Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures

Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures

by Francesco Orlando

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Translated here into English for the first time is a monumental work of literary history and criticism comparable in scope and achievement to Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis. Italian critic Francesco Orlando explores Western literature’s obsession with outmoded and nonfunctional objects (ruins, obsolete machinery, broken things, trash, etc.). Combining the insights of psychoanalysis and literary-political history, Orlando traces this obsession to a turning point in history, at the end of eighteenth-century industrialization, when the functional becomes the dominant value of Western culture.
Roaming through every genre and much of the history of Western literature, the author identifies distinct categories into which obsolete images can be classified and provides myriad examples. The function of literature, he concludes, is to remind us of what we have lost and what we are losing as we rush toward the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300108088
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 06/11/2006
Edition description: Anniversary Edition
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Francesco Orlando is professor of theory of literature at the University of Pisa and is widely regarded as one of Europe’s foremost literary critics. Gabriel Pihas is assistant professor, European College of Liberal Arts, Berlin. Daniel Seidel is a freelance translator living in Brooklyn, NY. Alessandra Grego is adjunct professor of English literature, John Cabot University of Rome.

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Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10808-8

Chapter One

What This Book Is About


The subject, or rather the medley of objects, of the inquiry to be undertaken here may certainly appear bizarre at first sight. And not only at first sight: perhaps even the reader who has reached the end of this book will find it hard to summarize in a few words, just as the author finds it hard at the outset. I am persuaded I have ascertained-at length and analytically-the existence of a unified subject of this inquiry. Yet now, in order to provide a brief glimpse of it to the reader, I can find no better way than to go back twenty years in time. To return, in other words, to the most distant and confused insights concerning that subject, which I came by accidentally in the course of my readings, prompting me to set down certain literary passages in a notebook-before having any idea that it might be worth the trouble to continue my note taking in an increasingly methodical way.

These passages were extremely varied in every respect: not only were they drawn from several different authors, but they also belonged to different literary genres, languages, andperiods. I am trying to recall how the constants that I felt I was identifying in the passages matched, leading me to set them side by side despite such diverse and numerous variants. I would say that it was the conjunction of a constant in form-more precisely, in syntax-with two constants in theme, that is, in content, that were themselves linked to each other. The form was that of a list, of varying length and emphasis in its entirety and in its constituent parts. The first of the thematic constants was that the lists did not include abstractions: no situations, conditions, valuations, considerations, or emotions, but rather things in the material sense of the word-physically concrete things presented on the imaginary plane of reality of the various literary texts. The second thematic constant was the decisive one, and the one most difficult to describe. It consisted in the fact that these things appeared in every instance more or less useless or old or unusual-within that imaginary plane of literature which varied from text to text, and consequently in contrast with the implied and ever varying ideals of usefulness, or newness, or normality.

Interest in forms similar to or identical with the list has certainly not been lacking within the tradition of stylistic and rhetorical studies. But even Leo Spitzer's well-known essay on "enumerative style" did not seem to me to be limited in any way by the condition that the randomly enumerated things had to be physical things, much less decayed or obsolete ones. On the other hand, with respect to theme, only one particular kind of such objects-and on a monumental scale-seemed to have attracted scholars' specific attention. I am referring, of course, to the theme of ruins, Roman and otherwise: a theme that is not at all limited by the verbal form of the list, and that, moreover, is common to the visual arts-an area that I would have been (and am) too ignorant to explore in my search for parallels for this type or for other types of objects. Both as a unified set, and in the case of almost all of its heterogeneous examples, the combination in literature that had begun to interest me seemed, truly, never to have received any attention.

However, the formal constant of the list was soon dropped as an indispensable prerequisite for a passage to be drawn into my collection, although it continued to recur with considerable frequency in the passages that I began to select solely on the basis of their thematic constants. And yet I did not begin by mentioning this formal constant only to be truthful in recounting the genesis of my inquiry, nor even because of the quantity of lists present in the materials that I collected. Rather, posing the question about why the thematic constants I was dealing with were often articulated in lists is itself a good start at defining these constants and understanding the common characteristics they concealed. I have mentioned that what is in question are physical things, and physical things represented as having been, or in the process of being, deprived of or diminished in their functionality; I have added that such characteristics were to be determined on a case-by-case basis, given the historical variability of the ideals of functionality. But in any case a list verbally piles objects on top of each other, next to each other, in immediate alternation with each other, thereby making of all the other objects the sole neighboring context allowed to each of them. Thus it seems to lend itself more to the denial of any relationship of functionality between man and things than to its representation-which, if the relationship be whole and intact, would rather require the evaluation of the things taken one by one.

But if any kind of discovery was in fact beginning to take shape and find confirmation in the growing number of passages being compared, it suggested the exact opposite of a demonstration of the integrated, intact relationship of functionality. Some of the results of independent studies I had made of French literary texts were leading me in the same direction; beyond French literature, the endless vastness of the territory to be explored dissuaded me from undertaking appropriate and well-ordered readings, impossible as they would have been to plan in advance. Already a great number of passages unpremeditatedly encountered had been necessary to awaken in me the impression that the relationship between man and things-functional or otherwise-occupies a far more commanding position in what we call literature than is usually believed. An even greater number would be necessary for me to approach the true discovery, which, like all discoveries worthy of this name, shared with Poe's purloined letter the characteristics of unseen evidentness, of an unobserved obviousness, of common knowledge as yet inarticulate. It meant finally becoming aware of the extraordinary literary fortune of useless or old or unusual things, of the predilection for their literary representation, rather than that of useful, new, or normal things. An indisputable predilection, quantitatively and perhaps also qualitatively, at least from a certain period onward.


For the time being, I shall make use of somewhat imprecise terminology in order to indicate my determining thematic constant, and it is too soon even to be at all precise about the chronological distribution of the texts that I was approaching. But one can already see the absolutely excessive proportions of the thematic material that, through extremely limited observations, I had unwittingly brought into play. It involved-through the testimony of literature -the very relationship between human beings and the physical world subjugated by them, as well as the boundaries between culture and nature throughout the process of transformation of this world. The very relationship between human beings and time, which leaves its traces on things, was also at stake, inasmuch as it projected onto things the limits of both the metahistorical human condition as well as the historical duration of civilizations. In short, all these issues, and the deterrent effect of their scattered immensity, would have too easily discouraged the carrying out of a study within the canons of orthodox historicism. On the other hand, they would have too easily encouraged the writing of an essay proceeding with impunity under the sign of metahistory rather than of history, of nonsense rather than meaning; possibly even, as many would have done gladly, under the symbol of death. For opposite, though perhaps complementary reasons, neither of these two options could tempt me.

I mention this second option only because the signs of metahistory or death, together with the more lugubrious one of nonsense, were in the ascendant around the mid-1970s; and it was during the 1974-75 academic year that I deemed my inquiry ripe to be presented as a university course, and in February 1975 that I casually announced and gave a brief account of it in a later published text. Who in the world could have sacrificed a more formidable mass of imaginary objects, in a more deadly orgy of dehistoricizations and designifications, than the one presented by the innumerable derelict things put side by side in my research? These derelict things would invariably have suffered the ideological fate of things during the second half of the 1970s, namely, to evaporate into signs-signs that were all the purer (or rather, signifiers with a signified all the more absent) the more they were defunctionalized by l'écriture. In fact, however strong my interest had remained in two dimensions at that time on trial or out of fashion-that is, history and meaning-the nourishment provided for this interest by the first organized results of my inquiry was even stronger. I could not be tempted by any metaphysical elimination of those literarily physical objects; nor could I be tempted to renounce, in the name of the canons of historicist orthodoxy, an experiment which appeared to me so promising exactly from a historical point of view. And this would be the case even if the final result could not but be an essay based on selected materials (which, indeed, is what this book is), rather than a study based on exhaustive materials.

Earlier, I made use of the expression "literary testimony," regarding my final thematic constant. This term provides a clue as to how I, too, had in some way taken advantage of the crisis in historicist orthodoxy. Behind it lies a conviction that has little to do with accredited literary sociology, although it scoffs at the idea-current in the 1970s and '80s-of literature's subject being either itself or nothing, or else absolute alterity. It is, rather, the conviction that literature, precisely as a testimony to the past, possesses an irreplaceable quality that cannot be controlled by the authority of professional nonliterary historians, something that cannot be compared with any other kind of document that these historians work with, because it is both something more and something less than those other documents. I am well aware, of course, that an account of the history of the relationship between man and things solely through literary documents would be absurd; and even worse since it would be wholly impossible to bring together such documentation in a way that would be appropriate and well ordered, let alone exhaustive. But it is also true that, for me, the so-called masterpieces are the most profound testimonies of the historical past, and that not even the relative fortuity of the selected texts can avoid giving pride of place, in the long run, to these so-called masterpieces. Nor am I forgetting the conditioning proper to the series of texts themselves, which is passed on from one to the other with variations, and which forbids our conceiving them as existing in an unmediated relationship with extra- and preliterary reality: that is, the literary codes. But even literary codes and their variations, as the inevitable mediators between the historic past and the texts, cannot avoid functioning as testimonies to what they are mediating; moreover, my research provided information on them, too.


The fact that literature, both through its texts and through its codes, is irreplaceable as a testimony of the past, is only the consequence of a more general postulate, of Freudian derivation, that I myself was developing during the 1970s in a cycle of books. The reader of the present book can be spared the elaborate conceptual burden of the entire cycle, but it is necessary to specify a few of the theoretical implications that the present book has inherited. Although this general postulate does not lose sight of literature's official or even conformist sides, it also shows it to be the imaginary site of a return of the repressed. In other words, it assumes that literature is either openly or secretly concessive, indulgent, partial, favorable, or complicit toward everything that encounters distancing, diffidence, repugnance, refusal, or condemnation outside of the field of fiction. If this is the case, literature possesses the permanent value of a photographic negative of the positive cultural reality from which it emanates, and as a historic archive it is unequaled by the sum of all the other, more fortuitous and less organic documents that can bear witness to past rebellions, infractions, and frustrations. But what must now interest us is how the general scope of a concept like the return of the repressed in literature, and of a correlative concept of repression, becomes specific through various transgressions that contradict various imperatives.

We can most readily suppose that the transgressions that literature is most inclined to represent will contradict a moral or practical imperative-one that dictates law to desire itself, of every kind, erotic or political (in the broad sense), even before restricting actions. Nevertheless, in Freud's work, beyond anything he says about literature, there is a no less important, readily distinguishable imperative that can, rather, be defined as rational. Transgressions of this imperative are, above all, logical and linguistic concessions to the appeal of the irrational; they are primitive mental and verbal liberties. They are the vehicle for the actual return, in dreams or parapraxis, of what has been repressed, whereas in jokes they become an end in themselves, and they overcome repression through communication. It was starting from these transgressions of such a rational imperative in logical and linguistic forms (and only secondarily starting from transgressions of moral and practical imperatives in the imaginative content of the texts), that a Freudian theory of literature seemed to me deducible, beyond the work of Freud himself. But also, even transgressions of the rational imperative, when they restore credit to all those elements of archaic or infantile fantasy that have been overcome, can take their place within the texts' fictional contents, and not merely characterize their forms.

I have related how the origins of this book were more gradual and involuntary than those of its predecessors, and much less directly connected with Freudian-stimulated experimentation and speculation. Yet no one who has read that cycle of books would fail to notice a vaguely familiar feel common to the transgressive textual contents (not belonging to the physical order, but morally or rationally rejected) that they dealt with, and to the images of physical things that in the course of this study so far I have labeled as useless, old, unusual, decayed, obsolete, or derelict. Of course, such adjectives would be ill-applied to the majority of those transgressive textual contents: criminal and tragic passions, sympathies with the maniacal and the comic, critically subversive hopes, and regressively credulous nostalgia. And it may seem strange, at first glance, that images of merely physical things are related to imaginary moral or rational transgressions. But carrying out the opposite experiment would suffice to confirm the relationship-that is, to attribute to things some adjectives carrying the emotional charge of human rejection directed against them. It will be seen that I am not taking undue advantage of the relatively approximate nature of the language with which, for the time being, I characterize things, if, for example, I should speak of them as accursed, abject, foul, squalid, shady, dreadful, pitiable, moving, extravagant, or ridiculous. It is as if the return of the repressed, which elsewhere would not be of a material nature, had become incarnate and incorporated in things. Then, one would have to ask: in spite of what sort of repression? I see no problem in conceiving another imperative, distinguishable not only from the moral one but also from the rational one, and in calling it a functional imperative; no problem, for two reasons.


Excerpted from Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination by FRANCESCO ORLANDO Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

David Quint

Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination is one of a kind: already a classic in the field of comparative literature, its examples and case studies, analyzed with rare critical intelligence and subtlety, range across nearly every European language and literary tradition.—David Quint, from the foreword

Giovanni Bogliolo

With subtle, teacherly guidance, Orlando takes the reader by the hand from the first page on and leads him step by step along his extraordinary intellectual adventure with the twofold result of smoothing out for him quite a few bumps in the road and co-involving him in the pleasure (and sometimes even in the pride) of discovery.—Giovanni Bogliolo, La Stampa

Giulio Ferroni

A work which stands confidently alongside some of the 'classics' of twentieth century criticism (from Curtius to Praz and Auerbach).—Giulio Ferroni, L’Unita

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