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Rise of the Titans: Fascism, Christianity, and the Seduction of the Brutal

July 16th, 2019 | 15 min read

By Tara Isabella Burton

If you visit the Hotel du Lac, an inexplicably French-named bed and breakfast catering to German and British on the shores of Lake Garda, in Italy, you will likely see some of the hotel’s collection of decorative inter-war travel posters, interspersed with the proprietor’s family’s wartime memorabilia. There is one from the 15th International Congress of Students in Venice: late summer, 1933: in high Brutalist style.

The gondolas all look like warships. Mantua, upstairs, is a fortress, shadow-cast. Ferrara is impregnable. The nostalgic effect normally produced by old-timey travel paraphernalia — the sense that if you could have only visited, only taken a room with a view, you’d have understood something so much more transcendent about the place than if you jostled your way past Influencers now — is tempered by the sense that these places don’t want you there to begin with.

These are not places you would have wanted to show up to with a Baedeker in tow. They are places you would want — secretly or overtly — to conquer you in battle.

In modern Twitter parlance: step on my throat, daddy.

There are few places in the world that break the aesthetic dichotomy of nostalgia and futurism so completely as the western bank of Lake Garda. Garda is, after all, home to the town of Salò: briefly the de facto wartime capital of Mussolini’s 1943-4 Italian Social Republic, a last-ditch attempt to rebuild fascist Italy in the face of both Allied and German invasion.

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Before that, though, it was home to the Italian poet-prophet-celebrity-statesman-Nietzschean-libertine Gabriele D’Annunzio, who retired to the area after (take a deep breath) his ultimately failed post-WWI effort to conquer the ethnically Italian, formerly-Habsburg Adriatic port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) and transform it into a decadent, occultist, ubermensch-led corporatist dictatorship complete with nightly fireworks and poetry readings.

(“They are not fascists,” an Italian friend told me, mournfully, of Garda’s residents, many of whom remain in thrall to one or both statesmen. “They are…nostalgists.”)

The Garda shore is marked by the legacy of these two men—and of their fascination with primordial masculine power, and with the erotic nature of what we might call brutal atavism: a philosophy (it might more accurately be termed an aesthetic) both of regression and of acceleration. It never manages to internally reconcile its futurism and its nostalgia — as an aesthetic, it never has to.

Rather, it evokes in its viewers a double sense: the pangs of loss, of Sehnsucht—that longing for a country one has never known—with the sadomasochistic stirrings of our Todestrieb, our death-drive. We ache as lovers do for the current world’s destruction, because the world we live in now cannot measure up to the one that must have existed: sometime, somewhere. It’s at once mournful and starkly, undeniably, sexy.

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This is to say: brutal atavism is a love not for a particular past—which is to say, an embodied past full of human beings, who lived in real cities, who breathed real air and ate real food—but rather one that is primordial, archetypical. It is a past of gods and heroes, chiseled and idealized. It is at once masculine and too mechanized to be fully gendered. It at once looks backwards to pre-civilizational domination, and forward to the age of robotic strength. It begins and ends with apocalypse: making it, like D’Annunzio’s symbol for Fiume (which appears on his Fiume flag): the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.

The futurist poet F.T. Marinetti—who would later become a resident in the short-lived D’Annunzian Fiume—captures the high-octane intensity of brutal atavism best in his 1908 Futurist Manifesto. Excoriating scleretoric “museums, cemeteries” of Italy in favor of the beating pulse of the new:

We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

In D’Annunzio’s Fiume—which lasted just fifteen months, from September of 1919 to Christmas of 1920—this kind of brutal atavism was as close as you could come to a civil religion. The city’s new battle cry “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!“—which later reverberated through those Mussolini’s brownshirts—was taken from that of Achilles in The Iliad.

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The Futurist novelist Mario Carli, writing two years after the city’s downfall, called D’Annunzio’s Fiume,

“an island of wonders that was to travel the oceans, taking its shining light to the continents drowning in the darkness of brutal capitalist speculation…this group of enlightened men, fanatics, mystic forerunners, managed to conjure up that atmosphere of passion for the future and poetic rebellion against the old faiths and ancient formulas that has been given the name of fiumanism.”

D’Annunzio’s army wore black uniforms with the skull and bones insignia of pirates (the design was later copied by the SS). The Fiume constitution demanded that poetry and folk singing be taught in schools, and that concert halls be built in every eventual province.

D’Annunzio’s Garda home, too, reflects that same brutal atavism. It is at once a temple to D’Annunzio’s automatic cult of personality and a visual representative of brutal atavism’s heady contrasts (D’Annunzio paid for the whole thing, as it happens, with money offered by his admirer, Benito Mussolini, who was effectively paying the poet off to stay firmly out of politics). The main house—the “priory,” a converted nineteenth-century villa—heavily influenced by the aesthetics D’Annunzio’s fin de siècle decadent phase, is a nostalgic labyrinth of candles and organs and brocade: a Zweig novella made flesh.

In one of the Vittoriale’s many ornately-decorated rooms, dedicated to syncretic religious symbolism, D’Annunzio combines Buddhist statues, Christian icons, the steering wheel of a speedboat, and the ouroboros-bearing flag of his failed Fiume effort. (Above the door, D’Annunzio’s conviction that as there are only five fingers, there are only five sins—he famously gave greed and lust a pass). Next door, in the heart of the estate’s garden, the bow of a gargantuan multi-story WWI battleship—the Puglia—another of Mussolini’s offerings. Up the hill: D’Annunzio’s own thoroughly brutalist mausoleum: pure, phallic stone, or else a raised middle finger.

the author flexing at the grave of Gabriele D’Annunzio

I would be lying if I did not find my visit to Garda—and my visit to the Vittoriale—discomfortingly intoxicating. D’Annunzian élan is both aesthetically appealing and erotically alluring. It’s transgressive—punk rock, you might even say—and mournful. It is designed to appeal to many of the circuits that fire so naturally in my brain: the same circuits that underpin my hunger for God. It fulfills my hunger for story, for poetry (I do, after all, have MORE POETRY!!! tattooed on my left arm), for meaning, for myth. It stokes my anger with the world as it is, promises that I can tear down the mediocrity and bourgeois nihilism I see in a secular, hyper-capitalist culture in which I do not feel at home. Brutal atavism feels good.

Brutal atavism—after all—re-enchants the world.

It is easy to forget, at times, that it does so by worshipping strength, war, domination—at once masculine biological primacy and its transubstantiation into post-corporeal machinism. It worships death—death inflicted, or death suffered—at both the beginning and the end of history: the primordial void that is, at least, preferable to an embodied and contingent and highly particular world.

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Its broad and broad-shouldered archetypes are not models for humanity as a whole. At most, they are the self-defeating self-deification of the would-be übermensch: and the death of the rest of us. Brutal atavism — for all its talk of blood and sweat — is profoundly anti-corporeal. It worships the Titans we cannot become, and death as the only honorable alternative to our mortality. It twists our erotic hunger for God to a sadomasochistic need for a boot to the face.

Or, as Marinetti put it: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”

Brutal atavism worships, in other words, other gods.

The most obvious inheritors of brutal atavism, of course, are political fascists. In his 1932 manifesto The Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini celebrated its potential as a new religion: a re-enchantment of a mediocre civilization.

Fascism sees in the world, not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law, which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it…but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.

But we can see the appeal of brutal atavism, more broadly, in reactionary pockets of the Internet disillusioned with the same thing D’Annunzio and his followers were (rightly) disillusioned with: a world that seems devoid of enchantment, that must be torn down or destroyed to make enchantment possible. Men’s rights activists, paleo lifters, the alt-right, scions of Frog Twitter like the notorious Bronze Age Pervert (whose self-help book, Bronze Age Mindset, reads like Nietzsche as put through a lolcats generator:

We are heated by a sun which has sired a champion of a thousand hour meditation under it, within his dominion there is revelation. Energy and vitality, the spinning chariot wheel, the burning metabolic body sculpture. The steamy tropical cycles of incomprehensible beauty and death.[1]

Christians these days often find in atavists—brutal and otherwise—uncanny fellow travelers. Last month, a bishop at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops praised Jordan Peterson for helping young people see the importance of traditional values. Pick-up artists like Roosh V have made traditionalist Christianity part of their antimodern ethos: blurring the lines between the muscular theology of reactionary atavism and the countercultural ferocity of Christian sexual ethics. And in certain pockets of the Religious Internet, nostalgic atavism and Christian traditionalism have become inseparable: what is old and destructive of the modern culture is, by necessity, good, regardless of what alliances must be made to affect this.

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It is to be expected. Brutal atavists share with Christians, after all, the conviction that the modern world—particularly, the unenchanted modern world—is fundamentally broken, fundamentally in need of reformulating. Like Christians, these brutal atavists envision a return to an Eden: a place where the Venn diagram of Nature and Civilization is a circle. They envision a wholesale re-boot of humanity.

For Christians, this lure is tempting: it seems a ticket to an enchanted world. It seems a ticket back to Eden.

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But of course, such tickets are too good to be true.

As much as I love the works of D’Annunzio-the-poet, as much as I viscerally respond to the aesthetics of D’Annunzio-the-showman, as much as I want, deeply, to read every piece of history ever written about D’Annunzio-the-Duce (and I think anyone who wants to truly understand 2019 should start by doing so), as a Christian I cannot accept the brutal atavism of D’Annunzio-the-prophet.

As Christians, after all, we cannot hold to the primordial. Our God—our incarnate, crucified, resurrected, God—does not belong to the cataclysm-before-history, nor solely to the cataclysm-after.

Our God acts in history, in flesh-and-blood, in weakness, in contingency, in particularity. He is to be found not in the chisels of Grecian statuary but in skin and breath and—through the Eucharist—in food. His story is not a valorization of death but of its defeat: a historic resurrection that, in its absurdity, stops the world from spinning. The pagan cycles of birth and death, construction and destruction, are upended. Death is not the beginning, nor is it the end—and so it is not our god.

The world does not need an extrinsic re-enchantment—an apocalyptic sweeping of fire and blood—because it is already enchanted: the Incarnation has assured us of that. What it means to be human, in the image of God, is sacred, because once the primordial Logos became flesh. The apocalypse—the sense of things hidden—reveals a Kingdom of God that is earthly, that is resurrected, that beyond death. Christ is not merely present in a general way in the big and glorious ideas we associate with Enchantment, the archetypes of myth, but also in the quotidian and, yes, the apparently mediocre, whom the hidden mysteries show us to be worthy of our attentiveness, of our love. Christ—as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it—“plays in ten thousand/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

We may well wish to return to Eden. Our nostalgia remains with us—a Sehnsucht for that undiscovered country, like the fantastic Polynesia wistfully envisioned by midcentury tiki bars. We may experience a pang when witnessing that longing—whether it’s on a wall in Gargnano, or in a poem by Hopkins.

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And we can well rage against those elements of the modern world—which is to say, the world since the Fall—that separate us from that homecoming. We can indeed revolt, as that brutal atavist Julius Evola, did, against the modern world. We can work to change it; we can look forward to its redemption.

But we cannot destroy the thisness of our world to get there.

Eden will not be reconquered with fire and blood, or with gondolas that look like warships. What we are promised, in the Kingdom of God, is not binary—the Petersonian narrative of order defeating chaos, of Marduk defeating Tiamat, of masculine imposing order on the feminine—but the creative subversion of the both/and.

The coming Christ is at once a warrior against evil and a sacrificial lamb; he is at once the true order that reveals the narrative meaningfulness of our existence and the fecund chaos that tears down false binaries and earthly hierarchy. He is carpenter and king. He is not a faceless Jungian or Campbellian hero, a simple and digestible archetype, but a man of one particular place and time and death, and also God who comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. He sits at the right hand of the father; he dies upon the cross.

When the heavens and earth are melted away, the Kingdom of God will be disclosed. Destruction is not the final goal—a hopeless abyss that is, to our atavists, the only alternative to a life that cannot be but mediocre, but an interstitial step towards a new creation: towards presence.

It is an apocalypse not simply in the aesthetic, violent sense of cataclysm. It is also an unveiling: a revelation of things hidden. The goal, after all, of all good poetry.

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