February 21, 2013

"Dramatic Disproportionment" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on F. T. Marinetti: Critical Writings)

dramatic disproportionment
by Douglas Messerli

Günter Berghaus, editor F. T. Marinetti: Critical Writings, translated by Doug Thompson
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006)

Reading the new collection of F. T. Marinetti’s critical writings, edited by Günter Berghaus and translated by Doug Thompson, I was over the many months alternately elated and disgusted! How could one not be roused by Marinetti’s excited poetical rants? One can almost hear his voice—singing what I imagine as a somewhat high-pitched shrill siren-song of poetical and often political activism—in the early statements and manifestos of Futurism:

My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of
a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,
all aglow with the concentrated brilliance of an electric heart. For many
hours, we’d been trailing our age-old indolence back and forth over
richly adorned, oriental carpets, debating at the uttermost boundaries of
logic and filling up masses of paper with our frenetic writings...

begins Marinetti’s “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” first published in February 1909. The preface and Manifesto scream out with the indignations of youth against a culture he and his friends saw as wallowing in the decadence of the past symbolized by the frail (and, for Marinetti, “feminine”) light of the moon, a theme reiterated in his “Second Futurist Proclamation” in its subtitle, “Let’s Kill Off the Moonlight,” and in his 1911 renunciations of Symbolist masters, “the Last of the Lovers of the Moonlight.” The principles of his Manifesto itself represent a loony combination of daring and what seems an absurdly naïve vision of the future, singing of the “love of danger,” “the use of energy and recklessness,” “courage, boldness, rebellion,” while arguing for “aggressive action, a restive wakefulness, life at the double, the slap and the punching fist.” Marinetti idealizes speed, the racing car, and machine-gun fire. Like the Russian Futurists, he calls for the destruction of museums, libraries, and “academies of any sort.” Like numerous calls for change by the young, the Futurists see themselves as singing the song of the “great multitudes,” reminding one at moments even of Whitman’s “body electric”: “the pulsating, night ardor of arsenals and shipyards, ablaze with their violent electric moons,” “railway stations, voraciously devouring smoke-belching serpents,” “bridges which, like great gymnasts, bestride the rivers, flashing in the sunlight like gleaming knives,” the “lissome flight of the airplane.” Just as the British Futurists later saw the vortex as putting an end to time and space, Marinetti and his friends proclaimed “Time and Space died yesterday.”

This is all the heady stuff of youth (even though Marinetti was 33 at the time, young, but no longer a “youth”), and along with his dozens of other proclamations and his aggressive transformations—well represented in this comprehensive selection of his writings—of Italian poetry, theater, dance, music, cuisine, photography, and radio outlined in the earliest and latest of the Futurist writings, these help one to realize just how remarkable was Marinetti’s contribution to the 20th century arts. His intoxicating, if slightly insane descriptions of a Theatre of Surprises and a “total theatre,” complete with multiple revolving stages and an audience lit by varied colored lights below their feet and separated from the stages by a moat of water wherein battleships raged, reveal an outrageously fertile imagination. Marinetti’s calls for a radio that would go beyond painting, beyond war and revolution, beyond chemistry, even beyond the Earth “by imagining the means necessary for journeying to the Moon” not only expresses an imaginary future for Italy and the world, but in retrospect, appears nearly clairvoyant. So too were his calls for an “abstract cinema,” his proposals for a photography that engaged “the drama of moving and immobile objects,” “the drama of the shadows of contrasting objects,” the drama of humanized objects, turned to stone, crystallized or made plantlike by means of camouflage or special lighting,”  “the fusion of images taken from below with those taken from above,” “moving or static views of objects or human and animal bodies,” “transparent and semitransparent images of people and concrete objects,” “organic composition of a person’s different states of mind,” an “art of photographing camouflaged objects,” in short, a “dramatic disproportionment,” resonate when one considers both film and photography from the other side of the century. Having dined on a meal (at Luigi Ballerini’s 1993 UCLA conference on Futurism) designed by Marinetti, I can tell you that his cuisine was, if nothing else, a lot more fun and sexy than any other poet-inspired concoctions I have experienced.
     Hooray, then, for F. T. Marinetti and for the publication of this new gathering of his works!
     But no matter how much one desires to celebrate the poet and theorist, sadly, this collection also calls up his terrifyingly pernicious ideas: his repeated calls for war, combined with a breast-beating insistence of Italian nationalism that not only parallels but crosses paths with the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. And no matter how one might attempt to mollify Marinetti’s war-mongering and nationalistic attitudes—perceiving these issues as part and parcel of his desire to embrace the violence of a forceful life as opposed to a passive worshipping of the past—one cannot but recognize behind his statements the utter stupidity of those who pushed Europe into World War I and the blind hatred and murderous actions that led to World War II. Certainly, many of Marinetti’s desires for an Italy that “is both strong and free, no longer in servitude to its great Past…an Italy that is under no one’s control…sovereign, united, and indivisible” seem reasonable. Most Americans also want those things for their country. Marinetti even warns, in his 1919 essay “Futurist Democracy,” that
 Italian pride must not be, and is not, an imperialism whose goal
 is to impose industries, to corner markets, to effect massive
 increases in agrarian production….We want to create a true
 democracy, conscious and bold….

Marinetti’s “democracy” would have also kept women (the “feminine” principal being an absolute anathema to his thinking) from active roles in society; diplomats, professors, philosophers, archeologists, critics, etc. would be rooted out by War (“This Futurist Year”).  Time and again Marinetti and his Futurist friends are praised for acting out violence in public affairs, behaving much like Mussolini’s thugs before the rise of his party. Indeed, had Mussolini treated the Futurists better, and not basically ignored them, as he did, it seems apparent to any careful reader of Marinetti’s work that he might have remained in league with the devil. Fortunately, feeling he had failed in his political activities, he turned in his later years more and more to new ideas regarding the arts.
      Writers, even great ones—and I believe that Marinetti clearly aspired to greatness in his innovative methods—are not always good men, even sane men. The product of a romantic culture, with an exotic youth lived in Alexandria, Egypt (“On one side, my father’s house in Alexandria looked out onto a busy street, and on the other onto a huge walled garden that was filled with palm trees, fans gently waving against the foamy blue laughter of the African sea,” writes Marinetti in “Self-Portrait,” the earliest work in this volume), Marinetti rebelled against a past that also defined him. Like many others who embraced various forms of fascism (D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Wyndham Lewis, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline), the impatience for progress was often rooted in a simplified and idealized vision of the past. And while that fact does not ameliorate Marinetti’s many repugnant ideas for change, it does allow me to perceive them in the context of his idealistic and desirable interpenetration of all the arts and daily life.

Los Angeles, December 22, 2007
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2008).

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