The Consolation of Philosophy

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(Photo: Mont Blanc Tunnel, Samuel Zeller for the New York Times)

by Gabriele Ferraris

I haven’t left my house since February, but now I’ll have to do it. I have to get to a bank machine. Yes, even in these dark times of COVID-19, we Italians still get fined by mail. I’ll pay up, but you should know that I happen to have a philosopher for a brother. Not some placid guy who takes life philosophically. A real philosopher, the kind that hold debates about world systems and publish philosophical tomes.

To be precise, in a book titled The Tunnel of Tickets, my brother the philosopher tells the story of a minor personal mishap. He tells it in order to explain a philosophical theory that I, the dimwit brother, can’t possibly summarize here. But the story is rather amusing. As it happens, passing through the Mont Blanc Tunnel between Italy and France, on his way to Geneva for a lecture, my brother exceeded the seventy-kilometer-per-hour speed limit. Not by much, but he did, and so, at the end of the tunnel, he found the police officers who, alerted by the speed cameras scattered all through that tunnel, notified him of his violations.

“Police officers,” I said, plural, because first he gets stopped by the Italian highway patrol and then by the French gendarmerie. The Italians have the results from their speed cameras, and they stick him with one ticket; just after that the French, who have two speed cameras in the tunnel, stick him with two more. For a total of three tickets. The philosophical problem, if I’ve actually understood it, is the following: once it’s been ascertained—as seems probable—that the transgressor has traversed the entire route at a speed above the official limit, just how many tickets should they really stick him with?

Even though I’m no philosopher, I have nearly matched the philosopher’s record: I managed to collect three tickets in the span of two days for having exceeded by a hair the fifty-kilometer-per-hour limit on the avenue that connects Torino to Rivoli, on the west of the city. Three tickets—one from the traffic cops in Rivoli and two from officers in Collegno, the town between Torino and Rivoli.

I don’t protest, and I don’t get embroiled in exasperating philosophical disquistions with constabularies, the way my brother did with the French gendarmes and Italian cops, at the risk of ending up on the lists of Interpol. The law is the law: you don’t debate it, you respect it. So I will pay up. Which means that—since I don’t have online banking—with my traffic notices in hand, I’ll have to get to the post office (god save me from that!), or a local tabaccheria (at perhaps somewhat less risk, though I’d prefer to avoid it), or the very least a bank machine (assuming that they offer such services). In any case, it means leaving home. And just so you know, I already took a big  chance this morning: I opened my door to our valiant postman who, defying the pandemic, continues his daily rounds, and these sorts of “judicial actions” (that’s what they call tickets, as if they really needed to increase our anxiety) he is obliged personally to consign to you, in person.

Dura lex, sed lex. Intrepid as I am, tomorrow I plan to defy both destiny and disease: dolled up with a mask, sterile gloves, and plastic shoe wraps, I’ll push my limits up to the bank machine, two hundred meters from my house. And I’ll pay the penalty for my sins, the almost 150 Euros total that I owe to the municipalities of Rivoli and Collegno. Yet a thought stays with me—do you really think it’s necessary, in a moment like this, to continue undauntedly mailing us these tickets, obligating an elderly person with pre-existing pathologies to perform feats of derring-do that he would most willingly forego? I can only imagine that this is what the regulations specify, and regulations must not be compromised, or otherwise, in the blink of an eye, we’ll fall into total anarchy. And so I don’t complain: I was asking for it.

But I do want to say one thing, to the mayor of Collegno (whom I know and greatly estime) and to the mayor of Rivoli (whom I don’t know, but who has no doubt an equally estimable character): I have not left my home since the end of February, so as not to put myself in danger nor cause any to others. So if, after this reckless sortie to pay my fines, I too fall victim to the disease, you’ll have me on your conscience. I know that your hands are tied, that duty is duty, etc., etc. But I wanted to tell you that just the same. For the satisfaction of inoculating you with at least a scintilla of guilt. Even we stay-at-home senior citizens have the right to our malicious little pleasures.

Gabriele Ferraris is a columnist for Turin edition of Italy’s Corriere della Sera and blogs regularly about culture and politics in Torino at http://gabosutorino.blogspot.com/. For many years, he wrote on music and performance and edited the weekly cultural supplement for Turin’s largest daily, La Stampa. His brother Maurizio is a philosopher, with a basketful of books to prove it.

Italian publication by the Corriere della Sera. Translated by Jim Hicks.

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