Saturday, April 27, 2013

Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi

The book was recommended to me by my friend Lucio who immigrated to America from a village in the Abruzzo region of Italy, when he was 14.  He told me that there was a saying in Italian, "Are you a Christian or an animal." He wanted to find out the original meaning of the expression, and he said that it was explained in this book. As I read the book, I sent emails to Lucio with comments on the story.  I have cobbled together my email comments below.

In 1935, the author Carlo Levi was convicted of being opposed to fascism and was sentenced to live in exile in a village in the remote, underdeveloped region of Basilicata (Lucania) in Southern Italy. The book chronicles his first year in the village.  He wrote the book in 1943-44.

4/25/2013

I just picked-up the book from my local library.

The intro which was written by Carlo Levi for the 2nd edition of the English translation is a tour-de-force, a powerful enticement to read the rest. Chapter 1 is just two pages long. After the first paragraph, the rest of the chapter is about the human/christian metaphor--and deep waters ("Are you a Christian or an animal?").

Coincidentally, a friend loaned me a copy of the Bible on CD, and I have been listening to it in my car.  I've almost finished the Pentateuch which includes the dictation of the Jewish law from God to Moses. At the end of chapter 1 of, Christ Stopped at Eboli, the Jewish Levy says, "Christ descended into the underground hell of Hebrew moral principle in order to break down its doors in time and to seal them up into eternity." Can Levy get any deeper?  

He then presents a rather stark juxtaposition, of Christ who descended even into hell, yet never came to Eboli.

I recall your saying that Levy is more authentically Christian than most Christians. That's beginning to sound like a monumental understatement.

Are all Italian writers like this?


4/26/2013

In the literature of the Communion and Liberation Movement, regarding the good of the self, much of the literature uses the term, the "I."  We never talk like this in America, and I found the usage of the phrase the "I" to be a little strange.  But Levi uses the term in the introduction to the book. I suspect this may be more commonly used in Italian.

I also noted how, in 20th century Italy (1935), Levi uses the term peasants to describe the common people. 

Levi was arrested for his opposition to fascism at the time of the Abyssinian War.  He was a political prisoner! Although it appears that Italy treated its political prisoners very civilly, I can only imagine that it must have been absolutely humiliating.


4/27/2013  Chapter 3

It is 1935. The Abyssinian War with Ethiopia has just begun. 

A political prisoner, Levi is not treated like a murder or a rapist.  On the contrary, each of the gentry of the village want to meet him, as if he were an honored guest. They look upon him as one of their class and try to act as if they are up to his class.

Levi is very literary.  With a few sentences or a paragraph, he paints a vivid image of each character.
Every character tell him about the flaws, sordid history and gossip of everyone else in the town.
The few gentry consist of the 2 doctors, a lawyer, the mayor who doubles as a schoolteacher, and a penniless playboy. All are either incompetent and corrupt.  There are factions, and everyone hates somebody else.

In his characterizations, Levi reminds me of the American book Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson.


4/27/2013  Chapter 4

I should have mentioned that Levi is not at Eboli yet but some other village.

All of the gentry with the means left for Naples or Rome a long time ago. The adventurous, whether gentry or peasant, have gone to America.  Left behind are those who have nothing going for themselves.

This is exactly what has happened to the rural villages in Mexico, as a result of NAFTA.

Political corruption is almost the norm, and the gentry don't hesitate to carry out murderous vendettas.


4/28/2013  chapter 5

In Italy, if you were opposed to fascism, you were arrested. you were a political prisoner.
But the Italians were very humane. They just put you in handcuffs and brought you to a remote village. You couldn't go outside certain boundaries.

The crazy thing is, in the villages, all of the gentry want to meet him.  Levi is treated like a distinguished guest. Levi had been in a village named Grasano. Now he is in another village nearby.

Because Levi is a doctor and show compassion and concern, the peasants that have sick people in their family treat him like a saint.  One of the local doctors treats every disease and injury with quinine--no matter what the problem is. He laments that there are no other medicines available!  There was a pharmacist in the town but he died. Nevertheless, his daughters carry on running the pharmacy. The town figured that they could let them at least run the store until the inventory of drugs ran out.  Apparently the daughters don't or don;t know how to order more medicines.  So after the inventory runs out,  they just fill empty pill cases with whatever powder is around and sell it to people.  It seems that the towns people know this and don;t seem to mind!

In this new village, the priest is a whiskey priest.  He had been a seminary professor and an artist, but he molested a student, and the Bishop sent him to the village as a Penance. He is an alcoholic. 

The most outwardly and formally religious person around is a Baron whose job is to collect taxes. But when it comes to collecting taxes is a heartless bastard.  When the jig is up, he evicts them from their homes.

Levi is an outstanding writer.  He is excellent at characterizing someone in a few sentences or a paragraph.  So far, he has maintained an interior detachment from all of these characters.

Levi is well read in St. Augustine (and the Baron is impressed by that).


4/49/2013  chapter 6

Right now, Carlo Levi is in a town called Gagliano. Don Luigi Malone is responsible for the political prisoners. One other political prisoner was an officer of a fascist militia and also a communist. There is another political prisoner who is a mason and a communist.  Don Luigi told the mason that Darwin's ideas were contrary to the Catholic religion, that Catholicism and Fascism were one and the same. To talk about Darwinism amounted to anti-fascism. 

Don Luigo decreed that the two political prisoners were not allowed to see each other, despite the fact that they live across the street from each other. Both prisoners used to cook their meals together, to save money. But since the decree, each night, one of them cooks,  then brings a plate across the street, leaves it on a wall in front of the others house.  After he returns and goes back inside his own house.  The other guy comes out and brings the plate of food inside.

You can't make this stuff up.


4/30/13

What is very remarkable is the fact that Carlo Levi is Jewish is not an issue with anyone.  It is not mentioned by anyone.


5/2/13 Chapter 9

"The gentry were all Party members, even the few like Dr. Millilo who were dissenters. The Party stood for Power, as vested 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. They were not Fascists, just as they would never have been Conservatives or Socialists, or anything else. Such matters had nothing to do with them; they belonged to another world and they saw no sense in them. What had the peasants to do with Power, Government, and the State?" The State, whatever form it might take, meant 'the fellows in Rome.'  'Everyone knows,' they said, "that the fellows in Rome' don't want us to live like human beings. There are hailstones, landslides, droughts, malaria and ... the State. These are inescapable evils; such there always have been and always will be. They make us kill off our goats, they carry away our furniture, and now they're going to send us to the wars. Such is life!'"


5/2/13 Chapter 10

Carlo has become the town doctor in Gagliano. Though he had graduated from medical school in Turin, he had never practice before as a doctor.  But here in Gagliano, as well as Grasano before, the two local doctors are incompetent.  When the peasants flock to him. He doesn't want to be their doctor, and he has enormous anxiety. But also worry, care and concern for the sick. Amazingly, the peasants who come to him are healed. he seems to save one or two from death. He even does minor surgery. The trust and faith that the peasants have in him is awesome.  There is a barber in town who pulls teeth, does some medical procedures, and provides herbal medicines.  Carlo says that he is more competent than the 2 village doctors and asks him to be his assistant. 

Carlo's sister came from Turin for a visit.  She is a practicing Physician.  But on the way she stops at two or three villages/cities and she shops for a stethoscope to give to her brother as a gift (he doesn't have one).  None of the pharmacies or doctors in the poor towns have ever heard of a stethoscope!

She stopped in the twin of Matera which she had read had some sites to see.
In Matera she is shocked and overwhelmed by how poor the town is.  As per her description, the condition of the people, especially the children, is almost that of animals.  All of the people in southern Italy are plagued by Malaria.  It seems that every child in Matera has malaria. There is a very haunting, sad passage where Carlo's sister goes off to see the sites but is followed all the way by a gang of young children who do nothing but beg for quinine from her.


Chapter 12

"To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasant's world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above; and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village."


5/3/13

Italian Culture and Catholicism

In the literature of the Communion and Liberation Movement, there is much talk of the "I".  We do not talk this way in America.  That short phrase was always very foreign to me, so much so that for the longest time I didn't understand what they were talking about. I thought it must be some mysterious, specific concept or that there wa some subtly that I was missing.  But they were simply taking about the self.

In Carlo Levi's introduction to this second edition in English, he talks about his state of mind when in 1943 and 1944, he wrote the book. Part of what he says: "Who was the 'I,' concealed like the shoot beneath the tree bark, who was looking for the first time at those things that are elsewhere, and who wandered among those deserted fields, in the age-old stillness of the peasant world, under the unwinking eye of the she-goat?" With that I concluded that usage of the phrase, the "I," is of Italian origin.

This usage of the "I" not withstanding, from Levi, I am getting a sense that the Catholicism that I grew up with is heavily Roman/Italian in outlook and attitude.

In Lucania, the peasants are virtually pagans or pantheists, in the way they look at and understand nature and the divine. Their culture and beliefs are a mix of paganism and Catholic cultural customs, and they have no conflict about it. Whereas the Catholic intellectual thought is neo-platonic and dualistic with respect to reality, the peasants seem not to be. When I was a child, in formal religion classes, we were specifically taught to think against the peasant's ways of thinking. I sense that Fr. Giussani (CL founder) proposes a third way of thinking which is a Catholic humanism that yet would accept and understand and makes sense from the peasant's (or anyone's) experience [and I have gotten above my pay grade here].

Most incredibly and notable, Carlo Levi is a genius of humanism.

5/4/13

As a political prisoner, Levi is not allowed to go outside the boundaries of the village without permission. To do so, he must ask for permission in writing and that can take days, weeks, or even months. At one point, the powers that be decided that Levi is not allowed to practice medicine anymore. But the peasants understood and simply knocked on his door at night.

There was a man with a life threatening condition but who lived outside the village. When the peasants  sent for the doctor, he had to explain that he is not allowed to go there.  After arrangements were finally made for him to go, by the time he arrived, the man had died. This drove the peasants into a rage, not at Levi, but at the officials. They said to Levi, "We're dogs, and in Rome they want us to die like dogs. One Christian soul should take pity on us, and now they want to take him away. We'll burn the town hall and kill the mayor."

Shortly afterwards another said, "Just as long as Rome controls our local affairs and wields the power of life and death over us we shall go on like dumb animals."

Long ago the peasants had labelled Levy a Christian.

From this and other passages, I infer that the peasants are using the word Christian in the true sense of the word--meaning a person with a charitable heart. And by animal, they mean someone who is predatory or selfish whether it be with regard to material gain or power.

What an insightful juxtaposition that the peasants call the Jewish Levi a Christian!

Are you a Christian or an animal?

5/4/13

"To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasant's world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above; and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village."


5/15/13

In Christ Stopped at Eboli, the author Carlo Levi shows us the innate human dignity of all people. The Italian expression, "Are you a Christian or an animal?" is a recognition of human dignity. To the hearer, it is a challenge, an appeal to their better nature. It applies to whether you are acting, being treated, or treating others with human dignity. The most persistent and haunting image from the book is when Levi's sister, a practicing physician from Turin, visits the town of Matera as a tourist and is followed to a museum by a group of filthy, half-naked children, all with malaria, begging for quinine.

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