There is a wonderful late-night talk show in Italy called Sottovoce hosted by Gigi Marzullo – a sort of Latinate Parkinson. It follows a very peculiar format which begins with a standard interview lasting about 20 minutes after which things take a turn for the surreal.
First, he presents the guest with a series of images and episodes from their life and gets reactions in real-time then a piano player performs a song chosen by the guest and finally a psychologist analyses one of the guest’s recurring dreams. Marzullo then ends the program with a final instruction, “Si faccia una domanda e si dia una riposta.” Which translates roughly as follows:
“Ask yourself a question and then give yourself an answer.”
Unsurprisingly this sentence has gained cult-like status in Italy, not just as a catchphrase, but as an incredibly revealing final insight into the person viewers have just spent the best part of half an hour getting to know.
Over the years, I’ve often thought about why this absurd formulation is so compelling. My feeling is that we, as humans, spend a lot of time either asking ourselves questions or demanding answers but rarely do we couple the two activities together explicitly. When we ask a question it is usually because we expect someone else to provide an answer.
Marzullo’s conception does two things to subvert this and, in so doing, ends up creating a far deeper insight into the underlying thoughts and feelings that drive the individual as a person. First, it creates a formal link between defining a question in relation to its answer by binding the two together in a single statement. Second, by removing the “interviewer” or external agent from the process, it creates the conditions for a truly personal act of introspection. So much so that the only pronoun in the sentence – yourself – is repeated twice. Over the past few weeks, as a result of this wretched global pandemic, wherever you turn, it seems there is no shortage of questions but concrete answers appear to be very thin on the ground.
To make matters more complex, in the absence of clear answers, we are left with a strange blend of opinion, hope, frustration on which to formulate our response. Also, we begin to question the various institutions and organisations on which we normally rely for answers. This imbalance between question and answer has profoundly shaken the assumed sense of certainty we always believed we had over our everyday lives. Coupled with the isolation imposed by the need for social distancing, the risk is that we retreat into a passive cocoon of self as the last remaining bastion of agency and control. That is if you are lucky enough not to contract the virus, in which case even that refuge begins to fade away as well.
Does this lack of answers negate the need for questions? I would say the converse is true – it is precisely the scarcity of clear answers that make the act of questioning the most valuable act we can undertake. And it is here that asking yourself a question and giving yourself an answer actually comes into its own as a useful framework.
The question I keep asking myself is how will I be transformed by what is happening at the moment. This feels like a question I might be able to give myself an answer to. It has required probing my feelings and anxieties in relation to this uncertainty as well as in relation to both my immediate and distant family as well as friends near and far. It has meant questioning whether much of what I do on a daily basis actually has a value beyond occupying time. It has meant coming to terms with the realisation that perhaps, relative to key workers, the service economy actually exists largely to justify a loop of earning to consume. It’s not like we were actually all delighted about how the world was before this all happened – Brexit, the environment, mental health, etc – , it’s just that now that we are forced to stop we suddenly feel nostalgia for it…
And yet I can feel the power being unlocked by small acts of kindness and solidarity perhaps the early shoots of a return to a modicum of civility in public discourse. I can see and hear the thrum of nature and, ironically considering we are locked-in, now actually have a connection with all of my immediate neighbours who before were just passing faces on their way to or from somewhere. Furthermore – closer to my professional self – it becomes clear that music, art, poetry, writing and commentary, far from being futile acts, have a powerful role to play in the wider healing as well as reminding us of how life was before this all began. Try listening to a live recording of a band or artist you love and feel the strange sense of nostalgia as the sounds of the audience becomes a music of its own.
Based on my experience of the past few weeks, whether you choose to start from within and move outwards or whether you work your way back in from externalities, this exercise ends up connecting the self to the whole. My feeling is that this act of questioning, almost like a daily meditation, will mean that whenever (and on whatever terms) we are able to leave our homes again, we will have a clearer sense of ourselves and how we would like to be in relation to our immediate family, our neighbours, society and the wider world. And to do so we must actually carry our experience of the period of quarantine with us – a permanent reminder of what we learned and felt both as remembrance as well as a compass to guide our actions. So asking ourselves questions is absolutely essential
This is not an act of solipsism, it is a recognition that if we don’t locate ourselves properly we will be lost and disoriented upon re-entry to a world that may or may not look very different to the one we left behind our front door 3 weeks ago.
In conclusion, questions matter as much, if not more, than they ever did.
So here is your challenge for this week:
Ask yourself a question and then give yourself an answer.
Fred Bolza, @bolzaf