Many decades ago I remember skimming through a publisher’s catalogue – Penguin’s, I’m fairly sure it was – and coming across, in the fiction section, the name “Levi, Carlo”. I noticed it principally because it was adjacent to another name “Levi, Primo”, whom I did know. But I never really got to learn that much more about Carlo Levi, except the name of the sole book by him which Penguin published, Christ Stopped at Eboli. I continued to regularly bump up against his name and the name of his book in the process of leafing through the catalogue to order stock for the bookshop where I worked but I was never curious enough to order a copy to see what it was about. It could be that the title – or rather my misinterpretation of the meaning of the word “stopped” in the title, which suggested to me a somewhat pietistic work – put me off.
In fact, Carlo Levi and Primo Levi had a number of things in common in addition to sharing a surname. Though Carlo was nearly a generation older (born 1902), both were Italian Jews from Turin. Primo (born 1919) is best known for his books about his Auschwitz experiences If This Is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved, though his other books, including his collected journalistic essays, are well worth reading too. Both Levis were (non-communist) socialists, Carlo much more prominently involved and at a higher level than Primo. Primo was an industrial chemist by training and Carlo a doctor, though he rarely practised and lived chiefly as a painter. And both men were punished for their anti-fascist political activity, Carlo being exiled to the remote and malaria-ridden southern region of Lucania, Levi dispatched to Auschwitz, not because he was a member of a partisan group but because the camp where he was interned after his capture was taken over by the Germans and because he was a Jew.
Lucania, which is roughly equivalent to the modern province of Basilicata, was a remote and backward region where the writ of Rome scarcely ran. Michael McDonald, a Washington attorney and former contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, writes in an article in the Wall Street Journal:
Much of Levi’s memoir portrays the peasants of the two towns [Grassano and Aliano], 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.”
Christ Stopped at Eboli also carries, McDonald argues, a strong critique of rationalism and liberal progressivism, the notion that support for fascism was a product of ignorance and that any problem subjected to the clear light of reason and logic can 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.
Rather than feeling superior, McDonald concludes, we would do well to consider the possibility that there “is a Lucania in each of us” which we should acknowledge but be vigilant against.
Christ Stopped at Eboli is published in the Penguin Classics series.
Michael McDonald in the Wall Street Journal: http://on.wsj.com/1jwOYAN
Michael McDonald on Italian writer/editor Roberto Calasso