Saturday, November 29, 2008

When Women are Gentlewomen, Men are Gentlemen?

In the last few months of 1983—after I had reached Montecatini Terme having come from Caracas in May—a series of events befell me which would set me astudying in hobby fashion, just as Hitler and Mussolini had done decades before, one Italian nonesuch. I had come to Italy to seek fame and fortune, not to try to untangle something else that is too knotted even for sociologists and psychoanalysts; but, what I had experienced off the bat at that Tuscan health spa so piqued my nonsatiable curiosity, I knew at once I was still again on that trail to attempt to understand something I would never be able to. Here are three of those first impressions:

1. I could not speak Italian then. It had even taken me a while to stop saying vino rojo instead of vino rosso. I looked for people with whom I could speak to in Spanish and found none; and, I looked for people who spoke English and found some. One was a shoe saleslady who boasted to me about her love affairs with Arab men to whom she sold shoes made mostly in Monsummano. She wore a bulky gold necklace, a Rolex watch, was on the chunky size, almost attractive, had beautifully polished nails, and her make-up—while put in place heavily—was very elegantly rubbed on to achieve the best results for her. Her secretary was a Southafrican woman married to an Italian. One day the pursy one invited me to a birthday party she had organised for herself. Fifteen of us (ten women) drove to the costa versiliana for a stupendous fish dinner. At that moment when it had been decided to return home, the Southafrican took out her calculator, divided the bill by fourteen, then made her rounds around the table collecting from us our share of the night’s festivities. Where is Love?
2. Wherever I went, by bus or train, I concluded that most Italian men did not rise and offer their seats to Italian women. Where is Love?
3. Notwithstanding, what whetted my appetite for more—the most—was this: A group of young adults, some professionals, most of them university grads, in their late twenties-early thirties, communists (id est, Italian communists!), from Montecatini Terme, and who all lived with their parents, invited me to a beautiful medieval villa in Vinci to celebrate the coming-in of the new 1984. There were fourteen of us—seven women, seven men. The women had each prepared the various parts of a wonderful dinner at their homes, and as soon as they arrived, set about organizing, preparing, and heating the delicious foods we all were waiting anxiously and hungrily to devour. There were astounding fiaschi of young Chianti wines, cakes, and fruits, too. The entire episode was farfetched, and it remains fixed happily in my memory still today.

After the sumptuous delights, when the donne began clearing away the plates and dishes and silvery receptacles, the men—almost automatically—moved to one end of the long, timeworn table. When I asked if I could pitch in and help, seven voices resounded their “no’s;” and, one commented contradictorily so: “Why don’t you teach them (she particularised the Italian men) how men should help women just as they do in the United States!”

Later, with all put away, in a spirit of abandonment and light-heartedness, the ladies began dancing together—at the other extremity of the table—to the beats of a stereo they had brought along. They whirled and swayed to aerobic music. They joshed through cancans. They had prepared a “show” for us.

At the finish of each and every dance routine, all seven of them, in unison, after a loud 1-2-3! count, uprighted The Finger of their right hands, crossed their left arms to the bends in their right arms, and saluted us men with giggles and liberating laughs which made me feel maybe I should encourage them to go further; but, I did not. I had been taken aback. Just as when once, at a cocktail party in Palacio Miraflores in Caracas, I saw President Carlos Andrés Pérez, not more than two meters from me, stick his right index finger in the tall glass which held his Scotch and water and then twirl around and around the ice cubes in it. I let on for the Italian men—as I always did in Caracas trying to be as tolerant as I could—that nothing had occurred as far as I was concerned. After a pause, I looked at them and they just shrugged their shoulders at me. They felt perplexed, but had nothing to say about that most disparate display. Where is Love?

Some time ago, I appealed—cheekily!—to the Marchesi Antinori asking them if they would kindly sponsor an experiment I had wished earnestly to perform. I wanted to find twelve Italian women who could drink each a bottle—from a case of fine ANTINORI Chianti wine—with me in un arco di three hours. Italian women are notorious teetotalers. To find twelve women wine drinkers would be difficult. The in vino veritas would “open up” twelve Italian women—often very shy; almost always taciturn—and let us all come to interesting conclusions about life, love, and indeed, denaro. To have some fun, some laughs. There were no takers. The ANTINORI P.R. department, stuck somewhere between 1952 and 1959, did not even respond; so, I jettisoned the idea, sadly. I continued, nevertheless, struggling to pin down the opinions of Italian women trying to get them to reveal themselves. I was not very successful. Boca chiusa. It is an exceedingly difficult task….

One day my efforts were finally rewarded. A slim book, Con gli occhi di una donna (With the Eyes of a Woman), published by the Associazione Tirrenica Cooperative Consumatori, 1997, hit the stands (distributed without charge in a Florentine supermarket) and I jumped at the occasion. In it, fifty Italian women spiel out in very short stories all they want to say, all they have to say. There are some very good scrittrice among the yarnspinners—mostly housewives. They were not paid; there was no prize nor prize money.

I found—in only one hundred and twenty seven pages—the Italian tender gender in vino veritas I had been searching for for years. And the book shocked me almost into disbelief. It is one of the saddest documents I have ever read in my life. It is surely not on a level with acknowledgments divulged by Holocaust victims: there is some physical brutality in the book, however. Here we are primarily concerned with mental barbarity. Almost all of the fifty stories deal exclusively with some sadness, some frustration, some dream not realised, some violence….

Of women in the throes of identity crises…who want to go out alone, free to be babies, free from mothers’ ideas, free from fathers’ naggings…who want to escape the prison of marriage…who want jobs…who have been dismissed…who are living on that faith that comes with desperation…who are alcoholics…who have sons who are drug addicts…who, at ninety-two years of age, widowed and without a man since 1944, fall in love with a sixty-five-year old television personality…who—all fifty of the writers!—have not laughed in one hundred twenty seven pages…who break up with boyfriends…who go right back to them…who dream of trips never made…who are murdered by their husbands of fifteen years with a rifle bullet in the forehead…who kill their husbands…who hunger and thirst for liberty…who say that the only thing “super” about their lives is the supermarket…who have not had time to marry…who have never loved…who have never danced…who are experts with make-up…who say that all the memories of their infancy seem beautiful even if at the time it was not really so…who must get permission from their boyfriends to wear nylon stockings…who are tormented by an invalid mother who nags all night for the bedpan…who see their sons, in the distance, dying from heroin on a park bench…who is raped by squads of German infantry brutes all afternoon while other Germans hold at bay her entire village constrained to witness, outside her house, the barbarity…who, after cleaning away the afternoon’s blood and semen, sits down to knit and never speaks another word for the rest of her life…who watches United States’ G. I.’s line up to buy the winning lottery ticket that entitles one of them to the virginity of her daughter…who, now grandmothers, chide their grandchildren thusly: “If you don’t eat your vegetables, I’ll call the Germans!” (John Barry and Evan Thomas write in their Newsweek article, “At War over Women,” 12 May 1997: “But biology makes some problems unavoidable: men and women will always desire each other, and women will, on average, remain physically weaker. The real test will not come until America fights a long and bloody war.”) Are we going crazy?

It would be hard to get—in one hundred twenty seven pages—anymore sadder than that. You can, of course. You can get to where you want to shoot your brains out. (But all fifty?) Here are women who, for a great part of the day, are depressed. Many of them have lost all interest in anything and they cannot find joy anywhere. Their energies are depleted. They have no confidence in themselves. They feel guilty. They feel useless. They see the future pessimistically. They smoke heavily. They have thoughts of death. They sleep badly. They do not eat properly. They eat too much. They eat too little. They have lost their powers of concentration and attention. With men they often play the victim. They are in a hurry to go to bed with them. They do not know what they desire. No man knows what they desire. They are often man-eaters. One after the other. They are great castrators: Italian men are always touching their testicles—to see if they are still there! These women are all over the place. They are doing what they should not be doing.

Their children—if they have them—are given privileges reserved for kings. Women sacrifice all their ambitions for them. Life for these kids is not difficult and it is not honest. They are taught to be adults even before their bones are formed. They are always being corrected, chided, by their grandmothers, aunts and parents’ mother-in-laws. The kids go to study tired of watching television instead of going to watch television tired of studying. They must realise the dreams of their parents and grandparents. They do not have to tidy their rooms. They do not have to clean dishes, sweep floors. Sons think like their mothers, speak like their mothers, and feel like their mothers. They are over-protected by them. They are suffocated by mothers, aunts, mother-in-laws, sister-in-laws. They are forced to copy the behavior of others. With families exerting excessive control over their children, the kids are taught to expect things to be done for them. Never ask an Italian what he did today for his country. He wants his country to do it all for him. There is no discipline in schools and universities, and on Sundays thousands of police are called out to control the lawlessness in the football stadiums.

In The Centaur of John Updike we find this idea: “We are weak in the arms; but strong in the thighs. Our thighs must be strong; the world’s rooted between them.” Italian women are not strong in the thighs. Look at the Caesarian section statistics in Italian hospitals. Next to Germany, Italy has the lowest birth rate in the world. After Hong Kong and Spain, it has the lowest fertility rate. Forty percent of Italian families have one child. Almost twenty percent of Italians are over sixty five years of age. (The Economist, 1997.) Italy reads like a statistical nightmare. No provisions are being adopted to thwart a demographic disaster. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract; New York: Everyman’s Library, 1973, p. 231: “For my part, I am continually astonished that a mark so simple is not recognized, or that men are of so bad faith as not to admit it. What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. Seek then nowhere else this mark that is in dispute. The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalization or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most is beyond question the best. The government under which a people wanes and diminishes is the worst. Calculators, it is left for you to count, to measure, to compare.”) A demographic disaster caused by the government of Italy or the citizens of Italy who elected their rulers? That is the question! Is it that the citizens of Italy do not want a government that will save them from the wretchedness of a disproportionate balance of their population? That they are content to wane? That they scream the genocide of consumerism
but in reality are cooperating, even unconsciously, in a massive Death Wish?

I beg that the resources of sympathetic institutions throughout the world come to the aid of Italy and help Italians resurface from the social, political, cultural and psychological nosedive they are plunging in. I implore health organisations and charitable associations to come to the aid of Italian women and fight to extricate them from their listlessness and clinical depression.

Where is Love?

Where is Respect?

Where is Dignity?

Where is Courage?

With all this Hate,
Are we inching towards
World War III?

* * *

Written by:

Anthony St. John
Casella Postale 38

1 September 1997

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