Etica e letteratura


One of the most effective images used to describe the punctiform nature of literary knowledge and its orientation function comes from the stars. The symbolic reference to stars recurs frequently, for example, in a kind of poetry that is typically auto-referential (that speaks about itself) and poetological (that speaks about Poetry in general), like that of Mallarmé. One of the most significant aspects of the use of this image can be found in Mallarmé where the symbol of the stars is associated with the sunset, which in turn represents the fading of personal illusions, of religious faith, of the historical, political and cultural foundations of the nineteenth century: in other words, it refers directly to the phenomenon of European nihilism. It is by no means a coincidence that, even without knowledge of each other's works, Nietzsche, in the same period, also used the image of the sunset to describe the death of God.[1] Thus it is in this context of night and darkness that Mallarmé's poetry declares its essence in the image of the stars:  the «seven splendid lights» that conclude the Sonnet in -yx or the «constellation / cold from oblivion and disuse» into which the Throw of the Dice changes in the end. These lights stand out in the sky to indicate a multitude of meanings, and to suggest a wide variety of orientations. It is not uncommon to find in Mallarmé the symbol of the stars mixing with the metaphor, also auto-referential, of a voyage at sea, creating lines of extreme density, like «Solitude, rock, star» in Greeting, or as in the similar passage «Night, desperation and jewels» in Vasco's Sonnet. These triptychs express the human cost of the poetic experience, the risk of being shipwrecked at night, and the orientation function of poetry, whose star-like light (or like that of a diamond) helps one to find one's way in the obscured world, or to map out one's own route. 


In a less direct way, the orientation function of literature can also be seen in Benjamin's works, in particular in those that analyze the modern metropolis as a specific location and as a remarkably effective image of a vast collection of persons, things and messages that can no longer be all brought back to an all-encompassing theoretical system. In this context, the notes of the Arcades Project suggest that the Parisian flâneur does not wander aimlessly around the city, but rather finds his way there by following the thresholds and the street names. The latter, however, have an ambivalent status between order («The city, with the names of its streets, is the image of a linguistic cosmos»)[2] and chaos («What has the modern metropolis done with the ancient concept of a labyrinth?  It has raised it to the level of language, through the names of its street network» which makes up the metropolis).[3]  Above all, however, street names are not merely toponymic signs; they are real symbolic nuclei, or poetic words. Organically linked to what they designate, they can make «our perception more complex and stratified that it really is in our daily life».[4]


«When the electric lights went on, the internal splendour of the arcades faded away and concentrated in their names. But the name became like a filter that let only the most intimate, bitter essence of what was come through. (For real travellers, the exciting, mysterious power of the name lies in this marvellous capacity to distil the present as the intimate essence of what once was)».[5]


A similar example of the orientation through names, that is to say through poetic words, can be seen in Berlin Childhood around 1900. In this collection of autobiographic texts, in which Benjamin describes how he gave a meaning to the world around him when he was young, he insists on a particular naming activity in which he slightly modified the names of streets, markets, neighbourhoods and monuments in Berlin, thus creating arbitrary, but evocative associations, full of new meanings.  This passage, for example, shows how Benjamin recalls the place where he went to catch butterflies.


«The air in which the butterfly once hovered is today imbued with a word – one that has not reached my ears or crossed my lips for decades. This word has retained that unfathomable reserve which childhood names possess for the adult. Long-kept silence, long concealment, has transfigured them. Thus, through air teeming with butterflies vibrates the word "Brauhausberg", which is to say "Brewery Hill". It was on the Brauhausberg near Potsdam that we had our summer residence. But the name has lost all heaviness, contains nothing more of any brewery, and is, at most, a blue-misted [Blaue] hill that rose up every summer to give lodging to my parents and me. And that is why the Potsdam of my childhood lies in air so blue [in so blauer Luft], as though all its butterflies – its mounting cloaks and admirals, peacocks and auroras – were scattered over one of those glistening Limoges enamels on which the ramparts and battlements of Jerusalem stand out against a dark blue ground [vom dunkelblauen Grunde]».[6]


One can see that the colour blue (blau), which permeates and transforms the memory of this place, comes directly from the term Brau, which is taken over by the young protagonist by the way he pronounces it as a child, transforming the "r" into "l";  and it is precisely this change that creates a totally new suggestion. Benjamin comments in another chapter of Berlin Childhood:  «Misunderstanding disarranged the world for me. But in a good way:  it lit up the paths to the world's interior. The cue could come from anywhere. [...] If I distorted myself and the word in this way, I was only doing what I had to do to set foot in my life»,[7] in other words to orient myself in it. This spontaneous operation on linguistic elements is, however, one that is precisely (and technically) poetic; likewise the central and original nucleus of the literary experience consists in the attribution of meanings through words.  In more specific terms, both the flâneur in the Arcades Project and the protagonist of Berlin Childhood can say,  like Ungaretti in La pietà: «I populated the silence with words»: that is to say I filled a space, which otherwise would have been shapeless and de-semanticized,  with poetic meanings, and oriented it in a new cartography.[8]

[1] Cfr. in particular § 343 in The Gay Science.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. V/2, hrsg. von Rolf Tiedemann, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, p. 1008 (F°, 20).

[3] Ibid., p. 1007 (F°, 19).

[4] Ibid., p. 1021 (L°, 25).

[5] Ibid., p. 1002 (D°, 6).

[6] Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. by Howard Eiland, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2006, p. 82.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert, in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. IV/1, hrsg. von Tillman Rexroth, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. 1991, pp. 260-261.

[8] For more on this topic consult:  Pino Menzio, Orientarsi nella metropoli. Walter Benjamin e il compito dell'artista, Moretti & Vitali, Bergamo 2002.