ESSAYS+

“Telling it like it isn’t” – an apologia for Romantic philosophy.   by Carlo Pizzati

“The world exists to end up in a book” –     Stephane Mallarmé

Journalists lie pretending to tell the truth. Novelists and poets tell the truth pretending to lie. Journalists lie by definition. They are supposed to gather objective facts. It is obviously an impossible mission. There is no such thing as an objective truth, everything is subjective, everything is seen through the individual’s perception. Not only that – simply choosing a subject is already an exercise in exclusion of other truths. It’s inescapable.

When, as a journalist I found myself on the border between Guatemala and Mexico with undercover police units wearing a bullet proof vest, chasing gangsters who assault immigrants, I thought I was experiencing facts that I would then be able to translate into an objective reportage. It is obvious that my state of mind, the excitement and the fear had directed my attention towards something rather than something else. That’s why the superficial facts I described in such context, maintaining journalistic standards, are actually limited in depicting the truth of that experience.

Reality requires different tools.

The misconception is the belief held by the reader, or the viewer, that a journalist reporting for radio, TV, newspaper or the Internet is able to deliver all the relevant facts. It is no surprise that lately the journalistic profession in the U.S. and in parts of Europe is encouraging development in the direction of what is basically data gathering. However, compared to traditional journalists, even data-gathering is not that much closer to the truth, presuming such a thing exists. Meta-analysis is a fad. Don’t be fooled by the mechanization of analysis. Don’t be lured by the mermaids of the robonews tsunami.

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It is not a problem of scope or of the amount of data. It is a problem of depth. It is not an issue of who observes, but of how things are observed and especially, and more importantly, how they are told.

It is a problem of language.

The journalist is expected to rely on facts. Readers believe they are absorbing facts to compose a reality, or rather the truth. Even those who are relativists and who understand that the journalists’ article, reportage or TV show is limited to the narrator’s point of view, can’t help but open their perception to that specific truth – and herein lies the fallacy.

The impossibility of describing the truth lies at the source of journalism. It started with the birth of this mode of communication which now seems to be seriously suffering.

There is no magazine, there is no newspaper, there is no TV, no radio, no Internet site that can tell you the truth. The so-called news is not the truth. Of course, there is no such thing as the truth. But there is something that could get closer to a commonly shared experience of reality. Something that makes us understand more deeply the meaning of such experience.

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Humans have at their disposal a more ancient tool that is able to expand the experience of reality in a much more appropriate and useful way than journalism ever developed.

The problem lies in the fact that, at one point in history, many people who belonged to this ancient craft, were forced for economic reasons to migrate their talents into this new growing and well-paying activity called: journalism.

Before that, storytelling, even before it took on the guise of writing, was much more interested in describing not simple facts, but the deeper truth which deals more directly with the emotional, sentimental and true issues concerning humanity.

This is what most good writers do. However, instead of pretending to be able to be faithful to an objective, independent aspect of reality, they plunge into their own interpretation. Sometimes imagination abounds, sometimes it is just a simple tweak into the observed reality, however voluntary or involuntary that distortion maybe. “There are plenty of records of everyday life,” Italo Calvino said in a BBC interview right before dying. “Literature has to give something more, as a fantastic interpretation of reality.”

The fact that novelists, poets, fiction writers in general do not even attempt or pretend to report objective reality makes their tale, for some strange and seemingly unexpected reason, much closer to a deeper truth.

Once we tap into the feelings, empathy and identification with characters, suddenly something more universal emerges from the depths. That is why the freer “creative non-fiction” writers of today may be getting closer to a syncretic view which would join the forces of the intuitive power of fiction with the lucid grasp into detectable reality.

Between Homer and Herodotus, I choose Homer.

As we read, as we watch a story well expressed by an artist, a writer, a poet, the feeling of the true experience being communicated, a real event happening in front of our eyes, even though that event is obviously imagined, or obviously distorted from the original it’s trying to rebuild, we are touched – in that moment our understanding and experience of the story makes us feel we are closer to something real.

By contradiction, the more unreal the tale the more real it may feel, if the talent warrants this effect.

To give the first example that comes to mind, you may read the best reportage on whale hunting in Norway or in Japanese waters, and yet nothing will be as close to experiencing something that goes much deeper and beyond the experience of hunting a whale then reading good old Melville’s Moby Dick, isn’t that so?

And isn’t that what the Romantics were saying? Unfortunately, the word “Romantic” has been glazed over by a kitsch effect, the maudlin and flowery interpretation taking over the Anglo-saxon connotation of “romantic” as “non-real,” more evocative of a literary style that integrated fantastic knighthood tales into a more or less accurate historic context. It was the degeneration of the “pittoresco” which deteriorated the concept.

Sensibility based on imagination was the tool used to go beyond reason. The French Revolution, product of Enlightenment, had lead to the years of Terror, the ugly side of rationality, which, pretending to soar above humanity, stoops to inhumanly cruel lows.

But humankind’s tendency towards the mystery of infinity, according to philosophers Schopenhauer and Fichte, lead us always back to search for something else. Sensibility, inspiration, intuition lead our search, backed up by reason. Reason alone will lead to the cold world of meta-data.

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What is different now, compared to the religious context of the Romantic era, is the decreased power of the Church and of Religions in general in the Western world. And this is thanks to Rationality, this must be granted. But this makes it possible, today, not to jump any longer from the Light of Reason into blind Faith, like Kierkegaard or Pascal would.

Atheistic spirituality is not a contradiction in terms any more, just like, well, creative non-fiction. Another ugly development of Romanticism, nationalism, has less reasons to exist in a globalized world. Take away irrational Faith and close-minded Nationalism from Romanticism and you will have Nomadism (rarely before as common as today); Exoticism (investigating what’s foreign, drawing upon the great inspiration derived from feeling alien to the context); embracing of subjectivity and individualism; Spirituality as investigation into the unknown (a useful scientific tool also according to Einstein’s interpretation); and the study of History to remember that humankind is in constant change. And also a very healthy sense of Socratic Self-irony.

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Friedrich Shelling, a leading thinker of German idealism, reminded the world of the central importance of myth and aesthetic sensitivity in order to go beyond the philosophy of Enlightenment. He gave value again to intuition, underlining the impossibility for reason alone to grasp the Absolute. Romanticism pointed out reason’s basic limitedness in capturing the most intimate essence of reality, juxtaposing the tools of feeling, irony and instinct to Reason.

It is Hegel’s conception of Reason as immanent Spirit of reality which can be seen as the great-grandfather of the last century’s ideological massacres perpetuated both by Nazi and Communist states and by ideological terrorism incarnated both by nation states or paramilitary groups of all sorts. French post-revolutionary Terror was just the prodrome of the thirst for blood of Rationality of the 20th Century, which now could maybe be glimpsed at in our out of control reality of the contemporary Techonopoly.

It just might be that a new interpretation of the Romantics could save us from the next massacre, presuming that the genocide of traffic accidents is not already such slow and silent horror, a price of the embrace between humankind and the machine.

Session for the Nepal Literature Festival (Kathmandu, Nepal on Sept. 20th, 2014)

The revival of deep reading online. by Carlo Pizzati

Nietzsche? Huh.

No, wait, the most senior student in the class shyly raises her hand.

“German philosopher? 19th century? Nihilists?”

Yes, I say, trying to thread on more recent cultural grounds:

“Anyone remember the Big Lebowski? ‘We are nihilists, we believe in nothing…’ ?”

Empty stares, absolute zero among these millennials. The average age in my postgraduate class is 22 years old. Here in India, universities ends sooner and graduate work stars earlier, and also here at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

medium is the message cake

In this class we have tried to develop an “Independent Gaze,” the title of this series of lessons on the relationship between information and internet. The subtitle is so long that someone thought it was in and of itself the first lesson: “The metastasis of communication and the anorexia of information.” This last eating disorder metaphor is borrowed from Slavoj Zizek.

Slavoj what?

We stuffed our heads with new names – new to these minds not necessarily  informed by the Western model. From “Information Anxiety” of Richard S. Wurman to the most recent “The invention of the news” by Andrew Pettegree, by way of Marshall McLuhan, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson’s visions at the foundations of American journalism with its constant conflicts, to then study pissed off French intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieau, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and move onto recent arguments developed by Lee Siegel in “Against the machine” and the topic’s milestone book by Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows,” on how our brain is allegedly transforming with the use of Internet, whilst not forgetting Morozov’s j’accuse on the presumed impact of the internet in contemporary history.

Sontag, Barthes, Berger and Camille Paglia made us understand how images win over text, just when Facebook announces that in a few years it will become predominantly a video channel. These are important themes, here, when in the past weeks the Indian capitals of Information Technology, just like our very own Chennai, have been visited by the likes of Zuckerberg form FB, Bezos for Amazon and Microsoft’s Nadella.

Thus we have arrived to the present and to understand what this famous New Intelligence is. The hate of originality, the hymn in favor of plagiarism, the cut and paste creativity glorified by Jonathan Lethem and Co. There’s even an “Uncreative writing” class being taught in an American university, naturally. Originality is off limits, and it is mandatory to copy everything from Internet.

At first, these millennials admitted having serious problems concentrating while reading online even short texts, even a few paragraphs, confirming what good old usability guru Jakob Nielsen used to say. Then they were obligated to do their homework on a blog. They were free to answer even with a poem or an image, or a tweet, if they wished to – as long as it was possible to relate it to a comment on the text for the assignment. Instead, they all articulated with words, their reactions and comments getting better and better with time, sometimes adding an image, or a chart with numbers and tables (meta-data is a global trend).

Now, at the end of the course, they seem to be realizing that they are able to read longer and longer texts online. They can reflect upon the text and use it in their school work for the required assignment. Of course, at the same time, they are snapping pictures with their phones to photograph the written slides projected on the wall behind me. It’s the e-learning age, they got tired of transcribing with a pen, after a while. No matter how much I insisted on the importance of focusing your thoughts through the continuous motion of your hand on paper. Quoting what Nietzsche said about his first impression of how using a typewriter affected his writing didn’t seem to help much.

A young student admitted that he goes online mostly looking for opinions about cricket, so that he can formulate better his own commentaries and analysis of this sport. Then he lets himself float away on the buzz of internet surfing which feels more pointless, lost in what maybe is also an informative and relaxing world of social media. But it became apparent to everyone that it is possible to read long texts online, drawing a true and serious intellectual growth from it, and at the same time using internet for pure fun on Twitter or Facebook.

This brought us to what is being explained by David Dowling from the University of Iowa, in the extremely long analysis that was the last reading assignment: “Escaping the Shallows – deep reading’s revival in the digital age.” As the paper explains, there is a clear contemporary tendency in exploring, comprehending and reading long texts; ebooks; analysis; long editorials; reportage; investigations; essays. Even if they are online.

The medium is the message, sure. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific phase in the relationship between society and a new mean of communication is the only message of the very same medium.

Translated: if during an adjustment period we feel incapable of reading long texts in a new medium because of distractions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our plastic brain won’t adapt and recover the necessary focus in order to enjoy long narrative or complex and extended reasoning, even if read online.

Naturally, if you have read this online, until here, you are also part of this “new” category. Congratulations.

There are phases of adjustment, well documented by academics in the field with graphs, proving that what appears as a landing point in our relationship with a mean of communication rarely is so. This does not mean we should abandon ourselves to an unchecked optimism leading us to believe in the best of all possible outcomes for humanity, always and no matter what. It certainly is not the case.

But the result improves also thanks to luddites and Cassandras like Nicholas Carr who actually  warn us on the worst and most stultifying aspects of our relationship with the new medium.

It is also thanks to them that this relationship grows and, as seems to be the case now, finds a system that is more useful to power up our intelligence instead of eroding it.

Idiots and lunatics    (by Carlo Pizzati)

Until this year, marriage had been my North Korea – a puzzling country refusing me a permanent visa.

But I’ve finally done it. In India, of all places.

In a crowded, sweaty and noisy registrar’s office in downtown Chennai, where my wife-to-be and I found ourselves entangled in the tentacles of bureaucracy, I had to vouch for not being an idiot.

Literally.

On our marriage certificate request, Point n. 8 of FORM III (Vide Rule 7 a) – whatever that means – spells it out, among typos and dubious grammar:

“           We hereby declare that

7. Neither of us has more than one spouse living on the date mentioned in this application.

8. Neither of us, an idiot or Lunatics.”

First of all, point n. 8 is a contradiction in terms. I’ve heard some theories about the Indian mind and the cohabitation of apparently contradicting truths. But since marriage is statistically the primary cause for divorce, and taking into account today’s divorce rates, it follows that the prerequisite FOR getting married is to be either an idiot or a lunatic.

 

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But beyond that, er…seriously? Do you think that an idiot would be intelligent enough to admit being it? The moment he did that he would stop being an idiot.

He’d be enlightened, in fact. Or, at the very least, an idiot savant.

That’s why the world pullulates with a real threat: idiots in denial.

I may very well be one of them.

Thinking this, I realize, makes me a bit of a lunatic. Being a lunatic means that one day you’re convinced of one thing, the next you’ve changed your mind. You have (that’s right) contradicted yourself. You’ve followed the moon (luna in Latin). You are as changeable as the lunar phases. You are affected by the moon. As am I. But so are the tides and crops. Being a lunatic is one of the most natural things you could be. So what’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong with article n. 8 of FORM III is that it obviously means that if you are autistic, have Down’s syndrome or have a mental disorder, you are not allowed to marry.

That’s on the border of eugenics. And we know how that party ended in Germany in the 1940s.

The State wants to prevent “idiots and Lunatics” from having children (who would not necessarily be like them, by the way), but also to deny them the basic civil right of marriage.

In India, it’s not just gays, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals who are denied the right to marry whom they choose, but also people who are challenged, as the politically correct lingo describes them.

I may be an idiot and a lunatic, but I say it is wrong.

Maybe it’s just because in the small city where I grew up there was an idiot who married a lunatic.

We called her Miss Smile. She thought she WAS Marilyn Monroe. She walked down Main St. with her fluffy miniskirts, counting one step after the other on her high heels, holding a wild flower bouquet in one hand and pinching an invisible tea-cup with the other. She strutted as if each step had an extremely important meaning.

 

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She married a local lunatic, after having been sexually abused by many teenagers without any scruples. Now, I’m not sure if she was the lunatic and he the idiot. I presume by today’s standards you’d say he had a hipster haircut. But we didn’t know that at the time. And, contrary to hipsters, he didn’t know it either. He just smiled and looked into emptiness.

Nobody thought they shouldn’t get married. They were a good match. Which is the point, really, of marriage, isn’t it?

Not being whatever is considered normal. Just being compatible.

Like an idiot and a lunatic.

(© Carlo Pizzati 2014)

 

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by Carlo Pizatti, sorry…Piumati, no, sorry, Pizzati!

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As it can sometimes happen, my name was misspelled in a byline recently. It’s an Italian name, the magazine is in English. It’s very understandable. I just pointed out this to the editor, for the sake of precision, not because of any attachment to how many Zs or Ts there are in my last name.
She wrote back apologizing and saying “I’d die a thousand deaths every time an error occurs post-print.”
Such vehemence prompted an answer evoking my relationship with similar mistakes, which I’ll share here with you:

“Please do not worry about spelling ‘Pizatti’ instead of ‘Pizzati’- these things do happen to the most meticulous among us. And sometimes for a purpose.

It has already happened to me and most likely will happen again.

The first time my byline was misspelled, it actually contributed to changing my life forever and making it better.

When I was 16 years old, I founded a high school magazine appropriately named “The Bray,” back in the days of typewriters. The principal’s secretary was in charge of transcribing our hand-written articles into a mimeograph. When I finally had the first copy of the issue in my hands I rushed to read my editorial, something about the restoration of the Milan Duomo being a constructive step in an era of destruction and decay, the late ’70s in Italy.

You may imagine how I felt when I read: “Carlo Piumati.” My first byline ever. Misspelled.
Actually, in Italian, that name sounds better than Pizzati. The former reminiscent of ‘feathers,’ piume, the latter reminiscent of…well, pizza, what else!
Plus ‘Piumati’ screamed out to be a better nome de plume than my real name. Nevertheless, I was not pleased.

Later that summer I wrote a postcard to my Ancient Greek language professor who had encouraged us to publish “The Bray. At the end of the note on the back I added, in innocent jest: ‘…and greetings to the cross-eyed secretary.’ I posted it to the only address I knew, that of my high-school.

The first day back in school, my last year in an Italian school, as it turned out later, I was summoned by the principal and locked into his office where I received a full dose of screaming indignation and reprimand to repay for my arrogance and defiance in insulting the secretary (yes, it turned out she was his lover, but I only discovered that many years later).

I was humiliated and scolded to the point that as I closed the door of that office behind me, the tears I had mastered to repress in front of the enraged principal finally squirted out, adding to my already swollen dissatisfaction and anger against Italy, its schools, its system, its hopelessness for young people. Not to speak of the fact that people read mail not intended for them, of course.

It was also because of that episode I finally decided, that year, to become and exchange student in the U.S. for one year. A year that turned into 11 years there first in college, graduate university and then into a career in writing and traveling. I never did move back to Italy for good.

A few years after my postcard episode, reading Milan Kundera’s ‘The Joke,’ about a self-incriminating postcard the main character sends to his girlfriend and how that changes irreversibly his life, I once again found solace in literature, and came to the conclusion I started this anecdote with – not always, but often, accidents along the road generate useful detours.”

When I feel  lonely, I look for a shopping mall. (from a first draft of a creative non-fiction book by Carlo Pizzati)

When I feel  lonely, I look for a shopping mall.

There’s one in every big Latin American city. I call a cab and ask the driver to take me to one of those shopping centers you see advertised in giant billboards, the kind with the  happy nuclear family with the Pepsodent smile.

“Alto Las Condes”, “Palacio de Hierro”, “Jockey Plaza”- Santiago de Chile, Mexico City, Lima. Different names, same kind of places. I’m on a hunt for a familiar scene.

Walking down the aisles of the mall, I feel like I’m at home, in a timeless bliss where there’s no past nor future, while the present is gently massaged by the desire to buy.

The naked objects of the timeless super-stores create a sense of anonymity. In this giant acquarium I become a fish without rank and identity, no “job title” to speak of.

Is there anything more anonymous than a square building looking inside itself, without windows so that not for a moment your eyes are diverted from their purchasing duties? This is a non-place where I come to be looked at, to be seen and to look at my own self. Here everything looks just so available and so attractive.

The mall always matches the one next your home, transforming it into a tranquilizing experience. Shopping is just another brand of credit card people’s Prozac.

In front of the merchandise, facing what becomes the meaning of life – work to live, to buy  useless object that overcrowd apartments getting always smaller and more expensive – finally I rest in a sense of calm which invites me to buy, to perform my role in the big mechanism.

Everywhere I’m that shopper, reassured by my credit card, accepted in all major chain stores and franchises. A buyer among buyers.
In this mood, I rest from the hot fumes of the exotic streets of Latin America, the continent where I’ve lived for 3 years, working as a correspondent for La Repubblica, one of Italy’s major daily papers.

Nature begins where culture ends or, rather, in those sterilized places like the mall, a hyper-ambiance whose purpose is to reassure. The plastic, steel, linoleum and wall to wall carpeting alienation rocks my eyes to sleep. Walking along the aisles stuffed with brands, I find another home, the great home of MacDonald’s, Blockbuster, Warner Village – the “Fourth Reich” of Microsoft-Nestlè-Ibm-Nike-Adidas, the one of the few names, but everywhere.

Inside every shopping mall, everything looks the same, everywhere. Objects as much as people.

And this makes me feel less lonely.

*   *   *

It was on my way to a flight to Buenos Aires that I first felt the need to draw a diagram of my life. I was riding a train, leaving once again Valdagno, my hometown in the humid valleys of Northern Italy, an hour ride from Venice.

I hail from a town that has been often described by visiting friends as being “a little like Transylvania”. The county it’s in has got it all – rain, factories, dark narrow valleys and the highest suicide, alcoholic, nuns, priest and lap-dance bar rate in the country. It’s a good place to go back and visit. Once in a while.

Valdagno, population 27.000, was also a good place to leave for good, especially at 16, as I was when I moved to Pensacola, Florida. I was an exchange student at first, then I staid on in the U.S. for a total of 11 years, spent between Washington D.C. at first and then New York City, where I’ve worked at La Repubblica’s U.S. Bureau.

This varied resumé is why I often feel like an intruder. I’m out of place in Italy, where I’m “americanizzato” while in the States – which feels like a second home – I’m always a grown up exchange student with an “exoticah accent”. Maybe that’s why I’ve moved to India!

And maybe that’s why, in that hybrid continent known as Latin America, I recognized a bit of myself. Not entirely Latin, because it is also Aztec, Inca, Maya, Arab, African and Chinese and not really “American,” a word which sounds much more northern. Latin America is a little bit of both. And neither. Like me.

And that’s also why I had to draw a diagram of myself as I was leaving for Buenos Aires. Blame it on the fog, outside the windows, hiding the lines of the cities and the landscape, transformed in a slow motion blinking lights show.

I was driven by the need to know that I exist, shed light on this confusion, exploring inside, after so many outside quests.

I drew a map to understand where I’m going, in this life.diagram latin america

“I” am that center of everything. Pretty easy. Around me, like satellites, there are memory, solitude, family, women, friends, my job, vocation, strangers, her, dreams.

Solitude, however, should not be a satellite but a color, the color of this piece of paper, where I’m drawing the diagram.

The color of solitude is yellow, and yellow is the light of the streetlamps shining through the windows on this legal size notepad.

Memory should be the  thickness of the sheet.

“I” should not be at the center, but spread around the edges of the paper, like the borders of what matters in this life, given that it is mine we’re talking about.

Women are the smell of the paper, friends are the wrinkles.

My job is the handwriting.

Things are the sound of the rumpled paper.

Family is the shape of the paper.

The vocation is the pen.

Strangers are the empty space around the notepad.

And the dreams are of her.

Tomorrow I go back to her.

*    *   *

Pasaporte…” orders the man with the mustache. The plexiglass between myself and the man in the uniform shows me a reflection of myself, a jet-lagged ghost overlapping the officer’s face.

Every time you cross a border you feel the uneasiness of an exam. The stare of the custom officer is searching something within you – your forbidden dreams, your vices, your inclinations. What you have done, what you might do.

Look in his eyes without challenging him. Smile, but not too much. Stay calm, serene, be ok.

The border is a zone of possibility.

Why do I like so much crossing borders, I ask myself while the officer leaves through my bordeaux-colored EU passport, where there are maybe too many stamps – 20 Mexicans, 12 Argentinians, eight Chileans, four Peruvians, two Ecuadorians, some Brasilians, a couple of Uruguay then Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela, Kenya, Marocco, Hong Kong, the Philippenes, Tahiti and so on.

Not everyone is satisfied with some “Journalist” or “Periodista” visa stamped on it to justify so many trips. So, turning indifferently their head to the computer, they go looking for my name on the screen, hoping they’ve gotten their hands on someone who should be stopped. They maybe right. Someone should stop me from traveling too much.

Why do I enjoy that moment? Is it the blood of my smuggler ancestors from Valdagno who a 100 years ago crossed the mountains between Austria and Italy?

What am I smuggling, here? What makes me feel the pleasure of hiding something forbidden, carrying it across the line of legality drawn by the border?

The only illegal things I’m smuggling are my intentions, those of telling a story, distorting what I will see with my subjectivity. All right, I confess Mr. Custom Officer, yes, you, running your fingers through my passport, stamping it, throwing it across the counter, almost disappointed for not having found anything, not being able to keep me here in your limbo.

To be precise, the limbo has been abolished by the Catholic Church. Who knows where the soul of the agnostics and the non-christened will have to go after death. Before, at least, they had the consolation of that sort of V.I.P. Lounge section of Purgatory, whose name. “Limbo”,  always evokes a tropical dance. I almost hear the voice of a dj calling the souls to the dance floor: “And nooow…limmmb-oooh!”.

And yet the limbo, presumed hideout of souls marred only by the original sin, is that waiting room, that condition, undefined and far from a solution, that for me remains the perfect hideout for eternal intruders like me.

As I’ve said before, I’ve always felt at home in the alienation of fast-food restaurants, in the cosmopolitan airport waiting lounges, in the country-side amusement parks, among the noise of rowdy game rooms as much as in shopping malls.

I feel at home here because these are borders as well. This is also a limbo.

I can’t say, however, that I felt at home in the limbo of the Mexico-Guatemala border, where I arrived one morning to meet a Mexican cop who went by the name of “Rolfi”, the person who first taught me the meaning of the typically Mexican expression “ni modo”.

Used in moments of failure and distress, “ni modo” is the layman’s version of the Islamic “inshallah”, or God willing. It’s a fatalistic sigh, which basically means “forget about it, and go on with your life”.

This trip would teach me how useful saying “Ni modo” can be.

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*   *   *

The humid weather wets my neck and forehead. The heat breaths on me making my skin stick to the t-shirt as if someone had poured a glass of lukewarm soup down my spine. The streets are only muddy brooks that seem like they’ll never dry. There’s only a skimpy river deviding Tecun Uman in Guatemala from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

It’s simply too hot, that humid tropical heat of the Cuban summer, of Bahia, Manaus, Caracas, Panama City, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Jamaica. Names that are as hot as their temperature. Ja-mai-caaaah, Hon-du-rasss, just pronouncing them makes me sweat.  Those temperatures mold the time-space formula in a molasses of shiny colors that seem to round off the corners of life. A calor verde tropical, a “Tropical-green heat” which lives in the lazy anticipation of the Frente del Norte, the cold wind coming from the north. It is hope that feeds Latin America, allowing it to endure the heat of its destiny.

In Ciudad Hidalgo, a special corps Grupo Beta Sur policeman offer me the chance to join a robbers chase. “Una pandilla de bandidos”, he says. They are looking for a group of bandidos and I’ve come here to find out more about their work.

The contact was given to me by a photographer friend, the Brasilian Sebastiao Salgado. He was on patrol with them, grabbing on ladders of cargo trains, jumping across the railroad into the woods, so he could take pictures of the illegal immigrants.

Thinking that Sebastiao had already done it, and that maybe that was the only way to find “the” story, I let myself be seduced by this proposal. So, as I hear the invitation to join them in a thugs-hunting expeditions I reply, maybe too quickly, “Si, señor.

The officer warns me: “It’s risky, you better think twice about it…”

“Don’t worry”, I reply, and than, taking advantage of the slang learned on the streets of Mexico City, I encourage them to put a stop to their doubts with a very macho: “vamonos, güeyes!”, which translates more or less into: “let’s go, homeboys!”.

The agents laugh and I’m told I can go, but, to limit the risk, I have to wear a bulletproof vest under my t-shirt. We get started on the expedition, the agents dressed like poor illegal immigrants  – checkered shirts and torn sweat shirts hanging from their shoulders and hiding sawed off shot guns and smaller guns, which they loaded back at Head Quarters.

Checov wrote that when in the first act you see a gun, before the end of the story it is most likely to be used. I hope this time the Checov rule won’t apply.

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Along the railroad where we walk, runs another of the “Roads to the North” where everyday hundreds of migrants flood in from Central America. They head to the US border, a desperate river of people trying their luck, searching for a gateway to los dolares. Hidden in their satchels, inside their belts or rolled up in their socks, they hide the savings of a lifetime. And that’s what the robbers are after.

There’s a boy from Honduras with us, the husband of a girl who only two hours earlier, exactly on this railroad, was forced to strip naked, then was robbed and gang-raped. He says he’ll tell us where the assault took place.

The heat feels like it’s swelling, growing, almost as if reacting to our sense of suffocation by growing even hotter, more humid, oppressive.

Rolfi, the cop who acts as my guide, says that it could’ve been the Salva Truchas, the cruelest gang in Mexico, made up by former Salvadorean guerrilla fighters who often sport a tatoo on their forehead which is an autobiography summed up in one phrase – “Mi vida loca”, my crazy life.

Those with three spots tattooed on the skin between thumb and index finger have already gone to jail for homicide. Those with a tear tattooed under the right eye have killed their own mother.

What am I doing then, in the middle of the railroad, with Mexican police hunting for rapists who killed their mothers? What’s wrong with me? Was it in order to find myself here that I spent my summers – when I was 18, 19 and 20 – working as an intern for the Associated Press in Rome instead of going on holiday like the other kids? Is this the landing spot of the wanderlust which has kept me going through so many trips? Why did I let the thirst for a new story push me all the way here?

Mexico has a police corp that protects from assaults and violence the ilegales coming in from Guatemala. For decades hurricanes and wrong economic policies have filled the “Roads to the north” with poor people who have transformed California into their obsession. But before getting there, or to Tijuana, you first have to survive a series of dangers.

For those who enter illegally, escaping the “uniforms” is easy. If “imigraciòn” catches you the only risk is being sent back to Tecun Uman, in Guatemala, where you can try again to break through the border. The real danger are bandits.

The Salva Truchas haven’t showed up yet. From a banana plantation, a farmer, fooled my our looks, warns us: “Be careful, get yourselves some rocks, you’ll find bandidos ahead!”.

Rolfi looks around, and reminds me to hit the ground and hide between the rails if I hear shots. He tries to let some steam off by saying to his partner: “Hey, pendejo, you remember that lady who was raped and scarred in front of her son, who had been tied to a pole? It was a Guatemalan cop who did it, everybody knows him, but they never caught him”.

The friend replies: “What about the Nicaraguan we found in the ditch after 12 hours who was screaming “I’m alive, help me!”, remember? He was missing one hand and the nose, cut off with the machete. The upper lip was dangling and bleeding like mad”.

“We looked for his hand and nose in the bushes”, says Rolfi, “And we found them, so they stiched ‘em up in the hospital. But two days later he was dead”.

The next few minutes are filled only by the sound of our own steps.

The boy from Honduras will show us the place where the assault took place. “Maybe the gang’s still there”, says Rolfi.

The boy, however, is too shaken to realize that we’ve already passed the little bridge where the first rapist had appeared, he’s still too shocked to remember that it was exactly under that sign reading “Peligro Zona Despoblada!” (Warging Deserted Area!) that the first bandido had made his appearence a few hours earlier. He’s too distracted, too nervous, he’s probably thinking of the violence his wife suffered.

But under that same sign, the same gangster pops up. I can see him clearly, even though it doesn’t really seem possible to me. A man with a rifle in his hands, and he’s pointing it at us. He’s so close that “I can see the white in his eyes”, as people say in these situations.
The gangster recognizes the boy and screams something at someone  behind us, hiding in the trees and in the bushes: “It’s them! It’s them again!” and he starts shooting at us.

I jump to the floor, as I’ve been instructed to do, trying to make my whole body get inside the bulletproof vest, while I hear shooting and explosions all over. I bite my teeth as hard as I can, staring at the wooden board of the railway in its every little detail, while I ask myself: “Was it really necessary to come all the way here?”.

The cops in front of me scream: “hijo-de-puta-cabròn-pendejo-de-mierdaaa!” running towards the guy, shooting randomly at him while the he runs backwards shooting at us. I say to myself, with a strange calm: “They are insane”. Then I add. “I’m stupid”.
I think that not having a helmet could lead to my getting a bullet in the head, I ask how stupid one must be to risk his own life like this: “What for?”.

For a newspaper article, for the desire to live a fragment of a life that is not mine, in a world very far from mine, which is about to become mine. I understand that for all the victims that I met, and that I’ve heard about, all it took was a moment like this to get sucked into a cosmic swindle like the one I fear I may be about to experience if I don’t keep my head down. Because, while I’m here on the ground with my hands crossed over the back of my neck, those guys keep shooting at each other in the woods.

I close my eyes and see, in the red darkness of my eyelids, a familiar image, that which I have seen since I was a child when I was about to fall asleep: the universe with the stars moving fast towards me. It’s like the tension towards the infinite that one feels when thinking about eternity.

I say to my self, fuck, this could be my turn…

I “think” the image of the stars in movement for a split second, as fast as an explosion. Is it possible that a bullet, getting close to my head has caressed me with its cone of death? The Germans  call Augenblicksgott a minor divinity that speeds around you as fast as a shiver. Is it possible that maybe in the instant a bullet nearly hit me I felt infinity?

When the sound of the shoot-out starts to fade, I raise my head. There’re three of us left: the boy, myself and a cop with a sawed off shotgun ordering us to keep our heads down.

Panting, I ask: “How many have you seen?”.

“One. Just ahead”, the boy answers.

“But we had two of them right behind us”, adds the cop watching over us. I see something moving some 60 yards ahead.

“Over there, there’s another one – I say between a sigh and a scream – The yellow one. Or is it one of ours?”. It is. I better calm down.

The hunt is on. There were two of them shooting from behind, and then the other, the one under the sign, who shot right away. We are hyper from all the adrenalin, but we try to keep cool, maybe out of dignity, or maybe to hide the joy of not having gotten hurt, after having faced a risk like this one.

We find the hideout. After kicking away a tarantula from the back packs, we find  a soldier’s uniform. It’s not the Salva Truchas then, but military people, maybe Mexican former soldiers who rob people to round off their salaries. It wouldn’t be the first time that happens, given the level of corruption in the army and police.

Out of a truck that just arrived jumps the raped girl, pointing to the cops the place where she was forced to strip. Her dark brown hair wound in two braids, the puffy cheeks on her tanned skin, after the hours spent walking under the sun while excaping from Honduras. The girl keeps her eyes to the ground, walking awkwardly, in short steps. How can one keep away from one’s mind the images of what has happened to her, after seeing where it took place?

She’s still shaken by the violence, bundled up in her gray jump suit borrowed by the cops. She walks keeping her arms crossed over her stomach. Her eyes aren’t able to hide the hope to see those cabrones dead.

The Beta Sur agents get back on the pickup truck for a final round. They stop some suspects for questioning. The hunt is useless. The gangsters know the terrain much better and have vanished. Rolfi kicks the truck’s tyre before bringing us back to HQ.

While we pass by a farmers’ village, the wheels crush a little pig crossing the street. But Rolfi keeps driving as if we had just bumped on a large pebble.  In the rearview mirror I see the farrow walking to the middle of the road, trying to move with her snout the flattened piggy pudding, with his entrails all over the dirt road.

The farrow then let’s out a scream in the air, condensing all her motherly pain. A scream that fades in a weeping sound as we move further away aboard our truck.

Seems to me this is the most appropriate soundtrack for the official “the end” of a day like any other in the life of clandestine immigrants, gangsters and police in the great limbo between Guatemala and Mexico.

“Ni modo”, says Rolfi, shaking his head and lowering his eyes on the driving wheel.

“Ni modo”, I reply.

The end

(copyright Carlo Pizzati © 2001-2014)

“Hoblio” a short film by Piero Tonin

What is that little man with a big nose doing, walking in the forest after dark with a heavy load on his shoulders?

He would appear to be unaware of his destiny, simply driven forward by an invisible force we may call life.

It’s dark and windy in here.

He seems serene and untouched by his eerie surroundings.

Who is he? A rich man? No. He’s dressed simply in a pale orange cloth and carries his bundle tied to a wooden stick.

Where is he going? What is he looking for?

Money, maybe, like most people? A chance to make it? Luck?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a harpsichord riff announces, as in a commercial advertisement, the appearance of a large figure. Stylized curls of thin blue smoke erupt from his giant cigar. The towering, grinning figure stares down at our care-free wanderer and raises his arm, holding an offer: a satchel filled with money, as indicated by the clear dollar $ign painted across the bag.

The Billionaire mutters an offer.

Our wanderer declines it.

The rich man disappears in shock from being rebuked, fragmenting away in a white and purple post-cubist special effect. The load on the wanderer’s shoulders magically become smaller.

The journey continues down that dark forest. Now it’s a Temptress’ turn to offer the joys of passion and sex to our little man, clad in that simple orange cloth. He smiles and declines the again the offer, as the woman vanishes in a rage. And the load gets even lighter.

The path is still there to be walked. The sun comes out, revealing a plethora of joyful colors in the meadows alla round. Things are getting better and better already.

But now, out of the green grass, an imposing and authoritative king appears, red crown, mink coat and all. He offers the wanderer a blue crown muttering some pompous and official sounding formula in an indecipherable gobbledygook. But the walker is just as uninterested as with the previous offers and the harpsichord jingle whisks our king away, as the load on the wanderer’s back gets even smaller. Now the trees are gone as he walks in the open fields, which are more and more colorful, when suddenly pitch-black darkness descends upon him.

A creaky, darkly clad Death creeps up in front of him, blocking his path and wielding the fatal Sickle, thumping it three times in the echoing ground of this sudden night. The wanderer looks more closely at him and then, as in the previous three occasions, declines the offer.

Death is outraged. But can’t help it, as it vanishes just like the other illusions.

The sun is back and the load on the walker’s shoulders now entirely disappears. There’s no more need for a stick either so the walker simply throws it away, slips his hands in his pockets and continues on his merry journey, as we fade to black.
He is free. He has resisted falling for the illusions of desire and attachment, loss and need. He has even refused the illusion of death, remaining unperturbed in his journey.

The lesson is so simple and clear, while so deep and transcendent, that it does not need more words. It is there to be received in the clarity of its meaning.

Yet to create such neatness in the form, requires a wide amount of knowledge, taste and talent that went into the making of this visualtale.
It seems clear where the historical points of reference come from, looking at the history of animation. Clearly Osvaldo Cavandoli’s “La Linea”’s enigmatic posture is just one of the many points of reference. As in “La Linea,” “Hoblio” also is the story of a character who walks a virtually infinite line, speaking a similarly incomprehensible language, which in this case is made mostly of grunts and guttural, inquisitive sighs. The harpsichord is reminiscent of the opening credit of the Pagot Brothers Film company Disegni Animati Italiani, and our “Hoblio” character even has, at times, the happy go lucky stride of “La Pimpa.”

There’s no spoken word in this tale. It is not necessary: only sounds of a slow Chinese march or harmonious dance, creating a musical carpet by on which our wanderer steps into merrily, thanks to Jiang Li’s “Yangtze” soundtrack.

The atmosphere created around this short film of animation is so gentle and yet so central to the storytelling, that understanding this is useful in order to grasp one more lesson of “Hoblio”: mind your surroundings, and yet be unfazed by them as well, while nurturing that inner contentedness, that omnipresent, infinte, eternal “Joy” referred to in the opening quotation.

A few words must be spent on the stroke of Piero Tonin’s brush, capable of creating with a curve of the pencil a historical, social and economic commentary, cloaked in humour and style. Notice the grin of the millionaire, the flüte-like calves of the sultry sex bomb, the hunched back of a king burdened by the weight of power and the angular dryness of Death, in its tweaking, skeletal rigidity.

Shapes tell a story. If you know how to draw them.

This is what makes “Hoblio” so dense of meaning and hypnotic and makes you go back to it, once in a while, just to remind yourself of the right path to serenity, away from the Maya of wealth, sex, power and death.

To achieve such simplicity and depth requires a lot of hard work.

In this case, it’s been well worth it.

click here to watch video of “Hoblio” on YouTube:

Nihil sub sole novum… all over again. (by Carlo Pizzati)

A new Indian friend made the mistake of asking me this question via email: “I want to ask you about Berlusconi’s expulsion from Parliament. Do you think this could actually be the beginning of the end of his political career or is it another stunt?”

I rarely, if ever, comment on politics, although I’ve been following it since I was reading daily newspapers in middle school and I’ve had a chance to meet a few politicians in my previous avatar as a full-time journo, also having to sedate them on a morning political talk-show at times. And anyway, people around where I grew up in Northern Italy have always been inevitably animated by the political discourse. Almost uselessly so. Anyway, here’s my reply, for those who are interested in such historical cycles.

“Dear Tariq,

As for Berlusconi, I shall not be brief.

His legal troubles? They are only likely to attract more votes from his aficionados. His expulsion from the Italian Parliament is not likely to be “the beginning of the end” of his political career. It has been one more reason to be at the center of attention, where he needs to be in order to control as much as he can the outcome of his legal trouble and political battles.

But that is not really the real relevant question. What could’ve been more threatening was the division within his own coalition party.

But I seriously doubt that the latest schism within his political movement is the beginning of the end of his political career. First of all, Berlusconi, whether we like it or not, has undoubtedly changed Italy. The sheer fact that the best hope for the center-left electorate is now Matteo Renzi is tangible proof of that.

Renzi represent, at least in terms of political communication, the Berlusconi culture, which is a mish-mash of second hand 1950’s American values, fake liberalism, pro-business promises and dreams supposedly in favor of the modernization on Italy. Renzi persuades with his smiles, his winks, his dynamism, he seduces with the power of theater, not with the substance of politics. This is why Berlusconi has triumphed. Well, that and a lot of crafty and often instinctive political genius. In 2006, Italian auteur Nanni Moretti perfectly captured this in an interesting movie called “Il Caimano,” inspired by the concepts I just exposed.

The Opera dei Pupi (Opera of the Puppets; Sicilian: Òpira rî pupi) is a marionette theatrical representation of Frankish romantic poems such as the Song of Roland or Orlando furioso that is one of the characteristic cultural traditions of Sicily.

The Opera dei Pupi (Opera of the Puppets; Sicilian: Òpira rî pupi) is a marionette theatrical representation of Frankish romantic poems such as the Song of Roland or Orlando furioso that is one of the characteristic cultural traditions of Sicily.

After a disastrous vote in Parliament this summer, the political movement that just split up, the People for Freedoms (PDL, Popolo delle Libertà) was lingering sadly in the polls, somewhere below 23 per cent. Once Berlusconi’s sidekick Angelino (“Little Angel”) Alfano – deputy prime minister of the coalition government of Enrico Letta – decided to split from his tutor, things now actually look rosier for the right wing. Absurd? Follow my math: in current polls, the sum of Alfano’s splinter group plus Berlusconi’s renewed Forza Italia, the original political movement he had founded in ’94, now reach above 28 per cent. It’s 5 points higher compared to when Alfano and Berlusconi were in the same party. Alfano has announced that his movement would ally itself with Berlusconi after the next elections. So what has brought about this so-called political divorce is a fake conflict. It is a tactical move in a long term strategy.

This is actually a very ancient game that used to be played by the Christian Democrats who ruled Italy since World War II until the Clean Hands operations of ’92. Constant battles between what were called “currents,” after many negotiations, a game of musical chairs in the Cabinet.

Italy has had, on an approximate average, a new government every 6 months since WWII. But only fools would think this has ever represented instability (except when the Communist party gained the majority in the European elections on ’76. And actually not even then). This was a constant game of re-balancing power within the ruling party, but guaranteeing continuity, which was especially important to American allies who had – and still have – strategic army bases in the peninsula.

Still from Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo" showing a Christian Democrat political "current": Aldo Ralli (Ciarrapico), Flavio Bucci (Evangelisti), Carlo Buccirosso (Pomicino), Achille Brugnini (Card. Angelini), Massimo Populizio (Sbardella) e Giorgio Colangeli (Lima)

Still from Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” showing a Christian Democrat political “current”: Aldo Ralli (Ciarrapico), Flavio Bucci (Evangelisti), Carlo Buccirosso (Pomicino), Achille Brugnini (Card. Angelini), Massimo Populizio (Sbardella) e Giorgio Colangeli (Lima)

In a way, what we are seeing is more of the same. Nihil sub sole novum.

What looks like a divorce is a maneuver to gain some moderate anti-Berlusconi votes. I would venture to say, actually, that this is a maneuver to gain back votes which could be attracted by Renzi’s great appeal to the moderate voter.

Berlusconi is not done. Nothing has changed.

And to paraphrase the overly quoted Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard: in Italy, as usual, everything has to change so that nothing changes.”

Stop thinking like a boso-n about Marxism and Moksha!  or why Zizek believes in advaitic Maya  by Carlo Pizzati

“The human being is this night,

this empty nothing that contains everything

– an unending wealth of many representations,
images of which none belongs to him”

Hegel – Jenaer Realphilosophie 1805-06

Where is that goddamn particle?”

This is how the so-called “god particle” was born, thanks to its blasphemous antithesis born in a burst of frustration after decades of scientific research leading to nothing. Until now.

The term “god particle” originated in 1993. It was the American physicist Leon Lederman who originally called the Higgs boson the “goddamn particle” exactly because it was so difficult to find. But his publisher changed the phrase to “god particle” to publicize Professor Lederman’s new book.

The new name of the sticky particle, pardon the pun, stuck.

But do the Higgs boson, the Higgs mechanism or the Higgs field deserve deification?
In a Vedic sense, yes. If the Higgs field “pervades the universe and creates drag on particles”, in simple terms allows everything to have mass, it could be compared in a Hindu sense with what generates the Maya, the illusion of reality.
The “god particle” could more precisely be renamed the “Maya field.”

Think of the Cern accelerator in Geneva like a wall and a rock. Throw the rock against the concrete wall. The wall throws off a bit of dust. The scientists photograph that dust before it blows away, and discover what holds the wall together, except in this case the wall is infinite and invisible – we live in it, we are it, and that secret hidden in the dust is what gives us mass, the quality of physical existence.

According to Vedic philosophy the only reality, the only thing that actually exists is Absolute Awareness, and what we experience through our senses is just an illusion created by the only one thing that exists, the same Absolute Awareness. Existence of individuals, according to non-dualistic Advaitic philosophy, is a sort of game the Absolute Awareness plays with itself, imbuing things and beings with a sense of identity that doesn’t really exist. In this sense, then, the Higgs mechanism could be the secret of this illusion.

It is the most surprising philosopher of our Zeitgeist, Slavoj Zizek, that provides a theoretical structure for this idea.

Zizek believes that “fictions structure our reality and that if you take away the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself.”  So, only if you realize that you yourself do not exist can you achieve freedom (Moksha, in Vedic terms).

The Slovenian neo-Marxist thinker sees God as a computer programmer who programmed our experience of reality. But as in video-games certain parts are constructed with more precision than other parts (for example, a house on the far right corner might be more pixelated or less defined), the same applies to the construction of reality and of a person who, in order to be convincing has to construct only the outside of the person (persona means mask after all in Latin, doesn’t it?).

So Zizek says it is possible to conceive of the Universe’s construction in similar terms: God didn’t finish the project and left things incomplete at a quantum level. God thought that humans wouldn’t reach further in their understanding than the atomic level.
But, hey, it seems like the guys at the Large Hadron Collider managed to be a bit too intelligent and might’ve gone beyond what god had anticipated and discovered the incompleteness of his creation.

Not only is god dead, but he’s unmasked and getting a bad review by his human critics for not minding the details. We are at the edges of the set of the Truman Show, in other words.

Quantum physics asserted that it wasn’t possible to have full knowledge of particles at the quantum level, since the velocity and position of the particle could not be described together. But now things may be different.

Philosophical implications are multifold. One is said to be the “oneness” of the universe, the one constant we can say pervades the imaginable universe. The other may be, as Zizek’s theory could indicate, that there’s only one ontologically unfinished reality.
But that’s where our freedom lies, he says.

Freedom from the illusion of reality, freedom from Maya.

A perfect Advaitic conclusion.

(© Carlo Pizzati 2012)

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