Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Giovanni Papini - The Failure - 1912

"Gnosis emerges anew in all moments of the occidental intellectual development where man, tired of the existence in faith, ludicrously attempts to take possession of his faith. He aims to replace the redemption by God, who descends to "ordinariness", by the self-redemption of man, who strives upward. (...). Myth seeks the ascent of man; the word of God seeks the acknowledgement of powerlessness. Myth seeks knowledge: the word of God seeks faith." 
H. U. V. Balthasar, Irenaus: Geduld des Reifens, 1943 
quoted in Matthias Riedl

In the words of Boris Groys, traditional mimetic art “was based on an adulation of Nature as the whole and consummate creation of the one and only God that the artist must imitate if his or her own artistic gift were to approximate the divine” (GROYS 2011, 14). In contrast avant-gardism wished no longer to imitate God, but rather to replace him, “by subjugating it [the world] to the single organizing and harmonizing will of the artist” (GROYS 2011, 16) ;
Hubris had long been central to the scathing diagnosis leveled against modernity, but it is not until the rise of modernism proper that culture embraced it as the legitimate ideology behind progress. Groys’ work, alongside that of James C. Scott (SCOTT 1998), is one of the few to have focused on this power-hungry dynamic of the movement, that runs a parallel and no less controversial path to the secularization of culture.
Papini’s book, “The Failure” (Un Uomo Finito in his 1912 original, and “Un Homme Fini” in the French I have been reading) is perhaps one of the most outspoken and unashamed exploration of what Groys has called the avant-garde’s “demiurgic” drive, as well a valuable (if biased!) document in early “Recall to Order”(POGGIOLI 1968, 93).
Giovanni Papini (1881-1956) entered the limelight with his publishing of the journal Leonardo (1903-1907) in Florence along with his close friend Giuseppe Prezzolini, introducing Italy to the thought of Bergson and William James, and setting the scene for the further development of avant-garde culture. Unlike those two fervent democrats, he would involve himself early on with Italian nationalism, promoting, with varying degrees of conviction, the end of Giolittian democracy (as editor of Il Regno), Italy’s involvement in WW1 on the side of the allies (as editor and futurist in Lacerba) and much later, from 1933 onward, mindless obedience to Mussolini. 


Un Uomo Finito intends to mark a turning point in his life, the end of his old ways and a turn from ruthless monadic individualism to rootedness and a cult of the Toscanità (ADAMSON 1993, 9) which will come crowning and terminate his futurist celebration of nationalism as a mean to cultural renovation. This new concern for “La Terre et les Morts” probably plays a large part in leading Papini to embrace the Catholicism he had always victimized to popular acclaim, writing in 1921 what remains his most famous work Storia de Cristo ; Somehow silenced by many of his sympathetic biographers, or wrongly reduced to “christian” anti-judaism, Papini was also a longstanding and vocal anti-semite, long before he was allegedly coerced into joining the Fascist Party in 19331

Albert Weisgerber - Pfauentanz - in Jugend magazine - 1902

But at the time of writing Un Uomo Finito, in 1911, we have no reasons to believe he was held antisemitic views: he had indeed penned the nationalist program for Corradini and vocal in his hostility to socialism, but neither Corradini nor his Nationalist Association seem to have supported this ideology (TALMON 1991, 484). In fact, much more than nationalism, the ideology that permeates Papini’s writing up to and including this book, is that of a radical individualism of Stirnerian inspiration: Close to anarchism as a youth, he quickly shed those political commitments in favour of the de facto anarchy of a monadic celebration of the self, in the spirit of Stirner’s “I do not demand any right, therefore I need not recognize any either” (STIRNER 1995): such “might is right” attitude will remain largely theory as he was deemed too myopic and ill-built for serving in WW1 (despite his best efforts) but following the Great War he will have mustered enough clairvoyance to realize it was nothing to be celebrated.
If it is not with deeds he might prove his own strength, he goes for solitude: at first because what he takes to be his ugly face and thankless character leaves him little choice, but soon after, he tells us, as both a discipline to shape his mind, and as a symptom of his unceasing hatred a world that once rejected him. For long the young Papini has no friends, and even when he has some, he seems to find it difficult to reconcile this commitment with his egotic worldview.
With age the virulence of those will somewhat fade, but to the end he will remain fond, despite his pestering of all déracinés, of his self-image as an intellectial vagrant, a discreet recalling of his self-education: “Me, I always remained a bit of that  drifting and fanciful nomad from this distant era: (…) I don’t have a fraction of the world I could demarcate with a wall and claim: this is mine!” (PAPINI 2009, 74)


Papini will even eventually find his own “union of egoists” (STIRNER 1995, 161) who share his passion and some of his outlooks, and who will soon get to work and produce first Leonardo, followed by an unsteady stream of other publications some of which will gain national and international recognition: “It was for us, as divine youth, intoxication without wine, orgy without women, a party without women nor dances. It was, everyday, the exultant exhumation of our self, of our deepest and truest self; the discovery, the perpetual reconstruction of our intelligence of poets of the concepts and probers of the abyss.” (PAPINI 2009, 78). At first Papini seems as close as it gets to a leader, but neither does he seem to exhibit an authoritarian personality, nor does his circle really try to wrestle his authority from him. When clashes do happen those seem to be largely motivated by diverging ideals:
His best friend Prezzolini, once a “sworn enemy of all discipline” will eventiually follow Benedetto Croce’s idealism, rooted less in the soil than in reason. While they had run Leonardo together, they depart in the age of La Voce, Papini then founding the incendiary and war-mongering paper “Lacerba,” that will for a time represent in Florence the interest of the Marinetti’s futurists (ADAMSON 1993).
Ardengo Soffici on the other hand, maybe more involved in painting than in philosophy, will remain closer to the vehemence of his early days:
Others yet, like Giovanni Amendola (few in fact…) who partook in both Leonardo and La Voce, would turn to defending democracy against the rise of Fascism and eventually loose his life to the cause.


Hugh Ferris - Lure of the City - 1925

Among this blossoming avant-garde, all opposed to the decadent sensuality of the previous generation (most of all embodied in the Florentine D’Annunzio) we find the foundations of Papini’s poetics, which unlike off his ideas will remain somewhat consistent throughout his life: corollary to their activism is rejection of the unnecessary, of the refined, of all aristocracy but that of action. Aside from emerging populism this expresses itself in a rich, often visual imaginary of earthy metaphors rooted in the quotidian, generally celebrating firmness, simplicity and authenticity.
In Papini this take the form of a fascination for inhospitable nature, for the “the nakedness of the earth and the purity of altitude” (PAPINI 2009, 76) no doubt rousing his “passion for naked thought” (PAPINI 2009, 72) ;
It is hard not to think of a Mediterranean
Adolf Loos2 when we hear Papini condemning effete prose and demand “return to the nakedness of our souls, innocent as Adam was naked of body” but right away he adds “Reason must be our reason, and history starts today. Year one of our era. Incipit vita nova.” (PAPINI 2009, 94)

This new era shall not be one of positivism nor rationalism: his monadic individualism happily sidestep into solipsism and Papini’s pursuit of emancipation through the negation of determinism rapidly turn to a kind of gnostic liberation atheology: alienating conditioning, pathological self-deprecation, short-sighted materialism all conspire to rob man from “the divine liberty of the self” (PAPINI 2009, 74) and the awareness of his divine omnipotence.
What is proposed instead is the recognition that “I am the world” (PAPINI 2009, 83) and the negation of “the pretentious puppets of my inner theatre” (PAPINI 2009, 85).

Papini claims that following his encounter with Max Stirner’s idiosyncratic philosophy, he moved from “cognitive solipsism” to “moral solipsism” (PAPINI 2009, 89) : as if from his early suspicion the world at large may only exist in his mind, he came to merely doubt the actual individuality of those around him. This seems rather dubious given that down to the writing of Un Uomo Finito, Papini will retain the certainty that sheer will should suffice to bend the laws of the real. It could be argued that Papini takes up Stirner’s diagnosis that “we are the mere servants of our thoughts” (STIRNER 1995, 11) but can only allow the self, transcendent but in his case unconstructed (save by himself) to be so worshiped

What does seem to constitute a genuine transformation, though, is his shift from personal to messianic and collective liberation: His erstwhile rejection, negation even, of all men took his decadent elitism to its paroxysm, the one-man elite relentlessly attacking the rest of the world as unworthy of his attention. This phase came to an end when Papini discovered or acknowledged the significance of mass movements in his metaphysics, gaining maybe enough confidence and recognition to venture proposals not only for himself but for those willing to hear: “No longer a victim: I found myself dominant and superior – the only quick in a world filled with shades.” (PAPINI 2009, 86)
The impact of anarcho-individualism on the development of fascist ideologies has not been, to our knowledge, adequately studied, but this “populist turn” in Papini’s voluntarist political religion suggests a possible articulation: if we are, as Deleuze (DELEUZE & GUATTARI 1980, 281) or Leo Strauss (STRAUSS 1999) do, to speak of fascism as rooted in nihilism, there comes a point when the incipient negation of the world makes room for a conception of the real as popular consensus.
 

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - Wie bleibe ich jung und schön - 1925

The life of Papini is littered with what we could call “performative terminations”: spectacular declarations that mark the end of a period, and sometimes the birth of another, or that an angsty interregnum. His early life is recounted through his successive abandoning of all sorts of megalomaniac scholarly projects, and in his Il Crepuscolo dei Filosofi (1906) he proclaims the end of philosophy “anguished cabal of signs around oblivion” (PAPINI 2009, 164), which he sees as a masturbatory contemplation removed from all utility and praxis. The last issue of Leonardo is trumpeting Papini’s editorial infanticide. Some five years later in Un Uomo Finito, his acerbic autobiography constitutes a lengthy drumroll for his announcing a new turn in his intellectual life, abandoning nihilistic individualism in favor of rootedness and more vital austerity. This new Papini will shed once and for all his old self  in 1919.

Where does this need to demarcate distinct phases, as if beating the rhythm in his life, arises from? Purely in terms of style, there is no doubting that Papini enjoyed playing the apocalyptic prophet, with a keen hear for the grand poetics of ill omen. But beyond style there is of course more than one answer:
First of all from his consistent pursuit of radical extremity, notably difficult to conjugate with the shifts and changes a real life brings about. He feels the need to dramatize his own changes of opinion (no doubt felt as lacking virility), to turn them from failure into changes of heart of metaphysical significance (cf. the first of the “five unpublished chapters” in addendum to the French editions of L’Age d’Homme - see PAPINI 2009, 263) ; 


A large amount of Papini’s own self-flagellation and relentless criticism seems to result from this strategy of his, consisting in first pointing out, and eventually embracing his own shortcomings, turning them from weaknesses into badges of “badness” (MAO & WALKOWITZ 2010)
But this was a mere gesture towards real badness – in fact, towards the absolute badness which Papini openly aspired to: in 1903, the Austrian Otto Weininger, and in 1910, the Italian Carlo Michelstaedter, had each killed themselves aged 23, right after finishing their respective philosophical testaments. We know Papini had been influenced by Weininger’s extolling  virile asceticism (ADAMSON 1993, 91) and that Papini brought public attention to Michelstaedter’s death in an article titled “Un suicida metafisico3
That peculiar form of nihilism which demands the author’s death as a correlative and confirmation of the philosophical indictement of the world had a profound resonance with Papini’s own pessimism: he longed for “sacrifice, great and dignified because absurd, and sacrifice because absurd” (PAPINI 1912, 254) but, for reasons we can only speculate about, he choose to live.
Instead of an actual suicide, which might, at times, have seemed the appropriate full stop to his life conceived as a coherent work of art (WILSON SMITH 2007, 134) Papini concludes Un Uomo Finito with a rebirth: “The best is yet to come: I was only born today” (PAPINI 2009, 253) and “The child is born nine months old, but the man only starts at thirty” (PAPINI 2009, 255). 

It is fairly clear the possibility of his suicide did cross his mind, and he is aware that it probably crossed that of his readers too. “under the guise of trying to do more than others, one does less than all and prepare oneself a glorious defeat: he had proposed things so great his forces were not enough” (PAPINI 2011, 185) – yet the emptiness of life, the lack of a legacy maybe, and no doubt a part of fear too, lead him to live. He dedicate a certain amount of energy to justify this survival: “With this nobility, this grandeur, this ultimate and desperate heroism, I escape both death and mediocrity at the same time” (PAPINI 2009, 238) – But beyond those sorry claims to doing one better than Mishima, the death and rebirth his autobiography heralds displaces the author’s death from the realm of the factual to that of the performative: In the crucial, conclusive chapter XLVII, “Who I am”, Papini paints his portrait as the unlikely cohabitation of two conflictual drives, a destructive one, bent on annihilating all illusions, extinguishing all pretense of hope and celebrating oblivion, and one playful, illusory, creative:
But after this devouring fury, comes back the dreamer who imagines Impossible stories, distorts reality, projects in the convenient mirror of his imagination his baddest instincts, his most frenzied desires, which makes larger than nature the men he hates and those he loves, drawing from life itself the real point of departure from which to prolongate and widen the dream.
Then I am assaulted by all absurd stories, bizarre projects, incredible adventures, the mad men and the criminals who have never lived and want to live in me, the loves factitious and unreasoned, the singular deaths, incredible.
” (PAPINI 2009, 247)



And indeed after this death and rebirth, and his “admitting crudely to the feebleness and of fiction of life” (PAPINI 2009, 186) Papini will embrace more and more his creative side: he will take up poetry, the tales that had sprung up after his “philosophical death” of 1906 will grow into fully fledged novels, and most importantly he will “leap over” his scepticism to embrace catholic faith in 1919. 

Boris Ignatovich - Hermitage - 1931

The papinesque automythdepicts him setting to work on his work on his magnum opus, the “Storia de Cristo” as an atheist, and warming up to the faith as his close reading of the gospels ignited the embers of his idealism. A recurrent concern in Papini’s work, as with many of his time and milieu, is with the potency, the impact, of art on life: here writing itself operate the conversion, granting it the thaumaturgic qualities Papini had long demanded.
It would be wrong to depicts Papini’s conversion as one more publicity stunt, or just another contrived provocation, as some of his contemporaries have done (LOVREGLIO 1975, 227) – it is in fact precisely in the most inflexible nihilism of his youth we should look for that mystical disposition that has led him from early on to gravitate around religion (PAPINI 2011, 37). He himself writes in the foreword to his Storia de Cristo, “The author of this book once wrote another one, many years ago, to tell the sad life of a man who wanted, at one point, to become God. Now, in the maturity of age and consciousness, he attempts to write the life of a God that made itself man.” (PAPINI 2010, 51);

But more than a contortion to find some continuity in his variegated existence, there is no doubt some some truth in this parallel. The failure to reach godhood must have played its part in his later choosing the more humble and gemütlich path of merely partaking in the divine. This said, to my knowledge, his future writing as a catholic superstar do not engage with origenian or other “authorized” discussions of deification.
His need to act on the world, to make a durable mark on his age, lure him out of his ivory tower: he comes to admit that acting upon men demand “sympathy and love,” demands “a direct and quotidian contact with all, with of the city and of the country, with school children and factory workers, with the women who hope and those who suffer”  (PAPINI 2009, 204) – already by then, the program of his strapaesian populism contains the words and seeds of his future Catholicism.
And to justify his old habit of boisterous indictments, he gives it an unexpected twist: 
Men, I love you, as few loved you. All my inner life is filled with the profound love.” Never mind the fact that a few pages earlier he had claimed his writing was the honest portraiture of that inner life. He goes on: “I would like to see you greater, happier, purer, nobler and more powerful. And my greatest dream would be to be your true and greatest redeemer.” (PAPINI 2009, 206). Hence his blasphemous project to dethrone God is reconstructed into a messiah complex somewhat more sympathetic to the christian values.


In fact shortly after, Papini reveals (maybe unwittingly) a paradox of his metaphysics – or lack of thereof: from his earliest writings but increasingly after Il Crepusculo (1906) he articulates his own creativity in terms of inspiration: nothing very original there, Papini had read Carlyle and there is little doubts he sees himself on the side of Great Men. Describing the ecstatic fervor of such inspirations he write: “And what have I not done, and what would I not do to be shaken and woken up for one instant, to receive suddenly the mysterious dictation of a revelation!
Be it God that inspires me or the Demon, I do not care: but mat someone greater than me, saner than me, more clairvoyant than me, madder than me, speak through my mouth, write through my hand, think through my thoughts
.” (PAPINI 2009, 209)
Indeed the reader does wonder, when the early Papini spoke of inspiration à la Boccacio, where did he imagine those sacred thoughts came from? Not from the empty sky, surely, and not from the demon either, in whom, for all his talk, Papini believe no more than he did in God? His artistic activity, and subsequently his quriks, were justified from his status as a chosen among men, his belonging to an elite – who watches the watchers and chose the chosen? Here we might well have the roots of Papini’s faith stretching back into his old life of unbelief… 

Ivan Kliun - Unknown title - Omsk - 1910'

Altogether we have a book of great significance which does not seem to have received in the English language (or French, for that matter) the attention that it is due: an increasing number of books explore the connection between the avant-gardes and the radical right, and Papini provides us with a crucial testimony of how to pass from the one to the other. It is both exceptionally biased and clear-headed, in that it was written precisely at the time of the transition, and does not yet attempt to re-write history as to ease the fit between the pieces of the puzzle.
For all his flaws and eccentricities it is easy to relate to, if not to like, Giovanni Papini: the existential questions he is asking, in his exotic dialect, were become all pervasive at his time, and haunt most of us to this day. His answers are significantly less satisfying, although they contribute to outline the philosophical foundations of fascism, seeming sometimes a lot more endogenous to it than Gentile would ever be. 



1 - On Papini being forced into joining the Party, see LOVREGLIO 1973, 141. Despite the sheepish sympathy of the biographer, this account is not to be dismissed as many a catholic writer found actually existing fascism not conservative enough to support it officially. Concerning Papini’s anti-semite activities long before Fascism turned officially to this ideology in 1938, see GUNZBERG 1992, 254. On the same subject, in Italian, see this article.
2 - See Adolf Loos' 1908 "Ornament is Crime". 
3 - in "Il Resto del Carlino", 5th of November 1910.
4 - François Livi , in the French preface, calls the book an "autobiographical myth" - the concept is developed by Westerhoff (in French). 


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