A highly specious philosophical concept of his which you might call lanternosophy

From Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (Il Fu Mattia Pascal). This extract is a patching of portions of chapter 13 in William Weaver’s translation. The whole can be found in Italian here:

To console me, Signor Anselmo tried to prove, with a lengthy line of reasoning, that my darkness was imaginary.

“Imaginary? This darkness?” I shouted at him.

“Be patient for a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.”

And then he explained. (Perhaps he was also preparing me for the spiritualistic experiments which, this time, were to be performed in my room to divert me.) As I say, he expounded a highly specious philosophical concept of his which you might call lanternosophy.
Signor Anselmo did go on, first to declare that, alas, we human beings are not like the tree, which lives but does not feel. The earth, the sun, the air, the rain, and the wind, do not seem to the tree to be things different from itself: harmful or friendly things. But we, on the other hand, are born with a sad privilege: that of feeling ourselves alive. And from this a fine illusion results: we insistently mistake for external reality our inner feeling of life, which varies and changes according to the time, or chance, or circumstances.

And for Signor Anselmo this sense of life was like a little lantern that each of us carries with him, alight; a lantern that makes us see how lost we are on the face of the earth, and reveals good and evil to us. The lantern casts a broader or nar-rower circle of light around us, beyond which there is black shadow, the fearsome darkness which wouldn’t exist if our lantern weren’t lighted. And yet, as long as our lantern is kept burning, we must believe in that shadow. When at the end the light is blown out, will the perpetual night receive us after the brief day of our illusion? Or won’t we remain at the disposal of Existence, which will merely have shattered our trivial modes of reasoning?
Now I ask you this, Signor Meis: All this darkness, this enormous mystery about which philosophers at first speculated in vain and which even science doesn’t deny, though now it rejects investigation of it—suppose this darkness were simply a deceit like another, a trick of our mind, a fantasy which isn’t colored? Suppose we finally convinced ourselves that all this mystery doesn’t exist outside us, but only within us? That it’s a necessity, since we have our famous privilege of feeling life, our lantern in other words, as I’ve been saying? What if death, in short, which frightens us so much, didn’t exist and were only —not the extinction of life—but the gust of air that blows out our lantern, our unhappy sense of living, a fearsome, painful sentiment, because it is limited, defined by that fictitious shadow beyond the brief circle of weak light that we poor, lost fireflies cast around us, where our life is trapped, as if excluded for a while from the universal, eternal life to which we think we should one day return, though in reality we are already there and will stay there forever, but without the sense of exile that torments us? The boundary is an illusion, relative only to our poor light, our individuality: in the reality of nature it doesn’t exist. I don’t know if you’ll like the idea or not, but we have always lived and always will live with the universe. Even now, in our present form, we share in all the manifestations of the universe, but we don’t know it, we don’t see it, because, alas, this miserable light shows us only the little zone that it can reach . . . And even then, if it only showed us things as they are. But no, my dear sir! It colors things in its own way, and it shows us things that make us lament, though perhaps in another form of existence, we would laugh heartily over them, if we had mouths. Yes, Signor Meis, we would laugh at all the vain, stupid afflictions our lantern has caused us, at all the shadows, the strange, ambitious phantoms it cast before us, and at how we feared them!”

There should be a literary term for when an author puts their most fully developed and soberly stated observations in the mouth of one of their most foolish characters.

I think that life is a very sad bit of buffoonery

From an autobiographical letter of Luigi Pirandello’s written in 1912-1913 but only published in 1924 (October 15 in Le Lettere). I think this can stand as a good summary of his final novel I recently finished – One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, nessuno e contomila):

I think that life is a very sad bit of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know how, why or where from, the need to deceive ourselves constantly with the spontaneous creation of a reality (one for each and never the same for all) which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory. Whoever has understood the game can no longer be deceived; but whoever can no longer be deceived can no longer enjoy the taste or pleasure of life. My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves; but this compassion cannot not be followed by the savage derision of the destiny which condemns man to deception.

Io penso che la vita è una molto triste buffoneria, poiché abbiamo in noi, senza poter sapere né come né perché né da chi, la necessità d’ingannare di continuo, noi stessi con la spontanea creazione di una realtà (una per ciascuno e non mai la stessa per tutti) la quale di tratto in tratto si scopre vana e illusoria. Chi ha capito il giuoco, non riesce più ad ingannarsi; ma chi non riesce più ad ingannarsi non può più prendere né gusto né piacere alla vita. Cosi è. La mia arte è piena di compassione amara per tutti quelli che s’ingannano; ma questa compassione non può non essere seguita dalla feroce irrisione del destino, che condanna l’uomo all’inganno


In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

From Luigi Pirandello’s A Character’s Tragedy (La tragedia d’un personaggio), English from Eleven Short Stories / Undici Novelle. The Italian is online in full here:

This past Sunday I went into my study, for the audience, a little later than usual.

A long novel that had been sent to me as a gift and had been waiting over a month for me to read it kept me up till three in the morning because of the many reflections aroused in me by one of its characters, the only living one among a crowd of empty shadows.

His role was that of an unfortunate man, a certain Dr. Fileno, who thought he had found the most effective cure for every kind of ailment, an infallible prescription for consoling himself and all men for every public or private calamity.

To tell the truth, rather than a cure or a prescription, this discovery of Dr. Fileno’s was a method, which consisted of reading history books from morning till night and of looking on the present as history, too—that is, as something already very remote in time. And with this method he had been cured of all his ills, he had freed himself from every sorrow and every annoyance, and had found peace without the necessity of dying: an austere, serene peace, permeated with that certain sadness without regret which the cemeteries on the earth’s surface would still retain even after all the people on earth had died out.

Dr. Fileno hadn’t even the slightest thought of deriving lessons from the past for the present, because he knew it would be a waste of time and a game for fools. History is an idealized amalgam of elements gathered together in accordance with the nature, likes, dislikes, aspirations and opinions of historians. How, then, can this idealized amalgam be applied to living, effective reality, in which the elements are still separate and scattered? Nor, similarly, did he have any thought of deriving from the present any norms or predictions for the future. In fact, Dr. Fileno did just the opposite. In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

For example, a few days earlier a daughter of his had died. A friend had come to see him to condole with him over his misfortune. Well, he had found him as consoled already as if that daughter had died a hundred years before.

He had just taken that misfortune of his, while it was still recent and painful, and had distanced it in time, had relegated it to, and filed it away in, the past.

But you had to see from what a height and with how much dignity he spoke about it!

In short, Dr. Fileno had made a sort of telescope for himself out of that method of his. He would open it, but now not with the intention of looking toward the future, where he knew he would see nothing. He convinced his mind that it should be contented to look through the larger lens, which was pointed at the future, toward the smaller one, which was pointed at the present. And so his mind looked through the “wrong” end of the telescope, and immediately the present became small and very distant.

Quest’ultima domenica sono entrato nello scrittojo, per l’udienza, un po’ più tardi del solito.

Un lungo romanzo inviatomi in dono, e che aspettava da più d’un mese d’esser letto, mi tenne sveglio fino alle tre del mattino per le tante considerazioni che mi suggerì un personaggio di esso, l’unico vivo tra molte ombre vane.

Rappresentava un pover uomo, un certo dottor Fileno, che credeva d’aver trovato il più efficace rimedio a ogni sorta di mali, una ricetta infallibile per consolar se stesso e tutti gli uomini d’ogni pubblica o privata calamità.

Veramente, più che rimedio o ricetta, era un metodo, questo del dottor Fileno, che consisteva nel leggere da mane a sera libri di storia e nel veder nella storia anche il presente, cioè come già lontanissimo nel tempo e impostato negli archivii del passato.

Con questo metodo s’era liberato d’ogni pena e d’ogni fastidio, e aveva trovato – senza bisogno di morire – la pace: una pace austera e serena, soffusa di quella certa mestizia senza rimpianto, che serberebbero ancora i cimiteri su la faccia della terra, anche quando tutti gli uomini vi fossero morti.

Non si sognava neppure, il dottor Fileno, di trarre dal passato ammaestramenti per il presente. Sapeva che sarebbe stato tempo perduto, e da sciocchi; perché la storia è composizione ideale d’elementi raccolti secondo la natura, le antipatie, le simpatie, le aspirazioni, le opinioni degli storici, e che non è dunque possibile far servire questa composizione ideale alla vita che si muove con tutti i suoi elementi ancora scomposti e sparpagliati. E nemmeno si sognava di trarre dal presente norme o previsioni per l’avvenire; anzi faceva proprio il contrario: si poneva idealmente nell’avvenire per guardare il presente, e lo vedeva come passato.

Gli era morta, per esempio, da pochi giorni una figliuola. Un amico era andato a trovarlo per condolersi con lui della sciagura. Ebbene, lo aveva trovato già così consolato, come se quella figliuola gli fosse morta da più che cent’anni.

La sua sciagura, ancor calda calda, l’aveva senz’altro allontanata nel tempo, respinta e composta nel passato. Ma bisognava vedere da quale altezza e con quanta dignità ne parlava!

In somma, di quel suo metodo il dottor Fileno s’era fatto come un cannocchiale rivoltato. Lo apriva, ma non per mettersi a guardare verso l’avvenire, dove sapeva che non avrebbe veduto niente; persuadeva l’anima a esser contenta di mettersi a guardare dalla lente più grande, attraverso la piccola, appuntata al presente, per modo che tutte le cose subito le apparissero piccole e lontane.

Possibly a background connection – there’s a line in a Giovvani Verga story I happened to be reading today (Fantasticheria in Vita dei campi and translated as Picturesque Lives in the Penguin Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories collection) that describes someone as ‘contemplat[ing] life through the other end of a telescope.’

He had made a special study of that basic essence of being, and called it “the cave of the beast”

The opening of Luigi Pirandello’s It’s Not To Be Taken Seriously (Non è una cosa seria). The English is from Eleven Short Stories/Undici Novelle but the Italian is online in full here. This and another early story – La Signora Speranza – combined to form the base of a later play, Ma non è una cosa seria.

Perazzetti? No. He was certainly in a class of his own.

He would say things with the utmost seriousness, so that you wouldn’t even know it was him, while he looked at his extremely long, curved fingernails, of which he took the most meticulous care.

It’s true that then, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason . . . exactly like a duck: he would burst out into certain fits of laughter that were like the quacking of a duck; and he would wallow around in that laughter just like a duck.

Many, many people found in that very laughter the best proof that Perazzetti was crazy. Seeing him writhe with tears in his eyes, his friends would ask him:

“But why?”

And he would reply:

“It’s nothing. I can’t tell you.”

When people saw him laughing like that and refusing to say why, they got disconcerted, they stood there looking like fools and experienced a certain physical irritation, which in the case of the so-called “nervous types” could easily develop into a ferocious rage and an urge to scratch him.

Unable to scratch him, the so-called “nervous types” (and there are so many of them nowadays) would shake their heads furiously and say in reference to Perazzetti:

“He’s a lunatic!”

If, instead, Perazzetti had told them the reason for that quacking of his . . . But frequently, Perazzetti couldn’t tell them; he honestly couldn’t tell them.

He had an extremely active and terrifically capricious imagination, which, when he saw other people, would fly out of control and, without his volition, would arouse in his mind the most outrageous images, flashes of inexpressibly hilarious visions; it would suddenly reveal to him certain hidden analogies, or unexpectedly indicate to him certain contrasts that were so grotesque and comic that he would burst out laughing unrestrainedly.

How could he make other people share the instantaneous interplay of those fleeting, unpremeditated images?

Perazzetti knew clearly, from his own experience, how different the basic essence of every man is from the fictitious interpretations of that essence that each of us offers himself either spontaneously, or through unconscious self-deceit, out of that need to think ourselves or to be thought different from what we are, either because we imitate others or because of social necessities and conventions.

He had made a special study of that basic essence of being, and called it “the cave of the beast,” of the primordial beast lurking inside each of us, beneath all the layers of our consciousness which have been gradually superimposed on it over the years. A- man, when touched or tickled on this or that layer, would respond with bows, with smiles, would extend his hand, would say “good day” and “good evening,” might even lend five lire: but woe to anyone who went and poked him down there, in the cave of the beast: out would come the thief, the impostor, the murderer. It’s true that, after so many centuries of civilization, many people now sheltered in their cave an animal that was excessively subdued: a pig that said the rosary, a fox that had lost its tail.

In restaurants, for example, Perazzetti would study the customers’ controlled impatience. On the outside, good manners; on the inside, the donkey who wanted his grain immediately. And he enjoyed himself no end imagining all the species of animals who had their lair in the caves belonging to the men he was acquainted with: this man surely had an anteater inside him, and that man a porcupine and that other man a turkey, and so on.

Perazzetti? No. Quello poi era un genere particolare.

Le diceva serio serio, che non pareva nemmeno lui, guardandosi le unghie adunche lunghissime, di cui aveva la cura più meticolosa.

È vero che poi, tutt’a un tratto, senz’alcuna ragione apparente… un’anatra, ecco, tal’e quale! scoppiava in certe risate, che parevano il verso di un’anatra; e ci guazzava dentro, proprio come un’anatra.

Moltissimi trovavano appunto in queste risate la prova più lampante della pazzia di Perazzetti. Nel vederlo torcere con le lagrime agli occhi, gli amici gli domandavano:

– Ma perché? E lui:

– Niente. Non ve lo posso dire.

A veder ridere uno così, senza che voglia dirne la ragione, si resta sconcertati, con un certo viso da scemi si resta e una certa irritazione in corpo, che nei così detti «urtati di nervi» può diventar facilmente stizza feroce e voglia di sgraffiare.

Non potendo sgraffiare, i così detti «urtati di nervi» (che sono poi tanti, oggidì) si scrollavano rabbiosamente e dicevano di Perazzetti:

– E pazzo!

Se Perazzetti, invece, avesse detto loro la ragione di quel suo anatrare… Ma non la poteva dire, spesso, Perazzetti; veramente non la poteva dire.

Aveva una fantasia mobilissima e quanto mai capricciosa, la quale, alla vista della gente, si sbizzarriva a destargli dentro, senza ch’egli lo volesse, le pili stravaganti immagini e guizzi di comicissimi aspetti inesprimibili; a scoprirgli d’un subito certe strane, riposte analogie, a rappresentargli improvvisamente certi contrasti così grotteschi e buffi, che la risata gli scattava irrefrenabile.

Come comunicare altrui il giuoco istantaneo di queste fuggevoli immagini impensate?

Sapeva bene Perazzetti, per propria esperienza, quanto in ogni uomo il fondo dell’essere sia diverso dalle fittizie interpretazioni che ciascuno se ne dà spontaneamente, o per inconscia finzione, per quel bisogno di crederci o d’esser creduti diversi da quel che siamo, o per imitazione degli altri, o per le necessità e le convenienze sociali.

Su questo fondo dell’essere egli aveva fatto studii particolari. Lo chiamava l’«antro della bestia». E intendeva della bestia originaria acquattata dentro a ciascuno di noi, sotto tutti gli strati di coscienza, che gli si sono a mano a mano sovrapposti con gli anni.

L’uomo, diceva Perazzetti, a toccarlo, a solleticarlo in questo o in quello strato, risponde con inchini, con sorrisi, porge la mano, dice buon giorno e buona sera, dà magari in prestito cento lire; ma guai ad andarlo a stuzzicare laggiù, nell’antro della bestia: scappa fuori il ladro, il farabutto, l’assassino. E vero che, dopo tanti secoli di civiltà, molti nel loro antro ospitano ormai una bestia troppo mortificata: un porco, per esempio, che si dice ogni sera il rosario.

In trattoria, Perazzetti studiava le impazienze raffrenate degli avventori. Fuori, la creanza; dentro, l’asino che voleva subito la biada. E si divertiva un mondo a immaginare tutte le razze di bestie rintanate negli antri degli uomini di sua conoscenza: quello aveva certo dentro un formichiere e quello un porcospino e quell’altro un pollo d’India, e così via.