The approach to the East and the ‘heathen’ myth
It is not easy to place appropriately in the various periods of my activity the following books, because their date of publication does not coincide with the period to which they actually belong. As I said, I had finished writing ‘Teoria e fenomenologia dell’Individuale Assoluto’ (‘Theory and phenomenology of the Absolute Individual’) around 1924. But ‘Fenomenologia’ could only come out in 1930, when two other books of mine, ‘L’Uomo come potenza’ (‘Man as Power’) and ‘Imperialism[o] pagano’ (‘Heathen Imperialism’), had already been published.
Not chronologically, but in terms of content, L’Uomo come potenza served, in a certain way, as a connecting link between the systematic speculative period and the next. It contained residues of the former, but, in essence, this was the presentation of doctrines which are neither philosophical nor accidental, the Hindu doctrines of Tantrism.
The subtitle of the first edition was precisely: ‘I Tantra nella loro metafisica e nei loro metodi di autorealizzazione magica’ (‘The Tantras in their metaphysics and their magic self-realisatory methods’). To a certain extent, the writing of the book was agreed with the publishing house Atanor, that counted on good sales on account of the suggestive and novel nature of the argument, whereby they did not hesitate to publish it in 1927.
A second, completely revised, edition of this work was published by Bocca in 1949, under a different title: Lo Yoga della potenza (The Yoga of Power) and with a simplified subtitle: ‘Saggio sui Tantra’ (‘Essay on the Tantras’).
Only in this second edition did I indicate the proper place of the Tantras in the development of the Hindu tradition. Their basic themes refer back to the substrate of aboriginal traditions and cults predating the Aryan conquest, to a cycle of civilisation that was essentially ‘gynecocratic’, which means that it identified the essence and the sovereign power of the universe with a female principle, a goddess. On the cultural and mythological plane, the goddess had both terrifying and destructive, luminous, beneficent, and maternal characters. Correspondences with the great goddesses of similar cycles of the archaic Mediterranean world are evident. But, in the symbiosis that followed the Aryan conquest of India, these original themes underwent a metaphysical transposition. As the goddess possesses the essential character of Shakti, which also means ‘power’, there emerged the doctrine according to which power is the ultimate principle of the universe, and from there Tantrism. It is at that time that it caught my attention in some of its particular forms, that is, as Shakti-tantras.
The first edition of my book began with a section that was removed from the second edition, the latter having been developed in the period in which I had come to clarify conclusively all these problems. It was called ‘Lo spirito dei Tantra in relazione ad Orient e Occidente’ (‘The spirit of Tantras in relation to the East and the West’) and consisted in a study of the relationship between the Eastern spirit and Western spirit aimed at ‘defining clearly the point of view from which the doctrine of the Shakti-tantras is examined (in the book) and the order in which it may possibly be used for a development of the value inherent to the most recent European culture.’ To this end, as a method (fortunately only applied in part) I decided to translate in terms of speculative thought the foundations of the Eastern system that drew their evidence not from a speculation, but from spiritual experiences, and were expressed mostly in images and symbols; only in this way – I said – could the East act creatively on the West.
As can be seen, certain whims persisted that were due to a culture from which I had not yet fully freed myself. As for the problem of East and West, I examined the theories of Hegel, of Steiner, and of Keyserling on the relations between the Eastern and the Western worldviews and their related ideals. Although some of the points that I developed were intrinsically valid, it was clear that it was inappropriate to refer to writers, such as Steiner and Keyserling, not worthy of being taken seriously. However, the result of the discussion was the elimination of the banality that the whole East would have escapistically denied the world, whereas the West would have instead affirmed it and would have offered the ideal of self-conscious and domineering personality. No doubt, I later deemed completely absurd some of the concessions I had then made. For instance, I spoke of a ‘progress of Western spirit beyond Christian pessimism and dualism’, with the gradual emergence, first humanistic, and then immanentist and active, of man, which would only be awaiting an integration by means of an Eastern input. But, apart from these whims, the antithesis, which I established, between two fundamental ideals, that of ‘liberation’ and that of ‘freedom’, remained valid, with the reservation that, if India has especially cultivated the former, and the West the latter, the Tantric system, with its view of the world as power, is opposed to any abusive generalisation of this antithesis and that, as regards the path to a transcendent affirmation of the I, it has been known to a far greater extent by the East, so that, in comparison, one should speak of an ‘unrealism’ with regard to the contemporary Western man and his seemingly active and affirmative civilisation.
Besides, it could have been pointed out that the East also includes Iran, then China and Japan, civilisations that in many aspects do not show at all these ‘escapist’ characters which are related, at most, to certain aspects of India. However, I noted that the Tantras depart decisively from the Vedantic-type doctrines of the world as illusion. In Shakti these have seen a kind of ‘active Brahman’, instead of the pure infinity of consciousness. Maya gives way to Maya-Shakti, that is to say, the ‘power’ that manifests and affirms itself, like a magic cosmogony. There is also a kind of Tantric historiography, according to which this system has put forward the claim that it presented the truths and the ways appropriate to the end times, the last of the four ages of traditional teaching, the so-called Kali-yuga, or ‘dark age’. Because of a profound change, general existential conditions in this age are different from the original ones, in relation to which the wisdom of the Vedas had been expressed. Elemental forces now predominate, man is united to them and he can no longer retreat; he must confront them, dominate them, and transform them, if he wants liberation, and even freedom. The way to achieve this cannot be the purely intellectual, ascetic-contemplative, or ritual one. Pure knowledge must lead to action, whereby Tantrism has defined itself as a sādhana-Shastra, that is, as a system based on techniques and realisatory effort. According to its view, knowledge must serve as a means to the real realisation and the transformation of the being. A text says: ‘Every (doctrinal) system is a mere means: it is useless, if one does not yet know the Goddess (i.e.: if one is not yet united with Shakti, with power), and it is useless to the one who knows her.’ Another text says : ‘It is in the nature of woman to strain to establish superiority through discursive arguments and it is in the nature of man to conquer the world with his own power.’ The analogy with medicines is recurrent: the truth of a doctrine must be proven by its fruits and not by concepts. As can be seen, the ‘East’ in question is absolutely different from the stereotypical one pictured by many Westerners. I was the first to make it known and promote it in Italy, developing a work parallel to that to which Sir John Woodroffe had devoted himself in the English language.
As a rule, the Tantras emphasise a fundamental orientation of Eastern metaphysics, namely an experimentalism that is not limited to sensory and empirical experience. Here I encountered precisely the widening of the ‘possible experience’ of Kant which I had sought to found speculatively in the books I have previously mentioned. In this respect, in L’Uomo come potenza I formulated the main themes of my critique of the knowledge of the modern scientific type and of power based on its technical applications, declaring both of them illusory and irrelevant: a knowledge and a power assorted to a utilitarian and democratic ideal, not based on any inner superiority of the individual, on any transformation of his existential state, of his actual, direct relations with the world and of the meaning of his life. ‘Rhetoric’, in the Michelstaedterian sense, of power in the modern civilisation: man remains the same, or rather he is ‘alienated’ more than ever, a mere shadow that has his principle outside himself, even if knowledge focused on the physical and phenomenal world were to allow him to destroy a planet at the mere pressing of a button. These were the issues which I was to resume and develop in the course my critique of civilisation, but which, in those formulations of 1927, anticipated in part what various thinkers acknowledged only later, even though they lacked the positive points of reference capable of giving a real bite and a solid basis to that critique. To have them, it would have been and still is necessary to refer to a world that goes completely beyond their horizons.
Tantric literature is extremely vast and multifaceted. As I said, my attention was brought essentially to the Shakti-tantras, to the Tantras of power. Here, in the so-called Left Hand Path, in the circles of Kaula, Siddha, and Vira, the aforementioned general worldview was combined with a supermanism that would have made Nietzsche turn pale. The East had generally ignored the fetishism of morality: on an higher plane, to the East, any morality is only a means to an end. Typical is the Buddhist image of law as a raft that is built to cross a stream, but is not carried further.
For the Vira, for the ‘heroic’ Tantric type, it was about breaking all ties, overcoming any opposition of good and evil, honor and shame, virtue and guilt. It was the path of absolute anomia, of the shvecchacarî, a term that means ‘the one whose law is his will’. Here, what was proposed was a special interpretation of the symbol of washing or undressing, as well as that of the ‘virgin’: the ‘virgin’, as pure will, detached, through special disciplines, from all that is not itself, inviolable and invulnerable. There were Tantric texts which indicated the main bonds to be broken: piety, the tendency to be disappointed (equanimity in the face of success and failure, of happiness and misfortune, etc.), shame, sense of sin, and disgust, all that is connected to family and to caste, every convention and ritualism, the domain of sex being no exception (a Kaula, it is said, must not shrink even before incest). This revealed how little the East – a certain East – had to learn from the Western ‘free spirits’ and ‘superatori’ [‘those who go beyond’]: with the difference that, here, none of this remained confined to a circle of anarchist individualism, of a Stirnerian ‘Unique’: it was instead directed at an actual self-transcendence, or presupposed it. Even liminal forms of ‘immanentism’ developed in the East, and specifically in the Tantras. While, in the West, given Christian-theistic and creationist premises, the theme of ‘self-deification’ appeared as blasphemous and luciferian, in the East the identity of the deep I, the Atma, with Brahman, with the absolute principle of the universe, and the related formula ‘I am Brahman’ or ‘I am him’ (so’ham, which, in Tantrism, became sa ham = ‘I am her’, i.e., Shakti, power) – as truths of the path of knowledge and of the destruction of that ‘ignorance’ (avidya) which alone leads man to believe that he is only human – were almost commonplace, in a context devoid of any tenebrous and titanistic colouring.
In both editions, my book was divided into two main parts. The first was entitled ‘La dottrina della potenza’ (‘The doctrine of power’). This was the metaphysical part: it described the process and the succession of stages, states, and modifications that, starting from the top, from the unconditioned, through the world of the elements and nature (considered not only in its physical aspects), has to limit the human condition. One of the terms for this process is pravrtiti-marga, the path of attachment, of identification with forms and determinations. It is followed by nivritti-marga, the path of detachment, of revulsion, of transcendence, with man as a starting point. With which we moved from metaphysics to practice and yoga.
In essence, the general pattern of my phenomenology of the absolute individual had not been different. As to the first part of my book, I believe that the attempt to consider the whole complex Hindu and tantric theories of elements – tattva – led to an intelligibility of the subject rarely found in Orientalist presentations. In the correspondence I had with him, Woodroffe, who had spent thirty years in India in direct contact with several tantric pandits, even happened to acknowledge the validity of some interpretations that I proposed.
As to the second part, in the first edition it was entitled ‘La tecnica della potenza’ (‘The technique of power’), in the second, ‘Lo Yoga della potenza’ (‘The Yoga of Power’). Perhaps the former title was more appropriate, since actual yoga was only part of the matter, a set of preparatory disciplines, as well as the so-called ‘secret ritual’, with particular forms of sacralisation and of transformation of naturalistic and constrained existence, were also considered. In the field of yoga, I expounded essentially that particular form, regarded as closely related with Tantra, which is called Hathayoga (or violent Yoga) and Kundalini Yoga. Unlike dhyana-yoga, or jnana-yoga, this yoga does not have a purely contemplative and intellectual character. Although it presupposes an adequate psychological and mental training, it takes the body as the basis and instrument: not the body as known by Western anatomy and physiology, but the body in relation to its deepest, transbiological, energies, which are usually not apprehended by ordinary consciousness, especially by that of the man of today, and which correspond to the elements and the powers of the universe, studied by that thousand year-old hyperphysical physiology whose development was no less systematic in the East than the study of human organism in the West. As to the designation ‘kundalini-yoga’, it is indicative of a method that uses kundalini, i.e. ‘power’, Shakti, present, albeit in latent form, at the root of the psycho-physical organism, for deconditioning and liberation.
About the spirit of Tantrism, one of its significant formulas is that of the unity of bhoga and yoga, explained as that of enjoyment (enjoyment of experiences and possibilities offered to man by the world) and of liberation, or asceticism. Tantric texts state that in the other schools the two things are mutually exclusive, that he who enjoys is not a liberated one, or an ascetic, and he who is a liberated one, or an ascetic, does not enjoy. This is not the case in Tantrism. ‘In the path of the Kaula enjoyment becomes perfect yoga and the world itself becomes the place for liberation.’ The texts add: ‘Without power liberation is a mere joke.’ It is about a paradoxical opening to the world and the experience of life, including in all its most intense and dangerous aspects, while remaining detached. Finally, the texts speak of the ‘transformation of poison into medicine’, that is, of the use, for the purpose of liberation and enlightenment, of all the forces and experiences which in any other case would lead to greater attachment, ruin and perdition. So it is in this complex that the ideal, not of ‘liberation as escapism’, but of real and immanent freedom, which, in the West, was cultivated and proclaimed in every way, but, basically (in comparison) either only in abstract, intellectualised, or degraded, materialised and trivial forms.
In the second edition of the book I added much more material: for example, with respect to the so-called Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism, which I overlooked in the first edition, because, when I wrote it, I knew little about it. Several points were corrected or clarified, various ‘critical’ appendages removed, certain parts greatly developed. This applies, for example, to the long chapter of the second edition dealing with Tantric sexual practices, which had been a cause of scandal to many Western ‘spiritualists’, including Blavatsky, who, because of this, was to define Tantrism as ‘the worst kind of black magic’ (this is one of the examples of what the Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, know of the Eastern doctrines). This chapter already contains some basic ideas that I was to resume and develop in one of my latest works, The Metaphysics of Sex.
Finally, it is worth mentioning one aspect of the overview peculiar to the second edition, which involved a certain shift of the center of gravity away from ‘power’. Actually, referred to the supreme principle, the use of the term Shakti could give rise to a misunderstanding. It is true that the texts often speak of Maha-Shakti, the Great or Supreme Power, as the ultimate basis of everything, but, in reality, this principle rather represents something like the Plotinian One, embracing all possibilities. In general, in keeping with any sapiental and esoteric teaching, Shakti, or power, in Hindu metaphysics and mythology, is taken as the eternal feminine principle, whose counterpart is the eternal masculine principle, in Tantrism is symbolised mainly by the figure of Shiva: a still, bright, detached, principle, just as Shakti is instead dynamic, productive, changing. Just as, in the cosmogonic myth, the universe is born out of a symbolic union of the two principles, of Shiva and Shakti, so the mystery of the transformation of the human being and the principle of greater freedom are referred to the union, in man, of the two principles, and not to his self-abandonment to Shakti as pure unrestrained power.
The practical significance of this relativisation of Tantric perspectives was evident: it involved an ‘olympianisation’ exorcising any ‘titanic’, pandemic, and vaguely ecstatic deviation. It prevented guidelines likely to lead to a catastrophe. Only for those who had the nature of Shiva, the Path of the Left-Hand and of Kaula was not that of destruction and regression. For my part, in this way, a continuity was then established with values already forefelt when I first presented Lao-tzu, and even Dadaism, as I had interpreted it.
Misunderstandings and dangers that have just been mentioned, on the natural non-Western ground of the disciplines which I considered, were quite reduced by means of particular existential premises and a system of checks and positive traditions. In general, the guidance of a spiritual teacher, of a guru, was presupposed, although it was also stated that, at the end of his path, the Tantric disciple ‘must have the master under his feet’, i.e. make himself free. The dangers concerned rather those Westerners who were introduced to this wisdom, which, oddly enough, apparently met their demand. I must admit that, in this respect, I had not taken the necessary precautions in writing the conclusion to L’Uomo come potenza, in the original edition of the work. Indeed, I praised therein almost in Nietzschean terms the vision of life of the Tantric adept, opposing it especially to Christianity. I wrote: ‘In contrast to the conception of countless beings that, out of an unconscious despair, seek each other, love each other, huddle together like children in the storm, seeking in the common bond and in the forgiveness of the Lord Almighty the semblance of that value and that life they lack, there is the conception of free beings, of the Saved from the Waters, of the Race without King, of Those-Who-Breathe, solar and self-sufficent beings who trample on the Law and “exist by themselves”, who do not ask but give abundantly power and light, who do not stoop to equal and to love, but, autonomous, in a resolute life, head for an increasingly dizzying existence along a hierarchical order that does not come from above but from the dynamic relationship of their intensity. This race with a fearsome gaze, this race of Lords does not need consolations, needs no gods, does not need a Providence . . . It moves freely in his world “no longer stained by spirit” – that is, free from the crust of feelings, hopes, doctrines, beliefs and values, sensations, words and passions of men, and led back to its nude nature made of pure power. And, in front of it, who does not see how weak and cadaverous is the wisdom and the « virtues » of the « servants of God », of these creatures that get depressed by « sin » and a « guilty conscience » and have only one aim: to level everything, to pool and to tie everything together?’ And so on.
All this was quite ‘Western’ and reflected some very problematic aspects of the ideal of the Absolute Individual. In the second edition of the book I recognised the opportunity to make, in this regard, ‘specific reservations’, recalling that an anagogic (= upward) and ‘transfiguring element’ and a metanoia, a change of polarity, were the essential premise all this system.
It is in these terms that the limit, albeit extrinsic and contingent, of this group of my writings, remains given. If Western man, who, if not intellectually, at least existentially, is less qualified for this adopted directly, other than as mere theories, doctrines like that, the almost inevitable effect would be a destructive short circuit, madness and self-destruction. With adequate reservations, it is in the same way that I was inclined to explain the fate of Nietzsche, Michelstaedter, Weininger and others, although they had not even assumed these truths in their extreme content. More generally, my three philosophical books could give rise to the erroneous idea of a possible continuous development almost in time (the ‘progressivity’, to which, for systematic reasons, I had attached much value) even with eschatological traits: while the main thing was basically an existential break in level; it was the return to a doctrine of the multiple states of being, a change of polarity. Even in the following period, in my works on traditional sciences, it is only little by little that I indicated these basic points with all the required clarity.
The limit of this problematic radicalist, almost Nietzschean, development can be indicated by one of my writings which first came out in French under the title ‘Par delà Nietzsche’ in the second volume (1926-1927) of 900, published by La Voce and edited by C. Malaparte and M. Bontempelli (who, at that time, flirted with ‘magical realism’), and which then formed the second part of the book L’Individuo e il divenire del mondo (The Individual and the Becoming of the World), excerpts of which were included in the anthology of contemporary Italian philosophers by A. Tilgher.
The essay had been written in a kind of intellectual lucid vertigo; so that, despite a strained style, questionable from a literary standpoint because of the abuse of terms and excessive images, it contained ‘charges’, for I read it as a conference – gradually evoking in me the state I was in when it was written – and someone happened to have visions or hallucinations. This writing developed first the Nietzschean ideas about the positive solution, under the sign of ‘Dionysus’, of absolute nihilism. I accepted to a large extent the Nietzschean interpretation of Apollo and Dionysus that I was to reject later wherever it did not have a simple agreed value, but wanted to be based on the actual and deeper meaning that those two gods had in the ancient world. What followed, as a ‘myth’, was a special interpretation of the fall: the individual who is born in the act of breaking away from being, from immortality, from life (from ‘God’), and of asserting himself as the highest value, as the ‘Lord of yes and no’, or of the ‘Two Natures’, of he who ‘is superior to the gods because, with the immortal nature, to which these are bound, he combines the mortal one, and with the infinite the finite.’
But of this act, which ‘represents the collapse of a whole world’, the individual was incapable. He was gripped by a fright that overwhelmed and broke him: only then his act became a ‘fall’. From this terror and fall, I figured out the main forms in which the world was to present itself to him: it is these that create space, visual exteriority, the objective limit of things, of ‘reality’ in space (‘an incorporation, almost a syncope of fear that stops and blocks the incapable being on the edge of the abyss of Dionysian power’), then the dependance on this reality, which creates time and becoming, the system of ‘causality’ and of ‘finalities’, and so on – all are creations of the original fear, of the horror for the void, and of the lenitive Apollonian illusion.
In contrast to this, what was however proposed was the path of the one who destroys that fear, regains his original will, eliminates all creations and symbols of his incapacity. In that direction, everything which is sin and infringement may even acquire for him a positive value, that of a test; in my writing, I also alluded to ancient sacrificial killings, then to the transposition on an inner plane of the tragic act of the sacrificer, in terms of progressive action on oneself, on the root of one’s own life; I also referred to the techniques employed to eliminate, in the perception, the ‘Apollonian’ guise of things, and, once broken, the limit set by the original terror, to make contact ‘dionisycally’ with elementary forces, in accordance with the absolute freedom that caused the whole thing.
A characteristic feature of this writing was the referring to mysteric wisdom the truth of those who have not been broken by the fall, and who intend to stand up, as well as the violent antagonism, Nietzschean in an increased sense, between this wisdom and Christianity; not without a historical reference (the alternative that would have arisen in Antiquity between Christianity and the mysteries of Mithra). Everything was pretty one-sided and not without distortions. Most useful footholds were provided to those who would have wished to stigmatise as Luciferianism, or worse, the mysteric tradition (although the aforementioned theory of the power on the two natures is actually evidenced in some of its branches). Then, from an inner individual standpoint, to assume, in the spirit that pervaded this writing of mine, initiatory teachings, in most cases, could in fact have had the catastrophic effects I mentioned before. Nevertheless, leaving aside what was accessory, rhetorical and excessive, some basic meanings retained their validity; these were those that characterised the aforementioned ‘Left Hand Path’, which I later discussed adequately. As for the rest, it was a strong dramatisation of the fundamental ideas whch had already appeared in my speculative books.
Completing the retrospective examination of what in my writings felt the effect of similar limitations, I should speak here also of ‘Imperialismo pagano’. But this book already leads to another domain, that of experiences on the margin of political ideologies and requires some preliminary clarifications. Besides, as I mentioned, the books of those years cannot be put in their proper place from an outer standpoint. Indeed ‘Imperialismo’ came out when the ‘Ur Group’ was alredy organised, while I still had not been able to have Fenomenologia published.
At that time I came to be acquainted with some other personalities, among whom was Arturo Reghini, a curious and interesting figure. Older than me, a pure blood Florentine, he had also been close to the Lacerba group, and it seems that contacts with him resulted in the frivolous attempt which Papini mentions in his autobiography Un Uomo finito (A Finished Man), when he told he had retired to a lonely place ‘to become God’ – by means of a two-week crash course. When I met him, Reghini was a 33rd degree Freemason of the Scottish Rite, had written a remarkable book on the sacred words and passwords of the first degree of this sect, in which he demonstrated an uncommon qualification. A mathematician, a philologist and a critical mind, he applied to the study of the initiatic heritage a seriousness and objectivity absolutely nonexistent in the ramblings of ‘occultists’ and Theosophists, at whom he never get tired of lashing out with the most biting sarcasm. It is to my contacts with Reghini (and soon after with Guénon, to whom he called my attention) that I owe firstly the final liberation from some slag derived precisely from those milieux, and secondly the final recognition of the absolute heterogeneity and transcendence of initiatic knowledge with respect to all secular, especially modern, culture, including philosophy.
Reghini had cherished the idea of a Western (and even ‘Italic’, due to certain problematic references to Pythagoreanism) esoteric tradition, and, on that basis, he had also strove to revive Masonic symbols and rituals. In addition, he was an exalter of ‘pagan’ Rome, in which he refused to see a merely political and legal reality in the framework of superstitious cults and practices, as in most current opinion; instead he had set himself to highlight the sacred, if not outright initiatic, background of various aspects of it; in this way he defended a Roman wisdom and vision of life and of the sacred, and contrasted it in the most drastic way to Christianity. Given that context, such contrast had obviously a very different character than that peculiar to an anti-Christianity of the Nietzschean kind. To Reghini, Christianity was an exotic belief, founded on an ambiguous spirituality, appealing to the irrational, sub-intellectual and emotional layers of the human being; it was the religion of a ‘spiritual proletariat’, inseparable from Judaism, entirely foreign to the style, ideals, ethics, severe sacredness of the best Romanity.
As is known, a similar synthesis had been highlighted by other authors, for example, and in a masterly way, by L. Rougier in the broad introduction to his edition of the preserved fragments of Celsus’ work Against the Christians. In Reghini there was, in addition, the reference to the sapiental and mysteric dimension discoverable in classical antiquity, should it be studied in its inner aspects. But what was also clear, even though I did not quite realise it when I followed Reghini on that line, was a certain ‘idealisation’ of Romanity itself: which would not have succumbed to Christianity, had it not been, at the rise of the latter, already undermined, had cults, conceptions and orientations also of non-Roman, Asian origin not already increasingly taken hold in its area.
The ideas of Reghini, in part I already shared, in part found a suitable ground in me. It is in this context that the first descent of the Absolute Individual occurred from the rarefied stratosphere of pure ‘value’ in the domain of history, traditions, and philosophy of civilisation. In ‘heathenity’ as interpreted in this way an ideal congenial to it was embodied. Finally, with the attempt of Imperialismo Pagano, there was a quite chimerical effort to act on the political and cultural currents of the time.
Until then I had kept myself completely out of the political world. With all the existing political parties in a country like Italy, I could not have anything in common (up to the time of writing these notes, I have never joined a political party, nor have I ever voted in any election). My first political writing resulted from an invitation of Duke Giovanni Colonna di Cesaro, with whom I was in friendly relations, to put down something in writing for his magazine, that, if my memory serves me right, was called L’Idea democratica. I replied that I could only write a demolition of democracy – and he accepted, saying that the privilege of ‘democratic freedom’ consisted precisely in this.
Among the troubles of the First World War Fascism had taken shape. The March on Rome occurred and Mussolini came to power. Of course, I could not but sympathise with anyone who fought against the forces of the Left and against the democratic regime. It was, however, about seeing in the name of what exactly such a fight was undertaken. When talking about the period of my early youth I mentioned how I abhorred nationalistic infatuation. Then there were certain prejudices not unrelated to those that the so-called ‘noble corps’ – artillery and cavalry – in which I had served, had harboured during the war for those assault troops, often made up of very suspicious elements, that resurfaced in the ‘black shirts’. The real revolution to make would have been to me the ‘revolution from above’, led by the sovereign, who should not have allowed Mussolini to present himself as the exponent of ‘the Italy of Vittorio Veneto’, but should have claimed that dignity and acted decisively in consequence to restore the state and curb rampant subversion.
Apart from the socialist and proletarian origins of Mussolini, the republican and secular tendencialities of pre-march Fascism are known. The fusion with nationalism on one side corrected these tendentialities, on the other curtailed the revolutionary vis of Fascism, gentrifying it greatly, because Italian nationalism was only an expression of the middle class and of a sluggish Catholic-oriented and conformist traditionalism. A strong Right with an aristocratic, monarchical and military basis, such as that which, for example, had estabished itself in Central Europe, was absolutely nonexistent in Italy. However Mussolini had avoided the worst, and, when he subsequently sought to espouse the ideal of the Roman state and imperium, when he thought of opposing those forces that had come to predominate in Europe as a result of the upheaval of the war and of shaping a new kind of Italian, disciplined, manly, and combative, the critical point seemed to have passed.
Imperialismo Pagano arose from my relationship with Giuseppe Bottai. He was my age, and had served as an artillery officer in my own regiment and had also participated in the Futurist movement (which, as is known, adhered to Fascism immediately after the war). He cared about being one of the ‘intellectuals’ of the movement and led the magazine Critica fascista, which allowed itself a fairly wide freedom of speech. It is in some of my conversations with Bottai that the idea was born of ‘getting things moving’ by launching a revolutionary program that would invest the plane of the Fascist vision of life and would lead to tackle the problem of compatibility between Fascism and Christianity. Bottai found the idea exciting. So I wrote for his magazine articles to that effect. But as soon as the ultimate goal of the move became visible and the idea of a ‘heathen imperialism’ was formulated as the only conceivable approach to a consistent and courageous Fascism, a true ruckus arose. Given the unofficial character of Bottai’s magazine, the organ of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano, asked categorically explanations about the extent to which such ideas were tolerated in Fascism. What immediately followed was a veritable avalanche of attacks from a chain printing [a number of newspapers that receive news from the same agency and publish simultaneously or in rapid succession the same items], while the scandal was echoed abroad. For similar disproportionate reactions there was a reason: the Concordat had not been signed yet and it was feared that someone, behind the scenes, wanted to spoil the game.
Given that the going got tough, Bottai even then showed me the same loyalty he was to show Mussolini later, during the crisis of fascism: he left me in the lurch, did not even give me any chance to respond to the most absurd accusations from the Guelph press, and washed his hands of the whole matter, saying that those articles, ‘while reflecting the Fascist travail’ (?), engaged the sole responsibility of their author.
So I faced things alone. In a book – precisely in Imperialismo Pagano, published in 1928 – I reaffirmed and developed the thesis of those articles, responding also to all my opponents. The book, now unobtainable, was subtitled ‘Il fascismo dinanzi al pericolo euro-cristiano – con una appendice polemica sulle reazioni di parte guelfa’ (‘Fascism before the Euro-Christian Peril – with a polemical appendix about the reactions of the Guelph party’). Its prologue was in the sign of ‘Antieuropa’, an approximate anticipation of what I was later to call properly the ‘revolt against the modern world’. Here are some of the sentences of the first pages:
Current Western civilisation awaits a substantial upheaval, without which it is bound, sooner or later, to collapse. It has realised the most complete perversion of every rational order of things. Reign of matter, of gold, of machine, of number, there is neither breath, nor freedom and light in it. The West has lost the sense of command and obedience. It has lost its sense of Contemplation and Action. It has lost its sense of values, of spiritual power, of men-gods. It no longer knows nature . . . nature has lapsed into an opaque and fatal exteriority whose mystery profane sciences seek to ignore with petty laws and petty hypotheses. It no longer knows Wisdom . . . the superb reality of those in whom the idea has become blood, life, power . . . it no longer knows the state: the state-value, the Imperium as a synthesis of spirituality and royalty . . . What war – war desired in itself as a superior value and a path to spiritual realisation – is . . . these formidable ‘activists’ in Europe no longer know . . . who do not know warriors but only soldiers . . . Europe has lost its simplicity, has lost its centrality, has lost its life. Democratic evil corrodes it in all its roots – whteher in law, in sciences, or in speculation. Leaders – beings that do not stand out through violence, through gold, through skills of exploiters of slaves, but instead through irreducible qualities of life – there are none. It is a big anodyne body, which throws itself here and there driven by dark and unpredictable forces which inexorably crush anyone who wants to oppose it or only to escape the gear. All this Western ‘civilisation’ has been able to do. This is the vaunted result of the superstition of ‘Progress’, beyond Roman imperiality, beyond bright Hellas, beyond the ancient East – the great Ocean. And the circle tightens ever more around the few who are still capable of disgust and the great revolt.
After other considerations, I asked myself this question : ‘Can fascism be the beginning of an anti-European restoration? Has Fascism enough strength to be able, today, to assume the awareness of this responsibility?’ I recognised that ‘Fascism arose from below, from confused needs and brutal forces unleashed by the war in Europe’, that it ‘has fed on compromises, fed on petty ambitions of petty people. The state organism that it has built is often uncertain, clumsy, violent, unfree, not without ambiguity.’ (it should be noted that, in the deprecated atmosphere of dictatorial Fascist ‘oppression’, similar things could be said and printed). But I observed that, if we turned our gaze around, we could not find anything that could be ‘a basis and a hope’. So: would Fascism assume a similar task?
In the book, in what followed – I must acknowledge – the impetus of a radicalist thought making use of a violent style combined with a youthful lack of measurement and political sense and with an utopian unawareness of the state of affairs. In the various chapters, I thus pointed out the conditions whereby Fascism could be a true and necessary revolution, not simply in the political-social field, but above all in the field of the general view of life, of the world, as well as of the divine. So not only was an attack launched against any democracy and any egalitarianism, while the negative tendencies (such as the merely nationalistic one, the Mazzinian one, the neo-Hegelian one) that Fascism had for me were not spared, but the values to be opposed to the type of modern economy, science, and technology, and of ‘Faustian’ activism, were also indicated: castes were tackled, there was even a reference – a quite inappropriate and counterproductive reference, given the cultural horizons of the milieux which I intended to approach – to spaiental or Oriental ideas.
But the bite of the book consisted mainly in the religious problem, and the clear consistency of my thesis was what aroused many alarmed reactions. I asked to what extent the essential values of ‘Fascist’ ethics were compatible with Christian ethics: whether it was not an obsolete rhetoric to recall Rome and its symbols without reviving also their inseparable counterpart, the spirituality of ‘paganism’, irreducible to Christianity. I rejected in the clearest manner the identification, dear to Guelphism, of Roman tradition with Catholic tradition, denouncing instead, in this respect, an usurpation (‘Catholic Romanity’). And I reiterated the thesis of my scandalous articles in Critica Fascista: ‘The assumption is that, in its purest strength, Fascism identifies with a will to empire; that its recalling of the Eagle and the Fasces cannot be merely rhetoric, that, in any case, this is the condition for it to represent something new, not a laughable (sic) revolution, but an heroic resurrection.’ Once these premises were given, I stated: ‘If Fascism is a will to empire, by reverting to the heathen tradition, it will truly be itself, it will ardere di quell’anima [untranslatable poetic expression, literally: ‘burn of a soul’] which it still lacks and which no Christian belief can give it.’
With a final dilemma, I already became a champion of ‘Ghibellinism’: ‘Fascism is confronted with this dilemma: either to stop at the empire as a raw material organisation – and then there is room for the Church in it, it can tolerate it, thus confirming the prerogative of those things of the spirit that are alien to the empire, which therefore, in this respect, will be subordinate to it. Or to reach the true idea of empire, which, in primis et ante omnia, is an immanent spiritual reality – and then the Church is deprived of authority, subject to the state within the limits of the generic tolerance that such state may grant temporally international associations of that kind.’ This was the political aspect. The other aspect was the inherent and unavoidable antithesis in terms of values and worldview. Evidently, the center, passing through Ghibellinism and Romanity, was already shifting toward what I was to call later, in general, the ‘traditional’ state, bringing together at its summit both political power (imperium) and an actual spiritual authority.
The lack of these broader points of reference and the accentuation of the anti-Christian polemic constituted one of the essential limits of that combat booklet of mine, limits which were already visible in its title, because, in reality, it was not appropriate to speak of ‘imperialism’, since this modern term designates a negative trend almost always associated with an exasperated nationalism, and because ‘heathen’; a derogatory term used by Christians, is to be dismissed. Rather, I should have spoken, in terms of historical reference, of a ‘Roman traditionalism’. No less ambiguous was the reference to a poorly defined ‘Mediterranean tradition’: an idea which, however, I soon abandoned or rectified.
The appeal constituted by Imperialismo Pagano was, practically and politically, as if it had not been launched. Of course, Mussolini did not read the book: someone must have provided him a fleeting and tendentious overview of it. One preferred to silence it, so, in a regime-controlled press, the few reviews or repercussions appeared only in second-rate newspapers and periodicals. Since the book was more or less sold, the direct adhesion of some independent Fascist circles could have been expeected: but that was the case only to a very small extent. Reghini himself was very reserved, and disapproved of my having taken up and developed, also, some of his ideas, although, in this respect, there had been a tacit agreement between us.
Nevertheless, the repercussions were different abroad, especially in Germany. It was assumed that the book was the product, not of a kind of captain without troops, but of an important current of Fascism, whose leader I was, a current akin to some of those which, in Germany, increasingly tended to set the ‘struggle for the worldview’; at the center of the political battle, finding there a far more suited soil than the Italian soil. I then gained the reputation of being the leader of ‘Ghibelline Fascism’. This fame was consolidated in 1933 when Imperialismo Pagano was published in German translation (by Armanen-Verlag in Leipzig), but in a greatly expanded, revised and even modified text, many basic ideas being formulated so as to apply also to Germany (the translator warned that ‘theses with a general value and which therefore can act as creative forces even within German culture, were highighted’): Ghibellinism, too, was highlighted with a more concrete reference to Swabian tradition, and the problem of the relationship between the two civilisations, between Roman civilisation and Germanic civilisation (Ghibellinism, the real Nietzsche, and the hierarchical idea were the three main points mentioned by the publisher of the book as a suitable ground for a constructive discussion) was tackled. The symbol of the ‘anti-European’ revolt was broadened: as a basic myth for the restoration I pointed to the ‘Two Eagles’, the Northern Eagle and the Roman one and, more specifically, a return to what had already appeared with the Triple Alliance. This could seem like an anticipation of the idea of the Axis. But also, irrespective of the fact that the German translation of my book came out before National Socialism and Hitler came to power, to think so would be simplistic and inaccurate, given the great diversity of the planes. At this point in these notes, there is no need to discuss the parts of Imperialismo Pagano added and changed in German, because in many respects these are an anticipation and adaptation of ideas from one of my main works, which I started to write only after 1930 and that was published only in 1934, Revolt against the Modern World. Of these ideas, as well as of the true meaning of the Roman-Germanic myth for me, and, finally, of the corresponding activities that I was to play, I will therefore speak later.