Alberto Moravia’s book The Conformist (1951), which was made into the internationally acclaimed and historically significant Bernardo Bertolucci film of the same name (1970), is often described as a psychological sketch of the fascist personality. Aside from being an excellent (and topical!) primer on the rise and fall of fascism, it is, like everything else Moravia, really about the imperiled identity of modern manhood. Although Moravia’s other novels—Conjugal Love (1949), Contempt (1954), Boredom (1960)—are less ambitious in both their scale and scope, preferring to retread the turf of bourgeois psychodrama, they also take as their subject the existential hysteria of an ambitious but blinkered anti-hero struggling in vain to escape his mediocrity.
Mediocrity is both the precondition and consequence of this lot. Moravia’s protagonists—a failed author slash professional dilettante in Conjugal Love; an aspiring “man of letters” who is forced to moonlight as a commercial screenwriter in Contempt; a middling painter fleeing his decrepit, domineering mother and her family money in Boredom—all suffer from the same problem: the lack of empathy brought about by too much material comfort and not enough self-awareness early on in life. In fact, you get the sense that one proceeds causally from the other as the absence of want creates no necessity for self-reflection. It’s not that there isn’t enough soul-searching going on, but precisely that there’s too much of it, all leading inward. Moravia’s types, cerebral, anguished, a touch hypochondriac, anticipate sexual politics in our day and age, where the feminist slogan “gender is over” is just another way of sprucing up the reality that neoliberalism has made girls out of men.
The Moravia man’s chief aim is to be taken seriously as an intellectual, which he attempts to do by upholding the norms of conduct and without ruffling any feathers, owing in no small part to his faith in the notion that civility equals culture. His central frustration, then, is the inability to gain respect on his own terms, fueled by the moral superiority he derives from this self-imposed conflict. Yet even in his folly, he can vaguely intuit the validity in the claim that too much freedom is its own kind of tyranny. Though, of course, as a friend pointed out recently, it’s impossible to be an intellectual without emotional intelligence. This, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Moravia’s work.
Like all great auteurs, Moravia is not so much an inventor of new aesthetic forms as an architect of existing psychological animas. Specifically, like Woody Allen, who turned shtetl humor and Holocaust jokes into artsy cosmopolitanism, or John Waters, who converted the misery and absurdity of smalltown life into gay camp—the two pillars of the high New York style—Moravia succeeds in elevating the particularities of experience to the level of canon. I forget who said this first, but Steven Spielberg is the reason why we have an 18-wheeler crashing through a barricade in every Michael Bay film. (This is the opposite of what’s happening now with today’s internet-mediated artistic production, where universal truths are reduced to the feminized moral tedium of opportunistic adversity and confessional poshlost.)
What more, as the auteur of male delusion, Moravia is, by inversion, an archivist of female pain. Critics of Moravia like to cite the apparent one-dimensionality of his female characters (one of his most recognizable formal devices is to describe the female pubis, in wonderfully painterly language, as a “black stain”). But this, it might be said, is the whole point: all women are different, but we all suffer the same at the hands of men’s insecurity, whether it expresses itself as outright hostility, or as is more often the case, an indifference bordering on cruelty.
All great art is an act of autobiography and Moravia was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but the comparison to his male protagonists ends here. The scion of a wealthy Roman family, he spent his youth bedridden due to illness and his adulthood banned from publishing by the regime. The compassion that radiates through his evenhanded, clinical prose stems from an early reckoning with trauma. Time and time again, Moravia's work reveals that the biggest threat to masculinity is its own moral cowardice. In his effort to protect his ego at all costs, the man must destroy the chief witness to his timidness and treachery: the woman.
Things finally comes to a head in The Conformist, Moravia’s psychographic masterpiece, when Marcello Clerici, a minor functionary of the secret police, not only fails to prevent but, indeed, actively causes the brutal murder of the beautiful and enigmatic anti-fascist agitator Lina (Anna, in the film) in spite of his underlying instinct against it and overwhelming affection for her. The horror of the outcome is compounded not only by Marcello’s failure to protect Lina/Anna as conventional wisdom would hold is a man’s duty, but the expedience with which he later rationalizes away his culpability in the matter. As a woman and, therefore, a symbol for society’s vulnerable and undesirable elements, Lina/Anna was never the intended target of the complot but she nonetheless becomes its greatest symbolic casualty. What is fascism, after all, than the moral degeneracy of a state that has appointed itself as the guardian of traditional values and conventional morality?
That Lina/Anna, an academic’s wife and lesbian suffragette, reminds Marcello of a prostitute he encountered in a brothel and was inexplicably drawn to en route to his assignment provides the crucial interpretive pivot. Not by accident, this detail explains why the work of Moravia, and indeed all postwar Italian art, normally so concerned with the aesthetics of urbanism, is equally grounded in the idea of the subaltern. Its finest examples, Moravia along with his colleague Federico Fellini and friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, championed a humanist ethic of welfare for all. And at least one of them, the openly Marxist Pasolini, may have paid for it with his life in a gruesome scene oddly reminiscent of Moravia’s fictional climax.
There is a tendency among liberal feminists today to see all modes of oppression as inherently masculine, or to conflate the micro (specific abuses and indiscretions) with the macro (a socially-sanctioned climate or culture), in a way that bypasses material questions of class and policy, not to mention, plausible psychology. Moravia, more than anyone else on the literary map, understood and elucidated how individual male actions—or quite literally inaction—amount to something like a systemic if subconscious complaisance with what we call the patriarchy.