Paula Fredriksen says: This is a beautiful memoir. Even the title is brilliant, because Levi’s place of exile is so trapped in its own poverty that even Christ couldn’t reach it.
Paul Theroux says: He is very observant. He sees their traditions, their language, the way they look. These are the original Italians, he says
Why does Christ Stopped at Eboli deserve a spot among your five?
I chose this book because not many people know it – it’s hardly on every bookshelf. Carlo Levi was an Italian Jew from Florence, banished in the 1930s by the Mussolini government for criticising the war in Ethiopia. He is sent to the ends of the earth, and it happens that the ends of the earth in Italy is southern Italy – a hermetic hilltown village called Aliano which at the time was the edge of civilisation. It’s not Eboli – the point is that Christ stopped at Eboli, and Eboli is some distance away. He never got as far as Aliano.
The locals had never seen strangers before. They believed in dragons and were superstitious. When I wrote my book The Pillars of Hercules I went to the village, and they remembered Carlo Levi as “the Jew”. Levi described them as living the old way. His sister comes to visit him, but can’t live with him because in the village no man can live with a woman who is not his wife or his mother. But he’s a doctor, so he’s helpful. And he is very observant. He sees their traditions, their language, the way they look. These are the original Italians, he says, and they look Italic – they’re not descendants of the Ostragoths, the invaders and the Greeks. Levi is buried in Aliano. The grave is very obscure, and the town hasn’t changed much.
What stuck with me about the book was a sense of very deep understanding of the place, born both from him being an outsider, with that freshness of perspective, but also from his having been there for an extended period of time. Is it tricky for a travel writer, who passes through a country rather than staying there, to match that?
Certainly. That’s also why I chose this. Cherry-Garrard’s trip is an ordeal, an exploration. Trollope’s is a sort of sideline – he writes about these places while doing a job. Whereas this book has resonance, and a strong sense of place that you could only get from living there. While Carlo Levi was there for an extended period of time, though, he also never lost sight of the fact that he was an alien. The police used to visit him.
But sometimes you can travel through a place and sum it up, seeing it clearly in a way that you might not if you had lived there – because in order to live in a place, you have to close your eyes to much of it. When I was in Angola, a lot of people who lived there couldn’t bear to look at it because it was so difficult, dysfunctional and improvisational. I found it hard talking to people in Angola about Angola, because it was like living in a smoke-filled room. They lived in a society where people were just trying to get through the day.
So both sides are true. Christ Stopped at Eboli could only have been written by someone who lived there, but there are also ways in which someone who lives in a place for an extended time can see nothing.Read full interview
Paul Theroux is an American travel writer and novelist. His best known travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, describes a journey by train from London to Japan. In 1981 he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast. His new novel is The Lower River
Finally, you’ve chosen Carlo Levi’s intriguing book, Christ Stopped at Eboli.
This is such a beautiful memoir. Levi was in political exile for a year under Mussolini, sent to a very impoverished town in the south of Italy. Levi himself is from Turin – aristocratic, well educated, left-leaning politically, very urban and urbane. This tiny dusty town shocks him, both its poverty and its class structure. Its bourgeoisie exploits the peasants, who toil throughout the book, always dressed in black, as if mourning their own lives. They are unthinkably poor and constantly labouring. Meanwhile the church is the preserve of the bourgeoisie and the peasants are not really involved in Christianity. They deal with the evil in their lives by practising ancient magic. No sense of responsibility bridges the gap between these two worlds coexisting in the same stony space.
What does Levi think about it?
He has some medical training. He ends up serving as a doctor for the town, but especially for the peasants. In this way, to my mind, he works a kind of cross-class penance – despite his “high” class, he takes responsibility. Levi’s title, too, is particularly brilliant, because Eboli is a town some 80 miles to the north of Gagliano, his place of exile. Gagliano is so lost in time and so trapped in its own poverty that even Christ couldn’t reach it.
Why didn’t the bourgeoisie want everyone involved in the church, because traditionally everyone in a small village gets involved in the church?
It didn’t occur to these people to do anything about the class structure, the poverty – nor did the peasants expect anything. Things were the way that they had always been.
You’ve recently written a book about sin. How do you think the early Christian understanding of the word changed across the centuries?
Sin turns out to be an incredibly plastic concept. One of the things that intrigued me most, when I was writing the book, is how much and how essentially the concept alters as its social and cultural context changes. I start with the figure of Jesus, a first-century Jew talking to other Jews and living in the Jewish homeland. His culture dealt with sin through a process of repentance and atonement, involved with a system of biblically mandated offerings at the temple in Jerusalem. Traditions about the Last Supper depict Jesus presenting his own work in terms of a blood sacrifice. I take that to mean, not that Jesus was opposed to such offerings, but rather that he saw them as so important that he took them as the central metaphor for his own mission. The Gospels, of course, were written after the destruction of the Temple, some 40 to 70 years after Jesus’s execution. They both preserve this idea of the importance of sacrifice and alter it.
Paul, whom I treat next, is a main author of New Testament texts. He is a diaspora Jew, whose first language is Greek. By the time he writes his letters, mid-century, Paul has spent almost two decades taking the message of the risen Christ to pagans. Jesus had spoken primarily to other Jews about “Jewish” sins – things to do with breaking the Ten Commandments. Paul talks to pagans about a different kind of sin, pagan sins, most specifically idolatry – not one of Jesus’s concerns.
Despite these differences, though, both Jesus (up until the year 30) and Paul (around the year 50) converge on the same message: The Kingdom of God is at hand, and people should prepare for that event through repentance. In other words, they both thought that God was about to bring history to an end. They speak with great urgency. Once time has more time, so to speak, the urgency dissipates, and the concept of sin changes.
Theologians from the second century have different views of what the Kingdom of God means, and also about God’s timetable. These thinkers are gentiles – former pagans, philosophically well educated – who look at Jewish biblical tradition and reformat it. There is no single Christian orthodoxy in the second century. Each of these theologians represents a different Christian community, each has his own particular construction of sin, of evil, of redemption and, for that matter, different ideas about God. Their various definitions differ not only because of their independent readings of the Bible, but also because of the three-way argument that they have with each other.
Which version won through in the end?
In the second century, there was no clear winner. In the early fourth century, the Emperor Constantine became the patron of one particular church and these other Christian communities were suppressed, their books destroyed or simply not recopied. The imperial church looked back and saw the second-century Justin [Martyr] as most compatible with its own theology, and thus Justin, retroactively, becomes an orthodox “winner”.
The third chapter of my book, which is my favourite, compares the work of two brilliant men: Origen of Alexandria in the third century and Augustine in the fourth century. Both of them look at the same New Testament texts written by Paul and at the same texts in Genesis, and they come to two diametrically opposed definitions of sin. Origen foregrounds human free will; Augustine foregrounds predestination. Origen thinks that God loves his whole creation, so that ultimately even Satan will be saved. Augustine’s God is furious at the family of man because of Adam’s sin, and he condemns most people to damnation, saving only enough to demonstrate the grace of his mercy. So Origen and Augustine differ not only in their definitions of sin, but also in how they imagine the personality of God.
And from all those years ago those definitions still live on today.
Yes, and resonate. And to close this circle, the differences in the “personality” of God as imagined by these two master theologians is why I was so intrigued by Miles’s approach in his book. Miles says that if you read the Old Testament as one continuous “case history”, the character of “God” displays too many personalities to form a single morally coherent person.
You could argue he had some kind of multiple personality disorder.
It’s one explanation for why things are the way they are.Read full interview
Paula Fredriksen is a historian of ancient Christianity. She is the Aurelio Chair Emerita of Scripture at Boston University, and also teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Fredriksen’s latest book, Sin, explores how ancient concepts of sin have shaped Christian ideas about humanity, the universe and God