long . lines and ripples

On Rereading Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” in 2020

I started rereading Alessandro Mazzoni’s The Betrothed last week, probably because it imagines another epidemic, the bubonic plague. Can there be an escapist impulse to flee into an alternative version of where one is already? There can be, if the reality is heightened: worse, more dangerous, more lurid, more unbelievable than the present. And the bubonic plague, measured by the amount of humanity killed or affected, and the extent of social breakdown, was very bad–easily a match for the current situation.

L’Innominato (1862), depicting a scene from Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Engraving by William Luson Thomas, a reproduction of Alessandro Guardassoni’s 1856 painting.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain)

While I am trapped around the house during this pandemic, the terror of plague in a novel like the The Betrothed becomes a fascination. Isn’t this the formula for a lot of entertainment, and doesn’t it work especially well right now? It’s not that replacing the terrible with the horrific makes the terrible feel less bad by comparison. I am sure there are other situations where it might have this effect, but that would be a psychologically quite obvious and crude self-deception. “Let me watch bombs drop on TV so that I can ignore the gunshots outside (No doubt that solution occurred to some during the protests and riots over the past weeks).”

No, what I wanted with The Betrothed was to be able to reflect on an event with plausible similarity to the present with–what is the difference?

An ongoing disaster exhausts anyone who exercises his senses to comprehend it. The attendant dread, fear and uncertainty saps the energy needed for reflection. The worst exhaustion for me came when the situation was in its novel opening phase, while it breaks all of our tedious collective routines like politics, sports, and commuting. I am least likely to write about an experience when it is at its most fresh. This is one those ironies, not limited to disasters, that hardens yet another barrier to expressive contemplation and artistic realization.

For the first two months of the lockdown, I wrote very little, almost none for published consumption. What I read was more in the spirit of shallow skimming around for new ideas, new diversions, and new hobbies. I had little desire to go deep; I couldn’t tell you why. Do I remember being tired? Only for specific and identifiable reasons, like having my son around all the time to watch. But the fatigue went beyond that. It could be identified in what disappeared from life on its own, in what should have happened but never occurred to me. I can see the fatigue now, in hindsight, because the first acute shock of this pandemic has passed.

Maybe the first step of regaining one’s contemplative powers is to make the present into an event again. That happens first through externalization, through approaching the present with historical similarity. For me reading The Betrothed puts a frame around an event with no boundaries.


Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). Everyman's Library, 2013 [1842].