature and the ancients which can only come through complete immersion and boundless, bottomless love, love to the point of death. She swims, she eats live fish only, she makes love and speaks in Attic poetry:
“Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and delicacy altogether contrary to wretched and animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets. Not for nothing was she the daughter of Calliope: Oblivious to all cultures, ignorant of all wisdom, disdainful of any moral constraint whatsoever, she was nevertheless part of the source of all culture, of all knowledge, of all ethics, and she knew how to express this primitive superiority of hers in terms of rugged beauty. ‘I am everything because I am only the stream of life, free of accident. I am immortal because all deaths converge in me, from that of the hake just now that of Zeus; gathered in me they once again become life, not individual and particular but belonging to nature and thus free.’”
Lampedusa’s Siren is a marvelous character, a vortex of mythic vitality, union of high and low, of tidal feminine attractive force. Not for nothing did Lampedusa’s Professor swear off mortal women after his encounter with her. Lighea (for that is the Siren’s name) contains something of the promise that all women offer; an avenue to eternity, but distilled with ecstatic re-encounter with the spirit of the ancients and the swelling, romantic, insatiable wanderlust which manifests as love for the physical personification of the sea. Like the Ovidian gods, she is a conduit to metamorphosis. “What potions have I drunk of Siren tears?” asks Lampedusa’s Professor. In his encounter with her he undergoes a “sea-change / into something rich and strange.” To love her is to love life never-ending at the root of all things, to love adventure which is life’s expansion, to love love itself. In reading, you too might fall in love with her and become mermaid-pilled, and that is precisely Lampedusa’s design.
Like his novel The Leopard, which was rejected by publishers several times, even weeks before Lampedusa’s death, the success of his Siren story depends even more self-consciously on a final act of transmission. “Corbera,” says the elderly professor in the scene just before he tells his tale, “I need you.” Exactly like Lampedusa himself, the senatorial professor carries an old kind of knowledge, “a vital, almost carnal sense of classical antiquity” of which he must unburden himself before he can finally merge with his beloved classical world in a final act of extinguishment and transformation. The double recounting, first by the weary professor to his pupil Corbera, then by Corbera to we, the readers, accomplishes this transmission by presenting the Siren and all her enchantments to the world, opening the possibility that a new generation might fall in love with her and the world she represents; a lost portal re-opened through which the spirit of the ancient world can once again pour into the world.
Does all this seem familiar? Does it remind you of BAP? In reading the story, with its Professor, a towering eminence in the classics, do you imagine meeting BAP in some dingy bar while he leans forward and very seriously says “I mus tell you story of how I once had encounter (sexual) with a mermaid?” Would you laugh (and break the spell) or, like Corbera, would you believe?
For indeed, today we see in online spaces a Cambrian explosion of beings, a door to the ancient world opened by BAP but which now expands with tumultuous ferment in myriad expressions: history buffs, longing aesthetic posters, art girls, legions of statue pfps, poets, philosophers, futurist sculptors, solar bodybuilders, holy surfers.
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