Science and Madness, Extravagance, Exception. Alchemists, Magicians, outlaw Scientists in Italian Culture

Daniela Bombara's picture
Call for Publications
June 30, 2020
Subject Fields: 
Humanities, Italian History / Studies, Literature, Cultural History / Studies

We are pleased to announce a call for submission for the book

“Science and Madness, Extravagance, Exception. Alchemists, Magicians, outlaw Scientists in Italian Culture

edited by Daniela Bombara, Ellen Patat, and Silvia Zangrandi.

In the second half of the 19th century, positivism, from its very early manifestations, generates its opposite: the dark silhouette of the obscure scientist, who forces the mysterious laws of nature with unpredictable and devastating results, takes shapes along with doctors, biologists or philosophers, who represent the triumphant rationality. An example could be the monstrous, hyper human or post human hybrids created both by Capuana’s incautious 'doctors' and, in another cultural context, by Svevo’s Menghi. This trope is further developed in the 20th century when technology and machines seep into daily experiences: the horror of homogenization, the impossibility of escaping the traps of existence, and finally the notion of a violated Nature, associated to absolute chaos, are then presented in the fantastic inventions by Buzzati, Landolfi, Primo Levi, Rosa Rosà. Within the most recent formulations of the theme, the post human, which can be interpreted as the synergy between individuals and animals but also between men and machines, prevails, giving rise to fluid organisms without well-defined identities, in utopian and dystopian settings.

This volume aims at exploring the ways of science as excess and madness (see Zangrandi 2011, 2017; Garlaschelli and Carrer 2017) or, in less tragic forms, as an opportunity to explore new paths of knowledge. Another goal is to shed light on the character’s evolution, tracing the roots of a literary and cultural trope that, since the 20th century, takes on multiple configurations and plays manifold functions. Looking back to the past, this theme can be traced in the Romanticism’s rejection of the exact science and in the particular declination proposed by Leopardi in his Operette morali, or even in the disquieting image of the alchemist of the Renaissance, whose superior knowledge of natural phenomena turns into the extreme and a punishable hybris.

On the other hand, the reflection on the topic of the deviant knowledge is already noticeable from the dawn of civilization in the myth of Prometheus, re-elaborated in the famous Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a work that points to the female stance in relation to excess and the horrors of science. Hence, a further line of research could compare male and female writers on their representation of a motif that generally focuses only on male figures as protagonists: the male scientist, never the female scientist.

The scientist’s radical originality and extravagance extend also to the nature of the place where he works. The need to re-organize and re-interpret space expresses the inadequacy and oldness of some environments as well as the intrinsic immorality that derives from the hybris: from the eighteenth-century cave of Trofonio (in the works by Paisiello and Salieri, 1785), that transforms the personality of those who enter it, to Dr. Jekyll’s classic lab in a basement, to the disturbing Berlin apartment of Primo Levi's hybrid vultures; or even remote islands that reshape the Shakespearean model of The Tempest: an exotic theater for Dr. Moreau’s vivisection experimentation in Wells’ novel or a scenario to fantastically relive the past for Dr. Climt in Luigi Antonelli's The Man Who Met Himself (1918).

Exploring space offers further cues for remarks and reflections on the liminality of the scientist and his madness, which sometimes turns into a hermeneutic instrument apt to reveal contradictions, nonsense, and injustices of a social system.

Finally, the scope of the research should not exclude political implications and elements of social criticism that substantiate the discourse on science, when it deals with eccentric, atypical objects and outcomes, particularly after the second post-war period, following the invention and the devastating implementation of weapons of mass destruction.

The book intends to concentrate on the organization and evolution of the theme in several fields: literature, theater, cinema, and comic books. Particular attention will be paid to those contributions that examine the trope of the outlaw scientist's with a comparative approach, considering both the interaction between the arts and a comparison between narratives available in different geographical areas.

Please send an abstract in Italian or English of a maximum of 400 words together with an essential bibliography, and a biographical note to by 30 June 2020.