Schismogenesis and National Character: The D'Annunzio-Mussolini Correspondence

By Peterson, Thomas E. | Italica, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Schismogenesis and National Character: The D'Annunzio-Mussolini Correspondence


Peterson, Thomas E., Italica


In 1911, Gabriele D'Annunzio, self-described "uomo d'azione," hoped to encourage the outbreak of World War I by going into "esilio volontario" in France, where he would dedicate himself to art, love, and life. Four years later, after polemicizing against Franz Joseph, he returned to Italy just as neutrality toward Austria was ending. On May 5, 1915, he delivered his speech at Quarto arguing for intervention in the war. Once Italy had entered the war on the side of the Allies, D'Annunzio visited the front, flew over Trieste and Trent, and encouraged troops in the field. In January, 1916, in a forced landing, he lost the sight of one eye, an injury he would later convert, like the speech at Quarto, into an emblem of heroism. In these same years, Benito Mussolini, a former editor of the Socialist newspaper Avanti! expelled from the party for his interventionist tendencies, was laying the groundwork for an irrational nationalist movement that would prosper in the chaos following World War I. It is in 1919, the year Mussolini founds the Fasci di Combattimento and D'Annunzio leads a band of disenchanted veterans to occupy the Istrian city of Fiume--angered over what he called the "vittoria mutilata" sanctioned by the Treaty of Versailles--that the two men exchange the first of 578 letters and telegrams. Their correspondence will last until 1938, the year of D'Annunzio's death and of the Pact of Steel with Germany. (1) The nineteen plus years of the correspondence matches the difference in age of the two men, a difference we explore here in terms of their models of comportment and their relations to the Italian national identity and character.

The concept of "national character," as employed by anthropologists beginning with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead in the early 1940s, combines three related aspects of cultural transmission: 1) "the principle motives or predispositions which can be deduced from the behavior of the personnel of a society at a given time and place"; 2) "the means by which these motives and predispositions are elicited and maintained in the majority of the new members who are added to the society by birth"; and 3) "the ideal image of themselves in the light of which individuals assess and pass judgment on themselves and their neighbors, and on the basis of which they reward or punish their children." (2) The analysis of national character relates individual behavior to the population in terms of the systematicity of patterns of education, diffusion of the arts, language use, the customs and mores of diverse social classes and regions, values of patriotism, the willingness to defend one's country, and so forth; the presence of such ritual factors is universal among populations, but the actual combinations of the factors themselves vary widely.

Bateson defines schismogenesis as "a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behavior resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals." (3) He saw it occurring in two major forms: in complementary schismogenesis, the aggression or dominance of A is met by the submission or passivity of B; in symmetrical schismogenesis, A and B are rivals and attempt to outdo each other. Either relation leads to the escalation of conflict: the complementary ends in alienation and betrayal, the symmetrical in explosiveness and war. (4) In 1935, Bateson felt an admixture of complementary and symmetrical forms could stabilize a relation, lessening the extremes of schismogenic Intensity; but as he came to see that the context of behavior itself evolved and that "contextual structures themselves could be messages," his attention turned from the quantification of schismogenic behavior to the idea of "end-linkage." (5) As he grew to adopt a pluralistic, dynamic, and holistic vision of reality, Bateson was able to imagine cultural systems at a higher level of abstraction than previously; national character itself could rely on a manipulation of the codes of complementary and symmetrical tension, with stability beIng achieved by negative feedback factors within the behavioral systems. …

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