Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Posts by Massimo Lollini

 

Talking about war after more than 100 days of the current conflict in Ukraine is something that seems natural and unavoidable. The devastating event of the war has penetrated the life of the world population through the media and various sources of information, including the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their country, becoming witnesses and protagonists of one of the most violent humanitarian crises in human history.

The local warfare soon engulfed the global scene through unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and substantial military aid to Ukraine. In these tragic days, it can be useful to rethink what the First World War was like. Are there still lessons we can reflect on and continue to learn from the first terrible carnage that befell Europe and the world? 

Our attempt to answer this question is divided into two parts. First of all, a reflection on the origins of the WW1; secondly, a closer look at one of the least studied and known aspects of the conflict: the so-called “white war” that was fought on the Dolomites and the Italian-Austrian front.

In the concluding paragraphs, I argue that the time of war belongs not only to human history but also to natural history. Forgetting this reflection is at the origin of the hubris that characterizes human civilization and is increasingly evident in the time we call the Anthropocene.

Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914

Our point of reference in trying to reconstruct the origin of the first world conflict is a book entitled Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012) by Christopher Clark a professor of modern European history at Cambridge. In this book, he maps carefully the complex mechanism of events and misjudgments that led to the war. Its methodological approach is highly innovative and substantive. For Clark, first, we need to consider that the war originated from a very intricate and multilateral political crisis and that we have an oversupply of sources, hundred of thousand pages written on World War 1, most of which are committed to attributing to the enemies the faults of war.

Then, he continues, we need to ask ourselves what is the crucial question to ask: why did the war begin or how it did begin? He invites us to realize that while the “why” question looks for absolute and categorical causes of the war, the “how” question instead looks for the multilateral interaction that produced the war scenario. Moreover, whereas the “why” question is after guilt and responsibility, the “how” question is more oriented toward a broad and open understanding. Even though the two questions can be considered interdependent, for Clark it is crucial that we let the “why” answers grow out of the “how” answers rather than the other way around.

What strikes me in Clark’s approach is the fact that he draws our attention to the “how” question and holds that far from being inevitable this war was in fact improbable at least until it actually happened. In other words, he supports the idea of contingency in the unfolding of the war as opposed to over-determination implicit in the question of “why” the war started. Clark’s approach is highly original as he avoids what most historians do, inserting the question of culpability at the center of the discourse on the war. In this attitude, these historians repeat what was established by the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles in which the victors asserted that German and their allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of the war.

Also, Clark’s approach contrasts the idea held by most historians as they suggest that the pre-war European system had somehow locked itself into a system of alliances from which war was the only way out.  This point of view for him is a form of over-determination. On the one hand, the pre-war European system of alliances included the Triple Alliance that was formed in 1882 between German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It was a defensive alliance. On the other hand, there was the Triple Entente (1907) which included Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. The latter was not an alliance of defense as was formed to counterbalance the power of the Triple Alliance. For Clark the pre-war European situation, notwithstanding this system of alliances, was still very much dynamic and open to different possibilities.

The Triple Alliance as opposed to the Triple Entente in 1914

The war started after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist. This event triggered the July crisis after, on July 23rd, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. This series of events led to the outbreak of World War One. These events include the complex web of alliances that we mentioned but above all Clark insists on the miscalculation that brought many leaders to believe that war was in their best interest; or that a world war would not occur. This combination of factors resulted in a general outbreak of hostilities among almost every major European nation.

The war started in August 1914 by May 1915 every major European nation was involved in it. Christopher Clark concludes that there is no smoking gun in this story; rather there is one gun in the hands of every major character. The war viewed in this light was not a crime but a tragedy. In the last pages of his book, Clark explains why for him the European leaders in 1914 were sleepwalkers: they were watchful, he says, but unseeing “they were haunted by dreams and yet blind to the reality of the horror that they were about to bring into the world” (562).

It could be said that unlike the First World War at the origin of the current war in Ukraine, the smoking gun exists: Russia invaded Ukraine unilaterally. But similar to what happened at the genesis of the First World War, before us we have the unfolding of a tragedy of which the protagonists do not seem aware. From this point of view, all the governments involved and the powerful of the world today closely resemble the sleepwalkers of 1914. However, there is a further difference between the two situations that should be noted. Compared to 1914, the destructive potential of technology has grown exponentially, to the point of contemplating the destruction of the planet with the atomic threat. This makes the actual sleepwalkers’ sleep even more dramatic.

The Italian Front

A confirmation of Cristopher Clark’s analysis comes from the study of how Italy entered the war. In July 1914, Italy still had the possibility of not entering the war or entering it otherwise. Italy still was a partner in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary but decided to remain neutral; at the same time, it developed a detailed military plan to attack France preparing to fight on the side of Germany and Austria.

However, the majority of the Italian population did not want the war which was then imposed from above by Italy’s King and political authorities. Before anything else, it was a media war through which an aggressive and violent minority imposed itself on the majority. A prominent figure in the war propaganda was the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His public speeches were meant to create high tension in the country and collective emotions in favor of the war.

Among the most ardent nationalists and supporters of the war in Italy are the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder, and leader of this artistic and literary avant-garde movement argued that war is the only hygiene in the world and used a particularly violent language during the so-called Futurist evenings to endorse the war.

Frontispiece of F.T. Marinetti, War the Only Hygiene of the World

As is the case today, the manipulation of news and the ability to build and disseminate false information has been fundamental in exacerbating the nationalistic climate, carrying out the military plans, and in consolidating the full support of the internal and external public opinion.

For Italy, the decision to enter the war turned out to be a gamble, fabricated on uncertain geopolitical alliances and unsteady military calculations.

Achille Beltrame – Domenica del corriere 23-30 maggio 1915

During the immediate pre-war years, Italy started aligning itself closer to the Entente powers for economic support; in April 1915, it negotiated with the Entente powers the secret Pact of London by which Italy was granted the right to attain the Italian-populated lands from Austria-Hungary, as well as concessions in the Balkan Peninsula. Subsequently, in May 1915, Italy resigned from the Triple Alliance and declared war against Austria-Hungary.

The will to conquer the status of “great power” in the Adriatic and Balkan area is what drove the Italian King Victor Emmanuel the 3d and the Italian government presided by conservative Antonio Salandra to enter the war. Besides the prevalent conservative forces, there was also a minority of democratic interventionists, like Cesare Battisti, who wanted to liberate” Italian-speaking populations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to emancipate the Danubian and Slavic peoples from what they considered their despotic government. In Italy, the majority of the population and the majority of the parliament were against the war but the opposition to the war was not effective.

The Italian military command (general Luigi Cadorna) rapidly adapts to the new situation which resulted from the fact that Italy had abandoned the triple Alliance in favor of the Triple Entente. However, the Italian army was characterized by unpreparedness, lack of coordination, slowness in carrying out the military plans, miscalculations, especially the idea that the war would last only a few months. The Italian front was called, the Alpine Front (Gebirgskrieg); for the Austro-Hungarian command, it was considered the Southwest Front. For the rest of the world, it was called the Austro-Italian Front.

The strategic plan of the Italian army was based on a defensive attitude in the western sector, where the Dolomites were located, and an offensive in the east, trying to reach the heart of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After occupying the frontier territory, in June the Italians launched their first assault on the Austro-Hungarian fortified positions, lined up along the course of the Isonzo river. The assault was attempted eleven times all of which failed. These are called the eleven Battles of the Isonzo.

In October 1917, the Central Powers carried out their own offense, known as the Battle of Caporetto, in which the Italians were defeated with huge losses. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Driven south after the Battle of Caporetto, the Italian Army was able to regroup and form a defensive line along the Piave River. The Austro-Hungarian Army tried their last offensive of the Great War in June 1918 and failed. In October they were defeated by the Italians in Vittorio Veneto which was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. To conclude, the war on the Italian front was not decided in the battles on the Dolomites mountains. The decisive battles were the battle of Caporetto (1917) in the valley of the river Isonzo and the final battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918).

World War I historiography on the southern front has recently progressed over the bleak picture painted by Christopher Clark. Of course, the commonplaces and negative myths that the conflict’s protagonists have conceived towards their enemies have remained. For example, to the Italians, Austria-Hungary was represented in terms of the eternal oppressor enemy during the conflict. Conversely, to the Austrians, Italy had been designed as an unfair ally and morally condemned. These two stereotypes continue to re-emerge in narratives and reconstructions of the war. Just as the idea spread by Italian propaganda that the opposing troops were in numerical dominance and always better fortified than the Italian ones is hard to die.

However, today there is a historiography that wants to be transnational and overcome the nationalist propaganda extremism that reached the point of arguing that the enemies were completely alien, not even human. A noble example of this kind of transnational, more objective historiography is the volume curated by Nicola Labanca and Oswald Überegger, La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918).

The White War

From 1915, the high peaks of the Dolomites were the area of the widest and most extreme mountain warfare. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers marching in the snow

Austrian soldiers entrenched themselves first in the highest mountains, leaving only the lowest positions to the enemies. For the strategic conceptions of the time, the highest position was erroneously considered an advantage; the valleys were believed dangerous as exposed to shelling and unfavorable to carry out assaults. This concept was in fact contradicted by the battle of Caporetto in the valley of the river Isonzo, won by the Austrian soldiers.

Italy had hoped to gain the territories of the Dolomites with a surprise offensive that was carried out too slowly to be effective. The Italian front soon was transformed into trench warfare, a war tactic that was commonly used everywhere in WW1. In trench warfare, the two sides fighting each other dig trenches on a battlefield to stop the enemy from advancing. Barbed wire fences became part of the landscape very everywhere.

The living conditions in the trenches were terrible. The area between opposing trench lines (known as “no man’s land”) was fully exposed to artillery fire from both sides, creating a situation in which it was possible to die even for friendly fire. Hundreds of deadly assaults on both sides produced no substantial change in enemy positions due to the extreme hardships that the mountain opposed to the advancement of the troops including the landslides that killed thousands of soldiers.

The war transformed dramatically the mountain landscape. For the first time in history, men brought modern technology up the highest mountains building roads, cableways, telephone and electric lines, and accommodations for thousands of troops. Supplying the mountain outposts would prove challenging for both armies. Much of the equipment had to be carried by hand with the help of horses and mules. Delivering heavier loads required mechanical improvisations. Sometimes even mules could not make the trek. Indeed, the destruction of the war affected not only human beings but also animals whose sacrifice is not always reported in history books.

In the winter, the trenches were built with snow and into the ice. The Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, was the site of a year-round “ice-city” where both sides dug into a glacier. The Austrian Corps of Engineers dug an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms—out of the glacier. Soldiers had to drill holes into the ice to place explosives and begin the massive task of digging a tunnel under enemy lines.

A unique element of mountain warfare was the gallery, a man-built cave in the mountain rock serving as a place of relative protection. Variations in the design could turn the gallery into a partly shielded observation, artillery, or machine-gun post. Both belligerent sides had to adapt to the mountain, soon realizing the impossibility of conquering these inaccessible sites. A stalemate soon arose whereby the war then moved inside the mountains, turning into an exhausting war of mines with unprecedented violence that deeply affected the Dolomites landscape, leaving indelible marks. The opposing armies used mines to dig tunnels and galleries.

I briefly recall a famous example before concluding: the Lagazuoi mountain (2,835 meters; 9,301 ft), in the heart of the Dolomites. While the Austrian troops had occupied the crest of the mountain, the Italians attacked from below. From the end of February 1917, the Italians had begun to dig the first tunnels in the solid Dolomite rocks with the intention of surprising the Austrians on the summit of the mountain by blowing up a mine. They had occupied important positions on the side of the Piccolo Lagazuoi including a thin ledge renamed Cengia Martini after the name of Captain Ettore Martini.

The Austrians had already tried twice to blow up the Lagazuoi in order to drive away the Italians, without succeeding. At this point, the Italian soldiers dig a corridor over a kilometer long inside the Piccolo Lagazuoi, working day and night for the construction of a tunnel, two meters high and two meters wide, proceeding at a rate of six meters a day. At the end of June and early July, this unprecedented enterprise was completed and the mine was detonated without producing any substantial change in the war of position between the two armies.

But the mine war had devastating effects on the Dolomite peaks. The most powerful of the Austrian mines detonated May 22, 1917 blew up a part of the wall of the Piccolo Lagazuoi 199 meters high and 136 meters wide; while the mine of 32,664 kilos of explosives detonated by the Italians on June 20, 1917 caused a gigantic landslide still identifiable along the side of the wall just to the east of the cable car that climbs from the Pass to the top (Marco Avanzini and Isabella Salvador). A beautiful 1931 film by Luis Trenker, Berge in Flammen (Mountains on Fire), immortalized the memory of those destructive explosions in highly effective images.

The Lagazuoi Gallery is today the longest gallery of WW1 among those preserved in the Dolomites. The Italian tunnel, 1100 meters long, has been totally restored and equipped with ladders and steel rope.

Lagazuoi Gallery, Photo by Massimo Lollini

The excursion going down the tunnel not only represents an exceptional experience due to its particular characteristics but also offers an immediate synthesis of the extreme difficulties in which the soldiers of both armies operated.

Never before had a war been photographed and represented so systematically through the photographic image. The Italian Army Photography Service included 600 photographers that produced a total of 150,000 negatives. The images were filtrated by the censorship that allow only positive representations of the Italian soldiers that were then published in newspapers and magazines such as l’Illustrazione Italiana.

The images of dead soldiers were prohibited by censorship and self-censorship but death was a daily reality in the trenches and among civilians on the Italian Front; ultimately counting hundred of thousands of deaths on both sides out of the total number of 10 million dead soldiers of WW1.

The traces and remains of some of these dead are inscribed in the Dolomites landscape and even today, when the ice melts, some corpses of dead soldiers re-emerge like the ones you see in this picture.

The bodies of two Austrian soldiers were found on the Presena Glacier in 2012.
Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento

The White War was a period of history frozen in time until the 1990s when global warming started to reveal corpses and relics of WW1. Thousands of soldiers have been killed by avalanches, falling down mountains, or hypothermia. Dozens of corpses, some still in their uniforms, have emerged from the melting ice over the past decades (Leander).

From this point of view, the signs that can be read in the Dolomites landscape are exemplary in communicating the essential fact that the violence done to the environment is destructive and deadly for human beings as well. Their life in wartime does not belong only to human history but to the natural history, to the history of the earth. This is what the images of soldier corpses emerging from the mountains suggest: over time humans remain literally inscribed and buried in the landscape like any other natural element. This is a lesson that must be learned today, in the presence of a war that risks turning into atomic war and global warming that seem to jeopardize the survival of human life on earth.

War, what Leonardo da Vinci called “beastly madness,” highlights precisely the natural and animal elements of humans, their being subjected to the landscape which they claim to conquer. The emergence of anthropogenic residues from the mountains on the one hand makes them available for the historical archive and museum, on the other hand, it helps to recall the existence of an immemorial, geological, and biological past, which precedes the very formation of the human landscape, museums, and archives as we perceive them today. The bodies of the dead soldiers and their opposing uniforms before entering the historical archive belong to the mountain, the landscape, and its geological time that remains looming in the background.

The nuclear risk and the destruction of the planet had already emerged in the consciousness of human beings at the end of the first great world conflict. In those years the Trieste writer Italo Svevo wrote at the end of his novel Zeno’s Conscience, that human madness and disease would disappear from the earth only with the destruction of the planet made possible by a more powerful bomb than all those seen in the first world war:

Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness. (437)

Bibliography

Beltrame, Achille. Domenica del corriere 23-30 maggio 1915 Anno XVII n. 21, Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44184004

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Internet resource.

Labanca, Nicola, and Oswald Überegger. La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918. Bologna: Il mulino, 2014. Print.

Leander, Roet. “Global Warming Is Thawing Out the Frozen Corpses of a Forgotten WWI Battle.” Web. Motherboard. January 15, 2014.

Leoni, Diego. La Guerra Verticale: Uomini, Animali E Macchine Sul Fronte Di Montagna : 1915 – 1918. Torino: Einaudi, 2019. Print.

Map Europe alliances 1914-en.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 1 Jun 2022, 20:34 UTC. 6 Jun 2022, 04:47 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg&oldid=660669963>.

Photos from the Historical Museum of War in Rovereto

Rusconi, Gian E. L’azzardo Del 1915: Come L’italia Decide La Sua Guerra. Bologna: Il mulino, 2005. Print.

Svevo, Italo, and Weaver, William. Zeno’s Conscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.

Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. London: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

Vedere la Grande Guerra. Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano. https://www.movio.beniculturali.it/mcrr/immaginidellagrandeguerra/it/

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Graphic design by Leonardo Lollini

I published this long article in the new issue of Humanist Studies and the Digital Age, that contributes to a better understanding of the future of humanity and the humanities in the age of AI and new information technologies. The first part (“Is there a future?”), discusses the idea of the future in the context of Carl Schmitt’s vision for the spatial revolutions of modernity, and then the idea of Anthropocene, as a synonym for an environmental crisis endangering the very survival of humankind. From this point of view, the conquest of space and the colonization of Mars at the center of futuristic and technocratic visions appear to be an attempt to escape from human responsibilities on Earth. The second part (“AI and other hyperobjects”) discusses the extent of intellectual hubris expressed in computation, AI (Garvin Minsky e Ray Kurzweil), and the philosophy of computing and information (Eric Fredkin), involved in the elaboration of new theoretical assessments on the ultimate nature of reality. Their vision is then contrasted and made to interact with that of philosopher Timothy Morton. He has taken the perspective of global warming and the possibility of ecological catastrophe seriously, avoiding all the futuristic enthusiasms and instead emphasizing the radical nature of the transformations that humans experience in the present. In this perspective, AI becomes one of the “hyperobjects,” like the Internet or climate change, in which humans are immersed. Morton’s hyperobjects delineate an uncanny view of the future; this uncanniness is not related to the supernatural but to the environment.

The third part (“More-than-human-humanism”) further reflects on the “uncanniness” that human perceive in the encounters with the manifestations of hyperobjects. It also seeks to understand the human position in the face of the radical technological transformations induced by cybernetics and AI. This section discusses Anti-humanism, Transhumanism, and Posthumanism within the broader category of more-than-human thought, which seems to be a more appropriate term to clarify the possible misunderstandings induced by the word “posthuman” and “transhuman.” The central question is not to empower (Transhumanism) or disempower (Posthumanism) humans, but to see them in relation to what is not human, including other animals, the environment, and the machine. The analysis considers the works of Cary Wolfe, Jane Bennet, Bryant Levi, among others, and introduces ethical debates on cyborgs, robots, and Autonomous weapons systems (AWS). The fourth section (“Ethical Perspectives”) continues this inquiry, concentrating on the non-standard ethical theories of Luciano Floridi (Computer and Information Ethics) and David Gunkel (The question of the Machine). It examines the opportunity and feasibility of including in the discussion on the ethics of our time – characterized by the pervasiveness of AI – the notions of consciousness as theorized by Emmanuel Levinas’s Humanism of the Other and Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another.

Finally, the last section (“The time of the end?”) reflects on how the hyperobject, Anthropocene, re-establishes a sense of limits in human history and confirms the special responsibility of human beings, and supports the need for a more-than-human-humanism. The latter, in other words, means intertwining ourselves with a unique ecosystem which cannot be overlooked and which restores meaning to our relationship with the past, present, and future. The awareness of the current challenges of technology can and must express itself in different forms of resistance to the adverse effects of AI in our lives. The ethical approach based on the persisting role of human consciousness is essential, but it must be coupled with human decision-making and political action.

The complete article can be read and/or downloaded at this link.

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La Luna di Kiev
by Gianni Rodari

Chissà se la luna
di Kiev
è bella
come la luna di Roma,
chissà se è la stessa
o soltanto sua sorella…
“Ma son sempre quella!
– la luna protesta –
non sono mica un berretto da notte
sulla tua testa!
Viaggiando quassù
faccio lume a tutti quanti,
dall’India al Perù,
dal Tevere al Mar Morto,
e i miei raggi viaggiano
senza passaporto.

senza passaporto”.

The moon of Kiev
by Gianni Rodari

Who knows if the moon
of Kiev
it is beautiful
like the moon of Rome,
who knows if it’s the same
or just her sister …

“But I am always the same!
– the moon protests –
I’m not
a nightcap
on your head!

Traveling up here
I light up everyone,
from India to Peru,
from the Tiber to the Dead Sea,
and my rays travel
without a passport.

without a passport “.

Transl. ML

*Image from Adobe Stock. Education license. Roman bridge and fortress of the Calahorra Tower, Cordoba. It is a bridge in the Historic center of Córdoba, Andalusia, southern Spain, built in the early 1st century BC across the Guadalquivir river.

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The reading of Dirty-boy – a myth of the Native American Okanagan– allows us to briefly analyze the religious conception of Simone Weil in the second part of the post, The Great Revelation. The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a remarkable thinker and activist who speaks to the complexities of our times. She defies the usual religious categories and remains one of the most interesting spiritual figures of the twentieth century.

1. Dirty-boy

The moon had taken on the aspect of a decrepit old woman in rags and the sun that of a dirty boy, with his face covered with scabs, disgusting. They had come down to earth to overcome the resistance of the beautiful daughters of the Okanagan leader.

Paul Nash, 1889-1946. (1924). Sun and Moon. [woodcut]

They had rejected all the young men that her father had proposed to them in marriage. To win the chief’s daughter, Dirty-boy must participate in two skill competitions.

In the first, he has to hit an eagle in flight with an arrow, and in the second, he has to show his ability to capture an animal that lived in the mountains and was quite rare in those parts.

Dirty-boy wins both contests, despite never having used a bow and arrow and being unable to walk.

Everyone had made fun of him, and the boss had done everything possible to prevent that lousy boy from becoming the husband of his daughter. But now, he too had to yield to the evidence and give the girls in marriage to Dirty-Boy.

On their way to their future husband, the elder daughter stopped by Raven’s house and eventually decided to become the wife of the eldest son of that family. Like all the other Ravens, he was ugly and had a big head; but she thought it better to marry him than to become the wife of a dirty, sickly boy.

The younger daughter went on, entered Dirty-Boy’s lodge, and sat down by his side. The moon-old woman asked her who she was and why she had come. When the old woman had been told, she said, “Your husband is sick, and soon he will die. He stinks too much. You must not sleep with him. Go back to your father’s lodge every evening, but come here in the daytime, and watch him and attend him.” 

Frida Kahlo (1942). Portrait of Lucha Maria, Girl from Tehuacán (Sun and Moon).

Frida Kahlo (1942). Portrait of Lucha Maria, Girl from Tehuacán (Sun and Moon).

The younger sister paid no attention to the elder who was making fun of her with her husband. She returned every morning to help her grandmother-in-law gather firewood and attend to her sick husband. 

For three days, matters remained this way. In the evening of the third day, Sun said to his sister, “We will resume our true forms tonight so that people may see us tomorrow.” That night they transformed themselves. The old mat lodge became a fine new skin lodge…

The old woman became a fine-looking person with a tall figure, clothes covered with shining stars. Dirty-Boy became a young, handsome man of light complexion. His clothes were covered with shining copper. His hair reached to the ground and shone like the rays of the sun.

When the girl arrived, she was much surprised to see the transformation. The moon-woman addressed her in a familiar voice, saying, “Come in and sit with your husband!” The girl then knew who she was.

When she entered, she saw a handsome man reclining, with his head on a beautiful parfleche. His garments and hair were decorated with bright suns. The girl did not recognize him and looked around. The woman said, “That is your husband; go and sit beside him.” Then she was glad. 

Sun took his wife to the copper kettle which stood at the door. It contained a shining liquid. He pushed her head into it, and when the liquid ran down over her hair and body, lines of sparkling small stars formed on her. He told her to empty the kettle. When she did so, the liquid ran to the chief’s lodge, forming a path as of gold dust. He said, “This will be your trail when you go to see your father.” (Thomson, 120-124)

Anonymous Artists. (circa 1481). The Paths of the Sun and Moon

2. Simone Weil and the great Revelation

This myth of the North-American Okanagan, which I have partly recounted and partly quoted from Thomson’s Tales of the North American Indians, is one of the mythological tales analyzed by Simone Weil in her Cahiers d’Amerique. Unlike her teacher Alain, for whom myths are a creation of the human spirit, Simone Weil argues that myths are a metaphor for divine truth: “The foundation of mythology is that the universe is a metaphor of the divine truths” (First and Last Notebooks, 191).

Simone Weil (1909–1943)

For Simone Weil, divine truths are inscribed in the universe, and it is necessary to recognize them. Her conception of mythology appears to be linked to her religious conception, which emphasizes similar spiritual needs in all humans regardless of their spatial-temporal location.

After the rapprochement with Christ, the desire to verify the universal character of the Gospel led her to dedicate a large part of the research on mythology of the last years of her life (1940-43) to the identification of elements similar to the story of Christ in the different mythologies. Simone Weil’s religious conception is based on the idea of ​​a “Great Revelation” according to which God and the “supernatural” are everywhere if only we can recognize them.

For Weil, all humans of all times have access to this “Great Revelation;” between them and God, there is an abyss that can be bridged thanks to the work of different forms of mediation and mediators. In myths, these mediators take the form of divine incarnations for the benefit of humanity. The incarnation is combined with the idea of ​​suffering endowed with a spiritual value both in the form of redemptive suffering and in the form of suffering that allows access to “supernatural knowledge.”

A group of myths studied by Simone Weil in the “Great Revelation” perspective concerns the search for humans by God through the descent and the incarnation. At a certain point in the myth, the seduction of the soul by God occurs and thus leaves a sign of its passage on earth. Simone Weil is not interested in the considerable difference between the gods of ancient Greece, the cosmological beings mentioned in American Indian myths, and the historical figure of Christ. What interests her is the common essential symbolic structure of stories and myths that are very distant and different. In all these myths, as in the Greek myth of Prometheus itself, Simone Weil sees Christological figures, mediators who allow access to the supernatural.

In this light, Simone Weil also interprets the myth of the “Dirty-boy” of the North American Okanagon. For her, that myth is a myth of Incarnation and Redemption. The Sun and the Moon, once incarnated, had lost consciousness of their divine character. After all, in the sky, there was always a sun because there were days and nights. But above all, it seems remarkable to her that the chief’s young daughter must have rejected all her suitors before the sun came down to earth for her sake.

Simone Weil sees an image of Christ connected to a myth of Resurrection also in the custom of the North American Indians of not breaking the bones of animals killed in hunting and eaten to allow their resurrection. She also suggests a biblical parallel in the practice of not breaking a single bone of the paschal lamb. She points out that the bones of the slain animals were thrown into the water, which was considered a factor of resurrection, as will later happen in baptism.

In another post on this blog, the Pale mountains, we applied Weil’s ideas to a Ladin myth of the Dolomites. Here we have a divine image of the moon in the form of a princess who comes down to earth to reign with a prince who is in love with her.

The divine female lunar figure in the ancestral knowledge of many peoples, including the Greeks and the peoples of the Mediterranean, plays a mediating role between the extreme poles of life and death, indicating the possibility of rebirth and fertility in the perseverance of the life cycle. This is what the Greek myths relating to the lunar deities such as Hecate and Artemis speak of. The female deities of the earth such as Demeter and Persephone are connected to them and speak of the same vital cycle. The interpretation of Simone Weil emphasizes in these myths their prefiguration of Christ, the divine mediator who has imposed himself with Christian culture. As she writes in Letter to a Priest,

“All the mediator-gods, comparable to the Word, are lunar, bearers of horns, lyres or bows that evoke the crescent (Osiris, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, Zagreus, Eros, …). Prometheus is the exception, but in Aeschylus, Io is his counterpart, condemned to perpetual vagabondage as he is to crucifixion, and she is horned. (It is worth remarking that before he was crucified, Christ was a vagabond—and Plato depicts Eros as a miserable vagabond). If the sun is the image of the Father, the moon—perfect reflection of solar splendor, but a reflection that we may contemplate (i.e. gaze on), and which suffers diminution and disappearance—is the image of the Son. The light is then that of the Spirit” (292).

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Remembering Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21, 2021 …
One brief poem from his collection Eternal Enemies:

DEFENDING POETRY, ETC.

Yes, defending poetry, high style, etc.,
but also summer evenings in a small town,
where gardens waft and cats sit quietly
on doorsteps, like Chinese philosophers.



Photo by Massimo Lollini

Bibliography

Zagajewski, Adam, and Clare Cavanagh. Eternal Enemies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print, p. 69.

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I present here some reflections initiated by a re-reading of Manzoni’s novel that I have completed in recent months during the outbreak of the Covid-19. Is there anything that this novel written two centuries ago can teach us today at the time of this Coronavirus? This question came to my mind when I realized that narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 in chapters 31 and 32 of The Betrothed, Manzoni reveals political, social, and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Coronavirus contagion. In this perspective, I thought, the reading of this 1630 story could become a mirror to look at what we can hardly see in our present.

The 1840 edition of The Betrothed also included the History of the Column of Infamy, published as an appendix, and illustrations created by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin; Manzoni himself selected these images for publication. I am using some of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco for the Biblioteca Braidense in my presentation.


The contagion in the Betrothed 

Manzoni sets his novel during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. In chapter 31, he recounts the plague contagion’s origin and how the population experienced it. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague:  

Francesco Gonin, Allegory of the Plague

The contagion was brought to Lombardy by the German troops allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Tribunal of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. Still, political and medical leaders did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.

The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities they should take care of the plague because he had “more important things to think about.” Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was issued only when the plague had already entered the city, provoking thousands of deaths and the lockdown of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto.

Another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers favored the contagion’s spread. They could not renounce the public display of their powers’ symbols even in the epidemic’s lethal time. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for Prince Carlos’s birth, King Philip IV’s firstborn son. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all,” Manzoni writes.

On the other hand, Cardinal Borromeo, pressured by public authorities, authorized a solemn procession through the streets, invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city.

Francesco Gonin, The procession

The following day, however, as Manzoni underlines, the disease’s deaths increased dramatically due to the faster spread of the infection through the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.

We witnessed a similar situation in early 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19. We saw the irresponsible refusal to admit the contagion’s existence by various countries’ political authorities, including permission to hold political rallies, sports events, and religious services, despite the danger represented by the multiplication of contagion opportunities. The reappearance of similar irrational and irresponsible attitudes in the middle of the 21st century is disconcerting, especially when compared to times when science and the media had not yet provided the elements for a more sophisticated perception and analyses of the contagion.

Given the public authorities’ dismissing attitude, in 1630 Milan, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. The people became angry and protested against the health authorities when they started requiring quarantine and confinement to the hospital. Then, began what historians call “conspiracy syndrome,” of which there are ample examples in the past and, as you know, in our present. This syndrome arises from the obsession with imaginary hidden enemies that would cause evil and destructive crises. This fear triggers aggression, violence, illegality, and the imposition of a state of exception.

Thus, Milan’s people started believing that particularly dreadful humans caused the plague, the untori, anointers, or plague-spreaders. Driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies, they would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy items. In this image, you can see how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral where some thought they saw people in the cathedral greasing a floorboard, as Manzoni writes.

Francesco Gonin, Anointers in the Cathedral

This other drawing represents what happened in the church of St. Anthony, where an older adult prayed a little on his knees and then dusted the bench with the hood because he wanted to sit down. Mistaken for an infector, he was savagely beaten and taken to the police, where he was tortured. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, The old man beaten in the Church of St. Anthony

Foreigners, especially French people but also Spaniards, were suspected as such to be responsible for the conspiracy and the spreading of the plague. People often would beat them in the street and considered them dangerous enemies of the homeland (16). This is what happened to the three young French people represented in this drawing by Gonin. (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, Three young French comrades

Similarly, today in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been the object of gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere. Not to mention the conspiracy theories we hear about and the rise of racism and xenophobia that has affected the Asian Pacific population in the United States since the pandemic began. 

In seventeenth-century Milanese society, the opinion that in the end prevailed set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delínquent plot instead, with the only intent of preparing for a disorder, robbery, and looting. Some Milanese people were identified as untori by the citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion. Under torture, they admitted being guilty of something for which they were not responsible. Consequently, they were sentenced to death.  

The trial and conviction of the untori anticipated in chapter 32 of the Betrothed are at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy. I analyze the latter in another publication. Here I focus on some ethical reflections that Manzoni develops in the plague chapters.

Language, ethics and compassion

First, he expresses concerns about the use of language. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to create false statements, escape from an unwanted reality, or build an “alternative reality” to avoid personal or public responsibilities. This attitude is hazardous if we consider that, as Foucault writes

“… when humans remain alienated from what happens in their language being constrained by economic and social determinations without feeling at home in the real world, they live in a culture that loses any sense of objectivity and makes pathological forms possible at all levels of society.” (Michel Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology).

Manzoni describes the process with great precision that leads to the alienation from language and reality, starting from the outbreak of the plague. At first, the political and medical authorities prohibited using the word plague and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, they admitted the idea of the disease only indirectly in the adjective. He adds,

“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction. But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (The Betrothed, ch. 31).

In recent months, we have witnessed the same linguistic denial process with the definition of Covid 19, first, as a kind of “flu;” then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu. Finally, for some political authorities, the virus became a “Chinese virus,” altering and confusing the meaning of a word that they could no longer suppress.

The general reflection on the hazards of the use of language that Manzoni develops is particularly important. It is worth pondering it with full attention. He writes that in defining

“… little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language to define the contagion) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking.” The Betrothed, ch. 31.

In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political and religious powers and their supportive crowds in using words as propaganda, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Still useful advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.

Manzoni’s recommendation is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing good and evil, but on ethics that makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. Indeed, trying to explain the scarce practice of critical attention in the use of language, he concludes by saying with some irony,

“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).

In short, he is suggesting that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier, and therefore widespread, than comparing and thinking critically. Thus, to some extent, one should excuse all human beings and, therefore, the writer himself for their mistakes. Thinking critically for Manzoni also means distinguishing between, on the one hand, human and historical truth and, on the other, eschatological, eternal truth, to which human beings have only limited access. For this reason, in his Observations on Catholic morality, Manzoni wrote that human beings never must make truth triumph. (8)  

“… human beings may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph.” 
A. Manzoni, Observations on the Catholic Morality, “To the Reader.”

In this statement, I see a theological reformulation of ethics of truth as it emerged at the origins of Western philosophical discourse understood as an endless search for wisdom. Once he has established the distinction between historical truth and theological truth, Manzoni undertakes to transcend it in a continuous and restless movement of references to one element and the other without ever reaching a definitive synthesis from their dialectical collaboration. In this perspective, Pierantonio Frare has defined Manzoni as a writer of restlessness. I argue that from this restlessness comes his need for continuous reflections on language use, which should be considered a form of ethics of writing. 

On the one hand, Manzoni underlines the difficulty of communication at all levels, and intellectuals’ responsibility. On the other hand, he points to the ease with which people using language in an uncontrolled way can contribute to unpleasant misunderstandings and violent discrimination in society, eventually ruining the lives of individuals and entire social categories. Let me provide a few examples of this ethics of writing. First, I would like to mention a memorable narrative sequence from Chapter XXVII of Manzoni’s Betrothed that stages the problem of communication from a distance

It is no coincidence that this sequence constitutes a turning point in the novel because from this moment on, Manzoni inserts Renzo and Lucia’s love story into a broader historical and tragic context—famine, the war for the Mantua succession, and finally, the plague. Separated from Lucia due to Don Rodrigo’s threats to prevent their marriage, Renzo intends to communicate with her. Still, since he is illiterate, he must hire a letter-writer. At this point, Manzoni comments that those who know the art of writing and depend on it are bound to misunderstand their interlocutors being unable to give faithful expression to their thoughts and sometimes even their own ideas. Then, he adds 

“… it even happens to us who write for a press.”

Manzoni points out the difficulties and limits implicit in written communication in general and literary writing for print. By extending his writing ethics to scribes and modern authors alike, he also addresses intellectuals’ responsibility in social communication. Indeed, he recognizes here the pitfalls of intellectual statements that claim to speak in the name of illiterate people. A problem that, for his own admission affects his novel as well. This problem is also alive today as, not by chance, there still is talk of a profound rift between the intellectual elite and the people. Today, by moving away from the world of handwriting and printing towards an ever more pervasive and fast digital writing, quite often, we have done nothing but multiply the communication difficulties reported by Manzoni.  

In light of today’s problems, Manzoni’s work reveals surprising, insightful, and far-sighted attention to the sociolinguistic elements that structure otherness’s marginalization. Like any great novel, as Bakhtin suggests, Betrothed also includes multiple languages ​​and a diversity of social speech types. The language of power that excludes in Manzoni’s novel is not only the cumbersome Latin of the clergy (Don Abbondio) and the legal profession (Dr. Azzeccagarbugli) in the service of the powerful. The language of the empire, Don Ferrer’s Spanish, which deceives and dominates the crowd, also finds a significant space in the macrostructure of power. On the other hand, a local Italian dialect, which affects and discriminates against migration, also acts in power’s microstructure. 

This form of discrimination is what Renzo experiences in chapter XVII; when to survive the economic disasters provoked by the war, famine, and plague, he decides to migrate to the province of Bergamo. In the absence of an Italian state, this meant migrating from Duchy of Milan under Spanish rule to Venice’s Republic.

Here he is forced to suffer the offensive slur baggiano (blockhead) with which Bergamo’s population called the Milanese migrants. Even in these sociolinguistic observations that testify to micro-aggressions against migrants, Manzoni’s novel reflects a current situation and problem. Our culture is often unaware of the terrible possibility that linguistic offense –alienating humans from reality– can lead to violence and destruction. 

The most resounding example of this dreadful possibility is the use of the word untore. The process of clouding of conscience that prevented the various social actors from identifying the plague is further explored in the analysis that Manzoni conducts in the historical appendix. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that the contagion of the soul, of the human conscience is at the center of his investigation. With few exceptions, this contagion involves practically all people, including the two women who identified Guglielmo Piazza as an untore only because he had touched the wall of a house with a hand. Manzoni writes that the word untore, already full of what he calls “deplorable certainty” passed without checking or correction from the street people’s mouth into that of the judges.

Francesco Gonin, Caterina Rosa identifies an alleged untore

Faced with the threat of the plague, everyone has silenced their ethical conscience and forgotten the meaning of justice; everyone only saw what they wanted to see and eliminated any rational inquiry by surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. Manzoni concludes, 

“… fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate.” History of the Column of Infamy, ch. 1.  

Reason and charity well express the two primary sources of Manzoni’s culture, rational Enlightenment and evangelical culture. Reason and charity are for Manzoni what can control the irresponsible use of language, avoid obscuring conscience, and stop the violence. Charity, that is, the recognition of the other in his most immediate and urgent needs, is what can make human conscience re-awake, bringing it closer to that reality that was previously stubbornly and selfishly denied. 

Noble examples of this charity are the Capuchin friars who died with joy at the Lazaretto assisting the sick with the plague, responding directly to the extreme condition of their pain. The Capuchins did not remain prisoners of the lies about the epidemic in the collective madness that had taken Milan.

Gonin, The Lazzaretto

At the extreme levels, this madness revealed the dark areas of the human soul in the gratuitous and obscene violence of the monatti. These were people sentenced to death, prisoners, appointed by the municipalities to transport the sick or corpses to the hospital. They quite often saw the plague as an occasion for a macabre carnival feast.

Francesco Gonin, Renzo on the wagon of the monatti

 The Capuchins are not as concerned about defining the plague as doctors, intellectuals, and politicians. They are concerned only with responding unshakably to the dire consequences of the epidemic, and in this way, with a gesture of radical altruism, they regain a sense of reality. 

I cannot help but note that even today, at the time of Covid-19, the contagion’s reality often denied by some politicians, newsmakers, and ordinary people alike, was witnessed and recognized only in the reports of the front-line workers of the hospitals. They have faced their duties as caregivers tirelessly and heroically. In their compassionate gestures, they also helped re-establish contact with the language, reality, and a world where one no longer feels stranger but a participant in becoming a healer. Here then is how, in Manzoni’s writing, the plague, from an allegory of evil and madness that grips human bodies and souls, paradoxically becomes a cognitive apparatus revealing an authentic human condition, the bare life of suffering. As Artaud wrote in his The Plague and the Theater,  

“… the plague, is beneficial because it impels us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall and divulging our world’s lies, aimlessness, meanness and even two-facedness. It shakes off stifling material dullness which even overcomes the senses’ clearest testimony, and collectively reveals their dark powers and hidden strength to humans, urging them to take a nobler, more heroic stand in the face of destiny than they would have assumed without it.”  Antonin Artaud, The Theater and the Plague

Bibliography

 

Artaud, Antonin, and Victor Corti. “Theathre and the plague” in The Theatre and Its Double. London: Alma Classics, 2014. Print. 9-22.

Bakhtin, M M, Caryl Emerson, and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. Mental Illness and Psychology. Foucault. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.

Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource. 

Frare, Pierantonio. La Scrittura Dell’inquietudine: Saggio Su Alessandro Manzoni. Firenze: Olschki, 2006. Print.

Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.

Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.  

—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print. 

Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.  

 

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