I do not feel healthy comparatively. I am healthy, absolutely. For a long time I knew that my health could reside only in my own conviction, and it was foolish nonsense, worthy of a hypnagogue dreamer, to try to reach it through treatment rather than persuasion. I suffer some pains, it’s true, but they lack significance in the midst of my great health.
Thus concludes the self-assessment of Zeno, the vice-ridden, spineless, hypochondriac narrator of Italo Svevo’s modernist classic Zeno’s Conscience, a fictional psychological memoir that drags the reader through four hundred pages of mental blind alleys, rabbit trails, and switchbacks, following one of literature’s most unreliable narrators as he traces the sordid topography of his mind.
Idle, wealthy, and incompetent in early twentieth-century Trieste, Zeno has little to occupy his time, money, and mind. As often happens to such men, he takes to considering himself the victim of circumstance and physiognomy, concocting fantastic ailments to explain his lack of willpower and success. For instance, he chalks up his inability to abandon his despised cigarette habit to a systemic mental flaw, but simultaneously flatters himself with pseudo-philosophical speculations about the great strength of character he shows with each “last cigarette,” paired with the inexpressible delight of each subsequent “first cigarette.”
Desirable women and enviable men awaken in him the longing to conquer and best, but his lack of real talent frustrates his efforts; each successive defeat results in more crippling imaginary ailments and mental gymnastics, driving him further and further into the labyrinth of excuses and manipulative tactics that he calls his mind. Even when he ends up more or less happily married, he spends his time pursuing mistresses and prostitutes, all the while convincing himself that his betrayals enable him to show a greater fidelity to his wife than he otherwise could.
Zeno is obsessed with health, a concept he invests with Nietzschean import, suggesting not only bodily integrity but indomitable will. Zeno only feels “great health” when he makes a bold act of the will that frees him from his internal mental prison, a power that he finds in flagrantly immoral, selfish, or debased acts. Thus his first encounter with his mistress leaves him temporarily free of his usual limp, just as abandoning a dying friend’s bedside enables him to buzz with life, and skipping his close relative’s funeral to speculate on the market earns him his first real economic success.
Only irrational acts invest Zeno with great health. In the novel, the intellect is a Moebius strip of endless manipulation, fantasy, and self-delusion; only acts of pure will, stripped of all intelligibility, give vigor to his feeble character. As he reflects in the quote above, he becomes free of his debilitating mental and physical sicknesses not through a doctor’s ministrations, but by the sheer conviction that he is no longer ill. Only in will is there power.
Having come up for air after finishing Svevo’s tome, we may be tempted to write off Zeno as a pathetic, deluded worst-case scenario, a bizarre outlier in the post-Freudian age. Yet to do so would be a tremendous mistake, for Zeno commits one of the contemporary age’s most common—and egregious—errors.
Zeno errs in dividing the intellect from the will, acting as if the two basic aspects of the human mind are in fundamental conflict with one another. To Zeno, the intellect and its capacities are dangerous pits for the unwary, and those who fall into them crawl out crippled and battered, if at all. Only acts of unreflective, spontaneous will are truly free and therefore truly human.
Many of the cultural factors feeding into this bifurcated life that Svevo describes have only grown in the intervening 88 years since his book was published. Skeptical psychological and epistemological models deny the ability of man to know anything. Freedom is seen nearly ubiquitously as following the dictates of my will, without any input from outside.
These ideas have contributed to a widespread embrace of, for example, deconstructionist “play” in the academy that pits the intelligibility of a text against the will of the reader, and in the wider culture a dominant relativism based not on respect for the truth, but on the inviolability of the will. Why, for instance, someone would want to get a sex change cannot be questioned. The desire, the will, is its own justification.
The end result of these attitudes is what could be called a confrontational solipsism—simply put, the belief that only my problems are real. Zeno exemplifies the tendency perfectly, as he shows by his actions that he believes himself to be the only genuine human, and everyone else he encounters is merely a walking crisis in potentia that he must navigate away from disaster and towards his own pleasure. Lacking any common intelligible ground with other people, he and we are free—or forced—to use others as it suits our fancies, whether that takes the shape of Zeno’s infidelities and shameless manipulation or our blasé embrace of pornography and embryo-destroying research.
The modern age did not create Zeno—surely the temptation to live as if only my will really matters is as old as sin itself—but we live with him in a particularly intense way as we place more and more emphasis on will, whim, and predilection, seeing intellect and will as mortal enemies. Svevo’s novel ends with Zeno proposing the only reconciliation between intellect and will he can imagine: that one normal man, sick with the will to power, will use his intellect to build a bomb of unprecedented size, and that another normal man, sicker yet, will detonate it. After that “the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.”
Writing in the long shadow of World War I, Svevo’s pessimism is understandable. We, too, standing in the longer shadow of the twentieth century, could be tempted to join his despair. But we always have reason to hope in the central, uniting facet of human life that is conspicuous by its absence from Svevo’s novel: love. In love the will embraces what the intellect sees, and in love we are freed from our solipsism, able to regard other people honestly and without manipulation. By love alone are we healed—this may be the most important thing Zeno’s conscience had to tell him.
Gabriel Torretta, OP, is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order. He is the associate editor of Dominicana, a journal of literature, commentary, and opinion from a contemplative, Dominican perspective.
Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience: A Novel
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