In the intricate weave of human understanding, it is common for us to turn to an external viewpoint in order to gain a critical perspective. This, so to speak, allows us to examine ourselves more closely, to scrutinize even from behind, where our gaze alone cannot reach. This approach proves particularly useful in exploring national and cultural identity.
Imagine looking at your country from a foreign perspective, perhaps from a completely different vantage point in the world. In my case, the external viewpoint was from a slightly colder and more mountainous corner of Europe, where breakfast did not consist of a cup of fragrant, aromatic coffee, but rather a plate of weisswurst, with sweet mustard and a wheat beer.
A place where friarielli don’t exist, and in bars, there’s no familiar sound of clinking hot cups as they touch each other, heralding the coffee made by the machinist – the true deus ex machina of every bar – by my friend Luciano from Bar Cimmino. How did my hometown appear to me from this new perspective?
Delving deeply into another culture helps us understand ourselves better, transforming initially conflicting or bothersome aspects into opportunities for a deeper understanding of who we are. Between Naples and Munich, where I lived for many years, I learned the importance of exploring the uncharted, which illuminated the hidden facets of my hometown.
Through the eyes of Munich, I discovered the soul of Naples, inspiring an inner journey that materialized in art and writing. To reach our specific goal, we must consider ourselves among those who celebrate this city. Philosophers, poets, travelers, common citizens, and aristocrats have all sought to express their vision of Naples over the centuries, and even today, they strive to find new approaches to do so. It is undeniable that the origin of things remains shrouded in mystery.
To understand it, we rely on stories passed down through time, stories that take the form of myths, origin myths. Naples comes from myth, and to understand it, we must think mythically. However, seeking answers from the gods, the sources of all things, in the hope that they will reveal the origin of the myth of Naples, may still leave us incomplete and unsatisfied in our attempt to fully comprehend it.
The Sirens, Virgil’s Egg, Lake Avernus, and the “Pezzentelle” Souls come to life in unexpected forms thanks to illuminating insights that emerge without warning. My personal inspiration on how to tell Naples originated from the scent of onions. Perplexed? Now I’ll tell you the revealing anecdote of what I finally understood.
One day, I found myself near the Historic Center, conversing with another fellow citizen about the city’s events, which was experiencing a new period of bloom and tourist influx, the opportunity to move elsewhere, both for work and for a potentially better material quality of life offered by this hypothetical new place.
That fellow citizen, after initially embracing this perspective – also promoted by the undeniable complexities the place compels you to experience – shaking his head in a manner tracing more than one concentric circle, said in dialect: “But how can I? On Thursdays, it’s the Genovese sauce that Mrs. Titina makes and brings to my home.”
As he spoke those words, his face lit up. My fellow citizen, a photographer with a studio on Via Tribunali, turned his eyes to the left, clearly recalling the feeling he had during Thursday lunch at his home. Effortlessly, he had found the solution to stay in Naples, and our conversation ended hermetically.
The care, attention, and culinary skill of Mrs. Titina were the indispensable reasons he couldn’t find elsewhere, and Pasquale the photographer’s sincere and spontaneous words embodied the profound philosophy of a people who knew how to appreciate the joy of being content with little, as long as this little was obtained immediately.
Now, we could invoke Proust and his search for lost time in his madeleines, which I’ve always held dear, or we could say – according to an esoteric principle – that giving names to things confers magic upon them. Or more simply, that language doesn’t create but reveals that sautéed onions along with beef stew is the winning formula for feeding and delighting Genoese sailors who docked in Naples once a week. We’re talking about the 15th century. And if they kept coming back once a week – dear friends – I understand why my dear fellow citizen looked forward to Mrs. Titina every Thursday. There was a reason to stay in Naples. Absolutely. Genovese pasta and those who make it convinced us.
This introduction, certainly unorthodox but equally impactful and immediate in its goal of engaging and entertaining my reader, leads me to conclude and simultaneously open the discussion on Naples. I assert that it is naive to want to explain things as they seem. Naples is a chaotically honest chaos, as it has a precise order in presenting its incomprehensible dimension. The only thing we can immediately become aware of is transience.
Transience in Naples takes on a fractal nature, distributed according to rules. It is therefore holographic in function. In every small compositional piece of the city, its people, and thus its complete essence, the never completed exists, and transience expresses itself as an exclusive form of finality. The contradictions that appear on the surface are nothing more than complementary aspects of the same reality that highlight the kaleidoscopic nature of the city, where one continuously suffers while laughing.
This doesn’t diminish its tragedy; it intensifies it. But what is the cause of this uniqueness? Geographic factors, or influences from invading peoples? Could it be the magma?
But can geography shape human culture? According to Kenneth White, there is a precise correlation between artistic creation and the surrounding environment. Lamarck’s evolutionary theory – an 18th-century French scientist – surpasses Darwinism in supporting this perspective: understanding the fate of an organism requires an understanding of its relationship with the environment.
But what kind of genetics forms in the path of ignimbrite and yellow tuff, where among sirens, sileni, and fauns, carefree and untamed individuals dance on a magma of contradictions – joy and pain, ecstasy and agony, benevolence and cruelty, desire and detachment, play and violence – in a place that poets have placed between hell and heaven?
From this perspective, we can imagine the existence of a “genetics of eruption,” an alchemical event that reflects the principle of “as above, so below,” “as inside, so outside,” “as in the tuff quarries, so in the alleys,” “as in the shadow, so in the light facing the sea.” This dialectic between creation and destruction reflects the ambivalence of the city in its numerous incarnations, where the destroyer and the preserver coexist in the form of the god Pan. “Now everyone says to me,” as the great Totò used to say.
In conclusion, understanding Naples remains a challenging endeavor, as emphasized by Malaparte in his novel “The Skin,” and by many others. And who could blame them? According to Bergson – another French philosopher – intellect finds its comfort zone among inanimate and solid objects. Naples, on the contrary, is a current of dynamic stasis; everything moves quickly to then remain, in the place where it is, just as it is, forever.
A permeable passage between two worlds, a place that resembles life, where the absurd manifests as reality, and where living beings sometimes intersect. In this reality where everything is only the transitory form of something else, a substantial part of existence withdraws into the invisible.
However, this doesn’t imply that it ceases to occur, even if it happens in the shadows. This dimension is where space and time are encapsulated in a grammatical concept of six letters, supported by two adverbs: “here” and “now.” “Ca e mò,” as Neapolitans translate the Latin phrase “Hic et Nunc.”
In this interstitial space, in this temporal fissure, transience, elegantly termed impermanence, reveals itself in the invisible, manifesting as a definitive presence, transforming into the metaphor of life. In the “invisible” dwells the vital soul of the city, a subtle connection between Parthenope and her legendary Egg gifted to Virgil, and the “pezzentelle” souls that watch over us from beneath Averno and Via dei Tribunali. It’s entwined with the lives of Neapolitans, their zest for life, the sense of impending death, and the unmistakable aroma of Mrs. Titina’s Genovese pasta, which keeps most of us there, in our homes in Naples.
The archetype of transience. A society that disregards death is dying.