The Gray Zone, by Carlo Bordini.

 

Short premise

 

Since life’s circumstances have led me to practice for many years the profession of researcher in history, at a certain point in my life I felt the urge to study the sixties and seventies, that revolution-filled period that seems so very far away now, about which little has been said and, above all, about which mostly inadequate things have been said, in an approximate manner, so as to acritically demonize or mythicize it. Nothing came of such an urge; but the occasion prompted me to reflect upon a possible periodization of those two decades.

If I had studied that period (and a group effort would have been required) I would have periodized the sixties as the “long” sixties, as a relatively homogeneous period of revolutionary events that lasted from 1959 to 1973. In other words, by taking the events at the start and at the end of a period, from the victory of the Cuban revolution to the coup d’état in Chile. But it wasn’t only the Cuban revolution that can be placed emblematically at the start of that period; in 1959, a process began that in the span of a few years also caused almost all African states to become independent, and the Algerian revolution, too, commenced. In Italy, the blue-collar movement reared its head once again, and in 1960 a popular insurrection (that today is not re-evoked often enough, in which also the wartime resistance fighters participated) blocked Tambroni’s attempt to set up a center-right government backed by the neo-fascists. It amounted to a process that developed with different rhythms on a planetary level, and that in 1968 ended up by engaging also students, those who at one time had been the children of the privileged classes; 1968 was the apex of that process, it involved not only relations of strength but also mindsets, customs, it united opposite shores of the ocean in shared aspirations, mobilized young people to refute opulence, unified them in emblematic struggles, like that of supporting the independence of Viet Nam. That process culminated and ended (and, perhaps, revealed its incapacity to develop any further), in 1973. In 1973 Vietnam managed to oust a demoralized American army; Pol Pot won in Cambodia, inaugurating his massacres and revealing the dark side of liberation struggles; in Chile the government of Allende, which had been democratically elected, was swept away by Pinochet’s coup d’état. I think that 1973 was precisely the year in which relations of power shifted, in which the revolutionary wave began to wear out and dominion fell back into the hands of the world’s powers that be (1). The coup d’état in Chile was the symbolic watershed, the synthesis of all defeats. And I think that the struggles that developed in the ensuing years, in a climate of ever-increasing despair and exasperation, may be defined as a gigantic last ditch effort on the part of a movement that was ending and that had lost or exhausted its tools. In Italy, at least, I would periodize the new period as lasting up to 1978. In 1978, the eighties began ahead of time, the leaden, conformist eighties.

For those of us who lived through the seventies these things were not clear, or perhaps they were simply small blemishes that appeared on our skin, our loves, our life.

In the seventies I was an ex. I had exhausted my rage, my hopes, and my desire to struggle within one of the infinitely many splinter-groups into which the Trotskyist movement was divided. After nine years I had come back to life and, in fact, I managed to grab life by the tail: I got my university degree at the age of thirty-three and later became a researcher at the university. I soon understood, while talking with a friend, that I had been born twice; with dumbfounded eyes, I gazed at the world—the new world—of my second birth. My seventies were not a militant seventies, but those belonging to a gray zone of which I was a part: a gray zone made out of isolated comrades, stray dogs, extemporaneous militants who were members of some collectives, people who went to demonstrations, people who lived in that zeitgeist, who thought, discussed, had diverse sexual experiences, practiced absenteeism, engaged in nudism, lived in communes, acted as open couples, who were consumed with grief that 1968 had been a failure, who were willing to participate in extemporaneous meetings, who sporadically worked for Soccorso Rosso (Red Aid). A hazy, melancholic, sweet and, I think, very beautiful gray zone. One already had a sense of decline, but it was a sweet decline. Rome, in the early seventies, was really very beautiful. The tone of the city was set by young people and by comrades. Demonstrations were frequent. There wasn’t a single demonstration of any kind—and this had been true since since 1968—in which one didn’t see some student participating. Students were everywhere; that was their way of paving the way for the city. With their volunteerism and idealism, they were interested in everything, they ideologized everything. Piazza Navona, in the evening, was spell-binding. After the debacle that followed in the wake of Moro’s homicide, instead, the Piazza began to be peopled by another kind off crowd. Comrades kept out of view or were ashamed. The Autonomists fell prey to a great number of existential crises. The years of the raciest conformism had begun. A girl whom I had picked-up at the university in that period told me that her brother, though only a few years younger than her, was a fascist. She said: “all those who are younger than me become fascists, because they say that one suffers too much if one is a comrade.” But before that debacle took place, Rome was spell-binding. Young people were everywhere, ideologically and naively omnipresent and active on every front. In the evening, after the last screening of the day at the Farnese movie theater, there was always a group of people discussing the movie. In Testaccio, in a recently-opened trattoria run by some young people, I once saw the waiter, a young man with a big black beard, discussing philosophy with a client. There were many episodes of that sort. There was an ethical idealism, a strange idealism, that permeated everyone. Or, at least, those were the eyes with which I, a naive and slightly dreamy ex, saw the reality of the seventies.

I think it was Tomasi di Lampedusa who said that everyone should keep a diary. It is true. Some things are taken for granted and not stated, and a few years later they die or become completely incomprehensible. It is difficult to reconstruct everything. Everyone has their own flashes of memory. I’ll try to reconstruct mine in order to try to bring to light some things that now appear inconceivable or even absurd.

The basis of everything was that no one at the time thought that the future would be catastrophic. That was the basis of everything. One had the feeling that one could experiment, live new lives, and then perhaps go back to the old life without suffering too much damage. And, in fact, many did, and then went back having suffered almost no damage. I, too, did it. At the time, in other words, one could still live off the crumbs of the affluent society and, at the same time, refuse the affluent society. And, therefore, for example, someone I knew, a very likeable person, a young lawyer, whom women liked very much, at a certain point got fed up with being a lawyer and decided to become a goatherd. Together with some other people he set up a breeding farm, and they lived simply and well. They did that for a number of years. I saw him again after many years, he was no longer a goatherd, but had by then acquired a delicious leftish lingo, lived as if time hadn’t passed, as in a dream. Women liked him a great deal: he spoke about a girl but he didn’t say “a girl;” he said, significantly, “a comrade.” Without realizing it. For some years, at Piazza Navona, there was a commune of Reichians. They had sex, but only with those they liked. They tried not to fall in love, but weren’t always successful. They acted in provocative ways. They taught me nudism. They weren’t perfect. There was a permissive atmosphere, which had been obtained through struggle. Nudism was a part of it. Nudism as a normal, very widespread thing. The priggish were offended, but those that practiced it were many. Many had opted, if the could, for a reduced retirement pension, and lived on very little money in order to be free. One had the feeling that the future would not bring harm, and also the feeling that the freedoms one had achieved would not be taken away, that somehow one would have been able to defend oneself. There was the euphoria of a revolution still in full swing.

At the same time, at least inside the gray zone in which I was living, a sense of failure, of frustration, was spreading. One wasn’t conscious, of course, that one was living a marvelous twilight, but one noticed its symptoms; there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. And also of nostalgia, of unsatisfied nostalgia. The idea that everything was possible coexisted with the idea that everything had been blown. There was, above all, a nostalgia for 1968. The 1968 that had failed to win, that had not known how to win, that had not been pure enough. One had the feeling that one would never have won. Dissatisfaction for what was happening. One might happen to call in on a friend who still engaged in political militancy within the ranks of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) and find that he was reading “Lotta Continua” (a magazine of the extra-parliamentary left); and he would say to you: “I don’t understand anything about the party, I haven’t renewed my membership;” no one had any trust in the left’s traditional organizations, which had let down the youth movements and even demonized them; even if one still voted for them, because the spectrum of alternative groups seemed precarious, uncertain. Many of us still went to demonstrations, in order to be there, in order to want to be there; those huge demonstrations organized by the extra-parliamentary left. I went, but felt estranged. Everyone was younger than I was. I was starting to age. During that time, I had some very intense love affairs, that with my capacity for destruction I destroyed. I would abandon or be abandoned. I remember the demonstration after Allende’s fall. We stopped marching every given number of meters; then, under the embassy’s balcony, we listened to all the diplomats—who were still those of the Allende government—sing. No one realized that it was the end of an epoch and that the marvelous twilight had begun to lose its glow.

In 1975 I published a mimeographed collection of poems, Strana categoria (“Strange Category”), and I linked up with certain Roman poets, and we formed a poetry group that had the Politecnico theater as a home base, and which published a number of short collective books. Among us, amongst others, were Renzo Paris and Biancamaria Frabotta, Gino Scartaghiande—the most notable poet of those years—Augusto Pantoni, Marco Papa, Giovanna Sicari, Claudio Damiani, Anna Cascella. We sold those little books by mail. The thing I remember best and that today moves me the most were the letters, all of which unfortunately got misplaced, with which our readers asked us for those little books, letters with drawings on them, with poetical phrases, with short poems: that widespread gentleness that co-existed—it too—with the violence of the clashes with the fascists and the police.

The new freedoms, and the longing for them, permeated all of this vast gray zone; and the slogan that was everywhere to be heard, “personal is political,” meant that existential matters were just as important as political and social ones. The epoch that one was living in signified a widening of the aims of human liberation. The sixty-eightish idea of refusing culture solely in favor of political action had been, finally, abandoned; there were a widespread creativity, a widespread culture and counter-culture; a culture that perhaps was degraded, massified, which should perhaps have been the object of an overall assessment. Perhaps the culture and the counter-culture that were born of the movements suffered also from the confusion of the epoch, from the urgency and approximation that often characterize cultures during radical upheavals; perhaps the culture didn’t peak much, but it was certainly very widespread. The Feltrinelli bookstore in via del Babuino had a whole section dedicated to magazines, often handmade magazines with limited circulations, but very great in number. In the small world of the poets, there was also talk of a return to poetry. Pagliarani’s poetry laboratory was attended by many. Poetry readings in Rome were frequent and often crowded; the magnetic figure of Amelia Rosselli stood out in them. I became friends with Amelia, as did a lot of young people, persons younger than myself. What attracted young people to Amelia were, in addition to her literary greatness, her nakedness, her poverty, her lack of power, her purity; in her—a great poet—there wasn’t the slightest note of mundanity, of that mundaneness that, for better or worse, characterizes all artistic and literary milieus. Lacking power, unamenable to trading favors, her obsessions, which eventually led her to commit suicide, for a number of years prevented her from writing; the only thing she wrote in those years was the poem Impromptu, when Pasolini was murdered.

The spreading of a very broad-based counter-culture expressed itself in the field of poetry as well. Poetry began to be widespread, something to be read at assemblies, to be published in “Lotta Continua,” to be quoted in pamphlets (it was no coincidence that that was the time when Brecht’s poems were read the most). Very many people wrote poems and, most of all, they didn’t keep them to themselves. It was a very prosy sort of poetry, at times very spoken, very essential; however, it was also a humus on which a part of cultivated poetry was being born and would be born in years to come. I edited an anthology based on this very widespread phenomenon, Dal fondo (“From the bottom”), together with Antonio Veneziani, Ivana Nigris, and Enza Troianelli.

In the second half of the decade, the atmosphere slowly changed and took a turn for the worse. An unemployed and sidelined proletariat made up of young people who lacked hope and were full of rage was being formed. Also the great poetry reading at Castelporziano suffered, in my opinion, with its lack of communication between poets and audience, from this thickening of the atmosphere. The only great novelty of that period was feminism, the late offspring of 1968. There was something melancholic also in the return to poetry, a despair that was spreading under the surface. I became attached to Attilio Lolini, whose ferocious and sarcastic despair I appreciated. At the Parco Lambro I met the young Beppe Sebaste, who once in a while came to visit me in Rome, youthfully enthusiastic about the French philosophers. The home of Also Rosselli in Trastevere was always full of people and, at night, of women. I met Rossella Or, Alessandro Ricci, Antonio Veneziani. The despair, the melancholy, the sense of failure of those who were youngest didn’t express themselves only through anger, but also in an escape from the world. Heroine use began to become widespread. One day when I was in Florence, on the Ponte Vecchio, for a poetry meeting, along with Attilio Lolini, he said to me, pointing to the numerous drug addicts: You see those guys? They are all ex-activists…

When the 1977 movement burst forth, I was overcome by enthusiasm, and so was my university colleague and friend Luigi Cajani. We went to the demonstrations together, and they were truly immense gatherings. Also the professor with whom I had done my thesis and with whom I collaborated, Vittorio Emanuele Giuntella, a democratic Catholic with hints of evangelism and anarchism, was in favor of them. It seemed as if something was about to be reborn. But, at a certain point we realized something: the young people who were part of the movement did not want allies. They did not want us to be their allies. A friend of mine, Elena Ascione, who was later wounded by the police, said to me one day: “Take note: this isn’t imagination empowered, this is despair empowered.” There was an immense demonstration, a nation-wide demonstration whose date, which I don’t recall right now, has remained sadly famous. Someone started to shoot, the police charged, and the demonstration shattered into a thousand pieces. That marked the end of era of big demonstrations, and since then only those ready to partake in urban warfare have attended them. A few days later, I was at the Politecnico theater, and a young poet arrived who had been at a demonstration. “How did it go,” I asked him. “Nothing – he said. I left right away. They were shooting from all sides.”

On one of those days I met Alfonso Berardinelli at the university. Luciano Lama, then secretary of the CGIL (the Communist worker’s union), had decided to hold a rally at the university, a territory that was hostile to him. He went there protected by countless bodyguards, as if he had to take over enemy territory. It was a provocation and the Autonomy movement rose to the occasion. A battle ensued. Alfonso and I were there. The strange thing was this: everything that happened went in a direction that wasn’t ours; we had no power to intervene and no voice in the matter; but we had attended nonetheless. Not going seemed unfeasible. It seemed as if we would have missed something had we not gone. No one had the courage to say: “These things don’t interest me.” We had a friendly and somewhat absurd discussion, while the clashes were raging a short distance away from us. From time to time we had to move to the side in order to avoid getting struck by large stones. I remember that at the end of the discussion, before we parted, I asked him: what’s the thing that interests you most? He replied: “Freedom.” And you? – he asked me. I answered: “Sweetness.”

The day they kidnapped Moro I was at the University. When the news spread among us I thought, and said to someone: “Nothing will ever be the same again.” We gathered in an assembly, and someone shouted in an ironic tone: “Free Aldo.” Then I went home and went to buy food. I noticed that I was buying a lot of things to eat, as if a war had broken out. That evening at six o’clock I had an appointment at the Politecnico theater. I went. Nobody else came. Rome was completely deserted. It was six in the evening, but it seemed as if it was three in the morning. The tail slashing of the dying animal had been particularly violent.

 

The great show

 

What was a tragedy for some, seemed dampened to us in the gray zone, to the stray dogs. We were already accustomed to the failure of politics, and lived increasingly in a state of skepticism within which our personal situations acquired an increasingly primary role in our lives. I, at the time, thought mostly about women, and my radiant periods and my tragedies occurred primarily in the field of affections. But the background existed, and the collapse of the 1977 movement and the final crash of the Red Brigades, the sudden collapse after the tail slashing, could not but be felt. I experienced Moro’s kidnapping in a detached manner, as if it were a dream. No one loved Moro, and no one thought the kidnapping as relevant to them personally. It was like a televised dream. Life at the time was like a giant tv movie, the voice of the speaker who told of the ongoing searches for Moro, those useless and (as we later found out) largely fake searches. Life was a big show. Perhaps it was then that life as a show began. The show of the Red Brigades that kidnapped Moro and the show of the State that pretended it was strong. The tragedy was strongly felt among the young, among the protagonists. Within the Autonomy movement, there were many a personal crisis. I, who at the time was a university employee without a regular contract, felt a heightened sense of exclusion, of separation, and also of unworthiness. We had already tasted defeat many years back, and now even a certain golden limbo made out of regrets had ceased to exist. But no one lived the defeat as a personal event. Many years later, I met members of the Red Brigades when I went to give them oral university exams in prison (at the start of the eighties, all university employees were given a regular contract), and I came face to face with the die-hard sort of Brigade member who had come out of the crisis hardened, sometimes even toughened, and who remained faithful to the ideal, without dissociating him or herself or feeling any regret. They were far more numerous than I had imagined. The idea that they had all expressed regret was another one of the media’s fairy-tales.

Time ago I was with some friends among whom there was also a young man 28 years of age, very intelligent and very determined, and we were talking precisely about the seventies. I said: “The seventies have been overly mythicized. We made a lot of mistakes, and there was a lot of confusion. They were the years of defeat. We weren’t able to develop anything. At bottom, what did we achieve? Nothing. We got everything wrong.”

My twenty-eight year old friend said to me: “You are wrong. If you hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be as I am. I wouldn’t exist as I am now.” Then I understood that the seventies had by now become a myth, that a myth has its importance, that in a myth all things get mixed together, the beautiful things and the ugly ones, and that as a myth they become something else, from which they also derive their justification, which is that of deploying dreams and hopes and of transmitting them (intact, still pure, uncontaminated, so that history may continue) to later generations.

Rome, 1977, by Tano d’Amico.

Other pictures by Tano d’Amico

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(1) 1973 can be considered an emblematic date for another reason as well: it was the year in which Nixon abolished parity between gold and the dollar, giving rise to the process (that encouraged financial speculation to the detriment of the real economy) whose tragic results we see today.

This document is taken from the volume by various authors Renault 4 – Scrittori a Roma prima della morte di Moro (Renault 4 – Writers in Rome before the death of Moro), edited by myself and Andrea Di Consoli, and published by Avagliano in 2007.