The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, November 27, 2006


In 1955 Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli (a book I've tried and failed to continue reading three or four times), published Le parole sono pietre, an account of three visits he had made to Sicily. I cannot find exact dates for them, but I'm assuming they were made in the ten years after the end of the war. On page 67 of Anthony Shugaar’s translation (Words Are Stones, published by Hesperus), Levi is visiting a puppet theatre in Catania, where they use near-life-sized marionettes to tell “stories of the Paladins.” Crusaders? Not exactly, judging from context - more exemplars of knightly courage and Christian virtues, like Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
That evening, they were performing one of the episodes from Erminio, the Knight of the Golden Star, which, like a novel published in installments, lasts for seventy-five evenings. The audience knows in advance what will happen and passionately roots for its favourites. In this story there is no appearance by Rinaldo, or Roland, or any of the other better-known Paladins; instead there are a number of characters whom, I confess, I did not know and who appeared to me, to tell the truth, spurious.
One of those who underwhelmed Levi was the evening’s protagonist, a character called Tigreleone.
I said to my neighbours that I would have liked to see him killed by the valiant [Saracen] Ideo, but they said that if such a thing were to happen, the theatre would be transformed into the Valley (that is, the Valley of Roncesvalles), littered with the dead. The Paladins are present-day idols, even more than Coppi or Bartali [cyclists]; when they are victorious, there is rejoicing; when they die, there is weeping. A carriage driver, they say, woke up one morning in a black mood and told his family that he would not be taking his carriage out into the main square because it was a day of mourning: that evening, at the Teatro Garibaldi, Rinaldo would be killed.
This rang a bell with me from personal experience: in 1983 I was in Greek Cyprus at Easter. The ritual or tradition which takes place is for everyone to gather at the church at midnight, those who can’t get into the building mustering outside, and at the climax of the service the lights are put out, and in the pitch blackness the word is passed from person to person, “Christ has risen.” The intimacy of being locked into this press of bodies, the eerieness of the whole occasion, makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like to take part in one of the Greek or Persian mystery religions. But the relevance to Levi’s account is that it is not a ceremony of remembrance, it is a re-enactment. Christ has risen again now, as if for the first time, as he has done before, as he will do throughout time, but only for as long as the ceremony takes place.

I’m sure this chimes with Thursbitch, and the Aboriginal religions (if that’s the right word) which re-shape and preserve reality through story, and the Greek tragedies, which of course were performed at and grew out of religious festivals, one of their purposes being to provoke catharsis in the audience.



At 29 November 2006 at 23:41 , Blogger Joe said...

Of course with modern medicine like Viagra Christ can rise as often as he likes :-)

Ceremony and ritual do seem to be as central to human society as myth (and are usually connected to myth and story) and the use of theatrical devices, such as switching off the lights in the church as you describe are often used to enhance the effect and power of the ceremony (a nastier example would be the Nazis waiting till dark to hold a parade then using burning torches etc), reinforcing the experience in the participant's mind as well as stimulating the psychological need (and gratification) of being part of something.

At 6 December 2006 at 19:18 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Matthew told me something about the effect of the sight of naked flame on the human mind - apparently they've done tests, and there's some primitive part of the brain which reacts very strongly when it sees fire. That would make sense - for just how long were we sitting round the campfire at night, before we got onto this new-fangled stuff like cultivation and cities and written language? Shades of Nigel Kneale (RIP).


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