Adespoton, the flight of freedom. An intervention on Pulcinella for the PAN Group Meeting. by Gerardo Muñoz

I want to thank Lucia Dell’Aia for putting together the PAN Group, which she describes as a natural garden composed of different voices already constituted and dispersed around the world. The group’s initial inspiration springs from Giorgio Agamben’s Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (Nottetempo, 2015), a beautiful and important book. Pulcinella is, prima facie, a book about a puppet (the famous Napolitan puppet that I remember first encountering years ago in an Italian pizzeria in New York Upper West Side without knowing much about him), but it is also something else. As it is already common to Agamben’s thought, these figures are depositary of arcanii of the western tradition, and Pulcinella is no exception. I want to suggest to all of you something obvious: Pulcinella stands for the arcana of blissful and happy life in the wake of a catastrophic civilization. It should be obvious that the thematics of happiness have always occupied a central place in the Italian philosopher’s work, and every book is a way to measure up to this latent sensibility proper to the mystery of anthropogenesis. In a way, then, Pulcinella rehearses an idea that has been present since the early books, although restated in new garments that have remained unsaid. In this short intervention I want to address these two dimensions, and perhaps contribute to the already rich discussion on Pulcinella in the intersection between philosophy, poetry, ethics and politics, which Lucia suggests it should be the way that we approach the field of forces of thought.

As early as in the gloss “Idea of Happiness” in Idea of Prose (1985), Agamben thematizes the problem of happiness inscribed in the relationship between character and destiny that will reappear in a central way in Pulcinella: “In every life there remains something unlived just a s in every word there remains something unexpressed…The comedy of character: at the point when death snatches from the hand of character what they tenacious hide, it but grasps a mask. At this point character disappears: in the face of the dead there is no longer any trace of what has never been lived…” [1]. Against the metaphysics of eudaimonia and the theological tribulation of happiness as a reflection of property (“in pursuit of happiness”, Thomas Jefferson will define civic life within the organization of the goods of the res publica); the idea of character is what traces the unlived in every life; and, more importantly, what neutralizes the tragic dimension of the narrative of destiny. Narration is the point of fixation and representation transcendence; it creates order and irreversibility, it hold us accountable. This is why character is a parabasis of destiny, thus its comic axis: “Character is the comic aspect of every destiny, and destiny is the tragic shadow of character. Pulcinella is beyond destiny and character, and tragedy and destiny” [2]. Pulcinella breaks aways from the prison of the metaphysics of destiny and character posited as “substance” for action. This is why, radicalizing the relation to death in the gloss on happiness, Agamben will introduce the theatrical figure of the parabasis to define the desertion from the conditions of fixation and historical time [3]. In other words, there is happiness when there is a possibility of parabasis in the face of catastrophe. And catastrophe is nothing but the integral adaptive operation between character and destiny that regulates legal fictions, political mediations, and ultimately the opposition between life and death. If Søren Kierkegaard understood Pulcinella as a figure of privation in opposition to the knight of faith; for Agamben, on the contrary, Pulcinella does not depend on fides or the persona, but rather on a comic intensification that allows “life itself” to move beyond the theological conditions dispensed by sin, guilty, or fear of death – all guarantees of the economy of salvation [4]. Pulcinella heresy is to move within and beyond the world, as Agamben writes in a remarkable orphic moment of the book:

“Che Pulcinella abbia una speciale relazione con la morte, è evidente dal suo costume spettrale: come l’homo sacer, egli appartiene agli dei interi, ma appartiene loro così esageratamente, da saltare tutt’intero al di là della morte. Ciò è provato dal fatto che ucciderlo è inutile, se lo fucilano o impiccano, immancabilmente risorge. E come è al di là o al di qua della morte, cosí è in qualche modo al di qua o al di là della vita, almeno nel senso in cui questa non può essere separata dalla morte. Decisivo è, in ogni caso, che una figura infera e mortuaria abbia a che fare essenzialmente col riso.” [5].

The comic dimension in Pulcinella’s expressive character, then, has little to do with an anthropological laughter automatism that would reveal the species proximity to animality (but also its outermost distance and alienation). More specifically, Pulcinella’s character is a lazzo or medial relation that exceeds life and death fixation. At the same time, Pulcinella (like Hölderlin, Pinocchio, to recall the other figures in Agamben’s most recent books) irradiates a new type of existence; in fact, an existence against all reductions of subjectivity and personalism, which could very well defined by the pícaro motto “vivir desviviéndose” [6]. If we grant this, we are in a better position to grasp that death is not finality to “a life”, but rather a limit of caducity of experience that those in possession of character can breach in order to affirm the releasement of happiness. In a fundamental way, life is always unto death, so it is through his character that one could accomplish resurrection and become eternal. It is obvious that Pulcinella’s character has important consequences for a novel characterization of freedom; a freedom beyond the attributes of the person (be the ‘harm principle’ or the ‘non-intervention’) and the modern legitimation through the rise of interests as a way to suppress the passions. One could say that the politico-civil conception of freedom always stood on the firm ground of the fiction of the person, which Pulcinella destitutes by emphasizing the unlived reminder: the soul. And it is the soul that renders – this is not explicit in Giorgio Agamben’s book, and could perhaps be a theme of discussion – a new principle of differentiation within the logic of immanence of nature. Towards the end of the book, Agamben appeals to Plato’s Myth of Er, which speaks to the penumbra or zone of indetermination between life and death, character and destiny; while preparing the ground for a different conception of freedom. A freedom defined through a very important term: “adéspoton” or virtue – which he designs as without masters and beyond adaptation, and it has been taken as one of the earliest affirmations of the notion of freedom as a separate intellect (a rendition elaborated by Plotinus’s Enneads VIII) – but this, I think, could be fully assessed in another ocassion. This is what Agamben writes:

“Nel racconto di Er il Panfilio alla fine della Repubblica, Platone ha rappresentato le anime che, giungendo dal cielo o dal mondo sotterraneo “in un luogo demonico” davanti al fuso che sta sulle ginocchia di Ananke, scelgono la vita in cui dovranno reincarnarsi. Un araldo le mette in fila e, dopo aver preso in mano le sorti e i paradigmi di vita, proclama che sta per cominciare per esse un nuovo ciclo di vita mortale: “Non sarà un demone a scegliere, ma voi sceglierete il vostro demone. Chi è stato sorteggiato per primo, scelga la forma di vita [bios] a cui sarà unito per necessità. La virtù invece è libera [adespoton, “senza padrone”, “inassegnabile”] e ciascuno ne avrà in misura maggiore o minore a seconda che la’- miola disprezzi. La colpa è di chi sceglie, dio è innocente” (617e).” [7]

The adéspoton is a strange and sui generis virtue, since it does not appeal to a moral conception of the good. Of course, this allows for something very subtle: retreating from the tribune of morality, the adéspoton belongs to the access of a life in happiness. I think this complicates the picture of Agamben’s insistence through his work on “beatitude” – and in large measure, Spinoza’s conatus essendi – since adéspoton is not a form of absolute immanence, but rather of a soul that is always inadequate in relation to the assigned preservation of its nature (perseverantia in suo esse). In other words, the adéspoton is the intensity that allows for a relation between interiority and exteriority through an acoustic attunement with the world. The adéspoton refuses the conditions of possibility for “freedom”; since it conceives freedom as emanating from the non-objective conditions of the contact with the outside.

At this point I will reach a preliminary conclusion in my intervention picking up on this last problem: the outside. Of course, to speak of the outside – the “transmigration of souls” as in Plato’s quintessential myth – already announces an imaginary of flight. And it is no coincidence that Pulcinella is a sort of half-bird creature: a chicken that cannot flight, but nonetheless experiences the outside thanks to its adéspoton. Agamben reminds us of the etymological proximity of Pulcinella with “pullecino” or chicken like creature like the Donald Duck [8]. It is also no coincidence that Agamben closes the book recalling how Giandomenico during his last years of life was fascinated with all kinds of birds that he painted in the Palazzo Caragiani in an effort to radically dissolve the human form [9]. I think that birdly nature of Pulcinella is to be taken seriously, given that in the mythical register of the Hebrew bible, the large bird, the Ziz, is the third mythic creature along with the Leviathan and the Behemoth, the creates of the sea and the land that have marked the world historical opposition of appropriation. And it is more strange that, in The Open, Agamben mentions the Ziz without thematizing its potentiality for the flight from the nomos of the earth that today expresses itself as a civilizational conflagration. The Ziz, very much like Pulcinella, prefers “not to” to participate in the geopolitical confrontation between land and sea undertaking a flight of its own from life towards freedom.

The arcana of Pulcinella resonates with the Ziz mythic figure, but it is not dependent on myth or allegorical substitution. The parabasis is the exposition of every life here and now. Although the figure of the bird disappeared from Agamben’s mature work, one should not dismiss his first publication, the poetic short-story “Decadenza” (1964), which he wrote while a law student at Sapienza, and which tells the story of a depressed community of birds with eggs that do not hatch and species that have lost the contact with the external world [10]. I think it’s fair to say that Agamben’s Pulcinella finds the ‘exit’ to the oblique and impoverished world of “Decadenza” through Pulcinella’s adéspoton: a new capability is imagined to flee from the catastrophe of the world, against nihilism and the global conflagration (think of the fetichistic avatar of political destruction), but rather to dwell in the non-event of happiness in the mystery of every life. If as Agamben writes, metaphysics is always the production of a dead-end – always arousing a feeling of “being-stuck”, always in need of “catching up” at the expense of suppressing our ethical freedom – one could very well see how Pulcinella’s flight of freedom is the path against metaphysics par excellence [11]. As Agamben writes at the closing of Pulcinella: “Il segreto di Pulcinella è che, nella commedia della vita, non vi è un segreto, ma solo, in ogni istante, una via d’uscita” [12]. One can imagine him being a truly unforgettable anti-Sisyphus.




1. Giorgio Agamben. Idea della prosa (Quodlibet, 2002), 93.

2. Giorgio Agamben. Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (Nottetempo, 2015), 4

3. Ibild., 35

4. Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics, 1985), 79.

5. Giorgio Agamben. Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (Nottetempo, 2015), 65.

6. Gerardo Muñoz. “La existencia pícara. Sobre Pinocchio: Le avventure di un burattino (2021) de Giorgio Agamben“, Infrapolitical Reflections, 2022: 

7. Giorgio Agamben. Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (Nottetempo, 2015), 105.

8. Ibid., 47.

9. Ibid., 122-123.

10. Giorgio Agamben. “Decadenza” (Futuro, 1964). I thank Philippe Theophanidis for bringing to my attention this early text. 

11. Giorgio Agamben. Filosofia prima filosofia ultima: Il sapere dell’Occidente fra metafisica e scienze (Einaudi editore, 2023), 103.

12. Giorgio Agamben. Pulcinella ovvero divertimento per li regazzi (Nottetempo, 2015), 130.

The ostrich as symbol. by Gerardo Muñoz

A couple of years ago I wrote the prologue to accompany the new edition of the almost forgotten novel Vendaval en los cañaverales (La Habana, 1937), by the reactionary writer Alberto Lamar Schweyer. I entitled the text “Avestruces en Niza”, since half of the novel, or almost all of it, takes place in the French riviera, where a bunch of decadent upper middle-class bourgeois couples live off the revenue of a transnational sugar-cane production and exports company based in the eastern part of Cuba. Written at the height of the convoluted years of the 1930s – as political turmoil intensified and the economy plummeted, putting an end to the recurrent developmentalist dream – it was not too difficult to read the ethos of this important work in light of the famous lecture “Cubano, avestruz del Trópico” (“The Cuban, an ostrich of the Tropics”, 1938) by eminent intellectual Enrique Gay Calbó, who deployed the figure of the bird to diagnose the obliviousness to economic reality and the short-term disposition (“cortoplacista”) of the national anthropological subject. The essay has been read, at times, under the framework of a pessimistic outlook towards the aspiration of amending a truly republic after independence, but at the same time, and all things considered, it should be also read as a metaphorical attempt to denote the ethos towards abstraction of the ruling criollo elite that would accelerate its compensations through direct coercion and acerbic pro patria mori rhetoric. Lamar, who belonged to this intellectual class, was able to provide a narrative form to these elements of the national interregnum, without introducing allegorically, the figure of the ostrich. And it is impossible for him to have known of Enrique Gay Calbó’s metaphoric resource, given that the lecture was delivered in April of 1938.

However, the ostrich was not accidental, and some of these details were unknown to me while writing the prologue to the edition (hence this sui generis addendum). Indeed, the ostrich was no exotic animal in the new minted Republic of Cuba, since as early as 1906 there were active ostrich farms in Marianao, Havana, financed by an American company from Arizona [1]. To my surprise, the mini report from The Cuban Review and Bulletin stated that half of the ostriches came from Nice, France. It would make sense, then, why Jean Vigo’s silent beach documentary À propos de Nice (1930) in truly natural fashion, featured a montaje of a fur-dressed lady with that of a strolling ostrich across the Promenade des Anglais, the same boardwalk used by the characters of Lamar’s novel. But what could Vigo’s momentaneous, and almost dream-like ostrich tries to tell us? Unlike Gay Calbó’s bird, the Promenade ostrich is no longer burying her head on the ground, but rather looking perplexed at modern bourgeois world, quite disoriented and visibly alienated among the frenzied crowd of strange and oblivious tourists. This is no world for an ostrich, and the moment she appears on the screen she is gone. Or at least this was Vigo’s playful cinematic gesture: the “new world” of the 1930s was soon going to be transformed into something radically different underneath the gaming, the sporting, and the consumerism.

Furthermore, the ostrich as a symbolic creature occupies a sort of threshold between transitional epochs. In a beautiful book dedicated to the arcanum of this animal in Raphael’s fresco at Sala di Costantino at the Vatican, Una Roman D’Elia reminds us that the idea of the ostrich as the cartoonist semblance of a bird sticking the head in the sand marked the new Renaissance mental structure that separated art and science in a new world now dependent on the self-assertion of anthropocentric conception [2]. However, what was enigmatic and attractive (and it continues to be) in Raphael’s ostrich is precisely an intermingling of the ostrich as arcana that converged mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Roman bestiaries, and Christian religious history in a thick living creature that was both a myth and an animal of this world. A true symbol of imagination that brings to an end the modern conception of figurative expression and animal taxonomy. This is why even Saint Augustine could allude to the ostrich along with sirens – “Sirens daughters of ostriches, why should they bless me?” – who were called filae passerum by Plautus because they were imported from Africa, that is, from overseas [3]. The ostrich was the animal of passage between land and sea. In a clear parodic unfolding of symbolic meaning, what at some point cultivated imagination, myth, and the distance with the world was transformed into a large bird for farming, and converted into a metaphor of the deleterious effects if the constitution of reality is ignored.

In this forking of paths, it is true that Raphael’s ostrich is no longer a clear symbol to transmit a myth; on the contrary, it becomes a metaphor open to meaning (a meaning which will soon become extraction: feathers, egg production, zoology, and finally anthropological metaphor). For Roman D’Elia, the ostrich claimed a “higher mystery” in its own evasive force that resulted in the tensions between naturalism and meaning, symbol and representation, justice (iustitia) and the creations of the world. Was the ostrich a pagan incarnation of “Justice”, or perhaps the mannerist morphology of the all-encompassing judge’s majestum, that is both tender and imposing? Or is perhaps is the ostrich iustitia the last form of justice, at the eclipse of this world, that is, an messianic figuration towards the end of days and the banquet of the mythic primeval monsters (Leviathan, Behemoth, and Ziz)?

As Lois Drewer draws in her interpretation of the three mythic creations from the Talmud: “Once the egg of a Bar Yokani [an alternate name for Ziz] fell and its contents swamped sixteen cities and destroyed three hundred cedar trees. But does it actually throw the egg? Is it not written: ‘The wing of the ostrich beateth joyously’ [Job 39. 13]. The egg [which it smashed] was rotten” [4]. Could the ostrich be understood as the mythical Ziz, who unlike the monsters of the nomos of the Earth (Leviathan and Behemoth), refuses to engage in the depredatory game in order to save itself for the celestial messianic banquet of eternal life? And if this is so, then the ostrich, instead of a creature of this world, is the last animal of the world who takes under its wing the absolute accomplishment of Justice that coincides neither with the principle of the aequitas of nature nor with the constitution of reality, but rather with what is vanquished in the modern spirit: mainly, the erotic mystery of the separation of life and the world. The ostrich was not in itself mysterious, but perhaps more fundamentally a keeper of the eschatological mysterium.




1. “Ostrich Farm in Marianao”, The Cuba Review and Bulletin, Vol.5, 1906, 23.

2. Una Roman D’Elia. Raphael’s Ostrich (Penn State University Press, 2015). 

3. St. Augustine. The Works of Saint Augustine: Sermons on the Old Testament (New City Press, 2011), 410.

4. Lois Drewer. “Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz: A Christian Adaptation”, Journal of the Warburg Institutes, 1981, V.44, 1981, 152.