The Power of Uncertainty

A couple of nights ago, I saw the movie Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa, for the first time. The central event of the film is the death of a samurai in the woods. But what made the film so epoch-making when it came out in 1950 was not the event in itself, precisely because there is no “in itself”: the film presents four plausible versions of what happened, told by two participants (a bandit and the samurai’s wife), an outside eyewitness (a passing woodcutter), and even the dead man himself told through a medium. And Kurosawa, thankfully, does not engage in the director’s prerogative of collapsing the quantum field of multiple possibilities into one authorized reality, but rather lets us roam freely through the uncertainty. Although he does provide us with a “resolution” of sorts – at the film’s conclusion, the woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby even though he already has six children at home, providing some proof of humanity’s potential for goodness despite the atrocity in the woods drummed into us by four different tellings – the resolution is a false one, a palliative, and, existing as it does only in the frame story, is practically extra-diagetic. The woodcutter, his companion the priest and we the viewers may be mollified by the scene with the baby, but the death of the samurai is no nearer to the solution that it will never have.

The ability of narrative art to provide aesthetic satisfaction while daring to remain in the uncertainty zone is an important element in contemporary fiction. This authorial refusal to “tie things up” is one of the hardest things for average readers to accept, and, in the more artless cases, smacks to them of laziness. And rightly so. We may have left the era of the well-made play long behind, but if the author wants to ask us to assume the psychological cost of remaining in a state of ambiguity with respect to the narrative playing out in front of us on the stage, screen, or page, they’d better damn well make it worth our while. In Rashomon, the uncertainty ties us in compassion to the woodcutter, who, right from the beginning, while staring out at the rain, a party to the multiple versions of the killing, states over and over that he “just doesn’t understand”. That he is later the one who adopts the baby makes the conclusion, well, all the more satisfying of a palliative.

rashomon woodcutter

Sometimes, however, we are not even administered a palliative. In the Italian literature course I’m currently teaching, we recently read the story Qualcosa era successo (“Something Had Happened”) by Dino Buzzati. The terse title is remarkably descriptive: not only had “something” happened, but, whatever it was, it had already happened before the events taking place in the story, a nightmarish train trip up the entire Italian peninsula while hordes of people outside the windows flee in the opposite direction from some unnamed apocalypse the train’s passengers are heading helplessly into. When the train arrives at the deserted train station at the end of the line (I immediately thought of Milan’s Stazione Centrale, but even that is left undetermined), all the terrified passengers discover is the shadow of a train worker slipping out of view and, then, the voice of a single woman screaming for help. Her shouts bounce off the glass ceiling of the station with the “empty sonority of those places abandoned forever.”

I would argue that the fact that neither we nor the train’s passengers know what they’re heading towards heightens the dual effect of anguish and excitement. Buzzati is masterful at ratcheting up the tension as the train hurtles north: first, a single girl receiving news from someone running towards her, then several people running through a field, then people in building windows hurriedly packing their bags, then a boy shaking a newspaper at the train that a passenger only manages to grab a tiny fragment of, and so on until they arrive at the deserted station. If we knew what the actual cataclysm in question were, the story would be more like Bradbury’s “The Highway“, where the road fills with cars heading north from Mexico to the United States at the outset of an atomic war. Bradbury’s story is fine in its own right, and has stayed with me all these years since I read it in eighth grade, but I believe Buzzati’s story, precisely because it forces us to participate in an uncertainty that is not based on the outcome of concrete, future events but, rather, is built into the very parameters of the world he has created, cuts deeper.


Uncertainty is the revelation of our times. Schrödinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead, the position and momentum of a particle can never be known at the same time, the very foundations of all that classical mechanics taught was real have dissolved into an amorphous mass of mere tendencies. We can either look to literature as an escape into a world of a truly fictional certainty where we can all just sit back and push the catharsis button on our consoles. Or we can see it as a guide into a new world where the ontological decision-making is more democratic, one which must be, at least partially, of our own fashioning. As an anonymous English author wrote in the 14th century, only by entering voluntarily into a cloud of unknowing may we approach the divine.


Only Spanish Says “Fuck You” With Class

Everyone who’s slogged through Beginning Spanish knows that there are two registers for referring to people: the informal (and, in some places, vos) and the formal usted. This distinction, so natural to native speakers, tends to tie English speakers into protocolar knots. When do I refer to someone with one form or the other? Will I sound too stiff and awkward if I use usted? Or worse, will the person I’m talking to think that I think they’re old? But will sound too chummy, too igualado (someone who dares to consider himself on the same level as the person he’s speaking to – horror). What do I do in emails that are kind of semi-formal? And hey, what about X person who began addressing with someone with usted and wound up using , or vice versa?  And so on.

What is not often taken into account in this consideration of register is that the tú/usted distinction extends to every situation life throws at us. Not just basic, textbook greetings or emails of ambiguous formality, but also social situations of the most sensitive nature. In Spanish, for example, you can not only rip someone a new asshole, but do it with class, that is, with usted. I know, because I’ve seen it done. Although you might think the piercing aggressiveness of many insults would lend themselves by default to the use of , Spanish speakers, even in the most heated of disputes, take remarkable care to calibrate their register. Thus, if you wish to transmit the desire that your interlocutor engage in sexual intercourse with his or her female procreator, you can say ¡Chinga tu madre! (tú) or ¡Chingue usted a su madre! (usted). If, after getting your own back with someone who cut you off in traffic, you wish to accompany your colorful hand motion – for example, the famous Mexican “¡Huevos!” gesture – with a suitable epithet, you can choose between ¡Ten! (Take that! – ) or ¡Tenga! (??? – usted). I was once picked up at the Querétaro bus station by a taxi that apparently was only authorized to drop off, but not pick up passengers. We were followed out of the terminal by another taxi which proceeded to draw abreast of ours at a stop light and dress our driver down with such vehemence that I started making contingency plans for when he jumped out of his vehicle with a bat. But – crucial point – at no point in this irate and expletive-filled rant did he vary from the use of usted. Perhaps tellingly, the dispute did not go beyond words.

insultar con respeto

In the semantic world of English, of course, such conjugation-driven code switching is not grammatically available. That does not mean, however, that the concept does not exist, only that we have to resort to more creative forms of register mixing to arrive at the same effect. “Would you consider fucking your mother?” “Might I suggest that you fuck your mother?” or even “Here’s an idea! How about you go and fuck your mother and then you come back and tell us all about it!” are about as close as we can hope to get to Chingue usted a su madre. The problem is, unless you’re a member of the landed aristocracy, such phrases (including delightful variants such as Fucketh Thine Self) are always used in an ironic manner, the mocking formality only adding fuel to the fire of the original insult. This is not to say that the Spanish usted insult cannot be used ironically – of course it can – but I would argue that it is much more often an expression, even in the depths of one’s rage, of the key underlying element to all social interaction in Latin countries: respeto. Respect.

Another situation that tends to scramble English-speakers’ circuits is the formal imperative: that is, the giving of orders with usted. A daughter will dump a load of dirty dishes into the sink and tell her slothful father: Lávelos. Wash them, paternal authority figure. A shopper buying flowers in the market will tell the seller: Déme una docena. Give me a dozen, person I don’t know and may very well not care to. The ability to give orders with usted opens up a nuanced social space allowing one to lay down the law and be nice about it. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that the orderer, in his heart, really respects the person he’s ordering any more than a person whose language does not offer him the option, but does have at his disposal a protocol to follow that enables him to act as if he did. And in most everyday social interactions, let’s be honest, that’s usually enough.

Insulto 2

This being said, Spanish is far from being the only language which distinguishes between formal and informal registers in this way. French learners struggle between tu and vous, Italian learners between tu and Lei, and, for those intrepid enough to take on German, the choice is between du and Sie. And so on. In none of these languages, however – and please correct me if I’m wrong – have I noticed such an extensive use of the formal-register insult. A angry French speaker might suggest that you cut short whatever it is you’re saying with a snappy Ferme ta guele! but I have never heard one say Fermez votre guele! (Although I admit, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came somewhat close in the 2012 presidential debate when he accused his rival François Hollande, nostrils aflaring and with the appropriately formal vous, of being a “little slanderer“). I have never heard an Italian formally recommend that one retire for the purposes of defecating, although apparently it does occur. And an irate German might spit out a Verpiss dich! but rarely, if ever, a Verpissen Sie! In the category of insulting with respect, Spanish – and more specifically, Latin American Spanish – is in a class all of its own.

A (Silent) Window into the Past

Genoa 1916

Note: after a hiatus in which I was buckling down to finish my new book, I am back at my blog and hope to be more consistent from here on out. Today’s story is a good one to start back on, I think.

Something truly amazing happened in my Italian literature workshop last week. I’ve designed it in the format of a survey course, so after a long sojourn with Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pico della Mirandella and Machiavelli and the Renaissance writers, we’ve slowly made our way up to 19th century romanticism. After a couple of sessions spent soaking in the lyrical pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, we took a breather and turned to some of the stories Edmondo De Amicis included in his children’s novel Heart: Diary of a Child.

Mind you, I am no fan of De Amicis. I tried to read Heart several years ago and the sheer weight of so much moralizing forced me to put it down. But I was keen to include an example of children’s literature in the course, and one of the stories I chose, “From the Apennines to the Andes,” was ideal for introducing the topic of the Italian diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw the emigration of some 16 million Italians to countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia.

My grandmother, Giuseppina Veronesi née Cosmini, was among those 16 million. Born in the village of Roncaglia in the Italian Alps, she emigrated together with her grandmother in 1916 to join her parents, who had sailed on ahead to an uncertain future in Connecticut. I have copies of their exit documents, which showed that they were given permission by the government to emigrate due to their comprovata poverta’, that is, demonstrated poverty. The story she told me as a child was gripping: when she and her grandmother made their way to Genoa to board the ship to New York, the shipping company representative asked if they would be willing to give up their berths to a young couple that had to reach New York by a certain date in order to board a connecting ship bound for California.

“But we don’t have any money,” my great-great-grandmother said.

“We’ll pay for your room and board. There’s another ship leaving in just three days,” said the company representative.

My great-great-grandmother agreed. What they did not know, during their short hiatus, was that the ship they were to have traveled on was sunk by a U-boat. This was World War I, recall, and the Atlantic Ocean was yet another battlefield. The two boarded their new ship three days later and traveled without incident to New York, only to find nobody waiting for them: my distraught great-grandfather had received news of the sinking of the original ship but, when he did not find his daughter and mother-in-law’s names on the list of the ship’s manifest, did not know what to think or where to turn. After several days spent on Ellis Island, the situation was resolved, happily in the case of my grandmother, tragically in the case of that young couple. History’s wheel of fortune. I had meditated for years on that story, told it many times and made the obligatory visit to Ellis Island, all the while wondering what it would have been like for a girl of seven, who spoke only the dialect of the village she had almost certainly never left, to have experienced such a dramatic uprooting.

In the De Amicis story, a boy of 13 sets off on his own to Argentina to search for his mother, who had traveled to Buenos Aires to work as a domestic but whose letters to her family back home had abruptly ceased arriving. When he arrives, he finds that the family his mother was working for is no longer there. This sets off an odyssey which takes the penniless boy from the capital to the cities of Rosario and Cordoba, all the way to a villa outside of the remote city of San Miguel de Tucumán, where his mother is gravely ill. The surprise arrival of her son convinces her to undergo the operation she has been resisting and – children’s story, after all – she is saved. As I read on, I began to see several parallels between this story and my grandmother’s: the departure from Genoa as a child, the hoped-for reunion with her mother, the unforseen difficulties along the way that hold up the reencounter. But the most startling parallel of all was yet to come.

While researching the story in order to present it to the class, I discovered that a silent movie version of the story existed. The title was the same, Dagli Appennini alle Ande, and when I looked at the year it was made, I was astonished to find that it was 1916! The same year as my grandmother’s emigration. And, what is more, the first scene of the movie takes place in the same port of Genoa she departed from (I can only hope that it was filmed on site)! I found myself looking at the most unexpected window into history: same year, same port, the same view young Giuseppina would have had upon boarding the ship, the same view of the port of Genova receding into the distance. For all I know, my grandmother and her grandmother could have strolled by as extras during their three-day layover. And, thanks to the good graces of the Bologna Cineteca’s film archive, the movie can be seen right here. Even if you don’t have a relative that traveled from Genoa in 1916, it’s a valuable piece of cinema history that’s well worth a viewing.