The sense-world of the festa

“The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel recreated the primary and traditional environments of the Italians–the preverbal environment, on the one hand, and the remembered environment of Italy, on the other–in the presence of a quasi-omnipotent mother who healed or did not heal, depending on the behavior of the individual. For the older immigrants and their Italian-born children, the sense world of the festa was the sense world of their southern Italian childhoods; for the later generations in East Harlem, the sense world of the festa recalled the smells, sounds, and tastes of life in the domus. In both cases, the festa and the domus, the sense world was shaped and presided over by a powerful woman. The religious experience of July 16 had the power to evoke memories that were extraordinarily basic: the people seemed to be returning not only to their paese but, more profoundly, to their mothers. The festa was a time of regression, in other words, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of it helped to precipitate and sustain this regression. The devotion summoned people into the sacral domus and surrounded them with familiar tastes, smells, sounds, colors, and textures; in this way, in the presence of their ‘mamma,’ the people returned to the world in which they had first learned, from their mothers, what reality was, what was good and what bad, what their basic values were and the values of their community. The festa and the long-passed intimate moments of moral formation smelled, tasted, and sounded the same.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 171-172.

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