Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Italians (Luigi Barzini, 1964)

Written during the thick of the post-war Italian economic and political boom, Barzini's The Italians was written in a style has become defunct with the rise of postmodern and poststructuralist anthropological studies of entire societies and cultures. Read today, Barzini's question, "what is the essence of the Italian people?" is difficult to swallow during a time when asking questions about people's essences and "true natures" are at best laughable and at worst offensive. But regardless of how overbearingly paternalistic Barzini sounds, the book is still a good read. It is a weighty counterpoint to the large numbers of books published each year about the charming, easy-going Italians whose stress-free lives attract foreigners who want to escape the strictures of their own culture. Predictably, Barzini finds the idea of la dolce vita a myth. But who doesn't--even Fellini's film which popularized the term (and produced four years before Barzini's study went into publication) was a satire of the idea of the "good Italian life." But Barzini's "source" for such a myth is interesting, in that he never actually tries to persuade that there is no such thing as la dolce vita. In fact, he swears by its existence--that is, the existence of a facade of a good life to hide the misery of a humiliated population. The over-reaching attempt at pleasing everyone, the unconscious need to dress in the most fashionable clothes, the over-wrought emotions of its paintings and operas are all products of a population that for centuries have been forced into submission by powerful neighbors, creating a squabbling society forced to fend for itself, mistrustful of those outside of its most immediate circle (i.e. the family). To the author, foreigners that have become deluded by this illusion are only victims of mistrusting Italians who, always mistrusting of the outside, puts up an inoffensive and always-pleasing facade to guarantee freedom from the hurt that the foreigners are capable of unleashing. Foreigners see Italy as "special" not because it is (he makes a good point about food: Italian food is good because it preserves the nature of the ingredients; French food is better because it is an art of manipulating food and controlling the "Nature" that it represents), or are treated specially because they are, but because it is too humiliating for Italians to show what has been swept up under their rug.

It's all very true. Just speak to an Italian who has been to another country, and that's all you hear: bad economy, idiotic politics, close-minded people, and restricting religious traditions. But make the mistake of agreeing, and you get in a world of hurt: we are the best in fashion, food, cars, art, music; our sunflowers are yellower and taller than Spain's; the alps are more dramatic here than in Austria; the Riviera is better here than in France; our ruins look more ruined than Greece's. But one questions Barzini's single-minded vision of history, with the future reacting to the past merely by repeating it. Spain, for example went through the same humiliation and almost fifty years of oppresive Facist rule. Yet, they come out of that traumatic experience with a completely different perspective: they threw themselves into the project of opening up to the rest of the world. The post-Franco Spain (which, based on Barzini's description, is as equally traumatic as post-war Italy) had to face the facade created by Franco of the unity of Spanish culture. Why did the Italians choose to maintain it? One can argue that the Spanish facade was easier to destroy because only Franco believed in it, but that simplifies the relationship a dictator has over his subjects--if he is in power, it is because consent was implied from the people's silence. And what do the Italians get from continuing the facade? Tourist money of course, but in the expense of a perpetually unstable government, an economy that is always on the verge of collapse, and a north-south dicotomy that has largely affected post-war Italian politics and will continue to affect Italian life and culture in the future. (In retrospect, making Barzini consider the Spanish case is forcing him to have an accurate prediction of the future, with a book written in 1964 commenting on a collapse of a regime that happens more than a decade later.)

So in effect, Barzini paints a neat picture of what ails the Italian people, but also does a bit of brushing under the rug himself. A history of disunity, dislocation, and foreign subjection--especially when living in a present that is anything but--ultimately cannot fully explain why Italians continue to behave like people under siege. Were past events so traumatic that they really sealed the fate of Italians forever? Are Italians really too lazy to change their destiny? Or, as the essentialist in all of us would like to argue, "that is just the way they are."

Who the meantime, I have a spritz date with some friends. dolce vita.

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