Monday, February 26, 2018

Book Review: Carlo Levi's "Christ Stopped at Eboli"

Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli was first published in 1945. A fictionalized work of reportage, the book was a colorful, impressionistic account of the year Levi spent in exile in Southern Italy. Since that year at the height of the fascist period and the colonial war in Ethiopia, Italy, and the world entire for that matter, had undergone the tortures of World War II and its extramartial horrors. Levi wrote in hiding in Florence as the Germans occupied and then fled Italy. As a result, this is no ordinary work of journalism, nor is it an ordinary memoir. It recounts a moment of political suppression from the vantage point of a maelstrom. Levi couldn't consult any reference works; he had only his memory and whatever books he'd managed to squirrel away. He couldn't know whether the book he was writing would ever see the light of day, whether it would damn him forever as a subversive or re-open a political discussion that had raged since Italian Unification. As a result of the Allied occupation of Italy and subsequent victory in Europe, Levi's anti-fascism was vindicated and Christ Stopped at Eboli became the first major work of Italian literature to be published post-war.

I stress the climate of extreme uncertainty and risk because the book's hopefulness, its basic insistence on the human being rather than the mass, the individual rather than the representative, can't be taken for granted. Levi's cri di coeur was anti-fascist, a recording of the results of his anti-fascism, but he was also addressing a future, a future that he dared to hope wouldn't be fascist or totalitarian. At the same time, this is not a polemical work. Levi doesn't insist on democracy, or communism; instead he pleads for thinking beyond those forms of already theorized political governance that exclude the Southerners that had been seen, since before the foundation of the Italian state, as a problem to be solved. "It's necessary that we render ourselves capable of thinking and creating a new state, one that can't be fascist, liberal, or communist, completely diverse, but substantially identical forms of the same state religion." (All translations in this review are my own.) Fascism insisted on the new superman, a nationalist symbol that never came into being, while democracy required ready-made citizens, participants in a voting system estranged from everything the peasantry had known for centuries, and communism was too closely allied with a northern proletariat with no understanding whatsoever of the different problems and needs of the peasantry.

Levi's reflections on this issue are anguished, but utopian. However, his essentially humanitarianism didn't apprise him of his own blind spots. His cosmopolitan eyes saw the peasants he lived among as closer to animals than he himself; over and over, peasants are described as "animalistic," their movements and expressions are compared to those of sheep, goats, foxes. Women in particular have bestial qualities: "The women, closed in veils, are like wild animals. They don't think of anything but physical love, with extreme naturalness, and they talk about it with a freedom and simplicity of language that astonishes." This is not language that pleases us in this day and age; it smacks of colonial imperialism and its accompanying racism. The strangeness that we would call difference today puzzles him, amazes him, sometimes disgusts him. His compassion and pity are unable to get out from under the carapace of paternalism that his Northern bourgeois cultural background assumes towards the South. Still, Levi doesn't immediately dismiss Southern customs and he doesn't expect Southerners to metamorphose into the citizens envisioned by outsiders. There might be condescension in his meticulous recounting of, for instance, the practices of witchcraft or an alternate understanding of time, but he doesn't dismiss the first as mere superstition and the second as backwardness.

This recognition of strangeness, or difference, as having its own legitimacy may not seem especially ground-breaking today, but we are talking about a book published in 1945, based on Levi's experiences in 1935 and 1936. If he can't quite restrain a certain exoticizing, romanticizing impulse, he works hard, and sometimes successfully, to root out his own sense of superiority, at least where men are concerned.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is most precious as a repository for the rich treasures of a culture and way of life that would for the most part disappear by the end of the century. This is why the book, though lacking a rigorous methodology, has been so important for anthropologists. Levi records the legend of Maria 'a Pastora, a female bandit who rode away after her bandit husband's death and was seen no more. Was she a legend or a real person? Levi is intelligent enough to recognize that such a question has no meaning in the folkloric tradition of these towns. This slippage between what a cosmopolitan, post-Enlightenment culture delineates as real and imaginary or legendary isn't smashing a binary, but refusing the imposition of a binary. The supernatural creatures that dot the landscape, the fruschi and the monachicchi, the werewolves and witches, are not strictly separated from the human. Double natures are the norm rather than the exception and Levi hears many eye-witness accounts of people who encountered angels, demons, ghosts, and those pesky monachicchi, the souls of unbaptized children. Levi himself knows several witches, including his housekeeper, Giulia, who teaches him incantations and the secrets of potion-making. "The continuous magic of the animals and things weighs on the heart like a funereal enchantment. And nothing presents itself, to liberate oneself from it, than other modes of magic." Levi bends to this other world, compared more than once to an island in an empty, forbidden sea, and for brief, bleary moments succeeds in rivivifying an instinct for it. This world, he claims, exists outside of time and this lack of time, this rejection of linearity, makes it impossible to connect, let alone merge, the two worlds. It is a world defined by death, indeed his descriptions call up Dante's Inferno and the ancients' Hades. The landscape is quite literally strewn with bones.

Unquestionably, Christ Stopped at Eboli is deeply subjective, but it is not Levi who claimed objectivity - rather, his readers did. If the book is still read as the textbook on the Southern question, that's a sign of the larger culture's failure to distinguish that the book is an autobiographical novel, not a work of social science. Its idiosyncrasies and prejudices are not separable from the insights and ethnographic details. I see nothing sinister in this, the way I do when I read a work of deeply flawed, prejudicial social science such as Edward Banfield's The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which claims to present facts rather than nonsensical propaganda, objective analysis rather than racist fairy tale, although Banfield couldn't understand a word spoken by the subject of his study. Like so many great works of literature, Christ Stopped at Eboli balances its gorgeous prose and dubious social criticism, its compassion and its snobbery, its artful juxtapositions and its flat-footed misogyny. Timelessness is an overrated quality; it's also one that is historically determined. Christ Stopped at Eboli isn't timeless: it belongs to the past, which is all to the good, for without such literary time machines we remain trapped, hopelessly, in the present.

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