Rejecting Peppone. Why obsolete anticlericalism will not emancipate Maltese culture from its provincial and repressive mediocrity.
Gino Cervi as Peppone and Fernandel as Don Camillo
Ever since Graham Greene published his Monsignor Quixote in 1982, I have preferred Enrique Zancas, mayor of El Toboso, La Mancha, to Giuseppe Bottazzi, Giovannino Guareschi’s small town mayor of the Bassa Padana, that melancholic strip that runs along the Po between Pavia and the Comacchio wetlands. The Bottazzi of my youth – better known, of course, as Peppone – had been reduced to a caricature of political folklore by the black and white state television of a Cold War Italy dominated by the Democrazia Cristiana.
It must be said that Guareschi’s original character lent itself well to this sort of operation. Guareschi was himself a political caricaturist entrenched on the right wing of the DC with a penchant for penning successful electoral slogans. The well known Nel segreto della cabina elettorale Dio ti vede, Stalin no (In the secrecy of the voting booth God sees you, Stalin can’t) appears to have been his creation.
Togliatti calling Guareschi “three times an idiot times three” during a mass meeting did not prevent Peppone’s success as a media icon, as an image that acts as manipulating mediator between audience and reality, that shapes the audience’s view of reality and, ultimately, becomes the audience’s reality. He was a reassuring figure. As long as the forze laiche were led on the ground by the likes of him, determined and sincere, burly and indignant, but ultimately incapable and possibly unwilling to displace Don Camillo as moral arbiter of the last resort, Italy and the West were safe from the secularisation of morals.
Mark Anthony Falzon (The Sunday Times, March 8) fears “that things are looking pretty hopeless” for us, firstly, because this “island of Don Camillo is small and peripheral” and, secondly, because our Peppone “seems barely interested in any case” in championing the “secularisation of morals” – as I have referred to it above. This apathy of our Peppones and their tendency to retire into an erudite but cowardly individualism is, in Dr Falzon’s view, a main cause of the failure of the pluralisation of the media so grandiloquently announced by the Nationalist Party soon after they came to power in 1987.
Dr Falzon correctly points out that although under the banner of pluralism we did get a proliferation of radio and TV stations as well as the production of a large number of communications graduates, this did not result in a corresponding diversity of world-views. On the contrary, we witnessed a shrinking of diversity. We got more means for the delivery of views, more media, but the range of diverse views became narrower and tended to cluster around a set of middling values, of profoundly conservative clerical values. This, as I have argued in my blog, is the foundation of the mediocrity of our media, itself a reflection of the profound mediocrity of our culture.
Dr Falzon blames, partly at least, our Peppones for this, understood as those who should know better than to let our Don Camillos and their lay lackeys hog the media, thereby producing the dull uniformity of world-views that make our culture one of the least pluralist in Europe. Dr Falzon eloquently refers to these Peppones as “erudite renegades” and indeed they are. But, can one realistically expect any better from Peppone? I began, in fact, by reminding readers that Peppone was a caricature produced by the conservative clerical right in post-war Italy with the express intention of demonstrating the superiority of its Don Camillos, especially in the country’s peripheral small villages and towns.
That is why I prefer the manchegan mayor Enrique Zancas to the emilian mayor Giuseppe Bottazzi aka Peppone. That is why I prefer Graham Greene’s creation to Giovanni Guareschi’s. Zancas, unlike Peppone, is a complex character and not a pathetic caricature. He is not the fist-raising hero of socialist realism, far from it. He has no illusions about the moral and dogmatic infallibility of the party in whose ranks he has for so long militated.
Guareschi portrays Peppone – of course – as a shrill and strutting anti-clerical. If noisy but ineffectual anti-clericals did not exist, the clerical right would have to invent them. To Camillo’s cultural hegemony over his parishioners, Peppone can only respond with petty spitefulness and anti-clerical rhetoric. On the other hand, Zancas’ relationship with Monsignor Quixote is a rich and textured dialectic that morally enriches both. Indeed, it is Monsignor Quixote who finally rises against the Church-state phalanx and is ruthlessly suppressed.
If you haven’t already done so, read Greene’s magistral scene in which the monsignor creates a scandal during the procession – he attempts to force a parish-priest from parading Our Lady through the village clothed in banknotes – and is hunted down and killed by the Guardia Civil, much to the relief of his ecclesiastical superiors. Zancas emerges a wiser man from this experience, emancipated from any dogmatism, rising above shallow anti-clericalism. It is the adventures he shares with Monsignor Quixote that finally distinguish him from the two-dimensional Peppone.
I prefer Zancas because he reminds me of the thousands of Spanish democrats who were not prevented from developing politically and intellectually by fixation on the memories of the Civil War. It is they who have made possible today’s Spain. Josè Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spain is a country where “plural and challenging public discourse” (to borrow Dr Falzon’s terminology)is valued as a sine qua non of democracy. Of course, there are those who look back with nostalgia but the Zancas are vigilant. Spain today is possibly the EU’s most pluralist member state.
Perhaps we are not seeing the increasing number of persons who are quietly but steadily emancipating themselves from this country’s cultural mediocrity because we would not recognise them if we saw them. We are looking for Peppones when these persons reject the Peppone model. No wonder we fail to see them. No wonder some of us say that “things are looking pretty hopeless” and see only the “grotesque line-up of ubiquitous faces” extolling the virtues of mediocrity on the media.
This article appeared in The Times of Malta on Monday, 16th March 2009. You may access it directly at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090316/opinion/forgetting-all-about-peppone