Indifference as a Positive Reality in Una cosa è una cosa

When we think of Moravia, we almost immediately, automatically, think of Gli Indifferenti, the novel of indifference and alienation. And almost as automatically we equate indifference to the moral and spiritual bleakness, the dull, hollow isolation of Michele described in chapter VII: “ecco, egli era dovunque cosí, sfaccendato, indifferente; questa strada piovosa era la sua vita stessa, percorsa senza fede e senza entusiasmo, con gli occhi affascinati dagli splendori fallaci delle pubblicità luminose.”

But the word can have another significance, that is to have no attachment, no preference, no desire for one person or object as opposed to another. From this standpoint, it becomes a virtue instead of a defect, one which is especially cultivated in the practice of Buddhism.i Thus we would understand indifference as a translation of the Pāli word upekkhā, the neutral experience of neither grief nor elation. In a state of upekkhā one invests nothing personal into the external object, no emotion, no energy, be it attraction, repulsion, desire, or aversion. Anything whatsoever arising in nature simply “is what it is”, and because there is no personal involvement, it can be viewed impartially, or as the Buddhist would say, with Bare Attention:

Bare Attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. It is called “bare”, because it attends just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind which, for Buddhist thought, constitutes the sixth sense. When attending to that sixfold sense impression, attention or mindfulness is kept to a bare registering of the facts observed, without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc.), judgement or reflection. If any such comments arise in one's mind, they themselves are made objects of Bare Attention.ii

To aspire to equanimity, then, is to reject the idea that we should desire certain things and ignore or despise others. In the West we tend to think that preference and desire are the bases for satisfactory experience; but from a Buddhist standpoint this is to become entangled in sensuality, in “saṃsāric” existence, and therefore inevitably to suffer disappointment. The utter impartiality and non-attachment portrayed in Una cosa è una cosa are difficult to accept until one understands this outlook more thoroughly. It is a work neglected of late by most writers on Moravia, despite its enthusiastic reception when it was published in 1967, and I hope by this article to regenerate interest in it.iii

For the Buddhist, all phenomena are essentially alike. Therefore, there can be no intelligent motive for valuing one sensation over another. Further, this realization paves the way to non-attachment, the basis for vimutti, or release from suffering. The rationale for this outlook is expressed in the three inherent characteristics of existence which, along with the four Noble Truths, form the basis of Buddhist philosophy:

The essential or true characteristics of mundane things are impermanence, suffering, and not-self (anicca, dukkha, anattā) The moment we do away with preferences arising from attraction, the vision of impermanence, suffering, and not-self becomes apparent to us. All objects are one, inasmuch as they are all impermanent. Nonattachment, nonclinging, and nongrasping result from this insight without any effort on our part.iv

So all phenomena acquire, under this scrutiny, a certain parity, or for our purposes, indifference. Events, objects, thoughts, feelings remain what they are; the difference is in the subject who, through this insight, no longer prefers one over the other. Though all things are not exactly the same, the experience of them is. As such, indifference is a positive reality, a quality of wisdom, of understanding, and the only way of escaping emotional turmoil.

It is through this sense of indifference that Una cosa è una cosa can be rightly understood. Otherwise, we should have to relegate many of the short stories in this collection to the realm of the bizarre or the absurd. Even the title would be a meaningless tautology unless it were meant to draw our attention (or Bare Attention) to the real nature of things, their tatvaṃ, or “suchness”. Seen “as they really are”—that is, without any interpretation or relationship generated by an ego separate from them, all things are liberated: they exist in their own right, not in dependence on an observer. Professor Olivieri explains it as the difference between a thing and an object:

Il buddhismo lascia essere le cose, ovvero la realtà nelle sue identità, indipendenza, dignità, contenuto di essere. Per noi moderni e occidentali non esiste più il mondo dell'essere e quindi delle cose viventi e significative in sé, ma soltando l'universo del manipolato e manipolabile, dell'utilizzabile e trasformabile: gli oggetti appunto, tra i quali ci perdiamo e con i quali, alla fine, ci identifichiamo.v

These perceptual distinctions are dramatised in the narratives of Una cosa è una cosa, where characters prevail only when they break their identification with objects and allow them to be things once again. Consider the narrator of the title story, for example, who finds himself assaulted by all sorts of external stimuli, each demanding attention and vying for priority. The average man, in Pāli known as the puthujjana, one who has the conventional (false) notion of reality—finds himself in the same situation every day, but he ignores the vast majority of sensations and attends only to those relevant to his egoistic concerns. For this reason, he is the one who should be called indifferent in the conventional sense, since he remains oblivious to all but a minute percentage of sensory impressions, and out of that percentage he actually cares about very little. In contrast, Moravia's narrator responds in an entirely radical way: he is conscious of all he sees and hears, but does not assign more importance to or involve himself emotionally with any one thing.

The story begins as he is having a conversation with his wife, but as he notes, they are not communicating, her statements are too vague. Instead, the button on his wife's blouse “talks” to him, and even insinuates that she might be having an affair. His reaction is singularly unperturbed:

Mi sono domandato se per caso stessi diventando geloso, ma mi sono subito rassicurato. Infatti, alzando gli occhi e passando con lo sguardo dalla camicetta al volto di mia moglie, mi sono accorto che ciascun tratto di quella faccia pur cosí nota, mi inviava un' informazione nella quale era impossibile ravvisare l'espressione inconscia di un mio sentimento. Erano informazioni obiettive, insomma, io non c'entravo. Gli occhi mi gridavano: “Noi siamo gli occhi;” il naso, “Io sono il naso;” la bocca, “Io sono la bocca” (my italics).

The remarkable aspect of this excerpt, for our purposes, is the exercise of Bare Attention on the objects. The narrator evinces no identification with what he perceives: there is no trace of ego, nothing of what Buddhist philosophy calls ahaṅkāra or mamaṅkāra, “I-making” or “mine-making” in his experience—no personal reaction, no emotional investment at all, just sheer observation. Eventually the husband proposes that they should not talk any further, because he finds all her aspects so “talkative”: that is, everything about her is fighting for his attention. She is understandably shocked, but her response is not what the reader would expect:

“Tu non mi vuoi piú bene. Vorresti che io non ci fossi, che non esistessi, non potendo farmi scomparire, cerchi di rendermi muta.”

“Al contrario. Tu sei cosí parlante che la parola è ormai superflua.”

“No, lo so, tu vorresti che io fossi una cosa tra le tante, un oggetto che si guarda e poi si lascia lí. Tu vorresti che io fossi come quel bicchiere.”

Beyond the immediate reaction, the claim that he doesn't love her any more, the argument is striking; one would anticipate any number of assertions or accusations—the presence of another woman, for instance. Yet she makes the discussion one of ontology, of being, contending that his intent is to annihilate her very existence by regarding her indifferently. Note that this is to be accomplished subjectively—certainly he cannot change her as she is. The only change can occur in his perception of her. As she sees it, he must deliberately have a unique perception of her for her to be who she is. Meanwhile, other things keep impinging on his consciousness:

Stavo per rispondere che lei era infinitamente piú espressiva e piú comunicativa di qualsiasi bicchiere, ma sono tutto ad un tratto ammutolito. Infatti, quasi involontariamente, alla sua frase indispettita, ho guardato in direzione del bicchiere e, o meraviglia, ecco l'oggetto, per cosí dire, levarsi in punta di piedi e gridarmi con quanta voce aveva: “Io sono il bicchiere. Hai capito? Io sono il bicchiere.”

The narrator is drawn “quasi involontariamente” to attend to the glass, partially because of his wife's reference to it. It is not his will alone that creates his consciousness of things; in fact the object-that-enters-into-contact-with-our-senses (in Pāli, ārammaṇa) is part of an interdependent relationship with This is the beginning of the narrator's evolvement towards indifference. He was about to recite something to reassure his wife, something that would have affirmed the traditional hierarchy of values, but in the interval of his attention to the glass, she leaves the room; meanwhile, more and more objects cry out for recognition of their existence, just as his wife did. They contend with each other for the narrator's attention: “Non ci sono che io. Gli altri non esistono.” Buddhadāsa finds the same kind of aggression in sensory stimuli:

If there are no external objects, there are usually internal objects, ideas, based usually on memories of the past. Thus, we can hardly escape the clamor of internal or external objects. We should learn to examine them so as to see their true nature which is illusory and how they entice us to become attached to them, even though they are meaningless and essence-less. When we follow the insight we will see that nothing is changeless, nothing leads to happiness, nothing has a self and thus, nothing should be grasped as me-and-mine.vii

After his wife runs from the table and shuts herself in the bedroom, the narrator leaves the apartment. There, the clamor continues in the courtyard, where he sees a soldier sitting on one of the benches. He tries to fix his attention on him, much as he tried to do when he examined his wife. Here again there is contention, but with even graver realizations:

Non mi ero sbagliato, c'era davvero una contesa tra il soldato e gli oggetti che lo attorniavano. Ho abbassato gli occhi di nuovo. Una cartaccia in terra urlava con violenza sbracata: “Io sono una cartaccia.” Com'era piú sicura di sé, piú reale e, a modo suo, piú profonda, quella cartaccia, del volto opaco e immobile del soldato.

Mi sono sentito quasi soffocare; tanto piú che mi era venuta un'idea: e se mia moglie avesse ragione? Se, davvero, lei non fosse stata, per me, che una cosa tra tante, né piú importante né piú significativa delle altre?

He finds that it is in fact the case, when, at the conclusion of the story, he returns to his apartment, goes into the bedroom, and carefully observes everything without prejudice: “Il mio sguardo è scivolato su tutte queste cose cercando un appiglio, un motivo di preferenza. Ma no, niente. Poi da tutta la persona di mia moglie si è levato un messaggio chiaro, perentorio: “Che hai da guardarmi? convinciti una buona volta, io sono una cosa come le altre, nient'altro che una cosa.” Thus, his wife is neither more important or meaningful than other things.viii Has she therefore lost all value? Not really: we could just as well say that other things are not less important or meaningful than his wife. Reality has been reassessed according to Bare Attention, which means that, as Buddhadāsa says, all phenomena are indifferent, all share the same characteristics of anicca, dukkha and anattā. Or, as the narrator discovers, “democraticamente, tutti quegli oggetti della camera da letto erano eguali.” Seen from he standpoint of upekkhā the ending of the story is not pessimistic; rather, it recounts the process of a realization which distresses the narrator's wife, but that is a matter of her attachment to her own self-image, to the craving for existence (bhavataṇhā) that Buddhism declares is the root of all suffering. It is only she that feels threatened by Bare Attention. Following the logic of the story, the narrator, too, is “una cosa tra le tante”. We may take it for granted that it is only natural to prefer some things over others; however, as Moravia himself demonstrates, there is another perspective, essentially oriental, which he defines as religious:

La religione è dunque una concezione del tutto negativa quanto alla realtà dei sensi appunto perché del tutto positiva quanto alla realtà spirituale. Ho detto che l'India è la religione perché tutto il male e tutto il bene dell'India sembrano confermare questa concezione.

Non è una concezione pessimista, è una concezione che nega certe cose e ne afferma certe altre. E' pessimista se la si considera dal punto di vista delle cose che nega, è ottimista se la si considera dal punto di vista delle cose che afferma.ix

Through many of the stories in the collection, there is this sort of an opposition or dialogue between the perspective of the puthujjana and that of the ariyan (the noble disciple). For the purposes of fiction Moravia must use different characters to dramatise the mutually exclusive experiences of reality. Thus the narrator opens the title story with the words “Non comunichiamo.” The wise one senses, thinks and feels in one way, and the puthujjana in another. The two modes of perception are incomprehensible to one another.

It is a matter of living in different dimensions, according to different modes of cognition. Sometimes the opposition is depicted through the contrasts between the major characters within one story; at other times, it is brought out when the narrators of different stories react in different ways to similar situations. They are challenged by the sudden impingement of sensation on their consciousness, and in each instance their reaction reflects an aspect of Moravia's insight into the psychology of perception, one that has striking affinities with Buddhism. As his characters meet the barrage of sensory impingement, they find that any interpretation or judgement beyond a thing's mere essence or “suchness” is unfounded, erroneous, or even dangerous.

This literature of alternative perception, of non-attachment, also examines a sort of courage, because it repudiates the values of the puthujjana and the world he creates, which equates fulfillment with a narrow conception of action, taken to mean solely acquisition and possession, competition and victory. The equation of action with aggression is taken for granted by the bourgeois society Moravia relentlessly criticised, and was exalted by the Futurist and Fascist movements he deplored. As Mussolini declared, “Il fascismo vuole l'uomo attivo e impegnato nell'azione con tutte le sue energie: lo vuole virilmente consapevole delle difficoltà che ci sono e pronto ad affrontarle.”x

The celebrations of force, dynamism and energy as paroxysm drew Italy and the whole of Europe in Moravia's time into mass destruction and chaos.xi It should be no surprise that his suffering under dynamism and disgust with its rhetoric led him to embrace the oriental perspective, one that values silence instead of noise, contemplation rather than appropriation.xii So Moravia turns the Fascist view on its head: the active man is a loser and the contemplative one, the so-called “inetto”, is a victor, even if defeated in the traditional sense: “L'uomo d'azione è un disperato che cerca di riempire il vuoto di questa sua disperazione con degli atti legati meccanicamente gli uni agli altri e compresi tra un punto d'inizio e uno di conclusione, ambedue gratuiti e convenzionali.”xiii

Such a departure from the common appreciation of action can only be based on an alternative understanding of heroism. For most of us the hero is a discoverer, a conqueror of new worlds, a Ulysses, an Aeneas. To the Buddhist, the hero is also energetic, is also active, is also conqueror of the world, but the world in this case lies within:

How shall we understand the word world? In dhamma language, world refers to the worldly (lokiya) mental state, the state of dukkha. The condition that is impermanent, changing, unsatisfactory—that is the worldly condition of the mind. Hence it is said that the world is characterized primarily by conditionality and sorrow. So, in the language of the Buddha dukkha and the world are one in the same.xiv

Therefore, the true hero is the one who conquers the self, the world of suffering, of dissatisfaction. And that feat can only be accomplished through non-attachment, through total renunciation. This kind of renunciation does not simply involve relinquishing material things or living in Spartan austerity. It is even more radical. It is primarily a revolutionary renunciation of the way we think, which is so deeply conditioned by the notions of “me” and “mine”. Success is therefore a matter not of acquiring and possessing, competing and winning, but of letting go of that whole network of thought. And letting go requires more courage than we think, as Moravia demonstrates in the narratives of infidelity, particularly in “La caccia”. In this story, he shows that the latent tendencies towards possession are to be found in even the most “innocent” conventional behavior.

At the very beginning of the story, the narrator says, “Non sono mai stato cacciatore, o meglio lo sono stato una sola volta e quella volta è stata la prima e l'ultima.” For him the most important thing about the boyhood hunting expedition with his father was his passive observation of the wild bird; after it was captured, it was no longer captivating. This episode becomes the basis for the narrator's relationship with the external world, particularly with his wife:

Ricordo soltanto ciò che provavo in quel momento, mentre lo guardavo: come di spiare un animale la cui vitalità fosse resa piú intensa proprio dal fatto che lo spiavo e che l'animale non sapeva che lo spiavo.

In quel momento, dico, la nozione di selvatichezza mi è entrata nella mente per non uscirne mai più: è selvatico tutto ciò che è autonomo ed imprevedibile e non dipende da noi. Poi, ad un tratto, c'è stata un'esplosione, non ho piú visto l'uccello, ho pensato che fosse volato via. Ma mio padre mi precedeva. Finalmente si è chinato, ha raccolto qualche cosa, me l'ha messo in mano. Allora sono scoppiato in pianto e ho lasciato cadere a terra il cadavere; e questa è stata la fine della mia esperienza venatoria (my italics).

From this episode he moves to the story of his marriage. The image of the hunter is relevant because what he appreciates above all else in his wife is her “selvatichezza”. This feature is the one he observes most intently, to the point where it becomes a fetish. Except for the consistent image of the wild quail, the scenario is a conventional one: at first their relationship was vibrant and exciting, but as time has passed it has become predictable and boring; at first she was “selvaggia”, now she is “domestica”. As Congreve would put it, she has “dwindled into a wife”. So how did the alteration take place?

The narrator attributes the decline to her, but the further one reads one wonders what has actually changed—she or his way of looking at her. Whether she is wild or domesticated is always a matter of his perception, or more specifically, whether or not her actions are familiar and predictable to him:

Era selvaggia perché io, pur guardandola, non riuscivo mai a prevedere quando avrebbe dato l'ultimo colpo di spazzola ai capelli e si sarebbe alzata e sarebbe venuta verso di me. Selvaggia a tal punto che il suo odore, sparso per l'aria, mi dava un senso acre di tana.

Poi, mia moglie, da selvaggia si è fatta gradualmente domestica. Avevo avuto sinora in casa, come ho già detto, una volpe, una quaglia; un giorno mi sono accorto di avere una gallina.

The narrator's diction betrays an ambiguity in his notion of wildness. He declared at the beginning that what was wild was autonomous, independent of us, the observers; yet when he talks about his wife, he consistently refers to her effect on him: she was wild because he could not predict the last stroke of her hair brush, or because her scent smelled to him of leather. Before, as he puts it, he had a fox, a quail in the house, and one day he noticed that he had a hen. Whether she is wild or domesticated depends on how he mentally processes sensations: “E quanto all'odore: adesso non mi faceva piú affatto venire in mente il puzzo ingenuo degli animali selvatici; vi riconoscevo piuttosto la soavità chimica di qualsiasi profumo francese.” Thus, although the narrator craves “selvatichezza”, he ironically conducts his relationship on the basis of appropriation, or in the terms of this narrative, domestication.

Moravia shows himself keenly aware of the powerful tendencies towards possession and appropriation once we perceive an object. Almost immediately after something comes within our sense-field, the me-and-mine processes begin to operate. The Buddha outlined the procedure this way in the Mūlapariyāyasutta: “The uninstructed puthujjana having perceived paṭhavī, conceives of himself in regard to paṭhavī , he thinks “paṭhavī is 'for me' ”—he delights in paṭhavī .”xv Wettimuny explains this formula as the key to how egoism develops:

The tetrad is depicting the basic structure of the phenomenon of appropriation, and it is this phenomenon that characterizes the root-structure of the puthujjana's reflexive experience. More precisely, it means that when perceiving X, he is also pregnant with the conceit “I” and therewith with the relationship that X, the object as disclosed in immediate experience, is that which concerns “I”. In his experience there is both an object that is present and an apparent subject to whom the object is present. Or, the object is appropriated.

The Buddha teaches that these conceivings are “latent tendencies to the conceits of “I”-making and “mine”-making”. In common parlance, but with the necessary reservations, we may refer to it as the puthujjana's “sub-conscious” reaction to things.xvi

From the analysis above we can understand the impetus that provokes the narrator. The diction that consistently depicts his wife in terms of what he saw or smelled or noticed perfectly represents the process of “I”-making and “mine”-making. When he looks at his wife he seizes on her aspect of unpredictability, or wildness. (That would correspond to the meanings of paṭhavī which indicate an essential element of a thing, its form, characteristics, disposition, etc.) Once he does that, he begins to “appropriate” that paṭhavī, to conceive of it in relation to himself, creating an ego, separate and distinct from it; next, he identifies his wife with that wildness; then it becomes “for him”, something to be possessed; finally, he “delighted” in it and, as we shall see, he pursues it.

One day, while pondering the sad change, he notices that she tries to slip out of the apartment unnoticed. She has unpredictably left on her own, and he has no idea where she is going. At that moment her wildness suddenly returns. He decides to follow her to capture as much of this precious sensation as possible, and for the rest of the story he becomes the hunter and she the prey. This is clear from the fact that in this case the wildness extends to everything within his vision; it is all reminiscent of that expedition with his father:

Allora, mentre seguivo l'autobus, mi è tornato il ricordo di quella sola partita di caccia alla quale avevo partecipato da bambino e ho capito che l'autobus era la macchia con i suoi cespugli e i suoi alberi, e mia moglie l'uccello posato sul ramo che io, non visto, guardavo vivere sotto i miei occhi. E perfino i passanti sui marciapiedi avevano qualche cosa di imprevedibile e di autonomo cioè di selvaggio. E nella mia bocca, al di là dei denti serrati, c'era il sapore acre e metallico della caccia; e i miei occhi, di solito svogliati ed errati, si erano fatti aguzzi, tesi, attenti.

Therefore his opening statement—that his first experience of the hunt was his last—is untrue: he is in fervid pursuit of his wife, on her trail, tracking her scent, her unpredictable movements, and the paṭhavī that attracts him to her. Eventually the object of her expedition is revealed: as she walks down the street, a young man suddenly grabs her by the arm and walks with her. At first he expects her to repulse this presumptuous gesture, but then he realises that she is an accomplice, not a victim: she was, in fact, “expecting to be surprised”:

Allora ho capito che quello sconosciuto che si prendeva quella libertà con mia moglie, era anche lui attirato dalla selvatichezza. E cosí, invece di darle un appuntamento d'amore convenzionale aveva preferito sorprenderla mentre lei camminava per conto suo, apparentemente ignara e straniera. Da anni non vedevo mia moglie cosí viva; purtroppo l'origine di questa vita non risaliva a me.

So perhaps the reason that he has not seen her wild for so long is that he has been predictable and domesticated, whereas her lover is daring and insouciant. More and more curious, he follows them until they slip into a dark doorway where they kiss erotically, passionately, relentlessly, indeed like two wild animals. As he looks on, as he sees her betraying him, slipping out of his possession and into that of another man, he considers stepping in, separating them, assaulting the adulterer and dragging his wife back to the apartment “coprendola di contumelie”. But unlike a puthujjana, instead of intervening, he observes with equanimity, indifference because he understands precisely why intervention would be useless:

Ma che cos'era quest'intervento se non la fucilata di mio padre all'uccello ignaro e libero posato sul ramo? Il disordine, l'arruffio, la mortificazione, la vergogna che ne sarebbero seguite avrebbero distrutto irreparabilmente quel raro e prezioso attimo di selvatichezza che io stavo spiando. Era vero che quella selvatichezza era indirizzata contro di me; ma dovevo ricordarmi che la selvatichezza è indirizzata sempre e dovunque contro tutto e tutti. Dopo la scena, avrei forse, sí, ripreso il controllo su mia moglie; ma me la sarei trovata tra le braccia sfracellata ed esamine come l'uccello che mio padre mi aveva messo nella mano affinché lo gettassi nel carniere.

Il bacio continuava, continuava; eh, eh, era un bacio d'amore, non si poteva negare. Ho aspettato che finissero, che uscissero dal portone, che riprendessero a camminare allacciati. Allora, sono tornato indietro.

The intervention would have been a futility added onto futility, for he sees that his entire approach has been mistaken. He has already tried, even if unwittingly, to eat his cake and have it too. He wanted his wife to be wild and at the same time domesticated—that is, “for him”. At the end he remembers that wildness is directed against everything and everyone. No one can expect to keep a wild animal in the house: it cannot be possessed, it cannot be or act “for me” . Once appropriated, nothing can be what it was. As he notes, he could have regained control over her; but that control is once again the violation, the destruction of “selvatichezza”, the very thing he wants to preserve. Ultimately he recognizes the connection between his father's gross acquisitiveness and his own immediate impulses, the love of the hunt that he earlier denied. In doing so he realises the full import of both hunting expeditions: that to let the wild thing stay wild—autonomous, unpredictable, and independent—requires a total renunciation of subjective appropriation as well as the latent tendencies of “I”-making and “mine”-making. It means an utter revolution, a turning away, which is in fact what the narrator does at the end.

The stories of infidelity are not about mere jealousy; Moravia is going much further. The upādāna, the possessiveness, the grasping, are to the husband's ideas about what his wife should be as opposed to what she is. Indeed, as Buddhism teaches, it is much more arduous to give up our perceptions and judgements of things (which seem to us so rational) than it is to let go of the things themselves.

According to Buddhism, the realm of the “rational” is ruled by papañca, or “conceptual proliferation”. By that is meant the habit of assigning meanings, labels and judgements to whatever comes in contact with our senses. This leads to distortion, for once again things are not left as they are, but are instead appropriated according to our conditioning, to our likes and dislikes. What would it be like to live in a world without concepts?

In a true Moravian vision of “alienation”, the story “Abitante di Venere” considers the possibilities. It begins as the narrator observes a woman who is standing on the side of the road, whom he judges to be a prostitute. He gathers this from the way she is dressed, from the succession of cars that stop in front of her, the drivers who talk to her, and her reactions to them. All this causes an unusually intense reaction: “Ho guardato tutto questo con un'intensità dolorosa, fino a farmi venire uno spasimo alle pupille; ma egualmente non ho capito niente. Scirocco: tra me e le cose si frapponeva un vetro trasparente ma infrangibile di assurdità.” What disturbs him so much, as we find out soon afterwards, is that he construed the scene almost automatically. After he relates the episode to his fiancée Alice, a debate ensues, which clearly contrasts the Buddhist view of perception with that of the ordinary person. He thinks that the very act of interpretation was a distortion of reality, but she argues the worldling's position:

“Ma che c'è da capire? tutto è chiaro, no? Una di quelle donne, in attesa del cliente, sul marciapiede.”

“Chi l'ha detto?”

“Lo direbbero tutti, io, tu...

“Io, no. In realtà io non ho visto che una donna la quale faceva certi gesti; tutto il resto è congettura. In altri termini ho visto qualche cosa che di per sé non aveva alcun significato e ci ho messo sopra una etichetta la quale ha molto a che fare con la mia visione del mondo cioè con me, e poco o niente con la cosa stessa. Su quest'etichetta c'è scritto: “prostituta che aspetta un cliente”. Un abitante del pianeta Venere piombato lí, in quel momento potrebbe addiritura scriverci: “un niente che, sopra un niente, aspetta un niente.”

“Ma che cosa vuoi dire con questo?”

“Voglio dire che le cose ci sono ma non fanno che esservi. Il loro significato glielo appiccichiamo noi, arbitrariamente, presuntuosa-mente. E invece dovremmo abituarci non soltanto a non giudicare ma neppure a spiegare, interpretare. Dovremmo lasciare le cose libere di essere quello che sono e basta, senza significati.”

“Tutto bene. Ma vivremmo allora in un mondo totalmente incomprensibile.”

“Nient'affatto: si può capire senza spiegare.”

Why should we leave things alone and not explain, interpret? One of the meanings of “spiegare”, to unravel, to spread out (as a synonym of “distendere”) corresponds to what is meant by the Pāli word papañca, “to spread out”. As a noun papañca means: 1) obstacle, burden, hindrance to understanding; 2) illusion, obsession, and 3) diffuseness, manifoldness; the verb papañceti means to have illusions, to be obsessed, to imagine. The Madhupiṇḍikasutta, where Mahākaccāna describes the puthujjana's “ego-processing” of the world and the resultant fabrications, demonstrates why explaining, spreading out can cause illusion and suffering:

What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually (papañceti); what one proliferates conceptually, due to that, concepts characterized by such obsessed perceptions (papañcasaññasankhā) assail him in regard to visible form cognizable by the eye [and so on with forms cognizable by the other sense-organs].

The papañcasaññasankhā (literally, the perceptions consisting of sensations proliferating) lead one away from Bare Attention and towards a “view” in the Buddhist sense, an idée fixe. To use the narrator's term, this is the label that has much to do with the ego, its view of the world, and little, perhaps nothing to do with the thing itself. Alice believes that it is impossible to live “senza spiegare”, that the world is incomprehensible otherwise, but the narrator believes instead in identifying with what he observes, “becoming” what he sees, hears, etc., which means, ultimately, destroying the ego and the label it pastes on perceptions.

The narrator's theory is soon put to the test. Alice “suddenly” remembers that she has an appointment at the hairdresser. For some reason—perhaps because she completely changed her clothing and accessories before leaving—he decides to follow her. He notes that she drives not in the direction of her hairdresser, towards Piazza Mazzini, but instead towards Monte Mario. Eventually she stops in front of a flat; she puts on a pair of dark glasses that he had never seen before; then she gets out of the car, and enters the apartment. When she is inside, he leaves his car and goes to the door himself, where he sees the name Luciani written above the button. At first he reacts in the conventional manner:

Il tradimento di Alice aveva destato nella mia mente un turbine di immagini il cui carattere principale era di essere profondamente diverse da ciò che le aveva suscitate. Avevo visto una macchina salire davanti a me, fermarsi in una strada; una donna scenderne, entrare in una palazzina; ma la mia immaginazione mi faceva vedere una camera in ombra, un letto disfatto, Alice seminuda avvinta ad un uomo.

Quello che avevo visto era calmo, chiaro, insignificante; quello che imaginavo era torbido, violento, acceso di sensi atroci.

This is the perfect example of the papañcasaṅkhā, the proliferation of concepts described in the Madhupiṇḍikasutta, and this is why it is called a hindrance. The interpretations, not the event itself, cause the obsessions to “assail a man”. They lead to rash thinking, such as the narrator relates—he considers leaving immediately for Brazil, Polynesia, anywhere far away, remote. At the beginning of the story, when he observed the woman at the side of the road, the proliferation did not cause as much turbulence; his ego was not so closely involved. But when it relates to his fiancée, it causes an immediate, heated reaction. Fortunately, he stops the process before it goes too far:

Tuttavia... Improvvisamente ho ricordato la scena alla quale avevo assistito sul lungo fiume e che avevo raccontato ad Alice. E mi sono pure ricordato della mia affermazione: non bisogna applicare dei significati alle cose, bisogna lasciarle libere di essere quello che sono, né piú né meno.

Dunque: Alice mi aveva detto che andava dal parrucchiere e poi non ci era andata: punto e basta. Era andata a Monte Mario, era entrata in casa di Luciani: punto e basta. Portava occhiali neri che non le avevo mai visto: punto e basta. Che voleva dire tutto questo? Niente (italics mine).

“All this” says nothing, means nothing, niente—the appraisal of the Venusian. Events only begin to “mean” something when we start the process of papañca. Once more we are at the level of perception prevalent in the title story: a thing is a thing, no more, no less. But the narrator goes on to a more sublime understanding of ego-less experience. He depicts the annihilation of the “I” into sheer observation:

Ma anche se non voleva dire niente, anzi proprio perché non voleva dire niente, io mi ero profondamente identificato con ciò che avevo veduto: per un attimo “ero stato” Alice; ero stato la sua piccola macchina verde e brillante, la sua gamba protesa fuori dello sportello della palazzina, i suoi occhiali neri. Ero stato lei e questo è la prova che l'amavo e che non potevo, anche se l'avessi voluto, spiegare nulla. Ero stato Alice che mi tradiva; ma in realtà Alice non mi tradiva perché io non c'ero piú, ero scomparso, mi ero cancellato immedesimandomi, appunto, con Alice.xvii

The story ends with the eradication of the division between subject and object, with the merging of the observer and the observed. The narrator returns to the original scene, and this time no transparent, unbreakable pane comes between him and what he sees. He does not attach a label or appropriate a paṭavī; no division comes between him and the “not-him”: “Sono ridisceso sul lungo fiume; la donna era sempre là, in bilico sull'orlo del marciapiede. L'ho guardata e mi è sembrato di ritrovare una parte di me stesso, dimenticata lí, e tuttavia, ancora viva e operante.”

By now he is able to completely identify himself not only with Alice, his fiancée, one he loves, but also with the alleged prostitute at the side of the road. The narrator's fiancée has lied to him and betrayed him: by conventional standards he has suffered a defeat. But by extinguishing his own ego, the narrator achieves the real victory in the Buddhist sense—the end of suffering. In the end it does not matter whether the woman on the street is a prostitute, nor whether Alice has gone to bed with Luciani; in either case he looks upon the events with equanimity and without judgement, without assuming an “I” separate from them. This amounts to reconstructing the external as well as the internal world. Recall what he says in the moments of total absorption: “Ero stato Alice che mi tradiva; ma in realtà Alice non mi tradiva perché io non c'ero piú, ero scomparso, mi ero cancellato immedesimandomi, appunto, con Alice.” No matter what happens in Luciani's apartment, Alice does not betray him. Why? Because there is no one, no “I” to be betrayed. Furthermore, the very notion of betrayal belongs to another dimension, another mode of thinking, one of judging and labelling according to a subjective vision, which by this time he has transcended. Thus, the story really is about an inhabitant of “another planet”, another orbit, perhaps even more distant than Alice conceives.

In “Il muro e il geranio”, the protagonists are only able to establish communication by the contemplation of ordinary objects. Once they attain mindfulness and concentration, their self-centred concerns fade away. As the story opens, Sergio is taking a mid-day shower. His wife Livia notes that he never showers in the afternoon, and suspects that he is planning a tryst. Sergio explains to the reader that he simply wants to go out for the sake of going out, but he knows that Livia is so overcome by jealousy that she will not believe him. Consequently, he quickly comes up with the excuse that he has been feeling run-down lately and so he must go for an intravenous injection. He even makes up an address in Trastevere, a considerable distance from his apartment in Piazza Bologna. Unconvinced, she puts him through the “third degree”:

“E a che ora torni?”

“Beh, da Piazza Bologna a Trastevere c'è una bella distanza. Tra andare e tornare e il resto, ci vorranno due ore.”

“Che vuoi dire con: il resto?”

“Il resto sono la lentezza dovuta al traffico, un'eventuale attesa nel salottino del dottore, l'endovenosa, eccetera, eccetera.”

“Che vuoi dire con: eccetera?”

“Tutto ciò che è imprevedibile.”

“Per esempio?”

“Per esempio: che io sia fermato da una folla entusiasta, portato in trionfo al Vaticano, nominato Papa.”

As soon as he escapes he is relieved, but nonplussed. What is it, he wonders, that he really wants to hide from Livia? First he considers what she suspects: is he unconsciously in search of an erotic adventure? But no, it is simply not true. Further, he realises that he did not lie to her simply to assert his freedom or autonomy. Only when he gets to the destination in Trastevere—which turns out to be a café—does he understands the reason for his mission:

Allora, finalmente, ho capito. Di fronte al caffè c'era un grande muro. Ho guardato il muro e ho capito che la cosa che avevo voluto nascondere a Livia era proprio questo muro, o meglio la contemplazione di questo muro, il quale non significava niente e non era che un muro, ma era, almeno per me in quel momento, piú reale delle cose a cui pensava Livia e che la preoccupavano tanto: amore, gelosia, tradimento, matrimonio, fedeltà, adulterio e cosí via. Questo muro, a guardarlo, mi calmava e mi rasserenava perché sentivo che era il simbolo, per cosí dire, di tutto ciò di cui Livia non si rendeva conto e non sospettava neppure l'esistenza. Per questo, avrei potuto restar lí a guardarlo, chissà quanto tempo. Magari tutta la vita.

Sergio's contemplation of the wall represents a combination of concentration or samādhi (Skt. śamatha), as well as insight meditation, or vipassanā (Skt.vipaśyanā ). The important thing to bear in mind is that in Buddhism, meditation must have some moral purpose, it must in some way lead to personal change. Mere self-hypnosis is not nirvaṇa. But if this is true, what is the benefit of concentration? Its immediate effect is, as Sergio says, serenity:

What exactly is (śamatha)?—It is the way in which the bodhisattva binds his thought to the support of some simple object or thing which is not to be expressed in words. And through fixed concentration on this mental image, devoid of all conceptual diffusion and restless mental states, he sets up and firmly plants his innermost thought among the instrumental causes of balanced concentration until [his mind] is sharply focused and stabilized.xviii

In its usual state, the mind is too agitated by sensations or preoccupied with egoistic concerns to view things coolly and objectively. By samādhi these distractions are calmed, and once the mind is in a tranquil state it can then serve as a precise instrument for understanding and self-transformation, which take place in vipassanā.xix The process is evident when Sergio returns to the apartment:

Appena entrato nell'anticamera, Livia mi si è gettata addosso, abbracciandomi: “Scusami, perdonami.”

“Di che cosa?”

“Di essere cosí gelosa.”

“Non ho niente da perdonare, non hai fatto niente di male, mi hai soltanto mosso alcune domande.”

“Dopo che te ne sei andato, mi sono seduta sulla terrazza e sono stata lí, senza pensare niente, limitandomi a guardare. Ho guardato, guardato, guardato e, alla fine, mi sono sentita tutta cambiata: non ero piú gelosa. E ho deciso di non esserlo mai piú.”

“Hai guardato? Che cosa hai guardato? Un muro?”

“No, non ho guardato un muro, ho guardato quel geranio lí, con quei bellissimi fiori rossi e quelle foglie verdi, quel geranio per due ore, quando sei entrato stavo ancora guardandolo.”

In the conclusion to this story, Moravia demonstrates the benefits of contemplation that go beyond calm absorption in the object. First is the ending of concepts or judgements. When Livia asks to be forgiven, Sergio has to ask what it is that he is supposed to pardon. As for Livia, watching the geranium without thinking led her to stop the papañca, or “conceptual proliferation” that assigned surreptitious motives to Sergio's every move. This is tantamount to the dissolution of the ego, since without conceptual proliferation, things are no longer seen in relation to the self:

Vipaśyanā is truly Buddhist meditation, for it is “wisdom composed of meditative cultivation”. The ultimate goal of such practice is not to divorce oneself from the external world, but to create a stable and attentive mind which can serve as a workable foundation for appreciating the significance of any experience. And for this it is absolutely necessary to undermine egotism and the clinging to concepts and views of any kind.xx

At the conclusion of the story, then, we may say that Sergio has received his injection after all—perhaps even Livia has as well. The contemplations revitalize both of them: he feels he could regard the wall “tutta la vita” and she is able to hold her gaze at the geranium during his entire absence.xxi But more important than the sheer stamina, the sustained samādhi provides the foundation for the intuitive wisdom that dissolves the connection between the stimuli and the reflex reaction. His untypical mid-day shower and mysterious outing are no longer actions that concern Livia, to use Wettimuny's term; similarly, Sergio's mind becomes so serene that he practically forgets all about the fit of jealousy she threw only two hours earlier. All this from the contemplation of a tree, a wall or a geranium leaf? Indeed, because a simple, indifferent object does not excite reaction, the ego, or its attachments. In their absence there is upekkhā.

Throughout Una cosa è una cosa, the characters find that understanding is not attained through conceptual thought, which has dominated Western philosophy, or through ego-formation, which has dominated Western psychology. Rather it is in nippapañca, in “stopping short” of conception and explanation on the basis of “I”.xxii This is what is meant by sense-restraint in Buddhism—not simply having few possessions, eating one meal a day, or living without sex. In that case, the impoverished and impotent would be practising sense-restraint. What overcomes craving and destroys egoism is living without opinions and preferences, being satisfied not just with few things, but with everything exactly as it is:

The consummation of the training in sense-restraint, therefore, consists in the ability to refrain from “thinking in terms of” the data of sensory experience. The chimerical and elusive nature of sense data is such that as soon as one thinks in terms of them, one is estranged from reality.xxiii

But we recall that the purpose, the reward of all this is more than just knowing reality. The goal, as Moravia indicated, is to end the life of suffering, dukkha: “Il discorso del Buddha comincia col dire che la vita è infelicità, e che perciò bisogna disfarsi di essa.”xxiv To know things as they are is also to deconstruct the ego and its reactions; it is to realise anattā, the “self-less”, and consequently vimutti, the “sorrow-less”. Without that self, the screen between things and our perceptions of them, the world is transcended, as it was for the narrator of the title story: “Erano informazioni obiettive, insomma io non c'entravo”; conflicts dissolve, as they did for Sergio and Livia; and dukkha ceases, as it did for the “Venusian” who rejoiced: “Io non c'ero piú, ero scomparso, mi ero cancellato.” Without that self there is no appropriation, explanation, opinion, or conceptual proliferation. In their absence is upekkhā. A thing is just a thing.

M. John Stella, University of Western Australiaxxv

i In order to understand completely Moravia's works, I believe we must not neglect his familiarity with oriental thought, especially Buddhism: “Ora, a me il monoteismo non mi garba affatto. Non corrisponde ad un mio bisogno. Se dovessi proprio scegliere una religione, preferirei il Buddismo, che è piuttosto una filosofia.” From Io e il mio tempo, (Padova: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1988), p. 86.

ii Ñānaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (London: Rider & Co., 1962), p. 30.

iii For example, Walter Pedullà writes: “Perciò anch'egli [Moravia], che ha nel 'gioco' del raccontare il suo mondo, si sente felice in questi racconti tra i più felici della sua ormai vastissima produzione. Non ci sono nella sua narrativa numerosi esempi di altrettanta varietà di atteggiamenti intellettuali, di richezza di umori, o di scopiettio di trovate o di mobile iridescenza del tesuto linguistico.” From his review, “Una cosa è una cosa ma è anche altro”, Avanti 23 marzo 1967, p. 3. See also Luigi Baldacci, “Per l'uomo di Moravia le cose non hanno significati” Epoca, 5 marzo 1967 LXVI 858, pp. 103-104.

iv  Buddhadāsa Bhikku, Me and Mine (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 58.

v Mario Olivieri, letter to the author dated 18 July, 1994.


 “Though we speak of consciousness and objects separately, they are inseparable in experience, and when separately spoken of, they are mere verbal abstractions.” R. G. de S. Wettimuny, The Buddha's Teaching and the Ambiguity of Existence (Colombo: Gunasena & Co., 1978), p. 71.

vii Buddhadāsa Bhikku, p. 109.

viii “The impartial outlook (upekkhā, Skt. upeksa) realizes that one being is by nature the same as all others, and so its impartiality is due to the circumstance that it cannot be disturbed by either sympathies for or antipathies against someone.” Herbert V. Guenther, Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974), p. 109.

ix Un'idea dell'India (Milano: Bompiani, 1962), p. 18.

x In his Dottrina del fascismo. Consider also Marinetti's Manifesto del futurismo: “Noi vogliamo cantare l'amor del pericolo, l'abitudine all'energia e alla termerità. La letteratura esaltò, fino a oggi, l'immobilità pensosa, l'estasi e il sonno; noi vogliamo esaltare il movimento aggressivo, l'insonnia febbrile, il passo di corsa, il salto mortale, lo schiaffo ed il pugno.”

xi “Come indiano ti direi: l'Europa, quel continente dove l'uomo è convinto di esistere e di essere al centro del mondo, e l'azione è preferita alla contemplazione; l'Europa, dove si crede comunemente che la vita val la pena di essere vissuta e il soggetto e l'oggetto convivono in buona armonia, e due illusioni come la scienza e la politica sono prese sul serio e la realtà non nasconde niente, eppure, non per questo, è niente; l'Europa che cosa ha a che fare con la religione?” Un'idea dell'India, p.9.

xii As Professor Louis Kibler notes, “Contemplation is the most authentic act possible within the limits of Moravian ideology.” Italian Quarterly 17, Summer 1973, p. 14.

xiii From Moravia's “L'uomo come fine”, section XVI, entitled: “Disperare vuol dire agire.” (Milano: Bompiani, 1964).

xiv Buddhadāsa Bhikku, p. 132. Consider another oriental proverb: “He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty.”

xv The word incorporates several meanings, such as the characteristic feature of something. It can also mean a primary element, a natural condition, a property, a disposition, factor, etc., or even the “earth-element” or characteristic of solidity.

xvi Wettimuny, op. cit., pp. 57-59 and passim. Since the ego is made, constructed, it can also be unmade, deconstructed, as it is in “Abitante di Venere”.

xvii To some readers such a total identification with the external object may seem incredible, but J. Krishnamurti lucidly explains the logic of the process: “We see with our eyes, we perceive with our senses the things about us. But when there is a psychological response this response is a division in relationship. [It] is the birth of what we shall call the “me” in relationship and the “non-me”. This division is our psychological being, and from this arises all contradiction and division. When there is the awareness of the tree there is no evaluation, but when there is a response to the tree, when the tree is judged with like and dislike, then a division takes place in this awareness as the “me” and the “non-me”, the “me” who is different from the thing observed. In the seeing of any fact there is no “me”. There is either the “me” or the seeing; there can't be both. “Me” is non-seeing. The “me” cannot see, cannot be aware.” The Urgency of Change (London: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 1-4, and passim.

xviii The Bodhisattvabhumi 109.11-17, quoted in C.W. Huntington and Geshe Nangyal Wangchen, The Emptiness of Emptiness (Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992), p. 77.

xix “This absorption (samādhi ) which is called 'one-objectedness' (ekāggata) of the mental set (citta) has the nature of not dissolving and of not becoming scattered has its actuality as becoming quiet and as knowing, as has been said: 'He who is concentrated knows and sees things as they really are.'” Atthasalini III, 212.

xx Huntington and Wangchen, op. cit., p. 81.

xxi Compare Guenther, op. cit., p. 60: “There is one other characteristic of concentration and absorption. For reasons we are unable to account for, there may be, technically speaking, an influx of energy which not only plays an important role in the meditative process, but is also the irremissible condition for the attainment of the ultimate goal.” Consider also the “inesauribile compiacimento” that Dino experiences in his contemplation of the Cedar of Lebanon in the Epilogue to La noia.

xxii As in the Anguttaranikāya: IV, 155, where the Buddha says: nippapañcaramassayam dhammo nippapañcaratino nayam dhammo papañcaramassa papañcaratino: “This doctrine is for one who likes and delights in nippapañca [non-proliferation, non-'spreading out'], not for one who likes and delights in papañca.”

xxiii Bhikkhu Ñānananda, Concept and Reality (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1986), p. 31.

xxiv Moravia, quoted in Enzo Siciliano, Alberto Moravia: vita, parole e idee di un romanziere (Milano: Bompiani, 1982), p. 248. Compare the Buddha's statement in Vinaya II: Seyyatha pi mahasamuddo ekaraso lonaraso, evam eva kho ayam dhammavinayo ekaraso vimuttiraso. “As the vast ocean is suffused with one taste, the taste of salt, so this doctrine and discipline is suffused with one taste, the taste of vimutti.”

xxv Research for this article funded by an OPRS grant from the Australian government.