The Leopard by Ufuk Gürbüzdal
The Leopard: An Aristocrat’s Narrative of The Social Transformation during the Risorgimento
Book Review: Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), 319 pp.
Understanding, my love, what a great joy it is,
To understand what is gone and what is on the way. (1)
Nazım Hikmet, Five Lines
The great narrative of our century is essentially one marked by the dissolution of great narratives of human history. At stake, without doubt, has most fundamentally been the dialectical narrative and its scientific analyses regarding the working people of the world along with the grandiose pledge of a radical social change. Proponents of Marxism, as such, have necessarily found themselves once more advocating that scientific knowledge is key to construing the social realm comprised of objective and subjective contradictions at a given time. Historical materialists across the globe have therefore been unprecedentedly busy engaging in popular, if not also downright banal, discussions regarding whether scientific knowledge is possible or not. The dire gravity of the present situation is obvious. Putting aside myriad inconclusive debates about scientific knowledge, change, from a dialectical point of view, certainly remains an unchallenged physical law underlying all that is existent. (2) In fact, dialecticians have since the dawn of ancient times consistently asserted that change is the only constant. (3) Regardless, there are certain moments in history when social dynamics converge in such manner that they condense into a much radical form of this ever-present constant. Under such conditions, incessant and infinite change becomes explicitly transformative for it generates immense historic discontinuities.
The Risorgimento in Italy, which unified Italic states of the 19th century as one national state, was one such historic point of transmutation whereby society was made into something more if not entirely something else, and this change was rooted and prompt. (4) An analytical investigation of the Risorgimento stands out as an opportunity to negate the now-common suspicion surrounding scientific knowledge, doubled up with a legion of farcical postulations proposing that all knowledge is entirely based on human subjectivity. Against the backdrop of such ill-boding assertions which effectively prevent humanity from systematically working towards an egalitarian social order fortunately come to fore certain artistic works that allow us to re-examine objective laws governing historical processes. The Leopard is one such work of art, an epoch novel, to be exact, that narrates the life of an aristocratic family undergoing the deeply ingrained effects of the radical social change of the Risorgimento in Italy. (5) Di Lampedusa, who is the writer of the novel and the last prince of Lampedusa in real life, meticulously articulates the alterations within the social and economic fabric of Italy from the point of view of another Prince, namely, Don Fabrizio.
A fictional Prince successfully penned down by Di Lampedusa, Don Fabrizio is the Prince of Salina, a royal house whose family insignia is a leopard. As Di Lampedusa depicts, Don Fabrizio belongs to “an unfortunate generation;” he swings “between the old world and the new”, and finds himself “ill at ease in both.” (6) In this sense, social characteristics of the historical period that Don Fabrizio passes through resemble Italian Marxist Gramsci’s definition of ‘interregnum’ during which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” and “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (7) Don Fabrizio represents the gripe of aristocracy during a social transition period and he is both intuitive and intelligent enough to grasp the inevitability of the societal change bound to take place. As an Italian noble, Don Fabrizio does not share the joy of communist poet Hikmet’s understanding of “what is gone and what is on the way” for he witnesses the abolition of the ruling social class of the time, namely aristocracy, of which he is a natural-born member. Don Fabrizio attempts to protect the economic interests and moral traditions of his own social class against new and rising agents of the bourgeoisie who owe their prosperity primarily to commerce. Tancredi, nephew of Don Fabrizio, is another protagonist character who is also aware of the inevitability of social change. However, young Tancredi, unlike his older uncle, looks for a privileged position for himself within the terrain of this newly ascending social order. The entirety of social and moral values by which Tancredi lives crystallizes in the following famous quote from the novel: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. (8) The story that begins with the discovery of the dead body of a young soldier in the undergrowth of Salinas’ mansion in May 1860 reaches to an end with the disposal of dog Bendico’s mummy; this mummy signifies the last memory from the times of the incontestable aristocratic sovereignty and, thereby, that of the family of Salinas. If we consider the fact that the woman who decides to throw Bendico’s mummy away is one of the spinsters of the Salina family, we can argue that things (i.e., prosperity, abundance, and power) stay as they were but they do not necessarily for the aristocracy; instead, they remain the same and unchanged at the disposal and discretion of the bourgeoisie, which rises over other subaltern echelons of society and gradually begins to rule them all with a new set of socio-economic norms and moral values.
It is important to remember that Italy had not remained unaffected from the social effects of the Revolutions of 1848 that shook Europe. In fact, the political impact of these upheavals was robustly felt in certain autonomous regions of Italy such as Sicily. Within this context, the kings and aristocratic families of Italy, broadly speaking, felt obliged to support the Risorgimento and liberal Republican movements for which new agents of the bourgeoisie played a most primary constitutive role. On the other hand, according to Gramsci who examines the modernization of Italy from a historical-materialist point of view, the Risorgimento is a social phenomenon that should be questioned around the concept of passive revolution. As Thomas puts it, for Gramsci, the shift in political sovereignty during the Risorgimento was not a popular movement led by subaltern classes but it was a “revolution without revolution” during which the political transformation was “undertaken by elites, garbed in the rhetoric of previous revolutionary movements.” (9) The hegemonic development undertaken by this passive revolution necessitated an ‘intellectual’ bloc armed by the power of such rhetoric supportive of the interests of its ‘economic’ counterpart. (10) This is exemplified in the formalization of the Italian language under the influence of Florentine masterpieces by intellectuals later deemed to be inspirational Italian models such as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. (11) Herein, the adjective ‘passive’ that defines the ‘passive revolution’ connotes the externalization of popular classes during the modernization process of Italy. Later on, Gramsci extends this definition beyond social events in Italy to those in the rest of Europe.
Thereon, Gramsci particularly remarks on the example of the economic modernization process in Germany which lacks a Jacobin moment within the political sphere. (12) Herein, considering the unique historical conditions that led to the ultimate sovereignty of the bourgeoisie as a ruling social class may help us better comprehend Gramsci’s definition of passive revolution as well as the term’s substantial relevance to the story retold in The Leopard. In contrast with the revolutions led by the working class, in most historical cases, the political sovereignty of the bourgeoisie is conditioned by its prevalence within the economic sphere. As most historical examples solidly demonstrate, the bourgeoisie declares its political sovereignty under the guarantee of its hegemony within the economic realm. Correspondingly, in The Leopard, the economic hegemony of the bourgeoisie crystallized within the personality of Don Calogero, the recently elected mayor, declares its political sovereignty via a pseudo-election; Don Calogero and his fellow bourgeois accomplices even celebrate this pretentious election despite their disbelief in the authenticity of the emerging social formation. Moreover, in the new social order, it is almost impossible to observe a complete break from the old one; instead, we can easily notice a continuity that bears some traces of novelty. Indeed, it is possible to observe the former law enforcers of the Bourbon royal house, who were previously called the traitors, on police duty in the victory day for liberals. Sudden political reflexes of Tancredi regarding his ability to change political sides provide us with another example that illustrates the aforementioned continuity. Since he thinks that it fits into his political interests, Tancredi first assumes the officer’s role in the Garibaldinian Army and then he recounts stories of his adventures from the war to his family members although neither he nor his friends had ever confronted a serious armed resistance. In fact, in the puissant film adaptation of the novel, the film’s director Visconti handsomely uses his camera to mock Tancredi’s pseudo-valor and shares with the audience a laudable scene where Tancredi bandages his supposedly wounded eye. (13) As soon as the Garibaldinian Army disperses, we are shown that Tancredi and his friends are dressed in the military uniforms of the King’s army. During this very sequence of the film, the audience is allowed to apprehend Tancredi’s pragmatism and opportunism, two intertwined qualities that are immanent to the very character of the new prevailing social class.
Although Don Fabrizio, who personifies the utmost representative of the aristocracy, finds the moral values of the new prevailing social class inadequate and, even more so, decadent, he grasps the inevitability of the social change. In light of such consciousness, he is intent on eluding this social shift with the least socio-economic loss possible. Don Fabrizio is aware of the inert manner and extravagance of his ancestors who he also thinks were lazy; thus, the character continuously contains a self-criticism of his own class in his person. Owing to this self-criticism and historical awareness, he regards the rise of the bourgeoisie as a legitimate one. He is aware that the paintings surrounding the walls of Salinas’ mansion, which are expressions of the Leopard’s indisputable sovereignty, are now open to be replaced by new drawings of the bourgeoisie. For instance, Father Pirrone, a Jesuit priest dear to Salinas who is also discomforted by the ongoing social change and the associated upheaval, reproaches to Don Fabrizio for collaborating with the libertarians. Don Fabrizio retorts to this objection with the following words:
“We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of water. Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not.” (14)
In the film by Visconti, too, Don Fabrizio responds to the complaints of Don Ciccio, who is a loyal vassal of the nobles, with a consenting providence to the rule of the new social class that that resonates with his outlook throughout the book. The only motivation for Don Fabrizio, then, appears to be arranging the marriage of Tancredi and Angelica, two individuals representing aristocracy and bourgeoisie respectively. In line with bourgeois values, the sides to this marriage are considered by their families merely as diplomatic means of reconsolidating economic and political relations. For Don Calogero, Tancredi implies no further meaning than a young man who has an entrepreneurial soul with more than enough ability to take on social positions according to the necessities of the new social order. Don Calogero even sees it redundant that his daughter is in love with Tancredi. Indeed, to both Don Calogero and Tancredi, Angelica is an instrument of bribery put to use between the two social classes in the eve of changing class sovereignties. To the noble eyes of Don Fabrizio, Angelica, whose grandfather was a peasant, is ultimately of an ancestry that leads to and only ends in mmerda, meaning ‘shit;’ nevertheless, he has no other option but to ignore this fact and hope that the smell of mmerda will not sprawl.
Towards the end of the film, however, the audience is shown a feast scene where Don Fabrizio’s noble nose fills with the smell of mmerda. In the feast’s atmosphere which he finds banal and vulgar, he acknowledges his own death along with that of his noble class once again in front of a painting. In the book, in a discussion with a bureaucrat, Don Fabrizio makes a reference to his family insignia and says of his noble class that they “[…] were the Leopards, the Lions” and those who will take their place “[…] will be little jackals, hyenas.” He concludes: “[…] and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.” (15)
Perhaps we have to pay more attention to such seminal works as The Leopard by Di Lampedusa. It is these pieces of literature as well as film, such as that of Visconti, which may bring us back to the times out of our reach and donate us hints about the incessantly changing dynamics of society that mark the very nature of any and all social organization, including the society itself. As a great man of struggle once said, “all that is solid melts into air” and “all that is holy is profaned.” (16) Through this constant state of change, we the working people have to act with an obstinate curiosity to better comprehend the dynamics of change that revolve around us and that ultimately determine the ways in which we live. We as the necessary participants of wage labor are achieved actors of change insofar as we contribute to constant social change in a strategical manner consistent with revolutionary imaginaries that strive for a more egalitarian world for all. As the stories yarned in the book –and its successful adaptation to film– testify, aristocracy once had its time and has long been replaced by the now-ruling bourgeoisie. Regardless, there will be a time for the latter to be overthrown too just as it once overthrew its noble counterpart. The time, it seems, will all depend on the social action by social agents who are participant, organized, planned and act with a goal. It must be therefore our intent as the working people to try and not remain ‘sheep’ by understanding the intricate social relations beneath the surface if it is our desire to liberate the world from predators who prey on us, whether they are called leopards, jackals or hyenas.
1. Translated by Fatih Akgül. Retrieved from http://www.turkishclass.com/poem_84
2. Thomas Engel, and Philip Reid, Physical Chemistry (San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2006): 72.
3. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Trans Hugh Lawson-Tancred, (London: Penguin Books, 1998): Book 4, part 5, 1010a.
4. Martin Collier, Italian Unification, 1820-71 (Oxford: Heinemann, 2003): 2.
5. Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960).
6. Ibid.: 133.
7. Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (London: ElecBook, 1999): 556.
8. Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960): 40.
9. Peter Thomas, “Modernity as “passive revolution”: Gramsci and the Fundamental Concepts of Historical Materialism,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 17, no. 2 (January 2006): 72.
10. Onur Acaroglu, Rethinking Marxists Approaches to Transition: A Theory of Temporal Dislocation (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021): 18; Antonio Gramsci, 1891-1937, Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: Internatonal Publishers, 1971): 18.
11. Roger Absalom, Italy since 1800: A nation in the balance? (London: Longman, 1995): 11; Anna Laura Lepschy and Giulio Lepschy, The Italian language today (2nd Ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1988): 13-22, 37; Uberto Limentani, The Mind of Dante (Cambridge: University Press, 1965): 164-167.
12. Peter Thomas, “Hegemony, Passive Revolution and the Modern Prince,” Thesis Eleven 117, no. 1 (August 2013): 20-39.
13. ll Gattopardo. Film. Italy and France: Luchino Visconti, 1963.
14. Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960): 42.
15. Ibid.: 137.
16. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in One Volume (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1968): 38.
Ufuk Gürbüzdal is an independent filmmaker and a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Communication of Hasan Kalyoncu University. His research interests include Marxism, ideology and cinema, avant-garde filmmaking, the political economy of new media environments, and political communication.