So, Roberto Benigni caused quite a stir on this week. You remember him from La vita è bella – “Life is Beautiful” in English – for which he won the Best Actor and Best Foreign Film awards at the 1999 Oscars.
He’s an extraordinarily talented fellow.
Benigni’s dedication to the project of preserving and advancing Italy’s magnificent and imperiled cultural heritage is proven in a thousand ways beyond the shadow of a doubt, and undeniable. His public persona is at once outsized and approachable. His Tutto Dante tour a few years back brought the great Florentine poet’s work to life for people across generations and social strata.
Thursday evening, during the third night of the San Remo music festival, he left the Divine Comedy at home, and tried his hand at the Song of Songs. Yes, that one.
It was a remarkable moment: a hero of Italian artistic endeavor in this generation and an international star of confirmed genius reading an erotic poem before a packed house at the nearly 2 thousand-seat Ariston theatre, with an estimated 60% of Italian viewers — as many as 20 million people — tuned in.
The problem wasn’t to be found in his delivery, which was perfect. It wasn’t even in the unofficial and erotically charged translation for which he opted. That arguably drove home the evident and undeniable eroticism of the original. The problem was his prefatory gloss.
“The Song [of Songs] is the book of desire,” Benigni said. “Need may be met, but desire, never,” he continued, noting the intimations of the infinite and the fleeting tastes of immortality that erotic ecstasy affords. “It tells the story — not even a story — but — it’s a boy and a girl [a her and a him] who love each other, and represent all the couples — in every part of the world, in every epoch — who repeat the miracle of love.”
So far, so good.
“All the couples!” Benigni went on to say. “The woman with her man, the woman with her woman, the man with his man — and not only,” Benigni continued, “[but] every person who loves.”
Earlier, Benigni had noted how many allegorizing readings of the Song of Songs tend to minimize the simple fact of the subject chosen by the poet. One result of this, is that the self-styled allegorical interpretations tend to fail: they want to read it in “one way” — privileging the “symbolic” pole of the allegory — without realizing the revealing power of the poem when read from the allegorical sense to its plain subject.
In other words: the inevitable eroticism of the poetry rooted in and rising from its subject — which Benigni rightly identifies as desire expressed, dreamt, and consummated — reveals the mystery of the way in which God loves his people, but also reveals the divine power at once contained and disclosed in the physical act of love.
Benigni was at pains to justify his choice of a translation that made the carnal and sexual subject matter of the poem blatant and inevitable. He wanted his audience to pay attention to the text. He wanted to break through the readings that elide the surface reading, and thus make real allegorical interpretation impossible, reducing any such reading to mere interpolation. In this, he was a good teacher.
He called his audience — quite rightly — to a reading capable of accounting for the poetic subject itself, and therefore of constructing any allegorical reading in a manner faithful to the textual sense.
The Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire, quoted the director of Italy’s flagship state television channel, Rai1, Stefano Coletta, as saying: “The Song of Songs has been read by many illustrious personages as the condensation of love between a man and a woman. Benigni has transposed [It. traslato, which is the the past participle of the verb “to translate” in the sense of moving a fixed and permanently deposited article to a new resting place, such as human remains already entombed] this possibility of love so as also to talk about loves between man and man, woman and woman: in the work of a genius there is not discoverable any irreverence, but great respect.”
Methinks the director doth protest too much. That text, in fact, speaks of a man’s love for a woman — not just any man, but her own — and a woman’s love for her man. To sidestep this detail in favor of an easily expansive reading of the applicability of the text, is already an interpolation of precisely that mold, which Benigni reproached in some ecclesiastical interpreters.
“40 minutes of biblical text kept millions of people glued to their screens, smack in the middle of a music festival, late in the evening,” wrote Avvenire’s special envoy to Sanremo, Lucia Bellaspiga. “[It was] a practically perfect operation,” wrote Bellaspiga, “save for that temptation, into which fell even a free spirit like Benigni: to offer the pinch of incense [It. pagare il pegno] to the politically correct.”
Here’s the thing.
I realize that something like what’s captivated the attention of a significant portion of the public here over the past few days, simply couldn’t happen back home. It would be unthinkable for American television in this day. Something very like it wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility too terribly long ago. Even in our overt political discussions, the abasement has happened precipitously.
Watch the Nixon – Kennedy debate in 1960 (it’s on YouTube) or even the VP debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.
Everyone remembers Bentsen’s savage snub: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” When Quayle protested, “That was really uncalled for, Senator,” Bentsen offered, “You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.” People decried that episode as indicative of a debased and degraded public discourse. It appears statesmanlike by comparison with the fare to which we are treated in our day.
This week, I think of the hyperventilating — from every quarter — over the Super Bowl halftime show. For one thing, isn’t the chief complaint against the halftime show that it’s in the middle of a football game, and why can’t they get on with it? For another, J-Lo and Shakira sharing a stage sounds like the hottest ticket in 1997.
Imagine the bishops’ paper sending a special envoy to the Super Bowl (and getting a hot take from Mark Silverman)? First, you’d have to imagine the bishops having a paper. In comparison with the way the culture wars are playing out here, it strikes me that the guys who suppose themselves to be leading back home — on both sides — aren’t really in the fight at all. They’re playing the video game version.
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