Revealed Truth and Acquired Knowledge: Considerations on Manzoni and Gadda
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Revealed Truth and Acquired Knowledge:
Considerations on Manzoni and Gadda

The difficulties of which Carlo Emilio Gadda complains in writing Racconto italiano del novecento, and his recourse to the works of Alessandro Manzoni in an attempt to solve them, spring partly from the tension, that I wish to discuss at present in relation to Manzoni, Gadda feels in trying to translate an organic and exhaustive vision of the complexity of reality, born of philosophical and scientific studies, into a narrative structure. 1 Related to this is Gadda’s feeling that the act of literary creation must be informed by an epistemological and subordinately ethical vision, which is, for him, its condition for existence. In the face of the progressive rationalization and specialization of knowledge and its various procedural branches, each establishing its own cognitive methods, mechanisms of production and communication, literature must assert more, be more than a cult of l’art pour l’art, defending its precarious position in what are called the human sciences. Just what, then, is the specificity of literature, and where can it be positioned, for [End Page 58] Gadda and Manzoni? What are the important differences in their respective theories of literature? What are the relationships between, and reciprocal implications of, literature, theory of literature and philosophy?

Manzoni’s Del romanzo storico, Dell’invenzione, and his long, programmatic letters tell us of his distress—resolved only by renunciation—over literary invention, what he perceived as the differences between historical fact and the verisimilar invention of poets. Poets take necessary liberties with the reality of events, as even historians must in creating their narratives. The difference between the two narrative modes is that poets, as we might say today, present the memory of a past that has never been present. To the young Manzoni, that is one of the freedoms granted by God to men in their pursuit of truth—the “vero morale” of which he writes in his letters—in the absence of God’s special revelation. 2 If, for the younger Manzoni, the “garbuglio” of the human heart and the “avvenimenti inavvertiti,” the obscure events and mechanisms of history, may be attributed to the design of a transcendant Providence, the truths of which it is the writer’s job to persuade mankind, not quite so for Gadda the agnostic who, without the illumination of faith, nevertheless registers, at the start of his career as a writer, the need to supply himself with a rational explanation. The quality in Manzoni that makes Gadda most “manzoniano” is not a sort of biological attachment, strong as this was, to the land of his precursor’s birth, nor the equally powerful tendency to rethink his own life through that of Manzoni’s. Neither is it entirely the ethical perspective of Manzoni’s analysis, nor the Caravaggio-like detail and color of his design, nor the minute diagnosis of evil in human society. All of these, reiterated by critics examining the relationship between the two authors, are important. 3 But I think it is useful to concentrate on what probably draws Gadda most to Manzoni: the extreme importance of the gnoseological function of art’s representation of reality, its action upon that reality, and the effect of temporality in literature.

For the young Manzoni, and for Gadda, literature, because it is, declaredly, a mixture of reality and unreality, is the key to the scrutiny of what Robert Musil calls the “nicht-ratioïde Gebiet”: a non-ratioid area (the coinage is Musil’s) which embraces all that which cannot be organized [End Page 59] in a system and reduced to rules and laws. 4 The engineer and writer Gadda, with his obsession for total systems, manifest from early on in Racconto italiano (1924) and Meditazione milanese (1928), seems to be both attracted to, and reluctantly dissenting from, classical determinism and positivism. According to classical determinism, as expressed in the French mathematician Laplace’s Philosophical Essays on Probabilities, if an intellect, which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, it could condense into...