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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

La Dolce Vita–A Lovely Life Without Puritanism Or Purpose

Will Bernini’s grandparents had left Southern Italy in 1906 with hundreds of others on board the Nord America and arrived on Ellis Island, to be checked, fumigated, quarantined, and finally released into l’America.  They dispersed to the Lower East Side, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania where friends and family from the Old Country took them in.   These immigrants were not the poorest of the poor; for only those with the foresight, wherewithal, family in America, and passage to New York left the Mezzogiorno.  While many like Will’s grandfather had no skill or trade, many did.  They were cooks, shoemakers, barbers, and mechanics.

The Italian American community where they settled found them lodging and work, and gave them an orientation to the urban, aggressive, competitive environment that would be very unlike the rural, agricultural, and small town life they had left.  The Mafia was quick to offer favors in return for allegiance and omertà – an arrangement the new arrivals welcomed.  These new, often illiterate, non-English-speaking immigrants who were far different in looks, culture, religion, food, and behavior from the ‘natives’ – the earliest Anglo-Saxon Americans –  were at their mercy and especially at the mercy of the Irish who ran City Hall, ran the police department, and brooked no competition in an already contentious and divided immigrant community.

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Wooster Square in New Haven, Connecticut, was the destination of Umberto Bernini and his young wife, Vicenza.  Although he was the first Bernini to arrive in New Haven, he was not the first of his extended family.  The Lampos and Lasordas – his first and second cousins – had all arrived a decade before in the first big wave of immigration of the late 19th century.  They, like the Berninis and most of the residents of New Haven, had come from Sorrento.  Wooster Square was not just Italian, not just Southern Italian, but Sorrentino.  It was familiar, comforting, and protective.  Butchers, grocers, dressmakers, pharmacists, and doctors were all from Sorrento.  The trade was Italian, the language was Italian, and family, friends, and new acquaintances were Italian.

The Italian community, like other immigrant communities, was close-knit, suspicious of outsiders, and fiercely faithful to the patriarchal, Catholic, often medieval traditions of the South.  America, land of individualism, economic promise and opportunity, the Wild West, enterprise, and rough markets, remained foreign to these Sorrentini.  Although everyone hoped to get rich someday, go move out of the ghetto, and become a real American, few of them were willing to do what it takes.  Italian communities were among the last to assimilate and to move to Long Island or the Berkshires. Yet Italians were as enterprising as any American, and within two generations moved out of the ghetto into the Anglo-American mainstream.

Will’s father was a doctor who, helped with the savings of his mother and successful uncle, and with scholarships to Penn and NYU Medical School, left New Haven forever.  Will, now a second generation American who had been brought up far from Wooster Square, educated in private schools and elite universities, had little of the old country left in him.  The old photograph of his grandfather and his wife, all dressed in black, stern, formal, and intimidating, was of a foreign family, not his.  His schools were old New England, his neighborhood in New Brighton was Anglo-Saxon, and his friends were the sons and daughters of the captains of industry who had built the town’s industry, financed its growth and prominence, and retired to their homes on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard for the summer.

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The Italian American experience is a strange and unique one, one part Old World, still valuing family, religion, and community over all; one part even more American in outlook, enterprise, and ambition than ‘natives’; and one part la dolce vita, that indescribable Italian attitude which persisted in spite of the ghetto, poverty, discrimination, and the factory.  Despite the Puritanical work ethic and hard, uncompromising Protestantism of the American majority, Italian Americans never lost their sense of ‘eat, drink, and be merry’, a happy, unusual nihilism; something carefree.

They were distrustful of the the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy and the sanctimonious attitude of the Irish priests who ran their parishes like debtors prisons, hectoring, badgering, and insisting on impossible righteousness.  The Italian Catholic Church was never punitive, and although the Vatican was corporate, demanding, self-interested, and aggressive, Catholic Churches were homegrown, holy sanctuaries, places of peace, tradition, and ceremony, very much in the spirit of St Paul. 

Italian Americans never took to Cotton Mather Protestantism, rejected its superiority, and retained the much more forgiving, generous, and spiritually comforting church of their fathers.  Their life was religious, but never sanctimonious; their morals were fine, but never uncompromisingly rigid; and most importantly, life was to be lived without purpose.

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Of course Italians had purpose, just not their purpose – work as an absolute, innate value; a be-all and end-all; and the one defining, ineradicable element life.  The meaning of life was not in purpose – production, meaningful change, progress, and secular reward – but in living itself.  Italian Americans could never have been as successful as they have been without ambition and economic purpose; but their cosmology was different.  Judgments and evaluations were based on those things dismissed by radical Puritanism – looking good, enjoying life and showing it off in style.  

Italian Americans, like Will’s father who had made it out of Wooster Square and settled the family in Anglo-Saxon land, never lost a sense of bella figura – looking good.  Italians have always had a special sense of style – fashion, tailoring, line, color, fabric, accessories, coiffure and maquillage, but most importantly attitude.  It is not simply looking good that characterizes Italian style – it is presenting it.  The French may have been the first to recognize the importance of couture, but they have institutionalized it.  The Italians have celebrated it, made it a part of a universal bella figura.  Everything should look good, stylish, and beautiful.

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If life was an eternal jumble; if history repeated itself in such predictable ways; and if progress was a fairy tale; then la dolce vita and only la dolce vita made sense.  One can have ambition, discipline, and enterprise and not take it all that seriously.  Italians have never found a contradiction in the two.

Will, thanks to his very Anglo-Saxon upbringing and education - his mother had insisted in removing the last doily, antimacassar, sconce, pillar, and Cadillac fin from their home - but the persistently Italian ethos of his home that no amount of cultural scrubbing could ever change, created conflict.

In his generation there was indeed a contradiction between Anglo-Saxon, Puritan parsimony and work, Shaker simplicity, and inflexible standards of propriety and la dolce vita. There was no way that he could be surrounded by purpose day in and day out and not be persuaded that la dolce vita was the fiction. At the same time, the absolutism of rock-ribbed New England rectitude was irritating at best - there is only one way from here to there; no such thing as relative value or opportunity cost; no permeability or fungibility to Right and Wrong.  A dollar is always a dollar. Where was the middle ground?

La Dolce Vita movie review & film summary (1960) | Roger Ebert

‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, said Will’s mother to explain all family disputes; but in Will’s case it made more sense.  In spite of his mother’s best intentions, to expunge every last bit of the Italian in him, he became Fellini.  He gave the impression of work while eating well, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and living comfortably.  Work was not the be-all and end-all as he had been told, but a means to an end.

A purposeful, socially committed colleague, engaged in every social justice cause there was, asked Will what he expected to leave behind.  He, the colleague, would have a life’s work of social betterment, progress, and welfare to show; but what would Will have? How would he be remembered?

There, finally, was the difference between la dolce vita and a Puritan conscience.  For Will there was nothing to be left behind.  The past had no relevance. It was a playground with monkey bars, seesaws, slides, swings, and playmates.  It existed and it would soon cease to exist. At the moment of death Ivan Ilyich, the character in Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, realizes that the past already ceases to exist and only the vast, unnamed, eternal future remains. All life whether purposeful or without ends up in the same place with every dying man peering over the edge.  if that was the case, then why not enjoy life fully, completely, and perfectly?

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