Sicilian Status Quo

In my search to understand the character of Sicily, I discover the work of the Sicilian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa. His novel, The Leopard, is set in the period of the Risorgimento when Italy violently transformed itself from a collection of principalities into a unified country.

This masterpiece is filled with insightful observations on the nature of Sicily and Sicilians.

Lampedusa tells his story from the point of view of his Grandfather Don Fabrizio. He was a Sicilian Prince deeply embedded into the traditions of the Sicilian aristocracy. The Prince tells us the islanders’ sense of history and traditions with an apt clarity and innate honesty, ultimately creating an eloquent portrait of the Sicilian character.

The world of the Prince takes us into decaying palaces, country manors. Into a Sicilian landscape full of rustic panoramas, impoverished, ignorant peasants, and a culture linked firmly to the island’s past. On this journey, Don Fabrizio illustrates the true essence and origins of the Sicilian character that embodies the deep sleep, decay and ultimate sadness that reflects the true nature of Sicily.

The physical environment of Sicily moulds its people’s character. The island’s climate landscape is filled with contradictions and is part of the forces which have formed Sicilians’ minds, more so than the pressure of alien invasions.

Lampedusa deftly describes the extremities in the geography of Sicily as a metaphor for the enigma that is Sicily. The extremes in the landscape from one province to the next, from lush green to harsh arid heat and lava stone.

The climate’s inconsistency is extremely inflicting the Sicilian’s with six months of unbearable temperature, humidity and a winter filled with months of rain and intense cold. The seasons change suddenly. When the rain comes, dried river beds are transformed into torrents capable of drowning man and beast two weeks before they die of thirst. The fragile mountains soak up the torrential rains, creating eroding crevices and landslides capable of making mountainsides collapse and houses tumble down as quickly as a house of cards.

The instability of the landscape and climate shapes the variability of society. The seismic heart of Etna burrows itself down under the island in a conglomerate of volcanoes that cause frequent earthquakes. The volcanic activity is interconnected to the Aeolian islands as the very land beneath a Sicilian’s feet performs violent earthquake dances.

Then the mountains dominate the landscape like sleeping giants who can block out the sun. They force the roads to wind themselves around them like a light string tied around an irregularly shaped package, clumsily holding the paper down.

The towns too are ungainly, clinging haphazardly to the mountains which isolate them from one another, creating walls between cities a few kilometres apart.

This isolation created by the landscape makes Sicilians seem strangers amongst themselves. The separation has created distances in language and traditions through time, which makes one town foreign from the next.

Foreigners are identified by uttering only half a word even though they may be born and live just a few kilometres away from one another.

For Lampedusa, Sicilians are placed under a deep and ancient spell which, like an illness infects them from an early age, is something incurable after a certain period. Lampedusa says: that few Sicilians may break the spell once off the island. According to him, they would have to leave Sicily very young; by twenty, it’s too late; that age already forms the crust. After a particular time, they will remain under Sicily’s spell. Eternally convinced that the civilised norm is here in Sicily and that the outside world is flawed.

Apart from the decay and corruption that scars Sicily so profoundly, it is ultimately the Sicilian people responsible for their destiny. Lampedusa was a proud Sicilian writer who understood his origins and was grieved by his islands ineptitude. Lampedusa believed the real reason for Sicily’s fate comes from an innate arrogance within the Sicilian personality.

He writes the real reason for Sicily’s difference lies in the sense of superiority that dazzles the Sicilian eye, which is their pride, while in reality is a kind of blindness. This trait ironically creates an ultimate resistance and inability to change.

The decay of Sicily ultimately comes from within the Sicilian psyche and their self-sabotaging character. Siculu author Leonardo Sciascia observed how islanders are perpetually under a state of isolation and insecurity, which he called Sicilitudine.

As a defeated and conquered population, they have absorbed fear and apprehension, leading to an inability to trust. This inability to trust others makes them eventually close within themselves while also nurturing the danger of violence, pessimism and fatalism.

Sicilians have invented an elaborate air of arrogance and presumptuousness to mask their fears and mistrust. While secretly isolating themselves in their little shell of vulnerability, a process aided by their geographic isolation as an island.

Sicily can never change because it just doesn’t want to; despite all of its promise, pride and history, it insists on continuing as it always has. Why? It has always been like this. A cyclical argument conveniently chases its tail around until any reason for the change is forgotten. The repetitiveness of corruption becomes a tolerated reality and eventually melds into the eternal status quo.