PINOCCHIO'S AFTERLIFE


At some stage in your life, you have probably come across the story of a piece of wood known as Pinocchio. You remember this piece of wood was carved by Geppetto into a puppet who is mysteriously possessed by an animating spirit. Geppetto, with the assistance of a blue-haired faerie and a cricket, attempts to make the puppet into a responsible boy. On his first attempt, Geppetto sells his only coat to purchase a school primer so that Pinocchio can gain an education. Despite this sacrifice, Pinocchio quickly abandons the book to pay for a ticket to a marionette theatre, where he dances wildly with his fellow puppets. Eventually, though, the world wears down Pinocchio's free spirit and he finally accepts the duties of a responsible boy. As a reward, Pinocchio wakes to find in the mirror the image of a real boy, with brown hair and blue eyes. The story ends with the real boy gazing at `the old wooden Pinocchio' with its head on its side, leaning against a chair.

To the eyes of the world, Carlo Callodi's Adventures of Pinocchio ends happily. A boy is redeemed from the rascality that led him to wander off the golden path of duty. And, magically, a collection of sticks is transformed into a living and breathing human being. But there is a sad side to the story. Pinocchio, the boy, no longer has a story to live. The only fate open to him now is that of a solid respectable citizen. Now the struggle between wood and flesh has finished, there is nothing to take him into unknown territory. Attempts to write a sequel to Pinocchio have thus been miserable failures. But as with the most fully rounded resolution, there is always something left behind.

Callodi's grandson, Giseppi, was one of an obscure circle of avant-garde theorists around sometime earlier this century. The circle was known as Al Legnoso (`of the wooden'); its activities were based in Callodi's home town of Pescara. Though Al Legnoso are still a mystery to the world, one might gain some picture of their worldview by imagining how it might be possible to take the story of Pinocchio beyond its sad moralistic end. To do this, one needs to turn one's attention away from the real boy, content in his fully fleshed body, and towards what is left behind: the now lifeless bundle of sticks. It would give you some idea of the strangeness of Al Legnoso if I were to tell you that they heralded the story as a liberation of wood from the cloying sentimentality of human sympathies. They saw the puppet as exorcised of the demon of human becoming, and free to live with its own intrinsic woodenness.

For Al Legnoso valued wood more highly that anything human. `Human' for them represented an endless cycle of hope and despair, delusion and enlightenment. The process of human becoming for them was a burlesque theatre where grand theories acted as slapstick diversions from the impenetrable mysteries of organic life. At a time when the futurists were thrilling to the speed of well-oiled machines, Al Legnoso sat under the shade of history, keeping stoically behind the times.

You might think Al Legnoso reactionary. But they aimed never to react. You might think Al Legnoso dull. They were certainly that, but what is still known of their ideas suggests a reasonably complex philosophy. It is worth a brief summation, if only to appreciate the diversity of thought at that time in the twentieth-century.

Al Legnoso held stolidly to the belief that the world was essentially cleft. They saw this cleftness as most magnificently revealed in the nature of wood. The tree has two lives: rising vertically in the open air, branches and leaves telescoping in a classically hierarchical fashion; and roots extending horizontally, silently and slowly strangling objects encountered along the way. And wood itself is torn in nature: its smoothness inviting the caress of the human body, gliding along the carved statue or sitting easefully in the seat, while its sharpness pierces painfully, the splinter that rises up to embed itself in flesh and the sharpened stake that impales the body. This cleftness, they maintained, demonstrated that the world was made for no one thing, but resolutely hewed asunder anything that seemed indivisible.

As a philosophy of life, Al Legnoso represented utter fatefulness. Events laid their effects on the world as a knife-edge carved wood. They dogmatically held to the utter irreversibility of existence. They saw the destiny of human civilisation as a gradual whittling away of all values. With their favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, they held that "Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being".

The fact that little is now known of Al Legnoso follows from one of their most firmly held dogmas: the evil of books. They saw the story of Pinocchio as symbolic of the great struggle against books: while the puppet continued to treat the books given to him carelessly there remained the hope that he could resist his anthropomorphic fate. Books were for them a form of wood betrayed. Books were wood boiled and pulped to the point that it lost all ligneous qualities. Stained with ink, their very original nature is the last possible thing of significance about books. They are trees martyred to human knowledge. The fact that Judeo-Christian mythology began with a tree of knowledge represented for them the true source of original sin.

This hatred of books forced them to eschew normal intellectual occupations. Instead, they chose jobs that suited wooden personalities, where the only words they need utter were predictable formulas. Most of them worked in the Italian transport system as guardsmen, tram drivers, signalmen or ticket officers. Outside of work, Al Legnoso met in secret. Never more than four in number, they made a bizarre spectacle. They tried everything possible to embrace woodenness. Because it grew from roots in the human body, they fetishised hair, often piling it high on their heads, resembling the wigs of eighteenth-century court aristocrats. Other times they squeezed models of classical architecture on their heads like vices. To prevent any accidental emanations of human knowledge, they often gagged their orifices. In an attempt to invert Christian religion, they developed mysterious signs indicating that books were wood in crucified form. The only Christian they had any time for was Saint Sebastian, shown always to embrace the wood that pierced his body. And not only did every member of Al Legnoso display some wooden prosthesis, whether leg, hand or teeth, but they often used it to cultivate flora, such as beetles or fungi.

As you might expect from this description, Al Legnoso eventually rotted away. The only record we have now of their existence are some elegant drawings that reconstruct their meetings. As they wish, Al Legnoso have now been relegated to the status of historical lumber: may they rest in peace.

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Copyright 1995 Kevin Murray
Last modified 21 January 1997