By the time I reached the end of Dissipatio H.G I felt the urge to lie down in a darkened room with a cool flannel over my forehead. It’s a work of only 114 pages but when almost every one of those pages includes dense philosophical reflections on existence, death and the future of Earth, I was left exhausted.
Here’s one example:
The cupio dissolvi, the wish to dissolve. Freud called it the “death drive”, or instinct, and universalized it, assigning it to everyone. In his day, it was a wanton abstraction even to him. A harmless philosopheme, not even very original for that matter to set against the dogma of omnipresent Eros for the symmetry.
How about this one:
I must confess I don’t recognise the unconscious frustrations and visceral pains, the festering evils that afflict modern man. A colleague accused me of reductive criticism. I was forever insisting (everything’s already been said but nobody’s listening, so it has to be constantly restated) that the interior monologue, typical of contemporary literature, that gives vent to unconscious sorrows and visceral suffering in capillary inspections of the self and false encounters with the other is proof that we haven’t moved beyond the psychologism of that sub feeling and sub thinking that was already artificial (and dull) a century ago.
No doubt, more learned readers than myself wouldn’t find these passages as difficult to penetrate. I just kept clinging on with my fingertips, feeling disoriented yet in a strange way enjoying the experience.
Dissipatio H. G deals with a world in which every human being — bar the unnamed narrator— has disappeared. The book begins as the narrator travels into the city of Chrysopolis to find it deserted and largely silent. Vehicles abandoned, desks unmanned, jackets and reading glasses discarded. The only sounds come from barking dogs and clattering linotype machines in the newspaper offices.
The story then shifts back two weeks to the eve of the narrator’s birthday when he’d headed to a cave to kill himself in a lake so well hidden that he’s sure his body will never be found. As he sits on the lip of a well connected to the lake, debating the quality of Spanish brandy, he realises his body won’t let him die. He gives up on his plan and starts to walk home, hitting his head on a protruding rock on the way out.
Arriving back in his village hours later he discovers that everyone he knows is missing. As the days pass and his search widens without sight of a single person, the man comes to realise that he is the last person left alive. Ironically, he’d left the metropolis to escape his fellow humans and their consumerist attitudes and ambitions, but he hadn’t bargained on the disappearance in its entirety of Humo Generis .
Completely alone, he becomes a nomadic creature, wandering through a deserted airports and army base, raiding the kitchens of empty hotels for food and looking for explanations. It’s a miserable existence in which he veers between guilt that he has survived “the Event” and the sense that he is being punished. “I am the elect — or the damned,” he tells us.
Dissipatio H.G depicts a brilliantly intellectual, but difficult, man who finds it hard to live in modern society. Even before his abandoned suicide effort he’d removed himself from the decadent city of Chrysopolis, with its “fifty-six banks and almost as many churches” , to live in a shepherd’s hut among the Alps.
We learn that he is a journalist with controversial opinions. One article entitled “Against formalism and conformism :examining some stereotypes.” suggested many married women were effectively prostitutes. His opinions on the future of journalism do however seem prescient in the context of today’s trends on blogging and citizen journalism:
Professional journalists could be responsible for reporting the news and offerings comments [while] the bulk of the paper would collaborate with the users, the readers, a joint participation that would certainly be unregulated, discordant, and partial, but still the only way to give voice to an authentic public opinion.
Amidst all the worthy discussions about solipsism, Freud and the fundaments of existence, there are moments of humour — of a discomforting nature addmitedly but nevertheless they come as welcome relief.
The one scene that stood out for me comes towards the end of the book where the last man alive retrieves some be-wigged shop mannekins, being particular to select the most old fashioned shapes. Some are positioned in groups to enliven an empty piazza, some are placed in empty vehicles and others are thrown into the city’s swimming pool where they “bob cheerfully up and down in the puzzled waters.”
The man willing to sacrifice his life to separate himself from fellow man, does in the end seem to need companionship.
I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book of my own volition. But when I subscribed to the Asymptote Book Club I was looking to be introduced to authors I’d never heard of previously and to experience a broader geographical range of fiction. I certainly got taken out of my comfort zone with Dissipatio H.G. I’m not qualified to judge whether Morselli was, as Jhumpa Lahiri says in her blub on my edition ” one of contemporary Italy’s most iconoclastic writers.” It was certainly different, enjoyable to some extent but didn’t leave me feeling I wanted to read anything more by this author.
Dissipatio H.G by Guido Morselli, translated by Frederika Randall: Footnotes
Guido Morselli’s Dissipatio H.G was one of nine published after the author’s death in 1973. Frederika Randall’s introduction to the NYRB edition explains that Morselli had returned from a short holiday to find a letter from his publishers rejecting the manuscript of Dissipatio. It was the seventh manuscript they had declined and to Morselli it felt like a fatal defeat. Randall goes on to explain: “that night Guido Morselli loaded his Browning 7.65 and shot himself, putting an end to one of post-war Italy’s most original literary careers.”
The New Yorker review of this book is well worth reading for its insights into the connection between Morselli’s life and that of his protagonist,
This is book number 24 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.