Jan 222018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, Sardinian-born, Italian social theorist best remembered for his concept of cultural hegemony. He is sometimes characterized as a Marxist, sometimes a neo-Marxist, because he accepted the historical reality of class struggle, and a need for a revolution for equality by the working class. But he did not accept Marx’s view of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, nor of Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini as a dangerous intellectual, and during his imprisonment he wrote more than 30 notebooks (over 3,000 pages), of history and social analysis. His Prison Notebooks are considered a major contribution to 20th century economic, social, and political theory.

Gramsci was born in Ales, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937). Francesco was a low-level government official of Albanian descent who was always in financial difficulty, and was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Gramsci had to abandon schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father’s release in 1904. As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci’s sympathies then did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners. They perceived their neglect as a result of privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrializing North, and they tended to turn to a growing Sardinian nationalism which was brutally repressed by troops from the Italian mainland. In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants on the Italian mainland. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913, where he later occupied a key position.

Although showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in early 1915. From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist. In 1916, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organization of Turin workers; he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin’s leading socialists when he was both elected to the party’s Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919, with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini, Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo. In October the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the communist Amadeo Bordiga.

Among tactical debates within the party, Gramsci’s group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers’ councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci, these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organizing production. The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement convinced Gramsci that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “abstentionist” faction. On 21 January 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia – PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which opposed Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Gramsci was a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s program until he lost the leadership in 1924

In 1922, Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom he married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio (born 1924) and Giuliano (born 1926). Gramsci never saw his second son. The Russian mission coincided with the advent of fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy, too, while the Communist Party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito Mussolini’s government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife. In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità, living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

On 9th November 1926, the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to the Roman prison Regina Coeli. At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He received an immediate sentence of five years in confinement on the island of Ustica and the following year he received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Turi, near Bari. Over 11 years in prison, his health deteriorated. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food. He had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.

In 1933 he was moved from the prison at Turi to a clinic at Formia, but was still being denied adequate medical attention. Two years later he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome. He was due for release on 21 April 1937 and planned to retire to Sardinia for convalescence, but a combination of arteriosclerosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, high blood pressure, angina, gout and acute gastric disorders meant that he was too ill to move. Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. His ashes are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology over and above violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

Gramsci’s key point, as far as I am concerned, is that Marx’s conviction that the revolution of the working class against capitalism was an inevitable result of the forces of economic determinism, was in error. He believed that an intellectual revolution was an important precursor of social/economic revolution. To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Gramsci hit the nail squarely on the head, especially in light of affairs in the West these days. Without too much provocation I could launch into a long rant. I’ll try to keep it short. Right now, moneyed interests control the media which means that they control the discourse. Media do not just include news outlets, but also entertainment. All these outlets reinforce the “normal” values of society, which at present include a distrust of intellectuals, and a distrust of education. Consequently, information that benefits moneyed interests – including misinformation and disinformation – can be disseminated with little or no critical reception by the general public.

Gramsci’s native Sardinia has a cuisine that overlaps that of mainland Italy, but with a few idiosyncrasies. One of these is a distinctive pasta called fregola or fregula. Fregola are semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. Fregola with clams is a common dish in Sardinia. It is usually served with pane carasau, a thin and crisp flatbread.

Fregola con Vongole

Ingredients

4 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups tomato, diced (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine
coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups fregola

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, plus hot pepper flakes and pepper to taste.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley and simmer for 5 for minutes.

Place the clams, in a single layer, on top of the mixture and cover tightly. Cook over moderately high heat until the clams open, probably about 5 mins.  Discard any clams that do not open.  As they open, scoop out the clams into a large bowl.  Repeat with a second batch, if required.

When all the clams are cooked, add 4 cups of chicken broth to the tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add the fregola pasta.  Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 15 minutes).

Taste, and adjust seasonings. Usually extra salt is not necessary. Return the clams to reheat for a minute or two, then serve garnished with chopped parsley. If you can find it, serve with Sardinian flatbread.

Oct 312017
 

Today is generally taken to be the birthday (1795) of John Keats, one of the great English Romantic poets. There’s a little confusion about the actual day because his family celebrated his birthday on the 29th but the baptismal register records his date of birth as the 31st, and this is generally accepted as the correct date. I will too. Keats holds a very special place for me because my form master in South Australia made me learn To Autumn by heart when I was 11 so that I could stand and recite it on command when special visitors, such as school inspectors, visited the classroom. My voice had not yet broken, so I had a clear treble with a strong English accent. I was also quite content to show off. My teacher, Mr Summerton, who was a complete pig, not only made me recite the poem endlessly, he also made a tape recording of me – very special for 1962. I remember marveling at hearing the sound of my own voice for the first time. I’ll give the pig credit for that, and for a lifetime’s pleasure with the ode. Just last year I had the immense satisfaction of spending many hours exploring the poem with my students. I think they understood its power by the time I was done with my rhapsodic lectures – who knows?

I’ll explore a little bit of Keats’s biography, but you’ll have to do most of that for yourself if you are interested. Then I’ll rhapsodize a bit more about his words before my recipe of the day. Keats was born in Moorgate in London. He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, but there is no evidence to support his belief. The Globe pub now occupies the site. He was baptized at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in Enfield, close to his grandparents’ house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman’s translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, “always in extremes”, given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

In April 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died from a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke’s school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbor and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as “the most placid time in Keats’s life.”

From 1814, Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £50,000 in today’s money) and a portion of his mother’s legacy, £8000 (about £500,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children. It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats’s mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to Keats’s expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.

Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion, that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload. Keats’s long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy’s Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor. He lodged near the hospital, at 28 St Thomas’s Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate. He did eventually complete his training. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s license, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.

 

You can worry about the struggles he had with money, career, ambitions, and poetry on your own if you want. I’ll just focus on 1819, his annus mirabilis, sometimes called the year of 6 odes, which was to cement his reputation as a poet, although not substantially until after his death in 1821. He died thinking that his poetry would soon be forgotten, even though he had achieved some fame, his critics were decidedly mixed in their opinions of his work during his lifetime.  Keats wrote the first five odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring at his home, Wentworth Place near Hampstead Heath, and he composed “To Autumn” in September after an autumnal evening walk near Winchester. The first five are considered now to have a kind of thematic unity, and contain some immortally memorable lines:

“Beauty is truth—truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Grecian Urn)

“To Autumn” shifts the emphasis of the first five from spring to autumn and, hence, from budding life to death. Keats perhaps knew he was dying (he died one year later), and the poem speaks to the need not to dwell on the sorrows of the end of life. Look at the lines that begin the 3rd stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–

Endings are as splendid as beginnings. What did I know about this stuff when I learnt the poem at age 11? Absolutely nothing. But last year when I tried to teach the poem to Italian students the images resonated much more with me. At 66 I am in the autumn of my life and it is a very satisfying time for me. I love the autumn of the year the best of all seasons, and I love the autumn of my life. Everything planted in the spring is ripe and ready to harvest. Here’s the full poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The consciously archaic and arcane vocabulary was a bit much for my Italian students, and, I confess, is a bit much for me as well. Do you know how long it takes to explain what “thatch-eves” are to non-native speakers? That’s all right for me, but the “thy’s” and “thou’s” grate a little. At least I got to explain that English used to have an informal second person singular.

Before his doctor insisted on a Spartan diet, Keats was quite the glutton. Here’s an excerpt he wrote to Mrs Wylie, his brother’s mother-in-law, from Inverness on August 6th 1818, when he was on a walking tour of Scotland:

I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.

This is one of the earliest references to sandwiches in English, and possibly the first to roast beef sandwiches (one word “roastbeef” is correct for the time). Thinking in terms of 12 or 24 at one go boggles the mind. Thinking about roast beef sandwiches is making me hungry as I type. I used to eat roast beef sandwiches with English mustard when I was a boy – following my father’s lead – but when I was at Oxford I was having a pub lunch one day, asked for a roast beef sandwich, and the landlord said, “mustard or horseradish?” I’d never heard of eating beef with horseradish, and told him so. He opined that everyone of good taste ate horseradish on roast beef sandwiches, so I agreed to try, and the rest is history. As far as I am concerned roast beef and horseradish are the Castor and Pollux of the sandwich world.

English sandwiches tend to be a bit slender, certainly in comparison with their New York deli counterparts.  First roast beef sandwich I had in a deli on the upper West Side had more beef on it than my family ever had between the 5 of us for Sunday dinner. Somewhere in between the two extremes is more my speed these days. I like to roast the beef quite rare, but well caramelized on the outside, refrigerate what’s left from dinner, and slice it thin the next day. Pile the beef on freshly baked bread slathered with prepared horseradish and have at it. I don’t like extras such as lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumber. Bread, beef and horseradish is superb on its own. I like a nice hearty, crusty bread, but a crusty roll will do at a pinch.