From among Essayists: Toward a Counter-History of Italian Literature and Culture

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When taking up the project of writing a history of Italian intellectuals to supplement the one already in circulation, to take proper account of the role of men and women of letters, one cannot ignore a large group of writers that has proven singularly adept at confronting the nexus of literature, society, and politics. I do not know how to classify its mode of writing other than to describe it as oblique, extravagant. It is a mode genuinely, so to speak, detached from established genres, from their principles. Such writers cannot be easily located on an ideological plane. Never categorized by political alignments or proximity to systems of established power, they are refractors of anysoever philosophical system. But that is not all. Their extravagance and obliqueness reveals itself even more resoundingly as a tone of artifice, a certain spuriousness of character--and indeed these features can be ascribed to a kind of "essayism," a writing practice entrusted to a sense beyond that of imagination, to a truth sometimes more fantasized than thought. This writing mode carries with it the implicit conviction that the philosophical treatise on one hand, and the novel with its total autonomy of invention on the other, are destined to experience the same downfall.

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Entrusted to a language that rises to the heavens of grand tradition and descends to the bowels of dialect, the novel intersperses narrative moments and documentary fictions with a unity approaching that of music: its form confirms that certain anomalies, a certain obliqueness of gaze--ultimately an unengaged intellect--yields intriguing effects. We can test this notion, briefly, with examples from the late twentieth century--and it may be best to proceed by comparative trials. I will attempt in these comparisons to demonstrate how the most successful attempts to recount a history of Italy, its national identity, have been made by works less programmatically within the system, less compromised by more or less progressive ideologies of its current moment--less obsessed, in short, with the politically correct binaries of literature and society, or literature and reality. These are works not infrequently created from a missed appointment with modernity.

Take the cases of Mario Soldati and Vitaliano Brancati: these writers could never have written Le lettere da Capri (The Capri Letters, 1954) and Paolo it caldo (The fervor of Paolo, 1955; posthumous) if they hadn't brushed right on by Freud entirely. Le lettere da Capri is the story of a love triangle in which love displays all of its slippages and flaws, in which everything is, in the end, tremendously and genuinely ambiguous: Harry, blindly faithful to his wife Jane, discovers that his wife has betrayed him at the very moment he is confessing to her his own betrayal. And further: Jane knew Harry's lover, and it was she in fact who introduced her to him, though she had never suspected a thing. And again: Harry met Jane's lover as well, but mistook him for the lover of his lover, Dorothea. And finally: when Jane tries to save herself, it's Dorothea whom she asks for help, and the circle pathetically closes. Ambiguity reigns over all, and in this world, which is brimming with sin, there is no place for redemption. One can even read into this scenario the belief that God is "just, to the point of evil," compelling his creatures to the "highest evil"--that is, to constant, merciless self-torture. But what this emphasizes is that Soldati, simply by using, as Luigi Baldacci puts it, "the Christian framework of sin," its dialectic of penitence and redemption, succeeds in telling us of life, of its complicated simplicity, more generously than Freud's acolytes could. Because this is the point: the ambiguity and the evil that fail to collide have a strongly gnoseological valence to them. This is Soldati's twentieth-century modernity. It happens similarly in Brancati's Paolo it caldo: here it is perhaps programmatic and ironic antimodernism, the very unmodern longing for reason and virtue to share an identity, to allow moral clarity to proceed, without losing its way, through the muddy river of feeling and sense. …