[p.207] LINGUISTIC AND THEMATIC CROSS-CURRENTS IN EARLY MALTESE LITERATURE

Oliver Friggieri

A history of Maltese culture may be said to reflect in various ways the history of the whole community. Since, much more than in the case of larger countries, Malta could never do without foreign contacts, necessarily causative of a complex process of influences, adaptations, and reactions (and, consequently only through a study of a set of assimilations can the scholar arrive at a true definition of a Maltese identity) such a history, be it political, social, or cultural, is bound to assume a comparative character. This may be all the more so owing to the fact that what one may euphemistically call foreign contacts were nothing less than foreign occupations. The conditions which characterize and modify the process of, say, a political history of subordination may boil down to be the inalienable causes of analogous conditions in the cultural field.

The basic distinction is linguistic and not essentially cultural or psychological. Considering the two major languages which assumed, contemporarily or subsequently, the role of primary media for the elaborate expression of a community's experiences and ambitions, one has to start by distinguishing between Italian and Maltese. The dialectical relationship between Italian and Maltese has been looked at, up to a few years ago, as controversial, or worse still, as the unhappy and not easily reconcilable intercourse between a Latin culture, the presence of which in the island goes back many centuries, and a Semitic one, characterized mainly by the basic Arabic structure of the popular language which, owing to the island's uninterrupted contacts with the outer world, adopted a Romance superstructure. One has to define the nature of the apparently contradictory dialectic Italian-Maltese from a purely linguistic point of view. After getting a clear perspective of the language question, which constitutes one of the major political preoccupations between 1880 and [p.208] 1939,[1] one may proceed to deal exclusively with the literary question, since languages which find themselves in interaction within the borders of the same community are also bound to develop cultural and particularly literary cross-currents.

Considering the traditional presence of both languages in Malta, the first conclusion is that Maltese is prior to Italian as a spoken language,[2] whilst there is hardly any proof that Italian was ever adopted as the habitual speech medium by any local section of the population. When Maltese started to be written in the sevententh century and then on a much wider scale in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Italian had already established itself as the only and unquestionable cultural language of the island and had a respectable literary tradition of its own.[3] Maltese men of letters developed an uninterrupted local "Italian" literary movement which went on up to about four decades ago, whereas Maltese as a literary idiom started to co-exist on a wide scale in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Thus, whilst Maltese has the historical priority on the level of the spoken language, Italian has the priority of being the almost exclusive written medium, for socio-cultural affairs, for the longest period. The native language had only to wait for the arrival of a new mentality which could integrate an unwritten, popular tradition with a written, academically respectable one.

On the other hand, if one seeks to identify the literary spirit of the Maltese throughout the centuries, one should only find it obvious to include, and give causative prominence to, the said Italian-oriented Maltese production, thus rendering it as the first, or preliminary, phase of the whole spectrum. This [p.209] approach would seek to establish the extraliterary motives which debarred Maltese from all cultural manifestations, and why it was socially dishonourable to use it. Alongside this dichotomy, resulting in the co-presence of two distinct social stratifications, one should also seek to define the proper character of the Italian tradition, something which can be done through a comparative analysis of the peninsular literature and its forms of assimilative participation in the island during a series of cultural epochs, such as Renaissance, Baroque, Illuminism, and Romanticism.

Romanticism, both Latin and Germanic, revalued the Illuminist concept of cultural diffusion and while questioning and negating the true significance and practicability of cosmopolitanism, fostered the cult of national languages. This epoch, fundamentally based on the discovery of the sense of personal and national individuality, coincides with the first serious efforts towards the rediscovery of Maltese as one of the most ancient patrimonies, as Mikiel Anton Vassalli (1764-1829)[4] calls it, of the new emerging nation. One of the more important results of Vassalli's political and scholarly contributions is the embryonic development of a nationalistic way of thinking which centred around two basic aspects of nineteenth-century philosophy and aesthetics: (i) the affirmation of the singular and collective identity (an experience emanating from the absolute devotion the Romantics had for sentiment and passion, as opposed to the old and undisputed right enjoyed by the "goddess reason" which underlay, as evinced in almost all poetics since Aristotle, all previous works of art modelled with architectural precision and in a state of psychological equilibrium); and (ii) the cultivation and diffusion of the national speech medium as the most sacred component in the definition of the patria and as the most effective justification both for the dominated community's claiming to be a nation and for the subsequent struggle against foreign rulers.

This new national religion promulgated by Romantic Italy pervaded Malta during the period of the Risorgimento when writers, journalists, and political rebels sought refuge in the island, and alongside their activity in favour of a united and independent homeland engaged themselves in an analogous mission: that of inviting the Maltese themselves to fight for their own political and cultural rights against the British colonial domination. A significant example is provided by Ifigenia Zauli Sajani's novel Gli ultimi giorni dei [p.210] cavalieri di Malta (1841), and by Tommaso Zauli Sajani's dramatic playLisleadamo (1842) which managed to create quite a stir in the island.

This new awareness gave rise to an ever wider utilization of the national language for socio-political purposes and to the gradual growth of an indigenous literature fully conscious of the constitutional, social and cultural rights of the downtrodden community.

The two genres which characterize the fullest assimilation of European Romantic principles are the poetic and the narrative. The historical novel, for instance, based on a subjective compromise between objectives data and a personal disposition to recreate them according to one's political commitment, flourished most during the Risorgimento. In recalling the historic achievements of past generations, the novelist sought to revitalize forgotten myths and give dignity to the comtemporary national cause. The idealized depiction of remote historical experience is emotionally transformed into a vision where past and present are projected towards an immediate future. The objective representation of facts, characters, and environments is simply a pretext for rendering history an epic in which the martyrdom of the individual and the national family is the only valid contribution.

In his search for an identification of the patria the novelist is only concerned with translating the glories of the past into a spectacular scenery which is bound to be repeated at the moment in question. Structurally, his work tends to assume the form of an alteration between the depiction of creatively sublimated historical events and the passionate exhortation of his fellow citizens towards national unity and redemption. The logical progression of facts which constitute a plot is coupled with the formation of a patriotic philosophy based on a local mythology full of well-known heroes and an anonymous multitude of faithful, and equally valorous, forefathers. The Mazzinian dialectic right-duty is translated into a pragmatic religion: God has given every citizen the right to a homeland, but it is the citizen's own duty to build it up. Both the thematic and the narrative patterns are derived from those which are most typical of Italian risorgimental novels. On the other hand, Italian writers who sought refuge in Malta were inspired by the island's colonial condition and portrayed it as analogous to their own country's.

This set of thematic components synthesizes the main character both of the Italian historical novel of the Risorgimento period and of the Maltese one, written in Italian and then in Maltese, of the last decades of the nineteenth century and of the first half of the twentieth. The reasons of this harmonious assimilation, already hinted at in broader terms, are essentially two: (i) local writers had an exclusively Italian education and consequently they wrote in the [p.211] island's (incidentally Italian) cultural language according to the prevalent "foreign" criteria or sought to translate them into their early Maltese experiments; as a matter of fact the more important writers, such as Ġan Anton Vassallo (1817-1868), Ġuże Muscat Azzopardi (1853-1927), Anton Manwel Caruana (1838-1907) and later Anastasju Cuschieri (1876-1962), Dun Karm (1871-1961) and Ninu Cremona (1880-1972), started their literary experience in Italian; and (ii) the island's political situation easily presented itself as analogous to, if not even as the direct side-effect of, the peninsula's unification movement. This was enhanced all the more by the active presence of such prominent exiles as Gabriele Rossetti, Francesco Orioli, Luigi Settembrini, Francesco Crispi, Rosalino Pilo, Francesco De Sanctis, and many others.

The Maltese historical novelists writing in Italian, such as Gan Anton Vassallo (Alessandro Inguanez, 1861, and Wignacourt, 1862), Ferdinando Giglio (La bella maltea ossia Caterina Desguanez, 1872), Ramiro Barbaro di San Giorgio (Un martire, 1878) and Gaetano Gauci (I1 condannato al supplizio del rogo, 1905, L'ultimo assalto del Forte San Michele, 1907, Maria Valdes, 1909, and Notte di dolore, 1915) were creating a socio-literary atmosphere which, in the long run, had to make them realize that the national cause could be expressed effectively only through the native tongue, adequately handled according to the people's own aptitudes. The new dimension which Maltese, as the traditionally neglected idiom of the masses, profoundly needed was now provided by the modern aesthetics which conceived the popular speech medium as the best one for expressing the heightened emotion of a whole nation and as the only one which could suit the new content of art: the construction of a national identity in terms of its differentiating factors, the first of which was the language itself.

The process of local political emancipation and the history of the earlier stages of literature in the vernacular amply testify to the fact that this modern conception owes its dynamic presence in Malta, and particularly within the literary circles, to the island's complex participation in the Italian Risorgimento. This immediately suggested an inherent contradiction with regard to Maltese nationalisti erature written in Italian. It was now up to open-minded writers to employ the uncultivated dialect in order to express congruently this vision which concerned literature, politics, and society in an equal manner. On the other hand, the Maltese novelist was faced, like any other colleague, with an added challenge, since he was simultaneously expected not only to interpret the national experience in Maltese but also to make the dialect assume a respectable literary character.

This double programme was decidedly pursued by Anton Manwel Caruana [p.212] whose Inez Farruġ (1889), considered to be the first literary novel in Maltese, succeeded in fusing stylistic ambition with patriotic involvement, thus initiating a movement of language-cum-literature revival.

The structure of the Italian historical novel assumed a twofold nature: the author could either derive his central plot from known history and set it within a fictitious surrounding, or peripheral plot (e.g., Massimo D'Azeglio's Niccold de' Lapi), or create a central plot himself and insert it within the limits of a historically authentic, although partially transformed, background. This second structure, popularized mainly by Manzoni's I promessi sposi, was chosen by Caruana whose primary aim was to establish a constant parellelism between a (fictitious) family problem and a (historical) national crisis. A structural analysis of the plot scheme would show that the parallelism is so meticulously built that it ultimately reduces the private affair (or central story) to an allegory of the population's unfortunate condition under foreign rule (the outer plot).

The aesthetic myth of the people as the truest poet, a basic principle which determined the real character of European nineteenth century art, is the primary motive of the revival of Maltese as a means of literary, and especially versified, expression. The European movement, largely inspired and deter-mined by the democratic spirit of great liberal thinkers, may be said to have revolved around Herder's fundamental distinction between Kunstpoesie (poetry of art) and Naturpoesie (poetry of nature). Latin Romanticism subsequently started to adopt this dialectic as its creed and to see in the first component the poetry of the traditional and outdated past, and in the second one the authentically inspired expression of a new emerging generation endowed with the right to translate its own genuinely primitive feelings into poetry which was necessarily uncultived, spontaneous, and instinctive in form and content.

This dualistic conception of poetry, and of art in general, amounted to the distinction between classicism and Romanticism. Whereas in the major European literatures (such as the Italian, in which the heredity of the Renaissance was still alive) this new conception sought to assume an anti-classical identity, in the case of a small island like Malta, where the traditional Italian literature of the Maltese proved to be the concern of a numerically restricted and socially privileged class, it did not only imply a radical reaction against a worn-out aesthetic vision but also a hitherto unprecedented formation of a national awareness which inevitably had to be both political and linguistic.

Gan Anton Vassallo is the first important poetic personality to effect the earliest traces of development in the said direction. Being fully equipped with an Italian academic education, he soon started to participate in the new [p.213] aesthetic vision and to form a poetics totally oriented towards democratic experience. The people were to inspire the poet and to suggest to him the lexical, structural and thematic components.

Vassallo's contribution has a triple character. He introduced into Maltese the pathetic or sentimental attitude which represents man as an emotional creature in search of self-attainment through love. The dialogue with nature which surrounds human sensibility is transformed into the intimate document of man's psychological journey. Alongside this subject-object relationship the poet presents a fresh awareness of the troubled soul as the central unit within the texture of all human experiences. The third component of Vassallo's poetry is satirical. Man is not only conceived of as a victim of superior forces which are continuously exerting their influence on his sensibility (as Leopardi and Foscolo, for instance, had believed), but also as an active protagonist of a social environment. His romantic fables seek to caricature a set of public aspects and to render stale folkloristic material a spectacular panorama of what actually underlies the truest identity of a humble class-ridden society. Animal psychology, class conscience, personified sensitivity, animate and inanimate entities, dramatized traditions, dictions and situations of particular sectors of society are fused into one whole in order to create a colourfully critical interpretation of contemporary life.

Vassallo was actually trying to do in Malta what Fiacchi, Perego, Gozzi, Casti, Passeroni, Batacchi, Pignotti, and many others were doing in Italy. Thematically and structurally, his fables are an integral part of the movement. This pedagogical aspect of Romanticism flourished enormously in the island and may be said to be one of the major means by which the native idiom acquired justification for its popular-literary cultivation.

But the poet's focal conception of man is essentially nationalistic. It is man the citizen, as opposed to man the inhabitant of the planet, that determines to the greatest extent the character of his poetic vision. The heroic past is brought back to life through a dramatic re-elaboration which puts people, events and environments on an equal footing and which looks at history as an uninterruptedly evolving present, thus suggesting that the idealized patria of the Romantics is potentially on the verge of being actualized in definite political terms.

The school of Maltese poets writing in Italian sought to drive home this vision of the island. But since now it was only popular sensibility which could inspire works of art, and since Maltese was rapidly assuming a central role which was ultimately destined to substitute, at least partly, the traditional cultural role of Italian, this group of writers found themselves faced with a decisive dilemma: they had either to come to grips with the new situation (that [p.214] is, through resorting to the handling of Maltese as their artistic medium and through reaching a compromise with the immediate aspirations and the real educational standards of the majority), or to isolate themselves considerably from the mainstream and to reduce themselves to a consciously isolated socio-literary cast.

Consequently many of the Romantically-oriented poets of the early twentieth century soon found that the new challenge, both political and aesthetic, could not be adequately faced if not through their translating their own "Italian" Romantic identity into Maltese. The contemporaneity of the two schools, though linguistically much different and socially opposed, may appear, at first sight, to be analogous to the thematic and formal distinction between the old literature still written according to the Latin tradition and the new literature written according to some Semitic philosophy and technical apparatus. Maltese was looked at, up to a few decades ago, as a mere corrupt Arabic dialect, the "poverty" of which was further proved by its lexical assimilations from Sicilian and Italian. Since then Maltese has been developed into a highly refined medium of expression and has been chosen for all cultural and literary purposes by all Maltese writers. It has been elegantly handled by many and successfully surpassed its historical disadvantage, itself only a faithful manifestation of the island's colonial condition. One can only speak, there-fore, of a harmonious fusion between the older and the new tradition, a historically organic continuation of one complete process. The modern usage of the native tongue instead of the traditionally more respectable one, and the consequent democratization of literature are only new bearings within the same linear development.


[1] H. Frendo, "Language and Nationality in an Island Colony: Malta", Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, I, vol. iii (1975), 25. The language question, forming a central part of the island's Romantic experience, owes its origin to the active presence of Italian exiled rebels in Malta during the Risorgimento, on the one hand, and to the constant British efforts to introduce English and eradicate the traditional cultural language, on the other. O. Friggieri, "Il- Kwistjoni tat-Lingwa Għarfien ta' IdentitÓ Nazzjonali", Azad Perspektiv iv (1981), 25-42.

[2] The Arabs conquered Malta in 870 A.D. and thus laid the foundations for the language we now call Maltese. With the Norman conquest in 1090 A.D. the language of the island started to find itself open to extra-Arabic influences, a process which has widened the lexical stock and the syntactic patterns and which is still active nowadays. G. Aquilina, Papers in Maltese Linguistics, (Malta, 1961), 42-62.

[3] One of the earliest documents in Italian dates back to 1409 (Cathedral Archives, ms. A, ff. 171-176. A. Mifsud, "Malta al sovrano nei 1409", La diocesi, ii (7.i.1918), 243-248, and "La Cattedrale e l'UniversitÓ, ossia il Comune e la Chiesa in Malta", ibid, ii (7.vii.1917), 39-40; U. Biscottini, "II volgare a Malta ed una questione dantesca", II giornale di politico e di letteratura (nov.-die. 1934), 665-70.

[4] M.A. Vassalli, "Discorso preliminare", Ktyb yl Klyin Malti (Roma, A. Fulgonio, 1796), VII. The antiquity of a popular language featured very significantly in the concept of nationalism which European Romanticism sought to form and preach.