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The Immigrant Saga of an Italian-American Family: a Vichian Recapitulation
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-06-20 07:44:24
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Jessi costress ta la lenghe

di to pari a dsi-si:

mi son quel che son!

[To be compelled in the language
of one’s father to tell oneself:
I am who I am!]

                   --Amedeo Giacomini  
Author’s preliminary note: what follows, prepared on father’s day, June 19, 2011, is essentially a verbatim  rendition of chapter IX of my book on the Neapolitan philosopher of history Giambattista Vico titled Hermenuetics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Edwin Mellen Press: New York,N.Y., 1993). It dovetails the Vichian notion of self-knowledge as expressed in my Ph.D.  dissertation at Yale University and titled “The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s Concept of Providence.”

Self-knowledge is the first step on the arduous road to wisdom. One may ask: what exactly is the definition of wisdom? A possible definition could be the following: wisdom is the summation of man’s self-discovery, i.e., the su1mmation of an authentic holistic life, able to keep harmony between the material, the intellectual and the spiritual component of one’s humanity. A life, in other words, that is neither one of Dionysian excess nor one of mere Apollonian clarity; one that while accepting and integrating man’s imaginative and rational spheres, remains at all times capable of integrating, harmonizing, and even transcending both.

file_400One may ask further: How does one achieve such a synthesis? Let me answer this question by attempting a rather personal description of the very origins of this process of self-knowledge as buttressed by Vichian philosophical categories, an ongoing process in my life for some forty plus years now. This description seems essential, for if I am unable to bring my own humanity to the hermeneutical process as analyzed and described in the pages of this book, then my invitation to them to do likewise is moot.

In the America of the 60s, besides the Marcusian hippy phenomenon (to be analyzed further down in the epilogue), there was another important cultural movement. I refer to the Black ethnic identity search characterized by the slogan “Black is Beautiful” and culminating with the popular book Roots by Alex Haley, a man on an existential search of his African roots taking him on a geographical as well as anthropological journey. It was soon followed by practically all the ethnic groups which make up our multicultural society. Subsequently the “melting pot” concept of American society was found deficient and was replaced by that of “salad bowls,” or “mosaics,” or “symphonies.” These metaphors emphasizing unity in diversity seemed to better portray the reality of pluralism in American culture still found on the dollar bill  with the slogan “e pluribus unum.”

In principle  I concurred with this movement which focused on a greater awareness of our multiculturalism. I began wondering why the U.S., despite its many social problems, remained a much more vibrant and dynamic place than an orderly country such as Canada. Eventually I found an indirect answer in a passage from a Graham Green’s novel where a protagonist compares prim-and-proper Switzerland to socially chaotic Italy and proffers the following comment: Italy gave us Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Switzerland gave us the cu-cu clock. It then occurred to me that what has made both Italy and the USA such culturally vibrant and diverse countries was their wave after wave of invasion and/or immigrations from all over the world. While generating confusion and social conflict at first, in the long run it infuse vital new blood into the social mainstream and forges as stronger more unified culture.

I became quite interested in this vibrant socio-cultural ethnic phenomenon in America and ended up doing research and publishing in this new field while teaching Italian language and culture at the University of Puerto Rico. I published two review-essays, both in a Vichian key. One of those essays was on a book by Richard Gambino titled Blood of my Blood and was titled “Vichian Themes in the Italian-American Saga” (Interamerican Review, Vol. V, n. 2, Summer 1975). The second essay-review was on a book by June Namias titled First Generation. In the Words of 20th Century American Immigrants. The review-essay was titled “The Poetry of Story Telling” (Melus-Multi-Ethnic Literature of the US—Vol. VI, n. 4, Winter 1979). I also published an article on “Bi-culturalism within the Italian-American Identity” (NEMLA Italian Studies, Vol. V, 1981). Moreover, while doing graduate studies at Yale University I organized in collaboration with Dr. Vena, also a Yale alumnus, a colloquium on “The Immigrant Experience within Italian-American Culture (July 20, 1979) which was attended by scholars of the Italian-American cultural experience throughout the North East including the then president of Yale University A. Bartlett Giammatti. That was followed by the teaching of a summer course at Yale on the literature of the immigrant experience.

This intellectual activity perplexed some colleagues and professors at Yale University. They had difficulty seeing what possible nexus could there between it and a rigorous Vico scholarship. Had they carefully surveyed Vico’s hermeneutics they would have no longer wondered. These activities were indeed an integral part of my ongoing dialogue with Vico, the manifestation of an inner journey into the self tentatively began around 1968. However, we need to go further into the past to examine more closely the origin of my interest in the particularities of the ethnic movement in America which reached its culmination in the 70s, and then compare it to my great passion for the universal nature of philosophy and theology.

In 1967 I graduated from a Franciscan Catholic College in Brooklyn, New York, with a major in philosophy and a minor in theology. That B.A. degree was the culmination of a classical Franciscan education spanning eight years and including five years of seminary studies. I’d like to think that it was Franciscan down-to-earthness and love of the finite created world of nature that eventually rescued me from a too other worldly Platonic-Augustinian universalism. In any case, upon my graduation from college I was envisioning becoming a philosophy professor. I was on the verge of choosing a proper graduate school where I would pursue my love of universal values, search for truth and wisdom and eventually encourage students to do likewise. I saw no better justification for a life of scholarship within the academy.

It should be mentioned that in my three years at St. Francis College I had been fortunate enough to have as role models some master philosophy professors who in many ways transmitted to me their enthusiasm for philosophy. I have never lost that interest and even ended up teaching philosophy at Interamerican University during my tenure at the University of Puerto Rico. I have kept in touch with a couple of those philosophy professors over a span of forty years. But I had begun to notice something amiss. Namely that in my search for universality I seemed to have become more concerned with the problems of humankind and much less with those of my family or the next door neighbor for that matter. Without ever rejecting my ethnic heritage outright I had become a bit contemptuous of it, finding it too confining. In some way I was becoming an academic high brow snob, one of those found in Ivy League institutions of higher learning.

All of that may have had something to do with my marrying an Irish-American outside my ethnic group if not outside my religion. I don’t know, but the fact is that in 1968 certain unexpected events turned things up side down, so to speak. My father contracted cancer and died at the age of 55, all alone in a Brooklyn hospital. That event brought me back to earth from the ethereal atmosphere of Mount Olympus on which I was intellectually sojourning. I now had a mother and a 7 year old sister to support. That does not mean that I abandoned philosophy. I continued reading voraciously in it and I discovered Giambattista Vico. That discovery in turn made me realize that in my anxious search for the universal, I had merely achieved a sort of abstract Platonic pseudo-transcendence of the contingent and particular in my life. I had become embarrassed of my immigrant grandfather and father because I had treated the unique moments of an immigrant Italian family, repeatedly crossing the Atlantic for some one hundred years now, as a mere phase of a higher Hegelian theoretical scheme. I had miserably failed to take seriously those unique contingent moments. I had failed even to attempt their re-creation. I had in fact denied the reality of their contingency. I had especially neglected the contingent moments of the relationship with my father, a difficult and desultory one at best…and now that he was dead forever out of reach on this earth.

As I delved into Vico’s poetic philosophy and I began to realize that my philosophical paradigm, i.e., the lenses with which I perceived reality was an over-rationalistic and Cartesian one. As Vico himself acknowledges, this paradigm is quite natural for “enlightened” man historically arriving at the third and final phase of history’s cycles, what Vico calls corsi and ricorsi. Indeed, for “enlightened” man those abstractions and theoretical schemes come very natural, even at the risk of losing sight of the whole of reality. On the other hand, for men still in the first or second more poetical cycles (such as my peasant grandfather) the concreteness and particularities of the contingent present moment remain quite real. They seem to have a greater ability to synthesize the two even when it never comes to fruition for lack of education.

I began to realize that with Plato and Hegel I had made the mistake of attempting a grasp of an alleged higher universal scheme by neglecting the concrete circumstances of my life, especially as expressed in the humble origins of my great-grandfather and grandfather. In short I had grasped the Geist, or the world spirit, while turning my back on my own people. In short I had forgotten my cultural roots. With that forgetfulness came an inability to forge an authentic identity. That awareness descended upon me like a thunderbolt with my father’s sudden unexpected death. I began to see the flawed paradigm I found myself in as a larger intellectual flaw which directly impacted upon my everyday life. A sort of Kierkegaardian existential dread descended upon me and I began wondering how I could possibly correct it.

To make a rather lengthy process of introspection short, a gradual turn-around begun to occur. It caused me to change my field of study from the ethereal abstractions of philosophy to the concrete particularities of Italian literature. Eventually I obtained an M.A. from Middlebury College in 1970, went on to study Comparative Literature full time at New York University for a whole year and then in 1971 began my academic career by accepting a position as Assistant Professor of Italian Language Literature and Culture at the University of Puerto Rico where I was tenured and to which I was affiliated for 13 some years. But even there I never neglected philosophy. What had happened is that my overarching intellectual interests had became more interdisciplinary: they integrated language, literature and philosophy. Eventually I obtained a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism and Philosophy from Yale University with an interdisciplinary dissertation on Vico’s Concept of Providence.

Toward the end of said dissertation (on p. 157, to be precise) I attempt to elucidate the paradox of Vico’s concept of Providence with the assignment of two poles (transcendence/immanence) that can be distinguished but are not separable. In this chapter I merely wish to point out to the reader that this theoretical scheme is immediately followed by a metaphor: that of the olive tree utilized to illustrate that the olive tree will appear either green or silver depending on the direction of the wind. Actually, the tree is both green and silver, its leaves being green on one side and silver on the other. Therefore to assign preeminence to just one side of the concept, either that of transcendence or that of immanence, means to run the danger of missing half of its reality. As for the color of the olive tree, transcendence and immanence within Vico’s concept of providence are complementary aspects of the same reality. This explanatory tract of the dissertation is followed by a footnote (chapter IV, footnote 37) which states the following: “The ‘factum’ of this particular metaphor for me personally is to be found in the region of Bitonto, Puglia where I was born and my father’s doctoral dissertation (University of Bari, 1948) dealing with the cultivation of the olive tree in such a region. My grandfather, the farmer, cultivated olive trees; my father, the agronomist, studied olive trees and dealt with them in a rational abstract mode; I, the literature-philosophy professor employ the olive tree as a literary metaphor for the interpretation of a philosophical concept. Indeed, the cycles are phenomenological as well as chronological.

Now, this footnote may at first sight appear irrelevant to the conceptual apparatus of the dissertation. It may appear easily expungeable. It is however extremely important in as much as it describes, from the inside so to speak, the concrete historical and contingent origins of my search for self-knowledge. The concrete olive tree and the metaphor it provides is needed to begin with. More concretely expressed: without the grandfather cultivating the olive tree and the father studying it, it is quite plausible that the grandson might not have used it as a personally significant metaphor to elucidate an abstract philosophical concept. Perhaps it also bears pointing out here that the heraldic symbol for the city of Bitonto (a rather obscure town in Italy but mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron) is none other than the olive tree.

Cogito ergo sum, proclaimed Descartes. The Friulian poet Giacomini may however more on the mark when he says in his above mentioned dialect poem that I am who I am not because of what I think but because of my father’s language. Language, Vico teaches us, encompasses our human world and outside of it there is no reality. As I too went searching for my ancestor’s language, the repository of a whole way of life, I began to realize that the language of my “cafone” grandfather was not the literate Italian of a Dannunzio, but rather a rough “poetical” Barese dialect. To recreate therefore the saga of my immigrant family I would have to journey back to those linguistic roots, to discover there not so much rational clear distinct concepts, but an obscure imaginative language full of rich metaphors. To say it with another Friulian poet, Pasolini: in my grandfather’s eye I would not discern rational historical facts but only “dark years/and forgotten nights/and buried passions/in a time without days.”

This was not a very appealing journey to someone accustomed, since his college years, to deal with “clear and distinct” ideas and rational well thought out philosophical arguments. And yet, as Vico teaches us, it remains an essential journey back to origins for the re-creation via fantasia of those very same origins. For it is there, in those origins, that resides our human world, and to forget the world of origins (the first poetical cycle of Vico’s ricorsi) is to dehumanize oneself. So I laboriously interviewed my grandfather Emmanuele in Bitonto, and my great uncle Domenico in Brooklyn (who both made wine and drank a glass of it every night, and cooked with olive oil and both died at 93), then did some genealogical research into my family’s and my town’s history in Italy. I discovered that my family had originally emigrated from Spain in the 16th century and might well have been converted Jews; they had the wandering spirit in their blood. On a more literary plane, I began to read books such as Silone’s Fontamara, Pane e Vino, Il seme sotto la neve; Carlo Levi’s Christ stopped at Eboli; Scotellaro’s L’uva puttanella; Verga’s I Malavoglia and Mastro Don Gesualdo; Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia; Pavese’s La luna e i falo’, Dolci’s Racconti Siciliani, and of course that masterpiece of the journey into self-knowledge, Dante’s Commedia.

Vico taught me to demystify Dante and bypass the academic priesthood that renders his work inaccessible to ordinary people for whom the Commedia, just as La Nuova Scienza, was intended. Finally, I familiarized myself with several Italian-Americans’ works of fiction, prominent among which Christ in Concrete. These authors became my indispensable guides in my journey of self-discovery. They created for me myths and imaginative tales through which I could re-create my own origins and from there forge a viable future. These stories functioned mythically in the sense that they established a world in which I could live and move and have my being. They structured consciousness, encouraged attitudes and suggested behavior by reconciling the past, redeeming the present, and envisioning the future. However, for these stories to function mythically one must be able, by an act of the imagination, to discern one’s own story in them. My own story will not be discerned as long as my rationalistic side devoid of the imaginative keeps privileging the “myth of science” and forgetting that of an Atlantis, a great island submerged within the self whose fragmentary evidence can be recaptured only in graced moments. The above mentioned books helped me recapture those moments and in the process I discovered some unique facts about myself as an Italian-American that, facts that somehow, had been missed or ignored by the sociologists’ Cartesian categories.

As examples, I’d like to submit a partial list of those facts. I discovered that like black, “cafone” is also beautiful. Ignazio Silone reminds us that the etymological meaning of that much abused word is not “boor” but merely farmer. I discovered that my grandfather Emmanuele was probably closer to Vico’s “poetic wisdom” than his educated son Francesco or his perhaps overeducated grandson. I discovered that to venture out to another land and another radically different culture as an immigrant, is an Herculean enterprise requiring uncommon courage. I discovered that my grandfather, the original immigrant from the Paparella family (the first of the three brothers, Emmanuele, Domenico and Pasquale) who debarked in New York harbor and lived in “Little Italy” around the turn of the century, was a genuine hero, as were also his two brothers.

My father was a hero too. He returns to his native New York (Mulberry Street) after 35 long years and he does so not as a laborer but as an educated professional. I discovered that it was the previously despised “paternalism” of my grandfather that allowed him to raise a family of seven children in an elegant 19th century villa in Bitonto where he died at 93 in 1969. I found out that he had refused the suggestion to tear down the villa to build an ugly condominium on top of it, something that was actually done after his death. I also found out that this ill educated peasant had managed to educate and turn four of his seven children into professionals (an agronomist, an economist, a pharmacist and an accountant). I discovered that my grandfather never drove a car, but he drove a bike all his life and drank a glass of wine every night and a pint of olive oil every morning. I discovered that his skepticism about technological progress might have had more to do with wisdom than with ignorance, as I had originally supposed. It dawned on me that I did not exactly fit into the neat sociological categories of first, second and third generation Italian-Americans, and therefore I might be able to transcend them. To my surprise I discovered that being bi-lingual and bi-cultural makes one a better citizen not only of the “global village” but of one’s country too. I discovered that my mother who eventually became a naturalized citizen and returned to Italy after my father’s death to live with two of her four daughters, had become a sort of transatlantic lady, crossing the ocean on a regular basis to visit the three children still in the US.

Most astonishing of all I discovered that on a higher conceptual level I was reliving the bitter-sweet experience of my immigrant grandfather’s immigrant experience at the turn of the century. At Middlebury college a Florentine professor suggested that I go to the language lab to perfect my accent, by acquiring a more Florentine sounding one. In his eagerness to assert the alleged cultural superiority of the Florentine accent, he forgot that most Italians, north and south, do not speak with a Florentine accent which is not and indeed never was, the official accent of the Italian language. Indeed, the “padrone” had returned to meet me in Academia as he had met my grandfather on the New York docks.

I also discovered that Southern Italian peasant culture, in emphasizing the family nucleus was less grandiosely imperialistic and nationalistic and therefore closer to the authentic Italian culture originating with the Poverello of Assisi; that this culture has much more in common with the minorities in the US than the lingering racism of our society has led us Italian-Americans to suppose; that this oral culture with no literature to speak of, may have been able to preserve its identity better than the “colonized” bourgeois of the big cities measuring success with money as the only standard and always comparing themselves enviously with the Northern European countries. I discovered that the respect for the institution of the family (one of the three sine qua non together with language and religion, in Vico’s description of the origins of civilizations) makes it an effective antidote to the technological society of producing and consuming automatons we seem to have become.

I discovered that devotion to family made the members of this culture unwilling to sacrifice to money and even career the time that should be devoted to their families; that paradoxically the unromantic but respectful attitude of the famer toward nature may possess the key to the global ecological disaster technology seems to have created; that this peasant culture’s attitude toward sexuality is far healthier and holistic than either the Puritan’s or the Playboy’s attitude: at one extreme one says that is dirty and not good for the health of one’s soul; on the other extreme one says that it is good for one’s relaxation and mental hygiene. Both lose sight of the profound interpersonal dimension present in human sexuality. Indeed our sophisticated college students with their condoms and pills, seems to be less aware of this simple human fact than my unsophisticated uneducated grandfather.

In conclusion it should be mentioned here that I discovered plenty more, better described perhaps in the two above mentioned essay-reviews. I trust however that the reader will come away with an idea of the seminal insights I personally derived from a Vichian historical imaginative approach to my own ethnic heritage. It has certainly proven a fertile path on my journey of self-discovery, still ongoing. And this should not come as a surprise. For indeed, the Vichian hermeneutical approach requires that in the process of knowing ourselves and our human nature, we begin with the particulars of our experience, and then paradoxically we end up discovering, as Dante did in his famous journey of the Commedia, that, via the particulars of the human conditions, we have reached the universally human.          

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Thanos2011-06-19 19:51:22
Thank you Emanuel, you not only honour the father's day but the international immigrants' day with the best way!!! Thanks you again!

Prof. Bob Griffin2011-06-20 16:47:16
Fascinating journey within.

Deborah Takiff Smith2011-06-22 16:36:11
Fascinating piece about identity and other things, including family and language. It adds a new dimension to my recent visit in Bitonto.

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