U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Rome with Love

[Post #2 from Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. -TL]

As Woody Allen’s new movie, “To Rome with Love,” opens here only in dubbed form and to mixed reviews, I am happy many Americans will see new Rome footage. Since I have a strong preference for a synchronization of lips and words, I haven’t yet seen the movie. But the idea of seeing Woody Allen mouthing one set of words while hearing a masculine Italian voice providing another may prove a set piece of ventriloquistic humor impossible to resist. I just caught a few minutes of “Cheaper by the Dozen” on Italian t.v. and Steve Martin’s interior monologue, funny enough in English no doubt, reached the level of true hilarity. The thought that this quintessentially American actor, playing a bumbling and quintessentially American father on a quintessentially American family vacation, turns to Italian when thinking to himself is so far-fetched that it makes me laugh even now.

That Woody Allen’s new flick has a role for Rome is exciting to me because, as farfetched as it still seems three months into my stay, with only six weeks remaining, I am actually here in Rome. Thus, the film’s locations are sure to include some of my current stomping grounds. As Fulbright Lecturer in American Intellectual History at the University of Rome III (Roma Tre), Rome is miraculously my home away from home for the semester. Like the invitation to join the USIH blogging community, this Fulbright is a great surprise and honor. Nothing in my past ever seemed to indicate to me I would one day be here (no path I was on ever seemed destined to lead to Rome, that is, unless you meant Rome, New York). Now I am walking on cobblestones well trodden upon, not only by vast numbers of Romans over the ages, and visitors from all over the globe with varying motives and degrees of welcome, but more recently, by our distinguished colleagues and friends, mainstays of USIH and all things intellectual in this country, Casey Blake and Wilfred McClay. The names of other previous holders of this teaching and research fellowship might also be familiar to intellectual history aficionados: Alex Bloom, author of Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World, for one, whom it was my joy to meet here this March.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think we are not paying enough attention to Italy. Anyone at all moved by its rich heritage and contribution would say the same. But I am not talking here solely about the “we” of my fellow countrymen and women in general. For the tourists among them, at least, Italy is in the forefront of their minds, a charm many hope to add to their little bracelets, along with the other wonders of the world. (For a little more on the littleness of some touristic tendencies, see my Longing For The Real post “Tourism or Narcissism?”) And Americans deeply interested in everything from art and archeology to cuisine and classical antiquity have always had their attention riveted on Italy.

Here, in my first regular Sunday installment on the USIH blog, I am thinking instead of how little attention many of us, scholars of American history, have been paying of late to Italian things or, for that matter, German–and the list goes on. Within the discipline of history, as we are well aware, the post-1960s period saw fields such as Diplomatic History and Intellectual History eclipsed by the New Social History and specializations such as African American History and Women’s History. American and European history increasingly found themselves sharing shrinking resources with the (misleadingly) so-called non-Western fields, sometimes for reasons that were more political than intellectual. At the same time, the Humanities have been eclipsed by an invidious occupationalism whereby many view liberal study and utilitarian programs of professional certification as mutually exclusive. As a result the purposes of the University itself have been altered almost beyond recognition.

All of this, on top of our already considerable, even legendary self-centeredness, forms quite a dead-weight.

But to understand causes for historical developments is not the same as accepting the results. This is the genius of innovations like USIH and other like-spirited efforts. Remarkably, they have risen at precisely a time of the utmost precarity for our field and all of the related fields and institutions that are ordinarily its vital supports. (For two excellent meditations on precarity in our profession and beyond, see the posts by my fellow Longing For The Real bloggers, my doctoral student colleagues Erik Hmiel (also my advisee at Syracuse University) and the University of Rochester’s Michael Fisher. (Pace Michael, my thanks go to Erik for summoning the word, which far better than the bland solidity of precariousness captures the feeling of teetering on the brink of the abyss.) At a time when we cannot pretend there will be academic jobs in intellectual history to allow all of the deserving scholars in the field to make a living with their true talents, it is truly astounding, and heartening, that endeavors like this should emerge.

So why not go all the way? There is great work going on here too in American intellectual history, as in many other countries, and much never gets translated. We are missing out! “Foreign” films may be subtitled in English instead of dubbed, but works of scholarship are neither. Italians interested in this field are also no strangers to the precarity of an area of inquiry they hold dear. A student in one of my graduate seminars here, whose English is impressive but whose vocabulary does not have the free range of a native speaker’s, surprised me during our last class by dubbing the situation facing the field of intellectual history here one precisely of…pracarity.

The most famous line of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is surely “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Separating ourselves from traditions and current practices so entwined with our own is asking for the kind of inner emptiness she rendered so poignant and poignantly.

The song presents the predicament of freedom so central to the experience of being American, and of being human, for that matter. The tension between independence and the yearning for rootedness and lasting connection is embodied in this story of two people who experience true yet fleeting communion hitch-hiking one rainy night aboard an eighteen-wheeler, “window wipers slapping time,” singing every song they knew. While this song is ostensibly all about not getting attached, not being tied down, it simultaneously lingers longingly and lovingly over specific people and places. Particular cities are mentioned (Baton Rouge, New Orleans) and we learn there is such a thing as home after all: “I let him slip away./He’s looking for that home and I hope he finds it.” The sweet languor of the song’s opening gives way by the end to unbridled movement forward and the frantic cry of passion and loss. Early references to the blues foreshadow the painful cataclysm of the line, “I would trade all of my tomorrows for just one yesterday.” With precarity like this in the best of times, who needs anything worse?

Precarity in personal and professional life can run hauntingly parallel for each of us at any time. We have surely chosen a vocation in which they not only intersect, but often become one inseparable line. Always there is the possibility of letting what is really important slip away. (Oops, I lost Bobby McGee. Oh, well.) But then again, we might prefer not to–when we can help it.

For the remainder of my Roman stay, I hope to put in words, if I can, some of what I have seen here in Italy that interests me and might be of interest to USIH readers. And I just might comment on an interior monologue or two of Woody Allen’s. As we all know, he conducts them solely in Italian.