Moravia’s Vulgarity

Man as an End

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Bernard Wall
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 254 pp., $5.50

The Lie

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 334 pp., $5.95

Alberto Moravia
Alberto Moravia; drawing by David Levine

The most interesting essay in Man as an End comes in the last few pages. Moravia has been discussing large topics, Man, character, psychoanalysis, Communism, the erotic, the extreme, Machiavelli, Stendhal, Boccaccio, Manzoni, and Life. He has been strong, sometimes banal, often perceptive. But suddenly in a short essay on Verdi he gives himself away, and the effect is remarkable. The theme is Verdi’s “vulgarity.” Moravia says that Verdi in his own day was already an anachronism, a full-blooded peasant in a petit bourgeois time. Unlike Manzoni and Leopardi, Verdi is, to the limit of his genius, vulgar. With him we have “the humanist view of our Renaissance which was abandoned and betrayed by the Italian ruling class after the Counter-Reformation, but preserved by the common people in a decayed form of folklore.” In Verdi “the greatness of Italy, and the best and most typically hers that she had to give to the world, died out: that is to say, humanism.” He is a Renaissance man, Moravia says, “for his knowledge of human nature goes back to the age when man still saw himself as the end, and only himself, and nothing less than himself.”

IT IS CLEAR that Moravia, talking about Verdi, is also talking about himself. The relation cannot be pressed, because—apart from the question of scale, of genius—Moravia is not a peasant. But the values he ascribes to Verdi, in passion and knowledge, are his own values, in principle. Or at least they have been his values, until now. Humanism, anachronism, and vulgarity are the terms which enable us to understand him. In The Lie Francesco Merighi, a journalist, decorates his apartment in the style of the first half of the nineteenth century, from Empire to Louis Philippe: “perhaps out of an unconscious loyalty to the tastes of the class from which I came.” Moravia is sensitive to this loyalty. Indeed, the distress which seeps through these essays is a sense of the failure, as it seems to him, of the values of his own class: the middle class. So he turns upon them, in frustration.

There is a strange moment in The Lie when Francesco decides that since he has written a bad, artificial novel based on action, he will try to write a genuine novel based on everyday life. The fact that everyday life lets him down does not dispel the middle-class nostalgia which it incites. This nostalgia, darkening into despair, gives the tone of the essays. Officially, Moravia is trying to renew our sense of man as an end. Unofficially, it seems to me, he is trying to maintain that sense in himself, cheering himself up. He invokes a new humanism not because he dislikes the old one but because he wants to give it a new life. He speaks of man’s “sacred character” without telling us where we got it or how we deserve…

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