Civilization and the South… of Italy _Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year_ by Carlo Levi

Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year. by Carlo Levi.

Levi, Carlo. Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year. Ferrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 1947. Translated by Frances Frenaye. With Foreward by Carlo Levi, 1963. Introduction copyright, 2006 by Mark Rotella.

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I have fallen in love with the beautiful descriptive prose of Carlo Levi, who was sent to the south of Italy, Aliano, as a political prisoner in 1935. He stayed for one year, and later, when he was in hiding, he wrote, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is both an homage to the peasants of Gagliano (Aliano spelled the way the peasants pronounced it), and a, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, political reflection of Northern dominance.

If I said to a friend, “I read this book, Christ Stopped at Eboli,” the next words out of my mouth would have to be, “this book is not about Christ.” Books with Christ in the title immediately shut down a conversation. It is not like a book with Buddha in the title. There is no edge to the Buddha, no Western history of him. Christ, is in our bones in the West; in Italy even more so. Levi tells us, Southern Italy was poor and desolate that the peasants would say, Christ stopped at Eboli (south of Naples), meaning civilization stopped; time stopped at the town of Eboli. Believing you are better than your southern counterparts is nothing new, but it is more than a mere perspective. It effects the political imagination and public policy. The title has been earned by the long and hard lived peasant reality.

It is unimaginable for an American to see something wrong with Northern modernity and Southern medievalism. Italy for us is Northern hyper-engagement with culture and Southern hypo-detachment from culture. We are often attracted to places where time has stopped. They are quaint and feed our nostalgia. And then we have the North to feed our modernity. We are hardly conscious of our blindness and self-absorption.

Back to the book that is not about Christ:

If you claim an Italian heritage, even after living in the U.S. for three generations, most likely you have roots in the south of Italy. Southerners have always been the ones who left their homes to find a better place. There are not many people who need to move from Turin or Milan. The south, in many countries, for some reason, is always abandoned; always considered backward, uncivilized and uncultured. My Italian roots are in the south and when I read this book I began to connect family behavior to a long forgotten geography.

The year is 1935 and the fascists are openly displaying in the streets of Italy like wild chimpanzees. Like all good fascist regimes if you are with them, great, if you are against them then you will find yourself silenced in severe ways which come in the form of imprisonment, exile and death. Carlo Levi, an artist, doctor and writer from the northern city of Turin was actively against fascism, which would make him an anti-fascist (antifa?). Taken as a political prisoner in Mussolini’s Italy he spent time in a cell then sent to Grassano, a town in southern Italy, which he liked very much, and might have been too civilized and so he was then sent to Aliano (again, which is spelled Gagliano in the book), a town a little more south and subject to greater neglect.

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Upon arriving at Gagliano, Levi comments about his punishment, which does not appear to be a punishment at all. He has not been exiled to a different country. He has not been tossed into a small cell with no light and little food. He has not been shot.

“A prisoner may find greater consolation in a cell with romantic, heavy iron bars than in one that superficially resembles a normal room” (p. 7).

Mussolini’s Italy, his populist fascist government was not about the people, and it certainly was not about the Southern people.

But, after Carlo Levi writes about a prison cell being, in many instances, better than a place that “resembles a normal room” because it is a painful illusion, he adds in the very next sentence:

“But my first impression was only in part correct” (7)

“Only in part correct,” which means it was indeed desolate, despairing, and medieval in culture; yet, there was something that deeply moved Levi and as his year unfolds we also are deeply moved.

Although, the landscape was desolate and dry clay; although, there were no architectural achievements that caught the eye or provided any relief from the unending, scorched horizon; although, there were no cars but one broken down fiat, and no libraries, books, shops, theaters or even hospitals and communication was heavily censored; although, food was scarce and malaria was everywhere, there were the peasants who made a life from this rough and forsaken landscape.

There was no one in town equal to Levi in intellect and interest. There was monotony, ignorance, decrepitude, sickness, and utter lack. There was no escape.

And yet,

Carlo Levi has written a beautiful book, which has been translated beautifully as well by Frances Frenaye. It is a book that is full of description, but somehow avoids being self-imposing. Levi is artful and delicate as he gently paints word portraits of his small and dark world.

Each portrait not only reveals where Carlo Levi stands politically, but also challenges Levi to move from the place where he stands. He is less generous; less kind to the gentry, who were less generous and less kind to the peasants.

“While Donna Caterina was speaking, her father-in-law, Don Pasquale Cuscianna, attracted by the smell of fresh cakes, came into the room with short, slow, awkward steps. He was wrapped in a cloak, with a quilted skull-cap on his head and a pipe in his toothless mouth. He was an obese, heavy, deaf old-man, greedy and grasping like an enormous silk-worm. He, too, had been a schoolmaster before his retirement. Indeed, Gagliano, like all of Italy, was in the hands of the schoolmasters. Don Pasquale was generally respected. He spent the day sleeping and eating, or else sitting on the wall at one side of the square to smoke. His daughter-in-law had told me that he was ailing: he had an affliction of the prostate gland and possibly a touch of diabetes, which did not prevent him, however, from falling promptly upon the left-over cakes and wolfing them voraciously. Then he hoisted himself with grunts of satisfaction into a chaise-lounge, pretended with an occasional mutter to join our conversation, of which on account of his deafness he could hear not a word, and soon, mumbling and puffing in turn, he fell asleep” (59).

His descriptions of the peasants are no less harsh, but there is a gentleness, like a rough and calloused hand, that touches each face forgotten by its own government.

“Guilia was a tall and shapely woman with a waist as slender as that of an amphora between her well-developed chest and hips. In her youth she must have had a solemn and barbaric beauty. Her face was wrinkled with age and yellowed by malaria, but there were traces of former charm in its sharp, straight lines, like those of a classical temple which has lost the marbles that adorned it but kept its shape and proportions. A small head, in the shape of a lengthened oval, covered with a veil, rose above her impressively large and erect body, which breathed an animal vigor. Her forehead was straight and high, half hidden by a lock of smooth black hair; her almond-shaped, opaque, black eyes had whites with blue and brown veins in them like those of dogs. Her nose was thin and long, slightly hooked; her wide mouth with thin, pale lips, somewhat turned down at the corners in bitterness, opened when she laughed, over powerful, sparkling, wolflike teeth. Her face as a whole had a strongly archaic character, not classical in the Greek or Roman sense, but stemming from an antiquity more mysterious and more cruel which had sprung always from the same ground, and which was unrelated to man, but linked with the soil and its everlasting animal deities. There were mingled in it cold sensuality, hidden irony, natural cruelty, impenetrable ill-humor and an immense passive power, all these bound together in a stern, intelligent and malicious expression” (105).

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Levi’s shift in geographical landscape — from the Northern modern city of Turin to a Southern pre-modern town of Gagliano — results in a deep political shift. Not one to favor the Party (fascist party), he also begins to re-think how unaware of the South he and his friends were when living in Turin; yet they thought the right party could solve their problems.

“The gentry were all Party members, even the few like Milillo who were dissenters. The Party stood for power, as rested in the Government and the State, and they felt entitled to a share of it. For exactly the opposite reason none of the peasants were members; indeed, it was unlikely that they should belong to any political party whatever, should by chance, another exist” (76).

He now sees a people, the peasants, who do not feel connected in any way to the Government. The peasants tell him that ‘“the fellows in Rome do not want us to live like human beings”’ (76). And here is where the land shifts for Levi, and whatever previous notions he held about the “Southern problem” fall away.

“The deities of the State and the city can find no worshippers here on the land, where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below” (77).

While he recognizes the strangeness in the peasant who seems to be otherworldly, pagan, medieval, and therefor not as civilized as modern man; Levi also begins to see attributes manifest in modern men, who worship the “State” and the “City” as if they were “deities,” as equally strange and troubling.

“At bottom, as I now perceived, they were all unconscious worshipers of the State. Whether the State they worshipped was the Fascist State or the incarnation of quite another dream, they thought of it as something that transcended both its citizens and their lives” (249).

After living with the peasants Levi could not help thinking that the peasants themselves ought to be permitted a say in their governance. He was not at all interested in forcing modernity on them. He seemed confident that within them they could make this transformation on their own, if they were encouraged to step into time instead of being forced to remain outside of it. Moreover, whether the South remained “medieval” or “backward” was not the point; rather allowing the peasants to decide what is best for themselves and the land could yield creative results.

To this end, he envisions a State which allows for much more autonomy than existed.

“The State can only be a group of autonomies, an organic federation. The unit or cell through which the peasants can take part in the complex life of the nation must be the autonomous or self-governing rural community. This is the only form of government which can solve in our time the three interdependent aspects of the problem of the South; which can allow the co-existence of two different civilizations, without one lording it over the other or weighing the other down; which can furnish a good chance for escape from poverty; and which, finally, by the abolition of the powers and functions of the landowners and the local middle class, can assure the peasants a life of their own, for the benefit of all. But the autonomy or self-government of the community cannot exist without the autonomy of the factory, the school, and the city, of every form of social life. This is what I learned from a year of life underground” (254).

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There is so much in Carlo Levi’s book that draws me to it. This idea of the State effacing identity in order to streamline identity is a problem we live with today in the United States. The idea of the peasant thinking she/he is less than human makes my heart break for my own ancestors who came from the South of Italy. Did they carry with them this feeling of being less than a human being? Is this why they were slow to educate themselves? My grandparents, who were first generation Italians shared many peasant ways. They were neither State worshipers or Religion worshipers. They felt you should keep your head down and keep out of trouble. By the time my parents, second generation Italians, began to work and raise a family, the United States was more prosperous. The middle-class was growing. My parents were solid middle-class, and they solidly believed the State would save them. They believed in the deity of the State. They even gave us neutral sounding names so that we could slip by unnoticed — at least on a resume.

Carlo Levi never returned to Gagliano as he promised the peasants he would. But, he did something Christlike for them. He looked upon them and raised them to eye level. He saw them as human beings. This, after all, is the very definition of loving your neighbor. In 1943, when he was exiled again, he wrote about his year in Gagliano and lifted the peasants so all the world could see them as human beings. He never went back to Gagliano, and never went back to his former Turin self. The gift he gave to the peasants of seeing them was returned as a way of seeing himself in the world.

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