Freedom and the humanities - Freedom and literary criticism


Institutional Communication Service

9 May 2022

The series of interviews, Reflections on Freedom, continues. A look at the humanities in collaboration with ISI, the Institute of Italian Studies at USI. Professor Jori delves into the relationship between freedom and literary criticism.  

In the Italian and European cultural traditions, criticism has a constant and profound relationship with freedom. Looking back at the last century, a giant of liberal thought such as Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest writers and critics of the twentieth century, has taught that the practice of criticism can be summed up in the art of distinguishing, which is an act of freedom. What Vittore Branca, philologist and literary critic, wrote in the 1960s when reflecting on La critica forma caratteristica della civiltà moderna (Criticism as a characteristic form of modern civilisation), is still as valuable as ever: "It is precisely the personal value, vigorously invoked for criticism by various parties, that also reveals its moral significance in today's world, increasingly threatened by ideological anathemas and witch-hunts: that is, that of a continuous aptitude for meditation and verification, of a permanent school of freedom". From these masters comes the example of critical practice in close relationship with freedom. In 1943, as he writes in his book Per amore di libertà, per amore di verità, Branca was a leading figure in the liberation of Florence from Nazi fascism.  


From your point of view, what should the critic do?  

As Carlo Dionisotti taught us to do, the critic must be free in choosing, distinguishing, and placing a work in space and time. But he must also be aware that his is a voluntary servitude, an act of dedication to the work, to the reasons of the other. In his essential 1977 book La filologia e la critica letteraria (Philology and Literary Criticism), co-written with Vittore Branca, Geneva-born Jean Starobinski, a beacon of European consciousness, defines literary criticism as a relationship, as an encounter between a subject and an object, in which the freedom of the interpreter must be at the service of the subjectivity of the text. What Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote about his poetry applies to the critic's commitment: "I will not have written a single free book, a single free verse / throughout the years" (Libro libero).  


To what extent is it necessary to dwell on phrases and concepts and to what extent is it possible to express a more "personal" and less "formal" opinion? How should the critic approach the work and how should he or she 'give' it back to the public?  

Criticism cannot be thought of outside of its relationship with the institutions of literature and knowledge. At the beginning of the millennium, as a result of the digital revolution, the scope of these institutions has expanded. Today, criticism is expressed on blogs, on the internet, with the risk of becoming confused with gossip, with common opinion, with conformism, which is the opposite of freedom. An anchorage to reality, a powerful vaccine, is the relationship of criticism with philology, as indicated again by the essential book I mentioned earlier. In its techniques, in its attention to detail, in the art of distinguishing, philology finds a constant proof of its fairness. No less important is erudition, which is not to be confused with the dust that settles on books but consists, as Italo Calvino pointed out, in the utopian search for the apocryphal, forgotten book capable of changing the meaning of the books of the canon. Perhaps criticism today serves to indicate reasons for rereading rather than reasons for reading. Among the institutions of knowledge in the historical and literary spheres, journals must be safeguarded: international evaluation protocols tend to make them more rigid, to reduce them to the rank of competition arenas, but they, especially those with a more distinctive cultural tradition, must instead be tenaciously guarded as spaces of freedom.  


What advice would you give to those approaching this line of work?  

Do not comply with cultural trends, which are the death of freedom; acquire a vast culture, with a deep curiosity, with a genuine love for truth and freedom. The first piece of advice that Leopardi gave to the readers of his verses was to read with attention, which the great poet Paul Celan defined in the second half of the last century as follows: "For the poem heading toward the other, everything and everyone is a figure of this other. The attentiveness that the poem pays to all that it encounters, its more acute sense of detail, outline, structure, colour, but also of "palpitations" and "innuendos", all this, I believe, is not the conquest of an eye in competition (or in concomitance) with equipment that is more perfect every day, but rather a concentration with all our dates in mind". This is not just a declaration of poetics, but a perfect synthesis of the critic's work. It is the "philological fury" that Pier Paolo Pasolini, a critic of literature and art as well as politics and society, asked of his readers in order to be understood and that we must rediscover today in order to protect freedom.