Il fotografo Luciano Schimmenti mette a fuoco Giuseppe Antonio Borgese nel romanzo Tempesta nel nulla. Colte nuove sfumature ideologiche, letterarie, critiche, introspettive.
Appena uscito il libro di Luciano Schimmenti, grande fotografo siciliano, stavolta in qualità di autore, L’Anti Zarathustra. Tempesta nel nulla di Giuseppe Antonio Borgese.
Il libro gode della prefazione di Michael Poole, che pubblichiamo integralmente nella sua lingua originale:
As a photographer, Luciano Schimmenti has made a speciality of capturing on film landscapes linked to the writings of Antonio Giuseppe Borgese. In 2010 he travelled to Sils-Maria in the Engadine mountains of Switzerland to photograph the alpine setting of one of Borgese’s most enigmatic books, Tempesta nel nulla. The aim was to mark the following year’s 80th anniversary of the novella’s original publication in 1931 with a portfolio of images. He had never been to the Engadine before and was immediately struck by the terrain. With its wooded slopes and mysterious mists, it bore a strong resemblance to the Madonie mountains of Sicily in which both he and Borgese grew up and where he himself still lives and works. Was this just a coincidence or did it carry a deeper significance?
As a writer, Schimmenti’s work has mainly been in the field of art history, where he has been drawn to artworks that display complex visual codes requiring painstaking scholarship and interpretation if they are to be fully appreciated by the contemporary public. He is especially at home in the allegorical world of medieval painting and is the author of an authoritative two-volume study, Il Triticco Fiammingo di Polizzi Generosa, which forensically explores both the provenance and meaning of a 14th century painting widely attributed to the flemish artist Roger van der Weyden.
When Schimmenti tracked down a first edition of Tempesta nel nulla in a Sils-Maria bookshop, his photographer’s eye noticed something about the narrator’s first-person account of undergoing a psychological crisis at the top of a mountain. There was a close correspondence between the mindscape being laid bare by Borgese and the physical landscape this destabilising experience takes place in. That minds have peaks and chasms, just as high altitudes do, is one of the book’s most powerful themes. A subject close to home as the narrator is at some level a version of Borgese himself.
But there was more, and it attracted the attention of what we might call the decoder in Schimmenti. four small slips of paper had been interleaved into the book, presumably by its first owner. Upon examination, they were discovered to contain reading notes together with extracts from a review that had appeared in Corriere della sera dated 1st July, 1931. This was curious because Borgese clearly indicates that the trip he made to the Engadine with his troubled teenage daughter, Nanni, on which the book is based, happened at the end of August 1931. How could it have been published and reviewed before the events it describes had even occurred: a transcription error perhaps or was Borgese deliberately playing games with time for reasons of his own?
Pinpointing other internal evidence, Schimmenti concluded that the book must have been written earlier than had been assumed and that as a consequence its author wanted to lay a false trail for the reader. But why?
Once he started looking for clues, Schimmenti found them everywhere: notably in the way the novella’s most intense moments tend to involve distortions of time and space. In the mind of the narrator, past and present, the Engadine and the Madonie, seem to merge into each other, producing a flood of memories that take him on a Proustian flight back to his Sicilian childhood.
The most obvious explanation for all this was that Borgese was engaging with the ideas of the writer who more than any other is associated with the Engadine: friedrich Nietzsche. It was there, in the same Sils-Maria area where the action of Tempesta nel nulla unfolds, that the philosopher claimed to have found the inspiration for his dizzily challenging concept of ‘eternal return’. Walking in the high mountains in August 1881, Nietzsche speculated that life might be cyclical in nature, with the past endlessly repeating itself. To be human in such a world is to have to ceaselessly ‘overcome’ this. for him, existence is a constant and exhausting act of becoming – a never-ending re-evaluation of the past that has been handed down to us. At once both a terrible burden and an opportunity for a liberating re-invention of the self. This was heady stuff. When added to Nietzsche’s equally bracing celebration of the instinctual, non-rational, ‘Dionysian ’side of the human psyche, as opposed to the more ordered, reasoned, ‘Apollonian ’side, it came with more than a whiff of danger. Yet for all that Borgese was experimenting with Nietzscheanism, this was not entirely the answer either. Something else, Schimmenti sensed, was going on.
Duly completing his assignment to produce a sequence of photographs, eventually used to illustrate the new edition of Tempesta nel nulla that appeared in 2013, he returned to Sicily. Once there, he began to research what other influences might have been shaping Borgese’s imagination at the time he wrote the book, which he was now convinced had been in 1930 not 1931. It was at this point that Schimmenti became aware that Borgese had acquired a strong interest in the new science of quantum physics founded by Albert Einstein and Max Planck, and developed later in the 1920s by Werner Heisenberg and others, which was then revolutionising the way the physical universe was understood. In common with many writers and artists at the time — from cubist painters such as Pablo Picasso to writers of modernist fiction like Virginia Woolf – Borgese saw creative potential in the way these new discoveries had radically problematised the relationship between space and time.
Borgese had even travelled to England to attend the Seventh International Conference of Philosophy held in Oxford in 1930, where the implications of what the organisers called ‘relativity physics ’were much discussed. Among the papers Borgese had the opportunity to hear delivered were presentations with titles such as ‘The Relationship Between Time and Eternity in the Light of Contemporary Physics ’and ‘Quantum Theory and the Principle of Causality’.
While intellectually stimulated by the conference itself, it seems Borgese found the lingering medievalism of Oxford as a place somewhat languorous. He also had reason to wish to avoid one of the other Italian attendees at the gathering, the philosopher Benedetto Croce with whom he had had a number of public disagreements. As a result, he decided to take a side trip, incorporating some of the smaller towns of the Thames valley, before journeying west to the port city of Bristol, birthplace of Paul Dirac one of the coming stars of atomic theory who a few years later in 1933 would share the Nobel Prize for Physics with Erwin Schrodinger.
Piecing together all this, Luciano Schimmenti realised that the fascination with quantum mechanics that lies behind much of the meditative rumination in Tempesta nel Nulla might provide a new key to unlocking the riddle of a notoriously elusive piece of writing. L’Anti Zarathustra: Tempesta nel nulla di Giuseppe Antonio Borgese sets out to test this through a powerful and original argument. It offers a persuasive new reading of the novella that goes well beyond the more traditional interpretation of it as a straightforwardly Christian reaction to the excesses of Nietzscheanism.
What is intriguing about Schimmenti’s approach is that he doesn’t just limit himself to identifying the influence of the new atomic science on Borgese’s storytelling in Tempesta nel nulla, with its penchant for space- time jolts and leaps between past and present. He also brings something of the same method to bear on his own critical enterprise. Making unexpected use, for instance, of the work of post-modern Czech novelist Milan Kundera as if it were somehow in dialogue across time with Borgese’s own, part of a conversation beyond the bounds of time and space.
Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being presents a world in which every experience is fleeting and never to be repeated, leading its characters to feel the ‘unbearable lightness ’referred to in its title. This is a self-conscious reversal of what Kundera called Nietzsche’s ‘crazy myth ’of eternal return, where the weight of the past has to be continually surmounted. for Kundera, an eastern European writing at the height of the Cold War, escaping from the terrible burden of history had an obvious appeal. As it did no less for Borgese, whether in terms of going into political exile from Mussolini’s Italy immediately after writing Tempesta nel nulla or in the sense of needing to move beyond the repressive religion of his upbringing.
Another writer brought into what might be called a time-defying communing with Borgese is the 19th century Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi. Schimmenti detects the spirit of his song of the Wandering shepherd at work in the novella’s depictions of sheep enveloping the narrator on the side of the mountain after his moment of existential crisis higher up the slopes. Significantly, Nietzsche was familiar with Leopardi’s poem and had once planned to translate it into German.
Schimmenti also gives Leopardi a role in an elaborate jeu d’esprit he believes Borgese devised to encode a message about Nietzsche. In what amounted to a parody of the idea of eternal return, Borgese is said to have identified a pattern of recurrence in the August dates of 1831, 1881 and 1931 when, respectively, at 50- year intervals, Leopardi’s poem was written, Nietzsche’s eternal return was first conceived and the events of Tempesta nel nulla took place. Schimmenti wonders if this might be the origin of the false trail laid in the book about the exact date on which the events it describes happened. Was Borgese trying to ‘misalign’ Nietzsche in the 50- year cycle so as to align Leopardi and himself in a way that would remove the philosopher and his influence from the recurring sequence?
Whatever one makes of this or the claim that the new quantum physics was behind Tempesta nel nulla’s related obsession with tinkering with the past, there is no doubting how central a role memory plays in the novella. When it was written, Borgese had not been back to Sicily since 1917, a period of self-imposed exile that he knew he was about to lengthen by leaving Mussolini’s Italy permanently to seek asylum in the United States. The sudden outpouring of childhood recollections that occurs towards the end of the narrative suggests he was trying to find an imaginary reckoning with his past, knowing that it might have to stand in for any physical return for the rest of his life. Very much aware that turned out to be the case, Schimmenti ends his own study by placing this Proustian work of remembrance in the wider context of the broader sweep of Borgese’s fictional output, which from Rube through to I vivi e i morti contains strongly autobiographical threads. He shows that for all Borgese’s protestations about how ‘useless’ nostalgia was as an emotion, much of his creative endeavour went into building a portmanteau of memory to sustain him in what he seems to have realised from early on would be a definitive exile.
One other treasure accompanied Borgese to America: his daughter, Nanni. So little is known about her that Schimmenti struggles to follow her progress over there as her father went about establishing a successful academic career. But he is surely right to have tried because while Tempesta nel nulla was once seen almost entirely as a piece of metaphysical fiction, it arguably now speaks to the contemporary reader as an exploration of a strained father-daughter relationship. Its original readers were likely to have regarded the narrator’s Nietzschean ‘touching’ of eternity at the top of the mountain as a Dionysian temptation later redeemed by an Apollonian recantation. Today what comes more into focus is the role played by Nanni in convincing him of the value of the here and now, the simple joys of the everyday, such as the sheer blue brilliance of the alpine flowers blooming on the mountainside on the way up. This is what re-grounds him in the end not anything philosophically grand that takes place further up the slopes. ‘I thought I was embracing the eternal but in fact was humbled by the ephemeral.’ More importantly, it is what returns his daughter back to him.
The protean ability of literary texts to shift their meaning over time is, of course, what makes us revisit them again and again. Something that can only add to the steady revival of interest in the writings Giuseppe Antonio Borgese. That and the commitment of researchers such as Luciano Schimmenti to encourage us into new readings and with them new discoveries.
Prof. Michael Poole
giornalista, regista, produttore per la BBC di Londra