The Pact of Geryon: An Italian Theory of Ethics and Representation
Welsh, John A.
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AbstractA word or an image is not a gentle breeze that plays lightly across the surface of things and leaves them unaltered. Whether an artist tells a story, makes a film, writes a poem, or puts on a play, he or she is acting in the world via the act of representation. Prior to the ethical implications of what is said—the myriad ideologies and agendas that a work might pursue—there is the (un)ethical step at the heart of all semiotics: words and images are never quite what they wish to be.
Merely by coming into being, all artistic texts participate in a certain kind of transgression. Dante Alighieri expressed his uneasiness with the dialectics of truth and falsehood in a memorable image: his pilgrim protagonist descended into the depths of the inferno on the back of a monster named Geryon, who was—simultaneously—an extremely useful vehicle and an embodiment of the darkest and most deeply human sin, fraud. To narrate a “true” story, Dante was paradoxically forced to corral a blatant untruth, a creature with the very face of a lie. Such is the Pact of Geryon: the acceptance of transgression as a path towards productive speech.
“The Pact of Geryon: An Italian Theory of Ethics and Representation” examines ethical and structural questions about representation in selected works from the past two hundred years of artistic production in Italy, including poetry, prose, theater, and film. The goal of this sustained argument is, in part, to reposition metaliterariness and self-reflexivity as a valuable source of ethical content. In thinking about themselves, works of art contemplate the nature of the relationship between language and reality, a relationship which has crucial implications for ethics and praxis in the real world.
Chapter One, “The Idea of the Impetus,” works with the early poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale in order to explore how the two poets conceptualize the relationship between poetry and the “what” it seeks to communicate—which I call the impetus. I also examine how each poet re-stages and re-writes Giacomo Leopardi’s classic lyric poem “L’Infinito” as a way to express the structure of inspiration. Ungaretti portrays the impetus as a penetration that enters the poet’s silence and writes itself within subjectivity. Accordingly, there is a concrete relationship between the impetus and its expression. Montale, on the other hand, depicts the impetus as always retreating and inexpressible. Through imagery reminiscent of negative theology, Montale’s early poetry articulates the impetus by means of giving form to what it is not and cannot be.
Chapter Two, “Ethics, Identity, and the Republic,” positions Plato’s Republic as a foundational text for addressing ethics and representation in the Western tradition. After foregrounding the issue of identity as an underlying rationale for Plato’s expulsion of certain kinds of mimetic art from the ideal republic, I discuss the 2016 unmasking of the famously anonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante. Crucially, I address the thorny issue of whether and when artists are allowed to tell stories about people who are very different. I argue that acceptance of the artist’s right to anonymity is incompatible with a purely identity-based censorship of art on the basis of cultural appropriation.
Chapter Three, “The Ethics of Imagining,” dwells at length on Italo Calvino’s highly expressionistic, metaliterary, and non-mimetic novel Le città invisibili. Despite its apparent distance from artistic engagement and the traditional subject matters of ethics, Calvino’s novel encapsulates and interrogates the most important issues of ethics and representation, which range from the problems of imagining Otherness to the metonymic violence of representation as a communicative structure. A non-violent (or less violent) strategy of representation is an essential feature of the Utopian ambition of Calvino’s text: to create and do no harm is perhaps ideal, but it is also impossible. Ultimately, the final passage of Calvino’s novel recommends a Gramscian model of value creation that involves using bricolage to assemble a system of discernment within the semiotic glut of contemporary existence.
Chapter Four, “Do No Harm?” investigates to what extent a primum non nocere principle can or should be adopted as a guideline for the ethics of representation. At least for artists, avoiding harm cannot be treated as the primary goal. The most ethical works of art are those that embrace and recognize their nature as potentially transgressive partisans. The chapter ends by revisiting the relationship between language and power in the linguistic education of Renzo in Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi. Through Renzo’s semiotic journey, Manzoni’s novel explores how powerful individuals—those with great economic, physical, cultural capital—can exploit the ambiguity of language in self-serving ways. Rather than challenging these structures, however, Manzoni’s novel concludes with a different lesson for Renzo: carefully chosen reticence can be better than reckless speech.
Chapter Five, “Of Hospitality in Paisà,” explores many of the same questions introduced in Chapter Four by adopting Jacques Derrida’s theorization of absolute hospitality as an emblem for nonviolence and postulating Carl Schmitt’s politics of naming as an opposing pragmatic extreme. Using the Derrida-Schmitt pairing as an interpretive key, I analyze two sequences of Paisà—the story of Carmela and Joe from Jersey in Part I and the visit of the three foreign military chaplains to an Italian monastery in Part V—in order to call attention to the inevitable co-presence of friendship and enmity in the hospitality that passed between allies in the World War II era. I conclude by offering a somewhat unsettling interpretation of the film’s ambiguous fifth episode which concludes with a gesture of rejection: the Italian monks refuse to break bread with American visitors of a different religion. Despite the troubling ethical implications of the scene, I argue that the viewer must grant primacy to the semiotics of the scene which unambiguously portray the monks’ action in a positive light. If war demands new alliances, perhaps the post-war period demands a renaissance for rejection and return of older value distinctions.
Chapter Six, “On Mixed Compositions,” fixes its eyes on the ethical consequences of portraying history through art—particulary when claims for historical truth are mixed with fiction, fantasy, and other products of the imagination. Using Roma città aperta, especially the film’s treatment of the historically inspired characters Don Pietro and Pina, I ponder the ethical obligations that attach to any true story and examine how works of art position themselves to shoulder or avoid such obligations. I follow with a critique of Manzoni’s essay Del romanzo storico before moving on to an assessment of the creative transgressions inherent in Elsa Morante’s La storia, ostensibly a novel written for those who cannot read and on behalf of those who cannot write. I conclude by taking a look at Morante’s restaging of the language-centered osteria scene from I promessi sposi which places the young idealist Davide Segre in the place of Renzo. If Renzo learns to keep his mouth shut, Davide Segre suffers from the realization that cultural difference can form an uncrossable bridge between a speaker and his audience.
Chapter Seven, “In Search of an Ethics,” explores Luigi Pirandello’s ambiguous fascism alongside the Sicilian playwright’s overriding concerns with the relationship between language and power. Although Pirandello too might be said to have abandoned the political sphere in his theater, his Nobel prize-winning ouvre nevertheless frequently explores dynamic questions related to ethics and representation. Specifically, I argue that the Pirandello’s conception of language is animated by the co-presence of lightness and weight. The existential lightness of language—the fact that a given word has no constant intrinsic meaning—is always countered by the great heaviness of meaning within the communally constructed language game of power.
Chapter Eight, “The Reticence of Empty Space,” closes my sustained argument about ethics and language with a reading of the language of visual space in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film fable Uccellacci e uccellini. In this film, Pasolini creates a deliberate contrast between the written spaces of the neocapitalist present and the open, unwritten horizon which serves as a figuration for the unknown and unknowable future. Taking place in a time of transition for the Left, Pasolini’s film fable visualizes the future as crucially important but unrepresented and/or unrepresentable. As such, Uccellacci participates in a kind of ethically motivated reticence. The film says less about the future in order to minimize its potential for harm: the blank space of the sky functions as a bulwark against inaccuracy, distortion, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding of the sacred, which in this case is the future itself.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:40046560
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