Fascism & ‘The Wild’ in ‘DIVE: Odes for Lighea’

Throughout the composition of DIVE I was very conscious of, and sensitive to, the relationship between the mermaid, and Mussolini. In the opening Prelude the mermaid vanquishes Mussolini and his fascist crowd with a mighty roar. Later the mermaid plays directly with Mussolini’s speech by improvising over a distorted and stretched out version of it, exaggerating it and distorting it, but also really digging into it and almost becoming a part of it.

‘DIVE’ is based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s short story ‘The Professor & the Siren’, set as Mussolini reaches the pinnacle of his totalitarian power, and the mermaid [1], at the core of the story, and who is so vividly and sensually described by Lampedusa, is a wild feminine divine being.

As I told you Corbera, she was a beast but at the same instant also an Immortal, and it is a pity that no speech can express this synthesis continually, with such utter simplicity, as she expressed it in her own body… Not for nothing is she the daughter of Calliope: ignorant of all culture, unaware of all wisdom, contemptuous of any moral inhibitions, she belonged, even so, to the fountainhead of all culture, of all wisdom, of all ethics...”
– Giuseppe di Lampedusa: ‘The Professor and the Siren

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

 

Is the tale a premise for the struggle between ‘fascism’ and ‘the wild’? Is fascism a polarity to the wild? Or is the tension between the two more complex? What do we mean by ‘fascism’? And what do we mean by ‘the wild’?

The word fascism (coming from ‘fascia’ – a binding of wood) is used today to describe behaviours which are anti-democratic, authoritarian, morally repressive, intolerant, and militant. The goal of a fascist political system, Totalitarianism, is to turn citizen’s into ‘nobodys’: a powerless and alienated mass without any sense of agency, hence no sense of responsibility. It’s goal is dehumanisation; a machination of the masses achieved through organized disenfranchisement, aggression and terror [2].

It’s likely that the word wild came from the Teutonic and Norse ‘will’, or ‘willful’, emerging into wild to mean ‘unruly’ and ‘uncontrollable’.  One of the most fascinating attributes of the word is that, in the domain of dictionaries and definitions, wild is almost entirely described by what it is not. The Oxford English Dictionary describes something wild as undomesticated, uninhabited, uncultivated, uncivilized and inhospitable. It lacks discipline and restraint, it’s unreasonable and improbable, it’s inaccurate, irregular, and insubordinate.

Gary Snyder, in ‘Practice of the Wild’, remedies this negative approach. The wild, to Snyder, is a free agent, uniquely endowed, “self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities”.  The wild is original, intact, potent and pristine.  Spontaneous and unconditioned, expressive, openly sexual, and ecstatic, the wild is excessive and exuberant, self-reliant and independent, fiercely resisting oppression or confinement.

Given our previous definition of ‘fascism‘ it’s pretty plain that these two are unlikely to get along.

Mussolini’s attitude towards the wild is depicted vividly by the massive Pontine Marshes land reclamation project.  Started in 1928 it was arguably Italy’s largest public works project of the 1930s.  Describing the Marshes as unproductive ‘death inducing swamps’, Mussolini orated that “In the first decade of the Blackshirts’ revolution a great battle began, to redeem from water and death a great area of territory belonging to the Italian motherland”.  Simply stated, where fascism met the wild, it would be war.  The quest for the ideal fascist landscape (in which to rear the ideal fascist subjects) required the heroic eradication of the undisciplined, unproductive wilderness. [3]

Film capture of Mussolini era film depicting the taming, grooming & cultivation of the Pontine Marshes [3]

Film capture of Mussolini era film depicting the
taming, grooming & cultivation of the Pontine Marshes [3]

Mussolini depicted the wilderness as uncivilized, feminine and sterile: “a frontier that had to be conquered and colonised.” [4], and strove to force it to submit to an abstract and extreme idealization.[5]

It is in this context – an Italy dominated by a fascist dictator whose greatest domestic project was the violent subjugation of the wild –  that Senator Rosario La Ciura, Italy’s greatest classical scholar, exposes to the young Paulo his ecstatic love for a creature both divine and wild.  If the mermaid represents precisely those attributes that fascism sought to eradicate, is Rosario’s love for the divine and wild and feminine mermaid just a delusional escape from the ruthless constraints of the fascist dictatorship in which he finds himself?

Before we get carried away by a simplistic and possibly false dichotomy – fascism bad, wild good – can you really place fascism against the wilderness as a polarity? The wild is only chaotic and irregular if you look at it through the lens of an ideology which seeks to subjugate it for its own ends. Without that ideological lens, which elicits the duality, the wild is hyper-organized and can be fantastically symmetrical. And while fascism is in so many ways a force of oppression and repression, it has also been a channel for violent energy, and the wild can also be wildly violent, crushingly brutal, senseless, dehumanising and devastating (witness natural disasters).  However,  because the wild has, as Lampedusa so deftly observed, no moral intent or consciousness, it can never be deliberately ‘cruel’, ‘vindictive’ or even unjust.  The violence of Totalitarianism, arising out of a corrosive sentiment of helplessness, injustice, and profound moral revulsion, and in its strategically applied programs of terror, exists in a fundamentally different universe to the violence of the wild.

Rosario, di Lampedusa’s eccentric and utterly bereft old classics scholar, encounters, in his youth, the divine and wild Lighea and is both completely intoxicated and terrified by her.  In response to her request that he join her, and live forever, he flees back to his books and his Platonic ideals.  But ideal forms have only two paths in reality: violence; the Procrustean forcing of an ideal onto a reality which can’t conform to it, or escapism; the flight from a reality which can’t conform to an ideal.  Mussolini chose the former, Rosario chose the latter.  Neither can survive.

So, what does it really mean when Rosario flings himself into the ocean from the deck of the Garibaldi?
Is it the ultimate act of escapism from a reality which he found intolerable?
Or is it a final act of re-integration: ideal with real, flesh with divine?
I guess the answer depends on whether you can believe in mermaids…

 

—–

 

[1] In ‘DIVE: Odes for Lighea’ Fides Krucker could not be more perfect for the role of Lighea.  Fides has, through decades of application and method, developed the emotional and technical capacity to take her voice places that are well outside the borders of what we might call ‘civilized’ or ‘domesticated’. From terrifying screams and yells, to howls of outrage, to moans of delight, her vocal expressions, while always exquisitely musical, break out of the constraints of tradition, whether that tradition is Bel Canto, or jazz, or whatever you like. And the reaction is pretty visceral: hair stands on end, faces go a little pale, some folks simply can’t stand it, and other folks break into tears. It’s very powerful stuff.

So, to me, what Fides does vocally is challenge the constraints of traditional vocal technique which, in their more narrow band of possible emotional expression, can be fascistic. She also challenges our own perceptions of music; perceptions which may be constrained by our own internally repressed and exclusivist view of what music is allowed to be, and what is musically possible, and what emotions or how much emotion we are allowed to express when creating music.

That said, her vocal ability is not based on some kind of capacity for ‘total catharsis’. To do what she does without serious injury or permanent damage is a result of decades of disciplined work, conscientousness, vigilance and technical expertise. She teaches it, and is writing the book on it.

[2] Hannah Arendt – ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’

[3] And what’s the relevance of this objective to eradicate the wild to our current situation in Canada, now world renowned as an ecological laggard, headlong invested in it’s own Pontine Marshes project, aka the Tar Sands?

[4] Caprotti F and Kaïka M (2008) Producing the ideal fascist landscape: nature,materiality and the cinematic representation of land reclamation in the Pontine Marshes.  Social and Cultural Geography 9(6): 613 – 634

[5] Please see Fascism & Utopia: a poem for ISIS et al – Nik Beeson

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Nik. Wonderful essay. Makes me even more excited for Friday!

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