Freedom and the humanities - Invention and freedom

Viandante sul mare di nebbia di Caspar David Friedrich, fonte: Wikimedia
Viandante sul mare di nebbia di Caspar David Friedrich, fonte: Wikimedia

Institutional Communication Service

1 July 2022

The Freedom and the Humanities interview series continues in collaboration with USI Institute of Italian Studies. In this final round, Sara Garau, professor of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Literature in the Bachelor's and Master's programmes in Italian Language, Literature and Civilisation, delves into the relationship between invention and freedom.


Professor Garau, what is the relationship between freedom and invention?

The title of this interview evokes a classic piece of writing, L'Invention de la liberté. 1700-1789 by Jean Starobinski (from the 1960s, republished again in 2006), on the confluence of the arts in expressing and shaping the terrain in which the Revolution took place. Fellow historian Massimo Baioni has already discussed its "disruptive effects on political life and [its] languages." But the wording of the title of this interview also alludes to the Paths of Invention itself - a volume by Maria Corti - and to that freedom to think possible worlds starting from reality, but also in its alternative, whereby the inventor proves ready "to see in the concrete possibilities of being something else." I would try to connect these two planes, also intercepting some of the considerations that have preceded me in this space of reflection on a theme that has resurfaced and imposed itself unexpectedly in recent years, in the course of which we have seen freedoms we took for granted threatened, while experiencing (at moments, at least) the value of solidarity and the fact that this can also express itself in the restriction of individual freedoms.


Does this relationship between freedom and limitation exist in the realm of invention?

It certainly does. Just think of the Leopardi hedge, beyond which imagination sweeps: "With absolute freedom, one does not build, one does not invent," Corti wrote, precisely, commenting on the transition from the moment of intuition to expression, which never prescinds from pre-existing structures: tradition and its models on the one hand (Carla Mazzarelli has already spoken about this, regarding artistic freedom), on the other hand, the codes themselves (linguistic, poetic, the rules set by a given literary genre, etc.) with their potentialities and constraints. Then, of course, historical and social conditioning is another thing, and I am reminded here of issues that we often return to with students in the literary-historical context I teach.

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the libertarian theme is ubiquitous in both literary and political language: not only when literature becomes political discourse, conceiving itself as the possibility of acting in the present while shaping a new ideal of the free writer's status of independence (Alfieri's treatise Della tirannide-an author not surprisingly intensely reread by critics in the post-World War II period-is dedicated "To Liberty" and no patron or prince). Again, I would observe how libertinage in the 18th century meant first freedom of thought and only later "debauchery." It created great characters - true or imaginary - such as Casanova or Don Juan, both of whom were the origin of further inventions (and in Casanova's case, the first to take the liberty of rewriting his character was Casanova himself, in the often untruthful Histoire de ma vie). The very end of Don Juan, who dies because he refuses repentance, makes me think that freedom can mean, also the choice of death. So it happens in the Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and, earlier, in Werther, emulated at the time not only by Foscolo within the possible worlds of the literary but also, tragically, outside. The fact that this also happens in novels, a style still being defined, including precisely the boundaries between the authentic and the fictional, is perhaps no accident.


The genres, codes, and forms referred to earlier pre-exist inventions but, in turn, demand interpretation.

First of all, I would say that the cases I just mentioned, in this respect, also speak to the constant possibility of reconfiguring these structures. In Mozart, for example, the once rigid boundaries between opera seria and opera buffa become blurred. At the same time, the genre of the novel - still in search of its own status, as I said - takes up in the eighteenth century the epistolary form, which is not only a form of subjective intimacy, immediacy, and disposition to dialogue, but also an open, modular structure, so to speak, free to recompose itself beyond the rigid linearity of the narrative. One cannot fail to remember, in this regard, how a strongly digressive narrative, marked by free digression as we find it in Laurence Sterne, but also an encyclopedist such as Diderot, is always of eighteenth-century style. And I would give one last example, looking instead at the tradition of Italian poetry, where rhyme, a canonical and obligatory requirement of the poetic code - which will essentially be lost in the overall questioning of genres in the twentieth century - knows important "liberalisations" again in these years, with the great though the controversial fortune of loose verse, thus deprived of the constraint of rhyme. It is interesting to note that this phenomenon can go so far as to justify itself by using a lexicon of political significance: "he has shaken the yoke of servile rhyme, and goes free in Versi Sciolti," writes Giuseppe Parini ironically at the beginning of Giorno, a poem, as we know, highly committed not only on the moral level...

Precisely between the 1960s and 1970s, in different contexts and with other premises - from the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or OuLiPo, to Italian neo-poetics - poetics arose that sought creative empowerment precisely by placing the rule at the beginning of the process (or game) of invention, is yet another matter. In poetry, for example, the reactivation of the closed-form of the sonnet, whereas the poet Giovanni Raboni has written, the "return to the metrical prison" can mean "taking a step back to rediscover a momentum of freedom, even formal freedom." Confirming, if nothing else, the realisation of what I said earlier, quoting Corti, that one does not build with absolute freedom: one does not invent.