The Gutting of Italian Spirituality
In Christ In Concrete Pietro di Donato offers more than a classic depiction of the Italian immigrant community in New York in the 1920s. His narration of Geremio’s family paints the picture of the camaraderie, the deep spirituality, and the struggle against American capitalism one expects to find in a book on Italian immigrant life in America. But di Donato also gives instruction on how to paint a new picture of Italian-American life, a life not oppressed by American capitalism. He calls for the gutting of Italian spirituality. Believing that the temporal force of capitalism can only be conquered by another temporal force, di Donato insists on the switching of the traditional view of Christ as Savior to the new view of one’s self as Savior. This means an end to the fatalistic view di Donato believes Italian immigrants hold. Di Donato expresses his message through Paul’s faith and its relationship to Job.
Di Donato first uses Paul’s faith to establish a model of the typical Italian immigrant’s faith. Paul’s faith depends on two conditions. First, he believes in the power of pray. After his father’s death, he is seen running “breathlessly about with Hail Marys and Our Fathers falling fast.” (23) Through most of the novel, Paul sees his prayers as the driving force in his life. When Paul declares himself the new father of the family, he immediately sets out to “…find those who God has chosen to feed…” his family. (51) Paul automatically assumes that when asked, the Lord will provide for him. However, Paul finds no one who offers assistance to his family, including the Church. This forces Paul to find a job. He asks God to make him a bricklayer. Upon learning he can lay brick, Paul is ecstatic because “the Lord had listened to him.” (71) Paul gives all the credit for his achievements to the power of Christ. Di Donato uses this aspect of Paul’s faith to show the Italian immigrant’s tendency to rely solely on a supernatural power to dictate his life.
The second condition of Paul’s faith is his belief in life after death. At Geremio’s funeral, Paul sees earth as “…a terrible thing.” As the dirt covers Geremio, Paul feels “…earth suffocating his mouth and earth crushing his soul.” (30) Paul’s repulsion to a captive death shows how meaningful the idea of eternal life in heaven is to him. When Annunziata and Paul talk to Geremio through the cripple, Paul’s first question to his father is if he was scared to die. To Paul, the reward of heaven justifies all life’s woes. He needs reassurance that he will reach Heaven when he dies. Upon hearing that Geremio “…was ready…” to die, and “…went to his Maker just like that,” “the weight of the world lifted itself from Paul.” (115) Paul’s faith in an eternal life is reinforced by his visit with the cripple. He knows that he will be rewarded after suffering through the life of a bricklayer. He sees no need to try for a better life style. Here Paul expresses the fatalistic attitude. In addition to the former condition of Paul’s faith, this belief allows Paul to be disillusioned about the power of spirituality.
Di Donato undermines this power of the Christian faith by clearly displaying to the reader the control Job has over Paul. Di Donato makes Job a proper noun and refers to it as “God Job” and “Job Almighty.” (8, 216) Therefore Job is a temporal force that rivals God. For Paul, Job is the one “…who give[s] living to mother Annunziata and the little ones.” (69) Without Job, Paul would not be able to provide for his family. Before Job, Paul felt himself “…sliding and there [being] nothing to grasp….” (51) Poverty and hunger were threatening his family and he could not stop it. But Job provided money and dignity. The reader understands that Paul and all the other immigrant workers are dependent on Job, not God, for their livelihoods. However, Job is so powerful, that it becomes “…the in and out of living.” Eventually the workers are “… joined in bondage with Job,” their bodies becoming “…the substance of Job.” (142) Paul and his workmates are reduced to expendable material by Job. The death of Geremio and Nazone are examples of this. Both deaths show that the power of Christ offers no protection from Job. As he becomes buried in concrete, Geremio asks Jesus to “…show [himself] now…” and to “…save [him] before it is too late.” (16, 18) However, these “cries went no farther than his own ears.” (16) Here di Donato implies that there is no supernatural force to hear human pleas. Ultimately, Geremio’s faith in Christ fails him. When Nazone falls from the scaffold, Paul calls for Christ to “…hold him back,” or “…have him land safely.” (217) Neither happens for Nazone. Instead he plummets to his death. Through the deaths and the depiction of Job in the novel di Donato illustrates the uselessness of the Christian faith in American capitalism.
Di Donato speaks out against Italian spirituality and its squandering effects on Italian American workers through Paul’s enlightenment. Paul’s enlightenment is brought on by Nazone’s death. Staring at the splattering of Nazone, Paul thinks, “This is your father Geremio! You!” (219) He realizes that he and the rest of the laborers are not humans, but merely objects that can be easily replaced in the capitalism system. This experience causes Paul an epiphany in the form of a dream. At the beginning of the dream Paul searches for Christ. He needs Him to save Nazone. But Paul “…is lost and knows not the manner of the path” to finding Jesus; there is no Christ to offer help. (223) Instead Paul sees that he must carry his own burden. Next in the dream, Paul meets his father. Geremio tells Paul that he “…was cheated…not even the Death can free us, for we are…christ in concrete.” (226) Paul now sees that life after death is a myth. Unlike Jesus, Paul will not rise to heaven. He will have spent his life suffering the burden of Job, and get no reward. Upon awakening from his dream, Paul asks his mother, “Who nailed us to the cross? Mother…why are we living?” (226) Paul now understands that working for Job is the equivalent of awaiting death. However, he also now knows that he is in charge of his life and can choose how to live. This new knowledge leads him to demand “…salvation now…”and“…justice here…,” and “…happiness here…” on earth. (230) He sees that only his will can provide for him a better life. And that he wants that better life now in the temporal world, because he won’t receive one after he dies. Here di Donato suggests that will power is the temporal force strong enough to conquer capitalism. However, one must reject the beliefs of fatalism and of Christ as Savior to become aware of this power. Paul’s ultimate rejection of his fate is seen when he cries “Dio…What Dio?” and proceeds to break his mother’s crucifix. (229) Di Donato shows his support of Paul’s rejection by having Annunziata tell her children to follow Paul at the end of the novel. Despite her Christian beliefs, she sees that Paul’s atheism, and thus his new self reliance will lead her family to a better life. This ending scene expresses di Donato’s wish for Italian immigrants to reject Italian spirituality, and embrace themselves as their own Christ.
By the end of the novel, Paul realizes the world of American capitalism is a world of temporal forces in which Italian spirituality plays no part. So Paul rejects the old country faith. This separation allows him to think of ways to better his situation in life. Through Paul’s actions, di Donato speaks to his fellow Italian-Americans. He tells them to follow Paul’s example, and realize their dependence on the power of Christ and their belief in life in heaven after death hinders them in the American capitalist system, instead of helping them. He tells them they are responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty and strife. Essentially, di Donato wants Italian American to adopt the American cultural values of independence and entitlement. If Italian Americans exhibit these values, they can overcome the oppression of the American capitalist system.