Conscience and identity have always been at the core of Luigi Pirandello‘s major works. The Italian author, born in Sicily in 1867, explored such themes in “Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore” (translated as “Six Characters in Search of an Author“) and “Il fu Mattia Pascal” (in English, “The late Mattia Pascal“), among others: the key to understanding the sense of disillusion and dismay is enclosed in his philosophical approaches and it seems to be embodied in absurdity. The contemporary man could not have been any more different from the man of the late 19th Century and it is by experimenting with prose and characters that Pirandello seeks to find an answer.
In “The Late Mattia Pascal“, Pirandello creates an unhappy situation for the main character, Mattia Pascal. Things do not look good for his marriage and has unbearable fights with his family. Once he decides to leave for Monte Carlo and try his luck at a casino and succeeds, he finds out shocking news on his way back home: the body of a dead man has been identified as him and now everyone, including his family, thinks he is dead. He then builds a new life as Adriano Meis but fails. His new life does not come with a real identity and therefore he cannot marry the girl he has fallen in love with and is invisible to the law. On his return home, he discovers his family has moved on and therefore abandons any plan to claim his old identity back.
But it is in a particular and specific passage of Chapter 23 that Pirandello deploys his view on life for the contemporary man. He called it “Lanternosophy” (a compound of “Lantern” and “Philosophy“):
“And this feeling of life for Anselmo was in fact as a lantern that each and every one of us holds within himself; a lantern which makes us feel lost on earth, and shows us the evil and the good; a lantern that projects a sort of wide halo of light all around us, and beyond that it is a dark shade, the frightening shade that would not exist , were the lantern within us dim, but that we unfortunately have to acknowledge as real, as long as it lives within ourselves. Once dimmed with a blow, the eternal night will surround us after the smokey day of our illusion, or won’t we rather become slaves to the Being, who will have just broken the useless system of our reasoning?” [Il fu Mattia Pascal, ch. XIII]
These lanterns indicate the man’s inner perception of the world. Man wanders around in the darkness with no real destination or purpose and the little lanterns are just an illusion of grasping the meaning of life. Bigger lanterns happen to enlighten humanity from time to time, representing abstract values like beauty, truth, humbleness or honour but they all tend to disappear with time. In his view, Pirandello sees the great responsibility of the humanity to be able to realise and come to terms with the concept of existence in the conscience of man. This pessimistic perspective on the solitude of man is clear in the plot of “The Late Mattia Pascal“, where the character with no identity and social life has no future.
How can we approach this decadent perspective in our times? Do these concepts solely apply to another age, back in time, or may we find valid patterns in describing the current situation? It is true that Pirandello, as his contemporaries, tries to respond to the philosophical and existential questions of his time. There are elements that are inextricably tied to the beginning of the 20th Century, but in his concepts Pirandello theorised ideas that are certainly still valid. Today, the Western world is experiencing one of its greatest crisis since the end of World War II. One cannot pretend that man, driven by several and diversified factors, is not starting to wonder about his system of values as the economic crisis forces him to deal with the insecurity of a world that was believed tangible, concrete, perpetual, for decades. What happens if the system fails? Has man perhaps had too much faith in progress? Pirandello provided relevant answers in his own time but has also given us an ageless philosophy, one which offers us the opportunity to reflect and to place the contemporary man in a perspective that may help us identify the perception that today’s man has of himself.