Lawrence Grant White (review date 19 April 1947)

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SOURCE: White, Lawrence Grant. “Beyond Civilization.” Saturday Review of Literature 30, no. 16 (19 April 1947): 12.

[In the following positive review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, White contends that Levi “has proved his competence by making a readable and interesting book out of grim and forbidding material.”]


(The entire section contains 56904 words.)

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SOURCE: White, Lawrence Grant. “Beyond Civilization.” Saturday Review of Literature 30, no. 16 (19 April 1947): 12.

[In the following positive review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, White contends that Levi “has proved his competence by making a readable and interesting book out of grim and forbidding material.”]

[Christ Stopped at Eboli] is a well-written account, by a sensitive and cultivated anti-fascist, of a year spent as a political exile at Gagliano, a primitive and remote village in Lucania, which forms the ankle of the Italian peninsula. Here civilization had hardly penetrated. The natives said that “Christ stopped at Eboli,” a town in the neighboring province of Campania; and to them, Christ is synonymous with civilization. This explains the obscure meaning of the title.

It was in 1935 that the author, wearing handcuffs, was escorted from the Regina Coeli prison in Rome to Gagliano. With a painter's understanding he describes the stark beauty of the countryside; windswept hills denuded of their once luxuriant forests; white clay pitted with caves in which strange swart people, descendants of some aboriginal Italic race, lived like troglodytes. The intangible characteristics of the locality were hatred, superstition, ignorance, and malaria. There were family feuds dating back to the days of the Bourbons and the Carbonari. The horns of a dragon, slain by a Colonna prince with the timely aid of the local madonna, were venerated in the next village; and the author's housekeeper was a successful witch. The malaria was unchecked by the two incompetent local doctors, who prescribed a harmless white powder sold as quinine by the unlicensed pharmacy.

In such surroundings the author appeared like a visitor from another planet. He had been trained as a physician, and did what he could, without instruments or proper drugs or reference books, to help the sick. They looked upon him as a savior with magical powers, but the provincial government regarded his activities with suspicion, and decreed that he could no longer practise medicine. His patients armed themselves with scythes and wanted to kill the mayor as a gesture of protest.

Local morals were a curious mixture of license and stiff conventionality. Love-making was the principal obsession; the village was swarming with illegitimate children, who were taken as a matter of course. Yet an aged crone could not consult the author professionally unless properly chaperoned; nor could any respectable woman act as his housekeeper. The latter problem was solved in the person of Giulia, the sorceress, whose reputation was already tarnished by the evidence of her sixteen assorted bastards. But even she did not sleep in the house, for she had to live with her current lover, a pink-eyed albino barber.

Levi writes with sympathy and insight about the local “gentry,” a word repeatedly used which is probably an unfortunate translation of the Italian word gente. As might be expected, they were a queer lot. The queerest was an ancient toothless gravedigger who lay on the cool earth in a newly dug grave to escape the blinding sun. He was also the town crier, and had once been a wolf-tamer, a profession for which sorcery was a necessary qualification—for it was his supernatural powers which enabled him to keep the wolves away from the flocks. Then there was Don Trajella, the sodden and embittered old priest, who consoled himself by writing Latin epigrams against the authorities; the smug mayor, and his powerful sister Donna Caterina, who really ruled the village; and the lieutenant in charge of the local militia, whose ambition was to escape from his own despair and the decay and spiritual poverty around him. The author was deeply influenced by the strange people of Gagliano—so much so that when he returned home to Turin on a short leave of absence he found himself ill at ease amongst his normal surroundings; and when his exile was unexpectedly terminated by the political amnesty at the end of the Abyssinian War, he sought excuses to postpone his departure.

The book is neither a novel nor a diary, but an accurate description of a curious community life. It is also, indirectly, a plea for badly needed political, economic, and social reforms in the hinterland of Southern Italy. His solutions are a more representative form of government, reforestation, more livestock, and the suppression of the middle-class village tyrants.

Mr. Levi has succeeded admirably, with the help of a pleasing literary style, in communicating his own interest. He is said to be a talented painter. If so, a few illustrations of his impressions of Gagliano and its inhabitants would have enhanced the volume. Hailed by Italian critics as one of their most promising contemporary writers, he has proved his competence by making a readable and interesting book out of grim and forbidding material.

C. G. Paulding (review date 2 May 1947)

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SOURCE: Paulding, C. G. Review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlos Levi. Commonweal 46, no. 3 (2 May 1947): 72-3.

[In the following favorable review, Paulding applauds the compassionate and evocative portrayal of the peasants of Gagliano found in Christ Stopped at Eboli.]

When the Italians set forth to conquer the world, starting with Ethiopia, they attended to one little detail by requesting Carlo Levi to live very quietly until further notice within the limits of a village called Gagliano, which is in the province of Lucania, a miserably sad, malarial and abandoned region just north of the Gulf of Taranto. It is just north of Calabria which is abandoned also. Carlo Levi lived in Gagliano for a year or so, and in this book [Christ Stopped at Eboli] writes about what he saw, what he heard, what the peasants told him, what he thought.

He thought and the peasants thought that Christ, that Christianity, that any hope, any possibility or reason for hope, had never come nearer to Gagliano than the town of Eboli—a railroad station on the main line, an outpost of Neapolitan civilization, many miles to the north. “We're not Christians,” the peasants told him, “we're not human beings, we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.”

No one ever goes to Lucania—not to stay there. The Romans came with their State and their Religion, but there were more interesting parts to govern, and the peasants looked at them and then were left alone; the Franks came with a feudal society; they failed and departed; the Kingdom of Naples came and left; then the new Italian State, then Fascism. In this war Montgomery came up the coast to join with the Americans below Salerno; the Germans were in Eboli and it was from Eboli that they launched their attack against our beachhead—not from Gagliano or from Lucania; Lucania was still by-passed even by destruction.

So that the peasants have remained always alone, subject, in their poverty, to poverty-stricken land-owners, subject to the delegates of the State, of any state, the tax collectors of all the states that have come one after another.

Carlo Levi is a sensitive man, a doctor and a painter; he has written a beautiful and human book, looking at this immeasurable distress and putting down the reasons for it. Although after his medical studies he had not practiced, it was quite impossible for him to escape the pressing appeal of the Gagliano peasants for help, and so he did what he could until the fascists stopped him—and that too was a way for him to know these people who trusted him. They were open to anyone who would help—but no one had ever helped them, and so habitually they were remote and silent. At dawn the men go down the steep hill from the village to the barren fields; at nightfall they return for short rest and brief oblivion; obstinately they manage to live. For a short moment in their lives the children manage to play—some of them.

You would think that the peasants of Gagliano would be less than men after so many centuries of suffering; eternally in the presence of poverty and death they are what we are all of us—who have forgotten in our safety what it is like to be alone, uncomforted, on earth. Carlo Levi loved these men and women and it is possible in reading his extraordinary and eloquent account to forget the dismal horror of their lives; it is possible to think of them as symbols of man's state, at its simplest, unredeemed. But that they should be living as they live, a long day's motor drive from the capital of Christendom, is surely one of the most flagrant challenges to our trust in Christian solidarity.

David T. Bazelon (review date 24 May 1947)

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SOURCE: Bazelon, David T. “Outside of History.” Nation 164 (24 May 1947): 635-36.

[In the following review, Bazelon describes Christ Stopped at Eboli as a “new kind of modern lyricism.”]

Plot is always the essential—even, or perhaps especially, when it is so subdued as to seem negligible or secondary. When moments are big, it is the context that enlarges them. Overtly, Christ Stopped at Eboli is merely sensitive reporting of a year (1935-36) spent in exile by a cultured Italian anti-Fascist. Most of the book consists of description of the daily life and mind of the peasants who live in Gagliano, a village in Lucania, where Christianity—in its ancient or its modern version—has never become an integral form in life. Thus, to some extent outside of history, the peasants are pictured carefully, with interest, in detail. The silent plot of the book, however, resides in the attempt of “history” or “Christian civilization” or “consciousness”—in the person of Mr. Levi—to see, or establish continuity with, something that is very much not itself. The product of this attempt is a new kind of modern lyricism: the book is a well-wrought, lyrical vase.

There are two very striking aspects of this new lyricism: one is its great objectivity—the calm, almost total submission to the reality of the Other; the second is the silent, pervading dream quality which is created by this admission of an alien but genuine reality. Considering the material dealt with—the submerged, hopeless lives of peasants whose chief and almost exclusive relation to the civilization of the West (which we so much treasure) has been that of a deadly, even senseless exploitation—considering this, the rather complete lack of tension in the book is surprising. Its primary quality is charm! And Mr. Levi seems to represent, quite adequately, moreover, the highest expression of Western values. Justifiably one might expect an explosion—at least in Mr. Levi, if not in the peasants. But on the contrary the two come together as lovers, with satisfaction. Essentially, I think, Mr. Levi was fulfilled by a thrilling awareness of the peasant sense of timelessness and death (p. 255, read in relation to his failure of will as a doctor). And the peasants were able, in their own way, finally to incorporate Mr. Levi into their pattern of life as a symbol of future good from the Christian civilization which had heretofore always manifested itself as a vile but powerful thief. They made of him a kind of witch-doctor.

I believe Mr. Levi got the best of the bargain, as is clear from the book. He had cleaned out of him enough of the Christian world to be able to perceive the basic meanings that that world attempts—so successfully—to deny. But this denial can never match the eternal willingness to wait of the underworld of instinctual reality. The peasants of Lucania have waited more than two thousand years. Mr. Levi seems to be saying that this fact is not to be bewailed too loudly, that it is perhaps just as well that Christ stopped at Eboli. But one likes to think that it would have been good if he had traveled farther, even all the way to Gagliano. One likes to think that he might have learned something from the peasants there.

G. J. Wood (review date August 1947)

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SOURCE: Wood, G. J. “Italian Villages.” Canadian Forum 27, no. 319 (August 1947): 117-18.

[In the following review, Wood deems Christ Stopped at Eboli as a vigorous and colorful account.]

The South of Italy has long been known to tourists as a land of brigands, poverty, and excessive heat. Although the brigands may have declined somewhat in prestige during this century, lured perhaps to those American centres which felt the need of their peculiar talents, the poverty and the uncompromising climate have remained. Into this stark area, with its forbidding mountains and its wretched villages, came Dr. Carlo Levi of Turin, banished thither in 1935 for his opposition to the Abyssinian Campaign, then about to begin. On Levi, physician, philosopher, and artist, was thus imposed an existence which might well have been the despair of other men of similar parts. However, determined to make the best of the situation, the exile set out with palette and brush to capture the more interesting features of this land and its people; in addition, he lent a helping hand wherever medical aid was required, although his services in this capacity were somewhat restricted by the petty and officious interference of his village custodians.

[In Christ Stopped at Eboli] Levi is as skillful with his pen as with his brush in assisting one to experience with him the atmosphere of this remote community.

Gagliano, a village of the Province of Lucania, lies not far from the Gulf of Taranto, and is situated, needless to say, on a mountain-top. In this forsaken region the life of the peasantry has continued unchanged since the days of the Roman Empire.

The amenities of civilization have never succeeded in penetrating the uninviting mountains in company with the tax-collector. As a result, the peasants have the saying that “Christ stopped at Eboli,” that is, all that Christian civilization is supposed to stand for has been denied to them.

Dr. Levi's account of his days among these peasant folk offers a bountiful supply of colorful narrative. In a village alive with flies, goats, and children, but otherwise devoid of incident capable of attracting the average writer, Levi has probed gently but surely beneath the monotonous surface, and has unearthed the feuds, the superstitions, and the idiosyncrasies of the peasants, and has recorded them in a vigorous and fascinating narrative.

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Levi allows himself a short but enlightening commentary on the problem of the relationship between the state and the peasant; the gap between the two, and the sacrifice of the latter to “middle-class tyrants,” he holds to be the basic difficulty in finding an efficient system of government today. Where the Communist Silone, in his novel, Bread and Wine, urges the achievement of a peasant-sanctioned government, which would mean for the peasantry submission to a new species of centralized control (presumably to include Silone), Levi finds a solution of the problem in a thorough-going autonomy. He shows a respect for the independence of the individual, and it is between the opinions of such men as he, and of those who would demand the submission of that independence to the State in return for whatever benefits the communist system might offer, that Italy vacillates today.

Siegfried Mandel (review date 25 February 1950)

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SOURCE: Mandel, Siegfried. “Pre- & Ant-Christian.” Saturday Review of Literature 33, no. 8 (25 February 1950): 30.

[In the following review, Mandel outlines the major thematic concerns of Of Fear and Freedom.]

Carlo Levi is now known in this country for his brilliant Christ Stopped at Eboli, a sociological, anthropological, and political diary-novel describing Levi's year of exile in a small Southern Italian town because of political activities against Mussolini in 1935. Toward the close of the book he makes a strong distinction between two civilizations—that of the country and that of the city. The former he regards as pre-Christian, the latter as a civilization no longer Christian.

Of Fear and Freedom explores briefly but profoundly in essay form the question of what is psychologically common to both civilizations and what is materially different. What might be taken for Mr. Levi's main theme is his cogent observation:

History is nothing but the eternal venture of the human mass in its laborious endeavor to determine itself, to resolve itself into state, poetry, liberty, or to abscond into religion, rite, custom …

Each phase of this theme is lucidly developed down to very nearly its last nuance. Along with becoming conscious human beings, there is in the experience of all men the urge to express the inexpressible and to worship and cling to the concrete symbols of that expression—primarily religion and the state.

The author describes this process of expression as an escape from pure anarchy into pure tyranny. Somewhere in between there is the freedom which men fear—a freedom which rejects idols, wars, and concrete symbols that are substitutes for freedom. Until men find that liberty and freedom there remains no choice but “to believe, to obey, to fight,” whether it be for God or Caesar.

Mr. Levi's ideas are considerably ingenious, sometimes overly so (but so is the psychology of both the primitive and the sophisticate), and they touch with stylistic finesse on the problems of myth, sin, slavery, symbols, love, art, and politics. These conceptions help explain the “pre-Christian” country civilization with its tendency toward religious expression, and the “no longer Christian” city civilization with its political emphasis. Freedom resides within neither and must still be sought out.

Fond of startling paradoxes, contrasts, and statements whose opposites imply equal, or equally questionable, truths (“There is no rabble without a king, there are no masses without God”), Carlo Levi has the gift of baring psychological motives clearly and of summarizing neatly a wealth of experience. At times Mr. Levi borrows from psychoanalysis and theology but he is indebted more to his personal experiences.

Irwin Edman (review date 3 April 1950)

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SOURCE: Edman, Irwin. “Thoughts in the Dark.” New Republic 122 (3 April 1950): 19-20.

[In the following review, Edman offers a negative assessment of Of Fear and Freedom.]

The author of Christ Stopped at Eboli commands the interested attention of anyone who read that wise and touching picture of a remote, oppressed peasant community in the hills of southern Italy. One felt in Levi's admirable vignette of eternal humanity the sensibilities of a poet and something of a seer. Now comes a book, written five years earlier, when the author was living in France. It was at the beginning of World War II; Levi was depressed about the future as well as the present and disenchanted with the past. He thought it at least a good moment to make his peace with himself and his estimate of the universe. This volume constitutes a philosophy, the author's philosophy, his confession of faith, his testament of feeling at one of the darkest moments in modern history. Now, in a moment scarcely less dark, he has chosen to issue the book, unrevised.

Of Fear and Freedom is declared by its translator (the exact translation of “Paura della libertà”—“Fear of Freedom”—would have been more meaningful) to be a work of genius, of that special genius in which ideas are merged with the music of their utterance and in which everything is suggestion and intimation, stirring the paths of our subconscious with the depths of wisdom not reducible simply to logical terms. Perhaps in the original Italian, which I have not had the opportunity to see, the effect may be that of poetic magic and moral incantation. In English it reads like a curious special jargon, neither idiomatic English nor language suggesting idiomatic Italian. The book is filled with magisterial aphorisms, or what perhaps in the Italian seem to be aphorisms. I have struggled to understand what is being said. I am confused by what purports to be poetic utterance and manages only to be turgid prose. It is almost impossible, for me at least, to think that the man who wrote the succinct, evocative prose of Christ Stopped at Eboli could produce this foggy essay.

Yet a theme somehow does emerge, and a sense of the writer's seriousness and perception. The theme is that of man's fear in the presence of the sacred. Carlo Levi is sound enough in recognizing that religion is not all light, that there is a central core of darkness in it. The sacred is terrifying, and men have always proceeded to try to release themselves from the fear its idols promote. They have converted the sacred, fearsome and terrifying into mystery and ritual. They have worshiped “the divine father and the divine state [which] live eternally and jealously claim throughout eternity the slavery of women and the sacrifice of love.” They fear freedom; “a new ambiguity is taking shape, a mechanical and sportive association of power and servitude. … The sacred history of the world is a history of willing servitude, of tortures, punishments and mutilations, expulsions and ritual killings, of slaughter and intolerance, of prisons and exiles.” The state becomes a substitute god, and its dictatorial laws a surrogate idolatry. “There is the rise of human religion and its liberation.” But human nature cannot brook freedom and shudders back to new submission.

This is about what Dr. Levi seems to say, though obscurely. Poetic prophecy is possible to a Blake or a Plotinus; in lesser hands it becomes the rhetoric of impassioned and semi-erudite confusion. Christ Stopped at Eboli was a little masterpiece of reflective observation. This book is no masterpiece of philosophy; I am not even sure how much is being said, except platitudes dressed up to sententiousness and tricked out with allusions to recent anthropological studies in religion, and to the current unhappy state of man.

Lawrence Grant White (review date 30 June 1951)

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SOURCE: White, Lawrence Grant. “Time and the Man.” Saturday Review of Literature 34, no. 26 (30 June 1951): 8-9.

[In the following review, White maintains that The Watch is a well-written and worthwhile book.]

Carlo Levi, the gifted author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, has written another book about Italy. Its obscure title, The Watch, refers to a graduation present from his father, symbolizing the unity of time and recurring as the subject of a curious dream.

The method used in the two books is similar: the meticulous recording of the author's impressions of scenes and events and the conversations and opinions of the people he meets. But within these similar frames the subject matter differs widely. For Eboli is a vivid picture of life in a remote and primitive town, and The Watch is a record of a few days among intellectuals in Rome during the confused times immediately following the liberation in the last war. There are a few reminiscences of the author's editorial activities in Florence and a description of his eventful trip to his uncle's deathbed in Naples.

Though not as powerful as the earlier book, The Watch is equally well written. The characters are alive, and the scenes are graphically described with the pen of a painter who knows how to write. The result is a glittering mosaic, highly polished but lacking a definite pattern. There is no plot: “senza storia,” to use his own words.

On the dust jacket of the Italian edition is a sonnet, reproduced in the author's handwriting, listing the strangely assorted contents of the book. It might be freely translated as follows:

The sound of lions roaring in the
striking at memory from the depths
          of time,
owls and Madonnas, symbols and
disrupted and rejoined, without a
jungles of tenements, caves, birds, and
courtyards for rats, and glories over-
eyes, voices, gestures—gold as well
          as dross,
a green reburgeoning of evil
thieves in the woods, and adders at
          the breast,
kings true and false, and ministers,
          and beggars,
peasants at work, while worms are in
          the saddle,
the timeless wailing and the funeral
courage and famine—patient suffering
and Rome, and Italy—such is “The

The reader will find the above items, and many more, in the text. The book opens and closes with the roaring of the lions, a mysterious sound which Mr. Levi seems to hear at night in Rome but inaudible to your reviewer's less receptive ears, which were deafened by the more insistent sound of internal-combustion engines. The owl figures prominently in Mr. Levi's painting on the front of the Italian dust jacket. The Madonnas and rats are plentiful and so are the courtyards of decaying palaces. The author on his way to Naples in a dilapidated truck was nearly shot to death by a brigand ambushed in the woods; but he returned to Rome in style with a cabinet minister.

The snake at the breast is a macabre story of abject poverty in Rome. Although obscenities are not to be found in the text (a pleasant surprise in this day and age), Mr. Levi delights in the horrible and the grotesque. Thus, he describes a man whose nose had been split in two as follows: “The noses were composed of an intricate series of little valleys, cavities, and protuberances, like a mixture of varicose veins and bowels.” Strong language, but the reader won't forget it. And here is a telling but less revolting description of an Italian room on a hot day: “The shutters were closed on account of the heat, and only the reflection from the houses opposite filtered through in burning threads.”

The true king referred to in the sonnet is Victor Emmanuel III, then still technically on the throne but forgotten and disregarded by his people. The false king is Giuseppe Biscaglia of Poggioreale, who had become king by his wits—a fabulous character, “as rich as the sea,” with a throne-room and a real gold throne. Those who have read San Gennaro Never Says No, by Giuseppe Marotta, will recall a chapter devoted to him, where his last name is given as Novarra. He probably assumed the name of Biscaglia to further the amusing imposture, described by Mr. Levi, when he successfully masqueraded as the son of a wealthy Neapolitan shop-owner of that name in order to impress his prospective bride's parents. Whatever his name, he would be a scarcely credible character even in an extravagant comic opera.

The anonymous translator has successfully caught the author's mood. There are a few confusing slips, apparently due to what Belloc calls a “deceptive similarity of sound,” such as “avocation” for avvenimento, “varnish” for vernice, a literal translation but an unlikely material for painting political slogans on walls. On the other hand, the formidable paragraphs of the original have been broken up, so that the English version is easier to read than the Italian. And The Watch is well worth reading in either language.

Frances Keene (review date 21 July 1951)

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SOURCE: Keene, Frances. “One Moment in History.” Nation 173 (21 July 1951): 54-5.

[In the following review, Keene provides a laudatory assessment of The Watch and views it within the context of Levi's oeuvre.]

First of all, of course, this isn't a novel, as the jacket and its blurb would have you believe. It would be a mistake to expect Levi to construct, out of historical incident and personal experience, a technically acceptable work of fiction. So let's get the idea out of the way that The Watch even pretends to be a novel, complete with plot, sub-plot and, if possible, love interest. Then perhaps we can talk fairly about the book.

It is, instead, a prolonged meditation upon one moment in recent history. Levi's work has always had to do with man in relation to the historical moment, and the present book gives it continuity and cumulative force. He is a writer animated by a clinical interest in his fellow-man, but unlike many clinicians, he has also great love for his fellows. It is not the kind of love which breeds false values or the eternal sentimentalities of men who “mean well.” It is the love of a good doctor, which Levi was trained to be, the doctor who knows when merely to advise, when to cut and stitch, even when to prescribe the death draft.

This loving man, this writer who is piling up human and personal documents in his books, has chosen to record—of all the incidents he has witnessed in the event-packed last years—one moment in time which was to some the most searing and shattering, and therefore the most symbolic of all—the fall of the Parri (Resistance) government in Italy in 1946. The importance of this moment was that for so many it spelled the end of hope. Not only for Italy but for Western Europe, the coup d'état sealed a kind of doomed return to the status quo ante and, specifically in Italy, to clericalism and Giolittian impotence.

In the lacerating and beautiful chapters which describe the government crisis and the last press conference of the ousted leader, Levi writes: “The Premier, the fallen Premier whom they wanted either to support or replace, did not fly in the sky [of politics], nor did he even turn to look at it. He walked over a small earth, and did not want to know and see anything but … the faces and hands of all those he met on his way. He stopped to talk with them, forgetting everything else, and he wept for their tears.”

Opposing this “exotic and courageous” man, Levi aligns not only the other party leaders who maneuvered him out of office but the multitude of inert, malevolent, and sycophantic office-holders who “would no longer have to tremble at the idea of crazy reforms, senseless changes, cruel purges, and ridiculous demands for efficiency, [who] would no longer need to greet superiors who didn't hesitate to humiliate them by rejecting the title ‘Your Excellency,’ so sweet on the lips.” There you have the duality between real and false, between sincere and conventionally bland and faceless, which is the prime element of the book.

This symbolic dichotomy appears again in a notable and intensely credible discussion between two fellow-editors and the author in which one of the former divides all men into producers, Contadini (“peasants” in the sense of those who make real things grow), and parasites, Luigini (“gentlemen” whose only claim to survival is their genuine passion for a bite, even a small bite, of authority).

Hammering this theme in its various aspects on page after page, Levi yet manages never to make The Watch a bitter book. It has the gentle, rolling, and engulfing warmth of mulled wine, as if the author partook a little, despite his Piedmontese origin, of the Neapolitan sense of timelessness, which he describes as a “world that had already lived out its time in its own eternal and unchangeable law and that, in that ancient and sorrowful world, people considered themselves nothing but an ephemeral ornament, a transient expression, and yet were putting all their good-will into adorning it … contemplating their own swift passage through it without illusion.”

This acceptance by the author of the inevitability of loss, of disillusion, of political but not moral defeat, never implies fecklessness. Levi calmly mentions at one point his own inertia, which is manifest everywhere in his inability, once started on a descriptive passage or a summoned scene of memory (childhood in Turin, the rout attending the fall of France, a moment in the prison of Le Mantellate when the owls were spied on a nearby roof), to cut it short. But his recorded thought and known anti-totalitarian action attest the fact that his convictions have shaken him loose often enough. He knows whereof he speaks when he describes that army of “men and women [who] went about on the streets of the world, driven into a time which was not their own.”

This brings us to the device, arbitrary and baroque but valid, of the watch from which these rambling, meditative memoirs take their name. The writer presents us in his first pages with a Kafkaesque watch, the heirloom given to the son by his father upon his emergence into still-fumbling adolescent sentience and standing clearly for some sort of ordered, upper-middle-class continuity of intellectual and social ideas. Levi's meditations begin with his inherited watch, which is first broken in a dream and then, on his waking, in sober fact.

The symbol is never obtrusive, and it starts us off. We then follow the author in his personal hegira to have the watch fixed, hence to his job as editor of L'Italia Libera (the Action Party daily), and on to press conference and printer's, including excursions outside the straight narrative of the political events of those days yet related to them by implication. And everywhere the spiritual and physical climate of Rome in those days follows us. In the end, the watch of Levi's adolescence—broken, we are led to believe, beyond repair—is replaced by another bequest, this time from an uncle, a doctor, a “sage,” who transmitted it to him on his deathbed through the hands of a toil-worn peasant woman, representative of the loyalties and stubbornness of the contadini at their resistant best.

But there is too much of everything in the book, as if, pouring his hot wine with a steady and generous hand, the author did not, literally, know when to stop. Especially is this true of the overblown Naples passage, in which everything of fact and legend which has meaning for our time comes popping, page on page, before our eyes, until at a certain moment, as if to protect the best of the book against this engulfing flood of scenes, words and more words, we wish to cry stop. But despite such defects of proportion, the book has communicable and convincing greatness.

There are a few lame passages which do not ring or move in English, but on the whole the translation is honest and good. Levi's prose pattern, ornate, swollen with pregnant associative adjectives, with convoluted allegorical and prophetic imagery, is more closely followed in this translation than in any American edition of his other books.

To add spice for the initiate of any nationality, there are the painter's vignettes of De Gasperi, Togliatti, Cianca, Croce (in the dream sequence), and a host of other painters, writers, editors, men of politics, who paraded across the Italian scene in the immediate post-war years.

The Watch is intimately related to Levi's other work. The chronological order of the books, if I recall, places Fear of Freedom first (for reasons of prior copyright, this title, the correct translation of the French and Italian title, could not be used in English). Levi's contention that this fear is at the root of man's inability to direct his destiny to a morally more acceptable end is given empirical evidence in his first narrative, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Therein the fear and its resultant duality are exemplified in the infinite capacity of man to visit repressive and ignorant cruelty on his fellows. In the present work the author takes us one step farther and confronts man with a moment of choice—in Christ Stopped at Eboli there was no choice possible. The recorded moment is that of “the last chance.” But even among the Contadini, the morally saved or salvageable, there are those who “turn toward peace with such intensity that they refuse to defend it”: fear of the responsibilities of freedom engulfs the moment, and it is gone. This inability to choose, to distinguish with any certainty between the real and the unreal, which Levi saw in his snatched moment of history, when all hopes for a true resurgence of the progressive forces were dashed, is the bleak, tragic pageant The Watch records.

At a time when man's concern with himself has shut him progressively away from the other selves who make up his world, it is a healthy experience to come on a subjective and personal work so teeming with awareness of the world about one, an “I” book so human, so honestly thought through, and so vast.

Richard Match (review date 30 July 1951)

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SOURCE: Match, Richard. “The Captive Instant.” New Republic 125 (30 July 1951): 21.

[In the following review, Match derides the lack of characterization in The Watch.]

On page 68 of The Watch, Carlo Levi (speaking through one of his characters) expresses an opinion about Tolstoy. I quote it here because I think it tells what Levi himself was trying to do in The Watch.

“Tolstoy,” says Levi, “was not a novelist. The huge machines that he used carried him who knows where, but his true value was a different one. … He is the poet of the unique instant, which cannot last nor repeat itself nor change … outside of time, outside of every novel … fixed and intense … beyond story-telling. … He's like the great impressionist painters. And like the impressionists, he doesn't need to tell a story or paint historical pictures. All he needs to do is to catch, once and for all, an instant that will never come back, that has no before nor after.”

Whether or not the foregoing shoe fits Tolstoy comfortably, it most assuredly fits Carlo Levi, accomplished painter, physician, and perhaps more than any other living writer, “the poet of the unique instant.” His new book is neither more nor less than a thousand such instants, magically caught, seen and remembered by a painter's eye in the postwar cities of Rome and Naples. And the sum of those brilliant visual images is the recreation of a unique instant in Italian history: the passing of the postwar Resistance movement, and with it, says Levi sadly, the end of the only peasant revolution Italy ever had.

Levi's blurb writer professes to feel that all these unique instants add up to a novel, in spite of the fact that, collectively, they have no plot, no form, no continuity and no active central character. While the matter of classification is secondary, most readers will disagree with the blurbist. It is my own feeling that no book can be a novel of consequence unless it creates full-scale characters.

This The Watch does not do. It is alive, literally teeming, with quick word-pictures of people—waiters, journalists, cabinet ministers, black marketeers, beggars, prostitutes, policemen—but it rarely sees inside anyone. Like a painter looking at his model, Levi sees colors and shapes the rest of us might miss, but he keeps his distance.

Although the “I” of this book appears to be the same man who lived through Christ Stopped at Eboli (i.e., Levi himself), he remains this time almost entirely the self-effacing narrator, the passive receiver of impressions. Those impressions of crumbling palazzos and ghastly slums, febrile mob scenes and moonlit colonnades, glitter as vividly as any descriptive writing I have ever read. But they remain just that, brilliant descriptive writing, until the narrator does something on his own.

In the last quarter of the book, Levi embarks on a journey to Naples. The sprawling canvas narrows down to nine assorted Italians crammed into an ancient taxicab, the wordy philosophizing and time symbolism of the earlier sections disappear, and the central personality that unified Eboli emerges again, wise and strong and tender.

Serge Hughes (review date 10 August 1951)

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SOURCE: Hughes, Serge. Review of The Watch, by Carlos Levi. Commonweal 54 (10 August 1951): 436-37.

[In the following review, Hughes asserts that The Watch “is one of the most beautiful nostalgic works to have come out of Europe recently.”]

Carlo Levi's new book will never vie with his first novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, in popularity. It appeals to a more limited number of readers. Where the first novel was brilliantly successful in conveying a fresh poetical interpretation of Italy's perennial problem, the problem of the South, and all of Levi's vision was focused on one place and one people, this second novel lacks both the intensity and the freshness of theme of the first. And the moods of the two works are so different! Whatever one may think of some of the political reasoning of Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli, it was a hopeful vision he had. It was a very young book which looked to the future and had a warmth and a vitality to it. The Watch, instead, is nostalgic, it is mellow, and it does not look to any future but meditates on disillusionment. It is one of the most beautiful nostalgic works to have come out of Europe recently.

It may appear to some that in this instance Levi indulges too much in ideas, that he is flirting with the novel of ideas, but he is not. He uses ideas as he uses his images. His ideas are remarkable for their suggestiveness, their sparkle, but they are more fantastic than cerebral relationships. Perhaps the beauty of Levi's art lies in knowing how to envision fantastic ideas.

The story—no—the incident, for that is what this really is, describes Levi's stay in Rome, where he had gone to take over a newspaper after the end of the war, and continues up to the time of the fall of the Parri government. It is the tale of the failure, according to Levi, of all those groups who fought Fascism and who were united for one splendid moment in Partisan activities, to remain united for peace and so bring about radical innovations in government.

But Levi does not simply describe that time; he shuttles back and forth from the present, and he does so splendidly. The book is not really at all Proustian, as some have claimed, because the center is always the present and everything always returns to it. Levi's past never becomes an attractive labyrinth in which one may lose onesself but only a place in which occasionally to rest.

The imagery retains those sharp surrealistic touches at which Levi is a master. It is a constantly new imagery, fresh, which takes old experiences and transforms them. Levi's eyes transform the most common market scene, the most habitual café talk, the most routine places and things. That is the beauty of his style, that he always places the object at an unaccustomed angle and makes us see it as something new. The sky of Rome, for instance, unlike the sky of London and Paris, is “rich, dense, crowded with baroque clouds full of changing curves that rest on homes, churches and palaces like a fantastic dome the wind wraps up and turns around.”

Delmore Schwartz (review date September-October 1951)

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SOURCE: Schwartz, Delmore. “The Miraculous Ayme and Others.” Partisan Review 18, no. 5 (September-October 1951): 575-81.

[In the following review, Schwartz notes the lack of thematic unity in The Watch.]

Many passages in Carlo Levi's The Watch have a wonderful eloquence, vividness, and vigor. Yet the book does not make a whole, and the reader finds himself in the middle of it making a fresh start again and again. This is partly due to the subject, which is panoramic and includes all of Italy soon after the second World War; and it is partly due to Levi's attitude toward his subject. He writes in the first person and in his own literal being as an Italian, a painter, and an author. But he holds back and refuses to involve himself in the subjectivity of personal revelation: at one point, he actually says of a relationship which he deliberately keeps hidden: “It is a true story, too true for me to want to talk about it, or to be able to talk about it; at least until I am so old that the words will come out of my mouth like stones.” And this refusal is matched by an equal unwillingness to commit his perceptions to the process and the order of a genuine narrative, an unwillingness which may be an aspect of Levi's complete fidelity and exactitude, but with the result that much of his book occupies some undefined middle ground. At times, it is the journal or diary of a human being of the greatest sensitivity and awareness; and at other times, the experience which is being reported transforms itself, such is its intensity and meaningfulness, into scenes which have the inexhaustible implications of true fiction.

Levi does make an effort to impose a unity upon his heterogeneous material in the figure of the uncle, Luca, and in the symbol of the watch. Luca is the wise man who has given the protagonist a vision of existence which arrives at affirmation through and after knowledge, and which leads to a sense that old age may bring with it increasing joy and truth. But convincing though he is in himself, Luca does not pull together the other episodes, characters, and events in a dramatic generalization. He remains like the others an intermittent figure who appears, is forgotten, reappears and is forgotten again. Levi's essential point of view is that of a bemused and helpless spectator who loves and suffers with the beings he looks upon, and yet cannot come very close to them. Sometimes he feels he is moving about Italy like Jonah in the belly of the whale; sometimes “I sat on the iron seat like a spectator who happens to be in a theater by pure chance,” and at such times he regards the Premier making a speech and this shy man looks to him like a chrysanthemum on a dung heap; and frequently at other times, he moves in a setting in which “the streets were deserted and my footsteps resounded from the façades and the courtyards like blows hitting a hollow body,” an image evoking the early Chirico. This very ambiguity and shifting and uncertainty of the narrator's role makes for the sharpness and genuineness of a good many passages, but it also makes the book not a single experience mounting in meaning, but a set of experiences superficially connected and actually separate and disparate and without a truly illuminating relationship to each other. Nevertheless the power and the beauty of certain pages are so great, and the capacity for the assimilation of experience so comprehensive that one concludes with the feeling that this may be the kind of a book which, knowingly or unknowingly, has been written as the preparation for a masterpiece.

Harvey Swados (review date autumn 1951)

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SOURCE: Swados, Harvey. “Fiction of Three Countries.” Hudson Review 4, no. 3 (autumn 1951): 467-70.

[In the following excerpt, Swados offers a negative review of The Watch.]

The dust jacket of the new Carlo Levi volume describes it as “a new novel”, which is stretching the term out of recognition, for The Watch is a highly personal memoir of Levi's experiences over a brief period in the early days after the Liberation. If names have been changed, even if incidents have been rearranged and invented in order to dramatize the author's emotional reaction to the time when it looked as though Italy might really be reborn, that is hardly sufficient reason to charge Levi with having committed a novel. There are other criticisms that should be made of the manner in which The Watch has been presented. The anonymous translation, although occasionally rising to lyrical heights, seems to have been done in haste: “‘And why did you come back?’ asked Matteo with interest, who, as an old immigrant, looked on America as his second fatherland.” And while the publishers have mercifully spared us the fantastic collection of footnotes citing Stalin, Hemingway, Veblen, and 123 others which appeared in the Italian edition, they have not attempted to cut the text itself, which in this case is a pity; for The Watch is as undisciplined as a writer's private journal. Description after minute description of the noses, chins, eyes, and ears of passersby who have no connection with the narrative other than their momentary impingement on Levi's consciousness are excellent as practice notations but almost disastrous in an ambitious work like The Watch.

Levi's intoxication with his own prose does more than slow the pace of his narrative. It obscures his major design, a philosophic and poetic conception of the passage of time as illustrated by his own symbolic experiences in 1946; and most important, it conceals those really beautiful passages which disclose with charm and vivacity not only the author, but Italy as well. If it were possible to compress this volume to such scenes as the midnight discussions of the young journalist-intellectuals, the frantic bus ride from Rome to Naples with a brigand firing wildly through the windows, the encounter with a corpse in the corridor of a palace-roominghouse, the tour through a hideous rat-conquered Roman slum with a brilliantly sketched lovesick composer in search of his lost mistress—then we might have a work of permanence and stature. As it is, The Watch is by turns thrilling and exasperating, graceful and tedious. It makes one wonder whether Levi, whose gifts are equal to those of almost any other European, will ever succeed in harnessing his furious talents to the precise demands of an art form with architectural as well as pictorial elements.

John H. Secondari (review date 6 September 1958)

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SOURCE: Secondari, John H. “Golden Coast and Barren Interior.” Saturday Review 41, no. 36 (6 September 1958): 35.

[In the following review, Secondari comments on Levi's distance from his subject matter and the lack of facts in Words Are Stones.]

As a prophet is least attended in his own home, Carlo Levi is less thought of in Italy than abroad. Certainly much less in Italy than in the United States, where his reputation rests solidly on the impact and success of his wartime Christ Stopped at Eboli. That was possibly the first book to pull back the curtain from the tragic, desert-like, dusty world of the Southern Italian peasant, and allow a foreign audience to peek. It was only after the war that the Italian Communists made the conditions of the Southern Italian peasant and land reform twin subjects generally familiar to the world at large.

Words Are Stones deals with that same world. It is about Sicily, and the fantastically beautiful sea which now is almost completely empty of fish. It describes that ancient life, a mixture of Arab and Greek, Spanish and Norman, and a little bit of Italian. It pictures the golden coast and the barren interior, where peasants live and die where they are born, never even finding out what lies on the other side of the mountain. It tells of the slowly changing world which is—in one of its aspects—substituting trucks for the painted Sicilian carts. All this Mr. Levi does.

He deals with the social aspects of this tragic land, and the hopeless lives of the peasants. He writes of the feudal estates and the Mafia (which, he says, enforces the law of the estate) and of the Italian police who look on and allow the terror and the murders which are the Mafia's tools. He does this at length in the third part of the book, which reports the murder of a peasant Communist organizer in a village in Sicily.

To an extent, Mr. Levi also considers the social value of things Sicilian when, in another part of the book, he reports the visit of then mayor of New York, Vincent Impellitteri, to his native village in Sicily. The comment lies in a note of wonder at the almost divine value which the villagers placed on this son of theirs who had traveled so far and risen so high. But Mr. Levi's wonder is counterpointed by the vein of his personal contempt that people should believe that there was anything extraordinary in what Mr. Impellitteri had been industrious enough, smart enough, lucky enough to achieve in his life. Above all, the contempt that the people who believe this should be these tragic people of Sicily, whose backward lives he has chosen to champion for a change to the better.

To this reader, it is a note which, once discerned in this first part of the three-part book, cannot but be noticed elsewhere in the pages. Mr. Levi does not feel himself one of the peasants; he says so quite frankly. He merely observes them, and writes about them. One has the impression he does not understand them. And Mr. Levi's observations are brief indeed, for he tells in the introduction that each of his visits preceding the writing of the book lasted no more than two days.

Which raises the point of how this book should be judged. Certainly not as a report, since it is admittedly too shallow in research for a report. Essentially it is not a political pamphlet, though there are overtones of politics, as there are in everything Mr. Levi writes. Then perhaps as a travelogue, written in a language somewhat more readable than Baedeker.

From the title one imagines that Mr. Levi intended every word to be a stone cast against the complacent lack of interest of the Italian government in Rome. In English the words are more bread crumbs than stones. In Italian they could hardly carry any more weight, because it is not words that are stones, but facts, and this book lacks facts.

And there may lie the explanation of why Mr. Levi is more highly regarded here than in his own country—because in Italy the people who read his books are also acquainted with the facts.

Milton Rugoff (review date 7 September 1958)

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SOURCE: Rugoff, Milton. “Powerful Pictures of Sicily's Peasants.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (7 September 1958): 3.

[In the following review, Rugoff commends Levi's portrayal of the Sicilian people in Words Are Stones.]

Having interpreted southern Italy with extraordinary understanding in Christ Stopped at Eboli, it is not surprising that Carlo Levi should now turn to Sicily. Not that this small collection of reports and impressions is comparable to the earlier book. And yet at its best it displays the same remarkable capacity to see a people with all their past upon them—from the eras of Greek and Saracen, through generations of feudal lords, down to the Mafia-and-landowner rule of today—victim of a hundred wilful masters.

Perhaps that is why he opens his book with a piece about the return of Vincent Impellitteri—onetime Mayor of New York—to his native town of Isnello. Impellitteri embodied for the Sicilians who welcomed him the legend of an earthly Paradise where a poor shoemaker's son could become the head of a great city; and at the same time he pointed up the hopelessness of life in Sicily itself. The fact that Impellitteri never himself knew Isnello, having left it at the unripe age of one, or that he was a less than memorable public figure, only underscores the point, which is that as far as the average Sicilian was concerned he was a dream come true.

A second group of episodes revolves around Levi's visit to the sulphur mines in the Lercara district. On the one side he found the miners on strike for the first time in history, full of wonder at the feeling they had that they were human beings, and on the other side the mine owner, Signor N., like a baron in an old woodcut. As outworn a phenomenon as the mine owner, and an even more bizarre instance of Sicily's isolation, was the cemetery in a Capuchin monastery where, from 1559 to 1881, the bodies of thousands of Palermo's dead were embalmed and dressed in their finery, ranged along the walls of a labyrinthine catacomb.

Part II, devoted to the Catania, Taormina and Mt. Etna area, reminds us that Levi is a painter as well as a writer, for it creates with powerful strokes visions of an ancient Greek world dominated by a black volcanic god, of broad-faced peasant women “with large, long eyes like archaic statues,” of the “curved beach of Aci Trezza covered with painted boats,” of puppet plays in Catania that run in serial form for seventy-five evenings, of the luxuriant country-side around Bronte and the nightmarish poverty in the town itself.

But the most affecting section of the book is the last, which begins by explaining the Mafia as the inevitable result of a land of feudal estates and government from abroad, and then goes on to the story of a young peasánt, Salvatore Carnevale, who became a trade unionist and led the peasants of Sciara to challenge the feudal system and the Mafia terror. When he ignored both bribes and threats, the Mafia murdered him, ritualistically mutilated his face and held a banquet to celebrate the deed. Nominally the episode would have ended there. But Carnevale's mother refused to remain silent and, speaking out, broke, as it were an ancient spell, releasing the peasants from their captivity. Levi's account of how she first heard of the murder, ran to see if it was her son, and identified the body from the way the feet lay, is bare and terrible, full of antique Greek figures and gestures. In a single moment, as Levi describes it, the mother is transformed from a helpless peasant woman into an articulate, aware and implacable foe of the Mafia and the system, a woman for whom “tears are no longer tears but words, and words are stones.”

Joseph G. Harrison (review date 10 November 1958)

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SOURCE: Harrison, Joseph G. “Island with Individuality.” Christian Science Monitor 50, no. 294 (10 November 1958): 9.

[In the following review, Harrison calls Words Are Stones “a perceptive and ably written book, which confers a deep insight into a storied but tortured part of the Western world.”]

Each morning I ride to work with a friend who, during and after World War II, traveled widely in a number of African and European countries. In discussing these lands we have found only one point of deep disagreement—our respective views of the island of Sicily. To him, having tramped and ridden the parched roads of the island during the Allied advance, having seen the poverty of the villages and the distress of the villagers, Sicily is a region to be avoided, an area without charm or attraction, sad and pitiful.

There is, of course, no denying the validity of this view, for Sicily is one of the most impoverished, neglected and, in many ways, unhappy corners of the Mediterranean world. Yet, to this reviewer, it has long been an island with a particular fascination. Its immense antiquity and turbulent history, its many unique customs, the fiery pride and dignity of its inhabitants, the wonderful clarity of its air, sea, and mountains, all these confer upon it an unusual and powerful individuality.

It is this individuality which created this short volume of reporting and comment by the author of the worldwide postwar best seller Christ Stopped at Eboli, in which Carlo Levi wrote of his life as Mussolini's prisoner among a folk not dissimilar to the Sicilians, the forgotten Lucanians of southern Italy. For the present book is primarily an account of certain major ways in which Sicily differs, not merely from Europe, but from that Italy of which it is so tenuous a part.

Essentially it is a sad book, interwoven with the feeling of tragedy which hangs over the lives of so many Sicilians, a tragedy in which the Mafia flourishes, in which men labor for a pittance in the sulphur mines, in which a seething sense of rebellion bursts forth in the banditry of Salvatore Giuliano, and in which the visit of a former Mayor of New York City assumes almost apocalyptic proportions.

Indeed, it is when describing the visit of Vincent Impelliteri to his natal village of Isnello that Words Are Stones reaches its highest pitch. Present at this occasion, Mr. Levi describes it in terms which, were they not kindly meant, might almost appear blasphemous, for, in his eyes, the citizens of Isnello looked upon “Impy's” success and return as little short of divine, leaving behind a permanent myth in island folk lore.

A perceptive and ably written book, which confers a deep insight into a storied but tortured part of the Western world.

Seymour Freidin (review date 11 March 1962)

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SOURCE: Freidin, Seymour. “An Italian on His First Visit to Germany.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (11 March 1962): 6.

[In the following review, Freidin is dismayed by Levi's negative portrayal of Germany and its citizens in The Linden Trees.]

Germany has many scars that go more than skin deep. Gifted, highly sensitive Carlo Levi seems to have run his delicate fingers over them like an expert surgeon. He made his diagnosis before he set out from his homeland, Italy. It was based on what Mr. Levi calls pre-judgment. Some would call it prejudice. The talented Italian writer probably would not disagree if it were put to him that way. He admits he has prejudices especially when Germany and its Germans are up for analysis and assessment.

This slender book is more than just a travel narrative. It is the compulsive attempt of an artist to sift through the sights, sounds and smells of a divided Germany. Mr. Levi tries to tell, from his point of view, why Germans—East and West—behave today as they do. The Linden Trees is an apolitical book in the sense that other contemporary efforts are consciously, and often ponderously, political.

Mr. Levi has found, in his travels and encounters in Germany, deeply-rooted senses of guilt, a haunting desire to belong to someone or something and a search for the future in today. He does not attempt, as he writes, to compare gross national products or assess the sordid by-play of ambitious men who make political deals. The German, Mr. Levi believes, is today in a great squeeze. He may have a lot but his life is empty. Or, his may be the plight of misery and poverty. His life is still empty.

In a stream of consciousness approach, Mr. Levi reviews Germans he met and to whom he talked on this rather unsentimental journey. On the whole, he finds too many distasteful. But, as he contends, they are looking for something and this emptiness in their lives cannot long endure without explosion. His prose is often marmoreal; his political conclusions are frequently naive.

For example, in his wanderings, Mr. Levi found saber-scarred students. Duelling for scars goes on in the universities today. But in the years since World War II, I think that I found only four thin-lipped, devoted young duellists with scars creasing their cheeks. It could be that I didn't look hard enough as Mr. Levi obviously did. The practice is abhorrent even to those not so keenly sensitive as Mr. Levi. I daresay that German students play more “chicken” with motorcycles than they slash at each other with sabers.

German eating habits, the gorging kind, didn't please Mr. Levi. You can find that habit a daily routine at many restaurants and cafes. The annual gargantuan eating-and-drinking Oktoberfest in Munich would make an outsider quail and swear eternal fidelity to a strict diet. You can look for—and find—George Grosz tintypes in Germany. Yet you also can find others—alert, keenly aware, difficult and diffident. Mr. Levi didn't seem to find many of these.

In Berlin, Mr. Levi did the tours all newcomers make. He trod the glittering main streets of West Berlin and went across, past the Brandenburg Gate, to the shoddy exteriors of East Berlin. There aren't any more linden trees, by the way, on Unter den Linden. The sight and atmosphere of East Berlin depressed Mr. Levi as much as the out-thrust opulence bemused him on the other side of the line. Mr. Levi finished his trip some time before the wall was erected by the Communist Germans. Sight of the wall, an offense to human dignity, would certainly have moved him. One can only hope he will complete some sort of sequel to his present travel narrative, even for his own satisfaction, by making another trip some time soon to Berlin.

Elias Cooper (review date 2 June 1962)

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SOURCE: Cooper, Elias. “The Eye of a Cyclone.” Nation 194 (2 June 1962): 499-500.

[In the following review of The Linden Trees, Cooper praises Levi's poignant and insightful observations on post-World War II Germany.]

The poet Umberto Saba has said, “After Maidenek all men have in some way been diminished. All of us—executioners and victims—are, and for many more centuries to come will be, much less than we were before.” In The Linden Trees, his narrative of travel in Germany, Carlo Levi agrees with that judgment, but postulates that “even at the extreme edge of the dehumanized a new human moment can come to birth.” It is for that “human moment” that Levi searched in Germany. He is not sure that the absurd violence of the past may not be “in some mysterious and necessary fashion also in ourselves.” The Germany of today represents to him the most important mystery of our time. Is the new Germany different? “Our very life,” he says, “depends on this.”

Carlo Levi did not go to Germany as a hunter of facts, incidents, or news items. He spent only two short weeks there. It was his first visit to the country and he admits that what he offers are the hurried impressions of a humanist. He has none the less written with greater insight on the German reality than have most experts or experienced travelers since the end of the war. He does not attempt to answer all questions, nor pretend to be able to do so. The German reality, he admits, does not allow an easy definition, but he was struck by the contradictions of Germany and by her ambivalence. The difficulty he encountered in attempting to analyze the German reality he attributes to the fact that “Germany is hiding.” She is not hiding from Carlo Levi or from others, but from herself, from Nazism, which the author terms a “trauma of immeasurable magnitude.” He sees the Germans undergoing a natural process of repression which enables them to go on living while hiding the Nazi past. There is, he says, “a deep inner censorship at work throughout the entire country.” He likens this Germany in the center of Europe to “the eye of a cyclone, the calm center in which the air is unnaturally still.” Levi persistently speaks of Germany as “sleeping” with eyes “stubbornly shut.” Just as sick people try to get well by sleeping, so Germany is trying to recover by refusing to face reality.

Levi's impressions are drawn from hurried visits to several Bavarian cities and the two Berlins. In Munich he stayed at the Hotel Vierjahreszeiten (the Four Seasons Hotel), where twenty-five years ago the Munich Pact was signed. Now all that is noteworthy about the place is the massed presence of gluttonous women and fat gentlemen consuming the “intestinal” wealth that blankets Germany. Several blocks away, at a beer hall, a bereaved father poured out his soul to Carlo Levi. “Whose fault is it?” the old man asked, and answering his own question he said, “It's God's fault—because God is Jewish.” At another place a young architect told the author, “My brother is a doctor. I design houses for small families—and let's not talk about wars.” Are such chance encounters enough, one may ask, to form an impression of so vast a country as Germany? They do not suffice if one is looking for statistical verification of a proposed phenomenon. But an impression is valid when one encounters the same readiness to defend the new Germany and the same reluctance to speak of the past on the part of derelicts, refugees, anti-Nazi exiles returned home, prosperous businessmen, waiters, farmers, engineers and university professors.

Levi found Germany a land of contradictions. There is Dachau, filled with new inhabitants—disconcerted refugees from East Germany—and there is the medieval harmony in the workers' homes that belong to the ancient Fugger company complex in Augsburg. There is modern, shiny, industrial Stuttgart (“This desert of busy, hardworking, painstaking, persistent men, their eyes so firmly riveted on the object of their labor, or on money, its equivalent and symbol, that they cannot look either to right or to left”), and serene Tübigen where Hegel, Schelling and Hölderin were students together.

Most visitors to Berlin are quick to notice the contrasts between the two halves of the city. The familiar story tells of brightness, wealth, the absence of ruins as reminders of the past death and inhumanity, and the freedom of thought and economic opportunity in West Berlin; as opposed to the drabness, poverty, the numerous bombed-out dwellings, the suppression of the spirit and the egalitarianism in East Berlin. To Carlo Levi, the humanist, these are only first impressions. They did not escape him, but he writes: “… I felt that the contrasting things I had seen in my first look at the two Germanys sprang, albeit in contrary fashion, from the same entity—as though they were but two faces of the same coin, on one side a human face, on the other an eagle, both stamped by the same die.” To Levi, the two Berlins, and the two Germanys, are identified in their opposition. Each half carries to extremes the principles of the world that governs it. But the Berliners, despite the tenacity they display for these opposing ideals, do not really believe or hold to them. It seems “as if in both camps the two roads now being traveled—moving farther apart with each passing day until the distance between them might seem unbridgeable—were nothing but a means of action.” Champions of separate causes, they are none the less champions of the same mold. They are like one flock of sheep arbitrarily divided, and distant trumpets can cause them to stampede in an unpredictable direction.

Whether the new Germany is different or not is a question that Levi never answers. What he has done more poignantly than any other observer is to portray a unique historical process at work in Germany—a mass repression of the recent national past. This refusal to thrash out the Nazi past on all levels of society, including the intelligentsia, is certainly dangerous. It facilitates the cry of “Deutschland erwache!” to be started up again, and “like a sleep-walker abruptly aroused [Germany] will open its eyes with a mortal shriek of violent madness.” This central theme is captured more vividly in the original Italian title of the book, La Doppia Notte Dei Tigli, which is taken from two lines in Goethe's Faust (“Fiery glances see I flashing through the lindens' double night.”). Joseph M. Bernstein's translation is otherwise excellent.

R. D. Catani (essay date summer 1979)

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SOURCE: Catani, R. D. “Structure and Style as Fundamental Expression: The Works of Carlo Levi and Their Poetic Ideology.” Italica 56, no. 2 (summer 1979): 213-29.

[In the following essay, Catani provides a stylistic analysis of Levi's prose works.]

The resurgence over the last decade in critical studies on Levi has largely been based on a recognition that convictions first expressed theoretically in Paura della libertà (1939) offer a key to a deeper comprehension of his work. As a result, a daunting task of interpretation has been set and undertaken.1 This article will attempt to define and analyze certain processes in the author's prose writings as illustrating the interrelated concepts of differenziazione and contemporaneità which are central to his fundamental convictions. The first part of the article will deal with the conscious application of these concepts to literature in structural processes directed towards the intentional breaking down of conventional narrative sequence: especially in Levi's own peculiar methods of character presentation, best illustrated by a close analysis of L'orologio (1950), but also in his various memorial devices and cumbersome factual insertions. The second part of the article will try to show how certain stylistic processes, in particular well known recurring symbols and the prominent use of color, carry the same significance as the structural ones by being functions of the same fundamental poetic beliefs.

In the solemnly enigmatic language of Paura della libertà, Levi postulates the ideological premises of his poetic world:

Esiste un indistinto originario, comune agli uomini tutti, fluente nell'eternità, natura di ogni aspetto del mondo, memoria di ogni tempo del mondo. Da questo indistinto partono gli individui, mossi da una oscura libertà a staccarsene per prender forma, per individuarsi—e continuamente riportati da una oscura necessità a riattaccarsi e fondersi in lui.

The moment of poetic creation comes when man can simultaneously avoid the two poles of oblivion (the egoistic abstraction of total separation from the indistinct mass, and the mute servility of total immersion in that mass): when

i due opposti processi di differenziazione e di indifferenziazione trovano un punto di mediazione, e coesistono nell'atto creatore.

(p. 23)

In the civilized world of reason and history, however, this poetic moment is, he asserts, elsewhere, like the memory of a previous existence, like an underground river that surfaces unexpectedly because

la sicurezza della ragione, la sicurezza del tempo, copre questo fiume sotterraneo sotto il ritmo matematico dell'orologio.2

Levi's Jungian vision in fact asserts the existence of a boundless temporal dimension, “la compresenza dei tempi” or contemporaneità, which constitutes the strongest single bond linking his volumes together. The origins of modern civilization, in ancient myth and before that in an initial, chaotic darkness, are present in any single moment and can reappear suddenly:

quello che è stato può tornare, quello che è celato raffiorare alla coscienza, come riappaiono le spiagge al ritirarsi della marea.

(Paura, p. 28)

A sense of contemporaneity, of course, permeates Levi's Lucania where, as he tells us in the opening of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945), “nessuno degli arditi uomini di occidente ha portato … il suo senso del tempo che si muove,” but he felt it intuitively within him long before he conceived or wrote the work,3 and it is unswervingly maintained throughout his writings. Contemporaneity is one of the twin themes of L'orologio (1950) and predominates in his subsequent books.4 In all of them, Levi emerges as “il testimone della presenza di un altro tempo all'interno del nostro tempo,” to use Italo Calvino's phrase,5 and in the last of them, Tutto il miele è finito (1964), he still communicates this conviction as forcefully as ever:

Come la realtà è molteplice; come, in ogni cosa, coesistono tempi diversi e lontanissimi! E quanto più viva, reale e complessa è una persona, quando in lei questa contemporaneità di condizioni e di situazioni diverse, come strati geologici, questa eternità della storia e della preistoria, è presente: e quando gli elementi arcaici non sono relegati o totalmente nascosti in un oscuro subcosciente dove possono parere dimenticati e del tutto inoperanti, ma affiorano alla superficie, e diventano contenuti di poesia, energia vitale, capacità di comprensione universale, fuori della meccanica limitazione degli schemi sociali e psicologici della vita quotidiana.

(p. 75)

Levi admires those writers who share his conception of time and the individual: Tolstoy because he gives expression to “momenti fuori del tempo, fuori di ogni romanzo e di ogni storia, fermi ed eterni”; Chekhov because in his works “non vi è mai un taglio, un isolamento, né principio o fine, astratto tempo”; and the Stendhal of Rome, Naples et Florence because “ha capito, forse per primo, il valore poetico del casuale, del particolare, dell'interrotto e parziale e istantaneo, nella contemporanea totalità di una immagine.”6 He is fascinated by narrative technique in certain works which are difficult to define, such as Paustovski's: which consists, he tells us in Il futuro ha un cuore antico (1964, pp. 162-3), of “un racconto sul modo di fare un racconto” where disparate elements are united, not by form, but by the personality of the author (“il modo più legittimo di scrivere”). But the strongest fascination is exerted by Tristram Shandy. He names it explicitly as the model for L'orologio and indicates clearly how the concept of contemporaneity can be reflected in narrative and structural manipulations:

L'invenzione dell'Io come motivo essenziale e forma della realtà crea una nuova dimensione. Per questo Sterne è un grande maestro di stile, e un precursore del futuro. Si creano nuove forme, e nuovi contenuti: si introducono nelle cose i sentimenti e l'ironia, e il senso della infinita mutevolezza della realtà, del suo essere fatta di rapporti inesauribili, della contemporaneità dei tempi … È l'invenzione della durata, che si sostituisce al tempo, e costringe a una vaga corsa dietro alla sfuggente realtà, e scioglie e distrugge la struttura e il tempo del romanzo, i limiti dei personaggi e la loro psicologia, con quasi due secoli di anticipo.7

Levi extols and adopts the processes whereby Sterne, through the rejection of a pre-established scale of values, restores significance to the seemingly insignificant and, through his narrative disgressions, attains the eternal reality of contemporaneity by transforming the transiency of conventional time into the eternal time of the imagination.

Certain methods of narration and character presentation which have come to be regarded as established hall marks of Levi's works are no more or less than practical demonstrations of the views on literature which he shares with Sterne. The most strikingly recurrent device is his bozzettismo, his repeated indulgence in elaborately executed portraits and more frequent vignettes. Its functions are clear in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli: to serve an expository plan, to lead naturally into pertinent stories and episodes, or to give tangible expression to a magical existence. In other works, especially Il futuro ha un cuore antico (1956) and La doppia notte dei tigli (1959), it is often emblematic, or instrumental in the presentation and investigation of a society. It is more significantly to the fore in L'orologio where it has received sharp criticism which, however, fails to grasp its essential function.8 Here, character sketches, in the way in which figures abruptly emerge from and are re-immersed into the mass of humanity, reflect a primary concept by balancing the work on the all-important point of differentiation or individuation, and by maintaining the focus on the ambiguous moment of creation. By refusing to round off characters, following Sterne's guidelines, Levi expresses the limitlessness of individuals and, by expressly truncating and interrupting character development, rejects the over-schematic abstraction of the traditional narrative.

He does this with particular insistence in two carefully arranged and constructed sections. The first, towards the end of chapter IV, describes a meal in a Roman restaurant (pp. 90-111). Thumbnail sketches fall fast and furious on the page. We are presented with Elena the one-legged prostitute with her “sorriso interrogativo,” then with intertwining glimpses, which alternate with bewildering abruptness, into the lives of Giacinto the effeminate, talkative waiter and the sullen, bearded Marco. Bracco the painter suddenly interrupts only to be cut short in his turn by the arrival of Ferrari and his sister. He acts as a mouthpiece for a long digression on government ministries. It gives way unexpectedly to the songs of the guitarist Fortunato which finally precipitate a frenetic dance by a group of Polish soldiers. Likewise in chapter IX half-way between this episode and the end of the novel (pp. 214-26), he describes an interlude in a bar with some of his newspaper workers during a power-cut. A similar succession of bozzetti (of the printers, the hypocritically obsequious beggar-woman, “la nonnina,” a blind musician and woman singer, the landlord, a drunken Sardinian peasant, a tattooed man, a beautiful mother) ends in the ever quickening rhythm of singing and dancing broken off when the lights come on again. Particularly enlightening are the identical techniques used in both passages. In each he pauses to dwell on the enigmatic, unfathomable aspect of a particular figure: in the first, it is Ferrari's younger sister Elda (“nessuno avrebbe mai conosciuto i suoi semplici segreti”), in the second, the mysteriously regal young mother (“Di dove veniva quella donna, qual era la sua storia?”). This is a recurring device in Levi's works, intended to protect the boundless possibilities of the individual from schematic treatment. Each episode also builds up to an almost frenzied final crescendo which is abruptly halted to focus our attention on a contrasting symbolic image: in the first, it is the silent gaze of Elena, “sorridendo, come una bambola”; in the second, it is the blind man, alone and sadly out of tune, prolonging his accompaniment, “come la coda di un disco che continui a girare sul grammofono, a vuoto.” Both images are designed to emphasize the futility of attempting to encompass and entirely individuate the persons that have been fleetingly paraded before us, of trying to stem an irrepressible flow in the “vaga corsa dietro alla sfuggente realtà.” The reader who expects the continuity of traditional narrative or neatly rounded character sketches is purposely frustrated and disorientated.

This is also the author's intention in dealing with recurring characters who are considered in greater depth, such as the pretentious maid signora Jolanda and her eccentric cousin Giovanni. Their presentation in chapter VI, when Levi first visits his new lodgings (pp. 142-5), seems to be intended, not simply to satisfy the whim of a self-conscious ritrattista, but to prepare for a fully rounded treatment to follow. When in chapter X he describes his first meal with them (pp. 241-52), he starts off by showing something of a captivating narrative flair and relaxed handling in depth of character study, only to lapse into a long exposé of his own views on popular literature and abandon Jolanda and Giovanni with a detached ironic aside. Once again, the reader who applies a false yardstick is dismayed to see them recede from view, their “story” and “characterization” incomplete, their lives unbounded by a beginning and an end. In fact, they are representatives of the infinite possibilities of the individual and of the existence of duration rather than time.

Our analysis of these passages is amply corroborated by Levi's explicit assertions in the novel that the differentiated individual cannot be restricted within the limits of abstraction and arbitrary time. These assertions occur in the section (pp. 50-74) where he expertly portrays and individualizes his young comrades in the Partito d'Azione. Having described at some length the contrasting characteristics of Casorin and Moneta, he is at pains to point out that he has shown only one tiny facet of their existence, and laments the fact that “tagliamo una piccola fetta di questa infinita realtà, … la facciamo entrare a forza nella nostra vicenda, nel nostro tempo, nelle nostre misure,” so that, “senza volere, facciamo dell'onda sconfinata del reale, di una persona che, come noi stessi, e identica a noi, non ha limiti, un soggetto di novella, una tessera colorata di un mosaico disegnato prima, un elemento di un astratto giuoco” (p. 56). This and similar statements (see for example pp. 64-5) indicate a potentially fruitful grid of interpretation for the structure of the novel.

While the passages so far examined would amply suffice as practical rebuttals of abstraction, the author makes it clear that they are more than marginal exercises by providing us with a complete and detailed structural model. The entire penultimate chapter constitutes no less than Levi's “anti-novel” in parvo, an exemplar in which he uses not only the devices peculiar to L'orologio but others which we will shortly see repeated. It is in fact evident that chapter XI (pp. 264-309), where he narrates his car journey from Rome to Naples, a chapter which is thematically coherent in conception and eventful in itself, might easily have enjoyed the traditional unity of the successful novella. But it is equally evident that it has been intentionally transformed by the process of fragmentation and the concomitant interfusion of the narrative ego. The first few pages include digressions in which dead bodies seen by the author in wartime and preparations for journeys made in his youth are recalled. When the car is eventually moving, the sound of a tire bursting reminds him of an adventure from his days as an anti-Fascist activist. While the tire is being repaired, he indulges in a typical series of sketches of his fellow travellers: the two women, the country priest, with his mysterious suitcase whose contents are never revealed, the tattooed sailor, the Neapolitan student, and the Calabrese farmer. Cars abandoned by the roadside spark off an extremely long succession of flashbacks to journeys and escapes made in France and Italy (pp. 278-82), ending in a series of disconnected, lightning images which he calls “le infinite apparenze delle sorti infinite, fuori di noi e in noi, senza termini conoscibili, fuor di una immagine che fugge, fragile, nel vento della corsa” (p. 282). Later, the ruins at Itri provoke a memory of his imprisonment in the Carcere delle Mantellate. Then, the narrative highlight is reached with the quick moving account of the hold-up, its ensuing dangers and the lively reactions of the frightened passengers, which afford a tantalizing insight into their make-up. But the flow is quickly and definitively stemmed by three desultory sections which the author paratactically juxtaposes as a final renunciation of abstract literary notions of character and time. In the first, he clumsily imparts information on southern folklore through a lengthy, unconvincing monologue in which the Calabrese peasant recounts the legendary stories of Sant'Antuono. In the second, he imagines the brigand hiding in the undergrowth, existing in an animalistic, arboreal world “dove il bene e il male si annullano e si confondono, alternandosi in una vicenda di giorni e di notti, e di stagioni senza fine” (p. 303). This thought draws Levi's memory back to the contemporaneous world of Lucania and the principle of “doppia natura.” The third and closing section deals at length with the popular, picaresque legends of the Neapolitan poor, which monopolizes the reader's attention and obliterates any trace that might remain of concern with narrative incident or characterization.

Such passages are painstakingly orchestrated. Although Dominique Fernandez is one of the first critics to point out that Levi's manner of story-telling “gli permette di negare … ciò che costituisce, da sempre, la letteratura,” he is wrong to assert that the book is no more consciously constructed than his other works, and is not entirely accurate in comparing his narrative technique, “più o meno deliberata,” to that of a child, in its wanderings and disconnected juxtapositions.9 Nor is it sufficient to call it simply, as Gigliola De Donato does, a technique “ad incastro” which is essentially dependent on the memorial factor and an interplay between temporal levels.10 Italo Calvino is right to insist that L'orologio “è il suo libro più costruito, più scritto.11 Although it is true to say that it is mainly concerned with the fundamental concepts of individuation and contemporaneity, they are not solely communicated through direct statement, intricate symbolism or intuitive expression. Almost a third of the work is devoted to their planned illustration in structural terms.

While, at its simplest, the memorial device of interposing autobiographical reminiscences sets up correspondences between separate temporal spheres, it is also both ancillary to the technique of structural fragmentation, and its converse in so far as it establishes the author's persona rather than formal unity as a cohesive factor. Moreover, it often permits more direct expression of the ideology under consideration by forming its correspondences with specific moments that are in themselves representative of that ideology. This explains the predominance of his childhood and Lucania in Levi's recollections. His memory poetically regresses, not to the chaos of “l'indistinto originario” which is as abhorrent to him as the conventional present, but to the exceptional moments of initial differentiation. His childhood is clearly one of those moments,12 and Lucania is important as “una realtà nel suo farsi originale” which contains “un momento essenziale e necessario per la poesia.”13 In Il futuro ha un cuore antico both are recalled with particular frequency because they represent honest virtues which he recognizes in Russia, whereas L'orologio is characterized by souvenirs volontaires of the Resistance which expertly link the twin themes of the novel. In Tutto il miele è finito he chooses to adopt a subtler memorial device: by superimposing the differing images of places visited more than once, he creates “una diversa, quasi stereoscopica, qualità intrinseca della visione” which becomes an escape from the changes of time, the establishment of an “identità che … prevale sul tempo” (pp. 7 and 57-8).

Another constant feature which leads to morphological irregularity is the undisguised, obtrusive insertion of factual information on customs, folklore and politics into the narrative, which constitutes the contribution of the saggista. We have already noted the Calabrese's monologue in L'orologio. Similarly, in Tutto il miele è finito, when describing a convivial evening in Orune, the author is preoccupied with recording the traditional songs and magic formulae of Sardinia (pp. 50-54). On other occasions, just as in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli he explores the significance of il brigantaggio (pp. 21-4) and other phenomena, he candidly assumes the mantle of the essayist. Such is his treatment in Le parole sono pietre (1955) of the secrets of the Mafia (pp. 141-4), and in Tutto il miele è finito of the laws of vendetta (pp. 76-7). Often, the documentation is almost reluctantly presented in the guise of a direct or reported conversation, as when he deals with the age-old Sardinian conflict between farmers and shepherds in Tutto il miele è finito (pp. 105-8), or in the seemingly interminable monologue by Valenti in L'orologio (pp. 175-87) which defines the essential political opposition between “Luigini” and “Contadini” but which is totally lacking in verisimilitude.14 Typical of Levi's handling of such material is his long consideration in L'orologio of Rome's position as a symbol of unity and authority in the state: he opens with some measure of concession to the narrative by presenting it through the mouths of four emblematic settentrionali (pp. 202-4), but soon abandons this clearly unsatisfactory device and continues by directly expressing his own comments and experiences on the question (pp. 205-9). For many readers, such passages are understandably the most discordant since they create an irreconcilable duality of expression. Levi in fact always strives to highlight the much discussed ambivalence of his writings. Such informative digressions, however important they might in themselves be to the author, remain firmly on a cerebral, analytical level: they are essentially centrifugal in so far as they divert attention from the all-important “Io come motivo essenziale e forma della realtà,” unlike the centripetal, memorial digressions, and constitute the weightiest of all impediments to conventional narrative sequence.

Since for Levi artistic creation lies, as we have seen, in an equilibrium between the undifferentiated and the differentiated, his works share a timeless, static quality that is alien to the narrative and to categorization. They are subject, in other terms, to the “inerzia del mondo” and the unchanging continuity of things (see L'orologio, pp. 212-3), to the crushing weight of an omnipresent “oscurità illimitata,” of the “zona nera di eterna passività” that is in the hearts of everyone (see Paura, p. 105). At the same time, the focal point is the writer's ego in the act of individuation and self-assertion, which is not, as has mistakenly been supposed, egotism, but a humanistic individualism which concentrates on the spheres of nascent differentiation and contemporaneity that are common to all men.15

Carlo Levi is also renowned for certain techniques which are more properly stylistic than concerned with narrative structure or characterization. They are usually superficially associated with his role as an accomplished painter: his detailed descriptions of sunsets or moonlit scenes, for example, or the intense and meticulous attention which he pays to color in general. But these techniques, in a subtler way, are also an expression of the author's basic convictions. Painting, for Carlo Levi, operates in the same creative province as literature, and derives ideally from “il senso dell'esistenza come creazione, dell'identità dell'uomo col mondo, di ogni relazione come atto d'amore” (Paura, p. 129). Just as he admires authors like Sterne, he is drawn to painters who share his temporal vision.16 But his much mentioned bilinguismo does not lie in the balanced co-existence of two equally effectual expressive channels. Falaschi has drawn attention to Levi's belief in the superiority of painting which for him possesses the particular technical potential of direct communication with the archaic and arcane.17 This is why he draws on the prominent chromatic component of his stylistic armory when it comes to a direct perception of basic truths. Color is much more than an accidental embellishment of his prose: it constitutes his most significant instrument of stylistic expression, and has, in specific associations, a deep-rooted symbolic importance.

These associations are with the sunsets and moonlit scenes that figure conspicuously in his work. The poem “Passano i giorni in fretta” (August 1942) already hints at their temporal significance (“o interminabili tramonti d'infanzia rossi … !”).18 This is confirmed in a key passage in the opening section of L'orologio where he recalls the “senso terribile nel rapporto, col tempo, delle cose nascenti” (p. 16) of his infancy:

Come'erano lunghi, senza fine, i giorni dell'infanzia! Un ora era un universo, un'epoca intera, che un semplice gioco riempiva, come dieci dinastie. La storia era ferma, stagnava in quel gioco eterno. … I tramonti duravano ore e ore, come se la giornata si rifiutasse di terminare, e quel sole infantile, già mezzo nascosto tra le montagne azzurre, stesse troppo bene in cielo. Erano tramonti lentissimi, pieni di tutti i colori più meravigliosi; dove il rosso del fuoco passava all'arancione, ed al giallo, e a uno strano verde marino pieno d'incanto, e al viola dei fiori, chiaro come le prime violette di primavera, e poi sempre più cupo e notturno.

(pp. 18-19)

These lines establish both the emblematic function of the sunset and the pattern of its ever-darkening chromatic gradations. It often coincides with the numerous departures and returns described in the opening and closing pages of his books or their sub-sections, which are intended to mark the transition to or from a new temporal world. The few examples appearing in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli are stylistically embryonic because here Levi found himself involuntarily immersed in a different time-sphere (see pp. 10, 18, 52). Subsequent volumes strive to recreate, nostalgically and arbitrarily, his exceptional Lucanian discovery. This explains the carefully tinted sunsets that mark a temporal transition on the first page of Il futuro ha un cuore antico and the last page of La doppia notte dei tigli.

Their most intense and significant use, however, occurs in certain contemplative, lyrical pauses centered on an intimate communication with unfathomable forces of the universe. One such pause falls midway through L'orologio when Levi wanders aimlessly in the district surrounding his new lodgings. Bathed in the dying sun's light, buildings speak to him in “un linguaggio sensibile della contemporaneità dei tempi,” and assume a human aspect:

L'ultimo sole batteva sulla cima delle facciate, e le tingeva di un color di rosa, umano come quello delle nuvole, contro il verde e il violetto del cielo.

(p. 155)

This merging of houses and people in a luminous, vital force fills him with sudden joy as he is immersed in the happy crowd watching a puppet show. All things, persons and objects, reveal themselves openly and unashamedly:

ma sentiamo che ce ne sono altre infinite che non si dicono, che stanno nascoste, sentimenti vaghi, e forse sono esse che dànno al cielo questo incanto rosato, al cuore questa pienezza solitaria.

(p. 155)

The color of the setting sun is a clear symbol of communion with a boundless, eternal reality, as it is in the meditative section of La doppia notte dei tigli which describes his visit to Tübingen with its ancient streets “piene di tempo e di memoria” (p. 90). He ends his visit at sunset by going down alone to the banks of the Neckar to enjoy “un momento assoluto di meraviglia” created by the subtle coloring of the houses in the rays of the dying sun (pp. 92-3).

A similarly intimate description of the Georgian countryside in Il futuro ha un cuore antico introduces the symbolism of the second luminary:

e, subitaneo, arriva il tramonto, sfavillante di luce rossa, purpurea, gialla tra quelle montagne solitarie, e già in cielo, bianca e rotonda, naviga la luna piena. Scende improvvisa la notte violetta; la luna si accende, a mano a mano, e splende, e si fa più grande sulla spettrale distesa dei monti; … mi pare che potrei parlare con la luna, che siamo soli, io e lei, in quel grande mondo silenzioso.

(p. 175)

In the closing sentence of the same book, the moon is explicitly associated with the passage from internal to external time:

Soli con la luna, gialla all'orizzonte, navighiamo sul nero del mare, verso Roma, il ritorno, la casa, i cuori fedeli, e la semplice grazia delle ore di ogni giorno.

(p. 306)

The temporal connection is made unmistakably clear in the ending to Levi's unpublished Viaggio in India (1958):

La luna coricata è alta in cielo, perduta la sua cupola, a poco a poco sfrangiandosi in alto, e calando. Non mi pare di tornare da un altro mondo, ma da un mondo interno, arcanamente esistente fuori di noi. Il mondo da cui parte il tempo e a cui ritorna, fermate in infinita molteplice contemporaneità le sue onde, su cui naviga la luna.19

As with the sunsets, the moon's role as an emblem of unchanging time is directly conveyed in lyrical moments of intense intimacy through pallid landscapes. The emotionally climactic moment of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is during Levi's visit to Il Pantano in a vain attempt to save a dying peasant, when he is overcome by “il senso fluente di una infinita pienezza” (p. 199). The experience is prepared for by the enchantment of his journey there:

La luna riempiva il cielo e pareva si versasse sulla terra. Su una terra remota come la luna, bianca in quella luce silenziosa. … Su quel paesaggio spettrale mi pareva di volare, senza peso, come un uccello.

(p. 197)

In Tutto il miele è finito his description of nightfall at Orgosolo, after he has attended the bricklayer's funeral, conveys a similarly contemplative moment of involvement with a timeless force, expressed in a landscape where “le rocce biancheggiano di quel chiarore notturno che è come l'ombra trasparente della luna” (p. 85). In the closing pages of the same work, the abrupt transition from the eternal world of the shepherds to a contrasting time-sphere is again represented by a darkening sky, the appearance of a countryside with a distinctive coloring, “quello delle cose sempre esistite, dello stingersi del sole sulla terra” (p. 118), and finally the timeless spell cast by moonlight:

In quell'aria ormai bruna sempre più eravamo penetrati dall'incanto lunare e pastorale della presenza dolente di una vita che ripete le sue domande e il suo lamento fuori della storia.

(pp. 118-9)

Levi in fact ends his last book by reiterating the contrast between temporal rhythms: “quello ondulante del gregge e della luna, quello matematico dell'orologio” (p. 120).

Less evident than the symbolic importance of sunsets and moonlight, is the significance of the detailed attention which he pays to color in certain consciously studied descriptions. Sometimes the proximity of such descriptions to intimate lyrical moments shows them to be a foretaste or afterglow of these moments on a secondary expressive level. In L'orologio when he is left on his own in his new room for the first time, a switch of pace and quality of perception is created by the subtle chromatic harmony of a view from the window:

Tutta la città si apriva davanti a me, in una successione infinita di tetti, di terrazze, di finestre, di cupole, in una distesa chiara di grigi aerei, di gialli leggeri, di rosa dorati, di intonaci trasparenti di vecchiaia, appena un po viola nelle ombre. Ogni cosa era nitida e lontana, immersa in un'aria visibile e colorata, dove pareva circolassero miriadi di impalpabili corpuscoli d'oro.

(p. 147)

The view is exhaustively depicted, gradually assuming the first pink hues of the same sunset that a few pages further on is to produce the ineffable feeling that overwhelms him when watching the puppet show. Likewise, his trip to Tübingen in La doppia notte dei tigli, which is to become a voyage on “il mare del tempo” and culminate, as we have seen, in “un divino respiro,” begins with the preparatory representation in a minor chromatic key of an ancient monastery and its surrounding village (p. 89). The temporally symbolic colors seen at daybreak from the train approaching the Straits of Messina at the start of his second Sicilian visit, are in similar fashion immediately echoed in a polychromatic depiction of his fellow passengers on the ferry (Le parole, pp. 95-6). On other occasions, such descriptions are ancillary to the expression of intimate experiences that are not themselves represented by chromatic techniques. In La doppia notte dei tigli his momentary view of the old streets of Augsburg which impart “il senso fisico della stratificazione di sentimenti non modificati profondamente dal tempo” (p. 70) is followed by a rapid burst of color in his description of the market. Shortly afterwards, as he is nearing Ulm, we are presented with the greens, greys and blacks of the landscape and the green of the river, just before a silent meditative pause as he and Mina contemplate the waters of the Danube (p. 73). In Il futuro ha un cuore antico, the splash of color in the bustling scene from the window of his Moscow hotel comes immediately after the feeling of utter contentment, unqualified by time and place, experienced the previous night (pp. 30-31). What is more, color on one or two rare occasions seems to form an integral part of his poetic perception, as in the sudden appearance of a Doric temple during his journey to Calatafimi:

ecco, nel centro di una grande conca di monti gialli, chiusa da ogni parte dell'orizzonte sotto un mantello dorato di stoppie … rizzarsi il tempio di Segesta, dello stesso colore d'oro e di grano e di solitudine arcana di quella terra, e insieme rosato come un corpo umano o divino, come la traduzione armonica, eternamente serena, di quella tragica natura, semplice in modo da trasformare una storia infinita e la stessa presenza degli Dèi in un modulo.

(Le parole, p. 147)

This expressive mode is even more striking in a sub-section towards the end of L'orologio (pp. 317-22) which depicts the flow of the Neapolitan masses and the ever-changing flux of objective reality. The climax is reached in a description of the market at Porta Capuana and in particular of the array of fish which clearly symbolizes the creative act of differentiation of individual entities from an eternal, indistinct mass. Far from being a superficial adornment, the chromatic component emerges as a stylistic instrument essential to the expression of a poetic ideology:

polipi bianchi e violetti si intrecciavano in viluppi: ceste di cozze nere e di vongole grige splendevano a contrasto del giallo dei limoni e del lucente verde delle alghe; le triglie rosseggiavano come fiori … più in là, in un altro cesto, un mucchio di pesci dorati, o un groviglio serpentino di murene gialle e nere attirava il mio sguardo e più lontano, verdure e frutte e erbe splendidissime rilucevano al sole.

(p. 319)

At times, however, whether he is describing the spectacular dress of Kurdish women or a studied landscape near Cagliari, like a picture by Bosch, or the leitmotif of yellow and black in his journey from Stuttgart to Berlin,20 colors reveal no more than Levi's technical expertise and have no extraordinary expressive function. Moreover, it is often difficult to forget that sunsets and moonlight are hackneyed literary symbols of harmony and fulfilment, and indeed a slight tendency towards pseudo-lyricism and strained tours de force can be detected in his writings. These factors have combined to obfuscate Levi's otherwise clear use of color as meaning which, far from being a stylistic vener, is an intrinsic, poetic translation of the same basic persuasions on time and the individual that dictate his structural patterns.

Carlo Levi's creative writings suffered too long from being designated, whether in derision or admiration, in terms such as bozzettismo and pagine d'antologia. On a very shallow level, of course, much of his prose answers to both of these descriptions. Herein lies the danger. For, on a deeper level, the same prose serves as the expressive vehicle of his poetic ideology.


  1. Following the intense critical activity surrounding Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945) and L'orologio (1950), with enthusiastic approbation to the former and generally a negative judgement on the latter, interest in Levi declined till the revival marked by the studies in Galleria, XVII, 3-6 (May-December 1967). Important steps in subsequent advances are the volumes by G. Falaschi (Carlo Levi, Florence, 1971) and G. De Donato (Saggio su Carlo Levi, Bari, 1974), as well as the posthumous publication of anthologies of Levi's less accessible writings in Coraggio dei miti: Scritti contemporanei 1922-1974, edited by G. De Donato, Bari, 1975 and Contadini e Luigini: Testi e disegni di Carlo Levi, edited by L. Sacco, Rome-Matera, 1975. For an assessment of these more recent contributions, see E. Catemario, “La nuova stagione di Carlo Levi,” Annali dell'Istituto universitario orientale di Napoli (sezione romanza), XIX, 1 (January 1977), 109-25. References to Levi's works in this article are to the following editions, all published in Turin: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, 1963, L'orologio, 1963, Paura della libertà, 1964, Le parole sono pietre, 1956, Il futuro ha un cuore antico, 1964, La doppia notte dei tigli, 1962, Un volto che ci somiglia, 1960, Tutto il miele è finito, 1964. Abbreviated titles will be used in the notes.

  2. Coraggio dei miti, p. 58 (from a lecture delivered in Turin, March 1950).

  3. A. Marcovecchio has shown that it is paradigmatically present in Levi's unpublished Quaderno di prigione (1935) in “Il periplo del mondo,” Galleria, pp. 99-109 (pp. 103-5). See also the poem “Strega con filtri veri” (1941), Galleria, pp. 118-9.

  4. It is explicitly reiterated in the prefaces to La doppia notte (pp. 16-17) and Tutto il miele (p. 7), and throughout Un volto where he defines it as “il processo stesso del progredire di un mondo differenziato” (p. ix).

  5. “La compresenza dei tempi,” Galleria, pp. 237-40 (p. 238).

  6. See respectively L'orologio, p. 63, “Anton Checov,” Literaturnaia gazeta, XII (January 1960) now in Coraggio dei miti, pp. 273-4 and the preface to Roma, Napoli e Firenze (Rome 1960) now in Coraggio dei miti, pp. 275-86 (p. 275).

  7. Preface to an Italian translation (Turin 1958) now in Coraggio dei miti, pp. 264-72 (pp. 267-8).

  8. See especially L. Russo, I narratori (1850-1957), third edition (Milan-Messina 1958), pp. 356-60.

  9. “Uomini-dei o uomini-piante,” Galleria pp. 161-2 and 172. His article is still significant in that it broke new ground on several fronts.

  10. See De Donato, pp. 122-3. Her analysis of the novel's structure nevertheless remains the most complete and perceptive to date: especially p. 127.

  11. Article cit., p. 238.

  12. See L'orologio, pp. 15-20 and Coraggio dei miti, p. 69 and p. 122.

  13. Coraggio dei miti, p. 306 (from a speech delivered in July 1969).

  14. It is significant that Levi admitted that Valenti is a mere mouthpiece in a lecture given in April 1951: see Coraggio dei miti, p. 66.

  15. For a defense of Levi against the charge of egotism in Cristo, see R. D. Catani, “Detachment and Compassion in Carlo Levi's Cristo,Journal of the Association of Teachers of Italian, XVII, (Autumn/Winter 1975-6, pp. 3-7.

  16. Such as Rembrandt (see Il futuro, pp. 122-3) and Casorati (see Coraggio dei miti, p. 344).

  17. See Falaschi, pp. 97-100.

  18. See Galleria, p. 121.

  19. Galleria, p. 158. See also the opening to the second part of Le parole (p. 95).

  20. See, respectively, Il futuro, p. 182, Tutto il miele, p. 27 and La doppia notte, pp. 102-3.

Lawrence Baldassaro (essay date summer 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4997

SOURCE: Baldassaro, Lawrence. “Paura della libertà: Carlo Levi's Unfinished Preface.” Italica 72, no. 2 (summer 1995): 143-54.

[In the following essay, Baldassaro offers an overview of Paura della libertà, perceiving it as “a watershed moment” in his literary development.]

Long before the Resistance movement evolved into the armed rebellion depicted in neorealist films, Carlo Levi was one of that handful of Italians who challenged the fascist regime armed only with the words they printed in clandestine newspapers and magazines. Levi was only twenty years old when, in 1922, he began his anti-fascist activities by contributing to Piero Gobetti's weekly review, La Rivoluzione liberale. Later he played a key role in Giustizia e Libertà, the underground political movement that was a major force in the struggle against fascism in the thirties.1 Levi was twice imprisoned for his anti-fascist activities, first in 1934, then again in 1935. It was this second arrest that resulted in his year-long confinement in Lucania, the experience that was to become the subject of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli.

Following his release from confinement, Levi, as he had so often done since completing medical school in 1924, went to France. In 1939, after so many years of political struggle, he found himself witnessing the total domination of Italy by fascism, the beginning of Hitler's assault on Europe, and the apparent demise of European civilization. It was then, as British troops were disembarking near his house in the coastal town of La Baule, that he wrote his first book, Paura della libertà, an anti-fascist tract sui generis. Because of the war, the book was not published until 1946, one year after the publication of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. The book received little attention from critics, and the attention it did receive was due, no doubt, to the astounding success of Cristo.2 The general response to Paura was one of surprise, and disappointment, that this work had been produced by the same man who had written the literary sensation of post-war Italy.

Paura della libertà remains a relatively obscure work, primarily because of its reputation as a difficult book. Unlike the detailed depiction of life in a remote Lucanian village found in Cristo, Paura is a dense, rambling philosophical rumination on the human condition on the eve of World War II. Yet, it is a book that deserves reconsideration, both as the work that defines the world view that would guide Levi in all his subsequent writings, including Cristo, and as a testament of its time, a diary of an intellectual's confrontation with the moral crisis of interwar Europe.3

Paura della libertà is an unfinished work. Levi's original intention was to write a lengthy opus, a sort of twentieth-century Summa, with chapters dedicated to analyses of such topics as politics, art, philosophy, religion, science, and social life. The progress of the war interrupted Levi's work on Paura when he had completed eight chapters, which, he writes in his preface, would have been only the introductory part of the projected whole. Levi, however, chose not to return to the work, not only because of the war but also because he felt that “tutti gli svolgimenti particolari che avevo avuto in animo di fare vi erano impliciti” (11). In spite of its brevity (126 pages in the edition I cite), Paura is too abstract and, at times, too abstruse a work to lend itself to a brief synopsis. The chapter titles suggest the abstract and somewhat disjointed nature of the work: “Ab Jove principium”; “Sacrificio”; “Amor sacro e profano”; “Schiavitú”; “Le muse”; “Sangue”; “Massa”; “Storia sacra.” Like Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, and like Levi himself, Paura defies categorization. Suffice it to say that Paura is Levi's attempt to understand why the world around him was falling apart.

In his preface, Levi recalls that moment of apocalyptic desperation in the Europe of 1939:

Tutte le vecchie ideologie parevano crollare; … un vento di morte e di oscura religione sconvolgeva gli antichi stati d'Europa. …

La vita normale, la continuità delle generazioni e degli istituti era finita. I nuovi dèl dello Stato soffiavano via dal mondo i valori umani, il senso stesso del tempo: e per difendersi gli uomini dovevano accettare questa aridità della strage, abbandonare le case e le famiglie, buttarsi dietro le spalle tutto quello che erano stati, e perfino il ricordo dei legami infantili.


In Paura we hear the voice of a middle class intellectual pondering the disintegration of western civilization, struggling to comprehend the fragility of the culture that had nourished him. Though Levi indicates in his preface that when he wrote Paura “[n]on avevo con me alcun libro” (11), the extensive references and citations throughout the book clearly demonstrate the breadth of his knowledge of European literature and philosophy. And while critics have noted the imprint of such influential thinkers as Freud, Jung, and Vico in Levi's ruminations, Paura is decidedly Levi's personal vision of the world in which he finds himself.4 It is a world gone wrong, but Levi wants to understand his age as something more than the sum of its nasty little parts; he tries to see the forest while trapped among the tangled trees, and it turns out that the forest he sees is primeval. Rationality alone cannot explain the chaos he sees around him.

Unable to understand the collapse of western civilization in purely rational terms, Levi turns instead to the dark recesses of the human soul, to “quel punto inesistente da cui nasce ogni cosa … nei luoghi piú terrestri e oscuri, negli abissi umidi e materni” (21). He seeks “le cause comuni e profonde della crisi,” which are to be found “piú che in questo o quell'avvenimento particolare, nell'animo stesso dell'uomo” (11). What he finds in the human mind is a profound fear of the primitive, threatening force that he terms “il sacro,” which he defines as: “[i]l senso, e il terrore, della trascendenza dell'indistinto, lo spavento dell'indeterminato in chi è nello sforzo di autocrearsi e di seperarsi” (24). In other words, the “sacro” is an instinctive awareness, inherent in all humans, of our connection with the mysterious totality of creation, an innate religious impulse that inspires at once a sense of connectedness and a sense of terror. The sacred engenders terror in humans, according to Levi, precisely because it puts us in touch with the “indistinto originario,” the primordial chaos that preexists human consciousness and out of which we are all born.

Innate in every human, argues Levi, are two contradictory instincts. On the one hand, there is the instinct to emerge from the “indistinto originario,” to establish an individual identity and thus become distinct from the masses. At the same time, we are constantly driven by an obscure need to be absorbed back into the “indistinto originario,” which, given its premise of a universal and impersonal preconscious human experience, is not unlike Jung's collective unconscious:

Esiste un indistinto originario, comune agli uomini tutti, fluente nell'eternità, natura di ogni aspetto del mondo, memoria di ogni tempo del mondo. Da questo indistinto partono gli individui, mossi da una oscura libertà a staccarsene per prender forma, per individuarsi—e continuamente riportati da una oscura necessità a riattacarsi e fondersi in lui.


Both instincts are imbued by Levi with positive and negative aspects. To remain submerged within the indifferentiated masses is to remain without a voice or individual identity, trapped in a “mistica oscurità bestiale” (23). Yet the individual who is cut off completely from the primordial spirit of the “indifferenziato,” who does not maintain a bond with the roots common to all humanity and to all existence, finds himself lost in a “vuota ragione egoistica” (23), alienated in a vain and abstract freedom, isolated from humanity. He is, in other words, one who feels no connection with the myths of his own ancestral past, a connection which, for Levi, is a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

This dichtomy between the indifferentiated masses and the differentiated individual is fundamental to the structure of Paura della libertà. It is a dichotomy that is relevant both in historical terms, in the evolution of the species, and in existential terms, in the evolution of the individual. What hinders the evolution from “massa” to “individuo” is fear of the sacred, which impinges on the manner in which humans relate to each other, both on the interpersonal and societal levels. Paradoxically, every human relationship is “sacro e religioso” (24), requiring an identity of the “I” with the other. That identity with the other is possible only when our common humanity is acknowledged, which means a return to the mysterious and intimidating territory of the “indistinto originario.” Thus the sense of fear that hinders human rapport. Fear of freedom, then, is the fear of confronting our own humanity, which can be known only through the process of self-awareness that distinguishes the individual from the anonymity of the “indistinto originario.” To avoid the terrifying freedom and responsibility of individual consciousness, we revert to the distancing strategy of symbols and icons.

Among other things, Paura is about what humans do to avoid their fear of “il sacro.” One way to combat the fear of the unknown that threatens to engulf us, Levi concludes, is to give it a name, give it a structure, and deify it. In other words, turn the sacred into the sacrificial, transforming the ineffable into words, and myths into rituals. The concepts and rites of organized religion are, in effect, a defense against the mystery and terror of direct religious experience: “Religione è la sostituzione all'inesprimibile indifferenziato di simboli, di immagini reali e concrete, in modo da relegare il sacro fuori della coscienza …” (24). But the gods that are thus created out of fear impose their own demands on us, so that sacrifice is ultimately a blood sacrifice, both of the god, which must be killed to be safe for worship, and of the worshipper.

Though Levi's point of departure is his analysis of the process, common to all religions, of transforming the sacred into the sacrificial, his primary concern in Paura is with the analogous process adopted by the State, or more specifically by the totalitarian State. (In his preface, Levi specifies that Paura contains “una teoria del nazismo, anche se il nazismo non è una sola volta chiamato per nome” [12].) Within Paura, Levi's political analysis evolves organically from his thoughts on religion and the human condition in general. For Levi, the religion of blood is all-encompassing; it is political as well as religious. Like religious and social institutions, the State also creates divinities which demand human sacrifice:

Come la tribú e la famiglia e il patriziato divinizzati, cosí lo stato, in ogni sua forma piú complessa, quando non sia fatto di libertà o sottomesso ad altri ideali, ma sia esso stesso una divinità, un idolo che richiede l'adorazione, non può vivere che di sacrifici umani.


The requisite sacrifice is individual and collective, both requiring the loss of freedom and identity:

Sul piano individuale, il sacrificio necessario è la rinuncia all'autonomia, e una serie infinita di divieti e di rispetti, e il senso della giusta inaccessibilità delle funzioni statali. … Il segreto di Stato è allora veramente il segreto di un tempio: non si avvicinino i profani. Perché la facoltà di governarsi dell'uomo diventi idolo, la sua stessa umanità deve essere, a ogni momento, rifiutata ed espulsa, come cosa sacra, innominabile e vergognosa.

Sul piano sociale, il sacrificio necessario sarà una mutilazione di una parte della società. Un gruppo, una classe, una nazione dovranno forzatamente essere espulsi, essere considerati nemici, diventare stranieri per poter essere testimoni del dio, e vittime.


The individual, then, must sacrifice part of himself in order to deify the State. Essentially, Levi equates fascism, or more specifically its control over the masses, with the instinctive human fear of freedom. What is true of relations between individuals is also true of relations between the individual and the State. The allegiance of the masses to the totalitarian state is nothing less than a flight from the self, a means of avoiding the fear of confrontation with the self, without which there can be no sense of identity or freedom. The apparently contradictory title, Paura della libertà, says a great deal about the substance of the book. Freedom, one of the most cherished of human ideals, ironically engenders fear because the individualization that goes with that freedom requires a confrontation with the frightening reality of “il sacro.” That is why the State, by providing the idols that replace the awesome responsibility of choice and individuality, can placate the masses who, by subjecting themselves to that control, abdicate their potentiality to be free. Just as the individual ceases to idolize the father only when he achieves his own equal status as an adult, so too with the individual's rapport with the State:

La divinizzazione dello Stato (e la servitú che ne risulta) durerà finché non sarà finita l'infanzia sociale, finché ogni uomo, guardando in se stesso, non ritroverà, nella propria complessità, tutto lo Stato, e, nella propria libertà, la sua necessità.


For Levi fascism was not, as Croce had called it, a temporary abberation, a brief, violent interruption of the otherwise positive evolution of Italian society. Instead, he saw it as the logical outcome of a post-unification political and economic system whose values and ideals had atrophied over time, the consequence of a half-century of compromise and accommodation among Italy's ruling class. In a society which had lost faith in the promises of rationality and progress, fascism represented the other side of the coin, the emergence and exploitation of the irrational, infantile side of human nature. Levi's psychoanalytic interpretation of fascism—as the monster that emerges from the collective unconscious and rebels against the aridity of a moribund rationalism—while suggested in metaphoric terms in Paura, would be spelled out more explicitly in “Crisi di civiltà,” an article Levi wrote for the September 2, 1944 issue of La Nazione del popolo, the newspaper he was then editing:

La società che era sorta, ricca di un vigoroso individualismo, con i Diritti dell'Uomo, aveva perduto, dopo un secolo di straordinaria vitalità, le sue capacità creative. …

Il nazismo, e il fascismo … furono una rivolta interna delle forze irrazionali compresse in questo mondo sclerosato: il sussulto barbarico e infantile di una società moribonda. … Di fronte a un mondo inaridito di sola ragione essi suscitarono dal profondo dell'inconsciente collettivo6 gli antichi mostri, gli spaventosi idoli del sangue e della razza. Era il rovescio della medaglia: il mondo sotterraneo degli istinti caotici e della disperazione senza forma che si agitava sotto quell'altro mondo tutto determinato, ottimista e progressivo.

(Coraggio dei miti 53-54)

History, for Levi, is ultimately incomprehensible without an awareness of an “oscura necessità” (37) which renders all servitude voluntary, all victims sacred. At the root of what we call history is an obscure, irrational motivation that, because of our terror of the unknown, necessitates the creation of idols and gods, which in turn necessitate human sacrifice:7

Vagavano, secondo il mito, i primi uomini nella selva senza forma, finché si fermarono in certi luoghi, amarono certe donne, e adorarono certi dei. Vagano tuttora gli uomini nella eterna selva, e cercano una esterna certezza: una certezza che si paga con servitú e con morte.


Levi's vision of his world is predictably stark. The state-idol demands uniformity instead of spontaneity, obedience instead of creativity. Under the deadening effects of the “stato-idolo,” culture disintegrates. Creativity, the true sign of freedom for Levi, is possible only at the moment the individual distinguishes himself from the “massa.” The fascist state, with its insistence on the acceptance by the masses of its own idolatry, extinguishes that creativity and denigrates art to the level of propaganda:

Il linguaggio poetico è impossibile, e con esso l'arte e la cultura: esso deve essere sostituito dal linguaggio religioso, dal ritmo delle armi, dalla ripetibile certezza. L'architettura delle città diventa uniforme: … L'arte diventa monotona ripetizione, litania, quando non è sforzo disperato di impossibile libertà, nostalgia o speranza. Si perde il senso dei rapporti vivi, poiché essi sono tutti sostituiti da un solo rapporto simbolico e arbitrario. … La cultura … non ha piú senso, nella indistinzione della massa. Al suo posto sta il suo equivalente religioso, una totalitaria, arbitraria volontà di confondere, che si espande, come una materia, per propagazione, e che vale non per un valore, ma per un peso: la propaganda, la cultura della massa.


Yet, for all its starkness, Paura is ultimately not a chronicle of doom, but a prophecy of renewal. Though Levi looks into the abyss, he does not despair. On the eve of World War II, standing, as it were, on the border of hell, Carlo Levi does not see evil, nor does he believe in sin. What he sees is the psychology of fear as an instrument of oppression, both of the self and of others. What he writes in Paura is born of a skepticism of all established creeds, political and religious. In his opinion, the goal of sacrificial institutions, both Church and State, to dictate and subjugate is achieved to the extent people are willing to submit to that subjugation because of their innate fear of freedom. Ultimately, Levi's optimism will not allow him to give up hope that the cycle will end and the human spirit will emerge from the quiet servitude of indifferentiation. Convinced of the failure of the modern European myths of positivism and endless progress, Levi invokes ancient myths (including the Old Testament of his Hebraic heritage) as a counterbalance to the spiritual vacuum of his own age. In the prophetic Biblical tone that is characteristic of Levi's style throughout Paura, he writes: “Finché vi sono dieci uomini giusti, la città non viene distrutta” (114), and:

Babilonia la grande sarà distrutta, la città delle uccisioni e della schiavitú, del mistero e della religione. Il nuovo paradiso, il Gerusalemme celeste, è la riacquistata libertà.


And it is precisely in that dark realm of fear, in the terrifying realm of the sacred, that Levi finds hope for renewal and for limitless possibilities:

Una foresta, al principio dei tempi, era, secondo il racconto, sulla faccia della terra. Quella stessa prima foresta informe e piena di germi e di terrore, nera nasconditrice di ogni volto, portiamo in noi; … selva giovanile di possibilità illimitate.


In the “indifferentiated” zone of human existence, where the individual has neither been born nor sacrificed to the idols of the State, lies the potential for regeneration:

Nel profondo dell'uomo sta la buia notte; il sole splende sulle sue opere; e quando è tramontato, qualche stella o qualche barlume notturno testimoniano del domani. … Il terrore dei rapporti umani non può essere mai assoluto; la parola non mai del tutto ammutolita, la preghiera non mai l'unica espressione; la servitú non mai completa, la guerra non mai senza paci, lo Stato non mai completamente totalitario.


As has happened before, the chaos that seems to engulf the world may bear the seeds of new beginnings. Levi draws an implicit parallel between the “stato-idolo” of his time and that of the Roman Empire, which “toglieva ormai ai rapporti umani ogni carattere di libertà” (67). The dissolution of the Empire meant the death of the Latin language—“lingua sacra di una morta divinità imperiale” (68)—but also, in time, the gradual rebirth of freedom and of new poetic languages: “con l'incerto nascere della libertà, si venivano creando le nuove lingue poetiche” (68). The same pattern of death and rebirth may occur in the work of the individual artist, for whom a change in style reflects a need to cast off old, dead symbols in order to achieve a sense of freedom and creativity:

La maggior parte dei mutamenti di stile o di periodo di un artista, sono crisi religiose nei riguardi di una propria religione artistica privata: necessità di sbarazzarsi di vecchi simboli morti per creare nuovi miti, di uscire da una fissazione.


But freedom demands a confrontation with the terror of the sacred, which Levi identifies as both the continual negation of freedom and of art and, at the same time, the “generatore continuo della libertà e dell'arte” (21). The most creative moments, in both collective and individual history, occur when the individual emerges from the mass, yet retains contact with the fearful sense of the sacred:

… i soli momenti vivi nei singoli uomini, i soli periodi di alta civiltà nella storia, sono quelli in cui i due opposti processi di differenziazione e indifferenziazione trovano un punto di mediazione, e coesistono nell'atto creatore.


What is evident throughout Paura, and would prove to be a hallmark of Levi's future work, was an independence of spirit, a distrust of all authoritarian structures and symbols, and a freedom from any strict ideological posture. That refusal to adhere to any political dogma reflects one of the primary motifs of Paura: Levi's insistence on the primacy of autonomy and spontaneity over bureaucracy and conformity. Obvious in Levi's aversion to the monolithic power of the State is his passionate devotion to the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of local communities, both of which were to be recurring themes in his subsequent work: “Ogni autonomia, ogni atto creatore, è, per sua natura … nemico dello Stato, sacrilegio” (112).

Though Levi's political education was well-formulated before his exile—as I indicated at the outset of this essay—it is unlikely that Paura could have been written before, or without, his experience in Lucania. What he found in the peasant civilization of the South was an alternative to the ideology and practices of the fascist state, an alternative that lent itself to poetic expression. Against what he considered to be the deadening forces of fascist rhetoric and idolatry stood the discovery of a world which was not yet born, a world filled with unrealized potential for humanity. Against the bankruptcy of a civilization gone sour, Levi found the metaphor of a nascent civilization, uncorrupt and waiting to blossom, the “selva giovanile di possibilità illimitate” (38). Paura is the meeting ground of Levi's prior intellectual formation and his personal discovery of that other world, a merger of theory and experience that enabled him to crystallize his thinking in the book that would serve as the touchstone for everything he would write thereafter.


Paura della libertà both is and is not vintage Carlo Levi. It is in the sense that it reveals the breadth of his precocious intellectual interests, as well as certain characteristic concepts that Levi would adopt in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli and subsequent works: tension between rational and irrational, between civilization and history, on the one hand, and the prehistoric humanity of the “indifferenziato” and the “sacro” on the other. Paura anticipates Cristo in its struggle to comprehend the causes of a current reality. And, in both works, the image of the individual who has not yet been suffocated by history and the State represents the symbol of opposition to the rigid authority of the regime, as well as the hope of rebirth in the midst of what is, for Levi, the spent energy of European rationalism.

Paura, however, is unique among Levi's works for its abstractions, both in content and style.8 In his reflective effort to ponder the apparent chaos around him, Levi abandons himself to abstract language and to theoretical musings about the human condition. Notwithstanding its anti-fascist premise, Paura is a book written “dall'alto,” in an authoritative, almost aristocratic voice that is uncharacteristic of his subsequent works. One has to wonder why he did not write Cristo instead of Paura after his release from exile in Lucania. It is as if, following his return to relative freedom, he becomes again the intellectual, the man who is thoroughly familiar with French, German, and English culture, who is interested in film and occasionally writes screenplays. He seems to forget about his experience in Lucania and even stops painting pictures of Aliano and its residents.

Instead, he decides to write Paura, a long essay. What Levi would later couch in the concrete narrative of Cristo—the latent hope of renewal embodied by the timeless civilization of Lucania—is, in Paura, expressed in the abstract language of philosophical speculation. But Levi's strength is not in the systematic ordering of ideas required by the essay form. He is at his best in telling a story through images, color, and intuition, and when his point of departure is the concrete fact, such as his personal encounter with the world of Lucania. Though inspired by external circumstances, Paura is a book born in Levi's mind, the fruit of his political, intellectual, and artistic formation. In Cristo, Levi moves from abstract reflection to concrete description. In place of the dense conventionality of the aulic language of Paura, there emerges in Cristo the concrete language of narrative. But what makes Cristo distinctive is its sense of discovery, which could only come out of Levi's reflection on, and analysis of, his experience in that other world. The theoretical groundwork that made possible his awareness of the meaning of that other world is laid in Paura della libertà.

With the affection that writers often express for their minor works, in his later years Carlo Levi would refer to Paura as his most important book. His self-assessment is accurate, I think, in that Paura contains the nucleus of the world vision that would guide him throughout his subsequent works. As difficult a book as it may be, Paura is an important work to read if one cares to understand Levi's perception of the State, and of the human condition in general. In Paura, which provides insight into the philosophical framework that Levi had developed in his formative years, he synthesizes his thought into a more or less coherent whole. This consolidation of his intellectual background provided the theoretical framework that made it possible, eight years after his experience in Lucania, first to discover, through his memory, the meaning of that experience, and then to forge, from his memory, the narrative that brought order to that experience in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Paura clearly represents a watershed moment in Carlo Levi's development, a moment of synthesis in which he brings together the various elements of his cultural formation and fuses them with his own perceptions to formulate the personal vision that would serve as preface for all his subsequent work, as writer and as political activist.


  1. For a history of the anti-fascist press in Italy, see Rosengarten. The articles by Tedeschi and Contarino in L'età presente provide an overview of Italian anti-fascist essays and narrative. The segment devoted to Carlo Levi includes a brief discussion of Paura della libertà (144-45).

  2. Among the early reviews are those of Alatri, Bizzarri, and Bortone. More extensive analyses appeared later in Giammanco's essay, in the monographs by Falaschi (7-14) and Miccinesi (41-54), and in De Donato's Saggio (52-73), which provides the most extensive and insightful examination of Paura to date.

  3. In his preface to the first edition, Levi indicates that he wrote Paura della libertà “per me solo e senza progetti di pubblicazione” (11). All citations are from the 1975 reprint edition.

  4. Giammanco (245) identifies several thinkers whose influence is evident in Paura (including Vico, Freud, Jung, Bergson, Spengler, Jaspers, and Ortega y Gasset) and De Donato (52-60) provides a general analysis of Levi's intellectual formation relative to Paura. Both Falaschi and De Donato compare Paura to earlier works concerned with the crisis of western civilization, especially Huizinga's Crisi di civilità (Falaschi 8, De Donato 54) and Jung's Il problema psichico dell'uomo moderno (De Donato 55). Giammanco further notes that Levi's familiarity with a broad range of European intellectuals reveals “un'esperienza culturale che, in quei tempi in cui in Italia regnava un provincialismo piú spaventoso di quello di sempre, dava a Carlo Levi prospettive e termini di confronto assai piú ampi” (245).

  5. This second paragraph, with its allusions to discrimination and expulsion, has a particular relevance to Levi himself, both as a Jew and a political exile.

  6. De Donato (374) points out that the Jungian term “l'incosciente collettivo” had previously been used by Levi in his unpublished Quaderno di prigione, written in 1935.

  7. In his discussion of Paura, Falaschi derides Levi for “la forte vena irrazionalistica che ne pervade il pensiero” (10). He is also critical of what he considers Levi's apolitical analysis of fascism, particularly Levi's contrast between “massa” and “individuo differenziato,” which he considers “una strana, immobile dialettica” (9). Levi's ethical-social methodology is, Falaschi concludes, “l'unica forma possibile di intendere il meccanismo politico dei fatti per una forma mentis letterario” (12). De Donato, on the other hand, likens Levi's analysis of the totalitarian state to those of Croce, Mann, and Huizinga, “che vollero vedere nelle dittature borghesi un fenomeno che sfugge all'analisi delle categorie storiografiche, non spiegabili, o quanto meno non totalmente, come manifestazioni delle lotte di classe, nella fase dell'imperialismo, ma, per la loro stessa natura antitetica alla ragione in generale” (54). Nicola Carducci also argues convincingly against the criticism that Levi considered fascism strictly as a psychological phenomenon, citing in particular his social and political-economic analyses of the forties.

  8. It may be argued that the elusive style is due to the need to evade Fascist censorship, but that conclusion is contradicted by Levi's prefatory declaration that he wrote the book “per me solo e senza progetti di pubblicazione” (11).

Works Cited

Alatri, Paolo. “Carlo Levi: Paura della libertà.La Repubblica 16 marzo 1947: 3.

Bortone, Leone. “Carlo Levi: Paura della libertà.Il Ponte (giugno 1947): 5, 92-93.

Bizzarri, Aldo. “Un saggio di Carlo Levi.” La fiera letteraria (13 feb. 1947): 6-7.

Carducci, Nicola. “Tra rivoluzione e restaurazione: per una biografia intellettuale di Carlo Levi (1942-1948).” Misure critiche 43 (1982): 25-52.

De Donato, Gigliola. Saggio su Carlo Levi. Bari: De Donato, 1974.

Falaschi, Giovanni. Carlo Levi. Il Castoro 52. 1971. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1978.

Giammanco, Roberto. “Paura della libertà.Galleria 17 (1967): 243-49.

Levi, Carlo. Coraggio dei miti: Scritti contemporanei, 1922-1974. Ed. Gigliola De Donato. Bari: De Donato, 1975.

———. Paura della libertà. 1946. Reprint ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1975.

Miccinesi, Mario. Carlo Levi. Invito alla lettura 14. 3rd ed. Milano: Mursia, 1977.

Rosengarten, Frank. The Italian Anti-Fascist Press (1919-1945). Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1968.

Tedeschi, Marcella and Rosario Contarino, “Pubblicisti, saggisti e narratori dell'anti-fascismo.” Chapter 2 of L'età presente: Dal fascismo agli anni sessanta. Bari: Laterza, 1980. Vol. X, Part 1 of La letteratura italiana: Storia e testi.

David Ward (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19229

SOURCE: Ward, David. “Carlo Levi: From Croce to Vico.” In Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46, pp. 157-91. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ward examines Levi's journalistic and political writings and traces the development of his work.]


Succeeding Alberto Cianca, Carlo Levi was editor of L'Italia Libera (IL) from August 1945 until his resignation in February 1946 in the wake of the split that took place in the Action Party during its first postwar congress in Rome. Previously, while participating in the Tuscan CLN, Levi had written a number of leading articles for the Florence-based Resistance newspaper Nazione del popolo (NdP). Over a span of eighteen months, Levi contributed at least seventy-five articles, signed and unsigned, to both newspapers, relatively few of which have been republished elsewhere.1

Many of his articles rehearse Action Party themes and analyses that we have already had occasion to observe: that the party was a newcomer to the political scene, free from the pre-Fascist legacy that still trammeled other parties; that Fascism itself was the inevitable result of the inadequacies of pre-Fascist Liberal Italy; that the seeds of a new form of fascism lay in the Liberal Party's insistent harking back to pre-Fascist Italy as the model on which to build the post-Fascist nation; and that the Resistance experience signaled the possible beginning of a new historical course that owed nothing to and effected a deep rupture with Italy's past. For example, in greeting the participants at the congress that was to result in its downfall, Levi writes that the Action Party, unlike others, “whose mental laziness keeps them attached to traditional schemes and inherited mythologies,” takes up radically new positions that have not yet been “exhausted by time.” Nor, Levi goes on, does the Action Party limit itself to repeating formulas “rubbed smooth by overuse, like pebbles made round by flowing water.”2 As to fascism, Levi wrote in an article entitled, significantly, “Rompere con il passato” (“Break with the past”), published in January 1946, a month or so after the fall of the Parri government, it “did not fall from the sky like a sudden meteor, but was the fruit of half a century of compromises and shortcomings.” Italy's great problem, he goes on, was that it had never had a “modern, active bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie the country did have had been born out of compromise with the forces of the old regime and under the aegis of the monarchy. Developed through protectionism and the rifling of the state's coffers, the bourgeoisie had produced a state in which the lower classes were excluded and absent from its formation and life. This was a state that did not come of popular conquest, and it had established so antidemocratic a political culture that it became the perfect instrument with which to welcome the totalitarian experience of fascism.3

Against the Crocean notion of both fascism and, as we shall see shortly, Resistance as parenthetical phenomena, Levi writes of those Partisans for whom “fascism was not an episode to be shrugged off, as a dog does with water after a bath, to take up once again the vices and errors of before. Rather, it was a fundamental experience that brought to light and changed the terms of our country's deep problems, staking a claim like never before for the need of a new liberty.”4

Also emerging from the pages of Levi's journalistic writings, however, is an analysis of the origins of fascism that goes well beyond that put forward by any other Action Party intellectual. Of particular importance in this regard is Levi's cutting critique of not only Italy's but also the entire Western world's past and history. So deep does this critique cut that one critic, Dominique Fernandez, has spoken of Levi's quest “against Western man.”5 We find a clear example of this tendency in “Firenze libera!” (“Free Florence!”), the final article Levi wrote for NdP to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of Florence in August 1945. In the article, it becomes clear that, for Levi, the unprecedented experience of the Florentine Resistance is largely unconnected with the city's past. In Florence, something new and unique had happened, a new type of political subject had been created, amid, and even perhaps driven by, the city's isolation under Nazi occupation from the rest of Italy. This interstice had created a unique opportunity. Instead of relying on inherited forms of self-government, the Florentine Partisans had created their own to meet their specific needs. The resources on which the city drew, what Levi calls the universal spirit with which the city had resisted the Nazis, did not come from the inspiration given them by Florence's past. “This Ducal city,” he writes, “which had fallen asleep in the lazy shadows of its glorious buildings,” had been awoken by a real sense of “lived history” that “one could feel in the air, and that did not come, this time, from memories. Nor did it come from towers or palaces, but from living men, and from those who died for their cause.” The Florentine Resistance experience, then, was not, as Levi saw it, the continuation of the city's past history, nor were the new forms of self-government the city gave itself based on old models. Rather, the Florentine Resistance experience had broken with the past and had created something entirely new, unique, and without precedent:

Florence had to invent the Partisan war, the war in the city, the Liberation Committees as organs of government. These were discoveries born out of necessity, because they did not come from the plans of a few enlightened men, but from the common will of a people freeing itself. In its new born liberty, paid for with blood, the people wanted to express themselves and did so for the first time with self-government.6

Levi's reservations about the ability of the past to provide the present with viable models also animate his critique of Italy's, particularly Liberal Italy's, Risorgimento legacy. In one of his early essays, published in Rivoluzione liberale (Liberal revolution) in 1922, he condemns Liberal Antonio Salandro's reliance on a Risorgimento model that had become “the predetermined form on which we should fashion not only our present, but also our future state life, as if that were the sacred tablets of the law from which everything and everyone must take form.”7 As the quotation suggests, Levi's reading of the Risorgimento period was very much in step with that of Antonio Gramsci. For both, the Risorgimento had resulted not so much in the unification of Italy as a single state, as in the attempt to extend Piedmont's hegemony over the whole country, even to those regions where the Piedmont model was plainly inapplicable.8 Among Levi's personal papers, now held at the Archivio nazionale dello Stato (Italian National State Archive) in Rome, there is lodged a series of notes and pamphlets that bear on the Piedmont occupation of Sicily. One of the pamphlets bears the title Un buco nell'acqua: ovvero Le debolezze, le malizie, gl' imbrogli, li errori, e le camorre in varie amministrazioni della Sicilia. Frammenti di scandalosa cronaca contemporanea (A hole in the water, or, the weaknesses, the maliciousness, the tricks, the mistakes and the mafias in various Sicilian administrations. Fragments of a scandalous contemporary chronicle), written by Gaetano Marini.9 Marini was a Piedmont official who had the unenviable task of introducing the metric system of weights and measures to Sicily. This, evidently, was no easy task. His pamphlet, which turns into a vicious attack on all things Sicilian, chronicles the resistance to his attempts and stands as testimony to the huge cultural gap that existed between the Piedmontese aim to standardize Italy on the basis of its own system and the reception that project met. I have no knowledge of what intentions Levi had for this material, which also includes a pamphlet entitled La Madonna di Saletta. Invocazione Siciliana contro i Garibaldini (The Saletta madonna. Sicilian invocation against the Garibaldini) by Nicolosi di Sciacca and contains material on Sicilian resistance to the Risorgimento forces. It seems likely, however, that Levi's interest in the matter lay in the same incompatibility between cultures he had denounced in his first novel, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli), apropos of Fascist attempts to standardize across the whole country, among other things, agricultural policy.10

But Levi does not limit his critique of history to the Risorgimento or Fascist periods in Italy's recent past. In fact, it is hard to find any historical period at all which he treats with any admiration. The only strong enthusiasm I have found expressed for any periods is for that of the Provençal courts and their troubadours and that of the Sweet New Style expressed parenthetically in his Paura della libertà (Fear of liberty).11 It is, in fact, with this short, obscure, and repetitive text, written while Levi was in exile in France as WWII was breaking out, that he offers his diagnosis of fascism as the inherent disease of all Western civilization.12

Informed by his readings and the language of Vico and the Old Testament, Levi's book is a very ambitious attempt to locate the origins of the flaw in humankind that has led it, in the case of Western Europe, to accept and welcome a phenomenon like fascism. As the title of the book suggests, it is in humankind's generalized fear of its own liberty that the key to the question lies. Unlike many theories that seek to explain fascism, Levi's pays no attention at all to economic factors.13 Rather, the cornerstone of Levi's theories lies in humankind's fear of its inherently creative powers. Yet, it is in those powers that humankind's potential for happiness and liberty lie. By marshaling our creative forces, we can forge for ourselves a unique identity that allows us to differentiate ourselves from the other equally unique identities forged by our fellow human beings. To argue this, Levi goes back to a state, which he calls the originary indeterminate state (indistinto originario): “There exists, common to all men, an originary indeterminate state flowing in eternity, the nature of every aspect of the world, spirit of every being in the world, memory of all time in the world” (23). Levi also illustrates the concept by way of reference to Vico's forest: “A Forest, in the beginning, according to the story, covered the face of the earth. We carry that very first Forest, formless and full of buds and terror, the black hiding-place of all time within us. From it the journey begins” (138).

The journey, then, is away from the state of indeterminate formlessness in the primitive magma of the forest, and toward form. This, however, is not a process which takes place once-and-for-all at the beginning of a life, nor does it set the self up for what it will eternally be. Rather, for Levi, the process of self-differentiation is an endlessly renewed and self-renewing creative experience: “All men are born out of chaos, and they can regenerate themselves in that chaos” (23). Humankind's initial desire to seek form out of the formless chaos into which it is born is its first inkling of its possible liberty: “Individuals begin their journey from this indistinct state, moved by a dark desire to detach themselves from it in order to take on form, to become individuals.” But once individuals have differentiated themselves from the indeterminate magma, they are always drawn back to the state from whence they came to regenerate and recreate themselves in an ongoing process of birth and rebirth. Individuals are, then, “continually pulled back by a dark need to reattach themselves and dissolve themselves in it” (23). The creative self's authentic mode of being lies, therefore, in a state that includes both differentiation and nondifferentiation in the same creative act: “The only living moments in humankind, the only periods of high civilization in history are those in which the two opposing processes of differentiation and non-differentiation coexist in the creative act” (23). To effect sheer transcendence of the indeterminate magma is to bring the self to a realm of pure and abstract reason; not to effect any transcendence at all is to give oneself over to the beast. The process of birth and rebirth is, writes Levi, not to be thought of in terms of death. Quite the opposite. It is the essence of life. Death is when one ignores the process of regeneration that is inherent to authentic living: “This effort stands between two deaths: the prenatal chaotic one, and the natural definitive one. But the only true death is the complete separation from the flux of non-differentiation. That is, empty egotistical reason, abstract liberty. And, at the other extreme, the complete inability to differentiate oneself. The mystical, beast-like obscurity, slavery to the inexpressible” (23).

For Levi, then, both extremes of the polarity serve a purpose: on the one hand, creative differentiation in order to affirm ourselves as individuals, and on the other, a beneficial and necessary return to the magma as an antidote to reason's dangerous excesses. Underlying Levi's thought on these pages are two considerations that go to the heart of his critique of Western civilization: first, his conviction of the inauthenticity of life when it is governed by inherited codes and practices, and second, his polemic with the modernist conception of history as a linear narrative of ongoing emancipation and progress. For Levi, the creative acts with which individuals extricate themselves from the indeterminate state can be deemed authentic only when they are unique and fit the needs of the contingencies of individuals or groups of individuals. Whether in the fields of art, language, politics or religion, Levi is always convinced that the creative actions of individuals must be determined by the specific circumstances in which individuals find themselves. When, on the other hand, individuals seek solutions to given problems by recourse to preexisting codes or models imposed from above by schools or authorities, or inherited from tradition, then, humankind renounces the creative gift inherent to it and chooses to limit its own liberty.

Levi sees one of the greatest threats to liberty in religion, which he considers a retreat into a safe, reassuring haven made of “rituals … formulas, evocations, and prayers” (68). Worse still, humankind's fear of its creative faculties pushes it into accepting the limits imposed on its freedom by the codes of this or that cult. Religion is, then, “an act of faith in certain forms that have become symbolic and divine: a renunciation of free, dangerous creativity in order to reach certainty through sacrifice.” Against the unlimited possibilities of human creativity,

religion is the individualizing limitation of that which has no form, symbolic fixation of that which is indeterminate. … Religious language is born of the need for stability and certainty. The religious image or word, in its limits, replace an awesome reality. … Religious expression is then the opposite of poetic expression. The one is the symbolic limitation of the universal, the other its concrete expression; the one is the certain manifestation of a liberating and divine slavery, the other the very voice of human liberty; the one is fixed ritual, the other mythology.


In politics, the same thinking leads Levi to distrust any course of political action that is tied to the dictates of a given ideology. As Dominique Fernandez has pointed out, Levi is not interested in the applicability of formulas to a variety of situations but in the unicity of experience and how life can be constituted by a series of first times, each one unique and contingent on the specifics of given circumstances and needs. What interests him, then, is “that precarious moment of the discovery of self by men and women … the point of balance between primitive confusion and the timid and proud awakening of consciousness, the mystery of birth and the coming of a new world.”14 Although Levi himself is not always consistent in his own choice of terminology, the master metaphor of artistic activity is not that of finding but that of inventing, creating: “Poetry is the invention of truth, invention or the creation for the first time. It is neither repeatable nor repeated: it is the moment in which expression coincides with reality for the first time. I prefer to say invention, rather than discovery, because discovery implies something external that is prior to its uncovering. Invention puts emphasis on the creative character of the relationship with things.”15

Creativity also spills over into cultural politics. In his involvement with the political organization of the peasant movement in Italy's backward agricultural South, Levi is, on the one hand, ready to admit the crucial importance of the writings of Antonio Gramsci, the great theorist of an alliance between Northern workers and Southern peasants. On the other, however, he is at pains to point out that Gramsci's thought should not be taken as an orthodoxy good for all times and places. Indeed, to treat Gramsci in this manner is to misunderstand the lesson of liberty his example has left us:

Gramsci [was] a great creator of thought … a great creator of culture and, above all, … a great creator, discoverer, inventor and champion of liberty. … But one cannot be, by definition, orthodox Gramscians, because orthodoxy is in contradiction with the very quality of Gramsci's thought. One cannot be an orthodox Gramscian, one cannot adopt his formulas. What we can do is follow his method of liberty and historical investigation.16

The crucial importance of recognizing the unicity of local circumstances, and tailoring one's creative responses to match those circumstances, also explains Levi's reluctance to embrace the modernist idea of history as ongoing narrative of progress. Anticipating elements of the postmodernist critique of history as emancipatory narrative, Levi develops a pluralized notion of history as histories, each one belonging to and reflective of different social realities.17 Spearheaded by what has often been considered to be civilization's center and most advanced point of progress—Western European man—the idea of history as master narrative of the world, as a unitary process toward ever greater liberty, has been fundamental to modernist thinking, into which systems of thought and belief as disparate as Marxism and Christianity have bought.

Levi is a forthright critic of the Western notion of history and is quick to denounce the damage its colonization has done to cultures on its margins. The peasant culture of Lucania, where Levi was exiled in the 1930s on account of his anti-Fascist activities in Turin, was of interest to him precisely because it had remained immune to history. Indeed, it was the peasants' immunity from the codes of conduct and figures of thought mandated by history that had preserved in them the creativity to solve the contingent problems they came across in the course of their daily lives:

Since peasant civilization is placed at the limits of the indeterminate state it continues to live in that ambiguous region in which for the first time the individual separated himself, took form and consciousness of himself. All around there is always present and impending the sense of sacrality, of the original indistinct state where every action, word and image have the character of things thought for the first time … an affirmation of liberty.18

The absence of history from peasant life is also underscored in the wonderful lines we read on the opening page of Christ: “Christ never arrived here, nor have time, nor the sense of an individual soul, nor hope, nor the connection between cause and effect, reason and history. Christ never arrived here, just as the Romans never arrived … nor the Greeks.”19

Against a view that sees, as he puts it in the novel's opening lines, “what we are used to calling History” as a linear narrative of progress, Levi goes back to an older view based on repeated cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.20 His reservations about history as master narrative are not only provoked by his apprehension of the inapplicability of totalizing models to marginal communities, but also by something more. In the cyclical view of time he finds a beneficial and humbling contact with death that is entirely absent from the progressive view. In an anonymous newspaper article he wrote for NdP in 1944, he speaks of the time “when human progress seemed necessary and endless, and when we had forgotten about death.”21 For Levi, one of the most beneficial aspects of the Resistance was that, in making plain the risk of losing their own life and in the actual deaths of their comrades, men and women were brought face-to-face with the experience of death. The experience is beneficial because it acts as a timely reminder that all things human are precarious, and that nothing lasts for ever, even that which appears to be built on the most robust of foundations. At the same time, the experience also clears the way for men and women to question those structures that had until then governed their lives. Referring to the Resistance in an anonymous article dated December 1945, Levi writes: “Since then the world has seen a revolution that has changed every value, created new forces, and put before the eyes of everyone the experience of death, which had been forgotten for such a long time. It has placed everyone before the need to revise everything that had traditionally been accepted.”22

Life, then, for Levi is not to be led according to a single overarching narrative that stretches out from the beginning of a life until its end, but according to a series of phases, each one of which begins and ends within a life to give rise to a new phase. Writing in the 25 December 1944 edition of NdP, Levi speaks of Christmas as the emblem of the rebirth “that happens eternally in time and in each man if, stopping in the night of his journey, under a new star, he is able to throw away from himself the old man.”23 In Christ, we find a beautiful passage offering a perfect illustration of the liberating effect authentic contact with death produces. Here, called to cure an old man dying of a perforated appendix, Carlo finds he can do nothing except offer comfort. As the man lays dying in an adjoining room Carlo listens to his cries:

From the door the continuous lament of the dying man reached me: “Jesus, help me, Jesus, help me, Doctor, help me,” like a litany of uninterrupted anguish, with the whisper of the women's prayers. … Death was in the house: I loved those peasants, I felt their pain and the humiliation of my inadequacy. Why then did such a great peace descend on me? I felt as if I was separate from every thing, from every place, remote from any determination, lost, outside time, in an infinite elsewhere. I felt concealed, unknown to men, hidden like a bud under the bark of a tree. I turned my ear to the night and I felt as if I had suddenly entered the very heart of the world. An immense happiness that I had never before experienced was in me, and filled me completely, the flowing sense of an infinite plenitude.24

The original indeterminate state, to which Carlo here returns, is not an absolute beginning. Rather, it is a cyclical phenomenon, a repeated moment that takes place both in history and in an individual's life. Through his proximity to the experience of death, Levi is returned to a condition akin to that of the originary indeterminate state of which he had written in Fear. His return to this state is the enabling condition for a new birth and new creative activity, as he feels an immense plenitude welling up within him—a bud under the bark of a tree waiting to burst through and blossom. In the fusion of love making, the self can also be returned to the “black wood, full of convulsions and indistinct noises. … Only in the eternal, endless night is there the sacred formlessness of love. And the face of the beloved has the color of the night. Complete fusion does not know liberty, nor will, nor gods, only the dark necessity of the blind originary abyss.”25 For Levi, such returns are part of the fabric of authentic living. Indeed, in his own life we can identify such moments: his time spent in prison, for example, which, he writes in a letter, “can perhaps represent a beneficial return to the originary indeterminate state” out of which his own creativity will lift him: “If nothing is given to me I will have to give everything, reconstruct, extracting the terms and the distinctions from within myself and, without bricks and mortar rebuild the city, and once it is built, inhabit it actively.”26 A second return might be represented by his exile in France in the 1930s, when he wrote Fear; a third by his experience with the peasants in Lucania; and a fourth, perhaps, by his period of blindness in the final years of his life, to which the posthumous volume of notes entitled Quaderno a cancelli (Gated notebook) testifies.27

Yet, returns to the originary indeterminate state are not only personal but also historical. There come times in history when a given period runs its course, and the society, customs, and culture it had founded collapse. The years around the fall of Fascism, Italy's double occupation, the Resistance, and the chance to rebuild from new foundations represent, for Levi, one of these moments. The historical course that had led to pre-Fascist Italy and Fascism “had lost its creative abilities after a century of extraordinary vitality. The idea of the individual, which had been its base, had become purely rationalistic; the idea of liberty purely formal. The sense of a living connection between individual and State, entities which were schematic and allowed for no mediation, had been lost.”28

The terrible chaos and confusion that had rocked Italy in this transition phase were, paradoxically, propitious to a new beginning. The fall of Fascism, the war, and the dislocation experienced in all fields of life had swept away the ingrained habits of an entire society. If ever history had presented Italy with a blank page on which to recreate itself, this was it. There had been a

complete turnaround in the habits, customs, inherited ideals, relationships between classes, different parts of Italy, and between city and country; the economic and moral bases of life. All the old problems of our national life are now posited on a different basis. They need to be taken up from the beginning, and can at last find a solution, unless we allow ourselves to be suffocated by the residues of a dead past.29

Or, as he put it in September 1944:

Families have been dispersed, houses devastated, property destroyed, states overturned. If these ruins were only material the world would quickly go back to what it was. But the old sense of the family has been lost, the old sense of home has changed, the old sense of property no longer has the validity it once had, the old sense of the State has lost all power. And something deeper has changed in men's souls, something which is difficult to define, but which is expressed unconsciously in every act, every word, every gesture: the very vision of the world, the sense of the relationship of people with each other, with things and with destiny.30

Yet, a question remained. Since only those parts of Italy that had experienced vast dislocation presented propitious conditions for a new start, what of those other areas, Rome and the entire South, where daily life had been far less disrupted? This, indeed, was to be one of the challenges that the Action Party, once ensconced in the Roman corridors of power after the heady atmosphere of Resistance life, was asked to face and was unable to meet. Those areas of Italy that had not experienced the new climate created by the Resistance were cause for great concern. There, no new Northern wind, as the Resistance came to be known, had blown away the structures of the pre-Fascist state. In his article commemorating the liberation of Florence, Levi writes, “The peasants in the South had not been able to become Partisans, nor become aware of their own civil worth through the war. The political and social problem of the South came from this continued and aggravated lack of participation.” The same obtained for the capital: “Rome had been liberated without a struggle, and remained, despite the efforts of the few, the eternal bureaucratic ruin.” Indeed, it was to be the Action Party's traumatic impact upon the Roman corridors of power, and its own inability to replace old modes of government with new ones that was to contribute to its demise.31

These reservations were very much to the fore in the Actionists' thoughts, especially Levi's. He was mindful of the decrepit bourgeois class he had occasion to experience in the South during his exile. Nevertheless, the overwhelming feeling was of great optimism. For Levi especially, this was a time when the creative gift that is the patrimony of all humankind to forge form out of nothingness could be given full rein. Creativity could now act as an antidote to a world which had become “too mechanized” and separated from its inherent inventive capacities. We have already noted how the Tuscan Partisans in Florence had invented governing institutions to meet their specific needs. For Levi, in the Italy of 1944 and 1945, creativity was the order of the day and was to inform the entire work of reconstruction. Liberty, he writes in NdP, is a “continually creative activity”; the CLNs were the fruit of “creative spontaneity”; the Resistance itself was “a young and creative popular force”; the Constituent Assembly, which was to write Italy's postwar constitution, was a “work of spontaneous creation … in a period which breaks its links with previous law.” It was in this sense that the Assembly was also a poetic moment which could rightly be compared to the “work of the grammarians who elaborate into precise laws the as yet uncertain forms of a new language. Or better: that of a great writer who first chooses and then puts into place with the authority of his poetry, in the still changing language of the people, what will remain its definitive forms.”32

For Levi, as indeed for the Actionists in general, this was a period of radical change, a literal rewriting of the laws which had governed pre-Fascist and Fascist Italy. For this reason, they were very aware of the need to underline the qualitative break with present and past they wanted to make, as well as to guard against the reemergence on the political scene of personalities who had been most involved with Fascism. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Action Party's conviction of the need for a political purge of these elements was motivated by its desire to effect a break with Italy's past. It was for this same reason that many Actionists objected to the claims made in Liberal circles that once the Fascist regime had fallen the anti-Fascist movement no longer had a reason to exist.33 Echoing Rosselli's contention that the anti-Fascist movement was not merely negative and reactive to fascism, many Actionists insisted on its positive connotations as a movement going well beyond opposition to Fascism as a regime (or as a parenthesis) and digging deep into the fabric and hidden recesses of Italian and European society, where the seeds of Fascist culture lay dormant: “We are anti-Fascists not only because we are against that series of phenomena that we call Fascism, but because we are for something that Fascism denies and offends, and violently prevents us from pursuing. … [O]ur anti-Fascism implies therefore a positive faith, the positing of a new world against an old world that generated Fascism.”34

Following Rosselli, Levi wrote in December 1944 of the need to guard against conservative tendencies within the anti-Fascist political parties themselves. He underlines that through the war not only must Nazism and fascism disappear, but also “the entire old European world and its insoluble antitheses, its schemes which have been emptied in the course of history, its state and national idols, its ancient ruling classes incapable of renewal, its contradictory political, economic, moral and aesthetic concepts, its impotent thirst for religion, its inability to reach full human unity.” Drawing on one of the founding notions of Fear, he goes on to say that a limited notion of antifascism must also die with the old world that is dying. “Fascism and anti-Fascism are still two sides of the same world,” he writes, and to complete the work of renewal being done by the traditional parties, the victors of the struggle must go beyond the antithetical vision that has animated the struggle thus far. “The victors know that they can only really win if they are able to renew themselves radically, if they can abandon the old man that lasts and resists in them, if they can found with truly self-liberating work the Europe of tomorrow.” If Italian antifascism proved unable to take this step of reneging its purely negative connotations, the consequences would be not radical revolution but “a simple, anti-historic restoration. Once the field was cleared of Fascism, conservative anti-Fascism would reconstitute the exact same world from which Fascism took origin. And Fascism would be reborn in a new form, in an endless series of wars and barbaric convulsions.”35

Although never stated in explicit terms, the referent of Levi's remarks is the Italian Liberal Party, one of the Action Party's allies in the anti-Fascist coalition. Many Actionists feared that the continued survival of the Liberal Party in the same form as it had existed in the pre-Fascist period preserved the cultural and political conditions that were propitious to the coming of fascism in another form. In his Le parole sono pietre (Words are stones), a book based on three journeys he made to Sicily, Levi reports an epigrammatic pun that circulated in anti-Fascist circles around 1944:

(In the fold of the flag
Beware: Fascists!)

The play is on the French word pli, which means “fold,” but is also the acronym of the Partito liberale italiano, PLI. Indeed, the firmest opposition to the Action Party's ambitious plans and, in particular, to the government headed by party leader Parri, came from Liberal circles. The opposition culminated in the delegitimatization and ultimately the forced resignation of Parri, an act that for many Actionists, Levi included, signaled the end of any chance of radical postwar renewal in Italy. The events leading up to, around, and beyond Parri's resignation are the subject of Levi's second novel, The Watch, to which I now turn.


The government headed by Parri held office from June until November 1945. Its failure to deliver on its promises of innovative reform can be attributed in part to the inability of Parri himself to provide effective leadership and guidance. As a Partisan leader, Parri, under the battle name Maurizio, had had a distinguished career, but his effective leadership in the field did not translate into effective leadership in the corridors of power. Greater responsibility for his government's demise, however, lay with the Liberal Party, which in November 1945 withdrew its support and, with the backing of the Christian Democrat leader Alcide De Gasperi, forced Parri's resignation. De Gasperi, in fact, was to be prime minister of the government that succeeded Parri's, inaugurating the long succession of Christian Democrat-led administrations, which has been the source of a great many of postwar Italy's political problems. In one of the intricate tactical moves that have always characterized, and even today continue to characterize, Italian politics, Parri received no support at all in his hour of need from his natural allies, the PCI and the Socialist Party. Both had already identified the intransigence of Parri and the Action Party as an obstacle to their project of forging alliances with the moderate forces of the bourgeoisie gathered around the Christian Democrat camp.37

If, as Foa has suggested, this PCI and Socialist alliance rang the death knell for Parri, it is the long and bitter polemic with the Liberal Party that emerges more forcibly from the Action Party press of the period. Many of the articles Levi wrote as editor of IL locate the principal ideological enemy fairly and squarely in the Liberal Party's attempts to delegitimate and limit the scope of action of Parri's government. Providing confirmation for the Actionists' thesis that they were the agents for the restoration of the pre-Fascist state, the Liberal strategy aimed to limit the political powers of the newly created bodies that were to be the institutional basis for post-Fascist society: first, the CLNs themselves, of which the Parri government was a direct emanation, and from which the Liberals sought to transfer political power back into the hands of the lieutenant, the stand-in for the disgraced monarch; and second, the Consulta, the body that was to prepare the way for Italy's new constitution, which the Liberals sought to deprive of operative powers, limiting it to the production of consultative documents.

The majority of Levi's articles for IL during the final months of 1945 take the form of attacks on Liberal Party policy. Focusing on the shift in the Liberals' internal balance of power, which resulted in greater influence for the party's Southern land-owning component, Levi underlines how Parri's government posed a threat to this constituency's vested interests. It was, he suggests, for this reason that the government's resignation had been forced.38 The newly created political situation also brought about a change in Levi's journalistic writings. There is, in fact, a distinct difference in tone between his articles for the NdP and those for IL. While the first had been optimistic, positive, in their celebration of how Resistance Italy had seemed to overcome the fear of liberty that had dogged Western civilization, the latter were defensive and, as the political crisis deepened, pessimistic about the chances of effecting any genuine renewal. Although Levi certainly does not ignore the importance of the Southern land owners' threatened vested interests, at the same time he suggests on more than one occasion that underlying their hostility to Parri was a more basic fear, the fear of liberty and humankind's ability to create new forms of government and self-regulation that his Resistance experience had led him to believe had been overcome. But what is precisely this fear of liberty? To answer this question we need to go back to his earlier Fear.

Although Fear is, on the one hand, a celebration of human creative powers, on the other, it is a tract on humankind's renunciation of those powers. Our creative powers and ability to invent new forms out of formlessness are, to human eyes, literally awesome. The history of Western civilization has been marked by a tendency to recoil away from these powers, from what Roberto Giammanco has called “the terror of man before his immense resources, the irresistible power of his own creations.” Turning away from this immense power, and intimidated at the rate at which the world continually creates and recreates itself, men and women have sought refuge in prepackaged solutions, in codified, inherited responses, “in old explanations, pathetic myths.”39

For Levi, this means, as we saw earlier, a shift from a sacred vision of things to a religious vision, and a religious vision always implies relegation, the substitution of preexisting symbols, images, and idols to fill the void left by the inability, unwillingness, or fear of the individual to create one's own world. “Religion is relegation. Relegation of the god into the realm of formulas, evocations, prayers to make sure that it doesn't follow its ungraspable nature and escape. The sacred, which is the very aspect of terror, becomes the law in order to save it from itself.”40 The same process of relegation also takes place in other fields. The greatest idol humankind has built for itself is the state. Levi saw the most tragic abdication of human responsibility in the Fascist state and the unquestioning adulation it demanded of its followers, which they willingly and freely repaid. Most damaging of all, and returning to one of the pillars of GL's political thought, Levi underlines how humankind's fear of liberty turned the potentially individual and unique person into a component of an anonymous, amorphous, indeterminate mass that had become easy prey for fascism. The valorization of the individual is a key concept for Levi. He was always reluctant to relinquish it and, even for contingent political reasons, he was unwilling to countenance any notion of mass. His ideological difficulties with the so-called mass political parties—the PCI, the Socialists, and the Christian Democrats—come from this reluctance.

The problem with mass parties was that they had developed a monolithic mode of thinking that did not allow them to see the subtleties and nuances that contributed to the formation of political and social reality. This monolithic mode of thinking had led them to theorize the rise of fascism as the result of the gargantuan clash between two opposing but innerly homogeneous groups. In January 1946, after the fall of Parri's government, and with the Action Party in disarray looking for new allies to its Left, Levi took his distance from the Communist proposal of a vast democratic unity among like-thinking parties. Arguing that if the anti-Fascist parties were to elaborate an effective mass strategy, it must not replicate the limits of earlier monolithic thinking and be based on an idea of “differentiated mass,” Levi criticized the analysis of fascism advanced by Mauro Scoccimarro, a leading exponent of the PCI. Although he paid close attention to the role of the industrial and agrarian groups, Scoccimarro's analysis paid no attention at all to the smaller, more variegated group of the petite bourgeoisie. To see fascism only as a capitalist conspiracy, Levi goes on, is to misunderstand

that sense of multiplicity and complexity of the forces in play, the variety of interests that formed the knot from which totalitarianism was born. … What is lacking in his study is a consideration of the petite bourgeoisie whose attempt to conquer the state, together with the new mythologies which came from their inferiority complex, gave rise to the Right-wing revolution, the “petite bourgeois palingenesis,” Fascism and its state.41

These last remarks bear on Levi's conviction that the Fascist state, far from being the single effect of a conspiracy led by economic groups anxious to protect their own interests, is the logical outcome of a mass society gone mad. The masses' “most powerful of idols,” the state, has not only been imposed from above but has also come as a welcome relief to those individuals, “children of fear,” who are drawn to it in order to “forget themselves, to free themselves from themselves and from their fear.” Beneath the physical fear of the bombs and massacres of WWII, Levi locates a more deeply rooted fear: “The elementary fear of existence, of being free, the fear of the man that is in man. To those who are incapable of contact, incapable of liberty … their only recourse was the sterile solitude and the need to lose themselves in an amorphous collectivity.”42

Levi traces a direct line of continuity linking the ingrained fear of liberty with a mass culture and its culmination in fascism. He could not have stated this point in clearer terms. In an article bearing the same title as the book he had written a few years earlier, “Paura della libertà,” published in November 1944, he writes:

The fear of liberty is the sentiment that has generated fascism. For those who have the soul of a slave, the only peace, the only happiness is to have a master. And nothing is more difficult, and truly frightening, than the exercise of liberty. This explains the love of so many slaves for Mussolini, this mediocrity become god, made necessary to fill the void in the soul, and settle its sense of unease with a sense of restful certainty. For those who are born slaves, abdication from oneself is a beatific necessity.43

Levi goes on to offer a theory to explain the process by which fascism can appear to the masses as a beneficial, providential antidote to their own sense of loss and confusion. He calls this a process of “artificial crystallization,” which takes place not at the rational level but in the hidden recesses of the “uterine politics of the unformed masses, their uncertain terrors, unexpressed needs … ambitions and inferiority complexes that have found in fascism and Nazism their most recent and clamorous expression.” The process itself is very simple. In seeking a sense of certainty and stability with which to fill the void that their fear of liberty has left in them, the masses are drawn to the “man, name, formula” who has been most able to present himself to them in what seem to be the most convincing terms. Once this Mussolini or Hitler figure has conquered the confidence of the masses as the providential answer to their woes, the crystallization takes place. This process is not limited to right-wing dictators. Indeed, Levi sees some of the events of postwar Italy as attempts to crystallize public opinion around figures and bodies other than the CLNs and representatives of the Partisan movement: first, the formation of a “Lega per la difesa delle libertà democratiche” (League for the defense of democratic liberties) by the Liberal Party, in which their most presentable exponents were involved; and second, the appearance of the right-wing political movement “L'uomo qualunque” (The ordinary man), headed by Guglielmo Giannini.44 In this case, however, his lack of real political charisma, wrote Levi, would ensure that no long-lasting crystallization took place.45

It was to replace the monolithic national state, which had reached its apotheosis with fascism, that the Action Party elaborated its policy on local government. The policy envisaged the creation of a series of local, autonomous regions or provinces, each of which would make provision for the region's specific needs and demands. In other words, a state built from the bottom up, and not imposed from above, a state whose structures would have to be created by its citizens, and not inherited from past practices.

Levi speaks most vociferously of this project, which he held dear, in the final pages of Christ, where he expounds the question in terms of two irreconcilable cultures: the industrial, advanced culture of the North and Center, on the one hand, and the agricultural, backward culture of the South, on the other. The fruit of his time spent in exile was the firm conviction that an unbridgeable abyss separated North and Central Italy from the South. The negative consequences of this abyss had been exacerbated by two factors: first, the inability of the North to understand that the two cultures could not be assimilated,46 and second, the role of the degraded petite bourgeoisie of Southern villages. Fascism had only been the latest of a series of centralized, state-run attempts to arrogate the South to its methods and practices. For Levi, these colonial-like attempts to impose a foreign culture on the South are not only destined to fail but also have the effect of deepening the acrimony felt by the peasants toward the state and widening the gap that separates them from central government.

The situation is made even worse by the representatives of central government, the members of the degraded petite bourgeoisie of Southern society, who receive by far the worst treatment in Christ. In the 1930s, the petite bourgeoisie had declared its allegiance to Fascism, but the practice of their Fascism was nothing new, writes Levi. In their hands, Fascism was simply the contemporary form taken by a power struggle between bourgeoisie and peasants that had a long and deeply embedded history. Their antecedents had been allies of whichever political faction, Left, Right, or Center, held power at a given moment (30-31). It is this class that constitutes the real problem in the South. Any political solution elaborated to address the economic and social issues of the South that failed to dislodge this class from its position of power as local agents of a central government that has never understood the complexities of local situations is destined to result in the continuation, in amended form, of the “eternal Italian Fascism” (210).

Underlying Levi's attack on the inadequacies and nefarious effects of centralized forms of government is his refusal to accept the idea that historical development takes place according to the logic of the master/slave dialectic. As his remarks about “internal colonization” suggest, Levi sees the present relationship between city and country, center and margin, in terms analogous to that between first and third worlds (202; 209). The proposal which Levi launches from the pages of Christ for the creation of a new state of, by and for the peasants, based not on a single and totalizing centralized body, but on an “infinite number of autonomous units, an organic federation” is an implicit rejection of the first world's claim to be historically more advanced than the third (211). Levi's proposal, in fact, cuts to the heart of the logic by which colonization offers a justification of itself insofar as it is ultimately beneficial to the historically backward colonized, who are thus brought into the “evolutionary narrative of Western history.”47 Having seen how in Italy and Western Europe historically advanced countries had progressed only insofar as they had prepared the way for fascism, Levi elaborates an early theory of separate development. The new state these pages adumbrate must “allow the coexistence of two different cultures. The one must not oppress the other; the other must not be a weight on the one” (211).

To a great extent, however, this proposal, which was also part of the Action Party manifesto, remained a dead letter. As Levi also tells us in Christ, on a short trip back to Turin on the occasion of the death of a close relative, from conversations with his friends he discovered that the idea of a centralized state as “something transcendent … tyrannical or paternalistically provident, dictatorial or democratic, but always unitary, centralized and distant,” hovering over the infinite multiplicity of the country, was shared by representatives of all sectors, Left, Right and Center, of the political spectrum (207-8). All of them, in fact, whether they knew it or not, were “worshippers, idolizers of the State” (207).

The inability of even the most enlightened members of the Turin intelligentsia, probably the most advanced and creative laboratory of political culture Italy has ever known, to imagine a future country governed by a state in any fundamental way different from the present or previous ones, was a sign to Levi of the extent to which fear of the radically new had penetrated the highest and most sophisticated echelons of society. For a while, the heady atmosphere of the Resistance had led Levi to believe that this fear had been overcome. But as the dust settled and the task of governing postwar Italy got underway, Levi was to make some bitter discoveries. Elaboration of new forms of self-government was hindered not only by the structures of Rome's eternal bureaucratic ruin, deeply rooted in pre- and post-Fascist practices and codes, but also by less expected resistances and fears from within the Parri government, the Action Party, and even Levi himself.

Written between 1947 and 1949, in the months and years that followed the fall of Parri, The Watch is often cited as the novel that recounts the end of the Action Party's hopes for a post-Fascist Italy different from its pre-Fascist precursor. Indeed, one of the key scenes in the text is the press conference called by Parri to announce his resignation, in which he describes the toppling of his government as a “coup d'état.” Yet, to reduce The Watch to a chronicle of those events is to do an injustice to a text which goes far beyond the bounds of mere historical reconstruction. For one thing, the novel is structured in such a way as to be hardly recognizable as a conventional historical novel. Although it has a beginning and an end, and includes the figures who were making history at that time—Parri, De Gasperi, Togliatti, though they are never named as such—Levi also includes in his novel, and gives equal space to, a cast of characters normally found on the edges of history. In the course of its more than 300 pages, The Watch plots a meandering course that follows Levi's political and personal adventures in Rome and Naples over a three-day period in November 1945. Often interrupted by reminiscences of exile, childhood memories, and philosophizing along the lines of Levi's earlier Fear, the book contains an impossible number of characters and events by any conventional realistic literary canon. In the course of day 1, for example, we are introduced not only to the journalists who worked for IL but also to characters like Teresa the cigarette seller, groups of Partisans, Levi's friend Marco, his new neighbors Jolanda and Giovanni, Teo the porter, Palmira the alcoholic waitress, and many others. In addition to Parri's press conference in the Viminale and Carlo's long walk through the Traforo traffic tunnel in the company of two party comrades, the text tells of Carlo's dream of losing his watch; how the next day he actually broke his watch and attempted to have it fixed; the death of a young woman killed by an American jeep; lunch in the same small restaurant as a group of Polish soldiers; his trip to the poor and squalid Garbatella quarter to look for a certain Fanny, Marco's girlfriend, but of whose existence we have strong reason to doubt; an evening in an osteria with journalists and printers waiting for the electrical current to be restored; and Carlo's finding of a dead man and his barking dog on the steps leading to the apartment where he was going to sleep. Days 2 and 3 contain a trip to Naples, where Carlo visits his dying uncle; an attack by bandits; his return to Rome in the company of two of the ministers who had just resigned from Parri's government; and his temptation to pay a visit on Benedetto Croce, which he resists.

Many of the characters who people the text are recognizable as the protagonists of the political crisis of those final months of 1945. None of them, however, is identified by his or her real name. About the only characters to retain their real names are Croce and Vico, to whom I will return shortly. To help readers follow a text that is deeply imbued in the atmosphere and events of fifty years ago, Manlio Rossi Doria has furnished a who's who of some of the characters: Casorin and Moneta, two IL journalists, are Manlio Cancogni and Carlo Muscetta; Fede and Roselli, two leading exponents of the Action Party, are Vittorio Foa and Altiero Spinelli; Andrea Valente and Carmine Bianco, Carlo's companions on his walk through the Traforo, are Leo Valiani and Manlio Rossi Doria; Nardelli is Mario Alicata; Tempesti is Emilio Sereni, father of Clara, the contemporary novelist; La Torre is Ugo La Malfa; Rinaldi and Rattani are Orlando and Cattani, two of the Liberals responsible for bringing down the Parri government; and the “great poet” who pays a visit to the typography is Umberto Saba, whose daughter, who also appears briefly in The Watch, was to become Levi's companion in the final years of his life.48

In truth, none of the portraits is very flattering. Levi does not let his friendship with many of the above prevent him from pinpointing in their intellectual and political limits responsibility for failing to deliver on their promises. Levi, however, is on record as saying that these characters were not to be understood as exact replicas of the actual figures of that period. Rather, he has said, they are mixed and even counterfeited versions of those figures.49 Indeed, Levi uses many of the characters in the novel as a ventriloquist's dummy, expressing thoughts and reflections that are his. In providing a mixed panoply of the various characters and types in the political life of that period, Levi is suggesting less that the demise of the movement's hopes be ascribed to the limits of a given team of political personnel than that it be ascribed to the failure of a whole generation, himself included, to translate their aspirations into political reality. The reasons for this are the major thematic and philosophical thread of the entire novel.

Rather than with individual shortcomings, The Watch is concerned with a general question that Levi had already discussed in Fear: namely, the massive extent to which all aspects of daily life, be they political, personal, cultural, artistic, or social, are determined by adherence to preexisting, inherited codes and practices. Levi's apprehension that literature is largely dependent on adherence to such codes, and how that adherence leads to a representation of a partial, reduced version of reality, is a concern that invests the entire text. Furthermore, Levi also suggests that such codes determine not only literary activity but also the perceptions of the people and events we come across in our daily life, and so take on the form of agency. Commenting on the characters Casorin and Moneta, for example, Levi is at pains to point out the inadequacy of the portraits he has supplied of them. These, he says, represent only the one-thousandth part of what he knows and could say about them. In giving names to people, and in attempting to draw for ourselves concrete, stable, and recognizable images of them out of the “infinite reality” each human being is, we are forced to “cut out a small slice of that reality, we make a partial image … which we then force into our affairs, our time, our measure.”50 Knowing that the image we have created is partial and ignores “all the rest, all that we haven't said and must overlook, but which exists,” we are left with a feeling of loss about our ability to represent and apprehend reality (48). In this way, not only characters in literature but also the perception we have of people in our daily lives are like the images we see from the window of a passing train. These frozen instants belonging to a contingent moment of a life become the images with which we associate and summarize that person's entire being: “So, unintentionally, we make a character in a short story, a coloured fragment of a previously drawn mosaic, an element in an abstract game out of the boundless wave that is the real, out of a person who like us, identical to us, has no limits” (49).

Casorin makes a similar point in the literary discussion he has with Moneta in the newspaper office. His beef is with the form of the modern novel, in which he sees the dangerous abstraction that has blighted modernist culture: “The abstract novel was written and drawn in an abstract time. It begins and it ends, cut arbitrarily out of the world” (57). His argument then goes on to consider Levi's fundamental theme of mass: in the modern novel, “we have the individual and we have the masses, but there are no human relationships. Take this single, arid man, split him up into various schemes, make an object of him, make him more complicated with events, lock him up in a before and after and tell his story, if you can: but you'll always be a prisoner of abstraction” (57). This abstraction, he goes on, echoing the same line of thought which sees Nazi and Stalinist death camps as the inevitable result of reason gone mad, has led to the same dehumanization that made Auschwitz and Buchenwald possible: “This is the conclusion, the end of your novels, of your abstract reason … a piece of soap” (57). His final image is one that recurs throughout the text, that of the forest:

There is not only one blade of grass in a field. Not a tree, but a forest, where all the trees stand together. Not before and after, but together. Big and small, with the mushrooms and the bushes and the rocks and the dry leaves and the strawberries and the blackberries and the birds and the wild animals, and perhaps even the fairies and the nymphs and the wild boar and the poachers and the lost travellers, and who knows how many other things. The forest.


How adherence to such life-denying codes leads to the excessive disciplining of our apprehension of the total experience that is reality is illustrated in some of the many encounters Carlo has in the course of the novel. On moving to his new apartment, he meets Jolanda and Giovanni, the previous tenants' maid and her mysterious cousin. Jolanda has invented for herself an identity as the abandoned noble child born of a beautiful Spanish princess's illicit love affair. The identity she fabricates for herself owes nothing to anything she is or might be, but corresponds perfectly to the codes of noble living which she assumes have been accepted by all. A present-day version of Jolanda would perhaps live life according to the pseudo codes of high living transmitted by American afternoon television: “The starting point of her life was an invention made of imitations of invented and inexistent things, of unsupported appearances. She knew the world to which she claimed to belong only insofar as she had seen it from the bottom up, or through the key-hole, or on the basis of the laundry she washed” (225).

Her cousin Giovanni, who wears a blond wig and never takes off his dark glasses, is a functionary at the Ministry for Italian Africa, a unit set up under fascism to administer Italy's colonies. Because he only needs to go to work once a month, his hobbies of writing, composing, and drawing have become his main activities. Yet, like Jolanda, Giovanni too has constructed his creative activities around what he assumes to be unquestionable codes: “What was the world of the aristocracy for Jolanda was the world of art for Giovanni” (229).

In the world of politics, the same adherence to inherited and barely questioned practices has opened the door for the restoration of pre-Fascist Italy that many Actionists feared but were unable to prevent. In Levi's eyes, the main reason why the Action Party failed, once it had come to a position of executive power with the Parri government, was that, unable to elaborate new political codes and practices, it fell back on the old ones shared by more traditional parties. Thus, from a political organism that was potentially innovative, it was transformed into a replica of existing parties. In his autobiography, Vittorio Foa, who as Fede is pinpointed in the novel as one of the guiltier parties in embracing the ways of traditional politics, agrees with Levi's analysis. He writes: “Many of us fell in love with the techniques of politics. We got revenge on defeated Fascism by avidly rediscovering all the instruments that it had taken from us. We used them to the full: Parties, free press, congresses, meetings, contacts, conversations, tactics that were so refined as to exasperate us. We deluded ourselves into thinking we could defeat the restoration with its own arms.”51

For Levi, though, the conditions for the Action Party's defeat were already in place before the fall of Parri in November 1945. Already six months had passed since Liberation in April and the window of opportunity that the chaos of the war and the occupations had opened up had now been all but closed as old practices reestablished their hegemony and had the effect of blunting the ever-decreasing instances for radical renewal. After meeting his staff on his first day as editor of IL, the feigned interest shown by his colleagues as he expounds his plans for the newspaper reminds Carlo not so much of a political avant garde as a group of the signori he had met in Lucania. Far from the vital revolutionary context he had enjoyed in Tuscany, Carlo finds himself in a stagnant world of intrigue, petty jealousy, and infighting, especially so when he realizes that his appointment as editor is based less on his individual merits than on a compromise solution negotiated by the two warring factions within the party: “I felt that once again I had fallen into a stagnant pond of interests and intrigue the logic of which would always escape me. An impenetrable and closed world. … And it seemed to me as if I had gone back to a village in Lucania and to listen to the signori speak of thier eternal hatreds, their eternal boredom” (41-42).

Actually, Carlo's discovery of the stagnant reality of Rome politics is a replay of an experience he had had earlier while involved with the Tuscan Resistance. As one of the members of a CLN delegation representing all the parties that had fought together in Florence, Carlo had come to Rome to speak with the representatives of those same parties, which then made up liberated Italy's provisional government. As we have already had occasion to see in Levi's article “Firenze libera!,” the delegates brought to the meeting the optimism and creative spirit that had enabled the occupied city to resist and reconstitute its governmental and institutional life. In The Watch, Levi recalls those days when there seemed to be no gap between politicians and the needs and aspirations of the common people. Speaking of his arrival in Rome in late August 1945, Levi writes in The Watch: “I came directly from Florence. … A few hours earlier I had left that city where everyone seemed still to be living in the vivifying atmosphere of the Resistance, and where there was thought to be no difference between politicians and the common people” (31). But Levi's fear that the “active and creative freedom” (31) that pervaded Florence would not last long finds confirmation in the meeting between the local CLN and its national counterpart. The Tuscan delegation had brought with it a series of proposals, based on its own concrete experience of self-government, which it hoped the national CLN would find interesting and incorporate into its policy. The innovative aspect of its proposals was that it aimed to take the power to nominate prefects out of the hands of central government and give it to local organizations in such a way as to have prefects who would be sensitive to the grass-root needs of citizens. Although they were received by the national leaders of the parties in which the delegation's members militated, the members of the Tuscan delegation met nonetheless with a lukewarm response. Faced with proposals that would take power away from central government, even those ministers who owed their present status to their role in the Resistance struggle either turned them down immediately or assented in only the vaguest of terms. The episode took on the contours of an emblematic event for Levi, the clash between a living, creative marginal constituency and dull, arid power structures intent only on the cultivation of their own power base: “a different world, different interests, a different language in which everything was changed” (189). More disturbingly, some of the members of the Tuscan CLN delegation were to meet the same fate. On being transferred to Rome, “they gained greater experience and power, and forgot their earlier juvenile furor” (191).

In geographical terms, the optimism of the early CLN experience becomes pessimism with the shift from the series of local struggles that made up the Resistance, like Levi's Tuscan experience, to the centralized stalemate of national government in Rome. The Watch attempts to explain the failure of the Action Party project as the consequence of what happens when a movement clashes with the rigidity of centralized political structures. To have an idea of how Levi sees this process, we need to turn to chapter 8 of the text and the important conversation between Carlo, Andrea Valente (based on Leo Valiani), and Carmine Bianco (based on Manlio Rossi Doria). It takes place in the Traforo traffic tunnel immediately after Parri's announcement of his resignation.

Even if it may seem paradoxical to those who know the place, Levi describes the Traforo as if it were a modern-day version of Plato's cave: “an anonymous cave” (158), “like a grotto” (159), “that cave” (161)—in other words, a place of imprisonment where chained slaves, forced to look in a single direction, see only a series of shadows, half truths, which they mistake for truth itself. Like the cave, Levi's Traforo is also a place of reduced vision where “the rare lights … caused the white tiles to sparkle” (158), and of echoes where the three friends' “voices reverberated as they were thrown back into the vault and dissolved into a deafening hubbub” (158). It is also a place of diminished truthfulness. The closed spaces of the Traforo contrast with the open spaces of the “interminable streets” of Turin which, Carlo tells us as the conversation is about to begin, “seem made especially for peripatetic growth … which was full of an unconfined, endless power” (157). Against the open spaces of Turin, Carlo is now plunged into the dark Roman tunnel.

It is in this confined space, this “nowhere … outside of time” (158), that Andrea, to whom Levi entrusts many of his own thoughts, explains the Action Party's demise. Once arrived in Rome, following the creative freedom they enjoyed in Tuscany and elsewhere, the Actionists became, as it were, slaves to Rome-style politics, codes, and practices. This is without question the sense of Andrea's long and much-quoted speech in which he poses the question in linguistic terms: politics, he says, is made up of a conventional language that “rests on nothing” and is comprehensible only to those like Carlo, Andrea, and Carmine, who “one day decided to accept it once and for all” (159). This language, and here we find the most explicit reference to Plato's cave, forces us to “run after shadows” to touch something “which escapes us and runs away from us” (159). It is in this context that Andrea elaborates the theory of two modes of being represented by, on the one hand, the Contadini (peasants) and, on the other, the Luigini (petite bourgeoisie). The former are a loose, unorganized coalition that includes the real peasants who maintain an “adherence to things, a contact with animals. … [They are] the dark vital origin that is in each of us” (165). In addition to the peasants, also included are the enlightened factory and land owners, as well as the workers. Their distinguishing characteristic is their contact with things and their productivity. They are, in other words, the creative elements—poets who do not speak a conventional, worn-out language. On the other hand, the speakers of a worn-out language, the Luigini, are those who have a vested interest in continuing the present state of affairs, be they political, economic, or social. They are, and here Levi gives Andrea some lines that could have come out of Fear, “the great majority of the endless, unformed amoeba-like petite bourgeoisie, and all its species, sub-species and variations. They have their miseries, their inferiority complexes, their moralism and immoralism, wrong ambitions, their idolatrous fear. … They are the crowd of bureaucrats, the State workers, the banker clerks, the administrators etc.” (166-67). The militants in the Action Party, of course, were peasants. Their problem was, however, that the Luigini, in Andrea's words, “have the numbers, have the State, the Church, they have the political language” (167). If, then, the forms of politics are made in the image of the Luigini, in order that their voice be heard in a political context, the peasants are forced either into silence or to speak a language which is not theirs and which belongs to their ideological enemy. In this way, concludes Andrea, the Luigini have had an easy time co-opting the peasants to their way of thinking.

Andrea himself, as he freely admits, speaks the language of the Luigini perfectly (171), as his long exposition on the evils of the political situation testifies. The lucidity, the mathematical precision, the virile sense of certainty, the neat division of things into two opposing camps that informs his analysis has very little in common with “peasant” creativity. Andrea, in fact, may be considered an emblem of the failure of the Action Party project as it ran aground against the sandbars of Rome. Like those slaves who succeed in liberating themselves, Andrea believes he has seen not shadows but the forms themselves, and like the philosopher, he goes back into the cave to inform the less fortunate slaves and to show them the path toward liberty. But with the language he has Andrea use, Levi complicates the Platonic allegory and rereads it in a more pessimistic mode. Levi gives us reason enough to suspect that Andrea, far from being the free-thinking philosopher he believes himself to be, is in fact the worst of all slaves—that is, the slave who is convinced he is free, but who in reality is still prisoner to the same slave owner who seems to have given him his freedom. Although Andrea is well aware of how politicians, severed from contact with real things, chase shadows, he is perhaps less aware of the extent to which he too, as well as his party comrades, has fallen into the same insidious trap. If Andrea is indeed chasing shadows, then the value of the prophecies he makes in the Traforo also comes into question. Presented in such terms as a kind of Delphic oracle, “a sibyl's lair” (158), a place “suitable for prophetic words” (158), where Andrea is “animated by prophetic spirits” (166), the Traforo takes on once again the connotations of Greek myth. But the prophetic truths both Andrea and Carmine express are, in fact, little more than half truths. Andrea, for example, predicts that the recently created political situation would soon change, that the resuscitated old-style political parties would be destined to be replaced by an “infinity of autonomous organizations” (169), while Carmine is convinced that the new government led by Christian Democrat De Gasperi, which he disparagingly refers to as the “government of priests,” would only last a short while: “Events change quickly. If we were now in a phase of stasis we would soon start moving again. Even if we did have a government of priests it wouldn't last long. A month or two, maybe a year” (160).

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that neither of these prophecies even came close to predicting Italy's future. The traditional political parties certainly did not disappear and, as time passed, they exercised an ever stronger grip on all aspects of Italian society. Neither were they replaced by “autonomous organizations,” and De Gasperi's government of priests, far from being an interlude, heralded nearly fifty years of uninterrupted Christian Democrat involvement in single-party or coalition rule.

At the time of writing The Watch, however, Levi, who remains largely silent during the walk through the Traforo, also knew that these prophecies were far from the mark, especially after the elections of 1948, which consolidated the power of the center-right parties. Levi does not remain silent because he is not privy to the prophecies made by Andrea and Carmine. Let us recall that the terms of the analysis expressed by Andrea—peasants and Luigini—and his proposal for the creation of “an infinity of autonomous organizations” are identical to those Levi himself had elaborated in Christ and elsewhere. In Andrea, then, we can glimpse, if not exactly a self-portrait, then at least an ironic, belated representation of the risk that Levi knew he was running with his political activity in and around the Roman palazzi. Just as, in Andrea's words, the Action Party will inevitably become more and more like the Luigini (“si illuiginerà” [168]), the danger for Levi is that the same destiny will await him—or, that his own picture of a future Italy based on the Florence experience during the Resistance and on self-government from below was as deluded as Andrea and Carmine's, and that his own prophecies prove just as empty.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that The Watch is a novel which limits itself to placing blame for Italy's postwar ills on Rome and Roman society. To be sure, Levi portrays Roman political society in the harshest of terms. On the other hand, the city itself, especially its popular quarters, is portrayed as a marvelous source of energy, creativity, and regeneration. The major contrast on which the whole novel is structured is between the vitality of the city streets as people attempted to construct a new life for themselves out of the ruins of the old world, and the sedimented, codified regime of political society, intent on reestablishing that old world.

The streets of Rome are a hive of endless, variegated, creative activities, and their descriptions make for some of the text's highest moments:

The street was full of people, elbow to elbow, summer shirts, heavy overcoats, shawls, handkerchiefs, hats, rags, Allied military jackets, sandals, heavy shoes; big-chested women rolling their hips and giving you the look, old women standing guard over the shop windows, dirty excited kids playing who knows what game or barter, British, American, Italian, black soldiers; workers in their overalls, clerks who had just stepped out of their banks or Ministries, ready to jump on ramshackle trucks. Everyone was moving, gesticulating, looking with their dark shiny eyes, they were thinking, speaking, screaming, their intent faces, full of intensity and character, following or contemplating their daily adventure. And all of them themselves were an adventure, an uncharted river made of a thousand ever new waves flowing through rocky banks and flowering islands.


On arriving in the capitol, Levi shared the same sense of adventure, discovery, and creativity he had sensed in Tuscany in the Roman streets. Rome, he conjectures, was the place from which the beginning of a new postwar course could be made. The novel's very first lines, in fact, recall the notion of the original indeterminate state we previously encountered in Fear, and which also plays an important role in The Watch:

At night in Rome you can almost hear the roar of lions. An indistinct murmur that is the city's breath, between its black cupolas and distant hills, here and there in the sparkling shadow. And at times you can hear the deep sound of sirens, as if the sea were nearby, and ships were leaving from the port towards who knows what horizons. And that vague yet wild sound, cruel yet strangely sweet, the roar of lions, in the nocturnal desert of the houses.


The sounds return Levi to a childhood state—“the sound penetrated me like a frightening, moving, strange childhood image, from another time” (3)—that is in every way comparable to the new beginning his initial impact with Rome presages. In this new beginning, Levi finds himself at the point where the personal and the historical intersect. It is historical because he is bound up in the new course that the recent events have ushered in: “a stormy wind had begun to blow over Europe's bitter soil and carried men like leaves plucked from a tree on white unknown roads. After seven years of massacres and troubles the wind had fallen, but the old leaves could not return to their branches, and the cities seemed like stripped woods awaiting, under a modest sun, the disordered blossoming of new buds” (4). At the same time, Levi's arrival in Rome also signals a new personal beginning. After years in either exile or hiding, Levi has lost all contact with the habits and practices that had constructed his earlier life. Now a man whose personal history has been pushed back far into time, listening to the indistinct roar of the lions, “it seemed to me that I had nothing to the back of me if not the void, and that before me I had an enormous, mysterious forest” (7).

The forest, perhaps the key image of the entire text, recurs at important junctures. One such is in Carlo's final telephone conversation with his Uncle Luca. Called to Naples to visit his sick uncle, and arriving too late to pay a visit that night after an adventurous journey from Rome, Carlo speaks to him on the phone. Luca had been a fundamental figure in Carlo's life. It had been Luca, in fact, who had first introduced Carlo to the joys of painting, and as a fellow doctor there had always been a strong bond between them. Luca is very much Carlo's father figure. In fact, we hear more about Luca than about Carlo's biological father, except that Carlo had been absent from his funeral, presumably because he was in exile, and felt a “bitter sense of liberty … the liberty made of things lost, bonds broken, loneliness” at his death (303). Luca, however, had a role in Carlo's life which seems just as central. Luca, in fact, had become “more than an uncle, a friend, master and father” (239).

But when Carlo arrives the next day at his house, he discovers that his uncle has died in the night. Carlo's visit to Naples is very much an encounter with death. Yet, death here loses many of its purely negative and destructive connotations to become the essence of life, the enabling condition for life itself to carry on. Luca's reference to the forest of the world—“il bosco del mondo” (287)—comes, paradoxically perhaps, as he sings the praises of death. As a scientist, Luca had been engaged for many years in a private research project which he called the Teorica. Never publishing any results, Luca so immersed himself in his research that he gave over his whole life to it. The project, which for Luca revealed the “secret key of the biological world,” bore on the “continuous and continuously broken and reconstituted unity of two principles, which are eternally distinct and eternally the same in an eternally endless circulation” (238). Levi makes no judgment on the value of his uncle's project, but he hints at its limited scientific value. What is important for him, though, is not so much its status as hard scientific fact as the “intensity, the infinite energy” his uncle dedicated to it and which proved that this was “the true life of a true man” (239).

In his phone conversation with Carlo, Luca explains how his approaching death has enabled him to appreciate and better understand life. The coming of death has the effect of illuminating life's dark mysteries. But what is the dark mystery that Luca has now glimpsed? It is that life consists of “infinite truths” that stretch out into the future beyond the span of a single person, each one as true as the next, but none more so than any of the others: “You can wear yourself out in vain trying to catch them all, one after the other, like a many-coloured crowd, but whose common language and common human nature you don't know.” But as one comes closer to death, “you learn to distinguish in the copresence of time, in the forest of the world, that common nature” which is open-ended: “Instead of focusing on a point or on a single object, your thought takes that object as its starting point and expands in a limitless wave-like motion. It's as if you climbed a mountain and at every step the horizon spread itself wider beneath you. Perhaps, when you reach the top the horizon will be so vast and distant that it will join up with the sky: this, perhaps, is death. If so, we live in order to die” (287-88).

Carlo experiences the same fusion of death and life in the streets of Naples. Observing the frenetic daily activity of the Neapolitans, he notes in the faces of the heterogeneous crowd an awareness of their own finitude and fragility, their own impermanence on this earth, but which nevertheless does not prevent them from fully investing their creativity in life:

It was as if behind each of those men and women … there were another world which had already been fully lived according to an eternal and unchanging law of simple pain. It was as if they thought they were nothing other than an ephemeral object, a transitory expression of that ancient and painful world. Yet, they spared nothing to adorn it with passion and grace as without illusion they contemplated their own fleeting passage, like the splendid, tender light of the morning.


In a scene that is reminiscent of Christ, walking between the market stalls selling fish and meat with their innards exposed, and comparing himself to Jonah in the whale's belly, the close contact with images of death and with the “men who lived in these intestinal walls … and had been, who knows how many times, destroyed and resuscitated,” brings Carlo to feel that “I was in a true place, in one of the true places of the world” (301). These are strong words, as strong as Levi's sense that he was in the heart of the world when he heard the cries of the dying man in Christ. But what is it that Levi discovers in the concatenation of life and death in the Neapolitan streets? We get a strong clue in the text's very next paragraph, with Levi's reference to Giambattista Vico.

In his wandering through the city, Levi comes across the house where Vico used to act as tutor to the young son of a Neapolitan noble. The reference to Vico is timely because his philosophy of history as an ongoing series of rises and falls, or as he puts it, courses and recourses, approximates most closely the thoughts that Levi himself was developing in The Watch. Vico, as we have seen earlier, had also been a great influence on Fear. What Levi sees in the streets of Naples, we can imply, is the same or similar scene as that which presented itself to Vico 250 years earlier, and which perhaps molded his thought.

Levi sees in the Neapolitan streets a willingness to embrace human existence as a dialectic between life and death in which both are inextricably bound up, feed off one another, the one creating the conditions for the other. To be aware of the finitude of one's own self means having learned the simple lesson of humility that comes with having an awareness of the fragility of all things human and the achievements one can accomplish within a life. To be aware of one's own finitude also means that we are less tempted to inhabit the abstract sphere of pure thought and form, but remain, rather, in close contact with the physical and material things of the world and the experience of death that inheres in them. From this standpoint, finitude takes the form not so much of an existential defect as of the necessarily limited parameters within which we live our lives. Furthermore, finitude reminds us that no human life can ever be complete and that the creative activity of one course prepares the way for another. This means that life lived at its fullest and most authentic takes the form of an ongoing project, itself taking the form of a series of individual courses. Each one of these courses is vitally important to the needs and demands of an individual or a whole society at a given moment, and each one contributes uniquely to the creation and growth of that self or society. At the same time, however, each course has its limits, as well as its strengths, and when its time comes, as it must as circumstances change, or as the world turns and new creative tools are required, individuals and societies as a whole must know when to abandon one course and start a new one.

What might have drawn Levi to Vico is the kind of metaphysics the Neapolitan philosopher outlined in his “Conclusion” to De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians): “Here then … for your greater wisdom you have a metaphysics compatible with human frailty, which neither allows all truths to men, nor yet denies him all, but only some.”52 Furthermore, the notion of error, both in its sense of “trial and error” and “wandering,” which Vittorio Mathieu has noted and which underpins Levi's thought, finds in Vico an illustrious precursor. If error is at the basis of truth, then each attempt at locating it is delimited by knowledge of the inadequacy of any and all modes of critical inquiry. History, then, argues Mathieu,

becomes a sequence of inadequacies through which providence shines … abscondita sub contrario. … Vico's cycle is therefore a process by which man's ability to manifest truth is gradually transformed in qualitatively different ways but never ceases to be intrinsically inadequate. The courses and recourses are the periodic succession of inadequate forms of participation in truth, passing continuously from one phase to the next because in none of these does truth find a completely satisfactory ground.53

Translated into political terms, this means that the course of history that had brought Italy up to its pre-Fascist Liberal governments had run its course and must be replaced by a new one, this time born out of the Resistance experience, with the Action Party as its figurehead. As we have seen, however, the greatest objections to beginning such a new course came from within the Liberal Party, unwilling to relinquish its position of power, reluctant to contemplate a postwar Italy organized along anything other than familiar pre-Fascist lines. In the very same paragraph of The Watch where we find the reference to Vico, we also find a reference to Croce, the president and leading figure within the Liberal Party. The house where Vico used to tutor the noble's son has now been taken over by Croce as his residence. This is Croce's second appearance in the novel. Earlier, in a dream, Croce had appeared to Carlo as a judge called on to decide who was the rightful owner of a watch he had previously lost. Seeing Croce in the courtroom, Levi describes him thus: “The Neapolitan Virgil, honor, light, Duke, Lord and master of my contemporaries” (19).

On this second occasion, Levi does not mention Croce by name but notes simply that “Vico … used to climb these stone steps and the floors of the huge unadorned rooms” where now “the master of our wise men, the sharp old philosopher” lived (301). Carlo's brief sojourn outside Croce's house, and his decision not to act on his earlier idea of paying him a visit, amount to a refusal on his part to be seduced by the great philosopher in the way that so many of his contemporaries had. Initially attracted by a bas-relief of the mythological sailor Cola Pesce on Croce's door—“the male mermaid who calls other sailors into the abyss and devours them”—Levi suggests that this is the perfect image for Croce: “Perhaps for good reason the signore of that place kept it on the door in place of a name plate. The signore who knew how to seduce the young men and women who adventured on the sea of dialectic with his sweet song, who sank the ships bedecked with pseudo-concepts down into the vortex of distinctions, and grabbed with his scaly hands the unprepared sailors, captains and crewmen to devour them” (301-2).

This is hardly the most flattering of portraits, and overcome by a sense of uneasiness, Carlo hurries on to his uncle's house. In this section of the novel, one is left with the impression, even if it is only hinted at, that Croce has occupied a space that once, if only temporarily, had or could have been occupied by Vico, perhaps the most misunderstood and underestimated figure in Italian thought. Although this might seem excessively speculative, we find elsewhere in Levi's writings evidence that lends support to this view: first, in Levi's journalistic writings on Croce, and second, in the conclusion to The Watch, which takes the form of a Vichian new course.

The similarities between Levi and Croce are deceiving. We should not let the crucial importance that Levi gives to the same concept of creativity that figures so prominently in Croce's thought blind us to the deep divisions that separated the two, and which are illustrated by the Cola Pesce vignette. As we shall see, the creativity of the one is not the creativity of the other. Furthermore, Levi certainly does not share Croce's attachment to the Risorgimento tradition. Indeed, he sees in its limits the source of Italy's turn to Fascism. At the height of the political crisis of the final months of 1945, with the Liberal Party making great efforts to delegitimate and bring down Parri, Levi wrote an article for IL entitled “Giolittismo ideale” (“Ideal Giolittism”), a reference to the Liberal prime minister in whose cabinet Croce had served. In this article, Levi accuses Croce, the philosopher of liberty, of the fear of liberty he had theorized in his earlier book. In other words, for Levi, Croce is afraid of the concepts of liberty and creativity the philosopher himself had elaborated.

Opening with “Nothing is more unpleasant than to have to open a polemic with the most venerated of Masters,” the article, as well as singing the praises of Croce the philosopher in its captatio benevolentiae, also makes pointed remarks about the inconsistency of his practical behavior vis-à-vis his thought, and his political errors of judgment in the early years of Fascism. Yet, the thrust of the article is to level a crucial charge: that Croce's theory of history as permanent creation has been betrayed by the stagnation that has resulted from his actual political practice. Specifically, Levi accuses Croce of failing to understand a crucial Vichian lesson: that no given historical course, as successful as it may have been for a more or less limited period of time, is or can be coterminous with history itself. For Levi, Croce had invested so much of his intellectual and political self into the ideology and forms of government developed in the period of Liberal government under Giolitti that he has “confused his own individual experience and preference with the very reason of history.” For Croce, he goes on, “that experience became the eternal paradigm of politics, the very form of the dialectic of liberty, which for him is nothing if not an ideal Giolittism [giolittismo ideale].”

If now in post-Resistance Italy a new social and historical reality had been created, exposing the limits and present inapplicability of the previous historical course, Croce, writes Levi, is still attached to the worn-out schemes of the past: “Since then the world has had a revolution that has changed all our values, has created new forces, has placed each one of us face to face with the experience of death, which for so long had been forgotten, and has placed each man before the need to revise everything that had been traditionally accepted. But Croce has noticed none of this.”54

As the reference to death suggests, Levi is here doing to Croce what Croce had done to Hegel: that is, distinguishing between what is alive in his thought and what is dead. As it turns out, very little is alive. Levi's charge to Croce is essentially that he was afraid of the opportunity for creative liberty that the present historical moment offered up, and faced with this new challenge sought refuge in the codes and practices that had governed a previous era. Instead of welcoming the present moment and embracing the chance to create new forms, Croce had allowed his thought to crystallize around the institutions and modes of government of the Giolitti era. Croce, then, commits what for Levi is the worst and most dangerous of sins. His insistence on extending the applicability of the paradigms that had underlaid the Giolitti government to the newly created present situation was tantamount to turning those paradigms into idols whose effect, indeed purpose, was to stifle creative activity and channel it into the adoration of fixed and codified norms: “Croce … has stayed faithful to his ‘giolittismo ideale’ … the parliamentary institutions, traditional constitutional and administrative forms which are the negation of real liberty, of the autonomy of the forces in play, of the real value of liberty.”55

Croce, in fact, had allowed himself to be left in that phase of human development that Vico called the “barbarism of reflection,” that R. G. Collingwood describes in his The Idea of History as being “where thought still rules, but a thought which has exhausted its creative power and only constructs meaningless networks of artificial and pedantic distinctions.”56 For Levi, this is a dangerous phase in human development because, as he had outlined in Fear, the mechanical application of worn-out schemes and formulas is not only the death of creativity but also prepares the kind of cultural terrain on which a Fascist-like phenomenon can prosper. Levi is perfectly serious when he constructs a line of direct continuity between a historical age like the one Vico identified as the “barbarism of reflection” and a phenomenon like fascism. But how to prevent an era from degenerating into the barbarism of reflection? How to prevent institutions and forms of thought created for a specific age and circumstances from sedimenting into a series of codes and formulas? Levi's answer is to suggest that we endorse the side of Vico's thought that Croce had been reluctant to endorse: namely, his cyclical theory of history. If we accept that our lives are not structured as a single, unilinear narrative stretching homogeneously from birth to death, but on a series of narratives, or phases, a succession of rises and falls, similar to Vico's courses and recourses, we might be able, first, to avoid the stagnation and regenerate our creativity as we enter each new and different phase; and second, in so doing, construct a bulwark against the dangerous sedimentation of thought that had, for example, taken over Italian liberalism, and could, in the worst of hypotheses pave the way for a new form of fascism.

One young Crocean who had realized at an early stage the limits of Italian liberalism was Piero Gobetti. A great friend and influence on Levi, he is quoted twice in the article on Giolitti. On the first occasion, Levi quotes him to underline Croce's status as Italy's least-provincial thinker, something Gobetti thinks will never be forgiven him by a thoroughly provincial Italy. Indeed, Levi's article gives us a picture of a Croce hostage to the parochial interests of the Liberal land-owning classes. On the second occasion, Gobetti is quoted to point out the ideological duplicity of Croce's proposal for an “apolitical” government to replace Parri. In Gobetti's words, the claim to occupy an apolitical center is nothing other than a recipe for restoration in the guise of moderation: “Those who claim to be apolitical are always wrong: their apolitical stance is always biased, they are an inert force which plays to the advantage of conservative and reactionary interests.”57

Although holding fast to the fundamental Liberal tenet of history as perpetual creation, Gobetti also saw how liberalism, once it occupied positions of government power, in practice tended toward stagnation and complacency. Indeed, one of Gobetti's most memorable remarks is that, rather than as a social class, the bourgeoisie stands for “the moment of inertia” which inevitably invests all courses of history.58 Differently from Croce, who tended to limit creativity to the efforts of single individuals, Gobetti found a guarantee of ongoing creativity in the political activity of the working class. In Turin, Gobetti had been able to observe the factory council movement, which sprang up during one of the most potentially revolutionary periods in twentieth-century Italian history, the so-called “red biennium” of 1919-20. Importantly for Gobetti, the factory councils were not set up according to the dictates of a prior revolutionary program but were born out of the workers' needs and demands from below. Gradually acquiring greater power, the councils became training grounds where a new working class could acquire the skills it would need if its members were to sit on committees and comanage the factories. The movement gained most momentum between April and September 1920 when, during a management-initiated lock-out, the workers effectively took over the running of the factories and continued production. Although the workers' demands were not met by the compromise settlement which brought the lockouts to an end, Gobetti was deeply impressed by what he had seen.

Gobetti's positive response to the creativity from below which had characterized the Turin factory council movement is identical to Levi's response to the same creative activity in Florence during the Resistance: in both cases, those involved worked autonomously, with no guidelines except the ones they fashioned for themselves as the need arose. Furthermore, both Turin workers and Florentine Partisans operated outside traditional institutions and created new ones. For both Gobetti and Levi the creative activity they had been fortunate to witness in Turin and Florence was infinitely renewed and self-renewing, as each new phase presented society and individuals with new, concrete problems to be solved, each of which required new creative efforts. For Gobetti, this meant rejecting the Marxist interpretation of history as the road towards the classless society, and developing a theory of ongoing social antagonism between the classes as a way of guaranteeing the perpetual creativity that propels history.59 For Levi, it meant turning to Vico and his theory of history as course and recourse.

The Watch concludes with a number of Vichian resonances and with the promise of a new course. After his journey back to Rome from Naples in the company of two ministers, both of whom, despite their differing ideological positions, were supremely confident that they were in the forefront of history, Carlo's political phase as a militant and intellectual in the Action Party comes to an end. In Naples, Carlo had been given his Uncle Leo's watch, to which presumably the novel's title refers. This watch replaces the one Carlo had broken at the beginning of the novel, which had been given to him by his father. Although Carlo takes this first watch to be repaired, the text itself gives us no further information about it.

Watches in general receive bad press in the novel. The time that watches and clocks beat, he tells us on one of the text's opening pages, is “the opposite of that real time that was in and around [him]” (12) during his childhood days, when the “long days seemed endless” (11). Clock time, the opposite of the authentic experience of time enjoyed by peasants, and which still exists at a subterranean level in all of us, as he writes in his 1950 essay “Il contadino e l'orologio” (“The peasant and the watch”),60 knows no “hesitations, [is] a mathematical time, a continual material movement that is both restless and devoid of anxiety” (11). Like the splendid gold Omega model his father had given him on graduation, watches mark the adolescent's passage into adulthood. This represents one of the early phases in which the young self extricates itself from the “past, from the indistinct security of the tepid family clan and you begin to follow your own personal time” (12). As we know from Fear, for Levi, the moment of differentiation must be complemented and completed by beneficial returns to the undifferentiated state, where the self can reinvigorate itself and embark on a new course. Should this not happen, the self remains a prisoner of its initial course.

This is what happens with the watch. The self's personal time, in fact, turns out to be more a mirage than an index of newfound freedom. After a while, the codes and rhythms of adult life exert their influence over the young self, as the watch “beats time like a bodiless intellectual essence which like a tyrant attempts to carry our heart off for itself” (12). If the self does not put up resistance to this process, it falls into a military-style pattern of life which is completely determined by externally imposed clock time: “One! Two! One! Two! Our feet seem to move on their own and without realizing it we have already followed them” (12). For Levi, then, to break and then effectively lose the watch also means that he frees himself from a phase in his life in which his creative energies had been exhausted, and opens him to the possibility of a new phase, whose starting point is emblematically represented by his descent into and rise from the original indeterminate state inside the whale's belly in the streets of Naples.

But what of the second watch, which Carlo receives after leaving the whale? It is in every way the equal of the first one. This time, however, it is not inherited from his father but from his uncle, who while not being his biological father, is certainly his metaphoric one, a father figure who in the economy of the novel seems to have greater importance for Carlo than does than his real one. Both the new watch and Leo can be seen as emblems of the new phase that Carlo is about to embark on. After Parri's resignation and the trip back from Naples with the two politicians, Carlo is convinced that the phase of life and history driven by the creative energy of the Resistance has come to an end. Indeed, the novel is often read, rightly I believe, as the Resistance's epitaph. Yet the novel does not limit itself to mourning what might have been. The line of continuity between uncle and nephew signaled by the watch suggests that for Carlo the next phase will be marked not so much by activity in the public sphere of politics as in the intense, but nonetheless gratifying, private sphere in which Leo carried out the research that brought him into contact with first things. At the same time, what we have learnt about watches reminds us that all phases, even the new one on which Carlo embarks, tend ultimately to exhaust themselves and become constricting. As the novel concludes, however, Carlo finds himself at the beginning of his new course.

As he returns home to Rome, he looks out over the city from his balcony and hears once again the lion's roar he had heard at the beginning of the novel. In its concluding paragraph, the text returns us to the original indistinct state, to Vico's primordial forest—“the indistinct hum of a forest of ancient trees”—where the novel began. Carlo is taken back to the “depths of memory” by “the murmuring silence … the strange noise of the night, the lions' roar, like the echo of the sea in an abandoned shell” (312), where his new journey out of the ancient forest will begin anew.

For Levi, liberty meant something more than the formal democratic structures that enable us to change our governments. Liberty was also the courage to examine ourselves and the assumptions on which we have based our own lives, the courage to change ourselves. He saw that the fear of liberty was deeply ingrained in the European consciousness, even in those who proclaimed themselves revolutionaries, and had culminated in Europe's many fascist regimes. Overcoming the fear of liberty constituted the personal battle that had to be won if a genuinely new anti-Fascist culture was to be created. Liberty, wrote Levi in Fear, is like a war one fights within oneself against oneself, “an inner war, an enrichment, an increase in peace, a civil war: that civil war that has neither beginning nor end,” the only war worth fighting.61 Acknowledging the question of civil war that neither Communist nor Liberal cultures had been, in his terms, willing to raise, Levi elevates the question to the level of metaphor for the introspective and self-critical mode of being that is necessary if we are to understand the phenomenon that is fascism, the deeper recesses within history from which it comes, and the personal and collective needs to which it responds. This was an ambitious project, a project of its time, inspired by the optimism that pervaded Italy in the months which followed the fall of fascism in September 1943, as the example of the Resistance seemed to provide Italian society with a foundation on which to construct itself anew. It was also a project that largely failed, yet it may have been a project of this kind, without equal in post-Fascist Italy or Europe, requiring a sea-change in attitudes, expectations, and culture, and to which post-Fascist Europe attended only minimally, that Levi's friend Piero Gobetti had in mind when he wrote that antifascism was a question of style.


  1. For the authenticity of the unsigned articles, I have relied on the Fondazione Carlo Levi, Via del Vantaggio, Rome, Italy. Some of Levi's articles have been republished in the exhibition catalogue Carlo Levi: Disegni politici, 1947-1948 (Rome: np, 1993) and in Leonardo Sacco, ed., Contadini e luigini: testi e disegni di Carlo Levi (Rome-Matera: Basilicata Editrice, 1975). For a complete list of the titles of his articles, see appendix 1.

  2. Carlo Levi, “Saluto ai congressisti,” IL, 3 February 1946, series 4, issue 29. For critical studies dedicated to Levi's politics, see Ghislana Sirovich, L'azione politica di Carlo Levi (Rome: Il Ventaglio, 1988), and Vincenzo Napolillo, Carlo Levi: dall' antifascismo al mito contadino (Cosenza: Brenner, 1984).

  3. Carlo Levi, “Rompere con il passato,” IL, 3 January 1946, series 4, issue 2.

  4. Levi, “Saluto ai congressisti.”

  5. Dominique Fernandez, “Uomini-dei o uomini-piante,” in Galleria, fascicolo dedicato a Carlo Levi, ed. Aldo Marcovecchio 17, no. 3-6 (May-December 1967): 160.

  6. Carlo Levi, “Firenze libera!” NdP, 15 August 1945, series 2, special issue.

  7. Carlo Levi, “Antonio Salandra,” in La rivoluzione liberale, 27 August 1922; in Il coraggio dei miti: Scritti contemporanei 1922-1974, ed. Gigliola De Donato (Bari: De Donato, 1975), 11.

  8. See Antonio Gramsci, Il Risorgimento (Turin: Einaudi, 1949).

  9. See Archivio Carlo Levi, Archivio nazionale dello Stato, B. 69 Doc, Fasc. “Garibaldi” 145. Gaetano Marini, Un buco nell' acqua: ovvero Le debolezze, le malizie, gl' imbrogli, li errori, e le camorre in varie amministrazioni della Sicilia. Frammenti di scandalosa cronaca contemporanea (Sciacca: Tipografia Guttemburg, 1864). In the same folder, see also Nicolosi di Sciacca, La Madonna di Saletta. Invocazione Siciliana contro i Garibaldini, circa 1871.

  10. Carlo Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Turin: Einaudi, 1945), 48. Translated by Frances Frenaye as Christ Stopped at Eboli (New York: Farrar and Strauss, 1963).

  11. Carlo Levi, Paura della libertà, 3rd ed. (Turin: Einaudi, 1964), 41. Translated by Adolphe Gourevitch as Of Fear and Freedom (New York: Farrar and Strauss, 1950). In this chapter, further references to this work will appear parenthetically within the main body of the text.

  12. See Giammanco, “Paura della libertà,” 244. See also Lawrence Baldassaro, “Paura della libertà: Carlo Levi's Unfinished Preface,” Italica 72:2 (Summer 1995): 143-54.

  13. See Gigliola De Donato, Saggio su Carlo Levi (Bari: De Donato, 1974), 36.

  14. Fernandez, “Uomini-dei o uomini-piante,” 170.

  15. Carlo Levi, “L'invenzione della verità,” in Coraggio dei Miti, ed. Gigliola De Donato (Bari: Laterza, 1975), 121-22.

  16. Carlo Levi, “Gramsci e il mezzogiorno, oggi,” Basilicata, 11, no. 5-6 (1967): 47.

  17. See Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity, trans. and intro. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), and, by the same author, The Transparent Society.

  18. In Gigliola De Donato, Saggio su Carlo Levi (Bari: De Donato, 1974), 71, citing Carlo Levi, Quaderno ACI, vol. 2 (Turin: n.p., 1953).

  19. Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, 15.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Carlo Levi, “Crisi di civiltà,” NdP, 12/13 September 1944, series 1, issue 14.

  22. Carlo Levi, “Giolittismo ideale,” IL, 1 December 1945, series 3, issue 287.

  23. Carlo Levi, “La speranza,” NdP, 25 December 1944, series 1, issue 103.

  24. Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, 188-89.

  25. Levi, Paura della libertà, 41.

  26. Carlo Levi, Quaderno di prigione, 14 July 1935, quoted in Aldo Marcovecchio, “Il periplo del mondo,” in Galleria 17:3-6 (May-December 1967): 103.

  27. Carlo Levi, Quaderno a cancelli (Turin: Einaudi, 1979). See also Levi's writing on India, in Viaggio in India (Journey to India), written in 1957 and now in Marcovecchio, Galleria.

  28. Levi, “Crisi di civiltà.”

  29. Carlo Levi, “Rivoluzione democratica,” IL, 27 October 1945, series 3, issue 257.

  30. Levi, “Crisi di civiltà.” See also in the same article: “The crisis of civilization which has long been manifest in all fields, in art, in religion, in economy, in social life, in philosophy.”

  31. See Foa, Il cavallo e la torre, 171-72.

  32. Carlo Levi, “La costituente,” NdP, 6 October 1944, series 1, issue 35.

  33. See Erasmus [pseud.], “Fascismo e antifascismo,” RL, 15 December 1945, series 3, issue 270.

  34. Rosselli, “Fronte verso l'Italia,” GL, 18 May 1934; in Scritti dell' esilio, 2:4. See also Foa, Il cavallo e la torre, 167, for the broader agenda that many Actionists gave to their antifascism.

  35. Carlo Levi, “Al di là dell'antifascismo,” NdP, 4 December 1944, series 1, issue 85.

  36. Carlo Levi, Le parole sono pietre (Turin: Einaudi, 1955), 132.

  37. For more detailed information about the political climate of 1945-46, see Paul Ginsborg, Storia d'Italia dal dopoguerra a oggi: Società e politica, 1943-1988 (Turin: Einaudi, 1989), especially 116-19. See also Foa, Il cavallo e la torre, 169.

  38. Among the articles Levi wrote in IL attacking Liberal party policy, see “La consulta,” 25 September 1945, series 3, issue 229; “Dubbi liberali,” 2 October 1945, series 3, issue 235; “La vendetta del Presidente,” 4 October 1945, series 3, issue 237; “Favole e realtà,” 18 October 1945, series 3, issue 249; “La crisi dei ‘galantuomini,’” 6 November 1945, series 3, issue 265; “La crisi dei morti,” 17 December 1945, series 3, issue 275; “L'ombra di Facta,” 20 November 1945, series 3, issue 277; “Responsabilità,” 23 November 1945, series 3, issue 280; the unsigned article “Giolittismo ideale”; and “Le ambizioni sbagliate,” 6 December 1945, series 3, issue 291.

  39. Giammanco, “Paura della libertà,” 248.

  40. Levi, Paura della libertà, 21-22.

  41. Levi, “Rompere con il passato.”

  42. Carlo Levi, “Liberazione dal terrore,” NdP, 9 October 1944, series 1, issue 37.

  43. Levi, “Paura della libertà,” NdP, 2 November 1944, series 1, issue 58.

  44. For more on this short-lived political movement, see Sandro Setta, L'Uomo qualunque (Bari: Laterza, 1975).

  45. Carlo Levi, “Cristallizzazione artificiale,” IL, 6 October 1945, series 3, issue 239, and “Favole e realtà.”

  46. Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, 209. In this chapter, further references to this work will appear in parentheses.

  47. See Robert Young, White Mythologies, 2, for how Marx also came to welcome British colonialism in India as a means of bringing this extrahistorical country into the mainstream of history.

  48. Manlio Rossi Doria, “La crisi del governo Parri nel racconto di Carlo Levi,” in Carlo Levi nella storia e nella cultura, ed. Gigliola De Donato (Manduria, Bari and Rome: Piero Lacaita, 1993), 181-91.

  49. Ibid., 187.

  50. Levi, L'orologio, 48. In this chapter, further references to this work appear in parentheses.

  51. Foa, Il cavallo e la torre, 171-72.

  52. Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, trans. and with an introduction by L. M. Palmer (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 109.

  53. Vittorio Mathieu, “Truth as the Mother of History,” in Giambattista Vico's Science of Humanity, ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Donald Philip Verene (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 118-19. Mathieu continues: “When the thought of truth should wish to cease its wanderings, this illusory disappearance of error, and of the relevant myths, would in fact be the most radical obnubilation of truth” (119). See also Sir Isaiah Berlin, “Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment,” in Vico and Contemporary Thought, ed. Tagliacozzo, Mooney, Michael, and Verene (London: MacMillan, 1980), 250-63.

  54. Levi, “Giolittismo ideale.”

  55. Ibid.

  56. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, rev. ed., ed. and with an introducton by Jan Van Der Dussen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 67.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Gobetti, La rivoluzione liberale, 135.

  59. See Piero Gobetti, Opere complete, vol. 1 of Scritti politici, ed. Paolo Spriano (Turin: Einaudi, 1969), 515: “Our Liberalism … sees in reality a conflict of forces, capable of producing ever new leading aristocracies provided that the popular classes revitalize the struggle with their desperate will to elevation.” Cited in Roberts, Benedetto Croce. My argument here draws on pages 241-48 of the above volume.

  60. Carlo Levi, “Il contadino e l'orologio,” in Coraggio dei miti, ed. Gigliola De Donato (Bari: De Donato, 1975), 55-60.

  61. Levi, Paura della libertà, 100.

Mark Friguglietti (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Friguglietti, Mark. “Carlo Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli: An Anthropological Assessment of Lucania.” Annali d'Italianistica 15 (1997): 221-36.

[In the following essay, Friguglietti reads Christ Stopped at Eboli as an anthropological study and focuses on the descriptions and role of architecture in the southern Italian village.]

Lucania, the mountainous region wedged between Campania, Calabria and Apulia, comprises a large percentage of the hinterland of Southern Italy. Insular and remote, Lucania has infrequently attracted the interest of historians and anthropologists. The culture of the people who have inhabited this desolate land for millennia has been too neglected in historical accounts, which have focused primarily on the politico-economic forces that have struggled to dominate Southern Italy. For its own part, the indigenous population of Lucania was largely nonliterate and incapable of leaving its own written testimony of its unique culture. Today, as modern society rapidly encroaches upon older cultures throughout the world, evidence of this unknown Lucania is rapidly vanishing and it has become imperative to establish a valid account of this past before it disappears altogether.

One of the few written texts offering cultural evidence of Lucania is not an anthropological treatise, but the novel Cristo si è fermato a Eboli by Carlo Levi. Despite the personal nature of Levi's account of his nine-month confinement in Aliano during 1935-36, the narrative focuses attention primarily on the world of the peasants, what the author refers to as “quell'altro mondo” (15) and “la civiltà contadina” (121). In the opening two paragraphs which frame the entire work, Levi draws attention to the cultural and historical neglect that the world of the peasants has endured. He poetically renders it as outright negation by emphasizing that their world is

serrato nel dolore e negli usi, negato alla Storia e allo Stato, … terra senza conforto e dolcezza. … Cristo non è mai arrivato qui, né vi è arrivato il tempo, né l'anima individuale, né la speranza, né il legame tra le cause e gli effetti, la ragione, e la Storia. … Parliamo un diverso linguaggio: la nostra lingua è qui incompresibile.


Levi indicates that we readers, the literates of the modern world, speak a different language than the peasants of that remote land. Both our language and our culture are not valid standards for assessing the civilization of that the peasant world. Rather, an accurate measurement of that civilization requires diverse cultural parameters.

By recognizing the peasants, Levi counters the negation of their culture and affirms their place in history. His text offers present day scholars one of the only written accounts of a world being forgotten at the end of the twentieth century. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how Levi's narrative serves as an indispensable document for reconstructing an authentic history of the culture of the peasants of Lucania. In order to construct a cultural portrait from the written text, I will consider less Levi's subjective analysis and focus attention more on his circumstantial descriptions of the material world, in particular, the vernacular architecture. Supported by a theoretical approach to material culture which considers architecture to be a direct expression of the culture of a nonliterate society, I will suggest that Levi's descriptions of the peasants' houses are a valid means for defining their “civiltà contadina.” Noting that Levi's examples of vernacular architecture are some of the most significant to have been passed down to the present day, I will extend the examination of the architectural house types so that the structure of the peasant house can be viewed as an explicit expression of the peasant way of life, specifically the peasants' affinity with nature and their strong sense of community. Those aspects of Levi's narrative that center in or around the houses will be read as direct reflections of the most meaningful and basic social interactions of the community and its relationship with the surrounding natural environment.


The accurate reconstruction of the history of a nonliterate people from written sources is a difficult task. Written documents collected from writers and scribes external to the group are prone to inaccuracy and bias at many levels.1 Even unbiased documents and observations that are accurate are frequently incomplete representations of the people they attempt to describe.

In order to compensate for the lack of satisfactory written records, contemporary scholars from a variety of disciplines have been increasingly turning to material culture.2 One of the most direct methods of uncovering information about a society that left little or no written documentation is to study the material it produced. Archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and cultural geographers painstakingly examine artifactual remains as evidence of human culture. Artifacts are evidence that can be viewed as a corpus, what James Deetz points to as “culturally sensitive data” (Historical Archaeology 10). Artifacts are not merely studied as things in themselves, but as a means to expose the culture inherent in their production.

One dominant course of study takes a cognitive approach. This study of artifacts goes beyond the superficial analysis of objects and passes to the study of the human mind. Henry Glassie proposes that an analysis of historic artifacts is the attempt to understand how objects relate to human thought.3 He is primarily interested in the artifact as “an expression of cognitive pattern.” In prefacing his treatise, Invitation to Archaeology, Deetz suggests that the patterning discovered in the artifact is a direct reflection of the culture which produced it (7). An analysis of the structure inherent in an object is an indication of the mind that thought it, made it, and eventually used it.

The house can be considered one of a community's largest and most significant artifacts. It follows that the objects which humans construct as habitats can be read as an expression of their culture. In a detailed study of Native American architecture, Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton affirm that it is “only natural to consider houses and human spaces as the most immediate evidence of culture” because patterns of social life occur in and around houses (411). They suggest that Native Americans leave some expression of their existence in the buildings and homes they create. This statement of material culture can be extended to vernacular architecture around the world. In particular, houses are artifacts which reflect the culture of nonliterate populations. By examining the houses of Lucanian peasants as reflections of cognitive pattern, it is possible to shape an understanding of the culture and history of the peasants.

With regard to vernacular architecture in Lucania, an historical study is not a simple matter of counting houses. Difficulties lie in acquiring first-hand material evidence for basic reasons. Examples are insufficient, and data collection is hampered because peasant houses have not survived for centuries. In Lucania, homes were periodically lost to both the landslides and the earthquakes that periodically strike the area. Despite construction and reconstruction, peasant houses were not generally well made. Levi refers to both of these facts in Cristo. Immediately upon arrival in Gagliano he says that the houses appear poorly constructed and “piene di fenditure” (18). Don Trajella, the parish priest, points out to Levi that there are reoccuring landslides: “Qui ci sono continuamente le frane. Quando piove, la terra cede e scivola, e le case precipitano” (44). Enrico Pani Rossi indicates that the area as a whole has been destroyed with regular frequency by earthquakes (72). As a result, vernacular architecture in Lucania must be studied from a dual perspective, combining both written and artifactual sources. Material culture can be used not only to corroborate historical documentation, but to widen the understanding of history and to add new perspectives which emphasize the culture of the peasants.4


By the end of the nineteenth century, anthropologists and historians had developed only limited interest in Lucania. Some of the more prominent names from both disciplines include Michele Pasquarelli, Giacomo Racioppi, Enrico Pani Rossi, Decio Albini and Michele Lacava. The concern among the historians was to celebrate important historical figures and document major political events. On the other hand, the tendency among the anthropologists was to observe and record limited details of peasant life, in particular, proverbial expressions and brigand tales. Neither of two groups of scholars devoted ample attention to a study of the daily lives of the common folk and their diverse culture.

Few studies had been made of the peasants' living conditions and they are by and large scarce and inadequate. Luchino Franciosa wrote the first major study on Lucanian rural architecture in 1942. In La casa rurale nella Lucania, he reports the scarcity of prior studies of vernacular architecture: “Pochissimi sono le opere contenenti notizie sulla casa rurale nella Lucania” (11). Franciosa's examination of external factors that affect rural housing in Lucania represents a major contribution to the study of Lucania architecture. He divides the region into geographic areas, categorizing farm houses according to characteristics related to the topographic and climatic conditions. His analysis focuses specifically on the rural houses found on agricultural land, intentionally excluding the houses in the villages. Unreported are the dwellings used by the majority of peasants who lived in town and commuted daily to the fields.

One of the few studies made prior to Franciosa's 1942 work is found in Atti della Giunta per l'Inchiesta Parlamentare Agraria e sulle condizioni della classe agricola. Franciosa refers to this study, which incorporates brief descriptions. Dated 1884, Atti della Giunta presents the Lucanian housing in the following terms:

le abitazioni dei contadini sono meschine, disagiate e composte di uno o due ambienti. In uno c'è la cucina con un mal costrutto fumaiolo, nell'altro la stanza da letto con la mobilia stipata. Moltissime volte si vede una sola camera, dove si cucina e si dorme e spesso ha ricetto anche il maiale e il somaro.


Some of the basic components that constitute the peasant house are illustrated in this observation (one or two rooms divided into the kitchen with singular fire and sleeping area with animals). Although the account presents significant characteristics, it depicts living conditions as inferior. The house is economically insufficient. The flue pipe is poorly made. The furniture is crammed into the space. Frequently animals, a pig and a donkey, share the living space with humans.

Franciosa associates the reports with a second, similar description by E. Anzimonte in Inchiesta parlamentare sulle condizioni dei contadini nel mezzogiorno, dated 1908. Anzimonti writes:

La casa a un sol piano è generalmente anche a un sol vano, piuttosto grande. … In queste case l'aria e la luce, quando non entrino dalle connessure del tetto, non abbondano mai; mancano sciacquatoi, mancano latrine; mancano stalle. Gli animali stanno nel medesimo ambiente. … Il focolare non manca in ogni casa, ma il camino non è sempre tale da assicurare la perfetta fuoruscita dei prodotti della combustione …


The latter description's basic house plan is almost identical to that of the previous account. Anzimonti's description also implies a substandard living environment. He cites the components that are lacking or nonexistent: lighting, sink and toilet. He also notes that the animals share space with humans and that the air is filled with smoke. Enrico Pani Rossi, in a study published in 1868, observed similar conditions, saying that the houses were often cellars in which “viene poi l'aura o la luce dal foro … donde oscurità o tenebre quasi perfette. Colà fucina per domestiche bisogne e senza comignolo onde il fumo vi s'accoglie” (69).

The illustrations discussed above describe the same basic image of the peasant house, although these representations are cursory and incomplete. Specifically, the data are insufficient and the method is unscientific. In particular, no true figures or measurements are given. Moreover, each account suggests a bias that the peasant accommodations are inferior in relation to standards that exist for the outsider. The houses appear deficient primarily because they lack the characteristic priorities considered requisite by the observer: running water, ample lighting, sterile air and abundant space. These observations offer only a partial understanding of the relationship of the houses to the peasants' particular world.

Within the context of a literary narrative, Levi's description of Lucanian vernacular architecture confirms the information summarized years earlier by anthropologists. Although his purpose was not primarily anthropological, he presents a similar portrait of the peasant house. Trained as a physician and practiced as a painter, he was capable of detailed observation. His term of confinement gave him unique access to the otherwise infrequently noted world. He states that, as physician to many of the peasants, he had the opportunity to enter their houses and observe interior in detail. He notes that almost all the houses were comprised of one room which had no window and which received its light from the door (45). When he attends to a sick peasant, he describes the room as dark: “La stanza era buia, a malapena potevo discernere, nella penombra, delle contadine” (20). The main features of the houses are identical to those elements in the descriptions noted by Franciosa above:

Le case dei contadini sono tutte uguali, fatte di una sola stanza che serve da cucina, da camera da letto e quasi sempre anche da stalla per le bestie piccole. … Da una parte c'è il camino, su cui si fa da mangiare con pochi stecchi portati ogni giorno dai campi: i muri e il soffitto sono scuri pel fumo. La luce viene dalla porta.


Levi describes a simple one room house with a single door. In one area there is a fireplace. It is used for cooking and darkens the walls and ceiling with smoke. Animals and humans share the limited space. Levi describes how it is apportioned:

La stanza è quasi interamente riempita dall'enorme letto, assai piú grande di un comune letto matrimoniale: nel letto deve dormire tutta la famiglia, il padre, la madre, e tutti i figlioli. … Sotto il letto stanno gli animali.


In addition, he states that infants are placed above the bed in baskets so that their mothers might easily gain access to them for feeding during the night. In this manner the space was divided into three levels, with the animals on the ground, the humans in the bed and the infants in the baskets.

Don Trajella, the impoverished priest, lives with his mother in a large, cavernous, one room house, like that of the peasants: “Nel fondo della spelonca, separati da una tenda verde sbrindellata, c'erano due lettini gemelli. … galline correvano e svolazzavano qua e là per la stanza” (83). Levi notes that because of the chickens, the house smells like a chicken coop.

It is apparent from Levi's interaction with the mayor and the doctors that the gentry as a whole consider the peasant houses crude structures, inferior in quality to their own houses. The distinction is pointed out to Levi by the mayor when Levi seeks accommodations: “Per un uomo come lei non ci vuole una casa di contadini. Ma le troveremo meglio, dottore!” (47). The mayor suggests that Levi, an intellectual from a different social environment, should require more sophisticated living quarters than those that suffice for the peasants.

The distinction posed by the mayor reflects the general bias noted in the brief descriptions by anthropologists above. Levi's general tone in the narrative does not emphasize the disparagement in lifestyle; however, at certain moments he refers to the peasant houses in a slightly derogatory language. He identifies them as “catapecchie contadine” (45), “tuguri” (67), “capanne” (131) and the house of the impoverish priest as “uno stanzone, una specie di spelonca” (83). He frames his arrival in the village with a negative note about the houses: “le case stavano come librate nell'aria … parevano in bilico sull'abisso, pronte a crollare e piene di fenditure” (18). He suggests that the peasant houses are shacks, unclean and substandard. General characterizations imply that the world of the Lucanian peasant is inferior to the standards of the world from which he came. Initially, Levi was prone to some of the bias of the outsider. Born and raised in Turin, he was slowly accepted into the peasant world and his eventual association with the peasants reflects that acceptance.


In a study of material culture, one particular question continually resurfaces: Why should one study objects when studying the people directly would seem less complicated? Would it not be simpler to observe the peasants themselves than analyze their houses? The answer might be affirmative if there existed a clear image of the peasant world in Lucania. However, with the invasion of the modern technological world into this insular society, it is more difficult today to recognize signs of original peasant culture. Furthermore, recent studies of the people of Lucania continue to reflect the bias noted in the descriptions above. In 1976, Ann Cornelisen published a portrait of Lucania based on twenty years of personal experience there. She highlights the vernacular architecture with the same bias as the anthropologists a century earlier. Her interpretations are colored by a standard of living which she brings from the modern world. Cornelisen's point of reference in describing the peasant houses is fashioned by her own sense of comfort: “Money could not buy comfort, much less delicacies or amusements” (4). She adds: “Delicacies were out of the question” (5). Based on research conducted in a Lucanian village during 1954-55, Edward Banfield concludes that the peasants economic well-being is thwarted by their flagrant disregard for community welfare, a condition that he labels “amoral familism” (163).

Seeking an understanding of Lucania through direct contact with the material culture as it remains nowadays, I studied several houses in the village of Montemurro during the summer of 1991.5 Hidden underneath the paint of both new and old walls, I identified two structurally different house types. One house type was based on a design that opened directly from the street into the main room. From the street, this type presented a single door set asymmetrically in the façade. There was a single window placed to one side of the door. The door was the “Dutch” type, divided into three panels: one full vertical panel on the left side and two half-panels of the right side, the upper panel of which opened like a second window into the kitchen. In the kitchen was the fireplace and near the fireplace, a large table with chairs. The fireplace was located in one of the two side walls, close to a front corner and on the same side as the single window in the façade. Because it was the only window in the entire house, the natural light fell primarily over the fireplace. In addition to the main room in which the fireplace was located, there was usually a smaller, unheated, back room.

The second house type was based on a design that presented a hallway in the center of the house. In comparison to the first type, the hallway had a significant effect on the plan. In these houses, the main room with the fireplace was separated from the entrance door. The room tended to be smaller, because the hallway required some of the floor space that might otherwise have been given to the main room. Also, this design separated the main room from the street at more than one location. First, at the street, a short gate limited access to the front door. Then the front door opened to a hallway delaying access to the main room. Finally, a door to the main room further discouraged access to the fire. The hallway, leading not only to the main room, but also to all the various rooms, caused confusion as to which door opened to the main room, with its fireplace. Further confusion was created by the façade which presented several windows, not necessarily symmetrical, but appearing on both sides of the door, offering a less than clear image of the direction to the fireplace.

The first house style, which offered direct access to the main room and fireplace, appeared in houses that showed signs of physical age and seemed to be older. The second house type, with the gate and the hallway, appeared in houses that were recently renovated and seemed to be more contemporary. Determining the history and the age of a house in Montemurro can be complicated, however, for two interrelated reasons. First, because the area is on a geological fault, houses are periodically destroyed. As noted above, Pani Rossi indicates the ruin caused by earthquakes. Schiavone also writes: “Data la natura del terreno soggetta a terremoti e frane, la maggior parte delle costruzioni risalgono alla seconda metà del XIX secolo” (14).6 In 1980, much of Montemurro was again destroyed by an earthquake that struck Southern Itay on November 23 of that year and caused much destruction in Campania and Basilicata. Since houses are rebuilt on the existing sites, it is difficult to assess a date.

To interpret the distinction between the two types of houses, I documented two older houses, each structurally different. One, the Infantino house, had been built in the nineteenth century and was long since uninhabited.7 It had a modest façade with no ornamentation. There was a large Dutch door and an arched window above the door. There was also a small shuttered window to the right of the door. The door opened directly into the one dark, cavernous room. The only feature in the room was a small fireplace set into the right wall, near the front corner. All light entered from the front, either from the door, the arched window, or the small window. The small window, set near the corner, cast light directly over the fireplace. The back of the room was dark and the far corner had an old bed. Margherita Infantino recalled how in her childhood everyone ate and slept in the single space. She identified the old tripods and hooks in the fireplace, reminiscent of a time when her family cooked there. She also recalled that neighbors stuck their heads in through the open upper panels of the door and conversed with her family. In a description almost identical to Levi's, she remembered that the air was thick with smoke and that chickens, dogs and a donkey also inhabited the house. The structure of the Infantino house bears a close resemblance to the one-room house noted above in the descriptions by Levi and by the historians.

The second house, that of Francesco Labattaglia, was also built before 1900, although the exact date of construction was not known. The façade of the Labattaglia house presented a front door that was set directly below a lunette-shaped window. The entire unit was framed by decorative moulding. The door opened into a hallway lit only by light from the windowed arch and the door. The hallway, in turn, led to three rooms. Immediately on the left was a kitchen with a fireplace. At the end of the hall on the right was a second room, also with a fireplace, and a toilet which was enclosed in a small adjoining room. Directly to the rear of the hallway was the third room. It was without a fireplace. From the street, the front door was separated by a tall, solid gate and a stone wall. The house had a classically symmetrical façade, with one large window on each side of the door. While the Infantino house may be associated structurally with the simple one room house, the Labattaglia house, with its classical symmetry and partitioned rooms, is further removed from the peasant style.

The ground floor plan of vernacular architecture is a central aspect of house design. R. W. Brunskill states that major differences in design “depend on the inter-relationships between the positions of the main hearth, the main staircase, the main entrance, and the overall plan shape” (94-95). Addressing discrepancies in house design similar to those I found in Montemurro, Glassie identified and analyzed two different house types in Northern Ireland. He explains that when he thought about the various houses as “spaces to use,” he discovered that one type was open and one step led from outside directly into the main room. With the upper panel of the door left open, nothing stood in the way of the visitor and the fire. The second house type was more closed and one step led not to the main room, but into an unheated, unlit corridor. In order to find an inhabited room the visitor had to pass first through the corridor. With the open house type, the design unfolded from the interior concealing nothing from the approaching visitor. The façade projected the logic of the interior onto the exterior. With the other type of house, a symmetrical façade suggested order while at the same time concealing the interior. The visitor was uncertain what lay behind the front door. Furthermore, because of the corridor, the visitor was no longer able to enter directly into the house's main room. The most public room was only as accessible as the most private room was in earlier buildings. Generally, the house with the hallway closes, creating an atmosphere which Glassie describes as a “social lock between the people of the house and others” (Ballymenone 398). The result was that the hallway respresented an increase in privacy, or a shift from the community's concerns toward the private concerns of the individual. This house type was newer in style, rational and symmetrical. The design and plan were directly linked to the man-centered universe of the Renaissance and the beginnings of the modern Western world. In contrast, the open style was older, suggestive of an ancient and premodern era of human existence (note 3).

This interpretation of the hallway and façade as reflections of the qualitative concerns for community and privacy is directly applicable to the two designs of Montemurro houses. The Infantino house, a more ancient style, would have welcomed the visitor to the fire. Both the entrance and the façade offered a passerby access to the family's place at the fire. As in the recollections of Margherita Infantino, neighbors often stuck their heads into the house to greet the family. The architectural arrangement led to human interaction, which in turn would create a broader sense of community. In contrast, the Labattaglia house, in part as a result of the values of the modern world, excluded the passerby from any interaction with the family. The message presented by the architecture would have been apparent to the approaching visitor. The balanced façade of the house, characterized by multiple windows, protected the interior behind an ordered, unreadable external aspect. It offered the passerby no indication of the direction to the fire. Unwelcoming, the gate was an obvious statement of privacy. The visitor who negotiated that first obstacle, arrived at the door and came into contact not with a warm hospitable fire, but only with a cold corridor. The removal of the fire to a hidden room further signified a desire for privacy and separation.

If this interpretation of two very different styles of architecture is extended to the peasant houses Levi observed in Aliano, the peasant house can be viewed as reflection of a way of life that embodies more a desire for community and less a need for privacy. In Cristo there exists an underlying sense of community present in the representation of the peasant world. The form of the houses confirms this peasant value. Moreover, the narrative also features other characteristics valued by the peasants which can be substantiated by a faithful interpretation of the structure of the house.


In Cristo Levi presents a unique report of the peasant world by virtue of his characterization of the peasants' daily lives. Within the framework of the narrative, he describes the peasants as they face the immediate environment of Lucania and contend with the difficulties posed by that particular environment. Levi repeatedly documents, even if circumstantially, the role the house plays within the peasant world. Although not specifically an examination of the living conditions, Levi's descriptions show how the peasants lived in their surroundings, and thus their houses emerge as a central point of reference.

Levi characterizes a peasant sense of community throughout the novel. From the first pages he describes groups of peasants entering freely into their neighbors' houses. He writes: “una piccola folla di uomini, di donne e di bambini erano sulla strada, e tutti entrarono in casa” (20). He even presents himself stepping easily through doorways into kitchens: “entrai dalla vedova, … e mi sedetti in cucina” (19). He writes the same of the peasants: “Ero da poco nella cucina della vedova … quando si batté alla porta, e alcuni contadini chiesero timidamente di entrare. Erano sette o otto …” (19). Levi depicts the peasants interacting in their doorways or offering a friendly greeting. The open design of the houses invites entrance into the main room, enhancing social activity.

In contrast, the world of the signori is less integrated and is divided within itself. Many of the gentry are at odds with one another for petty reasons, and the village is a world “chiuso” and “gli odî e le guerre dei signori sono il solo avvenimento quotidiano” (28). Their houses do not reflect an open community, but rather a separated individuality. When Levi goes to meet the mayor's sister, he must be accompanied by the mayor to her door, where he is greeted formally: “Mi accolse con grande cordialità sull'uscio” (53). Unable to step directly into the heart of the house, he is led into an insular sitting room: “mi condusse in salotto” (53). Entering into the houses of the gentry does not happen with the same ease as entering into those of the peasants.

For the peasants, the house is a whole, undivided unit. The division occurs between the house itself and the out-of-doors, which corresponds to the division of labor that exists between the sexes. During the day women work in the house and men work in the fields. Levi refers to this separation repeatedly. During the day the men are out of the village: “Il paese pareva deserto di uomini” (62); in the daytime: “i contadini sono lontani” (92). He points out that the reason is because the peasants go to work in the fields and he describes the daily departure of the men as “l'emigrazione quotidiana” (41). He describes this trip as long: “i contadini si levano a buio, perché devono fare chi due, chi tre, chi quattro ore di strada per raggiungere il loro campo” (41). This exodus lasts all day and the peasants only return as the sun is setting: “I contadini non si vedevano che all'alba e al tramonto” (142). Levi often observes the peasants returning home after a day's work: “i contadini, piccoli nella distanza, si affrettavano per i sentieri lontani nelle argille, verso le loro case” (21). Even when the men are in the village, they are infrequently inside the house. Their customary place, rather, is outside in the square: “Dall'altra parte, addossati alle case, stanno i contadini, tornati dai campi, e non si sentono le loro voci” (21). Levi notices that they play cards in their humble taverns “s'incontravano nelle grotte del vino, a giocare interminabili passatelle” (163). Only during bad weather do they stay at home, and in this case they sit near the door.

With the men away at the fields, the domain of the house belongs to the women: “le donne si celavano dietro le porte semi-chiuse” (62). They attend to all household duties, which are easily performed in the singular space of one room. In that space they watch over the family: “il paese è abbandonato alle donne, queste regine-uccelli, che regnano sulla turba brulicante dei figli” (92). With no men about, women and children are protected in their one-room houses with the doors secured: “Le porte erano sbarrate, poiché i contadini erano nei campi: a qualche soglia stavano sedute delle donne con i bambini in grembo” (45). Attending to their primary household duties, they maintain the fire and upon the fire they prepare the meals. For example, Levi's housekeeper, Giulia, “preparava il fuoco e il pranzo” (95) and at the fireplace she cooked dishes that were “saporiti” (95). He explains that like most peasant women, Giulia knew how to be economical by making a fire with only a few pieces of wood.

Custom demands community among the peasants. Levi explains that when the women leave the house, they must not do so alone: “Nessuna donna può frequentare un uomo se non in presenza d'altri, soprattutto se l'uomo non ha moglie: e il divieto è rigidissimo” (89). The mores exist to protect the peasants' sense of family from the devious force of human sexuality. It pertains to all women, regardless of age. Even the women who came to Levi for medical treatment came with a companion so as not to break this unwritten law. If the women go out to visit neighbors or perform chores, they do so in groups: “stavano l'una vicino l'altra” (36). Such behavior goes hand in hand with community interaction. Levi noticed while he was staying at the widow's house: “La porta di strada ogni tanto si apriva, ed entravano delle donne, le vicine, le conoscenti, le comari della vedova” (36). These neighbors meet in groups continuously when they fetch their daily supply of water. The fountain area was

affollata di donne, come la vidi poi sempre, in tutte le ore del giorno. Stavano in gruppo, attorno alla fontana. … Stavano immobili nel sole, come un gregge alla pastura.


Levi explains that the main fountain “dava l'acqua per tutta Gagliano di Sotto e per una buona metà di Gagliano di Sopra” (50) and that the women carry the water “con una botticella di legno sul capo, e la brocca di terra di Ferrandina” (50). Performing this arduous task offered the peasant women the opportunity to interact on a daily basis.

Not only does Levi confirm that the peasants' humble homes are without running water, but also that the houses serve as a shelter for animals, especially when no secondary building is available. He remarks that chickens and pigs run between his feet when he attends sick patients at their beds and that chickens run about the room during his visit to Don Trajella. The peasants are accustomed to living with animals. As noted above, Levi observes that the peasant houses are divided into three horizontal planes, with the humans sleeping on the level of the bed, babies hanging in baskets above the bed and the animals sleeping under the bed on the ground.

Furthermore, this organization of space, a practical response to the basic needs of the peasants, can be seen as evidence of the fundamental structure inherent in the peasant world. Levi learns that the values of modern civilization have no meaning in a land where “[nessun] muro separa il mondo degli uomini da quello degli animali” (72). He says that “non vi è alcun limite sicuro” between what is human and what is animal (99). It is not unusual for the peasants to live together with their animals when humans are seen to have animal characteristics and animals are seen to have human qualities. Animals are more than mere biological creatures. For the peasants, animals are part of a deeper reality, a mysterious world. The peasants teach Levi that in their world all animals have a double significance: “un doppio senso.” One woman, a peasant married with children, is the “figlia di una vacca” (99). The peasant men sometimes change into wolves at night and their human nature is totally transformed (100). Goats have a satanic power and even Levi's dog, Barone, has the traits of a human of noble quality. Thus, in “quell'altro mondo” of the peasants, the relationship with animals goes beyond the simple sharing of physical space.

Levi comes to understand that the peasants are deeply tied to all of nature. He describes the connection as a “legame non religoso, ma naturale” (72). The peasant world is a natural world, where the human being is not separated from nature. Rather the peasants are immersed in nature, part of nature. The peasant house, for all its simplicity and poverty, reflects this closeness to the natural world. Poetically stated, “no wall separates the peasant from nature.” The peasant society's respect for nature parallels that of other groups who revere relationships with animals and nature, like the Native American or the Aboriginal Australian.

The home is as much a tribute to the proximity to nature as it is a result of economic hardship. The space is above all practical. The one or two room house is open to nature. One door leads outside and people and animals easily come and go. In the practical world of the peasant, ther was little room for comfort. By day, the singular main room is kitchen space and work space, serving only one gender. Men are in the fields, working in nature. Women work in the main room, preparing food and watching over children. When the women need to go out, it is one step that leads them there. No hallways or gates obstruct the path to the fountains. By night, the main room is first dining area and then bedroom. During the day, leisure space is not required, and at night the entire family, including the animals, share the same space as one unit.

Comfort, sought-after and fashionable in the civilized cities of the modern world, was not a primary concern in the peasants' ancient world. Weather was more easily accepted because the houses were open and nature was close. The cold was part of the house. The fire heated a part of the space and the family managed to survive. In addition, the animals contributed to the heating of the room. By contrast, comfort was seen as a priority in the style of house that was adapted by the gentry. They further separated the inhabitants from the environment. The hallway helped block out the cold, securing the warm inner room with its fireplace from the cold of nature. Animals were kept from the house. The internally partitioned house, with hallways and multiple rooms, also divided life within the house itself. Living and sleeping spaces were divided, separated and private. Comfort is opposed to both a proximity to nature and a desire for community, the latter being contrasted to a desire for comfort and privacy. The contextual evidence that Levi presents suggests that the peasant house is representative of a world that promotes a sense of community but also reflects an affinity with the natural and animal world.


From an historical perspective, the peasant civilization of Lucania was a largely nonliterate world. That world was defined by a distinct language and peasant logic, both of which were traditionally structured according to an ancient sense of community and a fundamental closeness to nature. Understanding the nonliterate peasant world as it existed during Levi's time requires an ability to read and decode the language and mind of the peasants in the context of their daily lives. The simple houses that the peasants produced are texts in themselves. They are indications of the peasants' logical processes in an effort to manage their environment. Thus they represent important artifactual evidence of their peasant civilization. The sense of community and association with nature can be seen in the structure of the houses, both in relation to the daily lives of the peasants and also in contrast with the houses of those who were not part of the peasant society.

If the Western world attempts to define the peasants of Lucania by its own established standards, it will most likely fail to understand these people as members of a distinct civilization. It is convenient to form conclusions based on external standards which would suggest that ignorance and poverty are the primary factors contributing to what could be interpreted as a substandard quality of life. Understanding the peasant world is a complex task. Furthermore, accustomed to searching for answers in written texts, the scholar is often incapable of reading the artifacts created by nonliterate people. For Levi the problem was identified as one of fundamental difference: “Siamo anzitutto di fronte al coesitere di due civiltà diversissime” (209). Cristo si è fermato a Eboli; a narrative statement, affirms the peasant civilization through material culture. Levi's recollection of the peasants fosters an essential anthropological understanding of their “other world” by connecting the written text with material culture.


  1. Historians traditionally regard the written record as the key to the past. These scholars sort through old documents in an attempt to synthesize a chronicle of earlier times. One of the pitfalls of an approach to history which bases conclusions solely on documentation is that it is representative of only a very small minority of people. In the past, the majority of people were illiterate and thus incapable of leaving firsthand records describing their thoughts and actions. In response, historians seek to develop “micro” histories of the undocumented, illiterate populations by examining supplemental and secondary sources. Sources such as court records, however, are prone to bias. They are again written by the literate minority and do not present a complete picture of the vast majority of people who were not part of the legal proceedings of the courts.

  2. It is not my intention to evaluate the arguments in the ongoing debate between those scholars who value the written texts as singularly fundamental and those scholars who esteem artifacts and material culture.

  3. Glassie's study examines material culture in several parts of the world. For details of Glassie's theory on houses, I refer in particular to the chapter “Home” in Passing the Time in Ballymenone. He states in the notes to that chapter that his approach to architectural analysis runs through Folk Housing in Middle Virginia. His most recent work is Turkish Traditional Art Today.

  4. In the introductory section of History of Things: Essays on Material Culture, Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery indicate that artifacts are valid texts from which historians may support their arguments and that by neglecting artifacts, historians limit the potential for a wider interpretation of history (ix).

  5. Montemurro is in the Province of Potenza. It is a small community of less than 2000 inhabitants (1746 according to the town register on June 30, 1991). It is located in the Agri Valley approximately 20 miles to the west of Levi's Aliano. Levi refers to Montemurro several times during the course of his narrative: Montemurro being the home of his guard, De Luca (206), the home of Don Luigi's maid (218) and the home of the pyrotechnicians (105).

  6. Schiavone recounts that powerful earthquakes struck Montemurro in 1343, 1561, 1659, 1807, 1826 and 1857. Although he writes that census records are nonexistent for the period of 1857, his research indicates that 2502 people out of a total of 7000 were killed and approximately three quarters of the village was destroyed by the earthquake that struck that year. He notes that popular belief, however, suggests that 4000 people out of a total of more than 8000 were killed (53-54).

  7. In an interview in 1991, Margherita Infantino, then over ninety years old, told me that the house dated to before the earthquake of 1857.

Works Cited

Albini, Decio. Montemurro per la rivoluzione Lucana. Roma: Mundus, 1912.

Banfield, Edward C. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Chicago: Free Press, 1958.

Brunskill, R. W. Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture. New York: Universe Books, 1970.

Cornelisen, Ann. Women of the Shadows. Boston: Little, 1976.

Deetz, James. Invitation to Archaeology. Garden City: Natural History Press, 1967.

Ferguson, Leland, ed. Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things. Papers of the Thematic Symposium, Eighth Annual Meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, Charleston, South Carolina, January 7-11, 1975. Columbia: Soc. for Historical Archaeology, 1977.

Franciosa, Luchino. La casa rurale nella Lucania. Firenze: Olschki, 1942.

Glassie, Henry. Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1975.

———. Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community. Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 1982.

———. Turkish Traditional Art Today. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1993.

Lacava, Michele. La Lucania. Potenza, 1874.

Levi, Carlo. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. 17th ed. Milano: Mondadori, 1980.

Lubar, Steven, and W. David Kingery, eds. History from Things: Essays on Material Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1993.

Nabokov, Peter, and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1989.

Pani Rossi, Enrico. La Basilicata. Verona, 1868.

Pasquarelli, Michele Gerardo. Medicina magia e classi sociali nella Basilicata degli anni venti: scritti di un medico antropologo. Ed. Giovanni Battista Bronzini. 2 vols. Lecce: Congedo, 1987.

Racioppi, Giacomo. Storia dei popoli della Lucania e della Basilicata. 1902. 2 vols. Roma: Deputazione di Storia per la Lucania. 1970.

Schiavone, Enrico. Montemurro: Perla dell'Alta Val d'Agri. Roma:Pubbliprint, 1990.

Guy P. Raffa (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7555

SOURCE: Raffa, Guy P. “Carlo Levi's Sacred Art of Healing.” Annali d'Italianistica 15 (1997): 203-20.

[In the following essay, Raffa explores Levi's anthropological vision in light of the theories of Victor Turner and René Girard.]

Written in 19351, the year of Carlo Levi's exile in Lucania, Charlotte Gower Chapman's Milocca: A Sicilian Village is an anthropological study of a Sicilian village based on the author's fieldwork in 1928-29.2 Modeled on Robert Redfield's Tepoztlan, a Mexican Village (1930), Chapman's Milocca is the “only full-scale Italian village study in existence which was carried out before World War II” (Cronin 18). While Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945), despite its resistance to generic classification, was unquestionably the product of—among other things—its author's literary-artistic imagination, it also inaugurated a new direction in Italian anthropological research along the lines of Chapman's study as the nation sought to rediscover itself after the years of Fascism and the war. Levi's first novel, in fact, provided the “stimolo determinante” for Ernesto de Martino's expedition to Lucania in the early 1950s (Lanternari 213), fieldwork that represented the initial stage of the ethnologist's important trilogy treating religion and magic in the Mezzogiorno: Sud e magia (1959), Morto e pianto rituale nel mondo antico (1959), and La terra del rimorso (1961). From de Martino's field notes documenting his reliance on Levi's novel as a sort of vademecum for his Lucanian research, Carpitella concludes that Cristo “rappresentava un testo di riferimento che oggi diremmo squisitamente antropologico” (206). Lanternari elegantly describes the complementary roles of de Martino and Levi in the development of “una nuova coscienza di umanesimo antropologico” (213); if de Martino was the practicing anthropologist, scientifically and historically oriented, then Levi was the

annunciatore e profeta d'una antropologia meridionalista assolutamente nuova, carica di passione civile e sociale, permeata da un visionarismo poetico e mossa da una vibrante sensibilità e attenzione per l'intero mondo culturale, il vissuto immediato dei contadini del Sud, scoperti da lui del tutto occasionalmente in rapporto alla sua condizione di confinato politico antifascista.


Although Levi has been rightly criticized, from an ethnological perspective, for his mythologizing, a-historical conception of the contadini (Carpitella 207; Lanternari 215), his “antropologia meridionalista” nevertheless inspired—in part, no doubt, because of his mythic imagination—unprecedented attention to the “other” Italy.

Levi's anthropological vision, however, is not limited to an ethnological interest in the rural communities of Southern Italy, those of Lucania in particular. Nor is it merely the result of his presence in Grassano and Aliano (Gagliano in the novel) as a political exile. On the contrary, I shall argue in this essay that a crucial if understudied aspect of Levi's anthropology is precisely its mythic-philosophical dimension and the consequences of this anthropological theory for Levi's socio-political program. Specifically, I shall show that Levi's intense interest in the relationship of the individual to social structures, theorized in Paura della libertà and dramatized in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, makes him a worthy contributor to discussions of the sacred and the dialectic of differentiation and undifferentiation put forth by such influential thinkers as Victor Turner and René Girard. I view Levi's figuration of medicine in Cristo—raised, under the sign of magic, to an art of healing—as emblematic of both the creative energy generated by contact with the sacred and the limitations of such contact. Locating Levi at the intersection, so to speak, of Turner and Girard, I consider, finally, how Levi's call for political autonomy as an ideal “punto di mediazione” between the individual and the state has recently evolved in ways he could hardly have imagined.

In Violence and the Sacred, Girard seeks to account for the violence unleashed in communities still immersed in the sacred and, conversely, to explain (in at times apologetic tones) the role of Western institutions, especially religion, in curbing such violence.3 To be sure, there is a sense of urgency to Girard's argument insofar as he thinks we are on the brink of a sacrificial crisis, a moment which “coincides with the disappearance of the difference between impure violence and purifying violence”; he warns that “[w]hen this difference has been effaced, purification are no longer possible and impure, contagious, reciprocal violence spreads throughout the community” (49). Anticipating the more overt theological and religious framework of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World and The Scapegoat, Girard chides modern thinkers who, through “willful blindness … continue to see religion as an isolated, wholly fictitious phenomenon cherished only by a few backward peoples or milieus” (317). Writing at a time of considerable social and intellectual upheaval, under the shadow of the cold war and the arms race, he concludes Violence and the Sacred with an apocalyptic flourish: “We have managed to extricate ourselves from the sacred somewhat more successfully than other societies have done, to the point of losing all memory of the generative violence; but we are now about to rediscover it. The essential violence returns to us in a spectacular manner—not only in the form of a violent history but also in the form of subversive knowledge” (318).

Aptly called a “christianisation des sciences humaines” (Lagarde), Girard's project “pivots upon nothing less than a claim about the impact that a truly divine revelation has had on the human social order” (Livingston xvii). Thus, when Girard asserts that the function of ritual is “to keep violence outside the community” (Violence 92), he generally means that the purpose of the sacrificial rites of religion is to contain the violence “at the heart and secret soul of the sacred” (31). For Girard, then, the sacred is primarily figured as a danger, the embodiment of “all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace” (58).4 More important, Girard's linkage of violence and the sacred hinges on the loss of differences, “the disintegration of distinctions within the community” (114). The sacrificial crisis, in other words, occurs when the “differences disappear in the domain of the sacred only because they are indiscriminately mixed together and become indistinguishable in the confusion” (282). The community, by contrast, is defined by its separation from the undifferentiated world of the sacred since its “[o]rder, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions” (49). For this reason, the ritual victims needed to restore societal order are found outside the community, “from creatures (like animals and strangers) that normally dwell amidst sacred things and are themselves imbued with sacredness” (270). Against Lévi-Strauss, Girard views ritual as the means to eliminate the “evil mixture” of the undifferentiated sacred and thereby “make culture safe for differentiation” (“To Double Business Bound” 169).

Victor Turner, on the other hand, carves out a more positive space for the interrelated concepts of undifferentiation and the sacred. In The Ritual Process he considers groups as diverse as tribal societies, medieval religious communities, millenarian movements, and hippies to show how individuals satisfy their need to participate in both “structure” and “communitas,” two models of “human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating” (96). Turner's own juxtaposition of his definitions of structure and communitas immediately discloses a significant reversal in emphasis from Girard's privileging of differentiation over undifferentiation:

One … is of society as a structure of jural, political, and economic positions, offices, statuses, and roles, in which the individual is only ambiguously grasped behind the social persona. The other is of society as a communitas of concrete idiosyncratic individuals, who, though differing in physical and mental endowment, are nonetheless regarded as equal in terms of shared humanity. The first model is of a differentiated, culturally structured, segmented, and often hierarchical system of institutionalized positions. The second presents society as an undifferentiated, homogeneous whole, in which individuals confront one another integrally, and not as ‘segmentalized’ into statuses and roles.


Through a detailed discussion of rites of passage, rituals of status elevation or reversal, and the rise of ideological communities, Turner examines the experience of those who pass through or embody communitas in terms of liminality, marginality, and “structural inferiority” (128). He further observes that, in each of its three manifestations, communitas “is almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,’ possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency” (128).

Whereas Girard views the sacred as the harbinger of violence precisely because it is predicated on undifferentiation, for Turner it is only from the perspective of those invested in maintaining structure that “all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions” (109). The real threat, according to Turner, arises from the cultural distinctions privileged by Girard as the necessary condition for order and stability. Thus, in a passage cited by Girard as an example of “an ‘antidifferential’ prejudice” in ethnological studies (Violence 50), Turner writes: “Structural differentiation, both vertical and horizontal, is the foundation of strife and factionalism, and of struggles in dyadic relations between incumbents of positions or rivals for positions” (Ritual 179).5 For Turner, then, differentiation itself, even more so than the dissolution of differences in communitas, is a variable that must be closely monitored to prevent outbreaks of conflict and violence.

In practice, of course, both Turner and Girard recognize the interdependence of undifferentiation and differentiation—the sacred and the sacrificial, communitas and social structure—as an intrinsic feature of individual and group life. Girard, noting the “complex and delicate nature of the community's dealings with the sacred,” advocates an “optimum distance”: “If the community comes too near the sacred it risks being devoured by it; if, on the other hand, the community drifts too far away, out of range of the sacred's therapeutic threats and warnings, the effects of its fecund presence are lost” (Violence 268). And Turner, who warns that exaggerated structure or communitas could trigger a dangerous backlash effect (Ritual 129), elsewhere opines that “much of the misery of the world has been due to the principled activities of fanatics of both persuasions” (“Passages” 268). While “spontaneous communitas” may be inattentive to the material and organizational needs of society, “structural action swiftly becomes arid and mechanical if those involved in it are not periodically immersed in the regenerative abyss of communitas” (Ritual 139). “Wisdom,” Turner therefore suggests, “is always to find the appropriate relationship between structure and communitas under the given circumstances of time and place, to accept each modality when it is paramount without rejecting the other, and not to cling to one when its present impetus is spent” (139).

A similarly dialectical, contextual treatment of differentiation and undifferentiation is, in fact, the hallmark of Carlo Levi's argument in Paura della libertà. This short but substantive amalgam of, inter alia, religious myth, Jungian psychoanalysis, and Vico's philosophical thought is nothing less than Levi's ardent attempt to probe the underlying reasons for the huge historical crisis of Western civilization while “un vento di morte e di oscura religione sconvolgeva gli antichi stati d'Europa” (10). Written during a period of exile in France as German tanks began to overrun Poland in 1939, Levi initially conceived of the work as a massive cultural assessment of the mythic and historical underpinnings of such institutions of collective human existence as religion, politics, art, science, and technology. He felt compelled to take on this encyclopedic project to account for the dissolution of values and ideologies occasioned by the triumph of Nazifascism. Like Girard writing three decades later, though undoubtedly confronted with a more imminent, tangible crisis, Levi sought to explain, if only for himself, the underlying reasons—philosophical, psychological, and anthropological—of the human capacity for violence. The outbreak of war, combined with the death of his father, proved decisive: “Se il passato era morto, il presente incerto e terribile, il futuro misterioso, si sentiva il bisogno di fare il punto; di fermarsi a considerare le ragioni di quella cruenta rivoluzione che incominciava” (11). Although Levi abandoned his encyclopedic enterprise when the Nazis occupied France, he later realized that the eight introductory chapters he had already written contained in nuce his argument. He eventually published them as Paura della libertà in 1946, a year after the appearance of Cristo.

Long recognized as the foundation for Levi's subsequent creative and intellectual work, Paura has recently received insightful critical attention, both as an expression of Levi's views of the State, history, and the human condition (Baldassaro) and as the diagnosis of Nazifascism subtending Levi's antifascist politics (Ward 157-68).6Paura is also Levi's ante litteram response to Girard and Turner articulated at a moment when understanding the role of the sacred and its relationship to the individual and society was essential for rethinking the values, and imagining the renewal, of Western civilization. Indeed, the sacred is a powerful concept for Levi that figures, paradoxically, as both the exterminator and generator of freedom and art, the creative impulses of the human spirit in individual, social, and historical contexts. “Sacro,” Levi writes, is “l'oscura continua negazione della libertà e dell'arte, e, insieme, per contrasto, il generatore continuo della libertà e dell'arte” (17). This double-edged conception captures Girard's alignment of the sacred with “all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace” (Violence 58) as well as Turner's view that the sacred is experienced through periodic immersion “in the regenerative abyss of communitas” (Ritual 139).

Levi appropriately defines the sacred in relationship to the dialectic of differentiation and undifferentiation. “Sacro” is precisely “lo spavento dell'indeterminato in chi è nello sforzo di autocrearsi e di separarsi” (20). He uses the images of “caos” and “massa” to figure the primordial undifferentiated state, also called the “indistinto originario” (19), out of which differentiation occurs: “ogni uomo nasce del caos, e può riperdersi nel caos: viene dalla massa per differenziarsi, e può perder forma e nella massa riassorbirsi” (19). Individuals are moved by an “oscura libertà” to separate from this undifferentiated condition and acquire distinct characteristics (“individuarsi”) at the same time that they are driven by an “oscura necessità” to rejoin the universal, formless mass (19). Oscillations between these competing impulses begin with the individual's first, “prenatal” death (separation from the chaotic mass) and continue to its natural death. However, “true death,” like the misery wrought by the fanatics of structure and communitas in Turner's account, occurs only when either side of this dialectic is taken to an extreme: “il distacco totale dal flusso dell'indifferenziato, vuota ragione egoistica, astratta libertà—e, all'opposto, l'incapacità totale a differenziarsi, mistica oscurità bestiale, servitú dell'inesprimibile” (19).

History itself, according to Levi, is nothing less than alternating periods of separation from, and regeneration in, the “indistinto originario” (106). Differentiation can release the creative potential of individuals and the community, but contact with the undifferentiated mass is equally necessary for re-creation when the state and religion are reduced to the arid determinations of reason, law, and ritual. Ultimately, what really matters, the true moment of civilization and creativity, is some ideal point of equilibrium between the two extremes:

Ma i soli momenti vivi nei singoli uomini, i soli periodi di alta civiltà nella storia, sono quelli in cui i due opposti processi di differenziazione e di indifferenziazione trovano un punto di mediazione, e coesistono nell'atto creatore.


This “punto di mediazione,” in which differentiation and undifferentiation coexist in a creative act, takes various forms in Levi's thought. Mythically, he figures pre-lapsarian Eden as the place where “indeterminatezza era insieme determinazione,” a time when “Ogni atto era atto di libertà … ogni opera era creativa” (120). In the world of time and history, Levi likewise asserts that peace and freedom can coexist for humankind only when “la sua libertà gli consente di essere insieme individuazione personale e universalità illimitata” (88-89). While large, sprawling cities, as well as wars, reduce humanity to an undifferentiated mass, smaller social units—from the family to the mid-sized town—present possibilities for “punti di mediazione” insofar as “[t]utti si conoscono, e devono perciò differenziarsi” (108). Levi therefore celebrates life and creativity—in individual, artistic, social, and historical contexts—at the point of equilibrium between the opposing impulses of separation and immersion, sacrifice and the sacred.

In the chapter of Paura titled “Schiavitú,” Levi describes the anthropological and historical dilemma of Italy in terms of an incomplete fusion of two very different civilizations, “l'originale innesto di una civiltà militare, statolatra, religiosa, giuridica, su una civiltà contadina, anarchica, irreligiosa, poetica” (55). This is the problem that Levi, far from resolving, revisits in dramatic fashion in Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, his major work composed some five years after Paura della libertà but similarly based on his experience as an antifascist “confinato” in the Lucanian towns of Grassano and Aliano (Gagliano) in 1935-36. Levi immediately establishes the “desolate terre” of Lucania as an undifferentiated realm, a place untouched by the “civilizing,” differentiating forces of time, religion, reason, and history (15).7 To say that Christ stopped at Eboli means, for Levi, that the Western tradition, characterized by historical progress and the theocratic state, has never entered the mountains and forests of Lucania “se non come un conquistatore o un nemico o un visitatore incomprensivo” (15-16). Levi figures the encroachment of the rituals of Western civilization not as Girard's therapeutic curb on, but as the very origin of, violence and blood sacrifice. Based no doubt on his virulent opposition to Fascism and the mythic structures used to support it, Levi praises Virgil as a “grande storico” for describing the religion of the Trojans, ancestors of the Romans, as “feroce” since it required human sacrifices: “sulla pira di Pallante, il pio Enea sgozza i prigionieri, come sacrificio ai suoi dèi dello Stato” (122).

However, insofar as Carlo Levi is himself a product of this Western tradition the problem he faces is how to represent, through the faculty of memory, his contact as an “intellettuale differenziato” with the “massa indifferenziata” of the Lucanian contadini (Falaschi 64). This contact occurs primarily through the protagonist's medical and artistic activities. These two roles, in addition to representing “l'incarnazione della volontà di liberazione e d'autodeterminazione dell'uomo” (Bassani 37), provide the key that allows the differentiated subject to penetrate the closed world of the contadini and renew himself in the creative chaos of undifferentiated humanity. Levi himself figures his contact with Lucanian culture through the metaphor of “penetration” by means of a “key” when he recounts how, against the advice of Dr. Milillo, he exposed himself to the magical “filtri” of the peasant women by accepting their invitations for coffee or wine:

Se c'erano dei filtri, forse si sono vicendevolmente neutralizzati. Certo non mi hanno fatto male; forse mi hanno, in qualche modo misterioso, aiutato a penetrare in quel mondo chiuso, velato di veli neri, sanguigno e terrestre, nell'altro mondo dei contadini, dove non si entra senza una chiave di magía.


This reflection ironically counters Dr. Milillo's misogyny and hostility toward the contadini by respecting the magical powers of this “closed world,” those of the “filtri” in particular. Seeking a key to penetrate the mysterious world of the contadini, Levi thus adopts the authenticating strategy that Clifford Geertz ascribes to anthropologists when they write up their fieldwork:

The ability of anthropologists to get us to take what they say seriously has less to do with either a factual look or an air of conceptual elegance than it has with their capacity to convince us that what they say is a result of having actually penetrated (or, if your prefer, been penetrated by) another form of life, of having, one way or another, truly ‘been there.’ And that, persuading us that this offstage miracle has occurred, is where the writing comes in.


Levi's legitimating claim in Cristo to having “actually penetrated” or “been penetrated by” the culture of the Lucanian contadini hinges on the mutually reinforcing activities of magic and medicine.8

Since most of Carlo's acquaintances among the contadini of Gagliano result from their need for medical attention (73), it is natural that he would both “penetrate” and “be penetrated by” their undifferentiated world through his healing art, referred to in a letter from his sister Luisa, herself a “medico valentissimo” (Cristo 73), as his “nobile e utile missione.”9 Yet, this reciprocal influence is neither immediate nor automatic. Rather, the development of this reciprocity itself constitutes a major theme of the novel, as the distance traveled between the two principle medical episodes vividly illustrates. In the first case, shortly after his arrival in Gagliano, Carlo, who has medical training but little practical experience, is asked to visit a sick peasant. A group of men dressed in black eventually convince him to see the moribund patient, and they introduce him to a veritable ritual of death: in a dark room the sick man, fully dressed, including hat and shoes, lies on a makeshift stretcher, with women wailing and crying in the shadows. The narrative description of the doctor's visit is cold and to the point. He has been asked to try to save the man:

Ma non c'era piú nulla da fare: l'uomo stava morendo. Inutili le fiale trovate a casa della vedova, con cui, per solo scrupolo di coscienza, ma senza nessuna speranza, cercai di rianimarlo. Era un attacco di malaria perniciosa, la frebbre passava i limiti delle febbri piú alte, l'organismo non reagiva piú. Terreo, stava supino sulla barella, respirando a fatica, senza parlare, circondato dai lamenti dei compagni. Poco dopo era morto.


The physician's emotional involvement remains restrained—virtually non-existent—as he leaves the house of death. He walks out onto the piazza and, as the sun sets over the Calabrian hills to the west, observes the contadini returning home from their fields (20-21). In the terms of Paura, the patient may have died but it is the doctor here who dies the “morte vera” that results from “il distacco totale dal flusso dell'indifferenziato” (19). Burdened with the “vuota ragione egoistica” and “astratta libertà” concomitant with this state of extreme differentiation (Paura 19), Carlo begins his stay in Gagliano completely detached from the source of creative regeneration and true freedom.

Given this inauspicious start, it is no surprise that Carlo at first tries to shirk his medical responsibilities, not only because of insufficient preparation and a subsequent lack of confidence in his abilities, but also because of fear of getting involved in the town's factional politics (41-42). Yet, despite Carlo's detached, almost clinical response to the death of his patient, the Gaglianesi see that he is not like the “medicaciucci” of the town, and the women insist on bringing their sick children to him for medical treatment. Amazed and embarrassed, he attributes this display of trust either to the fact that he at least tried—albeit unsuccessfully—to save the malaria victim, or to the power with which the “outsider” is often invested in traditional cultures: “Era forse il prestigio naturale del forestiero che viene da lontano, e che è perciò come un dio” (42). Indeed, as this forestiero-dio, a political exile with healing powers, Carlo possesses the status of “outsiderhood” as described by Victor Turner in “Passages, Margins, and Poverty.” Expanding on his distinction between communitas and social structure from The Ritual Process, Turner argues that “outsiderhood,” along with “liminality” and “structural inferiority,” entails at least provisional contact with the undifferentiated whole often associated with the sacred. Outside of both the dominant Fascist culture and the a-historical world of the Lucanian contadini, Carlo is like the shamans, diviners, mediums, and priests included in Turner's list of individuals who experience the condition of “outsiderhood” by “being either permanently and by ascription set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system, or being situationally or temporarily set apart, or voluntarily setting oneself apart from the behavior of status-occupying, role-playing members of that system” (233).

Similarly, “structural inferiority,” Turner's designation for the lowest level of social stratification, accurately describes Levi's perception of Lucania's contadini as the oppressed, indigenous people who are thought to possess “a mystical power over the fertility of the earth and of all upon it” (234).10 Outside of time and history, the poorest inhabitants of Italy's rural Mezzogiorno take on “the symbolic function of representing humanity, without status qualifications or characteristics” (234). In contrast to the highly differentiated system that Turner aligns with social structure, this “undifferentiated whole whose units are total human beings” (234)—the basis of his communitas—“often appears culturally in the guise of an Edenic, paradisiacal, utopian, or millennial state of affairs, to the attainment of which religious or political action, personal or collective, should be directed” (237-38). While Turner's description of communitas here is far more optimistic than Levi's ambivalent view of the contadini as well as his conception of the sacred and undifferentiation in general, it also qualifies Girard's univocal figuration of the undifferentiated realm of the sacred as a dangerous power that must be contained through sacrificial rites.

As both the “oscura continua negazione della libertà e dell'arte” and the “generatore continuo della libertà e dell'arte” (Paura 17), Levi's figuration of the sacred is inherently dialectical. He is faithful to this ambiguity in Cristo. Like Plato's Pharmakon, a related term that can mean either “poison” or “remedy,” the meaning of Levi's sacro changes with the context or depends on the perspective from which it is considered. Thus he describes the world of the contadini as, on the one hand, a place “senza determinazioni” that precludes hope and happiness, allowing only “la cupa passività di una natura dolorosa” (72); on the other hand, alive in this same world is “il senso umano di un comune destino” (72), the capacity to establish human bonds according to “il senso sacro, arcano e magico di una comunanza” (81).11 It is this “comunanza”—the communitas imagined by Turner as a place for individuals to meet “not as role players but as ‘human totals’” (“Passages” 269)—that Carlo must enter to experience the creative freedom generated by the undifferentiated world of the sacred.

By the time the second major medical episode occurs Carlo has spent the better part of a year in Gagliano, much of that time in the company of his household servant, Giulia La Santarcangelese, a “strega contadina” familiar with “le erbe e il potere degli oggetti magici” (95). Possessing her own medical powers, in bono and in malo, Giulia “[s]apeva curare le malattie con gli incantesimi, e perfino poteva far morire chi volesse, con la sola virtú di terribili formule” (95). After the petty town politics have resulted in an order prohibiting Carlo from practicing medicine, Giulia tells him that the authorities will not be able to prevent him from continuing to treat the contadini: “se non ti lasciano fare il medico, tu curerai lo stesso. Dovresti fare lo stregone. Ora hai imparato tutto, sai tutto. E quello non te lo possono impedire” (197). In fact, he admits to having become “maestro in tutto quello che concerne la magía popolare, e le sue applicazioni alla medicina” (198), and this knowledge, combined with his beautiful “voce da prete,” makes him appear to Giulia as the embodiment of “tutte le virtú del Rofé orientale, del guaritore sacro” (198). This power as “sacred healer” derives from Carlo's tolerance—if not outright endorsement—of the peasant superstitions, including the traditional “abracadabra” that many of his patients wear as protection against illness. Where other doctors would scorn these popular beliefs, Carlo respects them: “ne onoravo l'antichità e la oscura, misteriosa semplicità, preferivo essere loro alleato che loro nemico, e i contadini me ne erano grati, e forse ne traevano davvero vantaggio” (199). Besides, he continues, even the “legitimate” medical practice of writing a prescription for every patient, especially when such prescriptions were written in Latin in indecipherable handwriting, could rightly be considered “una abitudine magica” (199).

Michael Taussig, a physician and anthropologist, argues that the doctor-patient relationship, more than merely technical, “is very much a social interaction which can reinforce the culture's basic premises in a most powerful manner” (86). Carlo shows exceptional awareness of this conception of medical practice as a set of social relations by valorizing the magical beliefs of his “primitive” patients while at the same time calling into question the positivist assumptions of “modern” science and medicine. In a culture where “anche la medicina ha potere soltanto per il suo contenuto magico” (201), Carlo wisely adapts his medical practice to the attitudes and behavior of the contadini. Thus, at one point in his heroic attempt to combat malaria, he replaces quinine, a medicine whose efficacy is limited because the peasants do not believe in it, with two newer medicines that work “meravigliosamente” because they function as both “sostanze chimiche” and “influenze magiche” (202). Whereas Chapman, whose Milocca was another village “forgotten by God and by man” (2), offers the “scientific” interpretation of curative magic as “probably a valuable device in the healing of maladies of purely nervous origin” (208), Levi's physician-protagonist refuses to delegitimize the power of magic and witchcraft to affect even the physical well-being of his patients.

Having thus reconciled his medical practice with the magical forces of his environment, Carlo is finally able to “return” to the sacred “comunanza” of the undifferentiated mass and thereby experience the liberating effects of a creative rebirth. In the second major medical episode, toward the end of his stay in Gagliano, the narrating subject's emotional involvement is strong and personal, even though this case, like the first, is hopeless from the start. Paradoxically, his participation is so extreme that the presence of death elicits neither horror nor indifference but an intuition of transcendent happiness and completeness:

La morte era nella casa: amavo quei contadini, sentivo il dolore e l'umiliazione della mia impotenza. Perché allora una cosí grande pace scendeva in me? Mi pareva di essere staccato da ogni cosa, da ogni luogo, remotissimo da ogni determinazione, perduto fuori del tempo, in un infinito altrove. Mi sentivo celato, ignoto agli uomini, nascosto come un germiglio sotto la scorza dell'albero: tendevo l'orecchio alla notte e mi pareva di essere entrato, d'un tratto, nel cuore stesso del mondo. Una felicità immensa, non mai provata, era in me, e mi riempiva intero, e il senso fluente di una infinita pienezza.


The doctor's perceived detachment from the world, his feeling of being “remotissimo da ogni determinazione,” attests to a complete immersion in the undifferentiated world of the sacred as it is described in Paura della libertà (Ward 164), a return to the “indistinto originario” needed for regeneration and renewed creative energy. Through the key of his healing art, as ineffectual—technically speaking—in this case as in the first, Carlo has not only succeeded in unlocking the closed door of this world outside of time and history, but he has even experienced the sensation of having entered the very heart of the universe.

However, the beneficent effects of this sacred immersion are short-lived as Carlo soon begins to feel the oppressive weight of resignation, frustration, and indifference that will ultimately make him glad to be released from his confinement two years earlier than expected. Returning to Lucania after a brief visit to Torino occasioned by the death of a close relative, he feels the mountains shut him in as if they were gates to a prison (212). Just before receiving notice of his freedom, Carlo reaches a “punto estremo di indifferenza”:

Mi pareva di essere un verme chiuso dentro una noce secca. Lontano dagli effetti, nel guscio religioso della monotonia, aspettavo gli anni venturi, e mi pareva di essere senza base, librato in un'aria assurda, dove era strano anche il suono della mia voce.


Yet, it is unlikely that Carlo's release from confinement in Gagliano and return to Torino will bring him the sense of joy and completeness he experienced, if only for a moment, in the Lucanian village. Reflecting on his recent trip to Torino, he realizes that the lives of his family and friends in the Northern metropolis, with their interests, ambitions, and hopes, are no longer his life (206). The large, modern city, after all, is another manifestation of the undifferentiated mass imbued with the sacred and hence capable of suffocating individual freedom and creativity in addition to generating it (Paura 108).12

Fittingly, the true “punto di mediazione” in Levi's novel, the moment where the processes of separation from, and immersion in, the sacred interact to produce creative energy occurs in Grassano, the town in which Levi was confined prior to his transfer to Gagliano. Whereas Gagliano is a small village “lontano dalle strade e dagli uomini,” Grassano is considerably larger and located on a major thoroughfare not far from the provincial capital (29). And while Gagliano consists only of a few Signori and many contadini, Grassano has a significant middle class composed of artisans, carpenters in particular (142). Carlo recalls this town, in which he had arrived following months of solitary confinement, as a “terra di libertà” (137). He is therefore overjoyed when he is permitted to return to Grassano for a short period in order to finish some paintings, and once reunited with some old friends it does not take him long to become again “un uomo libero” (145). Described as an “insperata vacanza” (135), this interlude in a community considerably larger and differentiated than Gagliano, yet smaller and less impersonal than Torino, provides an opportunity for a flourish of creative activity, from Carlo's paintings and the lively stories told by travelling merchants to the preventive medicine practiced by the town's two valid doctors and the theatrical production of d'Annunzio's La Fiaccola sotto il Moggio, amazingly brought to life—despite the aestheticism of the playwright—by a troupe of Sicilian actors and a lively audience.

Levi's celebration of creativity in Grassano is analogous, in political terms, to his promotion of the “nuovi valori di libertà” that he hoped would emerge from the Resistance (“Crisi di civiltà” 54).13 For Levi, the Resistance, like the thriving artisan class of Grassano, represented a creative “punto di mediazione” between undifferentiation and differentiation capable of releasing “le nuove energie liberatrici” (De Donato, Introduction xxxvi). However, Levi and his political allies soon came to realize that, because the contadini in the Mezzogiorno had been largely left out of the Partisan struggle, they were virtually unaffected by the liberating climate of the Resistance (Ward 166). Similarly, even as the relatively large middle class of Grassano serves as a conduit for the creative energy of such activities as painting, story-telling, and theater, Levi must acknowledge that the lives of the contadini here are no less wretched than those of their counterparts at Gagliano (Cristo 142). In fact, the contadini of Grassano are in some ways worse off precisely because they have more contact with the outside world—and therefore greater desire to escape—while the likelihood of actually improving their circumstances remains small (143). It is against this bleak backdrop that Levi analyzes the “problema meridionale” not only as an economic and social problem, but first and foremost as the problem of reconciling “[c]ampagna e città, civiltà precristiana e civiltà non piú cristiana” (209)—that is, as an anthropological problem.

In the final pages of Cristo, Levi proposes social and political autonomy as the way out of the vicious circle of fascism and anti-fascism in Italy. The contadini, for instance, would have greater control over their lives by belonging to a “comune rurale autonomo” (211). Levi envisions the nation as a network of such autonomous units: “Ma l'autonomia del comune rurale non potrà esistere senza l'autonomia delle fabbriche, delle scuole, delle città, di tutte le forme della vita sociale. Questo è quello che ho appreso in un anno di vita sotterranea” (211). David Ward delineates the autonomous approach theorized by Levi and initially adopted by the Partito d'azione after the war:

It was to replace the monolithic national state, which had reached its apotheosis with fascism, that the Action Party elaborated its policy on local government. The policy envisaged the creation of a series of local, autonomous regions or provinces, each of which would make provision for the region's specific needs and demands. In other words, a state built from the bottom up, and not imposed from above, a state whose structures would have to be created by its citizens, and not inherited from past practices.


In philosophical terms, Levi's local, culture-specific approach to the twin perils of oppression and indifference accords with his imagining of optimum creativity at the intersection of the processes of differentiation and undifferentiation. Like the artisan class of Grassano, Levi's autonomous groups would possess distinct identities without losing contact with the sacred bonds of shared humanity, an ideal configuration of “societas” as described by Turner: “a process involving both social structure and communitas, separately and united in varying proportions” (“Passages” 238). Politically, however, Levi's conception of the State as an “insieme di infinite autonomie, una organica federazione” (Cristo 211) stood little chance of becoming policy. Included in the manifesto of the Partito d'azione, it nonetheless “remained a dead letter” (Ward 173), to a large extent because all the politicians with whom Levi discussed the “problema meridionale” were “degli adoratori, piú o meno inconsapevoli dello Stato” (Cristo 207).

Some fifty years later, the reappearance of some of Levi's ideas in Italian public discourse creates a striking incongruity, thereby illustrating once again his fundamental lesson that cultural and historical contexts determine the ethical value of specific socio-political agendas. Whereas Levi championed the principle of greater regional and cultural autonomy to free the economically disadvantaged Mezzogiorno from the tyranny of centralized state control, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, has recently espoused similar ideas to the opposite effect: his call for “federalismo” aims to extricate the more prosperous North (Padania) from its putative burden of supporting the poorer South.14 In fact, with the victory of the center-left coalition in the national elections (21 April 1996) and the formation of the Prodi government, Bossi's rhetoric has intensified to the point where he defiantly speaks of “secessionismo” as often as “federalismo”—a politics of divisiveness in words if not in fact.15

Bossi's blatant recourse to scapegoating, clearly intended to exploit the lowest common denominator of a heterogenous society, stands in marked contrast to the example of Carlo Levi, an Italian from Torino who asked to be buried in Aliano. Although Levi's socio-economic analysis was ultimately impractical,16 limited perhaps by his anthropological and philosophical vision, his humanistic impulses—best seen in Cristo through his work as an artist and a physician—remain a powerful testament to the commitment of inspired individuals to work toward positive social change even and especially under difficult conditions. Christ may have stopped at Eboli, but Carlo Levi and those like him courageously resist oppression and injustice precisely where others give in to resignation and indifference.


  1. I am grateful to the South Central Modern Language Association for a travel grant that enabled me to conduct research for this article in Rome in May, 1996. I also thank Dott. Gigliola De Donato, member of the administrative council of the Fondazione Carlo Levi, and Dott. Margherita Martelli, archivist for the foundation at the Archivio centrale dello Stato, for making Levi's papers available to me on short notice. And I am indebted to Maria Wells, Italian curator for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, for generously sharing with me her extensive knowledge of the manuscript of Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli.

  2. The book was published in 1971 when the manuscript was found in the files of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

  3. Girard develops his argument with examples drawn from literary tragedies, both Greek and Shakespearean, and anthropological studies of traditional societies in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He views other writers, from Dante to Camus, through the lens of “the mimetic cycle and unanimous victimage mechanism” in “To Double Business Bound.

  4. Although Girard elsewhere writes of the “dual nature” of the sacred (“it is both harmful and beneficial,” The Scapegoat 199), he clearly privileges its threatening and “harmful” effects in his work.

  5. Adducing evidence from Greek tragedy and primitive religion, Girard counters that “it is not the differences but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos. … This loss forces men into a perpetual confrontation, one that strips them of all their distinctive characteristics—in short, of their ‘identities’” (Violence 51).

  6. Two other important discussions of Paura are Falaschi (59-64) and De Donato (Saggio 53-73).

  7. Levi later frames this discussion in terms of univocal meaning and multiplicity: “La ragione soltanto ha un senso univoco, e, come lei, la religione e la storia. Ma il senso dell'esistenza, come quello dell'arte e del linguaggio e dell'amore, è molteplice, all'infinito” (103). In the manuscript Levi adds “storia” and “linguaggio” to an earlier draft of the passage on the back of fol. 125, the only time two versions of the same passage appear in the manuscript.

  8. Levi similarly seeks a key to penetrate the politics and passions that animate the “Luigini,” the corrupt middle class of Gagliano (28-29).

  9. Medical issues, ranging from the treatment of malaria and the measles to the payment of annual dues to the “sindacato Medici,” are a frequent topic of Luisa's many letters to Carlo during his confinement. Moss observes that it is primarily through the doctor's access to the peasants that Levi “builds up a fascinating anthropology of peasant life and culture” (27).

  10. Thus Levi describes Giulia, his mythical strega-domestica, as a powerful woman “legata alla zolla e alle eterne divinità animali” (Cristo 94).

  11. Inspection of the manuscript of Cristo reveals that Levi inserted the phrase “nel loro terrore del sacro” to another important passage (103; fol. 126), a revision that reinforces the author's identification not only with Barone, his beloved dog who was “mezzo barone e mezzo leone,” but also with the undifferentiated world of the contadini with whom he lived.

  12. In L'orologio Levi imagines a more positive—or at least ambiguous—association of a large city, Naples, with the “indistinto originario” (Ward 190), thereby providing an urban analogue to the sacred world of the contadini in Cristo.

  13. In his “Ricordo di Leone Ginzburg,” whose death is commemorated in the manuscript of Cristo with “Leone” and a small red cross next to the date “7/2/44” (fol. 159), Levi writes: “Se la Resistenza fu insieme il primo momento rivoluzionario e popolare della nostra storia e un grande fatto di cultura, lo si deve agli uomini come Leone Ginzburg che per elevatezza d'ingegno e rigore di vita morale avevano intransigentemente precorso in se stessi quella nuova unità umana, quella solidarietà operante e creativa” (167-68).

  14. Ward describes the Lega nord as a movement “which is intensely critical of the unified Italian state that was born out of the Risorgimento, and whose main political proposal is the creation of a tripartite federal Italy divided into semiautonomous republics …” (26).

  15. Claiming that “federalismo non serve più a niente,” Bossi threatened secession, the League's next phase, as “quella decisiva contro Roma ladrona” (Buzzanca 7). He and a group of twenty-seven senators walked out of Parliament when the Senate leader refused to recognize the group's request to be named “Lega-Parlamento della Padania” (Buzzanca), a day after the leader of the Camera dei Deputati similarly rejected “Lega Padania indipendente” (Stanganelli).

  16. Levi, according to Moss, was right in asserting the impossibility for the peasant traditions to remain intact under a centralized state, but “he was wrong in thinking that, in human development, the two areas of consciousness and material conditions can be kept separate” (32). That is, as the socio-economic landscape changed (slightly for the better) in Southern Italy, the peasants themselves began to adopt some of the qualities of the “piccola borghesia” so despised and maligned by Levi in the novel. See Napolillo for a sustained, occasionally harsh, critique of Levi's meridionalismo.

Works Cited

Baldassaro, Lawrence. “Paura della libertà: Carlo Levi's Unfinished Preface.” Italica 72.2 (1995): 143-54.

Bassani, Giorgio. “Levi e la crisi.” Paragone (Aug. 1950): 32-40.

Buzzanca, Silvio. “Bossi lascia il Senato: ‘Salgo sull'Aventino.’” La Repubblica (17 May 1996): 7.

Carpitella, Diego. “L'itinerario di Carlo Levi e la ricerca interdisciplinare di Ernesto de Martino.” De Donato, Carlo Levi nella storia 203-12.

Chapman, Charlotte Gower. Milocca: A Sicilian Village. Cambridge: Shenkman, 1971.

Cronin, Constance. The Sting of Change: Sicilians in Sicily and Australia. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.

De Donato, Gigliola, ed. Carlo Levi nella storia e nella cultura italiana. Manduria: Piero Lacaita, 1993.

———. Introduction. Levi, Coraggio dei miti vii-lxii.

———. Saggio su Carlo Levi. Roma-Bari: De Donato, 1974.

Falaschi, Giovanni. “Carlo Levi.” Belfagor 26 (1971): 56-82.

Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

———. “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

———. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Lagarde, François. René Girard ou la christianisation des sciences humaines. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Lanternari, Vittorio. “Da Carlo Levi a Ernesto de Martino: verso la nuova antropologia.” De Donato, Carlo Levi nella storia 213-25.

Levi, Carlo. Coraggio dei miti: scritti contemporanei, 1922-1974. Ed. Gigliola De Donato. Roma-Bari: De Donato, 1975.

———. “Crisi di civiltà.” Levi. Coraggio dei miti 52-54.

———. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. 1945. 21st paperback ed. Milano: Mondadori, 1985.

———. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Autograph ms. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. U of Texas, Austin.

———. Paura della libertà. 1946. 2nd ed. Torino: Einaudi, 1948.

———. “Ricordo di Leone Ginzburg.” Levi. Coraggio dei miti 166-68.

Levi, Luisa. Letter to Carlo Levi. 20 Feb. 1936. Busta 1, fasc. 1. Archivio Carlo Levi. Archivio centrale dello Stato. Rome, Italy.

Livingston, Paisley. Models of Desire: René Girard and the Psychology of Mimesis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Moss, Howard. “The Politics of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli.Association of Teachers of Italian Journal 52 (1988): 27-36.

Napolillo, Vincenzo. Carlo Levi dall'antifascismo al mito contadino. Cosenza: Brenner, 1984.

Stanganelli, Mario. “Violante boccia la ‘Padania indipendente.’” Il Messaggero (16 May 1996): 5.

Taussig, Michael. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Patient.” The Nervous System. New York: Routledge, 1992. 83-111.

Turner, Victor. “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.” Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974. 231-71.

———. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

Ward, David. Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated U Presses, 1996.

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