Monday, 15th October, 2018

The Lightness of Little and Nothing

The sparks of the last fireworks are still sizzling against the asphalt concrete when Maria SS. del Paradiso arrives at Porta Carini from via Volturno, dragging along an exhausted crowd. The movement and the chanting of the bearers are both functional and awkward, regulated by the rigidity of an archaic sexual division: men behind (pushing), women in front (pulling). Bursting into the narrow streets of the Capo neighborhood, the † embroidered on the backs of the bearers slide on the dusty hoods of parked cars, avoiding the chariot to collide against the street’s fragile corners. In via S. Agostino, just before from the balconies fall applauses, confetti and colored balloons, an intrepid boy climbs behind the icon to untangle the electric cables dangling from the street lamps so that the halo does not get caught in them: he will remain there, embracing her, to protect the Saint for the rest of the journey.

Maria SS. del Paradiso on the streets of the Capo neighborhood in Palermo.

On the street, liturgy is defined by a surprising tension between the (physical) heaviness of bodies and icons, and the (rhetoric) lightness of their interpretation. On the street, through movement, the liturgical narration changes form: the heaviness of matter takes over for the supernatural of the scriptures. We are used to associate the action of the Saints, angelic movements, divine interventions and miracles to something fundamentally ‘light’, where the ‘physical’ is neglected or at worse relegated to sin. Once ‘outside’ sacred territory—literally outside its architectural boundaries—we see this lightness clearly contradicted by the physical condition of bodies.

Within a society where the virtual is a central focus and where religion itself has undergone a process of secularisation, perhaps the mysterious effect of certain religious practices is still the consequence of the unresolved relationship between what is natural and what is supra naturam. According to the philosopher Simone Weil, it was brilliant for Marx to understand “society as a fundamental human fact and to study relationships of force like the physical and the material”. However, according to Weil, he has failed to limit himself to merging the two dominant doctrines of the age (the idealist-utopian on one side with the scientistic-materialistic on the other) removing what she considered to be the essential contradiction of human life: “the contradiction between good and necessity, or justice and force”.

Secular society, remembers Roberto Calasso, frees us from spiritual dogmas, but at the same time takes us away from a perspective that could allow for a “search for something that gives meaning to what happens within society”. We somehow remain trapped because we are unable to see beyond society’s very borders, beyond the weights of both spirituality and ideology. It is perhaps for this reason that the aspiration to good and freedom still seems to be entrusted to the overcoming of matter. By attempting to overwhelm this dialectic, Weil proposes the oxymoron of a weakness that, while remaining so, can constitute the force that sustains the contradiction between material and immaterial. A sensitive weakness, in fact, to a “supernatural physics”.

End of the procession for the Pope in via Libertà, Palermo.

Why then still worship heavy icons when technology provides us with light images? Because the body, for its physicality, remains essential in this translation. Weakened by fatigue, during the processions (and this applies to any cult, from that for the Madonna del Capo to that for Shiva on the beach of Arenella), the intellectual dimension becomes opaque. Thus, the visual relationship with the icon stops being such: its content is perceived by its weight in relation to ours. Italian playwright Carmelo Bene wrote that “there are idiots who saw the Virgin Mary and idiots that did not see her”. The idiots who see her, see “a vision of themselves: […] if worms, they see butterflies, if puddles clouds”. The idiots that did not see her “look elsewhere, […] bring themselves to others to derive God”. Transported through the streets of the neighbourhood we find ourselves light, blind but attentive to another nature. We smell the scent of the orchids (odourless) that surrounds the chariot of Maria SS. del Paradiso.

Colophon: Nostre Signore del Fuori (Our Ladies from the Outside) is a complementary column to the performative work of Nora Turato,
published in the Giornale di Sicilia every once in a while throughout Manifesta 12. Written as a series of eight microhistories of women related to the city of Palermo, this column aims to explore the theme of the outside through ‘minor’ voices, mumblings and mutterings, popular myths, clichés and platitudes, potential forms of reflection on the linguistic and cultural syncretism of the city.
Edited by Andrea di Serego Alighieri. Italian proofreading by Emilia Cantieri.
Typesetting by Robert Milne. Contact: editore@ourladiesfromtheoutside.org