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cristo si è fermato a eboli

30 june 2018

"Christ stopped at Eboli," in Carlo Levi's memorable title: Our Lord only got partway down the Italian peninsula, and left the folks further south to their own devices. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is Levi's semi-autobiographical classic about his time in internal exile during the fascist 1930s, in the poorest villages of the Italian instep.

Italian economic and political power tilts decisively to the north; Italian literature goes the other way, its moral and aesthetic power deriving from the south. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli may be the single greatest book written about the south of Italy, though it is by a thorough outsider; Levi was a Northerner, an intellectual, an artist, a gentleman, and a Jew.

Carlo Levi would establish lasting bonds with the people of Aliano, in Basilicata (which he here calls Gagliano, not to disguise the place but to adopt the local pronunciation). Levi is even buried in Aliano. But he arrives, in 1935, as a complete foreigner. The genius, and beauty, of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is that Levi casts himself as being no particular man of the people, at least at first. When he arrives in Gagliano, he interacts mainly with the signori, the "quality" of the place. This despite the fact that many of them are fascists, and don Carlo is antifascist by definition, or he wouldn't be there.

Don Carlo becomes an object of fascination to the gentry of Gagliano because he is a northerner, an urbanite, and an artist. He is also, incidentally, a physician, at least by education, though he's never really practiced. His medical abilities are just one more resumé item for the signori, but they are a vital attraction for the contadini, the peasants, from the moment he arrives.

Medicine in Gagliano, Levi finds, is more a status symbol than a public-health measure. The local doctor and pharmacist, as in most of the villages of Basilicata, have inherited their positions rather than studied for them. They can't cure a common cold or set a broken bone. Not that Dr. Levi, without proper drugs and equipment, can do very much more, but at least he avoids actively poisoning and torturing his patients, who tend to get better on their own, as patients will – often with a large helping of folk elixirs and incantations, which Levi has too much of an open mind to proscribe. The contadini come to love him for both his skill and his honesty.

As I've presented it, the main story of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli sounds a bit glurgy, a tale of a Dr. Schweitzer of the mezzogiorno. But again, it's all in the attitude. Levi presents his first medical case as a failure, a dying man he can do nothing for. At other key junctures, he fails to do much for a patient. Despite his liberal creds, he's no crusader; his main purpose in life is to get some painting done. He initially gravitates to the gentry and establishes key alliances there. He has plenty of money; he displays the finicky needs that come with lifelong ease. I'm not even sure he ends the book with a feeling that the contadini are fully human, at least human as he sees it: they are magical, "natural" as opposed to civilized, eternal, and animal, but perhaps never exactly like those who live north of Eboli. They're no better or worse than other people, though, however different. He neither romanticizes nor dismisses them. He just lives alongside them for a while, and that makes all the difference in his life and in his book.

If Levi was a danger to the fascist state at home in Turin, it seems that he's just as dangerous in Gagliano. The envy of the local doctors brings down a ban on Don Carlo practicing medicine. When red tape prevents him from treating a patient (who probably would have died anyway), the contadini are briefly up in arms, then try the recourse of petitioning the authorities to allow Levi to practice. Neither approach works,

e poiché non avevano potuto esprimersi con la violenza, né col diritto, si espressero con l'arte. (203)

[so because they weren't able to express themselves with force or with law, they expressed themselves with art.]
The contadini perform a piece of street theater, showing a family that loses a son to the machinations of an evil doctor who keeps a good angel away. The applications to recent events are stylized, "comprensibili e penetranti, senza diventare mai pericolose" (204): clear and trenchant, without ever becoming dangerous. Levi ascribes this tightrope act to "finezza contadina," country tact, but the connection to his own work is equally clear and trenchant. Levi too has been unable to resist Mussolini with force or with legal arguments, even (at this point) by using his medical skills. His recourse is to write and paint. And eighty years later, what we know and admire of those who survived fascism comes from the pen and brush of Carlo Levi and others like him. There is a place for art in the resistance to oppression, and by no means an ancillary one.

Levi, Carlo. Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. 1945. Torino: Einaudi, 2014.