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Norman Douglas on Misrule and the Neapolitan Enlightenment

January 31, 2017

This from Siren Land, the 1911 “Celebration of Life in Southern Italy” that is one of this master stylist’s greatest works.

[O]rdinary pestilences and famines and earthquakes are mere amateurs in destruction whose effects are healed in briefest time: there may even be witnessed, after occasions when the plough of affliction has violently disrupted the soil, a strange quickening of growth. But misrule strikes at the root of things, since the humane strivings in a people, those of its elements that actively make for good, are so sporadic that their annihilation is wholly different from a haphazard calamity. And there was a sinister thoroughness in the Bourbon system which ensured success. The effects of such a conscientious selection of badness must necessarily endure; it takes longer to rear up that which is humane than its opposite, seeing that there are a thousand wrongs for one right. ‘There is no town and there is no country’, says a Neapolitan historian, ‘which would not inevitably be impoverished by the loss of so many and such distinguished men.’ …

There had been tyrannies before in Naples, odious tyrannies; but despots, secular and religious, had been powerless to smother the grand traditions of Hellenic culture, the envy and delight of ancient and mediaeval Europe. A glance into early literature will show what Naples has done in the domain of philosophy – it was ever the first city of Italy for speculative thought; a glance into the works of pre-Bourbon travelers will afford a description of the inhabitants of Naples, and of the provinces, as they saw them. The Neapolitan Academy for the Study of Nature was the first to be founded in the world: it preceded the English Royal Society by nearly a century. One of the brightest pages in human history is the successful struggle of the Neapolitans against the inquisition. This, and much else, might be said in praise of pre-Bourbon Naples. But where philosophical books may not even be imported into a country, much less printed; where the reading of Voltaire is punished with three years’ galley-slavery, and that of the Florence newspapers with six months’ imprisonment – how incredible it seems, nowadays! – the flower of civilization withers and fades away. Despotism, priestcraft, and proletariat have ever been good friends; a kind of freemasonry, unintelligible to simple folks, has conjoined them from time immemorial against the honest and educated classes. Unable to stand alone, they lean against one another for mutual support, and thus in the mephitic calm of ignorance, the structure remains upright, a marvel of equipoise: like a child’s house built of cards, a breath of enlightenment – and it collapses.


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