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Bad Dreams

D’Annunzio

by Philippe Jullian, translated by Stephen Hardman
Viking, 356 pp., $12.95

In 1898 Benito Mussolini was a fifteen-year-old boy with a full head of hair. He lived in Forli, a small city of Romagna, a proverbially unruly region, where in every age political passions reached (and still reach) fever heat. A rebellious schoolboy, expelled from one school after another for threatening his classmates with a sharp penknife (he wounded two of them), he saw himself as the champion of liberty, the enemy of “law and order,” the opponent of all authorities, the scourge of capitalists, priests, and militarists. Above all, he scoffed at patriotism: his only fatherland was the world. He bore proudly the name given him by his anarchist father (the owner of a cheap wine shop, the rendezvous of revolutionaries), that of Benito Juarez, the Zapotec Indian who condemned Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to be shot at Queretaro.

In 1898 Gabriele d’Annunzio was a famous and pampered poet of thirty-four. Of humble provincial origins (he was from Pescara, in the Abruzzi, the son of the disreputable whoring mayor), he had written scandalously sensual poems delicately describing unmentionable sexual acts; stirring nationalist odes; overripe novels; a few blood-curdling and almost incomprehensible tragedies. He lived in Rome this life of an imaginary decadent Renaissance prince, mostly on borrowed money; he eloped with and married a young duchess, rode to hounds, and drank tea (a most exotic and aristocratic brew in Italy at the time). A tiny man, he dressed like an actor impersonating a member of the Jockey Club, wore a monocle, captivated and tirelessly seduced women of all classes whom he attracted in spite of his decayed teeth and bad breath.

His politics were picturesque and confused, a politics of the extreme right, showing a patrician contempt for the shabby, corrupt, and unheroic manigances of parliamentary democracy, this in spite of the fact that he had been recently elected a member of the very parliament he publicly despised. At the same time, to paraphrase Gide, he was, “hélas,” Italy’s greatest poet. He was recognized to be a genius even by his enemies, by people who thought his style over-ornate and theatrical, his ideas absurd and dangerous, and who were revolted by his private life.

It has to be remembered that, for some reason, geniuses have always been more important in Italy than anywhere else. They, like the Alps, were an indispensable feature of the unhappy and flat Italian social landscape. In centuries past, the country might have been decadent and impotent, the princes rapacious and illiterate, the people without bread, hope, or dignity, but one could count on the splendid, reassuring vision of a few sunkissed peaks, the superhuman geniuses, emerging here and there. One could find some consolation in contemplating, admiring and envying them. The world respected them, they ennobled Italy and the Italians. In a way, they were substitutes of sorts for other nations’ victories, social achievements, wealth, power, and efficient administrations.

Since the Renaissance, Italian geniuses have always abounded. In d’Annunzio’s lifetime there were, besides himself, Verdi, Mascagni, Puccini, Toscanini, Marconi, la Duse, Croce, Pirandello, Italo Svevo, and many minor figures. (Now, for reasons that should be explored, Italy is, for the first time, surprisingly without its quota of undisputed and larger-than-life talented men, if one excludes two or three controversial film directors.) It must be remembered, too, that ordinary laws, rules of behavior, social conventions did not apply to geniuses. It was generally understood that anybody reaching that status was ipso facto exempted from all ordinary constraints.

D’Annunzio reached the status at an early age, when in his twenties. He worked hard at it. People thought him a frivolous and erratic young man, a snob, a prey to carnal passions, only occasionally possessed by his poetic daimon. In fact, when he was writing he sat at his desk like a cobbler, from dawn to dusk. He dug up obscure and forgotten words from ancient vocabularies to adorn his pages, rescued little known mythological personages and episodes from the oblivion of students’ handbooks, consulted all kinds of encyclopedias. He also found time to read voraciously everything he found useful (in Italian, of course, in French with ease, in English with some difficulty).

That year 1898 he wrote many poems, a novel, newspaper and magazine articles, and one tragedy in poetic prose. Called La Gloria, it was produced in Naples a year later and was submerged by the hoots and hisses of an indignant public. It is admittedly one of his worst works. In an imaginary “Third Rome,” a band of young fanatics, led by a fearless leader, manage to conquer power by violence. All the action takes place off stage and is described at great length in arty prose by the actors.

In spite of its pretentious shortcomings, La Gloria is worth remembering. it contains chillingly accurate descriptions of men and scenes that became reality twenty-four years later. As in a crystal ball, the poet saw II Duce, his office, Palazzo Venezia, the balcony from which the dictator spoke to frenzied crowds, the character of his followers, the fascist ideology and street-fighting technique, and the imperial mirage which was to bring Italy to catastrophe almost half a century later.

Here are a few excerpts. Mussolini’s office and the balcony:

A large bare room, its powerful stone vertebrae visible to the eye. A heavy table stands in the middle, cluttered with maps like the table of a strategist still animated by recent deliberations, by the meditations and unanimous agreement of men who had gathered around it, a motionless support from which a central thought, a regulating energy radiate and propagate…. At the back of the room a balcony opens into the immense city.

The physical appearance of the Leader:

His vast cranium is as smooth as a cobblestone…. His voice is short and sharp. On his ashen pale face his eyes have a feverish splendor. A tumultuous inner fullness is shown by his nervous pacing, his need for movement. He seems to lust for free space, as a prisoner does…. He goes forward to the balcony and cries, “Roma!”

The political aims of the Party, as described by an opponent, the old dying man who still holds power:

You hear the young soul of the nation wail under the cement of lies in which we have imprisoned it, we, yesterday’s men…. You want to set it free, rouse its repressed power, broaden its breath, restore its genius, you, the men of tomorrow…. Reality is different, you know it. Under this crust today there is but the color of death, the ferment of decay. This is why we do our work for salvation, trying with all possible means to keep the country together, to repair the cracks, to oppose your wild assaults.

The followers’ creed:

I believe in the Leader I have chosen. I believe in his words, which he may contradict tomorrow…. In every field, all signs of virile energy, of calm, male willpower, of blunt sincerity lift my heart; in this time of vociferations and contortions, such signs are rare. I and my companions abandoned the solitude of our studies and laboratories, entered the struggle, feeling that a dominating and creative idea was coming, of which we want to be the obedient and lucid instruments for the reconstruction of the City, the Fatherland, the Latin Power…. The need for violence holds us, urges us on. No lasting work can be accomplished on a people without blood….

Street fighting:

The war in the street must be short, lightning fast, carried out in every place at the same time, unanimous, decisive…. After the first resistance, the army will dissolve. Once power will be in our hands, the war in the streets will be followed by war on the border and on the sea…. One whole race is struggling to exist, to preserve itself, its deepest instincts and energies are awakening…. It arms itself with its genius….

The slogan (which Mussolini made his own):

Vi è gloria per tutti. [There is glory for all.]

A reader today may consider La Gloria one more proof of the Dannunzian roots of fascism. Fascism, of course, had independent roots of its own in the same sociological and political humus. It only borrowed a few confused ideas, some of the trappings and rhetoric from d’Annunzio. Mussolini always mistrusted the poet, lavishly financed with public funds the manias of his old age, but had him carefully watched by the police day and night. About him Il Duce coined one of the two known witticisms of his life: “D’Annunzio is like a bad tooth. You either pull it out or you fill it with gold.” (The other is about the restless descendants of Garibaldi: “The Garibaldi family is like the potato plant. The best is underground.”)

The uncanny prophecies in La Gloria may have another explanation. D’Annunzio was, in a way, the quintessential Italian of all times; a bouillon cube of Italian virtues and vices. Not all Italians, to be sure, are watered d’Annunzios, but it cannot be denied that there is a Dannunzian corner in the most prosaic and sober Italian. Perhaps the fanatic love and hatred he aroused among his countrymen were directed at what was obviously an exaggerated but recongnizable caricature of themselves. Nowadays he has been discarded, forgotten as a bad dream. There is no monument to him in any Italian city, no street or piazza bears his name. No provincial poet imitates him, no Italian author has written a good biography of him. The subject matter is perhaps too embarrassing for his countrymen. Only a foreigner could try it, but foreigners seldom know Italy and the Italians well enough. Perhaps a Frenchman could, so similar to his Italian cousins yet so ironically and rationally different; he could really study the poet’s life and work without being either nauseated or fascinated, as well as read significant meanings in them.

It is not surprising that a Frenchman has done it successfully. The life of d’Annunzio by Philippe Jullian, poet, literary critic, and historian, is the best that has been published. As a Frenchman, he is amusedly detached from Italian politics, national myths, and literary fashions in the years between the old and the new century, things he sees sharply in focus, as they were florid Mediterranean versions of what existed in France at the same time. So amusedly detached, in fact, from the Italian scene, that (as Frenchmen almost always do) he got most proper names wrong (they have been diligently corrected in the English translation). Alberto Arbasino is Arbosino; Lina Cavalieri is Cavaleri; General Caviglia is Cavaglio; Crispi (prime minister) is Crespi; Benedetto Croce is Crocce; Mussolini is Musollini (in the index); Nitti (prime minister) is de Nittis; the musician Ildebrando Pizzetti is Pisetti; Mario Praz is Pras; Sonnino is Soninno, etc.

In spite of the occasional carelessness, the book is a rich, gossipy biography, accurately researched and wittily written, which follows d’Annunzio’s incredible career from the young, delicate, derivative, provincial poet of the Eighties to the adventurous Condottiero who held Fiume in 1919 with a handful of desperate heroes against the world, hurling lightning-like curses against the symbol of all his enemies, Woodrow Wilson, and finally to the decrepit, impotent, state-supported lecher in the ornate and luxurious villa at Gardone on Lake Garda, where he died. Jullian places his protagonist neatly in the moral, literary, and political landscape of his times, the decadent movement, the primitive Abruzzi, the concept of Superman, the patrician contempt for bourgeois prudence, young Italians’ frenzied yearning for a return to greatness, the corruption of nouveau riche Rome where the old patriarchal aristocracy was forced to learn daring new cosmopolitan tastes from foreign wives English nannies, French novels, and d’Annunzio himself.

Jullian is the author of books on the lives of Oscar Wilde and Robert de Montesquiou, who was a friend and mentor of both Proust and d’Annunzio; he is obviously a glutton for the more maggoty and faisandé characters and situations of his favorite era, a collector of talented egomaniacs, Sacred Monsters. Jullian is also an expert at reconstructing his hero’s love life. He recounts with relish d’Annunzio’s great affair with la Duse and his “Mill’ e Tre” amorous adventures, liaisons, and passing fancies. He is also shrewd and skillful in analyzing the poet’s inspiration, his borrowed ideas, his instinctive technique, his genius, and in identifying his many contemporary and ancient sources.

Jullian furthermore sensed something more valuable than mere literary echoes (Swinburne, Barrès, Nietzsche, Peladon, etc.) in d’Annunzio. He searched for the permanent Italian qualities in the poet. That he was the continuation of old and perennial trends in Italian literature d’Annunzio was aware; more particularly he drew on the Baroque poets of the seventeenth century. But Jullian demonstrates how much d’Annunzio influenced Italian artists yet unborn, men who would disdainfully deny they were the poet’s spiritual sons, as, for instance, the best contemporary movie directors. How much does the Italian cinema of today still owe to him, directly or indirectly? (It must not be forgotten that one of the masterpieces of the silent days, Cabiria, had been partly invented by the poet, who wrote all the subtitles.)

Speaking of d’Annunzio’s early fiction, Jullian writes: “The world of d’Annunzio the realist was a ‘Mondo Cane‘ both comic and primitive.” (Mondo Cane is the title of a cinéma vérité-reportage by Gualtiero Jacopetti, a collection of horrifying scenes of cruelty taken from everyday life.) “In ‘The Sister-in-law’ [a short story in which during a funeral wake a young priest is tempted to make love to his sister-in-law in front of the corpse], the aristocratic atmosphere, the suggestion of sacrilegious and incestuous love, guilty hands meeting in the hair of a young girl…could provide a Visconti and a Pasolini with ideal material for one of their films.”

Other ideas for present-day directors are: “The brutal scenes, described with a curious gusto, the revolting infirmities and degrading superstitions…. The Neapolitan Duke disappearing in his palace burned down by rioting peasants with a too-well-loved man servant in his arms…. While the Duchess of Amalfi, which recounts the arrival of a theatrical company in Pescara and the havoc wrought by the aging actress among the local notables, would be a perfect subject for de Sica.” The parallel could be pursued further. How much is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita a twentieth-century version of II Piacere?

One is irresistibly tempted to consider La Gloria and the many premonitions of things to come strewn all over d’Annunzio’s works as embarrassing modern proofs of the prophetic qualities which the ancients attributed to poets. The Latin word Vates, like the old celtic Faith, means both poet and prophet. Bards and seers of old sang the victories, hopes, dreams, and patriotic sentiments of the Irish people. Perhaps d’Annunzio (who was II Vate by antonomasia, just as Mussolini, as well as Garibaldi before him, was called II Duce) gave expression, as a bard of old, to the collective dream of his people, mad dream of power and greatness, inspired by the need to console his defeated, humiliated, poverty-stricken, backward countrymen, who were unable to cope with the terrifying problems of the ruthless age of power and technology and unable to forget their partly glorious past.

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