Fascism 101 with Professors Vittorini and Solzhenitsyn

Didn’t you catch that stink?” says the big man to his fellows in the compartment on a train in Elio Vittorini’s novel, Conversations in Sicily. He is burly and blond, of Lombard and Norman blood, though a native Sicilian all the same.

“What stink?” says a man who is returning to his native Sicily after 15 years, immersed in memories and gloom.

“Didn’t you catch that stink?” the big Lombard says again. A young man, yellow with malaria and wrapped up in a heavy cloak, nods. A very small and withered old man makes a whistling sound, as if in approval.

Finally, the man understands. “You mean those two in the passageway?” They had gotten off at the last stop.

“That stench, yes,” says the big Lombard. Everyone in the compartment exchanges glances. For the two in the passageway, one With Mustaches and one Without Mustaches, had been speaking within earshot about another passenger. That man, a poor farm worker, had been complaining about the wretched oranges he was hired to pick and could not sell, because nobody wanted them anywhere. He had no bread and cheese for his lunch—only oranges in a sack, which he peeled and swallowed down in bitterness. His young wife beside him would not even take one.

“The kind of fellow you have to arrest,” said Without Mustaches.

“You have to do it,” said With Mustaches. “You never know.”

“A man dying of hunger is always dangerous,” said Without Mustaches.

“Right about that. Capable of anything,” said With Mustaches.

“Robbery,” said Without Mustaches.

“That goes without saying,” said With Mustaches.

“Pulling a knife on you,” said Without Mustaches.

“No question,” said With Mustaches.

“And political delinquency,” said Without Mustaches.

And they looked into each other’s eyes and smiled, recalling people they knew whom they had denounced; the barber, the landlord, the butcher, the owner of the delicatessen.

That was the stench from the corridor that the big Lombard was talking about, the stench of fascists, professional informants, denouncers, people who made their living by surveillance, catching people in crimes against the political correctness of the day. 

For that was the dictum of Benito Mussolini: “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” Everything must be swallowed up in politics. Nothing must be permitted to enjoy a non-political or pre-political or beyond-political existence. Not even language, not even the names of towns and villages could escape the hand of Fascist politics: Girgenti, for example, had to become Agrigento, because that was the Italian for ancient Agrigentum, and Mussolini, his head turned by fantasies of Roman glory, wanted to bring his country back to the days of the Caesars.

What kinds of people want to put the deeds and words of others under surveillance, eager to find fault, and quick to destroy a man’s reputation or run him out of his livelihood? Who has the spirit of a fascist?

Not the big Lombard, who dares to speak his mind and who does not mince words. He would allow to any man the liberty of thought and speech that he claims for himself. Not the man with the oranges, who suffers real hunger and poverty, and does not have to cast himself as a star in a political psychodrama. They are men like With Mustaches and Without Mustaches, self-satisfied, hardly individuated, loyal to no person or place or culture, ready to immerse themselves in the collective thing that Mussolini held forth for them in his mad dream.

Or they are like Rusanov, the cowardly apparatchik in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Admitted to the ward for a quick-growing tumor on his neck, Rusanov tries to throw his official weight around. He complains about the doctors and the nurses, threatening to bring them under investigation. He despises most of his fellow patients, especially one Kostoglotov, whose history resembles that of Solzhenitsyn himself. Hovering near death of stomach cancer, in and out of the ward for a year after having spent nine years in the labor camps for dropping some derogatory comments about Stalin, Kostoglotov has seen how the Soviet system rests upon a pack of lies, and he dares to say so. Rusanov intends to deal with Kostoglotov as soon as he can leave the hospital.

That doesn’t happen, though. A few days after Rusanov is admitted, the political earth heaves up beneath his feet. It has been one year since Stalin’s death. But there have been no parades, no public lamentations, no commemoration. Suddenly, Stalin and his lackeys are no longer in favor. Worse still: Rusanov learns that one of the people he denounced to the authorities, a man with whom he and his wife had shared an apartment, did not die in Siberia after all. He is alive, and he has been set free. He may seek revenge.

Rusanov does not regret ruining other people’s lives. He does not regret sneaking, back-stabbing, posturing, defaming, substituting the politically correct for what is simply human and decent. He is afraid of payback. Kostoglotov is not a Christian, as Solzhenitsyn was not a Christian yet when he spent his time in a cancer ward in Tashkent, in 1954. Kostoglotov has a moral sensibility that pierces through the slogans, the propaganda, the follies, the empty promises of “progress,” and the airy fantasies of materialism. He does not say that a different political system would be better. Almost anything would be better, but that is not the point. The point is to learn again how to live a genuinely human life.

How can you tell if you have the soul of a fascist?

If you are alive and breathing, you are in danger of it, because it is an ever-present temptation to drown your sins in oblivion as you lose your individuality in a group, a herd, a mob, a “movement,” or to dress up your pride and envy in political colors, and turn hatred itself into a virtue. Indeed, the more social you are by temperament, the greater your peril.

Beyond that, how can you tell? Vittorini and Solzhenitsyn, who lived through it, can instruct us.

Do you watch others, to find fault?

Do you seek occasion for enmity?

Do you believe that “the personal is the political”?

Do you speak evil of people behind their backs?

Do you enjoy—perhaps too much—being part of a political movement?

Do you believe that political urgency absolves you of ordinary human duties, such as the duty to protect your enemy’s good name, or the duty to be loyal to a friend?

Do you expose other people to opprobrium?

Do you act as if every decent person must believe as you and your comrades believe, and say what you say?

Do you enjoy having other people live under a reign of terror, wherein one false step can cost them their livelihood?

Do you feel a frisson of glee when someone takes that false step?

How about it? We are all frail. But when I see people behaving just like With Mustaches and Without Mustaches, just like Pavel Nikolayevitch Rusanov, all while crying out against Fascism, I wonder if they know anything about history. They seem to know little enough about themselves.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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