Salvatore Quasimodo: In every country a cultural tradition opposes war
From Nobel Prize in Literature lecture (1959)
I knew that young men quoted verses from my lyrics in their love letters; others were written on the walls of jails by political prisoners. What a time to be writing poetry! We wrote verses that condemned us, with no hope of pardon, to the most bitter solitude. Were such verses categories of the soul – great truths? Traditional European poetry, as yet unrestricted, was unaware of our presence: the Latin province, under the aegis of its Caesars, fostered bloodshed, not lessons in humanism.
War, I have always said, forces men to change their standards, regardless of whether their country has won or lost. Poetics and philosophies disintegrate “when the trees fall and the walls collapse”. At the point when continuity was interrupted by the first nuclear explosion, it would have been too easy to recover the formal sediment which linked us with an age of poetic decorum, of a preoccupation with poetic sounds. After the turbulence of death, moral principles and even religious proofs are called into question.
The last war was a clash of systems, of politics, of civil orders, nation by nation. Its violence twisted even the smallest liberties. A sense of life reappeared in the very resistance to the inimical but familiar invader, a resistance by culture and by folk humanism which, in Vergil’s words, “raised its head in the bitter fields” against the powerful.
In every country a cultural tradition remains detached from this military movement. This tradition is not merely provisional, although it is considered as such by the conservative bankers who finance construction on civilization’s “real estate”. I insist upon saying not merely provisional, because the nucleus of contemporary culture (including the philosophy of existence) is oriented not toward the disasters of the soul and the spirit, but toward an attempt to repair man’s broken bones. Neither fear, nor absence, nor indifference, nor impotence will ever allow the poet to communicate a non-metaphysical fate to others.
The politician wants men to know how to die courageously; the poet wants men to live courageously…In our time the politician’s defence against culture and thus against the poet operates both surreptitiously and openly in manifold ways. His easiest defence is the degradation of the concept of culture. Mechanical and scientific means, radio and television, help to break the unity of the arts, to favour a poetics that will not even disturb shadows…The corruption of the concept of culture offered to the masses, who are led by it to believe that they are catching a glimpse of the paradise of knowledge, is not a modern political device; but the techniques used for this multiple dissipation of man’s meditative interests are new and effective.