Aldous Huxley: I’ll tell you about Danilo Dolci
An article on La Repubblica presents the book Inchiesta a Palermo of 1956, reprinted by the publishing house Sellerio
Without thoughtfulness, knowledge tends to lack humanity; without knowledge, thoughtfulness is too often doomed to helplessness. In a society like ours, – whose immense numbers are subordinate to a limitless and somewhat omnipresent expanding technology – for a new Ghandi or a modern St. Francesco being provided with thoughtfulness and seraphic benevolence is not enough. One would need a degree in a scientific discipline, and knowledge of a dozen of scholars whose disciplines are apart from his own field of specialization. It is only by attending the World Brain as much as the World Heart that the Twentieth century Saint can fire for effect.
Danilo Dolci is one of these modern Franciscans with a degree. Although he graduated in Architecture and Engineering, his central specialized core is immersed in a general scientific cultural atmosphere. Mr. Dolci knows what the other fields specialists discuss of, he is overeager to benefit from their suggestions and he respect their methods. What he knows, or what he can learn from others, is always a thoughtfulness medium in a reference frame whose coordinates are trust and respect for an abiding love toward the neighbor. Love inspires him to employ his knowledge in favor of vulnerable and unfortunate people; trust and respect lead him to encourage these people to have faith in themselves and to help themselves.
When Danilo Dolci arrived in Sicily from the North of Italy, he was on an esthetic-scientific pilgrimage. Because of his concern with Ancient Greek architecture, he decided to spend a couple of weeks in Segesta to study its ruins. But the scholar of the Doric Temples was also – and mostly – an earnest and loving-kindness man, and therefore, he came to Sicily attracted by its beauty, but he remained in the island because of its actual degrade. What Keats called « the enormous unhappiness of the world», in Sicily – and especially in its western side – is above-average .
Dolci’s first glance at the enormous unhappiness of Western Sicily served as a categorical imperative. It was absolutely necessary to do something. Therefore, he moved to a rural slum twenty minutes away from Palermo, called Trappeto; he married one of his neighbor, a widow with five young children; he lodged in a small house with no comforts, and from there he launched his campaign against that unhappiness surrounding him. […]
In the close town of Partinico and in the neighboring countryside, the man of science and of good will is confronted with several problems, all hard to solve. First of all, the problem of chronic unemployment. For a significant minority of valuable men there is simply nothing to do. In any case, Danilo Dolci believes that having a job was not only a human right, but it was also a human duty. A man should work for himself and for the greater good. Taking account of this principle, Mr. Dolci arranged an «inside out protest» in which jobless people would demonstrate against their condition by getting themselves to work. So, in a sunny morning, Mr. Dolci and a group of unemployed people from Partinico devoted themselves to repair a local street, on their own initiative. On time, the police pounced on those heterodox benefactors and executed a series of arrests. No clashes occurred, since non-violence is for Danilo Dolci both a principle and a specific political line.
Danilo Dolci was tried and condemned to two months in prison for occupation of public space . Against the conviction both the accused and the prosecutor made an appeal: according to local authorities, in facts, the condemn to two months in prison was too lenient. […]
Along with chronic unemployment, another serious problem is illiteracy. Many people are totally unable to read, and only a few of the literate ones can afford to buy a daily newspaper. The three hundred fifty outlaws – largely responsible for the banditry which made the area of Partinico so bitterly famous – spent around 750 years at school and more than 3000 years in prison. Illiteracy goes hand in hand with an even primitive traditionalism. For example, the country people eat potatoes only when they can afford them, since potatoes arrive from Naples and are expensive. The progenitors of these people did not know anything of tubers, and consequently, nobody thinks about growing potatoes at local level. In the same way, because it is not traditional for the to eat carrots and lettuce, these are nearly unknown in Partinico.
Traditions concerning the onore (honor) are as much severe as those concerning vegetables. Any offence given to sombody’s onore (honor) requires a bloodshed; and a bloodshed, of course, has to be avenged with an additional bloodshed, etc. To honor and revenge killings must be added those crimes committed for lust of money and power by members of the Mafia, the large criminal organization which has been building a sort of secrete state within the official state for centuries . […]
It will take a very long time to solve these problems. In the meantime, Danilo Dolci is handling them. Children are provided with education and their parents are persuaded to send their children to school ( it is a matter of fact that it is necessary to persuade the adults… The children are paid 400 lire per day, on the other hand their parents gain 1.000 lire. Naturally enough, the employers prefer hiding labor child and indigent breadwinners certainly prefer 400 lire to a total absence of income). From his base at the bottom of society, Danilo Dolci managed to leverage his friends and supporters who are at the apex of the social pyramid. […]
However, Partinico is not the only most miserable scenario of Sicilian unhappiness, there is also Palermo. This city is inhabited by more than half million of people, whose more than one hundred thousand live in conditions that can be defined as Asian poverty. Within the very centre of the city, behind the elegant buildings placed next to the main roads, a lot of acres of ‘slums’ not different from the one present in Cairo or Calcutta (one of the worst slum is placed in the area between the Cathedral and the Courthouse). In his book “Inchiesta a Palermo”, Danilo Dolci presents the statistics of this enormous misery and, moreover, using their words, he testifies the way the inhabitants of the slums live their distorted lives, what they do, think and feel. This book is, at the same time, fascinating and very depressing: depressing, we can say, almost at a cosmic level. Because Palermo, certainly, is anything but unique. All over the world, there are hundreds of towns, thousands and tens of thousands of small towns and villages, whose current conditions are even worse, but whose future seems even darker, and improvement’s prospects incomparably worse. […]
In the meantime, Danilo Dolci does what a man of science and good will can do, with an handful of helpers, in order to mitigate the current decay and to realize, in a systematic and scientific way, what the future will need and how to do it. […] What kind of industries should we create? And who can provide the necessary assets? And, once established, how can these industries (whose workers, will be mostly without specialization or literacy) compete with the enormous groups of qualified labor force of Milan or Turin? These are the questions to which Danilo Dolci, the engineer and supporter of the scientific method, has to find an answer. Will be able to succeed? Is it possible doing something in a reasonable period of time to give a job to the unemployed people of Palermo, dignity to the inhabitants of the slums and hope to their children? Time will tell.