In the Long Dark Shadow of Gabriele D’Annunzio

Hush. On the edge
Of the woods I do not hear
Words which you call
Human; but I hear
Words which are newer
Spoken by droplets and leaves
Far away.
Listen. Rain falls
From the scattered clouds.

It’s 1919, the Austrian-Hungarian empire has just crumbled following WW1, and the small port-city of Fiume is under dispute. Will Fiume be handed over to Croats or remain under the Italian state? Well, it certainly looks like the Allies are going to hand the city over to the Croats – and yet, the city is filled with noble and patriotic Italians.

One Italian, a poet called Gabriele D’Annunzio, couldn’t stand the thought of his beloved Italy losing such a limb. On September 12th, 1919, he and over 2,000 Italian nationalist irregulars seized the city and declared a republic. Under the Charter of Carnaro, D’Annunzio established a corporate state. Inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as much as by the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, D’annunzio set up a state with ten corporations, each representing key sectors of the economy, from farming to fishing – the tenth set up to represent ‘superior individuals’ or ‘superman’; people, presumably, like D’Annunzio himself.

“The tenth [corporation] has no special trade or register or title. It is reserved for the mysterious forces of progress and adventure. It is a sort of votive offering to the genius of the unknown, to the man of the future, to the hoped-for idealization of daily work, to the liberation of the spirit of man beyond the panting effort and bloody sweat of to-day. It is represented in the civic sanctuary by a kindled lamp bearing an ancient Tuscan inscription of the epoch of the communes, that calls up an ideal vision of human labour: “Fatica senza fatica”.”

Music was also considered to be one of the fundamental principles of the state.

“In the Italian Regency of Carnaro, music is a social and religious institution. [...] music, the language of ritual, has power, above all else, to exalt the achievement and the life of man. [...] In every commune of the province there will be a choral society and an orchestra subsidized by the State. In the city of Fiume, the College of Aediles will be commissioned to erect a great concert hall, accommodating an audience of at least ten thousand with tiers of seats and ample space for choir and orchestra. The great orchestral and choral celebrations will be entirely free – in the language of the Church – a gift of God.”

It was thus that D’Annunzio had laid the groundwork for European fascism. A virulent and unrelenting nationalism mixed with ideas about the Nietzschean ‘overman’, with all this channeled through a militaristic and highly-disciplined corporate state – this model was soon to become a popular one.

This small sovereign state fell after a bombardment by the Italian navy and D’Annunzio went on to other adventures – although he never formally signed up to the fascist movement that was to grow up in his shadow.

The fascists that came later were inspired mainly by D’Annunzio’s style. His style was a sort of theatrical or histrionic masculinity – mixed with a sentimentalism fit for a poet. Poetry at the pull of a trigger. What D’Annunzio had done was to take over a certain mentality that had been born just after the Enlightenment had taken place – as a reaction against – and politicize it. This was not the first time Romanticism had been actively politicized. Robespierre and Saint-Just had, during the French Revolution, tried to push the Romantic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as far as it could realistically go. The difference was that whereas Robespierre had sought dissemination of Rousseau’s by establishing a religion – probably thought at the time to be the ultimate ‘mass-medium’ – D’Annunzio was at the forefront of modern politics. This was a time when mass-politics itself would become a sort of religion.

One could point to Lenin and the other Communists and claim that they too were representatives of the Romantic tradition – and, to an extent, they were; although tended to suppress these sentimental tendencies and kneel at the alter of modern science. Communism, according to Lenin, was to be Soviet power and electrification – not to mention Tayloristic ‘scientific management’. In Lenin and his successors one notes that the elements of the Communist doctrine that can be traced back to the Romantics – such as Marxian ‘alienation’ – are all but absent.

D’Annunzio, on the other hand, almost completely ignored the more rational and rationalised elements involved in founding a modern state. For him politics was glory – pure self-actualisation. D’Annunzio channeled Nietzsche and the other neo-Romantics, who believed that only through pure creativity could man free himself from the shackles of enlightened boredom. These grandiose idea were what was to appeal to his fascist successors.

D’Annunzio was one of the first political figures to try to incorporate the Romantic principles of self-realisation into politics. These ideas and their politicization was later to be taken over by the fascist movements. Finally, after WW2 these ideas were taken over by another two groups: the counter-culture movement and the advertisers. The former sought to destroy capitalism in the name of self-actualisation; like D’Annunzio, they were not fascist, but used similar rhetorical tactics: sentimentality, appeal to emotions etc. that the fascists were later to perfect (Glenn Beck is the key representative of this trend today, incidentally). The advertisers picked up on this discourse – always anti-establishment and geared toward self-empowerment – but channeled it away from politics and into the sphere of mass-consumption.

And it is thus that we live such principles today. Our aesthetics are neither politicized in the state, nor widely distributed through advanced art and literature. Instead, they are predominantly geared toward ensuring that certain rates of consumption – that is: effective demand – are kept up. But don’t doubt it – these are the same principles and the same ideas. Indeed, even the language is the same – albeit today it is predominantly a ‘will to sex’ rather than a ‘will to power’.

I began to think again about D’Annunzio after writing today about the Iraq war. As the wonderful BBC filmmaker, Adam Curtis, pointed out some time ago, D’Annunzio’s influence was also felt by certain key Neo-Conservative figures – such as Michael Ledeen. They too used a political discourse based on sentimentality to launch idealistic wars. But this time it was not the self that had to be actualised – according to the Neo-Cons, the self has already been far too actualised for it’s own good – it was, this time, the Other whose freedom was the main concern. Once again art was to become politics – and politics to become madness.

And rain falls on our faces-
Sylvan,
Rain falls on our hands-
Naked,
On our clothes-
Light,
On the fresh thoughts
That our soul discloses-
Renewed,
On the lovely fable
That yesterday
Beguiled me, that beguiles you today,
O Hermione.

- Gabrielle D’Annunzio ‘The Rain in the Pine Wood’

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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2 Responses to In the Long Dark Shadow of Gabriele D’Annunzio

  1. Pingback: Writing about Political Art « Melbourne Art & Culture Critic

  2. Carl-Otto Rieks says:

    Dear sirs,
    Researching D’Annunzio, Benito Mussolini and Filippo Marinetti for an essay/novel I touched on your skilled opinion about art in politics. As Goering said during the Third Reich: when someone mentions the word culture I cock my pistol. That will of course be the germanic, ergo the barbaric version of what latins consider it to mean. D’Annunzios only influence on people and politics was through his exorbitant production of fiction of all sorts. Since 1909 he was a kindred spirit to among many others Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism. Marinetti pressed the sensce of art and culture to propagandist extremes and ended up as a “political animal” alongside D’Annunzio and the frustrated syndicalist and socialist Benito Mussolini. Together they confronted the official Italy and its lame governments before, under and after WWWI. They joined up for the agitpop effort in May 1915 in Rome for the ultimate attempt to tumble the government lest it brought Italy into the Great War against Austria and Germany to defend the latin art and culture together with its great latin sister France and against The Barbarians of The North.
    Carl-Otto Rieks
    Denmark

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