On the Interregnum, or the New Prehistory Perspectives for a Civilisation Born in Auschwitz

Nicolas Martino

When, the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, World War II came to an end – but so, too, did the History that had deluded and bewitched part of humanity for several centuries. The grand récitwhich began with Bernard of Chartres, among others, slowly laid down new layers, until it was systematised – first by the Enlightenment, later by Hegel – through a secularisation of Judeo-Christian theology that made this History the “formula” through which Europe was supposed to progressively liberate itself and the rest of the world. This self-narration began with the conquest of a new continent and the extermination of millions of people – to free them from pagan error and make the white man the only true son of God, free to plunder these lands without remorse, accumulating the riches necessary to set the capitalist process in motion – and it ended with Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. From holocaust to holocaust, so-called modernity, a certain idea of History and time, was consummated. In the 1960s, reflecting on the end of that History, Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke of the beginning of a new prehistory. He was probably right, just as he was right about the other emergencies that he managed to glimpse through the cracks of Italy’s economic miracle – itself the late and illegitimate child of the aforementioned illusions – as he applied the clinical eye of cultural anthropology to the analysis of the contemporary world. Then came ’68, the last modern revolution, marking the cultural and political transition to a different era, inaugurated by ’77. But if today, almost eighty years after the end of World War II, and almost fifty years after the beginning of postmodernity, we look at the recent past using the tools of anthropology, we realise that the crisis of the notions of reason, progress, revolution and future, the radical transformations of the idea of time as a result of quantum physics, the deconstruction of the Hegelian conception of History (as brought about by the Annales school and by microhistory, which substituted time with space) and, in the first instance, workers’, postcolonial and feminist struggles, did not mean a transition to postmodernity as an exhaustion of modernity. Rather, they were the signa prognostica of an even more radical transformation, which brings with it the end of a civilisation that lasted centuries and the beginning of another, whose constitutive traits we have not yet been able to make out in full. We might also think of the burgeoning – right at the end of the 1970s – of all that fantastical literature that spoke of alien worlds and paranormal phenomena, of fantasy-archaeology, and of the success of figures such as Peter Kolosimo, as well as of the proliferation of the daily ritual of the horoscope and of televised fortune-telling as a matter of custom. Our condition seems similar to the one outlined by Antonio Gramsci, when in a note in the Prison Notebooks he wrote that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” – which is probably not so different from what Pasolini later said. Is the interregnum in which we find ourselves not a new prehistory? What does the end of the civilisation of the book – for centuries the main means of preserving and transmitting knowledge – tell us, if not that an entire world has ended and another, full of monsters, is slowly beginning to form? Doesn’t the fact that millions of people are no longer able to fully “comprehend” a text suggest that the pedagogical system invented by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century no longer works? An entire cognitive and emotional system is disappearing, with the proliferation of forms of post-lexia that herald a post-literate civilisation. The human being’s entire apparatus of perception and knowledge is being transformed; it is no longer formed by words but by the multimedia signals that travel through the web. In the absence of adequate tools, and of new Jesuits capable of inventing a new pedagogical method, unhappiness and psychopathologies linked to the anxiety syndrome are multiplying. Disorientation, the impression of never having enough time, the inability to understand what is happening around us, the sensation of being faced with an indecipherable text and being in a space with no points of reference (illuminating, in this sense, are Ernesto De Martino’s pages on the bell tower of Marcellinara and the cosmic disorientation brought about by the first space journeys); the violence, the frustration, the impoverishment, the rage of the poor against the poorest, pressing upon fortress Europe from all the world’s Souths; the massacres in the Mediterranean, which take place amidst an almost general indifference – of what do they tell us, if not of this interregnum with its most morbid phenomena, of this prehistory in which we are planted? Adorno was probably right to say that after Auschwitz writing a poem is an act of barbarism. But is it not true that only poetry helps us to slowly build a new world? Is poetry not itself the founding act of a new civilisation? Today that History, fortunately, no longer exists, and we all find ourselves living within the same world, which knows no “outside”, and is traversed by many different histories that unfold within often multiple and asynchronous temporalities, who are the barbarians who, as Paul Celan did, continue to make poetry? So, I remember Carola Rackete’s “manoeuvre” in Lampedusa in 2019, and the Pope in a deserted St. Peter’s Square in 2020 – extraordinary acts of resistance, poems, works of art in the twenty-first century. And I reflect on the many artists in Italy who continue to draw and paint, in an attempt to reinvent a language and free it from colonisation by the algorithm (I could mention, among the many others I will have to leave unmentioned, the cases of the Ingrassia brothers and Davide D’Elia). I also consider the works that, between theatre and installation, around Europe and at its borders, construct a collective psychoanalysis of our cultural consciousness (Gian Maria Tosatti), and the artists who work on and around educational processes and alternative forms of pedagogy that are becoming increasingly important (Giuseppe Stampone), those who work on exodus, borders, new geographies, identity issues (Guendalina Salini and Fiamma Montezemolo), on recent and contemporary history (Claire Fontaine and Domenico Antonio Mancini). I think back to Walter Benjamin, who in September 1940 took his own life to escape the beast chasing him in a burning Europe, an act that anticipates our era. I go back in my mind to our parents’ generation at Valle Giulia in 1968, to that of our older brothers who set Milan, Rome and Bologna ablaze in 1977, to my peers whose heads were broken at the Diaz school in Genoa in 2001. It seems to me that one day these generations will be remembered as we now regard the last men who lived at the end of the Roman Empire. In those difficult years, the man considered the last Latin poet, Rutilius Namatianus, wrote De reditu, a poem in which he recounted the end of a world, and based on which director Claudio Bondì made an eponymous film in 2004. Beyond the “nostalgic” conservatism of the Roman nobleman, perhaps it is to this model that a young artist of the twenty-first century should look. Like the prefect Namatianus in the fifth century, today a poet must, of necessity, also be a politician.