The Elective Beast: D’Annunzio’s Brief Flirtation With Democracy
A small extract from Aristokratia IV, Gabriele D’Annunzio: Nietzsche, Politics, And the Ubermensch in Italy
In the Corriere di Napoli, a publication which was consistently critical of Italy’s democratic institutions, Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote an article dated September 1892, entitled La Bestia Elettiva (The Elective Beast) which dealt with both Nietzschean and Darwinian ideas. In another similar article, D’Annunzio writes that,
Men will be divided into two races. To the superior race, which shall have risen by the pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to the lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility makes them worthy of all privileges. (Infusio, D’Annunzio)
D’Annunzio also wrote that “History belongs, above all, to the active and powerful man, the man who fights one great battle, who needs the exemplary men, teachers, and comforters and cannot find them among his contemporary companions.” Both of these statements hearken back to Nietzsche’s words on the polarization of men between those would ascend or descend Life, and it is those who ascend Life that hold the most value for human civilizations, because they possess the ability to cause change on a large scale, to improve and alter the world around them with the raw power of creation.
D’Annunzio’s political exploits began simply enough with D’Annunzio running as a candidate in a local election. However, nothing about D’Annunzio particularly embodied the mood or sentiment of bourgeois politics, and perhaps this is why the venture was doomed to failure. Despite achieving a certain modicum of success in his first campaign, his experiment with politics did not eventuate as originally planned. As a political candidate, D’Annunzio seems to have held a great deal of ‘novelty value’ for the average voter, but this wore off once the public realized that D’Annunzio was a tad too eccentric to ever be a politician. Moreover, the disenchantment appears to have been completely mutual—D’Annunzio also lost interest in his voters. Actively participating in the democratic election process had actually enhanced his disgust for electoral procedures, as is revealed by the following comment D’Annunzio wrote in a letter to one of his publishers.
I have just come back from an electoral trip, and my nostrils are still full of the acrid scent of humanity. This enterprise may seem stupid and extraneous to my art, but to judge my aptitude it is necessary to await the effect towards which my will is bent directly. Victory meanwhile is assured.
One can only assume that D’Annunzio really did not enjoy his own election campaign, even though he was winning.
D’Annunzio’s brief flirtation with democracy and the electoral masses commenced on the 16th of July in 1897, when he wrote a letter to Francesco Ercole (who was to become one of D’Annunzio’s strongest supporters), confirming his willingness to act as the political candidate for the coastal region of Ortona a Mare. It was during this campaign that D’Annunzio first devised the “politics of poetry”, which was a concept he would again revisit later. Italian democracy, even at this formative stage, was based on the divisions of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’. D’Annunzio does not conform to either definition and cannot be labelled as either because he quite clearly sought to control both divisions, taking ideas and drawing support from whichever faction best suited his own agenda. As Lucy Huges-Hallett states, “He was not a party man, having far too lively a sense of his unique importance to subscribe to a program imposed by others.” Moreover, in 1895, D’Annunzio made a toast to the continuing debasement of politics and the demise of parliamentary democracy saying: “I drink to the roses which will flower from the blood”. The particularly astute reader will note that without democracy there is neither a Left nor a Right and if D’Annunzio did not believe in democracy, then both terms were meaningless to him. In light of this, D’Annunzio’s primary objective was the establishment of his own system of governance. As such,
D’Annunzio’s “political” thought was concerned with national greatness, the aesthetics of Italian cities, the creativity of the Italian people, and the virility of Italian men. His notion of “politics” was an essentially spiritual one, and this was quite in keeping with the temper of the age. Many people agreed with D’Annunzio that parliamentary politics were banal or ignoble.
This quirk of D’Annunzio’s confuses many modern day historians, who seem unable to even comprehend that a politician can be anything other than Left or Right wing because that is the only system of politics they have ever experienced. Alternative political ideas are completely inconceivable for them. Historians are therefore unable to explain the ideas behind D’Annunzio’s political career. Whilst it does not make sense within the framework of democracy, D’Annunzio’s theories are understandable once it is understood that he blatantly rejects democracy along with dogmatic definitions of Left and Right. Regardless of this perspective, D’Annunzio still won his first election. After he was elected, however, D’Annunzio found the bureaucratic procedures tiresome and never visited his constituency, nor answered letters from his constituents. This lack of interest in his position after winning, reflects a personal trait of D’Annunzio’s—he enjoyed the thrill of impending conquests, but not the peace that ensued afterwards, and therefore was bored by the bureaucracy of mundane politics. The lack of danger and creative thinking simply was not appealing to him, because D’Annunzio possessed an inherently ‘revolutionary’ personality and not a ‘conservative’ one. When D’Annunzio entered Parliament in 1899, he retained the revolutionary ideas he had held prior to the election, including those he had written in 1895 stating that,
A State erected on the basis of popular suffrage and equality in voting is not ignoble, it is precarious. The State should always be no more than an institution for favouring the gradual elevation of a privileged class towards its ideal form of existence.
A vote for D’Annunzio, if aware of these sentiments, was a ‘protest vote’ against the State itself. Thus, no one should have been surprised that even though D’Annunzio began his political career on the Right, he switched sides and turned to the Left, because he had never professed allegiance to any democratic party in the first place. Clarifying his lack of interest in party dogma, D’Annunzio states that his fictional heroes, “were all ‘anarchists’ intent on manifesting their will in bold actions.” Even though D’Annunzio had initially aligned himself with monarchists and nationalists, when the government attempted to introduce repressive legislation, D’Annunzio crossed the floor to sit on the Left. He wrote in his notebook about the event saying that,
On one side there are many dead men howling, and on the other a few men alive. As a man of intellect I advance towards Life.
The use of the term Life is significant, for as Nietzsche tells us the Will to Power is the Will to Life, and in Nietzsche’s writing everyday life (Bios) is distinct from idealized Life (Zoe)—the two words for life in ancient Greek have separate meanings. D’Annunzio continues to use ‘life’ in a Nietzschean manner later, as a way to describe the drive for both cultural and personal ascension, saying that,
We have raised ourselves to the level of honourable thoughts; even more, we determine honour on earth, “nobility”—all of us today are advocates of Life.
The Will to Life admits the necessity of change and the heroic vitalism that conquers mundane life to achieve ideal Life. Therefore, with Life as his aim, D’Annunzio very deliberately, crossed the floor and joined the opposition on the Left. Gerald Griffin narrates the event as follows. D’Annunzio,
[…] Sent out a statement to the Press in which he contrasted the inertia and coma of the Right with the courage and drive of their opponents, and added that henceforth he would vote on the Socialist side. And so he did. The very next day he waited until the House was full, then he majestically rose from his seat on the Right and sauntered solemnly to a seat on Left. It was just a pose with him. He had no political convictions of any kind.
In light of the last sentence, D’Annunzio cannot be said to have ‘betrayed’ the Right, because he was never on their side in the first place, nor was he ever truly on the Left. As Ledeen says, “In actuality these terms were virtually meaningless to D’Annunzio, for he was no more allied with the traditional Italian Right than with the Socialists.” D’Annunzio himself quite openly states that he was always an individualist, and he crossed the floor not because he believed in the Left, but because he was disgusted with the entire political process as he says here,
“Do you really think I’m a Socialist?”, D’Annunzio asked a journalist two days later. “It pleased me to go for a moment into the lion’s pit, but I was driven to it by my disgust with the other parties. Socialism in Italy is an absurdity…I am and remain an individualist, fiercely and to the uttermost.”
Nonetheless, the Socialists were eager to embrace D’Annunzio, and mindful of D’Annunzio’s swing from Right to Left, offered him the opportunity to stand as their candidate in Florence in 1900. When parliament was dissolved in June, D’Annunzio did stand for re-election in Florence but was defeated by Cambray-Digny. Paradoxically, although this brought an end to his involvement in conventional politics, it was only the beginning of his true political endeavours. As John Woodhouse writes, “The true nobleman, in D’Annunzio’s sense, would never soil his hands with a voting slip, and so for the moment he had to renounce his rule.” D’Annunzio, whilst he seemed genuinely surprised to have lost, does not appear to have been remorseful over the event, due to his waning interest in mainstream politics. This was noticed by Masci, who states in La Vita e le Opera that D’Annunzio’s,
[…] First contacts with the electoral beast had made his hair stand on end. The enterprise, which had from a distance seemed tempting, now disgusted him.
From this point on, D’Annunzio’s involvement in politics would take a radical and most unexpected turn; having failed to sustain power within the democratic system, D’Annunzio was going to come to power independently of it—and from this moment onwards, D’Annunzio’s attitude is inherently, and often violently, revolutionary. D’Annunzio now has “no respect for the electorate, and no compunction about undermining the authority of democratic institutions.” He had always been an independent candidate, who had some shared ideas with both the Left and the Right, but now D’Annunzio proclaims that “I am beyond Right and Left, as I am beyond good and evil.”