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Bad to the bone: John Gray on Italian fascist Curzio Malaparte’s lost masterpiece

The Skin, published now in the first ever complete English translation, captures the delirium and cruelty of Europe in the Second World War in surreal and amoral prose.


Image: Roibert Doisnea/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

As seen by the Italian writer Curzio Mala­parte, the liberation of Naples by Allied forces in 1943 was the blackest of comedies. Desperately short of food after years of bombing had destroyed the city’s infrastructure, Naples was a seething ruin in which everything was for sale. Priests stripped the churches of anything of value; prostitution was near universal and syphilis epidemic; and the population staged a frantic show of welcoming the liberating armies, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes”.

Presenting a version of an incident that may have occurred in real life, the narrator of The Skin (who is also called Malaparte) recounts how the American high command dined with local dignitaries on rare fishes taken from the city’s aquarium. Adding a Dalí-esque touch of horror, Malaparte has the last of the feasts feature a dead child, served up on a platter encircled with a wreath of coral. Corpses of children were a common sight at the time and there is more than a hint of cruelty in his account of the Americans turning “pale and horror-stricken” at the spectacle of one of these pitiful figures laid out on the table.

Malaparte’s fictional alter ego describes Colonel Jack Hamilton, the American officer to whom he has been assigned as a guide to the city, as “a Christian gentleman” who had “landed in Italy for the purpose of fighting the Italians and punishing them for their sins and crimes”. An innocent, magnanimous soul, he could not be expected to know that “without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail”. Containing many such passages of savage invective, this book is a sustained assault on every kind of piety. It is hardly surprising that when it was published in 1944 The Skin was placed on the Vatican index of prohibited books.

Like his alter ego, Malaparte joined the US forces as a liaison officer when they entered Naples. It has been suggested he may have become an intelligence asset to the Americans around the same time. In any event, working for them was only one, and not the last, of many shifts in the loyalties of the mercurial Italian writer. Born Kurt Suckert in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an Italian mother and a German father, he adopted in 1925 the pen name of Malaparte – a punning reference to Napoleon Bonaparte (in Italian, buonaparte means “good side”). His new name may have been meant to suggest how contradictory the life of a writer in politics can be. If so, he was well equipped for the role.

Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism not despite, but because of its celebration of violence. Serving as a volunteer in the Italian army for four years during the First World War, he suffered permanent damage to his health as a result of exposure to mustard gas. Yet, far from condemning war, he regarded it as an opportunity for a rare kind of experience in which death and destruction become in some way beautiful. He was not unusual in taking this view. A contemporary of his, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, expressed similar sentiments, as did many of the futurists. Their perverse aestheticism proved to be one of the cultural omens of the rise of fascism.

Joining Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, urging a strategy of terror against anti-Fascists, travelling to the Eastern Front with Nazi forces when Hitler invaded Russia and accompanying pro-German forces in the forests of Finland, Malaparte was clearly attracted by fascism. Yet a certain refractoriness, coexisting with his slippery opportunism, led to repeated difficulties with his Fascist masters. Starting in 1933, when he seems to have displeased Mussolini – some say by describing Hitler as having a “feminine” nature, others suggesting that he mocked the Italian dictator’s taste in neckties – Malaparte suffered several years of banishment. However, these were passed mostly in pleasant holiday spots, where he lived a hedonistic life as the guest of rich and well-connected friends, so they were not exactly a fearful punishment.

It seems to have been during this period that he conceived the idea of designing and building “a house like me”, the Casa Malaparte, on the island of Capri. Showing no trace of the oppressive monumental style that was in favour in Mussolini’s Italy (Malaparte soon fell out with the prominent Fascist architect he had commissioned for the project), the house is recognised as one of the most remarkable examples of modern European architecture. In a characteristically convoluted conceit, he tells in The Skin of a visit by the German general Erwin Rommel, who asked if he had built the house himself. Malaparte replied that he had bought it, and then, with a sweeping gesture towards the magnificent landscape, declared: “I designed the scenery.” Perched on the cliff edge, a brilliant red structure with pyramidal stone steps and vast roof terrace, the building can be seen in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (1963), an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel Il disprezzo (translated as Contempt), featuring Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot.


On the edge: the Capri house bespoke the man. Image: Rex.

A talented and highly versatile survivor, Malaparte was a playwright, film-maker and novelist, the author of a treatise on the technique of the coup d’état and a slightly shady diplomat. But he saw himself above all as a writer creating a new type of fiction, a species of wilfully unreliable reportage in which the most gruesome episodes are recounted with terrifying gaiety. In Kaputt (1943), a hallucinatory version of his travels through Nazi-occupied Europe, he produced a dark masterpiece of magic realism. Ranking with the best of Céline as one of the most powerful expressions of European despair, The Skin tells of the horror of the everyday struggle for survival in a society destroyed by war.

“Our skin, this confounded skin,” Malaparte’s alter ego exclaims to a group of Allied officers. “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.” As Malaparte had witnessed, the inhabitants of Naples were ready to sell themselves and their children for a crust of bread. This was not a pattern of behaviour peculiar to Neapolitans – he always stressed that he admired the city and its people – but a universal human trait, which he regarded as more destructive than war.

If Malaparte’s wartime novels have long been neglected, one reason is that they remind us how deeply many of Europe’s intellectuals were complicit in the rise of fascism. Paul de Man, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and a host of lesser-known worthies flirted shamelessly with fascism, surfacing safely after the war was over as respectable stalwarts of the radical left. Though he took more risks along the way, Malaparte followed a similar course, veering towards Maoism in the Fifties, meeting the Chairman and in some accounts bequeathing the house he built on Capri to the People’s Republic of China. The trajectory may sound surprising, but in fact it was quite commonplace.

Where Malaparte was distinctive was in his awareness of the contradictions inherent in the positions he adopted. Reporting in 1941 from the Russian front for the influential Corriere della Sera as the only front-line war correspondent in the entire USSR, he forecast correctly that the Russian forces would not collapse as a result of the German advance, but fight on regardless. Having breached the German propaganda line, he was ordered out of the war zone by Goebbels and sent back to Italy for another spell of house arrest.

Malaparte’s despatches were not inspired by any sympathy for the Soviet cause. Rather than seeing it as an Asiatic or Russian perversion of Marxist ideals, as do many disappointed leftists, he viewed Soviet communism as a distinctively European pathology. Equally, Nazism and fascism were not aberrations from an essentially sound civilisation. All these totalitarian movements reflected deep-seated disorders in European civilisation. Malaparte displayed many of these disorders, his late conversion to Maoism being one more expression of a European fascination with ideological violence.

Part of his power as a writer comes from these contradictions. The uncertainty that surrounds his narrator – is he a version of the author, or a fictional character? – not only is a literary technique but reflects his self-division. His writings are full of toxic stereotypes, sexist, racist and homophobic. Yet it is impossible to be sure whether these displays of prejudice were sincere, or rather – as he seems at times to intimate – whether they serve as cryptic expressions of solidarity with the people who are being stereotyped. He has an Allied officer in The Skin ask the narrator, “with an urbanely ironical air”: “How much truth there is in all that you relate in Kaputt?” I suspect that Malaparte, a self-mocking provocateur whose life was a succession of performances, did not know the answer. Paradoxically, it may have been his lack of any coherent self that enabled him to portray the chaos of wartime Europe with such authenticity.

It is well known that a great writer may be a repellent person – we need only think of Dostoevsky. We are less ready to accept that moral defects may be a necessary part of a writer’s art. Yet this seems to have been the case with Malaparte, whose feverish and fractured consciousness enabled him to be a mirror of his time. If you want a vividly realistic picture of the state of Naples when it was liberated, you should turn to Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 – another blackly comic book that is also luminously sane. If you want to enter into the delirium and cruelty of the period, it is The Skin you must read.

For many years Malaparte was neglected as an embarrassing reminder of the ignominious accommodation that so many of the European intelligentsia reached with dictatorship. Though his political record was no worse than many of his generation, the flamboyance with which he had flaunted his fascism left him beyond the pale of polite society. If he resented this exclusion, he had his revenge when, not long before he died in 1957, he was admitted into the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party. Further recognition was slow in coming. Until it was renovated by his grand-nephew, the house in Capri was in disrepair for decades after the war. More recently, a restaurant in New York City was named after the writer.

Now the indispensable New York Review Books, which published Kaputt in 2005, has given us the first complete translation into English of The Skin. An embodiment of Europe’s bad conscience, Malaparte’s voice was one that right-thinking people of every denomination preferred not to hear. That is why this difficult book was so hated and condemned when it first appeared, and remains so well worth reading. 

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and introduced by Rachel Kushner, is published by New York Review Books Classics, 368pp, £9.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge