Dialogues with Pavese: Vincenzo Binetti

In praise of escape and contradiction: for our column Dialogues with Pavese we interviewed professor Vincenzo Binetti.

Vincenzo BinettiVincenzo Binetti is professor of Italian studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His areas of interest include 19th and 20th century Italian literature, cultural studies, film, the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s,
migration and border studies, citizenship, post-autonomia, and relations between literature, philosophy, and political theory. His major publications include Cesare Pavese: una vita imperfetta. La crisi dell’intellettuale nell’Italia del dopoguerra (1998), Città nomadi. Esodo e autonomia nella metropoli contemporanea (2008) and Scritture minori. Letteratura, linguaggio politico e pratiche di resistenza (2021). He also translated Giorgio Agamben’s Means without End: Notes on Politics (with C. Casarino), Fugitive Days: Memorie dai Weather Underground di Bill Ayers (with A. Terradura) and Roberto Esposito’s The Origin of Politics. Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil?  (with G. Williams).

Escape as an act of resistance, weakness as strength

You studied Pavese many times, starting with your book Cesare Pavese: Una vita imperfetta in which you analyze the “political” Pavese of the immediate postwar years (author of Il compagno and of articles on L’Unità). Emphasizing the deepest meaning of Pavese’s last message before his suicide (“Perdono a tutti e a tutti chiedo perdono” – I forgive everyone and ask everyone to forgive me” ), the director of Fondazione Pavese Pierluigi Vaccaneo exhorted us to forgive Pavese, considering him in his human characteristics. Do you agree with this interpretation?

I don’t think I am in the position to decide if Pavese should be “forgiven” or not, so I prefer to avoid this question, although I agree with Pierluigi Vaccaneo and your suggestion that we should consider him in all his “human characteristics”, also and probably especially those ones which are more difficult and uncomfortable for us to come to terms with. This means, in my opinion, that the profound value of Pavese’s contribution to his readers and to the global and transnational community to which he belongs, resides perhaps in his refusal to become a “soggetto forte”, and in his desire to constantly and radically question and destroy even his own “myth”, giving voice, instead, to his own fragility, contradictions, and inquietude. After all, as Whitman reminds us: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In 2008, at the Stony Brook conference celebrating Pavese’s birth centennial, you presented the paper “L’elogio della fuga come ‘resistenza’ politico-intellettuale ne La luna e i falò di Cesare Pavese” (now in Leucò va in America: Cesare Pavese nel centenario della nascita. An international conference). Pavese suffered because of his lack of ideological connections and political commitment in a period during which taking a political stand was required to all intellectuals. If Pavese would write today, do you think that he could take advantage of this freedom?

Pavese relationships with the “political”, if we intend this term as it was defined by the strongly sectarian and ideologically-charged cultural climate characterizing the years following the end of the war and the reconstruction of a new “italianità” after the fall of Fascism, has been certainly quite problematic and always controversial, mainly because of his uneasiness and refusal to fully embrace, as a poet and a writer, the demands and the expectations of a public and “organic” intellectual. As I have already indicated on other occasions, I strongly believe that his intellectual and political ambivalence and his “weakness” as a human being should be interpreted and valorized instead as a form and practice of resistance and production of an oppositional “minor” language capable of destabilizing normative and hegemonic discourses. I don’t know how Pavese would write today or how he would take advantage of this different cultural climate, but I think that his dissenting voice and his determination in courageously and publicly embracing his own identity crisis, his being, in other words, an “essere qualunque”, as Agamben would put it, would still have effectively conveyed to his reader the revolutionary implications of his intellectual and political autonomy: an autonomy whose potentialities reside precisely in his ability to valorize his “cultural dislocation”, his being, in other words, a nomadic and displaced figure whose inherent contradictions and uncertainties constitute an intrinsic and unavoidable component of his writings.

Studying and reading Pavese today

Which could be the future directions of research on Pavese which would maintain his relevance within Italian, European, and Global/World Literature? Which directions would you consider as the most relevant in the United States?

As we all know, Italian studies and the humanities in general, especially within American academic institutions, are experiencing a moment of profound crisis. As teachers of Italian culture, we have toconstantly reinvent our curriculum in order to attract more students to our courses (which seems to constitute nowadays the most pressing concern of our universities) and thus only fulfill, for the most part, the quantitative logic and demands of accumulation of capital. This is true also in respect to our scholarly research, which often reflects and is a result of, at least in my case, the various and stimulating conversations I constantly have with my students on specific cultural, political, literary, and theoretical discourses and current intellectual debates. Nevertheless, I am absolutely convinced that the value of Pavese, both in terms of research and pedagogical purposes, resides in his ability to effectively and problematically engage with interdisciplinary, comparative, and transnational studies, within the fields of Italian, European, and Global/World Literature. This can be particularly beneficial if we consider, just to mention a few, the theoretical implications of Pavese’s contributions to and reflections upon the relations between myth and history, ethnographic and anthropological studies, translation and transnational studies, European studies, the role of the intellectual and the relationship between literature and politics.

“Un Pavese ci vuole”: this misquotation from a very famous passage from La luna e i falò was the title of a series of web-interviews I conducted with the director of Fondazione Pavese, Pierluigi Vaccaneo. Seventy-one years after Pavese’s suicide, do we still need him? And, whether yes or no, why?

I have no doubt in my mind that today “un Pavese ci vuole”: more than seventy years after his death, his figure as a writer and intellectual still represents a valuable and necessary point of reference for a better understanding not only of the impact and influence that his poetic had on the cultural climate of his time, but also and most of all for a necessary investigation of the function that literature and poetry could have as a tool for political intervention and for an ontological and continuous transformation of our “being” and the world in which we live. I also think that it is precisely because of his inherent contradictions and conflicts, and his desperate and – at the same time – tenacious and courageous attempt to publicly address, through his writings, his inner turmoil and “weaknesses” thus establishing a different, innovative and at times uncomfortable, but always provocative conversation with his readers, that we can continue to revisit and (re)read Pavese as one of the most important and influential figures of our time whose words can still speak to many generations to come.

An interview by Iuri Moscardi