- Manifestations of the Novel: Genealogy and the Sculptural Imperative in F.T. Marinetti’s Mafarka le futuriste
Among the figures of my ancestors one above all others is most dear to me, and sacred as a votive image. He is the noblest and the most brilliant flower of my race, represented by the brush of a divine artist . . . And so I gave my daemon the form of this familiar genius, and in my solitude I felt him alive with a life far more intense than my own.—Gabriele D’Annunzio, Le Vergini delle rocce (1896)1
Waxing nostalgic before his forebear’s likeness, the protagonist of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Le Vergini delle rocce (1896) withdraws into the half-light of solitary reverie. As he ponders the prospect of bearing a superhuman heir, it is to his exalted progenitors that he turns for inspiration. Precisely this sort of communion with the ancestral effigy—in a blithe conflation of museum and mausoleum—earned D’Annunzio the relentless contempt of F. T. Marinetti and his Futurist cohorts. Any turn to “familiar genius” invited their unrelenting censure; that D’Annunzio’s was also familial only underscored his willing submission to all things past. As Futurism’s abiding straw man, he embodied nearly all of the movement’s exponential aversions: to moonlight and mysticism, to solitude and sentimentalism, to the eye’s abject fixity “on the immortal when creating a work of art.”2 Marinetti wasted no time in denouncing D’Annunzio’s “professional passion for the past and mania for antiquity and collecting”—literary penchants made literal in the latter’s sprawling Vittoriale residence, its rooms stuffed with relics and curios, including a cast of that Futurist bugbear, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (fig. 1).3 As [End Page 365] the fetish object of Marinettian execration—its millenial beauty infamously abased in favor of a roaring automobile—the sculpture’s presence here confirms D’Annunzio’s complicity with feminine grace and classical nostalgia alike.
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It perhaps comes as little surprise that the protagonist of Marinetti’s early novel, Mafarka le Futuriste (1909) elects his familial daemon from a very different aesthetic genealogy. He aims, in fact, to defy genealogy altogether. Raping and plundering his way through a fictional North African dominion, the novel’s eponymous protagonist works all the while on the construction of a winged, mechanized son, conceived “without the help of the vulva.”4 Subjugating various populations and fending off female suitors, Mafarka reproduces his aerial offspring by dint of sheer will, fashioning him from oak timber and other materials. The convergence of voluntarism and artistry here is by no means casual. The book’s chief dialectic—between past/future, passivity/virility, convalescence/dynamism—takes the form of two very different “statues” (to use Marinetti’s own word). Mafarka’s son, Gazourmah, is an airborne assemblage of Futuristic ingenuity; his mother, Langourama, is a petrified statue/mummy to be left behind. That parent and child are figured not as carnal beings but as aesthetic representations speaks to the centrality of plastic figuration in Marinetti’s text. Both the vehicle and consummation of its ideological fantasy, the sculpted (and sculpting) [End Page 366] body incarnates the narrative’s twin drives: to jettison cultural ballast and craft a new Futurist ideal. Featuring a prehensile penis several meters long, Mafarka’s own body generated controversy over the novel’s scabrous erotics, helping to inaugurate Marinetti’s campaign to merge art and life, propaganda and politics. The book’s incendiary proem vaunts its exponential ambition, declaring itself “polyphonic . . . at once a lyric poem, an epic, an adventure novel and a play” (Marinetti, Mafarka, 1).5 Thanks to three highly publicized trials, that polyphony quickly comprised juridical performance and triumphant exoneration, lifting Marinetti’s heroics off the page and into real time. Rejoined by the cheers of Futurist comrades in the courtroom, the author’s defense of his novel reproduced the firebrand perorations of its infamous protagonist.
The hybridization of media perhaps constitutes Futurism’s chief contribution to twentieth-century modernism. As...