Dialogues with Pavese: John Picchione

Cesare Pavese is a writer who leads us through the complexity of reality: read more in our interview with professor John Picchione.

John PicchioneProfessor John Picchione teaches Italian literature and culture at York University in Toronto, Canada. His research interests include modern and contemporary Italian poetry and narrative, avant-garde movements, literary and cultural theory. He has contributed to books, encyclopedias, and journals, such as Novecento (Marzorati), Encyclopedia of World Literature, “Il Verri”, “Strumenti critici”, “Studi novecenteschi”, “Otto/Novecento”, “Letteratura italiana contemporanea”, “Forum Italicum”, “Italica”. He is the author of La scrittura, il cervello, e l’era digitale (Edizioni Università di Macerata, 2016); Dal modernismo al postmodernismo: riflessioni teoriche e pratiche della scrittura (Edizioni Università di Macerata, 2012); The New Avant-Garde in Italy: Theoretical Debate and Poetic Practices (University of Toronto Press, 2004, awarded the 2005 Book Prize of the American Association for Italian Studies), and Introduzione a Antonio Porta (Laterza, 1995). He is the editor of I discorsi della critica in America (Bulzoni, 1993) and the co-editor of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology (University of Toronto Press, 1993); Italian Literature in North America: Pedagogical Strategies (Biblioteca Quaderni d’Italianistica, 1990); and Edoardo Sanguineti: Literature, Ideology and the Avant-Garde (Legenda/Maney Publishing, 2013). As for Pavese, he selected the texts and edited the critical profile in Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry; he also published the article “Pavese in Canada: esperienze didattiche”, in Un viaggio mitico – Pavese intertestuale: alla ricerca di se stesso e dell’eticità della storia, ed. by A. Catalfamo, Santo Stefano Belbo: I Quaderni di CE.PA.M, 2006. 

In the article “Pavese in Canada: esperienze didattiche” you mentioned the didactic role of Pavese writing that many students of Italian-Canadian descent found in Anguilla someone who, like their relatives, emigrated to America. In 2018, I was invited to a panel in Toronto for the Week of the Italian Language in the World and panelists discussed how to involve new students because their ties with Italy are disappearing. Do your students still like Pavese?

There is no single answer to this question. It exceeds the study of Pavese, in as much as it involves the present condition of literature and culture in general. The situation has deeply changed: societies controlled by global capitalism and new technologies are undergoing a cultural and anthropological reconfiguration that expresses an impoverishment of the humanistic model and its values. The literary-humanistic canon, conceived as a guide for the formation of the individual and for collective identities within the boundaries of the Nation-State, has been marginalized. Moreover, we are witnessing an enormous contradiction: in the exact moment when digital technologies ease the access to the literary archive, the archive itself is struggling in producing new interpretations of the world. Nowadays, the collective imagination has been colonized by the new technologies, and the media culture disperses the voices coming from that archive, reducing the relevance of its interpretative instruments, the dialogical and value components that used to constitute the space within which the intellectual and the educational formation of young people – and not only them – took place. It is within this scenario that we must reflect on the departure of young Canadians of Italian origin from the culture of emigration, nowadays blurred into the mainstream culture. Anguilla’s condition, which was read not as a displacement of being but as a displacement of the immigrant, loses its emotional and memorial relevance. We also must consider that Italy’s images built by the cultural industry – food, fashion, design, tourism – are bombarding their psyche and they have penetrated the center of their desires. Pavese is a writer who forces us to face the existential demons of everyday life and does not belong to a culture of quick disposals and immediate gratification. There are for sure exceptions, but today it has become more difficult to teach even writers like Leopardi and Montale. Occasionally a student confesses: “I don’t want to read them; they make me sad and I want to be happy”. 

In 1990 you edited, with L. Pietropaolo, Italian Literature in North America: Pedagogical Strategies. How can Pavese be considered a good approach to the Italian language for foreign students?

That volume, which collected the proceedings of a 1989 conference held at York University, aimed to update the critical methodologies within a pedagogical context. We started from the premise that there existed a gap between the research conducted in the field of literature and the way it was taught at the university level. Teaching was essentially still tied to traditional approaches focused on content and history. For this reason, the essays in this book proposed a didactic application of structuralism, semiotics, linguistics, deconstruction, sociology of literature, hermeneutics, and psychoanalysis. The objective was to propose pedagogical tools that could prepare students for a more dynamic and articulated dialogue with the literary texts. Compared to those years, the cultural changes that I mentioned request updates of the didactic practices, especially when considering that the typical student, at least in Canada, possesses lower and limited linguistic skills. For this reason, I think it is necessary to organize more debates within the discipline of Italian Studies in order to confront adequately the challenges of teaching Italian literature in North America. As for Pavese, students should be encouraged to examine the topics of his poetry and his novels in order to break away from the irrelevance of contemporary cultural values and develop the necessary antibodies to face maturity: “Ripeness is all”, as Pavese reminded us by citing this celebrated epigraph taken from Shakespeare. From a linguistic point of view, Pavese is perfectly appropriate for the teaching of Italian. His writing relies on linear syntactical constructions and on a lexicon of everyday life, which can be considered a linguistic impoverishment from a literary point of view. Moreover, colloquialisms and regional expressions present in his prose are useful to introduce foreign students to the local stylistic registers of language and to the extraordinary variety of spoken Italian compared to the standard forms. In a comparative perspective, students can be motivated to carry out interlinguistic analyses, comparing these features of Pavese’s language to the English literary equivalents found in American writers from whom he draws particularly through his work as a translator.

In Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology (1993), which you edited with L. R. Smith, you inserted Pavese in the section “Poets of Realism and Ideology”. What are the reasons for this choice, considering that Pavese declared his disinterest for politics and his poems never refer to this topic?

Pavese created and anticipated a form of narrative poem which is present in poets belonging to a younger generation assembled in the anthology. Poems like I mari del Sud, Pensieri di Deola, Atlantic Oil, Estate di San Martino clearly show this tendency, which undoubtedly remains Pavese’s fundamental contribution to the renewal of poetic language. The creation of characters who inhabit concrete situations within the everydayness of life as outcasts, or as social derelicts, cannot be interpreted solely from an existential standpoint. It is firmly linked to a political gaze on the times, on the conditions of alienation in urban settings (workers, prostitutes, drunkards), on the hard work observed in the countryside of the Langhe where marginalized farmers labour in the fields. The narration, constructed through the lens of realism, is subjected to the archetypical transfiguration of the mythical dimension, but it does not contradict the innovative impact of the forms based on narrative poetry. Moreover, novels like Paesi tuoi, La casa in collina, Il compagno, and La luna e i falò encompass a political dimension centered on issues like the dramatic conditions of disadvantaged social classes, political commitment, and coeval ideological conflicts. Pavese is politically tied to the anti-Fascist culture. When compared to the lyricism, the language of preciousness, the aesthetics of opacity, and the analogical-metaphorical language, all dominant in those years, it becomes apparent that in Pavese the encounter of poetry and prose, as a form of narration, represents a unique experience within the poetic culture of his times. Placing his poetry in the section of the anthology devoted to realism and ideology, and selecting texts with this perspective, does not deny the lyrical dimension of his poetry, present in his first and particularly in his last collections. The problem is this: critically, the lyrical poems of Pavese are considered neither for their formal relevance nor for their poetic experimentation. They serve as elements of Pavese’s framework as a writer. If they are examined, independently, in themselves, they are much less convincing from a critical standpoint. Within the poetic styles of the first half of the twentieth century, Pavese’s narrative poetry is much more relevant than its lyrical component. It established a poetic style that will develop in the aftermath of the Second World War with poets such as Pasolini and Pagliarani.

Some scholars have recently discussed whether Pavese belonged to Modernism. Which could be the future directions of research to maintain the relevance of Pavese in the global literature?

In my book Dal modernismo al postmodernismo I claimed that literary practices of modernity can express notions of truths exempt from contradictions or others related to a human subject constructed as an expression of authenticity. They are all prospected as possibilities and never as absolute conquests. Modernism is characterized by tensions towards another possible world, but it also shares the dramatic and tragic dimension of the present. The problem arises when the “post” of postmodernism is not identified with an “after” (as in Lyotard’s position), but with postmodern moments identified within modernity. Aimed at delegitimizing truth, knowledge, and universality, postmodernism celebrates relativism and unresolvable antinomies, the destruction of every foundation, and the excitement of a post-humanist and post-Enlightenment culture. These tendencies try to adopt the postmodern paradigm in a transhistorical perspective. They try to provide new readings through postmodern postures of literary works in which the principle of contradiction is not totally extinguished, or the real is lived through doubt or illusion. According to this approach, it is not impossible to read Petrarch in a postmodern perspective: a man suffering of acedia, unable to remove dichotomies and contradictions from his life. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that these antinomies are experienced through melancholia and tristizia, and not as celebration of liberating differences. Moreover, postmodernism constructs incautiously and unfittingly a modernity that relies on a stable human subject which can be subsequently deconstructed with ease. So, talking about Pavese I think that his oeuvre cannot be detached from the modernist angst and a sense of the tragic. Within the area of modernism, it expresses the reaction to the material and psychological conditions of late modernity. Excluding the Futurist faith in technology and urban development, modernism conveys a critical distance from modernity, and manifests tensions and conflicts that are inherent to all of Pavese’s works. It is impossible to identify a form of modernism tied to the notion of progress proposed by the Enlightenment, or to a subject relying on stable certainties. Pavese experienced the painful awareness of the never-ending changes and estrangement from reality, the failed connection between the self and the other, the loneliness, the fleeting of time, the flow towards an individual end, the fears for a collective history without an easy redemption. The mutilation of the future is characteristic of all the literature of late modernism. In The Great Gasby (1925), Fitzgerald depicts a present haunted not only by an irrevocable past, but also by a burned future. The “valley of ashes” is the emblem of a modernity whose dreams and plans dissolve, personal myths and social hopes unavoidably burn. The exhaustion of individual and collective projects, transfigured in smoke and ashes, corresponds to La luna e i falò, although partially softened by the mythical timelessness of repetition and of the eternal return of the same. Similar perspectives can be found in a novel like The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner. The investigation of the connections between Pavese and American literature was triggered mainly by the activity of Pavese as translator of great books of that narrative produced during the first decades of twentieth century. This field should be investigated further, beyond the affinities centered on realism. Indeed, I do not believe that the connections between Pavese’s literary topics and the mythical transfiguration of narrative events within the canon of realism of European literature have been adequately studied.

You published La scrittura, il cervello, e l’era digitale (2016). Some social reading experiments on Twitter, organized by Tw Letteratura (#LunaFalò e #Leucò), focused on Pavese. How can digital tools be employed to make social networks users approach Pavese?

In that pamphlet I strongly criticized the digital technologies employed for didactic purposes. I tried to show how the new technologies are disrupting linear logic, sequential thought, and the analytical skills developed by the culture of the alphabet.  Technology is not a tool that we employ and that allows us to remain independent from it. I referred to the notion of “Gestell” as elaborated by Heidegger that defines technology as the horizon within which we encounter the world and, consequently, ourselves. I could also add the sharp reflections of Günther Anders: the problem does not reside in the abuse of technology, but in the ontology of technology, which subjugates us, enslaves us by transforming humans into an appendage. Despite some distinctions, Marshall McLuhan expressed similar positions. The interiorization of the new technologies provokes a reconfiguration of the neuronal system and narcotizes the human subject, which is now affected by a variety of pathologies: dissociative disorders, attention deficit, and depersonalization. Social networks cannot be considered outside the entertainment and recreational dimension within which they were produced. We are suffering from an overload of information, which provokes the simultaneous and indiscriminate coexistence of opinions, all of them merging into the melting pot of relativism. For many aspects, we live in the age of the so-called post-truth in which we consume and commodify all forms of communication. For these reasons, I do not think that social networks could generate a healthy encounter with literature. In fact, it is because of their effects that literary and humanistic culture have been pushed towards peripheral areas. Concentration, silence, internal dialogue, and reflection are necessary to read literary texts: Pavese’s work, most importantly, needs to be chewed very slowly. He invites us to face the most dramatic situations of life: solitude and displacement, social disillusionment and precariousness of human relationships, disintegration of history, the annihilation of time and the attempts to recover the cycle of the mythical repetition of being. If didactic practices fail in connecting with these issues, the solution cannot rely on digital media. Ruled by disembodied processes, anonymity and the acceleration of speed, they will not succeed in finding a solution to the cultural conditions of our times. This is not a judgement of the specific cases mentioned in your question. I have doubts about these projects when they are directly related to the technological environment that I mentioned before. Nevertheless, from a qualitative point of view, I must admit that, as with everything else, there are differences in the quality of new technologies as well. Still, the problem is a structural one: it is a form of communication linked to a specific system. School should remain the vital center of cultural changes. Today, it is buried by that system and it risks turning into its copy, deprived of autonomy, unable to generate creative strategies different from the computer hypertext.

Un Pavese ci vuole: I used this misquote from The Moon and the Bonfires for a series of web interviews with Pierluigi Vaccaneo, director of Fondazione Cesare Pavese. Seventy years after his death, is Pavese still necessary?

Yes, he is. He is even more necessary in times like these. Nowadays, the dominant cultural tendency is to block existential questions and conceal human finitude. Distractions and desires constructed by the mediatic power of global capitalism cause the repression of everything that might provoke angst and emotional distress. On the one hand, the result is an infantile subject deprived of meaningful experiences of life and, on the other, there is the constant need for medicaments made of electronic dazes, drugs, and superficial gratifications for self-entertainment. The choking of deeply human interrogations and the lack of substantial meanings of life make necessary the reflections offered by a writer like Pavese. His work compels us to face our finitude and impermanence, the absence of a “house” of being and the disappearance of the other which inevitably shape our existences. Pavese forces us to confront the injuries inflicted by time, marked by loss and destruction, the sense of an ending that sets on fire both the present and the past. At the same time, he reconnects us with the human archetypes of the eternal and the unchangeable, which are what endures beyond our individual lives. Solitude and the need for communication, the dimension of nature and human rites, historical events, individual and social reactions, are all themes of Pavese’s poetry and prose. For young students especially, they represent a precious stimulus necessary for dealing with the issues of our contemporary world and for questioning values and social stereotypes.

Interview by Iuri Moscardi 
Cover image: Ernesto Treccani, “Il valino” (detail)


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