Sunday, February 7, 2010

Free Spirit by Mark Thompson

Between the death of Verdi in 1901 and Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922, Gabriele D' Annunzio became the most famous Italian in the world. Born in 1863, he started publishing verse in his teens. By his thirties, he was the country's best-known poet, most acclaimed novelist and glittering dramatist. He had a matchless ear for the mellifluous, incantatory qualities of the language. Artistically bold and highly intelligent, he owned all the talents for a brilliant career. An exuberant, insatiably acquisitive personality, he lived in fine villas and had countless love affairs. Magnetized by his reputation, society ladies reserved rooms in hotels where he stayed, hoping to catch his eye. He was a committed dandy; his collars were the stiffest, his creases the sharpest, his buttonhole carnations the whitest. His greyhounds wore livery tailored by Hermes. His correspondence with his jeweller has been published as a separate volume. Even his debts were legendary.

His status was always controversial. Accusations of plagiarism were hard the shake off. In Rome, the Catholic Church placed his works- rife with decadent sensuality- on the Index of Prohibited Books. In Dublin, the student James Joyce claimed that D'Annuncio had broken new ground in fiction. (He would later call him one of the three greatest natural talents among nineteenth-century writers.) In London- where at least one of his plays was banned- Henry James reviewed his novels.. In short, he acquired fame, salted with notoriety, on a scale that Byron and Liszt had enjoyed: glamour of the kind now reserved to film stars, rock musicians or footballers.

If this glamour is hard to convey, it is partly because his work has become almost unreadable. Love lyrics, idylls on classical themes, patriotic dramas, and trashily plotted novels about superhuman figures who are transparently the author himself: D'Annuncio's output was formally varied, but the variety is skin-deep. Mummified at its centre lies an effigy of the poet himself. The hosts of characters in his collected works are, with few exceptions, shadows or silhouettes, denied individuation by the monotonous gaudiness of his language, styled to hypnotise and overmaster the reader. The historical themes and political ideas that he discusses are ciphers of himself, pretexts for rapture. Meanwhile the waves of swooning rhetoric roll on, rising to crescendos of alliteration before subsiding in cycles as incessant and oceanic as the poet's self-regard. It was an ideal style to promote a policy of 'sacred egoism'.

D'Annunzio was a spectacular case of arrested emotional development, arguably a natural fascist. The otherness of other people- a puzzle that haunts modern thought and art- could not fascinate him because other people existed as objects of appetite or will, research opportunities in a quest to investigate the effects of denying himself nothing. The lovers he venerated came to repel him when sex led to expectations that limited his freedom. The actress Eleonora Duse, herself an international celebrity, was lavish with inspiration an money for nine years. Among the surviving shreds of their correspondence is an exchange from the summer of 1904, when the relationship foundered. Reproached by Duse, who was driven to despair by his infidelities and excuses, D'Annunzio found nothing to regret: "The imperious needs of a violent, carnal life, of pleasure, of physical risk, of happiness, have kept me from you. And you...can cry shame on me for these needs of mine?"

Duse's reply still carries a charge:

"Do not speak to me of the imperious 'reason' of your 'carnal' life, of your thirst for 'joyous existence'. I am tired of hearing those words. I have heard you repeat them for years now: I can neither entirely go along with your philosophy nor entirely understand it. What love can you find which is worthy or profound if it lives only for pleasure?"

Her question would have made no sense to D'Annunzio, who found a philosophical alibi for egotism in a selective reading of Friedrich Nietzsche. He had no use for Nietzsche the prophet of radical uncertainty, unstitching the assumptions of Western philosophy, the mockery of 'profundity', the ironic psychologist, the teasing critic of repression by grammar. For D'Annunzio, as for the German and Italian fascists after him, Nietzsche was champion of the life of endless expression, the revaluer of good and evil, scorning normal experience, unmasking Christian 'slave morality', and the discoverer of the Will to Power as the wellspring of human motivation.

Above all, he was the author of the concept of the Superman. D'Annunzio's first book to show the impact of Nietzsche's ideas was The Triumph of Death (1894). The novel's hero is haunted by his search for someone who can be 'the strong and tyrannical master, free of the yoke of every false morality, secure in the feeling of his own power...determined to lift himself above Good and Evil through the sheer energy of his will, capable even of forcing life to keep its promises. The Virgin of the Rocks followed in 1895, replete with Nietzschean insights:

"The world is the representation of the sensibility and the thought of a few superior men, who have created and adorned it in the course of time and will go on adding to it and adorning in further into the future. The world as it appears today is a magnificent gift bestowed by the few on the many, by free men upon slaves: by those who think and feel upon those who must labour."

D'Annunzio detested socialism. For him the emancipation of the masses was an absurdity, if not a crime.

While the dust settled long ago on the incestuous and sado-masochistic traces of his work, his career in the First World War has gained the power to appal. The whiff of sulphur around his name has transferred from his sex life and steamy novels to his politico-military career. For he emerged in 1915 as the figurehead of the intervention campaign, and went on to become the country's most publicized and decorated soldiers. Daring exploits with aeroplanes and torpedo boats lifted his popularity to new heights; he became a full-blown national hero. The sordid aspects of his past- adulteries, illegitimate children, trails of creditors- were obscured by the blaze of glory conferred by the press, the military and politicians.

In March, 1915, D'Annunzio was invited to speak at the unveiling of a monument to Garibaldi at a spot near Genoa where the hero had set sail to conquer Sicily in 1860. The King and his ministers were to be present. At the same time he was contacted by the French government to lead a group of Italian volunteers residing in France being sent back to Italy to shout for intervention.. On 3 May, D'Annunzio boarded a train in Paris, raising funds by pawning emeralds that Duse had given him. His Italian biographers still see his arrival in Italy in the poet's own grandiose terms: cometh the hour, cometh the man. His speech the next morning was relentlessly purple. Churchill at his most orotund was prosy beside D'Annunzio in full flight. Citing the "holy bronze" of the monument as warrant for claiming Garibaldi's approval, he invoked the spirit of self-sacrifice, rising to a pastiche Sermon on the Mount, shot through with his hallmark prurience...

If that and subsequent speeches sounded ominous, it was mild beside remarks he made at dawn on the 25th, after celebrating the first day of war:

"Our vigil has ended. Our exaltation begins...the border has been crossed. The cannon roars. The earth smokes. The Adriadic is as grey at this hour as the torpedo boat that cuts across it.

"Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are at last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory..the slaughter begins, the destruction begins. One of our people has died at sea, another on land. All these people, who yesterday thronged the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow..We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed."

The author of these psychotic remarks was a national hero. Has any artist played a more baleful part in decisions that led to violence and suffering on the largest scale? Yet, however clinical his obsessions now appear, there is a sense in which he truly was- as he claimed- a mouthpiece of the 'national will', defined as the preference of a minority with the power to shape policy. Some of the artists in the Futurist movement anticipated mass slaughter with equal relish, as we shall see, but none of them had D'Annuncio's rhetorical skill or the megaphone on international fame. Other interventionists could be withering about D'Annuncio as an artist and personality, yet they were all working to bring about his vision of smoking-blood. The decadent fantasist was more perceptive about the coming war than those who took pride in their lucid realism.

Among the crowds in Genoa on 5 May, 1915 was a lantern-jawed journalist. The fact that his report did not even mention D'Annunzio or his speech is not as odd a it seems, for Benito Mussolini still insisted he was a socialist. Beyond ideology, the omission may have also been intuitive, hinting at a rivalry that would develop after the war, when D'Annuncio was mooted in proto-fascist circles as a contender for national leadership, and before Mussolini rewarded him lavishly to stay out of politics. ( 'Two things can be done with a bad tooth", he quipped. ' Pull it out or fill it with gold'). Mussolini, too, had venerate Nietzsche, whose glorious ideals would only be understood by 'a new species of free spirits' who would be 'fortified in war.' Mussolini wrote that in 1908; in 1915 he was not ready to apply these concepts to the interventionist debate, and he balked at D'Annunzio's erotics of racial bloodletting.

1 comment:

  1. D'Annunzio's speeches in the spring of 1915 beg to be counted as the first fascist orations.

    "The White War; Life and Death on The Italian Front 1915-1919" by Mark Thompson; Basic Books, 2008