Loss of Faith, the Jewish Atheist, and Working Class Rebellion in ‘Christ in Concrete’

In yesterday’s post on Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, I had noted how Annunziata and Paul’s session with the medium, the Cripple, could perhaps be viewed as an affirmation of the power of the life-sustaining myth. There is a hint of irony in that suggestion, because among the central messages of Di Donato’s impassioned novel are the loss of faith, the failure of Catholicism, the disillusionment of Paul with the myths that are supposed to sustain him; in their place, Donato tells us, what will sustain Paul is the companionship of his fellow workers. The final scenes of the book, which include the crucifix-crushing encounter between Paul and his mother, make the loss of faith explosively clear, but the tension, the tautening and ultimate snapping of the ties between the Church, Paul’s faith, and Paul has been building for a while, perhaps ever since his pleas for charitable assistance from the Church were rebuffed.

One of the interesting features of the novel for me–one that I did not see addressed in Fred Gardaphé‘s introduction to the Signet Classic edition–is the role played by Paul’s friendship with the Russian Jew Louis Molov, the ‘somber boy with the shaved head’ who lives with his family in their neighborhood. When Paul first encounters Molov, he has just ably defended himself against an attack by the local bullies. Fascinated and intrigued, Paul goes to meet him and finds Louis reading a book, and not just any old one: Thorstein Veblen‘s The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. (Louis, incidentally, is in the eighth grade! Talk about precocious.) Louis tells Paul about his brother, Leov, who met his death at the hands of the Czar’s soldiers because he tried to ‘organize the peasants against the war’ and ‘made a great speech against the Czar and his war.’

Later, as their friendship blooms, and as they visit the cemetery where Geremio, Paul’s father, is buried, Louis introduces Paul to a shocking idea, one that follows on the heels of his suggestion that Paul’s father’s death and his brother’s had something in common:

“Do you think that your father and these other men buried here will someday rise from their graves and cry revenge?”

“…Revenge…why?”

“Why? Did they want to die?”

“…Want to?”

“My brother Leov did not want to die. They shot the life out of him against his will, but he sprang up from his grave and destroyed the Czar and all his soldiers!”

“He was dead…?”

“They killed him–but his spirit threw the grave aside and paid back the murders of centuries!”

“That was the spirit of God’

“That was the spirit of my brother’s ideals.”

“I don’t understand. Your brother was dead. Only God could have punished his killers.”

Louis’s gray eyes studied Paul.

“What God?”

“Why…God…”

“Whose God?”

“Whose God? There’s only one God.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

“You have seen your father?”

“Yes…”

“And you know your mother?”

“Of course.”

“And you love them?”

“Why, yes.”

“Have you seen God?”

Paul felt something weakening him.

“Louis–haven’t you–don’t you believe in God?”

The gray eyes turned full on him.

“There is no God.”

I hope it is clear why this aspect of the book is interesting: the choice, on Donato’s part, to make a precocious  Jewish boy the vehicle for the delivery–from a land and faith far from Paul’s own–of the messages of working class rebellion and atheism. In doing so, Di Donato is explicitly acknowledging what might have been a trope of his time.

Talking to the Dead in Di Donato’s ‘Christ in Concrete’

In Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, twelve-year old Paul and his recently widowed mother Annunziata go to meet a medium called The Cripple; she will help them speak with his father and her husband. After waiting for four hours, they are granted an audience. The Cripple is ‘short’, has a ‘positive voice’, a ‘wide neck’, a  ‘a muscular body and limbs’ that are ‘fatted with the appearance of tough tubular lard’ and draped with a ‘cheap purple silk dress.’ After a preparation that includes sniffing  a rose brought for her by Annunziata, listening to a phonograph playing Indian Love Call, and rubbing Annunziata’s wedding ring, she announces she has made contact with the world beyond: first a woman, who is then pushed aside by a ‘strong’ and ‘anxious’ man trying to ‘break through and embrace you.’

Unsurprisingly, this is Geremio, Paul’s father and Annunziata’s husband. The medium offers up a description of a generic ‘Eyetalyun’, informs his wife and son that he is ‘happy’ in Paradise, that he does not want them to ‘weep’, and though he is not ‘ready for questions’, he has a ‘message’ for them: that he ‘never left you and never will’. Later, when he can take questions, he informs them that he is ‘content’, wants Annunziata to ‘join him someday in Paradise’, that there ‘wasn’t a stitch of pain’ when he died, that Paul’s ‘heart will get better’, and finally, that he is ‘always’ with them and has ‘never left’ them. 

The Cripple charges Annunziata and Paul a dollar for this conversation.

One way to respond to this little episode is to consider the Cripple a heartless exploiter of tragedy, a vulture feeding on the bodies of the living dead, one whose life is sustained by the grieving and their unquestioning, blind, irrational beliefs in a life beyond the grave. And Annunziata and Paul may be considered paradigm examples of the gullible, illiterate poor, their lives destined to be hardscrabble because they do not possess the nous to realize that the hard-earned precious dollar and the time they have given the Cripple would have been far better spent on the eight small children that wait for them back in their small, grimy, tenement home.

Or perhaps, when we read of how Annunziata and Paul ‘rejoice and weep’, how they ‘wiped their tears and smiled’ when told Geremio ‘hoits’ on seeing them cry, how, on hearing that his father did not suffer during his brutal death, immured in the concrete that poured in on him after the building he was working on had collapsed, Paul had the ‘weight of the world’ lifted from him and ‘tears dropped soothingly from his eyes’, so that in the end, he feels himself kiss the Cripple’s hands ‘in his heart’, we might find ourselves just a tad confused about whether our skeptical response is sustainable.

I am a skeptic and my initial reaction on reading this section was one of anger at the Cripple. But it did not seem undiluted. It says something for the power and emotion of Donato’s prose, of the believability of his characters, that it was so powerfully imposed upon by a siren call affirming the value of the life-sustaining myth.

No Matter Where You Go, There’s Home: Robert Viscusi’s Astoria

This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.

I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time.  The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.

When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:

It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.

I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again.  As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’

Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria  shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.

Grazie Professore!