October 4, 2011 | Quote

Neapolitan Delight

You might be used to reading him on Iran and freedom. But in Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles: An Investigation into the Sources of Creativity, Michael Ledeen focuses on a different kind of freedom: the freedom that comes from seemingly endless creativity. That begins to explain why he is a man in love with Naples, a love he passionately and insightfully shares with the reader in his latest book. He talks a bit about the miracles, the pizza, and the politics with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is Naples really so miraculous when there is arrogance and poverty and crime?

MICHAEL LEDEEN: Don’t you think so? The stereotype of Naples is: pickpockets, overcrowded slums that have produced terrible epidemics and drive people into the streets, and one of the world’s biggest and most lethal mafias, the camorra. Have you seen the film, Gomorra? Or read the book? Very powerful, very accurate, very scary.

And yet, there is amazing energy and beauty. Everything from great novels to great films to the most elegant (and most expensive!) men’s fashion, gorgeous music (Italian popular songs are in large part Neapolitan), and unique art, including the world-famous crèche figures.

Isn’t that a miracle? They overcome their misery and enrich the culture of the West, as they have for centuries, and they show no sign of slowing down.

LOPEZ: Please explain your phrase “the richness of the Neapolitan spirit and the fecundity of its chaos” — and why it should matter to an American reader with a busy life and little time to spare reading an ode to a city he likely will never visit.

LEDEEN: One of my favorite Neapolitan authors, a cultural anthropologist named Marino Niola, says that Neapolitan chaos isn’t what happens when an orderly world degenerates, but the creative chaos out of which order is brought forth. There is creative method to their madness, and it fascinates and stimulates me. As for fecundity, it is both spiritual and corporeal; the birth rate north of Naples is way below replacement, but the Neapolitans do much better. You can see it on the streets, lots of kids everywhere. And so you have to ask yourself, how come these people are still having plenty of babies? What’s different about them? For me, it’s part of the big question about creativity. The Florentine Renaissance ended (there aren’t any Medicis left, as you know), the Golden Age of Greece lasted less than a century, we got a couple of great generations at the time of the Revolution and the Founding, but the Neapolitans keep on creating. How come?

LOPEZ: This book, you tell the reader, is a lot different from the one you set out to write. But why would you bother with a book on Naples? Surely your agent suggested another foreign-policy book instead?

LEDEEN: After I wrote Machiavelli on Modern Leadership I had a desperate need for chaos, and so I turned to Naples. Yes, my agents thought it would be a hard sell, but my old friend Irving Louis Horowitz at Transaction heard I was writing it, and called up and said he wanted it. As you know, having read it, it deals a lot with religion, which I hadn’t expected, but religion is part of the explanation of their creativity.

LOPEZ: “In Naples,” Goethe wrote, “I barely recognize myself and I seem an entirely different person.” Do you recognize yourself there? Are you better for it when you get back to the office in D.C.?

LEDEEN: I am thrilled and energized in Naples, and yes, I do think that my creative juices flow more rapidly there and thereafter, at least for a while. Being there forces me to think about first things, and that helps all my work. To be sure, getting outside our daily routine is good for everyone, and looking at America from abroad is excellent therapy, especially for those of us inside the Beltway, but the effect of Naples is unique. Goethe knew it, Hans Christian Andersen knew it, Mark Twain and Walter Benjamin and the Shelleys knew it. It’s no accident that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in Naples, heh.

LOPEZ: “Unlike most major cities, if you fall on the street in Naples, people will help you. They may take your wallet and your watch (if it’s a good one), but they will get proper care for you, and keep you warm and secure until help arrives.” But, Michael, they took my wallet. Am I supposed to have warm feelings when they robbed me? Did they make me richer in a more important way? (But my wallet . . . !)

LEDEEN: Yeah, well, in most major cities they’ll just take the wallet and walk away, won’t they? There is a very dark side to life in Naples, and I hope I’ve done full justice to it in Virgil’s Golden Egg. The contrast between the dark side and the bright, inspirational side is very dramatic and, I think, fundamental to explaining the creativity of the people. They see life (and death) whole and plain, and their sense of humor is very rich. Have you seen those terrific Sophia-and-Marcello movies? They are taken from Neapolitan popular theater, and Marcello’s apartment is in Piazzi dei Martiri, downtown.


LOPEZ: You refer to Naples as “the liveliest, most fascinating and, quite unexpectedly, the most creative city in Europe.” How do you measure that?

LEDEEN: By its cultural and commercial creations. Books, music, furniture, art, clothes, festivals . . . go to the opera at San Carlo one evening, then walk a couple of blocks and you’ll see new melodramas in the streets, and you’ll see, hear, and smell it. And the physical beauty: the bay, the islands like Capri, Ischia, and Procida, and of course the looming splendor and doom of Vesuvius. There’s no place like it.

LOPEZ: Naples seems to remind you of both New York specifically and America itself, in terms of its immigrant mix. But is it the similarities or the differences that attract you most?

LEDEEN: I spend some time trying to sort out Neapolitan DNA, and it’s very much like ours — a mixture of everything and everyone. This characterizes a certain kind of personality, which the psychologists call “hypomanic.” Very active people, just this side of manic depressives, not likely to end up in the asylum but very near by. The societies with high percentages of such people are immigrant societies: America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Israel. And Naples. I find all those places similarly stimulating, both because of their similarities to America and their differences.

LOPEZ: You add that Naples is “creative today, not living off the glory days of the past.” Was that a swipe at any city in particular?

LEDEEN: Not any one, but it applies to cities that were once glorious and are now historical theme parks. Florence and Venice are the two obvious Italian cases, Spain has several such places, there’s Vienna, and then the likes of Cairo.

LOPEZ: Is there a Neapolitan recipe for creativity?

LEDEEN: I wouldn’t call it a recipe, but there are three main components: who they are, where they are, and what they are. Who? Hypomanics. Where? At the base of Vesuvius, which is overdue for a really big eruption that, the vulcanologists tell us, will destroy the region. So it’s a doomed city, and doomed cities — like New Orleans before the flood, and Venice awaiting its tidal wave — have a special relationship to death, which in turn stimulates creativity. What they are: very religious, in a special way. Neapolitan Catholicism is very popular, and the dead are hyperactive in Naples. Maybe half of Virgil’s Golden Egg is about death and the dead . . . including saints and miracles. I don’t want to scoop the whole book here, but suffice to say that if you go into a church in Naples, you’re likely to find a lot of activity. From Rome on north, churches are mostly empty except for tourists.

LOPEZ: Have the Neapolitans made you more creative?

LEDEEN: I think they have helped me better understand creativity, including my own.

LOPEZ: Speaking of recipes: Can the pizza ever be made right anywhere outside of its home?

LEDEEN: Yes indeed! Although it’s rare. But Gennaro Lombardi brought pizza to New York early in the 20th century, and his place on Church Street is still at it . . . you need a wood oven, and great ingredients (not, as a rule, buffalo mozzarella, but a similar cheese from cow’s milk known as fior di latte). To my horror I found that the New York Times had once claimed that “real pizza” requires a coal oven. Oy! And you can take your pick between tomato sauce or tomato slices.

LOPEZ: Could we learn something to live with about the vitality of the Neapolitan dead?

LEDEEN: One of the truly great historians of the modern world, Philippe Ariès, says that one of the most astonishing inversions of Western culture was when death became taboo, and sex became normal. The Neapolitans didn’t go there. Death is still normal, and sex still retains its old mystery and fascination. So love retains a good deal of its old passion. Ergo the popular songs are still about love, not sex. And the dead are very much involved in daily activities, such as cropping up in dreams to tell us what numbers to bet on in the next lottery, or to get us to pray for their souls in Purgatory, in exchange for helping us out with the health or career of a living relative. This does two things, it seems to me: It strengthens a community of living and dead that is not at all nationalistic or political (the Neapolitans are not enthusiastic about Italian unification, and do not want their dead to become part of national celebrations), and it lessens the fear that death marks a permanent separation and a banishment to silence. It’s a transition to a different sort of “being,” but there’s still plenty to do.

LOPEZ: How is New Orleans–style death at the heart of its “unique version” of Catholicism?

LEDEEN: The dead are very active in both cities, and contribute to their creative vitality. Skeletons are all over the place (in tombs, rather than graves), sometimes even in the homes of the living. Neapolitans sometimes “adopt” skulls or bones from big underground ossuaries, and wash and polish them, to strike up good working relations with the spirits linked to the bones, and so forth. It’s an easy, ongoing rapport.

LOPEZ: Is it so unique that it is in danger of being its own religion?

LEDEEN: Well, they say it’s a form of Roman Catholicism, and they’ve got a duly appointed archbishop in the cathedral. But the Vatican is clearly uncomfortable with some of their practices.

LOPEZ: When you wrote about “the censor at a family magazine” did you picture me?

LEDEEN: Heaven forfend!

LOPEZ: You write that “Naples is a living challenge to many of our most cherished beliefs about human nature, and civil society.” How so?

LEDEEN: The big thing is the celebrated lack of jealousy between the classes. Marxist historians hate Neapolitans because the poor have fought fiercely on behalf of the rich, even the monarchy and aristocracy. And rich and poor often live in the same building, tend to each others’ families, participate in each others’ rituals, and so forth. Not much “class struggle,” in other words. During the expansionist phase of the French Revolution, a republic was created in occupied Naples, but then overthrown by a popular uprising led by clergymen. Intellectuals hate that!

LOPEZ: “Naples currently leads the rest of the country in (legitimate) entrepreneurial activity, even though its political leaders still go to Rome to beg for greater and greater subsidies. There, as in America, ‘welfare’ takes a terrible toll on its recipients.” Are the politicians blind there?

LEDEEN: Naples probably leads in illegitimate activity, too. And yes, the politicians are as blind and greedy as anywhere else.

LOPEZ: You write a bit about the lack of envy and class warfare there. What accounts for that?

LEDEEN: I dunno how to explain it, but it’s one of the basic mysteries.

LOPEZ: Why read Christ Stopped at Eboli after Virgil’s Egg?

LEDEEN: Because it’s one of the truly great books, written by a Jewish antifascist who was sent to “internal exile” during the fascist period to a little town outside Naples. He was charmed and intrigued by the people, and his account is both delightful and profound.

LOPEZ: For years to come, anyone Googling in preparation for his trip to Naples will come upon this interview. You’ve got his attention now: Where should he go? Where would Michael Ledeen take him?

LEDEEN: I would take him on foot to the worst neighborhoods, where I would show him things he had never imagined. The most fantastic church, Santa Maria della Sanità, for example, is in a neighborhood considered so dangerous that most taxi drivers won’t go there. And yet I’ve been there dozens of times, always a pleasure (you have to talk to them, not to worry, so long as you don’t wear jewelry or a Rolex). The church has a dozen cupolas (for the twelve apostles, or is it the twelve tribes?), the altar is atop a double-helix staircase, and beneath it is a catacomb with skeletons built into the walls, around which artists have painted colorful clothing. There’s a skeleton down there who reminds me of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and who knows? Mozart spent lots of time in Naples.

And I would take him to the Archeological Museum, one of the greatest in the world (a lot of the good stuff from Pompeii is there, including a “salacious section,” ahem).

And the Royal things: the Royal Palace, the summer palace/museum at Capodimonte.

And “Spaccanapoli,” the Greenwich Village of Naples. Bookstores, artisans, street vendors, churches.

And a pizza at Lombardi. After all, their ancestor brought it to the New World.

We will have had lots of coffee: thick, intense, small, and sweet. And a sfogliatella, that spectacular little sweet full of ricotta, crunchy on the outside, a true miracle.

Then on to the hydrofoil to do the islands.

That’s your first week, Lopez. Ready to go?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.