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Friday, November 27, 2020

Child of the Century

 I cannot prove this or weave too large a theme out of it, but I think there is a Mediterranean modernism, one that takes up the challenge of Nietzsche’s Gay Science.

“Man has gradually become a phantasmal beast, which has to satisfy a need more than any other beast: man must from time to time believe, know, why he exists, his species cannot thrive without a personal trust in life. Without the belief in reason in life! And time and time again the human race decrees that there “is something about which it is absolutely forbidden to laugh.” And the most foresighted philanthropist would add, not just laughing and the gay science, but even the tragic with all its sublime irrationality belongs to the means the necessities of species preservation! And thus! Thus! Thus!”

Nietzsche’s gay science entitles a minor tradition that I’d call Mediterranean modernism. I’m thinking about figures like Pirandello, Unamuno, even Borges. In the post-war period, I’d include in the cut Sciascia and Pasolini. As the list shows, there is something very masculinist about this modernism, although it is also one in which the macho ethic is definitely mocked. When the late De Chirico forged the paintings of his earlier self, he did it not only for the money but because it was funny. That’s the classic Mediterranean modern gesture.
In the forward to Mist, Unamuno’s novella, the protagonist of the novella, Augusto, comments on his author:

“Don Miguel is fascinated by the buffo-tragic… …a tragic farce or a farcical tragedy, not one in which farcical or grotesque elements are mixed with tragic, but one in which the elements are fused – and confused – into one.”

If we are living in some post-something era – that is, one that has broken with the past and at the same time has the past in its craw, unable to swallow it – then I’d nominate that something as “seriousness”. In other words, we are in the era of the Freak. Of course, one could say we have been here, some of us, for a very long time, and that seriousness and its other, Rameau’s nephew, have been having a ‘discussion’ for 275 years now, long before the defining event of the 20th century, the global collapse of peasant societies. History is the history of false beginnings and bogus endings – it proceeds through the limbo of trends to the next catastrophe with the rictus of laughter painted on its face, our It, our Pennywise. As such it is the very image of the insufficiency of the serious. Myself I have a special affection for the buffo-tragic. I feel it in my bones.

This is what I get for having grown up a sarcastic boy. I’ve internalized that joker, but I still feel the tickle in my ribs in every one of my thoughts. Which makes me a typical specimen, a child of the century.
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