Life, Death and Proust with Lucio Privitello (Post-interview)

It’s a nice morning and spring whispers seductively that she is entertaining the idea of coming around for good. It’s a nice drive to the Stockton campus, where I’ll be attending Dr. Lucio Privitello’s lecture on Marcel Proust and his seven volume work “In Search of Lost Time.” The lecture is part of Stockton’s Classical Humanities lecture series, as presented by the Classical Humanities Society of South Jersey. Lucio is the president of the society and, as referenced in my pre-interview blog, an old friend of mine.

I find the building, and the room, with relative ease. It’s surprising that the campus seems so quiet. The lecture is set up in a small room inside the “K” building. A dozen or so people are there, seated in those “Little House on the Prairie” desks. You know, the “ABC Afterschool Special” kind of desks with the writing section attached so that you need to be a contortionist to sit down. Either that or a hobbit. There is a table against the wall with some water and snacks. I’ll eventually try the cookies (after the lecture). They are ridiculously tasty and it’s a good thing I did wait, lest I may have spent the entire time devouring cookies instead of taking notes.

A lot of the people seem to know each other and I assume that they are members of the Humanities Society. The grey haired heads in the room outnumber those whose follicles have not turned distinguished traitor. From what I gather, some of  these younger attendees are here to fulfill class obligations, while others are there of their own accord.

I set up at a desk in the back, MacBook running. The room has a chalkboard. An honest to goodness, chalk dust, eraser necessary, chalkboard.

Lucio strolls in looking much the same as always. Hair down to the middle of his back, mostly grey, nicotine influenced black in some of the more rebellious areas. He’s wearing his black, leather jacket. It’s so worn that the black has become grey in some spots. Same Italian leather boots. Same dark glasses on his head.

He sees me and a smile lights up his face. We shake hands and give that kind of half-handshake, half-hug, man kind of greeting that requires a back pat. He smells of patchouli and Camel cigarettes. It is truly great to see him again.

I sit down and listen as Lucio presents a fascinating look into the life of Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

and his staggering work on “In Search of Lost Time.” In truth, I was not initially familiar with Proust and agreed to attend the lecture as a convenient means of sitting down with Lucio. Both of our schedules are exceedingly busy and this seemed to work best for both of us. I did some preliminary research and was intrigued at the possible parallels and connections Proust’s work had to the themes and concepts intended for my own research project. Lucio intended to dissect Proust and his masterpiece, intent on illuminating the author’s use of the classics.

As the lecture marched on, I found myself discovering that there were more and more points either directly related to concepts I’d planned to inject into my story, or fresh ideas lurking, yet undiscovered. I’d been ambushed by an unsuspected research opportunity! My fingers danced along the keys as Lucio lectured and Proust taught. By the time the lecture was over, I had 5 pages of type-written notes.

I must mention that the lecture, and more importantly Proust (again), had a rewarding subplot. Proust desired nothing more than to create, to write. His entire laborious effort was to produce writing and to examine and immerse himself in that process. It was enlightening and encouraging as a creator, as a writer, research project and story aside.

Some of the key concepts that I pulled from the lecture and intend to use in my story are:

  • “..the object that, in essence, captures the person lost..” Proust believed that there was some object, outside of the intellect, that would be a catalyst for memory, for rediscovery of a lost love. This thing could not be searched for. It had to be stumbled upon. I intend to use tattoos, as portraits done on skin, as the catalyst object. The idea of removing it from active thought and making it a “fated” discovery is intriguing.
  • Proust’s idea that “the value of the work you wish to create is equal to the life that you provide for it.” I intend to make the art of tattooing akin to sorcery in the hands of those trained, Ars Tattooica. If an inkslinger loved someone deep enough, could they infuse said portrait with the power to capture their soul?
  • Art triumphs over the destructive power of time. I’ll play with serial immortality here and art as the means to create life where death has left a void. Proust’s conceptual struggle of “cruel enchantment.”
  • Proust’s concept of the three “Ways”; three roads in life – Proust’s definition of how the world made sense to him. The Way of Love, The Way of Art (creativity), and the Way of Society. In my story, which seems to be falling into a tragic love story in a dark and dystopian world, The Way of Love becomes the Way of Lost Love (death), The Way of Art (Tattoos) and The Way of Society (mainstream vs. deviants).
  • Proust’s idea of “Paradise Lost” and how it can drive the pursuit to create art. Proust explains that poets try to find paradise to inspire and revitalize the spirit, but that “true paradises are those we have lost.” Loss is the impetus for the revitalization of writing.

I feel compelled to tell you that Proust was quite the ethnographic researcher as well. He spent a lot of his nights attending high society affairs just so that he could get the proper way one might wear a hat, or what dances were done in certain company, etc. He was a slave to detail, often completing one page, sending it to the printer, and then marking it up completely when receiving it. This is why it took him 17 years to complete his manuscript, but this was his search for order in the creative process. He was immersed in an inner journey to understand the process, the journey, much the same as was intended for our Research Methods for Writers course. Let’s just hope it does not take us 17 years.

The lecture concludes and I wrap up, allowing Lucio the time to speak with those who linger to talk to him. He introduces me to George Plamantouras, from the Department of Greek Studies. George filmed the lecture and later, when Lucio and I are talking in his office, he’ll stop by to give me a copy of the latest Greek Studies publication,  The Hellenic Voice.

I help Lucio take down some of the flyers advertising today’s lecture, stopping outside with him as he takes a Camel cigarette break.

It’s nice out and we talk about grad classes (he’s interested to hear about my studies), my projects, and about poetry. His wife is a poet and studying at Stockton. We reminisce a bit about the days at Glassboro and I’m surprised to hear that he still has a project of mine I forgot ever submitting. I knew he had one project that a friend and I had turned in, these aged and arcane scrolls, but not this other. He kindly tells me that “students like [me] elevate the entire graduate program, because [we] provide energy to the professors. [We] get [them] excited and energized.”

I put that here, not to boast, or pat myself on the back, but to illustrate to my peers that your level of enthusiasm and dedication is reflective in the energy returned in academia. That again Proust’s concepts come to roost: “the value of the work you wish to create is equal to the life that you provide for it.”

He draws in the last of his cigarette and says, “This is great. This is really great, keeping in touch like this, after all these years.” He shakes his head, “Aw, man. I meant to mention you at the end of the lecture. This is a perfect example of the lecture.” He is referring to the concept of something lost and fading from memory, returning to revitalize and rekindle friendship or love, and the spark it ignites in the soul of the creator.

We retire to his office, a small but cozy niche in the philosophy department. He has his desk and bookshelves, a comfortable love seat, a coffee maker and a small curio table. It’s dim, reminiscent of a small, city coffee shop. The walls are filled with pictures and post cards, of musical, literary and cinematic figures. Skulls and art and curious artifacts make the room a blend of Indiana Jones meets Aleister Crowley.

We sit and discuss the lecture a bit, about Proust, about where my project is going and what the story is. He is excited about the opportunity Proust has afforded me and intrigued by my idea of immortality via art. He digs through a pile of books that he has and finds a copy of his class text for his “Philosophies of Life and Death” class. His last copy. He begins by telling me all of the chapters I would find most resourceful, flipping through the text. Finally, he hands it to me. “I think you should have this,” he says. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am. Not only do I understand the level of connection this man has to each and every text he claims his own, but this was put together by Lucio himself, a man I deeply respect and admire. I accept it with, what I hope, is understood as sincere gratitude.

We talk about immortality a bit more and the various cultural thoughts behind the soul, tattoos and the afterlife. I show him my note filled, dog-eared copy of The History of Tattooing. “Meghan would love this,” he says, referring to his wife. “She has a number of books about tattooing.” He stops to admire all the writing in the margins of the book. “This is what I love,” he says. “I stop whenever I see a student writing in their book, making notes.” He says that he let’s them know they’re doing the right thing, engaging the reading.

We talk about the aesthetics of expression and about tattoos. Lucio tells me that his own tattoos are “Signals for himself”. They are “acupuncture memories”, “bookmarks.” He begins to relate to me some of the concepts behind his own tattoos.

On the outside of his right hand, along the webbing between thumb and forefinger is tattooed, in Latin: Love your fate.

This has been put on his right hand specifically because he is right-handed, because that is the hand he shakes with.

On his left, in the same spot, is tattooed in Latin: laugh if you are wise.

He has placed them both in mirror spots because they compliment each other, like bookends. They bring things full circle.

The famous Davinci man is tattooed on his right arm. To Lucio it represents the travels his life has led him through. The order of things. On his left arm he has Georges Bataille’s Acephale man. This is not surprising considering Lucio’s love of Nietzsche and studies on death. But again, these are the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end. There is an order here. Lucio reiterates the importance of placement with tattoos. It echoes the sentiment that this is not just art, for art’s sake, but that this is an inner sense of self, translated on skin for oneself and for the world. It is an “apprenticeship in creativity,” he says.

He explains that when he leaves his body, when he dies, for a time those images will remain and that is, in a sense, an extension of life. A presentation of immortality that, if followed, presents his trajectory for life.

We say our goodbyes, reiterating how great it was to see each other again. Summer approaches and both of our schedules will ease up a bit. We vow to get together for dinner. He and Meghan coming down our way, Kristen and I coming up to see them. I haven’t seen his new place since I helped him move the “library of Alexandria” last summer.

The trip home is an exhilarating rehashing of how wonderful the research process is when you actively engage it and the mystery of life’s journey.

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