The Nihilist Roots of Futurism06-07-2014
Jonathan Galassi offers a timely account of the Futurist Movement, the best exemplars of which are currently on view at Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, a show at the Guggenheim Museum. Futurism celebrated speed, vigor, and creative destruction, as expressed in the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Here is how Galassi describes Marinetti’s founding moment, citing an account by Marinetti:
“My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,…listening to the tedious mumbled prayers of an ancient canal and the creaking bones of dilapidated palaces.” Their Orientalist idyll is disturbed by “the sudden roar of ravening motorcars,” and Marinetti and friends leave the mosque in hot pursuit (“all the myths and mystical ideals are behind us. We’re about to witness the birth of a Centaur”). “Like young lions,” they go chasing “after Death” and end up in a ditch. Marinetti apostrophized: “O mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water!… How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…. When I got myself up—soaked, filthy, foul-smelling rag that I was—from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy!” Marinetti had found his way out of the cul-de-sac of too much civilization. The Futurist manifesto that follows on his dream, the first of many, glorifies “aggressive action” and asserts that “a roaring motorcar…is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace” (never mind that Boccioni’s sculpture will uncannily resemble it). “There is no longer any beauty except the struggle,” Marinetti declared. War is “the sole cleanser of the world.”
That war cleanses speaks to the ascetic virtues of the warrior and wartime civilization. But while the virtues of war are ancient, the vision of war as a salve for the meaninglessness of life is modern, part of the 20th century rebellion nihilism, the devaluing of the highest values that is endemic to the 20th and now 21st centuries.
When no values are worth fighting for, all that matters is the fight itself, and victory, no matter what the cause. As Marinetti writes in 1915, “With us begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delight of danger and quotidian heroism.” Marinetti, like so many other European intellectuals, had got the war he wanted, “the finest Futurist poem that has materialized till now.” The point was to tear down the bourgeois world of consumerism and careerism, to find in war a cause—whatever the cause. The futurist yearning is to win, to assert one’s power, which is the only measure of virtue in a world—to give oneself fully to a movement.
It is important to understand both the justification for and the danger of such contempt for bourgeois, middle-class society. In 1914, the elite of Europe went to war, as Thomas Mann noted carefully, because they believed “war was ‘chastisement’ and ‘purification’”; they believe in “‘war in itself rather victories, inspired the poet.’” Hannah Arendt quotes these words of Mann’s and compares them to Lawrence of Arabia’s determination to lose his self in the inscrutable and unstoppable currents of history. Both Lawrence and Mann are responding to what Arendt calls a “violent disgust with all the existing standards, with every power that be.” The elite of Europe, Arendt writes, went to war in 1914 “with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life might go down in its ‘storms of steel’ (Ernst Jünger).” Like the Futurists, and writing in the same early years of the 20th century, these European elite expressed a violent disgust for society, consumed with consumptions and sterilized by security. War offered hope, because war was a breeding ground for courage, chivalry, honor, and manliness. It was also a symbol of equality, where birth and rank offered no protection against a well-aimed bullet or an unprejudiced bomb.
As justified as disgust with the civilized world may be, it becomes dangerous when it translates into support for the violent destruction of that world. Too often the elite ally themselves with the underworld and the mob and joyfully justify their acts of terror and destruction. As Arendt writes, “The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” The elite, in the early 20th century, created a “temporary alliance with the mob” that “rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.” The same happens today when members of the elite defend suicide-bombers and terrorists as courageous soldiers in a war against the status quo. And the same sentiment powers those spasms of cynicism that celebrates political deadlock or celebrates political failure as a precursor to revolution.
Above all, the futurist movement has its progeny in our time in the techno-prophets, those who embrace the transformation of humanity into a machine and predict the coming singularity, the merging of man and machine. Beginning from a disdain for humanity’s mortal flaws and justified recognition of our very real problems, the techno-futurists believe that artificial intelligence and neural implants will finally make humans into the purely rational, omniscient, and omnipotent beings we are not. This hoped for melding of man and machine recalls Marinetti’s own hope:
“We are aspiring to the creation of an inhuman type, one in which moral suffering, generosity, affect, and love will be abolished…naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative."
As Galassi notes, Marinetti’s “‘wireless imagination’ was militantly anti-Christian and antihumanist in its glorification of mechanized power.” The attraction to violence and the allure of destruction come from a deep individualism and humanity, yet they animate an attraction toward totalitarian movements that will sacrifice all values in pursuit of an idea.
The futurists are worth revisiting even in our present, which confronts many of the same dissatisfactions and worries that gave birth to Futurism. Galassi’s essay shows how Futurism helps remind us that the dream to replace our flawed humanity with machines has its roots in the period of nihilism in the early 20th century. It is a reminder worth encountering. And if you’re in NYC, don’ miss the Guggenheim show.