Thursday, May 1, 2008

Carlo Levi's Fear of Freedom

I read Fear of Freedom (Paura della liberta`) in 1959, when I was a senior in college. It was the first book I read in Italian, after studying the language for two years, and I have never forgotten its impact on me. Levi's searching essay had already been translated into superb English by Adolphe Gourevitch and published in 1950 by Farrar, Straus, the same lucid version that's now reprinted in a splendid new edition from Columbia University Press. But I was unaware of that translation, finding only the Italian original in my college library, when I went looking for another book by Carlo Levi, having already been enthralled by Christ Stopped at Eboli, his first published book, the story of his internal exile, in 1935, by the Fascist government, in Lucania, Southern Italy, and his life among its peasant population, where, having previously given up medicine for painting and writing (he’d received his MD from the University of Turin), Levi returned to its practice, treating the impoverished residents of the community and gaining their respect.

Fear of Freedom was written in 1939, after Levi's release from confinement in Lucania, when he was living in France, again in exile from fascist Italy. In this essay, in the midst of war, Levi attempts to confront and understand the cultural, religious and political origins of the phenomena of Fascism and Nazism, along with the reasons for the capitulation to authoritarianism by whole populations in an otherwise democratic Europe. What troubles Levi is why so many people seemed so willing to give up their freedom--their independence and their autonomy--to dictators, instead of struggling to remain free. And one of the reasons Levi gives, in anticipation of Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom (published in Britain as Fear of Freedom), is that, all through history, the dizzying prospect of freedom of choice and the responsibility it entails has effectively terrified people, and they would rather live in the certainty of the State and the Church, taking comfort from imposed forms and rules of thought and behavior instead of having to think for themselves and live according to their own self-created personal dictates. In a word, the presumed comfort of an unexamined life was easier to accept than the uncertainty of the rigorously examined life Socrates had proposed.

Levi's small but incendiary book had an enormous impact on me at the age of 21, an apolitical student just coming out of the McCarthy era and beginning to ask the kinds of questions Levi addresses in the book--Why do people shrink from freedom? Why do Americans seem so timid about expressing their beliefs and feelings? Why were we so afraid of Communism? What was the Cold War really about? Levi didn't answer those questions directly for me, but he gave me the intellectual and philosophical means to examine them for myself.

I think again of those questions and I'm moved to return to this marvelous new edition of Levi's powerful essay, as we appear to be living once more in a time of guilt by association, a time when expressing one's opinion about the debacle of the war in Iraq has often brought down upon one the accusation of treasonous behavior, a time of fear; indeed, a time of undue executive power and privilege. It is a time when all our freedoms appear again to be under assault. So this little book, written in exile by a great European thinker and artist; written when Levi had no hope of publication, speaks to us down through the years.

As Levi later wrote so presciently, "Every age has its own Fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will...and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned and where the security of the privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many."