The long, humid days of summer make me pensive. I think it’s because they remind me of my youth and summer vacations from school. Anything was possible then, and I felt full of life and love, something like a character out of a Shakespearean comedy. I was certainly full of something. I would have looked good in tights.
Now, I savor wit and wisdom the way I once savored physical beauty. For instance, somebody recently quoted Mike Tyson to me. The boxer said about plans: “Sure, everybody has them, until they get punched in the face.” Like Tyson, I don’t take plans too seriously, never mind data analytics. I saw a tweet about Brexit that said, simply: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” I like that. Then, of course, there’s Willie Sutton’s famous line about why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”
There is a city in the Marche region of Italy called Ascoli Piceno. In it, there is a building with the saying, “Chi po non vo/chi vo non po/chi sa non fa/chi fa non sa/et così il mondo/mal va…” It is dated 1529. Roughly translated, it says that those who are able have no desire (chi po non vo)/those who desire have no ability (chi vo non po)/those who know do not act (chi sa non fa)/those who act do not know (chi fa non sa)/and such is the world (et così il mondo)/mal va, which is something like FUBAR.
Italians are neither optimists nor pessimists. However, they can be cynical. Luigi Barzini, that famous observer of Italian culture, noted that this was because Italy has been “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.” He didn’t count all those times when Italy did the invading and sacking, but here’s the point: according to the author(s) of our 1529 marble tweet, life does not make sense. In fact, everything gets screwed up one way or another. That’s just the way it is: c’est la g–damn vie!
This is a good argument in support of the concept of original sin–imperfection being embedded in the DNA of life and dark matter of the universe–and the underlying theological belief that the devil is lord of this world. On the other hand, there is a theological tradition that says everything happens according to God’s plan. People who like this often quote Matthew 10:30-31: “Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid…”
You might see these as contradictory, and you would be right. But in Italy they are not only not contradictory but complementary. You see, the world really is mad, unfair, and cruel. Just the other day my daughter said it best concerning her breakup: “It’s just wrong.” Of course it is.
But, strange as it may sound, the cumulative effect of these imperfections, which run the gamut from wrong traffic turns to horrific suffering, is not death, destruction, and oblivion. In fact, most Italians know that out of chaos comes life. The beauty of life emerges not in spite of chaos but through it. This is why in Italy there is no such thing as contradiction and mystery is everywhere. Things are the same yet different, which is like string theory except with spaghetti.
The secret to chi po non vo is not to take anything too seriously.
Image credits: feature by Compagnia delle Formiche, top by La Madame. Posted from Rome, Italy. Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. For a translation of “Zitto zitto, piano, piano!” (Act I, Sc. 19), go to Opera Arias. For the story of La Cenerentola (Cinderella), go to MetOpera. This post is dedicated to Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz.