Friday, January 20, 2017

Venetian Life, American Life

When certain Italians want to suggest the utter corruption of their own country they'll refer to it bitterly as "the country of Pulcinella." In his classic study of commedia dell'arte Pierre Louis Ducharte describes the stock character of Pulcinella as "selfish, strongly inclined to sensual and epicurean gluttony..., self-centered and bestial, [with] no scruples whatsoever, and... exceedingly cruel." In other words, Giandomenico Tiepolo's image of a crowd of them above (from Ca' Rezzonico) might depict today's inauguration. 
So, I say, I grew into early sympathy and friendship with Venice, and, being newly from a land where everything, morally and materially, was in good repair, I rioted sentimentally on the picturesque ruin, the pleasant discomfort and hopelessness of everything about me here.

This is one of the strangest sentences in one of my favorite books about Venice: Venetian Life, by William Dean Howells.

Originally published in 1866, it's the most comprehensive and observant book written in English that I've read about the experience of living in Venice.

Howells was just 24 years old when he arrived in Venice in 1861 as the newly-appointed US consul to the city. He'd written a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln and, upon the latter's election, this post was his reward. He would occupy this post until 1865, before returning to the US.

During these years Venice still groaned bitterly under Austrian rule--and all the more bitterly for having recently watched almost all of the rest of the Italian peninsula be unified in the new Kingdom of Italy, proclaimed in March of that same year by Vittore Emanuele II. Venice's economy, its buildings, and its morale all were in shambles, and Howells vividly details both the shambles and the enduring splendor, ever wary of how the city's charms lead most chroniclers into all sorts of romantic falsifications.

In fact, Howells readily admits that he himself isn't immune to those charms, and a central vivifying tension in the book is between Howells the young literary realist and government official--committed to close observation of all classes of contemporary Venetian life and its economy--and Howells the ardent young man who can't stop those Byronic notions of the place and its history from crowding into his head every time he comes upon some marvelous sight.   

A century later another ardent young man, James Morris (who would become Jan Morris), would ultimately succumb to the charms of the place--and the pleasures and excesses of his own prose style--and produce an excellent book on the city that at times sacrifices credibility to intoxication. Howells, however, never loses his balance so completely. And he's honest enough, as above, to admit that part of the pleasure of the city comes from its very decrepitude.

This is a classic Romantic theme in Venice. But because Howells is a detailed chronicler of both the individual human and larger social suffering that make up that decrepitude, his admission carries with it--in his own opinion, and not just that of some of his readers--a certain amount of ethical culpability. This is in contrast to, say, Bryon, whose own exquisite suffering as he imagines the suffering of the unfortunate seems to trump his subject's own actual pain.

Or another way of putting it: Byron philosophizes and sighs over the once great Republic's fall while he blithely--as his friend Shelley recounted, and criticized--purchases Venetian girl children from their destitute pimping parents. Howells details the city's desperate economic and political conditions and imagines the real world changes, the modernization, that must at some point be made to improve the lot of its citizens--while guiltily admitting he'll miss the "picturesque" aspects of life that must be lost as a result of such salutary changes.

But that's not what I find to be the strange part of Howells's sentence at the top of this post. No, the part I can't get of out my head these days is his rather astonishing claim that he is "newly from a land in which everything, morally and materially, was in good repair."

In fact, by the fall of 1861 when Howells arrived in Venice, his native land was well into its own bitter and bloody Civil War: the rout of Union forces on July 21, 1861 in the first Battle of Bull Run having quashed any delusions that the Confederate secession was going to be easily put down.

Perhaps, based upon a very selective and limited perusal of the US states of the north in 1861, one could declare that "everything" in America was "materially in good repair." But for as long as slavery continued (and, alas, even thereafter), Howells's claim that his native land (whose economy, north and south, rested on slave labor) was "morally in good repair" was just plain hogwash.

And at least part of him knew this. For later in his book, after making an explicit comparison between the boats of those "dauntless traders" of earliest Venice and "our own [ie, American] western steamers", he immediately turns to the subject of the early Venetian "slave-trade, [which] formed then one of the most lucrative branches of Venetian commerce, as now it forms the greatest stain upon the annals of that commerce." He then summarizes, with obvious censure, the various forms that slavery assumed in Venice during its centuries of existence there, which "continued as late as the fifteenth century, and in earlier ages was so common that every prosperous person had two or threes slaves," before concluding:
The corruption of the citizens at this time is properly attributed in part to the existence of slavery among them; and Mutinelli  goes so far as to declare that the institution impressed permanent traits on the populace, rendering them idle and indisposed to honest labor by degrading labor and making it the office of bondsmen.
Of course any time we write about a foreign place we're also writing about our native land. We can't help but engage in an extended series of comparisons--at least implicitly--between the culture we come from and the strange place we've gone to. Better travel writers are aware of this, and often do so explicitly; the worst are utterly clueless, and fall into a tiresome chauvinism.

Perhaps one way of talking about travel writing is to start with the question of what function does the foreign place serve for the writer? What does it do for her or him intellectually or emotionally or spiritually or aesthetically?

Some travel books end up telling us more about the place (culture) from which the writer came than about the place that is his or her ostensible subject. Take Tim Parks's An Italian Education, for example, in which I think I learn far more reliable information about certain English attitudes than I do about the Italian ones he's describing. His narrative arc is the familiar Anglo-American-in-Italy one about his corruption by the latter.

Other Anglo-American travel writer find themselves "liberated" from the strictures or blind spots of their native land after arriving Italy. Though typically pitched in terms of the "ecstatic," these narratives can be as tiresome and dubious as the chauvinistic ones, as they're simply the flip side of the same either/or coin. 

But in spite of his "early sympathy with Venice," in spite of his susceptibility to the spirit of idleness he finds in the city, Howells holds tightly not just to American ideals of industriousness, but to an ideal America--an America which, in spite of the Civil War and slavery, is somehow "morally and materially in good repair."

This fictional good repair at home, this supposedly solid base, is what in fact allows the young man to safely "riot sentimentally" on the picturesque ruin and hopelessness and idleness of Venice. With such a solid nation to return to, Howells need not fear drifting irretrievably into the seductive laxity of Venice. (That's to say, writing even before Lawrence and EM Forster, much less our recent best-sellers, he's too early to imagine himself "eating, praying and loving" his way to self-realization in Italy.)

What I wonder about, though, is what would have happened to Howells--at least in his own mind--if he'd admitted that, in fact, while he lived in Venice his divided nation was in real danger of collapse? Was it guilt that he himself was not involved in the struggle at home, sheer defensive pride in his homeland (and employer), or a sop to his subsequent readers that made him so completely whitewash the situation in his own country during the years he spent in Venice?

Maybe what I'm wondering about here is something long the lines of: if the relationship between home and abroad is always at play in travel writing, how does the nature or tenor of that relationship change when the situation in one's own home country is dire? Other writers from around the world have written in and about just such circumstances. But have American writers, even when the very survival of their nation was in question, ever copped to it? Ever given up the security of this fiction of a country "morally and materially in good repair"--and not simply to assert that Italy (or some other place) was the solution to whatever they thought ailed the US? What would it mean to do so?

In recent months, and on this day in particular, this question is always on my mind.



  1. Being -as I am- a passionate reader of good travel literature and also a lover of the laguna of Venice, I have often looked for "the XXI century book about Venice". Some months ago, I realized that this "suposed-to-be" book should probably be in the form of a blog like yours. Well, in fact, I think that your blog is -up to now and as far as I know- the best one about this fragile small planet called Laguna di Venezia. This unique combination of well-documented posts about serious issues and short poetic impressions about the elusiveness of moments and every day life is a gift that I greatly cherish twice a week. Thanks again, Steven.

    1. Your remarks are so kind, Lluís, that it's taken me some time to process them.

      I've wondered about the present relationship between travel writing and the book form and whether the way many (most?) people read now has started to make the book form in many ways obsolete when it comes to this subject. Certainly, when it comes to travel guides the book form seems to be seriously losing ground to electronic media. So what kind of writing about travel is better served by the book form?

      If our relationship to a physical book is different than to an e-book--more of a "commitment" in a sense in the former case, as a book has a literal presence in our lives that an e-book does not--then what kind of travel writing would make for a book that people would keep on their shelves long after any trip to the location has passed?

      I don't know if that even makes any sense, and generally I just don't know. But I do know I have not wanted to "monetize" this blog, as so many things one reads on line are so heavily monetized and often in a way that makes one wonder if what used to be considered "advertising" concerns are influencing content. In which case, among the appeals of book form is the prospect of perhaps getting paid a bit! But there's also a sense that the printed book persists in a way that an e-book does not; can be returned to and flipped through in a way still impossible with e-books. (Though perhaps I'm just old-fashioned, as I prefer books when it comes to content I really care about to e-books.) So the question remains, what would make the handling of a subject (travel) so susceptible to "timeliness" suitable to a publication form that is now probably the worst when it comes to getting things out in a timely manner?

  2. I cut Howells some slack in that problematic sentence because of the verb tense. Isn't he comparing Venice with the America that he had experienced up to 1861? For all I know, Ohio was in better repair morally than Venice. Or not. But this is a quibble. Your point is well made. It's a thought-provoking essay. And I should reread Venetian Life. - Tom

    1. I may be being overly hard on WDH, Tom, but perhaps because in so many other instances he's more self-aware and nuanced than many, or most. And mostly because I suppose I'm trying to think about what I don't think it's an exaggeration to call the present crisis in America through a writer I like a lot. But I learn so much when I read Venetian Life--about all those things & people that don't appear in other writers of that time (or, often, this one): the working poor & what they did to survive, how they lived, the burattini shows, caffe culture around Piazza San Marco... Anecdotes like the one about the Venetian father who, when asked about his son's career choice, responded proudly that he spent the days in a caffe on the Piazza!