An Ethnologist’s Take on Peasant Corsica

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By Mike Goldstein

“Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica” is a beautifully written chronicle of Dorothy Carrington’s time in Corsica (which spanned decades). Even after the second world war Corsican peasants were living very much in the same way their ancestors had for centuries. In the following paragraphs Carrington, visiting from London, writes about her experiences living with a Corsican peasant family near Sartene.

“… I had not understood how far my daily load of anxiety was a craving for the things every peasant knows: space, silence, and food that is not stale. Blindly, automatically, like released circus animals rediscovering their natural environment, we slipped into a routine of bathing from the empty beach, eating huge meals and listening to Jean’s stories after dark….
“There were hours, too, when no one did anything; when brothers and sisters and parents sat on the little terrace overlooking the bay, hardly speaking, glad to be together, glad to be there. Working a little, resting a little, doing a little of everything, inexpertly, but just well enough: this is how Corsican peasants, in favorable circumstances, have always spent their time. And it is a way of life that has always irritated foreigners extremely. Why, one hears, don’t the Corsicans work harder, clear more of the maquis, produce more food? How dare they sit about on walls and stones doing nothing at all? The sight of Corsicans of all ages sitting about doing nothing is positively outraging to many visitors. So are the answers to their questions: that the Corsicans see no reason to work any harder, to grow more food, when they already have enough to eat, and that if they did they would have great difficulty in selling their surpluses. Moreover, there is no one to make them work all day: their land belongs to them, as does their time. Leisure or laziness – call it what you will – is their one luxury, tenaciously preserved in the absence of all others; a luxury so inaccessible even to the prosperous tourist that he is likely to regard it as a sin.
“Yet this was man’s birthright, the world over, before landowners and employers got control of them and forced them, by threat of hunger, to labor all day long. [Native Americans] and other so-called savages lived like this before the Europeans took them in hand. The Corsicans may have missed many of the benefits of civilization, but they have also escaped its inhuman servitudes.”

When we were in Ajaccio there was a place selling pictures of old Corsicans. I asked if I could take pictures of the pictures and they said, “of course,” which seemed an odd answer to me considering it meant we wouldn’t actually buy them. Anyway, I regret that I don’t know who to credit for these photos.

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Filed under Corsica, Europe, France, Travel

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