Fortini and the Middle East

By Thomas E. PetersonAugust 12, 2014

The Dogs of the Sinai by Franco Fortini

IN I cani del Sinai (1967), translated by Alberto Toscano as The Dogs of the Sinai, Italian intellectual and poet Franco Fortini’s meditates on the Six-Day War, the global and regional political situation that erupted between Israel and the joined forces of Egypt (UAR), Jordan, and Syria on June 5, 1967. The Dogs of the Sinai also reflects on Fortini’s Jewishness and that of his father; in this respect it is a precious repository of personal memories and candid sentiments by the usually austere Florentine. Toscano’s translation of I cani del Sinai appears together with a foreword by Luca Lenzini; an afterword by Toscano; three related texts by Fortini: “A Letter to Straub” (1976), “A Note for Jean-Marie Straub” (1978), “Letter to the Italian Jews” (1989); and a DVD disc of the film Fortini/Cani (1977) directed by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. The result is an elegant and provocative project — the first book of Fortini’s prose to appear in English translation — that challenges one’s political assumptions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, not only at the time of the Six-Day War but also today.

The Dogs of the Sinai resonates for us today not in spite of but indeed because of the immediate contexts of its 1967 composition. It offers a mise en contexte of the question of communism, 20 years after the end of World War II, 10 years after Fortini’s landmark volume, Dieci inverni (1947-1957): Contributi ad un discorso socialista (Ten Winters (1947-1957): Contributions to a Socialist Discourse). This collection’s essays document the postwar decade from the standpoint of a socialist intellectual and journalist, particularly following the conservative victory in the 1948 elections that marked an effective end to the Italian left’s aspirations to be involved in the new republic’s leadership. In the aftermath of the Christian Democratic victory, Fortini vigorously confronted the challenges facing the left — including internecine battles — and dissected the “problem of the intellectuals” from within a theoretical matrix that included the major Marxist intellectuals of the era — Benjamin, Sartre, Horkheimer, Adorno, and others. It was Fortini who welcomed Lukács to Italy, and it was he who became the major Brechtian on Italian soil — establishing himself as a difficult “heretical” intellectual committed to a utopian, nondoctrinaire communism and to an undiminished practice of poetry and literature. The Dogs of the Sinai revisits Fortini’s earlier examination of what it means to be a leftist intellectual, engaging these issues in the wake of an immediate political crisis, very much as intellectuals find themselves doing now.

The Dogs of the Sinai’s 27 short chapters, most of which are only a few pages long, offer a case study of a regional conflict in the Middle East that has global implications, and which places into relief the question of the Italian intellectual (especially the communist intellectual) as an agent of change in society. The title reproduces an idiom from a nomadic dialect of the Sinai: “its meaning oscillates between ‘running to the aid of the victor’, ‘being on the side of the masters’ and ‘making a show of noble sentiments.’” This metaphor is implicit throughout the volume, standing for those in the public sphere (politicians, journalists, literati) who lack moral coherence and operate purely out of self-interest. Only in the book’s conclusion does Fortini return to the phrase “the dogs of the Sinai,” using it to refer to those Europeans who seem to thrive on hatred of the other, the different, and to “those who bark in defence of the tablets of a law that no God ever gave and that no one any longer knows how to decipher, so encrusted is it with ancient massacres.” In other words, Fortini implies, these “dogs” are the proponents of theocracy who assume a religion can form the basis and justification for a modern state.

The impetus for the book is not simply the Six-Day War but also the response of the Italian press, political parties, and state that generally demonize the Palestinians and declare unconditional support for the Israelis. Fortini alleges that such pro-Israeli positions are not based on a clear analysis of the situation but on prejudice, propaganda, and the perceived need to align oneself with “the good,” almost as the expiation of guilt felt over the fascist victimization of the Jews. He further criticizes the routine use of derogatory terms for Arabs as analogous to the Nazi labeling of Jews as subhuman. It is implicit in Fortini’s exploration of “anti-Semitism” in the book that Arabs are Semitic as well, and that since the term “anti-Semitism” is used with such volubility in the public discourse that it should probably be placed in quotes.

To understand Dogs of the Sinai’s critique of Italy’s political failures, it’s helpful to situate Fortini’s ideas in a history that the book, itself, doesn’t fully offer. In the newly formed state of Israel of the late 1940s a revolutionary collectivism and grassroots democracy was at work, as evident in the international support for the communities of the kibbutzim. By 1967 — the year of the inception of the international student movement — that populist and universalist element had dissipated. In Fortini’s view, a theocratic state based on “biological determinism” and “historical fatalism” had absorbed the possibility of an inclusive Israeli democracy. Fortini asserts that combating the intrinsic racism that became apparent during the Six-Day War requires an “awareness-praxis” capable of analyzing the “historical heredity of different human groups,” and thus engaging the future rather than being deterministic about it. He also impugns the Soviets (who supported the Arab side in the Six-Day War) and their supporters in the Italian Communist Party (PCI) for their messianic certainty about the future, noting that the true Marxist must concede the partiality of one’s knowledge in this regard.

Fortini was never a member of the PCI and maintained his activity in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) for 10 years only with some tension and difficulty. He saw the Party’s institution as enforcing an oppressive orthodoxy, comparable to that of a church. The PCI, he believed, distorted the situation in the Sinai and disregarded — as did Israeli supporters including Italy, Britain, and America — the legitimate moral and political goal of Jews and Palestinians to share a common homeland. The pernicious element, in Fortini’s mind, is nationalism itself, which is not inevitable or, even less, God-given, despite the frequency with which Marxists in developing countries attached themselves to nationalist liberation movements.

In such a political climate, an intellectual like Fortini, who existed outside the structures of Party and Nation, was catalogued or “filed” by the media without justification. In the polemics that arose in Italy in 1967, the absence of his name from the lists of those who publicly endorsed Israel in the war meant that the press mistakenly labeled him as a supporter of the “Arabs.” He never issued such a statement and objected to the tendency in the Italian press to assign positions to intellectuals, to instrumentalize a kind a chess match with opinions that invariably get corrupted and “spun” so that, eventually, the hue and cry takes over and the substance of the matter is lost. The Dogs of the Sinai responds to this context; in it, Fortini hopes to clarify his positions. One point that he strove to establish, and one that is still being repeated today (see for example Bruce Robbins’s film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists), was that very few public intellectuals or leaders were distinguishing between Israeli policy and Jewishness, precisely at a time when the Israeli state has entered firmly into the orbit of international corporate capitalism. Fortini called on Italian Jews especially to make this distinction and recognize that the character of the Israeli assaults — “napalm, Egyptian prisoners sent without water into the desert, the massacre of the Jordanians and the occupation of Jerusalem” — was inconsistent with its past.

How Fortini traces his own Jewish lineage and historical experience is integral to the eventual cogency of his political argument, which is not explicated here in precise ideological terms, but is certainly critical of Zionism and in support of the short war’s Arab victims, if not the Arab governments, particularly not the positions taken by Nasser’s Egypt. (Fortini’s 1989 “Letter to the Italian Jews,” discussed below, offers a clearer sense of his practical political position on the Middle East.) Despite the passionate nature of The Dogs of the Sinai, the tone of the prose is temperate and self-effacing, making it as rich in its autobiographical dimension as in its discussion of communism, antiracism, and anti-Semitism. The author recalls how, while exploring his Jewish identity during adolescence, he encountered Zionist groups from Eastern Europe headed to Israel, and how, in contrast to them, he preferred to approach politics through class rather than ethnicity. This early inclination is consistent with the nonsectarian political philosophy he pursues as an adult. Fortini’s sense of communism follows from Marx’s definition — “The real movement that abolishes the present state of things” — but he grasps that this movement is glacial in its proceeding, and that the world requires communists to persist through myriad contradictions. Accordingly, he emphasizes how communism exists as a work of negation and a discussion of the social unconscious.

Fortini recalls how his father, Dino Lattes, a Florentine Jew and lawyer, suffered penury during the fascist era and, after 1938, beatings, a trial, and imprisonment. The son’s memories are gripping in a personal sense (the dusty flats the family lived in, the fascist bailiffs who came to inspect the household belongings) and cogent in a political sense. After the war, Fortini’s father explained to his son how in a trial against “a group of Fascists who had contributed to the deportation of 341 Florentine Jews, of whom only 7 came back from the German camps,” very few witnesses came forward to testify, not wanting to stir up the persecutorial past. Fortini recalls that many Italian Jews were fascists, and many others socialized with the fascist elite, not simply before 1938 when the Race Laws were instituted but also after the war.

The Dogs of the Sinai’s most effective chapters, 15 and 17, synthesize the book’s main theoretical and practical points. In the first of these, Fortini explores the varieties of anti-Semitism that have existed through history. He rejects the idea of anti-Semitism as fanaticism, tying it instead to precise historical and class phenomena. Starting in the Middle Ages, Jews were systematically excluded from the agrarian economy practiced in Europe (especially Central and Eastern Europe); once Jews were subsumed into the bourgeoisie during the development of capitalism, “anti-Semitism germinated from the bosom of rationalism, whose obverse or corruption it is.” In 1967, when Fortini is writing, anti-Semitism is again changing: “historical anti-Semitism has begun to wither away […] because its structure is prodigiously reproduced and repeated in the heart of the new society.” In the place of anti-Semitism, he argues, there has emerged in the West (but not only in the West) a widespread “hatred of difference,” applied to any of the “pseudo-communities aimed at safeguarding from individual solitude” and the “innumerable almost impermeable sectors” that have arisen because of “the objective totalitarianism of the industrial system.” In Israel, he suggests, xenophobia and hatred of difference serve to ostracize the Arabs (including those who are Israeli citizens) in a manner that recalls the persecution of historical anti-Semitism.

It’s clear that Fortini’s account of anti-Semitism grows from his own family’s history of persecution, especially after the 1938 Italian Race Laws took effect and his father was imprisoned. The Race Laws coincided with a complicated moment in Fortini’s own religious history: at that time, he believed in God and the divinity of Christ and was a member of the Waldensian church. He undertook an intense self-examination guided by the Pauline epistles — “No way to salvation […] without an authentic humiliation, and a conversion, a radical change” — and readings of Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. In his Christian faith and practice he discovered, ironically, his “real belonging to the tradition of Judaism despite my intellectual rejection of it.”

Fortini sympathetically cites a group of Christian clergy who dispute the biblical justification of Israel for its theocratic state, and proposes “a pluralist state that will absorb the refugees, give all minorities equal civil rights and economic powers.” Though the group draws on scripture to justify its position — a practice Fortini cannot condone, objecting to any linking of Church and State — the proposal meshes nicely with his idea of the common need for an Israeli state that is not “Imperialistic” but is rather engaged in a

revolutionary mediation between the so-called West, with its Christian liberal and socialist heritage, and the Third World; a function that up to now it has failed to exercise. Revolutionary mediation, that is, expressed in a fight for the end of national states, of private profit, of exploitation, in particular of the neocolonialist kind.

In this respect, Israel is potentially not different from other nations that, in the current historical dispensation, are bound to nationalism as a mediation between the present and the future: “we are experiencing a resurgence of nationalisms, helped by the struggles in ex-colonial or underdeveloped countries that have, for half a century, brought together the struggle for nationality and the struggle for socialism.”

In Fortini’s mind, the process of moving toward the future would benefit from a different understanding of the Holocaust. Ever since the Shoah, he claims, people have failed to properly explain it; they have made “an interpretation of the massacre that fundamentally remains within the terms of the massacre — those of the sacredness of blood, guilt, moral intimidation, excommunications.” Some have “[placed] the Nazi massacres in the register of the ‘sacred’, considering them to be the work of Evil in Itself.” Consequently, the Holocaust has not been linked to its historical causes, or to other massacres by imperialist and colonialist powers. (One thinks, obviously, of Stalin or Mao Zedong.)

More than two decades after the Six-Day War and The Dogs of the Sinai, Fortini’s 1989 “Letter to the Italian Jews” describes a new widespread and virulent anti-Semitism arising due to Israeli policies. He urges the Jews of the Diaspora to step forward in recognition: “The distinction between Jewishness and the state of Israel, which until yesterday could have seemed like a precious conquest against fanaticisms, has been put into doubt precisely by the assent of silence of the Diaspora.” As one of those Jews of the Diaspora, Fortini declaims “the common treasure that Israel is dissipating” due to “the accumulation of bad conscience and repressed guilt that the practice of brutality generates in the life and education of Israelis.” Here Fortini is at his most allusive. In fact, in this ethical pronouncement from the conclusion of his “Letter to Italian Jews,” he asserts something like the Golden Rule: that if one commits acts of moral degradation (such as he feels have been committed in the name of Judaism by the state of Israel), one is not simply victimizing the other but also oneself. Here, in the characteristically prophetic voice of Fortini, today’s reader can grasp the relevance of The Dogs of the Sinai to our current situation, as a defense of the fundamental dignity of the human being, the right of the oppressed to struggle against exploitation, and the responsibility of intellectuals and artists to not be indifferent but to employ the specific tools of their craft to create works of conscience and vision.

Regarding the translation, Alberto Toscano has done a masterful job of rendering Fortini’s often difficult prose into a fluid and concise English. He negotiates the many allusions (often with well-placed notes) and the author’s tendency to combine, in close proximity, concrete frames of reference (items from the chronicle, citations), intellectual abstractions, and poetic or expressive images. This would present a challenge to any translator, as it stretches the language in opposite directions, at times requiring sacrifice of details or alteration of syntax. Fortunately, Toscano (known for his translations of Alain Badiou) is up to the task. Readers familiar with his study of fanaticism, Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (Verso, 2010), will appreciate his close familiarity with the topic at hand. It should also be noted that The Dogs of the Sinai is published in the Italian List series at Seagull, which Toscano edits.

In his afterword to Fortini’s book, “The Non-State Intellectual: Franco Fortini and Communist Criticism” (first published in 2012), Toscano articulates the antinomic problem of the “communist intellectual” — deemed at once an impossibility and a necessity — and comments on the distance between us today and the heated political debates in the 1950s and 1960s. From Fortini’s Dieci inverni (1957) until Extrema ratio (Extreme Reason, 1990), Fortini took “uncompromising positions in the specific battles of the moment” and did so in the name of “an unbending and non-dogmatic communism as well as by a conviction that communist judgment in culture and politics must pass through ‘the eternal narrow door of the mystery of mysteries, that of political economy and of its practical critique.’”

In “The Writer’s Mandate and the End of Anti-Fascism” (in the 1965 Verifica dei poteri. Saggi ed epigrammi [Certifying the Credentials. Essays and Epigrams]), as Toscano writes in his reading of that seminal essay, Fortini “tied the political trajectory of the figure of the intellectual to the political economy of cultural production,” conceiving of the role of intellectuals in the culture industry as “functionaries of the negative.” Insofar as today’s intellectual culture relies on “the cognitive and immaterial” and constitutes a “knowledge-based economy without any real interrogation of the politics of knowledge itself,” Toscano states, a return to Fortini’s “heretical” writings on what it means to be a communist critic is invaluable. As against the Sartrean idea of commitment (engagement), Fortini called for the relative autonomy of the socialist or communist intellectual. Moreover, not content with the pretextual and dogmatic prose of the ideologues, he demonstrated, through his wide range of writings, his extraordinary work as a translator, and his teaching, how the historical “question of the intellectuals” could be recast.

Against the postwar communist parties and conditionally in favor of such intellectuals as Brecht and Lukács (though they had briefly supported the party of Stalin), Fortini wove a narrow and persistent path. He rejected the “[misapplication of] the Gramscian notion of the organic intellectual to the postwar context” and was critical of the PCI during the postwar period when its allegiance to the Soviets “[stifled] a non-conformist revolutionary culture.” He held that the notion of a “social mandate for intellectuals” was “regressive” and saw the demands of communist intellectuals to the Party for “a kind of social and political status” akin to “moral autonomy” as unrealistic and naive, especially in the precarious climate of neocapitalism. As a scholar of Fortini’s poetry, I have never gone into the kind of detail that Toscano does in exploring the range of political positions developed in such books as Dieci inverni and Verifica dei poteri. Thus I am grateful for this tenaciously analytical study, and in particular for the detailed discussion of the relationship of poetry to politics in Fortini’s thought.

In contrast to the Party, which “[subordinates] writing to theme and content,” letting “artistic form […] lose its orientation toward praxis,” Fortini defended the morality of poetry and asserts that the value of poetry is analogous to the values that “the capitalist order […] impedes.” Thus, as against the political mandate of the writer within the Party, Fortini “proposed a more ‘literal’ sense of service and engagement” and preferred to see the writer as a language specialist, or “copywriter,” who would not waste words or paper, but conserve resources, phrases, statements that might be used again in the future in the revolutionary context. In Fortini’s view, both the traditionalists and the experimentalists in the parties of the left deserved to be blamed for their failure to analyze and critique the institutions of culture and art.

The question is most salient when it comes to poetry, which possesses a prophetic role, not a cognitive-informative one, in the political process. It is through form, not didactic content or commitment, that poetry expresses its liberating force. Thus, perhaps surprisingly, Fortini was a great defender of the classical tradition, and, as a scholar of the pictorial arts, was adept at including painterly references in his poems. As Toscano reminds us, Fortini’s view of “poetry” extends beyond the writing of poems to stand for a particular value, enhanced by aesthetics: “Poetry […] relates to that desire called communism as a metaphorical prophecy and a prophetic metaphor of formalized life.” This view is consistent with Fortini’s view of communism as a hypothesis, and not an inevitable one:

This hypothesis combines, without confusing them, poetry’s allegory of formalization, technical work on the instruments of communication, an attention to collective pedagogy and the notion of communist criticism as, at one and the same time, the totalization of capital’s abstract domination and its determinate negation.

As a work of the imagination, poetry doesn’t “do” anything, but it envisions another world. The poet conceives of the future (somewhat paradoxically) as a time of necessary liberation but of a liberation that is not guaranteed, and the poet remakes the past, filling in the lacunae left by historians.

In summary, while Toscano’s essay does not discuss The Dogs of the Sinai specifically, it provides a trenchant analysis of Fortini’s thought, including a detailed discussion of the appropriate critical and ideological terms needed for approaching this hybrid and sometimes oblique text. It does this by recalling the Fortini of Dieci inverni, whose strong political critique did not spare the left but revealed its complacency, who set the standards for a new, more ethical and cosmopolitan, Marxist culture in Italy; and, by recalling the Fortini of Verifica dei poteri, who insisted that leftist intellectuals consider the human condition in all its contradictions, and who provided an example of “criticism as service” in his studies of such ethical figures as Simone Weil and Dostoevsky, Leopardi and Kafka. Armed with this knowledge, the reader can extrapolate from Fortini’s text into the current reality (and not simply the situation in the Middle East), to better understand the race-based, class-based, and religion-based phenomena of hatred and political violence that are rampant in our current world.

By means of such an extrapolation one can, by virtue of the documentary and imaginary dimensions of The Dogs of the Sinai, and its inward-looking autobiographical sections, universalize the book’s historical contents and themes so as to appreciate the truths laid bare by its historic example. These are truths that derive, obviously, from the particular experience of conflict and violence of Fortini, a Jew who refused to equate that identity with a reactive support for the Israeli state in its 1967 war, and who refused to support the reactive position of the PCI for Nasser’s Egypt; but they are also truths, thanks perhaps to the elliptical and poetic style of Fortini’s prose, that document the experience of an entire generation of Italians, especially Italian Jews, who lived through the fascist debacle and later became embroiled in the controversy that arose in the Six-Day War.


Thomas E. Peterson is the author of The Ethical Muse of Franco Fortini (University of Florida Press, 1997).

LARB Contributor

Thomas E. Peterson is Professor of Italian at the University of Georgia. He has published widely in the area of 20th-century Italian literature. His books include monographs on Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, and Franco Fortini, as well as the panoramic studies The Rose in Contemporary Italian Poetry (University of Florida Press, 2000) and The Revolt of the Scribe in Modern Italian Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2010). He has also published numerous essays on process thinking and pedagogy, notably in Educational Philosophy and Theory. 


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