My first memory of Augustine is connected, I’m not sure why, with my mother’s bed. Perhaps I was flopped down on it when I read a few of his pages for the first time. It was on that same bed of my parents that I wrote my first verses at the age of eight. And then, I don’t know why, but I see Augustine linked to that bed as well.

Certainly I encountered him again later, when studying him at University under the extremely silly and extremely wise Professor Manferdini who always arrived to class with her shopping bags and was always newly moved by reading him, her philosopher and lover. But even more importantly, I saw him flicker and heard him murmur behind the pages of some of the poets I counted as friends and mentors. Luzi’s first collection, for example, is called “La Barca” and that amazed and aching vision of the young poet in the grips of time and the mystery of living was woven from a dialogue (not only in a metaphorical sense) with “the restless Bishop of Hippo.”  The dialogue persisted in Luzi’s work and in some way got into me as well because I followed in the footsteps of that gentle Florentine with his plundering verses for some time. And then there is Augustine’s presence in Ungaretti’s brazilian lessons and in his angry, incendiary, excavated pages.

Is it possible that Ungaretti’s immense and upright love of Petrarch, of a “hard” Petrarch, does not vibrate within him with the same fascination that Augustine’s nostalgic soul exercises on him, Ungaretti, who claims to be a man of pain, a nomad? Life is nostalgia, sang this poet of “The Rivers” with words that he dug out of the abyss.

And Thomas S. Eliot, in his aching and intensely exact poetic knowledge in the Four Quartets  -- and before, even before the Wasteland -- in that feverish and delicate investigation into the mystery of time, wanders far enough to invoke that “the fire and the rose are one.” He is crying out to Augustine from the first tremendous and vivid decades of the 20th century. Every poet who has entered into the mystery of verse and into its rich and obscure relationship with time has found the luminous shade of Augustine to converse with. Montale and Leopardi. Or to reverse the situation (thereby taking a risk that, given the material of poetry, isn’t even very risky), it could perhaps be said that Augustine purposely placed himself at a crossroads through which poets must inevitably pass.

He is the one who looked for that dialogue. And he looked for it, it must immediately be made clear, because the questions that occupied him concerned nothing less than the health of his soul, the soul of a man and a Christian. He could not avoid an encounter with the problem of poetry. The foot and the verse that are integral to poetry are always interesting for those who seek a path in life.

The element that struck me immediately about Augustine’s reflections is that they radiate outwards without ever losing the heat of that primary sun which is the dramatic point of his research and of his own personal case. The aesthetic experience and his comprehension of it were not simply the exercises of the good rector he was. They were also his way of understanding that “carme universalis” that is the only harmony worthy of the human heart, of its abyssal depths, of its spasm. Equaled by few great men, Augustine stands out immense, almost trembling in his vast, steep thought. Yet, in a certain sense he is, at the same time familiar, close. A couple of verses by my friend the French poet Jean Pierre Lemaire that I love recall the Augustinian tension: “there is music in the world/ but if you don’t sing you can’t hear it.” What song, then, positions us for that listening?

For Augustine the tension in perceiving the “carme universalis” was connected with the necessity of not remaining tied to an inferior pleasure. In the manner of one who settles for less. And Augustine was not that type. If we do not consider his search for a satisfaction that was forever further away, his relentless reflection on rhythm, on the art of composing music, and in general his reflections that today we would call “aesthetics,” we cannot comprehend his thought. 

The so-called liberal arts are “sure steps,” as he says in the “Retractiones,” for arriving at an incorporeal reality beginning from corporeal things. Art is a “scientia” for re-uniting with the One. And thus, a terribly important concern. To stop at the “need” for liberal arts is a sign of weakness. It is a prophecy, if you will, of the situation in which we live: we need the liberal arts. But when their work of introducing us to a science of the invisible (that which was sought by Rafael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Lorenzo Lotto, as well as the icon painters) is subtracted from them, the arts become entertainment for the educated, or self-referential irony. They are forced into a continual provocation dedicated to tickling social consciousness or producing “ludus” in the rich zones of the planet.

The “numerus” to which Augustine dedicates vast and erudite pages of “De Musica” is a form that can be translated as: rhythm, number, music. The sensation that the sound offers us is the beginning of a journey. As an attentive reader of Augustine and his confession as a literary genre, Maria Zambrano would have called this ‘a dawn of thought.’ And Von Balthasar reads the beauty of the “Lay Styles”  from Dante to Péguy with an eye to pointing out the continual references – as contact with Augustine but also as ways of going beyond him – in the great works from Dante Alighieri to Péguy. Beauty, for Augustine, is always a felt experience. The opposite of order is nothingness. Evil is like an ugly detail in a work of art. And it also depends on the fact that we experience life like a mosaic seen from too close; the whole design escapes us. Only God can see it, and we must therefore suffer this limitation. The world is like a work of art according to what is suggested in the “Book of Knowledge:”  “Omnia in numero, mensura, pondere disposuisti.” Baudelaire thought the same thing.

The experience of beauty, Augustine knew, is a place of risk. His obscure vacillations on the subject of songs in the liturgy – and yet he loved Ambrogio – are the interior sign of this awareness. 

The “theater” of human ability can obfuscate the evidence of the beauty of God’s work. It can even distract us from the tension of the One.

Beauty opens and launches the drama of liberty. This drama has, as its field, the entire human stature: senses, reason, memory. And he, steep man of thought and harsh convert, decided that no, not even in church could beautiful human singing be permitted. One should not allow the theater of human song where God is the protagonist. For Ambrogio, author of hymns, it was a matter of writing a “credo” in verses that was born of ruminations on the psalms. Augustine did not consider this acceptable. There was the risk for him that the “melos” would emerge as more important than the reality of prayer and the sacrament. And the church would risk becoming a theater of magic rites.

As a student of rhetoric he admired writers. But he speaks of being unmoved, reading the Christian writers, by what they have in common with the pagans. It is not eloquence that moves him, but what the Christians say. And he hopes that his eloquence will rise “like an unsummoned sister” from his breast  -- which is to say from the life – of the author. A tempered eloquence can produce delight, but the scope of this eloquence is not delight but persuasion.

The unsummoned sister. At the end of his acute stylistic analysis of the writing of Paolo and Gerolamo, Augustine concludes that he prefers the simple “naked” style. The praise should be directed towards the life, and the events of that life. He is stalking, by every possible means, complacency and fashion. The empty style of life.

And yet as his mother is dying, the memory of songs he heard in Milan is sweet in his destroyed heart. There is, after all, something good in those songs he had condemned. Experience wins over philosophy. Beyond the personal experience during the occasion of Monica’s death, it is the pastoral experience which mitigates in Augustine the “condemnation” of the beauty of song. He recognizes that his experience and that of the people are similar.

In the central fiery book of “De Musica,” the sixth, it is not by chance that Augustine reflects on how it’s possible that an experience of the senses, physical, corporeal, can offer something good to the soul that is superior to it. But this soul is “wounded.” The soul, though superior, is nonetheless marked by original sin. And he adds, in a splendid recognition of the value of the body, that such a wounded soul “did not deserve to remain without the honor of a certain beauty.” Beauty that comes from the experience of a body. The soul is not stained by rhythms, then.  Listening  is not the inevitable location of sin. The body feels and hears, but it is the soul that offers the passions. And therefore it can only be an act of “voluntas,” seat, for the ancients of every decisive movement of the human spirit. It is a love turned towards inferior beauty that stains the soul. He knows that he’s dealing with obscure terms. Difficult themes. He has Saint Paul watching him from the background. He himself puts out his hands. Wisdom began it: “I wandered in order to look for and understand both wisdom and rhythm.” One wanders. One risks.

Augustine knows that thing over which, for many centuries the great fathers from Guglielmo di Thierry to Abelard debated: between knowing and loving there is not an automatic relationship. Liberty stands in the middle. The experience of beauty raises and provokes this drama. This is the place, as an Augustinian like Dostoyevsky would have said, where God and the Devil fight over the soul. The august heads of  Guglielmo di Thierry, of Abelard, of Bernard of Clairvaux debate and argue these problems between themselves. And it is not by coincidence that while they wondered whether to love God is to know him, in their own time period and territory was born provencal poetry as a kind of “counter-song” (instead of as heresy, as someone says) from the same problem. In their case it was a question of loving and knowing woman.

So is born the great season of poetry that Dante will take to completion and to a great future with his journey of love and understanding thanks to the miracle of the presence of Beatrice in his life. Dante is a great reader of Augustine, even if in the Divine Comedy his dialogue with the philosopher is almost mute. Their conversation is built out of great archetypes: the tripartite journey, the presence of three beasts, the difference in the reading of Rome’s role, the movement between the sign and its significance as analogous to the movement between desire and its completion, the exemplary nature of Odysseus’ journey, and other things brought to light by great readers like Bob Hollander. Certainly any traveler who, like Dante, knows that philosophy is not enough to save a man’s life, is in conversation with Augustine. It is not by means of philosophy that man arrives at truth. Maria Zambrano sees in Augustine one of the few men in whom philosophy and life surpass the rift imposed by Rousseau. In Dante to poetize and to know are the same movement. But to poetize, just so, is very different from philosophizing. It’s an experience of rhythm. A philosopher perceives, as Eliot would say. Poetry, on the other hand, is reality invested with a desire for the senses.  

God is a great rhythm.

He is the first rhythm. A thinker of great synthesis, Lanza Del Vasto, proposed this translation of the beginning of the Evangelist John: In the beginning there was the dance. What movement of liberty like love and knowing is necessary to participate in that movement of being?

In the “Enarrtiones” Augustine reaches the point where he sees the image of Jesus in the Passion as a beauty that comprehends horror as well. He knows that there, in the incarnated passion of the most beautiful of those born of woman, there is at play the mysterious competition between knowing and love in the attraction of beauty. What beauty becomes known in that sacrifice? What match occurs there in that very real body, between beauty as Unity, rhythm and the dismemberment of the crucifixion? As if those opened arms, the beloved arms of Jesus thrown open on the cross were the weight-bearing ropes of an impossible union for our wounded soul. As if that cross were the note that was missing, the note without which we cannot catch the rhythm of “carme universalis.” The note filled with pain and filled with the promise of eternity, in front of which every philosopher lowers his head as if in front of a truth that cannot be even distantly imagined. In front of which one cries and smiles… 
 The Boat

On Flannery

Catholic, that is to say artist

Someone compared her to James Joyce, someone else wrote that her work surpasses Dostoevsky’s, Poe’s and Kafka’s. She was proud of owning a substantial number of peacocks, of having a chicken that walked both backwards and forwards, and of having been born in the same town as Oliver Hardy, the “Hardy” of the mythic pair Laurel and Hardy. Certainly one does not come away from reading the stories of Flannery O’connor, born in 1923 and dead at only 39 years old,  unscathed. We are struck by a deeply original strength. After reading, an expression of distant reflection remains on our faces along with a question whose formulation elbows its way slowly up from the depths of our being. “Because I am catholic I cannot permit myself to be anything less than an artist.” In these words all the reasons for O’Connor’s force come together. We’re speaking of words that enter into the body of our epoch with a sharpness and provocation that have no equal. In fact, in 1932 T.S. Eliot had already written that we had entered the third phase of the life of the novel in terms of the relationship between literature and religion. In the phase, that is, in which the authors of fiction “except James Joyce (…) have never heard the Christian faith spoken of except as an anachronism. In these few introductory pages, we will examine the words of O’Connor quoted above. In them we find the elements of consciousness and judgment that act and are revealed in her work. These elements characterize her as one of the most relevant writers in the sense of her extreme capacity to be contemporary,  though not, of course, in the sense of a fashion or fad.

At the end of reading this book there will be, as happens with critics who have just begin the study of O’Connor, those who appreciate (or dislike) the intensity of the stories’ realism. And there will be also those who appreciate (or dislike) the cruel violence of the narrated events. There will also be those who will believe that they recognize the element of interest for a reader aware of the Christian phenomenon in this or that characteristic of the work (the themes, the references to the bible, the visionary quality of the work, the idea of morality). I believe that all of these readings fall into the category of consequences or results. The heart of O’Connor’s art beats first, or rather, underneath these things. It is exactly at this level that she cannot be considered a “Catholic writer” if by this category, for the enth time, the creation of a “separate” place is meant. One cannot say that O’Connor is a Catholic writer in the same way that no one dreams of defining Caravaggio or Michelangelo as “Catholic painters.” And yet they were, and how.

The value and subversive force that are contained, as they are by every great work of art, in O’Connor’s writing resemble the gratuitous power of any great natural event (and we are never so amazed as when we notice something spectacular that exists in nature). They have to do with the power of attraction that makes a great work of art, and with its function as something that can reveal the world. 

In other words, it is a question of understanding why a Catholic of our times must be an artist. An artist is defined as such for a characteristic that does not pertain, first of all, to his or her intelligence or morality, at least in terms of the way those two words are used currently. One can say that in the great artist of any time period there is at work an intelligence, and therefore a morality, recognizably more authentic with respect to what is considered intelligent or good in their era. This is certainly valid for Homer, as it is for Dante but also for Baudelaire, for Rimbaud, and for Eliot, as well as for Gaugain and Shuterland. An artist is generally more than an intelligent, good man. But he is so in a  way that forces whoever observes his work to reach a discovery, to enter an experience of intelligence and morality that is deeper than the one dictated by common opinion and habit. 

In that sense it is easy to understand what is meant in Christian aesthetics when it is affirmed that all geniuses are in some way “prophets.” Their works, in fact, constitute a surpassing of the intelligence, an uneasiness about the etchics of their own time because that work achieves a special intimation of what reality might be.

Their works reveal the real. Michelangelo’s bodies, like Rublev’s golds, Parmigianino’s hills, like Modigliani’s girls, the happy torments of Mozart and Beethoven’s beginnings, the questions of Leopardi, the energy of Luzi’s verses, the way that Pasolini and Caproni dedicate poems to their mothers as if they were lovers. They are all examples of how much the gesture of the artist urges our gaze (both interior and exterior) to take in the presence of life, to consider the real with attention and passion, with greater dedication and compassion.

In this sense for those who, like Flannery O’Connor, believe that reality is made by and therefore of God, the artistic gesture is a way toward the (re) discovery of the mysterious nature of reality. “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with mystery.” (The Nature and Aim of Fiction). With these words O’Connor describes her own ideal reader. Moreover, a few pages later she explains why: “Saint Thomas called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us.”

From which it is understood that today a Catholic must be an artist. Today more than ever in fact there are at work so many modes of “reduction” of the nature of the real that whoever recognizes in their existence an experience of mystery accomplishes, even with the sole action of listening to their own faith, an act analogous to that of the artist. Mystery incarnated, the stupefying announcement of the Christian event, is the apex and confirmation of this recognition. The incarnation, from this point of veiw, can be considered the sudden artistic gesture with which God revealed the nature of his own creation. To cross through or break the by-now ingrained conviction that reality is the fruit and projection of one’s own feeling (or of the interplay of one’s own interior make-up), or that it’s a nothing of nothingness in which one abandons oneself casually as to a fog, or that it’s the result of what man can understand and operate upon it, is an action that brings into play the same difference and the same intensity as an artistic gesture. In an era in which reason is “unpopular” (now that the wave of sterile rationalism has finished, many weakenings of reason have come into fashion) the gesture of the man of faith who believes it’s reasonable to consider mystery as the ultimate reality and not as a different/other dimension but rather as the real from which springs the real, resembles the authentic artistic gesture, offering itself as an original contribution to the defense and the exultation of reason.

Flannery O’Connor said and lived these things with the intensity and the irony that came out of a temperament both humble and combative, witty and not much given to flattery. And with the urgency of the difficult existential situation into which sickness threw her. Most of all with the integrity that comes from clear judgment and is accompanied by free action. 

What Pavese wrote of Faulkner in 1934 is valid for her as well: “He is (…) neither the national champion of hygienic morality, nor the subverter, equally puritan, of national moralistic patterns, as have been in North America almost all rebels  over the past thirty years.”

A young and valuable Italian writer, Carola Susani, admittting recently that “we share with her more than we’d like to,” wrote that what interested Flannery O’Connor were moments “in which God manifests himself, where you find him exactly when you would rather not have. I call them miracles. When, that is to say, in your own life which is organized like an apology for yourself, fear is re-awakened in you.”

Her stories shock the reader  who is afflicted with a faith that has a mawkish quality. They diorient the reader who expects edification. 

“The result of the correct study of a novel should be the contemplation of the mystery incarnated in it, but it’s a question of the contemplation of the mystery of the entire work and not in a couple of clauses or paraphrases. It is not a question of unearthing an easily expressed moral or a declaration on life.”

For O’Connor, the novel or short story whose theme or moral can be expressed in a few words is a dead work.

In the extraordinary essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” that we present here, she affirms that for each writer “everything is verified by the eye, an organ that, in the end, implicates the entire personality and as much of the world as it can contain. Mons. Romano Guarini wrote that the roots of the eye are in the heart. Whatever the case, for the Catholic they radiate all the way to those depths of mystery with respect to which today’s world is divided. On the one hand seeking to remove mystery, while on the other hoping to rediscover it in disciplines that demand less from a person than religion.” For this reason, proceeds O’Connor “the writer of fiction discovers this way, if ever he discovers something, that it is not up to him to modify reality or model it in favor of an abstract truth. The writer will learn, perhaps faster than the reader, to be humble in front of what is. What is is everything with which he has doings, the concrete is his means.

Using one of Henry James’ definitions, O’Connor concludes that the “morality of a piece of fiction depends on the amount of life encompassed by it. The Catholic writer in the measure in which he conforms to the eye of the Church will feel life from the point of view of the central Christian mystery. It is for this that, despite all his horror, God deemed that it was worthwhile to die.” Here it is worthwhile to hint at what was taking place in the American literature of the contemporaries of the author of Wise Blood, her debut novel in which is told the story of a preacher who goes mad in a Church without Christ. For further considerations see the after-word of this volume. For now it is enough to think about the fact that she was writing in the same years as King Hemingway and the rare fury of W. Faulkner, (to whom in certain stylistic aspects O’Connor is comparable for her world of lost souls), and Dos Passos with his world filled with ideological voluntarism.

O’Connor’s realism, her attention to the “customs” of the South, to its sayings, its dialects, the priviledged position given to protagonists and figures that today would be defined as “borderline,” and in everything in which she has been classified as “grotesque,” are not the programmatic result of an aesthetic choice, but the consequence of an ontological evaluation. It is, in fact, the most imporessive ontological evaluation: “It is for this – life – that God was willing to die.” Citing Conrad, a favorite author, she affirmed that her goal was “to render as much possible justice to the visible universe.” Or rather, to not forget that “a story always implicates in a dramatic manner the mystery of personality.”

“All writers are fundamentally people who seek and describe the real. But the type of realism of each writer depends on his/her vision of the ultimate extensions of reality.” And what are these “ultimate extensions?” It has to do with human liberty, or rather, the drama that runs throughout it. “If the writer believes that our life is and remains essentially mysterious, if he considers us all as beings who exist in a created order whose laws we respond to freely, then what he sees on the surface interests him only in so far as the experience of it allows one to penetrate into an experience of mystery. (…) For this kind of writer the meaning of a story does not begin if not at a depth at which the fitting motivations and the fitting psychology and all the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we do not understand instead of what we do. He will be interested in possibility instead of probability.” This means that reason in making, in the act of an artistic gesture, lies in affirming the category of possibility as nature’s highest level. That is to say, the place in which human reason and liberty meet the existence and action of Mystery. All of which seems a titanic undertaking in an era that, as O’Connor writes, “doubts facts as much as values.”

But what would seem titanic in any other kind of work whether philosophical, theological, or even apologetic in the traditional sense, comes to be in a special manner in an artistic accomplishment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most recent renewal in the life of the Church through the work of great figures of shepherds and thinkers, to say nothing of the contribution of great movements, began in the years 1949 and 1950 – the same years to which O’Connor refers – came to pass because of the work of people gifted with a strong artistic sensibility.

As for the rest, insisted Claudel in “Positions and Propositions,” the level of aesthetic sense in the story of the Church is equal to the level of the Church’s conscience of its own nature and its own goals. The poet of the Annunciation complained, because of this, about the fact that priests who in the daily morning recitation from the psalmbook encounter the grandiose poetry of the Psalms then propagated, in the gestures of catechism and in their own eloquence, an aesthetic spoiled by preciousness. 

The Church, wrote O’Connor “is not a culture.” It is worth saying that it is not a basin from which to draw subjects, characters, or ideas that might be good or edifying. Or, worse, a kind of arena inside of which certain figures and experiences are denied access. “If one were able to flush out the Catholic reader in the swamp of letters to the director and other places where he is for a moment in the open, one would realize that he is more Manichean than the Church permits him to be. Separating as much as possible nature from grace has reduced the supernatural to a pious cliché.”

For O’Connor the Church is the “only thing that makes bearable the terrible world toward which we are moving.” exactly in the measure in which, the announcement of the coming of Christ who encouters the condition of “poverty,” of “abnormality,” and of human liberty, does not permit the separation between nature and grace. Isn’t this the deepest aspiration of every artistic gesture, its very structure, even? In the middle of everything that is predictable, the element that makes a story work for O’Connor is “the free act,” “the acceptance of grace.”

Of the stories that follow, some are endowed with great tragic force. Reading O’Connor we realize that a Christian tragedy exists, a tragedy that is doubly desperate: human liberty can declare itself closed to grace, can be the thin but invincible wall against which even the will of the heavens is powerless. Grace here is not a matter of nice angels or blue levitation. It’s a flash in which the protagonist of the story understands his destiny, his real destiny. A destiny which does not coincide, naturally, with a happy ending. 

(One thinks of the story “A Good Man is Hard To Find” and of the figure of the grandmother who finally understands who the Bandit is when he assails her and her family.) It’s a question of tragedy, if you will, no longer simply man’s but God’s as well. There is not simply human desperation on the stage but, devastated and powerless, there is also divine desperation. A desperation, mind you, that can be overturned only by a force that man cannot succeed in imagining, and therefore can certainly not represent, and that constitutes the force of God’s forces, of his mercy.

The irony that marks O’Connor’s stories is born as an echo of this “force of forces;” it is not a paliative, it’s not an expedient of gratitude. Her capacity to laugh (and to make us laugh) is born from the same roots as the gaze that observes the difficult and deformed life of her characters. This cohabitiation of a sense of tragedy and irony characterized her own existence. While she wrote “terrible” stories, she drew, according to her primitive vocation, comics. And in certain letters in which she speaks of her fatal illness…

Quite rightly, Elisa Buzzi in her stimulating essay on O’Connor of a few yars ago, written slightly before many here in Italy gave life to a kind of recent “discovery” of O’Connor, calls up the anagogical sense that was recognized in the writings of the Middle Ages and which Dante himself in his enigmatic letter to Cangrande affirms as the right path to follow when reading his Commedia. By anagogical vision is meant an attitude or way of seeing that is able to notice in a singe image or situation the many levels of reality that are at play there, and which are connected to the mystery of divine existence and of our participation in it. In other words, the various levels of meaning – literal, moral, existential, dramatic, theological – live together in one single image. They form its structure. The figures or significant symbols in a story (a character, the car he uses, certain actions) are rich with all these levels. It’s not necessarily the case that one can capture them all, nor that the significant figures and symbols are the ones most easily thought of or identified. But it’s certain that the comprehension of a story like those of O’Connor is enriched, as little by little the anagogical vision is perceived. This holds, we suspect as we reread Dante’s Epistle, for every great work of art. The reader, then, must be ready to leave the habitual frame of his own perception. He must be ready to let the figures and situations that the author proposes “go to work” inside him and in the end, he must be ready to surprise moments of epiphany. Precisely because of the epiphanic nature of their stories have James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor been compared. 

“I believe that there exists one sole Reality, period.” writes O’Connor in one of the letters present in this volume. She also writes “the ultimate reality is the Incarnation.” The author understands that she writes in an era in which “no one believes anymore in the Incarnation, that is, no one believes in it publicly.” She is well aware that her “public” is made up of people who believe that “God is dead.”

From this precise awareness comes O’Connor’s intolerance for everything that reduces Christianity to anything other than the certainty of the event of incarnation. In another letter reproduced here she tells of how she burst out in front of those who consider the eucharist “only a symbol, however successful.” “Well, if it’s a symbol than you can go to hell.” The value of the anagogical vision is rooted in a faith that is reasonable, free, and certain. 

These are eyes which, according to Conrad’s definition, already cited here and beloved by O’Connor, render the “most possible justice to the visible universe.” They are eyes that have loved much and that, speaking of what exists, hand down real life instead of all the publicity of appearance.

With Rimbaud in my heart

At the heart of our time, there’s a night, a vertigo. 

As there was Dante’s journey, so now there is the journey of Rimbaud. There is, in the heart of our time an “insignificant” (“adolescent” say those who, protected by an assumed maturity, want to dodge its blows) night or season in Hell. In the heart of modernity (and of what it brings into question) there’s a poet in hell. There already was one, of course.  In fact, there was a poet in hell-purgatory-paradise. But now that we are distanced from the fear and trembling in front of Mystery that the Christian era recognized in all circumstances, now that the heart marvels at the smoky streets of the city, marvels at absinthe and at the metaphysical revolution (and since the refuge of an education by now respected only formally has been destroyed), now the heart suffers from boredom with itself and when it reaches the threshold of the unknown it “collapses” and loses the sense of “visions” that open up to it there as he says in the famous “letter of the seer.”

It is not by chance, as we are taught by the greatest living Italian poet, that the young poet of Charleville is the only one who can draw near to the Florentine exile with a special kind of proximity-distance relationship. They are two poets, two journeys where the author and the character coincide, where, that is to say, experience counts. And in this place all presumed truths are put to the test of experience. Because of this they are closer to the reader. It should not be forgotten that A Season in Hell (“relation d’un combat spirituel”) is the only book that Rimbaud expressly wanted published.

A vertigo in the heart of Europe, a coming and going that is always seeking, a continual leaning towards the possible. There’s a man “mystique à l’état sauvage” who, the day before his death asks the Messaggeries Marittimes what time he should be carried on board to set off again. If it’s true that intellectual pride was the poison that closed the human heart and reason to a sense of mystery, if it’s true that Baudelaire marks the beginning of modernity because he sings of Ennui and a tragically “dual” life with the splendid dirge that many will join (but with less sorrow and more philosophy), it is undeniable that the most moving poetic renderings of those same bored, drugged hearts are to be found in Rimbaud’s Season in Hell. There everything “surrenders.” In that “pagan book” an infirm and perverse gesture sets before us every kind of crisis --  that of religion, of love, of science, of memory, of dream, of art – and subjects them to his methodical, yet split-second, test. None of these elements of human experience seem to be capable of helping Rimbaud approach his “destiny of happiness,” to that “salut” which is as desired and imagined as it is mysterious. Clearly the boy is inside a catastrophe, like Hamlet, notes Bonnefoy. “The angels” wrote a young and acute reader of Rimbaud, “know immediately and since always.” Everything surrenders because nothing is enough for the man in search of himself. “I want liberty in salvation. How am I to pursue it?” Exactly in the place where it seems the most dense obscurity of signs and words is felt, the sense of them makes itself clear and self-evident. Rimbaud is anything but obscure. He declares immediately the “key” with which to recapture lost innocence: “charity is this key.” Immediate, precise, almost Paul-like, that is, exactly like St. Paul in his “hymn” (a scandalous climax for another of the poètes maudits, for George Trakl, and for our own Pasolini; it would be interesting to study the strange attraction between Saint Paul and the extremities of literature). A heartbreaking affirmation because of the impossibility that such a key might actually be able to be used and is not simply a dream. In the verses of Rimabud there’s a “method to nail down our words and our experience of the world to colors.”

He does not confront any new themes. He speaks about what everyone speaks about. He turns out to be more useful than Socrates in terms of understanding, today, something of ourselves. Rimbaud who believed everything around him to be of himself, tends toward the motion of leaving. His journey will be neither one of descent, nor an itinerarium mentis, nor a journey around his room. As if to pin down a great and simple allegory, his visionary wandering will end in a journey that is wrapped in mystery. The journey to Africa, more than a post-literary act or a definite rebellion, is none other than the mirror of poetry in its descent into hells, in the groping for things and people in the constant search for “salut” in liberty. “Mon sort dépende de ce livre” he apparently said. 

He’s a typical rebel, they say, exactly because he didn’t deal with new themes. It’s true. But like Van Gogh, he put – or better, he surprised – things in a light from which they’ll escape only with difficulty. An extreme light that we perceive only in glimpses, confusedly. The light of “faiblesse.” “European culture” wrote Mario Luzi in a good essay on Rimbaud “to which moreover we send the reader who wishes to follow in lapidary detail the kinships and correspondences between the poet of A Season in Hell and the situation of poetry in Italy and Europe, to be quite frank, feels the lack of heresy.”

Already Baudelaire had demonstrated an “enormous capacity for suffering” (Eliot). He had restored citizenship to the profound sense of original sin, to that entropy or “fall” that concerns every “élan” and every “beauté.”

Most of all in Rimbaud it is not a question of a morbid complacency towards “the limit.” In fact the more acute the perception of a “salut” promised by life (the festival of youth), the more the lack of energy for reaching it is lived like a pulsar or a black hole, like “the” problem of existence (to be “a negro,” an inferior race, victim of a “harrowing misfortune.”


In Rimbaud this “sickness of will” is at the origin of hell. It undermines every utopia. Rimbaud’s hell is not “strictu senso” the Christian hell; if anything, it is the opposite. It is non-Christian. It is the hell of every presumptive paradise obtainable thanks to every moral, sensual, intellectual and religious force. The Christian paradise (as well as the Christian hell) depends instead on the result of an encounter with Grace, on a mysterious encounter with Someone outside the realm of human initiative. There is no trace of this kind of encounter in any of Rimbaud’s work. The Christ that he met is “a father-in-law,” “born together with Monsieur Proudhomme,” a kind of “declaration of science” that authorizes man to make believe, to have masks. 

And yet, paradoxically, Rimbaud’s hell, as he writes in “Morning” “was truly hell; the ancient one, the one where man’s son opened the doors.” Hell is one of the fundamental questions for the Christian conception of man. It indicates, in fact, that salvation depends on man’s free response to his encounter with Christ, to the call of Grace. So the value of liberty is raised to the highest degree (and for Rimbaud the term “liberty” is indistinguishable from the term “salut”). Rimbaud’s hell is a situation that makes clear  that a “destiny of happiness” exists elsewhere. Nevertheless, the key is missing, the road (the truth in soul and body) that leads to it is missing. But it is a hell on earth. It’s the hell of utopias (the failure of paradise on earth). First of all, it is the hell of the utopian revolution that high-school aged Arthur belonged to (that “changer la vie” in A Season in Hell is not political). It is the “faiblesse” that disturbs every love, perverts it, chases it away. It’s the atrocity that sickens civilization, causing the idea of work as the truth of human existence to appear and disappear. It weakens the conscience so that it flees from the choice imposed by the tree of good and evil which fades into a little shrub behind one’s back, almost like a spectral phantom. It’s the faiblesse of Western man who dreams of running away to an imaginary Orient, or towards a Christianity by now almost impossible because it’s been overturned by new scribes and pharisees – a “disincarnation” (though even reduced to this state it exercises a repulsion ready to turn itself into confusion and strong fascination), or towards “the festival of a thousand colors” of a life stuck in childhood. 

Rimbaud’s dream is “strength.” Those who return from Africa are “strong.” The “saints” and  the “hermits” are strong. Or the “constrained convict,” he who, sentenced to life, looks with the eyes of a condemned man on the world and has only himself as “witness to his own glory.”

“Hell,” writes the poet in A Season in Hell, “cannot touch the pagans.” This is the hell of the man who lives a spirituality marked by Christianity, but who is nonetheless not a Christian.


Vertigo, and therefore a journey. A movement that leads nowhere vanishes in mystery. It overturns all the masks of European culture. Beauty, for example, becomes something that can be insulted and reviled. It isn’t sung about, mind you, neither the end or “death,” nor its transfiguration in “other” as the self-appointed members of the avant-guard of every century take it upon themselves to insist upon. It is said, simply, that it is possible to “insult” beauty. Its recognition depends, then, not on a state of grace but on a moral attitude. And there it can be found “bitter”  -- which is the taste of beauty without truth. It remains “beauty,” almost resisting, vestigial version of itself, denied itself, a terrible companion on the lap of the poet, educated at the desks surrounding the sunny aesthetic of the classics. It is also infected by the virus of the gaze of the poet: to Arthur’s gaze it presents itself as a phantasm. It’s necessary to be a visionary of much greater proportions, exceeding the measure of every sense – and not necessarily in the direction of confusion (that confusion in which, suffering continually and with harrowing irony the young “maudit” descends). Instead it should be something similar to the “déréglement” of the saints. Perhaps it is a déréglement similar to that felt by Leopardi faced with his own poem “To His Lady.”  The moral attitude that captures the truth of the beautiful (and tastes it again) is that of waiting – the availability and the tension in front of the appearance of a sign. Rimbaud actually moves within a religious kind of aesthetic that he has made sure to strip of any security and every automatism. Claudel is right when he speaks of an “inflection” more than a “voice” or even less a “Word” as what moved Rimbaud’s poetry. He hears Rimbaud’s “marvelous prose” impregnated “like the smooth dry wood of a stradivarius with its intelligible sound.”  The poetry of A Season in Hell
makes sure to burn every rhetoric: here the diaphragm no longer exists – as Luzi notes – between words and things. Or as Valery pointed out, it’s a question of  “a perpetual exchange between the psychological and the physical, or rather what is visible with the eyes. Visible outside, visible inside.”

Beauty does not guarantee purity, the “salut” to anyone. The Devil is beautiful (this is not news; read the chronicles of the monks), nothing is pure, purity is not anyone’s prerogative. It is a conquest in every instant, a gift, therefore, because human effort can only prepare the conditions for a state of purity that God alone can cause to emerge since it belongs to him alone. 

Rimbaud looks at the world (the world that humanism and rationalism sought to rid of any sense of excess) with the mind of the convict, upon whom the life-sentence is always weighing (and it’s not by chance that the most Rimbaud-like of the Italian writers, the beloved Testori, said that the sight of a convict was the episode that most marked his own youth.) The world delivered by humanism to modernity is a life-sentence (sometimes agreeable, but only for the most fortunate.) This way of feeling the world is the fruit of a particular inheritance: “parents, you made my disgrace and your own – I’m a slave of my baptism.” Rimbaud perceives in his own nature, on his own flesh, the sign (baptism) that he belongs to something grand and mysterious. (“I am not a prisoner of my reason. I said: God”). But this bigger thing is, in fact, unknown. Cursed or invoked, but unknown, far away. The proximity of God to the world together with the Incarnation is lived by the young man (to whom it was presented in a suffocating and reductive mode) as the proximity of a “father-in-law.” This is why the mark of baptism is perceived, inevitably, as a kind of slavery: whoever is thrown, without strength or the possibility of salvation, into the prison of the world perceives that he belongs to something that is not of this world as a source of a nostalgia so unbearable it becomes slavery. A nostalgia that becomes his master, entirely, a nostalgia that literally causes one to become enraged like a beast. With Christ removed (as Nietzsche confusedly intuited), what is inherited from Christianity is the existence of an “inferior race,” a “negro,” unable to find or try out “the freedom of salvation.” A man who, in the absence of a present God, owes “everything to the declaration of the Rights of Man.” It is not that Arthur perceives his most acute suffering because of the stuffy upbringing he underwent, (from which, as from the rest, he turned away quite early -- frankly and without inhibition) but because of the impossibility of the “journey.” He knows he’s not strong enough. He’s more honest than Nietzsche, and less of a philosopher.


It’s a vertigo that wipes out all of Western knowledge. “If I at least had some antecedents in any point of French history. But no, nothing.”

Western knowledge is wiped out not with a triumphant effort of cultural critique, nor with political revolution, but with the light blood of adolescence. Adolescence which is naturally always the most energetic force of crisis. Memory is liquidated as well: historical memory, artistic memory – Proust is liquidated along with his contraption. “If starting from this moment [my spirit] were truly awake, we would have arrived at truth, which perhaps surrounds us with its angels in tears!” The problem is not to return to a personal and collective past that is by-now-insignificant, but to be awake: the problem is the present. “Consider his most magical effect” writes Mallarmé in some pages that demonstrate a bit of uneasiness faced with Rimbaud “produced by the opposition of a world prior to Parnassus with a far-distant romanticism, or [the opposition of the] absolutely classical with the sumptuous disorder of a passion we cannot call anything other than spiritually exotic.” 

From this point of view science, the guarantor of progress in human fate, is not “simply” questioned. Certainly the modern “viaticum” for the body and for the spirit is “progress!” – “Geography, cosmography, mechanics, chemistry!...” are “the amusements of princes and the games they prohibit!” handed over to the inferior race. It is a fierce irony: “Nothing is vanity; to science, and forward!” cries the modern Ecclesiast or rather, everyone. But the heart of Rimbaud’s critique is “science is too slow.” In the same page where he exhorts his own spirit to wake up in order to arrive at truth (“The impossible”) he says: “Ah! Science does not hurry enough for us!” That is, it doesn’t hurry enough in the research that interests us, to see if it is “plausible to possess truth in a spirit and in a body” – the truth that surrounds us.

Departing from the climate of romantic poetry and its definitions (in which he stayed for the whole first part of his production) and being a prophet (the “god” Baudelaire had already written the Flowers of Evil, opening with “Correspondances”), Rimbaud proceeds with a sort of critique of scientific spirit that is much more acute than what we might expect from a romantic poet. Not only does he accuse it of a utilitarian reduction of human action and the mythologizing of same, he affirms that it proceeds too slowly in the research that counts the most. That is, he argues that there is a methodological deficiency in scientific procedure, a difference of pace with respect to others’ methods of advancing towards the evidence of truth. It’s a critique of scientific rationalism that departs from the usual pattern of European debate. He doesn’t strand himself in a position “on principle” (or on aesthetics) in favor of or against science. Neither does he contort himself in order to cause the overlap of roles and languages as some of the poets of the successive positivist and neo avant-guardist eras do (one thinks of our Pascoli, so annihilated in front of the mystery of the cosmos as to arrive at saying that poetry is that which “makes consciousness out of science”). He doesn’t even separate poetry’s final goal from that of science; he doesn’t divide the adventures. He says, with open irony about the very idea of progress that science “goes too slowly for me.”


The object of Rimbaudian research is the I. He does not remove himself from the central vein of Western research. But he traverses this vein without leaving intact a single interpretive certainty about life that had been affirmed up to that time. He perceives in himself the limits of the culture learned at school and given by family. He feels no antecedents. He’s an amputated stump seeking to take hold again. In this he is similar, very similar, to every current European seventeen-year-old. he doesn’t know what his nation is, doesn’t know what love is (as Bonnefoy has written), Christ is perceived as a “father-in-law.” He imagines his own liberation in various masks, he tends to mix everything together – all the levels of discourse and value – he is “faible.” But the difference is that Rimbaud knows he comes from something he doesn’t understand anymore (baptism). He knows there is a journey to attempt, a cry to raise, because he knows there’s got to be “something” to save/discover, it can’t go on like this. Even if the journey in the “drunken boat” is destined to perpetual shipwreck, remembering only the “ancient parapets” of European culture. Even if he cannot make himself understood, “better than the beggar with his continual Pater Ave Gloria”… 

He’s a poet who can help us save, at the end of this century (and always), that unique correct position that is at the beginning of every action and thought that is not inhuman: to recognize oneself -- a recognition that is not an overly pious way of going through the motions, but true and deep knowledge – as someone in need.

He wrote, almost anticipating a Pavesian ultrasound: “But not a hand my friend! and where to find help?” positing, as one of his greatest readers wrote, a possible “sign of alliance.”

 As is noted, Rimbaud paid for the publication of this book.
 cf the introduction to C. Baudelaire’s “Fleurs Du Mal” that I proposed for this same series of editions
 Giuseppe Frangi, Arthur Rimbaud, in I grandi della cultura rivisitati, Quaderni di Litterae Communionis,1984.

 After all, his torn “lover” Paul Verlaine wrote in his book “Poètes Maudits” (1884) a propos of Rimbaud’s abandoning poetry: "He knows (Rimbaud) that we do not doubt that this abandonment is for him logical, honest, necessary.

 M. Luzi, Nel cuore dell'orfanità. Introduzione ad Arthur Rimbaud, Opere, Einaudi.
 T.S. Eliot, Baudelaire, in L'uso della poesia e l'uso della critica, Bompiani 1974.

 J. Rivière also sustains that Rimbaud’s hell is precisely the earth, but in the poet-character Rivière identifies “the perfect being” and thus interprets the Season in Hell as “the time that a being without sin passes here with us.” Such a vision opens a “gnostic” perspective on Rimbaud’s adventure, but there do not remain, in the texts of A Season in Hell, enough evidence to justify it. The image of the “angel in exile” coined by Verlaine may be suggestive, but it does not seem to correspond to the self-awareness of the poet.

 P. Claudel, Prefazione, in Opere, Mercure de France, Paris 1912
 P.Valery, Pré-Teste, catalogo dell'esposizione Univ. di Paris 1966, in Opere, Mondadori,1975

 Mallarmé, letter to Mr. Harrison Rhodes
 Y. Bonnefoy, L'alchimista del verbo, Introduzione alle Opere, Mondadori, 1975