from “As Far As We Can See”

In other words, the young man concluded, even an intelligent person can happen to say something stupid now and then! He paused briefly, then continued in the same self-assured tone of gentle pleasantry: My God, I suppose the inverse is probably true as well . . . He stopped himself again. But, he said, lowering his voice just slightly, we have yet to hear the opinion of Professor Berlingieri. The insult was so unexpected and brutal that numerous eyes from both sides of the horseshoe-shaped table fixed on him in dismay. Or rather, they were instantly divided between those focused on the student and those waiting expectantly for Berlingieri’s reply, confirming in the very divergence of their gazes the division between the two parties that had been becoming more and more obvious notwithstanding the insistence on conventional courtesy, and now the young man’s insidious quip was calling for a showdown.

Not all eyes, however: there were also some who, inconceivably really, hadn’t picked up on the attack, and now, in this moment of silence, they looked around uncomfortably, noticing the chill in the room without understanding its cause. Among these were at least two of Berlingieri’s supporters, and he could well have taken advantage of the obtuse, inoffensive side of that double construction to pretend in front of his own supporters that he had not been insulted—that inoffensive side, just to be clear, that would have allowed the very Iago who had slapped him down in that way to reply to his, Berlingieri’s, reaction, in his, Iago’s, light-hearted tone, feigning a guilty air and encouraging everyone to laugh at the involuntary gaffe: “Oh, dear, no! That certainly wasn’t what I meant to imply! For Heaven’s sake! . . .”

Yes, pretending not to have caught the insult probably would have been the best move—the most elegant, even, in the eyes of the most intelligent—but Professor Berlingieri had waited too long. In these  predicaments readiness is everything. Now Vincenzo Belforte and Giuliana Ponte were gazing at him as well, still a bit vacantly, certainly, but as if provoked by the greater acuity of the others and by now on the verge of becoming demanding as well. They were, in fact, Berlingieri noticed, already demanding and destined very soon to become more so. He didn’t like Belforte—it’s unlikely that anyone would have looked kindly on that big, healthy-looking oaf who, following lengthy silences, would lispingly express things somewhere between innocuous and not so bright—but he followed him, followed Berlingieri, in everything, well aware that he owed him everything (Berlingieri, on the contrary, was well aware that it wasn’t much, really: an occasional scholarship, which Berlingieri, however, knew how to present every time as if it were an exceptional opportunity). Thus he followed him faithfully there as well, in that discussion about the structure of the new journal’s sample issue that saw him opposed to the party—because by now it was clear that they were divided into parties, into two parties—deviously captained by that arrogant young pup who had so grievously insulted him just now.

As regards the planning of the journal, Berlingieri had for some time passionately maintained that prior to any discussion of its organization and content it was necessary to pose, confront, and resolve the problem of language: of the new interdisciplinary, open, democratic, candid, and critical language imposed by the journal’s ambition to address a broad audience, and not just specialists. On this point Berlingieri had the firm support of Giuliana Ponte, whom on the contrary he liked, liked very much, but essentially because she was a good-looking young woman, tall and desirable, even if a bit wooden, who willingly stayed late into the evening discussing ideas with the old intellectual warrior and, doubtless flattered by the attention paid to her own opinions, still found him attractive. Because it was a fact that he, Berlingieri, his seventy years notwithstanding, was uncommonly well preserved, enviably lean and elegant like few others, as Berlingieri often told himself, such that he lived in confident hope of soon being able to explore the reflexes and quivers of that young flesh, she of the rigid and, in his opinion, inexpert movements, bringing back memories of the long-haired female students of years gone by and the thrill of nights spent exchanging fluids intellectual and corporeal. Moreover, with regard to the planning of the new journal, Berlingieri maintained along with Giuliana Ponte that any discussion of morality like the one proposed as the subject of the sample issue had to pass through a preliminary interrogation concerning whether, in general, morals exist, and if the very concept of morality is compatible with that of freedom, and many other questions besides, which that presumptuous youth and his acolytes instead wanted to dismiss as irrelevant, anxious only to prepare the ground for their squalid academic publications, so closed within their mental confines that his attacks had thus far been met merely with a weak smile, as if in affected deference to a decidedly dim-witted professor.
But now here he was, finally throwing away the mask, that arrogant boy had insulted him like that, saying in essence that he, Berlingieri, was notoriously stupid, stupid by antonomasia, fit for an honor or certificate, so much so that if you were looking for a confirmation of the sentence opposed to: “Even an intelligent person can happen to say something stupid now and then,” that is, that: “Even a stupid person can happen to say something intelligent now and then,” all you had to do was wait patiently for him, Berlingieri, the completely, certifiably stupid person, to come out with an intelligent statement, something that could of course require some time; but, despite the fact that the thing could require some time, that impudent snake had in essence said, we could also be lucky, genuinely lucky, and Professor Berlingieri, known to all as a certified stupid person, could come out with something intelligent even now, before our very eyes—and thus we would have, precisely in this moment, amazing confirmation that also the inverse is true!

The filthy swine had said this, and also something more, something that to Berlingieri’s free spirit was even more repugnant than the insult itself, and perhaps equally stinging and no less calling for an immediate and commensurate reply, a reply that now, damn him, Berlingieri continued to postpone in the chilly seconds of silence following the insult. That bejacketed worm had in fact expressed in his own vile and unctuous manner a precise ideological position, namely, that a man could be intelligent or stupid independently of the intelligence or stupidity of any particular statement he made, to the extent that he, Berlingieri, was helplessly stupid even if he had just laid down a new and incontrovertibly well-grounded demonstration of why the special theory of relativity refutes once and for all Kant’s transcendental aesthetic. In other words, that men are this way or that, hopelessly and for all time, that is to say that each person bears the responsibility not only for any single action of his, here and now, but for the entire series of his actions, and not only for the entire series of his past actions, with respect to which a sudden act of freedom can entail a radical conversion (a revolution!), but even for the entire series of his own future actions; and therefore that he, Berlingieri, was not only a certified stupid person, an ideal specimen for any experiment whatsoever in need of one, but also a helplessly stupid person, concerning whom, even if he had come out with something intelligent, no one and nobody could ever have denied his irremediable stupidity. This the young swine had said before everyone, challenging him with the assurance of his aristocratic convictions that things don’t change, men don’t change, and he, Berlingieri, was a stupid person from birth and in his obituary, in the list of things accomplished, books written, battles fought, it would in any case be necessary to add at the end or even begin with “although stupid,” as for example: “Alberto Berlingieri, poet, philosopher, and free spirit—although stupid.”

To this, to these words fraudulently inscribed on his tombstone (“Alberto Berlingieri—although stupid—poet, philosopher, and free spirit”), he, Berlingieri, now had to respond. And he had to do so before the seconds of silence neared fifteen, as his fool of a disciple Vincenzo Belforte was already readying himself, responding obtusely to the awkwardness, clearing his throat and thinking, who knows, perhaps it’s a good time for him to speak up and say something too at that meeting during which he had so far been opportunely silent. But the response had to be sufficiently stinging, Berlingieri said to himself, it had to express all the contempt, the anthropological distance, that separated him—poet, philosopher, and free spirit as well as admirably well-preserved old professor—from that despicable fledgling careerist; he who still knew how to elicit the admiring gaze of young if somewhat wooden women, from that unctuous fop with the golden tongue, obviously confident in his hormones’ capacity to attract anything with tits. It had to be a response that confirmed before everyone his, Berlingieri’s, absolutely incontestable intellectual, moral, and also stylistic superiority; that expressed disdain, let us say, for the conventions according to which that monster—up till now ostentatiously respectful, respectful to the point of rendering the insult truly unforeseeable, unbelievable even, and for that reason all the more deadly—played his wicked game.

Of course the situation was not a straightforward one, Berlingieri said to himself, in fact it could be said to be one of those situations that suddenly, in a manner entirely unexpected, asks a man to draw upon all his resources, and in which you really recognize—recognize!—the character of this man. It was no longer possible to think about letting the insult go. But neither could he offer that impudent cockroach the chance to backtrack with an amused excuse, which indirectly would have covered him, Berlingieri, with ridicule. On the contrary, what was required now was a reaction of such clarity, of such clear offensiveness, in fact, that it would prevent him, the worm, the pig, Iago, from having recourse to his easy chatter, and at the same time prevent all the others from acting the eager peacemakers and playing down, out of some bourgeois fear of conflict, the intolerable significance of the insult: the reaction of a just man, of a man who has always been on the right side, who has always had the courage of his convictions, the physical courage, and never retreated from a conflict—it had to be the reaction of such a man, a courageous and just man, to the sudden vile and scandalous attack!

So it was that, fourteen seconds after the sound of the words spoken in a slightly lowered voice by the young man sitting opposite him at the horseshoe-shaped table faded, Professor Berlingieri, sustained and indeed almost comforted by the gazes fixed on him and—something he observed not without an inkling of exaltation so much did it seem to him an excellent sign and confirmation of the efficacy of the solution upon which he had resolved—stealing away too the gazes directed up until then at his adversary, he slowly rose and, drawing after him in his wake the eyes of the other participants in the meeting to plan the new journal’s sample issue, rounded the table, until he found himself face-to-face with his slanderer, at which point, with a confident move of his right hand, he seized him by the nose, squeezed tightly, and imparted to his fingers a slight twisting motion. Except that young swine, even as his eyes started to water behind his glasses, did not react beyond fixing him with the same questioning look that now Berlingieri felt weighing on him from every side, as if they were waiting to understand what was meant by that gesture, when instead to him, Berlingieri, it appeared completely obvious that that gesture, alone, rendering any potential retreat unthinkable, wonderfully expressed his contempt for the jackal that had treacherously insulted him. And he really was unable to conceive how that completely obvious meaning eluded the others around the horseshoe-shaped table, not only, that is, that idiot Belforte who couldn’t find anything better to do than choke back a guffaw, but also those others who, having divided their gazes between him, Berlingieri, and the other one, Iago, had shown in the clearest possible fashion to have grasped the deadly significance of the insult and thus the importance of his reaction. The worst, then, was that as soon as he had released his nose, the snake did nothing more than adjust his glasses upon that very same nose, fixing him with a look that for those who knew how to see, as he, Berlingieri, knew how to see, was the same as if the worm had lit a cigarette and responded by blowing smoke in his face.

Perceiving, then, the insufficiency of that gesture, which he had in truth conceived completely independently of an analogous gesture employed by Prince Stravrogin in Dostoevsky’s Demons, but which now, performing it, had distinctly reminded him of that episode (and if he had not observed the failure of his well-devised reaction, he, Berlingieri, would have been more than a little pleased by that analogy, having always had a weakness for the character of Prince Stravrogin, on whom he had in the seventies also taught a course at the university, so it was actually surprising that that memory had not found its place in his memory first, he said to himself, that is, already in the planning phase and not only, as had been the case in reality, in the implementation phase of his gesture of absolute contempt), perceiving, then, the insufficiency of that gesture, whose contents might have been confused with a myriad of meanings, not to mention, as he himself had just noted, the untimely citation (especially because that cockroach did not react at all like Prince Stravrogin’s counterpart at the noblemen’s club in the city of X), Berlingieri decided on a considerably more clarifying gesture; and wishing to signify with absolute clarity the profound depths of contempt that had propelled him from the other side of the horseshoe-shaped table and into the circle of looks coming from all sides and face-to-face with his defamer, he swiftly unbuttoned his fly and set about publicly urinating on that piece of trash in jacket and tie who had had the gall to finger him in front of everyone as a stupid person of clear renown.

Unhappily, however, at the first spurt that treacherous snake who till then had just sat watching even as he, Berlingieri, unbuttoned his fly and set about urinating on him—something of which nobody among those present more than he, the snake, could have had a clear and complete view, as he, Berlingieri, for the most part turned his back or his side to the other participants in the meeting for the planning of the sample issue of the journal—at the first spurt he, in a move as agile as it was treacherous, had leaped backward, stopping out of range a few steps from the table, unscathed, such that he, Berlingieri, found himself urinating upon an empty table, and because it didn’t make sense to him to interrupt his urination simply because the hyena had treacherously evaded the stream destined for him, the hyena, he remained some time engaged in this operation, at least until the silence, uninterrupted since the shameful insult’s utterance, was interrupted by the words: Alberto, what are you doing? uttered with incredible stupidity by a colleague his age, whom he, Berlingieri, had until then always considered an intelligent person and even a friend. Nonetheless, before that unfathomable demonstration of his incapacity to understand, an incapacity that he, Berlingieri, at this point suspected with growing conviction to have in fact spread to all those present, obviously a herd of donkeys in human costume, such that he was once again left alone and misunderstood as had often been his lot in a long life as poet, philosopher, and free spirit—even as he heard how in this or that case he had been completely right and only too late had all the others understood that he, Berlingieri, had been right—thus finding himself not understood, he made no resistance when the colleague his age (but in fact, and not solely on account of his white beard, in appearance considerably older than him, to the extent that he seemed of the previous generation) thrust him with a certain brusqueness out of the room with his fly still open, not so quickly however that he did not hear the repugnant voice of the young vulture say in his disgustingly casual tone, addressed moreover to the limpid eyes of Giuliana Ponte: I would suggest we continue the meeting at the bar.

From Ad avere occhi per vedere. Published 2002 by minimum fax. Copyright Leonardo Pica Ciamarra. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2010 by Stephen Twilley. All rights reserved.