Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

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I remember asking my friend the Roman deputy of whom I have already spoken, and whom I regard as a fountain of wisdom on matters Italian, how it came about that the railway stations in his country were apt to be so far distant from the towns they serve. Rocca Bernarda, I was saying, lies 33 kilometres from its station; and even some of the largest towns in the kingdom are inconveniently and unnecessarily remote from the line.

“True,” he replied. “Very true! Inconveniently . . . but perhaps not unnecessarily. . . .” He nodded his head, as he often does, when revolving some deep problem in his mind.

“Well, sir?”

“Inasmuch as everything has its reasons, be they geographical, sociological, or otherwise . . .” and he mused again. “Let me tell you what I think as regards our respective English and Italian points of view,” he said at last. “And to begin with–a few generalities! We may hold that success in modern life consists in correctly appreciating the principles which underlie our experiences–in what may be called the scientific attitude towards things in general. Now, do the English cultivate this attitude? Not sufficiently. They are in the stage of those mediaeval scholars who contentedly alleged separate primary causes for each phenomenon, instead of seeking, by the investigation of secondary ones, for the inevitable interdependence of the whole. In other words, they do not subordinate facts; they co-ordinate them. Your politicians and all your public men are guided by impulse–by expediency, as they prefer to call it; they are empirical; they never attempt to codify their conduct; they despise it as theorizing. What happens? This old-fashioned hand-to-mouth system of theirs invariably breaks down here and there. And then f Then they trust to some divine interposition, some accident, to put things to rights again. The success of the English is largely built up on such accidents–on the mistakes of other people. Provi dence has favoured them so far, on the whole; but one day it may leave them in the lurch, as it did the anti-scientific Russians in their war with the Japanese. One day other people will forget to make these pleasant mistakes.”

He paused, and I forbore to interrupt his eloquence.

“To come now to the practical application–to this particular instance. Tell me, does your English system testify to any constructive forethought? In London, I am assured, the railway companies have built stations at enormous expense in the very heart of the town. What will be the consequence of this hand-to-mouth policy? This, that in fifty years such structures will have become obsolete–stranded in slums at the back of new quarters yet undreamed of. New depots will have to be built. Whereas in Italy the now distant city will in fifty years have grown to reach its station and, in another half-century, will have encircled it. Thanks to our sagacity, the station will then be in its proper place, in the centre of the town. Our progeny will be grateful; and that again, you will admit, is a worthy aim for our politicians. Besides, what would happen to our coachmen if nobody needed their services on arriving at his destination? The poor men must not be allowed to starve! Cold head and warm heart, you know; humanitarian considerations cannot be thrust aside by a community that prides itself on being truly civilized. I trust I have made myself intelligible?”

“You always do. But why should I incommode myself to please your progeny, or even my own? And I don’t like the kind of warm heart that subordinates my concerns to those of a cab-driver. You don’t altogether convince me, dear sir.”

“To speak frankly, I sometimes don’t convince myself. My own country station, for example, is curiously remote from the city, and it is annoying on wintry nights to drive through six miles of level mud when you are anxious to reach home and dinner; so much so that, in my egoistical moments, I would have been glad if our administration had adopted the more specious British method. But come now! You cannot raise that objection against the terminus at Rome.”

“Not that one. But I can raise two others. The platforms are inconveniently arranged, and a traveller will often find it impossible to wash his hands and face there; as to hot water-----”

“Granting a certain deplorable disposition of the lines–why on earth, pray, should a man cleanse himself at the station when there are countless hotels and lodging-houses in the city? O you English originals!”

“And supposing,” I urged, “he is in a hurry to catch another train going south, to Naples or Palermo?”

“There I have you, my illustrious friend! Nobody travels south of Rome.”

Nobody travels south of Rome. . . .

Often have I thought upon those words.

This conversation was forcibly recalled to my mind by the fact that it took our creaky old diligence two and a half hours (one of the horses had been bought the day before, for six pounds) to drive from the station of Castrovillari to the entrance of the town, where we were delayed another twenty minutes, while the octroi zealots searched through every bag and parcel on the post-waggon.

Many people have said bad things about this place. But my once unpleasant impressions of it have been effaced by my reception at its new and decent little hostelry. What a change after the sordid filth of Rossano! Castrovillari, to be sure, has no background of hoary eld to atone for such deficiencies. It was only built the other day, by the Normans; or by the Romans, who called it Aprustum; or possibly by the Greeks, who founded their Abystron on this particular site for the same reasons that commended it in yet earlier times to certain bronze and stone age primitives, whose weapons you may study in the British Museum and elsewhere. [Footnote: Even so Taranto, Cumae, Paestum, Metapontum, Monteleone and other southern towns were founded by the ancients on the site of prehistoric stations.]

But what are the stone ages compared with immortal and immutable Rossano? An ecclesiastical writer has proved that Calabria was inhabited before the Noachian flood; and Rossano, we may be sure, was one of the favourite haunts of the antediluvians. None the less, it is good to rest in a clean bed, for a change; and to feed off a clean plate.

We are in the south. One sees it in sundry small ways–in the behaviour of the cats, for instance. . . .

The Tarentines, they say, imported the cat into Europe. If those of south Italy still resemble their old Nubian ancestors, the beast would assuredly not have been worth the trouble of acclimatizing. On entering these regions, one of the first things that strikes me is the difference between the appearance of cats and dogs hereabouts, and in England or any northern country; and the difference in their temperaments. Our dogs are alert in their movements and of wideawake features; here they are arowsy and degraded mongrels, with expressionless eyes. Our cats are sleek and slumberous; here they prowl about haggard, shifty and careworn, their fur in patches and their ears a-tremble from nervous anxiety. That domestic animals such as these should be fed at home does not commend itself to the common people; they must forage for their food abroad. Dogs eat offal, while the others hunt for lizards in the fields. A lizard diet is supposed to reduce their weight (it would certainly reduce mine); but I suspect that southern cats are emaciated not only from this cause, but from systematic starvation. Many a kitten is born that never tastes a drop of cow’s milk from the cradle to the grave, and little enough of its own mother’s.

To say that our English zoophilomania–our cult of lap-dogs–smacks of degeneracy does not mean that I sympathize with the ill-treatment of beasts which annoys many visitors to these parts and has been attributed to “Saracenic” influences. Wrongly, of course; one might as well attribute it to the old Greeks. [Footnote: Whose attitude towards animals, by the way, was as far removed from callousness as from sentimentalism. We know how those Hellenic oxen fared who had laboured to draw up heavy blocks for the building of a temple–how, on the completion of their task, they were led into green fields, there to pasture unmolested for the rest of their lives. We know that the Greeks were appreciative of the graces and virtues of canine nature–is not the Homeric Argo still the finest dog-type in literature? Yet to them the dog, even he of the tender Anthology, remained what he is: a tamed beast. The Greeks, sitting at dinner, resented the insolence of a creature that, watching every morsel as it disappeared into the mouth of its master, plainly discovered by its physiognomy the desire, the presumed right, to devour what he considered fit only for himself. Whence that profound word [Greek: kunopes]–dog-eyed, shameless. In contrast to this sanity, observe what an Englishman can read into a dog’s eye:

  That liquid, melancholy eye,
  From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs
  Seemed surging the Virgilian cry–
  The sense of tears in mortal things. . . .

[That is how Matthew Arnold interprets the feelings of Fido, watching his master at work upon a tender beefsteak. . . .]

Poor Saracens! They are a sort of whipping-boy, all over the country. The chief sinner in this respect is the Vatican, which has authorized cruelty to animals by its official teaching. When Lord Odo-Russell enquired of the Pope regarding the foundation of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals in Italy, the papal answer was: “Such an association could not be sanctioned by the Holy See, being founded on a theological error, to wit, that Christians owed any duties to animals.” This language has the inestimable and rather unusual merit of being perspicuous. Nevertheless, Ouida’s flaming letters to “The Times" inaugurated an era of truer humanity. . . .

And the lateness of the dining-hour–another symptom of the south. It was eleven o’clock when I sat down to dinner on the night of my arrival, and habitues of the hotel, engineers and so forth, were still dropping in for their evening meal. Appetite comes more slowly than ever, now that the heats have begun.

They have begun in earnest. The swoon of summer is upon the land, the grass is cut, cicadas are chirping overhead. Despite its height of a thousand feet, Castrovillari must be blazing in August, surrounded as it is by parched fields and an amphitheatre of bare limestone hills that exhale the sunny beams. You may stroll about these fields observing the construction of the line which is to pass through Cassano, a pretty place, famous for its wine and mineral springs; or studying the habits of the gigantic grasshoppers that hang in clusters to the dried thistles and start off, when scared, with the noise of a covey of partridges; or watching how the cows are shod, at this season, to thresh the corn. Old authors are unanimous in declaring that the town was embowered in oak forests; as late as 1844 it was lamented that this “ancient barbarous custom” of cutting them down had not yet been discontinued. The mischief is now done, and it would be interesting to know the difference between the present summer temperature and that of olden days.

The manna ash used to be cultivated in these parts. I cannot tell whether its purgative secretion is still in favour. The confusion between this stuff and the biblical manna gave rise to the legends about Calabria where “manna droppeth as dew from Heaven.” Sandys says it was prepared out of the mulberry. He copied assiduously, did old Sandys, and yet found room for some original blunders of his own. R. Pococke, by the way, is one of those who were dissatisfied with Castrovillari. He found no accommodation save an empty house. “A poor town.” . . .

Driving through modern Castrovillari one might think the place flat and undeserving of the name of castrum. But the old town is otherwise. It occupies a proud eminence–the head of a promontory which overlooks the junction of two streams; the newer settlement stands on the more level ground at its back. This acropolis, once thronged with folk but now well-nigh deserted, has all the macabre fascination of decay. A mildewy spirit haunts those tortuous and uneven roadways; plaster drops unheeded from the walls; the wild fig thrusts luxuriant arms through the windows of palaces whose balconies are rusted and painted loggias crumbling to earth ... a mournful and malarious agglomeration of ruins.

There is a castle, of course. It was built, or rebuilt, by the Aragonese, with four corner towers, one of which became infamous for a scene that rivals the horrors of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Numbers of confined brigands, uncared-for, perished miserably of starvation within its walls. Says the historian Botta:

“The abominable taint prevented the guards from approaching; the dead bodies were not carried away. The pestilence increased; in pain and exhaustion, the dying fell shuddering on the dead; the hale on the dying; all tearing themselves like dogs with teeth and nails. The tower of Castrovillari became a foul hole of corruption, and the stench was spread abroad for a long season.”

This castle is now used as a place of confinement. Sentries warned me at one point not to approach too near the walls; it was “forbidden.” I had no particular desire to disobey this injunction. Judging by the number of rats that swarm about the place, it is not exactly a model prison.

One of the streets in this dilapidated stronghold bears to this day the inscription “Giudea,” or Jewry. Southern Italy was well stocked with those Hebrews concerning whom Mr. H. M. Adler has sagely discoursed. They lived in separate districts, and seem to have borne a good reputation. Those of Castrovillari, on being ejected by Ferdinand the Catholic in 1511, obligingly made a donation of their school to the town. But they returned anon, and claimed it again. Persecuted as they were, they never suffered the martyrdom of the ill-starred Waldensian colonies in Calabria.

The houses of this Jewry overlook the Coscile river, the Sybaris of old, and from a spot in the quarter a steep path descends to its banks. Here you will find yourself in another climate, cool and moist. The livid waters tumble gleefully towards the plain, amid penurious plots of beans and tomatoes, and a fierce tangle of vegetation wherever the hand of man has not made clearings. Then, mounting aloft once more, you will do well to visit the far-famed chapel that sits at the apex of the promontory, Santa Maria del Castello. There is a little platform where you may repose and enjoy the view, as I have done for some evenings past–letting the eye roam up-country towards Dolcedorme and its sister peaks, and westwards over the undulating Sila lands whose highest point, Botte Donato, is unmistakable even at this distance of forty miles, from its peculiar shape.

The Madonna picture preserved within the sanctuary has performed so many miracles in ages past that I despair of giving any account of them. It is high time, none the less, for a new sign from Heaven. Shattered by earthquakes, the chapel is in a dis-ruptured and even menacing condition. Will some returned emigrant from America come forward with the necessary funds?

That would be a miracle, too, in its way. But gone, for the present, are the ages of Faith–the days when the peevishly-protestant J. H. Bartels sojourned here and groaned as he counted up the seven monasteries of Castrovillari (there used to be nearly twice that number), and viewed the 130 priests, “fat-paunched rascals, loafing about the streets and doorways.” . . .

From my window in the hotel I espy a small patch of snow on the hills. I know the place; it is the so-called “Montagna del Principe” past which the track winds into the Pollino regions. Thither I am bound; but so complicated is life that even for a short three days’ ramble among those forests a certain amount of food and clothing must be provided–a mule is plainly required. There seem to be none of these beasts available at Castrovillari.

“To Morano!” they tell me. “It is nearer the mountain, and there you will find mules plentiful as blackberries. To Morano!”

Morano lies a few miles higher up the valley on the great military road to Lagonegro, which was built by Murat and cuts through the interior of Basilicata, rising at Campo Tenese to a height of noo metres. They are now running a public motor service along this beautiful stretch of 52 kilometres, at the cheap rate of a sou per kilometre.

En route!

POSTSCRIPT.–Another symptom of the south:

Once you have reached the latitude of Naples, the word grazie (thank you) vanishes from the vocabulary of all save the most cultured. But to conclude therefrom that one is among a thankless race is not altogether the right inference. They have a wholly different conception of the affair. Our septentrional “thanks” is a complicated product in which gratefulness for things received and for things to come are unconsciously balanced; while their point of view differs in nothing from that of the beau-ideal of Greek courtesy, of Achilles, whose mother procured for him a suit of divine armour from Hephaistos, which he received without a word of acknowledgment either for her or for the god who had been put to some little trouble in the matter. A thing given they regard as a thing found, a hermaion, a happy hit in the lottery of life; the giver is the blind instrument of Fortune. This chill attitude repels us; and our effusive expressions of thankfulness astonish these people and the Orientals.

A further difference is that the actual gift is viewed quite extrinsically, intellectually, either in regard to what it would fetch if bartered or sold, or, if to be kept, as to how far its possession may raise the recipient in the eyes of other men. This is purely Homeric, once more–Homeric or primordial, if you prefer. Odysseus told his kind host Alkinoos, whom he was never to see again, that he would be glad to receive farewell presents from him–to cherish as a friendly memory? No, but “because they would make him look a finer fellow when he got home.” The idea of a keepsake, of an emotional value attaching to some trifle, is a northern one. Here life is give and take, and lucky he who takes more than he gives; it is what Professor Mahaffy calls the “ingrained selfishness of the Greek character.” Speaking of all below the upper classes, I should say that disinterested benevolence is apt to surpass their comprehension, a good-natured person being regarded as weak in the head.

Has this man, then, no family, that he should benefit strangers? Or is he one of nature’s unfortunates–soft-witted? Thus they argue. They will do acts of spontaneous kindness towards their family, far oftener than is customary with us. But outside that narrow sphere, interesse (Odyssean self-advantage) is the mainspring of their actions. Whence their smooth and glozing manners towards the stranger, and those protestations of undying affection which beguile the unwary–they wish to be forever in your good graces, for sooner or later you may be of use; and if perchance you do content them, they will marvel (philosophically) at your grotesque generosity, your lack of discrimination and restraint. Such malizia (cleverness) is none the more respectable for being childishly transparent. The profound and unscrupulous northerner quickly familiarizes himself with its technique, and turns it to his own profit. Lowering his moral notions, he soon–so one of them expressed it to me–"walks round them without getting off his chair” and, on the strength of his undeserved reputation for simplicity and fair dealing, keeps them dangling a lifetime in a tremble of obsequious amiability, cheered on by the hope of ultimately over-reaching him. Idle dream, where a pliant and sanguine southerner is pitted against the unswerving Saxon or Teuton! This accounts for the success of foreign trading houses in the south. Business is business, and the devil take the hindmost! By all means; but they who are not rooted to the spot by commercial exigencies nor ready to adopt debased standards of conduct will find that a prolonged residence in a centre like Naples–the daily attrition of its ape-and-tiger elements–sullies their homely candour and self-respect.

For a tigerish flavour does exist in most of these southern towns.

Camorra, the law of intimidation, rules the city. This is what Stendhal meant when, speaking of the “simple and inoffensive” personages in the Vicar of Wakefield, he remarked that “in the sombre Italy, a simple and inoffensive creature would be quickly destroyed.” It is not easy to be inoffensive and yet respected in a land of teeth and claws, where a man is reverenced in proportion as he can browbeat his fellows. So much ferocity tinctures civic life, that had they not dwelt in towns while we were still shivering in bogs, one would deem them not yet ripe for herding together in large numbers; one would say that post-patriarchal conditions evoked the worst qualities of the race. And we must revise our conceptions of fat and lean men; we must pity Cassius, and dread Falstaff.

“What has happened"–you ask some enormous individual–"to your adversary at law?”

“To which one of them?”

“Oh, Signor M-----, the timber merchant.”

L’abbiamo mangiato!” (I have eaten him.)

Beware of the fat Neapolitan. He is fat from prosperity, from, dining off his leaner brothers.

Which reminds me of a supremely important subject, eating.

The feeding here is saner than ours with its all-pervading animal grease (even a boiled egg tastes of mutton fat in England), its stock-pot, suet, and those other inventions of the devil whose awful effects we only survive because we are continually counteracting or eliminating them by the help of (1) pills, (2) athletics, and (3) alcohol. Saner as regards material, but hopelessly irrational in method. Your ordinary employe begins his day with a thimbleful of black coffee, nothing more. What work shall be got out of him under such anti-hygienic conditions? Of course it takes ten men to do the work of one; and of course all ten of them are sulky and irritable throughout the morning, thinking only of their luncheon. Then indeed–then they make up for lost time; those few favoured ones, at least, who can afford it.

I once watched a young fellow, a clerk of some kind, in a restaurant at midday. He began by informing the waiter that he had no appetite that morning–sangue di Dio! no appetite whatever; but at last allowed himself to be persuaded into consuming a hors d’ oeuvres of anchovies and olives. Then he was induced to try the maccheroni, because they were “particularly good that morning"; he ate, or rather drank, an immense plateful. After that came some slices of meat and a dish of green stuff sufficient to satisfy a starving bullock. A little fish? asked the waiter. Well, perhaps yes, just for form’s sake–two fried mullets and some nondescript fragments. Next, he devoured a couple of raw eggs “on account of his miserably weak stomach,” a bowl of salad and a goodly lump of fresh cheese. Not without a secret feeling of envy I left him at work upon his dessert, of which he had already consumed some six peaches. Add to this (quite an ordinary repast) half a bottle of heavy wine, a cup of black coffee and three glasses of water–what work shall be got out of a man after such a boa-constrictor collation? He is as exasperated and prone to take offence as in the morning–this time from another cause. . . .

That is why so many of them suffer from chronic troubles of the digestive organs. The head of a hospital at Naples tells me that stomach diseases are more prevalent there than in any other part of Europe, and the stomach, whatever sentimentalists may say to the contrary, being the true seat of the emotions, it follows that a judicious system of dieting might work wonders upon their development. Nearly all Mediterranean races have been misfed from early days; that is why they are so small. I would undertake to raise the Italian standard of height by several inches, if I had control of their nutrition for a few centuries. I would undertake to alter their whole outlook upon life, to convert them from utilitarians into romantics–were such a change desirable. For if utilitarianism be the shadow of starvation, romance is nothing but the vapour of repletion.

And yet men still talk of race-characteristics as of something fixed and immutable! The Jews, so long as they starved in Palestine, were the most acrimonious bigots on earth. Now that they live and feed sensibly, they have learnt to see things in their true perspective–they have become rationalists. Their less fortunate fellow-Semites, the Arabs, have continued to starve and to swear by the Koran–empty in body and empty in mind. No poise or balance is possible to those who live in uneasy conditions. The wisest of them can only attain to stoicism–a dumb protest against the environment. There are no stoics among well-fed people. The Romans made that discovery for themselves, when they abandoned the cheese-paring habits of the Republic.

In short, it seems to me that virtues and vices which cannot be expressed in physiological terms are not worth talking about; that when a morality refuses to derive its sanction from the laws which govern our body, it loses the right to exist. This being so, what is the most conspicuous native vice?

Envy, without a doubt.

Out of envy they pine away and die; out of envy they kill one another. To produce a more placid race, [Footnote: By placid I do not mean peace-loving and pitiful in the Christian sense. That doctrine of loving and forgiving one’s enemies is based on sheer funk; our pity for others is dangerously akin to self-pity, most odious of vices. Catholic teaching–in practice, if not in theory----glides artfully over the desirability of these imported freak-virtues, knowing that they cannot appeal to a masculine stock. By placid I mean steady, self-contained.] to dilute envious thoughts and the acts to which they lead, is at bottom a question of nutrition. One would like to know for how much black brooding and for how many revengeful deeds that morning thimbleful of black coffee is responsible.

The very faces one sees in the streets would change. Envy is reflected in all too many of those of the middle classes, while the poorest citizens are often haggard and distraught from sheer hunger–hunger which has not had time to be commuted into moral poison; college-taught men, in responsible positions, being forced to live on salaries which a London lift-boy would disdain. When that other local feature, that respect for honourable poverty–the reverse of what we see in England where, since the days of the arch-snob Pope, a slender income has grown to be considered a subject of reproach.

And yet another symptom of the south-----

Enough! The clock points to 6.20; it is time for an evening walk–my final one–to the terrace of S. M. del Castello.



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