Tuesday, June 23, 2009

part IV

Interlude: From de Jorio to Troisi

Massimo Troisi, the late Neapolitan actor devoted to napoletanità [27], makes comically explicit the synecdochic function of Neapolitan gesture:

“Veramente c’abbiamo un lavoretto. Allora mio marito ha detto, va bene. Se si tratta di lavorare di meno tanto di guadagnato. Chist’ ha detto no. Forse non ci siamo capiti. Ho detto che teng’ per voi un lavoretto. Mio marito ha detto, un lavoretto, scusate lo dice la stessa parola, lavoretto, si lavora di meno. Chist’ dice no, non ci siamo capiti. Teng’ per voi un lavore...Non guardate a me. Guardate ‘a mano” [28].

In this skit, Troisi is playing a Neapolitan woman, who talks about the trouble she has with her husband. In this scene, Troisi’s hand (open palm, palm down, moving in a circular motion as if polishing a table top) represents the nature of the job being offered to the husband (an under the table job). But in saying, “Don’t look at me. Look at my hand,” the hand becomes more than the truth behind the words; the hand is the gesturing person. Gesture scientist David McNeill writes that the hand that gestures is symbolic: “The hand is not a hand,”[29] but rather that which it is mobilized to express. I would argue that the Neapolitan hand that gestures is symbolic, not only of the thoughts or feelings of the gesturer, but also of the gesturer’s cultural identity: it is not just any hand, it is a Neapolitan hand, the “spokeshand” for Neapolitan selfhood.

Contemporary Neapolitan gestural practice and the use of the dialect continues to keep the outsider on the outside: “The Neapolitan dialect seems to be metaphor itself...Among street vendors, especially, metaphors are heard that are so witty and clever that not only foreigners, but even our own provincials do not understand anything”[30]. Everyone, even a provincial from one kilometer outside the city, is an outsider, and thus the Neapolitan “I” is never them. Private life may be lived in the public sphere on hot summer nights among the inhabitants of the bassi, and public fighting may be a theatricalization that serves to keep public order [31], but in my view, these practices serve primarily to keep the stranger estranged.

27 Troisi’s theater group was called La Smorfia after the Neapolitan book of numbers, as well as being a reference to making funny faces. In his films and interviews, he spoke in Neapolitan dialect and produced exaggerated (even for a Neapolitan) gestures. Troisi was absorbed into Italian culture as “one of us” even as he forcefully presented himself as Neapolitan.
28 Troisi, Massimo, Lello Arena, and Enzo Decaro. “L’annunciazione.” La Smorfia, 1977.
29 McNeill, David. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
30 De Jorio, 271.
31 “De Jorio notes that, with the crucial participation of bystanders, quarrels often become transformed into an event which everyone enjoys, including the litigants themselves. This process may well have developed as a means of social control, keeping quarrels in check and preventing them from becoming dangerous.” Kendon, ciii.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Francia o Spagna," Part III

Andrea de Jorio’s Neapolitan Pride Project

In his chapter “L’Europe finit à Naples,” Nelson Moe devotes considerable space to a discussion of writings on Naples, characterizing them as swinging “between visions of Arcadia and the apocalypse” [18], between Europe and Africa. Between 1750 and 1885, Stendahl, Renan, Sade, Staël, Dickens, Goethe, as well as many Italians from the north and south, all weigh in on Naples, either demonizing it for its alleged barbarity or glorifying its picturesque quality. 

Andrea de Jorio came from an elite family of the island of Procida and was Canon of the Cathedral of Naples. His interest in gesture, archaeology, and Neapolitan folklore developed during a period of strong philosophical interest in gesture (Diderot and Condillac in mid 18th century France, Engel in late 18th century Germany) and folkloristic-archaeological inquiry into Naples. De Jorio wrote in an atmosphere of support for archaeological research, support that initiated in the Napoleonic period and continued with the Bourbons once they were restored to the throne in 1816.  

De Jorio became interested in compiling a detailed guide to Neapolitan gesture while acting as a tour guide for foreign visitors to Naples’ archaeological museums and sites. As a docent at the Real Museo Borbonico, de Jorio found that comparing the gestures of the ancients found on the Greek painted vases with those of modern day Neapolitans lent insight into how they should be interpreted. “For some years we have had the idea of describing the gesturing of the Neapolitans, so widely praised as it has always been, and of explaining, as well, its perfect resemblance to that of antiquity” [19]. The Neapolitans he refers to are the “commoners,” the street vendors and their clients whom he describes as characteristically vivacious. The “foreigners” are those on the Grand Tour, interested in antiquity and Neapolitan folklore.

“...the questions that foreigners are always asking we Neapolitans about the meaning of one behavior or another, as well as affection for our native land, has increased our determination to its fullest to illustrate, as far as we can, even the apparently disreputable aspects of the very interesting customs of our country that are, in reality, full of philosophy, and could be said to be Roman, Greek, Natural. Indeed, we remain very unhappy that our manner of expressing ourselves with gestures, so noble in its origin, so charming, joyful and pleasing in its performance, so useful and sometimes so necessary for its effects, should be unhonored and neglected still” [20]. 

Here, de Jorio works to transform or unmask the “apparently disreputable” as having noble roots and philosophical function. I regard this move as a precursor to the current strategy of Neapolitan identity formation, one that casts its net more widely to encompass any and every marker of difference.

As a member of the elite, de Jorio simultaneously recognizes and ignores class distinctions, mobilizing the “we” to confirm that there is one Neapolitan popolo. The commoner is noble, and we, the elite, are commoners [21]. Writing before the articulation of the Southern Question, but in conversation with travelers on the Grand Tour, de Jorio’s rhetoric does not fall neatly within either anti-southern discourses of southern elites nor glorifying discourses of the visitor to Naples. There is nothing of the Franchetti belief that southerners cannot help themselves; Neapolitans, from de Jorio’s point of view, do not appear to be in need of any help at all. 

De Jorio completed La mimica in 1832. His study, a “close reading” of body position, orientation, direction, and dynamics, works under the contention that the common Neapolitan folk preserved ancient culture in their bodies; the human body ”as much a historical document as a charter or a diary or a parish register” [22]. Kendon writes that de Jorio’s book acts as a defensive treatise, one that aims to show that the common people of Naples “are worthy of respect” [23]. Kendon also notes that de Jorio “appears to have regarded gesture as a mode of expression shaped by local custom” [24]. In other words, the consistent, tenacious, and resilient gestural practice of everyday Neapolitans generates a positive identity and resists pressures to conform to Italian national and international codes of self-presentation. 

Though de Jorio hoped his book would serve as a practical guide for archaeologists and artists, he appears to have been most interested in defending his popolo against accusations of barbarity. He writes, 

“Finally, we have never intended to enter into quarrels with those superficial writers who too often like to impute ignorance to our low people. If they mean that they are ignorant of mathematics, astronomy, the dead languages, etc., they speak the truth; but if ever they maintain that our low people are lacking in natural philosophy, in talent, in spirit, they are in error. Therefore, in the course of the work, and as far as circumstances permit, in regard to the material itself, we have aimed to show the mistake for which they may be blamed” [25].

Again, it appears that de Jorio was committed to elevating the ordinary Neapolitan in the eyes of the dismissive, often repelled foreigner, because he recognized that the barbarism associated with such ordinary people blemished the image Naples in general (and might negatively affect the reception of his work as well). Schneider writes, “Having studied the classics in England, France and Germany, they [the Grand Tour travelers] made the journey to Southern Italy, as to Greece, in search of an unspoiled antiquity; but the recent histories and societies of the living peoples of these places marred the experience” [26]. This is precisely the circumstance that de Jorio sought to redress in his book. By tilting the perspective on the behavior of the lazzarone from barbaric to noble, he moves to transform the uninformed visitor’s scorn into educated respect.

But de Jorio is also making a proprietary move: by reading the gestural content of ancient images found in Naples and its surroundings, de Jorio was able to locate their value in the bodies and culture of everyday Neapolitans, stripping the foreign archaeologist of his expertise: only a native can understand; the outsider remains outside. By transmuting the barbarous into the noble, de Jorio’s ethnographic project insists upon a complexity of Neapolitan cultural practices that defies any accusations of primitivism. 

De Jorio’s project was to redefine rather than deny foreign accusations of Neapolitan barbarity and backwardness. By tracing the gestures of the ancients forward to the bodies of his “street vendor” contemporaries, de Jorio, in a sense, reappropriates negative stereotypes to produce a positive version of Neapolitan identity.

18 Moe, The View from Vesuvius. 61.

19 De Jorio, 4.

20 De Jorio, 6. It appears possible that de Jorio’s effort to elevate the Neapolitan masses by linking them to the ancient Greeks may amount to a cult of napoletanità, not entirely dissimilar to the later Fascist move to equate modern Italy with ancient Rome: “The cult of ‘romanita’’ remembered the glories of Ancient Rome through everyday practices such as the Roman salute and the omnipresence of Roman iconography on stamps, coins, and public buildings” (Andall, Jacqueline & Derek Duncan. “Memories and Legacies of Italian Colonialism.” Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. J. Andall and D. Duncan, eds. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, (10)). It is precisely the focus on “everyday practices,” whether salutes or idiosyncratic gestures, that leads me to this idea.

21 This reminds me of Marco Purpura’s recent discussion of Gianni Amelio’s comment, “siamo tutti albanesi.”

22 Thomas, Keith. “Introduction.” In A Cultural History of Gesture. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, page 2.

23 Kendon, lv.

24 Ibid, lxv.

25 de Jorio, 10. De Jorio performs a similar defense of the Neapolitan dialect. Under the section titled Dimunitivo, he writes, “Let us tolerate peacefully the contumely with which some foreigners believe they denigrate our language, calling it a language of children because of the copious number of diminutives with which it abounds. Rather, let us celebrate the glory of speaking an idiom that is so rich and capable of expressing with a single word both the object and its quantity” (183). He also cites Galiani’s Vocabolario delle parole del dialetto Napoletano, che piu’ si socostano dal dialetto Toscano, con alcune ricerche etimologiche sulle medesime degli Accademici Filopatridi. Opera postuma supplita, ed accresciuto notabilmente (96). 

26 Schneider, Jane. 4.