I had fallen in love with Italy because she was my twin, my mirror image, my other half. Like me, she wanted to sit between two chairs, to have her torta della nonna and eat it, too. She sought to arrest the dissolution of society by progressive, that is to say capitalist, fictions; yet she wanted her showgirls spangled with sequins, cash on the barrel and price no object. Alone in Europe, she was unbowed before the triumphal progress of American futurism and ready to throw every spanner to hand into her works, including an unhelpful attitude to authority, reminiscent of that of the Old Believers to the established church in Russia, and an equally ambiguous attitude to labor, reminiscent of the old Soviet joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Conversely, she was the European polity that put the highest premium on fetishes of womanhood, without, however, allowing the revolutionary longing for an American-style sex-and-shopping phantasmagoria to become the prime mover of social organization; clinging stubbornly all the while to such resources of emotional satisfaction as neighbor and friend, food and family, promenade and song. If Italy had done it, why couldn’t I?
Here beauty was sovereign. Bello, said the middle-aged, balding accountant in a green barbour, fondling an electrical insulator of white industrial porcelain in the confusion of a street market as though it were an ancient amphora. Bella, said the society hostess of somebody else’s daughter, tall, thin, with sparkling green eyes, engaged to a third-division footballer. So said the passerby as he stopped to examine the contents of a fisherman’s bucket by the bank of a muddy and slow-flowing stream. So said the bridegroom on seeing his bride in white. So said the sky, the dirt, and the Alpine snow in March; so said the rough sea in Advent and the grass at Easter.
Grapes and olives, almonds and lemons. No, they are not the same God-made things as turnips and potatoes: They are made by another, a better God, or at least a God in a better mood. And equally, the God-made people who watch the almond and the lemon blossom ripen and bear fruit, who see the olive pressed and the grape harvested, are not the same people who glance, through grimy windows of passing trains and sooty miles of habitual indifference, at fields of something or other, most likely coleseed rape, enlivened by an occasional silo or a water tower: Marx’s people, Adam Smith’s, nobody’s. They lure prepubescent girls into basements, and nobody’s surprised. They eat food from tins, and nobody’s the wiser. Beauty, to them, is an abstraction, only exceeded in scope by that of life. Their total alienation from reality, in its conception, in its fruition, and in all its intermediate phases, is very nearly complete. This has made them ready for totalitarianism, and lo, a revolution to bring it about is long in progress.
Such were my feelings about Italy. It was as though the sun of civilization would still shed the occasional life-giving ray upon this land after it had all but set elsewhere, plunging the earth into primordial gloom. What better place for a honeymoon laden with meaning? Obviously, I saw that the same processes at work in America, and in the rest of Europe, and indeed in my very own psyche, were at work here, uprooting the olive groves of consciousness in different geographical parts of the country at different speeds, perhaps, yet uprooting them nonetheless, like some unstoppable steam plow commissioned from James Watt by Moloch himself.
Historically, the variable speed attained by progress had been described in terms of an economic conflict between the industrial North and the agrarian South, but the more I traveled in Italy, the more clearly I saw that this had long ceased to be the case. The areas that best resisted progress were the isolated and mountainous Mafia-riddled lands of the South and the rugged, Alpine or pre-Alpine lands of the North; it was the verdant plains and the rolling hills of the country’s soft-bellied middle that were swayed first and comparatively more easily. The Alto Adige and the Veneto clung to its customs, its dialects, and its ways of seeing the world no less tenaciously than did Sicily or Calabria; it was Bologna and Florence that had learned to speak bad English and spoke good Italian. A lousy espresso on the Lungarno was a glimpse of the future materializing in slow motion.
So, too, could the picturesque antitheses of long ago, with their gall-bitter synthesis of internecine struggle, civil war and revolution, be seen in retrospect for the hollow, merciless, Barmecide fictions they had been at conception: Roundheads and Cavaliers, Jacobins and Girondins, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Fascists and Communists, Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, and finally and perhaps most dramatically, East and West. Once plied like so many quack remedies, amplified by power for power’s sake and sold to an ignorant public as patent cures for hopelessness and the common cold, in the end, they were little more than grotesquely elongated shadows of some politically popular intellectualizations, others sure to follow on their history of success.
And there and then, seeing that the fault line ran, not as formerly between the two ends, but now between the ends and the middle, I began to suspect that perhaps the sexual divide, the once biologically inviolable frontier between the sexes, is likewise an obsolete criterion for the telling apart of men and women; that a new social geography and an unorthodox morphology have perhaps come into being under the mounting pressure of American futurism; that, perhaps, it is by their attitude to the absolutes of life, rather than by any primary or secondary sexual characteristics, that some individuals retain the character of men and others of women; while the rest, quiet as clams and prostrate before the relativizing steam plow of progress, are fused together into a new, hermaphrodite life form, highly sexual yet genderless, avid for experience yet ignorant of beauty, clinging to existence yet insensible to life.
It is to them that the future belongs, I thought. It is to give some finished and final shape to their inchoate longings that the totalitarian revolution is come.