The new academic year is around the corner. Students will soon pour into the Msida labyrinth. Most first-years will not wish to be dropped off by the “old” gate by their parents. That’s for kids, they will argue. But if their papa and mama insist – those who have not themselves had the opportunity to attend University, first and foremost – then first-years will condescendingly please them but with the paternalism of someone who has already made it. Roles are switched. The first-year becomes father or mother; their fathers and mothers become children. In any case, when they are out of the car, first-years rarely look back to wave back at their idiotically-waving parents. They dive into the crowd and pretend they came alone.
The others, those who’ve been there for a year or two, will tend to look down on first-years. You do so by feigning an air of world-weariness, of impatience with the self-important and apparently purposeful strutting of first-years around the campus. The second-years are the best in this regard. If the first-year stands erect and adopts a studious posture (armfuls of books are determinant), the second-year slouches, adopts a meticulously studied who-cares look, carries no books. Third-years and beyond don’t care what you think anyway; they’re too busy worrying. The aesthetic considerations of first-years and second-years are none of their concern.
“Ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere?” (Where are they who before us went into the world?). This, many will have recognised it, is the first verse of the oldest surviving part of De Brevitate Vitae (On the shortness of life), the student hymn sung all over Europe and beyond since mediaeval times and better known as Gaudeamus igitur (Let us rejoice therefore). The contrast between the sombre ancient core of the hymn crowned by its dead serious correct title and the jolly fun bits (where sex gets top priority) crowned by the famous title, could not be starker.
Ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere? Vadite ad superos
Transite in inferos
Hos si vis videre(Where are they who before us were in the world? Go to the heavens. Cross over into hell. If you wish to see them.)
These verses, probably from a 13th century penitential hymn, are more congenial to world-weary students in their second year and beyond than to the first-years. One academic year is, however, more than enough to realise that the out-there world is full of former students, many of whom ought, by rights, to be rotting in hell and a few who probably deserve to be in heaven after having suffered for half a dozen eons in purgatory.
The idea of the university as an ivory tower unreachable by the evils of the “out-there” world is, of course, a naïve one that the student soon learns to abandon. The second-year with a minimum of intelligence (don’t be duped by the apparent asininity, it is a survival tactic requiring great skill and constant practice) knows that whatever is in the “out-there” – in our society – is also “in here”, in the apparently “other” world of academia. The second-year has seen it all. The experience of her/his first year at University has confirmed what s/he suspected all along. Maltese society is not for the innocent.
Students in the so-called Middle Ages, especially those whose student life was about to come to an end and who were about to go into the world out there, knew that it was going to be tough. The latter – modern, if you wish – parts of the song indicate various possible life strategies one might wish to adopt in these circumstances.
In view of the shortness and brutishness of life “out-there” – of which, I repeat, they had a taste in the ivory tower – the Gaudeamus igitur suggests that one ought, first of all, to be nice to those in power. First of all kowtow to your lecturers: “Vivat academia! Vivant professores!” (Long live the academy! Long live the professors!). But the place of honour is reserved to those above the university and the professors, those who wield state power.
et qui illam regit.
Vivat nostra civitas,
Quae nos hic protegit.
(Long live the state as well. And he who rules it! Long live our city. [And] the charity of benefactors, which protects us here!) Substitute “benefactors” for the state that pays your stipendium and it all fits together nicely. Hence, the pragmatism of the third-years. Two and over years of the University of Malta have impressed upon them the necessity of bowing to those in power. It’s a certificate in your kowtowing proficiency today. It will be a government job tomorrow. Or whatever you might need and are unable to get without intercession.
Finally, because a people must be discouraged from taking too close an interest in the affairs of state and the panem et circenses trick still works, the old hymn exclaims: Pereat tristitia! (Perish sadness). In words written before universities opened their doors to women, the student is encouraged to go to Paceville.
Vivant omnes virgines
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column in The Times of Malta on September 14, 2009. The original may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090914/opinion/let-us-rejoice-therefore
If you are one of those who do not like having their bread chewed into a disgusting pulp by others and then pumped down their throat, then I am talking to you. Am I right to say that there is a sense of pointlessness and exhaustion in the air; a feeling that the country is running out of steam, that creativity and the will to get things done have reached historically unprecedented low levels? Am I wrong to suggest that there is a creeping despair – among those of us who would rather bite personally into their loaf – that, as a country, we will ever measure up to the European ideals we often pay lip service to? Is this, perhaps, merely the fruit of my fertile imagination?
Or is it, perhaps, the evil fruit of my more than evident political commitment to Joseph Muscat’s new season? Pause to consider the latter possibility. Could it be the case that the author of this fortnightly column is simply out to demoralise you, to lead you astray from the right path, with a view to contributing to undermine your confidence in Lawrence Gonzi and those in his party that continue to support him? Could it be, in fact, that you – as one of those who prefer to chew their bread themselves – are in great spirits and have no doubt at all that we are living in the best of possible worlds?
• I often return to a slim volume – it lies horizontally on other, thicker ones on the bookshelf closest to me in my study – by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan, an intellectual highly respected across Italy’s political spectrum and well beyond. It’s his Viaggio nel Vocabolario dell’Etica (1993), translated into Maltese by Dun Anġ Seychell and published, with a preface by Dr. Joe (Peppinu) Cassar.
The core thought of the outspoken Turinese priest, in this text, is that we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for what goes on around us. Not only does he not exclude the political sphere but, on the contrary, he emphasises its central role within the issue of responsibility. Politics, he argues with his customary clarity, is not the exclusive business of politicians. Politics is everybody’s business.
Is there a point to politics? He asks. Is there hope in politics? He also asks. Yes, he replies, but only if… well, he does not need me to tell you what he thinks is required to give meaning to politics and hope to those that have to bear its consequences. I am sure the booklet is still easily available in either Maltese or Italian, get it and read it. It is 16 years old but tastes as fresh as a freshly baked Maltese loaf. You don’t need me to bite and chew it for you.
Moreover, there are other texts of his. Not all set in the sermon mode. As a man who appreciates the communicative value of dialogue, he excels in the giving, the taking and the sharing of conversation with those that appear to stand on an intellectually distant, indeed unreachable, shore. In which case you could begin (or continue), for example, with Umberto Eco, Carlo Maria Martini, Belief or non-belief? A Confrontation (latest edition 2006).
The issue of hope recurs in the conversation between the cardinal and the philosopher. Once you have read it, and you will read it all the way to the end – as one does with a crackling ħobża biż-żejt – once you start, you have the distinct impression that as long as there are individuals like Cardinal Martini and Professor Eco, there will be hope. In this regard, what they have in common is the courage (founded on solid intellectual foundations) to question the wisdom of abdicating one’s responsibility to those in power.
You may recall that Cardinal Martini, about two years ago, had irritated the Vatican with his remark that the “Church does not give orders” and that it “is necessary to listen to others”. This brings us back to the core message of the booklet ably translated by Dun Anġ. That political responsibility is not the sole prerogative (or the sole burden, if you wish) of those whose job it is to “do politics”. Even less, of those who have the power to give orders and who, all too often, do not bother to listen. Perhaps because they have forgotten how to.
• Peppinu Cassar, in his introduction to the Maltese translation (Vjaġġ fid-Dizzjunarju ta’ l-Etika, Edizzjoni Klabb Qari Nisrani, 1995), calls for the “courage to ask and enquire”. If I have not merely imagined what I referred to above as the current “sense of pointlessness and exhaustion”, as the “creeping despair” that this country will ever emancipate itself from this sorry state (and I am not maliciously attempting to demoralise you), then perhaps the way out of the quick-sand is to have the courage to question those that do not listen.
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column in The Times of Malta on August 31, 2009. You may access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090831/opinion/you-chew-your-bread