The Barbarian Invasions

If Alessandro Baricco were an American, he would no doubt have added the Super Bowl to the examples that illustrate “I Barbari” (“The Barbarians”), his “essay on change,” which has just been published in a French translation by Gallimard.

Before being published in book form, this collection of inspired texts appeared in installments in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, in 2006. It came to mind when I was watching the annual pow-wow of American football last Sunday.

Make no mistake, I like football as much as the next man, especially when it keeps you on the edge of your seat right up until the end. Nevertheless, the Super Bowl perfectly illustrates Baricco’s theories on modernity’s assault on culture in its broadest sense. This is a sporting event where sport is but one element among so many others. Many people are more interested in the halftime show, the commercial breaks, the chicken wings served alongside, and so on, and so on

There are around 40 minutes of commercials shown during a Super Bowl game. In comparison, during the hour on the game clock, the two teams actively engage the ball for a total of … 11 minutes! It goes to show the extent to which this traveling circus reveals no more about athletic prowess than it does about the fantasy world of commercials.

Many Americans believe, because they have been told so, that the Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world. However, even an ordinary Spanish league match between Barcelona FC and Real Madrid sometimes attracts a larger audience than the 125 million who watch the Super Bowl. But when they laze about thinking the whole world revolves around them, what can you expect?

Alessandro Baricco, who comes from Turin, misses the era when the most talented players did not have to worry about the constraints dictated by teamwork on a football field — in the game that is played with the foot. For someone like him, the Super Bowl is certainly the “barbarian” event par excellence, even its incarnation. It is the most eloquent illustration of the way sport has been invaded by the money-changers from the Temple.

The author of “Silk and Ocean Sea” asks if Culture (with a capital C), classical culture as we know it, has been sacked by the barbarians. No sooner has he asked the question than he answers it; however, he avoids falling into the trap of alarmist theories on the derailment of our civilization. With much lively humor, the writer and philosopher claims not to write “against” the barbarians, but “about” them, by identifying with their way of life and even defending it on a number of fronts.

Barbarian. The word is no less pejorative for Baricco. It means uncultured, common, Philistine. In the essayist’s mind it refers to us all, in a general sense. It refers to us, Westerners who increasingly surf the Web for general knowledge and appropriate superficial elements of culture picked up from all over the place. It refers to those of us who passively follow the hierarchy imposed by Google’s algorithms, without questioning. “If Google suggests such and such a site for checking the audience ratings for the Super Bowl, well, it must be the best,” we think.

Luckily Baricco’s vision is not that of a purist, even if he sometimes comes down on the side of nostalgia — particularly when talking about soccer. His essay, which avoids clichés and other stereotypes, fuelled a debate when it was published in Italy: possibly because Manichaean intentions were ascribed to him.

In my opinion, his highly original theory can best be summarized in the example he gives on the evolution of winemaking. One day, not so long ago, we all decided we liked Californian wine. Wine, which generally speaking, you don’t need to pray will be pleasurable, and which varies far less than French or Italian wine from one vintage to another. Some winemakers in the Old World even started to produce wine in the Californian style, clearly identifying the grape varieties on their labels. The world was turned upside down.

Baricco certainly does not deny the benefits of modernity and new technology. He is interested in change and notes that the relationship between humans and art, for example, has changed considerably. This musicologist, author of the celebrated monologue “Novecento,” about a pianist, reminds us that each era has brought its own flavor of the month.

The now uncontested genius of Beethoven was not at first recognized by the critics, who saw the evolution from classical to romantic music with a jaundiced eye. In 1824, the critics said that Beethoven’s “9th Symphony” was common, showy and unworthy of the great music that preceded it, and others say the same of the new musical currents today.

Baricco reminds us that at the same period, reading novels was considered to be a frivolous pastime, even a potential danger, particularly for women. Today, we read more, even if we mostly read things other than so-called classic literature. Art is no longer reserved for the initiated, but has been delivered to the masses, who mostly partake at break-neck speed, only slowing down for the most spectacular offerings, before moving on to the next thing.

But what could be more spectacular, Baricco asks, than the style of Marcel Proust? Is there an art form more spectacular than cinema, “the favored form of expression of barbarian culture?” It is “from cinema that television, videoclips, games and such are descended.”

So what, according to Alessandro Baricco, defines the barbarians? “You have to accept that it is a mindset: a migration of taste toward the outer regions of the incidental.” It is difficult to contradict him, and not hard to recognize, especially when you are watching the Super Bowl.

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