To my few and exceedingly patient readers: I’m sorry to have been incommunicado for so long. I’ve had the great pleasure of spending the past two weeks (actually a bit more than two weeks) in Italy, first in Rome and then in Sardinia. I’ll probably have additional reflections in the future, but for right now I just wanted just wanted to throw out a few quick observations.
1. Sardinia is a fascinating island and, like many islands, an interesting blend of cosmopolitanism and isolation. Sardinia is very much “on the map” tourism-wise, and large chunks of the coast are given over almost entirely to catering to northern Europeans in search of sun and surf, the south focusing more on families and the northeast focusing more on the wealthy. These aren’t the first invaders the island has seen: Sardinia has been conquered or colonized repeatedly over the centuries (indeed, over the millennia), starting with the Phoenicians in the Bronze Age, followed by the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Catalans, the Pisans and Genoese, modern Italians and, finally, the European tourist industry. But it’s not clear how much of an impact any of these groups has had on life in the interior, where towns only an hour from the coast feel like they have maintained real continuity with a life that stretches back into the middle ages, and further.
Television has been more successful than any other conqueror in eroding the distinctive culture of the island; Sardo, which is closer to Portuguese than to Italian, began to die out with the generation now in middle age, but there is a movement afoot to teach it in the schools alongside Italian, to try to keep the local culture alive. That sort of effort frequently doesn’t work – do you know anyone who speaks Irish? – but more power to them anyway. But even as the island’s distinctive language has faded, local peculiarities have persisted. The crowd that came out to see the Ardia, a horse “race” (actually more of a cavalry charge than a race – the point isn’t to win but to drive the horses down a steep hill, then parade around a church and receive benedictions from the priest and adoration from the people) held each year in Sedilo, was enormous, and overwhelmingly local, and the enthusiasm for what felt like a Indo-European horse cult festival that had been coated with a thin Christian veneer fifteen hundred years ago didn’t seem to have dimmed. Highlights of the trip: tooling about the Gulf of Orosei in a little rubber boat rented in the seaside resort of Calagonone; taking a passeggiata along the walls of the Catalan town of Alghero; the spectacular caves of the Grotta di Ispinigoli (near Dorgali) and the Grotta di Nettuno (a boat trip from Alghero); wandering the back lanes of Bosa; and watching the Ardia in Sedilo.
2. As I was traveling with my wife and son, I didn’t have the opportunity to get into a lot of conversations about the contemporary economic situation with the locals. But to the extent I was able to – which, honestly, was more often with other tourists from Britain, Ireland or Germany than with Italians – I was struck by the same dichotomy that I’ve observed in America with respect to the lingering malaise that followed the Great Recession. Namely: that the population appears to be divided economically not into two groups but into three. There’s the 1% – the folks who are relatively immune to economic fluctuations. There are the people who have lost their jobs. And then there are the great bulk of the people who are still employed.
Talking to an Irish woman about the situation in her country, she started out saying that things were still really terrible: unemployment high, housing depressed, etc. But then reconsidered, and commented that for those who still have jobs – like herself – things are actually fine. She’s not really afraid of losing her job, and she isn’t having trouble keeping up with the cost of living. She can afford a trip to Sardinia. It’s really not bad. But for folks she knows who are out of work, it’s a whole other kettle of fish.
This is what it means for the economy to “settle” at well-below full employment. There is a real divergence of interests between those who are still employed, and those who are not. Where that divergence lines up with other divisions that inhibit a sense of solidarity – racial and cultural divisions in America, national and linguistic divisions in Europe – you get the politics of austerity.
3. During our time in Rome, we took two private tours – one of the core sites of ancient Rome (Forum, Colosseum, etc.) and one of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica – with a group that specifically caters to a Jewish clientele. Both tours were interesting, and similar in character in providing a kind of Jewish “take” on two different parts of Rome. But I found my own reactions to the two tours to be quite divergent. The Jewish perspective on ancient Roman civilization to me felt like one very valuable take – not the only perspective, and not, arguably, the most important perspective, but one important one, and not only because I’m Jewish myself, but because the Jews were exceptional in offering a kind of sustained resistance to Roman civilization. (Not completely unique, of course, but exceptional nonetheless.) It is interesting, and useful, to contemplate the reigns of Nero, or Titus, or Hadrian, from the perspective of the Jews; interesting to think about what it would mean to the Jews of Rome to see Jewish slaves fighting each other as gladiators in the Colosseum, and so forth.
By contrast, the tour of the Vatican felt like not so much a corrective as a kind of snide takedown, and I wound up wandering away repeatedly to spend time alone with some of the most spectacular works of Western art. And I’ll be honest: what I was interested in exploring at the Vatican wasn’t so much the history as the art. But it’s impossible to fully appreciate the art of Raphael, for example, without understanding something about Christianity. And the Jewish “take” on Christianity is, all too often, a mixture of defensiveness and ignorance. I understand the historical reasons for that, but it is high time to transcend that history, and be able to approach Christianity neither with envy nor with resentment but with confidence and curiosity. Plenty of Jews do just that, of course, but Jewish institutions are relatively lousy at it, and cater to a sensibility that, personally, I’d rather see overcome. This is a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but having just recently been to the Ardia I guess I’m more inclined than usual to ride whatever horses are available, hobby or otherwise.
Per the title of this post, I’m off tomorrow to Canada for a few days at the Stratford Festival. I’m going to work on a handful of other posts today; hopefully that will hold my extremely patient editors and readers until next week.