Naples of the World
Daniel Rothbart excavates the gold of Naples.
Posted August 6, 2018
You cannot say, because I am from Naples so I like the mixture of drama and comedy all together.
— Sophia Loren
I have never been to Naples, but I saw some of it in Daniel Rothbart’s excellent Seeing Naples: Reports from the Shadow of Vesuvius. The book is delightful, and I recommend it to all lovers of Italy, art, history, and the human condition. The book has the look and the feel of a coffee table book. Hence I took a photo of it lying on my coffee table (the book, not me). Many coffee table books are mere decorative pieces; this should not be. Reading Naples is an enchanting and enriching experience. The book is a sequence of vignettes. Each can stand on its own, but the ordering matters. One of the reader’s challenges is to figure out why Rothbart chose the sequence he did. Some of his decisions are clear. For example, the first vignette, Parthenope’s Song, tells the tale of Dan's arrival in this city of sirens (Parthenope was one.). After that, the autobiographical element is less prominent. Indeed, Rothbart is very much concerned with people other than himself–the living, such as a welder, an ex-mayor, an impoverished survivor of the holocaust, as well as the dead, such as Masaniello, rebel and petty prince, or Maria Carolina, the Queen of the Two Sicilies (as if one wasn’t enough). We get a sense of how Rothbart experienced Naples during his sojourn as a Fulbright Scholar and recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, how he exhumed hidden treasures of art and memory, and how this multitude of impressions gelled into the Gesamtkunstwerk that is Naples.
Why do I care if I have never been to Naples? One reason why I care is that Daniel is the elder son of my mentor in graduate school, Myron, "Mick," Rothbart, and Mary Klevjord Rothbart, also a professor of psychology. Daniel grew up in a home where empirical science was spoken, where testable ideas were discussed, and where quantitative data had a say. For my part, I enjoyed the weekly evening seminar in the Rothbart home, where graduate students and professors would meet informally, letting ideas flow freely. It was a liberal, open, and accepting atmosphere, yet there was intellectual discipline and a respect for the spoken and the written word. I see these values and this spirit in Daniel's book. Daniel’s prose is simple and elegant. There is nuance and allusion as well as the occasional turn of phrase that had me laugh out loud. Wayne Koestenbaum, who wrote a preface to Seeing Naples, notes Daniel’s debt (or tribute, rather) to Jewish themes and sensibilities. I would add that, at the right moment, Daniel’s prose is hilarious in a way that will be savored by connoisseurs of Jewish humor.
Another reason why I care is that I value excursions of psychology beyond the usual empirical work that comes out of the lab. The intersection of psychology with the arts and the humanities gets too little shrift in the academic day-to-day, and Seeing Naples offers many opportunities to reflect on human experience and behavior in the context of a great context, namely Naples. The 17th Century story of Masaniello, for example, is chock full of intrigue, ambition, and rebellion: the tragic rise and fall of a folk hero. Other stories tell of resilience in the face of forbidding odds. Maurizio Valenzi, for example, was an Italian Jew growing up in Tunisia, imprisoned and tortured by the fascists in Algeria, who, when reaching Naples as a communist, eventually became the city’s mayor. Rothbart reports much of his narrative verbatim, but he adds enough of his own words to let us know that he was as intrigued as we are.
Seeing Naples does not respect–or rather, is not interested in–disciplinary boundaries. The narrative moves seamlessly from the technical points of welding to sculpture to history to the human response to being in a crowd, but it is never a professional tractate. Rothbart teaches us to see by letting us in on his experience and memories of what it was like to see Naples.
Daniel’s choice not to put himself in the foreground leaves some questions unanswered. Why does he not tell us more about his inner or his personal life when otherwise he is firmly in the tradition of great and perceptive travelers like Mark Twain or Leigh Fermor? How does he view himself? Perhaps this is none of our business, but being privy to the perceptions of a sensitive and educated mind, one cannot help but wonder about the perceiver. Daniel leaves one clue on the table, and that is the name he gave his motorino, or moped: Rocinante. Now, the rider of Rocinante was a hallucinator, and Rothbart isn’t. So what is the analogy? I think the analogy–and I would put Twain and Fermor in this class–is that what we have here is great travelers who broaden our horizons.
N. B., for those of youse who would like to read this essay in Brazilian Portuguese, see here.
N. N. B., the word 'youse' is an ingenious dialectical coinage. It signals the second person plural, for which standard English does not provide a discrete pronoun. In my State of Rhode Island, it (this pronoun) may be heard from time to time (particularly in the more remote reaches of Cranston or West Warwick), though rarely on the Brown University campus. I was delighted to hear 'youse' in the recent Scottish film Calibre. And the Google company helps with an Ngram plot. After a heyday and a dip, usage of 'youse' appears to be recovering.
Rothbart, D. (2018). Seeing Naples: Reports from the Shadow of Vesuvius. New York: Edgewise.