There was a welcome report on Wednesday that Italy had stepped into the vacuum created by the balking French, offering to serve as the lead country in supplying troops to man the multinational Lebanese peacekeeping force. This act of Italian leadership (two words you don’t often see together) seems to have induced a grudging President Chirac to announce yesterday his own commitment of two thousand troops. Taken in tandem with Italy’s victory over France in this year’s World Cup championship game¯a victory that, while also involving a French default of sorts, produced a huge, ecstatic wave of Italian national pride¯one might be tempted to see a pattern of Italian assertiveness and national self-confidence emerging, and doing so surprisingly soon after the close and bitter elections earlier this year that brought Romano Prodi’s fragile left-of-center coalition to power.
But to forestall any such thought, the Times has also provided us with an antidote : an introduction to journalist Beppe Severgnini’s entertaining new book La Bella Figura , which describes Italy in rather more conventional terms, as a dysfunctional land of hedonism and theatricality, with a near-unique cultural combination of bureaucratic formalism and normative lawlessness, where elaborate rules about the most stupefyingly meaningless paperwork can coexist with a breathtaking indifference to such trivialities as oh, paying one’s taxes, stopping for traffic lights, and other such gross indignities. "We think it’s an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation," writes Severgnini, a columnist for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera . "Obedience is boring. We want to think about it. We want to decide whether a particular law applies to our specific case. In that place, at that time." So much for the American lock on individualism and antinomianism.
Indeed, according to Severgnini, Italians consider tax evasion and lying outrageously about one’s income to be normal behavior, very much in contrast to what he has seen in his extensive time in the United States. If he were to cheat egregiously on his taxes in Italy, Severgnini writes, "two neighbors would come round to ask me how I did it," and none would report him. This is, of course, much more amusing to report from a distance than it is to live with.
Italy is, of course, still a far less rootless or anonymous society than is the United States. One in three Italians finds a job through a relative. One in five has moved in the past ten years, which is half the European average, and even further below that of mobile Americans. Telecommuting is virtually nonexistent, engaged in by only 0.2 percent of the work force¯in part, Severgnini guesses, because it deprives Italians of "the social drama of the workplace." Yet Italians seem to be even more technology-crazy, in many respects, than Americans, notably when it comes to items such as cell phones and food-preparation gadgetry. And the national preoccupation with la bella figura ¯looking good, dressing well, cutting a stylish, dramatic figure¯is carried to a much higher level than is the case with Americans.
There is much in Severgnini’s book that reminds one of such marvelous predecessors as Luigi Barzini’s still unsurpassed The Italians (1964), or more recently British journalist Tobias Jones’ smart but gloomy study called The Dark Heart of Italy (2003). Their arguments always come to similar conclusions, a continuity that argues for the persistence of a distinctive Italian national character¯either for that or for the ease with which all writers about Italy fall into repeating the same clichés about it. If Severgnini is right, much has changed on the surface but little in the depths. Like both Barzini and Jones, he finds Italy to be on balance an unhappy country, full of thwarted souls, seething with anger and frustration over the incompetence of government, the chaos of the legal system, the crowding of its cities, and the lack of social dynamism or economic opportunity. And, with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, its long-range future does not look promising. "Our sun is setting in installments," he writes. "It’s festive and flamboyant, but it’s still a sunset."
Of course, Italy has been counted out before, and there is almost nothing in Severgnini’s gloomy prognostications that has not been claimed in the books of his predecessors. And to find reasons for hopefulness, one need only look to the long history of the city of Rome, a story of almost unimaginable resiliency, in which the city was more than once reduced to being little more than a depopulated ruin or a Fort Apache set where rival family gangs battled it out like mobsters, unaccountable to any larger authority. Yet the city somehow survived and thrived.
Still, the gloomy conclusions that so many knowledgeable writers reach about Italy ought at least to counterbalance somewhat our tendency to extol uncritically what is so often called "the Italian way of life," that relaxed and guiltless embrace of la dolce vita and acceptance of the futility of reform that are thought to be quintessentially Italian. Over against the American romanticism of, say, Under the Tuscan Sun , one might remember the way Barzini concluded his book more than forty years ago: "The Italian way of life cannot be considered a success except by temporary visitors. It is the Italian way of life which makes all laws and institutions function defectively. . . . the resigned acceptance of the very evils man has tried to defeat, the art of decorating, ennobling them, calling them by different names and living with them." Severgnini seems to be sounding the same theme.
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