Uncomfortable culture – Interview with Moni Ovadia – part two


Moni Ovadia, ever kind and amenable, agreed to let us interview him on two separate occasions. We conclude here the publication of the interview that began in the previous issue.

Do you think that in Italy we may eventually re-appropriate our culture?

I think so. Once we have reached rock bottom. Obviously, this time we haven’t understood how deep that bottom is. It is as deep as the Mariana Trench. Italians, including part of the government opposition, have let Italian democracy become disfigured, allowing a sort of caudillo rule the country to serve his own interests, his populist demagoguery. It’s a disgrace. I believe that future generations will spit on our graves for allowing it.

In this regard, a phrase by Clio Pizzingrilli comes to mind: “We must find a way to get rid of the murderers, but a way that has nothing to do with the current putting-to-death, which is a prerogative of the murderers themselves. This gives us food for thought. In the end, the crux lies in just how to get rid of the murderers”.

To achieve this we must understand one thing: democracy is a process. All processes must be constantly reactivated. If we think that democracy is a gift from above, and not an achievement to be defended, like health, we’ll lose it. Democracy is like the health of a body: it is not given forever. If you do not look after your health, you lose it; so too with democracy. And we have lost it, because we have let the disease prevail. We did not take any preventative measures. We did not treat it. Even now, when it has almost metastasised, we are ignoring it.

It seems as though we didn’t even notice it happening…

No, because preserving health implies sacrifice, training, constant attention, effort. The Italian people are greatly indifferent to many issues. The indifferent never want to work hard, and just thinking itself is hard work: let someone else think for me. I recently watched 12 Angry Men by Sidney Lumet for the umpteenth time – I watch it every time it is shown on television – an amazing low budget film that takes place in just one room where twelve jurors must decide the destiny of a young man. To all evidence he appears guilty but, thanks to the obstinacy of a single respectable man, the young man will be acquitted because we realise that, really, the evidence and clues do not hold water. At one point, as they are washing their hands in the bathroom, one of the jurors, who will later come to understand this, asks the other: “Don’t you ever reflect on things?”, to which the other says yes. And the other juror says, “I let my boss think, I work”. Here is the characteristic of too many Italians.
The majority of the ruling class in this country has not loved its people. They have been too preoccupied with rhetoric, instead of ensuring that democracy be widely applied. There are too many people in our country who do not even know what the Constitution of the Republic is. I had occasion to witness this myself when I sat on an examination board for a school final year Law exam, as I have a degree in Political Science. When the students from private schools in Padua came in to me, since I felt sorry for how tired they were – I remembered how exhausted I had been at the time of my own high school diploma – I said to myself that I would ask them easy questions because I really didn’t care whether they knew what a promissory note was. This is not important. The important thing is that they are good citizens: let’s see how it goes with public law. So I asked the kind of questions you could answer by just having read the newspapers. I asked those private students of Padua, “Who makes the laws in our country?” Some of them answered: the President of the Republic. And those people went to vote!
I have got a proposal for a government bill for the future: no matter if you do not know maths or physics, Latin or the sciences, but you can’t leave compulsory education without knowing the first part of the Constitution by heart – off by heart and commented in your own words – and without knowing the Charter of Universal Human Rights of Geneva and Paris, again, off by heart and commented in your own words. If you do not know them, you are not granted a certificate from school, which means you do not go to work and do not get a driver’s license. This would make for true citizens. You could not make it retroactive; we cannot expect a man of fifty to go back and study these things. Though, if it were up to me, being the Jacobin I am, I’d do that too. We should start like Gherardo Colombo, who wrote a Constitution for nursery and primary school children, so that kids could go home and when they saw their father doing something unconstitutional, they would be the first to say, “Dad, you shouldn’t do that, because in our country it is against the law”. Can you imagine the effect? If this were a school obligation, from kindergarten until the end of one’s studies, it would have a huge impact on consciousness.

Do you think that art can change anything?

Art can play an extremely important role provided, of course, that the country invests in art. It allows you to understand, to do.

So, do you believe that through culture we can find some way of making changes?

Without culture we are nothing. Culture is knowledge. Since working and learning are human-specific activities, without knowledge only work remains. Without knowledge and growth, without the creation of relationships with the world, with ourselves and with others, work becomes slavery, a servitude.

As in the above-mentioned article 1 of the Constitution where, as a matter of fact, the word “work” should be replaced by the word “exploitation” …

Indeed… exploitation, deception, that sort of thing, because, well, work, job insecurity, etc. … Every time they speak, there’s this so-called turbo-capitalism, which has demonstrated its vileness, its inefficiency; for decades and decades it was acceptable to talk about flexibility, redundancy: it is a disgrace.

And disguising the meaning of words, whereby flexibility actually means insecurity …

Oh, sure …

But it seems to me that, especially in Italy, there is a drive from all quarters to suffocate culture in any way possible…

Yes, inevitably, because it is irks the powers that be. Because culture is critical, and such a mediocre power as the one we have cannot stand up to a comparison with it, because it doesn’t have the means to do so. So the ruling class then tries to lower the level; to destroy the higher level, in order to make people believe, in some way, that it understands something about it.

In your opinion, has television contributed to this dumbing down?

Television has caused real devastation since Berlusconi came on the scene. Commercial television. RAI (state television) was not exactly the best but we did listen for hours to Pasolini’s talks; there is no comparison. Now 99% is total crap, apart from precious exceptions such as Gabanelli, which account for only 5% of television.

Does art have the potential to do something in this regard?

Yes, art possesses the formidable tool of pietas. Take, for instance, theatre. Theatre, by convention, agrees to be fake; thanks to this convention, which is innocuous, it can tell the truth. Art can tell the truth, because it is a transfigured language which doesn’t claim to possess divine truth; with its ability to transform relationships, it can address even the most terrible issues, exploring them without being destroyed by them. But artists have to be conscious of their role.

Besides yourself, do you see any other artist in Italy who has taken this kind of issue on board?

Of course; there are actors and poets, scholars and writers, first-rate people who do this. Unfortunately, their voices are drowned out or very marginalized. Speaking for myself, not because I’m so important, but just to give you an example: I do not take part in certain television broadcasts, and I don’t have access to others, because they keep me away.

Yet, despite even comedy being made into television, shows like yours manage to be successful, even though they offer a much more refined type of comedy, which requires patience, listening, and a certain commitment.

I have been lucky, from a certain point of view: I have had great support from the best press, and also from local press, and sometimes even from the radio and television; this is undeniable. Moreover, I was very keen not to be intimidated, not to listen to the sirens of “ah, but the public wants this, wants that”: all nonsense. This counts for much less than the so-called pundits of information and of show-biz language would have us believe. I had faith in the public and the public rewarded me, but I do not have an audience that allows me to talk to millions of people in my own words. Take Dario Fo, a supreme artist, or others like him: we are relatively marginalized. The scene is dominated by the Big Brothers, by the Celebrity Survivors, by silly talk shows that repeat a dull, stultifying format. Obviously, they have an audience because the level of perception, of enjoyment has gradually lowered; therefore, the lowest level performances capture the largest audience.

In your opinion, can art still have a revolutionary power?

It could; it could play a revolutionary role. It’s not a coincidence that the great satirists are marginalized by television. That means that the powers that be are still afraid of them. Art, with its ability to expose hyperbole, to transfigure and tell things as they are, showing us the naked emperor, could certainly have a revolutionary role. Of course, art-making is excluded from the big stage and is relegated to a smaller public. No matter how great that public is, it is always small.

Quoting a famous citation, you mentioned the “naked emperor”. This also makes me think of another era in Italy. What do you think of 1968 and the years immediately afterward?

From a certain point of view, it was a very galvanizing season; it contained within itself embryos for questioning, a desire for innovation, for breaking with prejudices and out of moulds. From another point of view, it actually came to invalidate itself, since only the most trivial and affected aspects have survived. 1968 was a microbe that let in neo-capitalism, with all its junk, i.e. mass culture. So, 1968 did not in fact accomplish what it set out to do: it was swallowed up before it did. It is no coincidence that an impressive number of people involved in the protests and movements of 1968 ended up in the ranks of the most conservative and reactionary groups.

Thanks to our much manipulated sources of information, our collective imagination associates 1968 with the terrorism of the “Years of Lead”. In your opinion, does that mean we are afraid this might be true?

This is an underhand operation aimed at dismissing the radical aspects of that phenomenon. What was 1968 asking for? It was asking for knowledge to be available to everyone, to be no longer the preserve of a caste; that was definitely something of value. It was asking for civil liberties, demanding that power be imaginative, that is to say: we’ve had enough of power, with its self-referential mechanisms. Power must be put in the hands of human beings, of citizens; they should have the freedom to transform society and the world so there is a substantive, not formal, democracy, one of equality, of equal dignity. Of course, these kinds of things are always dangerous and explosive; if they are identified with terrorism, then they can be swept away with the rest. It was a bit like the Bolshevik Revolution: we have almost forgotten that the Tsar was a cutthroat and that Russia was a feudal country. Then, the Bolshevik revolution did indeed turn into a Stalinist nightmare, but it had asked big questions, inflamed great passions. It had been a huge dream, dreamed by great men, who then became victims of their own dream; but, in short, communism was not only Stalin, it was many things. Nevertheless, if it is identified with Stalin, it can be cancelled, therefore wiping out the questions it posed, which are still uncomfortable questions.
For example, we have a self-styled democracy. You see how hypocritical and disgusting it is. We now have a two-tier system : for poor citizens like us, there is the free market, which is free to trick us and dupe us, through the mechanisms of unscrupulous use of price management, misleading advertising, and the ignoble positions of privilege that exist in large corporations. Just think of the telecommunications companies: they do whatever they want. If a law like the Sherman Antitrust Act, passed in the United States to mitigate capitalism, were made by us in Europe, we might come closer to a true democracy. But instead the corporations form monopolies and cartels; they cheat. We have seen it all. So here we are: there is the free market for us, and socialism for the big corporations; they survive only because the state gives them money.
Just yesterday I went to Locarno to see a dear Swiss friend of mine; he told me that the Union de Banques Suisses, the largest Swiss bank, had gone bankrupt. UBS, whose income is six times the Swiss GDP, has filed for bankruptcy. The Swiss state, to prevent the disaster, wanted to give 60 billion euro to a bank that was worth 30. They are so poor, they say that labour is too expensive but, when they cock up, then no, they have to be given money. We have gone beyond all decency. At least Barack Obama, who is a great president, said: all managers go home. Whoever is guilty of causing the disaster is sent away. That is the least that should be done in the name of decency. And then he talked about defending work, “as long as work is defended”. At last! But the capitalist system, turbo-capitalism, is not willing to move in the direction of a collectivist society.
I think that a market economy is fine, but within a socialist society, where the State intervenes to correct distortions and to defend workers; it allows businessmen to have their legitimate income, but prevents them from speculating, from getting rich at the cost of the poor; a sort of Social democracy, at least. Well, Barack Obama has moved some way in this direction, because the great myth of capitalism of Milton Freeman, of the Chicago Boys, of capitalism that produces wealth, is a hoax, the biggest hoax in history. They did whatever they wanted to, whereas what they deserved was to starve to death. I would manage to destroy companies as well, if they paid me as much as they pay them. Destroying businesses is a very easy task indeed; perhaps I could even do it faster. Do you think those managers are living in 60-square meter apartments? They have their own villas, swimming pools, golf courses…! And they say capitalism encourages competition and merit: lie upon lie upon lie. But, unfortunately, bamboozled by media and by the use of mass culture, humans beings have been so stripped of their ability to understand, that a real rebellion has never taken place.
I have heard about Marchionne’s merger. He, on the other hand, is a capable manager, although Fiat has pocketed vast amounts of money as well. The State, as Sigmund Bauman says, has lost its function; even fighting for the national welfare state is a waste of time: we must begin to fight for the planet welfare state. While international corporations make mergers, i.e. FIAT merging with Chrysler to then merge with Opel, workers of different countries, the Italian, German and U.S. workers and trade unions, should form a large supranational union, to look after everyone’s interests; not the Germans and the Italians against the U.S., fighting against each other. Let’s defend  ourselves all together, let’s do something!
The left has lost its throne; the left has been dealing with piddling issues instead of dealing with real problems. It has split; the hammer and the sickle have split – “I am more to the left, you’re more to the right,” saying it was acting in the interests of the working class when, actually, it has not been able to pursue any large-scale, significant strategies.

Unfortunately, there are no adequate reactions from the people…

But, haven’t you seen? This crisis has eaten away their savings but have people taken to the streets? Now, I don’t mean they should have staged a revolution but at the very least, I thought, millions would occupy the streets and say “until you give us a reason for what you did, we won’t move from here”. No, two of the unions negotiated shameful agreements. In Italy, the only trade union worthy of the name is the CGIL which, however, finds itself isolated. Do you see how low we’ve sunk?

Could it be that the parties have lost their own identity, and consequently a sense of belonging, as has happened to most Italians?

That could well be. I’m already amazed that a populist, adventurist Right, led by a master who has become progressively richer, doesn’t make people stop and think. Paradoxically, we are almost worse off today than in the days of fascism: worse, because fascism did actually occur. Here we are in rags and that guy does nothing but make himself richer: he is screwing us, can we not see that? It is shocking, he is not a trustworthy man, and is giving the country a woeful image. But why? Because the Left too has been corrupted by the comfortable life of politicians: no one pays for anything anymore. Politicians who lose the elections should go home. Come on guys, you are the political class who, in ten years, have accomplished nothing. Go home! Go home, all of you!

That is what would happen in any serious company…

Ah, but there are not so many serious companies. Those who caused the harm have gone off to other firms, with princely golden handshakes.

Not only that: there are politicians who, once they have left politics, become managers of companies.

Yes, but Jospin went back to being a professor, and Kohl … who has heard anything more of Kohl? He was a great statesman. Of course, to me he was always an opponent, but I take my hat off to the man. He is the one who guided German unification, he is an important link in the history of his country. Then, for one venial thing, for failing to disclose a source of funding … finished, gone! Nobody talks of him anymore. In Italy, he would have been promoted, he would have become President of the Federal Republic and later Pope.

We are living in a strange situation of illusion because, as things stand at present, it seems that there is no longer any censorship; actually, my impression is that it is simply more subtle, more indirect…

It is not true that there is no censorship: that is how it seems to be, but when they do not want you to hear, they intervene. Do you know that the Corriere della Sera did not report the news of Berlusconi’s divorce? His wife’s request for a divorce was not reported in the Corriere della Sera.

Sometimes, in fact, it is enough just to be silent for information not to be passed on.

Call it gossip or whatever you like, but how can the Prime Minister not give the news that his wife has filed for divorce after the ignoble uproar of the showgirls at his parties and the eighteen-year-old girl who calls him papi. A man, who in this country is liked by mothers, wives and families, who has humiliated his own wife! He humiliated his first wife’s children, who are his own children. I don’t know, in Italy there is a part of the population that is totally drugged, unable to see, as though they were blind, deaf and dumb. The great Mayakovski said: “We are not slaves, slaves are dumb.” But unfortunately it seems it is not like that.

Do you think that it has become acceptable that what counts, even for a work of art, is just a thing’s profitability in economic terms?

It’s not even that, because when they want to give money to their incompetent friends they do so, they can find it. Their idea of commercial profit is completely idiotic because if, in the past, profit had been the only factor, today we would not have the Sistine Chapel, or the works of Michelangelo or Bernini, or anything. Therefore, a country like Italy, whose policy is to make profit from everything, very well deserves its works of art to be sold and given to the Japanese, to the Spaniards, to people who would make better use of them. Claiming that motives are dictated by profitability is idiotic. For the public to benefit, the return must be long-term. For example, Italy excels in the field of fashion, but the advantage of its legendary good taste was created also by Fellini, by Italy’s allure and by the commedia dell’arte. These things, too, have contributed to Italy’s position of excellence.

In your opinion, can an artist who has fully succumbed to the rules of the market still be an artist?

I cannot say that Picasso was not an artist just because, according to one terrible joke, when asked why he had made many very similar paintings, he answered: for money. A great artist can also choose to use his art to make money. I do not believe in myths, you know, like art or extraordinary talent; but certainly we remember Picasso for many other things, other than because he sold a lot of  paintings. We remember him for the legendary Guernica, we remember him for his civil commitment. And also for his paintings that represent human suffering. Picasso didn’t paint a portrait of a rich man with his rich daughter on a yacht, idling and raking in the cash. I don’t think so. Money cannot be the subject of art, and so it is very difficult for an artist to live for money. He can. But he can do it himself, his art cannot.

In your opinion, is, or should, an artistic project, whether in theatre, in literature, in painting or in any other field, be a life project?

In my case, it is. To my way of doing things, it is always a matter of a relationship with the great human themes, with great suffering: it is a way of understanding man, of understanding his destiny and allowing him, through artistic transfiguration, to understand and also to reinvent himself. I believe that a great show, as well as a great painting or a great book, can change a whole life.

As we said before, in Italy we should feel privileged, since we live in a country that has great traditions, deep roots and a rich, multi-faceted, nuanced language. So why, in your opinion, has the language of the people, but also that of many writers, become generally so mediocre?

The impoverishment of the language corresponds to the impoverishment of society. Mass society needs standardized, schematic language and this affects society as a whole; therefore writers cannot use sophisticated language because they haven’t got an audience who understands them. So, the discovery of a nervous, fast language can be an advantage, but it often leads to mediocrity. The loss of many dialects and of their rich language is also an impoverishment: mass society, from the point of view of culture, is devastating.

In the end, according to the well-known proverb, if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas…

Yes, it is what we are seeing now. It is undeniable; we are seeing it happen every day, every hour.

In your opinion, why do so few authors, in various fields of art, deal so little with their own culture and roots?

It depends; it is not really so true. It is actually the country that does not care. Let’s take an example. Today there were some delegates sent to us. If we made a connection with what happened yesterday and with all the impact of that on our culture; if that became common knowledge, we would realize that we are just like those poor souls whose fingerprints are taken in order to then marginalize them. And this is uncomfortable: so, it is better to push it away, to remove valuable elements, a piece at a time and, in the course of a TV show, ultimately eliminate the way to a different vision of the facts. Of course, the invasion of a treasure like this is a threat to power. The power needs “yes sir”, not thinking people.

What do you think of Erri De Luca’s work, both as a translator and as an author?

In my opinion he has played an important role. Being a talented storyteller, he has made an impression, his books have sold in significant numbers. For instance, his understanding of both the Yiddish and the Hebrew languages has allowed him to tell stories in a much richer and more meaningful Hebrew and, because he is well-known, to do very important work. This is because he has understood some fundamental things: he understands that a people is represented by its language, he understands the differences between the Jewishness of the Diaspora and Orthodox Judaism, but also the important differences between the religious establishment and the profound truth, that is never that of the clerics. And in this sense he has done very valuable work, in addition to his intrinsic value as a writer and a thinker.

To conclude, I would like to  put to you a thought by Yashar Kemal, the Turkish writer who has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. “If the people of a country want to live well and happy, first of all they must respect and embrace universal values and ensure free thought without boundaries. […] The cultural richness of our country is in our hands.”

This is a very legitimate thought; we ourselves are responsible, beyond any question: it depends on the choices, courage, and determination consented by our culture. How does the country intend to proceed? I agree, definitely.

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)

Here the first part

Next articleLa califfa aka The Lady Caliph (1970)
Heiko H. Caimi
Heiko H. Caimi, born in 1968, is a writer, screenwriter, poet and teacher of fiction writing. He has collaborated as an author with publishers Mondadori, Tranchida, Abrigliasciolta and others. He has taught at the Egea bookshop of Bocconi University in Milan and several other schools, libraries and associations in Italy and Switzerland. Since 2013 he has been editorial director of the literature magazine Inkroci. He is one of the founders and organizers of the traveling literary festival Libri in Movimento. He collaborates with the news magazine "InPrimis" keeping the column "Pages in a minute" and with the blog of the writer Barbara Garlaschelli "Sdiario". He published the novel "I predestinati" (The Predestined, Prospero, 2019) and edited the anthology of short stories "Oltre il confine. Storie di migrazione" (Over the border. Migration stories, Prospero, 2019).