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The Child of Pleasure is a novel by Gabriele D'Annunzio,
written in 1888 and published in 1889.
In 1876 the historical Right falls, having ruled Italy since the Kingdom's founding in 1861. The king appoints Agostino Depretis, a former Mazzini loyalist, to form a ministry with men from the Parliamentary Left, which remains in power until 1887. Francesco Crispi succeeds Depretis and governs off and on until 1896. The political economy of the Left carries the protectionism of industry and large national agrarian corporations to the point of sparking a customs war with France. In 1882, foreign policy sees the formation of a defense-minded Triple Alliance with Austria and Germany. Colonial policy is inaugurated with the occupation of Eritrea, which leads to the defeat of Dogali in 1887. Under the Crispi government, Italy sees a new penal code (the Zanardelli code) abolishing the death penalty; the repressive treatment of the Catholic associations and the workers' movement; an even stronger protectionist trend; the rigid enforcement of the treaty with Austria and Germany; and the resumption of colonial policy, culminating in the 1889 Uccialli Treaty and the founding of the colony of Eritrea. These events occurred when the "great depression" that hits Europe at the end of 1900s was at its peak. The period also saw changes in the socio-economic structure of the great European nations, such as industrial and financial concentrations (trusts, monopolies) supported by the State (protectionism). The ensuing crisis of Liberalism and these new authoritarian tendencies were in conflict with social progress recently obtained by the working classes and the consequent formation of large mass parties (the Socialists and the Social Democrats) that were soon to become the cornerstone of industrial society. In such situations, artists and intellectuals often choose to marginalize themselves, to adopt stances that are a-centric, elitist, provocative and demystifying; to locate themselves apart from the masses, from "ordinary" life as it is defined by the capitalistic model of production, as well as from the commercialization of works of art.
D'Annunzio wrote The Child of Pleasure between July 1888 and January 1889 in Francavilla al Mare, where he was a guest of the painter Francesco Paolo Michetti. The poet was at that time a regular contributor to the roman newspaper "Tribuna," on which he had been financially dependent since his elopement and shotgun wedding with the Contessina Maria Gallese. One of the most impressive effects of D'Annunzio's appearance on the literary scene, an overwhelming success thanks to The Child of Pleasure, was his creation of a "D'Annunzio fan base", a group of admirers more enthralled by his celebrity style and the "star system" with which he surrounded his image than by his works. He invented the imaginative, flashy lifestyle of a "superstar," which he used to stoke the craving for dreams, for mystery, for "living another life", for all the cult-objects and cult-behaviors implied by Italy's new mass culture.
Paris was the cultural capital of Europe from the time of the Third Republic until the outbreak of World War I; it was the city where the models, trends, and the agendas of major cultural movements were forged; the place where all European artists and writers wanted to be. A representative list of some most important poets and literati living in Paris between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s would include: Arthur Symon, W.B. Yeats, George Moore from the United Kingdom; Stefan George, Hofmannsthal, Rilke and Gerhart Hauptmann from German-speaking countries; Gualdo, D'Annunzio and Marinetti from Italy; the Machado brothers from Spain; Maeterlink and Verhaeren from Belgium; Moreas from Greece. These men swelled ranks already peopled by French writers, who in those years included such names as Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Huysmans, the Goncourt brothers, and Gustave Flaubert. D'Annunzio used his job at the Roman "Tribuna" to explore and assimilate the new literary models conceived in that amazing vortex of thought. The newspaper's Parisian headquarters supplied him with magazines from the French capital, with which the author equipped the perceptive, ideological and constructive structure of the novel on which he was working. D'Annunzio was thus able to add readings from the new fountain of French inspiration to his previous readings, comprised of Baudelaire, Gautier, the Pre-Ralphaelite Aesthetic devised by the critics of the newspaper "Cronica bizantina" newspaper, and Goethe. When he went to Paris he wrote numerous works in French and "Songs from a celebration across the sea" to celebrate the conquest of Libya.
"He was, so to speak, thoroughly impregnated
with art, [...] and could thus complete his extraordinary aesthetic education
under parental direction, [...]. And it was to his father that he owed
his taste for everything pertaining to art, his passionate cult of the
Beautiful, and his paradoxical disdain of prejudice, and his keen appetite
for the sensuous. [...] From the beginning, he had ever been prodigal
of his powers, for the great nervous force with which nature had endowed
him was inexhaustible in providing him with the treasures he dispensed
so lavishly. But the expansion of that energy caused in him the destruction
of another force: the moral one, which his own father had not scrupled
to repress in him. [...] Among other fundamental maxims his father had
given him the following: You must make your own life as you would any
other work of art. The life of a man of intellect should be of his own
designing. Herein lies the only true superiority." [From pages 17
and 18 of The Child of Pleasure]
A deeper reason for his attitude therefore exists. He did in fact experience his parents' separation; his mother put her lover before her son and his father pushed him towards art, aesthetics, easy love affairs and frivolous romantic adventures. It is perhaps because of such a childhood that Andrea moves from one relationship to the next, without any regret or bitterness, and that he cynically and accurately studies what he should say to a woman to seduce her and to get what he wants from her. Andrea thus becomes an intermediary figure between the Superman [Overman] and the inept man--he who has lost his self-control and integrity, as well as the ability to act without ambivalence or to fully enjoy the pleasures he craves. His prodigiousness thus has another negative implication: he is forever destined to fail, especially where love is concerned, first with Elena Muti, and later with Maria Ferres. This sort of character is typical of Decadent and Crepuscolare literature, and follows D'Annunzio's ideology not only where aesthetics are concerned, but more precisely because he denounces the moral crisis and aristocratic values and ideals caused by the violence of the bourgeois world. It is important not to avoid the common misconception that Andrea Sperelli is Gabriele D'Annunzio's alter ego: the author identifies himself, the narrator detaches himself from the author and severely criticizes him. Firstly, Andrea is who D'Annunzio would like to be, since he impersonates both the authors' lived experiences and those to which he aspired; he is of noble blood and rich; both intellectual and seductive--at times as shy as a cherub and at others as cynical as a Don Giovanni; he moves easily through fashionable meeting places of high society and the salons of the nobility. In the second case, the narrator's criticism is directed at the "chameleonic, mutable, fluid and virtual soul", at its falsity, its duplicity, at the lies and deceit he uses with the women he loves and possesses: the character in fact cleaves himself into who he is inside and who he has to be in reality, into who he is and who he wants to be.
The figure of woman in The Child of Pleasure is
connected to Decadence: it oscillates between subtle, metamorphic and
delicately corrupt sensuality and the expressly stilnovista and pre-Raphelite
image of the delicate and ethereal woman, even if both tend to extremes
and have often been mixed in the past. Such an imaginary notion reproduces
itself on the one hand in the passionate and sensual seduction of Elena
Muti, who represents the mediocre culture, the Eros, the carnal instinct
--an expression of pleasure and sexual wantonness--that one often finds
in the verses of Goethe (a sensual poet); and on the other hand, in Maria
Ferres' spiritual and quasi-mystical sanity: she is cultured, intelligent,
sensitive to art and music, tied to family (to the Delfina family in particular)
and very religious. During the course of the novel she assumes a quality
bordering on the mysterious: passionate, unattainable, and resorting to
the verses of a melancholy poet like Shelley. The contraposition of the
two women is also symbolized by their names: the first caused the outbreak
of war of Troy, and the second is the mother of Christ. Women should not
however be perceived as autonomous characters; rather, they act as mirrors
for man's internal conflicts. Man is both tormented by the drive to self-affirmation
and to dominate others, and fascinated by fantasies of the destruction
of that very power that women represent. This becomes manifest in the
warped cerebral melding that Andrea makes of the two women: it is a process
of identification that leads first to a sentimental superposition, and
eventually to his exchanging one woman for the other.