You might be used to reading him on Iran and freedom. But in Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles: An Investigation into the Sources of Creativity, Michael Ledeen focuses on a different kind of freedom: the freedom that comes from seemingly endless creativity. That begins to explain why he is a man in love with Naples, a love he passionately and insightfully shares with the reader in his latest book. He talks a bit about the miracles, the pizza, and the politics with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is Naples really so miraculous when there is arrogance and poverty and crime?
MICHAEL LEDEEN: Don’t you think so? The stereotype of Naples is: pickpockets, overcrowded slums that have produced terrible epidemics and drive people into the streets, and one of the world’s biggest and most lethal mafias, the camorra. Have you seen the film, Gomorra? Or read the book? Very powerful, very accurate, very scary.
And yet, there is amazing energy and beauty. Everything from great novels to great films to the most elegant (and most expensive!) men’s fashion, gorgeous music (Italian popular songs are in large part Neapolitan), and unique art, including the world-famous crèche figures.
Isn’t that a miracle? They overcome their misery and enrich the culture of the West, as they have for centuries, and they show no sign of slowing down.
LOPEZ: Please explain your phrase “the richness of the Neapolitan spirit and the fecundity of its chaos” — and why it should matter to an American reader with a busy life and little time to spare reading an ode to a city he likely will never visit.
LEDEEN: One of my favorite Neapolitan authors, a cultural anthropologist named Marino Niola, says that Neapolitan chaos isn’t what happens when an orderly world degenerates, but the creative chaos out of which order is brought forth. There is creative method to their madness, and it fascinates and stimulates me. As for fecundity, it is both spiritual and corporeal; the birth rate north of Naples is way below replacement, but the Neapolitans do much better. You can see it on the streets, lots of kids everywhere. And so you have to ask yourself, how come these people are still having plenty of babies? What’s different about them? For me, it’s part of the big question about creativity. The Florentine Renaissance ended (there aren’t any Medicis left, as you know), the Golden Age of Greece lasted less than a century, we got a couple of great generations at the time of the Revolution and the Founding, but the Neapolitans keep on creating. How come?
LOPEZ: This book, you tell the reader, is a lot different from the one you set out to write. But why would you bother with a book on Naples? Surely your agent suggested another foreign-policy book instead?
LEDEEN: After I wrote Machiavelli on Modern Leadership I had a desperate need for chaos, and so I turned to Naples. Yes, my agents thought it would be a hard sell, but my old friend Irving Louis Horowitz at Transaction heard I was writing it, and called up and said he wanted it. As you know, having read it, it deals a lot with religion, which I hadn’t expected, but religion is part of the explanation of their creativity.
LOPEZ: “In Naples,” Goethe wrote, “I barely recognize myself and I seem an entirely different person.” Do you recognize yourself there? Are you better for it when you get back to the office in D.C.?
LEDEEN: I am thrilled and energized in Naples, and yes, I do think that my creative juices flow more rapidly there and thereafter, at least for a while. Being there forces me to think about first things, and that helps all my work. To be sure, getting outside our daily routine is good for everyone, and looking at America from abroad is excellent therapy, especially for those of us inside the Beltway, but the effect of Naples is unique. Goethe knew it, Hans Christian Andersen knew it, Mark Twain and Walter Benjamin and the Shelleys knew it. It’s no accident that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in Naples, heh.
LOPEZ: “Unlike most major cities, if you fall on the street in Naples, people will help you. They may take your wallet and your watch (if it’s a good one), but they will get proper care for you, and keep you warm and secure until help arrives.” But, Michael, they took my wallet. Am I supposed to have warm feelings when they robbed me? Did they make me richer in a more important way? (But my wallet . . . !)
LEDEEN: Yeah, well, in most major cities they’ll just take the wallet and walk away, won’t they? There is a very dark side to life in Naples, and I hope I’ve done full justice to it in Virgil’s Golden Egg. The contrast between the dark side and the bright, inspirational side is very dramatic and, I think, fundamental to explaining the creativity of the people. They see life (and death) whole and plain, and their sense of humor is very rich. Have you seen those terrific Sophia-and-Marcello movies? They are taken from Neapolitan popular theater, and Marcello’s apartment is in Piazzi dei Martiri, downtown.