Translated by Joel Calahan


The Futurist WAR



It may be a bit of an obsession with sociology, but in understanding Marinetti’s Futurism a fundamental question at the present time seems to be the following: who were the Futurists, from a properly sociological perspective? What forces, exactly, did they embody? This is no doubt a needless question, considering that Gramsci already posed it in his well-known letter to Trotsky (1922), observing among other things that Lacerba “was distributed among four-fifths of workers” and that it often happened in Futurist salons “that workers would defend the Futurists against the aristocratic or bourgeois youths who would beat them up.” But Gramsci’s remarks are focused on the problem of the public, and are still waiting to be confirmed and expanded. Meanwhile, by looking at things from the viewpoint of those who were the practitioners of Futurism, and especially Marinetti himself, with the aid of this volume edited by Luciano De Maria, more than a few relevant clues may be gathered.

The most noteworthy of these clues appears in Al di là del communismo (Beyond Communism, 1920), not only because the anarchic etymology of the movement (and its immediate epoché, by history, before the clash of mass forces now set loose) is acknowledged and professed in full, but also because extraordinarily clear sociological indicators are associated with it. Thus we have on the one hand propositions such as, “Humanity is marching toward anarchic individualism, the dream and vocation of every strong intellect” (an anticommunist position because “Communism, on the other hand, is an old mediocritist formula,” while “the anarchist genius derides and smashes the Communist prison”); and on the other hand, no less clear-cut statements than “‘Soiled and moribund bourgeoisie’ is an absurd description of that great mass of young, intelligent, and hard-working lower-middle-class people; students clerks farmers, businessmen industrialists, engineers, notaries, lawyers, etc., all sons of the people. . . . All of them fought the war as lieutenants and captains, and, tired as they are today, they are ready to take up their lives again with heroism. . .  . The war was fought by these energetic young men always at the head of the masses of infantry composed of workers and peasants. The peasants and workers who fought in the war, not having acquired any national awareness, could never have won without the example and intelligence of those petits bourgeois [piccoli borghesi], the heroic lieutenants. It is moreover unquestionable that attempts at Communism are and will always be led by the young, willful, and ambitious lower middle class.”

This is ultimately the ideology that underpins L’alcòva d’acciaio [The Steel Alcove, 1921]: the world war celebrated from the perspective of lieutenants and captains from the petite bourgeoisie, with attitudes that never fail to glorify, when needed, “the inevitable massacre of the greater part of these healthy, muscular youths who by now also know how to coat their instincts for blood with new ideals” (Chapter 9).

War, “the only hygiene of the world,” gives to Futurism, in effect, a precise sociological crystallization and an exact doctrinal framework. The group included in the 1909 manifesto is still a group responding partly to the precepts of the manifesto itself; the poets from the first anthology are still, generally, anarchists and modernolators to varying degrees, maintaining postsymbolist and paracrepuscular approaches. But interventionism, and therefore conflict, ultimately bridges the gap between the first manifesto and the patriotic libertarianism that will be involved in the 1912 manifesto on technique, symptomatically illustrated in [Marinetti’s poem] “Battle // Weight + Smell.” De Maria has understood the importance of the polemology in that poem, but has tried too much to exorcize it by projecting it as metaphysical anguish.

But one should not be deceived. The point of contact between ideology and language, for Marinetti as well as for orthodox Futurism, is reached precisely and solely on this plane. Setting aside any illusion of Heraclitean sublimation, what remains are the writings of Gumplowicz, alas, and practically the entire field of social Darwinism. Marinetti’s modernolatry has its psychothematic core and its technical area of obsession  (via Tripoli-Adrianopoli, with karst landing sites and effects continued until [Marinetti’s final work] X MAS) in the wonders of the industrial war: “words-in-freedom,” analog blasting, and rhetorical simultaneism emerge and develop inextricably linked with the aesthetic spectacle of war in the age of violent, imperialist industrial-capitalist development, by means that permit us to admire velocity, coherence, and anticipatory audacity. We start with the race car greater than the Winged Victory of Samothrace (which is little more than plagiarism from the pages of Morasso) and hurry quickly along to 74, that is, to the steel alcove, the “armored woman” with machine guns, susceptive to any level of erotic projection (“my new lover”), not to overlook (from chapter 28, La più bella notte d’amore [The most beautiful night of love]) the delirious supreme act of coitus—celebrated there—with “mother-sister-lover-daughter” Italy, a passage to which I would refer the nearest Freudian.

The mistake is in believing that from Morasso we might gain one, single tactic, no matter how fantastic it is: from Morasso in fact we get the entire ideological atmosphere in which that tactic exists, and through which it may be explained: imperialist bellicism (in Lenin’s strict sense of the term) used by anarchist, modernolator intellectual youths educated on Nietzsche, nourished by Sorel, documented by Gumplowicz, condemned naturally to the most bitter kind of nationalism, who finally end up as lieutenants and captains by class vocation and historical misfortune. 

Morasso’s history prefigures and parallels Marinetti’s entire evolution up to the first world conflict, sometimes working directly as a model and other times haphazardly aligning in the same motions. It is not enough to prove this on the path that runs from La nuova arma [The new weapon] to La nuova guerra [The new war] (which would in itself be a step forward, given the current state of research), but over the entire progression leading from the original fin de siècle “egoarchy” of Uomini e idee del domani [Men and ideas of the future] to the unrestrained antisocialism of Contro quelli che non hanno e che non sanno [Against those who have not and know not] (where one can already find an appeal to young people as a class, to the petit-bourgeois intellectuals as the elite of a reactionary avant-garde, even served alongside “contempt for women” and similar sentiments), and in due course up to Imperialismo nel secolo XX [Twentieth-century imperialism] and Imperialismo artistico [Artistic imperialism], which announced as early as 1903 the need for proceeding beyond symbolism and beyond D’Annunzio on the way toward the artistic representation of industrial society, and toward its self-evident apologiae.

Morasso and Marinetti occupy an important place in the context of “fascisms,” in the sense that they developed a prophetically lucid formulation of a cultural thematic (Mussolini has more than a little to learn, as has been remarked): reducing the thematic to the climate of the era, neutralizing it in the name of a zeitgeist, means arbitrarily concealing class characterization. It therefore means, on the one hand, forgetting the meaning and the value of the alternative defeat proposed by, without even mentioning others, Lucini (who died, like a kind of tragic parable, in the same year as the conflagration while correcting the proofs for his unpublished Antimilitarismo). It also means, on the other hand, ignoring as irrelevant the apologetic of capitalism that, as it does in all of prefascism (or better yet, “prefascisms”), never fails to emerge as expected even in Marinetti’s most democratic moments. This essentially proves, for literature as well as for culture, the political diagnosis drawn from someone like Salvatorelli on fascism (“fascisms”) as a class struggle of the petite bourgeoisie, “the third of the two combatants” capitalism and proletariat, resulting in an insurmountable alliance through strict class conditioning—just as we find, I would suggest, in the Marinetti of Democrazia futurista [Futurist democracy, 1919]: “Patriotism for us is simply the sublimation of that respectful loyalty that good and prosperous businessmen inspire in their employees.”

But Marinetti’s brand of patriotism has effect primarily, once again, in the sphere of war. One can understand why De Maria excludes from his volume the brief, marginal work Come se seducono le donne [How to seduce women, 1916]. It is less clear why he does not devote attention at an interpretive level to the chapter of that work devoted to “Women and the War” (alas, he is not alone in making this omission. . .), which is certainly the surest key to understanding Marinetti’s entire literary and ideological world.

This is because Marinetti’s Weltanschauung contains at its core the vision of an imperfect nature, which merely awaits its indispensible complement in humanity for meaning and for beauty, and awaits it in precisely the form of the war and the industrial war. The nodes of memoir, set amidst autobiographical reports, complete the picture, even in a clinical direction, and justify a generous citation: “Land, sea, sky, and woman demand war as a natural complement. I speak of conflagration since the preceding wars were nothing but sketches of war. All bloodied settings symbolize, invoke, prophesy current battles. What ever did my twelve-year-old gaze seek on the curve of the ocean horizon when I accompanied my mother on evening walks along the Alexandria beach? What did I ever spot but a bomb squadron? Many years later the Molo Giano shook under my student feet from the constant purple blasts that the clouds exploding like powder kegs launched to the heavens every evening. The wind’s flutes and violins did not comfort the forests that anxiously awaited the brutal reproaches of the artilleries. The concave stillness of the starry nights rarely gave me spiritual torture, but almost always horror and disgust for the emptiness and silence that one day or other required at any cost filling and destroying with massive, measured rumblings. Hurricanes, storms, avalanches, tornadoes were the effort of the conflagration that wanted to be born blowing up the world. The booming was the general proof, the rumbling desire and the testing of large future calibers. The constellations were of outline-plans of nighttime bombings. The aggressive shapes of the high mountains finally now are right to be entirely traced by fixed trajectories, by the whistling and curved rhombi of cannon fire.” And I could continue. But it is clear by this point how for Marinetti the industrial war is not only hygiene but is the truth of the world: the ultimate truth of nature and history.

Thus, Benjamin’s excellent diagnosis is borne out, when he saw as Marinetti’s central claim—as well as that of the entire cultural politics of fascism (“fascisms”)—the aesthetic defense of war and the “aestheticization of politics,” and, further down this path, the culmination of art for art’s sake. There are no critical alternatives for us (and so much fewer options for justification like those offered by De Maria, which unfortunately rely on the ones that Debenedetti indicated, some time ago, without fail, like Marinetti’s hapless “countermarches”). And in any case, the extreme verdict delivered by Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” straight-faced and firm, matters too: “Communism responds with the politicization of art.”




This essay is a book review of F. T. Marinetti, Teoria e invenzione futurista, edited by Luciano De Maria (Milan: Mondadori, 1968); it was originally published in Quindici 14 (December 1968). The citations from "Beyond Communism" are taken from the translation that appears in Futurism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Rainey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).



Surrealism Discovered Kitsch



The latest in a series of interviews with important figures in Italian culture published by Quaderni portoghesi (Notes on Portugal), this interview features Edoardo Sanguineti, a scholar of the twentieth-century literary avant-garde as well as a protagonist of the Italian neo-avant-garde of the 60s. These are the questions that were posed to him, both general questions regarding surrealism as a phenomenon of avant-garde culture and politics, as well as specific questions concerning Portuguese surrealism.


1. Surrealism has been posited as a philosophy, as an interpretation of the world. In your opinion, what does surrealism mean, from whence does it arise, and what symptoms does an artistic movement exhibit as it becomes an all-encompassing theory, a religion?

2. At a certain moment in its history, surrealism intersected the path of Marxism (with a certain type of Marxism, of course). Do you believe that this was an occasional, or contingent, encounter? Or do you believe that one can reasonably maintain that surrealism and Marxism have substantial elements in common?

3. Surrealism in Portugal, which occurred peculiarly late, finds itself recycled from history. In Portugal, 1948, dominated (as were many other Western countries) by neorealism, surrealism assumed the function of an “outsider” culture, placing itself paradoxically as a dissident and protest movement against a movement that was itself based on dissent and protest (neorealism itself). What does this opposition suggest?


The first question concerns the problem of the philosophy of surrealism, or to put it another way, the ideology of surrealism. Surrealism unquestionably has in common with the other great movements of the historical avant-garde the claim to being an interpretation of the world; and perhaps it is indeed preferable to speak of a surrealist ideology more than a philosophy proper, in the sense that its theoretical foundations are probably not the most significant aspect of surrealism. On the other hand, surrealism has declared this to be the case in some sense, insisting on the expression “surrealist activity,” and thus placing emphasis on a type of experimental practice. We might say from this perspective that the most significant trait that surrealism possesses with respect to other avant-garde movements is precisely the attention it directs to concrete exploration rather than to abstract, conceptual elements. Two observations may be made immediately on this point, qualifying what I’ve said up to now: on the one hand, surrealism, more than the other “isms” that have spanned the twentieth century, has a strong awareness of ideology. There are movements such as Dadaism, to use a simple example, in which some principles emerge quite clearly, but in which there appears to be a weaker desire for a general, conceptual organization of the universe. From this perspective we might say, qualifying part of what I have asserted, that surrealism is, so to speak, more “theoretical” than other avant-garde movements.

Once this point has been clarified, a second observation imposes itself on us, it seems to me: its contrast with Futurism, in the sense that it might be said that Futurism likewise has put its emphasis much more on the moment of activity than on theoretical reflection; or rather, Futurist “activism” certainly characterizes futurism much more than a list of abstract principles. Yet in Futurism the process of aestheticization is always directed to other fields, and is in any case subordinated to the qualification of Futurism’s protagonists as artists: the men of Futurism were first and foremost poets, painters, musicians, and so on, and only thereafter did they confront the sphere of politics, of fashion, of cuisine, seeking to infiltrate all practical activities but to infiltrate them as artists. What seems significant to me in the “Surrealist activity” is the fact that, at least at the very beginning and again at their best moments, the Surrealists did not put themselves forward as men of art. Fundamentally their desire was to exist within the realm of cultural institutions, primarily of literature, and then to move toward exploration of a still-nameless terrain for which, ideologically, their most salient reference was to Freud, to psychoanalysis, but in the name of the extraordinary, in the name of the dream, in the name of the unconscious, in the name of the irrational. Certainly it was a very irreverent use of Freud: they used in some ways a backward version of psychoanalysis, in the sense that where Freud’s objective was to situate the Ego in place of the Id, “Surrealist activity” sought to situate the Id where the Ego was, to liberate unconscious forces (free association, oneirism, automatism of writing and experience, etc.). To summarize this point, I would be tempted to say this: the strongest element of Surrealism, from a 

philosophical point of view, is its rejection of the category of the aesthetic. That is, in thinking the opposite of what Futurism thought: not the aestheticization of the universe, or better yet the aestheticization of the social world, but rather, on the contrary, the destruction of the category of the aesthetic for the sake of changing the relations between the human and himself, the human and society, the human and the world, through a “Surrealist practice” that effectively aspired to be imagined as revolutionary. And at this point we naturally move to a further domain, which is that of the relationships between Surrealism and Marxism. I would however like to attempt another observation in assessing the ideology of Surrealism. I have the impression that the historical significance of Surrealism is in having posed several terms, problems, questions, that were in some way posed again by every subsequent avant-garde: and in a certain sense it is significant enough that Surrealism has been the last of the great historical avant-gardes, because in some way we could say it is insurmountable; not so much for specific features of originality or historical awareness, but in the sense that it posed problems that were not resolved after Surrealism, and therefore reemerge nonetheless. In this sense we might say that a specter is haunting European culture, and it is the specter of Surrealism: something still not placated precisely because it has not been adequately overcome. And one of these questions is precisely one I have hinted at: namely, the exit from literature. Essentially, the dream even for all later avant-gardes, what they have placed most significance in, is precisely to do away with the institution of literature, with the ghetto of artistic separation, in order to return aesthetic activity and aesthetic production to general society (but, I repeat, and this seems to me precisely the most important key, not in view of an aestheticization of reality but of direct conquest, both practical and experimental, over the aesthetic, reversing the terms of the problem in some fashion).

The second point that seems to me the most fertile legacy of Surrealism—and this is just as insurmountable—is the problem of the relationship between revolt and revolution. The link that Surrealism makes between Rimbaud’s proposition “to change life” and Marx’s proposition “to change the world” establishes the problem of the transition (or of the contrast) between revolt and revolution. Surrealism knows that it rose within the bourgeois sphere as a form of bourgeois intellectual revolt—I prefer to say intellectuals rather than artists for the reasons I mentioned earlier—but it knows damn well the enormous difficulty of moving from the realm of revolt to the realm of revolution. Surrealism thus inherits its anarchist perspective from all avant-gardes, and this libertarian position cannot be linked to anything in the political domain besides Trotsky. In this sense, I would say that the encounter is not casual: at the moment in which (there’s almost a kind of syllogism that one could pose, forcing things strictly) one poses the question of the transition between revolt and revolution; at the moment in which, at the same time, this transition does not succeed, historically speaking (not having a way of being freed of the anarchic premises from which it proceeds); at the moment in which the one who initiates it is of necessity objectively situated as a bourgeois intellectual; at the conjunction of these moments, the point of reference could be none other than Trotsky. And I would say that from this perspective we can prove what is somewhat always proven to an extent: just as Surrealism is lived in the social context as an aesthetic phenomenon while not wishing itself to be so at its deepest roots, in its most profound truth, just so would Surrealism desire to be lived as a revolution as it continues to be lived as a revolt. And if Surrealism ends in the museum, quite naturally, just as the avant-gardes that preceded it, it is due to the same reason for which, from a political point of view, it does not succeed in going beyond anarchy, beyond anarchic protest. I would suggest that the person who probably best understood these aporias of surrealism, though he did not formulate them in these terms (though he sensed when there was something objectively revolutionary in the Surrealist program and yet denounced its extremes) is Walter Benjamin, who wrote a terrific essay in ’29 that shed light on the diagnostic abilities of the surrealists, their political and cultural importance, while at the same time warning against their extremes. I would add that if, half a century further on, we wanted to take stock of Surrealism and determine what it truly discovered, taking a small step forward beyond Benjamin, I believe—because it seems to me that he already perfectly understood this—we could express it in this way: Surrealism discovered Kitsch. Because ultimately Surrealism inaugurated the fascination for objects of poor taste and the discovery of the immense magical dimension that modern cultural byproducts possess. It made what Benjamin called “profane illumination” the center of a kind of mystical study, but one entirely transferred to the domain of secular experience. Surrealism was drugged with images consumed yesterday and today (the fascination that Benjamin emphasized as the most important point, when he spoke for example of old r ailway stations and observed that the railroad in some way was correctly felt by the Surrealists as something already archaic), with the charm emanated by all démodés industrial products, with the sense of a culture of vertiginous consumption. The Surrealists perceived all of this first, and it is on this that they wagered.

From this perspective there are two fundamental theses that are worth contemplating anew. The first is the famous fascination that Rimbaud declared for supraporte, for old albums, for anything that has deteriorated, anything felt as a worn-out memory and perceived as being in some way stillborn (in a passage in the essay on Baudelaire, I believe, Benjamin writes that Surrealism realized first that new houses in modern cities are already being built as ruins). The second thesis, no less striking, is Lautréamont’s well-known proposition on the poetic beauty of the chance meeting of the umbrella and the sewing machine on the dissecting table. And the choice Lautréamont makes of these objects is extremely symptomatic and not random in the least: when Lautréamont must suggest something encountered in an incongruous way, such as an effect of disorientation ought to produce, he selects and combines three industrial items. He does not manufacture a neoclassical or folkloric monster, assembling together various elements; but just as Rimbaud chose products archetypal of those we now call subculture, he chooses industrial products exposed to the deterioration of patterns and of industrial taste. This, it seems to me, truly summarizes modern kitsch. And so we perceive for the first time, from a truly new angle, the problem of the obsolescence of aesthetic forms—and not only aesthetic forms but also of the covalence of symbol and dream within rationalized industrial society. Aided by Freud, the Surrealists discovered that these industrial forms are significant for the unconscious, that industry advocates precisely for the total rationalization of forms in terms of their functionality, while in reality a sleep of reason is produced that releases an infinite horde of monsters (quotidian monsters), a wellspring of endless hallucinations. This sleep of reason finds its most masterful expression among all modern cultural forms in the cinema, that factory of oneiric images, a medium in which even the most realistic of representations is immediately transformed into a waking dream, bringing to perfection all of what was already implicit in the transition from painting to photography. Photography has not fundamentally been considered sufficiently for what it radically signifies (and even this seems to me one of Surrealism’s great discoveries, in fact): the production of a nonhuman image. Who produces the image? We know, or we knew, only human images in the world. But photography, for the first time, gives us the image ex machina, not produced by a human. It is an object—truly a magical object in this sense—that produces the image. It is something radically different from what the eye sees, and yet it simultaneously creates an overwhelming impression of reality: nothing is more believable or has more documentary significance than a photograph (we all carry them on our passports), and at the same time nothing is more unreal and disturbing than an image that a human has not made. For the first time in history, the model of realism becomes something beyond normal, artisanal human production. On this point there would naturally be many 

observations to make, but it seems to me that it explains even the profound significance of the very definition of Surrealism, namely a “surreality” that reveals something extraordinarily profound about the psyche of the modern human, even more radical than the trend of psychology: it speaks to us of the way in which humans establish at root a relationship with themselves, with others, with the world.

I’ll move on to the third question: Surrealism and neorealism. While ignoring the specific context of the Portuguese debate, what I have just been saying may help us to understand this type of binary. Ultimately, neorealism is necessarily an archaic form, precisely because it has paradoxically not come to the awareness that photography has been invented. That is, it has not been made to see the fact that the naïve relationship to reality, at the moment when the machine is able to produce images that become the category of the image par excellence (no one would believe that it is a painting, but all of us believe it’s a photograph), completely shifts every traditional conception of realism. Realism is a preindustrial cultural attitude, in the forms in which has historically developed: it desired to remake “by hand,” as a rural-folkloric craftsman, what can now be produced only ex machina. And, from this perspective, it does not astonish me at all that realism had success not in literature or in the figurative arts, but primarily in cinema, a fact now established by consensus in light of Italian neorealism and also the Socialist realism of the Soviet Union. Neorealism has succeeded when it has taken as its instrument the instrument of a new reality. And it has failed when it has thought itself able to manufacture again, with words or with images produced by humans, a series of conventions of reality that were created in a preindustrial era. In essence: Surrealist literature (if we accept the defeat of Surrealism by which Surrealism enters into literature) means nothing but, ultimately, a literature of the age of photography and cinematography, a literature aware that a naïve relationship with reality is no longer possible, but also aware that this relationship is mediated by an industrial culture that has determined new types of relations between us and objects. We are “bound,” we say, by industrial culture, which has produced new types of categories and new modes of perceiving the world. When I say this I am naturally not thinking of the mode in which, for example, the Futurists spoke of speed (i.e., with the nuova velocità our relationships with the world are changed). There is also a bit of truth in this, you see, but ultimately it concerns very minor elements. I am speaking precisely of a new type of perception: since the existence of radio we listen differently, since the existence of photography we see with a new eye, because the products of our own labor determine our mode of perception. And the Surrealism/neorealism binary explains this well: in this sense, I would say, any form that belongs to neorealism (at least as we have attempted it in the postwar period) can be nothing but a regressive form because it belongs to a nostalgia for a preindustrial age (except of course for those that experiment with it, which as I have said often occurred in our cinema, where neorealism functioned by taking into account these new forms of perception). I will finish with an (apparently) extreme paradox: the masterpiece of cinematic realism is unquestionably Buñuel’s documentary Las Hurdes. It seems to me an important allegory that the most extraordinary documentary of all time has been made by the most sensational inventor of a Surrealist optic in film. From this perspective it seems symptomatic to me that we have also never fundamentally understood how, after having made Un chien andalou, and immediately after having made L’age d’or, Buñuel could make a documentary on Spain like Las Hurdes. In reality this is no great leap: it is precisely because had made Un chien andalou, it is precisely because he had made L’age d’or, that Buñuel could grasp reality for the first time, with an eye adjusted to the movie camera; it had become impossible in any other way. I mean to say that any successful cinematic neorealism is surrealism, in the radical sense that I tried to clarify earlier. I will just add a final footnote in conclusion: if we take these two elements, kitsch and industry, we have Surrealism’s major strength. Surrealism perceived the psychic, psychosocial relations (not in an individual sense but in a social sense) that are established between the human and the industrial world. The oneiric dimension of the industrial world and the new means of perception of reality form the ground of its discovery. Perhaps then, from this perspective as well, we can understand why Surrealism remains the last great movement of the historical avant-garde: because its problems are still our problems. Surrealism is current not merely on the grounds of being “unresolved” (the exit from literature, the transition to revolution), nor merely for what it holds of the disturbing and spectral, as I have suggested, but also for the finality it possesses in light of the current historical conditions. And then to finish with a boutade, so to speak: Surrealism truly is a specter that haunts and disturbs us in the present era. And the word specter is particularly apropos because we ourselves experience Surrealism as Kitsch: we are therefore faced with a kind of exponential remove from Surrealism.

But it is symptomatic that one can do nothing but proceed in this squared, cubed, etc., exponential relationship. I think of that nephew of surrealism, i.e., American Pop Art at its height (Rauschenberg), which has continued along the same trajectory, has grasped its effective links, and has established, no wonder, a desire for documentary and realism in the context of American society. In this sense it is the final great avant-garde, but, indeed, cannot avoid proceeding within the theoretical and practical framework established by Surrealism.



(Edited by Antonio Tabucchi)






Toward a literature of cruelty



There is not any possible justification at the present time for a concept of literature if not for the idea of cruelty: which means, once and for all, “rigueur, application et décision implacable, détermination irréversible, absolue.” One pretends to believe, or truly believes—which is even worse—that the limit of this idea is narrowly and exclusively in theater. But one knows, or ought to, even, that directly by means of a similar narrowing (and exclusion, really), this idea is made innocent—and it is already, for us, an idea that has the force of hunger, and that does not succeed adequately in repressing, in effect, but only in distorting, in today’s culture. It is made harmless: which is to say that it is put into practice as a technical concept. But, directly to the contrary, cruelty, which “est avant tout lucide” (“j’emploie le mot de cruauté dans le sens d’appétit de vie, di rigueur cosmique ed de nécessité implacable, dans le sens gnostique de tourbillon de vie qui dévore les ténèbres, dans le sens de cette douleur hors de la nécessité inéluctable de laquelle la vie ne saurait s’exercer” [“I employ the word ‘cruelty’ in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue”]), is not even promotable as a literary idea. What now justifies literature is the extent to which it exceeds, and ultimately grants, as a category of judgment—and justification—the category of violent cynicism. The problem is halted, for a verse—in this sense, and for many others as well—at the point to which Artaud led and abandoned it, when he opposed “un profit d’acteur” to “un profit de jouisseur” (that is “arrestique”). Literature cannot be placed in relation with (and as motive for) the same things (with life, as was once said, and as Artaud also said)—for whoever is still interested in this kind of thing—except insofar as it proposes ideas that have the force of hunger. Which cannot be understood well, it goes without saying, without beginning from the secure knowledge that the experience of words conditions (precedes) the experience of things. (Which also, one might add parenthetically, makes our experience historical, and places the need—at the same time—for thwarting this prehistory of ours.) Literature, as the location of cruelty, is now the experimental space where the dialectic of words and things, as one prefers to say nowadays, determines itself.



A literature of cruelty operates in a historical space in which the word is concretely, as we always ought to know, an ideology in the form of language. In anthropologico-historical terms, with sufficient qualifications, the problem of the classifying function presents itself again. No interpretation of the word (for clarity’s sake, I do not say, nor mean to say, literature) can be adequate that does not understand its social being as a mode and form of classification. It is precisely in this sense that each language structure is a “view of the world.” Cruelty indicates in this respect the level of violent cynicism with which the word is capable of presenting a new dimension of classification, in the act through which it experiments and critiques the real connections of these things in the realm of literature. As such, a literature of cruelty is by its very nature a critical testing of the hierarchies of the real, what is lived in words. The type of anarchic opposition (contestation) that this literature typically professes, if it is historically conditioned by the horizon of prehistory (which is also the prehistory of the word, as we too often forget, and not of bare things, or bare human experience), does not truly bother the “revolution” except at the time in which it is configured, modestly and fearlessly, as a further form of the “state.” In fact, this type of contestation indicates rather that the revolutionary process is already capable objectively of experimenting with and critiquing the end of hierarchies (of prehistorical classifications), and of values. Because, obviously, in this prehistory one cannot grant value except by the institution (and the “state”).



Recently, with the death of Breton, we have all had the occasion to meditate, if we didn't let it by, on the fact that the greatness of surrealism was entirely in its limits: in having confronted with stubborn force and with a clearly faulty outcome the two nodes that no avant-garde—not to speak of other cultural practices—was then capable of dissolving and overcoming (or cutting). This involves the coming out into the open of literature, the placing “en dehors de toutre preoccupation esthétique” (“ou moral,” as the reading of the 1924 Manifesto continued); and of placing literature (surrealism) in the service of revolution. As the last of the great historic avant-gardes (and not in a simply chronological sense, but almost in effect as a provocative symbol), surrealism is the specter that justly haunts every other avant-garde, and denies them peaceful slumber. This also means that each avant-garde after surrealism, whatever form it takes, stands or falls, and in every case is justified or judged, on the ground of this dual trial, which it is openly called. Now, a literature of cruelty must at the present time be invoked as the only literature capable of eradicating a similar set of problems. On one hand, it knows that the “preoccupation esthétique” has the force of a social institution and posses the same arms as the state, and is not corrected except on the ground of the institutions and of the state, immediately—certainly not in the realm of ideas or within the field of psychology (of literary production or whatever else). And it knows, in short, that as an experience of the word, in the realm of ideas or within the field of psychology, it is already objectively outside of institutions and of the state. On the other hand, it is not in the service of revolution, but is revolution in the realm of words, in the dialectic that I recalled at the outset, of words and things. Thus, again in the ideologically conditioned (as prehistory) form of anarchy, the literature of cruelty tests the overcoming of institutions and of the state—that is, the idea (the only idea, to be exact) that has the force of hunger. We have no other idea to draw from culture besides this at the present time.



No form of critical examination of the literary word detracts in our time from systematic (more or less scientifically embellished) allegorism. In professional specializations, it 

encounters many variations, from grammatical to sociological. What matters for the moment, in any case, is the constancy and energy of the phenomenon. On the institutional side, we have a sort of internal confession of the insufficiency of the word, in the very mode in which it is institutionalized. But, precisely for the internal growth of the thing, the obvious crisis of the institution (and of its current process, of its current configuration, particularly) can at the same time be confirmed. The literary critic in our culture and civilization, Spitzer reminds us, has his origins in the apologia (in the philological sense) of sacred texts. All of the biblical exegesis that takes place today within the immense realm of profane literature settles the judgment—often implicitly—in a truly profound as well as in an immediately reflexive way, by evaluating the level of allegory (of allegorization) of which a given text can be the bearer, of which a given language is capable of making it (jointly) responsible. A literature of cruelty, from the perspective of the critic (of the critical examination of the literary word), operates consciously—cynically—by allegory. The sixth difficulty for whoever writes the truth at the present time consists in this.




Originally published in Quindici 1 (June 1967). In the Platonic dialogue named after him, 

Parmenides describes the sixth and most important difficulty for Plato's theory of forms as the total separation between the world of ideas and the world of sensible things.

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