Tiepolo Brave New World

The Modern Macaronic

Albert Sbragia

Sed prius altorium vestrum chiamare bisognat, o macaronaeam Musae quae funditis artem.

Teofilo Folengo, Baldus 1:5-6

Connais-tu les livres de Gadda, et son dernier: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana? Je t’en parlais dans ma dernière lettre. La fureur de Sade est inégalable; mais la fureur de Gadda est digne qu’on la dise une véritable fureur. Le récit: c’est Flaubert l’auteur auquel il fait plutôt penser: tout Flaubert, y compris, bien entendu, Bouvard et Pécuchet. Le langage: Gadda sans doute est plus près de Rabelais que de Joyce, mais il n’oublie pas qu’il y a eu dernièrement sur terre Joyce, tout en suivant naturellement la tradition italienne.

Giuseppe Ungaretti to Jean Paulhan,
letter of 16 March 1958.

The first half of the twentieth century was witness to the rebirth of the ancient tradition of the macaronic. The verbal and archetypal gigantism of Teofilo Folengo and François Rabelais relived in transmuted form in the polyphonic plurilingualism and physicality of authors such as James Joyce, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Carlo Emilio Gadda. Their works are emblematic of a strain of modernism that grapples with the crisis of nineteenth century mimetic realism by exasperating its precepts. They seek innovation and adequate metaphors for the complexity or horror of modernity by evoking its pre-modern representational origins.

Having worked for many years in Italy and abroad as an electro-technical engineer, Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973) remained for most of his career a difficult and obscure author. Much of his work consisted of narrative fragments or poèmes en prose (Contini 1989: 19) written in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, published in elite literary journals such as the Florentine Solaria and Letteratura and appreciated by a small coterie of critics and literati.

In 1957 the publication in volume of his stunning Roman detective novel, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana ( That Awful Mess on Via Merulana), propelled the reclusive Milanese author to instant national fame. «I’ve become a sort of Lollobrigido, of Sophio Loren», he wrote to friend Domenico Marchetti (Gadda 1983c: 60-61). Six years later, in 1963, the seventy-year-old Gadda became a European cause célèbre when La cognizione del dolore (Acquainted with Grief) was also published in volume and was awarded the Formentor Prix International de Littérature, attracting essays by major European authors and men of culture such as Michel Butor and Hans Enzensberger. (1) Both works had originally been written years earlier, Cognizione in 1938-41 and Pasticciaccio in 1946, and their republication led to the ransacking of Gadda’s numerous unfinished manuscripts and correspondence, which have been published in the succeeding years. As was the case some four decades previously with one of Italy’s first great modernists, Italo Svevo, who was brought to European notice by his English tutor James Joyce, Gadda achieved recognition only at the end of his life, and only decades after most of his works had first been written. Since then Gadda has become established as a literary giant in the twentieth-century Italian canon, an author whose name is synonymous with linguistic experimentalism and the modern resuscitation of the Italian macaronic tradition.

The language question in Italy

The linkage of Gadda and the macaronic has been to a large extent the work of a single, eminent literary critic and philologist, Gianfranco Contini. The two first met in May of 1934 after Contini was converted to Gadda’s cause by the poet Eugenio Montale (Gadda 1988b: 7). Contini’s essay of the same period, Carlo Emilio Gadda, o del pastiche, is laudable in its elevation of Gadda beyond the circumscribed Italian literary debate in the early 1930s of calligrafismo versus contenutismo (roughly form versus content) to a farsighted historical perspective that associates him with both the late-nineteenth-century Lombard and Piedmontese Scapigliati (Dossi-Faldella) and the erudite humanism of the Renaissance pasticheurs from the Italian macaronic poets to Rabelais (Contini 1989: 3-4). (2) The operation served a dual purpose for the philological Contini. It immediately lent to Gadda a canonical status, and it provided the critic with a contemporary pole around which the emarginated linguistic irregulars of the Italian literary tradition could be gathered. Contini would remain obstinately faithful to the co-ordinates of this macaronic lineage in all of his subsequent essays on Gadda, many of which were entries for encyclopaedias or anthologies, thereby adding to their authority of peremptory declarations.

The most seminal and influential of these later essays is Contini’s introduction to the 1963 edition of La cognizione del dolore (in plenu caso Gadda). Not only are the Scapigliati reaffirmed as Gadda’s true «elective environment», but the association with the Renaissance macaronic is more emphatic still. With «typical disproportion between the inanity of the object and the extreme artfulness of the literary application», Gadda’s «extraordinary pezzi di bravura» seem to issue «from the ancient and pacifying quills of the Renaissance Folengo or Rabelais». The result is that of a «macaronic art exercised on a Freudian material» (Contini 1989: 19). Contini concludes by locating Gadda within an exquisitely traced symphony of echoes and linguistic interests – from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Alberto Arbasino, from Beppe Fenoglio to Lucio Mastronardi, from Roma, città aperta to Ermanno Olmi! – at the centre of which is Gadda: «All around him there is in contemporary linguistic Italy a grand resonating chamber» (35).

Contini’s approach also places Gadda squarely within the age-old normative language debate in Italy, the questione della lingua. It begs the question of Gadda’s function in the peculiar linguistic evolution of spoken and literary Italian, of which the historical macaronic is an illustrative episode. (3)

The Renaissance macaronic in its purest form is a northern Italian creation with its precedents in medieval burlesque, goliardic verse and sacred parodies, and with extra-Italian continuators and resonances in various European countries and in Rabelais. (4) Its origins lie in the late fifteenth-century Benedictine athenaeum of Padua and specifically in the linguistic experimentalism of Tifi Odasi, whose poem Macaronea defines the genre. Its fame was assured in the first half of the following century by Odasi’s Mantuan pupil and emulator Teofilo Folengo (pseudonym Merlin Cocai). Folengo’s Baldus (four editions: 1517, 1521, 1534-35, and posthumously in 1552) is a mock-epic poem of giants and farfetched chivalric adventures including the discovery of the mouth of the Nile and a final descent into Hell. Baldus is the genre’s acknowledged masterpiece, and it enjoyed a notable popularity in the 1500s with over a dozen editions and reprintings. It was not without influence on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which it is cited more than once. Such was the perceived connection that the first French translation of Folengo’s works in 1606 bore the title Histoire maccaronique de Merlin Coccaie, prototype de Rablais. (5)

The original macaronic is characterised linguistically by its vocabulary of Italian, dialect, and Latin words within a substantially Latin morphological, syntactic, and prosodic form. The hybridisation is typically trilingual in the northern Italian macaronic poets involving Latin, Italian (Tuscan), and Po Valley dialects. (6) Not the natural or ingenuous product of a native plurilingualism, the Italian macaronic is a sophisticated caricatural artifice, a linguistic parody which exploits the situation of polyglossia experienced by the cultural elite. (7) The demise of the original macaronic is due precisely to the success of the Italian humanists in their philological recuperation of classical Latin which had made possible the complexity of macaronic verse in the first place. Latin as a literary language was frozen in a normative a chronological straitjacket as an eminently noble but irremeably ancient language. As a result, Tuscan Italian was finally able to assert itself fully as the contemporary national language of letters, and it underwent much of the same normative and chronological classicising restrictions as had Latin. From a state of triglossia the linguistic and literary evolution the Italian peninsula would evolve more clearly as a case of fragmented diglossia, with numerous epicentres of dialect in tension with written and literary Italian.

The contemporary rehabilitation of the term macaronic has consequently involved an extension of its classical definition to a broader category of literary works of a composite linguistic nature. Cesare Segre has argued that the determining criterion for the macaronic is not the presence of Latin and the vernacular, but the stylistic and diachronic «interference» among the various elements of the linguistic pastiche. This would separate a truly macaronic Italian line (Folengo-Scapigliati-Gadda) from other plurilingual writers such as Pasolini or Arbasino who engage in juxtaposition of language and dialect but without their mutual interference (Segre 1979: 173-74, 178). It can be added that the modern macaronic writers operate a specifically historical appeal to the parodic and archetypal features of the original Renaissance macaronic-Rabelaisian ribaldry. (8)

To understand the linguistic peculiarities of the Italian literary tradition, it is necessary to recur to the plurilinguistic anomaly of the Italian peninsula. This plurilingualism is largely the consequence of the precocious unification of a national literary language contrasted by the comparatively late social and political unification of the Italian nation. With the exception of Tuscany and certain elements of papal Rome, the Italian language remained for centuries an exclusively literary and in many ways archaic language. Fixed in its Trecento Tuscan and Florentine forms and Cinquecento normative prescriptions, Italian was a language with a latitudinally narrow scope, suitable for high literary expression while everyday communication continued to be carried out in local dialect, to the point that Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II, habitually used his native Piedmontese dialect even in meetings with his ministers (De Mauro 1979: 32). At the moment of Italian unification in 1870, the linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli observed that the centrifugal pull of the various dialects of the Italian peninsula had for centuries remained uncountered by the centripetal forces necessary to the establishment of a truly national language. The peninsula remained politically fragmented, ruled by local princes and occupying foreign powers long after the other major nations in Western Europe. There did not occur in Italy the demographic, economic, political, and intellectual concentration achieved by Spain, France or England through national unification, and there was no capital city to serve as a national linguistic model. Nor had there been the cultural and linguistic unifying force of a religious Reformation as in the German states (16-17).

The consequences of this unusual evolution of the Italian national language are not as far removed from the situation of a twentieth-century author as one might at first suspect. This is especially true in the case of an author such as Gadda whose literary expressionism is firmly grounded in the historical anomalies of the Italian language, in the ongoing vitality of the nation’s dialects after unification, and in the uniquely archaic characteristics of literary Italian.

As Contini notes, what ultimately distinguishes the expressionism of the Italian Gadda from that of the German expressionists, or Joyce, or Céline, is Gadda’s abundant recourse to the reserves of dialect. This is linked to the elementary fact that «Italian is substantially the only great national literature whose production in dialect constitutes a visceral and inseparable corpus with the rest of the patrimony» (Contini 1989: 26). The dialectal literary lineage in Italy is diverse, with representatives in the great Roman and Milanese Romantic poets Giuseppe Gioachino Belli and Carlo Porta, in the Venetian Goldoni, in the multidialectal commedia dell’arte tradition, to name only a few. A heightened awareness of the defining patrimony of dialect and language can be traced to the beginnings of the Italian literary tradition in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia or in the thirteenth-century Sicilian school. Cielo d’Alcamo’s parodic contrasto, Rosa fresca aulentissima, with which Francesco De Sanctis began his monumental history of Italian literature, is proof that «the bilingualism of poesia illustre and poesia dialettale is absolutely original and constitutive of Italian literature» (29).

Gadda’s use of dialect is unique in several ways. He recurs to many different dialects, passing through Milanese, Florentine, and Roman phases with significant forays into Venetian and Neapolitan. He uses dialect – and foreign languages, especially Spanish, French, and Latin – in expressionistic and not merely naturalistic ways, through the macaronic interference between dialect and Italian, or dialect and dialect, through the mixture of Italian and dialect in free indirect discourse, through a recuperation of archaic forms, especially in his use of Florentine.

As concerns the evolution of Italian itself the fact that for centuries it had remained largely a written language, together with the early triumph of highly conservative normative attitudes (Bembism, Accademia della Crusca), created a situation of near stasis up until and beyond unification in 1870. Its phonemes and variants in 1870 were essentially those of archaic Florentine. Its lexical and morphological innovations did not consist of substitutions and transformations but of the addition of new elements to the previous ones, and most of these came from Latin and not popular sources. Characterised by an extremely high incidence of morphological, lexical, and phraseological polymorphism, the Italian language over the centuries retained intact practically all of its lexical and morphological variants since they were not affected by the selective nature and economic tendencies of a spoken language in broad usage. Semantically, Italian was luxuriously polymorphous in the higher, literary registers but atrociously inadequate in the lower, spoken registers, since everyday communication was the realm of dialect (De Mauro 1979: 28-30).

Gadda’s linguistic experimentalism hinges on his complete exploitation of this rich linguistic variance (phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic) of literary Italian and its constitutive archaicism. He practises an aggressive «linguistic ecumenism» (Segre 1979: 178) and defends his right of access to the entire polymorphic treasure house of the Italian tradition:

I want the doublet-doubloons («i doppioni»), all of them, for the sake of my mania of possession and greed, and I also want the triploons, and the quadruploons, even if the Catholic King has not yet coined them, and all the synonyms, used in their variegated meanings and shades of meaning, of current usage, or extremely rare usage. And so I say no to the proposal of the great and venerated Alessandro [Manzoni], who would want nothing less than to prune, etc. etc., in order to unify and codify: «within the laws, I removed the excessive and the useless». The excessive and the useless do not exist, for a language. (Lingua letteraria e lingua dell’uso, SGF I 490)

Gadda’s contribution to the questione della lingua can be characterised as an advocation of the entire gamut of the peninsula’s vertical, diachronic, and geographical language heterogeneity. It is a position that evolves in the context of a series of eclectic influences including his technical formation; his preparation in philosophy, mathematics, and classical literature; his travels within Italy and abroad; and, most importantly, his insistence on viewing the writer’s task as the creation of a «critical epitome» (Meditazione milanese, SVP 836) of reality’s open-ended multiplicity, flux, and deformation.

Language and linguistic expressionism were key factors in Gadda’s exaltation by critics and neophytes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his instant celebrity was connected in part to the widespread sense of restlessness with an exhausted neorealist legacy. Pier Paolo Pasolini accused neorealism of practising a naive and falsifying «prospectivism». Giorgio Bassani rejected out of hand the wave of novels by «ex-truck drivers and ex-kitchen hands» for a Manzonian literature of the heart. Italo Calvino abandoned the last vestiges of his neorealist poetics and went into self-imposed exile in Paris where he embraced new scientific and combinatory paradigms. Neorealist cinema had yielded to a new Italian cinema d’auteurs in Fellini and Antonioni. Everywhere there were the manifestations of a sea change in the dominant literary and cinematic culture that paralleled the emergence of the new Italy of the economic boom.

Gadda had preceded and never succumbed to the neorealist wave. He had criticised the school roundly for what he saw as its insipid social realism at the expense of any sort of Kantian «noumenal dimension» (Un’opinione sul neorealismo, SGF I 629-30). When Gadda burst on the national literary consciousness in 1957 with his Roman novel Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, he was seized as the example of an author in whom form and expressivity were one with the complexity and alienation of modern reality. There was an outcrop of literary followers and novelists in dialect whom writer Alberto Arbasino called Gadda’s «nipotini», his nephews or grandchildren, including writers such as Giovanni Testori, Pasolini, and Arbasino himself. Gadda also became rallying cry for the Italian neo-avant-garde Gruppo ’63, which declared at its 1965 convention that the new experimental novel must take Gadda’s Pasticciaccio as its starting point, though improving on it. Group member Angelo Guglielmi’s anthology of the same year, Vent’anni di impazienza, reiterated this position by casting Gadda as the founding inspiration for the new experimental writers. (9) For the awkward and conservative Gadda his popularity at the hands of the new literary rebels was at times embarrassing, at times annoying. He even had to undergo the distress of defending his bourgeois attitudes to disillusioned young readers who assumed from his writings that he had to be a communist (Cattaneo 1991: 117).

During this same period, in December of 1964, the most passionate recent episode of the centuries-old language debate exploded with the publication in Rinascita of Pasolini’s polemical essay Nuove questioni linguistiche. (10) Pasolini’s vision of Italy’s postwar linguistic state was one of a renewed triglossia, with an impoverished «bourgeois», «bureaucratic» and «clerico-fascist» middle line of standard Italian contrasted from above by a high line of literary expressionism and from below by a low line of dialect and popular speech. Reviewing the relationship of contemporary Italian writers with this linguistic scenario, Pasolini declared that it was only the anomalous Gadda who fully exploited the expressive potentiality of the Italian situation. Gadda’s use of a plurilingual free indirect discourse created a «serpentine line» which intersected all three horizontal lines – low, middle, high – of the Italian triglossia. Its power lay in its ability to absorb the «sublinguistic materials» of the lower languages and elevate them, not «to the level of everyday language in order to be worked out and objectified as a contribution to ordinary Italian» but to the very high level where they are «worked out in an expressive or expressionist way» (Pasolini 1988: 8). For Pasolini, Gadda represented an extreme example of the possibilities of energising the national language through a literary operation. But given the new linguistic situation in Italy this cultured operation was already impossible. Pasolini’s provocative and apocalyptic thesis was that finally «Italian has been born as a nation language»not via any literary operation but through the rise of an all powerful technological and instrumental Italian with its origins in the industrial north. The vast power of homologation of this language was a «new spirituality» which was attacking the Italian language from deep within, threatening the very existence of both its expressive literary resources and its rejuvenating dialects (16-17).

Among those called upon to respond to Pasolini’s dire scenario was Italo Calvino. The technological language which Pasolini feared was welcomed by Calvino as a positive and practical influx of precision and clarity against the «semantic terror» of the bureaucratic «antilanguage». (11) It was an argument somewhat analogous to Gadda’s own decades earlier in the 1929 Le belle lettere e i contributi espressivi delle tecniche (SGF I 475-88). For Calvino, the parties of the modern questione della lingua needed to turn away once and for all from the outdated polemic between an inadequate national language and the revitalising power of Italy’s dialects – «I have never thought that the dialects were health and truth» (Calvino 1980: 121) – and focus instead on the communicative competitiveness of Italian vis-à-vis the international community of languages. Italian would benefit from the confrontation with the possibility of finally being streamlined into an effective communicative instrument and modern language. Like the other modern languages it would concentrate itself around two poles, one of immediate «translatability» into other languages as part of a «world-wide international language on an elevated plane», the other around which would be distilled «language’s special essence and creativity, untranslatable par excellence, and entrusted to diverse linguistic institutions such as popular argot and the poetic creativity of literature». (12)

Pasolini had lamented the instant demise of Gadda as a possible standard of excellence for the national language. Calvino maintained a place for him as a standard of excellence for the national language’s expressive pole, which was, in its own way, a new marginalisation. Of the two scenarios for the national language, it was Calvino’s which presented the Italian cultural establishment with a true praxis or plan of attack to influence positively the nation’s linguistic and literary destiny. And certainly Calvino himself has been the contemporary Italian author who was able to best combine literary internationalism, technological precision, and language’s secret essence. And so he became Italy’s most respected and translatable author and its first literary postmodernist, all the while decrying the pernicious spread of the antilanguage. For Pasolini, there was left only the rebellion of extremity of a modern Cassandra and a nostalgia for Gadda.

A nostalgia for Gadda was born at the moment of his eruption on the national literary scene. His arrival was too late. Not in tune with Calvino’s lightness, nor with Eco’s ironic revisitation of the past, Gadda’s difficult macaronic prose makes him Italy’s most untranslatable author (despite the noble efforts of William Weaver). His literature is a heavy and tangled knot or groviglio; hisencounter with the past – his own, that of literature, that of humanity – is visceral, typically anguished. He is Italy’s last great narrative modernist, Svevo and Pirandello being the first and only others. In the span of a few years Gadda had acquired the monumentality of an author who embodied a unique and centuries-long national legacy of plurilingualism besieged by a new postindustrial linguistic order. In a 1984 conference at the Roman Accademia dei Lincei on linguistic expressivity in Italian literature, Cesare Segre, the architect after Contini of the notion of a «macaronic tradition» in modern Italian literature, declared that Gadda represented a literary situation of a «not yet» and «never more». His expressionism seemed destined to remain an unrepeatable phenomenon, «and if there are still roads open to the novel, probably they are neither that of expressionism, nor that of polyphony». (13)

Romanticism and subjectivity

In the grandiose design of Italian literary history that is Francesco De Sanctis’s Storia della letteratura italiana, the Renaissance is characterised by the struggle between form and content, Ariosto and Machiavelli. Ariosto’s meticulously crafted Orlando Furioso is the triumph of ideal form over content. Machiavelli is the affirmation of a new and vital attention to a true human content, pointing the way to both a resurgent national spirit and the emergence of modern scientific thought. Between these two vertices of the Italian literary Renaissance De Sanctis dedicates an entire chapter of his history to Teofilo Folengo. It is an uncharacteristic indulgence toward a minor author whom De Sanctis locates at one of the most critical points in the Storia’s unfolding saga of the Italian national-literary consciousness.

After two centuries of neglect, the rehabilitation of the Italian macaronic in the early 1800s was in large part the work of the German school of Romantic philology. De Sanctis appears to have first acquired his interest in Folengo during his thirty-two months in a Naples prison after the 1848 uprisings. Part of that time he spent translating Karl Rosenkranz’s Handbuch einer allgemeinen Geschichte der Poesie, in which Rosenkranz had sketched a portrait of Folengo with all the requisite Romantic rebelliousness (Cordié 1977: xvi-xvii). De Sanctis would carry into his Storia elements of that Romantic iconography grounded on a largely apocryphal biography provided by the mocking jester Folengo himself, to which the critic, given the ideological thrust of his own opus, readily fell victim. The Merlino Cocaio of De Sanctis’s Storia is a reckless daredevil and student of the freethinking naturalist Pietro Pomponazzi. His life was one of challenges, duels, and adventures, having fled the Benedictine order for a woman and lived for many years in a penniless and cynical vagabondage: «He treated society as an enemy, spit in its face, bursting forth in a laughter pregnant with bile». (14) Underneath its parody, De Sanctis argues, Merlino’s macaronic art excels for its satire of the beliefs, customs and institutions, linguistic as well as political and religious, of a prejudiced and vitiated society. His verses possess a colourful and rapid realism reminiscent of Dante’s, a language that is anathema to the horror of the particular and vague generalities of an age of rhetoric. Merlino takes the comic to an «extreme of humour» informed by an open-ended and cynical «universal negation». Confused glimpses of a new world can be seen but have no hold over his capricious fantasy (De Sanctis 1973: 487-95).

The subsequent attention to Folengo in the first decades of this century by critics such as Attilio Momigliano or Giuseppe Billanovich sought to correct the apocryphal inaccuracies of De Sanctis’s portrait while moderating the Romantic features of his critical assessment. Cesare Segre in his reconstruction of the extended macaronic line from Folengo to Gadda sums up this re-evaluation of the macaronic by concluding that the mockery of the macaronic writers is in the end incompatible with a reordering of the world. They are not revolutionaries but the purveyors of a «permanent contestation», one which goes beyond any specific political, religious, or moral polemic to «lay siege to the foundations of our comprehension and representation of the world» (Segre 1979: 183). Segre rises above the biographical peculiarities of his two macaronic end-point planets, Folengo and Gadda, to offer an ontological essence of the macaronic literary enterprise. Yet to do so is perhaps to distort the historical and evolutionary dynamic of the modern macaronic, a dynamic that is played out in the autobiographical configuration of Gadda himself.

In spite of his inflated remonstrances to the contrary, Gadda’s bilious satire is definitely linked as much to the «machinating liver» of the author as to that of reality (L’Editore chiede venia del recupero chiamando in causa l’Autore, RR I 761). In his essays on language and literature gathered in I viaggi la morte, Gadda declares that the writer’s task must be a vigilant identification and extirpation of fraud in the bowels of language. The macaronic is useful, he writes, when it «pulverises and dissolves into nothingness every abuse […] made of reason and language through the words of fraud» (Fatto personale… o quasi, SGF I 496). This vocation goes beyond the macaronic to characterise the operation of the greatest writers of the Italian literary tradition. Boccaccio, Dante, Galileo, and Manzoni all «raise at times the edifice of judgement over a single phrase or word which is sagaciously borrowed and diabolically inserted into the text to the derision and confusion of the defrauders» (Meditazione breve circa il dire e il fare, 452). This is the writer’s «heroic operation», similar to that of the philosopher outlined in Gadda’s 1928 speculative treatise Meditazione milanese. But for the «human residue» that is left behind there is often a different fate: «alone in the world, for no human can tolerate him, death alone awaits him» (SVP 849).

The misfortunes of family, war, society, and a «tragic, useless life» had generated an «obscure illness» in Gadda, much like that suffered by his autobiographical protagonist Gonzalo Pirobutirro. The result is a linguistic and epistemological vigilance gone haywire: fraud is found everywhere and the resulting negation of universe and self is much more vicious than anything De Sanctis found in Folengo. Gonzalo knows that to deny the world is to deny himself but for him the macaronic mockery becomes a destructive compulsion, one which Céline also experienced, and it bears within itself the threat of subjective annihilation.

The reader who peruses the pages of Gadda’s World War I diary or his notes to his earliest manuscripts is struck by a rhetoric of great souls and tragic denial which bespeaks not only a youthful ingenuousness – and we are talking about a man well into his twenties – but a historical anachronism. Gadda has traditionally been seen as a creature more at ease in a nineteenth-century world than in the twentieth century, and it is not erroneous in his regard to speak of a Romantic spirit, or, as he preferred to refer to himself, of «a Romantic kicked in the pants» by reality and destiny (Un’opinione sul neorealismo, SGF I 629). Lyricism and satire are the two poles toward which he declared that he gravitated, and his works have been criticised for their spastic evasions into a highly stylised lyrical sublime or, conversely, into a low sphere of ridicule and ridiculousness. The odd mixture of the ethereal sublime and low mockery is a trait of the original macaronic, but in Gadda, who sardonically traced his literary lineage in La cognizione del dolore to Jean Paul Richter, the macaronic grotesque merges with the Romantic grotesque and its crisis of subjective wholeness.

The resuscitation of the macaronic as an object of historical inquiry by the German Romantics was part of an overall reconfiguration of the classical division of the comic and sublime genres. Friedrich Schlegel’s metamorphosis of irony from a rhetorical trope to a metaphysical implement for transcending from the worldly finite to the spiritually infinite marked the beginning of the modern quest for a transcendental integration of the comic into the discourse of the sublime. Jean Paul declared in courses six and seven of the Vorschule der Aesthetik that the ridiculous in its contrast of the finite with the finite was «the hereditary enemy of the sublime», whereas humour, or the Romantic comic, contrasted man’s infinity with his finitude, ultimately in the name of the triumph of the infinite idea. Most successive elaborations on humour, irony, and the Kantian divide in the nineteenth century would be a reworking of the notion of the metaphysical split between the comic empirical self and the contemplative transcendent self.

Romantic humorism destabilises the false sublimity of objective finitude within the framework of a continual teleological quest for subjective infinity. The Romantic text equates its own sublime nature with this subjective infinity. As such it calls unto itself the entire spectrum of subjective experience, including the comical ridiculousness of the empirical self. The operation of totalisation is not without its dangers. What was previously the comic disembowelment of another’s discourse in pre-modern parody and satire now becomes a necessary and purposeful self-mutilation. This is the reason behind what Bakhtin calls the transformation of the «joyful and triumphant hilarity» of the Renaissance grotesque into Romanticism’s grotesque of «cold humour», its «melancholic» and «frightful» subjectivity. (15) The comic becomes a source of pain in the Romantic text since it is inflicted on the subjectivity of the text itself. It is no surprise that Romantic humorism and its modern variants harbour a profound melancholy. Humour, Jean Paul stated, contains both pain and greatness; it walks with a tragic mask in hand.

Italy’s foremost, albeit tardy, contributor to the European debate on humour was Luigi Pirandello. Pirandello’s 1908 essay on humour, L’umorismo, is most memorable for its opposition of the traditional comic as a mere «perception of the opposite» on the part of the observing subject or reader versus humour’s generation of a subjective investment in the object via its «feeling of the opposite». Pirandello takes the example of an old woman who tries to make herself over as a young girl with ridiculous results. If we remain at the level of the traditional comic we merely perceive that the woman is the ridiculous opposite of what a good old lady should be, and we laugh. A humorous attitude requires us instead to reflect on the possible reasons behind the woman’s grotesque maquillage; we thereby reach a higher state of awareness of and involvement with her inner drama.

Pirandello’s argument is conditioned in part by his debate with Benedetto Croce over the role of reflection in art, Croce’s position being that reflection (philosophy) in the work of art is alien to art’s natural constitution as pure intuition. The appeal to reflection in Pirandello’s theatre is contained in his dismantlement of the mechanisms of theatrical fiction and his philosophising characters in metaphysical crisis. These are also hallmarks of his modernity, and they condition his special relationship with the tradition of the commedia dell’arte.

As do other early modern forms of the comic, the commedia dell’arte undergoes a gradual transformation from the physical, obscene, and ridiculing black-faced masks of its early tradition to Goldoni’s reform in the service of a new «commedia di carattere» to the dreamy or catatonic lunacy of the white-faced Pierrot. (16) With its dialectic between the face and the mask, authenticity and form, Pirandello’s theatre completes the metaphysical transformation of the original commedia dell’arte’s exuberance into the unhappy consciousness and frightening grotesque of modernity. The original commedia masks are barely recognisable. The characters imprisoned in their eternal masks of grief and pain in Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore communicate in a modern metaphysical language of alienation and relativity.

The Pirandellian character is often aware of the critical potentialities of buffoonish dismantlement. The eponymous protagonist of Enrico IV uses his feigned madness in a deliberate fashion to satirise the myth of subjective wholeness in others. At the same time he suffers their same anxiety of wanting to be whole and authentic, the satire becomes a self-mutilation, and the play ends tragically with Enrico’s withdrawal back into the mask of madness.

In the years immediately following the student-worker upheavals of 1968, actor and playwright Dario Fo made an attempt to break away from the theatre of subjective crisis through a politicised recuperation of the pre-modern tradition of popular comic performance. In his Mistero buffo shows of the early seventies, Fo sought, with the help of cultural historians, to reconstruct the tradition of the satiric medieval giullari and the pre-commedia dialect theatre of Ruzante. The satirical and plurilingual giullarate were enacted by Fo himself, «giullare [minstrel] of the people in the midst of the people», and were interspersed with commentary and satiric puns on the contemporary Italian scene in an aggressive theatre of «propaganda and provocation». (17) Fo’s giullarate and contemporary farces also sought to do away with the Pirandellian discourse of subjective crisis as a bourgeois convention that was extraneous to popular theatre. The contrast is evident in the comparison of the central figures of the fool in Pirandello and Fo. In Pirandello’s Enrico IV the protagonist feigns a folly that illustrates modern man’s crisis of alienated subjectivity and failed communication. Fo’s madman or Matto in Morte accidentale di un anarchico embraces a schizophrenic madness of multiple personalities not as the metaphor of subjective alienation but as a tool to ridicule and subvert the oppressive institutions of the capitalist police state.

Fo’s efforts at a politicised revival of a certain carnival tradition raise the question of the liberating quality of carnivalesque laughter. In reaction to Bakhtin’s idealisation of the carnival’s revolutionary qualities, various respondents have criticised the carnivalesque as being ultimately more conservative than rebellious. Terry Eagleton has argued that carnival is «a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off as disturbing and relatively ineffectual as a revolutionary work of art». (18) Umberto Eco asserts that the moment of transgression of the carnivalesque «can exist only if a background of unquestioned observance exists» whereas the «feeling of the opposite» generated by Pirandello’s humour discusses and questions the rules and therefore constitutes a «conscious and explicit» criticism. (19) But modern humour is also bound to the constraints or rules of the society and ideology in which it has flourished, modern bourgeois democracy. Democratic ideology sanctions the right to protest and criticise. Constant criticism is hailed in fact as the internal dynamism of its quest for overcoming and betterment, its mythos of progress. But in truth it is an ideology that can criticise only itself, for in its subjective infinity it sanctions only itself. (20)

Gadda is closer in spirit to Pirandello than to Fo, a confirmation that the carnivalesque in his works is subservient to a darker modern comic, André Breton’s humour noir. Gadda continues the Pirandellian discourse of alienated masks and subjectivity in crisis, although merged with what Gian Carlo Roscioni has called a Sternian humorism of autobiographical character (Roscioni 1994: 147-62). Gonzalo Pirobutirro wears many masks, from those of Molière’s Misanthrope and Avare to the «tragic mask on the metope of the theatre» (Cognizione, RR I 682,704; Acquainted with Grief, 144, 171). What distinguishes Gadda’s works in this regard is his amalgam of both the Renaissance comic and the Romantic sublime. Gadda retains the languages of both carnivalesque parody and melancholic humorism, both the comic objectivity and the melancholic subjectivity, as in the following passage of young Gonzalo Pirobutirro’s scientific curiosity at the expense of an innocent cat:

Avendogli un dottore ebreo, nel legger matematiche a Pastrufazio, e col sussidio del calcolo, dimostrato come pervenga il gatto (di qualunque doccia cadendo) ad arrivar sanissimo al suolo in sulle quattro zampe, che è una meravigliosa applicazione ginnica del teorema dell’impulso, egli precipitò più volte un bel gatto dal secondo piano della villa, fatto curioso di sperimentare il teorema. E la povera bestiola, atterrando, gli diè difatti la desiderata conferma, ogni volta, ogni volta! come un pensiero che, traverso fortune, non intermetta dall’essere eterno; ma, in quanto gatto, poco dopo morì, con occhi velati d’una irrevocabile tristezza, immalinconito da quell’oltraggio. Poiché ogni oltraggio è morte. (Cognizione, RR I 598)

[Since a Jewish doctor, in reading mathematics at Pastrufazio, and with the help of calculus, had demonstrated to him how the cat (from whatever drainpipe it falls) can safely reach the ground on all four paws, which is a marvellous gymnastic application of the theorem of impulse, he at various times hurled a handsome cat from the third floor of the villa, having become curious to test the theorem. And the poor animal, landing, in fact furnished him each time with the desired confirmation, each time! Each time! Like a thought that, through every vicissitude, never ceases being eternal; but, as cat, it died shortly thereafter, its eyes veiled with irrevocable sadness, made melancholy by that outrage. Because all outrage is death. (Acquainted with Grief, 39)]

Pier Paolo Pasolini deliberately chose this unassuming passage from Gadda’s La cognizione del dolore to analyse the reasons for his love of Gadda. Pasolini notes that there is a double literary pastiche at work: a modern imitation of an Italian Renaissance or Humanist adaptation of a well-crafted Ciceronian period (Pasolini 1963: 61). The passage also constitutes an understated imitation of a Rabelaisian scholastic parody, culminating in the comic exaggeration of the cat being scrupulously and repeatedly dropped from the third floor of the villa in the name of science. One is reminded of young Gargantua’s scientific experimentation to find the perfect torchecul or arsewipe. But in Gadda’s novel the vehicle of laughter, the cat, does not remain a mere objective prop for the parodic mockery of official or scientific discourse as does Rabelais’s well-downed goose. Gadda’s cat retains this comic function, but it is also infused with an irrevocable sadness and melancholy. From comic object the cat is subjectified into both an empirical subject, «as cat», and a transcendental subject, «like a thought that, through every vicissitude, never ceases being eternal». Ultimately, the cat becomes a metaphor for the tragically sublime nature of the existential condition, subjected to outrage and death.

More than Gadda’s well-crafted pastiche, it is this transformation into a painful subjectivity that is the true reason, Pasolini confesses, why he so loves Gadda. From the comic arises a deep-felt pietas for the poor cat, a «creature that neither knows nor asks for anything», and a hatred for himself the child, perpetrator of the world’s atrocity. The verbal bravura is even more a self-defence, a mask behind which subjectivity’s painfulness is distilled into language itself, since in reality it is not so much the little subject, the kitty or «gattino», as Pasolini puts it, that is thrown from the window but the big subject, «il Gaddone» (Pasolini 1963: 64-66). Subjectivity is both tormentor and victim in a melancholic ritual of self-mutilation, a ritual which Pasolini himself engaged in to an extreme degree in his last, desperate film, Salò.

The modern macaronic

Zucca mihi patria est.

Teofilo Folengo, Baldus 25: 649

The modern crisis of subjective wholeness receives its fullest expression in the novel,the genre of modernity. One of the most suggestive readings of this crisis continues to be that of György Lukács in The Theory of the Novel. For Lukács, the novel is the giving of form to a problematic modernity. The lack of a spontaneous totality of being in a modern society that still thinks in terms of totality becomes the problem of the novel form. Its epic story is that of the conflict between the soul and the fragmentary and out-of-joint structure of the world. In a later preface, Lukács stated that his immediate motive for writing The Theory of the Novel in 1914-15 was supplied by the outbreak of the First World War and his «vehement […] and scarcely articulate rejection of the war and especially of enthusiasm for the war». This work was written «in a mood of permanent despair over the world». (21) Lukács began writing the horrific lesson of the Great War before it had unfolded. For others the war had to be lived as the apocalypse of fragmentation that converted a generation of enthusiasts into disillusionists.

The nightmarish voyage of Céline’s Bardamu begins with the war, «shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, whole continents, everything that breathes». (22) And yet Sergeant Destouches’s valour had made him national hero early in the war. Before Italy’s 1915 entrance into the war Gadda was a committed interventionist, and he volunteered to fight immediately. He saw the war as his final chance (at twenty-two years of age) to achieve both personal heroism and subjective wholeness. At the end of the war he was no hero but an abject and shattered man (and still very much a militarist). The Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento [An Italian Tale by an Unknown Author of the Twentieth Century] (written in 1924) was his first attempt at a novel. It was to have depicted a disintegrated, postwar Italian society. The book never advanced beyond a few scattered fragments. Reality had become for Gadda the hypertrophy of the part, continual flux, grotesque deformation, deformed multiplicity, impossible closure, extreme decombination. The rest of his career was spent trying to give form to the fragmentation.

For Lukács there is a clear caesura in the history of epic fiction: integrated civilisation and a problematic civilisation, a classical totality and a modern fragmentation, the epic and the novel. Other historians of the novel are less apocalyptic: they see evolution as much as rupture; they see a progressive evolution of mimesis, language, and dialogue. Auerbach’s grand march of Western realism is the unfolding history of serious treatment of the humble and everyday. Its origins are in the early Christian sermo umilis and its culmination in the great realist novels of the nineteenth century. In more recent years the study of the novel has shifted focus from the notion of its mimesis of reality to the Bakhtinian thesis of the novel as a forum for the dialogic exchange of competing ideologies and languages. At the origins of the modern tradition of novelistic discourse, there are for Bakhtin «laughter» and «polyglossia». The prehistory of novelistic discourse is the history of the «parodic-travestying forms» that were found alongside every «straightforward genre» in the ancient and pre-modern world. Lukács’s integrated word of the classical world finds its constant parodic counter-song in Bakhtin: «It is as if such mimicry rips the word away from its object, disunifies the two, shows that a given straightforward generic word – epic or tragic – is one-sided, bounded, incapable of exhausting the object». (23) In the process, a linguistic consciousness is created that will make the modern novel possible.

Parodic laughter is raised to new artistic and ideological levels, Bakhtin argues, especially in historical conditions of polyglossia (the simultaneous presence of two or more national languages interacting within a single cultural system): «Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language. Parodic-travestying forms flourish under these conditions, and only in this milieu are they capable of being elevated to completely new ideological heights» (Bakhtin 1981: 61).

This is where Bakhtin’s arguments become crucial to the study of a macaronic tradition in the modern novel. The birth of what Bakhtin calls the great Renaissance novels, those of Rabelais and Cervantes, is occasioned by the breakthrough of the «parodic-travestying» word into the strict and closed straightforward genres. The prehistory of novelistic discourse reaches its apex in the hybrid compositions of the late Middle Ages and in the macaronic poets (Bakhtin 1981: 78-82). From that point on the discourse between languages was to become a dialogised internal hybrid within the stylistically «monoglot» new novels. The subsequent history of the novel would switch from one of polyglossia to one of «heteroglossia» within a national language, the problem of internal differentiation and stratification (67). The macaronic is the preconscious of the modern novel. Hidden away in the forgotten folds of a prehistory, the macaronic would reappear in the novel’s moment of ontological crisis.

The rise of the early novel is the story of a process of legitimisation. The novel gradually establishes its credentials of seriousness, rationality, and realism which entitle it to become the new representative genre of a problematic modernity. The beginning of this process of legitimisation involves discrediting the outgoing epic form of representation, the romance. Much of the early novel’s pre-modern legacy of parody and satire is precisely in the service of this struggle: «In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the aims of the satirist and the writer who wished to write realistic fiction coincided when both reacted against the chivalric and pastoral romances. Satire offered the first and perhaps the crudest kind of realism that contributed to the novel – a militant realism that establishes itself by destroying an illusion, by turning over a stone to expose the crawling things underneath. It attacks idealisation by means of a counter-reality based on exaggerated probability, producing a travesty of the idealised world». (24)

The exemplar of this new realism, after Rabelais, is the satirical picaresque novel, the narrative form which leads to the greatest of the early novels, Cervantes’s Don Quijote (Paulson 1967: 24-33). In England the struggle of the novel against the romance assumes the form of the conquest of a statute of seriousness, rationality, and understanding for the narrative genre in prose (Celati 1975: 5-13).And it is in England that the rise of the novel is most closely tied to the rise of modern bourgeois culture in Europe, a culture which grounds itself on a discourse of reasonable seriousness and discussion. In early modern England new patterns of discourse were moulded and regulated through the forms of corporate assembly in which they were produced. «Ale-house, coffee-house, church, law court, library, drawing room of a country mansion» were all significant «sites of assembly» and «spaces of discourse» requiring different manners and mores (Stallybrass and White 1986: 80).The coffee-house was one of the most important of these sites, a «sober», «de-libidinised» and «democratic» space dedicated to fostering «the interests of serious, productive and rational intercourse» (97).

The same was true to a minor degree in the less progressive nations of Europe. A dramaturgical case in point is the image of the coffee-house in Goldoni’s comic play La bottega del caffè. In the reactionary clime of the Venetian oligarchy, this site of a new discourse is more of an outpost in a still undemocratic and, in true commedia dell’arte fashion, libidinous society. The conversants of the new discourse are limited to a single character, the self-made entrepreneur and coffee-house proprietor Ridolfo, a preacher of the new bourgeois sensibility in a realm of thinly disguised commedia masks. Nonetheless, Goldoni’s theatre of reform is a significant moment in the establishment of a representational culture of bourgeois modernity in Italy. This culture will find its epicentre not in Venice but in Milan, where the nascent tradition of civic discussion will flourish in the pages of journals such as the Enlightenment Il caffè (1764-66)and the Romantic Il conciliatore, a forum for the diffusion of literary and political discussion before its suppression by the Austrian authorities in 1819 after only fourteen months of publication. Gadda’s own ethical formation has its roots in this Milanese civic tradition via the model of Manzoni, who shared the literary and political ideals of Il conciliatore, and in Gadda’s education in the thought of other nineteenth-century civic Milanese intellectuals, perhaps the most significant being Carlo Cattaneo (Vigorelli 1955: 1-2).

The novel re-creates the civilising trend of bourgeois culture, transposing the public discussion of the coffee-houses and other meeting places into the private sphere of domestic conversation, a key element in the classical Bildungsroman’s «comfort of civilisation». (25) For that matter, the affirmation of the novel resembles that of the stumbling and youthful heroes of the Bildungsroman itself. Its official history is that of a gradual sublimation and education from comic rowdiness into serious and well-mannered sensibility. The other common denominator in the ascension of the novel as the genre of modernity is its increasingly confident engagement with the ideal of representational mimesis. The satiric exaggeration and metafictional commentary of the early novel gradually yield to the novel’s self-constitution as the totalising symbolic form of objective realism. The key to the novel’s objectifying operation, Lukács argues, is its constitutive irony, «the sole possible a priori condition for a true, totality-creating objectivity» (Lukács 1971: 93). By ironising all the subjective viewpoints within itself, the novel could create the illusion of objectivity, and thus mimesis, by claiming to remove all subjectivity from itself. It is the mimetic novel’s technical coup and at the same time what has been called «the novel’s worst moment of bad faith and self-deception where interpretation is taken to be representation, and fictional totalisation is identified with theoretical totalisation». (26)

Because the objectivity of transcendental subjectivity could not be directly realised, the negativity of subjectivity was deployed to create a transcendental illusion, the illusion of objectivity. This troubling illusion could itself be dissimulated in a further ironic reflection, emphasising thus the dissonance and absence haunting the only partially figured represented world. Hence, the realist novel was torn in its recognition of transcendental subjectivity between irony as a means of generating an illusion of objectivity and irony as the affirmation of dissonance. (Bernstein 1984: 219)

The undisputed masterpiece of the use of negative irony to mask subjectivity within the guise of objectivity, through the technique of style indirect libre, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Roland Barthes put it, Flaubert «never stops the play of codes […] one never knows if he is responsible for what he writes (if there is a subject)». (27) Yet it is precisely at the height of its affirmation as the genre of linguistic and representational objectivity in Flaubert that the novel begins to call into question that same affirmation. The novel’s irony of dissonance quickly moves toward the satiric ridicule of its primordial origins. The opening chapter of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, with its rapid description of Charles’s mediocre formation and education, is a satiric parody of a Bildungsroman. It can even be read as a parodic rewriting of the history of the novel itself, a history which Flaubert transforms from a tale of comic affirmation as the new epic of a new era into a self-ridiculing satire.

Ridiculous in his mock-epic cap of Rabelaisian proportions, young Charles Bovary, «le nouveau» as he is referred to repeatedly, sets the school class to derisive laughter when he attempts to say his name. Le nouveau’s repeated failures, his abnormally loud voice and hypertrophied mouth («une bouche démesurée»), his disintegration of linguistic subjectivity into a jumble of syllables («le même bredouillement de syllabes»), and the macaronic disfigurement of his name into an object of parodic ridicule – «Charbovari! Charbovari!» – all attest to Flaubert’s recuperation of parodic-travestying forms in Madame Bovary.(28) Finally isolated from the others in the dunce’s seat, the buffoonish nouveau is ordered by his exasperated master to declare repeatedly what he and the novelistic world he represents truly are, ridiculous: «As for you the new boy, you will copy out for me twenty times the verb ridiculus sum». Charles’s imposed self-denigration is not limited to himself. In the pedantic fashion of the elementary school Latin lesson he must write all the tenses and persons of ridiculus sum. It is not only Charles the object that is held up to ridicule and ridiculousness, it is the entire fictive world of the novel and the novel’s own form-making status as a totality-creating objectivity.

Flaubert’s near-sensual passion for the grotesque mixture of the sublime and the low and his admiration for ancient and Renaissance parodic authors such as Petronius, Apuleius, and Rabelais are well known. (29) In Madame Bovary the novel’s pre-modern legacy of parodic debasement of serious genres becomes a self-inflicted mutilation of ridicule within the novel’s myth of the all-encompassing totality. Nothing and no one are spared as text, character, and author are all caught up in the self-destructive frenzy of subjective wholeness gone sour. In ridiculing Emma and her kitsch-inspired dreams of erotic or tragic transcendence, Flaubert’s text likewise ridicules itself as the banal object of its own pretensions to lyrical sublimity and narrative totality. It also ridicules Flaubert’s own yearning for subjective totality, an author who so identified with Emma Bovary’s self-poisoning that he confessed to a similar sensation in himself: «I had such a taste of arsenic in my mouth and was poisoned so effectively myself, that I had two attacks of indigestion, one after the other – two very real attacks, for I vomited my entire dinner» (cited in Steegmuller 1968: 305).If certain readers of Madame Bovary were so incensed by the work that it was brought to trial, the obscenity they felt threatened by is also ascribable to its subjection of the myth of bourgeois subjective wholeness to a sadomasochistic exhibitionism of ridiculousness and ridicule.

At the heart of this frenzy of satiric mutilation, as Flaubert knew well, lies a linguistic double bind. For if the novel, as Bakhtin tells us, is unique and different from the poetic single-voiced genres because of its ability to engage in its internal dialogue all the languages of the world, this same linguistic totality places the novel in the predicament of having ingested all the ridiculousness of these languages as well. And while in pre-modern parody it was the incompleteness or stupidity of another’s external language that was mocked, in the novel the mockery is directed inward, against its own component languages. Mutilation becomes subjectified, and it can only be so since the novel’s enactment of the modern and essentially bourgeois myth of subjective wholeness rests on the democratic coexistence of languages, a bad-faith democracy in Flaubert. Spreading like a cancer through the conduit of the novel’s celebrated free indirect discourse, stupidity infects every verbal element of the text. Any effort at correcting the grotesqueness only exacerbates it, just as Charles’s botched operation on the footboy Hippolyte’s lame foot only furthers his own ridiculousness and ridicule. The novel ends with the victory of human and linguistic stupidity in the triumphant figure of the word-mongering pharmacist Homais.

None of this means that the satiric novel of self-ridicule gives up its quest for sublime transcendence. Its subjective mutilation is nothing other than the direct result of this desperate quest. Perhaps no novelist ever strove so painstakingly to sublimate the novel as a form of art, and succeeded, as did Flaubert in writing ridiculous Madame Bovary.

Flaubert’s disgust with the banal and ridiculous reality he so keenly depicted in Madame Bovary is well documented, and Gadda’s La cognizione del dolore is an important continuator of the satiric novel of mimetic stupidity and self-deprecation. Only in Gadda, the subjective abuse, grotesque parody, and macaronic origins of the novel are exploited even more fully. Cognizione is a hall of mirrors in which there is a constant refraction of ridiculousness and ridicule. While the autobiographical protagonist Gonzalo continually heaps scorn on the inane inhabitants of the Lombard-like Néa Keltiké, and on his own forebears, he himself becomes the object of derision in the collective mock-epics of his avarice, indolence, and gargantuan gluttony. The reign of linguistic stupidity is opened up to the original macaronic hybridisation of trilingual polyglossia (in this case Italian, Spanish, and the vulgar Lombard dialect). Gonzalo knows «very well […] that the novel, bound to real characters and a real environment, was as stupid as those characters and that environment» (Cognizione, RR I 731; Acquainted with Grief, 207). And he knows that the binding force between the modern myths of mimetic and subjective wholeness means that to deny and ridicule the illusion of mimetic reality is also to deny one’s own self: «to deny vain images, most of the time, means denying oneself» (Cognizione,RR I 703; Acquainted with Grief, 171). In the age of the myth of subjective wholeness, the satirist’s attacks on his fictional world are also and above all a self-mutilation, a «laceration», as Gadda’s puts it, of transcendent «possibility», comparable to the ripping up of a page of lies.

A European history of the modern macaronic traces its pre-modern roots to the original Renaissance macaronic and Rabelaisian comic, its amalgam of comic parody and melancholic subjective totality to the Romantic theorists, its crisis of mimetic realism to Flaubert (who becomes a veritable father of sorts in the encyclopaedic parody of received ideas and bourgeois inanity of Bouvard et Pécuchet). It is by recognising this broader European tradition that the occasional and intuitive comparisons of Gadda to other macaronic modernists such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce can gain in substance and justification. In these macaronic authors archaism is used to ridicule and overcome the myth of subjective totality and mimetic realism, not by going beyond it but rather behind it, all the way to the novel’s pre-modern origins in satiric parody, grotesque realism, and macaronic pastiche.

All three of these authors share similar macaronic traits. Realism is exploded in the gigantism of physicality and the human body. Referentiality gives way to expressionism. Language tilts from its centripetal pole to the extremes of centrifugality. Narrative (plot) flies apart into fragments and episodes, while subjectivity dissolves into a language stretched to the limits of its synchronic and diachronic elasticity.

Joyce is the most encyclopaedic of the three, and linguistically the most experimental. In his study James Joyce and the Macaronic Tradition, Vivian Mercier has catalogued examples from Joyce’s works that correspond to the various categories of the macaronic outlined in Octave Delepierre’s 1850 Macaronéana. They range from the schoolyard macaronic, «Nos ad manum ballum jocabimus» (Stephen Hero),to the pedantesque, where the Latin word takes on the forms of the vulgar tongue and which Mercier finds to be «pretty much passim in Finnegans Wake». (30) Joyce is also the most genuinely Rabelaisian. «As great and comprehensive and human as Rabelais», Valery Larbaud gushed over Ulysses. (31) Joyce shares Rabelais’s robust love of language and style, his «comment by parody» of scholarship for which he nevertheless feels an instinctive affection, (32) his attachment to what biographer Ellmann calls the «dear and dirty» physicality of nature and human body (Ellmann 1959: 4).

The crisis of nineteenth-century sublimity of mimetic objectivity in Joyce has a Flaubertian genesis. We know from Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen that Joyce greatly admired Flaubert, had read all his works, and had memorised entire pages from some of them. (33) Certainly young Stephen Dedalus’s ideal of the artist who «like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails» (34) consonant with Flaubert’s that «[an] author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere». (35) In the modernist Joyce there is a constant tension between the spatio-temporal limits which condition objective mimetic literature and the urge to break through those limits to a new, all-encompassing subjectivity that is both synchronic and diachronic. The solutions he sought were based in language, the new subjective realism of the psycholinguistic flow of stream of consciousness, and, midway through Ulysses, the explosion of diachronically polyphonic and parodic narrative pastiches. In Finnegans Wake all the devices of polyphonic pastiche are still in place and have been concentrated into each semantic unit. The novel form yields to a macaronic musicality that attempts to say all at every moment and in every word. The inner subjectivity of stream of consciousness has been expanded to the historical and metaphysical flux and reflux of the linguistic sign. Freud and Jung, «the Viennese Tweedledee» and «the Swiss Tweedledum», are routinely ridiculed, their psychoanalytic shenanigans replaced by the metaphysical historicism of Giovanni Battista Vico’s eternal ricorso and Giordano Bruno’s connexio oppositorum.

For Céline, France’s great and vulgar modernist, language and style were everything. The core of Céline’s linguistic revolution is argot. Popular slang belongs to the filthy, the abject, and the oppressed; it is the cry of despair and emotion, the language of hatred. But Céline’s slang is at the centre of a polyphony of other languages, of other types of French, which vary from the specialised languages of the vocations and sciences, medicine in particular, to the archaic French of the Renaissance and Villon. The languages rebound off of one another; the official meets the low. For every sanitised «rectum» there is a «trou» or a «cul» or a «fias» or an «oigne». (36)

Céline is macaronic and, of course, Rabelaisian – so much so, apparently, that Patrick McCarthy proffers that «the Rabelaisian style, realistic and refined, full of obscenity and of poetry, is Céline’s great contribution to the technique of novel-writing», while Jean-Louis Bory feels at ease in calling Céline’s earliest protagonist Bardamu, «the Pantagruel of the atomic era». (37) Céline went even further in his 1957 short essay Rabelais, il a raté son coup. Céline is Rabelais and Rabelais is Céline: «Rabelais was a doctor and a writer, like me» – «I have had in my life the same vice as Rabelais. I too have spent my time getting into desperate situations. Like him I do not expect anything from others, like him, I regret nothing». (38) Céline’s paranoia and polemic with his academic persecutors draw him into a flawed analysis of Rabelais’s language, which he associates solely with popular speech. Rabelais missed his chance because he was not able to pass on to future literary generations the true French tongue, the vulgar one. Plutarch’s translator Amyot and the academics won the linguistic battle. Rabelais was too busy «spending his time trying not to get burnt», like Céline. (39)

Céline is macaronic, and an anti-Semite, a paranoiac, a madman. «La raison!», he sneers in Rabelais, il a raté son coup: «Faut être fou». It is Julia Kristeva who has sought most to bridge the carnivalesque Céline and the abject and delirious Céline: «to the carnival’s semantic ambivalences, which pair the high and the low, the sublime and the abject, Céline adds the merciless crashing of the apocalypse». (40) Like those of Gadda and Flaubert, Céline’s crisis of mimesis exacerbates the abject in reality. His grotesque realism is vicious: vomit, sex, masturbation, excrement, and death, especially death. They all have an edge, they all are manifestations of the horror, of the apocalypse. Loathsomeness attaches itself to everything, from the most banal triviality to the most horrific outrage. Kristeva notes that narrative identity and the objective world that supports it become unbearable in Céline; narration is no longer possible; everything must be «descried with maximal stylistic intensity» (Kristeva 1982: 141).

Gadda falls between Joyce and Céline. With Joyce he shares the encyclopedism, the attraction to the scholastic comment by parody. His macaronic prose bears the peculiar characteristics of the Italian plurilingual and literary tradition. The codified formal origins of the Italian macaronic render Gadda’s movement between the literary sublime and the physicality of dialect hilarious but always exquisitely philological. A radical sense of nineteenth-century Lombard propriety also renders Gadda the most prudish of the three in his use of low physicality. Sex and masturbation as physical acts are practically absent from his works, even though there is a massive presence of voluptuous servants and prostitutes, grotesque nymphomaniacs, and nasty voyeurism. Crapulous consumption and food fetishism are present, often as a symbolic exchange for the frustrated sexual act. But most typically failed sexual acts find their symbolic exchange in violent acts, symbolic matricides born of Oedipus-Orestes complexes. Defecation and faeces – merde and stronzi – are abundant, especially in barnyard animals. What is obsessively present is death. Death for Gadda is the high-low amalgamation of metaphysical sublimity and biological physicality; it is the horrific regression from the possibility of heuristic combination to the residual lump of substance.

Words and death, to borrow Kristeva’s terminology, constitute a first link between Gadda and Céline. They are accompanied by a shared sense of rage and abjection, of paranoia and schizophrenia, of suffering (dolore) and horror (orrore).In Gadda the rage is epistemological. It is born from the impossibility of a hypersensitive subjectivity to organise the multiplicity, flux, and deformation of an impossibly complex phenomenal reality, to forge system from method. The result is a delirium, not the active nightmare of Bardamu’s voyage to the end of night, but the «interpretative delirium» of a subjectivity irritated and outraged by the world’s disorder and banality of evil. From this delirium is born Gadda’s special abjection of ridicule and ridiculousness but also the possibility of a macaronic cure. This is Contini’s thesis, that of the «unhappy syndrome which is cured through the classical prescriptions of erudite-plebean comic spirit» (Contini 1989: 19). The liberating laughter in Gadda is hilarious even delirious, but never far is the melancholic subjectivity. This is the paradox of Gadda’s poetics of the macaronic, what he himself more frequently referred to as his grotesque and baroque epistemology, his knowledge of grief. Gadda’s pre-modern expulsion of evil and noxious gases through laughter is a robust, physical cure, but his modern melancholy is a metaphysical and mystified illness: a male invisibile, a male oscuro.

University of Washington, Seattle


1. Butor’s and Enzensberger’s essays appeared with others by J. Petit, D. Ivanisevic, and P.P. Pasolini under the title Gadda Europeo in L’Europa letteraria 4, nos. 20-21 (1963): 52-67. La cognizione and Quer pasticciaccio are the only works by Gadda to have been translated into English. Both translations are by William Weaver: Acquainted with Grief (London: Owen, 1969); That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (London: Quartet, 1985; London: Secker & Warburg, 1966).

2. Contini’s first contact with Gadda’s writing was with Polemiche e pace nel direttissimo (Gadda 1933a, RR I 245-81), a satirical fiction on the contenutisti-calligrafi controversy that Contini remembers having irritated him more than anything (Gadda 1988b: 7). As Gian Carlo Roscioni points out, Contini speaks of Gadda’s «spontaneous» association with the macaronic tradition and in so doing indicates more a typology than a true and proper genealogy (Roscioni 1994: 147).This is also my own understanding of Gadda’s macaronic heritage, although this typology is characterised by a strong sense of historical reminiscence.

3. On the language debate in Italy across the centuries, see M. Vitale’s definitive La questione della lingua (Palermo: Palumbo, 1960). On the historical evolution of Italian, see T. De Mauro’s Storia linguistica dell’Italia unita (Bari: Laterza, 1979).

4. Among the Italian macaronics, other than Folengo, can be included: Tifi Odasi, Fossa da Cremona, Bassano da Mantova, Giovan Giorgio Alione, Partenio Zanclaio, Bartolomeo Bolla, Cesare Orsini, and Bernardino Stefonio. Among the French: Remy Belleau, étienne Tabourot and Antonius de Arena. Among the English: William Drummond, George Ruggle and Alexander Geddes. There were also macaronic schools in Holland, Germany, Portugal and Spain. See Lessico universale italiano (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1973), XII, 463.

5. C. Cordié (ed.), Opere di Teofilo Folengo (Milan: Ricciardi, 1977), xii-xiii; M. Tetel, Rabelais and Folengo, in Comparative Literature, 15 (Fall 1963): 357-64.

6. I. Paccagnella, Plurilinguismo letterario: lingue, dialetti, linguaggi, in Letteratura italiana. II. Produzione e consumo, ed. by Roberto Antonelli et. al. (Turin: Einaudi, 1983), 103-67 (141).

7. I. Paccagnella, Mescidanza e macaronismo: dall’ibridismo delle prediche all’interferenza delle macaronee, in Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, 150, nos. 470-71(1973): 363-81 (363).

8. Otherwise it would make sense to recur to a less historical term than macaronic to describe literary manifestations so distant in time. This is what Paccagnella argues, suggesting the alternative labels of plurilingualism or pastiche (Paccagnella 1983: 250).

9. A. Guglielmi (ed.), Vent’anni di impazienza, Antologia della narrativa italiana dal ’46 ad oggi (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1965), 157.

10. Published in English as New Linguistic Questions in Heretical Empiricism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 3-22. Citations come from this translation. For an overview of the entire debate, see Oronzo Parlangèli’s La nuova questione della lingua (Brescia: Paideia, 1971).

11. I. Calvino, Una pietra sopra. Discorsi di letteratura e società (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), 122.

12. Calvino 1980: 125-26. See also E. Raimondi, Language and the Hermeneutic Adventure in Literature, transl. by A. Sbragia, in Forum Italicum 18 (Spring 1984): 3-25 (3-4).

13. Segre 1985: 181-94 (194). Renato Barilli is the literary critic who has most eloquently argued against any prescriptive validity for the Gaddian literary line. For Barilli, writing in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Gadda’s linguistic torment was already «outdated», the last throes of the crisis of mimetic realism which had not gotten beyond the «barrier of naturalism». He argues instead that the Svevo-Pirandello line is the only valid tradition for the future of Italian letters, a line which he dates to a Renaissance tradition of a poetics of linguistic transparency in the name of a literature of «ethos» over «mythos» – Barilli 1964a: 105-28; La linea Svevo-Pirandello (Milan: Mursia, 1972), 5-15. I agree with Barilli’s thesis that Gadda is involved in an exacerbation of the crisis of mimetic realism, but I feel he misses the historical complexity of Gadda’s literature by speaking of him as not going beyond the barrier of naturalism as opposed to returning to the genre origins of Western realism. In essence, Gadda’s literary practice, like that of other modern macaronic authors, is a backward-looking art. For that matter, the choice by Pirandello and Svevo of a transparent prose style is conditioned in part by their hostile response to the immediate historical pressure of D’Annunzian and Crocean aesthetics. This helps to explain why their works are substantially devoid of the lyrical expressionism that is an important feature of European modernism.

14. F. De Sanctis, Storia della letteratura italiana (Milan: Bietti, 1973), 484.

15. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, transl. by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 36-45.

16. G. Celati, Finzioni occidentali. Fabulazione, comicità e scrittura (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), 102-06.

17. cited in F. Angelini, Il teatro del Novecento da Pirandello a Fo (Bari: Laterza, 1978), 148.

18. T. Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), 148;cited in P. Stallybrass & A. White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1986), 13.

19. U. Eco, The Comic and the Rule, in Travels in Hyper-reality, transl. by W. Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 275, 277.

20. The answer to the question of the liberating or reactionary quality of the Renaissance carnivalesque or modern humour ultimately lies not in a metahistorical approach but in the examination of their symbolic function in concrete historical, cultural, and socio-political contexts. This is what Stallybrass and White suggest concerning the carnivalesque in their argument that it «makes little sense to fight out the issue of whether or not carnivals are intrinsically radical or conservative, for to do so automatically involves the false essentialising of carnivalesque transgression» (Stallybrass & White 1986: 14; see also A. White, Pigs and Pierrots: The Politics of Transgression in Modern Fiction, in Raritan 2 (Fall 1982): 51-70 (62).

21. G. Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of great Epic Literature, transl. by Anna Bostock (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971), 11-12.

22. L-F. Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, transl. by R. Manheim (New York: New Directions, 1983), 9.

23. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, transl. by C. Emerson & M. Holquist, ed. by M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 50-55.

24. R. Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 23-24.

25. F. Moretti, The Way of the World. The Bildungsroman in European Culture, transl. by A. Sbragia (London: Verso, 1987), 48-52.

26. J.M. Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukács, Marxism, and the Dialectics of Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 216.

27. R. Barthes, S/Z, transl. by R. Miller (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), 140.

28. The macaronic distortion of Charles’s name combines French and Latin to foreground his rustic and bovine characteristics: French char = cart or wagon; Latin bovarius whence French bouvier, keeper of oxen but also a coarse and awkward person. See Le grand Robert de la langue française (Paris: Le Robert, 1986), II, 144.

29. Cf. F. Steegmuller, Flaubert and Madame Bovary (London: Macmillan, 1968), 283-84; D. La Capra, «Madame Bovary» on Trial (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1982), 104-06.

30. V. Mercier, James Joyce and the Macaronic Tradition, in Twelve and a Tilly. Essays on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of Finnegans Wake, ed. by J.P. Dalton & C. Hart (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 26-35. Mercier defines the language of Finnegans Wake in Delepierre’s terms as «Hybrido-Pedantesque» (27).

31. R. Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 514.

32. J.M. Cohen, Translator’s Introduction, in The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, transl. by J.M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1955), 17-31 (18).

33. F. Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934), 176, 180-81.

34. J. Joyce, A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking Press, 1966), 215.

35. F. Steegmuller (ed.), The letters of Gustave Flaubert. 1830-1857 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press / Harvard University Press, 1979), 173.

36. H. Godard, Poétique de Céline (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 69.

37. P. McCarthy, Céline (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 115; J-L. Bory, Bardamu à nouveau seul contre tous, in Les Critiques de notre temps et Céline, ed. by J-P. Dauphin (Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1976), 146.

38. L-F. Céline, Rabelais, il a raté son coup, in Cahiers de l’Herne 5 (1965), 44-45.

39. The comparisons of Céline to Joyce have also been numerous. Patrick McCarthy, for example, writes that Céline’s Rabelaisian style «sets him apart from all other modern French writers and in looking for parallels one turns inevitably to Joyce. Both men have faith in language and believe it can express anything. Both use it in its own right as a triumphant, independent entity. The creation of a new style that Céline carries out in Mort à crédit is the task Joyce undertook in Finnegans Wake»(McCarthy 1975: 115). In Rabelais, il a raté son coup Céline declares that he owed nothing to Joyce, and that like Rabelais he found everything in French itself.

40. J. Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, transl. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 138.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

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© 2000-2024 Albert Sbragia & EJGS. Issue no. 0, EJGS 0/2000. Previously published in Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern Macaronic (Gainesville FLA: University of Florida Press, 1996), 1-27.

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