A wrestling match, a vampire story, a set of slogans meant to indoctrinate a troop of young fascists, a popular tearjerker penned by a reactionary author who knows her audience’s base instincts all too well. In all these things there’s a grain of mythology — the use of certain familiar archetypes, of majestic “big ideas,” of narrative forms that are presented as naturally meaningful but, if prodded more carefully, prove emptier and more outdated than they might appear.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes was one of the first left-wing theorists to grapple with the theme of myth and mythology in a way that was transparent and openly accessible to a wider audience. In his 1957 book, Mythologies (which collects several analyses of contemporary French cultural and pop-culture phenomena), he explains he resented how journalists attributed a patina of “naturalness” to things that were “undoubtedly determined by history.” “Myth is a language,” he asserts — and as such, we must learn its rules and inner workings to reveal what is hidden behind the code.
One of the most insightful explorers of the theory of myth and mythology on the Left was the Italian writer and scholar Furio Jesi (1941–1980). Much like Barthes, he believed myth to be a language hiding historical and political phenomena behind a patina of “naturalness” that grants them a false idea of universal validity. And like Barthes, Jesi believed that myth needs to be studied in all of its representations, disregarding any value judgements that might lead the historian or the literary scholar to shrug off populist culture as meaningless and too crass, the unworthy lumpenproletariat of the cultural realm.
But Jesi was exploring dangerous territory — one that, with a few exceptions (like Barthes), left-wing theorists had mostly steered clear of up until then. Myth had mainly been the playground of thinkers who were either unabashedly reactionary (Mircea Eliade, Julius Evola) or politically dubious at best (Oswald Spengler, Georges Sorel, Károly Kerényi). Jesi’s intellectual and political contemporaries in the Italian left weren’t always thrilled — Enrico Manera, who worked with him on several projects, later told an interviewer that many feared Jesi studied these things because “in the end he just gets off on it”; “he’ll go off the deep end and get infected”.
Morbid fascinations aside, Jesi was in many ways a contrarian: affiliated to the academic world but never really a part of it (until material necessities compelled him, that is), an outspoken socialist activist but never a card-carrying Communist. He was open and relaxed on topics that — in the 1960s and ’70s — still caused some dillydallying among many of his quite chauvinistic comrades, like feminism or homosexuality; he was as opinionated as he was generous spirited.
Jesi’s intellectual journey began astonishingly early. He published his first book as a precocious and inquisitive teenager, writing about the not-very-adolescent topic of Egyptian ceramics. But from then on, his career only got more unusual. His trajectory tells us something about a time in which eclectic outsiders and polymaths could penetrate the world of culture and academia through roundabout ways. Though Jesi hailed from a fairly well-off bourgeois family (his father a cavalry officer, his mother a historian and author of children’s books), he proved a rather wayward son, leaving school early without a diploma and never setting foot in the lecture halls of a university as a student. Nevertheless, he was smart enough to attract the attention of somebody like Hungarian philologist Kerényi — his formative years were marked by feverish research and exchange with intellectual models who were often three times his age. In Jesi, an undeniable talent was matched with a great gift for self-promotion — his success in the publishing world as an editor, translator, and curator as well as his landing a lecturing job in the universities of Palermo and Genoa (though obstinately degree-less and PhD-less) would otherwise be hard to explain.
He also had a keen eye for the importance of topics his peers would have considered frivolous. In the classes he taught at the German studies department at Palermo in the late 1970s, Jesi focused on themes that were not kosher with the literary establishment either. He famously gave a course on “vampires and automata in German literature from the eighteenth up to the twentieth century,” in which he invited his students to analyze this classic figure of horror fiction as (among other things) a spectral return of aristocratic values in bourgeois times, with the mercantile classes vying to dethrone nobility and take their place as the ruling class while at the same time inheriting their value system as a source of legitimacy. As in any revenant story, what is summoned back from the dead can only produce rather ghastly results, much like a transplanted organ rejected by the body. This is a fundamental takeaway from Jesi’s analysis of the so-called “mythological machine,” a theoretical model he devised to analyze all kinds of cultural and political phenomena, from the rituals of festivity in European and non-European societies to eighteenth-century German literature, from right-wing ideology to outraged readers’ letters in Italian magazines.
Jesi’s reflections on myth are highly complex and nuanced; he built upon them for his entire legacy, and he did so with varying degrees of accessibility or obscurity. As intentionally asystematic as he was, his thought did have a solid foundation of ideas and definitions he always stretched and expanded as he went along.
Not Quite Dead
To understand his idea of myth, we could use another example in which, as he had done with vampires during his university lectures, Jesi spoke of things that are “not quite alive and not quite dead.” And to do so, we’ll have to make a detour to the kitchen.
One of Jesi’s most informative and wittiest essays from the 1970s has the appealing title of “Mythological Gastronomy” (“Gastronomia mitologica”). Jesi begins with a warning — to the reader but maybe to himself too, as if he had taken seriously his comrade’s suspicions mentioned above. When sitting down to study the objects that make up the science of myth, Jesi writes, one must proceed with caution:
To configure these objects means to relate them to one another and to the observer, with a gnoseological intent. But in the context of myths and mythology, whoever devises a model always runs the risk of composing or putting together mythological materials: of becoming himself a maker of myths (mitografo) instead of a scholar of myth (mitologo).
This is tantamount to an ethical conundrum: in analyzing these “mythological materials,” the scholar might herself be contaminated by the logic of myth and reproduce its assumptions and tropes even as she attempts to dismantle them. Myth is insidious because it is catchy and easy, an intellectual earworm that moves the listener to hum along and repels any challenge to its workings. Not just catchy but also, Jesi suggests, pleasing to the palate.
For his gastronomy of myth, Jesi tears a handful of pages from a rather archaic French cookbook, detailing the preparation and cooking of shrimps. The cook is not unlike the manipulator of myth, Jesi suggests. Both set out to handle something that, in its raw and dead state, isn’t really appetizing at all — it has the ashen, gray color of death, and it is enclosed in a thorny carapace that must be removed if any cooking or eating is to happen at all. Such is the uncooked shrimp, such is the myth in its unadulterated state — after all, there is little attractive about, say, the death wish–infused violence of cults, religions, or extremist ideologies or the sometimes-fatal cruelty of an initiation rite. But like our unlucky batch of shrimps, myth can entice us and stimulate our hunger once it has been washed, cooked, and seasoned rightly — after it has been turned from an uncanny gray to a seductive red:
This red is the color of that which is dead and, in dying, has taken on the color of that which is alive, ripe, and pleasantly edible. The goal of the modern science of myth or mythology, the goal of modern mythographers, is precisely this: to serve on our tables something really appetizing, which we would deem alive with little hesitation but is pretty much dead and — even when it was alive — never had such a pleasant color to begin with. The color of life is often not the prerogative of the living. The living are often not very edible for us, and to our eyes the color of life is the color of the things we eat with satisfaction.
The vibrant pastel tones certain foods take on once a chef (or industrial chemist) has had his way with them have little to do with the color of biological life (as in animals’ complexion when alive and breathing). Likewise, the presumption of the everlasting relevance and applicability of myths does not hold up against reality and historical change. Like the shrimps in Jesi’s anecdote, myths generally would gross us out in their “live” form (in their sheer violence, that is) and have to be “cooked” and “processed” to appease modern tastes and seem, if not alive, at least fresh and consumable. (Pure colonialism is not fashionable anymore? Let’s call it “exporting democracy.” We can’t be directly classist or misogynist because it would tarnish our image as liberals? Fine, we’ll just make fun of “Karens.”)
What Jesi had in mind when he wrote of myth was defined in less mouthwatering terms at many points of his career. If the shrimp essay has the receiver (or “victim”) of myth cast as a consumer who — fancying himself a gourmet — is in fact devouring an unappetizing carcass, other writings by Jesi break down the processes allowing myth to function as such. In his outline to a book on “contemporary myths” that sadly never came to fruition, Jesi defines myth as a foundational narrative about the basic realities of human life and society that is taken to be true and — even in the face of momentous historical change — proves remarkably adaptable while never changing its original message or explanation.
Even if the modern individual cannot believe in “heroes” like somebody from the Hellenistic period, she can still be made to believe that a heroism of sorts persists — after all, the myth of the underdog and her triumph (or defeat) against incredible odds still holds sway today. The Greeks had their Achilles and their Medeas; we have our Steve Jobs and our Elon Musks. All our contemporary myths have roots in ancient ones, Jesi suggests; for our ancestors, there was little difference between these explanations of reality and reality itself (the latter emerged from and was a continuous rerun of the former) — for us, they hold value as escapist fantasies or ideological tools.
This allows us to understand the deep political implications of Jesi’s work, which he carried through all his books but most explicitly tackled in his 1979 outing, Cultura di destra (Right-Wing Culture). When invited to discuss this book with the Italian weekly L’Espresso, Jesi explained his descriptions of the “culture of the right”:
It is a culture in which the past is a sort of homogenized pap that can be modeled and kept in form in the most useful way. A culture in which a religion of death prevails, or simply a religion of the illustrious dead. A culture that declares the existence of indisputable values, indicated by capitalized words — Tradition and Culture first of all, but also Justice, Freedom, Revolution. In short: a culture of authority, of mythological security about the rules of knowledge, of teaching, of issuing and obeying command.
Aside from Jesi’s apparent attachment to culinary images (though a “homogenized pap” sounds less inviting than a serving of crunchy shrimps), this passage gives us the gist of Jesi’s model to describe right-wing ideology: it is a culture of empty signifiers that only pose as ideas (they are “ideas without words,” to use another definition of his) but are fundamentally unquestionable, unchangeable, and — herein lies their strength — reassuring, inasmuch as they simplify the complexities of reality; they glamorize the history of nations, communities, political movements; they identify allies and enemies, and they allocate the roles that each believer has to play in order for change (not) to happen.
In each of the essays that make up Cultura di destra, Jesi manages to apply this model of description of myth to a variety of case studies which are in part anthropological and in part literary in nature. In two of them, he examines the “cult of death” and self-sacrifice typical of fascist militias, where the grunts are kept at bay by reminding them of the symbolic significance of their apparently arbitrary tasks (from venturing on borderline suicide missions against a clearly advantaged opponent to engaging in aimless forms of activism that do not serve any real long-term purpose); these lower-level individuals are on an exoteric, need-to-know-basis and are the beneficiaries of the most mystical, abstract forms of ideological propaganda (the part that mostly smacks of religious zeal, allowing them to feel like the foot soldiers of a millenarian movement that is bigger than them), while the higher-ups have access to the real-world truths of their political operation, have read more of into the philosophical and mystical system behind it all, and manipulate these “mythological materials” with esoteric (restricted) knowledge and awareness.
Yet right-wing culture is not the prerogative of a restricted and clearly defined political current or of a handful of fanatic fringe groups. In another interview with L’Espresso reprinted in a recent edition of Cultura di destra, Jesi asserts that the main tenets of this culture — the strategic banalization of the past, the magical allure of “big ideas with capital letters,” whose meaning is taken for granted but never clearly defined — have become so hegemonic that even those who understand themselves in opposition to it are likely to think and operate in accordance with its principles.
That conclusion has not lost any of its relevance: we need only think of how the proponents of identity politics (with various degrees of cynicism) think of categories like “Race” or “Queerness” as if they were essential realities that need no further critical prodding. (They are instead like abracadabras in a magical incantation that simulates criticality and protest as a palliative for the lack of actual political action.) Or we might look at the way that the term “Working Class” is easily expanded or restricted by certain leftists according to their critical or political agenda. Often, this is done with little historical or sociological insight into its possible meaning in different contexts and eras, with a remarkable ease to identify “pariahs” to justify classist contempt. (“This person is working class, but she voted Brexit, therefore a traitor; this person is working class, but she’s white, therefore privileged. . . .”)
The enduring importance of mythological manipulations shows us how Jesi’s critical project, largely glossed over in most accounts of leftist thought, is worth reconsidering and expanding upon today. Phenomena like the alt-right, conspiracy theories, or even meme culture (again: ideas without words) would surely have piqued his interest as an intellectual with such a keen eye for all forms of myth — from its high-minded (or highfalutin) instances up to its pop-culture manifestations. Jesi’s contemporaries, who contemplated the encyclopedic scope of his project with a sometime sneering attitude (too much erudition or too much frivolity), now stand corrected: his holistic gaze at how right-wing ideology can aptly seep through many layers of culture and politics like an ever-growing blob is more relevant than ever.
English-speaking readers can now access some of Jesi’s work thanks to the effort of a group of Italian scholars translating and publishing his essays for the American imprint Seagull Books (a revival concomitant with an equally recent surge of reeditions and critical interest in Jesi in his native Italy). The more accessible Right-Wing Culture is still untranslated, as of this writing, but the brilliant pieces in Time and Festivity can already offer a first, pleasurable glimpse of Jesi’s breadth of analysis.