'Futurism’ was an early 20th-century movement in art, centred mainly in Italy. It was a rejection of all traditions, and it attempted instead to glorify contemporary life, mainly by emphasising its two dominant themes: the machine and motion. It celebrated change and innovation, and it glorified the dynamism, speed and power of the machine, and the vitality and restlessness of modern life in general. The car had only recently been invented, and the Futurists idolised its beauty, its speed and its power (though we might think the Model T, with its two forwards and one reverse, and its box-like appearance, was singularly lacking in these!). They exalted violence and conflict and called for the sweeping rejection of traditional cultural and social values. Futurist poetry was frequently an incoherent blend of words stripped of their meaning and used for their sound alone.
Futurism seems very adolescent to us now, and that is perhaps what it was - if you can speak of societies going through their adolescence. Like adolescence, the full flush of the movement didn’t last long, fizzling out in about 1916. But also like adolescence, aspects of it became permanent: its influence survived in the worship of the machine, which became a fundamental part of Fascist doctrine. And it had a significant influence on the early development of the Soviet Union.
Why bring all this up? Because today we still worship the machine, especially the car, and we again repudiate the past, and we are even more restless than those early 20th-century ‘futurists’. Their cult of modernity looks comical beside ours, so far have we outdone it. Our culture remains somehow adolescent: some men especially remain adolescent all their lives. Though we should have learnt something from that early 20th-century experiment, when we try to visualise our future we don't see a world filled with goodness, justice and love; instead we imagine a world filled with computers and robots, morally neutral: we worship the machine more than any futurist ever did - even Marinetti, the most radical of them. “Today we live lost in a spider’s web of machinery, material and social, and don't know what we are living for or how we manage to live at all,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. It is almost fifty years since Santayana’s death - we have mechanised and accelerated our life a hundredfold since his time.
In a new millennium we try to imagine the future. What shapes will fill the thousand empty pages ahead? What will history tell about us in some future time? What will they say about early 21st-century Europeans? or Americans or Asians…? They will tell of the vast social, cultural and religious changes that swept over us - or rather, that swept us along. We ourselves are conscious of these things already; what sharper, deeper, even less flattering image will the future have of us? What will they praise us for? Some kind of courage, honesty, hope against hope...? They may even envy us many things - things that would surprise us now: perhaps even our adolescent quality. Pray that our obsession with machines and with speed, to the virtual exclusion of weightier things, will not have the terrible carry-over that futurism had. You recall that futurism contributed to Fascism and to the Soviet regime. Pray that there aren't ferocious beasts towering over us invisibly - invisibly to us, but plainly to posterity. What horrible birth lies ahead? In 1919 W.B. Yeats, who was deeply worried by the Soviet Revolution, wrote of “a vast image” that “troubles my sight.” With the prescience that poets can have, he wrote of something with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” an approaching beast “moving its slow thighs...”
What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Pray that we are not giving birth to some great beast. Pray that instead “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a Child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).