Exploring the Eloquence of Matter

By Enrico Cesaretti 

A few summers ago, when Elemental Narratives. Reading Environmental Entanglements in Modern Italy was far from materializing and still an amorphous mixture of incomplete thoughts, scattered notes and wishful thinking, I went to visit an old friend and his family at their new home in the Italian town of Rosignano Solvay, on the Tyrrhenian coast of Tuscany. Featuring extensive groves of maritime pines, a recently built tourist-friendly harbor, and gentle hills in the background, tinged and scented with Mediterranean scrub, the town, like many others in this region and country, could well epitomize the essence of the dolce vita.

As the municipality’s name suggests, however, the industrial plant of the Belgian chemical multinational corporation Solvay was (and still is) an integral, unsightly part of this otherwise idyllic landscape. More precisely, the Solvay plant is responsible for the foundation of this “factory town” in 1912, for my friend moving there and, unsurprisingly, for the heavy metals poured into the sea, which give an uncanny, Caribbean look to the local “White Beaches.” In other words, for the past 108 years, sodium bicarbonate – Solvay’s flagship product at this plant – together with the other chemical byproducts of its manufacturing have been crucial components in the making and, arguably, ecological un-making of this place, affecting, to varying degrees, its socio-economic health, its political discourses, the quality of its air and marine waters, and its human and nonhuman biology. As Solvay’s “harmless” baking soda and waste muds started to tell me a “glocal” story of colonial-like industrial practices, accommodating environmental policies, and (toxic) material proximities among bodies, ecosystems, chemical substances, and human narratives, Serpil Oppermann’s and Serenella Iovino’s concept of “storied matter” that underlines matter’s textuality, eloquence, and agency alongside humans’ cultural expressiveness, and Stacy Alaimo’s notion of trans-corporeality provided me with important conceptual tools needed to push my project forward.

Situated at the juncture or Italian Studies and ecocriticism, Elemental Narratives is inspired by and complements the work of a handful of scholars who, focusing on Italy and the Mediterranean as additional lenses useful to address larger, transnational environmental issues, have been expanding the horizons of ecocritical studies and the environmental humanities. Premised on the belief that our lives and destinies are intertwined with those of other organic and inorganic entities, my book argues that listening both to the stories that matter tells and, as I write in my Introduction (available for free here), to the stories that matter lets us tell when it interacts with the human imagination (in the form of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, artworks, and documentary films) is an important step towards rethinking human exceptionality and modifying our perceptions and attitudes towards ecological complexities. Informed by an ecomaterialist framework that views human and nonhuman natures as related co-emergences contributing to the same narrative of life, my work suggests that reading together a selection of material and cultural texts from the birthplace of Humanism can not only help us reflect on the role, sustainability, and limits of humanistic insights but can also motivate us to become more aware of the many challenges that modern Italy shares with the rest of a planet living in an increasingly perilous socio-environmental crisis.

Although my exploration only touches upon Solvay’s baking soda in a few tangential references, I am interested in investigating the expressiveness of some of the other “storied” substances which are (or were), at the same time, quintessentially linked to Italian history and geography but also part of global economies and material and discursive flows. Combining close readings with an attention to tangible places and bodies, I thus discuss, for example, sulfur mining’s effects on both people and the Sicilian countryside in some of Luigi Pirandello’s classic short stories; marble’s lethal economic power in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps; Futurism’s infatuation with electricity and oil; petroleum’s role in developing corporeal and communicative diseases in Sardinia; asbestos’s effect and toxic legacy on Italian bodies and landscapes; and, finally, the socio-environmental impact of concrete and asphalt on areas of Tuscany and Calabria.

Black and white photo of a man working in a sulfur mine.

Piles of mineral at a sulfur mine in Caltanissetta, Sicily, 8th October 1952. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The idea that there are connections among different forms of extraction and exploitation also forms part of the foundational logic of this book. If nature in general, and some substances in particular, constantly run the risk of being treated as inert products and assets for consumption, objectified human beings face the parallel danger of being considered “expandable resources” to use, profiteer from and then dump once they are no longer useful. I argue that the overall health of our collective future also depends on the extent to which we are willing to recognize a situation of mutuality and shared vulnerability between the  human and the nonhuman dimensions, while developing new sensibilities and skills conducive to transforming an increasingly less sustainable status quo into a more just and equitable one.

In their introduction to Elemental Ecocriticism, Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert write that “attending to matter and writing against the reduction of world to commodity (resource, energy) is a powerful aid to activism.” I will be gratified if my book contributes, even minimally, to such a purpose or if it helps us imagine the beneficial advantages of, on the one hand, considering literature and other arts as additional tools in our “life equipment” and, on the other, of a posture of universal respect and care for both the human and the more-than-human. To quote the Italian philosopher Franco Cassano, I ultimately hope that this work might help articulate “a grammar that is different from the one of expansion and power.”

Piles of trash, including old tires, in the foreground; the Alps in the background.

Trash near a marble quarry in the Apuan Alps.

The process of accelerated growth and industrialization that has affected Italy over the past several decades can also be tracked in several other locations around the globe. Enriching our understanding of the relationship between humans and their material environments in a country such as Italy, beautiful yet full of conflicts and contradictions, where history permeates the landscape and the blend of environmental, sociopolitical, and cultural dimensions has an almost tangible quality is thus not just an effort for its own sake. Rather, it may hopefully provide a model for students and scholars who are interested in the interrelations of the local with the global, in exploring ecocriticism’s range and methodologies beyond more frequently discussed geographic (and academic) borders, and in bringing out similarities and differences between environments that may be affected by comparable problems – be they toxic contaminations, unnecessary mega-infrastructural projects, or aggressive extraction policies.

Enrico Cesaretti is an Associate Professor of Italian Studies and current convener of the Environmental Humanities group at the University of Virginia. His work centers on modern and contemporary Italian literature and culture, with a particular focus on the futurist avant-garde. In addition to Elemental Narratives. Reading Environmental Entanglements in Modern Italy (2020), he is the author of Fictions of Appetite: Alimentary Discourses in Italian Modernist Literature (2013), and Castelli di carta: retorica della dimora tra Scapigliatura e Surrealismo (2001). With Serenella Iovino and Elena Past, he co-edited Italy and the Environmental Humanities: Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies (2018). He recently completed a book chapter for an upcoming volume on Italian eco-trauma cinema, and has an article about hazelnuts, sustainability and the literature of Piedmont’s Langhe area forthcoming in ISLE.