You chew your bread
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