For our themed column on Pavese’s contemporary criticism, Iuri Moscardi interviewed scholar Nino Arrigo, whose research focuses on myth related to literature and the arts.
Nino Arrigo received his PhDs in English and Anglo-American Studies, and in Methodologies of
Philosophy. His research focused on myth related to literature, arts, and its presence in the late
modern society. Until 2018, he had been a scholarship recipient at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Enna Kore. Since that year, he has been promoted to full professor.
He published many essays, he collaborates with the journals Sinestesie, Rivista di Studi Italiani, and
Letteratura & Società. He is the co-director of the series In-between spaces: le scritture migranti e la scrittura come migrazione for Edizioni Sinestesie. Among others, he published the two volumes Herman Melville e Cesare Pavese. Mito, simbolo, destino ed eterno ritorno (2006) and La balena nelle Langhe. Mito ed ermeneutica nell’opera di Herman Melville e Cesare Pavese (2017).
When did your fascination for the works of Cesare Pavese start? Was it related to any specific reasons?
I was still a student in the Department of Humanities at the University of Catania and I was beginning to think about the topic of my degree’s thesis. My interests were in Comparative Literature and the study of literary topics and myths. The books by Pavese were extremely rich in symbols and archetypes, and his theoretical reflections were characterized by remarkable modernity. I saw in the circularity of Pavese’s “mal di mestiere” [a non-fiction text included in the collection Feria d’agosto in which Pavese describes the paradox of writing, whose goal is to make rational a subject that is always irrational, editor’s note] the problems related to the hermeneutical circularity between Myth and Logos that I would have later developed from a historical, philosophical, and epistemological perspective.
One of your research interests is myth related to literature and the arts. For Pavese, the myth held a cognitive value, which was made even more relevant by its archetypical character. How did you study myth and literature? How did Pavese fit into this discourse?
It was Pavese’s critical reflection in his Saggi critici that offered me a cognitive model. In these essays, Pavese – thanks to the reflections made by Vico and other anthropologists of his own time – was able to build an extremely modern theoretical model. In this model, Mythos and Logos are not two opposite moments of reason. This was the approach proposed by the illuminist rationalism that was commonly accepted in the years after the end of the War, especially by publishers and political parties. On the contrary, Mythos and Logos are complementary, according to a model now very common in the philosophical hermeneutics and the paradigm of complexity. Pavese could read and understand narrators and anthropologists almost in the same way. Therefore, his work as a translator from American literature and as the director of the anthropological series founded with Ernesto De Martino (the so-called “collana viola”) is almost complementary and it is aimed to conceive the narrative as a mythical-archetypical core. According to this approach, stories are interpreted according to Vico as fantastic judgments about reality. This intellectual path is witnessed by Pavese in his journal, where the writer took note of all his readings.
You studied the relationship between Cesare Pavese and Herman Melville in the volumes Herman Melville e Cesare Pavese: mito, simbolo, destino ed eterno ritorno (2006) and La balena nelle langhe. Mito ed ermeneutica nell’opera di Herman Melville e Cesare Pavese (2017). We usually compare these two authors because Pavese translated Melville; how did you study them?
The influence of the literary translation is not enough to explain the consonance between these two authors. Pavese makes no secret of his preferences for Melville: in a radio interview a few months before his death, the writer made clear that Melville was one of his favorite writers because he conceived his stories as “fantastic judgments about reality”. And, in his introduction to his 1932 translation of Moby Dick, he defined Melville’s prose with the oxymoron “Platonized rationalism” because of its complementarity between Mythos and Logos and its symbolical realism, which will later characterize the mature prose of Pavese himself. The reference here is Vico, sure. But how can we not mention Jung’s archetypes, whose knowledge by Pavese is well witnessed, to describe the analogies between the protagonist of La luna e i falò, Anguilla, and Melville’s Ishmael? They are both orphans looking for their identities and their roots, undergoing a journey which is for both like a descent to Hades. The word “orphan” emphatically closes Melville’s novel, and it nurtures the highest inspiration of the Piedmontese writer, who will retrieve from the deepest of his subconscious the Jung archetype of the divine child.
Which fields of research may bring new discoveries to the study of Pavese? I believe that the studies on Pavese’s modernism can be interesting. Can the perspective of the myth fit into this approach?
I believe that the paths of criticism focused on topics can still be beaten. In my works, I compared (and made coincide) the terms “topic” and “myth” referring to Jung and to the paradigm of complexity, too. I do not share the aversion of many critics who brilliantly approach a thematic critic, like Francesco Orlando, against Jung. Archetypes are the expression of ahistorical synchrony only according to an already obsolete kind of Marxism, unable to grasp the complexity not only of the subconscious (Jung’s subconscious is richer in symbols than Freud’s one, normalized on the concepts of the repressed and the Oedipus complex) but of the literary fact in its entirety. Luckily, the label of Pavese as “neorealist” has been finally removed. As for the studies on Modernism, the perspective of myth could surely be employed to enhance them. Modernism greatly drew upon the mythological “method”: just think of T.S. Eliot.
However, I would propose to remove any labels or historical-literary paradigms from Pavese. Labels and paradigms are often useful but at the same time they are not enough to grasp the complexity of writers. Tim Parks, editor of an American edition of Pavese’s works, is right: Pavese is an outsider, and he should be treated as such. He was a writer who was able to draw upon the universe of classics (and in this perspective his Dialoghi con Leucò would surely represent an extraordinary unique book) as well as the contemporary sensibility and taste. And he could do so thanks to his extraordinary culture. The Piedmontese writer anticipated future sensibility and taste and his hermeneutical model, developed in the theoretical essays on myth, contains the anticipations of Post-modern culture and of the paradigm of complexity.
The value he gave to the myth was not understood by the intellectuals of his time, who criticized Pavese. Nevertheless, these intellectuals were referring to other myths. After all this time, can we affirm that for Pavese the myth was characterized mainly by aesthetic and existential values?
Ideological reasons, especially Pavese’s enrollment in the Communist Party, substantiated these critics. The “purple series” represented an avant-garde experiment for the times and for the editorial identity of Einaudi. Re-reading the introduction notes written by Pavese would suffice to understand the pain and burden of that editorial experiment. The pain and burden of belonging to a “church” that, although secular, was nevertheless sectarian and not open to independence and to cultural innovations that could move away from the communist pedagogy and the construction of the cultural hegemony by the Left, which characterized Italy in that time. It is worth mentioning this again: Pavese was out of place.
Finally, I believe that for Pavese the myth did not have only aesthetic and existential values, but also hermeneutic and cognitive values. From a comparative point of view, we could study Pavese in the field of cultural studies, focusing on his relationships with the contemporary hermeneutic and the paradigm of complexity that characterized the literary and philosophical post-modernism. In his own way, he is also a philosopher lent to literature. He was a critic who, following the footsteps of masters such as De Sanctis and Croce, was aware of the value of aesthetic and philosophical studies applied to literature. Today, Pavese is relevant for his strong theoretical commitment, aimed to reevaluate literary criticism, obliterating narrow-minded quarrels, and inserting it into the wider context of Weltliteratur.
“Un Pavese ci vuole”: this misquotation from a very famous passage from The Moon and The Bonfires was the title of a series of video-interviews I conducted with the director of Fondazione Pavese, Pierluigi Vaccaneo. Seventy-three years after Pavese’s suicide, do we still need him? And, whether yes or no, why?
We need Pavese, un Pavese ci vuole. We need him even only for reconciling with humanistic and literary studies in a moment of world crisis, protecting ourselves from the hypocrisy of the woke culture and from the excess of politically correctness, which are very common in American liberal culture. I am thinking about the predominant cancel culture, the violence perpetuated on the translations of many classical books, which reminded me of the dystopian situation described by George Orwell’s 1984. We need Pavese to go against the grain and to defend the humanistic values from the predominant ideologies.