The reception of a thinker outside his own culture is always unpredictable, often paradoxical.footnote1 The case of Sebastiano Timpanaro is not untypical. In his own writings, there are plainly two principal cultures of reference outside Italy—German and French. Germany: homeland of classical philology, of historical materialism, and of psychoanalysis—that is, of the objects of his great books on Lachmann, Marx-Engels and Freud. France: homeland of Enlightenment materialism, and (antithetically) of 20th century structuralism. So: Diderot and Holbach—object of some of his deepest allegiances; Saussure-Lévi-Strauss-Lacan-Althusser—of his most devastating attacks. Beyond such landmarks, Timpanaro had a fairly wide knowledge of both intellectual landscapes. Many other figures from each country populate his writings: from Schlegel, Bopp, Gödel, Meringer, Korsch, Brecht on one side, to Laplace, Boutroux, Zola, Martinet, Sève on the other.
By comparison, Timpanaro had scarcely any points of direct contact with English culture. The only real exceptions lay in the technical field of philology itself: Housman, Dodds, Lloyd-Jones, Kenney. Beyond this specialized area, he had little traffic with English culture as such. The situation was not quite the same with Anglophone culture in a wider sense, since there were a number of American scholars of linguistics—Bloomfield, Sapir and Chomsky—with whose writing he was acquainted. But overall, there is no question about the distribution of his external attention. The Franco-German axis dominates massively.
But if this was the pattern of Timpanaro’s interests, the pattern of interests in Timpanaro—his reception abroad—was the inverse. In Germany, his book on Lachmann was translated; but neither Sul materialismo nor Il lapsus freudiano ever saw a German-language edition, nor—to the best of my knowledge—were ever seriously discussed in either Germany or Austria. In France, this indifference was still more marked. Till quite recently, none of his books ever appeared there.footnote2 His magisterial polemic against the misuses of Saussure, mystifications of Lévi-Strauss or Althusser, met with complete silence. For Parisian intellectual life, Sebastiano Timpanaro might as well not have existed. On the other hand, in England, to whose culture he was far less attuned, not only did his philological work achieve an earlier and more notable influence, but both his most widely accessible books were not just translated, but aroused lively discussions. What explains this striking asymmetry between orientation and reception?
One tempting answer would be that England lacked any powerful inheritance of modern philosophical idealism, comparable to the Hegelian, Neo-Kantian or Crocean traditions against which Timpanaro pitted himself. Hence the local intellectual setting would have been more hospitable to his ideas. There must be some element of validity in this hypothesis, but it cannot be decisive. For England also lacked any strong tradition of philosophical materialism either, at any rate after Hobbes. Rather, its principal tradition was empiricist, with much more of a (sceptically) idealist than a materialist accent, descending from Berkeley and Hume. We can take it as symptomatic that in England there was no major reception of Leopardi comparable to what we find in Sainte-Beuve, Herzen or Gide, nor any writer comparable to him like Georg Büchner. So the philosophical setting was not that propitious.
More telling, no doubt, was another national peculiarity. England had a very weak tradition of theoretical Marxism, as opposed to an (extremely strong) current of empirical historiography inspired by Marxism, but without much systematic conceptual reflection. We had no Frankfurt School, no Sartre or Lefebvre—nor any Gramsci or Della Volpe, of course. What this meant, by the late sixties, was that England became an intensive import-culture, so far as Marxism was concerned, with a very high general level of translation of works from Germany, France and Italy. This is the typical situation of a marginal or underdeveloped culture—an eagerness to follow and learn from what goes on in the advanced centres of intellectual production. Moreover, there was no strong local resistance to any variety of ‘imported’ Marxist thought, because there was no prior investment in—say—the Frankfurt School, Budapest School, Parisian or Gramscian schools such as often blocked a free circulation of foreign ideas elsewhere. Instead, in the England of that period there was a curiosity, among a newer generation, about each of these. From the mid-sixties onwards, the journal that acted as the main conduit for them all was New Left Review, which undertook translations, without bias, of every major current of Western Marxism—so quite logically, of Timpanaro too. There was no entrenched barrier to his ideas on the Left.
What, then, was the history of Timpanaro’s reception in England? In the spring of 1974, the opening essay of Sul materialismo was translated in nlr—a text that had given rise to some six replies in Quaderni Piacentini, where it was originally published in 1966, to which Timpanaro had rejoined in the second essay of the book. The editorial presentation of Timpanaro in the ‘Themes’ of nlr welcomed his intervention, with one qualification. In the Anglo-Saxon world, we wrote, Timpanaro’s arguments were subject to a local modification.
Unlike Italy or France, in England and the usa vulgar materialism is not a negligible presence within contemporary bourgeois ideology: it is a powerful current within certain disciplines, with a wide popular diffusion, and a recrudescent influence in recent years—particularly active in studies of race and related problems. Psychology and anthropology (Eysenck or Baker) are obvious examples, together with the growth of so-called ethology. The polemical fronts for Marxist intervention are thus more diverse than on the European continent, and correspond more closely to the original situation of Marx and Engels themselves, in their combat against the reactionary character of both traditionally entrenched idealism and genuinely vulgar materialism.footnote3