Friday, December 14, 2018

That time Louise Mensch claimed I’m a Russian spy


(This being by far the craziest thing that has happened to me all year. Possibly all decade. As originally reported at Overland.)

It started quite innocently, as these social media collisions always do. A friend and I were discussing on Twitter Ed Whelan’s bizarre conspiracy theory in defence of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, remarking – as many people have – that it was reminiscent of Eric Garland’s infamous 120-tweet long ‘game theory’ thread of late 2016. A random Twitter user (you must always watch out for those) chimed in that not just Garland but also former Tory MP Louise Mensch had been vindicated by recent developments in the Russia investigation.

I responded that someone who has claimed that Bernie Sanders is a Russian asset and that Vladimir Putin is orchestrating both the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter will never quite be ‘vindicated’. This must have triggered Mensch’s activation code.

However, instead of engaging with the thread, Mensch searched my Twitter history for a few key words. Then, over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, she produced a febrile series of tweets in an apparent effort to ‘flag me up’ as a Russian spy.

This reaction initially confused me because she was not making her claim to her large Twitter following (roughly 279k). She was, rather, replying directly to various old tweets of mine that she regarded as incriminating. It was a more intimate accusation of wrongdoing than I might have expected – almost a whisper campaign for my ears only, and those of various authorities.

It’s worth reproducing some of the tweets. The first one was addressed to me and one Brent Allpress.


This is the detail of some of the tweets that ‘expose me’. It seems that using the word ‘Russian’ is incriminating.


Having been to Russia is also evidence.


Now I must be very careful not to go down the track of refuting any of Mensch’s ostensible pieces of evidence lest it creates the perception that there is a case to be answered. However, just for the sake of historical accuracy, it wasn’t in Moscow that I saw an exhibition of Marc Chagall’s drawings for the Jewish Theatre. I saw it at the Fondazione Mazzotta in Milan. It’s the Jewish Theatre that is in Moscow. (Incidentally, the same exhibition is touring Italy again – it’s in Mantua now until 13 January 2019. Go see it if you’re in that part of the world.)

Making a joke about spies also means you’re a spy. This time, Mensch helpfully refers me to the British intelligence service and the NSA.



This one calls me a traitor for having penned an Overland article about Luke Harding. Traitor to whom, is not terribly clear. GCHQ is copied in again.


Responding to a conversation from 2012, like any normal person would, Mensch makes the first use of the hashtag #fvey – meaning the Five Eyes intelligence gathering network of which New Zealand is part. (Though apparently in Australia they call it ‘Five Eyes and a Wink’ in reference to the fact that the New Zealand eye is not completely open.)


This one – in which Mensch tries to link wonderful former New Zealand Green MP Catherine Delahunty to US presidential candidate Jill Stein for reasons best known to her – is quite intriguing: how did she find it? What was the search term?


The last tweet in this first furious salvo (which I have reproduced only in part) clarifies Mensch’s apparent intent: to flag me with the New Zealand intelligence services. She might have even thought that her job was done.


Note the distinctly McCarthyist flavour of the exchange. None of the tweets that Mensch found is evidence of anything other than knowledge that Russia exists. Together, in her mind but possibly also in the social context in which she operates, they may constitute ground for suspicion of a kind. Writing about Mensch for Vox, Zack Beauchamp has described her as belonging to the ‘Russiasphere’, an informal media network that operates mainly through Twitter for the purpose of advancing not a unified conspiracy theory but rather ‘the general sense that Russian influence in the United States is pervasive and undercovered by the mainstream media’.

The target audiences of these efforts by Mensch, Garland and others are US liberals. Clumsily deployed among the New Zealand Twitter public, the same methods attracted mockery and nothing but mockery from across the political spectrum. In response, Mensch sent out a few more tweets over the weekend, of which only a couple deserve mention. This one, which contained the closest thing to a specific accusation:


And this one:


Evidently frustrated with not being able to find a Twitter address for the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau, Mensch settled for alerting the Minister of Justice in charge of it. And because Mr Little is a minister, there will be someone in government who has to file the request along with the tweets from the dozens of users that made fun of it, adding to the general absurdity of the exercise.

(If you’re wondering who one of the three people who liked that last tweet is, it’s Louise Mensch.)

This story is 95% ridiculous, but it’s also 5% serious. ‘Reporting’ people to the intelligence services for pointing out on Twitter that you said some stupid things in the past is not a normal thing to do, although it has become normalcy adjacent. The pervasiveness of conspiracism in the global political discourse, combined with the attrition-free nature of social media (leading to what I called in the past the unbearable closeness of others), is a breeding ground for a new culture of suspicion from which no country or community is quite immune. Where Mensch erred is by not knowing in what language to frame her claims in a New Zealand context. Were I more socially isolated, or in possession of less cultural capital, I might be vulnerable even to a clumsily worded attack such as this. If I lived elsewhere, it might have actual repercussions on my freedom or employment.

It’s not altogether a laughing matter. But for the most part it is, and if we can’t have a bit of fun while the world goes down in flames, then what can we do?



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On the passing of internet time



Some years ago, New Zealand poet and scholar Michele Leggott was able to date a series of poems by Robin Hyde after noticing that one of the pages of the manuscript bore faint traces of another piece of writing. It was a fragment of a short story that Leggott knew well, and whose date of composition had already been established. What must have happened – she realised – is that Hyde used the page as a backing sheet when working on the story, before rolling it into her machine again to type out the poems. Under ultraviolet light, the slight indentations left on the backing sheet became visible alongside the new words typed in ink.

I often think of this story in relation to the status of digital documents. Objects tell us a great many things, but electronic files aren’t ‘objects’. Had computers existed when Hyde was alive, her work might have been saved on a hard drive instead of being printed on paper. But hard drives don’t last very long. The data they contain gets copied and distributed. File dates change in the process. The digital chain of production leaves no evidence concerning the age of a document, not like the kind found by Leggott: no external, independent physical clues to corroborate the claim to truth of the metadata.

This observation applies by extension to the internet, which is nothing but a very large collection of digital documents. Researchers are very familiar with this set of problems. You enter a string of text into Google. The search engine returns a list of results in order of relevance. Attempts to restrict the search by date are almost always futile. Most often, the actual date of publication of each document has to be assessed individually. Many of them aren’t dated at all. When they are, there is often no clear indication of when they were last modified, and in what ways.

It’s not just researchers or archivists who are affected by this uncertainty: the entire experience of the internet is marked by temporal disorientation, a fact so ordinary that it requires extraordinary events to make it noticeable. Take maps, one of the most common reasons to go online. Maps tell us with a great degree of precision where we are, but seldom when we are. For several months after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, as Google rolled out periodical updates to its street-level photos of the city, a user moving through virtual Christchurch would stand on a pre-quake corner one moment, then step into the rubble the next. Another step would take them back in time, and so forth, without apparent logic other than the inscrutable schedule for database maintenance at the Googleplex, Silicon Valley. This patchwork of different time points is common to all of Google’s photographic maps, but it only becomes evident after a disaster or major construction project.

I used to think that internet time was flat, and that the internet was an engine for stripping texts of their temporal context. I can see now that internet time is infinitely looped, labyrinthine.

There is the permanent ‘now’ of the social media exchange, undercut by myriad acts of repetition, deletion and revision. But even there, even on what goes by the absurd name of ‘my Twitter timeline’, there is a user who sends day-by-day dispatches from the Second World War and another who types out the diaries of a long-dead writer.

Then there is the great ocean of texts that we navigate spatially, in search of words, and where time has little or no meaning. But time is meaning. Just like dating those poems by Hyde enabled scholars to form a better understanding of her work, so too being able to place all kinds of information in time is a key to assessing its usefulness and truth-value.

There have been attempts to archive the internet, driven by awareness that the mass of documents produced in the early years of this new medium are of immense socio-cultural and historical value, and it’s therefore imperative that they be properly preserved and curated. The most well-known institutional effort is the Internet Archive, a non-profit organisation that began taking regular ‘snapshots’ of the web in 1996, which users can access through its Wayback Machine. However, this is nothing like the actual web, but rather a random collection of pages taken at random moments in time. It’s virtually unsearchable, due to the fact that one needs to know the address of the page to be recalled in the first place, and it’s very difficult to navigate from any of the pages because most of the links are dead.

The most immediate effect of attempting to restore a temporal dimension to the internet, then, is to break the internet. And if it’s true that time is meaning, as I’m suggesting here, this loss is going to get compounded as more and more documents are born digital and published directly and solely on the network, without leaving physical traces for us to interrogate.

If the current juncture teaches us anything, it’s that the reliability of our systems of knowledge production is in crisis. Perhaps the way out of this crisis is to find new ways of telling time.


Originally published at Overland.

Monday, September 3, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 3: Narrative and purpose



I’m due to write a more formal review of the literary content of WORD this month, so these quick notes focus in more scattered fashion on the festival as a cultural event.

I think about 50% of the reason I love WORD so much is that it’s set in Christchurch. I’ve only known the city after the earthquakes, mostly through WORD and being associated with Freerange Press – the first time as unlikely contributor to a wonderful book about the rebuild. From my first visit to the arts festival of 2011 (as opposed to the writers’ event) I’ve listened in on debates on the state of the city and witnessed attempts to grapple with what the editors at Freerange called ‘the transitional city’. It was there that I first learned of CityView AR, an app that enabled users to point the phone at a post-quake scene and see what it looked like before. It was there that I also learned that Google Street View created this effect by accident, causing users to step in and out of time as they walked down virtual roads. One moment you’d be looking at rubble. The next you’d see the reflection of the many-eyed Google van in the windows of a shop that was no longer there.

Nowadays the website of CityView AR laconically informs the user that ‘the app is no longer available’. It’s not for me to say if that is a good thing or not, but over the years I’ve been introduced to far more nuanced, less literal projects: all of them striving, often through art, to make a broader sense of the transition than a mere (and possibly re-traumatising) collection of animated snapshots of what has been lost.

Fresh from a session on Diana Wichtel’s Driving to Treblinka, which grappled not just with trauma but also with the immense and ever-unfolding complications of the past, I caught my last event for this year – a tour of central Ōtautahi Christchurch led by Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāti Hinematua).

Hullen and his fellow members of the Matapopore Trust have been working with CERA and the local council to influence the rebuild and make the urban environment reflect the history of its first inhabitants. This work is manifold, and includes the donation of names with historical and cultural resonance such as the central library’s (Tūranga – a reference to the home of Paikea, the ancestor of Ngāi Tahu), and the commissioning of artworks that speak to the history of the iwi and of its relationship with the Crown (look out for the unveiling of ‘Mana Motuhake’ in Victoria Square).

Just as importantly, the Trust champions environmental standards that have been adopted by Ngāi Tahu on its own properties and include the on-site treatment of storm water, of particular importance due to the hydrogeology of Ōtautahi and for the preservation of its food supply. This integration of narrative and purpose (in Hullen’s words) struck me as the natural extension of the work of Kā Huru Manu, or the Ngāi Tahu Atlas, which I saw presented on day one, and ended my visit to this year’s WORD festival on the theme with which it began. That is to say, perfectly.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 2: Get John Campbell to introduce every literary gala


Reason: he will spend weeks becoming intimately familiar with the work of the writers and come up with a long-form essay introduction that ties all their works together then bugger off back stage and let them do their thing.


The gala event is a literary festival at its worst and best. At its worst, it strings writers together for no better reason than their commercial appeal, their ability to draw an audience. At its best, it makes their work resonate even if it's not designed to or supposed to. Or maybe the skill of the festival director is to produce such accidental encounters on purpose. Which brings me to my second point.

Get Rachael King to direct every literary festival.

Reason: this year's programme is scintillating. Every session I've been to has grappled with some difficult or urgent topic. Even ones that you shouldn't be able to debate successfully over the course of one hour like, say, the politics of fiction. Some sessions, such as the one on the body – which included eight writers over the course of ninety minutes with four chairs to sit on between them – seemed ludicrously ambitious, almost an attempt of the life of the moderator, but worked as coherently as the much more traditional format of the lecture delivered by Barbara Else. In fact, Else's call for 'better fictions, more enabling fictions, fictions not an expense of others' encapsulates the success of this edition so far. Its theme, it seems to me, is one of solidarity, and every session has demanded of the writers that they work together or they would fall apart.

Some things I learned on my second day at WORD 2018:

Everyone should get to see and hear Sonya Renee Taylor perform 'The Body is Not an Apology' in full voice in a packed theatre at least once in their lifetime.

'The Tweed' by Robin Robertson is an excellent poem about giving a back rub to Hugh MacDiarmid and 'Megatron' by Hollie McNish is an excellent poem about having given birth to a child.

McNish and Emily Writes on Motherood were so funny they made their session chair cry. They performed in front of an audience stacked with babies who were exceptionally well-behaved.

I want to hear a lot more from comedian and poet Ray Shipley, who besides coordinating the Faultline Poetry Collective 'crochets for cash and makes a very good cup of tea'.

Rajorshi Chakraborti read a wonderful passage from his novel The Man Who Would Not See about omniscience being the defining characteristic of the divine. I could get behind the idea of God as witness and record you can turn to not just for comfort but also for corroboration that some things that only you know about really happened.

Finally, at the Art Gallery I was introduced by my friend Lara Strongman to many wonderful works but none more so than the Portrait of a Landgirl by Juliet Peter (1944), which I photographed badly.


Friday, August 31, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 1: cultural mapping


My first day at the Christchurch WORD Festival this year has been about pathways and dirt tracks and maps. It began when Sacha McMeeking, at an event on the 125 years of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa, suggested the need to carve new paths as a metaphor for the creation of new social habits (which is also a metaphor). Human rights, she claimed, don’t change the world: they can help you formulate an ethical demand but are not enough to achieve economic justice or maintain social change. The image of the path carved into the dirt by the repeated passage of people reminded me of the wonderful metaphor employed by Walter Ong when he described oral literacy as producing ‘mnemonically tooled grooves’ for the transmission of knowledge. I think this is the kind of habit-forming collective work that McMeeking was advocating for.

I don’t know if it’s the setting that creates a theme or simply highlights its salience but obviously you cannot help thinking of the ground when you’re in Christchurch. It’s like a background imagery one takes into every session and maybe that’s why all of the ones I have attended so far seemed to be about whenua, about groundedness. Did I hear Selina Tusitala Marsh describe the rubber foot of her poet laureate’s tokotoko as helping her to remain ‘heeled in’? I’ll have to verify that detail. In fact I wish I could sit here in my hotel room and replay her entire session with Tusiata Avia, which was commendably free to the public and probably the best I’ve seen at any festival. Gem Wilder has written an almost-live review of it on the booksellers’ website but there’s so much more all of us who were there could say. I’ll just note that there is a very particular kind of generosity that the best of our writers can display towards one another – it, too, is culturally inflected, mnemonically tooled – and that it was a joy to be in the presence of such an abundance of it.

Photo by Kirsten McDougall

Looking at the world differently means looking at a different world. This is my loose interpretation of something Dame Anne Salmond said in response to a question at the end of her session. If that is true, when we map a territory not just the tools we choose but also the names we use effectively describe not the same place differently but a different place altogether.

At another of today’s events that were free to the public, Takerei Norton, Helen Brown and David Higgins introduced the extraordinary Kā Huru Manu, a world-leading cultural mapping project aimed at producing an atlas of the place names, Māori reserves and travel routes of Ngāi Tahu.

Anyone who had the opportunity to hear Ta Tipene O’Regan talk about geography and storytelling at previous editions of the festival will immediately understand what this project is about and why it matters. The largest portion of their presentation focused on the names, which didn’t have to be merely recorded but often painstakingly uncovered or recovered, so quickly did the process of colonisation and the redrawing of maps conceal them or alter them.

The atlas went live earlier this year with over 1,000 place names out of the 6,000 in total that it comprises. As Brown and Norton explained, the balance will be added only after their local people have had the opportunity to spend enough time with them. It is a matter of being reacquainted, in the knowledge – again – that name mean things and that socially inhabited places can’t exist without them. As the title of the session read: names are the treasured cloak which adorns the land.

A mural outside the main festival venue


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Inferno XIX: Whack-a-pope


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Il mio bel San Giovanni . My dear, beautiful San Giovanni. Of all the buildings that survive from the time of Dante’s Florence, this is both the most famous and the one he cherished the most. While the construction of the adjacent Santa Maria del Fiore began five years before Dante was exiled from Florence, it wasn’t completed until the fifteenth century. Its current baptistry, however, with which the Duomo forms nowadays a sublimely harmonious pair, was erected much earlier, between 1059 and 1128. I saw it this year with my youngest son, on the first warm day of the Italian spring. But we didn’t go inside – the queue was prohibitively long.


There it is, the old San Giovanni, identical that what it would have looked like in Dante’s times, except for its three doors – including the one dubbed by Michelangelo The Door of Paradise – which have since replaced the medieval originals. Dante was baptised here and, after becoming a magistrate of the city, once ordered that one of its marble baptismal wells be broken because someone had got stuck in it and was at risk of drowning.

We know about this episode because Dante talks about it in the nineteenth canto of the Inferno. A little housekeeping, as per usual: it’s the morning of 9 April 1300, the day before Easter on the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. It is the second day of Dante’s journey. He and his guide Virgil are approaching the third ditch of Malebolge, the eighth circle of Hell. The canto begins with an invocation:
O Simon mago, o miseri seguaci
che le cose di Dio, che di bontate
deon essere spose, e voi rapaci
per oro e per argento avolterate…
Roughly: ‘O Simon Magus, o wretched followers, you who the things of God, which ought to be the brides of holiness, trade rapaciously in exchange for gold and for silver…’

The things of god are spiritual gifts, such as the power to administer the baptism which the biblical Simon Magus, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, tried to buy for money from Saint Peter. Hence the sin of simony, which was rife in this century leading up to the reformation.

Glancing at the third ditch and its inhabitants, Dante notes that the ground is riddled with round holes roughly of the size of the baptismal wells in the bel San Giovanni (there it is), and that the damned are planted in these holes upside down, so that only the legs are sticking and all they can do is kick with varying degrees of frenzy. Oh, and their feet are on fire. Because Qual suole il fiammeggiar de le cose unte / muoversi pur su per la strema buccia, / tal era lì dai calcagni a le punte. Like the fire burning on a greasy object moves only across the surface, so too the fire that burns the souls is only visible at their extremities.

William Blake depicted the wells like roomy baptismal fonts.


It’s a nice illustration, but in the scene that Dante describes the souls are much more tightly stuck. The anonymous engraver of the 14th century Codex Altoniensis seems closer to the mark.


Now, consider the following question: you are Dante and you desperately want to put in Hell your most bitter of enemies, Pope Boniface VIII, except at the time in which you set your poem he’s not dead yet. What would you do? Dante’s solution is of the utmost narrative elegance: he has one the stuck-upside-down souls mistake him from Boniface. Remember, the souls of the damned don’t know what is happening on Earth in the present but have some knowledge of the future, so this mistake has the value of a prophecy. Boniface will end up in Hell, and so will his successor, Clement V, who succeeded Boniface in 1305 and died in 1314, not before having shifted the papacy to Avignon.

As for the soul addressed by Dante in the present tense of the poem, it’s yet another pope: the less famous but nonetheless thoroughly rotten Nicholas III, who occupied the Holy See between 1277 and 1280 and, by all accounts, traded for the benefit of his wider family all the roles and offices that weren’t nailed down (as it were). He is stuck here, waiting for Boniface to arrive, at which point he will be pushed deeper into the hole – which already contains other, unnamed popes – and then Boniface himself will be corked in further when it’s Clement’s turn to be the kicking one: like in a slow but endless game of whack-a-pope.

The remainder of the canto takes the form of a furious reprimand aimed by Dante to the captive pontiff, but targeting more broadly the corruption of the Catholic Church from the original sin of the donation of Constantine onwards: an arc of depravity that fails to bend towards redemption or justice. It’s an incendiary political speech that Dante wrote and published in exile, while harboured by a foreign court, knowing that in all likelihood he would never get to see his bel San Giovanni again.





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

Monday, July 23, 2018

Franco Basaglia, Marco Cavallo and the closure of Italy's asylums


Originally published at Overland

This week forty years ago, Italy became the first country in the world to legislate the closure of its asylums. The law was drafted by a psychiatrist and member of the governing Christian Democratic party, Bruno Orsini, but was known from the outset as ‘Basaglia Law’, after the leader of the movement that pushed for that radical and in some ways paradoxical reform. As historian John Foot has written:
Italy’s asylums were closed down by the people who worked inside them. In doing so, these people abolished their own jobs – forever. Nobody, today, is the director of a psychiatric hospital in Italy. The movement acted against its own self-interest – in a way that was the opposite of clientelism, patronage and nepotism. It was a negation of itself.

Every anniversary of this event offers an opportunity to reflect on the long-term effects of those reforms and on the ebbs and flows of the international struggle for deinstitutionalisation. But it is equally important to re-evaluate that movement in its historical specificity, and to discern what lessons, if any, its extraordinary success may hold.

Franco Basaglia left academia in 1961 to run the psychiatric hospital in Gorizia, a town of 40,000 near the border of what was then Yugoslavia. It wasn’t a career move: he had few alternatives to taking the job at that time. The inhuman conditions he found reminded him of his imprisonment as an antifascist during the last year of the Second World War, and he set out to change them, one by one, over the course of the nearly ten years he spent as director. His initial revulsion and the sense that an alternative must be possible were validated by a string of intellectual works published during the 1960s by the likes of RD Laing, Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman, which radically questioned dominant ideas about psychiatry, madness and the asylum. In 1968, he added a book of his own, L’istituzione negata (literally ‘the denied institution’), an unlikely bestseller that proved highly influential for the protest movement that was reaching critical mass at this time.

However, the Basaglian revolution consisted always, above all, of concrete actions. Although he and his collaborators stopped short of closing Gorizia’s asylum – an outcome that would have been simply inconceivable at this time – Basaglia’s team abolished the use of electroconvulsive therapy and of the so-called ‘mechanical constraints’ (strapping) that were standard for new arrivals; it opened the internal gates of the institution and abolished barriers between wards, including the separation between male and female patients; it introduced opportunities for the patients to work, and be adequately remunerated; most crucially, it revolutionised the therapeutic approach to each patient, foregrounding their whole personhood instead of their disease or its symptoms. The most well-known expression of this new culture were the large meetings in which doctors, nurses, orderlies and patients debated various aspects of the operation of the asylum, and in which every participant had voting rights.


In 1964 – while describing the multiple ways in which the asylum design appeared to obliterate human individuality – Basaglia had explained how the institution ‘stripped patients of their future’. In many ways, his approach can be described as a concerted effort to restore the agency of the people under his charge, therefore their sense of a meaningful and self-directed future. As such, this approach could not but tend towards the ultimate abolition of the institution itself, and the liberation of the people who lived within its walls.

***

I must take a slight detour. In 1996, at the age of 25, I was conscripted into the Italian mental health service. I was informed of this assignment by mail, on a Wednesday morning in early September. The next Monday morning, I was to report at a street address in Vicenza – a town 200 kms down the railway line from Milan to Venice. I didn’t know what I would find at this address, nor did I receive any training whatsoever in the job that awaited me. As a conscientious objector who asked to opt out of the still compulsory military service, I had very few rights, and the right to know what they planned to do with me, or where, wasn’t one of them.

The house in Vicenza looked like a perfectly ordinary two-storey house, with a little garden at the back. I was greeted by a tall, scruffy man in his late forties or early fifties. He looked at me for a couple of seconds, then confidently declared: ‘Ah, you must be Franz Kafka.’

The house was part of the local mental health service, and hosted a small number of adult men, mostly affected by schizophrenia, of which Giorgio – the man who greeted me – was the eldest. The house was staffed during the day by either one or two operatori (mental health workers) and I was to assist them in whatever way I could. To say that I worked there would be a slight overstatement. I spent most of my time at the house. I taught English to two of the men, Paolo and Stefano, and tried to help Paolo to find work (without much success). I helped Stefano with the gardening. I spent at least one or two hours a day in the company of Giorgio, whose main desires at this stage of his life were to smoke cigarettes and find someone who would listen to him. I ran a sort of cooking class, once I realised that it was possible to ask the hospital to send us fresh ingredients in place of the ghastly cooked food they delivered at meal times. And we went on trips, including a memorable one to my home town of Milan.

The mental health service wasn’t used to being assigned workers who lived in other cities. At night, therefore, I slept in an office at the old psychiatric hospital, which was now reduced to delivering a few day services. The facilities emptied of people by 6 pm, so I had the entire eerie place to myself. And because I received the pay of a regular soldier – five dollars a day – I lacked the means to entertain myself elsewhere.

What I experienced during those ten months were the effects of the Basaglia Law as it was implemented in the Italian north-east, where the movement had been at its strongest. Here, the old asylum had been replaced by a profoundly humane and caring network of services that placed the individual as citizen at its centre. The main aim of these services was to help their users to cultivate meaningful social relations (including, where possible, by restoring and strengthening the links with their families) and participate as fully as possible in society. I always found our neighbours to be very respectful of the members of our group, and I came to view that respect as a key component of the system as a whole.

Sometimes, we dealt with individuals in times of acute crisis. It wasn’t easy, and I would lie if I said that I wasn’t afraid. Yet during my entire time in Vicenza, I witnessed a single instance of compulsory treatment. One of the reasons why these orders are so comparatively rare is that by law in Italy they must be signed off not by doctors or – as is the case in many countries – the police, but rather by the mayor, acting as guarantor of the civil rights of the citizenry. It was, therefore, always the last and most extreme measure.

I couldn’t attempt to reconcile or even compare the stories of the patients I met with those who, a mere generation earlier, were still condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment, with little hope of release. Before the Basaglia Law, Italy was regulated by a law passed in 1904, which made it possible to commit men, women and children to institutions on the flimsiest of diagnoses, and the most doubtful of charges. A measure introduced under Fascism and not abolished until 1968 required that inmates of asylums also be given a criminal record. This included women guilty of prostitution and men guilty of homosexuality, as well as children who had been committed at the age of three or four because they suffered from a developmental disability. Anything that could be construed as ‘deviance’ could land you in an asylum, often at the behest of family members – or, conversely, as a result of the lack of family supports.

Yet the Basaglian movement understood that it was not enough to improve these conditions or lessen these injustices. Faithful to one of its most famous slogans – ‘the institution is not for changing, it’s for destroying’ – it demanded instead nothing less than full abolition, as the necessary condition for human equality.

That it was possible in such a short span of time to reach such an apparently unthinkable goal is not due only to the work of that unique coalition of patients, nurses and doctors, or to the leadership of Franco Basaglia and others. It was 1968 that created the cultural conditions in which to conceive of such a radical future among a generation of politicians that included several conservatives, but – as in the case of committee chair Tina Anselmi, a Christian Democrat and former partisan fighter – was collectively formed by anti-fascism.

By the time the law that still bears his name was passed, Franco Basaglia had already effectively closed the asylum of Trieste. It was the culmination of the second decade of his work. By now, Basaglia was something of an international celebrity, and got to spend time in New York and Brazil. The asylum of which he had become director opened its doors to the city by staging performances by stars of the theatre like Dario Fo and Franca Rame, or musicians of the calibre of Ornette Coleman. On 25 February 1973, patients and asylum workers marched through the city behind ‘Marco Cavallo’, a 4-metre tall papier-mâché horse named after an actual horse whose duties had included transporting laundry and garbage around the complex, and who was now charged with carrying the collective wishes and aspirations of the inmates.



In the meantime, the institution was actively working to make itself superfluous, fracturing into the services and the worker cooperatives that its people needed in order to be liberated from it and re-enter society as citizens, and that would form the concrete model for the law enacted on 13 May of 1978. The utopia had been realised: the asylum was now a non-place.

Franco Basaglia didn’t live to see the implementation of ‘his’ law, which took the best part of two decades. He died of a brain tumour in 1980, at the age of 56, one year into his term as director of psychiatric services for the Lazio region. Among those who survived him is Marco Cavallo, who marched in 2013 as part of another successful nationwide campaign, this time for the closure of Italy’s criminal asylums – the very last vestige of the old system which sought to incarcerate the mentally ill.

Basaglia’s revolution – like all good revolutions – is incomplete. The implementation of the law varies greatly from region to region, and the Italian mental health services as a whole are funded at lower levels than other European countries. The reality I experienced in Vicenza was perhaps more exception than norm. But even there, I was reminded every day of the limits that were imposed on the freedom of our ‘patients’ – the limits set by a society that is structurally unable to give them the place they deserve. For that liberation to be fully realised, we must continue to aspire.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Don't let the garage door hit you



And so, it has come to an end, as obnoxiously as it began: with a short press release, in which the leader and owner of the Opportunities Parties declared the organisation disbanded and bid a fond farewell to the voters, those morons.

A lot has been said and written about the personalities involved – the good, Geoff Simmons; the bad Gareth Morgan; the ugly, Sean Plunket – and for good reason: it was an entertaining bunch, and made for a colourful diversion in a campaign that, from the moment Metiria Turei stepped down from the co-leadership of the Greens, was fought entirely on personality and on the narrowest of terms. It was, if not exactly fun, at least comparatively novel to chart the boastful acts of self-mutilation of these upstarts.

However, I’ve seen comparatively little political analysis: what kind of project was the Opportunities Party? How did it connect and compare with similar organisations overseas? Why did it ultimately fail? Alex Brae tried his hand in the Spinoff, arguing that with the demise of TOP the New Zealand protest vote has lost its home, and that the conversion rate of 1 in 40 voters was in fact an astonishing success.

Morgan offered his own post-mortem, in an interview with Duncan Greive: his party, he insisted, was based on ‘policy excellence’ and said policies were offered ‘on a take-it-or-leave-it basis’ to an electorate that ultimately proved too ‘fat, content and complacent’ to endorse TOP’s excellence. At the very end, Morgan even found the time to disavow his former communications director, Sean Plunket, who called in a tweet for other folks of good will to come to the aid of the party.
Sean was hired by TOP and then by me to provide strategy advice. As we all discovered he has this predilection to get himself embroiled in controversies along the way. They have nothing to do with me or TOP.

Morgan’s narcissism, as always, is so breath-taking and Bond villainesque (‘in essence [I] have returned to doing what I’m bloody good at: making money and shitloads of it’) that one almost forgets to question the premises of his argument: chiefly, that TOP was about ‘policy excellence’. This is a common claim of self-styled post-political parties, such as the Internet Party at the 2014 elections, or the far more successful 5 Star Movement in Italy. All of these new formations claim to be interested in policy alone, not politics, as if that was even a thing.

As a matter of fact, all parties have policies which seek to appeal to social formations that exist among the electorate. TOP was no exception: it just tried to slice the electorate differently. Of particular note in this respect is the fact that, while it was by no means pro-worker, TOP was the only party that sought to shift the balance of taxation away from wages and towards capital, including capital tied in real estate. That Labour and the Greens have abandoned any serious attempt to shift this burden – or even admit, in the face of record levels of unaffordability, that a fall in house prices may be a good thing – is one of the New Zealand left’s most enduring shames. And if there is a useful challenge to carry forward from TOP's failed experiment, it should probably be this.

It may seem that Morgan’s abrasive personality, coupled with Plunket’s pathetic taste for the worst kind of limelight, may have served as unwelcome and self-defeating distractions from TOP’s excellence-soaked policies, but I suspect this not to have been the case. The pair’s strategy, rather – while leaving Simmons in charge of projecting an air of technocratic competence – was to follow the playbook of the likes of Berlusconi, Trump and other contemporary populists. Beginning with chapter one, which instructs to seek controversy, always, in order to monopolise the news cycles and bamboozle the political debate. This, and not patiently promoting its programme among the social actors it was designed to appeal to, was actually how the party hoped to get into parliament.

Don’t get me wrong: I am quite sure that Morgan and Plunket are genuinely unpleasant people. But I doubt that they are stupid. And if Morgan’s contempt for voters and Plunket’s seeming ability to put his foot into everything were part of a calculated approach that worked elsewhere, then we should ask ourselves why it didn’t work here. Alex Brae thinks it sort of did, but one voter in 40 is a good conversion rate only if measured against the remarkable stability of our political landscape. Berlusconi converted one in five on his way to winning the 1994 election mere weeks after entering the fray, and many other post-political parties have enjoyed similar success in Europe since. The objective failure of TOP, then, can be seen as a modest success only if we compute the same factors that made the failure of Dotcom’s Internet Party so easy to predict.

Simply put, the New Zealand body politic is in rude health. And it doesn’t matter that our parliament has become an engine for increasing inequality, for the victims of our economic system are also largely excluded from the democratic process: so populists simply have no-one to appeal to – at least no-one who can be relied upon to vote. These are the very same conditions that stand in the way of genuine progressive alternatives. That self-styled smart man Gareth Morgan and his equally smart collaborators failed to understand this speaks of their inability to carry out the most rudimentary political analysis.

Things, of course, may change, as they have elsewhere, and in relative haste – given the right shocks to the system – paving the way for more successful post- or anti-political projects. Until then, millionaires who boast about pocketing the heating supplement or using their New Zealand super to buy a new motorcycle will fail to reach the status of statesman and continue having to settle for the more traditional one of tosser.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A brief (fascist) history of 'I don't care'


Originally published at Overland

This article was sparked by the jacket that Melania Trump wore as she travelled to a detention camp for migrant children, but my intent isn’t to argue that she or her staff chose that jacket in order to send a coded message to the president’s far-right followers. It is, rather, to highlight some of the historical echoes of that phrase – ‘I don’t care’: echoes of which someone ought to have been aware, especially in an administration that includes – to put it mildly – several far-right sympathisers. And also to show that the attitude, the theatrical ‘not caring’, was an explicit character trait of Fascism.

Which, at the very least, seems a troubling coincidence.

Fascism lay its roots in the campaign for Italy’s late entry in the First World War, of which Mussolini was one of the leaders. It was at this time that the phrase ‘me ne frego’ – which at the time was still considered quite vulgar, along the lines of the English ‘I don’t give a fuck’ – was sung by members of the special force known as arditi (literally: ‘the daring ones’) who volunteered for the front, to signify that they didn’t care if they should lose their lives.

The arditi were disbanded after the war, but many of them volunteered in 1919 for an expedition led by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio to capture the city of Fiume (Rijeka, in present-day Croatia) and claim it for Italy during the vacuum created by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the time of this occupation, former arditi also supplied the backbone of the original Black Squads during the terror campaigns that began in 1919 and culminated with the ‘March on Rome’ of 1922, which completed Fascism’s swift rise to power.

This lapel pin worn by an original member of the Black Shirts was recently sold on a website devoted to military memorabilia. It is emblazoned with the words ‘Me ne frego’ underneath the symbol of the arditi and the acronym FERT (which stands for the motto of the Royal Family). The seller calls it ‘bellissimo’.


‘Me ne frego’ was the title of one of the most famous songs of the Fascist era. Its original version, dating around 1920, hails D’Annunzio and Mussolini as the fathers of the fascist movement, recycling the old war song of the arditi as the third stanza.
Me ne frego    I don’t care
me ne frego    I don’t care
me ne frego è il nostro motto,    I don’t care is our motto
me ne frego di morire    I don’t care if I should die
per la santa libertà!…    For our sacred freedom! …
Later versions removed mentions of D’Annunzio, who faded fairly quickly into the background. In the meantime, Mussolini made the slogan his own, and explicitly elevated it to the philosophy of the regime.


The meaning of ‘Me ne frego’

The proud Black-Shirt motto ‘I don’t care’ written on the bandages that cover a wound isn’t just an act of stoic philosophy or the summary of a political doctrine. It’s an education to fighting, and the acceptance of the risks it implies. It’s a new Italian lifestyle. This is how the Fascist welcomes and loves life, while rejecting and regarding suicide as an act of cowardice; this is how the Fascist understands life as duty, exaltation, conquest. A life that must be lived highly and fully, both for oneself but especially for others, near and far, present and future.

(Benito Mussolini)
The connotations of altruism at the end of the quote are in direct contrast with the meaning taken on by the word menefreghismo (literally, ‘Idontcareism’), which ever since the regime has meant in common parlance a kind of detached self-reliance, or moral autocracy. Just as Italy broke with its former allies and charted a stubborn path towards the ruin and devastation of the Second World War, so too the Fascist citizen was encouraged to reject the judgement of others and look straight ahead. It should be remembered in this regard that the regime treated ignorance and proclivity to violence as desirable qualities to be rewarded with positions of influence and power. This required a swift redrawing of the old social norms, and of the language used to signify the moral worth of individuals. ‘Me ne frego’ was the perfect slogan for the people in charge of overseeing such a program.

Four years ago, speaking at a First World War commemoration in the small town of Redipuglia, Pope Francis linked ‘me ne frego’ not only with the carnage of that conflict, but also with the horrors of Fascism, recognising its ideological and propaganda value for Mussolini’s project. This is the form in which the slogan has survived until the present day, as a linguistic signifier not of generic indifference, but of ideological nostalgia. And because the attempts in Italy and beyond to stem the spread of such signifiers have been comprehensively abandoned, we readily find those words appearing not just on seemingly ubiquitous Fascist-era memorabilia but also on posters,


t-shirts,


or this line of stickers that can be purchased for $.193 from Redbubble (motto ‘awesome products designed by independent artists’), where it was uploaded by user ‘fashdivision’.


The international neofascist movement is of course well aware of this lineage. By way of example, if you search for it online you’ll find a long-running English-language podcast called Me ne frego which recycles this imagery in support of arguments against immigration and multiculturalism, or to opine on the subject of ‘the Jewish question’. I don’t doubt that people close both to the Trump administration and this world are similarly cognisant of the uses to which those three words have been put. But even for those who aren’t, claims to indifference have a history which we mustn’t allow ourselves to forget.



Image: jacket Melania Trump wore to US detention camps.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A modest proposal for solving the crisis in 'special education' by next Tuesday


The story of Ava Crager isn’t at the top end of discrimination and neglect against children with disabilities in New Zealand. After all, it resulted in her missing a single week of school, when there are children who miss months or even years – to say nothing of those who attend regularly but are marginalised, secluded or excluded from the curriculum and the social life of their schools. The ministry of education doesn’t keep data on any of these outcomes, so the stories we hear must always be treated as the tip of a very large iceberg.

This iceberg has been floating at the edge of the public consciousness for over twenty years, since the introduction in 1995 of the current regime for delivering what used to be called ‘special education’. The phrase is in bad need of updating, but I’m going to use it anyway – albeit in scare-quotes – for it is essential for understanding the institutional logic at work.

And that is the virtue of Ava’s story: not that it is more appalling than others or has resulted in greater discrimination and hardship than others, but precisely that it is so common, so quietly absurd, as to fully illuminate the workings of the current system – and why it needs to be dismantled not just as a matter of justice, but also of basic decency and sanity.


Here’s the story, then, briefly, as told this week by Radio New Zealand reporter Laura Dooney.

Ava is a 12 year wheelchair user who relied on the ministry of education’s taxi service to go to school. Back in March, she moved with her family 5 minutes down the road. The parents knew ahead of time that they needed to fill out a whole new application for the taxi service in order for the car to come to the new address, and allowed 20 days for processing. The ministry took 7 weeks to approve the ‘new’ taxi service. When the family asked what was taking so long, they explained that Ava wasn’t the only child on the waiting list. The school provided transportation at its own cost, so Ava ended up missing one week of attendance. The Cragers were left feeling lucky that their situation was resolved, knowing very well that other families are routinely put in even more stressful situations.

This story has a bit of everything. The institution normalising its failures, and passing the blame on to disabled children for existing (‘there are many others in your daughter’s situation’). The odd mix of relief and gratitude felt by the family when the entitlement was eventually restored – a feeling that everyone who has spent any time in the system knows so very well. And, above all, the Kafkaesque contortions of the rationing mechanisms, which generate costs both human and financial at every turn under the guise of fairness and accountability. Specifically, and most obviously: the ministry’s complaint that its own waiting lists are so crowded fails to address the fact that this is due in part to families like the Cragers having to reapply for the taxi service every time they move to a new place. (I heard this week from a family who had to do it after moving within the same street). Asked by Dooney to explain this fact, the ministry answered by repeating the question (‘every time a family moves, a new application must be lodged to verify their eligibility’), a clear indication that they have lost any sense not just of their purpose, but also of reality.

As things stand, the current system consistently fails to address the needs of the children under the ministry’s care. As not just countless human-interest stories but several government reviews have documented, it is discriminatory, tortuous, wasteful, and has damaged the educational prospects of entire generations of disabled students. We have known these things for years. And while the new ministers in charge of education and disability seem aware of the magnitude of the problem, and well-intentioned in their call for a comprehensive overhaul, I want to sound a couple of notes of caution.

Firstly, the Clark government also came in with good intentions and did nothing beyond conducting a review and then ordering a second review which was completed under National. Further to that, they had nine years – there is no guarantee that this government will last as long. (The other lot doesn’t think there even is a problem.)

Secondly, I worry that the overdue and sacrosanct realisation that the problems are wide-ranging and systemic could become a recipe for inaction. Case in point: besides a raft of budget measures that pumped more money into a bad system, the government hasn’t announced any actual plan outside of Chris Hipkins’ vision for long-term reform of the entire education system. But again, we don’t know that the government will last long enough to see any of it implemented. And in the meantime, obvious, elementary steps such as finally funding the management position of learning support coordinator in every school are being tied to the current round of industrial negotiations between the ministry of education and the primary teachers’ union, NZEI. Meaning that teachers will have to give something up so that disabled students are better included in their schools. This shouldn’t be the union’s job.


So, here’s my proposal. We’re all sick of waiting. So fucking sick of waiting. And our children can’t afford to wait any longer – we are wasting so much potential, so many lives. Time’s up. From now on, every need is to be automatically provided for with fully funded supports unless the ministry of education can prove that the need doesn’t exist. I say my child has autism, or is in a wheelchair, or has a learning impairment. Her teachers and – if applicable – the local DHB concur. You disagree? Fine. Prove that she doesn't. In the meantime, cough up the money for the supports that are needed in order to remove the barriers to her full inclusion at her local school. Let’s see you fill out some forms for a change, spend some of your own money on private psychologists and consultants. Let’s see if you are still eligible to call yourself a Ministry of Education, and not the Ministry for Educating Some of the Children.

Are you worried that opening the floodgates – that is to say, eliminating all your neurotic requirements for compliance – will make you spend too much money? I’m not sure that it will. Besides, whose money are we talking about? Pretend the money Ava’s school spent on getting her to class for six weeks came out of your budget. Pretend it was you who filled out the forms her parents had to fill out. Pretend it was you who spent the 35 hours it takes on average to fill out an ORS application. It is you who has to assess it. It is you who has to defend the families’ appeals. But all of this is money and time spent by New Zealanders. It is all of us. You’re costing us too much, in order to achieve far too little.

And then so what if costs should balloon? It will force you to finally sit down with the disability community and the teachers and the researches to design a better system. A system that pools knowledge and human resources and invests more rationally while still ensuring that all children receive a quality education. Besides, you saved money that didn’t belong to you for over twenty years. It belonged to some of our most vulnerable students. It’s time to give it back.






Thanks for reading this. Early feedback has included some people despairing that we could ever implement something of this sort, that it's too far from what we have now. Nonsense. It's up to us to create practical utopias in local schools - show how things could and should be done - and demand the changes that are needed for those utopias to become the norm. My model for what can be achieved is the mental health reforms in Italy, which went much further in a much shorter span of time. I wrote about them recently for Overland and if you feel overcome with pessimism (as we all do from time to time) I suggest you take a look that bit of history. It's something that happened, and it was a struggle from below. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Inferno XVIII: A place there is in Hell called Malebolge


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge
A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

We could spend this week’s post talking about this one line. Not c’è un luogo but luogo è, not ‘there is a place’, but ‘a place there is’. A declarative statement bearing a timeless, universal truth, which is also a sentence (in the judicial rather than grammatical sense). Like those words carved into the architrave of Hell at the beginning of the third canto, when Dante and Virgil first ventured into the cavern, which culminated in the famous exhortation to abandon all hope, ye etcetera.

That was just a few hours ago. In the meantime, the two poets have met scores of damned souls, a throng comprising perhaps the majority of the people who had ever lived up to the turn of the fourteenth century. Their numbers included not just the lustful or the avaricious and so forth, but also heavier sinners such as usurers, thieves, heretics and murderers. Yet we’re only halfway down. From here on in, things will get progressively worse, just as the upside-down cone that is Hell becomes smaller, and progressively less populated.

As Dante-the-narrator utters those words – luogo è, – Dante-the-pilgrim is actually there, at the entrance of Malebolge. We, as readers, occupy the space between the writer and the character. Modernity has stretched this space beyond measure – we can speculate, reinvent, historicise – whereas for a medieval, Christian reader, that space would have been far narrower. For one thing, few (if any) of Dante’s early readers would have doubted the existence of the larger place that contains the smaller place, Hell itself. Secondly, they – like Dante – would have placed Hell somewhere in the actual world. Although their geography mixed the symbolic with the concrete, this was a location someone could travel to, if they only knew where it was.

What of the second part of the line? What is ‘Malebolge’?

Hell is never mentioned in the scriptures. It was a medieval addition, sanctioned by the Church and filled over the centuries in the popular imaginary by demons drawn in part from classical literature and folklore, and in part invented anew. However, this ‘invention’ is not an invention in the modern sense, a flight of fancy. Remember: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true. Both literally true, to an extent, but to a larger one – and far more importantly – also figuratively, spiritually, metaphysically true.

As far as scholars can tell, ‘Malebolge’ is a word made up by Dante. Male of course means bad or evil (think of the word malevolent), whereas a bolgia is a large ditch. This place called Malebolge is a series of ten concentric moats, descending gradually towards a central well. It houses the fraudulent, divided into many groups: here, in the first ring-like circle, it’s pimps, seducers and flatterers. This last group is literally swimming in shit, as if all of the worlds’ latrines were fed directly into their ditch (vidi gente attuffata in uno sterco / che da li uman privadi parea mosso.)

All this is invention, but invention of a kind. If Hell is a real place on Earth, as Dante most surely believed, and if the hierarchy of sins is dictated by the prevailing theologians as of necessity, following God’s logic, then Malebolge, too, could be real, is real. It takes two words – luogo è – for Dante to declare the truth-value of his vision, and to make his vision true. It’s an incantation.

Let’s round off the tercet:
Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge,
tutto di pietra di color ferrigno,
come la cerchia che dintorno il volge.

A place there is in Hell called Malebolge,
all made of stone and iron-like in colour,
⁠as is the circular wall that surrounds it.

Illustration (possibly by Giovanni Britto) from the 1544 edition curated by Alessandro Vellutello

There follows a 15-line description through similitude of the ditches or moats connected by bridges, as if part of a series of inter-linked fortifications. In later cantos, Dante gives some dimensions: the tenth circle is 11 miles long, while the ninth is 22. Each ditch is half a mile wide. This would make the first circle over one hundred miles long, and the diameter of the crater of Hell at the depth reached by Dante and Virgil some 35 miles.

We are used nowadays to imaginary worlds being described with minute precision. However, in Dante’s case this apparent concreteness or realism leads right back into metaphysics, for each measurement suggests a hidden symbolism or relationship with other numbers. Invention, again, is both constrained and sanctioned by the logic it is seen to obey.

For now, all we need to know is that a place there is in Hell called Malebolge. We’ll spend the next twelve cantos here.


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

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Inferno XVII: Of flying beasts and student loans


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It’s been a while since I attended to this with any regularity, so it may pay to state when and where we are.

It’s the early morning of 9 April 1300, a mere hours after the beginning of Dante’s journey into Hell. The place is the third and lowest ring of the seventh circle, where those who committed the sin of violence against god and nature serve their sentence. More precisely, we are situated next to the drop where the river of boiling blood which runs through this circle – the Phlegethon – turns into a crimson fall. And since there is no apparent staircase or passage for Dante and Virgil to descend safely into the next circle, the pair have just summoned a flying beast by throwing Dante’s belt into the abyss.

Like uber, but for winged demons.


Except Geryon, the beast in question, is not described as having any wings. Not for the first time, an illustrator of the poem (in this case, Doré) has failed to read it properly. Indeed the first thing that Dante notices, as Geryon perches on the edge of the cliff, his tail dangling into the abyss, is that la faccia sua era faccia d’uom giusto – ‘his face was the face of a good person’. Deceptively, for Geryon is the allegory of Fraud, and is thus the appropriate vehicle for transporting the two poets among the most wretched and culpable of all the damned.

The wingless monster has the body of a serpent, the tail of a scorpion, and the legs of a lion, covered in fur. His torso, back and sides dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle, are ‘decorated with knots and circles’, in the manner of Arabian tapestries, but far more intricately. His way of perching, as if preparing for an ambush, reminds Dante of the beavers that lie on the river banks of Northern Europe, waiting to catch their prey.

Instead of pointing out to him that this is really not how beavers work, Virgil encourages Dante to move towards a small group of souls that is standing nearby, while he negotiates with Geryon the terms of their ride.

Illustration by a 14th Century Neapolitan illuminator

Another reminder: all souls which have retained their human form are naked folks. These few are no exception, save for the fact that they are carrying colourful purses around their necks. But otherwise their skin is exposed to the burning sand under their feet, and to the fiery rain that falls everywhere on this circle, except along the path that Dante is allowed to tread. The twin torment gives the souls no rest, and the purses adds to their contrappasso. For on them par che ’l loro occhio si pasca – roughly, their eyes seem to be feeding, meaning: they gaze at them with constant, insatiable hunger.

These purses or pouches are emblazoned: one with a blue lion on a yellow background; one with a white goose on a red background; one with a blue sow on a white background. The owner of this last one breaks from the small group to address the poet, gruffly. He says he hails from Padua, while his companions are Florentines. Together, they await a chap called Vitaliano. But instead of telling Dante about his sin or circumstances, as we have come to expect, the nameless soul cuts proceedings short but poking his tongue at him, obscenely, come bue che il naso lecchi – like an ox licking its nose.

Thus ends the short scene, leaving just enough clues for Dante’s contemporaries – and for scholars thereafter – to figure out the context and fill in the blanks. We know that we must be among usurers, because we were told to expect them in this circle six cantos ago, and Dante and Virgil are about to leave for Malebolge. Those emblazoned purses must contain gold, or IOUs, but above all the all-important ledger of the debtors, main tool of the usurer’s trade. And while it’s not absolutely clear who might have counted as an usurer in Dante’s eyes – whether anyone who lent money to anyone, as canonical law dictated, thereby including all bankers, or just those who lent money at disproportionate interest (the most likely answer being closer to the former) – at least we know the business of these particular ones, thanks to those blazons. They belong, respectively, to the families of the Gianfigliazzis, the Obriachis and – the guy who speaks, with the yellow sow or scrofa – to the Scrovegnis. And if it’s a Scrovegni and a usurer, it’s going to be Rinaldo, innit?

We met Rinaldo Scrovegni before: he’s the father of Enrico Scrovegni, who built a chapel in Padua and had it painted by Giotto with the possible intention of atoning for his father’s sins, or at least converting part of the money he made into a magnificent and lasting public relations exercise. Giotto painted the chapel in the very same years Dante was writing the Divine Comedy. How cool is that? This is Enrico:


Both the Obriachis (in Bologna) and Rinaldo Scrovegni (in Padua) were in the same business: lending money to university students. Those two cities have the honour of being regarded as among the birthplaces of this modern institution, but what may not be equally well-known is that even in those early days not all university students came from wealthy families, and that many students – rich and poor – relied on loans from the very beginning, under terms dictated by the cities that hosted them. Beyond that, there was the unregulated market of the usurers, and clearly it was a booming business that kept you into chapels. Then sent you to Hell.

(Though interestingly one theory about the genesis of the Scrovegni Chapel is that Enrico thought that his father must have been sent to Purgatory, and was trying to ‘buy him’ a discount. It’s kind of commerce that eventually precipitated the Reformation.)

Sandro Botticelli
It’s time to go: Dante is afraid that Virgil might be losing his patience, and re-joins him to find he’s already sitting on Geryon’s back. He instructs him to sit in front, so that the beast won’t be able to poke him with his presumably poisonous tail. Dante obeys, but he’s shaking, as if in the throes of a quartan fever. There is a tender moment, when he confesses to the reader that he planned to say to his guide – but for his voice failing him – Fa che tu m’abbracce, ‘put your arms around me.’

There’s no time. Geryon takes off. As per Virgil’s entreaties, he doesn’t dive headlong, but rather flies in sweeping circles, following the perimeter of the crater that is Hell.

How do you conceive of or describe a human flying in the fourteenth century? The sun is dawning, but offers no light at these depths. Maggior paura non credo che fosse… che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta ogne veduta fuor che de la fera. ‘Never was fear, I think, greater than mine, when I saw that air was all around me, and that there was nothing to see save for the beast.’ This fearful uncertainty, this disorientation, is matched by the reticence we have come to expect at the end of these cantos, as Dante stops short of setting the scene with which the next canto will begin. He has landed, but where?



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