Politics as Dancing
by Carlo Levi.
Farrar, Straus and Young. 442 pp. $3.75.
Every place has its own kind of time. This includes the pace of its people in their work, entertainment, action—the rate of speed at which things move and happen there. But the time of a place is also something more than pace. It is part of the landscape, both the visible landscape and the hidden landscape of memory and feeling. It has to do with the depth of the surface image, the length of the historical reflection underneath it, like the reflection in water underneath a tree. In different places, streets, objects, ideas descend different distances into the past.
America, for instance, builds and acts on a thin time crust—its constructions reach upwards rather than down; its politics take account of the immediate future rather than of the past. Its watchword is the tempo by which the materials of the earth are transformed into things that can be seen, touched, used—the word Productivity.
American time has stretched around the world. It has become the dominant pace of modern history, especially of the history of Europe. Other places, other peoples, find themselves overlaid by the American time surface—they are in, or under, this American time. The recognition of this fact is part of every European revolution. In its serious days, Bolshevik doctrine specifically enjoined party members to purge themselves of Russian sloth, egotism, and nostalgia and acquire “American efficiency”—according to Albert Rhys Williams, Lenin “was constantly assailed for having a peculiar leaning toward America” and was called by his enemies “an agent of Wall Street.”
Among European countries, Italy suffers in the extreme from a conflict between Italian time and the time Italy is in. The time of the land of the Caesars and of Rome conspires with its astringent sunlight to keep things motionless and intact, as if they stood in a vast bowl protected from the air currents of change. Objects get emptied out there and crumble, nothing is left of them but an outline, but they are not transformed. Yet, especially since they turned to Fascism and war, the Italians also became enveloped in the ground mist of modern historical time, through which finally they saw armies clash in their fields, bombs fall on their towns, their means of livelihood disintegrate—until their liberation was declared and the fabulous GI’s dashed among them in jeeps.
In The Watch, Carlo Levi, who studied the time that stopped two thousand years ago at Eboli, has sketched the landscape of the double time of Rome and Naples, with its old palazzi turned into weird apartment houses, aristocratic ladies collapsed into black-market peddlers, intellectuals who are peasants underneath, politicians who are priests in disguise. Levi has a physical sense of the hollow of time in which his country lies. In Rome, he says, “the sky is not so high” as elsewhere, and at night you can hear from all parts of the city a low indistinct roaring as of the lions of antiquity or “like the echo of the sea in an abandoned shell.”
The spirit of modern chauvinism is the veneration of local time and a burning hatred for universal time, that is, for modern history. You behold this spirit in its freest state in a D. H. Lawrence, a chauvinist of all places, and with a passion to plunge into a native black or a native brown time while trying to extricate his tail from the machinery of Western change. . . . The opposite of the chauvinist spirit is that of the radical internationalist, in whom local time is dead or for whom it exists only as a bitter barbaric residue.
Neither a chauvinist nor an internationalist, Levi experiences the Italian counterpoint to contemporary time as a fact of the human universe, a mystery. The native time that lives in him is a reality that he both embraces yet feels the need to transcend; the universal time in which he lives is a counter-reality that he both fears yet feels the duty to confront. In the rather crude symbolism with which he has chosen to tie together his sketches of places and people, the Italians need a watch, though they are bound to feel clock time as a tyranny and something in them has broken the dial and bent the hands of the watch they have.
The important thing is that both these times shall meet and produce a single time. In a tempo that will be both their own and universal, the people will free themselves and make their own history, in their own image. Such a human renewal of time means revolution—but not the revolution arising from the chauvinist intoxication with local time nor that produced by the radical hammer beat of a time detached from place. The true revolution can only be the merging of the local and world rhythms into a single genuine duration.
That is what happened briefly in the Italian Resistance, when men and women all over the country felt their own time surge up in them and mingle with the motion of world events. It was a surge of dancing, in which inner beat and external tempo are combined.
Milan was in ruins, but—“the streets were filled with an exuberant, inquisitive and happy crowd. They were going to meetings, to rallies, for a walk, or who knows where? They all seemed happy to see one another, to breathe, to discover themselves again, to feel they were alive. . . . The people of Milan danced, the night deepened, the dancing continued without interruption, as though a miraculous trance controlled the muscles of those girls who had eaten so little for so many months. The lanterns went out one by one, and the dancing still continued. . . . In that light, in the whole city, the people of Milan danced, embraced one another trustingly, as though it was the first night of the world.”
That dancing was the Italian revolution. It was one of those moments, as with the British at Dunkerque, when politics or war becomes a close, personal act, when the individual reaches his own height in communion with others, when the past gushes through the present into a broader stream.
“‘One can’t go on dancing forever,’ I thought vaguely.” The Watch is the account of how the dancing ceased and of what was left in the morning. It is a narrative of the end of the movement in 1946 when the Resistance premier resigned and the professional politicians called a halt to the music of change. It reflects the yesterday of triumphant hope, a hope that was an anticipation of a different metaphysical condition of being, against a today in which Italy’s two times have become sundered again, the Italians are sinking back into their old forms of life, and history is once more becoming strange to them.
The Rome through which Levi walks after he has come to take over the editorship of a Resistance newspaper is a landscape of misery and hallucination—black-market stalls whisk in and out of their camouflage; the stranded Poles of General Anders’ army, unhappy liars all of them, have replaced the Americans in the bistros; crooks, whores, and beggars have brought their techniques into line with current conditions; the intellectuals are mixing new brews out of every conceivable cliché. The new is wedged like a weapon into the flesh of the old. With a lively eye and an open intelligence, Levi notes the appearances, as well as the shudderings of pain and of effort shown in the yarns, fables and oddly formed opinions, of this folk “driven into a time that was not their own.”
Once the dancing had died down there was left to Italy its poetry of the past and its magnificent sky. But fallen apart into its double time, the country could not create any new poetry. It would have to raise its productive capacity—and to the Italians this meant not poetry but prose, a rhythm not from within. Yet lapsing into their ancient lethargy, they dreamed of an American paradise of depthless speed, a contemporary myth on the far side of the sea of purification. “To live over there,” says Matteo, the linotyper, who had worked in America, “one must first forget a few things, also songs. It’s a great country, everything’s different. You feel it’s different, not because of the houses, the skyscrapers, the subways, the elevated. It’s different because they never turn to look back, and they don’t have anything behind their shoulders. . . . You might just as well forget your real name, it doesn’t count for anything. We always have something over our shoulders: the family, the country, the party, our own ideas, and what has happened before, but over there?—Nothing. . . . You must forget everything, throw everything away and always start from the beginning. You must plunge into the water. . . . It’s like a revolution that burns up everything that was there before. That’s the only way to become an American. You have to enter the circle and run like the rest, hurrying faster and faster. America runs. It’s not built like a house that stands firm on its foundations the way we’re made. It seems instead like a huge top or a huge gyroscope that rests on the ground on only one fine point and still stays steady because it’s whirling, and the faster it whirls the steadier it is. . . . The first colonists had left behind, with no will or chance to return, Europe with its worn parapets and its ancient gods and history. From this voluntary gesture of renunciation was born the new thing that was America. This gesture with all it stood for was the American baptism.”
With society deprived of its dance tempo and with the touch of American time turned to a fantasy-revolution, Italian politics re-assumed its old definition. Once again it had become the function of the professionals centered in ageless Rome, a “country outside the world and outside of time.” Existing above their own time, like the bureaucratic Luftmenschen in all the capitals of the globe, they would attempt to reconcile the physical time of Italy with its American dream time. But living apart from time, they would only reconcile the two times as abstractions and would create nothing.
For Levi and his friends, these professionals, and those who thought and felt like them, were the enemy. “Rome signified all those negative aspects of a world that was false and had failed; its name stood for the centralization of power, inept and parasitic bureaucracy, nationalism, fascism, the empire, the bourgeoisie.” But Levi has no answer to the bureaucrats (who has?). Without the dancing he and the Men of the Resistance were no longer political men. “They [the Left and the Right] said he [the resigning Resistance premier] was not a man of politics, that he represented no real force, that he the not know how to maneuver among entangled games of special interests, that he was nothing but a neutral and symbolic figure.”
For Levi politics means the “eternal” moment of popular enthusiasm, and only those moments. When I talked with him shortly after the war, while the Resistance was still in power, he was impatient with questions concerning capitalism, Bolshevik organizational techniques, loans, relations of production. How could these determine the future? The new energies in the Italian people would transform everything. Politics consisted of hoping for the prolongation of the dance.
Perhaps the conversation was pointless on both sides. If the “historical elements” I referred to were going to dominate the situation, there was no reason why we, interested in human time and dancing, should concern ourselves with it. On the other hand, if the future was to be a completely creative novelty, that would be a miracle about which nothing could be said in advance. At any rate, with the essential social energy of politics missing, as well as its essential value, Levi had only the choice of joining the enemy or lapsing into inactivity and “irresponsibility.”
This choice between “bad” politics and no politics is a tragic choice—a kind of Hamlet impasse that exists in many countries today; for example, one reads of its afflicting gifted youths in Israel. For there is, apparently, no remedy for the decline of that popular vitality that gives meaning to political action; yet, to follow Aristotle, without politics man is not his own kind of animal. The politics of the dancing “moment” may be utopian—and it is probably naive to remark: imagine what England would be like if the spirit of Dunkerque had been sustained. But this politics is revealed to be not at all Utopian when the matter is put negatively: imagine what England would be like if Dunkerque had never taken place, if Dunkerque had been impossible for the British. Are not the Germans an example of a people devoid of their moments, or whose moments have been contaminated by hate and indifference to the human? (Rosa Luxemburg criticized the revolution of 1918 because it forgot to abolish capital punishment.) The politics of the dance is a politics, even if it does involve time-vacuums and tragic stalemates.
Fundamentally a landscape painter, Levi lacks the passion to communicate the tragedy of the modern frustrated will for creative social action. Though an exile under Mussolini, and today, in a sense, still an exile, he writes with a sort of soft detachment, if anything even more pronounced in The Watch than in Christ Stopped at Eboli. He is genial, warm, and at times sympathetic, but self-centered, over-conscious of his particular interests as an artist and thinker, on occasion almost smug—a rather typical anarchist-intellectual temperament. The symbol of the watch, with which he tries to provide a beginning and an end to his tour of encounters, adds little in feeling or comprehension to his concrete observations. Nor are his philosophical comments either profound or original—“the time of a watch is the exact opposite of the real time inside and around me.” Sensitive to Italy’s two times and that they are out of joint, Levi has the ambiguous good fortune not to be too unhappy about it. But if, as Paolo Milano says, The Watch is a “narrative mural,” and only that, its distinction lies in its historical perspective, a rare merit among contemporary writers.