Massimo Cacciari’s writing fell on me a few days ago. He first came to my attention a few years ago when a colleague waved a book called Architecture and Nihilism in my face. I didn’t read this book, but its almost violent passage before my eyes opened an entirely new world. This unknown sphere remained dormant until recently, when I began a rather sunny yet despondent morning reading an essay of his. Cacciari and his writings are less prominent (among North American English speakers, at least) than they deserve. The few excerpts and musings here are meant merely to act as introduction and point of departure for those of you who know little or nil about his work.
My relationship—if one can call it that, as I probably shouldn’t, given the reputation speculative gossip attributes to him—with Cacciari has always been one of chance. I wasn’t looking for that architecture book, which is one of only four by him that is easily accessible to an English-speaking audience, or anything else on nihilism. Nor was I looking for an interview of him, a “sentimental interview” charmingly entitled “Massimo the Incomplete,” when I stumbled across it in L’espresso magazine a couple of years after the first incident. Finally, he came back to haunt me on a recent morning when a book about the classics literally fell off my shelf as I walked past; it’s clearly a physical connection.
Confronting the Classics: in Conversation with the Greeks and Latins was the book I’d inherited from a friend and not since had time to open. I was in what one could term a very brooding, contemporary mood that morning, reflecting on how many things that fascinate me serve no practical purpose in today’s world, and how planned obsolescence and incessant (and often conspicuous) consumption have come to replace many older, more substantial modes of existence. A walk around New York, or Venice, or any other city of the over-privileged world easily inspires the question of just what, exactly, people did before they spent their lives shopping…but I digress. Just as the superficiality of this particular moment in history overwhelmed me, I saw Cacciari’s essay, “Inactual Abstracts on the Study of the Classics.” Having only read a smattering of classics myself, and never really having studied them officially (whatever that might mean), I wanted to see what he had to say. The Nietzscheian reference particularly piqued my interest. I decided to dedicate the morning to this rich eight-page piece.
I mentioned Venice earlier because Cacciari was reelected Mayor there on April 3 of last year after having held the same position from 1993 to 2000. He also served in the Italian Parliament from 1976 to 1983. From the sixties forward he has been publishing his musings, creating a bibliography too vast to address here. His political activity, to many, may seem incongruous with the vocation of philosopher. The reason he is remarkable is precisely because so many things about him initially seem incongruous. It remains to be seen whether or not a completed whole can be made of this picture.
In North America it is fairly rare to encounter a politician who is also professor, author, philosopher, and generally curious thinker (I invite all those reading this to refute any of my statements). Italy gave the world such vastly different figures as Benedetto Croce, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Antonio Gramsci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Leonardo Sciascia, Manfredo Tafuri, and many others, all of whom blurred the borders between politics, philosophy, and aesthetics. While it’s perhaps a little early to add to such a group, the ability of all these thinkers to assemble a unique opus collecting otherwise fractured and distant fields is certainly echoed in Cacciari’s work.
Returning to his essay, he very concisely makes twenty-seven key points about contemporary study of the classics. He begins with the general feelings of resignation regarding contemporary education—how much it supposedly must adapt to the needs of the day, acting more as something in the service of a technical-economical context rather than a school based on the ideas of culture and real education. Early on he asserts that all words indicating the “school-education complex” (i.e., Schole, paideia, Bildung) refer “not to any specific contents, but to a field of energy; a state that generates potentialities and openness to multiple possibilities rather than orientation toward a precise scope. The goal of the educational process is not the transmission of acquired values…. The real sites of education remain, despite any assertions to the contrary, centers of criticism, discussion, comparison of different trends, and questioning.” I can think of many brilliant people who’ve proven this point after fleeing stifling academic programs that somehow managed to neglect education in this sense of the term.
While that is interesting in itself, and a useful bit for anyone considering study in graduate programs or other accredited, official schooling, it doesn’t yet address the real importance of the classics. Cacciari here clarifies that, in an environment like that of most schools, “which act much like businesses specialized in producing workers, the teaching of the classics can only have a merely ornamental role. The idea of the school-business is metaphysically opposed to all that is classic. Classic, in fact, expresses no return to the past, much less to the dead past, but assuredly a high-spirited contrast to custom, to the present time. Classic is that which is not currently fashion, not the refrain of the day; it carries within it a timbre of battle, an exigency of contra-diction.”
Rather than acting as a throwback to the past, the classics “should arm us to face the present time…. The classic doesn’t flee, it rather challenges. It belongs to the present time, but refuses to serve it…. It speaks of the present time, of this world, even of our daily life, but from a sound distance. Those who weaken the spirit of the classics, transforming it into a sedentary philology; those who make of the classics a cupboard of memories neatly arranged in historical order; those who don’t know how to make them live in divergent agreement with the present time, destroy their essence ten thousand times more than its vulgar detractors.”
I don’t wish to elaborate each of his points here; suffice it to say that various dangerous words—logos, philology, concordia discors, variety, forma mentis, net-workers—and dangerous thinkers—Nietzsche, Celan, Leopardi, Alberti, Kafka, and Arendt—all make appearances in this tightly-constructed brief. This is the ultimate précis of the truly liberal arts. This is what made it impossible for me to mope around wallowing in the tragic thought that I’d lost days and years of my life to a pleasurable yet utterly fruitless interest in the classics. This is the artillery with which I will respond to the next person inquiring why many of my colleagues and I are “so obsessed with remote, ancient things” in our work. This helped me shoulder what is indeed the heavy weight of taking up active conversation with the classics, yet that load is lightened when I look around and come to a very visceral awareness that I’ve no other choice.
I imagine that many who have heard about Cacciari will have done so through the abundant gossip circulating about him, which merits no further comment here. I will leave you on your own in getting to know his opus, and can only hope that the very limited number of his writings currently available to English speakers will soon grow.
Lastly, a salute to those who have similar dedication to crossing and dismantling the artificial borders between disciplines and cultural epochs—if only we had leaders here in the United States capable of addressing with such depth, or at least being aware of, education and the classics’ roles.