Saturday, April 21, 2018

What We're Missing: Lina Wertmüller's "È una domenica sera di novembre"

Once a director from outside the United States gains a certain degree of international fame, it would make sense to assume that his or her films would get some sort of American release, but, in fact, the filmographies of even such titans of world cinema as Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, and Chantal Akerman remain full of holes for Americans, especially those who are monolingual. The completist film buff will face a choice: learn a new language and go hunting in the archives, or accept that certain films will remain mere titles. In the case of Italian filmmakers in particular, English speakers face an impoverishment of unusually rich filmographies. Marco Bellocchio, Liliana Cavani, Matteo Garrone, Nanni Moretti, and Lina Wertmüller, to name just a small group of especially brilliant filmmakers, all direct, write, and produce short films, documentaries, and TV programming, which never get released in the United States. 

Documentaries in particular get short shrift, and as a result, the political impegno of these directors is a less salient, a less essential fact of their work for American audiences. Lina Wertmüller - the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, for Seven Beauties in 1977 - directed a brief, forty-five minute documentary, for RAI in 1981, È una domenica sera di novembre ("It is a Sunday evening in November"). This film is not available with subtitles, nor does it appear to have seen any release on physical media. It is a work of reportage, a stark, intimate portrait of the devastation wrought by the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, which left more than two thousand dead, more than seven thousand wounded, and approximately 250,00 people displaced from their homes. Though a narrator gently and lyrically describes the horror of being buried alive, and Gheorghe Zamfir's pan flutes waft over images of crumbled towns, the political fire and fury is permitted to explode through the raw (in more than one sense) footage of emergency personnel and ordinary citizens attempting to excavate people from the rubble. The dust is so thick that one could be forgiven for thinking it was snow. Although as a film, È una domenica sera di novembre is no masterwork, its very lack of overt technical work creates the illusion that there is no mediation between the viewer and the victims of the earthquake. 

Why should American viewers, who in most cases can't understand Italian, know about this film? Why is it important? I believe that it is important because it opens a window on emotions that are quite oblique in Wertmüller's sarcastically comedic narrative films: sincere agony, questioning of faith, quiet indignation, pity, full-hearted sadness, active compassion. Irony and sarcasm, the carnivalesque, the grotesque, parody, play, cruelty and sadism, that is, the qualities that make her narrative films so extraordinary, are not present in this documentary. Instead of bitter resignation, demoralization, or jaded despair, È una domenica sera di novembre presents us with a picture of mourning, indignation, and pleading for help, help that might actually be possible, and thus also hope. It reveals another facet of Wertmüller's project: here she is uninterested in parties or ideologies. She is concerned with suffering; by focusing on real human beings instead of fictional characters, she accesses a well of compassion and insistence on political action without reference to ideologies. One wishes that these sorts of precious materials, the 'lesser' works (the shorter, or more serious, or less marketable ones), could be made available to wider audiences. Until then, this is one more film that we're missing. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Does Feminism Require Autonomy?

One of the central frustrations of being a feminist critic is that it is far too easy to get caught up in ultimately meaningless disputes about whether or not a particular writer (novel, poem, film, painting, etc.) qualifies as feminist, a question both irresolvable and constantly under debate, since art has no objective ideological content, inconvenient as that may be. Rarely do such disputes get at the crux of the issue, the theoretical problem at the heart of any classificatory system. In order to determine whether a given figure or work is feminist, we would have to define what feminism is. That's the particular, and massive rock, threatening in the shoals.

Though postcolonial criticism has problematized the conception of a universal feminism, there is still a strong tendency to assume that one's own feminism is the feminism. American feminism tends to be expressed in a rhetoric of empowerment, strength, and autonomy and thus, American feminist critics tend to seek out literature and art that reflects those particular values and enacts them through characters and the success of those characters. The blind spot for these critics (and I confess, I too have at times been willfully unaware of that blind spot) is Americentrism, the presumption that the American iteration of feminism is universal and universalizable. Classifying whether something is feminist or not isn't an especially enlightening exercise, but nevertheless that classification often determines the fate of a given work if it's written (composed, painted, etc.) by a woman. Women writers who can be assimilated easily into current American feminist paradigms stand a chance of being instated, or reinstated, into the canon, or at least the gender studies curriculum or woman-centric imprints of the publishing houses.

Witness the example of one of my favorite writers, Grazia Deledda. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize and was publicly lionized by such writers as Giovanni Verga and D.H. Lawrence (who also translated one of her novels). She's one of the only women among her literary generation in Italy to achieve a lasting critical reputation, and, although she's not discussed as much as, say, D'Annunzio, she continues to have a presence in scholarly work and many of her novels remain in print. Such is the case in Italy.

In the United States, she is almost completely unknown. There are numerous reasons for this - few Italian writers have been enshrined in the canon established in the English-language world, only a tiny percentage of published works in English are translations - but Deledda could be recuperated, as other women writers have been, by feminist critics and scholars actively seeking out literature by women. In order for this to happen, more of her work needs to be translated. However, the claim that Deledda was a feminist writer (and thus worthy of institutional inscription in literature departments and publishing lists) is a tenuous one in the American context, simply because her books don't dramatize the specific, historically and culturally contingent values of current American feminism. Her heroines are not empowered in a contemporary sense; they are brave for daring to kiss a boy and accept a brother's beating afterwards, or for taking a train journey alone. They dress demurely and transgress the rules rarely and with trepidation, calculating their chances for success in secret. Her women do not enact autonomy by today's standards; they are not independent, not trendsetters, only rarely exceptional. Judged according to the standards of today's American feminism, this Italian writer who published her major works a century ago doesn't hold up.

The shame isn't that Deledda didn't anticipate the development of a future ideology in a foreign country; the shame is that this ideology is so narrow-minded that it can't conceive of a feminism that expresses different values. Deledda's female characters exist in a circumscribed world where any ambition, especially an artistic one, was looked upon as abnormal in a woman at best, sinful and outrageous more often than not. In today's America, despite structural and cultural limitations that are quite real, rhetorically women are expected to work, to have ambition - that is, they are expected to be autonomous. If autonomy is the yardstick by which we measure the worth of a woman's writing, then Deledda doesn't have much to offer. But, if that's the case, then feminist criticism is little more than a vigorously shaken sieve, sifting out the sand from what just might turn out to be fool's gold. Feminism has been theorized now for nearly three centuries as a philosophy of greater inclusion: what irony, then, that its current commentators are more concerned with excluding anything that might threaten its, and their, assumptions.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Against Fluent Translation

In the English-language context, it is typically assumed that a good translation is one that reads as though it had originally been written in English. The scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti calls this fluent translation, as opposed to foreignizing translation, which emphasizes the original's difference from English. As Venuti points out, there is a political dimension to which method a translator chooses, or a publisher accepts. If the translation is fluent, the text is domesticated, folded into English-language cultures and values; if it is foreignizing, it makes use of English-language cultures and values to make the text intelligible without assimilating it, at the very least signalling that the text is the product of a different cultural paradigm.

Despite the supremacy of the rhetoric of diversity in American liberal politics, the conservative impulse to render all translations fluent continues to dominate. Few translations (about three percent of American book-length publications in a given year) ever reach English-language readers and those that do are, almost without exception, fluent. Diverse literary voices are only acceptable if they are easily assimilated by American readers, easily interpreted along American political lines and social values. When translators are mentioned at all, they are either praised for clarity and accuracy (even when the reviewer can't read the original) or damned for awkwardness and obscurity. At the heart of this understanding of translation is a decidedly American assumption of human universality, a belief that emotion translates smoothly from one context to another without need for mediation, that an essential, cohesive self can be metaphysically expressed in a text, regardless of its original language, and that difference is identity-based and superimposed upon a foundational, generalized humanity. 

This means, in practice, that literary works that are thorny, difficult, recalcitrant, strange, that is, in some way, unassimilable, almost never get translated into English. Monolingual English speakers exist in a culturally coherent bubble, challenged only by alternatives that are nevertheless contextually intelligible. The current practice of translation permits American readers to presume their own normalcy and insists on a utopian, near-magic conception of communication across languages and cultures. Fluent translation is cultural isolationism clothed in anodyne diversity politics. Its a way to take credit for multiculturalism without confronting its challenges, self-satisfaction in the guise of humility.

This doesn't mean that every translation needs to be enormously challenging for English-language readers: it means that not every literary work can be rendered in smooth, lucid, concise English. It means that a genuine interest in openness to the other requires living with some frustration and discomfort, moments in which the reader realizes a given work wasn't written just for him. Foreignizing translation threatens the reader's narcissistic sense of normalcy and cultural superiority. It's impossible for any one person to learn all living languages, but foreignizing translation, translation that embraces alterity, with all its difficulty, with all its irreducible untranslatability, has the potential power to foment cultural exchange without the prerequisite of universalism, in itself culturally contingent. If diversity is to be genuinely valued in American literary culture, then fluent translation needs to be recognized as the assimilationist practice that it is, and foreignizing translation must be encouraged. If we can't tolerate a text that doesn't pander to our own values, how can we hope to be tolerant of human beings different from ourselves?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 10 Best Italian Films Since 2006

When I made a list in 2013 of the best Italian films of the twenty-first century, I was so hamstrung by lack of access that none of my choices had been produced later than 2005. Since then, between a proliferation of streaming services and some exciting DVD releases, I've been able to access a wealth of Italian films, from comedies and documentaries to fantasy films and dramas. Sadly, Il giovane favoloso, or Leopardi, the film that I anticipated so breathlessly in my previous post, was a disappointment, but in compensation, here are ten wonderful movies. All of the films on this list are available with English-language subtitles and have seen international release.

Behind the White Glasses (2015)
This documentary about Lina Wertmüller, the brilliant director of Seven Beauties, Swept Away, and Love and Anarchy, is a charmer: a film that recognizes her extraordinary capacity to have fun, no matter what, no matter how dark or hopeless circumstances might be. Wertmüller discusses not only her films, but her musical collaborations with Nino Rota, her work as a very young assistant director with Fellini as he made 8 1/2, and her opera productions. Especially precious are the interviews with a lively, twinkly-eyed Giancarlo Giannini, the muse of her greatest films of the '70s. Though formally Behind the White Glasses doesn't break new ground, it has a bright and bushy-eyed quality that fittingly reflects the irreverent, but never fluffy character of Wertmüller's films.

Golden Door (2006)
Emanuele Crialese's hallucinatory drama about a family of Sicilian immigrants' journey to the United States is bracingly well-lit and slips in and out of magical realism like a dolphin, leaving behind the grainy, gritty style of neorealism for the hyper-intensity of hope amid agony. The film's original title, Nuovomondo, literally means NewWorld, and immigration is, indeed, portrayed as a voyage from one world to another. The widowed Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) hears the tales of man-sized vegetables and dragon-sized sheep, of roads paved with gold, that he's assured he will find in America, so he buys passage for himself and his sons. The scenes set on Ellis Island are heart-breaking, especially for those of us with personal ties to that haunted place.

Habemus Papam (2011)
Though not on a par with Caro diario or The Son's Room, Nanni Moretti's romp through the election of a new pope, released when the unpopular Pope Benedict was still the Supreme Pontiff, is one of his best recent efforts. Moretti assumes a lighter, less overtly politicized approach than in previous films; the institution of the papacy is less raked over the coals than lightly singed. Michel Piccoli plays Cardinal Melville, reluctant to accept the burden of the papacy, while Moretti himself plays the psychoanalyst secretly called in to cure the errant new pope of his desire to escape responsibility for global Catholicism. An especial treat is a scene of the cardinals playing an impromptu game of volleyball.

Loose Cannons (2010)
This sweet-tempered, sunny comedy directed by Ferzan Özpetek doesn't land every joke; it's warm and messy and occasionally veers into unintended farce. The performances, though, by Riccardo Scamarcio, Ennio Fantastichini, and Alessandro Preziosi elevate material that could easily slide into the typical hysterical, stereotype-dependent mainstream Italian comedy, while Özpetek's off-kilter weirdness (suicide by cake?) adds dimension to the quirkiness. Tommaso (Scamarcio) confides in his brother (Preziosi) that he's planning on coming out to their conservative, blustery father (Fantastichini), only for his brother to steal his opportunity, causing the father to have a heart attack. Meanwhile, Tommaso's boyfriend is driving up, expecting to meet the family. Fantastichini's mad-eyed paranoia that the entire city is mocking him recalls Saro Urzì as the dishonored father in Germi's Seduced and Abandoned, while the warm glow that pervades Tommaso's life when he ceases hiding his sexuality makes a better argument for inclusiveness than speechifying. 

My Brother Is an Only Child (2007)
Riccardo Scamarcio again stars in Daniele Lucchetti's tale of two brothers growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, but it's Elio Germano who steals the show as hot-headed troublemaker, Accio, who veers violently from a masochistic vocation for the priesthood to neo-fascist thuggery, only for his political extremism to be annihilated by its consequences on his radical brother (Scamarcio) and his alluring girlfriend (Diane Fleri). My Brother Is an Only Child is an ambitious film; it attempts to distill the complexity of extreme party and sexual politics through the relationship of two brothers. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Passione (2010)
John Turturro's homage to Neapolitan music strings together performances, both archival and new, from nearly every major performer to emerge from Naples in the past century, from Enrico Caruso to Sergio Bruni and Renato Carosone, all the way up to Pietra Montecorvino, Raiz, Peppe Barra, and Almamegretta. The rich miscuglio of traditions, from lyric opera to Arabic, Spanish, and African song, results in an exhilarating aural experience, matched by the pulsating rhythmic editing of Simona Paggi and the color-saturated, sinuous cinematography by Marco Pontecorvo.

The Sicilian Girl (2008)
Whatever moralism it might participate in, most mafia films assume the perspective of the mafiosi. It's rare for a woman to take center stage in such films, even rarer for her to be an ally of law and order, rarer still for her to be an agent and not just a victim. Based on the life of Rita Atria, a seventeen-year-old girl who became a star witness in the investigation of Cosa Nostra, the film fictionalizes her story, but director Marco Amenta, who previously directed a documentary about Atria, resists the worst sensationalist excesses. The Rita of the narrative film (Veronica D'Agostino, at times too shallowly expressionistic) begins keeping a diary after she witnesses the assassination of her father (Marcello Mazzarella). Obsessed with vengeance, especially after her brother (Carmelo Galati) is killed by the same assassin, Rita turns upon the whole mafia system.

Tale of Tales (2015)
Matteo Garrone's stunningly gorgeous and often gruesome fantasy film, adapted from three stories collected in Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, stars an international cast that includes Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, and Alba Rohrwacher. In the first tale, a childless queen impregnates herself by eating the heart of a slain sea dragon, while in the second, a king offers his daughter's hand to any suitor who can identify an exotic skin, in fact the skin of a grotesquely huge pet flea, and in the third, two old crones are courted by a prince enchanted by their ethereal singing. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters make no attempt to domesticate these slyly cruel stories, reveling in their strangeness and their witchy anarchy.

Vincere (2009)
Director Marco Bellocchio elicited from Giovanna Mezzogiorno her best ever performance, as Ida Dalser, Mussolini's (Filippo Timi) first wife and the mother of his son. Working with newly discovered archival materials, including letters and diaries, Bellocchio and fellow screenwriter Daniela Ceselli reconstruct a devastating history; Dalser and her son were considered threats to Mussolini's regime and thus they were separated and eventually incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where both would die under suspicious circumstances, forgotten by posterity and excised from official records. The textured cinematography, with its velvety reds, inky blacks, murky browns, and silver-sheened greys, is by Daniele Ciprì. A masterpiece.

The Wedding Director (2006)
Another marvel directed by Marco Bellocchio, The Wedding Director stars Sergio Castellitto as a filmmaker in crisis, confounded by his latest project, an adaptation of Manzoni's I promessi sposi, who finds a flimsy excuse to flee to Sicily. There, he becomes entangled by an invitation from a prince to direct the wedding video of his daughter. Obviously responding to films like 8 1/2, Contempt, and All That Jazz, in which directors (re)enact personal and creative imbroglios by making a metafilm, The Wedding Director isn't brassy, nihilistic, or trying to exude a cool aesthetic. It's introspective, exploring the ineffable spaces that open up when relationships, whether with people or artworks, real or imagined, fall apart.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Film Review: Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard"

It's generally a mistake to watch an adaptation immediately after reading the book. The small details and nuances are still freshly vibrant and those neglected or omitted are irksome, while insignificant changes - the color of a character's eyes, a table instead of a desk, a conflation of a month into a few days - seem enormous. Such was my experience of watching Luchino Visconti's adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's epochal novel, The Leopard (Il gattopardo, or literally, The Serval). With Visconti as director, Nino Rota's score, Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography, a screenplay with contributions by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and a cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, the film seemed like something I might have dreamed up, but the subtle pleasures of the book, contemplative, decadent, saturnine, were not the same pleasures of the film. On a first viewing, almost immediately after closing the covers of the book, I didn't care much for the film, despite its pedigree, and its achingly lovely evocation of a world long since dead.

Revisiting the film now, I realize that I was too caught up in looking for an exact replica of the novel, and that was not Visconti's project. The film is a masterpiece, in dialogue with its source material, but not a mere imitation. And this is fitting, for the most celebrated and famous quotation of the novel is in fact: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." A more succinct translation of the concept of trasformismo, I am not capable of writing. Both novel and film follow the leonine, aging Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) as he ironically observes the events of the Italian Unification from his ancestral estates in Sicily, giving his blessing to his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), who falls in love with the bourgeois Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), a match that would have been impossible before Garibaldi's Red Shirts embarked on their famous climb up the Italian Boot.

Lampedusa was in fact the last Prince Lampedusa and the novel's politics speak to that fact, to his mourning for the end of his lineage  and the desecration of the family palazzo and to his ambivalence towards the Italian Unification, a long, bloody process usually celebrated as a decade of heroism, the extinction of a paternalistic, feudalistic aristocratic reign and the birth of representative government. Visconti, too, was an aristocrat, but he was also a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party, and for this he was known as the Red Count. The film adaptation diverges most from the novel by including a lengthy sequence, during which the protagonists are absent, of the battle between the Garibaldini and the Royalist forces for the city of Palermo. Reminiscent of the siege of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, it's a bloody, frenetic interlude, a gaping hole in the aristocratic decorum and sedate luxury of the Prince of Salina's life. However, the film subtly critiques the political despair of the novel: the transfer of power from occupiers, colonists, small monarchies, and the papacy to a national government, with the Piedmontese king at its head, was less a victory than a slight shift in power with monumental consequences. The radical democratic and egalitarian impulses of Garibaldi and the impassioned patriotic utopianism of Mazzini became mere rhetorical implements to toss away once Cavour's crafty diplomacy and power machinations succeeded as not merely a strategy but the very means of Italian governance, but in 1963, hope burgeoned that the evils of corrupt government, repressive social structures, and class inequality could be defeated. The prince's statement in 1860 that Sicilian poverty would last at least another century or two was not so pessimistic in a film made a century afterwards. The red of the uniform of the Garibaldini could just as easily be the red of the communists; the change in the noble Tancredi's uniform, from Garibaldino red to monarchical blue, is not commented upon at random. Red was defeated once, but red fights again in Palermo through the magic of film.

The political commentary, though, is fodder for academics; the film's beauty and sensuality, its immersive techniques, can be marveled at and reveled in by any viewer. Visconti achieves something perfectly in The Leopard, something he strove to achieve in all his films: the viewer has a distinct sense of being thrown into a real, living, vital world. There are doors to unexplored rooms, roads to populated towns, the books can be read, the dust can work its way into seams and wrinkles, a celebratory cake with green icing can be tasted. At the end of the ball, crushed flowers and torn bits of tulle and lace drift under the last dancers' tripping feet. There isn't a single character, even the savagely gorgeous Angelica, who doesn't sweat in the stultifying Sicilian heat. This miraculous recreation of a world in its death throes is more than inviting: the viewer actually becomes a fellow ghost wandering through the cobweb-draped, unused rooms of the Salina palazzo. This immersiveness, more than the complicated political and romantic events of the plot, justify the film's lengthy running time of more than three hours. One needs time to look at the chandeliers glittering with candles, the hunting dog taking a spare moment to dig under a rock, the dabbing of cologne on a handkerchief; one needs time to hear the crepuscular chanting of the rosary, the bird-like chatter of girls at a ball. More than once, the camera takes up the position of a character and Tancredi, or Angelica, or Don Calogero, her absurd father in an ill-fitting tuxedo, look directly into the viewer's eyes. 

Visually, each frame is like a painting; aurally, The Leopard resembles an opera: this is so in nearly all of Visconti's post-neorealist work. But only Senso rivals this film in its engagement with Italy as an invented nation. In the Divine Comedy, Dante dreamed up a unified Italian peninsula, and since then Italians and the Italian diaspora have either accepted some conception or other of what Italy actually means without thinking past rhetoric, or done what Visconti has done in The Leopard: try to create Italy anew from a fragmented history of the stitching together of distinct regions, an Italy that might perhaps never exist except in the future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Didacticism of Fantasy

The conflict between good and evil is good business: superhero narratives, the Harry Potter and Star Wars leviathans, role-playing games, the majority of horror films, that is, the most valuable intellectual property right now promulgates moral paradigms that are dualistic and assumed as objective. Our fantasies take place on a military plane; as protagonists, we imagine ourselves incarnating good and creating utopias built upon the carcasses of the evil we have annihilated. It's tempting to believe that good pitted against evil has no genuine alternative but moral relativism, thought of as a doctrine that ranges from dunderheaded, sugary pap for the privileged to the sort of emptied out logic that skids right into justification for genocide. Of course, if we're honest with ourselves, most of the moralities by which we attempt to abide are relative, simply because otherwise we are positing ourselves in a vacuum, a hardly imaginable human state.

Magic, whether it's called the Force or a superpower, is the instrument of our fantasies, a weapon. Sometimes magic becomes a synonym for love or a sign of God's favor, but only if wielded by the hero. Is a vicarious belief in magic some kind of vestigial clinging, a childish regression in response to the traumas of modernity? Such is the framing we usually give to tarot card and psychic readings, even as we gorge on these stories of good and evil, and, more significantly, draw lessons from them. Why are these stories so valuable to us? Defenders (though heaven only knows why they need defending, given that their detractors are decidedly in the minority) argue that these stories teach us how to behave and how to define ourselves. They're supposed to galvanize us into taking action. In other words, they are didactic and inspirational.

For, despite a current allergy to the word 'didactic' (if I could only claim a dollar for each book or film review I've read of late that praises its object as not didactic, only to delineate its message, or what it teaches us), fantasy narratives, whether optimistic or pessimistic, are responded to as parables, stories that teach us how to be. This is why audiences get upset, for instance, if a protagonist says something flippant about a marginalized group. It's a problem not because the thing was said, but because we assume we're being taught to say it.

What would happen if we stopped searching for lessons or messages, stopped trying to decode a morality or ideology from our fantasy? I'm not arguing against analysis, but against analysis that presupposes that stories function first and foremost as instructional fables. The difference between art and propaganda can be difficult to parse and the line between them can be crossed and crossed again (for instance, in the case of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), but propaganda is generally supposed to yield only one interpretation. If art does that, it's bad art. The strongest case to be made that pop culture has an artistic dimension, and isn't merely consumerist entertainment, lies in a refusal of didacticism. Thus, instead of evaluating the message of a film - usually a bromidic generality, such as 'be true to yourself' (every Pixar film's motto) - as either correct or incorrect, morally speaking, the critic would try to understand what good actually means in the context of the book or film, what evil means, what it means for a protagonist to be assumed as the character that aligns with good, why we assume that the reader or viewer only relates to the good characters, what it means that violence is so often evoked as a means to peace. A deeper analysis could yield lessons, but lessons aren't much use if the complexity of reality demolishes their meaning as soon as one attempts to enact them in our daily lives.

For instance, Pixar films, when interpreted didactically, usually yield up the lesson I cited above: 'be yourself and you'll be happy and fulfilled.' This is a lesson we like as a culture; it doesn't threaten capitalism - Buy this product and you'll be happy! Not happy yet? Buy it again! - and it falls into line with identity politics. But what the heck does it mean to 'be yourself,' even assuming there's such as a stable, discrete self? What if 'yourself' is a bully? What if 'yourself' is selfish, or prone to violent tantrums? And further than that, what does a happy ending look like for living, breathing people? The credits don't roll as soon as we've hit peak happiness. Politically engaged criticism, especially of pop culture, has fallen into a shallow evaluation process that evades questions of real import and displaces responsibility for moral progress onto works of art, letting people on the ground off the hook. Evaluative critical practice lets us believe that seeing a film about a woman superhero in the theatre somehow strikes a blow for feminism. It doesn't. An empowered female character in a film, or novel, or game, might make us feel better for a while, but her existence doesn't alter the gendered power dynamics that are active in our own lives. The real magic is the magic we perform on our own minds, a magic that deceives us into believing that finding the right lessons in our entertainment is the same thing as enacting those lessons in the world we live in. The Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, in his extensive work on magic and ritual in the Italian South defined the practice of magic as a means of coping with a negative that cannot be overcome by the individual. If the deception we're practicing on ourselves is our liberal, 21st century, American magic, the unfortunate corollary is that we're doing it because the negative in our lives cannot be overcome by each one of us as individuals.

If the work of criticism is to have positive political repercussions, it has to start examining how art confronts the negative, not merely re-enacting the battle of good versus evil by dropping each book, movie, game, song, and so on, into a box marked either good or evil. If art merely teaches, and doesn't complicate, indoctrinates, and doesn't question, intones, but never sings, then it's no art at all. As critics, we can choose not to read didactically. We can choose to think rather than consume and reason rather than agree (or disagree).

Monday, February 26, 2018

Book Review: Carlo Levi's "Christ Stopped at Eboli"

Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli was first published in 1945. A fictionalized work of reportage, the book was a colorful, impressionistic account of the year Levi spent in exile in Southern Italy. Since that year at the height of the fascist period and the colonial war in Ethiopia, Italy, and the world entire for that matter, had undergone the tortures of World War II and its extramartial horrors. Levi wrote in hiding in Florence as the Germans occupied and then fled Italy. As a result, this is no ordinary work of journalism, nor is it an ordinary memoir. It recounts a moment of political suppression from the vantage point of a maelstrom. Levi couldn't consult any reference works; he had only his memory and whatever books he'd managed to squirrel away. He couldn't know whether the book he was writing would ever see the light of day, whether it would damn him forever as a subversive or re-open a political discussion that had raged since Italian Unification. As a result of the Allied occupation of Italy and subsequent victory in Europe, Levi's anti-fascism was vindicated and Christ Stopped at Eboli became the first major work of Italian literature to be published post-war.

I stress the climate of extreme uncertainty and risk because the book's hopefulness, its basic insistence on the human being rather than the mass, the individual rather than the representative, can't be taken for granted. Levi's cri di coeur was anti-fascist, a recording of the results of his anti-fascism, but he was also addressing a future, a future that he dared to hope wouldn't be fascist or totalitarian. At the same time, this is not a polemical work. Levi doesn't insist on democracy, or communism; instead he pleads for thinking beyond those forms of already theorized political governance that exclude the Southerners that had been seen, since before the foundation of the Italian state, as a problem to be solved. "It's necessary that we render ourselves capable of thinking and creating a new state, one that can't be fascist, liberal, or communist, completely diverse, but substantially identical forms of the same state religion." (All translations in this review are my own.) Fascism insisted on the new superman, a nationalist symbol that never came into being, while democracy required ready-made citizens, participants in a voting system estranged from everything the peasantry had known for centuries, and communism was too closely allied with a northern proletariat with no understanding whatsoever of the different problems and needs of the peasantry.

Levi's reflections on this issue are anguished, but utopian. However, his essentially humanitarianism didn't apprise him of his own blind spots. His cosmopolitan eyes saw the peasants he lived among as closer to animals than he himself; over and over, peasants are described as "animalistic," their movements and expressions are compared to those of sheep, goats, foxes. Women in particular have bestial qualities: "The women, closed in veils, are like wild animals. They don't think of anything but physical love, with extreme naturalness, and they talk about it with a freedom and simplicity of language that astonishes." This is not language that pleases us in this day and age; it smacks of colonial imperialism and its accompanying racism. The strangeness that we would call difference today puzzles him, amazes him, sometimes disgusts him. His compassion and pity are unable to get out from under the carapace of paternalism that his Northern bourgeois cultural background assumes towards the South. Still, Levi doesn't immediately dismiss Southern customs and he doesn't expect Southerners to metamorphose into the citizens envisioned by outsiders. There might be condescension in his meticulous recounting of, for instance, the practices of witchcraft or an alternate understanding of time, but he doesn't dismiss the first as mere superstition and the second as backwardness.

This recognition of strangeness, or difference, as having its own legitimacy may not seem especially ground-breaking today, but we are talking about a book published in 1945, based on Levi's experiences in 1935 and 1936. If he can't quite restrain a certain exoticizing, romanticizing impulse, he works hard, and sometimes successfully, to root out his own sense of superiority, at least where men are concerned.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is most precious as a repository for the rich treasures of a culture and way of life that would for the most part disappear by the end of the century. This is why the book, though lacking a rigorous methodology, has been so important for anthropologists. Levi records the legend of Maria 'a Pastora, a female bandit who rode away after her bandit husband's death and was seen no more. Was she a legend or a real person? Levi is intelligent enough to recognize that such a question has no meaning in the folkloric tradition of these towns. This slippage between what a cosmopolitan, post-Enlightenment culture delineates as real and imaginary or legendary isn't smashing a binary, but refusing the imposition of a binary. The supernatural creatures that dot the landscape, the fruschi and the monachicchi, the werewolves and witches, are not strictly separated from the human. Double natures are the norm rather than the exception and Levi hears many eye-witness accounts of people who encountered angels, demons, ghosts, and those pesky monachicchi, the souls of unbaptized children. Levi himself knows several witches, including his housekeeper, Giulia, who teaches him incantations and the secrets of potion-making. "The continuous magic of the animals and things weighs on the heart like a funereal enchantment. And nothing presents itself, to liberate oneself from it, than other modes of magic." Levi bends to this other world, compared more than once to an island in an empty, forbidden sea, and for brief, bleary moments succeeds in rivivifying an instinct for it. This world, he claims, exists outside of time and this lack of time, this rejection of linearity, makes it impossible to connect, let alone merge, the two worlds. It is a world defined by death, indeed his descriptions call up Dante's Inferno and the ancients' Hades. The landscape is quite literally strewn with bones.

Unquestionably, Christ Stopped at Eboli is deeply subjective, but it is not Levi who claimed objectivity - rather, his readers did. If the book is still read as the textbook on the Southern question, that's a sign of the larger culture's failure to distinguish that the book is an autobiographical novel, not a work of social science. Its idiosyncrasies and prejudices are not separable from the insights and ethnographic details. I see nothing sinister in this, the way I do when I read a work of deeply flawed, prejudicial social science such as Edward Banfield's The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which claims to present facts rather than nonsensical propaganda, objective analysis rather than racist fairy tale, although Banfield couldn't understand a word spoken by the subject of his study. Like so many great works of literature, Christ Stopped at Eboli balances its gorgeous prose and dubious social criticism, its compassion and its snobbery, its artful juxtapositions and its flat-footed misogyny. Timelessness is an overrated quality; it's also one that is historically determined. Christ Stopped at Eboli isn't timeless: it belongs to the past, which is all to the good, for without such literary time machines we remain trapped, hopelessly, in the present.