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Matthew Schmitz

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard is a story “of the decline and fall of the house of Salina” (the New York Times) and “the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy” (the New York Review of Books), a “dirge for an aristocratic world in steep descent (the Wall Street Journal). True enough, if too modest. Lampedusa’s novel is an attempt to reckon with the fact that we taste eternity in mutable forms. Wild loves are pollarded by time, childhood homes are lost or destroyed, pets die.

That last was especially important for Lampedusa. In a letter discovered after his death, he wrote that the hero’s dane (modeled after his own beloved dog) was the novel’s key: “N.B.: the dog Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.” In describing beloved danes, crumbling homes, abandoned customs, he offers for a single life an accounting of all the things we cannot take with us, but would.

This he does without any sentimentality. The novel’s aristocratic hero reacts calmly to the republican stirring in Sicily, believing that “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” Over time, this political hypothesis becomes the lens through which he understands all the decay around him counting the losses without discounting their necessity. He is an agnostic man, and the divinity he doubts is more pagan than Christian, but this motto, repeated over time, becomes for him something like a theological hope.

Bianca Czaderna

I've started reading Jacques Maritain's Reflections on America. True, the America of 1958 (the year of the book's first publishing) is very different from the America of 2015, but that might make it all the more interesting. Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher who spent quite a bit of time in the U.S. He analyzes the charge of materialism frequently leveled against this country, discusses the question of race, and quite lovingly examines some “typical American attitudes” towards industry, work, marriage, happiness, and the like. Some interesting moments:

Let us now discuss a few vulnerable points. The first one I shall mention is by no means a weakness. It is a deeply human and noble characteristic. I am alluding to the fact that the American people are anxious to have their country loved; they need to be loved (You will never find such a need in an Englishman. As to Frenchmen, they are so sure in advance that everybody loves them that they don't feel any particular anxiety about the matter. But they are very much shocked when they realize it is not true.) Well, this desire to have America loved is the mark of a soul which lies open to the sense of human brotherhood; it plays an important part, I think, in the general psychology of this country.

And also, on American Kindness and Sense of Fellowship:

The first remark I would like to submit is that there exists, in a general way, two opposite scales of values, in Europe and in this country. The supreme value in the opinion of the European, especially the French people is, I think, intelligence—intelligence in contradiscinction to goodness. If it is a question of the inner disposition of souls, I have no doubt that there is as much goodness in European people as in American people. . . .

And I would say that in Europe, especially in France, “to be good” is synonymous with being naive, green, something of a simpleton. Wickedness, maliciousness—appears to be a condition required for intelligence. So it happens that when you return from this country to Europe, your first impression is that you are entering a wasp's nest. You are stung on all sides. . . .

If we turn now to the scale of values used in this country, it is just the opposite. The supreme value in the American scale of values is goodness; human reliability, good will, devotion, helpfulness. Hence, that American kindness which is so striking a feature to American visitors. Americans are ready to help, and happy to help. They are on equal terms of comradeship with everybody. . . .

A particular result of the scale of values I mentioned above is that, as I said, we find here a general kindness, kindness to everyone, the extension of which is, so to speak, indefinite. But close friendship, with all the hardships and quarrels, and the human communion it involves, seems perhaps to have, as a result, a little less opportunity to develop. (Moreover, conversation must be pretty difficult if it is true that in this country, as a good lady said to my wife, “it is becoming to speak neither of the body, nor of the soul.”) So it is that in the midst of general kindness and the busiest social life, it is not rare to find in individuals a feeling of loneliness: perhaps because there is a sort of opposition between openness to all and that close world which is the world of friendship.

And finally:

When it comes to the creative work of which a few are capable, and which demands solitary and ferocious obstinancy, the conditions are, I would say, relatively less favorable [than Europe]: they involve a greater dislike for anything that entails a risk of separating the individual from the community. 

I am thinking in particular of that kind of fear of outshining others which can sometimes be observed in academic circles. Many an American professor seems to be anxious not to be more brilliant or more original than the average member of the teaching community. After all, is not genius always harmful to mutual tolerance and a goods state of affairs in the community, and is not mediocrity of good standing preferable to any occasion for jealousy, strife, and rivalry?

Still true?



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