From Smirking Chimp
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From Smirking Chimp
With the world becoming so stupid, by design, there is no mind or focus left to pay attention to any of the arts, so beauty is increasingly perverted and language sickens, by design.
Numbed by nonstop media sewage, just about every man is divorced from his own thoughts even, so of course he can barely read anything, much less understand it. There is no reflection or contemplation left, and even remembering is difficult.
Since all serious writing is neglected, Norman Lewis is just another ignored writer. Still, I want to draw your attention to one of his most resonant passages. It is pertinent now.
The setting is Naples in 1944, a war-torn, starving city where "the Middle Ages had returned to display all their deformities, their diseases, and their desperate trickeries."
Lewis is in a restaurant that's freezing and stinks of sewers, where horse-meat is served as veal. All the other diners are dressed in coats made from stolen blankets, but they are the lucky ones, for they can afford to eat:
"No attempt was made to isolate the customers from the street. Ragged, hawk-eyed boys the celebrated scugnizzi of Naples wandered among the tables ready to dive on any crust that appeared to be overlooked, or to snatch up leftovers before they could be thrown to the cats. Once again I couldn't help noticing the intelligence almost the intellectuality of their expressions. No attempt was made to chase them away. They were simply treated as nonexistent. The customers had withdrawn from the world while they communed with their food. An extraordinary cripple was dragged in, balancing face downwards on a trolley, only a few inches from the ground, arms and legs thrust out in spider fashion. Nobody took his eyes off his food for one second to glance down at him. This youth could not use his hands. One of the scugnizzi hunted down a piece of bread for him, turned his head sideways to stuff it between his teeth, and he was dragged out.
"Suddenly five or six little girls between the ages of nine and twelve appeared in the doorway. They wore hideous straight black uniforms buttoned under their chins, and black boots and stockings, and their hair had been shorn short, prison-style. They were all weeping, and as they clung to each other and groped their way towards us, bumping into chairs and tables, I realized they were all blind. Tragedy and despair had been thrust upon us, and would not be shut out. I expected the indifferent diners to push back their plates, to get up and hold out their arms, but nobody moved. Forkfuls of food were thrust into open mouths, the rattle of conversation continued, nobody saw the tears.
"Lattarullo explained that these little girls were from an orphanage on the Vomero, where he had heard and he made a face conditions were very bad. They had been brought down here, he found out, on a half-day's outing by an attendant who seemed unable or unwilling to stop them from being lured away by the smell of food.
"The experience changed my outlook. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered a conversion but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain, and I would never recover from the memory of it."
Since it's so richly evocative, we can go on discussing it forever, but here's my poor take on it. First of, what would you have done? Lewis took Lattarullo out because he knew his friend was hungry, and they ordered macaroni, so it wasn't like they were whooping it up.
Still, Lewis had money, presumably enough to buy all six girls dinner, but what about all the hungry scugnizzi? They weren't just swarming outside the restaurant's door, but all over Naples, and what about the child prostitutes, who weren't just starving but routinely raped?
Since no one can save everybody, even if he wants to, he should help whomever he can, you may be saying, but are you doing that, and to what extent?
Like all those diners hunched over their miserable food, we are basically hoarders, all of us, for we just love to commune with our private pleasures as we withdraw from the world. We've earned these respites from our own suffering, damn it, for each of us is short-changed and starving, if only figuratively.
What you have in Naples is a collision between the haves and have nots, and it's so jarring because, normally, restaurants are the most segregated places. Menus placed outside prevent the insufficiently funded from entering, but even without clearly stated prices, the riffraff know better than to march into an establishment that's too finely appointed.
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