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December 16, 2020

I couldn’t say how long we’ve been coming back here every evening. After having wandered over the sea in search of food, following the trail of the large ships or coasting the shores, we fall down tired upon this beach and, nestling on one side, we begin to brood. It is sweet at that hour to catch the last warmth of the sand that slowly cools beneath our bodies. The oldest among us remember the beginning of the brood; but there are many youths who know nothing about it, and to them this practice seems incomprehensible.

“Decadenza” by Giorgio Agamben, 1964. Introduction and translation by Daniel Lukes, PMLA, Volume 135, Number 5, October 2020, pp. 931–937 (7). Originally published in Futuro, vol. 2, no. 6, Rome, May 27-June 27, 1964, pp. 28-32.

Among the few exhaustive bibliographies of Giorgio Agamben’s numerous publications, “Decadenza” is always cited as being the first he ever published1. One of the reason it might be considered of value –aside from its intrinsic content– is the fact that it is not an essay, but a fable, a work of fiction. Moreover, it was published in the short-lived Italian science-fiction journal Futuro. Although Agamben is not known for his work of fiction, the intimate relationship between poetry and philosophy remains constant topic throughout his research. In one of his recent book Autoritratto nello studio (2017) he insists numerous times on this crucial matter. Here is one evocative example:

Qui prétend écrire de la philosophie sans se poser – explicitement ou implicitement, peu importe – le problème poétique de sa forme, n’est pas un philosophe. Voilà ce que Wittgenstein avait sans doute à l’esprit lorsqu’il écrit que «la philosophie, on devrait, au fond, ne l’écrire qu’en poème». Il en a été ainsi pour moi: je suis devenu philosophe pour me mesurer à une aporie poétique dont je ne réussissais pas à venir à bout autrement. Peut-être qu’en ce sens je ne suis pas un philosophe mais un poète, de même que inversement, de nombreuses oeuvres qui s’inscrivent dans le champ de la littérature appartiennent plutôt, de droit, à la philosophie. (Autoportrait dans l’atelier, trans. Cyril Béghin, Paris: L’Arachnéen, 2020, pp. 66-67)

Who claims to write philosophy without posing – explicitly or implicitly, it doesn’t matter – the poetic problem of its form, is not a philosopher. This is what Wittgenstein probably had in mind when he wrote that “one should write philosophy only as one writes a poem.” It was like that for me: I became a philosopher in order to measure myself against a poetic aporia that I could not manage to overcome otherwise. Perhaps, in this sense, I am not a philosopher but a poet, just as, conversely, many works that fall within the field of literature belong, by right, to philosophy. (my translation; the translation of the quote by Wittgenstein is taken from Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch, Blackwell, 1998, p. 28)

“Decadenza” is not an exception though, as Agamben did published a poem a few years later, in 1967, which he dedicated to Martin Heidegger: “Radure.”2 His most recent book, it is worth noting, is about the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (forthcoming in 2021 with Giulio Einaudi).

Going back to “Decadenza,” translator Daniel Lukes provides a useful introduction, situating Agamben’s short story in the context of his earlier publications, linking it to some of the main themes he would later develop, and providing indications of how the overlooked story has nonetheless been interpreted so far by commentators. Here is how the first paragraph of his introduction reads:

“Decadenza” is Giorgio Agamben’s first publication, a short story that appeared in the Italian science fiction magazine Futuro in 1964 and was written in 1963, while Agamben was a law student at Sapienza Università di Roma. The story, an animal parable comparable to those of Franz Kafka, is about a community of birds by the sea facing uncertainty and possible extinction, and it deals with several themes central to Agamben’s philosophical preoccupations, especially those that define his first four books: human and animal and what separates the two; the origin of language and theories of voice, negativity, and death; the function of art and the political value of testimony.

The content of the short-lived science-fiction magazine Futuro is indexed in the Catalogo Vegetti della letterature fantastica, but the actual texts are not archived there (even with a proper registration). At the time of writing, a search through the Catalogo del Servizio Bilbiotecario Nazionale indicates that three libraries in Italy keep copies of the journal. The record from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze can be found here.

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1. To cite just a few:

2. An English translation of the poem “Radure” was proposed by Jane Wong as part of her thesis with the Architectural Association School of Architecture: see Land in Suspension. A Poem, published in 2018, pp. 66-67. PDF.↩︎︎

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Zoological sketches by Joseph Wolf and Philip Lutley Sclater, Vol. 2, London: Henry Graves, 1867, Plate XXVIII.

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