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Of attention: D'Annunzio's sixth sense.


This article examines the concept of attention in Gabriele D'Annunzio's oeuvre, arguing for its central position in the development of his aesthetic thought and of his creative activity. In one of his Faville del maglio (Sparks from the Hammer) entitled 'Dell'attenzione' ('Of attention', 1911), D'Annunzio referred to attention as his ability to exceptionally stretch his senses in order to perceive every detail of things, people and events surrounding him. This permanent effort enabled him not only to gather a thorough comprehension of reality, but also to reach its ultrasensitive sides and to perceive what is usually hidden to sensory perception. D'Annunzio's attention can thus be considered as a sort of 'sixth sense', an instrument for both investigating the world and translating it into literature through poetic activity. The first part of the article discusses the concept of attention in the Spark, focusing especially on its links with D'Annunzio's symbolist poetics and on its chiefly practical nature. In the second section I argue that this faculty was exercised by D'Annunzio through a specific physical tool, i.e. his notebooks, which can be considered as the concrete embodiment of this extraordinary sense.


analogy, naturalism, notebooks, poetics, symbolism

In an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 29 December 1915 entitled 'A poet's adventures: Laying mines on an enemy's coast', D'Annunzio offers one of his most vivid illustrations of the concept of 'attention'. The article narrates D'Annunzio's participation in the naval blockade of Panzano Bay (near Trieste) aboard the destroyer Impavido (Fearless) on 18 August 1915: as usually happens in his autobiographical reports, D'Annunzio emerges as a brave superhero involved in an exceptional war escapade, similar to the later Bakar mockery (10 February 1918) or to the flight over Vienna (9 August 1918). Before embarking on the actual narration, however, D'Annunzio begins the article with a statement about his personal conception of life and the best means to effectively understand it:
Life is not an abstraction of aspects and events, but a sort of
diffused sensuousness, a knowledge offered to all the senses, a
substance good to touch, smell, taste, feel. In fact, I feel all the
things near to my senses, like the fisherman walking barefooted on the
beach covered with the incoming tide, and who now and then bends to
identify and pick up what moves under the soles of his feet [...].
Nothing escapes the eyes Nature gave me, and everything is food for my
soul. (D'Annunzio, 1996: 905-906) (1)

According to D'Annunzio, life is essentially a material rather than an intellectual experience, and can therefore be ultimately understood through the means of sensory perception ('touch, smell, taste, feel') rather than through abstract reasoning. The gateway to knowledge of the outside world is not abstraction, but a constant exertion of the senses, a tireless 'attention' to surrounding reality. Through this extraordinary faculty, as D'Annunzio states in the last sentence of the passage, his senses are able to reach every corner of reality. This belief not only underlay D'Annunzio's approach to life and knowledge but also imbued his very idea of artistic creation.

This passage is only one of the various references to the theory of attention in D'Annunzio's oeuvre. D'Annunzio never defined attention explicitly, however he implicitly referred to it in a number of passages in his writings - even in an article like 'A poet's adventures', which was written for the British public and which was aimed at celebrating his heroism rather than at fostering poetical discussion. (2) In this article I will analyze the concept of attention in D'Annunzio's poetics and argue for its central position in his creative activity. Through a close examination of a number of texts that engage with this topic, I will show why in D'Annunzio's activity attention can be considered as a sort of further sensorial skill - a 'sixth sense' - that he consistently employed together with the other five in order to investigate reality and to reconfigure it into literary signs. I will firstly analyze D'Annunzio's public engagement with the topic in his autobiographical prose work 'Dell'attenzione' ('Of attention'), published in the Corriere della Sera on 24 September 1911, and then discuss a 1912 passage from his personal notebooks where he specifically addressed the subject. I will then ultimately argue that this peculiar sixth sense was exercised by D'Annunzio through an actual object: his notebooks. D'Annunzio's notebooks were the concrete embodiment, the material manifestation of his poetics of attention: if attention was D'Annunzio's sixth sense, his notebooks were this sense's organ.

A practical magic

Among D'Annunzio's published texts, the short autobiographical prose writing 'Of attention' is his most overt engagement with the topic. 'Of attention' is part of the Faville del maglio (Sparks from the Hammer), the series of short articles written by D'Annunzio for the Corriere della Sera from 1911 to 1914. In each Spark, D'Annunzio discussed a particular event of his life, with an intensely evocative style that reflected the contemporary fashion of frammentismo (fragmentism) (much practiced in the journals La Voce and Riviera Ligure), to some extent anticipating the prosa d'arte (art prose) of the following years (Marinoni, 2015: 215). The critic Renato Serra was among the first admirers of this project: 'it is a beautiful sight', he wrote in 1913, 'D'Annunzio stops over a point, a memory, a sensation, and expresses it; he drafts a page out of it, and he's done' (Serra, 1989: 115). (3) The title of the series compares the work of the writer to that of the smith, suggesting that these Sparks would be some sort of 'leftovers' from D'Annunzio's major literary works (poems, novels, plays), side materials that he gathered and offered to his readers. In the foreword to the series published on 23 July 1911, moreover, D'Annunzio stated that these texts were originally written as private memos, mostly in notebooks. Each Spark starts with a date set in the past (from 1896 to 1907), as though it were an authentic note recovered from a diary; evidence shows, however, that some of these articles were instead composed anew, and that those actually originating from the notebooks were heavily revised (Martignoni, 1977). In the Corriere della Sera they appeared untitled; individual titles were inserted later on when the Sparks were gathered into two volumes by the Milanese publisher Treves in 1924 and 1928 (Martignoni, 1987).

'Of attention' was the seventh Spark to be published. Dated 5 September 1899, it narrates an episode of D'Annunzio's brief stay in Zurich with Eleonora Duse, who was touring there in early September; on that occasion he also met Romain Rolland, as the French intellectual noted in his Journal intime (D'Annunzio, 1995: 237). The narration starts with D'Annunzio sitting in a hotel restaurant and observing people and things around him, including his waiter, a famous actor, a young woman, a thin line of light on the terrace's floor and two coarse men chewing their meal. As he keeps staring at these people and objects, he progressively realizes that his eyes are able to gather almost automatically every single detail of them, even those that are usually concealed at first sight. That night, the same phenomenon happens while D'Annunzio is in his hotel room: the walls, the wardrobe, the door, the lamp suggest to him meanings that transcend normal human perception. The day after, D'Annunzio browses through some of his favorite books, looking for some passages that could give him relief from the sense of anguish that the night has aroused in him, but with no success. These events constitute the thin narrative structure of the text, which mostly focuses instead on the sensations and the thoughts provoked in him by this extraordinary perceptive faculty.

The name D'Annunzio gives to this faculty is attention. Attention, as he implicitly suggests in the narration, is the ability to exceptionally sharpen the senses in order to seize every aspect of surrounding reality, thus reaching a deep and comprehensive understanding of it. Attention was the concern of some debate at the turn of the 20th century, especially after scientists (mostly psychologists) started approaching the topic with an increasingly systematic attitude. In 1899 Theodule-Armand Ribot (1839-1916), one of the most renowned experimental psychologists of the time, published La psychologie de l'attention (The Psychology of Attention), translated into Italian in 1905 (Treves), and attention was a central part of William James's (1842-1910) monumental work The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890 and translated into Italian in 1901. These texts agreed on defining attention as the mind's faculty to intensively focalize on a selected object while withdrawing from others: James in particular defined it as 'the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. [...] It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others' (James, 1890: 403-104). According to James, attention is an active faculty which allows one to 'take possession' of an observed object, to seize it rather than to passively perceive it: this was also a central point for D'Annunzio, as I will explain shortly. (4)

D'Annunzio's personal characterization of attention, however, seems to go further than the psychologists' definitions and involves a further gnoseological dimension. For him, in addition to 'taking possession' of selected objects, attention allows the observer to reach beyond their external form, to bypass the phenomenal layer of reality and to glimpse its hidden sides, spotting features and links that are not immediately evident to the senses (as happens to him in the Spark). By means of attention, the poet's sensibility can turn into a visionary gaze that leads to seeing the invisible.

The links between this theory and D'Annunzio's symbolist background are evident, especially if one considers the peculiar genesis of D'Annunzio's Symbolism. As noted by Luciano Anceschi (1976: 66), from a young age, instinctively and without any theoretical support, D'Annunzio understood reality as a 'system of analogies', i.e. as a single whole where everything is interconnected by a web of invisible and analogical correspondences. Beyond its phenomenal layer, every object hides a number of secondary meanings which connect it to other objects and ultimately back to the whole system. Reality is therefore more than what the five senses can perceive, since there are sides of it that are not immediately evident. This is why-argues Anceschi - from his earliest works D'Annunzio developed a strong instinctive attraction towards analogy, well before engaging more theoretically with the topic through his reading of the European symbolist masters. For D'Annunzio, analogy is not just a figure of speech or a rhetorical strategy but rather a constitutive component of reality, something similar to a physical law; further, it is not a supernatural phenomenon but an absolutely natural one which is however invisible to the human eye. As such, analogy is a central tool for the poet who aims to represent the hidden side of reality.

D'Annunzio shaped these ideas into a more systematic structure in a number of his writings from the 1890s, including the articles 'Il romanzo futuro' (The future novel') (1996: 17-21), Il bisogno del sogno' ('The need for dreaming') (1996: 72-76), 'Una tendenza' ('A trend') (1996: 122-126), 'Elogio dell'epoca' ('Praise of the epoch') (1996: 201-207), two articles dedicated to the painter and his friend Francesco Paolo Michetti (1996: 181-191; 334-344), an 1895 interview of Ugo Ojetti (1996: 1375-1390) and, most famously, the preface (not included in the 1896 English translation) to his 1894 novel Il trionfo delia morte (The Triumph of Death). Taking a number of theoretical sources as a point of departure, including Jules Huret's 'Enquete sur l'evolution litteraire' ('Enquiry on the evolution of literature') (published in the Parisian journal Echo in 1891) and especially the ideas of his friend the philosopher Angelo Conti (author of Giorgione, 1894; and La beata riva, 1900, with a foreword by D'Annunzio), in these texts D'Annunzio engaged in a theoretical reflection on the status of the contemporary novel, connecting his instinctive pantheistic conception of reality with the new aesthetic theory - probably elaborated together with Conti - of art as a 'continuation of nature'. This theory asserted that nature is able to reveal itself to human perception only in a confused and incomplete form, to the extent that many of its facets remain unexpressed. As D'Annunzio explains in 'Elogio dell'epoca', however, writers can at times spot these hidden facets through peculiar 'intermediate senses' capable of bypassing the phenomenal surface of things:
On the diffused background of the organs' sensibility, already
lightened by the usual five senses, strange 'intermediate senses' are
gradually emerging, which allow to perceive a world so far unknown.
And new mysteries, which are not supernatural and which we do not feel
to be completely unknowable, surround us with their deep darkness.
(D'Annunzio, 1996: 206)

Through these 'intermediate senses', writers can reach the 'world so far unknown' of analogical correspondences (the 'system of analogies'), and thus gather a comprehensive picture of the confused flux of reality. Therefore, the purpose of art should be to recompose this indefinite picture into a synthetic and lucid form, and to re-express it more clearly through the means of style: language (as Oscar Wilde famously highlighted in his seminal dialogue 'The decay of lying', 1889) has the power to give a name and a form to these newly revealed meanings, thus bringing them to life. In other words, as Conti (1894: 16) put it, art is 'the genius's activity of shedding light on inert matter', of continuing nature's effort to express itself: 'the virtue of style', D'Annunzio specified in 'Il romanzo futuro', 'will be a virtue of pure creation. Style will no longer look like a literary exercise, but almost a direct continuation of life' (D'Annunzio, 1996: 19). Art is therefore an investigative activity, since it gathers different stimuli, searches for non-evident correspondences among objects, and frames all this into a coherent system (Gullace, 1987: 26). (5)

In 'Of attention', published more than a decade later than these writings, D'Annunzio seems to finally give a specific name to these 'intermediate senses', namely attention:
Among all my faculties, the one that I stimulate and sharpen the most
is attention. Every year the wrinkle between my eyebrows becomes
fiercer. The Greek man used to say that 'everything is full of gods'.
He meant that every single thing is full of signs, every single thing
signifies different truths, passions, events. (D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1110)

The theory of the 'system of analogies' clearly underlies this passage: every single thing contains more meanings than what can immediately be perceived by the five senses, since every single thing is linked to other aspects of reality ('truths, passions, events') through invisible correspondences. As typical of his rhetorical practice, D'Annunzio vaguely refers to a classical source to enrich his argument, mentioning Socrates's (the 'Greek Man') theory of the daimon according to which everyone is endowed with an inner invisible entity. Attention is implicitly indicated as the means to spot this 'system of analogies', as the 'intermediate sense' that enables one to grasp the hidden signs which reality is made up of.

The above passage also hints at a number of specific features of attention. Firstly, as indicated in the first couple of sentences, although leading to the hidden side of reality this faculty is grounded on an essentially material basis. Attention--this is a particularly important point for D'Annunzio--is not something mystical, a sort of prophetic skill cast on the poet by some supernatural power, but a primarily concrete attitude which must be diligently sharpened year after year. The analogical structure of reality can be spotted through an exceptional effort of the senses rather than through turning to some ultrasensitive faculties: by 'overusing' the senses rather than not using them (as some ascetical disciplines claim, for example). In other words, attention is not something different from the five senses but rather a completion of them: it is a practical exercise entailing a constant sensory stretch. Attention thus contributes to a further perception of the world: as such, it may be considered as a sort of 'sixth sense'. It is, however, a peculiar kind of sixth sense, since it is not supplementary to the other five but rather acts as a transversal intensifier of all of them: attention spreads across the entire sensitive spectrum, triggering a diffused and permanent status of extra-alertness - this is why it is defined as an 'intermediate' rather than an 'additional' sense. Like any other ability, attention must therefore be continuously practiced and taken care of through hard work and self-discipline, as D'Annunzio suggests by referring to the 'fierce wrinkle' between his eyebrows, which stands as a symbol of this persistent exercise.

D'Annunzio also mentions the necessity of practice in the second section of the Spark, where he compares himself to a violin that improves its sound every time it is played. His exceptional level of attention, he explains, comes from his untiring work as a poet:
The violin just released from the luthier's hands is just a well-born
child. Only after many years of musical life does it multiply its
virtues and reach its perfection. It seems that music, by constantly
stressing the wood's fibers, makes it more sensitive [...]. The good
luthier makes a good instrument, but the good player then gives it its
special temper. Similarly, the exercise of art sharpens my deaf matter
and makes it capable of ever vaster and deeper resonances.
(D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1106)

The chiefly material nature of attention emerges visibly in this passage, where D'Annunzio even defines himself as 'deaf matter'. Further, as I mentioned above, in the last section of 'Of attention' D'Annunzio looks for an explanation for his extraordinary perceptive faculty in his favorite books, but in vain; he then acknowledges that the ultimate meaning of things should be sought for 'not in printed books, nor in drawn figures, nor in living words, nor in dead ones, not even in those that have yet to be said, but elsewhere' (D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1109-1110). Books represent intellectual activity, whereas 'elsewhere' in this passage alludes precisely to materiality and sensitive perception.

The material quality of attention is also linked to D'Annunzio's creative activity. D'Annunzio's literary production is generally underpinned by a significant basis in sensation rather than by theoretical reasoning or mystical visions, even when dealing with analogies or symbols. Throughout his life D'Annunzio repeatedly referred to literary creation as a material rather than intellectual act: his study at the Vittoriale, for example, was baptized by him L'officina (The Workshop), and even the very title of the series Sparks from the Hammer refers to writing as a physical effort. The material component of literary creation is, for example, the central topic of another Spark, 'Di Prometeo beccaio' ('Of Prometheus the butcher'), published on 20 August 1911. Here D'Annunzio recounts a sleepless night (the date is 5 October 1898) spent pondering the composition of his tragedy La gloria (Glory). During that night, as time passes by, D'Annunzio feels his creative effort becoming something increasingly material, even carnal, that eventually exhausts not just his mind but also his body: 'something carnal, something like a carnal violence, a mixture of atrocity and inebriation always accompanies the creative effort of my brain. [...] I have my beast with me, when I create. When sparks flash around me I intensely feel the thick matter which I am made of (D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1080). After his work of creation, D'Annunzio is covered with sweat and feels as though he has been digging in hard soil for hours.

D'Annunzio also refers to the material quality of attention in another core sentence in 'Of attention', which perhaps partly borrows Conti's (1900: 225) definition of art as a 'practical metaphysics': 'my vision is a sort of practical magic that deals with the most common objects' (D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1107). This sentence also introduces another crucial point of D'Annunzio's theory: the hidden side of reality, which nature is not able to express clearly, must be sought for in 'common objects', i.e. in the ordinary things that the writer sees around him/her every day, and not just in the precious, refined and selected objects that crowd much of D'Annunzio's literary production, like the decor of Andrea Sperelli's flat in Il piacere (Pleasure) (1889) or the opulent Venetian palaces of Il fuoco (Fire) (1900). Every single detail of reality is worthy of attention, because every single object, even the most common one, can hide analogical correspondences. What matters to the artist is not the phenomenal appearance of an object, but what he/she can see through it.

Among all D'Annunzio's writings, these points distinctively emerge in a rather famous passage of his notebooks, written on 20 July 1912 at the station of Lamothe, in Southern France. In this note D'Annunzio discusses the poetics of attention and offers an example of how to apply it practically. Taking an analysis of this passage as a point of departure, I will now show how D'Annunzio's notebooks can be considered the textual embodiment of the theory of attention and therefore a crucial creative tool. It is through his notebooks that D'Annunzio's poetry, as I will argue, was able to 'continue nature'.

The instruments of attention

It is difficult to estimate how many notebooks D'Annunzio wrote in his life. In addition to those kept in public archives, a good number belong to private collections and some have probably been lost. D'Annunzio himself contributed to this very scattering. He used to give notebooks to lovers and friends as special gifts and to send them to journals and publishers, as when in 1916 he shipped a couple to Luigi Albertini to prove that he kept on working despite the war (Andreoli, 1996: 303), or when in 1921 he attached some notebook pages to a copy of Notturno given to Arthur Mayer, the editor of the French journal Gaulois (Riccardi, 2009: 122). The current edition comprises the texts of 161 notebooks (D'Annunzio, 1965, 1976): of these, 152 are kept at the archive of the Vittoriale degli Italiani, six belong to the publishing house Mondadori, one is owned by the heirs of Ugo Ojetti and two were published in 1910 and 1939, the manuscripts of which have now gone missing. The edition is divided into two volumes, since the 152 notebooks kept at the Vittoriale were found at two different times: the 1965 volume includes 118 of them, whereas the remaining 43 were found in 1967 and published in the 1976 volume. More recently, two more notebooks have been published: one is kept at the National Central Library of Rome (Imbriani, 2008), and one at the Cantonal Library of Chor in Switzerland (D'Annunzio, 2013). These notebooks cover the period from 1881 to 1925, although with some temporal gaps (1883-1891, 1894, 1913, 1921, 1923-1924). They contain different sorts of notes, including daily chronicles, memos of creative ideas, short narrative pieces and drafts of public speeches. For the most part, however - about 75% of the notes - they contain descriptions, at least until the war period when the number of autobiographical narrations and public speeches increased. The most frequently described objects are works of art kept in museums, landscapes, cities, buildings and everyday items. Another significant detail about these notebooks is their generally small dimensions, which usually range between 130 x 80 mm and 100 x 50 mm.

Among these descriptions, the one of the station in Lamothe is particularly interesting since it constitutes another implicit definition of the poetics of attention. D'Annunzio stopped in Lamothe on 20 July 1912 during a trip to Saint-Jean-de-Luz where he joined the painter Romaine Brooks (whom he had renamed Cinerina after the grey tones of her palette). This note, written about a year after 'Of attention', consists of a list of things and people observed by him while waiting for the train. At the end of the passage, D'Annunzio explains how each of them may hide a number of analogical correspondences which can be perceived only through the means of attention:
The language of things -
The station of Lamothe - (20 July 1912)
Everything speaks to attention - a freight train leaving - the look of
every coach. That one full of stones - that one of barrels and casks
- of iron machines - of tanks (- turpentine) of cattle - Every coach
has its destination - The language of the knots, of the ropes. The way
in which every mineral is stockpiled: coal, stones, sand - Cut wood,
amassed trunks [...].
The leftovers of life, the fragments of utensils, the dross - a piece
of iron, a twisted nail, a splinter, shavings, a piece of rope, an
empty metal tin. Everything speaks, everything is a sign for whoever
is able to read - In every single thing there is a will of revelation.
But nobody is open and ready to receive it.
The lines formed by the random disposition of objects are a script.
If looked at this way, life is a perpetual sequence of emotions.
Nothing is indifferent. (D'Annunzio, 1965: 617-620; emphasis in

The points about attention expressed in the Spark can be found again here. D'Annunzio refers to the power of attention to go beyond the phenomenological layer of reality and to grasp the hidden meanings of things, providing the writer with the ability to read the symbolic 'script' formed by the analogical correspondences of objects. Further, this passage shows once again D'Annunzio's inclination towards materiality and concrete examples rather than towards abstract reasoning. The text consists of a list of objects enlightened by the faculty of attention rather than in a theoretical discussion about it. These objects, moreover, belong precisely to the category of'common objects' mentioned in 'Of attention': D'Annunzio's 'practical magic' enables him to see even through a twisted nail or a piece of rope.

About 20 years later, D'Annunzio reworked this passage into a section of his Libro segreto (Secret Book) (1935). This second version presents a wider linguistic and syntactical structure and a more general amplification of perceptions and feelings (Oliva, 1992: 31-32) - yet, the core element of the notebook passage, i.e. the very enumeration of the station's objects, remains almost unchanged:
The freight train creaks on the rail, moves, starts again, stops,
struggles [...]. The look of every coach like the look of every
creature reveals to me its past, destination and suffering.

One is full of stones, one of casks, one of barrels, that one carries
tanks of turpentine, that other metal machines, and in that one the
amassed cattle suffer and whine [...]. We remain among the leftovers
of life. Bad leftovers? Here is a fragment of a utensil, a piece of
iron, a twisted nail, an empty zinc tin, a piece of twine, a splinter,

Everything speaks, everything is a sign for me since I am able to
read. In every single thing there is a will of revelation: a will of
saying, as poetry signifies.

The lines expressed by the random disposition of objects invent a
hermetic script. (D'Annunzio, 2005a: 1849-1852)

This passage shows how everything that is able to 'speak' to the poet's attention, however simple and useless, resists creative re-elaboration and keeps its primitive material nature, even in a highly refined work such as the Secret Book. This is even more noteworthy if we consider D'Annunzio's overall tendency to rework the notebook texts into more refined passages imbued with less concrete atmospheres when drafting further works (Martignoni, 1975).

This materiality underpins most of D'Annunzio's notebooks. As I mentioned above, these texts mostly consist of descriptions of physical objects and situations, to the extent that they could almost be considered as 'textual snap-shots' of the reality surrounding D'Annunzio (Costa, 1975: 224); narrative passages, creative ideas or autobiographical memories appear only rarely. The focus of the notebooks is not on the author's inner self or on the process of literary creation, but on the outside world. When the first volume came out, the critic Pietro Bianchi (1966) even compared the notebooks to the experiments of the ecole du regard (school of sight), the French literary movement that during the 1950s argued for a kind of literature centred on meticulous descriptions of everyday objects rather than on characters and plots. This focus on description can be easily traced in a large part of D'Annunzio's oeuvre, especially before the outbreak of the First World War. The notebooks' descriptions played an important pre-textual role within D'Annunzio's literary enterprise, providing settings for novels and plays, subjects for poems and at times even linguistic solutions. Alcyone (Halcyon) (1903), for example, originated almost entirely from a notebook written in 1899 (Isella, 1972), and a couple of notebooks written in Volterra in 1909 underpin D'Annunzio's last novel Forse che si forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No) (1910). The notebooks were also reused for crafting later autobiographical writings, including the Secret Book, Notturno and the Sparks from the Hammer themselves (Guglielminetti, 1993).

Another important feature emerging from D'Annunzio's notebooks is their stylistic uniformity. Most of the descriptions therein share a similar stylistic pattern consisting of short, nominal and paratactic sentences, sometimes taking the form of an enumeration. These sentences usually lack a distinctively identifiable logical centre: D'Annunzio seems to record things and objects almost randomly as they progressively appear to his senses, without organizing them into consistent structures. Hence, these descriptions usually do not result in all-round representations of things but just in sequences of scattered details. In other words, D'Annunzio does not seem interested in constructing literary representations in his notebooks but just in quickly securing on the page as many details as possible of things and events around him. The following passage is a good example of this style: it is a description of the Church of San Filippo Neri in Florence written in 1908; D'Annunzio would later reuse it for drafting a section of Solus ad solam (From a Lonely Man to a Lonely Woman) (1939), the posthumously published diary of his relationship with Giuseppina Mancini:
Saint Florence.
The small door is under a window with iron bars. One enters into a
white corridor -against the wall are memorial plaques and coats of
arms. Leaning against the wall is a long wooden ladder - two others
are lying on the floor -

A wooden pulpit is next to the door - [...].

Above the altar the image of the Virgin. On both sides, displays full
of ex voto - on both sides two silver lamps.

On the left a confessional on the right another one Two benches.
Opposite to this there is the gravestone of the Venerable Pietro Bini,
carved in yellow and black marble Through a gate one can see the white
church with the big pillar in pietra serena Beyond the Chapel there
are dark passages - crowded with wardrobes and confessionals The floor
is made of black and white marble slabs. (D'Annunzio, 1965: 537-538;
emphasis in original) (6)

The following passage is instead a good example of enumerative style. Written in 1909, it describes the hot water springs near the city of Volterra (Tuscany) and was reused by D'Annunzio for drafting a rather extended section of Forse che si, forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No) (D'Annunzio, 1989: 765-766):
The hot springs
An infernal valley - Waters boiling The smoke The soil tinged with
yellow and red The boiling - The hot spring - The boiling bog The
boiling water springs up - the stone tinged with sulfur - The yellow
spots - The mud - The crevices The tubes The canals - The hazy sun The
wind dispersing the steams The roar The white salts The rusty iron
pipes - The piles of mud and stones - (D'Annunzio, 1965: 562; emphasis
in original)

In these two passages, D'Annunzio mentions different objects and details without actually pausing on any of them. Every single thing is perceived, registered and then immediately abandoned for the next one. D'Annunzio sketches a sort of catalogue of his sensitive perceptions without commenting on it though: he does not construct a discourse around what he sees, but just notes things down.

Both the distinctively descriptive nature of D'Annunzio's notebooks and this peculiar style can be seen as direct consequences of the poetics of attention. When D'Annunzio enters a place or sees a landscape, he immediately stretches his senses in order to gather all the different stimuli that that place or landscape can give him. The notebook page then becomes the very space where these stimuli are collected: they are rapidly translated into words and fixed on the page in the very moment in which they are perceived. Enumerative style is therefore a consequence of this method, since it reflects D'Annunzio's need to quickly gather on the page as many elements as possible.

This purpose of cataloguing the world through a notebook is not entirely original to D'Annunzio. Interestingly, a rather similar project could be spotted in the notebooks of Emile Zola, who was a rather important author for D'Annunzio's literary education. Although D'Annunzio marked his detachment from Zola in an article entitled 'La morale di Emilio Zola' ('The morals of Emile Zola') published in 1893 in the journal La Tribuna (D'Annunzio, 1996: 214-232), his earlier works were much influenced by the French naturalist author, especially Terra vergine (Virgin Land) (1882) and Il libro delle vergini (The Book of the Virgins) (1884) (Tosi, 1981). Similar to D'Annunzio's, Zola's notebooks consist for the most part of detailed descriptions of objects and events crafted with a paratactic and nominal style. The following passage describing the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, for example, may resemble the above description of the church of San Filippo Neri:
The chapel of the Virgin, behind the choir. Very dark: dark glass
windows where the reds, greens and violets of the clothes of painted
characters form bright spots. In that darkness four chandeliers made
of four copper lamps dangle; a small candle and two bigger ones burn
too. At the back, vaguely, one can glimpse the statue of the Virgin.
Worshippers kneel among the huge pillars, the second line of pillars
goes behind the main altar.

On the right, entering through the little door, supports for candles.
From time to time, a worker scrubs the wax.

On the other side of the Virgin's chapel, the grave of Colbert.

The side aisles are gaudily painted in Byzantine style. Very
sumptuous. The bars of the chapels are golden. Only towards rue du
Jour windows are very simple. (Zola, 1986: 359)

Both Zola's and D'Annunzio's notebooks seem to share the function of cataloguing bits of reality. This similarity is rather interesting, because it shows D'Annunzio's responsiveness to naturalist models even in his private notebooks, i.e. in personal texts that do not generally share the aesthetic disposition of his main published works and were not written for an external public. Besides this resemblance, however, Zola's and D'Annunzio's notebooks are underpinned by two different projects. In his notebooks, Zola primarily collected materials for his novels: he drew lists of objects, places and human characters (the latter are instead extremely rare in D'Annunzio's notebooks). He used to go to specific places and to talk to specific people (the notebooks also contain a number of interviews) for the very purpose of preparing a specific work. The note above, for example, was written by him to be reused later for drafting a passage of his novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) (1873). To some extent, this attitude descends from Zola's poetics of investigating the social condition of France in the second half of the 19th century, and it might also reflect that time's positivist quest for a comprehensive knowledge of the world.

The project behind D'Annunzio's notebooks is instead of a different nature. It consists in going beyond the phenomenological layer documented by Zola's positivist catalogue in order to reach the hidden, analogical region of reality. The writer must comb through every aspect of the sensitive world not to draw a textual image of it, but because every single detail 'speaks to attention', as D'Annunzio wrote at Lamothe, and may hide a number of analogical correspondences. D'Annunzio's thorough descriptions therefore constitute his attempts to grasp the 'will of revelation' that every object may express: the notebooks are there to seize this 'will' as soon as it appears and fix it on the page before it may slip away. The description of the sensible world is thus functional to the perception of the hidden side of reality. In other words, the predominance of descriptions in D'Annunzio's notebooks is the textual manifestation of the theory of attention, since the objects described in these texts are not passive representations of the world, but signs that may be able to reveal further meanings. The notebooks therefore represent more than a comprehensive (and rather disordered) catalogue of D'Annunzio's sensory experience: they are the material embodiment of the method of attention, the means through which D'Annunzio goes looking for analogical correspondences. If attention, as I discussed above, is a practical and transversal 'sixth sense', then the notebooks are its physical organ. Through his notebooks, which are thus instruments of knowledge besides literary texts, D'Annunzio activates this extraordinary, 'intermediate' sense. In a way, the ultimate purpose of D'Annunzio's notebooks is to continue the positive quest for a full comprehension of reality with other means, i.e. those of analogy and attention, and could thus be seen as a bridge between Verismo and Symbolism in his artistic path.

In this context, the small dimensions of D'Annunzio's notebooks become a significant detail, as I anticipated earlier. If the notebooks are the means through which D'Annunzio exercises the sense of attention, then it is crucial for him to carry them around at all times, for he must be able to record a potential analogical correspondence as soon as he spots it. A small notebook can be easily carried around in a pocket, and can be easily used on any occasion since it does not need any external support to write upon (such as a table, a wall or one's lap). It is not unlikely that from 1881 to 1925 D'Annunzio kept a notebook in his pocket wherever he went.

D'Annunzio's notebooks therefore play a crucial role within his overall poetic enterprise. Romain Rolland famously compared D'Annunzio to a pike constantly floating around, searching for new ideas to seize, absorb and rewrite with a new form (Hughes-Hallett, 2013: 11). Although Rolland referred to D'Annunzio's practice of plagiarizing other writers, this metaphor could also be adopted with regard to his poetics of 'continuing nature'. As I mentioned above, to 'continue nature' means to recompose into a single clear unity what nature can express only randomly and confusedly. The notebooks embody the first step of this process: they are the means through which the poet gathers together the scattered, invisible and apparently unrelated elements of reality which he will later rearrange into a clearer form through writing. As in William James's definition of attention as 'taking possession' of something, through his notebooks D'Annunzio seizes the reality around him and makes it his own. To observe an object is not enough for him, as it may be for Zola: his attention must instead 'take possession' of that object, i.e. reach a full comprehension of all its facets, including the most hidden, analogical ones. Although D'Annunzio reused the texts in the notebooks for crafting a number of published works, most of the notes therein were jotted down with the purpose of investigating reality rather than (as it was for example for Zola) securing material for a specific future novel - with due exceptions, like the pages for Forse che si forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No) in 1909. The overall descriptive nature of the notebooks, in other words, mirrors this anxiety of 'taking possession' of the surrounding reality, which could be juxtaposed to the positivist confidence in the full comprehension of the world.

An active poetics

In Alberto Moravia's novel L'attenzione (1965), translated into English as The Lie (1966), the protagonist Francesco Merighi keeps a diary where he meticulously notes down events, objects and people observed in his everyday life. His purpose in doing so is to gather material for a novel (entitled Attention) about the search for authenticity in contemporary bourgeois society. However, as this quest progresses, Francesco realizes that authenticity is nowhere to be found since its opposite, namely corruption, is an intrinsic component of contemporary existence. Every action in today's world carries a degree of corruption, to the extent that the only possible way out left to human beings is non-action. At the end of Francesco's reasoning there is thus the theorization of a contemplative life to be spent observing the world rather than intervening in it. For Moravia, attention ultimately consists in a contemplative attitude, in non-action, in a passive observation of the outside world. As I have shown in this article, this conception of attention could not be further from D'Annunzio's. For D'Annunzio, attention does not simply mean to survey reality, but rather to 'attack' it, to understand it deeply and then to reshape it through the means of literary creation. Attention involves feeling the world rather than contemplating it, as he stated in the opening passage of 'A poet's adventures' where he defined life as a 'diffused sensuousness'. Unlike Moravia, D'Annunzio did not face the contradictions and disillusions of the post-war bourgeois society: for him, attention still meant actively experiencing the world.

Similar concerns around the topic of attention can also be found in the notebooks of Henry James, brother of the abovementioned William and contemporary to D'Annunzio. On 23 October 1891 he wrote a notebook entry where he mentioned attention as a fundamental component of literary creation:
To live in the world of creation - to get into it and stay in it - to
frequent it and haunt it -to think intently and fruitfully - to woo
combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of
attention and meditation - this is the only thing. (James, 1987: 62;
emphasis in original)

James's attention is again rather different from D'Annunzio's, since it involves thought and meditation whereas D'Annunzio explicitly relies on sensory experience only. James's concerns about attention, however, more famously referred to the dwindling interest of the reading public towards his novels, as he repeatedly protested in letters to friends and fellow writers (Stougaard-Nielsen, 2009: 16-17). D'Annunzio was equally concerned about the response of the readership to his works - yet, he dealt with this issue by subordinating the attention of his reading public to his own attention to his reading public. In other words, D'Annunzio's poetics of attention also encompassed a permanent eye on the ever-changing demands of the Italian readership of his time. D'Annunzio showed a remarkable ability to follow the development of these demands and to adjust his style accordingly, embarking on different literary genres (poetry, novels, theatre, memorial writing, even cinema) during different stages of his career. (7)

Hence, the concept of attention also emerges, although with a different connotation, with regard to the second stage of D'Annunzio's poetics of continuing nature, namely re-expressing reality in a clearer form. This ability entails a thorough knowledge of the readership of the time, which can be reached only through a persistent eye to the current socio-cultural context, as D'Annunzio specifically stated in 'Il bisogno del sogno' ('The need for dreaming') (1892) (D'Annunzio, 1996: 72-74) and 'Il caso Wagner' ('The Wagner case') (1893) (D'Annunzio, 1996: 237-250). Attention played a key role in D'Annunzio's entire literary experience: this faculty underpinned his aesthetic beliefs, his methods of literary composition and even his attitude towards society.


(1.) 'A poet's adventures' was originally written by D'Annunzio in Italian and given to a professional translator who prepared the English text for The Daily Telegraph. The Italian version was later inserted into the 'Second Offering' of Notturno (1921), although D'Annunzio was not very satisfied with it, as he wrote to Luigi Albertini (the editor of the Corriere della Sera) on 4 January 1916 (Di Tizio, 2003: 329). The recent English translation of Notturno does not seem to refer to this article (D'Annunzio, 2012: 153).

(2.) It is renowned that amid the general Anglo-American readership D'Annunzio was known far more for his extravagant habits and his inimitable lifestyle than for his ability as a poet, although his works were much appreciated by a number of intellectuals and artists (Weiss, 1968: 469; Woodhouse, 1987: 247-248; Woodhouse 1998: 2-3; Woodhouse 2003: 8-10).

(3.) When not specified otherwise, all translations are mine.

(4.) James's work in particular had a wide resonance at the time also because it contributed to introducing pragmatism (founded by James together with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey) into the Italian philosophical debate. The reception of pragmatism in Italy at the beginning of the century was twofold: Antonio Santucci distinguishes between a 'magical' current led by Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini in their journals Leonardo (1903-1907) and La Voce (1909-1914), and a more 'analytical' one embodied by the philosopher Giovanni Vailati (1863-1909). Santucci (1963: 66) maintains that Vailati's thought was quite advanced and innovative, whereas Papini and Prezzolini's positions were still too linked to idealistic aspirations and post-Romantic sensibilities.

(5.) It may be interesting to note that similar ideas would be expressed about 30 years later by the philosopher Adriano Tilgher (1928) when discussing the categories of 'Art' and 'Life' in Luigi Pirandello's work.

(6.) The version in the Solus ad Solam inserts the description into a more narrative structure, but it is still rather similar to the notebook's one: 'The small door is under a window closed with solid iron bars. From here the poor lunatic came in, looking for salvation. / The corridor is white, with walls covered with memorial plaques and coats of arms. Hanging from above is a long wooden ladder; two other long ladders are lying on the floor, similar to those climbed by the crucifiers to stick their nails into Jesus's hands. A wooden pulpit is next to the exit door. / The altar is dedicated to the Virgin. The holy image is surrounded by votive silver hearts. Two silver lamps burn on the sides [...]. / Opposite the altar there is the gravestone of the Venerable Pietro Bini, carved in yellow and black marble. I see through the gate the white church supported by high pillars in pietra serena. Beyond the chapel I see dark corridors, crowded with stalls, wardrobes and confessionals' (D'Annunzio, 2005b: 2639-2640).

(7.) According to D'Annunzio, however, attention to the reading public should not result in a passive submission to its demands; conversely, it means understanding those demands and using them to actively shape readers' tastes. D'Annunzio met his readers by raising them towards himself rather than by lowering his art to their likes and dislikes (Cimini, 2009: 115-116).


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Stefano Bragato

University of Zurich, Switzerland

Corresponding author:

Stefano Bragato, University of Zurich, Romanisches Seminar, Zurichbergstrasse 8, 8032 Zurich, Switzerland.

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