Living in Italy, as I have done for some years, may result in an incremental loss of the vivid sensation, in my view all but indispensable in a writer, that the world as a whole is a barbarous place. It is then that I feel I must go back to London, to immerse myself afresh in the savage and godless existence that I seek to describe, to gamble side by side with my socially brutalized hero, and to cheer him on even as I watch him thrashing about within the vicious circle of cosmopolitan heartlessness, cultural sterility, and northerly frustration. For the unhappy personage whom I call the “poet player” is, after all, something of my own alter ego, my approximate kith and vaguely recognizable kin. I cannot but experience his predicament as my life’s own.
Western civilization, which conceived itself in the primordial sunlight of the Mediterranean, can be explained to a visitor from another planet as an infinity of variations on a single theme, and that theme is fertility. This means that every flower, both literally and figuratively, will some day turn to fruit, which will then, as a general rule, come to ripen; that every undertaking, whether individual or communal, whether of the body or of the soul, will be seen by and by to seasonal fruition; and that culture, in animals as in men, with plants as with peoples, is nothing if not such affirmation, complication, and deepening of what is already present in nature.
The poet player is, alas, a northern phenomenon. Had he been raised in Italy, Greece, Spain, Turkey, or Egypt, he would not have looked to roulette nor ever wished to search for any other purgatory, just as his plebeian compatriots, had they been born to the Mezzogiorno, would not have needed to pass the time by leafing through illustrated magazines with titles like Asian Babes or, in extreme cases, by dismembering pale schoolgirls in mildewed basements of suburban houses. A child of the fructiferous south respects the elements and comprehends the natural ways of the flesh because everything around him, from the cradle’s edge to the blue horizon of the sea, is an object lesson in the doctrine; from personal and intimate observation, he knows how the fragrant blossoms of a roadside tree become almonds and appreciates the beauty of the process, its immanent rhythm, and the precision of its calendar.
To be born a northerner, by contrast, is to accept abiding frustration as your psychological portion. Everything around you points to abortion or deviation of life’s natural processes, and the object lesson of your childhood, inevitably, is that flowers remain flowers until they wilt and drop off; that ripe fruit comes refrigerated or out of tins; and that beauty, culture, and refinement may be disconnected from fertility—in fact, are better off being disconnected from it. In the school of sensibility that is the natural world, hops, parsnips, and potatoes are only a mocking and dysfunctional substitute for grapes, olives, and almonds; thus, it is simply wrong to suppose that, when the German poet gives vent to his longing for “the land where the lemons bloom,” his feelings of deprivation are even remotely gastronomic.
Rather like the American South before the Civil War, Southern Europe is not more joyful because it is more backward. To the contrary, it is less progressive because it is less depressive—that is to say, less hypocritically God-abiding and more in sympathy with both the aesthetics and the ethics of Creation, indeed as unwilling to distinguish between the two as it is reluctant to decouple efflorescence from fructification. Thus, the sterile “industrialized North” is rendered speechless, mute with stirring resentment and half-remembered envy, when the fecund “wretched South” holds up such universally sacred symbols as oil and wine, or bread and salt, or figs and medlars, and places them as quotidian realities upon a pauper’s table. For what in the world can the northerner answer back with? With heroin? Parking tickets? Newspaper columns?
One is almost moved to say that, in the Mezzogiorno, every fruit of the earth is the fruit of innocence, an antidote to the poisoned fruit of the tree of eternal discontent that is the accursed genealogy of the man of reason. To bite into a perfectly ripe peach is to step into a time machine, capable of transporting even a Zurich financier back to Eden. Conversely, the sermon, the novel, and even the poem are but ineffectual shadows of moral action beside the persimmon, the pomegranate, and the laurel.
In Palermo one night last week, I watched all nine hours of The Godfather on television, noting for the first time the recurrent image of fresh fruit that runs through the series. It is as an image I know well from the Vucciria, the Capo, and the Ballarò, Palermo’s remaining street markets, where it is still easy to spot a well-dressed man pick up an exceptionally lustrous tangerine or a particularly well-shaped pear as he goes about his business and stroll on with only a nod or a wink to the vendor. It is as though, by tacit agreement between all parties, such fruit were some symbolic umbilicus, some mysterious remnant of the social cord that once bound nature to nurture, ancestors to descendants, and is now, increasingly, even in the south of Italy (to say nothing of the streets of New York), but a beguiling memory.
I have already written that just as the poet player’s political program is the killing of money—and hence the abasement of the world which has given it value—his spiritual motive is the thirst for manifest miracle, a thirst which he finds all but unquenchable by any less self-destructive means. Here, I want to underscore that both of these impulses act only in opposition to, and in the context of, the industrial societies of Northern Europe, as well as such nations elsewhere as have become great and powerful by adopting their way of life. For what is money to a Greek fisherman, who would never exchange his own freshly caught red mullets for a handful of coins whose only prospective use, after all, is the acquisition of frozen cod fillets in the local supermarket? And what is the wonder of the winning number, even if it should pay out at 35 to 1, compared to the wonder of a whole Agrigento of almond trees in full bloom?
A northerner’s embittered “Listen, if he doesn’t like it over here, why doesn’t he just bloody well leave?” does not make for a sound political argument. Nor does it convince the poet player to quit the industrial wasteland of his sad playgrounds and move to the fertile south, there to lick wounds, to recover from ever-fresh losses, and to dream of long-lost winnings, thus winding down a misspent life amid orange blossoms and freshly baked sesame loaves. Like his plebeian compatriots, the poet player is self-condemned, as he chooses to take his stand against the society whose monstrous strength, and still stronger hubris, he despises and wants to see uprooted or cut down. For he can well say, echoing the Russian thinker Berdyayev, that man’s quest for liberty is not so much a matter of broad social movements as of individual acts of rebellion against the power of the mass.
Like the chevalier des Grieux, the hero of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, the poet player is ever at a crossroads, or, more precisely, at that intersection defined by the 19th-century mathematician Antoine Cournot, in his rebuttal of Laplace’s wholesale dismissal of chance, as the totally random point of contact between two distinct and independent causal series. One such series of events stems from his understanding that the cold occidental world, the loveless world he inhabits, is a barbarous place, where endless frustration awaits him; the other stems from his refusal to transplant himself to the other world that he suspects exists, to a world full of citrus and wine and myrrh, to the birthplace of innocence.
“Why call the world a place of suffering,” asks Des Grieux, “when it can provide a life of such charming delights?” To be near his beloved Manon as she is being deported for prostitution, he must pay to the convoy guards the terrible price that they name as one ecu per hour, at that time the going rate in Paris for women of easy virtue. So, too, must the poet player pay an equally terrible price, as he walks past the liveried doormen into the place of suffering.
And there I follow him, as a martyrologist might.