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The catastrophic 'modernity' and the 'uncivilized' civilization in Luigi Pirandello and Luigi Antonelli.

DURING the twentieth century many theorists discussed the ruinous effects of modernity on individuals. Freud, Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkeimer and Marcuse talked about the high cost of modern civilization because it entailed the loss of a sense of a universal meaning, alienation from others, from nature, and from the self, which lead to the "disenchantment of the world." Freud developed the idea of a loss of meaning, of estrangement, and focused on the pains and discontents of modern individuals. In 1990, Bryan Turner returned to the concept of malaise brought by modernity, and in his Theories of Modernity and Post-Modernity he argues:

Modernization brings with it the erosion of meaning, the endless conflict of polytheistic values, and the threat of iron cage of bureaucracy. Rationalization makes the world orderly and reliable, but it cannot make the world meaningful (Turner 6).

Considering this scenario, this paper depicts the creation and consequent destruction of two social Utopias designed to replace modern civilization and focuses on the effects of modernity filtered through two plays written in the second decade of the twentieth century: Luigi Pirandello's La Nuova Colonia (1) (1926) and Luigi Antonelli's L'Isola delle Scimmie (2) (1922). Even if the authors don't explicitly refer to this specific historical and cultural climate, I argue that the choices of some characters represent a desperate response to finding a tolerable way of living in a senseless world. Both plays depict an alternative utopian reality where it is possible to live separated from modern society.

Nevertheless, these "perfect" substitute worlds crumble because modernity channeled through the bourgeois mentality is an epidemic disease that corrupts man and penetrates deviously into the human conscience and becomes an integral part of the common frame of mind, as Luis Althusser explains in his book Lenin and Philosophy (1970) and Max Weber describes in his books The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946).

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that the decline of religion, the growth of capitalism, the excessive bureaucracy in society, and the socialization of science impose a cognitive and instrumental rationalism against a magical-sacramental one offered by religious groups. All these changes, Weber says, lead to the birth of modernity and to its "disenchantment of the world," the "loss of a unified sense of the cosmos," leading to a moral and cultural crisis which manifests itself in the so-called "polytheism of values" at the end of the nineteenth century.

The following extract, taken from From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946), summarizes the crucial motivations that lead to the disenchantment of the world caused by modernity:

Science has created a cosmos of natural causality and has seemed unable to answer with certainty the question of its own ultimate presuppositions. Nevertheless science, in the name of "intellectual integrity," has come forward with the claim of representing the only possible form of a reasoned view of the world ... something has adhered to this cultural value which was bound to depreciate it with still greater finality, namely, senselessness ... all "culture" appears as man's emancipation from the organically prescribed cycle of natural life. For this reason culture's every step forward seems condemned to lead to an ever more devastating senselessness. The advancement of cultural values, however, seems to become a senseless hustle in the service of worthless, moreover self-contradictory, and mutually antagonistic ends. (Weber 55-57)

Precisely this "devastating senselessness" is experienced by the characters of Luigi Pirandello's La Nuova Colonia and will persuade them to escape from their empty and useless reality to find a better and more fulfilling one. Flora Bassanese, in her book Understanding Pirandello, defines the play as "the hopeful construction and cataclysmic destruction of a modern utopian ideal." (Bassanese 122)

The "prologue " of the play shows us a cross-section of a corrupted society in the modern world: a squalid tavern where a prostitute, La Spera, is convincing a group of outlaws to leave their town and sordid lives and start over again on a deserted island:

LA SPERA: Schifo, si, schifo--voi della vostra, io della mia vita! Sono tutta un fremito. Dio!--Non vi sentite torcere dentro le viscere come una fune?--Che aspettate piu? Andiamocene, andiamocene via, andiamocene lontano!

Piu a fondo di come sei qua non potrai piu sprofondare! Ma sara Dio almeno che t'avra sprofondato! (La Nuova Colonia, Prologue)

LA SPERA: Disgust! Yes, disgust! My life and yours! I am shaking! God!--Don't you feel your insides twisting like a rope?--What are you waiting for? Let's leave, let's go away, let's go far away! It's not possible to get lower than here. But, at least, it will be God to sink you.

Once they arrive on the island, they under go an incredible transformation, and find themselves in love with the freedom given by the absence of laws and modernity. They seemingly live in a timeless (3) mythical dimension, where La Spera is the only woman that exists. Yet she becomes faithful to only one man, Currao, and the mother of his child. However, after a short, calm period, they decide that they must pass a few social and religious laws in order to live in a peaceful community. As Anna Meda puts it: "The island in not only an Eden, but it also has a dark threatening side" (Meda 230) that foretells sacrifice, risk and death.

The situation worsens with the arrival of new colonists (led by the evil Crocco) who bring along the evils of civilization, symbolized by women, gold, and wine.

CURRAO: Guastera tutto! Avete portato l'ozio, lo spasso; e nascera l'invidia, per forza, e la gelosia; nascera l'ambizione e l'intrigo per forza. Tutti i vizii della citta avete portato, e le donne, il danaro. La citta, la citta da cui eravamo fuggiti, come dalla peste. (La Nuova Colonia, Second Act)

CURRAO: He will spoil everything! You all have brought laziness, frolicking: therefore there will be envy, jealousy, ambition and intrigues. You all have bought the vices of the city, women, and money. That city, that city we ran away from like one escapes from a plague.

Therefore, the order that the first colonists tried to establish disintegrates under the new circumstances and celebrates its impossible nature. All the evils of civilization from which they escaped are restored in the colonized island. La Spera is again considered a prostitute and forced to give up her child because she is deemed unworthy, and all of the colonists fight against each other to elect the king of the island. The violence of Nature solves this impossible riddle: an earthquake collapses the island and the only two survivors are those who always resisted the return to civilization and modernity: La Spera and her child (who are standing at the top of the island's highest mountain). Only the force of a natural catastrophe can end the dichotomist struggle between the "uncivilized" civilization and primitivism, and to the "modern disease" which was spreading through the island like a plague.

The analysis of this play shows the impossibility of creating a social Utopia in a place removed from society because once individuals meet civilization they are permanently scarred by it and cannot go back to a life unaware of it. Civilization and modernity are like an epidemic mental disease, which penetrates the human mind and forever changes the way people approach reality and the world around them.

To better understand this point, it is important to call to mind Luis Althussser's concept of ideology elaborated in his Lenin and Philosophy (1971). He elaborates the theory regarding the negativity of modernity, which is caused by the toxic effects of bourgeois ideals. He explains that these ideals (which he calls "Ideological State Apparatuses") deviously penetrate our mind and become an active part of the common mentality.

He defines ideology as "a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Lenin and Philosophy, 148) and explains that it assigns people a position in society and operates through the "status apparatuses" such as religion, laws, and education. The "imaginary" conscience that ideology induces offers a representation of the way in which individuals relate to their real conditions of existence. However, since ideology reflects a utopian and harmonious image of reality, it deeply represses the real relationships among individuals and the structure of society, which eventually leads to disillusionment and cynicism towards modernity.

This concept of illusory well-being brought by modern ideology comes as a result of what Max Weber elaborated in 1905 when he stated that modernity leads progressively to that "disenchantment of the world" and "a loss of the unified understanding of the cosmos" to which I referred earlier in this article.

From what I have discussed so far, it seems impossible to get out of this sense of dissatisfaction of society since I have shown that a corrupted society cannot go back to purity and innocence. What happens, instead, to an individual who does not know civilization when he finds out about it? In other words, what happens to a "noble savage" (4) who is put suddenly in contact with modernity?

In order to investigate this perspective, we may consider the work written by Luigi Antonelli in 1922, titled L'Isola delle Scimmie, that deals with a tragic encounter between modern civilization and primitivism. In the prologue, the first actor justifies the choice of the monkeys onstage as protagonists of the play. They are preferred over human beings because they are not contaminated by civilization, and they possess something that men have lost: the joy of instinct--and as a consequence --the happiness of living (because they still haven't come in contact with the disenchantment of modernity).

Per sperare ancora qualche cosa dagli uomini e per credere nel loro avvenire, bisogna mettersi a urlare per tutto quello che essi hanno distrutto e si apparecchiano a distruggere. Tutto il bene che essi possedevano era nella gioia dell'istinto! Se questo istinto non l'avessero abbruttito, possederebbero ancora oggi la felicita di esistere. (L'Isola delle Scimmie, Prologue)

In order to know something from men and to believe in their future, we need to weep for all that they have destroyed and they are ready to destroy. All the good they owned was in the joy of the instinct! If they had not spoiled this instinct, they would still have today the happiness of living.

The play is set on an island (just as is La Nuova Colonia), in a "big forest with an eternal aspect" where some monkeys speak about Alicano, one who has traveled around the world and discovered all the evils of society: suffering, slavery, deceit, pain and civilization--all of which he has involuntarily brought into the island because they lurk in his subconscious mind. This aspect of a detrimental modernity can be explained with Althusser's concept of negativity brought by bourgeois ideals, which I have previously discussed. These ideals are powerful and damaging at the same time because they take possession of one's brain and become part of common mentality (even if they go against the mental welfare of people).

At the beginning, the monkeys feel threatened by these terrible aspects of human civilization, and they agree on the idea that Alicano ruined them by introducing modernity to them:

ARGIA: Per mio conto sostengo che Alicano ci ha rovinate (LE SCIMMIE protestano) Eh, si! Infine, avevamo dei boschi, avevamo degli appetiti ... Ci bastava. Ora non ci basta piu niente! (L'Isola delle Scimmie, First Act)

ARGIA: I think that Alicano ruined us. Yes! Before we had woods, appetites ... It was enough for us. Now, nothing is enough!

Monkeys have learned the meaning of eternal dissatisfaction, which characterized every human being. Alicano is aware of the evil that characterizes the bourgeois world and he is upset by the news that four of his friends want to go into the world and bring back someone who can teach them about this captivating different reality.

ALICANO: Oggi l'uomo sta per posare il piede in questa terra incontaminata! ... Se io patii le ingiurie, se io fui presentato per tutte le fiere alle folle sghignazzanti e ubriache, se io fui contaminato dalla loro eredita di morte, se io fui detestato, pagato, venduto, sputacchiato dalle donne incinte perche non somigliassero a me i loro nascituri, se io fui comunque rinnegato come bestia e assomigliato per dileggio agli uomini, chiedo che gli uomini non mettano piede qui dentro. Lo chiedo ad alta voce, perche sento la vostra ostilita, sento, vedo che la malattia dell'uomo, la curiosita dell'uomo vi accende gli occhi di cupidigia. (L'Isola delle Scimmie, First Act)

ALICANO: Today the human being is about to put his foot in this pristine land! ... If I suffered the insults, if I was dragged to all the fairs in front of scornful and drunk crowds, if I got contaminated by their legacy of death, if I was detested, paid, sold, spit on by pregnant women so that their babies would not look like me, if I was disowned like a beast and mocked by men, I am asking that men do not put their feet here. I ask it aloud, because I feel your hostility, I feel, I see that man's disease, man's curiosity light your eyes with greed.

However, despite Alicano's concerned appeal, some of the monkeys manage to go into the world and bring back three prototypes of bourgeois society (found outside a theater) in order to observe and learn from them: a professor of morality, a pleasure-seeker, and a dancer. When the three captives realize that the primitive monkeys are still innocent and pristine, they resort to revenge, and they begin to teach them how to be "civilized."

The monkeys are enthusiastic about learning the ways of human beings, and they get "initiated" into modernity unaware of the ill intent of the captives. This is how the monkeys learn the meaning of sin, marriage, adultery, divorce, scandal of nudity, grace, decor, duels, lies, secrets and cunning, which change and corrupt them completely. (5) In Freudian terms, the three bourgeois represent the super ego because they stand for society and its rules, and the monkeys represent the id because they live in order to satisfy their impulses and pleasures without restriction. However, with the arrival of the super ego, the monkeys learn frustration and unhappiness because they have to suppress those impulses not allowed by laws of society.

Slowly and deviously, bourgeois ideology creeps into the monkeys' innocent minds, corrupts them and makes them unhappy because it compels them to suppress their inner wishes and desires. The three "humans" come from civilization, from a reality that disenchanted and nullified them (according to Weber's ideas) and they feel the sadistic pleasure in "initiating" such pristine and innocent monkeys as a way to revenge their capture. In Weber and Freud's terms, those individuals have witnessed modernity that, on one hand, leads them progressively to the "disenchantment of the world," to a "loss of a unified sense of the cosmos" (Weber 357) and to a cultural and moral crises, and, on the other hand, to destructive relationships with other people caused by the profound pain and anguish they feel inside caused by repression (Freud 132). Therefore, the three bourgeois avenge their desperate and alienating conditions caused by modernity on the monkeys, which are still unaware of the evil they will be introduced to shortly. The "humans" act with extreme sadism, and they feel pleasure in initiating the monkeys to a world, which they know will bring only pain and eternal suffering to them. Unaware of the wickedness of the three, the monkeys welcome with extreme enthusiasm their teachings, and they feel incredibly attracted to bourgeois ideology.

In the second act, the reader learns all that the "humans" taught the monkeys: sin, marriage, adultery, the scandal of nudity, grace, decor, duels, lies, and secrets. Once the creatures learn all the aspects of bourgeois ideology, they will never restore the previous innocence since the ideology, as Althusser describes it, is an "imaginary conscience" that takes possession of their mind and changes them radically. To clarify this concept, Dolcina, one of the most innocent monkeys before the arrival of the bourgeois, says after the bourgeois' lessons:

DOLCINA: Sai che Guenone riveste oggi una grande carica? Quasi quasi me lo potrei sposare per interesse. E diventato un importante funzionario. (L'Isola delle Scimmie, Second Act)

DOLCINA: Do you know that today Guenone got an important assignment? I should marry him for money. He's become an important official.

Deviously, the ideology penetrates in the mentality of the innocent monkeys and makes them interested, wicked and ruthless. However, the metamorphosis from monkeys to "human" does not happen suddenly. Indeed, an attentive reader notices in the second act that, even if the monkeys seem lured by bourgeois ideology, they show some resistance to it. When Alicano gets sick, Dolcina still shows some humanity towards him:

DOLCINA: Davvero sei molto malato?

ALICANO: (stupito) Si. E che te ne importa?

DOLCINA: Vuoi che abbandoni tutto per venire a curarti?



ALICANO: Lo faresti?


ALICANO: Ma che sacrificio? Non mentire.

DOLCINA: Si, con sacrificio.

ALICANO: Perche ti dispiacerebbe lasciare gli uomini ...


ALICANO: Sei attratta dal loro vizio, dalla loro complicazione, dalla loro menzogna?


ALICANO: E allora perche li lasceresti?

DOLCINA: Perche ti ammiro. E perche sei malato. E perche non mi posso dimenticare di te. Ma prendimi in fretta altrimenti non lo potro piu.

ALICANO: (disperato) Non ti credo piu! Non capisci il dolore che io provo di non poterti piu credere? (L'Isola delle Scimmie, Second Act)

[DOLCINA: Are you really very sick?

ALICANO: (shocked) Yes. Why do you care?

DOLCINA: Do you want me to leave everything to come to take care of you?



ALICANO: Would you do it?


ALICANO: What a sacrifice? Don't lie to me.

DOLCINA: Yes, with sacrifice.

ALICANO: Because you would not like to leave the humans ...


ALICANO: Are you attracted by their vices, by their lies?


ALICANO: And then, why would you leave them?

DOLCINA: Because I admire you. And because you are sick. And because I cannot forget you. But take me quickly; otherwise I will not be able to do it.

ALICANO: (desperate) I don't believe you anymore! Don't you understand the pain that I feel, knowing that I cannot believe you anymore?

This passage emphasizes the goodness and compassion that still linger in Dolcina's heart and which characterized her before the arrival of the "humans." However, Alicano cannot believe in her words because he knows that once one meets modernity one is contaminated by it and cannot help but act on his or her own best interest since there is no genuine concern for the well-being of other people. Alicano is torn between his desire to still believe in the possible innocence in Dolcina and the bitter awareness that society has inevitably and perpetually corrupted her.

In the final act, the reader learns shocking facts about her, which prove that the metamorphosis into bourgeois is complete. Dolcina marries Guenone, the "superintendent of morality" and shortly after their wedding, he is sent on an expedition to an island of cannibals. During that time, Dolcina has an affair with another monkey and becomes pregnant. When she finds out that Guenone is coming back, she has a nervous breakdown and finally decides to confess her affair to her husband, accepting the consequences of adultery in the bourgeois world (punished with the killing of both adulterous wife and lover). To Dolcina's surprise, after her confession, Guenone also has a secret to profess:

GUENONE: (sinceramente disperato) Ah! ... E nulla E vero ... e la mia carica di commissario E un'altra beffa che mi impedisce di essere quello che vorrei ... e tutto in me E una rivolta terribile ... Non piangere, non piangere ... Io non posso vederti piangere ... povera creatura ... povera Dolcina ... se mi vedono! E la prima volta che sento l'infelicita che invade tutto il mio essere ... l'infelicita di un intruso che si E impadronito di tutti i miei nervi, del mio sangue e di tutta la mia coscienza. Vattene Dolcina, vattene povera creatura, perche io non voglio farti del male e invece sto per fartene ... (L'Isola delle Scimmie, Third Act)

GUENONE: (sincerely desperate) Ah! ... Nothing is true, ... and my job as superintendent of morality is also a mockery which prevents me from being what I would like to be ... everything in me is terribly wrong ... Don't cry, don't cry ... I cannot see you crying ... poor creature ... poor Dolcina ... if they see me! It's the first time that I feel unhappiness invading all my feelings, my blood and my conscience. Go away, Dolcina, go away, poor creature, because I don't want to hurt you but I am about to hurt you ...

Here, Guenone confesses his inner conflict caused by what his heart wants and what modern society requires in specific circumstances. Indeed, Guenone would like to forgive Dolcina but society prevents him from doing it. Dolcina is devastated and tries to kill herself, but Alicano, the first monkey to involuntarily introduce modernity to the rest of them, miraculously saves her. Alicano is distraught by the degeneration brought by "civilization" and he tries desperately to find a boat to send the "humans" back to their world. By doing so, the monkey hopes to be able to restore that atmosphere of happiness, which characterized his island before the contamination brought by modernity.

After the departure of the three bourgeois, Alicano ends the play with a long line in which he offers his point of view regarding the whole situation:

ALICANO: [...] Fratelli, voi credete che io sia nemico dell'uomo! No! Egli mi faceva troppa pieta, e percio io non volevo che voi gli rassomigliaste: ma per quanta ferocia egli abbia, per quanta civilta lo avveleni, E sempre un povero cuore che batte! E guardate: io volevo risparmiarvi quel veleno. Ma siccome ora E impossibile per voi dimenticare di essere stati uomini, e giacche l'umanita vi ha portato il suo piccolo dono--il dolore--fatene un'arma per salvare le cose buone che io vi ho insegnato a rispettare ... Poiche gli uomini uccidono sempre le cose che amano! Fratelli! cercate, col dono che gli uomini vi hanno dato, di riprendere a poco a poco la vostra faccia e ritrovare la vostra innocenza! Addio, fratelli. (L'Isola delle Scimmie, Third Act)

ALICANO: Brothers, you all believe that I am an enemy of man! No! I felt too much pity for him and therefore I did not want you to look like him. But, despite his ferocity and his poisonous civilization, he remains a poor beating heart! And look: I wanted to spare you that poison. But since now it is impossible for you to forget having been "men" and since humanity gave you his small gift--pain--make it a weapon to save the good things I have taught you to respect ... because men always kill that which they love! Brothers! Try to slowly regain your true face and your innocence with the gift that men left you! Goodbye, brothers.

The last words of Alicano before dying stress the idea that modern civilization has poisoned the human being and that pain suffering are the only legacies left behind by men and their civilization. Now, the monkeys can only acknowledge their psychological changes and try to recapture their original state of innocence and freedom with this new awareness. However, as Weber and Freud teach us, this will never happen since once someone is corrupted by civilization, he can never be brought back to his previous innocence! That original and primitive state of pure freedom and happiness has turned into slavery because the rules imposed by modernity have also led the monkeys to frustration.

To better understand this point, I need to make a reference to Freud's ideas developed in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), which was inspired by the desolation followed by the World War I. In his book, Freud applies the psychological conflicts (between the ego and the id, the pleasure and the reality principle, the conscious and the unconscious) to the study of human civilization. The civilization itself is defined as a space filled with conflicts and as an extension of the tensions that stigmatize human psyche. In this sense, together with other scholars of his time, Freud shares a sort of cultural pessimism, or anti-modernism, which is skepticism towards the progresses of society.

Freud also states that civilization and its laws (superego) prevent men from expressing their impulses (id) that eventually cause hysteria and mental disorders. In other words, civilization castrates the human need to vent in aggressiveness to satisfy desires and, therefore, makes it impossible to satisfy pleasure and instinctual needs. As a consequence, civilization leads to unhappiness since it reduces man's freedom, and dissolves the possibility of behaving as everyone truly would want. Civilization slowly leads humanity to a sense of "cultural frustration" since it inhibits everyone to conduct in a certain, predictable, and proper way.

This is precisely what happens to the monkeys in Antonelli's play and to the colonists in Pirandello's play. Both the monkeys and the colonists experience the castration brought by modernity. They would like to express their feelings and inner passions but modern civilization prohibits the expression of their real self, and they end up either deranged in L'Isola delle Scimmie or killed in La Nuova Colonia.

The two plays analyzed in this paper points out a gloomy picture of the modern civilization. It is seen as an infectious disease that injects sorrow and discontent into each character's heart, which causes depression and suicidal instincts.

An analytical juxtaposition of these two plays reveals the superiority of primitiveness to modernity. The monkeys lived in a state of freedom and happiness until they were introduced to the notions of civilization and modernity. Unfortunately, civilization changed them permanently, and from then on, they perceived a sense of dissatisfaction, which leads them to eternal unhappiness and grief. As Pirandello proves in La Nuova Colonia, it's useless to flee from modernity (as does the group led from La Spera) because no one can rid themselves of the evils present in civilization once they are encountered. The principles of modernity are insinuated in everyone's conscience and irreparably corrupt their souls. Nobody can return to innocence once their soul meets modernity and the bourgeois' ideals. Similarly, and paradoxically, Antonelli's monkeys had their chance to live true happiness only before they come in contact with modernity and bourgeois world. But once that happens, they are doomed to eternal damnation and despair.



Althusser, Louis. Lenin and philosophy, and other essays. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Antonelli, Luigi. Teatro I. Atri: Il Libro Abruzzese, 2000.

Bassanese, Flora. Understanding Pirandello. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. Il disagio della civilta e altri scritti. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1971.

Meda, Anna. Bianche statue contro il nero abisso. Ravenna: Longo, 1993.

Pirandello, Luigi. La nuova colonia, O di uno o di nessuno. Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1995.

Turner, Bunn (ed.). Theories of Modernity and Post-Modernity. London: Sage, 1990.

Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans. and ed. H. Gerth and C.W. Mills. London: Routhledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

(1) The title in English is The New Colony.

(2) This play by Antonelli does not have an English translation. I use my own translation, The Monkey Island, when referring to this work.

(3) In the first act, one member of the colony, Papia, says: "Pare che il tempo si sia fermato." ["It seems that time stopped."]

(4) The concept of "noble savage"was elaborated by the English poet Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672): "I am as free as nature first made man,/ Ere the base laws of servitude began,/ When wild in woods the noble savage ran." (Part 1, Act 1, Scene 1)

(5) In this passage we can draw a parallel between the mythical Pandora's box and the three bourgeois revealing the evils of modern society.
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Author:Mariani, Annachiara
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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