Portrait of the peasant

The face of the peasant -- often forgotten by history but never quite obliterated -- is in the news again. From the south of Italy the pictures keep coming back, showing the women in black shawls and the men with tragic eyes and baggy-clown pants.

These are the people Ann Cornelisen eloquently described in "Torregreca," returning from their fields to their mountain village near Naples, "slowly, deliberately, without display or majesty" on a late summer afternoon. The houses, "at noon so flat and invisible against the sky, are toasted gold. Brown shadows now outline the baked red tiles of the roofs . . . some cracked or chipped, with gray and yellow lichen growing in the crevices." The town, "unchanged over the centuries, seems a stage set" -- the very "being of the Middle Ages."

Only now it is early winter, and that stage set has been turned to rubble by earthquakes.

Still the villagers remain, as if planted. Of some 250,000 left homeless, only 524 accepted a government offer: free hotel rooms and meals, elsewhere. Looking at the tents sheltering one community of the dispossessed, a police official rather condescendingly explained to the New York Times man: "Like all country folk, they feel a strong attachment to the land where they were born."

There seems to be no middle ground when the peasant is the subject. Either he is condescended to as the perennial primitive, nearest to the beasts, if not the vegetables, on the human scale. Or else he is romanticized as "the only organic man" (the words are Oswald Spengler's) who makes the rest of us feel "artificial, soulless" as he "lives straight before him."

Even that ex-farmboy, Virgil, writing in his "Georgics" of the Italian peasant of 2,000 years ago, made a kind of pastoral poem, singing of unwavering chocolate furrows, olives pungently crushed in the presses, and the idyllic camaraderie of harvest holidays with dart-throwing contests and country wrestling.

All this folk heartiness to be contrasted, of course, with pale, anxious city dwellers, pursuing money and ill-conceived ambitions.

The peasant, Virgil rhapsodically concluded, "learns the roots of the universe."

Peering long-distance from the windows of our condominiums and our suburban split-levels, we in 1980 are even more likely to turn the peasant into a myth.

He is the sum of all our roads not taken as we have automated ourselves into the world of post-technology.

We pity (and envy) him for lacking our itch. To travel anywhere and everywhere. To become something -- anything -- other than what we happen to be at the given moment. Bristling with demands upon life and each other, we cannot understand the peasant's famous acceptance of nature's terms.

Not long before the earthquakes brought the portrait of the Italian peasant into close-up on the front pages and TV sets of the rest of the world, a smaller , less dramatic event occurred. A symposium was held at Vanderbilt University, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a manifesto called "I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition." The 12 Southerners who contributed essays back in 1930 -- including the poets Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom -- argued that "the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations." But none of the so-called Agrarians -- classicists who knew their "Georgics" -- abandoned their typewriters for their hoes.

Here is where most of us take our stand -- full of words of admiration, at the edge of an imaginary field.

For the Agrarians, and the rest of us, the farmer has become less our neighbor than our metaphor. We look at him and mourn our lost innocence.

In fact, he is not Adam in the garden.

The peasant and the rest of us -- we are two parties of humanity engaged in a silent policy debate. Our machines hum the message: Everything changes. His face says: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We need to hear this other half of the truth. It's too bad we pay attention to that face only at times of earthquake.

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