Obituary: Dionys Mascolo

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The Independent Online
Dionys Mascolo was a largely self-educated son of poor Italian immigrants and one of the most original thinkers of his generation. He lived up to his pagan name: ni dieu, ni maitre was his motto - neither god nor master. And, I might add, neither the devil himself. Yet his Dionysian nature was always tempered by Apollonian critical and rational discipline.

Thus he became Marguerite Duras's lover in 1942: but their relationship was intellectual and liberal. Duras had married the polemical theorist and writer Robert Antelme in 1939, but their only child had died at birth. She wanted a child by Mascolo, and Antelme agreed. It was all highly civilised. The three of them continued living together in Duras's celebrated apartment in the Rue Saint-Benoit, and even after a friendly divorce from Anselme they still shared the same abode. The lover waited until the divorce was over in 1946 before giving Duras a son, Jean.

In all their dealings the three were lucid, but never cold. In a recent inerview, Mascolo said: "We were against marriage, against normal education, against the church, against the very concept of `family'." But he exonerated Duras, because of her aveugle lucidite (blind lucidity) that made the feminine element in her long for a child. Indeed, in the same interview he went on to describe how the feminine creative element is essential to all artists who want to leave behind them work that will endure and not be just an object for sale in the supermarket. He cites musicians and composers as being supreme examples of masculine/feminine duality, and poets as more female than male in their broad humanity, which disappears entirely in those men who lust only for power, money and position.

Marguerite Duras's apartment became during the Occupation a rendezvous for resistants, Communists and writers like Edgar Morin, Alio Vittorini and his wife Ginetta, Claude Roy, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and many others. It was typical of their cool-headed humanist conviction that they thought of themselves, not as "comrades" (with all its nationalistic and militaristic connotations) but simply as "friends" - almost the equivalent in spiritual and intellectual terms of the Quaker Society of Friends.

One of these friends went under the name of Jacques Morand, the future president of France, Francois Mitterrand. Mascolo joined him in the Resistance under the pseudonym of "Lieutenant Masse". Edgar Morin led a national movement of ex-prisoners of war and deported anti-Nazis, and in 1944 Mascolo began editing their underground journal, L'Homme libre.

Meanwhile, Duras had been working as a secretary, and in 1943 published her first book, Les Impudents. Mascolo worked as a reader for Gallimard, and it was he who introduced her next work, La Vie tranquille (1944) to that distinguised firm. In the same year, both Duras and Mascolo, under the influence of Morin, joined the PCF (French Communist Party). Antelme had been arrested by the Gestapo, betrayed by French informers, and deported to Dachau. He was held there even after the end of the war, as an outbreak of typhus kept the camp in quarantine.

In March 1945, Mascolo went with Mitterrand, who was on the new government's investigative mission to Germany, to Dachau and secretly obtained Antelme's release. This adventure was commemorated by Duras in La Douleur (1985).

Antelme became a publisher and issued Mascolo's first book, an essay on the revolutionary St Just (1946). The "rue Saint-Benoit Group" became disillusioned with Communism following Stalin's purges in Hungary and the trial of Laszlo Rajk, accused of "Titoism". Mascolo responded by writing Le Communisme (1953) for which he was condemned as a "revisionist" by the party.

During the 1950s, Dionys Mascolo's political engagement made him a contestataire in the struggles against imperialism and colonialism. When the war in Algeria broke out in 1955, he founded, with Edgar Morin and the poet Louis- Rene des Forets, a committee of liberal French authors opposed to the conflict. Mascolo called it "The major event in the history of political conscience in France in the 20th century". He became a guiding spirit behind the 1960 "Manifesto of the 121" entitled "Declaration sur le droit a l'insoumission dans la guerre d'Algerie" ("Declarion of the Right to Insubordination in the War in Algeria").

This was my first encounter with Mascolo's anarchist- pacifist stance. I had always believed insubordination and refusal to recognise all authority was the natural condition of a free spirit - neither a "duty" nor a "right" but something all sane men were born with. It included the right to refuse to bear arms against one's fellow men, and to encourage desertion from the armed forces. To that end, Mascolo had formed with Morin a Committee of Resistance to the Return of De Gaulle to Power, with its own review, 14 juillet. It lasted for only three numbers.

Mascolo and his friends remained defiant rebels against the self-satisfied 1960s, the smug 1970s and the money-mad 1980s. They supported students in their May 1968 and October 1986 protest movements. The rest of his life was devoted to philosophy, and it is regrettable that he published so little.

His long love affair with Duras was remembered in Autour d'un effort de memoire ("An Attempt at a Memoir") in 1987. In 1993 he published A la recherche d'un communisme de pensee, prefaced by the novelist and essayist Maurice Blanchot in a tribute to the author entitled "Pour l'amitie". Mascolo was responsible, with Maurice de Gandillac, for Gallimard's addition of the works of Nietzsche, who first made the contrast between Dionys and Apollo, and called Goethe the "Dionysian man". Dionys Mascolo was such a man.

James Kirkup

Dionys Mascolo, writer and political activist: born 1916; (one son by Marguerite Duras); died Paris 20 August 1997.