‘You see, Don Pietrino, the “nobles”, as you call them, aren’t so easy to understand. They live in a world of their own, created not directly by God but by themselves during centuries of highly specialised experiences, of their own worries and joys; they have a very strong collective memory, and so they’re put out or pleased by things which wouldn’t matter at all to you and me, but which to them seem vitally connected with their heritage of memories, hopes, caste fears. Divine Providence has willed that I should become a humble member of the most glorious Order in an Eternal Church whose eventual victory has been assured; you are at the other end of the scale, by which I don’t mean the lowest but the most different. When you find a thick bush of marjoram or a well-filled nest of Spanish flies (you look for those too, Don Pietrino, I know) you are in direct communication with the natural world which the Lord created with undifferentiated possibilities of good and evil until man could exercise his own free will on it; and when you’re consulted by evil old women and eager young girls, you are plunging back into the dark abyss of centuries that preceded the light from Golgotha.’
The old man looked at him in amazement; he had wanted to know if the Prince of Salina was satisfied or not with the latest changes, and the other was talking to him about aphrodisiacs and light from Golgotha. ‘All that reading’s driven him off his head, poor man.’
‘But the “nobles” aren’t like that; all they live by has been handled by others. They find us ecclesiastics useful to reassure them about eternal life, just as you herbalists are here to procure them soothing or stimulating drinks. And by that I don’t mean they’re bad people; quite the contrary. They’re just different; perhaps they appear so strange to us because they have reached a stage towards which all those who are not saints are moving, that of indifference to earthly goods through surfeit. Perhaps it’s because of that they take so little notice of things that are of great importance to us; those on mountains don’t worry about mosquitoes in plains, nor do the people in Egypt about, umbrellas. Yet the former fear landslides, the latter crocodiles, which are no worry to us. For them new fears have appeared of which we’re ignorant; I’ve seen Don Fabrizio get quite testy, wise and serious though he is, because of a badly ironed collar to his shirt; and I know for certain that the Prince of Lascari didn’t sleep for a whole night from rage because he was wrongly placed at one of the Viceroy’s dinners. Now don’t you think that a human being who is put out only by bad washing or protocol must be happy, and thus superior?’
Don Pietrino could understand nothing at all now: all this was getting more and more nonsensical, what with shirt collars and crocodiles. He was still upheld, though, by a basis of good rustic commonsense. ‘But if that’s what they’re like, Father, they’ll all go to Hell.’
‘Why? Some will be lost, others saved, according to how they’ve lived in that conditioned world of theirs. Salina himself, for instance, might just scrape through; he plays his own game decently, follows the rules, doesn’t cheat. God punishes those who voluntarily contravene the Divine Laws which they know and turn voluntarily down a bad road; one who goes his own way, so long as he doesn’t misbehave along it, is always all right. If you, Don Pietrino, sold hemlock instead of mint, knowingly, you’d be for it; but if you thought you’d picked the right one, old Zana would die the noble death of Socrates and you’d go straight to Heaven with a cassock and wings of purest white.’
The death of Socrates was too much for the herbalist; he had given up and was fast asleep. Father Pirrone noticed this and was pleased, for now he would be able to talk freely without fear of being misunderstood; and he felt a need of talking, so as to fix into a pattern of phrases some ideas obscurely milling in his head.
‘And they do a lot of good, too. If you knew, for instance, the families otherwise homeless that find shelter in those palaces! And the owners ask for no return, not even immunity from petty theft. They do it not from ostentation but from a sort of obscure atavistic instinct which prevents them doing anything else. Although it may not seem so, they are in fact less selfish than many others; the splendour of their homes, the pomp of their receptions, have something impersonal about them, something not unlike the grandeur of churches and of liturgy, something which is in fact ad maiorem gentis gloriam, and that redeems a great deal: for every glass of champagne drunk by themselves they offer fifty to others; when they treat someone badly, as they do sometimes, it is not so much their personality sinning as their class affirming itself. Fata crescunt. For instance, Don Fabrizio has protected and educated his nephew Tancredi and so saved a poor orphan who would have otherwise been lost. You say that he did it because the young man is a noble too, and that he wouldn’t have lifted a finger for anyone else. That’s true, but why should he lift a finger if sincerely, in the deep roots of his heart, he considers all “others” to be botched attempts, china figurines come misshapen from the potter’s hands and not worth putting to the test of fire.
‘You, Don Pietrino, if you weren’t asleep at this moment, would be jumping up to tell me that the nobles are wrong to have this contempt of others, and that all of us, equally subject to the double slavery of love and death, are equal before the Creator; and I would have to agree with you. But I’d add that not only nobles are to be blamed for despising others, since that is quite a general vice. A university professor despises a parish schoolmaster even if he doesn’t show it, and since you’re asleep I can tell you without reticence that we clergy consider ourselves superior to the laity, we Jesuits superior to the other clergy, just as you herbalists despise tooth-pullers who in their turn deride you. Doctors on the other hand jeer at both tooth-pullers and herbalists, and are themselves treated as fools by their patients who expect to be kept alive with hearts or livers in a hopeless state; to magistrates lawyers are just bores who try to delay the course of law, and on the other hand literature is full of satires against the pomposity, indolence and often worse of those very judges. The only people who also despise themselves are labourers; when they’ve learnt to jeer at others the circle will be closed and we’ll start all over again.
‘Have you ever thought, Don Pietrino, how many names of jobs have become insults? From trooper and fishwife to reitre or pompier in French? People don’t think of the merits of troopers or fishwives; they just look at their marginal defects and call them all rough and profane; and as you can’t hear me, I may tell you that I’m perfectly aware of the exact current meaning of the word “Jesuit”.
‘Then these nobles put a good face on their own disasters: I’ve seen one who’d decided to kill himself next day, poor man, looking beaming and happy as a boy on the eve of his first Communion; while if you, Don Pietrino, had to drink one of your own herb drinks, you’d make the village ring with your laments. To rage and mock is gentlemanly; to grumble and whine is not. In fact I could give you a recipe: if you meet a “gentleman” who’s querulous, look up his family tree; you’ll soon find a dead branch.
‘It’s a class difficult to suppress because it’s in continual renewal and because if needs be it can die well, that is it can throw out a seed at the moment of death. Look at France; they let themselves be massacred with elegance there and now they’re back as before. I say as before, because it is differences of attitude, not estates and feudal rights, which make a noble.
‘They tell me that in Paris nowadays there are Polish counts who’ve been forced into exile and poverty by revolts and despotism; they drive cabs, but frown so at their middle-class customers that the poor things get into the cab, without knowing why, as humbly as dogs in church.
‘And I can tell you too, Don Pietrino, that if, as has often happened before, this class were to vanish, an equivalent one would be formed straight away with the same qualities and the same defects; it might not be based on blood any more, but possibly on … on, say, length of time in a place, or pretended knowledge of some text presumed sacred.’
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard, 1958.