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Baron Wormser: “Sweet, ironic” America and Cesare Pavese 

Among the many heartbreaking sentences in the diaries of the great Italian poet and writer Cesare Pavese, these few, at the very end when he was grappling with his love for a young American woman, a love that was not going to make anything lasting and solid and that would eventually lead to his suicide, stand out: “Am I not deluding myself as I used to do, mistaking for human values those simple accessories of distinction, glamour, adventure, the fashionable world? America itself, its sweet, ironic return to my life in terms of human values? Can it be true?” As an Americanist who translated, among others, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Herman Melville and Sinclair Lewis into Italian, America loomed large for him. His affair with Constance Dowling (whom he met in Rome while she was working on a film) felt almost providential, a resonant, apt opening, the embodiment of an enormous amount of feeling for the writings of a nation he had never visited. 

For twenty years he had thought about why and how American literature mattered to him. Its sheer, raw newness appealed to him as did the savor and directness of the language, but he was alert to American dilemmas, noting in his diary that “Their [Americans] vaunted realism 1920-1940 was a particular kind of romanticism about ‘living reality.’ The fanciful idea that everything is realism (Dos Passos). The point of view is not tragic, but ‘voluntaristic.’ Tragedy is a clash with reality; ‘voluntarism’ is to make a comfort of it, a way of escape from true reality.” Pavese had many such clashes. He wrote about tragedy almost as frequently as he wrote about suicide, not only about the Greeks but also about Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.

A crushing sense of being alone distinguishes Pavese’s diaries, the wariness of a proud, sensitive man bent on forging himself into a writer of substance. He can’t help but acknowledge literature as a social form but he has reservations about literature becoming too socialized, too glib for its own good. What he saw in American literature was, amid the “voluntaristic,” a great aloneness, as evinced by the likes of Ahab and Hester Prynne, an aloneness that wasn’t just another dimension of American freedom, of the almost compulsive choosing that Americans faced in their motley, experimental democracy and that could lead to “escape from true reality,” but rather a state of being that in raising up the individual made the individual’s life insupportable. The lack of any cultural cohesion left the individual at the mercy of the unremitting forces of commerce, advertising and industry. Those forces came to rule the modern world, as Pavese noted about a post-WWII Rome given over to “money making,”  but in America those forces were identified with life itself. I think part of Pavese’s attraction to American literature was its record of extreme actions—Hester’s banishment, Ahab’s mania, Huck’s lighting out for the territory, Kate Chopin’s heroine’s suicide, Gatsby’s mansion, Holden Caulfield’s dropping out, the misadventures of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, the list is a long one. For all its ballyhooed liberty, America was isolating and crushing. Perhaps all the noise that surrounded the liberty made the dark feelings even worse. What was a person to do? The clamor was so great; the vaunted individual so small.

   The individual was not confronting immutable fate nor, as in Macbeth, a prophecy. Tragedy would seem to be un-American despite Theodore Dreiser’s very long novel. Yet, as pertains to Pavese’s definition, America has known its share of terrible events—a civil war, labor struggles, countless lynchings and riots—along with the foundational nightmares—slavery and the extermination both of native peoples and myriad creatures, to say nothing of the steady spoliation of the land. Tragedy as it was mounted on the Greek stage was stark. As the mythic machinations, the chorus’s observations and pleas, and the protagonists’ actions and speeches all proceeded, a terrible clarity emerged, a judgment. American origins may have been as stark as the wooden houses of early New England, but the nation became the cynosure of accouterments, ever adding to the material side of life, everything making for “a comfort” to which myriad advertisements testified. As the people who gave the world Plato and Socrates, the Greeks created a standard far removed from cheap talk. Americans, with their penchant for slogans, jingles and boasts, have had much use for cheap talk.

   Yet—for this wheel keeps turning—Pavese wrote of “America itself, its sweet, ironic return to my life in terms of human values.” Constance Dowling wasn’t Daisy Miller but in her American-ness she might as well have been. She was a beautiful woman, an actress and Hollywood studio casualty, a lover of Elia Kazan, worldly yet “sweet,” or so I imagine, in an unvarnished American way, the American absence of cloying manners, the American directness, the American entitlement, the American cheerfulness that had not been buffeted by the recent war, all these aspects of “human values,” all speaking to what was good about America, naturally good and personified in someone named “Connie.”

   “Too good to be true.” Those words—the corollaries of “Can it be true?”–hung over Pavese’s head in his last foray into the wilds of love and those words hung like so much rapturous smog over the nation from which Constance Dowling hailed and to which she returned. Those words speak to possibility, to the famous American pursuit of happiness, to the siren of promise and potential—the new life beginning with the next shuffle of the cards, the next town, the next person who walks through the bar’s doors in this nation constructed of air, everyone huffing and trying to get their share or more than their share. Little wonder that at this point in time it feels as though there is no more air, that the nation’s citizens, even as they spew complaints and denunciations, are gagging and stifled.

   Pavese was alert to the ways of betrayal and how in a love affair betrayal could seem almost inevitable—no two people can love equally. He was good at extrapolating from the micro to the macro, from intimate affairs between two people to political affairs among millions. The sense of national betrayal many Americans (in different political camps) feel at this time might not have surprised him, the simple, hard fact being that no nation can deliver everything to everyone. Some have used that fact as a political excuse to justify prejudice and greed; some have used it as a plea for awareness, hoping to awaken people to their complex status as human beings who have more to them than a political grievance. That awakening was, in part, culture’s work, of which literature was—and is—a crucial dimension.

   Pavese had great expectations of himself and as a writer he fulfilled them. Possessed of a boxer’s tenacity, he was always ready to go a few rounds with his own ego. In American literature he saw how expectation was ruined time and time again, how each point of view in the Pequod was doomed. Pavese had his own nation to worry about, but as far as America was concerned the ship that Melville created could certainly stand for the United States. The crew worked toward an end but what if the end was blind and mad? What if an awful isolation remained among the crew, each life too particular to merge with other lives, too proudly unto itself? Time and again in American literature individuals were thrown back on themselves as they made themselves up and as they failed. Officially, of course, there was no failure.

   Tell that to a man who has lost a woman he loved. Pavese toppled over, imploded, gave up. Literature sustained him but literature only went so far: after “sweet” came “ironic.” Something—many things—spoke to him through American literature and now there was this woman beckoning and welcoming him. Pavese believed in the genius of “screwing” (how the word is rendered in translation) as the ultimate connection, the actuality of entering a given woman on a given moment. Perhaps he would come to America with her. Instead, he ended up with the ultimate disconnection. His life felt worthless and pointless.

   The America that would have greeted Pavese in the early 1950s was a mix of superficial friendliness (“See the USA in your Chevrolet”) and deep paranoia that, even to someone steeped in Melville, Hawthorne and Faulkner, might have been disconcerting. That strange American weight—a society composed of yearning individuals who were, at once, industrious and bewildered might have challenged a European intellectual who was deeply fond of the landscape in which he grew up and the pleasures that emanated from that landscape. What were the Americans saving themselves for while they put the art of living on hold? Was that the Puritan streak that never went away? And what was the colossal anxiety that shadowed every opinion, that nagging “Who are we?” Or even more bluntly “Is there a we?”

   Is there a “we” in the crowds Dos Passos rendered? Did the isolated American even care about “we?” No coincidence that only one man survived the wreck of the Pequod or that Huck went off by himself or that Edna Pontellier walked out into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Neither the first nor the last, Pavese did not survive his encounter with America but that was not Constance Dowling’s fault. Large forces inhabit any mere body. Irony would seem to get the final word while the nation’s citizens—so largely indifferent to the literature with which the nation’s name is associated—gasp for breath.

Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser

Baron Wormser‘s many books include The Poetry Life: Ten Stories (CavanKerry Press, 2008).

Constance Dowling (1920-1969) and Cesare Pavese (1908-1950)

7 comments on “Baron Wormser: “Sweet, ironic” America and Cesare Pavese 

  1. Devon McNamara
    March 11, 2022

    Ah, Baron, a brilliant and deeply sad essay, beautifully articulate especially in our extraordinary moment now, “our” meaning American and now the rest of the world’s.
    No one taking life lightly. Bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Russell Buker
    February 17, 2022

    Ah Baron good to see you again I remember how you love Norridgewock, ME when gridless, stuck in the snow then the mud and the the escape

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bob Gilbert
    February 16, 2022

    Constance Dowling turned out to be more Daisy Buchanan than Daisy Miller, didn’t she? Daisy’s breezy claim to Nick Carraway that she was “paralyzed with happiness” by his visit seemed so light-hearted that it riffled the curtains, so innocent that it mimicked sharing childhood secrets. Careless and insidious, her voluntaristic words “hung like so much rapturous smog” — in your memorable phrase — obscuring an empty reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Eugenia
    February 15, 2022

    What a stirring and thought-provoking response to Pavese’s diaries. Every sentence is savored. Thank you always for your take on Americanism and literature’s place.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. vengodalmare
    February 14, 2022

    Beautiful article, it struck me deeply, thinking of Pavese and America, both victims of emptiness; emptiness in which Pavese entered more and more also to understand reality and vision of life, empty in American society that instead refined, is refined in the art of escape from reality, in the value of consolation. Oh yes, “sweet and ironic” is life, when you can take it lightly, a capacity that Pavese has never really possessed.

    Sorry for my bad english language.

    Liked by 2 people

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