International Gramsci Society Online Article
January 2003

Robert Dombroski's Critical Engagement with Marxism

Frank Rosengarten

I was fortunate to have had a close personal and intellectual relationship with Bob Dombroski, who died in Paris on May 10, 2002. Through Bob I met his wife and colleague, Professor Lucy McNeece, whose presence here today makes me keenly aware of how much her friendship, and that of Bob, have meant to me. The chance to reappraise an essential aspect of Bob's critical work in this afternoon's lecture gives me the chance to remember him in a way that, I hope, will be worthy of him.

Bob and I had several interests and concerns in common, one of which was our effort to make constructive use of Marxist concepts for the analysis and interpretation of literary texts. If my memory serves me faithfully, we met for the first time in the early 1970s at a session of the MLA devoted to Antonio Gramsci, whom we both regarded as one of the seminal Marxist thinkers of the 20th century. We had both found in Gramsci's Prison Notebooks new insights not only into problems of political economy but also into such questions as the relations between literature and society. We were intrigued by Gramsci's arguments concerning the ways in which intellectuals, especially literary intellectuals, "produce ideology" in forms that often gain a mass following and thereby exert an influence on the way people perceive the society and the larger world in which they live. Bob and I shared a conviction that the labor of literary criticism was intimately bound up with practical worldly matters, that critical commentary on literature was always, to one extent or the other, a vehicle for the expression of a world view, a conception of life, a specific ideology. Behind these complex processes of communication and interpretation was the Gramscian notion of hegemony, in which Bob was keenly interested and which he subsequently made the theoretical basis of several of his critical studies.

Let me illustrate immediately the markedly practical turn that Dombroski gave to the literary-critical enterprise. His emphasis on the worldliness of criticism does not stem only from Marxism. He drew eclectically from a variety of critical methods and approaches. Yet there is little doubt that his primary source was Marxist, or, to use a familiar locution, historical-materialist. This is evidenced in the concluding paragraph of his 1989 book Antonio Gramsci, which reads as follows:

If Gramsci's work is to have any bearing at all on the way we engage in intellectual or cultural practice, it will do so by developing in us a sense of our own politics: a realization that the actual workings of our critical operations depend on circumstances of which we and the "text" partake, that we, like Gramsci's intellectuals, are "agents" working within a particular hegemonic or counterhegemonic process. Therefore, the politics of literature is always a "politics" of something else-of the control, the power, the dominance, however subtle, that one social group exerts over another. Culture, indeed, is the stuff of which power is made and by which it is maintained. (132)

Taken out of context, this passage, with its blunt reference to control, power, and dominance, might lead one to believe that Dombroski conceived of literature and literary criticism as direct outgrowths of sociopolitical dynamics, and that he thought of culture as a mere instrument for the acquisition and maintenance of political power. But such is not the case. By the time we reach this concluding passage, we have been amply informed by Dombroski that he shares Gramsci's dialectical conception of society and history, and therefore rejects any and all forms of materialist determinism. The key to Gramsci's thought, Dombroski argues throughout his study, is to be found in the notion of "historical bloc," which "involves necessarily the organic unity of base and superstructure. The economy no longer determines ideology, as in the traditional Marxist view; rather, both spheres are interactive and interdependent" (5). Within complex processes of class domination and subordination, so-called "superstructural" phenomena-art, literature, philosophy, legal and political thought, historiography and so on- acquire a "relative autonomy," they circulate within the social organism in ways that are original and unpredictable. Moreover, these superstructural forms of human activity are not only expressions of hegemony, but also of counterhegemonic processes. Society and history are to be seen as perpetually contested terrain, wherein opposing classes and ideas are engaged in struggles whose ultimate outcome is not predetermined.

With respect to the Gramscian conception of ideology, Dombroski again brings the theory of historical materialism to bear on his discussion. "The ideological question in Gramsci," he avers, "appears the moment the literary work is seen as a practice directed at reforming consciousness" (124). This is a weighty sentence, deserving of sustained analysis. For our purposes, it will have to suffice to say that for Dombroski, the lesson imparted by Gramsci is that to focus exclusively on the formal qualities of a literary work is to deprive the critical enterprise of its relevance to the great overarching issues and conflicts of contemporary civilization.

I do not know whether Dombroski ever undertook a systematic study of the entire canon of Marxist thought. His writings suggest that he considered an understanding of how the capitalist system works, from a Marxist point of view, as indispensable to all critical inquiry, irrespective of one's field of specialization. What can be said with certainty is that he was indebted intellectually and spiritually to some of Marx's historical-materialist disciples of the mid to late 20th century; such names as Luperini, Timpanaro, Williams, Jameson, Eagleton, Lukács, Bakhtin appear and reappear in all of his books and essays. With the possible exception of Lukács, we should note that these literary theorists and critics have all operated largely independently of the established communist power system, that they have all transcended the boundaries of the dogmatic or doctrinaire Marxism that often typified the cultural policies of the Soviet Union and its allied states. The demise of the Soviet Union and its accompanying intellectual and moral crisis led Dombroski to question something he had long taken for granted, i.e. Marxism's claim to universality. He wondered whether the deficiciencies of the political system that had been found wanting in the existing communist societies might not be traceable in some measure to Marxist theory itself. I know from many talks with Bob that he was deeply concerned about this possibility. But in the end, he retained a basically Marxist orientation in his post-1989 writings, while at the same time he continued to make use of disparate schools of philosophical and psychological thought, especially in his studies of Carlo Emilio Gadda and of postmodern currents in the late 20th century Italian novel.

What I think Dombroski realized more clearly than ever in the work he did in the 1990s was that literary texts can only be approached, they can never be possessed or definitively appropriated. One finds in his work of this period a rich abundance of critical methods drawn from many disciplines: philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis, rhetoric, as well as a deepening commitment to relating literary questions to broad historical trends and patterns of thought. It is mainly in this sense that I used the words "critical engagement" in my title to characterize Dombroski's attitude toward Marxism. What mattered to him was not only the validity of Marxism as a cohesive and independent body of thought in its own right. He also cared deeply about its ability to accommodate and integrate the contributions made to literary study by other methodologies.

That he did not abandon his fundamental commitment to a Marxist methodology in the wake of the crisis of the late 1980s and early 90s is evident from an essay titled "Marxism and Literature in the Postmodern Age," which appeared a year ago as one in a series of short publications sponsored by the Department of Comparative American Cultures under the editorship of E. San Juan, at Washington State University. It was published together with another piece on "Timpanaro in Retrospect," in which Dombroski highlighted the difference between Timpanaro's conception of materialism and that of the group of thinkers associated with "western Marxism," which included Gramsci. For several reasons which we can discuss later, at the turn of the twenty first century Dombroski seems to take a less "dialectical" approach to the relations between political economy and culture, between society and literature.

On the one hand, the two essays continue the line of reasoning taken in the l989 Gramsci study. We find the same emphasis on the interconnectedness of art and social practice, the same general view of a Marxist approach to literature as one "which seeks to comprehend the relations of culture, mode of production, and the ruling class or classes in society, and is based on the premise that the more complex a society is the more complex is that relationship" (1). Yet on the other hand the essays also make the case for a more rigorous and astringent form of materialism than Dombroski had heretofore subscribed to, several features of which deserve comment.

First of all, while acknowledging the crisis of "really existing socialism," and of Marxist theory, which he describes as still "recoiling from an unexpected ideological defeat," he advances a viewpoint he had repudiated in his Gramsci book, namely that in the final instance, superstructure is determined by infrastructure, by the socioeconomic base of society. This hardening of position on the level of theory is an interesting moment in Dombroski's development, which may reflect his collaboration with Professor San Juan, one of the most articulate exponents of a position intransigently opposed to the theories and methods underlying postmodernism and postcolonialism.

Secondly, in both essays, especially the one devoted to Timpanaro, Dombroski shows marked sympathy for the idea that a distinction should be made between historical materialism and materialism tout court. The former, he maintains, as seen in the major figures of western marxism since the 1960s, is characterized by "a belief that mental events and the spheres of the economic, the social and the cultural all have priority in human experience over the natural or biological" (3). A fully materialist orientation, which Timpanaro had found in its purest state in the writings of Giacomo Leopardi and Frederick Engels, and which he, Timpanaro, had sought to resurrect, takes full account of the element of "passivity" that exists in all human experience, due to what Timpanaro calls "the external situation" that humans do not produce for themselves but is produced for them. In other words, historical materialism is focused on the ways human beings interact with and shape their environments; views nature as a resource to be exploited and dominated; and lays stress on the labor process and on the workings of political economy. The naturalistic and biologically based materialism expounded by Timpanaro, Dombroski noted, was a healthy corrective to the lingering traces of idealism still found in historical materialism. In this same "materialist" vein, Dombroski speaks of the need to bring Marxist cultural and literary criticism into line with the standards of "scientific inquiry" established by the various disciplines it needs to utilize, such as linguistics, anthropology, politics, psychology and the like. While acknowledging that criticism could never be an exact science, he maintained that it could adapt itself "to the norms accepted by the scientific communities that regulate the development of those fields" (3).

A third aspect of Dombroski's unusually combative materialist stance in these two essays lies in what he has to say about the postmodern appropriation of concepts such as polyphony, multilingualism, and heteroglossia, terms popularized by the influential work of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. We see here that Dombroski wants to connect Bakhtin to a rigorously "materialist" Marxism, in that, as seen in his The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, the Russian scholar had "worked within a framework of wholly materialist considerations on language as ideological sign and the class struggle" (5). Dombroski's main intention, however, is not to secure Bakhtin's place among materialists in the Leopardian and Engelsian sense (evidence for which he does not provide) but rather to rescue his work from the clutches of the postmodernists. Here is the way in which he asserts his belief that Bakhtin had been unjustifiably appropriated by anti-or non-marxist groups operating mainly in academic settings:

I mention Bakhtin because he has become a kind of household word in much of post-modern criticism; that is to say, he has been re-fashioned, cleansed of Marxist overtones, to complement postmodernism's obsession with "difference" in its endless play of voices and forms. He is a good example of how a system of thought and inquiry, which grew out of the Marxist debate on language and ideology and which with a genuinely Marxist purpose placed its emphasis on the social construction of literary speech, has been put into the service of postmodernism, late capitalism's most precious ally. (5)

Let's look now, in necessarily cursory fashion, at several of Dombroski's writings in which his theoretical and methodological use of Marxist concepts is put to the test, so to speak, in its application to particular writers and literary texts. I've selected for comment chapter four on Giuseppe Ungaretti in L'Esistenza ubbidiente-letterati italiani sotto il fascismo, published in 1984; chapter two on Giovanni Verga in Properties of Writing-Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction, of 1994; and "Re-writing Sicily: Postmodern Perspectives," an essay which appeared in the volume Italy's Southern Question-Orientalism in One Country, published in 1998. I would have liked to include some discussion of Creative Entanglements-Gadda and the Baroque, of 1999, a virtuoso performance that draws from the almost three decades of work that Dombroski had devoted to the Milanese novelist. Limitations of time and space do not allow for a critical look at this body of work, culminating in Creative Entanglements.

Three premises underlie the studies just mentioned: first, that literary texts are inextricably interrelated with the society and history of their time; second, that this relationship is not an immediate and direct one, but rather mediated, complex, and discoverable through examining what Dombroski denominates the "mental structures" common to the sociopolitical order and to literary production at any given moment in time and place; and third, that no literary text, no matter how lyrical, lofty and subjective, should be seen as somehow ideologically innocent.

All three premises are operative in the essays comprising L'Esistenza ubbidiente, with particular force in the chapter on Giuseppe Ungaretti, who, as the central figure of the Italian hermetic school of poetry, developed a style and a language uniquely suited to the revelation of privileged but fleeting moments of beauty, insight, and, ultimately, transcendance. His poems were considered emblematic of a state of mind that looked upon the world as an alien place of pain and solitude. The hermetic or closed nature of his early lyrical fragments was due, it was commonly agreed, not only to its Japanese and French sources, but also to Ungaretti's profound discomfort in the face of a pervasive sense of despair in Europe during and after the experiences of the First World War, in which he had fought and suffered along with his comrades, his "brothers" in arms.

How, then, in the light of the exquisitely intimate and evocative character of Ungaretti's youthful poetry, and his later appeal for a return to traditional verse forms, can he be connected to the ideological project of Italian fascism, with its mystique of heroism, its mission of national regeneration, its demand that individuals subordinate their private aspirations to a larger project of human renewal embodied in a vastly strengthened totalitarian state? This is the question that Dombroski poses in regard to Ungaretti's inner life and to the ways in which he chose to express himself poetically.

In the chapter of L'Esistenza ubbidiente devoted to Ungaretti, titled "Ungaretti between innocence and fascism," Dombroski uses several different critical techniques and approaches. His choice of gambit, at once theoretical and historical in nature, connects to the work of Giovanni Raboni in order to pose a two-sided problem: first, the almost total lack of general theoretical supports for the sociopolitical interpretation of lyric poetry, which he attributes in the main to the overwhelming intellectual influence in Italy of Benedetto Croce's philosophy of aesthetics, virtually unchallenged at the time Ungaretti was at his creative zenith; and second, the fact that Ungaretti was a poet whose ardently pro-fascist political sentiments and whose poetic œuvre, lyrical and elliptical in his crucial early period, seemed to be completely divergent. The burden of Dombroski's argument, therefore, is to show that such a divergence was a mere appearance, that on a deeper thematic and psychological level Ungaretti's politics and his art were amply reconcilable with each other. What was needed was a critical reading of Ungaretti that would reveal the "mental structures" that fascism and the poetry of Ungaretti had in common.

Dombroski notes, in agreement with Raboni, that Ungaretti's ascent to prominence in the 1920s and early 30s came after a period of cultural ferment and feverish experimentalism in the arts. The line that Ungaretti took in the years culminating in the volume Sentimento del tempo, published in 1933, was that Italian writers, above all its poets, needed to recover a sense of formal discipline and restraint, modeled on the classics of Italian poetry, from Petrarch to Leopardi. This was a position, Dombroski maintains, which arrived almost providentially inasmuch as it was analogous to the fascist regime's concerted effort to restore order and cultural autarchy, after the years from 1919 to about 1923, when fascism had advocated a sort of upstart political and cultural radicalism designed to appeal to sectors of the working class and to a disaffected petit-bourgeois intelligentsia. Thus, Ungaretti's call for a restoration of order and authority in the realm of poetry moved along a parallel track with the new authoritarian cultural and educational policies of Mussolini's regime. This was one of the "correspondences" that Dombroski was after.

But such an analogy was not the most important of the arguments in Dombroski's arsenal. Through artful citation of Ungaretti's prose writings after World War I, he points out the numerous ways in which the poet revealed his need to unite himself with a power greater than himself, whether that power assumed the form of a "man of destiny" such as Mussolini, whose mere physical presence could "transform" a victim of alienation into a person of faith and self-confidence, or whether it was a movement of ideas and feelings-the fascist movement in this case-through which one could change a corrosive sense of separateness into one of cohesive solidarity. In this context, Dombroski argues that it was precisely the "totalitarian" aspect of fascism that most appealed to Ungaretti. Fascism provided him with a way to overcome the estrangement that he shared with many of his compatriots in the postwar years. In one important essay, Dombroski notes, Ungaretti turned to two writers, René Johannet and the Dutch Marxist Bernard Groethuysen, to substantiate his conviction that liberal Italy and liberal Europe had run out of ideas in the face of the postwar crisis of bourgeois civilization. Only Fascism, Ungaretti believed, could slake "the thirst for the absolute" of contemporary Europeans afflicted by a terrible spiritual void, a sense of aimlessness that could only end in despair.

Ungaretti placed the search for harmony and order in the world at the summit of human aspirations, an attitude which Dombroski does not fail to link with the sociopolitical dimension of his thought, and with the "mystical" kernel of his religious orientation to life, his constant hankering after a sense of oneness with the world and with the cosmos. This complex of feelings expresses itself in some measure in his aesthetics, whose fundamental concept, Dombroski claims, is the myth of renewal, of being reborn into a higher state of consciousness and serenity. Innocence for Ungaretti marked both the beginning and the end of history; it was a notion tied to the idea of creation, of perfection, of the suspended instant of illumination, of plenitude.

The decisive pages, however, at least as I see the unfolding of Dombroski's argument in this chapter, are those he reserves for a sally into an earlier period of Ungaretti's poetic production, poems written well before the era of Sentimento del tempo. In several pages of acute textual analysis, Dombroski demonstrates that during World War I and shortly thereafter, Ungaretti had already articulated states of mind that were manifestly compatible with the kind of impulses that led him, not many years later, into an ardent embrace of the new fascist order. Such impulses were evidenced in Allegria di naufragi, published in 1919, whose title and whose perspective on life both harked back to the last verse of Leopardi's "L'infinito," "E il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare." Ungaretti converted this evocative Leopardian verse into the basis of a new spiritual agenda. The upshot of Dombroski's critical scrutiny of several of the better known poems in Allegria di naufragi can be gleaned from the following paragraph, which I have translated into English and extracted from a much longer passage for the sake of clarity:

The idea of a plenitude either lost or, at the least, still to be discovered, of a mysterious absence of things, is with difficulty separable from the concept of a national soul or of a Mediterranean race, which remains intact through the vicissitudes of history, just as it is with difficulty separable from the myth of a total society in which isolated individuals become living men in communion with the Absolute. The passage, therefore, from poetry to the apology of the totalitarian program of fascism, in the young Ungaretti, assumes a total coherence. (88)

At the end of the Ungaretti study, Dombroski assures us that the ideological analysis to which he has just subjected Ungaretti takes nothing away from the value of his poetry. The analysis has traced analogies, correspondences, crossings from one form of expression to another, in search of a common matrix of ideas, ideals, and feelings. It has relied on the commensurability of political and poetic discourse, because the aim is to broaden the study of poetry to include its ideological content, or better, its way of "producing ideology." The essay ends with the following assertion of confidence in the method or methods he has employed:

Ungaretti's poetry, like the work of Pirandello, must be explained in accordance with an internal necessity that possesses, in addition to a specific individual character, a truly social aspect, inasmuch as it is a symbolic answer to a concrete dilemma of historical existence. From this angle of vision the interdependence between artistic and political consciousness is revealed in the most immediate way. (90)

Dombroski's approach to Giovanni Verga in chapter two of Properties of Writing, and to the new Sicilian novelists writing in the postmodern mode, show that he was able to balance certain traditional components of Marxist literary-critical discourse with the requirements of textual analysis imposed by the new emphasis on difference and undecidability. He was able to make the transition between the two approaches by virtue of his conviction that literary texts are forms of human praxis directed, among other things, at "reforming consciousness," and that they are organically related to the fundamental sociopolitical realities of their time of creation. In other words, for Dombroski, there is no escape from history, no return to a prelapsarian innocence, no road by which writers can somehow deflect attention away from the historical foundation of all literary forms, including those associated with postmodernism.

The Verga essay mixes biographical, anthropological and sociological commentary with an attempt to shed light on the Sicilian writer's highly particularized lyrical voice, especially noteworthy in I Malavoglia. The essay situates Verga squarely in the context of an "emergent capitalism" that began to characterize Italian society of the late Risorgimento and immediate post-Risorgimento periods, from the 1840s to the 1880s. Dombroski's primary aim is to explore the ethnographic dimension of I Malavoglia. The family whose way of life is threatened by the mechanisms of a newly emerging capitalist ethos, whereby financial calculation wins out over devotion to time-honored principles of faithful labor and familial togetherness, is depicted in its moment of crisis and decline. There seems to be a glimmer of hope for renewal at the end of Verga's narrative, yet the novel leaves us with a sense that the traditional way of life as lived for centuries by Sicily's fishermen had disappeared forever.

In his discussion of this historically grounded aspect of the novel Dombroski reminds us that I Malavoglia was conceived as the first in a series of novels whose aim, in a fashion famously theorized by Emile Zola, was to trace the fortunes at a decisive turning point in Italian history of typical people belonging to all of the main social classes; not just to subaltern groups such as fishermen and peasants, but to the rising middle and privileged classes as well. In this sense, Verga saw himself as a social historian who utilized ethnographic techniques to produce an austerely objective and scientifically based narrative, marked by its adherence to the principles of positivist inquiry. Yet there was more to Verga than positivism, and much more to Dombroski's analysis of the Sicilian novelist than ethnography pure and simple. This "something more" is detectible in the chapter's sub-title, "Science and Allegory in I Malavoglia." In addition to its social-scientific aspects Dombroski pays close attention to the novel's rich vein of "poetic" and "lyrical" writing, in which certain facets of the family's way of life, especially their home, "the house by the medlar tree," become "symbol[s] of a lost plenitude," objects and customs endowed with spiritual significance, what Dombroski calls "a disappearing structure that can be looked upon only with nostalgia." (30) But in my view, the insight that distinguishes Dombroski's analysis in this chapter does not lie so much in ethnography or in allegorical reading but rather in the way he examines the components of Verga's conception of life, his "materialism" and "pessimism," which stand in sharp contrast to the transcendental Christian belief system that characterized Manzoni's The Betrothed. In the chapter on Manzoni which opens Properties of Writing and directly precedes the one on Verga, Dombroski had highlighted the ways in which Manzoni negotiated the concept of free will and self-determination in relation to the theological constraints imposed by the notion of divine providence, which is operative from beginning to end of The Betrothed. Verga's materialism, Dombroski maintains, prevents him from

. . .envisaging writing as a means of connecting text and context in the Manzonian sense, for there is no basis for such a linkage. . .The context or situation on which literature acts, for Verga, is a social variable that cannot be integrated into or appropriated by the literary text, only juxtaposed to it. In this sense, it is an alien reality, regulated by its own particular logic, which the literary imagination must approach first and foremost as an object of scientific inquiry.(24)

In other words, what Dombroski is saying, even if not explicitly, is that these two novels of the 19th century, one published in 1827, the other in 1881, express two different moments relevant not only to the authors themselves, but also and crucially to two different visions of life incorporated in literary texts that became and remain extraordinarily powerful forces within vast hegemonic and counterhegmonic processes. The "ideology" produced by these two works have long pervaded Italian society in ways and with effects difficult to trace in any precise manner yet clearly worth studying for a proper understanding of how and why Italians of differing social and political identities conceive of the world as they do.

What is specifically Marxist in Dombroski's critique of I Malavoglia flows from the insight just mentioned. Rather than follow the line of thought outlined by Angelo Marchese, who sees Verga's work as "reflecting the crisis of liberal-bourgeois ideology in the wake of Italian unification," Dombroski, always leery of direct causal links between history and literature, prefers to view the novel as expressing what Fredrick Jameson characterizes as "a socially symbolic strategy," whereby "the logic of a capitalist market economy" is made visible not through a direct representation of capitalist industry and finance but through the ruminations of a character, young 'Ntoni, who has visited the mainland and observed the new Italy, with its military conscription and additional burdensome forms of taxation imposed mainly on the poor. Dombroski is at his best in those pages of his essay on Verga where he integrates his analysis within a conceptual framework built on the notion of "capitalist secularization," the irrecuperable loss of what had been sacred in the Malavoglia way of life: honest labor, the sanctity of the home, family solidarity, simple piety. It is the waning of the sacred that accounts, Dombroski thinks, for Verghian lyricism, the particular poetic tonality of Verga's prose in some of the novel's key passages. Poetry is a kind of compensatory refuge amidst the harsh realities of competition and survival that mark the onset of a new historical era.

In the early 1990s, concerned with the question of how to present postmodern thought to university students, and impressed by some of the stunning intellectual performances of postmodern writers and cultural critics, Dombroski turned his attention in particular to comparing the work of a group of contemporary Sicilian novelists-Gesualdo Bufalino, Vincenzo Consolo, Antonio Pizzuto, Leonardo Sciascia-who showed distinctive traces of postmodern perspectives in their writing, with that of earlier generations of Sicilian writers, from the 1880s to the 1950s-Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, Lampedusa-whose conceptions of the function of prose fiction reflected much older values and attitudes. What Dombroski wanted to accomplish was to clarify precisely what the nature of the new postmodern mode of thinking was in relation to the structures of thought and feeling that had guided the founding generations of Sicilian men of letters.

The tentative title he gave to this study was "Mythical Tradition and Postmodern Culture in the Contemporary Sicilian Novel," whose central ideas he outlined in a book proposal in 1998. His allusions in this outline to an implicit connection between "forms of market ideology" and the onset of postmodern paradigms in the contemporary Sicilian novel, his references to "new cognitive forms and insights" as being enmeshed with the new forms of writing, and the general tenor of the proposal, with its interweaving of literary and social themes, show that Dombroski had not abandoned fundamental aspects of his Marxist approach to criticism.

Limitations of time prevent me from saying very much that is substantive in Dombroski's approach to postmodernism in his 1998 essay "Re-writing Sicily: Postmodern Perspectives." Let it suffice here to say that what he attempts in this essay and elsewhere in his work of the 1990s is to explain and to illustrate how the verities and certainties of an earlier Sicilian fiction are thrown into disarray as a consequence of the postmodern forma mentis influencing the works of Consolo, Pizzuto and other Sicilian writers of the 1960s to the 1990s; but not only Sicilian, of course. The same postmodern turn, Dombroski indicates, took place in the work of Italo Calvino. The chapter on Calvino in Properties of Writing, incidentally, is one of the strongest of the collection.

Dombroski points out how the postmodern vision of the world excludes the kind of centering that had marked earlier prose fiction, where one finds, at the very least, three elements: a single controlling consciousness, a landscape whose identity is clearly marked, and the sense of an unchanging Sicilian essence, whether felt as a positive force, as in Vittorini's In Sicily, or as a negative one, as in Lampedusa's The Leopard. Even the new historically based novels, such as Consolo's Il sorriso dell'ignoto marinaio (The unknown sailor's smile), of 1987, lacks a center of consciousness or a controlling perspective. The narrator is part of the fragments that constitute his historical account, Dombroski argues, a fragment among fragments. "The reader is denied access to any totalizing narrative" that might lay claim to comprehensive understanding of a place, a time, a core of meaning.

The project Bob Dombroski outlined in his proposal of 1998, to which I alluded above, would have yielded an extremely important contribution to contemporary Italian literary studies. Yet the essay just mentioned and others that appeared in various periodicals over the past few years already give us a good understanding of what Bob was aiming to accomplish. So instead of lamenting what was destined not to be, let's take pride and pleasure in the work that Bob was able to bring to a successful conclusion.


A. Books and Essays by Robert Dombroski in their order of discussion in the lecture "Robert Dombroski's Critical Engagement with Marxism"

Antonio Gramsci (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989)

"Marxism in the Postmodern Age" and "Timpanaro in Retrospect," in Working Papers in Cultural Studies, Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, Ed. by E. San Juan, 2001.

"Ungaretti: tra innocenza e fascismo," chapter four in L'Esistenza ubbidiente-letterati italiani sotto il fascismo (Naples: Guida Editori, 1984), pp. 71-90.

"Giovanni Verga-Science and Allegory in I Malavoglia," in Properties of Writing-Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 23-43.

Proposal for a study of "Mythical Tradition and Postmodern Culture in the Contemporary Sicilian Novel," presented on March 10, 1998.

"Re-writing Sicily: Postmodern Perspectives," chapter twelve in Italy's "Southern Question"-Orientalism in One Country, edited by Jane Schneider (Oxford and New York: Berg, 1998), pp. 261-276.

B. Books by Robert Dombroski

Introduzione allo studio di Carlo Emilio Gadda (Florence: Vallecchi, 1974).

Le totalit dell artificio: ideologia e forma nel romanzo di Pirandello (Padua: Liviana, 1978).

L'Esistenza ubbidiente: letterati italiani sotto il fascismo (Naples: Guida, 1984).

L'apologia del vero: lettura ed interpretazione dei Promessi Sposi (Padua: Liviana, 1984).

Antonio Gramsci (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989).

Properties of Writing-Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction

(Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

Creative Entanglements-Gadda and the Baroque (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

Robert Dombroski died in Paris, on May 10, 2002, of complications from endocarditis. This paper was a memorial lecture at Yale University, presented to a few faculty and about 20 grad students, on October 10, 2002.

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