Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro published a dazzling, unconventional series of works, ranging from the natural sciences to the problem with Freud’s psychological theories. Timpanaro’s versatility and heterodox spirit should be an example for today’s left.

A wall in 1953 covered with posters for the Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Socialist Party, on whose left flank Sebastiano Timpanaro was active until 1976. (Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images)

Sebastiano Timpanaro’s name barely resonates beyond Italy nowadays. But he remains a truly compelling figure of the postwar international left. While he was a card-carrying and active member of various Italian socialist parties in his prime between 1947 and 1976, Timpanaro made a host of enduring contributions as a heterodox and, in his own terminology, “inorganic” intellectual of the radical left.

In addition to his home field of classical philology, Timpanaro also made sharp critical interventions on subjects as diverse as Italian poetry and prose, the history of materialism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and linguistics. In this article, I offer but a taste of the life and thought of this remarkable thinker. Timpanaro’s voice — pessimistic, funny, blunt, jargon-free, remorselessly antibullshit — deserves all the hearing it can get.

Between Two Cultures

Timpanaro was born in 1923 in Parma, just after the beginning of Benito Mussolini’s two-decade reign. He grew up in an educated but by no means wealthy household, the son of two high-school teachers. While Timpanaro’s parents were, he recalled, “reticent rather than resistant” under fascism, they opposed the regime enough to make life slightly complicated.

Sebastiano Timpanaro’s voice — pessimistic, funny, blunt, jargon-free, remorselessly anti-bullshit — deserves all the hearing it can get.

The increasing demands of allegiance to fascism for teaching in public (and subsequently private) schools during the late 1920s squeezed Timpanaro’s father out of the education system. A somewhat compromised opportunity then arose to become director of the Domus Galileana in Pisa, a cultural institute for the history of science, thanks to the string-pulling of Mussolini’s resident idealist philosopher, Giovanni Gentile.

It was an offer Timpanaro’s father simply could not refuse, and the family moved to Pisa in 1930. It was here, amid the Tuscan intelligentsia whose colors were to shortly turn a deep red, that Timpanaro cut his teeth and formed the enduring intellectual, political, and social bonds that anchored him to the class struggle.

Timpanaro’s upbringing was relatively strange in the context of Italian intellectual politics at the time. Under fascism, the dominant philosophical school informing the education system was the Hegelian idealism of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, which tended to cordon off the humanities from the sciences.

Timpanaro, however, was born into a family that straddled this deep cultural divide. His mother and father could discuss biology and physics as readily as a particular manuscript of Aristotle. In conversation with his parents, and in scouring their bookshelves, Timpanaro first developed the respect for scientific and enlightenment thought to which he would hold fast in all his subsequent work.

Timpanaro went on to study classical philology at the University of Florence under Giorgio Pasquali — by many reckonings, the greatest Italian philologist of the twentieth century. The Pasqualian philologist was expected to be conversant with anything and everything that might be relevant to the interpretation of a given classical text: the history which produced it, the language in which it was written, the literary tradition from which it had been formed, and the manuscript tradition by which it was handed down.

It was his apprenticeship to Pasqualian philology that equipped Timpanaro with several of his trademark habits: a sensitivity to the prehistory of texts and ideas; a feel for the empirical particular, a hatred for a priori commitments, and a distrust of excessive “mathematization,” systematization, or abstraction; a love for the obscure, and a need to render credit to all the unacknowledged “minors” of intellectual history; and the polemical spirit of challenging received wisdom with a fierce streak of independent scrutiny.

Crystalline Clarity

One of Pasquali’s quirks as a teacher was fomenting disagreement and dissent among his students. Timpanaro remained a good pupil in that respect all his life. For him, the highest goal of a provocative intervention was always “raising discussion.” His worst nightmare — a common hell for many a good teacher — was silence.

After Timpanaro finished his dissertation on the second-century BC Latin poet Ennius amid the final bomb showers raining down on Pisa at the end of the war, he became a teacher himself. At first, he taught history and Latin in a middle school (ages 11–14) in Pontedera, a town midway between Pisa and Florence, before moving on to various provincial technical middle schools from 1948.

The latter kind of “professional training” school — now defunct in Italy — was emphatically nonacademic, and the students were primarily the kids of poor farmers and workers. Such schools were designed to give the future hands of farm and factory a brief education before embarking upon a life of hard work. These schools were partly where Timpanaro honed one of the most remarkable features of his craft: a crystalline clarity of communication, in which concepts and histories would be explained to the reader without taking any knowledge for granted.

Timpanaro suffered from a crippling, degenerative neurosis which left him increasingly anxious in high-pressure environments.

At the end of the 1950s, Timpanaro’s health forced him to change tack dramatically. He suffered from a crippling, degenerative neurosis which left him increasingly anxious in high-pressure environments such as speaking in front of many people (but also in traveling, and even, later in life, crossing the road). The neurosis started interfering with his ability to get up in front of a class, so he sought quieter, more introverted work to stay sane.

In 1959, he signed on to a four-day-a-week post as a corrector of proofs at the small Florence-based publisher La Nuova Italia. Timpanaro’s experience in proofing gave him direct, trade-based insight into the important sphere of human linguistic errors and how they arise. Such a vocation in errors, crucial also to the art of considering error-ridden manuscripts that was classical philology, no doubt inflected Timpanaro’s dim view of Freudian accounts of linguistic slips in his most famous book, The Freudian Slip (1974).

The job at Nuova Italia was also perfect because it gave Timpanaro a free weekday for study and provided him with a real-world context for his politics. As Luca Bufarale has recently noted in a wonderful book on Timpanaro’s political life, Timpanaro’s role as a jobbing proofreader made him a worker who could participate in leftist life as a “true” worker — not, like many of his friends, agitating from the relatively secure seclusion of a university post.

A Committed Life

In 1947, Timpanaro and his parents joined the revolutionary left flank of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which had outpolled the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the previous year’s general election — the only time this would happen during the postwar period. The PSI had been a broad church from its foundation in 1892, encompassing factions of revolutionary and reformist socialism. But the party moved further and further towards the center during the 1950s and ’60s, culminating in its participation in the center-left coalition led by the Christian Democrats from 1963 onwards.

Timpanaro had always been loyal to the more radical left faction of the PSI, whose figurehead was Lelio Basso. In early 1964, Timpanaro and his mother followed Basso into the new splinter party of the PSIUP (“Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity”), which was founded in explicit opposition to the spirit of accommodation and collaboration with capital then infusing the PSI. It was here, in the minoritarian righteousness of the PSIUP — a party wedged between Italy’s old and new lefts — that Timpanaro did his most meaningful political and intellectual work.

The PSIUP performed relatively well in the late ’60s, but things unraveled in the early part of the next decade. After a disastrous electoral result in 1972, the party effectively split, with its right faction hemorrhaging into the PCI while the left faction rebranded as the PdUP (“Proletarian Unity Party”). Timpanaro remained in the PdUP until 1976, at which point he left organized party politics, disgusted with the “historic compromise” of Enrico Berlinguer’s PCI with the Christian Democrats.

Timpanaro’s politics were more or less consistent from the moment he committed to socialism.

While his official party life was over, Timpanaro continued to identify as a stalwart socialist until his death in 2000. He gravitated towards the “green” end of the spectrum in the 1980s and ’90s, developing a new ecological sensibility — but the green was always superimposed on an immovable bedrock of red.

Timpanaro’s politics were more or less consistent from the moment he committed to socialism. He was a Marxist-Leninist with a strong draw to Lenin, a sympathy for Trotsky at a political moment that was far from sympathetic to him, a deep hostility towards Stalin and the suppression of internal party democracy he represented, and a lukewarm caution towards Mao (which was rare on the radical Italian left at that time).

While Timpanaro, like many of his socialist coevals, had all but lost faith in immediate or imminent revolution, he despised the creep towards center-left reformism that characterized the mainstream Italian left in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. He was a particularly vocal and uncompromising critic of the PCI.

This rightward shift, and the intolerance of dissenting voices that went along with it, was unquestionably the main thing that angered Timpanaro. But his other major problem was with what we might call the intellectual culture of the Left. To Timpanaro, both the hacks of the PCI and the autonomist provocateurs of the New Left, organized in groups such as Lotta Continua, were united in a common disdain for the scientific materialism that in his view underwrote the very essence of Marxism-Leninism.

Timpanaro was a hostile witness to the “psychologization” or “theoreticization” of Marxism that he saw happening across Europe in this postwar period. As it suffered defeat after defeat, Marxist materialism was in Timpanaro’s view undergoing an unholy metamorphosis, soldering it to contemporary strands of idealist thought, especially structuralism and Freudianism.

Timpanaro saw this hybridization as a betrayal of the fundamental materialist premises on which Marxism was founded. His central battle was a defense of Marxist materialism from the encroachments of idealism. His weapons were the scientific Marxism of Frederick Engels, the enlightenment pessimism of the nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the tiny punctilious darts of the classical philologist.

Timpanaro’s Bedrock

The Timpanaro books of greatest interest today are unquestionably On Materialism (1970) and The Freudian Slip. But these works, which were devised and published at the summit of Timpanaro’s political and cultural activity, rested on a bedrock of at least two other fields in which their author was trained. The first was classical philology; the second, the history, culture, and thought of the countercultural nineteenth century.

Timpanaro’s earliest published work was a close philological study of the early Roman poet Ennius. This kind of work would, in the iron logic of Italian academic philology, usually have been a preparatory step towards producing a full “edition” of the text at hand. The creation of a full edition of a given text was the gold standard of twentieth-century philology, and Timpanaro was considered more than ready to produce a classic of the genre.

Timpanaro’s great mentors wanted him to nail one of these classics. But Timpanaro refused, citing impatience and inability. Instead, he carried on writing his “point pieces” — article-length treatments of particular textual problems from a range of (mainly Latin, but some Greek) prose and poetic authors. This handling of isolated and concrete problems helped furnish Timpanaro with the attention to detail that would define his more synthetic and ambitious later works.

The notion that intellectual history was not linear, but full of cases of people who had ‘got there first,’ became crucial in Timpanaro’s own cultural politics.

Timpanaro’s big intellectual leap came in the 1950s and early ’60s. With the laborious task of producing an edition off the table, he moved into more interesting and accessible work on the history of philology. His first classic was a book on Leopardi’s early philological work that was published in 1955. Timpanaro then went on to write another masterpiece showing how the wider movement of scientific philology was born, The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method (1963).

In Timpanaro’s account, the history of philology became a gradualist process involving the work of many unacknowledged hands over several centuries, rather than the sudden eureka-style spark of a single revolutionary light bulb. The notion that intellectual history was not linear, but full of cases of people who had “got there first,” became crucial in Timpanaro’s own cultural politics, constantly looking as he did to the past to furnish progressive examples for the present. As an epigram from Giuseppe Verdi that Timpanaro was fond of quoting goes: “Let’s return to the past and it will be a step forward.”

The second major field underwriting Timpanaro’s more explicitly political screeds was nineteenth-century cultural history. His 1965 book Classicism and Enlightenment in the Italian Nineteenth Century became another well-received classic. In it, Timpanaro argued ferociously against the contemporary distortions of intellectual history which saw the years in question constructed above all as the period of Romanticism.

For Timpanaro, cultural history did not work like this, and historical periods should not be branded under a single dominant sign. Instead, one should acknowledge their countercultural forces as part and parcel of the bumpy, conflictual stuff of history itself. Leopardi was not a Romantic, but rather was allied with a very different nineteenth-century current marked by a classicizing style and an expounding of eighteenth-century enlightenment principles. The poet’s pessimism and materialism were profoundly rational, scientific, and hostile to the spiritualistic fumes of Romanticism.

A Pessimistic Materialism

From these two fields, it was a short leap to On Materialism and The Freudian Slip. The former again gave pride of place to Leopardi, but this time built a whole political argument around his pessimist materialism. For Timpanaro, Marxism was going through a dangerous idealist moment. Its increasing focus on the world of human thought was giving it a kind of voluntarist complexion — the faith that any result could be achieved by the sheer force of human political will.

For Timpanaro, Marxism was going through a dangerous idealist moment, giving it a kind of voluntarist complexion.

Timpanaro thought that Leopardi’s relentlessly honest materialism would be a better partner for contemporary Marxism, emphasizing as it did the physical and biological limits hemming humans in — the passive side of experience; in Perry Anderson’s words, “all that is inevitably suffered rather than done.”

He wanted Marxism to face up to the fact that human capacity was not infinite, but constrained by the eternal roadblocks of old age, sickness, and death. These ills would always be there, even in our closest approximations to utopia. For Timpanaro, it was of the utmost importance to be honest about how the world is, even when you are dreaming of what it might be.

If On Materialism leveraged his experience in the field of nineteenth-century history and culture to make an intervention into contemporary Marxist theory, The Freudian Slip called on Timpanaro’s even deeper vocational identity as a classical philologist. He used this training to launch a rip-roaring attack on Sigmund Freud’s concept of the slip as worked out in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901).

The Freudian Slip summons the skills of textual criticism — a particular subfield of classical philology tasked with the classification of manuscripts based on common errors — to debunk Freud’s overcooked accounts of linguistic lapsus. For Freud, the slip is usually revealing of a deep glitch in the unconscious, and one should respond to it by following a complex analytic chain to get back to the psychic roots of the problem.

The opening example Freud picks is that of a young Austrian student who misquotes a line of Virgil. The omission of a single word, he argues, reveals the student’s unconscious anxieties about a possible pregnancy resulting from a recent careless sexual encounter. Timpanaro shows, on the contrary, that we can explain the mistake by reference to fairly basic principles of textual criticism.

As any textual critic knows, such errors are often made by a scribe naturally assimilating the foreign language they are copying to their own vernacular (a process called “banalization”). Timpanaro cut through the endless interpretive excesses of Freud to show another, much more material layer of psychological causality at play. It may not have been as interesting or entertaining, but scientifically, it held up under scrutiny. Freud’s unverifiable speculations did not pass the same test.

Late Rediscoveries

While Timpanaro never wrote anything as acclaimed and controversial again after this double bill, he continued to produce underread gems that still stand the test of time. Following his Leopardi line of inquiry, there was 1982’s Antileopardians and Neomoderates on the Italian Left, a polemical refutation of the tendency in contemporary Italian politics to distort Leopardi’s legacy. Timpanaro also extended his discussion of Freud in The Roman Phobia and Other Writings on Freud and Meringer (1992).

The book contains an account of Freud’s professed long inability to set foot in Rome, before Timpanaro goes on to discuss how a long line of Freudians discounted his own nonpsychoanalytic explanation — a deep-seated Jewish fear of the Catholic Church — in favor of Oedipal nonsense. Timpanaro also includes a translation of a critique of Freud by the Austrian linguist and philologist Rudolf Meringer that had anticipated many of his own arguments in The Freudian Slip some fifty years before, as he only discovered after the publication of that book.

Finally, Timpanaro produced a literary study of an obscure, recently rediscovered novel, Primo Maggio (The 1st of May), by the saccharine late nineteenth-century author, Edmondo De Amicis. The Socialism of Edmondo De Amicis: A Reading of “Primo Maggio” (1984) is almost completely unknown outside Italy. But the book stands, in my opinion, as one of Timpanaro’s most beautiful and personal works. 

Timpanaro’s spirit of polemical heterodoxy — of free and frank challenge to intellectual fashion — is something the Left could still use.

Early criticism of Primo Maggio had written it off as an example of typical De Amicis maudlin sentimentality. In fact, Timpanaro argued, the novel was a phenomenal document of the author’s conversion to a fully engaged Second International socialism, full of serious debates on issues dear to that phase of socialist history.

In a way, The Socialism of Edmondo de Amicis was a defense of the power of socialist commitment. A conversion to socialism could turn even the work of an annoying sentimentalist into a text reflecting on real issues and wrestling with proper political content. It was Timpanaro’s way of saying that one should never write socialism out of life and history, nor ever write it off as a transformative force.

Keeping the Present Honest

Why read Timpanaro today? His own pose as a Leopardian dinosaur — an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century “fossil” living in the wrong age — means that he would have resisted any attempt to make him “relevant.” Timpanaro despised the culture of “modernization” (attualizzare in Italian) that forced readers of Leopardi to twist the poet tendentiously towards legitimization of the political status quo.

Timpanaro himself would hate to be corralled for any agenda. It is also true that the conditions that produced a Timpanaro have long disappeared. What use might we make, then, of a thinker who was already a self-described anachronism in his own age?

Timpanaro’s spirit of polemical heterodoxy — of free and frank challenge to intellectual fashion — is something the Left could still use. Timpanaro had no compunction uttering the truth, even when it fell on deaf ears. He said uncomfortable things, going against the orthodoxy in left-wing circles at the time, whether that meant challenging Freud’s dominance, pushing for a revaluation of Trotsky’s ideas, or defending the scientific-materialist side of Engels, at a moment when being a mere “vulgar materialist” was deemed a cardinal sin.

Timpanaro was often considered an antagonistic annoyance in his day. But on many matters, history has proven him right. He lived at a time when the Left was undergoing a crisis of suppressed internal critique and enforced homogeneity of opinion. But his rasping challenges helped to maintain the radical left as a living, breathing town hall that was subject to rigorous debate.

Throughout his political life, Timpanaro’s philology was the disciplinary worldview powering such heterodoxy and keeping him attuned to the particulars of history. It was the force driving him to give credit to the neglected — the devil in the detail, which made him strive to see things as they really were and make that serve the cause of how they could be.

If Marxism was a philosophy uniquely bent on changing the world, and philology an art of interpreting small bits of it, Timpanaro represented an unrepeatably powerful combination of the two. Philology helped Timpanaro dust off the truth of the past to keep the present honest — and we should take him with us as we try to do the same.

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