Antonio Gramsci: A New Year’s Letter

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This translation originally appeared on William Wall’s website on the 17th of December.

Prison island of Ustica where Gramsci was incarcerated.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century. Founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 despite his parliamentary immunity. He would spend the rest of his life in prison. He is most famous for his philosophical and cultural writings collected in various volumes as ‘prison notebooks’, often written on scrap paper, in a sort of code, and smuggled out to friends, in particular Palmiro Togliatti who would succeed him as head of the PCI. But he was also a father and family man, and many of his letters to his wife, his sister-in-law and his children still exist. Tender, amusing, nostalgic, loving and paternal, they show a different side to the great thinker. This letter, to Tania Schucht, his sister-in-law who had charge of his affairs, is a good example. It was probably written on the prison island of Ustica.

The text of this letter comes from Fiabe, Antonio Gramsci (Edizioni Clichy, Firenze). I am grateful to the editor, Tommaso Gurrieri for his approval of this translation. The translation is Creative Commons, as is all my work on this blog. See the note at the end of this page.

Dearest Tania,

And so the new year has begun. It is necessary to make plans for a new life, according to tradition: but even though I have thought a lot about such a plan I have never managed to achieve it. This has always been a great difficulty in my life from my earliest rational years.

Tania Schucht, Gramsci’s sister-in-law

 In those days the elementary schools would assign, at this time of year, as a theme for composition, the question: ‘What will you do with your life?’

 A difficult question, which I resolved for the first time, at eight years of age, fixing my sights on the profession of carter. I found that the carter unites all of the characteristics of usefulness and delight: he flicks the reins and guides the horses, but, at the same time, he performs a work that ennobles the man and earns him his daily bread.

I remained faithful to this direction also the following year, but for reasons that I would describe as extrinsic. If I could be sincere, I would have to say that my liveliest aspiration was to become a Court Usher. Why? Because in that year there came to my village as a Court Usher an elderly man who possessed a very charming little poodle, always dressed to the nines, with little red ribbons on his tail, a tiny cape on his back, a varnished collar, a little horse bridle around his head.

I was completely unable to separate the image of the little poodle from his owner or from his profession. But, with many regrets and because of a formidable logic and a strong sense of duty that would make the great heroes blush, I renounced this prospect that so seduced me. Yes, I discovered that it would be useless to try to become a Court Usher and thus to possess a poodle so marvellous: for I did not know by heart the eighty four articles of the Constitution of the Republic! Just so!

I had reached the second elementary class (the first revelation of the civic virtues of the carter!) and I had begun to think, in the month of November, of doing the release examinations, to proceed to the fourth class by leaping over the third: I believed myself capable of as much, but when I presented myself to the Director of Studies to answer the call according to protocol, I faced, at point-blank, the question: ‘But do you know the eighty four articles of the Constitution?’ I had never even thought of these articles: I had limited myself to studying the notion of ‘rights and duties of the citizen’ which were contained in my textbook.

This was for me a terrible admonition, which impressed me more because I had participated for the first time, the previous 20th of September*, in the commemorative parade, with a little venetian  lantern, and I had called out with the others: ‘Long live the Lion of Caprera!** Long live the dead of Staglieno*** (I don’t remember exactly if I called out ‘the dead’ or ‘the prophet’ of Staglieno; possibly both, for variety’s sake), certainly because I was to be promoted in the examination and able to conquer the juridical titles, becoming an active and perfect citizen. However I did not know the eighty four articles of the Constitution.  What kind of a citizen was I then? And how could I aspire so ambitiously to become a Court Usher and to possess a dog with a ribbon and a cape? The Court Usher is a cog in the wheel of state (I thought however that he was the whole wheel); he is a depository and custodian of the law, and also a protector against any tyrants who might like to trample upon us. And I ignored the eighty four articles!

Thus my horizons became limited, and once more I acclaimed the civic virtues of the carter, who anyway could have a dog, even him, let it be completely without ribbons or cape. See how plans construed too rigidly and schematically go bang, wrecking themselves against the hard reality, when one has a vigilant and dutiful conscience.

Hugs,

Antonio

Notes

* The 20th of September is the date on which Italians celebrate the unification of Italy. It is the date in 1870 on which the Bersaglieri brigade entered Rome and ended the temporal power of the Pope. The date is not celebrated within the Vatican. The Bersaglieri were first raised in Sardinia where Gramsci was born and grew up.

**Lion of Caprera was Garibaldi. Caprera is a small island off the coast of Sardinia, to which Garibaldi retired. He was born in Nice.

***Staglieno is the cemetery in Genoa which is the burial place of many of the grand figures of the Italian political class, including the revolutionary Mazzini (described by Marx as ‘that everlasting old ass’). As a journalist and theorist of the republic, Mazzini is sometimes knows as ‘the prophet’. Staglieno is the largest cemetery in Europe.

Carissima Tania,
e così l’anno nuovo è incominciato. Bisognerebbe fare dei programmi di vita nuova, secondo l’usanza: ma per quanto abbia pensato, un tale programma non sono riuscito ancora a combinarlo. È stata questa una grande difficoltà sempre nella mia vita, fin dai primi anni di attività raziocinatrice.

Nelle scuole elementari ogni anno di questi tempi assegnavano come tema di componimento la questione: «Che cosa farete nella vita». Questione ardua che io risolvetti la prima volta, a otto anni, fissando la mia scelta nella professione di carrettiere. Avevo trovato che il carrettiere riuniva tutte le caratteristiche dell’utile e del dilettevole: schioccava la frusta e guidava i cavalli, ma, nello stesso tempo, compiva un lavoro che nobilita l’uomo e gli procura il pane quotidiano.

Sono rimasto fedele a questo indirizzo anche l’anno successivo, ma per ragioni che direi estrinseche. Se fossi stato sincero, avrei detto che la mia più viva aspirazione era quella di diventare usciere di pretura. Perché? Perché in quell’anno era venuto al mio paese come usciere di pretura un vecchio signore che possedeva un simpaticissimo cagnetto nero, sempre in ghingheri: fiocchetto rosso alla coda, gualdrappina sulla schiena, collana verniciata, finimenti da cavallo in testa.

Io proprio non riuscivo a dividere l’immagine del cagnetto da quella del suo proprietario e dalla professione sua. Eppure rinunciai, con molto rammarico, a cullarmi in quella prospettiva che tanto mi seduceva. Era di una logica formidabile e di una integrità morale da fare arrossire i più grandi eroi del dovere. Sì, mi ritenevo indegno di diventare usciere di pretura, e quindi di possedere cagnetti così meravigliosi: non conoscevo a memoria gli ottantaquattro articoli dello Statuto del regno! Proprio così.

Avevo fatto la seconda classe elementare (rivelazione prima delle virtù civiche del carrettiere!) e avevo pensato di fare nel mese di novembre gli esami di proscioglimento, per passare alla quarta saltando la terza classe: ero persuaso di essere capace di tanto, ma quando mi presentai al direttore didattico per presentargli la domanda protocollare, mi sentii far a bruciapelo la domanda: «Ma conosci gli ottantaquattro articoli dello Statuto?». non ci avevo neanche pensato a questi articoli: mi ero limitato a studiare le nozioni di «diritti e doveri del cittadino», contenute nel libro di testo.

 Ciò fu per me un terribile monito, che mi impressionò tanto più in quanto il 20 settembre precedente avevo partecipato per la prima volta al corteo commemorativo, con un lampioncino veneziano e avevo gridato con gli altri: «Viva il leone di Caprera! Viva il morto di Staglieno» (non ricordo se si gridava il «morto» o il «profeta» di Staglieno: forse, tutti e due, per la varietà), certo come ero di essere promosso all’esame e di conquistare i titoli giuridici per l’elettorato, diventando un cittadino attivo e perfetto. Invece non conoscevo gli ottantaquattro articoli dello Statuto. Che cittadino ero dunque? E come potevo ambiziosamente aspirare a diventare usciere di pretura e a possedere un cane con il fiocchetto e la gualdrappa? L’usciere di pretura è una rotella dello Stato (io pensavo fosse una grande ruota); è un depositario e un custode della legge, anche contro i possibili tiranni che volessero calpestarla. E io ignoravo gli ottantaquattro articoli!

Così mi limitai gli orizzonti, e ancora una volta esaltai le virtù civiche del carrettiere, che tuttavia può avere un cane anch’egli, sia pure senza fiocchetto e senza gualdrappa. Vedi come i programmi precostituiti in modo troppo rigido e schematico vanno a cozzare, infrangendosi, contro la dura realtà, quando si ha una vigile coscienza del dovere!

Ti abbraccio

Antonio

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William Wall is the author four novels, the most recent of which, This Is The Country (2005), has been described as a 'broad attack on the Celtic Tiger'. He has also published poetry and short stories.