A farewell to Mario Perniola, the philosopher of original and complex thought
His vast interests spanned from literature to philosophy, from art to religion, from sociology to the communication sciences, and included both narrative and theatrical texts. His work, which went beyond any traditional labels, has been defined as falling “within & outside” any category, between academics and transgression, being a professor and a revolutionary, feeling and distance. Mario Perniola was a thinker who chose unbeaten paths, close to anomie but at the same time respectful of forms and customs. Like a baroque metaphor that draws in what is far and distances what is easily approachable, he saw himself as a room with two different views: one onto the piazza and the other facing the courtyard. A “multi-faceted prisma” that refracts the passion of the world and the tragic nature of existence.
Neque hic vivus, neque illic mortuus (Neither living here, nor dead there)
Mario’s chosen epitaph for his tomb
Caterina di Rienzo
Mario Perniola / Philosopher in Transit
When Mario Perniola was already very sick, one day at home with a group of friends, someone baited us with the question: “if you were completely free to choose a city or country in which to live, which would you choose?” We all answered, and when Mario’s turn came, he said: “I’d like to be like that character who lived in Roissy airport because they wouldn’t allow him to enter France.” In Spielberg’s film The Terminal, the American version of the story, Tom Hanks incarnates a poor wretch who falls victim to the punctiliousness of a bureaucrat who refuses to let him leave the international sector of the airport.
I think that at that moment, aware that he was about to die, Mario revealed something essential about himself: the impossibility of finding an elective homeland or any roots to which to return, and his feeling of always being on a sort of borderline, in a no man’s land, a liminal place–which would seem to contradict his biography as a professor of Aesthetics well-rooted in the academic world. He expressed this “feeling” of his in a book he published in 1985, Transiti. Come si va dallo stesso allo stesso (“Transits. How to pass from one thing to the same thing”). Mario always felt in transit, in a state of transfer, to use the terminology of airports. A transit, however, that always circularly takes you back to where you started. A fascination for the “trans” that produced his only novel, Tiresias (1968): the story of a transit from man to woman and vice versa.
Significantly, he asked for the following words to be written on his gravestone: Neque hic vivus, neque illic mortuus [Neither alive here, nor dead there], the epitaph written in 1670 on the tomb of the architect Giovan Battista Gisleni in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo. A sort of eternal transit between the here and there, between life and death.
Some time ago, he confessed to me that, in a way, he has always felt “without family”: his parents left him with his grandparents when he was still a young child. They needed a child around, and he was simply handed over to them. A parentless child who was pampered, perhaps even spoilt, but parentless nevertheless. And who, for this very reason, felt a powerful need for identification, for “belonging,” though he understood that it was impossible to satisfy. Hence an oscillation that gives the reader of his books a delightful giddiness: his moving from one opposite to the other, what Sartre called “thinking against oneself.” To the point, in Il sentire cattolico (Feeling Catholic), of recognizing himself as a Catholic: he did not believe in God yet wanted to feel Italian, wanted to feel something, wanted the feeling of being someone even outside the airport. Hence he coined the term sensology, in opposition to ideology: as if wanting to erase a sort of mandatory anesthesia. Alleviating an inclination of his towards revulsions, strong disgusts, to cite the title of another of his books.
I met Mario as a result of the November 1980 earthquake which struck Irpinia (in the province of Avellino) and had serious effects as far as Naples. At the time, Naples seemed a dead city bent only on licking its wounds; nothing but depression and anger. Some friends and I came up with the idea of organizing a cultural event in Naples that in no way touched upon the earthquake. In March 1981, we invited Mario Mieli, Mario Perniola and Aldo Carotenuto to a conference in Naples on “Sexuality and Diversity,” with screenings of films by Genet and Beckett. Thousands showed up, and it turned up being a unique happening. Mario Mieli, the most famous spokesperson for the homosexual movement in Italy at the time, provoked the audience by singing the praises of necrophilia. Lucio Amelio, a famous art gallery manager and friend of Andy Warhol, also intervened, promoting American sadomasochist gay clubs. On what I would call that Dionysian occasion, Perniola and I struck a friendship that continued over the course of time.
At the time, Perniola seemed to be the spokesperson for an extreme vision of life and philosophy: a champion of riskiest avant-gardes, of a leftism already in decline, and of the sex appeal of the inorganic (the title of one of his most notorious books). I saw him as a distinguished representative of what I called ’68 thinking. But I was mistaken. Because Mario never stopped transiting, he was a factory of new ideas and signifiers.
Apart from the women (his first wife Graziella and his daughter Ilvelise), Mario told me that two men had marked his existence: Luigi Pareyson and Guy Debord–his adoptive fathers, I would call them.
Pareyson, as well as being himself a philosopher of remarkable sensitivity, was one of the fathers–an appropriate term hereof a part of the Italian cultural scene of recent decades. His Turin school gave us not just Perniola, but also figures such as Umberto Eco, Gianni Vattimo and several other Italian philosophers and essayists. Pareyson was a Catholic academic and one of the leading Italian interpreters of German existentialism; a personality completely different from his scions, who all shared a common trait: a cosmopolitism, an essentially libertine and libertarian vision of life and society, anti-conformism, and an openness towards an even wilder avant-garde. The fact that his pupils took a philosophically independent path never deprived them of his affection and help. And Mario always seemed touched when talking about Pareyson.
Mario always spoke to me with a hint of bitter nostalgia about Guy Debord, whom he had met in Paris in the late 1960s as a member of Situationist International, of which Debord was leader. Today, Situationist International is remembered as the most eloquent expression of the ’68 movement. Perniola wrote that Situationism was the last great avant-garde movement of the 20th century, as if wanting to say farewell to himself. Debord represented the sullen, sour, and, all things considered, tragic side of ‘68. Despite its resounding name, Situationist International was a group consisting of only a few dozen that was set up in 1957 and dissolved in 1972. It propounded a society made up of Assemblies (but not just workers’ Assemblies) where, in a sort of permanent forum, all decisions would be taken. Situationism boasted that it was pure Marxism, and it was ultimately devoured by its urge for purity.
In the 1950s, Debord scribbled on a Paris wall “Never work”… and, indeed, he never worked. His Chinese girlfriend Alice, however, did, as the owner of an Asian restaurant. Debord, a personality with a refined culture and imbued with classical readings, was also a harsh stubborn man and an alcoholic. It was his alcoholism that led to his polyneuritis, and ultimately to his suicide in 1994 at age 63, by shooting himself in the heart. Today he is famous for his book The Society of the Spectacle, which some consider the left-wing version of a reflection of which Marshall McLuhan is the “right-wing,” so-to-speak, representative. Like the other Situationists, he completely rejected the world of universities, publishers, journalism, media, and petty politics. And to leave Situationist International represented an end to any personal relations; Mario left, and Debord refused to ever see him again. I think this never ceased to make Mario suffer.
Mario was fascinated by communication technologies. In the wake of Walter Benjamin, he always thought that the sense of a work was inseparable from the technology that produced it. In recent years, he was particularly fascinated by Wikipedia, perhaps one of the few successful examples of cognitive democracy, a boundless Encyclopedia written not by Diderot and d’Alembert, but by the masses. To access his exams at the University of Rome, students had to demonstrate that they could contribute with ease to Wikipedia. It may sound strange, then, that one of his best-known books is Contro la comunicazione (“Against Communication”), published in 2004. The title prompted many ironic comments: How can a book, the quintessential act of communication, be written against communication? But I think that Mario’s challenge was always this, to be in a certain sense always against what he actually was. Precisely because he understood that we are living in the age of the triumph of communication, he wrote against it. Even his preferences for several countries contained contradictions of sorts. He loved Brazil very much (where he bought a house in the Recife region), as well as Japan, two countries that couldn’t be more different.
He always pulled the rug out from under his feet, which, in the end, in a certain sense, has always been the wanton delight of philosophy.
“Psychoanalysis and Philosophy.A Conversation with Mario Perniola”, by Sergio Benvenuto and Cristiana Cimino, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 24, 2007-1, http://www.psychomedia.it/jep/number24/perniola.htm