When this weather clears up: Remembering Oliver Friggieri

Kevin Saliba • Oliver Friggieri belongs to a regrettably dying breed of scholars without whose intellectual and cultural insights, our inner lives would perhaps become all-the-more less tolerable

Oliver Friggieri surveys an airfield during the filming of a short film of his poem ‘Il-Lejl F’Dan L-Istazzjon’
Oliver Friggieri surveys an airfield during the filming of a short film of his poem ‘Il-Lejl F’Dan L-Istazzjon’

Oliver Friggieri has passed away. 

Maybe there’s no need for very complicated acts of mourning. Besides, all that I can now offer is a series of somewhat disjointed thoughts. So bear with me. It is indeed a sad day for Malta: our country has just lost one of its foremost voices. Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggested that when loved ones die some part of us — quite possibly a world — dies as well with them. Perhaps this is all the more true with respect to those people that inform and mould our cultural and intellectual life, thereby leaving some fundamental long-lasting impact on our being, identity, weltanschauung — our world. 

I must say that Oliver Friggieri has had an enduring solid impact on my development, and not only during the University years. Through the years I have benefited immensely from his lectures, thoughts and works. For starters, he was one the first among my mentors to instil into me a lasting love for philosophy, literature and literary criticism and, of course, the Maltese language. He also introduced me with much fervour to Mikiel Anton Vassalli, easily my all-time national hero. I feel indebted to him beyond measure because of that one alone. Not to mention his views regarding the possible perils, some of which now proved true, of modern mass technology. 

I had lost some interest in his work during these last fifteen years. Eventually his thought became rather stagnant, I believe. During the Alex Vella Gera censorship debacle I felt he let us all a bit down by distancing himself completely on the media from the Front Against Censorship. I wrote a piece about it in a Maltese language newspaper and I recall myself being rather angry. It seemed to me that he was risking becoming somewhat passé and I just didn’t want to see any of that happening to him. 

I almost somewhat regretted it a few weeks later, but I still think he could have done a little something for us rather than discrediting certain forms and modes of literary narratives on dubious moral grounds. Besides, I felt that as things stood there was a lot at stake and that sometimes — at least some of the time — crisis-deniers should be held up to scrutiny. Fear of imperilling one’s intelectuell rangé image is hardly a good excuse, I thought. 

I stopped dwelling on these matters a few years later as soon as I learned he had fallen seriously ill. In circumstances like those such quarrels become petty issues. The last time we touched base I sent him my Italian translations of three poems by Achille Mizzi and another one of Eh Forsi — one of his most accomplished poems. His critical reaction back then was very auspicious, but as he was in serious pain due to a recent accident, I stopped disturbing him with my then newly-found translation interest. I regret not getting back to him at some point later. “Forsi ma kellux ikun”, as he would probably say. Eh forsi... 

Intellectual differences aside, I believe that some main aspects of Oliver Friggieri’s thinking are very relevant to our trouble-fraught times. His perhaps old-fangled but profound understanding of the Maltese national consciousness, his quasi-equitable and thought-provoking reading of Maltese political history, his reasoned defence of the humanities and his zeal for critical, intimate reading, are but a few of the points forts of his enduring legacy. 

To these I surely must add his disapproval regarding technical expertise clogging up critical intellectual discourse almost completely, as well as his duly warranted pleas for not dismissing the vital importance of the spiritual dimensions of existence. 

The likes of Alfred North Whitehead would surely have approved of Friggieri. Nevertheless, relatively few public intellectuals — especially outside mainland Europe — seem to have kept calling our attention to such unarguably germane issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without speculating too much on his possible views apropos this current global crisis, I have recently noticed that some early Friggieri would be almost certainly useful in engaging critically with certain contrarian intellos, such as Giorgio Agamben, Massimo Cacciari, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Richard Kearne. 

Some of his recent observations might also serve as a point of departure, especially to the uninitiated, for thinking about human beings more holistically — hopefully, for instance, beyond the all-invasive tyranny of techne or technik. In this sense, perhaps, Friggieri was also a Heideggerian. And like Camus, he was not exactly an existentialist, but nonetheless definitely an existentiel

Friggieri’s conservative leanings are not without problems, but perhaps they can at least provide us with a slightly better refreshing alternative to the drudging philosophical and scientific eccentricities of the Anglo-Saxon world. It is my belief that Oliver Friggieri belongs to a regrettably dying breed of scholars without whose insights our inner lives would perhaps become all-the-more less tolerable, our identities all-the-more abstruse, our sensibilities all-the-more intellectually impoverished. 

From where I am sitting, alack, it looks like we’re in for nasty weather. These last few years claimed several hardly dispensable old-guard philosophers: Costanzo Preve, Zygmunt Bauman, Bryan Magee, Hubert Dreyfus, George Steiner, Emanuele Saverino. And each time was unique, the end of the world, as Derrida aptly once put it. 

All men are mortal, in the end. Nonetheless, in such technique-driven and anti-intellectual times, none of these fine gentlemen have, alas, their place in history already secured. One would only hope — beginning from now — that most Maltese future scholars will not judge Oliver Friggieri as a timely defender of largely lost and forsaken causes. Should that be the case, so be it. But may he at least return, then, when this weather clears up. 

Goodbye for now dear friend, mentor, dad. Know that we will miss you. 

Kevin Saliba is a philosophy enthusiast, writer, literary critic and translator. He is also a former steering committee member of Philosophy Sharing (Malta) and a current member of France based International Society of Applied Psychoanalysis.