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.

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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Eternal”

The inexpressible nothing. It is meant in a lovely way, encapsulating an affectionate gesture. But it bridges two complicated realities hinted in the gesture. “The inexpressible nothing” emerges from one flower picked and the other given. A picked flower suggests growth and death, both at once; in like manner, a given flower suggests the entanglement of beauty and sacrifice.

A number of us are trying to be far more empathetic than we’ve ever been. We’re not doing this because we’re good people, but because it’s necessary to try to be better. It’s likely we will make gestures that are insincere or overdone, and in the hope of addressing that, I understand Ungaretti’s short poem as a meditation on this problem:

Eternal
Ungaretti (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Between one flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

Original Italian:

Eterno

Tra un fiore colto e l’altro donato
l’inesprimibile nulla

The poem’s title and last word frame its content as between what is eternal and nothingness (h/t Eugenia Loffredo). The content is a gesture characteristic of romantic love: finding a pretty flower, plucking it, giving it away to a beloved. It does not seem, though, that this celebrates romantic love as “eternal” or “all there is in the face of nothing.” After all, between one flower picked and the other given lacks continuity. It would have been easier to say “between the time a flower is picked and given,” but Ungaretti consciously avoided any construction of that sort. He wants us to inquire about two discrete moments which can be treated separately.

I suspect he is asking about the meaning of memory. Two discrete moments imply that the problem of the poem is how we put our memories together. To be sure, I won’t confuse the time I gave flowers to one lover with the reaction I got from another. But if I’m wondering about what might be worth having for eternity, e.g. the feeling of love’s sweetness, then I must admit indulging a jumble of memories. The point is to recreate the feeling, and therein lies the trap. I’ll talk to myself about how I’ve grown and forgotten what I’ve left behind. I’ll focus on what made someone beautiful and forget how much I gave up, rightly or wrongly, for it.

Ungaretti isn’t saying any of these tendencies are particularly wrong. If my reading works, I may have located a gentle comedy. It doesn’t look like we can be entirely true to ourselves when pursuing the memories we believe we most treasure. Hence, the inexpressible nothing—the fact we wanted to think something beautiful, gentle, and sweet is itself ennobling. I do need to qualify this thought, as there are a lot of men who believe they deserve love and attention no matter what and are dedicated to grand romantic gestures as opposed to leaving people alone. The poem doesn’t endorse that confusion or selfishness. It quietly asks you to think about how your conception of love or happiness is a construct, and asserts what’s most beautiful is the limits of that construct.

It asks you, in other words, to find how you can be more empathetic with a self you may have rejected or need to reject. A self too obsessed with one memory or another, a self devoted to the wrong causes, a self that was clueless and couldn’t be reasoned with. If I can be empathetic with the idiot I’ve been and am, maybe I can consistently give others the benefit of the doubt and support they need. They didn’t do the stupid things I did, after all.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “A Dove”

To speak of hope or possibility in these times looks foolish, if not dangerous. Plenty will say any advocacy for change risks disproportionate response from those who hold power. Some have companies and investments which receive massive infusions of cash from the government if there is the slightest chance of damage to them. Others have been armed with military-grade weaponry and deputized. They have been given the tools and permission to pursue violence. Still others have been given honors, privileges, and access unthinkable in any reasonable age. That the so-called leader of the free world pardons war criminals turned in by their own units demonstrates not just contempt for sanity, but a relishing of power where it can do no wrong. The abuse of power is cause for celebration.

Ungaretti presents an image of being eager to hear a dove like the one sent to find land after the Biblical flood. This makes me desire more clarity as regards the antediluvian world. Genesis 6 declares there were “sons of God” who married whomever they wanted, having their own children and bloodline. Genesis 6:4–“They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The problem seems to resemble the Iliad. Achilles knows his divine lineage but wonders what it is worth, and Hector acts from jealousy that he is not so favored. In both cases, one might accuse them of being full of pride, absorbed in their exploits, wishing to build dynasties featuring their name instead of accepting the humility of a flawed, all-too-human ancestor.

One might say the world before the flood needs humility in order to be just and lawful. Then again, I might be accused of not being humble enough if I believe that fighting back against those stealing wealth and honor is worthwhile. The outstanding question: humble with regard to what? I hearken to a dove from other Floods:

A Dove (tr. Diego Bastianutti)
Ungaretti

I hearken to a dove from other Floods.

Original Italian:

Una Colomba

D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

What does it mean to listen to a dove? Central to Ungaretti’s image is yearning. The world has flooded. In the multiplicity of disasters, a lot of people, good and bad, have drowned. The possibility of pride has drowned, replaced with a desire to survive.

I imagine he voices an accompanying desire to obey. It is true our modern age tends to celebrate those with survival skills, skills considered manly and necessary for true independence. Does he “hearken to a dove” to be free? I hold that the tone of the poem sounds quietly but powerfully desperate to me. One depends on a dove for the mere hint that dry land exists. One doesn’t learn skills from a dove, but is instead in thrall to what it finds and communicates.

In the midst of many disasters, what Ungaretti wants to hear—what he wants to obey—is a hope which leads to more hope. I read “Floods” not only as a number of events which destroy the world, but a chain of hopelessness. In like manner, I’d like to believe one hope can build from another hope, so on and so forth. And if I do believe that, then there is humility, there is obedience. A belief in Providence has snuck in, and whatever its limitations, it will not abide mindless defeatism. Injustice has unleashed a blood-dimmed tide many times. That we have a world is testament to how many times it has been rebuilt.

Eavan Boland, “A Habitable Grief”

This is what language is: a habitable grief. Reading those words back to myself, I struggle to understand how they apply to the current situation. I watched a group of wealthy young men enter a store and shame another for wearing a protective face mask. The one shamed promptly took the mask off. Nothing I would consider grief hung in the air when that happened, but the death toll from the virus was around 70,000 then.

Not much time has passed since that day. Are we grieving at the current toll of 100,000? Will we ever mourn together? Language is a habitable grief–I do believe that Boland is correct–but while those in the United States of America speak English, they don’t speak a common language. We say words to each other, but we mean entirely different things. There are many who believe they are terribly inconvenienced for wearing a mask in public. They have no idea what it’s like to not have light in one’s home because the power company wasn’t paid.

I have too many thoughts about this subject. I’m not sure how to provide a proper framework for approaching the matter. The typical interlocutor I encounter will argue that it is possible to speak a language with agreed upon meanings and morals. What we need to do, he will say, is embrace a specific religion or set of traditions. A much more advanced expression of this line of thought can be glimpsed in Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture, where he demonstrates concern that some narratives lend credence to colonialist/imperialist endeavors. Nonetheless, he holds that “if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se.”

I believe I’ve learned enough the past 4 years to expand ever so slightly on Heaney’s comment. Authoritarian ideology and attitudes are not separable from profound laziness and ignorance. I haven’t seen much genuine “pride in an ethnic and religious heritage,” but I have witnessed fear of anything that challenges the most self-serving, obnoxious fragment of a myth. Take, for example, “my ancestors made it in America through hard work and following rules.” This is only said to oppose the prospect of the simplest reforms, such as an adequate social safety net or criminal justice reform. A small sample of what is not accounted for: the open borders which existed for a large part of the 19th century; the reality of Reconstruction, sharecropping, and racial terrorism; the Chinese Exclusion Act; the ways in which segregation found its way into policy and law well beyond the South; eugenics. It’s a stunningly ignorant statement that no educated person should even consider, let alone make. Yet it represents the governing ideology of the United States.

On that note, I feel like Heidegger’s comment about a Germany caught between communism and capitalism in “Introduction to Metaphysics” speaks fear above all. It endorses national disgrace and unspeakable atrocities for the sake of a vague pride and imaginary threats to sovereignty. I find this hard to reconcile with his playfulness with Greek philosophical terminology, a playfulness which helps drive my own inquiry. I think a lot about telos being the literal end of matter, the limits which make it a being in the world. The limits are reached because it reaches fulfillment, perhaps fulfillment of its nature, its phusis. One can accuse Heidegger of making high-sounding noises, but those of us who’ve spent a lot of time struggling with the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle may be more keen on how he reads. He’s not letting the terms collapse into pedantry; he’s trying to recover the spirit in which the Greeks themselves fought about these notions. You can see the outlines of how earlier thinkers could emphasize different ideas and debate what was fundamentally at stake.

All of this is to say that laziness and ignorance concerning the most important matters can be had by anyone, even those who demonstrate especial sensitivity to how language works. So what would it mean to have genuine “love and trust in the good of the indigenous,” as Heaney says? Would that bring us to a place where we mourn collectively?

Boland speaks as if her individual experience encompasses far more than personal growth. This is what language is: a habitable grief is an earned conclusion. In childhood, “long ago,” she was “in a strange country:”

A Habitable Grief
Eavan Boland

Long ago
I was a child in a strange country:

I was Irish in England.

I learned
a second language there
which has stood me in good stead--

the lingua franca of a lost land.

A dialect in which
what had never been could still be found.

The infinite horizon. Always far
and impossible. That contrary passion
to be whole.

This is what language is:
a habitable grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this

which hurts 
just enough to be a scar.

And heals just enough to be a nation.

She opens the poem as if she’s telling a story to children. When she declares I was Irish in England, she’s speaking about being lost and hurt in ways only a child can understand and being lost and hurt in ways which can only be understood decades later.

The poem places the audience in the position of being children. Whatever skill we obtain will be immediately helpful given from where we’re starting. For her: I learned a second language there which has stood me in good stead. She learned English and it provided a home of sorts, a “good stead.” This is a most complicated proposition, as those of us who’ve struggled with being treated as an outsider can attest. –I know I’m speaking the same language as those ignoring or mistreating me. Why am I not being heard?–

Using the language of the colonizer as the colonized creates a strange sense of home. The “good stead,” the “second language” is the lingua franca of a lost land. Home is universal, the realm of the possible, and a lost land all at once. It’s communication oscillating between everyone and no one. Boland focuses on being Irish as a product of confrontation with England and using English itself. The trouble, if I’ve posed the problem correctly, is that “Irish” can entirely occupy a space which is simply “not English.” Occupation of that space does not merely fail to do justice to the Irish or the English. What about all the others the Empire has colonized and hurt, declared superiority over just because? Surely they also had to learn English in order to discover and assert their identity.

English is a lingua franca for pains and yearnings yet to be discovered, explored, and understood. Because of imperialism, it constitutes a dialect in which what had never been could still be found. Our pains point the way to our joys; in like manner, being an individual points the way to solidarity. Imperfect regimes and injustices gesture simultaneously toward a more perfect union and the world beyond.

Boland understands that hers is a logic of anticipation. I turned to this poem for insight on how collective mourning is possible in a land that gets its religion and civics from sensationalist cable news and radio designed to continually feed anger. I believe the poem wants me to pay closer attention to how mourning is learned. I remember being an angry, self-absorbed kid who could not understand the suffering others endured. I remember there wasn’t much to tell me to get over myself. Religious rhetoric was about following rules, not getting in trouble, and being nice. If it touched on other areas, it did so in the name of ritual and tradition. It wasn’t really concerned about being a certain sort of person, even though some picked up on that and followed through. The primary civic emphasis I’ve seen with regard to grief is “the troops.” As if John Lewis didn’t get his head split open for the sake of Civil Rights, or in other words, making America a full democracy by sacrificing for its creed.

Grief is not just a reaction to loss. It’s a reflection of all the values which comprise a society. After all, what we often hold to be most noble–what we esteem most–is how people deal with difficulties, how they confront the starkest circumstances and most profound injuries. To live in a society which adores the cheapest sort of celebrity, where acting out gets attention and adulation, is to live in a society which hasn’t grown beyond where I was at 14 years of age. We can’t mourn, because the rhetoric of The infinite horizon. Always far and impossible. That contrary passion to be whole demands a certain maturity. One has to recognize that one speaks to oneself continually about the impossible, creating losses in addition to the losses already had. Expectations are a vengeance upon the self. The “contrary passion to be whole” is a torment which an individual embraces, hoping for a happiness which need not be spoken, but never resolves. Ironically, embracing it makes one more of an individual and can create a greater solidarity with everyone else who has high, almost spiritual expectations for themselves.

In order to mourn, what is needed is a language of the spirit. To be sure, this is a way of speaking ripe for grift and exploitation. When Boland details “a habitable grief,” she specifies its content: A turn of speech for the everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses such as this which hurts just enough to be a scar. She’s not talking about long simmering resentment that boils over into revolution as much as the pains of the “everyday” and the “ordinary.” Her focus is on the legacy of pain each endures. It’s not hard to see this language as a reaction to a daily stream of news from a war where neighbors have turned on each other. If one can appreciate what everyone endures–if one can build from that scarring–a new nation is possible. It is more a spiritual realm than anything else, where as her final line attests, language has been harnessed into mutual recognition and healing. Still, it’s a real possibility for a nation, maybe the only morally responsible possibility. It hard to imagine the United States of Fox News getting there any time soon, as mutual recognition of pain does not mean weighting others’ pain equally. Media observers have talked about the consistent use of “both sides” rhetoric in commentary on current events, where those who jail children are treated with as much legitimacy as those who feed the hungry. One thing missing from that discussion is how horribly infantile this way of approaching things is, as if what matters most is who wins a high school debate tournament. If the “everyday and ordinary abrasion of losses…. heals just enough to be a nation,” it does so because people want to hear voices other than their own, want to hear about experience and loss, how a limit reached constituted a sense of being.