The occupation of being poor

The occupation of being poor

Roots of the future/9 - In truly great books the character runs off, doing things that the author never even thought of.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/10/2022

"Pinocchio" is a book about the essential freedom of children and the adults who try to deny it. And it reminds us that working hard does not guarantee that we can leave misery behind

Boys don't put their fathers on their backs; the backs of their fathers are instead their favorite place from which to look at the big world and to stay away from issues related to money and work.

In the few really great novels, the characters escape the hand of their author and begin to live their own free existence. In medium and lower level books the author is the god of his creatures, he is the artisan of his, inert, puppets that perfectly execute the commands of his fingers. These puppet characters teach their writer nothing and therefore very little too us as well, because the story's conclusion is already inscribed in his intentions. In great books, however, once brought into the world, the characters leave the context of the book, leaving their home, and begin to run free doing things that their author neither wanted nor thought of. Here the author lends his pen to a daemon, and his different creatures continue to live, grow, die and resurrect many times over, even resurrecting their author, called to life with the cry: "Come on out!"

The Adventures of Pinocchio is one of these truly great books, which has died and been resurrected many times over. Pinocchio is one of these liberated characters, who has grown larger than his original author. In Pinocchio, there is a lot of Carlo Collodi, but not only. Because what Collodi makes Geppetto experience - he cannot keep the puppet he has just created at home, a puppet who moves, trips, and runs away, doing things that the author never imagined or really wanted - he himself experienced with his own book. The puppet left the hand of the puppeteer. Collodi's virtue, however, lies in having wished that his characters should be different from him. Thus, in the introductory note to his Occhi e Nasi /Eyes and Noses, a book of short stories published in 1881 only a few months before the first episode of Pinocchio, he writes: «I called it that, eyes and noses, to imply that it is not a display of fully formed figures... the reader should finish the work and complete them himself». The masterpiece was born in that "gap" between Pinocchio and Collodi, and that free and liberated land has been able to generate the most disparate interpretations. Including those, daring ones, which have interpreted a sort of secular version of the Christian history of salvation in it (Biffi and Nembrini). The quality of a work of art is also measured by its ability to say things that the author did not think of, did not really intend, or even detested.

I have met Pinocchio several times in my life. My last reading as an adult shocked and moved me. I understood that Pinocchio is above all a beautiful book. I also understood that The Adventures of Pinocchio are above all a book about freedom, about life as an adventure, in particular about the freedom of children, necessary yet often denied by the adult world. Geppetto carves his piece of wood with the explicit intention of turning it into a puppet, but at a certain point, and very soon, he begins to call him "son". The first immediate message of the book is therefore clear and shocking: in that Italian society of the mid-nineteenth century, which was trying to "make Italians" on the basis of an Enlightenment and rationalist pedagogy, children were treated like puppets: pieces of wood of hard and wild rind that one day will become good citizens thanks to education. Pinocchio escapes from a world of fathers and teachers who try, with many sacrifices and commitment, to tenaciously build puppet-children, to straighten that «crooked wood» through education and rules (Ecclesiastes, 1,15). Pinocchio, however, has an extraordinary resilience to the education of adults and goes on to live his wild, irresponsible, naive, risky, imprudent and stupendous freedom. In a society that manufactured new Italians as artisans manufacture furniture («to make a table leg»), Collodi writes a book on the resistance of young people to the educational tendency of society. Pinocchio does not want to go to school, nor does he want to work, and so he runs and escapes from the only places where a decent boy should have been; he learns about life in the streets (here, we have a true analogy with biblical humanism), where he has extraordinary experiences and where he learns the trade of living. Pinocchio has four feet (two burned and two remade) but he has no ears: «In the hurry to sculpt him, he had forgotten to make them».

Pinocchio is therefore a wonderful and powerful ode to the freedom of children, and hence it is also an ode to fatherhood understood as a painful and necessary loss of control over one’s children, who in order not to become puppets must at one point or another leave home. Pinocchio is therefore the continuous struggle between the boy and the puppet. Thus, Pinocchio is not telling its readers: “Kids, go home and be good and obedient”; no, rather it is saying the opposite: “Stay kids as long as possible, resist and run from the adults who want to deny you your irreducible freedom: your crooked wood is beautiful”. «Who cancelled all the children from the face of the earth?» (Eyes and noses/Occhi e nasi). Thus, we can read Pinocchio without prejudice, realizing that Pinocchio is in a constant flight from the place in the world that the great - Geppetto, Mangiafuoco, the Fairy with turquoise hair... - had in store for him.

Collodi's sarcastic criticism of the hypocrisies of his neo-bourgeois world reached its climax with Pinocchio, "a childish prank", as he called it, a children's story therefore exempted from any prudent philosophical-pedagogical reflection. Books designed for kids have the characteristic to free even their authors from the virtues of their essays and serious novels, because by writing for the enchanted world of children, every now and then, they manage to become free again. And so, the criticism surpassed the critic, and that masterpiece that has loved us for one hundred and forty years was born.

In a society that emphasized the sociable nature of man, Pinocchio is also a lonely boy: his friends are animals (and they are wonderful), puppets, Candlewick, with whom he does not engage in social activities, he does not carry out collective actions. He is a terribly lonely being even in the decisive moments of his story, including his death, hanged, in what must have been the end of the first version of the story (chapter 15): «Oh father, if only you were here», but his father in fact was not there - and this absence of the father is the decisive difference between the death of Jesus and the "death" of Pinocchio. Thus, it reminds us that kids are much lonelier than adults generally believe. In Collodi's world there are children and grownups, there is no middle ground. Pinocchio is no longer a child but he is not yet an adult: «To be a man he lacks something, and to be a boy there is something more than what is needed» (Eyes and noses/Occhi e nasi). Pinocchio practically invented adolescence, which is the age of daring escapes and breathtaking races, when you return home happy and then leave home even happier. The closeness between Pinocchio and the "prodigal son" of the Gospel of Luke is to be found in him leaving his father's house not in returning to it. Or in the literary "younger brother" of the prodigal son (by André Gide) who on the night of the banquet to celebrate a return puts on his shoes, greets his brother who has just come back home and leaves to seek that very freedom that his brother had not been able to conquer. Collodi is entirely on Pinocchio's side, and he is always there, even when Pinocchio carries out all his mischief, because giving in to temptations is a constitutive component of adolescence: what boy or girl would not have followed Candlewick to the Land of Toys? We grow up not so much by resisting temptation but by learning from our mistakes, and then resuming the race – resisting temptations, after having called them by name, is instead the essential task of adult life. Thus, in Pinocchio, we have the unsolved, and therefore always vital, intertwining between Homer's Ulysses and Dante's Ulysses, that is, between the nostalgia of returning home and the irrepressible urge to leave it as soon as one returns; and with the Florentine native Collodi, Dante always wins over Homer. Pinocchio keeps running away, and when looking at him in this gesture of his does we do not come over to say: “Go home”, but: “Go ahead, continue your race full of freedom”.

The economy is very important in Pinocchio. Collodi was a careful observer and very critical of the ideology that work (perhaps in factories) was the solution to mass misery in the industrial age and the wandering of children, a society where the poor much too often ended up in jail. In Eyes and noses, in the story "The street boy", he wrote: «The working who is not at all made in the image and likeness of God: because God only worked seven (six) days and he has now been resting for six thousand years».

We cannot fully grasp the essence of Pinocchio's adventures without the concepts of poverty, hunger, work, money – this is why Disney's Pinocchio (1940), set in a beautiful Nordic village without any kind of poverty, is a betrayal of Collodi. The name of the protagonist, on the other hand, says it all: «I want to call him Pinocchio. This name will bring him luck. I met a whole family of Pinocchi: Pinocchio the father, Pinocchia the mother and Pinocchi the boys, and everyone was doing well. The richest one of them was asking alms». Geppetto's house is an icon of absolute poverty, where the fire and the pot are only painted on the wall. Pinocchio is always hungry, always looking for food, and rarely finds it. Without misery and hunger, one cannot even understand the meaning of work and working in the story of Pinocchio: «What is your father’s occupation?», Mangiafuoco asks him - «Being poor», Pinocchio replies. Geppetto did work, but he was poor: working did not free him from poverty or hunger. Unlike the ideology of his (and our) time, which used to think, and still does, that work would defeat poverty and hunger, Geppetto works but is radically poor. Collodi was well aware of the fact that it is not enough to work in order not to be poor, and the reality of recent years is very clearly reminding us of this, even if we continue to invoke abstract work to condemn the very concrete poor as cursed.

Pinocchio has a very bad relationship with money; it is at the very origin of the unfortunate pages of his story – something we will see in the coming weeks. He does not work, nor does he want to work. He will begin to work only at the end, when, as a new Aeneas, he will have saved his father from the whale by placing him on his shoulders. He will work because he will no longer be a boy. Boys do not put their fathers on their backs; the backs of their fathers are instead their favourite place from which to look at the big, vast world, and get ready to take off on their flight of freedom. Above all, they have to stay away from money and work, and when adults offer them to them they should just run away, run, and never stop running.


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