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Dialect Proverbs
The power of the poor Ttre su’ lli putenti
lu rre, lu papa, e cci nu ttene gnenti

[Three men are powerful / the king, the Pope, and the man who has nothing]
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

      The protagonist in this proverb is the number three. Of the many curiosities regarding the structure of proverbs, the importance of this figure is one of the most intriguing. Nicola de Donno has dedicated a lovely little volume to Il numero tre nell’immaginario popolare di Terra d’Otranto (Congedo Editore): he lists no fewer than 516 “ternary” proverbs, in which the content is always distributed over three facts, or three objects, or three conditions.

      The number three, as we know, both in classical culture and in others, has a particular role: it gives us a pass key to the understanding of the laws of the harmony of the universe, and has a highly symbolic value, like a cornerstone in the cosmic order. In many religions it is an archetype of the Divine: three Graces, the Fates, the Gorgons, the Erinyes (or Furies), the three divinities in the Trimurti (Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu), the three figures of the Holy Trinity, etc.

      But the number three does not only carry this aura of mystery and religion: over time it has given rise to rhythmical structures which are more or less universal, which have governed and still govern music, verses, fragments and poems handed down by voice over the long centuries of oral culture.

      Proverbs are the last surviving witness to the age-old oral tradition: there is nothing strange then if the magic number three features so importantly. And not only in the meter and the rhyme, but also in the ordering of the content.

      Let us look more closely at how our ternary proverb is made up. It begins with an obvious utterance: the king is powerful. It goes on to state another obvious one: the Pope is powerful, too. The third element is unexpected, and re-shuffles the cards; it introduces a third figure of a powerful man, who only with the help of a good dose of rhetorical figures (paradox, antithesis, oxymoron) can find himself grouped with the first two: he who has nothing is powerful. The upsetting of common sense is total: the really powerful man is the poor man. The heart of the message arrives at the end, in the last of the three elements.

      The game is subtle, and stylistically refined. While the first element concerns an indisputable truth (the king is powerful), the second could have a double interpretation: as far as regards the Pope, does it refer to spiritual power or temporal power? The ‘politically correct’ reading leads to the first meaning, the more cynical – and perhaps more likely – interpretation to the second. The third element, the twist, carries even further along this road, arriving decidedly at the co-existence of two interpretations. In what sense, and why, is the poor man a powerful one? In at least two different ways: he is powerful because he is free from the temptations of wealth and worldliness, and because he is able to make do and enjoy the little pleasures that nature grants him (the religious reading); because he is in harmony with creation, and by knowing the rules and rhythms of nature he can be a free man, intimately superior to those who order him about (secular reading). The first sense is aligned with the dominant culture, the second is the derisive grimace of the weak underling who is intimately free.

      The magic of the number three, in this case, acts as a scaffolding to a small work of art. Because the most successful proverbs, like literary masterpieces, are not to be read in only one way, unequivocal and indisputable; they offer varying layers of reading, they keep nuances of meaning ‘open’. This doesn’t mean uncertain or ambiguous. They simply reflect the complexity and the difficulty of interpretation of the world. This is their asset. Their elegance. Their beauty. A triad of virtues.

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