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Man, Mass Society and the “Death of Beauty”: Western Conscience on the Border of Nowhere

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di Roberto Pasanisi

Western recent history, notwithstanding the terrible, astounding facts that took place during the XX century, did not fail to point out the fundamental co-ordinates one needs to know in order to explore it. We shall then distinguish three main lines of historical development, which will be a sort of fil rouge marking the different periods of this wonderful and awful century: industrialization, technologism  and commercialization;  standardization and vulgarization; “death of beauty”. Before these three different  trends and their growing influence, artists and, more generally, intellectuals did not fail to give a scream of pain and protest; once again art became the highest and more lucid form of  social conscience, the only authentic heir, in her redeeming brightness, of  ancient prophets which in this way also shows her modern sacredness.  Finally, as Lausbeerg says, art is “a mimetic portrayal (which rebuilds, generalizes, makes evident and heightens) of contents that lighten existence”. It is then an aesthetic gnoseology and a revelation.

Positivism, though sometimes candidly exalting the “magnifiche sorti e progressive” of humanity, finally imprisoned man in rigid social schemes as well as in pitiless production rules: all elements of reality were mechanically pre-determined, everything was reduced to quantity and matter. The birth of modern capitalistic societies, with their technological and industrial apparatus, was creating a sort of huge low middle class (preceded by a first stage of mass proletarianization) made of a mass society of clerks – a society we could call “new middle class” – which, on the one hand, was characterized by the ever growing homogenization and on the other hand by a trend to be taken as a paradigmatic example for the lower classes. This was a growing process which characterized Italy after the Second World War.

Mass access to culture developed through a “lowering” of culture itself at the level of “public market”: the more it distanced from traditional culture the more it became trivial. Art and culture became more and more spectacular and quantified and, through the Big Brother of mass media, in the image civilization, they were gradually turned into “food” for a “hungry” mass society which wanted to reach the social status culture was thought to grant. Cultural products gradually adapted to this situation and to the average individual demand: it paradoxically conformed to this society and became a sort of cell in a formless and huge organism whose head was secretly and wisely directed by a multifaceted power. A series of superficially different phenomena sprang from this situation, although having a common matrix: gigantic school mare magnum, mass society university, professional sport (new gym for a “primitive horde”, epochal and opiate mass performance) as well as rock music (a popular institutionalization of metropolitan violence and noise shown on an apocalyptic background resembling Dante’s bolgie, whose torrid flames were replaced by the sinister flashes of psychedelic lights).

In a period of continuous changes, a time of transition like our own, tradition could not be ignored: the “crisis of values” is one of the great distinctive signs of our time, in a society where they are reduced to economic product too, where they are commercialized and where money and not man is “the measure for everything”. In this catastrophic situation not even beauty, an ontologically inevitable category, either as an end or as a means of the work of art, can be rescued by a slow but inexorable agony, deconsecrated by “technical reproducibility”.

“The perte d’auréole mostly affects the poet”, who, as a desperate flâneur, among “metropolitan horrors” of “sprawling towns”, sees at the same time one of his reference points vacillating: woman, Petrarchan “instrument of expression” and eternal bearer of the value of “beauty”. As Benjamin says: “nineteenth century had [already] started to disrespectfully put woman into the commercial production process. All theoreticians agreed on her femininity being menaced and on the fact that she would show masculine traits in the future. Baudelaire approves but wants nonetheless these traits to be saved from economic power influence. […] The lesbian female ideal represents the protest of modern art against technical evolution.” This was a vain heroic attempt against the sprawling manus of society: “In the prostitution of big cities women become prostitutes.” “The objective environment of men progressively takes a commercial aspect. At the same time, réclame masks with brightness the commercial character of things. The untruthful transfiguration of  the commercial world opposes to its own allegorical representation. Commercial goods face their own reality and try to find their incarnation in the figure of the prostitute.”

Facing all this, Boutroux, recalling in his Contingentism Pascal’s “reasons of the heart” and “esprit de finesse”, tried to break the iron chains of mechanism and scientism, giving to “illusions” and religion the task of saving man’s individuality and freedom. Bergson will be the first among modern philosophers to warn man, in the name of the great humanistic tradition, against the growing tendency to consider technique as an end and no more as a means, turning the individual into a slave of his own instruments. “I’m worried and tormented by the predominance of machines” had  already prophetically written Goethe in 1828. “It is like something moving slowly forward like a storm: it will come and assail us.” The fundamental fear is that man may loose “the formula which entreats the Spirits”, like the Zauberlehrling of Goethe’s homonymous famous ballad. Bergson thinks that only “intuition” and “élan vital” may provide the individual with a real and deep understanding of reality and help him to find in the “open religion”, that “soul supplement” man is going to need ever more strongly.

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s anti-realistic and anti-positivistic reaction wasn’t less strong, though based on partly different assumptions. In 1893, the poet from Abruzzo, being a bright forerunner, already caught the approaching end of nineteenth century and the birth of a new period: “The experiment has been made. Science is incapable […] of giving happiness back to souls where it has destroyed innocent peace. […] We no more want the truth. Give us the dream. We won’t rest if not among the darkness of the unknown.”

D’Annunzio’s human and literary iter through the twentieth century serves as an example of his own mythology: the journey the poet makes through his works becomes the epochal symbol of a paradigmatic saison en enfer of the artist in the society of his time.

Andrea Sperelli, the aesthete, the Wildian dandy of Il Piacere (1889), a perfect D’Annunzio’s incarnation, represents the moment of a yet possible illusion: the artist, notwithstanding imminent decadence, can celebrate his private religion of beauty in a proud though tumbling separation from  the vulgarity of life. However, in Il Trionfo della Morte (1894) the same worshipper of beauty is by then infected by the inexorably compromised virus of social illness: on the one hand  the family taint of vice and violence, on the other hand Ippolita’s morbid and cursed sensuality. Giorgio Aurispa, tragically suspended between art and life in a sort of nefarious “non-life”, lives under the sign of imminent death: beauty as well as reason are enslaved by modern insatiable divinities, money and Eros, “reduced to pure sexual love after every sentimental trepidation has dried up.” In Giorgio and Ippolita and in their story the “regressive character” and its oral libidinous-sadist base, typical of D’Annunzio’s heroes (and of D’Annunzio himself), is already evident: death instinct is discarded on a background made of desperate nostalgia for “original homeostasis”, which goes progressively away while following the ruinous fall of every hope and value. Under the siege of “mass society” there are no free zones for hiding, all boundaries have been broken like in an empire crumbling under Barbarians’ attacks: only in the reunion with “Mother Earth” through death will the artist be able to find his lost “oceanic omnipotence” again. Death will also be the supreme revenge, the only possible desperate and heroic rebellion, which Giorgio will enact while fatally carrying Ippolita with him.

Two memorable D’Annunzio’s pages come from this same humus: one taken from Le Vergini delle rocce (1910), where the “death of beauty” is represented through the all resembling buildings, deprived of all aesthetic sense, of the “new-middle class town”, buildings that are by then eating the beautiful, ancient noble villas; and another one, not less important, taken from Il Fuoco (1910), where the “end of aesthetic” is metaphorically shown through the inexorable decay of the garden of a Venetian villa.

D’Annunzio’s most representative parable about “human condition” in modern world is to be found in Leda senza il cigno (1916). This novel contains two main Leitmotiv: the main female character’s mysterious charming beauty which exemplary reveals itself as contaminated by the vulgarity of life; as for Elena in Maia (1903), who becomes a servant in a brothel, Leda, who speaks like a “little fashionable person”, represents woman condition and beauty in the society of the time: the “woman-beauty” is also commercialized and has become vulgar and is to be symbolized by a prostitute who has obviously lost her saving power. Another important character is that of the musician: he is also attacked by the triviality of world, which has become a sort of huge brothel: the artist knows this terrible infernal reality, which is represented as his illness.

Vulgarity, carried on by the new “mass society” entering modern cultural and social history like a flood, will be a sign of the twentieth century: in this sense, the excretory metaphors that appear like an exhausted “objective correlative” of the world in Montale’s last works, acquire a particular meaning. The irrepressible expansive power of obscene language, that is going to be institutionalized by “mass society” (and consequently deprived of his social and cultural shocking power), is to be connected to a “collective coprolalia”, a consequence of a sadist-anal regressive sexualization of language and of a general weakening of “collective Super-Ego”, so important in “mass society civilizations”. An important corollary of this situation is what could be defined as  “eroscopia”, that is to say a tendency to use direct verbal and/or iconic representation of sexual act and parts.

In a post-Christian society where “God’s silence” becomes more and more dramatic, D’Annunzio represented one of the most important myths of his world, that of Narcissus. “For the man who wrote “expression is living” Narcissus’s archetype undoubtedly represented the myth of literature and the carnal mystery of word and its fictional power. Maybe this is the reason why the nightly shadow of great refusal was suspended between the “blindfolded Muses” of illness and death, in the Orphic mirror of a celebrating language which multiplied the masks of Eros.”

In this way, the thundering and prophetic voice of D’Annunzio stretched out over the Heideggerian Nothing of an endless void: a dramatic flatus vocis looking for self meaning in the labyrinth of modernity, on the overhanging ruins of the “waste land” in the worst anti-Leibniz possible world.

Roberto  Pasanisi
Director, Italian Institute of Culture in Naples
Italian Studies, Full Professor
clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, CISAT


1. As Saul Bellow says in an interview given to Mervyn Rothstein for the Corriere della Sera:« Il ruolo dell’artista […] consiste nel resistere alle forze snaturanti derivate dal progresso. “[…] Innanzi tutto, si conosce la verità di un poeta o di un artista quando il tuo cuore si gonfia e dice: sì, sì, proprio così, questo è vero. L’ho sempre saputo ma solo adesso lo vedo con chiarezza, perché lui lo ha detto.” […] Ma, dice Bellow, c’è ancora speranza. “La nostra umanità per molti versi è ancora intatta. […] Come lo sappiamo? Ebbene, c’è della gente comune che ancora piange quando assiste a una rappresentazione di Re Lear”.»

On the same presuppositions have founded some declarations of Jonesco: « Sono certo che saremmo persi senza un ritorno ai valori spirituali. La via spirituale è l’ultima possibilità rimasta all’uomo. […] L’arte è indispensabile: la qualità divide gli uomini, mentre l’arte li unisce profondamente. L’arte è il segno della nostra identità universale. […] L’arte è tutto.» (Paolo Calcagno, L’unica realtà è l’assurdo, “Il Mattino”, 23/VIII/1988).

2. Heinrich Lausberg, Elementi di retorica [1967], it. tr., Bologna, Il Mulino, 1982, p. 95.

3.«Uno degli arcani di cui la prostituzione divenne depositaria solo con l’avvento della grande città, è la massa. La prostituzione inaugura la possibilità di una comunione mistica con la massa. Ma l’avvento della massa è contemporaneo a quello della produzione di massa.» (Walter Benjamin, Angelus Novus. Saggi e frammenti [1955], tr. it., Torino, Einaudi, 1981, p. 137). «In verità, la civiltà industriale-burocratica che è risultata vittoriosa in Europa e in Nord-America ha creato un nuovo tipo di uomo che si può descrivere come l’uomo dell’organizzazione, come l’uomo automa, e come l’homo consumens [o oeconomicus]. Egli è, per di più, homo mechanicus; con ciò intendo un uomo-aggeggio, profondamente attratto da tutto ciò che è meccanico e orientato contro ciò che è vivo. […] Il nostro scopo principale è di produrre cose, e nel corso di questa idolatria per le cose, noi ci trasformiamo in beni di consumo. Le persone vengono trattate come numeri. […] L’approccio agli uomini è astratto, intellettuale. Ci si interessa alle persone come ad oggetti, alle loro proprietà comuni, alle regole statistiche del comportamento di massa, non agli individui viventi. Tutto questo si accompagna al crescente ruolo del sistema burocratico. In giganteschi centri di produzione, in città giganti, gli uomini vengono amministrati come se fossero cose; […] Ma l’uomo non è destinato ad essere una cosa, se diventa una cosa viene distrutto, e ancor prima che questo avvenga, egli è disperato e vuole uccidere la vita.» (Erich Fromm, Psicoanalisi dell’amore. Necrofilia e biofilia nell’uomo [1964], it. tr., Roma, Newton Compton Editori, 19849, pp. 74-75 passim). See also the chaplinian apologue of Modern Times (1936),  as well as those ones – literary – by Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932), George Orwell (1984, 1950), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1953), Roberto Vacca (The death of Megalopoli, 1974) and – cinematographic , epochal expressions of the ‘collective imaginary’ – by Stanley Kubrick (To Clockwork Orange, 1971), Douglas Trumbull (Silent running, 1971), Boris Sagal (The Omega Man, 1972), Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, 1973) and Norman Jewison (Rollerball, 1975).

4. The popular taste, Gramsci said, «si è formato non alla lettura e alla meditazione intima ed individuale della poesia e dell’arte, ma nelle manifestazioni collettive, oratorie e teatrali» (Letteratura e vita nazionale, Torino 1966, p. 68): the one of the juvenile public, particularly, that has been meaningful interested party in these last years, also for its increased economic direct power, has been constituted through the mass media and the cultural universes of the young music, rock especially. « Si osservi come norma generale che quanto più freddo è il messaggio, secondo la definizione di McLuhan, e più scarsa è la sua precisione, più iterativo dev’essere il messaggio per compensare il  “rumore”  della comunicazione.» (Román Gubern, Immagine e messaggio nella cultura di massa [1974], it. tr.,Napoli, Liguori, 1976, p. 191).

5. Or rather of a ‘horizontal’ and rendering intellectually passive culture, and that goes straight to the Unconscious.

6. See, between the more sensational phenomenons, the one recentest and grotesque of the bronzes of Riace, epochal happening of business and show. Like the «universal exposures», they have become «places of pilgrimage to the fetish good», cultural «party of emancipation» for masses (Benjamin, Angelus, quoted, p. 151).

7. Cfr. Sigmund Freud, Totem e tabù [1913],it. tr, Roma, Newton Compton Editori, 1970 e Id., Psicologia collettiva e analisi dell’Io [1921], in Psicoanalisi e società, it. tr., Roma, Newton Compton Editori, 19752. The ‘playful violence’  becomes, in the ‘mass-man,’ violence in a pure state, instigating freely the ‘destructive drive’ (see, particularly, Id., The uneasiness of civilization [1929], tr. it., Turin, Boringhieri, 1971).

8. Sensitive are, in this sense, analogies with the Fourteenth Century, of which seem cyclically repeat themselves, even if in a perspective a great deal amplier and more complex, as the ideological and cultural earthquake as the progressive extension of the category of the ‘economic’. See, for the contemporary society, also the discussion of Fromm on Avere o essere? [1976], it. tr.,Milano, Mondadori, 1977; but the alienor drama of a condition in which the value of man is tied up to his chrémata already was painfully sensed by the Greek archaic culture, from Theognis up to the Anonymous of the Athenaíon politeía.

On the other hand, actually ‘values’ represent an irremissible element for the psychic survival of modern man: as Joseph Wood Krutch says in The Modern Temper, « Tutte le società che hanno oltrepassato il vigore della loro giovinezza rivelano la loro perdita di fede nella vita col non considerare più quei processi fondamentali che come mezzi ad un fine. […] La volontà subumana di vivere che è interamente sufficiente per l’animale può essere rimpiazzata dalla fede, la fede può essere rimpiazzata dalla filosofia, e la filosofia può attenuarsi finché diventa un puro gioco, come la moderna metafisica;». See also the poetic transcript which of all that have given many Western poets: from Eliot (The Waste Land, 1922; Fragment of an Agon, 1927) to Milosz (La Charrette) to Montale.

9. Walter Benjamin, L’opera d’arte nell’epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica [1936],it. tr., Torino, Einaudi, 1966.

10. Benjamin, Angelus…, quoted, p. 134.

11. The worry, really, was not without base. The heart of problem is, in a Meyer way, of a psychobiological nature: in Erich Fromm’s words, « determinate differenze biologiche [specie di origine sessuale] risultano in differenze caratterologiche; tali differenze si mescolano con quelle direttamente prodotte da fattori sociali; queste ultime hanno effetti di maggior rilievo e possono anche aumentare, eliminare o ribaltare differenze biologicamente radicate” (Sex and Character, in Psychiatry, 6, 1943). As a ‘reinforcement of behaviour’ acts also, at psycho-social level, the unconscious mechanism of «virile protest» in a sharp way theorized by Adler.

12. Benjamin, Angelus…, qtd, p. 135, p. 137.

13. Benjamin, Angelus…, qtd., pp. 135-136.

14. See, particularly, Émile Boutroux, Dell’idea di legge naturale nella scienza e nella filosofia contemporanea [1893], it. tr., Firenze, Vallecchi, 1925 e Id., Scienza e religione nella filosofia contemporanea [1908],it. tr., Milano, Mondadori, 1941.

15. See especially Henry Bergson, L’intuizione filosofica [1911], in Introduzione alla metafisica, tr. it., Bologna, Zanichelli, 1949, pp. 69-94 e Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Elogio della filosofia [1953],tr. it., Torino, Paravia, 1958, pp. 12-30.

Symptomatic of the condition of bewilderment of modern man in front of the ‘objects’ will be also, more recently, the success met in West from Zen Buddhism and, although in a great deal small measure, from other schools of Oriental thought like Taoism.

16. Gabriele D’Annunzio, La morale di Emilio Zola, in La Tribuna, 1893. As Pascoli will say two years after: « il sogno è l’infinita ombra del Vero» (Alexandros, v. 10, in Poemi Conviviali).

17. Roberto Pasanisi, Il Poema Paradisiaco, in Alla Bottega, 2, 1986, pp. 19-21, p. 20.

18. Cfr. Karl Abraham, A Short Study on the Development of the Libido, London, Institute of Psychoanalysis and Hogarth Press, 1927.

19. Cfr. Sándor Ferenczi, Thalassa. Psicoanalisi delle origini della vita sessuale [1924],it. tr.,Roma, Astrolabio, 1965. Cfr. anche la nostra Recensione a Ivan Fónagy, La ripetizione creativa. Ridondanze espressive nell’opera poetica, Bari, Dedalo, 1980, in “Annali dell’Istituto Universitario Orientale” Sezione Romanza, XXVIII, 1, 1986, pp. 407-410.

20. Cfr. Pasanisi, Il Poema…, qtd., pp. 20-21. See also, ex contrario, the angelically salvific function peculiar of the woman of the institutional seam of Western lyric tradition, founded, in his deep structures, on the reworking of the Complex of Oedipus and on the figure of ‘mother-woman’.

21. The Age of Anxiety calls Auden our epoch (like this is titled a little poem of 1948).

22. A meaningful, apocalyptic epochal symbol is represented in this sense from Aids, that, attacking one of the ‘fundamental values’ in the history of human society, love, gives also an illuminating, mythological exemplification of what it is and represents in distorted modern world. In all this the dramatic estrangement emerges of a humanity that has lost harmony between ánthropos and physis, that was been one of deepest teachings left from the classical world to the coming generations, and that is the heart of Humanism. The modern man in short, using an ideological category of the Greek archaic culture, has gotten soiled of hybris, crossing with insane ‘arrogance’ his limits and upsetting the natural order of belongingses, that now inexorably turn against him, from day to day more threatening.

23.  See, for instance, the I Botta e Risposta di Satura (1971). See especially Umberto Carpi, Il poeta e la politica. Leopardi, Belli, Montale, Napoli, Liguori, 1978, pp. 269-355.

24. Cfr. Otto Fenichel, Trattato di psicoanalisi delle Nevrosi e delle Psicosi,it. tr., Roma, Astrolabio, 1951, pp. 332-338. ‘Eroscopy’ enters itself under the sign of scopophilia and exhibitionism (in the psychoanalytical sense of term), both drives institutionalized at collective level in contemporary society, especially for its intimate connection with the narcissism (see ibidem, qtd., pp. 86-89).

25. Ezio Raimondi, Il silenzio della Gorgone, Bologna, Zanichelli, 1980, pp. 110-111. On the quaestio spiritualism / materialism see Giuseppe Graziano, Per una conoscenza separata, in Alla Bottega, 3, 1988, pp. 16-19. For the fundamental ideas on the ‘neo-middle-class society’ of a big shiniest intellectual, see Enrico Cerquiglini, Pasolini e il suo cinema, in Alla Bottega, 3, 1988, pp. 1-9. On the homology between literary, ideological and social phenomenons and on the reification of human beings see the thought of Lucien Goldmann which emerges, particularly, in the essay of 1964, Pour une sociologie du roman.

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