Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Coronavirus, That Place We All Call Home: Staying in Necessity and Responsibility

Originally published April 12, 2020, in Italian by the Gazzetta del Sud. Translated and annotated by Morris Karp and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

“ During the coronavirus pandemic, most people have been forced to stay at home. Anthropologist Vito Teti reflects on the ambivalent meaning of the home in the history and culture of southern Italy, exploring a possible new meaning for the word ‘home.’ ”

“I stay at home”: this image of the home as a place where one “remains/stays” or to which one “returns” from necessity or in an act of responsibility, guided by a civic and moral choice, certainly is one that we will carry with us and that will hardly leave us in the future. After this experience, the home will be sought, perceived, lived, dreamed of, and escaped from in a completely new manner, compared to how we have been used to do so in the last fifty years — at least in this part of the world.

In order to imagine such new meanings, a new homesickness, a new perception of the home in the future, we need to reappraise how the home has been lived until now in specific diverse realities. In the peasant world from which I come, in the villages and the larger settlements, the space of living [spazio abitato] was defined in relation to a center, to a home, a bell tower [1], a village. The home was the “center” of that “center of the world,” which in turn was the village. A place of mythic founding, projection of the I, center of productive and laboring unity, place of the family, of the return of the dead, of homesickness and memory, shelter, point of departure for travels across the world and almost always its endpoint. In my culture of origin, “mi ricogghiu[2] ;means to retreat into one’s home, to recuse oneself, to look within oneself, in tranquillity, to feel safe with oneself and the family.

The home is my center, the place that represents us. The countryside also and the kitchen gardens were in a certain sense an extension of the home. In traditional society one belonged to a certain house, to a kitchen garden, to a property, to a locality, to a church. What people have not done in the past for the home! Quarrels, brawls, curses. To lose one’s home meant losing everything. The worst curse to be inflicted on someone was “May the grass grow in front of your home.” The empty home was the end of everything. To die far from home, not to let the deceased depart from home and cross the “Saint James’s Bridge” [3], not to accompany the dying in the last moments of their lives, not to be allowed to mourn in one’s own home, were all circumstances that involved loss, anguish, and desperation. In these days, we have seen how practical uses that we thought were erased and forgotten — as beliefs and rituals concerning malady, agony, death, and mourning — have returned as remorse and the repressed [4], confirming that we had too easily imagined to have been liberated from those we considered as archaic practices, unsuited to “modernity,” and which instead, in situations of crisis and catastrophe, bring humanity back to its fragility, to the need to share sorrow, to the necessity of putting into act words, gestures, and rites that can return “presence” [5], even when the whole world seems to come to an end.

The houses of the past were often precarious — slums, shacks, rooms where up to ten people lived, ate, and slept often together with animals; nonetheless the «ruin», the loss of house and home, was the greatest tragedy, outcome of a terrible curse. The concrete experience that the house may collapse and disappear, overwhelmed, displaced, and ruined (as the outcome of continuous and devastating earthquakes, floods, and recurring landslides) accompanies the people from the villages of the past, and this can help to explain these characteristics of incompleteness, temporariness, and precariousness. The villages clinging and hanging onto rocks are a miracle of equilibrium and constructive skills, the outcome of genius, of repeated stories of abandonment and reconstruction.

We should not forget that the home was often a barely livable place. Up until the end of the Fifties, the village was a decrepit agglomerate, a place of filth, of disease, of peasant hunger. Smoke, wind, stink bugs, insects, water damage. In order to build a decent, livable, and dignified home, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and later during the second postwar period, people emigrated and fled [6]. Many of them were able to build a house that was white, tidy, clean, two floors, bathroom. Doing so, they invoked the sarcasm of the well-to-do, who maintained that, because of emigration, peasants and day laborers wanted to eat, drink, dress and have the same comforts reserved to them ... The “Americans,” who continued to return, have modified the urban landscape, the structure of the village, the typology of the houses and homes, the organization of space. The home has become a sign of distinction and social affirmation also for the poor.

Because of a long and controversial history — marked by catastrophes, invasions, and flight — the Calabresi, as few other people, live in stark contradiction, since they have at the same time a sense of rootedness and flight. In no other place can one find such stories of tenacious attachment and extreme mobility. The home as interior and the home as exterior. The home is where we meet each other, we love each other, possibly hate each other, and the home is from where we exclude the others. The home is the mother, the search for the father, a space of hospitality, as in the Gospels and in popular literature. The exterior is incomplete, and today this can tell of the Calabresi’s “suspended” identity. The incompleteness and unfinished are bound to a history of precarity, to the desire to nevertheless have a place of refuge. The reasons for this are ancient, but sometimes also recent. Often the unfinished and the incomplete are the outcomes of real estate speculation, of a violent overbuilding, of a conscious destruction of landscape and beauty, which has been perpetrated by the ruling classes, the rising mafias, and insatiable speculators.

Who knows if tomorrow we will return to where we were before. Will we know how to build in a way that is more respectful of places and of the landscape? Will we look for beauty and take care of nature in a way that is not merely rhetorical? Will we be able to make it clear that we need well-equipped hospitals, retirement homes that are not lagers, that we need schools, museums and libraries? Will we be able to get out from under this culture of incompleteness, of emergency (which is of great advantage to those who prosper in times of catastrophe)? Will we be able to make safe our villages with their historical centers, this in order to put into place a plan for regeneration?

Let us go back to the strong and ambivalent feeling we have had for the home. The home’s exterior may stay unfinished, it may even be ugly, because it does not concern us, it concerns those who are outside. The home is a place of hospitality, but also one of exclusion. Thereby the home becomes a void, a place of mourning. It takes us to the underground Calabria, to our shadows, to those shadows that should not be denied, but rather understood, absorbed, controlled. The risk that the house will be shut down, that all houses will be shut down, that villages will come to an end, could be avoided by thinking of a different use of one’s own home, and this by stressing those features of hospitality and welcome that are also part of our tradition.

We have to acknowledge the others, to recognize them. Not only in words. Even the most closed-off and interior villages are no longer the same. The foreigner knocks on all our doors. In traditional culture the foreigner could be the enemy, the hostile person, but also the friend, the guest, Christ wandering the earth. We have to maintain this image of the other. To rediscover, to reinvent these traces of tradition. We have to think about all this. Now that the concepts of interior and exterior are mutating, together with those of home and roads, staying and leaving, North and South, mountains and coasts, hospitality and exclusion, mourning and regeneration, weekdays and holidays, we and others, we and us.

Now that we are thinking of those who have died outside the home, of those who could not return home, of those who have felt to be treated like strangers even by a brother, of those who used to say “trasite[7] and now say “don’t come back,” now that we know how many do not have a home in which they can “shut” themselves, and that millions of people roam about for thousands of kilometers, deprived of a fixed dwelling, it is the moment when we have the duty to imagine a home that is safe and open, welcoming and livable. From now on we need to think of ways of giving new meanings to living and regenerating places, communities, ourselves. We should think of this planet as a great home, where there is space, life, and dignity for everyone.

[1] The “campanile” (church bell tower) is a key object and concept of the Italian landscape. “Campanilismo” is a term that describes the attachment of the inhabitants of a village, town, or city to that municipal space.

[2] Calabrese dialect, literally meaning “I gather myself.”

[3] According to a tradition widely spread among southern Italian peasantry, the deceased had to pass over the bridge of Saint James in order to reach their dwelling in the afterlife. See A. Di Nola, Il passo di San Giacomo,” in ;Mélanges de l’école francaise de Rome 103, no. 1 (1991): 217–72.

[4] Here Teti is combining the Freudian notion of the repressed with the Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino’s notion of remorse. For De Martino the concept of rimorso (both “remorse” and “re-bite,” where the bite of the tarantula, real or imagined, is a symbolic embodiment of the sufferance of the subaltern classes) is central to the study of the healing practices and rituals in the Italian South. See E. De Martino, The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, trans. Dorothy Zinn (London: Free Association Books, 2005).

[5] In Ernesto De Martino’s writings the concept of presence (borrowed from Husserlian phenomenology and its Italian reception) is the theoretical guideline for the clarification of the concept of ethnos.

[6] Here Teti hints at several different waves of Southern Italian emigration towards the industrialized Italian North and the Americas.

[7] “Come in!” in Calabrese dialect.

Vito Teti is Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Calabria, where he is also the founder and current director of the Center for the Study of the Anthropologies and the Literatures of the Mediterranean. He is Italy’s representative at the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. His research focuses on the eating habits of the peoples of the Mediterranean, the anthropology of travel and migration, the rituals and feasts of traditional and contemporary societies, and representations of the Italian South, the latter with a special interest in the question of depopulation. Questions of melancholy and nostalgia, the anthropology of places and abandonment, emigration and literature, are among his interests. He has published several collections of essays, historical novels, and short stories (which have been translated into English, French, and Spanish), as well as photo reportages and ethnographic documentaries.