The streets of Genoa are winding with sudden bursts of sunlight on the squares, shadowy places in the narrow alleyways, impossible architecture, graffiti, fountains, sculptures of the Madonna poignant with azure, turquoise, and gold, ridiculously detailed ceilings, one gorgeous painting after another. The port is busy and smelly, windy and chaotic, fascinating with its huge wheel that lights up like a psychedelic trip in the sunset while you take a circular trip in the night sky. There are endless restaurants tucked in the most unlikely places, unappealing from the outside, even off-putting and yet magically cavernous fantastic and inviting inside with the best menus. Food that is unpretentious, yet deliciously original, healthy and fresh. There are coffee shops that have an atmosphere that makes you feel special as you breath in the aroma of Arabica beans and listen to the Italian chatter above the sound of the steamer, ones that sell awful coffee and make you wonder what on earth you are doing there, and all types in between. Graceful theatres and grubby office blocks, yachts and fishing boats side by side, street poets, swimming pools on the harbour, art galleries to inspire. All is brimming with autumn abundance, and there is a university full of bright lovely intelligent students that spill out onto the streets and grace even the most ungracious pizzerias with life and warmth.
If all this gets too much there is a castle on a hill that gently commands an overview of the city, the port, wheel and sea, the hills in the background and the winding park pathways upwards. It is a place of cool calm contemplation away from the bustle. It is a different world. You can sip tea or wine as you gaze through the arches at the intriguing view. You can stroll the gardens and the art gallery, and when you feel strong again you can wend your way back down into the crazy centre of Genova. Should you be weary you can take an ingenious contraption of a funicular ilk that shunts you along and down in a little enclosed cabin. Not only that but all of the workings are there for you to see: the wheels, steel ropes, cogs, tools, all sorts of things laid out in glorious dirt, grease, and disarray as you glide past. It feels like a metaphor for the city.
If that is the case, then what does Genoa in turn represent? Well, the reason for traveling to Genoa was to see Paolo Conte play. The opportunity to hear him sing Genova pr Noi in the city itself was one I was so grateful to have. Not to be missed. There is something about a mise en scene or a qua qua that appeals to me. Of course the audience went wild at the opening phrase of that song. The buzz in the auditorium, the air palpable with joy, it made me sit up and pay attention, sent tingles down my spine. Genova per Noi is ostensibly a song in the voice of a character who is confused by the seedy side of the city, dubious and mistrustful, yet strangely lured because life in his own area of Piedmont had reached an impasse. Genova is in Liguria, Paolo Conte is from Asti in Piedmont, and though these places are only 100 miles apart there is a huge difference between them. Provincial Italy is brimming with character, and Piedmont is neat, clean, ordered. The streets make sense, are direct. There Paolo Conte was a lawyer, spending too much time in the place growing up, he longed to go further afield and music was a way for him to explore.
Genoa on the other hand with its winding roads, complicated street levels, hidden parks, ubiquitous bins, dusty shop displays, sunshine and smells, where even the weather is different, is other. The other. The one that we are suspicious of, wary of, maybe repulsed by, and yet we want to know. We have to, because all closed systems eventually atrophy. In his book Enlightenment Now Steven Pinker sites the second law of thermodynamics: systems entropy as temperature differences within them decrease. He drew the parallel with human interactions: families, tribes, societies, countries. The character in the song knew that if he stayed in his own town he may not see enough sunlight
Genoa for us,
those who live deep down in the countryside
those who rarely have the sun shining on the town square
and for the remaining time are drenched by rain
Genoa, as I was telling you, is just one of many ideas.
It is the willingness, even if reluctant, to engage with new ideas that reveals the humanist thread in Paolo Conte’s music. In his book The Blank Slate Steven Pinker writes that an organism must respond to its environment to thrive. Combinatorial and recursive thought in humans is imperative for our social progress. He reminds us that we are infinitely flexible and responding to fellow human beings as broadly as possible is the way to move forward. Humanism can occur because we are endowed with empathy. Darwin points out in his On the Origin of Species that this empathy leads us to care about the wellbeing of our family, friends, and gradually this will spread to a worldwide scale and there is no reason why the well-being of the planet and every life form on it should not be in the scope of all humans.
The song goes on:
that odd expression
we have when we observe Genoa
and every time we're there we sniff it
we move cautiously
we feel a little like stray dogs.
The resistance is not denied, he worries that the city will swallow them up and they will never return home. Like so many of his songs the tone is nostalgic. What is nostalgia good for? It might hook us in the first instance, appeals to our base instincts, but then the song guides us via irony towards unity in the least didactic way possible:
Yet we are somehow related
to the people there
and deep down they are as cantankerous as we are
but we are very afraid of that black sea
that moves even at night and never stands still.
These days it is difficult to hear an image of the frightening sea without thinking of immigrants. Genoa has many immigrants. It looks out to towards Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and further out lie Serbia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel.
Let’s say, Shylock the Jew spoke for himself and his kinsmen “if you prick us do we not bleed’ Othello the Moor killed Desdemona, of all the characters in the play did he act in the most reprehensible way? No, it was Iago, one of the most loathed characters in Shakespeare. Like the lyrics in Genova per Noi, a narrative sets the scene, so that the sense of humanity goes deeper into our hearts, reaching beyond our first nostalgic impulse to keep things the way they are because that is how they have always been.
This next point will not be liked by many. It makes me squirm as well, but it could be true and if it is true we could open up a new world beyond the suffering we cause ourselves in this one. If we all come from the same place, we share life force, draw our soul from the same pool, then even a terrorist has to be embraced. Very difficult to think of. But what is it that leads a young man to be like that? No hope for a future as a boy, manipulation from the state, possibly unenlightened parenting, the wrong environment (by that I mean the inner world as well) a psyche gone awry because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wiring in the brain that leads to psychopathic tendencies. It is exactly the same place that a man who beats his wife, a government that will send soldiers to fight in Vietnam or Iraq, a person on the streets of any city in the world who rapes or murders, fundamentalists who will stone a woman to death, satanists who will torture children, leaders who live in luxury while their country starves, where people who commit the most despicable crimes come from.
If reason, science and humanism lead to progress, where is the place of intuition and knowing? It could be that intuition is empathy and that knowing is a sense of how all other entities in the world are flourishing. It is why we need all the Shakespeares and Paolo Contes we can get to tap into our empathy and encourage us to see beyond. Where do these crimes come from? From all of us. Solzhenytsyn had such perspicacity when he said ‘“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Deep inside we all know this. It may be part of what propels me to travel a thousand miles to hear Paolo Conte and the excellent musicians with whom he shares the stage perform his songs. Keep listening, and keep reading.
If you like reading Ernest Hemingway, I leave you with this: Hemingway