The Conflict between Words and Images: An interview with Andrea Cortellessa

by Luca Bernasconi, translated by Georgia Grey

23 Jun 2020

This interview was aired in part on 15th October 2018 on Rete Due, a channel of the broadcast radio station Radio Svizzera Italiana (RSI) from Lugano, Switzerland.

Luca Bernasconi: The name of your course at the Cattedra de Sanctis in Zurich is History and Typology of the Italian Phototext. What is the reason for choosing this topic and what are the main contents of the course?

Andrea Cortellessa: I believe that my desire to get closer to photography, beyond what can be called my own personal fascination, derives from the changing position it occupied in our society and in our everyday lives.  Before anything else, it is necessary to speak of the ‘photographic’ [1], as Rosalind Krauss has. In the beginning, photography was regarded with much suspicion by writers, and as is natural also by painters: the immediacy of this art form was stigmatised as vulgar for its mechanical reproduction of reality by those whom Baudelaire in 1859 called in horror the ‘new sun worshippers’ [2]. Its activity was considered objective and mechanic. Indeed, photography, unlike other forms of representations of reality, has a direct physical and material relationship with its subjects, yet it is precisely this direct relationship with reality that today reflects its mass popularity. However, today we are also well-aware of the fact that far from being a mechanical reproduction of reality, photography holds a partial relationship with it, one that is extremely subjective and is in fact often (as Calvino, Cortázar, and Antonioni have taught us) even neurotically solipsistic [3].

In fact in the first decades of the twentieth century the game was reversed and photography won over the avant-garde, especially the less ‘mechanical’ ones; just think of the role it played in French Surrealism, and in particular in masterpieces such as Nadja by André Breton from 1928 [4]. However, today it seems that the paradigms have changed. We speak – as Joan Fontcuberta [5] has – of post-photography due to the unlimited diffusion of photography within our social practice, and we can even speak of ‘social’ without the need for further definition. To many it appears that the status of the ‘photographic’ has returned to that which was feared by the intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century. Again we ask ourselves whether it makes sense to use photography for artistic purposes, as in for example new encounters between photography and literature. What is the purpose of the ‘iconotext’ in art during a time of global ‘iconotext’ such as the internet? That is my starting question. And for a definition of ‘iconotext’ I refer to the one provided by Peter Wagner at the end of the 1980s, as a combination of pictures and words and a genre in which neither image nor text is free from the other.

From Nadja, by André Breton, London 1999.

Talking about photographic iconotext or phototext as Michele Cometa – the leading Italian scholar on the matter [6] – prefers to call it, there is a vast selection of international books, particularly in French, whereas there still isn’t a systematic work in Italian literature. This is a direct consequence of the little success Surrealism had in Italy, where the movement was intermittent, much more than elsewhere. The course at the Cattedra De Sanctis, the invitation of which greatly flatters me and for which I have taken into account the fact that most of the students come from a non-humanistic background (the course is offered by the Polytechnic of Zurich), does not claim to reconstruct this history in its entirety; instead what I will put forward are case studies, not just Italian ones, because what I would like to put forward is not just a ‘story’ but above all a ‘typology’. If nowadays this sort of language is widespread on the internet, as I previously said, until the 80s it was fleeting, almost ghostly, and if the stories of iconotexts are often ghost stories, there must be a reason.

LB: What are the new aspects which emerged from this investigation?

AC: In the literature surrounding iconotext little attention is paid to poetry. Yet the logic of poetry, compared to fiction, is much closer to that of images. Naturally, poetry can be enjoyed over time, like fiction, and is therefore in line with the dichotomy dear to Lessing, between art forms that unfold over time – in their narrative and setting – and visual and physical ones that instead instead in space [7]. The status of poetry comes close to, without ever reaching it, the normally instant fruition of the image. This is a border area, a bit like the rest of the encounters between words and images. As stated by the main theorist involved in this discussion, William J.T. Mitchell, often when words and images cross paths it is a clash rather than a meeting. These are stories of conflict [8]. Here, in this concert, which is often out of tune, poetry represents the quintessential border area. After all until recently in Italy we thought that the first real phototexts – conceived according to an iconotextual logic, not just illustrated texts – were those, in the 70s, of authors who were principally poets, such as Pasolini’s La Divina Mimesis [Divine Mimesis] [9] and Blackout by Balestrini [10]. In truth, the story of the Italian phototext goes back to a few decades earlier and I believe to have found some early and rather interesting examples. It is no coincidence if at the symbolic beginning of this story there are authors who were highly regarded for their representation of conflict (who were always, as it is anecdotally very well known, working against each other). In the poetry of recent generations, as Laura Pugno cuttingly writes in her recent noteworthy text [11] (whose poetic debut, around 10 years’ ago, was in itself a defining moment in iconotextual history) [12], it has become almost common to use photography within text, at times also in a creative and surprising way, at other times in a destructive manner which is at the limits of fashion. But it’s no wonder if ‘the photographic’ has penetrated our own existence with such pervasiveness, the artists of the written word simply reflect the dynamics which belong to us all.

From Blackout, by Nanni Balestrini, 1979.

LB: In your first lesson you spoke of a ‘principle of insubordination’, which is always active in the iconotext. Does this conflict between image and word become a sort of ‘mise en abyme’ within texts?

AC: That’s exactly it. The frequency with which iconotexts represent conflict is rather peculiar. In the title of one of his essays from around 10 years ago (which has only recently been translated into Italian bye publishing house Mimesis Edizioni), Georges Didi-Huberman, reflecting upon the iconotext of Bertolt Brecht in his famous War Primer published in 1955 [13], explained that there are cases when the ‘images take position’ [14], meaning that they are placed on the page in an architectural way but also in the sense that they are deployed, they take sides. The idea of the iconotext always represents, in one way or another, a conflict. Very often a historical conflict: social, political – as in the case of Brecht, or his less noted predecessor, Ernst Jünger [15], which Mimesis has recently reproposed; or that, at the other end of the spectrum, by the pacifist anarchist Ernst Friedrich, whose work was rediscovered by Susan Sontag – a bellicose conflict [16].

In fact, in the logic of the iconotext what is truly conflicting is the compositional ratio with which the materials are arranged. After all literary expressions find themseleves, in modern times from Baudelaire onwards, in an antagonising position with respect to the dominant culture and society in general: the fantasque escrime (quaint swordsmanship) of the poet with reality as argued by Benjamin [17]. Then, within the literary field, as we call it now, there are more conflicting forms than others, for example poetry (not to mention the chocolate box version, which, in addition to soap operas, has for some time been feeding us a continuously socially-oriented culture). The poetic iconotext is perhaps the quintessence of conflict. This is not just because of the clash/encounter between words and images, which in iconotextual thinking are reluctant to be subordinate to captions and illustrations, but because, for example in the way in which it was practiced by the avant-garde, we see a strange and exciting alliance between extremely sophisticated forms and formats of popular entertainment. In Nadja, for example, Breton undoubtedly looked to his outstanding predecessors, the Symbolists, but also to the visuals of the widespread media, newspapers, and mass printed magazines. Hence ‘avant-garde and revolution’: the two faces of conflict, often viewed as opposing in the twentieth century, are on the same side in the tradition of the iconotext.

From Krieg dem Kriege!, by Ernst Friedrich, 1924

LB: You also mentioned Father Pozzi and his essay La Parola Dipinta (The Painted Word) [18]. What is the relationship between carmina figurata and iconotexts?

AC: I was surprised by the recent re-reading of the books by Giovanni Pozzi, which I loved as a student: both for the modernity of the theoretical framework and cultural references and also for the overlap of specific problems regarding the relationship between words and images.  Pozzi had a very educated passion for calligrammes, or carme figurato, which spanned from the Baroque era to the twentieth-century avant-garde with Alexandrian flavour. It is a very different tradition from the one that I study: in this case the word itself becomes image, whereas in iconotexts word and image face one another on the battleground, on the playing field of the page, each one preserving its personal identity. However at a certain point of Parola Dipinta, Pozzi says something that was enlightening for me: every carme figurato must have two different perceivable roles – a psychological, cognitive one and naturally, an aesthetic one – that which is related to the word and that which is related to the image. Since they are of a different nature, they are in conflict with one another and compete for space in our minds. It’s as if there was, in this case, a mark in our brain that splits our cognitive mechanisms into two parts, in a certain sense two hemispheres coalesced but in another, working against each other like sibling rivalry, if you will.

This focus, so complex and intermittent – ‘occasional’ as Pozzi defines it – is also found in the practice of iconotexts. There is a wonderful essay by Hans Belting [19] that tells the story of a famous installation, a modified 1920s ‘readymade’ by Man Ray called Object to be Destroyed, where a photo of a woman’s eye is placed on top of the hand of a metronome (that of his lover, the great photographer Lee Miller). It’s a symbol of love: photography is watching the visual artist, in this case Man Ray who during his times was also a great photographer, and does so almost rhythmically, in a sort of Fort-Da, appearing and disappearing from his consciousness. Belting also sees it as a symbol of all of the encounters between word and image and it’s a brilliant idea because the swinging motion of the metronome introduces an element that one rarely, when speaking of images, is aware of: that of rhythm. The rhythm that moves the hand, the rhythm that moves our eyes and makes them jump from images to written text.

It is well known that Stéphane Mallarmé, a historical pioneer of the avant-garde, is responsible for one of the largest and most influential experiments of visual poetry with his work, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. However, one of his prose poems a few years earlier, Le démon de l’analogie [20], doesn’t refer to a similarity between images but in fact rhythm: the text describes a walk within an urban area that establishes an analogy with sound, a mysterious phrase for which the subject in the text is looking for an explanation. The rhythm of reading, the rhythm of the walk and the rhythm of thought, seeking to give meaning to the words (an experience that every reader of Mallarmé painfully knows) are all the same rhythm. This meeting between different levels, this harmonious effect ,which is at times disharmonious, is exactly what I am seeking for in the tradition of phototexts.

LB: In your work Tennis neurale. Tra letteratura e fotografia [21] you write, speaking of Mao II of Don DeLillo ‘the post-modern world is a world that has been doubled by images’. How should this statement be read?

AC: I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that people began to study the history of iconotext at the end of the 1980s, when the spirit of postmodernism had become common sense: the famous essay by Lyotard, La condizione postmoderna (The Postmodern Condition), came out in 1979 [22]. A book such as Mao II [23], published in 1991, is a prime example of postmodernist taste. Yet DeLillo was able to free himself from such constraints and is today a narrator with no adjectives: starting from Underword, his books are no longer classified under the term postmodern, even if born from that tradition. There is no doubt that the role of the image in society has been emphasised by postmodernist thinkers. Look at Jean Baudrillard, who, between the 1970s and 1990s, in his essays – which today have been slightly forgotten (apart from repurposing his assumptions, for the most part implicitly) – insisted on reading society in terms of simulacrum: images in substitution of reality, pure surface etc. [24]. This surface, these images on film that postmodernism has sorted by theme, and with which it has even fallen in love, covered a whole series of excruciating dynamics that had seemingly been silenced and that have re-emerged in the last fifteen to twenty years in all of their anger, leading us to the catastrophic period in which we live today. The cultural fashion of the current day upholds the fact that the interpretive categories of postmodernism are no longer valid, and that in fact they never were; it was all just a big illusion. As I have said many times, for me that is wishful thinking. If postmodernism, intended as poetry or a group of poets, has lost its ‘projectile thrust’, the social and political framework in which we live today is perhaps more than it has ever been, extremely postmodern. Unfortunately, I might add. Thus the conceptual tools of postmodernism can still explain many things. The mistake that should not be made is to read postmodern texts with postmodern glasses. Even if postmodernism is by now a movement like all other movements of the past, these texts (which are still able to speak to us) must be made contemporary.

LB: You spoke about a ‘catastrophic scenario’. Melania Mazzucco, who is your predecessor at the ‘Cattedra De Sanctis, held a course entitled Shipwrecked Hearts: Two Centuries of Expatriates, in the Culture and Writings of Italians, highlighting the constant images of migration: the journey, the feeling of being lost in a foreign land, nostalgia, the loss of identity. The stories of new migrants, in the so-called ‘migrant literature’ such as the anthology Pecore Nere [25], don’t seem so different from the Italians who emigrated a century and a half ago…

AC: There’s a politician in my country, the Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minester, who at every public event manifests a very serious and outspoken resentment towards this comparison, which you have quite rightly just made, between the migrants of today and those of the past: the tens of millions of Italians who left their country between the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Tens of millions: nothing compared to the figures we are talking about now. Matteo Salvini says that migrants today have little good about them, they are job stealers, whereas our great-grandparents were exceptional people, pillars of society. The difference is that they were Italian and instead these people are black. Now, in this context linguistics truly has a purpose. A book from a few years ago, La Lingua Restaurata by Valerio Magrelli, discusses the linguistic research into the etymology of the derogative term ‘dego’ [26], which in the USA is still used to describe people of Italian origin. There are two etymological possibilities regarding this term: the first references the saying, continuously used in conversation, ‘dico’ (I say), which in Venice is ‘dego’ (the Venetian region, one of the main electoral supporter areas for Salvini, was perhaps the most depopulated region during the mass emigration a century ago), dego, dego, dego… The second would be a pseudo-Italian manipulation of the English word dagger because the stereotype of an Italian in America at the beginning of the twentieth century was that of a quick-handed guy, often bearing some sort of weapon. A stereotype, certainly. Stereotypes, no less vulgar or violent than those which are created by the media today.

It is easy to take it out on the new autocrats who travel around Europe and the world. However, the electoral results that democratically brought them to power are the results of a cultural regression, which has brought back into fashion ways of thinking that we had deluded ourselves into reasoning were part of history, the tragic history of the twentieth century.

It is honestly unbelievable that the walls are being re-built, that borders are being closed, that once again you hear people speaking of the ‘white race’: it’s like a dystopian film but instead its the reality of our times that we must deal with. At the beginning of the twentieth century, just before the great tragedy, Georg Simmel argued that man’s way of being in the world is symbolised by the redeeming images of communication and passage, the ‘bridge and the door’ [27]: where what collides is the internal and the external, our own identity and difference, Us and Them; without, and this is very important, falsely confusing one with the other, without making everything indistinct. Only in this way can these differences enter an exchange. Nowadays the doors are closing, the walls are being rebuilt, and for the sake of didactic evidence, the bridges are even collapsing.

Perhaps rethinking the tradition of iconotext, favoring this conflicting cross-contamination between word and image, signifies stubborn thinking about forms that are related to one another and should not be confused. It could be – as far as I can see of course – also a metaphor of a different sort of being in the world. Another way of life experienced by modernity. Today we think that the freedom, ruthlessness and bravery of our forefathers – an even terrible bravery in many cases – was not the norm for humanity, as was initially thought, but a happy exception. It is up to us to prove the opposite.

LB: What can we do to rebuild these bridges and re-open these doors?

AC: There is no alternative question, right? Naturally, I don’t have the answer: we live in a time of great confusion and great discouragement. However, probably what should be done, by us, is that which we have always done. When I say ‘us’ I am speaking of the people who work with languages, with the literary forms that for little time will still solicit our attention. It is precisely languages, rhetoric, that indicates how we are returning to the terrible times of our history. Those who are building the walls show great linguistic immorality and a great ability to use modern communication tools, while those prone to critical thought have an understandable caution about it. But the rejection of photography in 1850 is much like our refusal (my refusal) in 2015 of the web 2.0. David Cronenberg loves to say that we need to adopt the point of view of the virus, not of the infected species [28]. Hence if this is a language that today looks like a virus that was introduced to our social realm and threatens to destroy it, we need to understand how it can instead allow for change, in order to continue on our journey on earth and survive. To put it in the words of Walter Benjamin, every language, like everything related to man, is at the same time civilization and barbarism [29]. Only our choices, as always, can allow us to transform what seems like barbarism into a tool for freedom.  

LB: In your text Tennis neurale we also read that ‘our existence is framed by the global iconotext of the Internet’. Is it possible to find a broken link in this net?

 AC: The image of the ‘global iconotext’, which I used a bit boldly some years ago, now appears in slightly more threatening light.  It makes me think of the provocative yet outstanding philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, when he speaks ‘in the world interior of capital’ [30]. Each sphere of language and thought, each sphere of life envelops the other, and it is just like a large cosmic onion in which we ourselves are enveloped. One of these spheres is precisely that of capital: in its ubiquitous penetration and propagation, but also in its infinite ability to metamorphosise, in its incredible volatility and at the same time permanence. All of this has brought for communication the adoption of times and ways that seem to prevent us from thinking and even from using our brains. We have been transformed into machines, devices driven to work at a capacity that they cannot maintain; the psychological problems, the real anxiety that we experience in our daily lives is derived precisely from this imbalance between the rhythm at which we ourselves are constrained to live by and our objective abilities. Often, and I do so too, we call forth the virtue of slowness – ‘attentiveness, the natural prayer of the soul’, said Saint Walter Benjamin [31]. Beautiful words, a beautiful concept, but how does one put it into practice?

In any case, becoming aware of a certain condition is always the first step towards overturning it. One of the problems is that the idea just described is not obvious to most people, even those who are anything but culturally naive. It is important however that one of the most intelligent political reflections of our times comes from a scholar of images such as Jonathan Crary, who a few years ago wrote a short essay called 24/7 [32] where he speaks of a process that had remained unnoticed until then: the erosion of our time for rest, the war our society has waged on sleep. It is one of those secret wars that we notice only when we are forced to count the victims. Perhaps this kind of thinking could only come from a scholar in the field of aesthetics, and not because we know more about it but because it belongs to those that study languages, the forms of development of life that man gives, willingly – I’m not saying ability, but a willingness – to glimpse certain phenomena before they become so macroscopic that they crush us. Seeing the cracks, before the bridge falls down.

LB: What is the reason for the conflictual aspect of phototexts?

AC: Already in the term photography there are two identities present, two traditions that appeal, as Pozzi said in La Parola Dipinta, to two different logics that can be allies but are in fact separate. On the one hand, light: instant, a moment frozen in time, the pure event when the photo is being taken. And on the other hand, writing.  The double nature of the word is alluded to in the etymology of the name given to the device patented by Daguerre in 1839. On one hand there is the instant, on the other its development over time: a time, before exposure and the development of the image, which the digital age has forgotten but is inherent in the process of photography, as best described by Philippe Dubois [33]. Even though it is not as important in the production of the image, it still characterises our reading of it. Every time we look at a photo we put ourselves between multiple layers of time: on one side that which Roland Barthes in La Chambre Claire [34] defines as ‘has been’, the temporary situation of a time which for us has passed, and on the other the temporary situation of our present, the moment in which we look at the image. This time lapse, this interval – which, although minimal, is unavoidable – means that photography is always linked to the past. And indeed, according to Barthes, to death. Because it is a dead present, no longer our present, which is frozen in the image. So our perspective, when contemplating it, is structurally posthumous. Barthes in his wonderful essay brings together the two temporalities which are co-present in our viewing of an image. On the one hand, the slow, careful, meticulous study of the image, which travels throught its length and breadth and which he calls studium (nowadays neurological studies have confirmed the intuition of the psychologists of Gestalt: the image, despite what Lessing thought, is consumed over time), and on the other hand punctum, the decisive moment, the piercing arrow of the image. Although he snobbishly despised the first mode of perception preffering the second, every photograph actually holds both temporalities, the one dependent upon the other. Also the language of photography develops over time.

From Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, London 1980.

We look at photography always après coup, always ‘from after. Many postmodernist stories insisted on the collection of photographs: the people of my generation still think of ‘photography’ as a physical object, a piece of paper, sometimes with a thick consistency, like old Polaroids for example. Photographs were tablets, like those used in Cuneiform writings found in archeological digs, or ‘magical notes’, as they are called in a certain brilliant page by Freud [35]. This is the mental image that we carry of photography. Yet its colours are now fading, they are literally melting in front of us. That of photography is a tale of ghosts because its past is irretrievable, if not in the form of images (for this reason some of photography’s pioneers indulged in declaring themselves dead). When we photograph ourselves and look back at the photo – an experience which is all too common in the time of the selfie – the ones we are contemplating are the ‘us’ of a few seconds before, the ghosts of ourselves.

LB: ‘Dr. Pereira first visited me one evening in September 1992’, is the beginning of a passage by Antonio Tabucchi in his work Sostiene Pereira. Often writers talk of being visited by people knocking on the door to their imagination and that they don’t disappear until their stories are written. I asked myself if you as a critic have also at times been obsessed by these ghosts.

AC: As far as I am aware, I don’t have any ghosts or characters living inside me, more pieces of personalities, fragments of stories, images. However gestures, yes, I am obsessed with them. For example, ever since I first saw the film Vertigo by Hitchcock [36], I have always been haunted by a gesture that Kim Novak makes. At a certain point she and James Stewart find themselves in a park of Sequoia trees in California, near San Francisco, the city where the film takes place. In the park there is a huge tree trunk that has been felled and sectioned, we see the base of the cut trunk, with the rings of the tree showing the passage of time. Being a thousand-year-old Sequoia, we’re talking about a very long time. At this point, the character played by Kim Novak, who in a very Proustian way is called Madeleine, touches the surface of the trunk with her gloved hand, showing the point in which the character who she believes to be a reincarnation of was born; and then that in which she died. With this gesture, therefore, she gives body to a ghost. On a flat surface, which could be a metaphor of a screen (in a psychoanalytical sense, other than cinematic), she materialises the ghost that is in herself.

This scene naturally, in the complicated drama of the film, has its narrative function. But for me (and not only for me: it appered to be such also in two of Chris Marker’s films, La Jetée and Sans Soleil) [37]) it is a metaphor for many other things. First off – I think that this is Hitchcock’s Freudian reasoning (his own inciting Freudism and also that of his producer Selznick) – the fallen Sequoia is a metaphor for the sexual impotence that is a personal phobia of Scottie, the character played by James Stewart. That ghostly hand at that moment seems to reignite his sexuality but après coup, at the end of the film we understand that it had the opposite effect. Moreover, for me in general it is a metaphor for the fact that in each and every one of us – without the need for us to believe in ghosts (the film, unlike the literary works which it is inspired by, rather cruelly demystifies this romantic belief) – there resides the echoes of the fantasies, dreams, and utopias of those who came before us. It is up to us not to disappoint them, not to fail our inheritance, an inheritance without a will that has been passed on by our buried predecessors, whom we may be able to ignore but who have brought us into existence, who have led us to occupy a specific ring in the tree of life.

Or it could mean that ghosts only become reality if someone points them out, if someone touches the screen on which they are being projected. So, who is Madeleine? Is she a version of us, the spectators? Or of the actress who gives life and form to that ghost (the character, in the story, is essentially just playing a part, and is it this role that will decide her destiny of death)? Or of the director who placed that ghost in the scene? This gesture, like all other gestures, can mean many things. It is precisely this ambiguity that fascinates us. A gesture requires, from the person whom it is addressed to, the completion of its meaning. Every time we read a book, watch a movie or look at a photograph, we are asked to give meaning to what we see. If a book has a weak story it will take us seconds to understand ‘how it will end’, but if the work is more complex, if it digs deeper into the trunk of reality, then we, in completing it, also complete ourselves.

LB: What is the glue that holds together all of your different critical works?

AC: I fear that the glue is only the person who is talking to you, my existence, which, as with every existence, is based on chance. In a famous essay Peter Brooks [38] argued that if we still read novels, or do what is even less fashionable and go to the cinema to see a movie, it is because stories are for us anthropologically necessary: our lives are deprived of meaning, not only our individual lives (as we are all aware or should be) but the existence of our species in general. A piece of imperceptible dark matter launched into an infinite universe. And yet, that imperceptible nothingness that we are, is for us everything. It is this contradiction that keeps us alive, this significance that we don’t find in our own existence, which we believe to find in the stories that we create or love to hear. I like the stories that remember, and therefore remind us, that this significance is just an emotional crutch, an affective prosthetic, which we use to fill this gaping hole, this manque à être that gives us purpose. Stories should deceive us but only up to a certain point, they should always hold onto a grain of incompleteness, an unfilled part, a blind spot, which then coincides with our point of view: this blind spot is our outlook, our conscience, our sensitivity. It is always ‘special’, as Giorgio Agamben once wrote, meaning exquisitely personal and, at the same time, relative to the entire species to which we belong [39].

There are those of us who are able to give form to their pursuits, their quêtes, many others live theirs in their own privacy, in how they relate to what they are and what they are becoming. But it is the same thing: we continuously throw stones on our own path with the illusion that these stones will create a meaningful design. We know that this is not the case, each step we take is a demonstration of this, and yet we continue to walk.

LB: How would you propose literary classics today, tuning into the mental and emotional wavelengths of the new generations?

AC: It is very difficult to be consistent with one’s own ideas and make one’s own behavior, the effort of our daily life, coincide with the principles of what we believe is right. It is perhaps the hardest thing of all, but this is our work as human beings. What should we do? First of all, when speaking about literature, we need to read it, we need to give voice to the texts, read them in class, make them be heard, because these texts are made of sounds, they are made of words, they are the vibrant flesh of those who came before us, to which we need to give back life and allow to be apprehended. From experience, I know that when starting a lesson with a reading, by giving physicality to the text, everyone’s attention is reawakened. Because that text cannot be reduced to being paraphrased. Obviously at times we are forced to paraphrase, or summarise, which nearly always means to trivialise and generalise. It’s inevitable because we have to summon up different texts, potentially even from different authors. At times moving between these different levels excites us and gives life to our work, potentially even grabbing the attention of who’s listening. Yet every time we should try to manifest the physicality of the text by reading it out loud, if it is a visible object, seeking to show it in the most truthful way possible (we must not improperly present objects which are in their own right spectacular, but according to their own logic, not ours).

Secondly, it is necessary to present these texts with a ‘didactic image’, to use yet another phrase by Walter Benjamin [40]: meaning that we must try to make the listener understand – which means first understanding ourselves, if we can – how even though that text is perhaps seven centuries old, it is on the one hand in the past but at the same time totally contemporary, fresh, completely in line with our modern-day existence. Both are true: the philosophers of history have explained it to us in many different ways, but it is up to us to reignite this dialectic bewteen the two existing forms of the text. This dialectic image, as stated by Benjamin, is bursting with sparks, and shines a light on the whole context. On our life, in fact. Often when we talk about politics and the emergencies of the present, we refer to examples from the past: we know that it is arbitrary as each time period is different from another, they are on different planes of existence, different is the economy and society, everything has changed compared to the past. However, in making this comparisons and creating that bridge between the past and the present, we are able to travel through time: it allows us to live with one foot in the past while allowing the past to have one foot in the present. We must always build bridges.

LB: What is the beauty of your work as a literary critic? What is the joy you transmit to the public when moving from one topic to another, from one story to another?

AC: I’m glad that it is perceived as joy. It’s known that comedians are the saddest people in the world, therefore it could be that the joy I transmit is an elaboration, a sublimation of something that is opposite to joy. However there is something true in what you say, because even if there isn’t joy there is jouissance, as a psychoanalyst would say: the idea that when one studies, when one finds time to study, you discover connections between different places, distant circumstances and places in our daily lives, our experiences (for this reason the distinction made by Barthes between studium and punctum is unjust: without the hesitation and expectation of the former the intensity, joy, and pain of the latter would not be engendered). Edward Morgan Forster [41] said that the work of a critic is to ‘only connect’, place together objects that seem far apart. But ‘only connect’ was the currency of artists, before that of the critic: it is artists who create this virtual teleporting. Artists, in their mind, are able to move objects, situations and people who are distant from one another, it is within meetings, in these well-judged pairings that a spark, inspiration, is born. These objects, in their being juxtaposed, transcend their own nature: it is a different sensation, the ‘curious feeling’ that Lautréamont codified as a chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine. All of a sudden the combination of these objects creates something new, unknown. This discovery is exciting and gives a sense of vitality, adds a thread to the web of our lives, as said Sterne cited by Leopardi, cited by Alfredo Giulani [42]. It gives us an opportunity to smile, even if – and especially because – our lives do not offer many reasons to do so.

Andrea Cortellessa is a critic and essayist, who teaches Italian contemporary Literature at Università Roma Tre. He wrote books and edited texts for publishers such as Bruno Mondadori, Einaudi, Garzanti, Adelphi, Bompiani, Aragno and Chiarelettere. For six years he has directed the series fuoriformato of the publisher Le Lettere, which issued thirty-one titles. In 2010 he realized with Luca Archibugi the documentary film Senza scrittori (Without Writers)for RaiCinema. He collaborates with il manifesto, Tuttolibri and many other newspapers. He is on the editorial board of the literary journals alfabeta2 and il verri. He recently cofounded Antinomie an Italian website dedicated to the relationship between words and images.

This translation was kindly supported by David Solo.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, Teoria e storia della fotografia [1990], edited by Elio Grazioli, Mondadori, Milan, 1996.

[2] Charles Baudelaire, Il pubblico moderno e la fotografia (The Modern Public and Photography) [1859], translated by Giuseppe Guglielmi in Opere, edited by Giovanni Raboni and Giuseppe Montesano, with an introduction by Giovanni Macchia, Mondadori, Milan, 1996.

[3] Italo Calvino, La follia del mirino [1955], in Saggi 19451985, edited by Mario Barenghi, Modadori, Milan, 1995; and Julio Cortázar, Le bave del diavolo (Las babas del diablo), in Le armi segrete (Las Armas Segretas) [1959], translated by Cesco Vian, Einaudi, Turin, 2008; and Blow-up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [1966]; see Michelangelo Antonioni-Julio Cortázar, Io sono il fotografo. Blow-up e la fotografia, Contrasto, Rome, 2018.

[4] André Breton, Nadja [1928], translated by Giordano Falzoni, preface by Domenico Scarpa, Turin, Einaudi, 2007. See also Bruges-la-Morte, Nadja, Vertigo. Psicologia di tre città, in Dal nulla al sogno. Dada e Surrealismo dalla Collezione del Museo Boijmans Van Beuningen, catalogue from the exhibition at Alba, Ferrero Foundation, from 27th October 2018 to the 28th February 2019, curated by Marco Vallora, Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo, 2018.

[5] Joan Fontcuberta, La furia delle immagini. Note sulla postfotografia [2016] (La Furia de las imàgenes. La postfotografìa segùn Fotcuberta), translated by Sergio Giusti, Einaudi, Turin, 2018.

[6] Michele Cometa, Forme e retoriche del fototesto letterario, in Fototesti. Letteratura e cultura visuale, edited by Roberta Coglitore, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2016.

[7] Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoonte [1766], edited by Michele Cometa, Aesthetica, Palermo, 1991.

[8] W.J.T. Mitchell, Pictorial Turn. Saggi di cultura visuale, edited by Michele Cometa and Valeria Cammarata, Cortina, Milan, 2017.

[9] Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Divina Mimesis, Einaudi, Turin, 1975; afterword by Walter Siti, Transeuropa, Massa, 2011.

[10] Nanni Balestrini, Blackout, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1980; in Le avventure della signorina Richmond e Blackout. Poesie complete volume secondo (1972-1989), afterword by Cecilia Bello Minciacchi, DeriveApprodi, Rome, 2016.

[11] Laura Pugno, In territorio selvaggio, nottetempo, Milan, 2018.

[12] Ead., Il colore oro, ‘fuoriformato’ Le Lettere, Florence, 2007.

[13] Bertolt Brecht, L’abicì della guerra. Immagini della seconda guerra mondiale [1955], edited by Renato Solmi, Einaudi, Turin, 1975.

[14] Georges Didi-Huberman, Quando le immagini prendono posizione. L’occhio della storia I  (L’Œil de l’histoire – Tome 1 : Quand les images prennent position) [2009], edited by Francesco Agnellini, Milan and Udine, 2018.

[15] Ernst Jünger, Il mondo mutato. Un sillabario per immagini del nostro tempo [1933], edited by Maurizio Guerri, Milan and Udine, 2007.

[16] Ernst Friedrich, Guerra alla guerra. 1914-1918: scene di orrore quotidiano (Krieg dem Kriege!) [1923], translated by Laura Scuriatti, foreword by Gino Strada, Mondadori, Milan, 2004; see Susan Sontag, Davanti al dolore degli altri (Regarding the Pain of Others) [2003], translated by Paolo Dilonardo, Mondadori, Milan, 2003.

[17] Walter Benjamin, Di alcuni motivi in Baudelaire (Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire), in Angelus Novus. Saggi e frammenti [1955], edited by Renato Solmi, Einaudi, Turin, 1962.

[18] Giovanni Pozzi, La parola dipinta, Adelphi, Milan, 1981.

[19] Hans Belting, Per una iconologia dello sguardo (Body: A New Approach to Iconology), translated by Michele Cometa, in Cultura visuale. Paradigmi a confronto, atti del convegno di Palermo, 28–30 September 2006, edited by Roberta Coglitore, duepunti, Palermo, 2008.

[20] Stéphane Mallarmé, Il demone dell’analogia [1874], translated by Valeria Ramacciotti, in Divagazioni (Divigations) [1897], in Poesie e prose, Garzanti, Milan, 1992.

[21] Andrea Cortellessa, Tennis neurale. Tra letteratura e fotografia, in Arte in Italia dopo la fotografia: 18502000, Catalogue from the exhibition curated by Maria Vittora Marini Clarelli and Maria Antonella Fusco, Rome, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, 21st December–4th March 2012, Electa, Milan, 2011.

[22] Jean-François Lyotard, La condizione postmoderna. Rapporto sul sapere (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) [1979], translated by Carlo Formenti, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1981.

[23] Don DeLillo, Mao II [1991], translated by Delfina Vezzoli, Einaudi, Turin, 2003.

[24] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacri e impostura. Bestie, Beaubourg, apparenze e altri oggetti (Simulacres et Simulation) [1977], translated by Pina Lalli, Cappelli, Bologna, 1980; from the book., Il delitto perfetto. La televisione ha ucciso la realtà? [1995], translated by Gabriele Piana, Cortina, Milan, 1996.

[25] Pecore nere. Racconti, edited by Flavia Capitani and Emanuele Coen, Laterza, Rome and Bari,  2005.

[26] Valerio Magrelli, La lingua restaurata e una polemica. Otto sonetti a Londra, Piero Manni, San Cesario di Lecce, 2014.

[27] Georg Simmel, Ponte e porta (Bridge and Door) [1909], in Ponte e porta. Saggi di estetica, edited by Andrea Borsari and Cristina Bronzino, Archetipolibri, Bologna, 2011.

[28] Il cinema secondo Cronenberg (Cronenberg on Cronenberg), edited by Chris Rodley [1992], Pratiche, Parma, 1994.

[29] Walter Benjamin, Tesi sul concetto di storia (Über den Begriff der Geschichte) [1942], edited by Gianfranco Bonola and Michele Ranchetti, Einaudi, Turin, 1997.

[30] Peter Sloterdijk, Il mondo dentro il capitale (In The World Interior of Capital) [2005], edited by Gianluca Bonaiuti, translated by Silvia Rodeschini, Meltemi, Rome, 2006.

[31] Walter Benjamin, Kafka [1933], in Angelus Novus, cit.

[32] Jonathan Crary, 24/7. Il capitalismo all’assalto del sonno (Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep) [2013], translated by Mario Vigiak, Einaudi, Turin, 2015.

[33] Philippe Dubois, L’atto fotografico (L’acte photographique) [1990], edited by Bernardo Valli, Quattro venti, Urbino, 1996.

[34] Roland Barthes, La camera chiara. Nota sulla fotografia (La chambre claire: Note sur la Photographie) [1980], translated by Renzo Guidieri, Einaudi, Turin, 1980.

[35] Sigmund Freud, Nota sul notes magico [1924], in Opere, edition directed by Cesare Musatti, vol. X, 19241929. Inibizione, sintomo e angoscia e altri scritti, Boringhieri, Turin, 1978.

[36] Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (from the 1954 novel by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, D’entre les morts, most recently edited as La donna che visse due volte by Adelphi, translated by Federica Di Lella and Giuseppe Girimonti Greco, in 2016).

[37] La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker, 1962; Sans Soleil, directed by Chris Marker, 1983. See Chris Marker, A free replay. Notes sur Vertigo, in Le cinéma vu par les cinéastes, monogrammed number ‘Positif’, 400, June 1994.

[38] Peter Brooks, Trame. Intenzionalità e progetto nel discorso narrativo (Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative [1984], translated by Daniela Fink, Einaudi, Turin, 1995.

[39] Giorgio Agamben, L’essere speciale, in Profanazioni, nottetempo, Rome, 2005.

[40] Walter Benjamin, Tesi sul concetto di storia (On the Concept of History), in I passages di Parigi, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Italian edition edited by Enrico Ganni, Einaudi, Turin, 2002.

[41] Edward M. Forster, Aspetti del romanzo (Aspects of the Novel) [1927], translated by Corrado Pavolini, preface by Giuseppe Pontiggia, Garzanti, Milan, 2000.

[42] Alfredo Giuliani, Introduzione ai “Novissimi” [1961], in Immagini e maniere [1965], Italian Scientific Edition, Naples, 1995 (‘Reading a piece of true, contemporary poetry, in verse or in prose (however verse gives the most real feeling), one can, and perhaps better (even in these prosaic times) say what a smile said to Sterne; that it adds a thread to the very short canvas of our life. It refreshes us, so to speak; and increases our vitality. And things of this sort are very rare today’: Zibaldone, 4450, 1st of February 1829).