A Pale Glimpse of Moon

The first of this summer’s literary extravaganzas was held last Tuesday night at the old Basilica di Massenzio near the Roman Forum. It is part of an impressive annual cultural series, where an international group of writers is invited to offer readings dedicated to the theme of that year.

This year’s theme is “Terra Luna”, commemorating the forty-year anniversary of the first moon-walk, and the first two writers in the series were an American (Andrew Sean Greer, who spends his time equally between San Francisco and New York), and a far better-known Italian author (Margaret Mazzentini, who is married to a wonderfully gifted actor, Sergio Castellito, who read her first piece in tandem with her).

The night could not have been more perfect for a festival dedicated to the Moon. The massive brick-faced antiquities were exquisitely illuminated in the twilight, and a pale sliver of moon was visible to the left of the stage just when the reading began. It was a mesmerizing space of two hours in every sense, because all the senses were quickened. This, I thought, was Rome at its best and most seductive.

Perhaps it was America at its best as well. Greer went first and he recognized his role in this grand affair. He was the opening act, the warm-up band, and he handled his role with humility and self-effacing dignity. There is nothing more surprising, nor more pleasurable, than having the warm-up band make you wish them to hang around. He hung around.

Greer’s story was a strange one, divided in three parts separated by haunting musical interludes. For some reason, the sky has gone dark in his story, and two lesbian lovers, who had found each other twenty or more years after their first romantic college encounter, are debating whether to flee Manhattan or to wait it out. Eventually they do, opting as so many millions of others to leave through one of the few working tunnels, making their way to the countryside and the imagined salvation awaiting them in western Pennsylvania.

The only light they see on this epic odyssey is created by fire—the fires of rioters and looters in the city, then later, the massive conflagration of an entire forest, up in flames.

It was a strange story, in some ways. I wondered how the detailed and delicate descriptions of how these two women found each other and rekindled an earlier adolescent love was heard in the city of “dolce vita.” And by the third sequence, I began to wonder, “where has the moon gone?”

The moon’s pale crescent had, by then, sunk below the rise of broken antiquities, so it was absent now. It was also surprisingly absent from Greer’s story. Only near the end did I see with a shock why that was so.

As the women get closer to the Pennsylvania border, they begin to wonder out loud how long this will last, and implicitly, whether Pennsylvania will be any better than New York. Suddenly, Louise, the elder and quieter of the two, explodes in a moment of sheer terror and quiet, certain pain.

“You know what will happen,” she exclaims. “They’ll burn the books… before the furniture… before the clothes… they’ll burn all the books…. They always do.”

There was a pause, as her lover tried to calm her frayed nerves. “Lou… don’t… don’t…” she quietly repeats, like a mantra, like a prayer. But Louise is not to be quieted, not in this darkenss.

“It’s the new dark ages,” is her whispered conclusion.

It was a stunning moment and a brilliant artistic achievement. Throughout the first sequence, as his descriptions of the darkness and confusion intensified, I kept thinking of New York on September 11th, 2001. But not now.

Greer captured a moment of mingled anguish and fear, of grief and anger, giving all of these emotions exquisite voice. “It’s the new dark ages.”

How was this heard in Rome, in the context of the new conservatism, the new oligarchy, and the new barbarism of the second regime of Roberto Berlusconi? They can burn books, records, and they can torch the environment.

And how, by contrast, was it heard by me, an expatriate North American, who heard these same images—of burned books and new dark ages—when given voice by a bright young man from San Francisco? They can burn people, too.

The new dark ages may be as cultural and religious, as they are ecological and political. That is the worry voiced in this strange story.

And where is the moon in all of this? She has gone elsewhere; her soft light has fled.