Star

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

A Star is Born by Bradley Cooper is a good movie with a remarkable original soundtrack. Lady Gaga interprets Ally, an emerging singer, whereas Cooper is Jack, an alcoholic Rockstar in slow but irreversible decline. I am no movie expert, but I am quite confident that, let alone for a couple of cumbersome and superfluous appearances toward the beginning and the lack of any intention to produce a groundbreaking movie, the acting is consistent and credible and the messages are well delivered.

Despite being a remake of an old classic, Cooper’s A Star is Born seems to capture a cultural shift that has taken place in the last couple of decades. The ruinous descent of an old model of Rockstar, devoted to drug and alcohol abuse, and the rise of the hard working, sober and otherwise quite ordinary, ‘new Rockstar’. The artistic contrast between Jack and Ally is interestingly framed by their love story, adding a tragic element to a simple but overall nontrivial narration.

Jack belongs to the past. The greedy discography, the mediatic eye, the world of tv shows and fancy award ceremonies do not need him anymore: they now have more reliable and controllable stars to drain the light from. It is also because of this idea in the movie, that Ally is not truly Lady Gaga. Ally is no Mother Monster, she is no game changer, she is never over the top. She is talented but not revolutionary, she is an artist but she is detached from the business around her. All she wants to do is to sing and write her own music, she never embodies the ‘Fame Monster’.

On the other hand, however, Ally uncovers a character that I like to imagine as the ‘backstage side’ of Lady Gaga. A strong woman, artistically born among drag queens, in the supportive environment of gay bars and underground lgbt culture. A woman with a big nose and a self-conscious female body. A woman whose self-confidence wasn’t warranted, but had to be fought for. All I could think about while watching the movie was how stunning she was. Who? Ally? Lady Gaga? Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta?

I don’t know. But Lady Gaga is that woman, who was constantly exposed to body-shaming, who was made object of transphobic slurs, whose talent and artistic genius was questioned on a daily base because of her extravagance, and whose success was analyzed through the lenses of conspiracy theories. Despite the many reminders and how clichés it might sound, people too often forget that behind the fame, the artistic persona, the million views, there is a vulnerable human being.

A Star is Born is a movie about the cultivation of one’s own talent, of one’s own relationships, of one’s own body. Against the decadent gods of the past, perfect no matter how broke, stoned, wasted or morally depraved, the newborn star has an uncommon artistic personality in a common body. She is called ugly, she couldn’t be further from perfection, she is no man. But her voice is stronger than any god’s voice, because there is not only limitless potential in her, there is also the will to grow and to refer only to one’s own standards, without ever losing track of one’s artistic mission. Without ever thinking to be too good, without ever being too broken inside to drown everything in alcohol, but coping with her inner pain, trying to solve her problems and generating art in the process.

Is this Ally or Lady Gaga now that I am talking about? I think that Ally is just the newborn star, open for any possibility in her future, and particularly vulnerable to exploitations. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is a real-life legend.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Advertisements

Willpower

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I have been recently on a three-day trip to Salzburg and surroundings. Inspired by the independent spirit of some British girlfriends I have met over the last years, I have mastered the art of travelling alone. Putting on a backpack, guidebook at hand, and nothing but your own thoughts to entertain you is a fundamentally different experience than travelling in a group. You see the effectiveness of your plans, with no compromises except for timetables and opening/closing hours. True, it is much less fun on an intersubjective level,  but ‘travelling solo’ remains one of the most fulfilling experiences, if done properly.

This letter, however, is not about travelling. It is rather about philosophy of action. Indeed, I would like to tell you about a puzzling case, in which the effectiveness of the intentions of the ‘lone traveler’ (me) led to some kind of rational failure.

Philosophers of action are used to link together three concepts: practical rationality, intentions and willpower. This trio of ideas is based on the assumption that our mental states can influence the world (starting from our own conduct) in a normative way, that is by following certain rules, like those of logical thinking. If you can desire completely incompatible things at the same time, like marriage and celibacy, without being irrational, you can’t intend or make it your will that you get married and stay single at the same time. If you intend or will both, you are irrational. To be practically rational you have to follow certain rules like those of avoiding contradictions.

Now, let’s see how these things can get messed up. After a very long day of visiting ice caves and an Alpine Medieval fortress, on the way back to Salzburg, I took the chance to hop off at Schloss Hellbrunn, a summer palace for the divertissement of 17th century prince-archbishops. The palace is known for its trick fountains, which are indeed quite curious, but I fell in love with the astounding view of Salzburg and of the mountains from the observing spots atop of a wooded hill backing the gardens of Hellbrunn.

I took a fast sketch of the profile of the fortress Hohensalzburg from the distance, and then it was time for me to go, for the sky was getting gloomier. Once I approached the boulevard leading out of the park, something hit me from behind. It was the sun, making his way through the clouds.

“6:13 pm”, I thought, “it is not worthy going back, I am super tired and the clouds won’t dissolve”. But the rays, like multiple incandescent swords, were cutting the sky into geometrical sections already.

The desire of making the last effort and see the sunset on the Alps grew in me. “No, you need to reach the bus stop, your legs won’t stand another climbing, and you are hungry” I said to myself. But the light grew stronger and I had to stop again and turn once more towards the sun.

I had to make up my mind: “Go, and never look back”. However, I did the fatal mistake of turning one last time, perhaps because distracted by a dog running on my side. And I saw the gold of the dying sun annihilating the profiles of mount Untersberg and mount Watzmann behind. Something broke in me. My castle of rationality? No, because I checked on my phone and the sun was predicted to set at 6:45 pm and it was still 6:30. 13 minutes to reach the base of the hill, around 10 to get to the observing point. “But I can run”. And so I ran.

I have arguably never wasted so much energy on such a lost cause. I got on the observing spot at 6:45 precisely, but the great show was already over. And I knew from the very beginning that Google could give only an approximation of the exact time of the sunset. Why run then? Why try against all odds to get to see something as ordinary as a sunset? Sweating and looking like a fool as if I had lost my most valuable property on the top of that damn hill?

Was that a case of my rationality succumbing to blind passion? No. My intention was rational, it was motivated by a strong desire, and I knew I would have made it if I had run, and so I did. But I also knew that success wasn’t warranted. It was a leap of faith, so to say, but not an irrational one. So how can we assess this case?

As the philosopher Bernhard Williams has pointed out, the rationality of our conduct can strongly depend on the success of our actions. Sometimes, we just ‘go for it’ and ‘let the world decide’. Only success rationalizes our action. If we fail, on the other hand, we can’t say that we have been rational none the less, no matter how many rules we have been following. So, in particular circumstances, effectiveness and practical rationality are not enough: we need also to be that specific person who indeed sees the sunset on the Alps, for failure will throw a shadow on our whole conduct. Sometimes it is some kind of destiny to determine how (ir)rational we are.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Ideal

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Art has not always been conceived as the production of unique and special things. As one of my ex professors once said, the idea that we have nowadays of the artist as inimitable, extraordinary and always recognizable among millions is very eurocentric and also relatively recent. By contrast, Medieval Chinese and Japanese art was mostly concerned with capturing the essence of things, which must be rendered in a very concise way, by means of minimalistic lines. Ancient Egyptian art was interwoven with religion, whereas Greek and Roman sculpture with ideal beauty. It shouldn’t then surprise that, in ancient times, the greater the artists, the more similar to one another their works.

This still sounds odd, because we are used to think that the greatness of artists comes from their “characteristic touch”, and homogenisation is perhaps the only unforgivable sin an artist can commit. Paradoxically, however, the better an artist captures the true essence of a thing, the more her work will reflect that of other great artists sharing the same goal.

Here is the trick, so to say: contemporary art is liberated from any such shared goal, hence its diversity. But uniqueness and constant inventiveness have a downside, which is to be tracked in the individualism they imply. By not participating anymore to a shared enterprise of using art to uncover the essence of the world, the artist gradually stops being a talented person with a precise mission, and becomes more and more a misunderstood (and sometimes incomprehensible) genius.

This idea has been already partially abandoned but is still extremely influential. The individualism of genius comes with its specific problems, most notably in recent times the scandals of sexual abuse allegations. Is a genius over and above morality? How should we consider controversial cases in which the conduct of an artist is morally blameworthy but strictly entrenched with the production of great works of art?

I think that these problems arise first and foremost from the quasi religious adoration we dedicate to certain artists – which is definitely not free from male chauvinist bias. At the same time, the idea that art comes with genius has gradually eroded the credibility of the profession of the artist in general, as the master of a specific technique and creator of art. Artists can be good or bad just as physicians can be good or bad and I don’t see why an excellent doctor should be less of a genius than an excellent artist.

A more “socialist” and less individualistic conception of art can do nothing but good for artists, by giving back credibility to a profession that is just as important for the well functioning of a society as that of the employee, the doctor, the journalist and the engineer. But how to do this, without undermining the so called “artistic freedom”?

In the Renaissance and later in the Neoclassical period, artists got inspired by the unachievable perfection of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Despite the fact that those were times of great individual personalities, the general feeling that artists should not only look at the future but also backwards to find their identity again was a sign of humility and of professional devotion.

However, instead of seeing the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Japanese as models of perfection, nowadays we should be more interested in the general goal and shared mission that ancient masters embodied with their works: uncovering the secrets of afterlife, representing the ideal of nature, or capturing the essence of things.

Daring to have a common mission, and not being worried or scared in recognizing each other as similar within a shared enterprise might go further than we could expect. For it is almost never an individual to change the world, but whole movements.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Catfish

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Can you love someone, whom you have never seen in person? In particular, can you love someone, whom you have met online, but who will never show up and whose “true identity” will remain a mystery for the rest of your life? I will defend the thesis that you can’t. But it is a complicated task.

The phenomenon I am currently addressing is commonly known as “catfishing”, which is a form of online deception. However, I am not considering the moral side of the issue, despite the many moral concerns catfishing raises. I bracket the aspect of deception and the status of the deceiver to focus instead on the “unknowing victim’s perspective”.

The “victim” believes that she is talking to someone reliable, and she is not irrational in so believing. The story she is being told is perfectly coherent and nothing in her interaction with the catfish hints at deception. Indeed, the victim has hired a great detective to confirm that it is beyond reasonable doubt that she is taking to a real person in the flesh. Of course, however, the final confirmation that she is talking to a transparent human being rather than to a deceiver is beyond her reach – or of the detective’s.

Now, focus on her feelings. She develops gradually a sort of bonding with the catfish. Day after day, week after week, month after month her feelings become stronger. She goes to school or to work and thinks about him. She experiences something funny and she can’t wait to tell him and laugh together. She is sad and seeks comfort in his words. When she is lonely, he is always ready to answer. She doesn’t deceive herself. After all, she knows that there is absolutely no empirical evidence that she is transparently talking to him. But she needs him.

Maybe he is a she, or he is gay. Maybe he is an old pervert or a young one. He could even be an extremely good deceiver, so good that even the great detective was not able to tell. The victim knows all this, she is not dumb or foolish. But aren’t her feelings, her laughter, her tears real? Isn’t she feeling precisely what she would have felt for a true friend, or the love she would have felt for a true partner?

A line of answering to these questions in the negative would be to tell that direct contact, eye contact, sexual intercourse, hugging, and so on, make a great difference and the feelings you develop in front of a sterile screen are not “authentic feelings”. But if you have ever been catfished, you know that the feelings you develop, independently of your will, are particularly strong. They might still be not the same you have for someone you approach in person, but they are none the less real. Aren’t they?

You do all the things a person who is in love does. You are particularly cheerful, you start ending all your messages with hearts and you see life in the brightest colors. Everything about you tells that you are in love. So why not just say that you are in love?

The reason why I am led to say no, is that things like love and friendship are based on mutuality – excluding self-love or narcissism. They are between two or more people, and they have a meaning insofar as people truly love each other or are friends. For if a person were to know that her feelings were not reciprocated, something would break. If a person were to know that she had been deceived or that she was living a total “self-delusion of the heart”, she would also start being suspicious about her own feelings. ‘Was I truly in love, if he was never with me?’ she would ask herself, and she would have a point. After all, you can’t be friends with people who are not your friends, can you?

Love is a state of affairs, rather than a private feeling, just as a friendship is. Deceiving oneself into love resembles more madness than love. For love is something in the world, rather than in your mind. So, if the catfish was indeed a deceiver, no such state of affairs would have obtained and the victim would have experienced no love, even if her feelings were indistinguishable from those of a person in love. She was not in love, for no love took place.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

NoVax

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Mass vaccination has been one of the greatest achievements in human history. A vaccine works as a trigger for a physiological response of the body, which develops mechanisms of self-protection against different kinds of dangerous illnesses. Basically, scientists have been able to exploit the natural resources of our bodies to make them more resistant than what they would have been otherwise, causing almost the extinction of terrible diseases that for centuries have unapologetically wiped out thousands of people and inflicted horrible sufferings.

It is irresponsible, not to say crazy, to question the usefulness of vaccines but, at the same time, we are experiencing in recent times the diffusion of (partial) skepticism about their employment. It is far from my intents to enter a debate that is simply out of the reach of my knowledge and especially of my competence. However, I still would like to make a case for the “NoVax” movement, the strongest I can imagine, and briefly assess it.

Suppose that a very important vaccine V is safe for 99% of its applications – to mean an almost perfect safety. This vaccine is able to contrast efficaciously disease X, which would be lethal or highly debilitating if not prevented with vaccination. Suppose further, that in the remaining 1% of the cases (to mean almost nothing) V causes, due perhaps to other unknown complications, related only indirectly to the vaccination, a terrible debilitating disease Y.

Now, how can we assess vaccine V? I think it would be absurd not to enact mass V-vaccinations to extinguish X. At the end of the day, so it is assumed, the practical totality of the population would benefit from it, and only neglectable isolated cases would develop Y. Then, from an “objective”, third-personal perspective, in no way is this a case against V. Y is a neglectable (and unclear) downside of V, which is otherwise overwhelmingly beneficial. V would make the world a better place objectively, and I don’t see any reasonable objection to its massive employment.

Let’s now assume the perspective of that one individual P who develops Y after thousands, perhaps millions of people have reacted positively to the vaccination. P’s perspective is first-personal, rather than third-personal. Her perspective is the focal point from which to see the whole world, and from that perspective, Y is a horrendous reality. Wouldn’t we see anything tragic in P’s personal story? Wouldn’t we acknowledge that, for P and perhaps only for P, being vaccinated rather than not would have been the same? Indeed, not assuming V would have left the benefit of the doubt about contracting X, whereas Y is an indirect, but strictly connected consequence of a conscious decision. Contracting X would have been the effect of misfortune, whereas contracting Y could have been avoided by avoiding, in that particular case, assuming V.

This is not quite correct. After all, medical doctors didn’t know in advance that P would have developed Y. Shouldn’t that be enough to convince P that her situation is a tragic but unavoidable “state of affairs” in the world? Or better, that she would have either contracted X or Y, and that by contracting Y, at least thousands or millions of people were saved? Again, from an objective perspective, sure! But P would have been convinced from the very beginning then.

From P’s first-personal perspective, however, the world is “constrained” by a terrible disease and no matter what argument we employ, P will always see a dilemma between X and Y and, further, she will see an “intentional” explanatory chain leading to her contraction of Y. It was medical doctors who injected V in her body, and V, together with her previous unfavorable physiological conditions, gave rise to Y.

P’s dilemma can be explained with the concept of “destiny”, which I explored in a previous letter. The “meeting point” between an objective state of affairs and a subjective point of view produces an interesting situation, which we can assess both descriptively as well as “normatively” or morally.

As it is plain to see, the case I have proposed does not offer any support to the NoVax movement, but it tries at least to shed light on why certain people might be skeptical about vaccines. The fear of incurring an adverse destiny, despite its irrationality, has its own “logic”. And again, from the first-person perspective, what happens to you is overwhelmingly important, even if you are one in a million.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Hero

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The Nobel committee has been put under mediatic pressure to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of the Nobel peace prize. The Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was known for her heroic fights for democracy in Myanmar, lately overshadowed by her attempt of excusing the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority of the Rohingya in her country. Apparently, the Nobel peace prize will not be withdrawn, for it refers to Suu Kyi’s past achievements, and the award is not concerned with how a winner behaves after she has already received it.

The issue however remains controversial. Aung San Suu Kyi was a symbol of political resilience and integrity. Her heroism came from the fact that, despite having the same human limitations we have, she achieved incredible things in virtue of her strength of will and perseverance. And the same can be said with respect to many such heroes, who also have a ‘dark side’: from the recently passed away US senator McCain, “war hero”, who also supported controversial military interventions and political policies, till Gandhi, the Mahatma, who led the movement to free India from the oppressive British colonization, and was at the same time a great misogynist.

But then, is a hero the whole individual human being, or just her ‘heroic part’? Is it a time of her life or her whole life, with its controversies and its ordinary moments? Is it an idea, detached from the person ‘in the flesh’, or must it have to do with the real life of an individual?

These are complex questions, and it is beyond the intents of this letter to answer them exhaustively. However, I will try to give a hint of what I think about the topic.

A good start can be to distinguish the meaning of “hero” from that of “superhero” and “saint”. A superhero is usually an individual with more-than-human abilities, like Superman, or with extravagant means, like Batman. Superheroes are not heroes in the ordinary sense, for they “transcend” human ordinary capacities and they are not confronted with human ordinary limitations.

On the other hand, a saint is the “Christian hero”, someone who acts under the will of God and whose life can be described under some conception of “purity”. Heroes, however, do not respond to such “strict religious criteria”. Heroes are not saints: they are completely human, whereas saints live some sort of “miraculous life”, liberated from sin and imperfections. If they claim to be human, they still reach a level of “moral perfection” that has little or nothing to do with the complexity of human life.

This is perhaps the point: heroes are complicated, for they are completely human. In a certain sense, then, considering heroes just symbols or representatives of ideals could undermine the very idea of humanity that they bring with themselves. Their courage and determination are completely human, and the costs they are ready to pay for the sake of their aims are dramatic precisely because of their limitations as human beings.

We can’t appreciate a hero without her human limitations, for she wouldn’t be heroic if those limitations disappeared because of superpowers or “moral perfection”. But then, if heroes are ordinary human beings, what part of them makes them special? Why do we award them Nobel peace prizes, decorations and honors?

If heroes were mere symbols or ideals, they would be like a logo or a flag: they would be object of cult, but pretty ineffective on their own. What heroes have in addition is action. They carry out their intentions to change the world, no matter if by resisting torture and rescuing companions or by changing the destiny of a whole nation. No matter if by being the first black woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, or by starting a riot against the police for the right to live freely with one’s own sexual and personal identity.

Indeed, heroes shouldn’t become objects of cult, like saints or symbols. In order to be truly understood, they should be respected as human beings, and their struggles and sacrifices seen as extraordinary enterprises with very ordinary means. But still, when the time comes to unveil their dark and vile side, we shouldn’t be that surprised – at least, not by coming to know that they also are human, after all.

Being ordinary or even being bad are aspects of any individual human being, independently of history and social role. No matter if one is a parent, the pope, a soldier or a hero. If everyone can be a hero, then any hero can fall.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Fame

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Fame can seduce people and become very valuable in the life of many. People who want to be famous are often disposed to sacrifice a lot of things and put a lot of effort for the sake of their aspirations. Fame per se, however, has no specific content. Or, better, it can have any content, which is not incompatible with being famous. A famous physician can be famous because she ended up being the protagonist of a public health scandal, and not because of her talent as a medical doctor; a baker becomes famous after rescuing a child drowning or because he indeed is the best baker of the country; a housewife is elected Mayor and suddenly everyone knows her. Fame attaches to anything insofar as it is not incompatible with the possibility of being on everyone’s lips.

At the same time, fame has certain specific psychological properties: it can enhance one’s general self-confidence and it has specific neuronal and hormonal positive effects. Of course it has also its dark sides, but these are usually not the direct effect of being famous alone, but of a series of complicated factors: excessive mediatic attention, consistent loss of privacy, pressure to stay in the spotlight, and so on. Fame is also neutral with respect to praise and blame: there are very famous criminals and very famous philanthropists, scientists, who made their way to the top, as well as billionaires, who just inherited their fortune. If we consider fame alone, it is just the condition according to which a person (or anything) is vastly known for something.

What we experience in many contemporary societies, especially because of the rise of social networks, is that this conception of “bare fame” has increasingly assumed value. Independently of its content, many people strive for fame. They start killing themselves at the gym or spending all their money in travelling to enhance their Instagram feeds, they post videos on YouTube with literally any entertaining content, from jokes to “social experiments”, or they open Facebook pages of memes, with all different levels of sophistication, starting from zero.

The flourishing of these activities on social networks is often spontaneous, in the sense that new social platforms require new forms of entertainment and allow for new ways of becoming famous. It is then impossible (at least for me) to recognize a well-defined pattern concerning people valuing “bare-fame” as opposed to those, who simply have adapted to new forms of communication to vehiculate their own specific contents. And maybe, it is also impossible to truly distinguish between specific contents and media, for sometimes, the fact that, say, a talk is held on YouTube is almost as important as the content of the talk itself. In other words, being a Youtuber might be prior for someone than being the creator of a certain content.

I think it is quite plain to see that “having more views” or “incrementing one’s reactions” and so on, have often become the main purposes of certain YouTubers, Instagrammers, and various kinds of admins, independently of how they will achieve those particular objectives. Fame often means money and power, but not in the context I am focusing at present. I think that many people are ignoring the side-benefits of fame, and strive for fame alone.

This phenomenon, if acknowledged to be real, is quite puzzling, but I think it can be tracked back to a crisis of younger generations, at least in part. This crisis has definitely a “good and healthy” side: old privileges are questioned, there is a new sensitivity for climate change and environmental issues, and a suspicion about the capitalistic mantra of productivity has started being part of the lives of many. However, the “social crisis” has become for many a personal crisis, meaning to further question traditional ways of finding one’s place in a society. And perhaps, in not finding any vocation but with a strong willingness to be appreciated and to still participate to society somehow, some people started looking for consent and “thumbs up”, in the form of “bare fame”. This aspect needn’t capture the whole life of these individuals, but it still seems interesting and it comes with a particular nihilistic flavor.

I really do believe in our generation, my Princess, and this I do not gratuitously, but due to historic factors, which make our generation “privileged” in the possibility of sharing contents worldwide and coming to have an unprecedent  feeling about the complexity of the whole world. Bare fame could be a downside of who-knows-what social mechanism, but it still involves skills and effort. Putting together the good and healthy side of our crisis with such skills and efforts could really change the world. For the better.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha