"Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness." -- Helen Keller
The concept of "Utopia" is one thrown around a lot these days. Does the possibility of achieving the perfect place in our society really exist? An ideal land or country, or even a state of mind for that matter, where economics are determined by the amount of work we perform, and not just our geography and demographics, and where as individuals we're judged solely on achievements, not status symbols, skin color and religion?
But if there is any hope for a utopia (the word, by the way, taken from its Greek roots can mean both "no place" and "good place" depending on how we write it) today, or in our near future, that hope lies in the arts and culture. Of that, I'm sure. Film, music, poetry, literature and the visual arts have done more to unite, encourage and explain than any media outlet, diplomat or politician ever could.
It is exactly in that spirit that the second edition of Eventi Letterari Monte Verità kicks off in Ascona, Switzerland, this coming April 10th. Part of the Primavera Locarnese, a cultural event that combines literature, cinema and a youth program, this year's Eventi Letterari explores the theme of "Utopias and Demons" and runs through the 13th of April.
Monte Verità (which means "Mount of Truth") is no stranger to utopian societies and miscellaneous anarchists. Founded in the year 1900 by Henry Oedenkoven and his companion Ida Hofmann as a cooperative vegetarian colony, the atmospheric hill soon attracted the likes of Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Isadora Duncan, Otto Gross and many other anti-conformists of the Twentieth century. In 1927 a hotel in Bauhaus style was built there by German architect Emil Fahrenkamp. The Hotel Monte Verità is still open for business, was renovated in 2008 and overlooks the glistening Lake Maggiore.
The Artistic Directorate of Eventi Letterari, comprised of Irene Bignardi, Paolo Mauri (both beloved and respected Italian critics and journalists) and Joachim Sartorius -- German cultural figure extraordinaire and diplomat -- explain the ideas behind this year's theme, by offering up some provocative questions:
Utopia is the start of the future. It is born of circumstances that demand change. But what part do such demons play, given that these processes of transformation often take an ugly turn or even become ridiculous? Is there an inferno for Utopias?
The uprisings of the recent years, from Egypt to Tunisia, to the Ukraine, from various "Occupy" movements to Syria, have all given us the short-term answer. Things do get ugly, ridiculous and very dangerous, before they can better. And will they ever actually get better? Only time will tell.
Time, and perhaps some of the insightful discussions at Eventi Letterari by Nobel Prize-winning authors such as Herta Müller, Péter Nádas and Joanna Bator, poets Nora Gomringer, Durs Grünbein and Valerio Magrelli, Greens politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit and architect Mario Botta -- who designed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
I caught up with Irene Bignardi, to ask her why this year's line-up included some of what could only be described as today's top "irreverent" cultural figures. She disclosed, "irreverent, but also non-conformist, even extravagant" then continuing, "because how interesting would it be to host litterati, philosophers and thinkers that are boring conformists? The irreverent offer surprises, leave us in awe. And one comes to a literary festival to discover new points of view and different angles on reality."
When I asked the Mayor of Ascona, Dr. Med. Luca Pissoglio, about his city, to describe it to someone who had never been he revealed it to be "a stunning village on the shores of Lake Maggiore, which enjoys a splendid microclimate. And when I say 'microclimate' I'm not only speaking of the weather, but a serene and tranquil environment, rich of cultural heritage, which we all breathe here."
They say that if all your friends agree with you, you should find new friends. Bignardi's thought-provoking answer when I asked her how she merges her cinematic and literary background proved inspirational for me, even if at the time I did not agree. She said, "all my life, now quite long, I've dealt with both cinema and -- more so -- literature. For this, I'm very grateful to my directors at La Repubblica, because they allowed me to interpret this hybrid figure, literary and film critic, at once." She continued, "on the other hand, one only needs to pick up my latest book Brevi incontri ("short meetings") to realize that I've frequented many more literary figures than cinematic ones -- and this because I can imagine a world without cinema, but not a world without books."
I've since spent days mulling her statement over and, of course, have come to realize she's absolutely right, even if I'll continue to think -- just a little bit -- my way.
For the complete program of Eventi Letterari Monte Verità, check out their website www.eventiletterari.ch. And don't forget to pack your sense of awe and delight for this year's edition of the festival. Because, as Mayor Pissoglio puts it when asked about his favorite aspect of the festival, "being here, listening to people with such amazing cultural baggage debating with each other makes me dream, allows me to see how much potential exists in a human being. " Then wraps it all up perfectly, "every moment is splendid!"
Images courtesy of Eventi Letterari, used with permission