He was a keen observer and frank chronicler of the range of human behaviour found in the fragmented modern society. Sexuality, social alienation, existentialism, hypocrisy – these were the predominant themes in the works of Italian writer Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), who debuted in 1929 and after the dissolution of the Fascist regime in 1943, wrote copiously and irrepressibly. The English writer Anthony Burgess [author of the popular dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962)] once remarked that Moravia was a writer “always trying to get to the bottom of the human imbroglio.” He rose to prominence in 1944 with the publication of the novella Agostino, a portrait of lost innocence, and acquired international fame with the The Woman of Rome (1947), a novel on the political associations of a prostitute. In 1960, following a very fertile decade and a half, he published La noia – translated as “The Empty Canvas” or “Boredom” in English and twice adapted for the screen, once in Italian, another time in French. (I read the edition titled “Boredom” released in 2004 by New York Review Books (NYRB), book publishing arm of the premier intellectual journal The New York Review of Books.)
La noia is the story of 35-year-old Dino – the pampered son of a rich mother – and his dangerous relationship with Cecilia Rinaldi, a 17-year-old middle-class model, former muse and mistress of Dino’s neighbour, a 65-year-old dead painter by the name of Balestrieri. A failed artist, Dino lives off his mother’s wealth. (His father, who married his mother at her insistence, was a born vagabond. A “dromomaniac”, that is, compulsive world traveller who drowned in the sea off Japan when his ferryboat was overturned by a gust of wind.) As a young man, Dino attempts to live alone in a studio and make a decent living of his own but cannot keep his creative energies from being dispersed in acts of destruction – he repeatedly slashes his empty canvases with palette knives until they are reduced to mere ribbons.
He has, since childhood, suffered from an acute variety of boredom. What is boredom? According to Dino, it is “a total lack of relationship with external things”. A mental condition in which “reality is unable to convince you of its own effective existence”. Nothing really speaks to you – whether distant country or national government, the chair in the room or the tumbler on the table. You are separated from the objects and entities around you by immeasurable interstellar spaces. “I am here,” repeats Dino to himself, “and they are there.” (Dino’s listlessness and laziness looks somewhat like the Catholic deadly sin of acedia, also called “sloth”.)
Dino knows that when he was a kid, the bad marks that fell upon him at the end of each scholastic year were due to boredom and boredom alone. He had no relationship whatever “with all that enormous jumble of Athenian kings and Roman emperors, of South American rivers and mountains in Asia, of Dante’s hendecasyllables and Virgil’s hexameters, of algebraical processes and chemical formulae.” All these unending pieces of information did not concern him, or concerned him only in order that he might establish the fact of their fundamental absurdity. The mainspring of Dino’s “universal history” is neither progress, nor biological evolution, nor economic development, nor any of the other ideas usually brought forward by historians of various schools; it is simply boredom. In Dino’s Biblical metanarrative too, in the beginning is boredom. He thinks that God, bored with boredom, creates Creation. Adam and Eve, bored in paradise, eat the forbidden fruit, and so on and so forth.
Over time, the only thing the protagonist is able to attach himself to is the much younger Cecilia. Although the girl is not a deep thinker or engaging conversationalist, she is not exactly stupid. She is incapable of considering more than one idea at the time – the nearest and most immediate and most attractive – and usually only utters incontrovertible facts like “It is a hot day today”. This is something that Dino doesn’t mind too much and gets along well in her company because of the physical communicativeness she demonstrates during copulation.
The relationship between the two is strained eventually by Cecilia’s easygoing and acquiescent personality. She is too willing to offer herself to Dino, and this makes her boring. When she displays her dependence, she seems insignificant and therefore, worthy of being discarded. The problem is, the only way in which she can regain a sense of “realness” – independence and mystery – in Dino’s eyes is by being unfaithful to him! – a situation which gives him immense misery!
Dino tries to clear the mess by bringing in money and marriage but that just further complicates the state of affairs. It turns out that Cecilia herself is bored and often, absent-mindedly mixes truths and falsehoods together – which makes it difficult for Dino to establish the extent of her venality or the authenticity of the accounts of her involvement with other men.
After a somewhat comic climax, a way out of the “imbroglio” is offered by Moravia. In a 2011 Guardian article, Scottish writer John Burnside mentioned that Moravia was supposed to have said that:
Writers are concerned with representing . . . a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work.
And so, a moral position is easily evident in Boredom. While not a very serious and didactic cautionary tale, the book proposes a gentle corrective to the existential and sexual chaos and confusion felt by the main character, one that is based on quiet meditation and a sincere engagement with the things of nature and the world – a conclusion that ultimately makes the whole book a profound and satisfying read.
Lines I liked:
- …the very slight importance that Cecilia gave to this surrendering of her body seemed to prove that it had no meaning. Some things are simply a matter of feeling: Cecilia had given me her body with the same barbaric, naïve indifference with which a savage presents a rapacious explorer with the amulet of precious stones that he wears around his neck. It was, in fact, as though she had never had any wooers to make her understand how desirable a woman’s body can be.
- Everything can be foreseen, except the feeling aroused in us by what we foresee. One can certainly foresee, for example, that a snake may come out of a hole under a rock; but it is difficult to foresee the quality and intensity of the fear that the sight of the reptile will inspire in us.
Two good books on “acedia” by Christian authors that secular readers will be able to appreciate:
The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times (2015) by Jean-Charles Nault
Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (2015) by R. J. Snell