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In Praise of Ignazio Silone: the Novelist, the Man, the Prophet In Praise of Ignazio Silone: the Novelist, the Man, the Prophet
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-12-06 09:26:01
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I have conceived of this Contribution as a sort of gift for the Ovi readership enhancing the merry Christmas spirit of 2011. I suppose we all need some merriment and jubilation after two sad years of economic crisis. As I said before the crisis is symptomatic of another malaise which is spiritual; a most pernicious of sickness because one may not even be aware of having contracted it.  Be that as it may, the gift consists of a laudatory essay on the well known novelist Ignazio Silone (1900-1978), of Bread and Wine fame. In said Christmas spirit, I will later forward this essay, as a sort of literary Christmas gift, after it is posted, to selected friends, colleagues, relatives and students.  

Let us begin with some brief biographical-historical notes. As the Wikipedia encyclopedia informs us Ignazio Silone was the pseudonym of Secondino Tranquilli. He was a founding member of the breakaway Italian Communist Party in 1921, and became one of its covert leaders during the Fascist regime. He left Italy in 1927 on a mission to the Soviet Union for the PCI.  While there, he declared his opposition to Joseph Stalin and the Cominterm after witnessing the brutal purges and kangaroo trial of Joseph Stalin. Consequently, he was expelled from the PCI. He settled in Switzerland in 1930 since the fascist police of Mussolini who tortured and killed his brother was looking for him,  and there, in exile, he began writing his first novel, Fontamara, published in German translation in 1933. The English edition, first published by Penguin Books came out in September 1934. It was followed by Bread and Wine and then The Seed Beneath the Snow, which form the so called  “Abruzzo Trilogy,” to be examined more thoroughly later in this essay.

In 1949 Silone wrote an autobiographical essay titled “Emergency Exit” as part of the anthology The God that Failed (1949), where he, with other authors, examines the reasons for his painful disappointment with the Communist party and then separates socialism as an aspiration of the human heart for justice from Communism as an ideology. In 1969 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, a literary award for writers who deal with the theme of individual freedom and society. In 1971 he was the recipient of the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino del Duca. He was married to Darina Laracy, an Irish student of Italian literature. He died in Geneva in 1978.

Now, to think of Ignazio Silone as merely a writer is to misunderstand him as a man, for he was also a reformer and a prophet. One of Silone’s most astute observations was that traditionally Italian writers have functioned as ornaments of their society. Silone refused to accept such a shallow role for himself. That may explain why he scared so many people: he scared the Communists, the Fascists, the Catholics, the Soviet Government, the American Government. He scared them because he refused throughout his life to sacrifice a principle or a human life to protect an institution, any institution, not excluding the Catholic Church, understood as an institution. He always exemplified the simple notion that fidelity to truth and resistance to evil are possible even when the consequences are terrifying. Indeed, such was a major theme of his narrative, a narrative more interested in the search for truth than in aesthetic literary pr academic accomplishments. Consequently, while Silone may not have belonged to the rather elitist Petrarcan “republic of literature,” [la repubblica delle lettere] his books have nevertheless been translated in no less than twenty seven languages. He has always been a writer’s writer evoking a passionate response in Navajo Indians or Italian emigrants, as well as in urban intellectuals.

This phenomenal literary success puzzles the literary establishment who never cease to be duly scandalized that some 90% of Italians only purchase one literary book per year and seem to prefer to spend their money on soccer games. When Roberto Benigni successfully began to recite Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian squares, the same literary academic establishment expressed an astonished  surprise. They acted as if Dante was being desecrated in the hands of a buffoon who aspired to being a university professor.   They would have been less surprised had they seriously reflected on the function of a written literature in the life of the people and their responsibility, indeed their role, in making such a literature irrelevant for the majority of people.

Silone believed that the proper role of a written literature is that of revealing and exalting the oral tradition from which it originally springs. As Antonio Gramsci correctly pointed out in his Letteratura e Vita Nazionale, most literati in Italy have had difficulty in assuming such a populist role, thus they have managed to make themselves irrelevant and have assured that modern Italian literature has hardly reflected the total experience of the whole Italian people. As such this over literary rather elitist literature too concerned with the heroic deeds of aristocratic and “illustrious” men has betrayed its populist founder Dante, who could have written the Commedia in the august Latin of the learned, but wrote it in the people’s language, in Tuscan dialect or Italian. It is also not surprising that dialects have remained alive in all the regions of Italy. They are representative of an oral tradition that just refuses to die.

But Silone’s narrative goes even beyond populism. It possesses a precious dimension which will not be grasped once divorced from Christian eschatology. It would be enough to consider these statement by Silone in an interview with the classicist William Arrowsmith: “Under the ashes of cynicism, the ancient hope for the Kingdom, the ancient expectation that love will replace the law, the ancient dreams of Gioachim da Fiore, the Spiritualists, the Celestinians, are not dead among those who suffer most. This fact has enormous and fundamental importance, not sufficiently pondered. In an era as exhausted and tired as our is, this has always appeared to me a true miraculous resource. The politicians have no inkling of it; the clergy is scared of it. Perhaps only saints can perceive it and utilize it.”

What is Silone referring to? To no less than a millenarian tradition which remains alive in Italy, especially among the poor and disadvantaged of Southern and Central Italy, not to be confused with a facile anti-clerical secular Machiavellian tradition found in the big cities, in the liberal wing of Italian society comprised of socialists, liberals and so called Christian democrats. No man in Italy had a better grasp and appreciation for the core spiritual mission of the Church by which it stands or fails. No one was better informed about its authentic teaching and millenarian history. For a while Silone was a member of the Italian parliament but his affiliation was that of the Social Democratic party not Togliatti’s Communist party; something that the Communists never forgave him for.

It is well knows that Silone also refused full communion and adherence to the Catholic Church in a country of many cultural Catholics and precious few authentic Christians. This was taken as a refusal to submit to the spiritual authority of the Church. To the contrary, properly understood such a refusal represents a prophetic act for the benefit of that same Church. For Silone knew quite well the hidden springs of Christian mysticism and this made it unnecessary for him to go East in search of esoteric enlightenment.

I am reminded here of a personal experience of several decades ago. Having traveled the byways of academia for the last forty years or so of my life, I have all too frequently heard disparaging remarks about Silone as a writer and even as a man. But I came across one place where Silone was given his due as a writer and as a man, a most unlikely place: in Puerto Rico where I resided for some eight years while teaching Italian literature at the University of Puerto Rico. It was the year 1983, to be exact. At a Sunday Mass celebration I was pleasantly surprised to hear a whole sermon on Silone delivered by a humble bearded Capuchin Franciscan friar. Yet, I should not have been that surprised given that Silone was and remains the writer from the people for the people in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, that most Italian of saints and most saintly of Italians. That may go a long way in explaining why Silone died all alone in Switzerland, unsung and unappreciated by the “winners” and the political celebrities of this world.

Historically, this almost invisible tradition of Catholic dissent in Italy, a radical evangelical strain, begins with Gioachim of Fiore, continues with Francis of Assisi and includes the likes of Jacopone da Todi, Dante, Savonarola and Celestine V, the only Pope who resigned the papacy and to whom Silone dedicates a play. Silone grew up in this tradition and never forgot it. Because of it, he was a Christian Socialist long before he had read Marx and Engel. It is that tradition, a tradition more concerned with justice than with ideology, that renders him a prophet as well as a writer.

That other European prophet, Albert Camus, said of Silone: “Look at Silone. He is connected to his land and his people, and yet he is so European. Camus’ insight is that Silone in becoming the voice and the mediator of the “cafoni” (the farmers, as the etymology of that word suggests), those who have no voice, had discovered, had discovered their Christian roots. Therefore, for him the problems of a writer are not so much aesthetic but linguistic. How can a writer overcome abstract ideologies steeped in Utopia? How can he rediscover a pure language of origins leading to truth?

At one point in Bread and Wine, Peter the revolutionary, says “if I could only go to sleep and then wake up not only with healed lungs but with the mind of a normal man, with my head freed from any abstractions.” So the question arises: how does Silone attempt to recreate this longed for intellectual/ethical lucidity? I would suggest that he does so by a Vichian detour: the simple telling of stories of “cafoni” translated into Italian from the dialect, for it is the dialect, more than a literary language such as the official Italian language, which retains a fresh poetic connection with things, a sense of the magic of words. There is a power in these dialects, a repository of culture which is  simply lost once it gets translated into Italian.  

In the preface to Fontamara Silone says that “the Italian language, in receiving and formulating our thoughts cannot but distort and corrupt them so that they appear as a translation.” Nevertheless, in reading Fontamara, which is in Italian, one can well imagine that those rustic people use language almost in a ritualistic magical sense. It is that ritual that connects them to their origins and gives them an identity and a morality.

It is interesting to pause here and remember that before Vatican II defined the Church as “the pilgrim Church on earth,” Silone in his above mentioned essay “Uscita di Sicurezza” [Emergency Exit] had already used the metaphor of the wandering pilgrims, provisionally encamped in tents, who while waiting for better days, tell each other stories to make some sense of their surrounding reality. All this is redolent of the first of the three Vichian cycles of history: the era of the gods.

Another crucial aspect of Silone’s narrative is a paradoxical tension that exists throughout between tragedy and hope. This is Christian eschatology at its best. For indeed, those apparently banal stories of Abruzzesi farmers are connected to a source of power which renders them prophetic. This is so in the sense that they echo the sacred story (and please keep in mind that in Italian story and history are translated with the same word: “storia”), an archetype of Western Man, a paradigm of reality. Those archetypes throw light on the experience of one’s own life story, create the consciousness of the horizon for one’s reality, and sharpen one’s future actions. The very word for faith in Hebrew is “amat” which literally means “hope or faith in the future” and therein lies the very root of Christian eschatology.

To be sure all stories in some way echo sacred history, but some do so better than others. Silone’s stories do so very well indeed. Silone’s vision of history is that of a conspiracy (what he calls “the conspiracy of hope”) that arrives, after an arduous journey in the desert, to the promised land: the fullness of justice and love, the New Jerusalem to be ardently desired and envisioned. Without such a desire, without remaining faithful to that vision, the kingdom will not arrive; that is to say, His will, shall not be done.

Intriguingly enough, a modern theologian such as Theilard de Chardin, who was also a scientist  saw the movements in the evolution of Man and the Cosmos as Dante saw them, as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In fact, it immediately strikes the attentive reader that Silone’s stories echo the very parables of the New Testament with their comic irony which is typical of a peasant culture. At first sight those stories appear to describe a very rough peasant morality, but if one keeps an open heart (the heart being the seat of the intellect as Aquinas teaches us), then one recognizes standing behind them another world into which the reader is invited to enter.

Which world, one may ask? The very same world which, as in Dante’s journey, reveals an autobiographical progression from the near-despair of Fontamara (Inferno), to the hopeful struggle of an authentically human community in Pane e Vino (Purgatorio), to the celebration of a secular beatific vision of humanity in Il Seme sotto la Neve (Paradiso).
Invariably those three stories, just as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, echo the stories we all know so well because they are also our stories which we do not know how to narrate, or do not wish to narrate because they are too painful. Indeed, without keeping in mind this Christian eschatological dimension of Silone’s narrative, i.e., without a hermeneutical interpretation of the sacred in tension with the temporal and political, one will understand little if anything of Silone’s narrative. Those three novels will then be perceived as banal folkloristic stories of Abruzzesi farmers, as some literary critics have indeed misguidedly perceived them.

One particularly powerful story which echoes the story of Exodus is the story of the emigrating “cafone” to whose social category belong some 90% of the original Italian emigrants, mostly from Southern Italy, mostly emigrated after the unification of Italy, lest we forget. Theirs too is an arduous journey to a hoped and promised land of justice and opportunity, a vision which beckoned the most courageous and imaginative among them to leave behind an unacceptable situation and journey forward in trust and hope into the future. As Antonio Gramsci reminds us in the same above mentioned book (Letteratura e Vita Nazionale), this story has never been incorporated within Italian literature. Says Gramsci (and I translate from the Italian): “There has always existed in Italy a notable amount of publications on emigration, as a socio-economic phenomenon. What is missing is an artistic literature. And yet each and every emigration encapsulates a drama, even before leaving Italy. That literary people could not care less for the emigrant abroad, should raise less wonder than the fact that they couldn’t care less for him here in Italy before he left the country…” (p. 91).

We ought not be too surprised at the above comment, for in society drunk with scientific gadgets misguidedly mistaken for progress, in a society in love with shallow celebrities, be they movie, or political celebrities where even a Prime Minister shows a lack of virtue and ethical standards, a vision of a “New Jerusalem” appears bizarre and out-right crazy, just as a god coming to earth in a manger to then die in agony on a cross sounded crazy to a Gianni Versace in Miami who once boldly declared that a god would not have come in that humble way, he would have come in power and comfort, a la Versace. Of course!

Indeed, the ancient Greeks despite their brilliance and intelligence could not have imagined such a God, the Word who incarnates himself and come to earth to dwell with us (Emmanu El): and the word became flesh and dwelt among us; he came to bring light but the darkness did not understand it, as St. John puts it in the prologue to his gospel which is read in every Christian church for Christmas day. Unfortunately, the shallow ephemeral civilization we live in and have our being has reduced the very significance of Christmas to the Roman Saturnalia: good times understood as dissipation, exchange of material goods and Christmas spirits, rather than Christmas spirit. The darkness will never understand a god who become man and suffered with us and for us.

In The Seed beneath the Snow we find this revelatory dialogue between Simone and Faustina: “But it is impossible to eliminate madness among men; that is essential to understand. If one chases it away from the streets, it takes refuge in the schools, or in the military barracks, or who knows where. Believe me, there will always be mad people. I was reminded of this passage when I saw the movie Cinema Paradiso which shows a permanent feature of the main square of Ciancaldo: a crazy man who keeps repeating: la piazza e’ mia, la piazza e’ mia [the square is mine, the square is mine].

At the end of another book by Silone (A Bunch of Blackberries) pursuant to the exile of one of its protagonists, his friend Rocco proposes a toast which goes thus:

    --To the future liberation. 
    -- Future in what sense, asked Don Nicola, imminent?                                                                    
    --Whenever it comes, said Rocco, in one or sixty or in two thousand years!
 






     
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James Woodbury2011-12-07 04:13:33
Dear Emanuel.
This is a very good essay which I intend to reread. It taught me a lot about Silone, who previously had been only a name to me.
James W.


Stanislao Pugliese2012-01-28 15:11:02
A very good essay, complimenti.
I am the author of the only biography of Silone: "Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone" (FSG, 2009) which has won several awards and many positive reviews (including one in the NY Times.)
For more info, see my website:
http://people.hofstra.edu/stanislao_pugliese/
or contact me at stanislao.pugliese@hofstra.edu



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