What Is Real?
Giorgio Agamben


What Is Real?


On the night of 25 March 1938, at 22:30, Ettore Majorana, who was regarded as one of the most talented physicists of his generation, boarded a Tirrenia steamer in Naples—where he had held the chair of theoretical physics for a year—heading for Palermo. In the words of the announcement published on 17 April in the “Chi l’ha visto?” column of the Domenica del Corriere, from that moment, except for unconfirmed reports and conjectures, every trace of “the thirty-one year old professor, 170 cm tall, lean, dark hair and eyes, with a long scar on the back of his hand” was lost. In spite of searches involving the police authorities and, under pressure from Enrico Fermi, the head of government in person, Ettore Majorana had disappeared forever. His relatives never accepted the possibility of suicide, which in itself seemed to convince the police that he had killed himself, and did not apply for a declaration of presumed death, as is usual in these circumstances. Unverifiable legends then circulated about the scientist’s escape to Argentina or Nazi Germany, his retreat to a monastery, and reappearance as a tramp in Sicily and Rome in the 1970s.

Every reflection on his disappearance should start from the letters Majorana wrote on the very day of his departure and the next as the only indisputable documents. A careful analysis of the texts shows that, at the very moment when he decides to disappear, Majorana seems to suggest divergent explanations for his gesture, as if he wanted to cover his tracks, intentionally leaving it open to contrasting interpretations.

On the same day of his departure he writes the following letter to Carrelli, his colleague at the University of Naples:

“Dear Carrelli, I have made a decision that was by now inevitable. It does not contain a single speck of selfishness; but I do realize the inconvenience that my sudden disappearance may cause for the students and yourself. For this, too, I beg you to forgive me; but above all for having betrayed the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you have so kindly offered me over the past few months. I beg you also to remember me to all those I have come to know and appreciate at your Institute, in particular Sciuti; of all I shall preserve the dearest memories at least until eleven o’clock this evening, and possibly later too.”

Majorana refers to the act he is carrying out as “my sudden disappearance,” not as a suicide, and shortly after specifies that he will remember his friends from the Institute of Physics “until eleven o’clock this evening, and possibly later too.” His intention to insinuate discordant explanations is already evident; “until eleven o’clock” may indeed refer to an anticipation of death, but, as has been observed, it is highly unlikely that, having the whole night ahead of him, he intended to jump in the sea half an hour after departing, when the sailors and passengers were still awake on the decks and would certainly have seen him. From this standpoint, the “possibly later too” is even more misleading, as it seems to contradict—although only hypothetically—every idea of suicide. Moreover, we should highlight the claim about the absolutely non-subjective motivation for his decision (“it does not contain a single speck of selfishness”). That Majorana was actually not thinking about suicide seems to be proved by the only other fact that is certain: before setting off, he withdrew a considerable amount of money and brought his passport with him.

On the other hand, the letter he leaves at the hotel for his parents reads like a suicide note, although death is curiously evoked only through its repercussions with respect to dress codes: “I have only one desire: that you do not wear black. If you want to follow custom, then bear some sign of mourning but not for more than three days. After that, if you can, remember me in your hearts and forgive me.”

On 26 March, Carrelli received a laconic telegram that contradicted the letter Majorana had just sent and promised a new one: “Don’t get alarmed. Letter to follow. Majorana.” The new letter, dated “Palermo 26 March 1938-XVI” (we should notice the reference to the Fascist Era, as if it were an official document), in fact announced the imminent return of the “missing” person:

“Dear Carrelli, I hope you got my telegram and my letter at the same time. The sea rejected me and I will be back tomorrow at the Hotel Bologna traveling perhaps with this letter. However, I intend to give up teaching. Do not think I am like an Ibsen heroine, because the case is different. I am at your disposal for further details.”