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When Individual Responsibility Is Exiled

by Michael McDonald

Carlo Levi's 'Christ Stopped at Eboli' serves as a reminder and a warning: There is 'a Lucania in each of us' that we need to accept but be vigilant against

The forced removal of a person accused of crimes against the state to a remote and unhealthy region dates to antiquity, but it was the tyrants of the 20th century who meted out the punishment on an industrial scale. In Fascist Italy, Mussolini sent more than 13,000 dissenters into confino—internal exile—mostly to backwaters in the south.

Seventy years ago, a book appeared documenting one man's 10-month exile, in 1935 and 1936, to the malaria-ridden province of Lucania. The author was Carlo Levi, and his "Cristo si è fermato a Eboli" (1945), translated into English as "Christ Stopped at Eboli" (1947), is a compellingly unclassifiable work: part memoir, part fictionalized reportage, part sociological tract, and part philosophical meditation on the limits of human rationality. The book carries a timeless message, which no doubt explains why it has never gone out of print in Italy and the U.S.

Levi, a doctor-turned-painter born in 1902 into a prosperous assimilated Jewish family and raised in the cultured northern city of Turin, developed firmly rooted democratic convictions from an early age and felt it his duty to involve himself in politics after Mussolini assumed dictatorial powers. In the 1930s, he played an integral role in the clandestine Giustizia e Libertà organization that advocated the Duce’s overthrow and the creation of a republican democracy, which led to his arrest and exile.

When his confino ended in 1936, Levi emigrated to France. But in 1941 he returned to Italy, where he became a wanted man. In 1943 he hid out in a friend’s apartment in Florence. There he spent six months writing about his exile in Grassano and Aliano, two tiny Lucanian villages—work that culminated in "Christ Stopped at Eboli."

Much of Levi's memoir portrays the peasants of the two towns, who sought out Levi for his medical knowledge. He describes the lives of simple people who believed in irrational forces (such as demons and gnomes) and displayed a complete indifference to life beyond their "arid and lonely settlements, remote even from neighboring villages, and so backward and impoverished that...Christ never came to them; Christ stopped farther north, at Eboli."

He sketches memorable portraits: the pig doctor, the town crier, the gravedigger, the village witches and, above all, the long-suffering peasants. And he also wryly ridicules Fascism as embodied in the town's officious mayor: a statist "parasite," whose main accomplishment was to build a massive public toilet used by no one except animals. Levi justifies the peasants’ disdain for authority, noting that for them the state consisted only of jailers, soldiers and policemen: "To the peasants 'Rome' was a name rather than a power; its authority had no real hold on them, and the regime was certainly uninterested in their fate."

Levi came to Lucania as an enlightened rationalist. But his experience there changed him. At the heart of Levi's portrait is a strong critique of liberal progressivism: namely, of the belief that Fascism was the product of ignorance and that any problem brought before the bar of reason could be solved. Levi argued that an "eternal fascism" was embedded in each person's soul and that Fascism had triumphed because of a widespread fear of taking responsibility and of individual self-determination, an innate human desire to stand with and not apart from the group. In this respect, Levi pointed to similarities between the supposedly "barbarous" Lucanian peasantry and Rome’s supposedly "civilized" Fascists.

The Lucanian peasants surrendered their individuality by believing in magic and mystical powers; Rome's Fascists surrendered their individuality by believing in the power and beneficence of Il Duce and his absolutist state. Joining in collective worship of the state is, in its own way, as irrational as living “outside of time” in an animal-like collectivity, immersed in tribal rites and believing in witches.

In the 70 years since the book's publication, Lucania has been transformed. In a memorable chapter of the book, Levi describes the misery of Matera, where people lived in caves with animals. Now Matera is a World Heritage site whose cave dwellings have been transformed into high-end hotels and restaurants. In that sense, the modernization of Lucania may seem to have made the book irrelevant.

But it continues to matter. As Italo Calvino once remarked, "A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway." Italy and the world have obviously changed in the age of globalization. But human irrationality, humans' reluctance to engage as responsible individuals rather than going with the collectivist flow of mass entertainment or mass political movements, continues unabated. Think, for example, of the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in European politics today. As Levi noted, there is "a Lucania in each of us" that we need to accept but be vigilant against. Because that is so, the book should never go out of print.
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