International Forum for U.S. Studies

 

An Interview with Dr. Giorgio Mariani, University of Sapienza

The Challenges of Waging Peace

Dr. Giorgio Mariani teaches American literature at the “Sapienza” University of Rome. He has served as president of the International American Studies Association (I.A.S.A) from 2011 to 2015 and is a co-editor-in-chief of Ácoma. Rivista internazionale di studi nord-americani  (Acoma: International Journal of North American Studies)  He is the author, editor, and co-editor of numerous books, essays, reviews, and special issues of journals. His latest book, titled Waging War on War. Peacefighting in American Literature, was published in December 2015 by the University of Illinois Press, as part of the IFUSS book series “Global Studies of the United States.” He has recently edited an issue of Ácoma on “The US Wars of the Millennium” that brings together essays on US literature, history, politics, and cinema of the last fifteen years. Dr. Mariani is currently working on a series of essays on Italian adaptations of (mostly nineteenth-century) American literary classics, and more generally, on the reception of US culture in Italian comics, television, and other forms of popular culture Dr. Mariani has spent several residencies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an IFUSS Fellow, most recently in March of 2017. (For more on IFUSS visit our website at http://www.ifuss.illinois.edu/).

Dr. Giorgio Mariani

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: Your book, Waging War on War: Peacefighting in American Literature (2015) was recently published by University of Illinois Press [link], and has received some very positive reviews [e.g., link]. This is a very significant work, and, moreover, accessible to a range of readers, such as those, like myself, who are reading it less from the perspective of literary studies, but more from the perspective of Peace Studies. In the book, you deal in detail with the genre of “anti-war literature” as a problematic category. As you also note, we seldom find anyone or any institution—including the military—that is explicitly “pro-war.” As I recall, the Cold War motto of the U.S. Strategic Air Command was: “Peace is Our Profession.” War may be regrettable and ugly but it is nearly always justified, at least in the minds of those waging it, as being necessary. How can we more critically think the related categories of war and peace, without, on the one hand, echoing a sort of Orwellian newspeak, or, on the other hand, presenting a dichotomy that misses the complicated ways in which war and peace are entangled?

Dr. Giorgio Mariani: Well, first let me say that it is music to my ears to hear that the book may be of interest also to people who do not read it from a strictly literary, or lit-crit. perspective. One of the things I insist on in my work is that war literature is inevitably enmeshed in political, ethical, and moral questions that cannot go away, no matter how hard one tries to translate it into a more rarefied “aesthetic” or narratological vocabulary. So a good war book must have something significant to say not only as literature, but as a critical assessment of war as well. “Critical,” however—and I come to your question—does not necessarily mean “anti-war,” a term that is very much used but no one, to my knowledge, has bothered to break it down and interrogate it analytically. My book is an attempt to begin to do that. Perhaps what you rightly put in terms of the danger of echoing an Orwellian newspeak is a danger that is always at hand when we discuss matters of war and peace, because even the sincerest effort to make peace happen may require waging some kind of war—a war that may be figurative but also, quite often, also real—against the forces of war. Militaries are not always hypocritical when they say that though they oversee a war machinery, what they wish to achieve is peace. But if we want to think more critically, intelligently, and usefully about the categories of war and peace, I think we must define in the most rigorous terms what we mean by “peace.” As Johan Galtung has put it in an influential essay, “peace” must be much more than non-war—it must include social, political, and economic justice. And, once again, we are not going to get that unless we fight for it. The friction is inevitable and all serious pacifists, from Jesus to Gandhi and to M. L. King have addressed this tension repeatedly.

 

IFUSS: War, especially for those who have not experienced it first hand, is a compelling drama. In literature and film—from antiquity to contemporary times—we are presented with awe-inspiring spectacles and narratives of conflict. To paraphrase from your book, the aesthetic appeal of peace just can’t compete with that of war. As you point out, there is a deep ambivalence here; even ostensibly “anti-war literature” runs the risk of working for the cause of war. For example, the Iliad “glorifies as well as condemns war” (p. 6). Ellen N. LaMotte, a nurse in the First World War, was aware that her shocking depictions in The Backwash of War might unintentionally serve to “oil the horrible meat grinder of trench warfare” (p. xv). To take another example, which you deal with in detail, Tim O’Brien’s (1990), The Things They Carried, is undeniably “anti-war.” Yet despite the author’s intentions, that book, like the Iliad, does not necessarily make war any less fascinating or mythic. Could you speak to this problem of the “appeal” of war and the lack of appeal of peace?  What does this mean in terms of representation in art and popular entertainment media?  

GM: The fact itself that all more or less understand what is a war novel, a war poem, or a war film, but they would be puzzled if you’d tell them you just read a peace novel, a peace poem, or you recently saw a great peace film, is symptomatic of the situation I (along with others) try to address in my book. We may love to consume stories with happy endings, but stories are not about what happens once the protagonists “live happily ever after”—they are about the tough and rough road to get there: that is what is emotionally and aesthetically appealing to us. Of course, we can read about the lives of contemplation led by saints and sages; we can enjoy the bliss of “pastoral” and love poems, but mostly we seem to be drawn to the more “action-packed” moments that either precede or follow the tranquility of peaceful moments. If you read the autobiographical writings of two great pacifists like Gandhi and King you are likely to enjoy them because of the struggles they both engaged in to affirm their peace-loving ideals. That is perhaps one way to make “peace” more appealing: to remind people that peace is something that can be gained by struggling through largely peaceful means, or to show how often, especially women, have fought hard in war-ravaged times and places to preserve at least a modicum of peace. Vera Brittain’s  A Testament of Youth is another good example, of how one comes to learn the value of peace by enduring the pain and the losses of war (in this case World War I) and by denouncing the mystifications of martial ideologies. I just saw the film adaptation of the book last night, and I think Alicia Vikander does a wonderful job at showing how Brittain’s maturation into a pacifist was the result of a long struggle with herself and the world she lived in.

 

IFUSS: This question relates to the first two: i.e. on war and peace as being not simply opposites, and on the aesthetics of war and peace. Again, like other literary works referred to in your book, you note that Mark Twain’s, The War Prayer is “anti-war, but maybe not pro-peace” (p. 18). On the other hand, as you write later, Maxine Hong Kingston’s (2004) The Fifth Book of Peace, is an example, if I understand you correctly, of a work that, unlike Twain’s, is not simply anti-war, but pro-peace. Moreover, in terms of aesthetics, I presume you would say that Kingston’s book is also highly compelling. The term most commonly used today for a pro-peace stance, one that is not simply “negative peace” (the absence of direct violence) is “social justice.” Could you speak to the notion of a pro-peace literature that conveys a deeper sense of social justice, and also whether you think there is a gendered aspect to the production and consumption of such literature?

GM: As I said before, “peace” is an idea so often invoked and often so blatantly misused that in certain situations it can become pure cant or nearly meaningless. Think of the Middle East. Is there any actor in the crisis, or any outsider, who would say she does not want “peace” to reign at last? But the problem is that you are never going to get any credible peace—and I mean even purely “negative” peace, an end to the horrific killings that have gone in the region for so long—unless you construct the social and political conditions for justice—social, political, and economic justice—to take root. No one would seriously think it’s an easy task, but unless people spell out with sincerity what they mean by “peace”, peace will just be an Orwellian buzzword. As far as literature goes, one can show in all sorts of ways that war is horrible, destructive, and evil…and yet conclude that humans are so corrupt that they will continue to fight wars endlessly. Maxine Hong Kingston tries to imagine what would a “literature of peace”—a literature sustaining those values we associate with genuine peace—look like, knowing full well that this is largely a project for the future. But her experience has taught her that even writers must struggle to create new imaginary worlds that would seriously break away from a simply “anti-war” perspective. And there is no question, I think, that since women have historically been more the victims than the agents of war, they know more about building peace. It’s not that all women are “naturally” pacifist but women seem to see through the cant of war much more readily, and to understand the devastating prices human communities pay for choosing war to solve disputes.

IFUSS: To shift gears here a bit and focus on your current project—a collection of essays that deal with US-Italian literary, cultural and political relations—I’d like you to talk about what “America”—real or imagined; place-on-the-map or “signifier-container”—means to Italy (or more generally, if you’d like, to Europe) in terms of politics, and other cultural influences. More specifically, from the perspective of different generations of Italians, how has “what America means” changed over time—from the immediate, 1945, post-War period, through events around 1968, to the meanings of America now in the early 21st century? And, in terms of the present, what does the current America stand for in the experience and imagination of today’s young Italians?

GM: My current book project—at least as I conceive it now—is an attempt at exploring the ways in which US literature and culture have become part of Italian culture. It’s not only a question of influence; I want to show how Italians have creatively made use of models, stories, and ideas coming from the New World. These rewritings, adaptations, and reinventions of things “American”—from serious, “classic” American literary masterpieces like Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter to Disney comics or the Western—are so thoroughly incorporated in the fabric of Italian cultural life that they respond to a variety of different political and cultural needs. So, yes, what “America” means to Italians is influenced to no small extent by the local conditions in which America is appropriated by Italians—and of course this has also something to do with what “America” is or appears to be to Italians, based on its “objective” behavior at home and abroad. Let me say something rather simplistic. Lots of Italians continue to dream of going to “America” and live an intense experience either as tourists or as immigrants, but you would hardly find an Italian who is not aware that the US has, compared to Italy, a poor health system no matter how advanced their medical research might be. I would say that to a considerable extent the “myth” of America is no longer operative in Italian society, though we continue to consume a substantial quantity of US culture, from TV series to cartoons to film and, yes, even “good,” quality literature. For many young Italians perhaps the US is still to some extent a land of opportunity, but young people are also aware of the US’s social and political contradictions, of the racism that is still very much a part of US society, of the military bases the US keeps all the world over, Italy very much included, of course!

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.