Sardinia: the “Greatest Poem” and its Maritime Face

Poetic geography and more than human humanism

In my recent research I have introduced the ideas of poetic geography and “more than human” humanism as they emerge in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. I have insisted on a new understanding of Vico’s humanism in contrast with the exclusive and reductive attention given by most scholars, including Erich Auerbach and Edward Said, to Vico’s synthetic epistemology, the verum ipsum factum principle, that leads them to neglect important analytical and genealogical dimensions of Vico’s philology, losing the productive interplay between philology and philosophy so characteristic of Vico’s thought. In their interpretation, Vico’s philosophy is reduced to a pervasive historicism and perspectivism. They maintain that Vico identifies history and human nature and conceives human nature as a function of history. Auerbach even suggests that the word natura in some crucial paragraphs of Vico’s Scienza nuova, such as 346 and 347, should be translated as “historical development” (“Vico and Aesthetic Historicism” 118).

While I concede that Vico’s philosophy tends to blur the distinction between “original nature” and “human institutions,” I nevertheless disagree with Auerbach when he states that such distinction is “meaningless” for Vico (“Vico and Aesthetic Historicism” 116). Auerbach’s and Said’s readings pay attention exclusively to the creation of human institutions, whereas Vico considers how the relation to nature also plays a role in the formation of human beings and human culture, as part of the complexity and interconnectivity of life, resisting acritical historicization and reduction to purely human paradigms. The theoretical implications of my approach to Vico’s humanism and making of history lead to a new understanding of Auerbach’s idea that “our philological home is the earth” (“Philology and Weltliteratur” 17), one in which philology and philosophy in a genuinely Vichian fashion return to interrogate not only the historical institutions but also their relationships to earth, sea, and the natural environment as a significant part in the formation of humanity. Thus, in my essay, I use Vico’s idea of “places of humanity” as the driving force of a new humanism, one that is “more than human,” and has larger implications for the study of literature and the ways in which we read texts that are usually centered on the human subject conceived as the only driving force of literary production.

The expression “more than human,” in ecocritical and eco-philosophical studies, was introduced by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) where he argues that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human” (The Spell ix). The notion of a “more than human” humanism has been also developed by Serenella Iovino in her volume Ecologia letteraria (67-70) and in an essay entitled “Ecocriticism and a Non-Anthropocentric Humanism” (47-50). In this article she makes the case for a new humanism, an “ecological humanism,” one that rejects the dualism of humanity and nature conveyed by traditional and historical notions of humanism. In the same perspective, Louise Westling speaks of a “green humanism” as a new form of intersubjective humanism (3). Drawing on my previous essay on “Vico’s more than human humanism” (2011), the present article enters into a productive dialogue with Abram’s and Iovino’s theorizations by showing how Vico’s idea of poetic geography may nurture and reinforce a relational idea of humanism that is so important in environmental philosophy and ecocriticism. Vico’s philology is not limited to the culture of the book or to the world of nations but starts literally in the forests and includes an obscure time, the fabulous beginnings, in which humanity is not completely formed and is exposed to and deeply conditioned by the natural environment that encompasses all living forms (Vico, New Science 202, 361).

There is a significant convergence between Vico’s idea on the origin of language and that of the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous suggested, in passing, the originality of Vico’s idea of language as an anticipation of Merleau-Ponty’s (76). Like Vico, Merleau-Ponty radically distinguishes his ideas from those of Descartes. For both Vico and Merleau-Ponty Descartes’s philosophy—as summarized in the famous “Je pense, donc je suis” (IV)—has detached the conscious subject from the world that is given in experience, and created the illusion that humans completely make the nature that is given to them (Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie x). By refusing what he calls the “conceit of scholars” (New Science 124; 126) and pointing to an originary, pre-cultural, and unspoken element about the relation of humans to nature, Vico anticipated Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the intercorporeality originating human relations with nature (Merleau-Ponty, Nature 216-26). Vico’s poetic language and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of perception do not refer to a process by which human consciousness knows nature and the “external world” as neutral, separated, or as “objects” essentially distinct from a “subject.” Poetic language and perception, on the contrary, are behaviors affected by the body, not as an observer but as a living and active corporeal entity, participating in the life of nature. In this way, humanity emerges not as a substance, and essence, “an imposition of a for-itself on a body in-itself,” but as an interbeing, as an event in which the body is interposed in the circuit of the world (208-09).

Angus Fletcher in his A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination recognizes the importance of Vico’s idea of poetic creation of the human world as a continuous dialogue and confrontation with the natural environment. While Vico speaks of “poetic geography,” Fletcher introduces the idea of the “environment-poem” that “bridges the gap between the opaque thingness of nature lying ‘out-there,’ and the philosophical and scientific access we gain by developing terms, formulas, explanations, and theories of the order and meaning hidden within that opaque nature” (12). Fletcher even suggests that we can understand what Whitman means when he writes that “The United States are the greatest poem” only if we know Vico (97). Whitman seems to share Vico’s idea of a general poetics by which civilization comes into being. Whitman follows the new idea of truth implied in Vico’s verum factum principle, that we know only what we have made (150, 172), in a way that is inclusive of and gives voice to the natural environment. “This verum factum principle governs the making and exfoliating of Leaves of Grass as an evolving body of accumulating text” (172) that functions only as (and in) process, precisely because it expresses the complex network of natural and social relationships of a porous poetic voice.

Vico’s “poetic geography” can be fruitfully associated with contemporary ideas such as Fletcher’s “environment-poem” and Barry Lopez’s fundamental statement of the relation of mind and place; a relationship where the interior landscape of the human mind is influenced if not shaped by the exterior landscape constituted by the specific region inhabited (Lopez 64-65). Moreover, Abram’s idea of language as not exclusively human product articulated in his recent Becoming Animal (2010) finds an exemplar antecedent in Vico’s philosophy and philology. Abram’s ask, “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world—as shuttering reply not just to other of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?” (Becoming 4). Vico develops a similar argument in his New Science. For him the language of the first human beings was neither self-contained and original nor self-determined but it emerged out of imaginative reactions to external stimuli triggered by the natural environment which is given to humans and in which humans participate (444). Finally, in Vico’s philosophy there is no trace of that epistemological hubris that according to Bateson is at the origin of the ecological crisis of our time, one in which human beings rule as autocrats over the environment neglecting the mutual dependence of mind and nature and leading to the degradation of the entire supreme cybernetic system (Steps to an Ecology of Mind 478-487).

The  essay “Sardinia: the “Greatest Poem” and its Maritime Face” that I have published in Ecozon@ (Vol.4, No2) shows how Vico’s important and neglected notion of a relational, non-exclusively human humanism based on a deep listening of and response to the natural environment is still alive in the works of Grazia Deledda and Salvatore Satta, the founding writers of Sardinian poetic geography. In his essay I focus on how these writers perceive Sardinia and the Mediterranean as constitutive of a sense of identity in which land and sea, history and nature intersect in inextricable circles. The Sardinian writers of younger generations, such as Alberto Capitta, Giulia Clarkson, Marcello Fois, and Giulio Angioni, are also considered in “Sardinia: the “Greatest Poem” and its Maritime Face” as a further level of Sardinian poetic geography, one that faces the flattening, homogenizing forces of contemporary capitalist globalization.

I close this brief synthesis introducing the notion of “face” included in the title of this essay. I do not consider the “face” only in “humanist” or intrahuman terms as it happens in Levinas’ idea of “face-to-face” encounter with the Other. On the one hand, I have in mind Vico’s metaphysical idea of conatus that sees the presence of a divine drive toward infinity not only on the face of the other and/or in human institutions but also on the “face” of the sky, and more in general the places of humanity and the natural environment. On the other hand, I utilize the immanentist notions of “visage” (face) and “visagéité” (faciality) developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as correlative of “paysage” (landscape) and paysageté (landscapity) (A Thousand Plateaus 167-192).

The complete essay can be read at the following link:


About Massimo Lollini

Research interests: Humanism and More Than Human Humanism, Digital philology, Mediterranean Studies, Francesco Petrarca, Giambattista Vico, Antonio Gramsci, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Giacomo Leopardi. P.I. Oregon Petrarch Open Book. Editor in Chief of Humanist Studies & the Digital Age.
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