"Tutto E Zuppa!": Making the Superego Enjoy in Calvino's Il Cavaliere Inesistente

By Rushing, Robert A. | The Romanic Review, May 2010 | Go to article overview

"Tutto E Zuppa!": Making the Superego Enjoy in Calvino's Il Cavaliere Inesistente


Rushing, Robert A., The Romanic Review


The Hollow Epic

Il cavaliere inesistente [The Nonexistent Knight] tells the story of Agilulfo, one of the Emperor Charlemagne's most dedicated knights. He is scrupulous in all things, from the procedures and rules governing combat to the polishing of his armor. It is, in fact, his armor that particularly attracts the Emperor's attention. It is completely unscratched or marred in any way and covers Agilulfo from head to toe--no space, no matter how small, is left uncovered. It is also perfectly white, except for a thin black line that runs around the edge. In other words, it is an outline, a tracing of a knight more than an actual knight as such. Agilulfo's shield is rather curious as well. It depicts a cloak whose sides have been pulled open to reveal another cloak, whose sides have been pulled open to reveal another cloak, whose--in short, it is the figure known as a mise en abyme, the endlessly recursive image of a container that contains itself and so contains ultimately nothing. The question of content, in short, is always deferred to a later date, farther down. If Charlemagne is struck by Agilulfo's armor, he is decidedly more struck when he finally convinces the reluctant knight to open his helmet: there is nothing inside.

Agilulfo, the nonexistent knight, is merely a suit of armor animated by, as he says to the Emperor, "la forza di volonta ... e la fede nella nostra santa causa" [strength of will and faith in our holy cause!]. (1) We can see immediately some of the uses to which Calvino might (and generally does) put this figure. In the meta-literary vein, Agilulfo represents a kind of pure formalism, a temptation that Calvino was certainly drawn to throughout his career, as a number of critics have pointed out. (2) Surely this hollowed out form, evacuated of content, also speaks to what happens to the epic in the modern era, where it becomes a genre that can no longer be taken seriously; it survives more as a generic memory, a space that can no longer contain anything. Certainly Calvino's knight speaks as well to a certain loss of idealism, a desire for "strength of will and faith in our holy cause" that is no longer credible in an age of cynicism. What emerges from this overview is that Agilulfo appears as a figure of nostalgia; he is fundamentally anachronistic and out of place. This is particularly true for the other knights within the novel, for whom Agilulfo is "certo un modello di soldato; ma a tutti ... antipatico" (Calvino 959) [certainly a model soldier; but disliked by all].

Under this view, the novel appears like a version of or an homage to Don Quixote: the tragicomic failure of idealism in a modern era of unabated cynicism and the concomitant impossibility of a serious (i.e., nonparodic) treatment of the epic and of the chivalric epic in particular. Such a view of the novel is bolstered by the various Quixotic elements of the text: Agilulfo's irritating and impractical insistence on the laws of chivalry and codes of knightly behavior; his ridiculous squire who is, like Sancho Panza, rather more interested in the pleasures of the body than knightly virtue; the ironic and self-conscious narrator who is eventually enfolded into the narrative; the protagonist motivated by an absurd raison d'etre and who effectively disintegrates when that reason is taken away, and so on. If it was not possible to take the ideals of chivalric literature (say, Orlando furioso) seriously at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it is surely impossible in the middle of the twentieth century.

This is not quite, however, the story that Calvino's novel tells. Agilulfo is not a marginalized and mocked figure because he clings to outmoded ideals or an outmoded literary gente. In fact, it is often precisely the reverse: as they sit around the table at the end of the day, it is the other knights who tell epic stories of adventure, such as the following:

Dice Orlando:--Devo dire che la battaglia d'Aspromonte si stava mettendo male, prima cheio non abbattessi in duello il re Agolante e gli prendessi la Durlindana. …

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