The Neapolitan Atavism

And the Arch-Tectonic God

Nicolas D. Sampson

(UK)


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28 February 2028. In a world parallel to ours, and not much unlike it, the Centro Direzionale di Napoli is abandoned. Everyone has relocated to the old sections of town, leaving the casual observer wondering what went wrong.

What follows is a meditation on the Centro and the surrounding area. 

It was found in a notepad on a street bench, signed:

The Authors Behind The Mirror…

 

February, Monday morning. Dead calm. A few souls hurry across the piazza of the Centro Direzionale di Napoli, their hands in their coat pockets. A man in a bright green woolen cap sits on a metal bench, reading a hardback, and a couple of boys play football, kicking the ball hard. There are no crowds to disturb, no old people to knock over, no cars or delivery trucks, no restaurant tables, traffic wardens or other boys to watch out for. Thump, whack, the ball flies back and forth as the boys laugh and shout. The air smells of rain. The volcano in the distance is covered in blue-grey clouds, active but docile. A whiff of ash lingers, and one wonders. The volcano hasn’t erupted in ages. The prospect of the earth cracking its ribs to fling debris in the sky is real.

But no one seems to mind. Most people are happy to pretend there’s nothing to worry about. They live in a fantasy world sustained in denial, conjuring paradise in the shadow of certain death.

It’s only a matter of time.

*****

The abandoned Centro Direzionale sits atop a hill that overlooks the old town. Buried in the ashes of grand plans, like a modern-day Pompeii, it represents a state-of-the-art complex that fell out of favor, reminding the city of Naples that not all business ventures are sound. 

Beware, the Centro says, what you have faith in and where you place it. Faith, just like our hands, is easy to bite off. (Ask the tourists who return from Rome crippled, having defied the Mouth of Truth, their appendages piling up in the pit beneath the facade that so many deem a joke. No one admits it, they’re too embarrassed, but the Mouth of Truth is real.) One wrong move is all it takes. An error in judgment is followed by a lifetime of repercussions.

This is how Naples ended up with a stump of a district on a hill that should have housed the most exclusive real estate in the region. Neapolitans lost faith in their futuristic paradise and the dream went sideways. The development was left basking in the shade of neglect, falling into disrepair.

But not everyone went away. The opportunists came creeping in, looking for a break. 

Hotel chains, for example. A few brands took advantage of the ample space, the crashed prices and the elevated views to cater to guests who don’t mind – and may even seek out – distance from the town proper. 

Yes, there’s a market for this type of real estate. Some folks are willing to spend time in an Italian version of West World, Ghost City 3, Lofty Segment 25, from which they venture into town and the surrounding areas to sample the idylls on offer before returning to their rare dystopia for the evening, from which they gaze upon yesterday’s world with nostalgia. 

It’s an experience, and experience is a highly desired commodity these days.

Others are saving money (the hotel rates at the Centro Direzionale are forever slashed) for shopping, fancy dinners, or a brand-new deck for the yard. Or the children’s college fund. Or a second car and more growth equity. 

Some of them simply roll up the banknotes and sniff their savings clean on a night in with fiends.

Some of them put the funds aside for another Naples trip (next year perhaps?), their fascination with the region’s apocalyptic vibes as strong as ever.

*****

The Centro, it turns out, caters to all kinds of tourists, most of whom are drawn to the dramatic, severe, breathtaking vistas it has to offer. 

Fields of infrastructure grow in every direction, a sprawl of urbanity that hasn’t stopped since the Middle Ages. 

In the distance, green fields stretch as far as the eye can see, blue-grey in the overcast sky, folding in on one another, accumulating in contours that rise to form a cluster of downs, over which presides Mount Vesuvius. 

The air is damp, the smell of denial getting stronger.

*****

Monday noon. The crowds prefer the old town, frequenting the narrow streets by the sea, the stone buildings with their low ceilings and their communitarian neighborhood feel, the old-harbor haunts and their spare thrills. The smell of pizza and pasta and freshly cut melon percolates in the alleys, mixed with the punch of gasoline from clunky trucks and mopeds that make more noise than they’re worth. A raucous town on a shore full of promise in an era of mass travel and mass trade and supermassive information exchange that threatens to bury the world in its shadow.

In the distance, Mount Vesuvius looms silent, casting its prehistoric shadow on the region. People point at it and smile. Lightning, they say, doesn’t strike twice in the same place, so they go about their business undeterred, as if nothing were afoot.

We forget that the Lord we worship, the one whom we created so that He may rule over us with absolute authority, does just that, striking again and again where it hurts the most. The Divine moves in mysterious ways, keeping us on our toes, yet we ignore the facts, pretending to know better.

Meanwhile, the Earth, our great host, is even trickier and more complex than our Lord-and-us-combined, driven by forces from which we have sprung. All it takes is a sudden move, a jerk of titanic proportions, and what we know is gone in an instant.

Still, we shrug, ignoring the facts, forgetting the past, building towns where we’re likely to lose them.

Our hubris is poetic, a force of nature in and of itself. Always on the move, we dream up castles in the sand, in ash, anywhere we fancy, and keep getting leveled.

Washed away ad nauseam, one would consider us finished, but we resurge, obstinate like mold, to make our point: life is durable, and so are we. 

It’s an admirable quality, but why take such unnecessary risks? Why not be more selective next time round and put our so-called wisdom to better use?

Our mindlessness betrays our instinct. We grow where we can, history be damned. For all our sapience, we advance in reflexive ways, much like a primitive organism on the spread, though not like mold; the analogy would be too flattering. Mold, aside from being the ultimate survivor, is an interface that renders life possible through the mechanisms of putrefaction, oxidation, nourishment and regeneration.

We, on the other hand, are plague-like. What we touch dies and stays dead, for the most part, and what survives is diminished.

The romantic poets would disagree, deeming our nature a noble force, something akin to a tide, a cathartic blaze, spring. We’ve tamed the wilderness and cultivated the land. Our technological breakthroughs have opened countless dimensions, our sights now locked on outer space where a new frontier awaits. 

It’s a quixotic notion that ignores our footprint. The surrounding environment speaks volumes. Our existence is pathogenic and toxic, if not suicidal. Like a virus at work, a bacterium, any kind of disease, we act with impunity, feeding on our host until it’s sick and depleted. Our evolution results in development that leads to investment and growth that result in catastrophe followed by renewal that leads to yet more catastrophe.

To add injury to insult, we set ourselves up for failure by making inroads at the foothills of the apocalypse, provoking fate.

There are other ways to go about our business, less atavistic and more mindful. 

For example, we could trade hubris for caution, strategy and sound planning, tempering our potential with acumen geared toward steady progress. Substitute internationalism with interfacing and engage with our home planet in a manner than doesn’t squeeze it dry. Do that and the way forward doesn’t pass through a loop of vicious spirals. Our ground zeros all but disappear, letting us go about our business in peace.

Of course, without a matrix of ground zeros to tend to, our economies would shrink. We might even lose our drive to innovate and grow. Catastrophe, they say, is the antidote to Arcadia’s banality. Eliminate all damage, and we stagnate.

One wonders how fair the assessment is.

What’s certain: catastrophe involves pain, suffering, desolation.

*****

If only our bravery were a little less foolhardy and a tad smarter and brighter, our hubris would subside. Our wonders would become stepping-stones, not gravestones…

Walking down the abandoned streets of the Centro one hears the ghost cries of merchants who left long ago, their voices a trace of broken enterprise, dreams unfulfilled, an echo of promises that never materialized. 

And yet this place could theoretically come back to life, becoming what it was meant to be: a hub of culture and trade, high art and technology. Resurrected from the dead like the God that dominates this land, eager to show the way ahead – that’s the idea. 

It’s a crazy notion, but life springs from crazy. How else could we describe a system that rises from its remains? The forest grows out of the ashes. The dead are buried because the earth recycles all material. It’s a scavenger mechanism of raw beauty. Life hinges on death, our institutions know this well. What cannot be resurrected is replaced, and so on. The undemolished is appropriated and restructured, retrofitted for a new era. We live for tomorrow by risking today. Pompeii has been reduced to a fossil, tough break, but Jesus Christ rose from the grave to speak of new beginnings, a spring that nourishes the seed in the human soul so that none has to die again, none except the sinner, for whom hell awaits with broken thermostats and infinite glee.

*****

The imagination is active in this grave environment. Echoes haunt the streets, threatening to spill over to the rest of the land.

*****

By the harbor in the old town, Zombie Christs roam the neighborhoods, feeding on the hearts and brains of the gullible. Priests, bishops, real estate agents, advertising agencies, business owners, politicians and all kinds of snake-oil merchants with an eye for one’s eagerness to believe – they have a future to sell. Their goal is to hijack our goodwill, our fear and prejudice, whatever drives us to extremes. 

It’s happening in the old town of Naples, in the name of civilization and all things grand, a vaudeville act designed to distract the busy mind, absorb the uncertain soul, and lay claim on tomorrow’s livelihood in yesterday’s name. 

‘The future may be upon us,’ they declare, ‘but we have traditions to uphold. Listen to what we say. We know what you need. Deliverance doesn’t come free of charge. The Almighty demands total obedience, and so do we, to each our own. This is how the world works. Open your eyes.’

The less fortunate know the drill. Deliverance comes at a price. Heaven relies on tribute, praise, duty, allegiance, on everyone’s faith and fear. Contributions make the world go round. Doubt is eviscerated, power is revered, order is upheld. Judgment, abundant in nature, pours down from the top, a steady shower of authority that serves an ancient purpose. As above, so below, see? It’s the law of moral gravity at work, putting pressure on those at the bottom, taking what they have to offer, a tenth or more, making nutrients out of them.

As a result, we have two hands in two pockets, our own and someone else’s. We protect what we have and take what we want. What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is mine, too, and the steps we take toward a new world are driven by a dark impulse. We craft a future as empty as the Centro, pretending not to understand what happens to those who dream of everlasting kingdoms at the foot of volcanoes. Catastrophe breeds opportunity. Let some regions fall to feed the rest. 

The privileged know how it works, banking on the destitute’s willingness to play the fools for one shot at glory, a little more time, another fifteen minutes, whatever keeps people going.

If history had a face, it would laugh and weep at the same time.

*****

No one pays attention to the relics on the hilltop or the volcano in the distance. There are bills to pay, interests to serve, landlords to accommodate, caretakers who owe their masters who serve the Lord Who commands this place and all its inhabitants, plus the departed, the totality of whom His angels (winged and fallen) divide between the turrets of heaven and the trenches of hell to accommodate His vision.

*****

The masters and caretakers address us:

Faith and resolve are the keys. Swallow your fear with a dollop of wine and a hint of deliverance, and worry not, we shall provide in His name. Obey the Word. “Do in My name and fear nothing.” The pain will be lifted in due course. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Eat My flesh…” and worry not, this isn’t a death cult or a cannibal sect. It’s a metaphor for the world at large – how life feeds on itself. Go along with it, even if you can’t envision it. An informed culture oughtn’t shy away from powerful imagery. Be brave, forge a new world. Commitment begets reward. Do as we say and ye shall be rewarded. “Eat my flesh, drink my blood…” and hunt down those who cast aspersions, all those who dare accuse you of a dated mindset. Everything they rage about, it’s inside them. They project their rotten nature on you. Let them not affect you. Take comfort in your faith, solace in the dogma. Smite the blasphemers and spread the word of the Almighty, all in the name of life everlasting, in the wake of glory celebrated via filicide. (Does the tree not rob the sunlight from its sprouting seeds?) The Son is dead… Long live the Father, the Son and the spirit that animates all. He will rise again, and so will you, if you do exactly as instructed. Life is sacred, and what greater way to spread the lesson than to glorify our Lord who arranged for His offspring to be killed by His creations, all in the name of an apt metaphor, an allegory for life’s endemic brutality? 

Such is His love for you, which you must now repay. It’s the ultimate gesture. Remember, and make no mistake: the way ahead passes through the doctrine. There are no loopholes. The earlier you engage, the farther you will go and the further you will reach. The sacrifice is for life. We are God’s children, all of us. Life is everlasting. We will be taken care of, if we do what is expected of us.

They deem this a comforting notion.

*****

The dead in Pompeii cry at night, issuing caveats, but no one hears them over today’s song and dance. (One wonders who Pompeii failed to heed in turn.) There is too much currency in hope and likelihood, rendering the vast majority of plans irrelevant and quaint. Too many people are eager to go all the way, come what may – burn their faces to destroy their pain receptors, kill their God in order to regret it for eternity; slaves to an everlasting guilt, a life of atonement and all things sadomasochistic. 

Welcome to the age of deliverance, with a twist. The only way to be delivered is to be subject to the mechanisms of said deliverance. Faith sets us free by putting us in chains, dangling the promise of absolution in our faces, in the name of which the crowds fall in line, reinvesting in an oversold idea that feeds (on) us. The merchants of faith engage the world with their silver tongues, selling their snake-oil balsam, their voices a sporulating mold in the wind. Ashes in our eyes. Unfulfilled dreams, rotten enterprise, an array of promises that never came to be. A God that kills in the name of life, in its image, and in Whose name we die so that we may live forever.

The irony would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. 

Fail to raise a red flag and we’re color blind.

No wonder we set up camp in the shadow of volcanoes by a graveyard city. We can’t stop chasing the end. In death we exalt ourselves. Our highlights as a species involve our demise and how we de(i)fy it. Either we die doing something we love and are revered henceforth; or we survive against the odds, earning praise and admiration. 

Death, in our minds, is the ultimate value. Our existence is framed by it, our viewpoint trained on it. 

Death, as it stands, determines life as we know it. We can’t imagine life without it.

*****

Life, in the end, is a death cult. Our actions speak for themselves, revealing our affinity for death and the value it bequeaths our lives, the manner in which it shapes civilization. Our dominant belief systems speak of a divine existence that came to a gory end, and Which was duly resurrected. Our research shows that fungi, the engine of decay, are the interface from which life springs, acting both as scavenger and catalyst. (Talk about the remains of the departed, the expired, the broken, the putrefying, from which life is molded.) Death is everywhere, in whose shadow we exist, finding value in our moments of relief. We live for the passing waves of regeneration in the wake of ruin, for a breath of fresh air between collapses. 

In other words, ‘Life in death, through death, on account of death, in the halo of death.’ 

We shall be delivered in due course, they proclaim. Life is a series of resurrections.

*****

Neapolitan. 

It means ‘new city’.

Neapolis, Napoli, Naples.

The irony isn’t lost on those with a penchant for history: new name, recycled events, the same old story, time and again. It would be a fascinating arrangement if it weren’t so old and predictable; viz, the new city that was founded near the city that perished, and which is overshadowed by the same old threats, plus an array of new hazards, including rampant development, a toxic footprint, and unsustainable growth.

Is anyone amused?

How easily the world slides backwards, our limitations recycled at will. The new becomes tainted, old problems resurface – friction, decay, dead ends – while the names persist (New City, New World), deceiving the gullible and mocking the rest.

This is no resurrection. 

It’s atavism.

*****

Many of us don’t pay attention to names. Words lose their original meaning and are taken for granted. People get on with their lives, eager to make a living, to be good and decent. (In the name of decency and all things good the greatest evils are committed, often unwittingly, but that’s another story.) Naples is a town in a string of towns in a world that struggles to function. Everything falls apart yet again. The omens accumulate and the shadows grow, but the irony is lost on us. Few people care if Naples stands for Neapolis that stands for New City that has nothing to envy from the cities of old in terms of the way our construct falls apart. No one has time for philosophical hystorics. We have enough problems on our hands. Overwhelmed, we fail to register – or couldn’t care less – how the atavisms work their way through the ages, mocking us via peregrine terms, words that don’t hold their substance. We repeat our mistakes, living in irony, losing perspective. Cause-and-effect breaks down. Opinions replace facts and the smartest are supplanted by the loudest. Confusion spreads, a cacophony of information – make that misinformation – that passes for knowledge, reminding us that even though things change, they remain the same. 

It’s nowhere near as gloomy as that, some say, adding that we have broken ground over the centuries, advancing in strides – ‘Take a look, see how far we’ve come!’ – and while that may be true, the reality is that we keep getting lost in the dust we raise, falling down the cracks we leave behind.

*****

No one cares about the glass-and-steel erections of a futuristic complex than got left behind. We prefer the old and rustic over the encroaching rust of the Centro Direzionale. The uninhabited buildings stand neglected, reflecting each other’s shapes and profiles, a hall of mirrors planted in a titanic field, complete with non-functioning escalators, corroded handrails and chipped, filthy stairs, filthy columns, weed-splintered premix slabs, and crawling graffiti paint. Red and black spaghetti letters smother the architecture in a jumble of protest by long-gone protesters: Giovanni … Antifa … Zeus … Tokyo … Reclamare – an assortment of terms and concepts that come together like the fragments of jumbled visions. An urban hangover, the dregs of a dream vomited onto the land by architects and planners desperate to beat time by crushing it under a larger-than-life construct: the civilian-industrial complex, a detached and self-contained bubble of urbanity where men and women were expected to take their children to eat in food courts laid out on concrete tiles, to walk in the shadow of shiny towers and bask in the scale of massive development, watching movies in climate-controlled theaters in multi-screen cineplexes, trekking from court to court to buy items from shops selling next moment’s instant gratification, a setup designed to satisfy the souls of people hooked on tradable excess. Our faith powered by an increase in options. A construct of liberated dependence, the illusion of heaven on earth, quick fixes for the broken constitution of the almighty poor Consumer whose enterprise, faith and cravings sustain not just the economy, but everything culture-and-society, feeding the growth of civilization.

*****

A giant shopping center: a hive of shopping malls, car parks and staircases as jumbled as the graffiti that litters them. Hubs of enterprise designed for high-scale social interaction (the grand vision), now abandoned, a wasted opportunity, the repelling architecture of an idea that failed. An outward-looking chancre of development that threatens to infect its surroundings with dereliction; the broken windows theory taken to the next level: broken district theory… broken city theory… broken culture theory…

Halted, decrepit, yet compelling in its savagery, the Centro is a vision left rotting in the heat of arrogance.

At the same time, it’s a statement of uncompromising assault, predatory and unforgiving like the hand of a tectonic god that punches through the ground to lay claim to the sky. A manifestation of our subconscious, it thrusts skyward with impudence. The land acts as the stepping-stone to the ether, the metal-glass infrastructure an inspiration for the cities we’ll launch in orbit. Our hanging gardens-to-be, it points to them, to space at large, painting the void with slick inorganic hues. Our vision will soon be launched into the universe, an audacious construct with which to meet the heavens. A groundbreaking paradigm for the ages, with silicon replacing carbon and our industry taking over the flesh, our wires spreading and our connections growing, sharp and durable and futuristic, defeating all aspects of impermanence to obliterate time and lay the foundation for a world beyond history.

The truth is, it hurts to look at it. In the dark void of outer space the Centro might blend in with its sharp cold facades, but here, on the ground, it’s a canker that scrapes and cuts and bites and slices through a landscape that was meant to please the eye. What on earth were its designers thinking? Did they not anticipate the ways it could go wrong? Did no one among them consider how their sublime vision might grow spikes, fangs, claws, then a voracious appetite for all things living? Like an engineering herpes activated in the ice-cold hearts of those who spend their time obsessing over development for the sake of development, in honor of their egos? All one has to do is know a little history and human psychology.

Glib, yes, but true.

The creators’ intention was noble, some claim. They meant well, and so it would seem. A change in the city of Naples had been most necessary. The old town was no better than a collection of hovels sprinkled with cultural landmarks – a mosaic of periods and styles and statu(s)es past their prime. The infrastructure groaned, imploding under the weight of its age, and the designers stepped up, conjuring an upgrade, a grand vision, and here we are, the end result: an aggressive, retroactive, merciless virus of progress-gone-foul. 

*****

A feat in and of itself, the Centro is a paradox that set back its surroundings in the name of moving forward. The designers gave birth to a space none could live in, save the fortune seekers and outcasts, and even they were reticent. Most people either moved back to the old town or joined the ever-growing sprawl, fueling the decline, and the paradox grew into a cautionary tale few have heeded because caution costs comfort, and comfort is precious. The Centro is a colossal atavism that manifested adjacent to an aged city whose very name stands for ‘New City’, which renders the setup ironic, a conceptual faux pas.

Let alone the tragedy behind the construct’s failure to address the looming disaster, which few people acknowledge openly: that Napoli is a densely populated metropolitan area, one of the largest in Europe, in the shadow of the volcano that devastated Pompeii, its very existence a safety conundrum. 

Therein lies the absurdity, the excruciating impudence of our choices and the speed with which we silence the critics. We built this city in the shadow of calamity, yet we ridicule those who raise caution. ‘Pompeii? Who cares! It’s ancient history. Napoli is what matters, now, a hub of operations and livelihoods. A great crossroads between land and sea, north and south. We’ll expand it and upgrade it so that more people will feast on the delectable tension of life deployed at the foot of a volcano. To live is to face risk, by default. From uncertainty comes wonder. Life is dangerous and beautiful. Deal with it.’

Scrumptious, outrageous audacity that makes perfect sense and no sense at all. A wave of contradictions and rationalizations that color our judgment dubious, at best. 

The Centro was meant to signal a new start, a life free from the burdens of antiquity, but it was planted smack-dab in the shadow of the past.   

Still, there’s something admirable about the setup’s homicidal-suicidal-grandiose tendencies. 

For one, the Neapolitan tone is a manifestation of the land’s seismic nature. From Magna Graecia to the Duchy of Naples, from the Kingdom of Naples to the Kingdom of Italy, from Napoleon to the Camorra and all the way to the Republic, the area is contoured with groundbreaking history. The stage is compelling. Dramatic coastlines stretch for miles, with dozens of towns and villages perched on the cliffs, once upon a time guarded against the navies and pirates that raided these waters for centuries, and may yet do, one day. The area simmers with shrapnel, danger, clockwork energy. Napoli is the embodiment of a brave old world that recycles itself at will. Home of the beautifully outrageous, host to the future and the past, the dead and the living, its manifold aspects fuse to create infrastructure that defies time and logic, a fitting tribute to the baffling insanity of not just Italy but all humankind.

*****

Here we are, taking it all in, contemplating our nature in the wake of history. Our choices reflect not just who we are but who we strive to be. Our penchant for danger is baffling yet remarkable, setting us up for a fall from which we may rise once more, likely to repeat the cycle yet again. The rain falls in order to rise to the heavens as vapor, where it condenses into raindrops yet again, ad nauseam. The world burns and the ashes sustain the roots of life, helping it flourish until it burns again. A dynamic ecology whose nature we embody as we engage this land with its promises and threats, building the future on ruins, hoping our stretch will be longer than the previous one, our collapse more manageable this time round, our return even more triumphant.

They say that madness involves repeating the same action, expecting a different outcome each time. But maybe the only way to survive or even endure this mad world is to be a little mad in turn, accustomed to the damage, making progress despite everything.

The truth is, life is perpetual like the phoenix. We’re going to live forever, so to speak.

The catch is, we’re going to die countless times. There’s no other way about it. In death, through death, on account of death, in the halo of death, life grows.

So does humanity.

So goes the story.

It was written long ago. 

To read it, all one has to do is dig up a little earth. Or examine our cities. 

Or simply let it play out.

Nicolas D. Sampson

is the

Books Editor for Panorama.

Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer, and the author of the poetry collection Όμορφη η Υφήλιος (Beautiful, Our World In the Sun) by Armos Books. He wrote and co-produced Behind the Mirror (winner Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival); and was an executive producer on Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (winner Best Arts or Music Documentary) and Hope Gap. His short stories and novellas have been published in literary journals such as The Scofield, American Writers Review, LIT Magazine, and The Hong Kong Review, among others.

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