By: Gaither Stewart
The Malfunctioning of the Bel Paese
After World War II the USA and NATO labeled Italy the “soft under-belly of Europe”, chiefly because of the presence of The Italian Communist Party (PCI), Europe’s biggest political formation of the left. Because of capitalist Italy’s unpredictable and individualistic character existing like a Trojan Horse inside the European Union (EU), that label stuck even after the PCI died following the dissolution of the USSR. The party’s later iterations were reduced to rivulets as dry as the river Po in August and about which hardly a murmur is heard today. That label however has conditioned US-NATO relations with Italy since then. The Bel Paese became not only a US vassal state but an occupied country, an aircraft carrier jutting out toward North Africa and hosting dozens of US military bases. Today’s La Repubblica, Italy’s major newspaper, reported that 70 American atomic bombs are concealed on the US Airbase of Aviano in NE Italy, the greatest number in one country of the 180 atomic bombs scattered across Europe.
Even though other Europeans love the country of Italy, the negative view of political-economic Italy remains. Aloof Italian leaders however overlook the patronizing superciliousness toward the nation Italy in the European Union. In this regard I will mention au debut one puzzling non-political observation: the West European and American foreigners who snob the nation Italy from abroad, in Italy become like bashful, ill-at-ease children when they encounter suave and urbane Italians at home in Rome or Milan, or in Florence or Venice.
Yet that Italy is not a land of roses and flowers.
My son, born and raised in Rome and a resident of New York, recently traveled to Italy with his family for their annual visit. Their Alitalia flight was scheduled to leave JFK Airport at 9 pm on a Friday; they departed at 2 am. On arrival in the Eternal City the next afternoon the family then waited two hours for the car they had reserved in order to transfer to a reserved country house in the region of Umbria about 75 minutes from my house in Rome. The roomy house was located at the end of a barely negotiable road, described generously by them as “a house of a certain faded elegance”, thick dust on old furniture and unencumbered by modern appliances like air-conditioners to combat the 100°+ temperatures. On their way to my house the next day the GPS in the shiny new car sent them off into the wild blue yonder far from my location within the city limits. By the time they arrived the jet-lagged foursome just wanted to sleep. Unlikely they will ever fly again Alitalia which is perennially losing millions of euros per day, firing personnel and searching for a rich and foolish partner so that the Tricolor flag airline survives. When after five days in the Umbrian countryside the happy family settled into a roomy downtown apartment in Granada my son quipped that “though hot, south Spain is a breath of fresh air.”
Alitalia is emblematic of the malfunctioning of Italy that places Italy at the bottom of every classification of efficiency in Europe. As Rome governments rise and fall and countless political parties come and go and the wall of the soaring Alps separating the Bel Paese from the rest of Europe grows higher, Italy’s age-old ills of inefficiency and corruption gnaws at the very marrow of the nation.
As a direct result of the malfunctioning of Italy over 100,000 of the country’s best youth—most with university degrees—leave Italy each year for greener fields. Polls show that two of three young people (18-34) have lost hope. And the younger they are the less hope they have in the future. They leave Italy because they cannot find work commensurate with their abilities (in this republic constitutionally based on labor!). Or they can find no jobs of any kind. All the while youth unemployment has skyrocketed to far over 50% in south Italy. Six to ten Italians think that young people will not be able to achieve the social position of their parents. They leave and most do not return. The brain drain is a mounting disaster.
The young Italians depart and unskilled and untrained refugee-immigrants arrive while United Europe leaves the social and economic hardships created by refugee masses to Rome. Meanwhile Italian companies shut down or move to countries like Romania for the cheaper labor; entrepreneurs abandon Italy because of impossible taxes, corruption and the deep-seated structural inefficiency of services and the public administration. Bureaucratic regulations for startup enterprises –the only hope for youth—are lengthy and complex and expensive. Hiring and firing personnel is ridiculously expensive. It is a vicious circle: the best people leave because of inefficiency, resulting in worsening still more services and efficiency and in turn augmenting the loss of hope and more forced departures for Germany, UK, France or elsewhere.
Incompetence and corruption permeate government non-profits and the business sector with tragic regularity. It’s literally an old, old story. The bureaucracy in the Roman Empire caused the same problems of today. Not only Rome’s present government and its agencies and its military and police forces—even the mafia—are in the hands of a ferocious and itself corrupt bureaucracy. Since the year one a.d. it has operated under the paradoxical motto of visto che abbiamo tanto, perché non avere-prendere tutto? Since we have so much, why not have-take it all? That motto has proved exportable and its effects have become even more powerful across the Atlantic. That motto alone makes mankind’s search for a new social impulse vain and rhetorical.
For much of Italian society it is almost as immoral to be actively opposed to low-level corruption as to demand bribes for performance of one’s duty. You call a trusted plumber or an electrician, you pay in black. Not even a mention of receipts. You call an authorized maintenance company and pay twice the amount. Two distinct though overlapping economies exist: the surface economy faces huge taxes and bureaucratic impediments and corruption; the underground economy belongs to the people, it too however corrupt. The latter is a society in which the difference between the corrupter and the corrupted fades. A society in which to be anti-corruption is in essence anti-Italian. At fault is also the city’s history: generalized corruption has come about because of Rome’s long and jagged past—a city so old it can stage a major exhibition in its Campidoglio dedicated to its first emperor, Augustus, of two thousand years ago, whose bureaucracy was infected with the same identical corruption. Though ancient and a legend for the rest of the world, for Romans the emperor of two millennia ago is almost current history, so that the vices of the society he founded still make a socio-political model for its peoples.
Paradoxically most Romans live their entire lives during which the word corruption does not exist. Or it has lost its significance. In the memory of every true Roman the name of Augustus is fixed from birth. Yet the Emperor’s image is non-exportable, in the same way that real Romans are non-exportable, one reason for which is the “comfort” offered by low or high level corruption.
Though Augustus and corruption are part of the glue that holds the Italic peoples together in one nation, some religious philosopher has said that the permissive Catholic religious culture unites contemporary Italians more than any other factor. Italian Catholicism has one determinant feature: forgiveness. Forgiveness in theory is a virtuous quality which however exerts a negative effect in practice: forgiveness allows believers to ignore the laws of the land with impunity and reduces to zero the fear of paying for errors. If you examine why people forgive one another so easily you often find that it is to liberate themselves from constraints. Those who seek forgiveness are afraid of being held accountable for their misdoings and those who give their forgiveness are scared of holding others accountable for their behavior because answerability could be turned against them. Moreover, the ease of obtaining “official” spiritual forgiveness makes the Italian cunning, crafty and roguish and engenders the necessity of defending himself from his fellow countrymen still more cunning than himself.
Because of their culture of forgiveness Italians are tolerant one of the other and surprisingly do-gooding though such positive characteristics are today threatened by Europeanization and laicization of the nation. After my decades here I have come to believe that the “traditional” Italian prefers cavorting in rampant but straightforward nihilism and anarchy.
When decades ago I moved from one life in Germany to a new experience in Italy, I drove again over the Brenner Pass through the Alps separating Italy from the north, amazed that the transition, though more gradual, was nearly as palpable (not quite but close!) as the passage from the USA to Mexico at the Laredo border. I paid attention to the Italian names of border cities that I had known in German. Those Italian versions are more beautiful. And then the rain that had tailed me from Munich slackened and the sun peaking through thinning clouds seemed to hold the promise of a new, more exciting life.
Then Fine moduloI arrived at Trento, the south part of Alto Adige. The Council of Trent, sixteenth century. Great university. To the east the Dolomites soaring heavenwards from the plain. After WWII the Allies gave to Italy the South Tyrol, now named Alto Adige, after the Adige River running from Bolzano to the sea near Venice. German-speakers in rich Bolzano to the north are dissatisfied because their separatist-dreaming province is united with the ‘disorganized’ Italian-speaking Trento area.
Dissatisfied was also Renato Curcio, a student of Marxism-Leninism at Trent’s renowned Faculty of Sociology: he founded the Red Brigades in 1969, the feared and loved Brigate Rosse. An underground organization. Revolutionary. Fire and sword. The aftermath of the fiery year of 1968. Modeled on Tupamaros in South America and Germany’s Rote Armee Faktion and allegedly supplied with arms by Czechoslovakia and the Palestinian PLO, his BR had the moral support of three million sympathizers in Italy. Robin Hood overtones: rob the rich and give to the poor; down with the elite. Renato’s Brigadists believed the state had a heart and that they could strike it.
By 1968 disillusionment had infected this south European land. As a result automobile and sheet metal workers became militant and aggressive, strikes and demonstrations quotidian … until Gladio bombs in a bank on Milan’s Piazza Fontana stopped the strike wave dead in its tracks. Then the police ran wild, hauling suspected leftist sympathizers in for questioning and intimidating their families, while the government passed emergency laws against suspected terrorists. This successful method of social control came to be called ‘the strategy of tension’, tension being a key factor in the psychological conditioning of the populace.The system could not last. Nor could the brutal reality of corrupt Italian secret services and maniacal CIA agents running amok.
America’s Gladio was in the heavy air. Gladio was/is a secret army organized by American Intelligence and NATO a half century ago, ostensibly a parallel army to fight the supposed threat of Soviet invaders of West Europe. Its real purpose was to crush the European Communist parties … especially in Italy. And to organize terrorist acts against the Italian state, thus providing the pretext for tightened control over the country. Prime Mister Giulio Andreotti himself revealed the Gladio story in a speech before Parliament in 1990. Gladio has survived in the darkness of the secret world. Much of the world is still hostage to its strategy of tension … a ring of fear to justify state wars, state terrorism and military interventions and suppression of its own peoples. As in the USA and much of Europe, the people never get it. They are afraid. Special laws are passed and thousands of leftists are imprisoned. The populace must be afraid so that promises of security will be believed. Fear is the point. You create it with lies. That is why the state suppresses dissent, for truth is the enemy of every authoritarian state. The state media still defines Communists as the enemy. Anything is justified to crush them. Communism and terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists … and immigrants too.
A chance encounter-interview with the ex-chief of the CIA gave me the apparent confirmation that Gladio truly existed and was an American affair. That day now years ago I had just attended a press conference in Rome’s Grand Hotel and was sitting in the hotel bar alone when William Colby—there for that conference—sat down on a stool next to me. We exchanged small talk about Italy before I revealed I knew he was the former director of the CIA and asked him about Gladio which I intended as a provocation. To my surprise he bragged that the covert action branch of the CIA after World War II built throughout Western Europe what in intelligence trade parlance were known as ‘stay-behind nets’. He said the Pentagon didn’t bother to take a stand on the subject of the secret NATO stay-behind armies because it was not even questioned by the US press. The networks were clandestine but were ready to be called into action as sabotage forces when the time came. “In 1951,” Colby said, “the chief of the CIA in Western Europe sent me—then a young intelligence officer—to help build the stay-behind network. A secret army. All top secret at the time. Our aim was to create an Italian nationalism capable of halting the slide to the left,” he said as if speaking of ancient Roman history. When I remarked that to create it they used fascist terrorists whom I had met, Colby didn’t even blink. People like Colby are truly convinced of their exceptionalism. And they don’t care about anyone else. Not even their allies.
And then rampant corruption. Later even some Red Brigadists fell to the God corruption. Every value was for sale. Everyone had a price. For after Curcio’s time passed in 1976, a second wave of less ideologically-inspired Brigadists took over the red columns, this time manipulated by the secret services and the CIA. That experience has been repeated worldwide, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia to Libya.
Premier Aldo Moro was abducted and killed in 1978—according to the rightist government of then by the leftist Red Brigades; according to the Left by the government and the CIA which couldn’t digest Christian Democrat Moro’s desire to bring the Communist Party into the government. That occurred after the secret services had taken over the infiltrated revolutionary movement, even though a few of the still true Brigadists believed that they could change the flow of history and rally the long-awaited revolution. A battle for justice and equality. Get out of America’s NATO. Get out of the European Union. Look eastwards. Ironic that leftist demands of then are the demands of some of the world Right today. All revolutionaries have grandiose plans, ambitious to transform the world. The goals of the genuine Red Brigades were never limited to changes that just somehow occur; their goals were those they themselves could bring about. Like Communist revolutionaries of late nineteenth century Russia, they imagined the coming revolution as a transformation, not just of Italy’s political and socio-economic order but of human existence itself. Like Leon Trotsky and like the poets Shelley and Keats who rest in Rome’s Testaccio cemetery they too wanted to overturn the world. What happened to the original Red Brigades often happens to revolutionaries. Changes were out of their control. They thought they were doing the right things to accomplish aims that they believed the Communist Party from which they came shared. The originals who dreamed of making a revolution were loyal to their aims. But as time passed, the objects, persons, faiths, ideas, nations, the iconographic objects in which they believed and to which they adhered betrayed their trust. When the time came their own party no longer shared their goals. The objects of their loyalty became disloyal to them. They became outcasts in the same way as did 16th century Giordano Bruno whose monument stands on Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. The priests of back then banished Bruno from their ranks because he was convinced that religion was a mass of superstitions. Bruno’s unstinting rebellion on all fronts led him to the stake.
For many years I was drugged by the southern world: the brew of the pullulating cultures; the juxtaposition of the two seemingly incompatible cultures of North and South; the North, young, pristine and dark; the South, old and self-satisfied, bright and corrupt. Bolstered by the shield of Goethe and Stendhal, by generations of Italophiles and the German masses who summers head south for restoration, I surrendered to its lures. I perceived what I had missed in the North: the sensation of living a life of constant inebriation that however at any moment could transform into excess.
Now, after all these events, I wonder. How could I have thought things were so different here? My attachment to this land was an act of a love, a love that forgave the shortcomings of its unpredictable peoples. The new ways I absorbed were not always pleasant, in fact they were often as beautifully violent as the peninsula’s climate. But despite the obstacles, I integrated. And gullibly I granted my new land a kind of immunity. But with the passing of time my relationship with the country became ambiguous: I loved it but I lost trust in it. I began telling myself that I just live here. I looked around for others like me for confirmation, albeit I never became an expat to whom I feel antipathy, those happy-go-lucky Americans et al dressed in native fashions who after a few months in Paris or Rome return to Kansas City or Manchester for Christmas holidays for a taste of genuine life. As soon as they settle in foreign lands—be it Prague or Berlin or Kerala—they seek out other Americans and join an Expat club so as to feel less the distance from real life. Yet, to be fair, the choice of the expat life indicates signs of a desire—even if a bastardized imitation of reality—to be part of the world of the others, so ignored and despised by their own exceptional society.
Psychologists and environmentalists have established that it takes a few years for the transplanted foreigner to become sensitive to Rome weather. And infected with what has been called the Jerome Syndrome. When March sunrays at noon on downtown piazzas bring out innocent Nordic tourists in shorts and sandals, suspicious Romans instead mutter marzo pazzarello, crazy March, dress in multiple layers of clothing and stick to the sunny sides.
Before I moved to Italy I had imagined people sunning on Rome’s beaches in March … lounging on white deck chairs under colorful umbrellas, radios blaring, kids kicking up sand, beach volley, kites flying, fast boats roaring past, ice-cream vendors … and couples in the sand close to going all the way. The Jerome syndrome is not new. Quite old in fact. The gist of the syndrome is that after reading a Roman medical journal the English poet Jerome discovered he suffered from all the city’s winter illnesses, the aches and pains … and the popular influenza or simply a head cold. His hypochondria became known as the “Jerome Syndrome”. But then I caught it too. The city’s humidity, the sudden freezes and the winds. Antibiotic times. Rome winter. The Rome dialect poet, Gioachino Belli, wrote the most appropriate oxymoron about the syndrome’s causes: the ‘freezing tramontana emerging from hell’s fire’. The tramontana wind arriving from Siberia brings sicknesses like the chilblains that had plagued the centurions of the legions of ancient Rome.
I flitted through the streets of my eternally new city of Rome, seeking confirmations. Over cobbled alleys in the center and through the ugly semi-periphery, and through the open-air markets to the pulsating train stations, examining deserted tram tracks haphazardly covered by layers of fresh macadam but patiently waiting for the next tram to arrive—which does happen: trams are re-born into new existences, emerging magically from the pressed tar to add to the confusion Romans love. I hiked the length of ancient Via Appia to investigate the tombs and imagine the cobbled road marked by rows of the crucified dissidents of Spartacus and marching legions herding new slaves and prisoners of war from conquered foreign lands and future victims whose blood would flow on the sands of the Coliseum. Though I sometimes felt a distance from Rome, I simultaneously strived for connection with it—hoping for rapid unification of foreign me with elusive it.
Mystification is Rome thinking: the city has always been a mixture of myth and fact. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of an occult name, a reserve name for Roma that was known only to a select few. One ancient specialist alleged that to utter that sacred name outside top secret rituals was a crime carrying the death penalty. Such a legend will ring strange to foreign ears; yet might account for the millennia-old follies of the city’s denizens. All the same that secret name proved to be knowable: a derivation of Ara Volupiae or Altar of Volupia”, a Roman goddess. Oblivious to the death penalty, a Rome architect revealed to me the secret: through a series of mystical gymnastics, from the intense pleasure of voluptas you arrive at the Greek Eros, whence to the Latin Amor which as even non-etymologists can decipher is Roma written backwards. I thought I had made an astounding discovery until I noted the graffiti scribbled in black and blue and red on Rome’s subway station walls by young sweethearts who know when and at what age the word was born: the simple palindrome: ROMA-AMOR, AMOR-ROMA.
Later specialists claimed that the secret name theory derived from a Renaissance idea of creating a parallel Rome of economic power to the north, leaving the political-cultural life in the fraudulent hands of the Vatican whose presence many Romans consider the cause of the city’s backwardness and wish it was back in Avignon.
The ancient world’s biggest city became the power center of that former world. It had central heating systems, poetry readings and the nocturnal police patrols that Romans scream for today. Above all it had its legions. War! War and more war. The great aberration. The great temptation to Power in all times and climates. Few resist. With another war going on the Roman plebe could not do anything he pleased. War justified suppression. A crucifixion on Via Appia or a round of torture in a dank dungeon or an encounter with a gladiator or a hungry lion in the Coliseum arena took care of any individualism on the loose. Julius Caesar is simultaneously accused and credited with the elimination of the Roman Republic: after the demise of the Republic it was a cakewalk for his adopted son, Caesar Augustus, to create the Roman Empire. Historians inform us that Emperor Augustus’ most important achievement was to free imperial Rome from the threat of civil war by defeating the armies of Cleopatra and Marc Antony ensconced in their love nest in Africa, thus solidifying the Empire. Though it is historical child’s play to view simply as a tool to a political end the myth of the godlike nature of Augustus—born Gaius Octavius, or Octavian, in the town of Velletri in the hills of the Roman Castles area—the Emperor was admired by the mishmash of his peoples over which he ruled for forty-one years. Multiple sources concur that the living ‘god-in-waiting’ inspired genuine adoration: archaeological evidence suggests that Augustus was worshipped in the most far-flung corners of the Empire which he assembled by way of the conquest of most of Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and laying claim to all the lands around the great Mediterranean Sea which Romans then called “the Roman lake”, or Mare Nostrum. Rome—city-state-nation—became an empire on the strength and loyalty of Augustus’ pampered professional army, the most feared military force of ancient history. Gibbon labeled the two hundred-year relative peace beginning with the rule of the boy from Velletri as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.
The citizen of maturing Roma-Amor also had to face the most powerful bureaucracy ever known to man. Down through the ages rapacious invaders occupied the city but two things they could never change—neither the class society nor the slippery bureaucracy, neither of which have ever been subdued. Ancient Romans invented the concept of urban planning—Emperor Trajan built markets close to the Coliseum so that the plebe and his family could shop on the way home after a day at the killings. The Consular highways arriving from the corners of the empire pointed to the heart of that centralized power that already two millennia ago was concerned about the costs and complexity of upkeep, repairs, restoration and public transportation. How to finance it all as the question. Imperial wars was the answer.—one war financed by another—its professional army marching outwards over those ancient highways. Roma made the model. The roads, the legions, the arenas. Mussolini made a faulty copy of the Roman army. Hitler copied perfectly the Consular roads with his Autobahn.
As in most legends there is a grain of truth in the story of the twin brothers, Romolus and Remus, sons of a vestal virgin, abandoned on the River Tiber, suckled by a she-wolf, who then founded the city of Rome on April 21 in 753 B.C. But then according to another legend the city was founded much earlier, 438 years after the fall of Troy in the East in 1182 B.C. In either case, while north Europe was still a vast forest of darkness inhabited by babbling barbarians, the Etruscan king Servio Tullio incorporated Latin, Sabine and Etruscan peoples into the urban area around seven hills near the Great Sea—Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian—and enclosed the new city of the sun within the Servian Walls. Today, 2750 years later—despite the city’s periodic ups and downs—after an unbroken chain of dates and numbers and births and deaths and invasions and wars and blood-soaked arenas, among the reasons for Romans’ (sometimes linear, sometimes circular) vision of life, their fatalistic-anarchic concept of history and their lack of true spirituality, those same seven hills remain the center of Roma-Amor, while the ensuing class divisions of the new state divided between patricians and plebeians continue down to our day and have infected the entire capitalist world … as if Rome had made an eternal model. Città eterna!
The millennia of successes and failures, of victories and defeats, of Kingdom, Republic and Empire, seems to survive in the genetic makeup of contemporary Romans. I too feel the influence of those millennia and ask myself what other purpose the model of the deep-rooted class society of the corrupt, militarized Romans has served if not to enslave the majority of mankind. Romanism, Aztecism and Americanism are the exact contrary of the perfect society in which the ancients supposedly aimed at the elimination of inequality among parts of nations, at equality in parts of each people, and at betterment of the individual. Were that the reality, terms like Superpower would be meaningless today in a time in which thinking persons with unfettered minds are convinced that our world, as contemporary Earth people know it, is ready to destroy itself.
A peculiar dualism marks the Italic peoples in general: the conflict of their destructive attraction to anarchy with an enduring desire for order. This still unresolved twist of character has been Italy’s historical stumbling block: their necessity of a strong-armed authority—whether a homegrown dictator or a powerful foreign occupier—which can provide the cement to make of them a cohesive nation … and make them feel more like other Europeans. Similar to their permissive attitude toward Fascism last century they perceive of a charismatic leader as a shield against disorder. In effect protection from themselves. Promises of more police and more security are reassuring to those who see today’s enemy in immigrants and Europe and all its rules. When a powerful authority to control their inclination toward anarchy goes missing, some form of escapism and servility to a higher power from elsewhere reigns. Since Italy continues to exist as a modern European nation this formula implies that the idea of salvation in escapism and servility has surpassed—by a hair’s breadth—the deep-seated intensity of their atavistic anarchic bent. However that may be, the historic reliance on an extraneous authority has left a mark of servility on them. A perverse stain. The servility reaching back to their roots smacking of that of colonial peoples, overly sensitive to what foreigners think of them. At the same time they are forever in fear of the foreign invader of their lands coming from across the seas or over the Alps. Therefore, the observer thinks: why are Italians today not up in arms against the occupation of their country by US troops and aircraft and chemical and nuclear weapons
Rome is a sequence of one city-civilization after the other, one atop the other, a veritable mount of peoples and time: Republican-Imperial Rome at the base, Medieval-Renaissance Rome atop the base and, resting on both, elusive, misunderstood and misread Modern Rome, capital of an Italy re-united (in theory and in name) only one hundred and fifty years ago following centuries marked first by kingdom and Republic and Empire, then by foreign occupation, and for those reasons characterized by a preference for its geographical separation from the rest. Understandable that the three cities in one, plus the headquarters of the World Church, confuse these peoples separated from the rest of Europe—and to a lesser degree from Africa and the East—by the soaring Alps and by large bodies of over-fished and in many places polluted waters of the Mediterranean, the Ionian and the Adriatic seas. Perhaps the undoing (for pessimists) or the salvation (for optimists) of the Italic peoples was the great pre-historic geological shift that separated the peninsula from its original African home.
Although sometimes the three Romes are distinct and separate one from the other, the division lines of the Eternal City fade under layers of civilizations, division lines now submerged under the chaos of traffic and disorderly forgiveness-corruption-based urban development and inhabited by a people absorbed with new gods and deities, rites and rituals, juxtaposed on all the religions of Middle Eastern origin. The eternal of Città Eterna is its inherent chaos verging on lawlessness caused also by its Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician and Byzantine origins that make it so dissimilar from other European capitals. Or perhaps, as its ancients might have believed, it is its very Destiny to be different.
Federico Fellini quipped that neurosis was largely absent in cynical and skeptical but schizophrenically child-like Romans because of the general absence of adults. The Rome that the celebrated film director projected is truly a city of badly raised children spoiled by a society ostensibly run by women who secretly consider their husbands, lovers and brothers their children who behave as spoiled children do, storming around and foaming at the mouth, throwing heavy objects through windows and not infrequently killing their women in a rage just to vent their frustrations at their loss of authority over them.
A good friend in the city of Reggio Calabria is infected with a sense of timelessness and the pandemic loneliness of Italy’s deep South. A feeling of not even being part of the world, hanging between revolt and submission, as if he were on the verge of finding an answer to the conundrum that has plagued him for years: to revolt against everything and opt for the old Italian temptation of anarchy or to succumb to the contradictory thought that his life is all illusion, in which case what does it matter what he does?
Such thinking reminds me of the words by a Viennese professor citing Nietzsche who had noted that philosophers never express their true opinions in their books because many such ideas are too complex for words. The professor posed the question whether such books are not written in order to conceal that which resides inside us. That the true truth lies concealed in multilayered shrouds of ambiguity. Like Nietzsche who believed that every philosophy conceals another philosophy, every opinion is just a hiding place for other opinions and every word a mask covering other words. I had the thought that those are both difficult and maybe evil thoughts. Walter Benjamin wrote: We do not always proclaim loudly the most important thing we have to say. Nor do we always privately share it with those closest to us….
Things in the Mezzogiorno, the South, are so bad that you cannot find the words to describe the problems, despite the many words hurtling intractably through the indifference of the southern air. My friend conceals a constant turmoil of emotions so that he wonders just what the fuck is he doing with his life. The answer, he must have concluded, and his place in it, will forever lie outside our grasp. Everyone needs a life plan. For my friend happiness and love exists behind the closed doors and blinds along the streets of these towns outside the orbit of Reggio. Places where whole families are concealed. Where women love their men despite all, and men love their families. But he is as involved in his milieu as a lifer in a penitentiary in his, and in his every waking moment he realizes he has lost sight of a destination. There is no security exit for him.
My friend in the deep South seems to ignore the present crushing him. His very life—his past too—seems to languish. His present hold no promises of future reward. It saddens me that I cannot know his reality. His past too is invisible. He must yearn for a return to what once was, a ‘make-Reggio-great-again’ kind of thing, which he knows was not anything special in recent centuries. His nostalgia for that past should have died when his present began. But it seems to hang on. From his dejected air I conclude that his fear that not even his former better life, now cornered in the darkest recesses of his memory like a feared disease, will ever return. That process has sharpened his repressed anger at his native land. Uncertainty and threat have become his new present while his recent past fades out of his memories. I observe the streets of the old town. In rare places where the sun has found its way to the cobblestones, sagging bougainvillea around a ground floor window struggles for survival. Vases holding dried plants are cracked and faded. The atmosphere is that of a dying city. People have given up trying to save it from the corruption and organized crime and dark political powers no one understands.
At a penthouse party on Via Borgognona I once met a beautiful fashion stylist. Like for example, foods products, ocean liners and railway rolling stock, e.g for the Washington, DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles et al, subways, fashion is one of Italy’s booming exports: to all of the West, Russia (despite US imposed embargoes), China and Japan. Yet I was disappointed that the sexy lady only thought in terms of draping in fashion her beautiful body and the would-be beautiful people of the world. This ambitious femme fatale lectured me—a fashion innocent—about fashion-conscious Italians whom she defined as fashion “victims” and for whom she used a new word: fashionistas. Now I admit my awareness of the Italian’s susceptibility to changing clothing fashions but I am—please pardon the aside—I am linguistically offended that those same fashion conscious people ignore the travesty against their beautiful but degenerating language under the assault of countless foreign usages incomprehensible to at least ninety per cent of the people. Then I committed a gross error: I slipped into ideology and pointed out that each new word relates chiefly to one class or another in Rome’s class society divided since Augustus: youth, working classes, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, bankers and financiers, political elite, urban people, periphery people, country folk and above all the media each have their own language introducing linguistic changes relating to the social changes underway in this land. Blue collar workers understand little or ignore intellectual talk-show prattle while the masses have no idea of the meaning of the many economic terms rendered in English, like quantitative easing or spread or buy-back. On the other hand, only political activists can grasp the gist of the very Italian words of bicameralismo paritario, (that is, two houses of parliament wastefully executing exactly the same functions), which, though everyone opposes, politicians cannot agree to abolish. Such linguistic changes may be invisible to the untrained eye but every Italian is more conscious of them than one might expect in a class society. In fact all classes—except the blue collar workers—are in a mildly competitive sort of alliance, an alliance which comes into play in extreme situations and where, just as in Scandinavia, personal failures—especially economic or emotional failures—are not infrequently resolved by murder and suicide. Uninterested in my ideological thought, in her counterattack she instructed me that in the Italian fashion conscious society an elite class woman establishes a style of dress which is quickly copied by the bourgeoisie but much more slowly by the working classes of the Rome suburbs who Saturdays frequent the five hundred meters of cheap boutiques along Via del Corso selling poor imitations to buyers destined to never quite catch up with the fashions created by the host of Rome’s world famous stylists like this cold beauty who creates clothes for the wealthy, so that the less affluent classes are always two or three years behind new styles. I dared note that average people laugh at the new fashions displayed on balmy summer nights in televised shows on the picturesque Spanish Steps where Rome’s stylists show their new fashions each year. And moreover they have never heard the expression, fashionista . Besides, where and when would anyone wear anything like that, they say. She rebutted that a couple of years later, they wear it themselves and think they are up-to-date chic.
Italian school children know the legend of the meeting by a river of Julius Caesar with an ancient divinity: As he stood in doubt, a sign was given him: all of a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed. When not only shepherds flocked to hear him but many soldiers left their posts including some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding a war-note with a mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank.
Upon which Julius Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast.”
The river was the Rubicon.
Those words spoken on the river bank have echoed down through the centuries, convincing most of us that the story, though perhaps only myth, is one of those happenings that had to occur, words that have been repeated down through the ages to make us believe that everything has been said and that there is nothing new under the sun.
For that reason mythology is not only disorienting, but also dangerous. Today we hear realism and materialism. Yet you are not obliged to accept that only what exists is the end. If everything that can happen has happened also to you, then you must be naked and alone in total and final seclusion in which the misery is just too great to bear and you see the end approaching,
In the end, also Augustus’ hoped-for moral renewal turned out to be mythical—as have all such renewals: bursts of humanism, crusades, causes, movements, rebirths, socio-moral reassessments, Liberalism—and the Emperor’s Rome remained a great erotic playground whose bed-chambers nightly hosted counter-myths to that of the pious Trojan hero-warrior, Aeneas, who after an affair with Queen Dido in Carthage, came to Italy and founded a movement based on devotion to duty and reverence for the gods. We moderns recognize that such Aeneas-like counter-myths continue today as reflected in cinema and literature in which Dido-like temptresses are still enjoyably ravished by amorous but complex heroes who, rather than sailing away to found cities, are held in thrall by their queens. In any case, in his forty-one years, though Augustus failed to purify Rome he planted the seed of a monotheistic spirit subsequently disseminated throughout the Western Empire which became known after its founder as Christianity.
It is not commonly known that today many Italian Communists are formally believers. A non-Leninist, non-Marxist paradox. By an historical coincidence the isolated Italian Communists rediscovered the Catholic Church at the same time other Italians abandoned it. In general, the majority of Italians today who are not agnostic are simply technical Catholics—they are baptized at birth, and go to church only for communions and funerals. The Church and the Catholic faith merely mark the beginning and the end of life; all the in-between is life itself.
Other leftists think that the Pope, his infallibility and his dogmas, the rites, myths, saints, all those millennial customs and bureaucratic structures are a lot of nonsense and that Catholicism is the queerest sect of our times. Yet non-believing Italians respect the institution since it is so quintessentially Italian—so Augustean in which every man is free to believe what he likes and to strive for virtue instead of wickedness. For others the only interesting parts of religion concern the idea of the monotheistic God whom Christians share with Islam and Judaism.
So, as young Italians scramble to flee the country, I feel the deep chasm between the old who prefer anarchy and a young breed who consider their country a rotting and sinking ship to be abandoned hastily. Vite, vite, la vraie vie est ailleurs.