‘The Leopard’: A novel that is more than just politics

This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

Sacrilegious it may be, but I am currently re-reading The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic—and only—novel, published posthumously in the late 1950s.

It’s been decades since I first read this tale of a 19th century princely Sicilian family caught at the crossroads of political and social upheaval as Garibaldi campaigns to unite Italy. I’d forgotten how carnality and religiosity shared a bed, outwardly reluctantly, but in reality, wholly accepting of the status quo. Don Fabrizio, the larger than life Prince of Salina, who was the head of the family, expressed it best when he described his own sexual prowess as being able to still, at the advanced age of 45, elicit a “Gesummaria!” (“Jesus Mary!”) from his wife on the occasions when he would make love to her.

The book in fact begins with the conclusion of a prayer—Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen (Now and at the hour of our death. Amen)—as the Salina family finishes the daily recital of the Rosary.

The rituals of prayer are centuries-old traditions that Don Fabrizio respects and performs, but so is his right to partake of the pleasures of the flesh when the desire strikes him with women whose profession it is to satisfy men in ways that wives perhaps may be unwilling to.

Not much has changed, it seems. When Don Fabrizio thinks of his wife, it’s clear that she bores him in bed, but he is nevertheless smugly pleased in his ability to please her:

“…Stella! oh well, the Lord knows how much I’ve loved her; but I was married at twenty. And now she’s too bossy, as well as too old.” His moment of weakness passed. “But I’ve sitll got my vigour; and how can I find satisfaction with a woman who makes the sign of the Cross in bed before every embrace and then at the critical moment just cries, ‘Gesummaria!’ When we married and she was sixteen I found that rather exalting; but now… seven children I’ve had with her, seven; and ner once have I seen her navel. Is that right?”

And when he thinks of the other women he beds, it’s clear that he relishes the attention they  give him, even if he is later rather repulsed by his own actions. A state of “sated ease tinged with disgust,” the proverbial conflict between desire and duty, and the inherent class tensions. His wife is of noble birth, like him, but sexually unexciting. The prostitutes he frequents, such as his favorite, Mariannina, are of more humble origins, which harks back once more to the age-old Madonna and whore trope: women were either saints or sluts. Good girls from “good families” just don’t, but bad girls (presumably from the lower classes) will be all too happy to suck d*ck—and more—for money and even status.

Note how Don Fabrizio describes an encounter with Mariannina. She “had looked at him with her big opaque peasant’s eyes, had refused him nothing, and been humble and compliant in every way.” He even compares her to his faithful dog—“A kind of Bendicò in a silk petticoat.”

As Lampedusa writes, “In a moment of particularly intense pleasure he had heard her exclaim ‘My Prince!’ He smiled again with satisfaction at the thought. Much better than ‘mon chat’ or mon singe blond’ produced in equivalent moments by Sarah, the Parisian slut he had frequented three years ago when the Astronomical Congress gave him a gold medal at the Sorbonne.”

Like a good Catholic, Don Fabrizio indulges his carnal desires when he feels like it, allows the momentary disgust at his “weakness” engulf him, and then confesses his sexual peccadilloes to the family priest.

The Jesuit Father Pirrone, it would seem, takes a perverse pleasure in listening to the Prince enumerate his sins, particularly the sins of the flesh. There is a scene early in the novel in which Don Fabrizio summons the priest, who arrives hastily, before he has finished his bath. Thus Father Pirrone sees the magnificently built aristocrat emerging from his bath, still naked and wet.

“The sight of the Prince in a state of nature was quite new to Father Pirrone; the Sacrament of Pennace had accustomed him to naked souls, but he was far less used to naked bodies; and he, who would not have blinked an eyelid at hearing the confession, say, of an incestuous intrigue, found himself flustered by this innocent but vast expanse of naked flesh.”

What a rarity, a priest with a sense of propriety. I’m not sure one could say as much for the priests who’ve had no qualms sexually abusing young children in the schools and parishes for decades, priests for whom the church willingly covered up. Talk about the sacred and profane as co-dependent bedfellows: these priests apparently believed that part of their pastoral duties involved fondling little boys (and sometimes girls) as well.

And what can be more profane than an ex-Pope laying the blame for the despicable behavior of these pedophilic priests not on the priests themselves, nor on the culture of impunity the church itself protected, but the sexual revolution of the 1960s?

“Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” he wrote in a recent editorial, according to the Catholic News Agency. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

At 92, the former pope maintained that the seismic cultural changes ushered in by the 1960s affected the church and gave rise to “all-out sexual freedom,” and that Catholic moral theology “suffered a collapse.”

Because of this sexual revolution, “pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.”

Pedophilia has never been a consensual sexual act. No child has ever asked a priest to sexually molest him. On the contrary, priests, as many pedophiles and sexual abusers before them, whether dressed in priestly robes or not, have long groomed their victims, and maintained sexually abusive relationships with them, relationships based on the fact that the priests were the more powerful party imposing their desires on the innocent, trusting and defenseless children, well into their youth. The lasting trauma and damage they have inflicted upon these children is immeasurable.

Shame on you, Pope Benedict XVI.

B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant. 

For comments and questions, e-mail b.wiser.ph@gmail.com. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.

 

Art by Tricia Guevara

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