2016 Balzan Prize for Comparative Literature
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 17.11.2016 (Video + Text)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would first like to thank you, the President of the Italian Republic, who are receiving us today at the Palazzo del Quirinale – your house as it were, although it belongs to all of us Italians in a certain sense. Secondly, I thank all of you who are here, whether for professional obligations or personal ties. Thirdly, but perhaps most importantly in terms of gratitude, I must thank the General Prize Committee of the Balzan Foundation for having awarded me this important prize. One does not receive a gift like this every day, and if I have at this time, I owe it to all of the members of the Committee. Further afield, I must also thank whoever chose Comparative Literature as one of the subjects for the 2016 Balzan Prizes. Clearly, if something like History of Ancient Egypt or Gaelic Music or Finno-Ugric literature had been chosen, I would have had no chance whatsoever of being a candidate, let alone of winning.
Going back to the reasons for this Prize, I would like to express my profound gratitude to those who have believed in me, and I would also like to extend my thanks to those who are no longer with us: Francesco Calvo, Pierluigi Petrobelli, Cesare Segre and Alberto Varvaro, Agostino Lombardo, Giorgio Melchiori and Mario Praz. Because thanks to them, and to Gianfranco Contini, Ezio Raimondi, Pietro Citati and Francisco Rico, I have become what I am. Without their teaching, I would never have studied the subjects that I did in the way that I studied them. There have been three almae matres in my life: the Sapienza in Rome, Wittenberg University in Ohio, and Cambridge University – all three formidable in their own way. At humble Wittenberg, I first got to know America, and that teaching was greater than any Afro-American literature ever read there. At the Facoltà di Lettere at the Sapienza, the professors were of the calibre of Santo Mazzarino, Giulio Carlo Argan, Aurelio Roncaglia, Giovanni Macchia and Natalino Sapegno. Although later, that is, in the past thirty years, I found out how much of a ‘stepmother’ the Sapienza could be, it was a great school for me at the time. I owe a great deal to Cambridge, too: the years I spent there teaching and studying were perhaps the most important in my life, and I want to acknowledge the debt I owe to all of my Cambridge colleagues and friends: J.A.W. Bennett, Uberto Limentani, Kenelm Foster, Patrick Boyde, Peter Dronke, Joseph Cremona, Jonathan Steinberg, Jill Mann, Michael Lapidge and Frank Kermode.
Who knows? Perhaps the way to the Balzan started there, although I did not even know what the Balzan was forty-five years ago. Or perhaps it started before that, in my high school years at the Liceo “Tasso” in Rome, or at the seaside or in the mountains, when Edoardo and Ginestra Amaldi told me what books to read and showed me the stars. I remember very well – and with some trepidation – the enthusiasm with which I pored over Homer and Leopardi, Hemingway and Thomas Mann, Montale and Shakespeare, Alcman and Tolstoy, Borges and Dante, Lucretius and Melville, Goethe and Hugo. For me, all of these writers were not the exponents of their respective national literatures; instead, together as a whole, as one read them in adolescence, they gave shape to the marvellous lands of literature. One of my aunts had given me a gift of Auerbach’s Mimesis when I was sixteen. I fell hopelessly in love with it, and in the final analysis, perhaps the ones whom I must thank for the Balzan Prize that I am receiving today are my aunt and that book – a book of comparative literature, or better, the book of comparative literature.
And literature cannot be anything other than comparative: European first of all, for those of us who live on this continent, and then world literature, as this planet becomes smaller and smaller. Globalization was not invented by business, nor was it invented by politics. Books, manuscripts and scrolls travelled from one country to another even when those countries were at war with each other. The Romantic English poet John Keats, who died in Rome and is buried here, understood this very well when, one evening in October of 1816, he sat down with a friend to read George Chapman’s early seventeenth century translation of Homer. The reading over, Keats crossed the entire city of London on foot. The following morning his friend found, on his breakfast table, an envelope with a sonnet inside, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. In the poem, Keats told of his travelling through the realms of poetry, of his wandering among so many islands in the West that Apollo’s feudal lords, the poets, possessed. He said that he had often heard of an immense territory governed by Homer – in short, that he had crossed the boundless seas of literature far and wide and had heard of its origin in the West with Homer. Never before, however, had he taken in the skies of this immense America until the night he read Chapman’s translation of Homer. And behold: afterwards, he felt like an astronomer who had discovered a new planet, almost as if there were a celestial whale swimming in his gaze; or like Cortéz (actually it was Balboa) when he first saw the Pacific Ocean. The Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia (where the “pure serene” comes from), Herschel (the astronomer), Cortéz or Balboa – is this not comparative literature? Is it not literature tout court, with its “realms of gold”, its many remote islands of the West, its “bards in fealty to Apollo”? It is to this poem that I owe the 2016 Balzan Prize, and this is where my thanks should go. It forces me to be silent, like the men who, from the heights of Darién, behold in awe the great new ocean.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darién.