Haunted by the Spectre of a Fictional Curé

by Paul Mathers

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On November 7th, 1628, a priest was walking home down the same road that he walked down every day. By the way, this probably didn’t really happen.  The grand sweeping historical events in this book really happened, but the small stories of individuals in this book are fiction or fictionalized.  A modern example would be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The  curé was reading from his missal, just like he did every day, to the point that he would look up at where he was walking at the exact same points every single day.  Almost 400 years later, this would herald the first moment in a series of over 50 books at which I almost threw a book across the room.

Don Abbondio came to the point in the road where it diverged into a Y. To the right the road led down to the lake or something. To the left, the road would take him to his home. Usually when he looked up at this point, he saw the wall in front of him directly in the Y in the road. This time, when he looked up, he saw two bravoes sitting against the walls of the fork in the road. The author of the book, Alessandro Manzoni, then takes a few pages to explain that the bravoes were a group of ruffians who carried out the wills of highly powerful men, Dons in fact. Sound familiar? Yes, the book is Italian.

We quickly become accustomed to the shockingly modern form of narrative in which the author breaks in to fill in the colors of the picture more fully, even as we are looking at the painting, with such charm and skill that it is clearly part of the artwork. I Promessi Sposi is to historical fiction what In Cold Blood is to the true crime genre. It is the sublime Promethean progenitor which has never been matched. I have mentioned before I started reading this that if this title were not in the Harvard Classics series, I feel fairly certain that I would have died never having read it. It isn’t a commonly read or endorsed classic in contemporary America. We are fools.

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“See! Have I ever steered you wrong? …I mean except for my translation choices.”

The book was written in the early 1800s but takes place in the 1600s. In it, we see famine, riots, plagues, and other major historical events described with literary mastery. We also see one of the keenest displays of humankind in all of literature. The translator, in explaining the place of Manzoni in Italian history, says that it would be as if Dickens had only written one book (lets say A Tale of Two Cities) which retained the enduring fame of one of the greatest works of literature, but also became a unifying force in the institutions of a cohesive English language, catalyzing a unified nation. That is what Manzoni was to Italy. I understand the choice of authors given the fact that Bruce Penman was addressing the readers of his English translation of the piece, but I keep feeling that if we are making such comparisons, Victor Hugo would be at least as apt a comparison to make.

Before we press play on our story about the curé, you’ll notice the photograph of Dr. Charles Eliot above. I have been reading the Harvard Classics, the collection compiled by Dr. Eliot, for a few years now. I have posted the photo above of Dr. Eliot, as well a few others over those few years. Today I learned something about those photographs that I had never noticed before. Dr. Eliot is always turned so that you only see his left side.

The reason for that is that he had a horrific birthmark, which was described as “disfiguring”, on the right side of his face. Growing up in the 1800s, Eliot was told by medical professionals that there was nothing they could do about it. Seeing his despair, his mother said to him,

“It is possible for you, with God’s help, to grow a mind and soul so big that people will forget to look at your face.”

The rest of the story is that he became the president of Harvard, revolutionized the American education system, was revered and beloved, and generally lived an exemplary and enviable life, what Socrates would have called a “good life.”

Now let’s get back to Don Abbondio. The bravoes are, in fact, looking for him. They threaten him, in certain and severe terms, that he ought not perform the specific wedding ceremony planned for the next day. What would be the proper thing for Don Abbondio to do in this circumstance? There are no police to speak of, at least not in any trustworthy or reliable manifestation. He could write to the Archbishop to flex some papal muscles in his favor. He could do the ceremony anyway and suffer the consequences. He could fly in the face of the “and you had better not mention this encounter to anyone” caveat of the threat and inform the young couple of the threat, and thereby draw the affected parties into the deal, placing the ball in their court, and, indeed, placing some of the responsibility on them.

So, what does he do? He goes home and panics. He tells his housekeeper, which he instantly regrets. He pulls his shutters closed and pulls the covers over his head, and tells the housekeeper to tell everyone that he is ill. He goes over and over the circumstances in his head, playing out every possible conclusion, and feeling very sorry for his circumstance.

The narrator turns to us to explain. Don Abbondio was not a strong young man. He seems, in fact, to have been bullied in his youth. Well aware of the “way of the world” he found that he needed protection, a way to align himself with a force more powerful than he could ever hope to be. He decided, given his temperament, that he would likely be safest hiding behind the cloth. His opinions of matters and situations tended towards the self-preservation instinct, often siding with the oppressors in disputes while attempting to placate the oppressed. He seems like he would be entirely happy in a world where he was relieved of the pressure of having to deal with other people at all.

And that is where one of the greatest books I’ve ever read almost got thrown against a wall. I don’t think that I would go quite so far as to call myself “like Don Abbondio,” but I definitely understand and empathize with a great deal of where these impulses in him came from. I was bullied in my childhood. Left to my own devices, (though, mercifully, my life is structured in such a way that I rarely am) I would be reclusive. I know that I am not a good friend or, rather, that I struggle with being a good friend because circumstances have left me accustomed to people turning on me. I don’t think I am a coward. I do think that Don Abbondio is a coward. I think that the difference between me and Don Abbondio is that I fight these impulses tooth and nail. But what stabbed me in the chest during the description of Don Abbondio was that the image that the mirror turned toward me in the passage, while not spitting, was at least recognizable. Or, at least and more to the point, I have felt similar impulses, though my responses to them were different.

The stated purpose of the Harvard Classics Library is, according to Dr. Eliot, if one were to read the entire set, one would then have the equivalent of a Harvard level education (circa 1909). Education is a life-long process. It is the process of self-creation, of deciding who you want to be and who you don’t want to be. Whether you’re learning binomial theorem or studying philosophy, it is about who you are going to be and what you are going to contribute. I was recently journalling about my own struggles with anxiety, and I wrote about being a contributing member of society. I was specifically encouraging myself to push through my anxieties, that is doesn’t matter if I am feeling scared or physically sick or anything else, so long as I contribute. The contribution is what matters. One of the lessons of this book for me so far is something I can carry around with me as I face my daily life:

Do I want to be a Don Abbondio or do I want to be a Dr. Eliot?

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