A book note on Pugliese’s Silone

I’m afraid I contributed little more than a pedantic diversion this morning to the exchange between Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey. After reading Ethan’s excellent post — which raises a number of difficult questions about the ethics of blogging, citizen journalism, and the authority and reach of big corporate media (in this case, the New York Times) — I was immediately struck by the similarities between the case of the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan at the center of Zuckerman’s discussion and the case of Ignazio Silone.

It is very easy for all of us here in the West to look at the situation from afar and report rumors, or issue judgments (and they surely are judgments, and may carry with them a punishment). The truth on the ground may be harder to discern and is definitely more complex than we can imagine. “Among the illnesses fascism has inflicted upon us,” wrote Ignazio Silone in 1938, “this is not the smallest: not being able to distinguish with certainty between friend and enemy.” And Silone himself spent much of his life dealing with accusations that he was a CIA spy; and now it’s generally agreed that he collaborated, in some way, with the Fascist police. His case may be instructive in this context. It’s difficult enough to prove collaboration in many of these cases; it’s even harder to say why people collaborate with repressive regimes, and to what imagined ends.

Not exactly on point, I’ll admit, but I’m interested in thinking further about what I call “the truth on the ground” in this case, the truth of experience, its accessibility or inaccessibility, and what claim conscience can make to that truth. Besides, the caso Silone is on my mind lately because I’ve just finished reading Stanislao Pugliese’s biography of Silone, Bitter Spring.

Pugliese reserves his discussion of Silone’s collaboration for one of the book’s final chapters, and concedes that Silone collaborated in some way, and for a limited time, with the Fascist police.

He offers a thoughtful survey of the scholarship on the topic and a nuanced discussion of the mitigating circumstances of Silone’s collaboration (his brother Romolo Tranquilli’s imprisonment being the most important of all). The Silone case raises very big and very serious questions about collaboration – what it really is, why people collaborate with secret police and bad governments – and about the workings of conscience, and Pugliese is sensitive to them all.

For Pugliese, Silone was haunted by conscience, hounded by history, hunted by the God whose very existence he often doubted. In other words, Pugliese offers up Silone as an exemplary figure, who not only bore eloquent witness to the crisis of twentieth-century Europe, but lived the crisis. In this way, Silone’s culpability or at least his involvement with the Fascist police (and the CIA) should come as no surprise.

Pugliese just has a hard time admitting it. He uses theory as a hedge, a way of approaching without really approaching the question of Silone’s collaboration, complicating it with other questions about historical evidence and the status of archives.

As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, the archive is the locus where memory, history, fiction, technology, power, and authority all intersect in increasingly complex ways. The very word “archive,” from the Greek “archeion”, connotes authority and origin, a commandment and a commencement.

If I had to venture a guess as to the origins of this passage, I would probably say that it’s leftover from an early draft of a paper Pugliese presented at an academic conference. This stuff just reads like an academic conference from the 1990s. It’s post-structuralism reduced to mere gesture. But what kind of gesture? Not just a nod or knowing wink. It’s both coy and shy, a little silly and overblown. Some fairly unoriginal worries about the status of evidence and the indeterminacy of texts are trotted out in all the theoretical and philological finery Pugliese can muster, with the obligatory mention of Derrida. This doesn’t really enlighten or inform the discussion that follows; like the long quotation of Bruce Cutler’s “Final Examination” that precedes it, the fuss over the word “archive” only defers the inevitable and more interesting moral questions Pugliese’s treatment of the caso Silone raises.

Still, you have to wonder why he included this stuff – or didn’t cut it from his final draft. The passage struck me and bothered me as I was reading, mainly because Pugliese is no theoretician, and his book is for the most part free of academic bombast (though he does repeatedly use prefixes like “re” and “mis” parenthetically, a clever device academic writers use to save themselves the trouble of having to make a real decision or fully explain their point.)

It’s almost as if Pugliese just wants to get an Amen before grappling with the material before him – as if that Amen will exculpate him, or offer some special dispensation for any transgressions he might make. Or that he wants to back away, entirely, from the inevitable outcome of his story, deferring or suspending all judgments about who did what and when, as if the highest duty of the historian is to leave it for others to say what really happened. In other words, it feels like a deliberate evasion.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the exchange between Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey, because, at core, that exchange is a debate about the responsibilities of the writer – in this case, the blogger. And, as Ignazio Silone knew, those responsibilities are what make writing the work of conscience.

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