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Italian Diary VIII

April 25th

We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. 
George Orwell reviewing Bertrand Russell in 1939

John McCourt writes: When James Joyce’s works first appeared, they were seen by some, mostly by those who did not actually read them, as dangerous filth, full of “leprous and scabrous horrors”. Those who read them were painted as being part of a “dirty and degraded cult”.

In the United States, Francis Talbot SJ wrote an essay entitled “Ulysses the Dirty” in which he claimed that only a lapsed Catholic “with an incurably diseased mind could be so diabolically venomous toward God, toward the Blessed Sacrament, toward the Virgin Mary”. Small wonder then that Charles Duff, best known for his books A Handbook of Hanging and James Joyce and the Plain Reader, would suggest that: “The good Roman Catholic who reads him requires disinfection afterwards, if the Joycean darts are not to leave septic lacerations.”

In the1960s, when Hugh Leonard’s Stephen D, a highly accomplished and hugely successful adaptation of Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was performed in Dublin (it premiered in London because the Abbey Theatre did not want anything to do with it), one appalled theatregoer felt the need to write to The Irish Times to vent her horror at what she had seen. She was, she said,

sickened, disgusted and appalled at the whole theme. God – the Creator of human beings and of all things – is mocked, sneered at and jibes are thrown at the Jesuits. This adaptation of two books by James Joyce is openly blasphemous and in very bad taste.

The letter-writer, who signed him/herself “Low-Brow”, was not without a sense of humour however, and included a PS that read:

a note on the programme tells me that “This theatre is disinfected throughout with Jeyes Fluid and Cooper’s Aerosol” – a thoughtful precaution taken by the management in the interests of their patrons, but, unfortunately, it does not affect the mind.

Jeyes Fluid does not affect the mind, unless of course, you drink it or inject it. It is, as it says on the label, a brand of disinfectant fluid for external use only, so drinking it is not such a great idea. In fact it is such a bad idea to drink disinfectant that Lysol and Dettol yesterday had to issue a statement to state the absolute obvious, to say that you should NOT inject its products into your veins or drink it. “Under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body.” This warning became necessary because the president of the United States had said researchers should try putting disinfectant into coronavirus patients’ bodies.


Like most of Trump’s ideas this was not original. The Guardian reports that the leader of the most prominent group in the US peddling industrial bleach as a “miracle cure” for coronavirus wrote to Donald Trump earlier this week. According to The Guardian, Mark Grenon told Trump that chlorine dioxide – a powerful bleach used in industrial processes such as textile manufacturing that can have fatal side-effects when drunk – is “a wonderful detox that can kill 99% of the pathogens in the body”. He added that it “can rid the body of Covid-19”. Which was essentially Trump’s line the other night when he touted the capacities of bleach against coronavirus: it “knocks it out in a minute. One minute!” He went on to say: “Is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that.”

Grenon’s Genesis II is “a Florida-based outfit that claims to be a church but which in fact is the largest producer and distributor of chlorine dioxide bleach as a ‘miracle cure’ in the US. He brands the chemical as MMS, ‘miracle mineral solution’, and claims fraudulently that it can cure 99% of all illnesses including cancer, malaria, HIV/Aids as well as autism. Since the start of the pandemic, Genesis II has been marketing MMS as a cure to coronavirus. It advises users, including children, to mix three to six drops of bleach in water and drink it.”

Trump’s dangerous comments came shortly after the US Food and Drug Administration obtained a federal court order barring Genesis II from selling what was described as “an unproven and potentially harmful treatment for Covid-19”.

Trump later claimed he was being “sarcastic” in his remarks, but there was nothing at all to suggest that he was not in earnest when he made them. Trump supporters still refuse to acknowledge that there is something wrong here. Their standard response is summarised over on Twitter as follows: “He didn’t say that, and if he did, he didn’t mean that. And if he did, you ‘understand it. And if you did, it’s not a big deal, and if it is, others have said worse.” And so on he goes, peddling “cures” like some medieval travelling salesman. Let’s not forget the man who died in March in Arizona after consuming fish tank cleaner because Trump had claimed the chloroquine (a chemical found in the cleaner) could be a “game-changer”. It was.

So while Dettol was on Trump’s mind yesterday, many world leaders gathered for a virtual summit hosted by the World Health Organisation, which pledged to intensify co-operation in the search for a coronavirus vaccine and to share research, treatment and medicines across the globe. The United States, which has suspended funding to the WHO, did not take part. So here’s the thing. We are dealing with a pandemic: an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. The term derives from late Latin “pandemus” (pan – “all” + dēmos – people).

Now, if that was not bad enough then we have, running the world’s most important country, an “amadán” or “Ludramán”, or one who pretends to be. In Cork they’d call him a langer, in the rest of Ireland, an eejit, a gobshite, a total flute, a jinnet or a right bollix.

But there are no words that go far enough and I’m not going to descend to using ones that might be more fitting to the occupant of the White House. He plays the jinnet or the simpleton, but there’s a nastiness and a callousness about him that is hard to convey in words. In normal times, having him where he is would be problematic, but having him where he is in these times, risks adding pandemonium to pandemic. Pandemonium is a “place of uproar and disorder” of “wild, lawless confusion” and this is a version of the chaos that Trump is unleashing on the United States.

While I, like everyone, worried that Europe would buckle or splinter, it is, albeit slowly, putting together a reasonably united approach to this calamity. It is not perfect and there will be lots more rows, but somehow the centre is holding, just. Suddenly the United States looks more vulnerable as individual states and even individual cities increasingly go it alone and Washington, with its major agencies debilitated by the president, looks increasingly irrelevant and incapable of doing anything but whipping up dissent.

Within a day of the president declaring his power to be “total”, a handful of governors joined together to co-ordinate plans for restarting their economies in the hope of reducing the risks of jeopardising the health of their citizens. On the West Coast the leaders of California, Washington and Oregon agreed to work in tandem while on the Eas” the governors of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware took similar steps. Trump calls this “Mutiny On The Bounty”. He would do well to remember that that did not end too well for Captain Bligh.

Far from the Bounty, Trump’s White House seems to resemble more the Pandæmonium of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, that is, the place of all demons, the palace built in the middle of Hell, “the high capital of Satan and all his peers”. Hell for Milton in Paradise Lost is “one great furnace” whose flames offer “no light, but rather darkness visible”:

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d […]

History shows us that no matter how dismal the situation (or the situation room), there is always light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel.

Today, April 25th, we celebrate the 75th festa della liberazione ‑ Liberation Day. It marks the fall of Mussolini's Italian Social Republic and the end of the Nazi occupation in Italy in 1945. Liberation was not won without a huge struggle which gathered force when Italy entered into an armistice with the Allies in 1943 and tens of thousands of Italians joined the resistance movement united against Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. After two years of fighting and thousands of deaths, in April 1945, the Resistance movement liberated several Italian cities including Bologna, Parma, Reggio, Emilia, and, on the final day of uprising, Milan and Turin. The anthem of the resistance is the famous “Bella Ciao”. Today it is a national holiday not much liked by fascists and populists, in fact Matteo Salvini refuses to acknowledge the public holiday while Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) argue that we should commemorate the victims of Covid-19 as well as “all victims of all wars” rather than the liberation of Italy.

Sometimes we cling onto history only by our fingertips.

In normal times, the president of Italy would visit the Ardeatine Caves to commemorate the 335 Romans who were massacred there by Nazi soldiers in 1944. Those who lost their lives in the struggle for liberation are celebrated as is the importance of resistance, a quality needed in great quantities once again today. Just as Italy fought and rose from ashes and desperation in the 1940s so too it and all our countries will rise again in the months and years to come.

Image: Trump as sorcerer's apprentice in The Washington Times

Una mattina mi son svegliato
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
una mattina mi son svegliato
e ho trovato l’invasor.
O partigiano, portami via
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao ciao
o partigiano, portami via
ché mi sento di morir.
E se io muoio, da partigiano
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e se io muoio, da partigiano
tu mi devi seppellir.
Mi seppellirai, lassù in montagna
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
mi seppellirai, lassù in montagna
sotto l’ombra di un bel fior.
E le genti, che passeranno
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
e le genti, che passeranno
ti diranno “Che bel fior”.
È questo è il fiore, del partigiano
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

Image: Trump as Sorcerer's Apprentice in The Washington Times