TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS WITH DR. PAUL BAXA
Dr. Paul Baxa is Associate Professor and Chair of History at Ave Maria University. He is an Italian-Canadian who specializes in fascist Italian studies with an emphasis oncultural history. He graduated with a B.A. Spec. Hon. from York University, and holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto. Dr. Baxa teaches courses on Western Civilization, 20th Century Europe, Historiography, and the History of Western Art. He came to AMU in Fall 2006.
1. I was born in Toronto, but my parents are Italian immigrants who came over in the 1950s. My parents and all my uncles and aunts grew up in fascist Italy, so I’ve always been surrounded by stories of that experience. The name Mussolini is a name I remember early on in my life.
2. I always had a passion for architecture and urban planning, so I combined that with my family history—living through World War II in fascist Italy—to arrive at my academic specialty. I received my B.A. in History at York University, Canada. I went on to earn both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto, Canada.
3. I wrote my doctoral thesis about the transformation of Rome (which later became my book, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome). It’s essentially about how the fascist regime changed the landscape of the city to make it look like it does today. The changed landscape tells us about fascism and its approach to urban planning. The regime committed a tremendous act of violence against the city, which came from the inherently violent tendencies of the movement itself. The Rome we see today is largely a product of fascism.
4. Interesting story: I became interested in Ave Maria University before I even finished my Ph.D. because of a conversation I had with a friend about it. We were talking about baseball, and he told me the former owner of the Detroit Tigers had founded a Catholic university. I kept abreast of the school’s development. What really fascinated me about Ave Maria was the planning of the town with the university. The Catholic dimension of the urban planning, and also Tom Monaghan’s interest in Frank Lloyd Wright (an interest I share), intrigued me. It just so happened that the same year I finished my Ph.D., a job opened up for a history professor. I came to Ave Maria in Fall 2006.
5. My absolute favorite restaurant is in Toronto—Al Fogolar. It’s a restaurant that specializes in Friulian cuisine (a region in Italy). The restaurant serves fantastic local cuisine—a lot of polenta and pheasant. I have some personal connections to the restaurant as well. I worked there when I was in high school, but also important moments in my life were there, like my first communion reception, my wedding reception, and various other family functions.
6. When I was young, I wanted to be a sports writer, because my dad is a sports writer. That was my first real passion. History eventually took over. I found out that I loved sports, but I loved the history of sports more. As a sports writer, you have to write about the present. I was more interested in the past.
7. Intellectuals who inspire me? My thesis advisor, Modris Eksteins, is one; he wrote Rites of Spring and his cultural approach to history inspired me. Another person would be Hayden White. He writes on historiography, the place of narrative in history, and how historians can develop different kinds of narrative in their approach to writing history. Others would be Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan and Christopher Dawson. When thinking of the Catholic approach to history, I’m always attracted to Dawson. And Pier Pasolini, who directed The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), is an artist whose views on society and art were very influential for me.
8. If I had a month off, I would love to live in New York City. I’ve done Rome, and I will do Rome again. I just want to soak up New York’s intellectual and cultural atmosphere. There is so much going on there.
9. My favorite band is the Beatles. In fact, I recently “celebrated” the 35thanniversary of my interest in the Beatles. The reason I know the date is because of a made-for-TV film called The Birth of the Beatles. It’s a terrible film, really, but it was enough to get me hooked. That was on November 26, 1979. I immediately started listening to their music. I’m intrigued by the charm of their music, of the individuals, the way they experimented and developed their music while yet remaining accessible. To this day, I read every new book that comes out about the Beatles. I’m fascinated by their history, their music, everything they represent. It’s a passion that is hard to explain.
10. My favorite song is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and my favorite album is the White Album. But really, I love all kinds of music—thanks in part to Dr. Michael Sugrue, whose office is next door. He has turned me on to Jazz, and I’ve developed an interest in Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.
11. The most memorable concert I’ve ever been to would have to be Pink Floyd in 1994, “The Division Bell.” That was a real spectacle. It was a fabulous show, with fireworks and everything. They are my favorite group next to the Beatles.
12. 2001: A Space Odyssey is pure film. Stanley Kubrick explores the possibilities of film to its utmost degree. It’s a visual feast. And the way he uses music is absolutely astonishing. The breadth and scope of the film is superb. Kubrick is the ultimate director because he’s able to make serious artistic films that are also entertaining. In many of his other films, he is able to capture popular audiences while experimenting. He’s a bit like the Beatles in music.
13. My favorite Italian director is Michelangelo Antonioni. He did a series of films in the early 1960s—L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and The Red Dessert (1964). What I love about Antonioni is that he explores the modern condition of life and the alienation caused by modern cityscapes. He really focuses on the isolation and crisis of the individual in the context of modernity.
14. The world’s greatest invention is the automobile. You can’t understand the 20th century without the automobile. It has had an influence on our lives in every way, for better or for worse. I often tell my students that Henry Ford is probably the most important individual in American history. His model T car, affordable to everybody, revolutionized life.
15. My most memorable academic event was a lecture I attended given by Paul Fussell on November 11, 1996 at the University of Toronto: “The Great War in Modern Memory.” He spoke on the cultural impact of World War I. It was one of those lectures that you hear at the right time; I was just starting my graduate work and it brought it all together for me. The whole cultural experience of war in the 20th century is an important part of what I study.
16. My favorite mode of travel is the train—especially in Europe. You get the sensation of speed, good views of the landscape, and it’s comfortable enough to read. My favorite train journey is from Venice to Trieste. The train goes along the top of the Adriatic. When it turns around Monfalcone, you see a beautiful vista of the Adriatic on the right, and the rocky, lunar-like Carso plateau on the left, and just before you get to Trieste, the white Miramare castle appears against a blue backdrop.
17. One job I’d love to try is that of musician. I played alto saxophone in elementary and high school. I enjoyed it, but I dropped it after graduating.
18. My favorite place on campus is the library—although I don’t spend enough time there. The 24-hour reading room, with the ceiling to floor windows, is just fabulous.
19. I love to teach the course War and Culture (HIST 367). It brings together the experience of war in 20th century Europe with culture. In this course we use works of literature, poetry, film, and memoirs to examine the impact of war on 20th century culture. It’s a great joy to teach it.
20. My favorite period for ideas would be the period I study, the interwar period from the 1920s-1940s—but really anything from 1900-1970. The creative output of the ’20s and ’60s fascinates me.
21. The great thing about being at Ave is the collegiality among the faculty and the creative energy of the students.