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Dialect Proverbs
When parody flouts the sacred Patre, chjacune
ciggere fritte
e maccarune

[Father, dried figs,
fried chick peas and macaroni]
(Bari)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

More than a proverb, this is a short disrespectful rhyme. It echoes the formula that accompanies the sign of the cross: starting with the invocation of the Father, which also opens the invocation of the trinity ‘In the name of the Father – the Son – and the Holy Ghost’ and then follows the same division. The formula accompanying the sign of the cross, as we all know, is made up of four parts, which in the Catholic ritual goes as follows:

  1. 1) In the name of the Father – touching the forehead

  2. 2) the Son – touching the chest

  3. 3) and the Holy – touching the left shoulder

  4. 4) Ghost – touching the right shoulder.

In the secular paraphrase the four steps are marked by expressions belonging to a sphere that is diametrically opposed, or rather, the mirror-image of the catholic formula. Father-Son-Holy Ghost form a triad embodying the greatest mystery of the Christian religion, evoking profound theological discussions and concepts so abstract that they are beyond the comprehension of common people. In contrast, the sacrilegious parody uses words that evoke the most comprehensible concepts, tied to the practical needs of everyday survival: products of nature and Apulian dishes.

The succession, seen in parallel, is therefore:

Father – patre

Son –chjacune

Holy –ciggere fritte

Ghost –maccarune

There is a precious addition: in the parody, the rhythm is underlined by a rhyme (chjacune – maccarune) which is lacking in the parodied version.

These are not the only parallels, but I don’t want to bore the reader with them. What I do want to stress is the irreverent tone of the parody, which touches the very foundations of the Catholic religion. It borders on derision. In the monotheistic religions this is the most serious offence: in Islam – as we’ve known since Charlie Hebdo, or actually since Salman Rushdie – offending Mohammed can be punished by death. In our proverb-rhyme we find a parody of the sacred symbols that borders on mockery, and we find it in a popular text, that is, in the most common form of culture in every level of the population. How can this be? Does it perhaps mean that Catholicism is infinitely more tolerant than Islam? Things are not so simple.

One of the possible explanations – along with the many that arise from the thought of two millennia of relations between the Church and the people – can be found in the world of the proverbs, by looking at them as a whole set and at other similar evidence of popular culture.

Now, Apulian proverbs can be clearly divided into two kinds, which convey very different messages according to their subject: on the one hand, religion, and on the other, priests.

Religion. All the proverbs of this area convey messages of submission to the will of the Lord (for instance: stimme a ra mene suò domene ‘We are in the hands of the Lord; méle e bbéne / da Ddije addevéne ‘evil and good / from God they come’), of unlimited faith in Providence (quandu Diu ole tte pruìa / sape la casa e troa la ìa ‘When God wants to provide for you / he knows your house and finds the way’), in Christ and the Madonna (allu spruuìste / ce pènze Criste ‘for whoever has nothing / Christ provides’; Médonne, pigghjatìuue / e quénne è grénne 'énnuscemìuue ‘Madonna, take him – my son – / and when he’s grown bring him back to me’) etc.

Very few proverbs, on the other hand, praise the virtues of the priest: in fact, priests and monks are often venal (sènza solede ne nce cante mésse ‘without money the mass doesn’t get sung’) and great seducers (o moneche se ne ficche, sficche ‘the monk, even if he doesn’t poke around, snoops around’, meaning that even if he doesn’t seduce your wife, he will get something out of you anyway), lead dissolute lives and set a bad example (fa come prèvete dice / e nno come prèvete fé ‘do as the priest says and not as the priest does). The precepts deriving from this go from the general sìntete la messe e scappatìnne ‘listen to the mass and run’ to the threatening munece, privete e cchéne / statte sèmpe pe na varra mméne ‘with monks, priests and dogs / always have a stick in your hand’.

The complex and often incomprehensible symbologies of church rites – which include the formula accompanying the sign of the cross – are perceived as something intermediate between religion and priests: in the Latin formulae and in the mysterious (or esoteric) words, the common people sense the sanctity of the divine but also a dangerous incomprehensibility, like Manzoni’s Renzo with the priest’s “latinorum”. Experience has taught them that when the powerful use obscure formulae in arcane languages they are hiding a trap, and it is therefore best not to trust them. In dealing with this ‘middle world’, a problem therefore arises: how to warn against something (the empty rituality of incomprehensible formulae) without undermining the sacredness of religion? Solution: by using the resources of parody and irony: powerful arms that enable a situation to be transfigured and shifted onto a different plane without the risk of offending the religion.

And here are our dishes of dried figs, fried chick peas and macaroni: in the background there’s a hint of incense, with overtones of sulfur, but the dish is served in a cheery spirit. It’s almost like the Seminary (quite light-hearted).

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