Merry Kicks

Mark Ford

F.T. (Filippo Tommaso) Marinetti liked to describe himself as the ‘caffeine of Europe’. He was undoubtedly the most daring and inventive artistic propagandist of the 20th century, and Futurism, the movement he launched with a manifesto published on the front page of Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, reconfigured the popular notion of modern art and the modern artist more widely and decisively than any of the other isms now gathered under the umbrella heading of Modernism. His movement is also, inevitably, associated with another ism: the one that took its name from the Fasci di Combattimento (organisations of First World War veterans) marshalled by Mussolini from 1919 into the Partito Nazionale Fascista.

Marinetti was born in 1876 in Egypt to wealthy Italian parents. He was educated in French at a Jesuit lycée in Alexandria, and sent to Paris in 1894 to take his baccalauréat at the Sorbonne. There he immersed himself in the lush, swooning raptures of late Symbolism, and composed, in French, a series of long poems rather over-represented in this selection of his writings; in their way these endless free-verse hymns to the immortal powers of the sea (‘Ah! Ah!/Laugh, beautiful Waves! Laugh/a vast adamantine laugh up to the stars!’) make as good a case as his electrifying manifestos of the need for change. ‘Les Vieux Marins’ (which won a prestigious poetry prize and was publicly recited by Sarah Bernhardt), La Conquête des étoiles (an epic in 19 cantos about a battle between the sea and the stars), Destruction (a set of lyrics equally vague and cosmic) all illustrate precisely the style and subject-matter Marinetti would soon be condemning as ‘passéist’. As point number three of the initial Futurist manifesto puts it, ‘Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.’

It was Alfred Jarry, the prince of iconoclasts, who first suggested to Marinetti how much a well-aimed punch or slap could achieve. His 1896 play Ubu Roi, with its famous opening neologism – ‘Merdre’ – had caused the kind of scandal that long poems about the sea and the stars, however anarchistic in intention, could never ignite. Accordingly, Marinetti had his own Jarryesque Le Roi Bombance staged by the same producer, Lugné-Poë, at the same theatre, and was gratified when the thunderous sound effects with which it represented a priest’s digestive system provoked the desired uproar. ‘No work,’ he flatly declared, ‘without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece’ – in later tracts he denounced the very notion of a ‘masterpiece’. Of all the early 20th-century movements that have attracted the label ‘avant-garde’ (first used in this sense in 1910), Futurism was the one that most fully deserved the militarist implications of the term. Art, like battle, ‘can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice’. ‘We will glorify war,’ point nine of the manifesto notoriously proclaimed, ‘the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.’

Marinetti’s manifestos are such a shrewdly calculated mix of outrageousness and buffoonery, of bullying, histrionics and self-parody, that they almost invariably succeed in setting the reader aquiver; normally, at this safe distance in time, with laughter, but at other moments with an uneasy dismay at the urge to destroy they serio-comically encourage and release. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, was deeply stirred by Marinetti’s ‘purging of the old forms and sentimentalities’, as he wrote in a letter of 2 June 1914, by his ‘revolt against beastly sentiment and slavish adherence to tradition and the dead mind . . . I love them’ – the Futurists – ‘when they say to the child: "all right, if you want to drag nests and torment kittens, do it, lustily!” But I reserve the right to answer: "all right, try it on. But if I catch you at it you get a hiding.”’ Gramsci, too, was initially exhilarated by the ‘impetuosity of their youthful energies’, their conviction that an alliance of artistic and technological innovation would sweep away bourgeois culture once and for all:

They have destroyed, destroyed, destroyed, without worrying if the new creations produced by their activity were on the whole superior to those destroyed . . . They have grasped sharply and clearly that our age, the age of big industry, of the large proletarian city and of intense and tumultuous life, was in need of new forms of art, philosophy, behaviour and language. This sharply revolutionary and absolutely Marxist idea came to them when the Socialists were not even vaguely interested in such a question.

Gramsci hoped that their experiments would help inspire the creation of an organically revolutionary proletarian art, but later dismissed the whole Futurist movement as a mere spasm of naughtiness easily tamed by the threat of a ‘hiding’, comparing its adherents, in 1930, to ‘a group of schoolboys who escaped from a Jesuit boarding school, whooped it up in a nearby wood, and were led back under the policeman’s stick’.

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[*] See Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago, reissue, 336 pp., £13.50, March, 0 226 65738 8) for a comprehensive analysis of Futurism’s influence on later movements.