Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Posts from the ‘Mediterranean’ category

This is an essay published in  Ecocritical Approaches to Italian Culture and LiteratureThe Denatured Wild Ed. by Pasquale Verdicchio. Lanham-Boulder-New York-London: Lexinton Books, 2016. 1-30.

In my essay I first address the documentaries that Vittorio De Seta shot in Sicily between 1954 and 1955 to document, with a certain urgency, the work of peasants, tuna-fishermen and sword-fishermen, in a world that, as he clearly perceived, was about to disappear in the late 1950s. De Seta shows how both the peasants of the land cultivating wheat and the fishermen – whom he calls “contadini del mare” (peasants of the sea) fishing for tuna or swordfish in the open sea – had found meaning and purpose in their life and sought their realization by means of manual labor. Their relationship to the sea and the land, partially mediated by rudimentary tools, was at the same time intensified by a corporeal and physical immersion in the natural element.  I complement the brief analysis of three of these documentaries – Lu tempu di li pisci spada (Time of the Swordfish, 1954), contadini del mare (Peasants of the Sea, 1955) and Parabola d’oro (Gold Parable, 1955) – with a reading of Tuna fishing, an essay by great Sicilian writer Vincenzo Consolo who recently died.

In the second part, I briefly focus on De Seta’s new documentary filmed for Italian Television in 1980, La Sicilia rivisitata (Sicily revisited). This documentary bears witness to the dramatic ecological and cultural consequences of the ruins of the peasants’ and fishermen material culture. I parallel the filmic analysis with a reading of The ruins of Siracusa, an essay by Consolo, another great witness to contemporary Sicily in our globalized world.

The third, longer and last part of this essay shows how De Seta’s documentaries and Consolo’s essays can be considered late expressions of a Mediterranean humanism that has its deep cultural roots in ancient and early modern times in the works of philosophers such as Pythagoras, Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico among others, that are still relevant to contemporary environmental debates on the search for a sustainable human relationship to the environment.


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The Letter to my land by Roberto Saviano is in some respects an important model of contemporary environmental short story, articulated into multimedia forms and aware of the impact that the environmental issue has on the culture and ethics of a civil nation. In my presentation I  analyze the evolution of this letter-essay-short story from the written version to the television version entitled From Inferno to the Beauty that was a special of the television program Che tempo che fa, hosted by Saviano together with Fabio Fazio. Che tempo che fa is an ongoing television talk show hosted by the Italian television host Fabio Fazio since 2003. My thesis is that this development in the story gains in communication effectiveness, formal articulation and wise aesthetic elaboration, through the recovery of the essential forms and dynamics of popular oral narrative. The story is presented as Saviano’s report and witness to the devastating consequences of the degradation of the Mediterranean landscape around Castel Volturno, a town in the province of Caserta in the Campania region, about twenty miles northwest of Naples on the Volturno River. The presentation  concludes with some reflections on the ethics of the landscape and the role of ecocriticism in the context of rethinking humanism in a direction “more than human”, which in other words takes into account the interdependence of human life with all the living universe.

I emphasize two aspects that emerge from the story he recounts in the Letter to my land and in the expanded television version of it. On the one hand, the hellish intersection of violence against human beings and violence against the environment; so it becomes clear that any project of real restoration and redevelopment of the area that would safeguard the respect and the fundamental value of the landscape would produce a very significant added value, by contributing to reduce the violence of the Camorra that continues to dominate and pillage this land. The other important aspect that emerges in Saviano’s account is the substantial role of ecocriticism in rethinking humanism in a direction “more than human”, which takes into serious consideration the interdependence of human life with all of living universe. Saviano tells us that the construction of the first eco-monsters of the Villaggio Coppola destroyed the pine forest and then creating windows not facing the sea but within the village prevented the recognition of the face of the landscape and the authentic beauty of the sea, marking a further step in the degradation of the environment no longer perceived as an integral part of culture and civic life.

The critical reflections triggered by Saviano’s letter bring to mind the words of Piero Calamandrei in 1944 in the face of environmental and human destruction caused by the War World II. In his famous discourse L’Italia ha ancora qualcosa da dire he wrote:

«Quello che più ci ha offeso è stato l’assassinio premeditato delle nostre città, dei nostri villaggi, delle nostre campagne, perfino del nostro paesaggio. Voi lo sapete che in Italia… ogni borgo, ogni svolto di strada, ogni collina ha un volto come quello di una persona viva…”

“What hurt us most was the premeditated assassination of our cities, our villages, our countryside, even our landscape. You know that in Italy … every village, every turn in the road, every hill has a face like that of a living person … ”

and added

“Mai come in questi mesi in cui sui bollettini di guerra cominciavamo a leggere con un tremito i luoghi della Toscana, abbiamo sentito che questi paesi sono carne della nostra carne, e che per la sorte di un quadro o di una statua o di una cupola si può stare in pena come per la sorte del congiunto, o dell’amico più caro».

“Never before like in recent months in which on the war bulletins we began to read with a quake the places of Tuscany, we felt that these countries are flesh of our flesh, and that for the fate of a painting or a statue or a dome one may be worried as for the fate of a spouse, or friend most dear. ”

The invitation of Calamandrei to recognize the face of the landscape was then translated into the Article 9 of the Italian Constitution, which states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” In a different historical context, that nonetheless as the post-war period is characterized by the destruction of human beings, cultural heritage and environment, Roberto Saviano, as Piero Calamandrei 60 years before, invites the Italians to feel the landscape as flesh of their flesh and to continue to recognize the beauty of its radiant and marine face.

*Excepts from “Roberto Saviano’s Letter to My Land” a paper presented by Massimo Lollini at the  Annual Conference of the PAMLA, Portland, Oregon, November 7, 2015.


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Massimo Lollini presented a paper entitled “Sicilian Ruins from Vittorio De Seta’s Documentaries to Vincenzo Consolo’s Citiscapes” at the  Common Knowledges Symposium 2014, Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Culture, the Environment and Labor on Wednesday May 14, 2014 at the University of California in San Diego.

 De Seta shows how both the peasants of the land cultivating wheat and the fishermen – whom he calls “contadini del mare” (peasants of the sea) fishing for tuna or swordfish in the open sea – had found meaning and purpose in their life and sought their realization by means of manual labor. Their relationship to the sea and the land, partially mediated by rudimentary tools, was at the same time intensified by a corporeal and physical immersion in the natural element. Lollini complemented  the brief analysis of three of these documentaries – Lu tempu di li pisci spada (Time of the Swordfish, 1954), I contadini del mare (Peasants of the Sea, 1955) and Parabola d’oro (Gold Parable, 1955) – with a reading of “Tuna fishing,” an essay by great Sicilian writer Vincenzo Consolo who recently died. In the second part of his talk Lollini discussed De Seta’s new documentary filmed for Italian Television in 1980, La Sicilia rivisitata (Sicily revisited). This documentary bears witness to the dramatic ecological and cultural consequences of the ruins of the peasants’ material culture. Lollini paralleled the filmic analysis with a reading of “The ruins of Siracusa,” an essay by Consolo, another great witness to contemporary Sicily in our globalized world. Finally, in his conclusion Lollini considered how De Seta’s documentaries and Consolo’s essays are relevant to contemporary environmental debates on humanism and the search for a sustainable human relationship to the environment.

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Poetic geography and more than human humanism

In my recent research I have introduced the ideas of poetic geography and “more than human” humanism as they emerge in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. I have insisted on a new understanding of Vico’s humanism in contrast with the exclusive and reductive attention given by most scholars, including Erich Auerbach and Edward Said, to Vico’s synthetic epistemology, the verum ipsum factum principle, that leads them to neglect important analytical and genealogical dimensions of Vico’s philology, losing the productive interplay between philology and philosophy so characteristic of Vico’s thought. In their interpretation, Vico’s philosophy is reduced to a pervasive historicism and perspectivism. They maintain that Vico identifies history and human nature and conceives human nature as a function of history. Auerbach even suggests that the word natura in some crucial paragraphs of Vico’s Scienza nuova, such as 346 and 347, should be translated as “historical development” (“Vico and Aesthetic Historicism” 118).

While I concede that Vico’s philosophy tends to blur the distinction between “original nature” and “human institutions,” I nevertheless disagree with Auerbach when he states that such distinction is “meaningless” for Vico (“Vico and Aesthetic Historicism” 116). Auerbach’s and Said’s readings pay attention exclusively to the creation of human institutions, whereas Vico considers how the relation to nature also plays a role in the formation of human beings and human culture, as part of the complexity and interconnectivity of life, resisting acritical historicization and reduction to purely human paradigms. The theoretical implications of my approach to Vico’s humanism and making of history lead to a new understanding of Auerbach’s idea that “our philological home is the earth” (“Philology and Weltliteratur” 17), one in which philology and philosophy in a genuinely Vichian fashion return to interrogate not only the historical institutions but also their relationships to earth, sea, and the natural environment as a significant part in the formation of humanity. Thus, in my essay, I use Vico’s idea of “places of humanity” as the driving force of a new humanism, one that is “more than human,” and has larger implications for the study of literature and the ways in which we read texts that are usually centered on the human subject conceived as the only driving force of literary production.

The expression “more than human,” in ecocritical and eco-philosophical studies, was introduced by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) where he argues that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human” (The Spell ix). The notion of a “more than human” humanism has been also developed by Serenella Iovino in her volume Ecologia letteraria (67-70) and in an essay entitled “Ecocriticism and a Non-Anthropocentric Humanism” (47-50). In this article she makes the case for a new humanism, an “ecological humanism,” one that rejects the dualism of humanity and nature conveyed by traditional and historical notions of humanism. In the same perspective, Louise Westling speaks of a “green humanism” as a new form of intersubjective humanism (3). Drawing on my previous essay on “Vico’s more than human humanism” (2011), the present article enters into a productive dialogue with Abram’s and Iovino’s theorizations by showing how Vico’s idea of poetic geography may nurture and reinforce a relational idea of humanism that is so important in environmental philosophy and ecocriticism. Vico’s philology is not limited to the culture of the book or to the world of nations but starts literally in the forests and includes an obscure time, the fabulous beginnings, in which humanity is not completely formed and is exposed to and deeply conditioned by the natural environment that encompasses all living forms (Vico, New Science 202, 361).

There is a significant convergence between Vico’s idea on the origin of language and that of the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous suggested, in passing, the originality of Vico’s idea of language as an anticipation of Merleau-Ponty’s (76). Like Vico, Merleau-Ponty radically distinguishes his ideas from those of Descartes. For both Vico and Merleau-Ponty Descartes’s philosophy—as summarized in the famous “Je pense, donc je suis” (IV)—has detached the conscious subject from the world that is given in experience, and created the illusion that humans completely make the nature that is given to them (Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie x). By refusing what he calls the “conceit of scholars” (New Science 124; 126) and pointing to an originary, pre-cultural, and unspoken element about the relation of humans to nature, Vico anticipated Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the intercorporeality originating human relations with nature (Merleau-Ponty, Nature 216-26). Vico’s poetic language and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of perception do not refer to a process by which human consciousness knows nature and the “external world” as neutral, separated, or as “objects” essentially distinct from a “subject.” Poetic language and perception, on the contrary, are behaviors affected by the body, not as an observer but as a living and active corporeal entity, participating in the life of nature. In this way, humanity emerges not as a substance, and essence, “an imposition of a for-itself on a body in-itself,” but as an interbeing, as an event in which the body is interposed in the circuit of the world (208-09).

Angus Fletcher in his A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination recognizes the importance of Vico’s idea of poetic creation of the human world as a continuous dialogue and confrontation with the natural environment. While Vico speaks of “poetic geography,” Fletcher introduces the idea of the “environment-poem” that “bridges the gap between the opaque thingness of nature lying ‘out-there,’ and the philosophical and scientific access we gain by developing terms, formulas, explanations, and theories of the order and meaning hidden within that opaque nature” (12). Fletcher even suggests that we can understand what Whitman means when he writes that “The United States are the greatest poem” only if we know Vico (97). Whitman seems to share Vico’s idea of a general poetics by which civilization comes into being. Whitman follows the new idea of truth implied in Vico’s verum factum principle, that we know only what we have made (150, 172), in a way that is inclusive of and gives voice to the natural environment. “This verum factum principle governs the making and exfoliating of Leaves of Grass as an evolving body of accumulating text” (172) that functions only as (and in) process, precisely because it expresses the complex network of natural and social relationships of a porous poetic voice.

Vico’s “poetic geography” can be fruitfully associated with contemporary ideas such as Fletcher’s “environment-poem” and Barry Lopez’s fundamental statement of the relation of mind and place; a relationship where the interior landscape of the human mind is influenced if not shaped by the exterior landscape constituted by the specific region inhabited (Lopez 64-65). Moreover, Abram’s idea of language as not exclusively human product articulated in his recent Becoming Animal (2010) finds an exemplar antecedent in Vico’s philosophy and philology. Abram’s ask, “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world—as shuttering reply not just to other of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?” (Becoming 4). Vico develops a similar argument in his New Science. For him the language of the first human beings was neither self-contained and original nor self-determined but it emerged out of imaginative reactions to external stimuli triggered by the natural environment which is given to humans and in which humans participate (444). Finally, in Vico’s philosophy there is no trace of that epistemological hubris that according to Bateson is at the origin of the ecological crisis of our time, one in which human beings rule as autocrats over the environment neglecting the mutual dependence of mind and nature and leading to the degradation of the entire supreme cybernetic system (Steps to an Ecology of Mind 478-487).

The  essay “Sardinia: the “Greatest Poem” and its Maritime Face” that I have published in Ecozon@ (Vol.4, No2) shows how Vico’s important and neglected notion of a relational, non-exclusively human humanism based on a deep listening of and response to the natural environment is still alive in the works of Grazia Deledda and Salvatore Satta, the founding writers of Sardinian poetic geography. In his essay I focus on how these writers perceive Sardinia and the Mediterranean as constitutive of a sense of identity in which land and sea, history and nature intersect in inextricable circles. The Sardinian writers of younger generations, such as Alberto Capitta, Giulia Clarkson, Marcello Fois, and Giulio Angioni, are also considered in “Sardinia: the “Greatest Poem” and its Maritime Face” as a further level of Sardinian poetic geography, one that faces the flattening, homogenizing forces of contemporary capitalist globalization.

I close this brief synthesis introducing the notion of “face” included in the title of this essay. I do not consider the “face” only in “humanist” or intrahuman terms as it happens in Levinas’ idea of “face-to-face” encounter with the Other. On the one hand, I have in mind Vico’s metaphysical idea of conatus that sees the presence of a divine drive toward infinity not only on the face of the other and/or in human institutions but also on the “face” of the sky, and more in general the places of humanity and the natural environment. On the other hand, I utilize the immanentist notions of “visage” (face) and “visagéité” (faciality) developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as correlative of “paysage” (landscape) and paysageté (landscapity) (A Thousand Plateaus 167-192).

The complete essay can be read at the following link:

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