Saturday, January 26, 2013


Given the extraordinary flux in Italian politics, with new parties forming and re-forming, some would-be candidates heading off to prison and others pleading to be elected specifically to obtain judicial immunity, and alliances that form and dissolve like middle-school romances, I am hard-pressed to find the organizing principle, the 10,000-feet view that makes sense of it all. But this morning, in that first light of dawn that is half-dream, half-vision, it came to me: Freud's meta-psychology, where so much is explained--that's the matrix for grasping the incredible slip-slide race for the Palazzo Chigi.

Of course Freud's meta-psychology is itself a complex thing. In the beginning there was consciousness and the unconscious, the visible, rational agent and all the unseen forces at work to derail him. On one side the public sphere, policy debates, the constitution, and on the other, media, image, innuendo, private deals. So far, so good--we recognize the terrain.

But the Master wasn't satisfied with this topological model: these were forces in dynamic interplay, a field of combat whose protagonists he renamed Ego and Id. Much as Ego, the rational state, might try to regulate public policy as a mediation among recognizable interests, the libidinous, insatiably desiring Other would be there, insinuating its larcenous intentions into the public sector, substituting fantasy--bunga-bunga--for reasoned analysis.

But this model too falls short of understanding how some higher moralizing authority--Angela Merkel, for example, or the ECB--can exert its sublimely invisible authority on the everyday struggles for dominance of Ego and Id. Super-ego becomes the explanatory tool for this final, structural version.

So here we are, faced with the 2013 electoral campaign. Ego we know: the reasonable, self-deprecating but fatherly former minister and party chief, who neutralizes competing impulses of Left and Center, mediates between austerity and largesse, between business leaders and exigent trade unions while holding to the timeless verities of family and work. Pier Luigi Bersani is Ego for our times.

Id is of course Mr. Bunga-bunga himself, the Cavalier Berlusconi, whose libidinal excesses have come to characterize Italy's failed government for much of the past two decades. But not so fast: Id is by its very natural plural, unstable, forever opening new channels of desire. Thus Signor Bossi of the Northern League, who promised not long ago to shoulder his rifle and compete for a seat in Parliament; or Signor Grillo, whose off-color jokes and general repudiation of all that is established are notorious features of the Id. And the hosts of abstainers, refusing the claims of citizenship and duty, denouncing parties and governments in all their forms, an uncharted field of Id waiting--in Freud's hopeful phrase--to become Ego, to be brought to reason. Not to mention the parallel government, the Camorra and other regional Mafias and crime rings that are nothing if not machines for slaking the libido, and will be silent players--who knows to what degree--in this election. Yes, there is plenty of Id afoot in this Italian political season.

And above it all, surveying with a certain disdain the unsavory deal-making, the alliances with which--now that his advances have been spurned by Left and Right--he will have no part? What better Super-ego could a nation ask for than Super-Mario Monti, Mr. Holier-than-thou, sole bearer of European Enlightenment values into this partisan wilderness?

So there they are, the structural elements at work in the neurotic psyche of this national patient. It would take Dr. Freud himself to bring understanding to such a tangled subject, but--alas--we are in the hands of the Italian electorate, so beautifully figured by the Homer Simpson of our illustration.


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