Dery and Lecter do Italy

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

On a recent flight to Rome, I found my sleep-deprived thoughts turning to the question that has launched a thousand doctoral dissertations: Why is Hannibal Lecter an Italophile?

He wasn't always. When we first meet the debonair, serial-murdering doctor, in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, he's curled up with a copy of Alexandre Dumas's Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. We can see from the class signifiers he flashes—waspish wit, feline grace, courtly manners, and refined, Old Money tastes—that he's a highbrow degenerate (in the evolutionary, Max Nordau sense of the word), struck from the mythic mold that gave us real-life archetypes such as Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as their fictional kin (most notably, Count Dracula (with whom Lecter shares many supernatural traits). His unabashed Eurocentrism would gladden George Will's wizened heart, but he hasn't yet outed himself as a flaming Italophile.

By Silence of the Lambs, however, the Lecter of the first book, who was little more than a few memorably zingy lines, glued together with attitude, has evolved into a suave, mordantly witty bogeyman for the age of the branded lifestyle: Milton's Satan in a Prada suit. This is a man-eater who would never use the wrong knife when slicing out your sweetbreads and sautéing them in a beurre noisette before your dying eyes. He's a card-carrying member of the cultural elite, a status that Harris signals through Lecter's exhaustive knowledge of Italian high culture. His tastes in interior decoration, in his cell in a prison for the criminally insane, run to pencil sketches of Florentine scenes: "the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, as seen from the Belvedere." He admonishes Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee who's interrogating him, to look up the early Italian Renaissance painter Duccio if she wants to see an accurate depiction of a crucifixion, and to pay Titian's Flaying of Marsyas a visit, at the National Gallery, if she wants to study the fine points of human-skinning. He famously eats a census-taker's liver with "fava beans and a big Amarone" (a signature Italian dish, paired with an Italian wine) and offers Starling a clue to her case in the form of a quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

In Hannibal, Lecter might as well work for the Italian national tourism board. His manor-born elegance, classical erudition, and, most of all, pitch-perfect taste are inextricable from his deep immersion in Italian culture, which for Harris (and presumably his mass audience) is shorthand for the profound knowledge, as sensual as it is intellectual, of all that makes life worth living—a cultural patrimony bequeathed to the world by the land that gave us the Roman empire and the Renaissance, Verdi and the Vespa, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano, la dolce vita and menefreghismo (the Fine Art of Not Giving a Fuck, according to Nick Tosches). Lecter lives in Florence, where his nonpareil mastery of Dante, Florentine history, and archaic Italian—he demonstrates "an extraordinary linguistic facility, sight-translating medieval Italian and Latin from the densest Gothic black-letter scripts"—wins him the position of curator of the Palazzo Capponi. (Well, that, and the fact that he hastened the former curator's shuffle off this mortal coil.) Lecter shops for exquisite unguents at the Farmacia of Santa Maria Novella and tartufi bianchi at the gourmet emporium Vera dal 1926; reads himself to sleep with the piquant correspondence of a 15th century Venetian; accessorizes his mental Memory Palace with the Riace bronzes. Naturally, his mother is "a high-born Italian, a Visconti." It's all very Ted Bundy-under-the-Tuscan-Sun, Lucrezia Borgia-meets-ladies-who-lunch.

The question is: How did we get here? At what point did Italian culture become the capstone of the taste/class pyramid, morphing seemingly overnight from lowbrow to highbrow? At what specific historical moment, and by what cultural logic, did the fickle alchemy of mandarin taste transform balsamic vinegar into Bottled Essence of Snob Appeal, fetishized by status-conscious bobos who dole it out at dinner parties with the sort of breathless reverence they used to reserve for lines of Peruvian blue flake?

Not long ago, in the racialized anthropology of the late 19th century and the eugenic "science" of the early 20th, the "Mediterranean races" were demonstrably inferior to Nordic man. In 1924, congress passed the Johnson Act, which radically restricted immigration from the Mediterranean countries (as well as Eastern Europe) to forestall further pollution of the Anglo gene pool.

In the '70s, when I was a teenager growing up white and middle-class in the ardently Aryan suburbs of Southern California, "Italian" was a mama-mia, that's-a-spicy-meatball punchline, an ethnic caricature sketched in bold strokes: Mama Celeste frozen pizzas; Dean Martin singing "That's Amore"; the LaBella family, proprietors of the local Italian restaurant, the one with the inevitable rainbow-colored candles in the straw-wrapped Chianti bottles. Squid—no one called it "calamari"—was bait; pasta meant spaghetti—no one called it "pasta"; and radicchio, arugula, and fresh parmesan were unknown, at least to WASPs. (To this day, my suburban relatives obligingly produce a can of plastinated Kraft cheese dust when I ask for parmesan.) When did things change? Their problematic mix of ethnic stereotyping and ethnographic fact notwithstanding, were the Godfather movies (1972, 1974) instrumental in introducing WASP America to an Italian America that, for all its internecine bloodletting and dese-and-dose goombah-ism (as reflected in the Hollywood eye) also preached a conservative gospel of folkways and famiglia values (gangster family values, ironically, but no less traditional for that) and hard work? To a teenager adrift in the suburban badlands of San Diego, whose psychic geography was cratered by divorce and PTSD'd by Vietnam and Watergate and Helter Skelter, Connie's wedding, at the beginning of The Godfather, offered a seductive glimpse of an ethnic otherworld—the Old World teleported to the New World, with all its close family ties and cherished traditions magically intact.

After college, in the mid-'80s, I would go East, to be part of the advancing guard of bohemianization making the Italian-American neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn safe for alt.culture. Raised in the land of puka-shell necklaces and huaraches, where real-life Malibu Barbies and Bitchen Dudes disported themselves in the Endless Summer, I marveled at the studiously sullen young guys (codeword: guido) in the regulation tight T-shirts; equal parts greaser, disco stud, and hip-hop homeboy, they seemed to be channeling John Travolta's Tony Manero, some Italian-Stallion take on Mailer's white negritude, and, incomprehensibly, a collective memory of the Doo-Wop '50s. Shrines to patron saints sprouted throughout the neighborhood; in one front yard, a life-sized Saint Lucy held a plate with her plastic eyeballs glued to it, like a waiter serving canapés. I was enthralled by the thinly veiled paganism of the annual feast and procession of Maria SS. Addolorata, in which celebrants (just like the revelers in the Feast of Saint Rocco in The Godfather II!) carry a sad-eyed statue of the Blessed Virgin through the streets, where the devout festoon her gown with paper money, as they have done since 1948. The parade ends at the neighborhood's symbolic heart, the Mola Di Bari social club, which takes its name from the Southern Italian town to which many of the neighborhood's earliest Italian immigrants can trace their bloodlines. At the same time, there was an ugly side to this picturesque translation of smalltown Southern Italy into Brooklyn's doo-wop vernacular, exacerbated by the culture wars between Italian-American locals and the hipster homesteaders gentrifying the hood. After one too many encounters with carloads of goons yelling "faggot," and a horrifying episode in which a bat-wielding gang attacked a longhaired Asian-American guy, my wife and I joined the bobo exodus to the upstate burbs.

To be sure, Our Friends from Corleone also packed their blood feuds and backwater ignorance in their psychic baggage when they boarded the ship for Ellis Island. But the occasional horsehead in bed seems a small price to pay for idyllic afternoons in the sun, sipping Trebbiano d'Abruzzo while the accordions play "C'é La Luna Mezzo O Mare." Harry Lime had it right in The Third Man: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (Never mind the fact that, as my Swiss friends point out with some heat, the cuckoo clock is a German invention. You get the point.) In the popular imagination, mythic Italy draws its symbolic voltage not only from its relatively newfound role as a bobo emblem of gracious living and good taste, brought to you by Williams-Sonoma, but also from the delicious depravity of all those Borgias and Medicis, not to mention the Caesars, whose sybaritic excesses thrilled the pants off Gibbon's readers. Lecter loves his tartufi and his Amarone, but he also loves the operatic passions and gothic brutality of the Quattrocento, when rough justice for, say, conspirators against the Medici capo Lorenzo the Magnificent meant being hung, naked, from a high window in the Palazzo Vecchio, as an object lesson—and guaranteed crowd-pleaser—for the rabble. The Mythic Little Italy of our multiplex fantasies, from Goodfellas to Moonstruck to The Sopranos, is among other things a wish-fulfillment fantasy for WASPs—middle America's dream of giving its superego the one-armed salute and partaking of the emotional catharses enjoyed by those passionate Mediterraneans. Of course, there are two sides to the Return of the Repressed: heads, you get Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, indulging in a nighttime dip in Rome's Trevi fountain; tails, you get Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, beating another mobster to bloody jelly because the guy insulted him.

All of which is to ask: What does Italy mean? What does it signify, in the dream life of the West? A hopelessly knotty question, too complex to be teased out here. During my recent travels in Rome, Florence, and Bologna, I wondered if I was ever really seeing Italy, or if a million media apparitions—the Italy of The Talented Mr. Ripley and HBO's Rome, Death in Venice and The Monster of Florence—would always swarm before me, obscuring the thing itself, like those transparent overlays depicting the musculature and the nerves and the lymphatic system, in anatomy textbooks. In his masterful 1964 study The Italians, a cultural critique that is to Italy as Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude is to Mexico, Luigi Barzini is thoughtful on this point. In a poetic, unsettling meditation on the siren song of Mythic Italy, he talks about foreigners who visit the country and never leave, metamorphosing into that liminal being, the expatriate, suspended in that Phantom Zone between cultures. Many attempt to go native; some succeed in becoming more Italian than the Italians themselves, in some paradoxical sense. And many, as Barzini notes,

find, at one point, like Hawthorne, that they can no longer leave… They can no longer face the harsher world where they came from, where they see things perhaps too clearly, and where every word in their familiar language has a precise meaning. They have become hopelessly addicted to the amiable and mild ways of Italy. Many also have nobody left to go back to. They cling to their little lair, the view of the sea from the hill, the view of the Coliseum from the window if you turn your neck far enough to the right, the view of the Grand Canal, the roofs of Florence, the decayed villas of Rapallo… Italy is filled with people growing old, who can no longer think of leaving, living alone, comforted by a cat or a dog, waited on by a servant, an honest person at times but often enough an unscrupulous maid who feeds her family with what she steals. A day comes when these old people grow ill and helpless, far from the familiar sights and sounds of their youth, self-exiled for reasons which have become dim in their memories, in an alien place which they never really saw as it is and quite understood… Many die every year and are buried hurriedly in the corner of an Italian cemetery reserved for heathens or heretics; some bodies are shipped home to practically unknown and indifferent relatives. Many die without having really discovered why they chose to live the last years of their lives in Italy, of all places.

Cue the Godfather Waltz.

Image: Hannibal Lecter, taking the air in Florence. From the movie Hannibal. Reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.