by Peter Byrne
""Journalists do not live by words alone, although sometimes they have to eat them."
—Adlai E. Stevenson
(Swans - January 16, 2012) In an unheroic moment, André Malraux defined man as a miserable little pile of secrets. Nations have their secrets too, unmentionables of the family sort. They are engraved in the tribal skull. At the top of Italy's pile is the big truth, stretching from the Alps to off-shore Africa, that, in a word, the country is not one at all. The nation is no nation in the sense that the neighboring UK, France, Germany, and Spain can be considered such. History -- as always -- explains this state of affairs, but for now let's forget explanations.
In times of tension a taboo gets broken. That it's breakable is what makes it a taboo. But it soon falls into place again, which is also of its nature. That Uncle Bill served time in the state penitentiary for embezzlement while Aunt Marge, keeping her end up, ran an escort service isn't a subject raised at family reunions. But it can suddenly flash like a lightning bolt in a marital dispute or a bout of filial rebellion. The recent death of the journalist Giorgio Bocca (1920-2011) was such an instance in Italy. The peninsula echoed with the unmentionable before poor Bocca's corpse had cooled. The recent dead, by the way, are always "poor" in Italian. Presumably they deserve pity because henceforth are deprived of our company. The verbal tic surely has to do with that other taboo, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: Speak only good of the dead.
Bocca died shortly after Christopher Hitchens, another journalist whose death led to a binge of taboo breaking, this time among English speakers. It was not so much a matter of Romans-be-damned as of Everyman with a keyboard his own loud-mouthed pundit. The reactions to the two funerals go some way to illuminating two cultures. In Swans Commentary of December 19, 2011, Manuel García, Jr. helpfully listed some key reactions to Hitchens's passing. García himself leans toward, not perhaps speaking only good of the dead, but nevertheless making light of their "flaws," because, after all, he feels, everyone is flawed. He also sees "jealousy" as a frequent motive in disapproval of Hitchens. Otherwise he treats the deceased writer to an intriguing and somewhat exalted analysis. Either Hitchens was a "trickster" in the noble and mythological sense, i.e., a violator of boundaries in order to energize existence, or else the British-born journalist experienced a true conversion like Saul of Tarsus, our Sunday morning friend St. Paul. It didn't happen on the road to Damascus, but before a TV set, maybe in a comfortable bar, watching the Twin Towers tumble down. The experience would have touched "an irrational stratum of his psyche" and awakened his "race consciousness."
This is stirring stuff. However, in judging Hitchens, we are not judging some "poor sinner" like ourselves, as the pious say. We are judging a would-be maître à penser, a public figure, a thinker, someone who strove to implant his ideas in us. His "flaws" are not human weaknesses but faulty thinking. In judging such a figure, "jealousy" may enter but is beside the point. A critic can be jealous and right, or jealous and wrong. As a "trickster" even Hitchens would have been awed to be compared with Hermes or Alcibiades. He didn't cross boundaries. He brought his gift of gab to American and joined the rising clique. It was as easy as crossing the street.
With all due respect to García's original take on Hitchens, it makes too much of "left" and "right." For a middle-class English social climber of Hitchens's generation, validated by a venerable university, left and right are simply barroom talking points or stimulants to dinner conversation, poles to hang words on. García is on target, though, when he associates 9/11 with race hatred. Hitchens's gagging at the TV spectacle of the crumbling towers didn't make him a racist. It simply revealed the racism that was always there along with his other class bias.
The Americans who read Hitchens did so for his entertainment value. They also liked his sarcasm on TV talk shows. In the flow of nightly pap it was fun to see him slap some stutterer down. Opinion one way or the other didn't matter as viewers sat in comfort at home. It was good to see red blood drawn in pantomime. It was like watching Jack Kerouac soused on the Dick Cavett Show or Norman Mailer squaring off with Gore Vidal on camera. Who cares what they would actually be arguing about?
Unlike Hitchens's "flaws," Giorgio Bocca's were less opportunistic maneuvers than historical fatalities. Like so many Italians he was deeply provincial, identified forever with Piedmont where he was born in the mountains at Cuneo. He took to journalism early, studied law, and shared the 1930s Italian ambience, anti-Semitic and cautiously pro-regime. Called to the army at twenty, he served until 1943 when Italy ceased hostility to the Allied Forces. He then joined the Justice and Freedom (Giustizia e Libertà) brigades that labored to clear the country of the remaining Nazi fascists. A radical socialist movement, Justice and Freedom marked Bocca for the rest of his life.
The importance of WWII Resistance movements in the defeated countries of Europe can't be overestimated. Though militarily negligible they were vital in providing legitimacy for postwar democratic governments. The Italian Republic of 1946 can be said to be born of the Resistance and of groups like Justice and Freedom. Of Bocca's two dozen books, perhaps the most fundamental was his history of the Italian Resistance, Storia dell'Italia partigiana.
Justice and Liberty left its members with a strong imperative to participate actively in the postwar democratic state. Their key figures saw themselves as monitors of civic morals. As a writer and editor in Turin and then Milan, Bocca gradually took on the role of keeper of the national conscience. He was a nagger armed with fierce and lucid prose that always came down strong with a yes or a no, never a maybe. His urgency ruled out playfulness and made it difficult not to take him seriously. Centuries of hardscrabble mountain life seemed to stand behind his words. By the time he joined in founding the daily la Repubblica in 1975 he had become that very un-Anglo Saxon figure of Italian life, the charismatic journalist who could move consciences. Italian readers saw him as a stern father figure with some of the thunder of the avenging Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Not that Bocca escaped controversy or went unchallenged. His trenchancy could lead him to overstatement. Through the years he backed many a wrong cause before, invariably, turning on them with fury. Here the contrast with Christopher Hitchens stands out. Bocca's changes of direction came from the fluidity of Italian public life as it metamorphosed through the second half of the Twentieth Century. He was in symbiosis with a band of mimes, a society of top-notch impersonators. His errors were legion but never mercenary, rarely ignoble. They were mistakes. He was always ready to stand and fight but his opponents wouldn't stay still and insisted on changing their disguises. The thought of Bocca picking out someone like Mother Teresa or Bill Clinton's buddy Sidney Blumenthal and attacking them in an operation of notoriety mongering was unimaginable. Italian life was too pressing for that sort of frivolity, and Piedmont's prodder of consciences had one himself.
Bocca was brought up under fascism and it took defeat in the war for him to throw it off completely. That left him a socialist and he initially supported Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party. But of socialism there was none in Craxi, who ran a corrupt money-making scheme that eventually forced him to flee abroad from the police. As with all his flirtations gone wrong, Bocca's denunciation of Craxi shook Milan. He also had a fling with the Northern League before turning on it for the gathering of village idiots it soon turned out to be. Again, he looked with sympathy on the beginnings of Silvio Berlusconi and actually worked on his TV shows before becoming his implacable enemy.
Bocca's anti-Americanism dated from the Cold War when the United States paid off the ruling Christian Democrat Party to deck Italy out as a bulwark of the West and to keep its local leftists locked down. He was an early enemy of globalization and never stopped badmouthing American conservatives. The boom of the 1960s left Bocca incredulous. As a penny-pinching mountaineer he felt out of place, and buried his head in social enquiries. In the 1970s spell of homegrown terrorism he took a strange view, from which he backtracked in later years, that the Red Brigades (who actually murdered journalists) had been invented (not only manipulated) by the Italian secret service. Was Bocca a turncoat? Not really. He could hardly maintain loyalty to phenomena that simply faded away. His constancy went into his conviction that Italy didn't work and something had to be done to fix it.
Indeed it was Bocca's naif and mistaken insistence that Italy ought to function as an organic unity with uniform values and outlook that led to his most clamorous and brutal wrong turning. His Risorgimento idealism and Resistance patriotism obscured the truth that the peninsula contained two very different civilizations. Piedmont had known poverty and underdevelopment. In fact it populated the south of France with immigrants seeking a better life. But Piedmont and Northern Italy belong to Central Europe. Turin and Milan have always looked to Geneva and Vienna as models to live up to. They averted their eyes not only from the Balkans but from Southern Europe. When the Turin-based monarchy conquered the realm of the Neapolitan Bourbons in the 1860s it bit off a large piece of Southern Europe it was never able to digest.
Bocca in his twentieth century Italian Republic was in fact still trying to get the South down his gullet. He wanted the bottom half of Italy to be Central European. He couldn't swallow that diverse civilization with its different ideas, traditions, and valuations. He wouldn't accept that there was another way of facing modernity than Central Europe's. He lived his incomprehension like some Old Testament prophet.
The American writer John Gunther in his Inside U.S.A. (1947) noted that there were slums in Chicago as bad as anywhere in the world. Then he got on with writing another Inside book on somewhere else. That was not Bocca's way. He was forever investigating the South of Italy as if attracted by what repulsed him. ("I go to the South to hunt big game and am glad to find it. But I don't fraternize with the animals.") He spoke of the people living in the hovels of Palermo as "monsters." Some Neapolitans, he reported, still lived in "bug-nests." Southern people were "horrendous, a repellent humanity." Theirs wasn't a way of life but a "cancer" and a source of "terror" for him. Of course he was far from his beloved mountains, a habitat that save for a short vacation might well have bored a native of Palermo or Naples. But being from a civilization imbued with respect, they would have kept quiet about their boredom. All the same, at Bocca's death, it's not surprising that some Southerners broke the taboo about not maligning the dead.
In one of Giorgio Bocca's last interviews he said he would die without fulfilling the program he had set for himself, which was to see Italian civil society come into its own, untrammeled. He admitted that his political enthusiasms had often been wrongheaded. Past years, nevertheless, had been a time of principles, right or wrong. Judges dispensed justice. Businessmen kept to business. Now Italy was run in partnership with the Mafia and celebrity entrepreneurs were admired for their vices. These were last words about social and political realities he had tried to change.
Christopher Hitchens wrote right up to his last days. He never stopped entertaining his middlebrow public. He used his own experience of dying to set a few commonplaces on their heads. Like a stand-up comedian he told us that, unfortunately, what doesn't quite kill us does not make us stronger: it only speeds our going thither. He sneered at the weary cliché that sees the terminally ill invariably "waging a battle" with their malady like so many white knights of optimism. What Hitchens's "program" was we were not told. Perhaps it was only to make a splash by startling us.
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