Saturday, May 25, 2002

Department of Pet Peeves: Dulce et Decorum

This was the received wisdom of the ancients, according to sites I just googled in search of the right quote, and it was the Old Lie, according to Wilfred Owen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: It is sweet and decorous to die for one's country.

No, I'm not going to talk about war. It's not forgotten but I have to confess that I'm using Owen's bitterness for my own, far less tragic, purposes. The fact is, decorum bothers me. I think there's something wrong about it - or maybe the way it's used.

Perhaps it is because I'm a slob, and a very happy one at that. I care about beauty and appearances - hell, I'm Italian, after all - but I don't share the obsessive preoccupation of my mother for neatness and cleanliness and order. And my mother is not even a serious case: compared to what my grandmother was, my mother is a slob herself. Granted, my grandmother had a full-time maid, and my mother an astounding (an incredible) part-time one, and neither of them worked full-time as I do. But still, I don't care as much as they do.

I'm still bothered by squalor and muck and neglect. My love for Sicily is a tormented affair on this issue - squalor in the South of Italy is something that you have to learn to sublimate out of in order to see the appalling beauty it conceals and shrouds, and sometimes makes possible.

But. There is something disquieting, something chilling, in valuing decorum above all else. Life is messy, it's movement, noise and dirt. This planet would be perfectly neat and clean without life - but subjectively, I wouldn't consider it much of an improvement.

This town I live in is run by a major obsessed with decorum. She is, I think, a good and decent woman, but I have to say that I'm not much impressed by her record as a mayor. And I'm frankly bothered by her insistence on decorum. It seems to get in the way of so much else.

Part of the problem, of course, is how do you define decorum. The mayor seems to think, for example, that inflatable huge publicity balloons or structures painted in primary colors and taking up most of public squares are all right on the decorum side. A substantial amount of one of the key pedestrian passages in Padua, right in front of the historical Pedrocchi Cafe' and a few paces from Belzoni's Egyptian cats (who gazed on stonily, not commenting) was occupied last year for months on end by a miniature golf course, with sand hole and miniature olive tree and real grass.

Conversely, people standing around drinking spritz (a cocktail made up, from what I could see, by mixing in whatever the barman has on hand and a bit of white wine) in the town's central squares are not decorous, and neither are the graduates' carnival-like celebrations, and neither are, come to think of it, the markets.

The people (mostly young, mostly students, mostly definitely not the mayor's electors) have been dealt with after three years of struggles, of fining patrons and bars for occupying public space, issuing ordinances closing down the bars earlier, and generally hassling people so much that the bars finally gave in and closed shop at seven pm - the spritz hours.

The graduates are holding on, among a flowering of barriers and the stuffing of the city center with town police during graduation sessions, and ruthless fining for misbehavior.

Of the markets, one is to relocate in ten day's time, to be moved to a peripheral square - for the time being, pending restoration of the square it's held on, but nobody knows if they'll be allowed back once it's done... it's such an attractive square and the market is starting to look not too decorous...


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