Let Peter be Peter

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 26, 2012

I am publishing, with Mark Montebello’s consent, e-mails between us following the passing away of Peter Serracino Inglott.

1. From Fr Montebello:

Mario, first of all, please accept my condolences upon the death of Fr Peter. Though I know you were not blood-related, I consider you one of his many (or should I say “few”?) “spiritual” (for want of a better word) children. It must feel, as I myself do, as a kind of strange severing of some umbilical bonding. It falls somewhere between sorrow and angst.

Secondly, I do agree with you if apart from the official commemorations, we were to find the opportunity of remembering him soberly for his philosophical work. When all the smoke from the funeral pyre settles down, Fr Peter must be taken seriously. Seriously not as in pedantic. But as in “serious fooling”, as he used to say. I am pretty sure that, even now, when primed to look all solemn, he has not lost his wicked penchant for bemusement. You know, in a philosophical sort of way.

My saddest moments since his passing away came mostly from seeing nincompoops and sycophants bury Fr Peter under a heap of hollow superlatives, banalising him, trivialising what was too big for their plate. Yes, indeed, Mario, we must let Peter be Peter: fool with our seriousness; get serious with our fooling. We have a responsibility here, you know, one which we owe to ourselves and mostly to future generations. Surely, Fr Peter will gleefully play donkey to our rickety cart.

2. To Fr Montebello:

My condolences to you Mark. The news of his passing away struck deeper than I thought it would. I too was nauseated by attempts to reduce him to a caricature of himself by those eager to appropriate him for their own little purposes. One is tempted to take them up one by one, to contradict their pompous assertions with the man’s own words. In the circumstances, however, it would have been inappropriate.

Twenty three years ago I wrote that had Fr Peter not existed, certain political interests in this country would have needed to invent one. I argued that depicting him as a brilliant but unpractical and absent minded professor, is one way of banalising those initiatives that made Fr Peter a sometimes uncomfortable fellow traveller of the powers that be. As if to say, true, he does sometimes criticise us but what can you expect from an incurable head-in-the air utopian? As if to say, let him air his futuristic visions but leave the here-and-now to us.

Sometimes, however, philosophers kick kings where it hurts and kings are embarrassingly silent. Such as when, recently, Fr Peter “said the implementation of the national minimum curriculum was the biggest ever disaster in the field”. “Never in Malta,” he argued, “did we have a situation where the central education authority left no space for freedom, originality and innovation for our teachers as was done since the national minimum curriculum was introduced”. www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20111218/local/Fr-Peter-launches-scathing-attack-on-education-policy.398787

3. From Fr Montebello:

Mario, philosophers can indeed have a cutting tongue on public issues, and Fr Peter was undoubtedly one of them. Here lies one of his merits in Malta with regard to philosophy. I submit (correct me if I’m wrong), that Fr Peter could do this – not personally, or as a priest, but qua philosophy – only because, since 1963, he had been building a platform for philosophy. What I mean is that, before he began his intellectual contribution here in Malta, philosophy seems to have been generally considered as, at best, interesting, and, at worse, futile. To his merit, I think Fr Peter succeeded in changing this; he gave philosophy a more or less respected voice.

Of course, one might say that, despite all of this, that voice is rarely heeded where or when it matters.

I beg to differ. One must grant that some of Fr Peter’s “spiritual” progeny – which includes you, me and others – did take this enhancement to heart, and we surely cannot say that we were never heeded. Some people, even a few around decision-making tables, did pay attention.

This role should be continued and, possibly, justified better. The time is ripe, I think, Mario, to seek – in full deference to Fr Peter’s “spiritual” legacy – to transcend him. Understand him better, yes, for sure, but also to take his charge to heart, and, as he taught us, deem philosophers’ duty towards society as part of their very definition.

4. To Fr Montebello:

Mark, in yesterday’s homily you defined Fr Peter’s optimism. It is not the optimism of those that are blind to what is negative, not the optimism that minimises the gravity of threats, nor the cruel optimism that dangles carrots of false hope in front of the desperate. It is the optimism that recognises reality for what it is but does not surrender to it and seeks to change it.

Last week as I and my old friend Joe Friggieri waited our turn to speak on Bondi+ about Fr Peter, I sensed – especially as we watched two former presidents of the Republic have their say – that our relationship to our teacher and interlocutor was radically different from theirs to him, though Joe and I have taken different political paths.

Though philosophical blood may not be thicker than politics, certain elective affinities across the political divide make me less pessimistic about the future of this country.



Pulcinella’s wooden spoon

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 12, 2012

Commedia dell’Arte fascinates me. Short for “com­media dell’arte all’improvviso” (comedy of the craft of improvisation), this form of popular theatre born in Italy in the 16th century but whose roots go back to the crisis of the 14th century, was first introduced to us fifth-year primary schoolboys (1963-1964) at Tripoli’s De La Salle Brothers by a teacher, Fratel Egidio, who was for us then what I suppose an internet search engine is for kids today.

Later, it was the subject of long unforgettable conversations with Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, before and after the latter was appointed the professor of philosophy at the University of Malta and yours truly, following his advice, became a student of his. Fr Peter, as all who know him will confirm, is fascinated by the figure of the clown and teaches us to take clowns very seriously.

Of the Commedia’s stock characters Arlecchino, Pantalone, the Dottore, Brighella, the Capitano, Colombina, Pulcinella, Scaramuccia and others, I am especially intrigued by Pulcinella.

Known as either Punch or else as Punchinello in English, Polichinelle in French and the model for the German Kasper, this originally Neapolitan character is funny – in the sense that he clowns on the stage and makes audiences laugh – but fundamentally mean and potentially violent.

In fact, he is often presented as carrying around macaroni and a wooden spoon. The macaroni reminds us that Pulcinella is no fool and what he does, he does for gain, for his pocket and belly. The wooden spoon is his ultimate tool to get what he wants to get down his gullet and into his pocket. In the last instance, the spoon is a weapon with which to hit someone hard on the head if that someone hinders Pulcinella from getting whatever he wants to get. Or as a cathartic revenge. “Te l’aggio ditto ca la cosa fenesce a mazzate” (I told you that this thing would end with a beating).

Another intriguing characteristic of Pulcinella is that the effect is funny but he has himself no sense of humour. His dense local dialect is not always meant to be understood and the audience often perceives it as grumbling, as badly suppressed anger at a world where he himself is often a victim. For Pulcinella is frequently at the receiving end of the stick.

Even scholars that see in the Pulcinella tradition a celebration of antiauthoritarianism, such as Orenstein in her Festive Revolutions: The Politics Of Popular Theatre And The San Francisco Mime Troupe, admit that the oppressed Pulcinella tends to vent his frustrations on other oppressed.

Why this reflection on a 500-year old character of the Commedia dell’Arte? Why speak of Pulcinella in our present Malta, in a period characterised by an extraordinary sharpening of political conflict and the disintegration of traditional networks of power, the whole nested in a period of unprecedented European economic crisis?

Let me begin by solemnly declaring that this week’s piece does not refer to the case of the circus promoter who took to court two young animal rights activists because, so he told the court, “they had called him a clown, using the phrase ‘Silvio Pulċinell’, which was also carried on placards during a protest in 2010 near the granaries in Floriana” ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120302/local/Circus-agent-felt-insulted-after-being-called-a-clown.409290 ). Any resemblance between these arguments and those that might be used to argue that the circus case might be interpreted as an attempt to repress voices of dissent – and intolerance is violence – is purely coincidental. Don’t believe me? Sue me.

No, I am worried by expressions of intolerance towards complaints regarding the state of public infrastructure in this country. You don’t have to look very far. If you are reading this column online, surf along the comments posted under reports concerning Mater Dei Hospital. Take the comments on the report of February 20, 2010 on the hospital bed shortage.

As is to be expected, the report generated a large number of comments (122 when I accessed it). Many spoke of mismanagement, others of political responsibility, some – like Frank Portelli – put forward concrete suggestions and a few shifted the responsibility onto patients. One of them suggested that the whole fuss is the work of anonymous provocateurs. Presumably referring to another comment urging citizens to wake up and see through political excuses, this commentator alleges that critical comments on the situation at Mater Dei are incitement to violence!

Quote: “These elves are just itching for a fight. Inciting the people to ‘wake up’ to throw out the government and it is counterproductive. The government will not allow anarchy to reign supreme and this call to arms coming from the same red elves known to one and all is criminal. So you better shut up. We have had enough of people beating doctors at Mater Dei and beating here and there. With the excuse that they are with the patients. We will have none of this. Force will be used against force” (sic) ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100220/local/patient-resuscitated-in-corridor.294848 ).

Suggesting that all those who demand a more efficient and humane hospital service are violent, politically-motivated doctor-bashing anarchists is preposterous. The promise of violent retribution, the warning “you better shut up” and the hysterical tone are shocking. If this were Pulcinella waving his wooden spoon in Commedia dell’Arte we’d laugh but it isn’t.