Monday, February 13, 2006

Point(s) of view

Boris Johnson talks about the single viewpoint created across the Roman Empire by Augustus. The man sure had high rolling PR: Virgil, Horace, Propertius, but, though Boris doesn't mention it, there must have been similar stuff at all levels, right down to the most tawdry souvenirs, pamphlets, charms, etc. As an example, he gives the Battle of Actium, when Antony and Cleopatra turned and fled leaving the field (waters) and the empire to Augustus.

For a decade and a half before that, Antony had been the supremo in the East, and it is conceivable that the empire could have been split in two. There must have been an Antonian propaganda machine, another way of looking at things, but it was disassembled and junked way back then when Augustus was sewing up the future. So now we have the Great Roman brought low by lust; the scheming but oh-so-alluring Eastern whore befuddling his senses and fatally undermining his manhood. The Augustan Team did their job well; now there really is basically just one way of seeing the Battle of Actium and much else of that time. ('History will judge us kindly', Churchill told Roosevelt and Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. How could he be so sure? 'Because I shall write the history'.)

Boris asks, Will the French and the British ever have the same view of Waterloo? It seems doubtful. As a demonstration of goodwill ("Call me an idealist"), he suggests that, to start building that Common European Point of View, every schoolchild by the age of 16 should have read Book IV of the Aeniad. That's the one when Aeneas walks out on Dido. (I wonder what the subsidies to maintain a Common European Point of View would amount to over the decades, and what its effect would be on Third World literature. Would it come under the jurisdiction of the WTO?)

But there's work to do at a much lower level than the European Union. One of the most striking aspects of Italian political life is the number of 'mysteries' still unresolved after 10, 20, 40 years. Put 'misteri d'Italia' into Google and you get 200,000 sites. Open the first, and the front page lists 27, though one of those includes "8 massacres; 150 dead; 39 trials". Britain is such a tame place. I'm sure that those who are keen on such things could find a few, but they would never compare in scale or depth to the Italian collection.

I wonder if this, too, isn't a question of points of view. The UK has been politically stable for many centuries, and its institutions are relatively well-established and trusted. There is one goverment, and generally, there is a broad consensus on most things. The death of David Kelly, for instance, was potentially a fertile ground for conspiracy cultivation, but once the official inquiry was completed, talk died down very quickly. This doesn't seem to be the case in Italy.

My hypothesis is that, at least in part, Italy is rich in mysteries because it does not have a single source of authority. There are too many 'active agents' and too many well-established powers away from the centre. The big split, of course, is that between the Church and the State, about which you could refill the sea with speculation. Then there are the para-military powers of the Mafia in Sicily, 'Ndrangeta around Naples, La Sacra Corona in Apulia so 'interpenetrated' (forgive me) with the State that it is unlikely that any of us will live to see their end. Not too speak of the entirely legitimate regionalism of the country, or provincialism, or parochialism - for the visitor, one of the glories of Italy, but an impenetrable block on the road to unity. Mussolini said once, "It isn't difficult to rule Italy. It's useless." Could it be that one of the gifts of stability is this single authority that imposes on reality a 'single point of view'. I'm not saying it is necessarily the truth. However, it functions as such, and in so doing saves a lot of time.

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