A Lesson of September 11

To the memory of Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist killed in Iraq on August 20, 2004


On August 18, 2003, at the torrid end of the hottest summer in Italian history, the Italian critic Francesco Alberoni wrote on the front page of Corriere della Sera:

People today talk about health and food. They don’t read essays anymore that state problems they have to think about. Now we don’t think about the great thinkers. We no longer want to understand the process that produces our behavior, individual or social; we want formulas. Philosophers exist to answer questions. If no one asks anymore, they fall silent.*

Three months later, in mid-November, a loaded oil truck crashed into the Italian carabinieri station in Nasiriya, Iraq, smashing a way through for the car bomb that followed close behind it. Nineteen Italians and six Iraqis diedin the blast, and many others were wounded. Afterward Italians were no longer restricting their talk to health, food, TV, and the corruption of Silvio Berlusconi and his henchmen. They were asking the questions that Alberoni thought they would never ask again, most of which begin with “Why?”—questions of life and its eternal partner, death, which always intrude upon the party sooner or later. When they do, we suddenly rediscover the consolations of philosophy, art, literature, all the things that may look superfluous until normality veers off its safe, secure trajectory.

Horace said so somewhat playfully in a poem about spring, Odes IV.2, where he invokes melting snows and gentle breezes, ships being drawn down to the water’s edge, graceful nymphs dancing. Suddenly, abruptly, the announcement of pale death bursts on the scene in an explosion of p’s and heavy vowels: “Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turris” (“Pale death pounds impartial the pauper’s door and kings’ towers”). Horace then addresses the friend he calls O lucky Sestius—O beate Sesti—to say that the short span of life forbids us to harbor long hopes. “Night,” he writes, “already presses down, the shades of the dead, the narrow home of Pluto”:

O beate Sesti, summa vitae brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam,

  Iam te premet nox fabulaeque manes, et domus exilis Plutonia.

And that’s it. Watch out, Sestius, it won’t last forever.

The rebirth of spring, in the hands of Horace, already carries a shiver of winter, just as in a sketch by the Monty Python troupe when the Grim Reaper crashes a tony cocktail party after the salmon mousse turns toxic. “Oh do come in,” coos the hostess to the scythe-wielding guest, “make yourself at home.” She could almost be Emily Dickinson graciously conceding: “Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me.” As if death were always so polite, so kind, so welcome!

In Nasiriya, and then in Istanbul, and in Baghdad, and many other places on our tortured planet, death has been no respecter of persons. Nor did the painter who frescoed the walls of Pisa’s medieval…

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