Vincenzo Consolo and the postmodern writing of melancholy.
As open ended, fragmentary, and hybrid verbal structures, Consolo's historical novels exhibit many of the rhetorical devices that we have come to associate with postmodernist writing practices. Yet, these are also novels that remain fundamentally distinct from the banishment of memory and temporal continuity that informs dominant, majoritarian modes of postmodernism. As I will argue in the following pages using the broader framework provided by Jacques Derrida's recent articulation of spectrality and a Freudian inflected cultural historiography, the fragmented images of the past that traverse Consolo's novels are haunting ruins that return, as specters do, to make legible the open wounds and the painful lacerations of recent and ancient history. Because these ruins are the product of a writing of melancholy--the failure to abreact loss through the work of mourning--they have the dialectical force to shake our beliefs in the ontological certainty and stability of late-capitalist reality. Ultimately, then, Consolo's fictions come to exemplify a minoritarian, deterritorializing writing practice: A most courageous attempt, amidst the triviality and amnesia of postmodern consumer culture, to restore the sociopolitical relevance of the historical novel.
From Il sorriso (1976) to Retablo (1987), from Nottetempo (1992) to Lo spasimo di Palermo (1998) Consolo's revisiting of recent and ancient history has generated novels whose open ended-ness and fragmentation, pluralization of voice, perspective, and point of view unfold into an expressionistic, highly hybrid textuality. (2) Consolo's first novel, La ferita dell'aprile (1963), is already significant in this regard since it is only through the voice of the young narrator and protagonist Scavone that some form of narrative continuity is provided to an otherwise episodic, non-causal representation of a post World War II Italy in the grip of political and social tensions. Yet, by the time of Consolo's second novel, Il sorriso dell'ignoto marinaio (1976), the continuity of the voice of Scavone has been replaced by a polyphony that dissolves the coherency and self-identity of the subject of the utterance. As a result, historical reality--notably the Risorgimento in Sicily from September 12, 1852 to December 8, 1860--becomes readable only as a kaleidoscope of localized, fragmented representations, indicating that language is a space of regressive signification, a vehicle finally unsuitable to the recovery of the nineteenth-century past. (3) Other works by Consolo confirm his increasing penchant for the mode of writing announced in La ferita and established with Il sorriso. Consolo's third novel, Retablo (1987), represents reality according to three distinct points of view and, as Joseph Farrell has commented in his "Vincenzo Consolo Metaphors and False History," Retablo "is a travelogue, an extended metaphor, a love story or a cluster of crisscrossing love stories, a pseudo-Enlightenment pastiche, an unraveling of Sicilian history, a venture in story telling while being also a wholly contemporary slightly ironic, self-deprecating meditation on art and on the nature of fiction" (71). Consolo's more recent works further test the possibility of the novel to narrate historical reality. While in Nottetempo, casa per casa (1992) the violence against the Southern masses of Cefalu by the emerging Fascist squads of the 1920s can only be told by way of what Giulio Ferroni describes as a "struttura 'a stazioni'" (155), (4) that is, a syncopated narrative expressing perplexity towards the irrationality and darkness of historical experience, Consolo's last novel to date, Lo spasimo di Palermo (1998), translates the difficult context of Italian terrorism and mafia criminality of the 1970s in an expressionism so radical that it has baffled more than one critic. (5)
Yet, Consolo's testing of the novel's ability to represent historical reality is not confined to his five novels but can be detected in other examples of his writing, such as Le Pietre di Pantalica (1988) or L'olivo e l'olivastro (1994). Broadly classifiable as narratives of journeys to Sicily, these works lack all diegetic continuity and homogeneity. Products of a montage of texts, ranging from the short stories, dialect poems, epistolary writings, and excerpts from scientific discourses of Le pietre di Pantalica to the "mescidanza" (Traina 40) of fiction, essay, travel reportage and epic poetry of L'olivo e l'olivastro, they challenge the representation of the recent and ancient history of Sicily that is recorded in the island's natural and urban landscapes. Moreover, in Consolo's oeuvre, the novel's ability to narrate historical reality is also tested in periodic generic shifts from novelistic to dramatic writing that have occurred in 1985 with Lunaria, in 1989 with Catarsi, and in 2002 with Oratorio, a text that includes the earlier Catarsi and the newer L'ape iblea. Elegia per Noto. Since these shifts occupy a crucial position in Consolo's theory and practice of historical fiction, they deserve further consideration.
In Lunaria the representation of history appears to have been cast aside in favor of a fantastic, hyper-literary play about the disappearance of the moon first dreamt by an eighteenth-century Sicilian Viceroy, Casimiro, but then happening shortly after in the "Contrada" to the astonishment of all the witnesses. The moon eventually returns but with a missing piece that is restored by Casimiro himself amidst the joy of the people. The fantasy and the hyper-literariness that permeates this play has been noted by several critics, including Cesare Segre (6) and Flora Di Legami who, quoting Maurice Blanchot, has described Lunaria as the product of a voice that has been exiled from historical narration and relocated into the dream-work of the imagination (33). The condition of exile (7) noted by Di Legami can be usefully applied to Consolo's two other plays: Catarsi and L'ape iblea. Catarsi focuses on the death of Empedocles who, according to a legend revisited by the German poet Friedrich Holderlin, (8) among others, committed suicide by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna. While Consolo presents a modern rendition of Empedocles as a contemporary nuclear physicist, his one-act play reveals a classical, almost Aristotelian conception of the tragic function whereby the staging of incidents "arousing pity and fear" accomplish "the catharsis of such emotions" (The Poetics 76). Such conception is not only suggested by the title of the play. but is explicitly manifested in the prologue where tragic poetry is described as the only form capable of overcoming the pain caused by a traumatic historical reality:
Un velo d'illusione, di pieta, Come il sipario del teatro ... Copre la realta, il dolore .... La tragedia e la meno convenzionale, la meno compromessa delle arti, la parola poetica e teatrale, la parola in gloria raddoppiata, la parola scritta e pronunciata. (13)
The cathartic function of tragic poetry also informs Consolo's third play, L'ape iblea. Written as a dramatic elegy, or more precisely as a Latin canticum, it is a lamentation in prose and verse which expresses grief over the decay of Noto, the city rebuilt in the baroque style after the earthquake of 1693 (9) but now in an utter state of neglect. Such neglect caused the cupola of the cathedral to fall in 1997 and now threatens Noto's entire survival:
M'aggiro in una Sarajevo Di lenta erosione, Sordo scuotimento, Rottura d'equilibri, Immane sfaldamento, Foresta di puntelli. ... E subito il boato lo schianto spaventoso, il crollo della cupola materna. La polvere imbianca il cuore della notte, il mio mantello, asciuga in gola urlo, gemito. Il nome tuo NO TO se spezzato. Lape, crisalide trafitta, Pupilla vuota, ombra. (58-59)
In an introduction to Catarsi and L'ape iblea, now published in Oratorio, as well as in other extra-textual statements, Consolo comments upon his momentary abandonment of the genre of the historical novel. In the introduction, he points the reader towards the confrontation between Empedocles and Pausania that occurs in the third scene of Catarsi ("Introduzione" 7). Pausania, who is Empedocles' assistant as well as his son-in-law, introduces himself as the messenger. Since his role is one of describing the "antefatto," or the history of the action that is going to be performed on the stage of tragedy, Pausania occupies the position of the historical narrator: "Io sono il messaggero, l'anghelos, sono il vostro medium, colui a cui e affidato il dovere del racconto, colui che conosce i nessi, la sintassi, le astuzie della prosa, del linguaggio! ...'" (Catarsi 21). Unconvinced of Pausania's ability as historical narrator, Empedocles not only interrupts Pausania's speech but utters the following disparaging words:
Che menzogna, che recita, che insopportabile linguaggio! E proprio il degno figlio di quest' orrendo tempo, di questo abominevole contesto.... Figlio di questo mondo degli avvisi, del messaggio tondo, dei segni fitti del vuoto .... (22)
Reflecting upon Empedocles' reaction to Pausania, Consolo explains it as the result of the separation between narrative and historical reality as well as between sender and addressee:
rottura del rapporto fra testo letterario e contesto storico-sociale. Rottura dovuta, secondo me, da una parte all'impossibilita di usare una lingua di comunicazione ormai definitivamente corrotta, degradata ... dall'altra parte, alla scomparsa, all'assenza del destinatario del messaggio letterario. ("Introduzione" 5-6)
Hence, the dramatic lyric monologue emerges as the only choice available to the narrator; a type of symbolization which is, however, only a step removed from the scream of the aphasiac and, by implication, the abysses of silence. In Consolo's own words,
Se non e piu possibile la comunicazione, e necessario allora spostare la prosa verso l'espressione, verso la forma poetica. E necessario annullare quello che Nietzesche [sic] chiama lo spirito socratico e far irrompere lo spirito dionisiaco e apollineo. E questo awiene nel coro greco e nel canticum latino. Siamo, per essere piu espliciti, al passaggio nella prosa dal dialogo tra narratore e lettore al monologo del poeta. Siamo ... ai suoni della natura, alle urla e al balbettio.... Siamo all'approdo nell'afasia, nel silenzio. ("Introduzione" 7-8)
Other statements by Consolo further elaborate on the exhaustion of historical narrative that emerges from his plays. While in "Una metrica della memoria" Consolo posits his shift into the dramatic monologue as the necessary destiny to which his linguistic experimentation leads, (10) in the interview Fuga dall'Etna he explains his choice as a conscious attempt to counter, through poetry, the neutralization of the oppositional function of the novel by modern culture:
... e caduta la fiducia nella comunicazione, nella possibilita, ora, in questo nostro presente, della funzione sociale, politica della scrittura. Non rimane chela ritrazione, non rimane che l'urlo oil pianto, o l'unica forza oppositiva alia dura e sorda notte, la forza della poesia.... (Fuga 58) (11)
Given the increasing skepticism toward the effective possibilities of historical narration that is voiced in the introduction to Catarsi, "La metrica della memoria," and Fuga dall'Etna, it comes as no surprise to Consolo's readers that several of the protagonists of his historical novels face overwhelming problems of expression. In Il sorriso dell'ignoto marinaio, for example, the character of Barone Mandralisca decides to represent in a letter to the Procuratore Generale of Messina the events that have led to the massacre of the town's notables by the rioters of Alchra Li Fusi on May 17, 1860. However, after the formal address, Mandralisca's letter rapidly unfolds into the admission that, since even the most transparent, referential language would fail to adequately represent the historical events of Alcara Li Fusi, writing has lost its purpose:
Che vale, allora, amico, lo scrivere e il parlare? La cosa piu sensata che noi si possa fare e quella di gettar via le chine, i calamari, le penne d'oca, sotterrarle, smetter le chiacchiere, finirla d'ingannarci e d'ingannare con le scorze e con le bave di chiocciole e lumache, limmaccia, babbaluci, fango che si maschera d'argento, bianca luce, esseri attorcigliati, spiraliformi, viti senza fine, nuvole coriacee, riccioli barocchi, viscidumi e sputi, strie untuose.... (98)
Unable to find a solution to his problem of representation, Mandralisca ultimately abdicates historical narrative for testimony and transcribes, without the use of his mediating voice, the writings left on the walls of the prison by the twelve rioters. Mandralisca's dilemma is by no means a single occurrence in Consolo's oeuvre since it is shared by several other characters. In Nottetempo, casa per casa, Petro Marano vainly attempts to give expression to the pain caused by both personal and public history following the arrival of the debauched satanic sect of Aleister Crowley and the violence perpetrated by the Fascist squads in the 1920s:
... cerco di scrivere nel suo quaderno--ma intinge la penna nell'inchiostro secco, nel catrame del vetro, nei pori della lava, nei grumi dell'ossidiana, cosparge il foglio di polvere, di cenere, un soffio, e si rivela il nulla, l'assenza di ogni segno, rivela l'impotenza, l'incapacita di dire, di raccontare la vita, il patimento. (53)
After a failed collaboration with a group of anarchists, Petro takes the decision to leave for Tunisia. As the walls of the Kasbah appear at the horizon, he postpones the narrative of his historical experience to an unspecified future time:
Cominciava il giorno, il primo per Petro, in Tunisia.... Penso al suo quaderno. Penso che ritrovata calma, trovate le parole, il tono, la cadenza, avrebbe raccontato, sciolto il grumo dentro. Avrebbe dato ragione, nome a tutto quel dolore. (171)
Yet, it is Gioacchino Martinez, the main protagonist of Consolo's last novel to date, Lo spasimo di Palermo, who has fallen prey to the most dramatic problem of historical representation. Like the modern day Ulysses, from Consolo's L'olivo e l'olivastro (1994) who, as we might recall, "Ora non puo narrare ... il labbro, spinge contro il muro alto, nel cerchio breve, scioglie il lamento, il pianto," so Gioachino Martinez, returning to Palermo from Milan, assesses the bankruptcy of narratable historical reality: "Aborriva il romanzo, questo genere scaduto, corrotto, impraticabile. Se mai ne aveva scritti, erano i suoi in una diversa lingua, dissonante, in una furia verbale che era finita in urlo, s'era dissolta nel silenzio" (105). Gioacchino's "spasimo" of representation is such that he stops writing--"Ho fatto ... la mia lotta, e ho pagato con la sconfitta, la dimissione, l'abbandono della penna" (127)--and begins reading. Mirroring Gioacchino's predicament and ensuing retreat into the archive, Lo spasimo departs from historical narration for a juxtaposition of fragmented images of the "lead-years" and mafia criminality with intricate webs of quotations and citations, ranging from T.S. Eliot, Mallarme, Homer, Tasso, and the poets of Muslim Sicily to Cervantes, Dumas, Sue, Natoli, and the cinematic memories of Louis Feuillade's Judex.
The developments in Consolo's poetics that I have broadly charted here are chiefly responsible for his having been listed among postmodernist writers on the grounds that his works give narrative form to "the 'paradigm[atic] shift' from global to local theorizing, from modernity to postmodernity" (Dombroski 262). (12) While these assessments retain their validity, it is important to point out that even though Consolo's novels exhibit many of the rhetorical devices that we have come to associate with postmodern writing practices, they also remain fundamentally distinct from dominant, majoritarian forms of postmodernism. These forms have been treated at length by Fredric Jameson, whose formulations of postmodernity as an age that has banished the memory of the past (13) are worth recalling here:
I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of late consumer or multinational capitalism. I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system ... the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve. ("Postmodernism and Consumer Society" 125)
According to Jameson, the formal features of the postmodern banishment of memory and temporal continuity are manifested in rhetorical practices of schizophrenia and pastiche: "the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time in a series of perpetual presents" (125). Yet, Consolo's novels are far removed from the logic that informs the postmodern expressions described by Jameson. The ruins of the past that inhabit his historical novels are never part of a celebratory spectacle, of a kitschy, commodified pastiche symptomatic of a de-historicized past. On the contrary, these ruins function as the rescued objects of the wounds and the lacerations of a history that can no longer be forgotten, but that haunts the folds of the narrative producing feelings of displacement and dislocation before the wreckages of Western humanity and civilization. In short, the fragments of the past that surface in Consolo's narratives are disorienting, haunting presences that can be usefully reformulated by drawing upon Jacques Derrida's recent inquiry into spectrality, or hauntology from his Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994).
Written in the aftermath of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Derrida's work is a polemic reflection on those thinkers, including the then US State Department's Francis Fukuyama (14) and others, who celebrated the collapse of communism as a sign that Marxism no longer offered a viable political and social theory. (15) However, far from declaring Marxism obsolete and glorifying the present age, Derrida argues for the importance of rescuing Marx's forgotten legacy. Hence, the notion of spectrality as a social mode of transgenerational haunting that informs his book and that is intended to be both an exploration of the ghosts that haunted Marx and especially of the ghosts of Marx that haunt the present. While the exploration of Marx's ghosts leads Derrida to re-read key passages from Communist Manifesto, 18th Brumaire, The German Ideology, and Capital in order to reveal the metaphysical limits of Marx's own political vision, the analysis of the return of Marx in present times, which is what concerns me here, brings Derrida to argue for the importance of recovering the ideological content of the past. Since, as Derrida writes, the present is fraught with "wears and tears," (16) Marx's legacy obviously can not be forgotten but returns, as specters do, to shake our beliefs in the stability of the present moment. Finally then, for Derrida, spectrality becomes a means to displace, in obvious deconstructive terms, contemporary ontological premises, including the metaphysics of the global free market economy and the pluralistic "democracies" of contemporary late-capitalist reality. More significantly still, precisely because the certainties of the present moment are questioned, spectrality also points towards a messianic vision of a better future, (17) which Derrida solidifies in his call for a "New International." (18)
Given these developments in Derrida's theory, it comes as no surprise that Fredric Jameson, in his outstanding "Marx's Purloined Letter," has brought Derrida's philosophical inquiry within the orbit of Marxist criticism by interpreting spectrality not just as an attempt to revive the forgotten spirit of Marxism, but as a means to recover the history entombed by postmodernism (19):
It is as though Derrida, in what some call postmodernity, is in the process of diagnosing and denouncing the opposite excess: that of a present that has already triumphantly exorcised all of its ghosts and believes itself to be without a past and without spectrality, late capitalism itself as ontology, the pure presence of the world-market system freed from all the errors of human history and of previous social formations, including the ghost of Marx himself. ("Marx's Purloined Letter" 59)
Derrida's formulation of spectrality to articulate both the return of the un-mourned content of the past as well as the emancipatory possibility that this haunting can represent for the future, offers a productive framework to interpret the significance of the social, political, and cultural ruins that traverse virtually all of Consolo's major writings. Even though endless examples could be mentioned, it suffices to recall a few representative ones. One can begin with the shattering of Italy's foundational story, the Risorgimento--the dream of social justice and fair distribution of land turned nightmare--that is inscribed in the twelve charcoal markings left on the walls of the prison of Granza-Maniforti by the rioters of Alcara Li Fusi:
PROPRIETARI DI TERRE ALLODIALI PEZZI GROSSI DENTRO LA DECURIA PARROCHI E CIVILI S'APPROPIARO DI TERRE COMUNALI IO FORA DI TUTTO CHE PURE AVEA DIRITTO COME GLI ALTRI GALANTOMINI FORA TUTTI I POVERI VILLANI AIZZAI GLI ALCARESI A RIBELLARSI AH MALE PER NOI NESSUNO FU PIU' BUONO DI FERMARE LA FURIA DEI LUPI SCATENATI. (II sorriso 122)
But one can also think of the many ruins, described in L'olivo e l'olivastro, Le pietre di Pantalica, and Di qua dal faro, (20) which Consolo recovers in order to make present the devastating effects of the failure of social justice on the peasants from the turn of the century, with the events surrounding the Fasci siciliani in 1873, to the shortcomings of the agrarian reforms promoted by Fascism in the 1920s and the Republic in the 1940s and 1950s. In these same works, Consolo also recovers from oblivion the ravages of the post World War II modernization on Catania, Avola, Palermo, Caltagirone, Trapani, Gibellina, Noto, Messina, Siracusa, Milazzo, Melilli, Priolo, Augusta, Licata, and especially Gela:
Da quei pozzi, da quelle ciminiere sopra templi e necropoli, da quei sottosuoli d'ammassi di madrepore e di ossa, di tufi scanalati, cocci dipinti, dall'acropoli sul colle difesa da muraglie, dalla spiaggia aperta a ogni sbarco ... parti il terremoto, lo sconvolgimento, patti l'inferno d'oggi. Nacque la Gela ... la Gela dal mare grasso d'oli, dai frangiflutti di cemento, dal porto di navi incagliate nei fondali, inclinate sopra un fianco. ... (L' olivo e l'olivastro 78-79)
But even more recent specters emerge from Consolo's historical archive, including those of left-wing extremism and mafia criminality that, in Lo spasimo di Palermo and Le pietre di Pantalica, have ravaged the island, claiming not only the lives of Paolo Della Chiesa, Giovanni Borsellino, and Giovanni Falcone, but of countless, anonymous others:
... e un macello, le strade sono carnezzerie con pozzanghere, tivoli di sangue coperti da giornali e lenzuola. I morti ammazzati, legati mani e piedi come capretti, strozzati, decapitati, evirati, chiusi dentro neri sacchi di plastica, dentro i bagagliai delle auto ... (Le pietre di Pantalica 166)
In addition to recovering social and political ruins, Consolo's writings also bring to the surface of narrative the cultural fragments of the past that lie in the recesses of the historical archive and that the present can no longer exorcise. In this sense, Consolo's writing can be compared to the work of Antonino Uccello, the collector described in Le pietre di Pantalica, who "[i]n lotta con il seppellimento e con l'oblio" (123), moved to Palazzolo Acreide in 1960 to start a museum. While Uccello devoted his life to collecting the objects of a peasant culture that was by then disappearing, Consolo casts an even wider net. From his pen the many un-mourned relics of Sicily's Greek, Byzantine, Arabic, and Norman civilizations resurface as do those of the island's more recent past. The pages brim with the fragments of a forgotten cultural history as in the following passage from Nottetempo, casa per casa, where the representation of an oil mill vandalized by the violent fascist squads of the 1920s (21) is followed by a detailed description of the creation of a "giara" by a consortium of artisans--the "cretarolo," the "torniante," the "fregatore," the "infornatore," the "frascarolo," and the "cuocitore" (156-57)--whose collective human labor would give form to chaos, produce beauty from need, and create harmony from necessity. Besides unburying the relics of a millenary tradition through images, this description also does so through language, that is to say by naming the words that record a lost civilization of which the "giara" is a powerful emblem: "scifo anfora olpe ariballo, mafara lemmo bombolo Quarta, lumera della notte matrangela bianca. Idria, giarrah per olio" (155). Paradigmatic declinations of the linguistic archive such as the one just cited, represent a procedure that is typical of all of Consolo's works and should be interpreted as an additional strategy to recover forgotten ruins. As Consolo often argues, at a time when standardized Italian has become hegemonic--"una super-koine, una sopra-lingua, un nuovo italiano generato dal nuovo assetto economico e sociale e imposto dai media, quell'italiano tecnologico-aziendale che ha studiato e illustrato Pasolini nel 1964 in Nuove questioni linguistiche" (Fuga 27-28)--the rescuing of the fragments of Italy's many language and dialects from historical oblivion becomes imperative. The result is a plurilinguism as a mode of remembrance, an expressionism produced by the opening of the etymological dictionary that remains far removed from the avant-gardist rejection of tradition or the more recent displays of postmodern schizophrenia. In Consolo's words, "Non sono ... parole inventate, ma reperite, ritrovate. Le trovo nella mia memoria, nel mio patrimonio linguistico, ma sono frutto anche di mie ricerche, di miei scavi storico-lessicali" (54; emphasis added). (22) More significantly still, Consolo's political, social, and cultural relics are not the product of a postmodern de-politicized nostalgia but are harnessed into sociopolitical usefulness since they remain fraught with melancholia, the failure of the Trauerarbeit, that is to say the work of mourning that would be necessary to transcend the loss of the object of history following Freud's famous articulation in the essay "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917). Since such a presence is fundamental, it merits closer reflection.
While in the postmodern "disappearance of a sense of history" loss has become an a-priori, constitutive lack that finds its strongest articulation in Lacan's anti-historicist account of the constitution of the subject, (23) in Consolo's work loss remains contingent because it is tied to specific historical occurrences. Hence, whereas in dominant forms of postmodernism neither the work of mourning nor melancholy have a reason to exist, (24) given the trans-historical and therefore ontological interpretation of loss, in Consolo's narratives the failure of the Trauerarbeit and its attendant expressions of melancholy signify a refusal to settle into the political passivity that a hermeneutic of overcoming historical traumas implies. By so doing, Consolo's melancholy emerges as a necessary, (25) indispensable condition for an oppositional literary practice, for a textuality capable of fulfilling the sociopolitical function of wresting away the mythical elements of late capitalist, postmodernist culture. (26) And precisely because, to reprise Leopardi's exergue, for Consolo "[n]on e propria de' tempi nostri altra poesia chela malinconica," metaphors of melancholy are endlessly woven into all of his novels. (27) Melancholy is the condition of Petro Marano, from Nottetempo, casa per casa, the son of the "luponario" (6) who will carry the "eredita di malinconie" (42) of his father on the path to exile after the advent of Fascism, of Casimiro, the Vicere from Lunaria who tells to his servant Porfirio that he has dreamt the fall of the moon, the "black sun of melancholy," (28) according to a long symbolic tradition:
Allora, guardando il cielo, vedo, dove lei s'era divelta, un'orma, una nicchia, un vano nero che m'attrae e dona nel contempo le vertigini.... Ancora ne risento.... Porfirio, non ho abento. Questo tormento non conosce alba ne tramonto, questa inedia di stagno, questa noia greve, quest'ansia ferma, questa melanconia amaricante.... (19)
But melancholy is also the condition of the traveler from Di qua dal faro, Le pietre di Pantalica, and Il viaggio di Odisseo: a modern-day Ulysses who can no longer reach Ithaca, the island of the "olivo," the tree of culture and civilization, but is destined to always return to a fallen Troy from where he will interminably mourn an island destroyed by the technological monsters of modernity and on whose ruins only the "oleastro"--the tree of savageness and bestiality--can prosper. Yet, the writing of melancholia that shapes all of Consolo's works and the oppositional function that sustains it are perhaps best exemplified in the iconography of the "Nunzio," from Nottetempo, casa per casa:
Viene e sovrasta un Nunzio lampante, una lama, un angelo abbagliante. Da quale empireo scende? Da quale paradiso? O risale prepotente da quale abisso? E lui che predice, assorto e fermo, ogni altro evento, enuncia enigmi, misteri, accenna ai portenti, si dichiara vessillo, simbolo e preambolo di ogni altro spettro.... Da sfondi calmi, da quiete lontananze ... lo Scriba affaccia, in bianca tunica, virginea come la sua fronte o come il libro poggiato sui ginocchi. Venne poi il crepuscolo, la sera.... l'ora questa degli scoramenti, delle inerzie, degli smarrimenti, delle malinconie senza rimedio, l'ora delle geometrie perfette, delle misure inesorabili, la sfera, il compasso, la clessidra, la bilancia.... Oltre sono i foschi cieli e le chiome degli alberi impetrati, gli oscuri ingressi degli antri, delle vuote dimore.... Oltre sono le Rovine. (65)
As the allusions to 'Tora delle geometrie perfette, delle misure inesorabili, la sfera il compasso la clessidra la bilancia" (65) indicate, Consolo's description is modeled on nothing less than Albrecht Durer's copper engraving of the angel of melancholy in Melencolia I. Completed in 1514, Durer's represents a dejected, brooding angel holding a compass over an open book. While the composition presents elements traditionally associated with melancholy, such as the bat and the starving dog, various other objects are also included. Their presence confers a meaning to melancholy that exceeds the traditional association with brooding, pain, and sorrow. If we accept the authoritative interpretation that was proposed by Aby Warburg and his disciples Erwin Panofsky, Raymond Klibansky, and Fritz Saxl, Durer's enigmatic engraving solidifies the vision of heroic melancholy. (29) This is a melancholy where the sorrowful contemplation of decay and destruction is no longer tied to a sense of purposelessness but, through the epistemological revision brought about by Renaissance humanistic thought, is now seen as the attribute for the intellectual's quest for knowledge. (30) Such quest explains the inclusion in the engraving of elements symbolic of measure, order, and form. Just above the angel for example, are a scale in balance, an hour-glass, and a magic square which suggests that a solution can be found to a difficult problem. On the angel's left side are objects that signify the intellectual pursuit of geometry, namely the truncated tetrahedron and the sphere, while below the figure lie the tools of human creativity: the hammer, the saw, the ruler, the wood plane, and the nails. Rays of sun and a rainbow also shine above the dark watery background while a large seven-rung ladder in the upper left side of the composition is pointing upwards. To my knowledge, Consolo makes no allusion to the exegetical tradition of Durer's masterpiece, but the passage that concludes his ekphrastic rendition of the copper engraving is strikingly close to the meaning of heroic melancholy proposed by Warburg, Panofsky, Klibansky, and Saxl:
E ancora rovine si dispiegano, fori e dimore, stadi e teatri, botteghe e stadi. Qui discendiamo nel buio.... Affiorano frammenti, schegge, fra le dita si sciolgono i volumi in sciame di cenere, in pulviscolo.... Ora il mondo ritorna dal profondo, da cisterne inabissate, ipogei, gallerie, in figure lievi ritorna su pareti gonfie, muri dilavati, fra i veli e i raschi d'evi trapassati ... vibrano i bianchi, i gialli di gesso, e gli aciduli verdi, e gli azzurri e i rossi sepolti.... La lira e la maschera, la cesta fruttifera e l'uva e la spiga accennano appena, traspaiono, bisbigliano frasi pudiche. (67)
As this quotation indicates, the description of the "Nunzio" that Consolo provides unfolds into an empowering cognitive activity that posits the descent into the abysses--"Qui discendiamo nel buio"--as the precondition for any future ascent. (31) Hence, the re-inscription of the unassimilated, un-mourned ruins of the recent and ancient past--"rovine si dispiegano, fori e dimore, stadi e teatri, botteghe e stadi ... frammenti, schegge ... volumi in sciame di cenere, in pulviscolo"--becomes the necessary step to be taken in order to achieve the positive vision of heroic melancholy that closes Consolo's verbal version of Durer's masterpiece:
Ora il mondo ritorna dal profondo ... vibrano i bianchi, i gialli di gesso, e gli aciduli verdi, e gli azzurri e i rossi sepolti.... La lira e la maschera, la cesta fruttifera e l'uva e la spiga accennano appena, traspaiono, bisbigliano frasi pudiche.
In conclusion, as one of the clearest examples of the meaning behind Consolo's writing of melancholy, the ekphrastic description of Albrecht Durer's Melencolia I confirms the necessity of distinguishing Consolo's works from dominant modes of postmodernist writings. While his historical fictions share many of the rhetorical devices that we have come to associate with postmodernist formal structures, they also remain fundamentally distinct from the display of history as fetish and commodity that shapes a great majority of contemporary cultural forms. From Il sorriso dell'ignoto marinaio to Lo spasimo di Palermo, Consolo allows the ruins of the past to haunt the surface of his narratives with the intent of making current the wounds and the lacerations of history. Since these are wounds and lacerations that can no longer be abreacted by a successful work of mourning, they give rise to an interminable writing of melancholy that displaces the ontological certainty of our reality while pointing towards a better future that can only be built out of the memory traces of the past. Finally then, Consolo's work constitutes a deterritorializing, minoritarian practice capable of questioning the oblivion of late capitalism by re-inscribing the anamnestic power of the fragment in the historical novel and, with it, the emancipatory potential of memory in today's culture.
(1) Zibaldone 3976 (252).
(2) For an overview of Consolo's works, see the book-length studies by Traina, Vincenzo Consolo, Ternullo, Vincenzo Consolo, dalla Ferita allo Spasimo, and Di Legami, Vincenzo Consolo. La figura e l'opera. Among shorter works, worthy of mention are Farrell, "Vincenzo Consolo Metaphors and False History," and Papa's excellent essay "Ritratti critici di contemporanei Vincenzo Consolo."
(3) Il sorriso is arguably Consolo's best novel and many excellent studies have been dedicated to it. An updated bibliography is included in the 2004 edition of this work published in the series "Oscar classici moderni" (xiv-xvii).
(4) Traina also recalls that the experimentalism of Nottetempo was criticized by early reviewers of this novel, including Lorenzo Mondo, Ermanno Paccagnini, and Silvio Perrella (95).
(5) While Traina notices that the pages of Lo spasimo "risultano volutamente impervie" (103), Ternullo launches in a full-blown critique of this work. While Ternullo's critique is completely oblivious to the significance of Consolo's writing practices, it nonetheless highlights those elements that problematize historical narration and therefore merits a quotation: "ci si accorge di una chiara disunita tra le parti, l'accostamento dei segmenti narrativi appare forzato, insincero. Tale conseguenza e dovuta, probabilmente allo scollamento, al distacco tra parola e realta.... E una scelta volontaria? Sembra che chi narra stia da una parte, che guardi l'oggettivita del suo reale da lontanto, che non ne faccia parte" (67).
(6) In the chapter "Teatro e racconto su frammenti di luna" from Intrecci di voci, Segre has traced the literary antecedents of this work to Leopardi's "Odi Melisso" and Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi as well as Lucio Piccolo's story "L'esequie della luna."
(7) The short stories collected in Nerb Metallico, namely "Scilla e Carriddi," "Nero Metallico," "Il presepe naturale," and "Il prodigio" also suggest a momentary departure from the language of historical narration.
(8) See Holdertin, "Empedocles" (31).
(9) For further discussion of the decay of Noto (and other cities) see Consolo's "Anarchia equilibrata."
(10) "... la tragedia rappresenta l'esito ultimo di quella che e la mia ideologia letteraria, l'espressione estrema della mia ricerca stilistica. Un esito, come si vede, in forma teatrale e poetica, in cui si ipotizza chela scrittura, la parola, tramite il gesto estremo del personaggio, si ponga al limite dell'intellegibilita, tenda al suono, al silenzio," "Per una metrica delia memoria" (118).
(11) Compare also the following statement: "Il romanzo ... sta degenerando.... A questa de-generazione si possono ascrivere romanzi ... scritti nella nuova lingua tecnologica aziendale o mass-mediale.... Si stampano tanti romanzi oggi, e piu se ne stampano piu il romanzo si allontana dalla letteratura. Un modo per riportarlo dentro il campo letterario penso sia quello di verticalizzarlo, caricarlo di segni, spostarlo verso la zona della poesia, a costo di farlo frequentare da 'felici pochi'" (Fuga 60-61). As the essay "La scomparsa delle lucciole" reveals, Consolo's view of the "nuova lingua tecnologica aziendale" is indebted to Pasolini's Nuove questioni linguistiche.
(12) For additional discussion of Consolo's postmodernism, see Cutrufelli, "Un severo, famigliare maestro," Dombroski, "Consolo and the Fictions of History," and Bouchard, "Consolo, Levinas, and the Ethics of Postmodernist Storytelling."
(13) See also Eagleton's After Theory, especially the chapter "The Politics of Amnesia" (1-22).
(14) See Fukuyama's "The End of History?"
(15) For further discussion on the debate surrounding Marxism, see the following: Carver, The Postmodern Marx; Sprinker, "Introduction," Ghostly Demarcations; Woods, "Specters of History"; and Kellner, "The Obsolescence of Marxism." Kellner's essay is particularly illuminating. It not only argues that a long tradition of the discourse of the crisis of Marxism exists, but makes the convincing claim that the discontinuities between Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and later Soviet leaders cannot constitute a refutation of Marxism as a progressive social theory for the contemporary, postmodern age.
(16) See the third chapter of Specters, titled "Wears and Tears (Tableau of an Ageless World)" (77-94). Compare also "The Path to Postmodernism," in Eagleton, After Theory (41-73).
(17) "For the future holds spectrality within it as well, as it swims blurringly into the present and hints at possible alternative trajectories for the present. It is a form of opening oneself to the impossible and make it possible in its very impossibility. This is the Utopian aspect of spectrality--which Derrida refers to as the messianic.... In this overt appeal to the secular messianism of Walter Benjamin, Derrida means a structure of experience.... The messianic ushers in a redemptive possibility in the very heart of political despair..." (Woods, "Specters of History" 110).
(18) Clearly distinguished from its earlier, historical version, this "New International" should more properly be understood as a broad, class-less organization devoted to values of reform socialism, such as human rights and justice. In Derrida's words, "The 'New International' is not only that which is seeking a new international law.... It is a link of affinity, suffering, and hope.... It is an untimely link, without status, without title ... without party, without country.... The name of 'New International' is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who, even if they no longer believe or never believed in the socialist-Marxist International ... continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism" (Specters of Marx 85).
(19) For additional discussion of the response to Specters of Marx by Marxist academics, see Lewis, "The Politics of Hauntology."
(20) For the ruins that traverse Retablo, see Pagano, "A World of Ruins."
(21) "Le giare tutte eran frantumate, i fusti rovesciati, gli otri trafitti, in un ammasso viscido, e cafisi boccali, imbuti sparsi, immersi nel lago d'olio del terreno" (Nottetempo, casa per casa 155).
(22) For additional discussion on Consolo's plurilinguism, see D'Acunti, "Alla ricerca della sacralita della parola" and Segre, "La costruzione a chiocciola nel Sorriso dell'ignoto marinaio."
(23) See Lacan's Ecrits: A Selection. For additional discussion on this crucial issue, see La Capra, "Reflections on Trauma, Absence, and Loss," and Ricciardi, The Ends of Mourning. In the chapter "The Twilight of Mourning," Ricciardi develops at length the revision of Freud's concept of loss on the part of Lacan (17-21). Of interest is also the essay "Mourning or Melancholia" by Abraham and Torok which develops the notion of the "crypt" as a psychic enclave set up by the subject who behaves as if no trauma had occurred by incorporating rather than introjecting loss.
(24) This is what Eagleton calls "the post-tragic realm of postmodernism," After Theory (58).
(25) The following passage from Consolo's "Paesaggio metafisico di una folla pietrificata," provides an eloquent illustration of the necessity of melancholy: "Melanconia chiamb questa condizione la medicina: un morbo di nervi e dello spirito, una depressione insopportabile ... che spinge allo sconvolgimento, alia ribellione, a procedere nella via verso il basso per cercare l'uscita.... Ma c'e una depressione piu inclemente e disumana di questa, ed e quella che non arriva all'estremo livello ma che si ferma al di qua, a un passo dalla insopportabilita. E lo stadio che blocca la vita, la congela, la pietrifica: un limbo di cenere dove si dimentica l'entrata ed e impossibile intravederne l'uscita (255).
(26) For additional discussion of the oppositional social function of melancholic writing, applied, however, to earlier centuries, see Chambers and Lepenies.
(27) For additional discussion of Consolo's melancholic metaphors, see Scuderi and Galvagno. I should nevertheless observe that the oppositional dimension of Consolo's melancholy is never addressed by these writers, possibly reflecting Anna Dolfi's comments on the paucity of inquiries, on the part of Italian scholars, on the social and political dimension of melancholy (15, 29n).
(28) My reference is to Kristeva.
(29) For further discussion on heroic melancholy as developed by the research on sixteenth-century Renaissance carried out by the scholars of the Warburg Institute, see Pensky's Melancholy Dialectics. Heroic melancholy is strikingly similar to Walter Benjamin's theory of baroque melancholy since, as Pensky argues, Benjamin relied on the work of the Warburg Institute for his interpretation of the seventeenth-century (Pensky 95ff). It should come as no surprise, then, that the iconography of Durer's Melencolia I and Consolo's ekphrastic rendition of it in Nottetempo, casa per casa, bring to mind Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.... His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.... But a storm is blowing from Paradise.... This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress" ("Theses on the Philosophy of History" 258).
(30) Compare the following: "Herein lies the greatness of Durer's achievement; that he overcame the medical distinctions by an image, uniting in a single whole, full of emotional life, the phenomena which the set notions of temperament and disease had robbed of their vitality; that he conceived the melancholy of intellectual men as an indivisible destiny in which the differences of melancholy temperament, disease and mood, fade to nothing, and brooding sorrow no less than creative enthusiasm are but the extreme of one and the same disposition" (Saturn and Melancholy 340). Durer's Melencolia I has been the object of Agamben's recent reflection in Stanze where he writes: "L'angelo meditante non e ... il simbolo dell'impossibilita della geometria e della arti che su essa si fondano ... ma, al contrario, l'emblema del tentativo dell'uomo ... di padroneggiare in una pratica artistica quel che non potrebbe altrimenti essere ne afferrato ne conosciuto" (34-35). The image here is from the following website http://magicznykwadrat.w.interia. pl/durer%20-%20melancholia.jpg.
(31) While I have chosen to focus on Consolo's ekphrastic description of Durer's Melencolia L there are a number of other examples that illustrate a similar, heroic functioning of melancholy. See, for example, the description of the purpose of Mandralisca's journey into the underground prison of the Palazzo Maniforti: "leggiamo per doveroso compito, con amarezza e insieme con speranza questi segni loquenti sopra il muro d'antica pena ... conoscere com'e la storia che vorticando dal profondo viene; immaginare anche quella che si fara nell'avvenire" (Il sorriso 120).
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NORMA BOUCHARD The University of Connecticut, Storrs
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