Photo Courtesy of Carica dei Lancieri

April 7, 2016

THE E’ER INSCRUTABLE | 1916: Annus Equi Sine Rectore and the Mechanized Frontier

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“The machines were more to his soul than the sun. He did not know these mechanisms, their great, human-contrived, inhuman power, and he wanted to know them… He wanted machines, machine-production… He wanted to go…  beyond the Self, into the great inhuman Not-Self, to create the great unliving creators, the machines, out of the active forces of nature that existed before flesh. But he is too old. It remains for the young Italian to embrace his mistress, the machine.” -D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy

It was with a heavy heart that D.H. Lawrence published his aforementioned 1916 travelogue; the old Europe had by then taken up arms, and every peninsular limb of her gangrenous body stood poised to strangle the other. A crossroads had been reached: the two year hump of the war, the hellfire of Verdun and the Stahlgewitter of the Somme, the stalemate of offensive and counter-offensive swallowing up young male blood in torrents.

Lawrence weaves a perceptive analysis from the otherwise inane shock of the conflict, fixing thoughts on Hamlet, theology and Italian dialects into his recounting. Everywhere he turns, though, he finds a pang of loss: “In the loft by the lemon houses now I should hear the guns.” One Italian youth of a hillside Northern contadino village, “graceful and lovable,” his watery eyes full of “confused light,” is assured to “make a good fight for the new soul he wants – that is, if they [author’s emphasis] do not kill him in this War.” Bawdy hillside songs are silenced, and monks no longer pace the dirt paths above the lakes. Everywhere is passing, dispersion, bitter chuckles of desperation, and no one seems to know why. What is happening? How did it come to this?

Countries and centuries do not crumble into dust of their own weak-willed accord. They kill themselves, or are killed.

The young Sardinian communist Antonio Gramsci bemoaned with palpable agitation what appears to me to be the central question of the year in the 1916 Christmas Eve issue of Avanti!: “Uomini,” he asks, “o macchine?” Specifically, is the downtrodden worker’s son of Italy (“un refrattario, un autodidatta… un mezzo uomo… [figlio] dei proletari,”) to be denied the same access to education as the oafish boys of the benestanti in their gilded academies? It is a narrow issue; moreover, Gramsci’s attempt at cultural activism betrays its own weakness: he envisions a Rinascimento-school, “una scuola che non ipotechi l’avvenire del fanciullo,” or, “that does not mortgage the future of the child,” removed from the “specializzazione degli uomini… distruttrice ed inquinatrice.” Renaissance-humanism-cum-psychological-crutch. It was a naïve hope, socialist enthusiasm bound to the drawn-and-quartered corpse of Marx.

A new reality was dawning, the destructive force which weighed upon the twilit landscapes of Lawrence and taunted Gramsci’s proletariat mass: Gramsci could be left content to split his head in two looking backward and forward at once, but Futurism looked only forward. “Noi siamo sul promontorio estremo dei secoli!… Il Tempo e lo Spazio morirono ieri,” cried Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in the 1909 “Manifesto del futurismo.” As a futurist, he says, “vogliamo distruggere i musei, le biblioteche, le accademie d’ogni specie;” death to culture if it is not tempered in the cold-as-steel gaze of Mars! Nearly as newfangled and wild as Dada by 1916, Futurism’s advocates had pulled at the bellows of the great European continent with such vigor that the present conflagration seemed to be their doing.

The 1915 painting prefacing this article is their worldview: a line of jagged lancers – each individual fused together at, leg, hip and spear – charges on a beige battlefield. As its artist Umberto Boccioni states in his 1912 “Manifesto tecnico della scultura futurista,” that Futurist art must “Rifutare coraggiosamente qualsiasi lavoro, a qualsiasi prezzo, che non abbia in sé una pura costruizione di elementi plastici completamente rinnovati.” Every brushstroke and chip of the chisel is iconoclasm; “la poesia deve essere concepita come un violento assalto,” writes Marinetti. The lines of space and time must be merged with those of the human body in all its “zone plastische,” from whence the movement of a piston and the fury of a steering wheel become soggetto, oggetto and ambiente, until there is no difference between them. A gear may appear from the armpit of a dockworker, and the obscenity of a race car becomes as beautiful as the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Form is no longer an ideal, but a weapon with which the Baroque, the Rococo and the Classical nude will be annihilated.

The violence of industry will not be restricted from its dizzy new heights by the perfumed fingers of the bleary past; “Bisogna distruggere… il concetto tradizionale della statua…!” Gramsci’s hope is so naïve precisely because it refuses to acknowledge what Lawrence could see so clearly about him: the vigorous disintegration of the political body, the “perfect mechanising of human life.” War – Marinetti’s sola igiene del mondo – and the dehumanizing pounding of free-swinging machines… why should they make allowance for Renaissance dreams?

Boccioni died on August 17, 1916. He was trampled to death after falling during a horseback training exercise in the Italian Army, overtaken by the speed and ferocity of his own mount. One more casualty, not Italy’s first – and certainly not her last – yet emblematic at the time of all Europe’s crisis. A corrupt wound was being cauterized: if gilded Europe of the Ancien Régime could not ride the tiger she had unleashed, how deserving was she of continued survival? Borghese degradation begot a race of machine-men, wound on spindle-wires, geared towards the stocking of arsenals, “serpenti dall’alito esplosivo.”

One remembers Wagner’s dream of performing the Ring Cycle in a monumental theatre and setting it alight after one performance.

“Noi canteremo le grandi folle agitate dal lavoro, dal piacere o dalla sommossa: canteremo le maree multicolori e polifoniche delle rivoluzioni nelle capitali moderne; canteremo il vibrante fervore notturno degli arsenali e dei cantieri, incendiati da violente lune elettriche; le stazioni ingorde, divoratrici di serpi che fumano; le officine appese alle nuvole per i contorti fili dei loro fumi; i ponti simili a ginnasti giganti che scavalcano i fiumi, balenanti al sole con un luccichio di coltelli; i piroscafi avventurosi che fiutano l’orizzonte, e le locomotive dall’ampio petto, che scalpitano sulle rotaie, come enormi cavalli d’acciaio imbrigliati di tubi, e il volo scivolante degli aeroplani, la cui elica garrisce al vento come una bandiera e sembra applaudire come una folla entusiasta.” -Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Manifesto del futurismo

Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Interested in studying Classics, he enjoys cultural criticism, cheap literature, the company of long-moribund civilizations and self-reference in the third person. The E’er Inscrutable appears on alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].