Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rome, 14: The controllers of destiny

Eastside Road, April 30, 2017—
TESTACCIO IS A QUARTER of Rome across the river from Trastevere and south of the Aventine hill, a quarter that always makes me think of the San Salvatario quarter in Torino because unlike every other quarter of the old city it is laid out on a grid. (I don’t include Prati among the old city; I don’t know why; it may be that it’s just as old as Testaccio.

Testaccio is the belly of Rome. It used to harbor the slaughterhouses, and continues to house its share of good restaurants often featuring that subspecialty of Roman cuisine that is founded on meat, and more specifically on offal. Many of us do not often eat offal, of course, or find it not to our liking — unattractive and off-putting. I like quadruped liver as much as anyone, and never pass up a chance at fegato Veneziano when in Venice, and I’ve managed lamb hearts, which were featured, oddly I think, one Mother’s Day at Chez Panisse; but I’m one of those who is made uneasy at the thought of brains, or tripe, or kidneys, or various other things. Perhaps it’s because I spent time as a child on a farm where we butchered our own animals, and I saw these items as they were removed from the carcass — and, thanks I suppose to my mother’s fastidiousness, thrown to the dogs.

I have friends and very good ones who choose not to eat meat, I think often for the same principle that led me not to eat at all on Tuesdays — to acknowledge that our lives depend on the deaths of other organisms. (Well, we do have toast and coffee on Tuesday mornings, and tea and nuts in the evening.) I find it enchanting, I think the word not too strong, that the Protestant Cemetery and Cestius’s memorial pyramid are on the edge of Testaccio, that carnivorous quarter, and that Monte Testaccio is too, the biggest of Rome’s garbage heaps, a pile of broken pots half a mile round and over one hundred feet high.

The pots were mostly from Spain, and carried olive oil. (Some were from North Africa.) Nearly all commodities were shipped in terra cotta jars in those days; they were the smaller versions of today’s containers, with a capacity of twenty gallons or so. Wheat and wine were shipped in them, and when their jars were no longer useful they were broken up to be used as landfill or in the production of concrete.

These olive-oil jars, though, were too oily for such use, and about the time the early Christians were or were not being persecuted, these jars were stacked up in terraces, whole ones making the walls to hold back shards carefully laid behind. So Imperial Rome, like the contemporary “developed” world, depended on the importation of oil, and on the conquest and administration of such lands as Iberia and North Africa to supply it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Of the restaurants in present-day Testaccio we like Perilli: but in this month in Rome we did not visit any restaurant in the quarter, though we did have delicious sandwiches at a counter in the oddly new open-air market at the edge of the Monte. We often rode along the edge of Testaccio, though, on the number 3 tram, which takes us out the Via Marmorata, its northern boundary, as far as the Pyramid, before turning north for the delightful ride over a shoulder of the Aventine and an always impressive sighting of the Colosseum. So Testaccio, and its reminder of the persistence of daily life across centuries of human history, was often on my mind.

That pile of broken jars is a testament to civic engineering and design; someone had the idea, made the drawings, did the surveying, organized the slaves and donkeys. Ditto the planning for the layout of olive groves in what we now know as Libya, Tunisia, and Andalusia. Ditto, a few centuries later, the organization of the books of the Bible, the development of the narratives and iconography of the saints, the political structure of the evolving Christian church. What I want to know is: what is the force that transcends individuals and individual lifetimes to create and animate these social movements? I know my body is host to perhaps three bacteria for each of my perhaps forty trillion human cells, and that they all have their individual lives, no doubt with as much meaning and importance to them, to the extent of their awareness, as mine as to me: is this an analogy of the zoology of the Roman Empire, or the Catholic Church, or NATO?

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

In an attempt to understand Algeria from an Algerian point of view — or, rather, in preparing the attempt — on getting home from Rome, four days ago, I read Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. High time. I’d attempted it years ago, probably more than sixty, when my French was not up to it, and its reputation as philosophy was daunting, and I was mesmerized by the chiseled beauty of its prose, blinded, you might say, as Meursault is by the Algerian sun.

I may write about my reading of it here, later on, after I’ve read Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, the recent re-telling (that word’s not quite right) of Camus’s novel from the point of view of the brother of the man Camus’s central character kills — for which he goes to the guillotine. (It maddens me that I cannot buy an e-book of Meursault, contre-enquête except in translation: I read the Camus in that form, very useful for its enabling of instant definition of words one’s not sure about.) I think Daoud’s book probably minimizes Camus’s, making of it a political affair centered on colonialism. One of my points in these last sixteen thousand words is that all human activity is colonialism in one form or another; even the malignant cells in one’s body are colonialists; even the refugees from Africa to Rome, or to Ilja Pfeijffer’s Genova (see La Superba ), are reverse colonizers, you see their colonies in European countries and cities everywhere, it’s that that animates the rejection of immigration by the Right, here and abroad. I was struck by this passage, late in L’Etranger :

Dans le fond, je n’ignorais pas que mourir à trente ans ou à soixante-dix ans importe peu puisque, naturellement, dans les deux cas, d’autres hommes et d’autres femmes vivront, et cela pendant des milliers d’années. Rien n’était plus clair, en somme. (Ultimately, I wasn’t unaware that whether to die at thirty or at seventy matters little since, naturally, in either case, other men and women live on, and that’s been going on for thousands of years. Nothing clearer, in fact.)
That’s my translation, and it’s quick and literal, and fails, I know, in the last two words, which brings me back, en somme, to “fact” and facticity. Meursaults’s clearly stated position on this — he’s the central intelligence, the “hero” (some say “anti-hero” of Camus’s novel, I should have said before — is that it’s a question that doesn’t interest him: which brings the whole thing down to the relationship of Self to Externality. I suppose that’s been my dilemma.

I believe our destiny is death, and I think the observable facts bear me out. Others have other ideas about this, but they require various elaborate constructs that don’t interest me. I’m sorry, a little, that I suggested, with the title above, that there might be some Controller of this destiny: I think it’s a matter beyond control, too complex in its numbers and its turbulence to be controlled by any demonstrable agent. The meaning of life? Meursault:

les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies : des odeurs d’été, le quartier que j’aimais, un certain ciel du soir, le rire et les robes de Marie.

(the poorest and most tenacious of my pleasures: the scents of summer, the quarter that I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s laughter and her dresses.)

1 comment:

John Whiting said...

Such books are no longer read by those who control our destiny. It was not always thus. Were rulers of the past wiser after such reading and was the life of the populace better as a result?