Axel Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele”

BLOG #31, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #43
AXEL MUNTHE’S THE STORY OF SAN MICHELE
August 5, 2015

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It is August, for millions a time to vacation, get away from it all. It is because August is, in that respect, such a seminal month that it is a difficult month to marry a book-of-the-month to.

In the end, it was no contest. It had to be the incredible story of Capri’s Villa San Michele, and the man whose dream it was: Dr. Axel Munthe.

On July 10, 2014, Connie and I set eyes on the near mythical Isle of Capri for the very first time. Earlier that morning, we had seen the ancient city of Naples outside our veranda room on the Norwegian Spirit. One more item to cross off our Bucket List: See Naples and die—but we hoped we wouldn’t die too soon. Certainly not before we reached Capri :-). We were one of the first foursomes (Connie, I, our son Greg, and our grandson Seth) to be permitted off the ship. Soon our excursion boat was racing out to sea. About an hour later, there looming above us was the towering Isle of Capri. Shortly afterwards we boarded a minibus for one of the wildest rides of our lives! Our little bus tore up the narrow serpentine road barely missing other busses, autos, motorbikes, etc. by only inches; our driver and the other drivers kept up a running commentary with each other (verbal and arm gestures); again and again you could hear our fellow passengers belting out “Mama Mia!” as once again we escaped a crash by only an inch or so. Especially terrifying was the bus’s hair-raising careening around curves, and seen over the flimsy low brick walls the deep blue Mediterranean far far below!

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When we shakily disembarked in the little town of Anacapri, Greg and Seth took the chairlift to the top of the island and Connie and I were led by our guide to another place on my Bucket List: the world famous Villa San Michele. All my life, at various times, the subject of the villa would come up. Always, how beautiful it was. Soon we reached the villa, paid to get in, ambled through the villa, then walked out under that glorious colonnaded pergola, with verdant gardens and trees on both sides, and then, a thousand feet below the bluest blue one will ever see. Connie and I were speechless. Rarely, in this short lifetime we are given on earth, do we encounter a scene so incredibly beautiful that it is beyond speech’s capacity to describe it in mere words. As for me, it proved to be a time-stopper.

After we had walked through the gardens and taken pictures (so inadequate to capture it all!), we stopped at the gift shop where we purchased two books: Axel Munthe’s best-selling The Story of San Michele (translated into over 40 languages) and the definitive biography of the man who created this masterpiece: Axel Munthe.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

He was only eighteen, when the young Swede first set eyes on Capri. On shore, he looked up, up, and up the 777 steps carved out of solid rocks by orders of the Roman Emperor Tiberius who lived on the island the last eleven years of his tumultuous life. Munthe was warned not to try to climb it for it was a mighty steep thousand feet to the top. But he ignored the warnings and made the ascent. At the top—well, he never got over that view! Right then and there he vowed that whatever it would take, he’d somehow buy that land and build on it a villa of such beauty it would be the talk of the world.

Many years later Dr. Munthe would tell the riveting story of his life—and what an incredible life it was!—in The Story of San Michele. The novelist Henry James was the one who suggested that he write it. For Dr. Munthe moved in, and received at the villa, the likes of Henry James, Howard Carter, Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, Count Zeppeliln, Rainer Maria Rilke, and much of Europe’s royalty, including Sweden’s Crown princess Victoria, who locked in a loveless marriage, was destined to fall in love with Munthe. Russian Czar Nicholas II tried to get Munthe to become physician to his family, and Herman Goering tried to buy the villa from him.

Oh all this is but the beginning of one of the most remarkable autobiographies I have ever read! I was so glad later on that I’d also purchased Bengt Jangfeldt’s powerful life story: Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele. Reason being that his biography fills in, amplifies, and builds upon the original book. Half of the Munthe story is missing if you fail to also read the biography!

I will be mighty surprised if you don’t conclude (at the end of your reading both books) that your life will never be the same as it was when you began. Munthe’s life story is so quotable, so mind-numbing in its intensity and in the sheer number of people of all levels of society Munthe treated as a physician, the unforgettable stories of improbable but true personal encounters, the menagerie of animals he surrounded himself with, and on and on and on.

Long before you complete reading Munthe’s book, I predict you will yourself vow, “I will see Capri and Munthe’s Villa San Michele myself before I die!”

Will be interested in hearing from you after you read the books—especially Munthe’s, because that’s the starting spot for Jangfeldt’s biography.

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The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe (London: John Murray, Publishers, 1929). The trade paper edition I purchased is that edition’s 17th printing. ISBN 978-0-7195-6699-8. 2004 printing.

Axel Munth: The Road to San Michele, by Bengt Jangfeldt (London, New York: I. B. Taures, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan/San Martin’s Press, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84511-710-7.

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY

BLOG #16, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY
April 16, 2014

It is said that poetry is the most condensed literary art form there is–much more than is true of novels and short stories. I would disagree: quotations are even more condensed than poems.

Of course that gets us into the debate as to whether quotations deserve to be classified as an art form. I submit that they are. It is almost impossible to create shorter condensations of wisdom than in quotations.

For example, how could it be possible to condense the essence of the following any further than these?

“God is Love” (John 4:8)

“I came, I saw, I conquered” (Julilus Caesar)
“All the World’s a Stage.” (Shakespeare)
“What’s past is prologue” (Shakespeare)
“To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Pope)
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35)

Looking back through time, I think I was first captivated by quotations in the old Reader’s Digest. In their early days, their editors routinely featured quotations worth remembering, the essence of Alexander Pope’s immortal “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

All of us aspire to be witty, to articulate thought so splendidly listeners will be in awe of us. But if we are not the first to come up with timeless phraseology–well the artist James McNeill Whistler captured it best in a conversation he had with Oscar Wilde:

Wilde: “I wish I’d said that.”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Early on in teaching, I wrote on my classroom blackboard one morning, a quotation I felt worth remembering. I wrote another on the board the following day, and so on. It didn’t take long to discover that it was the first thing students noticed when they walked into the room.

Over time, that daily quotation became part of my persona. So much so that if I missed a day, my students demanded I immediately remedy that omission.

Fast forward to the last eighteen years of writing and anthologizing full time. As books bearing my name accumulated, former students began checking back in. A number mentioned those long-ago quotations–many had copied down their favorites: a number still had them. Several suggested I take advantage of the worldwide web and tweet one every day. That way, they could still pretend they were students of mine.

So it was that on October 1 of 2011, I tweeted my first quotation. I have not missed a day since. In late June of 2014, I’ll log in my 1000th quotation.

I take these postings mighty seriously for I want each of them to be worth remembering. I’ve discovered that most quotation books are merely compendiums of quotations, mighty few of them worth writing down, even fewer worth internalizing.

Though I have well over a million quotes archived, it is never easy to select a month’s worth of quotes. For I determined early on to avoid merely posting same ol’ same ol’s; quotes originating with individuals many of our contemporaries don’t even recognize. Because of this, in order to maintain a good mix of quotes old and new, I continuously search for current quotes worth remembering. I add humorous ones as day-brightening changes of pace as well. But always I also feature the greatest ones from ages past.

I’ll be most interested in your reactions to our quotes. If enough interest is expressed, I’ll consider making them available in printed form as well.

If you like quotes but haven’t yet checked ours out, you can access them at http://www.twitter.com/JoeWheelerBooks.

 

 

THE DECLINE AND THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN HERO

BLOG #7, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE DECLINE AND THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN HERO
February 13, 2013

Two weeks ago, I discussed the implosion of erstwhile superhero, Lance Armstrong. At its conclusion, I promised to return to the subject.

Heroes – we all have them. Boys especially. It is healthy to have in your mind a shining image, an idealized prototype one can grow towards. But it is not healthy when that ideal is shattered like The Picture of Dorian Gray. During the last couple of years, two of the world’s superheroes – Tiger Woods and now Lance Armstrong, have been toppled from their high pedestals, in the dust of the dramatic collapse of their reputations, leaving behind widespread disillusion and feelings of betrayal – not only in the young but in the older as well.

Heroism has always been with us, but the obsessive attempts to destroy heroes once they are perceived to have arrived at such status is relatively new.

This phenomenon has a long fuse, and was born (in a literary sense), in a French movement of prose fiction scholars label Naturalism, that flowered in the last third of the nineteenth century. Zola was its principal spokesman in Europe, and writers such as Dreiser in America. The novels that spread this philosophy were characterized by flawed heroes who, sooner or later, were destroyed by inner weaknesses and inherited tendencies. Generally, all their supposed heroes end up floundering in the muck in the midst of their shattered pedestals. God and spiritual values worth living by are noticeably absent in Naturalistic fiction.

All through the twentieth century, the moral slide continued, nudged down by Jacques Derrida’s deeply erosive movement (also begun in France) called Deconstruction; the net effect across the western world has been to undermine the foundations of all heroes and debunk anyone who is perceived to be noble or great in any way. Though the movement in America reached its “peak” in the 1960s and 1970s, it remains very much with us today. Its critics apparently have no life outside of character assassination – even of each other. No one, no matter how high, is safe from these intellectual harpies.

Parallel to Deconstructionism is the so-called Theatre of the Absurd movement, especially as portrayed in the dramas of playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco (all of which have been widely celebrated and performed in America). In essence, these plays exemplify the illogical and purposeless nature of contemporary existence. They are directly related to the DADA and Surrealistic movements in art.

None of these literary practitioners have much of a place in their works for religion or values worth living by. The net result of generations of debunkers is today’s widespread sense of disillusion, immersion into virtual reality rather than the real world, addiction to substance abuse of all kinds (liquor, drugs, pornography, sexuality, etc.), and an almost terrifying rise in suicide. Not to mention the fallout on the moral front (the nonstop assaults on the institution of marriage, Christianity, and traditional values). Half of all marriages ending in divorce, live-in relationships are becoming the norm, and half of all children are being born out of wedlock, 75-80% in African-American households.

The same is true for our national heroes. For over a century and a half, these preachers of negativity have done their utmost to strip Abraham Lincoln of his spirituality and all the ethical and moral qualities that made him a worldwide icon in the first place.

Even Great Books classics have become an endangered species. In a world where there are no absolutes, no right or wrong, no goodness, no bravery, no courage, no greatness of any kind, neither in the arts nor in real life, there can be no great anything!

Instead, no subject is permitted to rise above all others: spiritual values are removed from life, the Decalogue is trashed, and God is replaced by Relativism.

Nathan Harden, author of Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad, has this to say: “And the fact that Yale [a symbol for American higher education here] as an institution no longer understands the substantive meaning of academic freedom—which requires the ability to distinguish art from pornography, not to mention right from wrong—is a sign of its enslavement to the ideology of moral relativism, which denies any objective truth (except, of course, for the truth that there is no truth).

Under the dictates of moral relativism, no view is more valid than any other view, and no book is any greater or more worth reading than any other book. Thus the old idea of a liberal education—that each student would study the greatest books, books organized into a canon based on objective criteria that identify them as valuable, has given way to a hodgepodge of new disciplines—African-American Studies, Latino Studies, Native American Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies—based on the assumption that there is no single way to describe the world that all serious and open-minded students can comprehend. . . .

Unfortunately, what’s happening at Yale is indicative of what is occurring at colleges and universities across the country. Sex Week, for example, is being replicated at Harvard, Brown, Duke, Northwestern, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin. . . . Our universities have lost touch with the purpose of liberal arts education, the pursuit of truth.”
–Man, Sex, God, and Yale, by Nathan Harden (Hillsdale, Michigan: Imprints, January 2013).

Truly, America is at the crossroads!