The Malta Independent 29 February 2020, Saturday

Man against the forces of destiny

Mark A. Sammut Tuesday, 21 January 2020, 10:11 Last update: about 2 months ago
The Church of San Geminiano, St Mark's Square, Venice, demolished in 1807 during the reign of Napoleon as King of Italy
The Church of San Geminiano, St Mark's Square, Venice, demolished in 1807 during the reign of Napoleon as King of Italy

Valletta: Malta's Hospitaller City and Other Essays

Author: Victor Mallia-Milanes'

Publisher: Midsea Books, 2019

Extent: 203 pp


Victor Mallia-Milanes has written extensively; some of his books have been published by major British publishers. I (foolishly) used to think that his writings were technical, until I read his 1988 essay "The Genesis of Maltese Nationalism" on the Maltese during the French interlude, suddenly realising what I had missed. That essay proposes that the subjective self-perception of the Maltese is the key to Malta's history from the last days of the Order's rule onward.


I had intuited something similar after reading Charles Gauci's books (and Riccardo Maisano's criticism of them), but the way Professor Mallia-Milanes puts it, so sophisticated and yet so accessible, I couldn't contain my admiration. So I messaged him on Messenger, and probably he didn't quite know what to make of my message... probably because I was both emphatic in my compliment and late in delivering it. I mean, I was thirty years late! The lawyer within me was screaming, "It's time-barred!"

It's like that joke of the guy who, the day he converts to Christianity, on his way back home rings his Jewish neighbour's doorbell. The poor Jewish chap opens and the neophyte punches him straight in the eye. Overwhelmed, the Jew wants to know why and the neophyte answers, "That's for killin' Jesus!" The incredulous Jew retorts, "But man, that was two thousand years ago!" "Hey!" says the neophyte, "I got to know only today!"

So being this latecomer, when Professor Mallia-Milanes' latest book was published a few weeks back, a handsome collection of seven essays called Valletta: Malta's Hospitaller City and Other Essays, I had to read it without delay.

When he reviewed Henry Hallam's The Constitutional History of England almost 200 years ago, Th.B. Macaulay thus opened his review: "History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy." That's the approach I will adopt in reviewing these essays: their philosophy, and their poetry. Lastly, I will zero in on the seventh essay, because whereas its language is probably the most poetical of them all, philosophically it's the most intriguing. But about this later.

While dealing with the Hospitaller Order, in the first essay, the author seamlessly and effortlessly proposes the Order-State established on Rhodes as the blueprint for the "idea of Malta".

What particularly strikes me, not only in this first essay but throughout the whole book, is the author's psychological analysis. He speaks of a "pathological obsession that was to haunt [the Order] throughout its years in Malta" forcing the Knights to build and build and build - fortifications were the response to "a deep psychological reality than to actual circumstances" (p. 9).

The fortress became a city that thrived; the driving force behind its economic expansion was foreign trade. Whereas 18th-century "Valletta was marked by a joie de vivre" (p. 34), the essay is marked by a joie d'écrire which ignites your imagination when you stroll the city's streets at night after you've read it.

A lesser author would have succumbed to the temptation of spending a few words on the streets of late 18th-century Valletta, when the pavements were re-laid with lava from Vesuvius. Despite the beauty of the image of two parallel black lines running up and down each street, this would have distorted the idea the author wanted to impress on the reader's mind. Economy - knowing what to include and what to leave out - is the hallmark of effective writing.

Which is why I am perplexed as to why, whereas mention is made of the 90 consulates that Hospitaller Malta had around the Mediterranean, no mention is made of Malta's belonging to at least two Masonic circuits (as Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire points out): the Masonically powerful Metz Lodge linked to London, and the commercially powerful Marseille Mother Lodge linked to important port cities in Turkey.

The second essay, a reassessment of the Great Siege, is a pithy and pitiless myth-dismantling exercise. Professor Mallia-Milanes demolishes myths as if they were slums offending an otherwise neat city. The author's thesis is that in 1565, neither the Christian cause nor Europe was at stake, and not even Malta, but the continued existence of the Hospitaller Order itself. This is a strong statement. I won't spoil your fun by telling you how he arrived at it: you'll have to read the book!

Again instigated by the "Hospitallers' obsessive psychosis of an ever-imminent, full-scale Turkish assault" (p. 83), the author devotes the fourth essay to the Spanish military engineer Scipione Campi who added minor, but significant, modifications to Laparelli's design once the fortifications had been erected: a must-read for military history aficionados. Not being one of them, I'll only highlight the incredibly intriguing insight the author brings to topics that to some of us appear pedestrian.

Sometimes, I think, an author births an idea which can be expressed in one sentence. I know of only one author who did it: the Mexican Augusto Monterroso, whose novel The Dinosaur consists of just one, solitary sentence. All other authors need to write an entire piece in which to envelope their initial intuition. My impression is that the entire Campi essay was written for the pleasure of posing one (beautiful) question. Whereas he modified Laparelli's design, Campi didn't criticise it: was this because it was too late to do so, or because Campi embraced Laparelli's design? Granted, the point is academic; but it's also profoundly fascinating.

A small philosophical detour is in order better to understand the third and fifth essays, in which the author casts light on two unrelated individuals: Jean de (la) Valette and Vittorio Cassar.

Victor Mallia-Milanes epitomises one of our national ambiguities: we are Catholic Southern-Europeans who write in English. His mindset is Braudelian; his essays enthusiastically remind us that he follows the École des Annales, a French school that believes in "the broad, general sweep of the long-term approach to historical development" (to borrow his own words, p. 11). But this approach - espoused in the Anglophone world by historians like E.H. Carr - does not dominate English-speaking history circles. So Professor Mallia-Milanes writes in wonderfully beautiful English (with frequent sorties into poetic territory) while adhering to a French school. Who is he writing for? Is his linguistic prowess appreciated in Malta? Is his historical approach appreciated in the wider Anglophone world? To my mind, he embodies - like a few valid others - the uniqueness of being Maltese: isolated outsiders, solitary figures inhabiting a Norbert Attard fortification lines lithograph. We haven't yet managed to solve this conundrum. I wonder whether we ever can.

The Annales approach is based on the "weight of the inevitable" (p. 57): great men are successful because they (wittingly or unwittingly) follow the "prevailing tide of history" (p. 57). "Great" men cannot impose their will on events, because no man is so powerful. Whereas we shall return to this theme when we discuss the seventh essay, let's for now look at the third and fifth.

Traditional history has bequeathed a portrait of Jean de (la) Valette that is a literary equivalent of Antoine de Favray's painting: sanitised. Obviously, the Frenchman was more complex. At age 43, for instance, he was jailed and confined for beating up a man. Vittorio Cassar, the subject of the fifth essay, had a similar temperament. Though the "orthodox view" of Ġlormu's son is "vague and lifeless" (p. 104), the profile derived from archival sources depicts a violent streak. Vittorio was jailed for wounding his maternal uncle and beating up a Knight's servant.

Upon learning that Valette beat up a man, we naturally wonder (given our Hobbesian misconception of the past) whether such violence was commonplace. Anticipating our question, the author tacitly answers it: "non sine maximo scandalo" (p. 62).

Vittorio Cassar's profile is different. Despite the essay's silence, I get the impression that Cassar suffered from depression. Beating up his uncle was not an isolated incident: Cassar seems to have had a generally difficult temperament. Sent to Gozo as a military engineer, he "showed a scornful reluctance to work on the Castello fortifications" and the simple, uneventful life on Gozo augmented "his irritability" (p. 106). He also practised fortune-telling, "relieving people of their states of anxiety" (p. 107) - had he been attracted to the practice on account of his own depression and anxiety? The author concludes that fortune-telling must have been an "unconscious effort to deflect his aggressive impulses" (p. 108) - was that aggression another symptom of depression?

The Valette essay is a tug-of-war between two philosophical outlooks on history. Valette was against the Convent staying on Malta. His volte-face in favour of building the city which would bear his name was "an astute acknowledgement of the 'weight of the inevitable'" when he chose "to take advantage of it by cleverly 'exerting his own pressure in the same direction'" (p. 73). Then again, it was Valette's own "grandiose project of 1559" of re-capturing Tripoli that "precipitated the Ottoman siege [of Malta] six years later" (p. 73).

Philosophy of history seems central to Professor Mallia-Milanes' writings. In the sixth essay, he elucidates it by arguing that the denigration of Grand Master Hompesch:

                demonstrates the quintessence of traditional history par excellence, the 'great man' approach, attributing to man qualities which do not in fact belong to him. Man does not enjoy the powers to bring about long-term structural change. It is the context in which he lives that determines change. The economic, social, cultural forces, war, the weather: these are the elements which can generate the process of permanent change, forces that are far more powerful than man. (p. 156)

The author is on a myth-demolishing mission; he preaches the historian's gospel:

                It is the evidence which dictates the historical narrative, the reconstruction of the form and the content of the realities of the past [...] to be plausible [...] any reconstruction of any aspect of the past, should be the product of an empirical and rationally analytical methodology. (p. 141)

This essay's main thrust is that "the 'decline' of the Order is not a historical reality" (p. 141). After arguing his case, the author concludes that the 1798 fall of Malta cannot be attributed to a 'decline' that never was.

The book closes with an essay that has baffled me, an extraordinary essay, an essay of two cities. If Valletta is portrayed as a loving son would portray his mother, Venice is sung as a sweetheart would sing his lover. This isn't the Venetian Casanova flaunting his latest conquest; it's the Veronese Romeo writing about Juliet to his pen-pal.

The seventh essay in Victor Mallia-Milanes' book is "a semi-autobiographical rhapsody" (p. vi). At least, that's how its author classified its form. Whereas a rhapsody is an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling, he says that this essay is "no exuberant flow of lyricism", "no ecstatic moment of romantic inspiration" (p. 162). This contradiction is already a first sign that this essay is "psychological" (p. 174): the author psychoanalyses himself, perhaps even unconsciously. The beautifully poetic passages (particularly in the opening paragraphs) mask a philosophical quest the author didn't bring completely to the surface. For this reason I decided to devote the second half of the review (the first half appeared last week) entirely to this essay.

"The past becomes the present," writes the author in the most poetic passage of the entire book. "[C]enturies, long centuries, begin to unfold leisurely as the clap, clatter, and rattle of oars beating the water, ever so still and yet in perpetual movement... grow more audible" (p. 161). History and Venice. History and the Order of Malta. These are the twin sparks of this essay's engine.

"History isn't kind to men who play God," James Bond tells the villain in No Time To Die, the 007 film you'll be watching at the cinema come April. By which we presume he means that things don't turn out well for those who play God. You wouldn't expect Bond to regale you with philosophy of history or theology nuggets, but that's cinema for you.

"Playing God" is an archetypal theme. You find it in the Tower of Babel story, say: a thirteen-verse poem that in Hebrew looks like a ziggurat. In the first six verses Man aspires to be (like) God by building the tower; in the seventh verse God gets angry; in the last six verses, God cuts Man down to size. There's also a play on the sound of words: "to build" is L-B-N; when God gets angry He says, "nābelā" - "let us confuse" (by pulling down the tower): N-B-L.

Why am I quoting the Tower story? Because Victor Mallia-Milanes' seventh essay centres round the pulling down of a church on St Mark's Square in Venice by somebody who, in the Professor's view, played God.

Now, I don't have all the column space that I'd like and I don't think the editor will allow me a Part 3, either... So I have to say all I want to say in some 1,800 words, which is not easy. Because in this seventh essay, Professor Mallia-Milanes has raised so many issues that one really cannot do justice to it here. We'll have to content ourselves with a short review; reading this book, you'll understand why I find myself in this predicament.

In the first six essays, the author emphasised his adherence to the French École des Annales, which prefers the broad sweep of historical development to the narrative of the "great" man. In the seventh essay, he delves into the philosophy of the "great" man thesis, to attack it, not in overt philosophical terms but almost poetically. He refers to somebody many historians consider a demigod or an idol, by presenting him as a sort of demon, who even demolished a church on St Mark's Square to build a ballroom in its stead.

I am baffled by this essay, because it seems that whereas the author is philosophically against "historical demigods", he's not against their opposite, namely semi-demons, for indeed he presents this historical character as if he were a semi-fiend.

The argument seems almost a disputation with Machiavelli's implied premise in The Prince, that a "great" man has to free Italy from foreign domination. Professor Mallia-Milanes is arguing that this is a wrong approach to history: long-term changes take place not through the actions of some "great" man, or "great" warrior, but on account of structural changes which we might call "forces of destiny" (see p. 175 in particular for the author's endorsement of this Braudelian outlook).

But in its crudest form, Professor Mallia-Milanes' underlying argument seems to be: (A) "All history is the result of structural forces" as opposed to "All history is the result of great men's actions". But, (B) as we have seen in the third essay, say (p. 73 in particular), "Some history is the result of forces" and "Some history is the result of great men's actions". Whereas this seems contradictory, the argument is thus resolved in the seventh essay: (C) "History is the result of forces and of great men's actions" (both sub-contraries being true). The question the seventh essay raises - making it so compelling - is this: is it also the case that "History is the result of forces and little men's actions?" Should "great" and "little" actually form part of the proposition?

In this case, the "little" man is... Napoleon Bonaparte!

Here I have to make a clarification. Among other things Peter Serracino Inglott said when paying homage to my father upon his death, was this: "Although he was a fan of Bonaparte with the sort of enthusiasm that my contemporaries had for the Beatles, it flickered into nothing when the Corsican crowned himself Emperor Napoleon. The strongly egalitarian Maltese novelist did not appreciate that kind of joke played upon the French Revolutionaries." I was brought up in this environment, viewing revolutionary Bonaparte as a "great" man, but not Emperor Napoleon. So when I read the seventh essay, I could contrast my father's "great" Bonaparte with Professor Mallia-Milanes' "little" Napoleon. I personally see Napoleon Bonaparte as neither great nor little, but as the embodiment of the "cunning of reason" (minus the teleological element).

In this essay, Victor Mallia-Milanes is angry at Napoleon Bonaparte mostly for having subdued Venice, demolished the San Geminiano church on St Mark's Square, and evicted the Hospital from Malta. The essay accuses the Corsican warrior of being "obsessed with grand larceny and extortion to enrich and embellish his country of adoption", of "systemically demolish[ing] churches, dissolv[ing] monasteries and convents, confiscat[ing], pillag[ing], and... dismantl[ing] charitable confraternities" (p. 164). Here I have to disagree with the author's views. The French sought to export their Revolution, and they did this through war. The law of war allowed expropriation of enemy property (I wrote about this in Id-Dritt Law Journal a couple of years back). The Revolution in France - myopically, I will hasten to add - sought to dismantle the Church, both institutionally and physically (consider the almost-complete demolition of Cluny Abbey, seen as one of the excesses of the Ancien Régime). "Myopically" because Revolutionary France soon realised it didn't have the wherewithal to take over the Church's philanthropic activities. Being that as it may, the seventh essay is weak in this sense, because it forgets that the Venetians themselves demolished buildings on Cyprus, and that, essentially, every new regime demolishes buildings representing its predecessor. On Malta, the British demolished an Auberge to build the Anglican Cathedral, and a Grand Master demolished Melqart's temple in Marsa...

This doesn't mean I'm condoning the demolition of Venice's San Geminiano. I'm just saying that it was war.

Earlier I mentioned the "cunning of reason", a complex idea proffered by the German philosopher Hegel, who, according to Jung, was "not even a proper philosopher but a misfired psychologist". Anyway. The "cunning of reason" is when somebody believes they're following their passions, their instinct, their intellect, whereas in reality they're simply carrying out the mission reserved for them by history for the liberation of the spirit. The idea that history is a progressive march toward a goal is "teleology". Hegel's ideas were teleological: history/the Spirit leads humanity toward a higher goal.

Hegel once saw Napoleon in person and wrote about it: "I saw the Emperor - this world-soul - riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it."

And here lies the beauty of the seventh essay. Wittingly or unwittingly, Victor Mallia-Milanes is Hegelian in his approach while disagreeing with Hegel's view on the Emperor! Professor Mallia-Milanes himself acknowledges the greatness of Napoleon when he enacted the great Code that bears his name (p. 177) and later spread throughout Europe. In reality, the Code Napoléon didn't spread thanks to French bayonets, but because the other European nations saw in it the spirit of the times, that it was the perfect vehicle for the liberal ideas then circulating, as an ideological-legal framework within which nascent capitalism could grow. The boat of the Code's success was pushed by the winds of Destiny, despite not thanks to Napoleon being at the helm.

Interestingly, Professor Mallia-Milanes is Hegelian mostly when it comes to the Hospital. Hegel's thought is, as Jung pointed out, more psychological than philosophical. It's probably archetypal. It has been captured, I think, by one of our greater poets, Achille Mizzi, in these verses: "What liberation seeks the bean/ as it frees itself from its husk in the ground?/ What freedom seeks the shedding skin in cave?" The search for freedom is the ultimate goal (the teleology) of history, Hegel says and Mizzi implies. But Victor Mallia-Milanes too (unwittingly?) accepts this Hegelian awareness.

He argues, rightly, that the Hospital was the enemy of egalitarian Revolutionary France, because it represented the Ancien Régime's notions on privilege - "there was no French military siege of Malta in 1798," writes the author. "The island was seized by Republican France after a long and protracted economic and political siege" that had lasted at least six years (p. 172). But - and here comes in the Hegelian theme - "in the long term... the change proved necessary, remarkable, and reinvigorating" for the Order as, "denuded of its stale privileges... the Hospital [... was r]e-baptised with the true spirit of evangelical love [and] it could now affectionately focus entirely on extending... a tenderly helping hand to marginalised humanity" (p. 173). In his book I Giovanniti: La Storia dei Cavalieri di Malta, my (pro-Bonaparte but anti-Napoleon) father said the same thing: "The Order's current activities are no longer within the political sphere, but in other fields such as helping the sick and the suffering, as it had been at the Order's origins" (p. 12, my translation).

The apparent defeat through Bonaparte was for the Order the historical moment in which it freed itself from its stale past and embraced a liberating return to its truly religious raison d'être. This remarkable Hegelian conclusion closes the essay as it had opened: "the past becomes the present".

I'd like to thank Andrew Sciberras for Peter Serracino Inglott's translation of Achille Mizzi's verses.

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