“And there was a great cry in Egypt.”
A friend, though less in the sense of an intimate confidant, perhaps, than that of the famously urbane hobgoblin that was the guiding spirit of the old New Yorker, writes:
Having just plowed painfully through your latest (and last!) May 2002 “Letter From (so-called) Milan,” I (a long-time subscriber to Chronicles and having lived and worked in [Italy] more than 30 years!) found your piece downright insulting, offensive, stupid, sophomoric, flippantly nasty, too clever by half!, and tawdry twaddle—which all your previous pieces of gibberish vulgarly exhibit and regularly deliver—but none to this unreadable degree!
In sober truth, if I were the person my correspondent suspects me of being, I would be offended. I would now be thinking of him as a sworn enemy. I would not dream of helping him to air his grievances or of looking for a kernel of substance in what he writes. I would remind myself that his savagely argumentative letter is two pages long, that it is—significantly—single spaced, and that he spells “consistently” with an “a.” In short, I would behave as any American boor with what is sometimes called access (to power, to money, to the media, or, in my own humble case, to this space) is advised to behave when confronted with criticism from somebody without such access (in other words, a sans-culotte, a nut, a singlespacer). My correspondent goes on:
Andrei Navrozov, you are, with all due respect, the worst writer (“writer”? You can’t even write!) featured in any U.S. monthly published today. Bar none. Your pretentious literary presumption and haughty, limitless hubris are insufferable. Who the hell do you think you are? A latter day Russkie-Lord Byron? And as far as “the telling of lies” and “invention of excuses” that is the Italian character, “already a laughingstock the world over,” that’s quite enough, sir. You’re exhibiting too much of your own! Oh. By the way, you’re not possibly one of those displaced Russians who is Jewish now, are you? That might explain your ingratitude.
Admirable sentiments, certainly, and deserving of encouragement, but what has been puzzling me is the excessive precision on the part of the critic, as he insists that I am the worst writer to be found in any American journal. What I find so shocking about his claim is the clear implication that, even in the mind of an American—shall we say—“nonconformist,” who, by his own admission, has spent three decades as an expatriate in Italy, the United States is and forever remains the repository of all reality, of all fantasy, and of all the metaphysical gradations of which the human mind is capable that lie in between.
For, surely, the United States is best understood as the repository of mass culture, that is to say, of a culture that is as mercilessly levelling as it is naturally hostile to every manifestation of intellectual autarchy, spiritual eminence, and artistic eccentricity. This applies in equal measure to myself, to Lord Byron (were he to find himself scrutinized by the New York Times Book Review), and to our eccentric friend in Italy. Within the scope of a culture so ruthlessly streamlined, would there ever be room, for instance, for his own worthy, albeit not wholly original, pronouncements on the relationship between race and character? Clearly not. Then why on earth should he suppose that, when maximum opprobrium is the underlying aim, it is by far the best to excoriate a writer as an American cultural presence?
These were the thoughts in my mind as I traveled to hear the first act of Verdi’s Aida at the Arena, in fair Verona. I say the first act because, despite the indubitable excellence of some of the cast, I quickly realized that, in the circumstances, I simply could not endure any more invocations to what the German translation of the libretto called Allmächtger Phta. I had never been to the Arena before, and as soon as I took my seat in the open-air, football-stadium-shaped amphitheater alongside sentimentally italienverliebte Germans in their thousands, I saw that surrounding me on all sides was a kind of dramatization of the mass culture that I had been goaded into contemplating by my American nemesis. Pretty soon, everything I heard began to sound like The Star-Spangled Banner performed by the Red Banner Ensemble of Song and Dance. And to abhor such a thing, gentile reader, one need not be either ungrateful or Jewish.
I walked out thinking that the opera theater, as defined throughout Europe by such structures as Teatro alla Scala or Covent Garden, was conceived as an engine of intimacy. The volume ratio between “the stage” and “the audience”—between those producing an aesthetic experience and those consuming it—is roughly that of waiters to diners in a very good and very expensive restaurant. To subvert this ratio, as the German tourist-thronged Arena and all those American-style “concerts in the park” now do, is to McDonaldsize a grand cuisine whose every phase, from Provence farmer to Michelin chef, must be labor-intensive if it is not to be culturally meaningless.
Moreover, key among the engine’s components is inequality, which the physical distribution of the conventional opera audience makes palpable. Having finally got hold of a splendid box at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, and of a rather more indifferent one at the Malibran in Venice, I can well appreciate what I would call the articulation of the theater audience, where the subtly graduated tiers of boxes, the various sections of the parterre, and the upper reaches of the galleries provide a culturally indispensable social echo of the heavenly hierarchies of the orchestra pit, at times working like one of those old, cloudy, Venetian glass and mercury amalgam mirrors whereupon the dramatic action on stage is bewitchingly reflected. This, too, is sabotaged at the Arena, where the seats, all more or less “of the same quality,” are “served” by the singers’ voices in more or less the same way.
In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill develops Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea that “to render people unlike one another” is a necessary condition of human development, one whose import he sees “every day diminishing.” Here, in other words, is Mill’s view, circa 1860, of the opera-loving audience I observed at the Arena in Verona:
The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily being more assimilated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighbourhoods, different trades and professions, lived in what might be called different worlds; at present, to a great degree in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have ceased.
I am reminded of the well-known story of Rudolf Nureyev, who once found himself in a cafeteria. Informed by one of the cashiers, who then busied himself with calculating the cost of another diner’s steaming plate of spaghetti, that theirs was a “self-service” establishment, the great Russian dancer took hold of the plate and hurled it in the miscreant’s face with the immortal words, “Nureyev never serve self! “ This was more than an artist’s petulance, I dare say. Rather, the symbolism of the situation in which he had found himself produced the emotionally defiant response to the inescapable suggestion that art, in the West as in his native Soviet Russia, would always be made to serve the mass audience.
So I hope my new friend will realize that it’s not my own talent or lack of talent that is at issue here so much as Western civilization’s headlong plunge into uniformity and mediocrity, no less dastardly and suicidal because foreseen by Mill all those generations ago. My friend and I are actually in the same boat, which has long been adrift. Only I try to do my best writing a firsthand account of the disaster, while he is busy chewing on my other hand.
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