Susanna Tamaro is one of Italy’s most highly-regarded contemporary novelists and essayists. Her novel Va’ dove ti porta il cuore (Follow your heart) has been translated into over 40 languages. She lives in the countryside just outside Orvieto, and supports events sponsored by the Studio for Art, Faith & History. The essay excerpted here was delivered over a decade ago at Istituto San Lodovico, the convent in Orvieto where the Studio had its first seat. (Translated from the Italian by John Skillen; click here for the original text in Italian)
Even though everyone talks of happiness and self-actualization, the wind which blows through our age is one of confusion and desperation, a wind that makes us grab onto anything only to disappear into the black hole that we carry within ourselves.
Several weeks ago I was sitting on a park bench in an outlying section of Rome, heavy with traffic. A continuous multicolored line of passers-by filed before my eyes. The light of the setting sun gilded the top floors of the palazzi, as if they were the rocky faces of a canyon. A jumbo jet was landing over the capital while the flight of a couple of noisy but regal gulls traced the last blue stripes in the evening sky.
Next to my bench some hearty little pink flowers were peeping out from among the leaves of two delicate oleanders. I am always struck by something surviving amidst asphalt and rubbish. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed this gratuitous offering of beauty. In vain.
The tribal crowd continued its march. A dull and sullen procession, indifferent both to the little oleander flowers and to the foul smell of auto exhaust, indifferent to the glances of others and to the slice of sky suffused with the golden light of sunset, indifferent to the blackbird that kept guard from the top of a shrub with a melodious cascade of song. “Watch out! This is my territory!”
What territory did these faces belong to, I wondered? Where have they come from? Where are they going? What do they see, what do they listen to?
Later on the bus back home, it came to me: we live in a great plain from which history has been abolished.
History, story, stories – everything whose existence is manifested through the progressive alterations of time. Nothing around us recalls the past, nothing constructs the future. Time is now seen only as the function of the present moment of materiality and possession, consumed and emptied.
My thoughts turned to the title of Gogol’s novel, Dead Souls. Our tribe – the tribe of dead souls – thinks of itself as the great model of civilization through which every single individual enjoys the highest level of liberty, the example for all the world to imitate.
Become like us and you will be happy. We are nice, tolerant, egalitarian, convinced of the innate goodness of man.
Supposing this, we become indignant and horrified when some of our kind betray this goodness by behaving like wild beasts. Astonished, we ask ourselves, “How could this be possible?” So we draft appeals, sign manifestos, organize round table discussions; we demonstrate our superior civilization through every type of mass media.
Having placated our anxiety with such propitiatory public activity, we return serenely to our little daily battles. And against what do we struggle? Mainly against cellulite, high cholesterol, and the sagging of our bodies under the double pressures of time and the force of gravity.
We struggle to remain young and beautiful, pretending that life can be an eternal present, a replica of the perfect polaroid. To help along the deception, we modify the relationships around us. Parents let their children call them by their first names, and grandparents, in the best of cases, are transformed into aunts and uncles. No one wants to be what they are, namely what is imposed upon them by nature.
Instead of choosing fulfillment, we choose the appearance. Instead of accepting our ties to others, we choose personal liberty … or that which we suppose to be such, since true liberty remains distant.
We live in a world anti-historical, a world whose dogma is to enjoy the moment. We console ourselves saying that even Eastern philosophy recognizes the present moment as supreme, forgetting that in those philosophies – Taoism, for example – the supreme good is identified with adherence to fundamental natural cycles. And that it is in following harmoniously the laws of earth and heaven that man finds his true fulfillment, not by emulating groups of monkeys who live howling in the treetops.
Western man has cut himself off completely from the bonds with heaven, and with the mystery that connects him to earth and heaven.
The rupture of these ties has led us to a sort of blindness. We don’t know how to see, we don’t know how to listen, how to feel deeply and stay attentive. Our thoughts and our will are directed obsessively towards an image of ourselves as we are supposed to be – or as we are told we ought to be – according to the dictates of that impersonal and almost omnipotent entity that rules our age: mass communication.
Observing from the outside the enormous quantity of news and notices offered up to us by radio and television, by newspapers and magazines and the internet, I have come to think that what we have created is little more than a planetary chat room. Some event that happens in a distant country occupies day after day of our lives, arouses our indignation, troubles us deeply (we imagine), canceling out almost completely our own humble daily reality.
We live projected in a virtual reality, manipulated by the passing trends of popular journalism. We are no longer capable of an original view, of grasping the uniqueness of our life as a gift, of setting about the task of improving ourselves and improving the little slice of the world around us. The only responsibility we recognize is that of expressing our disdain or horror to the vast stage-play mediated before us.
To look back regretfully on time past is of course a constant of the soul and of human history. Arriving at a certain age, we convince ourselves that society has reached the abyss of an irreversible decadence, that the young generations are generations of drones, of incompetents, creatures without backbone. If this were completely the case, the world would have been extinct for some time.
Yet one must not fall into the opposite trap of ignoring differences between the ages. Only through grasping the differences can we arrive at a sound critique, a perception of what is positive, of what is worth the effort to carry forward.
The great fracture – the break that renders the present context different and more complex – is the advent of mass communication. The eruption of mass media into our civilization has created a fracture in the development of humanity to which, in my judgment, we have paid insufficient attention.
There was a time, in the life of man, when moments of silence and contemplation occured by nature. No longer is this the case. Everywhere we find ourselves, we are enveloped in constant noise, befuddled by the equipment we plug into our ears, by the barrage of images that assaults our eyes. Words and images that we perhaps neither seek nor desire everywhere touch us, subtly modifying our capacity to perceive and to analyze. They work on us surreptitiously, inducing us to think about what they want us to think about.
Having been to a number of schools and spoken with many teachers, I am keenly aware of the frightening reduction of attention span in the young that has occurred in recent decades. Even if they should succeed in formulating, with effort, a question, children no longer have the capacity nor the energy to work through an answer.
The pursuit of superficial pleasures, presented to us constantly by the mass media as life’s chief value, condemns a large part of contemporary civilization to the destiny of being lemmings, those little rodents who en masse, for reasons unknown, throw themselves into the sea from the shores of north Europe. Thus our children, who have trouble becoming adults because they have never developed the capacity to learn and mature, to struggle, to comprehend the great richness of life, are unable to do anything else than to follow en masse wherever the giant antenna of mass media tells them to go.
In reality, despite the fact that we continue to sing the praises of our highly democratic civilization, we live in an invisible and implacable dictatorship: the dictatorship of Happiness.
Isn’t this perhaps the Golden Calf of our time? To be happy. But what is happiness?
The message relentlessly proposed to us by the mass media is that happiness comes from possessing and consuming material goods, and from the immediate gratification of every urge and compulsion.
In this sense, the age that we are creating for ourselves is in fact marked by extraordinary poverty. Poetry, painting, music have by now almost completely disappeared from the horizons of our education. And yet surely it is the capacity to imagine beauty, to reproduce and recognize it, that is the distinctive trait of being human.
The only dimension of life now accepted as mattering is that of gossip and chatter. Not having happiness, and little suspecting that this condition can come from inside us, from a sane and healthy relation with heaven and earth, nothing remains for us to cling to – in those few spaces still free from the claims of entertainment – other than that other great dynamic of our times: rivendicazione, staking our claim, claiming our rights, protecting our turf, looking out for ourselves.
To leaf through any newspaper on any day of the year will make one realize that our country is simply a collection of so many monads each following the inflexible principle of self-referentiality.
No longer having any internal rules, no longer knowing how to locate one’s own destiny in relation to the great purpose of the cosmos, not recognizing any other law than that of the satisfaction of one’s own instincts, we have become impoverished creatures. And beyond our poverty, we are fearful.
We live defending ourselves from everything and everybody, constantly tense, braced for an attack like a hungry dog defending its bowl.
But this condition is also one of extraordinary loneliness, because if the Other is the enemy, who can ever really be trusted?
And hence the other great contradiction of our age: we can communicate wherever, whenever, to whomever by every possible means, and yet we are desperately lonely. The social fabric is pulverized. The idea of belonging to a complex civil system, one that asks on our part responsibility, generosity and participation to construct a better future, is considered nowadays a quaint leftover from the nineteenth century.
One of the things that strikes me most, and most painfully, about our country is our total neglect of the younger generations. The educational system, a victim of the demagoguery of various political orientations, is practically destroyed.
A majority of families, castigated by psychologists, sociologists, sexologists, and mass-media prophets, have lost that common educational sense which for millenia was the sustaining foundation of society.
Young people may appear secure on the outside, but internally they are very fragile, incapable of struggling, unable to confront and tackle a single frustration. They live in a larval state almost until middle age, enveloped in the warmth of an environment that grants them everything and expects nothing. They live waiting for life to arrive: a job, a house, marriage, without noticing that, while they have been waiting, life for the most part has already come and gone.
The social ethos of protecting one’s claims, having infiltrated the world of work, has created the conditions for this falling to pieces, because this environment has denied to those young people of worth and talent – researchers, scholars, artists, scientists – the chance to put themselves to the test and to actualize their potential, constraining them instead to a limbo of frustrated waiting. The young seem to exist only as consumers or as the objects of various electoral demagogues.
The young are bored, disillusioned, angry, and have every right to be so, since our society has always treated them like pieces of furniture – elegant, disinfected, cleaned – but nevertheless only cabinets. From their earliest years, their minds and their hearts have been assaulted by a tidal wave of vulgarity and violence. They have been convinced to believe that the only law is that the strongest wins, and that the ends always justify the means.
No one seems any longer scandalized by this; no one seems to remember that a child is a fragile creature, a being in formation and that on this formation will depend the future of society. But to scandalize the little ones is unpardonable, according to the Gospel, and is the best way to assure a catastrophic future for ourselves.
As a writer of books – and books widely read – I have had the opportunity in recent years to come to know a number of people who are active, capable, passionate, and working to change things for the better.
These people never appear in the press, in the television talk shows, in the world of mass media, and yet are really those who keep the country on its feet: the teacher who loves to teach, the scrupulous doctor, the librarian who values books, the many volunteers who dedicate their energies and their time not to claiming their rights but to building a caring community and caring for the common good. These are the people who don’t follow the golden calf of eternal happiness, but who build today for a tomorrow and dedicate their time to defending the uniqueness of human being.
These are really the people who must carry on the work of tilling the soil and planting the seeds of a new mode of understanding and of confronting life, providing children and young people with the interior defenses necessary for resisting the powerful and fatal influence of the mass media.
What needs to be inserted into our schools, from the elementary grades on – rather than learning English and surfing the internet – are hours of silence and meditation, hours of observation and concentration, because a mind that flutters about here and there like a frightened parrot is a mind perfectly useless.
We ourselves need to return to being role-models for the young, people to admire and to emulate, not rendered helpless by degradation. Without silence, without ethics, without the capacity for accomplishing projects, one cannot construct the fullness of human being.
In times of negativity such as ours, in which vulgarity, slovenliness and ugliness hold the beauty queen’s scepter, we need to recover in public discourse the view of human beings as noble creatures, who realize their destiny through evolving and not degrading themselves.
People of good will must use all their influence, each in his own field, to recover the discourse about man’s complexity, and in this complexity his richness. They must reaffirm that to know how to develop relationships is the given foundation of human being, and that to stimulate response always implies openness, the ability to accept and receive rather than to drive back and repel.
The rich person is the humble person, the person who observes with astonishment the things that surround him, because wonder is the condition of those looks, and of those hearts, that renew themselves day by day.