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’.

Violence – introducing ‘the fist’, as Marinetti put it, ‘into the artistic battle’ – played a crucial role in both the aesthetics of Futurism, and in the way the movement presented itself to the public. Marinetti’s genius was to find ways of translating aspects of the thought of such as Nietzsche, Bergson and Georges Sorel – whose Reflections on Violence advocated the need for continual and violent class struggle – into a series of manifestos, publicity stunts and theatrical events that generated excitement, fury, riots, and enormous amounts of media coverage. Marinetti had an unerring sense of the workings of publicity, which he exploited shamelessly; he was more than happy to write up each scandalous, triumphant Futurist happening himself, and dispatch his reports over the wires to Europe’s leading newspapers. He understood from the outset the importance of timing: the founding Futurist manifesto was scheduled to appear on 24 December 1908, but was pulled by Marinetti at the last minute when an earthquake hit Sicily, killing seventy thousand people, and engrossing the public’s attention. He had no qualms about using the vast fortune he inherited from his father in 1907 to subsidise his publishing house, his magazine Poesia, and his campaign to position Futurism as the brand leader in avant-garde art movements. It was a friend of his father’s and a major shareholder in Le Figaro, Mohammed El Rachi, who negotiated the prominent positioning of his call to arms.

The manifesto opens with a group of decadents staying up late, trampling their ‘atavistic ennui into rich oriental rugs, arguing up to the last confines of logic and blackening many reams of paper with our frenzied scribbling’. But while thus plumbing the depths of their souls, they find themselves suddenly stirred by the mighty rumbling of a huge double-decker tram, ‘ablaze with coloured lights’, and decide to abandon the dreary pursuit of ‘Mythology and the Mystic Ideal’. Fast cars are what they need, and, fortunately, have: ‘We went up to the three snorting beasts, to lay amorous hands on their torrid breasts. I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier, but revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine blade that threatened my stomach.’ They tear through the streets, until Marinetti has to swerve to avoid two wretched cyclists blocking his way, and crashes into a ditch; there he experiences the primary Futurist initiation rite:

Oh! Maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse . . . When I came up – torn, filthy, and stinking – from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!

It is only once they are ‘smeared with good factory muck – plastered with metallic waste, with senseless sweat, with celestial soot’ that he and his confrères can proclaim their manifesto, and hymn the beauty of speed: ‘A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot – is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’

Speed is at the heart of Futurist morality: ‘One must persecute, lash, torture all those who sin against speed.’ Speed is ‘pure’, the new good; slowness ‘unclean’, the new evil:

Speed = synthesis of every courage in action. Aggressive and warlike.

Slowness = analysis of every stagnant prudence. Passive and pacifistic.

Speed = scorn of obstacles, desire for the new and unexplored. Modernity, hygiene.

Slowness = arrest, ecstasy, immobile adoration of obstacles, nostalgia for the already seen, idealisation of exhaust and rest, pessimism about the unexplored. Rancid romanticism of the wild, wandering poet and long-haired, bespectacled dirty philosopher.

Particularly criminal are tardy Sunday crowds, the hopelessly slow gondolas plying the Venetian lagoons, and those ‘cemeteries of empty exertion’, museums, libraries and academies: ‘Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums! . . . Oh the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded . . . Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!’ There was a personal context to Marinetti’s hatred of antiquity. One day, he liked to tell journalists, he was driving extremely fast towards the Arch of Constantine in Rome when a bit of stone from Nero’s aqueduct fell and damaged the paintwork of his car. Italy’s crumbling ruins were not only virulently passéist, infecting the nation with the ‘smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians’, but posed an unacceptable threat to the modern motorist.

The founding manifesto suggested the movement was already in full swing. ‘The oldest of us is 30,’ Marinetti revealed (he was 32), ‘so we have at least a decade for finishing our work.’ That ‘we’ was also misleading, for the group did not as yet exist, and there was only one paid-up Futurist, Marinetti himself. The manifesto was actually an advertisement for members rather than a justification of an already existing body of art. That it struck a chord, however, is not in doubt; he later claimed to have received forty thousand letters in response, and within a matter of months the group had been conjured into being, and included the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla (whose love of new technology extended to naming one of his daughters Elice, meaning ‘propeller’); the architect Antonio Sant’Elia; and Luigi Russolo, who was both a painter and a musician, and the inventor of the Intonarumori (‘Noise Intoners’) which shook European concert halls in the prewar years, with their simulations of explosions, crackles, gurgles, buzzes, scrapings, splashes and booms.

One of Marinetti’s most cunning and effective strategies was to elide the gap between genres, and between artistic and political matters. While Symbolism fastidiously distanced itself from the business of everyday existence, Futurism took the opposite approach, claiming it would revolutionise every aspect of life, even offering, in a manifesto by Balla and Fortunato Depero, a ‘Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe’. Marinetti organised his campaign like a political leader determined at all costs to make the headlines, and with the advantage that all publicity, however negative, spread the Futurist word. On 8 July 1910, for instance, he and his followers scattered 80,000 copies of the manifesto ‘Against Passéist Venice’ from the campanile of St Mark’s, and then harangued and baited the crowd. A ‘terrible battle’ ensued, and hosts of passéists, as Marinetti tells it, got ‘knocked around’. The manifesto proposed filling in all the canals, pulling down the ‘leprous, crumbling palaces’, burning all the gondolas (‘rocking chairs for cretins’), and converting the city into an industrial and military port that would soon dominate the Adriatic. The Futurist aesthetic, he assured his enraged listeners, would transform Venice from the ‘greatest bordello in history, the saddest hospital in the world’, into a thriving modern metropolis that would attract a ‘shrewd, wealthy crowd of industrialists and businessmen!’

Futurism took a stance on everything, from typography to clothing to cooking, and its aggressive calls for change should be seen in the context of the burgeoning Italian nationalism that would culminate in the reign of Mussolini. Futurist theatrical events often involved burning or shredding the Austrian flag. These events, known as serate, were a cross between a political rally and a revue, and many led to brawls. The incendiary nature of their pronouncements normally guaranteed a ruckus, but Marinetti also suggested the use of a range of provocative tactics: a powerful glue could be spread on some of the seats, and itching or sneezing powder on others; the same seat could be sold to ten different people who would then squabble in the aisles, while complimentary tickets should be handed out to anyone ‘unbalanced, irritable or eccentric and likely to create uproars with obscene gestures, pinching women, or other freakishness’.

Futurist serate were particularly good news for fruit and vegetable vendors: the events drew audiences of three or four thousand, many of whom came armed with tomatoes, potatoes, oranges and eggs with which to pelt the merry pranksters. Marinetti evolved a Futurist style of declamation which seems to have been highly effective: the Futurist speaker, he counselled, should ‘metallise, liquefy, vegetalise, petrify and electrify his voice’; and gesticulate both geometrically, ‘giving his arms the sharp rigidity of semaphore signals and lighthouse rays’, and topographically, ‘creating in midair cubes, cones, spirals, ellipses, etc’. He also made use of sound effects, such as automobile horns, saws, electric bells, and hammers, and a number of blackboards scattered about the auditorium on which he inscribed theorems, equations and ‘synoptic tables of lyric values’. At a performance in London in May 1914 of Zang Toumb Toumb, he also had a telephone installed on stage, into which he barked orders to his only English disciple, the painter C.R.W. Nevinson, who would then bang two enormous drums in an adjoining room.

Zang Toumb Toumb, translated into English here for the first time, is Marinetti’s most impressive embodiment of his theories of ‘words-in-freedom’ and the ‘wireless imagination’. It describes the Bulgarian-Serbian siege of Adrianople in the first Balkan War (1912-13), which Marinetti covered as a war correspondent for Gil Blas. In his ‘Technical Manifesto’ of 1912 he argued that the Futurist writer should destroy syntax, abolish the adjective, adverb and punctuation, use verbs only in the infinitive, and double up nouns into compounds such as ‘man-torpedo’ or ‘woman-harbour’ (a rather revealing choice of examples). Instead of conjunctions one should use mathematical signs (- x + ÷ = > <) and musical symbols. The goal of these innovations was to destroy the I in literature: ‘that is, all psychology. Man, utterly ruined by libraries and museums, ruled by a fearful logic and wisdom, is of absolutely no more interest. So abolish him in literature. Replace him with matter.’ In Zang Toumb Toumb (the sound of a shell exploding) Marinetti set about deploying these techniques and all kinds of typographical innovation to re-create verbally and pictorially the smells, sounds, sights, textures and terrors of the siege: ‘patatraaaak boom zoomb-toomb Turkish shell on the bridge whirlwind dust-mire-wood-hate-terror-blood-hail-of-meat-guts-corridas-minced-meat-fat shattering of machine-guns masks of bloodymud’. There is no room for pity or sentimentality in Marinetti’s depiction of chaos and slaughter, but certain passages still conflict with the heroic concept of war as hygiene propounded in the manifestos. The section representing the experiences of a trainload of sick soldiers catalogues with gruesome thoroughness ‘the smells of all the sicknesses stuffed in the train’: ‘fecal smell of dysentery honeyed stench of plague sweat ammoniacal smell of the cholera patients sweet stink of gangrene consumptives acidulous smell of the fever patients . . .’

The text ends, however, with a recovery of Marinetti’s vision of nationalist military might and male potency. He was an ardent supporter of Italian entry into the First World War, and much Futurist activity of late 1914 and early 1915 had an anti-neutralist focus: Balla designed anti-neutralist clothes in the colours of the Italian flag and anti-neutralist shoes dynamically shaped to deliver ‘merry kicks to all neutralists’. Sporting these outfits, they burst in on the lectures of pacifist and Germanophile professors in the University of Rome, disrupted the opening night of a Puccini opera, burned Austrian flags in public and organised street demonstrations. ‘Italy power Italian-pride brothers,’ Marinetti intones in the final paragraph of Zang Toumb Toumb, ‘glory domination cafés war-stories Towers guns-virility-chases erection range finder ecstasy toomb-toomb.’

In the event, the First World War – characterised by Marinetti as ‘the most beautiful Futurist poem that has ever seen the light of day’ – brought to an end the first and brightest phase of the movement. It took the lives of Boccioni and Sant’Elia, and led to the defection from Futurist principles of Carrà and Severini. Its horrors failed to dent Marinetti’s enthusiasm for battle, however, despite a minor wound; but then he did experience the war pretty much on his own terms: he worked mainly as a propagandist, roaming around the front at will, infusing the troops with ‘Italian pride’ in the arte-azioni (art-in-action) in which they were participating, organising patriotic Futurist entertainments that now included dances of the shrapnel, the machine-gun and the aviatrix, and composing increasingly fragmented words-in-freedom poem-collages that attempt a ‘dynamic verbalisation’ of trench combat.

Marinetti probably met Mussolini in 1915; certainly that year he claimed him as a Futurist, adducing both his ‘lightning-swift conversion to the necessity and virtue of war’, and his use of Futurist propaganda tactics in his political campaign for intervention. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Futurism as inherently right-wing; its revolutionary ideals appealed to ultra-leftists as well, and Marinetti greatly prided himself on the movement’s impact on avant-garde Russian artists such as Mayakovsky and Malevich. ‘I am delighted to learn that the Russian Futurists are all Bolsheviks,’ he crowed in Beyond Communism (1920), in which he pointed out that Lenin’s trains were all decorated with designs derived from Boccioni, Balla and Russolo. The Futurist Political Party manifesto of 1919 advocated an eclectic range of radical measures that included easy divorce, free love, obligatory gymnastics in the open air, a minimum wage, the right to strike, equal pay for women, the abolition of the secret police and universities, the modernisation of all cities that live off tourism, and massive redistribution of the land. It argued for replacing the Senate with an assembly of twenty ‘technicians’ all under the age of 30, and for the total overthrow of the ‘suffocating, medieval theocracy’ of the church: ‘The Italy of Tomorrow is to be the sole religion.’

Many of these ideas were discussed at the First Fascist Conference in Florence in October 1919, and in the following month’s general elections they were put to the nation by a Futurist-Fascist alliance. They gathered little support, and Mussolini quickly distanced himself from Marinetti and his new band of followers, few of whom rivalled the first wave of Futurists in talent or originality of expression. Marinetti resigned from the Fascist Party in 1920, but four years later rejoined in the hope of persuading Mussolini to make Futurism his regime’s official art form. But Il Duce had other ideas: the Fascist art he promoted, far from embracing modernity, sought to ground his autocracy in the mythology of ancient Rome. For all Marinetti’s finagling and intriguing, Futurism played only a minor role in the civitas fascista, which celebrated order and discipline rather than dynamism and intoxication. The most renowned and amusing of the manifestos of his later years was his attack on pasta, which he condemned as ‘heavy, brutalising and gross’, as ‘anti-virile’, and as inducing ‘scepticism, sloth and pessimism’. Pasta is ‘no food for fighters’, whom it weighs down as they charge into battle, nor lovers, for it is ‘not favourable to physical enthusiasm towards women’. In its place he suggests dishes that would stimulate the palate, rather in the manner of his compound words, by fusing the unusual: salami bathed in hot coffee and flavoured with eau-de-Cologne, mortadella and nougat, roast lamb in lion sauce, sardines and pineapple – all to be eaten while inhaling a carefully chosen perfume, and stroking some distinctive and appropriate substance, such as velvet or emery paper.

‘Thanks to us,’ Marinetti wrote towards the end of Beyond Communism, ‘the time will come when life will no longer be a simple matter of bread and labour, nor a life of idleness either, but a work of art.’ In the light of the totalitarianism about to engulf Europe, such a claim seems more than a little sinister, though (if you ignore the bluster) the utopianism it expresses is not so very far removed from the ideals of, say, Ruskin or William Morris. Futurism, as Gramsci noted, was the first avant-garde art movement both responsive to modern technology and aimed at the masses. It faced squarely, indeed deliberately embraced, the dilemma outlined in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Marinetti is the evil genius of Benjamin’s conclusion, the artist who most fully proves his thesis that ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.’ Futurism, like Fascism, reveals a new stage in mankind’s ‘self-alienation’, which has now reached ‘such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure’. For Futurists and Fascists, only war, Benjamin argues, can ‘supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of "l’art pour l’art".’

Marinetti never, of course, saw himself as a late decadent, as the final exponent of art for art’s sake. Futurism was to be a means of obliterating the past, not of being obliterated by it. At its purest it advocated a commitment to the concept of change as the only way for each new generation to fulfil its potential. The founding manifesto imagines the movement’s successors, ‘younger and stronger men’, bearing down on the band of now ageing, vagabond Futurists, eager to ‘throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts’. What’s more, Marinetti promises, they will welcome their supplanters: ‘we want it to happen!’

They will come against us, will come from far away, from every quarter, dancing to the winged cadence of their first songs, flexing the hooked claws of predators, sniffing doglike at the academy doors the strong odour of our decaying minds, which already will have been promised to the literary catacombs.

But we won’t be there . . . At last they’ll find us – one winter’s night – in open country, beneath a sad roof drummed by monotonous rain. They’ll see us crouched beside our trembling airplanes in the act of warming our hands at the poor little blaze that our books of today will give out when they take fire from the flight of our images.

It was not, in the event, their books and images so much as their conceptual techniques, nearly all of which derived from Marinetti, which ended up having the most powerful influence on later art movements: Dadaism and Surrealism and Absurdist Theatre all borrowed heavily from Futurist serate, which can be seen as the origin of performance art in general. Futurism may not have reconstructed the universe, but it’s hard to exaggerate the role it played in the shaping and propagation of 20th-century experimental aesthetics.[*]

Despite his manifesto commitment, Marinetti did his utmost throughout the interwar years to keep his movement alive, in however compromised and attenuated a form, and to align it, as far as possible, with the nationalist ideals of Fascism. In the teeth of his virulently expressed hatred of all institutions, he agreed to act as secretary of the Union of Fascist writers, and to join the newly formed Academia d’Italia. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 was welcomed as yet another opportunity to express the Futurist belief in the ‘moral hygiene’ of war, and although over 60, Marinetti instantly enlisted as a volunteer. During the Second World War he accompanied Italy’s beleaguered troops during their disastrous Russian campaign on the Don. He died soon after his return, in December 1944 in Bellagio, the last refuge of the Fascist hierarchy, who can’t have been much comforted, as the Allies steadily advanced, by his late Futurist poems hymning the achievements of the Black Brigades. His state funeral in Milan was one of the last public ceremonies of the doomed regime.

[*] 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.