Monday, October 12, 2015

'In Vietnam they killed the Child Jesus'

‘In Vietnam they killed the Child Jesus.’ This phrase does not come from a cruel modern fable, but reflects instead the tragic truth and cautionary moral of a real event that took place in a Vietnamese village, where, whilst a group of people enacted a nativity scene, a brief battle ensued between Vietnam and Viet Cong troops, and a stray bullet hit the infant who stood for the Child Jesus in the crib.

Further to last month's exercise, let’s take a second sample. For what does it mean to say that fascism operated as a cultural logic in the texts that it produced, to the point of making the words of the great artist virtually indistinguishable from those of the great butcher, if we cannot trace in the texts subsequent to the fall of the regimes the absence or reversal of this logic?

Another way to consider this proposition is through a thought experiment. Suppose you picked up a random magazine – for the purposes of this post, La Domenica del Corriere of 26 December 1965 – from a second-hand book stall or in a shop: how could you tell if it belongs to our time continuum, in which Mussolini was deposed and Italian Fascism officially ended in 1943, instead of an alternate universe in which the regime either won or managed by some means to survive the war? What kind of evidence would you look for? How difficult would you expect the exercise to be?

It turns out to be not very difficult at all, on a level. It’s right there in the date: 26 December 1965. Not 26 December 1965-XLIII, which is how it would be written if this were still the Fascist Era, by now in its forty-third year. So we can at least posit some sort of discontinuity. But the easy ride ends here. There is almost nothing in the remaining 63 large-format pages of this – the foremost mainstream weekly magazine in the country at the time – to allow us to conclusively say that the Fascist regime was over at the time it went to print. A mention in a letter to the editor on page 2 of the opinion expressed in an earlier issue by a ‘Socialist MP’ (Mussolini had got rid of those), and some words of censure for the situation in Rhodesia (where, by unilaterally declaring the nation’s independence, Ian Smith ‘imposed the will of 260,000 whites over that of 3.6 million negroes’), are the closest thing to actual positive evidence. But otherwise, and even as it looks back on the key events of the year 1965, La Domenica fails to directly mention a single aspect of the country’s democratic system of government or, more importantly, articulate values greatly at odds with those of Fascism.

In the coverage of new consumer technologies (chief amongst them colour television), the musical scene, cinema, sports and recreation, travel, fashion or money matters, La Domenica is studiously conformist and positively exudes bourgeois respectability, nowhere more so than in the piece on Marco Bellocchio’s debut feature, I pugni in tasca, praised as a dramatic spectacle and not, as other film writers would have it, for its elements of social critique. Saying at once: what critique? And a critique of what? There is nothing to critique, no such thing as bourgeois society.

And then there are the things that would make you almost swear Fascism were still around. Indro Montanelli, who worked for Il Corriere during the war, commands the prime, full-page column spot on page 5. Perhaps most spookily, all of the products advertised are either Italian or German, as if the country were still under embargo. And there is the ad on page 2, above, for a series of special issues of the magazine celebrating Italy’s imperialist wars in Africa. Faccetta Nera, was the title of the series. ‘Pretty black-faced girl’, after the title of the lively song that the Fascist sang as they took the country they called Abyssinia. Then, the blurb: ‘A history marked by great errors but also the qualities and the quiet acts of heroism of our people’. This, as late as 1965, is what remained of the aggression and the genocide, of the massive use of mustard gas during the counter-offensive in Ethiopia, of the concentration camps. Errors, perhaps, some of them – not crimes, no – but more than made up for by the quiet heroism of our people.

This was the manner of our unbecoming. This is how we put Fascism behind us, recycling it into handy booklets of misremembered history. The magazine’s cover story does the rest, reaffirming the bulk of the old values under under an appalling veneer of faux pietism. A baby has died in Vietnam, but it is no ordinary baby: he was posing as the new-born Jesus at a Dominican convent where his mother had found refuge. A nun who has heard this story second-hand says so to the author of the story, Luigi Cavicchioli:
No, he wasn’t a Vietnamese child, or rather, he was, he had the little face of a young Vietnamese child, but he was the Child Jesus… no, it isn’t an expression… he really was the Child Jesus.

Not one of theirs, one of ours: made white, Christian, properly human by a symbolic arrangement of bodies inside a makeshift manger. Mr Cavicchioli proceeds to turn the story from jungle legend to reality. He supplies all the requisite detail. He even writes the scene of the death: amidst the commotion and the sounds of gunshots a little red dot appears on the baby’s forehead, a little red flower whose stem soon grows to reach the baby’s feet, and the mother thinks he’s sleeping, but then when she realisation dawns on her she slumps with a wail near the crib (‘at that moment she was the Virgin Mary holding on to the Cross’).

I could swear at this point that Italy was never liberated, that this kind of story couldn’t possibly be the product of a society other than the one that proudly sang Faccetta nera and civilised the savages with muskets, missionaries and mustard gas. And still I look for signs of what has changed.

Originally published at Overland


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

No, he wasn’t a Vietnamese child, or rather, he was, he had the little face of a young Vietnamese child, but he was the Child Jesus… no, it isn’t an expression… he really was the Child Jesus.

this child was "really" Jesus in much the same way that the bread and wine are, after transubstantiation during the mass, "really" the body and blood of Christ

Giovanni Tiso said...

That's a point, but this was the main Italian weekend paper at the time, not a church bulletin. I think it was supposed to be agnostic.