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Soul Aristocrats

Cristina Campo’s fairy-tale mysticism

The Unforgivable: And Other Writings by Cristina Campo, translated from the Italian by Alex Andriesse. NYRB Classics, 288 page. 2024.

At a meeting of a prominent theosophical society held in the early years of the twentieth century, Theodore Burne Bramble delivered a lecture on the matter of “the Smaller Worlds within the Large.” Attempting to address the great disparity in physical size to be observed among the different classes of spirits—pixies, ogres, and so on—Bramble posited a unique cosmological theory. The world these creatures live in, he explained, is not our world per se. “It is another world entirely . . . enclosed within this one,” he noted, adding that “the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger.”

Bramble, you might have already guessed, isn’t real. His ill-received lecture occurs in the third chapter of the first book of John Crowley’s 1981 fantasy novel Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament. The idea of nested realities isn’t an aberrant one in the literature of fantasy—fairies and their ilk are always trespassing boundaries our clumsy sensoria can hardly begin to pick up, while various folkways tell of seeing stones and so-called thin places, crossings where the weft of our reality has been worn to a gossamer fineness. But Crowley’s fantasy is, I think, peculiar for being so heavily indebted to esoteric philosophies. Little, Big owes much to the writings of Frances Yates, the author of landmark studies like Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and The Art of Memory, which brought renewed attention to the impact of esoteric and occult ideas on the development of Renaissance thought. The result is a home-brewed philosophy of the fey, steeped in cultish riddles and misty arcana—qualities Crowley’s work shares with that of the Italian poet and essayist Cristina Campo.

Campo’s presence in English has, to date, been essentially nil, though to the English-language reading public’s credit, she was largely forgotten in her native Italy until a resurgence of interest in her work in the 1990s. Add to this the fact that her writings tend to be boundlessly strange—brimful of recondite musings, all carefully delineated in a steely and artifactual prose—and you sort of start to get it. The Unforgivable, translated by Alex Andriesse and recently released by NYRB Classics, brings together the two short essay collections—Fairy Tale and Mystery (1962) and The Flute and the Carpet (1971)—that form the core of Campo’s slim and illusive oeuvre, as well as a handful of pieces that appeared elsewhere during and after her lifetime. The essays have an auratic appeal that’s difficult to pin down. They’re somehow thorny, and leave you feeling adrift, as though lost in a dark and sprawling bramble. At the same time, an impression of force undergirds all of the writing: the pent-up strength of bridled passion.

Fairy tales so often end where they began, swallowing themselves, or are otherwise nested, matryoshka-like.

Campo’s interests can be handily divided in twain. On the one hand, you have the fairy tales, culled from various traditions, that serve as the generative base for her freewheeling ruminations on the nature of wisdom, storytelling, personal destiny, and so on. On the other, you have a deep core of mysticism—centered in the thought of Simone Weil, though branching out in time to embrace the whole ramifying cabbala of the esoteric tradition—that provides the grammar of her thought. Campo’s imaginary is stocked with secret responsories and unexpected paths, with ruined castles and moss-shrouded caves, rebuses and uncrackable codes. Life itself is a mystery—a secret, a riddle, one that can only be solved by getting lost.

She seems the embodiment of what the critic Guy Davenport once referred to as a daedalian artist, obsessed with recursion, with the making of a complicatio. Naturally, a certain ouroboric tendency, what Campo elsewhere refers to as “this law of interpenetrating worlds nested one inside the other,” is always catching her eye. Hers is a cosmology of infolding akin to Crowley’s—realities are packed tightly into one another, like cerebral folds. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, fairy tales so often end where they began, swallowing themselves, or are otherwise nested, matryoshka-like. They burrow inward, opening out onto new horizons, fresh tales, other worlds.

The child who would grow up to become Cristina Campo was born Vittoria Guerrini in the spring of 1923, in Bologna, to Emilia Putti and Guido Guerrini, a composer and scholar who wrote biographies of Ferrucio Busoni and Antonio Vivaldi. Emilia’s family was a prominent fixture in Bolognese society and included doctors, sculptors, and composers. Her ancestors, she once suggested to a friend, were like the schematic clan at the heart of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks—antiquated visions, the fallen pillars of a prior age, “miraculous islands in this horrid world of carnal relations.”

Campo was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at an early age, inaugurating a quiet, isolated existence; her health would be delicate for the rest of her life, and as a child she was kept from traditional schooling. As a result, she had trouble making friends and spent most of her time on the sprawling grounds of her uncle Vittorio’s villa. In 1928, when Campo was five, the family moved to Florence for her father’s work. Continuing her studies with private tutors, she began, at the same time, to lose herself in a shadow syllabus of her own making. In particular, she fell in love with the writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and sought to model her style on his own lush, fevered aestheticism. By the early 1950s, the family home in Florence had become a haunt of sorts for young intellectuals and literary up-and-comers. Campo began to focus her energies on poetry, and shortly after moving to Rome in 1955, published her first collection, Passo d’addio (Farewell Time), which Pietro Gibellini described as a canzoniere dello spirito—a songbook of the spirit.

It’s an apt description for Campo, who, obsessed with the life of the spirit and the strangely opaque mechanics of the fairy tale, often assumed in her writing the pose of an orphic enchantress. The fairy tale, for her, was in its ideal form nothing less than a parable, to be read as one read scripture, seeking secondary and tertiary meanings, parallel and secret narratives—which is to say, hermeneutically. Fairy tales were not, as they were for Bruno Bettelheim, the first stepping stones in a child’s psychological development but rather an entrée into the spiritual life. It’s partly for this reason—that is, her self-professed fascination with “the mystery that dwells at the deepest level of the tale,” which is “evident even in the smallest details”—that Campo’s way of writing about these familiar stories can often feel abstruse. The true fairy tale is fundamentally complete, a self-contained universe and vehicle of meaning, one that “needs to be read at every level at once.”

There’s something a touch tautological about all of this. As Campo writes in an essay on the Arabian Nights, “nothing that cannot be read in many ways is capable of holding our attention for very long.” Unsurprisingly, her prose is speckled with alchemical metaphors, mystical aporias, and paradoxes. She writes, for instance, of a “double movement” required of the fairy-tale protagonist: that “he must forget all his limits when he contends with the impossible and pay constant attention to these limits when he performs the impossible.” Don’t worry if this feels difficult to wrap your head around—as with most mystical writing, you’ve simply got to push through, a fact Campo herself is more than willing to acknowledge. “The inexorable, inexhaustible moral of the fairy tale is thus victory over the law of necessity, the constant transition to a new order of relationships,” she writes in another essay.

Campo’s hermetic theory of the artist posits ascesis, the withdrawal from the world, as a prime virtue.

Campo’s language, steeped overlong in ritual, comes on like a sibyl’s breath; in its very profusion, it can tend to obscure her more dogmatic opinions, cloaking her doctrinalism in a violet haze. A rigidly devout Catholic for much of her life, Campo praised aristocratic virtues wherever she found them, with the result that all of her writing is suffused with an undercurrent of conservatism that can seem, at first blush, to lie strangely with her interest in the fantastic. One way of reading her discussion of “the law of necessity,” in fact, might be to replace “necessity” with “cultural progress.” A broader narrative of cultural decline runs through The Unforgivable and finds its clearest expression in the titular essay. On one level, “The Unforgivable” is a screed against “the miserable biochemical world of tomorrow,” in which “thought,” as Campo writes, “will be no more than a serum, and consciousness no more than an integument.” Against this trend she sets her imperdonabili—figures, like the poets Boris Pasternak and Marianne Moore, who stood apart from history and the dictates of their moment. The peculiar linking of perfection and beauty effected by these figures, Campo writes, is “an aristocratic characteristic.” On one level, this is a simple declaration of formalism; as Campo goes on to suggest, the paired ideal of perfection and beauty “is, in itself, the supreme aristocracy.” But there’s something broader to be sussed out here as well: an interest in the aristocracy of the spirit.

Campo’s imperdonabili are a varied bunch. The German poet and essayist Gottfried Benn, for instance, “is unforgivable because he maintains that the poet should not be the historian of his time.” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Sicilian nobleman who authored The Leopard in the final years of his life, likewise has an air of the untimely about him—in Campo’s view, he was a writer “indicted for refinement, liable to the lèse-majesté of the masses.” Even Proust, who Campo clearly views as transcending the label, can be fruitfully read as one of the elect. “Proust’s work is above all a feat of the highest nobility,” she writes, “a knight-errant’s geste in defense of a cult on the verge of disappearance, a beautiful and empty tomb.”

What unites the unforgivables is their willingness to assume an “aerial and terrible weight—of silence, and waiting, and duration,” in order to achieve what Campo terms, in reference to the writer Djuna Barnes, “this trappism of perfection.” Campo’s hermetic theory of the artist posits ascesis, the withdrawal from the world, as a prime virtue. The way she spins it, it can be hard to imagine there’d be any downside to this state of affairs. When, say, she praises Lampedusa’s “prodigious indifference to false problems,” she seems to be talking about worldly problems. You have to wonder, if only for a moment, what she would have made of a figure like Richard Strauss, the quintessential inner émigré, who remained haughtily distant from world affairs during the Nazi years, withdrawn into a cocoon of composition.

Sprezzatura, or style, one of Campo’s most cherished ideals, is also an aristocratic trait, characterized by an attitude of “magisterial nonchalance.” But the sense of aristocracy she values in her imperdonabili is often indistinguishable from sainthood. In the essay “With Light Hands,” she elevates sprezzatura to a sacred attribute—a vital improvisation of the spirit. “Sprezzatura,” Campo writes, “is a moral rhythm . . . the music of an interior grace,” and “is always delineated by a secret ascesis.” The ideal language, as she saw it, was a chiseled language, its contours severe as truth itself; following Proust, she believed “that the principle of style is the same principle that governs a traditional salon: renunciation.” Style, poetry, the art of the salonnières, destiny itself—all derive from, and contribute to, the same basic method. “Like Saint Andrew’s manna in the hollow of the vial,” Campo writes, “destiny is formed in the void by virtue of the same complementary laws that govern the birth of a poem: abstention and accumulation.”

There’s something alchemical about this language—the self as alembic, grace as a distillation. The repetition inherent to the style of Campo’s thought and its emphasis on emptiness and waiting, waiting to be filled, can be read, like her florid, analogical style itself, as an expression of her apophatic theology. We approach God only through descriptions of what He is not; the stronger these descriptions are, the sharper the outline we might trace around God, the clearer His corolla becomes.

From the 1950s on, Campo was part of a circle of Italian writers and artists, including the poet Mario Luzi and the essayist Margherita Pieracci Harwell, who were deeply influenced by the writings of Simone Weil. Campo’s own engagement with Weil’s thought was multifaceted and profound; in addition to editing articles on Weil’s philosophy, she translated works like Weil’s unfinished play Venice Saved and selections from La source grecque, including Weil’s famous essay on the Iliad. And while Campo would eventually grow disenchanted with Weil, who she felt had failed to give herself over to a coherent theology, Weil’s mark on her writing would remain indelible—a fact that remained true even as Campo’s religiosity grew into conflict with her mysticism.

In the mid-1960s a constellation of forces deepened Campo’s religious convictions. Both of her parents passed away in the span of a year, driving her further into solitude. Then, in December 1965, the Second Vatican Council concluded, inaugurating a series of broad liturgical and ecumenical reforms that solidified Campo’s retreat into orthodoxy. Along with the philosopher and essayist Elémire Zolla, she helped to establish an Italian branch of Una voce, an organization committed to the preservation of the Tridentine Mass and opposed more broadly to the changes wrought by Vatican II. Campo’s feelings were passionate, bordering on the vituperative; in a letter to her friend Margherita Pieracci, she described a new mass she’d attended, rounding her caustic impressions up beneath the umbrella term lebbra: that is, leprosy.

The relation of Campo’s thought to Weil’s—the precise extent of the latter’s influence on the former—is often abundantly clear, but just as often strangely muddied. Weil’s formulation of attention, for instance, appears largely unalloyed throughout Campo’s essays, while in general her terminology bears a distinctly Weilian tinge. When Campo writes, for instance, that the “inexorable, inexhaustible moral of the fairy tale is victory over the law of necessity,” she is speaking in Weilian terms of the imperative to meet force with force. “The heroes of fairy tales are called upon to face many obstacles,” she goes on, “and the only way they can overcome these obstacles is to exit the game of forces once and for all, seeking their salvation in another order of relationships.”

But things become more curious when we consider the problem of affliction. We can think of affliction as transcendent suffering, agony squared—a sort of negative grace, bestowed by chance, that rakes the soul. Acquaint yourself passingly with Campo’s biography—in particular her heart condition and resulting physical debility, which, in their genetic arbitrariness, would seem to map cleanly onto a certain reading of affliction—and you might assume Weil’s concept would take center stage in Campo’s own cosmology. You’d assume wrong. Whatever feelings of victimhood Campo might have experienced seem to have been sublimated into the markedly more positive attribute of attention. Attention, in Weil’s formula, is passive rather than active, an emptying or quieting of the self. In the stillness of the soul, a new and refined receptivity awakens. As in one of the many repurposings of fate that feature so frequently in her writing, you could say Campo took the quiet, still existence fate had given her and built a theory, and a life, around it. Stillness became her strength; through a process akin to the transvaluation of alchemy, she transformed herself into an Archimedean point.

Among the odds and ends of Campo’s erudition is a curious and obscure fairy tale motif, a ritual known as le branle des fées, or the fairies’ round dance. “Many fairy-tale heroes, born deformed or very small, are thrown by their mothers, determined to dare all, into the center of the round dance, into the thick of their own destiny,” she writes. Generally, “after a few moments of foreboding perplexity” on the part of the child, the fairies will pick him up, and grant him an odd sort of grace. “His deformity will not be removed, only elevated to a power.” The outcast will find, in his very outcastness, a means of reintegration into the world. “His misfortune,” Campo concludes, “will be a key for others.”

Campo took the quiet, still existence fate had given her and built a theory, and a life, around it.

There is something touching in this ornate emphasis on transformation. After all, we are always becoming something else in fairy tales—the young girl forced to scrub floors turns out to be the long-lost princess; a loathsome toad, granted a kiss, transforms from one moment to the next into a handsome prince. This insistence on human fungibility, on the sudden reversal or revelation of identity, was especially appealing to Campo. “Mystical substitution, once so common among the Trappists and the Carmelites,” as she writes, “is always, in fairy tales too, the ineluctable premise of the miracle.” It might even account for the fact that, throughout her writing life, Campo employed a variety of pseudonyms, publishing under monikers like Bernardo Trevisano, Giusto Cabianca, and Puccio Quaratesi. Stable identities, the fixities of fate, all seemed to nag at her like a hair shirt.

I imagine you could spend a lifetime with Campo’s work and never get to the bottom of her devotion to fairy tales, though it seems undeniable she was attracted to the fact that they make room for both fixity and flux, stillness and motion, and revel in reconciling these forces in unexpected, often paradoxical ways. “In a fairy tale, there are no roads,” Campo writes. “You start out walking, as if in a straight line, and eventually that line reveals itself to be a labyrinth, a perfect circle, a spiral, or even a star—or a motionless point the soul never leaves, even as body and mind take what appears to be an arduous journey.”

Metaphysically, Campo lived her life on the dagger’s edge of a sustaining paradox: namely, that nothing could contain everything. In her writing, scale is always being exposed as little more than an illusion. Attuned to higher mysteries, she finds this motif everywhere she looks, in every writer she reads, from Marianne Moore to John Donne, in whose poetry, for instance, the ”imago mundi is finally reduced to the dimensions of a room, a face, a pupil in which, as in the round, concave mirrors of van Eyck and Velázquez, everything is safely stashed.”

A face, a pupil, a motionless point—I’m tempted to add another nodal image to this list: a nut. Nuts crop up everywhere in The Unforgivable, spotting the loam of Campo’s prose like so much windfall. It’s no coincidence that her sole autobiographical essay, a roseate evocation of childhood that cloaks her experiences in the rhythms and motifs of fairy tales, is titled “The Golden Nut.” In at least one sense, the nut is a symbol, for Campo, of secrecy—perfectly sealed, perfectly whole, like the sayings of the Desert Fathers, which “were almost always very hard, uncrackable nuts, to be carried around for life and crushed between the teeth, as in fairy tales, in the moment of gravest danger.” Inside there is flesh, folded and crimped—life’s originary point, the mystery of sense.