Scruffy Shreds of Platinum: Carlo Emilio Gadda and Other Messy Chemists

Nicoletta Pireddu

Works of scientific popularization are often considered inferior to rigorously scientific ones because allegedly narrower in scope, if not superficial or flawed. However, as Pierre Laszlo asserts from his liminal scholarly position between scientific truth and beauty, if, instead of simplistically denigrating its rhetoric, we explore scientific popularization as a form of communication that accounts for the pleasure of knowledge, it deserves to be reevaluated precisely for its aesthetic potential. «Les récits de vulgarisation sont un peu comme des contes pour adultes», (1) and, once the double demand to teach and to entertain is met, scientific popularization becomes an art form (Laszlo 1993a: 120).

Within this interpretive framework, several of Gadda’s early writings officially inspired by strictly technical and scientific objectives and mostly neglected by critics, in fact deserve to be studied, in bulk, as a micro-genre within Gadda’s overall literary production and examined by taking into account the aesthetic vein that seeps through their scientific referential texture. In 1986 the Italian publishing house Scheiwiller placed those texts in the precise category of scientific popularization, which it highlighted at the paratextual level with the title Azoto e altri scritti di divulgazione scientifica. However, the emphasis in the introductory essay and in the notes by Andrea Silvestri remains the primarily technical context to which Gadda the engineer is said to contribute despite some allegedly extravagant stylistic licences. (2) For his part, in fact, even this other Gadda, qualitatively distinct from the fabulator, seems to second more enthusiastically than we think Tristram Shandy’s praise of digressions as the incontestable «sunshine», «life», and «soul» (3) of writing and reading.

Indeed, if rather than analyze Gadda’s writings for its strictly technical denotative accuracy we bring into the picture the frequent narrative detours and stylistic transgressions so far dismissed as an unwanted contamination of the pure scientific account, Gadda’s divulgazione can offer intriguing insights into the copresence of science and art in the author’s poetics. Far from an anomaly, the disciplinary and rhetorical hybridity of Gadda’s early and peripheral writings acquires further significance as a synthesis and an anticipation of the expressive and representational techniques in Gadda’s more mature works, constructed, no less than in Sterne’s, «so that, like one wheel within another, the “digressive and progressive movements” go on together» (Sterne 1965: 55).

Scientific popularization enriches, in particular, the complex and ambivalent portrait of Gadda as servant of two masters, who, while studying mathematics thinks of his love for Latin, Greek and philosophy (Gadda 1993b: 80-81), frequently reiterating his uncomfortable yet irresistible tension between the scientific and the literary spheres (SGF II 793; Pireddu 2002, Scienza). Significantly, in the collection Azoto e altri scritti di divulgazione scientifica Gadda’s expanding cognitive bulimia has not attained yet the thwarting saturation that will make him lose the battle against the chaos of the cosmos. The future fabulator whose literary career will culminate with an explosion of technical language within his fictional world is here still the engineer attempting an evasion from the referential precision of data. Resorting to linguistic and genre contamination is a way for him to attain that figurative, imaginary realm able to exorcize what he would later remember as the fatigue and the sense of danger and of impending catastrophe that accompanied his work in synthetic chemistry plants. (4)

However, as properties of substances, reaction processes, and transformations of matter take center stage moving from literal to literary, Gadda’s popularizing texts also invite connections with works of other writers who, before and after Gadda, to different extents and with different intents, worked on the tightrope between the rational and the aesthetic realms, selecting chemistry, in particular, as the site of this challenging yet fascinating funambulism. From Eliot and Flaubert to Levi and Queneau, the literary trajectory in which I propose to insert Gadda’s scientific divulgazione authenticates and translates diegetically the antinomic nature that Laszlo ascribes to chemistry itself. If, on the one hand, chemistry shows its realistic inclination because it records the changes of a protean matter, on the other hand, it describes such metamorphoses as propelled by impalpable and secretive motives, and in so doing it resorts not so much to abstraction as to «fantaisie», (5) to imagination.

Chemistry postulates what for Laszlo is a microscopic world populated by very diverse tribes, where, as in a theater, singular individuals are engaged in foreseeable rituals. As they incessantly recode the visible through the invisible, chemists can hence be said to summon «des espèces fictives auxquelles ils finissent par croire» (Laszlo 1993b: 16). And precisely for its intent to tell what in the metamorphosis of substances eludes phenomenological descriptions (being, in other words, the science of what is hidden and eschews revelation), chemistry – Laszlo provocatively claims – is an extension of alchemy. Not only does chemistry set itself the task of describing transformations that are governed by «des moteurs occultes» (Laszlo 1993b: 17), as alchemy previously did. It also endorses and perpetuates alchemy’s paradoxical way of thinking, which translates into a rhetoric of ambivalence and a dialectics of opposites.

1. Eliot’s Filament and Flaubert’s Acid: Towards Gadda’s Bursting Reactions

[…] these conventions are merely a framework, or an alloy necessary for working the metal; the metal itself consisted of unique emotions resulting inevitably from the circumstances, resulting or inhering as inevitably as the properties of a chemical compound.

It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. (6)

References to chemistry recur in T.S. Eliot’s writings but the most memorable one, the catalyst analogy, appears in his seminal essay Tradition and Individual Talent. Here Eliot recodifies the relationship between past and present by highlighting the historical and cultural value of tradition and by using it as a framework for the assessment of the individual artist’s contribution. Timeless and simultaneously temporal, (7) the historical sense renders tradition a dynamic process to which a poet belongs precisely because it acquires a higher consciousness of his place in time, hence also of his contemporaneity. Yet in order for the individual talent to stand the test of time and become part of the «living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written» (Eliot 1950: 53), the poet needs to emancipate himself from all that is personal and peculiar in himself. The price to pay for partaking in the production of universal meaning is the surrendering of himself, the separation of «the man who suffers» from «the mind which creates» (54), «a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality» (53). Poetry transforms personal emotions and individual identity, impressions, passions, and experiences into a creative material of a wider significance, turning them into a function – «a particular medium» (56) – rather than treat them as mere content of the poet’s self: «the more perfect the artist […] the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material» (54).

Perfection for Eliot is directly proportional to the success of a «process of depersonalization» (53). By shifting the object of criticism and appreciation from the poet to poetry conceived as an all-encompassing living tradition, depersonalization demands that the mind of the poet become «a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations» (53-54). As Eliot illustrates his impersonal theory of poetry, he highlights how artistic depersonalization approaches the condition of science by suggesting the famous analogy between the mechanism of the poet’s mind and the role of the catalyst in the chemical reaction that occurs «when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide» (53). It is the shred of platinum that promotes the combination of the two gases into sulphurous acid, while being apparently unaltered by the reaction. Just as the filament remains «inert, neutral, and unchanged» (54), leaving no trace in «the newly formed acid» (54), the poet’s mind does not interact with the human emotions and feelings it nevertheless converts into art.

Eliot’s chemical interpretation of the artist’s mind as a catalyst combining impersonality and perfection could have taught many things to two presumed earlier chemists – Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet – slightly more improvised than Eliot’s ideally impersonal hence perfect poet, to be sure, but apparently (… only apparently) no less determined to surrender themselves «wholly to the work to be done» (59), although in the only way they think they can do so, namely, by copying, reproducing, imitating tradition rather than by transforming it. Yet, while for Eliot art reproduces the condition of science, the subtitle of Flaubert’s novel – «Du défaut de méthode dans les sciences» – prefigures a systematic challenge to the purity and systematicity of science. Paradoxically, the more impartial and aseptic the two characters intend to be in their exploration of reality, the more farcical their commitment becomes to the rationality and neutrality of technical knowledge. This ironic result culminates in the chemistry episode which, starting from apparently Eliotian premises avant la lettre, in fact decrees the inevitability of confusion and imperfection.

When the two impromptu scientists, after grappling with failing distillation processes, destroyed burners and exploded stills, (8) locate the cause of their many misfortunes in their lack of chemical knowledge, they plunge with all themselves in the manuals of Henri Victor Regnault, from which they discover the fact (quite disconcerting to them) that «les corps simples peuvent etre composés» (Flaubert 1979: 116). For two minds looking for the unquestionable data and certainties that a scientific discipline is expected to provide, this apparently banal claim is destabilizing precisely because in fact it reveals to them another scenario – the shocking option of ambiguity. The difference between metals and metalloids is not absolute, just as the one between acids and bases. A body can assume either status, indistinctly, according to circumstances. Likewise, the conceptual distinction between the unitary idea of a primordial molecule and the existence of its internal components seems far from clear to them. However, not even a more approachable work like Jean Girardin’s chemistry lessons can lead them back to the realm of precision and univocity. If, in and of itself, the discovery that diamonds are made of nothing more than carbon is not particularly appalling, the realization that «la terre comme élément n’existe pas» (116) is for them unquestionably far more overwhelming because it casts doubts upon the alleged concreteness of the material support on which our lives stand. Similarly, once Bouvard and Pécuchet soon shift to organic chemistry and find in human beings the same substances that constitute minerals, they feel humiliated at the thought of sharing phosphorus with matches or albumen with egg whites.

With even more disastrous effects, incapable of reconciling the law of multiple proportions and the law of equivalent proportions, the two inadequate investigators ask for the help of a physician who, in fact, irreverently corroborates their stupidity by denouncing the deplorable effect of chemistry upon medicine. Bouvard and Pécuchet do not need anything else to give up their hopes of mastering this science, and with renewed energy they hence plunge into anatomy. Yet, the shift from the alembic to the bistoury (doomed to failure as all of the protagonists’ other experiments in the entire spectrum of cognitive fields) does not diminish the uniqueness of their encounter with what stands out as the most theoretical and exact discipline tested in the Flaubertian characters’ experimentation. Compared to the convoluted tangles in the brain section, which immediately discourage the newly-born aspiring pathologists, the cognitive maze of chemistry and in particular of stoichiometry is particularly significant precisely because it challenges the univocal perspectives and results that Bouvard and Pécuchet expect to draw from the branch of science they had considered the most reliable and reassuring. (9)

The combination of scientific and aesthetic ambiguity in Bouvard et Pécuchet’s narrativization of chemistry hence well exemplifies Roland Barthes’s discussion of Flaubert’s gaze on the myths that his two characters build. (10) With his demystifying approach, Flaubert not only highlights his protagonists’ intrinsic ineptitude and naivete. He also uses language to produce a «countermythical» (Barthes 1983: 124) discourse because, by building a self-conscious, artificial myth – that of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s own mystification – he exhibits the ideological underpinnings of an apparently neutral reality. In the chemistry episode of Bouvard et Pécuchet Flaubert’s counter-mythical operation is arguably all the more powerful because the knowledge being narrativized here is expected to be the most distant in the entire novel from the ambiguity of the discursive and aesthetic realm. (11)

It is precisely in the genealogy of what Barthes labels as «bouvard-et-pécuchet-ity» (Barthes 1983: 124) that – I argue – Gadda occupies a special place. Able, no less than the two Flaubertian copiers, to undermine Eliot’s chemical conceptualization of the individual talent’s impersonality, he is also far more skillful in substantiating what the Flaubertian Dictionnaire des idées reçues cynically presents as the synthesis of method: «Méthode: ne sert à rien» (Flaubert 1979: 540). In his popularizing scientific texts, Gadda acts as a very personal (hence imperfect, in Eliot’s sense) catalyst. Yet he also overcomes the hostility to creative personality that Flaubert still defends from his authorial position. As the meeting point of science and art, Gadda’s chemistry becomes the realm of asymmetry and imperfection – a hybrid, messy world where alloys prevail upon pure metals, and where narrativization theatrically combines technical and aesthetic language precisely where it promises to remain within the neutral ground of degree-zero denotative writing.

2. In Gadda’s Laboratory of Verbal Alchemies: That Irresistible Mess on «Viale della Scienza»

In L’Esposizione e il Congresso di Fonderia, written in 1921 for the Sixth Foundry International Congress taking place in Milan concurrently with the International Foundry Exposition, Gadda’s main purpose is to highlight the complexity and the pervasiveness of metal casting in the most diverse sectors of everyday life, discussing the variety of materials, equipment and daily activities involved in that process. However, filtered through Gadda’s rhetoric, the overview of the exhibit results more intriguing when it lingers on what metal casting is not. For instance, it is not simply like «versar la crema nei beignets» (SVP 28). Precisely when it intends to neglect light, pleasurable topics and, rather, underscore the serious technical and economic problems affecting the world of science and machines, Gadda’s prose curiously generates the opposite effect, that is, an association between, on the one hand, the structurally complex, rigorous, and unappetizing process of melting and casting of metals and, on the other, exquisite delights for the palate. In the readers’ minds, the liquid metals solidifying in molds become one with the custard being poured in the sweet pastry dough containers. In the act of separating them, Gadda in fact operates a fusion of techne and aesthesis, knowledge and taste, which not accidentally Latin etymology had already kneaded together in the verb sapio/sapere, and that still resonates in modern Italian in the phonetic connection between sapere and sapore.

Not surprisingly, then, when the wheel of the turbine suggests «“dubitazioni”, come direbbe il Poeta» (SVP 28), Gadda is alluding to something more than simple uncertainty on challenges posed by the mechanical resistance of the material or the unpredictable contractions of the molten metal during the cooling process. Indeed, the uncontrollable behavior of materials merges with the far more substantial doubts that the Poet here intentionally summoned by Gadda, namely the Dante of Convivio and The Divine Comedy, (12) raises about woman, love, intellect, and science. In line with what Laszlo and Hoffmann present as the «personalization of nature» (13) in the language of the chemical investigation, the very final product of the metal casting process is anthropomorphized, taking on at times the traits of «un individuo tra una folla d’eguali» (SVP 28) and other times those of «la creatura unica ed aristocratica del caso speciale». But Gadda’s aesthetic vein even seems to decree the primacy of beauty over scientific truth and technical precision in the comment on the mainly touristic end-of-congress trip to Naples and Sicily offered by the organizers to all participants. The mythical beauty of the Southern Italian landscape, where «natura e arte e gentilezza han fatto la terra incantevole» (32), is at the top in hierarchy of collective taste, hence showing it has nothing to envy to the industrialized North, which, Gadda concludes, can unquestionably boast of its technological superiority but at the price of a smoky sky.

Nevertheless, even when moving within the narrow perimeter of Milan’s Fiera Campionaria, among «Sostegni per Linee Elettriche» (SVP 87), lamps, dimmers, neon signs, or touristic and war aircrafts, the author does not abjure aesthetic pleasure as he imbues his account of state-of-the art industrial inventions with several typically Gaddian figurative constructions. The essay A zonzo per la Fiera opens with the impression of cognitive constraints that apparently inhibit the «gioia del vagabondaggio» (87) through the punitive intervention of «redini severe» and «inesorabile frusta». Yet, Gadda immediately escapes the rigors of wisdom and the boring «vie del dovere» the aid of creativity and imagination. The injunctions to learn and to profit from learning become the fictional figures of three old aunts  «la zia Sapienza, la zia Prudenza e la zia Diligenza», who elicit in any potential nephew, already saturated with knowledge, the imploration to be left alone, free to enjoy the sun, food samples and drinks.

And, not to worry: the sun may not be shining inside and above the pavilions, but edible and drinkable material is indeed available at the Fiera, symptomatically in «Viale della Scienza» (SVP 89), where the alleged primacy of cognition and categorization is in fact altered by witty, creative reflections. Narrativization transcends the rigor and precision of technical description by blending it with an emphasis on sensations and enjoyment, at the level of both form and content. Indeed, in the «intelligente emporio» (94) of a panettone maker, the pleasure of the eye and of the palate is happily satisfied not only by a glass of «moscato» and slices of the typical Italian cake but also by «babà pantagruelici e […] beignets che non si capisce come possano venire introdotti nella cavità orale» (94). From order and measure to exaggeration, from technological to rhetorical displays, an obviously pleased Gadda celebrates this felicitous moment as much for its tastefulness as for its witty creativity, even borrowing from a Milanese proverb the jocose rhyme «offeleé» [pastry cook] – «mestée» [job]. (14) And it is precisely on the notes of this literary and metaphorical blend of «l’utile al dolce» (SVP 93) that his walk at the Fiera concludes, that is, with a final praise to panettone and moscato in Viale della Scienza, two culinary treats for which two liras are far better spent than for a souvenir badge. The Fiera exposition becomes the site of aisthesis rather than simple mathesis not only because its review arouses «caratteri di viva e spontanea liricità» (SVP 94) in its spectators but also because Gadda’s overall discussion of the items on display neglects their use value, and, by subtracting them from the circuit of fruition, turns them into aesthetic objects.

Significantly, the ironically disenchanted entry on art in Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idees reçues – «A quoi sert? Puisqu’on le remplace par des mécaniques qui font “mieux et plus vite”» (Flaubert 1979: 489) – is poignantly refuted in Gadda’s Ultimo giro alla Fiera, with its description of the «pelapatate automatici» (SVP 101) which, in a flash, cut the most imposing carrots «in graziosi cirri, in cubetti, in merletti». Here, instead of annihilating the aesthetic, the practical utility of the mechanical instrument produces it. Likewise, during a visit to the «Padiglione della Meccanica», Gadda’s verbal alchemy transforms a comment on the greater popularity of Diesel engines with respect to electric ones into a battle of sexes between a male character impersonating the Diesel and «madama Energia Elettrica» (SVP 98), a «grinzosa arciduchessa» with condescending and forced smiles towards a populace protesting the exorbitant costs. And in a text with a plain title like Le funivie Savona-San Giuseppe di Cairo e la loro funzione autarchica nell’economia nazionale it is not predictable to find a harbor defined as «un seno, della riviera e dell’arte» (SVP 136), unaffected by waves, which becomes «una vera opera d’arte» if the steep mountain on the Riviera immerses «le sue radici vestite d’una mucillagine verde, giù nel glauco pauroso, dove non discendono, vivi, che i palombari».

Although the immediate meaning of opera d’arte here is that of a work that requires painstaking labor and considerable expenses, Gadda’s language cannot but evoke also the artwork resulting from the aestheticizing process that the harbor undergoes throughout the article. The description of the place fast materializes unknown and scary places worthy of adventurous fiction, and the ship ready to unload the material takes on positive and negative connotations, becoming not so much «una creatura di fantasia, una felice libellula che beva l’azzurro svolando d’isola in isola, di mare in mare» (136-37) as, rather, «una povera mula da soma» (137). All these literary metamorphoses are set in a harbor that, for Gadda, has far more complex functions than simply offering shelter, as would happen for «il marsupio del canguro ai piccoli impauriti dal vento».

Just as matter is snatched from nature through processes like distillation and gasification for the production of synthetic chemical compounds, Gadda’s narrativization of such actions ostensibly modifies expression from the mere technical-referential to the self-consciously figurative level. Gadda’s description of the massive draining of lowlands in La Grande Bonificazione Ferrarese is allegedly supposed to provide technically-unsavvy readers with an interpretive key of a complex mechanical process. Yet, as Gadda purges his prose of engineering details, he also fills those voids with equally elaborate literary references probably as inaccessible to the average reader as a strictly mechanical vocabulary.

Arguably, it is hence not so much a concern with readers’ understanding as, rather, a staging of his personal idiolect and humanistic erudition that leads Gadda to evoke Giosué Carducci’s celebration, in Rime Nuove, of the high banks of the river Po, designed to prevent the flooding of «le terre “ove pianser le Elìadi”» la caduta di Fetonte (SVP 156). Gadda himself seems conscious of the elitist nature of this allusion. Ironically, however, as it unpacks the potentially cryptic meaning of his phrase, the paratextual explanation he adds – «per i navigator greci dell’Adriatico eran queste le terre di sera: l’Esperia: dove i pioppi e i salici piangono la caduta del Sole)» – also consolidates the literariness of Gadda’s prose, and the remarkable emphasis given to this poetic reference, in contrast with the mere ornamental role it would be expected to play in a technical discussion of land reclamation. Therefore, it would be reductive to dismiss the conclusion of the article as an incongruous betrayal of scientificity simply because it does not provide detailed data and results. Gadda’s final poetic reflection rather displays the Barthesian pleasure of the text, dotting the technical jargon with Virgilian echoes that prefigure how the miraculous fertilization of a peaty soil «nero come la faccia di Caino» (SVP 170) authenticates «l’immagine del grande georgico: “… quella che fu, per lunga epoca, una sterile palude corsa dai remi, alimenta oggi le città prodiere e patisce la gravezza dell’aratro”».

For similar reasons, an equally referential and uninspiring title like Terreno, piogge, fiumi e impianti idroelettrici nell’Atlante fisico-economico della Consociazione Turistica Italiana is in fact a mine of literary quotes and tropes that displace the Italian landscape from geological history to literary tradition not only through the poetic authority of Petrarch but also through Gadda’s own poetic vein. The hexameter «Salve, cara Deo tellus sanctissima, salve!» (SVP 171) that Petrarch «rivolgeva dal colle altissimo di Gebenna al riapparito splendore della terra Saturnia», merges with Gadda’s own lofty ode to his homeland, of which he extols the wholeness made possible by the all-encompassing representation in the atlas: «se la nave approda dopo l’oceano ai golfi di luce, se il treno risbuca, nero serpe, da elicoidale gallerie sopra il discendere dei fiumi argentati, noi vorremmo recarlo, quel saluto, a tutta la significazione della patria». Not only the physical-economic atlas itself, but also Gadda’s overall embellishment of it with literary nuances turns the national geological and historical memory into «colore» and «sinossi» (SVP 172), that is, precisely into figuration and narrativization.

Arguably, just like the civilization he celebrates through the atlas’s sheets and tables, Gadda himself also draws from the soil «l’impulso a creare» with «immaginoso trasporto» (SVP 177) his own mental and aesthetic atlas, where mathematical figures and hydraulic data on the flow of Italian rivers blend with the image of Leonardo drawing «i suoi riccioli e le lunghe capellature di linee […] per significare un risucchio, un vortice, un urto, o una  strizione  o dilatazione della vena» (SVP 175). This montage of visions expands to «un immaginario paradiso di opere d’ogni maniera e destino, antiche e nuove» (SVP 176) which, from tangible and functional constructions like banks, canals, reservoirs and pumps, ends up including idiosyncratically Gaddian verbal constructs connoting the results of «idee modulatrici e bonificatrici»: the soft green of «le adacquate risaie», «il sibilo notturno delle eccitatrici dai saloni deserti, dalla sfolgorante solitudine delle centrali», or «livellare il dramma idrografico nella proficua disciplina delle industrie».

Therefore, it is slightly difficult to agree with the author when, in closing, he synthesizes the function of the atlas as an occasion to «contemplare, così come sono, le cose che sono, i fatti e gli atti», hence as a tool in the service of the «disciplina della verità». Gadda underscores the usefulness of this precious work in allowing every cultivated citizen to see «il suo paese nei computi di una rappresentazione organata, e non più nella nebbia della informazioni occasionali» (SVP 176-77). Yet, paradoxically, precisely while he apparently tries to persuade us of the possibility of «soddisfare un desiderio in una conoscenza», of «archiviare il presunto negli scaffali della certezza» (SVP 177), what he leaves us with is quite far from univocal information and technical precision. Symptomatically, the article ends with the evocation of a boy’s reverie.

From sporadic, this idiosyncratic narrativization of science becomes dominant in the articles Gadda writes on the chemistry of nitrogen, as though he were trying to mimic the pervasive presence of this chemical substance in the «complesso metabolismo del mondo» (SVP 68).

3. Pane, azoto… e fantasia: Gadda’s Bubbly Alembic

Io, ingegner fantasia, con penisole e promontori nelle lettere, scienze, arti, varietà, con tumori politici ed annichilimenti dopo i pasti, mi occupo ora dell’assestamento di alcune centrali elettriche e ho a che fare con rampini, tubetti, valvoline, pezzetti di maiolica, ferretti, filuzzi, vetrini, scatolette, barili d’olio ultra bisunto, ecc.- (Gadda 1984a: 49)

Where an invisible but omnipresent Flaubert stages Bouvard and Pécuchet’s redundant and unsuccessful engagement with the material world, Gadda brings to the foreground the inevitability but also the productivity of human intervention upon reality by celebrating his own agency through his exuberant verbal performance. Unlike Rousseau, who for him would indict man for falsifying and stifling the happy work of nature, hence degrading any man-made construction to a degenerated original, Gadda in L’azoto extols man precisely for being «un inguaribile falsificatore, un “ingegnere” inguaribile» (SVP 68). In his turn, any engineer and «qualunque chimista» (SVP 70) are for him forgers because they manipulate matter creating new objects and substances. Gadda may as well sound too provocative and dilettantish when he proclaims these ideas from his literary pulpit, but we may take him more seriously once we realize that chemistry scholar Pierre Laszlo is on his same wavelength. For Laszlo manipuler (Laszlo 1993b: 172) has a strong positive meaning in the lab because it shows a concrete way of building the chemist’s knowledge. Rejecting the dualism between theory and practice, Laszlo defends the artisanal nature of the chemist’s profession, which he reiterates with the expression «penser avec les mains». (15)

The whereabouts of Gadda’s nitrogen are particularly effective to demonstrate this inevitable overlapping between the natural cycle and what he ironically connotes as the «sfrontato falso» of synthetic ammonia with which man, «[c]rumiro diabolico della natura» (SVP 68), mimics and extends to the inorganic realm the process of transformation of nitrogen in organic life. Once again, this forging at the level of content goes hand in hand with the writer’s own idiosyncratic re-handling of form, hence of reality itself. Yet by turning the mediating function of the catalyst from unobtrusiveness into exuberant protagonism, Gadda does not present his action as an undue alteration of a natural reality. There is no nature in Gadda, but, rather – as in Laszlo’s observations about the chemical approach to matter – fictional, theatrical creations engaged in specific activities (Laszlo 1993b: 16).

Everything is already elaborate language, hence, false in the sense of deliberately constructed, creatively man made, aesthetically processed. There is always a homo faber who acts and transforms raw matter taking center stage, be it by impersonating the «Mente che trascende la nostra» (SVP 70), «che ha preceduto e superato la mente nostra» (SVP 72), that has conceived the secret mechanisms linking the «tipici materiali della vita» in the nitrogen cycle from the atmosphere to the soil, plants, animals and back, or by rivaling with the dear microscopic creatures like Winogradski’s bacteria, which he connotes as «artificiosi falsari della natura pura» (SVP 70) because, by transforming ammonia compounds into nitrous acid, they practice synthetic chemistry underground. For his part, however, Gadda performs his own synthetic chemistry on the surface and under the spotlight, faithful to an apparently impossibile duplicity figuratively evoked by the coexistence of salt and fresh water in the Catullian reference «uterque Neptunus» (SVP 72). In the writing of this elaborate forger, who transmutes scientific matter into aesthetic tropes, it is hence not too surprising to find quotes from Pasteur extolling putrefaction as a generator of new life together with Latin echoes of Catullus’s celebration of his beloved Sirmione and of Titus Livius’s solemn reconstruction of the history of Rome.

In a nutshell, therefore, the words that Gadda claims to have used to illustrate the nitrogen natural cycle are anything but brevi – as well shown by the abundant literary digressions in which he luxuriates. And those words are imperfette not only because they seem to sacrifice scientific accuracy for the mere sake of popularization, but, above all, because they are deliberately hybrid, blending the rigor of accuracy with the aesthetic pleasure that leads Gadda to color with irony such referential details as the richness of nitrate in the «“guano” del Perù» (SVP 75), which he mischievously defines as a «bel risultato della vita animale», bestowed by birds for free upon joyful consumers and encyclopedia compilers. And just as here he mocks dry, notion-based accumulation of knowledge, in another essay Automobili e automotrici azionate ad ammoniaca he does not miss the chance to pepper his praise of the «residui assolutamente inodori ed innocui» (SVP 131) of the combustion of ammonia engines with some of his typically caustic notes of social criticism that ridicule «la pompa dei nuovi ricchi, e degli eterni cafoni» who, twenty years before, would draw a sense of superiority precisely from the noise produced by those very mechanical devices.

Therefore, if just as we have canned salmon, ammonia can become «energia in scatola» (SVP 135) thanks to technology, atmospheric nitrogen can now be transmuted into bread with the help of human industry because the output of nitrogen coming from the natural arch that connects the sky and the soil in its natural cycle can be supplemented by synthetic equivalents like ammonia and calcium carbide. To be sure, the immediate objective of the fictional character that Gadda presents in this essay as the «demiurgo autarchico» (SVP 120) is to conceive «geniali e italianissimi» chemical processes able to render Italy autonomous, so that «anche domani il popolo vittorioso e rude possa deglutire il suo pane» without depending upon foreign resources. (16) However, this demiurge offers us a monologue through which, quite theatrically, he also gives voice to Gadda’s own ideas and expressive stylemes. The thoughts generated by «il frastuono della fabbrica mangiatrice di roccia» (SVP 121) and «il riverbero delle bocche incandescenti dei forni da carburo» are transfigured in the demiurge’s pompous speech: «Poiché io […] adopero il fiume per rompere il monte. La torbida e inconscia pienezza delle acque me la lavoro a modo mio, in centrale: ecco». With his solemn first-person interventions, this demiurge-mediator mercilessly dethrones the silent, unobtrusive action of platinum in T.S.Eliot’s catalyst.

Unquestionably, as we read in another of Gadda’s articles, Pane e chimica sintetica, the link between bread and synthetic chemistry made possible by nitrogen is not simply the result of an illicit and harmful challenge to «felici operazioni di natura» (SVP 125) à la Rousseau. Man’s incurable engineering impulse is here, in particular, the manifestation of a «coraggio dedàleo» with which nations poor in raw materials challenge the irrational greed of richer and more powerful countries, ready to get a hold of all resources wherever possible and at whatever price, violence included. However, the technical ingenuity with which the artefice accomplishes «la evasion eroica» to escape his condition of «prigioniero nell’isola del destino» is also – we could infer from the expressive medium – the challenge of aesthetic language against technical rigor. For his part, Roald Hoffmann reminds us not only that «le genie génetique rend plus floue la frontière entre le naturel et l’artificiel» (17) but also that chemical synthesis is itself art (Hoffmann 1991: 74).

To be sure, Gadda’s own creative counterfeiting to introduce the function and the effect of synthetic chemistry ends up erasing the difference between the naturalness of nitrogen emanating from the soil and the artificiality of the nitrogen that is fixed in the atmosphere through chemical processes, transformed into fertilizer, and put into sacks to come back to roots and soil as ammonia. Yet, his entire narrative also blurs, if not inverts, pace Rousseau, the nature-culture relationship. Indeed, in the «città dell’azoto» (SVP 127) – as Gadda defines Terni lapped by the Nera river that nourishes hydroelectric generation plants – gasometers, ovens, towers and factory buildings have risen from the ground «come una selva dall’umidore del fiume» (SVP 128). Significantly, this backward transition that technology here undergoes from artifice to nature is further underlined by the sequence of components that foster the «processo di captazione dell’azoto atmosferico e del suo fissaggio in un sale fertilizzante traverso la stazione ammoniaca» (SVP 127).

Even the most technical description of the synthesis of ammonia, namely, the one that takes place in the electrolysis tanks, follows this figurative path from the inorganic to the organic realm, through which Gadda naturalizes the artificial. The enormous cylindrical steel columns that compress nitrogen and hydrogen contain a veritable «fisiologia smontabile» (SVP 128), that is, a set of «organi» which, hanging from hooks, look like «dei madornali salami». Paradoxically, when we learn about the gas medley channeled in those columns «in presenza di un catalizzatore», T.S. Eliot’s analogy between the neutral shred of platinum and the impersonal poet’s mind couldn’t be further away from Gadda’s very personal and effervescent verbal chemistry. After Gadda declares he wants to spare us the abundant literature on the role of catalysts (SVP 129), his own textual practice shows us his version of the catalyst in action. He personifies the catalyst as «un sensale del contratto azoto + idrogeno» whose task is to favor the union between those two chemical elements, that is, «conciliare, avvicinare i contraenti», and concludes that even that function deserves to be defined as a job, and one not even among the most useless. If for Laszlo, chemistry, as a science of complexity, is the site where the useful coincides with the useless, because it finds beauty precisely where it puts meaning (Laszlo 1993b: 182-83), the job Gadda here ascribes to the catalyst is also his own job as a writer who, instead of promoting knowledge of reality through the neutral accuracy of denotative meaning, leads us to the subjectivity of an authorial presence that intervenes through linguistic and stylistic transmutations. (18)

In La parole des choses, Laszlo assimilates the stabilizing effect of the catalyst on the transition state to that of a garment glued to the body, or, even more constrictingly, to that of «une camisole de force» (Laszlo 1993b: 169) calming an overexcited character. If for Laszlo that very transitory state of matter «est comme un trope: […] une figure, une fiction» (18) which does not exist outside of language, Gadda’s narrativization of the role of the «reti finissime di platino» (SVP 140) in the oxydation of ammonia loosens the restraints of that straitjacket on language, and disseminates his scruffy platinum shreds in his scientific matter in order to leave the personal imprint of his creativity on it. (19) It is this systematic and subjective verbal operation that makes Gadda the scientific popularizer a worthy interlocutor of later supporters of the mathesis-aisthesis match such as Primo Levi and Raymond Queneau, (20) who draw from the intersection of science and art the principles of their personal (hence impure, imperfect, and richly creative) world of chemistry.

4. The Gran Lombardo in the Test Tube: Gaddian Reagents, New Poetic Compounds

Gadda’s imaginative recreations of the behavior of nitrogen invite a connection with the equally creative aesthetic transmutations of this element in Primo Levi’s Il sistema periodico in the framework of that double job of chemist and writer which in Levi becomes the more general mestiere di vivere, (21) a job made, by definition, of imperfection, contaminations, hybridity, asymmetries. Juggling, like Gadda, with the dual soul of the scientific popularizer, Levi considers himself «troppo chimico, e chimico per troppo tempo, per sentirmi un autentico uomo di lettere; troppo distratto dal paesaggio, variopinto, tragico o strano, per sentirmi chimico in ogni fibra». (22) Yet, corroborating Gadda’s overall convictions and actual practice, Levi sees not so much incompatibility as «mutuo trascinamento» (Levi 1990: 586) between the scientific and the literary realms, so much so that he experiences the same enjoyment «a guardare il mondo sotto luci inconsuete, invertendo per così dire la strumentazione: a rivisitare le cose della tecnica con l’occhio del letterato, e le lettere con l’occhio del tecnico». For Levi, too, writing is not precisely a job but, rather, a creative activity, «un “produrre”, […] un trasformare» (596).

And if the writer – just like Eliot’s catalyst – transforms the raw material represented by his own experiences, he does not treat chemistry as a reservoir of aseptic and constricting procedures but rather as a source of emotions and of metaphors bestowed upon the writer as veritable gifts. Levi, therefore, writes not although he is a chemist but precisely because he is one (597), whereas, it could be argued, Gadda can be a scientific popularizer only because he is above all a writer (although still in potentia at that early stage in his career). Nevertheless, he certainly would have agreed with Levi that any non-literary writer, any explorer of infinitely small or large worlds, of science and science-fiction alike, should possess not only the skills that make them illustrious in their own fields but also the gift of excellent communication, so as to make their sectorial knowledge available to non-specialists, and to do so in a passionate way, so as to «trasmettere, comunicare, cantare quanto vedranno e sperimenteranno» (606). This need to connect different cognitive spheres with powerful expressive tools and to imbue an allegedly arid language with passion and emotions reflects Levi’s conviction that each of us, independently of our individual inclinations and specializations, is a hybrid, plural being, made of «Io e di Es, di spirito e di carne, ed inoltre di acidi nucleici, di tradizioni, di ormoni, di esperienze e trauma remote e prossimi» (634). The purity of Eliot’s impersonal poetic mind is, by now, history.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find, in the partially chemical and partially aesthetic world of Levi’s imagination, an attention to the duplicity and ambiguity underlying nitrogen itself, starting from its name and the quarrels it generated among chemists of different nations (711). These discords and mismatches are amplified in the chapter that Il sistema periodico devotes to that element. The «“invasioni di campo”, incursioni nei mestieri altrui, bracconaggi in distretti di caccia riservata» (585) randomly displayed by Gadda the chemist pervade Levi’s chemical poetics more systematically. Just like the Gaddian crumiro diabolico, who inventively manipulates the chemical elements provided by nature, and, by narrativizing the process, transforms them according to aesthetic laws, Levi here tells a story about nitrogen in which beauty plays the leading role, as both form and as content. Beauty in this chapter is the simplicity and regularity of formulas, but also the essence of the lipstick that offers Levi the pretext for his autobiographical recollections related to the multifaceted identity of nitrogen in nature and in the lab.

Gadda’s passionate connections among heterogeneous and everchanging domains, as the nitrogen cycle well exemplifies for him in the entire spectrum of chemistry’s beneficial and harmful results, echoes in Levi, who too extols nitrogen’s extraordinary passage from air to plants to animals as evidence that «la materia è materia, né nobile né vile, infinitamente trasformabile» (Levi 1994: 184) independently of its intrinsic nature. It is this fact that leads the chemist to accept without any resistance that alloxan, a substance contained in glosses destined to embellish women’s lips, derives from uric acid, that is, from the «escrementi delle galline o dei pitoni». Acceptance even escalates to veritable exhilaration as Levi connects ancient alchemists’ procedures drawing phosphorus from urine with his own validation of the «aurum de stercore» formula. Making a cosmetic out of urine becomes the chemist’s own way of implementing nature’s merry nobilitation of the most repellent phenomena, making putrefaction overlap with grace: «“laetamen” non vuol forse dire “allietamento”?» (185), Levi asks, evoking his high-school memories of Virgil.

Yet, ironically, despite his enthusiastic attempt to bring together dung and alloxan at the crossroads of science and aesthetics, what Levi ultimately manages to get is not the longed-for lipstick but, rather, a puzzling product that strongly recalls Bouvard and Pécuchet’s disappointing results, that is, nothing more than «vapori immondi, noia, umiliazione, ed un liquido nero e torbido che intoppava irrimediabilmente i filtri» (186). Significantly, however, unlike Flaubert’s disastrous chemists, Levi does not penalize the world of chemistry in bulk for this fiasco. Rather than measure his failure against the backdrop of an impeccable ideal result, he acknowledges his own inexperience, and concurrently highlights that, while inorganic chemistry may offer a more manageable ground for experiments, it instills in chemists a false sense of security, an artificial simplification of elements and phenomena that organic chemistry, the chemistry of life itself, in fact displays as intrinsically complex, mixed, flawed.

Levi’s «Azoto» chapter hence reveals that to return to origins means to uncover the imperfection of life itself, and to accept that «la via per uscire dalla palude» is not clear. Symptomatically, Levi keeps this uncertainty alive with the open, interrogative structure of his concluding reflections, a prelude to the essay L’asimmetria e la vita, where structural asymmetry and imperfection constitute the very essence of life, of all natural products. Be it in the discrepancy in the chemical and physical properties of isomers (that is, couples of compounds with the same composition but different chemical and physical properties), or in non-superposable couples of crystals, (23) Levi underscores that all the components of the living world share irregularity. Any attempt to correct this imperfection is artificial, and generates an unnatural disorder of symmetry, because asymmetry inevitably coincides with life itself in all organisms from viruses to individuals.

As the phenomenon of chirality demonstrates, even when the asymmetry of living matter is fragile, it is always present, and experiments aimed as synthesizing an asymmetrical compound result in «miscele squilibrate» (Levi 2002: 206). Just as, from the point of view of content, Levi seems to substantiate what for Laszlo are the virtues of the irregularity of chemical structures, the form of his argumentation also confirms, performatively, that the chemical narrative represents the metamorphosis of substances at two coexisting levels, the descriptive and the metaphorical one (Laszlo 1993b: 13). Ornating his chemical explanation with literary metaphors that Gadda would gladly endorse, Levi transfigures the originary conflicting duality of matter as a «vita “binazionale”» (Levi 2002: 207) animated by a «lunghissima iliade» between right and left that decrees the victory of the left, hence the triumph of imbalance.

Levi’s essay shares with the chapter on nitrogen in Il sistema periodico an open-ended conclusion, dotted with questions and doubts instead of a definitive answer: «A me, la notizia della chiralità dell’universo, o solo della nostra galassia, è apparsa sconvolgente, insieme drammatica ed enigmatica: ha un senso? E se sì, quale? Quanto lontano porta?» (210-11). Not unlike Gadda’s mestee, which combines the author’s chemical know-how with rhetorical craft, Levi’s mestiere is hence altrui because it brings to the foreground the constitutive otherness of the chemist-writer’s own self, a self that is neither fish nor flesh, or, better, both fish and flesh, and, in the realm of Gaddian taste, even more than this – as savory as a beignet, as pompously exuberant and milanese as a panettone, and as bubbling as a glass of moscato.

And, to be sure, if we want to spice up Gadda’s and Levi’s cocktail of chemistry and literature a little bit more, some drops of Queneau should not be too indigestible, given that Levi himself celebrates, in his turn, the French writer’s Petite cosmogonie portative precisely for its inventive literary grafts «su termini tratti da tutte le scienze naturali» (Levi 1990: 733). Levi underscores that, far from simply comical, the virtuosity of Queneau’s scientific poetry of the cosmos is a serious and compelling fusion of the so-called two cultures in a homogeneous continuum. He substantiates his claim by commenting an exemplary passage that Queneau devotes to Mercure, an intentionally ambivalent reference evoking mercury the chemical element (and simultaneously the planet), and Mercurius the mythological Greek god. This is a creative demonstration that, also for Queneau, science and poetry, far from incompatible, share a strong rejection to what Levi presents as the stifling dogmatic intent of a pedantic didacticism which suppresses the beauty and richness of the scientific message for the sake of mere theoretical rigor.

Queneau is indeed an Ingegner Fantasia no less ironic and incandescent than our Gran Lombardo, who constructs his own encyclopedic idiolect according to a very Gaddian formula. Even though nitrogen in particular occupies just a small place in his cosmogony, appearing as nothing more than the filling of one cloud, (24) nonetheless chemistry offers Queneau abundant alternative material to stage his conception of science as a poetic theme. Indeed, Queneau personifies chemical elements inserting them in highly imaginative settings, from their collective preparation of a ballet (Cosmogonie III, line 10), the strife between chlorine and hydrogen (III, line 20), and the «gallium surfondu» (III, line 32) that butters small beds, to Mercure’s own prosopopeia. Indeed, Mercure/Hermès, the simultaneous representative of chemistry and hermeneutics, is invited by the poet – a “poète algorithme alchimique” (III, line 57), hence himself shaped by both aesthetics and science – to explain the structure of the work.

As Gadda does with the catalyst’s monologue in Pane e chimica sintetica, Queneau’s poetic self then appropriates and stages his double, hybrid identity of «algebreur d’emotions» (III, line 74), «mineur de l’allusion» (III, line 62), and «tailleur de métaphores» (III, line 62), describing the behavior of matter with a sophisticated and playful rhetoric in which the precision of sectorial language and the expressiveness of figuration intertwine. He luxuriates, for instance, in the combination and forging of «représentasillon des choses» (III, lines 131-32), an activity he designates with an expression summoning at once aesthetic creativity (représentation) and a cleavage (sillon) that breaks the illusion of continuity and sameness. Furthermore, he connotes the evocative richness of this representation with terms that challenge precision, systematicity, disciplinary rigor and self-identity such as «vague biunivoque bicontinue et translucide et réciproque» (III, lines 132-34). With the same strategy, «souffrant» and «sulfureux» (III, line 125) are simply defined as two adjectives, brought together by assonance without any attention to the substantial difference between their respective semantic fields.

This is not surprising, since, in the melting pot of Queneau’s poetry of science, «choses mots choses mots et des alexandrins» (III, line 134) merge, substantiating that secret solidarity (Laszlo 1993b: 4) between matter and language (both referential and aesthetic) which, according to Laszlo, chemistry unveils with its translation of nature into enunciations charged with signification, and with its creative, transformative power – a making thus indistinguishable from poiesis itself. The chemist, in other words, does not simply observe transformations but rather conceives them, brings them to life. From a mere spectator, he becomes an actor, a faber, and, it could be argued, a poet, in the sense of an imaginative maker. It is indeed a poem that Queneau presents at the end of his chemical canto, as the final product of the elements’ creative parade: «Le poème jaillit d’un coin de cette terre» (Cosmogonie III, line 229) – in an unpredictable site, just as, in Gadda’s Fiera Campionaria, lyricism gushes unexpectedly from the sight of the technical elements on display.

The presence of Queneau in our genealogy of intentionally scruffy chemists hence allows us to appreciate even more the pivotal role that Gadda’s scientific popularization plays in this transgressive deviation from Eliot’s trajectory of impersonality. On the one hand, it is impossible to approach the catalyst analogy in Tradition and Individual Talent without thinking of the ironic deconstruction of its principles that the clumsy chemical experiments of Bouvard and Pécuchet had already accomplished before Eliot’s theory. However, although Flaubert dissociates from his characters by delegitimizing their scientific aspirations, he cynically identifies with them and delegitimizes them impersonally from within, hiding his self in his style. For his part, Gadda overcomes both Eliot’s and Flaubert’s positions as he provocatively calls attention to his theatrical presence inside and outside his literary creation, becoming the protagonist at both the narrative and the metanarrative levels. Between Flaubert’s narrativization of chemistry and Levi’s and Queneau’s recoding of the language of science into poetry, (25) Gadda promotes the link between the two states of matter, making them react together by putting all of himself in the reaction. It is precisely Gadda’s idiosyncratic asystematicity that makes him, before Primo Levi, «un trasmutatore della materia» (Levi 1994: 207) groping in the dark between order and chaos, or, as in Queneau, an «indistinct chimique» (Cosmogonie III, line 201) with many «incertitudes». (26)

The actions and reactions of these captivating messy chemists hence substantiate the multiple relationships that Laszlo identifies between chemistry and artistic productions, insofar as art for him is present at the core of chemistry not simply because chemistry creates its own object (Laszlo 1993b: 181) but also, more specifically, because chemistry «trouve de la beauté la où elle met du sens» (183). The chemical formula may as well don a «manteau logique» (58), but it adds to it «un chapeau de magicien», since for Laszlo the belief in the power of writing leads chemists to accept the fiction of the existence of an element as a sort of controlled fantasy (16). In the simultaneously descriptive and figurative realm of the chemical narrative, formulas are metaphors (59), and to design a molecular object is to call it into existence as the site of multiple readings, «comme en déchiffrant un poëme, ou en découvrant un tableau» (186). This is probably what also Levi has in mind when, in a dialogue with physicist Tullio Regge, he acknowledges that chemistry has provided him with «un vasto assortimento di metafore». (27)

Therefore, this science of complexity and plurality, in which «l’objet intégral, l’unique se confond avec le multiple» (Laszlo 1993b: 182) and even the simplicity of the symmetric form is deceptive because, for Laszlo, it shows the obvious but conceals «des sens seconds», cannot exorcize impurity as an incongruous flaw. Impurity is a legitimate component of everyday experience. Significantly, the crowd of one hundred chemical elements which in Queneau’s poetic cosmogony «est venue alerte et rocambole/se mêler en des sels des cristaux et des terres” (Cosmogonie III, lines 5-6) prompts the author to wonder: «Quand donc étaient-ils purs et quand donc leur plumage | révélant leur couleur les montrait-il à cru?» (III, lines 7-8). In a Gaddian context, this could be rephrased as «Is nature really natural?», «Is the chemist really a diabolical blackleg or is he merely doing what is inevitable and natural, that is, making, manipulating, transmuting?». Juggling with both mimesis and artifice in a science of transformation that Laszlo defines as «le Romanesque chimique», (28) Gadda’s chemist is in fact no different from man in general, who, reproducing on a smaller scale the work of divine providence according to Leibniz, strives to materialize the least imperfect reality, just as, out of the infinite series of conceivable worlds, we live in «il meno imperfetto» (SVP 78) of the worlds, «[c]he deve perciò ritenersi il migliore dei mondi possibili».

As they bring hybridity, complexity and flaws to center stage, therefore, Gadda’s chemical narratives do not simply tolerate them as lesser evil. Rather, they appropriate and praise that «imperfection of the life and of the work» (29) which even a real and rigorous (but no less aesthetically inclined) scientist – Rita Levi Montalcini – recognizes as the most authentic hallmark of what is human. In the creation and transformation of matter, the shred of platinum leaves many residues, but – as also Hoffmann proclaims – precisely these apparently wasteful and impure parts can promote a «general humanization» of the scientific rhetoric:

Let’s relax those strictures, editorial or self-imposed, on portraying in words […] motivation, […] historicity, even some of the irrational. The humanizing words will not mislead; they may actually encourage us to read more carefully the substance of what is said. I think chemistry has much to gain from reviving the personal, the emotional, the stylistic core of the struggle to discover and create the molecular world. (30)

Our messy Italian chemist would have certainly agreed, at least at that early stage of his literary life, when humanization still meant for him an exuberant entry on the narrative scene not yet affected by his enraged urge to massacre words, when the author’s shreds of platinum could also be reagents in the creation of the proverbial Gaddian mess before it turned painfully «awful» and destructive, not only on via Merulana, but in the entire Maradagàl.

Georgetown University


1. P. Laszlo, La Vulgarisation scientifique (Paris: P.U.F., 1993), 5 – henceforth Laszlo 1993a.

2. The collection (Gadda 1986a) reappears in the Garzanti edition of Gadda’s oeuvre under a different title, Pagine di divulgazione tecnica, again in the editorial apparatus by Andrea Silvestri, and with the same predominant emphasis on the technical expertise displayed by Gadda the engineer. Despite the considerable attention to technical and scientific language, these supplementary contributions to the Gaddian corpus are rarely mentioned, and to the best of my knowledge, have never so far been cited in connection with chemistry. Other issues raised by these texts have been discussed by scholars, but mainly in connection with Gadda’s technical knowledge and his stance vis-à-vis nationalism and fascism (for one such reading, see Zunino 2003), and mostly published after the appearance of I littoriali del lavoro e altri scritti giornalistici (Gadda 2005a) – in addition to the reviews (e.g., L. Villari, Solo l’alluminio ci salverà, La Repubblica, 7 June 1992: 32; L’ingegnere e l’alluminio, La Repubblica, 20 January 2006: 48), see for instance Stracuzzi 2007d and Pedriali 2003.

3. L. Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), 55.

4. «[…] quello che più gli è rimasto nella memoria è il pericolo continuo della catastrofe, quei recipienti immensi  in cui l’idrogeno rischiava di mescolarsi all’ossigeno ed esplodere, e le mille atmosfere premevano sugli involucri d’acciaio» (Gadda 1993b: 81). With a colorful self-parody, equating his working life to that of a «gorgonzolesco faccendiere» (Gadda 1984a: 105), Gadda had exposed his unexciting and anxiogenic professional tasks to Ugo Betti in a 1926 letter: «Adesso devo progettare dei pentoloni per fare il solfato ammonico, che è una sorta di letame, ma dall’aspetto pulito del sale: questi pentoloni pesano più di un elefante, perché sono di piombo» (Gadda 1984a: 105-06).

5. P. Laszlo, La Parole des choses ou le langage de la chimie (Paris: Hermann, 1993), 16 – henceforth Laszlo 1993b.

6. T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. and intro. by F. Kermode (New York: Harcourt, 1975), 158 e 151 respectively.

7. T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood. Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen & Co., 1950), 49.

8. G. Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 115.

9. The convoluted description of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s experiment with the brain and the persisting mediation of existing scientific discourse in the two characters’ apprehension of reality represent an intriguing antecedent of several scenes in Gadda’s major works, corroborating the explicit association that Giuseppe Ungaretti had made between Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet and Gadda’s oeuvre in a letter to Jean Paulhan regarding the Pasticciaccio as exemplary of Gadda’s overall production: «c’est Flaubert l’auteur auquel il fait plutôt penser: tout Flaubert, y compris, bien entendu, Bouvard et Pécuchet» – J. Paulhan & G. Ungaretti, Correspondance Jean Paulhan-Giuseppe Ungaretti, 1921-1968 (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 517, n. 353. It is worthwhile quoting here one Gaddian passage among many potential echoes of Flaubert’s novel, the one in La Meccanica where Luigi, affected by consumption, reads his medical report (which Gadda incorporates in his text) and feels overwhelmed by the sequence of complex scientific terms that surpass by far the basic medical knowledge he had drawn from scattered sources: «Sapeva il parenchima, il miocardio, i leucociti. E aveva letto che l’aneurisma di Rasmussen è, talvolta, la tragica fine del processo morboso, quando la caverna scopre un’arteria e il male dissolvitore la intacca» (RR II 524). Yet while the Flaubertian copy-clerks were ultimately set to react to their repeated cognitive fiascos with a return to copying, their Gaddian epigones head towards the «baratro nero» (525) of a heterogeneous and uncontrollable totality. Linguistic and stylistic connections between Flaubert and Gadda are discussed by Sbragia 1996a. However, although Sbragia acknowledges the reference to Bouvard et Pécuchet in connection with Gadda in the above-mentioned letter by Ungaretti to Paulhan, he does not develop that lead, nor does he provide any specific discussion of macaronic style in Gadda’s early scientific popularization.

10. R. Barthes, Myth Today, in A Barthes Reader, ed. by S. Sontag (London: MacMillan, 1983), 124.

11. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s failed experience with chemistry is strategically presented as all the more disappointing precisely because it promises univocal, objective, exact explanations and a universal and unambiguous method to produce them. It is not so, for instance, for physiology, which Flaubert’s novel defines as «le roman de la médicine» (Flaubert 1979: 127), hence associating it to a higher degree of narrativity, which, however, does not help the two amateur scientists to understand or believe more easily. Nor is it the case of medicine itself: ironically, although Bouvard and Pécuchet seemed to criticize Doctor Vaucorbeil’s apparent mistrust in systems (132), they are the ones who fast abandon the discipline, complaining that the springs of life are hidden from them, the ailments are too numerous, and the remedies problematic, and, moreover «on ne découvre chez les auteurs aucune définition raisonnable de la santé, de la maladie, de la diathèse, ni même du pus!» (134). Their increasingly obsessive search for univocal definitions and answers is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence that the novel progressively bestows on them on the fact that nothing in reality is simple, self-identical. For a discussion of Flaubert’s novel as a critique of modern sciences through their narrativization see M. Wada, L’Episode de la chimie dans «Bouvard et Pécuchet» de Flaubert, in Etudes de langue et littérature française (March 1997), 70: 82-96.

12. The term appears twice in Convivio (III.xv.5 and III.xv.10), once in The Divine Comedy (Paradiso 4.64), and once in Vita Nuova (14.xiv).

13. R. Hoffmann & P. Laszlo, The Say of Things, in  Social Research (Fall 1998), 65.3: 653-93 (660) – see in particular: «The anthropomorphic turn is so natural when we speak of nature. Why? Personalization of nature is like falling in love: our mind endows the Other with a set of imagined qualities that build on the observed existing features».

14. SVP 90 – the Milanese proverb Offelee, fa el tò mestee, literally Pastry-cook do your job, means that a person should mind only his own business instead of intruding in issues that are not his own.

15. Laszlo 1993b: 172. Significantly Primo Levi adopts the same expression to designate the activity of Faussone, the protagonist of La chiave a stella—an instance of what I elsewhere discussed as «a poet(h)ics of techne» – N. Pireddu, «Towards a poet(h)ics of techne». Primo Levi and Daniele Del Giudice, in Annali d’italianistica (2001) 19: 189-214.

16. This nationalistic vision is precisely the main topic that has inspired the scanty scholarship so far produced on these writings.

17. R. Hoffmann, Apologie de la synthèse, in Alliage (1991) 9: 65-75 (66).

18. As Emilio Manzotti claims in more comprehensive terms about Gadda’s linguistic operation, despite its apparent realistic nature and its almost manic attention to details, Gadda’s overall narrative production is in fact «tutta di secondo o di terzo grado rispetto al referente» (Manzotti 1999: 672) precisely because Gadda’s narrative transvestism adopts «un registro eletto incongruo al denotato». Evident traces of this strategy are visible in most of the texts collected in Azoto. For an analysis of the stylistic strategies of Gadda’s technical and scientific language as a mirror for the fragmented narrator’s own recomposition see Zublena 1999.

19. The literary interpretation that Gadda gives in Pane e chimica sintetica of the chemical engineer as an intrepid new Daedalus who, under the stimulus of vital needs, heroically evades from a nature that kept him «[p]rigioniero nell’isola del destino» (SVP 125), can be transferred to the authorial voice of the article, in its turn a prisoner on the island of scientific referentiality but endowed with the «coraggio dedàleo» necessary to accomplish «la evasione eroica» towards verbal creativity and figuration.

20. Together with the obvious reference to Italo Calvino, an equally interesting addition, space permitting, could be Oliver Sacks’s autobiographical novel – O. Sacks, Uncle Tungsten. Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (New York and Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 2001).

21. P. Levi, Il sistema periodico (Torino: Einaudi, 1994), 107.

22. P. Levi, L’altrui mestiere. Opere. Volume Terzo. Racconti e saggi (Torino: Einaudi, 1990),  585-829 (586).

23. P. Levi, L’asimmetria e la vita (Torino: Einaudi, 2002), 201. In a Gaddian environment, Levi’s attention to the surprising irregularity and asymmetry in the structure of crystals cannot but evoke the memorable passage of Il Pasticciaccio where the narrator’s parodic strategies undermine the logic and teleologic principles of the chemistry of crystals in the very act of exposing them: «Il corindone, pleòcromi cristalli, si appalesò tale di fatto sul bigio-topo dell’ambienza, venuto di Ceylon o di Birmania, o dal Siam, nobile d’una sua strutturante accettazione, o verde splendido o rosso splendido o azzurro notte, anche, un anello, del suggerimento cristallografico di Dio: memoria, ogni gemma, ed opera individua dentro la memoria lontanissima e dentro la fatica di Dio: verace sesquiossido Al203 veracemente spaziatosi nei modi scalenoedrici ditrigonali della sua classe, premeditata da Dio» (RR II 231).

24. Cosmogonie III, line 15 – Queneau, Raymond. Chêne et chien. Suivi de Petite cosmogonie portative (Paris: Gallimard, 1981). In the framework of the tension between depersonalization and authorial protagonism, it is significant that Queneau devotes just a few lines to mankind’s presence in the evolution of his cosmos. Yet while by marginalizing homo sapiens he insinuates that the history of human beings has a negligible weight in the larger scheme of things, he reinstates human agency by personifying inanimate elements and by infusing life into his entire composition through his very personal style, made of assonances, orthographic inventions, rhetorical artifices, semantic ambivalences, all converging into an encyclopedic creative lexicon that transcends the canons of both technical scientific manuals and the lyrical tradition.

25. Queneau synthesizes his own operation in these terms in his article Science and Literature, published in The Times Literary Supplement (28 September 1967): 863-64 (863).

26. An effective example is offered by the twenty-first element, scandium, with which Queneau whimsically closes his periodic table, giving his chemical world a deliberately incomplete systematization for blatantly personal, autobiographical reasons – at the opposite end of the spectrum from Eliot’s poetics of depersonalization. An interesting comment by Giuseppe Ungaretti in a letter to Jean Paulhan synthesizes Gadda’s comparably illogical stance coexisting with his scientific background: «En plus il est homme de science, mais quand il se propose de philosopher, il baragouine. Il se peut que les philosophes ne sachent pas faire autre chose» (Paulhan & Ungaretti 1989: 611, n. 454).

27. P. Levi & T. Regge, Dialogo (Milano: Mondadori, 1994): 67.

28. P. Laszlo, La chimie comme Romanesque, in Alliage (1991), 9: 47-57 (47).

29. R. Levi Montalcini, In Praise of Imperfection (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 5.

30. R. Hoffmann, Under the Surface of the Chemical Article, in Angewandte Chemie (1998) 27 (12): 1593-602 (1602).

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859
ISBN 1-904371-19-1

© 2011-2023 Nicoletta Pireddu & EJGS. First published in EJGS, Supplement no. 9, EJGS 7/2011-2017.

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