Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chapter 4 - To Rome: Part 3 - "Maladetto Pollaco"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred got to Rome, probably sometime in early 1902, having reached that goal via the way-stations of Budapest, Vienna, Paris, etc. In Rome, Alfred settled down to drink from what many Poles had long considered the wellspring of Western European culture. He studied Italian, learning it quickly and thoroughly, and attended law, philosophy, and other classes at the University of Rome. He also became known at the Vatican and among members of the Roman nobility in the court of Italian king Victor Emanuel III, whose  reign had begun in 1900. Alfred’s fencing skills and horsemanship, in particular, led to his associating with members of the king’s bodyguard and members of the Cavalry School. Especially with the king’s bodyguards, these associations led to his reputation among the gossiping Roman nobility as “Maladetto Pollaco” (“Accursed Pole”).(5) 

Alfred had studied fencing in Warsaw and began taking lessons again in Rome. His Italian fencing teacher had the improbable-sounding name of Greko, “the Greek”.(6) Supplementing his lessons, he practiced fencing for hours each day with acquaintances among the officers of Victor Emanuel's bodyguard. Even with dueling on the decline in Italy and the rest of Europe, Alfred soon found himself dueling for his ‘honor’ with a sharp, naked saber and real danger of bloodshed.

Fortunately for him, the dueling tradition in Rome dictated sword rather than pistol. Otherwise he might have killed someone, since he was a good shot and his ingrained sense of noble honor and innate boldness at times still tended to merge with a stupid impulsiveness. Once at a drinking party at Rudnik, the estate manager had taken up Alfred’s wine glass. Alfred pulled out his pistol and shot the glass out of the man’s hand. Alfred had also imitated William Tell several times by shooting drinking glasses off of the heads of friends. In later years Korzybski considered it only luck he didn’t wound or kill someone this way; it made him shudder to recall these youthful follies.

He also had luck in his sword fights in Rome. His skill with the saber, together with the conventions of Italian dueling—a fight would come to an end when someone drew "first blood"—prevented him from killing anyone or himself getting killed. The 'insults' to Alfred that led to his saber duels resulted, perhaps not surprisingly, from affairs of the heart.

Alfred had become close friends with one of Victor Emanuel’s bodyguards. The young man had started an affair with a married noblewoman from the Bourbon family (the former French rulers of Italy). One of the most beautiful women in Rome, she had a reputation for carrying on extra-marital affairs. Meanwhile, Alfred had taken up with another young woman, a cousin of the king, and had already had some unpleasantness with the king in regard to her. (While the king’s nickname among Roman nobles was “Il regazzo” or “The boy” because of his relative youth and unregal, diminutive appearance, Alfred referred to him as “Il stronzetto” or “The little shit”.) 
(7) In an effort to confuse gossip-mongers at the royal court, Alfred and his friend came up with a plan to use when they went out with their ladies. They decided that in public, Alfred would escort his friend’s girlfriend and his friend would escort Alfred’s. Korzybski recalled attending evening concerts thusly with his friend and their ladies at the Pincio Garden, near the Villa Borghesa. The Garden with its terraced, statue-lined walkways and its beautiful views of the city had become one of the favorite meeting places of Roman noble society, members of the court, groups of clerics, students, etc. Alfred would stroll, sit, and chat in French with his friend’s beautiful lover (whom he actually considered one of the nastiest women he’d ever met) while his friend would do likewise with Alfred’s girlfriend. Their ruse worked. Soon Romans were gossiping about Alfred’s supposed scandalous carrying on with a married woman. Insults from several Italian officers, regarding him and the lady he detested, fell within Alfred's earshot. This resulted in a number of saber duels. He always won these fights, which he actually seemed to enjoy. He liked to play with his opponent and would slap him numerous times with the flat part of the saber blade while easily blocking ineffective blows. When he decided the time had come to take first blood he would cut "a bit of ear, a bit of nose" and the contest would end. Alfred’s reputation as the “Maladetto Pollaco” was ensured. 

Alfred’s association with a Roman cavalry school, where he met officers who admired his riding ability, added to the rough-and-tumble renown he was developing. 
However, an incident during a riding contest there deflated at least some of the bravado of the Maladetto Polacco. A friend at the school had a horse named Caesar whom Alfred considered a potentially excellent but mistrained jumper. Caesar invariably would stop at an obstacle and send his rider flying. Alfred agreed to train him and worked with him for months until he felt confident about the horse's jumping ability. Alfred and Caesar practiced their jumps over fences, steep ditches, etc., where success or failure greatly depended on the timing of the rider who would pace the horse through its moves. For Caesar’s ‘graduation’ Alfred rode him in a steeplechase competition, where many spectators expected to see the ‘old’ Caesar throwing his cocky rider. On the day of the contest, they began their run through the course with Alfred dressed up in full regalia including red coat and fancy high hat. After a first-place run, they came up to their last obstacle—a high fence followed by a ditch. Alfred thought he had the jump timed perfectly when suddenly his hat started to fall off and he grabbed for it before he realized what he was doing. Caeser made the jump but, because of Alfred’s loss of rhythm during their approach, landed with its rear legs in the ditch. That lost the race for them. Later Alfred watched as a gray-haired cavalry officer riding his equally elderly horse, flew across every obstacle with seeming effortlessness and won the competition. Alfred felt suitably impressed by their performance and by his own comeuppance. 

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
5. Korzybski 1947, p. 458.

6. Korzybski 1947, p. 424.

7. Korzybski 1947, p. 455.

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