Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

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June 29 2009 7:11 AM

Back to the Futurists: Italy's First Avant-Garde Turns 100

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Click here for a slide show on Marinetti and the Futurists.

Literary pilgrims are like obsessed lovers: always hungry for more and better contact. Why else would we bother? When the news broke a few years ago that Iris Murdoch's 1,071-volume library was up for sale, I flew to London in a swoon: I am about to see Iris Murdoch's marginalia with my own two eyes. What will it look like? Cramped or florid? Pencil or pen? (A little bit of everything, it turns out, from an undergraduate's looping cursive to an elder academician's hurried scrawl. Even better were the small surprises: pressed flowers, bus tickets, cryptic inscriptions.) More recently, on a visit to Edith Wharton's country house in Lenox, Mass., I ducked into the empty living room and stretched out on the sofa, nap-style: Will regarding the ceiling from such an oddly intimate angle disclose a previously overlooked insight into the great woman herself? Only later did I stop to think that Wharton probably wasn't the napping type.

My pursuit of the Italian Futurist movement was a different sort of pilgrimage: a whirlwind intrigue rather than the latest installment in an enduring romance. Instead of stalking a specific person, I was chasing an entire avant-garde, one that, from what little I knew, I felt ambivalent about. Without a doubt, I was captivated by the movement's vitality. This small throng of early 20th-century artists and writers wanted nothing less than the total reinvention of Italian culture, and their recommended program—Kill the past! Embrace the future!—held an unexpected appeal for a nostalgist like me. Their methods were equally audacious, whether penning overheated manifestos and dropping them from airplanes, literally papering over the countryside with their unique brand of hyper-modernism, or inventing musical "instruments" to produce an all-new, low-fi sound of high-pitched squawks and hisses. And yet … their belligerence made me nervous. Along with exalting speed and technology (prescient), they were dangerously infatuated with violence (disturbing). In short, I couldn't quite figure them out. Viewed through the distorted perspective of my ignorance, and down through the tunnel of a century, the Futurists seemed like shiny toys winking from the bottom of a well: a feisty posse of mustachioed revolutionaries goose-stepping behind their fearless founder, a charismatic, larger-than-life type barking screwball directives through one of those big, cone-shaped bullhorns.

That I had a bit of a crush on this man, poet and impresario F.T. Marinetti, was, perhaps, unavoidable. He had swagger. Born in Egypt to Italian parents in 1876, he grew up to be the kid who smuggled Emile Zola's banned novels into school. Even a law degree couldn't correct such criminal tendencies—rather than enter the profession, after graduating from Pavia University in 1899 he launched the progressive international literary magazine Poesia, wrote thunderingly bizarre poetry and fiction, and, in 1909, founded his own avant-garde. * He came to be known as the "caffeine of Europe"—an animated cross between P.T. Barnum and Andy Warhol who spent the next 35 years staging raucously absurd serata (theatrical evenings), brawling in bars, and generally provoking the masses by any means possible. Every woman adores a bad boy, right?

Or—a Fascist, as Sylvia Plath would put it, which Marinetti was rumored to have been. Although I'd never confirmed this, which further complicated my feelings. Fascism is a slippery concept. In 1944 (the year, coincidentally, that Marinetti died), George Orwell, master of linguistic clarity, quibbled with the term:

The word "Fascism" is almost entirely meaningless. … I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting … astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else. … Almost any English person would accept "bully" as a synonym for "Fascist." That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

Was it possible that Marinetti's celebration of violence had been misinterpreted—that his bark had been mistaken for bite? Or—perhaps just as troublingly?—did this consummate self-promoter actually encourage confusion around the question in order to attract publicity? Certainly he loved to invite controversy. In the days leading up to his theatrical "lectures," where he'd hold forth on how exactly to destroy his nation's culture, people would stock up on rotten tomatoes and eggs to hurl at the stage, an experience he found so invigorating that he coined the phrase "the pleasure of being booed." It's not unlikely that such a man would enjoy confounding his public by contriving an "is he or isn't he?" relationship to his country's most repugnant politics.

Mixed feelings aside, I was also curious about the seemingly sorry fate of Marinetti's movement as a whole. Because I wasn't the only one—not a single person of my acquaintance knew any more about the Futurists than I did. Why was this? Would Marinetti be surprised to learn what's become of him? It's been only 65 years since his death, and already his ferocious growl has faded to an echo. He who courted the future so vociferously, and so often, and with so many exclamation points. His founding "Manifesto of Futurism" alone employs 44, among them: "We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!" and, "Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers, and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!" and, "Let's go!"

Who was this guy? A genuine artist, a Nazi sympathizer, a publicity-obsessed provocateur, or all of the above? And why were he and his comrades relative unknowns? Was Futurism a legitimate avant-garde or an ideological sham? Did it matter? Should I care? Should anyone?

Correction, July 2, 2009: This story originally and incorrectly claimed that Walt Whitman contributed to Poesia. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Kate Bolick, formerly executive editor of the late Domino magazine, is a writer in New York.