Writing Colonisation

Violence, Landscape, and the Act of Naming in Modern Italian and Australian Literature

by Sabina Sestigiani (Author)
©2014 Monographs 254 Pages


Writing Colonisation: Violence, Landscape, and the Act of Naming in Modern Italian and Australian Literature offers a unique comparative analysis of modern Italian and Australian literature which has never been attempted at such length and depth. The book investigates the relation between language, violence, and colonialism through comparing and contrasting selected texts in the Italian and Australian tradition (Dino Buzzati, Ennio Flaiano, Guido Ceronetti, Patrick White, David Malouf, Randolph Stow, and Barbara Baynton) and submitting them to a close analysis. The literary analysis is complemented by a critical reflection on philosophical discussions of language in continental philosophy, especially in the works of Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, and Martin Heidegger.
The book provides innovative insights into colonialism, shedding new light and ideas on the works of the authors under analysis. The book argues for a novel reading of Italian and Australian texts and employs this reading to interrogate the ways in which language has been deployed to negotiate the colonial experience – especially in relation to the interface between language and landscape – and relates this experience to Western interpretation of religious texts (e.g., Genesis), which have often been used as a justification of colonial exploitation. The book is an excellent reference for courses on comparative literature and postcolonial literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Landscape
  • 1. Definition of landscape: framing the world
  • 2. Mysterious and unknown landscape
  • 3. Utopia of no-place
  • 4. Terror and paranoia about place
  • 5. The sublime
  • Chapter Two: The Frontier That Frames the Desert: Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei tartari and Patrick White’s Voss
  • 1. Stories
  • 2. War and desert
  • 3. “These who died of landscape”
  • 4. The journey to the desert
  • 5. Imagining and becoming the desert
  • 6. Exploration and waiting
  • Chapter Three: Apparitions in the Desert: Drogo and Voss Meet the Unknown
  • 1. The Tartars and the inland sea
  • 2. Apparitions and bunya bunya
  • 3. Undone by the desert
  • Chapter Four: The Act of Naming
  • 1. Naming beyond the frontier
  • 2. Primeval language and Genesis
  • 3. Existence and speech
  • Chapter Five: “Silence, the Virtue of Speaking:” David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life
  • 1. Ovid, the sad exile
  • 2. The translation of a world
  • 3. Fragments of pure language
  • 4. Beyond the river of silence
  • Chapter Six: “An Angelic Rape:” Guido Ceronetti’s Difesa della luna e altri argomenti di miseria terrestre
  • 1. Guido Ceronetti and the moon
  • 2. An ambiguous oracle: the bible and the dominion over the universe
  • 3. The first naming: a mesmeric caress over the universe
  • 4. “Et indi vanno al regno de la luna:” myth, footprint and violation
  • Chapter Seven: “Le colonie si fanno con la Bibbia alla mano:” Ennio Flaiano’s Tempo di uccidere
  • 1. Historical background
  • 2. The African landscape as a stage and the Orientalist gaze
  • 3. Mariam: “something more than a tree, something less than a woman”
  • 4. Naming in the African biblical setting
  • 5. Sleeping in a tomb
  • 6. Leprosy: the manifestation of guilt
  • Chapter Eight: Visionaries and Prophets in Barbara Baynton’s “The Chosen Vessel” and Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline
  • 1. “And has Thou chosen me?”: the elusive smile of the Madonna
  • 2. Saint or whore? The interpretation that kills
  • 3. The mouthpiece of God in the desert
  • 4. Christianity, the Tao and the land on its own terms
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names



I wish to thank the former Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University, where I completed my PhD thesis, from which this book stems. In particular, I would like to thank Professor Andrew Milner, Professor Andrew Benjamin and Associate Professor Kate Rigby for their encouragement and valuable comments on my work. I would also like to thank my friend and colleague Dimitris Vardoulakis for his precious comments on previous drafts of this book and for his unfailing support throughout the years spent at the Centre. I also wish to thank Professor John Gatt-Rutter for reading and commenting on an article based on Chapter 6 of the present book and which was published in The Italianist in 2011 and Dr Denise Formica who helped me in my translation of excerpts of Guido Ceronetti’s Difesa della luna. I wish to dedicate a special thanks to the late Professor Bill Kent, Dr Kathleen Weekley and David Hudson for their editorial advice.

I am immensely grateful to Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, where I currently teach Italian Studies, for supporting and encouraging the publication of this book.

I also wish to thank Diana Rüesch from the Biblioteca Cantonale of Lugano, Switzerland, who supported my research when I consulted the Fondo Ceronetti/Flaiano at the Biblioteca Cantonale during my research trip in 2006 and honoured ← vii | viii → me with her courteous friendship over the years. In addition, I wish to thank Patrizia Dalla Rosa from the Centro Studi Buzzati of Feltre for her assistance during my research trip at Feltre, and the late Idolina Landolfi, former chief editor and daughter of Tommaso Landolfi, for her inspiring comments and encouragement in my research. I feel very fortunate to have met her and will always cherish our brief but intense encounter in Florence in 2006.

I wish to dedicate this book to my husband Simone and to our sons Tommaso and Leonardo and thank them for their love and patience. I would like to thank all my friends who helped me over the years in my endeavour. I have been so fortunate to have so many people around me who gave me moral and practical support. It would be impossible to name all them. Above all, I would like to thank Maria Macaluso from Prato, Italy, Nina Bivona from Perth, and Maria Tumarkin and Vivian Gerrand from Melbourne.

Extracts of some chapters of this book have been previously published as separate articles in the following journals:

Excerpts of Chapters 2 & 3 appeared as ‘The Frontier that Frames the Desert: Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei tartari and Patrick White’s Voss’ in Studi buzzatiani XII (2007): 51–69.

Excerpts of Chapter 5 appeared as ‘Silence, the Virtue of Speaking: David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of Language’ in Orbis Litterarum 65:6 (2010): 481–496.

Excerpts of Chapter 6 appeared as ‘L’angelico stupro: Guido Ceronetti’s Difesa della luna e altri argomenti di miseria terrestre’ in The Italianist 31 (2011): 416–434.

Grateful acknowledgment is hereby also made to copyright holders for permission to use the following copyrighted material: Toni Maraini, Poema d’Oriente: Poesie. © 2000 Semar Publishers, Rome-The Hague. Reprinted with kind permission from the publisher.

This book was published with the generous contribution of Swinburne University of Technology. ← viii | 1 →




This book seeks to establish a connection between language and violence in diverse colonial environments in Italian and Australian literature, arguing that the conceptualisation of colonial space, and its naming, follows Western devices which legitimise colonial subjugation. The subtitle, Violence, landscape and the act of naming in modern Italian and Australian literature, reflects its three main preoccupations: it explores the connection between language and violence in a colonial environment; it investigates whether the violence and subjugation typically encountered in colonial settings could be ascribed to a particular way of conceptualising and verbalising space; and it aims to establish a link between two literary traditions which, notwithstanding their different historical colonial experiences, illuminate one another. Indeed, the selected literature concerns itself with colonial violence that originates as a consequence of an interpretation of the environment. It offers stories that intertwine with the foundation of myths of colonialism and Western self-justifications for embracing it. The comparison of Italian and Australian literatures in their perceptions of colonial space is thus essential to disclose the similarity of their reflections on the formulation of colonial projects, possibly suggesting that this mechanism of self-legitimisation and conscience-purifying is a common Western alibi for conquest and land-grabbing.

The literature examined here, which offers a European perspective on the colonial conception of space, is illuminated by analysis of the etymology of such key ← 1 | 2 → words as ‘horizon,’ ‘limit’ and ‘frontier’ which in turn reveal a European (Western) viewpoint on space to be conquered. Louis Marin has noted that the word ‘horizon,’ at its first appearance in the thirteenth century, connoted the ultimate limit of the gaze: the limit of sky and earth. It was only in the eighteenth century and the Romantic epoch that the emphasis shifted from the sense of enclosed space to an idea of infinity: “oddly enough, ‘horizon,’ which originally meant a limit, the power of circumscribing a place, came to mean immensity, infinity – such as the limitless horizon of the ocean.”1 The word’s evolution must have also entailed a change in the perspective that the viewer assumed towards faraway lands looming into view. While until the thirteenth century it was probably enough to reside within the limits of the horizon to feel content and securely enclosed, perfectly surrounded by the delimiting lines of sky and earth, the eighteenth century use of ‘horizon’ evoked the uneasy feeling of being exposed to the open, in infinite space.

This transformation in meaning is certainly linked to the Romantic and pre-Romantic theories of the sublime, the feeling that arises as a result of the impossibility of grasping the infinity of landscape with the imagination. But the infinite horizon also alludes to a trajectory towards somewhere else; it acts as a “bridge […] between the visible and the invisible,”2 to borrow Marin’s words again. The other-worldly dimension which is glimpsed or simply imagined in following the skyline with the gaze is an unknown utopia which is separated by a limit, a border, a frontier. The perception of the infinite has thus made necessary the positioning of a limit in order to grasp the possibility of a place which is transcendental, other. The attempt to make sense of the infinite involves the partition of the horizon so that space can be distinguished from anti-space, ‘here’ can be separated from ‘there.’ The infinite is thus arbitrarily cut into so many enclosed visual frames as to match the number of viewers willing to perch on and observe from them.

The concept of limit acquires a juridical value when it separates political entities, thus completely distancing itself from the original idea of the hazy Romantic horizon. It becomes rather a sort of frontier insofar as it separates kingdoms, empires and republics. As Marin says, the concept of frontier once encapsulated the notion of ‘front,’ the border against possible invading military forces. It carries the idea of violence which is inherent in the war that was necessary to create it and, even in its more reassuring and pacific guise, the frontier is merely the result of a state of equilibrium between neighbouring forces. But what happens when the frontier demarcates with a line two inherently different powers? More precisely, what happens when on one side there is a well-defined border and on the other side a space fading into the unknown? It is in the process of discovering the ‘invisible’ which comes within the range of the ‘visible’ through following the line of the horizon that the space of the frontier becomes full of significance. ← 2 | 3 →

This book discusses human attempts to conceptualise spaces at the periphery of human-built Western empires or ‘civilisation.’ The space of the frontier, at the threshold of a limitless territory, plays an important role in the literature analysed here. The comparison of Italian and Australian literature is concerned with the conceptualisation of the idea of border and wilderness, that is, the remote space seen as untouched by humankind. All these themes pertain to colonialism and involve a territory beyond a frontier which cannot be seen entirely. This literature reflects not simply on the condition of being at the border, but also on the implications of moving towards what is beyond, the other world intuited over the horizon. In their mystery and unknowableness, these transcendent worlds have the characteristics of utopias, yet the approach to them is marked by a strong component of conquest and violence which is foreign to utopian perceptions of remote areas and which is more clearly related to colonial exploitation.

Human readings of these landscapes featuring frontier lines, borders and peripheries have an intrinsic connotation of violence. Interpretation proceeds along the line that cuts and wounds the territory. Thus the violence takes the double route of the conceptualisation of space that needs to be cut in order to be understood, and the utterance of space that also involves a degree of violence, as speech subjugates the land verbally. The exploration of this human formulation of natural surroundings draws on European philosophy that alludes to this violence of interpretation by bringing to the fore the distance between the observer and the observed. The subject-reader represents his/her object of interpretation in a subaltern position, hence highlighting the violence of the act of reducing the other to a mere object of scrutiny. For the purposes of this book, the philosophical analysis of the acts of naming and renaming in the process of coming to terms with new territories – which have emerged as consequences of boundary segregation and the need to distinguish one territory from another through names – is of primary importance, bringing to the fore the namer’s interpretation. In becoming a sort of synthesis of the viewing subject and the object being viewed, the act of naming retains the violence of an interpretation which is a projection of the subject’s desires.

In the context of a European tradition, the act of naming and interpreting nature dates back to biblical tradition, with its primordial roots in the Book of Genesis where Adam first gave names to objects around him. In this first act of landscape reading, Walter Benjamin portrays nature as steeped in a state of deep melancholia. It is impotent towards its namer: humankind. The argument of this book is that the act of naming the earth, a mournful and violent distancing from the existence of the named objects, objectifies the world. It exercises dominion over nature, forcing upon it an interpretation that speaks only about the subject. Images of violence deriving from an act of interpretation can thus be outlined in ← 3 | 4 → the following stances of European philosophy. Violence is suggested in the image of the silent melancholic nature named by humankind, as Benjamin discusses in On Language as Such and the Language of Man.3 An even more pronounced violence is attributed to the act of naming in Hegel’s theory of language where named objects are annihilated and absorbed by the viewing/uttering subject, and in Maurice Blanchot’s Literature and the Right to Death.4 Derived from Hegel’s Jena Lectures,5 Blanchot’s naming does not only objectify nature, rendering it sad; it also evokes images of assassinated bodies, prefiguring the necessary distancing from physical existence in speech. A certain degree of violence also characterises Martin Heidegger’s suggestion, outlined in The Age of the World Picture,6 that the world is conceptualised by the human subject as a canvas mirroring his/her perceptions.

The mixture of violence, names and colonial borders is the common denominator of this comparative study. In the selection of the literary works, my personal background also played a significant role. The realisation that my first name was already inscribed by a history of violence and borders was inspiring. Sabina is the name of an ancient region in Central Italy, traversing the modern regions of Lazio, Umbria and Abruzzo, where the old Italic people of Villanovian origin, i sabini (the Sabines), lived in tribes. They were the most ancient Italic people and spoke the Oscan language. In the years after the foundation of Rome, 753 B.C., this ancient population came into contact with the first Roman settlers and, famously, as the Sabine women were abducted by the Romans (Ratto delle Sabine) in order to populate the new city of Rome, the two peoples fused. Romulus, the first Roman king, and Titus Tatius, the legendary Sabine king, reigned conjointly over Rome. This part of ancient history, which has mixed with the legends of ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ and the foundation of Rome by Romulus, presents in nuce many elements of this book.

As the legend goes, Romulus founded Rome on the Palatine Hill by tracing the border of the future city and then building its walls. By stepping over the first border of the city against his brother’s warning, Romulus’s twin Remus is the first victim of the violence that radiates from the line of the frontier, and is killed by Romulus, who thus becomes the first king of Rome. The famous legend of the rape of the Sabine women is a story of violence and the crossing of borders. The old Sabine borders were wiped out by the Romans who forcibly united hitherto divided lands. Moreover, the mysterious power of names makes its entry from the cracks in the layers of these civilisations. According to some historical theories,7 the name Quirites which designated the Romans and the name of one of the hills of Rome, Quirinalis, derives from an ancient Sabine city, Cures (today’s Rieti). The hill of Quirinalis was an ancient centre of Sabine habitation. It is further postulated that the ancient secret name of Rome, which could not be pronounced ← 4 | 5 → for fear of blasphemy, also originated from this Sabine etymology, hence instilling doubt about a possible Sabine origin of the city. Even if this hypothesis is not unanimously recognised as sound by all scholars of Roman history, it is noteworthy that the name of Rome eventually completed the expunction of the Sabine population whose erased names potently still leave their trace in history today.

The frontier and the name are the two starting points of this investigation. In their juxtaposition, the selected Italian and Australian literature illuminates colonial projects that relate to the foundation of myth and bring to the fore the foundation of colonialism itself. Akin to the legend of the Sabine women and the violent beginning of the city of Rome – the early myth that enwraps and ennobles colonialism – it offers stories that sheathe some colonial project of sorts and that could be thought of as a kind of ‘literature of delusion,’ one founded on a delusional assumption of authority. The literature was not selected to compare their different histories of colonialism, nor to analyse the historical motivations of their experiences and their reflections in the literature. Rather, similar preoccupations with the founding myths of colonialism are found in quite a few examples of these literatures. The Ancient Roman Empire served as a connecting point for the Latin colonial tradition and the largest modern colonial empire: the English. The myth of the Roman Empire survived in modern eras and continued to inspire more recent imperial projects, including Mussolini’s African campaign of 1935, and Joseph Conrad’s reflections on the Roman colonial predecessors of the British in Heart of Darkness.8 But more unexpectedly, what later became the pivotal work of this book, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, dealt with a ‘Roman’ topic. This stimulated reflection on the origin of my own name and represented the first seed of a possible transnational inquiry across Italy and Australia. The fascinating, fictitious story of Ovid in exile at the fringes of the Roman Empire, where no one can understand his Latin and where the danger of barbarian invasions from east is a serious threat, not only mimics the same reflections on violence at the frontier and the danger of its trespass, which would mean to fall prey to the enemy, but also reflects the power of names, their evocative as well as annihilating power. Thus a name in the Roman bard’s mind can resuscitate a flower long forgotten, or anticipate death. Ovid’s reflections on ‘the beginnings’ of a place, and the ‘unmade earth’ of an uncouth colony, can be used to imagine what the early Romans who traced the border of the Palatine Hill or abducted the Sabine women might have been like.

An Imaginary Life encapsulated many themes: an empire at the border of unknown infinite, colonialism, a place at its primeval beginning, at the dawn of civilisation, and a poet’s capacity to create it through an almost biblical act of naming. The idea that the author of such a book is Australian and that the book has been ← 5 | 6 → seen as a metaphor for the linguistic shortcomings of early Australian colonisers when first exposed to the new continent also inspired this comparative study.

As Conrad suggested in Heart of Darkness, the Roman Empire preceded the British in the “conquest of the earth” and the Romans’ “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale”9 are but a first taste of the future effects of modern colonialism. Malouf’s decision to set his novella at the time of the Roman Empire is an indication that the motives for colonialism are common to every civilisation that looks at new territories over its ‘horizon.’ It is the first gaze beyond the line that divides territories and the objectification of the unknown land that makes colonialism possible. The novella made me realise that a transnational study of Italian and Australian literature could be attempted. It spoke equally of Italy, Australia and any other Western civilisation that embarked on colonial ventures.

This book is divided into three parts. Part One begins with a chapter titled ‘Landscape’ which defines and introduces the etymology of the term, analyses the concept of the frontier and the nature of human projections on it and what lies in the land beyond it. These notions are applied in the analysis of Italian and Australian literature in Chapters 2 and 3 which are devoted to Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe) and Patrick White’s Voss. These were selected for several reasons. First, they have a similar genesis, and both authors derived their inspiration for the setting from their time in the North African desert during the Second World War. The main character of each has a similar obsession with an unknown desert that lies beyond a frontier, but also an antithetical attitude to it. The diverging geographical settings – the framed desert of the Tartars and the unframed desert of the Australian interior – demand from the main protagonists a halt at the border of the frontier in The Tartar Steppe and a fusion with the territory in Voss. The juxtaposition of the two works ultimately illuminates the reasons for the characters’ contrasting conduct. Chapter 2, ‘The frontier that frames the desert,’ discusses the behaviour of the two main characters towards the frontier and the desert landscape which looms beyond it. Chapter 3, ‘Apparitions in the desert,’ deals with their encounters with the inhabitants of the desert landscape over the frontier. Similarly to Chapter 2, the juxtaposition of the novels and the characters’ differences in dealing with the inhabitants of the desert magnifies the role of the frontier and the violence that ensue its trespass.

Part Two proceeds with the analysis of the philosophical implications of the act of naming inherent in the process of imagining and exploring new lands. Chapter 4, ‘The act of naming,’ introduces the theoretical framework which supports the investigations of the literature in the remaining chapters. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and Guido Ceronetti’s Difesa della luna e altri argomenti di miseria terrestre. Unlike the first and second chapters where the ← 6 | 7 → analyses of Buzzati’s and White’s works were fused, Chapter 5 is dedicated entirely to Malouf and Chapter 6 to Ceronetti. This choice was primarily dictated by the nature of the literatures and the arguments made in these chapters. Whereas the argument about the role of the frontier in the behaviour of the characters of Part One necessitates a close juxtaposition of the literature, the discussion of the act of naming in Malouf’s and Ceronetti’s works, even if linked from a philosophical point of view, demonstrates such differences in setting and tone that the literatures could not have spoken to each other in the closer confines of a single chapter. Chapter 5, ‘Silence, the virtue of speaking: David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life,’ discusses the process of making a place through language and the act of naming. The setting at the fringes of the Roman Empire evokes similar topics to those raised in Part One, but expands them in a reflection on the language that names the frontier. Chapter 6, ‘An angelic rape: Guido Ceronetti’s Difesa della luna e altri argomenti di miseria terrestre,’ addresses the problem of the act of naming in the context of the 1969 first manned moon landing. Taking this as an example of astral colonialism, the ultimate frontier to be crossed by humankind, Ceronetti ambitiously explores the linguistic implications of the biblical authorisation to exploit and plunder all Creation’s resources, astral bodies included.

Part Three investigates other literature set at the frontier and expands the theoretical considerations concerning the act of naming. This time, the focus is on the similarity of biblical projections on the landscape at the frontier which violate its integrity and force a made-up European meaning onto the otherwise independent landscape. Chapter 7 discusses Ennio Flaiano’s Tempo di uccidere (A Time to Kill), a novel set in Africa at the time of the Italian Fascist colonial empire. In this chapter, Edward Said’s exposure of Orientalist devices to represent or stage colonial dimensions helps me to highlight the violence inflicted onto the ‘represented’ indigenous population and their African landscape. The reading of the landscape through the eyes of a European is loaded with Christian projections which violate the landscape and its inhabitants. Chapter 8 investigates two examples of Australian literature of the frontier: Barbara Baynton’s short story “The Chosen Vessel” and Randolph Stow’s novel Tourmaline. Both deal with the problems of the veracity of divine revelations and the implications of erroneous interpretations of phenomena which lead to violence against the landscape and its peoples. In both instances, Christian interpretations of landscape features are responsible for the violence that ensues. ← 7 | 8 →

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This chapter aims to illustrate attempts to conceptualise spaces at the periphery of human-built Western empires or ‘civilisation’ and the tendency to overload with supernatural significance territories outside framed landscapes. It explores the concept of landscape and its etymological roots by highlighting the fact that the idea of framed land, already suggested by the etymology of the word ‘landscape,’ is a recurring human device to keep portions of land at bay. It suggests that vast and unsettled landscapes, fallen prey to practices of colonialism, showcase this necessity to enclose. It then investigates the concept of the frontier as the site bordering on utopian unknown space, to whose maintenance colonialism has contributed with projections of desire. This utopian locus is set in the wilderness, perceived as a place devoid of humans where authenticity can be sought and found. The space of wilderness, fantasised in colonial eras as perfect like the Garden of Eden, when actually encountered by colonisers and settlers inspires visions of hell instead. Its apparent strangeness, monotony of geographical features and lack of humans inspire terror in explorers, settlers and colonisers from the Old World. The feeling of the sublime which is aroused along the frontier as a result of the individual’s incapacity to process unlimited and unframed landscapes is also explored. This chapter provides a theoretical framework for Chapters 2 and 3 where the concept of the framed landscape versus the unframed one is particularly resonant. The Tartar Steppe and Voss epitomise this juxtaposition. ← 11 | 12 →



ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
Colonialism Language Exploitation Postcolonial literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Sabina Sestigiani (Author)

Sabina Sestigiani recived her PhD in Comparative Literature from Monash University. She has published in scholarly journals such as Orbis Litterarum, The Italianist, Studi buzzatiani and Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique. She lectures in Italian Studies at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


Title: Writing Colonisation