Culture without Context

When consulting the catalogues of most Italian publishers, you realize that local writers are in a minority.

It is true that Italy, being a small country, is also part of a geographical minority but, all the same, in every country in the world, the tendency is to give ample space to home-grown authors: in this sense, Italy is going against the current trend.

Are these publishing choices imposed from the top? Not only. In my opinion, this is about the peculiar structure of Italian culture: a culture that has long suffered from xenophilia or a love of all things foreign; or, worse, that has suffered from a (historical) dependence on North American culture.

In the past twenty years, especially, Italy has suffered from the consequences of free trade policies that originated in the eighties and in the culture generated in those years. Therefore, I would like to dwell on the idea of “culture”.

The Nicola Zanichelli Italian dictionary gives us as the first definition of culture: “Combination of knowledge, traditions, technical procedures, behavior and similar, handed down and used systematically, typical of a certain social class, of a people, of a group of peoples or of the whole of humankind”. Therefore, literature does not spring from itself, but is a child of the cultural humus in which the writer, too (who is first of all a reader, a beneficiary), grows and develops his own way of thinking.

Dictionaries themselves change definitions linked to headwords according to the historical and cultural moment in which they are compiled, thus adapting to the prevailing customs.

And under “literature” we now find the following definition: “Activity directed towards systematic production of written texts, whose purpose is mainly to produce an aesthetic result and in which invention often prevails over the description of reality” (ibid.).

We immediately realize that this formula is perfectly suited to modern Italian literature. It is like reading a brief but precise description of most of the novels produced by most popular Italian authors. These authors aim only for an aesthetic effect and their work is pure invention. It is lacking in content, in an individual theme and in description of the vivid reality in which the author should be immersed (the fact that quite a considerable part of production is devoted to pseudo-historical series is not at all casual). They are authors who do not tell us anything about the times in which they are living, nor about our history, but are concerned only with “the aesthetics of empty words” (L. Gregori).

Since our field of investigation is the literature of the years in which we are living, I would like to deal precisely with this point. However, when looking for the definitions I need, I find that they extend the scope of the field under investigation, rather than reduce it. As a matter of fact, the Zingarelli dictionary, as well as giving definitions of “novel” in the classical and medieval interpretations of the word, also defines it in the modern sense: “a broad narrative prose based on fantastic or adventurous elements, on great social or ideological themes, on the study of traditions, of character or feelings”.

It is immediately evident that the description of the “novel” is widely antithetical to the one of “literature”. Social and ideological themes suddenly appear, as well as traditions, character and feelings (therefore reality), topics that were not even mentioned in the definition of “literature”; “culture” too, in a narrower sense, is mentioned.

At this point, a doubt arises spontaneously: so the novel is not therefore to be considered literature when it deals with the above mentioned themes? Or is it simply that the dictionary, by recording the changes of a certain era, updates its definition of literature, while being obliged to maintain the historical definition of the novel, regardless of its application to present-day production?

Another question we have to ask to ourselves is: who writes literature?

Leaving out the most obvious answer – writers – it might be natural to say: members of the intelligentsia. So let us check the definition of “intellectual”: “He who devotes himself mainly to activities connected with knowledge and thinking, who has diverse cultural interests, who produces literary, artistic, scientific and similar works” (ibid.). And among the definitions of “culture” we find, as a second definition, the following: “Heritage of knowledge of learned people” (ibid).

So the figure of a member of the intelligentsia is connected with culture, and the intellectual, thanks to his own culture (knowledge, thinking) can produce literary narrative works. But if “the aim of culture is to arouse new ideas and reduce material needs, to form a class of citizens who are more cultivated and civilized” (De Sanctis), what are we up against when we consider those exponents of literature who produce only pieces of nonsense, even though they pose as members of the intelligentsia and may even be highly educated?

I will confine myself to underlining how the works of writers of our times, being children of the culture that has enslaved us over the past twenty years, do not arouse new ideas nor immaterial needs, do not help to form more civilized citizens, do not give voice to thoughts and knowledge, do not stimulate cultural interest. Therefore what is the reason for such success? And can this kind of writer correctly declare himself to be a member of intelligentsia? Does he really produce literature?

If so, why then are so few Italian writers published? In order to try to answer this and other related questions I believe we have to consider the civilization in which the writer was born, in which he grew up and communicates, since the writer, just like anybody else, is a product of society. It would therefore be necessary to examine the problem from different points of view: sociological, psychological, anthropological and, above all, political and economic. But this, to be honest, is beyond my possibilities.

I think a partial answer can be found, in nuce, in a sentence written by Claudio Magris: “Real literature does not flatter the reader, thus reinforcing his prejudices and his insecurities, but provokes him and disconcerts him, and compels him to reckon with his own world and with his certainties”.

However, the above sentence opens the door to further reflection on the society we are living in, and especially Italian society: one that tries, in every possible way, to prevent its members from reckoning with their own world and with their mistaken certainties.

(Translation by Paola Roveda)