||As long ago as the late nineteenth century, in this country of ours which has such a short memory, thousands upon thousands of people put their faith in hope in the attempt to improve living conditions that were poor and extremely hard.
They were peasants, paid a handful of nothing, who irrigated other people’s land with their blood and sweat, maltreated by everyone, killed by the malaria mosquitoes and tormented by hunger, subject to the vagaries of the weather and of fortune and to the bullying of the gentry. They were miners who dug holes to scratch out sulphur and coal, leaving their lungs and hearts under a crust of rocks where they lived their hard days. Fishermen and builders who had nothing more to fish for or build. Often they lived in breathtakingly beautiful places, on a sea that might have been an open door, a sea whose horizon, to them, hemmed in between poverty and such beauty, seemed like a high prison wall separating them from a modest dream: a normal life, a dignified job, a comfortable house, the affection of friends and the respect of others. And this dream, at different times, materialized with strange, exotic names of places which would be Eldorado, the Promised Land, oases where poverty could be allayed by working.
So it was, a story runs, that in Sicily too the magical name of California began to circulate, the name of a paradise where even the slightest effort would bear fruit, where there was land and space in abundance, where the future would have the savour of a word which the people dared not even pronounce, so close was it to tranquillity.
They began to think of escape, of getting beyond the wall of the horizon, abandoning everything and crossing the sea to reach that dream.
The fact is that dreams often have blurred, uncertain outlines, drawn by a shining but mysterious pencil, and however beautiful and long-for these dreams were, they frightened them, being so different from the strong hard lines of the poverty that they knew in their homes, in their land, a poverty which they cursed, certainly, but which was still theirs, familiar and known.
Instinctively we are all a bit like that: we mistrust what is foreign to us. Out of laziness, out of habit. In self-defence. We have to use heart and brain to compel ourselves to be curious, to listen to a strange language or try to understand a custom different from our own, perhaps taste it, or mix it with our own ingredients and make it familiar, the same or better. Or merely different. New.
At any rate those poor doomed souls took the decision to leave and perhaps it was not even a question of courage, because courage has to do with choice and for many of them that journey was simply a necessity.
They contacted certain people - Maltese sailors, some say - in ways which, and I write this with a shiver running down my spine, I still read about today. In exchange for payment, by paying those gentlemen the blood they had saved up for years, they were put on a ship get beyond the horizon and reach the golden shores of California. The embarkation by night, crammed in the hold like livestock, mixing expectation in the stench of sweat, in the breath they held at every heave of the vessel, hoping that soon someone would open the door of the sky to release them into the new world.
They circled in this way for days and days, for California is a long way away, as one of the Maltese explained to them. You have to cross the ocean, and how can you explain to some ignorant peasants how large the ocean is, and its waves, and its currents, and the ships and the whales that are in it.
But patience upon patience, came the day, no, the night, when someone opened the hatch and said they had arrived, and before them was a beach and that was California. They put them in four boats and lowered them into the sea, leaving them on that expanse of sand, between tears of joy and a thrill of hope.
That was the most beautiful night, for it was pervaded by the light of dreams, of all that for months and years each one of them had imagined and which now would be reality. Their new life.
That was the most beautiful night but it dissolved in the morning with the first sunlight, when they reached the houses of a farmstead and asked for help and directions. In this way, from the words of reply of the people who came to meet them, they understood the trick that had played on them by the Maltese, the contempt with which for money they had torn their hope to shreds, carrying them just a little further north and landing them on the coast of a still young country called Italy.
But at that very moment, from that new, mounting despair, from the anguished fear of what would become of them, cheated, penniless, exploited yet again, something was born which I think it is worth recounting. Someone, says the story, shook off his dismay and in broad dialect, in that language that goes straight to the heart, said they couldn’t turn back, they had left home to go to California and so, for them, this was and would remain California.
And that California is still there, between Cecina and Livorno, on the sea where those doomed people disembarked and found work and dignity, to remind us how faint and yet how strong is the borderline between fear, despair and their opposite. For perhaps, too easily, we have forgotten, we forget, the material we are made of, the material of which poetry, literature, strive to remind us: «we are such stuff as dreams are made on».
We are made not of carefully calculated balance sheets, but of dreams, says Shakespeare.
Not of houses, though they too are good and useful; but it is not they that make human beings. They shelter them from the wind. They make their lives easier and more comfortable, even a child can understand that. But before money and before houses, according to the poets, come dreams.
Hrabal, who worked in the blast furnaces and in the beer cellars, at the desk and at the presses of a paper mill, where he pulped the books of his poems which he had thrown into the rubbish bin, wrote that in the last analysis it doesn’t matter how things end but that everything is merely aspiration, desire and hope.
And it is a strange mathematics, that of literature, whereby it is not true that if one inverts the addenda the final sum does not change, for if behind the soul of people you take away dreams, their anarchy, their hope of crossing the horizon, and you put mainly items of expenditure, inflow and outflow, in the end you will only have finance and a balance sheet. And you will be your own accountants.
You will have inside you, firmly pinned next to every item of expenditure, a note which enables you to add things up and square accounts, perhaps manipulating them with a few tricks, which after all in some places is no longer even a crime, all that matters is that you balance income and expenditure.
That will be your soul, just like the souls of those two gentlemen who, faced with a work by Rebecca Horne, a white grand piano hanging from a ceiling which suddenly exploded in an unexpected crash of notes, faced with that debatable, enigmatic, even - if you will - disturbing work, could only think of one thing to say, a question which razed to the ground all possibility of hope:
«God knows how much all that must have cost», they said.
Perhaps it is in order to avoid this desert that art, literature, music, continue to want to keep us tied to the clouds that we have inside us, while outside everything seems to revolve around a noisy concreteness as evanescent as vapour which to us, by contrast, seems ever more indispensable and solid.
We have learned to build things, to use them, to consume them quickly in order to have affluence and convenience, in a machine which is now difficult to stop, which, turning round more and more quickly, mangles, destroys and leaves behind ever larger pieces of words, of images, of emotions.
Of silence. Of slowness. Of memory.
It is this progressive deprivation that grates inside us. That of memory that starts from the lowest point, from the stories which have brought us thus far, little stories of millions of people who together built our history. Our identity. A wealth which we are in danger of eroding and losing if we do not continue to feed it by renewing its principles and the motivation on which it was built.
I am afraid, for example, when I see the cracks widen on the simple yet strong concept that is mutuality, on that social solidarity which our great-grandfathers, and our grandfathers, attained at the price of sacrifice and effort. That principle which was, which is, really a concrete utopia, whereby everyone puts into the common store a piece of his own for the good of all the others, for a pension, a cure, a sudden need.
I am afraid when I see increasingly used, as a kind of magical mantra, the diktat of privatization, of rigorous financial meritocracy as a measure that regulates relationships between people, of social do-it-yourself, of everything that excludes and delegates to the individual person the resolution of his own difficulties, his own needs.
Then I remember John Donne’s words, that no man is an island and that every man’s fate concerns me because I am involved in mankind, but he too was a poet and perhaps he was only talking of clouds.
And I am afraid when I listen to the continual, empty media noise that pretends to tell the stories of people but in fact merely reproduces a reality which looks at itself from the television screens, filling the days with nothing, inviting each one of us to exist solely within this circle, to repeat ourselves ad infinitum to reassure ourselves of our own normality.
That is how things are, and that is what we are. That is what we have built, it is the system which has guaranteed us widespread affluence, albeit an unevenly distributed affluence: here some, there less, in many places nothing. Even though we have consumed and are consuming all the resources of the planet, and even though we live in big cities, alongside each other and yet feel lonely, and are afraid of barbarian invasions and terrorists, and flexibility breathes down our necks and everything seems increasingly fast and precarious, and this causes us anxiety, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. We also produce excellent benzodiazapenes.
That is how things are and that is what we are, and in this confusion it is more and more difficult to remain attached to the solid clouds of our history, to what has built us from within, what has woven the texture of that which keeps us alive.
I return, then, to where I started: in our country, right here, not beside the bastions of Orion, only yesterday, our grandfathers, our fathers, set off on ships and trains and we went in pursuit of a desire for dignity, heading for any place that gave us a glimpse of that California which each of us imagined inside himself.
And those voyages of hope were and have been hard and humiliating journeys, as only life in unknown places can be, among mysterious and strange smells and languages, grey cities and inhospitable faces; for there is always someone who can see you as the black man who carries off children, someone who wants to defend a race and a house, someone always further north than you, never mind California... So we have even had to tell ourselves the story of a dubious epic, in which we were good people, hard-working and respectful of traditions and of the law, held up as an example and everywhere admired. Not as we really have been and really are. People like any other people, good and bad, macaroni, mafiosi, selfish individualists and ingenious hand-to-mouth improvisers. What we were and are: people, people like those same people for whom our cities, our countryside, our coasts are today their California.
It is rather as if the roles had been reversed, the memory confused, the traces of that time faded before the wind of an affluence which is so strongly desired that we are now afraid of sharing it, losing, together with our identity, our security, our traditions.
This shifting of people worries us, we are worried by their faces and their languages that we don’t understand, by the idea of invasion, which is something ancestral, by the gestures and smells which we cannot interpret. And perhaps, even more, we are terrified by our perceiving, in those people who arrive in search of California, a decisiveness and strength that we have lost, and seeing in them the image of what we once were and today no longer remember, something indeed made of dreams, of desire, of tradition, of spirit, of all that which Pasolini, another poet, already felt was being lost and confused in the maelstrom that is rendering indefinite every specificity that we have.
So we think primarily of defending ourselves, not of looking profoundly at what is happening, which in reality is what has always happened, for the world is not made of walls and moats. We dig those moats, and we dig them deep, in the earth and in the mind: in any unknown face we are ready to see again the black man who carries off children, the barbarian hordes which we once were invade our homes, and the rites of half a million people who throng to Mecca to remember a prophet seem to us ridiculous and primitive.
And yet, although we live surrounded by our glittering gadgets, by plasma screens and fantastic polyphonic ringtones, we too continue to need something that eludes us if such an event happens, as it has happened, as a girl stabbing her mother and brother to death because she wants a bit more freedom on Saturday nights; if these Saturday nights are cavalcades of noise and synthetic energy often smashed against a wall or a plane tree; if in the immigrants we see only workers and not people, the stuff of clouds and flesh. If even among us half a million people are prepared to stand waiting for fifteen hours, day and night, to get a brief glimpse of the lifeless body of their spiritual leader.
Something, then, obliges us, too, to fill a void which otherwise terrifies and kills us. In the boundless range of our productiveness, we are no longer able to produce silence, to immerse ourselves in that minimal space of absence where it is possible to let thought run, or to let it rest, enter into, look at, observe ourselves.
The clearest example of this inability is the funeral, where it is now de rigeur to applaud, give long and loud applause to drive away silence and spare us a reflection on death, on grief, on memory.
It is in this making a show of all interiority that I see the true danger of a massification which dissolves the stuff of human beings, which drives away poetry, erases every utopia and, like a paradox, so isolates each person in an absence of meaning as to force him into identical, compulsory behaviour so that he can hope that he is not alone. Which confuses festivity with grief, silence with the word, imagination with the prepackaged.
I view all this with concern and I tie to writing my instinct for survival, my love for that stuff that still roams and breathes in stories, there where all is precariously poised yet remains, where everything is false and nonetheless is true, where I cannot find answers but continually find questions, and time to search, without being sure I will find anything.
I distrust anyone who claims to know with certainty what to do, for I feel, sense and know that nobody can be such a magician as to simplify into a formula a complexity which requires study, effort, attention.
I have before my eyes the scene that Tarkowsky gave us in one of his films, when the village bell-ringer’s young son, whose father died suddenly without whispering in his ear the secret of how to cast bells, trusts to his sensitivity, his courage and his desire not to disappoint the hopes of his people, and therefore of life. And he tries to cope this terrible task, with humility and awareness of all this.
And he tries.
To the words of poets, then, I tie the hope that what appears to be so weak and thin, like the flame of a match in the wind, is in fact hard, solid wood on which one can continue to sail over the horizon. That...
«If you direct your travels to Ithaca,
say a prayer that your way be long,
full of adventures and of knowledge.
Do not fear the Laestrygones and Cyclops
or enraged Poseidon: never
will you meet such monsters on the way
if your thought remains lofty, and exquisite
the emotion that touches your heart
and your body. Neither Laestrygones nor Cyclops
nor sour Poseidon will you meet,
unless you carry them in your heart,
unless your heart raises them before you.
Say a prayer that your way be long.
And that many be the summer mornings
that see you enter (and with what cheerful
joy!) harbours never known before.
Stop at the Phoenicians’ emporiums
to purchase beautiful merchandise,
madrepore and coral, ebony and amber,
voluptuous aromas of every kind,
as many voluptuous aromas as you can.
Visit numerous cities of Egypt
to learn how to learn from the wise.
Keep Ithaca ever in your mind.
Your destiny marks out that goal for you.
But do not hurry your journey.
Better that it last many years, that old
you finally moor at the small island,
rich in what you have earned on the way,
without expecting that she give you riches.
Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would never have set out.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Returning so wise, so experienced,
you will have understood what an Ithaca means».
traduzione di Jonathan Hunt