Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.
Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.
The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.
The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.
The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”
All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.
Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9).
Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.
We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.
But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.
Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.
Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.
Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. So, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.
 In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”