Books: Cultural Amnesia — Gianfranco Contini |
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Gianfranco Contini (1912–1990) was the most formidable Italian philologist of his time. As a scholar of Dante and Petrarch he was crucial to the modern Italian tradition of studying the literary heritage on a rigorous textual basis. But he was also intimately involved with contemporary creativity, as a friend and sounding board to such poets as Eugenio Montale and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (His little collection of articles on Montale, Una lunga fedeltà, A Long Faithfulness, is a classic of the genre.) Vast in his learning and uniquely compressed in his prose style, Contini, even for the Italians, has a reputation as a scrittore difficile (difficult writer), and to translate his major critical articles into English would be a task for heroes. But beginners with Italian will gratefully discover that when giving an interview he could talk with clarity and point on cultural topics, some of them with wide resonance outside his own country. Regarded as a collaborative venture, the literary interview has a long and distinguished tradition in Italy. Contini collaborated with one of his pupils, Ludovica Ripa di Meana, to produce an outstanding example of the form, with a disquisition on education that has general relevance for all countries now suffering from the effects of having reduced the demands on memory.

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Unfortunately, the custom of learning by heart has disappeared in the schools, and as a consequence the very use of memory has gone with it. Nobody knows how to read verse. My best students, notably gifted philologists, can’t recognize by ear whether a line is hendecasyllabic or not: they have to count on their fingers.


CONTINI WAS NEAR the end of his long, fruitful life when he did this book-length interview, which can be recommended for beginners with Italian as a fast track into the national discussion of the humanities. Just as, in the case of Argentina, interviews with Borges and Sabato—and sometimes they had interviews with each other—bring you straight to the top level of the subject, so, in the case of Italy, the dialogue with a protagonist is apt to save you from the perils of over-compression that come with his written prose. This latter advantage is especially important in the case of Contini, whose prose could be so compact that even his best students had trouble picking it apart. In Florence in the mid-sixties, a standard spectacle at the university was a football huddle of his students over their lecture notes after a silently frantic hour of listening to him whisper. Most of the students were female. A few of his best pupils were male but it took an especially daunting breed of woman—we used to call them the continiane—to summon the required pertinacity.

Ludovica Ripa di Meana is a classic continiana. When she interviewed her erstwhile teacher in 1989, Contini was in his frail seniority, but his mind was still working at full speed. Her registration of the old man’s delivery is a scrupulous job, made easier, perhaps, by the fact that he wasn’t speaking formally in the lecture hall, but conducting a seemingly ordinary conversation. There aren’t very many ordinary conversations, however, that have so much to say about the humanities as this one; and on this particular point, about memory, he goes right to the heart of the topic. If you think of the humanities as an activity in which the mode of appreciation and the means of transmission are versions of one another, there could hardly be a more pertinent complaint than this: he was looking the death of his beloved subject right in the face.

There is an untranslatable Italian word for the mental bank account you acquire by memorizing poetry: it is a gazofilacio. Contini believed that an accumulation of such treasure would eventually prove its worth even if it had to begin with sweated labour. He confessed that not all of the teachers who had made him memorize a regular ration of Tasso’s epic poetry had been inspired. Some of them had held him to the allotted task because they lacked imagination, not because they possessed it. But in the long run he was grateful. Most readers of this book will spot the sensitive point about modern pedagogy. Readers my age were made to memorize and recite: their yawns of boredom were discounted. Younger readers have been spared such indignities. Who was lucky? Isn’t a form of teaching that avoids all prescription really a form of therapy? In a course called Classical Studies taught by teachers who possess scarcely a word of Latin or Greek, suffering is avoided, but isn’t it true that nothing is gained except the absence of suffering? In his best novel, White Noise, Don DeLillo made a running joke out of a professor of German history who could not read German. But the time has already arrived when such a joke does not register as funny. What have we gained, except a classroom in which no one need feel excluded?

The questions are loaded. Few of us enjoy the thought that the younger generation has escaped our miseries, and I suppose it was a misery when one of my first teachers, a stalwart of the then pitiless Australian school system, made me stand up to recite “I come from haunts of coot and hern.” Thus I paid the penalty for having memorized the first stanza more quickly than the rest of the class. More than half a century later I still know the line that comes next (“I make a sudden sally”) and the one that clinches the stanza (“I bicker down a valley”). The third line has turned into a bit of an um-um canter, like Nigel Molesworth’s approximate rendition of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in Geoffrey Willans’s Down with Skool!, a classic spoof that depends for its effectiveness on at least an indirect memory, if not a direct one, of the old teaching methods of the British private school. Though Molesworth never got anything right, he knew he was supposed to try. (“Harfleag, harfleag, harfleag onward. All in the Valley of Death rode the er.”) But there are still poems, drilled into me in the classroom, that I can recite in chunks. If I get myself started on “I love a sunburnt country,” sooner or later I will get to the rugged mountain ranges, the droughts and flooding rains. I will not always get to the name of the poet. In my uncaring recollection, Henry Kendall, Dorothea McKellar and many other Australian poets all shared the one elasticized identity until they were superseded by Shakespeare. But hundreds of their lines got into my head, and with them came the measures of English verse, the most common rhythmic structure being the iambic pentameter. (In Italian, the equivalent is the eleven-syllable line, which is why Contini picks it out.) Even before my first celebrated classroom appearance as a Lady Macbeth shrilly demanding that her milk be taken for gall, I had the shape, weight and length of the iambic pentameter in my mind, as a sort of sonic template. A long time later, in Cambridge, I abruptly realized what a blessing this early inculcation had been. In the practical criticism classes, the American-affiliated students were incomparably better informed than the locals—incomparably more intelligent all round, to put it bluntly—but the one thing the Americans could not do to save their lives was recite the verse in front of them. Whether it was by Donne, Herbert, Fulke Greville, Lovelace, Marvell or Dryden, it came out like a newsflash being read sight unseen by Dan Rather. They had no feeling for a line of iambic pentameter whatever. On their being quizzed about this, it transpired that they had never been required to remember one.

In Italy at any one time there is always someone who can recite the whole of The Divine Comedy by heart. Usually he is of humble clerical occupation: if the man at the post office who goes off to get your parcel fails to come back, that might be what he is doing. Contini wasn’t impressed by that kind of feat, the mental equivalent of lifting a grand piano with the teeth. Contini said that where memorizing Dante was concerned, the important thing wasn’t to release a torrent at the touch of a button, but to have the poem in your head as an infinite source of ready reference for the events of every day. It was true for him and he valued the same capacity in others. He was a quiet man and it was hard to make him laugh aloud, but his delighted smile was a rich reward for a Dante reference appositely supplied.

One night in Florence in the early eighties, my wife and I accompanied Contini to the opera. He was already pretty frail by then and you got the sense that he was choosing his remaining nights out for their concentration of the qualities: nothing was being left to chance. He had certainly judged well that night. The opera was Adriana Lecouvreur, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. For Contini as for his friend Eugenio Montale, Gavazzeni was the ideal maestro. After the performance it was raining so heavily that Contini accepted a lift home, with my wife at the wheel of our worn-out Mini. He was in the front passenger seat and I was folded in the back. They talked scholarly stuff. As a continiana of impeccable credentials, my wife was well qualified for the colloquy, but she was no better than anyone else at driving blind. The rain was so heavy that we ended up going the wrong way. I remembered, and recited, a tag from Dante: Ché la diritta via era smarrita. Because the right way had been lost. Contini smiled from ear to ear, and when I added my regrets that I hadn’t written the line myself, he laughed aloud. My timing hadn’t been that good, but the pedagogue had been pleased to the depths of his soul. This was what he had been in business to do all his life: spread the word about culture across cultures. And one of his aesthetic beliefs, acquired as an inheritance from Croce, was that Dante had been in business to do the same. It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory, and it had happened right there beside the Arno, in the dying echo of the music.

Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade. Nowadays very few people can quote from the Greek or would think to impress anyone if they could, and even quoting from the Latin—still a universal recognition system in the learned world when I was young—is now discouraged. Quoting from the standard European languages is still permissible at a suitably polyglot dinner table: I was once at a dinner in Hampstead with Josef Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines. If the audience (they had started off as our dinner companions, but had grown resigned to being an audience) had been mainly monoglot, the performance would have been less forgivable. But even if all present understand only English—even if the day comes when the whole world understands only English—memorized poetry would still be the surest way of signalling a love of language.

The proof that the English critic Frank Kermode and the Australian poet Peter Porter inhabit the same mental world—the same civilized tradition and the same literature—is in the treasure chamber of memorized poetry that each carries with him, in the number of valuable items that each gazofilacio holds in common with the other. Either of them could supply the next line to any poem by Auden or Empson or Wallace Stevens that the other quoted. It is on the basis of such universally shared memories that a generation builds its range of allusion. One of the most conspicuous differences between the British and American literary worlds is that the American periodical editors discourage the assumption of a range of allusion shared by the readership, even when they themselves—the editors—do share it. The American editors are not necessarily wrong to have their eye on democracy. There is such a thing as putting the frame of reference at a height where preciousness drives out plain sense. Before World War II, learning poetry by heart was a requirement in American schools. Steadily, between 1945 and 1960, that requirement vanished from the culture, as far as the common run of pupils was concerned. But the uncommon run, those interested in literature, remained; and on the whole it is surely better if writers and editors can trust the reader to be as well informed as they are. In English, a general familiarity with the poetic heritage ought not to be too much to assume. After all, no language in the world is as richly blessed.

It certainly ought not to be too much to assume among poets. But sometimes you wonder. The only thing I have to say against most modern poetry is that so much of it avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose. Decent prose has a rhythmic pulse which, if it comes in the first instance as a gift, must be schooled to attain reliability, and there is no way to school it except to take in the rhythmic resources of the language as they have already been discovered by the poets over the course of centuries. By reading and memorizing their predecessors, the poets are set free from the standardized contemporary patterns in which meaning is bonded to syntactic forms. They might not even especially remember what someone once said. What they remember is the pace and lilt of how he said it: what they retain is more likely to be a rhythmic measure than a paraphrasable expression. In this manner, a poet studies his own language as if it were a foreign one. Eliot found out a lot from Donne because Donne was more foreign to him than Shakespeare: the lines and phrases went in directions he did not expect and could not predict. When Eliot said that good poetry in a foreign language could communicate before it was understood, he probably meant, or meant at least partly, that the movement in the lines of the French poets after Victor Hugo was opening up new patterns to him in his own language. (Dr. Leavis, through being reasonable for once, thoroughly misunderstood Eliot’s seeming preference for Dante over Shakespeare, and said that Eliot had underestimated what Shakespeare had to offer him. Eliot would have agreed that Shakespeare had a lot to offer, but might have said that only a foreign writer can offer you a lesson in how your own language is put together at a deep level.)

Reading Shelley, you can see that in the last of his few allotted years he had saturated his rhythmic sense with the forms of Dante and Petrarch. He doesn’t echo their meanings: he echoes their structures. Similarly, Racine absorbed the structures of Latin poetry; and it is a nice question whether he is closer to Catullus, some of whose lines he mirrors property for property, than to Virgil, whom he does not materially transpose so much as imitate in his pulse and balance. These sonic templates, as they might be called, are transferable through time even when an instigator is unknown to a beneficiary. Dante gets effects from Virgil that Virgil got from Homer, but if we didn’t know that Virgil had come in between, we would have to swear that Dante knew the Homeric poems intimately, whereas he couldn’t, in fact, read them. It is doubtful whether poets, in order to know each other at this level, need to set out to memorize poems. The memorizing comes automatically with the intensity of engagement. And so, ideally, it ought to do with all of us. We memorize something because we can’t help it, and the thing we memorize was written with that result in mind. Poetry is written the way it is in order to be remembered.

It can’t always be remembered precisely, which is still the best reason for writing it down. Robert Robinson, one of the last of the over-qualified presenters to grace BBC television in its best years, once contributed to a BBC2 TV programme about Auden (those were the days) with a recital of “The Fall of Rome.” Reviewing the programme, I could tell that Robinson had recited the poem from memory. In the most beautiful stanza of one of the most beautiful poems in modern literature, the stanza about the reindeer that, “altogether elsewhere,” move across the golden moss, Robinson said “run” instead of “move.” The misquotation illustrated our common habit of literalism, which will often, in the memory, substitute a concretely specific word just when the poet wants to be abstractly vague. (Auden himself worked against the tendency when a misprint in proof gave him “the ports,” instead of “the poets,” having “names for the sea.” He found the mistake more interesting, and let it stand.) It seems a fair guess that the capacity to remember always entails a certain amount of adaptation to set mental patterns. Robinson had made his error out of a trick played by familiarity. I twitted him about it in my column, and when we next met he told me that he had at first not believed that he could have made a mistake about something he knew so well, but that he had looked it up and been mortified to find out that he had got it wrong. The excellence of his memory had caught him out.

Leaving aside the occasional freak cursed with total recall, a good memory is in the possession of a personality, not of a machine, and personalities impose their own perceptions, altering their recollection of even the most cherished things in order to fit inner critieria. Italo Calvino traces the process enchantingly in his book Why Read the Classics? Impeccably translated by Martin McLaughlin, Why Read the Classics? is not only the best single book for approaching Calvino, but might well be the best single book for approaching the whole idea of reading for pleasure at a high level. One could praise the book’s virtues for pages on end, but perhaps the best way to demonstrate them would be to single out the first of its two essays on Eugenio Montale. In that essay, Calvino shows why, as a student, he found Montale’s poetry impossible not to memorize—and also shows why it was hard to memorize accurately. The reader’s mind has its expectations, which the poet will play upon in order to defeat. Somewhere in that interplay of expectation and contrary strategy is the reason that scholarship had to evolve the principle of lectio difficilior—the idea that in any crux, the more difficult reading is likelier to be the true one. Calvino’s reminiscences about the workings of his own memory—remember that I have remembered—have many implications, but the one we need to make explicit here, for the benefit of our children if not ourselves, is that the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart. Far from democratizing poetry, there can be no surer way of reducing it to the plaything of an elite than to write it and read it as if it made no claim to be remembered. A man like Gianfranco Contini studied poetry at the very highest level, but could do so because of his ear for its primal movement: for him, the subtle heartbeat in the eleven-syllable line was like the movement of the music I once watched him listening to in the opera house in Florence. He knew what was coming next—he had known that music all his life—but you could tell by the tiny noddings and shiftings of his head and shoulders that he was hearing it afresh. If he had not, it would not have been art, which would have a hard time surprising us if it did not first give us something easy to remember.

The departure point for inspiration is the obstacle.

This idea, variously expressed, comes up in almost every article Contini wrote about Dante. The emphasis is on a principle: that lyricism, for Dante, was the opposite of an indulgence. Though the principle is especially true of The Divine Comedy, Contini isn’t just saying that for Dante the terza rima was a necessary discipline. Contini means that for Dante the whole business of writing poetry was a discipline. In Italian a rhyme scheme, even a constantly demanding one like the terza, is no great challenge, because Italian is so rich in rhymes. An English poet who tries to write even a short stretch of terza rima in his own language will soon find out how poor in rhymes it is: even Louis MacNeice, an awesomely competent verse technician, was driven to the half rhyme in his long terza rima composition Autumn Sequel. His results were distressingly approximate. He would have done better to stick with the flexible forms, firmly based on classical measures, that he developed for his earlier work Autumn Journal, but perhaps they were too demanding to be repeated. Autumn Journal, which he wrote in the year following the Munich crisis, is the best thing of its kind in the twentieth century, and one of the reasons for its supremacy is the confidence of its interior movement, which depends entirely on a seemingly free choice of rhythms being held together overall by a classically trained sense of form. No discursive poetry has ever seemed more liberated, or been less loose. The whole poem, in all its richness of incident and observation, fully conforms to Eliot’s proviso that no verse is entirely free to someone who wants to do a good job.

In saying that, Eliot could have been answering Robert Frost, who said that poets who wrote free verse without rhyme were playing tennis without a net. Philistines understandably elevated Frost’s aphorism to the status of unarguable truth. (An aphorism is never that: unless there was a genuine collision of views, nobody would be moved to a calculated terseness.) Not only by redneck editors but by desperate academics self-assigned to hold the fort against modernism, Frost was thought to have pinpointed the line of division between discipline and anarchy. But the division is purely notional. There have been poets who wrote in strict rhymes and yet were slack in all departments—from the Victorian through into the Georgian era, the dullest poetry was remarkable only for its technical proficiency—and there have been poets who, without rhyming at all, achieve an alert tension in every line and an unfailing sense of coherence in the strophe. As Philip Larkin fondly recorded in his introduction to The North Ship, Vernon Watkins once said that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line. He thus left the way open for the possibility that lines might not rhyme at their ends at all, yet be so calculated, in all their parts, as to contribute to a form, or at least not detract from it.

Montale spoke several times about the salutary effects of avoiding rhyme—not just the easy rhymes into which Italian always tends to slip, but any kind of end-rhyme at all. In the mainstream of his lyric poetry it is quite hard to find even internal rhymes longer than a syllable: he goes always for the hard sonorities. Mallarmé recommended the same in French: “Il faut rimer difficilement.” Mallarmé, like Montale later, was out to provide something grittier than the too-smooth heritage of established tricks. Poets today should have the same determination. But it’s an emphasis, not a rule: the much despised “moon” and “June” can rhyme successfully as long as, in each case, the line leading up to the last word is sufficiently intense. The most difficult way to rhyme is not to rhyme at all, and yet maintain coherence. The hard part of doing that is to square unrelenting vigilance with the free play of the mind that will let a new idea break through to the surface. (Strict rhymes force new ideas to the surface, as depth charges do to a submarine.) Established rhyme schemes leave more room to relax, which is probably why they are best for comic verse. But Dante didn’t choose the terza rima in order to set himself a simple technical requirement so that he could relax when not fulfilling it. He made every passage of verse a technical requirement throughout; made it evident that he was doing so; and made part of his poetry from making it evident. As Contini says (Varianti, p. 320), a constant of Dante’s literary personality is continually to make technical reflections on poetry. The technical reflections amount to an ordering of natural wealth. Contini calls Dante’s verbal talent “lexical magnanimity” (Varianti, p. 322). When I was young, the department in the Reader’s Digest called “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” caught my restless attention. While still in very short pants I learned a lot from that department, and still can’t see much wrong with the term “word power”; but “lexical magnanimity” is better because it gets the generosity in.

Generosity, however, can be gush when uncalled for. Even in Dante’s time, Italian ran easily to gush. Dante pretty well invented the Italian language we read and hear today. The ideal version of the Italian language, say the Italians, is Florentine Italian spoken by someone from Siena. The Sienese are less likely to murder the “c” sound by aspirating it. But the language they speak with such melody is the one invented by Dante and his friends in or near Florence. Even then, though, it could be a torrent like the Arno in flood, and especially when aspiring to the lyrical. As Contini explains, Dante saw how part of the task would be to keep his lirismo in check rather than to let it rip. Much later on and in another country, we find that Laforgue liked the same thing about Tristan Corbière, who was a wild man, but used common speech—sometimes very common, from the gutter or the brothel—to chasten the worn-out lyrical effects that not even Victor Hugo was able to render obsolete all by himself. Poeticized poetry will always crop up again of its own accord; you can tell it is a weed because it looks too obviously like a flower, and grows again during the night. Ernst Robert Curtius (in his book of collected essays, Gesammelte Aufsätze, p. 312) borrowed Laforgue’s idea to praise the prosaic stretches in Eliot’s East Coker, the poetry that was not like poetry. In our time, the greatest exponent of deliberately prosaic poetic diction was Philip Larkin. Recently in Melbourne, when I was trying to tempt a young admirer of Larkin’s poetry to begin learning enough Italian to make a start with Dante, I told her that the dialogue in the Paola and Francesca scene in Canto V of the Inferno sounds as natural as Larkin’s narrative tone in “Dockery and Son,” and that when Dante stands back to deliver a clinching moral, the sonorities are just like Larkin’s: magisterial because unaffected, the same language intensified without being notably heightened—a dignified squaring of the shoulders rather than a climbing onto stilts. With so finely calibrated a control of tone, Larkin could have written verse forever without rhyming even once. It is very interesting that he usually chose otherwise, and rhymed solidly throughout the poem. The big, matched stanzas of his showpiece poems like those in The Whitsun Weddings are, without striving to prove it, technically challenging beyond anything attempted by the Thomas Hardy he so much loved. Larkin got them, in fact, from Yeats: another self-disciplinarian on the grand scale. In some of Larkin’s later poems, he will take the ottava rima stanza and deliberately make the rhymes approximate, but the structure is still strictly present behind the altered façade. Compare Larkin’s “Church-Going” with Yeats’s “Among School Children” and look for the contrast. There isn’t one.