Monday, January 07, 2013

Bellavista's Middle Way

Eastside Road, January 7, 2013—
•Luciano De Crescenzo: Thus Spake Bellavista: Naples, Love, and Liberty. Translated from the Italian by Avril Bardoni. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

WHY HAS IT TAKEN over twenty years for me to find out about this marvelous book? Oh well, quit complaining, Charles, and thank you, Giovanna; my eyes are now open.

De Crescenzo is well enough known in Italy, I'm sure; I'll have to look him up in a couple of weeks when I'm haunting Feltrinelli. I have the provisional feeling that he may have made a big splash with this book when it appeared in 1977 (as Così parlò Bellavista, a best seller in Italy); he followed it up with a number of sequels, and a film of the same title appeared in 1984. (Gotta look that up, too.)

The book's an interpenetration of two: one, a series of funny anecdotes of life in Naples — misunderstandings, thefts, arguments, jokes, and the like, many of them funny enough to have caused me to laugh out loud in the reading. To cite only one, the epigraph to the seventh chapter:
"Put that cigarette out!" shouted the bus conductor.
"But I've only just had coffee."
"Ah, that's different."

Two, a series of philosophical dialogues, Platonic style, in which the Socratic method, lubricated by bottles of decent rosso, explore a fascinating view of the good life, essentially based on Epicurus.

I don't think it's giving too much away to mention Bellavista's main argument, which doesn't appear until that seventh chapter, "The Theory of Love and Liberty": might there be some organizing principle that can guide us toward that good life based, as Epicurus taught, on the moderate pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain?

Bellavista, a patient and good-natured fellow who discusses these things with a group of intelligent but relatively ill-educated and intellectually unambitions buddies, has just such an outlook, which he atributes to "a friend of mine in Milan, Giancarlo Galli, who may or may not be the journalist, writer, and economist profiled in Italian Wikipedia — another type to look up at Feltrinelli.

Bellavista's theory rests on the two basic human desires: for Love and Liberty. The first
is the feeling that impels us to seek the companionship of our fellows, and the acts of love are all the things we do in the attempt to share our joys and griefs with others. This reaching out to our fellow men is instinctive.
Thus Spake Bellavista, p. 41
Straightforward enough. Liberty is a more recalcitrant of definition, but Bellavista does pretty well:
For some people liberty means democracy, for others it means anarchy, so at this point I shall have to spend a couple of minutes explaining exactly what I mean by liberty… I would define liberty as the simultaneous desire not to be oppressed oneself and not to oppress others.
ibid., p. 107

Since both Love and Liberty have their opposites, Bellavista then lays his idea out on a coordinate system, as I mentioned here the other day, whose abscissa is a line from Hate to Love and whose ordinate is one from Power to Liberty. This results in four quarters, which I can't help but link to R.H. Blyth's four classifications of literature: objective objective, objective subjective, subjective objective, and — you guessed it: the worst of the lot, "wailing like a saxophone": subjective subjective.

Bellavista populates these quadrants with a number of familiar characters, depending on where they fall in these quadrants. The type fully committed to Love and neutral on the subject of Liberty (and it should be noted these qualities are necessarily in constant irreconcilable tension) is the Saint; his opposite is the Devil. The type fully committed to Liberty, on the other hand, and neutral on Love, is the Hermit; his opposite is the King. A "bad" King, who is driven by Hate, is the Tyrant; a "good" one is the Pope. Their opposites are the Sage and the Rebel.

In general of course we prefer those in the upper right-hand quadrant. The Scientist is a little more concerned with Liberty than with Love, the Poet reverses that tendency; both flank the Sage as nearly ideal types. What Bellavista argues for, in his sweet practical way, is a middle way, precisely the Sage's way, avoiding the complications attending the desire for Power and giving in to the seductions of Love, because, as Epicurus teaches us, one must love others if one is to be loved, and one must give others their way if one is to be allowed one's own.

I read Thus Spake Bellavista hard on the heels of What's the Economy For, Anyway?, by John de Graaf and Steven Batker, discussed here the other day. They make a perfect pairing: De Crescenzo supplies the theoretical element, entertainingly and persuasively; Batker and de Graaf the history of engineered society's attempt to institute (or, lately, evade) political approaches to achieving that element.

I increasingly believe the besetting problems with American society — from violence to pettiness — are grounded in an increasingly present antisocialism among individuals. Different people will supply different theories as to the reasons for this: breakdown of the family, institutionalization of education, defeat of organized labor, fractionalization of religious cults, glorification of individualism: the list can go on forever.

In the rage to find sources of this antisocialism, in order to institute corrective action, so far only De Crescenzo, in my experience, has brought the matter down to comfortable daily-life observations. It doesn't hurt that he leavens the investigation with a good deal of humor. I wish I could spend an evening with these two books, President Obama, Robert Reich, and a bottle of good red wine.


Curtis Faville said...

I can see Reich as a good dinner companion, but I suspect Obama might be a bit on his guard. There are so many ways a man in public office can be compromised, that he must be on guard at all times.

Charles Shere said...

That's what the good red wine is for…