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Montale from "Objects" to "Things": Republishing Ossi di seppia in 1928.

Abstract: In Ossi di seppia, the concept of "representation" is central. Montale realizes a profound poetic survey of the possibility of what can be seen, said, and thought. The 1928 Ribet edition of Ossi di seppia, with six new poems, shows the oscillation between "visible" and "speakableit is the means by which the challenge to the enunciability that characterizes Le occasioni and La bufera e altro begins. The reflections of Deleuze, Ranciere, and Agamben on unrepresentability can help highlight some of the strategies by which the new poems added to Ossi di seppia in 1928 circumvent the limits of the representable.

Keywords: Discourse, speakable, thinkable, Montale, Ossi di seppia, Agamben, Bergson, Deleuze, Hjelmslev, Ranciere.


The most popular critical explanation of Ossi di seppia is undoubtedly Italo Calvino's. According to the Italian writer, the poem "Forse un mattino andando" is "one of the few occasions on which that other truth which the poet presents beyond the solid wall of the empirical world is revealed in a definable experience" (211-212). The epistemological area of this poem, Calvino argues, is "one of clarity and transparency, just as though it were a mental 'aria di vetro' (air of glass)" (212). Calvino adds:
   Merleau-Ponty has many fine pages in his Phenomenology of
   Perception on cases in which the subjective experience of space
   separates from the objective experience of the world [...]. This
   poem could be one of Merleau-Ponty's examples: space separates from
   the world and presents itself to us as just space, empty and
   limitless (212).

The present work will analyze the other strategy Montale uses to show "the inexpressible". We will not observe it, as Calvino says, in a clear and transparent area of Ossi di seppia, but in a dark and obscure patch of this collection of poems. One place where the dichotomy visible/invisible appears robustly is the 1928 edition of Ossi di seppia. In fact, it was in 1928 that Montale republished his first book in a different format. What emerges from a similar rewrite is not only a book on the emptiness of perception, but also--in a manner incompatible with Merleau-Ponty's--a collection of poems on the objective experience of the world in its entirety. The key to understanding this other strategy--the interference of the opacity --is the word "thing". For this reason, we believe that the element that best characterizes Ossi di seppia is the polarization between two opposing semantic spheres: that of objects and that of things.

Luigi Blasucci defined Ossi di seppia and Le occasioni as poetry of objects: "gli oggetti sono spesso le dramatis personae" (59). Montale certainly knew how to introduce everyday objects in Italian lyrical poetry without downgrading its tone. As Blasucci observes, this expressive artifice
   puo attagliarsi nelle sue linee generali a tutta la poesia
   montaliana dei primi tre libri, ma e mirato in particolare al mondo
   degli Ossi di seppia: un mondo rurale-marino (la Liguria delle
   Cinque Terre) nelle sue componenti paesistiche (riviere, scogli,
   muretti), botaniche (agavi, palme, canneti), zoologiche (lucertole,
   cicale, formiche, ma soprattutto la varia ornitologia: falchetti,
   ghiandaie, rondoni, ecc.), oggettuali (i vari tipi di imbarcazioni:
   sciabecchi, barchetti, gozzi, ecc.) (59-60).

Our article will analyze the 1928 edition of Ossi di seppia and, specifically, the philosophical conception of three of the six poems added to it in relation to the previous Ossi di seppia: "Incontro", "Delta", and "Arsenio". From this point on in our analysis, the set of six poems dated from 1926 to 1927--the other three being "Vento e bandiere", "Fuscello teso dal muro", and "I morti"--will be referred to as Ossi 1928.

"Quasi una fantasia"

Let us begin by analyzing a slightly earlier work, an Ossi 1925 poem, "Quasi una fantasia". This poem is divided into four parts in which the dawn, the enchantment of a new day, and the sun illuminating the snow are described and represented, until the poet recalls:
   Lieto leggero i neri
   segni dei rami sul bianco
   come un essenziale alfabeto.
   Tutto il passato in un punto
   dinanzi mi sara comparso.
   Non turbera suono alcuno
   quest'allegrezza solitaria.
   Filera nell'aria
   o scendera s'un paletto
   qualche galletto di marzo.

The imperfect rhyme of "comparso: marzo" in Italian is a particularly important component due to the fact that it fits within a Bergsonian perspective. Montale learned of Bergsonian philosophy during his cultural education, as the Quaderno genovese shows: in a note dated March 5, 1917, Montale places Bergson among the forty authors to take with him if he had to lead a monastic life (Montale, 1983: 23). We can thus safely agree with the observation of Tiziana Arvigo, according to whom in "Quasi una fantasia" "e credibile che Montale abbia voluto fare riferimento proprio alla seducente idea del filosofo francese" (60). The "idea" to which Arvigo refers is that of the distinction between "spatial time" and "experienced time", between "quantitative time" and "duration". Bergson, in fact, believes that memory and duration participate in the real life of consciousness, just as the spatialization of life participates in the quantitative sequence that shapes time along a linear dimension. This is because the two poles of Bergsonian philosophy are duration-memory and spatialized time. Intuition is the mechanism that associates time as duration and time as space.

The verses "Tutto il passato in un punto / dinanzi mi sara comparso" advance a Bergsonian perspective. The "galletto di marzo" is symbolic of the point into which the intuition of duration is condensed. The symbolic-denotative nature of the "galletto di marzo" is preceded by a silence: "Non turbera suono alcuno / quest'allegrezza solitaria". This produces an unreal climate that breaks with the pattern of habitual perception of spatial time in text, frozen in the sequential linearity of instants. Bergsonism has a clear influence on the content of "Quasi una fantasia". It is in the substance of the content that the concept can really refer to Bergson. And what is more, it is in the form of the content ("galletto di marzo") that this Bergsonism is fully substantiated. Therefore, and with reason, Blasucci places the "galletto di marzo" among Montale's objects.

Louis Hjelmslev conceived of the categories of form and substance of expression. For the Danish linguist, we have not only a form and content, but a form and a substance of expression, just like we have a form and a substance of content. Form and substance are established in relation to the continuum of the expression and the continuum of content, "an amorphous continuum, the color spectrum, on which each language arbitrarily sets its boundaries" (52). Venturing into the discursive universe of Ossi di seppia, we can follow the lead of Gilles Deleuze to build a bridge between Hjelmslev and Bergson. The link between Bergson, Hjelmslev, and Deleuze appears to be very clear, for example, in the second chapter of Deleuze's book Time-Image, in which Deleuze identifies the Bergsonian "mobile" and the Hjelmslevian "enongable", which refer to: the power of the "virtual" (the "virtnel", "mobile", and "enongable"); time as memory-duration, which differs from the fixedness of the "actual" ("l'enonce"); and time as space (29). The form of expression and the form of content, as well as the substance of expression and the substance of content, are all functions of the "actual".

The intersection that Deleuze creates between Bergson and Hjelmslev recalls another significant name: Michel Foucault. In his 1986 book Foucault, Deleuze brings together different theoretical paradigms (semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism) to identify a correspondence between the Bergsonian concept of the actual (spatialized time), the Hjelmslevian concept of language stratification (form, substance, expression, and content), and the Foucauldian concept of discourse. The latter is a linguistic device that Foucault, in the Archeology of Knowledge, uses to associate the visible (form and substance of content) and the speakable (form and substance of expression).

Returning to "Quasi una fantasia", we can see that the visible has a crucial role. We need to consider the form and substance of content isotopies. In "Quasi una fantasia", we have, in sequence: "raggiorna", "barlume", the succession of signifiers "sole bioccoso", "tardo raggio", "invisibile luce", "neri segni", and the signifier "bianco", which recalls the color of snow. Over the course of the three blocks of verses, the visible in "Quasi una fantasia" is linked to two distinct semantic classes. The first class belongs to the field of light, in this case solar light, increasingly rarefied to the point that, over the course of the phrasal chain, sunlight becomes "invisible" .The second class belongs to the field of colors, and we can observe a polarization between black and white, in which the final stanza's "bianco" is assumed for the presentation of an "essenziale alfabeto", due to the appearance of the form of content "galletto di marzo". The invisible, in the field of luminosity, becomes enunciable through the visible chroma and, if one considers the reference to the "alfabeto", the invisible also corresponds to the speakable. The form of expression enables an intuition of the visible.


"Incontro", the first poem that Montale wrote in 1926, proposes a different structure. In a letter that Montale sent to Gianfranco Contini in 1933, the poet himself claims:
   [...] vorrei che certi sviluppi della mia parabola (da Incontro a
   Arsenio, su fino alla plaquette dell'Antico Fattore) rimasti un
   poco impliciti nel Suo lavoro fossero un giorno chiariti da un
   critico come Lei--al quale gia tanto devo (7).

Montale, thus, indicates that Ossi 1928 takes a new path.

"Incontro" is divided into six stanzas, each one composed of nine verses. The first stanza is filled with a feeling of sadness that pervades the poet in a seascape. The mouth of the river, in the second stanza, is the place where the river flows to the sea as well as the place where inauthentic life flows from humans. What follows are images of desolate crowds: men walking together seemingly disguised as a procession, murmuring bamboo. In the last three stanzas, the encounter of the poet takes place: in a vase that sits by the door of a tavern, the poet feels another life "e quasi anelli / alle dita non foglie mi s'attorcono /, ma capelli". In the last stanza, the poet asks to leave the path that leads to the mouth of the river "senza vilta". The image to which we will draw the reader's attention is that of "capelli".

The visible of "Incontro" depends on the temporal indicator Tultime voci il giorno esala" from the sequence "luce / radente", to "guizzi rari" in the last stanza. The progression of the isotopy of light follows a presentation similar to the one in "Quasi una fantasia": the chromatic intensity diminishes. However, this time, instead of observing a combination between the visible and the speakable, we are faced with dissociation: the speakable does not enable an intuition of all that is enunciated. As Foucault argues in The Archeology of Knowledge, not every sign is a statement. For example, the letter sequence AZERT on a French typewriter keyboard is not a statement, whereas the same sequence of letters listed in a typing manual, as in "the alphabetical order adopted by French typewriters" (96), is a statement.

The progressive nightfall that occurs over the course of the poem is not characterized by the silence and by the concentration of meaning generated thanks to the symbolic-analogic phrase "galletto di marzo". How can we not point out the referential displacement of "quasi anelli / alle dita non foglie mi si attorcono / ma capelli"? In Italian, three elements produce a rarefaction in the reference process: the adverb "quasi", the adverb of negation "non", and the opposing conjunction "ma". The phrase "poi piU nulla" that bursts soon after, highlights the fleeting nature of epiphany.

The sounds are also indefinite: "sembra che attorno mi si effonda / un ronzio qual di sfere". The landscape that the poet traverses in the fourth stanza is defined as "un nembo". The encounter to which the title of the composition refers begins with the perception by the poet of an "ingombro d'una / forma che mi fu tolta". The life with which the poet has contact during the epiphany event is expressed through the "guizzi," and the life that the "guizzi" represent is "sparsa", that is, spread over the day, and is "ancor tua": the physical encounter did not happen.

The protagonist of this flash-occurrence, in fact, is a "sommersa". In order for the path of the poet and the path of the "sommersa" to cross, it is necessary for the poet to take "un altro cammino" in the dark "aria persa". The rhyme of "persa" with "sommersa" clearly indicates an infernal path. On the other hand, in "Quasi una fantasia", there is no other form of the visible apart from the light. "Incontro" does not have the chromatic polarity which, in "Quasi una fantasia", compensates for the dissipation of light with a different visibility. The human feelings of the poet belong to a specific discursive development, and everything that goes beyond it is revealed as a non-object that can only be expressed as a "thing". In Ossi 1928--drawing on the Foucauldian categorization--the visible and speakable belong to discourse, but there is also another invisible visual that goes beyond discourse. In the Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault writes:
   One cannot speak of anything at any time; it is not easy to say
   something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay
   attention, or to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and
   emerge out of the ground. But this difficulty is not only a
   negative one; it must not be attached to some obstacle whose power
   appears to be, exclusively, to blind, to hinder, to prevent
   discovery, to conceal the purity of the evidence or the dumb
   obstinacy of the things themselves; the object does not await in
   limbo the order that will free it and enable it to become embodied
   in a visible and prolix objectivity; it does not pre-exist itself,
   held back by some obstacle at the first edges of light. It exists
   under the positive conditions of a complex group of relations (49).

As previously mentioned regarding Foucault, Deleuze published a monograph in 1986 in which he addresses Foucauldian discourse, appealing to Hjelmslev and the aforementioned quadripartition, namely form, substance, expression, and content. What is more interesting, in the Hjelmslevian reading carried out by Deleuze, is the emphasis that is placed on the concept of continuum. As we saw, before the form of expression and the form of content, before the substance of expression and the substance of content, Hjelmslev presents the continuum. It assumes the process of quadripartite agency described above. To cite what Deleuze writes with Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, the continuum is "the unformed, disorganized, or destratified body" (49). It is from this angle that Deleuze highlights a point of contact between Hjelmslev's continuum and Foucault's pre-discursive (outside of discourse) "things".

If things are a "preformed" continuum, objects are "formed" things: said, expressed, and represented things. Objects are the meeting point between words and things, which transform the continuum of the world into a connected substance through the conceptual organizing form in which the continuum is included. In other words, it is a discourse in the Foucauldian sense. In Ossi 1928, the flash-appearance is the result of a disconnection from the speakable: this is because what is seen for an instant (the "capelli" of "Incontro," for example) is a "thing", a Bergsonian virtuality.

It is important to highlight in "Incontro" that Bergsonism involves not only the level of content, but also the level of expression. This is not what happens with "Quasi una fantasia". The lines "tutto il passato in un punto / dinanzi mi sara comparso" constitute a reference (at the level of content) to Bergson's thinking. The expression, however, remains internal to the discursive development of Ligurian post-Pascolism. The form of the content "galletto di marzo" repeats the form of expression of the late Mario Novaro's symbolism. The signifier "capelli" of "Incontro" is, on the contrary, on a different position. If (using a Deleuzian lexicon) repetition territorializes and differences deterritorialize, the "galletto di marzo" maintains the level of the territorialized expression in the dynamic of repetition, instead of the "capelli", which introduces a difference at the level of expression.

The critic Guido Mazzoni addressed these questions with great acumen. Mazzoni refers only to the compositions in Occasioni and La bufera e altro, but the reasoning also applies to the Ossi 1928, as well as to some of the Ossi 1925. Mazzoni defines what Bergson calls a "qualitative difference" as a metonymic section, or fragment, describing an association of this section on two levels, the level of content and the level of expression. Mazzoni distinguishes between content representation and formal representation (similar to the Hjelmslevian form of content and form of expression). The Italian critic claims:
   Potrebbe essere utile per l'interpretazione costruire una tipologia
   dei tagli metonimici nelle poesie delle Occasioni e della Bufera.
   Si dovrebbero distinguere anzitutto due casi estremi: le poesie
   nelle quali il taglio metonimico e solo un contenuto della
   rappresentazione [...]; e le poesie in cui esso e soltanto la forma
   attraverso la quale viene percepita la continuita della vita
   quotidiana (416).

The use of the metonymic mechanism by Mazzoni is extremely pertinent. In fact, this use appears to be more on the point with respect to the Ossi 1928. The inflexibility of the discourse as a device, an "apparatus" (Agamben, 2009: 2-3) prevents metonymy from being more than a single isolated fragment as it is in Ossi 1928, incapable of becoming systematic and condemned to appearing as an accidental and transitory phenomenon of a syntagmatic nature. In fact, the "thing" is a thing and not an object precisely because it cannot become paradigmatic. The "metonymy-fragment", following Alberto Casadei (14), does not yet have the strength to be established in a structured way, along the lines of an allegory, in accordance with what will happen in the Occasioni.

The predominance of repetition over differences in the Ossi 1928 is one of the main elements that separate Montale from Bergson, despite having several points in common. What is expressed through the mechanism of intuition, in Ossi 1928, is immediately reterritorialized after the appearance of the metonymical fragment.

"Delta" and "Arsenio"

The introduction of a "thing", of a "fragment-metonymy" dynamic appears in "Delta", another poem of the Ossi 1928. The organization of the visible in the poem is very similar to what is found in the other texts analyzed so far. As in "Quasi una fantasia", we find the separation between opacity and light, though in a reversed sequence, with the chromatic intensity coming before and the rarefaction of light coming afterward. In "Quasi una fantasia", a reference to intuition emerges that permits an overlap of time and duration, though intermittent. Montale writes: "tutto il passato in un punto / dinanzi mi sara comparso". In "Delta", "affiori, memoria, piU palese / dall'oscura regione ove scendevi" and "al dopopioggia, si riaddensa / il verde ai rami, ai muri il cinabrese".

With the thickening of darkness in the fourth stanza, the hours are "bige o squarciate da un vampo di solfo" and, in the gray atmosphere, two crucial phenomena linked to the speakable take place. The "presenza soffocata" manifests. This happens through specific signs: "la riviera che [...] scroscia" and "il fischio del rimorchiatore". Why are these signs so important? They are two "things", with two signifiers without meaning within "Delta"'s regime of discourse. In the poem, in fact, these messages are defined as a "messaggio muto". These signs are found out of order in the discourse. They are semiotic material, not a statement, "things" excluded by the form of the expression of the poem.

In "Arsenio", the final poem discussed here, Montale evokes a heteronomy, namely Arsenio, who in a tempest comes to perceive for just a brief moment the fictional and essential void that composes identity. Arsenio, going down the river towards the mouth of the river, perceives "lamenti soffocati", a phrase that introduces in "Arsenio" the same unspeakable thing as the "sommersa" in "Delta", the "messaggio muto". What motivates Arsenio during the path that he takes is the pursuit of "un'altra orbita". In the first stanza of the poem, in fact, Arsenio identifies a sign, whose referent is this "other" dimension, not subject to the need for "spatialized" time. A way out of "le ore uguali strette in trama" seems possible. A "ritornello di castagnette" is an indication that in "questo giorno", in the middle of a particularly evocative storm, the intuition of a dimension with different temporal and spatial coordinates can constitute a miraculous entry into an "other" setting of the phenomenal world.

According to the other Ossi 1928, "Incontro" and "Delta", in "Arsenio" we have a progressive dissolution of the visible: "lunge par la sera / ch'e prossima", but soon after the dark "precipita / e muta il mezzogiorno in una notte". The sounds become noises: "tutto accanto ti sciaborda", "un fruscio immenso rade / la terra". In "Arsenio", the appearance of the "thing" is highlighted in between the two dashes. We find, once more, "e fuori", after which the metonymic portion could not be more radical: "dai gozzi sparsi palpita / l'acetilene". The five syllables "acetilene" are shaped by the previous action of the enjambment and by the subsequent graphic interruption of the dash that syntactically concludes the parenthetical interval, in a way that can be graphically and rhythmically considered a word-verse. Moreover, in "acetilene" the metonymic portion is more evident. This acetylene refers to the fuel of the lamp used by fishermen during their nocturnal excursions into sea. However, "acetilene" has no metaphorical meaning.

It is neither a metaphor nor a synecdoche, but a metonymy. If the synecdoche, as Niccolo Scaffai points out, is governed by the principle of inclusion, the metaphor is governed by that of intersection (102): the "galletto di marzo" clearly illustrates the metaphorical relation of correspondence between the suspended plasticity of the image of the bird and the features and iconicity of the landscape. "Acetilene" has none of this. Rather, the image can be read as completely metonymical, if we consider the centrality of the principle of contiguity to metonymy. The acetylene is the material with which the object, "acetylene lamp", is constituted. However, it has two distinct qualities: the chemical property and the use-value. In sum, the acetylene and the lamp coexist beside one another but as distinct phenomenal realities, despite being complementary. "Acetilene" is, then, a metonymy of the continuum. And for this reason, it is noise.

Discourse is what circulates within the group of statements, while noise is just how much of that net, of the "shared common", to draw on Jacques Ranciere (36), gets excluded. These noises are rendered as images such as: "ingombro d'una / forma che mi fu tolta" ("Incontro") or "fischio del rimorchiatore / che dalle brume approda al golfo", and which constitutes a "messaggio muto" ("Delta"). It is not by chance that both of these images ("il rimorchiatore" and "il messaggio") are introduced using the adverb fuori. It is precisely because it does not belong to the distribution of statements that the "fischio" is designed to be a silent, ineffable message. The enunciation, in reality, occurs outside the "discourse", outside the group of statements. The fog, which darkens and "closes" in on the horizon, is the expression, in the visible, of what cannot be represented.

Montale allows for the "altra orbita", in other words, the other episteme, the other historical a priori, to manifest itself as the inexpressible positive within the dominant epistemological-discursive regime. The "altra orbita" becomes speakable and thinkable only through a process of semantic slippage. Occupying the status of inexpression, the "altra orbita" must be translated within the regime of representation by means of heteroclite signs, displaced in the referentiation process, problematizing the structure of signification. This translation questions internally the expression of Montalian discourse, acquiring a disconcerting role not limited to a strictly thematic perimeter.

In Ossi 1928, the "ingombro" of a "tolta" form appears like a symptom of an other discourse, of "un'altra orbita", of the expression that still appears without form and without structure. The unspeakable signifiers that question the order of discourse (constructions such as "lamenti soffocati", "messaggi muti", etc.) constitute a translation at the level of the regime of representation of other signs, signs still without form and completely virtual.

Yuri Brunello

Universidade Federal do Ceara


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Title Annotation:Eugenio Montale
Author:Brunello, Yuri
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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