“NARCO MODERNS: Drugs, Intoxication, and Italian Modernity (1858-1923)” takes as its primary object a series of narratives in which drugs—as emblems of intoxication, hallucination, and stimulation—are a rhetorical vehicle for the expression of both hopes and anxieties about ‘modernity.’ For these authors, modernity is a drug—it stupefies, it delights, it anesthetizes, it poisons. 

This project examines both narratives that invoke drugs literally (e.g. Paolo Mantegazza’s treatise on the coca leaf) and those that imagine modernity as narcotic in a more figurative sense (e.g. metaphors of popular literature as a drug, Serao’s characterization of the lotto as the “oppio della miseria”). The primary authors examined in her dissertation include Paolo Mantegazza, Ippolito NievoItalo Svevo, and Pitigrilli.

What emerges in these narratives is a complex discourse in which modernity is identified with psycho-active stimulation: in these texts, modern bodies are constantly subjected to shock, titillation, and excitement, whether at the pharmacy, the factory, or the cinema. Ultimately, as substances that function both as poison and cure, drugs point in these texts to a modernization that seems equally capable of killing and curing Italy’s body politic.

This dissertation radically re-envisions modern Italian cultural production in the pre-Fascist period, a body of work long seen as mired in classicism and Romanticism and entirely deaf both to the call of modernity and to contemporary European literary movements. I argue that Italian intellectuals, writers, and artists were keenly interested in new technoscientific ideas and objects and produced a body of work that critiqued the European project of modernity “from the margins,” an unusual perspective on that moment not available to their French, British, and German counterparts.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE. Coca per la patria: Paolo Mantegazza’s Treatise on the Coca Leaf
CHAPTER TWO. Contravveleni: Ippolito Nievo’s Popular Fiction
CHAPTER THREE. Svevo’s Addicts: Freedom and Dependency in La coscienza di Zeno
CHAPTER FOUR. Pitigrilli’s Cocaina: Poison or Antidote?