Thinking about F.T. Marinetti, I’m reminded of an incident in London. Some years ago a play based on Kafka’s diaries was performed there by a fringe theater group. Their space was on the 8th floor of an office building. The elevator operator, noting the floor I wanted, complained, “Everybody talks about Kafka but no one does anything about him.” What does one do with Marinetti? An anarchist, a poet, an innovator, a fascist, an antifeminist, a super patriot, a drum major for war, a “master” of the manifesto, as he was called, the progenitor of the Futurists is no easy figure or influence to gloss in a few words or in many words.
With the first Futurist manifesto, published 1n 1909 on the front page of Le Monde, Marinetti gave voice to a movement that understood the impact of the machine, that ecstatically embraced technology, war and the idea of progress, a movement that saw itself as the new incarnate. The Futurists cried “Burn the museums.” Marinetti demanded “parole in liberta,” free verse, free words, words freed from syntax. The sculptor Boccioni was “nauseated by old walls and palaces, old motives, reminiscences.” Marinetti claimed the automobile over Samothrace. But in their uncritical belief in progress, the Futurists took off with some 19th-century baggage, brashly landing at the doorstep of a new century, ours.
It’s this aspect of Futurism that may be carrying undue weight for its position at the start of the 20th century when modernity was burdened with trying to become modern. To “make it new,” as Ezra Pound exhorted. In the 30s movie, The Twentieth Century, the train conductor—the name of the train is also the 20th century—keeps repeating, when there’s any problem, “But we’re on the 20th century,” and passengers insist, “But this is the 20th century,” The movie asks ironically, What makes one modern (or for that matter, postmodern)?
Through The Futurist Cookbook, published first in 1932 and just now translated into English, Marinetti and others propose recipes for modernity, manifestoes for the table. They polemicize against traditions of all sorts, particularly those of the bourgeoisie, offering Futurist maps to the entrance of the new. There’s a recipe for “The Excited Pig, formula by Futurist Aeropainter Fillia,” which calls for “a whole salami, skinned, served upright on a dish containing some very hot black coffee mixed with a good deal of eau de Cologne.” And one for “Words-In-Liberty, formula by the Futurist Aeropeot Escadame,” which needs “three sea dates, a halfmoon of red watermelon, a thicket of radicchio, a little cube of Parmesan, a little sphere of gorgonzola, 8 tiny balls of caviare, 2 figs, 5 amaretti di Saronno biscuits: all arranged neatly on a large bed of mozzarella, to be eaten, eyes closed letting one’s hands wander here and there, while the great painter and word-in-liberty poet Dopero recited his famous song ‘Jacopson.’” Or there’s “The Steel Chicken”—the flavor of steel is an important ingredient in any machine lover’s diet—”the body of the chicken mechanized by aluminum-colored bonbons.” And my favorite, by Marinetti, “RAW MEAT TORN BY TRUMPET BLASTS; cut a perfect cube of beef. Pass an electric current through it, then marinate it for 24 hours in a mixture of rum, cognac and white vermouth. Remove it from the mixture and serve on a bed of red pepper, black pepper and snow. Each mouthful is to be chewed carefully for one minute, and each mouthful is divided from the next by vehement blasts on the trumpet blown by the eater himself . . . The soldiers are served plates of ripe persimmons, pomegranates and blood oranges. While these disappear into their mouths, some very sweet perfumes . . . will be sprayed around the room, the nostalgic and decadent sweetness of which will be roughly ejected by the soldiers who rush like lightning to put their gas masks on.”
Trumpet blasts, soldiers and ripe persimmons, gas masks and perfumes of nostalgia characterize the Futurist menu of the 1930s, a tempting mix of militarism, sensuality, art and nature. The Cookbook aims for a “culinary revolution . . . changing radically the eating habits of our race.” As in the earlier—or first wave—Futurism, speed, motion, light and liberty are part of any dinner, constant companions. Futurist cooking will be “tuned to high speeds like the motor of a hydroplane.” Marinetti promises eating that is art, “the art of self-nourishment, which “like all arts . . . eschews plagiarism and demands creative originality.” These are prime ingredients of Modernism, taking into the equation, or recipe, that an “art of self-nourishment” is by any other name reflexivity.
“Since everything in modern civilization tends toward the elimination of weight and increased speed, the cooking of the future must conform to the ends of evolution.” Pasta is banned. Pastasciutta, “however agreeable to the palate, is a passeist food because it makes people heavy, brutish . . . sceptical, slow, pessimistic. Besides which patriotically it is preferable to substitute rice.” The Futurists are for risotto, or “totalrice.” Rice is light, good for speed and action, and, it’s noted, there’s the Italian rice industry to consider as well.
Marinetti deploys food to construct “the modern man,” the new subject, to build him from the inside out, where food is what one ingests as metaphor and fuel. Futurist Marco Ramperti asserts: “The allegorical Italian has always got his avid mouth wide open over a plate of tagliatelle when he isn’t dangling dripping strands of vermicelli down his greedy gullet. And it’s an offensive image: derisory, grotesque, ugly . . . Our pasta is like our rhetoric, only good for filling up our mouths.” Since Marinetti’s the poet who advanced the idea of “words-in-liberty,” it makes sense that food might be seen as rhetoric, freed from its traditional position as just food, or that using certain words and dropping others, like dropping pasta and adding rice, might signify departures and surprises, changes in thinking, changes in being.
In the new diet, taste alone certainly isn’t enough. Like art, food must strive to interact with its environment, and the environment itself, like the cuisine, must be shaped to serve higher ends, the evolution of society Marinetti calls for. At a Futurist dinner all the senses must be engaged and taught to renounce the habits that dull pleasure. Between bites one might be squirted with perfume while an airplane motor roars, the music of machines. Under a Futurist regime, where knives and forks are passe, eaters could be asked to touch continuously the leg of the eater next to them or, when having “Fillia’s Aerofood . . . composed of different fruits and vegetables,” to eat “with the right hand . . . while the left hand caresses a tactile surface made of sandpaper, velvet and silk. Meanwhile the orchestra plays a noisy, wild Jazz . . .”
Their antic dinners and wild proclamations are meant to be taken with a dollop of the zany, the movement itself sometimes appearing to be what Oscar Wilde may have had in mind when he conjured up “zanies of style.” Though where there’s style there’s content, and Marinetti isn’t content with jokes. He defines Italian Futurism of the 30s as “the renewal of Italian pride, a formula for original art-life. the religion of speed . . . spiritual hygiene . . . the aesthetics of the machine. . . . Convinced that in the probable future conflagration those who are most agile, most ready for action, will win. . . .”
At the Holy Palate restaurant, sometimes known as the Aluminum restaurant, site of Futurist dinners, one might be served “sculpted meat,” which is “symbolic of Italian regions.” Marinetti demands: “The word Italy must rule over the word Liberty! The word Italy must rule over the word genius. The word Italy must rule over the word intelligence. The word Italy must rule over the words culture and statistic. The word Italy must rule over truth.” It’s an odd position from the man who called for words in liberty, words freed from syntax. But not an odd position for a fascist. Words in liberty become fixed, their meaning subsumed by a new syntax, one created by the State. Marinetti was, after all, one of the first members of the Fascist Party. And his own words, not freed from history, resonate with it, tasting the bitter aftermath of the Great War and Italy’s sense of betrayal at the hands of the Allies. A past that also, in 1932, included the deaths of many of the leading Futurists, like Boccioni and Sant Elia, a startlingly innovative architect, both of whom, like so many other, had enthusiastically rushed to do battle in that war. In fact it was the Great War that effectively put an end to the most productive moment of Futurism. In this respect, it’s not surprising that Marinetti calls for the murder of nostalgia. The Futurist door to modernity, once pried open and walked through, must be shut forever on the past—past failures and past losses.
If Marinetti hadn’t written it himself of The Futurist Cookbook, it would have been necessary to comment: “It is not by chance this work is published during a world economic crisis.” Marinetti’s “antidote” is “a Futurist way of cooking: optimism at the table.” Significantly the cookbook begins with a parable against despair. In “The Dinner That Stopped a Suicide,” Giulio is obsessed with killing himself, as “She” has died in New York—at that time a place of many capitalist suicides—and is “calling” to him to join her. So Marinetti, Prampolini and Fillia, the “Aeropainters,” rush to rescue their friend. But another “She” has sent Giulio a message, he tells them, another “who resembles her.” Giulio “must not betray death” and says he must “kill himself tonight.” “Unless?” the Aeropainters ask. “Unless?” Marinetti asks. “Unless you take us instantly to your splendid, well-stocked kitchens.” A hilarious retort to a singular cul de sac or a worldwide depression, and an absurd way out of the devastating effects of the War that ushered in Hitler and Mussolini, as well as killed the earlier Futurism, which was once synonymous with avant-garde.
It’s not without consequence, either, that death in the suicide story is represented by She, for women, who are always other in Futurism (though sometimes [m]other), sit uneasily at its table, occasionally having to eat food shaped like their own bodies. The first Futurist Manifesto proclaimed: “We will glorify war, the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive genius of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women. We will destroy. . . feminism.” And it’s not just coincidence that the call against death also comes from a She, “one who resembles her.” This may be reference to capitalism under a Fascist state. But in any case, it’s the female body that signifies death as well as renewal. “The fugitive eternal feminine is imprisoned in the stomach. . . . At dawn he devoured the mammellary (sic) spheres of all mother’s milk.” In the “Geographic Dinner,” she’s a waitress, “a shapely young women dressed in a long white tunic on which a complete geographical map of Africa has been drawn in color; it enfolds her entire body.” This is a neat conflation, woman as Africa, especially Africa, the site then of some Italian colonies. She is colonized and that part of the world is turned into something to be devoured, the waitress, the provider, greedily eaten up like a woman might be by a hungry lover desirous of conquering and overwhelming her. Women here, like food, are figures of speech.
While the first wave Futurists embraced both internationalism and war, but not feminism, the second wave are Italian firsters. They call for an end to Xenomania, defined in the cookbook as “the international cuisine of grand hotels, which in Italy is “submit[ted] to only because it comes from abroad,” Xenomanes are anti-Italians, like Arturo Toscanini, who “disown[ed] his own national hymns . . . opportunistically playing foreign anthems,”those who don’t “promote Italian influence in the world,” and who are “infatuated with foreign customs and snobbisms.” While the second wave Futurists trounce some traditions, including the earlier Futurists’ internationalism but not their patriotism and antifeminism, there remains the traditional belief in an overpowering principle that centers existence. For Marinetti, it not a belief in God but the state, Italy under Mussolini. As Hannah Arendt put it: “The Fascist movement, a ‘party above parties,’ because it claimed to represent the nation as a whole, seized the state machine, identified itself with the highest national authority and tried to make the whole people ‘part of the state.’”
To make Italians into, and part of, a healthy state, Marinetti wants to put the nation on a diet that is not just concerned with food. No more “Xenomania.” “No more after dinner speeches.” “Elementary patriotism demands that at least half the music on, programme should be by modern or Futurist Italian composers.” Like most diet books and cookbooks, The Futurist Cookbook is sometimes repetitive, hammering away at its prescriptions for right living, its short announcements like press releases or ads that are trying to sell a product. In this case, the nation. Eating ought to imbue that patriotic feeling. As in, the way to the heart is through the stomach.
And speaking of the heart, the recipe—in fact the cookbook—is a prescription for the regulation of pleasure. While everything in The Futurist Cookbook seems to be full of imagination and is funny and clever, not that much is really left to the imagination. We’re told not only what to eat but how to and with what feelings, in what kind of restaurant, listening to what type of music and sniffing what kind of scents. The Futurist “New Year’s Eve Dinner,” for instance, is meant to overturn crusty bourgeois conventions, when “the same elements have conspired to produce a happiness which has been enjoyed too often.” So, “everyone eats in compulsory silence; the desire for noise and jollity is suppressed.” One may sympathize with the urge to throw away customary and obligatory forms of feeling that seem hollow and perfunctory. But to replace those with others is problematic, to use words like “supress” and “compulsory” means one kind of order is being supplanted by another. In this light it’s interesting to consider the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, his regulation of pleasure written during the French Revolution while he was in jail. A pessimist, de Sade presents a dystopia which took to the extreme the problem of imagining what complete liberty would mean and look like under the law. He translated the furthest reaches of liberte, egalite and fraternite, where laws insist upon pleasure and turn pleasure inside out, into pain, at least for some. In the midst of a revolution, de Sade questions the ability of any state to provide pleasure or happiness. Marinetti, a man at liberty, whose words are supposedly also “in liberty,” sets down a regimen—tongue in cheek—for the right libertinage. The optimistic Marinetti exuberantly ordains a future of aluminum and steel, of controlled anarchy and virility, of art that scoffs at some traditions in search of a genuinely contemporary existence. He doesn’t question a pursuit of happiness that looked to the nation for its greatest rewards.
Coming to the end of this century, some of these refrains may not seem unfamiliar. There’s the furtive glance back to the beginning, performed like a cat first contemplating its quixotic tail then chasing it. Though since we’re at the end of it, and that’s supposed to mean something in itself, the way death means something, we’re supposed to be at the end of it, the end of the Twentieth Century. Which reminds me again of that movie of the same name, as good a metaphor as any. By now some of the cars have become derailed or separated from each other. In the time after modernism, otherwise known as postmodernism, certain beliefs, especially faith in the new, in progress, in self-referentiality, have come under scrutiny and are in the train station, with a bad wheel or engine. But can anything be left behind and what’s in front and what’s in back? Does coming to the end of a century have anything to do with an end anyway? Will a postmodern menu offer us something different, other metaphors, like one from column A, column B and column C? Will recipes with generous amounts of asymmetries and hardy dashes of anti-closure not be recipes? My view is necessarily one-sided, seeing the past through the present, my version of the present, seeing The Futurist Cookbook darkly, when I might have concentrated on nature versus culture, formal art issues, Futurism’s influence on art practices generally, the sheer fun of it. My reading is no doubt compelled by forces from within and without. A recipe may be inscribed in me that I’m unaware of and whose powerful tastes simply, unconsciously, overcome me. Though really, I think to myself, I ought to be at the end of at least this trope.