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Philosophy in its underwear

Suzanne Kiernan reviews

Paolo Bartoloni. Interstitial Writing. Calvino, Caproni, Sereni and Svevo

Troubadour, 2003. 108 pp.

Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
This piece is 1,164 words or about 4 printed pages long.

In Paolo Bartoloni’s subtitle to his study exploring a thematic he calls ‘interstitial writing’, the names of two of the most significant Italian prose writers of the past century — Calvino and Svevo, both intensely philosophic, and each very different from the other — frame those of two poets — Caproni and Sereni.

Italo Calvino Italo Calvino (photo, left) died in 1985, and the writings marking his point of arrival at the time of his death were suffused with an unproclaimed postmodern embarrassment in the face of any demand that writing should be ‘significant.’ When Italo Svevo died in 1928, Calvino would have been just learning to read; don’t conclude, however, that we must infer some implied historical regress to a ‘beginning’ from the order of naming (it may be simply alphabetical, and dates scarcely feature in Paolo Bartoloni’s discussion of these writers).

No twentieth-century prose writer could be thought of as less indebted than Italo Calvino to Italo Svevo, one of the major artificers of the ‘novel of interiority’ of the early twentieth century.[1] While he admired Svevo’s achievement and certainly never overlooked his importance, Calvino never attempted to disavow his characteristic distaste for the literature of introspection and interiority, and its reliance on verbal games that conceal as much as they reveal. The inward gaze (he once wrote in an interesting editorial note not yet collected to his occasional critical writings) exposed a writer to the risk of finding that there is quite simply nothing there.[2] The ‘geometric’ centering of the observing eye combined with the decentering of the subjective ‘I’ was Calvino’s final achievement — notably in works that are the focal points of Paolo Bartoloni’s study: the constellation of prose pieces titled Palomar (1983), and Six Memos for the Next Millennium (written 1985, published posthumously).[3]

Although his ‘Oulipian’ connections in 1970s Paris led him to write an occasional jeu in verse, Calvino was never tempted at this or any other time to go on an excursion into poetry. (And if Svevo ever did, no one remembers him for that.) Yet the guiding ‘geometric’ impulse of the mature work admitting consciousness as cognition while still skirting the abyss of interiority is observable in Italian poetry right across the last century. It remains true of a poet of the present generation such as Valerio Magrelli (b. 1957), with his inclination for definitions so precise that they pinpoint an interstitial slippage between the representational and the real, which may be though of as opening up a space at once infinitesimal and infinite.[4] And it characterises the work of the two poets of an earlier generation who are of particular interest to Paolo Bartoloni in Interstitial Writing, Calvino’s somewhat older contemporaries Giorgio Caproni (1912-1990) and Vittorio Sereni (1913-1983).

Growing up artistically and intellectually in the time when the private mood of Hermeticism was anodyne if not protest in the face of a Fascist rhetoric that swamped every level of language in Italy, they went after new possibilities in poetry when — as Maurizio Cucchi once observed[5] — avenues of communication appeared to have been silted up by a Petrarchising Hermeticism, or blocked off by Neo-avantgardist experimentalism in the mass culture of the post-Fascist years. Reflecting on those same times, their coeval Mario Luzi writes of belonging to

a generation growing up in an unpleasant and hostile and therefore introverted era, wary in the face of the public aspects of culture. In the decade between 1930 and 1940, when I was ‘formed’, all the motifs that since the second half of the nineteenth century had created a separation between the poet and society, between the poet and institutions, between the poet and the dominant culture, had increased in intensity and gravity in Italy. For us in the West, the first great modern poets . . . are Leopardi and Baudelaire. And what does this ushering in mean? Not, regrettably, the exaltation of some new era, but rather a dramatic awareness — since transmitted to their heirs and successor — of the loss of humanity, of the dehumanisation implicit in the civilisation we call modern.[6]

The Hermetic generation’s ambages were proffered in a language that managed to be at once private and objective, while in the present time a terrain that is poetry’s alone to circumscribe without resort to ‘interiority’ has been located in the ‘quotidian’, valued as a terrain that — for all its existential banality — can yield up what Maurizio Cucchi has termed ‘embedded treasures of exceptional truths.’

Interstitial Writing gives considerable weight to the criticism of Giorgio Agamben. Like Paolo Bartoloni’s own, this is not dispassionate (Agamben was editor of Caproni’s Res amissa in 1990), but is rather an imaginative descant, freighted with post-Heideggerian philosophy, upon the primary texts. It is this impulse that alone confers unity upon the book, which is four essays focussed with equal intensity on works of four writers that do not readily respond to the same critical or analytical premises.

For someone in the academy in the present time, as Paolo Bartoloni is, it is perhaps a quixotic enterprise to write a book concerned directly and unashamedly with literature and the conceptual tools needed to expound it. It’s no overstatement to say that of late ‘literature’ has become something of a dirty word and an embarrassing relic in university departments that used to profess it, and for whom it once was a large measure of their very raison d’etre. Back in the pre-postmodern era, Departments of English that in the 1950s and 1960s had taken on the issue of whether literature was a ‘discipline’ very rapidly lost the plot completely when the disciplines themselves came under attack (not from the intellectual or academic but from the managerial sector).

Yet the end of a century-and-a half of colonization and professionalization of literature by the academy is no bad thing. What remains to be decided is whether literature’s assimilation to ‘the market’ is the current bad thing. Writing and reading do promise to go on regardless, and in all likelihood the product of this mutually sustaining activity will continue to be called ‘literature’ without scandal until another name suggests itself. As for literary criticism, the thing Paolo Bartoloni is essaying here in one of its creative and speculative modes, that, too, is a way of reading and writing simultaneously.

Philosophy and literature (and literary criticism along with it) have always gone hand in hand, and have tended to make new interfaces and with them new and often unforeseen — and often profound — interstices where significance resides. In another time when modernity looked askance at rhetoric as outmoded and a danger to truth, Vico asked rhetorically at the beginning of the eighteenth century: ‘But what is rhetoric, if not wisdom itself, dressed in its best to appeal to the understanding?’ Just so, what is literature if not philosophy in its underwear (getting ready to go out into the world)? Literature poses questions that philosophy doesn’t answer — possibly because, as the authors Paolo Bartoloni discusses suggest, they may be too small for its reach.

[1] La coscienza di Zeno, 1922.
[2] Einaudi catalogue note by Italo Calvino introducing Andrea De Carlo’s first novel, Treno di panna (1981).
[3] Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.
[4] Magrelli’s ‘geometrism’ is clear in ‘The Vanishing Point’ published in a translation by Jamie McKendrick in the Times Literary Supplement (May 28, 2004, p. 6):
Which is the left hand side of the word?
How does it move about in space?
Where does it cast its shadow
(and can a word cast a shadow)?
How can it be observed from behind
or set against the recession of space?
I should like to render in poetry
the equivalent of perspective in painting.
To give a poem the depth of a rabbit
escaping through the fields and make it
distant whilst already
it speeds away from the one who’s watching
and veers towards the frame,
becoming smaller all the time
yet never moving an inch.
The countryside observes
and disposes itself around the creature,
around a point that’s vanishing.
[5] Maurizio Cucchi, unpublished paper: ‘Literary Culture in Italy’; ‘Exchanging Words: Publishing and Literary Translation Conference,’ Italy-Australia; Melbourne, September, 1991 (Melbourne Writers’ Festival Umbrella Event).
[6] Mario Luzi, ‘Oggi, poesia’, in Discorso naturale (Milan: Garzanti, 1984), p. 95 (trans. Suzanne Kiernan).

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