Visionary literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Visionary literature

Visionary literature

An element of PROPHECY, visionary literature provides an ecstatic glimpse of a future time, whether laden with VIOLENCE or blessed with prosperity and salvation. The conceptualization of the future suits a variety of genres, including Dante Alighieri's punishment of corrupt papal empire builders in his Divine Comedy (1321), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ideal of the Mongolian Empire in the poem “Kubla Khan” (1816), H. RIDER HAGGARD'S “lost world” novels, the Canadian Jules-Paul Tardivel's apocalyptic separatist novel Pour la patrie (For My Country, 1895), and AMOS TUTUOLA'S abduction dreamscape in the Nigerian novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1952). Writers like the apostle PAUL (ca. A.D. 3-ca. 67) of Tarsus, Cilicia, spoke directly to the issues of imperial power. He foretold a Christian overturn of Roman hegemony throughout the Mediterranean world with the second coming of Jesus and an unending haven for the righteous.

Previous to Paul's futurism, a dream narrative, the biblical book of Daniel (ca. 150 B.C.), connects revelation interpreters and seers with empire builders. Compiled in Aramaic and Hebrew from multiple sources, the HERO cycle characterizes a Judean exile to Babylon early in the Achaemenid- Persian Empire, which began around 550 B.C. Like the pharaonic adviser Joseph in Egypt in the book of EXODUS, Daniel is a captive, a banished Jew in the court of a Babylonian emperor who suffers premonitions of doom. Daniel is still a youth when he interprets the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) about a gold, silver, and bronze statue with feet of clay and iron. The dream reader foresees the succession of empires from Babylon to Persia, Greece, and Rome before the establishment of a divine kingdom on earth. The prophecy satisfies the king after the failed advice of “the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” (Daniel 2:2), the customary abasement of the pompous in hero tales.

A second explanation of the king's visions bears a tinge of gothicism. Courtiers view the disembodied “handwriting on the wall,” a spectral portent that “thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:28). The young visionary—who is featured in eight of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS—becomes a court seer and counselor to Belshazzar (fl. 553 B.C.) and remains in imperial service under Darius and Cyrus the Great. The final chapters, which Daniel writes in first person, take on a sobering tone, dividing the evil from the righteous. He predicts, “None of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand” (Daniel 12:10). His commentary on wicked behavior and recompense through conquest recurs in PseudoDaniel, a three -book fragment from writings by semimonastic Jewish ascetics dating to 200 B.C.

A Future Determined by Cataclysm

During the Italian Empire (1885-1943), the radical polemist and poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) of Alexandria, Egypt, foresaw the value of anarchy as a jolt to imagination. In high school, he outraged Jesuit teachers by reading in class the overtly sexual fiction of French novelist Emile Zola. In 1904, Marinetti published Destruction, a vigorous verse cycle in French extolling chaos. On February 20, 1909, in the Paris journal Le Figaro, he issued the Manifeste de futurisme (Futurist manifesto, 1908), a vision of art as an amalgam of creativity, speed, technology, and violence. To save art from complacency, he supported the dictator Benito Mussolini’s nationalism and the colonizing of northeast Africa to satisfy Italian infatuation with the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance and to end the stagnation of ideas. In 1911, he covered the Libyan front as a combat reporter for the French and observed the siege of Adrianopolis, Turkey, during the Balkan War of 1912. The battle was the source of Marinetti’s mimetic word sculpture Zang Tumb Tumb (1914), which used symbols and changes of font to produce a surreal orchestration of combat din and chaos: “long beard filth wildness fierceness skin tanned by explosive blasts shrapnel + danger MASS EXECUTIONS 500 prisoners off with the fez” (Marinetti 2002, 66).

While painters, sculptors, musicians, and architects realized the concept of futurism on canvas, in bronze, and through mechanized sound and youthful design, Marinetti composed anarchic works in French and Italian celebrating peril and brashness. He began with the play Le roi bombance (The feasting king, 1909); an erotic novel, Mafarka le futuriste (Mafarka the Futurist, 1910); and the satiric play Anti-neutralitet (Anti-neutrality, 1912). A verse anthology, Guerra sola igiene del mundo (War the only hygiene of the world, 1915), echoed the beliefs of the Italian author GABRIEL D’ANNUNZIO, who championed the European war and Italy’s military invasion of Libya. Marinetti supported Mussolini for creating a form of fascism that could spur the stagnant populace to active nationalism through mechanized warfare and mass cultural redirection. In 1932, he coauthored a revolution in Italian nutrition in La cucina futurista (The Futurist Cookbook), which denounced the national dish of pastasciutta (dry pasta) for its lack of nutrients and fiber. In place of nostalgic Italian fare, Marinetti proposed a two-day orgy he dubbed an “extremist banquet,” a “tactile dinner party,” a “soldier’s dinner,” and a “nocturnal love feast.”


Daniel. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible

Publishers, 1986, 1,227-1,251.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. The Futurist Cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989.

----- . Selected Poems and Related Prose. Translated by Elizabeth R. Napier. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Amsterdam: Brill, 2002.