Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Meditations in Italy

(Written en route from Florence to Venice, after visiting Rome and Florence for a few days each)

I’ve heard it said that Italy is a museum (implied: and nothing more) -- and that this includes the churches.  What I see is a considerable vitality and an urge to improve… but even more to preserve.  It seems like every other historic building has scaffolding set up against at least one side… and many of them have scaffolding on the interior as well.  If Italy is one of the ill-starred “PIIGS” of the EU, it certainly doesn’t show up in the form of neglect.  Of course, one can argue that tourism is Job One, but one of our drivers, when asked about the economic situation, said that no, Italy has much too much economic depth and diversity to fall into the same trap as Greece and Cyprus.  We’ll see.  It would be a shame if a country that does so many things right should become a charity case (not that there’s any “charity” involved; it’s more like indentured servitude).

What does Italy do right?  Start with the things that are preserved that ought to be -- as opposed to the American fetish for newness and our tendency to neglect or outright destroy our architectural legacy -- although, admittedly, things are better now than they were in the 1950s, perhaps the epitome of American philistinism (or the post-Vatican II era, if you’re talking about vandalism vis-à-vis churches).

Another thing that strikes me about this country is that it has a kind of seamless view of its history and culture.  Ancient, pre-Roman cultures (Greek colonies, the Etruscans) merge into Rome, which merges into the Middle Ages and Christianity, which merges into the Renaissance, and eventually Italian unification… and, yes, even Fascism and the World War II period.  They give Mussolini credit where credit is due… but consider the Nazis to have been invaders and oppressors.  The point is, when it comes to iconography, Greek legends, Roman gods, emperors, kings, dukes, popes, cardinals, saints, etc. -- it’s all mixed up in one big stew.  In any given room of any given museum, you might find a Roman statue, an Etruscan vase, a Renaissance portrait or battle scene, and a Medieval triptych.  And nobody minds!  Because here, history is current events, and national (and regional) identity is perfectly bound up with 2000-plus years.

Now, one might say, isn’t this also a weakness?  Isn’t this fixation on the past a handicap when dealing with the present -- especially the economic present, like the EU, etc.?  Well… it probably is.  But I’m sure the Italians would much rather be themselves than be… oh… Germans, let’s say, or Scandinavians, or Swiss -- you know, all those sober, responsible people.  The mystery (to me) is -- is there some sort of mysterious bond between the Italian aesthetic -- the sense of life -- and Italian chaos?  How many times have I heard -- in a consoling, if not paternalistic, way -- “piano, piano”, which means, basically, “relax, wait a bit, it’s going to be OK”.  Is there a word for that in German?  Highly doubtful.  (At least we have “chill”.) 

Let me put it another way.  Imagine a country, or a culture, that looks, feels, smells, and tastes like Italy but operates like Germany.  Or Switzerland.  Hard to imagine, you say?  Exactly.  But try figuring out why it’s hard.  I can’t -- at least not yet.  (But I promise to keep working on it.) 

Before leaving this topic, let me get down to a few cases.  In the hotels, the plumbing is a bit baffling, as are the thermostats, power outlets, phones, coffee makers, etc.  We're on our third hotel and haven't yet figured out to turn on the TV.  It’s enough to make one feel like a Hottentot who is plunked down in the middle of Los Angeles.  On the other hand, the Italians seem incapable of making or serving bad food, even in the scruffiest, least-likely-looking joints.  The “house wine” here is better than most of what one can buy in bottles in the U.S. -- the preserved meat and cheese are simply better than anything in the U.S., period.  The fruit is fresher, the desserts are tastier, the pastries have a decent texture (as opposed to our “wet cardboard” format), the olive oil is aromatic, and it all gets washed down with generous doses of mineral water “con gas” (which does not refer to one’s digestive system -- in fact it has the opposite effect).

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  The Italians are good at the things that really count -- that are part of what one might call “real life”, as opposed to life confined to paper, the media, digits, automation, technology.  It is life in the direct sense, not at three or four removes… a life of the senses rather than of “good sense”.  Oh, I’m sure there are Italians who worry about their “portfolio”, and about inflation, balance of payments, national debt, etc.  And unemployment is an issue, no doubt.  But for us, these issues are primary; they take the place of real life.  And what that means is that we are easily-manipulated victims of the Regime and the media.  We are sheep on steroids -- easy to panic, to stampede, to persuade to settle for much less than what we are and what we could be.  The Italians don’t worry about “human potential” -- they’re too busy living.  And what is “self-improvement” if you can sit in a café on a sunny day with a glass of chianti and a plate of prosciutto and pecorino?  So they have their priorities straight - which, of course, infuriates the up-tight races who revel in their character armoring (and spend all their time plotting world conquest).

There’s another angle here too -- because there is no objective reason why our food can’t be as good as the food here, or the cheese almost as good, or the wine… well, that’s another matter.  And there’s no reason our cities can’t be allowed to grow and evolve in an organic way that actually invites people to walk the streets -- or rather stroll, of an evening.  Our cities don’t have to be as incredibly noisy as they are; Rome, as big as it is, is, I would estimate, about 1/5 as noisy as New York.   And as to sanitation -- there are street-washing and -cleaning trucks going by every night here.  Not once a month, or once a week, but every 24 hours.  And yes, the streets get littered, but not on the pathological level of most cities in the U.S.  (One thing that helps is that hardly anyone smokes here.  And no one chews gum -- that uniquely disgusting American habit.) (And people who have dogs have small dogs, not monsters that drop a 5-lb. load every five minutes.) 

I’ll say it again -- at the risk of beating a dead (if only!) horse.  We are Puritans -- still.  And what is a Puritan?  It’s someone who feels that every sensory, or sensual, pleasure -- no matter how small or inconsequential -- is a sin.  This doesn’t mean they don’t do it, only that they feel guilty about it.  They treat it as a bad thing -- something that ought to be eradicated.  One senses this undercurrent everywhere in America, on all levels.  But in Italy… well, I doubt if the Italians have a term that matches our “guilty pleasure” or “sinfully rich” (as in desserts, not Wall Street barons -- they’re OK).  The irony is that “eating to live” is one cardinal rule of Puritanism, as opposed to “living to eat” -- and yet by only eating to live, we wind up eating foods that are actually inimical to life… foods that are barely nutritious and lacking in taste (or full of bad taste), and are, besides, full of hormones, toxins, and artificial ingredients of all kinds.  In other words, by denying the senses we wind up denying life itself (and thus committing a great heresy, I might add).

And it becomes a vicious circle.  By denying ourselves natural gratification -- which is, after all, a sign, given by Nature, that we are doing something right (and “adaptive”, for you Darwinians out there) -- we also deny life in general, and our own lives in specific… and become demoralized, and resentful, and paranoid, and insanely jealous of people who are satisfied just to live… and, finally, determined to teach those people the error of their ways and, if they do not repent and reform, to destroy them.  Thus, the Puritan impulse becomes bound up with the American Empire, and we wind up spreading life-hating misery around the world, corrupting people who would otherwise have persisted in their innocent pleasures.  This program goes back at last as far as Woodrow Wilson, and there were precursors even further back. 

So we become the bullies of the world, not only militarily and economically but also morally… metaphysically, if you will.  Our mistaken notions about the nature of man are an essential part of what we attempt to spread through our missionary zeal.  We land on foreign shores with our weapons and suits of armor, behold the natives happily sitting around campfires enjoying food, drink, music, fine cigars (OK, maybe that’s a stretch)... and immediately start plotting ways of “curing” them.  And of course on every foreign shore there are a few wretched souls who, for whatever reason, don’t fit in, and they are the very ones we hire to tyrannize their fellows and become collaborators.

You think this is too much of a stretch?  Too belabored?  Perhaps -- but just try sitting in one of these sidewalk cafes, pick up the vibes, and consider how much different it would be if we were in charge.  The implications are sobering.