Giorgio Manganelli’s Hilarotragoedia

TRANSLATION by Joel Calahan


Translator’s note: This piece includes the first three sections of the neo-avant-garde classic Hilarotragœdia, published in 1964 by Giorgio Manganelli, a novelist, essayist, editor, and professor of English literature at Università degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza.” Manganelli was a marginal figure in the Italian neo-avant-garde Gruppo 63, though this work became considered one of the major works of experimental prose published by group members, alongside works by Nanni Balestrini, Roberto Di Marco, Edoardo Sanguineti, and others. Manganelli referred to this hybrid nonfiction work on death as a treatise or pamphlet, a “do-it-yourself guide” or “theoretico-practical manual,” to be considered alongside minor works: horticultural guides, almanacs, specialist dictionaries. The elaborate, erudite, and baroque style of this work is characteristic of the author’s entire career, though Manganelli would never again enjoy the critical success achieved by Hilarotragœdia, his first book publication.


If every discourse begins with a presupposition, an unprovable and unproving postulate sealed within it like an embryo inside a yolk and a yolk inside an egg, it would have to be, in the discourse we have now set out upon, the following prenatal axiom: HUMANKIND HAS A DESCENSIVE NATURE. I mean to say, as a gloss: the human being has acted by a nonhuman force, by a desire or love or hidden intention secreted in the muscle and nerve, which he has not chosen or intended, which he ceases to desire and wish for, which presses itself upon him, adopts, invades and rules him, and which might be said to have the name of the descensive power or will.

To descend, we must note first, is a simple task. To carry it out, one need not fear stumbling over encumbrances, preclusions, denials, gravitational repulsions; nor must one sulk along the road with cerebral vibratile nostrils.  The entire universe is shrewdly structured so as to make one movement of all possible movements, a movement so stimulating and open, captivating, or cheery rather, natural, naturally quick with every quickening quickness. Whence it whistles through the air headed for a hypothetical target, either theological or infernal, celestially low—a target in which our weak, dissipate nature converges, as an inverted fan of lines centralize into a single point on a perspective graph.

Note how this descensive vocation is manifest in our body, fusiform toward the feet, how the body is suited to be an excavation device, our heels the excavators with which we dig our own graves in friendly clay. Like an auger we twist ourselves from the navel down, using that short, autonomous peg of an appendage between our legs, and also that truffle of a hallux essays the earthen earth that inhabits the devil’s tartuffe, and scratches open an abyss.

From the spire, that gargoyle, i.e., your bony head, my friend, my co-owner of genitals, my accomplice in urine distillation, my brother in excrement, and you too, estimate to which I wearily acquiesce, skull model, my creaking and obtuse nothing, my co-abortion, conversational lithopedion—from the lowest height lean out, abandon your precipice. Be faithful to your descent, human. Friend.


Giorgio Manganelli

Gloss on the concept of descent:

The vocation of going down is not natural at all, yet it is peaceful and friendly. Though it adds joy, it is sour and abstract. But it is laughable too, as the sneering abortions demonstrate with their furtive hilarity. It is decorous and arid, as can be seen in the imperious mummies, buckthorns, and smudges.

I reflect: blessed are they in the highest of the empyrean, they who press down one foot before the other through that glassy, archaic, deteriorating carpet. And it is certainly a great honor. But think of the abyss that opens below! Such an onerous payment due, that of a chaste life, economized genitalia, nibbling stomachs, dull anecdotes, floating through uranium clouds astringed with a puff of wind to four prioral pocket squares, while, with the rotation of the seraph machinery, with the alabaster madonnas and without menstrual fluids, the breath of the zodiac bestiary blows over the skirts;

and consider at the same time what peace, what natural and imperfectible peace touches the no-longer-hopeful lost spirits, located in the depths of the depths, unable to fall farther, no longer able to remember the heights, or all of what burned in their infinite plunge; nor harmonious with them, the same concept of height is negated by their utter depth. Consider how insolently they savor their horizontal sinecure, how foreign to them must be any envy of the heights—those who have not executed the fall, who ignore the abyss’s salvation, who have mortified the natural descensive vocation of the human limbs—those dizzying blessed ones, who shine through up above, divine chambrerie, busied, officious, always weak to cross over, to overturn champagne or chamber pot, they stumble in a comet’s mantle, or give the hairless and scarified hallux in asteroidal sampietrini. There: it is satis to tell you that your vocation at the precipice is not renounceable or censurable: but rested, it tries, so honestly. Solemnly too, since an entire life requires the consummation of a grand fall. And also: so rationally.

manganelli 2

Giorgio Manganelli

Note on “verba descendendi”:

Descending might be given various modes, or forms—that’s the clearly obvious thing. There’s the proverbial dying, killing, loving. Say it by itself, and descend seems like a plain, poor, outmoded verb: it sounds opaqued from use, dressed in worn-out, tattered clothing. Dictionaries unanimously confirm it to denote “moving or passing from a higher to a lower place”: which is almost frivolous. Whoever used it to denote bodily and daily gestures has in mind, now chops narcissistic shoes and spats for institutional staircases, spilling over from train or trolley food containers, or paranoid basements: but it vented, perhaps, a period of hot air balloons in mid-air, plump clouds in tights.

But observe the inceptive bend, of something that might have in mind its own collapse, and might hold it dear, and might bend and point to that thing intimately, but still might stall for time. As it shall be with a young woman, perfect for learned monologues, eager to cut through the tender throat, which might restrain (as in neoclassical-style rhetoric) care for children, or a lover’s divertissement, sans pedantry, carnal sophisms, the absentmindedness of suburban films, or the sacrament of alcohol. Already-bellicose casemates bend, now frowning and impotent with tattered coats, stripped and unpopular, by sociological survey; and the age-old quercus, fierce with grim theology, but worm-eaten by stubborn delusion. Bend is therefore a verb of consensus, of collaboration: it is applied to whomever good is not judged dead, so that it might not be proper, chosen, cultivated, performed with competence, a technical concentration by a decent hydraulic. All the others are made to kill with the fury of knives, backhands of germs, irate unclotting of blood; and made to throw into the black bowels of the earth, vexed with vile need, stillborns that refertilize in the stammers of their respective rebirths, the tasteless paste of an overcooked, bankrupt, and stale universe.

Others lower: a good verb, with some punch, but even more easeful, copish, presupposing a latitude of backsides, tunics, skirts, or farthingales. In any case, big bodies, but arrogant ones, are required: how the bodies had to be inflated but dreamy with extreme dredges, spiraling hecatodentates. See the green ones, scaled with comatose black, bristly with the most useless, melancholy splendor of flaps and wings, all enveloped with spurs and talons, like a deciduous chanteuse, its enormous mandibles already trembling, see them die for hot Wednesdays in the April of the thirty gazillion delinquents in mid-air, head first pulling the listless neck line to the grave, like the floppy hen leg backwards through the air. Such things lower. Nor is someone priestly, still civilized, absent from the eyes of the descending monsters: damp, educated; on the overhang of agony, memories of scattered echolalias of infancy.

Stones, monuments, temples degrade; a church does too. Not infrequently, in the case of churches, these dialectal sluices of mediocre dullards[1], subordinated and depraved functionaries who did not achieve the ambiguous worldly fortune of formal beauty—not infrequently in them is conceived, and reaches morulation, and concresces, and finally breaks apart, and flounders around, and thrusts toward the light, an agitation of denial, and flight, and rejection, a grim and unproductive nausea. Sacred, desecrated bodies. They shield themselves with relics; they clash with the sextons and priors; and, spitefully, they commence meditating on their own downfall. And so true religions of the past perished, and the truer present-day religions continue to perish. Insofar as they revolt against the dullards, they deny them and choose to die, so that they are not made complicit with the demonstrated falsity of the truth. It is not easy in this day and age for such a church to await its own death. The witty clerics are putting into action certain cautions and repressives and preventives of theirs, as they are wont, and insofar as the roar of dullards enormously berates and harasses them. Therefore, at this point the rebellious church is admonished for having a shrewd demeanor: double, even, and disloyal. One is not being disloyal exactly when one is speaking of finalities. Firstly, performing with a show of fervor her proper duties as hostess, as go-between, or as myrmidon of the divine, she will offer a warm expression to her devoted guests, and to the unfaithful will growl simulated rebukes. She will offer with dubious thanks a crazed flash of gold and the unhealthy pallor of long-limbed, prepubescent candles. She will proffer an ear, the attentive trade unionist of human angst, to claims and grievances; she will pass judgment on the justified and reasonable; and, from the bureaucratic angle, will take action upon their further request, with fully completed forms, filled out section by section, clearly legible, and not without the surplus of gossipy, confidential information that characterizes the diligence of the good servant, so up on high it might be said: “The parish of the county of —— is officious and efficient.” As hauteur gives a cast of great authority to celestial things, it—the church, that is—will render service so that certain cases of patent and euphoric injustice might be assuaged with a miraculous crumb: which is still challenging, precisely because these persons are safeguarded for the greater glory of the Hierarchy, and are repromised propaganda and a deferred slide into the abyss. But, ultimately, miracles, pardons, and assents, be they of a middling quality, faded and cast-off procedures, can always be botched and the derelict, unfortunate people be cheered and disremember them. With the trembling of voluptuous statues, with jests of expanding volutes, the church will attract the benevolence of those above—as angels greedily feast on Technicolor—as well as the destitute veneration of naïve believers.

And so a climate of faith will be made ready, not without shades of hysteria, to drag the most wizened monsignors into deception. Since, it is said, priests have for some time gotten wind of this desertion of the dullards, and keep an eye askance at commissures and footwear. And it is said that they nightly seize the churches under suspicion with ropes and hawsers, for false restorations and alterations, plastering them in police cars with beams and tubes, to cover up—as it is used in the phalansteries of the demented—the hidden, deteriorated molding. And we will not name those sacristans and clerics who nightly weld an enormous ballast of asses. Or who—feigning interest in draperies, candles, and other lovelies, as dear things to the sublime, a people of trinkets—perform nocturnal inspections, raids, searches: pious men, chaste and frugal women, plebeian sacristans and sententious gravediggers, scrutinize them bit by bit with laughable, urbane manners, scrutinize especially the fundaments and subcrypts, which would be their pudenda and excrementary parts. Which is a villainous thing. And so, up to the present day, they have managed by this eroding Christianity to hold back the revolt of seditious dullards.

But it’ll be a grueling night, windy, rainy, and bitter; a night for cloaks, for a massive scouring of the cemetery tombstones; a night for conjugal, charitable, lazy thighs; a night in which one pushes against the crust of the planet whirling us around. On a night like this, the drowsy, hungry god does not ask for braised beef and Barolo from the faithful; they aren’t even the faithful, on nights like this. And, then, the honest dechristianized temple will go down: first pushing, creaking, apoplectically puncturing the weight of the sclerotic walls; scraping them, rending them, tearing them wide open, with the viscous simmering of the half-quenched blood, the middle sticking out like the hand of a drowning man; and finally disemboweling them, toppling them with a crash; and it shall break from the walls splintering, undoing the violet fabric liturgy and resecting the holy meat of the senile belfries, and it shall sink bare amidst the shrapnel of gallinaceous rubble; and finally, desecrated, reconsecrated rugged pachyderm, moribund like the lizards, it shall hasten to the sweetness of the end.

But suicides plunge, woodland, mountainous suicides, animals disdainful of their own limbs, in altercation with the obstruction in the labyrinthine viscera, lovers of tyrannical, enormous genitals. They run to the tops of precipitous mountains, prodded by butting limbs, tendrils of rugged meat, pasty anteater tongues, with the gorgelike vulvae, ravines of pubic lichens, mundus, averni per lucum. They spring through the air, submissive to their own vocation, focused on the orgasm of that sweetest of crashes, limbs descendant, even precipitant.

Precipitate is a verb that has more of the civic, more of the mechanical in it; it describes a wake of impending limbs in the dry air, a furibund aerial muzzling, which escapes death. Litigious female, deluded and disillusioned female, disappointed chick whirling in flashy skirts, in bombardment; she blooms into a chrysanthemum on her own: on the sidewalk she unfolds, bends, undoes herself. A wonderful flight, an impressive undertaking, which decorates you with a dignity we are now seeking in vain. Serious archangels, with your tiny limbs you flog a sanguine language of “no” at the offensive struggle of unraveling the dishonest tangle. Before you we do not conceal ourselves in the captions of the illustrated weeklies. The draft you cause, hurried bodies, throws our curls into disarray. It embarrasses us.

A dead animal drops, as does a sealed and settled body, a catapulted projectile, and it all goes wrong: like the demon, they say, who gets the inferno to offer its ass to the depraved sky, situated opposite the street number of paradise; the theological blast dug into the empty skull of the sky, imprinted on the celestial buttocks. Into the instantaneous apse creep the larvae of fallen angels that metamorphose into demons. Others speak of ditches, that is, the limitless chambers opened up under the anus realtor to motivate the grand bureaucrat, thoughtful of the wellbeing of the Void. From which he created this termite mound, this labyrinth of urinals and right-wing papers, this bordello swarming with chrysalids, in order to populate, well into the future, the New Spacious District, the Most Eminent Ground Patio Neoplasm. Or, as others recount, the luciferous pratfall shakes a languor of ab æterno half-dead nymphs, a sordid lamp of fetuses, which give themselves over to furious masturbation with their blind paws, and with their half-dead seed make a mash of half-alive things, creating these mockeries of planets, these whorish comets, these humoral puddles of nebulae, the lurid universe having proliferated from these moths, from these cotton balls of white hair, which the prostitutes use to clean their genitals after use. And the whole of aforementioned termite mounds, bordellos, and shantytowns raises daily prayer to the Creator of the Inferno, he of the tapered hands, the most interviewed: Our Lord of the Galaxies and Tabloids.

And, finally, touches down. As honest Geryon did, who, having arrived perpendicular on the hopeless rocks of the most perfect “no,” efficiently placed forth his landing gear, extracted and extended (not without a contented stretching of his sluggish limbs) his brawny and bony clamps, and, the depraved face of man impassive, touched bottom.

manganelli snapshot

Giorgio Manganelli

[1] The Italian word is “mattone,” which means “brick” but also “dullard, boor, nuisance”; the Church is built from walls, brick by brick, in other words. The scene a bit later in which the Church walls are torn down is the punch line for this extended word play.


Joel Calahan (MAPH ’05) is a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Chicago and is currently a MAPH preceptor. He has translated work by Edoardo Sanguineti, Marcello Frixione, Laura Pugno, and Giovanna Frene. New translations are forthcoming this summer in Lana Turner. He is the coeditor of Chicago Review.

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