Christianity Is an Event
Starting with this month’s edition, Traces will be publishing a series of interviews with outstanding personalities of international culture, who speak about themselves and have something to communicate. The first of these interviews is with Pietro Citati, writer, historian and intellectual whose wide-ranging interests include Islam, Judaism, Christianity, tradition, law, mercy, and Catholicism

edited by Luca Doninelli

This conversation takes its cue from Citati’s book, Israele e l’Islam. Le scintille di Dio [Israel and Islam. The sparks of God], published by Mondadori, 275 pp. However, it’s history began in 1987, when the Italian weekly Il Sabato asked me to interview Citati regarding his book on Kafka, which had just been published by Rizzoli. In that book, Citati stressed the religious dimension in Kafka’s work and, partly for that reason and partly because we liked Kafka a lot (and we still do), we had the idea of organizing a meeting in Milan with Citati on the great writer from Prague, a meeting which eventually took place at Milan State University. The simplicity and the attention of those present, the acuteness of the questions, the naïve boldness of the youngsters filling the hall so impressed Citati, that he tells me he would very much like to repeat that meeting today. (For my part, as I entered the lounge of the Citati’s house, I remembered it well, after sixteen years; it was he who asked to read my short stories and encouraged me to publish them. However, in these matters there are no debts. As Betocchi said, “it’s life that counts.”)

In your book, I sense a difference between the tone in the pages dedicated to the history of Israel and that in those about the Islamic myths. In the former there is more history, and in the latter more literature. Is this perhaps the difference between the God of Abraham and the God of Mohammed?
What you say is partly true, but only partly, because first of all Allah is a new Yahweh: there’s the same ardent monotheism, the same tremendum, and, at the same time, the same gentleness, the same mercy–especially in Allah. There is the same distance, too. Both Yahweh and Allah are gods at the same time very far away and very near. Allah says, “I am nearer to you than your jugular vein.” In short, in these two religions there is a repetition of the way of inventing the sacred. The great difference lies mainly in what you said, in the fact that Islam produces a quantity of mythical imagination unknown in the Hebrew religion.

Why is this? After all they are similar peoples, living in not very different geographical contexts.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that for the Bible there is only one creation: the first man is Adam, and then comes Sin, then the expulsion from the Earthly Paradise. For Islam, on the contrary, there is a people that lives in the stars; it is androgynous and Islamic, since Mohammed went up there to them to convert them. As for the human and sinful world here below, here, too, there are two kingdoms: that of Adam and that of Solomon, which is the kingdom of absolute fantasy. These two worlds intertwine. The Thousand and One Nights is not an obscene book, as stupid Muslims sustain today, but an esoteric book, in which the religious side becomes more and more fantastic.

I insist, though, that the Bible is a book written by men, a history in which God is the protagonist, whereas the Koran is a book that has God as its author, and does not recount a historical event. This makes Islamic monotheism more absolute than the Hebrew version.
Yes, the Koran follows an analogical line, not a historical one. And it’s true that its monotheism is the most absolute of all, more than the Hebrew version (which includes not only Scripture but also the Kabbalah, for example, which is full of divine and diabolical emanations) and the Christian version, which is the least rigid of the three, since the very conception of God as Trinity includes an infinite number of relationships between the three Persons.

In your view, what is the meaning of the word “mercy,” which occurs as an attribute of God in both religions?
Today there are more modern words that have taken the place of “mercy”–compassion, for example, which means a loss of oneself in the pain of others. But mercy is much more because, unlike compassion, it implies a judgment. There is no mercy without judgment. To Ibrahim, who asks how it is that His mercy allows him to sin, Allah replies, “If all men were innocent, on whom would I bestow my Grace?” In man, justice and forgiveness cannot go together; one is either just or forgiving. God, instead, is just and forgiving at the same time, and this is mercy.

It can’t be said that what we see these days reflects this image. An Egyptian boy once told me that he could no longer be a Muslim because he is fond of wine…
This happens because Islam (and current Catholic thought, for that matter) has completely lost its self-awareness. Today, Muslims know practically nothing about their religion. A sect that has always been in the minority and despised by Islam enjoys great consensus today–people for whom not drinking alcohol matters more than the relationship with God.

And what about Christianity?
It’s the same problem. What I have said applies to Christianity, too. Today, Christians don’t even know the Gospels. The great tradition that began with the Gospels, and passed through Origen, the Church Fathers, St Augustine, Scholasticism, and the great mystics of the 15th–17th centuries, has been almost completely interrupted. Catholic thought is reduced to a rehash of concepts born in other contexts, from Heidegger to Lévinas, not to speak of Gadamer. It is a “Gadamerized” Christianity. I think the reason for this phenomenon lies in the fact that it is difficult to sustain a tradition, whereas it is easy to simplify it. The Christian tradition is so rich that it is difficult to be faithful to it, whereas it is easier to reduce it to the little formulas that the priests repeat in Church.
In any case, if it is any consolation, though I think not, I can tell you for certain that the Islamic tradition is even worse off. The great Islamic theologian, Ibn Arabi, is proscribed, as is the great Sufi tradition. They have been sentenced with real condemnations. The disasters we see today are a consequence of this loss. Today, Islam is a series of ritual prescriptions, but its true nature is quite different. The Islamic tradition is a tradition of faith and of Grace.

It would seem more a tradition of Law. The concept of Law has a decisive weight in the Islamic world.
If you read the endless Islamic literary tradition, in the end you will agree with me. Islam is faith and Grace. The loss of self-awareness lies at the origin of all evils. I would add: self-awareness and awareness of others.

After three centuries of tolerance? After three centuries of égalité? Shouldn’t the opposite have happened?
The true human attitude is not tolerance, but knowledge of who you are and of who the others are. Tolerance is born of the conviction that your own traditions and the traditions of others are harmful, and should not be known, but abolished–so tolerance is violent.

In the third part of your book, called “The sparks of God,” you focus your attention on great characters of Judaism, but on those at the margins of Israel’s religious tradition: Joseph Roth, Hannah Arendt, Bruno Schulz, Simone Weil. Why?
I think that these characters are not real saints, but figures who in some way have to do with holiness. I’m not sure what they have in common. For that matter, I wouldn’t even know what makes a saint a saint. An intense religious experience perhaps? I would say it’s not enough. Relationship with God? This is more probable. These characters of mine had a strong relationship with God. Even Roth, for all his drunkenness, had this relationship. I don’t know if they are saints; what is certain is that they are not secularists–that is to say, they have nothing of the secularist blindness. Secularists are never attractive. Arendt, Roth, Weil, and Schulz are great figures of modern Judaism. The great modern Jews always sit astride more that one religion. Kafka practiced various religious hypotheses, Roth was a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim all in one, while Simone Weil was above all Christian.

Recently, you declared that you feel more Catholic as time goes on.
It’s what I would want. When I was young, I was a stupid secularist, too. Today, I like Catholicism, I like its infinite multiplicity, the infinite wealth of the relationships of reciprocity between the three Persons of the Trinity and Mary, who practically doesn’t exist in the Gospels, and whom the power of Christianity has made into a goddess. Finally, I like Catholicism for the idea that God is reflected in the world. Think of extremely “popular” realities, like the Neapolitan manger scene, with all its various characters, each one at his trade: the shepherds with their dogs and sheep; the fishmonger; the lemon vendor; the baker’s boy; someone dropping off to sleep; another there on his knees, contemplating that Child. It is the blessing of all the forms of Creation. This blessing exists only in Catholicism.

Yet I feel uncomfortable when I am called a “Catholic writer.” You are either a writer or not.
It’s clear. These are stupid things. Or we begin to call “Catholic” writers like Marcel Proust, who was much more catholic than many of today’s theologians, who literally run away from Christianity. The fact is that, these days, “Christianity” is mostly taken to mean ethics. The reduction of religion to ethics is a real catastrophe. At the origin of Christianity we have thieves, a crime, anything but ethics! In any case, ethics is so boring that, if it were just a matter of ethics, being religious would not be worthwhile. Christianity is a religious event, but hardly anyone says so these days.