Michel Simon in The Late Mathias Pascal (1926)

Luigi Pirandello on Film: L’Umorismo and Confronting the Other of the Self

The Film Forum hosts seven films based on the writing of Luigi Pirandello that illustrate the complex ironies of the fractured Self.

By the turn of the 20th century, the notion of the unitary Self was in crisis. This crisis emerged throughout Europe and the Americas and can be seen as a disaffected response to the Enlightenment (and in philosophy, the idealist) emphasis on the Subject as an ordering principle that brings coherence to the chaos surrounding it.

The disaffection manifested in variegated forms of expression and schools of thought: the fragmentation and contradictory nature of the Self in Freud, the skepticism concerning the adequacy of language for assessing experience in the poetry of Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the philosophy of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, the pervasion and perversion of myth into modernity in the writings of James Joyce.

One might view this crisis as disenchantment with the Enlightenment’s disenchantment of Nature (as an occult force, an undisclosed source of both rejuvenation and horror) and thus, in terms derived from Max Horkheimer and Adorno, a re-enchantment, a reversion to myth, mystery, and the obscure. There is here an implicit (and sometimes explicit) rebuke of Kant’s vision of the “transcendental unity of apperception”. Kant’s “apperception” is an attempt to account for experience. If we are confronted by a chaotic manifold of possible perceptions, how is ordered experience practicable?

Kant claims that there must be a unified self that combines elements of the manifold into a coherent unity. In undergoing a unified experience (even something as simple as “I see a closed door before me”) I order the plethora of sensations inherent in the manifold of perceptible qualities before me into a singular overarching perception (“I see a closed door” — not simply various fields of color, etc.). In coming to witness a unity of experience, I come to understand a unity of the Self.

Kant’s idealist inheritors take this to mean that the “I”, the Self, carves out order in the world or, more strikingly, creates that order. The Self creates the world as a reflection of the Self. Nothing need escape knowledge because ultimately nothing is extraneous from the Self (this is one rather prominent way of reading Hegel, for example).

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the turn of the 20th century attacks this position from two fronts. On the one hand, there is the concern with an encounter with the Other that cannot and must not be reduced to a manifestation of the Self. We see this articulated clearly in the work of Adorno and his concern that our concepts are really ways of denaturing the experience of radical alterity.

On the other hand, there is the encounter with the Other within the Self as such. This is the fragmentation of the Self, the lack of its vaunted unity that we find in the notion of the unconscious in Freud. If the idealists saw the world as a reflection of the Self, then this modernist crisis saw any reflection of the Self as inherently fractured. There is no transcendental unity of apperception because there is no unified Self — our divergent, fragmented experiences are a manifestation of the fragmentations in our lives.

Luigi Pirandello — the Italian playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist — embodies both of these approaches to the modernist crisis of experience and the Self. Indeed, Piradello, in his 1908 essay into literary history entitled “L’umorismo” (“On Humor”), outlined his own theory of the fragmented Self and its relation to creativity.

Pirandello proposes a specific notion of humor, which involves the capacity for standing aside from the object (including the Self as object) in order to engage it ironically and at a distance. All humor, for Pirandello, is a sort of doubled vision wherein the viewer sees the contrast between the exterior element of a thing or situation and the interior motivation, often in conflict with the exteriority.

Notice that I do not write that the distinction is between the exterior façade and the interior truth. Both the exterior and the interior are equally true. The fact that they contradict one another does not make one superior or more real than the other — only a sort of transcendental unity of apperception would make such a demand.

Pirandello’s most famous example of this from the treatise is that of an older lady (una signora) wearing excessive makeup and appearing rather foolish in her attempts to simulate youth. On the other hand, the humorist recognizes that her vanity is also an expression of suffering and desperation, an attempt to appeal to her younger husband or lover.

Although it may strike us that the appearance is explained by the suffering (a unifying interpretation), Pirandello does not want to capitulate to that reading. Humor is not discernment of an underlying explanatory truth, it is a “sense of contradiction” and gift for the Both/And as opposed to the Either/Or. There is no need to provide a unifying interpretation because there is no unified Self. We are multiple Selves and those Selves have differing views of the world.

Jonathan Druker, in an essay [“Self-Estrangement and the Poetics of Self-Representation in Pirandello’s ‘L’umorismo’”, South Atlantic Review 63/1 (1998)] that is well worth reading, suggests that Pirandello’s “signora” example is misleading. Pirandello’s main concern is with the man (and it is mostly, perhaps exclusively, men, according to Druker) who comes to recognize the Other within himself and that this is the realization of fragmentation and the source of the “sense of contradiction.”

Druker’s main example is Pirandello’s novel, The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), and given that example, one can understand Druker’s misgivings. However, I think he underestimates Pirandello’s concern for both approaches to modernist fragmentation as outlined above; that is, fragmentation with respect to the Object (as in the “signora” example) and fragmentation of the Self (as in Mattia Pascal). Indeed, the two-fold nature of Pirandello’s concern with humor and contradiction can be seen rather nicely in two of the films that the Film Forum of New York City will be showing as part of the wider Pirandello 150 celebration. The first film is The Late Mathias Pascal (1925), obviously based on the novel just mentioned, while the second is a remarkable anthology film, culled from several short stories, entitled Kaos (1984).

The Late Mathias Pascal (originally Feu Mathias Pascal), a French silent film adapted and directed by Marcel L’Herbier, depicts the eponymous hero (played by Ivan Moskoukine) in a fallen financial state. He marries a young woman, Romilde (Marcelle Pradot) and is forced to live with his virago mother-in-law, whose callousness soon becomes characteristic of his wife as well. His baby daughter and mother both die on the same evening. Mathias flees to Monte Carlo where he has an uncanny streak of luck, winning ₣500k.

His good fortune seems to be another man’s misfortune. His neighbor at the table repeatedly attempts to place his bets alongside Mathias’s only to have the latter move his chips at the last minute (and then win again and again). In despair, the other gambler takes his own life. For some reason, the paper believes the deceased to be Mathias and so our hero decides not to return to his miserable life.

He goes to Rome, adopts a new name (Adrien), and falls in love with a young girl (Adrienne, played by Lois Moran). He soon finds that he cannot sustain his life without a real, verifiable identity (he cannot marry and cannot litigate against those who rob him) so he returns to his hometown, only to find that his wife has remarried and has a new child. He belongs nowhere. His old identity no longer belongs to him and his new identity has no legal foundation.

Pirandello’s tale is one, not of self-discovery per se, but rather the discovery that there is no Self per se. He saw an opportunity to escape misery, but his opportunity was predicated upon another man’s ruin and demise. What appeared as freedom, however, turned out to be mere escape. And the problem with escaping is that you cannot then stop running. Being neither Mathias nor Adrien, our hero becomes a Nobody, an evacuation of identity.

Mousoukine plays the role with just the right touch of Pirandellian irony. His Mathias/Adrien doesn’t lament his condition, he barely rails against it in any fashion. Rather, the more he observes himself the more he moves into the position of the observer and moves out of the position of the participant. Mathias and Adrien are mere personae — the root of our word “person” is in the Latin word “persona”, which means “mask”. There is no individual that corresponds to Mathias/Adrien; there can only be a series of masks.

Druker claims that Pirandello lives in a primarily ocular world, that his privileged sense is sight and his underlying logic of reflection resides in the mirror, the visual reflection. But the literal meaning of “persona” is “sounding through” insofar as the actor speaks through, and I would argue that Pirandello also has a developed feeling for the aural, and its logic of reflection: the echo. This is brought out rather well in the short films that compose Kaos, a brilliant film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.

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Umberto Montiroli, Franco Franchi, Ciccio Ingrassia and Fratelli Taviani in Kaos (1984)

Kaos opens with the sounding out of a contradiction. Several local louts in Sicily come across a male crow that is brooding (and thus playing a feminine role). The peasants chastise the bird, pelting him with his own eggs, for not being masculine enough. Finally, one man ties a bell around the crow’s neck and this avian symbol of Pirandellian contradiction will serve to connect the four stories that, along with an epilogue, make up the film.

These filmed short stories all feature the inherent contradictions of Pirandellian humor and often emphasize the sonorous as the counterpart to Pirandello’s celebrated mirror as a symbol for ironic distance. For the sake of brevity, I will only discuss sections of two of the stories, but they (and the truly resplendent epilogue) are all worth careful viewing.

The first story involves a mother (Margarita Lozano) who longs for her two departed sons but ignores and vilifies the faithful son that remains to her. In a long and affecting monologue we and her chastised son discover the reason for her contempt, a contempt she recognizes is unfair but that she is powerless to control. The son resembles his father who was involved in the murder of the father of the other two sons and then brutally raped her. When her remaining son overhears her telling a stranger the tale, he sobs uncontrollably. We have just seen the reenactment of her encounter with her rapist and so the cruelty of his visage is unmistakably present in the son’s bereaved face.

Both characters are, after all, portrayed by the same actor, so this is, on the one hand, hardly surprising. But that is not quite my point. What I mean to say is that we can’t help but see the rapacious sadism of the father reflected in the excruciating grief of the son, despite the fact that we are utterly aware that the suffering of the son occurs through no fault of his own. We are forced into a position of Pirandellian humor with all of its attendant horrors — we know his innocence and he has our sympathy, but we see in him his mother’s tormentor and we understand her rejection of him.

These are two personae: the father and the son; they are both actors within a social and familial (however twisted) context. If the persona is simply the mask through which sound emerges, then the sobbing of the son, which the Taviani brothers allow to endure just past the point of being bearable, represents the echo of his father’s cruelty refracted through the bleakness of his hopeless love for his mother.

The third film is based on Pirandello’s short story, “The Jar”, and it offers a far more lighthearted approach to Pirandellian humor as the sense of contradiction. A fractious and litigious landowner (Ciccio Ingrassia) orders a huge jar, in which he takes great pride, to store the olive oil from his harvest. The jar mysteriously breaks and he hires an artisan (Franco Franchi) to repair it. The artisan accidentally traps himself in the jar and the landowner doesn’t want to break it to effect his escape without compensation. The artisan refuses to pay. A standoff ensues.

After the jar initially breaks, the landowner rhapsodizes that it used to “sound like a bell” when one tapped on it. The sonorous quality is the indicator of its wholeness, its unity. When the artisan fixes it, the jar rings out once again, even with the artisan’s body residing within it. The jar is whole again but unusable. In one sense restored and in another sense totally useless, the jar “sounds out” as an echo of its former self. It is as good as new and yet worthless, restoration with a crucial, devaluing difference.

The artisan first laments the fact that he has lost his liberty but soon finds himself in a freer position than the landowner; he is liberated through his capture while the landowner roams free and is caught in a legal bind. Moreover, by singing and partying with his friends, the artisan so angers the landowner that he effects his release — he gets one over on the landowner through the invasive agency of sound. For the Pirandellian fractured Self, willing to accept the pliability of personae, there is a sort of equilibrium of distance that allows us to accept suffering and delight in small victories.


The Film Forum in New York City — as part of “Pirandello 150”, a city-wide, year-long celebration of the life and works of Luigi Pirandello — is showing seven films based on Pirandello’s writing 13-19 January.