My last post mentioned an Italian cop. Today I want to write about an Italian who spent ten years in jail and who was only released to avoid the bad publicity of his dying in jail: Antonio Gramsci.
Just as there were warmly humorous aspects to the character of Inspector Rocco Schiavone, so too there are endearing ironies in some of Gramsci’s letters from prison. Such as: the marxist founder of the Italian Communist Party writing to his mother to ask that she not have masses said for a good outcome to his trial before the Fascist court; or, asking his brother to excuse his forgetting to send greetings on the brother’s saint’s name day; or, explaining to his Russian Jewish sister-in-law that he was not named after the popular St. Anthony of Padua, but St Anthony the Hermit from the fifth century CE.
Gramsci’s prison letters also opened my eyes to some of the sterner, more rigid aspects of his personality. After Gramsci was arrested, his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht spent years finding ways to help him with visits, books, food, clothes, legal appeals. As much as Antonio really loved her and expressed his appreciation, he could go beyond lecturing Tatiana about what she should or should not do, and descend into downright hectoring and attacking her competence, even her very character. Sometimes she had done things that he had explicitly asked her not to do, or had made legal appeals to the authorities that might mess up his legal strategies. He could have been kinder even in those situations. Sometimes Antonio recognized that he had gone too far and apologized in the next letter. Through it all, over the years, Tatiana followed him as he was moved from prison to prison to prison hospital, compromising her own health (for which, of course, he chastised her), but through it all and until the end Tatiana, stayed a loyal and loving support to her sister’s husband.
I’ve blogged a number of times before about one of Gramsci’s favorite aphorisms: pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will. It was very important to him as he saw the rise of Fascism in his country, bringing about the physical destruction of any groups organized to advance working and poor people. This aphorism was crucial in keeping his balance and his resolve in the face of persecution, defeat, and then jail.
So, I was really struck by the way Gramsci brought up this idea in a 1929 letter to his younger brother Carlo. He wants Carlo to reassure their elderly mother that he’s doing ok and to dissuade her from making the arduous trip from their home in Sardinia to visit Antonio in prison in Turi, down near the heel of the boot.
It seems to me that it should be avoided at all costs. And besides, what did you tell her? I hope you didn’t exaggerate in any way: in fact you yourself have seen that I’m neither downcast, nor discouraged nor depressed. My state of mind is such that even if I were sentenced to death I would continue to remain calm and even on the evening before my execution I would perhaps be studying a Chinese language lesson.
When I read that passage, I thought “Now that’s a man after my own heart.”
Antonio then compares his frame of mind with the attitude he thinks that their older brother Gennaro must have developed while working as a sapper during WWI, “hearing through the thin wall that separated his tunnel from the Austrian tunnel the enemies’ work that was intended to hasten the explosion of his mine and so blow him up.” One would think that after years of such experiences
a man should have reached the loftiest stage of stoic serenity and should have acquired such a profound conviction that man bears within himself the source of his own moral strength, that everything depends on him, on his energy, on his will, on the iron coherence of the aims that he sets for himself and the means he adopts to realize them ….
Not just despair is banished, but one will never again “lapse into those vulgar banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism.” Gramsci “synthesizes these two emotions and overcomes them.”
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. In all circumstances I think first of the worst possibility in order to set in motion all the reserves of my will and be in a position to knock down the obstacle. I have never entertained any illusions and I have never suffered disappointments. I have always taken care to arm myself with an unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.
Gramsci then starts to write about “a very serious moral crisis” occurring then and how it differs from those that preceded it. Unfortunately for us, the prison censor blotted out the following six lines in Gramsci’s letter to his brother. The editors of his letters think that Gramsci was talking about the start of the Great Depression, but we’ll never know.
Back to pessimism/optimism. What Gramsci has to say about “the loftiest stage of stoic serenity” flies in the face of the way many people understand the Buddha’s teaching, particularly in his implication that there is an enduring self that is the source of the energy, the will, and the aims on which this serenity depends. On the other hand, Gramsci’s life was so totally selfless and dedicated to the cause of the poor and dispossessed that, I would argue, what he wrote to Carlo and how he lived really exemplify the word used in the Pali canon only with reference to a Buddha: tādino, the steadfast.
Calm is his thought, calm his speech, and calm his deed,
who, truly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly tranquil and steadfast. Dhammapada 96
Only such a person, the root meaning of tādino, would face imminent death by going back to studying Chinese. If only, also, he had applied that calm in all his dealings with Tatiana. She was the truly steadfast one.