The real Italian thing lies in the wince, the smile, the glance, the wave.
A great deal of Italian identity is tied up with Italy’s material culture. Food, wine, art, architecture, clothing, shoes and all of the other things that Italy produces carry its essence and make culture accessible and assumable in physical form. This is especially true for Italian Americans and others who live outside of Italy, including Italians themselves who may be studying, working, retired or otherwise just living outside of the confines of the Italian state and so do not encounter these consumer goods in their daily ambit.
After decades of traveling to and through Italy, I have found that these things are not the things that matter to me and that I remember, however (note my double use of the word ‘things’ here, which I will differentiate later). Yes, all of the things that I have mentioned — the cuisine, the fashion and all the rest — are wonderful parts of Italian life. But they are not the things that I remember and care about. The impressions that have remained with me, the times and images and feelings that reside in my memory and come floating up from my subconscious repeatedly, were far less tangible and far more ephemeral than a building or a shoe or a plate of pasta.
Instead, it is the innumerable interactions that I have had with Italians over the years that I warmly recall: the triestina waiter who asked me how my salad was (Com’era, buona?) while hovering over me so that my view of her consisted of the underside of her chin and the inside of her nose, a perspective that she miraculously made attractive; the wince of a trapanese car wash attendant who was explaining to me something or other, probably about how to get somewhere (A sinistra e poi sempre dritto); the eoliano sailor on the ferry who motioned to me with his big right arm that it was time for me to board (Vieni con noi?); and so many other such memories that revive my travels and keep me constant company when I am alone with my thoughts, sometimes occurring to me without any apparent prompt, popping into my head seemingly out of the blue.
So this is why I have grown increasingly disenchanted by ‘material Italy’, especially the instantiations of Italian identity that are for sale, as if any of this stuff — the ceramics, the olive oil, the biscotti — really matters. I mean, I get it, I understand that we as Americans live in a consumer society and that a good part if not in fact the biggest part of our culture and identity involves the buying and selling of things. I also understand that Italians are particularly good at producing nice things, a quality that you emphatically do not find in equal measures throughout the world, and so therefore it makes sense that a global circuit of trade in Italian products exists. But it is too easy for someone to think that they are somehow experiencing Italian culture when they buy some Italian thing, even a consumable Italian thing, and I am not surprised when they ultimately feel let down by their purchase because you do not have to be especially astute or sophisticated or self aware to know that stuff will take you only so far when it comes to establishing an identity or finding a meaning.
It could be that I am taking this all too seriously. There is a lot to like about Italian stuff: it is often well designed and well made. But the shoe is not the shoemaker; the cathedral is not the religion; and the pasta is not the cook. There is no harm in having a glass of Prosecco, of course; but that is all it is. If somehow you have managed to attach some meaning to it — by reading about it, studying its production, learning its rules of consumption — fine, but to me all of this product centered approach to culture seems limited and inferior to an experience that is both more direct and more abstract, if you can imagine such a thing. What I care about, and what I will always remember, are the bus driver walking me to my next stop, the police officer pointing me to the closest Bancomat, and the sanitation worker greeting me a good morning as he emptied a can into the back of his truck, way out there in that tiny mountain village. All of these things are Italy to me and none of them are wrapped in plastic, contained in cardboard, or labeled with that magnificent feat of marketing: Made in Italy.
And sure, ‘no salad-no waitress’ and all of the rest of it, so maybe a little object theory will come in handy here for me to make my point. It has been a while since I have resorted to my favorite philosopher, Michel Serres, who by the way was French and not Italian, but one of his models is especially apt to this problem that I am talking about. An object for him was not a material thing but an abstraction. Ultimately it took on a material form, because we as human beings engage the world through material stuff, but what is important and essential about the object is that it exists as a third element in any set of human relations.
So the relationship between a husband and wife, for example, is triangulated by the object of their marriage. Or the interactions between an employer and an employee are structured by a thing called a job. Or, and this is a tricky one, a team is held together by each of its members being intently interested in scoring a goal. No, there are indeed material forms for each of these relations — let’s say a ring, a paycheck and a ball respectively — but it is not the ring, the paycheck and the ball that are the essential third element, the triangulating third object that structures and mediates the relations between and among the other two or more subjects: the husband and wife, the employer and employee, the members of the team. The ball and the other things are just material manifestations of the thing that really matters, the object, the ‘objective’ let’s say, the essential relationship that holds the other subjects together, by mediating them, by connecting them in a stable triangle of meaning: the marriage, the job, the goal.
So go ahead, I guess. Enjoy your box of spaghetti, your can of tomatoes, your Tod’s loafers or whatever it is. They have their own intrinsic value and are worth having and appreciating. But as far as cultural identity and meaning go, I think the purer and more essential value, the real Italian thing, lies in something that is more ephemeral: the wince, the smile, the glance, the wave.
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