“Let us gamble with reason in the name of life,” urges Pascal in his celebrated statistical proof for the existence of God. “Let us risk it, for the sake of a win that is infinitely great and just as probable as the loss, which is to say nonexistence.” With the cynicism of an inveterate gambler, he then anticipates the cautious layman’s objection: “As in any game, the risk is indubitable while the win is doubtful, yet the player accepts the odds for the sake of that doubtful win without even the slightest offence to his reason.”
I am writing this in Palermo on New Year’s Eve, with exploding firecrackers, unanswered car alarms, and the joyous barking of stray dogs for a backdrop. Here, the voice of reason is possibly the weakest in all of Europe, while the presence of chance is palpable in every passerby’s face, at every footstep, on every street corner. Even a Muslim citizen of France, or a British subject from some colonial hole that no longer appears on any map—or, to pick an example closer to home, a native of Honduras residing in the United States as an illegal alien—may easily deceive himself into believing that the history of any of these great and important countries is a reasonable progression, if not always in the direction of ever-increasing grandeur, then at least in some definite direction. No Sicilian is capable of such folly, for the history of his nation, if a nation it be, reads like the crumpled mess of losing lottery numbers in the rubbish bin of a London newsagent.
I open the doors to the balcony to the manifest chaos without. Today, there are only a couple of Beiruts’ worth of deafening fusillades, but, come tomorrow, a rollcall of hoarse voices will be rending the air over the piazza, unhampered by the lazy pussyfooting of warm winter rain:
Attia vieni ca’! Accura! “Over here! Take care over here!” Somebody is carrying something unwieldy, wet, stolen, and, at first glance, quite useless.
Dutturi, mittissi a’ machina ca’! “Sir, put your car in there!” Somebody important has slipped a couple of coins to the parking attendant with the face of the Gorgon from the Temple of Athena in Syracuse.
Paluzzu, vieni mancia! “Lunch is ready, Paolo!” The corpulent neighbor, blind in one eye and wearing a soiled apron overprinted with red polyurethane tulips, is yelling to her grandson down the well of an inner courtyard, which is used here for communication instead of a mobile phone.
Acchiana! “Come home this minute!” This, from one of the balconies, is addressed to another wayward child, momentarily obscured by the gargantuan African ficus trees in the middle of the square.
Spincionello cavuro! Va’ tastalu! “The pizza’s hot! Come taste it!” So shouts the fat vendor of fat sfincione to the fat passerby. “Ah, good old sfincione,” muses the latter, feeling for change in his pockets. “A meal in itself, as Mamma used to say. Sticks to your ribs, it does.”
Francisco, va’ ‘catta u pani! “Francesco, go get the bread!” There, Francesco is off, noisily jumping over the tarnished coins of round, silver puddles as he runs all the way to the baker’s.
Scinni ‘i duocu! “Get down from there!” Who? Why? Can’t think at the moment. But one can easily make the necessary inquiries.
From the vantage point of my balcony, the greater part of Europe—the part ostensibly governed by reason—looms as a kind of museum of itself, complete with the coldness of endless corridors, unsmiling uniformed staff, solemn research departments, carefully closed library doors, computerized catalogues, and the rest of it. The tree-lined, Haussmann-balcony stretches of the Champs Elysees, the gray stone tunnels of Pall Mall and Piccadilly, even present-day Rome’s vistas of the Forum and other monuments—are these not evocative of gallery spaces, of glass display cabinets and museum bureaucracy?
To whom does this moribund institution—the urban-planned exhibition of a rationally constructed Europe—really belong, and whom does it serve, I wonder? A dozen connoisseurs, a handful of astute historians or talented poets, an honest, hopeful politician or two? Surely they could well take the trouble to locate and identify the priceless objects it contains—liberty, justice, order, and other precious relics—without the helpful labels. A hundred million students? But one does not want to live the life of the young, or so much as rub shoulders with them, any more than one wants to become cannon fodder in the war against the enemies of progress, the only kind of war, as it happens, that these miscreants ever want to fight in. So what’s the point of such a culture?
Here in Palermo, Europe is still the way Europe began: a dense, savage forest, not the manicured park at Versailles; a dark seabed teeming with primordial life rather than the swimming pool of a Swiss-run hotel; a sprouting, malodorous patch of iridescent mildew in place of the waxy perfection of a supermarket apple. For it is an ex post facto rationalization—and, moreover, a clumsy fib—to claim that the foundations of our civilization were laid by Aristotle, Pythagoras, or Euclid, with the lofty spirit of rational inquiry presiding over the process, while the icon painters of Byzantium, the Spanish algebraists of the Cabala, and the German mystics of alchemy merely came along, so to speak, to muddy the waters of its inherent and, in the end, irrepressible logic.
One look at the thousand-year-old cathedral here, with its organic, intractable, and, at times, simply absurd diachronic weave of forms and styles, or at the equally ancient St. Mark’s in Venice, with its spiritual kinship to the sublime folly of St. Basil’s in Moscow, ought to expose the authors of that clumsy fib for the charlatans that they are. The immortal soul of Europe is not Nevsky Prospekt or Unter den Linden; it is not civic order or efficient administration or impartial justice; it is not museums, universities, or even libraries. No, it is the living speech of a living people, the vending of fat slices of sfincione on Sunday mornings, the noise, the dirt, the dust, and the breath of chance. For it is from risking to lose his reason altogether, not from propping it up with the opinions of others, that man’s originality springs. And what’s true for us is true for our culture.
Gamblers, not bookkeepers, created my Europe. Dreamers, not lawyers, built it.