Giuseppe Ungaretti, “My House”

I believe I have located a parallel in Ungaretti’s “My House” and a verse from Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet” which may be of use to those asking what exactly philosophical thinking is. Classically, philosophical thinking contrasts with making poetry. In the Phaedo, Socrates puts Aesop into verse and composes a hymn to Apollo under peculiar circumstances. He has been sentenced to death, but Athens will not put him to death immediately because they are observing a religious festival which celebrates the saving of Athenians long ago. It is as if philosophy does not need to exist when myth is the ruling element and, speaking loosely, death is forbidden. Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet” was composed under very different, less-than-noble circumstances. Not too long after the war, alone in the forest, Heidegger wrote verse that sometimes sounds like it comes from an anime villain about to raise his laser sword. To wit: “When thought’s courage stems from the bidding of Being, then destiny’s language thrives.” —I guess this is better than some of Heidegger’s previous work, which includes hits like the “Declaration of Support for Adolf Hitler.”— Still, Heidegger’s musing brings us back to the Socratic problem. What, exactly, is philosophical thinking? Can we see it in contrast to poetic thinking?

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A short poem of Ungaretti’s, “My House,” expresses ecstatic joy after so long of a love. “So long of a love,” in one way, is ambiguous. Has one loved, been loved, or experienced both? The poem does not provide clarity on that matter. In another way, it is anything but ambiguous. Love has been constant longer than memory:

My House (from A Major Selection of the Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti; tr. Diego Bastianutti)
Ungaretti

The surprise
after so long
of a love

I thought I’d scattered
round the world

Original Italian:

Mi Casa

Sorpresa
dopo tanto
d’un amore

Credevo di averlo sparpagliato
per il mondo

The duration of love alone entails a drama. I cannot ask if the love described has ended—is the surprise, say, a broken relationship?—because there is a prior question. Did Ungaretti even realize he was loved or loving? He did not, until a “surprise.” I submit the surprise is the mere recognition of durable love.

Love is a choice, exercised and developed, but properly speaking this poem treats it is as a being undergoing disclosure. Not a condition, not a state of affairs, but a part of the world with a distinct nature, a dwelling in which other beings realize themselves. It may be argued the being is relational, but it does feature a transhuman longevity.

How is love disclosed as a being? As a real presence, shaping and nurturing, it stands necessary but invisible. Awareness of love only comes about through the unexpected. The unexpected makes a forceful impact—I thought I’d scattered round the world. As if everything one was, everything one believed, shattered and had to be found again, put back together. Disclosure destroys a false perspective, a governing complacency, but this does not destroy the love in question itself. Rather, the realization one has loved or been loved creates that much more love.

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The movement of Ungaretti’s poem parallels that of a verse from Heidegger’s “The Thinker as Poet.” Heidegger there describes the beginnings of a thunderstorm; in his telling, the wind picks up, the sky grows darker. The anticipation of thunder and lightning frames this verse: As soon as we have the thing before our eyes, and in our hearts an ear for the word, thinking prospers. “The thing before our eyes” and Ungaretti’s scattering “surprise” are in a way the same event. In order to apprehend a thing, one must become aware of it, as if lightning illumined it. “The thing before our eyes” is accompanied by “an ear for the word” in our hearts. Love does not stand incidental to Ungaretti’s revelation, and it serves what seems a lesser but just as important function in the verse at hand. The ear for the word—the want to hear, the want to articulate—depends on love.

The thing seen in truth and a desire to hear cause thinking to prosper, Heidegger claims. If Ungaretti’s poem depends on a type of development specific to poetry, namely that reflection upon emotion begets authentic emotion, then does Heidegger’s thought, quoted above, show a development specific to philosophy? It may be objected that the parallel between Heidegger and Ungaretti in this case is too strong. It is all emotion: Heidegger just says “thinking prospers” whereas Ungaretti proclaims he has learned to love that much more. The Phaedo, however, gives us the philosopher par excellence writing poetry at the hour of his death. Ungaretti opens to joy because of time. A love long had reveals itself to be no less than a miracle. “Thinking prospers” for Heidegger as the senses recede. The eyes want to comprehend each facet of the thing; the ears want to hear so as to aid speech. Thinking wants to understand the parts as parts, grasp the whole it can, be able to give a name for its discoveries. Poetry cultivates emotions, philosophy concerns knowledge-production.

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Is anything I wrote true? The Presocratics put what they thought science into verse. They wondered aloud about the conditions making a statement true and had a goddess speak about them.

I don’t need truth as much as I need a truth. A quick way of checking to see if these musings have any use: What emotion does Socrates seek to develop when he puts Aesop into verse? Aesop takes childlike wonder and turns it into a story. A way to explain the world and tell us how to act in it. There is an emotional register here, but it is extremely subtle. It ultimately depends on how Socrates sees himself. One could say his story is primarily that of childlike wonder, and what corresponds.

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