(Hello again! Some recent offices: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Here are tuis and bellbirds singing in the rain at about 48 degrees and 52 minutes south latitude, looking out towards the oceanic pole of inaccessibility.)
The tall boy, “a lieutenant of Arditi,” wrote Hemingway, “had lived a very long time with death and was a little detached.” He was an ardito, the boy – a natural subject of fascination, because the Arditi were maniacs. They were shock troops, recruited and trained to break the tactical stalemates of the First World War. They went light, without rifles, ammunition, or supplies, because their signature move was a flat-out sprint into the teeth of a bombardment to attack the enemy soldiers hand to hand while they were still getting out from cover. They carried only hand grenades and a dagger clenched between the teeth, and often went into battle not only without armor but shirtless. They lived on cigarettes, cocaine, athletic daring, and a cult of death. Where the infantry trained by march and drill, the Arditi ran, swam, scrambled up trees and cliff faces, boxed, fenced, rode, shot, and ran some more. Throughout the focus was on speed – not just to move fast, but to move faster than you could think, to work at reflex action, so you wouldn’t have time to consider the consequences. They were worshipped – “legendary warriors, exempt from common law,” wrote the futurist and ardito Mario Carli – and carried themselves accordingly, ignoring military discipline, cultivating a unique hairstyle with a long forelock draped over the face, decorating their own elaborate uniforms, and more-or-less tolerant of homosexuality in their ranks (“in couples, as in the time of Pericles”). Set aside, if you would, the fact that of course they were thugs, and would ultimately work for Fascism: they were such a splendid type – fiercely athletic cokehead assassins, sun-burned militant dandies in love with impulsiveness, violence, each other, and very little else.
Then Peace came.
Try to picture an ardito smoothly reintegrating with society, as was now asked of him: to go home, settle down, get a job, get married – fish on Fridays and Mass on Sundays. The Italian Second Army had produced people incapable of civilian life. “The war has become our second nature.” So they hung out together in the big cities, simultaneously adored and feared for their “swift inclination to violent action,” getting drunk and starting fights. It wasn’t even that they wanted war, as such, as that they wanted drama, excitement, the grand gesture. In this they had an ally who respected them, and whom they admired: the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. It was to the Arditi that he would turn when the Tarot cards told him the time was right to invade the port of Fiume.
It seems impossible to capture a figure like d’Annunzio in current terms. He was a writer of colossal celebrity, his scandalous novels (like Pleasure and Maybe Yes, Maybe No) discussed by everyone, his verse carried in pockets and hearts. He was an aesthete, a decadent attracted to gruesome fantasies and the drooping, languorous art of the fin de siècle, and a dandy who boasted of fueling his writing by eating sugar cubes saturated with ether. He was a liar, too, and a workhorse: stories like the ethered sugar were meant to hide the fact that he was steadily, monotonously productive, which jarred with his performance of tortured genius. His great brilliance was for publicity, starting with a first collection of youthful poetry whose sales he boosted by faking a death announcement for himself – another Shelley, cut down too soon. He was a rat, too, as you might imagine: a seducer and a cad, skipping out on wives and children, dodging creditors, cultivating rich women who could keep him in accustomed style. He had a knack for finding young men who wanted to be disciples and masochistic women who liked a life of ceaseless betrayal and melodrama. That he was strikingly unattractive (“a frightful gnome” said the marvelous Liane de Pougy), with a mouthful of yellow-black carious teeth, makes clear the magic of his voice. Over decades, people compared it to velvet, to steel; it “rang like a silver bell.” Once he had people listening, there seemed to be nothing he could not convince them to do – he helped to talk neutral Italy into the war, after all. And in 1919 he was ending his speeches with a hypnotic invocation, call-and-response: “Fiume –” “Or death!” And the Arditi in the audience would shout their motto: A noi!, for us!
Fiume – or Rijeka – was a trading port on the Adriatic, and one of those sites of intricately convoluted European geography, history, demography and grievance. It was part of the newly-created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (soon to be Yugoslavia), it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was currently occupied by a peacekeeping force of Allied troops, and the population included Italians, Croats, Hungarians, Greeks, and Slovaks, many of whom spoke a Venetian dialect called Fiumano. What mattered, at that political moment, was that more than half the citizens identified as Italian; Rijeka – Fiume! – belonged, therefore, to the motherland, its sacrifice to foreigners an unforgivable insult. Or so d’Annunzio asserted in speech after speech. It had lovely architecture, dramatic sea views, and it was a global geopolitical flashpoint: the perfect stage for grand poetic gestures. He had the trucks and soldiers wait on their approach to the city, on the red September morning in 1919, until the camera crew had caught up to document his arrival.
With d’Annunzio came hundreds of Arditi, and Italian soldiers and aviators who joined up with the cortège as it traveled; all were considered AWOL, mutineers – the Italian government wanted nothing to do with this adventure, which could put them in violation of the treaty they’d just signed. They ordered the troops to fire on d’Annunzio and his band if they tried to cross the Allied cordon into Fiume, but the soldiers deserted their posts, instead, and joined the party. It was a real invasion for symbolic goals, conducted with stolen trucks by a gang of comic-opera bandits (who were also real and fearsome killers), led by a declaiming poet for the honor of a nation which completely disowned and forbade it: it was such a crazy, lateral move that none of the opposition really knew what to do when the moment came. The Allied troops (including Italy) who were supposed to be protecting Fiume/Rijeka were simply flummoxed by this ludicrous coup de théâtre which also happened to be a real coup d’état. The poet seized the city without a shot fired.
Logistics were handled by d’Annunzio’s right-hand man, Guido Keller, who’d hijacked the trucks for the invasion (and whose fantastic job title in the new government was “Action Secretary”). Keller was a career aviator and aesthetic extremist who loathed uniforms – clothes in general, really – and enclosed spaces, preferring to live naked and sleep out of doors (often in trees) as much as possible. He flew reconnaissance missions in his pajamas, and kept a tea set, flowers, and biscuits in his plane as a kind of aerial drawing room. His first move in occupied Fiume was to leave the ordinary business of government to the National Council, with responsibility for the goals of the coup given to a nebulous body, headed by d’Annunzio, called “the Command.”
What were the goals, though? The Command’s initial purpose seemed to be commandeering flowers and musical instruments and fireworks for parades, processions, spectacles and poetry recitations. They had seized Fiume for Greater Italy, but Italy didn’t want it back; quite the contrary. Well, then, perhaps Fiume could become the fulcrum that would topple the current Italian government – or the seat of a new revolution, the starting point for a march to Rome – but on whose behalf? They hadn’t planned to stay. It was September and they hadn’t packed winter supplies; after a few weeks d’Annunzio had his servants back in Venice send seasonally appropriate cravats, boots, additional uniforms, an Astrakhan coat, and ten boxes of his favorite chocolates. There was supposed to have been a revolution by then, amnesty for the deserting soldiers, a welcome-back from a grateful nation. Instead, they were blockaded (at least in theory), under sanctions, with their electricity cut off.
The Italian state, however precarious, had money, the law, and the military on their side – but d’Annunzio had publicity. One of his first official acts in Fiume was opening a press office, with a team of poets and translators to issue notices, stories, slogans and spin to the world’s media. In the bleak grief after the Armistice – the fields of headstones, the ruined, lunar landscapes of the trenches, the utter loss of faith in leaders, the grey austerity and privation – “a beacon had been lit at the end of the Adriatic,” and people flocked to it. Soldiers deserted and stowed away on trains, hiding under piles of coal or wearing civilian clothes and fake beards. Mutinous sailors brought their ships into the port of Fiume, pilots landed their planes and proclaimed allegiance to whatever it was that was happening there. Avant-garde artists hitched rides, mystical communists hiked over the Carso and crossed the lines by night, doomy romantic poets of independent means chartered sailboats. Every soldier of fortune, theosophical crank, crook on the lam, uniform fetishist, and political renegade plotted a course for Fiume.
The newcomers, thousands strong, brought books, newspapers, art supplies, stolen rations, hashish, and enthusiasm. They raided supply depots left by the French Vietnamese and North African troops and dressed up in fezzes, medals, and decorations. “Every man seemed to wear a uniform designed by himself,” wrote Osbert Sitwell (brother of Edith) of his visit to Fiume: “some wore beards and had shaven heads like the commander, others cultivated huge tufts of hair, half a foot long, waving out from their foreheads, and a black fez at the back of the head. Cloaks, feathers and flowing black ties were universal, and all carried the Roman dagger.” It was still possible to obtain a legal divorce in Fiume’s open city, which could not be got in Italy, so the population was supplemented by new-minted divorcées out for a fling. (Venereal disease was rampant.) There were sirens and bells rung at all hours, flags and banners and torchlit parades, four marching bands in almost continuous operation, a euphoria fueled by the waves of newcomers – who, however, brought neither money nor food.
Trade was at a standstill and the Command had thousands and thousands of new mouths to feed. There were shortages of fuel, coffee, cigarettes, cash, flour, meat, medical supplies and the all-important fresh flowers – d’Annunzio needed the bouquets in his suite changed three times a day, from white to pink to red. (The many enterprising smugglers operating out of Fiume specialized in higher-margin merchandise than groceries.) Guido Keller, Action Secretary, was up to the task. He and his crew crossed the border in disguise and made their way to nearby maritime cities, stowed away aboard cargo ships, and burst out of hiding to take them by force and bring them to Fiume to be looted. They raided Allied military bases with trucks and motorboats, bringing back food, horses, boots, diesel, and ammunition. Fiume, national gift, had become a pirate enclave.
Priorities were shifting: if Italy didn’t want Fiume back, well, me ne frego, I don’t give a fuck. (A slogan Mussolini would later adopt for his version of d’Annunzio’s playbook of black-shirted ethno-nationalist political spectacle.) What if the problem wasn’t that the rebels were thinking too big, with their ludicrous scheme, but that they were thinking too small? Maybe Fiume wasn’t part of Italy, but the vanguard of a global revolution. When Italy sent a ship full of military supplies to the White Russian army, the Italian maritime union hijacked it and sailed instead to Fiume. The barely-existing Soviet Union formally recognized barely-existing independent Fiume as a country – Lenin spoke highly of d’Annunzio as a revolutionary – as did the Berlin wing of Dada, announcing their alliance by telegram: the conquest was “a great Dadaist action,” and free Fiume had been added to Dadaco, their world atlas. That was the full extent of the international support: a political experiment locked in a brutal civil war, and three dudes in Berlin, one of whom claimed to be Jesus.
But who needed the support of countries when you could become the global capital of the dispossessed, the network hub for “desires of revolt the world over”? D’Annunzio appointed one of his poetic PR men the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and they began a League of Anti-Nations, reaching out to everyone from Sinn Féin, Catalan separatists, the Flemish, and anti-colonial movements in India and Egypt, to Hungarian Communists, Israeli kibbutzniks, Hawaiian nationalists, and “the Chinese in California, the Blacks of America.” Representatives made their way to Fiume, sometimes with the help of the “Office of Forgeries,” which used all the appropriated bureaucratic equipment they had found to produce immaculate fake passports and transit papers. With these visitors, of course, came a multitude of spies – if the Fiuman Command was anything, it was indiscreet.
Never mind that this flame of liberty for the dispossessed was burning in a state rife with what we would later call ethnic cleansing, as the Italians terrorized the Slav minority, beating them up, robbing their businesses, driving them from their homes and claiming their property. Never mind that this grand experiment in autonomy had become a military dictatorship and a charismatic cult, with dissenting voices run out of town or worse – not a utopia but a failed state, supported by piracy and a cut of drug-smuggling revenue. (And a cut of the drugs: part of the character of the occupation came from ready access to opium, hashish, morphine, cocaine, and torrents of inexpensive East European booze.) Never mind that; from far enough away, Fiume looked like an aperture into an open future, a country-as-laboratory of modernist experiment and celebration, so people kept coming. (The media blitz helped, exemplified by the most ridiculous, over-the-top headline (PDF) in the history of the New York Times.) And things kept getting weirder.
New groups formed. Unione Yoga, devoted to cultivating “vitalistic spontaneity,” proposed organizing society according to a new caste system of spiritual potency. The Brown Lotuses drew on the culture of postwar “inflation saints” (previously) to advocate for burlap, vegetarian diets, pagan fertility, giant beards, and pastoral communism against cities, money, and technology. The Red Lotuses were free-love Dionysian sexual pioneers. The Arditi, training in the hills outside the city, cut almond branches as banners and wore crowns of fresh violets and laurels. Yoga hosted a festa, promising “a dance beyond good and evil. Rally! Free spirits.” Keller, nothing if not resourceful, found gangs of men living down in the shipyards – the “desperate ones,” he dubbed them, ex-cons and runaways who had arrived without papers and weren’t allowed to join the army of the new Fiume. They lived in the abandoned ships, warehouses, and armored cars left there. They stole fuel to keep the motors running night and day, including an immobilized Fiume-Budapest locomotive engine. Their environment was smoky, chaotic, and filled with constant, brutally loud mechanical noise. They climbed to the top of the crane to sing over the din, staged fights, burned whatever they could find, and passed out on the ground. (It’s probably the closest real life has ever come to the catacombs of warboys in Mad Max: Fury Road.) Naturally, Keller adopted them, dubbed them the “Centurions of Death,” got them guns and special uniforms, and made them d’Annunzio’s honor guard.
D’Annunzio, meanwhile, having stumbled into a completely unforeseen victory that brought with it – God forbid – responsibilities, was now trying to wrangle the grandest and most poetic possible defeat. Things were taking a turn: the blockade had tightened, staple foods were rationed, money was running very low, and some of his legionnaires were deserting again, back to the other side. The atmosphere of mingled license and terror was freaking out his remaining allies, few as they were, among the actual townies he was notionally liberating. His lieutenants threw people in jail on suspicion of insufficient d’Annunzian ardor; the cemetery at night was audibly populated by couples having sex; the Centurions played war-games using real flamethrowers, grenades, and live ammunition, with periodic fatalities. He needed a next step, something to force the hand of fate. It was time to make Fiume’s outlaw status official.
The Charter of Carnaro, which d’Annunzio wrote with the syndicalist Alceste de Ambris, is probably the strangest political document ever advanced – however briefly – to run a country. Fiume was now the Italian Regency of Carnaro, governed by a decentralized and egalitarian system of universal suffrage. The Charter had smart statements about equal pay, public education, limits on the tyranny of property, and basic freedoms, but it also set the fundamental purpose of the state as the production of music. (“As the crowing of the cock invokes daybreak, so does music invoke dawn,” etc.) Carnaro must fund, by law, orchestras and choruses and provide concerts for free: “gratis, as the Church fathers termed the grace of God.” There would be a “College of Ediles” whose job was spectacles, festivals, and civic beautification, “men of pure taste, perfect skill, and modern education,” who would provide “grace and elegance” – as well as sanitation services, which must have led to some awkward divisions of labor. Carnaro would be structured around workers, who were grouped into ten “Corporations,” which would represent their interests and act like mutual-aid guilds: artisans, farmers, clerks, “sea-faring people,” students and teachers. (Would they each be obligated have their own rites and ceremonies, standards and emblems, and compete in medieval-style sports? Of course they would.) The “tenth corporation,” though, perhaps strangest of all, was set aside for something else: “it is reserved to the mysterious forces of the people … consecrated to the unknown genius, to the apparition of the new man … represented by a burning torch …” The tenth corporation, as far as anyone could make out, was the first political institution to represent the interests of Nietzschean Übermenschen, superior individuals to come, “the fulfilled liberation of the spirit,” beyond good and evil. Does it need to be said that d’Annunzio considered himself just such a man? That would be his representation, his mythic guild of one.
This formal declaration of renegade statehood, fusing communism, syndicalism, direct democracy, and mystic cultural-superman weirdness – just the right move to alienate both the Fiumans and Italy – nicely set up the diplomatic coup of November, when Italy and Yugoslavia signed a treaty that resolved everything. The Italians got much of what d’Annunzio had been clamoring for; Fiume would be an independent city-state as it used to be, governed by its citizens, and directly connected to Italy; and d’Annunzio would leave. It was all quite reasonable, peaceful, and grown-up. What could possibly be worse? Where was the bloodshed, the noble sacrifice, the anarchic revolt, the macho-bard poetic posturing, the opportunities for glamor and glory and piratic derring-do? He would not be denied his disaster, his biggest opportunity for the poetics of destruction. He ordered those still loyal to him to build barricades, net the harbor, and blow up the bridge. It was Christmas Eve, 1920. He had six thousand diehard legionnaires; the Italians, in no mood to mess around, had 20,000 troops in position and gunships in the harbor. Time for the last act.
The fighting lasted for three days, but only thirty-odd people were killed because, really, few of the soldiers on either side actually wanted to kill other Italians over this silly event. People kept their guns unloaded or fired high over the heads of their targets, and shouted warnings from ambush. An arsenal was blown up by accident, killing people and shrouding the city in smoke. D’Annunzio, who had spoken of nothing but holy death and the molten gold of martyr’s glory for weeks, somehow never made it to the front lines but remained in the governor’s palace, making radio broadcasts and taking notes. Finally, when the Italian Navy began to desultorily shell the palace – again, for all that had happened, nobody wanted to be responsible for having killed him – it came to crisis. D’Annunzio, now relocated to a safehouse, had to do something.
According to Tom Antongini, his body-man and secretary, he flipped a coin. Let it turn in the air for a moment. Maybe yes, maybe no.
The surrender was swift. There were no arrests or debriefings; people just scattered. The legionnaires and Arditi became the blackshirt shock troops of Fascism, squadristi muscle. D’Annunzio retired to Lake Garda, to decorate a new house and supervise the publication of his collected poetry.
The sound of thunderheads building up into the sky over New Jersey and the Hudson in the heat and the milky air: the horn part of Spiritualized’s “No God Only Religion”.
The largest possible fair die (a disdyakis triacontahedron!)
Building a dirt synthesizer
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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