Part 11. International Affinities:
Italy (Leopardi and Pirandello)
Melancholy and Masks
Zend’s father laid the foundation for his son’s cosmopolitan outlook by traveling with the boy in Italy during his childhood and sending him to an Italian high school in Budapest. Thus early on, Zend was reading Italian literature and studying with professors such as Joseph Füsi, a specialist in the works of playwright Luigi Pirandello. After Zend immigrated to Canada, he continued his formal studies of Italian literature by earning a Master of Arts degree in 1969 in the Department of Italian and Hispanic Studies at the University of Toronto, where he studied a wide variety of Italian authors and wrote his thesis on Pirandello.
Two very contrasting Italian writers held a particular fascination for Zend: Leopardi, a lugubrious and cynical Romantic poet, and Pirandello, an experimental playwright who revolutionized international modernist theatre.
Giacomo Leopardi (1798—1837):
An Atom in My Ear-lobe
Zend describes Leopardi as “one of the greatest Italian poets; also one of the most pessimistic poets of world literature.”1 Leopardi (fig. 1), a poet associated with the Romantic era, lived much of his short life in a small town near the Adriatic sea. He’s best known for Canti, a collection of poems, and Zibaldone, diaristic prose writings on various topics. The voice that emerges from Leopardi’s oeuvre is a relentlessly melancholic outpouring from an alienated misfit contemplating humanity’s delusions and the absurdity of existence.
Typical for Leopardi’s pessimism is his view that in the end, mankind, old and burdened, arrives
where his way
and all his effort led him:
terrible, immense abyss
into which he falls, forgetting everything.
This, O virgin moon,
is human life.
Man is born by labour,
and birth itself means risking death.
The first thing that he feels
is pain and torment, and from the start
mother and father
seek to comfort him for being born.
As he grows,
they nurture him,
and constantly by word and deed
seek to instill courage,
consoling him for being human.
Parents can do no more loving
thing for their children.
But why bring to light,
someone we’ll console for living later?
If life is misery, why do we endure it?2
Zend shares with Leopardi the mindset of a misfit and skeptic contemplating the absurdity of life and death, albeit often with a more playful tone. The following minimalist poem, for example, compresses Leopardi’s outlook into two words:
World’s Shortest Pessimistic Poem
And in Zend’s tongue-in-cheek “An Epistle to Leopardi,” addressed to “my dear dead friend, / Italian count, poet, philosopher and misfit,” the epistoler tries unsuccessfully to assume the bleak mood appropriate to the dread of death and (quoting Leopardi) its “dark tunnel,” “steep abyss,” and “annihilation.” Although everything dies, from “Universe [to] Quark,” he imagines an afterlife in which one of Leopardi’s “former atoms now resides somewhere / in one of my ear-lobes,” or conversely, “one of the molecules in my brain / was part of the white of [Leopardi’s] big toenail.”
However, try as he might, he finds himself unable to experience the emotions that Leopardi associates with mortality: relief, remorse, unhappiness, and anxiety. As an antidote to Leopardi’s austere melancholia without the promise of paradise, he deploys an absurdly tautological argumentat to prove Leopardi’s obsessive theme to be meaningless: his problem is “not death, but existence,” “against which we have but one weapon: Life,” which, coming full circle, is in turn “solved by death.”4 In their own ways, Zend and Leopardi were religious skeptics or agnostics preoccupied with death, though Zend often takes a more ludic and absurdist tack in his version of existential pessimism. In the epistle Zend cannot help parodizing Leopardi’s gloomy thoughts. However, sometimes he explores the theme more poignantly, as in the following excerpt from “After I Die”:
After I die
Time will be Space
and I will move back and forth in it
every step a generation
and I will watch
the child I was
the man I was —
After I die
“I” will be “he”
After I die
Now will be Then
and I will remember all who lived
Napoleon and Socrates
and Columbus and Leonardo
and Moses and Gilgamesh
and all the nameless ones
will be like days in a long life —
After I die
“I” will be “they”
After I die
Here will be There
and I will expand or shrink at will
the soul of atoms and their particles
of suns and their planets
of galaxies and their solar systems
of universes and their galaxies
will be my soul and they will rotate in me —
After I die
“I” will be “it”5
Even in his poems that are most focused on death, Zend transforms the almost solipcistic Leopardian mortal into a being who posthumously merges with others who have gone before him and with the cosmos.
Luigi Pirandello (1867—1936):
A meaning his author never dreamed of giving him . . .
Luigi Pirandello (fig. 2) is an Italian playwright whose writing is perhaps closer in spirit to Zend’s work than the despairing Leopardi.6 Keeping in mind that in high school Zend studied with a prominent translator of Pirandello, and that Zend wrote his master’s thesis on Pirandello, it is not surprising that his work shares significant themes with the avant-garde Italian dramatist.
Pirandello’s plays revolutionized contemporary theatre. Sometimes framed as metadramas, they create layers of illusion and reality that ultimately sabotage any attempt at epistemological certainty or truth. They usually contain elements of traditional realism, but the audience is soon entangled in a different sort of drama in which narrative fixtures of character, identity, conflict, development, discovery, and resolution are subverted, and nothing is certain.
The plot of an early play, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, consists of the detective work of townspeople attempting to decipher the puzzling behaviour of a family living in their midst. However, that plot quickly spirals into a comedy of errors as the hubris of the busybodies leads them to make incorrect assumptions again and again regarding acts and motives. Each layer of supposed certainty is shown to be deceptive. Peeling back the mistaken reality reveals not ultimate truth but yet another layer of illusion.
One character, Laudisi, serves as a kind of Greek chorus, a foil to the bourgeois characters steeped in a comfortable set of certainties regarding their perceptions. He points out the fundamental error of the amateur sleuths’ presumptuous conclusions:
What can we really know about other people? who they are, what they are, what they do, why they do it?7
As Signora Ponza (one of the inscrutable family members) points out:
I am . . . nobody. . . . I am whoever I’m thought to be.8
Signora Ponza is a “Pirandellian character” in the sense that she seems to have no fixed identity; instead, she is like a mirror reflecting the mask that others want to see in her, and which allows no assumption about her past history or motivations to stick.
Zend wrote about such illusions of the self’s doubleness in his thesis on Pirandello’s characters:
I am two – that is how Pirandello’s human being reveals himself . . . . the one who I am and the one who I think I am. I am two: the one who I think I am and the one who the others think me to be. . . . The mask, my second face, is for society because we are two: the individual alone and the individual in society. My mask can be so strongly attached that it will become my face and my face can be weakened under it so that it will be like a mask. Sometimes I have to wear it for a life-time, sometimes for one occasion. It is possible that my real self will break out for a minute and will be forced to retreat. . . . This is Pirandello’s man. It is like a tree which divides itself into two branches, each branch divides itself again into two smaller branches, and again and again.9
Zend, who had the unusual ability to visualize texts as diagrams or glyphs (as we saw in the installment on Borges), offers in his thesis diagrams showing the complex network of doubling among Pirandello’s characters, such as those in a short story in the collection Novelle per un anno (fig. 3).
Less technical (befitting a thesis) and more playful (befitting a doodle) is Zend’s tribute to Pirandello in one of his sketches, capturing the sense of Pirandellian doubleness, of multiple characters within characters (fig. 4):
In Six Characters Searching for an Author, Pirandello takes uncertainty and illusory masks a giant leap into the abyss and wreaks havoc with any pretense at the normalcy of a self-enclosed drama. Six characters, abandoned by their author, wander onto a stage being prepared for rehearsal. They are seeking a venue in which to flesh out their drama, using the director as author to “complete” their destined roles. The play-within-a-play device assumes a meta-narrative dimension fraught with questions of authorial control, of the knowability of identity, and of the separation of reality from staged illusion.
Zend observes that “Pirandello’s art consists mostly of showing this frame within a frame in many ways”: as flashback, or forecast, or both: “the flashback for one who experienced it in the past might become a forecast for the other who will experience it in the future. . . . Pirandello plays a very strange game in these plays,” using “the big frame within the small frame” so that it becomes difficult to distinguish “which one is the mirror and which one is the mirrored.”10 In the end,
the audience leaving the theatre will feel that their life is watched by an invisible audience somewhere and [that] they live on a stage, infinitely huge.11
Six Characters in Search of an Author creates just such a hall-of-mirrors illusion. It also explores the theme of humanity’s inability to communicate with one another. The characters reject early twentieth-century bourgeois society’s “complacent self-assurance [and] claim to superior knowledge and wisdom.” They are “beset by doubts about their identity, about the possibility of ever being able to communicate it to others, to establish a normal relationship with their society.”12
One of the six, the father of a dysfunctional family, serves a dual role as both character and Greek chorus, interpreting the various layers of illusions to the director and the “real” actors. Here he explains the barrier between self and other:
We all have a world of things inside of us, each a world of his own! And how can we understand each other, sir, if in the words I use I put the meaning and value of things as they are within me; while those who listen inevitably invest my words with their own meaning and value from the world within themselves? We think we understand each other, but we never do!13
Not only are other people like black boxes whose motives and identities can never be known with certainty, but subjectivity itself is illusive and indecipherable, due in part to the multiplicity of identities within the self, as the father points out:
While every one of us believes he is “one,” he is instead “many” . . . in accord with all the possibilities of being that are within us: “one” with this person, “another” with that, all very different! And we have the illusion, meanwhile, that we’re always being the same for everyone, and always that same “one” that we believe ourselves to be, in each of our acts. While it is not true, it is not true!14
The father, who is himself a character at large, separated from his author, observes the phenomenon of characters (and, by extension, literary works) taking on a life of their own:
When a character is born, he immediately acquires such independence even from his own author that he can be imagined by everybody in situations in which his author never thought of putting him, and takes on a meaning, at times, that his author never dreamed of giving him!15
All of these illusions, including Pirandello’s meta-narrative framework in Six Characters in Search of an Author, are at the heart of Zend’s two-volume multi-genre Oāb.
The primary illusion in Oāb is that of the creator’s hubris, his blindness to the growing independence of the creation he gave birth to. Zėnd (a character in Zend’s creation myth — note the diacritical mark above the “e”) writes into existence a two-dimensional being made of ink and paper, Oāb. Zėnd believes that Oāb can never be more than him, that Oāb is entirely knowable because Zėnd has taught him everything, that Oāb is dependent upon Zėnd for existence, and that Zend is at the center of Oāb’s universe.
Zėnd as god-like creator of Oāb believes that he can control his “written doll”:
Look, I can force you to obey:
(since I am writing what you say . . .)16
Like a Pirandellian character unmoored from his creator and “tak[ing] on a meaning . . . that his author never dreamed of giving him,” Oāb assumes a life of his own. His bid for independence becomes painfully clear in his rebellious response to Zėnd’s questions:
“Oāb, what are you doing?”
His voice was full of dignity, almost (isn’t it strange?) “Human dignity”: “It isn’t your business. Do you mind?”
“Not my business? What do you mean? Are you not mine? Didn’t I create you?”
“So what? Now I am. Whether or not you created me, I am I. I live my own life. And you cannot destroy me. Not even if you wanted to.”17
Like the complacent, self-assured amateur detectives in Pirandello’s Right You Are, If You Think You Are, Zėnd is blind to Oāb’s need for independence. Laudisi could have been speaking of Zėnd when he says of the busybodies:
See these crazy people? Instead of paying attention to the phantom they carry around with them, inside themselves, they’re running, bursting with curiosity, after someone else’s phantom! And they think it’s a different thing.18
One of the biggest illusions of all in Oāb is that of Zėnd’s belief in his authorship, not only of Oāb the creature, but of Oāb the books. In reality, as Oāb points out, it is the reverse: it was Oāb who chose his creator, who manipulated his author (tricking him at times into getting what he wants), and who is the literary creator of his eponymous books:
[Ïrdu:] But didn’t he write it, type it,
draw, design, and lay it out?
[Oāb:] Yes, but I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!19
Similarly, in Six Characters in Search of an Author it’s not so much the author who writes the characters, but the characters who choose and create their authors.
Unlike many of Pirandello’s “blind” characters, Zėnd does come to understand some of the illusions that have blinded him to his flaws. When Ardô, the creator of Zėnd, dies, Zėnd writes a eulogy that acknowledges Ardô’s many faces — in Pirandellian terms, the many masks making up “all the possibilities of being”:
I see a firework of faces, each different,
yet all only variations of one face, yours,
a noble, still familiar, a proud, still tender face:
my oldest memory.
Your head daydreaming high above the clouds,
your feet firmly rooted in the ground,
your heart filled with forgiveness—
an inconceivable tangle of complex contradictions20
Such is the confusion of identity and authorship in Oāb, that Zend could have been referring to his own work and not Pirandello’s when he wrote of the narrative
games . . . of mirrors and parallel and shadows and portraits and alteregos. And their plots usually end with a new start, making a spiral out of a circle:
Oāb also ends with the genesis of book, authorship, and character cycling back on itself and starting creation anew with the perpetual cycle of death and birth (fig. 5):
A Universe Disturbed
Zend was drawn to the works of both Leopardi and Pirandello because of similarities with their philosophical and literary approaches. Yet his own work retains his own outlook that reveals to the reader a Zendian frame of reference.
Not so thoroughly pessimistic as Leopardi, Zend saw in death not the bitter conclusion to a pointless existence. Instead, he found comfort in humour and in the view of death as part of a much larger narrative of matter and energy in the universe.
And not so immersed in postmodern uncertainty and unknowability as Pirandello, Zend sees not a pessimistic prison of mirrors but a cosmic metanarrative in which creature creates his creator. In a reversal of time, the created being comes “from the petrified future into the fog of the past” and now carries the dead father to his own origins, “to the domain where there are no uncertainties, / where there are no words to be found, no decisions to be made, / no struggles, no doubts, no threats and no hopes.”22 In Pirandello, authorial hubris often ends in a stalemate of thwarted attempts to get the narrative on track; in Zend, authorial hubris becomes a generational tale of creation in which death may spell material dissolution, yet the energy of existence is conserved and perpetuated, and the universe is never the same for it.
Next Installment — Part 12.
Belgium (Magritte) and Japan