Deified State

A review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi, and some thoughts.

Eboli is not the disease, it’s a little village in southern Italy. In that part of the world at mid-20th century, they would say Christ stopped at the next village south, Eboli (pronounced probably A-boll-e), as a way of saying civilization did not quite reach them. The book is a memoir of the author’s time spent in Aliano, which he called Gagliano in the book, in the region of Luciana, now called Basilicata. It was written during the Second World War. Carlo Levi was sent there as a political prisoner for a term of three years, which ended up being only one year, by Mussolini’s Fascist government.  Levi was a painter, and that was his primary occupation during the years before his exile to Gagliano. He describes the landscape and people with a painter’s eye.

The most important purpose of the book is to show the daily lives of peasants in southern Italy, who were long-suffering, patient, and resigned, except on occasion when they rose up in futile protest as in the days a hundred years before when they would align themselves on-again off-again with the brigands controlling that region of Italy. Levi sets off the lives of the peasants against those of the “gentry,” really only small land-owners whose lives were not much better, materially, than those of the peasants. Others in the village, like the ineffectual school-teacher, the mayor, the local carabinieri, and petty state functionaries, are portrayed as bumbling but self-important parasites living on the backs of the impoverished peasants.

The writing is beautiful and sometimes enlivened with a touch of vinegar. Nothing about the landscape or personalities or superstitions or local customs is left flat in the telling. The author was a doctor, though he had not practiced much before going to Gagliano. He describes the other two doctors in town this way. Of Dr. Milillo:

“My first impression was that he was a good man gone completely to seed. It was obvious that he was not very happy over my arrival, and I sought to reassure him. I had no intention of practicing medicine; I had gone today to the dying man because his case was desperate and I knew nothing of the local doctors. The doctor was visibly cheered by what I said and, like his nephew, he felt obliged to make a show of his culture, searching the corners of his mind for outdated medical terms left over from his years at the university. They were like war trophies forgotten in an attic. Only one thing was clear from his stammerings: that he no longer had the slightest knowledge of medicine, if he ever had any. . . . Remnants of his lost ability floated senselessly amid the wreckage of his lassitude, on an ocean of quinine, the sovereign remedy for every ill. I rescued him from the dangerous subject of science and questioned him about the village, its inhabitants and the life they led.”

Of Dr. Gibilisco:

“By now the gentry had completely filled the square. The solitary doctor, the mayor’s enemy, was consumed with a desire to make my acquaintance. He walked in ever smaller circles around and around us, like a diabolical black poodle. . . . The expression on his face was one of spiteful mistrust and chronic ill-concealed anger. . . . He was swinging a huge black cotton umbrella which I often saw him carrying later, with great dignity, in winter and summer, sunshine and rain, open straight above his head, like a canopy over the tabernacle of his authority. . . . Gibilisco, too, was eager to display his knowledge. But I soon reached the conclusion that his ignorance was even deeper than that of old Milillo. He knew nothing at all and was talking at random. One thing he did know: the peasants existed merely in order that Gibilisco should visit them and succeed in getting money and food for his visits. . . . The science of medicine was to him a jus necationis, a feudal right over the life and death of the peasants, and because his poor patients rebelled against this, he was devoured by a continuous and bestial rage against their tribe. If the consequences were not always fatal it was not for lack of good intentions on his part, but merely because, in order to do a Christian to death with artistry, a smattering of science is necessary.”

And so on. Good stuff.

This is not an overtly political book, but near the end Levi expresses his dismay at the failure to discern the danger of the State. After leaving Gagliano he spoke with many people who concerned themselves with political questions, including the “problem of the south,” the poverty and medieval living conditions that prevailed there,

“[b]ut just as their schemes and the very language in which they were couched would have been incomprehensible to the peasants, so were the life and needs of the peasants a closed book to them, and one which they did not even bother to open. At bottom, as I now perceived, they were all unconscious worshipers of the State. Whether the State they worshiped was the Fascist State or the incarnation of quite another dream, they thought of it as something that transcended both its citizens and their lives.”

About small-f fascism and the official kind:

“[I]t 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.”

Just so. I couldn’t help thinking of the deification of the State in our time, in the United States.  Concentration of power in the State has been a political project for many in this country now for generations, even while the United States was fighting real Fascism of the kind Levi experienced. 

It’s always been puzzling to me that those who resist deification of government, and especially the federal government of the United States, are derided as “fascists.”  Apparently when some people use the word “fascism” they mean something other than what Hitler and Mussolini represented.  Here’s a recent example, an article by one Aleksandar Hemon:

“Fascism’s central idea . . . is that there are classes of human beings who deserve diminishment and destruction because they’re for some reason (genetic, cultural, whatever) inferior to ‘us.'”

Um, no it isn’t.  Fascism’s central idea is concentration of power in the State.  When unprincipled political leadership comes to power in a republic, it can then turn that weaponized State into an engine of tyranny.  For some reason a particular idea of misuse of State power is identified as the culprit, and not the State power itself.  We seem to have a collective inability to understand that conferring ever greater authority on the State enables tyranny. Always. And hence Levi’s “eternal tendency toward fascism.”

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