Lines of separation

This being August, I have been on leave. I have neither checked my email, nor been assailed by system updates, feature changes or licensing deals that I neither desire nor have requested. Instead, between extended bouts of home improvement, I’ve spent time reading and reflecting. This, as a result, is a predominantly philosophical post, focused on disruption generally rather than on the specifically digital form of it.

War is perhaps the most extreme form of disruption. To survive one cannot afford to make mistakes: destruction must be clinically efficient, prone to the minimum of human error. Technology holds the perennial (illusory) promise of achieving this and science is roped in to seek ever more technologically sophisticated and mechanically reliable ways to kill rather than be killed.

Disruption can also take other, more intimate, personal forms. Every now and then a thought, an idea, a sound, image or aroma stops me in my tracks. The sudden menace of an unexpected musical interval, the deformed beauty of a ballerina’s plié, the nostalgia of a long-forgotten perfume.

The text below provoked a response of this kind in me. I had been contemplating the absurdity of the east/west division of post-war Germany, a subject brought peremptorily to my attention by Alexander Dierbach’s excellent German television drama series entitled Tannbach – Schicksal eines Dorfes. The series has a surreal, nightmarish air. It narrates the crude and indiscriminate enforcement of communist and capitalist ideologies on the traumatised, exhausted inhabitants of a provincial German town split in two by the Iron Curtain. Amid the fratricidal mayhem, however, one is struck by the indomitable biological and spiritual exigencies of the human spirit – the immutable, ultimately unifying truths of life.

Then I came across Renato Serra’s fleeting and enigmatic essay Esame di coscienza di un letterato1, published in 1915, on the role of literature in time of war. It captured extraordinarily well the dilemma of artistic endeavour during violent conflict. Is it futile, even treacherous, desperately to preserve and cultivate literary ideals when duty calls for action and personal sacrifice? Or should we rest easy that literature (indeed all art) is so fundamental to the human spirit that it will emerge from any man-made conflagration completely unscathed?

I have my own response but will leave the reader to decide theirs. Whatever view we take, this is an eternally relevant question and one to which we should frequently return if we wish to remain true to ourselves as conscious, sentient beings.

La guerra non mi riguarda. La guerra che altri fanno, la guerra che avremmo potuto fare…

Wars are not my concern, other people’s wars, wars we could have fought…

È una così vecchia lezione! La guerra è un fatto, come tanti altri in questo mondo; è enorme, ma è quello solo; accanto agli altri, che sono stati e che saranno: non vi aggiunge; non vi toglie nulla.

Non cambia nulla, assolutamente, nel mondo. Neanche la letteratura. Voglio nominare anche questa, appunto perché è la cosa che personalmente mi tocca meno, forse; in margine della mia vita, come un’amicizia di occasione; verso la quale ho meno diritto di essere ingiusto.

When will we learn? War is a fact of life, like any other, past or future; a hugely important one but nothing more: it neither adds nor takes anything away. Absolutely nothing in the world is changed by it, not even literature. I make special mention of literature as something that has been in the margins of my life, like a casual acquaintance whom I have no right to malign.

E poi non devo scordarmi di avere avuto qualche cosa di comune – mi sarei rivoltato, se me l’avessero detto; ma era vero egualmente – con tutta quella brava gente, piena di serietà; da tanto tempo va gridando che è ora di finirla, con queste futilità e pettegolezzi letterari, anzi, è finita; finalmente! passata la stagione della stravaganza e della decadenza, formato l’animo a cure più gravi e entusiasmi più sani, attendiamo in silenzio l’aurora di una letteratura nuova, eroica, grande, degna del dramma storico, attraverso cui si ritempra, per virtù di sangue e di sacrifici, l’umanità.

Nor must I forget that, though I may have denied it, it is true that I have had a certain amount in common with all the good and high-minded people who exclaim that it is time to stop all the futile literary gossip; that the era of decadence and extravagance is finally over, and that, with our souls purged by sterner cures and our wills strengthened by worthier passions, we must await the dawn of a new literary era, grand, heroic, worthy of the historic drama of war, through which, by bloodshed and sacrifice, humanity will have been reinvigorated.

Ripetiamo dunque, con tutta la semplicità possibile. La letteratura non cambia. Potrà avere qualche interruzione, qualche pausa, nell’ordine temporale: ma come conquista spirituale, come esigenza e coscienza intima, essa resta al punto a cui l’aveva condotta il lavoro delle ultime generazioni; e, qualunque parte ne sopravviva, di lì soltanto riprenderà, continuerà di lì.

Let me therefore reiterate, in the simplest possible terms, that literature is not changed by war. It may be interrupted, caused to be put on temporal hold: but as a spiritual conquest, intimate need and conscience, it remains anchored at the point to which the work of previous generations had brought it; and, whatever part of it survives, it recommences from there.

È inutile aspettare delle trasformazioni o dei rinnovamenti dalla guerra, che è un’altra cosa: come è inutile sperare che i letterati ritornino cambiati, migliorati, ispirati dalla guerra. Essa li può prendere come uomini, in ciò che ognuno ha di più elementare e più semplice. Ma, per il resto, ognuno rimane quello che era. Ognuno ritorna – di quelli che tornano – al lavoro che aveva lasciato; stanco forse, commosso, assorbito, come emergendo da una fiumana: ma con l’animo, coi modi, con le facoltà e le qualità che aveva prima.

It is useless to expect transformation or renewal from war, just as it is to expect writers to return from war changed, inspired, better. War may claim them as human beings in the simplest, most elementary sense. But, for the rest, each one remains the same. Each returns – of those who do return – to the same work he or she had before; tired perhaps, shaken, overwhelmed, as if engulfed by a tidal wave: but with the same will, the same habits, abilities and qualities as before.

  1. Serra, R. (1915) Esame di coscienza di un letterato. Palermo: Sellerio, 1994. First published in La Voce 30 aprile 1915

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