A Blazing Defense of Individualism

022511_michelstaedter Benjamin Ivry in The Forward:

When the brilliant young Italian-Jewish philosopher, poet and artist Carlo Michelstaedter killed himself in 1910 at age 23, he must not have suspected that a century on, he and his works would be internationally celebrated. After initial neglect, a major exhibit, “Carlo Michelstaedter. Far Di Se Stesso Fiamma” (“Carlo Michelstaedter: Transform Yourself Into a Flame”), opened in October and is on view until February 27 at the National Savings Bank Foundation (Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio) of his native city of Gorizia in northeastern Italy, close to the Slovenian border.

“Carlo Michelstaedter. Far Di Se Stesso Fiamma,” features more than 250 manuscripts, books, photos and artworks. Of the last-mentioned, the most impressive are several poignantly painted self-portraits that would express melancholy even if the author’s tragic fate were not known. Accompanied by an elegant, profusely illustrated catalog from Marsilio Editori, the exhibit gives a strong sense of the complex identity issues confronted by sensitive, intellectually creative Italian Jews at the turn of the century. As Thomas J. Harrison’s insightful “1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance” (University of California Press, 1996) observes, the Michelstaedter family was “firmly Italian, even if educated, like most citizens of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire, primarily in German. Italian for themselves and Austrian for the state, they were primarily Jews for others. On such disinherited fringes of states, questions of identity are not a choice but a painful fatality.”

Michelstaedter was not alone; fellow northern Italians such as the tormented novelist Italo Svevo (born Aron Ettore Schmitz) and poet Umberto Saba (born Poli) were other neurotic overachievers. Yet their achievement came at an obvious cost.