Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Dido's Turn: Cultural Syntax in Ungaretti's la Terra Promessa

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Dido's Turn: Cultural Syntax in Ungaretti's la Terra Promessa

Article excerpt

Virgilio ci accompagna non piu come un emblema ma come uno dei fatti della nostra vita. (1)

Let me begin by evoking the tantalizing though possibly false etymological connection between "Fascism" and "fascination." From the Latin fascis (bundle, pack) we arrive at "the bundle of rods around an axe, carried by lictors [of ancient Rome] before the highest magistrates," a sign of their power to punish even unto death; this becomes the iconographical symbol of the Italian Fascist Party. And possibly the Latin fascino derives from this same etymon, and signifies a magical spell or bewitchment by means of which a victim is bound, entrapped (Ripman 170). What appeals in this false etymology is the shared erotic and political imagery of binding, being captivated, and the resultant incapacity to act. (2) The knot which holds the bundle of rods around the axe, or the victim to his/her fascinator, suggests by extension a textual knot. Dante explicitly uses "nodo" for a textual-erotic-moral entrapment. Medusa, Circe, and the Sirens are among our best known mythological fascinators. Dido and Cleopatra share this honor as well. If fascination is gendered as female, what are its political implications?

What can Virgil's Dido tell us about Imperial Rome? What can the figure of Dido in Giuseppe Ungaretti's La Terra Promessa tell us about modern Italian Fascism? Does Dido signal a type of fascination which interrupts the flow of culture and communication--an erotic, textual, and political knot? Dido is at once seductress and sovereign, exile and emperor, vanquished and victor, chaste and lascivious. Dido functions as a cipher of ambiguity itself and as a trope of change. (3) Her textual appearance marks a political and narratological turn, as well as a point of gender instability.

In the following remarks, I would like to examine some of the textual and pyschological complexities in Giuseppe Ungaretti's use of the figure of Dido in his unfinished poem, La Terra Promessa (1935-1953). I want to suggest, further, that the nexus of exile, empire-founding, political and gender instability which characterizes the Aeneas-Dido myth also characterizes both Ungaretti's own biography and a host of cultural symptoms of the Italian Fascist program. Indeed, there is a growing critical literature analyzing the Fascist uses (and abuses) of images of gender and ethnicity. (4) Not surprisingly, this knot of erotic fascination and political threat appears as well in the historical tradition of the legends of Dido (including those earliest representations which were Virgil's probable sources). We owe to Virgil the most influential textual representation of Dido; it is not surprising that the Dido episode is, in fact, the most wide-spread iconographic representation of the entire Aeneid itself. The Virgilian figure of Dido continues to haunt representations of the African Queen: St. Augustine, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pisan, Vico, Metastasio, Berlioz, Purcell, Ungaretti, just to name a few of the many tales which foreground Dido and, by metonomy, Africa, as a nodal point of entrapment. Africa's polymorphous perversity and threat to political foundationalism, I suggest, are syncretically collapsed into the polysemous figure of the female Dido.

Clearly, reading Ungaretti's La Terra Promessa in relation to Virgil's Aeneid is immensely rewarding. But stepping back from a literal intertextual comparison, we might profit from an interrogation of the "cultural syntax" of Ungaretti's poetic enterprise itself. That is to say, what are the cultural "texts" evoked and rendered problematic by this 'palimpsestal' poetic project? What issues and images, historical and figurative, work in syntactic combination to create the "meaning" of this poem? I am using the term "palimpsest" in its more common meaning and also in the more technical sense given by Gerard Genette in Palimpsestes: La Litterature au second degre. In other words, I view the entire Terra Promessa as a richly textured example of what Genette calls hypertextualite. …

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