That Pride Which Is Actually Blindness

Il Gattopardo. Film by Luchino Visconti 1963

In the preceding post we have noticed how contemporary Italian literature and cinema seldom offer wide-fresco works – they perceive the single tree more than the entire forest (read a conversation on this topic.)

Someone affirms that the secret of the forest is instead hidden in Palermo.

Palermo? Why are Palermo and Sicily so special?

While searching for an answer (in some recent Sicilian novels) we can make a guess.

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Sicily, like a warm-fleshed woman lying languidly on the sea, was disputed by Greeks and Phoenicians, Spartans and Athenians, Romans and Carthaginians, and later Normans Arabs Popes & Emperors.

Such splendid (though tormented) history might have favoured a depth, a wider look in its people and writers, that the Italian literature has experienced only at its best moments.

Rob has said that writers such as Lampedusa and Sciascia would have known why the secret of the forest may be hidden in Palermo.

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So, for a glimpse of such wider look, we’ll quote a beautiful passage from Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by the Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957.)

Tomasi di Lampedusa narrates how, soon after Italy’s unification, the honest Piedmont’s official Chevalley [Piedmont, at that time an advanced region, unified Italy in 1861] was sent to implore the Sicilian Prince of Lampedusa [the author's great-grandfather and protagonist of the novel,] to represent Sicily in the new Italian Senate, “in order to remedy the state of material poverty, of blind and moral misery in which the Sicilian people find themselves, your own people!”

The Prince, smiling and inviting Chevalley to sit down with him on the sofa for a while, answered with the same words he had uttered with some English who, before Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Palermo, were asking what all these Northern Italians, these Garibaldini, were doing in the South of Italy.

They are coming to teach us good manners – replied the Prince in English – but they won’t succeed, because we are gods.

Then in the end (with poor, decent Chevalley in total dismay because of the Prince’s denial) the aristocrat added that things in Sicily had not changed and will never change for that ‘sense of superiority that glitters in the eye of every Sicilian, that we ourselves call pride (fierezza,) but which is actually only blindness.’

An enlightening, though gloomy, reflection.

The Leopard. Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale

Note. This ‘pride which is actually blindness’ can be said of all great civilizations on earth that were (the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, Greece, Hellenic etc.Sicily …)

If we are worth for what we were, we are much much worthier for what we are.

Past greatness is a richness, and a consolation, but is not enough.

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Question. On the other hand, are these cultures / civilizations really dead? I mean, didn’t they adapt themselves still retaining some greatness?

Why Sicilians today – or  (2012 update) Romanesco Gioacchino Belli, Egyptian Naghib MahfuzNikos Kazantzakis  – see the forest and not the tree?

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Previous installment:

The Secret of the Forest

Related posts:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Sicilian old men. 2008

Secrecy & Omertà

At the end of an earlier post we had invited Naguib Mahfouz (see picture below), the Nobel-prize Egyptian writer, to help us to understand the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Let’s consider today how the charming characters in his Cairo trilogy do tons of forbidden things: they drink alcohol, they cheat and eat pork, but all is done in secret and keeping up the appearances.

Two daughters of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad – this Egyptian patriarch par excellence and main character of the trilogy – quarrel and one of them angrily denounces her sister’s husband to her mother: “He drinks wine at home without hiding!”

Which reminds us of some Tunisian people who were drinking beer in a coffee house in Tunis and who confessed: “Nous on fait tout, mais en cachette” (we do everything, though in secret).

It is irresistible not to think about Sicily, where doing things in secret is well ingrained (Sicily was under Tunisian rule for 400 years). And what about omertà, which makes defeating Mafia so difficult?

Omertà is a code of silence that seals the lips of men even when innocent and protects mafiosi in Italian southern regions like Sicily, Calabria and Campania. We’re sure there is some connection between the said secrecy behaviour and Mafia’s omertà.

[By the way, is all this so remote from that omertà that protects Osama bin Laden in territories where everybody is so capable of keeping secrets? A weird association? Hard to say. Back to Mahfouz and to the Mediterranean]

The Power of Man on Woman

Naguib MahfouzAnother element is the power a husband exerts on his wife. That same angry sister tells her mother about the other sister’s misdemeanours: “She drinks and smokes, acting against God and with Satan.”
Her disconsolate mother replies: “What can we do? She is a married woman, and the judgement of her conduct is now in the hands of her husband…” (I am freely summing up the text).

This is Islamic society, one could say. Ok, but this patriarchal power is much older than Islam and was present both in ancient Greece and Rome (although from the late Republic onwards Roman women – especially within the upper classes – gained a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies (not all of them) simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived, which doesn’t mean we like women to be submitted to man’s power, no, no. And this is certainly not Italy’s contemporary life, even though in the South something of a more ancient patriarchy still seems to survive.

The honour of the family

Speaking of patriarchy, the honour and dishonour of the family falls upon the father or husband. Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, called by his daughter’s mother-in-law because of his daughter’s misconduct, thus reproaches her: “Nothing that was raised in my house should be stained by such behaviours! Don’t you realise that the whole evil you are doing brings dishonour to me?”.

Again it is tempting to think about Neapolitan Eduardo De Filippo‘s Natale in casa Cupiello, a delightful comedy in which Luca Cupiello (Eduardo), exasperated with is wife Concetta, cries aloud: “La nemica mia! La nemica della casa!” (This enemy of mine! This enemy of the house!), where he clearly considers himself to be THE house, in such a funny and masterly way, because Eduardo and the Neapolitans are so refined and adorable (the Greek cousins of Rome) despite all the problems now Naples is facing.

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

And again it is clear that patriarchy is prior to Islam, Naples, Sicily etc. It was previously present in Rome, Greece, Carthage etc. And it existed in Mare Nostrum and elsewhere long before these civilisations arrived. Records of it seem to be as far back as the 4th millennium BC.

We have tried to explore some Mediterranean traditions with the help of Naguib Mahfouz, and we have mused about some possible influences between the North and South shores of this sea. It seems clear to us that every study of present ways of thinking (European, Islamic, Sicilian, Neapolitan etc.) is not wholly understandable without looking at the endless past of the civilizations (see also the concept of the mind like a museum in the last section of our post Knowing Thyself).

(to be continued)

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Other related posts:

Permanences I
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. Gnu Free documentation License

Italian version

The Greco-Roman soul is intimately tied to Egypt and North Africa.

We are all Mediterranean. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same sea from which some of the first civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet.

Of course there are differences though we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or liked) to think plus our same religions, apparently dividing us, are in reality loving the same God.

It is not by chance that these north-African regions are considered diverse and almost European by Sub-Saharan black people. They are in fact very different from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another interesting point is that during the whole Middle Ages north Africans were the most powerful, civilised and wealthy among all Mediterranean (and European) folks.

Wealth has move to the North

Wealth has now moved to the North shore.

The Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean tend to exchange their roles.

Tunisia conquered Sicily for 400 years. Today it looks at Sicily (and Italy) as a beloved guiding light and its greatest inspiring model (“les Italiens pour nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me). While we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not even notice it.

Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.

Even when we landed on its islands as occupants, together with the Nazis, we were accepted with affection by the local populations because they felt us as close relatives. How many memories, traditions and bonds we do share with them.

Many villages in Southern Italy – or in so many Greek islands, not to mention Spain, who was under Arabic rule for so long – look Arabic or belonging in any case to the deep South Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then cast a glance at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia (see picture above:)

They are almost identical, belonging to a very similar culture, whether we like it or not, because during the Middle Ages the winning model came from the South Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay.

Needless to say, when a Roman – even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.

Death of Dido, by Augustin Cayot (French, 1667-1772). Public domain

Going further back in time let us conjure up the war to the death between Rome and Carthage immortal Tunisia, again) whose legendary origin – narrated by Virgil’s classical (and beautiful) poem Aeneid – sprang from Dido’s desperate love for Aeneas, our Trojan ancestor of Rome.

This Carthage’s queen, forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage.

So from love sprang hate; from hate tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – the historical, not legendary war, this time – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its North or its South shores.

The North (and Rome) won – by a hair’s breadth it’d be fair to say.

Meeting Tunisians
à La Goulette

I was in Tunisia for work and in La Goulette coffee houses – La Goulette is a picturesque district in Tunis, close to the harbour, where incidentally the beautiful Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale was born – people still discuss the battles of Roman Scipio and of Carthaginian Hannibal, and they line up beans on tables thus drawing up troops of both armies in order to celebrate Hannibal’s brilliant victories over the Romans, still trying also to understand where Hannibal went wrong in the last fatal battle of Zama.

One of the guys I met there had worked with several Italian movie directors in the innumerable films the Italians shot in Tunisia.

I clearly felt they were all kind and warm to this Italian who showed interest in them. They were drinking beer so I asked them:

“Isn’t alcohol forbidden by the Koran?”.

One of them replied:

Eh bien, nous on fait tout, mais en cachette”, “well, we do everything, though in secret”. And my mind went to Sicily, where secrecy, doing things en chachette, is typical and well ingrained.

Anthony, Cleopatra
(and Octavian)

Getting back to Egypt, let us consider Alexander the Great and his relationship with Egypt and the city of Alexandria, which he founded. And let us consider Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, as well as her love affair with Julius Caesar, first, and with Mark Anthony, Caesar’s relative, later.

Caesar and Anthony, united by both kinship and their love for Egypt’s splendid civilization. Was Caesar’s love for Egypt sincere, or was it the result of mere political calculations? Hard to fathom, Caesar’s mind, but we are inclined to believe Anthony’s interest for Egypt was not only political.

 

lupaottimigut1.jpg

The conflict between Anthony and Octavian was again a moment in history that decided whether the Mediterranean had to be dominated by its Northern or South-eastern shores, this time. Again Rome (and the North) won but later, after the fall of the Roman empire, the South and Near East took their revenge, with triumphant Islam and the survival of Greek Constantinople.

Mahfouz, as a conclusion

As a conclusion, the eternal Roman and Mediterranean soul vibrates when in contact with relatives to whom it is tied by both common history and traditions.

Who better than Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian writer (and future virtual guest), can guide us and help us to understand?

In our next post dedicated to the Southern shores of the Mediterranean we will in fact listen to the love words of young Kamal, the main character from the second volume of Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.

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