Their vanity is greater than their misery

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September 19, 2014 by Ville Raivio

“‘You’re a gentleman, Chevalley, and I consider it a privilege to have met you; you are right in all you say; your only mistake was saying “the Sicilians must want to improve.” I’ll tell you a personal anecdote. Two or three days before Garibaldi entered Palermo I was introduced to some British naval officers from one of the warships then in harbour to keep an eye on things. They had heard, I don’t know how, that I own a house down on the shore facing the sea, with a terrace on its roof from which can be seen the whole circle of hills around the city; they asked to visit this house of mine and look at the landscape where Garibaldini were said to be operating, as they could get no clear idea from their ships. In fact Garibaldi was already at Gibilrossa. They came to my house, I accompanied them up on to the roof; they were simple youths in spite of their reddish whiskers. They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn’t explain to them that one thing was derived from the other, as I have tried to with you. Then one of them asked me what those Italian volunteers were really coming to do in Sicily. “They are coming to teach us good manners!” I replied in English. “But they won’t succeed, because we are gods.”

‘I don’t think they understood, but they laughed and went off.That is my answer to you too, my dear Chevalley; the Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied waiting for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.

‘Do you really think, Chevalley, that you are the first who has hoped to canalise Sicily into the flow of universal history? I wonder how many Moslem Imams, how many of King Roger’s knights, how many Swabian scribes, how many Angevin barons, how many jurists of the Most Catholic King have conceived the same fine folly; and how many Spanish viceroys too, how many of Charles III’s reforming functionaries! And who knows now what happened to them all! Sicily wanted to sleep in spite of their invocations; for why should she listen to them if she herself is rich, if she’s wise, if she’s civilized, if she’s honest, if she’s admired and envied by all, if, in a word, she is perfect?”

~ F. Corbera (Don Fabrizio) in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo


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