Star Turn

October 13, 2000

Students fall in love in his lectures on literature as theology. Is this God moving in mysterious ways, Domenico Pacitti asks

Students signing up for Angelo Cecchini's American literature courses at the University of Pisa's modern languages faculty are warned that they will need a thorough grounding in theology, metaphysics and mathematics if they are to pass the final exam.

Yet such is his fame that students flock to his lectures. For the past 21 years, Cecchini has developed a highly unusual but surprisingly popular theological approach to teaching literature. His seven published monographs reinterpret Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mailer and even Berryman as theologians rather than simply literary artists.

"How many speeds do you think you have?" is Cecchini's bizarre opening question to his students. He smiles benignly at their silence. "Imagine you are on a train travelling at 60mph," he begins. "If you suddenly rush off to the toilet at, say, 3mph, it is obvious that you will at that point be moving at two speeds. But there will be more than two if you also count your bloodflow and other internal movements.

"It will emerge in the course of these lectures that every entity has two basic speeds: its own speed and the speed of God, which can best be understood as a sort of glue that holds everything together."

This, he adds, raising his voice and pointing his finger at a perplexed student in the front row, is what makes someone the same person they were five minutes ago, five seconds ago or five-billionths of a second ago.

Cecchini explains that the speed of light is not the fastest in the universe, that it is slow compared with God's speed. God turns out to be both everything there is and absolute nothingness with a capital "N".

What, you might ask, has all of this got to do with American literature? Cecchini tells his spellbound audience that the whiteness of Melville's Moby-Dick, which combines all colours with the absence of colour, is a divine symbol. The presence of God in such texts, he says, must be analysed in terms of the anomalous zero integer with all the flights into mathematical infinity that it involves.

"In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne tells us that the three lines that make up the capital letter "A" on the heroine's dress are of equal length. This means that the lines can also be made to form an equilateral triangle, which is, of course, the symbol of the blessed trinity. So the capital "A" at the same time symbolises the divinity of its bearer, Hester Prynne, and her sinfulness or finitude.

"Or take the case of Hemingway. In his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, a waiter blasphemously parodies the Our Father: 'Our nada (nothing) who art in nada, nada be thy name', and so on. This paradoxically turns out to be the real prayer to the real God conceived as Nothingness."

Cecchini's book Three Variations from Nothingness frames an original theological reading of Hemingway's story. The students' favourite, it still enjoys pride of place in the window of the local bar where it was adopted as a mascot.

Former student Giuliano Testi recalls how he and his wife, Valeria, fell in love on one of Cecchini's courses three years ago. "Cecchini's lectures are hypnotic. They somehow change the way you view everyday reality."

Cecchini says: "You could say I exploit one of the few merits of our much-criticised Italian university system, namely that once fully tenured we are virtually unsackable, to try to teach an original approach that does not respect the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines."

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