Maurizio Maggiani (Photo: Valerio Pennicino/Gettry Images)

Maurizio Maggiani: Life Changes

Now that reality has been shattered, after a period in which we thought nothing could be greater or better than the world we had built, we find ourselves at the edge of a cliff. From May Traces, a conversation with author Maurizio Maggiani.
Alessandra Stoppa

I am grateful that I have been brought to the edge of a cliff by this crisis, which has raised the biggest questions that I have ever asked myself.” This is how author Maurizio Maggiani speaks about this unprecedented moment. Reality has been shattered, sending waves through the “tranquil plain” we were living on, in the midst of which we were all saying, “We thought things would end here” and that whispered, “What more could you want? What could be better than this?”
Now, in order to look at what we have learned from the shattering of certainties and illusions (if we have learned anything), and how this knowledge can last, he believes that we must first understand that we cannot stand on the edge of a cliff, “in this extraordinary, unimaginable position,” forever. He states that “we are forced to make a choice” and describes this choice below. He spoke to Traces from his large, secluded house in the countryside outside Faenza, where his neighbor Giorgio silently waves to him every day as he rides his tractor and worries about the beetles eating his grape vines. Maggiani is a winner of the Strega Prize and a man who is wary of literary circles. He listens to and looks at nature as it begins to come back to life. “Creation has broken free from its quarantine and has liberated itself from the many prisons in which we have placed it.” He can talk at length about the “very shy” coypu he found yesterday, the commotion the teal ducks make, and the almond tree that had bloomed early. “We are the virus that rules this planet,” he said. “Unlike the virus that is threatening our dominion, man has consciously chosen to destroy his host. We have exploited creation to the point of extermination. Now we are reliving the ancient story of who rules over whom.” The gash opened by the coronavirus affects all of our being; it makes us ask who we are, faced with the immensity of the world and with ourselves, and what we want above all else. “Is it to save our bodies?” Asking questions has become his primary activity during this time, and he considers this a “fundamental good.”

Why is self-reflection–the “habit of reason” as you described it in Repubblica, and the “cure for carelessness” as you have also described it–so vital right now, more than ever before?
What better time is there than now to ask oneself questions, to reflect? Do you think that Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemane to look for answers or to ask questions? In his greatest and worst moment of crisis and solitude, he went there to ask questions. The answers come if we pose the right questions. We cannot compare ourselves to Christ, but this crisis is another Gethsemane. I am not saying that we must accept it, but we should reflect upon it.

How do you reflect on it?
For me, this is the greatest crisis I have experienced, and it raises the biggest questions I have ever asked myself. I am 68 years old and have lived through many crises, but this one has raised the biggest questions because I cannot escape it. You see, this a situation that seems to force us to do one thing; that is, to retreat in order to protect ourselves. We refer to a “war” with good reason, but viruses do not make war. They do not know what war is. A small living thing, by doing what it is expected to do, what comes naturally, has forced me into an unacceptable and intolerable position, a position of retreat, something that has never happened in my life. If we look carefully, however, we are the ones who have imposed the restrictions. Because of the mass mentality that so easily influences us, we are led to stay in our homes to keep from getting sick, which is the right thing to do, but this implies that we are all already sick.

Are you referring to the “pervasive idea of a general sickness,” a sickness you say you have witnessed? You were angry when you, together with other authors, were asked to read books for those who are at home. How come?
This involves a kind of “generosity” that I fear as much as I fear getting sick. Offering structures to support us and our obsession with nourishing ourselves...these are like trying to “cheer up” someone who is sick. Can’t people read books on their own? What happened? Do willpower and capability no longer exist? That, to me, is the point: whether this crisis causes an impairment of the spirit and the intelligence...

Or, whether it wakes up our selves and our reason.

A crisis is a change that requires a change. It is a moment of pause that resembles retreat from a battle, a moment that allows us to think about everything. For example, I have to consider that I am at an age at which, if I end up in the hospital, I might be overlooked. It is good that I am aware of this. It is good for me to know that I do not have a right to everything! In any case, I fear this illness, which is also a malady of the human person.

In what way?
Forgive me, I do not wish to trespass into your “house,” but what about the scandal of saints touching lepers... this is not a fairy tale or a story about something twisted. It involves the idea that evil can be cured and that it is conquered by facing it, with all the risks that that entails. Consider the risk that the doctors and nurses face today. For us it is symbolic, for them is it real, but both are equal. To touch, to face...what I am trying to say is that we will not save ourselves by running away, by protecting ourselves. If we could only save our bodies, what would we do? What would we do with just our bodies?

The May issue of Traces

These numerous questions that you are asking, questions that we often silence–for example, what am I afraid of ? Why did I take life for granted just yesterday? And why, tomorrow, should life be worth something?–is it possible to find answers that are reasonable?
We do not find answers on our own. We do not need to answer them ourselves! Christ did not find answers on his own, but the answers came as a result of the journey he made, carrying the cross, following it to the very end. Using an adult reason, we can get together, ask each other to come together to find answers...what we are doing now. I do not want to come out of this unique situation without discovering that we are better than we think we are or than the way it seems convenient for us to be. It is necessary that we ask ourselves questions that can free us from tight spaces, from the walls that imprison us. To ask oneself questions puts things in order. In our struggles, our chaos, we can lead ourselves to the use of reason, to become adults. How? By asking questions. Questioning. That is how the “beast” of the virus, not meant in a negative sense, but understood as the chaotic force, can be tamed.

And how do we find answers?
The answers are already in the questions.

Please explain.
I am thinking about when I perform an action that makes me feel uncertain, an action that I do not understand, as part of an unexpected series of events, I ask myself: Why? Why did I do that? Asking myself those questions reduces, confines the action to my own space, to my soul. To question, to stop, to hold on...these do not provide us with an answer, but rather they are the beginning of a journey that leads to an answer.

Asking yourself if it is enough to be healthy, to save our bodies, has led you to write that “life is hardy the opposite of death.” The present reality places us in front of suffering and in front of death and the fear of dying; it pushes us to look for meaning; it awakens the question of the meaning of life.
Exactly. Please understand, I don’t want to die. I have a farmer’s genes–I am dedicated to living fully. The idea of life as something bad is foreign to me, because I come from a long line of people who have fought tooth and nail to survive. Let’s suppose that when I die, someone asks me to account for my life. The Old Man will open the book and will say, “Maggiani... Maurizio Maggiani. Let me see.” He will not ask me how many novels I wrote.

So then what do you think is the meaning of life? What will be counted?
How much life I have generated in exchange for the life that I have consumed. My parents, who were illiterate farmers, not only fought to live, but they also taught me something–that what is good in life is evident. It is life itself. It generates life. You know what life is...It is certainly not getting up in the morning. Waking up does not mean you are alive. You live when you first look at something, by offering your first gesture. That gesture is either for life or for death. I think about Gehenna, the dumping ground of Jerusalem, the resting place of the “evil people,” of things to be discarded or that remain indistinguishable from other things. This expression may seem vulgar to you, but the one who distinguishes himself is a good man. You will never find him rummaging in indistinct, consumed, or dead material.
When you were talking about “stopping” and “holding on,” what do you hold onto from this experience?
The surprise, being surprised. I have been very fortunate in my life. I have lived through interesting times. I have had many significant experiences, both good and bad. I am grateful that now I have been brought to the edge of this cliff.

We were living in a time without a future, in which nothing else could happen. Everything had its logic that could not be challenged. The system could not be broken. We lived thinking to ourselves, “What more could you want? What could be better than this? Does something more exist? Where could you find something better?” It was the end of history, of the universal order. A vast wasteland, a flat land. Suddenly an earthquake sent a shockwave through this tranquil plain and created in its place a challenging landscape. Now you find yourself on the edge of a cliff– on one side is the past and on the other, the unknown.

What helps us not take a step back? In particular, what can help us keep the questions open? Where do you look?
What is helpful to me is the fact that I can’t ignore anything. You cannot stand on the edge of a cliff forever. The force of gravity makes you fall to one side or the other. We cannot remain in this extraordinary and unimaginable position. Either we look at what we believe was an infinite present or at the
unknown. You can choose to let yourself slide back or to spring forward. If I survive, I can not only look out from atop the cliff, but I can decide, I can choose to head toward the unknown to help us navigate through unfamiliar waters. Ulysses arrived at this place not just by crossing a pond–he also changed it. If there is a reason for us being here despite what you would call original sin, it is that we have a task; namely, to agitate the waters. To agitate is to live.

When you are afraid, what helps you conquer your fear?
Looking at my wife.

Click here to read the May issue of Traces