Antonio Gramsci 1928
Written: 2 January 1928;
Source: Fiabe, Antonio Gramsci (Edizioni Clichy, Firenze);
Translated: by William Wall.
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.
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.
1. Tania Schucht, was Gramsci’s sister-in-law who had charge of his affairs. The letter was probably sent from the prison island of Ustica.
2. 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.
3. Lion of Caprera was Garibaldi. Caprera is a small island off the coast of Sardinia, to which Garibaldi retired. He was born in Nice.
4. 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.