1968, Calvin Wells, Dante, Edmund Stillman, Falconry, Ford Madox Ford, Frederick II, Holy Roman Empire, J.H. Plumb, John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, Kingdom of Sicily, Mezzogiorno, Middle Ages, Paleopathology, Renaissance, Revolution, Riot, Southern Italy, The Forsyte Saga, The Man of Property
Writing during that tumultuous year of civil unrest, 1968, Horizon mainstay J.H. Plumb asks ‘When Does a Riot Become a Revolution?’ He looks at Europe and America in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and their 1968 parallels:
Last spring Europe again burst into flames, with student riots from Colchester to Cracow. Although these riots were usually provoked by academic situations, they are being exploited by acute political leaders. The students have become a type of false proletariat (a California professor has written “a student is a nigger”), and they are exploited as such. Attempts have been made – and with some success this past spring in France – to harness student idealism to the political programs of the working class. These recent riots in Europe belong to the tradition of both radical socialism and anarchism, but they are different in dimension from most American student riots and totally different in kind from the Negro rioting that America is experiencing.
The American riot is, as it were, the grandchild of the classical riot, which was bigger, more incoherent, more desperate – a deeper convulsion in the bowels of society – than the recent disturbances in Europe. The present American experience is, more precisely, akin to the riots of prerevolutionary Europe, before the mobs became infiltrated with political agents and exploiters who turned the riot to social revolutionary ends. This stage may be beginning in America, however, and it could develop rapidly…
America is, in a sense, entering a political phase curiously akin to that of Europe in the nineteenth century, a world of savage social conflict and possible revolutionary turmoil. Which way will riot develop? Will it be molded by revolutionary leaders into a revolutionary movement, dedicated to social change, and if need be to civil war? Or will the riots fade away, as they did in Britain, by the creation of true, not false, social hope and by full, not spurious, political participation? I am not suggesting that the British governing classes made that social hope easily realizable, or that political participation quickly prized their hands from the wheels of government. Of course not. But classes, like individuals, leap at a glimmer of real hope.
The hope must be real. If time and time again it proves illusory, then the looting will stop, the rioters will become disciplined, ferocious, dedicated, willing to die by the tens of thousands so that they can kindle an unquestionable spark of hope in the hearts of their own people. They will start fighting not for the present but for the future.
…the family, the Galsworthys, were in fact the Forsytes – so much so that one of his sisters begged him, in his own interests, not to publish the novel that was later to become the first volume of The Forsyte Saga – The Man of Property – or at any rate to publish it anonymously. But, he inquired ironically, which of the family did she suppose was likely to read it?
He visited flophouses, prowled the streets at night. He told his friends how appalling things were. They agreed – and asked, ‘Why don’t you do something?’
But Galsworthy’s concern with the suffering of others was occasioned more by the pain knowledge of it gave him than by the pain experience of it gave them: the sensitive liberal’s situation in a nutshell – and at least an improvement on total insensibility. But once awakened in Galsworthy, this concern became altogether too powerful. It made, as it always does, for sentimentality. It accounts for the perceptive comment Ford Madox Ford made when he saw tears in Galsworthy’s eyes on account of an anecdote about Turgenev and his peasant mistress: ‘suddenly I had of him a conception of a sort of frailty, as if he needed protection from the hard truths of the world…The disease from which he suffered was pity…’
And pity, a form of self-indulgence, is an artist’s worst enemy. Even at the turn of the century not all of the poor were utterly miserable all the time, but one would never suppose otherwise on the strength of Galsworthy’s works. Conrad, later, advised him to get more skepticism into his writing and even went so far as to suggest that Galsworthy got a sadistic pleasure from describing the sufferings of the weak and unfortunate. Galsworthy himself knew all this perfectly well. He warned others against it. ‘Pity is tripe,’ he made one of his characters keep repeating to himself. But it was no good; in art as in life he remained a helpless victim of the soft touch.
In ‘The Wonder of the World’, Edmund Stillman writes about Frederick II (1194 – 1250), King of Sicily from 1198, King of Germany from 1212, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 and King of Jerusalem from 1225: ‘Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was perhaps the most gifted ruler in all the centuries between Charlemagne and Napoleon. As an emperor he failed, but as a one-man Renaissance he brought light and learning to a dark world.’
Italy south of Naples is the Mezzogiorno – the land of the noonday sun. In the Mezzogiorno ignorance and poverty seem endemic…But it was not always a wasteland. Nine hundred years ago in this forgotten region of Europe the Moslem East, Byzantium, and the barbarian North all fused together in a civilization of wealth, glitter, and intellectual brilliance under the Norman kings of Sicily. And here in the thirteenth century a grand ideological drama was played out: the dream of a united, powerful and ultimately secular Europe (a dream of our own time) clashed with an older dream of God’s universal order on earth. In the events of this drama we can discern the collision of the skeptical spirit of the yet-distant Renaissance with the static, believing spirit of the Middle Ages.
Yet it is not quite so. The roles and characters of the actors are oddly mixed, so that the worldliness of popes is matched by the brutal despotism of the champions of a secular empire. In the end neither side won. The dream of secular society went down in a welter of futility and blood. The religious vision was painfully corrupted by the desperate struggle for survival, dooming itself in the aftermath of ostensible victory to the contempt of believing and thinking men.
The court that Frederick maintained in the south was one of the most brilliant in history. Nothing like it had been seen in the Christian West before, not even in the great days of Charlemagne. The rude court of that Frankish emperor could not boast steam baths and plumbing to rival those of ancient Rome, a menagerie of wild beasts from distant Africa and India, a wholly secular university that challenged the intellectual monopoly of the medieval church, and a secular bureaucracy that was the product of this education and that regulated the foreign commerce into the port of Palermo down to the finest detail. It was a court where for the first time poets, as Dante noted approvingly a century later, sang a sophisticated early verse in the Italian vernacular. There eunuchs guarded harems of Moorish women, and the pious were daily offended by the brazen comings and goings of infidel Moslem and Jewish alchemists, philosophers, astrologers, and mathematicians.
What Frederick built did not endure. Viewed in retrospect, his dream of a powerful secular empire could never have succeeded, though Frederick would have done anything in the wild pursuit of his vision. For him no brutality, no breach of faith, was too much. But his vision was out of its time. It is almost as if history had made a bizarre experiment and had then dropped it for another. The future lay with the middle-class, urban, capitalistic society that was struggling into being in Italy.