The Malta Independent 20 October 2019, Sunday

Independence Day in 2019 Malta

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 22 September 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 28 days ago

I have to admit I am an incurable Romantic. It happens to me often that I hear people speaking in Maltese, and I go through a sort of out-of-body experience. I forget I'm Maltese and I listen as if I were non-Maltese but can understand the language. The experience is extraordinary, and touching. Or else, I read notes or other messages in Maltese and again, this bizarre experience happens - I become a non-participating onlooker and let myself be caressed by the gentle hand of Observation.

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It might be the Dysfunction of the Nationalist. Not the Nationalist Party supporter, but the Nationalist in the stricter sense of the word: the person who - for sentimental and probably irrational reasons - feels a (cheesy?) attachment to the Motherland. It's a truly Romantic sentiment, belonging to the 19th century when, looking at the People certain people got carried away by the undercurrents of Nation. Needless to say, there were political undertones: that "Nation" was the equivalent of "State".

For much of its history, Europe was dominated by Empires, in which "Peoples" lived and wandered. But then, the idea started taking root, with the slow emergence of the territorial Nation-State (as opposed to the Empire) from the 18th century onward, that political power could be exercised on a territory not on a "People". A relationship between the Blood of a People and the Land inhabited by that People slowly took shape in people's minds. And the idea that a Nation ("nation" comes from natio in Latin, to be born, i.e. to receive blood/life from one's ancestors) could be identified with a territory, a land, and the political power (the State) that would administer that land and the Nation associated with it, through the law, the army/police and the bureaucratic machinery.

But when one is carried away by the Romantic sentiment aroused by the Nation (the "People") and the Land, one forgets the politics and the ideology behind the sentiment, and listens to the music of the language or even the real music of the people. The Nationalist Romantic composers did just that. They listened to the "music of the people" and made it theirs by expressing it in cultivated form. The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana even called his most beautiful piece Ma Vlast, meaning My Country. Many others composed dances from their countries, like the Hungarian Ferencz Liszt, say. Our own Camilleri wrote The Malta Suite and much more, including the magnificent Maltese Dances, of which I particularly like IV - I actually think it's his best achievement.

But why did Charles Camilleri (who passed away 10 years ago) write Romantic music in the mid- to late-20th century? Why did many of our poets write Romantic poetry in the early to mid-20th century? (Till the rebels of the 1960s took centre stage, that is, and kicked Romanticism out, ironically as the Romantic impetus culminated in the attainment of independent statehood.)

This week - the week preceding one of our tiny State's Trinity of Feasts, Independence Day - I engaged in an exquisite conversation with somebody whose intellect immediately attracted and fascinated me. We were discussing whether the statue of Queen Victoria, Empress of subcontinent India and of li'l Malta (and of the remainder of the three-quarters of the globe marked in pink on the maps of the time), should remain slap-bang in the middle of Republic Square. Isn't that a contradiction?, I asked.

I realised that my interlocutor is one of those fine minds that can transform a conversation into something between a game of chess and an interview. In the sense that one of us would say a word and the other would know that there's a potentially irresistible temptation behind it - if we're not careful we might be tempted to go down the rabbit hole in search of the Truth. Indeed, such conversations do somehow remind you of Alice in Wonderland, because they can turn out to be a long string of unfinished arguments each holding its own wonder but each tantalisingly trying to deviate from the main argument in search of some elusive Truth. After all, isn't a possible etymology of "Alice", Alethea, Greek for truth?

But we agreed - quickly, as is usually the case in such circumstances - to avoid the digressions and stick to the subject. And thus, it became also a game of chess, us two interlocutors playing together against Temptation and resisting the urge to stray from the point.

So I asked my interlocutor, What is the Queen's statue doing in a square that, in post-Independence years, we named Republic Square? How to solve the contradiction?

My interlocutor smiled, more with the eyes than the lips, as intelligent people are wont to do. The argument I got as an answer was provocatively simple: The Queen should stay there because the statue's location is in itself a historical statement!

Provocatively but also deceivingly simple. And then the bombshell - the George Cross. Was I in favour or against the retention of the G.C. on our flag?, my interlocutor asked, and, because I am a gentleman, I had to answer truthfully and own up to my mixed feelings.

But my real interest at that moment was Queen Victoria's statue. After all, Charles Xuereb (who was not my interlocutor on this occasion, but has publicly expressed ideas so strong on this and similar subjects that he has to crop up in such conversations) is right. Valletta is dominated by foreign symbols of power while the Maltese State is conspicuously absent on the public memory level in the capital city of the country.

My interlocutor then expressed an interesting idea: We should grow out of the habit of erecting monuments to people.

I would assume (because this was not said) that also meant we should similarly grow out of the habit of erecting monuments to symbolise nation-building moments in our history.

Hmmm, I retorted, adding, But remember: Malta was robbed of the nineteenth century!

My interlocutor looked me straight in the eye. Ennio Morricone could have provided the music for the scene... there was suspense, it was like a duel and mine had probably been an unexpected move. "Malta robbed of the nineteenth century", I had ventured and I could still hear the crack sound of my words in the air.

Well yes - I will now continue, because our conversation had by then come to an end, both of us having other, previously-arranged engagements elsewhere - Malta has been robbed of the nineteenth century. While other countries were living their nationalist moments, we were a colony of a far-away global power. Our Romanticism then took place in the 20th century and, from a certain point of view, it has still not completely run its course. My interlocutor would probably want us to take the accelerated path, the fast track, jump all that 19th century claptrap and land on the 21st century turf of post-modernity. But I think we still need to live the Nationalist sentiment, even if in diluted form (after all, we're a minuscule State and a minuscule Nation), and to understand the State.

Particularly when migration from culturally-different countries is one of the main issues of our times.

Independence Day, thus, still has its relevance even in this day and age. Not for the sake of idealist or nostalgic or airy-fairy nationalism. But for a well-paced transition from the world of yesterday to the world of today (and tomorrow). Other parts of Europe are where they are because they went through a step-by-step evolution. We cannot jump from Step One to Step Four without going through Steps Two and Three. Just look at the disaster the great leaps have caused in Eastern Europe, where peasant societies were forced to become avant-garde without going through the process that led to the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the West.

We need to live the Nationalist sentiment and understand the Modern State if we want to move on to the next level and be intellectually equal to our European brethren. Instead of continuing with our age-old habit of "aping our betters".

 

Invincible, the soap opera

The Invincible is beginning to crack. No, I am not talking about the First World War ship, but about he who - it would seem - has a number of tattoos all over his body, one of which reads, 'Invictus'. Now, truth be told, invictus does not really mean invincible; it means, the one who has not been beaten, the "unconquered". But, as the humble satirist that I'd like to be, I find "the Invincible" to be more mouth-watering than the "unconquered".

Every night, before he goes to sleep, while he's brushing his teeth, he looks proudly at himself in the mirror, and recites to himself - while he hears his wife grumbling in the background that he always stays too long in the bathroom - a poem by 19th-century poet William Henley, called Invictus:

 

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

 

This is one of the techniques of Positivity: day after day, you repeat some positive mantra to yourself till you start believing it and it permeates your life.

And yet, he had to rein in those closest to him who are preparing to pave the way for his succession. It was the holiday season and his would-be successors were working their butts off to show him out. But he is the master of his fate, he is the captain of his soul.

Or so he thinks.

Isn't it clear, though, that it has now become a farce? Isn't it clear that every day something is slowly eroding his moral authority? He was too cocky when he announced to the four corners of the world that he would govern for only two terms. He cockily sowed the wind and now he's reaping a veritable whirlwind. His tendency for shallow judgment keeps haunting him, like the ghost of Banquo haunted he whose hands the seas incarnadined.

This leads me to two considerations.

First, that despite the hype, the Invincible is a man troubled by shallow judgment. When the hype will be over (as it will sooner or later be), history will judge him for what he really is, a man whose judgment is consistently shallow, for whom short-term gain is a greater achievement than long-term well-being.

Second, this silly idea that has taken root in Malta that politicians should not stay on for long periods. It betrays our inability to do politics for principle rather than power. The Invincible adopted neoliberal principles, but again for short-term gain, simply to achieve power (and God knows what else), not to implement a vision.

True, we have a duopoly instead of a spectrum of political positions represented by different parties. Where a political spectrum exists, a politician stays on, because working for a political vision is a life-long commitment, at times even flowing from one generation to the next.

 

My Personal Library (67)

I'm close to my word limit. So, I will mention briefly Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). This fantasy novel is considered a children's book, but anybody who's read it knows that in reality it's engaging for adults too. It is my considered opinion that in times like ours, reading books like this one and its companion Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), helps to understand the "wonderful" games politicians like the Invincible are good at playing, and possibly winning.


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