Noluntas sciendi, voluntas nesciendi

Anthropology of the Modernist Character

  • Raffaele Donnarumma Università di Pisa
Parole chiave: Modernist Character, Knowledge, Psychoanalysis, Ethics, Nihilism, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Italo Svevo


Among the many illnesses that literary characters might suffer from, the peculiar relationship with truth that some characters of the modernist novel come to develop is certainly the most alarming. This can manifest itself in two occasionally intertwined ways: on the one hand we have the voluntas nesciendi, the deliberate refusal of knowing something understood as truth; on the other hand there is the noluntas sciendi, the precautionary dismissal of a dangerous and destabilizing knowledge. It is not a matter of incapacity or impossibility, but rather of choice, one which holds meaning and therefore entails moral consequences. It is the reversal of the ancient Aristotelian axiom by which “all men by nature desiring to know”: men, Freud argues, just as naturally wish not to know, and thus protect themselves through repression [Verdrängung], resistance [Widerstand], disavowal [Verleugnung], negation [Verneinung]. And since “qui auget scientiam, auget et dolorem,” we might also be dealing with the paradoxical actualization of the biblically derived imperative not to know. After reading Schopenhauer and learning something new about life and death, Thomas Buddenbrook closes the book in hopes of forgetting what he read. Lambert Strether, the protagonist of Henry James’ Ambassadors, surrenders to a sort of self-blinding. But Italo Svevo’s Zeno Cosini is the hero of this issue, and for this rewarded by his author. Zeno’s is the final, Nietzschean, and nihilistic outcome of a pathological perspective which is more worrisome than ineptitude, though one which ultimately leads to salvation: truth is pointless for happiness.


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