Over a century has passed since the publication, in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, of a frontpage article by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti which came to be known as the Manifesto of Futurism. Famous though this manifesto quickly became, it was just as quickly reviled as a document that endorsed violence, unbridled technology, and war itself as the ‘hygiene of the people’. Nevertheless, the 1909 manifesto remains the touchstone of what its author called l’arte di far manifesti, (‘the art of making manifestos’), an art whose recipe – ‘violence and precision’, ‘the precise accusation and the well-defined insult’ – became the impetus for all the manifesto-art that followed (1).
The context as well as the rhetoric of Marinetti’s astonishing document are worth exploring here. Consider, for starters, that the appearance of the manifesto, originally called Elettricismo or Dinamismo – Marinetti evidently hit on the more general title Futurismo while making revisions in December 1908 – was delayed by an unforeseen event that took place at the turn of 1909. On 2 January 1909, 200,000 people were killed in an earthquake in Sicily. As Günter Berghaus writes in a recent edition of Marinetti’s Critical Writings:
‘Marinetti realised that this was hardly an opportune moment for startling the world with a literary manifesto, so he delayed publication until he could be sure he would get frontpage coverage for his incendiary appeal to lay waste to cultural traditions and institutions. Several Italian newspapers published the manifesto in early February 1909 or reported its content. Toward the middle of February, Marinetti travelled to Paris, where in the Grand Hotel he composed the introductory paragraphs and submitted the full text to the editors of the prestigious newspaper Le Figaro.’ (2)
The earthquake story is significant because it points to a central paradox that animates the 1909 manifesto as well as its Futurist successors. On the one hand, Marinetti’s Milan had been rapidly industrialised during the first decade of the century: it was now, as Berghaus notes, a city of banks, theatres, department stores and music halls, in which old buildings were rapidly demolished so that large roads could be cut through the urban centre. Streets were illuminated with powerful arc lamps and bore heavy traffic: buses, trams, automobiles, as well as the familiar bicycles, were everywhere. But natural disasters like the earthquake were reminders of the precarious foothold the new technology had in the Italian provinces. Then, too, there was as yet no cultural and artistic revolution to match la città nuova: Italian poetry, Marinetti’s included, continued to observe Romantic lyric conventions, while the Italian art world still looked to its glorious Classical and Renaissance past, suspicious of the ‘modernist’ art movements making news in France and Germany.
Marinetti met this tension head on by publishing his manifesto in what was the leading French newspaper, and by creating a narrative frame that would make his ‘revolutionary’ propositions palatable to his audience. Consider the opening:
‘We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shrinking like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts. For hours we had trampled our atavistic ennui into rich oriental rugs, arguing up to the last confines of logic and blackening many reams of paper with our frenzied scribbling.
‘An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their celestial encampments. Alone with stokers feeding the hellish fires of great ships, alone with the black spectres who grope in the red-hot bellies of locomotives launched down their crazy courses, alone with drunkards reeling like wounded birds along the city walls.’ (3)
Could anything be more late-Romantic than that second paragraph, with its emphasis on the pride of the isolated protagonist, the metaphors of man as ‘proud beacon’ or ‘forward sentry against an army of hostile stars, glaring down at us from their celestial encampments’? And what could be more kitschy than the image of those stokers ‘feeding the hellish fires of great ships’, or the images of locomotives, with their ‘red-hot bellies’ and ‘drunkards reeling like wounded birds along the city walls’?
But the larger picture is complicated by the ‘hanging mosque lamps’, ‘domes of filigreed brass’, and ‘rich oriental rugs’ that compose Marinetti’s decor. The exotic Eastern trappings (Marinetti grew up in Egypt and is describing his salon as it really was) give a fantastic cast to the imagery of locomotives and motorcars that follows. Indeed, the oriental rug becomes a kind of magic carpet, capable of carrying the group of young Futurists into the same realm as those ‘sleek’ planes, ‘whose propellers chatter in the wind’. The radiance of the mosque lamps merges with the ‘electric hearts’ of the new machines even as the ‘huge double-decker trams’ outside are ‘ablaze with colored lights’. Marinetti’s is thus no realistic description of ‘good factory muck’; on the contrary, the modern metropolis becomes a utopian dream-space where the timeless pleasures of the East merge with everything that is forward-looking and revolutionary. Accordingly, even nature appears in a glamorous, artificial light. As the Futurists rush out into the dawn, the narrator exclaims: ‘There’s nothing to match the splendour of the Sun’s red sword, slashing for the first time through our millennial gloom!’ The phallic Sun-sword quickly blends with the automobile’s steering wheel, ‘a guillotine blade that threatened my stomach’. Male power, in this aggressive fantasy, is all.
In the passage that follows, the spectre of death, substituting for the ‘ideal Mistress’ of Romantic lyric, is ‘domesticated’ in a sequence of animal images that carry the manifesto introduction’s longing for dehumanisation to its hyperbolic limits. Death ‘gracefully’ ‘holds out a paw’, and ‘once in a while’ makes ‘velvety caressing eyes at me from every puddle’. The poet spins his car around ‘with a frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail’, his car, overturned in the ditch, is seen as a ‘big beached shark’, charging ahead on its powerful fins. Animal matter fuses with ‘metallic waste’ to create the setting wherein the actual manifesto can be performed.
The narrative frame thus prepares us for the violence, power, energy and sense of urgency of the manifesto itself. By the time the first proposition is made, Marinetti’s audience has suspended its disbelief, especially since the pronouncements to follow are all uttered by a ‘we’ rather than a more overtly egotistical ‘I’. Marinetti takes over many formulations from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but no longer is the individual subject in command. Rather, the ‘we’ are presented as representatives of the new masses, the factory workers and stokers, locomotive drivers and mechanics, who constitute the new ‘workers of the world’. Never mind that the workers of the world don’t live among mosque lamps and oriental rugs and don’t drive expensive cars or recall their Sudanese nurses, as does our poet. It seems, at least on the surface, that, in James Joyce’s words, Here Comes Everybody.
And so we absorb the formulae: ‘One. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness’; and, ‘Two. Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.’ Who can quarrel with these prescriptions, designed to help Marinetti’s readers move beyond lyric subjectivity and everyday discourse so as to participate in a meaningful project? The third proposition calls for the ‘feverish insomnia’ we have just witnessed, together with the ‘racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap’. This is a call to arms designed to awaken a listless, habit-bound populace from its long sleep. And so, to number four: