ON VAI PURE
BY CARLA LONZI
READING SESSION 1 AND 2. EDIT 2
How to introduce a book that I hardly know, written in a language that I do not speak? The following text is the product of two translation sessions, one with Paolo Caffoni and one with Federica Bueti, as we started to read Vai Pure (Now You Can Go), a conversation between the Italian feminist, writer, and art historian Carla Lonzi and her partner Pietro Consagra, conducted in Lonzi’s apartment in Rome 1980 before they broke up their relationship. Lonzi had used this method—that is recording, publishing and leaving before: for Autoritratto(self-portrait), she compiled a number of interviews with different artists into one long group conversation. After publishing it, she abandoned the art world and rejected any form of theoretical writing. I became aware of the book in the context of my research into how access to individual experience is accomplished through cultural techniques, e.g. confessional writing or interviews. In particular I was curious about the way Carla Lonzi used the recording and the publishing of conversations as a specific means to challenge a standardised use of language in public and private.
Considering that I do not speak Italian, I have to rely on people who do and who can explain to me the content of the book in a language I am more familiar with, English. Inevitably these translators bring in their own knowledge and opinions about the author, context, and content of the book, as well as their own take on the two languages. I go through the book with different people and record, transcribe and edit our discussions, not aiming for a final version. The material generated by this kind of translation process may be considered as a commentary on the original text and the possible questions it raises for us today.
I’ve started to edit the transcribed material into one text, not indicating the authorship of each statement and allowing the original dialogue to sometimes blend in with the new one. The following excerpt starts where the first edit ended.
Shall we continue? Where did we stop?
Ok, let’s see, I translate…, Consagra starts again: “This is referring to a relationship based on understanding. I understand your problems, your necessities and your polemics against me, against the male world and against the artist”… He repeats himself: “we are two intellectuals, who on the one hand have the fascination of understanding each other, but on the other hand there’s the necessity not to be dragged into the needs of the other”. And then: “You see my desire for work and for self-affirmation critically. Everything that is negated by your idea of feminist consciousness—you are experiencing all of this with me”.
The feminist consciousness…what does that mean here? Is this what he literally says? I think he is referring to the ideas that were discussed in the feminist groups in Milan. He says something about this a little later: “I understand you and the problems of the feminists, but I am acting within the problems of the man. And these problems are not invented by me being childish”. Lonzi: “Of course, these problems exist, and the problems of the woman also exist”.
Is it singular or plural?
No, singular, the man and the woman. Lonzi: “I am not negating these problems, but I am rejecting your traditional way of resolving them”. That’s the end of the paragraph. She’s criticising him: “all this understanding of each other you were mentioning before, for me it is an understanding of life, my life, your life, and our relationship. And this relationship, all this understanding of each other that we have, for you it’s an intellectual baggage, something you just carry with you. You say that we are two intellectuals, which I don’t like and would also never say. Because for me my understanding is very connected to the way I move on within my life. I cannot separate the decisions I take from what I think. I cannot do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to separate the practice of my everyday life and how I find solutions to my problems from this intellectual dimension, I cannot keep them apart. I cannot see a contradiction between the two, I don’t want to. For me everything is going together. From the moment I understand something about myself or about you, I am acting accordingly. When I understand one thing and then do another I feel like I…”—massacrata … violating, hurting oneself, massacrare is very dramatic, she is making a massacre of herself—“While for you the misunderstanding which I feel being trapped in is: on the one hand you understand something, but then you continue on the usual path, you continue with the usual way of how to do things”.
She says misunderstanding?
No, it’s not a misunderstanding, wait—inganno, the mistake, the fallacy. She repeats what he said before, but rephrasing it somehow. Consagra responds: “I present myself as a traditional person, while you are presenting yourself as someone with new necessities”. Lonzi says: “No, these are not new necessities, they are my necessities!” She brings him back to the ‘I’. She insists, “no, they are not new, they are mine. They are not emerging now, they’ve always been there, I am just not ignoring them any longer in order to make more space for yours”. Consagra: “okay, but your needs somehow presented themselves to me as discovered needs”. Lonzi: “Well, let’s not make it a question of who is the avant-garde here, because otherwise I feel like we are talking like intellectuals. I understand something of my life, but I don’t think this is anything new, in the sense that women have understood these things even before me. There is nothing new about it, but very often they renounced it”. She says: “I am not sure where this is taking me, but I can’t prioritise one of the two needs. I desire love, that is love of my autonomy—and that is not love of my dependency and of my service to you”. She describes the dichotomy between autonomy and love. If you love you cannot be autonomous, but if you are autonomous, you cannot love. Always in a very traditional understanding of what love is.
And of what autonomy is.
Right. And then she makes that distinction of autonomy and the kind of freedom Consagra is looking for. And she describes his desire as an escapist dream of being completely unrelated, to be left alone on its own. “Whereas for me”, she says, “autonomy is recognition, being in a relationship, it is a transformative moment. It’s when someone recognises you. Not when you are left alone in your solipsistic fantasy”. Consagra: “You see, when I say, I want to go to the studio, I want to be alone, I would like to travel, I would like to meet others. All these are needs for autonomy, that is to say of moving without having someone next to me who wants other things”. Well, fair enough… Yeah, it’s pretty simple. That’s Lonzi responding: “Until now I was open and willing to be with you and to accept the contradictions that you were bringing to my life, and to keep them as an ingredient, exactly in the sense of being part of our relationship. But it seems to me that you want an agreement that is not in any way accepting the contradictions that I bring to your life. But these are—soluzionioni già sperimentate”—that is also a very important term, meaning an already tested or proved solution, “which precisely negates the sense of our relationship”. Lonzi really tries not to adopt that kind of already existing habits or concepts. That’s why her writing is interesting, because she refuses to use jargon, a theoretical or philosophical jargon, and in the same way tries to live a life that is not already a sort of normative life.
And yet she refuses the term avant-garde as well.
Yes, but again, the avant-garde is an accepted concept. So she might rephrase things, but she would always refuse to see herself as an intellectual, to see herself as someone who is already fully integrated into society. She tries to get rid of these concepts, including avant-garde, including certain behaviours, everything that is already embedded into a culture. For her the relationship, the meaning of a relationship is precisely the possibility for change through dialogue.
And that is actually similar to the practice of autocoscienza*, right? Like that is what they were trying together.
Yeah, but then she brings it outside of the group. It becomes her writing practice, a practice of undoing the self that goes through these conversations, the diary, other experiments. For Lonzi, before you even get to the point of constructing something, you have to completely deconstruct what is around you. And she tried really hard: undoing of the language, undoing of sexuality, undoing the self. That’s pretty much her project.
And this is somehow present in the recording. To create a moment of publicness, and also to be able to go back and listen to it, turning your speech into an object. Yes, and that’s what I find especially interesting in Lonzi’s work, this aspect of objectification, which I do believe also happens here. Basically she goes through this analysis, of the self, of the couple. She dissects the relationship, to find a way to objectify herself, to see herself outside of herself through writing.
And how is it to read this?
Well, like all the Lonzi books, there is something tedious about it. She always keeps digging. That is her mode of analysis. Sometimes it can be… it’s extreme, it’s tiring.
Maybe that’s her idea of getting rid of patterns: to go through them…over and over again.
*Autocoscienza can be translated as ‘self-consciousness practices’. It describes the practice of small groups of women who met to talk about themselves or anything else that was based on their personal experience. Unlike the English expression ‘consciousness-raising’, the Italian word suggests an auto-induced or self-directed process.
Published here: KLASSENSPRACHEN
Woman is oppressed as a woman, at all social levels; not as a class, but as a sex. This gap in Marxist theory is no accident, nor would it be filled by stretching the concept of class to make room for women as a new class. Why has it been overlooked that women play a part in the productive process through their work in reproducing labour-power within the family? And that their exploitation in the home is an essential function of the accumulation of capital? By trusting all hopes of a revolutionary future to the working class, Marxism has ignored women, both as oppressed people and as bearers of the future. Its revolutionary theory was developed within the framework of a patriarchal culture.
Carla Lonzi; from Let’s Spit on Hegel
A Sense of Exclusion: An Excerpt from Carla Lonzi’s “Autoritratto (Self-Portrait)”
By Carla Lonzi, Allison Grimaldi Donahue
CARLA LONZI (1931–1982) published Autoritratto (Self-portrait) in Italy in 1969. In this text, she asks herself and others about the task of the critic, the role of art in society, and begins to deeply question the possibilities of women making art. Autoritratto is a montage interview with some of the most important artists of the 20th century: Carla Accardi, Getulio Alviani, Enrico Castellani, Pietro Consagra, Luciano Fabro, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Nigro, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Mimmo Rotella, Salvatore Scarpitta, Giulio Turcato, and Cy Twombly. All towering figures and all living in Italy during the 1960s. The interviews were compiled over a period of seven years, rearranged and edited and made into a different sort of narrative than a single interview could have possibly created. Lonzi herself has called it a “convivio” or banquet.
This section of the nearly 300-page book, translated here for the first time into English, is one of the first points in the text were we begin to see Lonzi’s point of view on writing about art and we see how this is in fact, her own self-portrait. Lonzi was born in Florence and educated there, as well. She comes out of an atmosphere, as Carla Accardi points out here, that set her up not only for a life of culture but a life of inquiry. Autoritratto is her farewell to the art world. After working as a prolific critic for many years, Lonzi decided that art and creation were too hierarchical, too patriarchal, and that she needed to find other ways to engage with writing and feminism. It is after the publication of this book that she, with Accardi, co-founded Rivolta femminile, and produced of her best-known work as feminist activist and writer. It is also after this book that she and Pietro Consagra ended a long-term relationship.
There is much debate on how to reconcile the two parts of Lonzi’s career, the critic and the feminist activist. I am still undecided about how I feel, if I truly believe the work she was doing before Rivolta femminile, her work as a critic, wasn’t somehow laying the groundwork for an undoing of art structures, in Italy and beyond, even today. This text is interlocutory, splits open, evades expected ideas about what artists talk about and the clear narrative of great masters.
Lonzi declared that she would never write about art again, but the work she did is still transforming discussions about writing, institutions, feminism, creation. While this book is clearly a text of its time, it also provides insight into the development of art writing in Europe and how the life of a writer is complex, troubled, full of doubt as well as possibility. Looking at the work of Carla Lonzi, her art criticism and her feminist writings, I don’t see two different writers, or two different sets of ideologies, but a long process and a continued willingness to remain with difficult ideas and questions.
— Allison Grimaldi Donahue
CARLA LONZI: What personally attracts me to recording? It is a simple elementary fact: the ability to transform sounds into markings, into writing, to find a page that isn’t a written page, but it’s a page that … In the end, it’s like a chemical process, when there’s condensation … that from the sound it condenses into a sign, just like gas turns into liquid. I like this very much, I couldn’t tell you why … and I like to be able to read something that’s different from the usual things you read that are always products of cerebral efforts, which by now are so tiring just to think of. A person who sits at a table and puts down ideas, alone with herself and with this task of getting ideas down … it seems like such an unnatural effort to me, such a tiring exercise, for me who already feels neurotic and … yes, and the fury of all that.
CARLA ACCARDI: For others it may be banal, for others, life … for example, how a person is during their daily life. There are those who during their day … oh forget it, you’re there for a week, nothing vital happens, maybe they make you laugh, something pure. But, I am talking about you and some people who have, like, all together, if you had to write a book about these people, I sure it would be blurred in some way. Well, just like the effort you are making for this book that you’re putting together in a montage from disordered pieces … you want to get as close as possible, as close as you can, right? To preserve the others, and more profoundly, to preserve yourself, right?
LONZI: I have realized many times what I have recorded, it’s all seemed boring or I don’t know, you can’t imagine afterward, I wouldn’t take out a comma, because I have an obsession with whatever occurred as it was and all that it implies. Even a miserable fact implies everything, really, you know? It recalls something so whole it drives me crazy … Then, when I listen to it, I wouldn’t want leave anything out.
PIETRO CONSAGRA: But, but … I feel like when I haven’t written anything for a long time, when I haven’t sat down for a good reason — I sit down to write something for a reason, okay? — so, I feel like I will start to summarize this period I was thinking about, in which I went forward speaking, without writing. How did it seem? It seemed like I hadn’t really constructed myself. Writing forces me … to pay attention and to distill … what I think about things. Because it is also good to let things go, I don’t know, one enjoys this, but it is also scary, one becomes scared the brain turns to pulp … therefore, concentrating and attempting to write it down … Because then, exactly, according to one layer you come upon one thing, you hit on another layer and something else, slowly what one really thought about something is revealed, but one knows that there are all the … all the layers. But writing, concentrating, is also pretty practical, useful, yes, it conveys a tone. Now I am writing this thing for la Città and I remember that, after I wrote that book L’agguato c’è, already, at that time I said, “Who knows why I will write again, what will be the subject that compels me to write something new?” And it is this, for la Città. Now I am thinking, “Who knows when, again, I will sit down and write something, who knows what it will be about, what argument?” Because it is like, as we say, to take account, every so often, to see if things are going well because then … you know, one begins to have the sense that out of the brain pulp there can be a break, an abandonment … That on the one hand, you feel like this is your right, as a pleasure, and on the other hand though, you don’t want to reduce yourself to the level of some folks, who you’ve seen, who’ve really lost it, who tell you ridiculous things. That’s it.
LONZI: It wasn’t an interest in art, my interest that is, at the beginning, I have to tell the truth, if I retrace the steps from the very beginning it comes out that I immediately had this existential feeling, like a warning from within, but my interest was in humanity in general, since I was a girl, of strong possibilities, rich possibilities, of great moments of exaltation and happiness, of opening, as if extraordinary things were possible between beings, and then I felt, instead, the frustration of closed situations, where I didn’t understand from where it came, where I felt limitations that cut off all pleasure. So, I, from this existential feeling, I began to look, being certain that it was expressed somewhere, that it would be manifested somewhere, a potentiality that I felt humanity possessed. I knew I had it and that I felt that it belonged to everyone, no matter who they were … Besides that I considered myself, let’s say, someone on the border, who hadn’t yet entered into the country, and yet, I knew this country existed and I surely had periods when I said, “I will spend my entire life here at the border.” So, I thought that to find this path, would require actions that would smash this environment that was keeping me out, and I took these actions, one after another, as you know. Then, I understood that these actions corresponded to a kind of initiation. This seems like a fact to me … For example, I had a religious period, from age 10 to 13: it was extremely important for me. I definitely won’t manage to explain it because it isn’t as interesting as other periods … but, I understood that … I didn’t rebel against culture, this is what I want to say. For me, culture wasn’t the cure-all, neither was religion, but in the religious experience I understood that an initiation in other layers of reality that I related to was possible, in line with my aspirations, and it helped me understand how humanity was actually something, let’s say, bottomless and without real distinctions, which is how I felt about it. I arrived at art when, having passed through my religious experience, I found in the artistic experience an activity that didn’t require belief, which hadn’t really interested me anyway, but satisfied an analogous need. That’s how I came closer to art.
Then I thought that, since … then, I finished university and, for me, university hadn’t been very satisfying, I mean, it was a bureaucratic fact, of culture, rather repressive … even philosophy hadn’t enthused me, but my excitement for art continued to grow, visual art to be exact. And, so, I set about to concern myself with visual art. To concern myself … let’s say, with spending a great deal of time reflecting on these facts, and later, needing to find an occupation, a profession, I decided to become an art critic. But not thinking that this activity corresponded to judgment, to an acquisition of power, to a social maneuver, or to the work of the historian or the event organizer. When I found myself working as an art critic, I saw that it was a phony profession, completely phony, that it had … maybe 90 percent, let’s say, was the university. And so, I kept away from the professional aspects of the activity of the art critic and little by little individuated the elements that for me, are completely intolerable. The most intolerable is this: that there should be an activity that calls for itself individuals, like myself, who wanted to have a deeper initiation into what is typically considered culture, right?
ACCARDI: When I was a girl I never had what you had, seeing humanity and those thoughts … In fact, I knew a bit about you, but I never thought, hm. Then also, you’re from Florence, this seems an interesting element, because Florence had so much artistic activity in the past. To judge it now, it’s one thing … eh, that has nothing to do with the judgment one gives … but, about art, it comes out of a girl from Florence, you know? So, the artist could no longer go on, didn’t want to: that is, something else, I don’t know how to say it. An artist thinks of other things, simpler things. Me … I never had this meditation about people, you know? No, not at all. So, it is a curious thing. I remember myself with really immature behavior … Maybe, also, it’s that artists are immature people, because if they are too mature, maybe they can’t be artists. I remember some things … things I wanted to paint, that I wanted to go here or there, to become important … anyway, I don’t know … it’s interesting. Other ideas, other things.
LONZI: The critic has an awkward psychological makeup, along with a sense of exclusion. In fact, critics are all … they’re not very friendly people, I mean, psychologically, they aren’t commendable, in the sense that I don’t even like how I started out. Yes, I had this sense of being an outsider, very strongly, in worldly things, and I think this came from a childhood experience, feeling excluded from something … And it is probably this that brought me to be interested in artists, because they seemed to me those who had the least of these characteristics: they are the least detached, I think, they have less of a sense of discord … I don’t know. For which, then, my behavior as a critic coincided with a need to interfere in other people’s situations. If I have to identify a moment in which this disposition manifested itself, which would then lead to becoming an art critic … since I was little, in public gardens, if I saw other children, for example, with an adult watching them, I went over to play with them, I remember this sense of not wanting to go back very clearly, of wanting to be a part of something of the other. For this reason, I think, that at age nine I wanted to go to boarding school, to choose a situation that belonged completely to me, and in the end, I blended into that way of life to the point that my father, when he noticed, brought me home right away. If I think back on my life, there are many of these moments.
Then, I remember in middle school, when I had to write an essay about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote that I would conduct interviews, I even remember I said I wanted to interview Laurel and Hardy, specifically. I think all critics have this element, this desire to interfere in other people’s lives. Naturally, it isn’t so pleasant when, from this rather interesting beginning, it isn’t good or bad, it is a fact, existential, then it becomes a profession, an institution, so, there, it becomes something that is no longer justifiable, and at the same time, no longer even benefits the critic, because the only thing that benefits the critic is this meddling, to be able to continue to do this, to keep doing it to the point that one isn’t conscious of it and does it without any qualms, well. Instead, then, to turn it into a career, to work from a position of power, this is a crust that develops over it and doesn’t really have anything to do with it.
The critic, with this need to interfere, is the most likely to initiate things or experiences around the business of others and this is necessary to maintain, because, for me, it is very important that a part of society, small as it may be, is close to artists and this should be the group most willing and interested in them. And artists should keep these people close, that in a certain sense, present themselves as something artists need and represent, in a way, the needs of society. But, this, should be maintained in a pure state, not as an institution because once it is made into an institution, it takes on all the vices of the institution and all its ideologies. The critic, rather than being he who is accommodating and in need, becomes he who judges and creates a hierarchy. And in this activity he ends up carrying out, he erases the point of departure from which he began, and becomes a completely inauthentic person, no longer authentic.
There was a moment when Rimbaud said: everybody will be a poet, there will be a world in which everybody is a poet. So, what does this mean? It means it isn’t possible, no, no, it isn’t possible, from my point of view now, since we are talking about criticism, that this … Ultimately, a part of humanity produces things, okay, a creative part, a totally separate part of humanity comments on these things, Now, how this commentary functions for society, that expounds on art, seems to me quite useless and in the end becomes damaging because that part of humanity that produces things should, I think, inspire another part of humanity to absorb and to produce. Not to produce in a specific way, with paintings or making objects, but to produce movements of life, as beings … to develop a creative condition in people, to live life in a creative way, not in obedience with the models that society proposes over and over. That everybody will be poets, artists, not in the sense that everyone will paint the highways and apartment buildings, but that people will live in a creative way, to live in a way that isn’t detached and in peace with themselves, that is alive.
Because I cannot understand the way critics talk about artists, and then, they have such a phony life or they are phony when they talk about artists or they’re phony when they’re living their lives, because you can’t understand a person who’s so disconnected. How can a critic, who should be writing or speaking in a way that is a testimony to his way of life, but he lives in another way … like a little bureaucrat, a little careerist, an industrious person … who from that little territory he possesses, trespasses onto things that humanity has toiled at much more and much more deeply, and says his piece and then he returns to his small-minded things. This seems strange to me. Then it seems that … since humanity has no shame in commenting, yes, this I need to understand, how humanity isn’t ashamed of passing its time blabbering on about things that should shock it, disturb it, that should help it, that should … but instead humanity chatters, and with this chatter neutralizes art, exhausts it.
Published here: LARB