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Interview with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta - An Interview by Alberto Di Mauro
Professor Mazzotta, you have recently received the ISSNAF Lifetime Achievement Award. What does it mean for you this prestigious recognition?
I am elated and truly pleased to have received this year's ISSNAF prize. It was an unexpected privilege. What makes me especially proud is to have witnessed how intensely the officers of the Association devote themselves to the continuous development of intercultural perspectives and to the dissemination of innovative models of thinking and learning. Their will to bring to public awareness here in the United States and in Italy (and elsewhere) the need to foster the creativity of men and women as well as the institutions of research and learning (such as the universities) strikes me now as a rare, most welcome beacon of creativity.
What do you think about the role of ISSNAF in strengthening the relations between the 2 oceans in the scientific world?
This project of making possible the ongoing process of interaction between Italian and American scientists is crucial: it is a bridge between the arts and the sciences, capital and labor, university educational models and social realities etc. and a bridge is the only way to cross over, allow transactions, promote exchanges etc. But I also believe that the ISSNAF will have to meet other challenges in the days that lie ahead.
It is the challenge of operating in a global context: not just Italy and not just, say, the United States, which, of course, has already widened the horizon of future encounters on many fronts. In Italy this new challenge will come into being within university structures, and I can't but applaud ISSNAF for the insight it has shown this last event.
Your talks especially the ones about Dante are always for the students (and not only for them!) a fascinating experience. How do you succeed in making the Dante poetry and philosophy so actual in our contemporary world?
The best way to explain with some clarity my teaching of the Italian classics is by explaining a number of the premises that have sustained my efforts over the nearly fifty years of teaching in American and Canadian universities (Cornell University, the University of Toronto, and Yale University where I have been since 1983, with occasional teaching stints in several universities in Europe, Washington DC etc.)
At stake there is, first of all, the method of my teaching, and the method is not simply a question of techniques. I have thought extensively about themes such as education in classical times (from Plato’s academy to the Neo Platonic academy in Florence), about the shifting configuration of universities in history, about the tradition of encyclopedias so prevalent in literary history. But my premises concern above all my sense of the reality, namely the reality of the intellectual discourse prevalent in this part of the world.
Aware, as my sense of reality shows me, that I teach Italian literature to students who are not all that familiar with Italian history, I seek to address, as methodically as I can, questions of high pertinence to the humanities in general. I demand from the students, first of all, that they read with extraordinary attention the details of texts—words and their etymologies, structures and classical/biblical echoes, metaphors, formal structures and genres of the work under examination. In short, I make use of a critical tradition—the so-called New Criticism-- students used to acquire in high schools.
The second critical premise of my teaching is this: I refuse the fashion—so rampant in American universities till a few years ago—of treating literature, and generally culture (poetry, theater, prose, philosophy, political tracts etc.) as if they were a self-referential, purely formalist construction. In recent years there have been, in fact, several efforts to view literature as an irrelevant game, an expression marginal to the concerns and realities of larger social, moral, and political experiences. By contrast, literature, so would I argue, is entangled with the complexities of the human condition: it speaks to our imagination, and the imagination shapes our sense of the world. All the writers worth their salt, even when they are “comical” and playful—especially when they are comical and playful—are most serious: they question existing values (and may turn this our world upside down), pierce behind the masks and idols of power, awaken our consciousness to and unveil the existence or dream of alternate worlds, and educate us toward the creation of different values and ideals (justice, beauty, virtues, love etc.). In short, they inspire us to move beyond the habits, which are likely to extinguish our desire to develop our minds. They help us let loose the imaginative potentialities of human beings. More generally, I translate this premise to make my students ( in courses on Dante, Vico, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli etc.) discuss and reflect on the tangled relationship between, say, Dante’s poetry and his ethics, his politics, his science, his theology, the worlds of knowledge as an “encyclopedia” of the arts and sciences. To say it in one sentence, this sort of teaching does not concern at all the teaching of a skill for some job or other. It needs the spirit of the imagination in order to awaken a love of knowledge and the creativity of the young.
How do you see the difference between the Italian academic world and the American universities, such as Yale University?
This is a difficult question to answer. There are of course great differences between the two traditions, but no doubt because of my Italian origin, I try to mix them. Let me try to answer this question by recounting a recent experience I had at Yale University. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear a lecture on “Campus Speech in Crisis”. I had thought that probably I would hear about the crisis of political speech staged in the ongoing presidential campaign. But I was wrong. The lecture dealt very specifically with Yale University’s crisis, and by extension, with the crisis of American universities. The lecture was given by Jose` A. Cabranes, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It was a powerful reflection on the crisis of free speech on American campuses. It began with an essential history of the defense of free speech, its roots in “the principles of free thought” and its seeds in the Constitution, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had made clear in an opinion of his in 1928. After an analysis of the “Woodward Report” (Yale 1975), Judge Cabranes’ lecture went on to address the primary ancient and modern function of a university and of the Liberal Arts colleges: the dissemination of knowledge by means of research and teaching, and the necessity of unfettered intellectual freedom.
The freedom of research and teaching makes the university a genuine place of knowledge, which in turn provides a forum for the pursuit of the new. But this pursuit has been eclipsed—this was the kernel of Judge Cabranes’s talk—as the university discourse has been falling under the censorship of “politically correct” clichés of bureaucrats, who ends up annihilating the purposes of education and the sense of a responsible general conduct. I am afraid that the same bureaucratic spirit pervades Italian universities. From this standpoint the historical divergences between Italian and American universities appear blurred.
Is the actual spread of the Italian language in the world going to grow in the future? What do you think can be done to encourage it?
As we all have learned from one of the most brilliant philosophical minds of the Renaissance, Lorenzo Valla, the greatness and extension of Latin in Roman times depended on the might of Rome and viceversa. Valla’s sharp insight on the existence of an organic bond between power and the importance of a language and culture was picked up by a Spanish humanist, Antonio de Nebrija, who wrote the Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana, and in 1492 made a gift of it to Queen Isabel: Isabel, no doubt, understood that language is a tool of hegemony, and, in point of fact, it anticipated the construction of the empire Christopher Columbus made available to the Spanish Crown. What can the Italians do with their own language?
It sounds a bit comical to recall what is happening to the Italian language over the last 5 years or so. You only have to read the front page of any newspaper to laugh at the deliberate macaronic style of the language, with words taken from English out of context etc. It is a funnier experience to hear isolated English words pronounced on television: it makes me think of the sort of “broccolino”, as was called, spoken by the Italian immigrants when they first landed in Brooklyn at the beginning of the XXth century. The only way for the Italian language to survive the wounds inflicted by the native barbarians is to strengthen the “empire of culture” Italy has: more attention has to be given to the cultural treasures of Italy (music, cinema, theater, education etc.) It would be good if the ‘Danteum”—the project of a building by Giuseppe Terragni that was never built in Rome and was conceived to stand across from the Church of Santa Francesca Romana, in the proximity of the Forum, and halfway between the Colosseum and the “Wedding Cake” as the American soldiers christened it in 1945—were built in Washington DC. The only detail I can contribute to this great challenge of popularizing the Italian language is to insist that the modern globalism which have been witnessing is not just a question of trade. The New World in which we live can be strengthened by the spiritual energy which emanates from the imagination and power of culture. In Italy this fundamental aspect of culture is not the object of reflection or conviction , though I think there is an isolated figure or two who consistently highlight the point.
You look so linked to your Italian heritage, but you live in the States .What made you decide to move definitely from Italy?
The decision to move to the U.S. was a blessing for me. My father was an immigrant to Canada and fell in love with that country. When he went back to Italy in 1968, I decided to stay in Toronto. And I did so till I went to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. (where I was the first PH.D student in Italian in the history of Cornell and eventually I became an Assistant Professor. At Cornell I discovered the existence of a new world: I came across and befriended English professors (such as the great anthropologist Victor Turner), and the professors of English, Bob Kaske and Meyer Abrams; a French thinker/professor (Rene` Girard); the great German scholar of French (Herbert Dieckmann); an Italian classicist, such as Piero Pucci; Spaniards, and visitors, such as Foucault, Derrida, De Man etc. It was the historical re-enactment of Dante’s Limbo, peopled by speculative, creative minds engaged in philosophical/rhetorical analyses. And I studied under the direction of a brilliant Dante scholar, John Freccero.
But what did it for me was a particular experience. The first day I was on the Cornell campus I followed the crowd and went to hear two lectures: the first was on ”Husserl and the Crisis of European Consciousness” by de Man; and the second was on “Aristotle’s concept of Play in the Politics.” On reflection I probably was carrying within me these passions and new ways of thinking, which was brought to life for me at the University of Toronto by Etienne Gilson (at St. Michael’s College) and Clifford Leech (who taught Jakobean Theater at University College). And some unforgettable conversations I has with Wolfgang Iser (originally from Constance, Germany) about poetry and philosophy played quite a role. This was a place like no other in the world.
Just to finish, let’s we talk for a moment about an actual very debated issue: the Italian phenomenon of brain drain. Do you think that it is a real problem or can be a resource for Italy, creating links and relations?
It seems to me that intellectual emigration of Italian talents (musicians, architects, libretto-writers, painters, actors) has been a steady feature of Italian life from the sixteenth century on . Think of their presence in Peking, London, Paris, St Petersburg, New York City etc. And the phenomenon has continued during the Risorgimento. In fact, the presence and role of Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century in the United States (from Borgese to Fermi) are a strangely well-kept secret. In general, I firmly believe in what I call “the mobility of culture”—the necessity and importance of intellectuals, artists, scientists, theologians, educators etc. to move around and make the world a school for the good
Giuseppe Mazzotta Sterling Professor of the Humanities for Italian Yale Universiy
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