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One more selection from Christ Stopped at Eboli.

But what never failed to strike me most of all and by now I had been in almost every house were the eyes of the two inseparable guardian angels that looked at me from the wall over the bed. On one side was the black, scowling face, with its large, inhuman eyes, of the Madonna of Viggiano; on the other a colored print of the sparkling eyes, behind gleaming glasses, and the hearty grin of President Roosevelt. I never saw other pictures or images than these: not the King nor the Duce, nor even Garibaldi; no famous Italian of any kind, nor any one of the appropriate saints; only Roosevelt and the Madonna of Viggiano never failed to be present. To see them there, one facing the other, in cheap prints, they seemed the two faces of the power that has divided the universe between them. But here their roles were, quite rightly, reversed.

The Madonna appeared to be a fierce, pitiless, mysterious, ancient earth goddess, the Saturnian mistress of this world; the President a sort of all-powerful Zeus, the benevolent and smiling master of a higher sphere. Sometimes a third image formed, along with these two, a trinity: a dollar bill, the last of those brought back from across the sea, or one that had come in the letter of a husband or relative, was tacked up under the Madonna or the President, or else between them, like the Holy Ghost or an ambassador from heaven to the world of the dead.

To the peasants of Lucania Rome means very little; it Is the capital of the gentry, the center of a foreign and hostile world. Naples has more right to be their capital, and In some ways it is; it is the capital of poverty. Those who live there have pale faces and feverish eyes; on sweltering summer days you can see half-dressed women asleep at tables, through the open doors of the one-story houses of the poor along the steep alleys off the Toledo. But at Naples, for a long time, there has been no king, and the peasants go there only to embark for other shores. The Kingdom of Naples has perished, and the kingdom of the hopelessly poor is not of this world.

Their other world is America. Even America, to the peasants, has a dual nature. It is a land where a man goes to work, where he toils and sweats for his daily bread, where he lays aside a little money only at the cost of endless hardship and privation, where he can die and no one will remember him. At the same time, and with no contradiction in terms, It is an earthly paradise and the promised land.

Two interesting things about Italian emigration patterns:

First: though more Italians from the North emigrated overall (many to South America), the majority of Italian immigrants to the US were from the South, and from Sicily. This has created a lopsided mezzogiorno cast to the mental image of ‘Italians’ that is enjoyed in this country.

Second, a large percentage of emigrants from the South returned to their native country after Italy after only a brief stay in the US. Exact numbers are impossible to know, but one scholar estimated that 1.5 million Italians returned to their country from the US from 1900 to 1914, compared to the 2.6 million who arrived during that time. Thus the prevalence of the peasants Levi found in Lucania that were known as ‘Americans’ to their neighbors.

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He nerved himself for action, and cleared his throat.

‘Ah-h’rm!’ said George.

And, having opened the ball, he smiled a winning smile and waited for his companion to make the next move.

The move which his companion made was in an upwards direction, and measured from six to eight inches. She dropped her paper and regarded George with pale-eyed horror. One pictures her a little in the position of Robinson Crusoe when he saw the footprint in the sand. She had been convinced that she was completely alone, and lo! out of space a voice had spoken to her. Her face worked, but she made no remark.

George, on his side, was also feeling a little ill at ease. Women always increased his natural shyness. He never knew what to say to them.

Then a happy thought struck him. He had just glanced at his watch and found the hour to be nearly four-thirty. Women, he knew, loved a drop of tea at about this time, and fortunately there was in his suit-case a full thermos flask.

‘Pardon me, but I wonder if you would care for a cup of tea?’ was what he wanted to say, but, as so often happened with him when in the presence of the opposite sex, he could get no farther than a sort of sizzling sound like a cockroach calling to its young.

~ Wodehouse, Meet Mr. Mulliner

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Externally, ffinch Hall was one of those gloomy, sombre country-houses which seem to exist only for the purpose of having horrid crimes committed in them. Even in his brief visit to the grounds, Wilfred had noticed fully half a dozen places which seemed incomplete without a cross indicating spot where body was found by the police. It was the sort of house where ravens croak in the front garden just before the death of the heir, and shrieks ring out from behind barred windows in the night.

~ Wodehouse, Meet Mr. Mulliner

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Carlo Levi describes a fascinating drinking game called La Passatella. It seems to have been new to him, coming as he did from Turin. But the tradition of drinking games with a nominated arbiter bibendi is attested in ancient sources. Horace mentions a regna vini in his fourth Ode, and Cicero describes in his “On Old Age”: me vero et magisteria delectant a maioribus instituta et is sermo, qui more maiorum a summo adhibetur in poculo. But Levi shows how acrimony and resentment are central to the game in Basilicata.

Passatella is the most popular game in this part of the country, and a particular favorite among the peasants. On long winter evenings and holidays they play it for hours in the taverns. It often ends in violence; if not with drawn knives, as on the occasion I have just described, at least with quarrels and scuffling.

Passatella is not so much a game as it is a peasant tournament of oratory, where interminable speeches reveal in veiled terms a vast amount of repressed rancor, hate, and rivalry. A brief session with the cards determines a winner, who is then the King of the Passaella and his assistant. The King holds sway over the wine, for which all the players have paid their share, and he fills the glasses or leaves them empty according to his fancy. His assistant holds the glasses out to be filled and has veto powers, that is, he can prevent the would-be drinker from downing his wine.

The King and his assistant alike must justify both their choices and their vetoes, and this they do in the form of a cross-examination carried out in long speeches, replete with irony and concealed passion. Sometimes the game has an innocent character and does not extend beyond the pleasantry of piling up all the drinks on one man who is notoriously unable to hold them, or denying them to the keenest drinker at the table. But more often the arguments proffered by the King and his assistant reflect the feuds and conflicting interests of the players, expressed with all the slowness, roundabout ways, astuteness, inistaist, and deep conviction characteristic of the peasants.

Cards and bottles of wine alternate for hours on end, until tempers boil from the effect of drink and heat and the rekindling of smouldering passions, which are in turn sharpened by vindictive words and yet lulled by drunkenness. Even if a fight does not develop, all those present are aware of the bitterness latent in what has been said during the exchange of veiled insults.

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“I think you’re making a great mistake, my dear child. Surely it’s a mug’s game to throw away a life’s happiness just because Johnny’s made you, momentarily, a bit hot under the collar. You know in your heart that he’s Prince Charming. Do you play golf?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Johnny’s handicap is six.”

“I know.”

“What’s yours?”


“Well, then. Think how he’d improve your game! With him constantly at your side, you might get down to single figures. What every girl needs is a husband whose loving task is to make her keep her head down, and her eye on the ball. Oh, and apart from that, the mere fact that after only a few meetings you both became convinced that you were twin souls makes it obvious that a merger between you and John Stiffy Halliday is a good thing. And should be.. pushed along”

In spite of her resolve to do nothing that would detract from her cold hauteur, Linda gave a squeak of surprise.

“John WHAT Halliday?”

“His father at the christening insisted on the ‘Stiffy’. It was his nickname at the Pelican Club, and he wanted it to live on after him. His wife objected, and the parson wasn’t any too pleased, but he won the Battle of the Font. He was a very determined chap. Johnny’s the same. “

~ Wodehouse, A Pelican at Blandings

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This short fable is brilliant and visually stunning. Stories are brought to life – and they bring us to life: from Humpty Dumpty to Jules Verne.

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some of the footage here is excellent. I’d love to see them develop one at Yellowstone, too

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More from Carlo Levi. He’s describing the typical peasant house in Gagliano:

The peasants houses were all alike, consisting of only one room that served as a kitchen, bedroom, and usually as quarters for the barnyard animals as well, unless there happened to be an outhouse, which they described with a dialect word of Greek derivation, catoico. On one side of the room was the stove; sticks brought In every day from the fields served as fuel, and the walls and ceiling were blackened with smoke. The only light was that from the door. The room was almost
entirely filled by an enormous bed, much larger than an ordinary double bed; in it slept the whole family, father, mother, and children. The smallest children, before they were weaned, that is until they were three or four years old, were kept in little reed cradles or baskets hung from the celling just above the bed. When the mother wanted to nurse them she did not have to get out of bed; she simply reached out and pulled the baby down to her breast, then put him back and with one motion of her hand made the basket rock like a pendulum until he had ceased to cry.

Under the bed slept the animals, and so the room was divided into three layers: animals on the floor, people in the bed, and infants in the air. When I bent over a bed to listen to a patient’s heart or to give an injection to a woman whose teeth were chattering with fever or who was burning up with malaria, my head touched the hanging cradles, while frightened pigs and chickens darted between my legs.

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Dr. Beachcoming posed a question recently in his always-fascinating blog: are there cases where a person quite literally laughed himself to death?

I shared with him one literary case: the death of the picaresque figure Margutte in Pulci’s 15th century epic Morgante.

Near the end of Canto XIX, the giant Morgante has befriended the wicked and  hilarious half-giant Margutte. The whole Canto is an account of their adventures. Some of the best episodes are of several practical jokes Morgante plays on his friend. For example, he tricks Margutte several times out of his dinner when they’re wandering hungrily through the Egyptian wilderness.

But Morgante’s last joke is fatal: while Margutte sleeps, Morgante gives his boots to a monkey. Margutte awakes in stanza 146:

He said, “Morgante, you’re a trustless man:
well can see you took my boots away,
being the vile and gross man that you are.”
Morgante said, “Now guess where I have hid them:
they cannot be too far from where we are.
With this I’ll let you pay for countless wrongs.”
Searching for them, Margutte looked in vain,
and, ever mumbling, yet he searched again.
Morgante laughed still more, the more he fumed.
Margutte finally could see his boots:
a little monkey had got hold of them,
and had already tried them on and off.
Ask not if then he laughed! He laughed so hard,
his eyes began to swell and, swollen so,
seemed just about to burst out of his head -
yet at that play he looked, amused and glad.
Excited more and more by such a play,
he kept on laughing, and his laughter grew
so loud, his chest, which needed some relief,
could not at all some respite ever find,
so much impeded and constrained and blocked.
The little monkey tried them on again:
Margutte’s laughter reached such a commotion,
there was right in the end a great explosion,
which soon rebounded like a cannon blast,
such was the mighty thunder all around.
Morgante ran to see what had occurred,
gazed on Margutte whence that sound had come,
and was so sorry for the trick he played
when on the ground he saw him lying still;
and when he saw the monkey right beside,
he knew that from much laughter he had died

Much later the Archangel Gabriel assures the hero Orlando that Margutte is in Hell and “he is still laughing, and will laugh forever.”

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Amazing how well a deer only minutes old can walk on these rocks.

(q: why must people affix pretentious soundtracks to their otherwise nifty youtube videos?)

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From Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir of his banishment to a tiny town in the south of Italy during the Fascist war against Ethiopia.

One ten-year-old boy, Giovanni Fanelli, a pale little fellow with big, black eyes, a long, slender neck had a particular enthusiasm for painting. All the children begged for my discarded tubes and brushes to play with, and Giovanni got his share of these, but liked to put them to a better use.

Without so much as a hint to me he made secret attempts to become a painter. He watched very carefully everything I did, from sizing the canvas to stretching it on a frame. Just because I did these simple things they seemed to him no less fundamental than the actual laying on of color. He picked up sticks and made them into irregular frames; then on these he stretched odd bits of old shirting and covered them with some sort of sticky substance in lieu of size. When he had done this much he thought that the worst was over. With what was left in my used tubes of paint, an old palette, and worn brushes he tried to imitate my exact strokes.

He was a timid, blushing boy and he would never have summoned up the courage to show me his work. I happened to see it only at the prompting of his young friends. His would-be painting was not the usual sort of childish thing, nor was it a mere imitation. He made shapeless masses of color, which were not altogether without charin. I do not know if Giovanni Fanelli had it in him to become a painter, but I have never seen another boy with his faith that a spontaneous revelation would come out of his labor, that the practice of a technique would work like magic, and that his efforts would bear fruit as certainly as a field that has been plowed and sown.

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An American poet leaves the isolation of her ‘artist’s colony’ near Gubbio, and sails to the tiny island of Lampedusa to report on waves of boat-borne immigrants. One interesting passage:

While the refugees are hidden away, there are two black faces visible on Lampedusa. One belongs to the woman on the napkin dispenser at the port cafe. She smiles from every table, her face emerging from a sea of coffee beans: “The Pleasure of Black” reads the slogan beneath her disembodied head. The other face belongs to Father Vincent Mwagala, a Catholic priest and very different kind of missionary who has come from Tanzania to work among the refugees and islanders here.

Above his desk there’s a cross made of two ribs of sunk refugee boats. Orange crosses blue. The priest is as frustrated as I am about the impossibility of speaking to arriving refugees. “We know they’ve arrived but we don’t have contact with them,” he says. On rare occasions he talks to arriving sub-Saharan Africans coming from Libya. “Life is difficult for them there. They are poorly treated in different ways. Their labor is unpaid and when they go to report it, the police pay no attention to them. It’s worse if you don’t speak Arabic.” I ask him if he’s suffering here, and he says something odd. It’s in English, so I’m sure I’ve heard it right:

“I’m suffering like a woman who is bearing a child.”

I ask him to repeat it.

“I’m suffering like a woman who is bearing a child.”

I ask him to elaborate.

“Look at the faces of those arriving. The world has to change. It’s time to look in the face of one another and learn the needs of one another. Poor people in this world don’t even have a blade of grass.”

His boss enters: Father Stefano Nastas—portly, smoking. Around him swirls a ponytailed, self-styled manservant who makes a steady stream of espressos in tiny plastic cups that remind me of the dentist’s rinse-and-spit variety. Nastas seems irritated by this Italian gadfly. He’s as down to earth as they come. He’s a Franciscan, and I notice a replica of the San Damiano Cross of St. Francis on the wall, the one that spoke to the saint centuries ago.

I ask him if, in his opinion, Lampedusa is more Europe or Africa.

“Geographically this is Africa but politically this is Europe.”

“What side of the story is the press missing?” I ask.

“The human side,” he says.

He allowed five thousand Tunisians to sleep in the church when the boats didn’t stop a few months ago. Although they were Muslims, they came to Mass and made their own gestures in front of the cross when it passed before them.

Full article here.

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