Carlo Levi’s explanation of the southern question still holds true today
Recently, I had a long conversation about the origin of mafia organizations in southern Italy. I maintained that the mafia had been born and flourished in southern Italy, where the Italian State had failed to impose its widespread presence, thus becoming the answer to a power vacuum that the criminal organizations had tragically filled. My interlocutor, instead, replied that it was a fortuitous question: the mafia had flourished in the South because it was born there — if it had been born in the North, the situation would simply be upside down.
I believe that statements of this kind can create quite a few problems. The southern question, namely the particular situation of structural difficulties in the socio-economic development of the souther regions compared to the rest of the country, especially in the north, must be inserted in its specific historical context, in which it has its roots. The historical development of southern Italy is inextricably linked to a past of conquests and overruns, of political centralism and unhealthy economic exploitation, from which a mature understanding of the current situation of imbalance cannot be separated. If the southern question is transformed into an axiom, i.e. it is taken as something that “it is so because it is so,” this can lead to a deterministic approach which is dangerous for public debate.
In the 1990s, Italy saw the birth of secessionist movements such as the Northern League (today’s League led by Matteo Salvini), which called for the secession of northern Italy. These movements were supported by the idea that southern Italy has always been a burden on the shoulders of the more productive north. While in numbers it is true that even today, a third of the Italian population living in the south, produces a quarter of Italy’s GDP, it is also true that the imbalance between the two areas cannot be easily liquidated with pseudo-anthropological theories on southern Italians’ laziness, or even more racist allegations.
That is why, in order to talk about the southern question starting from Carlo Levi’s book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, it is necessary to take a step back and understand its historical assumptions. There is an old saying in Italian that, although it has been known for over one hundred and sixty years, still enjoys a certain popularity: “Once Italy is made, you have to make the Italians.” The sentence, attributed to the writer and politician Massimo D’Azeglio, comes from the historical context which followed the unification of Italy in 1861, and expresses the need to culturally unite what at that time was united only on political maps.
The Italian peninsula, a disuniform jumble of independent state entities, was brought together under the triumphant insignia of the Savoy kingdom, whose royal house ruled the region that today corresponds to Piedmont. The first capital of united Italy was Turin and its first king, rumor has it, did not speak Italian, but only French and the Piedmontese dialect. There was no linguistic or cultural concordance between these many Italies, and the gulf between Turin and Palermo, or even between the Alpine capital and the Lucanian countryside, contained a whole universe: not only in the agricultural south there remained systems of a feudal nature such as sharecropping, while in the north a certain industry had flourished; not only was the illiteracy rate much higher in southern Italy; not only were the infrastructures in the south extremely inferior to those in the north; but the awareness that southerners had of belonging to a unitary national entity was almost zero.
This is the necessary presupposition to understand the work of Carlo Levi, an intellectual, painter, writer, and politician from Turin, born in 1902 and arrested by the fascist regime due to suspicion of anti-fascist activity. Levi was sentenced to confinement in southern Italy, in the village of Gagliano, in the province of Matera: “Christ stopped at Eboli” is the literary work resulting from the experience of confinement, and was written between 1943 and 1945, almost a decade after his stay in southern Italy.
Turin, Levi’s city of origin, in the 1930s had all the characteristics of a great center of culture, industry and active life. Cradle of great intellectuals, from Cesare Pavese to Natalia Ginzburg, from Italo Calvino to Giulio Einaudi, the Savoyard city was certainly closer to Paris than to Lucania. It is perhaps this unbridgeable distance that gives the observations resulting from Levi’s confinement, the prominence that was later attributed to them. Through the eyes of someone who have experienced progress, the peasant atavism in which Levi is catapulted takes on almost material evidence, and his considerations, as much sociological as political — and, I would say, human in the broadest sense — are lights in the darkness of an issue, the southern one, which has never been fully illuminated.
The south in which Levi arrived in the mid-thirties, the years of greatest popularity of the fascist regime, is a world that rests on malarial soil, populated by wretched farmers and beasts of burden, demons, and bandits. Aliano (as the village of Gagliano is called in the peasants’ dialect), is the small southern village par excellence, a place that represents a thousand others, all useless and forgotten. The power, although rather precarious, is held by the Podestà (something similar to a major) appointed directly by the fascist hierarchies. The second power is represented by the ranks of men belonging to the local small bourgeoisie, who differ from the peasant laborers mostly because they do not die of hunger. The desolation of such a scenario is what lies behind the title of Carlo Levi’s book-testimony:
“We’re not Christians,” they say [the Lucanian peasants]. “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.“ “Christian,” In their way of speaking means “human being,” and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts. 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. (…) But to this shadowy land, that knows neither sin nor redemption from sin, where evil is not moral but is only the pain residing forever in earthly things, Christ did not come. Christ stopped at Eboli.
Christianity acts among the peasants as a yardstick for the human, the civil, the political. Christ, like the State, never came this far south. Where there is no authority, alternative methods and systems make up for this lack, and that’s why the women-witches of Gagliano explain the world and its rules with superstition: their solutions to problems are not based on reason, which is Christian, but on magic, which is pagan. The men wake up early to go to work the fields, and yet what they can put on the table is little more than bread. The peasants, therefore, fall ill very easily, and Levi, who has a degree in medicine but has never practiced his profession, is considered by poor peasants as a wise and omnipotent savior, capable of curing the incurable and consoling the inconsolable.
The comfort that Levi offers to the desperate and hopeless peasants, without hope of redemption from what he defines as the slow passing of time, is a comfort that is concrete, as he is committed as far as possible to heal the sick using his rusty, but also symbolic and disruptive, university knowledge. The young man from Turin, Don Carlo, as the villagers call him, is the first “gentleman” who does not despise them. Rarely, has a cultured, rich, well-dressed man not entertained a relationship with them based on something else than subordination.
Levi’s gaze on the wretched, sick, gloomy peasants is human and compassionate, for the first time attentive to understanding the profound reasons for their existential resignation. It is not the indifferent look of a State that sends them its tax collectors, demanding if they have nothing else to pay taxes, even the little food they have preserved: a bottle of oil, a ham, a preserve. “You can’t take their bed” says the tax collector, but what if you could?
The State, then, presents itself to the peasants as an alien and threatening entity, yet another misfortune to bear:
“There are hailstorms, landslides, droughts, malaria and… the State. These are inescapable evils; such there always have been and there always will be. They make us kill off our goats, they carry away our furniture, and now they’re going to send us to the wars. Such is life!” To the peasants the State is more distant than heaven and far more of a scourge, because it is always against them. (…) Their only defense against the State and the propaganda of the State is resignation, the same gloomy resignation that bows their shoulders under the scourges of nature.
It is from these considerations, and from the careful observation of life in this peripheral south excluded from the progress promised by Fascism, that Levi developed a political proposal: the only form of emancipation from the material and cultural degradation that weighed on the shoulders of the southern agricultural laborers. It arose after he was allowed to return to Turin to visit his family, following the sudden death of one of his relatives. In the few days of permission, Levi had the opportunity to discuss with friends and acquaintances his experience and more generally the southern question. However, he immediately noticed a gap, a basic incommunicability between the two worlds. The farmers of Gagliano were far from the north, and the north did not have the means to understand the essence of their lives and their difficulties. However, they all thought they had in their hands the solution to the problem, or at least a scheme to be applied. And the scheme, in all cases, rested on the hope that the State could and should resolve the southern question.
Some saw it as a purely technical and economic matter. They spoke of public works, industrialization, and domestic absorption of the plethora of would-be emigrants, or else they resurrected the old Socialist slogan of “making Italy over.” Others saw the South burdened with an unfortunate historical heredity, a tradition of enslavement to the Bourbons which liberal democracy might little by little relieve. Some said that the question of the South was just one more case of capitalist oppression, which only rule by the proletariat could supplant. Others spoke of inherent racial inferiority, considering the South a dead weight on the economy of the North, and studied possible measures to be taken by the government to remedy this sad state of things.
Levi responded to these visions — very similar to the ones of today’s public debate — by saying that the southern question was not an issue that could be resolved by the State; on the contrary, the State was the biggest obstacle to its solution. According to the Italian intellectual, the southern question could not be resolved within the Fascist State, nor within a future State that does not radically contradict its assumptions.
The path to take, which must free southern Italy’s lower class from its “forced anarchy” and “necessary indifference,” is the path of autonomy: the State as infinite autonomies, a “large federation.” Only when the two sides cease to oppress each other, and both the city and the countryside, the entrepreneur and the peasant, the north and the south, understand that in collaboration and mutual respect for their rights and duties lies the key to civil life and progress, will the south cease to be considered a ball and chain by the more developed and richer north.
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