Futurism, Violence, and Wireless Imagination
Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
What's the meaning of these words? I don't know... It doesn't matter! Let's go.
F.T. Marinetti (TU 120)
Marinetti's 1922 novel, Gli Indomabili [The Untameables], centers around a group of wealthy Italian industrialists who relinquish their material belongings in order to spend their days living in a pit in the middle of a desert island, chained and guarded by African soldiers who feed them chunks of raw meat. Each night, however, the Paper People, a race of incandescent creatures who rule over a magical oasis of glass, cool water, and music, release the Untameables from the pit. Brought together as brothers, the prisoners and guards alike enjoy the comforts and beauty of the Paper People's city. As they examine the city closer, they come upon several "monumental books" which "suddenly burst open, with a jerky flourish of colored pages" (TU 187). The Untameables watch as "The liveliest of the pages tears itself from the book with a rapid whirl, forms a cone, pastes itself shut, [and] stands up with its point on top. Just then, a light buds inside and as it grows it becomes redder and more fiery" (TU 187). "Thus was born a Paper Person," Marinetti writes. "A written thought magically transformed into action-life" (TU 187).
The transformation of "written thought" into "action-life" is described in "magical" terms. The description resembles the story of Jesus' birth, as described in the Gospel According to Saint John: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." Both The Untameables and the gospel represent the "word" as something other than material writing; in both cases, however, the "word" relies upon written thoughts to promote and sustain this metaphysical leap. In the gospel, Jesus accomplishes this metaphysical trick through the act of crucifixion, which renders his body a visual text upon which others might define themselves. The transcendence of the Paper People, on the other hand, is accomplished by taking a textual representation and making it physical and alive. While Jesus transforms his flesh into word, the Paper People start out as word and are then transformed into flesh.
The movement from text to action is central to Marinetti's Futurist aesthetics. Of primary importance is Marinetti's assertion that modern art must assimilate a technologically-enhanced conception of language: one not limited to words and phrases, but instead capable of overcoming any and all boundaries, including spatial, temporal, and linguistic. To this end, Marinetti proposes a new conception of language, which is grounded in the notion of "parole in libertà" or "words-in-freedom." These "free words" reject traditional syntax and grammar in favor of a new tautology that is accelerated "to today's swift pace" and to the "Multiple and simultaneous awareness in a single individual" (F 96). "Words-in-freedom" attempts to reclaim human dominance over nature by fusing the power and precision of machines with human imagination: "the poet's imagination must weave together distant things with no connecting strings, by means of essential free words" (F 98). The phrase, "l'immaginazione senza fili" ["imagination without strings" or "wireless imagination"] is central to Futurist aesthetics, for it implies both the desire to be free of material restraints and the desire to merge with the technologies that create and control social organizations in a mechanized world.
Theoretically, the purpose of Marinetti's aesthetics is to animate language until the words are capable of transcending their material status and transforming into "action-life." As the image of the Paper People leaping from a book suggests, the focus of power in Futurist aesthetics is centered not on the text but on the transformation of text into action. This transformation from text to life occurs through the imagination of the author and reader. However, the desire for words to transcend their material form and become active, living experiences necessitates an erasure of both the source material and the physical act of reading. In order to accomplish this transformation, Marinetti relies upon violence and war. For Marinetti, violence is the highest form of aesthetic expression, and war is the most sublime and transforming artwork imaginable. In each case, Marinetti sees a means of overcoming the limitations of the physical, mundane realm in favor of a realm dominated by technology, imagination, and power. When put into practice, however, this theory struggles to maintain the tension between transcendence and physicality.
II. "Immaginazione senza fili"
In the opening to his "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature," Marinetti recounts the following story:
Sitting on the gas tank of an airplane, my stomach warmed by the pilot's head, I sensed the ridiculous inanity of the old syntax inherited from Homer. A pressing need to liberate words, to drag them out of their prison in the Latin period! Like all imbeciles, this period naturally has a canny head, a stomach, two legs, and two flat feet, but it will never have two wings. Just enough to walk, to take a short run and then stop short, panting! (M 92)
The language inherited from Homer cannot fly; an airplane can. To create a language that can fly, we must destroy Homer, "liberate words," and start again. This, briefly, is Marinetti's aesthetic theory. It is grounded in a "lyric obsession with matter" (M 95), which replaces "the ego of the writer, whose function now would be to shape the nets of analogy that would capture elusive matter in the mysterious sea of phenomena." The focus upon "matter," in this context, fixes attention upon the importance of physicality and action as opposed to thoughtful reflection and meditation. These tropes are also prevalent in a great deal of fascist propaganda in the 1920s and 30s, particularly Leni Riefenstahl's epic works, Triumph of the Will [Triumph des Willens] and Olympia. In these films, action (be it human bodies grouped en masse before their Führer or athletes competing on a track field) is defined according to a central, idealized center. In Triumph of the Will, this center is Hitler himself, surrounded by an endless parade of human bodies marching in step and at his command; likewise, in Olympia, the idealized figures are the perfectly formed bodies of the athletes, as they compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics Games. In contrast, Marinetti's Bergsonian reading of action suggests a mechanical process in which subjectivity is neither fixed nor centralized, but which is always transforming into something else. Unlike Nazi propaganda, Marinetti's vision of art and life asserts a mechanical language system where the codes of idealized beauty and power are redefined according to an action whose center is continually in movement and is continually becoming something else.
By redefining language according to the dictums of speed and power, Marinetti attempts to redefine communication through a dynamic ontology in which the past and present are repeatedly becoming the future. As he remarks in "Destruction of Syntax-Imagination Without Strings-Words-in-Freedom":
Now suppose that a friend of yours ... finds himself in a zone of intense life (revolution, war, shipwreck, earthquake, and so on) and starts right away to tell you his impressions. Do you know what this lyric, excited friend of yours will instinctively do?
He will begin by brutally destroying the syntax of his speech. He wastes no time in building sentences. Punctuation and the right adjectives will mean nothing to him. He will despise subtleties and nuances of language. Breathlessly he will assault your nerves with visual, auditory, olfactory sensations, just as they come to him. The rush of steam-emotion will burst the sentence's steampipe, the valves of punctuation, and the adjectival clamp. Fistfuls of essential words in conventional order. Sole preoccupation of the narrator, to render every vibration of his being. (F 98)
Traditional language forces the flow of memories and sensations to adhere to particular rules of syntax. Sentences, punctuation, and proper narrative conventions subsequently destroy the emotions generated from an event. Marinetti's theory of language, on the other hand, attempts to destroy narrativity and linearity, allowing words to explode into one another so that the energy and excitement of their content (that is, their "life") may appear without hindrance. Futurism, in short, prioritizes the "half word" or "gesture," thereby aligning signification not with "Truth" but with language's materiality. As such, writing "becomes a medium, a process, and enters into a system of energetic exchange that will necessarily destroy it as an autonomous entity." A written description of an event becomes, through the language of Futurism, not merely a translation of an event but a reliving of each moment.
Marinetti is fully aware of the problems inherent in attempting to reproduce an experience within language's limited parameters. However, Marinetti attempts to circumvent these difficulties by creating a new grammar that is more attuned to a technological and scientific world. To this end, his "Technical Manifesto" proposes the elimination of all "colorful" or nonessential words, such as adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions, in order to "free nouns from the domination of the writer's ego." Punctuation, too, is annulled because it slows down discourse; in its place, Marinetti suggests mathematical signs (+ - x =) and musical symbols, for these indicate direction or intent but do not interrupt the flow of language. Likewise, infinitive verbs should be used exclusively "because they adapt themselves elastically to nouns and don't subordinate them to the writer's I that observes or imagines" (M 92). "I" and "you" separate a writer from his/her writing, thereby forcing onto the page an ordered, rational, and restrictive structure that destroys the immediacy of communication. Just as phonographic writing enables one immediate access to past events, so too does Marinetti envision his "free words" to provide both the reader and the writer immediate access to the experiences documented on the page.
Of specific importance in Marinetti's system is his call for the "constant, audacious use of onomatopoeia," which, because it "reproduces noise, is necessarily one of the most dynamic elements of poetry" (M 109). Words like "Trrrrrrrrrrrrrr" (to represent a speeding train) or "cuhrrrrr" (to represent the wheels of an automobile) bring an immediacy and directness to language, while reinforcing Futurism's goal of merging the everyday with the poetic. In this, as in each of these proposals, Marinetti is addressing what others of his era (including deSaussere, Husserl, and Wittgenstein) considered a "crisis" in teleology. As Derrida notes, many scholars claimed that "the affirmation of the essential and 'natural' bond between the phonè and the sense, the privilege accorded to an order of signifier...depends expressly...upon a psychology of consciousness and of intuitive consciousness." By rejecting the very structures that determine consciousness-namely, human bodies-Marinetti calls into question the "natural" connection between word and voice. This connection is viewed by both Kittler and Derrida as less a relationship between deSausserian signifier and signified and more as an interiorized metaphor of the "voice," which is constructed according to political and ideological tropes of power and authority. To some extent, Marinetti's fascination with onomatopoeia foregrounds the importance of "natural" sounds over written "copies"; nevertheless, these sounds serve only as catalysts toward a material and technological understanding of writing, rather than as a means of reaffirming the "natural" and intuitive presence of phonè. In other words, Marinetti's incorporation of everyday noises into Futurist poetic theory is designed not to emphasize the connection between sound and "voice" but to transfer that "voice" out of the human body and into the bodies of airplanes, automobiles, and radios.
Tying these syntactic rules together is Marinetti's conception of "analogy": the layering of object upon object, noun upon noun, in an endless chain of words, such as "man-torpedo-boat, woman-gulf, crowd-surf, piazza-funnel, door-faucet" (M 92-93). These "words-in-freedom," as he calls them, heighten the "natural" tendencies of human speech in a world of increased speed and perspective (M 93), and thereby reproduce "the rapport ... between poet and audience" or "between two old friends" who "can make themselves understood with half a word, a gesture, a glance" (F 98). Marinetti terms the analogic process "l'immaginazione senza fili," which literally translates "imagination without strings," but which is also translated as "wireless imagination." In this instance, "imagination" and "wireless" both suggest the same thing: namely, freedom from physical limitations. It is this freedom that is at the heart of Futurist art and Marinetti's interest in technology. The wireless, or La Radia, as Marinetti and Pino Masnate call "the great manifestation of the radio," is a appropriate metaphor for Futurism. Unlike the phonograph, telephone, or telegraph system, which require connecting wires or cables to maintain the communicative link, the wireless receives and transmits its signal through the air without any visible connecting links. In a Futurist context, La Radia liberates words and speech from the printed page or spoken mouth and projects them into a spatial theater that, because "no longer visible and framable...becomes universal and cosmic."
Futurism's ultimate goal is to discover a language that does not rely upon words but instead can "universally" translate action into meaning. Although Marinetti's conception of "universal and cosmic" writing seems to occlude written and spoken language, a glimpse of what he had in mind is found in the following example from Luigi Russolo's Arte Dei Rumori [The Art of Noises], in which Russolo quotes from a letter written by Marinetti "from the trenches of Adrianopolis," describing "the orchestra of a great battle":
every 5 seconds siege cannons gutting space with a chord ZANG-TUMB_TUUUMB mutiny of 500 echos smashing scattering it to infinity. In the center of this hateful ZANG-TUMB_TUUUMB area 50 square kilometers leaping bursts lacerations fists rapid fire batteries. Violence ferocity regularity this deep bass scanning the strange shrill frantic crowds of the battle Fury breathless ears eyes nostrils open! load! fire! what a joy to hear to smell completely taratatata of the machine guns screaming a breathlessness under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tumb weirdness leaps 200 meters range Far far in back of the orchestra pools muddying huffing goaded oxen wagons pluff-plaff horse action flic flac zing zing shaaack laughing whinnies the tiinkling jiiingling tramping 3 Bulgarian battalions marching croooc-craaac [slowly]...
The "bursts" of sensations and energies theorized in Marinetti's manifestoes emerge in this letter through the description of noises, gunfire, and troop movement, which render the experiences of war as visible, audible, and tangible as language will allow. The use of "words-in-freedom," such as the string "orchestra pools muddying huffing goaded oxen wagons," effectively replicates the rapid array of sensations and impressions that Marinetti experienced on the battlefield. Likewise, the use of onomatopoetic words like "taratatata" and "pic-pac-pum-tumb" to describe shell bursts and troop movements adds an immediacy to the letter, thereby heightening a representation of life that is central to Futurism's aesthetic designs. All the same, it is important to note that Marinetti was attempting to put into written language the sounds of a battle; as such, his efforts can only resemble the lived experience. In other words, Marinetti is dependent upon the technology of writing: both the physical limitations of the written page and the need to retain a certain narrative cohesiveness (that is, to make sense to his readers). This is most evident in the linear structure of the above letter: a scene is set (battlefield), characters parade in and out, action ensues, and a resolution is achieved (the author realizes the transformative effects of war). The need to structure and organize writing according to narrative patterns is not lost on Marinetti, who gives a cautionary analysis of his own system: "When I speak of destroying the canals of syntax, I am neither categorical nor systematic. Traces of conventional syntax and even of true logical sentences will be found here and there in the words-in-freedom of my unchained lyricism" (F 99). Marinetti later notes that "We ought not...to be too much preoccupied with" Futurist language. "But we should at all costs avoid rhetoric and banalities telegraphically expressed" (F 99). Futurism can only transform language so far; in the end, traditional mores and attitudes are necessarily retained.
Not all Futurist writings conform to these traditions, however. Marinetti's word collages, for example, suggests ways in which Futurism attempts to circumvent language's limited expressive parameters. Parole in Libertà from 1919 displays an arrangement of words and phrases, including "guerre" (war), "belle" (beautiful), and "mon ami" (friend). The individual letters vary in size and are set into a random pattern resembling mountains, snakes, and valleys. There is no linear structure to the words, nor is there any discernible narrative cohesion; what is important here is the visual design which the text as a whole produces in the reader. The term "collage" derives from the French coller and means "to paste" or "to stick together." As Marjorie Perloff notes, the collage can be traced both to twelfth-century Japanese pasted papers, which are "lace and paper valentines popular in western Europe and America from the eighteenth century to the present," and works by Picasso and other Cubists, in which "illusionistically painted nails, guitar strings, letters, and numbers were introduced into the otherwise nonrepresentational picture surface with its oscillating and ambiguously defined planes." Collages, in other words, are amalgamations of disparate textures, colors, and design that, when arranged in particular patterns, become recognizable images. Within the context of Futurism's assault upon static art, Marinetti's "Parole in Libertà " combines the language of his manifestos with the pictorial representation of movement that escapes the limitations of words by creating a syntax that reinscribes language's materiality. The letters "M," "S," and "A" become mountains, snakes, and lakes, respectively, while the smaller letters resemble positions on a map, as evidence by the terms "France" and "Prussiens." As the title indicates, the words that comprise this collage are "free" of linear and narratological constraints; consequently, they are read not for what they represent but for what they embody. In fact, the collage reinforces the significance of both the reader and the text. The reader is central because it is s/he who defines the text's message; likewise, the text is central because the meaning of the work exists primarily on the visual, material level. Although the significance of the text is derived as much from the shape and size of the letters as from their significance, meaning is denoted on the material level before its connotations can be "imagined" by the reader.
Another example of Futurism's alterior language strategy is Francesco Cangiullo's sonorous poetry, which combines musical notation with writing. In this fragment from his work, Poesia Pentagramada, musical sheets display words rather than notes; these words are repeated several times in varying sizes, in order to simulate the sounds they would produce if read aloud. Here, for example, the word "Vele" is repeated several times, each time in smaller and smaller script. This produces the effect of an echo. In this way, the hierarchy of sound/vision is reversed in this poem, so that the visual text is no longer central to the aesthetic or poetic understanding of the piece; rather, it is the act of speaking "Vele" over and over, in a voice that grows increasingly quiet, which produces the desired effect. Like Marinetti's word-collage, the significance of Canguillo's text is evident on both the material level and the interpretive level; as such, the "Vele" strings that shape the text's interpretation are central to the interchange between text and reader.
III. Gli Indomabili
Marinetti and his fellow Futurists idealized machines and sought to create a new conception of art based upon these devices. Among the machines most prized by Futurism were the airplane, the machine gun, the radio, and the automobile. These machines have two things in common: speed and power. In his aesthetic theory, the manner which Marinetti chose to convey speed and power onto the page was to reduce language to its fundamental elements: direction, action, object, and force. The problem with creating a literary movement based upon these elementary principles is that western conceptions of literature are founded upon narrative structures and binary oppositions: that is, the movement of a character from one place to another. Because Futurism aspired to excise the subject from language, replacing it with matter and force, Marinetti's attempts to "liberate" the printed page from the burdens of grammar and narrative were generally unsuccessful.
What was successful, however, were the manifestoes Marinetti wrote to describe his aesthetic theory and to outline the direction Futurist artwork would take. In part, this is because they are written according to the traditional conventions of grammar and narration; likewise, they were written in the first-person and often included detailed stories describing the beauty of machines or the benefits of war. Further, as Marjorie Perloff notes, the manifestoes aestheticized "a new typographic format, a format drawn from the world of advertising posters and newspapers," where "the page supplants the stanza or the paragraph as the basic print unit." Marinetti's works took advantage of the recent developments in mass-market advertising and propaganda in order to sell their ideas to the public. At its most successful, then, Futurism was an advertising campaign. However, while the nominal purpose of this campaign was the celebration of speed and power, the focus of public fascination with Futurists was the sensational behavior exhibited by Marinetti and others.
Riots, for example, were a frequent occurrence during Futurism's public performances. These riots were generally instigated by Marinetti or one of his followers and were often waged against Futurism's detractors. One example of such a riot occurred at the first public performance of Luigi Russolo's noise instruments in Milan on April 21, 1914. The event quickly turned from a musical performance to a battle between Russolo's Futurist friends (including Marinetti) and "the professors of the Royal Conservatory of Milan and some musicians," who opposed Futurist ideas in their entirety. "It was," as Russolo remarks, "truly a memorable evening." The correspondent for the Parisian newspapers Le Temps records a detailed account of the evening, including the 23 different noise instruments on the stage, Russolo and his "pointed red goatee" holding a "high-held baton," and
an enormous crowd, overflowing boxes, orchestra and galleries. In the most absolute silence, Marinetti requests, in vibrant intonation, the good faith necessary to judge the great artistic discovery of Russolo. His words, resolute and full of quiet menace, are loudly applauded. But after a few bars of the first network-of-noises, Awakening of a City, the pastists, who had been content for a while, try to stop the performance at any cost. The uproar becomes deafening. The futurists restrain themselves for an hour....
At the beginning of the third piece, an extraordinary thing happens: Marinetti, Boccioni, Armando Mazzi, and Piatti vanish from the stage, emerge from the empty orchestra pit, run across it, and hurl themselves among the seats, assaulting the many pastists, now drunk with the rage of tradition and imbecility, with blows, slaps, and cudgels.
In what may be the first recorded example of stage-diving, the fighting continued throughout the remainder of the performance, spilling out "in[to] the streets, in the corridors, all behind the spectators." The violence and the passion of the music, coupled with the violent reaction by the listeners, were common to Futurist performances. While violence, in this case, demonstrated the power and strength of the Futurist community, it also connected the Futurists to the music's representation of a city awakening. This suggests that violence offers Futurists an aesthetic means by which the human body might come closer to the transcendent power and speed represented by machines. Although the body is perceived as a weak, slow, and fragile organism, it is only in the body and through the body that Futurists can imagine an escape from the body. From the "Founding Manifesto of Futurism," in which Marinetti describes the blissful pain of an automobile accident, to his 1922 novel, The Untameables, which fuses Futurist ideology with violence and power, the study of violence and its effects is a recurrent theme in Futurist literature. By merging technology's power with human imagination, violence enables Futurism to understand the "secrets of life" which are otherwise denied the limited, terrestrial bodies of human beings (TU 114).
Midway through The Untameables, Mirmofim the Surgeon recollects an incident "at the hospital in Turin ten years ago" (TU 113), in which he and five interns sawed various limbs from the bodies of six wounded men. Before the operations, he tells his interns that, "Science requires a great deal of torture. Through the screams of butchered flesh, I've come to understand all the secrets of life. Operate without mercy, watch me and do as I do. You'll be testing the human body's maximum tolerance of physical pain" (TU 114). As they begin, the patients are transformed into what he calls an "orchestra," which "throbbed artistically and sang at the top of their lungs" and creates a "miraculous harmony" (TU 114). As the operations continue, Mirmofim remembers a song:
is the boat
where our friends and family
are as happy as can be
when the Angelus is heard
on the sea.
In a dither
my good mother
throws a cover
on my sister who's so dear:
she's a-coughing and we fear
the cold black night
might take her far from here
what a perfect
Yet our mother was in tears
when she saw
that on the boat
death was sitting oh so near... (TU 115-6)
The contrast between the song and the operation is vivid, particularly because the song describes a mother as she comforts her daughter before her death. The image of death, here, implies transcendence from one sphere to another; this transcendence, moreover, is equated with Mirmofim's desire to both hear and understand the mountain trooper's pain. "I could feel the song laughing in my nerves," Mirmofim notes as his saw gets stuck in the trooper's leg. "I was just about whistling it" (TU 116). The surgeon seeks to "understand all the secrets of life" by aestheticizing his patient's pain. In other words, Mirmofim seeks to put into language an experience which, as Elaine Scarry notes, "does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned." Pain's destruction of language negates any attempt to interpret it; in this way, the experience is likened to a sort of death. Mirmofim's active pursuit of pain's "secret," then, is largely a pursuit of the unknown forces that shape and define something which cannot be understood in language.
"To have pain is to have certainty," Elaine Scarry notes; "to hear about pain is to have doubt." Mirmofim's understanding of the trooper's pain reaches its climax when the trooper "sensed my joy when the saw got stuck, and he shut his eyes in terror in the face of my satanic delight:
what a perfect
melancholy night... (TU 117)
Marinetti presents this scene as an epiphany, a term James Joyce defines as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." The "spiritual manifestation" is an awareness of the "whatness of a thing." The "whatness" of this scene is revealed in the contradictions: at the very moment that his pain reaches its most intense point, the trooper stops screaming and begins to sing about "a perfect melancholy night." The fusion of pain and pleasure, here, allows Mirmofim (as the narrator of this scene) to claim a "spiritual" understanding of the trooper's suffering. In other words, the doubt Scarry mentions in reference to someone else's pain is transformed into certainty through the trooper's articulate voice. The trooper's ability to sing means that pain's ability to negate meaning, in this case, is refuted; however, this refutation occurs solely as a mimicking of a song Mirmofim has already sung. In short, the only expression that the trooper is able to communicate is a recycled product of his torturer's voice.
Mirmofim's story attempts to locate the "secrets of life" within a divergent space where pain and art intersect. Identifying and understanding this space is a central theme in The Untameables. As he tells this story, Mirmofim is sitting in a pit on an island, where the sun is so intense that it blisters the skin. He is naked except for an iron collar and a collection of chains, which link him to dozens of other men. The rotting flesh, dried bones, and blood of dead animals surround the men. Above them, "Negro" soldiers, wearing muzzles over their mouths, wade over the crowd with bayonets. The conditions, in short, are awful. However, it is only by suffering through these conditions that, come evening, the Untameables are allowed to journey to the Oasis and the world of the Paper People.
The Oasis offers the Untameables the promise of revealing the secrets of life; however, like the understanding of pain, the Oasis is unknown to those who do not experience it. Although the Untameables are allowed to journey to the Oasis every evening, their minds are erased when they return to the pit. The Oasis, in other words, exists outside the pit's discursive boundaries. In the mornings, when the Untameables wake up, they have no knowledge of where they have been or what has happened to them. However, when the Untameables and the soldiers are finally granted admittance to the Oasis, they discover a network of gardens, buildings, rivers, lakes, and music. They are overwhelmed with light, cool air, and rich splendor; however, nothing is more arresting than the sight of the Paper People, who "appeared in each tree, but ... were lighted from within" (TU 136). The bodies of the Paper People were "paper cone-shaped robes lined with writing [whose] printing seemed like translucent glass on their agile bodies which were red like flame turned upside-down" (TU 136). Interestingly, the Untameables presence in this world hampers the power and agility of these Paper People. As Curguss the priest remarks, "Haven't you noticed that the minute one of us raises his voice to argue, the music of the leaves dies down; and, what's worse, look!... The glowing Paper People turn off and disappear. Let's walk silently and orderly, without dragging our feet" (TU 137). Human bodies, feet dragging and voices raised in anger, are a disruption. Their bodies are bounded to the earth by gravity, whereas the Paper People are free of all terrestrial restraints.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Oasis is the ever-present music, which is described as "sweetness and desperate tenderness." "Do you believe in the infinite benevolence of God?" (TU 143), Mirmofim asks. Even in this magical world, it is the music that is most reminiscent of divinity. The music is a drug; the more the Untameables listen to it, the more they begin to acquire "that ancient thirst for knowledge that had scorpioned itself in their bellies, in their lungs for such a long time. But it had been transformed, purified, it was almost spiritual.-They felt that soon they could quench their thirst forever" (TU 145). This "thirst" suggests Mirmofim's story of the trooper's leg; however, in this case, the knowledge thirsted for is not the secrets of physical realm but "Goodness" (TU 161), a term which the Paper People use to describe their luminous bodies and the knowledge which the Lake of Poetry (where the music emanates) reveals to them. According to a letter Marinetti wrote following the publication of The Untameables, this "Goodness" represents "a calm even light...that annihilates diversity, destroys harshness, lights up wounds, enhances torment-sin" (TU 224). The Lake of Poetry destroys the Untameables' violent desires; consequently, the Untameables and soldiers agree to accept each other as brothers. They hug and kiss and sing praises to "the essence of absolute Goodness" (TU 163). In response, the leader of the Paper People announces: "I praise you all, Untameables, and you too, Negro guards, because you've discovered the great rhythm. You are all worthy of entering the City! Come follow us, all of you!" (TU 163-4).
Upon hearing this, the bodies of the Untameables and soldiers begin to project "indolent eel-slithering reflections and shadows" (TU 167). This luminosity, however, is far less than the brilliance of the Paper People. In fact, as the Untameables learn more about the city, they discover that, despite their transformation, they are essentially stuck, unable to develop beyond this limited luminescence. Marinetti, in commenting on this scene, notes that, "Humans find no truth in immobility even when it is happy immobility, nor do they find truth in unconsciousness even when it is divine" (TU 224). This immobility is revealed to them when they are restrained from entering "narrow side streets, as if grave danger were waiting there. From the depths of those streets rose clouds of foul and acrid smoke" (TU 172). The Paper People, they realize, are hiding a vast city of machines, which maintain the Oasis' magical illusions. These machines are run by the Light, Paper, and River workers, who, like the Untameables and the soldiers, are less luminous than the Paper People, and are, therefore, inferior to them.
As they uncover the city's social order, the Untameables discover a rigid hierarchy that requires all facets of the Oasis to adhere to Paper People's commands. However, as the Untameables soon discover, the workers are unwilling to simply function as machines, living static lives in perpetual slavery. As one worker cries, "I'm tired of running a machine somebody else invented; I want to invent and build a whole new machine!" (TU 177). Workers want individuality; because they are not permitted this luxury, they rebel and start an uprising. Aided by a number of sympathetic Paper People, the Untameables and the workers attack the city and shut it down. As they march toward the Cardboard Dam, however, they arrive at a vast library of books, including one which bursts open to reveal a newly born Paper Person, who seems different from those that came before:
The Paper Person who was thus formed darted away with incredible speed, and he immediately climbed up the steps of the incandescent buildings and perched himself imperiously on one of the terraces. In just a few seconds, that potent book gave birth to 22 Paper People. They weren't ordinary Paper People. The cone of their robes had the splendor of a cone-shaped diamond.-For a second, they just stood there the way Paper People usually did; then, turning upside down, they presented the round orifice of their bodies to the stars. Thus transformed into projectors, they printed radiant adamantine words in freedom in the sky.
Those brilliant shafts of light traveled searching the night sky, and they erased the ancient constellations, and new stars blossomed, and they wrote, they wrote with mad letters of light, frightening thoughts of mysterious beauty. (TU 191)
The music and Goodness offered by the Paper People is an illusion because it forces a certain order upon those who live under them. However, when Mirmofim manages to make out the words that the new Paper Person scrawls on the galaxy, he reads, "THE FUTURIST MANIFESTOES. MARINETTI" (TU 195). In other words, the transformation promised by this new Paper Person suggests a remaking of life according to the tenets of Futurism: speed, power, and freedom. Whereas Untameables and workers alike reject the Paper People's rigidly defined and static Goodness, Futurism's promise of dynamism and freedom is received triumphantly. Mirmofim offers his leadership to the crowd and admonishes them to "Come with me" to the Cardboard Dam. By injecting into this world the aggression and the violence of the Untameables' pit, Mirmofim inspires the crowd into action: they destroy the dam, which results in the flooding of the Oasis. The Untameables' illumination slowly dissipates as they run fleeing from the water. Soon they find themselves back in the pit, unable to remember the events of the previous evening.
The Untameables metamorphosis from violent animals to ethereal beings is interrupted by the political and economic realities of the Oasis-realities which the Paper People sought to hide, but which were revealed and exposed only because the Untameables violent passions urged the workers to revolt and destroy the very system which dominated them. In the end, the Oasis is dead, and the Untameables lose their ethereality and return to the pit. The Untameables transformation, here, is an appropriate metaphor for Futurism's struggle to define art against the human body. Although the Futurists, like the Untameables, desired the technological brilliance offered by modern technology (represented by the Paper People), they refuse to be simple machines that follow orders and remain static.
What is missing from the Paper People's world is human imagination's ability to destroy the very elements that prescribe order and meaning. Consequently, what is missing from the Untameables' pit is the transcendence of spirit and body offered by the Paper People. The inability for these two realms to reconcile appears to offer the reader "no hope for social progress." The novel's final sentence, however, changes this position slightly: "Thus, the superhuman fresh-winged Distraction of Art, stronger than the raw dissonance of Sun and Blood, finally effected the metamorphosis of the Untameables" (TU 218). Prior to this, the Untameables are listening to Mirmofim, who is the only one to remember the events of the preceding night. His ability to remember "the superhuman fresh-winged Distraction of Art" from the Lake of Poetry offers some hope for reconciling the technological transcendence of the Oasis with the human imagination of the pit. However, this "metamorphosis of the Untameables" is only achieved by retreating to the past and rejecting Futurism's admonition that "Time and Space died yesterday" (M 49). Hence, just as Futurism's aspirations to transcend art and humanism are undercut by the very manifestoes which give shape to those aspirations, so too is The Untameables undermined by the imposition of the past onto the Futurist landscape.
Futurism aspired to technological omnipotence. While this omnipotence is largely metaphorical (Marinetti, after all, did not turn into a car), the movement's fascination with and celebration of technology, speed, and power continues to be a central focus in twentieth century art, business, and popular mythology. In the remaining chapters, I will explore the ways technology and sound function in one of the central literary texts of the twentieth century, Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Joyce's novel positions the human body as a product of modern technology; as such, the language of the body is continually altered and reworked both within a localized environment (a single bed in Dublin, Ireland) and as part of a global network of information that is recorded, received, and transmitted across time, space, and reality.
1. J.G. Ballard, "Introduction to French edition of Crash," in Re/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard (1984), 97.[back]
2. John 1:14 KJV[back]
3. Tisdall and Bozzolla, 94.[back]
4. Andrew Hewitt, Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 1993), 155.[back]
5. Tisdall and Bozzolla, 94.[back]
6. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1976), 40.[back]
7. F.T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata, "La Radia," in Kahn and Whitehead, 266-7.[back]
8. Russolo, 26.[back]
9. "Parole Consonanti Vocali Numeri in Libertà," in Luigi Scrivo, Sintesi del Futurismo: Storia e Documenti (Rome: Cura Grafica, 1968), 46.[back]
10. Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press, 1986), 46-7.[back]
12. Perloff, 92-3.[back]
13. The manifestoes were not the only "original" works of art that Futurists created. Futurists are generally credited with originating the concept of performance art, which simultaneously combine poetry, theater, dance, cinema, painting, and political debate on a single stage. These multi-media enterprises circumvent the limitations of writing by fusing language with visual and aural sensations, thereby bringing the text to life in a manner that is far more effective than Marinetti's description of his wartime experiences. As well, Luigi Russolo's "noise music" is praised by musicians for redefining music not as a product of the concert hall but as a cacophony of everyday sounds, from engines and busy streets to factory whistles and machine guns. The "noise instruments" Russolo invented to perform his compositions successfully enabled him to create sounds that ordinary musical instruments- including the human voice-cannot.[back]
14. Russolo, 33.[back]
15. Quoted in Russolo, 34.[back]
16. Ibid., 34.[back]
17. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain ( New York and Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1985), 14.[back]
18. Ibid., 13.[back]
19. James Joyce, Stephen Hero (New York: New Directions, 1944), 211.[back]
20. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1964, originally published 1916), 213.[back]
21. Blum, 128.[back]
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