Gentleman of Verona: Put to the test

Of all the tedious ways to spend an afternoon, I know of none worse than to find yourself sitting on the thesis commission of an Italian university. On a stool behind a low podium, a girl is telling a microphone about a British feminist called Vera Brittain. Facts, figures, fulsome admiration. But I'm not paying attention. What I'm thinking about is the disastrous argument I got drawn into last night: a pleasant evening in a restaurant became a pitched battle when I would not show sufficient concern about the state of Third World debt. Apparently such nonchalance on my part was equivalent to singing in the bath only a stone's throw from the smoking crematoriums of Auschwitz. The man I was talking to had closed his account - closed his account! - when he found his bank was lending money to Mobutu. Facts, figures, furious indignation. As usual, I was torn between an awareness of the desperate lot of starving millions and a rejection of any attempt to convert me to a life of vigilant piety. "In conclusion," the rather pretty girl concludes, "I think Vera Brittain offers a shining example we would all do well to follow."

Every Italian student has to write and defend a thesis in order to graduate. Officially, he has a professor to work with, but more likely it will be an assistant. The professor's name then appears on the printed cover. When the great day comes, the student speaks in an urgently rehearsed monotone to 11 commission members pondering behind a great semi-circle of polished wood. In awed attendance are family, friends and fiances. The student hurries through a wealth of data, showing proper respect for some impeccably ethical point of view, then withdraws together with supporters. Officially, each commission member will now pronounce a mark out of 10 so that a final degree result out of 110 can be obtained. But most have barely listened. Some were actually absent, grabbing a coffee. Or they were reading books or making notes. The presidente consults a computer print-out giving an average of the student's exam results, conveniently manipulated as a mark out of that oddly generous 110: "Novantaquattro virgola cinquantasette." Which has to be understood as novantacinque. The assistant who read the thesis, or some of it, pronounces: "The student has worked to the best of her limited ability." "Poor thing." The presidente is sympathetic.

"Though she did show exemplary enthusiasm for her subject." I am far too savvy now to object that nothing was said about why Vera Brittain may or may not be a good writer. "Add four points," suggests the assistant. "Give her 98." "Oh, we mustn't be mean," someone objects. "No one else has got less than seven this morning." "Five, then." But, of course, it's silly giving 99. The student is called back; "In the name of the powers conferred upon me by the Magnificent Rector, I pronounced you Dottore in foreign languages and literatures with a mark of 100." Warmest congratulations are expressed.

"In a world where everything is increasingly interlinked, you must use your consumer clout as well as the ballot box to combat evil." Thus my acquaintance of yesterday evening. Heatedly. And listening to a geography student discussing the twinning between the small Veneto town of San Pietro in Cariano with some equally small and obscure location in Austria, and then enthusing about "the developing friendliness between the two communities", it suddenly occurs to me that devotion to the human race has long since substituted for wisdom or even commonsense. Long since. "De Bernieres is a better writer than Beckett," this man insisted, "because he confronts the issues of Third World debt and terrorism." Another student reels off figures relative to the development of national parks in New Zealand: "An excellent example for other countries to follow if the planet is to be saved." So no, it's not just the human race, I reflect, but the planet. Perhaps the universe.

The universe. Outside, the sun is trailing its colours over the waste of post-industrial Milan. Well-to-do parents gape at their daughter's ability to wield jargon and numbers. Feminism and the film industry. Progress. Solidarity. Carefully measured. One hundred and six out of 110. Congratulations! Is there some sort of pact, I ask myself, dying for a pee, between conventional morality and the information culture? In the wake of Descartes, perhaps? Certainly at the expense of any deeper knowledge. A body of data strains between the shafts while public piety wields the whip. Is nobody in this interminable afternoon going to talk about the business of being here? In this room, for example, with two professors rudely chatting, the girl's low-cut dress, a smug tightness about her boyfriend's mouth. Or the unpleasant aggression last night between two men who wanted to impose on each other, rowing about charity and art, while a woman looked on perplexed. I must avoid that in future. Someone's phone trills. Waiting in the corridor a candidate crosses herself. Outside, smoke rises from gypsy rubbish fires. Bored to death, the commission is suddenly overcome by a yearning for escape, away from figures and philanthropy and into the incommensurable, the private space. With a bit of luck, I think, I might just make it to the 6.05 rapido. Otherwise known as the "Michelangelo"

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