Carlo Michelstaedter and the failure of language

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Carlo Michelstaedter and the failure of language
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Bini, Daniela, 1945-
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Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover 1
        Front Cover 2
    Half Title
        Page i
    Frontispiece
        Page ii
    Title Page
        Page iii
        Page iv
    Dedication
        Page v
        Page vi
    Table of Contents
        Page vii
    List of Illustrations
        Page viii
    Acknowledgement
        Page ix
        Page x
    Biographical note
        Page xi
        Page xii
        Page xiii
        Page xiv
    Introduction
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
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        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
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    Chapter 1. The failure of philosophy
        Page 18
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    Chapter 2. The trial of poetry
        Page 101
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    Chapter 3. The authenticity of drawing
        Page 192
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        Page 250
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        Page 252
        Page 253
        Page 254
    Epilogue: “La vita nella morte”
        Page 255
        Page 256
        Page 257
        Page 258
        Page 259
        Page 260
        Page 261
        Page 262
        Page 263
        Page 264
        Page 265
        Page 266
        Page 267
        Page 268
    Notes
        Page 269
        Page 270
        Page 271
        Page 272
        Page 273
        Page 274
        Page 275
        Page 276
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        Page 286
        Page 287
        Page 288
        Page 289
        Page 290
        Page 291
        Page 292
    Selected bibliography
        Page 293
        Page 294
        Page 295
        Page 296
        Page 297
        Page 298
        Page 299
        Page 300
    Index
        Page 301
        Page 302
        Page 303
        Page 304
        Page 305
        Page 306
        Page 307
        Page 308
    Back Matter
        Page 309
        Page 310
    Back Cover
        Back Cover 1
        Back Cover 2
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.... .... .... .







Carlo Michelstaedter and
the Failure of Language










Air


Carlo Michelstaedter in the Boboli Garden, Florence, 1907. Courtesy of the
Gorizia Civic Library.










Daniela Bini














CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER

and the


FAILURE OF LANGUAGE






















University Press of Florida
Gainesville
Tallahassee
Tampa
Boca Raton
Pensacola
Orlando
Miami
Jacksonville


UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA























Copyright 1992 by the Board of Regents
of the State of Florida
Printed in the U.S.A. on acid-free paper

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Pubication Data
Bini, Daniela, 1945-
Carlo Michelstaedter and the failure of
language / Daniela Bini.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8130-1111-6
1. Michelstaedter, Carlo, 1887-1910-
Criticism and interpretation.
I. Title.
PQ4829.138Z53 1992
851'.912-dc20 91-28380

The author acknowledges with gratitude the
editors of the following journals for permission to
reprint in the first chapter of the book parts of essays
previously published: Italica 63, no. 4 (1986);
Italiana (Rosary College, River Forest, 1988);
Differentia: Review of Italian Thought 2 (Spring
1988); Romance Languages Annual (Purdue
University, 1990); and Italian Culture 6 (1990).

The University Press of Florida is the scholarly
publishing agency of the State University System
of Florida, comprised of Florida A&M
University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida
International University, Florida State University,
University of Central Florida, University of
Florida, University of North Florida, University
of South Florida, University of West Florida.
Orders for books should be addressed to
University Press of Florida, 15 NW 15th St.,
Gainesville, FL 32611.






To Joe



















CONTENTS






List of Illustrations viii
Acknowledgments ix
Biographical Note xi
Introduction 1
1. The Failure of Philosophy 18
2. The Trial of Poetry 101
3. The Authenticity of Drawing 192
Epilogue: "La vita nella morte" 255
Notes 269
Selected Bibliography 293
Index 301








Illustrations


Frontispiece. Carlo Michelstaedter in 1907.
Facing page 1. C. M. Far di se stesso fiamma.
1. C. M. Retorich6. 205
2. C. M. Homo Sapiens. 205
3. C. M. Processione d'ombre. 212
4. C. M. L'uomo nudo. 213
5. C. M. Demone. 213
6. C. M. Uomo con baffi a spazzola. 218
7. Oskar Kokoschka. Vater Hirsch. 218
8. C. M. Testa di vecchio. 220
9. C. M. Alla stazione. 220
10. C. M. Fascino. 221
11. C. M. Conferenziere K. 224
12. C. M. Volto. 224
13. C. M. Self-portrait (n.d.). 224
14. Erich Heckel. Self-portrait. 225
15. Erich Heckel. Portrait of the artist's brother. 225
16. C. M. La grande caricatura. 225
17. C. M. Uomo con pizzo. 226
18. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Portrait of Alfred D6blin. 226
19. C. M. La botte diferro. 230
20. George Grosz. Ehrenmann. 230
21. C. M. Teste di gomma. 231
22. George Grosz. Portrait of the poet Max Hermann-Neisse. 231
23. C. M. Assunzione 2. 232
24. C. M. Assunzione 1. 232
25. C. M. Padre-sfinge. 234
26. C. M. Rivelazione. 237
27. C. M. Ritratto di Nadia. 239
28. Oskar Kokoschka. Portrait of Tilla Durieux. 239
29. C. M. Ritratto della madre. 243
30. C. M. Interpretazione della madre. 243
31. Kdthe Kollwitz. Self-portrait. 243
32. C. M. Self-portrait (1908). 247
33. C. M. Self-portrait (1910). 251
34. Oskar Kokoschka. Portrait of Karl Kraus. 251
35. C. M. "The lamp goes out for lack of oil. I extinguished myself with
overflowing abundance." 253


viii

















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS





This book, conceived in a spirit of adventure, owes its life to a number of
friends and colleagues. My interest in Carlo Michelstaedter was first
sparked by an article written in 1983 by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo
in La Stampa. Sergio Campailla then stimulated my interest and curi-
osity with his extensive studies on Michelstaedter-a source of reference
and inspiration. In Rome in the summer of 1988, he personally encour-
aged me to pursue this project.
My research in the Biblioteca Civica of Gorizia was made enjoyable
and rewarding thanks to the hospitality of the director, Dr. Otello Sil-
vestri, and the assistance of Sandra Vogrini and Giulio Nerini. I am
especially grateful to Dr. Antonella Gallarotti, the director of the Fondo
C. Michelstaedter, who did everything to facilitate my research in Gorizia.
The completion of my work was made possible by grants from the
University of Texas Research Institute.
To the Provincia of Gorizia goes my gratitude for having organized
the first International Conference on Michelstaedter, entitled "Carlo
Michelstaedter: I1 coraggio dell'impossibile."
Until a few years ago, Michelstaedter was virtually unknown in
America, and writing a book about him in English posed many prob-
lems. From the very start, my close friend Prof. Peter Carravetta of
Queens College has enthusiastically supported the introduction of Michel-


ix





X ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


staedter to the English-speaking public. He reaffirmed his faith in the
project by publishing my essay "Carlo Michelstaedter: The Tragedy of
Thought" in his new philosophical journal Differentia. My long-time
friend, teacher, and mentor, Prof. Gian Paolo Biasin, who wrote first in
English on Michelstaedter in his book Literary Diseases, provided con-
stant psychological and intellectual support for this study. He read the
complete manuscript, found my errors, and gave me very detailed sug-
gestions for improvement. Two other dear friends read my manuscript
with patience and care and offered valid criticism: Prof. Rebecca West at
the University of Chicago, and my colleague at the University of Texas,
Prof. Millicent Marcus.
I wish to express my thanks to the chair of the University of South
Florida editorial committee, Prof. Silvia Ruffo Fiore, who kept me
posted at each stage of the reviewing process, and to the editors at the
University Press of Florida for their professional help. I thank Mrs.
0. K. Stephenson, my typist, who has been an indispensable part of my
scholarly life over the years. I also wish to acknowledge my sister-in-law
Rita Bini Cirimbilla, who first called my attention to Michelstaedter's
drawings, and my cousin Dr. Alessandro Bini, who assisted me in my
research in Gorizia.
For his editorial help and above all for his never-failing moral and
intellectual presence, my deepest gratitude goes to my husband, Joseph
Coleman Carter. It is to him that this book is dedicated.


















BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE





Carlo's father, Alberto, born in Gorizia, was the son of Elia Michel-
staedter of Germany and Bona Reggio of Italy. His maternal grandfather
was the eminent rabbi and scholar Isacco Samuele Reggio, whose valu-
able library is now in the British Museum. Alberto, however, was not
successful in school and began to work as a stockbroker. He later became
the director of an insurance company. A self-taught man and a biblio-
maniac, he was also a dilettante writer. He often wrote for Il Corriere
friulano, whose editor was related to his wife, the writer Carolina
Luzzatto.
Gorizia and Trieste were then under the Austrian crown and many
Italians living there took part in the irredentist movement, a crusade for
the return of Gorizia and Trieste to Italy. Alberto was one of them. He
married Emma Luzzatto from another prominent Jewish family, who
was to endure not only the loss of two of her children but also, together
with her daughter Elda, the tragedy of the Nazi persecution. Deported
to Auschwitz at the age of 89, she died shortly after arriving. Elda was to
die there too in 1944.
Alberto and Emma had four children: Gino, born in 1877, Elda in
1879, Paula in 1885, and finally Carlo, born on June 3, 1887. Not
surprisingly, Carlo's closest sibling was his sister Paula. The intensity of
their friendship is apparent in the many letters Carlo wrote to her.


xi





xii BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE


In 1897 Carlo enrolled in the Staatsgymnasium of Gorizia, where the
instruction was in German and the emphasis was placed on the study of
the classical languages. He also studied Italian. While in school he
formed strong and long-lasting friendships with Nino Paternolli and
Enrico Mreule. Mreule introduced Carlo to Schopenhauer and stimu-
lated his interest in philosophy.
After the Gymnasium Carlo enrolled at the University of Vienna in
order to study mathematics and physics, but never actually attended.
Instead he convinced his father that he needed the stimulating, artistic
environment of Florence. There he went in October 1905, taking with
him his paints and brushes. He thought he would stay for a year but
remained for four and enrolled at the Istituto di Studi Superiori. In
Florence he met Vladimiro Arangio Ruiz and Gaetano Chiavacci, his
other two faithful friends; to the latter we owe the first edition of Carlo's
writings. Both were to become distinguished scholars in philosophy.
Carlo's sojourn in Florence was interrupted only by his trips back home
for Christmas and summer vacations.
At the end of 1906 Carlo met Nadia Baraden, a Russian divorcee. He
gave her lessons in Italian and painted a moving oil portrait of her.
Nadia's suicide in March 1907 marked the onset of chronic, severe
psychological depression for Carlo, which was to plague him for the rest
of his life. A month before her death, the foremost Italian poet of the day,
Giosue Carducci, died and Carlo went to Bologna to attend his funeral.
On that occasion he wrote a sentimental account of the experience in a
letter home. The letter was given to Carolina Luzzatto, who published it
in Il Corriere friulano without consulting Carlo. This was one of the few
pieces of his writing published during his lifetime, and he was furious
when he found out about it. In this period he did, however, contribute
many caricatures to the first and only issue of Gaudeamus igitur, a
goliardic paper written by the students of the Institute. He divided his
time between books and his true passion, drawings.
In the spring of 1907 he fell in love with Iolanda De Blasi, a school-
mate at the Institute. They did not marry because of the strong opposi-
tion he encountered in his family. The experience was important, how-
ever, since it brought out the complexity and demanding nature of
Carlo's personality. He failed in various attempts to publish his essays





BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE xiii


and to do a translation of Schopenhauer into Italian (he even wrote to
Benedetto Croce about it), and his depression grew deeper and deeper.
In 1907 music became a vital part of his life. A new friend, the
musician Giannotto Bastianelli, would play Beethoven on the piano
evening after evening. Carlo's love for Beethoven developed into an
obsession. Argia Cassini, the woman he loved in the last two years of his
life, eventually took Giannotto's place after Carlo's return to Gorizia.
In February 1909 he and his family received a telegram from New
York announcing the death of his older brother Gino. From this moment
he entered the final phase of the depression that was to bring him to
suicide.
In the last year of his life he wrote most of what he left: a volume of
poems to his beloved Argia Cassini, Il dialogo della salute, dedicated to
his younger cousin Emilio, his dissertation, La persuasione e la rettorica
with the Appendici critiche. His intellectual efforts and frenetic study
brought him to the point of questioning all established knowledge-
philosophy as well as science. In the end he refused all books except the
New Testament.
By October 17, 1910, the day of his mother's birthday, Carlo finished
his dissertation. That morning his mother came to see him and accused
him of indifference toward his family. At two o'clock in the afternoon he
shot himself in the temple. On October 19 his coffin was carried by four
of his friends to the Jewish cemetery and buried next to that of his
brother Gino. Two cypresses were planted there in memory of the two
young brothers. They can still be seen, standing tall over the tombs that
are now on Yugoslavian soil.



















































Carlo Michelstaedter.
Far di se stessofiamma
(n.d.). Watercolor on
paper. Courtesy of the
Gorizia Civic Library.

















INTRODUCTION





The silence that enveloped Carlo Michelstaedter after his suicide in 1910
can be explained in the light of the Italian cultural climate at the time,
dominated as it was by the figure of Benedetto Croce. In Croce's philo-
sophical system, based on the strict separation of the human faculties,
there was no space for a personality like Michelstaedter's, whose aim was
the abolition of this very separation. He was in fact a philosopher, a
painter, and a poet, constantly changing his mode of expression, con-
vinced of the insufficiency of all of them, in an attempt, ever frustrated,
to grasp the essence of life and find the perfect form to express it. In this
philosophical climate, a large part of the work by the poet-philosopher
Giacomo Leopardi had already suffered the critics' censure. So did the
entire production of Michelstaedter. What made Michelstaedter unac-
ceptable in the Crocean cultural milieu was precisely that which con-
stituted his originality: his repudiation of a compartmentalization of
knowledge and artistic activities. His entire life was a constant challenge
to Croce's distinti and an attack on systematic thought.
Philosophy had been for centuries synonymous with systematic thought.
In his struggle Michelstaedter was, at least in Italy, still alone. The other
leading Italian philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, who in 1922 reviewed
Michelstaedter's main work, his philosophical dissertation on persuasion
and rhetoric, lamented precisely the work's lack of systematic thought, the





2 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


absence of method; Gentile nonetheless recognized posthumously the
young scholar's philosophical mind.1
Had Michelstaedter lived in Vienna, where for a while he thought of
studying, or had he written his work in German, he would probably not
have had to wait until relatively recently for recognition. His sensibility
was, in fact, much closer to the pessimism of the North than to the
optimism of Italian neo-idealism.

Carlo Michelstaedter was born in Gorizia in 1887 into a highly cultured
Jewish family. He was the youngest of four children: Gino, Elda, Paula,
Carlo. His paternal grandfather Isacco Samuele Reggio had been a rabbi
and a scholar of great renown. Geopolitically, Gorizia was part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled a heterogeneous population of
Italian, Slovenian, and German origin. Vienna, its capital, though part of
the empire, was the center of that cultural area known as Mitteleuropa.
Gorizia, however, was culturally isolated, with only superficial ties to the
capital. The inhabitants of Gorizia, "depositories of a rather mystical
and provincial morality, extraneous to the active disenchantment of the
people in Vienna, extraneous also to the cosmopolitism of Trieste,"
"perceived Gorizia as both a sort of happy island and at the same time as
a cage that would shelter their dreams but from which it was necessary to
escape."2 In Gorizia, which counted at that time 4,825 inhabitants, the
Jewish community consisted of 274. Its language was Italian; the cit-
izenship, Austrian. The Jews of Gorizia had distinguished themselves by
intellectual achievement and wealth, derived mainly from commerce.3
Alberto Michelstaedter at the time of Carlo's birth was a stockbroker.
In 1900 he became an insurance agent and the owner of an exchange
office. There is no record, however, of the religious habits of the family
and it is fair to suppose that they were not worshipers. The cultural
atmosphere in the house was rather liberal and great importance was
placed on intellectual freedom. We know from Carlo's letters that he had
no sympathy for any religious cult, let alone Judaism, which, in his
opinion, often took the form of fanaticism. His antipathy toward Zion-
ism, openly stated in his letters home, justifies the supposition that the
rest of the family probably thought along the same lines.4 The only
interest Carlo had in Judaism was historical and philosophical, wit-
nessed by his study of the Kabbala. It was prompted by his need to verify





INTRODUCTION 3


an idea that came from reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: that the
Jewish mind lacked mysticism.
Michelstaedter's curiosity was aroused by the discovery of a Kab-
balistic literature. His strong belief in intellectual freedom, not religion,
was what he owed to the Jewish tradition. "The Jewish commitment is
desecrating," wrote Fubini, "it is violation of myths, overturning of idols;
it is iconoclasm. Freud, Einstein, Sch6nberg, Isaac Deutscher, each in his
own field, are all iconoclasts .... And so is Wittgenstein with his the-
orization of doubt."'5 If these are characteristics of the Jewish mentality,
then in this respect Michelstaedter can be considered part of it. Jewish
culture, of course, was by no means the exclusive repository of such
critical intellectual attitudes. They were, in fact, shared by a large seg-
ment of secular thinkers. Michelstaedter could have absorbed it from
Leopardi or Socrates, both of whom he admired immensely. With the
Middle European milieu, however, he shared the tragic sense of life, a
common characteristic traceable from Nietzsche to Kafka that con-
stituted the core of his philosophy. 6
He was a self-proclaimed Italian, choosing Florence over Vienna to
complete his study. Nonetheless he was not at home in the contemporary
Italian philosophical climate, the neo-idealism noted earlier. For this
rather optimistic philosophy, based on a trust in reason, he had no
affinity.
Reader of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and later Tolstoy, Dostoyevski
and Ibsen, and an enthusiast of Beethoven, Michelstaedter was intensely
aware of living in a moment of crisis, the crisis of reason, and, as
Pirandello also believed, of the myths created by reason.7 Nothing es-
caped his ferocious criticism: the idealist myth of the absolute, the
neopositivistic myths of science and progress, the religious myth of God.
In short it was the myth of certainties that had collapsed. In 1905
Einstein published his theory of relativity. Freud in those years was
already attempting to bring to the surface from the innermost parts of
the psyche, the irrational-to reveal all its powerful force and to legit-
imize its presence. SchIbnberg, whose first work was published in 1899,
upset standard harmonic rules with his twelve-tone system.
In a beautiful letter to his sister Paula who, like the Paolina of Leo-
pardi, was also his confidante, Carlo made a sapient diagnosis of his
times: "It is in part an individual condition, in part the illness of the age





4 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


insofar as the moral balance is concerned, because we are at present
living in an age in which changes in society seem to go hand in hand with
a dissolution of all bonds . and the pathways of existence are no
longer sharply drawn" (Ep., 158). He was only nineteen then, but had
already analyzed a disease which was historical and for which there was
no cure. He was aware of living in the era of God's death, as Nietzsche's
Zarathustra had stated, and with the death of God, of the end of all abso-
lutes and eternal truths, the end of all the myths created by man. Schopen-
hauer had opened the way; Nietzsche provided the accompaniment.

At this turning point in European philosophical thought, it is both
significant and appropriate that the influence of its originators was
strongly felt. While thoroughly attuned to the development of his own
times, Michelstaedter was, beyond a doubt, influenced most profoundly
by Greek thought, in particular that of the pre-Socratics. The Parmenidean
dualism between being and becoming, as will be shown in Chapter 1,
constituted the core of Michelstaedter's philosophy and also of his trag-
edy. The reality that we live is in constant change. Everything that lives,
decays and dies. Being is eternal and immutable; thus it has no part in the
world of man. So powerful was the presence of Greek thought in his life
that Michelstaedter chose to write his dissertation on the concept of
persuasion and rhetoric in Plato and Aristotle, and it is by this work that
he is principally known.
Michelstaedter had become interested in the theme of rhetoric in 1908
while working on a term paper analyzing a translation of Cicero's Pro
Ligario. He confided in a letter to his father, however, that the project
made him realize he was not cut out for textual philology: "The only
thing that interests me are the observations I could make on eloquence-
and on 'persuasion' in general" (Ep., 321). His fascination with language
and its various uses had begun in high school and grew as he studied
various tongues. At nineteen he was reading works in Italian, German,
French, Latin, and Greek.
Michelstaedter's dissertation, in examining the concepts of persua-
sione (persuasion) and rettorica (rhetoric) in Plato and Aristotle, gives
them a very particular meaning; thus I refer to them in Italian in order to
avoid the natural confusion that would derive from translating them into
English. Rhetoric (retorica in Italian, generally spelled with one t) is the





INTRODUCTION 5


discipline of organizing discourse. The word can assume various con-
notations. The chief goal of retorica since the time of the Sophists has
been persuasione. The rhetorician speaks in order to persuade and con-
vince through the force of his arguments. Retorica and persuasione, thus,
go hand in hand. Not for Michelstaedter, however, who considered them
opposites; as embodiments of a Manichean dualism of evil and good. It
should be pointed out, however, that persuasione and rettorica (Michel-
staedter's terms) are not two linguistic but two ontological entities. They
do not exclusively qualify our use of language, but also our way of
living; better, they qualify our language only insofar as language is
strictly connected with our life, insofar as it mirrors reality. In this,
Michelstaedter was undoubtedly a Greek thinker-but a Greek before
Aristotle for whom words correspond univocally to reality.
Rettorica for Michelstaedter signifies misused language, but also hy-
pocrisy, lack of authenticity; that is, of correspondence between words
and actions. Such failures in mankind had their origin in language, and
as we will see, they began with Aristotle. Behavior conditioned by ret-
torica now characterizes society in all its aspects. Thus Michelstaedter
can speak of a rettorica of religion, of science, of education, of politics,
by which he means hypocrisy, falsehood, and corruption.
For Michelstaedter, persuasione, by contrast, is coherence, authen-
ticity, consistency. It must not be confused with the practice of persuad-
ing others, of which the Sophists were masters. By persuasione he means
a perfect coherence between ideals and actions, as the result of an
individual's striving. Achieving persuasione is not an easy task and it is
one, as we shall see, that each individual must undertake alone.
Among the Greek philosophers Socrates had a special place in Michel-
staedter's world. He was a real model of persuasione: he above all lived
his life in perfect harmony with his ideas, pursued truth, and pitted
himself against the rettorica of the Sophists, who misused words for the
sake of winning rhetorical contests. In the six Appendici critiche to the
dissertation, Michelstaedter examines the origin and growth of rettorica
in antiquity. This text (which, in fact, constituted a second dissertation)
has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. In the Appendici he
retraced, step by step, beginning with Parmenides, the process whereby
rettorica was born. The turning point was Plato's Phaedrus and Republic,
where the Greek philosopher attributed ontological status to concepts,





6 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


establishing once and for all the separation between knowledge and life
(Appendice 2).
The detailed, philological analysis of the evolution of such a process in
Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise specifically on rhetoric, is devel-
oped in Appendici 3, 4, and 5. Aristotle created a complete system of
abstract nouns and concepts with no correspondent objects in reality. In
Appendice 6, entitled On Rhetoric and Dialectics, Michelstaedter shows
to what extreme Aristotle had arrived. "He let words suggest to him
ideas, that is, his writing was not prompted by his thinking, but his
thinking by his writing" (Opere, 302).
Philological analysis reveals the birth of rettorica in the Appendici. In
La persuasione e la rettorica, Michelstaedter illustrates the subject with
an anecdote: the amusing tale of Plato's air balloon, which he calls "A
Historical Example." It was clearly chosen to balance out the example of
the "weight" that he uses at the beginning of the work as a metaphor of
man's contradictory essence. (We will examine it in detail in Chapter 1.)
The nature of the weight, writes Michelstaedter, is to fall, but once it
achieves its goal (falling), it also reaches its own end, stasis, and no longer
exists as a weight. So it is with man. His essence is to strive constantly
and unsuccessfully to achieve the absolute. If man could reach his goal he
would cease to be. It is evident that man and the absolute cannot coexist.
Paradoxically, in order to achieve the absolute, man must be no more.
Only in death can his desire be fulfilled.
The story of the air balloon is a lighthearted counterpoint (at least
initially) to the heavy logic of the argument of the weight. Socrates
honestly and courageously accepted the consequences of the tragic law.
He chose death to achieve the absolute. Plato, by contrast, attempted to
defy the law of gravity without renouncing "his body," "his life."

He meditated for a long time and finally invented his macrocosm. The
main part of the strange machine was a large rigid globe made out of
steel ... which Plato filled with the Absolute .... With this mirac-
ulous system he would lift himself without losing his weight [together]
with his disciples and reach the sun. (Persuasione, 110)

"The departure was joyful and full of hope," comments Michelstaedter.
Up in the sky Plato lectured his pupils, explaining to them that whereas





INTRODUCTION 7


things with weight are down on earth, "we are here only because we have
lightness." Actually, Plato continued, confusing his pupils even more,
"precisely because we are here, we participate in this lightness" (111).
Michelstaedter's irony becomes heavier as it progresses. "Only with
the contemplation of lightness, we who possess lightness can see and
possess all things not as they appear on earth, but as they are in the
kingdom of the sun" (112). The poor disciples were trying hard to see the
things their teacher was talking about and did not have the courage to
admit they could not see anything. Plato continued to describe the
"forms" he was admiring. "Digging out of his memory the most hidden
images and, adding to them his crazy fantasies, he nourished himself and
the others with words" (112).

Days, months, years passed-life did not change .... The inhabitants
of Lightness and Plato himself were getting older; yet the kingdom of
the sun was still far away and the reflected splendor of the machine
filled with the Absolute gave them neither joy nor force, let alone
eternal youth. (112-113)

The disciples had become discouraged and desperate. But one day one of
them, more courageous and clever than the others, having learned Plato's
logical arguments well, used them on him and managed to bring the
balloon back to earth. There he continued to preach the words of his
teacher, who had by then become too old and tired for the enterprise.
That disciple was Aristotle, Michelstaedter concludes. Plato's system
had been deflated like an air balloon. The way was clear for Aristotle to
build his own construction, this time on earth, but just as abstract.

Michelstaedter's major text, La persuasione e la rettorica, though based
on the Greeks, mainly on Plato and Aristotle, takes a personal turn from
the very start. In the epigraph to the Preface, he quotes from Sophocles's
Electra, "I know I am doing untimely and unbecoming things." From the
start he takes the role of the antagonist. Yet it is the same role played by
those who, in his mind, have throughout history spoken the truth: Par-
menides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Socrates, the author of Ecclesiastes,
Christ, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Simonides, Petrarch, Leopardi, Ibsen, Bee-
thoven. Truth is one, eternal, unchangeable. Michelstaedter does not





8 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


pretend to say anything new. He only wonders how the world has con-
tinued after the truth had been spoken, a truth of misery and sorrow. At
the onset, he states his pessimistic view of the world and rejects any faith
in human progress.
The prophets spoke the truth, but their followers warped and falsified
it. He is only repeating a message as old as mankind, trying once more to
restore meanings to words. His dissertation, therefore, has a double aim:
to denounce the corruption of language, whereby men talk but do not
say anything, tracing it back to its origin in Aristotle. He further wishes
to show that the corruption of language engendered a process of deterio-
ration of society. He reiterates the painful truth that life is a contradiction
in terms: as Leopardi had already explained, it consists in a never-
satisfied will. It is a constant tension toward a future that never comes.
Men, in fact, do not live in the present, but only in the nonexistent
future; thus they do not live. Their so-called life is a race toward death.
In Michelstaedter's elaboration of the concept of persuasione we can
hear the voice of another philosopher: Arthur Schopenhauer. The Par-
menidean opposition of being and becoming is, in fact, coupled with
Schopenhauer's idea of suffering that constitutes the only real essence of
living beings. For Schopenhauer, as for Leopardi, will is what constitutes
the essence of human life. Will presents itself as a constant tension, as a
search for what man lacks. "The relationship between human beings is
characterized by the effort to satisfy through every other, a desire for that
which each lacks; therefore it always is a relationship of exploitation and
violence.'8 The will is never satisfied; if it were satisfied, it would cease
to be the will, and man's life would cease too. Man lives in a constant
state of want; this is his contradictory essence.
Michelstaedter, however, was not satisfied with the diagnosis; he strove
constantly against the absurd logic that rules the world. Schopenhauer
recognized the primacy of will over intellect and accepted it. Michelstaed-
ter did not, or at least strove with all his energy to achieve the absurd-
absurd because impossible-identification of will and intellect. He strug-
gled to achieve a freedom from dependence on outside reality. He strove
for the coincidence "of existence and meaning," to use Gianni Vattimo's
effective expression, that is, for persuasione, for self-sufficiency and auton-
omy.9 It was only a utopia for Michelstaedter, who wrote, echoing Nietz-
sche's Zarathustra, that autonomy is a condition which exists only "in the





INTRODUCTION 9


island of the blessed souls" (Persuasione, 42). Man by his very nature
cannot obtain it in his life. The only thing he can do is "to assume without
reservations the suffering which is a necessary condition of existence."10
This is also the position advocated by Schopenhauer. But Michelstaedter
took it to its extreme, to the point of self-destruction.
Michelstaedter's concern with death, his tragic sense of life, his aware-
ness that mankind was approaching its end and finally his suicide make
him into the conscience of his time and the prophet of the world tragedy
that was about to explode and that was eventually to take so many,
together with his loved ones, to their horrifying end in the Nazi con-
centration camps. Carlo's mother, Emma Luzzatto, was deported to
Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 89, where she died along with her older
daughter Elda and Carlo's beloved Argia Cassini. Of the Michelstaedter
family only his sister Paula survived the Second World War and it is to her
that we owe what is left of her brother's writings.

In the same year in which he wrote his dissertation Michelstaedter
composed Il dialogo della salute (The Dialogue on Health) and many
poems.11 He had begun writing poems as early as 1905 when he gradu-
ated from high school (liceo), and he had started to jot down his thoughts.
His notes are extremely valuable in understanding the evolution of his
personality and philosophy. But above all he left two hundred letters
that, thanks to Sergio Campailla, are now available in a critical edition.
Michelstaedter's directness and outspokenness make them documents of
great value. They also make extremely enjoyable reading, as Michel-
staedter- strange as it may seem-was endowed with a strong sense of
humor and a gift for the dramatic and for caricature.
Writing in all these various forms did not suffice as a means of
expression. His graphic art, up to now almost completely ignored by
scholars, complemented and extended the written word. Campailla's
outstanding publication12-the one exception to the general lack of
interest-documents a large selection of his more important works.
Hundreds of his drawings, now collected in the Civic Library of Gorizia
in the Fondo Carlo Michelstaedter, are important because they anticipate
Expressionism, but above all because they reveal, more effectively than
do his writings, the core of his philosophy.
Michelstaedter's philosophical works will be examined in Chapter 1,





10 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


his poetry in Chapter 2, and his graphic art in Chapter 3. This division
reflects a teleological approach to his production. He strove all his life to
achieve persuasione, in order to find authentic language to express his
message of truth. He discovered that the language of philosophy could
not do it. The abstract, abused words of theoretical systems were dead
bodies without souls. He could not find correspondence between them
and what they should have signified. It was the language of hypocrisy.
Poetry, instead, strove for the synthetic image; the image that does not
explain, but evokes; the image that does not claim the assent of the-
oretical reason, but hopes for that of feelings, through which truth can
often speak with a more effective voice. Michelstaedter wrote his poems,
too, little thinking of publishing them, probably knowing that his lan-
guage was still caught up in the elaborate, abstract meanings of philoso-
phy. We don't know how he judged his poetry, but considering his great
admiration for Leopardi and his recurrent use of images and even lines
taken from Leopardi's poems, dissatisfaction with his own verse is not an
unlikely hypothesis.
Poetry, after all, still deals with words. It was in drawing that Michel-
staedter was to find his authentic form of expression, the means by which
he could finally defeat rettorica. With pencil or black chalk, the simplest
of tools, he could try to catch the fleeting spark of the soul and with rapid
strokes fix it on paper. All of his drawings, in fact, are portraits. His
interest is the face and his challenge, the eyes. Between the subject
portrayed and the beholder there is no longer any rhetorical mediation.
The eyes are the receiver of a message that speaks with the authentic
voice of persuasione.


SCHOLARSHIP

We cannot judge a thing in itself, but only
the impressions that it produces upon us,
because the outside world comes to our
knowledge in no other way but by means
of impressions produced through our
senses .... Now senses are a completely
individual thing. So we can see that already
the prime matter of judgment differs in
each individual. To that we must add the





INTRODUCTION 11


different intellective faculty and it follows
that every judgment is subjective and that
there exists only a relative and individual
truth.-Carlo Michelstaedter13


EXISTENTIALISM
It was perhaps the mounting wave of existentialism in the 1940s and
1950s that revived interest in Michelstaedter. The cultural climate that
had buried Croce and philosophical systems, that had brought the un-
conscious to the surface, that had stated the relativism of everything and
had sanctioned the death of God, was now right for Michelstaedter. It
started with Teodorico Moretti Costanzi's 1943 article, "Un esistenziali-
sta ante litteram: Carlo Michelstaedter," which pointed out similarities
between his writings and Kierkegaard's.14 With Kierkegaard, whom he
may have known through Ibsen, Michelstaedter shared the belief in the
essential contradiction of existence. To exist is to negate oneself as being.
It was the Parmenidean heritage that drew Michelstaedter to something
like existentialism. Of course, there is a basic difference between the two
thinkers. Kierkegaard gave his philosophical discourse a religious dimen-
sion that is totally absent in Michelstaedter's. It is the sin against God for
Kierkegaard that constitutes the negativity of existence.
Soon after, Giuseppe Catalfamo developed further the idea of Michel-
staedter as existentialist. Every existence negates essence, and thus ne-
gates persuasione. "To exist is therefore to contradict oneself, is to live in
the inherent contradiction of life." "The individual wants to be and,
instead, he becomes."15 On such a premise, however, Michelstaedter can
be called preexistentialist, just as we could call "preexistentialist" Par-
menides, the Sophists, Leopardi, Pirandello, and many others.
Catalfamo sees also in the concept of suffering an analogy with the
existential Angst, although Michelstaedter was probably indebted to
Schopenhauer for that. If Angst is the experience of nothingness, if it
represents the reaction of the individual before this discovery, then in
Michelstaedter it often presents itself as "nausea." The word nausea
recurs three times in the Epistolario (Letters, 360, 394, 408), and twice
in his last poems (Poesie, 94, 97). In the Epistolario it always appears
in letters to one of his dear friends, Rico; in each instance, nausea refers
to Carlo's condition. Rico was for Carlo a model of persuasione, an






12 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


example to follow, a Socratic figure. The fourth time, in fact, that the
word nausea appears, it is uttered by Rico/Socrates in Il dialogo della
salute. Rico, however, uses it in an ethical rather than ontological sense,
to express his disgust for his being so low, that is, for his remaining on
an existential level, for his being forever caught in the realm of becom-
ing, for his inability to "consistere" (to persist, to remain faithful to
himself). That Michelstaedter could not precisely diagnose his feeling
is not hard to understand; after all, it took Sartre's Roquentin one
hundred pages of self-analysis to arrive at the understanding of his own
nausea. 16
The feeling of nausea is connected in Michelstaedter, as in many
existentialists, with the feeling of inertia. "Inertia" is even more fre-
quently used than "nausea" in the last part of the Epistolario. It is the
state into which he had sunk in the last year of his life. His incapacity to
act, his inertia, and his nausea were connected with the writing of his
dissertation, with his longer periods of reflection and the complete ab-
sence of action. To Rico, the persuaso, Carlo writes in December 1909:
"While in this period you have acted so as to conquer inertia which is the
enemy of everything, I am still always as you left me" (Ep., 425).17 If
Michelstaedter is far from the transcendent conclusion of Kierkegaard
he is close, nonetheless, to Heidegger's dialectics of being and nothing.
"For both, in fact the affirmation of nothingness is an act of existence, is
the full comprehension of being and at the same time, it is the position of
freedom, as it persuades us of the irrelevance of the word as such."'18
Ioachim Ranke, in his clear analysis of Michelstaedter's "existen-
tialism," for the first time pointed out the main difference between
Michelstaedter and Heidegger. Michelstaedter's ethical discourse, on
which the ontological search is based and on which it depends, is totally
absent in Heidegger, who makes clear that his interpretation "has a
purely ontological aim and that it has absolutely nothing to do with a
moralizing criticism of existence."19 It is, in my view, this ethical aspect
that makes Michelstaedter a disciple of Greek thought as well as of
Leopardi. His adamant refusal to separate to 6n (being) from to agathdn
(the highest good) derives from Plato's identification of knowledge and
virtue.
Ranke well saw the individualistic quality of Michelstaedter's philoso-
phy. The subject is the creator of his destiny. No social institution can





INTRODUCTION 13


help him in his search for authenticity. Each man is alone in the world
and must create his life on his own. In this position, Carlo was influenced
by Leopardi as well as by Max Stirner's Der Einzige und sein Eigentum
(The Ego and His Own), a text that he quoted at length in one of his
letters (Ep., 202).
The similarity with existentialist thought was also pointed out by
Giorgio Brianese in an essay where he returns to Ranke's distinction
between Michelstaedter's ethics and Heidegger's ontology. Brianese
speaks of a "theoretical" rather than "philosophical" affinity between the
two that derives from their common philosophical background: the
study of the Greeks, of Schopenhauer, and of Nietzsche.20 Chronology
makes it impossible for Michelstaedter to have known Heidegger's work,
and it is unlikely that the latter would have known or been influenced by
the posthumous publication of the former's work. Yet Heidegger's cate-
gories of authenticity and inauthenticity have more than an echo in
Michelstaedter's persuasione and rettorica. "Dasein is characterized by
incompleteness which can never lack, or Dasein would cease to be what
it is. Likewise the man of rettorica constantly lacks self-possession. Were
he to possess it, he would cease to be the man of rettorica and become the
persuaso."21
How much of Heidegger we can find in Michelstaedter is of little
interest to us. Existentialism is fortunately the loosest of the "isms." It
can easily be applied to thinkers of various schools of thought, because it
describes a mental attitude rather than a philosophical system. It opposes
the idea of "a school of thought" as such, the compartmentalization of
knowledge, the easy optimism about the existence of truths and the
certainty of finding them. It is the humble attitude of the responsible
individual who is aware of his limits and of the limits of his own con-
structions. Yet it is at this point that Michelstaedter tries to distance
himself from existentialism (of course without being aware of it), in his
refusal to accept, in his decision to fight. It is his conscious, useless fight
that sets him apart from the other thinkers of the time. Michelstaedter
knows that his battle is in vain, yet it is a categorical imperative from
which the real persuaso can never dissociate himself. If the essence of life
is contradictory it is a logical consequence that man's life should pursue a
contradictory aim. Reaching the absolute thus necessarily coincides with
self-negation and self-destruction.





14 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


SOCIAL CRITICISM

If the silence that surrounded Michelstaedter's death was caused by the
Crocean cultural monopoly that could not fit him into any of the well-
delimited intellectual categories-as he bridged them all-silence or
misunderstanding were to surround him even when the cultural lead-
ership passed into the hands of the left. Michelstaedter's lack of political
engagement was a cause of suspicion to the followers of the philosopher
Antonio Gramsci whose aim was the creation of a popular culture and
the bridging of the gap between the intellectuals and the masses. Even
Carlo Cattaneo, who otherwise understood Michelstaedter's thought, in
an article with the telling title "La rivolta impossible," ends up accusing
him of an inability to understand his own times.22 Cattaneo's criticisms
were based on Michelstaedter's refusing to become politically involved or
to act in the name of a social change-for the very sound reason that he
did not believe in change. It was hard for Cattaneo to accept the weight
of nihilistic and self-destructive thought. As a result he charged Michel-
staedter with a lack of understanding. The failure to understand was
Cattaneo's.
Only since the 1960s has the attitude of Marxist criticism changed.
Muzzioli, in a very interesting essay, echoing Gianni Vattimo, claims that
the lesson of the Frankfurt School helped to revise Marxist theory,
allowing a more open critical discussion of Michelstaedter's work.23
According to critics like Benussi, Abbruzzese, Cerruti, and Luperini,
Michelstaedter's lack of political involvement does not lessen the positive
contribution of his detailed and lucid criticism of bourgeois ideology. 24
Up to this point agreement is easy. What should be avoided, however, is
the temptation to see him as "anticipating ... themes of ... the so-
called Western Marxism."'25
It should not be forgotten, in fact, that Michelstaedter's thought was
extremely individualistic, inspired by a total mistrust of any type of social
institution. His bitter criticism against contemporary society, against cap-
italism and technology, cannot be seen in Marxist terms. He did not leave
any political manifestos. Instead, like Leopardi, he was suspicious of all
politics and believed that the only revolution man could hope to accom-
plish must be individual, on his own. In this respect he is again much closer






INTRODUCTION 15


to Max Stirner than to Karl Marx. As did Stirner, he attacked all sys-
tematic philosophies, placed the individual alone at the center of his
vision of the world, and had no faith in either human or natural law.26
The pages of his dissertation that lend themselves to a socialist read-
ing are those in the section entitled "La rettorica nella vita" ("The
Rhetoric in Life") and in particular the chapter "La sicurezza" ("Security").
Here Michelstaedter equates work with "violence against nature" and
property with "violence against man." In the-description that follows of
the process whereby man becomes a thing and is used by another man,
the emphasis is all on human aggressiveness, egoism, abuse. Michel-
staedter sees men as being, as Hobbes had said and Leopardi repeated,
hostile to each other even before any type of society is created. It is
precisely the fear of the other that forces men to build this hypocritical
creation that is society, whereby men suppress their urge to overcome the
other in exchange for the promise that they themselves shall not be
overcome. "Each one has seen in the other only the thing that is necessary
to him, not the man who must live his own life. ... But the exchange
that is convenient to both made them safe, though without any reciprocal
affection" (Persuasione, 150). Once more Carlo's language is here much
closer to Leopardi's and Stirner's than to Marx's.
Even the so-called altruist, Michelstaedter claims, is selfish. He does
the good of the other in order to satisfy his own desires. There is an
extremely pessimistic page, still unpublished, that is worth quoting in its
entirety. Its force of conviction requires no comment:

He who has more love for himself than for others... thinks of his
own well-being just as the other. But the world calls the former good
and the latter selfish and wicked. In my opinion they are both selfish
because they act to please their will. (It can actually be said, in fact, that
all our life is not but the fruit of egoism, as it is impossible to imagine
an act that is not performed in accord with one's will.) As in regard to
the question who is the better one, I lack the criterion to say it (and
even if one were worse than the other, he would not be responsible...
The selfish world follows this criterion: that he who does me good is
good, he who does not or damages me is wicked. Thus it can be stated
that the conscience of good and evil is born out of egoism.27






16 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


Yet the critics who insist on finding in his works a socialistic concern
ignore pages like this and look for the few that suit them best. Even his
study of part of Marx's Capital and the few notes on it he left have been
cited as proof of his convictions-as if only Marxists studied Marx's
major work.28
The short essay "Discorso al popolo'" ("Oration to the People") could
give the impression of being a socialist revolutionary piece. Michel-
staedter wrote it after having read about the following episode in a
newspaper. A crowd of workers who protest against a social injustice are
distracted by a plane that flies over their heads. They applaud the sign of
human progress. Carlo imagines himself present and criticizes this ap-
plause. He is then beaten by the workers. The oration to the people
begins at this point. Although his words are animated by a spirit of
solidarity, Carlo cannot establish a real contact with them. He is the
intellectual who must open the closed minds of the masses.
This crowd does not appear to be very different from "that big beast
with its stupid and ferocious face" he had described in a letter to his
friend Rico a few months before (Ep., 394). He treats them with pater-
nalism in order to teach them that what they cheer as progress is nothing
but yet another weapon the bourgeoisie has invented against them. It is
the hypocrisy of the bourgeois power that the people must demystify in
order to free themselves from their chains.
Carlo's oration concludes with a vision of a future that is more anar-
chic than socialist. When all the people will have succeeded in unmask-
ing the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie,

then you will be invincible, then this vain edifice of bourgeois power
will collapse ... and the world will be ruled by "man," the working
man, the man who is healthy in body and mind, the man who will need
neither unjust nor complicated laws nor weapons... but his faith, his
common work and the closeness of brotherly love will be his law and
defense. (Opere, 671)

The Christian utopian tone of this conclusion is all too obvious. The
people he is addressing are the creation of his Chaplinesque fantasy.
The following year Michelstaedter wrote in his notes a few pages that
would later constitute the core of La persuasione e la rettorica. His ideas






INTRODUCTION 17


about political as well as philosophical revolution could not have been
stated more clearly and assertively:

Every new philosophy is like a revolution that assigns an unjust
power in the name of justice, in order to end up installing another one
just as unjust. Indeed every power is in itself, for the simple fact that it
is a power, unjust and impotent. Every value stated as an absolute
value is an abuse of power, and whoever trusts himself in it and
attributes to it what is instead his own duty remains forever an invalid.
But everyone must create by himself the revolution, must create his
own self by himself if he wants to achieve the real life. The only thing
that is worthy is individual value. (Opere, 700)

Michelstaedter's individualism has by now acquired a Nietzschean com-
ponent:

Persuasione is the realization of the Ubermensch. The road to health is
not approachable by everyone, has no signs or indications that can be
passed around, studied, repeated; but each one has in himself the need
to find it. . each one must again open by himself the road and then
he will find himself on the same luminous path that the few chosen
ones have undertaken. (700)

These same words will resound with new dramatic power in the pages of
Michelstaedter's dissertation.









Chapter 1



THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY


What a disappointment that Epicurus, the
sage I most need, should have written
over 300 treatises. And what a relief that
they are lost!-Emile Cioran1


"Philosophy," Michelstaedter writes, "is the path toward the absolute;
the progressive liberation from contingency." The real philosophers are
those who answer man's question "how must I live" (Opere, 843).
Michelstaedter thus puts his cards on the table right away. The philoso-
phy he is concerned with is ethics, not ontology. From the start he
proclaims the absurdity of any philosophical system as such that pre-
tends to give answers, to show the truth, to know the meaning of life. He
attacks all past philosophies and philosophers, sparing only Socrates.
The division of philosophy into different branches, which began with
Plato and was well established by Aristotle, is to his mind artificial
nonsense and is the harmful consequence of the separation between
words and things initiated by Plato. The only truth man can discover is
that life is suffering, because it has no meaning.
Michelstaedter's philosophical writing took place in 1910, the last
year of his life. In that year he wrote La persuasione e la rettorica (with
extensive Appendici) and II dialogo della salute, a Platonic, or better
Socratic, dialogue in which Leopardi's presence can also be felt. Other
writings, mostly dating from the last two years of his life, were collected
as Scritti vari (Various Writings), and they include many strictly philo-


18





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 19


sophical themes, most of them taken up and developed in his major
text.2 Chiavacci's 1958 edition lists them in a table of contents in two
sections: "A: Notes, sketches, dialogues, literary pieces; B: Notes for
systematic topics." The separation seems somewhat artificial, as the
writings do not differ enough to justify this distinction. Furthermore,
Michelstaedter would never have accepted the title given to section B,
opposed as he was to systems of any kind. He would have probably
preferred a title like Zibaldone di pensieri. These notes share with
Leopardi's not only similar content and similar views about human
nature, society, and life in general, but often even the apodictic tone of
many of the romantic poet's late Pensieri. Neither of them would ever
have written a treatise of any sort, for neither believed in systematic
construction of knowledge.
If we now turn to La persuasione e la rettorica, Michelstaedter's
published dissertation, we immediately notice that the real scholarly
work implied by the original dissertation title, I concetti [concepts] di
persuasione e rettorica in Platone e Aristotele, is not there, or is there only
marginally. Most of the scholarly work is in his Appendici, which he
wrote as a separate corpus. They developed individual themes that Michel-
staedter had barely touched upon in his dissertation. They could be
considered as a very extensive and detailed apparatus of footnotes. The
text itself is quite different from a scholarly dissertation. Plato and
Aristotle are present only to be put on trial, and their ideas are measured
against Michelstaedter's own.
The Appendici, however, are of great interest because they clearly
show that Michelstaedter's involvement with ethical and metaphysical
issues had its origin in his obsession with language-an obsession that
found an outlet in his rigorous study of Greek and Latin as well as of
German and French. His constant analysis and comparison of lan-
guages, and especially his involvement with Greek, made him aware of
the falsifications that man through words performs on life. As Campailla
pointed out in his edition of La persuasione e la rettorica, reflection on
classical philology and Greco-Roman culture produced "the most radical
and revolutionary speculative positions at the beginning of this century."
Not only Nietzsche but also Heidegger arrived at their innovations start-
ing with the Greeks.
"Con le parole guerra alle parole" is the epigraph placed at the begin-





20 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


ning of the Appendici (Opere, 142). It states Michelstaedter's resolution
to "give back to words their original meanings." His use of Greek is "an
attempt to return to the wisdom of the Ancients." As Campailla puts it,
Michelstaedter "does not quote from Greek; he speaks in Greek" (Per-
suasione, 17). The use of Greek is prompted by his need to recapture the
authentic meanings that words originally had.3


GREEK THOUGHT

In the list of the few persuasi in history Christ and Socrates occupy a
place of honor, as they alone did not entrust their thought to the written
word. "The only power of words is that of the philosopher's live word....
Every written thing arbitrarily fixes concepts, whereas only in the meet-
ing of two individuals is the individual value born and established"
(Opere, 263). It is a very Socratic argument that Michelstaedter uses to
attack writing. Socrates had often declared that the written word could
not answer his questions. It would lie there, lifeless, fixed and mute
forever. The result: ambiguity, misunderstanding, falsehood. Socrates's
interlocutor, on the other hand, could always be asked to explain or to
express in different words the misunderstood statement. Only from this
human exchange would true communication result.
In Phaedrus Socrates had said to Phaedrus: "if you, wanting to learn,
ask [the written words] to tell you something of what they say, they will
show you only one thing and always the same." And this is no sign of
certainty and consistency of meaning, as one might think. On the con-
trary, the written discourse can be used and abused, for it is in "constant
need of the father who could defend it, as by itself it can neither defend
nor help itself."4 Following this logic, King Thamus refuses the gift of
writing presented to him by Theuth. In offering King Thamus his gift,
Theuth pointed out that it would greatly help men's memory and knowl-
edge. The king's reply brings out the ambiguous nature of writing, and
leads the critic Derrida to a new reading of the Phaedrus. Replying to
Theuth, Thamus says:

You have just exposed precisely the contrary of its [writing's] real
effect. Because it will generate oblivion in the minds of those who will





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 21


learn it: they will cease to exercise their memory because, trusting the
written word, they will not try to call things back to explore their inner
meanings. What you offer your pupils is not knowledge, but only the
appearance of it.5

It is precisely this paradoxical nature of language as writing that is here
denounced. Born in order to help communication and knowledge, writ-
ing will slowly defeat its own purpose, distancing itself more and more
from men. It is precisely this criticism that Michelstaedter presents in the
writing of his Rettorica.
Analyzing the Phaedrus closely, Derrida showed, however, that "Plato's
text fails to achieve what its arguments expressly require, the priority of
speech, logos, and presence over writing.'6 After all Plato needs writing
to prove his point, and from writing he draws the metaphors denouncing
writing itself. If, following Derrida, it can be said that writing is both
cure and poison (pharmakon), both "a threat to the living presence of
authentic language" and "an indispensable means for anyone who wants
to record, transmit, or somehow commemorate that presence,'7 we must
conclude that Michelstaedter saw this ambivalence inherent in language
as it evolves: it is the ambivalence of rettorica; it is the ambivalence of his
own text.
In the course of Michelstaedter's study the concepts of persuasione
and rettorica became an obsession. Leaving Plato and Aristotle behind,
he made persuasione and rettorica two aspects of the basic dichotomy of
life versus thought. The very discussion of it is self-defeating; persua-
sione, from the start, is impossible to define with linguistic categories,
because it is the very opposite of rettorica. It is life, authenticity, self-
possession, self-determination. Rettorica is the other side of the same
coin.
The time Michelstaedter longs for is the time of "naive" expression, to
borrow Schiller's use of the word, when man and the world were only
one thing and when no distinction existed between names and the things
named. Then Heraclitus taught that names are not something accidental,
or conventional, but express the etumos, that is, the real nature of things.
Then no distinction existed between the reality-truth seen out there and
the reality-truth spoken of. No distinction existed among ontology,
logic, and language. As Gabriele Giannantoni put it:





22 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


Every mental content, every vision [was] expressed through a logos
(which originally indicated both the "discourse" that expresses a thought
and the "thought" expressed in that discourse) and it was expressed in
it in a univocal and adequate manner. ... The linguistic sign was the
sign of this Reality-Truth .... That which cannot be expressed is
neither thinkable nor real, just as that which is not real is neither
thinkable nor expressible.8

Although Parmenides and Socrates are two powerful and positive
presences in Michelstaedter's writings, and although he has been called a
neo-Parmenidean by some recent critics, Michelstaedter was probably
just as strongly influenced by Heraclitus as by Parmenides. The axiom
"Nothing exists in itself, but only in relation to a conscience" (Persua-
sione, 45) is a statement of Michelstaedter's relativism with a clear
Heraclitean origin. Heraclitus's influence is in fact far wider than it may
at first appear.
The discovery that the essence of the world is the unity of opposites is
well exemplified by Heraclitus's fragment concerning the bow whose
name is life (bios) and whose action is death. An object thus is named life
but causes death. If the link between names and things is not accidental,
if names do express the etumos of things, then this fragment proves that
the opposition is inherent and essential in the thing itself. It is no coinci-
dence, in fact, that Michelstaedter used the image of the bow as a meta-
phor of the persuaso. It well represents, as Brianese noted, the reciprocal
necessity of the incompatible and opposite terms persuasione and ret-
torica. 9 It is as evident that Michelstaedter chose the image of the bow
with Heraclitus in mind, as that Derrida had Heraclitus in mind when he
interpreted writing as creation and destruction.
Opposition is the essence of the world: from it things are born and
through it they are destroyed. Thus Heraclitus can say that "life is death
and death is life" because everything transforms itself into its opposite.10
The echo of this philosophy will resound even in Michelstaedter's poem
"I1 canto delle crisalidi" ("The Song of the Chrysalides"), where he will
make the contradictory essence of life a recurrent and obsessive theme.
Quintessentially Heraclitean is the recurrent image of the flame. Though
common to Eastern thought-and Michelstaedter knew and admired
Buddhist philosophy-it was for the Greek philosopher the principle and





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 23


the origin of all things. Fire created everything but fire is also "the
translation on the visible level, of that opposition. . which is the law of
thought and of spoken reality."11 To become fire, to make the self into a
flame, is in fact, as we will see, Michelstaedter's obsession.
Parmenides has been considered the diametric opposite of Heraclitus,
the latter being (to simplify enormously) the philosopher of "becoming,"
of flux and change; the former, the philosopher of the 6n, the ousta, of
permanence. The two positions, however, can be seen as two aspects of
the same reality. When Heraclitus was discovering that opposition is the
law of nature, when he was identifying life with death, because each
transforms itself into the other, he was looking at what we call reality, the
world that surrounds us, the matter that made us and of which we are
made. His was the world of "becoming." Parmenides, who wrote not
long after Heraclitus, from his opposed perspective, accepted the world
we live in as the realm of "becoming," and stated that since "becoming"
implies change, and thus nonbeing, "being" must necessarily be a single
entity, immobile, with no origin and no end. Furthermore, nothing can
be said of it. No attribute can be given to it, for with any "is something,"
we imply an "is not something else." In the immutable world of "being,"
discourse is not possible. Thus nothing can be said about the Parmeni-
dean 6n. Such an apparently outrageous statement must be considered
within the framework of archaic Greek thought which, as with Her-
aclitus, did not distinguish being as 6n (essence) from being as predicate.
This confusion derived from the belief in the identity of the worlds of
thought and language.
Parmenides had thus established for Michelstaedter the identity of
persuasione and truth. The goddess had disclosed to him the road to
being that coincided with truth and persuasion. "What is not," Par-
menides had said, "is unknown.., neither could you ever know it, nor
could you express it."'12 The troublesome Fragment 8, for which we
follow Guido Calogero's translation, states the identity of ontology,
logic, and language: "But to think and thinking that something is are the
same thing; you will never find thinking without the is in which it is
expressed.13 Outside the verb to be, no thought is possible, therefore
the only reality we can really express and think of is that of which we can
only say "that it is."
In his preface to La persuasione e la rettorica Sergio Campailla openly





24 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


speaks of Michelstaedter's philosophy as a return to Parmenides. "Living
. is a contradiction in terms," for living is will and the will is destined
to be frustrated, never to be fulfilled. Hence "the incompatibility between
being and becoming" (18, 19). Michelstaedter was undoubtedly limited
by this dichotomy. Many pages of his notes are devoted to this very issue,
and he clearly connects this Parmenidean being that is never born (because
eternal, absolute, and has no attributes) with his own idea of being and
with man's desire for it. In these pages the absolute is made to coincide
with persuasione. In one we can actually read "essere = peith6." A few
pages later, among various rewritings and deletions, Michelstaedter iden-
tifies persuasione with silence. "He who is persuaded is silent because he
has no 'motive' to speak."14 He has complete self-possession. Language,
therefore, seems to coincide with rettorica. Persuasione seems not to
belong to men.
Not long ago the philosopher Emanuele Severino argued that Michel-
staedter's was not an authentic return to Parmenides but a misreading.
Michelstaedter, claims Severino, wants "being" to be immortal, eternal,
one, perfect, absolute, thus transforming the eternity and immutability
Of "being" into something wanted, willed. He can therefore speak of the
real persuaso, that is, of the individual who wants and obtains perfec-
tion. For Parmenides "being" exists a priori. "In Michelstaedter's thought,"
writes Brianese, following Severino, "the immutability of being is willed
not demonstrated." Michelstaedter cannot therefore be considered a real
Parmenidean.15
Francesco Fratta contested Severino's and Brianese's interpretations as
narrow-minded. To him Michelstaedter took Parmenides' statements
more loosely than the other two scholars thought he did. According to
Fratta, Michelstaedter could not accept a theoretical absolute, that is, an
absolute which is apprehended through noas, which is grasped intellec-
tually. For Michelstaedter the absolute is not knowable but can only be
lived. Fratta, therefore, argues that Michelstaedter changes the charac-
teristics of this absolute to suit his own theory. Fratta's position is thus
not so far from the one he attacks. Both interpretations recognize the
presence of a heterodox reading of Parmenides owing to Michelstaedter's
strong ethical needs. Their difference consists only in Fratta's praise of
such misreading and his placing it in the context of Michelstaedter's
practical philosophy. What should always be kept in mind is that Michel-





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 25


staedter's philosophy is not theoretical but practical. Its aim is to live the
life of persuasione, not to know it. The problem of being, of persuasione,
in his view, cannot be considered a theoretical problem, but must remain
an ethical one.16
To conclude, Michelstaedter can be called "Parmenidean" only inso-
far as he wanted life and thought to coincide; this is what he called
persuasione. What both interpretations missed, however, is his explicit
admission that will and being (boulg and ousia) are opposite terms.
Contrary to Severino's and Brianese's beliefs, Michelstaedter knew very
well that "I cannot define ousia in any other way than by negating all the
attributes of the will. ... And even if all my individuality points toward
the absolute, I am always the negation of the absolute 'insofar as I want
it"' (Opere, 803). The will to the absolute is reduced to the negation of
the self, to argha. And argha is peace, is death.
It is therefore legitimate to affirm that Michelstaedter was "Parmeni-
dean" insofar as he was "Heraclitean"; that is, he needed to believe in an
immutable being because he was trapped in the world of becoming. This
view is well demonstrated by a single illuminating sentence at the begin-
ning of the section "The Illusion of Persuasion": "Life would be one,
immobile, shapeless, if it could 'consist' in one point" (Persuasione, 43).
This blatantly Parmenidean statement is actually at the same time a
Heraclitean statement; the "if" clause openly undermines the Parmeni-
dean quality of it. Life is not immobile, one, shapeless; it is variegated
and changeable.
If Parmenides had established the unity of truth and persuasione, the
Sophists destroyed that unity a century later and introduced relativism.
Protagoras had written: "About the gods I am not able to know either
that they are, or that they are not, or what they look like; many things
prevent me from knowing it: the obscurity of the issue, and the brevity of
human life."17 Thus it is useless to speculate on it, man should concern
himself with what is within his range. Things cannot be known for what
they are in themselves, but only as they appear to us. Consequently, man
becomes "the measure of everything" as Protagoras wrote in his first
fragment.18 Nobody can speak the truth; what appears true to one
person may not to another. In the Thaetetus Plato has Protagoras defend
his position against Socrates, who cannot accept relativism. For the
former, true persuasione was separate from truth and pursued for itself.





26 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


The task of the Sophist, therefore, consisted in convincing not by means
of an unknown "truth," but through persuasion. The 16gos acquired
then a divine status. It became capable of persuasion, thus of affecting
men's minds and lives.
Socrates was in the vanguard of the fight against the Sophists. In
contrast to their rhetoric, which gave the appearance of truth to that
which was not true, Socrates' famous question "T esti" sought the
essence of the thing, devoid of any subjective view, or individual interest.
What is it? What is that which makes a thing be what it is? The constant,
immutable element, the reason of being and of its being known. This was
Socrates' only concern. Many of Plato's dialogues present him as the
interlocutor of various famous Sophists. Socrates fought against persua-
sion devoid of truth as against a form of vile deception. Only truth can
persuade, and the real pedagogue must be concerned with truth more
than with a victorious argument. The Sophists were dangerous ped-
agogues who brought their pupils away from the path of knowledge and
morality. Socrates' battle against the Sophists aimed at reestablishing the
unity between truth and persuasion, between knowledge and ethics. The
Sophistic rhetoric founded on a makros 16gos, a long continuous dis-
course, had as its end persuasion, not truth. The long, elaborate dis-
course by its very nature could deaden the listeners' critical capabilities
and prevent them from questioning and asking for clarification. The
rhetorical structure of the discourse, the richness of its images, would
conquer and convince the listener, not the force of its truth. Socrates'
dialgesthai, on the other hand, consisted in questioning and answering,
accompanied by the constant verification of the interlocutor's under-
standing. His goal, or better their goal, was truth. Hence his polemic
against the written discourse, which cannot answer a question. His t
esti was an authentic question that demanded an immediate and a precise
answer. Truth cannot be imposed on men from above; it is they who
must search for and discover it. The Socratic method would in fact lead
men to their own discoveries. Dialgesthai was Socrates' moral imper-
ative. His death was the ultimate test of his absolute faith in it. Socrates'
theoretical and ethical goals coincide; his life was the enactment of his
theory. He was a real persuaso.
The unity between being and life which Parmenides had advocated,
that the Sophists had challenged, and Socrates had reestablished, was





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 27


definitively destroyed by Plato, or so claims Michelstaedter. "When
Socrates was asking t[ esti, was asking for the value in itself, persuasive,
free, good, useful. . he freed the concept from the finite content given
it by men and good only for their particular insufficient lives, and he was
asking for the rational, absolute value" (Opere, 151). If such an answer
was not obtained, the various concepts could then be dismissed as mere
names empty of any meaning. This, according to Michelstaedter, was the
Socrates of the early dialogues. Yet, as Plato developed his thought he
slowly moved farther and farther away from his teacher's moral philoso-
phy, developing in two directions: on the ethical level in the Republic and
on the theoretical in the Parmenides and in the Sophist.
In the Republic, Plato leaves ethics behind and concerns himself with
the material needs of the city. Thus he lays down the basis of a society
where, in order to maintain order, the state must think and organize
men's demands. Usefulness becomes the first concern. The education
Plato outlined in the Republic is quite different from that described in the
Gorgias, which aimed at the justice and goodness of men's souls. Educa-
tion in the Republic consists in adapting (via mimesis) one's self to a
specific role whose purpose might not even be seen. It must create
professionals, very good at a particular job, who cannot see their train-
ing and their respective action within the wider range of human life. "But
Plato does not have to make men, as Socrates did," Michelstaedter
remarks sarcastically, "he must make farmers, shoemakers, blacksmiths,
merchants, bankers, warriors, politicians, each of which must perform a
function that is necessary to the life of the city" (Opere, 159). In the
automation of their actions, men lose sight of life's final goal.
Plato's divergence from Socrates on the theoretical level was really the
result of the logical development of Socrates' dialgesthai. In answering
Socrates' "dt esti" Plato created his world of ideas, forms, or essences,
immutable and eternal, the reasons of existent things and of their being
known. In that world he also placed the ideas or concepts (goodness,
courage, wisdom, happiness) which have no corresponding objects, but
in which individuals participate. It was at this point that the problem
appeared with greatest clarity. How can things of this world be said to
correspond to the idea, if the idea is immutable and immobile? How
could the things of this world participate in the world of ideas? The
impasse was caused by the Parmenidean heritage, which had established





28 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


the incompatibility of the one and the many. "Being" must be one; the
many belong to the world of "becoming." Of "being" we can only say
that it is itself, for any other attribute given to it would imply that "being"
is not something else. In order to come out of the impasse, Plato had
finally to face the ambiguity of the verb "to be." It was in the Sophist that
for the first time Plato distinguished "being" as substance from "being"
as a predicate. To say that Socrates is wise implies of course that he is not
unwise, but the is as well as the is not do not affirm or negate the reality
of Socrates, but only of one attribute. Nonbeing thus coincides with
otherness, difference.
Michelstaedter, however, did not accept Plato's operation. From it
"'T poll [the many] came out victorious, to en [the one] was dead
forever and with it the postulate of philosophical honesty" (Opere, 191).
But if Plato wanted with this argument to move t6 mo 6n (nonbeing) he
also created the eteron (the other, the different) and made the mo 6n into
a substance. It follows, Michelstaedter remarks, that when I say some-
thing, "the other," that is, "nonbeing," is always implicit; I can now
pretend that anything I say has substance (or is a real being) (Opere,
191). Plato thus gave reality to every idea and every name, and rettorica
was born. The identity of ontology, thought, and language was forever
broken. From then on, being was to be used as a predicate, words were
to become technical terms, language was to become a game. "At the price
of the loss of life," writes Fratta, "man had conquered for himself the
possibility of multiform and infinite speech." The Socratic dialectics was
dead and "from its ashes" rettorica was born.19
Aristotle finished what Plato had begun, and truly completed the crea-
tion of rettorica. He, in fact, pursued the life of theoresis and not that of
persuasione. With such a position, based on the separation of the thinking
subject and reality, goes the presumption of objective knowledge-as if we
could ever see things as they are in themselves. Michelstaedter clearly
recognized the naivete of such belief. In order to see things in themselves,
detached from any relation to the subject, man would need to step out of
the flux of life. Because this is impossible, so-called objective knowledge
can never be obtained. Yet Aristotle continued on that road and estab-
lished immutable principles that rule and organize our knowledge.
Aristotle, according to Michelstaedter, gave substance to abstractions
and made language into an empty sound: "To speak of speaking, rather




THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 29


than actually speaking, and in the spoken words to fake each time a real
proof of what has been said." "Words," Michelstaedter continues, "the
modes of language ... become for Aristotle 'things' in themselves: they
crystallize" (Opere, 234). Aristotle's operation is best seen in the treatment
of the verbal forms which, rather than being used to express action or
relation, that is, as predicates, are given definite articles and are fixed as
solid nouns. Words like "thought, intellect, knowledge, ideas, concepts,
categories, principles, syllogisms" become real entities, whereas they are
only "the poultice that centuries of rettorica have applied to human suffer-
ing." "Who could ever take them away from men without also tearing
away their skin?" (Opere, 165). The intellectual constructions have by now
become part of man's nature through an act of self-preservation. It is the
fear of the unknown that must be exorcised through its naming. Michel-
staedter returns to this idea of words as poultice in an enlightening page of
his notes. "Men who have nothing to give rely on words which pretend to
give." "Because they cannot make their own world coincide with that of
others, they fake words that pretend to contain the absolute world. They
signify with words what they do not know and need in order to live-every
word contains a mystery and in words they trust themselves" (Opere, 725).
The attack on Aristotle is developed at length in his Appendici critiche and
continues throughout.
Aristotle had created rettorica which from then on would take over all
forms of human life, slowly destroying all authenticity. This process has
continued up to today and has built very complex intellectual systems.
Religions, scientific theories, philosophical systems are all the modern
products of rettorica with which man deceives himself, giving names to
darkness and nothingness. Modern philosophy, Michelstaedter writes,

is not exempt from this error. It has presupposed the spirit beyond
things: the thing in itself, God, the absolute of the moderns correspond
now exactly to Aristotle's substantial arke. With this presupposition
of an absolute form in everything, Aristotle as well as Hegel and Croce
have been able to give a very vast content to thought... [a content]
which did not exist. (Opere, 837)

The world, in fact, cannot be explained. "The world is the world of
contingencies, relativity, it 'is' because it 'is,' has no reason, no goal, no





30 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


beginning, no end: it is the negation of the concept of 'substance,' of
'absolute"' (Opere, 843). It is against words and only words that Michel-
staedter launches his attack. They alone are responsible for deception. It
is pointless to grow angry at the way things are. "Things are as they are,
as they cannot but be,. . each has its own cause for being the way it is."
Instead, Michelstaedter continues to be angered by words that confer
upon themselves a value and an intent they do not possess. Words like
goodness, virtue, right, or wrong should be used as relative expressions
because they contain the connotations we give to them. It is deplorable to
use them as general philosophical fixed labels (859).


RETTORICA: THE UNAVOIDABLE PITFALL

It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence
has struck the human race in its most dis-
tinctive faculty-that is, the use of words. It
is a plague afflicting language, revealing
itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy,
an automatism that tends to level out all
expression into the most generic, anony-
mous, and abstract formulas.-Italo
Calvino.20

We who use language to interpret reality, to invent meanings-where
have we arrived? We jugglers of words, creators of schools of interpreta-
tions, academic fads, theories (or "plans" as Umberto Eco would now
call them) have by now become their slaves. Once simply means to an
end, our linguistic or intellectual creations have become the ends them-
selves. They have become designs to which we try to adapt our lives and
the world around us. They are our new absolutes by which we live and
judge. It is our need for meanings that prompts our intellect to create
new absolutes after it has destroyed the old ones.
As Pirandello's Cosmo Laurentano says in The Old and the Young,
philosophical systems, like religions and scientific theories, are man-
made products. They are all poetry, creation of the human intellect
"which on hypothesis, that is to say on a cloud . builds up castles,
pinnacles and towers," and these are nothing but "churches, chapels,
shrines, temples of different styles poised in the air." He continues:





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 31


"Breathe, and the whole structure collapses; breathe, and all these castles
which tower like mountains crumble, because there is nothing inside
them; a void . a void and the silence of mystery."21 "You live on the
surface," Lia tells Casaubon in Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. "You some-
times seem profound but it is only because you piece a lot of surfaces
together to create the impression of depth, solidity."'22 But Lia's state-
ment is not an accusation of superficiality directed toward an individual.
It is a philosophical statement about the world. Surfaces are all that the
world is about. The abyss does not exist. It is we who want to believe in
it; so we create it. As Calvino's Palomar had already taught us, "It is only
after you have come to know the surface of things . that you can
venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inex-
haustible."23
Then why write about anything? Why continue to interpret? Why
study Michelstaedter? To write about him seems to defeat the purpose
from the start, as "this writing about" is what he strongly rejected as the
source of falsehood. Better, then, to do like two young writers from his
part of the world, Antonio Devetag and Franco Ferranti. They learned
his lesson very well: rather than writing about Carlo Michelstaedter, they
had him speak in their plays as the protagonist. Of course we could
object that Devetag and Ferranti have created their own Carlo Michel-
staedter.24 The objection is justified, but outweighed. Devetag and Fer-
ranti have indeed created their own Michelstaedter but they do not
pretend to give us the "real" Michelstaedter; neither do they pretend to
find in his writings the hidden meaning to be used as the key for every
future interpretation. They have read his work and used it as the text of
their plays. They have made a character out of the pages he left, and, as
Pirandello would say, rather than fixing him in a series of stereotypes,
they represented his drama in its making.
Another artist who has given life to Michelstaedter is Giulio Nerini, a
librarian in the Biblioteca Civica of Gorizia and a young musician who
wrote the music for one of Michelstaedter's poems, "Alba. 1 canto del
gallo" ("Dawn. The Song of the Rooster"). Devetag, Ferranti, and Nerini,
it seems to me, have done more justice to Michelstaedter than most of the
scholars who have tried to explain his life and his death.25
Then, what am I doing in this chapter? In this book? The very thing
that Michelstaedter despised: interpreting. Why? Because as he himself





32 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


proved with all his written pages, as individuals of the human species we
cannot help it. Because, as Palomar says, "not to interpret is impossible,
as refraining from thinking is impossible." Because, as Eco repeats,
interpreting is in the nature of language.26 It is the need to find meanings
that prompts us to fabricate them. In a way we are all Sherlock Holmes
or Sam Spade, in constant search of the nonexistent key that will unlock
the existential puzzle.
At the end of The Name of the Rose, Adso collects small vestiges of the
burned library. "Relics," Eco calls them, purposely giving to the word a
religious connotation.27 He continues his search although Guglielmo
had told him that there is neither order nor system in the universe. After
eight years and another five hundred pages of intellectual games, Casau-
bon will tell us the same thing, that "there is only silence out there." But,
of course, we will not believe him, and "will look for other meanings
even in [his] silence."'28
Ferdinando Adornato, in an interview with Eco, asked him whether
the meaning of Foucault's Pendulum could be summarized in the sen-
tence "Intellectual games can be lethal."'29 After Eco's affirmative reply,
he asked whether such a statement could be applied to Eco himself. An
annoyed Umberto Eco gave an answer that is worth quoting. "Yes, one
can die from an intellectual game. What more do you want me to tell
you? There are over 500 pages thrown out there as a protest against all
those brains, mine included, that rack themselves in search of a Plan, of
an ultimate meaning. Is it not enough for you?"'30 Eco is warning against
the very thing he is doing, that he loves doing and knows how to do so
very well. And this warning is conveyed to us in that very shape and form,
or better, by means of what he is warning us against. A paradox, indeed!
In it we are caught, in it we try to live. There is no alternative.
It is not by chance that Eco has stopped writing treatises (the whole,
inclusive, systematic corpora of knowledge answering every question)
and he is now writing novels. Better than any other literary form, his
novels can express the "principle of encyclopedia," which, Eco says,

does not furnish us with a complete model of rationality (it does not
reflect in a univocal way an ordered universe), rather it supplies rules
of reasonableness ... rules that allow us to decide at every step the





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 33


conditions that warrant the use of language in order to make sense-
according to some provisional criterion of order.31

After all, young Adso had learned this basic lesson. When Guglielmo
reveals to him that the events that brought him to the resolution of the
mystery were connected by chance and that his system was flawed, Adso
is not at all shocked and says that by imagining wrong orders and
systems he had, nevertheless, found something. Having recognized the
insight of his young pupil, the old master comments: "The only truths
that are useful are instruments to be thrown away" as soon as they have
accomplished their task.32 But woe to those who attach themselves to
them. "One can die from intellectual games," just as one can die by
refusing them.


LA PERSUASIONE E LA RETTORICA


The text La persuasione e la rettorica is short and its 150 pages are
unevenly divided between persuasione and rettorica; ostensibly one-
third of the text is dedicated to persuasione. At a closer look, however,
only three pages follow the title "La persuasione" and the other forty-
seven are divided between the section "L'illusione della persuasione" and
the section "La via alla persuasione." Rettorica is explained in detail.
Persuasione, on the other hand, is not, and no examples are given except
for the names of the few persuasi of history: Socrates, Christ, Leopardi,
Beethoven, Tolstoy, Ibsen. The list, as we shall see, is quite revealing.
Persuasione is defined only negatively or through metaphors. It could not
be otherwise, for it is not an intellectual category, but a moral category. It
belongs to the realm of ethics, and it cannot be explained. As Witt-
genstein will say, what gives value to the ethical sphere is precisely that it
is outside the realm of logic.33 Logical explanations belong to the realm
of rettorica. Persuasione can only be lived.
The most powerful definition-or better, representation-of persua-
sione is, undoubtedly, the one rendered with the metaphor of the weight
at the opening of the work.





34 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


A weight hangs on a hook, and in hanging, suffers that it cannot
descend; it cannot get off the hook, for, being a weight, it pends and,
pending, depends.
We want to give it satisfaction: we free it from its dependence; we let
it go, so it may satisfy its hunger for what is lowest and independently
descend to the point to which it is pleased to descend. But it is not
pleased to stop at any point it reaches, and would like to keep descend-
ing, so that the next point should be even lower than the one it occupies
at any moment. But no future point will please it, and be necessary to
its life, so long as a lower awaits; each time it is made present, every
point becomes devoid of attraction, not being still lower; thus at every
point it lacks lower points, and these attract it all the more: it is always
held by the same hunger for what is lower, and its will to descend stays
infinite.
For if everything were finished at a given point, and if at one point it
could possess the infinite descent of the infinite future-at that point it
would no longer be what it is: a weight.
Its life is this lack of its life. If it no longer lacked anything-but
were finished, perfect: if it possessed itself, it would have ceased to
exist. The weight is its own impediment to the possession of its life,
and its inability to satisfy itself depends on itself alone. The weight can
never be persuaded. (Persuasione, 39-40)34

The essence of the weight is to fall, but when the weight fulfills its need
(falling), it also reaches its end (stasis), and it ceases to be what it was (a
weight). So, for the weight to "consist," to keep its essence, to remain a
weight, it must exist in this constant state of unfulfilled tension. "The
weight," Michelstaedter writes, "can never be persuaded." So it is with
man. His essence is a constant need, a deficiency asking to be filled,
satisfied. Schopenhauer said life is will, and Leopardi had already under-
stood that it consists in desire, "in a lack, in a nonbeing, in an infinite and
never-ending tension." Were man's desire to be satisfied, he would no
longer be; as for the weight, its essence is negativity.
After talking about man in general, Michelstaedter suddenly switches
to the first person in order to continue his discourse with a very personal
example. The weight is now personified.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 35


I will climb the mountain-the height calls me-I want to possess
it-I climb to the top-I dominate it; but how do I possess the moun-
tain? Yes, I am high up over the plane and over the sea; I can see the
horizon created by the mountain; but all that is not mine: what I see is
not in me, and in order to see more "I have never seen": I do not possess
the sight. The sea is shining from afar; it will be mine . .; I will
descend to the coast, I will hear its voice; I will sail over its back. ... I
will be content. But now that I am on the sea, "the ear is not satisfied
with hearing," and the ship always plows new waves and "a similar
thirst holds me": if I dive into the waters, if I feel the waves over my
body-but where I am, the sea is not; if I want to go where the water is
and possess it, the waves will open up before the man who is swim-
ming; if I drink the salty water, if I exult as a dolphin-if I drown-still
I do not possess the sea: I am alone and different in the midst of the
sea. (Persuasione, 40-41)

The images of the mountain and the sea will return many times. They
are a refrain, a constant presence in Michelstaedter's writing. They are
also a real presence in his life, as will become apparent, and he will
transform them in metaphors of the absolute. The absolute, in fact, is
not a theoretical entity, but a nonentity; it is all that man is not and tends
to be, a state of perfection, self-possession. One can speak of it only
negatively. "I have never known what the absolute is, yet I know it the
way the insomniac knows sleep, the way the beholder of darkness knows
light. This I know, that my conscience . is made up of a lack"
(Persuasione, 96). Man tends to fulfill his need, namely the possession of
the other, without realizing that he will never achieve persuasione by
going outside himself. He must achieve self-possession and he will need
nothing more, since from the others he cannot obtain what he has not
already in himself. "The persuaso is he who has his life within himself:
the naked soul in the island of the blessed" (Persuasione, 42). As he wrote
in his notes: "Persuasione is the present possession of one's own life"
(Opere, 728).
The very short chapter entitled "La persuasione" is over. Nothing
more can be said about it. The nature of persuasione is, in fact, its very
unspeakability. Persuasione can only be lived. Yet it is the condition of





36 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


the naked soul in the island of the blessed. Thus it is an oxymoron; it
cannot be known but must be lived. Because "man's life is inevitably
rettorica," as Brianese well saw, persuasione cannot be achieved in life
unless it annuls it.35
This extreme position is doomed to be frustrated and Michelstaedter
knows it well. Man needs others and the world outside; his being is
determined by that of others. Michelstaedter is so certain of the impos-
sibility of achieving persuasione that he calls the second chapter of this
section "The Illusion of Persuasion." This "illusion" is born when man
transforms what exists only for himself, what is good only for himself
into objective entities, into the absolute good. "He does not say: 'this is
for me,' but 'this is'; he does not say: 'this I like,' but 'this is good':
because, in fact, the 'I' for which something is or is not good, is his own
conscience, his pleasure, his being, which to him is immobile, absolute,
and outside time" (Persuasione, 52). Man, therefore, judges things out-
side only in relation to his own goals. "Everything that lives persuades
itself that the real life is whatever life it is living" (52). Man is still the
center of the universe. To any individual his own world is the whole
world. He can only comprehend what he can grasp. The limits of his
world is the extension of his reach. Freely adapting Parmenides' famous
fragment (quoted above) that "to think is the same as thinking that
something is," he states that my living and the world I live in are one and
the same.36 "Now if," as Fratta says, "my living is will to be-that is, lack
of being-the world I live in, the things which are real for me, insofar as
they are correlative to this will of mine, will necessarily not be, and I will
not acquire any real essence from my relation to them."'37
Man's constant need of something constitutes his essence. He strug-
gles for the possession of that which, once achieved, would change his
person and sanction the loss of his individuality. The example of chlorine
and hydrogen which strive for union well exemplifies the idea. Michel-
staedter writes: "If we. . place chlorine near hydrogen, the former will
only live for the latter. Hydrogen will be for chlorine the only value in the
world: the world, its life will only consist in getting united with the hydro-
gen" (Persuasione, 46). Each lives in order to unite itself with the other, but
once this union is achieved, they will both have lost their individualities.
The union will give birth to hydrochloric acid; neither chlorine nor hydro-
gen will be any longer. "Hence their life is death; their love hatred" (47).





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 37


This example develops the metaphor of the weight, and gives it a
dramatic conclusion. Man's essence is unfulfilled desire; if it were ful-
filled he would cease to be. As long as man lives, he is not; if he were he
would exist no more. This is the meaning of the statement "he who sees
God dies" (Persuasione, 50). The end and goal of man's life is death-
only there do being and knowing coincide.
Michelstaedter was to become obsessed with this contradiction, ana-
lyzing it over and over without, of course, being able to resolve it; it did
nonetheless grow clearer and with this clarity, its tragedy became more
evident. No relation is possible between the world and the absolute.
"The world of relativity, of the will, as such, can never transcend itself,
neither can it ever reach its goal-being-yet life is will to being, will to
the absolute" (Opere, 838). "Philosophy wants to explain things; it
wants to subordinate things to a reason; . it wants reason to be the
determining motive for actions." Yet, Michelstaedter continues, the abso-
lute is being, outside time, eternal and immobile, whereas the world is
"material fact" (838). An absolute world cannot exist, because "if there
were one, ours would not be. Neither could [the absolute] have ever been
the cause of a world, which is relativity" (840).
Entitled "Road to Persuasion," the twenty pages of his third chapter
should lead us to the absolute life. It is the constructive part of Michel-
staedter's philosophy, but a great disappointment for the traditional
philosopher. As might be expected, there will be no theory of persua-
sione, for it would be a contradiction in terms. Here, more than before,
the nontheoretical nature of persuasione becomes evident.
Fratta rightly points out that these were pages that must have, more
than the others, upset the traditional Italian school of thought. They
were probably the cause of Croce's silence and Gentile's criticism. It was
impossible for the latter to accept a philosophy whose core was a concept
that could never be defined.38 But if persuasione cannot be defined,
neither can a method for achieving it be found. Playing with the Latin
ablative omnibus (everybody) that in Italian is also a synonym for bus,
Michelstaedter writes:

The road of persuasione is not run by "omnibus," has no signs, indica-
tions that can be passed . but each one has in himself the need to
find it .... Everyone is alone and cannot hope for any help but from





38 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


himself. The road to persuasione has only this indication: do not
satisfy yourself with the sufficiency of what is given to you. (Persua-
sione, 104)

It is a negative concept, it is the awareness of man's finiteness and limits
and the suffering that accompanies such awareness. Nothing more can
be said about it. The real task is living it constantly and courageously.
The epigraph that opens the chapter is revealing. It is a quotation from
Aeschylus's Agamemnon, where the identity of persuasione (peith6) and
truth is established. We may infer then that the sense of the term as
employed by Michelstaedter is older than Aristotle. The chapter begins
with a question: "That which you do, how do you do it-with what
mind do you do it? Are you or are you not persuaded of what you do?"
(67). Michelstaedter shows here that man lives and acts in order to
continue to live, with an eye to the future and with a constant fear of
dying, so that "every present moment of his life has in itself death." "In
fact, where is life if not in the present? If this present has no value,
nothing has value." "He who fears death is already dead" (Persuasione, 69).
It is at this point that the negative essence of Persuasione is stated in all
its clarity. "He who wants only for one moment his life, who only for one
moment wants to be persuaded, must take possession of the present; see
every present as the last, as if, after [it], death were certain" (Persuasione,
70). As Brianese well put it, "rettorica pretends to flee from time, as
constant mutation; persuasione presents itself as the will to be, to exist
(consistere) in the present."'39
These last pages of the section on persuasione are extremely rich.
Images, metaphors, parables abound. The Gospels as well as the Greek
texts are constantly cited. Statements are presented with the authority of
axioms, as absolute truths unshakable and indestructible. Yet (or maybe
because of it) they are totally abstract and detached from reality. "Every-
one is first and last"; "he must create himself and the world that before
him does not exist; he must be master, not slave" (73). They culminate in
the maxim "to give is to do the impossible; to give is to receive" (82).
Man must affirm himself not just in order to continue to exist, "he must
love [the world] not because it is necessary to his own needs, but for what
it is, in itself" (82). He must not depend on anything but himself; he must
be self-sufficient.40





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 39


Persuasione cannot be achieved, Michelstaedter tells us, and "the road
to [it] is hyperbolic. As the hyperbola approaches the asymptote ad infini-
tum so the man who by living wants his [real] life, infinitely approaches
the straight line of justice" (78). Persuasione is the mathematical limit-
point to which "one comes closer and closer ad infinitum but which is
never reached" (80). Michelstaedter is fully aware that it is impossible for
man to overcome his finiteness and that persuasione is nothing other
than "the ideal-limit which man will never reach," "but for which he will
never cease to strive." In this light Michelstaedter's image of the hyper-
bola assumes its full significance. "Persuasione," wrote Brianese, "is
positing the necessity for removing rettorica, yet rettorica not only is
never removed, it cannot be removed."41 This discourse is similar to that
of Fratta who emphasized the ethical quality of Michelstaedter's philoso-
phy. "Persuasione cannot speak the theoretical language . is not a
concept defining something already given, rather it is the formulation of
a request for a different reality, which never existed, whose necessity is
posited. . by the painful feeling of the lack of being."'42
After all, Michelstaedter had clearly stated in a note that "real being
[the ousia ] remains out of my consciousness and out of my life," and that
"I do not live the absolute, neither does my nos know it-that which I
live and that my nos knows is the nullity of everything that is visible and
knowable" (Opere, 803). This could be Parmenides; man does not belong
in the world of real being.
The need for the absolute springs forth from man's finiteness. It is
limit that makes men desire the infinite, and this limit, as Schopenhauer
saw, is suffering. It is lack that makes men want completeness. Michel-
staedter is fully aware of the contradictory essence of life; he knows that
to make himself an absolute being is to negate himself as a finite being,
that to make himself as an eternal being, means to negate himself as
becoming. He knows that the life of the absolute is the end or death of
the finite.43 "By making his own life richer and richer with negations,
[man] can create himself and the world" (Persuasione, 84). He will
universalize himself, for he will embody the suffering of every living
creature and will speak with the voice of the world.

Only when you want no longer will you have what you want, because
that which you want is absolute being, and all your will is nothing but





40 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


contingency: it is not in itself. . as long as your body will be, it will
throw its shadow over things so that you will not be able to see, when
you will no longer be, you will be able to see. (Opere, 781)

Michelstaedter's suicide seems at this point to have been a coherent and
logical consequence, but about this more will be said later.
The section on persuasione is over. The closing image is a metaphor
used to describe the final achievement. Only the metaphor could, in fact,
define persuasione.

Alone, he [the persuaso] lives the vertiginous immensity and profun-
dity of life .... The stability of the individual occupies an infinite
time in the present and stops time. Each of his moments is a century in
the life of others-until he turns himself into flame and is finally able
to inhabit the ultimate present. (89)

In this context the image of the flame acquires its real significance.
The flame is the metaphor of the persuaso who affirms himself by
negating all material boundaries. Fire, in fact, lives by means of destruc-
tion. Its strength grows with the amount of matter that it destroys.
The image of the flame is recurrent in Michelstaedter and has been a
great source of discussion among scholars.44 Interpreted by some as a
sign of his mysticism, his desire to become one with the absolute, its
connotation of strength and self-assertiveness also calls to mind D'Annunzio
or Nietzsche.45 In Michelstaedter, in fact, the humble submission of the
individual to one infinite Power is absent. The emphasis of his philoso-
phy is on strength and energy. And of course his primary source of
inspiration was his beloved Greek philosophers: Heraclitus, first of all,
for whom fire was the symbol of the unity of opposites; and Empedocles
who made fire one of the four constituents of the universe. For the Stoics,
the animus mundi is a divine flame. But the negation of the limit is also
Christ's sacrifice, and fire is also the Holy Spirit in which he is trans-
formed to bring the divine message to men.46
Like the image of the flame, that of the hawk is recurrent; in fact in
this particular context it occurs first. If the flame has an antagonist in
darkness, the hawk has it in the crows with their heavy bodies incapable
of rising high.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 41


The hawk in the dash of his flight, holding his body stable, bats
regularly his wings, and rises confident to the height. So man on his
road to persuasione maintains at each point the equilibrium of his own
person;. . he has neither uncertainties nor weaknesses; if he does not
fear pain he has honestly taken upon himself pain as his persona. He
lives it in each moment. And as all things share this suffering, in him all
things live. (87)

The hawk has become "il persuaso" and the flame. In fact, "where to
others there is darkness, to him there is light. . where to others there is
mystery and impotence, he has the power and can see clearly. Because he
has the honesty to feel always insufficient" (87). The persuaso is he who
is conscious of his limits, of his negativity; he who is conscious of the evil
in the world. It is a positive concept whose positivity is born out of the
awareness of a negativity.
Who more brilliantly than Montale could transform the hawk into a
poetic image that symbolizes fleeting, precarious, frail good? The sym-
bol of positivity is born here too out of "the evil of living" (ii male di
vivere). Even Montale's hawk metamorphoses into the sunflower "mad-
dened with light" (impazzito di luce). "Dark material things aim at
clarity" and in the light their end is to vanish. Michelstaedter's absolute is
just as utopic and unreal as Montale's.47
In his opposition to metaphysics, Michelstaedter was reproposing
metaphysics of a different type, yet still a metaphysics. The man of
persuasione places himself above time and space; he negates, thus elimi-
nates the material limits of life, defies temporality, and declares his
independence from it. Of course, the act is self-destructive, yet his tem-
poral destruction achieves precisely what he had set out to do.
Temporality and finiteness can be overcome only through self-nega-
tion. Suicide is, then, the logical and ethical consequence of a philosophy
that is still radically attached to "strong thought." As Brianese rightly put
it, "the persuaso dies in order to live authentically."'48 In his attempt to
make "form" and "life" coincide, Michelstaedter collapsed. And meta-
physics, a metaphysics of death, still leers at us.
Michelstaedter's life and death are the last tragic act in the death of
metaphysics. What is left for us is no longer, as Gianni Vattimo teaches,
to strive for "a liberation from appearances in order to possess the





42 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


authentic being," but to accept, instead, only "a freedom as mobility
amidst the 'appearances."' It is time that we learn to live in and to love
our world of appearances, Vattimo concludes, because it is all we have.
"Philosophy must not and cannot teach us in what direction to go; it
must teach us to live in a condition where no direction exists."'49


RETTORICA

On the arduous road to persuasione man collapses, his solitude over-
whelms him. He asks to exist for someone. He needs to be recognized by
others. At the same time he needs to attribute objective existence to that
which only exists for himself. He is not satisfied with living the external
reality, he must also state that he knows it.
All of our experiences, as Michelstaedter writes, are subjective:

If I am hungry, reality around me is nothing but a collection of things
more or less edible, if I am thirsty, reality is more or less liquid, more or
less drinkable .... If I am neither hungry nor thirsty, if I do not need
any definite thing, the world is to me only a collection of grey things. I
do not know what they are, but that they certainly are not made for me
to enjoy. (Persuasione, 122)

There is no objective knowledge, nothing exists outside the knowing
subject. If it were to exist, we would not know that it did. Everything
acquires a meaning in relation to the need of a subject to which it relates.
"In life everything exists only in relation to other things" (Opere, 819).
"Things interest [the individual] only insofar as they have had and have a
relation to him" (Opere, 807). "All matter reduces itself completely to
the content of my senses. However much I study this matter I will never
transcend my senses in which alone matter exists" (Opere, 713). It is,
therefore, the subject's volition that establishes an order among the
outside phenomena. In themselves, in fact, each thing is just as worthy as
any other. All knowledge, therefore, is an interpretation. "There is no
other reality but the reality of the subject" (Opere, 146). (This last
quotation was taken from Appendice 1, which Michelstaedter wrote in
order to analyze this issue precisely on the linguistic level.)





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 43


"When one speaks, one states one's own illusory individuality as
absolute" (Opere, 143). The speaking subject pretends to be an absolute
subject in the moment in which it posits any object as an objective entity
that exists in itself. Michelstaedter examines the various types of state-
ments, or subordinate clauses, pointing out their dependence on the
subject that states them. He does this comparing Italian, Greek and
Latin, showing that it is actually language that deceives us, that it is
through its use that man begins to find objective correlatives for every
sound he utters. Every subordinate clause is nothing but a subjective
statement, and a sentence like "I know that something exists" is the
subject's fallacy. Only the imperative mode is not

interpreted reality, but life; it is the intention that is living in actuality
... it is real as the subject is real, because as the subject,. . [it] is the
will of something. It is the subject that invades with his own life the
realm of words: it does not make words, but it lives. Long live the
imperative! (Opere, 149-50)

Subjectivism therefore means relativism. Objectivity is a word that
has no room in the life of man. To the scientists who protest: "But we
look [at things] objectively," he replies: "looking is a verb like any other
and as such it requires a subject, thus their so-called objectivity is yet
another form of subjectivity" (Persuasione, 123). Man's consciousness
determines meanings: thus life is, by necessity, rettorica.
"When man says 'this is,' he affirms his person, he is stating his own
reality, because he affirms himself in relation to a thing which is the
object of his volition." The thing, therefore, exists as such, relative to the
subject's will. But, according to Michelstaedter, when I say "I know that
this is," I pretend to attribute objective, independent existence to some-
thing that instead exists only in relation to the "I" who wills it (97). The
first statement is honest, for it shows the relativity of the living subject;
the second, however, is totally insufficient, for it wants to state such
relativity as absolute (98).
And so "men talk, always talk and their talking they call reasoning"
(Persuasione, 98). Their desires, their fears must be given names in order
to be exorcised, and objects must be made to correspond to them so that
desires and fears be justified. It is an elaborate construction made to fill






44 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


up the dark void that surrounds us. "Men who have nothing and can give
nothing," says Michelstaedter, "rely on words that falsify communica-
tion" (Persuasione, 99). Words are used as a poultice to soothe suffering;
"with words they signify what they don't know and what they need...
with words they weave a veil" to cover up darkness (99). They ask for life
and they are given a name, "the name as conventional sign," as Par-
menides called it (Persuasione, 100). Man, therefore, speaks of things he
does not know; he names them to exorcise the unknown and uses words
which have no correspondent in reality.
Although Michelstaedter accuses men of attributing reality to words
and ideas, this process of hypostatization is inherent in language itself. It
is the risk of thought; it is the threat man has to face constantly as
language becomes more complex through usage. Sociology, medicine,
anthropology give names to needs and fears; through such a naming
process man finds justifications. Dressed in names, the obscure traits of
human nature acquire a false transparency and a familiarity that make
them malleable and possible to reckon with. Medicine, for example, has
created, says Michelstaedter, words like "nervous" or "neurotic" for the
weaknesses of human nature, whereby man can cope with the mystery
of his dark side. "When objective experience is insufficient to justify an
individual['s behavior]," for example, "then this individual is [labeled]
'mad"' (Persuasione, 183).50 A word is thus created for a phenomenon
we can neither explain nor understand. Again, Pirandello springs to
mind, in particular his tragic characters Enrico IV, Moscarda, and Chiar-
chiaro in "La patente." The label Chiarchiaro is given by society to name
the unexplainable has become the reality, the essence by which he will
always be judged. The power of this act of naming is enough to change
Chiarchiaro's very nature, and to determine his future actions. At the
end he has actually become what the people had unjustly named him.
Thus we see how tenuous the border is between Michelstaedter's dis-
course and that of Pirandello, Calvino, or Umberto Eco. The instinct to
interpret takes us to such extremes. We cannot help it. Language as
means of interpreting and of naming the unknown creates monsters
which take over our lives.
Michelstaedter compares talking men with children screaming in the
dark. Both talking and screaming are ways of asserting one's identity in
the darkness that surrounds us. "The system of names," he writes, "cov-





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 45


ers with mirrors the room of individual misery. Men fake in their words
[the] absolute act and with words they feed their life's boredom" (Persua-
sione, 99).
Philosophical systems have now replaced religions, but their aim and
structure are just the same-to camouflage darkness, to invent explana-
tions and meanings for the unexplainable and the meaningless. In invent-
ing cosmologies, ontologies, and the like, philosophers can be said to
perpetuate an act of violence over men and the world. As Musil observed:
"Philosophers are violent people who lack an army, and therefore they
take over the world, enclosing it in a system."'
Michelstaedter had plenty to attack, in close range-Croce, for exam-
ple. But even when he speaks of Croce, Hegel is the real target. Hegel, he
knew well, had elaborated the most complex of all philosophical sys-
tems, where every phenomenon had its specific slot. Hegel is the culmi-
nation of the development of rettorica begun by Aristotle. Croce, on the
other hand, imitated Hegel's thought without the benefit of a mind of
comparable magnitude. "If I had such a sharp and abstract mind, like
[Croce's]," Michelstaedter comments sarcastically, "I would not even
have occupied myself with philosophy, but I would have been a jurist.
He, instead, makes systems" (Opere, 661 ).52
Michelstaedter's criticism of idealism becomes on the social level an
attack against the bourgeoisie, against its presumption, certainties and
optimism about the goodness of society. The episode of the iron barrel
exemplifies well his scorn of middle-class complacency. It is a dialogue
between a happy bourgeois, full and content after a large meal, and the
author. The fat bourgeois is satisfied with himself because he has found
the right slot for everything, even for poetry, literature, and science.
What is important, he remarks, is to know where everything belongs.
First duty, then pleasure:

one thing is theory, another thing is practice. I, you see, enjoy these
theoretical discussions. I get a kick out of the elegant ethical problems
and even have fun in exchanging some paradoxical statements. But,
let's be careful, for everything has its place and time. When I wear my
uniform I am also another person .... I think that in the exercise of
his functions, man must be absolutely free .... And in the ante-
chamber of my office I leave out all my personal opinions, feelings,





46 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


human weaknesses. And I enter the temple of civilization to perform
my deed with a heart tempered by objectivity! (Persuasione, 138-39)

To the objection of his interlocutor that life is filled with the unfore-
seen that can strike us down any time, the fat man answers with a list of
remedies for each single unforeseeable event up to his insurance policy in
case of death. This man, Michelstaedter comments, is the man Hegel
dreamed of, the individual in whom the union of subjective and rational
will be realized.
This image of fat, blatant optimism standing before the door of his
office, ready to slip into a different costume or mask, suggests another
Pirandellian comparison. Michelstaedter's man is content with and proud
of his life because, as Pirandello's tragic character in "La carriola" says,
he is one of the many who lives and does not see himself living.53 He, as
anyone else, is caught in a form, or mask, and cannot see it. Pirandello's,
on the other hand, is a tragic character because he can see himself
trapped in the form the world had given him, and he can no longer live.
The man in the iron barrel, instead, is happily intoxicated by the content
of his own trap. He belongs to an earlier stage of man's history. He is a
member of Hegel's happy bourgeoisie. Pirandello's, on the other hand,
represents the crisis of bourgeois man through the development of self-
consciousness.


LEOPARDI'S PRESENCE

...di molti tristi e miseri tutti, un popol
fanno lieto e felice ("and of the many sad
and miserable they make one smiling and
happy people").-Giacomo Leopardi54

The third chapter of the section on Rettorica opens with this epigraph.
In his analysis of human society Michelstaedter followed closely Leopar-
di's ideas. Yet the poet's presence is not limited to this topic; it is
constant.
The echo of Leopardi's verses can be heard throughout Michelstaed-
ter's writings. It is, of course, more obvious in his poetry, as Campailla
has shown, where the influence is not only thematic but also linguistic.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 47


Entire verses or phrases are borrowed from the Canti. Many also appear
in Michelstaedter's letters and are proof of his familiarity with them.
They are inserted in the course of his narration as a way to give poetical
shape to an idea or a feeling. At times they just capture the musical echo
of a sound like "sento da lungi i domenicali rumori" (I hear the faraway
sounds of Sunday) or "sento ancora giu nelle strade morire gli ultimi
rumori" (I still hear the dying sounds down the street) and they are
connected with the melancholy and sadness of the passing time and of the
condition of solitude of the poet (Ep., 283,295).55 "I1 passero solitario"
("The Solitary Sparrow"), for example, appears more than once in his
letters (Ep., 405, 418). Other times, though, the similarity is more pro-
found and involves the principles of their philosophy, as when Michel-
staedter speaks to his friend Gaetano Chiavacci against suicide using
Plotinus's argument, the same one Plotinus uses against Porphyry in
Leopardi's Operette morali. I shall come back to this in the Epilogue.
In the preface to La persuasione e la rettorica Michelstaedter makes a
list of the few persuasi of history. In this list that begins with Parmenides
and ends with Beethoven and Ibsen, Leopardi has a place too, perhaps
even a place of honor. It is Tristano's voice we hear in the preface-that
Tristano who, being accused of spreading gloom and pessimism among
men, replied: "This is what I said to myself, almost as if that painful
philosophy were of my own invention-when I saw it rejected by every-
one .... But then, thinking it over, I remember that it was as new as
Solomon... and the most ancient poets and philosophers."'56 Michel-
staedter borrows Tristano's words in order to justify his task. Both he
and Leopardi realize they are repeating things that have been said over
and over, because there is but one truth: that life is suffering. They make
of their courage their first ethical virtue, that which helps them "to look
intrepidly at the desert of life, not to dissimulate to [themselves] any part
of human unhappiness, and to accept all the consequences of a philoso-
phy that is painful but true" (Operette, 489). As Campailla pointed out,
it is the "heroic" Leopardi that Michelstaedter admires. His "Postille
leopardiane," in fact, was inspired by the 1826 Canti.57
The other side of this ethical behavior is contempt for the plebeians
for their arrogance and cowardice, for their easy optimism ruled by
ignorance. Man believes in appearances, does not care about substance
and proceeds by self-deception. The polemic against progress is com-





48 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


mon to both. Tristano's sarcasm against "the profound philosophy of the
newspapers,. . masters, and... lights of the present age" recurs in the
Operette and in the Zibaldone.58 It is the same polemic Michelstaedter
brings against rettorica, established knowledge that, ignorant of reality,
dresses it up in names to which nothing corresponds. "It is to satisfy
oneself with the conventional sign that hides darkness" (Persuasione,
101) because Leopardi had said "the world is satisfied with appearances
and. . does not care about substance" (PP, 2:38).
In both writers, the discussion of human society is connected with
that of human nature. Both individualists, they were concerned not with
men as a collectivity, but with the individual. They were both convinced
that society institutionalizes the abuses of power of the stronger over the
weaker and that it was ludicrous to think of a happy society made up of
unhappy individuals. Michelstaedter knew well that after Hobbes, and
along with Hegel's master-slave model, Leopardi had pointed out with
great precision the violent selfishness of human nature. This selfishness,
he said, is "inseparable from man" whose "major danger" is his fellow-
man because "naturally any animal hates his fellow-creature and is ready
to offend it whenever this is required by his own interest" (PP, 2:33).
Michelstaedter is in full agreement with Leopardi in denouncing man's
basic "hatred against man," and the hypocrisy of the definition of civil
society. "The affirmation of one's own individuality," writes Michel-
staedter, "is always... violent. ... Insofar as one affirms as just what is
just for himself, he negates all that is just for others" (Persuasione,
77-78). "The individuals of what we call society," writes Leopardi, "are
each at war. . against everyone else, more or less openly, and against
all together" (Z, 1:485). Socialistic hopes and utopias do not engage
them. "The human species," Leopardi continues, "is divided into two
groups: those who abuse their power and those who suffer the abuse.
Neither law nor force of any kind, no progress either of philosophy or of
civilization will ever prevent man from belonging to one or to the other
group" (PP, 2:22). Michelstaedter echoes: "everyone [sees] in the other
only the thing that it is necessary to him, not the man who has himself a
life to live" (Persuasione, 150). Organized society justifies the use of
violence by assigning different roles to individuals.
Michelstaedter defined "civil society" as the kingdom of rettorica
where the "sign that hides darkness" is the very term "civil society." What





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 49


men call "civil education," he writes, is nothing but "their hunger." What
they call ethics is nothing but "their fear," and "the sword of justice" is
nothing but "their violence" and "their selfish hatred." Men, he con-
tinues, "have made a strength of their weakness. ... This is the realm of
rettorica" (Persuasione, 144). "It is from reciprocal fear and arrogance
(prepotenza) that the conventions of social morality are born; and it is
from everyone's deficiencies and inabilities. . that the division of labor
is devised, whereby each one is at the same time master and slave"
(Opere, 351).
Their polemic continues and moves on to include the sciences. The
attack against so-called scientific progress is ferocious. The lapidary
sentence "all progress for society is a regress for the individual" (Per-
suasione, 156) is echoed in dozens of similar expressions in Leopardi.
Michelstaedter, though endowed with a strong and athletic body, attacked
furiously "every progress of technology that dulls that part of man's
body" making it weak and finally powerless (Persuasione, 156). Leo-
pardi, who rightly lamented the weakness of his own physique, had
written a century earlier: "One who is weak of body is not a man but a
child; indeed worse, because his fate is to sit and watch the others live
(and he at the most can chatter), but life is not for him" (Operette, 491).
He prefers ancient times, when "physical weakness [was thought of as]
disgraceful." "With us, [instead] . and already for a very long period
of time, education does not deign to care for the body, which is too low
an object. It cares for the spirit" (Operette, 491).
Leopardi's bitter sarcasm shows all his contempt for the stupidity of
his age that thinks that spirit can flourish independently from the body,
"without noticing that by ruining the body it in turn also ruins the spirit"
(Operette, 491). Machines are cursed as the cause of the deterioration of
the body. Man is losing his physical faculties and soon, concludes Michel-
staedter, his "eyes will stop seeing . [his] ears hearing . and the
body of man will disintegrate" (Persuasione, 159). Machines will not
save man; he will succumb just the same. Technical progress cannot
defeat death; modern man will die more impotent than ancient man,
whose strong body could resist death more heroically. Carlo uses the
beautiful example of the man at sea-the sea, as will be shown later, is a
highly symbolic image in his writings-to prove his point. The old sailor
had in his hand the sail and the shaft "and he was the reason for the





50 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


balance between the wind and the sea," it was he "who struggled to win
or to die. The modern sailor, instead, dies just the same, but sinks with
the ship without even being able to fight" (Persuasione, 158). The image
of the ancient sailor can be read as a metaphor of the persuaso who fights
to be, who with all his strength struggles for his real life at sea, whereas
the modern man represents the man of rettorica who does not live, but
lets himself be ruled by outside forces and is determined by them.
The myth of the machine that replaces man and that eventually ren-
ders him useless is attacked with vehemence by both. Leopardi makes it
the object of his sarcastic polemics when he announces through the
Academy of Syllographs the contest for the construction of three machines:
the machine of the ideal friend, that of the artificial steam men, "pro-
grammed to perform virtuous and noble deeds," and finally that of the
ideal woman (Operette, 83). Such a contest was prompted by the realiza-
tion that men cannot cure their evil and that, therefore, they should "little
by little withdraw themselves from the business of life," letting machines
take their place (Operette, 79).
Such naive trust in human progress has given rise to a plethora of
artificial constructions to which men cling as if to absolute truths, capa-
ble of giving an answer to each question. "But long live statistics,"
Tristano exclaims, "long live economic, moral, and political sciences, the
portable encyclopedias, the manuals and the many beautiful creations of
our century! And may the nineteenth century live forever! Maybe very
poor in things, but extremely rich and generous in words, which has
always been an excellent sign, as you know" (Operette, 499-501). Leo-
pardi's irony becomes caustic sarcasm in Michelstaedter's definition of
science as "the workshop of absolute values" (Persuasione, 181). "The
roots of science," he says, "have taken hold on to the deepest of man's
weaknesses and have given stable and eternal basis for the rettorica of
knowledge" (Persuasione, 130-31). The rettorica of sciences is a new
form of religion. Scientists give to their modest opinions the sanction of
absolute laws, "on which men, without knowing, lean [for support]...
and without knowing them, so they pass them on" (Persuasione, 135).
Rettorica becomes the art of names stripped from any meaning.
This false education begins at an early stage and it is much more harm-
ful-and Michelstaedter's attack consequently more violent-because it is
inflicted upon children. It is more vile and cowardly because it acts upon





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 51


virgin, naive soil, on the child's trust and credulity. Leopardi was in
complete agreement on this topic. It is with children that the first suc-
cesses of rettorica are obtained. These successes treacherously sow in
their souls the seeds of that separation between essence and appearance
which will allow them to accept and to universalize the rule that "one
thing is theory, another is practice" (Persuasione, 189). The child is
abused. His fear of the unknown, of the future is exploited; rules are
given to him as unshakable truths. From an early age he will live the
separation of life and thought.
This striking similarity between Leopardi's and Michelstaedter's social
ideas can be explained with their similar, basic philosophical principles.
For both writers, nature is ruled by mechanical laws. No hidden design
has been imposed upon it by a supernatural mind. Because man is part of
nature just as any other living being, no special place was assigned to
him, and therefore it is absurd for him to search for meanings. This is the
whole truth that can be discovered about life. Suffering is man's fate.
Because no answers can be given, the only task the philosopher has is to
teach man how to live. The only philosophy is, therefore, moral philoso-
phy. This discussion, however, will coincide with the theoretical dis-
course that the absolute-man's constant objective-is not "being" (to
on), to be grasped and known, but precisely the absence of it. Reaching
for the absolute, thus, means to live this absence, fully aware of it,
without self-deception. Modern philosophy must coincide with heroic
ethics.


MICHELSTAEDTER'S OPERETTE MORAL

In his introductory essay to Il dialogo della salute e altri dialoghi, Cam-
pailla points out that this dialogue must be read against Leopardi's pages
on pleasure and happiness in the Zibaldone. Furthermore, although
Socrates is the model of dialghestai that Carlo has in mind, the Leopardi
of the Operette morali is present here, as in other short dialogues. The
dialogue epitomizes, Campailla continues, La persuasione e le rettorica.
All the main themes of Michelstaedter's dissertation are present, with the
difference, though, that the latter was a required scholarly work, thus
already bound to become rhetorical, whereas the former was the product





52 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


of an inner quest for persuasione. The opening of the preface to the dis-
sertation, in fact, begins with the words: "I know I speak because I speak,
but I will not persuade anyone; and this is dishonesty, but rettorica [he
adds in Greek] forces me to do so" (Persuasione, 35). The audience of this
work will be a group of university professors, ministers of rettorica.
Michelstaedter seems to be saying that a work of rettorica, by definition,
cannot persuade anyone; his failure, therefore, is sanctioned from the
start by its very nature. Thus, what he cannot do with his dissertation, that
is, convey the message of persuasione which was his constant objective, he
will attempt through the Socratic method and with someone who has not
yet been contaminated by rettorica. Il dialogo della salute, in fact, is born
from a need to show the road to persuasione. It is dedicated to his cousin
Emilio, five years his junior. Because metaphysics is nonsense, because
theoretical life is pointless, because nothing can be discovered in the world
outside, apart from suffering, man must be concerned with his moral life.
This is what Carlo does and wants his cousin to do.
Carlo had tutored Emilio for the matriculation exam (maturitat) dur-
ing the academic year 1909-10; Emilio had been ill and had had to
withdraw from school. Emilio, to whom he was deeply attached, repre-
sented nature still uncontaminated by rettorica. He represented authen-
ticity. Carlo probably felt toward his younger cousin like a wise Socrates
toward his pupils. Carlo's care and affection for his cousin must have
been profound as he dedicated this dialogue to him-this, in order to
complete his pedagogical task, to help his prot ge to become a persuaso.
He had emphasized on several occasions the importance of teaching
young minds, an activity he considered the noblest in life. The dialogue is
dedicated to "his" Emilio-for Carlo certainly felt he had helped to form
his young mind-and "to all those young souls who have not yet placed
their god in their career" (Dialoghi, 27). That is, to all the unselfish,
authentic souls who have not yet been spoiled by the rettorica of life.
The dialogue is constructed on the Socratic model. The two inter-
locutors are Carlo's best friends: Rico and Nino, the former performing
the role of Socrates/Carlo, the latter that of Emilio. In asking his ques-
tions, Rico, as Socrates always did, leads Nino toward the answer he has
already in mind through the use of the Socratic analogy. Death is the
subject and it constitutes the structural frame of the dialogue, opening
and closing the text.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 53


It begins in a cemetery, the realm of the physical death that everyone
fears. At the exit of the cemetery the guardian wishes the two friends
good health. The wish sounds like a mockery. A long dialogue starts. In
it the signifiers health and death constantly change their signified. The
health that the guardian wishes the two friends is obviously physical
health. The respondents, however, attribute to it a different signified.
The fear of death at the beginning which constitutes our life and coin-
cides with it is the real death, but the death, at the end, of him who asks
nothing and fears nothing is the beautiful death that constitutes the real
life. The opposition life-death, which obsessed Michelstaedter, found in
"I1 canto delle crisalidi" its poetic voice. As often occurs in his works, an
oxymoron is given form by an image producing a "paradoxical synthesis."
Echoing the philosophers of the Operette morali and the Socratic
dialogues, Michelstaedter states that "outside pleasure, nothing has value
to us," and that our actions are motivated by pleasure alone (Opere, 336).
Leopardi, for his part, at many stages in the Zibaldone had stated that
the desire for pleasure is the spur that moves man and makes him act, and
he had elaborated consequently a real doctrine of pleasure, as he himself
wanted to define it. Though its roots are in eighteenth-century material-
ism and sensationalism, it nevertheless presents elements with relevance
to our century.
Its beginning statement is well known: "the human soul ... has
constantly the desire for and aims solely . at pleasure, that is, at
happiness, which, if we consider it well, is the same thing as pleasure" (Z,
1:181-82). The analysis then moves on to the nature of such desire,
which is the essence of human nature. Torquato Tasso's Familiar Spirit
explains to him that nobody knows pleasure "by experience, but only by
theory"; pleasure is a theoretical subject, "not a real one," which is like
saying that pleasure does not exist in actuality, but only in the imagina-
tion. As the Familiar Spirit specifies, it is a "sort of feeling man conceives
in his mind but does not experience" (Operette, 173). Better yet, it is not
even a feeling but a concept. The Familiar Spirit offers Tasso the proof of
this by making him realize that man always says "I will enjoy" or "I did
enjoy," but never "I enjoy." "Thus, pleasure is clearly either past or future,
never present" (Operette, 175).
Michelstaedter brings forth the same discourse in his dialogue between
the souls of Diogenes and Napoleon. The Greek philosopher is here





54 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


acting as the Familiar Spirit in Leopardi's dialogue while trying to con-
vince Napoleon that his satisfaction and enjoyment in life were not in the
actual success of his military and political achievements, but in anticipa-
tion of the things to come. Now that he is only a soul detached from life
there is no more enjoyment, for he can well see the outcome of all his
deeds. In certainty there cannot be any enjoyment. The voice of the
Passerby in another of Leopardi's dialogues can here be heard-the voice
that tells the Almanac Peddler that "the life that's beautiful is not the life
we know, but the life we don't know; not the past life, but the future"
(Operette, 481). Notwithstanding this constant frustration, pleasure
(that is, happiness) is the goal of man's life. Consequently "our life,
always missing its goals, remains continuously imperfect," and it is a
perennial violent state (Operette, 175).
Analyzing human nature in I dialogo della salute, Michelstaedter
writes that "life consists in a lack, it is lacking everything . and
desiring everything" (Dialoghi, 39). In his dissertation he elaborates
upon this concept. "I want my enjoyment," that is, "I want myself
enjoying (because enjoyment is nothing but the correlative aspect of my
will, it is my very being)" (Persuasione, 107). Compare Leopardi's words:
"And this love for pleasure is a spontaneous and necessary consequence
of self-love and of self-preservation." It "has no limits, because it is
inherent and congenital with existence" (Z, 1:196, 182).
The example of the weight exemplifying the contradictory essence of
human nature that opens La persuasione e la rettorica, and returns in Il
dialogo della salute (330, 339, and 346), finds its perfect counterpart in
Leopardi's famous example of the horse. "If you desire a horse," he
writes, "you think you are desiring it as a horse and as a definite pleasure,
but actually you desire it as abstract, unlimited pleasure." "When the
soul desires a pleasant thing," he explains, "it actually desires pleasure as
such and not a specific pleasure," which is like saying that the soul
desires desiring (Z, 1:182, 183). After the metaphor of the weight,
Michelstaedter writes, "I know that I want and I do not have what I
want" (Persuasione, 39). Man's essence, therefore, as in the example of
the horse, consists in a lack, in a nonbeing, in an infinite tension and in
never arriving. Man desires an absolute pleasure that does not exist;
better, it exists only as aspiration, because, as in the case of the weight, if
it existed, it would cease to be absolute.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 55


Man's essence consists in a lack. The human tragedy is inherent in his
contradictory essence. The satisfaction of the need would bring about
the end of him who is desiring. "This is the dear, sweet life: lacking
everything, and desiring everything. This is life: if we did not turn to the
future, but had everything in the present, we could no longer live"
(Dialoghi, 39).
Leopardi returns over and over to this topic, and tries to reason on this
contradiction of human nature. His reasonings culminate in the famous
passage at the end of the Zibaldone where he negates the principle of
non-contradiction on which Western logic had rested for centuries: "one
thing cannot at the same time be and not be." Such a principle appears
absolutely false if one considers the contradictions that are in nature;
first of all, the contradiction of the human essence. Man is and at the
same time cannot but be unhappy. "Now being, united with unhap-
piness, and united to it necessarily, by its very essence, is a thing directly
contrary to itself, to the perfection, and to its proper end which is only
happiness, damaging to itself, and an enemy to itself. The essence of
human beings, therefore, is in natural, essential, necessary contradiction
with itself" (Z, 2:924).
Human beings are part of nature and the absurd logic that rules over
man is inherent in the absurd logic of nature that destroys in order to
create, feeds on corpses, and prospers through destruction. To the Ice-
lander who reproaches her for having created man to suffer, Nature
answers:

Did you think by any chance that the world was made for you alone?
Evidently you have not considered that in this universe life is a per-
petual cycle of production and destruction-both functions being so
closely bound together that one is continuously working toward the
other, thus bringing about the conservation of the world, which, if
either one of them were to cease, would likewise dissolve. (Operette,
199)

It is "the continuity of the race" that nature cares for; nature conse-
quently is indifferent toward the individual (Persuasione, 177). Why
should man place himself above other living beings and thus put nature
on trial? Perhaps because he is endowed with reason that causes him to





56 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


think, to ask questions, to need answers. Yet, what is reason but another
physiological function just as limited by its material circumstances as any
other?
Michelstaedter wrote an amusing short dialogue between the "I" and
"the foot" in his first Appendix. It was probably inspired by a fall he had
in one of his wild climbs on the San Valentin, and by the consequent
injury to his foot. The quarrel between the "I" and "the foot" is caused by
the presumption of the "I" that represents reason, in considering itself the
master of the foot (representing passion) and therefore in attempting to
boss it around. "The foot" then tries to make the "I" realize that its will
can do very little if the foot is, for some mechanical reason, unable to
move. Thus it tries to explain to the "I" that in order to be what it is
(namely, a reasoning "I"), "I" needs "the foot" together with all the other
parts of the body. At the final refusal by the "I" to accept such logic, "all
the parts of the body disassembled. . in the middle a feeble 'oime' was
heard dying away. Then everything was silent" (Opere, 173). Michel-
staedter's pessimistic materialism cannot but bring to mind the end of
Leopardi's dialogue between Nature and the Icelander. Man's presump-
tion is punished here too by his disappearance. And it is yet more cruel
insofar as the Icelander cannot even finish speaking-the utter nonsense
of his words!-and because we are not even sure of the cause of his end.
Maybe it was the wind that carried him away together with his words, or
it was two lions "who were so worn out and starved that they barely had
enough strength to eat up the Icelander, which they did and thus man-
aged to get enough nourishment to survive for the rest of that day"
(Operette, 199). Leopardi's contempt for human presumption receives
here the most cruel sanction. Man's great "spirit" is barely enough to
keep nature alive for a few hours.
Leopardi's influence is also evident in "1i dialogo tra la cometa e la
terra" ("Dialogue between the Comet and the Earth"). The direct echo is
"The Dialogue between Earth and Moon" where Earth is also on the
losing side. Leopardi's Earth is not too smart; in fact, she is rather
gullible as she herself admits. Earth represents men's presumptuousness,
their view of themselves as the center of the universe. (Leopardi will
develop this theme further in the dialogue "Copernicus.") Michelstaedter's
Earth represents the status quo, rule and order as it proudly declares,
and is suspicious of anything that might put it at risk.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 57


The similarity between the two dialogues, however, ends here. Leo-
pardi's Moon elicits a different discourse from Michelstaedter's Comet.
The former's message is the discovery of universal suffering; thus, the
Moon and the Earth find in this basic element a similarity between their
otherwise very different natures. The Comet, instead, represents some-
thing completely different, but something that Leopardi would have also
liked. It is a symbol of independence, unpredictability, creativity, all of
which are emphasized by contrast to the dependence, bourgeois caution,
and fear of the new, represented by Earth. It can almost be read as the
dialogue between the artist and the bourgeois who wants to have "tran-
quil sleep," who "asks no question and does [his] duties, day after day,
month after month, year after year" (Dialoghi, 114). The Comet, instead,
does not take anybody's orders, shines with her own light, and runs
through the sky scaring the wits out of the other planets.
Michelstaedter's imagination was charged by the appearance of Hal-
ley's Comet between May 18 and 19, 1910. The episode had created in-
credible excitement and even fear in people's minds. To some it signified
the announcement of the end of the world, and even writers like Svevo
and Canetti recorded on paper the excitement that the incident had
stirred. Michelstaedter was, of course, on the side of the comet, "the
unpredictable celestial body that loves and creates risks, that carries with
itself light rather than expecting it from others" (Dialoghi, 20). The event
that shook up the tranquil sleep of his bourgeois fellow creatures was, of
course, welcomed with cheers.
There is something very unlike Leopardi-to return to our point of
departure-in I1 dialogo della salute. What really differentiates it from
the Socratic and the Leopardian dialogues is that Rico and Nino are
actually the two sides of Michelstaedter. Campailla, in fact, talks of a
dialogue that really is "the dramatization of a monologue" (Dialoghi,
12). The close reading of this text shows inconsistencies and confusion.
The main purpose is to lead young minds along the path of persuasione,
and thus to teach them not to depend on future expectation, to free
themselves from needs and dependence and, finally, from the fear of
death: real death is to live with fear.
Yet Rico, who delivers this message of persuasione, also speaks a more
humane language. "He who has lost the flavor of things is ill ... since
flavor is nothing but the feeling that something is useful to one's health"





58 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


(Dialoghi, 46). Developing this theme later, Rico arrives at this conclu-
sion: "those who look for the pleasure of the body, that is, for the
meaning of the existence of their bodies, [they] lose its entire flavor, so
those who look for other pleasures signifying a vaster existence, lose the
taste of everything and do not know anything any more. They are empty"
(64). Rico seems here to advocate an active rather than a contemplative
life. Looking for meanings does not bring about happiness. On the con-
trary, it alienates the world from the individual whose mind and body are
so drastically separated that no further union is foreseeable.
Salute is here synonymous with persuasione. It is mental and physical
integrity and authenticity. Disease is a typical twentieth-century literary
theme that in Italy found its spokesman in Italo Svevo and Pirandello. It is
the consequence of the obsessive use of reason at the expense of the body.
Sharpness of mind often goes hand in hand with physical weakness. Yet
weakness is often welcomed and, as in Svevo's case, even prized for it is a
sign of self-awareness and of a critical mind.59 Svevo's awareness of the
incompatibility between physical strength and intellectual life made him
accept the impossibility of obtaining both. Having opted for sharpness
of mind, he learned to live with his physical ailments, even to laugh at
them, and retreated to the realm of thought and writing. Michelstaedter,
instead, though just as much aware of such incompatibility, could re-
nounce neither a strong body nor a sharp mind. His idea of salute is
utopian and does not coincide with that of contemporary philosophy.
Salute is, to him, the perfect accord of mind and body, the absolute
coincidence of thought and action. Salute is authenticity, persuasione.
Yet Michelstaedter had repeated over and over that only he who does not
depend on anything, who finds everything in himself, is a real persuaso;
thus we cannot but call such a concept of salute paradoxical.
After twenty years of working with Michelstaedter's texts, Campailla
first raised a doubt about his health in the preface to the dialogues. Had
a real pathological condition been deliberately kept in the shadow for all
these years out of respect for the family? A careful reading of Michel-
staedter's letters, Campailla claims, would bring to the surface the "pro-
gressive loss of a balance, [and] not only of a psychic balance" (18). The
line quoted in the text from Simonides, "no good of any type comes from
knowledge if we lack venerable health," acquires, for Campailla, a tragic
connotation.60





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 59


It is, of course, pointless to debate such an issue, useful though it
might be, for example, in the attempt to explain Michelstaedter's sui-
cide. An act as complex and mysterious as suicide demands a rigorous
analysis in which such speculations could hardly be admitted as evi-
dence. What this dialogue shows, however, is a great confusion of contra-
dictory feelings and ideas and the suffering that they must have caused to
a mind which, though sensitive to the changing times and capable of the
most profound analyses, probably could not cope with the heavy ethical
consequences: the loss of foundations. His obsessive return to the theme
of self-possession, independence, "consistency" in the desert of life belies
a deep and profound feeling of uncertainty and psychological imbalance.
In 1905, he wrote this short, previously unpublished page in his diary.
Probably not intended to be seen, it is a lucid example of self-analysis
that verges on the borders of masochism.

Since I started studying-my inner self-neither a motion of the heart
nor the most hidden instinct, neither the innermost recesses of my
thought nor that of my feelings, in any instant of the day, in any
instance of life has escaped the merciless scanning [scandagfio] of cold
reason. And so I destroyed the spontaneity, the authenticity of my
feelings, I destroyed the youth of my soul, I damned myself to eternal
misery. You don't know the torture of feeling in oneself those moti-
vations that one despises in others, the rage caused by feeling oneself
pushed by them toward the things that the intellect scorns. You have
not felt the supreme torment caused by self-contempt, by the nausea
for this mud that surrounds us and constitutes our own essence. You
have never felt the overpowering desire to escape from your own self,
cruel and ferocious judge. ... My ideal would be to free myself from
myself, to cease this horrendous splitting of my being in two that will
drive me mad. Only in sleep have I peace but I do not enjoy it, precisely
because I am not aware of it.61

Two themes are at work in this dramatic passage. The first is the
theme of dichotomy, feeling-reason. Reason with its merciless analytical
tools brings into the open, examines, scrutinizes and eventually nullifies
the innermost feelings by confronting them with the nothingness that
surrounds us. The complete awareness of one's emotions blocks any





60 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


spontaneous act and eventually dries out the instinctive part of human
nature. Man remains at the mercy of analytical reason.
The second theme at work here is the discovery of evil in one's inner
self. Self-analysis not only destroys emotions by considering them vain
reactions against the nullity of existence, it also destroys naive faith in
the goodness of the instincts. Man discovers the mud that constitutes his
being, a mud into which no divine breath has been infused.
As he wrote in another page of his diary in the same year, this
merciless self-analysis exhausted him:

I am horribly tired, my mind is broken by this inane effort of sug-
gestion. Everything is useless. My impressions do not stick onto my
soul. They vanish as soon as they come closer. Their vanishing gives me
an infinite anguish. Everything flees before my brain, making me
dizzy. Or is it my brain that is vanishing? It seems to me that I am a
different person at every instant, I lost the feeling of continuity of my
"I." Only tenacious and deep suffering unites me with the past. Suffer-
ing is the last link of the chain that ties me to life. I believe I will become
mad.62

The following year, in a letter to his sister Paula, he diagnosed his
existential malaise. His sadness, he tells her, has no specific object, hence
the tragedy of it; hence the Angst.

I suffer because I feel cowardly, weak, because I see myself as incapable
of controlling the ideas that race through my head... the way I have
no control over my passions; because I have no moral balance . .
because I have no intellectual equilibrium, which would bring thought
straight to its goal... because... everything is slipping through my
hands... and more and more I am convinced that I am nothing but a
degenerate. (Ep., 157)

The awareness of his mental unbalance, of his incapacity to control
his thoughts and the fear of becoming insane return with the obsession
of his obsessed mind. Two years later to his dear friend Gaetano he will
write a similarly revealing letter that is a literary jewel and to which we
will soon turn. Mental illness, it appears, is still with him. He reiterates





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 61


his anguish because he cannot control thoughts and feelings. "The conse-
quence is that I feel I . that is, I cannot feel myself. This is all (I have
just stopped writing, pen in hand), in the effort to say clearly what I am
feeling, and I have understood that I really do not feel myself. I can no
longer find myself" (Ep., 330).


MICHELSTAEDTER AND PIRANDELLO; OR, FOLLY

The ontologically insecure person[s]...
have come to experience themselves as pri-
marily split into a mind and a body. Usu-
ally they feel most closely identified with
the mind.-R. D. Laing63

It was precisely in order to exorcise this sense of loss of the self, of alien-
ation of the "I" that Pirandello kept his pen in his hand and wrote, wrote
obsessively, throughout his life.64 Because writing is on the side of contem-
plation, Pirandello immediately made his choice; a choice prompted by fear
of a violent instinct which he succeeded, through writing, in controlling.
Carlo was nineteen when he wrote the letter to Paula quoted above.
At nineteen Pirandello had also written to his sister a letter describing his
existential anguish:

Meditation is a black abyss, inhabited by dark ghosts, guarded by a
desperate distress. A ray of light never penetrates it, and the desire to
possess it sinks you more and more into darkness .... We are like
poor snails that, in order to live, need to carry with them their small
shells .... An ideal, a feeling ... an occupation-here is the small
shell of this big snail, or man-as they call him. Without it life is im-
possible. When you arrive at not having any more ideal because by
observing life you see it as a big puppet show... without meaning
. when you, in a word, will live without life, think without mind
and feel without heart-then you will no longer know what to do: you
will be a traveler without a home, a bird without a nest. I am so.65

Michelstaedter in another letter will compare his brain to a wave-filled
sea whose "bottom remains murky and dark" (Ep., 330). The dichot-





62 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


omy of life-thought, or action-contemplation, was clearly established
from the start, and it was precisely its obsessive presence that brought
Michelstaedter and Pirandello to the verge of insanity. Pirandello, however,
used writing as a real pharmakon to exorcise the power of his uncon-
scious. Michelstaedter, instead, was overwhelmed by such dichotomy.
The one and only time Pirandello mentioned Michelstaedter-in an
interview for Quadrivio only a month before his own death-he referred
to him as an example of those unhappy thinkers who "wanted to make
form and substance coincide absolutely and in every instance and were
overwhelmed."'66 With this statement Pirandello recognized an affinity on
a basic philosophical point: the contradictoriness of life whose essence is
flux but that must be fixed if it is somehow to be grasped. It must give
itself a form. This form, however, is death; it stops the life that it tries to
define. Pirandello shares this belief with Michelstaedter, but considers
the pursuit of such coincidence (of "form and substance") totally inane,
insofar as it has only two possible conclusions: suicide, as in the case
of Michelstaedter and Otto Weininger, or madness, as in the case of
Nietzsche. 67
Michelstaedter too mentions Pirandello only once, but unfortunately
less revealingly-at the end of a letter home where he records that he has
written to his brother Gino and sent him a story by Pirandello. He omits
the title of the story and any word of comment. His matter-of-factness
justifies the assumption that he must have been familiar with Pirandello's
works. By 1907, the date of the letter, Pirandello had already written
dozens of stories and had published his most famous novel, The Late
Mattia Pascal.
Fourteen years earlier Pirandello theorized in his essay Arte e co-
scienza d'oggi about the existential crisis he had diagnosed in his letter to
Lina and placed it in historical context. "The old laws having collapsed,
the new ones not yet established, it is natural that the concept of the
relativity of everything has widened so that . nobody is any longer
able to establish a fixed, unshakable point." The same truth is delivered
by that incredible character, Anselmo Paleari, in The Late Mattia Pascal
when in a lighter tone he exclaims: "Darkness and confusion! All the big
lanterns have been blown out. Which way are we to turn?"68 The
lanterns are metaphors for human ideals, absolutes, laws. They have all
collapsed and man has lost all fixed points of reference.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 63


Perhaps Michelstaedter had not read The Late Mattia Pascal, but in
his letter to Paula he is writing of the same existential malaise:

In part it is individual, in part, though, it is the disease of an epoch in
regard to moral balance, because we are in a transitional epoch of
society when all ties seem to be loosening . and the paths of exis-
tence are no longer clearly traced. . toward a culminating point, but
they get all confused together, and vanish, and it is the task of the
individual to create for himself his luminous path in the universal
chaos. (Ep., 158)

Yet Michelstaedter, like Pirandello, sees that part of his crisis is also
personal, subjective, probably connected to his oversensitive nature.

As for the rest, the problem is mine and takes away from me the
strength of my thought, the enthusiasm of any initiative, the clarity of
any conception, and I remain groping in the dark, floundering to rise
to the surface. This I feel profoundly and I know I will neither be
happy nor will I do anything good, and if I don't become mad I will
torment myself and suffer until I die. (Ep., 158)

Darkness, sinking, madness are all themes we find repeated ad infinitum
in Pirandello, and, as Laing has shown, they are the symptoms of the
schizoid personality.
Had Pirandello known Michelstaedter's letter to his sister, he would
have had yet another proof of his diagnosis. He seems, in fact, to be
speaking of Carlo when in the same essay he wrote that the youngsters
"are all affected by neurosthenia and are morally inane." A great confu-
sion had taken over their conscience. They no longer knew "in what
direction to go; they are lost in an immense labyrinth, all surrounded by
an impenetrable mystery. Many are the roads but which is the true one?"
(Saggi, 900).
The crisis both authors are analyzing is in part historical, in part
personal, but, for both, it is also the essential condition of human beings.
Neither of them, in fact, had any hope that social or historical changes
would come to the rescue. "Life has no rest, just as the sea has none"
(Saggi, 903) and life is desire, never fulfilled. Michelstaedter's and Piran-





64 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER

dello's voices are here speaking in unison. "Possession will never corre-
spond to the desire, man will never free himself from his chain," said
Pirandello (903). The tension of Michelstaedter's "weight" can still be felt.
In his Pirandello lafollia, Gioanola makes brilliant use of Laing's essay
The Divided Self to analyze most of Pirandello's production and prove
that the threat of insanity was his constant companion and that his wife's
tragic illness was to him a mirror of his own "latent psychotic poten-
tiality."'69 Michelstaedter was also obsessed with the idea of becoming
mad, as we have seen. Both authors, as did the psychologist Laing, found
the origin of this obsession in the drastic separation of the mind from the
body.
Laing, who followed the psychiatrist Minkosky in his analysis, was
convinced by the latter that this separation was the trait of schizoid
patients who "maintain judging capability, but lack the life instinct."'70
Pirandello, after all, was fascinated by the mysteries of the psyche and
was very familiar with Binet's Les alterations de la personality (1902) and
Marchesini's Lefinzioni dell'anima. Many are the characters of his stories
and plays in whom this opposition is embodied. The epitome of the
dichotomy is represented by the writer Silvia Roncella and the camera-
man Serafino Gubbio. Silvia "lives" in order to write. She is detached from
the life she describes in her books to the point that she is unable to bring
forth a new life, to procreate. Actually her capability as a writer is in-
versely proportional to her attachment to life. Serafino, whose arms and
hands have become part of the camera that shoots life in segments, that is,
stopping it, will lose all his humanity. In the end, he will, just like an auto-
maton, continue to shoot a real human slaughter.
Pirandello, who created characters in order to give a body to this
obsession, theorized about it with great lucidity in his famous essay
L'umorismo (On Humor, 1908). "Life," he wrote,

is a continual flux which we try to stop, to fix in stable and determined
forms, both inside and outside ourselves.... The forms in which we
seek ... to fix in ourselves ... this constant flux are the concepts, the
ideals to which we would like constantly to comply.

Yet inside us life continues "indistinct under the barriers and beyond the
limits we impose."'71 But if these forms can easily collapse just with a





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 65


breath, as Cosmo Laurentano has told us, what can happen to them
when "moments of flood arrive, and the river overflows"? "Everything is
submerged," exclaims Moscarda in One, No One, and a Hundred Thou-
sand.72 Life rushes through and tears down all our artificial constructions.
We cannot but think of Il dialogo della salute at the moment when the
ridiculous form of the philosopher that Carlo/ Rico had built for himself
is shuttered by the floodtide, as Pirandello calls it, that suddenly comes to
the surface and tears down the neat construction in an instant. The wise
Carlo who talks of balance and virtue cannot even control his own bad
temper when his brother comes to his room and disturbs his profound
philosophical reflections. The virtuous philosopher simply slaps his
brother in the face. And Carlo remains stripped by his artificial creation,
alone with his naked truth. Yet, Pirandello continues, "one cannot be in
the abstract. Being must happen, must create its own appearance to
itself: the world. The world is the activity of being, it is appearance,
illusion, to which being itself grants the value of reality." "Life is being
that gives itself a form. It is the infinite which becomes finite. In every
form there is a purpose, an end. Every form is death" (Saggi, 1274).
There is no way out of this impasse, no possible synthesis to such
opposition. Although life cannot be known and man can only sense it, he
will forever and ever need concepts, ideas; in short, abstractions, forms-
and Michelstaedter will repeat this in his dissertation-in order to make
sense out of the chaos. At least so he thinks; just as he needs a form, an
appearance for himself, says Pirandello, in order to acquire an identity
for himself and the others. The attack against names, ideas, truths
becomes, for both authors, the attack against systems of any kind, be
they philosophies, sciences, or religions. They are abstractions, screens
as Michelstaedter had said, that cover a dark void. Science has now taken
the place of religion. "Don't we call nature today what in the past we
called, more poetically, God?" The scientific definition of nature "as a
symbol of mechanical connection" does not help us to understand it any
better (Saggi, 1056). "Science extracts life and almost destroys it in order
to anatomize it" (1058). What remains? A series of neat abstract for-
mulas with which we can only play a game.73
Michelstaedter sees the course of events moving toward a future
where each word uttered or action performed will be mere appearances,
an empty shell devoid of any content. Words like "virtue, moral, duty,





66 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


religion, goodness.., will, too, become t6poi koinof [commonplaces]
and they will be as stable as the scientific ones" (Persuasione, 174). Dark-
ness will be completely veiled to everyone's eyes in the same way, for men
will then be all domesticated in the same way.
If human language is made to coincide with rettorica, persuasione will
be achieved only through silence. "Language," writes Michelstaedter,
"will reach the limit of absolute persuasiveness-what the prophet reaches
through a miracle-that is, it will arrive at silence when each act will be
totally effective" (173). "True contact between beings," wrote Cioran, "is
established only by mute presence, by apparent noncommunication, by
that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer."74
Born out of the need to communicate, language must finally yield and
accept its defeat.

Michelstaedter's ferocious criticism of the violence inflicted upon chil-
dren at the end of La persuasione e la rettorica is justified by the fact that
it is the cowardly way of perpetrating rettorica. The child learns right
away that "one thing is theory; another, practice" (189); he is forced to
learn theories and principles that have no relation to his needs and
desires. He knows that his obedient behavior, though meaningless to
him, will bring him some gain; a prize, a gift, a promise, and he acts
accordingly, organizing his life into two separate spheres. When the child
becomes a young man in college he is told "to do a study on Plato, [for
example], or on the Gospel" so he might become a famous scholar, and
he is warned to be objective and detached from the object of study (189).
He works without ever asking what is the meaning and the purpose of all
he is doing-he has been trained to do this from an early age.
This outpouring of acrimony and bitterness by Michelstaedter is
clearly a self-indictment. He is here questioning and repudiating his own
work. And, of course, he cannot go on.75 His scholarly dissertation was
by its very nature a self-defeating task. It represented everything he was
combating. It was the celebration of rettorica. He had not been able to
remain faithful to the original topic. It happened to him as it happened
to Eco's last hero Casaubon with his dissertation on the Templars. The
works that had started as scholarly dissertations had changed in the
process of being written. At the end, both were questioning the very
nature of the undertaking. Yet there is no escape from rettorica and





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 67


Michelstaedter knew it (and Eco knows it too). The same afternoon he
mailed his dissertation to Florence, he killed himself.
Had he run outside that afternoon to find solace in the green waters of
his Isonzo or to climb his beloved San Valentin, perhaps nature would
have offered him a taste of persuasione, enough to make him go on living
longer. Michelstaedter knew that nature would never lie to him. Neither
would it address him with the language of rettorica. His passion for
physical outdoor activities was the most genuine way he could communi-
cate his love and devotion to nature.
The San Valentin (now known as the Sabotino) was the destination of
many of Michelstaedter's climbs, often undertaken in the company of his
few, faithful friends. It was also a symbol of purity and authenticity.
Climbing San Valentin to the top was almost an act of penitence and
purification with, at the end, the Cross of sacrifice and rebirth (a wooden
cross actually stood at the top). He and Nino when climbing the moun-
tain felt as if they had performed a religious rite (Ep., 431). The sanctity
of the mountain was confirmed in Carlo's request to Paula to send him a
rock taken from it. He then thanked his sister and treasured it as a sacred
relic.
Just as the psalmist looks up at the hill to acquire the strength that
comes from God (Psalm 121), Michelstaedter conquers the mountain in
order to identify with the absolute. His is not a philosophy of con-
templation, but of action and creation. On this mountain he had written
some of his last poems, in a desperate effort, perhaps, to defeat the
rettorica of words with the purity of the surroundings. Even in his letters
to his friends, the mountain is a powerful presence. There, too, its purity
is evoked in contrast to the obscurity of intellectual activity.
After the tragic death of his brother Gino he writes home: "In the
moments when I feel a little enthusiasm in my arid work I feel I am
fighting for life and for the sun against the aridity and obscurity of
academic philosophy. I feel I am fighting for the sun, the air and the
purity of the rocks of Monte Valentin" (Ep., 355). In this image of
uncontaminated life he sees himself as the hawk that protects the purity
of the top of the mountain from the baseness of the crows.
In 1908 Michelstaedter wrote a legend about Monte Valentin; a piece
of "poetic prose" Campailla called it, a romantic story with a medieval
setting.76 The piece has all the characteristics of young Carlo's style.





68 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


D'Annunzio's presence can be felt in the formal aestheticism, in the
sensual atmosphere of the setting as well as in the hymn to joy and
physical love. Yet this legend is also a testimony to the energizing power
that nature had for him. Nature was authenticity, persuasione, whereas
the philosophical discourse of his writings was rettorica.
Is it pure coincidence that Eco's masterpiece of "rettorica," Foucault's
Pendulum, ends with the image of a hill? (Nature is otherwise almost
absent in the novel.) To the image of the hill is juxtaposed the disbelief
created by the intellectual constructions that disrupt men's lives, giving
them neither comfort nor peace. The hill had appeared at the beginning
of the novel, before any plan had been conceived, before the human mind
had started creating monsters and mazes in which to plunge to damna-
tion. "Yet the hill is so calm tonight, a summer night now," totally
untouched by the insane plot the human mind is about to conceive.77
And so it will be at the end, still there, stable, always the same, a
stronghold against the dizziness the human mind has created.
"So I might as well stay here... ," says Casaubon at the end, "and
look at the hill."
"It's so beautiful."'78
Yet the human mind, Svevo warned us, has become capable of creating
ordigni (bombs) that will erase even the beautiful hill and with it, the rest
of the earth;79 similarly, in Leopardi's words,

so too of the entire world, and of the infinite vicissitudes and calami-
ties of all created things no single trace will remain; but a naked
silence, and a most profound quiet will fill the immensity of space.
Thus, this stupendous and frightening mystery of universal existence
before it can be declared or understood, will vanish and be lost.
(Operette, 379)

Even Leopardi's "crow" will cry no more.80


THE EPISTOLARIO; OR, ABOUT PERSUASIONE

We begin to live authentically only when
philosophy ends, at its wreck when we have
understood its terrible nullity, when we





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 69


have understood that it was futile to resort
to it, that it is no help.-Emile Cioran81

The dichotomy of life-thought, or body-mind, tore Michelstaedter in
two. In his very person the two parts in fact seem to have been equally
strong and powerful, defeating the conventional wisdom that one always
acquires strength at the expense of the other. Did Michelstaedter's futile
attempt to balance them contribute to his final act?
If his philosophical writings are the place to examine his intellectual
search in its unfolding, in his letters his concern with nature and the
physical aspects of his being is openly stated. Furthermore letters have, or
at least should have, a quality of authenticity that derives from the spon-
taneous urge to communicate with immediacy an idea or a feeling that
would normally be expressed orally were the receiver of the message pres-
ent. The idea or feeling is generally recorded, left there without further
reflection or connection. Campailla writes in the introduction to the
Epistolario, "the letter is for Carlo a sort of magical ritual; it promises to
rescue a threatened intimacy, the descent to secret depths; the day is orga-
nized around it, condensing [in it] its essential meaning" (Ep., x). Carlo's
letters are the pages of a diary where he constantly tries to assert himself
with all the good and the bad; and where he strives for persuasione.
The hundreds of letters written home and to his intimate friends
clearly show the intensity of his sensuality and physicality, which he did
not attempt to restrain. It is evident how much he treasures and cultivates
this side of himself: his exhausting mountain climbing, his passion for
dancing ("a physical pleasure, an unmatched voluptuousness" he calls it
[Ep., 98]), his long swims in the rough waters of the Isonzo which made
him famous and proud, and his frustrations when an injury to his foot
kept him at home for some time. He was constantly pushing himself to
the limits of his capabilities, and nature was his beloved playground.
There he had the illusion of reaching that absolute that as a social being
he never could even approach.
A letter describing the funeral of the poet Carducci brings out better
than others this aspect of Michelstaedter's nature; its force springs from
contrast. The main subject, in fact, is death, yet its end is a hymn to
sensual life. He loves Bologna for its richness, abundance, fullness of life.
The qualifiers he chooses to describe it are self-explanatory:





70 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


I think of Bologna again, of the past three days; they appear to be an
oasis of a superior sun and life, so intense, that I'll be scarred by it for
the rest of my life. But then, I love Bologna, with its porticos, its
beautiful dark-red palazzos, its beautiful vast piazzas, its imposing San
Petronio church, its lively movement.., of happy people everywhere
in throngs to see and to be seen enjoying life. I love the generous and
sincere cordiality of the people, I like the teeming public places, full of
life and warmth, and . more than anything else, I love its women,
opulent, radiant with life, who smile when smiled at, and who seem to
give themselves entirely through the glance [sguardo]. (186)

One of Michelstaedter's greatest pleasures was taking long walks
alone or with his close friends to the outskirts of the city. It was his habit
in Gorizia as well as Florence: hours and hours of excursions in the
countryside and climbs to the top of the hills surrounding the cities.
When in Florence it was not unusual for him to decide in the middle of
the night to walk to Fiesole and see dawn from the surrounding hills. He
loved the impression that nature made on him at night. Even a sudden
rain that could at times accompany his walk would not spoil it. He wrote
home one day that "some thick dark clouds blocked the view of dawn
from a height of 1,000 meters and made us pleasantly wet on the way
home. We walked eight hours" (Ep., 189).
Summer, the season of energy and power, excited him immensely. To
his family he wrote: "We suddenly plunged into a fiery summer. . that
kills and makes everybody cry, but that makes me live a life one hundred
times more intense." Walking through the streets of Florence he could
smell the strong scent of summer. "Thursday I walked two hours under
the sun, alone in the countryside, to go swim in the Arno" (Ep., 213).
And spring excited him with its joyfulness. "It grabs me by the throat,"
he wrote to Paula, "if I do not move, if I do not expand, if I do not live-I
suffocate. It is like being drunk" (Ep., 303).
Already at age nineteen he had celebrated his closeness to nature in his
answer to a question in a family game ("Where would you like to die?"):
"where and when infinitely beautiful nature suspends my individual life
and makes me palpitate through her and makes me feel the need of
uniting with her."'82 Carlo seems to be proud of his exceptional physical
qualities, of his being unique, of his being nature's special son, and he





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 71


wonders why "I do not live always outdoors, why do I make myself sad
with books, and with these mummified creatures [his professors], risk-
ing also to become mummified" (Ep., 302). In order to feel good "at least
relatively, [he] would need to walk at least 12 hours" (Ep., 389).
From early on, Michelstaedter analyzed the incompatibility of thought
and feelings. To another question ("Which is your favorite entertain-
ment?") he had answered, "I enjoy all those things that make me feel so
strongly as to silence my thought."'83 The opposition of thought and
feeling is openly stated and the reciprocal war declared. Writing home
after a long walk to Piazzale Michelangelo he describes the emotion that
the nocturnal view of Florence gave him as "a wave of beauty running
through my body . I became one with nature. Nothing in such a
moment is more of a hindrance than thought. I enjoyed that three-hour
walk immensely" (Ep., 102). He knows that even the description of the
emotions felt would kill them, and he limits himself to relating the
occurrence.
Likewise when writing to Gaetano and describing his physical activi-
ties at Pirano, his swimming, sailing, dancing, he states that he refrained
from talking in order to live more intensely the life of nature (335). And
we could add, borrowing Pirandello's words:

Life was pulsating in his throat, with the taste of so many inexpressible
things, which made him almost cry from the fullness of the joy that he
felt and in seeing that the others were enjoying it too. ... But he had
the strange fear, that not only with saying it, but even only with
thinking of it, it would vanish. (Saggi, 1272)

"Life cannot be explained," Serafino Gubbio will say, "it must be lived"
(Romanzi, 2:662).
A year earlier, back home for the winter holidays, pampered by the
attention and love of his family, he had written to his dear friend Gaetano
Chiavacci: "My spirit fluctuates deliciously in a sea of good and sweet
things so much so that I feel I am getting stupider and stupider by the
day; just as deliciously, however, and progressively I am becoming a
bourgeois." At home, vacationing, Carlo is simply living: "Imagine, that
since Monday I have no longer thought; I left a piece of my brain on each
cliff of the Apennine." Nature and thought do not agree with each other.





72 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


Carlo lives the life of nature and keeps Plato, Kant, Homer "religiously"
closed on his desk. "I sleep like a pig, eat, drink. ... I practice fencing, I
dance, walk, talk" (Ep., 266). At times one seems to be reading Svevo's
pages to Livia with their expressions of fear that the superficial hap-
piness of the good bourgeois life will turn him into an idiot. We seem to
hear the voice of Zeno Cosini, although Zeno, unlike Carlo, accepts the
incompatibility of reason and feelings, deciding at times to follow one or
the other according to his own personal whim.
Although aware of the dichotomy he was living and of the equal
power the two elements exerted on him, Michelstaedter, as a good
Romantic, was critical of reason and had always positive words for
feeling and nature. Thus he is constantly concerned with his physical
well-being. After a physical illness and several months of study in prepa-
ration for his exams, he feels that his inertia is ruining him also morally,
making him more nervous, more irritable. "I need to lead a purely
physical life for many months" (321). And what joy only two weeks later
when, feeling better, he writes home with the former intense exuberance:

The pains in my knees are almost gone .... actually today... I feel
free. I run, jump, do fencing, I feel reborn: I skipped over every bench I
found on the road, I climb again the stairs three by three, I get on the
trolleys while they are running, I started again to beat up all my friends
and to upset those who live on the first floor. I have become a man
again. (Ep., 324-25)

The joking tone shows that he is thriving physically again. It reflects his
mood after having taken and passed the boring exam in Italian literature
that had turned out to be a painful work of historical and philological
research. In the same early letter where he had written about his illness
and his depression he had told his father that he was not made for this
type of study. The connection of his physical state with his extremely
abstract and theoretical work is evident. To Paula, too, he wrote: "Above
all, I think of my body, it is important to me." And a few paragraphs
later: "I must stop talking about myself, because I must stop looking into
myself-it can be intellectually useful but it's not healthy" (305-6).
Again it is Zeno who comes to mind with his theory that thought and
self-analysis make action impossible. Zeno, however, makes his choice





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 73


and accepts its consequences: he will be a paralytic thinker. Of course, at
times, he will decide to follow an impulse, for example, to pursue a
woman. But then he will follow it without trying to rationalize it, giving
reason a deserved break. And he will even laugh at his own weaknesses
and cleverness. Carlo cannot. He can neither laugh nor can he accept the
necessity of compromise. In his Nietzschean dream of asserting himself
as the Ubermensch, he prefers death to compromise. His is the insane
urge of someone who wants feeling and reason to coincide.
To his father on January 17, 1907, he wrote that he could never be
satisfied with only a contemplative life. "Too many things tie me to life."
"And so I constantly fight against that contemplative tendency of mine"
(Ep., 170). "I have to repress the disgust that I feel at this mincing
operation on the part of thought, at this fragmentation of the ideal unity
that I feel inside me" (Ep., 171). His preference for the instinctive part of
man is justified by its superiority. Man's instinct and nature do not lie,
they are authentic, they are the voice of persuasione. Only when a "man
lives (not when he reflects outside of life) does he feel the absolute
universality of the concepts of good and evil" (Ep., 230). If good and evil
are inside, as part of one's nature, then it is possible "to project them as a
universal law onto the others . but not as an abstract good outside
[one]self" (230).
It is clear, then, that rettorica derives from abstraction, from reason-
ing, from theories, never from nature. It must have been tragic for
Michelstaedter to realize that nature, which is authenticity itself, and
never lies, could in his own person become low and even evil. These
realizations he, characteristically, verbalized.
Often in his letters home Carlo apologized for his actions and words
that might have hurt the feelings of those who loved him. He hated
himself for this violent aspect of his nature that nothing seemed able to
control, not even his enlightened, superior mind. The violent outbursts,
to which his family was probably by then accustomed, are to him an a
posteriori cause of great remorse and suffering.

By now you have probably forgotten... but I am instead still under
that impression and cannot control my melancholy. I am really sorry
for having been so unbearable with you all, especially with you, Paula.
I can feel that I was really hideous .... I would slap my face now if I





74 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


could see me as I was-all those airs and not wanting to hear anything,
that acting so presumptuously and wanting always to be right; a real
swine. (Ep., 246)

Michelstaedter's capacity for introspection was great. He turned upon
himself the lens of the scientist, the scalpel of the surgeon. Pitilessly he
tore into the weak and evil fibers of his soul. The result of a painful
operation was the exposure of all the weaknesses that the real persuaso
should overcome. After taking advantage of his aunt Irene Bassani who
admired and loved him dearly, Carlo felt self-contempt. "I went there to
enjoy myself (to eat at her expense), to sponge on her, faking an affection
I did not and I do not feel..... I made fun of her in every way and I have
done it even a moment ago; and the poor old lady wrote me a very
affectionate letter" (Ep., 288). Of course, nothing of what Carlo dis-
covered inside himself was outrageous or particularly wicked. In this
respect, he was just an average human being with many petty traits and
some good ones.
But he never accepted his being like other human beings. After all, he
continued to criticize them for all their pettiness and ugliness. By doing
this with such acrimony he placed himself upon a pedestal above the
masses of the miserable as if he were the Solon of mankind. In such a
context, the realization of his own pettiness and ugliness could not be
accepted with humility; he responded with bursts of rage.
Yet there were more serious episodes that made him realize that the
identity of theory and practice, the coincidence of thought and action
was a total illusion. There is a moving page at the end of Il dialogo della
salute that is self-explanatory. Rico, the main interlocutor, is Carlo him-
self here performing an act of self-confession.

I, who would walk on the streets or in the mountains with one of my
friends talking of virtue, fortitude, courage and of the "vanity of
everything," of life and death, I-the very same-would then give a
profound and philosophical slap on my brother's cheek, if he dared to
trouble the peace of my sanctuary where I was fabricating wisdom; or
I would slam the door in my mother's face.... My mother remained
silent, at times she would cry; my brother once rather than protesting
noisily, stiffened, clenched his fists, and left without a word. I went





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 75


after him, I looked at him and saw in his contracted face such a deaf
rebellion, such a hatred in his surly eyes, such a desperate flame, that it
terrified me. I grabbed him and tried to hug him, but he freed himself
with disgust. Ah the tears he did not weep, I wept! Freedom, justice,
imperturbability! What's the use, when one is the slave of a door that
opens and with the same hand that has made great gestures to inflate
long sentences, slaps a child to defend "the peace of his own thoughts,"
in order to be able "to think" ahead in the blind impotence of my lost
peace! And notice, please! On my brother I was naturally applying
pedagogical theories. And then after doing it, immediately aware of the
infamous injustice, the first gesture: a caress, to beg for my brother's
forgiveness. In "terror" because I had seen in such a mirror the vanity
of my words, the nullity of my person, grabbing hold first, hoping with
that easy act, to gain the comfort from a child's weak condescension,
the comfort that would put my heart to rest. Coward! And then, after
recognizing even this last act of cowardice because of his fortitude, the
crown of drama, the tears. Can you see that heap of flesh sobbing and
dissolving itself in tears? That is the philosopher! Nausea! Nausea!
(Dialoghi, 82-84)

The analysis could not have been more pitiless. It must have left Michel-
staedter crushed in the ruins of his artificial constructions.
It had started with the death of Nadia. Nadia Baraden was a Russian
divorcee some years older than Michelstaedter. He had met her in Flor-
ence at the end of 1906 and had given her Italian lessons. A strong
friendship developed that perhaps became more intimate. She was a
cultured woman, and he shared her artistic and literary interests. He
even painted her portrait in oils, one of his most moving. Carlo was only
nineteen and although we do not know the details of this relationship, it
is likely, as Campailla says in his biography, that he might have behaved
with the superficiality characteristic of his young age. The episode did
not last more than a few months. On April 11, 1907, Nadia took her life,
while Carlo was in Gorizia for the Easter vacation. He ran back to
Florence, haunted by unanswered questions.
Within a few weeks he was writing love letters to a girl at the Institute
where they were studying, with whom one of his friends was also in love.
This intense, brief infatuation was censured by his parents, who must





76 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


have written him letters of criticism and parental moralism, judging by
his replies. Carlo felt unjustly judged by his family and wrote volu-
minously to explain his behavior and to reassert the strong moral princi-
ples his parents taught him. Still, he must have been filled with doubts as
to the honesty of his actions if he could write to his dear friend Gaetano:


I have been torn by strange problems and I still am, so unable to
dominate them that I even ignore their actual weight and what the
consequences of the various solutions can be .... Everything has sunk
into materiality, and the whole construction of my dear and proud
dreams has fallen into the most despairing skepticism .... I no longer
believe in my faith .... All the painful things that happened this year
and especially the one you know [Nadia's death] and which I thought I
could easily overcome, are tearing me apart. And most of all I am
tormented by a doubt about the honesty of what I did... you know
what I am referring to. And I despise myself like a dog. Everything,
everything is collapsing ... I ask myself why I am living, and I find
peace only in sleep and in the most violent exercises. (Ep., 244)


Nadia remained in his thoughts. At the end of 1909 he wrote a
dialogue between Carlo and Nadia with a Greek title ("He who attaches
himself to life has been already judged"), reminiscent of Dido and
Aeneas. The doubts about his honesty that he had confessed to Gaetano
become here open accusations. Nadia is dead and accuses Michelstaedter
of being a selfish individual, just like any other human being, miles away
from that persuasione that constituted the object of so many of his
discussions and so few of his actions. "You have loved neither me nor
anyone else, but in every person only yourself," Nadia tells him.


-Nadia, I still love you.
-Don't talk. Only he who "is" can love the person who no longer is
and cannot love him.
-But you have never loved me.
-1I would have loved you if you had been such to love without
asking to be loved. (Dialoghi, 98)





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 77


Nadia is here speaking with the voice of persuasione, that voice she
probably heard so many times coming out of Carlo's mouth-but only
as a sound.

-Poor Carlo!... No one can love the one who only loves the love
that he needs, for, if he needs it, it means he does not possess it. You
have nothing, and nothing you can give, but you will always ask, more
and more miserable, you who "are" not and cannot love, but you ask
for love in order to delude yourself into thinking that you are someone.
But nobody can love him who "is" not.
-Nadia, I shall kill myself! (Dialoghi, 98)

It was still only a cry on paper.

Michelstaedter resorted to physical exercise in moments of mental de-
pression. The more his mind was confused and upset the more he felt the
need to exert his body to the utmost. From Gorizia he wrote to Gaetano
a list of physical activities for the days to come and of his intention to
participate in a street demonstration for irredentism. Excited, he wrote:
"Imagine if there were really a chance to exercise my hands-what
pleasure!" (Ep., 328). Yet, three weeks later the tone had changed com-
pletely, and his mental depression had taken over again. In the same
letter where he describes the days spent vacationing near the sea, at
Pirano, in the company of Paula and the Cassini sisters, he explains his
torment to his friend. Its power derives from the contrast between nature
and mind. The intense life of nature that Michelstaedter leads at Pirano
opens up the dark abyss of his psyche.
The days spent at Pirano are days of physical activities: walking,
climbing, swimming, sailing, dancing. Even talking is purposely reduced
to a minimum in order to live the life of nature, intensely. Carlo's
personality appears here completely split. The son of nature has found
his perfect habitat and achieves fulfillment in all his activities. To
Gaetano he describes this stretch of the coast as a sailor or fisherman
would, and he is proud of the offer made to him by fishermen to remain
with them and live at sea. He seriously thinks that it might be the best
solution to his indecision. Yet Carlo is also a creature of thought. The





78 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


beautiful comparison of his brain to the sea conveys all the power and
intensity of his chaotic needs and feelings:

My mind is like an undulating sea that reflects all lights, that mirrors
. all the skies. . but that shatters them all at the focal point-but
the bottom remains murky and dark. . certainly I have what the sea
has not: I have the uninterrupted torment of bygone intentions and of
future commitments, of the different and unfulfilled yearnings: the
consciousness of my meaninglessness [nulliti] in this world regulated
by actions as well as by thought and art; of life dissolving, awaiting
what? In the illusion of a progressive shaping [formarsi] that does not
exist. (Ep., 330)

The image could not have been more effective. The sea, symbol of
force, vitality, infinity, and the freedom of nature, is here made to
coincide (or at least Carlo is trying to make it do so) with the intellectual,
spiritual absolute. But this attempt is bound to fail; the two can never
coincide.
Michelstaedter's brain is like the sea with its strength, force, freedom,
but also with its dark, irrational, turbid side. The brain-sea image proves
his refusal to be only like the sea or the fisherman, and his need to be
everything: nature and spirit, action and ideal to a degree of perfection.
Frustration follows frustration. "I realize with growing terror that I am
condemned to remain outside the intensity, passion, greatness of life, and
that I will never have a way of living it within me." And in his depression
he admits: "There would be nothing left for me to do but lead a physical
violent life, go wandering on horseback through the plains and rest at
night in a tent counting the stars" (Ep., 331). His ultimate negative
response to this rhetorical proposition is powerful. As for the Leopar-
dian shepherd, the life of nature is not enough for Carlo, yet intellectual
fulfillment escapes him. Even reading no longer satisfies him.

Everything passes through rapidly as if my brain were a point or a mass
of points .... There is no possibility for me to embrace a larger
whole, actually even before trying I already feel the void .... So I no
longer am able to think, to write or to paint; I feel disgust toward
myself. (Ep., 336)





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 79


His mind and feelings are openly at war. Although he likes Fulvia Cassini
and enjoys her company, he writes to Gaetano:

my heart must be like a sucked pear-I feel something very special for
her, I wish to be with her more than anything else, yet I do not think it
is love .... This means I am no longer capable of feeling love, that
even this now escapes me like everything else, actually with it all the
rest is escaping. I thought how happy I would be if I were really in love,
and I had this love in everything I do. Instead I am no longer good for
anything. (Ep., 335-36)

In the pursuit of perfection, of the coincidence of mind and body, Carlo
has lost both. He now knows that his refusal to pursue only one term of
the dichotomy and his attempt to realize both has ended in total failure:
"Gaetano, my friend, how unhappy I am and how scarce the probability I
see that in the future something can change, if not for the worse, while
chains of every kind are approaching" (Ep., 337). And the natural conse-
quence of this dissatisfaction with himself comes out as aggressiveness
toward others. The imitator of the great persuasi of history is not even
exempt from the most common and lowest weakness of human nature:
turning against others the contempt he feels for himself.

AN EXAMPLE OF PERSUASIONE:
ENRICO MREULE
The short list of the persuasi of history that Michelstaedter makes at the
beginning of his dissertation starts with Parmenides and ends with Ibsen.
Among his famous contemporaries Michelstaedter does not seem to find
anybody. Yet he found one persuaso very close to him: his intimate friend
Rico Mreule. One year older, Rico emigrated to Argentina in 1909-a
gesture, as we will see, of profound significance for Carlo, who trans-
formed him into a modern Socrates in his Il dialogo della salute.
The eight letters to Rico in Michelstaedter's Epistolario reveal more or
less his tormented soul, but all have a spark of persuasione, which was
probably lit by this friendship. In his first letter, written in April 1909,
Carlo expresses his feelings after having heard Beethoven's Eroica. He
tells his friend of his need to run outside, to climb the San Valentin and to
feel like the hawk that reaches the top of such elevated purity. In the





80 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


second letter, written precisely two months later, he discusses a terrible
play he had gone to see, lured by the critics' florid comments. The
description of the evening is extremely revealing and changes direction as
it proceeds. Michelstaedter, in fact, was disgusted by the public applause
that greeted the end of the play and began to boo and whistle with all his
might. To the indignation of the audience, he laughed louder and louder
at the "stupid and ferocious face" of that "big beast made out of one
thousand people" (Ep., 394). Although the commotion continued out-
side the theater, "no blood ran" on the streets, he remarks. At this point
the tone shifts abruptly. The irony, sarcasm, laughter, and jokes that
Carlo the actor had produced before his public died out when he was left
alone on the street at night: "I stopped laughing and was taken over by a
nausea of myself who had behaved just like the public, in an inadequate
manner" (Ep., 394).
The episode was to Carlo another sign of his own vanity. In the same
letter, continuing a discussion he had started in the April letter and that
Rico had likely continued in his answer, he expresses his ideas about the
real persuaso. The examples are Christ, Buddha, and Leopardi, but also
Plato when he was looking for the absolute, which to him coincided with
the highest good (agath6n). The persuaso "climbs the mountain (Cal-
vary) in order to die, not to adjust himself to life." "There is no 'after' for
him who has lived in one moment all times" (396). Lately, Carlo writes at
the end of his letter, he had "learned to know Christ and Beethoven and
all the rest [was] waning" (398).
Carlo openly identifies his friend with Christ in another letter: "a
Christ wounded and dirtied by the slander and wickedness of those
around you" (404). It is a difficult letter that begins with a statement
about the strength of their pact of friendship. It is a rapport founded on
negations and reactions, thus unbreakable. It acquires its strength and
eternal quality by the tragic truth of the nullity of everything. "And the
more tragic the conditions the more the friendship flourishes, our friend-
ship which feeds on negative forces" (403). The contradictory essence of
Michelstaedter's philosophy is exemplified here. The positive force of
the tie between the two friends derives from the negative force of the
universe in which it lives. We can stretch the image a little further; it also
derives from the opposition between the two types: homo persuasus and
homo retoricus.





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 81


Rico is surely Carlo's alter ego. He is the meter against whom he
measures himself. The letter proceeds with a discussion of Plato and
Aristotle, which Rico continues in his reply. It is one of the very few
letters to Carlo that have survived. Rico agrees with his friend on the
matter of Plato and Aristotle and reveals his profound relativism and
subjectivism. Rico's other replies to Carlo must have been extremely
powerful and profound if the latter writes, after reading them, such
merciless self-analysis.

All you wrote in your last one is true, and it is as much true as it is sad.
For me it is the almost material contact with that truth that tells me:
"you have failed, all your hope is in vain, whatever you do or say is a
dishonest attempt." (Ep., 407)

Michelstaedter is tormented by his fickleness. For him who professes the
necessity of "constancy," of being always faithful and coherent to oneself,
his instability was a source of desperation.

Before the things of life I do not have a steady reaction, but flare-ups of
enthusiasm that quickly burn out. ... And I am at times cold, at times
ardent, always split in two, while one part skeptically observes the
inconsistencies of the other and always has clear the sense of its own
limitation, of nausea. (Ep., 407-8)

Michelstaedter can examine himself so profoundly and mercilessly be-
cause Rico is before him as the other self. "But you, instead, are always
the same . the realization of such difference between us puts me in
immediate contact with my life and with life in general" (Ep., 408). It is
the presence of "the other" that produces self-consciousness.
At the end of November, without telling his family, Rico boarded a
ship for Argentina. Nino Paternolli, their common friend, accompanied
him to Trieste. A few hours later Carlo is already at his desk, writing his
dear friend one of his most moving and telling letters.
The opposition between the "I" and "the other," between Carlo and
Rico, is established at the opening: "While I write here in the light of my
lamp in my usual place as you see me-you, I think, you will already be
in the open sea" (Ep., 420). The contrast between thought and life is





82 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER

clear. Carlo, as usual, can only sit, think, and write about that life, "the
open sea," that Rico is instead living. The image of the sea is as recurrent
in Michelstaedter's writing, perhaps more so, than the mountain, and we
will examine it at length in his poetry. They were both used at the
beginning of his dissertation as metaphors of persuasione, that which one
strives for and can never possess (Persuasione, 40). In "I figli del mare,"
the most famous of his poems, the harbor that Itti and Senia (the "chil-
dren of the sea") are struggling to reach is not a shelter away from the
tempestuous sea, but it is the very fury of the sea on which Rico is now
sailing. As a real persuaso, Rico is crossing the treacherous ocean but his
"soul will remain clear and immutable" (Ep., 420). Carlo diagnosed his
disease and discovered the reason for his attraction to Rico: it is the
reason that darkness is attracted to light:

With your action ... almost with concrete arguments bearing alone
the weight of the theoretical arguments, with which you in our conver-
sations would open to us the path to the right evaluation of things, you
have accomplished for us the only benefit that a friend can offer a
friend. (Ep., 421)

Carlo continued to write praises of his friend, though he realized that
they could never substitute for actions. "But it is useless that I produce so
many words in my comfortable room" (Ep., 422). With his long letter
Carlo is following step by step his friend's journey. He proceeds through
sentences while Rico is proceeding through waves; Rico's nautical knots
cannot be matched by thoughts on paper. Carlo knows each move of the
ship. "By now you will no longer suffer the cold, since you will be off the
coast of Brindisi. From the agency we found out that the ship will touch
only the ports of Almeria and Las Palmas in Europe" (422). At the close
of the letter, in a desperate gesture, he tells his friend that he has just
climbed up in Nino's attic, where the three friends used to spend so many
hours together, to ask the sun at what point in the sea his dear friend was.
It is all Carlo can do-a pathetic climb toward a light which he can reach
only vicariously. "But when you receive this letter you will be 'abandon-
ing' the Mediterranean and will be sailing over the open sea" (Ep., 424).
The thought of Rico becomes obsessive and with it Carlo's self-
analysis and feeling of inadequacy. In December he writes to Rico:





THE FAILURE OF PHILOSOPHY 83


"While you in this time have acted so as to conquer inertia, which is the
enemy of everything, I am still the same as you left me, different from
myself. Therefore the more I hear and desire to hear from you, the less I
feel like talking to you" (Ep., 425). Two months later, there has been
little change, and he can still write:

As for me, I am always there, as you know "at the point when the
moment is no longer for waiting, but for acting" and always immobile.
As when one must rise and constantly dreams of having risen... and
little by little realizes that he is still lying in bed... and he neither rises
nor stops dreaming that he is rising, and continues to suffer from the
live image that troubles the peace of his sleep and of the immobility
that makes the dreamed action vain. (Ep., 431)

As time passes Carlo's depression increases. Lack of recognition of his
intellectual activity adds to it. His writings, which he sent to various
journals and publishers, came back with courteous and cold rejections.
Not only can he not live as Rico could, he is not able to write. He shares
with Nino his impression after reading Rico's letter, commenting: "Rico's
letter set fire inside me, when I think of us, who envying him, are
prevented from wanting to join him by the same things that prevented us
from leaving with him" (436). But Carlo belongs only in part to "the race
of those who remain on land." And this was to be his tragedy. 84
In a letter to Gaetano, who suffered a similar depressive crisis, Carlo
speaks with the words of Rico to comfort his friend. He has learned or at
least memorized his lesson, and now he repeats it to Gaetano: "Why are
you worried? What do you fear? Nobody will ever be able to take
anything away from us. Life is not worth our tears. But let's always go
ahead and try to be self-sufficient in everything; there is nothing that is
too severe, no position really unbearable" (Ep., 438). This is Rico's voice
speaking, the same voice we hear in the opening of Carlo's last letter to
Rico. Rico's authentic life is so intense that he can still live among and
with his friends even now when he is so far away. "Whereas I," Carlo
laments, "cannot live with you but only insofar as you think of and care
for me even from afar. I have the impression of no longer having any
voice, so much this sad nightmare of weary inertia oppresses me" (Ep.,
440). Carlo had not written to Rico for four months, four arduous





84 CARLO MICHELSTAEDTER


months in which he was struggling with his dissertation. It was no longer
possible for him to write as a persuaso. Neither could he write "without
conviction empty words just to be able to present a written paper" (441).
"In order to do my work as I wanted, I needed that voice that comes from
free life; I had hoped I could find it; instead I found myself wishing only
for silence, having lost every interest in what I had proposed to say with
enthusiasm." Silence is the only honest action. And he is silent even with
Rico.
By the end of June the struggle is three-quarters over; the prospect of
the sea at the end of his chore gives him a last burst of energy. Yet all these
months he has been only writing, playing with words, creating rettorica.
"One year has passed since we have shaken hands here in my house...
since then how much you have done, and how your words have become
action! I am, instead, still nourishing myself with words and I feel
ashamed" (442). Those were to be the last words Carlo wrote to Rico.
The nourishment of rettorica was no longer sufficient to keep him alive.

LETTERS TO HIS FAMILY
Michelstaedter left Gorizia for Florence at the end of October 1905.
Although enrolled in the school of mathematics at the University of
Vienna, he had obtained permission from his father to spend some time
in Florence, to study art, his real passion. Leaving for Florence meant
crossing the border into Italy, and he experienced many of the problems
foreigners have in such circumstances. Sending letters home was not one
of them. It is amazing to see the efficiency of the mail service in those
days. Letters would always arrive at their destination within twenty-four
hours. A journey to Florence then as now was a cultural pilgrimage that
every intellectual would make. In this period another of Michelstaedter's
famous compatriots, Scipio Slataper, was living in Florence, as was the
poet Umberto Saba from Trieste, of whom Michelstaedter left a portrait
in pencil.85 A few years later yet another poet, Giulio Marin, was to enroll
in the same Istituto Superiore where Michelstaedter studied between
1905 and 1909. Slataper and Marin were active in the La Voce move-
ment, with which Michelstaedter as far as is known, had no contacts.
A month after arriving in Florence, Carlo received permission from
his father to enroll in the Istituto di Studi Superiori in order to obtain a
free pass to all museums and libraries in Florence. Alberto Michelstaedter,