Our Civilization and its Discontents

Talking Picture, directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, 2003

Written on a Sunday, February 26, 2006, at the end of a badly started (and badly continued) week.

“Anxiety, work pressure, events, thoughts and readings with no clear direction, solipsism, our flaws seen in the mirror of those we love. Last but not least, the uneasiness of moving about a city with a gloomy indistinct threat hanging over [Al Qaeda had just menaced the Vatican at the time of this writing.]“

“Woke up early and watched A talking picture on TV (Um Filme Falado, 2003,) written and directed by the 96-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.”

“Joana and her mother Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), history professor at a university in Lisbon, embark on a cruise ship directed to Bombay to meet Rosa Maria’s husband, an airline pilot. Now and then a new woman joins the cruise, both famous and lonely: Catherine Deneuve (a French businesswoman), Stefania Sandrelli (an Italian ex-supermodel) and Irene Papas (a Greek singer and actress). The ship captain (US actor John Malkovich) gallantly invites the three divas to dine at his table. Later Joana and Rosa Maria are also invited so the whole cast of actors (and bunch of characters) is now together.”

A Talking Picture by  Manoel de Oliveira

“Surreal in this movie is the fact that every character speaks in his/her own language: Portuguese and English the captain plus mother and daughter; Greek, French and Italian the three divas, all of them though perfectly understanding each other. This weird language thing, while making the movie hard for the public, gives life to a fascinating cosmopolitan symposium, the various tongues contributing to the effect.”

“We better understand the title of the movie (A talking picture) since here actually deep and disillusioned dialogues on the Western civilization unfold (its origins, meaning and future) like in a dialectic multilingual story, while the cruise ship slowly crosses the Mediterranean surrounded by some of its most ancient (and fascinating) cities: Marseille, Athens, Naples, Constantinople (Istanbul) etc., not without a last-days-of-Pompeii touch.”

“Joana and her mother had often gone off the ship to visit many places. Stopping once at a mosque in Istanbul, if I well remember, Joana asks her mother whether Catholics and Muslims are still at war. “No – replies Rosa Maria – this happened in the Middle Ages” (a newspaper headline places the film action in July 2001 … a little before the Twin-towers attack)”. Here below you can see Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a Wikimedia Commons image.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Gnu Free Documentation License

“The same night of the multilingual conversation the captain informs the crew that two time bombs placed by terrorists are about to explode. Confusion ensues and the passengers are requested to evacuate the ship in all hurry. However Maria realizes that her daughter is still on board so she gets back on the ship and finally finding her the two women try to escape with a lifeboat, although all lifeboats are far and gone. The captain spots them on deck from the sea and yells for them to jump, but the two women disappear in the explosion – they being so beautiful, the image of life itself -, a blast we only see as bright light reflected on the aghast face of the captain, while the credits flow down …”

“A few hours before the bombs explode the Greek singer (Irene Papas) had chanted an inspired sad melody lamenting how the Greek civilization had been swept away …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …”

“…a clear metaphor of our own Western world that could be swept away. Well, swept away seems a stupidity to me, although signals are clear that the world balance is about to change.”

Foreseeing such change, what Bush (and Blair) after all meant to do but try to better position their chess pieces on the world chessboard, with the aim of delaying Western decline (but foolishly screwing it all up, the process having been probably accelerated instead)? In this sense this enchanting movie seems even more appropriate to me).”

“Beautiful, minimalistic, despite some rigidity which nonetheless is part of its charm. And, incredible to say, written and directed by a man in his mid-90s, who was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the White House!” (W. Addiego)

Catherine Deneuve at Cannes in 2000, by Rita Molnár, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license

Italian version

PS
W. Addiego (San Francisco Chronicle) also adds in his review: “The film is stripped down in a way only mature artists can achieve … Though it may resemble an extremely austere travelogue, A Talking Picture is much more. Behind the deceptive air of artlessness, it offers a cutting portrait of civilization — our civilization — and its discontents.”

Power of Reading

Roman Woman with a wax tablet for writing. Pompei. Public Domain

To a Chinese IT student. “I am glad to hear that you like reading. Of course I agree on the great fun and sometimes consolation power of reading. As you have noticed, my house is packed with books. I actually consider serious reading a pretty good substitute for religion and meditation. It is a spiritual activity that can add some depth to our everyday life. I get consolation from reading books that I find special, I get also meditation from books that make me think and/or move my emotions.

Consolation and meditation usually people find in religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam etc. Especially Far-Eastern religions teach us how to meditate, but I usually do this with books that are important or special to me. These books I sometimes read out very slowly, concentrating on every single word and sentence, or I meditate on what I read in the silence of my mind.

Book. Public Domain

Special books

The books that are special can differ according to who is reading them. I find special those books written by people whose minds are somewhat consonant with mine and more powerful than mine, thence capable of helping me in some way. Since I am not a VIP of thought and cannot directly converse with today’s top brains I build up my own Platonic symposium with good books.

Why, you ask, don’t you ever meet important and highly thinking people? Well, sometimes I do, but not so often, it’s not easy to meet them, plus I’m reserved, plus they’re so intelligent they might find me not interesting, or stupid; I know there are intelligent Tv debates and conferences, but I am talking about intimacy and continuous mind communication.

So I like many sorts of books and I read lots of them. Classics are though my favourites and I mentally hold intercourse with them. I adore classics. They are my lymph. They are my religion (literally lol). They resisted time. They are regarded as beneficial and/or fascinating even though decades or centuries (or thousands of years) have passed. Time is a merciless darwinian selector. I really doubt that Dan Brown’s books will be read in the centuries ahead.

By Tom Murphy VII. GNU Free Documentation License

Dan Brown & J.D. Salinger

Incidentally, if you like American culture (as much as I do, though it is getting too superficial) “The Catcher in the rye” by J.D. Salinger is a great little classic written by an intelligent, gifted person. I had the luck to read it in the original when I was 18. I was in Dublin at that time attending a summer English school, and this Swedish boy I was sharing the house with was about to leave. He left this book to me he had just read saying “It is full of sex and slang”, which of course made my resolution to read it rocklike. It might not be special to you. Some American people find it boring because they are obliged to study it at school. But you are Chinese.

Dan Brown‘s books are good thrillers in my view though a little bit too entertainment-oriented (in the negative sense: nothing wrong with entertainment), even if they talk about interesting things, history, religion, lots of technology and today’s stuff like NSA – a sort of IT CIA – NASA, the Vatican, which on the whole is fine, but the thing is he’s in my view making money by morally subjugating the reader with his pseudo-theories.

I am not religious but I find it ridiculous (and depressing) that some people have lost their religious faith because of his books. And it is revealing of the fact that void rules.

City Book Shelf. Creative Commons Attribution 1.0

You told me about the low percentage of Italians who speak English. It is sadly true. We are animals in this field (animals in the negative sense: nothing wrong with being an animal,) concentrated exclusively on our culture and petty politics, though something is changing.

Italian version

Man of Roma

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Italian translation

I am a man of Rome, Italy. Some of my ancestors, many centuries ago, were already citizens of Rome.

So I guess I am a real Roman, or sort of, since some ‘barbaric’ blood must undoubtedly flow in my veins, Germanic perhaps and Ligurian-Celtic, surely, from the West Alpine region.

My mother tongue is Italian, not very different from the Latin spoken by the common people at the times of the late Roman Empire.

The reason I am attempting to communicate in this Northern language – which I do not totally master and which, though a bit chilly to my heart, I find not deprived of charm – is that variety excites me like a drug and I am tired of talking mostly to my countrymen, this lingua franca, English, allowing me hopefully a wider exchange of ideas.

Why this blog

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One reason, I have said, is wider communication.

But what can a Roman of today say to the world? Such a big statement! (if there weren’t the Web to make it not entirely such)

I think it is a great privilege to be born and to be raised here, such a special place, to the extent that something must have penetrated, something distinctive and worthy of being transmitted, in order to be able in our turn to receive.

I hope for comments from Western and non-Western people, since Rome and the Romans have a mediation nature that comes from the Mediterranean.

Rome in some way is more Mediterranean than European.

However, as she was already universal during the ancient Roman days, she has continued to be universal as a religious centre, like Mecca or Jerusalem, which makes Rome something beyond Europe (*).

ψ

Religion will not be a central topic here, though, since I greatly respect all faiths but I personally have none, being an agnostic.

I like to think as in a game that I am similar to those Romans of the past who counted mostly on knowledge and reason (the followers of Epicure, Ἐπίκουρος, for example.)

Three Reasons for Uniqueness

colosseo-zoomgut1.jpg

Ages have passed since this great city was the capital of the known world, this role now being played by New York, or London, perhaps.

Rome is though unique in the first place because “among all the greatest cities of the ancient world – Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Antiochia – she is the only one that has continued to exist without any interruption, never reduced to a semi-abandoned village but rather finding herself often in the middle of world events and, equally often, paying for that a price (**).”

Secondly, and more importantly, Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron, Goethe and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here and these roots are sacred – to me surely, and I think and hope to most of us.

These roots we have to rediscover in order to better open up to others in a new spirit of humanitas and conciliation (two chief components of the everlasting Roman mind).

We all here in the West must encourage a totally new attitude which may enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes looming ahead which might cause our swift decline.

Lastly, Rome, the eternal city, is unique because she is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world, if not the most beautiful.

Beyond her imperial testimonies, her stupendous urban spaces and squares, even small piazzas and alleys radiate that “sacred aura” which comes from the millennia and to which ever increasing multitudes from any land come to pay their tribute.

The capital of our beloved and civilised French cousins, Lutetia Parisiorum (it’s how the Romans called Paris, after the Parisii, a tribe of the Gallic Senones,) was not but a village until the year 1000 AD. “1700 years younger than Rome! It shows, one can feel it (***).”

Fragments Sent in a Bottle

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Scattered fragments of this special identity inserted in a bottle and sent across the Web: this shall be the activity of this blog.

The conveyor of the message is nothing in relation to the greatness of the source and to one ingredient this conveyor might, willingly or unwillingly, possess: he perhaps being like a fossil from a distant past which is dead though, enigmatically, alive yet in many Italians.

Let us admit it. In some central and especially southern areas of this country, minds and habits survive that may puzzle foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards modernity appear evident. Are they only disadvantages?

All Things Considered

This and other topics will be discussed here by an almost 60-year-old Roman whose knowledge can be located at a medium level, with interfaces towards the upper and the lower layers of knowledge.

He will try his best to transmit something useful to others (and to himself) having been an ancient-history & literature educator for 16 years, then converted to Systems Engineering & Training for the last 14 years.

He hopes this blog will allow him to brush up humanities back, which is daunting at his age (not to mention the crazy idea of blogging in English and in Italian.)

ψ

If not profundity of knowledge, he might though have an advantage (still to be proved) over many foreign commentators even born in one of the many ex-provinces of the ancient Roman Empire.

The plus of being a witness from right here.

The advantage of being a Man of Roma.

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