The melancholy of knowing

Autobiography under the sign of Saturn


XXIII International Symposium of the Scientific Observatory

for Written, Oral and Iconographic Autobiographical Memory  


ROME (It) 3-4-5, December, 2024

Palazzo Mattei di Giove

Via Caetani 32-00186


Promoted and organized by:

Mediapolis.Europa ass. cult.

and by

Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea


Mnemosyne o la costruzione del senso

Presses universitaires de Louvain-Université catholique de Louvain

A journal devoted to the study of autobiography



Scientific Committee

Beatrice Barbalato (Mediapolis.europa – Mnemosyne PUL)

Fabio Caffarena (Università di Genova)

Antonio Castillo Gómez (Universidad de Alcalá)

May Chehab (University of Chypre)

Fabio Cismondi (Fusion for Energy,  European Commission)

Nathalie Frogneux (UCLouvain)

Laurence Pieropan (Université di Mons)

Edgar Radtke (Universität Heidelberg)



Irene Meliciani (managing director Mediapolis.Europa)



Melancholy, exacerbated self-awareness

Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste

pour entreprendre de ressusciter Carthage.
Gustave Flaubert

Letter to Ernest Feydeau, 28 November 1859


This call for papers invites one to reflect upon melancholy, particularly the melancholy of knowing.  This is a feeling that, as we will see, emerges after the Renaissance, a period in which, with reference to classical antiquity, melancholy is not seen as a pathology but as an extreme and exacerbated self-perception. The main figures of reference are two: Democritus and Heraclitus. The former embodied melancholy with laughing, the latter with crying.

Hippocrates, who, according to tradition, had paid a visit to Democritus bringing hellebore (the herb that was administered to people with mental ailments), ultimately acknowledges him as the wisest of all for being able to impart an ironic judgment on the world, his contemporaries, and himself. Melancholy as profound awareness, the meaning and hallmark of existence itself.

The Renaissance abandons the equation sloth = sin postulated in the Middle Ages. Dante places the slothful in Hell, in ice. Petrarch’s Secretum (1342-1343) marks a moment of passage between the Middle Ages and Humanism. Despite the apparent contradiction of feeling himself a sinner before Truth, Petrarch maintains that he can handle the melancholy of knowing with full awareness, and it is not by chance that he turns to Saint Augustine, his phantom confessor, citing himself. Thus, he makes use of accusation to achieve self-praise (Barbalato. B. 2006).


To essentialize the argumentation on this theme, we can say that, on one side we find Aristotle, Ficino, Milton, and Kant, and on the other side, Freud, Binswanger, Lacan, Tellenbach, and other professionals of the psyche. Melancholy has been studied from different angles and with interpretations that have varied over time.

In the psychoanalytic and psychiatric fields, melancholy has been observed and treated primarily as a pathology, omitting its creative components. It is regarded by Freud as a bereavement without object, which is expressed through forms of self-denigration and lack of self-esteem. Freud (1917), Lacan (1966), Binswanger (1960), Tellenbach (1961-1983) identify in melancholy the pain caused by an unidentifiable loss. Binswanger explains melancholy with the passage of the subject from the primordial status, in which the being was indistinct, an unus, to the act of expulsion or acceptance of elements that led him/her to recognize a reality external to him/herself. The question is whether melancholy is an ordinary psychosis (which can therefore be analysed in itself) or it is the background to any psychosis (Lacan J. 2005: 149-150).

Binswanger talks about the style of our own mode of experience (style is a word that he repeats several times), thus indicating the melancholic person’s particular propensity to forge, globally absorb every act of living (Binswanger L. 1987 French edition: 51-54 [1960]). The locution is important because, beyond the fact that Binswanger, a psychiatrist, studies and treats melancholy, he acknowledges how it is not a trauma that can be isolated, nor an intermittent pathological manifestation, but a hallmark of some individuals and their Weltanschauung.  


Having here touched on the types of intellectual commitment of different natures, that is, philosophy and history of literature and art on one side, and psychiatry/psychoanalysis on the other, the conclusions are not consequently associable. However, some pathways can be established.  

Marsilio Ficino and Jean Starobinski, men of letters and physicians, place themselves in this entre-deux

Jean Starobinski, a physician and a man of letters, investigated the various facets of this theme through a vast study. L’encre de la mélancolie. La mélancolie, un mal nécessaire? Paris, Seuil, 2012 (in this book, Starobinski brings together reflections preceding 2012) is a title that leads one to reflect upon the pairing writing/melancholy, and, as the subheading suggests, melancholy seems to be indispensable to giving consistency to thought.  

       Praise of melancholy

On this theme, Aristotle had followers especially during the Renaissance. In Problemata XXX, I, he regarded melancholy as a natural mood whose excess was not necessarily harmful but could rather be the condition of poetic or philosophic genius.

Following ancient thought, and Aristotle’s, Marsilio Ficino, a physician and a humanist, in the first of his three books on life (De vita libri tres, published in 1489) devotes several reflections to melancholy. Illa heroica, Melancholia generosa, is defined by men of letters, by Musarum sacerdotes, that is, an intellectual force, a sign of man’s dignity, to refer to the title of a work by Pico della Mirandola (1485-1486). (See the chapter “Melancholia generosa”, Klibansky, R.; Panofsky E.; Saxl, F. 1989 French edition: 389-432-chapter II, II [1964]).

Ficino suggests treatments, places body and soul in constant relation, so that the disquiet and the tension of a melancholic conscience can be lightened. He himself is under the sign of Saturn. For Ficino, the soul of the melancholic person withdraws from outside inwards as though converging to the central point of a circumference, and while it is thus concentrated upon speculation, it remains firmly there, and, to say it more exactly, at the very centre of man. (Ch. IV, book I. Ficino 2000: 29, French edition). Finally, melancholy is a centripetal force that leads everything to be led towards a centre, to strengthen the perception of one’s self. For Ficino, melancholy is emblem and firm pact of man with himself. It is said that he had had the figures of Democritus and Heraclitus painted on a wall.

In his pastoral poems (1645-1646) L’Allegro and Il Pensieroso, he gives a positive and spiritual value to the melancholic mood: “which essentially corresponds to an exacerbation of self-awareness”, write Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl about Milton (1989: 375 [1964]).

  Almost with the same words, about two centuries after Ficino and a century after Milton, Kant, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Ch. II, 40-41 [1764]), will once again underscore the convergence, in the melancholic person, of every perception and experience towards a central nucleus of the self. Kant maintains that the melancholic person does not care about other people’s opinions but depends exclusively on his/her own judgment. In other words, melancholy constitutes an act of concentration on one’s own conscience.


  As several scholars have observed (including Ágnes Heller and Eugenio Garin, the authors of works on the Renaissance man: Heller 1967, Garin 1998, and much earlier Jacob Burckhardt, 1860), the Renaissance is “the epoch of great autobiographies, actually, the era of autobiographies”, Garin affirms (Garin  E. 1998: 11), because, he maintains, modern man was a man in the making, was aware of this, and recounted it. It is possible to underline how this period saw a flourishing of apologies, of autobiographical narrations that justify their own actions and intend to explain them (compare various self-apologies: Ficino, Lorenzaccio, Cardano). In this great Promethean forge, melancholy, as Ficino’s book well illustrates, is recognized as a factor intrinsic to genius, and as man’s great leap towards knowledge of himself and the means he constructed for knowledge. The pessimistic vision of melancholy continues to exist, but in a position of very little dominance in this period of the Renaissance.


           The melancholy of knowing

  The theme that we are proposing refers to a post-medieval, post-Renaissance conception of melancholy that also invests our contemporary culture: the melancholy of knowing regarded as one of the expressions of the Baroque, and that should perhaps be framed more within Mannerism. As Daniel Arasse explains, Mannerism is introspective, it is the involution of movement, while the Baroque opens towards the outside (Arasse D. 2004: 202).

  The melancholy of knowing takes shape in written and figurative works from an autobiographical perspective, especially beginning from Mannerism, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In the period following the Renaissance, the era called modern, man develops a vision of himself that has much to do with the material instruments and the techniques with which he has been equipping himself. Dürer’s angel – a figure regarded by many scholars as the artist’s self-representation – is doubtful of the thousand instruments available to him. Astronomy and astrology are already seen as chimeras. Even though the interpretations of a work do not all converge, there is no doubt that Dürer stages the reflection upon the importance of the knowledge of not knowing and non-accessibility to metaphysics. He does so by putting at the top all the symbols that in the past had designated melancholy, observes them with perplexity, but does not look away from the future. “This limit is not a source of despair for the artist, while knowledge of not knowing is for him supreme knowledge” (Schuster P.-K. 2005: 94). Schuster reminds us that this etching has been regarded as Dürer’s spiritual self-portrait, and the representation of the melancholic angel as a personification of the artist (Ibid.: 101). The Renaissance artist, a demiurge, extremely confident in his own faculties, begins to critically reflect upon the instruments he has created and to challenge Humanism’s optimistic vision that placed man at the centre of the cosmos.


  Talking about melancholy means involving a very vast bibliography. The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Robert Burton constitutes a summation of what had been written up to 1600. Burton has his own portrait represented on the cover under the name Democritus Junior. He writes in the first person and explains that he made use of other people’s thoughts one step at a time, in a vertigo of references.

The Baroque multiplies the reflections/mirror images on melancholy (see, amongst others, the recent Aurelio Musi, Malinconia barocca, 2023). After the demiurge-man of the Renaissance, the following period plunges into experimentation, in the investigation of matter and of forms. Man reckons with extraordinary scientific and artistic achievements – Galileo, Copernicus, Bernini, and many other thinkers – and also with his own ghosts (see the work of Athanasius Kircher 1602-1680); taking all Renaissance knowledge to extremes, he begins to perceive the gap between his aspirations, the ever-advanced means available to him, and the results, which, albeit extraordinary, do not fully harmonize with his own self. Already a century earlier, (Ch. 2, book I) Ficino had warned against excessive abstraction: when man no longer directly takes care of the instruments he uses, but only theorizes, melancholy becomes a discomfort of knowing.

  Thus, we witness the passage from the idea of melancholy as a deficit in acting, to the melancholy of knowing, that is, to suffering due to excess of activism.

  The relationship with instruments and techniques is crucial. Already the Prince at his apogee had felt the need to make his public life coexist with his private life, finding shelter and meditating in his study, a small, windowless space in which he preserved what was subjectively closest to his heart, ancient works and finds (see Arasse D. 2004: 133). That is, objects become increasingly important, intended as external supports to the indefatigable search for dialogue with the world of experience (Meliciani A., television programme in 25 episodes, Rai-Radiotelevisione italiana, 1995).


         A Faustian theme?

A Faustian discomfort? Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl also refer to Faust and the melancholy of knowing in several passages in their extraordinary work Saturn and Melancholy mentioned earlier (see Part 3, Ch. 1. French edition: 384).

  Faust, a son of the Reformation, of the ethics of capitalism, strives to obtain every instrument of knowledge, selling his soul to the devil.  “[...] when [Faust] – writes Jean Clair – in Marlowe’s text, to increase his wealth, orders Satan to search the oceans to find the pearls of the East or to scour every corner of the New World or to fly to India to look for gold, he does no other than prolonging the accumulating frenzy of the Princes of this world. But when he begins to want to experiment with and transform the materials he has gathered, the study of the man of letters turns into a forge in which a Promethean fire burns. The metamorphosis of the theme is decisive, making us move from a theological era to a technological one” (Clair J. 2005: 2004. Italics is mine). The inauguration of the technological era would produce a melancholy that is due to the perception of the disproportion between man and the means that make him fall behind, and to the abandonment of theology.

  The second aspect of melancholy is connected to Cronus, which is identified with Saturn, the planet of melancholic people. The pressure of time, intensive exploitation of knowledge generates discomfort and leads man to question his own efficiency. This is a theme that becomes dominant with the Reformation, the Protestant ethic, capitalism. Saturn-Cronus has always been represented as the protector of riches (and of avarice). Dürer himself explains, in his etching Melencolia I, that the key means power, the bag wealth (Klibansky R.; Panofsky E.; Saxl F.: Ch. II 1: 447 of the French edition). These are symbologies that derive from antiquity, which nonetheless Dürer recontextualizes in the atmosphere of dawning Protestant reformism.

In the seventeenth letter on modern literature (1759), Lessing refers to a German Faust that has come into his hands. The speed race that takes place between seven devils is won by the two who proclaim, one to have the speed of human thought, and the other man’s speed to pass from good to evil. (Lessing G. E. 1876: 35 French edition [1759-1765]). Speed, duration, thus time. The great chimera of which Faust becomes the interpreter is that, by advancing, time corresponds to progress. But he himself will be crushed by it and will need external aid.  

The extreme activism postulated by Protestantism/capitalism also brings about awareness of limits. The Protestant Reformation of 1517 and Dürer’s Melencolia I of 1514: the reformist spirit was spreading. Dürer’s Angel is depicted amidst many instruments but, as Walter Benjamin observes, seems to no longer know how to use them! On Dürer’s Melencolia I, on the autobiographical aspect, we once again refer to the previously mentioned text by Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl. Already from the dawn of capitalism, a willingness to act, to collect, to exceed takes hold, and at the same time the discomfort of accumulation is perceived.

Melencolia I – writes Jean Clair – marks this very brief and singular moment of Western thought when the artist, the homo artifex, believes to have become a multi-mathematician, mathematician, engineer, surveyor, botanist and physician, capable of acquiring the knowledge and measure of all things, numero et pondere, while he discovers, captured, that no mathesis universalis is capable of reorganizing and bringing together the desjecta membra of the real” (Clair J. 2005: 206).

Dürer’s Angel (1514) is surrounded by instruments that could be those in the Prince’s study: ink, compass, sphere, scale, bell, athanor – the alchemic furnace; he is sombre, irked, but not depressed, he rather has a gaze that would like to see far away. On the left is the word ‘Melencolia’ held by a bat, the mammal that appears at dusk, the moment in which this feeling comes forth. The dog, endowed with perseverance and a fine sense of smell, symbolizes the indefatigable researcher, Benjamin points out (Benjamin W. 1985: 166 French edition [1925]). However, the angel is clearly in the grip of much perplexity. Jean Clair contrasts this image, which is not defeatist but troubled, with the image of a pensive, melancholic old man by Leonardo, (pen drawing, London, Windsor Castle, ca. 1513): “Where Dürer’s angel, with his gaze lost into nothingness, seems to have relinquished the hard work of geometry and architecture, Leonardo’s old man seems to be absorbed by a precise observation. It is the nature of physical phenomena that he questions, and not the metaphysical sense of an infinite universe. Where Dürer’s angel is a disciple of Plato, who practises an ideal geometry by means of instruments ‒ rulers and compass ‒ that do not demonstrate it, Leonardo’s old man establishes himself as a disciple of Aristotle, who investigates a scientia experimentalis. He observes rather than contemplates. Even though Leonardo is fully aware of death and of transformation. Dürer and Leonardo were fascinated by deluges, by catastrophes. Leonardo’s old man blends into a wisdom made of resignation and respect” (Ibid.: 207).

 Leonardo’s old man, like Dürer’s angel, rests his head on a hand, an icon that we find in many figurative works. More precisely, on a fist in Dürer. This is an ancient motif that is present in Egyptian sarcophagi, a sign of sorrow that could indicate tiredness or creative reflection, as it is suggested in the work Saturn and Melancholy (Ch. I, b: 450, French edition).

Incidentally, it should be noted: the oscillating state between a creative vision and a destructive one accompanies many paintings. Amongst them, the one by De Chirico, Mistero e malinconia di una strada (1914, private collection). A girl playing with the hoop heads towards a shaded area. De Chirico adopts a perspective for the right-hand side of the painting, the one in darkness, which moves downwards, and another one for the bright left-hand side, which moves upwards, perhaps proposing once again the dual vision of the melancholic person’s possible moods.


Without proposing forced parallels, we can nonetheless affirm that some elements of discomfort which emerged from the post-Renaissance period that inaugurates the modern era can today be tracked down in various autobiographies by men of science: the pressure of time, the handling of instruments, accumulation, the relationship with the object, the techniques that can operate outside their creator’s control.  

What is of interest to this call for papers is to investigate how the subject recognises itself in the melancholy of knowledge, in a relationship with science, which is certainly complex and discontinuous, as Foucault illustrates in the text Archéologie du savoir (1969).

Charles Darwin, Enrico Fermi, Ettore Majorana, Nikola Tesla, Robert Oppenheimer, Rita Levi Montalcini, in their autobiographical writings have expressed the melancholy of knowing, and in our contemporaneity more than ever has the relationship between man and the object of his creations proved to be fatal. Darwin regrets to have atrophied the brain towards the perception of aesthetics by continuing to work like a machine for grinding (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1887).

This call for papers invites one to consider works of self-reflection on this topic, particularly by scholars of the mathematical and natural sciences, without excluding a priori those by ordinary people, men of letters, and artists. We will accept proposals that aim to illustrate in what way a style, a semantic modality marks a life narration informed by the melancholy of knowing.



Daniel, Arasse, “Pour une brève histoire du maniérisme”, 188-202, “La règle du jeu”, 125-138, in id., Histoires de peintures, Paris, Editions Denoël, 2004.


Beatrice Barbalato, “Il pirronismo del Petrarca, ovvero il Secretum come aporia”, 99-115, in Mariapia Lamberti (ed.), Atti del convegno: Petrarca y el petrarquismo en Europa y América, UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autónoma  de Mexico (18-23 Octobere 2004), Mexico City, UNAM, 2006.


Walter Benjamin, Origine du dramme baroque allemand, transl. by Sybille Muller with André Hirt, Paris, Flammarion, 1985 [1925].

Ludwig Binswanger, Mélancolie et manie, transl. from the German by Jean-Michel Azorin and Yves Totoyan, revised by Arthur Tatossian, PUF, 1987 [1960].


Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621.


Jean-Marc Chatelain (ed.), Baudelaire. La modernité mélancolique, BnF Éditions, 2021.


Jean Clair, “La mélancolie du savoir”, 220-208, ed. by Id., Mélancolie, génie et folie en Occident, Paris, Gallimard, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2005.


Marsilio Ficino (French edition): Marsile Ficin, Les trois livres de la vie, transl. by Guy Le Fevre de la Boderie, Paris, Fayard, 2000, [new edition of the 1582 text. Original in Latin De vita libri tres, 1489].  


Jon Fosse, Melancholia, transl. by Cristina Falcinella from nynorsk, new Norwegian, Roma, Fandango, 2009 [1995]. 


 Michel Foucault, L'Archéologie du savoir, Paris, Gallimard, “Bibliothèque des sciences humaines”, 1969.


Sigmund Freud, Trauer und Melancholie, 1917.

Eugenio Garin, L’uomo nel Rinascimento, Bari-Roma, Laterza, 1998.

Immanuel Kant, Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764, [Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime].

Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, Fritz Saxl, Saturne et la Mélancolie, transl. from the English and other languages by Fabienne Durand-Bogaert and Louis Évrand, Paris, Gallimard, 1989 [1964]. The French edition is referred to in this call for papers.

Italian edition. Saturno e la Malinconia, transl. by Renzo Federici, Torino, Einaudi, 2002 [1964].


Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre xxiii, Le symptôme, Paris, Seuil, 2005.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Dix-septième lettre. Gottsched considéré comme réformateur du théatre allemande”, 31-37, in Id., Lettres sur la littérature moderne, et sur l’art ancien. Estratti tradotti da G. Cottler, Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1876. [Literaturbriefe, 1759-1765].


Alessandro Meliciani, La Stanza del Principe, 25 TV episodes, RAI-RadioTelevisione Italiana, 1995.


Aurelio Musi, Malinconia Barocca, Vicenza, Neri Pozza, 2023.

Peter-Klaus Schuster, “Melencolia I. Durer et sa postérité”, 90-110, trnsl. from the German by Jeanne Étoré-Lortholary, in Jean Clair, Mélancolie, génie et folie en Occident, Paris, Gallimard, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2005.

Jean Starobinski, L’encre de la mélancolie. La mélancolie, un mal nécessaire?, Paris, Seuil, 2012.

Hubertus Tellenbach, Melancolia: storia del problema, endogenicità, tipologia, patogenesi, clinica, edited by Giovanni Stanghellini, intr. by Viktor Emil von Gebsattel, translation and translations of supplementary texts edited by Lorenzo Ciavatta, Roma, Il pensiero scientifico, 2015 [1961].


Suggestions for sending proposals 

The languages admitted for submission are: Italian, Spanish, French, English. Everyone is allowed to write in one of these languages. There will be no simultaneous translation. A passive understanding of these languages is desirable.


A) Deadline for submission: 30 July 2024. The abstract will be composed of 250 words (max), with citation of two reference sources, and a brief CV (max: 100 words), with possible mention of two of one’s own publications, be they articles, books, or videos.

The judging panel will read and select every proposal, which is to be sent to

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The authors of the accepted proposals will be notified by 31 August  2024.


B) Regarding enrolment in the colloquium, once the proposals are accepted the fees are:

Before 30 September 2024: 160.00€

From 1 to 30 October 2024:  190.00€

Enrolment fee cannot be accepted in loco


For graduate students:

Before 30 September 2024:  100.00€

From 1to 30 October 2024:   110.00€

Enrolment fee cannot be accepted in loco


Once the programme is established, no change is allowed.


For information on the symposia organized in previous years by the Osservatorio della memoria autobiografica  scritta, orale e iconografica, visit the site:


Hegemony and peripherality in autobiographical writings:

texts, contexts, visibility


XXII Symposium of the Osservatorio scientifico

                   della memoria autobiografica scritta, orale, iconografica      



Academia Belgica, Via Omero 8


5, 6, 7 December 2023




Promoted and organized by:

Mediapolis.Europa ass. cult.


and by


Grupo de Investigación “Lectura, Escritura, Alfabetización” (LEA), Universidad de Alcalá

Seminario Interdisciplinar de Estudios sobre Cultura Escrita (SIECE), Universidad de Alcalá



Nowadays, great store is set on autobiographical – and more generally private – documentation. In the past decades, archives for the preservation of documents have multiplied, while it seems to us that studies aimed at examining their forms remain less satisfactory. However, the latter represent an essential aspect that helps us to understand not just the content of a document but the way of forging it, of forging a testimony, and how documents were made transmissible and comparable.  

Some questions arise in this regard:

- Can the texts of authors and writers be subjected to the same methods of formal analysis?

- In what way does the concept of hegemony transpire in an autobiographical text?

- How can memory be safeguarded and given value?

- Can contemporary society be observed through a clear distinction between social classes? What kind of terminology should be adopted to classify them? 

- How do the works of authors and writers interact?

- To what extent has the digital revolution expanded autobiographical practice and how does it transform it?


  Submitting the various bodies of work to the same methodological criteria regardless of designation by content or social background appears to be a reasonable intent. The history of culture and science teaches us how the move from listing to classification in the 17th century, as illustrated by Foucault (1966: 137-176), made it possible to make scientific data comparable.

What follows are some points aimed at suggesting some of the possible outlines around which a line of research can be developed.


1. Recognizing oneself within a minority culture. The issue of hegemonies was addressed by Antonio Gramsci (1975). The observation whereby those who exercise hegemony tend to give conformity to language and every form of expression, therefore making them cohesive and comparable, contrasts with the plurality of minority cultures, which are less inscribable into formal constants. There is a vast body of documentation – illustrated and discussed by Antonio Castillo Gómez (2022), among others – on the many archival initiatives that developed especially at the beginning of the 20th century to preserve these sources, and on their now widely acknowledged importance. It is precisely the spurious origins of these sources that make a formal classification of the texts more difficult, at least at first glance.

   Unlike authors, writers do not aim to pursue a style, as Barthes points out (1996: 153). Writers should not necessarily be understood as ordinary people. Leonardo da Vinci regarded himself as a writer and not as an author, “not a literary man,” as he defined himself writing to Ludovico il Moro in 1482. He did not know Latin very well, and for this reason he was not regarded as a man of letters.

   The book Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature (G. Deleuze-F. Guattari, 1975) leads to foundational reflections on this issue, which should constitute a new alphabet for the very conception of the term ‘culture’. In this text Deleuze and Guattari highlight how being without roots, being de-territorialized, leads not to an impoverishment of thought and expressions, but rather to exploring from the margins, from the borders: a distancing that makes it possible to glimpse new lexical, conceptual forms that are open to exchange. Every minority culture (which today have multiplied thanks to the many languages that are circulating, to the multiple forms of coexistence that are necessary in a world in motion) can constitute the instrument required to prevent culture from being ossified into apparatuses.

Minority culture develops languages and a conception of space that is labyrinthine, de-confined, thereby suggesting new perspectives. 


So, who feels legitimized to write? How can experiences that do not come from a canonical style be made well-rounded, rich? In this view, the archives and the written testimonies of ordinary people should not be regarded as mere hunting grounds, but as texts in the strict sense of the term. Chasse aux archives [hunting the archives] is the expression used by Philippe Lejeune to define the voracity for texts from minority and testimonial cultures: “The idea that, within some generations, your texts are tampered with in order to gain information on any subject, without knowing what they are about […] would be disgusting. In order to avoid these misunderstandings, I would strongly emphasize that ‘Hunting is prohibited’”. (Ph. Lejeune 2005: 120-121. The translation is mine).


2. Far from where?

In the case of autobiographical writing, it is possible to glimpse a feeling of being or not being part of a hegemonical entity in the position assumed by the subject as it shows itself to be or not be an integral part of a centre or of a periphery. This is not just about a marginality based on social grounds, but more cogently based on a vision of the subject’s own language and culture in their potential to be relevant within a context (Fabio Dei 2018). 

How does an individual conceive of his or her centrality? Where, when, and how is it possible to circumscribe the position of a writer relaying his or her own life? How does the assumption of a certain stance define an autobiographical narration, legitimise it, structure it also in view of an external glance, of a real, imagined or searched visibility? How does the narrating ‘I’ adopt a perspective of introjection or of extimité, centripetal or centrifugal? 

Lontano da dove is the title of a book by Claudio Magris (1989). It deals with the drama of thousands of people, their conditions at the time of the crumbling of the powerful Hapsburg Empire. It is a metaphor for the conception of centre and periphery, of hegemony and marginality, of exile as an essential condition. An idea that, starting from a political-cultural analysis, grows into a lexicon, into cultural models, it delineates individual destiny.

Magris’s Lontano da dove highlights the difficulty encountered by an individual who, not being part of the hegemonic culture, is observed/observes him/herself and is positioned/positions him/herself as a marginal body.


3. The semantics of the autobiographical text

The narrating ‘I’ manifests itself through expressions that testify to its sociocultural and topographical position, and that inscribe it into certain spatial-temporal categories.

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write (2004 [1980]) in their study Metaphors we live by (see the paragraph “The Me-First Orientation”), our way of narrating is modelled on modi pensandi. A whole cultural conception governs these forms of expression, in which the individual modulates self-narration and relates to the world around him or her.

Word order was studied by William Cooper & John Robert Ross (1975). Even the choice of the mother’s or the other’s language and its modelling are cues to the posture of the ‘I’, just as photographs and the ever-widespread selfies signal how self-representation is intended.

In other words, in adopting a written or audio-visual register, the ‘l’ allows us to understand how and where it positions itself. Photographic and video images define its autography.

Like every form of expression, language is a system composed of relations. In order to understand its meaning, a mapping is necessary, which can be delineated through contents or voids: analysing the use of languages proves to be a tool for outlining not just established but potential relations (L. Hjelmslev 2009). Iconographic expressions such as selfies and those found on the Internet (P. Sibilia 2008) follow the same pattern: showing or not showing reveals a willingness to not just self-narrate in the present but to envision what one would like to be. In the same passage, Hjelmslev argues that language forms itself into a tangle of empty places founded on a veritable difference in potential.


4. The position of the ‘I’ and the language referred to the body

An example: in psychiatric patients – who are quintessentially marginal – oral, written and graphic expressions are still closely anchored to the body, to physical actions.

Binswanger, a psychiatrist with long-time experience of dialogue with patients, writes:

“Out of the blue”, “being in seventh heaven” are expressions of our Dasein, our being. And even though myths and poetry allow us, though a universalizing metaphorical language, to share sensations, feelings and psychic experiences, the “I nonetheless remains the original subject of what raises or falls” (L. Binswanger 2012: 42. The translation is mine). Binswanger, who had inscribed his vision into Heidegger’s philosophy for a long time, gradually distanced himself from his ontological conception to immerse it into concrete cases. An entire vocabulary places the acts of the patient’s Dasein into space: vertiginous height, ascension, altitude, infinity, etc. (L. Binswanger 1971: 237-245). It is possible to suppose that the desire to evade, to disengage, in psychiatric patients determines its lexicon.  

More generally, in autobiographical writings reference to the body as a vehicle of experiences that crossed it appears to be important.


5. The ‘truth”: what the ‘I shows or conceals. Transparency and obstruction

The truth is the foundational theme of every autobiography. It can be granted by the pact that the writer makes with the reader. Philippe Lejeune’s work docet (Ph. Lejeune: 1975).

The theme of truth powerfully crosses autobiographical writing. Writing about oneself and claiming that it is true implies a pact with a whole series of confirmations and complex manoeuvres.  

Autofictions intend to escape this criterion. 

  Rousseau’s Confessions, a classic of autobiographical writing, is born as a form of self-externalization that makes uncertainties public in order to justify actions that, within the framework of one’s way of recounting, should be justified. Starobinski calls this attitude ‘transparency and obstruction’.  “Rousseau desired communication and transparency of the heart. But after pursuing this avenue and meeting with disappointment, he chose the opposite course, accepting – indeed provoking – obstructions, which enabled him to withdraw, certain of his innocence, into passive resignation.” (J. Starobinski 1971 : 1. The terms in italics are in the original text). Every kind of writing – and, a fortiori, autobiographical writing – exposes and conceals realities that can nonetheless be glimpsed. In sum, this is Poppea’s veil, which lets us see and not see, thereby raising, demanding more questions than certainties (J. Starobinski 1961).

Resolving and understanding the distinction between truth and falsehood requires the use of many coordinates (N. Frogneux 2021); it cannot be submitted to an automatic judgement, either in the historical or in the autobiographical field (see: Carlo Ginzburg, Il filo e le tracce. Vero falso finto 2015).

Even adopting a codified language (as Lotman and Bachtin note: see infra) can be a concealment, or an illusion that you can judge a book by its cover. 

Often, a strong determination to show that the truth is being told is also realized through reference to realia, to what is visible and concrete. In many autobiographies, writers include registry documents. With utmost precision, they mention dates and places in order to make their testimony more believable (B. Barbalato 2009).


6. How writers conceive of hegemony by adopting certain codified forms

Lotman writes that a great man or a bandit must find a good reason for regarding himself as an individual who has the right to biography (J. Lotman 1985: 194). Writing life stories, both biographical and autobiographical, requires a formal choice. For this reason, Lotman asserts that a peasant’s opportunistic use of the language of the church or of bureaucracy allows him to inscribe himself into a legitimacy. Also, think of what Bachtin (103) says about unsophisticated culture, about the peasant who, living in an isolated context, believes that every language corresponds exactly to the reality that he wants to designate.

The same conviction is shared by André Gide, who asserts that often unsophisticated sources formally represent a copy of the copy (A. Gide 1997 [1926-1950]: 572). Gide dispels the misunderstanding of the authenticity of the document of ordinary people. No writing is spontaneous, let alone the authenticity of those who do not practise writing. The codes to which one resorts can be regarded as a passepartout for the legitimization of one’s own narration and conception of truth, which is thus validated (see A. Castillo Gómez 2016 and V. Sierra Blas 2018).

Another important observation by Bachtin concerns the diversity in conceiving and observing a life path today and in antiquity. In antiquity, public and private space was conceived of as one and the same thing. In self-representation there was no difference between an internal self and an external one. The topos was the agora (Ibid.: 279-282).


This call for papers invites proposals aimed at examining writers’ and authors’ ways, forms and goals of self-expression, and it intends to investigate mutual contaminations and interferences. 

Besides what has already been said, particular attention is to be paid to how self-narration presents itself as opening towards the future, how it lets its expectations transpire. In writings there is a quid, a void whose contours, whose latencies are difficult to intercept but nonetheless exist. Wishes are not always openly expressed; often they can be glimpsed between the lines of a text. As Binswanger writes, writing about oneself is a way of letting the future come to oneself. (1971: 261). How can this aspect be interpreted, understood?



Michail Bachtin 1979 [1975- Mosca 1955]:1975], “La parola nella poesía e la parola nel romanzo”, 83-108, “La biografía e l’autobiografia antica”, 277-293, in Id., Estetica e romanzo, transl. by Clara Strada Janovic, Torino, Einaudi.


Beatrice Barbalato (2009), “L’ipersegnicità nelle testimonianze autobiografiche”, 387-400, in Silvia Bonacchi (ed.), Intr. Anna Tylusińska-Kowalska, Le récit du moi: forme, strutture, modello del racconto autobiografico, in Kwartalnik neofilologiczny, Polska Akademia Nauk, Warsaw 29-30 April 2008. editor: Franciszek Grucza.


B. Barbalato-Albert Mingelgrün (eds.) 2012, Télémaque, Archiver et interpréter les témoignages autobiographiques, Louvain-la Neuve, Presses Universitaires de Louvain.


Roland Barthes  1998 [“Tel Quel”, 1964], “Écrivains et écrivants”, in Essais critiques, Paris, Seuil.


Ludwig Binswanger 1971 [1947], “Le sens anthropologique de la présomption”, 237-245, in Id., Introduction à l’analyse existentielle, translated from the French by Jacqueline Verdeaux and Roland Kuhn, preface by R. Kuhn and Henri Maldiney, Paris, Éd. de Minuit.


- Rêve et existence 2012 [1930] translation and introduction Françoise Dastur, postface by E. Basso, Paris, Vrin.


Antonio Castillo Gómez 2022, “Voix subalternes. Archives et mémoire écrite des classes populaires”, 117-135, in S. Péquignot and Y. Potin (dir.), Les conflits d’archives, France, Espagne,

Méditerranée, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes.


Daniele Combierati 2010, Scrivere nella lingua dell’altro, Bruxelles, Peter Lang.


William Cooper & John Robert Ross 1975, “World order”, 63–111, in R. E. Grossman et al. (eds.), Papers from the parasession on functionalism, Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.


Fabio Dei 2018, Cultura popolare in Italia da Gramsci all’Unesco, Bologna, il Mulino.


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari 1975, Kafka. Pour une littérature mineure, Paris, Éd. De Minuit.


Michel Foucault 1966, “Classer”, 137-176, in Id, Les mots et le choses, Paris, Gallimard.

Nathalie Frogneux, “Une phénoménologie de la vie mensongère”, in Le Phénomène humain. Revue Philosophique de Louvain 118(4), 2021, 573-591. doi: 10.2143/RPL.118.4.3290142.

André Gide 1997, Journal 1926-1950, Paris, Gallimard, vol. II.


Carlo Ginzburg 2006), Il filo e le tracce. Vero falso finto, Feltrinelli, Milano.

Louis Hjelmslev 1975, Résumé of a Theory of Language. Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague, vol. XVI. Copenhague: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag.


-        (2009), Teoria del linguaggio. Résumé, = TLR, Vicenza, Terra Ferma, Vicenza.


Antonio Gramsci 1975, Quaderni del carcere, 3, Quaderni 12-29, critical edition of the Istituto Gramsci by Valentino Gerratana, Torino, Einaudi.


Georges Lakoff, Mark Johnson, 2003 [1980], Metaphors We Live By, Chicago-London, The University of Chicago Press.


Philippe Lejeune 1975, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Seuil.


- “Je ne suis pas une source”, Entretien de Ph. Artières, 115-137, in Id., Signes de vie – Le pacte autobiographique 2, 2, Seuil 2005.



Ronan Le Roux, « De quoi jouit l’archiviste ? Méditation certalienne sur le ‘vol d’âme’ », in Elodie Belkorchia, Georges Cuer, Françoise Hiraux (dir.), Du matériel à l’immatérielLa Gazette des archives n°262 (2021-2). 


Jurij M. Lotman 1985, “Il diritto alla biografia”, in Id., La semiosfera-L’asimmetria e il dialogo nelle strutture pensanti, edited and translated from the Russian by Simonetta Salvestroni, Venezia, Marsilio.


Claudio Magris 1989, Lontano da Dove, Joseph Roth e la tradizione ebraico-orientale, Torino Einaudi.


Paula Sibilia 2008, O show do eu: a intimidade como espetáculo, Rio de Janeiro, Nova



Verónica Sierra Blas 2016, Cartas presas. La correspondencia carcelaria en la Guerra Civil y el

Franquismo, Madrid, Marcial Pons.


Jean Starobinski 1961, “Le voile de Poppée”, 7-27, in Id, L’oeil vivant, Gallimard, 1961.


- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.



Judging panel:

Beatrice Barbalato, Mediapolis.europa ass, cult., Université catholique de Louvain

Antonio Castillo Gómez, Universidad de Alcalá

Nathalie Frogneux, Université catholique de Louvain

Verónica Sierra Blas, Universidad de Alcalá


Symposium organized by:

Mediapolis.Europa (Irene Meliciani: managing director)

Mnemosyne o la costruzione del senso, Presses universitaires de Louvain


Grupo de Investigación “Lectura, Escritura, Alfabetización” (LEA), Universidad de Alcalá

Seminario Interdisciplinar de Estudios sobre Cultura Escrita (SIECE), Universidad de Alcalá


This symposium is part of the research project Vox populi. Espacios, prácticas y estrategias de visibilidad de las escrituras del margen en las épocas Moderna y Contemporánea (PID2019-107881GB-I00), financed by the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación and by the Agencia Estatal de Investigación (Spain).


Suggestions for sending proposals  


The languages admitted for submission are: Italian, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese. Everyone is allowed to write in one of these languages. There will be no simultaneous translation. A passive understanding of these languages is desirable.


A) Deadline for submission: 30 July 2023. The abstract will be composed of 250 words (max), with citation of two reference sources, and a brief CV (max: 100 words), with possible mention of two of one’s own publications, be they articles, books, or videos.

The judging panel will read and select every proposal, which is to be sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


For information:

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The authors of the accepted proposals will be notified by 5th of August 2023.


B) Regarding enrolment in the colloquium, once the proposals are accepted the fees are:

Before 30 September 2023: 150.00€

From 1 to 30 October 2023:  180.00€

Enrolment fee cannot be accepted in loco


For graduate students:

Before 30 September 2023: 90.00€

From 1to 30 October 2023:   110.00€

Enrolment fee cannot be accepted in loco


Once the programme is established, no change is allowed.


For activities related to this topic at the University and cultural centers in Spain see the sites



For information on the symposia organized in previous years by the Osservatorio della memoria autobiografica  scritta, orale e iconografica, visit the site:



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