Mythologization And Mystification As The Language Of Historical Process (As The Communication Of Previous Historical Periods With The Following Ones) – The Inability of History To Accept The Truths About Human Life

Athos Magnani sees in his friends a kind of a naiveté. He betrays them. Why? I don’t know. Maybe, because he thinks it’s more important to have an anti-fascist hero than a not successful assassination. It’s more important to have a dead hero… It’s terrible when an idea needs a hero; to need a hero is terrible.
Bernardo Bertolucci, “Interviews”, 2000, p. 75 – 76

“Magritte was an inspiration for the lighting in ‘Spider’s Stratagem’, and in particular one painting, ‘The Empire of Lights’. I was interested by a nocturnal light full of azure reflections, the light of those nights in which you can see everything. All the blue moments were shot between light and dark at dusk.” (BB)… Not only its dusk is an archetypal moment of dreaming, but Magritte’s use of that moment (and consequently Bertolucci’s) represent a hyperbole of the dream state, surrealism which, for Andre Breton, was based on ‘the omnipotence of dream… a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.’
T.J. Kline, “Bertolucci’s Dream Loom (A psychoanalytic Study of Cinema)”, Univ. Of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 69

Displacement is certainly the central mechanism of Spider, for, if the dream is a veiled language that can be interpreted only by searching for what is hidden in the interstices of the manifest content, so too are the stories provided to Athos about his father. As Athos will discover, all of the stories are intended to hide the traces of his father’s betrayal and, in the same time, lead him to the discovery of that crime. If dreams are opaque web made of strands so translucent as to allow us a glimpse of the “light” behind them but so constructed as to hide the danger at the center, so too are the myths woven by Athos’s friends in Tara. The manifest content provided by Draifa, Costa, Gaibazzi and Razzori is itself artificial tissues of fictions carefully composed so as to simultaneously conceal and reveal: a spider’s stratagem.
T.J. Kline, Ibid, p. 71 – 72

Athos-the father is a real hero who had to pretend that he is a traitor to be recognized as a fake hero idolized as a real one, in order to leave a potent anti-fascist legacy after himself. He sacrificed his identity and life for the sake of this legacy.

This poster presents the events and the meaning of the film with a background (socio-political context) of the country life’s pop-culture (pranks, hoaxes, innocent sarcasms, fake and real simplemindedness and basement staleness of conservatism). It “warns” viewers that countryside is impregnated with suspiciousness, intolerance and hate.

Here we see bust of Athos Magnani Sr., the father of the film’s main character. Appreciate the expression of fierce determination on his face, fearless (because of being absent) eyes (heroes need not see – their business is to act), his toughness of an existential hero. But exaggeration of heroic features doesn’t emphasize heroism but rather debunks it in the very moment of proclaiming it. The heroism irradiating by the Athos’ bust is so impeccable, so fake that we cannot believe not only in its seriousness but in its fakeness either. So, we are left with the impression that if there is something genuine there, we cannot know what exactly. We become suspicious that the bust might have swallowed the real Athos Magnani if he really existed.

This is Athos Magnani Jr., the son of the anti-fascist hero. Up to now he is only the hero of the film, not an existential hero as was his father. But he found himself in a situation not less convoluted, tangled and confusing than did his father two and a half decades before. May be, his situation is even more ambiguous and controversial than that of his father. And, may be, as risky?

For the elder Athos it was very difficult to find a solution – adequate way of realizing his noble cause of resisting fascism, not to transform this resistance into just a noble posture of his moral self-satisfaction without real consequences. The issue here is not people’s worldview but their position in life.

Draifa (his father’s mistress) struck by the physical resemblance between the father and son, has created for Athos-the-son a special – relaxing and confusing atmosphere. She wants him to completely slide into his father’s personality and by this to give her happiness of resurrecting her youth. Draifa is Bertolucci’s metaphor of the way majority of people (high on propagandist clichés), perceive the licensed historical heroes. She represents the emotional condition of the crowd (that gives the official heroes unconditional hurrah). In other words, regular men, despite their often machoistic façade and tough gestures, are, emotionally, Draifas of the world – creating a psychological symbiotic unity with the “heroes” (and with the super-stars), like traditional women with their husbands or beloveds.

Some not just anonymous but mysterious people in Tara want to discourage Athos from probing into his father’s destiny. They put him again and again in puzzling and frightening situations. For example, they like to lock him in unexpected places to see how he will react. They put him under tireless surveillance.

Draifa more and more surrenders to the impossible, “obscene” obsession to get into her possession rejuvenated Athos to beat time and her age. She, as if, became Eve intervening in relations between Adam and his Creator – she is trying to insert her charms between man and history. She is the symbol of sentimental appropriation of history as a symbiotic partner, like the Soviet Russians couldn’t resist the delirium that their interests are inseparable from a Communist future, or the Bushmericans – that their profits, wealth and dreams are identical with needs of “freedm-dmocracy” (to use Bush Jr.’s patter), like the wife who believes that her genuine place vis-a-vis her partner is being under his skin, and to keep him under hers.

Athos-the father (confronting Mussolini’s fascism) understands more and more that in history straight action is impossible – not only it’s futile but it can make things worse, that it is necessary to invent a strategy that will be able to undo the propaganda tricks historical ideologies are tied with while trying to translate lies into truth (to scapegoat truth). Athos Sr. started to understand that in order to be politically effective in a world that transforms lies into truth – truth must be delivered through lies, that there is no another way for truth, that only then truth can be competitive against the fascist lies, that the destiny of truth lies in its ability to imitate propagandist lies, that this is the only way to make the minds and hearts of common people to accept the truth because lies (mystification and imagination) are closer to human heart than truth. In other words, if fascism (propaganda on part of power keepers) fabricates truth – creates lies and represents them as truth, then truth, according to Athos Magnani Sr., must pretend that it is a lie pretending to be truth. Truth must look like lie – then and only then the masses will accept it. In other words, Athos Sr. is the inventor of (lying) propaganda of the truth, truth as lie – to successfully create on this lie the traditional (lying) ideology of angel-like heroes whom crowds will follow in self-sacrificial ecstasy.

Draifa (Alida Valli) inside the semantic organism of the film functions as an anti-muse; as a negative Eve intervening in Adam’s critical attempt to confront his Father. By emphasizing the impeccability of Athos-the father in front of his son she participates in sustaining the mythological nature of historical narrations distorting the truth – just by her desire that Athos-the son will continue the one-dimensionally heroic way of his father where there will always be an honorable place for her. Inside the semantic matrix of the film Draifa functions as mass culture and consumerism inside the historical process of democracy’s development.

By advertising Athos-the antifascist Draifa advertises the rigid one-dimensional anti-fascism that polished and embellished its own essence to death.

Draifa hopes to achieve even more than what history usually achieves in the noble business of fabricating reality. As we see in this shot, she plays the role not of one flower she was once but hundreds of flowers in one – for Athos-the son. Historical process is always lying because socio-political elites ruling over inequality usurp history as a propaganda tool. But Athos Sr. is the inventor of “progressive” (not conservative) lie, the lie instead of straight fighting against fascism which is not possible because of the inability of progressive antifascists-democrats for real antifascist actions (we in 21st century observe similar inability among many American democratic politicians who are publicly silent when it’s necessary to talk to people and to explain what conservatives are doing and why, and give their opponents verbal and semantic battle in front of the whole country).

Sometimes Draifa physically feels herself with Athos-the son like in her youth she did with his father. But if she will succeed, Athos-the younger will fail in his task of understanding history critically – as a spider’s stratagem. Draifa personifies exactly the feminine aspect of the stratagem of the spider of history. She promotes the myth of Athos-the elder as a self-perpetuating pseudo-truth. She wasn’t able to detect in her lover real torment and creative thinking challenging the standard historical narratives and desperately trying to outsmart them in his antifascist struggle.

While looking at Tara’s antifascist cell we remind ourselves that the appearance of a person can be deceptive, but compare Athos Magnani Sr. with his three left-liberal friends – Costa (in the center), Gaibazzi (to the right) and Razori. What does your intuition tell you? When we look at Athos Magnani and, on the other hand, at Costa, Razori and Gasibazzi, we sense that something is fishy with the idea that Athos is betrayer of his and his cell’s cause. Could, indeed, Athos betray Costa, Razori and Gaibazzi? Athos doesn’t look like the betraying type but Costa, Razori and Gaibazzi do. Sometimes appearance can contain a grain of truth. What is really going on here?

Costa shows Athos-the son his open air movie theater.

As Athos-the younger is looking at Costa – one of the previous antifascist cell members, suddenly he has exactly the same feeling that his father had years ago with his antifascist friends – that with them practically nothing against fascism can be achieved. Athos began to doubt the intensity of anti-fascist determination in his father’s friends and comrades in arms. Something here was deeply troubling. – But what is it exactly? Look at Costa’s dandy pose. Is he hiding something from Athos? Were these three friends of the father hiding something from him then as well, and if so, what it could be? Could it be their position, their style of fighting fascists, so different from Athos Sr.’?

Gaibazzi is explaining to Athos Magnani Jr. the headaches of making salamis. This returns Athos and us to a history that made not salami from pigs, but Athos-the polished antifascist from Athos-the traitor.

Historical myths are like a transparent air over the human settling in history. They are for human soul as air is for human life. But these peaceful walls and roofs hide a lot of hate for the world of otherness.

Athos-the hero of antifascism had to sacrifice his true identity – to hide his genuine passion of the fighter with fascism for the sake of being perceived by his comrades in arms as a “betrayer” and finally to become a cartoon hero of the people. He had to transform himself into a dark ghost we see in this shot, in order to give a chance to Costa, Razzori and Gaibazzi to feel themselves as real antifascists through hating Athos-the betrayer and transforming him into mythological Athos-the hero murdered by fascists, in order to transform people from what they are (spontaneously proto- and pro-fascists) into antifascists.

Here we see another metaphor for spider’s stratagem as a myth-creating strategy of historical process – washing the wine- and beer-bottles to refill them for further consumption. Every human generation faces resourceful renewal of previous historical myths to correspond to the new times.

The legend of Athos Magnani-the hero functions inside the organization of film’s images like cooked lion (who many years ago ran away from the circus and was killed by the police) whom we see in this still – one more metaphor of the ability of human history to cook the truth for the next generations’ consumption.

The task in front of Athos Magnani Sr. was not only fighting with fascism – but handling his friends who didn’t sympathize with fascism but who were not able to do anything against it except being “not for it”. His modified task (the result of his understanding that it’s impossible to fight fascism with friends unwilling to fight) became – how to make his comrades in arms Gaibazzi, Rassory and Costa more visceral antifascists capable to put masses of people who are psychologically much more prone to identify with fascist treatment of other people than with democratic behavior, against fascism. But the task of Athos Magnani Jr. is not less difficult. People today are psychologically the same as Athos’ father observed several decades earlier. While enjoying consumption of democracy they dream about fascist mistreatment of others, those “who are not like them”, who personify (suspicious) otherness. Will the magic power of Magritte’s painting that Bertolucci uses to characterize the contradictory context of Athos-the son’s thinking where vicious reason of civilization is balanced by the fresh reason of dawn, be able to help the young Athos and us in the 21st century?

The essence of the spider’s stratagem, according to the film, is, it seems, the fact that history cannot digest the truth about human life and human beings (including the truth about human heroism and human conformist adaptability), that to metabolize anything history (as a part of human nature) must transform truth into myths which hide the truth – represent it as a pleasant lies which appeals to people’s imaginary. The task of every generation (personified by Athos-the son) is to deconstruct the myths they inherited – to destroy the myths’ lies (here about Athos-the father’s stilted heroism) to get the truth out from the myths’ bottom – about real heroism of Athos who understood that with liberal friends-antifascists it is impossible to defeat fascism. The pop-myth of Athos Magnani with a bust face is created instead of this truth. We today, while observing the shameful collapse of our democratic politicians including Clinton and Obama before Wall Street, Military-Industrial Complex and entrepreneurs who demand monarchic monopoly over the free markets, have a historical chance (including the very existence of Bertolucci’s film) to understand this film much better than it was possible forty years ago. Translated into the terms of 21st century, the meaning of the film is that with the democrats like Costa, Razzori and Gaibazzi, like Clinton and Obama, or Richard Gephard, Tom Daschle and Chris Dodd (who after their Senate careers became prosperous corporate lobbyists), it is impossible to keep democracy, to save democracy from its deterioration into financial totalitarianism.


When today we are trying to understand why American democrats are losing even when they are winning – why they stopped to behave as democrats (elected to act on behalf of the people) and surrender to corporate powers and military-industrial complex as soon as they get elected to positions of political representation, it can be helpful to discover that the young Bernardo Bertolucci, director of “Spider’s Stratagem”, already decades ago tried to understand a very similar problem on the material of Italian pre- and post-WW2 history. Why progressive powers in post-WW2 period were and are so timid and simultaneously so corrupt that they are not capable of realizing in life their own political agenda, while conservatives so energetically, aggressively and successfully promote their authoritarian ideas and anti-democratic repressive deeds?

With his “Spider’s Stratagem” Bertolucci answers these and similar questions, and his answers are deeply tied with his historical and psychological analysis challenging our imagination satisfied with pleasing clichés, and debunking our thinking about our past and future. The director delivers his analysis by making two epochs semantically collide – the times of post-war fight for farther democratization of Italy, and the antifascist fight during the 30s (represented in the film by the activities of Athos Magnani Sr., the father of main hero of the film, and his comrades in arms Costa (owner of outdoor movie theater), Rassori (a school teacher) and Gaibazzi (opera fan, a gourmet and a salami maker). What we today try to grasp better the difficulties of the fight for farther democratization of our own country (US) is very close to what Bertolucci tried to clear for himself about the fight for post-war democratization of Italy in “Spider’s Stratagem”. Athos Magnani-the father and Athos-his son, therefore, are trans-historical doubles of progressive movements, and the later Athos is not only heir of Italian and universal antifascism but our own contemporary in the 21st century. We are all heirs of Athos Magnani Sr, and for us to comprehend his enigma is a matter of survival for our conscience, our identity and our humanity. We not less than Athos Magnani Jr. must to know what really happened – who and why killed his father.

Bertolucci’s film makes it clear that what really happened with the Elder Athos Magnani and what his son is trying to investigate (when he arrived in Tara by the invitation of his father‘s mistress, Draifa) can be very important for him (and, for that matter, for us today). The psychological similarities between political conservatism and fascism are relatively easy to detect. But too many among democrats help neocons to keep their ideas and the very cruel style of their socio-political actions alive and well. What is exactly similar between Costa, Rasori and Gaibazzi on the one hand and today’s American Democrats on the other? – The inability of democrats to fight for farther democratization of democracy – a topic much less examined than that of conservative psychology. Tara’s antifascists Costa, Rasori and Gaibazzi, friends of Athos Magnani Sr., became the focus of Athos Jr. and Bertolucci’s investigation in “Stratagem…” after the young Athos discovered that the fascists in reality were not involved in the assassination of his father as it was formulated in the solemn myth of Athos Magnani.

The official version of Athos Magnani’s death more and more looked to Athos Jr. not only simplistic but as a twisted fabrication. And this “benign” – populist-propagandist misrepresentation of the truth became for Bertolucci an example of how human history in general tends to misrepresent truths to the future generations. Bertolucci analyzes the populist-propagandist orientation of the very historical process (not as a technical but as a humanistic progress). In reality Athos Magnani-the elder became a traitor in order to be named as… a hero. This point of the film is already inside the problematic of history’s “spider’s stratagem”. To transform somebody into a hero of a pop-belief, the one who by his martyrdom reinforces the progressive idea, somebody who personifies this idea and carries it directly to the hearts of the population demands special preparation in historical time. It needs a propagandist “cooking”, and this explains how many culinary images Bertolucci uses in the film including Gaibazzi’s endless monologues about cooking and technologies of preserving food. Ideological “cooking” of the hero for future generations of antifascists is like moves of a spider enveloping its victim into a web-sack for a future meal.

Athos Magnani Sr. was the leader of an antifascist cell, and one of his proposals was to assassinate a fascist leader who planned to visit their small town. It’s the reaction of his friends on Athos’ proposal the reason for all the bizarre events which brought to life Athos’ betrayal and later his “beautification” into the status of antifascist hero. Their reaction was so decorative and stagy, so childish and toy-like, so helpless and not serious and so abstract and cartoon-like (simultaneously, exaggerated and impotent) that Athos for the first time understood that these people not only don’t want to but they’re psychologically incapable of fighting for their cause, that Gaibazzi really prefers opera and salami to risking his life, that Costa likes his cinema-business too much to risk losing his outdoor movie theater, that Rasori likes his position as a school teacher teaching kids clichés approved by fascist administration, to be tortured and killed. What to be surprised? – We, democratically oriented people like to live with appetite and pleasure, we don’t like political fights and verbal clashes and taking stance against establishment, we like positivity and friendly atmosphere. Of course, fascist dictatorship is bad thing, but if you are not challenging power and don’t belong to a special category you can survive on the periphery of life. Athos Magnani understood that his friends are satisfied with belonging to their antifascist group like to a club, but they will not be able to do anything against fascism. While thinking about his democratic friends and searching for solutions Athos gradually develops the idea of personal martyrdom as the only way to fight fascism, but it is supposed to be an action from which people will learn how to hate the fascists – they have to be somehow overwhelmed with the desire for revenge – and Athos decided to sacrifice himself by making this myth of his heroism his personal memorial. It was all that was possible to do with antifascists like Rasori, Costa and Gaibazzi, Clinton, Obama and endless American democrats today who are not able to fight for democracy through organizing and participating in peaceful political actions like public demonstrations, through explaining to the people the truth about neocons’ anti-humanistic political agendas, etc.

But how could Athos persuade his antifascist friends to support his martyrdom? – Here to him comes the idea of his betrayal of antifascist cause. It is by turning on in his friends the hate towards him, feeling of contempt for him, Athos creates in them passion necessary for building a cult of him as… a true antifascist hero. That, as he understood, is the only way to advance the antifascist feelings in people of liberal sensibility who are incapable of fighting for their progressive cause. Athos is a true hero who had to pretend to be a traitor in order to be able to leave after himself a potent anti-fascist legacy. He decided to sacrifice himself for the sake of this legacy. By transforming Athos-the traitor into Athos-the hero, Rasory, Costa and Gaibazzi will satisfy their anti-fascist feelings through their hate and disdain for him as the one who committed the treason, and then they’ll get passion to persuade people to hate the fascists for killing their hero Athos Magnani.

We see today that while neo-conservatives are fighting tooth and nail for their financial and political advantage, democrats – people with democratic sensibility, are too positive to fight and risk, they prefer to live and enjoy their salaries. No question, they are psychologically more refined and morally more advanced over conservatives by sensibility, but history of human race is, probably, too young to go farther than creating a less violent and a more positive people – it doesn’t know yet how these positive people can defend their progressive (humanistic) agenda against conservative traditionalists. The fact that human nature already includes non-conservatives is, perhaps, such a giant step in moral development of humanity that to expect more from our human nature is utopian gesture. When conservatives growl – liberals put their tails between their legs. That’s how they are. Even Creator cannot change that. If they, as Hegelian beautiful souls, rush to achieve historical results, we have a situation of martyrdom. The presence among us delicate human beings is, probably, the maximum we, humans could achieve up to now. To be cannibals, murderers and torturers is much more congruent to our nature. But how to be able to fight a rude, aggressive and cruel people while staying noble and decent – we don’t know yet. Here come the martyrs of moral cause – martyrs of goodness and decency.

Reality and myths of the positive heroes sacrificing themselves in fight with fascism is an attempt to find ways to resist the fascist elements of human nature. But such myths create in people rather indiscriminate and scapegoating hate, not really rational and noble ways to fight. Highly talented people try to create through serious art, philosophy and humanistic sciences new ways to resist psychological fascism, but today we are still as far from solution as we were centuries ago. In the 21st century everything is again decided by calculation and manipulation, brutal force, intolerance and cruelty. In this sense Bertolucci’s film is too painful for our liberal guts dressed in silk and our tender souls lying on the mattress of multicolored clouds.

And here the post-WWII generations come into history, and amongst them Athos Magnani Jr. who tries to understand the eternal tragedy of his father and our forerunner with the help of the young Bernardo Bertolucci. Will we remain forever stuck in between Tara and the larger world with our peer Athos Jr.? Or, will we find ways to turn our understanding into new peaceful existential political actions that we cannot yet know? To use the terms of the film (Bertolucci’s elaborations on Magritte’s painting) – will we be able to transform the light of night into new visions and shattered dreams into clairvoyance?

With democratic friends like Rasory, Gaibazzi and Costa, Clinton and Obama, it is impossible to keep democracy alive. But to become propagandists against anti-democratic propaganda (resourceful invention of Athos Magnani Sr.) is too semantically tragic. Together with Bernardo Bertolucci and his Athos Magnani Jr. we have to create a new understanding.

Posted on Jan 4 2015 –   “Spider’s Stratagem” (1970) By Bernardo Bertolucci (based on a short story “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” by Luis Borges) by Acting-Out Politics