“KINGS” (1930s and 1940s)
Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone and the Underground Culture of Dissent
[I am] “a socialist without a party, a Christian without a Church.” Ignazio Silone. (biography.yourdictionary.com/ignazio-silone)
Writer and politician Ignazio Silone was born Secondino Tranquilli in Pescara, Abruzzo, Italy. The name “Silo” was taken from an Abruzzese hero who fought the Romans during the Roman occupation. The suffix “one” in Italian indicates something or someone of large stature. Hence, Silone is saying that he is a larger version than the ancient figure he so admired. Silone was one of many major cultural figures exiled by the fascists. He was an active member of the Italian Communist party but was expelled for criticizing its movement toward Stalinist extremism. While in exile in Zurich, where he lived from 1929 to 1944, Silone published his 1936 book “Pane e Vino” (“Bread and Wine”). In this fierce anti-fascist literary work, Silone wanted to unmask the mythologies of fascism and unveil the lies behind the images of grandeur that fascism provided. He believed that dismantling false images was the responsibility of the educated and that the writer’s responsibility was to relate these warnings in a contemporary way.
In 1943, the underground group I Partigiani (“the Partisans”), aided by the British and American allies, officially took up armed resistance against Mussolini’s forces. The Italian Civil War that followed ended with the assassination of Benito Mussolini and the end of WWII in 1945. Before then, Silone and many other cultural figures risked their lives to create works of political dissent such as “Bread and Wine.”
Pietrasecca, the small Abruzzese town where the story takes place, is a microcosm for Italy. Silone documents his political philosophy and moral struggles through the protagonist’s voice: Pietro Spina (“Peter Thorn”) returns to Italy after years of living abroad in political exhile. In order to disguise himself, he disfigures his face and skin to look like that of an old man, disguises himself as a priest, and lives incognito under the name, Paolo Spada (“Paul Sword”). Christian symbolism is interwoven throughout “Bread and Wine.” The protagonist’s names, Peter and Paul, symbolize St. Peter and St. Paul who were both apostles of Jesus Christ and who were both persecuted for their beliefs. Saint Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and therefore, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, he was the first representative of Christ for his Church. Silone gives Peter the surname Spina (“Thorn”) to symbolize Christ’s crown of thorns at his crucifixion and align Spina’s character with the sacrificial lamb of Christ (Picchione 2010). St. Paul is commonly depicted with a sword in his hand which symblizes “the spiritual sword of the Gospel” and “the instrument [of] his martyrdom” (stpaulcatholic.net/church/parish-logo/), making the surname Spada (“Sword”) fitting for a character that fights for his socialist beliefs at all costs. It was Silone’s own belief that socialism and social justice could not be separated from real Christian principles. Yet, he felt both socialism and the Catholic Church abandoned their core values to pursue the evils of power and control over the vulnerable.
In “Bread and Wine” the peasants are the silent majority – the social class with no voice, not at all unlike pre-unification. Centuries of generations living under a ruling class created societies entrenched in a fatalistic world-view in which superstition, magic, and fate had more power over an individual’s destiny than their own actions. Silone believed in social responsibility and commitment, which is expressed through Pietro Spina’s commitment to enlighten and politicize the peasants and ignite a culture of dissent.
The title of this song, “Kings,” is taken from a card game in “Bread and Wine” between a group of peasants who begin to argue over the outcome of one of the hands. In the following passage, Spina recognizes how political submission and complacency are learned just as the rules of a card game, which Spina artfully tries to challenge.
A strange squabble arose among three or four young men who were playing settemezzo because of one of the cards. The most important card at settemezzo is the king of coins. Matalena had only two packs, and in both the king of coins was so worn and consequently so easily recognizable that a fair game was impossible. To avoid quarrels, Daniele, one of the players, proposed that they substitute another card for it, the three of goblets, for instance. The easily indentifaible king of coins would have the value of the three of goblets, and the three of goblets, which was indistinguishable from the rest, would have the value of the king of coins.
“Impossible,” another player, Michele, announced,
“It would be impossible even if we all agreed to it.”
“Why?” Daniele wanted to know.
“But it’s obvious,” a third player, Mascolo, insisted.
“Whatever happens, the king of coins remains the king of coins.
No matter how dirty, marked, or worn he may be, he’s still the king of coins.”
“But it’s enough if we all agree,” Daniele said. “It’ll be a better game
if no-one knows who has the king of coins.”
“It’s not sufficient for us to agree,” Daniele said. “It’ll be a better
game if no-one knows who has the king of coins.”
“It’s not sufficient for us to agree.” Michele insisted.
“The rules are the rules.”
“You say it would be a better game?” Mascolo declared.
“Perhaps it would be, but it wouldn’t be the real game.”
Sciatàp, who was at the other table, the old men’s table, and had
heard the argument said, ‘Let’s ask Don Paolo. A priest knows as much as the devil.’”
Pietro Spina tries to shake the peasants’ thinking in his description of card rules. “Do you think that this card has a value in itself or just the value that has been given to it?” he asks Michele.
“It’s worth more than the other cards, because it’s the king of coins,” Michele replied.
“Has this card a fixed or a variable value?” the priest asked again.
“Does the king of coins have the same value in all games, at tressette, briscola, and scopa, or does it vary?”
“It varies according to the game,” said Michele.
“And who invented those games?” the priest asked.
“Don’t you think that games were invented by players?” the priest suggested.
A number of men immediately agreed. Games had obviously been invented by players.
The priest concluded, “If the value of this card varies according to the fantasy of the players and what they agree on, it seems to me that you can do what you like with it.”
“Well said, bravo,” many of those present called out.
Don Paolo was flattered by his success. He turned to Sciatàp.
“Once upon a time there was a man here at Pietrasecca who was called Carlo Campanella, and now there’s a man in New York who’s called Mr. Charles Little-Bell, Ice and Coal. Is there only one of him or are there two?”
“He’s the same man,” a number of men answered.
“If a man can change his name, why can’t a playing card?” the priest asked. “A king is always a king,” Michele said.
“A king is a king only as long as he remains on the throne.” Don Paolo said.
This conversation stirred a long debate amongst the town peasants, which interested, confused, and upset many villagers. But Silone’s message to the reader is clear: over time we learn to accept social constructs and not question authority, which is a danger to our freedom.
On the issue of freedom, Silone expresses his views through a debate between Nunzio Sacca, (a medical doctor who upholds the regime out of a sense of powerlessness), and Pietro Spina, who criticizes his complacency. Having known him since childhood, Nunzio helps the very sick Spina and agrees to keep his identity secret, but pleads with him to give in to the regime so as not to risk his life. The debate over freedom is an interesting one.
“There are many other things of which you are not capable.” Nunzio said. “You are not capable of understanding that the ordinary person generally doesn’t have any choice at all. The conditions in which he lives are prefabricated for him. If they are not to his liking, the best he can do is to wait for them to change.”
“And if they don’t change of their own accord, who is to change them?” said Pietro. “Oh, how pitiful is an intelligence used only to make excuses to quieten the conscience.…“We live the whole of our lives provisionally,” he said. “We think that for the time being things are bad, that for the time being we must make the best of them and adapt or humiliate ourselves, but that it’s all only provisional and that one day real life will begin. We prepare for death complaining that we have never lived. Sometimes I’m haunted by the thought that we have only one life and that we live it provisionally, waiting in vain for the day when real life will begin. And so life passes by. I assure you that of all the people I know not one lives in the present. No-one gets any benefit from what he does every day. No-one is in a condition to say: On that day, at that moment my life began. Believe me, even those that have power and take advantage of it live on intrigues and anxieties and are full of disgust at the dominant stupidity. They too live provisionally and spend their lives waiting.”
“One mustn’t wait,” Pietro said. “Those who emigrate spend their lives waiting too. That’s the trouble. One must act. One must say: Enough, from this very day.”
“But if there is no freedom?” Nunzio said.
“Freedom is not a thing you can receive as a gift,” Pietro said.
“One can be free even under a dictatorship on one simple condition, that is, if one struggles against it. A man who thinks with his own mind and remains uncorrupted is a free man. A man who struggles for what he believes to be right is a free man. You can live in the most democratic country in the world, and if you are lazy, callous, servile, you are not free, in spite of the absence of violence and coercion, you are a slave. Freedom is not a thing that must be begged from others. You must take it for yourself, whatever share you can.”
These passages are very important to the development of the “Risorgimento” themes as Silone’s words challenge not only mid-twentieth century fascism, but are as poignant and revealing of our own social reality today. As Umberto Eco wrote in “Ur-Fascism,” a dictator does not return with the same clothes and features from the past. No person savvy enough to manipulate the masses would be foolish enough to allow such obvious comparisons. As Silone believed in writing for contemporary times, Eco warned that the form of a new dictator is shaped for the wants and needs of the contemporary society.
It would seem natural that, with so much contempt for intellectualism, modernism, and individualism, the fascist era would stifle an aesthetic that veered outside of tradition and the most common denominator of popular tastes. Certainly, this would mean intolerance toward the avant-garde movement in all areas of art. However, that was not the case.
Historians of culture have come to recognize that fascism encouraged modernist as well as anti-modernist trends. In Italy, the 1930s and intital years of the 1940s witnessed significant achievements in modern architecture, the apprentice of postwar cinema directors, and an effort even by official patrons to perform music by such innovative composers as Bartók, Berg, and Webern. Scholars have also come to understand that these regimes, even when allegedly totalitarian, were fragmented and polyarchic structures. Political leaders never overcame personal and bureaucratic rivalries, and they patronized different cultural trends, some modernist, some reactionary, some open to international cultural trends, others intentionally autarkic and nationalist. For Italy, at least, the regime always sent mixed signals about the role of art if only because different leaders (e.g. the party boss, Roberto Farinacci; the house intellectual, Giuseppe Bottai; the spoksmen for such cultural bureaucracies as the Minstery of Popular Culture) had different clienteles and agendas. Composers and artists likewise sought to ingratiate themselves with different sources of patronage. Finally, researches have come to emphasize that despite official ideology, even under would-be totalitarian regimes, the agenda of artists and critics can never be totally politicized. The struggle between tradition and innovation continues. The more historians research the arts, the more complex a pattern of repression, patronage and accommodation, and outright inconsistency emerges. (Maier / Painter 567)
From Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) to Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003), Bruno Maderna (1920-1973), Luigi Nono (1924-1990) Luciano Berio (1925-2003), and Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), fascist conservatism of the early to mid-twentieth-century could not entirely censor modernism in Italian music. Originally under the spell of fascist propaganda, Dallapiccola broke away from the party after the invasion of Abyssinia and the implementation of severe race laws that put the life of his Jewish spouse in danger. Like Silone, Dallapiccola was under suspicion by the Black Shirts and was forced to undergo periods of hiding and exhile. Regarding his anti-fascist works “Canti di Prigonia” (“Songs of Imprisonment”) and his opera “Il Prigioniero” (“The Prisoner”), Dallapiccola wrote, “I should have liked to protest, but I was not so naive as to disregard the fact that, in a totalitarian regime, the individual is powerless. Only by means of music would I be able to express my indignation” (tutorgigpedia.com/boezio_es.html).
The first twenty-four measures of “Kings” come from material from the first movement in Dallapiccola’s “Canti di Prigonia, Preghiera di Maria Stuarda.” The chords from the “Pregheira” emerge out of the pro-fascist propaganda in the tail end of “La Banda del Paese.” In Silone’s “Bread and Wine,” the peasants chant, “CHAY DOO! CHAY DOO!” (Silone 190) which is included in “Kings” (“ce-du!”). Twisting the word “Du-ce” raises the question of whether Silone was commenting on the peasants’ innocence and ignorance, or if Silone was being ambiguous about his target during the fascist era. In “Kings,” the chant is meant to illustrate mob-mentality at the cost of reflection before action and to underline the peasants’ vulnerability.
The two pieces are diametrically opposed both stylistically and ideologically, but together they illustrate the great political divide in a country that would soon erupt in civil war with the Partisans fighting against the Black Shirts. “Kings” continues on after Dallapiccola’s adapted excerpt in a style influenced by the avant-garde but also influenced by the jazz movement gaining popularity in Italy at that time. The song continues in what could be termed an “avant-garde soul-pop” style with interludes of a chorus singing the Latin phrase “Procademus in pace, in nomine Christi, amen” (Let us go forth in peace, in the name of Christ, amen) (newadvent.org/cathen/08253a.htm). This section represents the Christian ideology by which Silone’s protagonist is so driven.