“Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.”
— Attributed to Paul Harvey, among others
“That’s why I carry a gun. The average human is only three missed meals away from becoming a savage.”
— Quoted by Will Bardenwerper, “Army Ranger School Is a Laboratory of Human Endurance”
When Norman Lewis arrived in Naples as an officer of the British Intelligence Corps in early October 1943 he found a city on the brink of starvation.
…In the book he wrote about his experiences, Naples ’44, published in 1978, Lewis presents a picture of life as it is lived when civilization has crumbled. Hit by plague — a typhus epidemic visited the city not long after its liberation, while syphilis was rampant — the inhabitants were surrounded by death and disease. Beyond the struggle against sickness, there was another struggle that was all-consuming — the daily effort simply to stay alive.
…As Lewis records, when Naples was liberated by the Allies the entire population was out of work and foraging for food. Liberation was preceded by carpet-bombing in which working-class districts were destroyed and electricity and water supplies cut off. Delayed-action bombs left by the retreating Germans added to the dangers. With no functioning economy, the inhabitants scavenged for whatever was left, including tropical fish in the city aquarium. Thousands of people crammed into a single acre lived on scraps of offal from slaughterhouses, fishes’ heads and cats caught in the street. Families searched for mushrooms and dandelions in the countryside and set up traps to catch birds. Ignored by the Allied administration, there was a thriving black market in medicines.
With everything on sale, anything that could be moved — statues from public squares, telegraph poles, phials of penicillin and medical instruments, small boats, tombstones, petrol, tyres, the contents of museums, the bronze doors of a cathedral — was liable to be stolen. Formerly middle-class people hawked jewellery, books and paintings, a “white-lipped and smiling” priest sold umbrellas, candlesticks and ornaments carved from bones stolen from the catacombs, while around a third of the city’s women were selling sex on an occasional or regular basis.
…Observing the struggle for life in the city, [Curzio] Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be — shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong — disappeared. What were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort that humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.