Papal Resignation & the Berlusconi Election: Grand Italian Opera in Two Acts!March 5th, 2013 by Dean Foster | Discuss This »
Luigi Barzoni, in his great cultural analysis, The Italians, summed up the Italian approach to life: ignore problems for as long as you possibly can, and when you cannot ignore them any longer, make fun of them, dismiss their importance, sweep them under the rug, blame them on someone or something else, but never, never, never deal with them directly. This leads, of course, to the great cultural dilemma of Italy: people who behave as irresponsibly as children (Mussolini said, “it is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless”), and a fervent energy put to decorating the imperfections of life, rather than eliminating them in the first place. This results in, as any tourist to Italy will tell you, “a beautiful country to visit”, but, as any person having to live or work in Italy will also tell you, a “terrible place to live”. In their effort to “decorate” life’s problems rather than deal with them, Italians have developed “la dolce vita”, a gorgeous tapestry of art, music, cuisine, and daily life, unmatched in its beauty, and terrible in its political, social and economic consequences. This is no way to run a country, so politics, of course, becomes a grand opera, a circus, and the constant dismissing and minimizing of daily realities allows for the continuation of a fatalism that maintains that ultimately, it is impossible for anyone to do anything about problems, so the best way to get through the day is to, well, ignore them, admire the person who can find ways around them (at any ethical expense), and enjoy yourself as best you can.
The cultural question, of course, is “why”? Why have Italians opted for this approach to dealing with life? There are perhaps a number of cultural genes that explain this: fatalism, as mentioned, is one of them, and its sources are a self-perpetuating reinforcement of fatalism, beginning with the collapse of imperial Rome, a historically agricultural economy dependent on the whims of uncontrollable natural forces (including the occasional earthquake and erupting volcano), to the rise of the hierarchical and intentionally mysterious Roman Catholic Church. In this kind of environment, rules, processes and systems were always undependable, uncontrollable, and the admired individual is the one who can either make the rules, or find ways around them; those who actually believed in the value of the rules, who bended to them, were either helpless, foolish, or both. In addition to fatalism, however, is also the cultural gene of “bella Figura”, or, literally, “beautiful face”, where how things appear is of equal or greater value to how things really intrinsically are. That the surface is a reflection of the inner, therefore, the more beautiful the surface, the more “correct” the interior. This is, of course, backwards, but no matter, so that if you lie so that things appear to be OK when they are not, that becomes admirable. Mussolini used to parade the same small number of troops down the Via Veneto, then back up behind the houses, and out again, to make it seems as if there were endless men ready to fight in the Italian army. A grand illusion, fulfilling every emotional wish, but having no rational basis. Bella figura, when combined with a disregard for the rules and an admiration for those who can find ways around the rules, results in rewarding illusion, thuggery, cleverness.
Hence, today, we have the “double-headed” opera of Italy 2013 in 2 acts: a comic-tragedy of unbelievable political circus (literally, with a professional clown as one of the major candidates), and the resignation of the head of a disgraced church, being helicoptered out of its crumbling decay to protect himself from his inevitable culpability. Ah, Italy. A beautiful place to visit…and a terrible place to live. And culture could have told you so!
Giovanni Stropoli, March 6th, 2013 on 2:44 am
Dear Dean, a nice, entertaining reading but a bit on the light side. Lots of traditional politicians underestimated the meaning of the movement of Grillo. That movement ended up getting so many votes to technically block the parliament, a more rigorous analysis would have given it more attention, something is boiling here. And the Pope is not living in Italy and is not Italian, let’s put things in the context of a global event, Catholics are present everywhere and arguably this is a truly global matter.
Daniela, March 10th, 2013 on 9:55 pm
its only coincidental that we have an election and a pope nominated, please remember that pulishing something like that you risk to be seen as at least uninformed and bias.
we know all too well the constraints and bad management in politics and other fields, but I guess politics re dty anywhere, and whether in Britain or in other states there is discontent.
Please fee free to get in touch and to visit …
Paola, March 11th, 2013 on 2:41 pm
Dear Dean, I found your analysis of my beautiful Italy very interesting. It is always interesting to see ourselves through other people’s eyes. I would like to interject a couple of thoughts:
As a contemporary Italian philosopher said, “Italy is a language” and this definition well represents the fundamental issue this country has faced since the unification. The culture of city-states is still very present, and then there is the variety of polital parties and their temporary alliences, and more, there is the generation gap that has become an economic gap. It is kind of complicated.
About the current transition in the Vatican: Indeed, it is a global and historical event. Perhaps, I would say Italians, independently from their political view as adults, since they generally had a catholic education during their youth, tend to see all this matter with more kindness and respect than what I witnessed in the international media . Benedict XVI ,as the second oldest Pope elected in history, just felt the weight of his age. It’s understandable…. with all the travel and public appearances requested to a Pope in these present times. He also followed the gigantic presence of Beatus John Paul II …. that is on the fast path to be recognized a Saint. Many Italians prefer to recognize Benedict’s humility and treat all the matter with understanding. This is part of the Italian culture, indeed.
As always, thank you for the interesting conversation.