Thursday, May 19, 2016

In memoriam of Marco Pannella

Since I heard the new earlier today, I've been trying to collect my thoughts and my emotions with regard to the passing of Giacinto (his real name, I never completely forgave him for betraying it) "Marco" Pannella. I'll try to express them in the lines that follow.

To understand the greatness of Marco Pannella we need, of course, a bit of historical perspective. We need to remember an Italy that was under the double servitude of two churches: the Catholic one and the Communist one. In an eerie symmetry, "the only true freedom is serving Christ" and "the only true freedom is freedom from need" kept echoing and reinforcing each other. It was to this Italy that Pannella brought the message, almost unheard, that individual freedom does matter, that it does matter whether people are free or not to decide about their love life (he fought for the right to have a divorce) or their child bearing decisions (he fought for the right to have an abortion). Later, he campaigned for the right of consciousness objection to, and the abolition of, the mandatory military service, for the legalization of drugs, for the rights of the LGBT community, for the rights of prostitutes, for decent living conditions for the inmates of jails, for the importance of rules and limits in the life of the State and, in particular, in the administration of justice. He wasn't the originator of any of these campaigns and, of course, he wasn't alone in them. His genius, on the contrary, was his ability to offer himself as the symbol, the embodiment and the charismatic leader for the inspirations of entire categories of people who, otherwise, would not have found a voice. The Partito Radicale I knew, and for some years was part of, was a wonderfully diverse collection of weirdos, originals and outcasts of all sorts. Just being in it all together, being able to give a political expression to our being different each in his or her own way, was already a political victory of sort. Some of the battles we fought together are now so much part of today's common sense that they sound almost trivial. Other, like the legalisation of drugs, are only now entering the main stream. Some are still as much radical now as they were back then.

To his genius in choosing the most groundbreaking contents for his campaigns, Pannella added a probably even greater genius in the choice of his methods. It is difficult now, after witnessing the antics of Berlusconi and Grillo, to remember a time when the democratic discourse in Italy was made inaccessible by its own grayness and by the boredom it never failed to provoke in whoever tried to develop an interest in it. I'm old enough to remember when the only TV political programme was "Tribuna Politica", practically "Question Time" without questions. Political discourse was either totally devoid of content or contained only coded messages from politician to politician, expressed in the most obscure of jargon. To this depressing landscape, Pannella brought his hunger strikes, his appearances at "Tribuna Politica" with a gag on his mouth to protest, ironically, for the lack of TV exposure, his acts of civil disobedience, his verbal intemperance, both in quantity (he could speak for hours in Parliament) and tone. It is easy now to lament the parody of this political showmanship we see in the less capable and less responsible hands of Berlusconi and Grillo, but this should not make us forget how groundbreaking it was and how much it helped to bring to attention some truly progressive and, at least at the their outset, minoritary campaigns.

A man always so groundbreaking in his thought and action was, inevitably, also a man of many mistakes. One was bringing organisational chaos to the Partito Radicale at the very time when, with the Mani Pulite anti-corruption judicial campaign, it could have become the receptor of people's anger, as instead was the Northern League. Another was his misjudgement of Berlusconi, in which he wrongly saw a liberal. And there was the (so paradoxical for such a libertarian) authoritarian way in which he lead the party. On more personal note, this was the reason why I once clashed with him. I went to the party's national conference and I (a very young new member) decided to collect signatures for a change with regard to some small, but to me meaningful, mechanism of internal party organisation. I took the mic (in front of 3,000 people and live on national radio) to illustrate my proposal and found some appreciation in the audience. At that point Pannella took the mic himself and attacked my proposal with the very strong tones he always used. My proposal, of course, at that point was crushed in the vote. I was, however, proud to have been defeated by such a giant and the experience gave me a precious insight into the mechanisms of authority and charisma.

At the end of that conference, however, I witnessed a more positive, although equally scary side of that charisma. I saw Pannella's closing speech and I will probably never experience anything so powerful in my life. I felt as if I was attached with strings to each and every of his words, as if he was playing me like a fiddle. I was, even, responding to each and every of his gestures, pauses or changes in tone. I looked around and noticed that the same was true for all those around me. I felt grateful that a man with such communicative powers had decided to campaign for sometimes hard to sell liberal issues, instead of just exploiting populist fears and prejudices. If he did, he could have been a Mussolini (fortunately Berlusconi and Grillo, although populists, are much less capable).

That speech, however, was closed in such a beautiful and uplifting way that I forgot all my fears. Pannella raised his hands to the sky and promised to his audience: "With these hands we will keep reaching for our dreams!". So, thanks, Marco, for reaching out for our dreams with such formidable hands. May the rest of us keep doing so for long.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Back in my days - a short story

Back in my days things were much simpler. You never think you will become old enough to hold that thought but, if you are lucky, you do. Only now that I'm turning 80 I can understand and accept it as a fact of life. As a still relative young man (of, let's say, 45, in the period before oil ran out) I was arrogant and impatient with people who couldn't keep up with the times. Truth is, it was all due to luck. As a kid, back in Italy, I had stumbled upon the first "home computers" and took a shine to them. It could have happened with chess or stamp collecting, but chess and stamp collecting didn't change the world, while computers did. I found myself on the cusp of a wave I rode it as long as I could.
I wasn't as lucky with the next wave, though. When the first Personal Genetic Synthesizers became available I was simply terrified. What if, I thought, I make a genotyping mistake? The young replied that technology poses problems but also gives the means to deal with them, and they went on happily genotyping away with their agile tentacles, which of course they had self-mutated for that very purpose.
Then the Interwet came. At first it sounded like a joke, but every technology takes from the previous one the metaphors it needs to imagine itself. Back in my days we took the world of ink and paper and we imagined the email, word-processing, the pages of the web. The pioneers of the Interwet just went a step further. I don't know who first though that the metaphor of something "going viral" might be pushed to a completely new level, but the first real virus to carry a message in its DNA simply spelled "QUERTYIOP", which was clearly a homage. Now each of us is an Interwet page, in which messages of all sorts replicate, fight each other, mutate, move to other pages across increasingly contagious links.
As an old man, I still don't know what to make of it. What I do understand, though, is that every technology is a response to the fear of death, it's an attempt to achieve some permanence: the pyramids, writing, the press, computers. As a young techno-utopian I once dreamed that digital technology could give us immortality, that we could upload ourselves onto an everlasting cyber-paradise. That dream came to nothing but, just like with waves, soon every broken dream is followed by a new one. As skeptical as I might be, I don't have any other option than trying to share it. The end might be near, but may these words (and with them all the other words I ever wrote or spoke, all my thoughts and my memories) long live inside your bodies.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

On sacred art

All sacred art can be seen as a piece of evidence against the existence of God. If he really existed the simplest praise would be enough, just like the Graal in reality would end up being a humble wooden cup. All these beautiful Cathedrals, Requiems, Divine Comedies and Paradise Losts, instead, remind us of the need to dig into the the deepest veins of our imagination to cover up his silence and conjure him up from of his all too apparent absence. (Sorry, but I don't have a gig, I'm staying at home and I'm drinking beer while listening to Fauré, hence the rambling).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Mirth of Sysyphus

I was thinking that for me a joke is just a logical thought pushed to its extreme consequences. At the very end of logic there is paradox, nonsense and madness, as many logicians learned the hard way. Or there is humour, which is the acceptance of this absurdity and the enjoyment of the wonderful ride it can offer. It's the kind of defiant acceptance that Albert Camus saw symbolised in Sisyphus, the mythological hero who was forced for eternity to push a big stone uphill only to see it falling back again. Of Sisyphus Camus famously wrote: "One must imagine him happy". Or, at least, one must imagine him laughing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wagner, Sadowitz, Stanhope

Just finished to listen to "Tristan and Isolde", an opera I love but that always puzzles me. What puzzles me is, in a sense, how we can survive it. I mean, it's such an powerful condemnation of morality, convention and even society itself, such a radical celebration of passion and desire at its most intense, uncompromising, self-destructive intensity... we love it for that reason, we listen to it fascinated and enthralled and then we go back to our restrained, rational, bland lives, to the same conventions, morals and society that the opera denounces so powerfully. Isn't art, even the greatest art, a failure? Isn't it completely impotent to change our lives?

The same type of question (and maybe a hint to an answer) can be posed in my opinion by the comedy of Jerry Sadowitz and Doug Stanhope.

Let's start with Sadowitz. Watching him live (and you can only watch him live) is one of the strongest experiences you are going to live as a spectator of any art. It's like if somebody took one of your internal organs, let's say your liver or your spleen, and put it on a table for you to observe. You would probably feel a certain repulsion and disgust, but you would also have to recognise that it's a part of you after all, even if a part you normally prefer to forget. Sadowitz's jokes, in fact, are always extremely unpleasant, they seem to draw from a level of our being that it's too deep and too ancient for morality and civilisation itself. It's a level at which we are misantropic, misogenic and racist not because we believe that's right (there is no belief and no right or wrong at that level) but because we just feel threatened by everybody and everybody is an enemy. Sadowitz behaves and looks like a man completely dominated by his Id, in a sense he is a monster, but a monster that is also us. We laugh at his jokes because we feel reconnected to a level of ourselves that is normally forgotten and repressed, a level that is actually what we built our civilasation against. Civilsation, we know from Freud, has its owns discontents and Sadowitz allows us to take a little vacation from them. Which doesn't mean, of course, that we leave his shows less civilised, more misanthropic, misogenic and racists than we were before. After a vacation normally we stil go back to work. But this does not mean that vacations are pointless either.

Something similar happens while you watch a show from Doug Stanhope. If Sadowitz forces you to face your Id, Stanhope forces you to push your intelligence to its extreme, iper-rational and sometimes  paradoxical consequences. To admit, for instance, that abortion is the best solution to global warming. After leaving his shows you will probably still compliment your friends for their new babies, but again you will have enjoyed a vacation from the limits that decency and morality always pose to the free exercise of our rational thinking.

So my conclusion is that Wagner, Sadowitz and Stanhope will never change our lives but, by offering respite from its constant restraints and limitations, will at least make it more bearable.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A dream of ghosts and languages

Strange dream last night. I was talking with an unidentifiable friend and with my paternal grandfather when my paternal grandmother passed by, said something and left. It all looked normal at first but then I remembered that she had been dead for a long time. I started to discuss how that was possible, suggesting that it was probably a collective hallucination, when my unidentifiable friend switched to English. I realised it was to protect my grandfather, who probably had never realised that my granny was dead (in reality he's dead too, but in the dream either this wasn't the case or it was irrelevant) and who couldn't understand that language. My grandad started to get closer and closer so I said to my friend that what we were doing was actually cruel: he had serious hearing problems and now we were giving him the impression that he had lost the ability to understand us altogether. And then I woke up

Friday, July 5, 2013

On the purpose of comedy

The more I think about it the more I feel convinced that in comedy the medium of laughter is the message. I mean, when people laugh is because for a moment they are enjoying seing something in a completely unexpected light or are experiencing the temporary lifting of a taboo or are discovering that something they thought peculiar to them is actually shared. This list is of course incomplete, but the point is that all these experiences are highly valuable per se. There is no need to say anything more and, most importantly, nothing more being said will ever compensate for the lack or paucity of these experiences. Call me a formalist, if you want (or call me a cunt, if you must).