Sunday, October 02, 2016

Involvement and Exclusion, Italian Style

Is there a continuity of behavior between the stories we tell and the way we live? 
So begins an interesting piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about dialects, factionalism, communal life, and exile throughout Italy's history, and the relation of these to literary language in Italy.
It’s generally agreed that one of the most distinctive features of Italian public life is factionalism, in all its various manifestations: regionalism, familism, corporativism, campanilism, or simply groups of friends who remain in close contact from infancy through to old age, often marrying, separating and remarrying among each other. Essentially, we could say that for many Italians the most important personal value is belonging, being a respected member of a group they themselves respect; just that, unfortunately, this group rarely corresponds to the overall community and is often in fierce conflict with it, or with other similar groups. So allegiance to a city, or a trade union, or to a political party, or a faction within the party, trumps solidarity with the nation, often underwriting dubious moral behavior and patently self-defeating policies. Only when fifteenth-century Florence had a powerful external enemy, Machiavelli tells us in his Florentine Histories, did its people unite, and as soon as the enemy was beaten they divided again; then any issue that arose, however marginal, would feed the violent battle between the dominant factions. This would not be an unfair description of Italian society today.
A bit further on Parks notes,
One reason why so many Italian writers experienced exile, and still experience exclusion of milder kinds (one thinks of the Nobel winner Dario Fo’s frequent lament that he has been excluded from Italian public television), is because they were and are themselves intensely involved in public affairs.

A bit further on he adds:
Dante insisted on writing The Divine Comedy in vernacular Tuscan, thus taking primacy away from the narrow circle of those who read and wrote in Latin, a privileged elite he was not himself born into, and always worried about being excluded from. Later, in exile, he would be astonished to discover the range of different and mutually incomprehensible dialects that existed in Italy. The vernacular was not the unifying factor he had imagined.
Dante plays a significant, if not paradigmatic, role in the piece, which is titled "Writing to Belong.

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