A Civilization of writers, poets and web surfers
Father Antonio Spadaro is the new editor of La Civiltà Cattolica.
He has written for years in the review of the Society of Jesus on literature, music, art and new technologies of communication. Interview
Interview with Antonio Spadaro by Paolo Mattei
Since last September Father Antonio Spadaro has been the new editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, the fortnightly ‘high promulgation’ magazine of the Society of Jesus. Founded in 1850, it is, as is known, the only Catholic magazine whose proofs are scrutinized by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.
Born in Messina in 1966, Father Spadaro graduated in Philosophy and obtained a doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he has taught since 2000 at the Interdisciplinary Center on Social Communication. He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1988, and became a priest in 1996.
In 1993 he started writing for La Civiltà Cattolica, becoming a permanent member of the editorial staff in 1998. He covers the literary pages of the magazine, with particular attention to contemporary Italian and American writers. He also writes on literary theory, music, art, film and new communication technologies.
We asked some questions of the new editor.
Father Antonio Spadaro
ANTONIO SPADARO: It’s always difficult to answer that question. A vocation is something that grows ‘organically’ in us, with our personal history. However, a retreat in Tuscany which I attended by chance, in my early college years, after reading a flyer invitation found on a table, was an important moment I think. An experience quite different from the things I usually did, days of complete silence. I got my first twenty years of life into perspective and I felt a very deep harmony with the spiritual experience that I was going through. A consonance I’d never felt before. I’ve never since doubted the truth of that moment.
That was your first contact with the Order of St Ignatius?
No, I had attended middle school at the Ignatianum, the Jesuit Institute in my home town. It was an excellent cultural and creative experience, so much so that it makes me sometimes say that I’m still living off some basic attitudes that I gained in those years. The teaching method of the Jesuits was not the, let’s say, traditional system. It was a teaching that always went through personal discovery.
Like Ignatian pedagogy...
That’s right. And as St Thomas explains: ‘Of the two ways of acquiring knowledge – personal discovery (inveniendo) and learning (addiscendo) – the first is primary, the other secondary’. In that school subjects usually viewed as complementary, such as art and music, were made much of.
When did your passion for literature arise?
Like vocations, passions also arise and develop along paths sometimes unusual and barely traceable. The love of literature didn’t come early, to tell the truth. As a kid I didn’t read many books, I preferred comics. But I remember that one day I was fascinated by a science fiction book for children, in which I became completely engrossed. I didn’t become a ‘devourer’ of books as they say, but I did begin to ‘immerse myself’ in those I liked.
Which authors did you prefer as a teenager?
Kafka, Pirandello and Leopardi, writers who fit in with the torments of adolescence. But I caught something in them that ‘went beyond’ me, which indeed ran against the anxieties typical of that age. But Ungaretti deserves a special place. In eighth grade, the Jesuits made me read a good part of the work of that great poet. Looking back now I wonder how it was possible. Reading him, his ‘atoms of emotion’, have marked me profoundly. I’m truly indebted to his verses.
Then literature began to occupy more space in your life...
As I said, my relationship with literature has developed over time, mainly in relation to the authors who can make me think, who are writers-philosophers, so to speak. So my passion for stories, narrative, the density of the poetic word grew, especially after university. My cursus studiorum was eminently philosophical in fact: I graduated in Philosophy at the University of Messina in 1988, and two years later I completed the in-depth curriculum in philosophy at Padua, at the Aloisianum Institute. My great love of literature was born when I started to teach it. My superiors at the end of 1991, after the first formative years – the period we call the ‘magisterium’ – asked me to teach Humanities at our scientific high school in Rome, the Massimiliano Massimo. The passion of the kids, which came back to me as feedback from the things that I proposed in their lessons, tied me to the experience of the word and story that I began to perceive as capable of a deep and rich reading of existence. With the students I explored the metaphor of ‘journey’ in the collective Western imagination. Out of that work came a volume of texts and commentaries, Tracce profonde. Il viaggio tra il reale e l’immaginario [Deep tracks. The journey between the real and the imaginary]. It also gave rise to the certainty that literature would have been a faithful companion on my personal journey.
La Civiltà Cattolica has also hosted many of your articles on American literature.
Yes. I began to study it more or less in 2002, the year I went to the US, to the Jesuit Province of Chicago – specifically in Milford, Ohio, in the center of the Midwest – for my last stage of training as a Jesuit. It was a splendid discovery of a fresh view of reality...
The same impression that Pavese got when he came across the transatlantic writers...
Precisely... The American poets and storytellers I came across told of reality as if they were surprising it in the moment of creation. An instantaneous look, sometimes naive, but it was precisely that very naivety I liked, and do like. It was exactly what I felt lacking in European literature, especially that of the twentieth century, which I perceived as a tormented product of the labyrinth of conscience, the outcome of a long-continued raking over of itself with frail contact with reality...
Who are your favorite American authors?
They are many: Edgar Lee Masters, Sylvia Plath, Jack London, Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac... But three in particular: Walt Whitman, of whom I was also a translator; Raymond Carver, to whom I dedicated one of the few specific essays circulating in Italian; and, above all, Flannery O’Connor, of whom I edited some unpublished writings for Rizzoli last May (Il volto incompiuto [The unfinished face, ed.]). My passion for the works of this great American writer, who died in 1964 at thirty-nine, led me to visit her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, several times and to get to know the people who knew her and spent time with her. If in Whitman I’m struck by the look of things springing into life, and in Carver – in Carver the poet first and foremost – by his incomparable ability to reduce to the essentials the emotions he describes, what I love in O’Connor is the paradoxical and grotesque perspective on reality, present in her every novel and short story. Reading her helps me look at the world from different and always surprising points of view.
Father Antonio Spadaro, on the right in the picture, with Jovanotti at the seminar held in the Chapel of the Sapienza, the University of Rome, January 2010
Here again chance played a part, and probably my curiosity also. One day I happened to listen to Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and I was enchanted by the music and lyrics. Songs in great harmony with certain aspects of the work of O’Connor, who later I learned was being read by the American singer-songwriter at the time of his acoustic album Nebraska. After The Ghost of Tom Joad I listened and read everything that Springsteen had composed. Hence came the idea of writing something in La Civiltà Cattolica, an idea that became concrete with The Rising [2002, IV, 13-26, ed.] the album inspired by the tragic events of September 11, the fundamental religious character of which and the prayer that informed it seemed to have been passed over in silence in Italy. Springsteen, for that matter, is familiar with biblical and religious imagery from the time of his primary school education at the St Rose of Lima Catholic Institute in Freehold, New Jersey, and some of his gestures, such as lighting a candle to the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna during his tour of 1998, or wearing a medal of St Christopher, patron saint of travelers, express, in their simplicity, a form of relationship with the symbols of Christian devotion. Out of that article on Springsteen then came those on Tom Waits, Nick Drake and Nick Cave. It seems to me that rock music is able to describe man’s demand for salvation in a more potent way than other forms of expression.
Have you ever noticed puzzlement or embarrassment among the writers on the editorial staff, or at the Secretariat of State, because of these choices?
No, not at all, I found welcome and even competence: in regard to the article on Springsteen I even received a small clarification on the date of composition of one of his early songs that was never published...
No criticism even when you proposed the names of Jovanotti and Ligabue [Italian songwriters and performers]?
No, not even then. At that moment, it was 1999, I was studying the younger narrators, who are now roughly forty. But also I wanted to open a window onto those songwriters who at some point in their career decide to publish narrative texts not intended for combination with music and sounds. Something that Jovanotti and Ligabue had recently done with the two books analyzed in my article. I found and find the phenomenon very interesting. In January last year, in the Chapel of La Sapienza, the University of Rome, I also managed to arrange a seminar with Jovanotti on the theme of ‘success’. He said some very penetrating things, and playing with words but not too much, he explained that ‘success’ ‘as the past participle of the verb to happen’ did not interest him...
One of your favorite contemporary writers is Pier Vittorio Tondelli, who died twenty years ago, the ‘scandalous’ author of Altri libertini [Other profligates]...
Again in this case, the encounter was fortuitous. It was 1992, Tondelli had died a year before, at the age of thirty-six, and I didn’t know his writings. One day, just before setting off on a long train journey, I came across one of his novels. At the time I was teaching at the Massimo and I was working, as I mentioned, on travel literature. In a bookshop near the station, some time before departure, I browsed somewhat distractedly through the first few pages of his book Camere seperate [Separate bedrooms], and realized that it was talking about a plane trip... The coincidence surprised me. In that novel, the last written by Tondelli, in 1989, and in the others that I would later read in reverse chronological order, I felt the density of a great literary experience. I came across the depths of a writer engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with his existence, with his own life, in which faith had played a decisive role. I knew among other things that in the ’eighties Tondelli had conceived the ‘Under 25’ project, a kind of long-distance writing workshop that had involved many aspiring young writers: it was something that also concerned my work. Reading Tondelli I discovered an author from a Catholic background who, immersed in the ‘Italian post-modern’, as he defined the ’eighties, expressed the fundamental urge for salvation in every man. I realized that his questions were in no way superficial, and not at all purely, so to speak, ‘postmodern’: they were the great questions every man asks. So I began to study his papers, his notes, I was lucky enough to get to know his family environment. His personal library held the texts of his education, including the Bible, the Imitation of Christ, the medieval mystics, and St Theresa of Lisieux. And, over the years, I have written articles and books on his work.
You have also edited unpublished notes by the writer from Correggio, like the splendid and very evocative one that reads: “Literature does not save, least of all the innocent. The only thing that saves is faith, Love and the effects of Grace...” An observation that seems like a prompt to critics and lovers of literature ...
In 1996 I found that note written in pencil on a page of Giovanni Testori’s Translation of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, probably the last book he read shortly before his death and that he had got his father to buy when he was already in the hospital. Like many writers at the end of their existence, Tondelli asked himself questions about the value of his literary experience and the weight that it had had for him. It’s an expression, the one you quoted, that recalls Jean Cocteau’s words to Jacques Maritain: “Literature is impossible, we must get out of it, and it’s useless trying to drag oneself out with literature because only faith and love enable us to come out of ourselves”. The writer realizes that literature is not able to save a human existence, great as it may be. It certainly is a prompt for those doing literary criticism or who love literature. We are not called upon to check whether a work is in line with moral standards or not, or to pass texts on the basis of dogma, but rather to compare our judgment with the Last Judgment. To bear in mind that judging artistic experience stands against a backdrop of eternity. In my opinion the Tondelli note brings out that insight.
You spoke of creative writing. In 1998 you founded the ‘BombaCarta’ workshop dedicated to that.
The idea was born out of a drawer. I was sitting at my desk in the class I was teaching and I was looking for a pen in the drawer, which was stuck. So I pulled it with a bit too much energy towards me, and pulled it right out of the desk. I saw there was a poem carved on the bottom, unsigned, but whose author was obviously a student. The thing struck me: kids, I told myself, struggle to write essays and then carve poems in the drawers. So I posted a notice on the bulletin board inviting them to share their diaries, their private writings, their poems. At the first meeting there were forty-two of us. I realized that there was something to look into. That initial experience has never broken off, we have continued to meet, created a mailing list and a website. Other people from other parts of Italy contacted us so ‘BombaCarta’ groups have been set up in various cities: now it’s a federation of associations and creative writing workshops.
The essay by Antonio Spadaro Lontano dentro se stessi. L’attesa di salvezza in Pier Vittorio Tondelli [Far off within ourselves. The expectation of salvation in Pier Vittorio Tondelli]
The Internet, which I became interested in thanks again to literature, has become a normal environment of daily life, where more and more people shape their minds and their relations. My question was very simple: if the Internet is changing not only our habits, but also how we think and learn about the world, will it not also perhaps change the way of thinking of the faith? From that question, which came up when I was giving a lecture at the invitation of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, I then noticed that there was really need to start some thinking of this sort. Fides quaerens intellectum: this has always been seen as the purpose, the point of theology. I think now that the search for intelligence cannot be separated from the Internet, I have found great sympathy and interest on the part of the Church at various levels. Of course the Pope’s speeches on these topics are a great encouragement.
And now the editorship of La Civiltà Cattolica. Does the assignment weigh on you much?
I live it with such trepidation that often, I must say, it doesn’t let me sleep... I feel a great responsibility. The magazine is 162 years old, I’m aware of its historical role, and taking on the editorship makes me feel the weight and importance of this source of information. At the same time I have a great desire to do the utmost, at a moment in which the way we communicate is changing. Moreover,La Civiltà Cattolica was founded in a time of great change, and brought innovation: it was an ecclesiastical cultural magazine not in Latin, but in Italian, and used plain language even when dealing with specialist issues; it circulated throughout Italy when Italy did not yet exist... We currently have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account. We shall try to make our presence ever more lively.
As editor will you continue to deal with literature and new communication technologies?
I’m at the beginning, I still have to find the right balance. There’s to be a book of mine on ‘cybertheology’ for January. Then an essay on American literature during the next year... But for the present the editorship of the magazine has priority.