I have been meaning to update my blog for a while, but the last few months were filled with heartache and a kind of “drowsy numbness that pains my sense” and makes it difficult to write. We are all better for the fact that Keats had such an eloquent way with melancholy.
Now that I feel like writing again, the irony is not lost on me that I am composing a travel blog while confined to my house in Rome, under lockdown because of the CONVID-19 virus. All of Italy is subject to the #IoRestoaCasa (I stay home) decree. We can go to work if it is essential, though most offices are closed as well as all bars, restaurants, theatres, museums, and shops. We can only leave our houses to get groceries and medicine, and to walk the dog.
This photoshopped image has been circulating on social media after Papa Francesco walked through an empty Rome on March 15 to pray at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and at San Marcello al Corso. Clearly, he didn't take his dog to pray for the end of the pandemic (though, come to think of it, dog spelled backward is god, so maybe he should have taken a dog). In this image he is just one of us, reduced to finding a legitimate excuse to get out of the house.
During extraordinary times, dark humor abounds. As Freud explained, “gallows” humor is both a defense mechanism and an attack against circumstances that threaten us. Humor in the face of distressing events represents the triumph of the self; it takes those events and submits them to the absurd logic of the comic.
No doubt we are all seeing a lot of jokes about COVID-19 making the rounds these days, but there is something slightly different about Italian jokes. They are very funny, and often defiant, but they lack the seething anger that arises from disappointed ideals which characterizes so much of American dark humor. One could argue that this is because idealism is not exactly part of the warp and woof of Italian culture. Clearly, this is not exactly true, but it is fair to say that the Italian approach to life is more cynical and fatalistic than that of Americans. They rarely expect life to be fair or that the rules will apply equally to everyone. And, of course, they have all of history on their side. Unlike American exceptionalism, which fosters a sense of “it can’t happen here and if it does we will handle it better than anyone else does,” Italians mostly believe “it will happen here and when it does, the response will be chaotic.” Throughout history, pretty much everything has happened here, and history is not an orderly procession but a messy lurching from age to age, some epochs being better than others but none of them lasting. A deep-down awareness of this historical truth has made Italians resilient in the face of calamity.
The old eyes and historical soul of Italy have given rise to dazzling achievements and an equally astounding aptitude for getting around problems … and living through them. They do this with fatalistic humor that is deeply human and filled with empathy for the underdog. It also gives rise to a joie di vivre (I’ve never understood why that phrase is always said in French, when Italians display it more often) and a warmth that makes even the hardest circumstances and the simplest of recipes abound with life and flavor. It also compels them to their balconies and windows to sing to each other in a show of solidarity.
Tutto andà bene! But until that happens, here is a reading list: