“NARCO MODERNS: Drugs, Intoxication, and Italian Modernity (1858-1923)” examines drugs, literature, and the Italian experience of modernity. I argue that Italian writers saw drugs as a powerful metaphor for narrating the experiences of acceleration, stimulation, consumption, and mechanization that characterized modern life.

“L’uomo modern è l’uomo che fuma o che fiuta.”

– Antonio Gramsci

My project spans the period from Unification to the post-WWI years, from Paolo Mantegazza’s groundbreaking treatise on the coca leaf in 1858 to the publication of Pitigrilli’s bestselling (and scandalous) novel Cocaina in 1921. In the texts that I examine, the modern metropolis emerges as a dark paradise that, although initially exciting and pleasurable, eventually proves toxic. Ultimately, the ambivalence of the pharmakon—a substance that is at once medicine, philter, and poison—points to a modernization that seems equally capable of killing and curing Italy’s body politic.

The dissertation follows drugs in their many entanglements across philosophy, medicine, science, and literature. I am interested in medical discourses of shock and stimulation, which presented modern bodies as constantly being bombarded with sensations as well as information. The first chapter explores Mantegazza’s theorization of the coca leaf as a kind of “nerve nutrient” that could strengthen modern bodies against the fatigue of modern life. Other chapters focus rather on the metaphor of literature as a drug, and the ambivalent power of literature to stimulate readers’ passions.

This dissertation examines narratives by prominent Italian thinkers, including Mantegazza, Ippolito Nievo, Edmondo De Amicis, Italo Svevo, and Dino Segre (pseudonym Pitigrilli) that critique the European project of modernity from a position that is neither conservative nor reactionary. By recovering the complexity and ambivalence of these critiques, my work re-envisions post-Unification Italian culture as an active participant in contemporary transnational debates about modernization, intervening in a scholarly tradition that has interpreted the Italian experience of modernity through Eurocentric paradigms that identify Italy as having “failed” to achieve modernity or as being somehow “belated” or “backward” vis-a-vis Europe.

You can find the full text of the dissertation published on ProQuest.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER ONE. Mantegazza’s ‘Alimenti Nervosi’

This chapter explores Italian anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza’s theorization of the coca leaf as a kind of “nerve nutrient” that could strengthen modern bodies against the fatigue of modern life. Reading his scientific treatise on the coca leaf against contemporary scientific ideas about race, climate, and energy, I argue that Mantegazza saw the coca leaf as a critical tool in the biopolitical project of enhancing Italian productivity and thus making Italy ‘modern.’

CHAPTER TWO. Nievo’s ‘Contravveleni’

Ippolito Nievo’s down-to-earth prose and ironic umorismo has long been read as a strategic means of appealing to a mass audience. In this chapter, I argue that it is better understood as part of a larger aesthetics of sobriety that characterizes Nievo’s philosophy of literature more broadly, and that emerges in response to anxieties about the intoxicating effects of the modern novel.

CHAPTER THREE. Svevo’s Ether Dreams

A key and yet often overlooked moment in Svevo’s Senilità (1898) comes in the final chapters, when the protagonist’s sister Amalia dies from an ether overdose. In this chapter, I argue that Svevo turns to the metaphor of drugs, a theme that runs throughout the novel, in order to warn against the threat of decadence and the retreat into contemplation that he saw as plaguing his own time.

CHAPTER FOUR. Pitigrilli’s ‘Veleni soavi’

In the final chapter of the dissertation. I explore Pitigrilli’s bestselling (and scandalous) novel Cocaina (1921), a disquieting narrative that explores that dark side of the pursuit of pleasure. In the novel, the obsession with novelty and the desire for stimulation coincides with a profound sense of societal paralysis. Ultimately, I argue that Cocaina warns against the urge to mortgage the future in order to perpetuate indefinitely an inauthentic present.