Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The "Chimeras" Blog Moves to Substack


The “Chimeras” blog moves to substack. After several years on Google’s blogger, I think it is an unavoidable step since it seems that at Google, they intend to kill, or at least silence, their own platform. And so, “Chimeras” is here, now. A simpler and easier management system, a more modern approach to finding a readership. 

"Chimeras" will remain a small blog dedicated to thoughts, reflections, and varied musings on art, myths, and literature. Don't expect it to be crowded with posts, but one every month could be the average. My main blog remains "The Seneca Effect," dedicated to the current plea of humankind seen through the lens of system dynamics. 

And onward we go, in the end we are all chimeras.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Happy New Year with Leonardo da Vinci

The winter solstice is traditionally associated with rebirth, and that’s why we say that the year that comes is “new.” Rebirth means hope and the birth of a new era was announced long ago to a young woman in the land we call Palestine. Leonardo da Vinci celebrated that announcement with one of his first paintings around 1472-1476, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The incredible thing is that the place that Leonardo used as a background for his painting is still there, in the church of San Bartolomeo a Monte Oliveto in Florence, where the young Leonardo was working in the studio of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio. And here it is, in a picture I took a few weeks ago: it is a little more than 1 km from my home, in Florence. I had never been there before! (here is a link to the place on Google Maps)

Some things have changed, and some clearly were something that Leonardo added out of his personal fantasy. But the place is still the same. You can still find there some of the cypress trees that Leonardo painted more than half a millennium ago. Walking there, you get the tremendous impression that Leonardo had been there not long before and that if you had arrived just a little earlier, you could have met him!

During this half-millennium, there were bad moments and good moments, but hope never left us completely. So, we can still hope for a better time for humankind.

Happy new year, everyone!

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The chain and ball of life: your books


“We must drag the chain and ball of our personality to the end. This is the price one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought; so in this life it is only the chosen who are convicts—a glorious band which understands and groans but which treads the earth amidst a multitude of phantoms with maniacal gestures and idiotic grimaces. Which would you rather be: idiot or convict?”

– Joseph Conrad, circa 1900, cited in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life (Camden House, 2007) Courtesy "Propaganda in Focus" Thanks to Saverio for posing in this image. 

One of the balls you are chained to in life is your books. I am relocating, and you see, above, part of the 42 boxes that contain my books, just those in literature, history, mythology, and other literary subjects. I will probably need a similar number for my science books. Let's say that the total will be a hundred 40x30x30 cm boxes. Maybe 30 books per box, a total of 3,000 books. And I have another set of boxes, just as many, stored in a deposit. Not bad as a ball and chain. 

These hundred boxes of books could be scanned and stored in a digital memory weighing a few grams. But digital storage is so fleeting and unreliable -- not so much because of mistakes or physical damage; but mainly because it is so easily fudged, changed, and made unrecognizable by the powers that be. Once, the deeds of the great were engraved in stone, and it took some effort for their successors to carry out the "damnatio memoriae," the erasure of the past. Today, it takes just a few clicks of the mouse.

It is a good exercise to go through some of the events of the past decades and see how their current descriptions look different from what you remember them to be. It may well be that your memory is playing tricks on you, but you cannot discount the idea that somebody went through the records, re-arranging them as they wanted them to be. It happens all the time on Wikipedia.

Books are not engraved in stone, yet they are at least a fixed record of the past -- not easy to alter. So, I'll keep these books as long as I can, although I am afraid that their lifetime is limited anyway. Fires are the enemy of books, and over the years, the probability of going up in smoke, a Seneca cliff for paper, becomes a near certainty for a book. The oldest book still existing is St. Cuthbert's Gospel; it dates back to around the 7th century AD. Will some of my books last for more than a thousand years? Who knows?

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Parallel Lives of Galileo Galilei and Sherlock Holmes

I recently wrote a comment in Italian on the recent novel "Oscura e Celeste" by Marco Malvaldi, a prolific author of investigative stories. I won't comment here on the novel, since it is available only in Italian. But I am translating my comments on why it makes sense that the protagonist of this investigative novel is Galileo Galileo, cast as an early version of Sherlock Holmes. 

There is a logic in the fact that Marco Malvaldi chose Galileo as the protagonist of this novel, cast in the Florence of the 17th century. Malvaldi graduated in chemistry, began his career as a researcher, and then devoted himself mainly to writing. But he remains a scientist and has recently written an essay on entropy (which I plan to read as soon as I can). 

Now, the entity we call "science" begins with Galileo Galilei, remains relatively marginal for a couple of centuries, and then becomes the official ideology (or religion, if you like) of the Western world in the 19th century -- and still is. With the triumph of science there came its narrative version, the modern "crime" novel. It starts with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders of the Rue Morgue" (1841), but the genre literally explodes with Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes; the first novel of the series was published in 1886. 

Sherlock Holmes is a crime investigator, but he is also the prototypical scientist.  He is the first of a long line of characters of investigators, whether public or private, who unravel a mystery involving a crime of some sort on the basis of logic, experiments, and irrefutable evidence. They almost always succeed: that's what the rules of the game impose. But why so much success for a genre that didn't exist at all before the 19th century? It's because it could not exist until science became the official religion of the modern state. The detective novel as a glorification of science is a genre perfectly parallel to the lives of the saints in the Middle Ages as a glorification of the religion of the time, Christianity. 

In both cases, detective stories and the lives of the saints, fantasy and the real world have little to do with each other. Of course, in judicial investigations, the Galilean method helps a lot, but it is seldom decisive. Read the story of Marta Russo's murder in Vittorio Pezzuto's excellent book " Di sicuro c'è solo che è mortaand you will understand what I mean. In 1997, a student at the University of Rome was killed by a stray bullet while walking on the university's campus. After years of investigations, the best that the entire Italian justice system could do was to condemn two bystanders without a shred of evidence, literally by popular acclaim. A form of lynching that was perfectly similar to the witchcraft trials of a few centuries ago. In the United States, there was the case of OJ Simpson and his wife's murder, similar in many respects.

Worse still, the Galilean method doesn't even work when applied to what should be its field, real science. Think of the recent COVID pandemic: every now and then, a new rule or mandate arrived, theoretically based on "science." Masks, closures, distancing, disinfections: what were they based on? Basically, on nothing, apart from the utterances of the expert on duty who claimed to speak in the name of science. Or think about climate change: you can bring all the evidence you want, but many will tell you that they don't believe it and that it's all a hoax. And there is no way to convince them. 

We already knew that Sherlock Holmes never existed, but now we also know that he could never exist. So, with the ongoing decline of science, will we stop writing and reading detective novels? Probably yes. I hope so since I never liked the genre. 

Saturday, September 2, 2023

The Suicide of the Valkyrie. The Story of Adolf Hitler's British Lover


Unity Valkyrie Freeman-Mitford (1914 –1948). This story is obviously fictional but it is based on what we know of the weird story of this young British aristocrat who went to Germany in 1934 to seduce Adolf Hitler. And she succeeded! Could it be that she was behind Hitler's ill-fated decision to attack the Soviet Union in 1941? We will never know but, just as for the song the Sirens sang, such a thing is not beyond reasonable conjecture. 

Hello, Ugo!

Uh....? Sorry, who are you?

Don't you see? I am a ghost.

Ah... sorry, yes... I was... I see you are a ghost, all bluish and transparent. But may I ask you...

Of course you may. I am the ghost of Unity Mitford. 

Unity Mitford? Adolf Hitler's lover?

Yes, it is me. 

Oh... that's interesting. But, excuse me, why are you appearing to me?

Because I read your book. 

My book? Do you mean "The Etruscan Quest"?

Yes, that book. The story you wrote takes place when I was alive. It is a very interesting book. 

Thank you. But do ghosts read books?

Yes, of course. We have a ghostly Amazon service in Hades, and we have ghostly books delivered by ghostly couriers. 

Are you teasing me?

Why? What do you know about Hades?

Right, Unity, sorry. Just, you see... I am surprised. Why did you read my book?

Well, it was because one of the protagonists of your book is Margherita Sarfatti. She was the lover of the Italian Duce, Mussolini. And I was the lover of Adolf Hitler. We never met in real life, but we knew of each other. So, I was curious. In many ways, we had similar experiences. 

Ah... yes, you know that Margherita's ghost appeared to me, here....

Yes, you seem to be liked by ghosts. Maybe one day you'll write a novel about me. Anyway, I saw that you understood very well who Margherita was, right?

Not everything, but she told me she was an agent of the British secret services. 

Like me. 

You were a British agent, Unity?

Are you surprised?

Not really. I read something about you, and I was thinking exactly that. 

So, you would like to hear my story, won't you?

Absolutely, Unity. I would be honored. 

It is an interesting story; not so much because of what I did, but for the many silly things said about me. Lies so blatant that I still get angry when I think of what they wrote about me. Anyway, the official story about me is that I was so infatuated with Adolf Hitler that I left my home in England and I went to Germany to seduce him. It is not completely wrong. In 1934 I was 20 years old, and I had been exposed to Nazi ideas. You know that there was a British Nazi party at that time. Actually, the official name was the "British Union of Fascists." But they were sympathetic to the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists. The boss of the party was named Oswald Mosley. I knew him well: he married my sister, Diana. See, I was born into a rich family of aristocrats, and I was raised in this atmosphere; the Nazis, the Fascists, this kind of people. I must say that it was a lot of fun for a girl as I was. But I wasn't dumb. I saw it immediately. The British secret services had infiltrated the party.

I am not surprised about that. 

It was obvious. They are continuously scheming about this and that. Sometimes, though, they tell you exactly what they want to do. And that was the case for me. Actually, it was the foreign branch of the secret services, the M16, that contacted me to propose to me this mad idea of going to Germany and seducing the Fuhrer. And I accepted. I was so young, and I thought it was the adventure of my life. So, it was arranged. In 1934, I went to Munich, I took lessons in German, and then I started patronizing Hitler's favorite restaurant. Adolf had this habit of appearing like "one of us," so there was this story that anyone could meet him when he had dinner at the Osteria Bavaria just by booking a table there. Silly to the extreme. It could happen, yes, but these "casual encounters" were always carefully arranged by the German secret service, the Geheime Staatspolizei; everybody called them the "Gestapo." And it was the Gestapo that arranged my meeting with Adolf. 

Did they know you were working for the M16?

Of course they knew -- they were no fools. But, you see, it is the way secret services operate. Sometimes, they collaborate with each other. Both the M16 and the Gestapo thought I could be useful to them. The British thought I could influence Adolf, and the Germans thought they could use me to feed false information to the British.   

But did Hitler know that you were a spy for the British?

Good question. What did Adolf know or not know was everyone's guess. I can only tell you that he was no fool. But about me being a secret agent, I can't say.

I understand. Yet, I wonder what it was like to be, I mean, so close to Hitler...

You mean if he really was so evil as propaganda painted him? What I can say is that Adolf could hypnotize others. The voice, the tone, the expression; he could enthrall you completely. And he could hypnotize himself, too. I think he really believed what he said in his speeches. But what did he really think? I could never say for sure. Hitler was not the kind of person who opens his thoughts to others. Many people in Germany at that time were perfectly attuned to what he said in his speeches: the superior Arian race, the evil Jews, the fight against the Plutocracies. That kind of stuff. But this is well known: you only have to read his book, the Mein Kampf, to understand his views. But one thing that's not written in the book is that he loved Wagner's music and Wagner's operas. I think he saw himself as Sigfried, the hero. You know that Adolf fought during the Great War, and he felt betrayed when the Germans surrendered. This idea of the "stab in the back" that was so popular in Germany at that time was inspired by the story of Sigfried, who was stabbed in the back and killed by Hagen.  

I had never thought about that! The story of the "stab in the back" was so successful because it resonated with Wagner's work in the minds of Germans.

Yes, and especially with Adolf's mind. Anyway, what was I saying? Ah... Yes. I was telling you how I met Adolf at the Osteria Bavaria. I was a rather noticeable girl at that time. Blond, tall, long legs, heavy makeup, fashionable clothes, the kind of girl men notice. 

I can see that. Absolutely.

Well, now that I am a ghost that's no longer important. Thank you anyway! But do you know that my middle name is "Valkyrie"?  I really had the physical aspect of a Valkyrie, one of the warrioresses of Wagner's dramas. I guess Adolf was attracted by my looks. But my name helped, too. 

But were you really so eager to become a Nazi?

I understand what you mean. But please understand that I was a 20-year-old girl at that time. Everything in Germany was new, fascinating, and exotic. At that time, I couldn't possibly know what would happen. All the disaster that followed; well, that was much later. But, yes, I was truly eager to be a Nazi. I knew the Nazis were not nice guys, and just when I was there, in 1934, there was this ugly thing: the massacre of the leaders of the stormtroopers. Their boss had crossed Adolf's path, and that sealed his destiny. Ugly, indeed. But I told myself that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. I had this idea that Fascism was the future, a great idea for many reasons. You know that there were those Nazi rallies; a very special atmosphere. Electric. And when Adolf spoke... I told you that he could hypnotize people. He could, really. I was hypnotized, one among many. I felt the elation growing inside me. Adolf always said that he was married to Germany, and in those rallies, you saw a kind of collective orgasm. Strange to say that, but it was the way things were. 

Fascinating, Unity. Please keep going.

Well, what else is to be said? I stayed in Germany for about 5 years. I don't think I was doing anything especially important. I was just the occasional lover of an extremely busy man; and he had several other lovers. In the West, they said he was impotent. Well, I can tell you he was not -- it was just propaganda. But it is true that he didn't have much time for women; as I said, he had this idea that he was married to Germany. In a certain way, it was true. Neither I nor the other women could compete with Germany; how could we? Anyhow, getting back to my role as a secret agent, you may be sure that Adolf never told me anything worth reporting to the British services. Sometimes, I was rather close to him and his staff. But their really important decision, well, they knew who I was, and they were careful not to pass me sensitive information. Nor was there much I could reveal to Adolf about  British plans, just because nobody would inform me about such plans. Then, in 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, I became completely useless. 

I can understand that.

Of course. Could you imagine the Führer keeping a British mistress while Germany was at war with Britain? No way. I had become a liability for both the German and the British secret services. And, you know, the typical way of operating of these people is that when an agent becomes a liability, they get rid of him -- or her. A bullet to the head, and it is done. But in my case, I was lucky. Nobody wanted to make too much fuss about me -- they wanted me to disappear as quietly as possible. In addition, I was still the scion of a wealthy, aristocratic family in Britain, and they intervened to make sure that I could get out of Germany still alive. Funnily, they did that by staging a fake suicide attempt. It was so clumsy and so silly that, today, I still wonder how anyone could buy into that story. The official version was that I managed to slip free of my bodyguards; then I sat on a bench in a park, and there I shot myself in the head with a handgun, and I survived, although badly wounded. The story includes such details as the gun being a "harlot gun," or a "silver gun" or that it was "pearl-handled." And that even though nobody ever saw that gun! A non-gun that shot non-bullets. And they even said that Adolf Hitler gave it to me as a personal gift for personal defense. Yes, sure, they thought the Gestapo would have been happy about having a British spy who had access to the Führer carrying a gun with her. Naah.... impossible. 

Well, at least the story of your suicide attempt was challenged by someone.

Oh, yes, almost 70 years after the alleged "suicide attempt," someone published an article wondering whether I had really shot myself. Fantastic. Even more fantastic was that my sister Deborah intervened, saying she had X-ray plates showing the bullet stuck inside my head. Sure, but no one ever saw those plates. They are just like that "harlot gun" -- things that never existed. Simply, I never shot myself. I just had my head bandaged in a hospital in Munich, and they told me I should do my best to look sick and dazed. Then I was whisked to Switzerland and then back to England. Officially, I was impaired. I was "incontinent and childish," and I couldn't even walk. It wasn't true, but I never denied that I had tried to kill myself. My condition prevented an official inquiry into what I had done in Germany, and nobody wanted that -- for sure, I didn't. And that's basically the end of my story. I died a few years later of meningitis; they say it was caused by the bullet lodged in my brain. But meningitis can be caused by plenty of other things. The truth was that I was spent. I was empty inside. It is not easy to live after seeing all your dreams shattered, everything you believed turning out to be false or evil. And to be considered a traitor in your own country: They put up with me only because I was supposed to be crippled. But it was a punishment I had inflicted on me myself, and I deserved it. So, really, I had little left to do and to care for, and I slipped away, quietly. 

A truly fascinating story, Unity. Thanks for telling it to me. But is it really all?

You are clever, Ugo. Yes, there is something more that I could tell you. You see, I told you that Adolf was convinced that the Germans were the master race of the world, the herrenvolk. All the others were inferior creatures; some to be exterminated, like the Jews and the Slavs, and some to be kept as servants, as the French. But he made an exception for the British. He thought they were of the same stock as the Germans, except they had the misfortune of falling under the yoke of the Jewish worldwide conspiracy. And that if they could free themselves from that, they could become Germany's allies. It was part of his worldview, otherwise he couldn't have kept a British mistress. And I was doing my best to reinforce this idea in his mind. I always told him he should ally with Great Britain, not fight it. And he agreed on that, at least in part. But I also told him that the British hated the Russians because they were Communists, but even more than that because they challenged Britain's supremacy. And that if Germany were to go to war against Russia, then Britain would help Germany. I even mentioned the people in Britain who would have pushed the government to do that. Mind you, I wasn't the only person in Germany thinking that Britain and Germany should join forces to destroy the Slavic brutes. But I was close enough to Adolf that sometimes he would listen to me. He was also superstitious, and he had this idea that I had been sent to him by some superior powers. So, he may have trusted me, and the idea stuck in his mind. And it happened! You know that Hitler let the British troops escape from France more or less unscathed. Then, there was the famous Battle of Britain in 1940, but it didn't last for long. Less than 4 months, then the Germans gave up. It was because of this peculiar view Adolf had. He didn't want to destroy Britain -- he saw the British as potential allies. So, he proceeded to attack the Soviet Union. I don't know if he was really expecting that the British would send their troops to help the Germans. More likely, the idea was that the Germans would defeat the Soviets, force them to come to terms, and then turn back to Britain, and say something like, "Did you see what we can do? Now, let's talk." And then, Arians would rule the world. Instead, Germany found itself fighting on two fronts, an impossible task. And you know how it ended. 

Do you think it was a trap set by the M16?

I think it was. I am sure that the British Secret Service used me as a tool to convince Adolf to attack the Soviet Union. 

So, you could have been the person who destroyed Adolf Hitler, just like Margherita Sarfatti may have destroyed Benito Mussolini?

Maybe. History is strange, you know. You should have lived in Germany in the 1930s to understand how deeply they were immersed in this Wagnerian fantasy world. I think that Adolf destroyed himself with the idea that he was Sigfried. He lived in a fantasy world, and then he tried to put his fantasies into practice. And the destiny of Sigfried was to die stabbed in the back. Which happened, and perhaps it was Adolf himself that made it happen. I played the part of Brunhild, who committed suicide; another Wagnerian fantasy. 

What a story, Unity! Thanks for telling it to me. It is remarkable how the Germans were immersed in this Wagnerian dream at that time. 

They were completely hypnotized by the press and the radio. And they had TV, too! The first public television in the world.  

Ah, well, in our times, too, people believe just about everything, provided it is written in newspapers or told on TV. 

I know that. I am afraid that with these tools you have to hypnotize people, your destiny may not be much better than that of Germany at the time of the Nazis. You have a big war ongoing in Eastern Europe, and many young people are coming to Hades from there. Maybe someone has been listening too much to Wagner's music? 

Well, Wagner's music is not so popular anymore today, but people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. 

There is nothing more dangerous in the world than trying to put one's fantasies into practice. But we all come here, eventually. Hades is not a good place to be but, sometimes, the powers that be give us a chance to chat with mortals. And it is fun. Thanks, Ugo, for listening to me. Now I have to vanish... see you here... not so soon, I hope! 



Ugo Bardi's novel, "The Etruscan Quest," was published in 2023 by "Lu::Ce Edizioni". The story told in the novel takes place during the time of Fascism in Italy, in the 1930s, and it touches many of the elements of madness that overcame the country at that time. 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Margherita Sarfatti: the Woman who Destroyed Mussolini

A ghostly image of Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961), a remarkably interesting Italian intellectual, known mostly because she was the lover of the Duce, Benito Mussolini, at the beginning of his career. She might have been much more than just a lover, and she may have played an important part both in Mussolini's successes and in his eventual downfall. Margherita Sarfatti makes a cameo appearance in my novel "The Etruscan Quest" and, here, I expand my interpretation of her role in history by proposing that she may have been one of the causes, perhaps the main one, of the doom of her former lover. Of course, I cannot prove this interpretation, but I can at least say that it cannot be disproven, either. As for many things in history, truth is now with the ghosts who lived the events that we read about. So, why not try to ask them?

Italian Version

Ah.... sorry, Ugo, I didn't want to scare you.

No... no, I am not scared. Just a little surprised. Who are you? 

Don't you recognize me? I know that I am all white and a little transparent, but maybe you can.

Hmmm.... not sure. Did we ever meet before?

In a way, yes. I am a character in your novel, "The Etruscan Quest" Actually, not just a character. But I do appear in your story.

Now that I look at you, well, maybe yes.  You look like... a lot like.... a portrait I saw. Are you Margherita Sarfatti?

Yes! That was very good, Ugo!  

Well, as I said, I am surprised, but I do recognize you. It is a pleasure to meet you, Donna Margherita. 

You don't have to call me 'Donna Margherita.' Just Margherita is fine. Where I am now, certain things are not important.

I imagine not. But I hope you were not displeased by what I wrote about you in my book.

Not displeased, Ugo. I liked what you wrote. So, I thought I could pay you a visit.

Ah... thanks, Margherita. It was a pleasure to write about you. Although, of course, it was just a cameo role in my novel. 

I know. Yes, but it was nice of you. You wrote good things about me. Though, I think you were missing something. 

Mmm.... maybe I understand. But I didn't know if I had the right answer to the questions I had. 

Well, now you can ask me. Wouldn't you?

Yes, it is a remarkable chance. Even though I guess you are just a mental projection of mine. 

Maybe. Or maybe I am a real ghost; how can you tell?

Whatever you are, Margherita, there is this nagging question that I have had in mind for a long time. And I think I can ask you about it. What happened to Mussolini that made him change so much in the 1930s? I mean, from a shrewd leader to a stumbling boor? How did he get involved in this mad idea of rebuilding the Roman Empire? 

And, Ugo, if you are asking me, I think you believe I have the answer, right?

Well, yes. After all, you were placed in a position where you could know things nobody else knew. The lover of the Duce; you had access to the highest ranks of the government. And you were even received by President Roosevelt in 1934..... 

But if I am just a projection of your mind.....

You are teasing me, Margherita. 

Ah, sorry, Ugo. Well, after all, it doesn't matter if I am a ghost or just part of your mind. You never know what the boundaries of one's mind are. And in Hades, we may know things that living people can't know. So, let me see if I can answer your question. For that, I have to start from the beginning. And, please understand that this story is still painful for me. So far, I never told it completely to anyone. 

It is an honor, Margherita. I appreciate it. 

Thanks, Ugo. I know that you do. So, you know that I was Mussolini’s mistress for more than 20 years; from when he was an unknown journalist up to when he became the "Duce degli Italiani". He changed so much in those 20 years. And then he dumped me for a younger woman. I think it was in 1932 that he met her, Claretta Petacci was her name. See? Even as a ghost, you can be upset. That is why ghosts are said to howl in desolate places, clank chains, and things like that. I am not doing anything like that, but if I remember this story.... well. Think about how many things I did for Benito. I found money for him, invented slogans for him, taught him how to deal with powerful people, even table manners. And do you know who invented the term "Duce"?

But wasn't it invented by Gabriele D'Annunzio? 

Yes, D'Annunzio used it. But the idea that Benito should use it as a title was mine. And it was so successful! Incredibly so. By the 1930s, everyone was using it in Italy. And that was bad for several reasons. Anyhow, let me go back to your question. Yes, Mussolini was a shrewd leader when he became Prime Minister in 1922. Everything he touched seemed to be a success. And then, everything changed. But to explain how it happened, I must tell you a few things about earlier times. First of all, do you know that Mussolini was a shill for the British Secret Service?

It is known. Historians agree that he was paid by the British as a propagandist to push Italy into the war against the Central Empires.

Yes, he did. And have you ever wondered why the British came to choose him?

Good point, Margherita. I hadn't thought about this. 

Well, you should have. The story is that in 1912 I met Benito for the first time when he was the director of the "Popolo d'Italia." He was a fascinating man; he had an inner force; unusual. I have to tell you that I fell in love with him. Desperately in love, it happens. But I also thought that all that force could be directed to something useful. So, in 1914, when the Services contacted me....

The British Secret Service? But why you, Margherita?

Shouldn't it be obvious? Don't you know that I can speak five languages?

Yes, I knew that, but....

My family. They were international bankers, industrialists, traders... We had connections everywhere. And you also know that we were a Jewish family. 

I knew that, too. 

Well, so, no surprise that I had many connections. In business, and also in politics. So, you could say that I was a shill for the British, too. But don't misunderstand me. I am Italian; I did what I did because I thought that it could help Italy -- but also Britain. Britain and Italy were sister countries at that time. I saw nothing wrong with helping the British get a little help from Italy in their fight against Germany. And so I told them of this young journalist, a smart man, a person who could help them.

I see.... this is not written in the history books. 

Of course not. But if you ask yourself the right questions, you can find good answers. Benito spoke no English; he wasn't known at all outside Italy. He was, by all means, a small player in the great game. There had to be a good reason why the Services looked for him. 

And that was you, Margherita. I am amazed, but it sounds true. 

Indeed, Ugo, indeed. Benito accepted to work for the British. He did that for the money, but it was also a shrewd decision for him. He knew that he could use the support of the Services to make a political career in Italy. Shrewd and lucky at the same time. You know that he was drafted into the army in 1915, right?

I know, yes. He wrote a diary of his experience in the war. 

The army treated him as a useful asset -- they didn't want him to die. So, they sent him to a quiet area of the front. But it was still dangerous, and he was lucky enough that he was wounded by an Italian gun that exploded near him. It gave him the fame of a war hero. Shrewd and lucky, as I said. 

Yes. Lucky, but only up to a certain point. 

Ah, in life, it is not such a good thing to be lucky. If you are, you arrive to think that you deserve to be lucky.... and that's what happened to Benito. But let me go in order. You know what happened after the war was over, right?

Of course I know. The years of civil strife, then the March on Rome. Mussolini taking power....

Yes. And the Services played a role in that, too. Obviously, they didn't want Italy to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, and they didn't want it to collapse again into statelets. We arrived close to that. So, they helped Benito to take over. It was part of my task, too. You know, my family was rich, but still I needed money. And the Services were not stingy. They understood that Benito badly needed me to set up his plan.

You won't find that written in the history books. 

No, of course not. But there are many things not written in history books that are true, nevertheless. But let me continue. The March on Rome was a success; the King of Italy made Benito Prime Minister, then he gradually gained more and more power. Things were going well. Italy was recovering from the disaster of the Great War, the economy was expanding, the civil strife had disappeared, and many good things were done by the Fascist government. Yes, they had not been light-handed when they took power, but it could have been much worse. I had no official position in the government, but as the Duce's lover, I had a lot of influence in many things. And I could indulge in my passion: art. I was collecting artwork, setting up a coterie of top-level artists; I could say that life for me was fine in the best of words, or almost so. And I was still in love with Benito. Yet, I could see that something was not so well. Dark clouds at the horizon, if I am to use the imagery I read in your novel. 

Oh... sure, in my novel, there is a discussion on the haruspices being able to interpret the signs in the sky. 

Yes. I could say that I was seeing ominous signs in the sky. At some point, I started thinking that there was something wrong with the whole story. Simply said, Benito was gathering too much power. There was this idea that "Mussolini is Always Right" -- it started as a joke, but then people started believing in it for real. And then there were the elections of 1929, where there was only one party you could vote for, and there was a "yes" already printed on the ballot. No wonder the Fascists won with more than 99% of the votes. But that wasn't the way to go. It was a dangerous road, too much power in the hands of a single person. I tried to tell Benito, but he won't listen to me. By this time, he was already changing. He had always been.... how to say, "strong-willed," maybe. By then, he was simply stubborn and believing only in himself. 

The way he is often described....

He had not always been like that, Ugo. But yes, things were going down a slippery road. In parallel, there was that odious man, Adolf Hitler, who was taking power in Germany. And the British were starting to understand that, with Mussolini, they had created a golem that they couldn't control anymore. Do you know the story of the Golem, right?

Of course. The monster created by the Rabbi of Prague. 

So it is. When people have power, they tend to create monsters that they can't control. Maybe I had that power when I created the Duce...

Margherita, I do think you did that with good intentions....

.... and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Anyway, let me continue with the story. In 1932, I turned 50, and I discovered that I had become too old for Benito. He was three years younger than me. He met that woman, Clara Petacci, and he wasn't interested in me any longer. But that wasn't the worst thing. I was losing him -- sometimes he was still listening to me, but mostly he would just do what he wanted. Any idiocy that came to his mind was immediately hailed by his coterie as a great strategic insight. And he was fascinated by that other golem in Germany, Hitler. At that time, I met my contacts in the Services, and they told me about their plan. Just like the Rabbi of Prague destroyed his golem, the British had concocted a plan to destroy the golem called Benito Mussolini. 

Ah... Margherita, that sounds fascinating. And what was the plan?

It was simple, but well thought out. These people, you could say that they were evil, but you can't say they are not smart. So, they started with the fact that Italy had a small colony in the Horn of Africa, Somalia; they had conquered it in the 19th century. But the region also had a British colony and a French one. And the only African land that was not in European hands, Ethiopia, was right there, at the border with Somalia. It was still ruled by the king of kings, the Negus Neghesti. Italy had tried, once, to expand in Ethiopia, but they had been defeated at the battle of Adua, back in 1886.

I know this story. I guess the Italians wanted revenge for that defeat, right?

Yes, there was this idea of getting revenge, but it wasn't considered an important thing. Ethiopia had never been part of the propaganda baggage of the Fascist party. Benito barely knew it existed, and he had never mentioned the story of Adua in his writings. It was something dormant. I would call it a dormant evil. But the British had focused on that. I think they specialize in evil. See, the idea was to convince Benito to seek revenge for the defeat of Adua. 

And how would that be useful to them?

Simple, as I said. The idea was to push the Duce to attack Ethiopia. And for that, he would have had to assemble a large force: men, equipment, and resources committed to a remote land. Then, of course, the Ethiopians would resist, and Italy would be forced to commit even more resources to the task. And, while the fight was going on, the British would intervene with a naval blockade. They could do that easily; the British rule the waves, don't they? No way for the Italian navy to contest that. And, without the possibility of resupplying the army in Ethiopia, the Italians would have had to surrender. Maybe the British would have graciously intervened to save the poor Italians from being exterminated by the angry Ethiopians. And that was the basic idea: the Duce would lose face; then, he would have had to resign. Job done.

The Perfidious Albion; as they say about Britain. 

Indeed, perfidious. But that's the way they operate. There is a reason why Britain has been ruling the waves for so long. There are things I know that you can know only from this side.... But I think it is better if I don't tell you. Anyway, let me continue with this story. I thought the plan was elegant. It implied some bloodshed, of course, but it might have prevented a much worse disaster later on. So, I enthusiastically accepted to cooperate. And you may ask now who had this idea of the new Roman Empire that would be created by the conquest of Ethiopia. 

I can guess that, Margherita.....

Yes. I concocted this absurd idea that Italy could rebuild the Roman Empire by conquering a country that had never been part of the Roman Empire. I thought of it mostly as a joke, but people believed it! It was all over the place.  Everyone was saying that, and everyone was convinced of that. You have that thing you call "Ngrams," don't you? 

We have that. I am surprised that you know about that, Margherita.

Why surprised? We ghost know a lot of things. But never mind that. You can use Ngrams to see how certain ideas penetrate the public consciousness. And if you look up the word "Ethiopia," you'll see how it picked up interest all of a sudden around 1932. At my time, I didn't need Ngrams. I was one of the sources of this propaganda operation and I could see how things were moving. I had the Italian secret service passing to me their reports. They were going to the Duce, too, but he wouldn't read them, and if he did, he didn't care so much. But I did. The idea of attacking Ethiopia truly exploded with the public. You have a term for this kind of thing, right?

Yes, we call them "psyops." 

That is a nice term. We didn't have it, but we knew how to set certain things in motion. I was not the only one working at that, of course. The British government did a good job by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Italians, where they said that if Italy attacked Ethiopia, Britain wouldn't move a finger to help the Ethiopians. The Perfidious Albion, indeed. Anyway, I do think I played a role in convincing Benito that conquering Ethiopia was a good idea. I even hinted that he could become the new Roman Emperor. 'Benito Caesar,' or something like that. And I think he believed me! How silly men can be! I wrote a lot of propaganda to favor the intervention; you can still find what I wrote. You have this thing you call "The Web."

Yes, Margherita. I read something you wrote about Ethiopia. I commented by saying that it was the best piece of propaganda ever written. 

That was kind of you. 

No.... you were really great. Although I would say....

.... a little evil, maybe?

I wouldn't say exactly that, but....

Ah... Ugo, I am ashamed of some of the things I wrote. But I did believe that I was acting for a good purpose. Anyway, I was heavily engaged in this propaganda operation. In a sense, it was fun: these things get you engrossed. I even went to meet President Roosevelt in 1934. You may have wondered how it was that he received me as if I were a head of state, even though I had no official role in the Italian Government. It was because of the plan. In 1934, it was in full swing, and Roosevelt wanted to know about it from me. Not that I was the only source of information for him. But he asked me a lot of things, and I understood that there were things that I had not been told about the plan. Much darker things than what I knew. But Roosevelt didn't tell me much. I was dismissed, and I went back to Italy. I went to see Benito, and he was suspicious about me, about the British, about the Americans, about everyone. It was a critical moment... 

Maybe you could have told him about the plan?

Sure: the perfect way to have me shot by a firing squad as a traitoress. But I could have done that if I thought he would have believed me. But, no. He has already arrived at the stage where he would believe only the things he wanted to believe. I found that my propaganda operation had gone so well that it had affected him, too. He was convinced that Italy could become an Empire again by conquering Ethiopia. Fully convinced. He had swallowed that, as they say in Britain, "lock, stock, and barrel." In a sense, it was a success for me. But it was one of those successes that count as defeats. That day, I saw myself as a relic. Whatever I had done was done; from then on, there was nothing anymore I could do. I remember I left Benito's Palace, "Palazzo Venezia," thinking I would never set foot there again. And I didn't. I came to know that he had instructed the guards at the entrance to deny me entrance if I were to appear. 

Again, Margherita, a fascinating story. But the plan didn't work as it was supposed to work, right?

No, it worked exactly the way it was supposed to work. Just not the way I was told it would. In 1935, Italy attacked Ethiopia, and the war started. I was expecting -- hoping -- that the British navy would start the blockade, but I knew that the plan was more devilish than that. The British did nothing to help the Ethiopians, but they enacted economic sanctions against Italy. It had no effect on the war, but it was as if they wanted Italians to get mad at them. And they succeeded at that: The Italians were raving mad at the British. You should have been there to understand. 

I read something about that, yes. 

Then, Ethiopia surrendered in 1936, and the king of Italy became "Emperor of Ethiopia," and no one found that silly. It was an incredible success for Benito. He was loved, adored, nearly worshipped. People really believed that Italy had become an Empire again. And that Italians were going to trash those decadent plutocracies of Northern Europe, including their Jewish masters. 

It was hard on you, right?

Yes, even though I had converted to Christianity, I was still considered a Jew. Even by Benito himself. You know what he wrote about me? That I was smelling bad because I was a Jewess.... that kind of man, he was. 

I am sorry about that, Margherita. 

You don't have to be sorry, Ugo. It is the way things went. Anyway, the naval blockade of Ethiopia was still part of the plan; it was just postponed. It was enacted in 1941, after  Italy declared war on France and Britain. And things went as planned. Italy had 250,000 troops in Ethiopia, they couldn't be resupplied from the mainland. They soon surrendered; what else could they have done? An easy victory for the British, and a terrible loss for Italy. Those troops could have changed how the war went if they had been available in Europe. 

So, it was a plan.... I hadn't thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense. It was a truly devilish plan by the Perfidious Albion.

Yes, you see, they didn't just want to get rid of Mussolini. They wanted to destroy him and make sure that Italy was thoroughly destroyed, too. No more a threat to the British Empire. It worked incredibly well. Of course, it was possible only because Benito was so dumb. But it was not just him. You see, propaganda is a beast that's nearly impossible to control. You sell dreams to people, and people become enamored with their dreams. And every attempt to wake them up fails or, worse, makes them angry at you. 

I know. You risked your life in 1938.

Yes, it was very hard for me. With the racial laws, I was targeted directly as a Jew. Fortunately, I could run away from Italy fast enough. And you may wonder how I could do that.

Your friends in the British Secret Service, right?

Yes. They helped me run away to France and from there to Argentina. They gave me a pension, and the agreement was that I shouldn't tell anything to anyone about the plan. The Italians agreed that that was the best way to get rid of me. Better than a bullet into my head -- it could have raised suspicions. And it was fine for me, too. Even if I had told the story of the plan, who would have believed me? I can do that only now, when I am a ghost. I was lucky, most of the Italian Jews were not so lucky. My sister Nella was deported to Auschwitz in Germany, and she was killed there. 

I am sorry about that. But can I ask you a question, Margherita?

Of course, you can.

Did you really believe in what you were doing, Margherita? I mean, propaganda? Or was it because you were....

.... paid?

Yes, I mean, I don't want to offend you, but....

Let me answer you with another question, Ugo. I know that your career was as a scientist, right?


And you were paid to be a scientist, right? 

Of course, yes. 

But you believed in science, right?

I still do, Margherita..... Even though....

I understand. I know something about what's happening in your world. Yes, and I am sorry for the people like you who believed in science and were so badly betrayed by it. It was the same for me with Benito and the Fascist party. But, in the beginning, I believed in him. I deeply believed that Italy needed a man like him. How things change! He changed so much. It was as if a cancer devoured him from the inside. Yet, something of the old Benito remained. And, in a way, I can understand how that woman, Petacci, loved him to the point of following him to the end. A sad story; she didn't have to. I am sorry for her. But so things are. Sooner or later, everyone ends up where I am, in Hades. 

Yes, you know, Margherita. I was wondering. It is not often that I see ghosts... are you some kind of....

You make me laugh, Ugo. No, I am not a psychopomp. I am not announcing your death!

Ah... that's nice to know! 

I am happy to see that you are relieved! Anyway, it was a pleasure to speak with you. I understand that you are writing another novel, right?

Yes, it is about Mata Hari. 

Oh, such a nice woman. I met her a few times here in Hades. 

The way you say it, it seems that Hades is a nice place. 

Not really, You'll find it boring, I think. 

Well, so things are, I guess. 

So things are. And have nice writing, Ugo. Maybe Mata Hari will come to visit you as a ghost, too. Let me disappear the way ghosts know how to do.......


Ugo Bardi's novel, "The Etruscan Quest," was published in 2023 by "Lu::Ce Edizioni". The story told in the novel takes place during the time of Fascism in Italy, and it touches many of the elements of madness that overcame the country at that time. Margherita Sarfatti, a real historical figure, makes a cameo appearance in the novel. 

Here is Sarfatti's text that I described as "The Best Piece of Propaganda Ever Written"

More details about the Italian adventure in Ethiopia can be found in this post and this one

This post was in part inspired by a conversation with Anastassia Makarieva


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Politics as Narrative and Narrative as Politics. "The Etruscan Quest"

Ugo Bardi's novel, "The Etruscan Quest," published in 2023 by "Lu::Ce Edizioni". In several ways, it is a homage to D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places." 

In 1932, D.H. Lawrence published his "Etruscan Places." It was not exactly a novel, but much more than just a travel report. As a report, it told of ages that didn't exist anymore. As a novel, it told of how Lawrence interpreted what he saw in terms of the times in which he was living; this book had a profound political significance. It was a scathing criticism of Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy. 

Narrative shapes the way we see the world. Entire civilizations were reflected in a single story. For the Greeks it was the Iliad, and for the Romans, the Aeneid. The εὐαγγέλιον, the euangelion, shaped medieval European civilization. And, in modern times, think of Tolstoy's "War and Peace," and how Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" shapes our views of WWI (in Italy, we have an equivalent in "Un Anno sull'Altipiano" by Emilio Lussu.). 

But narratives take different shapes, slants, and ways of communicating their message. A good narrative never tries to pass a pre-determined message. It is always a personal euangelion of the author. The meaning emerges from the story as rain falls from a cloud. And that was the case of D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places;" deeply felt, deeply political, deeply prophetic: a message that still resonates with us, nearly a century after it was published. A message that arrives to us so modern, so actual, so relevant, even though in ways that Lawrence himself might not have been able to imagine. 

Etruscan Places is a novel with no protagonists except Lawrence himself, not even his wife, the "Queen Bee," who had accompanied him on another Italian escapade in Sea and Sardinia (1921). And, yet, "Etruscan Places" teems of "presences" -- ghostly presences of modern Italians and ancient Etruscans that Lawrence sees as if he were a ghost himself, coming from another world, another country, another language. Ghosts are not easy to see, but a man like Lawrence could. And ghosts could speak to him, and there lies the magic of the whole story. 

Novels may have disappeared from our cultural landscape, but narrative remains a fundamental part of it. So, there may still be space for the novel format even in the modern tiktoked world. My novel, "The Etruscan Quest," is, in many ways, inspired by Lawrence's book (ghosts included), even though I never consciously tried to shape it in that way. It is another outcome of the miracle of narrative that shapes itself to say things that the author may not have understood himself or herself. 

"The Etruscan Quest" tells the story of a quest to resurrect the ancient Etruscan language. The story takes place in the 1930s, a few years after Lawrence's travel to Tuscany. The narrative of my novel is more directly political than that of Lawrence, even though, again, I didn't write it with the idea of creating a political message. The novel story starts in 1935, and the protagonist, an American, finds himself witnessing some of the darkest events of the parable of the Fascist government in Italy: the attack on Ethiopia, the racial laws against the Jews, the mad idea of rebuilding the Roman Empire, and more. All things that the Italians of that time saw as normal, and that took a rather weird character, a non-professor of the non-existent Miskatonic university, to see, to wonder about, and to try, often unsuccessfully, to understand. 

Since I mentioned Miskatonic University, you may also imagine that "The Etruscan Quest" has something to do with H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos. It does. A lot. And the creatures of Lovecraft's universe may well have much more to do with our world than we would accept to admit. But that I'll describe in another comment