Postnatural SLSA Conference: Panel on Nature and (Post)Humanism in Italian Literature


Location: McKenna Hall, Room 210

SLSA Conference 2013: Postnatural

University of Notre Dame
Friday, October 4

Session 5 (I)
“Civitas Innaturalis”: Nature and (Post)Humanism in Italian Literature 

Chair: Sabrina Ferri (Notre Dame)

Italian cultural and literary production has always been rooted in a solid humanistic tradition that
has made the human being the measure by which life itself is judged. As an understanding of
reality that is defined by human experience, humanism finds one of its cornerstones in the idea of a harmonious correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm—between man and
universe—that has proven as much ideal as impossible to achieve. The specter of a “collapse of
nature,” however, and the awareness of the precariousness of human life on earth have always
haunted our imagination. From the early modern to the contemporary period, several thinkers,
writers, and artists have eschewed anthropocentric approaches as inadequate to account for thecomplexity of the relationships between humans and the natural world. This panel seeks to
explore the different ways in which Italian authors have tried to think beyond humanism in order
to raise questions about the role of humans in a potentially post-natural world.

Damiano Benvegnù (Notre Dame)
A Naturalist after Auschwitz: Primo Levi as Ecological Writer

The Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) is one of the most important authors of
the twentieth century. Despite the wide range of literary genres Levi explored, his increasing
fame is nonetheless mostly attached to the literary witness of his own imprisonment in a German concentration camp, as exemplified in his first book entitled “Se questo è un uomo” [If This is a Man, 1947]. His testimony is considered unique because Levi never gave up the particularly objective gaze acquired during his scientific academic training: as he explicitly states, throughout Auschwitz he carried “the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.” This naturalistic attitude did not disappear after the Second World War. Actually, it became an important part of his lesser known literary work, in which the witness makes room for the poet, the science fiction writer, and the journalist. My paper investigates Primo Levi’s poems, short stories, and newspaper articles in order to underline how his “naturalism” became a manifest attention toward ethological and more largely ecological issues. Particularly, I will focus on Levi’s understanding of the ecocritical interactions between animals (including the human animal) and the environment, as exemplified in poems like “I gabbiani di Settimo” (in “Ad ora incerta,” 1984) and short stories such as “Ottima è l’acqua” (in “Vizio di forma,” 1971).

John Welle (Notre Dame)
To Call You “Nature”: Andrea Zanzotto’s Later Poetry and the Destruction of the Landscape

Andrea Zanzotto (1921-2001) is one of the most important Italian and European poets of the
second half of the twentieth century. First dubbed “a poet of the landscape” by Giuseppe
Ungaretti in the early 1950s, Zanzotto was one of the first intellectuals to sound the alarm
concerning global ecological devastation. For over six decades, his poetry has been marked by
dramatic stylistic shifts while remaining faithful to a central core of thematic issues: primarily,
landscape, language, identity, and poetry itself. Known for his stylistic inventiveness, Zanzotto
has also experimented with classical literary forms including the eclogue, the sonnet, and in a
volume published posthumously, the haiku. While the lyrical celebration of nature in Zanzotto’s
poetry of the 1950s turned into mourning its despoilment in the 1960s and 1970s, his most recent volumes, “Meteo” [Weather Report] (1996), “Sovrimpressioni” [Suprimpressions] (2001),
“Conglomerati” [Conglomerates] (2009), and “Haiku for a Season/Haiku per una stagione”
(2012) treat the destruction of the landscape, the transformation of the natural environment, and
the alteration of the very concept of “nature” itself. For example, the critic Felice Rapazzo in an
article on the poetics of the later Zanzotto, writes: “an historical and anthropological trauma,
which is not only psychological and personal, are at the base of his writing.” This paper explores the collapse of nature and the degradation of the environment in Zanzotto’s later work in an attempt to underline his critical examination of the disquieting realities of our time.

Serena Ferrando (Catholic University of America)
Daria Menicanti’s Cricket, or on Being One With the World

The poetry of Daria Menicanti (1914-1995) is often set in a suspended, liminal space situated
between the city of Milan, Italy and the natural world. The oscillation between this imagined
landscape and the real one that takes place in her verses is the stage for a profound reflection on the responsibility of being human in a world that comprises a surprising amount of interaction with the non-human. Her collections “Cities Like” and “Other Friends” are odes to the animals, insects, and plants that still populate the modern city. The poet’s self-described predicament sees her caught between spending her life in an industrialized city and an awareness of the tremendous environmental impact of modern urbanization practices, which is traceable to the classic culture vs. nature dichotomy, or the foundation of the western world as we know it today.
This paper presents Menicanti’s poetry as an example of material ecocriticism ante litteram, or
the deconstruction of hierarchies and of the dichotomic distinction between culture and nature,
discourse and matter. It is mainly in Menicanti’s aquatic scenes (e.g. lakes, rain, waterways,
fountains) that the human and non-human come into contact with each other and, for one brief
moment, coexist on the same level.

Matteo Gilebbi (Duke University)
“Inseguilo tu stesso animale / oltre la sillaba.” Antispeciesism, Eco-criticism, and Animal Advocacy in Contemporary Italian Poetry

In the last fifteen years, Italy has witnessed a flourishing debate on animal studies and ecocriticism, primarily influenced by the work of Deleuze, Lévinas, Horkheimer, Derrida,
Agamben, and Singer. The most recent and significant developments have been: Roberto
Marchesini’s establishment of the new field of zooanthropology; groundbreaking publications on
post-humanism and animal studies by young scholars such as Paolo Caruso, Paola Cavalieri,
Lisa De Luigi, Massimo Filippi, and Eliana Villalta; and the intense philosophical inquiry on
speciesism provoked by Leonardo Caffo and Marco Maurizi, now merging into the ongoing
debate on the blog “Asinus Novus” and the journal “Animal Studies.” In this paper, I will
explore how contemporary Italian poets (e.g. Fernando Bandini, Maurizio Ferrari, Mario Luzi,
Franco Marcoaldi, Paolo Volponi,) engage with these issues, focusing particularly on those
works that have the potential to enrich the philosophical debate and help us understand, through the language of poetry, the shift in human/animal relationships, the validity of an anthropocentric view of the world, the clash between nature and artificiality, and the re-consideration of animals in the arts, not for their aesthetic qualities or as metaphors of the human condition, but rather as living beings at a biological level.