In World War II, a young Italian named Eugenio Corti was fighting on the Russian front, where he witnessed what kind of world it is when men forget God – when Nazi and Communist, brutalized by godlessness, devoured one another and millions of innocents in their way, like monsters of the deep.
Much of what Corti saw, what he suffered, what he heard from his fellow soldiers, and what he corroborated by investigation, he fashioned into his novel The Red Horse. It’s a vast epic, the Italian War and Peace. It’s also a Christian saga reminiscent of Manzoni’s The Betrothed –and not just because the young protagonists come from that same hilly region north of Milan. Corti, like Manzoni, wants to show us what his Catholic land once looked like, and what it might be once again, if men would turn back and mend their mad and murderous ways.
Consider the following moment in the novel. Manno, the most mystical of the lads, is home on furlough before returning to service in Albania. He sees a beautiful girl in church, in the company of her great aunt, who owns a villa outside of town. Manno arranges a visit with the girl, who bears the lovely and spiritual name of Colomba: Dove. After a simple and courtly dinner with the grande dame and her niece, much conversation, a stroll with Colomba through the orchard, a handshake, and a promise to return on the morrow, Manno walks home:
Crossing through the streets of the town, he looked at everything, the well-known details of his familiar world, and now, after the meeting with Colomba had, as it were, restored him, everything, even the most trivial, seemed a discovery, evoked intense joy in him. He stopped a moment in church to thank God for having spared me from danger, but the prayer that spontaneously came to his lips was the Gloria. He said it once, and once again, and still once more in an almost solemn, crashing crescendo, like an organ, in the darkness of the empty church. He was not grateful to God for having saved him from the war, the sea, but for having created Colomba, for having made her as she was, for having put a creature like that in the world. He prayed, as if transported, to the Mother of God, blessed among women, asking her to look after Colomba, to help her remain as pure and as charming as she was now, for all time.
Yet he is right and sane, and we are the mad fools.
Eugenio Corti (1921-2014)
First, Colomba is pure. Not merely abstinent, but pure: she has a deeply founded knowledge of the holiness of the body and of marriage. She and Manno do not encounter one another as “friends,” in the shallow and casual sense in which we use that word now, or as providers of frictional pleasure. They encounter one another as youth and lass, as man-to-be and woman-to-be, and the possibility of marriage, not something they would dare utter so soon, hovers over them as they walk and chat, like the song of a bird from his evening roost high in the trees.
Second, Manno is pure. Corti insists upon this. He grew up then, he knew his countrymen far better than we know the people who are our closest neighbors; he studied, prayed, played, fought, ate, debated, celebrated, and mourned in their company.
The priests of his district of Brianza were far seeing and tireless shepherds. They raised a generation of boys, most of whom went to the altar as virgins – men who spent years tramping through the snows of Russia or blistering in the sands of north Africa, men hardened by bitter experience, whose fellow soldiers, Catholic only in name, would take advantage of those women in wartime who will offer anything in exchange for food or protection.
Impossible? Are we beasts and not men? Corti is not speaking from theory. He was there; he saw it.
Third, because Manno and Colomba are pure, Manno can have the thoughts that Corti records. Manno compares Colomba to Hector’s wife Andromache, and to Dante’s saintly Beatrice. A flight of fancy, perhaps, but a flight that springs from the earth; without that flesh-and-blood Colomba, shy, womanly, sweet, intelligent, and pure, Manno’s thoughts could never take wing. If we call it mere poetry, mere sentimentality, romanticism, we do not know what we are saying. We are like color-blind people insisting that there’s no such thing as green. Or we are like men whose evil habits have riddled their bones, no longer able to conceive what it is to run and leap with abandon.
Finally, the passage warns us that it’s foolish to pretend that the air you breathe will have no effect upon your constitution. Manno and Colomba grew up in a world that could raise a Manno and Colomba. You cannot say, “It’s true that pornography is an open sewer, but I don’t use the stuff.” You might not, but you still breathe the fumes from the sewer.
You have no clear idea of the inspirations that a morally healthy world might give you. You cannot say, “It’s true that fornication is wrong, but who am I to prescribe for other people?” Sorry, but the fornicators have already prescribed for you. Go to the dance hall if you like – the dance hall is empty. March in the parade for Corpus Christi – you and who else? Write poetry in honor of Beatrice – if you can find her, or if it even enters your mind that such a person might exist.