Monday, April 17, 2006

An Encomium for Manzoni

He cannot have had a very happy youth. To avoid the constant family quarrels at home, he was sent to school very young. He was nervous and timid, and the experience gave him a sickener of schools, like that of many of the the young peoples now forced to study his works too early. To this may be due the constant nervous troubles which haunted him all his life. For he had an almost psychopathic sensibility, as has been noted by Lombroso. He hated meeting new people, was terrified of crowds, had great difficulty in writing, and would break off at any excuse, sometimes for months at a time. He could never go out alone, and felt voids opening up before him when he had to cross a street. Stories are told of his ordering servants to drive away birds in the trees under his windows, of his weighing his clothes several times a day. At the news of Waterloo he collapsed into convulsions. Abnormally modest and retiring(he was always running down his own works), he was silent except among a few intimate friends or the family circle, dubious and sceptical even about the most apparently obvious facts, and so forgetful that he would quote his own writings, thinking he was quoting others.

Archibald Colquhoun's description of Alessandro Manzoni does not inspire confidence in this man's artistic abilities. Yet Manzoni's only complete novel, The Betrothed, is a true masterpiece which skyrocketed onto my favorite books list within its first hundred pages. The plot is simple: in early 17th century Italy a wicked Spanish duke sets his eyes on the innocent betrothed maiden Lucia. His goons intimidate the cowardly parish priest into postponing her wedding to the poor tailor, Renzo. After the duke's violent acts force the engaged couple out of their home village, they are separated, and Manzoni spends the rest of the novel getting them back together.

Manzoni provides flesh to elements only traced in our modern epic films: a lawless aristocracy, riots, famine, war and plague all make their appearances. His characters include a saintly Capuchin monk with a murder in his past, a corrupt abbess forced into the convent by her princely father, a mercenary-assassin leader known only by the fearsome title "The Unnamed," the nephew of St. Charles Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo, and a man so learned he disproves the existence of the plague which is killing him and his family.

The scenes and descriptions of the Milanese plague are horrific, and the shadows of terror and freak mutations lurk behind every dead body, reminding us that we are only newly-protected from mass death. Manzoni's discussions of plague control provide a cautionary tale for any government official planning for a pandemic: "The sick were not reported, undertakers and their superiors were bribed, and junior officials of the Tribunal itself, deputed by it to visit the corpses, issued false certificates, at a price." Undertakers deliberately spread plague to ensure further business, while the sick, sometimes after being robbed of all their valuables, were taken to the Lazaretto. The Lazaretto itself provokes comparisons to New Orleans' Superdome, and indeed the entire city during Katrina: nobody wanted to go where they were ordered to go, while paranoid rumor and mob violence walked hand in hand in a city out of control.

The book is suffused with Christian imagery and themes: sin, redemption, and grace are never unnoticable features. Colquhoun, the translator of the Everyman edition which I read with delight, suggests the work is in some ways a response to Voltaire's Candide. Unlike Panglossian optimism, Manzoni's Christians do not deny the cross but embrace it.

I have quoted Manzoni's novel previously, but he deserves a further collection for his expert phrases and visceral insights:

Laws came down like hail; crimes were recounted and particularized with minute prolixity; penalties were absurdly exorbitant; and if that were not enough, capable of augmentation in almost every case, at the will of the legislator himself and of a hundred executives; the forms of procedure studied only how to liberate the judge from every impediment in the way of passing a sentence of condemnation; the sketches we have given of the proclamations against the bravoes are a feeble but true index of this. Notwithstanding, or rather in great measure for this reason, these proclamations, republished and reenforced by one government after another, served only to attest most magniloquently the impotence of their authors; or if they produced any immediate effect, it was for the most part to add new vexations to those already suffered by the peaceable and helpless at the hands of the turbulent, and to increase the violence and cunning of the latter. Impunity was organized and implanted so deeply that its roots were untouched, or at least unmoved, by these proclamations.

On the parish priest:
Don Abbondio, continually absorbed in thoughts about his own security, cared not at all for those advantages which risked a little to secure a great deal. His system was to escape all opposition, and to yield where he could not escape. In all the frequent contests carried on around him between the clergy and laity, in the perpetual collision between officials and the nobility, between the nobility and magistrates, between bravoes and soldiers, down to the pitched battle between two rustics, arising from a word, and decided with fists or poniards, an unarmed neutrality was his chosen position. If he were absolutely obliged to take a part, he favoured the stronger, always, however, with a reserve, and an endeavour to show the other that he was not willingly his enemy. It seemed as if he would say, �Why did you not manage to be stronger? I would have taken your side then.� Keeping a respectful distance from the powerful; silently bearing their scorn, when capriciously shown in passing instances; answering with submission when it assumed a more serious and decided form; obliging, by his profound bows and respectful salutations, the most surly and haughty to return him a smile, when he met them by the way; the poor man had performed the voyage of sixty years without experiencing any very violent tempests.

On mankind:
I leave it to the reader to think how the journey was enjoyed by those poor creatures[chickens], so bound together, and held by the feet with their heads downwards, in the hand of a man who, agitated by so many passions, accompanied with appropriate gesture the thoughts which rushed tumultuously through his mind; and in moments of anger or determination, suddenly extending his arm, inflicted terrible shocks upon them, and caused those four pendent heads to bob violently, if we may be allowed the expression; they, meanwhile, vigorously applying themselves to peck each other, as too often happens among friends in adversity.

Here are the words of a lawyer kowtowing to his criminal employer:
"For, you see, if you know how to manipulate proclamations properly, no one's guilty and no one's innocent."

Here is a description of an aristocrat, resembling many an internet blogger:
"The words of a strong and wicked man sting, but not for long. He can grow angry at your suspicions of him and yet make you feel at the same time that they are justified; he can insult you and make himself out to be the injured party, jeer at you and pretend he is in the right, bully and yet complain, flaunt his vices, and yet be irreproachable."

Manzoni saw through all governmental price-fixing schemes, describing one price-regulating government official thusly:
"He acted like a woman past her first youth who thinks she will grow younger by altering her birth certificate."

Manzoni also captures in words a phenomenon I have long seen in crowds, yet never noticed:
"and everyone rose up on tiptoe and turned to look in the direction where this unexpected arrival had been announced. As they all rose up, they saw exactly the same as if they had kept their heels on the ground; but so it was, they all rose."

So, too, does the author keenly attack those who routinely invoke prudence as a justification for inactivity:
"they may have been the kind of prudent folk who shrink from virtue as from vice, and are for ever preaching that perfection lies in the middle--and fix the middle just at the exact point where they have arrived themselves and are comfortably settled."

On governmental excess, again:
"Anyone who can imagine such an edict being executed must have a pretty good imagination; and certainly, if all the edicts issued at that time had been executed, the duchy of Milan would have had as many of its citizens on the high seas as England has today."

And on human nature:
"we mortals are generally like that: we rebel furiously and violently against mediocre evils, and bow down in silence under extreme ones; we endure, not from resignation but from stupidity, the very extremes of what we had at first called quite unendurable."

Yet again on useless laws:
it was a common thing in those days, as various parts of this story show, for decrees both general and particular to remain a dead-letter unless they had been put into effect in the first place, or unless there was some powerful private animosity to keep them alive--they were rather like bullets which once they have missed their target lie on the ground where they worry no one any longer. This was a necessary consequence of the great facility with which such decrees were scattered about. Man's activity is limited; and the more of it is put into giving orders, the less goes into carrying them out. What goes into the sleeves cannot go into the gussets."

And a few remarks upon the obvious:
"This was the beginning also of Don Ferrante's troubles. As long as he did nothing but jeer at the opinion that there was a plague, he found ready and willing ears everywhere; for it is amazing how great the authority of a learned man is when he wants to prove to others things of which they are already convinced."

Finally, the words of Manzoni's peasant Renzo, who had been abused by knowledgable obscurantists like myself:
"That's not the Latin that frightens me: that's an honest sacrosanct Latin, that of the Mass; and you have to read what's in the book, too. I mean that rascally Latin outside church, that comes at one unawares in the middle of a conversation."

Wit and wisdom abound in this most rewarding and commendable book.

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