«Toga Caput Obvolvit»:
The Ideal of Rome in C.E. Gadda

Alberto Sbragia

E di nuovo si lasciava prendere da un’idea

La cognizione del dolore

La morte di chi viveva in noi è la morte di noi stessi

Lettere a una gentile signora

One of the peculiarities of the twentieth-century Italian literary panorama is that the greatest of the century’s «Roman» novels, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, was written by the quintessentially Lombard ex-patriot Carlo Emilio Gadda. (1) Gadda’s use of a macaronic and Bellian-inspired «popular epos» to undermine Italian fascism’s myth of Rome is a guiding force in the novel that has been recognized by both Gadda himself and literary critics. (2) What perhaps has not been as thoroughly investigated is the evolution of Gadda’s own personal ideal and mythos of Rome and its relationship to his early Nationalist and Fascist sympathies and later disillusionment. In this sense, Quer pasticciaccio and the author’s contemporaneous anti-Fascist diatribe Eros e Priapo appear as the sardonic aftermath to a profound and intimate mythos of Rome on Gadda’s part. In this mythos, Rome, and, in particular, the ancient Roman military machine and Julius Caesar the general, are associated with Gadda’s ethical vision of reality as a continual heuristic becoming and coming together of relationships, with his early support of Fascism and with his aspirations to a productive civic life and a personal redemption. As with so many of Gadda’s early ideals, this idiosyncratic idealization of Rome is first violently overturned not in Quer pasticciaccio but in the disillusioned and nihilistic universe of La cognizione del dolore. (3)

A sense of civic duty and admiration for Rome and its general Caesar comes to Gadda at an early age. To begin with, there was Gadda’s strong sense of nationalism and militarism, inculcated into him by family tradition and in particular, as he states on various occasions, by his mother Adele: «forti immagini risorgimentali, senso nazionale fin dall’infanzia, anche per intervento della madre» (SGF II 874). (4) Gadda’s mother was embued with a deep sense of the grandeur and legacy of ancient Rome. In his biography of Gadda’s youth, Gian Carlo Roscioni has noted that as a schoolgirl, Adele Lehr, of Hungarian-Lombard descent, appropriated the history of Rome in her diary as «les gloires des nos ancêtres» and would later pen a Contributo alla storia romana dalla morte di Giulio Cesare alla morte di Cicerone (Roscioni 1997: 37-38). Gadda wrote of his mother’s knowledge of Latin and her assistance with his homework as a child, and of her role in inspiring in him his own early passion for the Latin authors and heroes and for Caesar in particular: «Il culto del Nostro per il proconsole delle Gallie risale all’infanzia e al verso dantesco 123 dell’Inf. IV, lettogli primamente dalla madre» (RR I 133). (5) The concurrence of nationalism, or amor patrio, together with a strong upbringing in the classical Latin authors and historians, certainly had its effect on the young Gadda, so much so that the former was fueled by the latter: «Sognavo una vivente patria, come nei libri di Livio e di Cesare» (RR I 152).

Another possible source for Gadda’s myth of Rome might be found in his admiration for his paternal uncle, Giuseppe Gadda, participant in the Milanese cinque giornate and other battles of the Risorgimento as well as Senator and Minister in the first national governments of the «destra storica». Gadda Conti has written of his cousin’s pride for this uncle and of his assiduous reading of Giuseppe Gadda’s 1899 published memoir, Ricordi e impressioni della nostra storia politica nel 1866-67 (Gadda Conti 1974: 9-10), while Roscioni has pointed out the important lessons that the memoir of «lo zio senatore» inevitably contributed to Gadda’s love of country, in particular uncle Giuseppe’s assertion that «I nostri nipoti devono apprendere [i fatti del Risorgimento] e tenerli presenti al loro pensiero come la religione degli avi, perché la patria fu allora la religione del popolo italiano». (6) Among his other duties as Senator, Giuseppe Gadda was responsible for overseeing the transfer of the Capital from Florence to Rome in 1870-71 and he was the first prefect of Roma capitale until 1876.

Although the Ricordi e impressioni focus on the years 1866-67, much of the memoir is concerned at large with the «questione romana». Giuseppe Gadda instructs the young readers to whom he addresses his remembrances that one of the gravest problems still facing the Italian state in 1899 is the continuing papal pretension to temporal power and the need to reconciliate Church and State: «Noi ora abbiamo strappato al papa questo potere temporale che deturpava il ministero della religione; noi dobbiamo impedire che lo riprenda e dobbiamo ottenere che sull’altare della patria egli deponga tale nefasta pretesa. […] E desideriamo che i nostri giovani abbiano a compiere la pacificazione della Chiesa colla madre patria, l’Italia» (G. Gadda 1899: 8). There is an interesting rebuttal to Massimo D’Azeglio’s contention that Florence and not Rome should have constituted the definitive capital of Italy. D’Azeglio’s arguments were that Florence was militarily safer, more central than Rome with respect to the population distribution in Italy, more tranquil in terms of the customs and habits of its citizens, and, especially with respect to its language, the national Italian city par excellence, whereas Rome was instead a more international, cosmopolitan city. Giuseppe Gadda’s response is complex in its recognition of the problems of Rome as a capital city. He admits that Rome’s grandiose history and international importance has made the Italian government’s presence seem feeble at best: «Forse è vero quello che molti affermano, che noi abbiamo guastata la Roma monumentale col cercare di trasformarla, e che essa va perdendo ogni giorno le orme secolari della sua passata grandezza; mentre il nostro Governo si muove a disagio fra quelle colossali memorie che sembrano guardare con attonito sprezzo il nostro febbrile affaccendarsi. Pur troppo la prosaica verità è, che quando si tentò di aggiungere all’antica una nuova Roma, questa riuscì tanto meschina che farebbe arrossire» (72). He also agrees with D’Azeglio that the Roman character makes the city’s citizens less than suitable for modern democratic institutions and a modern work ethic, although he attributes this to the long influence of Papal government in the city. Nonetheless, Giuseppe Gadda argues that Rome was the only possible capital city for the Italian State because it was the ideal toward which so much Risorgimento energy and patriotism had been directed, the only capital city truly capable of uniting the nation. He concludes, incorrectly as it would turn out, that it is precisely because Rome lacks the material and moral conditions to make it a centralized economic and political capital such as Paris that it will lead to a greater decentralization of political power: «Roma, lo ripetiamo, anche sotto questo riguardo della necessaria riforma amministrativa, è destinata a rendere alla Nazione un altro grande servigio: essa per le sue condizioni favorisce quel decentramento nelle funzioni locali di governo che è naturale all’Italia» (76).

Giuseppe Gadda was a key interlocutor in the debate on the Church-State Roman question and the establishment of Roma capitale but there are relatively few traces of his influence in this regard on his nephew Carlo Emilio Gadda. In Il castello di Udine, Gadda does make reference to his family’s support of the Kingdom of Italy despite the opposition of French legitimists and the Roman nobility (RR I 141), and although he worked for a period as an electrical engineer at the Vatican, his attitude toward the Church was typically one of sardonic aversion. (7) Nonetheless, Roma capitale and the Roman question are not matters especially dear to Gadda, even as a historical interest.

There exists much more of a clear confluence instead of Gadda’s Roman-inspired patriotism with the nationalistic appropriation of ancient Rome by Mussolini and the Fascist regime. Already as a prisoner in Germany during the First World War, Gadda displays a patriotic reverence for the grandeur of mother Rome: «Ieri Natale di Roma, ricordato con una adunanza tra i prigionieri romani e laziali […] Io non ero presente, perché non romano, ma vi partecipai col cuore, mandando il saluto del figlio senza scarpe alla Madre lontana ed augusta ed eterna. […] Si gridò “viva l’Italia” e io gridai commosso» (Giornale di guerra, SGF II 768). A similar patriotic sentimentalism overtakes him upon his arrival in the Argentine Chaco, in 1923, where he had gone to work as an electro-technical engineer for the Compañía General de Fósforos. Commenting on his arrival in Argentina in a letter to his sister Clara, Gadda writes of his trip along the Paranà river to the town of Resistencia as a voyage to the periphery of civilization: «non devi immaginare che siano città come le nostre o Buenos Aires. Sono sentinelle avanzate della civiltà». The roads are mud or dust, the river «color caffè e latte», its banks teeming with «numerosi coccodrilli e serpenti». Resistencia itself is little more than a «borgo», with single-story houses and a few larger buildings, but it has at its center a marvel from the old world, from Rome itself: «un bel monumento, dovuto alla iniziativa degli italiani di qui […] La Lupa di Roma, dipinta di verde bronzo, fa una magnifica figura» (Gadda 1987b: 55-56). There are in fact curious legionary references in Gadda’s description of his journey and stay in the Argentine outback. As he jokingly writes to friend Ugo Betti, Gadda arrives aboard an ocean liner, the Principessa Mafalda, but he would have preferred to have arrived on the Giulio Cesare, «nome simbolico», as he tells Betti (Gadda 1984a: 68). The allusion acquires more significance still when we remember that the Argentine Chaco becomes, in La cognizione del dolore, the Lombard-like «Neá Keltiké», in reminiscence of the region’s status as Gallia Cisalpina during Roman times, a province of which Caesar was governor during his campaign in Gaul proper. Moreover, Gadda’s justification of what could be called industrial colonialism in the Argentine outback shows interesting parallels with his description of the subjugation of the Gauls to Roman authority. In the 1934 Un cantiere nelle solitudini, Gadda notes that the «mezzo indios» of the Argentine Chaco at work at a cotton mill under Italian supervision «avevano il senso primo ed oscuro della giustizia e del débito, della legge e del limite. Accettavano il loro destino come una legge, contro di cui è cosa empia l’insorgere» (SGF I 114). Twenty years later in the 1954 La storia di Milano, we find a similar description concerning newly immigrated Gauls into the Roman orbit: «Per i Galli immigrati […] il lento accoglimento dei costumi e delle tecniche da genti più sperimentate ed antiche: l’accettazione d’una legge comune e più vasta: Roma: l’apporto di energie nuove dato alla conquista delle Gallie: Cesare» (SGF I 1100).

Gadda’s 1923-24 sojourn in Argentina is also the period of his most active involvement in the National Fascist Party, which he had joined at the end of 1921 (Gadda 1984a: 58), and of his most active support of Mussolini. Like the Roman She-Wolf, Mussolini, too, appears as a wonder in the Argentine outback. Inspired perhaps by the anniversary of the founding of Rome, Gadda writes to friend Ugo Betti on April 21, 1923: «Mussolini c’è ogni giorno. Il prestigio di quest’uomo è enorme. È conosciuto come Lenin, amato e odiato come lui, secondo gli umori. L’influenza morale dei suoi gesti ha cresciuto all’Italia un grande rispetto» (Gadda 1984a: 90). On the eve of the Corfu crisis, Gadda wishes upon Mussolini qualities not unlike those he admired in Caesar: «Speriamo che il senso di responsibilità e di misura di Mussolini, la sua rapidità di azione e la sua energia, facciano trionfare, come merita la ragione d’Italia» (Gadda 1987b: 86). (8) During his short stay in Argentina, Gadda would become part of the directorate of the Buenos Aires Fascio all’Estero and to pen a never-published essay entitled Il fascismo in America (Roscioni 1997: 186-87, 195).

Roscioni notes that Il fascismo in America is «stranamente impersonale, sembra scritta su commissione: quasi un campione ante litteram delle future “veline”» (Roscioni 1997: 195). In fact, Gadda’s later essays with references to the regime typically strike a tone of impersonal and measured support. This has made the definition of Gadda’s attitude toward the regime from the mid-20s until Mussolini’s fall in 1943 a difficult task. Certainly there is a similarity of rhetoric between Gadda’s idealization of ancient Rome and the regime’s. In his 1931 cruise ship reportage Crociera mediterranea, later published in 1934 in Il Castello di Udine, Gadda not only praises the Italian colonial presence in Libya as an «abbozzo di redenzione», a «riconquista» and a «giardino del dovere», he also underscores the connection with the glories of ancient Rome through the ongoing excavations at Leptis Magna and other Roman sites: «La coltre greve della sabbia sollevata da una operosa volontà: riapparsi nel sole gli archi, le colonne, i fori, i templi, le terme, i mercati» (RR I 192, 193, 196, 198). (9) A particularly interesting essay «d’occasione» in this respect is a 1942 piece entitled L’Istituto di Studi Romani, published in Giuseppe Bottai’s Primato, perhaps the most enlightened of the Fascist journals and a journal to which Gadda contributed several essays as well as fragments from L’Adalgisa. Not only do Gadda’s comments on the august city converge with a certain Fascist rhetoric of Rome, «Roma appare come una somma di enunciati, come il nodo dei processi di elaborazione, di costruzione e di organamento della civiltà stessa», but Gadda also gives due credit to Mussolini and the State for the current «rethinking» of Roman civilization: «L’organismo che nella città di oggi adempie […] a quest’opera di rinnovata dedizione alla grande causa, il Reale Istituto di Studi Romani […] portato alla attuale perfezione organica, auspice il Duce e sovventore lo Stato italiano; il quale, come sempre a questi anni, si è voluto costituire in patrono della causa stessa e, nella contingenza, della sua specie suprema, che è l’aspetto ripensato di una civiltà: voglio dire la civiltà romana e latina» (SGF I 863-64).

It would be improper, however, to attribute the ancient Roman references in Gadda’s essays exclusively to a facile capitulation to Fascist propaganda. (10) At the core of Gadda’s myth of Rome, and, initially, his myth of Fascism, lies an existential, social and political idealism grounded in a terminology of pragmatic and ethical realism. In this sense, Gadda’s myth of Rome is less tendentious, in political terms, than the Nationalist and Fascist myths of the resuscitation of ancient Rome as a glorious tradition to be relived and superceded by the contemporary Italian State, and yet, at the same time, Gadda’s myth of Rome is much more. For Rome, or rather ancient Rome, in Gadda’s thought, becomes a historical manifestation for his vision of «good» reality, that is to say, the heuristic coming together of multiple relationships in an elaboration from a given state «n» to a more complex and evolved state of «n+1» («evil», or «bad» reality, is, instead, a lessening of these relationships, an unraveling of reality’s fabric from «n» to a more peripherical or less real state of «n - 1»). Not by chance is this positive, heuristic movement repeatedly conceived of as «un andare a Roma» in Gadda’s 1928 philosophical treatise Meditazione milanese (one wonders with just how much reference to the Fascist march on Rome). (11) Rome, in Meditazione milanese, is the historical example par excellence of the open-ended striving toward greatness of an entire people: «Non esisté nella coscienza del popolo romano un modello da raggiungere, p. e. la Roma di Trajano o Tito: ma un continuo “lehnen und verlangen” verso la grandezza» (SVP 761).

Gadda’s thesis of «good» and «bad» reality associates reality with ethics: «dalla mia teoria risulta che la massima realtà o fenomenalità è la massima eticità» (SVP 691). It is this notion of the ethical nature of reality which draws Rome into young Gadda’s «groviglio» of militarism, Fascism and his obsessive motif of the failed aspirations and exclusion from greatness of the autobiographical self. Let us begin with Gadda’s militarism. For any one who reads through Gadda’s Giornale di guerra e di prigionia, Meditazione milanese and his essays on his war experiences in Il castello di Udine, it is fairly evident that the efficient military force represents for him a nearly utopic vision of a pragmatic, rational and heuristic society operating for a greater common good, in this case for the ideal of the nation, or la patria. (12) I should stress here that the pragmatics is as important as the idealism, for Gadda’s «militarismo», he declares, is «in signo rationis» (SVP 696): «un’azione militare deve essere giudicata dal suo “rendimento” e intrapresa con criteri di “economia”» (RR I 128). His rational mindset, Gadda states, is a product of his encounter not only with the Latin historians but with the Latin language itself. As he remarks in his notes for his university thesis: «Tecnicamente la mia mentalità deve la sua prima formazione all’analisi logica e alla sintassi latina del ginnasio» (Gadda 1974a: xxxv). In Il latino nel sangue, he declares, «La lingua razionale che ho chiamata “di fondo”, la lingua base […] è stata storicamente il latino»; «La mens moderna e la forma logica dell’espressione moderna discendono ancora dal latino» (SGF I 1157 and 1162).

Gadda’s cult of Julius Caesar is based on what he sees as Caesar’s masterful skills of rationality and pragmatic knowledge directed towards a definitive goal: «quando la razzamaglia brontola, e corron per le bocche i “dicuntur”, Cesare governa sé col suo “scire”. [...] Perchè Cesare è “certo” che le Gallie devono essere di Roma e non di Ariovisto» (RR I 128). It is Julius Caesar the general, especially the Caesar of De bello gallico, who becomes the model, for Gadda, of method and system as an elective reasoning, «ragione elettiva» (SVP 869). The efficacious system, as Gadda states in Meditazione milanese, is similar to a successful general, who needs to anticipate the heuristic flow of a given reality which is always in constant flux and deformation: «in quanto da presso e quasi grado a grado un sistema siffatto si contrappone deformandosi alle stazioni o pause del dato deformantesi. […] Così Cesare non dà tregua ai migranti Elveti. “Postero die castra ex eo loco movent. Idem facit Caesar”» (SVP 862; De bello gallico, I, 15, 1). Caesar represents for Gadda the ability of the reasoning system to adapt to reality’s heuresis; he also represents the ability to forge an effective, pragmatic reality by bringing together as many relationships as possible. (13) To quote again from Meditazione milanese, where Gadda most thoroughly develops his ideas on programmatic reality: «Nella realtà il dire “non avevo pensato a ciò” non diminuisce le beffe che l’umore comune rivolge al cattivo inventore, al cattivo calcolatore, al cattivo stratega. “Ma questa non è guerra, è politica” dice per giustificarsi il generale vinto. “Ma questa non è guerra, è meccanica,” dice quell’altro. Scuse a cui Cajo Cesare (o il mondo da lui rappresentato) non ebbe mai bisogno di ricorrere: quanto alla politica si legga il “De Bello Gallico” – orazione dei disertori – e quanto alla meccanica – il ponte sul Reno. Il vincitore è uno che ha meglio integrato la realtà, le relazioni logiche preesistenti» (SVP 659). In Gadda’s war diary Caesar is the yardstick for measuring the incompetence of the Italian military chain of command from the king on down: «Così Salandra, così il re, così tutti: fanno le visite al fronte, guardano le cose con gli occhi dei cortigiani: ma non le guardano col proprio occhio, acuto, sospettoso, rabbioso. – Il generale Cavaciocchi, che deve essere un perfetto asino, non ha mai fatto una visita al quartiere, non s’è mai curato di girare per gli alloggiamenti dei soldati; eppure Giulio Cesare faceva ciò» (SGF II 468). The theme of the pragmatic and efficient Roman military machine runs throughout Gadda’s writings. (14) In the Racconto italiano, Gadda speaks of the Roman generals Servius Galba and Drusus, and remarks: «Il loro comando non era assurdo, perché il mondo reale operava potentemente sui loro spiriti onesti sicché la loro volontà sintetizzava con certezza soltanto il possibile. Essi erano inetti ai sogni fallaci. Allora, sulla loro certezza, i loro soldati operavano sicuri combattimenti. E a chi toccava, quello era uomo, sapeva essere uomo» (SVP 504). Similarly the semi-autobiographical lieutenant Tolla in Racconto italiano remarks that «la voce del dittatore [Cesare] gli pareva una fredda lama per il cuore di ogni filosofastro e la vitalità romana ricostituiva con la nativa energia le battaglie che per altri sarebbero perse» (SVP 450-51).

The theme of the Roman aversion to the «sogni fallaci» of the «filosofastri», which are countered by the vital and pragmatic reality and word of the «dictator» Caesar, draw Gadda’s Roman theme into the orbit of his political thought and early support for Mussolini’s Fascism in the 1924 Racconto italiano. Gadda states in a preparatory note to Racconto italiano that the novel’s critique of «socialismo» and «cattolicesimo» will serve as an introduction to his «motivo fascista». Unlike Fascism, Socialism and the Catholicism of the Partito Popolare are associated with a «discordanza azione-pensiero per mancanza di capacità critica [...] frenesia dell’assoluto e incapacità del graduale e del possibile [...] incapacità di delineare i limiti critici di un pensiero, di una possibilità […] debolezza pratica. Tutto ciò farà vedere nel fascismo la reazione italiana. Una reazione netta, pratica, umana contro il nodo-gordiano della balordaggine ideologica accumulata dal secolo 18o e 19o (SVP 417)». Fascism is imbued with a sense of pragmatic reality, will power and possibility. As an alternative to the frenetic unreality of Socialism and Catholicism, it is possessed of the same semantic qualifiers of Gadda’s cult of Caesar and the ancient Roman ethos, «Cajo Cesare (o il mondo da lui rappresentato)». It should be noted that nowhere in Racconto italiano, or in Gadda’s other writings of the period, are Fascism and the ideal of ancient Rome ever explicitly compared, nowhere can one find a direct coupling of Mussolini and Caesar. We are dealing with a confluence of semantic signifiers in Gadda’s treatment of the two phenomena and men, not with a rhetorical strategy of direct simile. (15)

Nonetheless, this confluence of semantic qualifiers in Gadda’s works during the Fascist period does make us more suspect readers of the author’s Roman myth and its possible contemporary political allusions. A case in point is a passage in Meditazione milanese in which Gadda argues that on the peripherical fringes of civilization, such as the Argentine outback, a place in which «il fuoco incrociato delle relazioni economiche, culturali, etiche, poliziesche, ecc. vada […] come diradandosi», constitutional practice is no longer of use and «importa di più comandare che essere imparziali o giusti». Gadda goes on to draw the analogy that such a situation can also emerge in the heart of an established civil society itself, in which case, only the affirmation of a strong leader who rises above the non-reality of a political-legal-social system in disarray can restore order: «Una situazione analoga si determina purtroppo ovunque sia anarchia così profonda da decomporre la realtà sociale. Si creano allora situazioni limiti di questa realtà sociale. Allora lo straziato corpo sociale genera la sua estrema difesa e alcuna voce grida: “io sono la legge.” E così Cajo Cesare impone, dictatur, alla incomposta e frenetica società romana di quella Repubblica che fu così pubblica e così poco res» (SVP 698-99). We are in 1928, over three years after the Matteotti murder and the subsequent consolidation of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy. Linguistic and semantic markers link this passage back to the pro-Fascist rhetoric of the Racconto italiano, yet neither Fascism or Mussolini are ever mentioned in Meditazione milanese, and here, at least, the semantic field occupied by Gadda’s earlier Fascist motif is now occupied by his Roman motif. (16)

The above passage from Meditazione milanese is the last instance I have found in Gadda’s writings of this sort of heartfelt confluence of Gadda’s ideals of Rome and of Mussolini’s Fascism. In this sense, I feel that the assertion by Peter Hainsworth that Gadda was a «convinced Fascist» until 1943 (Hainsworth 1997: 221, 224) is too simplistic a definition of the author’s attitude towards Fascism during the ventennio and does not take into account the evolution of Gadda’s position. That Gadda in the 30s and early 40s remained a Fascist co-traveler able to offer relatively guarded praise of the regime’s policies of autarchy or its colonialist enterprise in Libya is a very different and more selective approach to the Fascist phenomenon than that of his youthful, convinced adherence. Gadda saw Fascism in its earliest moments as consonant with his own ethical idealism and patriotic nationalism, but this heartfelt attitude already begins to signs of weakening in his correspondence and fiction by the middle to late 20s. (17)

A clue to the true nature of Gadda’s relationship to Fascism and eventual disillusionment with it can be gleaned from what is perhaps his first openly anti-Fascist tract, the short 1944 essay Mito e consapevolezza. (18) Here Gadda, most likely with Freud and Le Bon in mind (but also Pareto and Sorel), comments on the importance of myth in propelling a society forward: «Alcuni osservatori de’ più sagaci, de’ più penetranti, avendo portato a disamina il meccanismo biopsichico di certi mammiferi nostri compagni di gabbia, pervennero un bel giorno alla seguente conclusione: un mito è pur necessario a travolgere gli umani verso il futuro» (SVP 901). Despite the ironic tone, Gadda’s discourse is a serious one, replete with the rhetoric of pragmatism that distinguishes his youthful political idealism. A guiding myth induces «una felice alacrità pragmatica», it transforms «in pragma o almeno in tensione pragmatica le istanze più profonde del nostro essere», it is «l’autenticità di una coscienza» (SVP 901, 904). Gadda’s condemnation of Fascism in Mito e consapevolezza rests not on the regime’s exploitation of myth, but rather on its exploitation of insufficiently motivated myths, what he calls the regime’s «mito d’accatto» or «mito qualunque»; that is to say, myths without «un reale valore psicodinamico», but only «un valore scenico e figurativo», incapable of creating history or progress: «Ma il mito d’accatto, il mito qualunque non crea della storia, non può essere annoverato tra le forze realmente operatrici nella storia, non determina alcuna reale polarità nelle coscienze umane» (SVP 904-905). In essence the young Gadda had sought to find in Fascism a historical and political (i.e., pragmatic) enactment of his own ideals or myths of the heuristic State and personal redemption, thus the confluence of Italian Fascism and Mussolini with Rome and Caesar, the latter being true historical enactments for Gadda of his Roman ideal. Gadda’s investment in his ideal of Italian fascism was at the level of personal mythos. When he could finally admit openly that the regime had betrayed that «pyschodynamic» investment, the resulting denigration of Mussolini and the regime was played out in Eros e Priapo with a similar intensity of «psychodynamic» energy.

***

As is so often the case with issues of psychic investment in Gadda, it is ultimately to La cognizione del dolore that we must turn in order to explore the full complexity and the full disillusionment of the author’s Roman ideal. It is in Cognizione, with its relentless denigration of what Gadda calls «unreal» phenomenal reality, and its concomitant denigration of the denigrating self, that all of Gadda’s obsessive motifs, including his Roman myth, are stretched to their spastic breaking point only to reappear as nightmarish reversals of their former selves. (19)

In Gadda, whenever the ideal comes into contact with the desiring self, the outcome is always tragic, the self always remains excluded from the ideal. And so it is with the Roman ideal. In its broadest manifestations, the exclusion from the Roman ideal is linked to what Gadda calls, in Racconto italiano, his «vecchio concetto» of the «insufficienza etnico-storico-economica dell’ambiente italiano allo sviluppo di certe anime e intelligenze che di troppo lo superano. Mio annegamento nella palude brianza» (SVP 396). The young Gadda does not operate in an ideal world represented by Caesar, and the result is the impossibility of emulating the heuristically positive trajectory of the classical model. (20) As Gadda concludes in desperation towards the end of his World War I diary, «se la realtà avesse avuto minor forza sopra di me, oppure se la realtà fosse di quelle che consentono la grandezza (Roma, Germania), io sarei un uomo che vale qualcosa» (SVP 863). At the level of a deeper, more idiosyncratic and literary mythos, the impossibility of emulating the Roman ideal is accompanied in Gadda by what Federica Pedriali has called his «Palinurus complex» (Pedriali 1990: 33), after the pilot of Aeneas’s ship who is thrown into the sea by the god Somnus and who, although he manages to reach shore, is murdered there by the hostile Italian natives. (21) In her analysis of Gadda’s 1919 La passeggiata autunnale, Pedriali points out that the Gaddian autobiographical protagonist Rineri sees himself as a tragic Palinurus, «madida cum veste gravatum prensantemque uncis manibus capita asperi monti» [«burdened by my sea-drenched clothing, my hooked hands clinging to a jagged cliff»] (Aeneid VI 359-60), and she associates the Virgilian motif with Gadda’s obsessive theme of exclusion. Expanding on Pedriali’s observation, one could argue that the Palinurus motif serves as a refrain for Gadda’s war diary. Each notebook of the Giornale di guerra e di prigionia for the years 1916, 1917, 1918 opens with Palinurus’s words as he momentarily sights Italy from the sea before his unfortunate end: «Prospexi Italiam summa sublimis ab unda» [«raised aloft on a wave’s crest I saw Italy in the distance»] (Aeneid VI 357). (22) Gadda’s Virgilian self-construction models itself not on triumphant Aeneas, but on tragic Palinurus. Palinurus, sacrificed by the gods, espies Italy but is murdered by native barbarians shortly after; Gadda, who similarly sees himself as denied by a higher fate, fights in the war to create a «real» Italy and to redeem himself in the process but he is crushed by the insufficiency of the Italian environment.

The Palinurus myth reappears in La cognizione del dolore, in Gonzalo’s outrage at the national poet Carlo Caçoncello’s criticism of Virgil’s false eponymy for Capo Palinuro, but, more importantly, in an unpublished fragment that returns to the Virgilian verse of Gadda’s war diary: «Ogni prassi è un’imagine e non perverte dell’immutabile se non quanto la considerazione d’una faccia può pervertire del poliedro. Ma questo splendore parmenideo, questa persistenza, questo essere, è l’oceano: e le bracciate di Palinuro rompono disperatamente il frangente e a lui sublime dalla cresta appare, luce lontana, la inutile riviera gaetana: prospexi Italiam summa sublimis ab unda. Qui la luce recedeva, recedeva, sulle pampe infinite, opaca, dell’immutato divenire» (Gadda 1987a: 568). (23) As Emilio Manzotti notes in his gloss to the passage, Gadda refers here to the Parmenidean concept of the immutability of nature (Being) vis-à-vis the misleading plurality of phenomenal appearances (Non-Being). As such, Gadda’s «Palinurus complex» of exclusion is drawn into Cognizione’s discourse of the subject adrift in a world of false appearances.

Another obsessive personal theme that Gadda appropriates from Virgil in La cognizione del dolore is the so-called «cui non risere parentes» motif. Given by Gadda as the title of an unincorporated fragment of Cognizione, the motif from the conclusion of Virgil’s «Messianic» fourth eclogue first appears in Meditazione milanese (SVP 885) but it receives its fullest development in the 1941 short prose piece Dalle specchiere dei laghi (contemporaneous to its appearance in Cognizione). Referring to the eclogue’s closing account of the child’s relationship with his parents, Gadda’s reading of «cui non risere parentes» ([him] at whom his parents did not smile) is now commonly accepted as a misreading of «qui non risere parentes» ([he] who did not smile at his parents) (see Manzotti 1987a: 339, n. 6). In Gadda, this becomes a very strong misreading indeed, since it is used to dramatize the perceived severity and lack of love and support he suffered as a child at the hands of his parents and environment – «stradordinaria severità […] il diniego oltraggioso» – which has condemned him to a cursed existence of possibility lacerated and denied: «M’ero studiato di ridurre l’ecloga alla terza rima: oh! l’avevo a memoria. Oh! il mondo a venire. Ma, in sul chiudere la messianica, Vergilio aveva lacerato il tema, bruscamente: il vaticinio delle pecore pitturate: “Quello a cui i genitori non hanno saputo sorridere, né un dio vorrà degnarlo della sua mensa, né una dea lo degnerà del suo letto. Nec dignata cubili est» (SGF I 228-29). In Cognizione, the motif refers in particular to a perceived «sadismo materno» and to the «prova difettiva di natura» that the mother sees in Gonzalo and her subsequent preference for her other son, killed in the war with obvious references to Gadda’s real life brother Enrico. The motif is also linked, as Manzotti points out with reference to Dalle specchiere (Manzotti 1987a: 526), to Gadda’s sense of guilt for a crime inadvertently committed: «Ero dunque in colpa, se pure contro mia scienza. Nella luce comune, di certo, avevo inosservato gli obblighi, gli inifiniti obblighi; ignorato la legge, la legge che atterrisce, che punisce, che uccide» (SGF I 229). (24) This sense of crime and guilt is played out in Cognizione via the son’s matricidal impulses towards his mother.

Virgil is an important Roman intertext for the organization of Gadda’s obsessive angst of exclusion, denial and guilt in Cognizione and elsewhere, but ultimately it is Gadda’s recourse to his longstanding fixation with Caesar that serves as the key intertext for his representation of the themes of rebellion and matricide in the novel.

Much has been written about Gadda’s use of literary and historical masks as ironic means of deflection and displacement of autobiographical tension. But while literature deflects in Gadda, it also becomes a nexus, as Gian Carlo Roscioni has pointed out, amassing in a character or in an event a rich and complex condensation of psychological and dialectical connotations, a nearly unlimited gestual versatility, and, just as importantly, a rich array of lacerating contradictions (Roscioni 1969b: 92). We might add that together with this literary deflection and multiplication, in an author and reader such as Gadda, who tended so frequently to structure his own life’s tale in accordance with certain obsessive literary tropes, literature also serves as an internal cipher, whose full significance is to be had by investigating its intratextual resonances in the rich tapestry of the author’s ubiquitous ur-text of his ideals and his disillusionment.

As Romano Luperini has noted «[n]evrosi e rabbia sociale sono in Gonzalo due facce di una stessa realtà» (Luperini 1981b: 511). Their physical nexus in the novel occurs in the doubly sacred representational space of bourgeois culture, the ancestral home as locus of private possession and theater of the bourgeois family drama. The novel’s Caesarian interext likewise pertains to the private and social aspects of Gonzalo’s angst and their common location in the family home.

The first Caesarian reference in Cognizione occurs in the social context of a «syndicalist» threat and political disillusionment. In the course of a rambling conversation with the good doctor Higueróa, Gonzalo lashes out against what he perceives to be the extortion of the peon José who wants to receive a regular salary as custodian/guard of the Pirobutirro country house. In agreement with the doctor that it is sacrosanct to give unto Caesar what is due to him, «“Sacrosante le dècime. Cesare sacrosanto....”», Gonzalo notes however that the peon, an evader of military service, is not Caesar, nor is the murderous thief who would steal into his house:

«Ma perché il peone, pagare, il custode? Dal momento che non custodisce un fico secco…. né la frontiera della Gallia, visto che s’era imboscato a Imatapulqui, né l’orto di casa, dove non ci matura altro che il fieno…. o la semenza delle cipolle? Il peone non è Cesare. È un porco. Mi deruba dei pantaloni, del pozzonero…. E l’assassino che scavalcherà il muro non è Cesare… è un ladro. Perché anche pagare il ladro, pagare, che viene a rubare? e per venire a rubare si infila il testimonio sulle punte». (RR I 646)

In a sardonic pastiche of free association, projection and displacement, Gonzalo mixes Caesarian ideal, military evasion, barren property, murderous thief, avarice, castration anxiety. As the free-associative process continues, Gonzalo’s ire will throw into the equation the treacherous vigile Mahagones-Manganones of the local Nistitúo de vigilancia para la noche (a thinly disguised substitute for the provincial fascio), eventually leveling his non credo at Mussolini himself in his guise as the flea-gathering volcano-god Akatapulqui:

«Io non pago più nulla: né ai Celti, né agli Indios….». Il medico stava per doversi convincere che il signor don Gonzalo era pazzo. «No. Non credo nel vigile, come non credo nella onniscienza del volcano Akatapulqui, sa bene, il dio-vulcano adorato dagli Incas, il dio di zolfo e di fiamma…. che giganteggia e sparacchia, là, nella tenebra…. dopo lo squallore della Cordillera….». (RR I 653)

Gonzalo’s obsessive rancor against any «dimostrazione a carattere sindacale» (RR I 705) of the peones is a mock epic hyperbole of Gadda’s own anxieties and fears that date back to post-World War I social unrest. At the height of the factory agitations of 1920 Gadda wrote to friend Ugo Betti from an assignment in Sardinia: «Un mio compagno mutilato che è ingegnere da Marelli ha avuto nuovamente la pelle in bilico, ad opera di circa 300 sciacalli, senza aver fatto loro nulla di male. Credo che cominceranno anche qui» (Gadda 1984a: 46). The image of a disabled war buddy (in sharp contrast to the renegade peone and the concocted disability of the vigile), assaulted by a rabble of rebellious strikers, would have made good Fascist press and not by chance does a similar motif appear in Racconto italiano. In that novel, Gadda-Grifonetto’s complaint against the Catholic and Socialist mass parties is that they are the «arcadia criminale» which foments class rebellion, «che suscita i bruti a delinquere», and whose irrational and self-serving cult of the lower classes at the expense of the nation’s progress was ruining Italy. They falsely promote the threatening plebs to a position of saintliness, «a sentire certuni di costoro la plebe ha gli attributi che i preti soglion affibbiare al Dio perfetto», while refusing to acknowledge that they are merely the «materia prima» or «roh-stoff» of history: «la storia in quanto esprime le successioni del divenire non è storia di plebi, storia di mangiare, storia di defecare, storia di morire di peste». Only Fascism, Grifonetto asserts, is steeped in a different, pragmatic reality. Only the Fascist party in postwar Italy is capable of realistically assessing what needs to be done and implementing a «metodo reale» able to solve Italy’s problems (SVP 566-67). Qualities, we have seen, which link Gadda’s early Fascist motif to his Roman motif. Gonzalo’s ubiquitous preoccupation in Cognizione with the threatened private space of the open-doored villa and the syndicalist pretensions of the local rabble represents a continuation of Gadda’s preoccupation with the marauding socialist plebs, now native «calibani gutturaloidi». (25) Only now, Fascism, embodied in the extortionist practices of the Nistitúo nightguard, who will perhaps enter the villa with the assistance of the peon, and in the bombastic eruptions of the volcano god Mussolini, is perceived to be part of the same assault. Fascism is no longer Caesar (or the world represented by him). The salvific law of Cajo Cesare the dictator, «io sono la legge», that Gadda had extolled as a solution «alla incomposta e frenetica società» in Meditazione milanese (SVP 699), has degenerated for Gonzalo into a usurpation, into an abuse. When the doctor mentions that the 25-year binding contract with the (fascist) Nistitúo for the protection of one’s property is supported by a «disposizione di legge», Gonzalo responds: «“…. Non credo…. legge….,” sussultò il figlio arrossendo, con severità dura. Aveva, della legge, un concetto sui generis; non appreso alla lettura dell’editto, ma consustanziato nell’essere, biologicamente ereditario. E faticava a riconoscere la specie della legge in un abuso o in un arbitrio, tanto più, anche, in una soperchieria» (RR I 650).

A few lines earlier Gonzalo had been defined as «un tal fanatico della libertà» (RR I 650), and the novel seems to be encouraging the reader to see in his transposed act of political resistance yet another of the many ironic masks that Gonzalo is forced to don, this time that of Caesar’s youthful assassin, Marcus Brutus Junius. Gadda could have drawn inspiration to add Brutus to the list of Gonzalo’s literary masks from his mother’s own description of an antithesis in Brutus’ character «fra la rigidezza del carattere e la debolezza dell’animo» and her assertion that Shakespeare «ha ritratto meravigliosamente quest’aspetto della coscienza» (Lehr 1889: 14-15; cited in Roscioni 1997: 40). That Shakespeare’s Brutus was on Gadda’s mind while writing Cognizione is supported by Manuela Bertone’s assertion that Gonzalo’s premonitory dream of matricide borrows from the thought and language of Brutus’ soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the interim between conceiving the dreadful deed and putting it into action (Bertone 1997: 122-23).

The masking, due in part perhaps to Gadda’s fears of censorship by the regime, could be part of an overall strategy of ironic deflection of the novel’s political discourse. In fact, the narrator hastens to further ironize and discount Gonzalo’s symbolic act of political resistance as mistaken and undoubtedly occasioned by his fragile psychiatric profile: «Ma, nel giudicare abuso questa provvidenza del vigile, s’ingannava di certo. Forse il suo era quello che Sérieux, Capgras, e altri psichiatri contemporanei, hanno efficacemente chiamato “delirio interpretativo”» (RR I 650). (26)

It is a similar notion of «delirio interpretativo» that is called into play to help explain the novel’s personal tragedy of the son’s complex of love/hatred/remorse towards his mother as well as her belief (as outlined in one of Gadda’s note costruttive to the novel) that it was her own son who had assaulted her. It is here that the overturning of Gadda’s Caesarian ideal reappears in its most manifest form and at the moment of maximum psychological tension.

In a fit of rage after having witnessed his mother surrounded by the obsequiousness of the local peasantry, Gonzalo assaults and threatens her:

«Vuoi il caffè?», gli chiese dolcemente. Egli la guardò senza rispondere, poi disse, torvo: «Perché tutti quei maiali per casa?»
La mamma allora si atterrí. Lo aveva creduto calmo.
«.... Erano venuti…. Un momento….», balbettò: «…. a portarmi i funghi…. Poveretti….», e fece per allontanarsi come volesse rientrare e prendere il cestello di sulla tavola, per mostrarglielo. In realtà tentò di fuggire: atterrita. Egli la trattenne per un braccio, con violenza: «.... non voglio, non voglio maiali in casa....», urlò, accostando ferocemente il volto a quello della mamma. La mamma ritrasse il capo appena, chiuse gli occhî, non poté congiungere le mani sul grembo, come di solito faceva, perché egli le teneva un braccio sollevato: il braccio terminava a una mano alta, stecchita, senza più forza: a una mano incapace d’implorare. La lasciò subito, e allora il braccio ricadde lungo la persona. Ma ella non osò risollevare le palpebre.
La parte superiore della testa, la fronte, assai alta e le tempie, sopra le arcate degli occhî, chiusi, parve il volto di chi si raccolga nella ricchezza silente e profonda dell’essere, per non conoscere l’odio: di quelli che tanto ama!
Così riferisce Svetonio di Cesare, che levasse la toga al capo, davanti la subita lucentezza delle lame.
Un disperato dolore occupò l’animo del figliolo: la stanca dolcezza del settembre gli parve irrealtà, immagine fuggente delle cose perdute, impossibili. Avrebbe voluto inginocchiarsi e dire: «perdonami, perdonami! Mamma, sono io!». Disse: «Se ti trovo ancora una volta nel braco dei maiali, scannerò te e loro....». Questa frase non aveva senso, ma la pronunziò realmente (così certe volte il battello, accostando, sorpassa il pontile) (RR I 736-37).

The Suetonian reference to Caesar’s assassination casts the mother as Caesar and the son, Gonzalo, once again as a Brutus entrapped «fra la rigidezza del carattere e la debolezza dell’animo». It also does not appear in isolation in the novel. It occurs (unacknowledged as such but obvious) a few pages earlier when the mother contemplates that her eyes could soon become lifeless almost exactly like those of a fetid tench that the local peasantry has presented to her, except that she, the mother, has eyelids: «non fosse stata la dignità delle palpebre, che cadono, cadono, come la toga di Cesare, sullo stupore della morte» (RR I 724). Later in this same sequence the novel will displace Gonzalo’s matricidal impulse onto the crowd of peasants that surrounds his mother: «come una congiura che tenga finalmente la sua vittima» (RR I 727). Finally, although there are no direct Suetonian or other Caesarian references at the end of the novel, when the locals come upon the horrific scene of the bludgeoned mother, there are linguistic and semantic markers which harken back to the earlier references: from the gestures of the mother who has sheltered her head under her coverlet as Caesar had under his toga and whose arms are raised as if in defense or imploration, to the repeated reprisal of key images from the earlier passages such as occhi, palpebre and dignità (RR I 752-55). (27)

The Suetonian intertext of Caesar’s assassination in Cognizione has not passed unnoticed by some of Gadda’s more perceptive critics. In his 1981 history of 20th-century Italian literature, Romano Luperini opens his discussion of Gadda with an analysis of why the author would chose to «interrupt» the tension of Gonzalo’s threatening gestures to his mother with the Suetonian reference to Caesar’s assassination. It is an example, he argues, of Gadda’s continual use of literature as stylistic artifice «artificio stilistico» in order to effect an estrangement «straniamento» of the reader from any sort of hope of coming to a facile knowledge or «conoscenza» of the material at hand (Luperini 1981b: 487-91). Robert Dombroski refers to Luperini’s analysis and echoes his conclusions, noting that in the reference to Suetonius «[the] tragic tensions of Gonzalo’s final encounter with his mother is displaced into the annals of literature», that «the literary is exhibited ironically as artifice» and that it «provides Gonzalo’s experience with a cover or a mask». He concludes: «The distancing achieved through objectification leads the reader to view the object in its myriad of relationships, contradictions, and affinities. As an object, or datum, it suffers the fate of all objects as a relational entity devoid of synthesis» (Dombroski 1999: 86-87).

Gadda’s approach to the literary is seen by both Luperini and Dombroski as the author’s recognition of the failure of literature in its traditional role of synthesis and totalization. Given this state of literature’s fall from cognitive grace, Gadda wields it in the only meaningful way remaining, as a weapon which confirms this loss through a poetics of continual negation: «Gonzalo’s choice is between negating and not negating, that is, between deploying the artifice [of literature] as weapon or not» (Dombroski 1999: 78). This analysis is sound indeed, but the emphasis on the alienating and destructive character of the literary in Gadda has resulted in a tendency to divide the Gaddian text into two «languages», which Dombroski classifies as «a language of the already known, which the reader can identify as alien and, thus, suspect (the pastiche), and the private language of dolore. The pastiche frames the writer’s desperate experience in such a way as to render it visible but not comprehensible» (Dombroski 1999: 91). The result of the division, as one might imagine, is a tendency to a certain textual essentialism, for if the literary refuses to make the experience comprehensible, we must seek to understand that experience via its other, more essential language, that of «grief», using in particular the tools of Freudian analysis, tools that the text itself continually indicates to us as the key to unraveling its mysteries: «Uno psichiatra soltanto, e al conoscere in dettaglio lo strazio della miserevole biografia, avrebbe potuto applicare un cartiglio al male» (RR I 645). This approach has undoubtably yielded some of the most penetrating analyses of Gadda’s works and of La cognizione del dolore in particular, but perhaps at the expense of discounting «literary» elements of the text as non-essential to that understanding. Yet Gadda was an author who often structured his view of his life and the world around him through the prism of literary intertexts which he had passionately consumed in his earliest youth. This is certainly the case concerning his fascination with Julius Caesar. As such, perhaps the tools of etiological analysis can also be applied to the Caesarian intertext in La cognizione del dolore to help render the protagonist’s/author’s desperate experience more comprehensible.

Gadda himself seems to offer clues toward an analytical approach in his pseudo-psychoanalytic anti-Fascist diatribe Eros e Priapo. In the section and appendix of the libel dealing with «Narcisismo giovanile e pedagogia. Teorica del modello narcissico», Gadda notes that not only did Caesar become an important «modello narcissico» of his youth, but one that excited a special libidinal charge bordering on idolatry: «[N]elle fasi igenue del sentimento (ragazzi, donne) è la lubido normale (omo ed etero) che trascina con sé la idolatria. Innamorati di un sovrano illustre siamo un po’ tutti. Io e Dante di Cesare» (SGF II 335, 1040). (28) Although Gadda uses a terminology different from Freud’s, it would appear that his rather simplistic notion of the «narcissistic model» in childhood development has its closest correspondence in Freud’s «ego ideal». This association is supported by the fact that during the elaboration of Eros e Priapo Gadda seems to have read rather carefully a French edition of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Lucchini 1997: 177-78), a substantial portion of which deals with the formation and nature of the ego-ideal. As Guido Lucchini has pointed out, Gadda’s appropriation of Freud in Eros e Priapo is selective. On the one hand, Gadda tends to ignore the Oedipal subtext of ego-ideal formation: «[The] absence of references to the Oedipal relationship cannot but arouse surprise. Gadda draws on Freud’s theory without realizing that his complex utterances on the origins of the ego (the slow, painful movement away from primeval narcissistic perfection) imply that the parental figure of the same sex is assumed as a model, although with ambivalence, precisely on account of the erotic desire directed towards the mother» (Lucchini 1997: 180). Gadda does mention the (dashing young) father as a possible model: «[i]l modello può essere ed è talora il padre, giovine, fiero, buono», and he does concede that narcissistic eroticism is complicated by Oedipal and other psychological complexes: «il gioco della erotia narcissica si complica con una religio (religio a religando) totemica o con una forma di erotia edipica e talora omoaffettiva», but his ideal narcissistic model for a young boy would seem to be the author/artist, historical figure, or literary character «che “abbia parlato al suo cuore e alla sua fantasia”» (SGF II 334). This pre-Freudian pedagogical interpretation of the ego-ideal – note that Gadda himself brackets his statement in quotation marks – certainly leaves the reader of the Oedipally coded Cognizione del dolore somewhat puzzled, but it is in keeping with Lucchini’s observations that throughout Eros e Priapo Gadda tends to adapt Freud to the emphasis in his early autobiographical and speculative works on the importance of «self-sacrifice, spiritual elevation, and moral action [which now] reappear under the false label of “sublimation”» (Lucchini 1997: 182). In fact, in Gadda’s edulcorated version of the «normal» erotic development of what Freud calls the «object-libido» and the «ego-libido» (29) he asserts that «la carica affettiva o carica erotica normale» tends to either focus on a female as object-choice or to «“sublimarsi” in istati dell’animo che tendono a levar su il mastio da le bassezze dell’essere verso la piaggia o l’erta perigliosa del divenire» (SGF II 273; cited in Lucchini 1997: 181). Of course, Alì Oco De Madrigal, Gadda’s alter-ego in Eros e Priapo, is quick to recognize that his own numerous narcissistic models have not done much to help his sublimation: «Direte: “Be’, te lo hanno ridutto dimolto bene codesti modelli al povero Alì Oco da esser quel grullo che ovviamente gli è”» (SGF II 335); and given the rigid and inflexible idealism of the young Gadda, one could extrapolate from Freud’s essay On Narcissism that Gadda has confused ego-ideal formation with sublimation:

The formation of the ego-ideal is often confounded with sublimation, to the detriment of clear comprehension. A man who has exchanged his narcissism for the worship of a high ego-ideal has not necessarily on that account succeeded in sublimating his libidinal instincts. […] It is just in neurotics that we find the highest degrees of tension between the development of their ego-ideal and the measure of their sublimation of primitive libidinal instincts, and in general it is far harder to convince the idealist of the inexpediency of the hiding-place found by his libido than the plain man whose demands in this respect are only moderate. Further, the formation of an ego-ideal and sublimation are quite differently related to the causation of neurosis. As we have learnt, the formation of the ideal increases the demands of the ego and is the most powerful factor favoring repression; sublimation is a way out, a way by which the claims of the ego can be met without involving repression (Freud 1963: 75).

This of course is the crux of the Gaddian conflict between the ego and the ego-ideal: the ideal is in fact «sublimation» itself or what Gadda most often calls «heuresis». Rome and Caesar the general are historical and individual examples for the author of this successful sublimation-heuresis, the passage from n to n+1, from being into becoming. But while the Gaddian ego-ideal may be sublimation, the autobiographical Gaddian subject most certainly does not sublimate. As Carla Benedetti has pointed out, not only is this type of heuristic sublimation impossible for Gonzalo, but his negation of the false appearances of reality does not even afford him the detached sublimation of Schopenhauerian pessimism since Gonzalo can never free himself from the particularity of the world (Benedetti 1987: 139, 136).

Given the above observations let us return to the Caesarian intertext in La cognizione del dolore. That there should exist an identification between Gonzalo’s mother and the Caesarian ego-ideal is not surprising considering Gadda’s own personal intertext. On the one hand, it was Adele Lehr who had introduced her son to Caesar as a «narcissistic model», who had written a treatise on Roman history beginning with the assassination of Caesar, who had educated her son to a strong sense of nationalism and militarism. As Emanuele Narducci notes, commenting on the mother’s association with Caesar in Cognizione: «Alla madre Gadda doveva in buona parte la sua immagine di Cesare; e con la madre egli è quasi arrivato a identificarlo» (Narducci 2003: 86). Narducci does a fine job investigating the Caesarian presence in Gadda’s life and works and Adele Lehr’s role in fostering that presence, but he doesn’t pose the question of why the association between mother and Caesar in Cognizione occurs not in reference to the mother’s education of the son to Caesar, but instead to the son’s matricidal impulses to destroy his mother. Certainly part of the explanation has to do with the ego’s revolt against the repressive qualities of the ego-ideal. The formation of the ego-ideal, Freud argues in On Narcissism, increases the demands of the ego and is the most powerful factor in favoring repression, especially when a subject’s libidinal impulses come into conflict with the ideal. Since the ideal, Freud claims, derives first from «parental criticism» and is reinforced by those who teach the child and, subsequently, by society at large, the rebellion of the ego against the «censorial institution» of the ideal is ultimately also a desire of the subject to liberate himself from the influence of his parents (Freud 1963: 73-76). In Cognizione, Gonzalo himself provides a colorful description of the ego under siege by the censorial institution of the super-ego, in which the latter is configured in the guise of his Roman ego-ideal: «oppure saturnino e alpigiano, con gli occhi incavernati nella diffidenza, con lo sfinctere strozzato dall’avarizia, e rosso dentro l’ombra delle sue lèndini…. d’un rosso cupo…. da celta inselvato tra le montagne…. che teme il pallore di Roma e si atterrisce dei suoi dàttili… militem, ordinem, cardinem, consulem…. l’io d’ombra, l’animalesco io delle selve» (RR I 638). (30) It is an interesting moment in which we see the Roman ideal not from the point of view of its would-be emulator, but from that of the victim of its rational and well-organized oppression. Gonzalo displaces the imagery of the mountain Celt onto the peasant José, but it is not difficult to see here a reference to the last hidalgo himself, who earlier in the novel had been described as «colorito nel viso come un celta» (618) and who referred to his own matricidal dream as a «rifiutare le scleròtiche figurazioni della dialettica» (632).

The association of the ego-ideal and repression is further developed in the novel in the denunciation of the lack of affection and sadistic education of the child Gonzalo. If in Eros e Priapo Gadda discusses the development of a child’s «narcissistic models» in a pedagogical context in which it is the duty of educators to direct the child’s narcissistic libido in a positive direction through «una disciplina di sublimazioni successive» (SGF II 340), in La cognizione del dolore, Gonzalo’s own childhood education is presented as something quite different. In the text of the novel itself, the «cui non risere parentes» motif mentioned earlier is developed in reference to the mother’s disillusionment with her imperfect first son («Il suo primo figlio. Quello nel di cui corpicino aveva voluto vedere, oh! giorni! la prova difettiva di natura, un fallito sperimento delle viscere dopo la frode accolta del seme, reluttanti ad aver patito, ad aver generato il non suo» RR I 678) and her withholding of open affection to him («“Sono stato un bimbo anch’io….,” disse il figlio. “Allora forse valevo un pensiero buono…. una carezza no; era troppo condiscendere.... era troppo!”», RR I 632). In the unpublished «cui non risere parentes» fragment, the motif is further expanded to the child’s education. There we read the story of an education marked not by a «disciplina di sublimazioni successive» but by a ferocious sadism which would replace sublimation with a very different «umiliatrice disciplina» resulting in rancor and ruin:

La sua vita non aveva conosciuto stagione: non primavera, sotto la ferula della miseria e del sadismo materno, non estate, né dolce autunno, né carità di figli, né nulla. [....] Dopo la timidità e la purezza del bimbo, che aveva continuamente dovuto tremare davanti alla libido sadica degli educatori, (con senno reso nel dolore precocemente adulto, con nervi spezzati dai lunghi anni di terrore e di umiliatrice disciplina) – tutto il restante della sua vita era stata feroce demolizione dello sporco e presuntuoso credo altrui, e ancora patimento, miseria, sporcizia fisica, prigionia, demenza, sconcio riso, inanità, stanchezza e torpore di vendicativo peccato, bestemmia, sudiciume, avidità senza premio. (Gadda 1987a: 527)

The faults and weaknesses that the young Gadda recognized in himself and attributed to his childhood experiences in the Giornale di guerra e di prigionia (31) resulted in an inability to sublimate and a predisposition to rancor and negation, an inability and a predisposition that he shares with his autobiographical protagonist Gonzalo, and which are attributed here to a destructive pedagogy. (32) Even the sublimating disciplines at which the boy excels, Latin and mathematics, become a pretext for further punishment and debasement: «Egli aveva dimostrato una certa facilità nello studio del latino e della matematica e perciò bisognava minacciare di strozzarlo, allontanando la serva con un pretesto, per un errore di latino o di matematica. Sicché l’ablativo di limitazione era divenuto in lui un ricordo ossessivo, borgiano» (Gadda 1987a: 535). Removal of the servant from the young child hints of a sexual punishment and deprivation and we read that Gonzalo’s destructive education has ruined him also in terms of his sexual appeal: «Bamboccio senile, annoiatissimo, con scarpe sbilenche e fetide le più fetenti serve lo avevano sdegnosamente respinto, avevano allontanato con ribrezzo la sua cupidità di predone inadempiente, precoce e tardivo, ributtante» (Gadda 1987a: 532). (33)

The relationship between the mother and the ego-ideal in Gadda is a complex one, fraught with ambivalence and pain. From a Freudian perspective, the association would seem to concern the setting up of an ego-ideal not so much as a vehicle to sublimation but as a «hiding-place» for unresolved and repressed primitive libidinal instincts. In this sense the Gaddian ego-ideal is not part of a process of sublimation but of one of regression. This regression is heightened in La cognizione del dolore by Gonzalo’s strong sense of identification with his mother, his inability to break free from her.

Gaddian criticism has highlighted two types of regressive identification in Gonzalo concerning his mother, both of which correspond to well-known Freudian ideas. The first is characterized by an inability to negotiate the Oepidal phase of development in favor of a return to a primary narcissistic identification with the mother. (34) Manuela Bertone has aptly described this process: «Gadda estranges the figure of the son from the Oedipal model of development […], framing him within a structure of primary and absolute narcissism, that is, in the pre-Oedipal stage that precedes the constitution of the ego. Unable to sever the primary bond that connects him to his mother, the son seeks to recover the state lost at birth and reattach himself to the matrix. […] Theirs is a primary, absolute, and destructive narcissistic bond, fuelled by ruinous impulses, which dissolves the unity of the self into an undifferentiated state of identity and antagonism» (Bertone 1997: 121 and 127).

The other type of regressive identification which Gonzalo undergoes in La cognizione del dolore is that which one finds in mourning and melancholia, a situation that is complicated by the fact that Gonzalo experiences an anticipated mourning for his mother whom he feels will soon be lost to him while the novel itself constitutes part of Gadda’s own troubled work of mourning after the recent death of his mother (Zublena 2002b). Like mourning, melancholia involves the loss of a love object and ambivalence toward that object, but it is also marked by the singular fact that the melancholic «has withdrawn his libido from the object, but that by a process which we must call “narcissistic identification” he has set up the object within the ego itself, projected it onto the ego […] The ego is then treated as though it were the abandoned object; it suffers all of the revengeful and aggressive treatment which is designed for the object». (35) Carla Benedetti has been the critic to most extensively examine the condition of mourning and melancholia that pervades Cognizione. She argues that the subject Gonzalo has hypertrophied his melancholic gaze to the entire world, all of which is constituted by things that are denied specifically to him. As a result, all things become subject to Gonzalo’s vocation of denigration and negation including himself and all dreams of sublimation: «Il dolore di Gonzalo è quello di chi si percepisce membro lacerato di una realtà più vasta, di un organismo più vasto, di chi è pronto a sacrificare per esso il proprio essere particolare e si trovi invece costretto a regredire al suo senso n, alla sterile negazione dell’“io frammento”» (Benedetti 1987: 139).

Gonzalo’s negation is all encompassing; at its core is the negation of sublimation, of heuresis, of possibility: «Lo hidalgo, forse, era a negare se stesso: rivendicando a sé le ragioni del dolore, nulla rimaneva alla possibilità» (RR I 704). And at the core of this plunge into the negation of possibility, of sublimation, is the regressive relationship of repressed desires that entrap the son and mother. Inexorably linked as the mother figure is to the ego-ideal of sublimation, to destroy her is to destroy the ideal, since the ideal has been a form of compensation for the son’s perceived denial of her love for him and for his inability to possess the mother that his father, his brother, and by extension everyone else has had. (36) Association of the ego-ideal with the mother deepens and complicates the son’s dependence on her; it reinforces the observation that «she is the bearer of pleasure and the missing part of self that he desires to claim» (Dombroski 1984b: 131), since the ego-ideal promises the same gratification upon attainment (Freud, On Narcissism, 1963: 80). This is also why there is no restorative counterpoint to the act of matricide (the extreme act of negation) in Cognizione. Unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a figure who fascinated Gadda from his earliest writings, Gonzalo’s act of negation admits of no future possibility. The negation of Gonzalo’s matricide is total since it incorporates both the disorder that has been rent on the individual’s private world but also any external ethical position (ego-ideal) from which a new futurity, «(n + 1)», can be constructed. There can be no sublimation because sublimation, itself a «falsa parvenza», has been grounded all along in a destructive and narcissistic regression. More appropriately, then, the literary moment that intervenes as analogy in Gonzalo’s threat to his mother is Caesar’s assassination, the assassination of the emblem of sublimation and heuresis, and not Hamlet, whose intertext in the novel serves instead as the intellectual articulation of the impasse of negation. In the image of Caesar, mother and ego-ideal have been reunited; to destroy the one is to destroy the other.

There are other compelling factors that might have influenced Gadda’s choice of Caesar’s assassination, and in particular Suetonius’ description of that assassination, as the key intertext for the matricidal tension in the novel. The first would have to do with the curious double manipulation of Caesar’s toga. Suetonius’ account is as follows:

utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvolvit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata (De vita Caesarum, I, 82).

When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its fold to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. (37)

Caesar commits a double gesture at the moment of his death – the first is tragic, the hiding of his face, so that he not bear visual witness to the outrage that has befallen him. The second, a gesture in line with a noble Roman’s sense of personal dignitas and decorum, hints at the sexual subtext of all acts of violent affront (what Gadda calls the oltraggio) against one’s person. In La cognizione del dolore, this sexual subtext, what Freud would have associated with the «primitive libidinal instincts» and inspector Ingravallo with a certain «quanto di erotia» (RR II 17) that underpins every crime, is repressed but not eliminated; it is displaced, onto a fish.

When Gonzalo utters his matricidal threat, his mother’s reaction elicits the sublime and tragic gesture of Caesar’s first manipulation of his toga:

La parte superiore della testa, la fronte, assai alta e le tempie, sopra le arcate degli occhî, chiusi, parve il volto di chi si raccolga nella ricchezza silente e profonda dell’essere per non conoscere l’odio: di quelli che tanto ama!

Così riferisce Svetonio di Cesare, che levasse la toga al capo, davanti la subita lucentezza delle lame (RR I 737). (38)

But the passage also brings to mind a more unusual reference to Caesar’s assassination just a few pages earlier in the novel in which the mother contemplates her own death while examining a dead tench which some peasants have presented to her. Reminded of her youngest son’s death in the war, the mother’s eyes well with tears:

la disperata automaticità degli impulsi riportò il pianto sui suoi vecchî occhî: a cui erano serbate solo delle fotografie gialle, di là dall’andirivieni delle mosche. Fra poco, forse, chi sa!, il tumulto vano del tempo gli avrebbe fatti simili a quelli....: non fosse stata la dignità delle palpebre, che cadono, cadono, come la toga di Cesare, sullo stupore della morte.... (RR I 724)

The imagery presents an unusual transposition of Caesar’s falling and the second manipulation of his toga, to preserve the dignity of the lower [sexual] part of his body, to the upper part of the mother’s body, her face and eyes. In his gloss to the passage Manzotti observes: «ma il verbo di “quo honestius caderet” passa qui, dal corpo, al (ri)cadere della toga. Le palpebre scendono a velare gli occhi (cfr. a r. 379 quelli del pesce: ma velata, in Svetonio, è la “inferiore corporis parte”) per assicurare anche in liminis mortis la dignità del volto, così come Cesare abbassa sulle gambe la toga (“sinum ad ima crura deduxit”) per non cadere in atteggiamento scomposto» (Manzotti 1987a: 406). The unsual transposition becomes clear though when we realize the charge of sexual sadism that invests the description of the dead fish in the novel. The fish’s mouth is «large and round» as if it had been prepared in this way to insert a cannolo pastry (RR I 724); it lies on its plate, stinking, yellow and enormous «con gli occhi molli e cianòtici dopo l’impudicizia e la nudità» (727). The sight of the fish fuels the sadistic anger and rage of Gonzalo. Associated with the mother (and anticipating the description of the corpse of Liliana Balducci), it has become the object of a caustic ridicule and humiliation: it is degraded as nude, impudent and evocative of obscene postures. The son eventually tosses it on the floor moments after uttering his matricidal threat: «gettò via la viscidezza gialla della bestia, senza toccarla» (737).

The dead tench is an objectified entity in La cognizione del dolore. Laid out on a platter, shamelessly exposed and lifeless, it is subjected to a sadistic denigration, an affront, an «oltraggio». But the unwarranted ferocity of the mistreatment also subjects it to an alternative gaze of pietas, similar to other objectified entities in the novel compelled to suffer similar affronts: the cat that the young Gonzalo repeatedly drops from the third floor of the villa, Gonzalo himself, laid out on his bed and subjected to doctor Higueróa’s probings, and of course the mother, brutally assaulted, at the end of the novel. It is in this final scene that the Suetonian intertext reappears but in a less explicit and more integral way, as if the intertext has been fully absorbed into the novel. The mother lies bludgeoned on the bed having hidden her head – «riparata il capo» – underneath her coverlet, her scheletral arms are raised as if in a defense or an imploration; her eyes are initially wide open, like those of the tench, «[g]li occhi della signora, aperti», but soon after, the bludgeoning has caused the swollen right eyelids to close shut while the good doctor Higueróa closes the left lids in an act of pietas: «[l]e palpebre dell’occhio sinistro, con una leggera pressione delle dita, vennero da lui richiuse» (RR I 752-54). The mother’s last gesture, like Caesar’s, is an attempt to recuperate a modicum of dignity before the final dissolution of the possibility of the self:

Nella stanchezza senza soccorso in cui il povero volto si dovette raccogliere tumefatto, come in un estremo ricupero della sua dignità, parve a tutti di leggere la parola terribile della morte e la sovrana coscienza della impossibilità di dire: Io. (754)

As in the case of all of Gadda’s bodies exposed to the sadistic affronts which befall them, a subjective identification comes into play which generates an attitude of pietas, not unlike the feeling suscitated by Homer’s description of the dead Hector being dragged behind Achilles’ chariot or Luigi Pirandello’s emphasis on subjective identification in the distinction between humorism versus the merely comic. «Ogni oltraggio è morte» (RR I 598): the sadistic brutalization of the individual is the punishment for its grotesque narcissism, but also the extinction of its right to possibility, to heuresis, to sublimation. This is the double bind of Gadda’s universe, to destroy the one is to destroy the other: «la sovrana coscienza della impossibilità di dire: Io». The mother’s fate, enriched through the intertext of the Caesarian ideal, is also that of the son himself, since the condition of the autobiographical subject in Gadda is always one of «oltraggio». (39) If, as Pier Paolo Pasolini (Pasolini 1963: 54-65) famously noted, the object of sadistic abuse in Gadda is also the subject, «il gattino» that Gonzalo repeatedly drops from a window is at its core «il Gaddone», how much more can we say this of the bludgeoned mother, linked to the son not only through a ruinous bond of narcissistic identification but also through the failed mechanics of ego-ideal sublimation. Every «oltraggio» in Gadda’s fiction is in essence not only a sadistic revenge-taking but also a masochistic subjection, and this too is captured by the Suetonian image of Caesar, who, in the end, subjects himself to his assassins’ fury, as will Liliana Balducci: «La “collutazione” se pure era da credervi, doveva essere stata nient’altro che un misero conato, da parte della vittima […]. Si era conceduta al carnefice» (RR II 67-68). (40)

* * *

The association of the death of Caesar and the matricidal impulse in Gadda’s fiction spills over into Gadda’s subsequent novel, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana. But if Gadda felt compelled to overtly cite the Suetonian reference in Cognizione and, given the highly autobiographical nature of the narration, to separate the sublime (upper-body) and sexually allusive (lower-body) elements contained in the double manipulation of Caesar’s toga through displacement, this would not be the case in the description of Liliana Balducci’s mutilated corpse. Since Liliana herself is already a displacement of the autobiographical mother figure, no censorship impinges to mitigate the mingling of the tragic and sadistic treatments of her violation. Here the Caesarian intertext has been totally absorbed into the graphic realism of the description of Liliana’s lifeless body, but its traces are unmistakable. The shielded head, this time by the victim’s flowing hair: «quel capo, nel nimbo, che l’avvolgeva, dei capelli, fili tuttavia operosi della carità» (RR II 59); the hypothesized raised arm in a feeble attempt at self-defense: «l’abbozzo di un gesto: una mano levata appena, bianca, a stornare l’orrore, a tentar di stringere il polso villoso, la mano implacabile e nera dell’omicida» (67-68); but most importantly, the inability of Liliana to shield the lower body from the curious gaze of onlookers and the inappropriately ironic and prurient sadism of the narrative gaze. The description of her corpse begins precisely with this motif which will return throughout the novel’s second chapter: «Il corpo della povera signora giaceva in una posizione infame, supino, con la gonna di lana grigia e una sottogonna bianca buttate all’indietro, fin quasi al petto: come se qualcuno avesse voluto scoprire il candore affascinante di quel dessous, o indagarne lo stato di nettezza» (58). It is another instance of the essentially sado-masochist operation of the Gaddian text; the ambivalence before this displaced maternal figure lies in the juxtaposition of the «Roman» narrator’s crude similes and innuendos and the pietas of semi-autobiographical Inspector Ingravallo, who is the articulator of Gadda’s own philosophical musings on death as the ultimate affront against possibility: «la morte gli apparve, a don Ciccio, una decombinazione estrema dei possibili» (92).

The image of the assassinated Caesar has a history in Gadda that predates its association with the mother in Cognizione or Liliana in Quer pasticciaccio. It appears already in the 1924 Racconto italiano and already within in a denigratory sexual context (here concerning the political opportunism of late republican Roman society): «La voce del dittatore gli pareva una fredda lama per il cuore di ogni filosofastro e la vitalità romana ricostituiva con la nativa energia le battaglie che per altri sarebbero perse. Ma questi, in cinquanta avevano avuto ragione di lui. Però, pensava il tenente Tolla, si può pugnalare anche Cesare, ma non si può rinverginire una puttana» (SVP 450-51). And certainly the Gaddian ur-scene of Caesar’s death (first published in 1931) would have to be the description of his exposed corpse in San Giorgio in casa Brocchi:

La vecchia Roma era lì, dentro la vecchia fortezza! Da basso, nella «valle» e nella curia subitamente deserta, il cadavere dell’assassinato giaceva solo: abbandonato dai vivi, a cui faceva troppa paura: atroce delle profonde ferite: con segni orridi, sopra il volto, del suo sangue cagliato e per tutta la tunica lacera, macera di scarlatto. Intorno a quel cadavere l’Eternità elucubrava il computo delle sue ore: ma sul Tirreno si sarebbero accese le stelle, con la puntualità regolamentare ch’egli aveva loro prescritto. (RR II 672)

One can readily see in this portrait of the assassinated Caesar a harbinger of the descriptions of the bludgeoned mother in La cognizione del dolore and, in particular, of Liliana Balducci’s corpse in Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana. (41) Yet, in San Giorgio, as in Racconto italiano, there is a clear opposition between the assassinated Caesar and the denigrated female entity of late republican Roman society. In San Giorgio, it is Caesar’s antagonist Cicero as representative of that society who takes on the denigratory gendered attributes that Gadda typically assigns to female characters in his works: «In Campidoglio [Cicerone] cinguettò nuove e più fervose congratulazioni», «[l]ui, onesta vedova del moralismo fondiario e dell’oligarchia repubblicana, seguita a sculettare ancora ne’ gaudiosi mattini di Pozzuoli» (RR II 671, 673). (42) The merger of female denigration and the image of the assassinated Caesar will only first appear in La cognizione del dolore, in the person of the mother. Initimately associated in the novel’s autobiographical grounding with the Caesarian ego-ideal and a regressive narcissistic bond, the mother-son relationship plays itself out in a sado-masochistic release of repressed sexual tension. Once established, the imagery will reappear in a complete fusion of its sublime and lower-body elements in the description of the mutilated corpse of the displaced maternal figure of Liliana Balducci.

We may close by noting Freud’s observation on Caesar’s disturbing dream of incest with his mother. Suetonius describes it as follows:

Etiam confusum eum somnio proximae noctis – nam visus erat per quietem stuprum matri intulisse – coniectores ad amplissimam spem incitaverunt arbitrium terrarium orbis portendi interpretantes, quando mater, quam subiectam sibi vidisset, non alia esset quam terra, quae omnium parens haberetur (De vita Caesarum, I, 7).

Furthermore, when he was dismayed by a dream the following night (for he thought that he had raped his mother) the soothsayers inspired him with high hopes by their interpretation, which was: that he was destined to rule the world, since the mother whom he had seen in his power was none other than the earth, which is regarded as the common parent of all mankind (Loeb Classical Library, Suetonius I, 43 and 45).

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud, citing Otto Rank, notes that the dream was interpreted by the «oneiroscopistics» of the times as a favorable omen signifying Caesar’s possession of the Mother Earth. Freud argues that such an interpretation points to what he calls a correct psychological insight: «I have found that those persons who consider themselves preferred or favored by their mothers, manifest in life that confidence in themselves, and that unshakable optimism, which often seem heroic, and not infrequently compel actual success». (43) One is reminded of Gadda’s 1941 autobiographical essay, Dalle specchiere dei laghi. Only here the relationship has been reversed. Gadda’s native land – «la mia terra» – is instead anything but a mother to him: «Avrebbe dovuto riescir madre anche a me, se non era vano il comandamento di Dio [...]. Ma il dolce declino di quei colli non arrivò a mitigare la straordinaria severità, il diniego oltraggioso, con cui ogni parvenza del mondo soleva rimirarmi» (SGF I 228). At the core of this denial of mother earth’s love is the denial of love by the child’s own mother: «Nessun obbligo, nessuna legge angosciava il libero cuore degli altri. Se altri avesse lasciato dondolar la gamba, bimbo irrequieto, o avesse tentato di stropicciarsi le mani diacce da poter sostenere la sua penna, di certo non sarebbe incorso nelle punizioni feroci, non lo avrebbero minacciato di morte. [...] M’ero studiato di ridurre l’ecloga alla terza rima: oh! l’avevo a memoria. Oh! il mondo a venire. Ma, in sul chiudere la messianica, Vergilio aveva lacerato il tema, bruscamente: il vaticinio delle pecore pitturate: “Quello a cui i genitori non hanno saputo sorridere, né un dio vorrà degnarlo della sua mensa, né una dea lo degnerà del suo letto. Nec dignata cubili est» (SGF 229). Sublimation, it would seem, is not possible without a mother’s love. (44)

University of Washington, Seattle

Notes

1. It is a peculiarity that is endemic to the representation of Rome, a capital city of profound historical and cosmopolitan resonances. If other eminent non-Romans such as Pasolini and Fellini have offered some of the most persuasive and controversial portrayals of 20th-century Roman life and mythos, they were preceded by a host of non-Roman post-unification writers including Carducci, D’Annunzio, Faldella, Fogazzaro, Pirandello, and Serao. For that matter, Rome’s greatest writers and artists in both its classical and Renaissance days of greatest glory were not from the city itself. It is interesting to note in his correspondence to cousin Piero Gadda Conti that Gadda is quick to praise Fellini’s La dolce vita and Pasolini’s Accattone in the face of strong official criticism for their depiction of Roman depravity and indigence, yet he refuses to even see Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli «perché la poveraglia siculo-calabro-sardignola ed il vilipendio della borghesia (immagino) del Nord mi hanno francamente stufato (esteticamente) ed irritato (moralmente)» (Gadda Conti 1974: 108, 112, 114). The perceived denigration of the North and its bourgeois-industrialist class by Southern and leftist intellectuals had become one of Gadda’s postwar bêtes noirs.

2. For the notion of the gnoseologically redemptive function of Belli’s popular epos see Gadda’s Arte del Belli. Gadda’s linkage of romanesco and of Belli’s influence to Pasticciaccio’s dismantlement of falsely moralistic fascist rhetoric (or as an antidote to an excessively bombastic literary tradition) is expressed in the 1956 Perché cinema radio e scrittori ci parlano in romanesco: «All’uscire da un’epoca di magnanimità indiscussa ma linguisticamente appoggiata alle trombe (Alfieri Foscolo Carducci D’Annunzio nei momenti magnanimi) e da un ventennio di coercizione pseudo moralistica, stuccati dalla seriosità del dialogo perbenistico o scenico-pompieristico, era ovvia, per noi, la ricerca di un linguaggio più aderente al vero: più ricco di quelle “armoniche marginali,” come io le chiamo, che sogliono minare non credo la incolumità della stirpe, ma il sistema delle idee fisse di certe capocce toste. [...] Il romanesco ci ha offerto quella vivezza pittorica, quei liberi toni del parlato, quell’humour che arricchiscono di armoniche sapienti e profonde lo schematismo cachettico delle idee seriose. A questo lavoro ci par presiedere altissima l’opera di Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, uno dei più grandi ed autentici “poeti” del nostro Ottocento, e di tutti i nostri secoli in genere» (SGF I 1144-145). For Gadda’s undermining of the Fascist Roman mythos in Pasticciaccio see Tench 1985: 205-17.

3. The topic of this essay is not the presence of Latin and other classical authors in Gadda’s works or Gadda’s comments and critiques of those authors. Its focus instead will be on Gadda’s relationship with ancient Rome and Caesar as personal myth and ego-ideal. Concerning Gadda’s relationship with the classical authors there have been numerous studies which can be found in the Secondary Bibliography of the Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies including a recent book-length investigation of the topic by Emanuele Narducci (Narducci 2003).

4. And elsewhere: «Il Regno d’Italia, per i miei, era una cosa viva e verace; che valeva la pena di servirlo e tenerlo su [...] Questi accenni per spiegare le cose: per isolare il germine, forse, della mia retorica patriottarda e militaresca» (Impossibilità di un diario di guerra, RR I 141-42); «La madre discendeva di una stripe in cui è elevatissimo il senso di disciplina» (Cognizione, RR I 679).

5. The verse in question is «Conobbi… Cesare armato con li occhi grifagni». Gadda also speaks of his youthful idolatry of Caesar, and of Dante, in his notes to Eros e Priapo: «Innamorati di un sovrano illustre siamo un po’ tutti. Io e Dante di Cesare (Dante gli presta occhi grifagni: Inferno 2o)» (SGF II 1040; «Inferno 2o» is apparently a memory lapse on Gadda’s part); «Io ho avuto nella mia vita un amore idolatra per Cesare, per Dante» (1042).

6. G. Gadda, Ricordi e impressioni della nostra storia politica nel 1866-67 (Torino: Roux Frassati, 1899), 29; cited in Roscioni 1997: 14.

7. Giulio Cattaneo reports humorously that in the immediate post-war years Gadda «[a]ffermava che la monarchia, assai più della repubblica, rappresentava un contraltare al Vaticano e, di fronte all’invadenza della Chiesa, pensava che forse sarebbe stata necessaria una nuova presa di Porta Pia alla quale avrebbe partecipato lui stesso, in divisa di bersagliere» (Cattaneo 1973a: 99).

8. For the relationship between Gadda’s «colonialist» experience in Argentina, his Fascist sympathies and his Roman ideal see my Fear of the Periphery (Sbragia 1996b).

9. It should be noted that Gadda’s support of the colonialist enterprise in Libya predates Mussolini’s fascism. Already in his World War I diary Gadda wrote of his desire to serve in Libya (SGF II 829, 842).

10. Gadda’s comments to friends on his journalistic activity in favor of the regime indicate that his motives were also of the most mundane sort, or at least that he wished them to be perceived as such. In a letter of 26 February 1941 to Lucia Rodocanachi, for example, he states: «Per tirare avanti e per guadagnare qualcosa, ho accettato di sobbarcarmi a qualche fatica pamphletaire, tecnico-propagandistica, cavandone gloria nessuna, denaro poco, e noia molta» (Gadda 1983d: 129).

11. See Meditazione milanese, SVP 659, 669, 705, 796. Certainly, at the time of the March on Rome, Gadda was impressed by and envious of the fascist squadrons: «Così le schiere fasciste mi sono passate vicino come vivi accanto ad un morto. Io, logicamente, avrei dovuto essere frammezzo a loro: ma bisognerebbe essere ancora sereno e forte come loro»; «Assistei allo sbraco di numerosi contingenti fascisti, in ordine e tranquillità perfetta, alla Stazione Centrale. […] Il tutto nella più rigida immobilità. Eleganze e povertà mescolate, e il sorriso della fiorente giovinezza, tram e mitragliatrici» (Gadda 1984a: 72, 77).

12. As Giulio Ungarelli notes, in Gadda one finds «il desiderio di una società aliena da ogni confusione, costituita su una rigida divisione dei ruoli secondo il modello astratto della struttura gerarchica militare» (Ungarelli 1984: 19).

13. Gadda’s vision of a mobile, heuristic virtue that adapts itself to the real situation at hand is very different for him from the notion of a fixed, determined vision of virtue. The latter is something that he attributes to a later, decadent Greco-Roman tradition: «L’idea di virtù come corpus fisso (fagotto di ornamenti della propria persona è una barocca idea dell’antichità retorica roboante e plutarchiana, della bassa grecità (non si trova p.e. in Omero): come idea comoda, facile, bonaria, e scipita, e suscettibile nei blandi pomeriggi autunnali di chiacchiere à n’en plus finir, piacque molto ai latini (mentre nel latino originale “virtus” significherebbe valenza, validità, cioè realtà, reale esistenza), ai retori greco-latini (cioè ai venali maestri greci degli aristocratici zucconi di Roma) e di lì si travasò in tutta la storia della declamazione fino ai nostri giorni» (SVP 682-83).

14. If the successful Roman military machine becomes the analogy par excellence for Gadda of heurisitic reality, military engagements between opposing forces come to symbolize the encounter of contrary realities: «così accade che una manifestazione del reale sorga dialetticamente contro l’altra (p.e. Cesare contro Vercingetorige…)»; «Claudio Nerone ha affrontato al Metauro Asdrubale, sterminandone l’esercito; dato il segnale dell’assalto i triangoli duri delle coorti si avventarono contro il conglomerato babilonese: “fastidium sanguinis et necis omnium animos occupaverat” dice Livio, che non erra. No. Il sistema di infinite relazioni reali facenti capo all’espressione Claudio Nerone e al mondo che egli ci rappresenta annichila e coinvolge il nucleo gravitazione facente capo ad Asdrubale e al “dirus Afer”» (SVP 812 and 814).

15. Such a strategy of directly linking Fascism and Mussolini with ancient Rome and Caesar will only appear in Gadda’s postwar satirical works, such as Eros e Priapo. In this context, the linkage underscores that Fascism and its leader – «un maccherone furioso, Pulcinella finto Cesare», – were not ancient Rome or Caesar but fallacious dreams: «Uno si crede Cesare perché fa iscrivere il nome Caesar su alcuni sassi. Sogna. Le genti sensate gli ridono in faccia. Allora il malto li fa prendere e li fa carcerare per decine d’anni, da non aver creduto alla “realtà immortale della patria” che era il suo sogno bischero e bischerrimamente patito ma non attuato» (Eros e Priapo, SGF II 1036 and 349). It should be noted that Gadda does not take issue here with Fascism’s rhetoric of the «realtà immortale della patria», which corresponds to his own nationalistic idealism, but with its inability to truly enact that ideal in what he would have called a pragma reale.

16. It should be noted that Gadda thinks of Mussolini in terms of Caesar and not Augustus. Augustus is a minor figure in the panoply of Gadda’s Roman gallery. When he is mentioned, it is typically in a guarded negative sense. See the Apologia manzoniana for an early example, «ma quanto è costata alla lupa la sua pax Augusti» (SGF I 684), or Crociera mediterranea for an example in pieno regime but before the latter’s wholesale association of Mussolini with Augustus: «Il bronzo terribile di Ottaviano pareva guardare la repubblica, come una pantera la preda, dopo aver chiuse appena le liste della salute della repubblica. Mai non vidi così cupa e fredda determinazione!» (RR I 188). Somewhat differently in the 1952 I libellisti battono gli adulatori: «Orazio e Virgilio hanno saputo essere grandi poeti pur facendo della propaganda augustea: bisogna credere che la favola augustea fosse degna della loro favella» – here, in obvious defense of his two beloved Latin poets Horace and Virgil, and in obvious contrast to Mussolini (SGF 1024). Gadda is not blind to Julius Caesar’s negative qualities, but they pale in comparison to his fundamental greatness and humanity: «Io credo che il profondo istinto civile e la umanità e grandezza e meravigliosa attitudine realistica e sintetica del Volpone non facesse mai spreco inutile del materiale umano: “… de generositate perpetuam vitam posse testare…” Avrà scassinato l’erario, depredato le saccocce de’ salumai, ma non ucciso inutilmente» (SVP 809).

17. Roscioni, speaking of Gadda’s fascism in the twenties, notes: «Fatta eccezione per un po’ di lavoro organizzativo e propagandistico svolto in Argentina, il suo fascismo, per quanto convinto, sarebbe rimasto in sordina. Aveva forse delle riserve? è molto probabile» (Roscioni 1997: 187). Elsewhere I have argued that Gadda’s initial reserves concerning Fascism most likely developed specifically in Argentina (Sbragia 1996b: 54). Near the end of his stay there, Gadda writes to sister Clara that the difficulties encountered by the local Fascio were not «di carattere eroico» like those in Italy, but endowed instead with «la tinta intrigante e pettegola adatta alla microcefalia della colonia» (Gadda 1987b: 86). Gadda’s notes to Racconto italiano indicate that the protagonist Grifonetto Lampugnani’s «fascismo americano» is to be followed by his «disgusto americano», as he evolves «dalla fede nelle “colonie” al disdegno e forzato ritorno» (SVP 400, 469). Given Gadda’s tendency to irascible behavior and confrontation in tense situations, as attested to in his war journal and other sources, his own disagreeable incidents in Argentina probably hold the key to the planned political disillusionment of Grifonetto in Racconto italiano.

18. The first of three essays destined perhaps for the journal L’epoca under the direction of Giacomo Debenedetti, Mito e consapevolezza was penned sometime between September and December 1944 making it contemporaneous to the first chapter of Eros e Priapo (see Pinotti 1993a: 1369-372). Its circumspect references to Mussolini and the regime would lead one to believe that Mito e consapevolezza was Gadda’s first and relatively prudent effort at an anti-Fascist polemic.

19. For the notion of La cognizione del dolore as the moment in which mythos in Gadda assumes «demonic» form see Marinetto 1973, especially 161-65.

20. We have a reflection of this in Racconto italiano when Lieutenant Tolla, who shares Gadda’s passion for Caesar and the De bello gallico, realizes that he would not be able to write a similar war journal since his own World War I reality is not of the same heroic nature: «La lettura di Cesare lo aveva profondamente appassionato tanto che aveva pensato di scrivere lui pure dei commentarî, ma gli mancava la Guerra delle Gallie» (SVP 450). Tolla’s harangue of his troops over their having tossed a demijohn full of urine and horse dung into the well of the anarchist Molteni is in fact the closest he can come to Caesar’s famous oration to his hestitant 10th legion prior to encountering Ariovistus’s German troops (one of Gadda’s favorite episodes in the De bello gallico). Roscioni uses the reference to argue that Gadda’s own war diary may have been projected with Caesar’s De bello gallico in mind (Roscioni 1997: 165-66). Gadda revisits the issue in the essay Impossibilità di un diario di guerra (Il castello di Udine, RR I 134-46).

21. The Freudian connotations of the label are particularly apt since Gadda, with typical anachronism, cites the classical authors and historians, and Virgil in particular, as acute analysts of our tormented human psyche. See in particular Letteratura e psicanalisi (SGF I 459-62).

22. SGF II 530, 655, 775. The quote also appears at the conclusion of Gadda’s 1918 wartime notebook following the announcement of the armistice (SGF II 822). For an exploration of the motif in all of Gadda’s works including Cognizione see Pedriali 2002d.

23. Gadda’s liberal translation of Virgil here works to emphasize the pathos of Palinurus’s hope and disillusionment through his juxtapostion of the adjectives «sublime» and «inutile».

24. Gadda would return to the «cui non risere parentes» motif in his 1946 essay Psicanalisi e letteratura to illustrate Vergil’s powers of «approfondimento psicanalitico» (SGF I 459-62).

25. In a note to the novel, Gadda writes: «Per la rapina che la plebe vuol fare della proprietà Pirobutirro aumentare e portare sul serio» (Gadda 1987a: 554). Judging from Gadda’s letter to cousin Gadda-Conti in November of 1937, Gonzalo’s problems with the monetary pretensions of the villa’s servants have an autobiographical source: «Dopo la vendita di Longone (sospiro di sollievo, e liberazione da un verme solitario) terrore di dover sottostare ai ricatti degli ex-contadini e della ex-serva di mia madre» (Gadda 1974c: 45). See also his letter of 12 September 1937 to Lucia Rodocanachi (Gadda 1983d: 72). Much of Gonzalo’s (and presumably Gadda’s) angst and rage in the novel are those of a disenfranchised nineteenth-century landed agrarianism.

26. The importance of Gonzalo’s «delirium» being classified as «interpretativo» and not «allucinatorio» or «di immaginazione» lies in the fact that the former draws its inspiration from real and not invented facts «où le sujet construit ses idées morbides à l’aide de raisonnements tendancieux portant sur des faits le plus souvent reels» (see Manzotti 1987a: 210-11).

27. Regarding the Suetonian references in the final two chapters of the novel see also Manzotti’s comments (Manzotti 1987a: 403, 411, 436, 466).

28. It should be noted that this youthful idolatry, which Gadda attributes to a «normal» psychological development, was dedicated not only to Caesar but to various other «spiriti magni»: «Io ho avuto nella mia vita un amore idolatra per Cesare, per Dante, per l’Ariosto, per lo Shakespeare e per tant’altri» (SGF II 1042).

29. S. Freud, On Narcissism, in General Psychological Theory (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 74.

30. Gadda reprises elements of this imagery in his 1953 essay Il terrore del dàttilo (SGF I 515-21).

31. For example: «La nevrosi cardiaca è una cosa non nuova in me e proviene dall’aver troppo, troppo patito di male d’ogni qualità, anche nell’infanzia; i miei dolori, i miei terrori infantili sono stati troppo forti, tanto più per il mio temperamento ipersensibile, e hanno devastato il mio organismo morale e minato il mio organismo fisico» (SGF II 786).

32. The motif of a sadistic and ruinous education reappears throughout the «cui non risere parentes» fragment: «La madre avrebbe dovuto strozzarlo dopo otto giorni, se avesse avuto la pietà e la rettitudine della pantera. Invece lo aveva allattato, allevato, educato: educato, soprattutto educato! Gli educatori, alla loro volta, avevano perseverato e insistito nell’educarlo, adibendolo a spinterometro ricevitore delle loro scariche sadiche» (Gadda 1987a: 535). It appears in the novel itself as well, «La demenza dei tutori aveva straziato il bimbo. Rimaneva la morte» (RR I 642), most vividly in the description of the reaction of his teacher when Gonzalo loses the stopper to his beverage bottle: «Ore di angoscia in certi giorni tristi, per il ricupero del turacciolo: sullo smarrito sughero severità sibilante della maestra, che entrava allora con sopraccigli sollevati, in uno stato di tensione sadica, bavando internamente» (732).

33. Conversely, the abandonment of Latin studies by other young male characters in Gadda’s works is humorously associated with sexual potency and conquest. In La meccanica, the handsome Franco Velaschi, lover of the voluptuous and bewitching Zoraide, welcomes with relish, «nell’esultante vigore della sua pubertà», the opportunity to abandon his studies of Caesar and Latin: «Così Franco poté dimenticare a suo agio la secchezza curiale, la vividezza imperatoriale di Cesare che, direttamente o indirettamente, gli aveva amareggiato otto anni di vita: perocché vanivano le serpentesche disgrazie della oratio obliqua, le cefalèe e il rigurgito empio delle protasi e il catastrofico fugato delle apodosi, e la marea dei piuccheperfetti e de’ futuri anteriori, con lampi lìvidi de’ gerundivi necessitanti, vanirono le marce le battaglie il sangue, l’orazione imperiale, l’encomio della dècima, la conversione eroica: “Quod si praeterea nemo sequatur, tamen se cum sola decima legione iturum, de qua non dubitaret, sibique eam praetoriam cohortem futuram”» (RR II 545-46). In San Giorgio in casa Brocchi, sexual liberation for the son Gigi is accompanied by scholastic liberation as he lays down the Ciceronian precepts of ancient Roman virtue of his uncle Agmmènone to possess the beautiful young serving girl Iole.

34. This might help to explain why the Oedipus complex is deleted as such in the discussion of narcissistic models in Eros e Priapo and the father is substituted by more distant and less threatening literary or historical models such as Dante, Caesar, or Ariosto. The failure to have successfully passed through the Oedipal stage is hidden by hiding Oedipus itself.

35. S. Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (New York: Pocket Book, 1953), 434. Freud summarizes here the findings of his earlier and more extensive essay Mourning and Melancholia. It is interesting to note that Gonzalo’s description of the matricidal «figura di tenebra» in his frightful dream that rises from within himself to fall upon his mother, «cadeva su di lei!» (RR I 633), bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the identification of the ego with the abandoned object in melancholia: «Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego» (Mourning and Melancholia, in Freud 1963: 170; the image reappears in Freud’s discussion of melancholia in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego).

36. As Federica Pedriali (1997), Elio Gioanola (Gioanola 1987: 22-36) and others have noted, the brother figure is even more enmeshed in the regressive relationship between son and mother than the father figure. It is the brother who not only enjoys the love that Gonzalo feels he has been denied, but who had been enabled to return that same love: «Il figlio che le aveva sorriso, brevi primavere! Che così dolcemente, passionatamente, l’aveva carezzata, baciata» (RR I 673). And it is the brother’s death that is evoked in the description of the deaths of both the mother in Cognizione (752 with reference to 728) and Liliana in Pasticciaccio (RR II 59). Gadda’s repeated descriptions of his brother Enrico in his war diary as «la parte migliore e più cara di me stesso» (SGF II 850) border on an «idolatry», as Gioanola puts it (Gioanola 1987: 30), that casts Enrico as yet another ego-ideal figure; one who in «il suo ingegno meraviglioso, il suo animo, la sua gentilezza eroica» (RR II 851) bears links to the Caesarian ideal, and one who serves as yet another «hiding-place» for deep-seated and primitive ambiguities and resentments.

37. Loeb Classical Library, Suetonius I (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 139, 141. Of the competing sources Gadda may have consulted or remembered for Caesar’s assassination only Suetonius emphasizes Caesar’s double manipulation of his toga. Plutarch and Dio Cassius mention only that Caesar covered his face with his toga while Appian generically asserts that he veiled himself with his toga and composed himself for death. Shakespeare offers no indication of Caesar’s manipulation of his toga; his famous verse has Caesar utter: «Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!» (Julius Caesar, III, 1).

38. Narducci hazards that the «fronte alta» of the mother in this description could possibly refer to a common characterisitic of ancient sculptural portraits of Caesar (Narducci 2003: 86).

39. Aldo Pecoraro argues that Caesar «è lo stesso Gadda combattente e scrittore assassinato moralmente con la prigionia e affettivamente nel fratello durante la guerra dell’inefficienza e del tradimento» (Pecoraro 1998a: 57).

40. Unlike Appian and Plutarch who underscore the tradition that Caesar struggled hard against his assassins (like a «wild beast» writes Appian), Suetonius has Caesar submit fairly quickly to them. In his notes to Eros e Priapo, Gadda observed that in comparison to the sadistic Augustus, «Cesare era piuttosto masochista» (SGF II 1033).

41. Roberto Gigliucci notes: «Questo passo del San Giorgio in casa Brocchi evoca immediatamente l’ònfalo della corporeizzazione cadaverosa del male dell’intera letteratura novecentesca italiana: la scena del Pasticciaccio sulla salma offesa di Liliana (Gigliucci 2001: 43-44). As an example of the close relationship between the two passages and of Gadda’s obvious interest in the imagery, the description of the photographers hovering over Liliana’s corpse as «il primo ronzare dell’eternità sui sensi opachi di lei» (RR II 69) recuperates the image in San Giorgio of «l’Eternità elucubrava il computo delle sue ore» over Caesar’s corpse, which itself is a variant on the 1931 San Giorgio version of «l’Eternità immobile meditava il computo delle sue ore» (Gadda 1931b: 25).

42. In 1928 Gadda had written of his intent to write a «novella 3.a» on the 10th Legion in which Caesar, Catullus and Cicero would reflect various attitudes towards reality: «(Interpretazione della realtà (Cesare) – Dissoluzione e Sogno (Catullo) – Legittimismo microcefalo (Cicerone))» (cited in Isella 1989c: 1309).

43. S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York: Random House (Modern Library), 1938), 393.

44. Guido Lucchini observes that in his French copy of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, next to the phrase «The Commander-in-Chief is a father who loves all soldiers equally» [«Le chef est le père qui aime également tous ses soldats»], Gadda had written «hélas! non!». Lucchini interprets Gadda’s remark as a «direct reference to Mussolini» (Lucchini 1997: 179), but one wonders if, perhaps, it was someone else that Gadda had on his mind.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

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© 2004-2023 Albert Sbragia & EJGS. First published in EJGS. Issue no. 4, EJGS 4/2004.

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