Italian Poetry in an Age of Spectacle

Silvio Berlusconi in 2004

Susan Stewart

Vol. 33, 2011


Berlusconi and his minions control a great deal of the information and images that reach—or don’t reach—Italians in everyday life; he has been a true, if unsavory, pioneer in exploiting the connections between the ideology of mass media and the concentration of political power. His campaign to dominate every frame of ordinary experience extends even to love and death. The newest incarnation of his party, Il Popolo della Libertà (The People of Freedom), recently ran on the slogan “L’amore vince sempre sull’invidia e sull’odio” (“Love always conquers envy and hatred”). During the campaign, Berlusconi held a press conference to announce his personal conviction that Italians would find a cure for cancer within three years. On election day, as he cast his own vote, he declared, “I do hope hatred doesn’t win over love!” How do poets go about their work under such a regime? With a few exceptions, literary writers have left it to the nation’s brilliant clowns—Roberto Benigni, Beppe Grillo, Luciana Littizzetto, Maurizio Crozza, Dario Vergassola, and Sabina Guzzanti, who performs a startlingly accurate and hilarious gender-bending impersonation of the prime minister—to take on the powers that be directly.

But such satirists face an uphill struggle, for it is Berlusconi’s particular genius to mock everything from the start—though he can be shamelessly sentimental, he also relentlessly encourages the impression that all is a farce, that all is unreal. As for poets, they tend to view their art as an alternative source of meaning, one that offers ambiguity and complexity in the face of polemical certainty and ethical deliberation in the face of lies and corruption.

In an anthology of 2005, Parole plurale: Sessantaquattro poeti italiani fra due secoli (Plural Words: Sixty-four Italian Poets between Two Centuries), the eight young editors set out to produce a sustained and critical conversation about poetry and culture, despite what they called the media’s continual “frastornare babelico,” which could be translated as “chaotic gestures of deafening distraction.” One of them, Andrea Cortellessa, contributed a prefatory essay, “Io è un corpo” (“‘I’ is a body”), arguing that many poets respond to this onslaught of celebrity culture and noise by writing in depersonalized ways. He quotes approvingly the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of “the concreteness of existence, the necessity to touch and be touched, in every sense,” and proposes such concreteness as a counter to the spectacle of reified personality that Italians find today on every channel and at every newsstand.




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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
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