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 by Antonia Brancati
(Talk for the Lake Como writing group – Bellagio 2010)

When Donald asked me to “say something” I was really inclined to kindly decline with a “no, thank you”. The mere idea of me speaking in public is rather stressful and my first reaction is usually “please keep the bitter chalice away from me” – allontanate da me l’amaro calice.

But then I thought that I would hardly ever be offered another opportunity to publicly deliver my speech on the state of the nation – which, as my friend of the seminar may have understood from some readings we’ve made, is one of my hobby horses, and I therefore gratefully accepted.

Ladies, gentlemen, friends, citizens…  you’ve got it coming – and blame it on the Freeds.

Being here in Bellagio with all of you has been like living for ten days suspended in an out of time Garden of Eden.

If I hadn’t bought me my daily dose of bad news at the newspaper stand every morning I really might have thought myself to be a Medieval student visiting a Monastery of merry Masters, forming a group to keep the lamp of Art going on burning even in the midnight of present times.

I am Italian. And as you all know, Italy is named “Il bel paese” – the beautiful country – and you will all agree that it is beautiful: the lakes, the Dolomites, the silvery hills of Tuscany, green Umbria, the emerald sea of Capri, the coast of Sorrento, the red and black of Volcanoes, the golden oranges of Sicily – beauty - and the towns and the cities: Venezia, Verona, Padova, Bologna – and Firenze, Napoli, Roma, Catania… - beauty - and the wealth of historical monuments: the Etruscan tombs, the Greek theatres, the Roman temples and amphitheatres, the medieval castles…

It is almost unbelievable that so much beauty and art may be found in such a relatively small territory.

It is said that beauty will save the world, should that be true – as I believe it is - Italy may well be the world’s saviour. And that is why I can’t help but be proud I am Italian.

I know – and you know - I should have said it all in the past tense: Italy was indeed once beautiful and might well have been… or had the chance to be and lost it or wasted it… the world’s saviour, and I so wish I could continue to be proud to be Italian.

The other day Patricia noticed that when I’m in Bellagio I speak of Italy as if it were some far away country, and that’s because you may well forget you are in 2010 Italy when you live in a blessed spot such as this – but Bellagio is the exception which confirms the rule - and we are in Italy and I’m sure you must have seen that everywhere else but here – (that is: unless you have arrived here blindfolded from Bergamo, or Malpensa or wherever)  you must have seen that we, the natives, are constantly and even now doing our outmost to destroy the beauty of our country.

It would be pleasant and consoling to blame it in Mr. Berlusconi, whose government – as perhaps you know – have just had the splendid idea to alienate to the regions 11.009 properties and areas pertaining to our National Heritage, so that the regions may eventually sell these areas and properties to make some cash. For your information, a piece of coastline of this lake, near Lecco, are also on sale.

It is not just Berlusconi’s fault, however. As a matter of fact, we started just after World War Two. At first it was the elation of reconstruction, then the excuse of population growth (even though we actually have one of the lowest population growth race in the whole world) which prompted us cover the whole of our country – from the beautiful mountains to the splendid coastlines – with ugly concrete – thus starting an unending chain of ugliness: ugly buildings, ugly houses, ugly homes, ugly living, ugly thinking, even ugly dreaming… and therefore ugly people building ugly buildings… in a spiral that keeps bringing us lower and lower, down to the Inferno of utter ugliness.

As I said, it’s a process that started more than sixty years ago, right after the war. We’ve therefore seen it coming for quite a long time, but somehow we hoped that something would happen that would give us our country’s beauty back.

This is a characteristic of the Italian spirit: we rely on that stroke of luck that at the very last moment will save us from disaster, our stellone – as we call it – “big star” – or also “colpo di culo”, which I wouldn’t know how to translate, and that my grandfather (who was born in Trento) called “buson buson”, meaning big hole.

But what could save us? What did we think might? Nature? Landslides will wipe away ugly new towns as well as chunks of beautiful Dolomites – and earthquakes, inundations and eruptions will all act just as randomly and indifferently.

What, then?

We should have learned by now that nothing can – or will – save us. Indeed we should have long since realised that we have to find the capability of saving ourselves within ourselves. But.

There’s a saying in Italian that goes “Dio confonde chi vuol perdere” – there’s something rather similar in English, only – for once – not quite as effective, and I think it goes “Those whom they want to destroy, the Gods first make mad”. In the Italian version we have just the one God, and – I mean – when He wants to destroy,  our bearded God easily recurs to a universal deluge here, or a shower of brimstone and fire from the heavens there, the sun turning into darkness and the moon into blood… “He shakes the heavens and the earth shall be removed out of her place”, as the prophet said.

No, we’re not talking of God’s wrath, here, we’re talking of Him being bothered by us, so that He doesn’t really want to destroy us, he just wants us to get lost! And how is he going to do that? Through confusion.

Because as you know – Donald himself has reminded us of that a few times – The God of our monotheistic religions is – originally – the Logos… in the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… and his idea of confusion can’t but be – as in the Bible - the tower of Babel: for our Lord Logos confusion deals with language.

And rightly so. The Bible tells that God said let there be light – and the light was – confusion is when God says let there be light – and the dusk is.

And you can see that we’re now lost just by our use of our language.

In Italy we started corrupting good and noble words which meant good and noble ideas, by adding the suffix “ism” to them and therefore tainting both them and their meaning: sex – sexism; intellect – intellectualism; moral/morality – moralism; ideal – idealism. In Italy we also have  justice – justicialism, which throws a livid light on whoever just wants justice. Confusion.

Then we started using words as in advertising – as labels that proclaim delightful and absolutely desirable all kinds of poisonous foods. This awful proliferation of concrete: development. The Ministry of our Cultural Heritage we’ve named it Ministero dei Beni Culturali – and “beni” means property, assets, good. Which perhaps may explain why the necessary qualification for Mr. Mario Resca to be appointed General Director for Cultural Enhancement (but the Italian word “valorizzazione” can also be translated exploitation) was his having been from 1995 to 2007 Chairman of Mc Donald’s Italia. Confusion.

And another example: we have a new party… no, I mean an old party with a new name: il popolo della libertà (the people of freedom) –which sounds very nice but is, in fact,  nonsensical: people of freedom as opposed to whom? The people of slavery? Confusion.

And we have every day evidence that freedom is more often that not confused with license, which means that if I’m powerful and/or wealthy I can do exactly as I please, because, as Alberto Sordi in his splendid film Il Marchese del Grillo said: “Me dispiace, ma io so’ io e voi non siete un cazzo!” Sorry, but I am myself and you’re just crap.

And indeed this liberty people mustn’t have done a very good job as far as freedom goes in this country if only the other day Laterza published an essay by professor Maurizio Viroli, who teaches Political Science at Princeton, titled “La libertà dei servi” – the freedom of servants – which is an analysis of the political situation in il bel paese to-day.

Just to give you some other examples of this confusion of the Logos which is loosing us, the liberty people are these very days trying to make a law on wire tapping and interceptions which they are selling us as a law to protect our privacy as citizens, but which will have the certain effect to officially re-establish censorship in our country.

As if that were not enough, the so-called democrats (I mean belonging to the Partito Democratico) who are now protesting against this awful law, just two years ago, while they were in power, presented a very similar bill.

Censorship has many different faces, and we never seem to be able to get freed of it once and for all. But the wish to relay on some authority who will tell us what we can or cannot know seems to be another ingrained feature of the Italian character.

Want a proof? I’ll jus make you a brief excursus of censorship In Italy in the last century.

For that necessity, Fascism created Minculpop the Ministry for Popular Culture which gave the press these kind of orders:                  

26th Dicember 1936  - Do not ever report any news concerning Einstein.Non interessarsi mai di qualsiasi cosa riguardi Einstein.

12th March 1938   - The order to ignore Greta Garbo is confirmed.Si conferma la disposizione di non occuparsi di Greta Garbo.

31st October 1938   - Do not report eventual nominations of Italian men or writers for the Nobel Prize.Non occuparsi di eventuali candidature di scrittori o uomini italiani al Premio Nobel.

1st March 1941   - It is forbidden to publish photos, articles and news concerning the following foreign actors: E’ fatto divieto pubblicare fotografie, articoli e notizie riguardanti i seguenti attori stranieri: Charlie Chaplin, Eric von Stroheim, Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks jr., Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire e la Casa cinematografica Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

2nd September 1942  - Ignore dialectal theatre. This instruction is to be considered obligatory and permanent – Non occuparsi del teatro dialettale. Questa disposizione ha carattere tassativo e permanente.

Then came the end of Fascism – no, that’s going a bit too far: then came the end of Mussolini – and the end of the war. The end of the monarchy and a splendid new Constitution. Article 21 of our Constitution allows freedom of press and of all forms of expression.

However nobody thought of abolishing the Minculpop – they just changed its name into Comitato della Censura – Committee of Censorship – and the majority of the old censors continued in their office.

Only a few intellectuals protested. Whenever he wrote a play, my father had problems with Censorship. In 1952 he wrote perhaps his best play, La Governante(The Governess), written for my mother, which is about Calvinist Caterina Leher who conceals the fact that she is a lesbian behind an apparently rigid morality. My father maintained that the play was about calumniation rather than  the love between two women; as a matter of fact, the theme of the play is really the hidden tensions behind the façade of bourgeois society. There’s a splendid criticism of Italian society made by the character of writer Alessandro Bonivaglia in the play, which I’d like to remember here, as I’m afraid not much has changed since half a century ago.

Bonivaglia says:  “… What merits does the Italian upper middle class have?  Culture?, no.  Nobody in Italy reads books or goes to the theatre. Morality?  The Italian moral consists only in applying the censorship.  Not only Italians do not read nor go to the theatre, but they also want to be sure that the books they don't read and  the plays they don't go and see contain none of the things they do  - and say - everyday. Shut the writers up: that’s the Italian dream.”

Of course my father’s play was forbidden by censorship. He died in 1954, and my mother could at last stage it only in 1965, when censorship had at last be abolished. Had it? Oh no, it subtly continued for many years, unofficially but very oppressively, in the shape of miseducation and disregard.

This until the most recent times, when it is enough for the Man in Power to name the people that threaten the image he has of himself for these people to be banned from every TV channel. Apparently that was not enough, and with the new Law which is being discussed in these days, the Liberty Men in Power are attempting at gagging every free thinker in Italy. Confusion.

Confusion. Whoever shall save us?

You?, dear foreign friends? Confusion in your countries seems to be in perfect shape too. And here again – it starts from the Logos. “Exporting democracy” – with the army. Fighting the terror of terrorism with the terrors of “shock and awe”. And while I can’t decide whether to be a collateral damage is really any better that being the main target, I’m sure that to be killed by friendly fire must be a honour and a joy!  - don’t you? Confusion.

In his Nobel Prize speech, Harold Pinter said:

“The majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.”

And in fact, we have only heard one undisputable truth from a member of the powers that be, in the last few years: Shit happens. Oh yes!

So: how shall we – all of us - be saved?

But I would contravene my duty as self-appointed spokesman for my country if I ended my speech on the state of the nation on this bleak and hopeless note.

I don’t think there are global solutions to that main question. I believe we shall all have to strive to find a remedy individually within ourselves. I can just let you know my own path to safety, for which I was inspired by a line of UNA DONNA DI CASA A Housewife, another of my father’s play.

Very briefly, written in 1950 – Una Donna di Casa ­ is a comedy where my father starts in on Christian Democrats for being hypocritical and still fascist at heart, on Communists for being as inimical to freedom as the Fascists of olden days, on actors for being vain, on landowners for not having a social conscience… There’s one positive character in the play, however, and that’s our donna di casa herself, who is an intellectual at heart and believes – as evidently does the author of the play – “that a moment of clarity in one honest mind is worth much more than what the whole world may have been repeating for 10 or 20 years.”

I am convinced that – as intellectuals - if we strive to polish and sharpen our language, we may reach that one moment of clarity that will bring beauty to our thoughts, our lives – and our countries. And perhaps save the world thereby.