Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Provincial Center

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Provincial Center

Article excerpt

[NOTE: The following essay was delivered as a talk at a conference on "La provincia" which took place at the University of Bergamo, December 2001. It has been translated from the Italian by Susan Stewart]

I would like to take this occasion to revisit and further develop certain reflections on the idea of provinciality, which I presented for the first time at the end of my book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization some ten years ago. (1) It is a fundamental theme, for I believe that Western culture owes considerably more to its provinces than it does to its cities. If I had enough time and adequate archival resources, I would seek to advance the following thesis: that the great cosmopolitan centers tend more to attract than to beget artists, poets, and philosophers. The exceptions to this rule are obvious and certainly noteworthy, but I am convinced that--like the bread, vegetables, and meat that sustain nations and empires--the cultural nourishment of the West is provided essentially by its provinces. Think of Immanuel Kant, who never ventured beyond the confines of Konigsberg. When, in the 1920s, an assistant to Edmund Husserl returned to Freiburg from a journey to Berlin, Husserl asked him how things fared in the big city. The assistant, Eugen Fink, said that there were dramatic, even shocking, changes: Berlin was full of cabarets and in certain quarters there were even prostitutes in the streets. Husserl, in his amazement, exclaimed: "What? In the city of Fichte and Hegel!" It seems Husserl was not able to fathom that Berlin could have a reason to exist beyond German idealism. Nor should we forget that Hegel himself, born in Stuttgart, in the southwest of Germany, was called to Berlin from the provinces according to this centripetal principle that makes the modern city a showcase for the talent, insight, and creativity originating in the provinces. Legend has it that Schopenhauer held his classes in an empty room because he insisted on scheduling them at the very same time as Hegel's. But neither was Schopenhauer a native Berliner. He was from Danzig. And since we are speaking here of Berlin, I might also mention a brief text by Martin Heidegger, written in i934, entitled "Why Do I Stay in the Provinces"--a text to which I will return a bit later--in which Heidegger explains the reasons for his second refusal of a teaching post in Berlin. (2) That refusal makes of Heidegger a veritable exception. Only with difficulty does the provincial poet or intellectual succeed in resisting the call of the metropolis. There are other exceptions, to be sure: Montaigne, for instance, who decided to remain in Bordeaux rather than cart himself off to Paris; or Andrea Zanzotta, who continues to stay in Pieve di Soligo, in the Veneto; and others too numerous to mention here.

It is notable that Italian literature, particularly the literature of the modern period, has a real exocentric relation to its roots. Ugo Foscolo, Giacomo Leopardi, Giovanni Pascoli, Giosue Carducci, Leonardo Sciascia, Primo and Carlo Levi, Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Italo Svevo, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Italo Calvino, Zanzotto--all provincials! Even in the world of Italian cinema, it is difficult to find a director who is from the capital. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ettore Scola, Federico Fellini, Cesare Zavattini all came to Rome from their small towns and rural regions. A colleague of mine who is an expert on the Italian Renaissance assures me that the same holds true for the Italian humanists of the quattrocento who migrated to Florence: Coluccio Salutati arrived from Borgo a Buggiano, Leonardi Bruni from Arezzo, Carlo Marsuppini from Arezzo, Poggio Bracciolini from Terranuova, Benedetto Accolti from Arezzo, Bartolomeo Scala from Colle Val d'Elsa, and so on. My intention here, however, is not to generate a list or to create a typology of this sort. Instead of a socio-geography of cultural provincialism in Italy or elsewhere, I propose to offer a brief meditation, rather fragmentary and theoretical, around the speculative notion of the provincial, with the goal of helping us understand better why the province continues to be such a creative matrix in Western history. …

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