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  • De-facing Rousseau:The Itinerant vergogna in Alfieri's Vita
  • Chiara Ferrari

In his opinions and feelings toward Jean Jacques Rousseau, Vittorio Alfieri showed a deep ambivalence. Some elements are well known, such as Alfieri's refusal to meet him during one of his visits to Paris, or his reading of Rousseau's Confessions and other works. In the Vita (1790-1803), Alfieri writes that he had for Rousseau, "infinita stima [. . .] più assai per il suo carattere puro ed intero e per la di lui sublime e indipendente condotta, che non pe' suoi libri, di cui que' pochi che avea potuti pur leggere mi aveano piuttosto tediato come figli di affettazione e di stento."1 Some studies have pointed to Rousseauian thematic and stylistic influences in the Vita, but none has fully explored the implications of Alfieri's ambivalence for our understanding of the relation between the two autobiographical works.2 To reduce Alfieri's uneasiness to a few biographical anecdotes is to miss the extent to which the frisson is fully played out in the text of the Vita. In this article, I argue that the assimilation of Rousseau in Alfieri's autobiography is not only deeper than acknowledged, but also tied to a resistance toward it—a rejection of what Rousseau represented [End Page 153] in a wider historical sense: the French Revolution. Alfieri was initially sympathetic towards the momentous events unfolding in France, but by the time he put the finishing touches on his autobiography (in 1803) he had became not only vehemently opposed to the revolutionary cause and, by extension, all things French, but also determined to use the Vita as a textual barrier against possible intrusion of egalitarian ideals on future assessments of his legacy.3

Framing my argument necessitates a few remarks about autobiography and particularly the significance of Rousseau's Confessions for Italian autobiography.4 Authenticity is a critical issue for autobiographical writings—and the question is not simply whether the author has told the truth. At stake is the very possibility of constituting the subject through discourse. Paul de Man notes, in "Autobiography as De-facement," that "The interest of autobiography, then, is not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge—it does not—but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and of totalization (that is the impossibility of coming into being) of all textual systems made up of tropological substitutions."5

Philippe Lejeune's work on autobiography has been influential, particularly among Italian scholars who accept the validity of the so-called "autobiographical pact."6 De Man points out the limitations of Lejeune's approach, in which "the identity of autobiography is not only representational and cognitive, but contractual, grounded not in tropes, but in speech acts."7 This important distinction allows de Man to "reopen" the autobiographical text by making a crucial distinction between the desire for closure that all writers and many critics of autobiography have, and the actual possibility of closure of the text: [End Page 154]

Writers of autobiographies as well as writers on autobiographies are obsessed by the need to move from cognition to resolution and to action, from speculative to political and legal authority [. . .] The name on the title page is not the proper name of a subject capable of self-knowledge and understanding, but the signature that gives the contract legal, though by no means epistemological, authority [. . .] The study of autobiography is caught in this double motion, the necessity to escape from the tropology of the subject and the equally inevitable reinscription of this necessity within a specular model of cognition.8

The problem of cognitive speculation and objectivity in the recounting of one's life emerges as a fundamental issue for both secular and religious models of introspection. As Angelica Forti-Lewis has noted, the influence of Rousseau's Confessions reoriented Italian autobiography toward the "introverted" model of exploration of the self. This shift can be seen as a resurfacing of the Augustinian model that Francesco Petrarca had adopted in the Secretum (1342) and a departure from the "extroverted" story of the self in classical tradition that had influenced his epistle, Posteritati (1350), continuing through the current of memorialismo...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 153-168
Launched on MUSE
2010-04-21
Open Access
No
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