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Translated by Margherita Bogat
University of Denver
Vol. 15 Fall 1980
MEETING MONTALE Translated by Margherita Bogat
Some say that Montale has no philosophical ideas, some interpret his long silences as an absence of thought and feeling. Yet the sobriety of his words, the moderation of his gestures, the absence of emphasis, do not mean want of feelings or of ideas.
His cautious abstention is real: it is made up of misanthropy and prudence. The will to say yet not to say, the reluctances of one who fears (even without warrant) becoming involved, prevent him from excessive reliance on his own truths as ways of reaching understanding. The need to speak about things which do not belong to him, things not read - although not trite - and all that comes from an external world, obliges us to proceed through a labyrinth of voices that hinder our dialogue.
Montale has coined and transcribed many ideas. To those who are unaware of that, I think it is right to respond with these two conversations; for these make clear his way of thinking and his lucid, coherent, unornamented logic. However much we have become accustomed to virulent and facetious artistis, why should we not accept a poet who has always been wise?
Many of us know and admire Montale as a poet. But the measure of Montale the man is often mistaken, even by those who approach him with sympathy. It is very easy to portray a personality like Montale's, but more difficult to accept it: his little enthusiasm
for others, his difficult silences and difficult resumptions.
One cannot call him an agreeable man. Often, to those who meet him, he may seem hostile: this is his mask, his defense, perhaps his habit. He has been accused of using the weapons of the powerful, of intimidating, of being reticent in expressing personal ideas (perhaps because of his moderation - surely not out of fear). Those who have read him know that his way of feeling presents no mysteries.
His political stance is cleary anti-Fascist - and it has always been the same, ever since
the time when that stance carried some risk: anti-Fascist without his falling into polemical positions or irritating extremes, without any need to prove anything, for his beliefs are not of recent date.
His is a Christian-yet-anti-dogmatic religion; he has a way of seeing the intervention of the Absolute in things with almost a pagan eye, of finding in religion an area of logic and not of belief. When his conversation - interrupted by his brief, sometimes malicious, laugh - gets too involved, it breaks off - for fear or having gone too far, of having given himslef away, or from shyness, reluctance, or a certain sense of uselessness in overexplained ideas. I have often heard him say: if they would popularize less, if fewer people were concerned with culture, how much ignorance would remain inoffensive. But the way things are, you give the ignorant a weapon. "Four opinions gathered up, a little heap of minor notions, and that's the level. A mass-ified erudition." Erudition as an end in itself, reading too much and badly , frighten him: he knows what kind of emptiness is hidden behind false learning. He reads what he likes; he talks about what he likes; he does not want to please; he is not forever straining to give the best of himself.
To go to his home, to see him, to talk about everyday things, means to discover a dear parson. Yes, like all things difficult, Montale has to be discovered with simplicity; when he faces an inquisitive person, he draws back like a hedgehog. When he is sure of the one who faces him, then he likes to speak: cheerful malevolences, playful words. His is a humanity that his visitors, scrutinists of poets, should take into consideration. They are not able to speak , as he does, about useless or pleasant matters; instead, they keep him constantly unde fire. After all, how can anyone who is playing the role of the committed intellectual, forego a citation, renounce a commonplace, when facing the great poet?
And Montale puffs, smokes, and bears it all patiently.
At your age, Montale, I should send all those provocateurs to hell. Above all, because, as you said, they put a hex in you.
ANNALISA CIMA Xenofilia is a bourgeois disease, but it also affects intellectuals. When Italians talks about literary tradition and the literary essay, their theories are often in absolute contradiction. Some seem to feel that Anglo-Saxon criticism is superior to our
EUGENIO MONTALE English critics have an essay tradition that is certainly superior to ours, but their essays are not strictly literary.
If you read Matthews Arnold's famous preface to Wordsworth, you will find a stupendous essay, but if in that same preface you were to look for criticism in a philological sense, you wouldn't find anything like that. In fact, I should say that Arnold is almost a hundred years ahead of his time - he's almost a Crocean, a critic for whom the written text has only relative importance. For Croce, poetry is in the heart of the poet - whether or not he bothers to write it, matters little.
But that's not true, not true at all: if one sets about writing, that inner phantom changes. At time it changes sex, age, weight, measure, flavor,odor.
ANNALISA CIMA I, too, am for embodied art: the unpainted picture, the unborn poem, lend themselves mystification.
But aside from the just motive of wanting to give birth to a work so that it not remain an abstraction, an illusion, today there is a widespread epidemic that we can call the imperative of easy popularization. Thought and ideas have given way to information as an end in itself , an end which is out of proportion with the content which is to be made
And that abuse provokes a misapprehension of the work itself; the external vestment, the least worthy part, acquires unwarranted importance.
No sooner has one brought an idea into focus, transformed it into artistic action, than it is already obsolete.
EUGENIO MONTALE…ideas have become like articles of daily use: one puts them on and one takes them off at the first shift in style. The muliplication of sciences and technologies is directly related to the disappearance of ideas. It is clear that poetry and the novel will not be able to keep abreast of things except by producing works totally devoid of ideas and immersed only in the unconscious. Some will say that the renunciation of ideas is also an idea - the idea that valid ideas do not exist. But this is rather meager support for the production of an art that, after eighty and more years of the newest new "isms", doesn't even have the distinction of novelty.
ANNALISA CIMA But it's hard to believe in something unless it is strictly connected with the progress of technology, since almost all the ideological structures that sustained art for centuries have now been found wanting. These ideological structures have been shattered by new doscoveries, by more valid affirmations; they have been undetermined by the very events that tested them.
EUGENIO MONTALE If many young people do not believe either in Marx or in the God of the Christians and not even in the God of liberal democracy or of the United States of Europe (or in other hypothetical divinities), they could at least believe in the possibility of expressing themselves in forms that aren't contraband.
ANNALISA CIMA Art and especially painting and sculpture now live off novelty or - better - what seems to be novelty, because people ignore the documents of the past. Artists seem to apply the progressive method of science to the field of art, with esperiments that move well beyond that which the esthetic sought in art. The technique of science has contamined the techinque of art; and the artist is led to justify every experiment by calling upon a methodology that doesn't belong to him. Art is asked to forego its own esthetic value and yet is unable to assume social and psychological values. To repeat objects in experimental forms, forms that are not technically perfect, is a compromise imposed by the critics and submitted to by the artists. In addition, so far as the taste for novelty is concerned, that can be satisfied even if the object itself is already worn out. There is a danger in reproducing things in art that belong to another world: the consumer world. A tin can, a typewriter, any kind of object, is re-presented, susbstitued for itself, under another name. The artist is a consumer in a supermarket, where he finds objects for which he reinvents a name. That function of the artist has certainly weakened the value of art and led certain clairvoyant critics to claim that art is dead.
EUGENIO MONTALE Our time has rendered art so immediate as to destroy it.
ANNALISA CIMA And for the future?
E.M, Arti will align itself on two levels: a utilitarian, almost sporting-event art for the masses of people, and a true and proper art.
Our duty - as so-called intellectuals - is to see that part of the better past survives into the future. The most significant voices will be those of the artists who can make heard - by way of their isolated voice - an echo of the fatal isolation of each of us. Only these great isolated personalities give meaning to an age - and their isolation is more illusory than real. What is important now is not to let oneself be gulled by the Philistinism of the falsely modern, by the constant substitution of means for ends in art.
ANNALISA CIMA This incapacity to differentiate between the components of the work of art, to the point where means and ends are confused, may be the result of what the twentieth century has labeled "alienation".
EUGENIO MONTALE The philosopher and sociologist who has used the term "alienation" most in these years is Adorno: Adorno's training was Freudian and Marxist. And according to a rather widespread opinion, man's present alienation is to be seen in relation to the capitalistic phase of industrial civilization. But I'm convinced that there is also a natural alienation - although alienation can, in some measure, be modified by the will of the individual. I am equally certain that the nefarious effects of a machine civilization (whether that civilization is regulated from on high or from below) can hardly be naturalized in an overpopulated world.
ANNALISA CIMA I'd agree that alienation is not only the result of capitalism; in fact, the same negative effects are produced by the machine age in countries given to anti-capitalist forms. Progress has disoriented us; we have lost our potential. Under so stressful a mental regime, man has broken down. The new world that he himself has created encumbers him.
EUGENIO MONTALE Even at birth, the new man, through his heredity, is already too old to support the new world. Our present conditions of life have still not been able to wipe clean the slate of the past. We run too much but still stand still. In other words, the new man is still in an experimental phase.
Today, like yesterday, man works and seeks diversions; but his work is the work of a gear in a contraption, and his leisure is laborious.
Today's man looks but does not contemplate, sees but does not think. Once work is done, he cannot be alone whit himself; he needs - in any way whatsoever - to "do something" to fill the emptiness from which he would defend himself.
There is not leisure here: there is haste, flight from time, from responsibility, from historiy.
ANNALISA CIMA Such alienation is nourished by the absence of pauses, of intervals, by an ingorance of life as lived contentedly day by day. Alone, facing the problems of nothingness and of survival, man seeks a supernatural prop, a return to religions.
EUGENIO MONTALE For those who confront nothingness or eternity, only one possibility exists, only one possibility is thinkable, tangible, evident, as infinitely dear as it is close to slipping away from us: the life lived here, the life that we ourselves have seen, known, and touched with our hands from the earliest years of childhood.
ANNALISA CIMA For me, the intrinsic atheism of that conception is preferable to the alienation of those who feed on false beliefs, on magic rites, on the exacerbation of the ritual component of religions - those who emphasize the lesser, the scenographic parts of religion. This need for idols can be attributed to the need to communicate, even if only in a symbolic way. It is part of the struggle against the worst flaw which results from our alienation - its incommunicability. But between magic and incommunicability, we will reduce ourselves to a world of beings who are silent - and not because they are meditative.
EUGENIO MONTALE The habit of and the capacity for conversation, in which the human being, the anachronistic "individual" attempts in some way to affirm himself, has almost disappeared. Congresses, rencontres, debates and symposia on highter an lower levels, the festival with a more or less cultural purpose, allow legions of specialists to feel themselves as existing without their having to take on any particular responsability.
The Congress of intellectuals is the most successful attempt so far to cast discredit on the caste of men who pretended to think with their own minds. Its apparent purpose is to carry out an ideological massage (for heaven's sake, not a message!) of those who attend the Congress, giving them the illusion that the world has need for them.
EUGENIO MONTALE It has occurred to me that after a poem has been translated from one language to another, one might then have a second translator translate not from the original but from the translation; that done, a third translator might translate from the second translator's translation, a fourth from the third's, a fifth from the fourth's - repeating the operation some hundred times. This is an experiment that UNESCO could carry out at modest cost, no more than a few thousand dollars; it would be very useful for culture. Then one could compare poem No. 1 to poem No. 100 to see what was left. I think that absolutely nothing would remain.
ANNALISA CIMA That's an amusing idea; at the very least it avoids ambiguity, one would know in advance that one would be reading oneself without recognizing oneself. And who knows, for certain poets, there might even be some advantage in this procedure.
Those translators who err through wrongheaded interpretation don't have any doubts or fears. But doubting is useful, very useful. However, doubts and rears often occur for the wrong reason, through a lack of personal opinions or because of inadequate language.
EUGENIO MONTALE Once language is seen as nothing more than practical, as a utilitarian sign, that is, once language is made to stammer, conversation becomes useless. At that point, the affirmation of opinions that presume to crystalize the flux of life in one sense or another becomes ridiculous.
ANNALISA CIMA In that way, communication, which is the only way to escape from the anguish of this age of ours - so dear to us and so tormented - breaks down.
And this age is dear because we live it even as we suffer its insufficiencies - above all, its scrawny means of communication.
Everything is swift; in a few hours, one can be in Rio, in San Francisco, but it is impossible to understand those who stand elbow to elbow with us.
Perhaps it's because communication has need of time, of silences, of inflections, of calm, and not of exhausting speed.
By now personal vocabularies have been reduced to little more than a hundred words, and these can be learned from manuals that teach us how to learn languages quickly. But is this learning? Is it not rather a not-wishing-to-think, out of fear? The fear that we have not resolved - not even now, when everything is easily solved - the why of our anguish.
EUGENIO MONTALE The problem of communication is anything other than insoluble on the level of daily life. One can communicate not ideas but facts and needs through the art of the sign, of the allusion, with the use of particular codes: and the science of visual communications pretends to that.
ANNALISA CIMA But we're still left with the problem of the communication of ideas.
EUGENIO MONTALE There was a time when ideas could be communicated because men of learnig, with the help of religion or of some positive philosophy, were still men with opinions. Above all, one could communicate then because unlearned men were kept outside the circle of thought.
Those who were authorized to think were few; the bomb of thought was guarded by rare specialists who had no interest in seeing that it exploded. Today the bomb has exploded and even the illiterate suspect that their ignorance has as much value as the most audacious learning.
Thus a modern figure emerges - one who, while refusing and deploring everything, prospers and grows fat on the ruins of a world that is presumed to be in chaos.
By demonstrating that language is a fiction empty of any content, that man has arisen by chance out of nothing, and that his true vocation is notingness - by destroying the very hypotheses of any possible art, an artist today can acquire extensive fame and be supported by the very bourgeois world that he detests.
Man aspires to chaos - but without renouncing comfort, without renouncing a margin of physical safety.
We have never had so many means of communicating, and never had means so easy or so irresistible.
But the important thing is, that among these means the word has been sacrificed - because it had this flaw: it was not polyvalent enough - and it claimed some lasting truths. The communication industry would be undetermined if its means of expression laid claim to some duration in time.
ANNALISA CIMA That's the heart of the problem: the industry involved in the communication of objects that last briefly but are understood easily. And these easily undeststood objects must attract the mass media who are the direct consumers of these objects.
EUGENIO MONTALE It is enough to have frequented some public gathering places (a beach or a recreation center, a cafe or a drawing room) to realize that conversation - that little bit of conversation that still exists - is completely dependent on the so called "mass media".
One is no longer dealing with the average man but with man without any distinctions of level or of class.
The problem born of the mass media will be one of the most important problems of the future.
Today this problem can be stated thus: because we cannot eliminate this hundred-headed monster (publicity, brain-washing, the automation of men who believe themselves free, the substitution of the sign for language, the intense manufacture of ever more useless new needs, the progressive poisoning through pseudo-cultural drugs which are absorbed by men without their being aware of what they have absorbed), we can only disintoxicate the world, render it somewhat less offensive.
ANNALISA CIMA Rapid progress, the demystification that carries with it a period of uncertainty, and our lack of preparation for a world that surprises us through the speed of its mechanisms have created inevitable voids. Perhaps these cultural voids were long since present, but they were less naked. Now one follows the current, the bestsellers appears, and everyone buys it - only because there is no longer time to choose, because choice has been overwhelmed by relentless work-movement.
EUGENIO MONTALE He who buys the bestseller fulfills his duty as a good citizen who helps production, but if he wants to fulfill his duty as a consumer, sensitive to new needs, he must also get rid of the book quickly; in no way, however, is he obliged to read the book.
ANNALISA CIMA The problem of this artistic consumerism consists precisely in the denial of the consumer's authority.
The consumers of books, and this is already happening, will be the writers themselves. It will become a closed circle. Then, perhaps, silence will be the only valid means of communication.
Artists will probably be divided into three categories: those who will not write at all, maintaining that, by now, writing is so much a mode of consumption that it contradicts the very concept of art; those who will write increasingly more incomprehensible works, creating a language for initiates; and those who will speak for the many, always writing bestsellers.
EUGENIO MONTALE It is curious that England, the only country that has produced a modern philosophy of language, has arrived at such a disturbing conformity. The true language becomes that which is spoken by the man in the street, language which reflects good sense, common sense. The problem of consciousness is banished as anti-philosophical. That done, things are what are they are, defined by the words we normally use, and behind things, behind man, there is no need to search for anything.
ANNALISA CIMA Exactly the opposite of the avant-garde position in Italy. For our avant-garde, language becomes always more rarified, more incomprehensible. It remains to be seen whether our way is a blind alley that will lead to long silences.
At the same time, the results of the philosophy of ordinary language are also doubtful.
EUGENIO MONTALE In the beginning, ordinary language philosophy seemed a new and disconcerting revolution, a useful disavowal of idealism with its panlogism. One had the impression that the philosophers had finally decided to put their feet on secure ground. The illusion was brief. The philosophers only wanted to get ahead professionally and to leave all the doors open. In this, they were faithful followers of the omnivorous and accommodating and polyvalent idealism moribund by mow - but never truly alive - in England.
ANNALISA CIMA Panlogism, that is, the Hegelian concept that establishes an identity between the rational and the real, undoubtedly assumed different aspects in England from those that our panlogism assumed. Perhaps the English proceeded to demonstrate the identity between the rational and the real via a negative method. And thus, their position was already different from ours. This is why you just said that idealism was never really alive.
EUGENIO MONTALE I don't want to be over-provocative: I am not proposing any artistic mysticism, I don't rebel against contemporary historicism, in which I too was educated, I recognize without difficulty that where historicism has not penetrated, artistic and literary criticism does not reach the level of the best work that Italy has produced.
And yet I must note that the enlightened concept of art that belongs to the modern world coincides with a crisis of the very historicism that made that concept possible. One cannot go backward, one must wait for idealism to become more profound by devouring itself. Above all, one must wait (in art) for the transformation of the aesthetics of the lyric. The aesthetic of the lyric arrived late in Italy, but it has been more rigorously applied in Italy than elsewhere because here it banished psychology from the world of art.
With the failure of the aesthetics of feeling (Gentile's aesthetic) with the failure of his false actualism, our recent aesthetics has fallen back on earlier points of departure.
ANNALISA CIMA For Gentile, to have defined art as feeling only meant the reduction of art to unactual thought, that is, unrealized thought.
Today, on the contrary, the concept of art as construction dominates in an absolute sense.
For us today, art does not originate only in Spirit (as Hegel had conceived it), but in a mode of construction conditioned by the technique of its matter: we make invention coincide with production, idea with realization.
EUGENIO MONTALE Art is thus the creation of objects that did not exist before, it is no rational language. Reason (according to Gilson) ingathers the work of art when that work is completed, when it has become an object; reason can no longer ingather art in its becoming.
ANNALISA CIMA The way I see it, externalization is very important. But just think for a moment of what Italy would have been without the premises of Croce in art - what a disaster and, above all, what exacerbation, in the opposing sense, what danger in the cult of the irrational, of the ego, we would have encountered.
EUGENIO MONTALE Italy is without a doubt the country in which the cult of the irrational, the exacerbation of the ego, the theory of art as pure magic, suggestion, or allusion - in sum, all that we label with the overworked term "decadence" - did least harm.
Whatever part of these theories crossed into Italy has changed its aspects. It has become more temperate and more true here. And after so many trials, Italy still remains a country more human than humanistic.
The gift that Italy can give to Europe by maintaining this direction is great. If Italy remembers to remain, even in art, an ancient, civil, and Christian land, without any hankerings after the easy crown of neobarbarian stammerings an confusion. The question still remains: why has art become so impossible today, while it was not impossible when men did not pose the problem of freedom?
Hegel has given us the reasons for that in part, but his reasons belong in a scheme of progress from fantasy to reason, a scheme that we find difficult to accept today.
ANNALISA CIMA This balancing act between the excesses of one and the other theory, this rejection of mistaken things, whatever their source may be, this is the attempt to create a new culture.
The difficult thing today, in fact, is to resist being swept away by excesses that are soo readily at hand for those who have confused ideas and a meager patrimony of personal judgements.
In so much confusion, those who cry out with the joy of life are few. Those for whom the sole reality is that the world today is losing both love and joy while life flees from us.
We live in a world of the traumatized: tedium is the presumed basis of everyhting. Typical are those who are unrealized and who, on the social plane too, retard any possible progress.
EUGENIO MONTALE I see nothing but faces ravaged by a tedium that has nothing of the existential about it: it is the fruit of a supine acquiescence in all of the worst aspects of our time - a time that, after all, was made by us.