Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Modernism at War: Pirandello and the Crisis of (German) Cultural Identity

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Modernism at War: Pirandello and the Crisis of (German) Cultural Identity

Article excerpt

Critics have elaborated several different conceptual approaches which they use to divide and categorize the multiple strands of modernist writing in the Italian context. Despite their differences, however, these approaches have also tended to result in similar alignments or groupings of modernist figures, distinguishing between the political avant-gardes like the Futurists and the seminal Italian modernists of introspection, Italo Svevo and Luigi Pirandello. While some critics have focused on the strong political and nationalist elements that seem to set the Futurists apart, others have focused on the specific sense of pessimistic crisis and how Svevo and Pirandello respond by elaborating a correspondingly pessimistic worldview. But the conclusion in both cases has been a confirmation of the same basic division of the Italian modernist scene. My contention here is that a reexamination of Pirandello's literary engagement with World War I complicates this general picture, revealing key ways in which Pirandello is in closer continuity with the nationalist elements of modernism than has sometimes been acknowledged.

In Pirandello's war stories, a crisis of cultural identity brings strong elements of nationalism into contact with the pessimistic worldview for which the writer is known. At the same time, this nationalism is situated in a discourse of transnational cultural identity, linking it to Risorgimento philosophical thought, while, in terms of Pirandello's family history, it connects to a personal commitment to a unified Italy free from foreign rule. I argue that by drawing these nationalist elements together with his humoristic outlook, Pirandello integrates his pessimistic worldview with a simultaneous commitment to an ethics of interpersonal compassion and a desire for spiritual renewal at a national level. This attitude sets him apart from his modernist contemporaries.

1. Italian Modernism between Traditionalism and Nationalism

In order to understand how Pirandello's war stories help us to gain new insight into the relationship among the conflicting impulses at work in Italian modernism, one must first clarify the conceptual models that articulate those impulses. Two critical approaches have focused on different impulses in the modernist imagination, but both result in similar ways of grouping the most prominent figures of Italian modernism. One approach is offered by Luca Somigli, who makes use of Emilio Gentile's notion of "modernist nationalism" to articulate the distinction between avant-garde artists like the Futurists and writers like Svevo and Pirandello: the Futurists (and other avant-garde groups, like the writers for La voce) are engaged in a project of political renovation with nationalist aims (8283); in contrast, Svevo and Pirandello focus on the dissolution of the subject and its connection to the world, culminating in a "universe empty of meaning" (86). In this view, the optimistic or positive project of the modernist nationalists contrasts with the metaphysical and psychological pessimism of Svevo and Pirandello. (1)

This grouping thus coincides with the interpretative "line" drawn by Renato Barilli, who maintained that Svevo and Pirandello (in contrast to Carlo Emilio Gadda) mark the high point of Italian modernism because they achieve the best "balance between tradition and innovation [...]" (6; my translation). But, as this characterization suggests, Barilli's focus is less on the role of an optimistic nationalist project than on the question of how modernism relates its radical innovation to the tradition coming before it. This difference puts Barilli's framework in dialogue with the position charted by Robert Dombroski, who has suggested in his comparison of Svevo and Pirandello to Gadda that we must focus on how these writers view the function of their writing in the context of the modern crisis that gives rise to it. He argues that for both Svevo and Pirandello a seemingly nihilistic vision of the modern world is actually overcome through the subject's literary reflection (the autobiographical impulse): "[their] novels illustrate in different ways how art can revive a world deadened by modernization and how the reified subject can regain its lost humanity through the artful reconstruction or management of reality's negative aspects" (2003, 102). …

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