stories from the city beneath the city
We’re the only Jewish family in the village. That’s relevant. I’m getting to it. We were already potters when we came from the west, from near Genoa, escaping the plague. Almost 700 years ago. 1347. That’s what the family always told me, 1347, and then I did all the research myself. We didn’t just wander into the village. They invited us. They needed a pottery industry. Fourteen of our family came together. I can name each one for you. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them, traveling like that? During the plague. What it must have been like on the roads, everyone afraid of a shadow. Think about it. They had no concept of the science at the heart of disease, it was all religious fervor. I think the plague had something to do with the rise of cities. I’m not sure. Or it came from Asia, something like that. No Jews ever followed us into our village. Unusual. We developed on our own. So who knows, some of our ways might be a bit eclectic but maybe they grew out of something particular, something local. Custom, like myth, has a way of migrating into new forms in different places. It absorbs environment. The plague exhausted itself before it touched our new village. Diseases have a way of doing that. They weaken. Epidemiology. It always follows the same pattern. So we flourished there. In our village. Why am I telling you about the plague? Oh, yes, because of how we came to the village, a group of migrating Jews. And I want you to know we’re Jewish because I want to tell you about this amphora and to do that I have to tell you about my uncle. Some say he was the child of a mixed marriage. I’m not sure. Who’s in the family who’s not can be a tough question. Not that anybody cares that much. We must have intermarried a lot over 661 years. Are you wondering how we survived the last onslaught? The fascist plague. Everybody asks. It’s a natural question nowadays. Not one of us died at the hands of the holocaust. Six died fighting with the Partisans, with the Christian Democrats at first, two women and four men. One of the women, a cousin…..someday I’ll tell you about her….or ask my grandmother, my grandmother’s really the great storyteller listening to her is a ritual in itself we all sit captivated when she gets going sometimes after dinner she’ll start in and then we’re there till all hours she’ll ramble on about whatever comes to her mind but the thing is to stick to the subject the thing is that not one person Jew or Catholic in the village even said the word Jew during the war. A spontaneous instantaneous unspoken pact to silence. The Germans never knew we were here, Mussolini could have cared less. We survived because for a time we knew how not to exist. It can be extremely useful. We’ve come to think of our village a little strangely, I fear. It escaped the plague, it escaped the holocaust. We have almost a supernatural feeling for it that’s not healthy, it’s unrealistic.
But about my uncle – about the death of his sister. Going one by one up to the grave, Jews follow a practice, they take up a shovel to throw two shovelsful of dirt onto the coffin. It’s very intimate. It’s a compact with the earth that must go back well into pagan burial rituals. Do you know the Etruscan tombs? That sort of thing. An unmitigated connection to nature. A posthumanist commitment to continuum, if you get what I mean. It’s funny that elaborate funerary rites and the potter’s wheel developed around the same time. The history of culture. Those two arising contemporaneously, together. Fascinating. The history of consciousness, really, isn’t it? And then there’s that question for you, what is consciousness? Hah! But I was talking about my uncle, about that funeral, about shoveling the dirt, wasn’t I? When I did that at my father’s funeral, I said to my father, sotto voce, you know, I said, Father, this is the last thing I can do for you. One. Two. My mother – an odd one – I never understood her – cold, people say about her, that she was cold, but I’m not sure – she wouldn’t do it for my father. I heard her. She stood right there by the open grave, she spoke to my father, her husband of fifty-three years, she muttered, “you threw dirt on me but I won’t throw dirt on you.” I never got that. What could she have meant? Bizarre, isn’t it? What could have been that bitter? What could be the story behind a comment like that? My father was a good man. Became Director of the pottery factory. Brought me in. Built the museum of our family pottery there on the third floor. What a project. It took him five years. He brought in a museum designer from New York to design the cases, lay out the walking space, consider issues of light and how best to situate the viewer for contemplation. They would talk for hours, those two, the designer and my father, and I would listen. My father laid out all the pieces on tables. Every choice we make, the designer said, we make together with the pottery. It has to be where it wants to be. When you come to visit I’ll show you the museum. We have pieces we brought with us when we first arrived. Amazing. A skyphos they brought with them – exquisite. It’s listed in their inventories. The red-figured style. I’m sorry. You probably don’t know what a skyphos is. Why would you? It’s a stemless two-handled drinking cup. That’s the exact archeological definition. A stemless two-handled drinking cup. I’ve always wanted to drink from it but I was never allowed and of course now I’m cautious about it. You have to come. I’ll tell you what, if you come we’ll sip some red wine together from that skyphos. I promise. Wouldn’t that give you a thrill? Sorry, I get carried away. I can’t tell a straight story, can I? But then my father once told me, your life’s not a straight story is it? I told him, no, my life’s not a story at all. It’s a life. He laughed. He liked that. But there I go again. Telling you about my father. I was trying to tell you about my uncle. He always said we were descended from Josephus. I never believed it. We came as slaves. What do I care. Do you know Josephus? The first Jew in Italy. A diplomat, a writer. I prefer the more likely truth, we were slaves. When we buried my aunt we were all there, every one of us in the family, per se, I mean, who can identify who belongs where. Who’s in or who’s out of a certain family, a group. A lot of the villagers came. A lot of people loved my uncle. They came for his sake.
When it came time to shovel the earth into his sister’s grave, my uncle went first. His sister’s husband, who would have gone first, had died before her – he was a bastard – I could tell you that story too – and his sister, the one we were burying – she’d been a sweetheart, smart, who suffered under her bastard husband, but that’s…well, I won’t get lost there. Maybe I should. Maybe I should tell you about her, because……but it’s my uncle…..he went up there to his sister’s grave, he shoveled once, twice, then three times, and kept going – four, five, on and on. We were all talking, whispering, buzzing, we all thought he must have forgotten himself, gotten lost. Such things can happen in distress. The mind is a fabulous instrument. My father went over to my uncle to shake him out of his trance – he was my father’s uncle – my great-uncle really – my father’s father’s brother – but my uncle just kept going. He put his hand on my father’s should to keep him still, then he went on again shoveling dirt into that grave all afternoon and all evening and into the night when I snuck back out there at God knows what hour it was well after midnight and there he was alone my great-uncle shoveling dirt into that grave. But the grave was not filling up. I’m a rational man. I’m a man of my own time. I’ve dabbled in science, I believe in the scientific method. It was a great invention, one of the greatest ever. I don’t believe what I don’t see with my own eyes but I did see this with these two eyes. I wasn’t the only one. By morning, when others had come out, there he was tall thin still shoveling the grave still not filling. The smart ones among us we figured it this way: the ground there must be so soft that every shovelful of earth my uncle turned onto the grave added just enough weight to the coffin to push it further down earthward. But someone from the cemetery came with an iron rod they used for something or other, probed, hit the coffin. The coffin wasn’t sinking. The grave wasn’t filling. We searched all the literature, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Vedic, we found nothing like it. Nothing. How can something happen for the first time? A lot of people in the village tried just to ignore it, but some people became difficult to deal with, uncontrollable, wild. The kids all dared each other to go out there. Only I went. I had to. Was this really happening? Even now I ask myself did it really happen, but it did, because I saw it, we all saw it, all of us who went out there. How can I rid myself of that image of my uncle, a man shoveling earth into a grave that wouldn’t fill. I kept going back to watch my uncle. I sat down about 10 meters away. I sat there in that same spot time after time, staring. My great-uncle. My father’s father’s brother and so on back to Adam I siuppose. Finally, by watching more than anyone else in the village, and by watching probably more intently than anyone, I realized that my great-uncle was violating a sacred ritual. In all the stories, when you do that, the Gods punish you. I’m a Jew, yes, but I believe in all the Gods because how can there not be a God of the sea? Of the grain? Of things? Life is not just ideas it’s things. Yahweh, Zeus. It’s all a joke. But I devote myself to this joke. I had to find that understanding for myself that he was violating a sacred ritual and that the Gods would punish him for it or I’d go crazy just watching this man shoveling dirt into an emptiness. How can there not be a Zeus who holds the thunderbolts even though everybody knows now there is no such thing even as a thunderbolt still how can we talk about anything how can we talk about my uncle? Things which are or are not. I believe in the Gods and I don’t believe it, I don’t believe anything I believe everything. But once I saw that my uncle was violating a sacred ritual and even then I asked myself what is sacred and what is ritual I knew the Gods would punish him some way. They would transform him. The Gods would change him – I decided – into a tree that would die every day, that would lose its leaves each evening. Why did her violate the sacred ritual? What was his crime? My uncle’s crime against the Gods – I decided – is that he wouldn’t accept death. He wouldn’t walk away. He wouldn’t be human which means to be huge because you accept what you will never understand and you make a ritual, one, two shovelsful, and you walk away with your thoughts to yourself but you go back to eating and drinking and getting up each day to go make pottery with the 36 people who come to work for you each day.
I went back that same night. There he was, tall thin man shoveling something into nothing. Punishment is the strange love conferred by mythos. That thought hit me. I went out there with my uncle. I took up the other shovel that had lain there on that pile of dirt. I shoveled. Calmly, like my uncle. My great-uncle. Together, we got into a rhythm. The grave filled. Little by little. We worked for hours. By dawn, it was all done. We walked back to my house, awoke my parents, all had coffee and breakfast together, brioche, cheeses, fruit. I remember, we had kiwi. My great-uncle ate with a good appetite but not like someone who hadn’t eaten for 3 days. He was content, it seemed to me.
Everybody always said different things about him. He’d gone crazy for a few days. He had a light of death in his eyes. Having defied the Law he walked away scot free making him either first cousin to the devil or God’s chosen own man.
That’s the tree ever-borning ever-dying here on this amphora. I have to name it, I haven’t given it a name yet if you have any inspirations for a name let me know. I designed it with one of our artists in the factory. She’s worked for us for sixteen years. We’re loyal to those who work for us. It’s only right. She mostly does all of our modern design but she wanted to do this one with me. You can see how she imitates the Greek style. These are our colors. We make all our own dyes. I took this shape from the ancients. You wouldn’t use it today, it’s a decorative piece for an entrance or a big hallway. I have three of them with me I can leave for you and if they sell I’ll send you more. Here. Take this one for yourself. A momento for our conversation.