It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.
Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.
But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.
Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?
I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.
A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.
But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.
I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.