Contagion, ethics, and compassion
I present here some reflections initiated by a re-reading of Manzoni’s novel that I have completed in recent months during the outbreak of the Covid-19. Is there anything that this novel written two centuries ago can teach us today at the time of this Coronavirus? This question came to my mind when I realized that narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 in chapters 31 and 32 of The Betrothed, Manzoni reveals political, social, and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Coronavirus contagion. In this perspective, I thought, the reading of this 1630 story could become a mirror to look at what we can hardly see in our present.
The 1840 edition of The Betrothed also included the History of the Column of Infamy, published as an appendix, and illustrations created by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin; Manzoni himself selected these images for publication. I am using some of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco for the Biblioteca Braidense in my presentation.
The contagion in the Betrothed
Manzoni sets his novel during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. In chapter 31, he recounts the plague contagion’s origin and how the population experienced it. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague:
The contagion was brought to Lombardy by the German troops allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Tribunal of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. Still, political and medical leaders did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.
The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities they should take care of the plague because he had “more important things to think about.” Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was issued only when the plague had already entered the city, provoking thousands of deaths and the lockdown of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto.
Another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers favored the contagion’s spread. They could not renounce the public display of their powers’ symbols even in the epidemic’s lethal time. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for Prince Carlos’s birth, King Philip IV’s firstborn son. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all,” Manzoni writes.
On the other hand, Cardinal Borromeo, pressured by public authorities, authorized a solemn procession through the streets, invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city.
The following day, however, as Manzoni underlines, the disease’s deaths increased dramatically due to the faster spread of the infection through the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.
We witnessed a similar situation in early 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19. We saw the irresponsible refusal to admit the contagion’s existence by various countries’ political authorities, including permission to hold political rallies, sports events, and religious services, despite the danger represented by the multiplication of contagion opportunities. The reappearance of similar irrational and irresponsible attitudes in the middle of the 21st century is disconcerting, especially when compared to times when science and the media had not yet provided the elements for a more sophisticated perception and analyses of the contagion.
Given the public authorities’ dismissing attitude, in 1630 Milan, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. The people became angry and protested against the health authorities when they started requiring quarantine and confinement to the hospital. Then, began what historians call “conspiracy syndrome,” of which there are ample examples in the past and, as you know, in our present. This syndrome arises from the obsession with imaginary hidden enemies that would cause evil and destructive crises. This fear triggers aggression, violence, illegality, and the imposition of a state of exception.
Thus, Milan’s people started believing that particularly dreadful humans caused the plague, the untori, anointers, or plague-spreaders. Driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies, they would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy items. In this image, you can see how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral where some thought they saw people in the cathedral greasing a floorboard, as Manzoni writes.
This other drawing represents what happened in the church of St. Anthony, where an older adult prayed a little on his knees and then dusted the bench with the hood because he wanted to sit down. Mistaken for an infector, he was savagely beaten and taken to the police, where he was tortured. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).
Foreigners, especially French people but also Spaniards, were suspected as such to be responsible for the conspiracy and the spreading of the plague. People often would beat them in the street and considered them dangerous enemies of the homeland (16). This is what happened to the three young French people represented in this drawing by Gonin. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).
Similarly, today in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been the object of gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere. Not to mention the conspiracy theories we hear about and the rise of racism and xenophobia that has affected the Asian Pacific population in the United States since the pandemic began.
In seventeenth-century Milanese society, the opinion that in the end prevailed set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delínquent plot instead, with the only intent of preparing for a disorder, robbery, and looting. Some Milanese people were identified as untori by the citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion. Under torture, they admitted being guilty of something for which they were not responsible. Consequently, they were sentenced to death.
The trial and conviction of the untori anticipated in chapter 32 of the Betrothed are at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy. I analyze the latter in another publication. Here I focus on some ethical reflections that Manzoni develops in the plague chapters.
Language, ethics and compassion
First, he expresses concerns about the use of language. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to create false statements, escape from an unwanted reality, or build an “alternative reality” to avoid personal or public responsibilities. This attitude is hazardous if we consider that, as Foucault writes
“… when humans remain alienated from what happens in their language being constrained by economic and social determinations without feeling at home in the real world, they live in a culture that loses any sense of objectivity and makes pathological forms possible at all levels of society.” (Michel Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology).
Manzoni describes the process with great precision that leads to the alienation from language and reality, starting from the outbreak of the plague. At first, the political and medical authorities prohibited using the word plague and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, they admitted the idea of the disease only indirectly in the adjective. He adds,
“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction. But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (The Betrothed, ch. 31).
In recent months, we have witnessed the same linguistic denial process with the definition of Covid 19, first, as a kind of “flu;” then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu. Finally, for some political authorities, the virus became a “Chinese virus,” altering and confusing the meaning of a word that they could no longer suppress.
The general reflection on the hazards of the use of language that Manzoni develops is particularly important. It is worth pondering it with full attention. He writes that in defining
“… little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language to define the contagion) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking.” The Betrothed, ch. 31.
In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political and religious powers and their supportive crowds in using words as propaganda, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Still useful advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.
Manzoni’s recommendation is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing good and evil, but on ethics that makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. Indeed, trying to explain the scarce practice of critical attention in the use of language, he concludes by saying with some irony,
“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).
In short, he is suggesting that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier, and therefore widespread, than comparing and thinking critically. Thus, to some extent, one should excuse all human beings and, therefore, the writer himself for their mistakes. Thinking critically for Manzoni also means distinguishing between, on the one hand, human and historical truth and, on the other, eschatological, eternal truth, to which human beings have only limited access. For this reason, in his Observations on Catholic morality, Manzoni wrote that human beings never must make truth triumph. (8)
“… human beings may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph.”
A. Manzoni, Observations on the Catholic Morality, “To the Reader.”
In this statement, I see a theological reformulation of ethics of truth as it emerged at the origins of Western philosophical discourse understood as an endless search for wisdom. Once he has established the distinction between historical truth and theological truth, Manzoni undertakes to transcend it in a continuous and restless movement of references to one element and the other without ever reaching a definitive synthesis from their dialectical collaboration. In this perspective, Pierantonio Frare has defined Manzoni as a writer of restlessness. I argue that from this restlessness comes his need for continuous reflections on language use, which should be considered a form of ethics of writing.
On the one hand, Manzoni underlines the difficulty of communication at all levels, and intellectuals’ responsibility. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which people using language in an uncontrolled way can contribute to unpleasant misunderstandings and violent discrimination in society, eventually ruining the lives of individuals and entire social categories. Let me provide a few examples of this ethics of writing. First, I would like to mention a memorable narrative sequence from Chapter XXVII of Manzoni’s Betrothed that stages the problem of communication from a distance
It is no coincidence that this sequence constitutes a turning point in the novel because from this moment on, Manzoni inserts Renzo and Lucia’s love story into a broader historical and tragic context—famine, the war for the Mantua succession, and finally, the plague. Separated from Lucia due to Don Rodrigo’s threats to prevent their marriage, Renzo intends to communicate with her. Still, since he is illiterate, he must hire a letter-writer. At this point, Manzoni comments that those who know the art of writing and depend on it are bound to misunderstand their interlocutors being unable to give faithful expression to their thoughts and sometimes even their own ideas. Then, he adds
“… it even happens to us who write for a press.”
Manzoni points out the difficulties and limits implicit in written communication in general and literary writing for print. By extending his writing ethics to scribes and modern authors alike, he also addresses intellectuals’ responsibility in social communication. Indeed, he recognizes here the pitfalls of intellectual statements that claim to speak in the name of illiterate people. A problem that, for his own admission affects his novel as well. This problem is also alive today as, not by chance, there still is talk of a profound rift between the intellectual elite and the people. Today, by moving away from the world of handwriting and printing towards an ever more pervasive and fast digital writing, quite often, we have done nothing but multiply the communication difficulties reported by Manzoni.
In light of today’s problems, Manzoni’s work reveals surprising, insightful, and far-sighted attention to the sociolinguistic elements that structure otherness’s marginalization. Like any great novel, as Bakhtin suggests, Betrothed also includes multiple languages and a diversity of social speech types. The language of power that excludes in Manzoni’s novel is not only the cumbersome Latin of the clergy (Don Abbondio) and the legal profession (Dr. Azzeccagarbugli) in the service of the powerful. The language of the empire, Don Ferrer’s Spanish, which deceives and dominates the crowd, also finds a significant space in the macrostructure of power. On the other hand, a local Italian dialect, which affects and discriminates against migration, also acts in power’s microstructure.
This form of discrimination is what Renzo experiences in chapter XVII; when to survive the economic disasters provoked by the war, famine, and plague, he decides to migrate to the province of Bergamo. In the absence of an Italian state, this meant migrating from Duchy of Milan under Spanish rule to Venice’s Republic.
Here he is forced to suffer the offensive slur baggiano (blockhead) with which Bergamo’s population called the Milanese migrants. Even in these sociolinguistic observations that testify to micro-aggressions against migrants, Manzoni’s novel reflects a current situation and problem. Our culture is often unaware of the terrible possibility that linguistic offense –alienating humans from reality– can lead to violence and destruction.
The most resounding example of this dreadful possibility is the use of the word untore. The process of clouding of conscience that prevented the various social actors from identifying the plague is further explored in the analysis that Manzoni conducts in the historical appendix. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that the contagion of the soul, of the human conscience is at the center of his investigation. With few exceptions, this contagion involves practically all people, including the two women who identified Guglielmo Piazza as an untore only because he had touched the wall of a house with a hand. Manzoni writes that the word untore, already full of what he calls “deplorable certainty” passed without checking or correction from the street people’s mouth into that of the judges.
Faced with the threat of the plague, everyone has silenced their ethical conscience and forgotten the meaning of justice; everyone only saw what they wanted to see and eliminated any rational inquiry by surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. Manzoni concludes,
“… fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate.” History of the Column of Infamy, ch. 1.
Reason and charity well express the two primary sources of Manzoni’s culture, rational Enlightenment and evangelical culture. Reason and charity are for Manzoni what can control the irresponsible use of language, avoid obscuring conscience, and stop the violence. Charity, that is, the recognition of the other in his most immediate and urgent needs, is what can make human conscience re-awake, bringing it closer to that reality that was previously stubbornly and selfishly denied.
Noble examples of this charity are the Capuchin friars who died with joy at the Lazaretto assisting the sick with the plague, responding directly to the extreme condition of their pain. The Capuchins did not remain prisoners of the lies about the epidemic in the collective madness that had taken Milan.
At the extreme levels, this madness revealed the dark areas of the human soul in the gratuitous and obscene violence of the monatti. These were people sentenced to death, prisoners, appointed by the municipalities to transport the sick or corpses to the hospital. They quite often saw the plague as an occasion for a macabre carnival feast.
The Capuchins are not as concerned about defining the plague as doctors, intellectuals, and politicians. They are concerned only with responding unshakably to the dire consequences of the epidemic, and in this way, with a gesture of radical altruism, they regain a sense of reality.
I cannot help but note that even today, at the time of Covid-19, the contagion’s reality often denied by some politicians, newsmakers, and ordinary people alike, was witnessed and recognized only in the reports of the front-line workers of the hospitals. They have faced their duties as caregivers tirelessly and heroically. In their compassionate gestures, they also helped re-establish contact with the language, reality, and a world where one no longer feels stranger but a participant in becoming a healer. Here then is how, in Manzoni’s writing, the plague, from an allegory of evil and madness that grips human bodies and souls, paradoxically becomes a cognitive apparatus revealing an authentic human condition, the bare life of suffering. As Artaud wrote in his The Plague and the Theater,
“… the plague, is beneficial because it impels us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall and divulging our world’s lies, aimlessness, meanness and even two-facedness. It shakes off stifling material dullness which even overcomes the senses’ clearest testimony, and collectively reveals their dark powers and hidden strength to humans, urging them to take a nobler, more heroic stand in the face of destiny than they would have assumed without it.” Antonin Artaud, The Theater and the Plague.
Artaud, Antonin, and Victor Corti. “Theathre and the plague” in The Theatre and Its Double. London: Alma Classics, 2014. Print. 9-22.
Bakhtin, M M, Caryl Emerson, and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Foucault, Michel. Mental Illness and Psychology. Foucault. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.
Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource.
Frare, Pierantonio. La Scrittura Dell’inquietudine: Saggio Su Alessandro Manzoni. Firenze: Olschki, 2006. Print.
Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.
Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.
—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print.
Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.