Ruzzante: A Secular Mystic?
Of course, Beolco as Ruzzante presents a case in which a person both is and is not himself, both is himself and more than himself. It is not simply the case that the mystic schema of identity transfers evenly to Ruzzante since he was not a mystic and did not partake in the mystic experience. Furthermore, his theatre practice had nothing to do with the sacred; rather, it was bound up entirely with the profane. Regardless of this primary difference, however, I contend that Beolco inverted and aestheti- cized the architecture of the volo so as to persevere himself and his compari within a playing space (life, in general) governed by a dominant institution —most notably the Venetian state and the Church. Whereas the mystic subject unfolded from (and vanished into) a central emplacement, Beolco planted a multiplicity of temporary stages. Additionally, unlike the mystic subject, the identity he composed on those temporary stages was not bound up with an initial volition; instead, it was structured around a complex, kaleidoscopic mode of vision, what I call the vedo (I see). Beolco’s identity as Ruzzante was stitched together through the sightlines opened within numerous theatres (literally, “seeing places”) that he occupied during the performances of his theatrical works. Presented in this way, the vedo appears as the secular counterpart of the religious space of the volo.
Outlining the components of the vedo makes explicit the differences between it and the initial volition of Loyola and other mystics. The vedo encompasses three modal domains of the verb “to see”: I see (active); I am seen (passive); I see myself (reflexive). The subject and object of vision within this space is the “I” and this subject/object constitutes a dialectical pair. The vedo consigns (i.e. gathers together) all the stages opened and occupied by Beolco as Ruzzante over the course of his life, and the various points of view opened from these numerous staging areas helped him to accomplish a kind of alienation of the self from the self so as to understand his place in the world and piece together a map with which to navigate that world. In Foucauldian terms, the individual performances also facilitated a hermeneutics of the subject, a process through which Ruzzante co-ordinated himself in the world by performing in different theatrical works, reflected on his performances, altered the quality and content of the performances with the aid of his reflections, and continued this loop over and over again in an effort to move through the obstacle course of administered life in the Veneto.
To this positive construction of the vedo, I can add a fourth, negative, modality, one bound up with blindness. When expressed as Ruzzante’s flailing, struggling, losing, moaning, and doubting, the sight of the vedo becomes proprioceptive. Here the negative mode presents itself as: I don’t see (I sense). Proprioception is another term for the perspicacity Ruzzante developed through close combat with his social foes.
Taken in its totality, the vedo breaks with the volo. Whereas Loyola came to know himself through a process of spiritual exercises that culminated in a self-renunciation and erasure, Beolco as Ruzzante gained consciousness of, indeed built, himself by enacting the aesthetic exercise of performing himself onstage in different environments of his own creation. Both the ascetic experience of Loyola and the theatrical-aesthetic experience of Ruzzante produced what de Certeau would eventually call “a field of a different kind of knowledge,” and “an ethical postulate of a sort of freedom.”10 They both entailed the possibility of being reborn insofar as Loyola was reborn after recovering from his war wounds and Ruzzante was reborn repeatedly as a different incarnation of the same character in a series of plays, monologues, dialogues, and dramatic confrontations with members of the Venetian and Paduan communities. For Ruzzante, however, the goal was not to establish a more direct link with God; rather, it was to establish a more direct link with the self and with the material world in which he found himself.
Again, then, Ruzzanate appears as a kind of archive, one that houses a multiplicity of stages popping into and out of existence at different times but always summoned conceptually by a spirit of discontent and dis-ease with the status quo. The aesthetic practices that unfolded within those staging areas constructed a different sense of self than that of Loyola, the end of which was a necessary self-renunciation and a binding to the will of God. The new direction in which Ruzzante’s aesthetic exercises led is toward an altogether different life, one structured by a clear philosophical consideration of the good life aimed at freeing the performing subject and transforming the struggles of everyday life into an artistic praxis. All of this becomes visible by returning to the world of Ruzzante’s performances made legible by the texts to his plays. In the next several paragraphs, I will illustrate how Ruzzante’s profane aesthetic exercises functioned as a means of liberating the self from the confines governing his life. I do not claim that he ever broke free of his time and place; rather, I claim that his internal diarchic tensions motivated a lifelong practice of dissent now only visible through the textual traces of his theatre practice.
If it is too bold to discuss Beolco’s artful life as Ruzzante in terms of revolution, then perhaps the language of counter-conduct will prepare a more firmly grounded historical image. Foucault addressed the issue of counter-conduct as it related to government rationality and specifically the governmentality of pastoral power at work during the time Ruzzante was performing by defining the term “counter-conduct” as a self-fashioned mode of living constructed by those who sought to “escape direction by others and to define the way for each individual to conduct himself”
(Foucault, Security 195). Foucault outlined five main forms of counterconduct. Framing Ruzzante’s work with each of those five forms not only brings into focus his relation to the pastoral power coursing through the Veneto in the sixteenth century, and by extension brings Loyola back into Ruzzante’s orbit; it also leads to a confrontation between Ruzzante and his patron, Alvise Cornaro, whose financial support both underwrote many of Beolco’s theatrical compositions and collaborated in the creation of the internal identity crises mentioned above.
The first form of counter-conduct, according to Foucault, emerges in the construction of communities. At the core of close-knit communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as enclaves of peasants and peripheral religious sects, he suggests that there thrived a “counter-society aspect, a carnival aspect, overturning social relations and hierarchies” (211-212). Ruzzante’s community appeared time and again in his staged performances where Menego, Duozo, Menato, Betia, Dina, and other peasants appeared as the protagonists. As I have noted, Ruzzante placed that grouping of peasants front and center. In those aesthetic worlds brought to life through his acts of taking place, he developed his community’s mode of seeing and understanding of the world through the construction of the negative common sense. The “overturning” of societal relations existed obliquely in Menego’s attempt to plug up the “hole down below,” and more vividly in the staged murder of Andronico in Bilora. With the former, the medical quackery referenced by the alternative healthcare plan flew in the face of accepted medical beliefs and routines, of which even Duozo seemed to be aware. In the latter, the premeditated murder broke with theatrical tradition by portraying violent death in front of the spectators’ eyes at the same time as it blatantly threatened Venetian upper-class merchants for committing a social wrong that was quite familiar to peasants of the day. Ruzzante’s stage communities offered a glimpse to his audiences of an entirely different political and social order, one more aligned with Gaismair’s utopian propositions and the corresponding philosophical ideals of More.11
The second form of counter-conduct that Foucault describes brings the conversation squarely into the milieu of pastoral power. Foucault links up with de Certeau here in his belief that mysticism was a form of deviance that sought to undermine or even ignore completely the mandates pressed down upon individuals by the Church’s authority. “The pastorate was the channel between the faithful and God,” as he explains it. “In mysticism there [was] an immediate communication that [could take] the form of dialogue between God and the soul, of appeal and response, of the declaration of God’s love of the soul, and of the soul’s love of God” (Foucault, Security 213). The mystic space of the volo was the arena in which the dialogue with God took place. Its flipside, that of the vedo, Ruzzante’s domain, forms a sort of secular and profane mystical space from which the stage performer could view himself and the world from multiple angles. It is this latter space that resonates with Foucault’s pronouncement that, “[i]n mysticism the soul sees itself’ (212). Ruzzante was not a spiritual mystic, but his tactical space bore more than a passing similarity to the mystical tactical space insofar as it provided an arena in which to index various performances of self and even respond to the social conditions scripting those performances.
Historically speaking, Ruzzante shared an orbit with Loyola, Martin Luther, and other religious reformers all seeking to re-write both the biblical rules regulating spiritual self-performance and the social rules controlling temporal existence. Luther may best exemplify the third form of counter-conduct, one that Foucault links to “a problem of scripture.” Through his studies, Luther determined that the Church had deviated from the mandates set out in the Gospels, and thus sought through this reformation to drag the Church back onto the right track. For his part, Loyola also re-interpreted the scripture and determined that the Papal See was capable of following the Word of God more closely through Jesuit advisement. By naming his company the Society of Jesus, he attempted to discipline the Catholic flock anew under the name of Christ, even though the other holy orders grumbled about Loyola’s personal claim on the name of Jesus. It is comical, then, that, in a certain way, “the problem of scripture” pairs Luther and the Jesuits together as groups that caused the core institution of the Church considerable stress. The Jesuits may have sought to suppress the Lutheran Reformation through their Counter-Reformation, but they were each engaged in rethinking the code of conduct that the Church needed to follow on earth.
Ruzzante joins this unlikely pair to make an unruly threesome. His own interpretation of scripture appeared most vividly in the Prima and Seconda Oratione where he used his private audience with the two Cornaro Cardinals to demand distinct programs of reform. The request by the orator in the first of the two performances for permission to work on Feast days, to eat whatever and whenever he wished, and to castrate philandering priests were all issues that Luther took up explicitly in the “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the
Reformation of the Christian Estate.”12 Where Ruzzante most resembled Loyola was in his dedication to the impoverished peasants on whose behalf he spoke. Against the riches of the Church, Ruzzante claimed superiority for the rural way of life where people took only what they needed. Zorzi has claimed that in the Seconda Oratione, which only took place because none of Ruzzante’s requests from the Prima Oratione were met, the Paduan spokesperson’s voice “[rose] with an unusual timbre,” and that what was particularly interesting “[was] the prospect of certain evils as genuine social ills. The solution, according to Ruzante, [was] found in a return to the genuine spirit of the Gospel” (Ruzante, Teatro 1569).13 Like Loyola and Luther, re-cognizing the poverty preached by the Gospels was the first step toward true reform. Even if Ruzzante eventually developed a non-theistic philosophical outlook, it is still possible to see how each of these three historical figures set about articulating the “problem of scripture” in his own unique way.
Building from the sentiment of those two orations, the fourth form of counter-conduct enforced a belief that the degradation of Church integrity signaled that the end was nigh. Foucault encapsulated this belief in the phrase “eschatological beliefs.” The basic principle at play here is that the guidance of the Church’s shepherds was unnecessary because Judgment Day was close at hand. Counter-conduct amounted to abandoning the lead of the shepherds in favor of more direct supplication to the coming judge. Ruzzante embodied this belief in his own unique style by electing himself as the man to do the judging. He had neither the desire nor the need to wait for God. When he forcefully addressed the two Cardinals, he was passing judgment on the current states of affairs, and his plan of reform was the map to a new civilization.
The fifth and final form of counter-conduct is asceticism. Foucault describes asceticism as “a progression according to a scale of increasing difficulty. It is, in the strict sense of the term, an exercise, an exercise going from the easier to the more difficult, and from the more difficult to what is even more difficult” (Foucault, Security 205). Ruzzante’s lifework appears as this very progression. Each performance took on more and more difficult social problems. His chosen mode of expression through which to address the day-to-day was the articulation of excess. His theatre was always extreme. Cuckoldry, murder, starvation, bestiality, defecation, and suicide were the situations in which the stage persona of Ruzzante thought through the difficulties of his life and the lives of the peasants, and yet rigorous self-discipline inhered within those expressions of excess.
This discipline appeared in many places, including the unfunniness of Ruzzante’s jokes, within his acts of self-medicating and self-devouring, and within his parrhesiastic speech stripped of unneeded niceties. If the commedia dell’arte became known for the construction of situational comedy, then Ruzzante, a forerunner to that more codified brand of comedic theatre, must be remembered for his construction of situational crisis in which the actor tested the limits of the thinkable through experiments of how much one individual could endure. In the Reduce, Ruzzante reports on the limits of sanity revealed through life as a soldier. In Bilora, he shows the limits of love and theft. Unlike in commedia, where the character types were ready-made and the jokes belonged to a set collection of witticisms, Ruzzante’s character was always in formation and his jokes always responded to the evolving effects of administered life on his self and the bodies of his compari.
Again, a quotation from Foucault is illuminating: “Asceticism is a sort of exasperated and revered obedience that has become egoistic self-mastery. Let’s say that in asceticism there is a specific excess that denies access to an external power” (207-208). If Angelo Beolco was the true personage who endured daily hardship and who watched his friends endure similar travails, then Ruzzante was that “specific excess” that denied the external powers. Through his situations of crisis, Ruzzante’s unique solutions to life’s problems replaced the solutions dictated by the Church and the State, which were usually no solutions at all. Instead of dying of starvation, Ruzzante would eat himself to death. To fight emaciation and malnourishment, he made his characters plug-up their asses. These images of discomfort rhyme with the self-flagellating penitents within the structure of the Spiritual Exercises who sought to retrain their bodies to live in accordance with God. As a somewhat bizarre parallel to these more traditional ascetics, however, Ruzzante respected no external authority, and the end of his ascetic aesthetic exercises was a freeing of the self. Ruzzante was the means through which Beolco attempted to free himself. By becoming Ruzzante, Beolco embodied the specific excess that denied power to external authority.
Of the five forms of counter-conduct that Foucault theorizes, asceticism is perhaps the most curiously productive in an analysis of Ruzzante and his theatre practice. So much of his humor might be discarded as grotesque, scatological, or immature; jokes that go too far, or that feature needless excesses (i.e. that which is always beyond accepted limits). Yet, within these excesses there is a disciplined confrontation of the self with the self, a confrontation that comes across especially where food and hunger are concerned, since starvation is a point of extreme bodily disruption. Hunger is the body feeding on itself, and Ruzzante’s jokes about starvation were an ascetic confrontation with the realities of hunger that unfolded within the aesthetic realm of his constructed environments. Those environments, in turn, became extensions of the offstage environment (Daddario and Zerdy). Via Foucault, a life of counter-conduct edges toward a philosophical life insofar as it is a “life obtained thanks to a tekhne.” Counter-conduct spawns a life that refuses to comply with “a regula (a rule);” rather, “it submits to a forma (a form). It is a style of life, a sort of form one gives to one’s life” (Foucault, Hermeneutics 424). In other words, by perpetually enacting Ruzzante, the historical figure who began life as Angelo Beolco treated his life as a philosophical art. His art of living became the antidote to the various government rationalities attempting to administer life in the Veneto in the sixteenth century.
Ruzzante’s final theatrical offering, Lettera all’Alvarotto, showcases both this philosophical life-as-art and secular antidote to mystical life. Taking the form of a letter mailed by Ruzzante to his friend Alvarotto, the playwright wrote the piece in Padua and signed it on the Feast day of the Epiphany, 1536 (around 6 January). The story that it relayed was in many ways an epiphany of Ruzzante’s own, at which he seems to have arrived after several years spent in Alvise Cornaro’s circle. The letter begins by addressing the circle of his friends who were gathered at Cornaro’s hunting lodge and explaining that he was sorry he could not be present with them but his recent exploits had taken him on a journey. The letter goes on to share the findings of this strange and illuminating journey, which started when he “entered one day into a terrible desire to live forever, or at least to be among the last men standing” (Ruzante, Teatro 1226).14 He remembered reading somewhere that extremely long life was indeed possible (the Bible?) and that there was a woman, a Madonna Temperanza (Madam Temperance), who could grant immortality. He set about consulting his books to discover if she or any of her compatriots were still alive. The answers he found were vague and so he had to set the books aside and go out looking for the woman himself. The letter relayed this information in Ruzzante’s best Florentine dialect.
After unsuccessfully looking all over the place for this Madonna Temperanza, Ruzzante was confused and irritated that his books were not more help to him. Finding himself atop a mountain, relying on his dogs to find food and bring it back to him, and tired out by his search,
Ruzzante became sleepy: “When I got over my anger, I was atop one of our mountains in Este, hunting, waiting alone for the hounds to return from another hill where they were chasing a hare; and they were so far away that I could no longer hear them.”15 In fact, he could no longer hear anything and the silence that enveloped him led him into a deep sleep: “sleep entered my eyes and, once inside, chained the door, and closed me out of myself.”16 This was incredibly pleasing to him since, as he expressed it, it was “the most smooth and sweet sleep that ever closed the eyes of man” (1228).17
Upon being shut out of himself, Ruzzante’s old friend Barba Polo appeared to him out of nowhere. This was confusing since Polo had died a while back, and the image in front of him looked so real that he could not tell if it was a spirit or not. Encountering his friend required Ruzzante to switch from the Florentine to his native Paduan dialect, and the conversation that ensued was quite enlightening. Polo told Ruzzante four things. First, he was completely capable of taking Ruzzante where he needed to go. Second, he had to act as a guide because books would be no help to Ruzzante at all in this situation. Third, the books would be no help in particular because Ruzzante had not remembered the correct name of the woman he needed to find. He was in fact looking for Madonna Allegrezza (Madam Joy), not Madonna Temperanza. Fourth, and most importantly, Polo told Ruzzante that he had better be sure that he really wanted to live a long time. Some people are undeserving of such a gift, and others are not even sure what life is. There are some people, he suggested, who hardly know that they are alive; you could hardly call what they are doing living. “But,” at the other end of the spectrum, “if one lives only one year and knows he is alive, wouldn’t that be more of a life, a longer life, than those who live a thousand years and don’t ever know that they are living?” (1230).18
Ruzzante decided that he did know what he was looking for and that he wanted Polo to show him the way. Complying with his friend’s request, Polo led Ruzzante to the house of Madonna Allegrezza. Upon arriving, Polo described the location and all of its bucolic beauty: lush plants, running streams, birds singing, filled precisely with the same flora and fauna that Ruzzante described in his first play, the Pastoral. Here, however, the figures occupying the house on the territory were the company members of Madonna Allegrezza: Aunt Wisdom, Laughter, Party, Dance, Unison Singing, Peace, Charity, Gloria, Vigil, Silence, and others. They were all engaged in game play and in protecting the house from unwelcomed guests such as Love, that little boy with the bow and arrows, the son of Damnation and Perdition. All of this activity unfolded under Ruzzante’s gaze, but he was careful not to look upon the scene directly because, as Polo had instructed, looking directly at the figures would make them disappear. Ruzzante had to save his direct gaze for Madonna Allegrezza herself since simply looking upon her would lengthen his life.
But as the excitement unfolded and as Polo instructed Ruzzante on how to obtain long life, another sound of music infiltrated the scene. At this point in the letter, Ruzzante switched back to his Florentine dialect and told his friends gathered at Cornaro’s lodge that while Polo was talking to him:
I thought I heard some music, not from singing or from any instrument, but some kind of concert or harmony that I wouldn’t know how to explain to you unless you were asleep like I was there [... ] I wanted to fix [the image and the music] so as not to forget it (it delighted me so), but my eyes seemed impeded by some sort of weight; then, wanting so much to open them, the sleep went away, and I stayed there with eyes opened for real. (1242)19
Once awake, Ruzzante reflected on his vision (alia mia visione) and realized that the music he had heard was really the sounds of the dogs barking. In other words, the reality of the world was filled with the same sorts ofsights and sounds as his dreamscape, so he decided to return to the real world and leave the paradise behind. With that revelation, the narrator signed off with the signature, “Your brother Ruzzante.” Shortly after writing this letter, Beolco would succumb to disease and die at a relatively early age.
Instead of interpreting this final work as either a letter or a monologue, it is instructive to read the Lettera all’Alvarotto as an account of a secular mystic experience. The Lettera is Ruzzante’s most powerful attempt to blur together the aesthetic realm and the world off the stage. It commences with a “vision,” or an ecstatic (literally, ex stasis; from Latin, extasis) experience that puts him in a trance-like state. Once within the “vision,” Ruzzante occupies the space of the vedo, the secular counterpoint to the mystical space of the volo inhabited by Ignatius Loyola and articulated by de Certeau in The Mystic Fable. The four modal domains of the verb “to see” all reveal themselves in the letter, and, since the letter is relaying an episode of Ruzzante’s life, it is important to note that the vedo
appears simultaneously in the world beyond the stage. The active mode, “I see,” unfolds in the narrative through the overarching framework of the journey that sends Ruzzante into a “vision” in order to discover a site of interest and report it back to his friends at Cornaro’s hunting lodge. Ruzzante functions in this mode as a witness to the impermanence and instability of the terrestrial paradise and also of life in general.
The passive mode, “I am seen,” shows itself most clearly in the theatrical architecture ofMadam Joy’s house where Ruzzante acts as audience member to the scene that goes on in front ofhim. Polo’s warning to him not to look too closely at the figures in the scene hints at the fact that while Ruzzante is watching the scene he is also being seen by the other figures. Polo even warns that this quality of being seen has the potential to destroy the performance. This state of being seen is doubled in the theatrical architecture inferred from the performance of the letter. Alvarotto’s recitation of Ruzzante’s letter constructs a scenario in which Cornaro’s circle gathers around as the audience to watch Alvarotto relay Ruzzante’s story. By asking Alvarotto to read his letter, he understands that Alvarotto will be watched closely as he performs the story. Alvarotto’s recitation will eventually end and the surrogate performance will fade back into regular, nontheatrical interaction just as the performance of the allegorical figures faded for Ruzzante. As a performance, the function of the letter is to be seen.
The reflexive mode, “I see myself,” adds a layer of complexity to the entire performance event and illuminates the philosophical dimension in which Ruzzante thinks about himself thinking. The letter as a whole is a commentary on this performance of thought on thought, since it relays knowledge that Ruzzante acquired once “shut out of himself” by his ecstatic vision. The letter entails a seeing-himself-in-the-world, which Ruzzante accomplishes after reflecting on the experience of visiting the terrestrial paradise. That paradise, he realizes, was nothing more or less than a reconfiguration of certain sights and sounds taken from the moun- taintop. The consequence of the reflexive “I see myself” in Ruzzante’s narrative is that his quest for eternal life becomes less important than the letter conveying the findings of that quest to his friends. Ruzzante recognizes his experience as an educational event that taught him about the world and could also teach his friends about the possibility or impossibility of such a paradise really existing. Having experienced both onstage performance and the art of directing his own plays, Ruzzante manages to accomplish both roles at once in this final piece and captures in the text and the surrogate performance of it a self-reflexive sense of himself as present performer and absent spectator.
The final mode, “I don’t see (I sense),” becomes the affective force that pulls Ruzzante back to himself on the mountaintop in Este and away from the realm of the vision. He expresses this in the phrase: “my eyes seemed impeded by some sort of weight; then, wanting so much to open them, the sleep went away, and I stayed there with eyes opened for real. ” Wrapped in this phrase is the fact that the vision of terrestrial paradise could only appear to Ruzzante when his eyes were closed and, bereft of sight, he could sense a different reality. His eyes were closed for the entire journey to the house of Madam Joy, and the blindness caused by his closed eyes was not an impediment because, first, he had Polo to guide the way, and, second, he never had the opportunity to look at anything directly. Ruzzante could not look directly at the scene unfolding in the vision because if he did it would disappear; instead, he glimpsed partial images obliquely through Polo’s description and sensed the emotions of happiness, peace, silences, and so on, that emanated from the earthly utopia. Additionally, the audience of the piece realizes that he never looked upon Madam Joy. He saw nothing that could actually extend his life, a fact that became all too obvious in the months following the Lettera when Beolco as Ruzzante died.
Given that the letter itself acts as a script for his compare to perform, the Lettera provided an opportunity for another figure to inhabit the space of the vedo. That is, Ruzzante’s letter allowed Alvarotto to inhabit the subject position usually occupied by Ruzzante himself. As Zorzi has argued, the letter to Alvarotto was also a monologue that placed a critique of Cornaro’s sober life in the mouth of Ruzzante’s friend and colleague. By reading the critique and performing the monologue at Cornaro’s hunting lodge, Alvarotto became Ruzzante for the duration of the performance. Thus, if one considers Ruzzante’s counter-conduct as a means of creating a presence in the world on his own terms, then the Lettera presents a doubling of that presence by opening Ruzzante’s viewpoint to another body. Ruzzante was present in the body of his friend who interpreted the letter and in his present-absence that constituted the conditions of Alvarotto’s performance.
Carroll astutely reads the imagery of the Lettera as a move beyond the limits of Christianity. “The letter’s closing vision,” she writes, “laicizes the Mystical Rose formed by the saints in Dante’s vision of heaven by substituting everyday pleasures for divine ones. Beolco’s is, in short, a nontheistic paradise in which the common woman and man take the place of God” (Carroll, Ruzante 104; “Nontheistic Paradise” 897).20 The letter also levels a strong critique against the ethical system of Ruzzante’s patron that would eventually become codified in the treatise On the Sober Life, a type of ethical living made possible through an ascetic renunciation of food. As I have articulated elsewhere, the ethos of sobriety may have worked well for those who had food from which to abstain (Daddario and Zerdy; Daddario “What a Joke”). For the majority of peasants suffering under the weight of famine and economic hardship, however, sobriety had been forced upon them from above, and any person claiming the powers of “temperance” was clearly out of touch with the people working the land. As Ruzzante’s patron, Cornaro was the closest external authority with whom the performer had to negotiate in order to survive the world. Cornaro gave Ruzzante money, paid his debts, and even smoothed out conflicts in his personal life with the parents of the wife Ruzzante had been forced to marry for economic reasons. Taking that it into account, it is important to recognize the way in which Ruzzante’s final theatre piece flew in the face of his patron and what that gesture may have meant. More than that, it was Cornaro’s money that financed Ruzzante’s quest, which means that Ruzzante used his patron’s resources to develop an argument against the sober life and the ethical mandate of renunciation woven into Cornaro’s tract on the subject.
The Lettera is a case of Ruzzante biting the hand that fed him. Against the temperance praised by Cornaro in the Sober Life, Ruzzante asserted Joy. Polo reveals to Ruzzante that his books have led him astray. There is no Madam Temperance capable of extending life. Only Madam Joy can do that. This distinction leads to another. Polo’s remark about people who live a thousand years without knowing that they are alive refers to Cornaro’s regiment of abstinence and the pseudo-life to which it leads. Against temperance and pseudo-life, Polo, speaking Ruzzante’s words, announces that the person infused with Joy need only live one day in order to truly live. This seems to be the route Ruzzante takes, since by the end of the letter he appears to give up his search in order to return to his wandering. The Lettera indicates that Ruzzante had transferred the impermanence of the stage to the realm of the everyday simply by discovering that the everyday was as impermanent as the stage. This insight positions the Lettera as a counter-argument to the Sober Life and opens up a perspective into Ruzzante’s ethos, one that takes the form not of direct political address but of dream imagery and the rhetoric of tireless searching.
The function of this secular-mystical encounter with paradise on Earth in the Lettera was twofold. First, it recounted a vision in allegorical terms so as to teach his peers about his outlook on life, indeed about the outlook he had pieced together throughout his entire life as a performer. Second, the letter rebutted the Epicurean philosophy ofhis patron, outlined most succinctly in the treatise On the Sober Life, which, for Ruzzante, led only to suffering and not towards any pleasure in life. His final piece for theatre, then, embodied that which Foucault has called the “critical attitude. ” In a lecture given to the French Society of Philosophy in the May of 1978, Foucault forwarded an argument that this critical attitude corresponded to “the art of not being governed quite so much” (Foucault, “What is Critique?” 45). This art was the culmination of “a certain way of thinking, speaking and acting, a certain relationship to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, a relationship to society” (42). It was an “art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability,” which had as its aim “the desubjugation of the subject in the context of what [one] could call, in a word, the politics of truth” (47). According to Foucault, this critical attitude arose in the sixteenth century alongside the emergence ofvarious systems of governmenta- lization. I believe Ruzzante offers a crafty mobilization of precisely this attitude. In many ways, Ruzzante makes Foucault’s declarations possible.
The outcome of Beolco’s internal tension between armed revolt and philosophical critique does not ossify into a fruitless frustration with the way of the world. Instead, borrowing from Foucault, it expressed itself through secular-mystic, dissident gestures of being governed “not quite so much. ” That is to say, taken individually, his wild flailing, his perpetual failing, his repeated attempts to kill himself in bizarre manners, his battle against starvation, and his clever re-functioning of philosophical argumentation present riddles to contemporary audiences or readers of his works. Stitched together, however, those oddities begin to transform into a provocative ascetic aesthetics that Beolco, as Ruzzante, cultivated throughout his life. Since, as exemplified in the Lettera all’Alvaroto, Ruzzante exited into the real world and continued to apply his critical attitude to his own life experiences, his signature ascetic aesthetics led him to a type of self-fashioning that allowed Ruzzante a range of freedom to discover certain truths for himself. From Foucault’s perspective, Ruzzante’s range of freedom helped him “not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them” (44). The antecedents to those pronouns appear in the agencies of the Venetian state, the Catholic Church, and his patron.