Thursday, December 28, 2017

On polite Nazis and the violence of speech

Originally published at Overland

Picture fifteen men aged between 20 and 40, their heads shaven, wearing black bomber jackets in place of black shirts. See them walking down your street and you’d have no doubt that they were on an expedition.

Some of them have come from out of town – a pair of them from as far as Mantua, over two hundred kilometres away. From near and far the men have travelled to Como, a small town north of Milan, to break into a meeting of Como Senza Frontiere (‘Como Without Borders’), the local umbrella organisation of the many groups that support migrants in one of the country’s final stops en route to Switzerland and Northern Europe.

Once in the room, the men file around the table and stand behind the seated members of the (mostly female) group while their leader reads out a prepared statement. The last 90 seconds are captured in a video shot by one of the attendees, and it’s a stream of barely intelligible, broken slogans.
Foolish legislators of an immigrationism at all costs … unable to see that their diseased logic sacrifices the peoples of the entire world at the altar of an alienating, turbo-charged capitalism, amplified by the propaganda megaphone of pseudo-Christians ensnared by the globalist rhetoric … replacing them with non-people, children of uncontrolled modernity in the name of progress.
His rant over, the leader folds his copy of the statement – others had been circulated around the room – and declares: ‘Now you may go back to discussing how to ruin our country.’

I shall spare you the details of debate that this episode has sparked among the Italian political class i in the aftermath, save to say that the bulk of the right – which for the last twenty-five years has openly courted the most extreme fringes of the neofascist movement – has refused outright to call it an act of violence. It was, in the words of far-right parliamentarian and former minister of youth policy Giorgia Meloni, ‘intimidation at worst’, and nothing compared to the actual violence of far-left demonstrators ‘who destroy entire cities and burn down our cars’.

To be sure, the group was unfailingly polite. ‘We don’t owe you any respect,’ one of the men said while leaving the room – as if in the midst of a very calm argument with his parents – only for another to chime ‘ciao e grazie’. Goodbye and thank you. This behaviour was calculated so that, following the public condemnation of the act by various sectors of the civil society, the group could respond with statements such as this:
We are shocked that our public reading of a document has triggered such a wide debate on the return of Fascism and the black shirts. There was no aggression. There was no violence. We merely read out a communiqué.
We live in an era of polite Nazis. I use the word advisedly, since responsibility for the action was claimed by the Fronte Veneto Naziskin, a group with historical ties to the supporters of the Hellas Verona football club. For decades now, our stadiums have acted both as incubators of far-right movements and places in which various forms of violence are funnelled and tolerated. Early reports indicate that several members of the group who broke into the meeting of Como Senza Frontiere are subject to orders prohibiting them to access sporting venues, on top of the predictable precedents for crimes that fall under the designation of violenza privata – harassment, threats, this sort of thing.

We know, then, that the group was not incapable of violence but rather that it chose not to be violent. The men called attention to this choice every step of the way. They stood in the room – wearing the uniform of the thugs we have seen at countless demonstrations and football clashes – while their audience was expected to sit. They read out a statement while their audience was expected to listen. They gave permission for the meeting to resume once they were finished, as if any such permission was either needed or theirs to give. And, yes, they said goodbye and thank you.

This tactic is the offline equivalent of the ones deployed by the far-right online. To break into conversations, in the name of freedom of speech and plurality. To demand attention, in the name of tolerance. To seize platforms and occupy discursive spaces already staked out by others. All of which require the ability to establish a threatening presence first: the equivalent of standing in a room while everyone else is made to sit.

The violence during the reading out of the anti-immigration statement was latent but always palpable, in the form of an unspoken question: ‘what would happen if any one of us confronted any one of these hardened men?’ Equally, the demand of attention online is accompanied by various forms of intimidation: from the graphic expression of misogyny, antisemitism, islamophobia and other racisms, to doxing, to veiled or direct threats of rape or harm. What matters – on the internet as much as in that room in Como – is that violence be seen not as absent but merely suspended, by means of a decision that is unilateral and liable to being withdrawn at any time.

They came from out of town – some from another province – just so they could be table in person a statement at a meeting. If you didn’t know the context, you might mistake it for a high-minded gesture.

The error in believing that fascism can be defeated through debate stems partly from the failure to see violence in speech, and in the exercise of speech. Few would fail to recognise that violence when watching the 90-second video, and the fixed stares of those fifteen men, whose every gesture signified: ‘We could hurt you, but choose not to. For now.’ Let this visual document be your mental reminder, then, that when fascists demand to be heard and to draw people into debates, it is so they can eventually reproduce this scene: one in which their audience is captive, subdued, obedient, silent.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My middle class food bag: Panettone

It’s nearly ten years since I first shared a recipe for panettone on this blog. I made no pretence of having tried to make it myself: the preparation is notoriously difficult and even the author of the book I copied it from might not have expected that many of her readers would attempt to do it. Besides, Italians have ready to access to relatively affordable panettoni made by pastry chefs, so there is no great need to subject yourself and your family kitchen to the rigours of the recipe, which I shared mostly by way of personal and historical background. Here’s a summary of the summary I wrote then of how the tradition began:
The exact origin of panettone is uncertain, but is generally made to coincide with the days of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke who hired Leonardo da Vinci as the city's main artist and engineer. It seems that the name is a conflation of pan del Toni, Toni's bread, and this Toni naturally we assume was a baker. That's about all we know. But we have some idea of the ritual that the cake fitted into, and it's a suggestive one.

On Christmas day, the Milanese families used to congregate – as they had for centuries – in front of a block of oak lit in the hearth over a bed of juniper. The father would pour a glass of wine, drink the first sip and pass it around for everyone to have a taste, then he would throw a coin into the fire and dispense one coin each to the others. At the end of the ritual he would be handed three panettoni (which in earlier times had been wheat loaves), and he would cut a piece off one of them, which the family would have to keep intact until the following Christmas. This special piece was attributed thaumaturgical powers, and a great misfortune awaited those who should fail to preserve it.

Over the last decade, making panettone at home seems to have become more common among Italians. The reasons could be economic but I suspect they have more to do with the greater accessibility of step-by-step recipes, including video (YouTube really has come an awfully long way), and the spread of kitchen robots and dough mixers that take care of a lot of the messy parts. (The term pastry, like the French patisserie and the Italian pasticceria, derives from making a mess.)

As a migrant, I had of course my own different sets of reasons for trying to make panettone: chief among which, the fact that the locally available commercial alternatives are either cheap and awful or very expensive and still pretty awful. About five years ago I started experimenting with different recipes until finally last year I produced a good result, but at the cost of nearly destroying our entry-level food processor. So this year we relented and bought ourselves a planetary mixer (so-called because of the dough-mixing attachments move on a orbit-like pattern). We do an awful lot of baking and we have other uses for it than a once-a-year Christmas cake, but it’s still an expensive bit of kit. Hence today’s departure from my other food bag, which is all about making things on the cheap and without the need for special equipment outside of a stove. The ingredients for panettone are very affordable but often to make cheap things you need expensive things and this is one of those times.

On to the recipe that I settled on, then. The ingredients are:
High grade flour, 750 g.
Fresh baker’s yeast, 20 g.
Malt or honey, 1 tsp.
Milk, 50 ml.
8 eggs (four whole, four yolks).
Butter, 160 g.
Sugar, 300 g.
1 vanilla pod (or 2 tsps essence).
Two oranges, one mandarin, one lemon.
Half a teaspoon of salt.
100 grams chocolate chips.
30 grams sliced almonds.
The preparation takes five stages over two and a half days (three nights), and produces two panettoni of 800 grams each, which nicely fits the paper moulds you get in New Zealand (for instance from Moore Wilson’s in Wellington). These will set you back a couple of bucks each. Or you can use two cake tins of 18 cm of diameter and 10 cm of eight. But the paper moulds are better.

Stage 1, day 1 (evening): the starter.
Dissolve 10 grams of the yeast in 50 mls of lukewarm milk with a teaspoon of malt or honey. Allow time for the yeast to froth. Mix in a bowl with 100 grams (just shy of one cup) of flour.

Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let it sit on the bench until the starter has doubled in size.

Then put in the fridge over night.

Stage 2, day 2.
Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it return to room temperature for two hours. Place it in the bowl of the dough mixer. Add 200 grams (1.75 cups) of flour, 5 grams of yeast and 60 grams of sugar (four tablespoons). Start mixing at slow speed, adding two whole eggs. Continue mixing for ten minutes or so, then slowly incorporate 60 grams of softened butter. Mix until the dough is soft and smooth. Place it in a bowl, cover with a tea towel, allow time to double in size.

Place in the fridge overnight.

Prepare the citrus paste. I did mine with three oranges, but next time I’m going to try with two oranges, one mandarin and one lemon. Grate the lemon, set the rind aside for use in stage 3. Cut the ends of the citrus, then dice (rind and all) and add 120 grams of sugar (or eight tablespoons).

Leave for 10 minutes so the sugar dissolves. Cook in a saucepan on a low flame for 30 minutes or so, then whizz with a wand mixer. You should get 150-160 grams of paste. Any more than that, and we’d have to change the amounts of the dry ingredients so don’t go overboard.

Stage 3, day 3.
Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it return to room temperature for two hours.

Place it in the bowl of the dough mixer along with the vanilla, the lemon rind, the citrus paste, 450 grams (just shy of four cups) of flour and 5 grams of yeast. Start mixing. Add two whole eggs, four yolks, 120 grams (or eight tablespoons) of sugar and slowly incorporate 80 grams of softened butter. Add the chocolate chips. Mix for ten minutes or so at average speed.

Place back in the bowl and let it rise for 2-3 hours.

Stage 4, day 3.
Take the dough out of the bowl, move it to a lightly floured surface and split it in half.

Form gently into two balls (if you want to see how to do it, this is a good video). Place in the paper mould or greased cake tins. Sprinkle the almond slices on top. Place the tins or moulds in the oven to rise overnight, uncovered, so that a little film forms on the top.

Stage 5, day 4.
The dough should have risen past the top of the moulds or tins, creating the characteristic dome shape.

Cut a cross into the top of each panettone and place 10 grams of butter in the middle of each cross. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Cook the two panettoni separately, as follows: 200 degrees for 15 minutes, 190 degrees for 15 minutes, 180 degrees for 20 minutes. Place a bowl of water in the oven to keep the cake moist.

Voilà. This is the panettoni I made last year, without almonds (I was young and foolish back then).

Let them cool for an hour or so, then place them in a food bag with a twist top, to let the fragrance spread around. Give one to friends, eat the other. These are the ones I made this year in tins because I couldn’t find paper moulds.

They look all right. I’m a happy chap.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Another year of Wellington

The temporary city of Wellington is still here. The Town Hall remains empty and a few more buildings were demolished after the big scare of Kaikoura. We walk past yellow notices that warn us in small type about the critical weaknesses of our infrastructure. But owners still have another decade to bring their buildings up to code, during which time local government regulations require that there be no Big Earthquake.

I started using Instagram this year, and have enjoyed plugging into a stream of pictures in place of the usual streams of words.

Pictures are texts, too, and like every other text their meaning changes over time. When it comes to domestic, family photographs, I find that with the passing of the years I look not just at the people, but at the surrounding details – books, posters, pieces of furniture – that were an invisible part of the everyday background, but have become interesting again after a long absence. I expect this is quite a common reaction. I think it’s the same with cities, and that urban photographs appreciate over time in the same way. This is true of places that change very little, but could become suddenly truer of Wellington. What we are doing, then, is building a catalogue of the everyday that is also a collection of historical documents in the making: a remembrance of things not yet past. Like this Lyall Bay dairy.

Or one of those cottages that give the city its visual signature, so long as they survive in sufficient numbers.

It was certainly strange, in this city of earthquakes were unsecured lintels could spell death, to spot these two characters perched atop a building in upper Cuba Street last summer. Soon after I took these pictures, they were gone.

This is also the year I became fascinated with the problem of how to photograph facades from street level, but without the vanishing lines of perspective (which don’t work very well with the square, standard aspect of Instagram). It requires tricking your camera into thinking it’s scanning a document. These two photos of The Vic in Cuba Street are both taken from the same angle, on the pavement.

As is this photo of the former Bank of New Zealand building, now Logan Brown, also on Cuba.

Or these high windows in Lambton Quay.

Did you know? You get a better view of the lions at Wellington Zoo by walking down Manchester Street and peering through the pine trees, for they love to sit on an aluminium roof that is invisible to paying visitors.

This photo looks like it’s heavily filtered but it’s not. It’s just one of the bolts that hold our hills together.

A few more random images. Maranui seen from Hornsey Road.

Along Mornington Road by night.

This sheep on Matiu/Sommes Island.

The sky over the harbour.

Above Celie's, on Adelaide Road.

Gospel Hall, Newtown.

Katipo House.

The Zephyrometer, restored to its pre-lightning strike glory.

Offset Plates, Jessie Street.

And finally, the jolly butcher of Island Bay wishing you all a merry Chrsistmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Three days, 567 questions

The last time I had my testicles professionally counted was in the Winter of 1989, along with every eighteen-year-old male with whom I shared a birthday in the greater Milan area. Together, we had been summoned to appear at the army recruitment precinct in via Mascheroni.

No, wait, that’s not it. That’s my old primary school. This is it.

They lined us up in the poorly heated corridors, with nothing but our underpants on, and one by one we underwent the scrotal inspection. There were hundreds of us, all chosen exclusively by birth date. They gave us spirometry tests and chest x-rays and a comprehensive hearing test that went like this: “Can you hear?” “Yes.” They counted our testicles and checked for the absence of varicocele. They vaccinated us against typhoid and meningitis. But most of all, they made us wait.

The examinations lasted three whole days, which involved sleeping in the barracks for those who came from out of town. Those with advance knowledge of what awaited us came armed with a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s legendary pink-coloured sports newspaper, which could be traded for various forms of preferential treatment (most typically: skipping a queue). Or with cigarettes, which could also be traded. But they, too, spent most of their time waiting for the next event. We waited standing or we waited sitting down. Always, we waited where they asked us to wait, clothed or half-naked, because even the most naïve among us knew better than to question the orders.

The army examination at eighteen was known as ‘the three days’, as in ‘Mario has done (or is yet to do) the three days’. Its ostensible purpose was to determine whether or not young men were physically fit for conscription, and was therefore compulsory for all males of age who didn’t meet a handful of exclusion criteria (such as having two older brothers who had already completed the service). Not turning up for the three days was a crime punishable with up to two years in military prison, a sentence served most commonly by Jehovah’s Witnesses and by those who practiced the so-called ‘total objection’ for political reasons. I think my paternal grandfather was one of them. As I wrote before, I eventually took the civil option, which was a far less hard-core form of conscientious objection won by previous generations of pacifists. As such, I had to still go through the three days, which was like a mini-version of the year we were all supposed to spend in the army.

Image by Gin Angri

Never before or since have I had an opportunity to meet such a comprehensive cross-section of my fellow male Italians, without the class biases that attending such institutions as your local school entail. But it was a sample distorted by the context in which we came together. Within the walls of that military precinct, we weren’t citizens: we were future recruits, that is to say people that even privates had the power to order around. The whole experience was a prolonged, slow-motion hazing, punctuated by ritualistic examinations of dubious medical value such as the aforementioned ball census. Along with the enforced nudity and poking, we were subjected to army humour, whose peculiar joylessness lay in repetition. How many times had the attendant standing next to the queue for the urinals yelled the line: “Remember, after two shakes it qualifies as a wank”?

Above all, however, we caught a glimpse of the immense, almost incomprehensible waste of time that the real, eventual service would entail. Like queueing in your underwear, but for a whole year. I’m sure many of us made the decision to become conscientious objectors there and then. I was foolish enough to say it out loud, and for that they sent me to see the psychiatrist.

But first came the famous and fabled questionnaire. This was an interminable psychometric test that most of us had heard whispers about. For some reason, we had been warned that it would contain questions about flowers and being a florist, and that we should answer them carefully, unless we wanted to be sent to see the psychiatrist. It was only last week that I tried to find it online, doubting very much that I would, and lo and behold, it is there. All 567 questions of it. Questions ¬in the form of statements such as ‘I think I would like to work as a librarian’ (#4) or ‘My hands and feet are usually quite warm’ (#8) or ‘Sometimes I am possessed by evil spirits’ (#24). And, just as they had warned us, ‘I like to pick flowers or grow plants at home’ (#119) and ‘I’d like to be a florist (#74), which were supposed to trick you if you answered them inconsistently.

Image by Gin Angri

As it turns out (again, I only just discovered this), the test was modelled on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychometric test designed in 1939 by psychologists at the University of Minnesota to assess personality traits and detect signs of mental illness. The test was recalibrated in 1989, the year I sat it, but I doubt the army ever updated the old test, nor do I have any great faith that they employed it for what might have been a reasonable purpose: namely, to identify psychological vulnerabilities in those for whom the service risked becoming a death sentence – as suicides among conscripts in those years numbered on average over 400 a year. Instead, they sent us to the psychiatrist for what appeared to be random, arbitrary reasons, according to a logic that mirrored the social topsy-turviness of life in the military: a life that stripped you of the qualities that education sought to develop, in order to elevate violent dullards to position of prestige and authority.

Italy no longer has a compulsory draft, and the recruitment precinct where I spent those three days is being converted into a new campus of our famous academy of fine arts, Brera. It’s a happy, hopeful ending for a place that use to be synonymous for generations of young men to experiences ranging from inconvenience to mild torture.

As for me, I must admit that sometimes I worry excessively about things that are not really important (#442).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

My fucking food bag: Torta sbrisolona

Brisa in the Mantuan dialect means crumb, a derivation from the Latin brisiare – to break into crumbs – also found in the French verb briser. However, sbrisolona means something rather more colourful than the English culinary term ‘crumble’. At once descriptive and affectionate, it’s closer to ‘big ol’ crumbly’, if I had to attempt a translation.

Big ol’ crumbly was a regular part of my diet when I visited my grandparents, who lived in the south-eastern corner of that province. Cuisine in this part of Italy is ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, meaning that historically farm labourers and the aristocracy ate largely off the same menu, although of course the latter got to pick more than one course per meal and never went without. Still, it’s true to say the most well-known Mantuan dishes originate from the ingenuity of its peasants. This is certainly the case with the sbrisolona, whose earliest documented traces date back to the 16th century and refer to a cake whose main ingredients were nothing if not humble: dripping, cornmeal and nuts.

Upon reaching the table of the family that ruled over the dukedom, the Gonzagas, the original recipe was upgraded by replacing the dripping with butter and the nuts with the noble almond, as well as by adding that most wonderful of new-world spices, vanilla. These ingredients survive today in varying proportions, leading to more rustic or more genteel versions of the sbrisolona. At the rustic end, you’re required to break the cake by hitting it in the middle with your fist. At the genteel end, you can cut it in slices using a knife. If you can imagine such a thing.

The recipe below sits somewhere in the vicinity of the ‘punch this cake’ end of the spectrum. It has as much dripping as butter, and as much cornmeal as flour. Both are necessary in order to produce the ‘true’ sbrisolona, rather than a generic and anonymous crumble. And that is often the thing about the peasants’ table: it’s just much more interesting.

The sbrisolona is a cake for all seasons and latitudes. Light, it is not, but on the other hand – being essentially a piece of edible masonry – it also keeps for a very long time.

Having generously greased a cake dish of a diameter of let’s say 30 cms or thereabouts, we proceed to assemble our ingredients.

200 g cornmeal (the fine kind, Healtheries makes the most common kind in New Zealand)
200 g flour
200 g sugar

(The sbrisolona was also known as the “cake of the three cups” because it required a cupful each of the three main ingredients above. Go with the same quantities, anyway.)

150 g beef dripping (the hard, not the liquid kind – also known confusingly in North America as lard, even though they aren’t the same thing. Crazy Yanks.)
150 g butter
200 g almonds, coarsely ground
2 egg yolks
Pinch of salt, teaspoon of vanilla essence, zest of 1 lemon

While melting the dripping in a saucepan and softening the butter, mix the two flours, sugar, salt, almonds, lemon, vanilla in a bowl. Make a well in the middle and add dripping, butter, yolks, comme ça:

Mix with your hands, messily. You won't get a dough but rather a crumbly series of lumps. You'll think you've done it all wrong.

Turn on your oven to 180°C. Transfer the mixture into your cake dish, without pressing it down too much.

Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden and the edge looks slightly burnt. Let it cool.

If you find that it's too hard to cut it in slices, congratulations: you have made the perfect sbrisolona. However: if you used a dish like the one pictured as opposed to a sponge cake-type tin with a removable bottom, you’re unlikely to be able to lift out the cake. Therefore, don’t punch it in the middle or you’ll just hurt yourself. Use some sort of sharp tool instead to make a crack in the surface. The cake should break into shards, like so.

The shards are not unlike what some outside of Italy call biscotti (which for us is just the word for biscuits) and that in Italy we call cantucci or cantuccini. These are also almond-based and are consumed traditionally by dipping them into vin santo – literally ‘holy wine’ but really a Tuscan style of dessert wine similar to Malvasia. Therefore, it won’t surprise you to know that you can also dip fragments of sbrisolona in a dessert wine or even, I’m told, grappa. But I just take them neat.

Enjoy. Merry Christmas.

On a decidedly less jolly note, I wrote a piece this week for Overland on polite Nazis and the violence of speech, following an appalling episode that occurred last week.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Inferno XV: Contains sexual politics

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

A strange canto in which the sin is never mentioned, and the penance – the contrappasso – is barely described. The very geography of this corner of Hell is understated. There is a sort of dam, or artificial bank, explains the poet. But it’s smaller than the ones they build in the Netherlands to keep the sea out, or near Padua to contain the rivers when the snow melts in the spring.

The bank built alongside the Phlegethon delimits the burning strip of sand on the other side, and acts like a walkaway for Dante and Virgil. One thing modern readers are liable to forget is that while Hell is built underground, it’s not a cave, it’s more like an open mine: therefore, the two poets always walk in full view of the sky, where the Sun is now rising.

Dante’s journey began only yesterday, less than twenty-four hours ago. He has now reached the bottom rung of the fifth circle, where the ‘violent against God’ reside, meaning not just blasphemers but those who sinned against God’s creation, that is to say nature. According to the prevailing theological theory, these are worse than those who inflict violence upon themselves (suicides, gamblers), who in turn are worse than those who inflict violence on others (murderers, tyrants). It’s a topsy-turvy moral world, from the point of view of secular modernity, but Dante himself might have harboured his own doubts about this hierarchy, at least judging from the relative punishments and – more to the point –the varying degrees of his own personal sympathy towards the souls he encounters.

As to the first point, you could argue that being submerged for all eternity in a pool of boiling blood (as is the case of tyrants, in the first rung of the circle) is worse than running, sitting or lying in a desert of burning sand, which is the penance in the lowest rung. As for the second, Dante’s compassion for the suicides contrasts with the indifference he showed for the ‘less guilty’ murderers.

Divine law cannot be neatly overlaid on the emotion-inflected law of humans. Not even for this staunch ambassador of the belief system of medieval Christians.

Who are the ‘violent against God’, anyway? They are – in ascending order of guilt – sodomites, usurers and blasphemers. The first are condemned to run across the desert. The second, to sit on the burning sand. The third, to lie on it, which causes maximum pain with no measure or relief.

That we are among the sodomites in this canto we can only tell by the fact that they are running. The sin is neither explicitly mentioned nor reflected upon, which makes it difficult to establish how Dante might have felt about it.

Hartmann Schedel's depiction of Lot's family leaving Sodom, minus his wife (1493)

Scholars of the poem report that the practice was very common in Florence, proverbially so – the German for sodomite at this time was ‘Florenz’. It should also be remembered that until relatively recent times, sodomy was also not primarily associated with male homosexuality, and was a very common contraceptive method. If the crime that caused the downfall of Sodom in the Bible was the citizens’ demand that Lot release his guest to them, so they may rape them, here it is merely sex for purposes other than procreation. As such, it’s hardly surprising that Dante should fail to express any great outrage. But the canto goes a step further by focusing on a very sympathetic figure for whom the poet shows great affection and even admiration.

Francesco Scaramuzza, Brunetto Latini and the Sodomites (1859)

"Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?" The straightforward translation – ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ – doesn’t tell us where we should place the emphasis. Is it ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ or are ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’ In other words, is Dante surprised to see ser Brunetto at all, or to see him in this particular place? There seems to be no doubt that the words are spoken with tenderness, especially since Dante goes on to offer Brunetto to rest with him a while, so that he may stop running while they talk. Brunetto replies that if he were to rest even for a moment he would be condemned to the penance of the usurers – that is to say, to lie down – for a period of one hundred years. And so they walk. Dante above, on the stone bank, but crouching so that he may hear and be heard. Brunetto below, literally looking up to the person who used to look up to him metaphorically.

Notary public, prominent politician and author of a famous rhetorical compendium, Brunetto Latini was born 45 years earlier than Dante, and died when the poet was in his late twenties. The only evidence that they knew each other is to be found in the Commedia. Dante writes:

’n la mente m’è fitta, e or m’accora,
la cara e buona imagine paterna
di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna

Paraphrasing: ‘your dear, paternal image is fixed in my mind, and fills my heart with fondness, of when in the world hour after hour you taught me how man becomes eternal’ (meaning: how a person can achieve immortality through their writings).

There is no evidence that the relationship between the two was anything other than platonic. However, seeing as the group in which Dante recognised Brunetto is made up of clerics and fellow men of letters, it seems reasonable to speculate that Brunetto adhered to the practice, common among men in such positions, of taking young male lovers among their proteges or students. Yet evidently this hasn’t moved Dante to despise him, or feel any revulsion for those whose sin – in Brunetto’s words – ‘sullies them in the eyes of the world’ (fur… al mondo lerci).

By now, the reader has had many occasions to measure the distance between the private morality of Dante ¬and the eternal judgment of his God, which sometimes appear in open contradiction. Yet it was Dante-the-poet who invented the torment of Brunetto Latini, which is found in no scripture; it was him that chose to make his old teacher immortal (come l’uom s’etterna…) because of his sexual preferences, and to show him naked and disfigured, begging for the attention of the old pupil. Therein lies the limit of his compassion.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the books I kept

You shall know me by the books I kept.

I realise that it is a romantic and questionable notion, applying only to some people and in limited ways. But I live by the example of my parents, for whom books and reading were tools of emancipation. For my mother, who responded so well to the first books she encountered as a child that she was allowed to attend high school. Later, after the war, this enabled her to go to university in a big city, instead of staying and becoming a teacher in her rural community, as her parents had planned. And for my father, who had to leave school at fourteen to work full time in his family’s upholstery workshop, but who made up for his lack of formal education by reading widely and voraciously, including in the subjects of my mother’s long and laborious tertiary studies.

For a time, in fact, it was my father who did all the reading. My mother’s eyesight became quite poor as she embarked upon her final exams and her dissertation, just before I was born. Therefore he read the necessary textbooks to her, teaching himself a great deal in the process about Greek and medieval philosophy, as well as Roman history and the Latin language.

I grew up in a house full of books. They weren’t just any books – are they ever? – but rather a specific collection that mapped the history of my parents’ intellectual development and their relationship. I only became aware of this much later.

Growing up in that small apartment crammed with bookshelves, I developed the habit of reading anything that came to hand. For me, it was a perfectly natural thing to do, to read a Russian or French novel in translation simply because it was within reach, or had an attractive cover, even if it spoke of things I couldn’t really understand, or was full of names I couldn’t sound out.

Frequently a visitor would quip that we sure had a lot of books. Still, I  assumed everyone lived in a library like we did, even when we visited other houses and I saw that they didn’t.

Over time I built my own, considerably smaller library, which I largely dismantled before moving from Italy to New Zealand. But I didn’t pine too much for the loss, as I knew I would have time to build another. Gradually, however, I became aware of the problems my parents’ library would pose. After Dad died and Mum moved into a rest home back in the old village, things came to a head. How many books would she be allowed to take? The people at the home promised a couple of shelves in a communal area, and limited space in her room. This wasn’t an issue they had ever come across before – not in the place she had left seven decades earlier in no small part because it didn’t value education or cultivate curiosity for things beyond local knowledge.

After some negotiation, we settled on fifty books.

Fifty books. So few. I went up and down ladders, read out the titles to her. Almost every single one brought up a memory, some of them involving my father, or my sister, or an old friendship, or an exam. That library was, if not quite the story, at least a story of her life. We spent hours on this job on successive nights, neglecting others that might have seemed far more urgent in the short time allowed for packing up the apartment during my overseas visit.

The first selection was heartbreaking. Mum could barely let go of one book in ten out of the thousands she owned. But I understood that it was part of the process, a gradual coming to terms. We revised the list, once and then twice. Settled on what needed to go in that almost fateful box.

They are my books now. Mine and my sister’s. There was nothing we could do with the bulk of the library, no-one we could even donate it to; there is no longer a market in Italy for second-hand books that aren’t rare or antique. They are objects of no cultural or monetary worth. Most of them had to be destroyed.But I treasure the few I possess, as relics both of my early education and of the values and ideas that my parents shared and endeavoured to transmit to us.


You shall know me by the books I kept.

I know it is a false statement; there is so much it leaves unsaid and unquestioned. But while books are still material objects, as opposed to sequences of digital code, and while they occupy space in our homes and encumber our lives, I know it also contains a grain of truth. That we are in conversation with our books. That they help to define who we are, like other aspects of our taste and our style. Or like the people we love.

This was my column for this year’s Winter issue of Overland, which is having its subscription drive this week with daily prizes. Subscribe to Overland. Don’t do it to support a worthy publication and good writing, do it because it’s a great thing to get in the mail four times a year.

Also, in the latest issue I have a long piece on the invention of dynamite and the prehistory of the war on terror and it’s now online.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Inside the Personal Computer

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, its memory banks and I/O devices rising like buildings over the avenues of soldered circuits. But then so do modern cities resembles motherboards, especially at night, when the cars sparkle like point-to-point signal carriers travelling along the grid. It is a well-worn visual metaphor in films and advertising, suggesting that the nerve centres of business and finance have come to resemble the information infrastructure that sustains them. Besides, isn’t the city at the sharp edge of the late capitalist era above all a generator of symbols?

And yet this technology with which we are so intimate, and that more than any other since the invention of writing has extended us, remains mostly opaque to us. Why would anyone bother to learn what digital machines look like on the inside? What difference would it make, when the uses we make of them are so incommensurate with this trivial knowledge?

I like pop-up books, and early pop-up books about the inner workings of computers have become obsolete in an interesting way. They are the last thing we would think to use to demonstrate such knowledge nowadays. They are so prone to jamming or coming apart. They have none of the grace and smoothness that our devices aspire to.

The centre piece of Sharon Gallagher’s Inside the Personal Computer – An illustrated Introduction in 3 Dimensions (1984) is the machine itself, complete with keyboard and floppy disk drive.

If you push the disk inside its unit and lower the flap, a Roman blind-like mechanism changes the message on the screen from INSERT DISK AND CLOSE DOWN to HELLO: THIS BOOK EXPLAINS WHAT I AM AND HOW I WORK. BY THE END YOU’LL KNOW ME INSIDE OUT.

It’s a neat trick. But the book is at its best when it gets into the basics of how transistors work, or uses wheels to explain how to translate a number into binary code, or a typed character first into ASCII, then into its binary equivalent.

Or simply what happens when you type “M”.

There is the mechanical action that alienates us from the digital word. Writing technologized language but still allowed us to write in our own hand, whereas there is simply no way of typing gracefully. Any M is like any other M, and even if we choose a fancy font the translation from the essential M (ASCII code 77) to the fancy M happens inside the computer and in code. This is not a ‘bad thing’. It’s just the state of the tools of our culture, which require a different kind of practice.

The other thing that this book makes clear is that the personal computer hasn’t changed very much at all since 1984. Its component parts are largely unchanged: a motherboard, a central processing unit, RAM and ROM, I/O ports. Floppy disks have become USB sticks, while hard drives – which boasted at the time ‘between 5 and 50 megabytes of information – the equivalent of between 3,000 and 30,000 typewritten pages' – have fewer moving parts. But their function is the same as in the early models. Ditto the monitors, which have become flatter, and in colour. Even the mouse already existed, although back then its name still commanded inverted commas. Today’s computers, then, are a great deal more powerful, but otherwise fairly similar to what they were like three and a half decades ago. What makes them unrecognisable is that they’re all connected. And for that – for the internet – it makes even less sense to ‘take a look inside’. Inside what? Does the internet reside in the telephone exchange, or at the headquarters of ICANN, or where else?

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, but it’s an alien city. None of its buildings have doors or windows. The roads are made not of stone or asphalt but of plastic and metal.

The pictures above, by the way, show the guts of mine, which I recently upgraded. It’s what I used to write this blog and everything else from 2010 to June of this year, but I feel no attachment to it – it would be silly to.

There are guides on the web to help you mine your old computer for gold using household chemicals. They come with bold type warnings about how toxic the process is. But in fact computers are both hazardous to manufacture and to dismantle. Waste materials from all the PCs and assorted electronic devices discarded since 1984 have created massively polluted districts and cities in the global south. Places like the Agbogbloshie district of Accra, Ghana, and countless others. Vast dumping sites that are mined for scraps of precious metals as much as for the personal information left onto the hard drives, while leeching chemicals into the local water supply.

This would be a more meaningful inside in which to peer if we want to understand how computers work, and their effect on the world’s societies. One effect of globalisation has been to displace human labour. Not eliminate it, far from it, but rather create the illusion in the most advanced nations that manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and meaningful work consists in either farming the land or providing services. Automation has claimed many of those jobs, of course, but other have simply shifted away from the centres where most of the consumption takes place. This is another way in which the computer has become a mysterious machine: because no-one you know makes them.

Inside the Personal Computer was written 33 years ago in an effort to demystify an object that would soon become a feature in every household, and change everyone’s life. On the last page, it is no longer the book that ‘speaks’ to the reader, like in the first pop up, but the computer itself. Its message is perfectly friendly but in hindsight more than a little eerie.