Traveling by metonymy: Foscolo's "A Zacinto" (1).
In his 1992 critical study entitled Travel As Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau, Georges Van Den Abbeele understands travel as an economy: it promises the possibility of gain (monetary, experiential or epistemic) as well as loss (death, exile or disorientation). In order to make that loss or gain comprehensible, however, one must have some fixed point of reference by which the excess or penury produced by travel can be gauged, and Van Den Abbeele calls that point the oikos, the Greek word for home and, not coincidentally, the root of the word economy. He writes:
The positing of an oikos, or domus (the Latin translation of oikos), is what domesticates the voyage by ascribing certain limits to it. The oikos defines or delimits the movement of travel [...]. Indeed travel can only be conceptualized in terms of the points of departure and destination and of the (spatial and temporal) distance between them [...]. While the oikos is most easily understood as that point from which the voyage begins and to which it circles back at the end, its function could theoretically be served by any particular point in the itinerary. That point then acts as a transcendental point of reference that organizes and domesticates a given area by defining all other points in relation to itself
(Van Den Abbeele xviii).
Thus, travel is understood as travel insofar as it is a departure from the home, and is generally understood by its distance and direction from home. "Home" and "voyage" reciprocally support and define each other, although it is clear which of the two occupies a privileged position. But Van Den Abbeele's analysis reveals that this mutually supportive relationship is fraught with difficulties. He writes that "the concept of a home is needed (and in fact it can only be thought) only after the home has already been left behind. In a strict sense, then, one has always already left home, since home can only exist as such at the price of its being lost" (xix). This suggestion should seem familiar as the Derridean logic of the supplement: although we thought the home organized and made sensible the act of travel, we might just as easily turn the relationship on its head and say the reverse, that travel is a post facto attempt to establish and stabilize the home. Furthermore, the more the idea of the home orients and domesticates travel, the less it might "count" as travel. One thinks of the entire apparatus of guide books, tour guides, and interpreters, or hotel chains that bill themselves as a "home away from home," but, in a more grotesquely exaggerated example, I have also seen American tourists waiting in line to get into a Taco Bell on the Avenida de la Revolucion in Tijuana, Mexico. As Van Den Abbeele dryly observes, "a voyage that stays in the same place is not a voyage" (xiv).
Worse still, the temporal dimension of travel leaves open the possibility that, by the time you return home, it may no longer be at all recognizable as the home that you left (for that matter, you may no longer be recognizable as the traveler who left). "The very condition of orientation, the oikos," comments Van Den Abbeele, "is paradoxically able to provoke the greatest disorientation" (xix). In short, travel offers, on the one hand, the possibility of an appropriation, domestication, and control of the space(s) of the other by binding and limiting the traveler's freedom of physical and cognitive movement (not to mention the binding and limiting of the places and people the traveler travels to). On the other hand, travel and exploration are key metaphors for a destabilization and contestation of those same limitations (going off the beaten path, the road less traveled, exploring new frontiers, and so on). Indeed, it is important to understand that travel probably always works simultaneously in both directions; even the much-despised tourist acquires at least some knowledge of another culture, landscape or language, a knowledge that (albeit perhaps minimally) enlarges his or her epistemic horizons. At the same time, one should not ignore the ways in which that same knowledge is limited and bound in order to reinforce stereotypes and ideas of national and/or racial superiority. (2)
The question of Italian travel merits particular attention for a number of historical reasons. For much of its modern history, Italy was not a unified country at all, but a conglomeration of small states, more or less controlled by the great European powers. "Italy" was a metaphoric substitution, giving a geographic coherence to a territory that was politically fragmented. Thinking of Italy as the oikos posed problems that, say, France or England did not; a return to Venice for an early nineteenth-century Venetian, for example, meant an inevitable intellectual detour (and here we see that "Italy" may have had a metonymic value, as well as a metaphorical one) through Austria. Theodore Cachey (56) comments that "for most of its history Italy has existed as 'no place' to leave from or return to"--a rather ironic utopia. (3) (I don't mean to suggest that Italians did not have a sense of home, but rather that any identification of that home at the national level was problematic at best.) The situation was no less problematic for travel within Italy, since one needed a passport to go from Venice to Milan, or from Florence to Rome. As far as travel to Italy was concerned, Van Den Abbeele points out that "[...] the voyage to Italy was a cultural institution that accredited transalpine travelers [...] with a knowledge both exotic and familiar. No longer the religious, economic, or artistic center of Europe, post-Renaissance Italy became the continent's 'internal other,' a place where Northerners could come to gawk at the evidences of Roman decline, and thus feel smug in the superiority of their nationalities [...]" (xxix-xxx). Italy became, in a certain sense, the European country traveled to, rather than from. Van Den Abbeele, relying on the story of the Odyssey as a foundation of much Western thinking about travel, also notes that the discourse of travel encodes a set of gender assumptions: the orienting space of the oikos/domus is a female, domestic one (Penelope), while the male subject (Odysseus) is freed up for exploration. But while early nineteenthcentury Italian writers do repeatedly make use of a female iconography for the motherland, it is a particular one engendered by a history of foreign domination: "Italia, terra prostituta" ('Italy, prostituted land'), writes Ugo Foscolo. Giacomo Leopardi chastises: "nuda la fronte e nudo il petto mostri [...] formossisima donna" ('a naked brow and a bare chest you show, most shapely lady'), what Margaret Brose calls a fall from "an original state of male Romanitas into that of an Italianicita essentially feminine in nature" ("The Politics of Mourning" 1). (4) This female iconography is certainly not the stabilizing and orienting figure of Penelope.
Finally, Van Den Abbeele's analysis of travel resonates with more general problems encountered in critical thinking, epistemology and textual analysis. That is, travel is a key figure for thinking about thought itself ("exploring new territories," "covering old ground," plus vast number of metaphors that make use of basic elements such as space, boundaries and movement). (5) So, when travel in its capacity as a metaphor for thinking, for mental exploration, is domesticated (by an insistence, say, on the safe, round trip, where one "always arrives at one's destination"), then signification itself "is reduced to a minimum in the conveyance without residue of 'full meaning'" (xx). On the other hand, less domesticated journeys of the mind (Van Den Abbeele has particularly in mind a destabilization of the primacy of the oikos) might ideally permit "an infinite or unbounded travel" (xx) where it is also always possible not to arrive, to be lost, to take a one-way trip. (6) Although such journeys are marked by a significant amount of risk, their potential cognitive rewards are similarly greater. So, there is much at stake in understanding (as well as practicing) travel in different ways, including a careful evaluation of travel literature. One immediately thinks, of course, of travel narratives (essays, diaries, and so forth, that describe actual journeys undertaken); but the same play between oikos and travel, solace and risk, domestication and possibility, can be seen in imaginary journeys as well, perhaps even more clearly: journeys which have often been no less influential in determining a given culture's understanding of travel. In the Italian context, where the real oikos is historically so problematic, it might not surprise us to find that the fictional voyage (or the imagined voyage, the voyage as fantasy) has a particular resonance, both historical and cognitive. One might think of texts as diverse as the Divine Comedy, stories from the Decameron (such as X, 9), Orlando Furioso, Gerusalemme liberata, I promessi sposi, up to Calvino's Le citta invisibili or Alessandro Baricco's Seta. Cachey goes so far as to say that "the entire [Italian] tradition comprises a literature of travel," a "series of idealized territories" which--as a consequence of "an original lack of geographical center"--are "uncannily disembodied and deterritorialized" (56). It is in this context that I would like to examine the figure of Ugo Foscolo, and in particular, the sonnet describing an imagined return to his motherland, "A Zacinto."
The oikos: A Greek Mother(land)
Ugo Foscolo is the earliest of the trio of writers who are generally considered best to represent Italian Romanticism: Foscolo, Leopardi, and Manzoni. He was born in 1778 on the island Zante, the Homeric Zacynthos, to a Greek mother, Diamantina Spathis, and an Italian father. Foscolo was a zealous opponent of foreign domination of Italy (for a time he nourished hopes that Napoleon would conquer, unify, and then somehow "liberate" the Italian peninsula), and was, throughout his life, an Italian patriot. At the same time, in a letter to Jakob Bartholdy from 1808, Foscolo expressed wrote that
Quantunque italiano d'educazione e d'origine [...], io, finche saro memore di me stesso, non obliero mai che nacqui da madre greca, che fui allevato da greca nutrice, e che vidi il primo raggio di sole nella chiara e selvosa Zacinto, risonante ancora de' versi con che Omero e Teocrito la celebravano. (8)
(However Italian in upbringing and in origin [...], I, as long as I shall be mindful of myself, will never forget that I was born of a Greek mother, that I was raised by a Greek nurse, and that I saw the first ray of sun on the bright and forested Zacinto, resonant still of the verses with which Homer and Theocritus celebrated her.)
Foscolo refrains from precisely saying that his identity is Greek, but makes it clear that his italianita must always be arrived at through Greece: (9) not Greece understood so much geographically or politically, but rather "Greece" as a kind of shorthand for the mother's body (born of a Greek mother, raised by a Greek nurse) and the origins of Western literature, specifically poetry. Greece was, appropriately enough, in some sense Foscolo's oikos. Or perhaps we might better say that the route to the oikos must always detour through Greece, or perhaps that it splits to follow two itineraries, one Italian, one Greek. Not surprisingly, the structure of Foscolo's claim is fetishistic, based on knowledge and its disavowal--"I know very well that I am Italian, but all the same the space of home is Greece" ("quantunque [io sia] d'educazione e d'origine [...] io [...] non obliero"). (10) Obviously, this is not the straight-forward oikos that could "unproblematically" ground national identity and orient travel. Zante may have been historically Greek, but in a doubling of Van Den Abbeele's "internal other," it was under the control of the Republic of Venice at the time of Foscolo's birth. The mother's land was dominated by the father's land, so to speak. By the time Foscolo begins work on his sonnets, however, Venice will have been conquered by Napoleon and then handed over to Austria as part of the 1797 Treaty of Campoformio. Every recourse to the oikos, then, will have to make a series of destabilizing detours, following questions of historical circumstance. In fact, Foscolo's description of his national identity above demonstrates a pattern that, as we shall see, typifies his attempts to think the oikos. Although it initially seems to be a recollection of the mother, it moves away from the mother(land), passing from the mother to the nurse, and then from those highly rooted, bodily relations to the first ray of sun, and finally to the verses of Homer and Theocritus. That is, it moves metonymically, not metaphorically.
After Venice passed into Austrian hands, Foscolo was no longer a welcome figure there, and he essentially spent the rest of his life, from 1798 on, in exile. He moved between Milan, Bologna, Pavia, and Florence before leaving first for Switzerland and then England, where he spent the last eleven years of his life--ironically, the longest sojourn of his wandering biography. (11) Aside from a brief period in 1814 when he toyed with the idea of collaborating with the Austrians--the government offered him the direction of a literary journal--Foscolo was not able to return to his "native" city of Venice. Not surprisingly, much of his work reflects this permanent exile, in particular his epistolary novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. (12) His body was buried in the Chiswick village cemetery, but was disinterred and re-buried in Santa Croce in Florence in 1871. (13)
Traveling by Metonymy
In several of the sonnets, Foscolo calls attention to his long exile, notably in "All'amata," "In morte del fratello Giovanni," and especially the 1803 "A Zacinto." (14) This last is generally considered, along with "Alla sera" and "In morte del fratello Giovanni," among Foscolo's best work, and it remains in a highly canonical position today.
A Zacinto Ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque, Zacinto mia, che te specchi nell'onde del greco mar da cui vergine nacque Venere, e fea quelle isole feconde col suo primo sorriso, onde non tacque le tue limpide nubi e le tue fronde l'inclito verso di colui che l'acque canto fatali, ed il diverso esiglio per cui bello di fama e di sventura bacio la sua petrosa Itaca Ulisse. Tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio, o materna mia terra; a noi prescrisse il fato illacrimata sepoltura. To Zacinto: Nor ever more shall I touch the sacred shores where my newborn body lay, my Zacinto, who are reflected in the waves of the Grecian sea from which, virgin, was born Venus, and she made those isles fertile with her first smile, whence spoke of your limpid clouds and your fronds the lofty verse of the one who sang the fatal waters and the diverse exile for which, rich in fame and misfortune, Ulysses kissed his rocky Ithaca. You will have nothing of your son but his song, o my mother earth; for us fate prescribed an unmourned burial.
Bearing in mind Georges Van Den Abbeele's analysis of travel as a kind of supplement to the home, and in particular the question of orientation and destabilization, I would like to look at "A Zacinto" as a travel poem. To begin with, the poem is predicated on absence and distance, on a voyage that has already taken place prior to its composition: Foscolo writes from exile to the island where he was born--the Homeric Zacynthos mentioned in the Odyssey (1: 291; 9: 27; 16: 144, 297; 19: 155)--lamenting the impossibility of ever returning there. However, it would be a mistake to assert that the poem is exclusively about travel in the sense of exile. The poem depicts (at least) two imaginary journeys, not the unstructured wanderings of the exile, but clear itineraries. The first section (lines 1-11) maps out a chain of associations, a metonymic itinerary, leading from the figure of the poet to his presumed alter ego (Ulysses). The second section of the sonnet (lines 12-14) anticipates a different voyage: the poem itself will return to Foscolo's "materna mia terra," since the poet cannot. Although "A Zacinto" initially presents a high degree of stylistic and thematic coherence, seemingly progressing smoothly from origin to destination, it becomes clear that, with the orienting home lost or unreachable, these voyages are profoundly disoriented, their origins mis- or dis-placed and their destinations doubled.
As I said, the poem initially presents a high degree of stylistic and thematic coherence. It is structured by the distinction between grammatical subordination (in the first section) and grammatical coordination (the second section, the final tercet). The first section is remarkably hypotactic, where almost every conjunction is subordinating (ove--where; che--who; da cui--from which; onde--whence; colui che--he who; per cui--for which), so that it progressively moves to deeper and deeper levels of subordination. The awkwardness of the translation is (I hope) a by-product of my attempt to retain this technique in English. The second section has no conjunctions at all. This distinction in grammatical subordination matches exactly the two sentences, as well as a division in content: the first sentence, so hypotactic in form, also forms a metonymic chain of associations, beginning with the implied io of the poet in line 1 ("[io] tocchero"), and leading to his birthplace (Zacinto), which is situated in the Grecian sea, and which recalls the birth of Venus, who made the islands so fertile and lush that even the great poet Homer (the one who sang / the fatal waters) sang of them, and also of Ulysses, "rich in fame and misfortune." The obvious function of this metonymic chain is to connect the first term and the last, Foscolo and Ulysses, two great figures of exile and wandering, in a poem that deliberately plays up Foscolo's Greek credentials. It also indubitably forms a voyage, both temporal and spatial, from the poet's "here and now" to Greek mythical and literary precursors. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a figure of speech better suited to travel than metonymy, which is after all slippage along contiguous physical and/or cognitive spaces.
The second, and much briefer, portion of the poem is devoid of metonymy, and its point seems to be to underscore that, no matter how much metonymic traveling the poet may do in the first part, "tu non altro che il canto avrai": he will never reach Zacinto. At best, it will be the poem itself that makes the journey to the motherland. Although Foscolo cannot reach the motherland, Zacinto, the oikos, still seems capable of orienting and directing a journey. This is pretty smooth sailing on the structural level as well, for the poem presents very neat divisions: hypotaxis, metonymy and the poet's journey in the first section; parataxis, relatively less tropological language, and poem's journey in the second.
A Rough Voyage Toward Origins
Neither trip is as smooth as it sounds, however. A careful diagramming of subordination and coordination in the first section indicates a voyage that mimetically resembles Ulysses's travels in the Odyssey. That is, it proceeds by fits and starts, moving to less subordinated levels (as in line 3, where "my Zacinto" re-surfaces from the previously subordinated "where my newborn body [...]" clause) or making more or less brief stops where it stays at the same level (as in lines 5 and 9, where the conjunctions are coordinating). (15) More crucially, both the first and second sections are marked by enjambment, particularly extensive in the first (across lines 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 7-8, and 8-9). Enjambment is a curious technique: on the one hand, it facilitates the smooth flow of reading, because it demands that the reader not pause at the end of a verse. (16) On the other hand, it disrupts the smooth flow of reading because it frustrates the reader's expectations, and spatially and temporally separates key grammatical and syntactical elements. The disruptive side is especially notable when the enjambment occurs across the boundary separating quatrain from quatrain, or quatrain from tercet (lines 4-5, and again in 8-9). A construction like "[...] da cui vergine nacque / Venere" (4-5), leaves the reader momentarily groping after the "vergine nacque," and tends to break up the metonymic chain being forged.
Another issue that troubles the poem is the question of temporality. At first glance one is apt to say that the poem moves from the present (the poet's here and now) into the past, but consider the first two lines: "Ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde / ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque." In fact, the poem follows a trajectory from the poet's future in some other, unknown space (the "illacrimata sepoltura") to a past that is also remote. It repeats this structure twice, once at the beginning, and again at the end: "tu non altro che il canto avrai [...] a noi prescrisse [...]" (12-13). The poet's temporal and spatial disorientation is remarkable precisely for its utopian (in the etymological sense) nature: only Zacinto is privileged with the present tense. This last point should not surprise us, since Zacinto is obviously intended as the stable origin that should ground and orient the poet's travel. What is perhaps surprising (or would be, outside of an Italian context) is that, with the oikos seemingly so clearly placed and recognized, the poet-traveler is still not localizable within a coherent temporal or spatial matrix.
Most obviously disruptive, however, is the poem's extraordinary first word: Ne. Like the English pair of neither/nor, in Italian the negative conjunction ne comes in pairs. (17) This partner-less ne of the poem's first line leaves the reader either anticipating some future matching ne or imagining an earlier negative clause that would precede the poem's opening. (18) Since there is clearly no later ne, many readers prefer the former possibility, describing the poem as the written continuation of an internal monologue. In other words, the poem inscribes a terminal lack within its own structure, for it is missing either a beginning or an ending.
The poem is clearly an expression of loss and yearning, the poet's desire to return to the land of his birth, a return that would bring with it some kind of solace. Brose has thoroughly analyzed this aspect of the poem in the context of a return to the maternal body. Indeed, the multiple births in the poem--Foscolo, Venus, the lush flora of the Grecian islands made "feconde" by Venus's smile--are quite striking, and the separation from the maternal figure is clearly one of the sources of the poet's sense of loss (Brose, "Back to the Body of the Mother"). (19) The title of the poem, "A Zacinto," is naturally read as a dedication to this unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire, but it just as easily could indicate direction, in this case, the direction of the poet's desire, the direction of his imaginary travel. (20) The poem expresses the desire to return "a Zacinto." And yet, if this is the case, what becomes striking about the poem is that Foscolo moves away from the home: he undertakes an imaginary voyage to his homeland, and arrives there only to begin moving metonymically away by the first quatrain. In fact, keeping in mind the partnerless initial ne, it might be better to say that Foscolo has already arrived by the first line, which is also already a declaration of separation. The movement proceeds by continguity: we begin on the shores (sponde) of Zacinto, move to its reflection in the water (che te specchi), to the waves (onde) and out into the general Grecian sea (Greco mar) before following the entire metonymic chain into an ever more remote mythic and literary past. In fact, we end up on an entirely different island, Ithaca, localized within a purely imaginary matrix. This movement is repeated in the second section, passing from materna mia terra to illacrimata sepoltura, an unmourned burial that will be anywhere but the homeland. The poem's content suggests the yearning to return to the solace of home, while its form suggests that the poet is trying to move away from home as rapidly as possible. This confusion over direction marks the first of several multiple destinations or split itineraries that the poem contains. Let us examine the others.
A Double Voyage And Its Destinations
I noted earlier that the poem establishes a "metonymic itinerary" in the first section, moving from the poet's personal past (ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque) to a mythical one (da cui vergine nacque / Venere), and then on to a literary one (colui che l'acque / canto fatali and Ulisse). This metonymic itinerary seems to satisfactorily answer the question of the first voyage's destination: from the poet to Ulysses. Such an identification through metonymy is not terribly surprising for a Romantic poet, since the figure of Ulysses nicely combines victimism and Titanism, two of the poles between which Romanticism constantly vacillates. Foscolo can thus move from a pathetic masochism in the section's first lines to an identification with one of the greatest heroes of Western literature in its last.
As several readers have already noted, there are convincing reasons to believe that Ulysses is not the section's only destination, despite his structural position at the end of the metonymic voyage; this is another way in which this highly structured poem contests and ruptures its own structure. This first itinerary has multiple destinations, or perhaps simply an end that comes before the end. (Travel, as Van Den Abbeele has noted, is a risky proposition: one of its risks may be a meconnaissance with regard to the journey's proper ending: how many of us might not recognize the real end of our travel?) That destination is, of course, Homer (what Valentini terms the "latent" content of the poem (19)) and not Ulysses, and it is Homer who is the real model for the poetic self being constructed here.
There are a number of reasons to make this identification between the poet and Homer. To begin with, they are linked through their common vocation of poetry, or song: Homer is "he who sang" while the poet reduces himself to pure song in the final tercet: "tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio" ('you will have nothing of your son but his song'). Homer and Foscolo are also the only two subjects not properly named in the poem: Homer is only named through the figure of antonomasia (colui che l'acque / canto fatali) while Foscolo is never named at all. The poet proclaims in the sonnet's final lines that "fate prescribed an unmourned burial for us." If Foscolo is not using the noi to refer just to himself (which is certainly possible), then for whom? Besides the poet, who else is included in this noi? It is surely not the island, nor can it be the poem. Foscolo's whole point is that the poem will manage to return home, since he is certainly not condemning his own poem to oblivion. Does the noi include Ulysses? Well, here is the real reason that poem cannot be (exclusively) linking Foscolo and Ulysses: Ulysses makes it back home. (21)
So the itinerary that the poem traces back into a mythical and literary past leads to Ulysses on the one hand and Homer on the other. Brose (among others) has noted this associative doubling, writing: "Foscolo doubles himself here, becoming both his own protagonist, Ulysses, and his alter-ego's immortalizer, Homer" ("Back to the Body" 177). The uncertainty or splitting of ends is even mimicked and reproduced in the trope that Foscolo uses to describe Ulysses. He is "bello di fama e sventura," rich (literally, beautiful or handsome) in fame and misfortune. This is the figure of speech known as zeugma, in which one term (bello) is linked to two other terms (fama, sventura), but that linkage functions "properly" with only one of them. That is, you can be rich in fame (although this is already figurative language, of course) but you cannot be, properly speaking, rich in misfortune. One destination is proper (bello is linked to fama, Foscolo is linked to Ulysses), or arrived at directly; the other with difficulty (bello to sventura, Foscolo and Homer). This splitting of "proper" and "difficult" destinations is another manifestation of a sharp uncertainty in the poem: we are now faced with an originary lack (the initial ne) and a doubled ending (Ulysses, Homer).
This doubling of endings appears in the poem's second, briefer section (lines 12-14) as well. (22) This section imagines two voyages, rather than a single one, and, as is typical of this much more laconic second section, the journeys are anticipated and not described in detail. On the one hand, this section imagines that the poem may one day arrive "A Zacinto," and, on the other hand, it imagines the poet's own final voyage, leading to the grave. Foscolo has beautifully made use of the image of "touching ground" in this poem: it begins the poem as an impossibility (ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde), appears again as a recollection (ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque), returns as the ultimate image of homecoming (bacio la sua petrosa Itaca Ulisse) and finally in the image of the poet's burial (illacrimata sepoltura). (23) No doubt, part of the function of this imagery is so that Foscolo could ironically contrast Ulysses's homecoming, which takes the erotically charged form of a kiss, to the "illacrimata sepoltura" that awaits the poet. (24)
We might, however, look at the image from the standpoint of travel, where touching ground is a consummate image of orientation: it brings movement and wandering (at least temporarily) to rest, establishes up and down (perhaps especially important in a poem that plays itself out so prominently along the vertical axis of subordination) and, in this poem, repeatedly signifies a return home, whether successful or not. In other words, it establishes an oikos. Foscolo's burial is, on the one hand, an ironic homecoming, although also an opportunity to place himself in a common grave with Homer; and on the other, seen within the economy of travel, it is an exchange. I have suggested that the poem thematizes the mapping out of a route and the motif of the voyage, while at the same time thematizing disorientation: lost origins, multiple destinations, the figure of zeugma. What about this final image of grounding?
Van Den Abbeele conceives of travel as an economy of loss and gain, structured by what is normally an unchallenged point of reference: the home. Within the economy of travel, every grounding, every orientation, is produced by a concomitant wandering. The home can only be constituted retroactively, in its own absence; it can only be conceived from the non-localizable space of travel. Zacinto, as the poem's point of reference, as home, is constituted precisely because Foscolo moves away from it, both biographically (his exile) and poetically (the itinerary that leads from Zacinto to Venus to Homer to Ulysses). This is the economy of the poem's first section. Likewise, to establish a place as a home, as a point of reference, is to already imagine a possible voyage away from it. Foscolo's burial at the poem's end, then, represents a different exchange, a grounding that permits another voyage. What ventures forth at the end of the poem? The poem itself, as we are told in verse 12 (tu non altro che il canto avrai). Foscolo's self-grounding through death (literally putting himself in the ground) allows the free travel of his poetry. And where does "A Zacinto" go? Naturally, it goes a Zacinto. The poem is understood to travel more or less literally to the island.
But there is another way in which this poem might be said to return "a Zacinto": perhaps the poem "A Zacinto" returns to the poem "A Zacinto." I would like to suggest that, as in Timothy Bahti's reading of Leopardi's "L'infinto," this poem's beginning comes after its ending (a literally preposterous reading), forming a kind of loop of poetic language (42-56). The sonnet's initial ne demands either a preceding ne, or a previous negative clause--and there is indeed a negative clause available, although it comes at the poem's end. We might read the poem's ending thusly: "Tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio, / o materna mia terra [...] / ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde [...]." Under this reading, the poem (the real Ulysses in this scene of travel) is freed through the poet's grounding (illacrimata sepoltura) to return to its proper home: poetic language itself. The poem goes back "A Zacinto." As Antonino Musumeci has pointed out: "Foscolo, unlike Manzoni, does not possess the certainty of a gratuitous promise of happiness; but he does have the boundless Romantic faith in poetic discourse. And so he makes poetry his exile, and his muse of the resultant despair" (75). (25) So again, in the poem's final section, the destinations of travel are doubled: on the one hand, a return to the island, and, on the other, a return to poetic language. Looking back at Foscolo's letter to Bartholdy ("quantunque italiano d'educazione e d'origine [...]"), one can see that same doubled movement, a simultaneous recollection of the motherland that is also a digression that ends with Homer and Theocritus.
Lastly, to turn to the question of points of origin, there is still something odd about the final grounding that mobilizes Foscolo's poem: something odd, however, only if one fails to consider Italy's unique situation or more precisely, lack of situation, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Zacinto is a proper place, with a proper name--a space that could genuinely be used to orient one's travels, despite the attendant difficulties of national identity and toponymy. The same could not be said for the non-place of Foscolo's imagined burial. Within the standard economy of travel described by Van Den Abbeele, home and travel are terms that reciprocally constitute and sustain each other, albeit, as Van Den Abbeele shows, in the risky and unstable way that is typical of the Derridean supplement. The lack of "place" that grounds this poem's ending/beginning, however, implies a more radical disorientation. Foscolo's imagined illacrimata sepoltura is, unlike Zacinto, not anywhere. It is a grounding, a place of permanent rest, but one that cannot be properly used to orient any travel, including the voyage that the poem makes back to Zacinto.
To address the question of national identity, what space does the Italian poet of Foscolo's age write from, or, to phrase the question in terms of travel, where is he coming from? Italy--like Foscolo's future imagined grave--as such was nowhere, and so Foscolo writes from a place that might best be described as "somewhere else," at some indefinable time (the future tense--tu non altro che il canto avrai--is also used in Italian to express possibility). This unidentified space is the oikos of the poem, the utopian space that both grounds and un-grounds it, that orients its metonymic itinerary and disrupts and disorients our travel and our thinking about the places we travel to at the same time. Writing from the "somewhere else" of Italy, of an Italian identity always fraught with detours, provokes for Foscolo an imagined journey without a clear destination or point of departure, an endless slippage perhaps more akin to metonymy than to the simple substitution of metaphor. To return to Van Den Abbeele's analysis of the economy of travel, Foscolo's poetic journey in "A Zacinto" seems like an ideal example of "unbounded travel" and the destabilization of the primacy of the oikos, now a place that cannot be clearly located. In his discussion of lyrical endings, Timothy Bahti relates Duchamp's "utopian endings" to lyric poetry thus: "[...] my understanding of the ends of the lyric in some of poetry's most interesting and powerful instances is that they are utopian not in that they do not occur--for they do--but in that they direct us to a place of language and thought the promised consequences of which are still, and always, and rightly elsewhere" (15).
The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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Brose, Margaret. "Back to the Body of the Mother: Foscolo's 'A Zacinto.'" Italica 74:2 (1997): 164-84.
--. "The Politics of Mourning in Foscolo's Dei sepolcri." European Romantic Review 9:1 (1998): 1-34.
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Cambon, Glauco. Ugo Foscolo: Poet of Exile. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
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--. Opere. Ed. Franco Gavanezzi. Milano: Ricciardi, 1974.
--. Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. Milano: Mondadori, 1986.
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Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Valentini, Alvaro. Le ragioni espressive: schede e proposte su Foscolo, Manzoni, Pirandello, Montale. Roma: Bulzoni, 1972.
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(1) A number of readers--Timothy Bahti, Margaret Brose, Antonino Musumeci, and Barbara Spackman--have read and helped improve this article, and I would like to thank them here.
(2) The literature on this subject is certainly vast, but see, for example, Pratt and Greenblatt who treat the question of travel as both fostering and challenging pre-existing taxonomies and cognitive schemes.
(3) Cachey is also attempting to explain why "travel literature" has been marginalized or resisted by Italian literary criticism.
(4) For Foscolo, see Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis 6. For Leopardi, "All'Italia." This figure of the prostituted motherland should not be taken purely figuratively in the 19th century, since the Grand Tour in Italy was often used (at least by the English) for a kind of sexual education. This was evidently especially true in Venice, Foscolo's (putative) native city, which Kirby calls the "Mecca of men of pleasure" at the time (61). Brose, in her article on Dei seoplcri, makes a detailed and persuasive case that, at least in that poem, Foscolo's gendering of the Italian body politic is considerably more nuanced: mourning and memory (and to some degree, poetry) are gendered female. It is also worth noting that this figure--the motherland as prostitute, possessed by foreign powers--goes back considerably farther than the 19th century in Italian letters.
(5) See, for instance, Lakoff and Johnson for some discussion of the importance of spatial/orientational metaphors.
(6) As to the possibility of arriving or not arriving at one's destination, see the essays by Lacan, Derrida, and Johnson in Muller and Richardson. Zizek has a "New Lacanian" take on the subject (1-28).
(7) Cachey also writes that "Italian literature has from its founding 'exiles,' Dante and Petrarch, established itself as a tradition seeking to overcome its lack of original place, either to depart from, or to which return" (56).
(8) Foscolo's letter to J. Bartholdy (Sept. 29, 1808), Opere 1:2010 (emph. in the original).
(9) Foscolo thinks even the name of the father through Greek, offering the specious etymology of fos (light) + kolos (bile) (dell'Aquila 145).
(10) In fact, Foscolo's comments are a virtual mise-en-scene of the Freudian fetish. The boy glances at his castrated mother, fears for his own identity and integrity, and his gaze and attachment drift instead to what is nearby: shoes, feet, undergarments. In others words, recognizing the historically troubled, mediated relationship to the oikos is yet another form of recognizing one's troubled, mediated relationship to the phallus, and Foscolo, given his particular historical circumstance, is avoiding not only the mother's castration, but the father's symbolic castration as well. And intriguingly, Foscolo's fetish compensating for the lack of a clear oikos seems to be literature itself, since poetry is persistently where his gaze comes to rest (Freud 217).
(11) Foscolo also spent several years (1784-1787) in Spalato, a city of what was at the time Dalmatia (now Croatia).
(12) See Costa's significant essay on the trope of the journey in Foscolo.
(13) For a more complete overview of Foscolo's works, see Cambon, or (in briefer form) Brose, "Back to the Body of the Mother: Foscolo's 'A Zacinto.'" Flamigni and Mangaroni's volume is a complete biography.
(14) Most of the sonnets were written in 1800-1803, during Foscolo's first stay in Milan.
(15) Brose, following Cambon, notes that "the eleven verses actually perform the arduous journey of the wanderer-exile, Foscolo-Ulysses" ("Back to the Body of the Mother" 179).
(16) Numerous readers (Valentini, Brose, Cambon) have isolated "liquid" as a dominant or the dominant register of the poem, and there is a general recognition that Foscolo uses the long, flowing clause of the first section to mime important lexical elements (such as onde, greco mar, l'acque). Cambon, for example, describes the "one breathless sentence, in wave after wave of subordinate clauses," puns on the "Foscolian wave-length," and describes the cascade of subordinating clauses as water flowing downward across successive rock ledges (143-44).
(17) As in English, one will also see single ne after a preceding negative clause, as in: non so se lei e partita, ne se partira (I don't know if she has left, nor if she will leave).
(18) Foscolo may also have been imitating the Latin ne [...] umquam construction here (ne piu mai): Italian Romanticism was, generally speaking, a pretty neo-classicist Romanticism, as was especially true in Foscolo's case. In Italian, however, the construction is a novelty, and sounds odd and incomplete even to the classically educated reader. For example, the Ricciardi edition of Foscolo's works cites De Robertis: "Pare che il poeta, cominciando, continui un discorso fatto tra se e se, e dia sfogo a una commozione gia piena" ('It seems that the poet, in beginning, continues a conversation within himself, and releases an already full agitation'). Franco Gavazzeni, the editor of the Ricciardi edition of Foscolo's Opere, cites a half-dozen "precedenti" for the initial ne in Petrarch, Bembo and Costanzo, all of which are followed by a subsequent ne (235n1). The Zanichelli Vocabolario della lingua italiana allows that the conjunction may be used alone with a "funzione negativa," but cites only one example: "Ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde [...]." I believe the construction may be unique, at least up until 1803. Brose reads the ne as a pointer to the subliminal or unconscious (the "already full agitation"), and notes Foscolo's "uncanny ability to project his voice from uncanny places: from the tomb [...] and from the womb" ("Back to the Body of the Mother" 180).
(19) The poem, Brose writes, "provides an especially eloquent example of how the poet writes his way back to the womb" (175) via, of course, the minor detour of his own grave. Cambon nicely points out a re-duplication of the multiple births at the phonetic level, "whereby 'Venere' projects 'fea' and 'fea' generates 'feconde'" (147). Insofar as the oikos represents the feminine and the domestic, the origin that can only be recognized after separation, it may be that every return is on some level a return to the mother's body, and every voyage a separation from it.
(20) The titles of the sonnets are not Foscolo's (with the exception of "Per la sentenza capitale"), but originated with Orlandini. For purposes of biography or psychobiography, interpreting a title that was not originally Foscolo's might be a problem for establishing his intention to write a travel poem (or at least his intention to have the title reflect such an intention). I am not, however, interested in establishing intent.
(21) The Odyssey is explicit on this point: Tiresias prophesied that Ulysses would die "when you are wearied out with rich old age, / your country folk in blessed peace around you" (11: 150-151). Ulysses's death will take place after Odysseus's final journey, according to the seer. It seems unlikely that Foscolo, so proud of his Greek origins and translating (or mistranslating) the Iliad, would take Dante's addition to the story in Inferno 26 as gospel.
(22) For that matter, even the journey of Foscolo's body after death repeats this doubling, with its double burial, first in England, then in Italy.
(23) This is evidently a reference to an ancient Greek custom of laying a newborn on the ground to consecrate him or her to Mother Nature (either Opi or Venus) (Foscolo, Le poesie 35n2). This is an ironic inversion of Foscolo's burial: the round trip journey that underlies our most common thinking about travel (and has a domesticating and limiting effect on the possibilities afforded by travel) will not be possible. As Valentini, among others, notes, the verb used, giacere (to lie), is typically used on tombstones, as in English: Qui giace... (here lies...). Foscolo further emphasizes this irony by rhyming giacque with nacque in verse 4. (Valentini 18; 31).
(24) This image seems to be part and parcel of what Brose has called Foscolo's "thanatoeroticism"--"an attempt to return to a pre-oedipal fusion with the mother by means of self-annihilation"--which she sees as generally characterizing Foscolo's sonnets. ("The Politics of Mourning" 2-3). The entanglement of eros and thanatos is characteristic of Romanticism, emerging most clearly in the late 19th century with scapigliatura in novels like Tarchetti's Fosca or poets like Camerana.
(25) Exile, as many critics have noted, forms an essential base for Foscolo's writing. Exile appears as an essential predicate for the scene of writing in sonnets like "A Zacinto" or "In morte del fratello Giovanni," and as an essential predicate for the protagonist in Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. Foscolo's exile informs (albeit more subtly) all of Dei sepolcri, both as a regret (he, too, will be one of those with an "illacrimata sepoltura"), and as a hope for fame that might transcend the grave. Cambon points out, a propos of Foscolo's translation of Sterne's Sentimental Journey, that Foscolo refers to Didimo Chierico (his alter ego and fictional translator) as "uomo senza patria" (14-15) and also marks exile as the precondition of Le Grazie (17). Exile even appears as an essential topos in some of Foscolo's more obscure pieces such as "All'oceano" (which again begins in Greece and moves to a consideration of the grave), or in the English poem "To Callirhoe."
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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