Carlo Levi's Sacred Art of Healing (1).
Although Levi has been rightly criticized, from an ethnological perspective, for his mythologizing, a-historical conception of the contadini (Carpitella 207; Lanternari 215), his "antropologia meridionalista" nevertheless inspired--in part, no doubt, because of his mythic imagination--unprecedented attention to the "other" Italy.
Levi's anthropological vision, however, is not limited to an ethnological interest in the rural communities of Southern Italy, those of Lucania in particular. Nor is it merely the result of his presence in Grassano and Aliano (Gagliano in the novel) as a political exile. On the contrary, I shall argue in this essay that a crucial if understudied aspect of Levi's anthropology is precisely its mythicphilosophical dimension and the consequences of this anthropological theory for Levi's socio-political program. Specifically, I shall show that Levi's intense interest in the relationship of the individual to social structures, theorized in Paura della liberta and dramatized in Cristo si e fermato a Eboli, makes him a worthy contributor to discussions of the sacred and the dialectic of differentiation and undifferentiation put forth by such influential thinkers as Victor Turner and Rene Girard. I view Levi's figuration of medicine in Cristo--raised, under the sign of magic, to an art of healing--as emblematic of both the creative energy generated by contact with the sacred and the limitations of such contact. Locating Levi at the intersection, so to speak, of Turner and Girard, I consider, finally, how Levi's call for political autonomy as an ideal "punto di mediazione" between the individual and the state has recently evolved in ways he could hardly have imagined.
In Violence and the Sacred, Girard seeks to account for the violence unleashed in communities still immersed in the sacred and, conversely, to explain (in at times apologetic tones) the role of Western institutions, especially religion, in curbing such violence. (3) To be sure, there is a sense of urgency to Girard's argument insofar as he thinks we are on the brink of a sacrificial crisis, a moment which "coincides with the disappearance of the difference between impure violence and purifying violence"; he warns that "[w]hen this difference has been effaced, purification are no longer possible and impure, contagious, reciprocal violence spreads throughout the community" (49). Anticipating the more overt theological and religious framework of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World and The Scapegoat, Girard chides modern thinkers who, through "willful blindness ... continue to see religion as an isolated, wholly fictitious phenomenon cherished only by a few backward peoples or milieus" (317). Writing at a time of considerable social and intellectual upheaval, under the shadow of the cold war and the arms race, he concludes Violence and the Sacred with an apocalyptic flourish: "We have managed to extricate ourselves from the sacred somewhat more successfully than other societies have done, to the point of losing all memory of the generative violence; but we are now about to rediscover it. The essential violence returns to us in a spectacular manner--not only in the form of a violent history but also in the form of subversive knowledge" (318).
Aptly called a "christianisation des sciences humaines" (Lagarde), Girard's project "pivots upon nothing less than a claim about the impact that a truly divine revelation has had on the human social order" (Livingston xvii). Thus, when Girard asserts that the function of ritual is "to keep violence outside the community" (Violence 92), he generally means that the purpose of the sacrificial rites of religion is to contain the violence "at the heart and secret soul of the sacred" (31). For Girard, then, the sacred is primarily figured as a danger, the embodiment of "all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace" (58). (4) More important, Girard's linkage of violence and the sacred hinges on the loss of differences, "the disintegration of distinctions within the community" (114). The sacrificial crisis, in other words, occurs when the "differences disappear in the domain of the sacred only because they are indiscriminately mixed together and become indistinguishable in the confusion" (282). The community, by contrast, is defined by its separation from the undifferentiated world of the sacred since its "[o]rder, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions" (49). For this reason, the ritual victims needed to restore societal order are found outside the community, "from creatures (like animals and strangers) that normally dwell amidst sacred things and are themselves imbued with sacredness" (270). Against Levi-Strauss, Girard views ritual as the means to eliminate the "evil mixture" of the undifferentiated sacred and thereby "make culture safe for differentiation" ("To Double Business Bound" 169).
Victor Turner, on the other hand, carves out a more positive space for the interrelated concepts of undifferentiation and the sacred. In The Ritual Process he considers groups as diverse as tribal societies, medieval religious communities, millenarian movements, and hippies to show how individuals satisfy their need to participate in both "structure" and "communitas," two models of "human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating" (96). Turner's own juxtaposition of his definitions of structure and communitas immediately discloses a significant reversal in emphasis from Girard's privileging of differentiation over undifferentiation:
One ... is of society as a structure of jural, political, and economic positions, offices, statuses, and roles, in which the individual is only ambiguously grasped behind the social persona. The other is of society as a communitas of concrete idiosyncratic individuals, who, though differing in physical and mental endowment, are nonetheless regarded as equal in terms of shared humanity. The first model is of a differentiated, culturally structured, segmented, and often hierarchical system of institutionalized positions. The second presents society as an undifferentiated, homogeneous whole, in which individuals confront one another integrally, and not as 'segmentalized' into statuses and roles. (177)
Through a detailed discussion of rites of passage, rituals of status elevation or reversal, and the rise of ideological communities, Turner examines the experience of those who pass through or embody communitas in terms of liminality, marginality, and "structural inferiority" (128). He further observes that, in each of its three manifestations, communitas "is almost everywhere held to be sacred or 'holy,' possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency" (128).
Whereas Girard views the sacred as the harbinger of violence precisely because it is predicated on undifferentiation, for Turner it is only from the perspective of those invested in maintaining structure that "all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions" (109). The real threat, according to Turner, arises from the cultural distinctions privileged by Girard as the necessary condition for order and stability. Thus, in a passage cited by Girard as an example of "an 'antidifferential' prejudice" in ethnological studies (Violence 50), Turner writes: "Structural differentiation, both vertical and horizontal, is the foundation of strife and factionalism, and of struggles in dyadic relations between incumbents of positions or rivals for positions" (Ritual 179). (5) For Turner, then, differentiation itself, even more so than the dissolution of differences in communitas, is a variable that must be closely monitored to prevent outbreaks of conflict and violence.
In practice, of course, both Turner and Girard recognize the interdependence of undifferentiation and differentiation--the sacred and the sacrificial, communitas and social structure--as an intrinsic feature of individual and group life. Girard, noting the "complex and delicate nature of the community's dealings with the sacred," advocates an "optimum distance": "If the community comes too near the sacred it risks being devoured by it; if, on the other hand, the community drifts too far away, out of range of the sacred's therapeutic threats and warnings, the effects of its fecund presence are lost" (Violence 268). And Turner, who warns that exaggerated structure or communitas could trigger a dangerous backlash effect (Ritual 129), elsewhere opines that "much of the misery of the world has been due to the principled activities of fanatics of both persuasions" ("Passages" 268). While "spontaneous communitas" may be inattentive to the material and organizational needs of society, "structural action swiftly becomes arid and mechanical if those involved in it are not periodically immersed in the regenerative abyss of communitas" (Ritual 139). "Wisdom," Turner therefore suggests, "is always to find the appropriate relationship between structure and communitas under the given circumstances of time and place, to accept each modality when it is paramount without rejecting the other, and not to cling to one when its present impetus is spent" (139).
A similarly dialectical, contextual treatment of differentiation and undifferentiation is, in fact, the hallmark of Carlo Levi's argument in Paura della liberta. This short but substantive amalgam of, inter alia, religious myth, Jungian psychoanalysis, and Vico's philosophical thought is nothing less than Levi's ardent attempt to probe the underlying reasons for the huge historical crisis of Western civilization while "un vento di morte e di oscura religione sconvolgeva gli antichi stati d'Europa" (10). Written during a period of exile in France as German tanks began to overrun Poland in 1939, Levi initially conceived of the work as a massive cultural assessment of the mythic and historical underpinnings of such institutions of collective human existence as religion, politics, art, science, and technology. He felt compelled to take on this encyclopedic project to account for the dissolution of values and ideologies occasioned by the triumph of Nazifascism. Like Girard writing three decades later, though undoubtedly confronted with a more imminent, tangible crisis, Levi sought to explain, if only for himself, the underlying reasons--philosophical, psychological, and anthropological--of the human capacity for violence. The outbreak of war, combined with the death of his father, proved decisive: "Se il passato era morto, il presente incerto e terribile, il futuro misterioso, si sentiva il bisogno di fare il punto; di fermarsi a considerare le ragioni di quella cruenta rivoluzione che incominciava" (11). Although Levi abandoned his encyclopedic enterprise when the Nazis occupied France, he later realized that the eight introductory chapters he had already written contained in nuce his argument. He eventually published them as Paura della liberta in 1946, a year after the appearance of Cristo.
Long recognized as the foundation for Levi's subsequent creative and intellectual work, Paura has recently received insightful critical attention, both as an expression of Levi's views of the State, history, and the human condition (Baldassaro) and as the diagnosis of Nazifascism subtending Levi's antifascist politics (Ward 157-68). (6) Paura is also Levi's ante litteram response to Girard and Turner articulated at a moment when understanding the role of the sacred and its relationship to the individual and society was essential for rethinking the values, and imagining the renewal, of Western civilization. Indeed, the sacred is a powerful concept for Levi that figures, paradoxically, as both the exterminator and generator of freedom and art, the creative impulses of the human spirit in individual, social, and historical contexts. "Sacro," Levi writes, is "l'oscura continua negazione della liberta e dell'arte, e, insieme, per contrasto, il generatore continuo della liberta e dell'arte" (17). This double-edged conception captures Girard's alignment of the sacred with "all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace" (Violence 58) as well as Turner's view that the sacred is experienced through periodic immersion "in the regenerative abyss of communitas" (Ritual 139).
Levi appropriately defines the sacred in relationship to the dialectic of differentiation and undifferentiation. "Sacro" is precisely "lo spavento dell'indeterminato in chi e nello sforzo di autocrearsi e di separarsi" (20). He uses the images of "caos" and "massa" to figure the primordial undifferentiated state, also called the "indistinto originario" (19), out of which differentiation occurs: "ogni uomo nasce del caos, e puo riperdersi nel caos: viene dalla massa per differenziarsi, e puo perder forma e nella massa riassorbirsi" (19). Individuals are moved by an "oscura liberta" to separate from this undifferentiated condition and acquire distinct characteristics ("individuarsi") at the same time that they are driven by an "oscura necessita" to rejoin the universal, formless mass (19). Oscillations between these competing impulses begin with the individual's first, "prenatal" death (separation from the chaotic mass) and continue to its natural death. However, "true death," like the misery wrought by the fanatics of structure and communitas in Turner's account, occurs only when either side of this dialectic is taken to an extreme: "il distacco totale dal flusso dell'indifferenziato, vuota ragione egoistica, astratta liberta--e, all'opposto, l'incapacita totale a differenziarsi, mistica oscurita bestiale, servitu dell'inesprimibile" (19).
History itself, according to Levi, is nothing less than alternating periods of separation from, and regeneration in, the "indistinto originario" (106). Differentiation can release the creative potential of individuals and the community, but contact with the undifferentiated mass is equally necessary for re-creation when the state and religion are reduced to the arid determinations of reason, law, and ritual. Ultimately, what really matters, the true moment of civilization and creativity, is some ideal point of equilibrium between the two extremes:
Ma i soli momenti vivi nei singoli uomini, i soli periodi di alta civilta nella storia, sono quelli in cui i due opposti processi di differenziazione e di indifferenziazione trovano un punto di mediazione, e coesistono nell'atto creatore. (19)
This "punto di mediazione," in which differentiation and undifferentiation coexist in a creative act, takes various forms in Levi's thought. Mythically, he figures pre-lapsarian Eden as the place where "indeterminatezza era insieme determinazione," a time when "Ogni atto era atto di liberta ... ogni opera era creativa" (120). In the world of time and history, Levi likewise asserts that peace and freedom can coexist for humankind only when "la sua liberta gli consente di essere insieme individuazione personale e universalita illimitata" (88-89). While large, sprawling cities, as well as wars, reduce humanity to an undifferentiated mass, smaller social units--from the family to the mid-sized town--present possibilities for "punti di mediazione" insofar as "[t]utti si conoscono, e devono percio differenziarsi" (108). Levi therefore celebrates life and creativity--in individual, artistic, social, and historical contexts--at the point of equilibrium between the opposing impulses of separation and immersion, sacrifice and the sacred.
In the chapter of Paura titled "Schiavitu," Levi describes the anthropological and historical dilemma of Italy in terms of an incomplete fusion of two very different civilizations, "l'originale innesto di una civilta militare, statolatra, religiosa, giuridica, su una civilta contadina, anarchica, irreligiosa, poetica" (55). This is the problem that Levi, far from resolving, revisits in dramatic fashion in Cristo si e fermato a Eboli, his major work composed some five years after Paura della liberta but similarly based on his experience as an antifascist "confinato" in the Lucanian towns of Grassano and Aliano (Gagliano) in 1935-36. Levi immediately establishes the "desolate terre" of Lucania as an undifferentiated realm, a place untouched by the "civilizing," differentiating forces of time, religion, reason, and history (15). (7) To say that Christ stopped at Eboli means, for Levi, that the Western tradition, characterized by historical progress and the theocratic state, has never entered the mountains and forests of Lucania "se non come un conquistatore o un nemico o un visitatore incomprensivo" (15-16). Levi figures the encroachment of the rituals of Western civilization not as Girard's therapeutic curb on, but as the very origin of, violence and blood sacrifice. Based no doubt on his virulent opposition to Fascism and the mythic structures used to support it, Levi praises Virgil as a "grande storico" for describing the religion of the Trojans, ancestors of the Romans, as "feroce" since it required human sacrifices: "sulla pira di Pallante, il pio Enea sgozza i prigionieri, come sacrificio ai suoi dei dello Stato" (122).
However, insofar as Carlo Levi is himself a product of this Western tradition the problem he faces is how to represent, through the faculty of memory, his contact as an "intellettuale differenziato" with the "massa indifferenziata" of the Lucanian contadini (Falaschi 64). This contact occurs primarily through the protagonist's medical and artistic activities. These two roles, in addition to representing "l'incarnazione della volonta di liberazione e d'autodeterminazione dell'uomo" (Bassani 37), provide the key that allows the differentiated subject to penetrate the closed world of the contadini and renew himself in the creative chaos of undifferentiated humanity. Levi himself figures his contact with Lucanian culture through the metaphor of "penetration" by means of a "key" when he recounts how, against the advice of Dr. Milillo, he exposed himself to the magical "filtri" of the peasant women by accepting their invitations for coffee or wine:
Se c'erano dei filtri, forse si sono vicendevolmente neutralizzati. Certo non mi hanno fatto male; forse mi hanno, in qualche modo misterioso, aiutato a penetrare in quel mondo chiuso, velato di veli neri, sanguigno e terrestre, nell'altro mondo dei contadini, dove non si entra senza una chiave di magia. (23-24)
This reflection ironically counters Dr. Milillo's misogyny and hostility toward the contadini by respecting the magical powers of this "closed world," those of the "filtri" in particular. Seeking a key to penetrate the mysterious world of the contadini, Levi thus adopts the authenticating strategy that Clifford Geertz ascribes to anthropologists when they write up their fieldwork:
The ability of anthropologists to get us to take what they say seriously has less to do with either a factual look or an air of conceptual elegance than it has with their capacity to convince us that what they say is a result of having actually penetrated (or, if your prefer, been penetrated by) another form of life, of having, one way or another, truly 'been there.' And that, persuading us that this offstage miracle has occurred, is where the writing comes in.
Levi's legitimating claim in Cristo to having "actually penetrated" or "been penetrated by" the culture of the Lucanian contadini hinges on the mutually reinforcing activities of magic and medicine. (8)
Since most of Carlo's acquaintances among the contadini of Gagliano result from their need for medical attention (73), it is natural that he would both "penetrate" and "be penetrated by" their undifferentiated world through his healing art, referred to in a letter from his sister Luisa, herself a "medico valentissimo" (Cristo 73), as his "nobile e utile missione." (9) Yet, this reciprocal influence is neither immediate nor automatic. Rather, the development of this reciprocity itself constitutes a major theme of the novel, as the distance traveled between the two principle medical episodes vividly illustrates. In the first case, shortly after his arrival in Gagliano, Carlo, who has medical training but little practical experience, is asked to visit a sick peasant. A group of men dressed in black eventually convince him to see the moribund patient, and they introduce him to a veritable ritual of death: in a dark room the sick man, fully dressed, including hat and shoes, lies on a makeshift stretcher, with women wailing and crying in the shadows. The narrative description of the doctor's visit is cold and to the point. He has been asked to try to save the man:
Ma non c'era piu nulla da fare: l'uomo stava morendo. Inutili le fiale trovate a casa della vedova, con cui, per solo scrupolo di coscienza, ma senza nessuna speranza, cercai di rianimarlo. Era un attacco di malaria perniciosa, la frebbre passava i limiti delle febbri piu alte, l'organismo non reagiva piu. Terreo, stava supino sulla barella, respirando a fatica, senza parlare, circondato dai lamenti dei compagni. Poco dopo era morto. (20)
The physician's emotional involvement remains restrained--virtually nonexistent--as he leaves the house of death. He walks out onto the piazza and, as the sun sets over the Calabrian hills to the west, observes the contadini returning home from their fields (20-21). In the terms of Paura, the patient may have died but it is the doctor here who dies the "morte vera" that results from "il distacco totale dal flusso dell'indifferenziato" (19). Burdened with the "vuota ragione egoistica" and "astratta liberta" concomitant with this state of extreme differentiation (Paura 19), Carlo begins his stay in Gagliano completely detached from the source of creative regeneration and true freedom.
Given this inauspicious start, it is no surprise that Carlo at first tries to shirk his medical responsibilities, not only because of insufficient preparation and a subsequent lack of confidence in his abilities, but also because of fear of getting involved in the town's factional politics (41-42). Yet, despite Carlo's detached, almost clinical response to the death of his patient, the Gaglianesi see that he is not like the "medicaciucci" of the town, and the women insist on bringing their sick children to him for medical treatment. Amazed and embarrassed, he attributes this display of trust either to the fact that he at least tried--albeit unsuccessfully--to save the malaria victim, or to the power with which the "outsider" is often invested in traditional cultures: "Era forse il prestigio naturale del forestiero che viene da lontano, e che e percio come un dio" (42). Indeed, as this forestiero-dio, a political exile with healing powers, Carlo possesses the status of "outsiderhood" as described by Victor Turner in "Passages, Margins, and Poverty." Expanding on his distinction between communitas and social structure from The Ritual Process, Turner argues that "outsiderhood," along with "liminality" and "structural inferiority," entails at least provisional contact with the undifferentiated whole often associated with the sacred. Outside of both the dominant Fascist culture and the a-historical world of the Lucanian contadini, Carlo is like the shamans, diviners, mediums, and priests included in Turner's list of individuals who experience the condition of "outsiderhood" by "being either permanently and by ascription set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system, or being situationally or temporarily set apart, or voluntarily setting oneself apart from the behavior of status-occupying, role-playing members of that system" (233).
Similarly, "structural inferiority," Turner's designation for the lowest level of social stratification, accurately describes Levi's perception of Lucania's contadini as the oppressed, indigenous people who are thought to possess "a mystical power over the fertility of the earth and of all upon it" (234). (10) Outside of time and history, the poorest inhabitants of Italy's rural Mezzogiorno take on "the symbolic function of representing humanity, without status qualifications or characteristics" (234). In contrast to the highly differentiated system that Turner aligns with social structure, this "undifferentiated whole whose units are total human beings" (234)--the basis of his communitas--"often appears culturally in the guise of an Edenic, paradisiacal, utopian, or millennial state of affairs, to the attainment of which religious or political action, personal or collective, should be directed" (237-38). While Turner's description of communitas here is far more optimistic than Levi's ambivalent view of the contadini as well as his conception of the sacred and undifferentiation in general, it also qualifies Girard's univocal figuration of the undifferentiated realm of the sacred as a dangerous power that must be contained through sacrificial rites.
As both the "oscura continua negazione della liberta e dell'arte" and the "generatore continuo della liberta e dell'arte" (Paura 17), Levi's figuration of the sacred is inherently dialectical. He is faithful to this ambiguity in Cristo. Like Plato's Pharmakon, a related term that can mean either "poison" or "remedy," the meaning of Levi's sacro changes with the context or depends on the perspective from which it is considered. Thus he describes the world of the contadini as, on the one hand, a place "senza determinazioni" that precludes hope and happiness, allowing only "la cupa passivita di una natura dolorosa" (72); on the other hand, alive in this same world is "il senso umano di un comune destino" (72), the capacity to establish human bonds according to "il senso sacro, arcano e magico di una comunanza" (81). (11) It is this "comunanza"--the communitas imagined by Turner as a place for individuals to meet "not as role players but as 'human totals'" ("Passages" 269)--that Carlo must enter to experience the creative freedom generated by the undifferentiated world of the sacred.
By the time the second major medical episode occurs Carlo has spent the better part of a year in Gagliano, much of that time in the company of his household servant, Giulia La Santarcangelese, a "strega contadina" familiar with "le erbe e il potere degli oggetti magici" (95). Possessing her own medical powers, in bono and in malo, Giulia "[s]apeva curare le malattie con gli incantesimi, e perfino poteva far morire chi volesse, con la sola virtu di terribili formule" (95). After the petty town politics have resulted in an order prohibiting Carlo from practicing medicine, Giulia tells him that the authorities will not be able to prevent him from continuing to treat the contadini: "se non ti lasciano fare il medico, tu curerai lo stesso. Dovresti fare lo stregone. Ora hai imparato tutto, sai tutto. E quello non te lo possono impedire" (197). In fact, he admits to having become "maestro in tutto quello che concerne la magia popolare, e le sue applicazioni alla medicina" (198), and this knowledge, combined with his beautiful "voce da prete," makes him appear to Giulia as the embodiment of "tutte le virtu del Rofe orientale, del guaritore sacro" (198). This power as "sacred healer" derives from Carlo's tolerance--if not outright endorsement--of the peasant superstitions, including the traditional "abracadabra" that many of his patients wear as protection against illness. Where other doctors would scorn these popular beliefs, Carlo respects them: "ne onoravo l'antichita e la oscura, misteriosa semplicita, preferivo essere loro alleato che loro nemico, e i contadini me ne erano grati, e forse ne traevano davvero vantaggio" (199). Besides, he continues, even the "legitimate" medical practice of writing a prescription for every patient, especially when such prescriptions were written in Latin in indecipherable handwriting, could rightly be considered "una abitudine magica" (199).
Michael Taussig, a physician and anthropologist, argues that the doctorpatient relationship, more than merely technical, "is very much a social interaction which can reinforce the culture's basic premises in a most powerful manner" (86). Carlo shows exceptional awareness of this conception of medical practice as a set of social relations by valorizing the magical beliefs of his "primitive" patients while at the same time calling into question the positivist assumptions of "modern" science and medicine. In a culture where "anche la medicina ha potere soltanto per il suo contenuto magico" (201), Carlo wisely adapts his medical practice to the attitudes and behavior of the contadini. Thus, at one point in his heroic attempt to combat malaria, he replaces quinine, a medicine whose efficacy is limited because the peasants do not believe in it, with two newer medicines that work "meravigliosamente" because they function as both "sostanze chimiche" and "influenze magiche" (202). Whereas Chapman, whose Milocca was another village "forgotten by God and by man" (2), offers the "scientific" interpretation of curative magic as "probably a valuable device in the healing of maladies of purely nervous origin" (208), Levi's physicianprotagonist refuses to delegitimize the power of magic and witchcraft to affect even the physical well-being of his patients.
Having thus reconciled his medical practice with the magical forces of his environment, Carlo is finally able to "return" to the sacred "comunanza" of the undifferentiated mass and thereby experience the liberating effects of a creative rebirth. In the second major medical episode, toward the end of his stay in Gagliano, the narrating subject's emotional involvement is strong and personal, even though this case, like the first, is hopeless from the start. Paradoxically, his participation is so extreme that the presence of death elicits neither horror nor indifference but an intuition of transcendent happiness and completeness:
La morte era nella casa: amavo quei contadini, sentivo il dolore e l'umiliazione della mia impotenza. Perche allora una cosi grande pace scendeva in me? Mi pareva di essere staccato da ogni cosa, da ogni luogo, remotissimo da ogni determinazione, perduto fuori del tempo, in un infinito altrove. Mi sentivo celato, ignoto agli uomini, nascosto come un germiglio sotto la scorza dell'albero: tendevo l'orecchio alla notte e mi pareva di essere entrato, d'un tratto, nel cuore stesso del mondo. Una felicita immensa, non mai provata, era in me, e mi riempiva intero, e il senso fluente di una infinita pienezza. (189)
The doctor's perceived detachment from the world, his feeling of being "remotissimo da ogni determinazione," attests to a complete immersion in the undifferentiated world of the sacred as it is described in Paura della liberta (Ward 164), a return to the "indistinto originario" needed for regeneration and renewed creative energy. Through the key of his healing art, as ineffectual--technically speaking--in this case as in the first, Carlo has not only succeeded in unlocking the closed door of this world outside of time and history, but he has even experienced the sensation of having entered the very heart of the universe. However, the beneficent effects of this sacred immersion are short-lived as Carlo soon begins to feel the oppressive weight of resignation, frustration, and indifference that will ultimately make him glad to be released from his confinement two years earlier than expected. Returning to Lucania after a brief visit to Torino occasioned by the death of a close relative, he feels the mountains shut him in as if they were gates to a prison (212). Just before receiving notice of his freedom, Carlo reaches a "punto estremo di indifferenza":
Mi pareva di essere un verme chiuso dentro una noce secca. Lontano dagli effetti, nel guscio religioso della monotonia, aspettavo gli anni venturi, e mi pareva di essere senza base, librato in un'aria assurda, dove era strano anche il suono della mia voce. (220)
Yet, it is unlikely that Carlo's release from confinement in Gagliano and return to Torino will bring him the sense of joy and completeness he experienced, if only for a moment, in the Lucanian village. Reflecting on his recent trip to Torino, he realizes that the lives of his family and friends in the Northern metropolis, with their interests, ambitions, and hopes, are no longer his life (206). The large, modern city, after all, is another manifestation of the undifferentiated mass imbued with the sacred and hence capable of suffocating individual freedom and creativity in addition to generating it (Paura 108).
Fittingly, the true "punto di mediazione" in Levi's novel, the moment where the processes of separation from, and immersion in, the sacred interact to produce creative energy occurs in Grassano, the town in which Levi was confined prior to his transfer to Gagliano. Whereas Gagliano is a small village "lontano dalle strade e dagli uomini," Grassano is considerably larger and located on a major thoroughfare not far from the provincial capital (29). And while Gagliano consists only of a few Signori and many contadini, Grassano has a significant middle class composed of artisans, carpenters in particular (142). Carlo recalls this town, in which he had arrived following months of solitary confinement, as a "terra di liberta" (137). He is therefore overjoyed when he is permitted to return to Grassano for a short period in order to finish some paintings, and once reunited with some old friends it does not take him long to become again "un uomo libero" (145). Described as an "insperata vacanza" (135), this interlude in a community considerably larger and differentiated than Gagliano, yet smaller and less impersonal than Torino, provides an opportunity for a flourish of creative activity, from Carlo's paintings and the lively stories told by travelling merchants to the preventive medicine practiced by the town's two valid doctors and the theatrical production of d'Annunzio's La Fiaccola sotto il Moggio, amazingly brought to life--despite the aestheticism of the playwright--by a troupe of Sicilian actors and a lively audience.
Levi's celebration of creativity in Grassano is analogous, in political terms, to his promotion of the "nuovi valori di liberta" that he hoped would emerge from the Resistance ("Crisi di civilta" 54). (13) For Levi, the Resistance, like the thriving artisan class of Grassano, represented a creative "punto di mediazione" between undifferentiation and differentiation capable of releasing "le nuove energie liberatrici" (De Donato, Introduction xxxvi). However, Levi and his political allies soon came to realize that, because the contadini in the Mezzogiorno had been largely left out of the Partisan struggle, they were virtually unaffected by the liberating climate of the Resistance (Ward 166). Similarly, even as the relatively large middle class of Grassano serves as a conduit for the creative energy of such activities as painting, story-telling, and theater, Levi must acknowledge that the lives of the contadini here are no less wretched than those of their counterparts at Gagliano (Cristo 142). In fact, the contadini of Grassano are in some ways worse off precisely because they have more contact with the outside world--and therefore greater desire to escape--while the likelihood of actually improving their circumstances remains small (143). It is against this bleak backdrop that Levi analyzes the "problema meridionale" not only as an economic and social problem, but first and foremost as the problem of reconciling "[c]ampagna e citta, civilta precristiana e civilta non piu cristiana" (209)--that is, as an anthropological problem.
In the final pages of Cristo, Levi proposes social and political autonomy as the way out of the vicious circle of fascism and anti-fascism in Italy. The contadini, for instance, would have greater control over their lives by belonging to a "comune rurale autonomo" (211). Levi envisions the nation as a network of such autonomous units: "Ma l'autonomia del comune rurale non potra esistere senza l'autonomia delle fabbriche, delle scuole, delle citta, di tutte le forme della vita sociale. Questo e quello che ho appreso in un anno di vita sotterranea" (211). David Ward delineates the autonomous approach theorized by Levi and initially adopted by the Partito d'azione after the war:
It was to replace the monolithic national state, which had reached its apotheosis with fascism, that the Action Party elaborated its policy on local government. The policy envisaged the creation of a series of local, autonomous regions or provinces, each of which would make provision for the region's specific needs and demands. In other words, a state built from the bottom up, and not imposed from above, a state whose structures would have to be created by its citizens, and not inherited from past practices. (172)
In philosophical terms, Levi's local, culture-specific approach to the twin perils of oppression and indifference accords with his imagining of optimum creativity at the intersection of the processes of differentiation and undifferentiation. Like the artisan class of Grassano, Levi's autonomous groups would possess distinct identities without losing contact with the sacred bonds of shared humanity, an ideal configuration of "societas" as described by Turner: "a process involving both social structure and communitas, separately and united in varying proportions" ("Passages" 238). Politically, however, Levi's conception of the State as an "insieme di infinite autonomie, una organica federazione" (Cristo 211) stood little chance of becoming policy. Included in the manifesto of the Partito d'azione, it nonetheless "remained a dead letter" (Ward 173), to a large extent because all the politicians with whom Levi discussed the "problema meridionale" were "degli adoratori, piu o meno inconsapevoli dello Stato" (Cristo 207).
Some fifty years later, the reappearance of some of Levi's ideas in Italian public discourse creates a striking incongruity, thereby illustrating once again his fundamental lesson that cultural and historical contexts determine the ethical value of specific socio-political agendas. Whereas Levi championed the principle of greater regional and cultural autonomy to free the economically disadvantaged Mezzogiorno from the tyranny of centralized state control, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, has recently espoused similar ideas to the opposite effect: his call for "federalismo" aims to extricate the more prosperous North (Padania) from its putative burden of supporting the poorer South. In fact, with the victory of the center-left coalition in the national elections (21 April 1996) and the formation of the Prodi government, Bossi's rhetoric has intensified to the point where he defiantly speaks of "secessionismo" as often as "federalismo"--a politics of divisiveness in words if not in fact. (15)
Bossi's blatant recourse to scapegoating, clearly intended to exploit the lowest common denominator of a heterogenous society, stands in marked contrast to the example of Carlo Levi, an Italian from Torino who asked to be buried in Aliano. Although Levi's socio-economic analysis was ultimately impractical, limited perhaps by his anthropological and philosophical vision, his humanistic impulses--best seen in Cristo through his work as an artist and a physician--remain a powerful testament to the commitment of inspired individuals to work toward positive social change even and especially under difficult conditions. Christ may have stopped at Eboli, but Carlo Levi and those like him courageously resist oppression and injustice precisely where others give in to resignation and indifference.
The University of Texas at Austin
Baldassaro, Lawrence. "Paura della liberta: Carlo Levi's Unfinished Preface." Italica 72.2 (1995): 143-54.
Bassani, Giorgio. "Levi e la crisi." Paragone (Aug. 1950): 32-40.
Buzzanca, Silvio. "Bossi lascia il Senato: 'Salgo sull'Aventino.'" La Repubblica (17 May 1996): 7.
Carpitella, Diego. "L'itinerario di Carlo Levi e la ricerca interdisciplinare di Ernesto de Martino." De Donato, Carlo Levi nella storia 203-12.
Chapman, Charlotte Gower. Milocca: A Sicilian Village. Cambridge: Shenkman, 1971.
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De Donato, Gigliola, ed. Carlo Levi nella storia e nella cultura italiana. Manduria: Piero Lacaita, 1993.
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--. Saggio su Carlo Levi. Roma-Bari: De Donato, 1974.
Falaschi, Giovanni. "Carlo Levi." Belfagor 26 (1971): 56-82.
Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.
Girard, Rene. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
--. "To Double Business Bound": Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
--. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.
Lagarde, Francois. Rene Girard ou la christianisation des sciences humaines. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
Lanternari, Vittorio. "Da Carlo Levi a Ernesto de Martino: verso la nuova antropologia." De Donato, Carlo Levi nella storia 213-25.
Levi, Carlo. Coraggio dei miti: scritti contemporanei, 1922-1974. Ed. Gigliola De Donato. Roma-Bari: De Donato, 1975.
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(1) I am grateful to the South Central Modern Language Association for a travel grant that enabled me to conduct research for this article in Rome in May, 1996. I also thank Dott. Gigliola De Donato, member of the administrative council of the Fondazione Carlo Levi, and Dott. Margherita Martelli, archivist for the foundation at the Archivio centrale dello Stato, for making Levi's papers available to me on short notice. And I am indebted to Maria Wells, Italian curator for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, for generously sharing with me her extensive knowledge of the manuscript of Levi's Cristo si e fermato a Eboli.
(2) The book was published in 1971 when the manuscript was found in the files of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.
(3) Girard develops his argument with examples drawn from literary tragedies, both Greek and Shakespearean, and anthropological studies of traditional societies in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He views other writers, from Dante to Camus, through the lens of "the mimetic cycle and unanimous victimage mechanism" in "To Double Business Bound."
4) Although Girard elsewhere writes of the "dual nature" of the sacred ("it is both harmful and beneficial," The Scapegoat 199), he clearly privileges its threatening and "harmful" effects in his work.
(5) Adducing evidence from Greek tragedy and primitive religion, Girard counters that "it is not the differences but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos. . . . This loss forces men into a perpetual confrontation, one that strips them of all their distinctive characteristics--in short, of their 'identities'" (Violence 51).
(6) Two other important discussions of Paura are Falaschi (59-64) and De Donato (Saggio 53-73).
(7) Levi later frames this discussion in terms of univocal meaning and multiplicity: "La ragione soltanto ha un senso univoco, e, come lei, la religione e la storia. Ma il senso dell'esistenza, come quello dell'arte e del linguaggio e dell'amore, e molteplice, all'infinito" (103). In the manuscript Levi adds "storia" and "linguaggio" to an earlier draft of the passage on the back of fol. 125, the only time two versions of the same passage appear in the manuscript.
(8) Levi similarly seeks a key to penetrate the politics and passions that animate the "Luigini," the corrupt middle class of Gagliano (28-29).
(9) Medical issues, ranging from the treatment of malaria and the measles to the payment of annual dues to the "sindacato Medici," are a frequent topic of Luisa's many letters to Carlo during his confinement. Moss observes that it is primarily through the doctor's access to the peasants that Levi "builds up a fascinating anthropology of peasant life and culture" (27).
(10) Thus Levi describes Giulia, his mythical strega-domestica, as a powerful woman "legata alla zolla e alle eterne divinita animali" (Cristo 94).
(11) Inspection of the manuscript of Cristo reveals that Levi inserted the phrase "nel loro terrore del sacro" to another important passage (103; fol. 126), a revision that reinforces the author's identification not only with Barone, his beloved dog who was "mezzo barone e mezzo leone," but also with the undifferentiated world of the contadini with whom he lived.
(12) In L'orologio Levi imagines a more positive--or at least ambiguous--association of a large city, Naples, with the "indistinto originario" (Ward 190), thereby providing an urban analogue to the sacred world of the contadini in Cristo.
(13) In his "Ricordo di Leone Ginzburg," whose death is commemorated in the manuscript of Cristo with "Leone" and a small red cross next to the date "7/2/44" (fol. 159), Levi writes: "Se la Resistenza fu insieme il primo momento rivoluzionario e popolare della nostra storia e un grande fatto di cultura, lo si deve agli uomini come Leone Ginzburg che per elevatezza d'ingegno e rigore di vita morale avevano intransigentemente precorso in se stessi quella nuova unita umana, quella solidarieta operante e creativa" (167-68).
(14) Ward describes the Lega nord as a movement "which is intensely critical of the unified Italian state that was born out of the Risorgimento, and whose main political proposal is the creation of a tripartite federal Italy divided into semiautonomous republics . . . " (26).
(15) Claiming that "federalismo non serve piu a niente," Bossi threatened secession, the League's next phase, as "quella decisiva contro Roma ladrona" (Buzzanca 7). He and a group of twenty-seven senators walked out of Parliament when the Senate leader refused to recognize the group's request to be named "Lega-Parlamento della Padania" (Buzzanca), a day after the leader of the Camera dei Deputati similarly rejected "Lega Padania indipendente" (Stanganelli).
(16) Levi, according to Moss, was right in asserting the impossibility for the peasant traditions to remain intact under a centralized state, but "he was wrong in thinking that, in human development, the two areas of consciousness and material conditions can be kept separate" (32). That is, as the socio-economic landscape changed (slightly for the better) in Southern Italy, the peasants themselves began to adopt some of the qualities of the "piccola borghesia" so despised and maligned by Levi in the novel. See Napolillo for a sustained, occasionally harsh, critique of Levi's meridionalismo.
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|Author:||Raffa, Guy P.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1997|
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