Belmont Club

Naples and the Subconscious History of the World

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of Faust, wrote “See Naples and die!” in his record of travel in 1786, Italian Journeys, he probably meant that visiting the city ought to be on the list of things to do before you die — in reference to its magnificence and vibrancy. But when Tom Behan more recently wrote a book with an identical title, it was in reference to the city’s opposite aspect, the Camorra, the Neapolitan organized crime syndicates which rival — some say surpass — the Mafia in efficiency and cruelty.


Michael Ledeen describes a Naples that is both on the bucket list and to kick the bucket in his book Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles. It is both a place after whose acquaintance you can die and one in which you are apt to be killed dead. His book is subtitled, “An Investigation into the Sources of Creativity,” because it is not in fact really about Naples at all, but what the city represents.

The essential thing to grasp, as Ledeen makes clear with his lively prose and encyclopedic knowledge of Neapolitan anecdote, is that is that Naples is not Italian at all. It is unto itself;  first a major Greek city (Parthenope) and then a major Roman metropolitan area (the home of Virgil). Naples was settled before Christ. It saw the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; clung to the remains of Byzantium; became a Kingdom of its own; watched Napoleon come and go; witnessed the Italian unification; lived through the rise and fall of the Third Reich and mayhap may muse upon the coming and going of the European Union.  The capitals of great nations fleet through history, but Naples remains.

Ledeen argues that the fact of its continuous habitation means that Naples is almost a microcosm of European history; a unique record of a place that has received the marks of every passing political and cultural current without ever having been completely conquered by any.

It might be more accurate to say that Italian territory happens to contain Naples rather than say that Naples is part of Italy.  It is the capital city of something grander than a mere European state. It the chief city of memory; of not one, but several civilizations. In consequence, it  has acquired a set of attitudes and archetypes that cannot be described by ordinary history, which would be too superficial. The only true history of such a unique place would be myth.


Levi remarked that such people had existed for a very long time … and to write their true history one would have to deal with things that were “changeless and eternal, in other words a mythology”

These archetypes and attitudes have been forged between the hammer of death and the anvil of survival.  The impact of cruel nature and man on the Neapolitans has forced the evolution of a particular set of attitudes.  Leading the scourges of nature was Vesuvius, which is “is today regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people living nearby and its tendency towards explosive … eruptions.”  Not far behind were the depredations of disease and conquest, sometimes two sides of the same thing. Following an attempted rebellion, the Spanish overlords of Naples in 1656 conceived of an idea to break their spirit forever. Ledeen writes:

It was well known at the time that the plague was running wild through Sardinia, and anyone concerned about the health of Neapolitans would have done his best to seal the port to any vessel from Sardinia. Castrillo did the opposite. He welcomed the fifteen sailors on board and invited them to spend the holidays in Naples, sending them single and in pairs to the most densely populated neighborhoods, and, in one case, to one of the most popular brothels.

Later that night, Castrillo assembled the nobles in the Royal Palace, and shocked them by issuing orders that the aristocrats move into the palace, and their families be sent outside the city. At the same time, he moved his cavalry into barracks on the outskirts of town and instructed them to avoid all contact with the citizenry. …

What were the Neapolitans supposed to do after more than half of them were killed in such a dreadful way by the grisly biological terrorism unleashed by their rulers? Was it not inevitable that they would prefer to practice systematic deception toward state authority, rather than confront it directly?  And was it not logical for them to avoid fixed and predictable alliances that could be shattered from above? Their celebrated chaos, which its critics often mistakenly call “anarchy”, is, among many things, also a system of self defense.


"De plague, boss, de plague"


Everything that nature and man can devise has tried to crush the Neapolitans, a fact which engendered conspiratorial habits, a familiarity with death and an inclination to trust no one. Ledeen’s conclusion has an air of plausibility about it. It explains the sullen invincibility of certain cultures whose imperatives are geared not toward modernity but toward surviving it. Anyone who has lived in the Third World understands how in certain societies benign government seems not only implausible, but unnatural.  In such places, the State is never to be trusted, only deceived.

The omnipresence of the volcano and the ubiquity of death also explains one other thing about Naples: the reality of the dead. Ledeen explains that it is not uncommon for Neapolitans to treat the dead as if they were still alive.  They adopt bones; decorate  tombs with art and make bargains with ghosts. He overheard one stranger tell another that a dead relative had visited in her dreams. That stranger immediately began transforming the dream symbols into lottery numbers he would wager on the next draw. The line between the living and the dead, so clear in many societies, was but an indefinite boundary in Napoli.

This state of affairs was not at all uncommon in Europe, Ledeen argues, until recently. Prior to the long peace (the interregnum between Waterloo in 1812 and August 1914), death was part of the scenery in Europe. It was familiar and walked in the street.

In that remarkable tranquil century, the Western attitude toward death underwent a striking evolution. Previously death had been understood as a part of nature, something altogether normal. In the 19th century, death came to be viewed as a violent intrusion into human affairs … the very thought of leaving the world became unbearable and the requirement of remembering the dead became a social imperative. …

Predictably, much greater attention was paid to location and care of cemeteries … nobody got upset when, in the years just before the French Revolution, the five hundred year-old Cemetery of the Innocents was totally destroyed and removed … to make room for urban renewal. But just a century later there were riots in Paris at the very suggestion of doing the same thing to other cemeteries …

It would require a greater understanding of the human spirit than we possess to explain why the passionate Western embrace of the dead emerged at the very moment when, for the first time in hundreds of years, so few people actually died in combat, or, for that matter, in the violent epidemics of the sort that ravaged Naples many times.


The dead departed Europe everywhere except Naples.  And this continued association with the death, as so befits the capital of civilizational memory, together with its rootless civic culture, is what Ledeen believes lies at the root of the city’s enormous and continuing creativity, its fashion houses, entrepreneurship and literary output. Naples is creative, he argues because it is first of all, ” a melting pot, full of ambition and energy typical of immigrant societies”; secondly it is “in a killing zone at the base of Vesuvius, and therefore … doomed”; and in that tension between living and dying strives to create. Lastly, it is inhabited by a “strikingly religious people”, not in the doctrinal sense, for their Catholicism is one that is replete with saints and often singularly lacking in the mention of God or His Son. Their religion is a founded atavistic memory of which Christianity is but the latest layer.

It is in a word, a city that remembers too much; one in which Greece, Rome and even Italy itself may be both passing things yet which will never really leave it.  As one academic discovered after studying ancient pottery, some hand gestures of the Neapolitans are still identical to those of vanished Greece. To some actual extent, Naples is creative because it is founded on a charter with God, and perhaps also the Devil, existing in a consciousness of its own. That makes for its chaos, its crime, its art and its capacity to endure.

To be sure Ledeen’s thesis, though striking is not unique. Johan Huizinga said almost the same thing in his book The Autumn of the Middle Ages.  He argued that men in the Middle Ages lived more extravagantly in the shadow of death. They appreciated the light of day far more than we do, we of the energy saving light fixtures, then those who lived at a time when sunset brought absolute darkness. They rushed to create in defiance of short lifespans which could be ended at any time at the hand of man or disease.


When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable lifestyle. The great events of human life – birth, marriage, death – by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events – a journey, labor, a visit – were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health. The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils. Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and more greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty. A fur-lined robe of office, a bright fire in the oven, drink and jest, and a soft bed still possessed that high value for enjoyment that perhaps the English novel, in describing the joy of life, has affirmed over the longest period of time. In short, all things in life had about them something gliterringly and cruelly public. The lepers, shaking their rattles and holding processions, put their deformities openly on display. Every estate, order, and craft could be recognized by its dress. The notables, never appearing without the ostentatious display of their weapons and liveried servants, inspired awe and envy. The administration of justice, the sales of goods, weddings and funerals – all announced themselves through processions, shouts, lamentations and music. The lover carried the emblem of his lady, the member the insignia of his fraternity, the party the colors and coat of arms of its lord.


And who can forget Harry Lime’s speech in the The Third Man when he compared the relative creative virtues of Italy and Switzerland? Maybe we would all be better off in a world that was one big Switzerland, but then again maybe not.

Whatever else Naples would create in the shadow of Vesuvius, it would not be a cuckoo-clock.  Most of PJMedia readers know Michael as a political commentator and analyst but it is perhaps as a scholar of Italy in which he most excels.

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