Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Ponte dei Santi e Defunti, and On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters

It’s hard to say anything about the dead that doesn’t reveal at least as much about the living speaker (or writer) as it does about the silent and absent subject, just as it’s hard to talk about the past without revealing more about the present and its attitudes than one may intend or typically acknowledge.

This past weekend was of course officially given over to thoughts of the dead, with Friday, November 1, being the Festa dei Ognissanti (All Saints Day), and Saturday, November 2, the Commemorazione dei Defunti (All Souls Day).

And for the first time in 69 years, this link between the living and the dead has been given literal expression here in Venice in the form of a floating bridge running from Fondamente Nove to the cemetery island of San Michele.

The Patriarch of Venice and the Mayor of Venice were both present at an inaugural ceremony of the Ponte dei Santi and Defunti on October 31, but despite the attention given to this reintroduction of an old tradition, no one seems quite sure whether this will be repeated next year, much less in years after.

Looking at it with an admittedly jaundiced eye, the appearance of the city’s non-resident mayor at the opening ceremony of a bridge which for its opening weekend was open only to residents or those with a Venezia Unica card, leads me to suspect this may be a one-off election year stunt, intended as evidence of how deeply “devoted” the mayor is to the city’s dwindling population and traditions.

True, the decline of the city’s resident population has continued unabated during his administration (despite his election campaign to increase the resident population by 10,000), the poisonous weed that is AirBnB has been allowed to flourish (making housing even harder to find and more unaffordable for residents), more resident-oriented properties have been allowed to be re-zoned for tourist purposes (such as the retirement home on Riva degli Schiavoni now being turned into yet another hotel), more and more resident-oriented businesses have been replaced by candy store chains and take-away fast food joints, nothing has been done about the high levels of particulate matter spewed out by the increasing numbers of cruise ships docked along the edge of the city, nor about the predations of mass tourism, etc, BUT the mayor is always ready to appear for a photo-op in the interests of promoting either his re-election hopes or his own business interests.

From another perspective, the image of Venice’s “first (non-resident) citizen” stationed on Fondamente Nove and ushering residents onto a bridge leading straight to the cemetery is all too apt. He’s done little during his first term to make me doubt that for him, and those like him, having actual residents living in Venice is nothing but a costly, inefficient, and unnecessary nuisance. To paraphrase the title of a story collection by the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, I can imagine the mayor welcoming residents onto the bridge with the words “This way to the cemetery, ladies and gentlemen.” As in Borowski’s title, this imagined stroll for Venetians is intended to be a one way trip.

This past weekend of the dead has also made me think a lot about a short essay about Venice—and beyond—by the Italian philosopher and Venice resident Giorgio Agamben. In fact, it’s an essay I’ve thought about a lot for the two years or so since I first read it, as it’s a bit challenging and curious and bears, I’ve found, multiple re-readings.

It’s title, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” acknowledges its debt to Nietzsche’s famous essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” in which he warns of the danger that the dead may be allowed to “bury the living.”

Agamben’s essay also concerns itself with the relationship between the past and present, and the dead and the living, and, using the so-called “dead” city of Venice as his focus, suggests that there is more than one way of being dead. And that some of those ways are more productive than others—for the living, that is, who operate according to these different conceptions.

He writes of two kinds of posthumous existence, or "spectrality," the second of which he further defines as being "larval":
Spectrality is a form of life, a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality thus has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which is completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them. It is creatures of this kind that Henry James learned to perceive in Venice (in his ghost stories he compares them to sylphs and elves). These specters are so discrete and so elusive that it is always the living who invade their homes and strain their reticence.

But there is also another type of spectrality that we may call larval, which is born from not accepting its own condition, forgetting it so as to pretend at all costs that it still has weight and flesh. Such larval specters do not live alone but obstinately look for people who generated them through their bad conscience. They live in them as nightmares, as incubi or succubi, internally moving their lifeless members with strings made of lies. While the first type of spectrality is perfect, since it no longer has anything to add to what it has said or done, the larval specters must pretend to have a future in order to clear a space for some torment from their own past, for their own incapacity to comprehend that they have, indeed, reached completion. (italics mine)
I read, for example, about Paolo Costa and the Port Authority’s big (and costly) public works plan for an offshore port near Lido and I wonder if it’s this larval type of spectrality that drives it, or, at least, is counted upon to win its approval, with its romantic evocations of Marco Polo, and of a distant past when Venice was poised at the center of the trading world--and no mention of how the melting ice of the Arctic is opening up new sea routes to the north that are likely to undercut this reanimated centrality no less than the discovery of the southern route around the Cape of Good Hope displaced the Venetian Republic at the end of the 1400s.

The refusal (by the living) to acknowledge what is well and truly past, to acknowledge the utterly changed and changing circumstances of the present, render these attempts to recreate the Past-as-Future not just farcical (as Marx famously put it in his tidy formulation that history happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce), but seem rather like dangerous states of "possession": as obsessive and compulsive as they are absurd.

For Agamben writes that the life of the larval specter “is the most liturgical and impervious condition, [in] that it imposes the observance of uncompromising rules of conduct and ferocious litanies, with all their special prayers for dawn, dusk, night, and the rest of the canonical hours.”

So the nostalgia, for example, for American dominion and utter impunity, or of British might and “autonomy”--and, more specifically, of the dominion and impunity of a certain notion of white masculinity in America and Britain and Italy, too--leads to fever dreams filled with paroxysms and contradictions, in which “Others” are vilified for supposedly not living up to the very standards which the self-appointed arbiters of them have abandoned even the pretense of following. As Agamben notes, and as any observer of American, British or Italian politics can't help but notice, “the larval specters who live among us”--given agency in the bodies and voices of the ghouls these specters haunt--are defined by their “lack of rigor and decency.”

Well, these are some of the things that Agamben’s essay makes me think about.... But you can read the 2,000 word essay for yourself online, or find it in English in the collection of his essays entitled Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, and published by Stanford University Press (2009).

I think it's one of the great short pieces on Venice, which, in the course of meditating upon the distinctiveness of this small odd city, open up vantage points that extend far beyond the lagoon.

The floating bridge to the cemetery island is now open to everyone until 10 November, from 7:30 am to one hour before the close of the cemetery at 16:30 (for those setting off from Fondamente Nove). That is, the latest you can walk to the cemetery on the bridge would 3:30, but you can return on the bridge from the cemetery when the latter closes at 4:30).


  1. Very thoughtfully written...
    and quite frightening.

    1. Thanks, Ella, and, yes, alas, Agamben writes a ghost story that is, in its real effects, rather frightening!

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, your writing, and the essay recommendation. I'm sorry I won't be in Venice to walk this temporary bridge (no matter how much of a publicity stunt the revival of the tradition may be), but I'm glad to at least know about it. Thanks, as always, for your words and pictures!

    1. I hope I'm being too pessimistic, RPG, and it is reborn as a meaningful local event on non-election years as well. In which case, you may get your chance to experience it yourself. Thanks for you kind words, and I've been meaning to mention the Agamben essay quite literally for years (like far too many other worthwhile things I've read on Venice that deserve mention).