The loneliness of Silvio B.

Why, at 74 years of age, is the leader of a Western country embarrassing himself and his country and getting caught up in scandals that undermine his power and authority? And why haven’t the Italians given him the boot yet? The answer lies in a national penchant for exhibitionism whose roots go back to the Roman empire, says columnist Beppe Servergnini.

Published on 28 January 2011 at 12:13
Here we go again.

Torn between curiosity and fatigue, Italians want to know: how, where, how many? And judges: who and when? But the sixth question - Why? - hasn’t been asked yet. Why does Berlusconi behave like this? How can such an important man, the leader of a government, surround himself with courtesans and bimbos? The simplest answer might be: because he likes it. Not so much for the sex, which at a certain age poses all the challenges of mountain climbing, as for Lady Approval and her three sisters: Admiration, Adulation and Adoration.

The scenes described by those who attend his parties bear some comparison with other situations that delight the master of the premises, such as meeting worshipful young party activists, TV like ceremonies, Brazilian nights and Russian dachas, Sardinian villas and the Milanese universities that celebrate him.

Silvio B. has all the characteristics of a nuclear narcissist. He wants to be applauded and admired. One of the reasons why he hates journalists – except in their domesticated form, those who work for his own newspapers – is that critical questions are evidence of a failure to love him. And therefore unbearable.

The weakness of B. is human and Italian

National exhibitionism – the very one that springs out of a neurotic need to cut a bella figura[to make a good impression] – is fired to its point of incandescence, producing that energy that can go without sleep, prudence and common sense. It drives him to use the television stations that he owns as bait and as reward, propels him to push forward young women as party candidates, to support and shield them for their aesthetic and sexual merits, and to defend them beyond all logic. All of which makes him blind to the grotesque spectre of a single man prowling nightclubs in search of women disguised as nurses, teachers, policewomen – the lonely Lothario of numerous films and a vast literature.

The artificiality of the parties, the compliments and the flattery, the parody of seduction, the predictable temptation, the illusion of charms that have a price tag. The weakness of B. is human and Italian. But there is something familiar in this spasmodic quest for approval whose symptoms – well known in the business empire and in the party where Silvio B. is known respectively as the Dottore and the Presidente – entered the public arena two years ago.

Some men need an audience

At that time, his attendance at the eighteenth birthday party of Noemi Letizia, in the suburbs of Naples, showed signs of a fanatical exhibitionism. The party guests marvelled with astonishment at what the rich and powerful man was unable to resist that night. The dramatisation of his travels, his meetings, the worldly success of the host – at his villa at Arcore outside Milan or at the Grazioli palace, his private residence in Rome – are further proof of the same phenomenon.

Some men need an audience just to be able to wake up in the morning. If they can’t find it, they buy it. There is a little of Tiberius (as described by Suetonius) and a little of Hugh Hefner (immortalised by Playboy) in Silvio B. Thus are empires undone, in between parties, debauchery and attempts to stop time, with tricks that time has taught us to recognise. Family and professional success are never enough. What is wanting are cheerleaders, admirers, singers and stages both spectacular and, above all, melancholy. For it is his role to banish melancholia.

Silvio B. is a lonely man. He will grasp it when he is no longer in power: as the prices go up and the number of friends go down. Those who wish him well should tell him. But perhaps it is already too late.

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