Socialising anger. Fascism and emotions

Last June 22nd I participated in the Literature and Social Emotions Conference at the University of Bristol. I presented a paper titled Socialising Anger. Literary Representations of Emotional Communities under Fascism, which is a development of the research I first presented one year ago and will result in a broader scrutiny on the representation of emotions in fascism-related Italian literature. What follows is the text of the Bristol’s paper.  

Italian fascism pursued strict management of public feelings. It aimed at a wide and deep control of human thoughts and experiences. That is to say, it built what William Reddy defines an ‘emotional regime’; it established a set of practices which inculcated normative emotions, like enthusiasm, exaggerated optimism, national pride. Nevertheless, the euphoric feelings displayed in public represent just one of the emotional layers of fascist Italy. Despite the appearance of unanimous acceptance, fascism largely derived consensus from violence and intimidation. As denounced by Carlo Emilio Gadda in the very first lines of his anti-fascist satire Eros e Priapo, written in 1944-1945.

Collective and individual consciousness, threatened by the knife, the truncheon, the torture; and silenced by prisons, extorsions, vetos against free expression; it was concealed in a hidden, invisible lagoon of history, beyond hate and dullness, and belonged to the refugees, the persecuted, the prisoners, the humiliated, children of deportees and executed to death.

Along with material and physical coercion, fascism caused the emotional suffering of part of the population. Gadda sketches the existence of what Reddy would call an ‘emotional refuge’, a cluster of social conditions and related practices diverging from the emotional regime.

Noticeably, in Gadda’s text, the description of distress and fear is merged with overwhelming anger, aggressiveness poured on Mussolini, his establishment, and the fascist society as a whole. With his lavish, hard-hitting style, Gadda designs throughout his text a performance of anger which reacts against the emotional constraints of fascist Italy. Anger is visible in his deforming and degrading portraits of Mussolini, where the dictator is represented with the ‘head of donkey and tail of pig’; or depicted while acting with ‘the ease of an orangutan’, showing ‘the two hands as two big clumps of bananas, the ten fat fingers hanging down on his hips, and held by two short little arms’; or again ridiculed for his propaganda pictures showing him as a reaping farmer:

He was there, big-headed, with a farmer’s hat on the provolone-like head, over the tractor, with the naked chest out, exhibiting what he could from the waist up; the scant hairs around the nipples: two bad, mediocre nipples, that none would have licked.

After years of silent acceptance of the regime’s abuses, Gadda socialises his long-repressed anger through literature. His writing echoes the transformation of fear into anger which accelerated the end of fascism; the conversion of defensive emotional refuges into active oppositional communities. Nonetheless, Eors e Priapo’s conscious anger and bold anti-fascist awareness is quite an outstanding exception, and the product of a late psychological stance, assumed when fascism was already expiring. Italian literary texts from or about the same period usually represent more nuanced emotional landscapes, where more subtle and implicit forms of anger are displayed, often with unclear targets and uncertain meanings. Still, I’m convinced that a consistent pattern can be individuated among the literary representations of anger in texts written and/or set during fascism. Adapting Rosenwein’s concept of emotional communities, I argue that these representations let emerge the hardly detectable existence of isolated ‘communities of anger’ born in response to the emotional suffering produced by fascism. Giving shape to severe forms of resentment, literature indirectly gives voice to social groups and individuals who opposed fascism through an instinctual rejection of the emotional regime.

Gadda himself, in the novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, first published in 1946, represents this laborious emergence of anger. In the novel, he renders the rough texture of people’s emotional life in its barely conscious aspects. Gadda represents a sub-political layer of society, whose reactions to fascism elude strict ideological interpretations. Depicting a latent but persistent state of fear, Gadda creates lively images of the silent ‘emotional suffering’ of the population.

This emotional suffering breaks out in an apparently unmotivated and misled explosion of anger, the violent murder of a helpless woman, Liliana Balducci. During the investigation, the detective Ingravallo re-enacts in his mind the scene of the aggression, the anonymous performance of anger resulting in Liliana’s death.

The unexpected flash, the cutting edge, the brief sharpness of a blade. Certainly he had first struck all of a sudden, then worked on the throat, insisting, and on the trachea, with ferocious confidence. The “struggle”, if one had taken place, can have been no more than a wrecked jerk, on the part of the victim, a glance, terrified and immediately imploring, the hint of a movement: a hand barely raised, white, to avert the horror, to clasp at the hairy wrist, the black, implacable hand of the homicide.

The image of the wounded, tortured, and offended corpse of Liliana, almost obsessively described in the novel, is the emotional emblem of social distress. The ambiguous ending of the novel suggests that the murderers come from a group of needy women that Liliana used to accept in her house, as waitresses or surrogate ‘nieces’ adopted to satisfy her frustrated desire of maternity.
The instinctual behaviour of these creatures, which are used to stealing and cheating and being violent, represents an unconscious emotional refuge, a primitive oppositional community; they perform the anger doomed to unravel the realm of fear. At the end of the novel, when the solution of the crime is approaching, the narrator hesitates on the detailed description of the hyperbolic and desperate rage of a dog tied to the chain:

The Maremmano hound or spinone hurled himself forward: one could believe he wanted to choke or self-guillotine himself with his collar, a slender ring of iron where his hair stood up, in wrath: and, the chain taut, he began to yelp and bark again in reiterated, frenetic explosions: as if he declaimed impetuous verses […] to a public overcome with sleepiness; meaning to reawaken them all and to summon them to repentance and vigilance.

The hopeless barking of the dog echoes the unheard angry voice of a tied-to-the-chain community, which wishes to wake up the dazed rest of the population. The unspeakable rage can only be expressed through the unmotivated violence that leads to the crime. Straight after the vision of the dog, Ingravallo finds one of the girls suspected of the murder. When she pleas her innocence, rage breaks out in her voice and face. Bewildered by the cry, the detective comprehends that she is guilty.

“No, it wasn’t me!” The incredible cry blocked the haunted man’s fury. He didn’t understand, then and there, what his spirit was on the point of understanding. That black, vertical fold above the two eyebrows of rage, in the pale white face of the girl, paralyzed him, prompted him to reflect.

The ‘collective’ murderer of Liliana performs the deconstructive anger that makes possible the perception of terror underpinning the regime. The murder is the visible trace of the emotional (and material) suffering of the community, a vehicle of pre-political feelings resulting in the instinctual sabotage of the emotional regime. Actualising death is the only tragic way to ‘tell the truth’ about fascism. As he faces this truth, the detective is frozen because he understands that the girl’s rage could be right. Maybe actually it wasn’t her: the murder was the outcome of an emotional regime built on violence, crime, and death.

Violence and anger have the same revealing function in Goffredo Parise’s Il prete bello, literally The Beautiful Priest (translated in English as The Priest Among the Pigeons) published in 1954 but set in the second half of the Thirties. The novel satirises the complete subjugation of an entire community to the will of the devoted fascist and good-looking priest don Gaetano Caoduro. Women, driven by sexual attraction; and men, acting out of envy and imitation, adjust their behaviours, wishes, and desires to the emotional regime imposed by the priest, which coincides with the fascist emotional regime.

Except for a gang of children, including Sergio, the novel’s narrator. Extremely poor and permanently hungry, the kids just obey their conservation instinct and recognise no moral or political authority. The gang’s disruptive performances, always related to the search for money, are conducted with primordial rage, which cracks the conformism of the rest of the community. As in the case of Gadda’s young women, the gang represents a community of anger, performing an irrational and emotional resistance to fascist social order. The gang’s final performance of anger damages the emotional regime beyond repair and breaks every attempt at assimilating their rebellious practices. And it is again a murder, a failed robbery which results in the death of a warden.

The warden stopped. […] One second of absolute silence followed, suddenly broken by two sharp blows of the gun, and more shouting. I could see Cena sliding out of the little window, long as a cat and with the eyes of a cat; holding with one hand his big hunting knife. […] Cena lept on the warden and stabbed him on the back: he was all pointed as he wanted to penetrate into the warden’s back together with the knife. Cena cried and sobbed, and when the warden turned to him, terrified, he was ready, with his bright and wide open eyes, and again poked the knife into the warden’s gut, sobbing and shouting.

Cena’s gesture concentrates the unspoken anger erupting from the most unacknowledged layer of the emotional regime. His cry resonates with the wordless rage of Gadda’s chained dog. In fact, while murdering the warden, Cena acts like a cat and has the eyes of a cat. To render the radical un-belonging of the children’s gang to social conventions, their being impermeable to collective rites and myths, the author recursively represents them as animals.

They really were monkeys: their cries seemed screeches and squeals, their agility was extraordinary and the houses around, the old iron-barred windows on the first floor were mango and banana trees to them, lianas to be hanging by. Still, unlike monkeys, [..] they had feelings, even if often feelings gave their place to eternal hunger.

The association with animals emphasises the kids’ instinctual, irrational behaviour. Like animals, they adhere to basic, elementary needs, which are extraneous and often in contrast with the rhetoric of society. Their animal cries once again reminded of the dog’s barking, shouting shapeless distress. Rather than being used as a negative symbol of degradation, the animal image hints at a possibility of escaping the emotional regime. The anti-social behaviour of animals is assumed as the embodiment of a different socialisation, an alternative way of life which struggles to break the oppression of the emotional regime.

Similarly, in Tommaso Landolfi’s tale The Two Spinsters, written in 1943 and published in 1945, the monkey Tombo embodies not a degraded but a diverging image of humanity.

Tombo lives with the sisters Lilla and Nena, the two spinsters of the title, in a regime of grey and small-minded conformism. Lilla and Nena’s old mother Marietta suffers from an unknown, undefinable illness, which transforms her into a mute grotesque puppet emanating subjection and fear. Noticeably, the figure of the old mother and the figure of the monkey are contiguous: the moment Marietta dies, Tombo appears. And, significantly, the two faces are mirrored into each other.

The old lady was dead. Her head wasn’t but a skull. […] Upon this skull, driven crazy by the presence of the corpse and furiously lowering down from the wardrobe, the monkey went for a second to bend his misshapen face, with agonising whinings.

Marietta embodies an obstinate rejection of life. She exhibits a paralysis which is a metaphor for chained humanity. Tombo opposes the death entailed in conformism with its vitality. The otherness of the monkey represents a stress-test for humanness. Its very form and behaviour challenge the social persuasions about what is right.
Tombo’s attack on social conventions couldn’t be more outrageous: by night, the monkey leaves its cage, reaches the chapel of the adjacent cloister, and blasphemously mocks the gestures of the holy mass, before pissing upon the altar.
Tombo’s performance is perceived as wicked by the spinsters. Though unintentional, it is a performance of anger that disrupts the morality of the spinsters, and radically jeopardises their emotional regime. Bewildered, Lilla and Nena ask two priests about the adequate punishment for the monkey. While the conservative monsignor Tostini unshakably pleases Tombo guilty, the young and unconventional don Alessio not only says Tombo can’t be considered guilty, but he states that Tombo’s gestures are profoundly innocent, a God-blessed breach of human hypocrisy. Don Alessio’s speech itself is a performance of anger, which clarifies that Tombo embodies an utter alternative to the wasted idea of life endorsed by the spinsters, the official Church, and society.
The animal is an agent of disruption. The animal-like behaviour hints at an emotional, unaware resistance to the official regime. Consequently, it must be brutally and painfully murdered, in the name of the tenacious defense of human “order”, of human forms. The spinsters decide to kill the monkey. In the excruciating scene of Tombo’s murder the two sisters coldly, unemotionally extinguish the vital spark emanating from the animal’s eyes and gestures.

It wasn’t quick, and Tombo felt too much he was dying. Nena, hiding her weapon behind her back, got closer and caressed him with her free hand. […] Than suddenly she struck the blow. The blow needed to be repeated once, twice, three times. Finally, Tombo, who had struggled furiously, died away; the violence of his starts faded away, as did his eyes that at the last moment expressed just a dismayed astonishment. The wounds weren’t bleeding, but a thin trickle of blood was dripping at the corner of the mouth.

In conclusion. Tombo, the subversive monkey; the subversive gang of children-monkeys; the subversive savage girls. They all constitute or symbolise communities of anger that perform an emotional resistance to fascism. Being pre-political, impulsive and antisocial, their deconstructive anger generates distorted outcomes. It provokes the death and suffering of innocent creatures. Still, these incomplete and painful expressions of anger are meaningful because they reveal the existence of underground emotions that urge to be shared. Individual emotional suffering strains to be turned into a socially perceivable force. Precisely as they represent the dreadful consequences of anti-social anger, these literary texts claim for the socialisation of feelings and their political elaboration. Finally, once elaborated through literature emotions become part – even if indirectly and retrospectively – of the public discourse, and contribute to the slow and meandering construction of social and political awareness about fascism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *