LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL: Bookshops, books and Benigni

09/05/2016 12:44

The ongoing disappearance of bookshops and record stores is one of the tragedies of our time. These refreshing oases where a stranger, wherever she/he might be in the world, can find old friends and acquaintances in the form of CDs and books. There is also the possibility of making new contacts, not only through encounters with books with interesting covers and titles, but also conversations with other bookworms, who tend to flock there.

In cities where a totally incomprehensible language is spoken and even the books may be written with a different alphabet, bookshops are nonetheless familiar places. Book covers continue to speak to us and in such places it may also be possible to meet with people who speak a language you may understand. This has happened to me in places like Amman, where the books are written with Arabic characters, or in Budapest and Hanoi with for me completely incomprehensible languages. In bookstores, I have often encountered people who not only spoke in a manner understandable to me, but with whom I also shared my great enthusiasm for the written word. They did not have any intention to sell me something, or cheat and deceive me, we just shared the same interest - a passion for books and music. Such people can be found anywhere. Not only in the big cities, but also in small towns in forlorn places.

I think with sadness how a rising generation may not gain access to such wonderful bookshops, where anyone could find safe bliss among books and music not only in in world metropolises like New York, Buenos Aires, New Delhi or Paris, but also in much smaller places like Osby, Andahuaylas or Ségou. There are often a few chairs waiting for you and maybe a cup of coffee or tea. Every so often there is also an opportunity for stimulating conversations, opening up new, wide horizons, often offering an introduction to and a taste for a country's fascinating culture.

I hope future generations will find the opportunity to enjoy the great satisfaction that books may provide. Not only do they offer experiences quite different from those we obtain through film, television and computer games, enjoyment from books are furthermore enhanced by the fact that they, like LPs and CDs, are physical objects, with a far greater tangibility than an e-reader, a computer or an iPod.

In previous times, books were revered by being provided with precious outfits like ornate covers and exclusive bindings made of vellum, parchment or linen. However, even simple, stapled paper books may be made attractive through their beautiful covers, pleasing paper texture and even a pleasing scent. Unlike e-readers, may books join one another in bookshelves, where their backs attract the presumptive reader. You may take them out, flip through them, set them back and feel surrounded, even cared for, by them.

I come to think of a scene in François Truffaut's film Fahrenheit 491, slightly different from the one described in Ray Bradbury's novel. A group of “firemen” in the service of a totalitarian regime are locating books in order to burn them, since owning any kind of book is a crime. The leader of one such team of book burners, "The Captain", seems to be a well-read man, knowledgeable about the contents of several of the books he destroys, while the younger firemen have never read a book.

 In the scene I am thinking of, the firemen break into a house of a middle-aged lady where they find an extensive, hidden library. Along with the film´s main protagonist, Montag, the Captain flips through some of the books while he to his younger colleague explains how destructive they are. How books make their readers believe that they are unique, superior creatures, causing them to imagine that the world might be different than it really is. According to the Captain, such thinking creates nothing else but confusion and misery. 

The firemen meanwhile join the books in a huge pile in the building's entrance and before they burn them they order the lady of the house to leave the premises, but she refuses:

- Do you want to be a martyr? the Captain asks her

- I want to die as I have lived, the lady answers, obviously indicating that she wants to die among her books.

The Captain suggests that such fatal delusions must be a result of reading books, making their eradication necessary. Books are sources of dangerous, mental infections, something that makes book burning a heroic deed. The lady points to the piles of books that surround her, and declares with a blissful smile:

- These books were alive, they spoke to me.

She lights a match and let it drop among the kerosene-soaked books. Everything flares up around her, while she like a Jeanne d'Arc is standing tall among the violent flames. The firemen rush out the house, though Montag remains as if bewitched, watching the books being consumed by fire. They obviously a have an awful power over their readers and Montag feels irresistibly attracted by them.

Book reading is undeniably a form of addiction, devouring its victims. I become restless if I do not have a book close at hand. Like the protagonist of Stefan Zweig´s novella Chess Story, who has been detained and tortured by the Nazis. After four months in solitary confinement, during which he came close to madness, he is finally brought to an interrogation session. While he is waiting to be led in to the interrogation room, he discovers a book sticking out of the pocket of an overcoat, hanging in the waiting room.

- a book. A book! And the idea flashed through my mind like a bullet: steel this book! Maybe you´ll succeed, you can hide it in your cell and then read, read, read, finally read again!

Extremely careful, risking his life - a guard is present all the time - the prisoner succeeds in stealing the book. A protracted and dangerous process, detailed and excitingly narrated by Zweig. When the prisoner has been returned to his cell he carefully conceals the book. He does not know what kind of book he has stolen and for a long time avoids looking into it. He will first savour the knowledge that he has a book in his vicinity, awaiting to be read. Finally, he opens it, but becomes extremely disappointed. It is a book about famous chess games.

Nevertheless, he reads the book extremely carefully, again and again, and has finally learned all the chess games by heart. He is now able to play complicated chess tournaments in his mind and his thinking is increasingly obtaining the configuration of a chess game. His whole mind-set takes the form of various chess games; famous ones and other ones that he dreams up. This kind of thinking eventually becomes his salvation. His tormentors correctly believe that he has gone mad and are in spite of sophisticated torture methods unable to press any meaningful information out of him.

When he finally is released from the madhouse he has been transferred to, thanks to a sympathetic doctor who also arranges a boat ticket to Argentina for him, the former prisoner has become a disabled person. His entire existence has obtained the character of a complicated game involving white and black chess pieces, something which prevents him from thinking and living like a normal person.

Zweig wrote the story just before he killed himself, while living in exile in Brazil. It is masterfully narrated, but what mainly attracted me was Zweig´s feverish descriptions of reading obsession. As when he describes how the prisoner, in his solitary confinement, is planning to begin his reading of the stolen book:

Now you´ll probably think that I immediately seized the book, examined it, and read it. Not at all! First I wanted to savor to the full the anticipatory pleasure of having a book, the artificially prolonged delight, with a wonderful arousing effect on my nerves, of imagining the stolen book in detail, imagining what sort of book I´d most liked it to be: closely printed above all, with many, many characters, many, many pages so there would be more to read. And then I wanted it to be a work that required intellectual effort, nothing shallow, nothing easy, but something you could study, learn by heart, poems, and preferably – I had the audacity to dream such a thing – Goethe or Homer.

Bookstores come in many styles and shapes, but almost everywhere you may find small hovels with stacks of books on the floor and along the walls, often supervised by some skinny, bespectacled enthusiast who happily talks about his books, or is involved in loud discussions with a local bibliophile, poet or schoolteacher. Small cliques happy to invite you into their circle after having realized that you may be a source of information about the world they love – the inexhaustible treasure trove of books.

Similar observations may be made about in the parallel world of music. For example, I recall how I and some of my friends sometime in the late seventies had ended up by a cave high above the walls of Antakya, the Turkish city that once was known as Antioch. While we rested on the dry grass and looked out over the famous city walls, there appeared a couple of soldiers who sat down with us. They seemed eager to explain that we found ourselves in a place where some well-known saint had been decapitated. They showed how his head had bounced down the slope in front of us. It was all somewhat confusing and we did not really understand if it had been St. Paul, St. Peter or some other Christian celebrity who had met his final fate where we sat. However, the atmosphere eased when we began mentioning names like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and ABBA and soon found that we shared the same great interest in music as the young recruits and through singing, gestures and facial expressions we became involved in an enthusiastic discussion about music, while the sun sank behind the fabled Antioch.

A few years later, I lived in Santo Domingo with my wife Rosmery and our new-born daughter Janna. When I think back on that time, I realize how important bookstores was for me even then. There were quite a lot of them, especially along a street in the Colonial Town - Arzobispo Noël, where there was also a decrepit parking house, where a corner at the back of the ground floor housed an elderly man with a large stock of mildewed and smelly books for sale, which, however comprised an astonishing collection of valuable literature on Dominican and Caribbean history. I was often there, rummaging among the books, generally after visiting the far fresher Librería Nacional and Instituto del Libro, which housed an assortment of interesting, new literature and where I could run into people who liked talking literature and politics.

I assume it was in one of those bookstores I bought Vittorio Lanternari´s Movimientos religiosos de libertad y salvacion de los pueblos oprimidos, Religious freedom and salvation movements of the oppressed peoples. A fantastic book that came to have a great significance for how I organized and processed the data I had started to gather around the cult of Dios Liborio, a peasant leader who in 1922 was killed by US occupation forces and now is worshiped as God on both sides of the border with Haiti.

Lanternari described how popular religiosity functions as a means to express notions of indigenous people or peasants. Rituals, myths, legends and songs reflect how these people view their environment and their position within a specific society and social hierarchies. Religion unites social groups, while venting frustrations and expresses various needs of individuals. Religion often constitutes a fixed point in a confusing existence, a source for solidarity and a sense of belonging, while it also provides a language that may be used and referred to by anyone who needs to express her/his emotions and world views.

While dissolution, oppression and other dangers threatening the solidarity of cohesive societies, religion may become a tool for asserting the rights and claims of uniqueness of certain marginalized groups. Lanternari provided a wide range of examples of religion as a carrier of hope and protest, from different times and areas. As a historian of religions and experienced social anthropologist Lanternari presented valuable insights about religion as a social, human phenomenon, with great importance for both social development and as a means for social protest.

Laternari made me consider religion as a human phenomenon. A grandiose, amazing creation - such as music, art, mathematics, philosophy, and literature, to use Nietzsche's words - religion is "human, all too human". As other human creations, religion contains something that is very beautiful, something greater than any individual, a notion of ​​infinity and all the possibilities it contains.

However, religion also includes the opposite of beauty and goodness - cruelty, pettiness, intolerance, intimidation and threats. Nevertheless - why deny the beauty of religion because of its shortcomings? Religion is mystery. Something far beyond our understanding, high above our ability to describe and explain – like the boundless universe, quantum theory and the meaning of life.

Religion is mystery, or as Rudolf Otto called it a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a frightening and fascinating mystery. Like so many others, the German professor struggled in vain to solve the insoluble question of “what is life?", linked with the similar one of  “what is religion"? He was harassed by stifling doubts about the meaning and worth of his research and fell victim to gloom and misery. His friend, the theologian Ernst Troeltsch, tried desperately to snatch Otto away from his life-threatening lethargy and wrote to him that he had to stop allowing the impenetrable riddle of the meaning of life poison his own existence:

You must now above all, pull yourself together, and call to mind the views which you hold for yourself as a man, quite apart from any and every theology. You must have views which are for your own personal use. What you do with theology, we will want to look further into... If it doesn't go well, then you will just have to begin something different. For the moment attend in general only to peace of mind and the strength of the inner man.

Otto gave an impression of being strict and formal and was reputed for being a mediocre lecturer. Theology students at Marburg University, most of whom would become priests, mocked him openly. Several claimed that what Rudolf Otto imparted was not at all any Christianity, but unashamed paganism.

When Otto was 66 years old, he was detained in a mental institution to become detoxed from a devastating morphine addiction. He strayed from the hospital and was a few days later found with a broken leg and foot, after a fall from a twenty-metre high tower. After the near fatal plummet the professor had for several hours lain helplessly in the cold and thus attracted pneumonia, which caused his death a few months later.

The scientific world was told that the renowned professor Rudolf Otto had suffered a stroke up in the tower and fallen over the battlement. Few believed that explanation, especially since professor Otto had been sitting in his hospital room, crying loudly hour after hour. A few weeks before his fall from the tower, Otto had been captured just outside the mental hospital, on his way to throw himself under a train.

I came to think of Otto's sad fate while I was writing about Vittorio Lanternari. I met the Italian professor many years after I had read his book. It was in Rome in 1998. When I two years later sent him a book I had written together with my friend Mats Lundahl, he answered me with a friendly letter:

Dear Jan, thanks for your excellent book, which I read with great interest. I would love to write a review, but find myself in such a deep depression that it is extremely difficult for me to gather enough strength to do anything whatsoever.

I met Lanternari only once, but we came along very well together, among other things, we came to talk at length about Roberto Benigni, whose film Life is Beautiful had premiered a few months earlier. Benigni´s film pays homage to imagination, humour and joy of life as means to deal with evil and despair.

Benigni often takes the world literature to assist him in his fight against pessimism and politically motivated stupidity and cynicism. As his in Italy celebrated stage performances Tutto Dante and I dieci commandamenti in which he with great humour and knowledge preached joie de vivre with the help Dante's Divine Comedy and the Old Testament's Ten Commandments, while he heckled Italy's corrupt politicians and the Mafia.

Through his manic clowning Benigni can occasionally be somewhat tiresome, but if you listen carefully to him and unreservedly accept the way he uses his inflated sense of humour to bring his audience to think critically, he can through its humanistic message and its sentimentality recall the craftsmanship of  Charles Chaplin. Like Benigni, Chaplin was erroneously considered to be of Jewish descent just because he in his masterpiece The Great Dictator, like Benigni in his masterpiece Life is Beautiful, played a friendly, Jewish petit bourgeois who treated his environment with amiable irony and crazy whims.

In the famous final speech he delivers in The Great Dictator Chaplin leaves his clown mask behind, becomes dead serious and let his heart-felt earnestness contrast the brilliant satire he had previously directed against Hitler's pompous oratory. Chaplin's open and honest appearance is a call to all humanity, of which so many at that exact moment suffered under ruthless warfare, barbarism and power-mad dictators.

Likewise, Benigni allows for similar intentions to pierce through his own clowning. Like when he in his film The Tiger and the Snow plays a committed, albeit a little too absent-minded, literature professor who tries to make his dulled students to realize that poetry and joy enrich life. During a lecture he asks his students to wake up and listen - not suddenly and violently, but quietly. He asks them to look around themselves and try to absorb his words. These words may seem to be utterly confusing, but they are deeply and honestly meant. The professor hardly speaks as calmly and with such restraint as Chaplin did, but rushes back and forth while he talks incessantly at a tremendous speed and at one point even lies down on the floor:

Lavish joy! You may be sad and silent, but please, be so with abundance, don´t shy away from your feelings. Let your joy confound gloomy people. How do you achieve that? Show me your notes, the ones I have forgot to comment. Those you were so proud of. That's what you should do! Maybe I have not even read them! But that's not the main purpose of your writing … to be judged. More important is that you convey joy, it will make you satisfied and happy. Even if you share your pain, it may become part of a cure. Be happy! You must suffer! Don´t be scared of suffering. The entire world suffers! Eh? And if you aren´t able to do as I say ... don´t worry. Only one thing is needed for creating poetry … Everything! Use everything and turn it into poetry.

Benigni´s professor assumes that in these times most of us do not even know what poetry is all about. It has disappeared from our lives. He tries to bring it back to his students. Trying to make them realize that it was around them when they were children and that it still may be found out there.

Well then … what is poetry? Stop asking me about it, look at yourself in the mirror: You are poetry! Dress yourself up in poetry! Do it with great care. Search for the right words, it would be like choosing a piece of garment you will impress others with! You must learn to make a right choice among all these words! Sometimes it may take more than eight months to find the most suitable word! Choose carefully, taste the words, search for the beauty of expression.

The professor explains that poetry is a way to see and experience things, to look through the surface, to enter the depths of consciousness:

- Poets don´t watch, they discern! They make us follow their words!

The professor rushes up to the wall next to the blackboard, touches it and then turns hastily:

The word "wall"! Wall ... if you use such a word without thinking about what it really means, then it will not be poetry ... do not use the word “wall” for eight years, thus you may learn what it really means! What do I mean by stating that? Bah! I don´t know! Uncertainty is the beauty of poetry! The feelings words create in you. The unexplained. As the words I have written there.

He points to a few lines of poetry written on the blackboard, in different languages, including Arabic:

Those lines are talking to me and they should perhaps remain there forever. As a means  to turn everything around, to make the past cease to exist. As a sign that we have to start all over again. The lesson is over. Bye, bye, see you again on Wednesday ... uh, Thursday.

I liked Benigni´s movie, but it was generally cut down by the critic, what had angered quite a lot of the professional cinema critics, as well as several in the audiences around the world, was that the film was partly staged in war-torn Iraq. The New York Times wrote:

War may be hell, but for Roberto Benigni it's just another romantic comedy waiting to be filmed.  […] this gnomic Italian superstar has turned his attention to the Iraq war with ''The Tiger and the Snow,'' a scorching affront to Italians, Iraqis and the intelligence of movie audiences everywhere. Mr. Benigni, essentially the same character in all his movies, here plays Attilio, a lovesick poetry professor whose teaching relies heavily on capering hysteria and nonsensical aphorisms. (''To convey pain, you must be happy!'')  […] the grating silliness of these shenanigans pales before their offensiveness; to Mr. Benigni, war is simply another stage for his outlandish ego.

It is the ability to make entertainment of tragedies, making jokes about people's suffering that obviously offend many viewers of Benigni´s movies, paired with his hysterical overacting. Personally, I was shocked when I first saw his film Life is Beautiful. Sure, even then I considered it to be some kind of masterpiece, but became upset by its portrayal of a concentration camp as far removed from the foul hells they actually were. How would, for example, someone like Benigni´s character be able to sneak into a sentry box and over its loudspeaker system reach his wife in a neighbouring women's camp with a comforting message? It would have been utterly impossible, and if it really could have happened, the perpetrator would have been tortured to death.

Ever since the Nazi´s insane mass slaughters of innocent people became widely known virtually every attempt to artistically portray the concentration camps´ hell has been countered with arguments in accordance with Theodor Adorno's famous observation in 1949:

To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric and leads to a realization that it really has become impossible to even write poems.

Though he nuanced his statement by adding:

Perrenial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence I may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether you can go on living after Auschwitz  – especially someone who escaped by accident, one who by right should have been killed, how may he go on living?

For me it is frightfully difficult to read Adorno and I am not quite sure if I fully understand much of his writing. Though the question remains - Should we not write poetry after Auschwitz? As well as the question if it is not reprehensible to joke about war and mass extermination, even if the aim would be to arouse reflection and compassion? Both Benigni and Chaplin have done this.

When my friend Paolo Palmeri, who has been both a student of and colleague with Vittorio Lanternari, to my great joy, invited me home in the company of Lanternari, we came to talk about Life is Beautiful. When Lanternari asked me what I thought about the movie, I said I found it shocking that Benigni had described the concentration camp in such a mild manner. Lanternari´s answers made me somewhat perplexed:

- Why were you shocked by that? Benigni´s film is a work of art. Not a documentary. He conveys a message, paints a picture, and that's the beauty of his film. It awakens thoughts. He is not out to shock. He wants to play with our emotions, mixing laughter and tears. Making  us think is the trademark of great art. Chaplin did the same in The Great Dictator, to which a Life is Beautiful is a worthy successor. Who can forget the geniality of Chaplin´s feat of ridiculing a sinister buffoon like Hitler? An attack by far more efficient and moreover truer than any documentary about that monster in human guise.

- Nevertheless, Benigni´s depiction of the Jews´ tragic situation in Italy appears as a mitigation of the reality. I cannot help but compare his movie with Primo Levi´s shattering Is this a person?

- They are different depictions of the same tragedy. Suffering is never the same for each and every one of us. I myself am a Jew I was born in Ancona, who along with Ferrara, Livorno and Rome was the city that had the highest number of Jewish residents in 1938, the year Mussolini issued his odious racial laws.

I was speechless and felt ridiculous after rambling about my ridiculous views in front of a man who had actually lived through the time Benigni portrayed in his film and who furthermore was a Jew.

- Our family stayed in Italy during the war. We hid in a small village outside of Ancona. All our neighbours knew we were Jews, and we were also well-known in Ancona. But nobody turned us in. Every day the postman came cycling up to us. He often brought letters and packages from our friends in town. Of course, we were officially missing, but neighbours and friends knew where we were. That was my personal experience of the persecution of Jews in Italy, my memory of neighbours´ decency and generosity. What I and my family experienced is certainly unique and special. Maybe it's because of that I'm alive. Others, like Primo Levi, fared a lot worse. I tell you this only to emphasize that Benigni´s film talks to me through its warmth and humanity.  I cannot forget that such acts and feelings also persevered in times of war and persecution, although it is undeniable that barbarism gained the upper hand.

Lanternari, who was a gentle and persuasive man, taught me to appreciate art as art, and not reality. I have since then seen a Life is Beautiful several times and has been moved by what the film really is all about. How a father by turning reality into a play for his young son saves him to life, succeeds in getting him through hell by bringing him joy and peace of mind. The privilege of having had such a father is what makes life beautiful.

The tragedy is that this knowledge is not enough. Darkness, filth and cruelty tend to take the upper hand, defile and destroy us. Like the cold barbarism that finally kills the little boy's father. Yet the boy could beamingly exclaim, when the US battle tank roars through the gates of the concentration camp: "We won!" And they did, they won, even if his father died, his strength and goodness survived within the little boy.

We must not despise what is good and strong in art, religion, literature and music. They are needed in a world like ours, illusion is needed, joy and faith in goodness. It's like Don Quixote´s fight against windmills; an illusion, an idiotic enterprise - yet the Knight of the Sad Countenance won that battle. He is still with us, and so is his belief in the good in humans, a conviction worth fighting for.  The struggle may be hopeless, but it has to be fought, a frightening and fascinating mystery.

Adorno, Theodor W. (1981) Negative Dialectics. London: Bloomsbury. Bradbury, Ray (2013) Fahrenheit 491. New York: Simon and Schuster. Capps, Donald (1997) Men, Religion and Melancholia: James, Otto, Jung and Erikson. New Haven: Yale University Press. Catsoulis, Jeannette (2006) "Dude, where's my Girlfriend: Poet Pines in War Torn Iraq," in New York Times, 29 Dec. Lanternari, Vittorio (1963) The Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults. New York: Mentor Books. Lundius, Jan and Mats Lundahl (2000) Peasants and Religion: A socioeconomic study of Dios Olivorio and the Palma Sola Movement in the Dominican Republic. London: Routledge. Otto, Rudolf (1958) The Idea of ​​the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Zweig, Stefan (2005) Chess Story. New York: New York Review Books. 

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