Carlo Levi: A witness to freedom

… all history unfolds in every individual life. Of course this only happens when history does unfold, because it can also stop, or turn backward or spin emptily on its own axis like a mechanical top.

Carlo Levi, The Watch (1950)

To read Carlo Levi’s memoires and stories of Italy, of the peasants of Aliano, the village in Lucania (today, Basilicata) to which he would be banished between 1935-36 for anti-fascist activity, of Rome, Sicily and Sardinia, is to travel to worlds which no longer exist. And yet these works are not only beautiful and of extraordinary historical interest – which would be reason enough to read them; they carry within them ideas and notions which give them a resonance beyond their immediate setting and context, above all, that of post-war Italy.

The occasion for this post is the recent re-publication of Levi’s essay Fear of Freedom in Italy (2018) and France (2021), both preceded by an important introduction by Giorgio Agamben, which we share below in translation.

It would be impossible to summarise Levi’s extensive and diverse body of written work, ranging as it does from fiction, to journalism, to essays; categories of types of writing for which he had little respect. We will limit ourselves to a few ideas, by way of introduction to Agamben’s essay on Levi.

An ontology or metaphysics is intimated in Levi’s writings, as a poet might do. It is rooted in the ceaseless movement of life that underlies his descriptions of the peasants of Lucania, or the people of Rome or Naples, the flows and eddies of their daily activities and festive moments, each structured by different times, by the different ways in which they fill out time and History. While Christ stopped at Eboli, leaving Lucania beyond civilisation and History, the poor of Rome and Naples must struggle with both, creatively carving out rival times and spaces within them, so as to be able to survive. In Lucania, Levi finds a people living in a primordial, ancient and eternal present, where there is no “distinction between man and animal, between man and plant; where the sun, the rain, the forest, conception and death, the entire world that surrounds us are one with the man who lives like a tree, plants his roots in the soil, flowers, bears fruit and in his own time, withers away … Good and evil abrogate one another and mingle alternating, in the vicissitudes of day and night, in endless seasons and ineffable presences”. (The Watch [1950]. London: Cassel and Co. Ltd, 1952, p. 265.) This same primal and eternal present lies beneath even the rampant urbanisation of post-war Rome: “At night in Rome one seems to hear lions roaring”. (The Watch, p. 1)

The time of civilisation, of History, of the nation state, of politics is different; indeed, it is radically opposed to the first, for it is a managed, “clock” time that demands regulation, codification, calculated “befores” and “afters”, without which there is disorder. The time of “civilisation” exists through colonising the experienced, lived time of everyday life, while it simultaneously depends upon the latter as the condition for its very possibility.

These two times find human expression, incarnation, in those that Levi will call and oppose as the Luigini* and Contadini. “The true two parties, as they say in the South, that fight each other, the two civilizations that face each other, the two Italies, are the Contadini – the peasants – and the Luigini. … Behold the only two categories of our history. Well, then … who are the Contadini? First of all they are the peasants, of course, those of the South and also of the North, almost all of them, with their civilization that lies outside of time and the course of history, with their closeness to living, their kinship to animals, to the forces of nature and the land, to their pagan and pre-pagan gods and saints; with all their patience and all their wrath. These are all the things you know. It is another world, a world of magic and indistinctness, a civilization of oral tradition with a language based on the ideophonic rather than the ideographic. It is the dark vital root that lies within all of us.” The category however includes not only peasants. It extends, for Levi, to industrialists, contractors, technicians, agrarians and landowners, who genuinely create. And it involves workers as well. “I don’t mean those who are corrupted and join with their masters in the petty affairs of their regions … But all the others, the great mass of workers who are educated in the creative rhythm of the factory, its voluntary discipline, the value that exists in it. It doesn’t matter what they think or which party they belong to, they too are Contadini and not only because most of them come from the countryside but because on another level that have the substance of peasants. Nature for them is no longer the land but lathes, grinding mills, sledge hammers, presses, drills, furnaces and machinery. They have direct contact with this nature of iron, and they grow things from it, including hope and despair and a mythological vision of the world. All men who make things, create them, love them and are content with them are Contadini.”

“And who, then, are the Luigini? They’re the others. The great, endless, formless, amoeba-like majority of the petty bourgeoisie with all its species and subspecies and variations, with all their miseries, inferiority complexes, morality and immorality, misdirected ambitions and idolatrous fears. They’re the ones who submit and command, love and hate hierarchy, and serve and reign. They’re the bureaucratic mob, employees of the State and the banks, model clerks, the military, the magistrates, lawyers, the police, college graduates, errand boys, students and parasites, [priests, politicians, literary men]. These are the Luigini.”

“Those are the Luigini, the great luiginian party. Beware, then, because the Luigini are the majority. … We, the Contadini, are the minority, but a huge minority – close to half, almost forty-nine per cent – that wavers towards reaching this maximum limit and can’t diminish much. Because no Luigini can live without a Contadino to suckle and nourish him, therefore he can’t allow the Contadino offspring to thin out too much.”

“The Luigini have the numbers, they have the State, the Church, the parties, the political language, the army, the courts and the press. The Contadini have none of them. They don’t know that they exist, that they have a common interest. They are a mighty force that doesn’t express itself, that doesn’t speak. That’s the whole problem.” (The Watch, pp. 154-7)

Levi’s defence of the Contadini is not an exercise in political nostalgia, an effort to rehabilitate and return to a lost, golden age. It is first, and above all else, an exercise in testimony. Levi writes as a witness for those who do not and cannot express themselves. And should these peoples have vanished (Giorgio Agamben describes the destruction of the Italian peasantry as genocide, and one can extend this claim on to the global scale and contend that it continues apace), they have not been altogether erased from our common pasts, common present-pasts that remain available to us as presents.

For Levi, the present is always a complex of different times, all temporarily held together as one and as expressed in the multiplicity of the “things” of a particular present. The illusion – of blindness – is to think and to see what is present as exclusively of the present. “Simple and everyday encounters and appearances conceal enchanted worlds from which the hapless stroller, having once ventured in, cannot turn back, held spellbound by the strongest sense of all, the greedy and truthful eye, more powerful even than an iron will, in a land of metamorphosis and synchronicity. ‘In the sinuous folds of ancient capitals’ … you can find anything you want, all of the aspects of grandeur and squalor, the real and the fanciful, all of the overlaid and finite planes of time: living people and their sounds, the survivors, the architecture shaped eloquently by the passing years, the changing fashions, the cars, the animals, and the countless manifestations of an endless world.” (Fleeting Rome, p. 33)

Everything that is, comes into being and passes away. For conscious, human life, we may apprehend this truth “as we approach death”, when “we learn to distinguish the common nature of man in superposed layers of time and in the tangled thicket of the world; and the great circle that binds and circumscribes the infinite individual destinies, the infinite phenomena. Thought is no longer bound fast to one point, to a single object, but departs from that object and expands in waves without limits. It is like climbing a mountain when the horizon widens beneath us at every step. It may well be that when we arrive at the top the horizon will be so vast and so distant that it will merge completely with the sky, and that will perhaps be death.” (The Watch, p. 273)

Beneath our all too human lives flow the many cross-currents of life, of reality, which find no limits in any particular individual. From this undifferentiated chaos we emerge at birth and return to at death. Between these two fateful moments, we endeavour to give form to ourselves, as our plural worlds take on forms. Our tragedy is engendered by the fear of the loss of stable individuality, and in parallel, our idolatry of fixed forms. And should the latter demand sacrifice, as they inevitably do, in the form of the price to be paid for civilisation, religion, the State, and so on and so forth, then so be it. To live in this manner is to live in slavery. Freedom demands creativity conscious of its own finitude, whether in art, or politics, or any other sphere of human activity.

Politically, the Luigini, for Levi, are the parasites and lackeys of power, those who live in the fear of freedom. The Contadini, by contrast, are those who strive to create, and like the peasants of Aliano, create knowing that everything that comes from their hands will in the end turn to dust.       

“I don’t fool myself that it’s easy to unite peasant forces, and history proves it. It can’t be done with parties or within the party frameworks that are luiginian by definition, less still with the luiginistical mistrust between the parties themselves. It is also difficult because of the inability of the various peasant elements to express themselves amd understand each other.”

“One needs to think not of what one used to call politics but of an infinity of independent organizations that concern themselves with real problems, the only true substance of politics, and are bound together by an over-all organization that speaks for everyone. It’s an almost impossible achievement but the dau will come soon when we must attempt to do it.” …

“To win is difficult.” …

“We’ll have to start again from the very beginning and this time without hurry, without illusions, day by day, without heroics but without clear ideas. After all, no pure Luigino exists, nor Contadino either. They all have a bit from one and a bit from the other, only in different measure.”

“We’ll have to allow the Luigino that’s in everyone to find an outlet in organizing parties, while we prepare another role for the Contadino. It’s still too early. Even if the wheel seems to stand still it has already turned to their side, and for some years we won’t be able to stop it. We’ll have to listen to luiginian talk. We’ll have to see many things happen. But we’ll be deaf and blind and we’ll hoe the earth”. (The Watch, pp. 159-60)

This life of care, Carlo Levi calls autonomy.     

* A term coined by Levi to denote a political lackey who inflicts cruel treatment on the poor and weak, while fawning upon the wealthy and powerful. It originated with the character of the Fascist mayor of Gagliano, Don Luigino Magalone, who featured in his book Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. The term luigino (plural luigini) appears in several of Levi’s books. (From: Carlo Levi, Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita [2002]. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2004, “Introduction: Translator Note”, p. xxix.)

The Timeliness of Carlo Levi

Giorgio Agamben

The publication of Fear of Freedom in the Italy of the immediate post-war period has something of the inexplicable, akin to the erratic blocks of granite abandoned by glaciers, after their retreat, in such unexpected positions that they cannot be considered without inspiring suspicion or stupor. To say this is assuredly not to justify the past silence and inept hostility with which – with but a few rare and significant exceptions – this book was received. Written between 1939 and 1940 in the solitude of the Atlantic beaches of La Baule in the south Finistère, it was not published until 1946, one year after the success of Christ Stopped at Eboli. And it was most certainly not by chance that Fear of Freedom was never again republished as a separate book after its second edition of 1964, even though the author explicitly declared that this “philosophical poem” was the “most important” of his books[1] and that Calvino recalled that “this rare book in our literature” was also that “from which every discussion about Carlo Levi must begin”.[2] When it was not purely and simply ignored, it was used to denounce Levy’s “ideology” and then, surreptitiously, as a weapon to demolish the otherwise unassailable testimony that is Christ Stopped at Eboli.

It is today difficult to read without embarrassment, in a monograph published as late as the early 1960s, that Levy’s work “is bereft of any originality as regards political analysis”[3] and “entirely conditioned by a decadent and mystical vision … which chooses, among the possible directions open to a bourgeois intellectual, that of an anarchistic and libertarian opposition, a mythical return to nature and spontaneity, upon which is projected the need for what is in effect an individual and solitary redemption, from the damages of a globally disparaged modern civilisation.”[4] The embarrassment becomes discomfort when one discovers that, already twenty years earlier, one of the most important voices of Italian Marxist culture could write that “everything in Levy reduces itself to a metaphysical explanation, with mystical tendencies, desirous to hypostatise the “countryside” and the “city” as “things””[5] and that his vision of the peasant world is nothing other than the “enunciation of a series of theses without theoretical consistency, in which it is clearly revealed that any intention to explain the social inferiority of Southern Italy by historicising its causes and thereby defining the historical forces which, today, can move towards resolving the southern question, are alien to Levi.”[6] It is difficult to know if one must here blame ignorance (the use of the qualifiers “decadent” and “mystical tendencies” as critical categories) or, rather, bad faith – in other words, the inadmissible consciousness that Levi’s thought is constitutively and implacably political. In either case, it is probably for these two reasons that there is a complete absence, in the reception of Fear of Freedom, of any credible philosophical and philological study: sources are haphazardly chosen and without any documentation: in turn, Jung, Lawrence, Bergson (in general, in the stereotypical formula of “Bergsonian vitalism”), Huizinga, Spengler (that is, the irrationalist puppet repertoire of progressive Italian culture), then the more evident names of Gobetti, Salvemini, Giustino Fortunato and Gramsci.

Little more finesse is to be found in the reading of Levi proposed in a book imprudently greeted as a novel rupture in relation to the Marxist tradition: if the author, who never mentions Fear of Freedom, recognises in Christ Stopped at Eboli the merit of “placing opportunely [the peasant world] in a fully concrete sociological perspective”[7], the critical categories which orient his analysis are no less coarse: “decadent super humanism” and “excessive aestheticising and irrationality”.[8]

The alterity and quasi-repugnance (in the etymological sense of the verb repugnare: to resist by struggle) of Levi’s thought within the Italian thought of his time are simultaneously undeniable and difficult to clarify. An instructive example: Levi declared many times his indebtedness to Pietro Gobetti, whom he frequented intensely in Turin in collaborating, in fact very occasionally, with the magazine Rivoluzione liberale. It is however sufficient to leaf through the first numbers of the magazine to notice that there is nothing or almost nothing that one can find in Fear of Freedom or in Christ Stopped at Eboli. The comparison of the names that appear in the Manifesto of  Rivoluzione liberale and those scattered in the text of Levi’s philosophical poem is eloquent: on the one said, in order: Machiavelli, Alfieri, Luigi Ornato, Santarosa, Balbo, Giovanni Maria Bertini, Bertrando Spaventa, Gioberti, Mazzini, Marx, Lassalle, Giolitti; on the other, Dante, Boccaccio, Giotto, Petrarch, Saint Paul, Vossler, Cézanne, La Bruyère, Alain, De Maistre, Milton, Cimabue, as well as, cited without being named, Campanella, Lope de Vega, Éluard. One can certainly recognise in certain of Gobetti’s programmatic points (the criticism of the abstraction of demagogues in the name of an “examination of present day problems in their genesis and in their relations with traditional elements of Italian life” – but in no way the demand for a “modern consciousness of the State” founded on the “formulas of classical English liberalism”[9]) and even further in those more radical points of the magazine founded by Carlo Rosselli in Paris in 1929, Giustizia e libertà, in which Levi participated, themes to which he was receptive. However, it was as if the author revived himself from another place – a place characterised simultaneously by distance and an absolute proximity, an archaic place that beats nevertheless with urgency in the heart of the present. This place is that of testimony.

Calvino was the first to signal with precision the toponym: “Levi is the witness of another time in the interior ours, he is the ambassador of another world in the interior of our world.”[10] If one sets aside the certainly unfortunate metaphor of ambassador, this means that every reading of Levi has as a preliminary task to define testimony well. What does to testify mean? Of what and for whom is Levi a witness? Of another world, as Calvino immediately clarifies, “of a world that lives outside history before a world that lives in history”. But the fact is that for Levi, all times and all worlds are contemporary and he goes so far as to identify in this “contemporaneity of times” the fundamental character of Italian culture: “the presence and persistence in it, in its current life, in its most daily and most fugitive present, of all times, of all history, and of that which is before history itself.”[11]

It is significant that, in the same years when his books appeared, another Jewish homonym from Turin, Primo Levi, published If This is a Man. The two books, in appearance distant from each other, coincide in one essential point: works by non-literary authors (Carlo is a doctor and a painter, Primo a chemist), they are both entirely testimonies – of a world sufficiently close and internal to our world to arose scandal and intolerance (If This is a Man was refused in 1946 by the Einaudi publishing house, on the opinion of Natalia Ginzburg). A year before his death, in a work that is perhaps his masterpiece, The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi returns to the question of testimony to then offer a paradoxical definition. The true witness, he writes, is the “Muselmann” (those deportees, so called in the Auschwitz slang, who only upon entering the camp, lost all human consciousness and all capacity to survive); s/he who could in no way testify was the only witness possible. The rigour of this paradox demands reflection: to witness, for Levi, can only mean: to raise to speech an impossibility of speaking, to speak for those who could neither, nor can, speak. The subject of testimony is, in other words, constitutively divided, split: s/he must manage, as a wo/man, from what is below wo/man, to testify of a time and a place in which s/he was not human.

One could not define Carlo Levi’s gesture better. The words, so often cited, that he puts on the lips of the peasants of Aliano (“We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings”) must be taken literally: its grandeur, like that of his homonym in Auschwitz, is to have succeeded in bearing witness to these non-wo/men, to have touched this land that even Christ did not touch, to have brought forth into memory and language an immemorial speechlessness.

Fear of Freedom is also, in its own way, a testimony. It is Levi himself who, in his preface, points to this: “It was then that the crisis which was beclouding the life of Europe for several decades, and which had manifest itself in all the rifts, problems, difficulties, cruelties, heroism and tedium of our time, resolved itself into a catastrophe.”[12] On the beach of La Baule, while the armoured German divisions move through the plains of Poland and prepare to invade France, the thirty-seven year old author seeks to scrutinise a crisis that has arrived at its apocalypse, that is, at the extreme and staggering revelation of a civilisation that is on the edge of falling into the abyss, devoured by its own contradictions. If it is so arduous to trace its sources, it is because the book had to make a clean sweep of everything, before anything else: it is situated not at the source, but at the estuary. Its phreatic waters seethe and spring up from nothingness, only to fall back again into nothingness.

In this sense, the definition of the book as a “philosophical poem” must be taken seriously, a poem that unites the freshness and density of pre-Socratic fragments and the almost baroque philosophia sensibus demonstrata of Campanella (the only philosopher, with Alain[13], cited in the text). The project was ambitious: it aimed at proposing – as Calvino suggests – “the general lines of a conception of the world, a reinterpretation of history”. “[T]he book would have consisted of”, the author recalls in the Preface, “an introduction, showing the common deep causes of the crisis, and seeking them not so much in this or that particular event, but rather in the very soul of man; and of many chapters dealing with each single subject from politics (with a critical analysis of ideologies, both liberal and socialist) and art (including a history of modern art) to science, philosophy, religion, technical progress, social life, customs, etc.”.[14] External circumstances, among which the German invasion of France and Levy’s flight to Italy in 1941, would prevent the conclusion of the project; but the eight concluded chapters, which correspond more or less to the introductory part of the projected work, anticipate and condense the whole project in a kind of summary recapitulation. As the author recalls in his Preface, “There was a theory in it of Nazism, although Nazism is not mentioned even once by name; there was a theory of the State and liberty; there was a theory of aesthetics, of religion, of sin, etc.” And all of this written “from within”, in a sort of descent to hell (“I had tried to reach the core of the world I was describing, to immerse myself in that ambiguous hell”[15]).

It will be that much more necessary to look to pose, in this contracted and burning matter, markers or points of reference to orient the reader in what Calvino defined, with a Dantesque metaphor, “a forest of allegorical figures, of animals, of symbols”.[16] Levi begins, almost from the first page, with an assuredly nonconventional opposition between the sacred and the religious. “[W]e cannot understand anything social, unless we start from the meanings of religion, this disrespectful heir of things sacred.”[17] The significance of this opposition takes on its full meaning only on the condition that it be brought back to that, broader opposition, between the inexpressible experience of pre-individual non-differentiated reality and that, more abstract and socially articulated, of the differentiated and the individual. “There is a primeval indistinctness, common to all men, flowing in eternity, inherent to every aspect of the world, spirit of every being in the world, memory of all time of the world.” If the sacred is “the feeling of a transcendent indistinctness and the terror of it, the dread of indetermination”, religion is what serves “to substitute that which is undifferentiated and inexpressible with concrete images and symbols – so that the sacred may be cast out of our consciousness”.[18] With it, the sacred is made law, anarchy becomes organisation and tyranny. With an intuition that is certainly not nourished by the reading of Jung or Spengler, but rather by that of the great French sociologists, from Mauss to Durkheim, Levi identifies in sacrifice the fundamental apparatus of religion. “What is the process of every religion? To change the sacred into the sacrificial: to deprive it of its main feature – inexpressibility – by transforming it into deeds and words; to create the ritual out of the mythical; to substitute a sacramental for a shapeless turgidity, and marriage for desire; to turn sacred suicide into consecrated slaughter.”[19] As Hubert and Mauss had affirmed in their Essai sur la nature et la function du sacrifice (“there is no religion where [the] modalities [of sacrifice] do not coexist”), there cannot be for Levi religion without sacrifice: “the two terms may be considered altogether equivalent …, for sacrifice denotes a sacred act as well as the killing of the sacred.”[20]   

Through sacrifice, religion tends essentially to the creation of idols. “In the place of sacred indistinction, religion offers us a name and a divine shape, which prevents us from losing ourselves in sacredness, which keeps us from suicide and anarchy, which grants us the privilege of living.”[21] But the price to be paid is sacramental murder, something which renders the god foreign and distant so as to transform it into an idol: “the divine and adored shape, by the very act of adoration, loses its outlines and efficacy and fades into that indistinction from which it originated. In order that the god may live, severance from the sacred must actually take place: the god himself must be not only created and worshipped, but hated and killed: Only the sacramental slaying of the god allows the god to exist: the less he merges with ourselves, but stays aloof and strange and foreign, the greater is his reality. And to make him such, there is no others means than to kill him according to a rite. That is why, whenever a god appears in human guise, it is always in the guise of a stranger, an alien traveler, someone out of another world. Therefore, strangers are gods for those people to whom they reveal themselves for the first time. And therefore, the guest is sacred and cannot be asked his name; while the enemy, the foreigner, is sacred too, but in the opposite sense, and must be killed. Hostis and hostia [“Enemy” and “host”] are one and the same. Everything is ambiguous in such acts, for that relation with sacredness which brings them forth is ambiguity itself.”[22]

It is likely that Levi took this consciousness of the constitutive ambiguity of the sacred not only from Durkheim (an entire chapter of his Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse is dedicated to “the ambiguity of the notion of the sacred”), but also, equally, from his experience as ethnologist in the field among the peasants of Aliano, the guardians of a primitive religiosity. Now, the unsurpassed actuality of Levi consists of the fact that the terms of opposition which he puts into play (sacred/sacrifice; undifferentiated/differentiated) are not for him substances, but processes, not “entities”, as in the malicious words of his critics, but currents which travel in reverse order the field of human tensions. This means that in the last analysis, what is truly human are not the two extremes – or the two poles – of the opposition, but only what holds between them in a precarious, decisive equilibrium. “Everybody is born from chaos, and to chaos may revert; every man leaves the mass in a process of differentiation and in this shapeless mass may lose himself again. But the only vivid moments in an individual life, the only periods of higher culture in history are those in which the two contrary processes of differentiation and undifferentiation find a common point of equilibrium and are coexistent in the creative act.”[23] With a term which he distinguishes as much from undifferentiated “nature” as he does from individual “action”, Levi defines “advent” [avvenimento] (Diano will speak a few years later of “event”) as that “which results from creative human activity, and blends at the very same moment individual riches and the treasures of universality – differentiation and undifferentiation: an activity most individual when soaring above individuals, and most universal when intensely singular; born of freedom and necessity at once: understood by all men through man’s common indistinct nature; transcending everyone, inasmuch as every man is a distinct, single self; but shared by everyone in the free process of individuation and consciousness.”[24] And, with an expression that recalls Spinozist affects and anticipates the theory of the emotions that Gilbert Simondon would develop a few decades later, he calls “passion” the point of contact between the individual and the undifferentiated universal. Which is why it “is useless to be free from passions: we ought to be free in our passions.”[25]

It is this passionate freedom that women and men fear above all else and which pushes them to find refuge in shapeless community or in abstract individualism, in idolatry or in atheism, both equally fatal.

The sacrificial process that culminates in the creation of idols is in perfect solidarity with that which ends in the construction of the social idol par excellence: the State. To the critique of the latter are dedicated, along with a good part of the first, two whole chapters: Slavery and Mass. The deification of the State (like the slavery that results from it) is the sign of “the need of true human relations and the incapacity to establish them freely; it denotes both the sacred nature of these relations and the inability to differentiate them without drying them up and above all, it is the sign of man’s dread of man. This terror of self forms the deepest-rooted of all idolatries, for its fount is ever present, and the most monstrous of all, for it is entirely human.”[26] Which is why statist idolatry “will last as long as social infancy, until each man examines his own self and finds in his own complexity the entire structure of the State, and in his own freedom – the necessity of the State.”[27] Slavery, which so scandalises the moderns when they see it institutionalised in the ancient world, is not an episode in human history. It is consubstantial with the State, and for this reason, it continues to exist everywhere under different forms and modalities: “The State-idol can exist only through a process of social alienation and sacrifice: only through slavery. Slavery and divineness of the State are exactly the same: the divine nature of the State is slavery and slavery could not exist without the State’s divinity, for deity and victim coincide.” Any liberation movement which is not conscious of this indefectible link between statist idolatry and slavery is condemned to failure: “This is”, writes Levi with a precious intuition, “the true weakness of those proletarian movements which not without reason have fondly called themselves by the ill-omened name of Spartacism; and, generally, the weakness of all those movements, be they of ever so radical an appearance, which do not step beyond the religious limits of the civilization they try to supersede.”[28] The very same bond that ties the State to slavery unites it inseparably to war: “the idolatric sense of the State always requires war, ceaseless and total, a war which is one with the State and the State’s existence, inseparable from the life of the god. Only the state of liberty is a state of peace: where there is true peace, there is true freedom, for idols cannot live without war; but men live only in peace.”[29]

These two phenomena, inextricably tethered to the State and war, reach their most extreme point of development in modernity: the mass and large cities. With a consciousness that is absent in the recurrent criticisms of mass society, Levi sees in war the original core of the mass. “War, waged by men, but severed from men and incomprehensibly divine, a necessary sacrifice to the divinity of the State, not only disrupts certain definite relations existing between men, but tends to bring men back to that undifferentiation which precedes relationship. … Great wars, by themselves, engender the mass: they turn again into a mass which was already determined, and confer a shapeless life to things already crystallized. Every man leaves his house, abandons his own world which was unique to him, merges with all his fellowmen, and after losing everything which made him a person, arrives to that which is indistinguishably common: blood and death.”[30]

Unlike the villages and townships that marked Italian history, large agglomerations develop and reproduce this formless mass. Similar to the image of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the large city “lives its own life, the life of a gigantic body through which there runs a blood made of a million unconscious human creatures. … Streets and houses have no definite ending, they only border upon stretches of land no less indefinite: it is the place of a people without history or memories, uprooted from any determination, and with none of the precise colors of a particular hope.”[31] And massification besets not only the form of cities: “Even work is deified, becoming technique and organization. The factory, grown gigantic, is not understandable to those who live off it, for they are no longer participants but merely tools. Technique, the art of human workmanship and invention, becomes a secret technology, no longer art, but magic.”[32] And, finally, language itself changes: “the mass, by itself ineffable and silent, truly may find expression only through the State … instead of the spontaneous political and poetical speech, made of innumerable gestures and words, and of relations ever renewed, there appears a sacred language, the language of mass-manifestation, upon public squares, below the alters of the tribune, in which, as in the classical prayers, the worshipping crowd contents itself with rhythmical replies … Wherever the mass is really anonymous, incapable of naming itself and speaking, the sacred language of the State replaces the names, which have lost their meaning, by its own religious and symbolic names: these are numbers, tickets, banners, arm-bands, uniforms, badges, insignia, medals, identification cards, ritual expressions of the fundamental idolized uniformity, and of the idolized uniform organization.”[33]

What his critics could not accept was not so much the condemnation of the State-idol, but the fact that he opposed to this last another the idea of another state, “the state of freedom” (written significantly in the lower case). It was not for him a general formula, as is made clear in the pages that immediately precede the conclusion of Christ and in a series of articles published over the course of the same years. He realises with lucidity that, if the very idea of the State had not been put into question, anti-fascism would have reconstructed, without modification, the world from which fascism was born. “[I]n a middle-class country like Italy, where middle-class ideology has infected the masses of workers in the city, it is probable, alas, that the new institutions arising after Fascism, through either gradual evolution or violence, no matter how extreme and revolutionary they may be in appearance, will maintain the same ideology under different forms and create a new State equally far removed from real life, equally idolatrous and abstract, a perpetuation under new slogans and new flags of the worst features of the eternal tendency toward Fascism. … We must make ourselves capable of inventing a new form of government, neither Fascist, nor Communist, nor even Liberal, for all three of these are forms of the religion of the State. We must rebuild the foundations of our concept of

the State with the concept of the individual, which is its basis. For the juridical and abstract concept of the individual we must substitute a new concept, more expressive of reality, one that will do away with the now unbridgeable gulf between the individual and the State.”[34]

What can be seen here is the truly political and certainly not “mystical” lesson that Levi drew from his years of interior exile (confine) in Lucania: “This reversal of the concept of political life, which is gradually and unconsciously ripening among us, is implicit in the peasant civilization. And it is the only path which will lead us out of the vicious circle of Fascism and anti-Fascism. The name of this way out is autonomy. 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. … 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.”[35]

An article published in La nazione del popolo [The Nation of the People], on the 1st of June of 1945, affirms without any possible equivocation the radical transformation which Levi has in mind and the model for which that should be sought in the tradition of workers’ councils and direct democracy, and not in that of representative democracy. He sees in the Committees of National Liberation [Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale – CLN], then, for a little time still, living and truly functioning, the possible instrument for this autonomist state: “The Committees of National Liberation, to be vital, should correspond to a very differentiated and limited human collectivity: company, factory, farm, rural parish, city borough, school, province, region, and so on until the central organisms: but within them, other forms of organisation, in themselves very important, of a horizontal or vertical character, have neither a place nor are they meaningful. This would include labour unions, war veterans groups, youth and women’s associations, professional and social assistance associations, etc., whose tasks and nature are different, who do not identify with a specific State body and who have no bond to a place, to an activity or to a particular collective tradition. It is on the basis of the differentiated multiplicity of the CLN, representing the real life of the people in the very places of their activity that tomorrow’s State should be constructed, organically and from today on. It is the only path to resolve, with the current government crisis, the old crisis of the Italian State.”[36]

After the fall of the Parri government in December 1945, meticulously described in The Watch, the political parties and the economic powers will set out in a direction directly opposite to that proposed by Levi: a centralised State and equally centralising labour unions and professional associations. As for the peasants, whose fate he held so closely to heart, the problem was resolved in the quickest and most violent manner possible: not with the autonomy of rural parishes, but with their mass deportation towards the factories of the North. The Italy, which Levi glimpsed and so admirably described in the pages of his books, perhaps existed no more than for a few months – but it is precisely for this reason that it has lost none of its timeliness.

During the years through which Levi published his reflections, in a small Friuli village, Casara, a young man of twenty-two years founded a very particular institution, the Academiuta di lengua furlana and privately published the four numbers of a stroligut (a kind of small almanac) entirely written in Friulian. In the programmatic texts in prose, alternating with poems, Friulian is claimed not as a vernacular dialect, “not to write two or three bits of nonsense to laugh, or to tell two or three old village stories, but with the ambition to say more elevated things, eventually difficult things: in the case when someone, in sum, would think it better to express themselves in the dialect of his land, newer, fresher, stronger than the national language learned in books (pi nouf, pi fresc, pi fuart si no la lengua nasional imparada dai libris).”[37] Italian itself – the manifesto continues, entitled Dialet, lenga e stil – was for a certain time a dialect of Latin, until Dante decided to write his verses in vulgar language.

The sober and incomparable novelty of the young Pasolini’s gesture who, in a region crossed over by German armies in flight and bombarded by Allied aviation, decides to obstinately scrutinise not the national language, but the dialect, not state politics which had only just begun to organise itself in the large cities, but the young and the peasants of Casara, invites reflection. He is trying to do for poetry and language exactly what Levi proposes for Italian society as a whole. It is not surprising then to also find here the same profession of autonomy, understood as the “coincidence of Friulian with its own nature”: “beyond all of the economic, geographical, historical, patriotic, etc., etc., pretexts, here we come to speak of civilisation (civiltà). The practical ends sought by a decentralisation reveal themselves as the means to exploit not only the economic resources of each region, but also the patrimony of consciousness that each Region coinciding with its very own civilisation possesses.”[38] 

Before the blindness of a ruling class which, regardless of whether it is on the right or the left of the political spectrum, continues to slavishly propel itself in the direction indicated by capitalist development, it is possible that Levi’s and the young Pasolini’s words, then decidedly untimely, today find in effect the hour of their readability.  

[1] “It is truly the most important of my books, in the sense that it is not a story, and what is more, this definition of genres is for me absurd, today. I wouldn’t know how to define it myself; but if we want empirically to employ a designation, it could be a philosophical poem.” Interview by F. Bertolo in: Scuola viva: incontro con gli autori. Rome, 1971, p.13.

[2] Galleria, 3-6, 1967, p. 237.

[3] G. De Donato, Saggio su Carlo Levi. Bari: De Donato, 1974, p. 25.

[4] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

[5] M. Alicata, “Il meridionalismo non si può fermare a Éboli”, in Cronache meridionali, n. 5, 1954, pp. 585-603.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A. Asor. Rosa, Scrittori e popolo. Rome: Samonà e Savelli, 1965, p. 231.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rivoluzione liberale, n. 1, 12 February 1922.

[10] Galleria, cit., p. 238.

[11] “La storia è presente”, in La nuova stampa, 18 October 1955. Coolected in: Le mille patrie. Rome: Donzelli, 2015, p. 45.

[12] Carlo Levi, Fear of Freedom, with the essay “Fear of Painting” [1946/1942]. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. xiii.

[13] In an article of 1952, published in the “Nouvelle Revue Française” of September, Levi will declare his debt to Alain (“some of his ideas germinated in me”), recalling his meditation “on the gods, childhood, myth, the professional trades, the bourgeois condition of man and that of the proletariat”.

[14] Fear of Freedom, p. xiv-xv.

[15] Ibid., p. xv.

[16] Galleria, cit., p, 237.

[17] Fear of Freedom, p. 1.

[18] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] Ibid., p. 9.

[21] Ibid., p. 10.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 3.

[24] Ibid., pp. 3-4. [Translator’s Note: The English language edition of Fear of Freedom translates “avvenimento” as “achievement”, which may induce error, suggesting as it does the consequence or result of an action, when “avvenimento”, as employed by Carlo Levi, points to a process that is distinct from an action, with its analytic structure of “subject who acts-end/result of action”, or, in other words, praxis. What Levi is here searching for, struggling with, is an ontology that “will do away with the now unbridgeable gulf between the individual and the state”, an ontology for his ethical-political ideal of autonomy, and for this he must rethink the concepts of the “individual” and the “collective”.  It is unclear if he fully succeeds, but it is clearly his ambition: “The individual is not a separate unit, but a link, a meeting place of relationships of every kind. This concept of relationship, without which the individual has no life, is at the same time the basis of the state. The individual and the state coincide in theory and they must be made to coincide in practice as well, if they are to survive”. Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. London, England: Penguin Books, 1982, p. 240.]

[25] Ibid., p. 6.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., p. 31.

[29] Ibid., p. 59.

[30] Ibid., p. 73.

[31] Ibid., p. 74.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., pp. 75-6.

[34] Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli [1945]. London, England: Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 239-40.

[35] Ibid., pp. 240-1.

[36] “Crisi del governo e crisi dello Stato” [“Crisis of Government and Crisis of State2], in La nazione del popolo of the 1st of June. Collected in: Carlo Levi, Il dovere dei tempi. Rome: Donzelli, 2004, p. 88.

[37] Stroligut di cà da l’aga, Casara, April 1944, p. 5.

[38] Quaderno romanzo, n. 3, Casara, June 1947, pp. 6-7.

There is of course no substitute for reading Carlo Levi himself. With this in mind, and in lieu of a conclusion to this post, we close with a chapter from Christ Stopped at Eboli (chapter 22), which in a very personal and painful way, captures the sources of Levi’s political education. …

The days were slowly beginning to grow longer; the season had changed and the snow gave way to rain and sunshine. Spring was not far away and I thought it a good time to take every possible measure to stave off the dread malaria before the return of the mosquitoes. Even with the limited means available in the village there was a great deal that could be done. We could ask the Red Cross for some Paris green to disinfect the few pools of stagnant water nearby, pipe off the drippings from the old fountain, and lay in a stock of quinine, atabrine, and plasmochin with some candy for the children in order to be ready for the hot weather. These were simple precautions and, according to law, they were compulsory. I mentioned them over and over again to Don Luigi, but I soon realized that although he approved of my plans he took care to do nothing at all about them. In order to hold him to his responsibility I decided to write a memorandum of twenty pages or so with a detailed list of everything to be done, including both the requirements that could be met locally and the items that would have to be requested from Rome. The mayor read the memorandum, expressed satisfaction, praised my efforts, and informed me with a broad smile that on the following day, when he went to Matera, he would show it to the prefect, who was in a position to help us. As soon as he came back from Matera he hastened to tell me that His Excellency was enthusiastic about my suggestions, that everything I had asked for to fight malaria would be forthcoming and that, incidentally, the other political prisoners, as well as I, would benefit from the project. Don Luigi was glowing with pride that I should be under his jurisdiction and everything seemed for the best.

Three or four days after the mayor’s return a telegram came from the police in Matera to the effect that I was forbidden to practice medicine in Gagliano, under penalty of prison. Whether or not this sudden ban was a direct result of the excess of zeal betrayed by my memorandum I never found out. As the peasants would have it: “We’re saddled with our malaria and if you try to do anything about it they’ll drive you away.” Others were of the opinion that the local doctors had conspired against me, and in my own mind there was a suspicion that the police were afraid I might become too popular, because my reputation as a miracle man was growing by leaps and bounds, and patients came from remote villages to consult me.

The telegram from Matera was delivered to me by the carabinieri one evening. The next morning at dawn, when no one in the village yet knew of the ban, a man on horseback knocked at my door.

“Come quickly, Doctor,” he said. “My brother’s ill. We live down near the Bog, three hours away. I’ve brought this horse for you to ride.”

The Bog was a distant and lonely district near the Agri River, There was one big farm in it and the peasants lived there on the spot, far from any settlement I told the man that I couldn’t possibly come, first, because I was not allowed to go beyond the village limits and second, because I had been forbidden to practice medicine. I advised him to consult Dr. Milillo or Dr. Gibilisco.

“Those tenth-rate fellows? Better have no one at all.” With which he shook his head and went away.

There was a mixture of rain and sleet in the air. I stayed home all morning to write a letter to the police, objecting to the ban and requesting its annulment. I asked them in the meantime, until they should receive new orders, to authorize me at least to continue the cases at present under my care and to pursue, for the welfare of the population, my plans for the drive against malaria. To this letter I never received a reply.

I was just getting up from my dinner at about two o’clock in the afternoon when the man on horseback returned. He had been down to the Bog again; his brother was much worse and I must try at any cost to save him. I told him to come with me to ask the mayor for a special permission. Don Luigi was not at home, he had gone to have a cup of coffee at his sister’s, where we found him stretched out in an armchair. I set my case before him.

“Impossible. Orders from Matera have to be obeyed. I can’t take any such responsibility. Stay here, Doctor, and have a cup of coffee.”

The peasant, who was an intelligent and determined fellow, would not take no for an answer and Donna Caterina, my protectress, took our part. The edict from Matera threatened to upset all her plans by clearing the way for her enemy, Gibilisco. She deplored it loudly and finally exclaimed:

“This comes of anonymous letters! Who knows how many they’ve written? Gibilisco himself went to Matera last week. The police don’t know that you’re a godsend to us here. But leave it all to me; we have some Influence ourselves in the office of the prefect and the ban will be lifted. What a perfect shame!” And she tried to console me with cakes and coffee.

But the problem was an immediate one, and in spite of the fact that Donna Caterina was on our side, Don Luigi could not be budged.

“I can’t do it; I have too many enemies. If the thing were to be known I’d lose my job. I have to keep in line with the police.”

Don Andrea, the old schoolteacher, agreed with him, between a cat-nap and a mouthful of cakes, and our discussion dragged on without coming to any conclusion. The mayor, who liked to pose as a friend of the people, was reluctant to refuse the peasant’s plea, but fear won the day.

“After all, there are other doctors. Try them.”

“They’re worthless,” said the peasant.

“He’s quite right there,” shouted Donna Caterina. “Your uncle is too old, and as for the other, well, let’s not even mention him. And then in this weather, with the roads wet, neither of them would want to go.”

The peasant got up.

“I’ll go to look for them,” he said and went away.

He stayed away almost two hours, while the family council continued the discussion without any concrete result. In spite of Donna Caterina’s backing I could not overcome the mayor’s fears; there was no precedent for the case, and too much responsibility was involved. At last the peasant came back with two sheets of paper in his hand and on his face the satisfied look of a man who has succeeded after a long struggle.

“Neither doctor can come; they’re both sick. I have signed statements from both of them. Now you’ll have to let Don Carlo come. Just look at these . . .” And he thrust the papers in front of Don Luigi

After tremendous efforts of persuasion, with possibly a few threats thrown in for good measure, the peasant had got both doctors to state in writing that because of the bad weather and their age and health they simply could not go to the Bog. In the case of Dr. Milillo, this was indeed true. Now it seemed as if there could be no further obstacle to my going, but the mayor was not won over, and he went on debating the pros and cons. He sent for the village clerk, the brother-in-law of the widow with whom I had lodged, a good fellow who thought I should be allowed to go. Dr. Milillo himself came, somewhat out of sorts because he was spurned in his professional capacity, but not opposed to my going.

“Just make sure you’re paid in advance. All the way to the Bog? No, I shouldn’t dream of it, even for two hundred lire.”

Time was passing, fresh cakes and coffee were brought in, and still we were making no progress. Then I suggested calling in the sergeant; if he were willing to take upon himself the responsibility for my trip the mayor might consent to it without compromising himself too seriously. And so it came about. As soon as he heard the story the sergeant told me to go, saying that he trusted me and would not send any of his men along to escort me. A human life, he added, should be above every other consideration. There was relief on every side; even Don Luigi appeared to be pleased by the decision, and to show his good will he sent for a heavy coat and boots which he said I should need down in the valley. Meanwhile, darkness had come; they had to authorize me to spend the night at the farm and to return the following morning. Finally, with advice and good wishes all around, I set out with the peasant and his horse and Barone.

The weather had cleared; the rain and sleet had stopped. A brisk wind was sweeping the sky and a bright, round moon peered out among the broken masses of scurrying clouds. As soon as we had left the steep paved village street, near the Mound of the Madonna of the Angels, my companion, who had been leading his horse by the bridle, stopped and signalled to me to mount. I had not ridden horseback for a number of years and among these ravines in the dead of night I preferred my own two legs. I told him that he should ride his own horse while I walked along at a good clip. He looked at me with astonishment, as if the whole world were

topsy-turvy: a peasant on horseback and a gentleman on foot? – perish the thought! I had quite a time to convince him, but at last he reluctantly took my advice. Then we began a real race toward the Bog. I strode down the steep path with the horse right at my heels; I could feel his hot breath and hear his hoof-beats in the mud just behind me. I coursed over the unfamiliar ground like a man pursued, buoyed up by the night air, the silence around me and my own motion. The moon filled the entire sky and seemed as if it would overflow onto the earth. The terrain we were covering might, indeed, have been the surface of the moon, as it lay white in the silent moonlight without any vegetation, not even a blade of grass, belaboured by the everlasting flow of the waters which had wrinkled, pierced, and roughened it. The stretches of clay slanted steeply down to the Agri in a series of cones, caves, mounds, and other irregularities which stood out in varying degrees of light and shadow. We wound our way without speaking through this labyrinth made by time and earthquakes. I felt as If I were floating over the ghostly landscape like a bird.

After more than two hours of our race the barking of a dog from below broke the silence around us. We came out of the clay and found ourselves in a sloping meadow; in the background, behind a rise in the ground, appeared the outlines of the white farmhouse. Here, far from any human habitation, lived my companion and his brother with their wives and children. At the door we were greeted by three hunters from Pisticci, who had come the previous day to hunt foxes down by the river and had stayed out of sympathy for their friend. The two wives, sisters, also from Pisticci, were tall with large black eyes and noble faces. Their beauty was set off by the peasant dress of their village: long skirts with black and white flounces and black and white ribbons among the veils on their heads, which made them look like some strange sort of butterflies. They had prepared the best foodstuffs at their disposal: fresh milk and cheese, which they offered me as soon as I arrived with that old-style hospitality, devoid of servility, which puts all men on the same footing. They had waited for me all day long, as for a saviour, but I soon discovered that there was nothing I could do. The man had a ruptured appendix; he was in his death agony and not even an operation, had I been able to perform one, would have been of any avail. There was nothing I could do but soothe the patient’s pain with injections of morphine and wait for the end.

The house was made up of two rooms, which were joined by a wide door. In the farther room were the sick man, his brother, and the women who were watching over him. In the first room a fire was lit in the fireplace and around it sat the three hunters; a high bed with a soft mattress had been made ready for me in the opposite comer. Every now and then I went to see the dying man, then I came back and talked in a low voice to the hunters beside the fire.

About midnight I climbed into the bed for a rest, without taking off my clothes, but I could not sleep. I lay in the high bed, which was like a theatre box suspended in mid-air. Hung on the walls all around me were the bodies of newly killed foxes; I could smell their gamey odour and see their sharp muzzles outlined against the flickering red flames. I had only to stretch out my hand to touch their skins, which had something of woods and caves about them. Through the

door I could hear the dying man’s continuous wailing, like an endless litany of pain: “Jesus, help me; Doctor, help me; Jesus, help me; Doctor, help me,” and the whispered prayers of the women. I looked at the dancing flames, the long, wavering shadows, and the dark figures of the three hunters with their hats on their heads, motionless in front of the fire.

Death was in the house: I loved these peasants and I was sad and humiliated by my powerlessness against it. Why, then, at the same time, did a great feeling of peace pervade

me? I felt detached from every earthly thing and place, lost in a no man’s land far from time and reality. I was hidden, like a shoot under the bark of a tree, beyond the reach of man. I listened to the silence of the night and I felt as if I had all of a sudden penetrated the very heart of the universe. An immense happiness, such as I had never known, swept over me with a flow of fulfilment

Toward dawn the sick man’s end was very near. His muffled calls for help changed into a death rattle and tins in turn became weaker and weaker in the final straggle until it ceased altogether. He had hardly finished dying when the women pulled the lids down over his staring eyes and began their lament. Those two gentle, reserved butterflies with their black and white ribbons were suddenly transformed into furies. They tore their veils, pulled their clothing out of place, scratched their faces until blood came and began to dance with long steps around the room, beating their heads against the wall and singing on one high note the death story. From time to time they put their heads out the windows, still crying out on the same single note, as if to announce the death to the countryside and to the world; then they drew back into the room and went on with the wailing and dancing, which were to last forty-eight hours without stopping, until the funeral. This single note was long-drawn-out, repetitious and agonizing. It was impossible to listen to it without being overcome by an irresistible feeling of physical anguish; it brought a lump to the throat of the hearer and made its way straight to the pit of his stomach. To avoid bursting into tears I hurriedly took leave and went out with Barone into the light of the early morning.

The weather was calm. The meadows and the ghostly stretches of clay of the previous evening lay before me bare and lonely in the still gray light. I was my own master among these silent wastes and I still felt some of the happiness of the night just past. Of course I had to go back to the village, but meanwhile I wandered through the fields, twirling my stick and whistling to my dog, who was highly excited, perhaps by the presence of some invisible game. I decided to go home by a roundabout way, passing through Gaglianello, which I had not yet been able to visit.

Gaglianello is a group of houses, without even a street connecting them, on a low, barren hill near the malaria-ridden river. Four hundred people live there without a doctor, a midwife, a carabiniere, or any other representative of the State. Even so, the tax collector with the flaming initials on his cap passes time and again their way. To my astonishment I saw that I was expected. The people knew that I had been to the Bog and hoped that I might stop by on my way back. The peasants and their women stood outside to welcome me and persons afflicted with the strangest kinds of diseases had themselves carried to the doorways so that I should see them as I went by. The scene was reminiscent of a medieval court of miracles. No doctor had set foot in the place for who knows how many years. Old afflictions which had received no treatment except incantations had piled up in the peasants’ bodies, spreading in strange forms like mushrooms on rotten timber. I spent most of the morning going from hut to hut among emaciated victims of malaria, ancient ulcers, and gangrene, giving what advice I could, since I was no longer allowed to write prescriptions, and drinking the wine offered me as a token of hospitality. They wanted me to stay all day, but I had to go on, and so they walked with me for a piece of the road, imploring me to return. “Who knows?” I said to them, “I’ll come if I can.”

But I never did. I left my new friends from Gaglianello by the wayside and began to climb up the path among the ravines toward home.

The dazzling sun stood high in the sky; the irregular terrain through which the path wound its tortuous way shut off my view. All of a sudden the sergeant, with one of his men, came around a curve on his way to meet me, and I joined forces with them on the homeward climb. Big black birds, perching on clumps of broom, took off into the air as we passed by. ‘Would you care to take a shot, Doctor?” said the sergeant, holding out his rifle. The feathers of the bird I hit fluttered down to the ground, but the large shot must have shattered the body into a thousand pieces and we did not linger to look for it.

As soon as we reached Gagliano the expression on the peasants’ faces told me that something was brewing. During my absence everyone had heard about the ban upon my practice of medicine and about the time wasted the previous day before I could obtain permission to go down to the Bog. News of the sick man’s death had already arrived by some mysterious underground wireless. The villagers all knew and cared for him, and he was the first one of those I had attended in all these months to die. For this reason they were convinced that if I had been able to reach him earlier I could surely have saved his life. When I told them that in all likelihood, even if I had arrived a few hours sooner, my restricted knowledge of abdominal surgery, the lack of instruments, and the difficulties of transportation even to Sant’ Arcangelo, would have kept me from doing very much, they shook their heads incredulously. In their opinion I was a miracle man and nothing would have been beyond my powers if only I had reached the spot on time. The whole incident was proof to them of the evil intent back of the ban, which from now on would stand in the way of my helping them. The expression on the peasants’ faces was one I had never seen before. Despair mingled with grim determination made their eyes look blacker than usual, and they came out of their houses with guns and axes on their shoulders.

“We’re dogs”, they said to me, “and in Rome they want us to die like dogs. One Christian soul took pity on us, and now they want to take him away. We’ll burn the town hall and kill the mayor.”

Revolt was in the air. The peasants’ deep sense of justice had been outraged and, gentle, passive, and resigned as they were, impervious to political reasoning and party slogans, they felt stirring in them the old spirit of the brigands. These downtrodden folk have always been given to wilful and ephemeral explosions. Some human mischance arouses their age-old repressed resentment and they may set fire to a tax office or a barracks or cut the throats of their overlords. For a brief moment a sort of Spanish ferocity is awakened in them, and they break loose in search of a freedom to be bought only with bloodshed and violence. Then they are led off to jail in stony indifference, like men who have released themselves in a single second from the burden of centuries.

That day, if I had wished, I might have put myself at the head of several hundred brigands and have either laid siege to the village or fled to the wilds. For a moment I was sorely tempted, but in 1936 the time was not yet ripe. Instead, after considerable effort, I managed to calm the peasants. They took home their guns and axes, but the anxious look did not leave their faces. Rome and the State had wounded them to the core; one of their own had been struck down.

Under the heavy weight of death they had felt the hand of the faraway government and they rebelled against its iron vice. Their first impulse was to wreak immediate vengeance upon the symbols and the emissaries of Rome. If I dissuaded them from taking this course, what was left for them to do? As always, nothing. But to this eternal “nothing” for once they were of no mind to resign themselves.

The next day the peasants came in small groups to see me. Their anger and bloodthirstiness had somewhat subsided; they had refrained from staging a massacre and when the moment for release through vengeance has gone by without fulfilment, its red-hot temperature goes with it. Now their only wish was that I should be allowed to carry on my medical practice lawfully among them, and they had decided to circulate a petition on my behalf. Their enmity toward a foreign and hostile government went hand in hand (paradoxical as it may seem) with a natural respect for justice, a spontaneous understanding of what Government and the State should be, namely the will of the people expressed in terms of law. “Lawful” is one of the words they most commonly use, not in the meaning of something sanctioned and codified but rather in the sense of genuine or authentic. A man is “lawful” if he behaves as he should; a wine is “lawful” if it is not watered. A petition which they all signed seemed to them truly lawful, and as such possessed real effectiveness. They were quite right, but I had to explain to them something of which they were already better aware than I: namely, that they were up against a strictly unlawful power against which legal arms were of no avail, that not only were they too weak to prevail by violence but that the undermined and disarmed state of legal justice blocked their way, and that, in short, the only result of their petition would be my removal to some other place of confinement. Let them go ahead with the petition, I said, if they were convinced of its efficacy, but let them cherish no illusions that it would lead to anything but my departure. They understood my argument all too well.

“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,” they said. And so the petition was given up. But the incident had touched them too deeply to go by without protest. Where violence and law had failed them, they had recourse to art.

One day two young men came to see me and asked very mysteriously for the loan of my white doctor’s jacket. I was not to ask them what they wanted with it, for their purpose was a secret; the following day everything would be made clear to me and they would bring it back that evening. The next day, while I was strolling through the square I saw people hurrying toward the mayor’s house where already a small crowd had gathered. I went along with them and the onlookers made way for me. Right in the middle of the street a play, without benefit of stage or scenery, was going on, surrounded by an eager circle of men, women, and children. Every year at the beginning of Lent, as I was later to learn, tie peasants put on an unrehearsed comedy of their own devising. Occasionally they chose a religious subject, sometimes they told the deeds of knights or brigands, but usually they parodied scenes of everyday life. This year, while they were still upset by the incident I have just described, they gave poetic vent to their feelings with a piece of satire.

The actors were men, even those who took the part of women, all of them peasant friends of mine, but I could not recognize them under their extraordinary make-up. The play consisted of one simple scene, and the players made up their parts as they went along. A chorus of men and women announced the arrival of a sick man, and in he came on a stretcher, his face painted white with dark circles under his eyes and black spots to hollow out his cheeks as if he were already dead. The sick man was accompanied by his weeping mother, who said nothing but: “My son! My son!” over and over again as a monotonous, sad accompaniment to the entire drama. Summoned by the chorus, there appeared beside the sick man a fellow in my white jacket who was just about to heal him when he was interrupted by an old codger in a black suit and wearing a goatee. The two medical men, one white and one black, representing the spirits of good and evil, fought like an angel and a devil over the sick man on the stretcher, exchanging volleys of witty and bitter words. The angel seemed about to bear away the victory when suddenly an emissary from Rome, with a fierce and monstrous face, appeared on the scene and chased him away. The man in black, Dr. Bestianelli (named for the famous surgeon

Bastianelli, who was known even in these parts), was left master of the situation. Pulling a knife out of a bag, he began to operate. He pretended to cut through the sick man’s clothing and with a rapid motion of his hand drew out of the wound a pig’s bladder which was hidden there. Then he turned triumphantly toward the chorus, which was murmuring words of horror and indignation, brandished the bladder and shouted: “Here is his heart!” He pierced the heart with a big needle until blood spurted out, while the mother and the chorus began to intone a dirge, and the drama came to an end.

I never found out who wrote the play; perhaps it was no single author but all the participants thought it up together. The improvised dialogue centred about the burning question of the day, but peasant cunning saw to it that the references were not too direct; they were both pertinent and pointed without crossing the danger line. The peasant actors were carried away less by the satirical voicing of their grievance than by genuine artistic fervour. Every one of them lived his part: the weeping mother seemed the desperate heroine of a Greek tragedy or Madonna by Jacopone da Todi; the sick man had a truly deathlike countenance; the charlatan

in black drew blood from the heart with savage joy; the Roman was a horrible monster representing the State itself in the form of a dragon, and the chorus made its commentary and interpretation with the patience of despair. Was this classical form the reminiscence of an ancient art, descended to a popular level, or was it an original and spontaneous re-creation in a language natural to -this land, where the whole of life is a tragedy without a stage?

As soon as the play was done the dead man got up from his stretcher and the actors hurried down a lane toward the house of Dr. Gibilisco, where they acted out the play again. In the course of the day it was given many times, at Dr. Milillo’s house, the church, the barracks, the town hall, in the square, and here and there in the narrow streets of Upper and Lower Gagliano. When evening came the angel’s white jacket was brought back to me in triumph and all returned to their homes.

The Fondazione Carlo Levi has a rich website, in italian.

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