Relatively rare for a Second Monday selection: non-fiction. I’d heard of this book but probably had it confused with The Last Temptation of Christ – it’s actually a memoir, or almost a collection of essays/short stories. And/or I conflated it with Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which I read as a teenager. The most bizarre anecdote was about a group of men who emigrate to America and get together on Sundays to take a crap together outdoors under a tree, as kind of a bonding ritual and/or way to return to their southern Italian roots.
In this book I learned
- “Lucus a non lucendo” — although Levi is describing bare woodlands, so that’s the exact opposite of what the Latin pun means (a grove where there is no light, which has come to mean a nonsensical explanation)
- gnomes that can’t live without their red hood – “These gnomes are the spirits or ghosts of children who have died without being baptized; they are numerous in these parts because the peasants often put off the baptism of their offspring for years.” I tried to find more information about the hood but only came up with this not-authoritative-looking site.
- Bread “spiced occasionally with a carefully crushed raw tomato, or a little garlic and oil, or a Spanish pepper”
- “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history.”
- “an obese, heavy, deaf old man, greedy and grasping like an enormous silk-worm”
- “A unifying web, not only of family ties (a first cousin was often as close as a brother), but of the acquired and symbolic kinship called comparaggio, ran throughout the village.”
- “Before the chickens had roosted on it he must have had the library of a cultivated and enlightened priest.”
- Instead of “how are you?” people ask “What did you have to eat today?”
- “The only women who could come to work in my house were those in some way exempt from the general rule, who had many children of unidentified fathers, who, although they had not embraced prostitution (no such trade existed in the village), displayed a tendency to be free and easy, and who were concerned with all that pertained to love, above all the means of obtaining it. In a word, witches.”
- Italian war in Africa: “[The peasants] had no faith in a promised land which had first to be taken away from those to whom it belonged; instinct told them that this was wrong and could only bring ill luck.”
- “At dusk three angels come down from the sky to every house. One stands at the door, another sits at the table, and the third watches over the bed. They look after the house and protect it. Neither wolves nor evil spirits can enter the whole night long. If I threw the sweepings outside the door they might land on the face of the angel, whom we can’t see; the angel might take offense and never come back.”
This passive brotherliness, this sympathy in the original sense of the word, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than by religion. They do not and can not have what is called political awareness, because they are literally pagani, “pagans,” or countrymen, as distinguished from city-dwellers. The deities of the State and the city can find no worshipers 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. They can not have even an awareness of themselves as individuals, here where all things are held together by acting upon one another and each one is a power unto itself, working imperceptibly, where there is no barrier that can not be broken down by magic. They live submerged in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria, where there can be neither happiness, as literary devotees of the land conceive it, nor hope, because these two are adjuncts of personality and here there is only the grim passivity of a sorrowful Nature. But they have a lively human feeling for the common fate of mankind and its common acceptance. This is strictly a feeling rather than an act of will; they do not express it in words but they carry it with them at every moment and in every motion of their lives, through all the unbroken days that pass over these wastes.
There are many strange creatures at Gagliano who have a dual nature. A middle-aged peasant woman, married and having children, with nothing out of the ordinary about her appearance, was the daughter of a cow. So the village said, and she herself confirmed it. The older people clearly remembered her cow mother, who followed her everywhere when she was a child, mooing to her and licking her with a rough tongue. This did not alter the fact that she had also had a human mother, who had been dead for many years. No one saw any contradiction in this dual birth, and the woman herself, whom I knew personally, lived quietly and happily, like both her mothers, for all her animal heredity.
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 our feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants’ 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.
… but the black-faced Madonna remained impassive, pitiless and deaf to all appeals, like indifferent Nature. Homage was paid to her in abundance, but it was rather the homage due to power than that offered to charity. The Black Madonna was like the earth; it was in her power to raise up and to destroy, but she was no respecter of persons, and appointed the seasons according to an inscrutable plan of her own. To the peasants the Black Madonna was beyond good and evil. She dried up the crops and let them wither away, but at the same time she dispensed food and protection and demanded worship. In every household, tacked up on the wall above the bed, the image of the Black Madonna of Viggiano looked on with expressionless eyes at all the acts of daily life.
Under the bed slept the animals, and so the room was divided into three layers: animals on the floor, people in the bed, and infants in the air. When I bent over a bed to listen to a patient’s heart or to give an injection to a woman whose teeth were chattering with fever or who was burning up with malaria, my head touched the hanging cradles, while frightened pigs and chickens darted between my legs.
But what never failed to strike me most of all and by now I had been in almost every house were the eyes of the two inseparable guardian angels that looked at me from the wall over the bed. On one side was the black, scowling face, with its large, inhuman eyes, of the Madonna of Viggiano; on the other a colored print of the sparkling eyes, behind gleaming glasses, and the hearty grin of President Roosevelt.
Yes, New York, rather than Rome or Naples, would be the real capital of the peasants of Lucania, If these men without a country could have a capital at all. And it is their capital, in the only way it can be for them, that is as a myth. As a place to work, it is indifferent to them; they live there as they would live anywhere else, like animals harnessed to a wagon, heedless of the street where they must pull it.
The other word that recurs most often among them is “crai” from the Latin cras, tomorrow. Everything that they are waiting for, that is due to come, that should be remedied or attended to is “crai.” But “crai” means never.
In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, marufto, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.
I had indeed become a master of magic and its applications to medicine.
I respected the [abracadabra pyramid] amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy. The peasants were grateful for my respect, and perhaps the abracadabra really did them some good. Anyhow, magic as it was practiced in Gagliano was harmless enough and the peasants considered it in no way in conflict with official medicine. The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were not taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.
I preferred to prescribe newer drugs, more powerful and possessed of greater magic, such as atabrine and plasmochin. These were doubly effective, both because of their chemical composition and the sway they exerted over the imagination.