The Universe stinks
(Gadda perfects our plot)

Federica G. Pedriali

Each fact or act of this world is finite however much we may wish it not to be the case.

Carlo Emilio Gadda

No, not the sunshine

Let me digress straightaway. Gadda is not exactly the sunshine of reading. Too gluey and self-saturating. Yet this sticky substance captures the Italian language like no other. There is no risk of exaggerating here. Forget most of the canon. Even the top names could learn a trick or two from this guy.

Expert readers have developed expert methods to deal with the challenge. One sure way to make Gadda work is to turn the tables for the Gadda that doesn’t work. Take his plots. Things (words) get so trapped in them that it is hard to tell even whether the line is taut or sagging. Is this plot? digression? malfunction? genius?

Everything sticks in these fictions, gets nowhere and everywhere in one, blessed and cursed at the same time for hampering and realising the author’s commitment, his duplicitous double intention to achieve both control and loss of control. Pity, in a sense, that Gadda has got the stamina to attempt both accounts of the world – the all and the all of the mind. Through sheer hubris he does get there somehow. The problem is that we don’t, that there is no way we can keep up with his level of scrutiny into the puzzle of matter. Yes, Gadda is at best very tough sunshine; reader feedback is absolutely unanimous on this. And yet, on this most definite of difficulties we also do get our chance. Gadda, we can argue, is terribly good for theory. Any theory.

Oily standards

Let me digress again. It is bad news even without Gadda. The universe stinks, and my part in it, which is the part of the average subjectivity, is to make sure that no one notices. I classify, organise, summarise. I exist in order to commit my perceptual system to value judgements. There is advantage, gratification almost, in cognising this set in opposition to that set, in siding with the mode of cognition that wins me not just the task but also the power to conduct tasks in general. There is, above all, the conviction that, because I have got method and (perhaps) even reason on my side, I obtain results, better still I obtain stable results, both in here and out there, the latter being where I locate all that requires my thrust forward, call it my anthropological need to appropriate, in order to master.

I surely participate. I accept, that is, the laws and the customs of participation. I make myself useful, contribute to the collective effort; I collectively reinforce the rule that is nonetheless set. I get cognised, marked, indeed fully participated in turn, even before the exercise becomes collective practice. I certainly get picked or not picked at disjunctions, for I am invariably either their leading or their lesser member. But, although my participation is no more than a participation in polarities, I cannot withdraw my support from the venture, not even when I get excluded, discarded, assigned to the lesser regions, spent to my personal disadvantage.

In this way, and it is no small paradox, I end up doing equal work in either camp. One superior outcome (supra individual reason), one world (one uni-verse), one cohesive action (one gluey discourse) must result, in fact, from my agency as subject, regardless of whether the overall package stems, in my respect, primarily from an allocation to this or that side of the divide. The ultimate agent – cognitive imprint – is indeed not at all bothered by my personal details. My personal binary (dis)comfort fits, actually, quite perfectly in the larger scheme of things. The fitting even goes as far as giving me, in my allocation, the complementary conviction that, since there is now my imperfection, there must have once been original perfection. Moreover, I do not just prove the past, the corruption of the origin, with my subjectivity. With it I also point to the future, my stronger, my pulling pole. There, in the future, I will not simply rejoin the origin (this would be good, but still it wouldn’t be good enough). There I will surpass the origin altogether, having come from feats of perfective action, individually and collectively. At least this is the plan. The good old All re-perfected and improved, after a long history of deterioration coinciding with me. Otherwise, what would be the reason for us to hang around in the schema? Definitely quite neat, as persuasions go.

This is it then. Digress further or differently as we may, our cognitive architecture imposes acceptance on us. Convenience all round – highest assimilation rate guaranteed. The narrative works, backed up by the principle governing it. What could be better, in fact, than this best of all worlds? Rome 1927. Two crimes. A burglary and a murder. A woman is the victim in both cases, but only the second crime leaves no decency unturned. As governed narrative, as gendered mental content, this best of worlds is indeed horrendously comfortable, shocking and straightforward in equal measure – although figuring it out, especially on paper, gets one terribly embroiled. For what is one up to, really, in this glue? A murdered woman. A woman so badly murdered that you have to assume that she deserved it (it is always practical, when life couldn’t get any stickier, to digress into the most dialogic form of address and deal with the you in you as you). The messiest crime, or rather the awful it of matter – but not before you are done with it as gender, the opposite gender.

Gadda comes in on such cues. The cosmic routine spares no one; surely it did not spare him. This is why he must expose the universal mishap. He has understood the plot. He must find ways to make others understand it too. The immemorial concoction, the pre-established narrative that gets going each time, each time never any less stale than on day one, is here for the taking, and can be broken down into parts, a small cast of parts – she, you, we, one, I. There they go. Object of desire. Participant interlocutor. Collective plurality. Singular plurality as pure genus, the pure genus (pure species) standing in the way of the subject, namely and quite narrowly the (un)generic, (in)definite antagonist to Gadda himself as the guy most embroiled of all and most of the times declaredly. It sounds complicated but actually isn’t, all duly activated, broken down, extricated from the mix in parts and in turns, because in matter matters are not just inextricable. For us at least, totality comes arranged in strings, clusters, patterns, series, sets, names, facts, people.

Causes. Above all causes and causal links. The critical spin that Gadda gives to such basics is quite phenomenal. By his lights, causes ultimately are the task pushing on the happy gang, keeping it on track. We, indeed very plurally, are the mindful partner – i.e., we must mind those connections in earnest, even forcing them if necessary (it is always necessary). In a sense (the sense in which we decide to understand such things), the universe reserves its very best dynamism to us, so that together we gain (a bit of a motto but there you go). The general stickiness gets certainly well oiled in this way. Grease (grease, fats, oils are marked vocab in Gadda’s lexis), the kind of grease that comes from rubbing matter with mind (the two having first been separated for our mental convenience) does manage to turn a potentially inert mass in need of activation (Gadda’s famously gluey dumplings, say) into a fine piece of machinery reassuringly producing the motions of the regulated life (whatever it is that goes under this caption). Such are the advantages of this arrangement that its terms and conditions are worth advertising over and over again even here. Acceptance is all that it takes. No more no less. Minimum effort, for maximum results. Gadda couldn’t be more serious, or more satirical, in this regard. For once, and despite the many statements to the contrary, his inner divisions are indeed perfectly balanced. A smooth downward gliding through the ages of Man. He laughs, he laughs wildly at the comfortable cognitive ride that he clearly must have missed through wanting it too badly. Worse still. That should have been his by default, and instead never was.

These being the broad principles, there is scope, plenty, for digressing even more substantially – relentlessly if you like. Gadda very much likes that, digressing mercilessly into the plot, nothing but the plot. But what about us? When reading Gadda we are indeed fully mindful, on red alert in actual fact. Sagging, taut, parenthetic. Dialogic, obsessive, primary, ancillary. Busying itself with theory (any theory). Mixing theory with detail (any detail, as all detail is fiendish). We note as expected. We observe, that is, how Gadda’s thought works. We do well, amazingly well for a while. We love it. He is the greatest of them all, our hero without a doubt. Then, suddenly, we give it up altogether, semantically, syntactically, morphologically bruised by the hubristic excess of this line of attack on life, only too happy to go back to managing it again broadly and generally, as broadly and as generally as contractually possible (a contract is always there, in human affairs, however immaterial the commerce).

For instance, in That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1957), what did you make of that downright oddity, Inspector Ingravallo, Gadda’s alter ego, going out to check the industrial formula for personal existential success? The two crimes that were excellent, in Rome 1927, burglary and murder, one grotesque, one hideous, are behind us by this stage, and we are beginning to grudge exactly that. Ingravallo has been shuffling paperwork in his mental office for several pages, and this cognitive admin, a sort of clearing of the binary desk, instead of clarifying the part played by his data in the making of the Mess, is quickly draining the system’s charge. Enough is enough, and indeed, as if this wasn’t bad enough, with the closure of chapter three in sight, the text gleefully embarks on a further lateral sub-unit, a technical mini-mission in the form of a police visit to the local branch of the Standard Oil. Oil as in transformer oil, of all businesses. Riveting stuff.

But wait. The rival, the subject’s allergen (if you allow), works there (if you can call winning clients work). The sexual innuendo (because clients, like women, must be pursued, wooed to the last, made to fall for you, to establish the product’s inimitable prowess) is not just one of life’s bad jokes leading you on for a while if you are male, inspector and strictly single (strictly sexually rejected). In a world (in a fiction) in which we have swiftly moved from binary unease (the inspector’s, primarily, at his own exclusion from life’s proceedings, chapter one, incipit and lunch scene) to binary retribution (the horrific body on the floor, in the same apartment, after the coded warning of the burglary in the flat next door, chapters one and two), what is really emerging, in this roundabout way, is that there is no alternative message, no variation on the theme – no aside (no digression, no protection) from the general Mess. Standards are standards, very definitely and quite crucially for mankind’s industry, with its greasy mechanics (reproduction) and dirty selling campaigns (essentially, value politics, the kind of VAT universally imposed at source through unconfessed parental (s)election and bringing about the preference for the better, the more gratifying continuator of me).

Every oil to its standards. Gadda certainly dares here. This oil business may be a clue to universal matters, and it may even be a clue to the entire textual network of the Mess, but it is enough to lose readers in droves. We have waited, still we are not riveted. Industrial reliability, reliability of the requisites that is – we do get it –, must come first, always first (in the text it comes twice, both times marked, unusually, though reportedly, through the use of the italics). Reliability is indeed the true ultimate asset (quite rightly, in taking it satirically, one translator gets seriously excited at this point and gives out the splendid firmness of the requisites which not even Gadda, for all his daring, had really made explicit). Champions (champion oils) cannot, mustn’t be resisted (do not resist it indeed, but do work out the concept for yourself: a standard champion, a champion in standards, someone, some top stallion, granted top performance in all standards: can anyone get any more standard than this?). To be utterly unequivocal, Gadda dares equivocally – let’s concede as much. After all, he is the model equivocal citizen of the regime (any regime, be under no illusion: the Regime, the Management, got here long ago with the sad intention to stay). He is both intolerant of regimes (health, diet, work, relations, publishing houses, fascism, to name just a few relevant sources of bother) and perfectly regimented (the law, the army, the workplace, even the agon, the fascist agon that is, the most universal latest fad till it lasted, nearly get the best out this man, and if this isn’t entirely the case, it is mostly their fault, as he laments with furious method to the end).

Relentless. One could call it, and it would be correct, relentless mimesis. By Gadda’s own admission, in fact, all that he does (though he does it baroquely) is to portray the Mess out there, picked and packaged as collective discourse ready for noting within the logistics of division. Viscosity, acidity, platonic love, cats in heat, resurrection, the Gospels, those who love me, the nail, the nail of truth… In the end, not even Ingravallo, the spokesman for the job, can take it any longer. Substance, properties, permanence – the venerable content of high discourse, the highest kind – get stripped, broken down, milled to a monstrous mixture of no substance whatsoever yet hammering home the one and only nail of truth, the single villainous plot. Rome as caput mundi under the outrageous Regime. A murdered woman at the centre of this centre – where she stood symbolically, emphatically, for the Host, for Life itself. Damn cheat, in a damn fiction. Gadda is talking pure binarism here, in his Roman thriller, as elsewhere, packed as he himself is with corrupt universal content, oozing crap mimesis and crap standards. However, if this is really it, if the uni-verse can in no way be re-versed and this glue is the utter best we can ever hope to achieve, then there must be diabolical intent, not just talent to spare, in the subject’s response to the general binary triumph.

Roughly we get it. His rival works for the local Standard. But Gadda cannot stop at the rough measure. Even broken down and fine milled the plot gives away nothing but plot. Not by chance, then, Gadda grinds his message more finely still. This is what his relentlessness is all about, in an unrestrainable thought experiment which takes him to the notion of the minimal thinking body, the smallest mind unit conceivable – Leibniz’s petites perceptions, say, one of Gadda’s declared frames of reference. There, in a theory of the infinitely small, he still of course comes up against the laws and the practices of the Regime. The mechanism forging the standard; the standard bearing its protégés; those elected and guaranteed evolving forward, progressing and rising forth, at each new junction – however small and subliminal the junction. Again, we roughly follow this evolutionary wisdom irreversibly forging and rising word by word, line by line to the accepted (unacceptable) and advertised order of things. Yet its sustained application in radical degrees of linguistic fineness and satirical exposure does leave us stranded in textual micro-saturation, without much hope of dissolution into infinite reader regress. Indeed – if only we could slip into some infinity or other. At most, instead, we disengage from this level of cohesion, opt for the humane exit, open up gaps of resilience, non reading, tangential misunderstanding, ultimately always going back to the broad and the rough, because, surprisingly, there appears to be room for manoeuvre in those. Somewhat paradoxically, it is at such awkward moments, when we skip it, drop it, try to get it out of our system, lose it momentarily or for good, that Gadda binds us most strongly, making our disengagement compossible with the impossible, in the perfect double-bind that comes from the toughest realisation in the repertoire: possibility and freedom being but a semblance breaking up (gapping) necessity, the opposite semblance.

Parallel gluten

Let me not stop digressing. World making, model making, checking on worlds already made – handling plot, in sum, is key. We do want story, happy ending. We want, above all, to postpone the end. Gadda exploits such basics, as he must. The needs are simple, yes – and contradictory. Surely, we need to be able to handle not just life but clearance, space-making, scale. Mental content casts its bulk about, requires breathing space; even if it didn’t breathe, we do. Lined-up, especially lined-up on a page, it tangibly shows that like every other solid it too is gappy matter, in a gappy space of our construct, implemented and maintained in the agreed orders of magnitude and simplification (go below those, and it is you who is gone: gone below our universe, back to the preliminary clutter and babble, lost to useful human commerce).

Simple, integrative – a positive polarity story. Gadda would have loved to handle life for real. Even his negative assignment, the substitution he gets instead, can and must be made good. He can be useful still. He will reveal all, no less – it is his duty to achieve that at least. Many apologies, of course, if the happy ending must be revised; if postponing death is no longer really negotiable (very, very sorry). The plan is crystal clear right from the first drafts, at each new draft, and despite the increasing number of attempts. Pattern must be established with abbreviated urgency (asap). Gadda has got to synthesise origin (the original scene) and the cast (the core dramatis personae arranged around the core needs). With scale in place (a reduced mankind pitched in action against the incommensurable), he will then extract both a first level narrative (a unique series of event, the plot as such) and an extended connectivity (networked time and space: chains of human generations and relations). A big picture all right. The exemplary picture of the narratable and its pull. And all of it resulting, at the other end, in a plot exhausted, a narrative delivered, a revelation revealed. Of course, a big picture is not the entire picture. Gadda knows this only too well: only the entire picture could do the entire job, in an entire account of causality. However, as entirety was never a given, never part of the cognitive remit, this size and scale of things could still do the trick – a trick taking in all involved, why not.

But one thing is the theory, the perfect legitimacy of one’s response. Another, the practice – the actual perfecting. Gadda, for one, is seldom credited with perfecting much. Yet this particular deficiency, if it is a deficiency, doesn’t play the negative matter of fact in his case. Forget Gadda’s flair for textual saturation (cognitive gap filling through linguistic trituration). It is his imperfection we treasure: the big picture getting progressively aborted as the fast early drafting subsides into mounting early exhaustion (of the material, never of the author). After all, the grand narrative is nothing but banal (don’t forget, it is nothing but plot); whereas its dispersal is all but uninteresting. The big oily motion, in fact, is not just generically resilient, and is not just feeding into other big pictures (other works) as the recyclable stuff of life and literature. Put aside increasingly for good, often literally consigned to the deepest trunk, the oil, the glue, the big story, the story of the world compacted down to an origin, a small primary cast, a pervasive biological plot and a binary totalitarian space-time, won’t refrain from carrying on its work somehow, even though officially withdrawn. Once installed, the work works in you (Gadda’s poetics in a tag). The work, or rather the novel, for it must be a novel, a large plot or little else, does work, that is, from within whatever discontinuity breaks up its continuity. Above all, it works in the fruitful silent gap of the non-work (another authorial tag) – till it finally returns from that non-life to prod you (haunt you) into action again (a standard enough descriptor, this one, if Gadda didn’t get seriously spooked in the process). Hence, the renewed effort, the no effort spared, the case reopening and the pull returning for those aborted, not so aborted, in the end (im)perfectly realised big pictures. Nearly forty years since Gadda’s death and we are still gratefully sifting through the maddeningly rich debris. Whichever tag gets appended to it, whether authorially or by us, there is no lack of basic contradiction in this imperfection. The masterpieces, no doubt, contradict it. They are, and they are not few, what remains of the perfective effort to do away with storytelling altogether while doing nothing but telling the big story through the imperfect gappy / non gappy item, the overloaded picture, the excess achievement, the loss of control partly reclaimed as control, partly left visibly unmended.

In a sense, again the broadest and roughest one possible, this is our Gadda – the Gadda we can best work with. Someone outraged by life but not so cankerous not to let us go. The difficulty, the relentlessness, the concentration, the pulverisation, the deflation, all the things which cannot be taken out because they make the equation, thus become the primary movers of an unmarked meta-textual exchange with the reader, a dialogue needing no intradiegetic cue to get going. Too much closure? Do feel free to dissent (use my work to do so). Not enough closure? Follow my tricks (exploit my tricks to delimit your world). Is there too much eros in the system, despite an unloving, unerotic rule? Be my guests (be involved as far and as much as you can take it or me). (Can’t take much? Enjoy at least my mental brackets, trusted markers of a divided thought.) This Gadda (our Gadda) is indeed a maddeningly rich scenario where one rests roughly assured that our author has used all the tricks in the book to perfect an imperfect cancellation of the evidence of his progress. The story sticks, the universe stinks, the subject sucks – so what. By the time Gadda asks, roughly rhetorically, «Which action shall it be? Where shall I start from?», and then promptly answers, roughly poetically, «But my actions are already in place, I have started already» (rough translation of the untranslated Meditazione milanese, opening lines), by then we are so forgetful, so possessed and energised (so maddened) by our late discovery of this key of keys to 20th century Italian thought that we take to it as if we had been granted the most critical of our wishes, broadly and roughly. Room for manoeuvre guaranteed. Saturation, linguistic reification made safe, harmless. No end to rough reading (no end to our kind of knowledge). The mind feels too full? Too full exactly of what? And although too full and casting itself in a vote at each and every step, it won’t affect its own trajectory, it won’t manage to? Then, why exactly should we feel any obligation to provide the universe with a willing workforce? Yes, why consider ourselves indebted and morally bound – to the Glue?

Binarism is left untouched by Gadda. The order of things remains strictly singular under his management. The wild laughter dies out revolving vertiginously on itself, with no alternative or alternative companion but the awareness of its own potential for entrapment. And yet through Gadda we learn a lot that is plural and even parallel – a kind of parallel gluten, another compossible, and resulting from overloading, stuffing beyond capacity, passing through a minimum of two minds, which also gives a maximum of two texts, per text, the collapsed and the resurrecting, the bracketed and the non bracketed. The double matter of the mind pushes, presses in fact for either outcomes, to make content collapse further, yield further, and then further still, because two of everything was indeed life’s best ratio and law, and our subject, in attempting to expose the one Uncountable which indifferently calls him to account, is appealing precisely to that law. Having said this, however, we are again back full circle to the singular and the linear, which is where Gadda also fully belongs.

Line pull

Let me try to stop digressing. Taking exception, in the beginning, to Tristram Shandy 1.22 («Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine […]») has led me to having just enough line left to bring in Hamlet 2.2 256-258. Does Gadda digress? Of course he does. Digression is a function of the plot, and plot is a function of the activation of the world. Does digression bring variety, maintain movement, buy us some freedom (some gaps) in his case too? On the surface of things of course it does. But ask me the question a second time, and the answer will be no, because Gadda, like Hamlet, knows how deep his conditionals can reach and how barely visible (imperfectly erased) the pull of his narrative line will be as a result – barely visible, that is, had he not had bad dreams. Similarly finite («bounded in a nut shell») and yet counting himself unlimited («a king of infinite space» – this is Hamlet still), Gadda has had indeed bad dreams. Not for a moment, in fact, does he lose the plot. Not even when he may have lost his text.

Arguably, the banality immediately achieved by Gadda in the drafts at the plot level predetermines (compromises) all later remedial attempts to expose the Grand Plot. Counterarguably, in a compositional mess very much risking to run out of control, the other Gadda, the one working laterally in the nether regions of his workshop, has been busy scanning both old rejects and rejects-to-be looking for ways, all of them relentless, to turn first level banality (frustratingly, not yet stinking of universals) into Superior Banality, the ultimate Stuff (Banality without banality – salvaged, redeployed and exhibited through a figurative minimum which is also the structural maximum allowed). The evidence we have (but we respond to it as if we didn’t have it, for we readers and critics don’t do dreams, especially not bad dreams about our Gadda) is that the various drafts break up along very comparable fault lines (not at all surprising, this, given that the whole mishap is the fault of systematic impersonal agents, the System for short), and that the subsequent re-work, combined with the non-work and the lateral cross-work, gets them massively but not drastically overhauled, maintaining and highlighting (imperfectly erasing, once again) exactly and especially those fault lines.

For our part, we continue not to do bad dreams. This is clearly the way we have shaped up collectively as Gadda readers and scholars. We even try not to do Cartesian space any more – too unambiguous and unique, too safely determined between its axes. Some of us, more daring than the rest, actually push those two binarites, plot and digression, to the point where there are only digressions and no plot – no centre(s), yes, from the which Gadda could stray; the perfect Deleuzian rhizome, the best incontestable disruption and variety of them all. Deployed by the text as we are at some level, and overcorrecting it theoretically in other respects, we would have indeed delighted and scared our author; for once he might even have counted himself lucky, whatever else it was that he counted himself in life – nutshell, king, infinite, bounded, desperate. However, counting oneself against the Uncountable through the services of the reader, in response to her response as it were, is definitely still not it, and is still not enough – not with Gadda’s style of pervasive authorship. A wakeful state of self-possession, in fact, gives him the sense – not rough and not broad, on the contrary quite precisely pinpointable – that his reasons for wanting to expose (to execute) the overall insignificance are utterly right (i.e., procedurally lawful, as well as creatively resourceful), as they are private and shameful.

Attempted several times and finally realised through a mix of original drafts and extraneous material, Gadda’s third major narrative, L’Adalgisa (1944), is one such instantiation of a plot discontinued, reselected, redeployed, saturated and sealed. Most readers declare it lost to digression(s) because of the hypertrophic redevelopment of the original, especially in the paratexts – those deservedly notorious footnotes. But again, the sum total of the moves involved couldn’t be more strategic and single-minded: the old core split and relocated, made to take marked positions. Marked and cleared, that is, for the reforegrounding of banality (the local love story actively excluding the subject) as Banality (the same love story but without the story – the story of the world, two of everything, played out enigmatically as Origin, in a symbolic Garden of Origins, at the heart of contemporary Milan). Life’s rule thus gets deceivingly packaged as partly related and partly unrelated narratives delivering a structural maximum (a cohesive vision of human matter) through a structural minimum (a restriction of the only action set aside for noting as novelistic to the original scene – the revelation, the tableau vivant of the finale). It is a different Standard Oil the rival works for this time. Yet standards are standards, as the revamped old tale doesn’t refrain from parading in the all important closural (original) moves in the Garden. The standard bearer, in fact, bears them afresh each time – while the subject brings it all to bear in his work. Rather gluey, as always. But also totally line-pulling. Living matter authorially pulled to the exhaustion of all paragraphs and the exposure of the (welcome) End.

University of Edinburgh

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

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

© 2011-2024 Federica G. Pedriali & EJGS. First published in EJGS, Supplement no. 9, EJGS 7/2011-2017.

Artwork © 2011-2024 G. & F. Pedriali. Framed image: after a detail from Jan Vermeer van Delft, Woman holding a Balance, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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