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Cesare Pavese – About Myth, Symbols And Other Subjects

Cesare Pavese,

Fototeca Storica Nazionale,

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an article written by Italian writer Cesare Pavese between 1943/44 and published  in ‘Fiera d’Agosto‘ in 1946 by Einaudi in Turin, an heterogeneous work composed of stories, chapters and reflective prose that illustrate the author’s intimate poetics-here translated into working English by Via-HYGEIA from the French translation of Gilles de Van from its original Italian for Editions Gallimard- Collection Arcades in 1999. From Page 147 to 156 🌿’…Last year, the first time I came back to the village, I went almost stealthily to look at the hazels again. The hill at Gaminella was a long slope covered as far as the eye could see with vineyards and terraces, a slant so gradual that if you looked up you could not see the top—and on the top, somewhere, there are other vineyards and other woods and paths—this hill, then, looked as if it had been flayed by the winter and showed up the bareness of the earth and of the tree trunks.’ From ‘The Moon and the bonfires‘, composed in 1949, published in 1950.


‘A plain surrounded by hills-composed of successive meadows and trees as curtains that separate vast clearings, by a September morning, when a light mist removes them from the ground-is worthy of our interest for its obvious sacred place character it may have embodied in the past. In the clearings, ghostly celebrations-flowers-sacrifices glimmer at the edge of the lurking mystery being born among the shadows of trees. There, at the limit between the sky and the earth, a god could appear. The characteristic feature, if not of poetry but of the mythical story, is the consecration of unique places, linked to a fact, an heroic deed, an event. We bestow an absolute meaning to a chosen place among many, in isolating it in the world. This is how the sanctuaries were born. This is how the places of our childhood are remembered by each one of us; these places, where things happened, conferred them their uniqueness and, by the mean of this mythical seal, differentiate them from the rest of the world.

But, the likening with childhood, promptly make us understand that the mythical place is less a singular place, the sanctuary, than the place that carries a common name, universal, the meadow, the forest, the cave, the beach, the house, that, in its indeterminacy, evoke all the meadows, the forests, etc., and animates them of a symbolic shiver. In the childhood memory, the meadow, the forest, the beach are not ordinary real object among others, they are THE meadow, THE beach, as they were revealed in the absolute and gave shape to our imagination (then that these primordial shapes were enriched by successive sediments of memory contributes to their poetic wealth, but this has nothing to do with their original meaning).

This uniqueness of a place participates of the more general uniqueness of the heroic deed and the event, absolute and consequently symbolic, that constitute the mythical action. A non-rethorical definition could be: to make for everything a thing, that by this very fact, will be impregnated with significations and will never cease to, due to its naked fixity. In the natural reality, no heroic deed nor any place have more value than another. In the mythical action (symbolic) on the contrary, everything is hierarchized.

The deed of the hero is not such because filled with supernatural events or exceptions to normality (these would presume, on the contrary, for the believer the consciousness of a normality, which is hardly conducive to mythical conception), but because it assumes an absolute value of an immobile normality, which, due to its very immobility, reveals itself perpetually decipherable ex novo, polyvalent, in one word: symbolic. We should refrain from confusing the myth with the poetical reactions that were made or that are still being made of it; the myth precedes, it is not the expression we give to it; in its case,  we can really speak of a separate content from the form (even though it cannot be without a form, as basic it could get); and that is proved by the fact that the true myth does not change in value when expressed by words, signs, gestures. The myth is in itself a sort of norm, the sketch of an event that happened once and for all, and draws its value of this absolute unicity that elevates it out of time and consecrates it as a revelation. This is why, it always happens at the origin, like in childhood: it is outside of Time. If a man would one day appear, God knows when, upon our hills, and asks for wicker strands and starts braiding a basket, and then would disappear, he would be the truest and simplest of civilizing heroes. This revelation of an art that would be mythical, at the natural condition that this deed had been of an absolute unicity, that there were no past nor no present, but that it raised itself to a sacred eternity, paradigma of all wicker braiders. And among all, the place he would have sat would become a sanctuary; but this is already an a posteriori conception, more materialistic, as a naturalist would make sense of it. The event truly mythical is the one that, located outside of time, unfolds also outside of space too. The spot of my hero must be all of the spots: and upon each of them the believer is witness of a new celebration of the initial revelation. The material unicity of a place (the sanctuary) is a concession to the matter-of-factness of the believer and especially to his imagination that always needs of a carnal expression, poetic more than mythical. As a matter of fact, to say ‘Olympus’ was to mean something like ‘mountain’ at a certain Greek pre-historic period, alike all mountains. Similarly,  Hercules was every village hero coming back from his adventures, in finding its expression every myth incarnated in the cultural and geographical determinations that vary according to the place.

We need to hang on to this fever of unicity from which the myth is derived. There is there an undisputable religious kernel. Life is populated and is enriched of irreplaceable events that, especially because they occurred once and for all outside of the laws of our earthly world, have a value of supreme models of reality, defining its content, its signification, it substance, and all the everyday occurrences only gain meaning and value in the measure that they consist its repetition or reflection. A myth is always symbolic, allegorical, but it lives of a buried life, and, according to the terrain and the saps that surround it, can surge in multiple and diverse blossoms. It is a unique event, absolute, a concentrate of vital essence derived from spheres other than our daily lives, and as such it spreads a miraculous aura upon everything that presupposes and ressembles it. The only definition that we can give of the symbol, is that it is also an object, a quality, an event of a unique value, absolute, that tears natural causality and isolates in the midst of reality. The simplest example of a symbol is the handkerchief a lover has received from his beloved; it is such in the measure that it has gained an absolute value that charges it of multiple meanings, and these meanings last as long as last the exaltation of love.

No child has the awareness to live in a mythical world. This goes hand in hand with this other known fact that no child knows anything about the ‘childhood paradise’ and that, in due time, when reaching adulthood, he would realize he was fortunate to have lived in it. The reason is that during his mythical years, the child has better things to do than to put a name on a state. He must live that state and discover the world-not as we could think- by an immediate and original contact with things, but through their signs: words, illustrations, stories. If we seek the source of an emotional and ecstatic moment before something in the world, we would find that we are moved because we have been moved before; and we have been moved before because one day this something appeared transfigured, detached from the rest, because of a word, a tale, a dream that was connected to it and contained it. For the child, this sign becomes a symbol because naturally at that period the imagination is lived as a reality, similar as an objective knowledge, and not as an invention (that childhood is poetic is an illusion of the mature age). But, in what it has of absolute, this symbol raised up to its sphere the signified thing, which, with time, become the absolute form of our imagination. Such is the ‘child mythopoeia’ (Wikipedia note: or mythopoesis, is a narrative genre in modern literature and film where an artificial or fictionalized mythology is created by the writer of prose, poetry, or other literary forms. The concept was introduced by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction. Mythopoeia is also the act of creating a mythology.) it confirms that things only are uncovered, baptized, though the memories that we retain from them. Because, in all rigor of speech, there is no such thing as ‘to see things for the first time’: what always count is the second time.

The mythical activity of childhood consists somehow to raise towards the sphere of unique and absolutes events the successive revelations of things, which allow them to live in the consciousness as normative schemes of affective imagination. In the same manner, every one of us possesses a personal mythology (weak echo of the former one) that gives value, an absolute value, to our most remote world, and that decorates the poor things of our past with an attractive and ambiguous brightness, as with a symbol, that seems to wind up the meaning of a whole life. This ‘temps retrouvé‘ (A Via-Hygeia note: time regained; in French in the text. A probable hint to Marcel Proust’s monumental masterpiece, ‘In Search of Lost Time‘.) has also in common with he authentic myth the faculty to repeat itself, meaning to be able to reincarnate itself through out appearing repetitions and that are ex novo, exactly like any celebration honors again the myth and, at the same time, settles it, as if it would be the first time.

With Poetry, it is an entirely different thing. In poetry, we know that we invent, which is not always the case with mythical conception. The reason why poetry is able to be born everywhere and always while  every nation ends up getting out of its mythical stage, is that in order to transform invention into faith, will is not enough. The barbarians’ ingenuity, for whom imagination is an objective knowledge, does not come back, once lost. The miracle of childhood is fast submerged in the knowledge of reality and only subsists as an unconscious form of our capacity to imagine-form continuously destroyed by our awareness we have of it. The life of every artist and every human being is, alike those of the nations, an unceasing effort to bring into clarity these myths. But we cannot prevent that they do not stay the vital kernel, the ratio ultima of our interior life, being unconscious. The powerful tonic they provide, sole and unique inspiration worthy of this overused name, is but the proof. Nevertheless, we should not refuse, on the esthetic level, the tenacious effort to  bring them to clarity-in reality: meaning to destroy them. Only, what is remaining after these efforts (and as it is true that the spirit is inextinguishable, some thing of it must always subsist) will be able to constitute a source of life.

Poetry often seeks a new virginity in reaching out to symbolism, to the memories of childhood and even to myths. It admits feeling in these spiritual forms, a strong tension of the imagination it envies, and it imagines, that in order to divest this tension towards its own field, an act of will is enough. It traces the forms of the myth and of the symbol with the hope that in them its heart will start to beat magically again. But it forgets that it has the consciousness of inventing while myth lives of faith.

In the formula it borrows, slumbers an absolute that can wake up, at the condition that it would be greeted as a revelation, more vital than poetic. It happens some time that around some old skeletons a new flesh develops and grows, quite different from what the creator expected and knew. Here, we are not talking about poetry, which is always possible, especially if we want it, and ultimately depends upon patience and clarity of the gaze. But this image or central inspiration, formally unique, towards which the imagination of every creator unconsciously leans to return and that provides warmth more than anything else by its mysterious omnipresence. This image is mythical in the measure which its creator keeps coming back to it, as something unique, that symbolises his experience. It is the central home, not only of his poetry, but of his whole life. The more it is vast and robust, the wider and vital the poetry that surges from it. But, is it necessary to mention it, but as soon as the creator takes a critical stance and continues to exploit it, poetry vanishes.

This inspiration stretches its roots deep into the most remote past of the individual and translate the quintessence of his discovery of things. Sometimes, through some schemes he believes he is exhuming, it appears fleetingly in marginal images, almost the fruit of randomness; more often, it incarnates in significant situations, powerful and monotonous, whatever the theme of the tale, and it expands always in a recognizable pattern and anchors its true meaning. In these situations, the creator can’t tell anything but that it constitutes his myth, his unique event, which each time bears the character of an extraordinary revelation, like a ritual celebration for the believer. He contemplates them from from his inner world, when he is able to recognize them, such as we, long ago, contemplated the pain of Dionysus or the transfiguration of Christ. They are mysteries, in the most authentic religious sense.

We have just described what Baudelaire calls ‘l’extase‘ (Via-Hygeia note: ecstasy; in french in the text), the spontaneity of the inspired that has nothing to do with the ‘subtils complots‘ (Via-Hygeia note: subtle conspiracies; in French in the text) of the poet. To baptise things, the ingenuity of faith is necessary and each baptism is a miracle like in the religious ceremony. At this stage, we become truly inspired because, facing the absolute, facing what is unique, we collect ourselves and we abandon ourselves, and only the creators of an extraordinary nature are able to keep under this religious tension the speed and skills of the poetic trade. Almost every time, it is precisely inspiration that spoils poetry, dilutes it, wastes it. The little bit of formal discipline that we had faulters under the indetermination of an irrepressible feeling. Rare are the creators that know how to make the implicit deep formal requirement in the imprint of their remote contact with the world match with the expressive means provided by culture to a whole generation. Their task is a compromise that betrays partially the ingenuity-that tries to glance a clearly as possible in the pit of the myth in which they are caught-but it does not go further up to when the tale would dissolve into naturalistic description. This is why, it happens that some find solace in doing something else than what they were expecting and knowing. But the strongest, the most diabolically faithful and lucid ones, do whatever they want; they venture through the myth from all sides, and at the same time preserve it, as it is brought back into clarity. Such is their way to collaborate to the unicity of the miracle.’




More about Cesare Pavese: 🌿About Giambattista Vico:
Cesare Pavese – About Myth, Symbols And Other Subjects

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