Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography of Gianni Vattimo

I was a bit hesitant when, a few weeks ago, I accepted to write a review of Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography (or non-auto-autobiograpy as I like to call it) of Gianni Vattimo, published by Columbia University Press. The book is officially called a “collaborative autobiography” because, even though it was written by Piergiorgio Paterlini, it adopts the style of a first-person novel. Basically, the written text is Paterlini’s but the voice you hear is that of Vattimo. The reason for this is given in the introduction, where Paterlini states:

”(…) because I wanted to do it (long live subjectivity) and because Gianni Vattimo agreed to do it with me. But above all, because this necessary (auto)biography is something he – who writes so engagingly, unlike many of his colleagues – would never have written.”

And I must say the approach worked. After a couple of pages you forget Not Being God is not written by Vattimo. It is beautifully ‘subjective’ in all senses of the word.
The first thing that struck me when I embarked upon the book, was that it almost reads like a lifeblog. The chapters, 64 of them, are a bit like short stories, mostly chronological, on different aspects of Vattimo’s life. The format makes for easy reading and allows the reader to put down the book from time to time for a moment of reflection without losing track of the story line. This is very useful, for instance, when you are reading about Vattimo’s philosophical thought and need to do some googling, like I had to. I am a notorious Philistine when it comes to ‘higher culture’. Sure, I like art and philosophy and literature, but I am about as highbrow and erudite as a rent boy in Turin’s Valentino Park. This is the very reason why I hesitated to write a review on Not Being God. To make things worse, I had never even heard of Gianni Vattimo! Well, it turns out my ignorance was not really a handicap. On the contrary. It allowed me to focus on the man behind the philosopher. And the book really is highly enjoyable. And so is Gianni Vattimo. You have got to love this gay man who wanted to have a normal family life, taking the view that “sexual specialization is impoverishing”, and who is endearingly candid about his personality:

”On one hand, faced with an attack full of gratuitous hatred, I think, with childish surprise: How can they not be fond of someone like me? On the other, I always think that I’m incapable of winning over anyone, of deserving anyone’s affection. If someone does show me affection, simply and naturally and without expecting anything in return, I almost wonder how it’s possible.”

Furthermore, the book whisks you through a few decades of Italian politics and history and even gives you an inside look on the way the European Parliament works (according to Vattimo):

“At Brussels I always used to say, “Give me a report, even a rapporto protetto.” Because, since they can’t decide anything, members of the European Parliament try to win a name for themselves by attaching their name to a report on some topic or other. The Commission sends you a measure they wish to take, you study it and write the whole thing up, then take it to your group and present it. Even if the Assembly does vote it down, the Commission goes ahead with it anyway, because they’re utterly indifferent.”

Philosophy takes, of course, a prominent place in Not Being God, but the philosophical passages are easily digestible and Vattimo (through Paterlini) explains them well enough. And there are several interesting ideas that even a layman like myself can understand and appreciate:

”I’m convinced that not much can be done about the uniformization of the world, in the current situation at any rate, under a sole empire, the United States. But tomorrow it might be someone else. If there’s a way out – with the end of every absurd claim to absolute objectivity – it’s for society to become the place where truth signifies accord among interpreters, not the claim to demonstrate how matters stand.”

So, to summarize, Being God is a delicious mix of philosophy, history, politics, ‘gayness’ and the personal experiences and thoughts of an interesting man, thinker and political activist with an extraordinary life. It is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written (and translated, by William McCuaig) and, at times, enormously funny. It should appeal to everyone and, especially, to those who already know Gianni Vattimo or take a keen interest in Italian culture, its recent politics and history. And do not worry if you know little about Italian politics. All the Italian abbreviations that are used in the book are translated and explained at the end. Also, there is a handy index in case you want to research the tons of names that are mentioned in this autobiography.
The book’s official Columbia University Press webpage is here, more excerpts from the book (about Vattimo’s concept of “weak thought” and death threats among other things) can be found here and Gianni Vattimo’s very own weblog (in Italian) can be found over here. Enjoy.