Saturday, February 29, 2020

Gabriele D'Annunzio

Last summer we went to Croatia with Matthew’s parents and brother and as we wound our way through the city we stopped in every bookstore we could find. Books are our scavenger hunt item. Living in a non-English speaking country, English books are harder to find then one would expect. But the real treasure quest are for English books that are also on the Western Canon. It’s very rare and incredibly exciting when it actually happens. 

So, miraculously, in a little Croatian bookstore I found Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz…and what has followed has been an incredibly long and complex rabbit trail…or perhaps series of rabbit trails. 

80 pages in I realized I needed to stop and give myself a history lesson. What was the difference between fascism and communism, and how was Rosa Luxembourg (a Marxist) supported by both? Or was it neither? Men in different colored shirts (green, brown, black) are continuously starting brawls about politics in bars. There are oblique references to “Arras” and hyperinflation and the Dawes Act, etc. 

So I moved Alexanderplatz to the back burner and picked up Existentialism instead…and between the lines of the existentialists is this background radiation in the shape of Nietzsche… so I put a pin in that and decided to take a class about European Dictators between WWI and WWII.  After this class and all the subsequent rabbit trails it has led me down I think I will finally be able to read Alexanderplatz in good faith. 

I’m four weeks into the class. Last week we discussed the rise of fascism in Italy and I came across someone very interesting: Gabriele D’Annunzio, the hero-poet. And it is here, with D’Annunzio, that all the rabbit trails converge. 

Disclaimer: While Gabriele D'Annunzio is on the list (Mais: In Praise of Life) I could not find a translation in English, so this month is more of query into the history of fascism than a traditional book report. 

Gabriele D’Annunzio was the father of fascism. He was a poet, a playwright, a national hero, an aviator for the Italian air force, a womanizer, the first “Il Duce,” the first to bring back the Roman salute, and quite possibly a psychopath. 

D’Annunzio began his international fame and notoriety with his attempt to rescue/ seize the port city of Fiume in September of 1919. The war had ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire needed to be reorganized along new lines recognizing new nations. Fiume had increasingly become a source of international tension. President Wilson argued that Fiume should become a buffer state between Italy and the Kingdoms of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later what would become Yugoslavia.) Wilson also suggested as an independent state, Fiume could be the future home of the League of Nations.

But not on D’Annunzio’s watch. He quickly cobbled together a makeshift army, easy for him to do as a celebrated national hero-poet, and began his march on Fiume to take back what was rightfully Italian. Followed by 186 soldiers, his big red (new) Fiat, so filled with flowers it was regularly mistaken for a hearse, slowly made it’s way forward. Even the Allied blockades were no match for D’Annunzio, being comprised of sympathetic Italian soldiers, who largely agreed with what D’Annunzio was doing. Rather then mount a resistance, one by one the soldiers would step aside, some even deserting to join ranks with D’Annunzio’s DIY militia.

“By the time he reached Fiume his following was some 2,000 strong. He was welcomed into the city by rapturous crowds who had been up all night waiting for him. An officer passing through the main square in the early hours of that morning saw it filled with women wearing evening dress and carrying guns, an image that nicely encapsulates the nature of the place - at once a phantasmagorical party and a battleground - during the fifteen months that D’Annunzio would hold Fiume as its Duce and dictator, in defiance of all the Allied powers.” (1)

D’Annunzio was described as a man of vehement and simultaneously incoherent political views. As a poet and artist he was an expert at crafting a turn of phrase and molding the emotions of the body politic. With his words and his guidance the populace was willing to rabidly follow his lead wherever it would take them. 

“He called his Fiume a “searchlight radiant” in the midst of an ocean of abjection.” It was a sacred fire whose sparks, flying on the wind, would set the world alight. It was the “City of the Holocaust.”  (2)

And with his charismatic presence and powerful rhetoric he attracted the most heterogeneous of advocates to his ‘city on a hill.” Lucy Hughes-Hallet describes this environment bristling with energy: 

“The place became a political laboratory. Socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and some of those who had begun, earlier that year, to call themselves fascists, congregated there. Representatives of Sinn Fein and of nationalist groups from India and Egypt arrived, discreetly followed by British agents. Then there were the groups whose homeland was not of this earth: the Union of Free Spirits Tending Toward Perfection, who met under a fig tree in the old town to talk about love and the abolition of money, and YOGA, a kind of political-club-cum-street-gang described by one of its members as “an Island of the Blest in the infinite sea of History.””  (3)

So, here we see the origination of fascism with a nebulous political agenda. I think it’s easy to disregard the idealism of fascism. What it became has become synonymous with evil…but I think what was initially so appealing to such a wide variety of people was the hope that it proclaimed. A new future, a new vision with endless potential and possibility. [Granted, the ever present bullying regularly tipped over into murder/ hate crimes and the murders were frequently  directed against perceived outsiders like the Vietnamese-French soldiers, stabbed to death along the quay…] Eventually there would be clearly defined structures, but those would not fall into place until after almost twenty years of being slow boiled in a culture medium of volatile rhetoric. 

This is how fascism starts. Through poetry, through associations, through the deep almost dreamlike quality of associative propaganda…no one begins with the “death to the democrats” (Mussolini)…you get there slowly by first arguing for small injuries, like Mussolini’s 1922 summation of his political program: “It is to break the bones of the democrats…and the sooner the better.”  What’s a little bone breaking? Am I right? 

Here’s an example of fascist poetry, written by D’Annunzio in 1917:


The dawn divides the darkness from light,
And my sensual pleasure from my desire,
O sweet stars, it is the hour of death.
A love more holy clears you from the skies.

Gleaming eyes, O you who'll ne'er return,
sad stars, snuff out your uncorrupted light!
I must die, I do not want to see the day,
For love of my own dream and of the night.

Envelop me,
O Night, in your maternal breast,
While the pale earth bathes itself in dew;
But let the dawn rise from my blood
And from my brief dream the eternal sun!
And from my brief dream the eternal sun!

So much is happening between the lines of this poem. At first glance it seems so benign. The first line alludes to a division: 

The dawn divides the darkness from light,”

Fascism is ultimately a policy of us vs. them. It quickly capitalizes on mankind’s predilection for tribalism and then shifts it into a more aggressive form of division. With an emphasis on nationalism, the “us” gets used to being defined with heroic rhetoric, marking them apart from the rest of humanity. They represent the “light” while everyone and everything else represents the “dark” opposition. (We see this in policies like Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine.) 

In How Fascism Works: Politics of Us and Them Jason Stanley describes the danger of these divisions as coming from: “The particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population. By excluding these groups, it limits the capacity for empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination.”  (4)

O sweet stars, it is the hour of death.
A love more holy clears you from the skies.

In May of 1919, D’Annunzio’s rhetoric became more religious/ blasphemous and increasingly seditious. Italy had emerged as a victor, but was politically unstable and financially depressed. What D’Annunzio would refer to as a “mutilated victory.” He pandered to a populace that felt disadvantaged, both financially and geopolitically. For D’Annunzio the war wasn’t over. This was the moment to rise up and claim victory for the Italian soldiers lying dead, scattered throughout European soil. 

“He said that Christ was calling out to the Italians to “rise up and not be afraid.” He led his listeners in chants in which the word “blood” tolled repeatedly - the blood shed already, the blood which yet must flow to cleanse Italy of the filthy shame of a negotiated peace. He was blasphemous, unreasonable, electrifying.” (5)

And so we see the “hour of death” being described as both necessary and heroic. The skies themselves represented the realm of the Übermensch or Superman, and those risking the sky-high missions of WWI had now taken their place as these super-human beings, beyond the judgment of a human tribunal. 

“Mass slaughter clears the space from which the superman can soar. D’Annunzio mourned the flyers, his friends, but he did not regret their deaths.” (6)

In both the second and third stanza again we see an emphasis on this need for a heroic cleansing death. “I must die, I do not want to see the day,” and again “But let the dawn rise from my blood."

Gleaming eyes, O you who'll ne'er return,
sad stars, snuff out your uncorrupted light!

The dead soldier would become a leitmotif throughout much of D’Annunzio’s subsequent work, symbolizing the mythology of war and emerging as the sacrificial victim, hero, and martyr. Their lives and more heroic deaths would become the rallying cry to join the dead saints and pursue the promise of a future glory.  

This is one out of four poems written for the operatic singer Francesco Paolo Tosti. Does this in a way represent a subterranean anthem of sorts? This poem would have been sung with passion or hummed while doing the dishes and going about the banality of daily domestic life. It seems like it would be impossible to sing the lines “But let the dawn rise from my blood” without in some capacity becoming “weaponized.”

I think tracing these patterns of thought through history are relevant because as the adage says: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. The Italians after WWI were struggling with their national identity and wanted an authoritative figure to give them guidance, at one point, that figure was internationally expected to be D’Annunzio. Instead they ended up with Mussolini. Madeline Albright describes fascism as being constructed through the politics of fear. 

“Fear is why Fascism’s emotional reach can extend to all levels of society. No political movement can flourish without popular support, but Fascism is as dependent on the wealthy and powerful as it is on the man or woman in the street -on those who have much to lose and those who have nothing at all.” (7)

I would argue that equally seditious is blinding patriotism and a charismatic leader. One hundred years after D’Annunzio marched his militia into Fiume, once more the world finds itself in the throes of populist movements. Fascism isn’t something that happened once a hundred years ago, it’s something always lurking beneath the surface. And maybe this is how it begins: With a leader charismatic enough to be equated with the second coming of Christ. As soon as religious language becomes the lingua franca of the political spectrum, we are sinking into miry propagandized rhetoric. 

There’s a great Neal Gabler quote that says “True religion, I believe, begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” 
I wonder if it’s a good time to pause and wonder what it is that we’re humming. What subterranean rhetoric influences our opinions and values possibly to the point that we’re no longer recognizable to ourselves? Have our emotions been radicalized for someone else's agenda? What hot button topics do we find ourselves senselessly enraged over, ready to pick up our sabers and fight for to the death? Maybe metaphorically we’re always standing across the boundary line, one foot in Fiume pursuing the idealism of politics buttressed by hate, with the other foot in the nomads land of contested soil. 

We can’t know which way we’re going unless we can see. Here’s to civil discourse and the pursuit of wisdom!

1. Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. The Pike: Gabriele DAnnunzio Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War. Fourth Estate, 2013.p.15
2. Ibid. p16
3.Ibid. p17
4. Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works: the Politics of Us and Them. Random House Publishing Group, 2018. p.xiv
5. Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. The Pike: Gabriele DAnnunzio Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War. Fourth Estate, 2013. p. 951
6. Ibid. p.839
7. Albright, Madeleine, and Bill Woodward. Fascism a Warning. William Collins, 2018. p.8

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