At the battle, where one maneuvers around life and death, the mountain comes into view over and over. The mountain, “this stone,” breaks the sky, but Ungaretti’s “Sono una creatura” descends. Many understand it to be an anti-war poem. I generally agree, but following Professor Vivienne Suvini-Hand, I also hold that it engages themes found in a cult reading of Nietzsche.
The descent unfolds through sensations inspired by the stone itself. Ungaretti lists these sensations, speaking of himself as if he were gradually becoming the mountain:
I am a creature (from My Poetic Side) Ungaretti Like this stone of San Michele as cold as hard as thoroughly dried as refractory as deprived of spirit Like this stone is my weeping that can't be seen Living discounts death Original Italian: Sono una creatura (from here) Come questa pietra del S. Michele così fredda così dura così prosciugata così refrattaria così totalmente disanimata Come questa pietra è il mio pianto che non si vede La morte si sconta vivendo
Being “cold,” “hard,” and “thoroughly dried” points to more than shunning regard for others or rejecting warm feelings. It’s an embrace of lifelessness, seeing in mountain-like manliness true durability and strength. We are tempted to say that this looks profoundly anti-war, a spiral into insanity put on paper. No one actually believes becoming a deathbringer without possibility of remorse is good, right? Professor Suvini-Hand, however, has located a passage in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil which endorses throwing away pity for the “creature in man” for the sake of sculpting oneself:
“In man, creature and creator are united: in man there is matter, fragment, excess, clay, mud, madness, chaos; but in man there is also creator, sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divine spectator and the seventh day—do you understand this antithesis? And that your pity is for the ‘creature in man,’ for that which has to be formed, broken, forged, torn, burned, annealed, refined—that which has to suffer and should suffer!” (18)
If Ungaretti believes being a soldier is a powerfully formative experience, that he can be a hammer unto himself, sculpt himself, then becoming cold and hard are not necessarily problematic for him. We see this as crazy and childish, and his focus on the dryness of the stone shows the possibility of sympathy, if not sympathy itself, for our view. Our everyday devotion to the lives and welfare of others can’t easily be explained to one reading too much Nietzsche and given a gun by the state. They might feel the only thing worth birthing is “greatness” or “ideas” or some other nonsense.
Ungaretti’s descent is by no means complete, though. The stone as “refractory”—as harder than all the attempts to destroy it—must have a special appeal for a soldier in combat. This leads to a realization which can be thought much more dramatic than being lifeless or barren. He claims he is totally “deprived of spirit,” of soul. Stone, bearing witness for years upon years, has no need for illusions or animation, let alone emotion.
I lean to the view that declaring oneself drained of spirit usually marks a point of commitment. In this case, one could envision oneself some sort of perfect, stoic soldier fighting with machine-like efficiency for his nation, but it would be a grim and immature fantasy. Ungaretti follows being “deprived of spirit” by speaking of the weeping he’s suppressing—”weeping that can’t be seen”—and it is notable that the stone now takes on a quality of his as opposed to the other way round. He personifies the stone; it becomes more like him for once.
His final statement, “living discounts death,” does not lend itself to imagining some sort of overman indifferent to suffering. It seems to speak an awful irony of combat, that in order to survive, one has to focus, and that focus means becoming more like the lifeless aspects of the terrain one fights on. I do need to be clear about Ungaretti’s fascism. He very much is a fascist, later in life eagerly wanting backing from Mussolini, speaking of Blackshirts as a “miracle,” celebrating fascist rule. Is it possible to create a fascist poem with this much ambivalence about war, though? It doesn’t look possible, unless one is indulging a particular sort of propaganda.
Vivienne Suvini-Hand, Mirage and Camouflage: Hiding Behind Hermeticism in Ungaretti’s L’Allegria. Leicester: Troubadour, 2000. 14-19.