Manganelli and Niccolai: the unlikely bond between a Junghian "bishop" and a Buddhist nun.
Two of the most original voices of the Italian twentieth century, Giulia Niccolai and Giorgio Manganelli, are writers whose names are rarely considered together, perhaps only when Manganelli's introduction to Niccolai's collection of poetry Harry's Bar is remembered. Yet they shared a deep friendship and, more significantly for critical work, a bond based on certain metaphysical and spiritual preoccupations that inform their admittedly quite different writing. Giulia Niccolai, who is a poet known primarily for her "neoavant-garde" experiments with concrete and nonsense poetry, and for her long association with Adriano Spatola in their work as publishers and editors of Tam Tam, has been deeply involved in Buddhism since the mid 1980s. This turn in her life has transformed her writing as well as her attitude toward her involvement in the Italian literary scene. She is now quite separate from the games of power and fame that invest the world of literary production, and she writes, mostly in prose, about her experiences as a Buddhist when and if the spirit moves her to do so. Given the rarity of her publications, it is all the more important to take note of this most recent volume, Esoterico biliardo, which traces an itinerary through spiritual and literary realms both, one that unfolds around the figures of individuals of particular importance to Niccolai's long voyage toward understanding the vaster meaning of personal experience, writing, and transcendence. Of those individuals, Giorgio Manganelli was one of the most central to Niccolai's existential and artistic itinerary. Since his death in 1990, several of his previously unpublished works have come out, and in the spring of 2001 a collection of essays and reviews written between 1969 and 1987 appeared under the title Il vescovo e il ciarlatano. These writings have to do with the realms of psychoanalysis and psychology, and discuss, among other things, the thought of Freud, Jung, and Ernst Bernhard, the last an analyst who practiced in Rome at the beginning of the 1960s, and one with whom Manganelli underwent an analysis that was profoundly important in allowing him access to parts of himself that subsequently found expression in his creative writing. Although these recent volumes by Niccolai and Manganelli are not in any sense explicitly tied to one another, it is revealing to consider them together, for this operation permits us to see the ways in which apparently disparate styles and interests do in fact shed reciprocal light on the thought and creativity of their authors. My desire to write about these volumes is also motivated by my belief that Manganelli's and Niccolai's presence in my own life, both as writers and as individuals whose generosity I have personally experienced, has been invaluable to my understanding of just how powerfully literature nurtures life, as life in turn nurtures literature.
Niccolai's Esoterico biliardo is made up of thirteen chapters in which is traced an itinerary of personal discovery and spiritual growth by means of the recuperation of one's repressed or forgotten past. This recuperation happens through "lunghe ore di silenzio e di meditazione" according to Buddhist practice, and it is a "work in progress che dura, secondo il Buddismo tibetano, dalle sei alle sedici vite per giungere a completamento" ("Nota dell'autrice" 170-71). The first section entitled "Il crogiolo" contains nine essays that recount various experiences that Niccolai has lived through, and that she interprets as "causali" rather than merely "casuali." As she makes connections and finds meaning in the most "banal" occurrences, she casts a mental eye back over her life, and finds that "affiorano episodi del passato che insperatamente si collegano ad altri e delineano tra loro un ulteriore, inatteso disegno: forse il dono di leggere e trasformare questa mia difficile vita in fiaba?" ("Il ferro" 18). Her journey toward self-awareness and understanding is deeply intertwined with a number of individuals whose presence in her life has had great significance--and none more so than Giorgio Manganelli about whom she writes in the essay "Cavalli veri, cavalli figurati" contained in the second section of Esoterico biliardo, "La trasformazione." (The other three essays in this section, which are devoted to Gertrude Stein, whose works Niccolai has translated into Italian; to Luciano Anceschi; and to Adriano Spatola and their years of work together, are of great beauty and are worthy of more attention than I can give to them in this context.) For readers of Manganelli (and of Niccolai), there are amazing revelations in this rich essay, which humanize the former, an author of dauntingly complex works and of apparently anti-humanistic conceptions of literature (called "menzogna") and of the writer (a "slave" to the God Rhetoric, and a "buffoon"); and which reveal the latter, Niccolai, to be one of the most original thinkers about literature that the modern Italian tradition has given us. The relationship of the two writers is, like the title of the volume, both "esoteric" (meaning "hidden") and "geometric" (meaning "calculated"), growing as it did out of unconscious points of intersection and conscious collaboration.
Manganelli wrote the preface to Niccolai's volumes of poetry Greenwich (1971) and Harry's Bar e altre poesie 1969-1980 (1981); Niccolai first read Manganelli upon the publication of his Hilarotragoedia in 1964, when he was a professor of English at a technical institute in Rome. Theirs was a long rapport, therefore, although not one made up of constant contact. Niccolai calls Manganelli her "lettore privilegiato" and "interlocutore immaginario" ("Cavalli veri, cavalli figurati" 126; page references following refer to this essay), for she admired from the first his ability to plumb the depths of his experience, not in order to display himself egotistically, but rather in a search for his "center" and his "truth" that might be meaningful for everyone: what Niccolai calls "percezioni e non prediche" (126). She recalls that, as she read Hilarotragoedia, filled with "immagini folgoranti" and written in the "tono alto della scrittura barocca da trattato antico," her first great surprise was "la constatazione di trovarmi finalmente di fronte a un accademico che sapesse anche vedere e vivere la vita, che fosse un essere umano insomma, e non un'astrazione formale capace solo di elargire conoscenza da una cattedra" (128). This view of Manganelli's first book is striking in its deviation from most critical assessments of his work, which tend to emphasize precisely their "astrazione formale" rather than their human appeal. Yet a book, no matter how baroque and rhetorically elaborated, that speaks of types of "angosce," and outlines the "natura discenditiva" of humans cannot but reflect a kind of courage, which Niccolai calls "il coraggio di mostrare tutto il grottesco, il goffo, l'abietto e l'irredento che ci contraddistingue" (128). From her discovery of Manganelli's first book to the present, Niccolai has drawn upon his art and his friendship to aid in finding her own courage, as a writer, a human being, and a committed Buddhist.
The essay on Manganelli is so dense that it is impossible to describe all of its content. Among many things, Niccolai tells us of her first trip to India with three Tibetans, at the age of fifty-five, when she came down with the flu in the Frankfurt airport (and, as a writer, she cannot help commenting that the German city is "dove si svolge la fiera del libro [e] non potei che considerarlo una sorta di insegnamento"), and then spent ten days of illness and convalescence in India closed up in her room in "un campo profughi tibetani" outside of Delhi. She thought of Manganelli's descriptions of trips around India in his Esperimento con l'India, and felt the full irony of her situation: in India for the first time and unable to see anything outside of her sick room! She also thought of Manganelli's comment once that "l'India gli era apparso come un immenso scalo ferroviario dal quale tutti provengono e al quale tutti, prima o poi, devono tornare" (131). These thoughts were of some comfort to her; and she did indeed return, in 1990, for her first individual retreat after having been ordained a Buddhist nun earlier that year. Many epiphanies occurred as she meditated in her retreat, and she came to understand that Buddhism holds such a fascination for her because she is able to find answers to perplexities and questions such as the meaning of suffering that many writers experience, including Manganelli who, like others (and no doubt herself) was pulled toward "una mostruosa vocazione mimetica, a riempire il vuoto del silenzio con le mille voci del loro multi-forme Io che aspira alla non-dualita tra se e l'altro da se" (140).
Among the many connections that Niccolai traces between her mode of perception and Manganelli's, one centers on the deep significance of horses to both of them (thus reflected in the title of the essay itself). In meditation, Niccolai retrieves a childhood memory of a horse she saw defecating as it trotted along. As a child, this sight gave her a sense of "gioia" and "meraviglia" for it seemed somehow a magical event, with nothing "dirty" about the horse's waste, which she immediately saw as contributing to the world as fertilizer. Thus, "il cavallo ci riscattava tutti e il mondo mi dava meno problemi!' (138). As she continued to trace connections, she thought of how the horse is tied to one of the five chakras of the internal mandala that Buddhism believes correspond to, among other things, directions, elements, and to both positive and negative emotions. The horse corresponds to north, to air, to jealousy in the negative, and to fulfillment in the positive. Niccolai came to see, through a series of further interrelations, that the horse was "l'archetipo della mia libido" (139). She was subsequently amazed, in reading Manganelli's Encomio del tiranno, to find phrases such as "io che ho il compimento, a me congeniale, di rimuovere gli escrementi" and "poi, nelle cappelle, cavalli dal piglio temerario, con sterco ai loro piedi," which convinced her that Manganelli had had experiences similar to those she had had in Buddhist meditation, "probabilmente affiorate in lui durante l'analisi junghiana" (140). She further remarks that there is "extraordinary correspondence" between Buddhist methods of transcendence and purification, and techniques outlined by Jung in his work Psychology and Alchemy.
Manganelli is without a doubt a writer for whom the problem of human desire is at the center of his work, desire that might be called the "constant craving" that Buddhists seek to transcend. Niccolai makes this insight clear in her consideration of his posthumously published La palude definitiva. As she read the book in 1991, she sought an answer to what the allegory of the swamp meant, but did not find one until she connected Manganelli's vision to a Buddhist prayer she was reading at the same time in English, in which appeared the phrase: "sunk in the swamp of desire." She writes:
Ecco, la palude rappresenta il desiderio. Quella densita vischiosa e malsana nella quale ci muoviamo a fatica, quella melma nella quale rischiamo di affondare e desiderio, attaccamento, uno dei tre veleni che ci affliggono: odio, attaccamento e ignoranza, secondo gli insegnamenti del Budda. (162)
Manganelli's book is "un magma in continua trasformazione" in which are "tutte le possibili sfaccettature di tutti i possibili stati d'animo di un continuum mentale che si rinnova e prolifera a ogni istante" (162). In this sense, the book can be read as a "stra-ordinario resoconto della consapevolezza di una nostra umana condizione di desideranti, votati all'insoddisfazione, invischiati nell'attaccamento dal momento della nascita a quello della morte, e la palude sara `la palude del desiderio,' `the swamp of desire'" (163). The horse that accompanies the narrating "I" of the book is, as Niccolai has already explained, also associated in Buddhism with desire or the libido, but she believes that the swamp and the horse represent in Manganelli two antithetical aspects of desire: one, the swamp, that is "statico, passivo, denso e putrescente," and the other, the horse, that is "attivo, energia pura, potente e maestosa" (164). Referring to Freud's theory of the libido, in which two modes of investment are proposed--one that is narcissistic, another that is directed toward objects outside of oneself--Niccolai suggests that Manganelli's swamp represents the archetype of narcissistic libido, while the horse represents the outwardly-directed libido. She is led to this interpretation by her insights gained through meditating on how her own sufferings can be transcended, a process in which the archetypal meaning of the horse of her childhood linked up with the horse of Manganelli's imagination, finally to lend to both self-transcending significance.
Niccolai's summary comments on Manganelli's writing are both a loving homage to a friend, and an insightful characterization of his extraordinary art: "In effetti, ogni singolo libro di Manganelli puo essere letto come la testimonianza di un mistico (malgre soi?) che rifiuta di cedere a qualsiasi lusinga, a qualsiasi trappola della libido dell'Io, `... giacche l'Io non da luogo a letteratura' (Manganelli, Laboriose inezie 104). L'attivita di Manganelli `e di devozione e sudditanza: non lavora secondo estro o fantasia, ma secondo ubbidienza, cerca di capire cosa vuole da lui il linguaggio' (La luce nera 38). Precisamente in questo risiede il suo potere" (165). Manganelli's devotion to language, and his attention to the metaphysics of desire, nothingness, and death, when seen in the light of Niccolai's Buddhist perspective, take on a deep spiritual quality squarely at odds with his established critical reputation--at least among some critics--as a cold formalist, or a mere--if highly talented--player of experimental literary games. One thinks also, for example, of the similar case of Nabokov, whose dazzling use of language can also lead to purely formalistic or structural analyses of his works, but whose investigations into desire, time, and death cannot be more humanly or spiritually motivated. Writers of our time, like Manganelli and Nabokov, are perhaps our versions of metaphysical and visionary writers of the past like Dante; style and structure could not be more different from the medieval order at the basis of a poem like the Commedia, but the goal of reaching beyond self to the deepest levels of shared human experience and the highest levels of transcendence are not.
If the validity of Niccolai's spiritual and psychological approach to Manganelli needed any confirmation, it can be found in the collection of Manganelli's writings entitled Il vescovo e il ciarlatano. In this volume we can read, together for the first time, Manganelli's essays and reviews that reveal his profound interest in Jung, Freud, Bernhard, and others who devoted themselves to the mysteries of the human psyche. His fascination with dreams, for example, finds ample expression in these pieces; a fascination that is obvious to anyone who has followed in his fictions the dream-like labyrinthic spaces and allusive, elusive dream-logic of his syntax and images. Like Niccolai, who recounts in her essay on Manganelli their pleasure in sharing dream interpretations, and sees great significance in Manganelli's dedication to her in one of his books--"Il tuo `dream-person' affezionato Giorgio a Giulia" (144)--I too have personally felt the power of his focus on dreams. In the 1980s, having written a "fan letter" to Manganelli in the first flush of my enthusiasm at having discovered his work, I never expected to get a response. But I did, in the form of a brief typed letter in English, which amazed me for its generosity of spirit, and its enormous emotional impact on me. Dated April 21, 1985, the letter contains unforgettable phrases: "your more than kind letter, a solitary and wonderful gift at the beginning of this year"; "your letter has moved, I don't think it is good English, I'll say it has astonished me, so I am a little out of touch with reality"; "I hope you will consider typewritten mistakes as a kind of handwriting"; and, especially, "You tell me very kind words about `my books', but I don't think there such [sic] a thing, an author. Books do happen, quite as dreams do. Impossible to tell in advance what a dream will be, or if we will have any dreams; and of course the dreams we dream are not `ours.'" I have never forgotten these words, and when I thought I had misplaced the letter for good, I was in a genuine state of mourning. I found it one day when I was not looking for it, but instead looking for notes on an article I had written about dreams in Malerba; and I took this as a sort of wonderful, oblique Manganellian greeting from the beyond, which might itself after all be only one long dream! I also cannot refrain from mentioning that I had the enormous pleasure in 1987 of finding a first edition of Hilarotragoedia, complete with its original dust-jacket consisting in a photo of Manganelli wearing a fedora and looking like a detective, in the Chimaera Bookstore in Palo Alto! Niccolai's characterization of Manganelli as a kind of Hercule Poirot to her ("sempre centrato nei suoi pensieri e nella sua ricerca," 147) resonated strongly with my "detective" photo of him, thus establishing another thread in the weave of connections and associations, idiosyncratic as they might be, that bind me to both authors.
Manganelli's Il vescovo e il ciarlatano is made up of thirteen essays or reviews that were originally published for the most part in various newspapers such as "L'Espresso," "Il Messaggero," "Corriere della Sera," and "La Stampa" between 1969 and 1987. Edited by Emanuele Trevi, who also wrote the essay "Come si diventa uno scrittore: lo spazio psichico di Giorgio Manganelli" included at the end of the collection, the volume brings together scattered works, many of which would probably have remained relatively unread had Trevi not undertaken the important task of shaping them into a book. There are reviews of works by Bernhard, Daniel Paul Schreber, Sante de Sanctis, Ania Teillard, Jung, and Oliver Sacks, all of which pertain to issues such as madness, dreaming, and other mysteries of the mind. I cannot provide detailed descriptions of all of these fascinating pieces in this venue, but I want to quote a few excerpts that give some idea of Manganelli's remarkable engagement with these individuals' thought. Of his Junghian analyst Bernhard, whose posthumous Mitobiografia was put together from his notes, and from interviews both written and recorded, by H. Erba-Tissot and published by Adelphi in 1969, Manganelli writes: "Nel 1936 giungeva a Roma Ernst Bernhard, lasciandosi alle spalle, da esule, la Germania, e in tal modo verificando in se la vocazione dello sradicato ..."; "Il lavoro di Ernst Bernhard fu di tranquilla, ostinata, anche lieta eversione; consapevole del fatto che nessuno e peggio del buon cittadino ... fu un alleato della naturale immoralita e illegalita del mondo, di cio che egli chiamava il `buon Dio'; un raro discendente di quei Grandi Mentitori che smentiscono definitivamente il povero mondo della veridicita" ("La metamorfosi del gran guaritore" 10, 12). In these words, we hear echoes of Manganelli's own belief in the (oxymoronic) lying nature of the so-called "veridical," the factual world of positivists who shun as nonsense the hidden, esoteric truths of fantasy, dreams, and mythic archetypes. This belief is again wittily confirmed in Manganelli's pieces pertaining specifically to dreams (although most of the essays in this volume contain some mention of this mysterious activity): "Un Galateo per i nostri sogni"; "Sogna piu l'uomo o il coccodrillo?"; and "Albo tragico." In the first, Manganelli writes of the essentially universal practice of dreaming, and comments: "Questa diffusione sfrenata del sognare puo essere deplorata, come hanno fatto filosofi, teologi, uomini di cultura classica, matematici puri e nocchieri" (48). But we must accept that people dream, just as they do other quotidian things like going to the movies, or eating ice cream. As he continues in this comically ironic register, he suggests that we need a guidebook on how to behave in our dreams, which he will provide, for we need to remain proper and well-behaved even in the often extreme situations in which dreams place us. For example, if we happen to meet "Grandi Simboli" in our dreams, it is best to "limitarsi ad uno stupore cerimonioso, che i Simboli sembrano gradire"; if we dream of the end of the world, a dark suit is de rigueur for men, and a long gown, and rare, tasteful jewels for women; both should have in hand "un libretto genericamente devozionale" (51). In "Sogna piu l'uomo o il coccodrillo?," Manganelli's disdain for a practical approach to dreaming is less ironically and more caustically expressed. He reads neuropathologist Sante De Sanctis' 1899 study I sogni (which incredibly came out at the same time as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams) as a sort of closural summa of the positivistic idiocies of the nineteenth century, while Freud's work is, of course, prophetic of twentieth-century modes of thought. Under the influence of Lombroso, De Sanctis poses questions such as "come mai persone dabbene facciano sogni `criminosi,'" and other, to us, bizarre inquiries; Manganelli concludes that his book tells us how dreams were lived in the nineteenth century, as "lo zio matto che si tiene chiuso in solaio" (58), while Freud perceived that dreams are a language that is "al centro della nostra vita piti segreta" (59). As a self-confessed "sognatore accanito" ("Un Galateo" 49), Manganelli clearly delighted in immersing himself in works--silly or profound--on this esoteric system of signs or "language" that speaks from us and to us, often unintelligibly but never meaninglessly.
The longest piece in the volume is a lecture, "Jung e la letteratura," which Manganelli wrote for the conference on "Jung and European Culture" held in Rome in 1973; it has been reprinted several times, most recently before inclusion in this volume in Manganelli's 1989 Antologia privata. Trevi calls it "incredibile" ("Come si diventa uno scrittore" 98), which is a worthy adjective for a piece of writing that has the force of an overwhelming physical presence, the power of a hurricane that sweeps all known landmarks away. The territory that is battered is the literary landscape of Italy, through which blows the absolutely original whirlwind of Manganelli's thought. Manganelli recreates for us the occasion of the convention at which he was to speak, as were other distinguished guests, decorously and rationally, about Jung and literature. But his "pancia" was not in agreement, and instead insisted on the visceral and decidedly undecorous talk that Manganelli in fact gave. In his essay on Manganelli included at the end of the volume, Emanuele Trevi asserts that the lecture was an example of "visionary" as opposed to "psychological" expression, according to the distinctions made by Jung himself, and which Manganelli himself uses to discuss his definition of "real" literature. In visionary expresson, "i contenuti della psiche non sono ancora normalizzati, non sono ricondotti al principio di realta." If we succeed in having something to say to one another, it is because we inhabit the same nightmare, and "quanto piu, anzi, la scrittura sapra evadere, decentrarsi, allontanarsi dal perimetro del senso comune, tanto piu eseguira il suo compito, il duro lavoro della menzogna" ("Come si diventa uno scrittore" 98). Thus Manganelli proceeds, telling his audience that he detests them as "his public," that he is a failure as a professor, and that it is only as a writer that he can say anything possibly worthwhile. But his relationship with the public is no more polite in his guise of writer than it would be as a failed professor: "Come societa voi dovete trovare quel che scrivo sgradevole, oscuro, qualche volta divertente ma buffonesco e quando io posso diventare buffonesco voi potete prendermi in modo amichevole, e come amici io vi detesto piu ancora che come societa perche voi aspettate da me un comportamento gladiatorio: ecco, adesso arriva lo scrittore e parla. Nooo ... io faccio la scena isterica, io mi alzo e me ne vado" ("Jung e la letteratura" 19). Manganelli especially hates being assigned the role of "professor," since he sees professors as being "non dalla parte della letteratura, [ma] dalla parte della cultura," and the term "culture" is "esattamente il contrario del termine letteratura" (20). Literature is vital, unquiet, and transgressive (as it should be) only when it "ha ache fare con delle forze inconsce estremamente forti" (20). For Manganelli, literature is where our repressed awareness of death comes forth: "Noi ci siamo abituati a vivere in una maniera che prescinde in un modo patologica dalla coscienza della morte. Per cui oserei dire, questo l'ha detto gia Wyndham Lewis con molta precisione, che la letteratura e dalla parte della morte" (26). Literature, that is, is itself a "visionary" rather than a "psychological" expression, and Manganelli finds this distinction one of Jung's most important contributions to the understanding of it. Jung restores the "infernal moment"--that is, the nightmare, the unconscious, the nocturnal neurosis--to its proper cultural centrality, and to its psychological dignity, which in fact genuine literature itself has always done, and no more so than in the modern era when the infernal now reigns supreme. Unfortunately, in 1970s Italy, Manganelli sees instead only "daytime literature" from which the dark infernal aspects of human consciousness and aperception have been expelled, "cattiva letteratura," in short.
It is clear, I believe, that both Manganelli and Niccolai as writers have a visceral, spiritual, and genuinely essential relation with literature, and with their devotion to it. As a Buddhist, Niccolai has shifted her stake in her own writing, but her continuing deep response to Manganelli's writing reveals literature's fundamental role in her ongoing search for transcendence. Manganelli never deviated from his absolute devotion to literature as he understood it, with what can be called "religious" or "mystical" fervor. The lay priestly quality of the psychoanalyst, mixed as it is with something of the "charlatan" (etymologically related to "chatter" or "talk"), appeals greatly to Manganelli as a possible definition of the writer as well: "nello psicoanalista c'e una strana mescolanza del fool e del prete, direi del vescovo e del ciarlatano. Essendo una mescolanza mi piace. Direi che lo scrittore e una mescolanza del ciarlatano e del vescovo" ("Jung e la letteratura" 30). This is no uplifting religion, however. Rather than visions of paradise, this "bishop" explored visions of "le fogne," the miasmic, dark, dangerous, and excremental far reaches of the psyche and the soul: "e nelle fogne che vale la pena di andare a cercare, in mezzo ai topi, in mezzo agli escrementi." He continues: "Noi siamo dei magnifici produttori di escrementi che consideriamo delle cose ignobili ma non e mica tanto vero se lo consideriamo prospetticamente perche hanno a che fare con il futuro della vita e non con il presente. Noi sappiamo che saremo noi stessi degli eccellenti fertilizzatori, quindi c'e una dignita vitale dell'escremento su cui richiamo la vostra attenzione. E la letteratura e assolutamente un escremento in questo senso" (24). We end, then, with an image of "vital dignity" that finds its origin in the ostensibly "ignoble" baseness of waste, just as Niccolai's memory of the trotting horse's evacuation leads her to luminous insights. I do not believe that contemporary Italian literature has many other writers and thinkers as willing to plumb the depths and scale the heights of human experience and language as are Giulia Niccolai and Giorgio Manganelli; and in this I find them to be courageous, visionary, epic poets of our era, as Dante was of his.
REBECCA WEST is a professor in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, is a member of the Cinema/Media Studies Committee, and is the director of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge (1981) and Gianni Celati: The Craft of Everyday Storytelling (2000); is editor or co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Modern Italian Culture (2001), Pagina, pratica, pellicola: studi sul cinema italiano (2001), and Italian Feminist Theory and Practice: Equality and Difference (2000), and is author of more than 75 articles primarily on modern and contemporary Italian literature and culture.
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|Author:||West, Rebecca, Dame|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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