Some First Things stuff

29 07 2010

First, a political post I can finally get fully behind:

I too have a fervor—a fever, in fact—for political inactivity. I want to be part of a movement that makes electoral politics so boring that rather than having term limits, we’ll need laws requiring politicians to serve their full term. I want to join a party that make politics and government work so dull that political journalists and elected officials dream of leaving their fields for the exciting worlds of actuarial science and telemarketing.

I want to thrown in my lot with others who want to throw a wet blanket over politics and whose desire is to dampen the enthusiasm for all forms of political activity. I want to consort with citizens who are willing to arrest the ardor, dash the devotion, sap the spirit, and zap the zeal from anything that remotely resembles political enthusiasm. I want to create a new party, dedicated to the mastery of the art of anti-propaganda and committed to the conscientious devotion of alert inactivity.

I consider myself to be profoundly a-political, yet with sensibility of a European-style social democrat. As an ex-Trotskyist, I am well aware of the tendency of my fellow ex-Trotskyists (Burnham, Irving Kristol, etc.), to become right-wing hacks after leaving the movement. I have sought to avoid being an apologist for the capitalist leviathan without being under any illusions that the international working class shall be the human race. I still sing the Internationale to myself sometimes. I think it’s pretty catchy, especially if you can sing it in three languages.

I suppose now I am a Platonic republican.

Also, I found this post that I put in my “gangsters need God too” file regarding the Calabrian mafia:

According to a report in Britain’s Telegraph, Bishop Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini of the Calabrian Diocese of Locri-Gerace has written an open letter to the bosses of the ’Ndrangheta—the Calabrian Mafia—“imploring them to stop using holy shrines for their initiation ceremonies.” The bishop, says the Telegraph, decided to speak out “after more than 300 alleged mobsters—including the 80-year-old ‘Godfather’ Domenico Oppedisano—were arrested in a police blitz earlier this month.” The Telegraph article is accompanied by a screen capture from an Italian police surveillance film showing Oppedisano “being ‘sworn in’ under a statue of the Virgin Mary at Polsi near Reggio Calabria.”

I think one difference between Italy and Latin America is that Italy was more “clericalized” in its Catholicism than Latin America. On the one hand, the clergy had more supervision over what the people did, so the symbols that people employ even in expressing their “folk Catholicism” are the same as those of “clerical Catholicism”. On the other hand, people will employ those symbols in the exact same way that the Latin American, “un-clerical” Catholic does. In this case, while mobsters in Mexico will pray to Jesus Malverde or Santa Muerte for success in their criminal endeavors, the Italian mobster will use an image of the Virgin Mary for the same purpose. Also, even such figures as St. Jude or St. Dismas will also be used for these less than Christian purposes. So the whole idea of a “folk saint” may itself be a construction, for even “approved” saints will be used for unapproved intentions.

Italian American Folklore

8 04 2010

Coming from a family that immigrated to this country, assimilation has always been a subject on my mind. For those who live or grow up in ethnic enclaves, the question always arises as to how one becomes integrally connected to the societal whole. This is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when” and “how”. Perhaps most interestingly to me, I have always wondered what the process was of making a specific ethnic group, such as the Italians, into your basic run-of-the-mill WASP’s that have last names ending in vowels.

Frances Malpezzi and William Clements wrote a book entitled Italian American Folklore: Proverbs, Songs, Games, Folktales, Foodways, Superstitions, Folk Remedies, and More. The title pretty much sums up the book. In a lot of ways, the book is unique in that it shows “Old World” traditions in the state of transition and decline. How does a culture that has existed unchanged for centuries alter itself when faced with a new language, a new political order, and a new societal ethos? And do such conditions in the end lead to the inevitable decline of that cultural identity?
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The Metaphysics of the Evil Eye

11 02 2010

Part II – The Pope and jettatura

From The Evil Eye, by Frederick Thomas Elworthy:

Pope Pio Nono was supposed to be a jettatore, and the most devout Catholics, whilst asking his blessing, used to point two fingers at him. I remember once in Nice there was a gentleman who had this reputation. The Préfet, being a Frenchman, invited him to a ball. He soon, however, discovered that if the jettatore came many others would not, and he had to convey to him delicately the request not to accept the invitation.”

Ask a Roman about the late Pope’s evil eye reputation, and he will answer: “They said so, and it seems really to be true. If he had not the jettatura, it is very odd that everything he blessed made fiasco. We all did very well in the campaign against the Austrians in ’48. We were winning battle after battle, and all was gaiety and hope, when suddenly he blessed the cause, and everything went to the bad at once. Nothing succeeds with anybody or anything when he wishes well to them. When he went to S. Agnese to hold a great festival, down went the floor, and the people were all smashed together. Then he visited the column to the Madonna in the Piazza di Spagna, and blessed it and the workmen; of course one fell from the scaffold the same day and killed himself. He arranged to meet the King of Naples at Porto d’Anzio, when up came a violent gale, and a storm that lasted a week; another arrangement was made, and then came the fracas about the ex-queen of Spain.

“Again, Lord C—— came in from Albano, being rather unwell; the Pope sent him his blessing, when, pop! he died right off in a twinkling. There was nothing so fatal as his blessing. I do not wonder the workmen at the column in the Piazza di Spagna refused to work in raising it unless the Pope stayed away!”

Mr. Story tells another tale–of Rachel and a rosary blessed by the Pope, which she wore on her arm as a bracelet. She had been visiting a sister who was ill in the Pyrenees, but one day she was so much better, that Rachel left her to visit another sister. While laughing and chatting merrily, a message arrived that she must return instantly as a fit had come on. Rising like a wounded tigress, she seemed to seek some cause for this sudden blow. Her eye fell on the rosary, and in rage and disappointment she tore it from her wrist, and dashed it to the ground, exclaiming: “O fatal gift! ’tis thou hast entailed this curse upon me!” and immediately sprang out of the room. Her sister died the day after.


We can question if this is from a reputable source, but considering the fortune of Pope Pius IX, such stories would be hardly surprising if true.

Modern Catholics, as I have been writing of late, tend to have this tendency to think that the Church and the world function exactly along the lines of a well organized PTA meeting. God is nice, the saints are our friends, the world is governed by rational principles just like a clock… But the idea that a Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, could be the cause of curses, and that the saints can “punish” you just as well as help you… that seems like complete blasphemy to the modern, sanitized Catholic ear. What do you think we are? Pagans?!

As I have said in the past, to be deeper in history is to cease to be anything. We have changed, and perhaps are changing, too much.

The Metaphysics of the Evil Eye

8 02 2010

Part I – Things gettin’ worse all the time

My family is Mexican, ergo, I am a fatalist. Americans can’t perceive what that really means. In a way, I am just as American as anyone else living in the U.S. of A., but my family definitely isn’t. It’s hard for someone with so much Latin blood and upbringing to say: “Hey kiddo, keep your chin up. Things will get better.” If I do say that, what I really mean is, “Yeah, life sucks. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Or as my ex-abbot (a Greek) was prone to saying (perhaps quoting someone else?): “Whatever happens, it’ll be bad”.

Perhaps this was the social ground of the phemonemon of the “evil eye” in such cultures. The evil eye always has to do with envy. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the evil eye is cast inadvertenly on small children by people who admire them too much. Growing up, my mother was always taught to touch a child who she had admired, lest she give the child a preternatural illness that could possibly cause death. Having a beautiful, healthy child was seen as being a dangerous thing; people would “desire” the child, and that desire, even from afar, could be fatal.

In my rather unsystematic studies of folk belief, I have found that, not without accident perhaps, southern Italian ideas of the evil eye parellel the Mexican manifestations of the phenomenon. Indeed, the best description given for the basis of the evil eye (malocchio, for the multilingual), can be found in the book, Italian American Folklore by Frances Malpezzani and William M. Clements. They write:

Connected with the deeply rooted fatalism of the southern Italian peasant world view, malocchio reflects a pessimism that perceives potential threats from almost anyone and assumes that good fortune cannot endure. To prosper, according to this world view, is to invite envy. And envy generates ill feelings that may result in harm befalling its target. Malocchio makes concrete the abstract envy that pervades a universe defined by only a limited amount of good.

“A limited amount of good.” Americans would best chew on that phrase. For if there was anything so “unAmerican”, so counterintuitive to how we work, learn, and perceive the world, it is the idea of a “limited amount of good”. We are taught that the good is something we create out of thin air. It is a manner of cutting the pie into an infinite amount of pieces until everyone has a share. Indeed, in the metaphysical sense, modernity is the overcoming of fatalism; it is the overcoming of caste and “station in life” so that we can reach our “full potential”. God is on our side since He has thrown open the floodgates of infinite goodness. We are more informed, more comfortable, and of course, better people than our ancestors. Even in our nostalgia for the past, there is a sense of living in a superior age, and our pining for it is just as rational as a four year old’s pining for Disneyworld.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to go back to the life of a Mexican campesino or an Italian paesano either, but their approach to life should at least give us pause. Especially in the fields of religion and culture, we may want to have our cake and eat it too, but perhaps our ancestors knew better than that. Perhaps our universe is governed by the principle of a “limited good”, and it is just a matter of time before the payback comes, either on the microcosmic or macrocosmic level.

Window – Roof – House – Soul

23 09 2009


Michael Carroll in his book, Veiled Threats, tells of the following:

Gian Matteo Gilberti, bishop of Verona… instructed his priests to root out superstition, and singled out in particular “the practice of uncovering the roof so that the soul [of the dead] can get out, something that suggests the soul could be held back by a roof.” In fact, Italians have long believed that the human soul has a physical substance and so can be blocked by physical barriers like a roof. This is why those present at a death leave an exit for the soul of the dead person by removing a slat from the roof or opening a window. The fact that diocesan synods throughout Italy continued to condemn these practices into the modern era… is an indication of just how rooted and widespread this view was.

“A quaint superstition”, you might think. Mircea Eliade, however, further elaborates:

the soul of the dead person departs though the chimney or the roof and especially through the part of the roof that lies above the “sacred area”. In cases of prolonged death agony, one or more boards are removed from the roof, or the roof is even broken. The meaning of the custom is patent: the soul will more easily quit the body if the other image of the body-cosmos, the house, is broken open above. Obviously all these experiences are inaccessible to nonreligious man, not only because, for him, death has become desacralized, but also because he no longer lives in a cosmos in the proper sense of the word and is no longer aware that having a body and taking up residence in a house are equivalent to assuming an existential situation in the cosmos.

The Sacred and the Profane

If we are to give any creedence to Eliade, institutional spiritual institutions are not always the best apparatus in preserving the ancient religious ethos. It is probably not to be doubted that such an Italian practice originated with paganism, but the reasoning behind it (again, if we give Eliade creedence) transcends even the tired pagan/Christian divide.

For Eliade, reality only has meaning insofar as it conforms to the symbols of the divine. Once the language of these symbols breaks down, even the spiritual gatekeepers begin to conceive of the universe in increasingly desacralized terms. That is perhaps behind the sectoralized and atomized character of religion today, “orthodox” or not. In a place where even basic religious paradigms are separated from everyday life, any sense of continuity with the past becomes boderline farcical. Quomodo sedet sola civitas

On the night battles

17 03 2009


Catholic Witchhunters in Italy and the Decline of the Enchanted World

For a little over a year now, I have been contemplating the idea of a “marginal Catholicism”: a religiosity in contact but not necessarily controlled by the official hierarchy. One can call it, “popular Catholicism”, “folk Catholicism”, or even “underground Catholicism”. I write on it not because I have some romanticist vision of an unspoiled peasant past or because I idolize the voice of the people over and above the voice of their leaders. Nor is it an issue of a religion of the heart versus a religion of the head; such dichotomies ultimately prove trite and useless. There is, nevertheless, a great loss that we have experienced in modernity with relation to our “pre-modern” beliefs; a sense that how we believe and the principles behind those beliefs are fundamentally different from those of the past. At times, one generation removed or even right under our noses now, we realize that the way people saw God, the world, good, and evil is different from our own way of seeing things. The project that I have undertaken is to chronicle those differences; those things that have been silenced during the “purification” of popular religion in the continuing march of modernity.

In the book, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century, the Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg tells the story of the relationship between the benandanti (or “good walkers”) and the Inquisition. In the region of the Friuli in northeastern Italy, a group of people born with a caul were summoned on the nights during Embertide to leave their bodies and fight witches for the good of the village. Under the command of an angel or a lead benandante, they would have ritual battles with witches during their “black Sabbaths”. The benandanti would attack with fennel stalks, and the witches would fight back with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti  won, the crops of the village would be safe for the year, but if they lost, disaster and famine would sweep the land. During these episodes, it was claimed that the bodies of the benandanti remained behind in their homes, still as if they were dead.
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9 03 2009


I found a real gem on YouTube on the southern Italian phenomenon of la taranta. (You can view it by clicking here since it cannot be embedded into the blog). Although its origins remain obscure, it is said to be a folk ailment that is a mixture of hysteria, seizures, and other medical symptoms of madness. It is called la taranta since it is allegedly caused by a bite of a wolf spider, though modern science continues to be baffled as to its origins. The cure, as you see in the video, is wild dancing like a spider and the invoking of St. Paul (the illness usually takes place around the end of June around the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.)

The illness is not unique in southern Italy. In many places, saints were seen as sending diseases not to chastise people, but rather to remind people that they existed and that devotion to them needed to be maintained (sort of like a mafia boss shaking them down). Il male di San Donato was seen as an illness sent by Saint Donatus, according to Michael P. Carroll in Madonnas that Maim. Like la taranta, it was characterized by convulsions and seizures. It was cured by prayers to the same saint.

On Relics

27 02 2009


At this time, [Giovanni Castoldi] requested for his personal use one of the skulls of S. Orsola’s virgins as well as twenty-four teeth “in order to make a corona of gold”… Corona in this case might refer to either a necklace or a rosary. The fact that modern audiences might find it hard to imagine the highest-ranking religious official in Milan wearing a necklace or using a rosary made out of human teeth is an indication of how different our attitudes have become from those that prevailed in the Counter-Reformation Church.

-Michael P. Carroll, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy

Mal’ Occhio

24 02 2009

Somewhat related is the following quote from Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance :

Ficino remains of the same opinion as Plato and Galen: in the act of seeing, “the internal fire” is externalized through the eyes, mixed with the pneumatic vapor and even with the thin blood that engendered spirit. That theory is confirmed by Aristotle himself, who relates that menstruating women who look look at themselves in the mirror leave little drops of blood on its surface. This can only mean that it is the thin blood brought to the eyes along with the pneuma.

See also this post on the existence of the evil eye in Mexican culture.

Vincenzo Camuso – The Friendly Catholic Mummy of Campania

29 10 2008

Michael P. Carroll, in his book, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy, has about a page and a half of text that is well worth the price of the book. Everyone has heard of holy relics and holy souls, but what about holy mummies of Catholic devotion? Well, there’s at least one. His body was found in the church of S. Crisenzio in Campania during a church renovation, but no one quite knows when. No one knows either how anyone found out his name, Vincenzo Camuso. All people know is that he is un’ anima santa del Purgatorio (or an anima sola in the Spanish tradition) who comes to help people in time of need. His body was displayed in the church well into the 1960’s. Sometimes he appears to sick people to heal them (once he even showed in a hospital in the guise of a doctor to perform surgery). Other times he appears to the living to remind people to pray for the souls of the dead. He is certainly one of the most colorful characters of the folk Catholic pantheon.