Michelle Ko ‘19
Professor Ambrogio Camozzi Pistoja is one of Harvard’s newest and brightest faculty additions as the Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. He is a former Keith Sykes Fellow in Italian Studies at Pembroke College (University of Cambridge) and lifetime Gates Cambridge Scholar. His teaching interests include medieval and early modern Italian cultural history. THURJ writer Michelle Ko ‘19 had the opportunity to talk with Professor Camozzi Pistoja about his passion for research.
MK: First, welcome to Harvard. Thank you for joining me today.
ACP: Thank you.
MK: Could you give us a brief background about your story and how you came to love research?
ACP: I’m sure like many others, when I was a boy, a teenager, I really loved spending time thinking. Clearly it was so rewarding for me. I just needed time to think. I enjoyed thinking how things are, how things come together. One thing I was trying to understand was how things were not really working, that there were people unhappy, there were people poor…and why violence? These were certain things that I was interested in. I was also very happy when reading literature, poetry in particular. I thought poetry was this language that was talking about things I was interested in. Poets try to come to grapple and embrace and understand these deep questions. And in fact, one thing that I like of research is precisely this aspect. In theory, it’s an attempt at going to the bottom of something: really trying to find an answer, or at least find a way of putting things together, but by answering some deep questions. One of my favorite authors, because of that, is Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky is praised by Nikolai Berdyaev [a Russian political and Christian religious philosopher] for being someone who is concerned with the ultimate questions, while so many other people are concerned with the penultimate questions. I feel that research is this opportunity to deal with ultimate questions.
MK: Wonderful. And would you say that in your hometown, many people went into research?
ACP: No, I wouldn’t really say that.
MK: Yet you felt free to go beyond your town to explore more these ultimate questions.
ACP: I had good teachers at school. I think that literature was a place I felt at home, even at school. I remember the admission to the liceo classico [a type of public secondary school in Italy] where I went to study Greek and Latin. I remember spending this afternoon when I was thirteen talking about prosody, which means the combination of sounds and accents in a sonnet by an eighteenth century Italian poet. I’m quite impressed now to be able to say that, when I was thirteen, I was able to talk about the presence of dark and light vowels in a sonnet by Foscolo. It sounds really nerdy, but it wasn’t nerdy, I was really enjoying it. I loved talking about those things. I loved writing about those things, reading books – especially literary accounts. So, I was free to do that; the school was good, and then the university I went to was encouraging for that kind of exploration. I went to a state university [University of Milan] initially, which was vibrant of many things. Then I moved to Paris, and I was able to have a bit of social context and a very good academic formation. One of the people who had the greatest impact on my academic formation and the way I think about things is definitely the Italian professor I worked with initially, Violetta de Angelis. She was great in introducing me to the idea that we need to decode texts and find where certain ideas come from, where certain authors found these ideas. The idea was that you need to try to understand literature as a dialogue between an author and what came before her or him.
MK: And studying in philology was a method for you to do that.
ACP: Correct, it was a scientific method to do that.
MK: Could you describe how you transitioned from your initial studies in your undergraduate career to what you research now?
ACP: Yes, from Paris I moved to Cambridge, UK for an MPhil and then for a PhD, and then a postdoc. In a way, I think I found a possibility at the University of Cambridge to combine the philological approach I studied in Italy, to the historical approach from Paris, and expose them to very interesting questions that are perhaps not always present in a scholarship that is historically oriented. I think that my formation is made up of two things: the first one is the historical approach that I learned from the philological school. Then I combined that to Anglo-American scholarship, which pays attention to and integrates the historical approach. The Anglo-American scholarship is one that is brave enough to ask those deep questions, those complex questions that I was actually interested in from the very start. So now I had a method, and now I had people who were happy and able to help me to ask the right questions. So that’s really what I was able to discover in Cambridge, UK. I had some very good supervisors and mentors.
MK: How have you felt that being part of the Gates Cambridge Scholars at the University of Cambridge has shaped your intellectual development?
ACP: Yes, this and the Fellowship of Pembroke College were environments that really helped me to bridge my historicist formation to the landscape of literary criticism that is alive and inhabited in the Anglo-American world. I was able to meet with scholars and colleagues from all sorts of backgrounds. In the Gates Cambridge community, more than 50% of the scholars come from the US each year. These environments are such that we really really invited and helped spend time together and share ideas – that was amazing. I suppose there was also a bit of luck in also understanding some good topics that were unexplored, or little studied, yet so multi-disciplinary and so relevant for the present, and that’s certainly satire, which emerged as a concern.
MK: Could you tell us about your current research on satire?
ACP: Yes, I was very unhappy with how satire was defined in the public sphere, and unhappy with the public discourse around satire in the newspapers and television – it was really disappointing. Satire is understood very much as a literary form. So, people seemed to be interested mainly in discussing what satire is, at a formal level. But historically speaking, texts that are considered satirical very often had real consequences. Or, they were created in order to achieve some real objectives such as ridiculing some political adversaries or competitors, exposing the vices of the people in power, speaking truths to power, and perhaps even changing the way people perceive certain individuals. But there were also practical, historical, real consequences for the writers of satirical works. So often we find them adopting or writing these pieces anonymously to avoid retaliation, to avoid the legal consequences of what they were doing. So I felt that approaching the satirical tradition, or trying to define the satirical genre by looking only at its formal features—its literary qualities—was not enough. It was not able to really describe the phenomenon. To provide a proper account of what satire is, we really need to look into the prison, amongst the criminals, not just amongst the poets. We really need to look into trial records. We really need to have an understanding of literary artifacts, not just as artistic creations – whatever artistic means. But we need to try to understand artifacts for their real historical impact – both on the people who produced them, and on the audience – the intended targets of these attacks of these satirical texts.
MK: Do you believe that today, the influence or meaning of satire has been diluted? Is that a consequence of free speech?
ACP: There is an understanding in classical Rome, and throughout the medieval period, that language can be used to hurt people. Language can be a form of non-physical violence. For example, it is accepted by lawmakers in ancient Rome and by lawmakers in medieval Europe, and it’s still understood very much nowadays. What the public discourse around satire today is failing to acknowledge is that sometimes, non-physical violence is necessary or can be justified. We are terrified – or we find it very difficult – to accept that some form of violence might be necessary. And so we find it difficult to understand and explain when and how language can be used as a form of non-physical violence. How does a society justify the use of violence? We are happy for the police to use physical violence sometimes. There is a legal provision to allow the use of physical violence in the case where police are involved. Do we need a code, a legal code, a law that explains and justifies when non-physical violence is allowed? Or regulate the use of non-physical violence?
Insulting someone, making fun of someone, has lost its force…now it seems to be just for entertainment. That’s why I’m interested in those cases when eventually someone oversteps the boundaries: when someone is taken to court for having said too much, or having done something that is considered as unacceptable. But who decides where the boundary between acceptable and non-acceptable non-physical violence lies? This is the big question. One thing that is happening nowadays is that we have left the judges alone to decide where the boundaries are. Eventually the judge will stand up and say, “No, this was too much.” Certainly, that kind of boundary is a boundary that society as a whole has to draw and agree upon. Everyone should be part of that conversation – literary scholars, mainly, given that we’re talking about literary artifacts; linguisticians; comedians themselves. It’s society that comes together and decides and tries to find an agreement about the use of non-physical violence. To expect that the law, that the written law, can solve this problem is just ridiculous. Because it’s such a subjective thing. You say that you can’t make fun of someone because of their physical qualities. But in the newspapers, it’s all about that – if the target is someone in power – what kind of definition is that? What does it mean, being in power? Does it have a legal category, a legal status? Certainly not – it’s such a subjective thing. But anyway – this is very much about free speech. Whereas what I’m trying to do is rewrite and describe a history of satire that takes into account the formal features of this language but also all of the reflection that surrounds the evolution of this genre, of this form of expression. I’m trying to describe the thinking that goes around it – the attempts at regulating this form of language, made from three different directions.
First, from within the genre itself: the rhetoricians, the grammarians. They explain what is satire and what is not. They’re the first ones that try to regulate this genre, this form of expression. The second group of people: the lawmakers. In Italian city-states, for example, during this very interesting period in history, we have these lists of forbidden words. If someone said to someone else, “rotten prattler,” or “filthy worm head,” or “you are a liar,” and it wasn’t true, then this someone else was taken into court and had to pay. So, there were boundaries established also by the secular authority. And then there is a third form of law: the moral, or religious law. Priests will tell you “Don’t say it! Don’t do it, it’s bad, you should not hurt people.” We have these two bodies, the secular and the religious, trying to contain the use of violence. The writers themselves, are trying to push the boundaries back and justify the use of it. While everyone else is trying to contain it, the writers, the satirists, and the comedians, are all trying to find a way to justify the use of that violent language. If they fail, they end up in prison, or killed. So a bad satirist is dead, or in prison. A good satirist is someone who managed to negotiate his or her role successfully with society.
MK: Could you describe some satirists that you research?
ACP: The first satirist of the Western tradition, according to Roman writers, is Lucilius. I call him the “first” satirist because Romans claimed that satire is a language created in Rome: satura tota nostra. We don’t have writings by Lucilius, we only have fragments, quotations and citations from other writers. In these sources, he is depicted as someone going around the town with a knife in his hand, which is a reference to his language. He is the first one to establish clearly a very strong link between the tongue and the knife, the tongue and the blade. And then after that, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal are also considered and seen as great interpreters of the satirical genre.
At the moment, I am interested in Statius – Statius is not known as a satirist. However, there is some research going on into the possibility that his Thebaid was written as satire against the Flavian Emperors. But it was written in such a subtle way that the Emperor did not realize that and allowed Statius to walk free. The other satirist that I, of course, study, is Dante, and I see Dante as perhaps the greatest satirist of the Western tradition. The reason being that he was able to put popes and the emperors of his generation into Hell and managed to get away with it. How did he manage to do that? How did he manage to find the right balance?
MK: You had made a point earlier where the religious and the secular try to stifle this violence within the satirists. Do you believe it’s in accordance with human nature to let out that violence?
ACP: What’s the place of violence in society? Is violence ever acceptable? When do we need non-physical violence? Violent language is just part of violent acts, another form, another tool that you can use to achieve the same thing, which is eventually destruction, doing some damage to something, hurting someone or someone’s idea. Anyway, we go back to free speech again, this way. These are things that I’m working on, so I don’t really know the answer. I see that Dante justifies it by saying that when people end up thinking or having the wrong understanding of a certain concept, or a wrong moral code then at that point how do you change their mind? You can try to explain why what they think is wrong, and why when they think A, they should instead think B. You can provide all of the logical arguments that you can, but Dante says, “how many times does it really work?” Maybe one out of ten times someone says “oh, right, I’m so silly, you’re so right, and now I understand what you’re saying, because you explained it to me, and your idea is better than mine.” This is not what happens.
MK: [laughs] The world would be a much different place.
ACP: Yes, exactly. So, what are we left with? This is the big question I am trying to answer at the moment. How do you change people’s minds? My work on satire is trying to contribute to answering this question. What kind of tools do we have to change people’s minds? Satire seems to be one of those. You can use this unbridled language, this language that goes beyond the acceptable boundaries, in order to shock people. Not to persuade them, but to shock them – to hurt them. Does it work? I don’t know if it works, sometimes it does, sometimes it’s enough to explain. Other times you need to shout, and then people at least maybe stop doing what they’re doing and they listen to you. And maybe the two things should go together. You should start shouting and say, “stop doing that, stop thinking that,” and then you explain.
But maybe we need to use different approaches. There is a third approach, which is the other project I’m working on, called parabolic epistemology. I’m trying to investigate another way that historically we used to try to change people’s minds, or at least the writers used to change people’s minds. The first approach is philosophical explanation. The second approach is using a language that is offensive and breaks down the clouds, the cloudy atmosphere that prevents people from seeing straight. The third approach is what I call parabolic language, or parabolic epistemology. You hide the truth or you codify truth in such a way that is very attractive but at the same time, people, readers, cannot really get it unless they have a certain moral disposition. Truth is encoded and hidden, not to prevent the understanding of the illiterate, of the ignorant, but to prevent the understanding of the wicked, of the people who don’t have a good heart. If you’re able to codify knowledge so that only people of a certain moral disposition can get it, then what you’re really doing is to encourage people to change their moral behavior.
I’m tracing this way of teaching and this way of changing people’s minds and behavior throughout history. In particular, I’m looking at the Rabbinic tradition, the Sufi tradition, and medieval story-telling. My argument is that sometimes, that feeling you have as a reader, of not understanding the text, is the trigger. The author is triggering your cognitive faculties. Then you become obsessed with those texts – what is the meaning? Why am I missing it? And you are even more upset and more active if you see someone who has understood it. All of a sudden, there is competition to understand it, and you start thinking, “wait a moment, I want to get there.” Let’s imagine, for a moment, to get there, you don’t have to become more clever. You don’t have to study and learn more. What you have to do is have a different moral orientation. I think these masters, these Rabbis, these Sufi teachers and sometimes medieval story-tellers are adopting these strategies, these mechanisms. They understood that trying to explain people why they should not behave in a certain way, but rather behave in another, doesn’t work. And so they’re trying to find other ways. One of the ways that they found, and that they practice, is parabolic epistemology.
MK: Absolutely fascinating. Could you comment how satirical artwork has influenced your research?
ACP: Yes, I can say very briefly that, visual language is used during the medieval period to achieve the same kind of result. To damage the reputation of an individual, to offend people, to offend families. We have these defamatory paintings that were commissioned sometimes by local city-states and local artists to portray those individuals who had been just found guilty of a crime against society – corruption or robbery, and others. So painting too can be used in a satirical way, with a very specific, real target in mind. I wonder whether music can be used in a satirical way – I’m sure that there are some forms of parodies in music, but probably they target other musical artifacts or composers rather than members of society. We can certainly say that poetry is often sung, it came with music. Some of these offensive satirical sonnets were spoken aloud and recited in the streets. And sometimes with the accompaniment of a guitar or some sort of chord instrument, to be heard by everyone and be more memorable. One thing you want to do when you create a satirical artifact—to get to the point, to create that damage—you want as many people as possible to remember it and maybe recite again and make it very popular.
In today’s sphere, Twitter is an interesting area of research. The use of anonymous profiles on Twitter allow you then to unleash all sorts of obscene language, filthy language that is a form of satire. It’s a form of satire that went wrong. We shouldn’t call it satire. It’s an attempt at satire, but it stops at such a low level and has really no social utility, has really no positive impact. It is very much a pure unleashing of a violent mind that probably finds satisfaction in expressing his or her anger. In order to become satire, that anger has to be refined in front of society.
We lost control of our language, in a way. In order to be heard, everyone has to exaggerate, everything has to be said, in hyperboles. I think we’re about to see some sort of change. When everyone is using a hyperbolic language, then the first person that stands up and speaks plainly and calmly and uses simple but precise terms, that is when I feel it will be heard, will be suddenly the loudest voice in a pretty shallow, squalid, hyperbolic landscape. So I’m hopeful. The swing is coming back.
MK: That’s very optimistic of you. And returning to your interest in Dante as the greatest satirist, what lessons do you think that Dante in particular offers to the world that make research of his texts so important throughout 700 years of scholarship?
ACP: I think that a good message from Dante is “be good at your job.” His job was to be a poet – this is what he understood he was good at, what he was interested in, and he just tried to be the best one at it. And we can say that he succeeded, at least in his generation. He was certainly the best writer and the best linguistician of his generation. He knew language like no one else, all the things you can do with it, all the things you cannot do—he dominated this particular code. And that’s why he was so good at reinventing it, innovating it. This is what he’s inviting us to do, which is to be good at our job, which is—as far as we’re concerned while we’re reading the texts—to be good readers. He’s also helping us to become good readers. Becoming a good reader of Dante then means you can be a good reader of other things. Being a good reader is a useful skill in this world. Sometimes we need to read slowly and pay attention, and sometimes it’s better to read quickly because there’s not much happening. Like Dante does in Hell, there are cantos that we clearly are invited to read quite quickly, because the people there don’t deserve our attention. So I think that is what he’s teaching us.
MK: Related to your point about good readers, you formed the Beatrice Society, a book club for undergraduate and graduate students to read Dante’s Divine Comedy together. Could you comment on your vision for the Beatrice Society?
ACP: With the Beatrice Society, I’m trying to create an environment where we can keep reading Dante every two weeks and help each other to really understand the text and understand what the text can do, and experience readership and knowledge as a communal act. We can all read the text by ourselves – but Dante is such a wonderful text that it encourages communal readership, it encourages people to read it together, to learn together. But to learn what? Not just what Dante is saying but also, and more importantly, how to read.
I’m sad that it wasn’t a student who created the Beatrice Society, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to find a group of students who will take care of it. No one person leads the conversation, certainly not me. I would like the text to be there and the text to lead our conversation.
MK: Speaking of environments here at Harvard, what kind of role will Harvard have in shaping your future work?
ACP: Well, there are two things. The first one is the kind of colleagues that I have here, in particular the members of the Standing Committee on Medieval Studies. This is a very collegiate environment, some of the finest minds in the fields. They are really there to share their research in a collaborative way. I am so lucky to be able to be part of that group. The second thing is that there are some great students at Harvard. It is just fantastic to teach courses to students that are so committed, hardworking, inspiring, inspired. You really want to understand, you really want to communicate what you’re saying. One thing that I found recently, that I found so lovely and so good, is that sometimes when we have these conversations, a student is trying to finish a sentence, and I maybe help by giving an adjective, but no! It’s not the right adjective. It takes another minute for the student to come up with the right adjective. Maybe that adjective is just slightly different from the one that I suggested, but I see that there was a semantic diffraction, and that mind was trying to get there—that commitment is lovely. I could not be in a better place.
MK: The students are very lucky to have you. Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to the undergraduate students at the College wanting to pursue research or academia?
ACP: I want to say that this is the time where everyone is very concerned about the role of the humanities. But I want to tell everyone there is nothing better than studying the humanities, because this is really what you need for whatever is going to happen next. Almost everything else can be learnt outside an academic or a collegiate environment. Being at university and not making use of the fact that you are all here all together, with people in the same age group, sharing so much already outside of class. It would be such a waste of an opportunity to not take advantage of this environment to read texts together, to understand better what art is, what beauty is, which truths are there, and how to get close to them. More than learning specific skills, which are absolutely necessary—there’s plenty of opportunity to do that, to be able to continue to refine them later on. You’re not going to really have another chance in life to be at this stage of your maturity, intellectual maturity, curiosity, in an environment where so many people are living at exactly the same time. Just make use of it.
This interview was edited for clarity.