A Pain Stabbed Jack Kerouac’s Heart. Un’improvvisa pugnalata al cuore

Girls in the street. Click for attribution and to zoom in

Quando si è giovanissimi [see translation following] e ci si imbatte per strada in una ragazza che è il nostro tipo se ne rimane come folgorati, e il dolore è tanto più acuto quanto più difficile (o impossibile) è la soddisfazione di tale desiderio, improvviso e assoluto.

[When we are extremely young and we stumble upon a girl in the street who is our type we are like struck dumb and our pain is all the more acute the more difficult (or impossible) is the satisfaction of our desire, sudden and absolute.]

Un brano di Jack Kerouac rende bene questa vitalità disperata tipica della primissima gioventù (da “On the road” che sfogliavo giorni fa; mi sembra di ricordare che anche J. D. Salinger abbia scritto qualcosa di simile):

[A passage by Jack Kerouac renders well this desperate vitality typical of early youth (from “On the Road” I was leafing through days ago; I think I remember J.D. Salinger wrote something similar too)]:

“I had bought my ticket and was waiting for the LA bus when all of a sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks come cutting across my sight. She was in one of the buses that had just pulled in with a big sigh of airbreaks; it was discharging passengers for a rest stop. Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside. I wished I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world”.

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In realtà al personaggio di “On the road” le cose poi vanno bene perché i due si ritroveranno casualmente nello stesso autobus e ne nascerà una storia, ma la descrizione della pugnalata è intensa e comunque credo sia esattamente ciò che ciascuno di noi, uomo o donna, ha provato più volte dai 10-12 anni in poi.

[Actually things ended up well for Kerouac’s character since the two will accidentally meet in the same bus and a love affair will ensue, although the description of the ‘stab’ is intense and in any case I believe it is exactly what each of us, man or woman, has experienced several times from 10-12 years of age onwards.]

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Andreas Kluth, the Hannibal man, asked me to write something about Gramsci in 300 words. I failed. These are 795 words.

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I studied Gramsci in my twenties and he surely helped me greatly. I think important to say his thought to be:

1) in progress, more formative to me than any sedentary conclusions, building up upon a list of themes & reflecting on them in fragmentary notes from thousands of different viewpoints and within a dreadful context – fascism arising, jail isolation, uncertainty for his own life. All so compelling and mind expanding;

2) dialogic and dialectic.

Dialogic.
G’s ideas bounce on one another also in relation to other authors’ even-opposite ideas – Gramsci ‘discusses with the enemy’ so to say. A solitary dialogue though, since jail solitude brought him to solipsism, which creates like a tragic, bewitching (and a bit claustrophobic) atmosphere.

The many ‘tools’ he created such as ‘cultural hegemony’ (close to ‘seduction’), or his notion of ‘intellectuals’, stem from such inner dialogue, which can be baffling to people used to clear definitions – I well understand – but, such brain storming is contagious and the attentive reader is taught to form his / her mental dialogues on anything he / she researches.

Dialectic. It refers to Heraclitus & Hegel, implying that all in history is ‘becoming’ & a contradictory process with actions, reactions, conciliations etc. Gramsci’s dialectic is concrete, anti-idealistic. For example, the Rousseauesque pedagogy – the ‘laissez-faire’ of ‘active’ schools – was seen by him as a reaction to the coercive Jesuitical schools, so not good or bad ‘per se’. But he tried to favour an education where both the elements of discipline and fascination were present.

Antonio Gramsci’s ashes in the Protestant ‘Cimitero degli Inglesi’ in Rome

Any idea had to be seen in its historical context and was hence transient (Marxism included.) When the Russian revolution burst he wrote it was a revolution ‘against the Capital’ (ie against Marx’s theories,) a scandal within the Comintern.

In many respects he considered America much more progressive than Stalin’s Russia;

3) polymathic. Gramsci is wide-ranging, like the men of the Renaissance. Besides there are similarities between his ideas and Leonardo da Vinci’s, and their writing styles too;

4) anti-platonic. Nature is ruled by blind forces, with no intelligent design. He follows the Italian tradition of Lucretius, Vico, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Leopardi, in contrast with the Platonic (and hegemonic) tendency expressed during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola;

5) anti-élite. Anti-chic, and certainly not the ‘smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks’ type of intellectual – to quote Andreas -, to him knowledge & refinement are not classy and must be spread to everyone. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu he had succeeded in becoming a great European intellectual, which made him believe that everyone could be a philosopher at various degrees, and that a solid education of the working class was possible;

6) greatly written. Croce, Gramsci, Gobetti, Gentile were all great writers, like Hegel and Marx were. G’s texts are like permeated by a Hölderlin’s Heilige Nüchternheit (sacred sobriety.) As Giorgio Baratta observes, “his style, sober and exact, opens wide spaces that make the reader fly, but the flight is not grandiloquent.” His works have been recognized since they were first published as masterpieces of our language and literature. His Prison Letters have the depth of Tolstoy, an author close to him in many respects;

7) historic. Italian, European and world history are considered, from the end of the ancient Roman Republic onwards, and innumerable aspects are analysed. For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable know-yourself experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit, also the teachings of my father, that I could fully appreciate only after reading Gramsci.

Gramsci’s history is as close to us as family’s history can be. It’s his magic. It touches the soul deeply.

It is also the concrete history of ideas circulating in the various socio-economic groups at a given time, with catalogues of magazines, newspapers, movements, intellectuals (often categorized with humorous nicks: it’s his peasant culture showing now and then), with the aim of understanding the currents and exact mechanisms of cultural hegemony.

He does that as for Italy, other European and non European countries. He analyses the elements that, in his view, make the United States the ‘hegemonic force’ in the world and also identifies like some cracks in this hegemonic structure, in their being too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many cultures.

Too long a story. Americanism in Gramsci is so crucial I’m thinking of a post where, in a dialogue occurred in the 30s, a few fictional European characters try to explain to readers their view of America, ie Gramsci’s view.

The United States – as Gramsci put it – are “the greatest collective effort ever existed to create with unheard of rapidity and a consciousness of purpose never seen in history a new type of worker and man.”

Note. An inspired introduction to Gramsci is Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970).

PS. Gramsci and Croce are well known in the English-speaking countries. The British ex prime minister Gordon Brown said Gramsci was one of his mentors. No idea if this is complimenting Gramsci or not… 🙂

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More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

Two Piano Improvisations

A piano keyboard. Click for credits and to enlarge

I blabber with words, why shouldn’t I blabber with sounds. Here are two 1995 piano improvisations. My background is classical but the influence of American music is felt here, the US jazz icon Keith Jarret especially.

Some mushy hesitations, no style choice, are due to slowness of mind – I just didn’t know where the heck to go: improvising is damn hard.

The first piece is more complex and I was capable of re-playing it since I had written the score down. Today it would almost be impossible for me to play it but I have plans for the future plus my guitar is coming back. The second piece is shorter and simpler.

Truth is I like them both but I cannot judge them and certainly at times they sound weird. I just let myself go with the flow.

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Musical improvisation and verbal digression are much discussed and related notions in this blog. See the posts at the foot of the page and The Catcher in the Rye book cover image below [J. D. Salinger was very digressive thus creating an overall effect of fresh improvisation.]

While listening to these 2 piano pieces a few days ago (for the first time after 15 years) Flavia declared with an odd smile:

“Your musical wanderings ….but the former I always found addictive and, most of all, it was the soundtrack of some of our best days!”

True. We lived for a while with this music as a background whatever its worth. And I am fortunate that Flavia’s humanity warms me up day by day.

Music writer. Click for credits

No computer quantizing is utilized – too robotic – so the music is ‘as it was originally played’. As post-production I though added a bit of voice layering to the first piece but not much. In both musics the speed has been made 15% faster – I read from my notes.

The instrument, my beloved vintage synth Korg O1/W – which I stupidly sold – has decent piano sounds although the medium-pitch tones I dislike.

Related posts:

Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’…

Digression vs Sticking to the Point

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations can come out of a crazy night of revel:

A Night of Dionysian Revelry

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

An interesting discussion over the dangers menacing our democracies was kicked off by our latest postWill Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.

Most participants asked themselves whether democracy is at a turning point in many countries.

I am fortunate to have such great commentators.  I’m also glad I received additional insight on the American mind I always found fascinating also because elements of it are not that easy to be grasped by Europeans (the collectivism vs individualism thing, for example.)

I’ll freely transcribe here a few sentences of the said dialogue where the dear-to-me topic education in a democracy stands out a bit.

A scene from Videocracy, by Erik Gandini, an Italian Swedish film director

The idea behind this is a follow-up post on a work experience I had in Russia where I was sent in the year 2000 in order to carry out a TACIS* financed educational project for the integration of military personnel into civil society.

It seems very much to the point since it regards the topics discussed in the said conversation, ie individualism, collectivism, education in democracies or in flawed (or almost non existent) democracies.

[*TACIS was a programme financed by the EU for “grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia”]

MoR: Is fascism coming back in a way or another? We see “the contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates etc.”

Paul: I’m afraid [fascism] has never been very far below the surface. [Paul’s blog]

Douglas: “I cannot think of any true democracies. Republics, yes, but democracies, no. [Douglas’ blog]

MoR: I agree. Demo-cracies are often aristo-cracies, ie the rule of the happy few. There is in fact a prerequisite imo for a democracy to work correctly: a solidly educated people. Without such prerequisite, demo-cracy degenerates into dem-agogy, ie a rule manipulative of the people via their emotions, fears, bias etc. The health care debate in America is an example of that I presume. Berlusconian Italy a much bigger one.

Andreas: Nobody actually fears fascism will win in America. But the rancor, the shrillness, the animosity obscuring reason and thought: that is everywhere. [Andreas’s blog]

Cheri: On both sides of the aisle, I might observe. [Cheri’s blog]

[Everybody seems to agree that it is not a Left or Right thing. The attack to freedom after all has historical roots in political ‘churches’ of any colour, and often in churches tout court (and, alas, especially in one Church)]:

ZeusIsWatching: Fascism is the kissing cousin of communism, the similarities are clear enough. [Zeus‘ blog]

Sledpress: Fascism [will live] with us as long as authority and submission are considered vital components of human culture … conditioning from birth onward … [cult of] “strong leadership” … We’ve all seen people bounce from Catholicism to Communism or whatever. [Sledpress’ blog]

Douglas: [he gets back to the educational thing] Do you really believe, MoR, that any country will produce a solidly educated people? …I think that as long as education is in the hands of the government ….there will only be people educated to support that government.

An image from the Italian TV. Click for credits

MoR: I understand America is suspicious of any state intervention in society …continental Europe, and possibly French Canada, have a rationalist, non empiricist, tradition (‘reason’ moulds society or kinda) so that a state should be ethical enough to try help the ‘losers’ of societal Darwinian competition, ie the poor, the uneducated etc

Portions of the sotosay winners’ income – a widespread mentality here, not necessarily leftist – should go to the less wealthy, without condoning tho those who take advantage of such a system (many of course do, tons of money gets wasted to the extent of foolishness).

While (almost) not spending a euro I have an excellent medical care, I myself once was a state school teacher trying to do something for the uneducated in the poorest districts of Rome.

And in Russia, a great but nightmarish place where I worked in 2000 (a moment when ALL was crumbling down there,) the masses were nonetheless amazingly educated in S&T and were reading Tolstoy, Pushkin in second class trains. Education didn’t save them from many forms of tyranny, big and small, which they accepted as their tradition, but I’m sure after these 10 years they are still bearing their tyrannies but must have copied the worst from us and are now reading crap in trains as well, as we do in moronic Berlusconian Italy.

Ana Téran: [a Mexican writer I just met at Andreas’.] Public will is a powerful weapon. Why in the hell don’t we use it MoR?

Lichanos: The “masses?” I wonder what percentage of people were reading Tolstoy and Pushkin. On the other hand, I meet lots of technically educated Russians who are surprised to find that I, an American engineer, know their history and literature, as they know ours. So, clearly there is a difference. [Lichanos’ blog]

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The final twist of the conversation brings me then to talk about Russia a bit. A marvellous (but puzzling) place from any point of view. See you soon then.

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Related posts:

[The 3 posts below illustrate – with really ample discussions – the notion of ‘personal knowledge’ related to what I mean by ‘solid education’, ie specialisation plus general knowledge. There is for example a difference (diminishing, alas) between the Latin countries plus Germany and Austria, on one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other hand.

As Magister wrote, before the young are inserted into specialised activities they should first attain “a certain amount of maturity, of capacity of autonomy, orientation, initiative.” The last 30 years have seen in Italy the debacle of any effective education – both the Left and the Right having responsibilities, but Berlusconi added a big cherry on the pie by the propagation of a degrading culture in which he sincerely believes, it seems. I invite you all to get a copy of Videocracy. Here is the film’s official web site.

We had good ‘general culture’ orientation according to Italian traditions (but less specialization, a flaw, ok,) but now we have none of the two. AND Berlusconi has now convinced many Italians that priority num 1 is a reform of the constitution that will give him the power of a French (or American) President without any French or US counterbalance. And the economy? And unemployment? If this is not manipulation ….]

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)

Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II
Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II. Click for credits

The theme of the Mafia has come out in many discussions. While reading up on it I was surprised how well the Mafia seems to fit into the topics of this blog.

Here just a few notes freely based 1) on the book Padrini, by Roberto Olla, Mondadori 2003, Milano [translated into English with the title Godfathers], and 2) on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Men of Respect, Intelligent and Cynical

The word “Don” is used in Italian when referring to a priest or to an aristocrat. A godfather is in fact a man of respect. He is an aristocrat of crime, a prince of evil, no matter his appearance or his clothes – this may be one reason why Hollywood movie-goers have found the Mafiosi so attractive.

One common mistake – argues Roberto Olla – is in fact that of considering the Mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.

In short, mafia had/has history. How a Mafia network was / is built is well expressed by Mario Puzo in The Godfather:

“Don Vito Corleone [Puzo’s fictitious character] was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…) some humble gift – a gallon of home-made wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

This network implied protection, various forms of exchange but also ruthless exploitation (for example the pizzo or protection money one could not escape).

Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery
Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery

Long centuries of oppression or absence of the state had favoured in Sicily a kind of anti-state or alternative organization. The American police officers and the ‘nordic’ Italian state found themselves unprepared – Olla continues.

Focusing on America, “the US policemen were searching in the underworld. But it was in the upper world that they should have searched. They should have searched among the ‘similar’ and not the ‘unlike’, since those men came from an ancient culture.”

How to Face Aliens From an Ancient World?

Let us try to better understand. America at that time – Olla observes – distinguished between the good guys and the bad guys, and reacted severely to the latter. When though meeting the ‘men of respect’ the US found themselves facing unheard-of souls. They were unprepared when fighting these mafiosi who were too similar to the people from the upper world. It was not a matter of jacket and tie or of wearing a social mask.

“It was a blend of morality and immorality which produced people able to commit the most ferocious crimes and, at the same time, to show respect for religion. People capable to plan a massacre while in everyday life they defended the good principles and healthy traditions.”

An unheard-of humanity? Well, my readers know well what I mean: we are dealing here in my opinion with alien moral codes stemming from pre-Christian, Greco-Roman antiquity, something more or less unknown to [more truly Christian] northern Europe where the American culture mostly came from.

The mafioso had to be seen – as  Giovanni Falcone, a famous Sicilian magistrate killed by the mafia in 1992, once said – like the old sage who administered justice sitting under the big oak tree in the name of a non-existent state.

The Irish had no Chance

“Morality and immorality, respect and abuse, honour and violence.” When the Italian and the Irish organized crime faced each other in the American ports [Olla, again], the latter didn’t have any chance, regardless of the many advantages the Irish had had – they had migrated earlier, they spoke the language, and some of them were perfectly integrated: Irish crime had to face a more ancient and mysterious culture.

Surprise attacks, great speed and extreme determination in their raids – behind the big godfathers I remember Mario Puzo flashing the shadow of the Roman emperors [imperatores], with their ruthlessness and organization. It is exaggerated, but certainly the Mafia the Americans had to fight had already in its genes some formidable military qualities, among the rest.

Different from the Irish is the case of the Jewish criminals, some of which (like Meyer Lansky associated with Lucky Luciano) well integrated themselves into the Italian Mafia (due to their common Mediterranean origins? It is tempting to think so.)

Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer and pioneer in the fight against Mafia
Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer, pioneer in the fight against the Mafia (1860 – 1909)

It is not by chance that the first serious blows to the Mafia were given by Italians, like the police officer Joe Petrosino and many others, who were able to understand the intricacies of the Italian mind.

Related posts and blog themes:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)
A Cultural Battle
The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?

Berlusconi and Patrizia d'Addario. From the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica

The whole world is chatting about the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s lifestyle. The news are full of details regarding alleged wild parties in his luxurious residences (see below Villa Certosa in Sardinia.) According to these reports all sorts of women attended these festas, including alleged under-age girls and paid escorts (see above Patrizia D’Addario) attracted to a possible career in TV or in politics (see Wikipedia for details.)

Berlusconi, sometimes depicted as a decadent Roman emperor (Mary Beard in the UK Times compared him to Tiberius,) is seen by many as possessing in ways grotesque the flaws usually ascribed to Italians, a lack of sexual restraint and a loose morality, among the rest.

And in fact many Italians voting for him say they like his way of life and admire him for being rich, powerful and for the number of women in his court. This is the way I am – he said replying to journalists asking if he was planning on changing his lifestyle after the scandals – and I cannot change at my age. Italians want me like that and support me.

Berlusconi's pharaonic mansion in Sardinia: Villa Certosa. Click for credits

Other Italians however vote for him because they prefer the right-wing coalition program to a left deprived of ideas and of real leadership. The opinion of a right-wing Italian fellow blogger, Wind Rose hotel, is that being a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean to be a fan of Berlusconi. I’m sure these Italians would prefer a more prudent behaviour by our Prime Minister, although it is to be noted that Berlusconi’s success owes a lot to his frankness which makes him different from the average byzantine Italian politician.

Traditionally Italians care little about a politician’s private life, his private vices being easily forgiven whenever his political action is deemed effective (we have discussed Italian cynicism and some possible historical causes.)

Many Italians are though starting to get embarrassed, to say the least. The line between the private and public sphere seems blurred to them if it is true that women’s sexual favours were /are later rewarded with a political career in the Italian or the European parliament. Someone is talking of Berlusconi’s possible resignation.

“Mr Berlusconi’s court – writes the British Independent – has no soothsayers to warn him of the Ides of March, but the sudden emergence of hostile noises from the Catholic Church is the modern Italian equivalent of that – especially as the Catholic Church continues to hold immense sway over public opinion.”

We are going to see how far Italian cynical indifference will go. Personally I don’t think Berlusconi will resign easily, unless something unprecedented occurs. He is still very powerful, though weakened, and he controls much of the Italian media, plus a lot depends on whether he will succeed in keeping the Italian economy going.

Whether these scandals are doing any real damage to him or not, the uneasiness of the Catholic Church – whose realpolitik is hard put to it – should not be under evaluated, although an additional element has to be considered in my opinion.

Berlusconi and Putin. Click for creditsBerlusconi’s ambition of playing as a separate negotiator with Russia, Iran and the Middle East is irritating both the EU and the USA. An example is Berlusconi’s support of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, seen as a rival to the planned Nabucco pipeline backed by the USA and the EU. The South Stream (see image below) is in fact considered dangerous by them since it would extend Russia’s blackmail influence over Europe.

A good example of Berlusconi’s foreign politics. He is so proud of being a personal friend of Putin, although it remains to be seen whether this friendship (or any other independent move) will prove profitable in the long (or even short) run.

South Stream gas pipeline map. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Click for credits
South Stream gas pipeline project map

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If you want to know more:

Sex and the City (of Rome) which regards Italian sexuality and links to posts on this matter.

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”, on the possible roots of Italian cynicism.

See also:

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Traces of Paganism in Italians

Change and Continuity in History. 2

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Click for credits
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Click for credits

(This is the conclusion of a conversation with Paul started in an earlier post)

MoR
Yes, you have continuity too in North America, Paul, your roots and languages are from here, your monuments are European inspired. But European people who crossed the ocean were mostly fleeing injustice. They needed change more than continuity, and they found new societies where history and ties were not so burdensome. This of course liberated many energies but it could also be a reason why whenever I say that the past continues in the present, you guys shake your head and say: ‘No, it’s not so relevant’.

I mean, it’s not only a shorter history, it’s this ‘New’ thing:  the ‘New’ World was erected in the name of change, I believe. When a building gets old you tear it down, while here we keep almost everything, even crap. A metaphor in some way.

History is longer and heavier here and this implies pros and cons. Some parts of this country, Italy, are probably beyond redemption for this reason (inability to modernity, corruption etc.) but allow us to be thrilled that we are walking on the same roads tread upon by Julius Caesar or Marcus Aurelius, or to be happy that our ancient Roman sewerages (like Cloaca Maxima) are still working fine.

My family has this tradition of using the Fatebenefratelli Hospital on the Tiber Island. My father had surgery there twice and my wife there delivered our two daughters. Now it turns that this was a healing place since 293 BC, when a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, was built. When, 600 years later, Christianity arrived the healing place was preserved intermittently and a Basilica di San Bartolomeo later built a few yards away (this saint being thence associated to healing it explains by the way the name of the famous St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.)

The Subura district, the slums of ancient Rome, was full of ‘disreputable locals and brothels’ (Wikipedia.) Today parts of it correspond to the Monti rione. Well, since antiquity until today such ‘disreputable’ locals still exist in the area (in via Dei Capocci for example) and the police mostly turns a blind eye because of its being like a tradition of the city. Of course during Fascism, when prostitution was legal, the area thrived.

Inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Click for credits
Inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Click for credits

The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome (Saint Mary Above Minerva, see image above) and the area of the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (in today’s Turkey, see image at the head of the page) are interesting examples as well since they both follow a similar continuity-change pattern.

Continuity. In both places we have a succession of three deities with something in common (female gender, fertility, virginity etc.)
Change.
These deities belong to different periods and religions.

The Egyptian Isis, goddess of fertility, was followed in Rome – in that place – by the Roman Minerva (or vice versa; or they shared the area.) Minerva, a virgin goddess, was later replaced by Mary, a virgin divinity too, in the said church subsequently dedicated to her, Saint Mary Above Minerva.

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, the sanctuary in Ephesus dedicated to the Anatolian goddess Kybele, the Earth Mother, was later converted into the temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunt, child birth, virginity and fertility. The place was very famous, one of the greatest sanctuaries of Antiquity – see a 3d reconstruction at the top of the page – and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. People flocked to venerate the goddess.

Well, it is amazing how not far from that place it was later believed that there existed the last home of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. For this reason – the marvellous temple was destroyed by a Christian mob in 401 AD – a series of pilgrimages again began with pilgrims venerating the Virgin Mary and even recently the place has been visited by three popes, who followed a pilgrimage path thousands of years old.

Kybele, Artemis, Mary. A very impressive example of continuity through change, it seems to me.

Ψ

Summarizing, what I mean is that, with no break, connections run in history from antiquity to the present which are striking and, here more than in the New World, we feel that they are all around us, that they are part of our most profound identity. Which also crushes us in some way, without a doubt.

There must be reasons why we are called the ‘Old’ World: aren’t we all mummies a bit?

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Change and Continuity in History. 1
On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World

Change and Continuity in History. 1

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits
Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

This conversation between Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, and Man of Roma, started from the noble death of the Stoicists and landed on many themes such as religion, the Old and the New World and change and continuity in history.

Paul
As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today.

MoR
Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are and sometimes do embrace weird beliefs (have you ever heard of the Temples of Damanhur in northern Italy?)

Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’.

Even in my curious for-fun exploration of science I recently discovered this connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe. We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there an affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Fascinating theme.

I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits
The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

Paul
I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.

As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems whether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.

As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.

MoR
I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree. Although I think there are at least 2 differences between us:

1) I am agnostic, I don’t much imagine somebody superior up there (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that He really cares for us;

2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history.

As for point 1) I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel before going to sleep until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read valuable books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work fine for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.

Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it.

[As for point 2 see the next post]

Paul
We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God … but I cannot be sure there is one, this is called faith.
As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar [see the image at the top of the page, MoR.]
We may look at diversity and development with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We cannot say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”

(The conversation continues within this post and its comments section.)

On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World

Festa de Noantri. Trastevere. Madonna Fiumarola. From EternallyCool

The discussion over the third from last post had focused a) on a different vision of Italy by Italians from Italy and by North Americans of Italian origin; b) on Italian and Roman roots and the survival of ways which the Roman actress Anna Magnani epitomizes.

This post is mainly reporting the discussion over the second topic. I hence apologize to those readers whose comments have been omitted. I also apologize since all published comments have been edited out for the sake of brevity. Here you can read the original discussion.

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MoR. When I wrote this post I had some headache and I later realised a few words were not just right. For example, Anna Magnani “weird mixture of nobility and abjection …” was overstated. I changed ‘abjection’ with ‘crudity’. Such crudity, not deprived of nobleness, is present almost only in Rome in my view. I’m sure the great and unusual past of the eternal city has something to do with it.

Market at Testaccio. From EternallyCool. Click for credits

Joe@italyville. In my opinion, you must be critical of your country. What would have happened if there was no criticism of Mussolini or Bush. If we didn’t criticize the handling of New Orleans or the trash in the streets of Napoli. [Joe’s blog]

The Commentator. These videos and songs remind me of my close friend Flavio who is, like me, Canadian born and my age. In the 1990s, I devoured Italian and French films ad nauseam. In the case of Italian films two defining characteristics stood out for me: humor, as in using humor to deal with the hard side of Italian life. The other was realism. Italians faced their decadence through film. My close friend Flavio made the exact same remarks about Romans as you said in your post. He found them to be crude. [The Commentator’s blog]

MoR. Well, Rome is so beautiful that those who have produced such beauty cannot be defined as just ‘crude’. There must be something else.

Pantheon by night

Joanne at Frutto della Passione. As a Canadian of Italian descent, living in Italy I know without a doubt that my view of Italy is very different from my father’s (Italian born, immigrated to Canada) who views it as the motherland and has romanticized it and all of his memories. My view? It changes almost daily. Somedays I love it beyond words other days it frustrates me to the point of tears. [Joanne’s blog]

MoR. I understand your difficulties, despite your roots. Well, here in Italy habits survive that puzzle many foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards ‘modernity’ seem clear. Are they only disadvantages? Foreigners from North America surely don’t come to Rome or to Naples to admire how scientifically organized traffic is. They come to enjoy other stuff (and not just the monuments.)

Commentator. Just would like to add something else. While there’s no doubt many still look fondly back on Italy, there are still others who don’t. I’ve known and met many Italians who wanted to forget everything about the old country and wanted nothing to do with it. Such was their anger towards her.

MoR. As I told Joanne, some survivals are real obstacles to progress. The “patron-client” relationship, for example, present here in disgusting ways: in universities, in state institutions and in the civil society of areas of the country. I don’t think it’s by chance that ‘patronatus’, ‘patronus’, ‘clientes’ are Ancient Roman words and concepts. I mean, favouritisms, recommendations etc. are here so ingrained that the best brains fly to countries where there is more meritocracy.

Colosseum candy at piazza Navona. EternallyCool. Click for credits

Paul Costopoulos. Dear MoR, “favouritism” exists everywhere. Here, we call it the “Old boys network” or “le patronage”, in Québec. Merit certainly enters the equation somewhere but «knowing the right person» is of great help. What my women friends of all origins were bothered by in Italy was the ogling and buttocks pinching they endured. It seems Italian males have restless hands. Maybe that is what Frutto della passione is writing about. Fruit of passion…very evocative. [Paul’s blog]

MoR. Ah ah ah, Paul, you made me laugh! Yes, you made me laugh but then you depressed me (even though I’ll say aloud to my female readers that I don’t go around pinching buttocks.)

Paul. Cheer up Man, certainly the sun and warm Mediterranean climate is responsible for all that. All those provocative sculptures that ornate your squares, fountains and even churches are probably the main culprits. They overstimulate and induce into temptation even the most hardy souls as so many popes attest to. The Medicis popes surely are eloquent examples.

MoR. Yes, Paul, yes, even the most hardy souls, no doubt.

Paul. You show great fortitude.

MoR. I do, Paul.

[See a post on Italian Don Juanism, an irritating behaviour now declining, to tell the truth]

Commentator. Quebec functions very much like a Latin country (corruption, patronage etc.), like Italy – only it’s not so overt.

Paul. Commentator, it’s not only less overt, it’s also less. Under Maurice Duplessis, from 1936 to 1960 it was rampant and well organised, since then checks have been put in place…

Anna Magnani in the film Mamma Roma

Commentator. Here’s yet another thing regarding M. Anna Magnani. I was observing her and couldn’t help but notice she shares a common trait with how Italian women are generally perceived here. There are more “Anna’s” than women with the sensibilities or accent of a Northerner. Here, it’s all Rome and south. I went to school with many tough, joyous “Anna’s.” And you know what? There was indeed a certain way to them. What came off as crude didn’t mean there wasn’t a typically Italian panache to them. Shoot, in my family alone we have a gal that pretty much is Anna.

Mor. People in fact migrated from the most traditional areas of this country. I too like this crudity: it has verve, dash. Wow, so you have an Anna in family. Well, I do also, to a certain extent. These Annas I call ‘ancient’. Fellini said Anna (Annas) is/are a symbol and a survival. This he also meant by “She-wolf and Vestal, aristocratic and tramp, dark and buffoonish;” (listen to him saying it to Anna in the film “Roma”.)

I’m sure the perception of the artist is sometimes superior to that of the scholar. On the other hand, in my opinion, a peasant from the Italian South (or from Greece) is closer to the Greco-Romans than any historian of antiquity.

Moreover it could be that in the New World – and you seem to confirm it – some primordial traits are preserved, like hibernated, while here they can disappear: take archaisms in language (US ‘gotten’ instead of the more recent UK ‘got’), or cultures like the Amish in Ohio & Pennsylvania.
Actually I met a stunning Anna from Chicago here in Rome. This post tells about her .

Commentator. We are caught in an “Italy from a time past.” My friend went to Sicily in the early 1990s and they laughed at his accent. “We don’t speak dialect any more!”

MoR. Which makes the New World even more fascinating to me!

Female Portrait. Mosaic from PompeiiPaul. Man of Roma, the so called New World is a reservoir of cultures. The USA has strived to homogenize, the others such as Canada have taken pain to recognize, and even preserve, the cultures of their immigrant citizens. Thus our Anglophones speak a Victorian English, dans plusieurs régions du Canada les francophones parlent la langue de la province française de leurs ancêtres. The others tend to bunch together often by villages or towns they come from and keep the traditions and languages, at least the second, and at times third, generation. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver all have strong ethnic neighbourhoods where you find restaurants, stores, groceries, newspapers all catering to the native tongue of their inhabitants. It’s the Canadian mosaic…and I love it.

Roman woman. Late Republic. Click for credits

MoR. The Commentator had told me a bit about this USA – Canada difference. I have to get to Canada some day. I think I have a friend living in Toronto. I might love Montreal better though. Some students had told me Montreal is like a world-wide francophone hub, thence my interest.

Exposrip. As for melting pot versus multiculturalism I think I break with Paul here. Personally, enshrining multiculturalism in the Charter is nonsense. [Exposrip’s blog, warehouse of Commentator’s stories]

MoR. I see your point about multiculturalism: you care more about a Canadian identity, which I can understand. Although, call it selfishness, I like that somewhere things are preserved.

Paul. Go to Little Italy around La Madonna della Diffesa and you won’t know you are in Montreal. You may even not hear a word of French or English, but maybe lots of Abruzzi and Calabresi. As for food well you will judge. Caffe Italia may also please you.

Commentator. I think MOR would want to observe French-Canadian culture in action on rue St. Denis.

Paul. I agree with The Commentator, St-Denis and the Latin Quarter aroud UQAM are French Montreal “par excellence”.

MoR. I’ll be there Paul.

Canadians of Italian descent in Little Italy, Montreal

Paul. Welcome, and let us know, perhaps we could arrange a little informal meeting…however risky that may be…you know the Web and all that.

MoR. Thank you for saying that Paul. Oh … of course Paul, the risky chat encounters … I’ll bring my 4 bodyguards.

Paul. Sounds like a Maffia boss, I may hide. Ha! Ha!

MoR. Ah ah ah

(*Silly Roman laugh…making a phone call in search of the four boys*)

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Other related posts:

Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors
Pre-Christian Rome lives
Experiencing All

Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors

Abbasso la Ricchezza, an Italian movie of 1946, with Magnani and De Sica

Reema has tagged me for a post that should present a few melodious and soulful songs in Italian and in another language of my choice. So I chose some Italian songs from Rome and Naples (sung often in their respective dialects) and some Italy-related American songs sung in English by Dean Martin, the great charmer of Italian descent. I’m sure Reema, this nice and spunky Indian lady, will vigorously protest saying some of these songs are not soulful or melodious enough. Well they are, but in their own way.

Anna Magnani, the Heart of Rome

Lupa and Vestal (a chaste priestess), aristocratic and tramp, dark and buffoonish: this is how the Italian director Federico Fellini depicted Anna Magnani. Anna was not a perfect beauty but she had more than beauty. Here she sings Quanto sei bella Roma (Rome how beautiful you are) composed in 1934 by Bixio. The film is Abbasso la ricchezza, (Down with Riches), directed by Gennaro Righelli in 1946. I adore Anna’s low pitch rich-textured voice.

I wonder if you noticed Anna’s joyful laughter. In the video next to the one below you might better perceive how mocking, tragic and a bit crass it can also be. It’s the typical (and complex) Roman laughter from a town both noble and vulgar, I know I’m blunt about it. This – please allow me – is possibly due to remnants of ancient mores and to a peculiar history: the base ways in which the Roman populace was entertained (with gladiators etc.) to be kept quiet might have left traces, for example. Sounds a bit like the world of today, with vile Tv and movies ruling, doesn’t it.

Born in the Roman slums in 1908, Anna displays this weird mixture of nobility and crudity, of impudence and extreme moral strength. She is the perfect symbol of Rome. Here she sings Scapricciatiello, a Neapolitan song by Ferdinando Albano (1894 – 1968). The film is The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) and the guy playing the guitar is Anthony Queen, her husband in the plot.

Now a stornello romano from Mamma Roma (1962), with French subtitles, starring Anna Magnani and Franco Citti. A stornello is a Roman folk song where each strophe often begins with ‘fiore di’ (flower of…), the rest being improvised, which allows the man and the two women in the video to mock one another in ways, well, typical from here.

Anna plays the role of a prostitute during the post-war period, when Italians were struggling for survival. In this scene she is very upset because her pimp (Citti, with a moustache) has married the other woman. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini the film was judged immoral by critics and the public due to swearing.

Sweet Feelings of a City

Getting closer to the sweetness of the city, the Roman folk singer Gabriella Ferri sings Roma forestiera, (Stranger Rome), 1947, a song lamenting the post-war social transformation of Rome. The original Youtube movie inserted showed scenes from the films Mamma Roma and Roma città aperta, directed by Roberto Rossellini, probably one of the best Italian films ever produced. The movie is no longer available on Youtube for copyright infringement. Here another one with the same song Roma forestiera sung by Gabriella Ferri.

Now Arrivederci Roma, a song composed by Renato Rascel and sung by Claudio Villa, my favourite Roman folk singer. Born in Trastevere Villa has a wonderful voice but languages are not his forte (he pronounces ‘goobye’ instead of ‘goodbye’). Very beautiful pictures of Rome (but much better ones in the video next to this).

Another song by Renato Rascel, Roma nun fa’ la stupida stasera (Rome please behave tonight), sung by a bunch of artists – see credits at the end – and with a set of pictures among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Here the core meaning of the song: (the man) “oh Roma, be as romantic as possible and help me to make her say yes to me;” (the woman) “oh Roma, be as unromantic as possible and help me to say NO to him!”

Italy in America. Dean Martin

And now our great Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti) who sings a Neapolitan song Torna a Surriento (English title Take Me In Your Arms.) This man and ALL the songs in this post really remind me of my first youth, I’ve got to thank Reema for it. Enjoy also some nice pictures of the Sorrento area, where – allow me again – the Romans first mixed up with the Greeks.

Listen now to On an Evening in Roma (Sott’er Cielo de Roma), one of Dino’s great Italian love songs (1961). The video is full of Rome’s great pictures.

Naples and the Three Tenors

We’ll finish with two beautiful Neapolitan songs. Here is Parlami d’amore Mariu’ (Talk me of Love Mariu’) by the Neapolitan composer Bixio. It is performed by the three tenors Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Placido Domingo in Paris (1998).

Finally, as the cherry on the pie, Non ti scordar di me (Don’t forget me) by the Neapolitan composer Ernesto De Curtis. It is sung by Luciano Pavarotti in Budapest.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS
I know, I have dedicated so much space to music on Rome, but this is the Man of Roma’s blog, after all.
I’ll though say here aloud what it is already well known: the tradition of the Neapolitan song is much greater than that of Rome.

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Related posts:

Experiencing All

Pre-Christian Rome lives

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

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When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.

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So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.

A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.

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And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)

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We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use
Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had kicked off an interesting discussion.

Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”

I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism.

“Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans entered instead civilization together with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”

At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped up:

“I never thought – he had observed – of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!”
“Let me ask you : where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?”

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I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England, Germany, Poland etc.) but here in our country such remnants are more marked.

Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is a connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily proved.

A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. Although Machiavelli, to me, is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements that were already existing.

Did these ‘elements’ develop after the fall of Rome or did they stem from the previous Greco-Roman culture, or both things? Both, in my view.

What we mean by ‘cynicism’

Let’s first see what we mean by cynicism today:

A. Cynicism is “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” (Oxford and Webster dictionaries).

B. Cynical is “the person who, with acts and words, shows scorn and indifference towards the ideals, or conventions, of the society he lives in.” (Dizionario Italiano Treccani).

[I may be wrong, but there’s a difference between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ definition (A) and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are historical, not eternal]

In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear only such because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?

Let us have a look at these alien codes then.

No Conflicts of Conscience

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.

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Thus said, I basically agree with what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans.)

“[Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city …

They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart…

[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.

They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

By intention Rodocanachi meant that just the thought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself [these two articles – 1 and 2 – may help further.]

Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina
Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits (Flickr)

Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?

The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.

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Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians definitely belong to the former, to the ‘Greek’ cultural area.

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not much fear damnation (and almost never speak of hell.)

Even if Italians captained for centuries the switch from the Pagan religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may sound (see note 3.)

Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to a lot of things.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend somebody saying that.

The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical, indifferent!” was the comment by many North Europeans that travelled about Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and condemnation.

The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire above Villa d’Este) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops MoR’s peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)

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Truth is, our mind is like a museum, which makes us appear cynical, indifferent.

We are inclined to live the joys of life and sometimes do bad deeds without those self-punishment mechanisms that stem from breaking fundamentalist moral codes. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.

ψ

In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.

ψ

Notes.

Roman Renaissance fountan1) Quote from C. P. Rodocanachi , Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948.

2) My answers to Maryann and Exposrip have been further processed since their questions have kept bugging my mind (original texts here.)

3) In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony.” So it seems that also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives: Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome. Gramsci wrote this note in a period between 1929 and 1935. He was a Marxist. We are not. His stimulating ideas went though well beyond Marxism and G. is now appreciated by Marxists and non Marxists, by left-wing and right-wing thinkers all the world over.

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Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini grotesquely unveils aspects of papal Rome’s pagan nature)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Let’s forget the repulsion thing now and let us instead focus on the undoubted attraction we feel for each other – as for our use of the term hyperborean pls read this note.

Beyond
the North Wind

The ancient Greeks dreamed about a mythical people living in a pagan Eden beyond Boreas, the north wind (hyper-Boreas = ‘beyond the north wind’). The Hyperboreans were imagined as perfect and almost god-like.

Thus Pindar in the V century BC:

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.

Such a bliss was though difficult to reach:

Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvellous road to the feast of the Hyperborea.

(Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode, translation by Richmond Lattimore; quotes from Wikipedia)

So Hyperborea was like a feast. Hard to tell which real experiences fed the myth but we perceive like attraction vibes coming from the Mediterranean and addressed towards some mythical folk of the north-east.

At least 5 centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Germania about the Germans (full text here) – a group of tribes also coming from the North-East – noted in AD 98: “In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder.” Less myth here but concrete admiration for the Germans’ powerful bodies (and pristine virtues.)

Caesar himself had appreciation for the Germans, if utilizing them in battle is any indication. Ancient Rome was filled with northern slaves who, even though seen as savages, were admired for their aspect and many Roman ladies wore expensive wigs made from their blonde or red hair.

Not Angles, but Angels

That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.

As Beda Venerabilis wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Gregory I, a great Pope from a noble Roman family, saw one day a group of children in a slave market of the Eternal City. They looked so beautiful to him that, getting curious and inquiring about them, he was told they were Angli (Angles).

He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to Britain for this purpose.

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Not much has changed since then. As regards contemporary Britons, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Germans (among the rest,) today’s Mediterranean people still see them as different in their bodies, skin, eyes, manners, and these differences are often seductive, beyond a doubt. Exactly as to Gregory, their children look such fair-skinned sweet angels to us. The women and the men we see as provided with a diverse beauty we generally find irresistible.

At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. The way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music was so damn different from our girls’: a ‘lesser grace equals more grace’ type of thing, which almost knocked me out.

Churches as Factories for Marriage

A 45 years old American IT expert, italoamericano, confessed that the Italian and the Irish Americans who often gather in Catholic churches all over the States do feel this reciprocal attraction. “Churches are sometimes like factories for marriages. As far as us Italians– he confirmed – we cannot resist those fair and blue-eyed faces”. He had in fact married an Irish woman. Whether he met her in a church I’m not in a position to tell.

An attraction reciprocal. An American woman of German-English descent had lived in a small town close to Chicago. She said she gazed longingly at those Italians in the days when her catholic mother took her to the local church.

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Ok, basta. Since from serious this post has become gossipy (and voyeuristic) I will redeem myself in the next and last post dedicated to the Hyperboreans.

Hopefully we won’t just talk about the physical qualities we admire in them.

Note. I couldn’t find an appropriate picture with English or German children (for Gregory’s angels.) The image above refers to Swedish girls during Luciadagen (Saint Lucia’s day) on December 13th. It is moving how these “sun starved people” revere Lucia (or Lucy,) the Saint of light born in sunny Sicily (her name coming from the Latin word lux = light.)

During the darkest days of the year they pray Lucia to bring the sun back to them.

(“Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finland-Swedes, Danes and Norwegians in celebrations that retain many indigenous Germanic pagan pre-Christian midwinter light festivals” – Wikipedia)

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Other related posts:
Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 2

Oranges in California

“California is a fine place to live – if you happen to be an orange.”
(Fred Allen, American humorist)

I’ll link this jest to the sense of emptiness I perceived while staying for a while in Venice, Los Angeles (see picture above,) some time ago.

One of the social milieus I stumbled upon was this weird bunch of people who, while hoping to find a job in the entertainment industry, had this everybody-sleeping-with-everybody type of lifestyle who puzzled me because of its total nihilism and emptiness, or so it appeared to me.

Not that the writers that have lived in LA have greatly contributed to better this image of pointlessness and malaise, from Aldous Huxley, to Raymond Chandler (with his marvellously depressed Philip Marlowe) and the more recent James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere etc.).

So maybe what Fred Allen said is kinda true.

Only if you happen to be an orange. Or a movie star … (what about a porn star?)

Fresh Idealism

But I also keep the most beautiful souvenirs of San Francisco, northern California. I was close to my twenties and I had never been to SF or America before, to tell the truth. Didn’t have to. They simply materialised before my eyes in Trastevere, Rome, in the years between the 60s-70s, via the cute face of a half-Mexican girl from SF, her name Mariza, who worked for an airline company out there and who totally bewitched me and accepted to share a small and cheap flat in via della Lungara.

This place soon attracted a long series of eccentric individuals: a gay pianist from Kansas City (of German origin, his Bach was pure magic), a lesbian paintress from Santa Barbara, a Vietnam vet from SF as well, a bit spaced out and hopelessly addicted to alcohol, plus this intense actress from Chicago (the link tells about her) together with many other odd American characters.

Mariza was one of my sweetest experiences, intelligent, attractive and cultured. Those were the days of the hippies who had found in the San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district one of their homes. She introduced me to SF’s counter-culture from a high-level angle and we were singing the beautiful Scott McKenzie‘s song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”:

Such a strange vibration,
People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion .. people in motion


A new explanation …such big words!

And Trastevere became our Haight-Ashbury (see below its main piazza and gathering place, S. Maria.) We felt all brothers, no matter the race, the religion or the country. Such an extraordinary place, Trastevere, not yet so trendy at that time and populated by these unconventional expatriates plus of course the locals, real Romans beyond any belief.

Oddly enough, on the stage of this ancient theatre I first met young America and its sparkling fresh mind. Not only my English began to improve.

But we were not hippies. Being not saints either there was not much place though in our experiences for nihilism or malaise.

So full we were of our romantic dreams, whether our naïve ideals were guiding or misguiding still remains to be seen.

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Related posts:

Experiencing All


Buddhism, Science and the Dalai Lama

We talked in the previous post of a decline of the Roman Empire type of situation here in the West. Omitting economical and political aspects this time, we rather concentrated on some cultural aspects of today’s Western (America + Europe) decline which resemble a bit what was happening in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ancient Roman empire: new sects and religions gaining ground, void, ethical confusion etc. with, at the end, a winning new religion, Christianity, conquering the population’s hearts (with a little help from the Emperors) and soon becoming the official religion of the Empire.

(Needless to say, it is only for the sake of analysis that people usually separate economical, political, social and cultural phenomena. Actually they are tightly interrelated and belong to the same sphere: Man)

Let’s now zoom in on one of the non Western religions that are gaining ground, Buddhism. We will consider some of the reasons why this belief, compared with the Abrahamic religions, could be more endowed to confront with modern science, which might further favour its penetration (at the top of the page, a Buddhist temple at Fréjus, France; above, the current Dalai Lama).

In some books the current 14th Dalai Lama reveals his position on science and on the relationship between scientific rationality and religious irrationality. “If scientific analysis conclusively showed that certain beliefs of Buddhism are false – argues the Dalai Lama – it would be necessary to accept those scientific discoveries and abandon those beliefs.” Wow, what a big difference, we should be honest to admit, vis-à-vis the presumptions of infallibility asserted by our Catholic religion …

Buddhism seems better equipped in its approach to science since, as the Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures” while the Religions of the revealed Books (the Abrahamic religions) seem to consider these elements in a reversed order.

Additionally the encounter between Science and Buddhism seems also favoured by a fundamental disposition common to both: they do not believe in God or even in a soul, since Buddhism prefers to concentrate, among other things, on conscience. Buddhism and science “share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent Being as origin of all things.” Basically it is the denial of any metaphysics.

A Rescue Guide in Times of Crisis

In general I believe this simple thing: science provides a lot of answers but still voids are left (what is the meaning of life? How do we choose between right and wrong? Are there any absolute values? etc.) that might progressively be filled up, although so far they are not, thus leaving those who rely on science only with questions unanswered and inner tranquillity precarious. Humanities are able in fact to make up for further answers (philosophy) and for reconciling our soul through beauty (art).

(The problem is complex and it is discussed in the debate regarding the two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and regarding the so-called third culture)

As far as we are concerned, in fact, novels, poems, music, paintings, philosophy, all humanistic culture, in conclusion, can somehow fill these voids. And religion? Of course religion can fill these voids too, but, although we have a lot of respect for those who have a faith, we are not religious (agnostic, not atheist), our position being that of the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. So we are not disposed to easily believe in revealed things or tales – hope we do not hurt anyone’s feelings – which were satisfying for men living thousands of years ago but, frankly, not as much for today’s man.

Buddhism, being a philosophy and religion without a God seems more modern (even though some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, consider the Buddha as a God). Buddhism does not force us to believe in dreams in order to find a ubi consistam, namely a guide, a point of reference.

The truth is we are not even Buddhist. We have no parachute. But we like it this way.

References

Official Dalai Lama Web Site.

The Universe in a Single Atom
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.

Mind Science
– An East – West Dialogue – by H.H. the Dalai Lama with Herbert Benson, Robert A. Thurman, Howard E. Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Wisdom Publications, USA, 1991.

See also www.mindandlife.org for reports on various confrontations between the Dalai Lama and various scientists.

Decline of the American Roman Empire

Louvre, Paris, photo by Guillaume Blanchard
Osiris, Isis and Horus. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard

I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.

Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:

  1. One occurred in the Canadian Commentator’s blog, also indicated by Theresa from Arkansas in her blog and dealing with the possible decline of the American Empire.
  2. Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
  3. Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian Ashish and Falcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.

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Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.

Ok, I’ll try, but:

  1. Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
  2. allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.

Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) 😉

Spiritual Désarroi

The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…

Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).

A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).

Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.

As the Roman Empire. An Analogy

Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.

Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).


(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)

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Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …

(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)

A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.

by Denys Arcand

(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)

Western Values, Again (2)

Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset 😉 ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma

Western Values, Again (1)

This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon, Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).

Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?

Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?

Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).

Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?

I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).

Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.

A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”

Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).

Left & Right

You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.

For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”

Man of Roma

(to be continued)

Which are our Western Values?

Rob wrote an interesting post, Support Shiv Malik’s book, regarding various things among which a speech Tony Blair delivered to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in August 1, 2006. As Rob writes, Tony Blair “called for a complete renaissance on foreign policy to combat reactionary Islam:”

“Whatever the outward manifestation at any one time – argued Blair, then Prime Minister – it is a global fight about global values; it is about modernization, within Islam and outside of it; it is about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs. Islamist extremism’s whole strategy is based on a presumed sense of grievance that can motivate people to divide against each other. Our answer has to be a set of values strong enough to unite people with each other.
This is not just about security or military tactics.
It is about hearts and minds about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for.” [italics by Rob]

This is my comment:

“A very good post, Rob. I will only comment on one aspect where we probably are of different opinion.”

“This complete “renaissance” on foreign policy to combat Islam fanatics, seen as a global fight about global values … mmmm, nice talk indeed. Tony Blair is a valuable man in many respects and he is not deprived of some greatness. I admired him for example in his last day as a prime Minister, where he showed dignity and courage.”

“But let us face it: how can Mr. Blair think he/we/the West can win this battle for values? Which were the values that provoked the Iraqi war? Finding (non existent) mass destruction weapons? Exporting democracy? Everybody now has a clearer idea why that war was started: for power in the region and for oil. Ok, that is realpolitik. Every power plays its game in the world chessboard. None the less, I am asking myself, are we especially entitled or do we have any special chances to win such a battle on global values? Isn’t there instead a lack of values in the West? Isn’t Blair’s talk you quote hypocritical to a large extent?”

“This war has provoked the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (the number of US casualties being in comparison irrelevant). The Italian Berlusconi government joined the so to say happy bunch, my only consolation being that the VAST majority of Italians were totally against that war.

Best regards,

Man of Roma

“PS
Not that I think the Islamic fanatics have better values. But are we sure our set of values is really much more “robust, true, principled and appealing” that it is so clear that it can beat theirs?”

Sex and the city (of Rome). A conclusion

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), an Italian early Renaissance painter
The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian early Renaissance painter. Detail of Venus’ face. Click to enlarge a bit
Italian version

Amazing Continuities

In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read an appreciation of Ernst Walser’s suggestion that, in order to better understand Italian Renaissance men, one should think of contemporary Italians (to a certain extent.)

We believe that, inversely, the same could be said of Italian Renaissance men. To better understand them one should think of the Ancients, namely the Greeks and the Romans (to a certain extent.)

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OK. But don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients?

We do. Nonetheless there are amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?

An Army of Don Juans

Narrowing our focus on the themes discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome) 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ve just heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film:

“An army of Don Juans was about to land…”.

The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Elvis Presley. Public domain

Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English-speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol?  I know it was perhaps a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?

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Other associations in fact arise.

Why Latin folks are considered sensual (or sensualists) by many people in the United States and in the UK?
Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan Spanish? And why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (or even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some Spanish & French influence ? Was it only because he was just handsome and his voice great?

Now the BIG question: is it possible we’re facing here some of those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Fernand Braudel built his historical method upon?

I mean, aren’t we dealing here with remnants of ‘alien’, pre-Christian, ways of living one’s sexuality?

Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral, but, for this same reason, irresistible?

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It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, a complicated topic with a few unpleasant aspects (you might like this post on Julius Caesar’s Don Juanism). No self-indulgence here, pls, all we care about being the possible survivals of a far away past.

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Let us thus continue with our associative questions.

Amoral Pagans

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538.
Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence. Click for a much better and larger picture

How come the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted?

Is it because they perceived the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and by the Italians of that time?

Can’t it be this was due to the fact that most of these Northern people started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, eg with Christianisation, while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier?
[highly civilized during ancient Roman times: Italian Renaissance didn’t come out of a desert, read a moving page here]

Can’t it be that they are the true Christians (culturally, at least, so no matter if believers or not) while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (or many) traces?
[ See an overview of the MoR’s blog main themes]

Sandro Botticelli. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85
Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), painter of the Florentine school. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85. Click for credits and for other paintings by Botticelli

Can’t it be the reason (I am obsessive, I know) why the Christian religion was here felt mainly as a political thing, eg a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not dissimilar to when ancient Rome was governor of nations?

Why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? Why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was appreciated more by the big politicians of the planet (who flocked to his funeral) and less by the spiritual gurus of our time?

[Today the Vatican is perceived as a political – more than a spiritual – institution, I don’t have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular – 44% – than the German Pope Benedict XVI – 42% -, data emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007]

Why in the end many British and American historians, when discussing the Italian Renaissance, show(ed) until recently some kind of moral repulsion?

Saint Peter Cathedral in Rome. Public domain

Let us therefore listen to the words of Preserved Smith, an American historian of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Renaissance entry in the 1956 edition of the Britannica:

“A succession of worldly pontiffs brought the Church into flagrant discord with the principles of Christianity. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and, at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the [Italian] educated classes lost their grasp upon morality …”

“The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time … The Church saw no danger in encouraging a pseudo-pagan ideal of life, violating its own principle of existence … and outraging Christendom openly by its acts and utterances.”

Italian society – Preserved Smith continues – was hardly aware that the New Learning it had mostly contributed to create had provoked “an intellectual force of stupendous magnitude and incalculable explosive power …”. His conclusion is beautiful (though tragic for us):

“Why should not [Italian] established institutions proceed upon the customary and convenient methods of routine, while the delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously? This was the attitude of the Italians when the Renaissance, which they had initiated as a thing of beauty, began to operate as a thing of power beyond the Alps”.

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance. Public domain

And in fact Italy was soon to be colonised by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to bring into being.

[Speaking of paganism, Gramsci argues in that same Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony“]

So it seems we are often considered amoral and not true Christians. Are we amoral? Are we not true Christians? Are we decadent, rotten? Or maybe someone is simply not fully capable of understanding us?

Life with no Pang of Conscience

Sandro Botticelli. Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in
Sandro Botticelli’s Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi (of Greek descent, probably), and dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle (Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948).

This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian Renaissance men as well:

Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit “of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart …”

“[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.”

They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

Botticelli. Youth

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Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini reveals papal Rome’s pagan nature)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4


“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS. I had to erase a few insulting comments to this post. They were written by some commentators from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended somebody, it was not my aim, really.

My style is sometimes aggressive but I am fond of the British people. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn their language decently enough.

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The main idea behind this post is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people from the Italian peninsula (and elsewhere) were civilized long before Christianity arrived.

By civilization we refer to something distinguished from culture (see a discussion on it) for the reason of a higher level of complexity, a larger geographic locus, the presence of sophisticated urbanisation etc.

This fact, the existence of a pre-Christian high-level civilization – the Greco-Roman – may have engendered cultural differences (alive yet today) vis-a-vis  cultures who mostly reached a ‘fully civilized’ stage together with (and thanks to) Christianity.

Such differences may regard survivals of the Roman religion in Italy and elsewhere – traces which scholars recognize and which Protestants, it is known, always tried to eradicate. They may also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well.

Did scholars research on these difference? If so, how far they went? We do not know, our research on roman-ness being a knowledge journey.

See the comments area for further information.

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As for the expansion of the Greco-Roman ‘civilization’ toward North-West Europe:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)