Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Another Night”

I want to thank everyone who has been reading and has plans to continue reading this blog. While I was wading through Ungaretti recently, it struck me that his themes correspond with those of Heidegger. For the foreseeable future, I would like to explore what a dialogue between both thinkers might say.

There are links beyond their talk of things like “being” or “dwelling,” of course. Both unfortunately embraced fascism, with Ungaretti declaring Blackshirts a “miracle.” One could conjecture value for students of political philosophy in constructing this dialogue, but I would like to conduct a more extensive survey before committing to any claims. I don’t feel the need to establish warrant for this project immediately. It seems to me that scholarship can be valuable in a variety of ways, as it does far more than advance new knowledge. It brings neglected artifacts or ideas to light; highlights the work of other scholars; refocuses conversation on more serious questions; creates a critical openness which welcomes more knowledge.

All this is to say: once again, thank you for your patience. I’ll find the warrant. For now, seeing the possibility of dialogue stands an appropriate task.

*

Ungaretti’s “Another Night” places him in the dark with hands frozen. It sounds like he is on guard duty, but no beacon will shine to announce an end to the war:

Another Night
Ungaretti (tr. Peter Jay)

Vallone, April 20, 1917

In this dark
with hands
frozen
I pick out
my face

I see myself
abandoned in the infinite

Original Italian:

Un'Altra Notte

In quest'oscuro
colle mani
gelate
distinguo
il mio viso

Mi vedo
abbandonato nell'infinito

Without sight, touch serves as his primary sense, but sensation is only activated by the cold. The poem features one element besides his flesh—the cold. He can pick out his face: he cannot comprehend it wholly but knows a face exists.

This fragmentation of identity, this feeling of being abandoned in the infinite, raises the question of the poem’s setting. What sort of state of affairs is war? For Heraclitus, all things point to war; for Parmenides, love. Is war a being? Characterized by strife and disorder, it seems the very opposite of being, yet may be the necessary backdrop for the recognition of beings.

War appears anything but necessary in “Another Night,” as it tears Ungaretti apart. But “Morning,” written months earlier, has a different point of view:

Morning
Ungaretti (tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Santa Maria La Longa, January 26, 1917

Immensity
illumines me

Original Italian:

Mattina

M'illumino
d'immenso

Perhaps the sun rises and morning light reveals the world; perhaps a shell was fired near the trenches and a flash of light fell upon him. Either way, “me” is not in question. Disorder and strife can include awesome moments which presuppose your identity, even if you yourself don’t grasp it.

Most, I suppose, believe the experience of being abandoned and not knowing oneself has more weight than the sensation of basking in a glow. This is not because of the length of each event, assuming “Morning” is momentary, while “Another Night” speaks to prolongation in its title. Rather, this is an example of what is considered tragic having priority over everything else. How could one possibly be happy if one has fallen to pieces or could fall to pieces? Tragedy speaks the necessities and their ironic costs. Fighting as part of a nation entails a nearly unspeakable alienation and loneliness.

*

In “The Thinker as Poet,” Heidegger also describes confrontation with the cold. He tells of “snowstorms” tearing “at the cabin” on “winter nights,” followed by a morning where he looks out, seeing a “landscape… hushed in its blanket of snow.”

This forms a dramatic setting for the following verse:

Thinking's saying would be stilled in 
its being only by becoming unable
to say that which must remain
unspoken.

Thinking’s saying would be stilled in its being—what is the significance of speech being “still?” The question concerns memory. Heidegger remembers the terror of the previous nights, when snowstorms startled him, seeing it in the docile snow on the ground around the cabin. How does one convey that experience? The terror, the beauty, the relief and anxiety all wrapped together? How does one “still” the experience, the thought speaking to one?

Thinking’s saying would be stilled in its being only by becoming unable to say that which must remain unspoken. Somehow, the “unspoken” stills “thinking’s saying.” Speech with reverence for what should remain unspeakable is like a being. A contrast with Wittgenstein’s seventh proposition is useful here: “That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” Wittgenstein introduces the unspeakable with regard to ethics and aesthetics. There are propositions we will live and die for; their truth cannot be debated in the way one might argue about whether someone ate too much before dinner or not.

For Heidegger, “becoming unable to say that which must remain unspoken” refers to what is most personal. This is not necessarily the same for Wittgenstein. Propositions of ethics and aesthetics can lend themselves to moral codes and notions of universal truths. But for Heidegger, describing an all-too-personal event entails something which must remain unspoken. Empathy can only reach what another went through, it cannot grasp the same.

*

There is an outstanding question. How does one come to terms with one’s own experience? How does one speak to oneself about what is imperfectly remembered, said in various ways at different times? An inability to truly understand oneself would mean that thinking oneself is always a confrontation with the matter that is the self. One cannot really say oneself, and in Heidegger’s words, that inability would bring thinking face to face with its matter.

Identity is fragmented and at the same time irreducible. This corresponds with Ungaretti’s two poems above, but does it provide relief? Heidegger does not seem as anxious at the end of his little meditation: That a thinking is, ever and suddenly—whose amazement could fathom it? Again, the tragic holds priority. Those moments all could be lost are not only fatal, but ill-remembered. Often, we hold up as idols those who did fall to pieces, who died thinking themselves failures. It is just, beautiful, and good that we do this. But they weren’t wrong to feel abandoned by the infinite. We, in our finitude, did nothing for them when they were here.

References

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thinker as Poet” in Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins/Perennial, 2001. 11.

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