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‘Forget-about’ Manzoni’s novel for an HBO Series ... Sing “Goat-Songs” of the South – Lampedusa and Domini

‘Forget-about’ Manzoni’s novel for an HBO Series ... Sing “Goat-Songs” of the South – Lampedusa and Domini

Tom Verso (May 21, 2012)

There is a de facto Gramsci-esque northern-Italian cultural conspiracy being perpetrated against Americans of southern-Italian descent by American university Italian Studies and Italian American Studies programs, in conjunction with northern-Italy’s tourist and food marketing industry. It’s time for southern-Italian American teachers to act the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and shout: “Manzoni’s 'Betrothed' is NOT great literature – its a simplistic deus ex machina melodramatic novel fit for the beach, bedtime reading and an HBO series." Southern-Italian American teachers should be singing laurels of great Southern writers like Lampedusa and Domini who raise southern literature to the honorific level of “Tragedy” (‘goat-song’), and inform us about the history and culture of our Patria Meridionale.



Consistent with Gramsci’s early twentieth century observations of northern-Italian cultural domination of southern Italy; today Americans of southern-Italian descent are being subjected to a de facto Gramsci-esque northern-Italian cultural conspiracy being perpetrated against them by American university Italian Studies and Italian American Studies programs, in conjunction with northern-Italy’s tourist (urban Renaissance art centers, bucolic Tuscan countryside...) and food (Prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan cheese...) marketing industry
De Facto implies that the individual good people involved are not consciously (de jure) plotting devious acts.  Rather, they are pursuing careers in their respective institutions consistent with their vocational goals (‘coming up with the rent money’ – so to speak)
Gramsci-esque implies these people are hired to achieve the cultural and financial goals of the northern-Italian oriented institutions for which they work instead of teaching and promoting southern Italian history and culture to southern-Italian Americans.
American academic institutions have culturally defined the word “Italian” to mean; a) northern Italy; b) post-Ellis Island Americans of Italian descent. 
Accordingly, there are no Southern Italian history/culture degrees offered in American universities, virtually no university courses offered, and by extension literally no public education courses taught. Further, Italy’s northern Italian tourist/food industry supports the “Italians are Northern” ideology for obvious financial reasons. 
The indubitable fact that Americans of Italian descent are overwhelmingly the progeny of southern Italy, and their history and culture did not “leap from the head of Zeus” on Ellis Island; rather, evolved over a period of no less than 3,000 years south of Rome – these ‘facts’ are necessarily (per university job descriptions) ignored by American literati who presume to be teachers of  “Italian” history and culture.
“The Betrothed” The stuff of HBO Series melodramas, but why so revered?
Most any classification of literary types (e.g. A Handbook of Literature by Thrall & Hibbard 1936, 1960) identifies ‘melodrama’ as an early nineteenth century stage play innovation influenced by opera.  The melodramatic characteristics of those stage plays were in turn adapted to novels, short stories, film, television, etc. Further, the term ‘melodrama’ strongly implies a lesser or lowbrowaesthetic literary art form. 
The lesser aesthetic standing of melodrama derives from the simplistic themes and dramatic characteristics. The plots (story line), for example, of melodramatic works are dues ex machina, emotional and romantic.  The quintessential melodramatic plot:  boy meets girl - boy loses girl - boy finds girl - boy and girl live happily ever after.  Further, the plot transitions from scene to scene (episode to episode) involve the struggle between quintessential good protagonists and evil antagonists.  In the boy/girl plot, the boy and girl are ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ antagonist separates them. In short, exaggeration, simplistic devices, stereotypes, and predictability characterize melodramas.
Accordingly, “The Betrothed” cannot reasonably be considered anything but a classic ‘lowbrow’ lesser aesthetic melodramatic boy/girl love story
Quantitative characteristics such as length, number of characters, episodes, and subplots count for nothing when qualitatively evaluating the work in terms of generally accepted standards of literary criticism from Aristotle down to the present. 
Consider: If five years of Sopranos’ productions were bundled into one book, it would consist of many pages, characters, episodes and subplots.  While some of those episodes may qualify as high quality literature (e.g. Paulie and Christopher lost in the woods), the work as a whole would ‘boil-down’ to a single melodrama about the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano. 
Similarly, The Betrothed may have some high quality literary moments, but in-total it’s just a typical classic time-honored melodramatic love story.
Accordingly, given the fact that melodrama is, by generally accepted aesthetic literary standards, an inferior lowbrow literary art form and The Betrothed is a melodrama; the question arises:
Why does a ‘lowbrow’ literary book garner so much ‘highbrow’ literary fame?
Why has it been translated into English at least five times (some claim nine)? Why have so many books, articles, PhD dissertations been written about it? Why do so many American university Italian Studies programs brag about professors on staff who are ‘experts’ on the book?
Clearly, this is a complicated question that entails social history and the sociology of literature. For present purposes, it should be noted that Manzoni published the book in 1827 during the northern Italian ferment leading up to the northern Italian invasion and annexation of southern Italy.
Hegemony The predominate influence of a small group within society over the masses.
When a small group within a society foists its cultural values on the society as a whole, this may be called ‘cultural hegemony’.  Language and ideology (e.g. nationalism) are aspects of a culture.
I posit: Manzoni’s book was used as a cultural hegemonic tool to establish northern Italian cultural hegemony over the masses of Italians, and particularly southern Italy.
Manzoni was a northern Italian nationalist. For example, he wrote in the Tuscan dialect, which northern ‘nationalist’ at the time envision as the national language of united Italy.  No one asked the people south of Rome if they wanted a national language or what dialect should be consider the “national language.”
Manzoni's northern Italian nationalism is a significant reason for “The Betrothed’s” acclaim. This is the reason men like Garibaldi and Cavour, leaders of the national movement, paid Manzoni homage. He received a magnificent state funeral with princes, ministers and nobles in the cortege. Verdi honored this patriarch of Italian literature with his great memorial, the "Manzoni" requiem.
All of this homage had nothing to do with aesthetic qualities of his melodramatic love story; rather, the nationalist ideology implied by the love story.
I’ve read that currently it is required reading in Italy’s public schools.  And, today it is also must reading in American university Italian Studies programs, in as much as they are northern Italian hegemonic spheres of influence in the southern-Italian American society.
Melodrama is often juxtaposed to tragic dramas, novels and short stories. Without going into a detailed discussion of the various characteristics of tragic literature, suffice it to say:
The immortal aesthetically renowned works of writers of tragic literature such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, etc. are the polar opposite of ‘melodrama’ on the continuum of low to high literature.
Cause and effect plots (vs. deus ex machina), moral ambiguity (vs. quintessential ‘good’ and ‘evil’), profound moral issues transcending history (vs. love stories and parochialism), etc ... differentiate the great works of great writers from the melodramatic.  By such tests, the works of the Sicilian Giuseppe Lampeduse and the Neapolitan-American John Domini easily qualify as works of great tragic literature.
Lampeduse’s “The Leopard
To my mind, the whole of Sicily (it’s history in-total) can be construed as the tragic protagonist of The Leopard who cannot escape her Phoenix destiny.  Early in the introduction of the book Lempadusa conveys both the essence of his theme and the history of Sicily.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
In fourteen words, he captures the three thousand year history of Sicily.  Sicily is a Phoenix continually being reduced to ashes and rising anew from those same ashes – a changed but the same Sicily.
For example, circa 450 B.C, almost three hundred years after the Greeks came to Sicily, Ducetius led the last indigenous Sicilian Sicel revolt against the Greek colonists of Sicily.  Ironically, by that time the Sicels were almost fully Hellenized. They were not seeking to revert to their pre-Greek society; rather, they were asserting Sicel independence within the adopted Hellenized society.  In short, the Sicels melded with the Greeks to form the Siceliot culture – from the ashes of Sicel society the Siceliot Phoenix arose
Centuries later, the Romans came and Sicily changed again only to stay the same.  Notice in the picture below of the ancient theater at Taormina.  Classically Greek, carved into a mountainside with a panoramic view.  However, note the Roman arches in the structures.  Again, the Sicilian Phoenix; from the ashes of the Siceliot culture the Greco-Rome society came into being.
This pattern of “change but the same” continues throughout the history of Sicily down to the middle of the nineteenth century when the Piedmontese annexed Sicily. Sicily changed its political and economic systems, but Sicily stayed the same. A Sicilian is not – cannot – never will be a Piedmontese.  A Sicilian is the product of three thousand years of Mediterranean history.  The origins of the Piedmontese are on the Euroasian Steppes and evolved for fifteen hundred years under the northern European aegis.
Domini’s “A Tomb on the Periphery
Again, the history of Naples is the overriding arc of the plot. Naples, like Sicily, like the whole of Patria Meridionale, changes but stays the same throughout its long history.
In the very first sentence of A Tomb on the Periphery" we are introduced to an “exposed skeleton” of a young girl buried with a necklace approximately 2600 years ago in a tomb on the periphery of present day Naples, whom Fabbrizio affectionately calls “La Greca”.
Throughout the novel the ‘spirit’ of the twenty-six hundred year old ‘girl’ permeates the consciousness of Fabbrizio and her necklace finds its way back into Neapolitan society.  Her spirit and necklace represent the people and material culture of ancient Naples still present in Naples today.
Fabbrizio not only is imbued with the spirit of La Greca. He also carries a Penates at all times in his pocket; an ancient Roman icon, which he thinks of as “a hook to catch the good.”
In Domini’s novel, today’s Naples is seamlessly blended with a two thousand year old Roman icon and a twenty-six hundred year old Greek skeleton and necklace.  Domini reminds, indeed teaches us that the ancient past is ever present in the culture of southern Italy.  And, by implication, we may deduce its presents in southern-Italian Americana also.
In Conclusion – La Greca in America
Americans of southern-Italian descent are still changing and staying the same.
From the ashes of the Risorgimento civil war, southern Italy peasant diaspora changed into American urban ‘Little Italy’ culture, but the peasant culture of southern Italy stayed the same in the urban setting.  After WW II they changed again from urban into suburban southern-Italian Americans.  Leaving behind the homogeneous ‘Little Italy’, they blending into the heterogeneous suburbs and intermarried with non-Italians. 
Savor the irony! Relish the power of La Greca’s spirit
Southern-Italian history and culture is non-existent in American institutions of education. At the universities, the literati desperately try to foist northern Italian culture on southern-Italian Americans. In public education, courses are offered in the history and culture of the English, Irish, Germans, Russians, French, Orientals, Native-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish, etc ... In short, the history and culture of people all over the world are taught to southern-Italian American children; all except the history and culture of southern-Italy.
Yet, the southern-Italian culture is still marvelously robust.  The wings of the Phoenix spread across America. There are untold numbers of southern-Italian American organizations, southern-Italian food dominates the American cuisine, southern-Italian gangsters have become mythologized, southern-Italian youth and neighborhoods are the subject of reality shows...
In short, the spirit of La Greca permeates America. The southern-Italian Phoenix arose from the ashes of mass emigration ( de facto deportation?), changed, but is still the same – southern-Italian in perpetuity south of Rome and west of Ellis Island.

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Mille grazie

Grazie ancora, Onorevole Signore Verso. Lampedusa's masterpiece has long been a navigational star, for me, and it's an honor to have my novel share a column with it.

Lovely choice of visuals too. Cordiali saluti, John

But you must also...

... recognise the greatness of "I promessi sposi". There is no Lampedusa without Manzoni. It matters not what one's real and/or desired origins are, the fact is that "la questione meridionale" cannot cancel out such a great work of art. After all, we're not talking about someone like Gunther Grass ...

Great Literature

Whatever one might think of Manzoni's origins, and that alone is an essentialistic and thus racist thought process, "I promessi sposi" is an excellent novel, aesthetically and socially. Perhaps you read it in translation. You're off base here, precisely because one can make the same case for "Il gattopardo".