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Skinned alive
Christy Wampole
19 December 2022
published in Issue Two
La coscienza di Zeno
Italo Svevo

Bologna: Cappelli, 1923

The people I know who quit smoking have begun smoking again. « I will stop, » each says, « once the pandemic, inflation, energy austerity, and threats of nuclear war settle down. » The four o’clock doomscroll with a glass of wine, a newfound obsession with fitness (the treadmill allows you to flee eternally), listlessness, insomnia, nail chewing, new nervous tics: the contemporary anxious person is the progeny of a famous neurotic who is just turning hundred. His name is Zeno Cosini, the chain-smoking protagonist of Italo Svevo’s cult novel Zeno’s Conscience (1923), and he is bad at life because modernity makes people bad at it.

Imagine if your therapist, as the next crucial phase of your treatment, assigned you to write your autobiography, which you did diligently, and after which you decided you were cured and thus ended your treatment, which angered your therapist and caused him to publish your autobiography as revenge. This is the frame story of Zeno’s Conscience, prefaced by the fictional Dr. S, a tell-me-about-your-mother type who has had the gall to make public his patient’s private history. « I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms, » he begins. « Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility toward me. » Zeno has dumped his shrink, « suspended treatment just when things were going well, » the woundable Dr. S laments, « denying me the fruit of my long and painstaking analysis of these memories. » But the doctor is a reasonable man. He writes, « I want him to know, however, that I am prepared to share with him the lavish profits I expect to make from this publication, on condition that he resume his treatment. » Zeno transforms from patient to hostage.

The book lampoons the often ludicrous theories and treatments proposed by a burgeoning field, but it also concedes that the new science was essential to address the mental struggles of an increasingly twitchy populace. The novel laughs, though its laugh is nervous. Every generation has to mock its own attempts to address the unaddressable. The problems are real, and people are so desperate that they will take — and always have taken — extreme, sometimes ridiculous measures to feel at home in their own bodies and psyches. Wearing a grin, Svevo’s novel pokes its finger right in the wound.

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Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience, translated by William Weaver, London: Penguin Classics, 2019.

These exercises were developed presumably by the German internist Felix von Niemeyer (1820-1871), who published extensively on diets and illnesses of the lungs and digestive system. There is some overlap (I am jumping ahead here) between George Beard’s list of neurasthenia’s causes and Niemeyer’s list of « noxious influences » that cause consumption: « Insufficient and improper food, bad and damp dwellings, want of exercise and fresh air, and various weakening and exhausting influences, such as venereal excesses, long-continued suckling, depressing mental conditions, etc. » (Felix von Niemeyer, Clinical Lectures on Pulmonary Consumption, translated by C. Bæumler, [London: The New Sydenham Society, 1870], 21).

The psychoanalyst is in so many ways the priest of modernity.

George Beard, « Neurasthenia, or Nervous Exhaustion », The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 3, no. 13 (29 April 1869): 217-221.

After studying law and then chemistry, Zeno follows in his father’s footsteps: He becomes a businessman. The chapter « The Story of a Business Partnership » recounts how, through his irresponsible business counseling, inconsistency, and general ineptitude, he inadvertently causes his business partner (and brother-in-law) to kill himself after trying to help him set up a commercial firm.

Peter Drucker, who coined the term « knowledge work » in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow, later wrote in The Effective Executive (1967), « The more time we take out of the task of the ‘legs’ — that is of physical, manual-work, the more will we have to spend on the work of the ‘head’ — that is on knowledge work. »

John Freccero, « Zeno’s Last Cigarette, » MLN 77, no. 1 (January 1962): 3-23.

In a paper I will never write but would if I felt less fatigued and frazzled, I would explore the cultural history of the « Awareness Month » and « Awareness Day ». In the US, hundreds of these are celebrated (is this the right word?), including: Personal Self-Defense Awareness Month (January), National Pet Hydration Awareness Month (July), Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month (August), CyberSecurity Awareness Month (October), and Safe Toys and Gifts Awareness Month (December). The most vexing of all is September, a.k.a. Self-Awareness Month.

The translator William Weaver makes a delightful choice here, changing the baby from « her » to « it ». « La sua voce » can be rendered as « her voice », « his voice », or « its voice » and Weaver chose the one that puts the most distance between the daughter and Zeno, too busy nurturing his own pathologies to care for his progeny.