On Sebastiano Timpanaro

Perry Anderson

Philology has a bad name as a discipline encouraging sterile pedantry. Today, few could cite a contemporary practitioner. But the discipline had at least one remarkable after-life, contradicting every preconception, in the strange career of Sebastiano Timpanaro, the Italian scholar and thinker who died in November last year, one of the purest and most original minds of the second half of the century.

He was born in Parma in 1923. His father, a Sicilian intellectual of the same name, who taught science in a Florentine high school before becoming director of the Domus Galileana in Pisa; joined the Italian Socialist Party after the war, collected drawings and championed a humanistic science in the tradition of Leonardo and Galileo. His mother edited Proclus and Pythagoras. When his father died after a long illness in 1949, the young Timpanaro brought together a posthumous collection of his essays on the history of science. The physical resemblance between the two men must have been striking. In the darkened hall of the family flat in Florence in the 1980s, there hung a gaunt, arresting portrait which at first glance looked – notwithstanding period features – as if it must be his: a mistake his wife, who works on 18th-century history, often had to correct.

Sebastiano Timpanaro Jr, as he signed his first preface, studied classical philology during the war at the University of Florence under the acknowledged master of the discipline in Italy, Giorgio Pasquali. Later, he was a youthful interlocutor of the famous German exile Eduard Fraenkel, who often taught seminars in Italy as a relief from duties in Oxford. By his mid-twenties, he was publishing reconstructions of the early Latin poet Ennius, and Fraenkel looked to him to produce a new critical edition of Virgil. But Timpanaro lacked the patience, as he freely said, for this immense task. His outstanding gifts of textual criticism took the form of adversaria, punctual annotations, that eventually yielded well over a thousand pages of meticulous dissection of passages from Lucretius, Martial, Virgil, Fronto, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, Servius, Sallust, the Historia Augusta – ‘the minor writings of a philologist with no major writings to his credit’, as he put it. His first book, written when he had turned thirty, was a rediscovery of the textual findings of Leopardi, whose fame as a poet had long obscured the seriousness of his classical philology. His second was a study of the emergence during the Restoration of the textual procedures associated with the German scholar Karl Lachmann, usually regarded as the main originator of modern techniques of recension – as opposed to emendation – of ancient texts, which he applied to Lucretius, the Nibelungenlied and St Luke alike. La genesi del metodo del Lachmann assured Timpanaro an international reputation, amplified by the steady stream of corrections and conjectures that followed it. In due course he was elected to the Accademia dei Lincei and the British Academy.

But there was always an anomaly. This distinguished expert in a province par excellence of academic scholarship never held a chair in a university, or indeed in any other institution of higher learning. Nor did he have independent means. For a living, Timpanaro worked as a proof-reader – a job never much regarded, let alone well-paid, that often left him in financial difficulties – for a small publisher in Florence, La nuova Italia, marginal in the Italian book trade.

Like his father, he joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1945, and was active on its left for nearly twenty years. At the elections of 1948 – the turning-point in the postwar history of the country – the PSI opted for a common Socialist-Communist list with the PCI, against the Christian-Democratic Party backed by the Vatican and the CIA. Timpanaro was among the socialist youth who opposed this decision, regarding the PCI leadership as little better than a lay version of the Holy Office, and in despair wrote a parody of the PSI Congress that was pushed into the policy, mimicking the forms of a Greek tragedy. But hostility to Stalinism never inclined him to indulgence towards social democracy, in any of its guises. So long as the PSI maintained its opposition to Christian Democracy, he remained within it. But when in an eventual volte-face the Party formed a coalition with the DC in 1964 – the first Centre-Left Government of the postwar period – its more radical wing, rightly predicting that the experience would transform the PSI more than it would reform Italian society, abandoned the Party to create its own formation (the PSIUP). Timpanaro remained a militant in this organisation and its sequel until the middle 1970s. His commitment to revolutionary socialism was not just a sentimental attachment. Later, rejecting descriptions of himself as an isolated intellectual, he wrote: ‘I have spent more hours taking part in political discussions and demonstrations, in undertaking the tasks of a so-called “intermediate cadre” (rather closer to the base than the summit) than in studying: by this I mean a literal computation of time, without any populist exhibitionism, if anything with a certain retrospective self-irony.’ His politics were Marxist and anti-Stalinist; critical too – this was much rarer on the Far Left in Italy – of Maoism.

Timpanaro’s political commitments informed and transformed his work. Technically speaking, what happened was that he widened his field of operations from textual criticism to intellectual history. Substantively, what drove the amplification of focus was his political engagement. Leopardi was the bridge between the two: the classical philologist who was also the most implacable adversary of Restoration culture, the poet who was a visionary materialist. Each of the two central works of Timpanaro’s mid-career was built round Leopardi’s heritage. Classicismo e illuminismo nell’ Ottocento italiano (1965) and Sul materialismo (1970) offer intellectual landscapes of the 19th and 20th centuries – the former on an Italian, the latter on a Western scale – seen through the prism of selected figures and movements, whose trajectories could be said to define the time.

The first book revolves around the peculiar position occupied by Leopardi in Italian culture of the post-Napoleonic period, and ends with a consideration of the line from the liberal patriot Carlo Cattaneo – hero of the rising against Austrian rule in Milan in 1848 – to the comparative linguist Graziadio Ascoli after the Risorgimento. The second develops a critique of Western Marxism for relinquishing the materialist legacy of Engels, and at the same time of structuralism for distorting the linguistic heritage of Saussure. Timpanaro could intervene on each terrain with particular authority. Few scholars had mastered the corpus of Leopardi or Ascoli so thoroughly; and in the vast literature on (or of) structuralism, none rivalled his grasp of the comparative history of Western linguistics. The briskness with which he could handle the edifying intentions of Manzoni, or despatch the dicta of such notables as Lévi-Strauss or Chomsky, came from professional knowledge.

Three themes governed Timpanaro’s output in this period. The first was specifically cultural. If European Romanticism swept the board as ideology and aesthetic under the Restoration, he argued, its success was due to a distinctive combination of traits. On the one hand, as a post-revolutionary outlook, it benefited from the break-up of the aristocratic side of the Enlightenment, displacing its etiquette of surface gallantry with a new sense of seriousness and inward passion. It was able to draw on elements in the Continental struggle against Napoleonic expansionism such as the right of peoples to independence, the longing for peace, rejection of the cult of military glory. Finally, it could claim to have liberated art from the tyranny of classical imitation – conventional Aristotelian unities, marmoreal diction. On the other hand, Romanticism fulfilled the need of new bourgeois classes to assert themselves without running the risk of a plebeian radicalisation of the battle against absolutism, of the kind that had marked Jacobinism. To this end, the most serviceable ideology was a flexible Christianity, melding apposite doses of tradition and progress. Politically, the Romanticism of this period was by no means always conservative – for every Chateaubriand or Novalis there was to be a Hugo or Mazzini. Nonetheless, a diffuse religiosity exhaled in any number of idiosyncratic forms, and a lachrymose populism of nativist more than democratic bent, were characteristic of virtually all its varieties.

It was against this dominant pattern, Timpanaro maintained, that a counter-culture ranged itself: the classicist tradition whose greatest voice was Leopardi. Within this classicism there were purely or largely nostalgic currents, fixated on dead forms. But its most intransigent and coherent expression defied the sentimental verities of the age. Rejecting the Romantic cult of the Middle Ages, it looked back to the republican virtues of Athens and Rome, and scorning every brand of spiritualism, it reclaimed the most unflinchingly materialist thinkers of the Enlightenment: La Mettrie, Helvétius, Holbach. This was a classicism, isolated from popular feeling in a season of counter-revolutionary stagnation, whose aesthetic forms were often deliberately archaising, vehicles of a polemical disdain for the pandering rhythms around them, as those of Lucretius had been in antiquity. But its intellectual and political outlook – its refusal of any compromise with the broken-backed world of the restored monarchies – was far in advance of typical Romantic postures.

In the work of Leopardi, this classicism brought into exceptional focus a tension still for the most part latent in the Enlightenment itself. Here was Timpanaro’s second fundamental theme. For once he had detached himself from his upbringing, Leopardi combined the progressive social and political impulses of the radical Enlightenment with an unyielding pessimism about the prospects for human happiness, even under the best society, that marked his work off sharply from the Age of Reason. Nature, to which so many 18th-century thinkers had appealed as the beneficent force by which the tyranny of prejudice and artifice of custom stood judged, gradually changed shape in his vision, becoming the malignant stepmother whose cruelties – illness, infirmity, senescence, death – ultimately condemned all human beings to helpless misery. A consistent materialism afforded no intellectual comforts. But the temper of Leopardi’s pessimism was not stoic: it recommended no renunciation of the passions, remaining loyal to what pleasures could be found in the world. Nor did its conclusions have anything in common with Schopenhauer’s later metaphysic of misanthropic resignation. Leopardi’s response to the weakness and insignificance of human life in the cosmos was the opposite: a titanism calling for universal solidarity in the battle against nature, that every life must lose.

Timpanaro was hardly unusual in admiring Leopardi’s genius. Standard progressive appropriations of Leopardi dwelt on his hostility to clericalism or his egalitarian republicanism (his proto-politics) or his materialism. Timpanaro, however, singled out his pessimism as Leopardi’s most original and important contribution to a contemporary culture of the Left. This was a much more unsettling move. Gramsci had famously recommended (the formula came from Romain Rolland) ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intelligence’. But this was a pessimism of tactical calculation, the precaution of the lucid strategist disinclined to underestimate the enemy. In prison, Gramsci did not see Leopardi as a kindred spirit, criticising him for his conception of nature as fundamentally hostile to man. Indeed, in a revealing mistake, Gramsci took this to be an expression of ‘turbid romanticism’, blind to historical progress. Reversing Gramsci’s judgment, Timpanaro argued that it was not merely compatible with a revolutionary Marxism, but its necessary complement.

This was an untimely message in Italy, where the insurgencies of the late 1960s lasted through to the mid-1970s. Timpanaro warned the Far Left to which he belonged that any one-sided exaltation of ‘praxis’ ignored at its cost the ineliminable element of passivity in human experience, all that is inevitably suffered rather than done. To acknowledge it, he insisted, was incumbent on any true materialism. In a time of jubilant activism, a more disconcerting and unpopular message could hardly be imagined. Timpanaro was at pains to point out that psychologistic dismissals of Leopardi’s pessimism as the despair of a deformed invalid – a traditional stock-in-trade of his critics – were of no avail. The poet’s scoliosis certainly forced his attention to the relation between human beings and nature, but, Timpanaro wrote, ‘the experience of deformity and disease is always registered in Leopardi’s work at a level that transcends individual lament for a purely private and biographical fact; it is not even to be explained in terms of a purely poetic introspection, but becomes a formidable instrument of cognition.’ In fact, Timpanaro reminded his unwilling readers, Leopardi’s larger cosmic pessimism, his absolute conviction of the impending annihilation of the world – ‘a refutation of every myth of the immortality of human works’ – was shared by the most sanguine of Marxists, Friedrich Engels, physically and temperamentally his opposite. It was the co-author of The Communist Manifesto who wrote: ‘Millions of years may elapse, hundreds of thousands of generations be born and die, but inexorably the time will come when the declining warmth of the sun will no longer suffice to melt the ice thrusting itself forward from the poles; when the human race, crowding more and more about the equator, will finally no longer find even there enough heat for life; when gradually even the last trace of organic life will vanish; and the earth, an extinct frozen globe like the moon, will circle in deepest darkness and in an ever narrower orbit about the equally extinct sun, and at last fall into it.’ This was the ultimate fate – the end of the human race, from which successive militants from Blanqui to Lyotard were to dream of interplanetary escape – that put all voluntarism into proportion.

Culturally, however, the moment of the late Engels was separated from the time of Leopardi by a significant mutation. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Romanticism was a spent force and classicist reactions against it had vanished: Leopardi is the last major European writer to be a direct interlocutor of antiquity. Now, in the wake of broadening scientific advances, the dominant outlook of the age was positivist. A century later, no ideology had a worse press on the Left. In decrying its baleful legacy, all varieties of Western Marxism were united. Here, once again, Timpanaro went clean against the consensus of his own party (in the sense that Marx would have used the term). Whatever its limits or eventual simplifications, he maintained, the positivist culture of the late 19th century represented a break with religious myth and folkloric superstition, at a time when scientific truth could still seem a condition of bourgeois progress, and high culture had not yet cut all connection with popular aspirations. Philosophically it may have been mediocre, but its record in other fields, from the natural sciences to history, linguistics to fiction, was considerable.

By the turn of the century, however, there was a marked shift. Scientific and technological advance continued unabated, indeed even accelerated. But it was increasingly framed by anti-objectivist epistemologies and demarcations, whose target was any consistently materialist view of the world, which could now be dismissed as the illusion of a vulgar ‘common sense’ refuted by the development of the sciences themselves. In the arts, naturalist report yielded to symbolist experiment, depth-charges of wayward interiority, mystical longings or intimations of epiphany. The result was a culture of great brilliance, but much more cut off from popular life than its predecessor. Henceforward there would be a sharp divide between the high forms of an educated elite and second-rate fare destined for the masses – a populist semi-culture typically ‘instilling petty-bourgeois ideals of moralism and maudlin sentimentalism’. The tasks of cultural unification that positivism had once set for itself were abandoned. This split-level structure, Timpanaro argued, persisted right through the new century and was still basically intact. The style of mass culture might have changed, but the disposition of the elite culture had not. At these altitudes, idealism in one variant or another – most of them subjectivist – remained the norm.

One famous episode of the traverse held Timpanaro’s particular attention. Freud had started out as a typical product of the positivist culture of the Victorian medical profession. His original premises were robustly materialist, but as his theory of psychoanalysis developed, it became more and more detached from the neurophysiological hypotheses that initially underpinned it, ending in a speculative system that had effectively cast off scientific controls. ‘Doctrines which started as more or less imaginative “metaphysics” and later became serious sciences are common enough (it is enough to cite evolutionary theory in biology),’ Timpanaro wrote. ‘Psychoanalysis has pursued the opposite path: though its aspirations were seriously scientific at its birth, from the outset it contained an admixture of speculative tendencies and then increasingly regressed to a myth.’ On the other hand, if it was true that ‘psychoanalysis as a therapy records ever more failures, while psychoanalysis as a theory finds its most ardent advocates among literary critics and philosophers,’ this did not mean that it was intellectually nugatory. There could be no doubt that Freud had greatly enriched our knowledge of ourselves. But he had done so in the sense of Musil or Joyce, rather than Darwin or Einstein.

To demonstrate the difference, Timpanaro took for his object a text that Freud himself declared to be not only an indispensable part of his theory as a whole, but which he claimed had found more general acceptance than any other, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The work Timpanaro devoted to this touchstone is a technical tour de force that is also the most entertaining of his writings. Il lapsus freudiano (1974) brings the skills of the philologist to bear on the claims of the psychoanalyst, using the procedures of textual criticism to query the machinery of Freud’s explanation of parapraxes. Examining Freud’s examples one by one, Timpanaro showed how often errors of memory or slips of the tongue that Freud had attributed to repressed sexual materials were to be explained more persuasively by a standard set of deviations from the lexical norm, ‘corruptions’ of which philologists had developed their own fine-grained classification. Freud’s explanations, by contrast, were typically captious and arbitrary, resting on chains of association that could be altered or alembicated more or less at will – Timpanaro had fun generating his own variants, from the same materials and with the same logic, reaching even more far-fetched conclusions. True cases of ‘Freudian’ slips undoubtedly exist, he argued, but the great majority of those discussed by Freud were closer to the mistakes of ancient or medieval copyists. Psychically repressed material could find its way to the surface through parapraxes, but Freud’s insistence that the springs of these must be sexual in origin was a further weakness of his account, since they could equally well be social or existential: it might be apprehension of the lower orders or fear of death that had escaped the censor.

The Freudian Slip is a firework display of erudition – alternating tracers of playful and polemical learning criss-crossing the analytic night. The combination of Timpanaro’s recondite skills and anomalous occupation had found its perfect object. He read the examples of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life with the eye of a proof-reader, and the mind of a classical scholar. Behind the wit and energy, there lay the secret of Timpanaro’s occupation. He was a proof-reader not out of choice or circumstance, but under the pressure of intense neurotic distress. In conversation he once said: ‘my rancour against Freud comes from the failure of psychoanalysis to cure me.’ He was paralysed by two pathological fears. The first was of speaking in public. It was that, he explained, which had made it impossible for him to take any academic post. The thought of teaching in a university filled him with terror at being struck dumb at the lectern. The only time in his life, he told me, when he lost all fear, and suddenly found he could address audiences quite fluently, was in the late 1960s. ‘In that atmosphere, my inhibitions vanished and to my surprise I had no difficulty in taking the floor at mass meetings.’ He reported the exception that political turmoil had made without any hint of pentecostal complaisance, a touch ironically. At such moments his expressive features would sketch a grimace. In his youth, Timpanaro’s looks must have been striking: a strong, delicate face, with a hint of aquilinity, firm, flat mouth and dark, piercing eyes. By the time I knew him one could sense handicaps, which he did not conceal. Below average height, his voice was harsh and his walk rigid and mechanical, with a slight splay of the feet. His eyes, of luminous beauty and intelligence, dominated every other feature.

The stiffness of his gait could have had something to do with his other fear. He suffered from severe agoraphobia, dreading any kind of travel. If my recollection of a rueful remark by his wife is right, only once in his life did he leave Italy, for a short trip into Yugoslavia. My impression is that over time he became increasingly a prisoner of Florence itself, a city he spoke of without admiration, ruined by the infestation of tourism. A glimpse of what it may have meant to move even within Florence can perhaps be had from a passage in a text set down some years after The Freudian Slip. ‘Anyone with any knowledge of neurosis, which need not be that of a psychiatrist but may be that of a “victim”, knows that agoraphobia can be “overcome” in a number of ways. One may succeed in crossing a public square, but only at the cost of palpitations, tremors, disorientation, terror of being unable to “hold out” to the far side,’ he wrote. Yet in such cases, ‘the “victory” is in truth a defeat, for the price paid is too high and will discourage further attempts: the phobia might admittedly have led to worse things (a sense of vertigo causing its victim to collapse in mid-course, an irresistible impulse to turn back after the first faltering steps), but it has been exacerbated.’

These words occur in a wonderful essay on ‘Freud’s Roman Phobia’, written in 1984. Its subject was Freud’s keen desire, yet for many years inner inability, to travel to Rome. What was the source of his fear? Timpanaro surveyed the explanations offered by those who had interpreted the phobia either as the expression of an ambivalence towards Christian Rome, as the destroyer of the Ancient Rome that he loved, or as the mask of an incestuous longing to possess his mother, and dispelled each of them. Paradoxically, he pointed out, all had dismissed Freud’s own account of his aversion, which was much more compelling: namely, that he identified Rome with the Catholic Church, whose bigotry and anti-semitism he had experienced early in life, leading him to identify passionately with Hannibal as the semitic hero of military triumphs over Rome, who in the end never reached it. In Freud’s words: ‘To my youthful mind Hannibal and Rome symbolised the tenacity of Jewry and the organisation of the Catholic Church’ – where the euphemism ‘organisation’ continues to testify to the intimidating power and menace of the Vatican.

Timpanaro’s vindication of Freud’s political explanation of his phobia was characteristic of his turn of mind, in its fairness to a figure he had otherwise criticised so sharply, and in its sense of historical context. But there was also a contemporary purpose behind his essay. In it he expressed in the strongest terms his loathing of Catholic persecution of the Jews, and sympathy with the nature of Freud’s identification with his people.

All his life, Freud remained convinced that his discovery of a theory so anti-conformist and ‘revolutionary’ as psychoanalysis had been made easier by his Jewishness, which involved him in battling against a conformist, deeply prejudiced ‘compact majority’ hostile to anyone who chose to differ from it. When he joined the B’nai B’rith association in 1926, he declared quite openly that, being neither a practising Jew nor a ‘Jewish nationalist’, he felt bound to the Jewish community, and proud to be a Jew, only because this left him free ‘from many prejudices which restricted others in the use of their intellect’.

Timpanaro’s admiration for this free spirit of loyal detachment is unconcealed.

But he ended his essay with a reminder that things had changed.

To accept psychoanalysis or to be a Jew is no longer to be marked out as a lonely and courageous nonconformist, struggling with the notorious ‘compact majority’ . . . psychoanalysis has been integrated within conformist bourgeois culture, where it has become a more sophisticated substitute for the old traditional religions. Today, the lonely nonconformists are often those who are prepared (without dismissing it out of hand) to submit it to critical discussion.

Nor was this all:

Furthermore, there now exists a Jewish ‘compact majority’, the State of Israel, which not only claims (with absolute justice) its own right to exist, but denies that right to another people whose claim is equally just, submitting it to a murderous abuse of power worthy of the European colonialism which helped to establish it. This State would not be able to pursue its evil policies without the backing of a much larger ‘compact majority’ – the Western, so-called democratic world. Today the very term ‘anti-semitic’ has lost all meaning, since the most immediate victims of Israeli arrogance are of semitic descent, while the Israelis are sustained in their crimes, financed and supplied with arms by devout Christians.

Those in the Diaspora who kept alive the tolerant traditions of cosmopolitan Jewry, disowning what was done in their name by the state of Israel, were still too few. Today it was not for Israelis, or Jewish apologists for Israel, to identify with Hannibal, the isolated semitic hero, but ‘Palestinians defending the claims of the Palestinian people’.

Timpanaro’s politics find their fullest expression in a singular book of the same period, Il socialismo di Edmondo De Amicis (1983), a work of translucent advocacy that has a special place in his writing. Its focus is one of the oddest literary careers of 19th-century Europe. Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908) is mainly remembered for the two disparate works that originally made his name. The first, Vita militare (1868), was a work of patriotic edification based on his experience as a Piedmontese officer in the last phase of the Risorgimento, when he had served against the Austrians at Custozza. The second, Cuore (1886), is a cloying children’s story that became an enormous bestseller – more than two hundred editions by the time it was translated into English and other European languages a decade later – and is still a standard text in Italian elementary schools. De Amicis became a byword for bien-pensant civics lessons and sententious moralism.

In the early 1970s, however, Italo Calvino ‘rediscovered’ one of his late novels, Amore e ginnastica, praising its erotic mordancy. Then in 1980, the manuscript of a novel De Amicis had written nearly a hundred years earlier, but had left in a drawer, was published. Its title was Primo maggio: a novel about socialism. It was well known that in his last years, De Amicis had preached what was generally held to be a sentimental doctrine of social commiseration and inter-class harmony. The all but unanimous reaction of critics – and of the editors of the text – to Primo maggio was to dismiss it as a botched product of these emotional shallows, of scant political and no aesthetic interest. In a close reading, Timpanaro was able to show that far from being a lifeless tract of weak-minded reformism, trundling cardboard figures through predictable motions, Primo maggio not only displayed considerable skill and nuance of characterisation, but embodied a critique of the bourgeois social order of the time of such intransigence that De Amicis may well have left it unpublished for fear of prosecution if it saw the light of day. Passing in review the novel’s major themes – De Amicis’s treatment of army, school, religion, family; his picture of the relations between capital and labour; his imagery of women and the case for sexual freedom; his conception of revolution, and what a socialist state should not look like; his sympathy for anarchism in its opposition to socialism – Timpanaro’s commentary has a crispness of intellectual attack that suggests rapid and passionate composition.

In retrospect Il Socialismo di Edmondo De Amicis seems like the moving finale of a classical tradition, for one last time bringing back to life a world of revolutionary thought and movement in its original freshness. Timpanaro was aware of what probably lay ahead. At a time when some of his former companions were still pinning hopes on Bettino Craxi he had foreseen the complete destruction of the Italian socialism in which he grew up. A little later – 1982 – he remarked more generally that Homo sapiens would perhaps ‘turn out to be a zoological species capable of language, thought, art and so many other excellent things, but incapable of equality or collective self-government’. By the mid-1990s he was saying that On Materialism now looked ‘like a fossil’, and would ‘remain so for a long time or for ever’. But the defeat of his political hopes did not mean a philosophical retreat. In his last years, he produced new translations of Holbach’s Bon Sens and Cicero’s De Divinatione, each with a long introductory essay, of pointed scholarship and intent. If the battle against religious superstition had not yet been won, there was more chance of swinging veteran battering-rams like these against it to some effect than in unseating the rule of capital.

Through all this, he never ceased to work as a highly technical philologist. One of his last books is devoted to the tradition of Virgilian scholarship in antiquity. Its concern is to rescue a line of textual commentary in the Roman world often dismissed as beneath modern attention. The central figure is a now obscure grammarian of the first century AD, Valerius Probus of Beirut, a philologist, the book argued in detail, perfectly entitled to contemporary respect – his merits neither to be overstated, as they were by his disciples, nor minimised, as they had been by posterity. Here lay one of the deepest motifs in all Timpanaro’s work, inextricable from the philological impulse itself. The recovery of neglected talents or writers to their proper reputation belonged to the same enterprise as the restoring of ancient texts to their integrity.

Of all his acts of retrospective justice, the most sustained was his recuperation of Primo maggio, but perhaps the most affecting is his portrait of the free-thinker Carlo Bini of Livorno, a minor carbonaro who translated Byron, helped Mazzini and wrote splendidly corrosive texts from prison on Elba, before lapsing into silence, illness and a premature bohemian death. Timpanaro’s long essay on Bini is one of his most personal. Because he was a modest man himself, who often stressed his own limitations, there may have been an element of fellow-feeling in his sympathy for the undeservedly obscure or defeated. But behind it was something else: an unusually strong, instinctive egalitarianism. In conversation, he rarely used the formal lei with anyone. In matters of style, he deprecated any hint of exhibition or pretension, detesting above all what he called intellectual ‘foppery’ (civetteria). As for questions of character, his categories retained an 18th-century ring: his most frequent term of dispraise was mascalzone – ‘scoundrel’.

What was Timpanaro’s position within his own culture? There is a sense in which the outward form of his existence was not so untypical. The Italian university system – in so many respects archaic and bureaucratic – has long driven many of the country’s best minds to exasperated refuge abroad. Arnaldo Momigliano, originally an exile in England, chose not to come back to the Scuola Normale after the war. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Carlo Cipolla, Franco Modigliani and Giovanni Sartori took chairs in America. In the next levy, Carlo Ginzburg, Franco Moretti, Giovanni Arrighi all gave up posts at home, more or less in despair, to make their way across the Atlantic. This has never been a real intellectual emigration, since figures like these have typically continued to participate actively in the cultural life of Italy, during spells at home or from abroad. But it has reduced the significance of native academic institutions for the circulation of ideas at large. If Timpanaro was isolated in his own country, it was not due to his occupation as a proof-reader, but to the unpalatability of his themes to the surrounding culture. The extent of his solitude should not be exaggerated. He was a correspondent on an 18th-century scale, not only with fellow philologists. In Florence he was a regular contributor, for over thirty years, to the country’s most distinguished and nonconformist ‘journal of various humanities’, Belfagor. Abroad, the most serious responses to his work seem to have come from England, where Raymond Williams wrote an admiring critique of his conception of nature, proposing an alternative materialist sensibility, and Charles Rycroft, from within psychoanalysis, largely endorsed his account of parapraxes. New Left Review, which published texts by and about him, was a point of external reference, though a journal where he regularly suffered the worst typographical indignities for one of his temperament and training, a stream of misprints flowing through his very diagnosis of just such errors (‘Australian Jew’ on the first page of a dismantling of The Psychopathology etc). He minded about such carelessness.

While the angle at which Timpanaro stood to the academic world in Italy was never the same as that of his compatriots abroad there is a common element in the style of this contingent of thinkers that is the obverse of the atmosphere of murky intrigue and fustiness that still clings to many of the peninsula’s universities. Just because higher education has never been truly modernised in Italy, much of it remaining in a kind of suspended dilapidation, academic professionalisation in the postwar Anglo-Saxon sense has never entirely taken hold. But that has also meant a relative under-development of baneful effects familiar elsewhere: peer group fixation, index-of-citations mania, gratuitous apparatuses, pretentious jargons, guild conceit – everything that stands between mind and thought in our culture. Absent much of this, Italian conditions can produce a relationship to ideas of a sui generis purity and directness, unmediated by any institutional protocols. This effect – it could be called an advantage of quasi-backwardness – also has something to do with the appalling quality of Italian mass culture. TV shows capable of deterring the most dedicated follower of folk-fashion have been a safeguard against populist affectations that elsewhere are now a typical compensation for professorial involution.

Without MLA or BBC, so to speak, the space for an older kind of imagination has survived. Two features mark it out. The first is an ability to engage with ideas of the past – proximate or remote – as if they were as immediate as those of the present, without any strain of reference or exhibition of learning. This is in part an effect of the second gift of this Italianate mode, its distinctive clarity and economy of expression. Sartre once remarked that the Italian language of the postwar period was ‘trop pompeuse pour être maniable’, like a decaying palace in which writers wandered around at a loss, no longer knowing quite how to take up residence. A too capacious syntax, permitting virtually any shape or shapelessness of sentence, has been part of the sumptuous décombres. Anyone who has ever heard a political speech, looked at an administrative document, or glanced at a daily newspaper in Italy will have a sense of this. The writing of what could be called, with some but not complete variation of meaning, the enlightened counter-culture of this period has been formed in reaction against the euphuistic slackness of so much public discourse. What its different practitioners have in common is a planed-down terseness and transparency. More obviously than any contemporary variant of French, it could be described as a classical prose.

Timpanaro belonged to this national set, though with traits that placed him somewhat apart within it. Suspicious of any deliberate literary effect, he wrote straightforwardly and forcefully, where necessary at the cost of formal finish. Where he really differed, however, was in his complete indifference to intellectual fashion – his considered rejection of every consecrated school of thought in his time. Judging the overwhelming propensity of the Western intelligentsia to be anti-materialist, in one specious guise or another, he took his ground outside any consensus, conservative or progressive. The claim that high culture since at least the Belle Epoque has always been predominantly idealist in tendency is a sweeping one. Was he wrong? He came to this conclusion long before the high tide of post-structuralism in the arts and conventionalism in the sciences: neither Kuhn nor Derrida, let alone Geertz or Rorty, rates a mention in his verdict on the epistemological slide of the age. It could well be thought that, as he denounced it, all he described was yet to reach its paroxysm.

The overall balance of intellectual forces is another matter, however. There were many signs, as the century approached its end, that the tables were being turned. Most conspicuously, the new genetics has started to have the same kind of cultural impact as the old in the age of Darwin. Evolutionary models borrowed from the latest biology are spreading everywhere: in economics, psychology, literature, sociology, international relations – the talk is all of adaptation, exaptation, mutation, replication. Popularisers like Gould or Dawkins rival the fame of Spencer or Huxley in their day. Even in philosophy, traditional nursery of every refinement of idealism, neurophysiology now has belligerent champions. Lent confidence by the spectacular successes of the natural sciences over the past twenty-five years, stretching from astrophysics to the genome, positivism – not the name, still faintly ungrateful, but the thing – is back in force. How far its return in these forms would have been a source of satisfaction to Timpanaro is imponderable. Certainly it has not been accompanied by any displacement to the left in the political world; famously, the reverse. But then he had never equated intellectual with social progress.

For Timpanaro, Leopardi had at his best represented a synthesis of firm republicanism and unswerving atheism. Timpanaro conceded that the poet’s republican convictions had receded as his cosmic despair – ‘existence is a disfiguring birthmark on the face of nothingness’ – deepened, prompting sporadic expressions of political indifferentism. But by the end, he argued, Leopardi had reached some kind of difficult equilibrium between them. Yet it was true that his understanding of society always remained limited – it was absurd to present him as a proto-socialist. Still more absurd was the attempt to make of him an ecologist ante diem. One of Timpanaro’s last major polemics was with his friend Adriano Sofri, once a leader of Lotta Continua, now in jail for the duration in Pisa on trumped-up – pentito – charges. At the time Sofri was a theorist of Green politics, who had sought to annex Leopardi for what Timpanaro saw as an emollient environmentalism, rising above class conflict in a rescue mission to save Mother Nature, in which all could impartially join. Leopardi’s vision of nature as malign stepmother, visiting ills ‘infinite and immedicable’ on human beings, was the antithesis of such a conception. His pessimism could not be put to any kind of Gaian service.

What of Timpanaro’s? He made no secret of its biographical sources. It was not an expression of political withdrawal or bookish influence, but the product of ‘direct, personal reflection on all that vast part of human unhappiness that is not related to man’s social but his biological being’. From a number of scattered passages, it is clear that his father’s long, painful illness and death were deeply traumatic for Timpanaro, bringing him close to breakdown. His own psychic disabilities, however related to this experience, must have reinforced the intellectual effects of it, and would have drawn him to Leopardi anyway. Suffering from another kind of deformity, he arrived at a parallel pessimism, equally impersonal, equally reasoned. It was not the same, because Timpanaro had so much stronger a sense of social oppression and injustice, above and beyond our natural caducity. At times, in the scales of misery, society seemed of small account to Leopardi – emperor and beggar alike pitched into the grave. So conceived, philosophical pessimism always risked becoming political defeatism. Timpanaro was not subject to this temptation. He was intensely – even on occasion, he admitted, too vehemently – political. But he was also quite free from the monomania of ‘pan-politicism’, as he once called it. The ideas of historical progress and natural catastrophe were not at odds in him. Yet perhaps time played a trick on him all the same. He had started out believing that an egalitarian revolution was possible, and amendment of our natural condition impossible. Ironically, today it is the opposite opinion that holds sway: capitalism cannot be abolished, but infirmity might be. In the 17th century, Descartes was sure that science would soon let people live for ever. His confidence shows signs of returning. When Timpanaro died, he was termed an enemy of the 20th century by another philologist. In such conditions, how could he remain actual in the new one? He would have had no truck with the question. ‘“Actuality”,’ he once wrote, ‘is a reductive, anti-historical and philistine criterion of judgment.’