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[God marks them out, and you avoid them]
(Taranto area) by Alberto Sobrero
Bruno Maggio. China
It is very easy to interpret this proverb, and gratifying for us “moderns”. It is the judgement without leave to appeal passed on those who are “marked out” by a handicap (a lame person, a cripple, a deaf-mute), a judgement which for us is a sign of backwardness, of barbarity, of rudeness, the expression of a superstitious and fundamentalist conception of religion, which has its roots in the long phase of the grafting of Christianity onto a pagan base and occupies all the Middle Ages and more, down to the 16th century, the century of science and progress, whose children we are, or at least claim to be.
A conception which roughly identified the practice of religion with the Manichean counter-pointing of Good and Evil, and consequently ended up by ruthlessly hunting out Evil and its manifold incarnations: witches, those possessed by the Devil, the deformed; anybody who was “different” and in some way branded by signs which led back to the Devil.
If it’s true that proverbs are a form of unwritten law that governed society, we must therefore consider that of our forefathers as a society that selected its members on the basis of its physical integrity and was ferociously pitiless towards the more unfortunate.
But was it really like that? And are we so civil, progressive and so on as we claim to be? I’m thinking back to my early childhood, in a small town which in those days seemed not to have developed much since the Middle Ages: with a sharecropping system which resembled serfdom more than sharecropping, when the circulation of money was so infrequent that trading was carried out more often on the basis of barter, etc. Well, in my home town – but also in the neighbouring towns, as far as I can remember – there were two or three seriously disabled young people (one of them was a foundling) with both physical and cognitive problems (although in those days we just called them “dumb”). It’s true that the “normal” kids made fun of them, often laughed at them, but never with the same vehemence that we see these days in those shameful clips exhibited on Youtube; and, above all, in the town, there was always someone who – often in turn – took care of them, ensuring them board and lodging and a minimum of income (in exchange, perhaps, for a few odd jobs compatible with their handicap). All in all, the community, within certain limits, took on the responsibility. It wasn’t ideal, but there was some care and even – in many ways – respect. These days? We have delegated everything to structures that are turning out to be less and less adequate, while we don’t even consider it as our business: we will never again take on the burden of looking after these strangers in difficulty.
In this case, therefore, is the proverb contradicted by reality? Yes and no. The fact is that not all proverbs spring from the same environment, or the same social stratum. This one seems to come from the dogma of the Church-as-persecutor rather than from the populace, since it saw in a deformed creature the imprint of the Devil’s features. Another proverb on the same subject is still heard in the Taranto area: Ntra nnu cuérpu stuértu / no ppò sta nn’anima tretta [In a deformed body / there can’t be an upright soul]: here the terminology and the argumentative technique itself explicitly re-echo Mediaeval diatribes on the body and soul, rather than repeating the sayings of the man in the street.
In conclusion, I think we can say that there are at least two social/environmental matrixes of proverbs in Italy: the town square and the altar. Mirroring exactly the double track that the life of our society still runs along: secular and religious, tolerant and intolerant, espousing both solidarity and individualism.