Ravenna 3.4



Spring 2010

Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, The Pinocchio Effect. On Making Italians (1861-1920), Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 430

Review by Antonio Bibbò

This volume is without a doubt a noteworthy achievement in contemporary studies on post-Unification Italy, and not only because Italian society after 1861 remains, according to Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, “a lacuna in theories of modernity and nation-formation” (1). The critic mixes here historical analysis, political theory and cultural studies and addresses both canonical and less canonical texts of the Italian Ottocento. Along with Collodi’s eponymous novel and Cesare Lombroso’s criminal anthropological studies, she gives very compelling readings of more underestimated and under-studied works such as Matilde Serao’s parliamentary novel La conquista di Roma (1885), De Amicis’s Amore e ginnastica (1891) and Scipio Sighele’s studies on the psychology of the masses. One of the most interesting (re-)discoveries of the author is Maria Montessori’s role in Italian society during the first decades of the twentieth century. Stewart-Steinberg provides an interesting new perspective on Montessori, trying to free her from the hagiographic portraits usually depicted by the followers of her metodo and, what is more importantly, giving a circumstantiate account of her relationship with the Fascist regime and partly defending her from any simplistic association with the authoritarian approach to power typical of the “Ventennio”.

These texts all serve the same purpose, which is a new analysis of the perennial process of “Making Italians”, a process that began long before the “conquest of Rome” (1870) but that, right after that date, started to be felt as an urgent need for both politicians and intellectuals. Stewart-Steinberg does not endorse a Marxist point of view, unlike influential critics such as Alberto Asor Rosa, who conveyed the idea of a split between politics and culture that led intellectuals to feel a progressive detachment and powerlessness towards their newly born state. Instead, Stewart-Steinberg highlights that such a “self-deprecatory staging of powerlessness” (2) showed the Italian nation-makers’ anxiety towards their role and, more generally, the future of the state, an anxiety that instead of being an obstacle to Italian modernity, was rather fundamental to it. As in the works of Michel Foucault – a strong presence in Stewart-Steinberg’s essay – history is not ancillary to philosophy, nor is literature to history: on the contrary, they join forces to make the argument stronger. At the end of the book, the author’s theoretical structure makes room for Derrida too, especially when she provides stylistic and deconstructionist readings of Lombroso and Montessori’s works.

One of Stewart-Steinberg’s main points seems to be a critique of the myth of Italian backwardness, according to which Italians could never develop a modern society because of their national character: their lack of “depth”, their ungovernability, the overwhelming presence of the Catholic Church, and the lack of a proper middle class. Simplistically, it has been said that this characteristics made it easy for the newly born state to fall into the Fascist regime. In order to contrast this Manichaean vision, Stewart-Steinberg depicts the Italian state as continuously dealing with the post-liberal dilemma of the need of ideologies to create a bond between a modern and post-liberal nation and a marginalized subject. The making of the Italian subject becomes then a “discourse about the anxiety of its own existence” (5). Like other modern nations, Italy too found in strong ideologies (coming either from the Left or from the Right) the way of constructing a social bond that could solve the problem of creating a national subject, rhetorical and fictional as that way was.

Going through the book, one realizes that after the first methodological and introductory chapters, the study seems to move from fictional volumes (Pinocchio and other already mentioned novels) to texts that either try to affect the perception of reality (Lombroso’s) or open up ways to actually change it, such as Montessori’s works and the legal texts analyzed in the chapter on infanticide. Such a choice reflects not only Stewart-Steinberg’s approach to the matter, but rather the multifaceted aspects of the issue here at stake: the definition of a national character cannot be just a reflection of what literary works mirror, nor a product of a governmental policy coming from above, but a mix of both.

The real protagonist of this book is in fact the so-called post-liberal subject, of which Pinocchio serves as a good metaphor; as Giovanni Jervis points out, Collodi’s ideology in Pinocchio – a book he wrote freely and with few concerns – is less strict than that presented in his earlier pedagogic books. Pinocchio’s ambivalence towards power may very well come from such a lack of (self-)control. Pinocchio is, in the words of Stewart-Steinberg “neither puppet, nor autonomous subject” (6). Although this can be true for post-liberal subjects in general, the Italian subject, torn between the power of the Church and the new State, and his own ungovernability and autonomy, seems much apt to be vividly depicted as a stringless puppet. Pinocchio’s movement defines his essence:

On the one hand, because he is a puppet, his movement is heteronomously determined, that is, dictated or influenced from the outside; he is driven by forces that he cannot either know or control. On the other hand, because he is without strings, Pinocchio is self-propelled and autokinetic: he moves because it is in his essence to do so, insofar as he obeys a kind of internal motor (50).

The central problem is cultural, then. If classical education is no longer viable, mixed forms of education and self-education should be attempted: according to Stewart-Steinberg this idea is shared by both De Sanctis and Collodi; and it will be of course fundamental to Montessori’s pedagogic approach, too: “school has to become a laboratory where students and teacher work together” (18). Stewart-Steinberg links this collaboration – that entails a self-limitation of the students – to Althusser’s idea of “turning toward the law in an act of mastery and submission” (19, emphasis mine). And the entire book seeks to inscribe the problem of the Italian post-liberal subject between these two apparently contradictory extremes. Even when examining such themes as gymnastics and infanticide, Stewart-Steinberg is able to never lose touch with the central issues of the book.

The centre of the book is dedicated to two novels by Edmondo De Amicis and Matilde Serao, which address the crisis of the male Italian subject as a central issue. In both stories, the male protagonist is somewhat emasculated by a woman while being, more or less consciously, the cause of such a crisis. Serao’s La conquista di Roma describes the rise and fall of a politician from a small and poor southern Italian region. The chapter begins with an insightful discussion of the Italian need for the symbolic power of the king as a counterbalance to the Church. Italians have a “penchant for visualization” (G. Bollati quoted by Stewart-Steinberg, 108) that makes it difficult for them to conceive a political power in abstract terms: a president is just a common man, dressed like hundreds of middle-class men, but Italians needed a kingly figure and a monarchic apparatus to contrast the Pope (such a symbolic role was mainly held, as Stewart-Steinberg points out, by Queen Margherita). The protagonist of Serao’s novel, Francesco Sangiorgio, sets out to conquer Rome, but ends up conquered and made powerless by Angelica, who has “all the features of the Cruel Woman who ‘dominates’ the masochistic narratives of the late nineteenth century” (130) and represents to him a queen-like figure, but is just a petit-bourgeois “that takes on a fake aura through Sangiorgio’s love” (131). Francesco becomes then his own puppeteer: he is at the same time hypnotized by the woman and his own hypnotizer, since his suffering is mainly provoked by autosuggestion.

De Amicis’s Amore e ginnastica, set in Turin, also portrays an odd love story between a modest accountant and a mannish gymnastic teacher, devoted to her “pedagogic mission” just as much as he is devoted to her. Celzani, the accountant, relinquishes his masculinity in order to win the teacher’s love. The novella, more intriguing than De Amicis’s better-known novel Cuore, ends by hinting at a possible complete reversal of genders between the two characters. Although Stewart-Steinberg does not indulge in such speculations, her analysis confirms that a certain feminizing sentimentality or, more generally, a “crisis of male performativity” (4) are amongst the main worries of Italian writers of the post-Unification period. Amore e ginnastica also brings up interesting educational issues. Gymnastics was in fact introduced in the Italian scholar system by Francesco De Sanctis and the public debate in Italy was very strong and mainly based on “the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and social orthopaedics” (151). Two schools confronted each other, the German one (led by E. Baumann), whose aim was the rigid formation of characters, and the Swedish one, whose methods were more natural and “democratic”. The German school ended up as the most influential in Italy, foreshadowing Fascist militarist tendencies, and the gymnastic teacher was popularly perceived as a sort of new tyrant.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the infanticide debate, to Lombroso’s positivist criminology and to Maria Montessori’s pedagogic methods. Infanticide was paradoxically considered as a loving act in Catholic Italy: when such a crime was performed by unwed mothers, it was seen as a way to protect the new nation’s moral values. The infanticide mother was the victim of circumstances: she decided to kill her baby only in order to preserve the social structure of her country. Stewart-Steinberg clearly argues how positivist approach to crime provoked essential changes: legal theorists paid more attention to criminals than to crime itself and the former were not considered as autonomous subjects anymore, but also as “victims of influences” (189). The infanticide debate is one of the most striking issues raised by the book. Prior to Unification, unwed mothers who killed their just born children were considered as heroines who gave up their maternity not to undermine the bases of the state, in which a single mother was just unconceivable. The infanticide law, then, made this act less and less legally punishable, considering it as a “honourable choice” of the mother that preferred to lose her child in order to preserve her nation and her honour as a honest woman. Stewart-Steinberg demonstrates how, even in a more secularized Italy, the heroic mater dolorosa could still be paradoxically praised for such a criminal act. Marginalization was a key element in the making of Italians, especially as far as women were concerned. The infanticide debates and Montessori’s metodo played a crucial role in making marginalization (mainly of women) the “vehicle by which the Church itself returned as a major political actor after 1870” (3). The political process was in fact not just one of exclusion: it was gendered because created new roles for mothers and women.

The chapters on Lombroso and on Montessori, while partly being a deviation from the main path of the book, are nonetheless quite compelling and offer interesting readings of their oeuvre. Lombroso, too, plays an important role in the book, although the emphasis laid on the role of graphology and spiritualism may be somewhat excessive, if compared to other fields more crucial to Lombroso’s studies. The discussion on tattoos and signatures as signs of deviance let the author link brilliantly such an involuntary feature of man to Marey’s and Mosso’s studies on “the body’s invisible and unknown movements” (247) that provide a remarkable opening to the chapter. Everything confirms the post-liberal merger between free will and automatism. The remaining part of the chapter carries on a complex analysis of Lombroso’s interests in spiritualism and photography, arguing, somewhat less convincingly than in the rest of the book, that at the core of it there was Lombroso’s aim at an “ex novo creation” (287) of Italians, an attempt at “restituting to modern life a new form of aura” to be found “in the detritus of Italian society, that is, in the writing and written bodies of the criminal, the insane, and the marginalized” (288). The discussion of Montessori’s metodo sums up many of the issues about power and its relationship to education raised throughout the entire book. The metodo is at the same time an educational system characterized by an excess of freedom and “dictatorial tendencies”. This ambivalence, aptly highlighted by the author, can be traced in the very wording of Montessori’s books and in the accounts given by former followers of the metodo: a certain violence seems to characterize Montessori’s speech, although the centrality of the idea of freedom is never abandoned. The Montessorian directress is in some ways the “place of encounter” between this tendency to self-education and the need for an authority: “she had to be present, but present in the form of a radical absence: she had, in a sense, to make herself into a kind of “nulla”, into a zero” (362).

Stewart-Steinberg’s is a very ambitious book which links historical analysis to literary criticism by means of a well-balanced theoretical framework. The author never neglects history and, in some ways, storytelling: her analyses are most of the times strongly grounded on historical facts, thus enabling the reader to autonomously make sense of every single issue. Information is always well blended with the “telling”, making the book, however dense, a really enjoyable read. One of the stylistic reasons that make this possible may actually be regarded as one of the few “flaws” of the whole book. The author’s heed to style and “writing bodies” is in fact not matched by what could be called an “unfair treatment” of the many texts quoted in the book. They are always and extensively quoted in (good) English translations, showing every now and then some Italian words between square brackets that make the reader feel as if he is watching one of those Hollywood movies in which a Spanish character speaks a perfect English sprinkled with incongruous señor and vamos. Aside from cinematic metaphors, I am perfectly aware that the amount of quotations would have made the book too depending on footnotes. That said, some particularly significant quotations, especially those in the chapters mainly focused on style, could have been presented in Italian: a lack of editing consistency in this case would have been, in my opinion, entirely justifiable. Nevertheless, the book’s main focus being on historical, rather than on literary analyses, this does not result in less strength or accuracy.

Moreover, Stewart-Steinberg manages to put together many diverse subjects in a somewhat holistic approach that enables the reader to see small connections between as various conceptual areas as those mentioned above. Only rarely, for instance in the chapter devoted to spiritualism, she risks to lose touch with her main concern, but it only happens on very few occasions. The book then, manages to keep together what could have seemed a formless matter and proves to be a long-awaited and really needed attempt at linking historical and literary approaches with such a complicated issue as the making of the post-Unification Italian subject.

  • Antonio Bibbò obtained a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of L’Aquila (Italy). His main research interests include Modernist literature (James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Virginia Woolf), Italian literature of the twentieth century, cinema and translation studies. His dissertation investigates the presence of choral and collective narratives in Modernist literature.


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