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Starting from personal experiences which led him to give up teaching at the University of Venice, Alfonso Berardinelli concentrates on the difficulties and paradoxes of the relationship between educational institutions, on the one hand, and the anarchist and misanthropic character of modern literature on the other. The majority of the 'classics' of modern times, from Baudelaire to Kafka, from Tolstoy to Svevo, are 'scandalous' even today: one cannot teach them without trying to convey the shock of their extraneousness from the modern world and its culture. Modern literature is, in actual fact, almost always anti-modern, asocial, anti-social, apocalyptic. It is not possible to turn it into a simple 'object of study' without betraying it.
Talking about teaching modern literature is also a way of talking about the relationship between literature and society, such an old topic that there is now scarcely any desire to deal with it. But when the teacher in a school or university classroom opens a novel, a poetry collection, or most often an anthology or classic with its attendant notes, and starts reading, trying as hard as possible to grab the attention of twenty or a hundred students, at that moment something crucial happens that has to do with the relationship between literature and society.
We have to admit that things do not always go swimmingly. Often the factors in play (teacher, students, book) manage to come together only via boredom and a consciously applied sense of duty. The biochemical and cultural reactions that ought to be aroused when a literary work comes into contact with an audience of readers at school or university occur only by chance or by a miracle. If the catalyst (which should be the teacher) does not work, does not manage to perform its role, instead of facilitating and fostering the encounter between a text and a group of readers, it will go off at half cock. In this way the message in the bottle, which could be War and Peace or The Trial, remains shut up inside and floats desolately on into the unknown.
But is it really like that? Is that the duty, the aim, the reality of teaching? Does the encounter between modern literature and readers really happen, or can it happen, through teaching? Is it there that the free, authentic contact, with no limits, prejudices or prior aims, between works of modern literature and young students is realized?
Yes and no, because on the one hand universities and schools are cultural utopias, places where there is a freedom that would be even more unlikely elsewhere, but on the other they are alienating institutions, cages and prisons from which escape is imperative, even if they are run and supervised by warders who promise the marvels that culture brings, though they seem to lack them more than most.
So, in an institution that seldom resembles a cultural utopia, a caste of civil servants and bureaucrats, primarily interested in reproducing themselves, encounters a group of users for whom authors and books are obstacles to be surmounted in their progress, which in any case is an unhappy one, towards academic achievement.
If a large number of us are still concerned by the problems of teaching it is precisely in order to repair the damage inflicted by the institution where we have spent years and years of our lives, first as students and then as teachers. It is the memory of the frustration that spurs us on. In my own case, I still cannot forgive educational institutions for suffocating that potential within themselves for cultural utopia, intense free communication, and those promises of intellectual satisfaction that should in fact provide their very raison d'etre.
Before resigning from the university I taught modern and contemporary literature for about 20 years. I was quite passionate about my work. This was not because I liked …