U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Rome with Love: Summing Up

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

It is exciting for us that the Italy-U.S. Fulbright Commission requested permission to post links to the pieces, thus featuring the USIH blog internationally. Here are all the posts: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

As I reread the five brief essays, I asked myself, looking back, what major points other than the specifics that I wished readers might get out of my random meditations on my semester’s exposure to Italian intellectual life. Most of what I was getting at fall under the following headings:

1. Living with Precarity. Bad news: we are not alone in this. Good news: we are not in this alone. Italian faculty members, graduate students, and others devoted to scholarly inquiry in the Humanities face the same crisis we do.Yet, like us—–like USIH—–many of them are actively nurturing passions and practices in areas intersecting with American intellectual history, often in spite of a lack of institutional and moral support from above.

2. Conversation. Social critics and cultural historians must at some point generalize. Yet there is a very real fear that the line between drawing general conclusions about other people (or ourselves), on the one hand, and stereotyping or “othering” them (or ourselves), on the other hand, can become blurred. Instead of complexification as the answer to simplification, the veils between us and those we are analyzing (even when we have met them and they are us) are as much the subject as any kind of authentic identity beneath they might reveal if lifted. They can only be an understood part of the subject if we are at once self-reflective and conversant—–linguistically, physically, imaginatively—–that is, in conversation with those whom we would like to understand and with others trying to understand them.

3. Food. The Slow Food Movement in Italy suggests that hope can be found in the blend of tradition and innovation that allows us to fuse longstanding practices of pleasure, insight, and excellence with visions and desires for changing what ails us. This transcends tired liberal-conservative dichotomies that frustrate and siphon off potentially new, dissenting, or oppositional energies. Being able to feed ourselves literally and figuratively, in ways that do not separate need from taste, is the starting point.

4. Place. As American scholars of things American, cultivating a habit of looking beyond our usual geographically delimited horizons could bring new possibilities for comradeship and conviviality. This is not the call for the internationalization of American history with which we are already familiar, but a new kind of inter-continental localism that suggests that alertness to and immersion in the particular locations in which inquiry takes place can deepen our personal-professional pursuits. The magic of face-to-face interaction and specific settings in which the intellectual arts are practiced can and should affect our scholarship.

5. Intimacy. Intellectual historical inquiry is one pathway of connection to another person and his or her inner life. The physical aspect of another person’s library, in part or whole, brings to light overlapping worlds of the abstract and the material, the mundane and the timeless. Even the most searing criticism of the past and present involves and invokes reverence, awe, humility, acknowledgement of mystery, and limits upon knowledge.Libraries confide all of this and more.

Intimacy, place, food, conversation…sounds like Italy, right? It’s the best way to live with precarity, isn’t it? No, it’s the only way.

Stepping back now, the overarching sense of things I was trying to convey in ruminating over some of my Italian adventures was just that possibilities for life-enhancing and even at times life-saving connection can be found in places we might not necessarily look first. In other words, it is nothing more than the truism most readers of this blog probably knew long before I did, that a change of location can foster a vitally new perspective on matters one thought one already had some kind of window into—such as, in our case, intellectual life in one’s own country. After all, no one from USIH stared dumbfounded, though others certainly did, at the thought of a modern Americanist’s itinerary to study and conduct research in Rome. In sum, I was invited to Rome to teach and, predictably, Rome taught me more than I could ever have learned otherwise—and not just about Rome.

At the start of his life of Demosthenes, Plutarch ridicules the notion that “to a man’s being happy it is in the first place requisite he should be born in ‘some famous city’” (Quotes from John Dryden’s translation as it appears here). As with the word “is,” that depends on what your definition of “happy” is:

But for him that would attain to true happiness, which for the most part is placed in the qualities and disposition of the mind, it is, in my opinion, of no other disadvantage to be of a mean, obscure country, than to be born of a small or plain-looking woman. For it were ridiculous to think that Iulis, a little part of Ceos, which itself is no great island, and Aegina, which an Athenian once said ought to be removed, like a small eyesore, from the port of Piraeus should breed good actors and poets, and yet should never be able to produce a just,temperate, wise, and high-minded man. Other arts, whose end it is to acquire riches or honour, are likely enough to wither and decay in poor and undistinguished towns; but virtue, like a strong and durable plant, may take root and thrive in any place where it can lay hold of an ingenuous nature, and a mind that is industrious.

Then he goes on to talk about what living in a location, such as a major urban center, especially when not one’s place of birth,can offer. His view of travel for research is an expansive one that would call into question the asocial archival burrower of our time as the consummate professional historian.

But if any man undertake to write a history that has to be collected from materials gathered by observation and the reading of works not easy to be got in all places, nor written always in his own language, but many of them foreign and dispersed in other hands, for him, undoubtedly, it is in the first place and above all things most necessary to reside in some city of good note, addicted to liberal arts, and populous; where he may have plenty of all sorts of books, and upon inquiry may hear and inform himself of such particulars as, having escaped the pens of writers, are more faithfully preserved in the memories of men, lest his work be deficient in many things, even those which it can least dispense with.

But for me, I live in a little town…

As I return to my own little town, the small city of Syracuse, Plutarch’s words resound with an uncanny, otherworldly echo, just as the place names of Central New York will never sound in my ears with their Italian counterparts far behind. Since his travels “in Rome and other parts of Italy,” he wrote, “that which happened to me may seem strange, though it be true; for it was not so much by the knowledge of words that I came to the understanding of things, as by my experience of things I was enabled to follow the meaning of words.” Perhaps this should be the same for us.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Syracuse, New York

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