Sunday, February 12, 2012

soul poison for the soul singer

There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.
                                 ~ William Shakespeare
                                    Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene I

(For those of you who haven't read the play since high school, he was buying a drug that he'd later use to kill himself.)

Living in a time zone six hours ahead of EST, when things happen in the US, I’m often the last to hear.   I check Facebook in the morning and find my news feed exploding with commentary on the latest political debacle, football victory, or celebrity death, as most of my friends on the east coast have already had the whole evening to deal with the news.  That’s what happened this morning when I heard that Whitney Houstan had died.

Here in Rome, there’s a baroque fountain designed by Bernini called the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers.)  It’s a gorgeous sight—four men built like Greek gods prostrated before a massive Egyptian obelisk.  The men represent the four rivers of the world, submitting to the authority of the Catholic Church, as symbolized by the obelisk.

The figure who represents the Río de la Plata is shown holding his hand out defensively and averting his eyes.  There’s a popular myth that this was an inside joke by Bernini.  The story is that the Rio is shrinking away in horror from the façade of a nearby church, which was designed by Bernini’s arch-rival, Francesco Borromini.  Basically, he’s giving his enemy the finger for all eternity.

It’s a fun story, but it’s total bullshit.  The church, Sant'Agnese in Agone, was actually built several years later.  What the Rio is actually doing is trying to protect the bed of gold coins he’s lying on, while warding off a snake, bearing its vicious fangs on a nearby rock.  It's a comment on both the wealth that the Americas had in store for 17th century Europe, and the fear and paranoia that come with financial abundance.   When I heard the news about Whitney, this image came to mind, and it’s been in there all day.

I’ve never understood why people think celebrities are “too rich to be depressed.”  Wealth brings its own agonies.  The famous live their lives on display, and nine times out of ten they’re more fucked up than you and I could ever aspire to be.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ll take my First World Problems any day of the week.  But if you think money equals happiness, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.

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