The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

Independence: The Quintessential Problem

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 26 September 2021, 10:30 Last update: about 28 days ago

Independence Day celebrations could turn out to be stale, perfunctory ceremonies to recall the day when the British Empire packed up and set its Central Mediterranean fortress-colony free.

On the other hand, Independence Day celebrations could – and should – be the occasion for some national introspection.

Independence Day is meant to celebrate the day when the pre-existing Maltese Nation acquired its own (new) State. This seems obvious to many, even though sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino has argued that Malta is a State without a Nation. Professor Baldacchino seems to be asking whether there should actually be a Maltese Nation-State, an independent polity that interacts with other independent polities. Somehow, I sense that Professor Baldacchino’s premise is that Malta has been denied its genuine 19th-century moment, the moment, that is, when other Europeans created their “nations”.

On the other hand, the French historian Alain Blondy has claimed that “Rien n'est plus étranger aux Maltais que l'idée d'État”: “Nothing is more alien to the Maltese than the idea of State.” So whereas Professor Baldacchino sees the “nation” as missing in the equation, for the Sorbonne professor the “State” is missing.

I think both are right, though not entirely.

History provides a crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The 1921 Constitution that gave us self-government gave us also the template within which to understand Maltese participation in Malta’s public affairs. Like a climber, our national identity grew up the trellis, not of the State but of political parties. When it comes to the crunch, and despite Mintoff’s battle-cry in the 1970s (“Malta first and foremost”) and the Nationalists’ in 2017 (“I choose Malta”), the Maltese don’t put their State before their Party.

But the two professors aren’t entirely right, because they investigate snapshots rather than look at ongoing processes. Let me expound.

One could say that, paradoxically, Malta, despite formal independence, is still “colonial”. In the sense that one Party “colonises” the country, oppressing the minority. The majority of the colonised, then, end up imitating the former colonial master by treating in a “neo-colonial” fashion their fellow countrymen.

Belonging to a nation accrues benefits (and obligations) that are more or less constant over time and don’t depend on which Party is in power. Allowing the party system to overrule this basic principle equates to perennial civil war.

The State is the administrative apparatus of the Nation. That is to say, for the entire Nation not for that part of the Nation supporting the Party in power.

Instead of embarking on public discussions on the meaning of nationhood and the underpinnings of statehood, we engage in partisan bickering and electioneering. I find this not just unproductive but counterproductive. It festers useless partisanship instead of providing a public space in which everybody acquires at least a basic level of understanding.

It has to start with the intellectuals, needless to say, who should conduct the discussion in Maltese, and then it would percolate through the different sectors of society. The press would obviously have a pivotal role not only by transmitting the ideas but also by criticising them, journalists being front-row spectators at the daily spectacle of the life of both Nation and State.

But the impetus has to come from politicians – they need to signal to the population that the exercise is not futile but worthwhile.

Independence Day celebrations might thus be availed of to teach the values underlying nationhood and statehood.

Vincenzo Bonello

The ongoing exhibition on Vincenzo Bonello (Giovanni Bonello’s father) sheds light on an important figure in the history of Maltese art. I think everybody shares this opinion.

But I want to add to that: Bonello isn’t only a Maltese figure; he belongs to the European heritage. We tend to think of ourselves as living in a bubble or a cage, where flowers sometimes grow and sometimes just seem like they’re growing.

I think we should copy the butterfly: emerge (“eclose” is the proper term) from our immature, colonial-times chrysalis, open our wings and fly in the world like an adult nation.

Vincenzo Bonello and his work should be the subject of a Europe-wide documentary, a joint production between a Maltese house and RAI, say, or ARTE TV.

Iron Maiden

The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, The Chicago Sun Times, la Repubblica, Il Corriere della Sera, Le Parisien, Süddeutsche Zeitung ... even The Financial Times have published articles about Iron Maiden’s latest album, Senjutsu, but not the Maltese press (or at least, I haven’t found anything in the local English-language press). If we needed any proof of our mental isolation – there you have it. The album was published at the beginning of the month, the entire world takes note, but Malta is so inward-looking it cannot even stop for a brief, light-hearted moment to see what’s going on in the international entertainment industry.

Senjutsu is a light-spirited album, even if its themes are dark. This contradiction has been a hallmark of IM songs since the 1980s. It’s a sort of inversion of what John Lennon did with “Imagine”, when he used an innocuous tune to convey a revolutionary message.

IM – high-profile protagonists of Britain’s entertainment industry – have been exporting heavy metal music for more than forty years now. Their outlook is usually conservative: they sing about patriotism, God, the abuse of religion, morality. Maltese academic Albert Bell has written a lot about the heavy metal subculture; I would be really curious to know his opinion on IM’s thematic repertoire and why it has such a strong connection with young males in particular.

I very rarely go to concerts – one exception is IM. Whenever I attend one, I notice that it’s a bit like a family outing. Yes, there are young metalheads and headbangers, but I also notice middle-aged fathers accompanied by their children. I once went to an Ian Gillan (or was it Deep Purple?) concert but I didn’t see anything similar, and neither have I seen the same phenomenon at an Australian Pink Floyd or even an Ennio Morricone concert I went to. But anecdotal evidence is not useful. If my observation holds, however, it would seem as if IM is a sort of “religion”.

The thing with contemporary music – and I write this as a remarkably ignorant layman – is that if you decide to listen to contemporary music that claims to descend from the classical idiom, you have to brace yourself for an aesthetic shock.

Contemporary composers – like Glass and Xenakis, for instance – not only insist on atonality but also try to slow time down, as if trying to convey through music what physics teaches about the time-space continuum. The experience requires a great deal of mental effort on the part of the audience, and, unless you’ve got a lot of mental energy to spare, it ends up hurting your ears and digestive system.

The alternative is so-called popular music, which can be either complex arrangements of simple stuff (such as IM, Blackmore’s Rainbow, Pink Floyd, and Nightwish, say) or simple stuff engineered by highly-qualified sound engineers into high-tech simple stuff arranged in simple ways.

Music, like all other art forms, reflects the spirit of its times. I listen to Beethoven and I find a kind of music I can only describe as “philosophical”. There’s one violin romanza, for instance, in which Beethoven explores two ideas at the same time. It took me repeated listening till I understood that Beethoven was offering his listeners a philosophical (or “rationalist”) discourse.

But then, in the Nationalist Romantics – like Smetana and Liszt, say… even our own Camilleri – I find less “philosophy” and more, if not only, poetry, an outlet for emotions.

Now consider what was taking place in the societies in which these composers lived. Whereas Britain quickly embraced the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, Mitteleuropa caught up only in the mid-19th century. When all of Europe finally switched from the old system (agricultural production) to the new system (industrial production), the value system changed. From contemplation, which includes philosophy, and musing on one’s identity, the value system shifted to the virtue of productivity and consumption.

In the new value system, there’s very little time left to lose oneself in the meanders of the past; in the new system, you need music that talks to you directly, in accentuated rhythms reminiscent of machinery and less-subtle and more-repetitive structures.

That said, IM remain culturally valid. They probably add nothing new to the theory of music. But they do manage to connect with millions of people worldwide, with the masses. It certainly has much to do with democracy and the economic ecosystem we inhabit.

Maltese Quirks ()

Joseph Muscat popularised this mistake in Maltese grammar, and many follow his example.

The future tense in Malta is not ħa but se. Why? Because ħa is the abbreviation of “ħalli” (“let’s”) and se is the abbreviation of “sejjer” (“will”/“going to”). “Let me see” is “ħa nara”; “I’m going to see” is “se nara”.

So if you want to say, “Let me see how I’m going to help you” (something Joseph Muscat must have often told many people), the correct way to say it is, “Ħa nara kif se naqdik”. In Muscat’s mumbo-jumbo Maltese, he would have said, “Ħa nara kif ħa naqdik”.

Am I being finicky? No. Language use bares an individual’s thought patterns. Which is why developed European countries make fun of those individuals who participate in the public discussion and can’t master the national language. Mostly because language use denotes mental precision.

My Personal Video Library (22)

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, which he directs and stars in, Cry Macho, is perhaps not a work of genius, but it explores old age in an engaging fashion. In 1979, an old cowboy is sent by his former boss to Mexico to accompany the latter’s son to the United States away from his abusive Mexican mother, and the old cowboy ends up falling in love.

I think there are two old-age-related themes in the movie: the older generation helping the younger ones (especially in their troubled relationships between themselves – in this sense, it markets the benefits for youngsters and middle-aged people of spending time with the old), and the ever-increasing need for family as one’s life approaches its end.

The only snag with this movie is that Eastwood should have done it when he was younger. The story is not enjoyable enough to justify all the suspension of belief required from the viewer as he watches a 91-year-old Eastwood accomplish feats such as taming a wild horse and falling in love with a much younger woman (two feats that, come to think of it, are not that dissimilar).

Then again, perhaps when I’m 91 – if ever – I’ll be seeing things as Eastwood does in this movie.

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