Monthly Archives: March 2011

Demonstrations and violence, some thoughts from Saturday

On Saturday I was on the TUC’s demonstration against public spending cuts, and about 500,000 of us marched through London from the Embankment, past the Palace of Westminster, and up to a rally in Hyde Park. Of the march itself, it was obviously well attended, being the largest in Britain since the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War. It was colourful (trade unions in the UK having finally decided to emulate their continental cousins when it comes to flags/horns/drums/bibs/banners etc) and many of the people there were attending their first demonstration, many with their kids in tow.

Later on in the day some violence occurred, mostly confined to window smashing, and the Sunday papers were predictably hysterical about it. I was also at the student demonstrations in December, where some violence also occurred, and it might be useful to draw a comparison between the two. Unlike the violence that occurred during the student demonstrations, it did not originate from anger within the crowd itself, but was performed by the usual groups of ninja-suited anarchists, who by and large were outside of the main march. I say performed, this kind of thing is ritualistic in nature and can be pretty much guaranteed at any large demonstration in London. I also hesitate to use the word anarchists, as a term it has become fairly meaningless and everyone, including anarchists themselves, completely disagree on what set of ideas it describes. But as whoever might have been involved would term themselves as anarchists, it will have to do.

The anti-cuts movement, if one does materialise, is in its infancy, and tactically speaking, charging around Oxford St in balaclavas and smashing random shop windows has an air of inauthenticity about it. Others at the march seemed mostly bemused by these happenings, and seem to have felt that it was something separate from what they were doing. At best, it was self-regarding, mistimed, and tactically ill-advised and at worst, it served to actively alienate people. There may be a time for smashing the windows of banks, but this wasn’t it, and the mood of the general crowd wasn’t in it.

As during the summit protests of the 1990s and early 2000s, in Seattle, Genoa, Prague etc, violence becomes a mask to hide an intellectual deficiency, and a lack of wider analysis concerning the cuts and the implications of the economic situation as a whole. It was no indication of how angry people feel against the cuts, because this kind of violence is almost guaranteed at any demonstration in London.

The violence did detract from the event itself, but since it is the press who decides whether an event has been ‘overshadowed by violence’, I’m sure it would have been ‘overshadowed’ had only a couple of windows been smashed by an even smaller group of people, or had anything much happened at all.

From a quick glance at a few anarchist discussion boards today, even those on the more sensible end of anarchism who had been arguing years ago against the use of ‘black bloc’ tactics as outdated and achieving little, that anarchists should not seem unapproachable and dangerous, hiding behing masks, and should try to spread their ideas among other demonstrators, have been caught up in the excitement of the moment in believing that this was a breakthrough. Perhaps this is down to the example of Greece, where the recent campaigns against austerity measures have been characterised by mass violence. But from the outside, in a country like Britain, which unlike Greece has no recent history of political violence, and no large communist or socialist movements, these kind of random attacks on property seem no different to those being used ten years ago. This is still a mindset of being in the bubble of activism, where constant overexposure to those with the same ideas, and confined to tiny political groups, can lead you to believe your actions have little consequence outside of these groups.

The response of the left-leaning press has fared little better, with the Guardian, as usual adopting a calmer and less hysterical, but essentially similar position to the right-wing press, of a peaceful march having been ‘hijacked’. Among the stranger responses however has been from New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who has written an article describing her experiences in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Aside from the usual comments from right-wing types that are to be expected, the comments from those who were on the march on Saturday have been fairly sceptical, and they believe large parts of her account have been fabricated. Not having spent too much time on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, I can’t confirm or deny her account.

The entire article has a bizarre feeling about it, from dismissing the half a million of so trade unionists on the main march as ‘humous eaters’, something any sane person would ascribe to a New Statesman columnist than to the firemen, teachers, binmen, council workers, train drivers, paramedics, who had come from all over the country to voice their opposition, to the obvious jumping on a new political bandwagon from somebody whose articles just six months ago were demoaning the Labour Party having ‘let us down’. She is clearly positioning herself as some kind of new Hunter S Thompson, reporting from the front line of a riot, although with absolutely none of his ability to write with artistic flair and avoid cliche, leading us to the atrocious and cringing way the article is written. It reads like fan fiction written by somebody imagining themselves on the barricades of the Rue Soufflot in 1848, definiantly facing down the forces of reaction, as a whiff of gunpowder blowing by on the cool wind as a red flag flutters in the distance. To say it is overly dramatic is an understatement;

“Now, night is falling on the Trafalgar kettle, and the square stinks of cordite, emptied kidneys and anxiety. We’ve been here for three hours, and it’s freezing; we burn placards and share cigarettes to maintain an illusion of warmth.”

“I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.””

For people of my generation in their early twenties, the obvious reference point we arrive at for mass violence during a demonstration is that of the Poll Tax Riot in 1990. To compare what happened on Saturday to that, as some eager people have been trying to do, is incorrect. The protest itself came on the back of months of localised opposition to the Poll Tax, through community organising, non-payment, and resistance to baliffs, and the riot was indicitive of the deep anger felt by those on the march. Contrary to what was said by those in government, the Labour Party, the police, the unions, and various smaller left-wing parties said, an inquiry afterwards concluded that there was;

‘no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups’

The same can be said of the student demonstrations in December, which were popular outpourings of anger, but cannot, by anyone who was there, be said of the demonstration on Saturday. Maybe the anti-cuts movement will have its Poll Tax Riot, but when it does, the real demonstration of anger against the cuts will be when anarchists become superfluous to any window smashing.

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The Dancing Plague, and a raw deal for the Pied Piper

Recently I’ve been reading a book called The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague by Johannes Nohl. I had the good fortune to come across it in the used section of My Back Pages in Balham, a really excellent bookshop to visit if you happen to be in South London. It was first published in 1926, and offers an account of plague from 1348-1720, and does a good job of encompassing various outbreaks through those years in a fairly small book. I couldn’t find out much about Johannes Nohl other than that he lived from 1882 to 1963, and appears to have been a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the governing party of East Germany until (obviously) the Berlin Wall fell in the revolutions of 1989.

The book itself is very interesting and worth reading if you can get hold of copy, but something that particularly interested me was Nohl’s short account of ‘dancing plague’. Historically known as St Vitus’ Dance (St Vitus was a Catholic martyr, supposedly killed in 303 during the persecution of Christians by Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, although there exists no historical documents related to his life, or death, and he was historically venerated in the late middle ages through dancing before his statue), dancing plague was a form of mass hysteria that manifested itself through large groups of people, sometimes thousands, dancing uncontrollably and shouting or singing, and often experiencing hallucinations. Although obviously not related to bubonic plague, as it was a psychological affliction, they are interesting to note nonetheless. Most of these episodes occurred from the 14th to the 17th centuries, and were surprisingly well-documented through local chronicles and physician’s notes.

One of the first documented cases was in the 1020s in Bernburg, in Saxony, where a group of peasants took to dancing around a church in the middle of a Christmas Eve service. An outbreak in 1278 involved around 200 people dancing on a bridge across the River Meuse in Germany, leading to its collapse. In 1428, a monk from Schaffhausen danced himself to death, and outbreaks occurred throughout the next two hundred years, apparently across all of Europe, and one case was even recorded in Madagascar.

One of the most well-documented outbreaks was in Strasbourg in 1518. It began in July when a woman identified as Frau Troffea began dancing maniacally in the street, and by the end of the month had been joined by over 400 others, many of whom died of heart attacks, stroke, and exhaustion. The local nobility, suitably disturbed by these events, consulted physicians, who, surprisingly for medieval medicine, decided against any supernatural causes and declared the hysteria a ‘natural disease’. The cure prescribed was, in fact, more dancing. Wooden stages were erected and musicians paid to keep everyone moving, night and day, in what can only have been a grotesque medieval version of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, only with more death and less shattered Hollywood dreams.

Various explanations have been offered for the existence of the dancing plagues, none of which have been agreed on by historians. One is that sufferers were taking part in heretical rituals, although this explanation has been called in to question for its validity. Another is that the sufferers were afflicted with what is now known as Sydenham’s chorea, a disease characterised by ‘rapid, uncoordinated movements affected primarily the face, feet, and hands’, and is known to result from childhood infection as well as occurring in a large proportion of sufferers of acute rheumatic fever. Chorea can also manifest itself in epileptics, and Catholic legend held that invoking the anger of St Vitus could provoke compulsive dancing, so it is possible that people were brought before a shrine or statue of St Vitus when afflicted with chorea, although this would not explain how so many people were afflicted simultaneously in one locality.

Another explanation attributes the dancing to mass psychosis, caused by major mass psychological distress. In the case of the Strasbourg outbreak, famine had been prevalent in the region for some time, caused by extreme weather and crop frosts during the winter. Mass deaths occurred, as well as outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, leprosy, and the ‘English Sweat’, a mysterious illness which struck Europe in the late middle ages, and apparently disappeared in the 1550s. Some scholars contend that the dancing was merely a response to a ‘shared stress’ to what can only have been a miserable existence.

Possibly the most interesting explanation though, and one that Johannes Nohl seems to have favoured, was ergotism. Ergotism is what results from long-term ergot poisoning, caused by the ingestion of alkaloids produced on fungus (ergot) that can grow on standing corn, rye especially, especially in warm and damp conditions. Rye bread was, at the time, the ‘poor man’s loaf’, and anyone who ingested ergot-laced rye was liable to be afflicted with what was historically known as St Anthony’s Fire, and later became ergotism, the physical symptoms of which are seizures, delirium, violent cramps, mental derangement, and later, gangrene. Ergot poisoning has also been offered as a possible explanation for what was termed ‘bewitchment’, and possibly for the convulsive symptoms of those who were later tried in the Salem Witch Trials.

As was recorded in physician’s notes, dancing seemed in some way to relieve the pain of suffering ergotism, and this is possibly the reason local authorities were prepared to employ musicians to play for sufferers. One outbreak of dancing mania, occurring in 1237, involved a large group of children travelling from Erfurt to Arnstadt, in central Germany, who appeared to have been dancing and jumping uncontrollably all the way. This incident is noted for its marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, where a piper leads the children of the village of Hamelin away, dancing as they go to the sound of his pipe, never to return. If the legend had in some way originated from the phenomenon of dancing mania, far from being the villain of the story, the Pied Piper had possibly been playing to ease the pain of children who had been afflicted with St Anthony’s Fire.

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Waugh, Pound, and political modernism

While undertaking a long voyage – we’re not sure when or where to – Evelyn Waugh was forced, against his better judgement, to enter the second-class restaurant of his ship, and upon entering exclaimed, ‘My God, you can just smell the poverty, can’t you?’

Waugh had been a bully at school, and the writer and diarist James Lees-Milne called him ‘the nastiest-tempered man in Britain’. He was a conservative, both before and after the war, and believed in the ‘natural’ separation of servants and masters. He also saw inequalities in wealth as natural, and attacked the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee. He believed the Catholic Church to be the last bastion of defense against a ‘Dark Age’ to be ushered in by the burgeoning welfare state. Waugh’s political opinions contributed to his reputation of being a snob, taking any opportunity he could to sneer at the lower classes.

Waugh’s work and political views were informed by an era of aristocracy, a class of English society all but descimated by the Second World War, and a view of society fixed in an Edwardian mindset of unapologetic class dominance, the abolishment of which was neither possible nor desirable. Nowadays, views such as these would rightly be thought unacceptable by most people, but when looked at alongside the political opinions of some of his contemporaries, Waugh’s pale from voraciously reactionary to a comfortable English conservatism based on a sneering elitism not wholly uncommon at the time.

A strangely large proportion of these contemporaries come from the ranks of the English and American expatriate modernists, who seem to have had a particular affinity with the radical right-wing, and often identified with outright fascism. There are a couple of notable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway was associated with the anti-fascist left for much of his life; he reported on the Spanish Civil War from the republican side, narrating and co-writing the screenplay of the loyalist propaganda film The Spanish Earth, and For Whom The Bell Tolls is a sympathetic portrayl of a republican guerrilla group during the war. Virginia Woolf, in keeping with the liberal and pacifist ethos of the Bloomsbury Group, expressed anti-war and anti-militarist views throughout her life, and penned the markedly anti-fascist long essay Three Guineas, asking, among other things, ‘How should war be prevented?’.

On the other side, the story of Ezra Pound is probably the most familiar. Having spent the previous three years in Paris, where his championing of up-and-coming writers such as Hemingway, James Joyce, and T S Eliot cannot be understated,  he and his wife moved to Italy in 1924. While in Italy, Pound quickly became enamoured with fascism. Mussolini had been in power for two years, after the fascists’ successful March on Rome in the autumn of 1922. He became convinced that Jews and ‘international usury’ had been the cause of the the First World War, and became so involved in spreading the ideas of fascism that one biographer was of the opinon that no other American or English poet had been so politically active since William Blake.

He travelled to America as what can only be described as an unofficial emissary for Italian fascism, meeting congressmen  and senators to convince them to foster closer relations with Mussolini’s Italy. He carried this on until the beginning of the war, and even met Mussolini at one point, who seems to have been wary of Pound’s intentions, although he received a copy of Cantos XXX, which he described as ‘entertaining’. He wrote anti-semitic articles for the Italian press, as well as for Action, a newspaper owned by the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He wrote that President Roosevelt represented ‘Jewry’, and began a habit of signing off his letters with ‘Heil Hitler’.

With the outbreak of war, he petitioned American politicians to keep America out of the war. Beginning in 1935, after apparent reluctance on the part of the Italian government, Pound was given permission to broadcast on Radio Rome, on which he made his now infamously anti-semitic and pro-Axis tirades throughout the early years of the war. He was in Rome when the Allies invaded Italy, and after fleeing the city was captured by partisans, who handed him over to the Americans.

He was interned in Italy for the rest of the war, and in November 1945 was arraigned in Washington DC on a charge of treason. He was found guilty, and institutionalised until 1958. Upon his release he recanted publicly on his past, while continuing to express anti-semitic beliefs in private. That same year he emigrated again to Italy, giving a fascist salute to photographers on his arrival in Naples.

Another modernist who openly expressed her admiration for fascism, and actively participated in spreading it was Gertrude Stein. She supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and after the outbreak of war in France in 1940 she was involved in translating articles written by Marshal Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime, whom she also compared to George Washington. Some have tried to write off her stance regarding fascism as one of expediency, being a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. This, however, does not explain her bizarre claim prior to the outbreak of the war that Hitler should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, in her words for,

‘removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany’ (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934).

Others held opinions bordering on eugenics, WB Yeats declaring that, ‘Sooner or later, we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes’, a thought echoed by DH Lawrence, “Let all schools be closed at once. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write”.

DH Lawrence was another titan of the literary right-wing, and although he never become an outright fascist, this could be more down to timing. Lawrence died in 1930, before Hitler, Franco, and Europe’s pre-war fascist heydey. He wrote of his opposition to democracy, liberalism, socialism, and egalitarianism, and in letters he exchanged with Bertrand Russell around 1915 he disparages trade unions, and voices his opposition to enfranchising the working class. He also wrote against the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity being a ‘three-fanged serpent’, and supported the idea of an absolute dictator to replace democracy.

Although he lived in Mussolini’s Italy and was not overly impressed with fascism there, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising to see him embrace fascism had he lived another ten years to see it grow in power. The philosophical underpinning of fascism, the hostility to democracy, opposition to any attempts by the working class to assert themselves, and opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution – which all ideas of modern democracy and egalitarianism can be traced back to, as well as a yearning for dictatorship, are all apparent in Lawrence’s views.

In some less extreme examples, TS Eliot termed himself a, ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion’, and was a life member of the reactionary Society of King Charles The Martyr. And F Scott Fitzgerald had some interesting, if apparently apologetic, views on race, writing in 1921 after an unhappy trip to Europe,

‘The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter’.

And then, seeming to abhor his own reactions, qualifies this with, ‘My reactions,” he wrote “were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish’.

The views of many of those mentioned above often run parallel to a hostility or fear of the working class, or ‘common man’, and a desire to see him kept out of, or removed from, the cultural and political sphere. Especially in the remarks from WB Yeats and DH Lawrence quoted above regarding ‘limiting’ the families of the ‘unintelligent classes’, which we can clearly take to mean the lower classes, and the closing of schools for the ‘great mass of humanity’ who should ‘never learn to read or write’, we can see an obvious fear of various historical trends which at the time were fairly recent revelations. The schooling of all children, regardless of wealth, increasing literacy rates, self-education by working class people, and on the political side, the rise of European social democratic parties, as well as the spectre of increasingly powerful trade unions, working class unrest and communism across the continent, materialising in the revolutions in Russia (1905, 1917), Germany (1918-19), and Spain (1936), as well as the Biennio Rosso, or Two Red Years, in Italy between 1919 and 1920, after which the Italian bourgeoisie wholeheartedly embraced fascism.

This mistrust of an increasingly powerful working class, who with their increasing prominence in political life would bring with them an increasing prominence in cultural life, could be explained as the root of anti-democratic feelings among many European writers. This fear is apparent in Joseph Conrad, who was oppossed to democracy, ‘I have no taste for democracy’, and made his feelings towards the ‘common man’ obvious in his attitude to socialism, which he characterised as, ‘infernal doctrines born in the continental backslums’.

To Yeats and Lawrence, the working classes were to be kept out of the way, and if forced to confront them, they should be looked down upon, and if necessary, stamped upon. They saw themselves as living in precarious times, which they were, tasked with the protection of a culture of which they saw themselves as the elite, to be barricaded at all costs from the hands of the increasingly powerful ‘unwashed’. If fascism stood for order out of the chaos of unrest and the clamour for political and democratic freedoms, then it would find support among the cultural hierarchy. Modernist literature was particularly susceptible to this, with its emphasis on individualism, the aesthetics of beauty, and opposition to relativism and any ideas of equal value in art, leading to a hierarchical and automatic rejection of the perceived ugliness ugliness of popular, or working class culture. The growth of democracy was seen to be the vehicle for this shift in power, especially apparent in Europe, and it is no surprise that many exponents of this high cultural elite found it necessary to either stand on the right and sneer and laugh at the ‘common man’, as Evelyn Waugh did, or fully embrace politics of a more dangerous, and anti-democratic quality.

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La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and post-war Italy

I’ve watched two Fellini films in the last few weeks, both released after the twilight of Italian neo-realism (usually placed at 1952), and although it was neo-realism that sought to portray the difficulties of daily life in post-war Italy, I think these two films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, released in 1953 and 1957 respectively, reveal a fantastically contrasting image of the Italy of the 50s.

A short mention should be made here of Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and muse, who plays the female protagonist absolutely perfectly in both films. In some ways, it’s a shame her fame has been overshadowed by that of her husband, and as her intense performances in both films prove, she was a wonderful dramatic and comic actress. Her often-given label, ‘the female Chaplin’, is especially apparent in La Strada and is no exaggeration. She was rewarded for her performance in Nights of Cabiria with the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1957.

La Strada tells the story of Gelsomina, a peasant girl living in poverty in southern Italy. At the beginning of the film she is sold by her mother to a gruff and brutal itinerant entertainer and strong-man called Zampano, who is played perfectly, albeit with an out of synch mouth (he was dubbed into Italian) by Anthony Quinn. Gelsomina and Zampano proceed to make their living driving around the countryside on a spluttering motorcycle, stopping off in towns and villages to amaze the locals with Zampano’s act, which involves breaking a chain wrapped around his chest, and with humorous clown skits.

La Strada is a bleak film, and the southern Italian setting exemplifies this. At the time, the southern economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, and unemployment was high. The places we see in the film are mostly run-down villages or small towns, and the people in them are tired and ragged peasants, or those, like Zampano and Gelsomina who are either itinerant performers of labourers. The people in the villages seem naively and thoroughly impressed with  the spectacles they witness in the film; the spectacle of Zampano’s strong-man act or the circus, and in one excellent scene a large and dramatic religious procession through a town that creates such a fervour that Gelsomina is literally swept up with the crowds of people running through the streets. The film begins with an act of desperate necessity, Gelsomina’s mother sells her to Zampano for 10,000 lire, possibly never to see her again, and the general desperation and bleakness of the film is summed up in Zampano’s cruelty towards Gelsomina.

The bleakness of the film is further amplified by the setting, the vast and empty plains, the wintry expanse, the bare trees, the snow, and the poverty that Zampano and Gelsomina experience on a daily basis, either sleeping in their draughty cart which is pulled on the back of the motorbike, or sleeping outside in the cold, and in the few coins they earn being displayed after Zampano’s act in a tattered old hat. Additionally, the reality of daily life is so desperate that when Gelsomina attempts to escape from Zampano, she may be free of him, but what confronts her is a poverty that lacks even the tiny reassurance of the hat with a few coins in it to buy some food. The only hint the films gives of freedom beyond her daily life is embodied in Il Matto, or, The Clown, another entertainer and tightrope walker, played by Richard Basehart, who urges Gelsomina to leave Zampano, and imparts to her his philosophy that everybody has a purpose in life. She refuses to leave, and Il Matto is promptly beaten to death by Zampano.

This bleakness contrasts very well with Nights of Cabiria, made three years later in 1957. The life of the two protagonists of La Strada, as itinerant workers (although, unlike most, as entertainers) was very much true of many young people in southern Italy in the post-war period. Coming from peasant families and unable to find work in the south, they made their way to the cities and large industrial centres. The post-war period was a time of large-scale migration into the cities, and industry enjoyed a never-ending supply of labour from the countryside, leading to prolonged economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. From the beginning of Nights of Cabiria we see signs of this rapid migration, the main character, Cabiria, is walking in a suburb of Rome, and has her purse stolen and is pushed into a river. A group of boys sunbathing nearby dive in to save her, shouting that they have to stop her before she is swept downstream to the sewage plant, an indication of industry. Lining the river are large building estates consisting of high-rise towers, hurriedly built in the post-war period, and often completely unsafely, to house the large number of industrial workers flowing into the cities. The area is rundown and in some ways looks like a slightly more primitive (it predates it by around twenty years) version of the poverty-stricken Naples suburb of Scampia, whose dilapidated public housing blocks were made infamous by Matteo Garrone’s 2005 film Gomorrah, and Roberto Saviano’s groundbreaking book on which the film is based exposing the Neopolitan mafia.

After being dragged from the river, Cabiria hurries home, to her own neighbourhood, a soon to be suburb on the edge of Rome consisting of a series of small stone buildings dotted around. Everything in her neighbourhood exemplifies the haphazard speed at which these estates were raised to house this influx from the south. However, unlike a peasant’s house, she has ‘running electricity, water and bottled gas’, and has ‘nearly paid off her mortgage’, and is at pains to make this clear to anyone who’ll listen during the course of the film. After going through all the expensive suits and shirts that she has brought her now ex-boyfriend (mainly, because he was the one who pushed her in the river), she takes them outside and burns them. In the evening, she heads into the centre of Rome to ply her trade as a prostitute. While there, we see the street-savvy prostitutes arguing with each other or anyone else who happens to be in their way, contrasting absolutely with the naive and quiet peasants that mostly make up La Strada.

The contrast in wealth of the characters of the two films is obvious, compared to the ragged, even pre-1900 poverty we see in La Strada, Cabiria frequents expensive-looking cocktail bars, wears fur coats, gets driven around in a Cadillac, hangs out with boys wearing American (or what they perceive to be American) suits, with thickly pomaded hairstyles in imitation of American film stars, and, without even going to the point of exaggeration, is taken home by a famous matinée idol to drink champagne and eat lobster, and gushing at one point that she has ‘seen all of his movies’, a signal of the by that time growing trend of celebrity worship of American culture. Both Cabiria and Gelsomina could be seen to occupy a fairly similar position on the social chain, but Cabiria’s experiences and opportunities far outweigh those of Gelsomina, showing the lure of the city for tens of thousands of young Italians in the post-war period who emigrated from the countryside.

A youth idolisation of the popular culture of America is apparent throughout, and reminded me of the character of Pierre Capponi in Wu Ming’s 2002 novel ’54, part of which is an excellent portrayal of youth culture in post-war Bologna, and his tireless and flawless impersonations and worship of Cary Grant, in both mannerisms and dress. We are reminded of the cultural influence America exerts over post-war Italy several times. By being the main force behind the physical and social reconstruction of Italy after the war, along with the political conditions this came with, American cultural life began to imitated to the letter by a generation of young Italians, from styles of dancing and the popularity of jazz, evidenced in Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 book and the 1999 film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, set in mid-50s Italy, to the veneration of American film stars.

The personalities of Gelsomina and Cabiria contrast as much as the setting of the films, and it is testament to Giulietta Masina’s skill as an actress that she portrayed them both so well. Cabiria is loud-mouthed, street smart, and seems to know how to get ahead, and has a definitely positive attitude towards her life and the ability to pick herself up, even though misfortune befalls her several times, whereas Gelsomina possesses no philosophy in life, is quiet, naive, wide-eyed, lost, and melancholy, which turns to prolonged depression after the death of Il Matto. At the end of La Strada, the only way Gelsomina can escape from Zampano is by him leaving her by a roadside while she is asleep, and as he later finds out in a scene fast forwarded some years, her life without him is unremarkable, and she has essentially wasted away and died. In Nights of Cabiria, Cabiria gets married, but, while walking in a forest on her honeymoon, she senses a repeat of the opening scene of the film, where her boyfriend pushes her in the river and steals her purse, and throws her purse at the feet of her new husband, who takes it and leaves. She collapses to the forest floor in tears, but, after some time, picks herself up and walks away. While she is walking back towards the town, she is met by a group of young people who are playing music and dancing, and the film fades out with them dancing around her as a smile draws across her face. On two occasions Cabiria is betrayed and abandoned by her lovers, and both times she picks herself up and is happy again. Gelsomina finds it impossible to leave Zampano, and when she is finally free of him, it is of his doing and she flounders without him. There is hope for Cabiria in the city, and her attitude embodies this, but for Gelsomina in the countryside there is only her fate.

Although technically outside the period of Italian neo-realism, the two films demonstrate perfectly the changing social make up of Italy in the post-war era, and the attitudes and aspirations of people in the two worlds of city and village at that time. The Rome of Nights of Cabiria shows the booming city enjoying the fruits of its economic prosperity, happy and at the forefront of Europe, and looking forwards both financially and culturally, and the other world of La Strada shows an archaic and backward south, seemingly halted in time, of desperate and ragged peasants, and the enduring Gelsomina and Zampano, roaming the wintry and bleak countryside on a motorcycle, getting a few coins in a hat here and there to buy food with before moving on to the next village. There is the possibility of a happy ending for Cabiria, but there is none for Gelsomina and Zampano except, perhaps, the lure of the city.

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