Saint Roch feast means the end of summer. The fireworks celebrating the death of the saint known for his ascetism, religious devotion, and for having saved many people from the plague to then fall ill himself, are but a farewell to a lazy summer and one of the events opening the new political season. It’s a carnival, the most important event, the catholic feast. Every year, in Scylla, the same routine occurs: the early morning sound of a firecracker which officially announces the beginning of the feast; the village band playing marches while a statue of Saint Roch is walked across the village by twenty or more volunteers for three days. The last day, the statue is walked through a long corridor of fire, from which the saint triumphantly re-emerges in one piece. At night, Saint Roch is placed onto a golden plinth. And, Boom! Bang! Ratatata! Twenty-five minutes of chaos as the sky turns blue, pink, and white. Hi Federica, good to see you! Did you come back for the feast? To miss Saint Roch feast is a sacrilege. Parents, relatives and even friends will eventually reproach me for having missed the important event.
What would life be like in this small town in Southern Italy without San Roch feast? The feast keeps the inhabitants together and tears them apart: you bought two votive offerings candles! I bought three and mine are bigger! I walked barefoot for three kilometres, you only did it for five hundred meters! And if this wasn’t enough, devotion is also calculated in the offerings collected by an eager group of believers, who, like beggars, knock at each door with imploring faces like in the Martyrdom of Christ and chant: an offering to San Rocco, please!
More than an offer, this is a duty. If I only would dare to question the dubious practice, the whole village will have its say. Shame on you! Shame on you! If I then want to escape the unfortunate situation, there is only one viable option: pretend that I am not at home and let the doorbell ring while patiently holding my breath, hoping they will give up soon. It’s a good trick, like playing hide-and-seek. I hate the missionary behaviours, and the passion with which these believers impassibly carry out their duty with precision and total devotion. I profoundly hate them as I hate norms and religious conventions, so I will be forced to retreat, disappear. I will be in denial, like the worst of traitors, pretending that I am not there. I don’t want to take part in the annual defile of moralism.
Santu Roccu (this is how it is spelt in southern Italian dialect) is more than a mere religious convention; he is the uncontested authority, under whose spell: 1. Emigrants come back to their hometown like bees to their hive. 2. Villagers experience (once again) the joy (and horror) of family ties, the sense of belonging and of loyalty to the family-tribe-community. 3. Morality is reinforced as well as political and social alliances. What else? Ah! Children are allowed to really enjoy themselves, play with balloons and eat sugar candies, while elderly people drag their bodies slowly back and forth, from one side of the square to the other commenting on the latest village gossip. I have always experienced the feast with the unpleasant, claustrophobic feeling of someone being trapped like a monkey behind a window in a city zoo: exposed to public eyes, forced to express sympathy, to play one’s part, but unable to do or feel anything. I have experienced the violence of collective desires as something that both holds me hostage and sets me free.
Saint Roch is tradition and sense of belonging. What kind of Southerner can you be—you miserable bastard who doesn’t follow the rules—if you don’t show some sign of respect and devotion during the carnival of Saint Roch? If religion is a choice and a call, and participation in religious functions is an option, festivities give you no choice or option. They are there, to be enjoyed or hated. They heighten the desire for a common identity and the sense of belonging, and strengthen existing power relations. To gain social credibility, to “appear” respectable in the eyes of my neighbour, to feel part of a community, I must participate. Take part in it! Wear the better dress! Sing litanies and praise at the rhythms of drums and cymbals! Walk barefoot for hours! Or just show up! Yes, this is a show, and sometimes it is enough to show up. Make an appearance: Go to the main square; sit somewhere where you have a good view, look from left to right and vice versa. Smile. I am here, I am paying homage to the Kings and Queens of this inescapable puppets’ play!
The village feast is the horror show of bigotry and social mediocrity, but it is also one of the many manifestations of public life. The feast is part of the space of politics as a space of appearances. Crucial political decisions are often taken during these three days. To participate in the feast is a way of communicating to the fellow villagers that I am one of them. I identify with them. I speak the same language; hence I can be suitable for a relevant political position (Berlusconi, like Saint Roch, being exemplary in this case). I am not the intellectual,“sophisticated” asshole they believe I am! I am one of them. I understand their concerns, needs, and desires. I know how things get done. How they ought to be done. I know what sacrifice is, what it means to be a good citizen, to respect the rules. I can be a moral example as they are, for, we are all contributing in one way or another to the success of this annual test-run of citizenry and beliefs. If I take part in this event this will be my affirmative answer to the unspoken, yet diffusely insistent question: Are you REALLY one of us?
During the feast roles and rules drift. And there is always the possibility to re-invent myself, to become someone else, be surprised by my personal ability to cope with the situation. In the confusion of the moment, when everybody is busy with dressing up, paying a visit to the Saint, or to their families and relatives, I can take the City hall over, if only for a moment. Or I can play the fool, the good citizen, the concerned politician, the rebel, or just become a good storyteller.1 If I don’t want to carry offering candles or pray or meet any of the religious requirements, then I can decide to give my face, eyes and mouth to the others for one (or three) evening(s). It can be extremely liberating.
Participation in the feast, however, gives immediate access to the political and social life of the community. If I have any interest in joining it, I will have to shake hands, bow, smile, comment on the procession, give opinions, and at convenience also get drunk. And this is not simply Southern folklore. It is one of the many faces of the political as space of appearance, where, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, “I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things, but to make their appearance explicitly”.2 If I aspire to become a politician, to make my appearance explicit—to quote Arendt—I might need to eat tons of fried pork—its interiors included—drink litres of wine, dance with a group of drunken men and perform rituals together with them without a single moment of hesitation. A minute of pause, a word too much or too less, or a steak in excess could cost a politician the coming elections. It’s a collective hangover. The ones who survive, who don’t end up at the hospital, are the ones who eventually will occupy the most prestigious political positions. They’ll need a strong stomach and possess the social intelligence and ability to deal with the pure schizophrenia produced by the highly-liberating-highlyentangling social event, the feast.
And, while I am surrounded by crosses, votive statuettes, candles, candys, and excited children with big balloons, my mind will be split by two opposite forces which pull me in different directions: on the one hand, the desire to escape the horror of this re-enactment, to hide, run away, disappear, pretend I am not around; and on the other hand, the desire to access, be part of and contribute to this community life moment—hence make my way into the political life. What to do then, renounce or embrace this unique possibility? To opt for one or the other choice won’t give me any relief. If I participate, I will be disappointed by the representation of power that these events produce and channel, and by the moralism and bigotry of the villagers; if I don’t, I will be excluded from the community life, from power and social accountability.
As part of the village’s life, the feast contributes to the making and unmaking of the social sphere. Take or leave it. It doesn’t matter if I feel represented by those people or if I want to contribute to the kind of representation the feast enacts. The violence of the general euphoria doesn’t ask permission or give me options: In or out. Participate or retreat. I eat or I don’t. There is no space for mediations. No compromises. The corruption which propels from the feast is radical and uncompromisable. It’s a question of belief. And, the feast might put me under enormous, infernal pressure. The pressure to perform a part in this theatre play; to partake for one faction or the other; to take decisions which are not even mine, but are dictated by the community and its tangle of social relations. To dance, smile, walk barefoot, sing, go out and get drunk.
Yet, there is a good side to all of this. Even when the feast is understood as a necessary step towards power, or as the carnivalesque manifestation of the immutable order of the polis in which identities are assigned once and forever so that the rules can be clear, and the game can continue unchanged, it also allows for a moment of social fluidity. The butcher, the teacher, the preacher, the junky, they are all on the same boat, sharingthe same space and importance. They are all concurring in the making of the space of politics, all in equal measure. When men who carry on their shoulders the weight of the saint or women who carry offerings and candles tie red scarves around their tainted necks, they are equal in their dress, possibilities, and fate. The feast is a social experiment, after all. It can turn incredibly bad or exceptionally good. Either ways are possible, and not necessarily predictable.
The rhythm of the village is broken up by the demonic sounds of cymbals and drums. Everyone puts on a mask. The dance goes on for three or more days.
Meanwhile, you can also die and be reborn.
- 1. ”All creatures contain infinite possibilities of being another. One possibility is just as good as another. If our internal world were reduced to a single self and a single sex what a boring scene it would be, what sterility. It’s up to us to be peoples and be placed under the spell. But to accomplish this one must have the utmost courage to let go of the ballast of the self, to leave oneself unweighted on the celestial platform. Let go of the weight of the self, but not the memory, or the trace. For heshe becomes not simply quite-other. The most precious aspect of the transfiguration, without which there would be neither joy nor learning, is that I-can-be-another (creature)- whom-I-am-not-myself.” Cixous, H., Unmasked! Stigmata (1998, 2005), London and New York: Routledge Classics, p. 182.
- 2. Arendt, H., The Human Condition (1958), p. 179. Chicago: University Chicago Press; 1 Edition (1998).