Existentialism and Marxism, by Alfredo Bonanno
Translated with DeepL from https://cyberdandy.org/esistenzialismo-e-marxismo-by-alfredo-bonanno/
In the contemporary philosophical essays one can see more and more the discomfort created by the apparent one-dimensionality of existentialism and the other one-dimensionality of Marxism; this is a discomfort that already existed in the problems of many past generations; But the post-war period, with its re-proposals, with its need for primordial modes of expression, with its rare reminders of the need to deepen and retrace even the underground channels of intellectual life, seems to be creating a climate unconsciously suitable for new solutions or, better said, for a re-proposition of the theme.
The new fifty years have opened with an ever-growing restlessness regarding the consummation of the golden traditions of the great conventions that have formed the secular binary of peoples, a restlessness that has translated into a need for renewal and research: that forces modern man to seek a new unknown dimension with which he can reveal to himself the most secret and unknown part of the consciousness of our century.
The realistic image of Marxism, formed by the direct and conventional perception of its absurd statist application, remains outside our investigation. We will deal, rather, with the relations between this philosophical current, as a reaction to Hegelian idealism, and existentialism.
“It is clear that the speculative philosopher operates this continuous creation only because he treats the universally known properties, of the apple, the pear, etc., found in real intuition, as determinations invented by him; because he gives the names of real things to what only the abstract intellect can create, that is, to abstract intellectual formulas; finally because he declares his own activity, by which he passes from the representation apple to the representation pear, to be the self-activity of the absolute subject, ‘of the fruit.’ This operation is called, with speculative expression: to conceive the substance as subject, as internal process, as absolute person, and this conceiving forms the essential character of the Hegelian method”. (The Holy Family, Marx and Engels).
At a superficial examination of the problem, any attempt to relate two such contrasting doctrines might seem useless. While existentialism sees the finite reality of man in the private, unrepeatable relationship of man with himself, Marxism sees the finite reality of man in the public, common relationships that are offered to him or limited by society and its economic formulation. The Marxist is totally absorbed in the study of the problems of the world, of the social and political reality in which man assumes the pale reflection of a shadow; the Marxist pursues a system that transcends the singularity of the individual for a public and social end. The existentialist, on the other hand, remains absorbed in his own self-contemplation, the struggles of the economic world are indifferent to him, the experience of aesthetics is the basis of his existence and a gloomy expectation of death is his hope. The concept of freedom in Kierkegaard and the existentialists is its own. In Marx it becomes the freedom of the social structure that lives above the individual personality and the simple atom constituting the complex organism of society.
“Hegel, by conceiving the negation of negation – on the basis of the positive relation implied therein – as the one and only true positive, and on the basis of the negative relation though implied therein, as the only true act, as the act by which every being actuates itself, has found nothing but the abstract, logical, speculative expression for the movement of history, which is not yet the real history of man as a presupposed subject, but is only the act of the generation of man, the history of the origin of man. We shall explain as much the abstract form of this movement as the difference which this movement presents in Hegel in contrast to the modern criticism of the same process in Feuerbach`s Essence of Christianity; or rather we shall explain the critical form of this movement, which in Hegel is as yet uncritical.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).
Wanting to deepen the examination of the two speculations we realize that the differences are not as obvious as they might seem at first: the first commonality we find in the logical necessity that determined their birth: the anti-Hegelian controversy. The doctrine of the great German philosopher was based on the reconciliation of two contrary statements: on the one hand, the affirmation that the one who undertakes to philosophize is the concrete man, within the limits of his own historical environment and with the limitations of his temporal situation; on the other hand, the affirmation that this characteristic concreteness of the philosopher can be contrasted only by pure thought, beyond time and outside the constraints of any given historical existence. The antinomy of this conciliation was first denounced by existentialism a few hundred years ago, and later reaffirmed by Marxism. The Hegelian claim of an absolute philosophy, placed outside of time and determined by a concluded historiographical conception, was shown to be absurd and relegated to the boundaries of the impossible like the scholastic claim of the demonstration of God. At this point, two paths were open to future speculations: either to declare absolute philosophy true and, therefore, to implicitly affirm that it cannot be reached by man, who must opt for action and practical life, or to say that man has only the particular historical perspectives left, concretely inserted in the lived temporality and that alone deserve the name of philosophy. Existentialism and Marxism have set out on the latter road.
Should we want to disregard this historical commonality, other and more convincing ones we can find dialectically.
“What is important in Hegel’s Phenomenology and in its final result – the dialectic of negativity as the driving and generating principle – lies in the fact that Hegel conceives man’s self-generation as a process, objectification as a contraposition, as alienation and the suppression of this alienation; that in consequence he understands the essence of labor and conceives the objective unono, the man who is true because he is real, as the result of his own labor. The real, active behavior of man with himself as a being belonging to a species, or the actualization of himself as a real being belonging to a species, i.e. as a human being, is possible only through the collective work of man, i.e. only as a result of history -, and he refers to them as objects, what first of all is possible again only in the form of alienation. Hegel’s one-sidedness and limitation we shall now expound at length with reference to the final chapter of the Phenomenology around absolute knowledge: a chapter that contains both the concentrated spirit of the Phenomenology, and its relation to the speculative dialectic, and also Hegel’s awareness of both [the phenomenology and the dialectic] and their mutual relation to each other.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx).
Contemporary existentialism, especially in the positive openings made by Abbagnano in Italy, by Wilhelm Szilasi in Germany, by Carlos Astrada in Argentina, wanted to break the circle of isolation that Kierkegaard’s statement welded around the single living man. Philosophy is first of all a conversation between free men to be carried out in a free society. It is, therefore, more than a matter of existing, of coexisting; it is a matter of being able to regain faith in one’s own possibilities and in those of one’s fellows, it is a matter of reinforcing the guarantees of truthfulness, goodness and progress. It is not enough to stop at the mere observation of precariousness, it is not enough to point out the imbalance and incompleteness of existence, its uselessness and its risk; it is necessary to arrive at a positive solution that can tear the individual from his disconcerting absenteeism in order to give him back, confident and strong, into the lap of the free and constituted society.
Marxism and existentialism, more than philosophies of the crisis, must therefore be considered as philosophies of the overcoming of the crisis. What at the beginning may seem nebulous and risky comes more and more gaining in time, thanks to extrinsic conditions that contribute to a purchase, without being made their own in the circle of a life or in the monologue of a thinker. The thickness of the opaque zone seems to diminish little by little as we meditate, and the occasions that are gradually disposed to intelligence allow themselves to be permeated, fixing their concreteness in a further need for truth and positivity. The opening that we have mentioned in the existentialist doctrine is also reflected in the further developments of Marxism. The golden age is proposed again to man, an impregnation for human society to its free development in which it will be able to achieve peace and tranquility. In this opening disappears the crisis that had generated the reaction to remain only the practical result, that is, the economic, social, political aspect. “All mysteries find their rational solution in practical human activity,” says Alexandre Kojève, one of the best continuers and extenders of Marx’s philosophy.
“The human being, man, is equated in Hegel with self-consciousness. Any alienation of the human being is therefore nothing but alienation of self-consciousness. The alienation of self-consciousness does not count as an expression, as an expression reflected in knowledge and thought, of the actual alienation of the human being. On the contrary, the actual alienation, which appears as real, is, according to its most intimate and hidden essence – brought to light only by philosophy – nothing but the appearance [the phenomenon] of the alienation of the real human being, of self-consciousness. For this reason the science that understands this is called “phenomenology.” Therefore every new appropriation of the alienated objective being appears as an incorporation into self-consciousness; the man who takes possession of his own being is only the self-consciousness that takes possession of the objective being, the return of the object to the ego-personal is therefore the new appropriation of the object.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx).
In this doctrine an almost unique importance is given by the “problem”. The romantic idea of a transitory state of uncertainty and doubt destined to clarification by the attainment of truth has been completely eliminated. The “problem” is a mode of being of the subject who proposes it, it is a constituent part of his being and manifests, in the same extreme exteriority, its inner essence. It should also be considered that for both doctrines the solution of a problem does not mean the elimination of the problem itself and the creation of a factual situation different from the one that existed before. It is instead the reproduction of the problem and the birth of further ones.
Starting from this far from encouraging conception, these doctrines have turned the situation upside down and launched into the construction of a future existence ordered according to the norms of the most frank positive understanding. The scholars of Marxism with their researches contributed to the elaboration of Marx’s original philosophy, but at the same time they killed it in order to make it out of date and thus actualize it later not as a philosophy of crisis but as a philosophy of the future.
“Hegel’s Encyclopedia begins with the Logic, and ends with pure speculative thought and absolute knowledge with the spirit that is self-conscious and understands itself from itself, with the philosophical or absolute spirit, that is, superhuman and abstract. Therefore the whole Encyclopaedia is nothing but the fully explained essence of the philosophical spirit, its self-objectification.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx).
Evidently the danger of a crisis remains ever present, and we have had bitter experience of it in the political events of this post-war period. The naive pride of statist communism is to have gone through the whole story of Marxist teaching: in reality it sees what it sees, and the rest, even if it looked at it, would not see it, or at any rate would remain unknown to it: thus at the center of its steel circle, unaware of a possible infinite correspondence, it degrades until it loses responsibility for itself. Reducing every action to itself, every feeling to a public process, degrading or rather denying a spiritual reality in man, whatever it may be, is a disconcerting vision; the only condition in which humanity appears unstable to me, the only condition in which it seems impossible to me to have any sort of survival of those which are the basic cornerstones on which society has always been founded. Thus Kierkegaard: “Pay close attention to the state of the contemporary, otherwise, you place yourself in a mendacious illusion. But, unfortunately, in Christianity there is only a fantastic image of Christ, that of a divine figure that is completely imaginary, that responds directly to the idea of performing miracles. But this representation is false, Christ has never had such an appearance. The Christianity of Christianity is a chimera in a twofold sense, both as regards the miracle and as regards Christ. In the situation of the contemporary, you find yourself between the inexplicable fact (without it directly following that this is a miracle) and a particular man, similar to others in appearance, who himself performs the extraordinary fact. The possibility of scandal is inevitable; you must pass through it; you can save yourself from it in only one way: by believing it. That is why Christ says: ‘Blessed is he who will not be scandalized in me’. This was not then as easy as it later became, to the point of being nauseated by the lie that is Christianity; then it was not enough to hear that the blind recovered their sight and that the dead were raised, to be immediately convinced of the personality of Christ”. (Practice in Christianity, Kierkegaard).
Also for existentialism the danger of crisis always remains: if no choice has a reason and a foundation, on the plane of the finite every act is nothing. We cannot consider this philosophical conception as the aristocratic exercise of a few idle spirits, rather it represents, at least in a more extensive and speculative form, the prevalent character of some organizations of life. This is how the existentialist can become an Antonio Roquentin who tries to deceive the nausea of his existence by pretending to be a scholar of nothing less than diplomatic history. He needs something to save him, something serious and strong in which to believe, something to prevent the terrible recurrence of nausea. Vanished the dream of literary glory, goes after the chimera of a lost love, the figure of his Anny assumes for him the only possibility of alliance with the world, the residual hope of a return to men, out of the nothingness in which he feels every day, more and more, sinking. The appearance of cozies, their outward appearance, their color, shape, price utility are given by our confused effort to imagine them. The redness of a cherry is given by the tension of our brain trying to cross that line, but cannot, trying to imagine what no one has ever imagined, but cannot. A bruise…a wound…an exudation and more. Red is simply not seen, fasti is an abstract invention, a cleaned up, simplified idea, an idea of man. But the red of the cherry goes far beyond sight, smell and taste to become confusion, too much confusion and that is nothing, perhaps because it has come to become too much. This is nausea and it is also the most deterrent birth of the existentialist crisis. Thus, again, Kierkegaard: “For Socrates the knower was an existent, but now the existent is qualified him an essential mutation. Let us now call the non-existence of the individual sin. From the point of view of eternity he cannot be in sin, that is, he cannot be assumed to have been eternally in sin. He is not born a sinner in the sense that he must be assumed to be a sinner before he is born, but he is born in sin and as a sinner. This we may well call original sin. But if existence has taken power over him in this way, he can no longer go back to eternity with his memory. If it was already a paradox that eternal truth relates itself to an existing being, now it is an absolute paradox that it relates itself to such an existing being”. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard).
These risky experiences cannot but constitute the extreme points of contradiction that depart from the central thread of existentialist and Marxist speculation. To the first, man must ask to understand himself better; to the second, men must ask to understand each other better. Because the understanding of himself and mutual intelligence between men are the foundation of every work of civilization and welfare.
[Published on “Corriere di Sicilia” of August 20, 1959. The quotations, suppressed in the original for reasons of space, have been restored].
The post-war period and a part of the 1960s, the first half at least, remain prisoners of the points of reference linked to Crocian idealism and to an actualism revisited for reasons of shopkeeping. All my work in that period, much of which has been lost, was directed at attacking these beliefs. Even the “Discorso sull’esistenzialismo” (Discourse on Existentialism) – this was the buttonhole that the essays took in the reduced journalistic form of the “Corriere di Sicilia” – advanced into dangerous territory, until the end, when the essay on “Esistenzialismo e cristianesmo” (now lost) was not published. They would have wanted two things from me: on the one hand to please the priests who, with their archiepiscopal pressures, were trying to polish my words; on the other hand, not to frighten the newspaper that wanted “more philosophers and fewer poets”, to quote Carmelo Ottaviano’s words about my articles. The latter character, holder of the chair of History of Philosophy in the University of Catania, metaphysical integral, faithful over the centuries, at the time was repainting its orthodoxy by publishing the results, in installments, on the same newspaper, and not looking forward to cohabitation with a boy of twenty years old who said things not really (for him) digestible.
Poets attract audiences at vernissages and therefore my articles were read and quoted around – always in Sicily, of course – not the heavy malloppi of the philosophical warrior, to quote Eugenio Garin’s definition of Octavian. It was the massive use of stupidity – poor Gentile, tortured in his writings, after having been, rightly, killed – to have the better, as always happens. Moreover, my essays, quite skeletal and almost devoid of quotations, were not very good, so in the end they succumbed. In the meantime, my interests were moving towards other horizons.
Exempt from the evils of Marxism I was not, evidently, from those of existentialism. I had been purged of Marxism by Pareto’s Introduction to the first volume of Capital in the UTET edition. I have told this story – with its humorous appendix by Labriola – and I will not repeat it here, only old people repeat the same things and annoy those who waste their time listening to them. More than a purge, in time, after reading The Socialist Systems, it became necessary for me to face the problem head on. I had no intention of piercing any communists. I knew very few of them, but I had on the contrary all the impregnation directed to grasp the knowledge of man, and Marxism, as I had later confirmed, is not a real anthropology, but rather an agglomeration of Hegelian economics and positivist philosophy. I didn’t know Comte and this bothered me a lot. Therefore, no exaltation, no fascination even in the few direct readings I could catch – the first book of Capital, for example – and it was not that kind of emotional upheaval that convinced me. Parenthesis. During the clashes against the Tambroni government, which spread throughout Italy, a trade unionist was killed in Piazza Stesicoro in Catania. In the clash was wounded my friend Paolo Venturino, who will be years later my lawyer, and continues to be so until today. I was working in the bank in the stressful square, just over fifty meters away, and I didn’t notice anything. Yet today – we are the same age – at seventy-three, he is still a lawyer and I am in the prison of [find greek letters for KopudaAAos] (Antene) , accused of robbery. Life has curious twists and turns. A miserable mockery is the presumption to derive destiny from what one is doing at any given moment.
Existentialism fascinated me because of its possible involvement of poetry, the novel, and other forms of expression, music, painting, sculpture, etc. I did not have the time to do this. This last part I did not have time to prepare, the one concerning music was lost along with my first Machiavelli. I was repelled by Marxism for two reasons, the Hegelian ascendancy – of which I knew little – and the authoritarian derivative, of which I had suspicions that were largely well-founded, even if not sufficiently articulated. The vitalistic metaphors – I read the class struggle in this way – annoyed me, I considered them merely stumental and they told me little about the urgency of understanding man. I considered party and union aggregations as palisades to enclose individuals and I wanted to go towards freedom or, at least, towards my song of freedom. I saw the communists – there was little news of Stalinism in my possession – as being made for discipline, for regimentation, for uniformity. I could not have explained well why, my rebellion was too literarily intimate to translate into anything concrete. Although I remained a poor employee, I tried to break the leaden cloak that was suffocating me, and I did so with ferocity and senselessness. That’s how I killed Francesca, but I’ve told that elsewhere. I don’t want to repeat myself. The first outlet was study, a fierce, omnivorous, constant, petulant, embarrassing study. But also other aspects occupied my life, poker, for example, with which I earned, as a professional, as relevant in environments not exactly respectable, my loves. I don’t want to dwell on it. Marxism was deboned and digested. I wouldn’t say understood, not everything I studied I could understand, sometimes I was too fast and too superficial, or sometimes I was conditioned by second hand news, almost always the hurry was bad advice, but I never stopped. Did this continuous effort have its own plan? I don’t know, I certainly didn’t look like one of Flaubert’s idiots, first of all because of my age, then because of my aggressiveness. I wasn’t embarrassed by the theories, it was the men I was looking for behind them, and I often didn’t find them.
The essay “Existentialism and Marxism,” reread today, is remarkable in its paucity. It posits a comparison that has been systematically refuted by Sartre’s dissenting behavior and for that reason alone should be read carefully. Today I realize that the mention of Hegel is too hidden between the lines, it suggests rather than confirms. In fact, there is an enormous distance between Kierkegaard and Marx and it is not advisable to shorten it for the sake of shopkeeping, as I seem to have done. In these parallels there is always something oppressive, they want to force different dimensions to cohabit. Hegel is an absolute totem even today, perhaps more so than in the post-war period. His philosophy continues to break through the ceilings of so many philosophers who consider themselves safe. Feuerbach is one example. Materialism is a one-eyed idealism. I, who am a materialist, consider myself to be looking with two eyes – in fact, it is not true because in these last months, due to the lack of treatment in prison, I am losing my right eye – precisely because my materialism is anarchic, that is, it does not ask anything external, solid and important, to be its guarantor. Perhaps this is a different matter? Maybe, but it is not cloying, it does not try to evade its responsibilities, it is not sociable and petulant in order to gain space for reading.
A totem was also Marx and then Kierkegaard, a fake sky, a fake moustache, in short a camouflage. These two – regardless of Marx’s unlikely existentialism – ran away through a side door, positivist rationalism the first, Christian spiritualism the second. Many aspects of this fugu are still hidden, in spite of the congeries of solicitations from so many quarters.
At the time I did not have the means to deal with these two fugues, today I have neither the desire nor the time. The omnivorous priapism of my green years has faded. Abbagnano’s words – philosophy is a conversation between free men – ring in my ears; never was something more banal and at the same time impossible said. Neither Kierkegaard nor Marx nor even less Hegel were free men, none of them, including the cursing pastor, contributed to the formation of free men. Their sketches and their perfect (Hegel’s) impressive architectural constructions, are well wide and passable roads to the cave of massacres. This we must not forget.
Sacrificing from Hegel – or helping him when he is treated like a dead dog – is the profession of faith of these two existentialist sui generis philosophers -for Marx the near-foreignness must be continually reminded.
Reading them at the time, albeit with my modest Hegelian knowledge, I realized that I had to combine Kierkegaard’s Christian sensibility with Marx’s intelligent economic analysis, the materialism of the former with the spiritualism of the latter. It would have been a fascinating task, unfulfilled. I was crowded, more in Marx than in Kierkegaard, with too many elements at once, often cloying, exposed in brilliant, even journalistic form, while I would have needed empty spaces where to place the totem pole that remained entangled and unexplained. Yet I knew that those details encapsulated the essentials not only of the two anti-Hegelian philosophers but of Hegel himself, if only by contrapositive compensation.
The scandal of Christianity was once again the incomprehensible Hegel of the youthful writings on religion and the contradictory resolving Marxist crisis was a reversal of the dialectic between the real and the rational. Everything was connected with everything, which means that the great philosophy of the master spoke of the man, not of the all-encompassing reason or spirit, as it was to the man that out of all doubt the unfaithful disciples turned, at least with some doubt for Marx. But I did not come to this conclusion at the time, I could not come to it, and therefore I could not go forward on this infamous road. Man first, which meant ousting philosophy from its sovereign reading of the great principle of power, blunting it in its inescapable and eternal supply of the cave of massacre.
That Marxism, with existentialism, can direct philosophy of overcoming the crisis is an impression I could not help but subscribe to. There are in these working hypotheses two positive elements that come from the practice of the world, where the illusion of the epicentric crisis and its possible overcoming is there, individuals play their lives on the wrong number. Existentialism and Marxism on this truly have something in common. They provide that opalescence that men need to endure life, to restrain its momentum and encapsulate it in acceptable dimensions, that is, able to be dealt with separately and perhaps restrained to do as little harm as possible.
Beating reality at all costs, as I delude myself to do, cannot accept any determinist shortcut. I was going after heated readings, obvious, perhaps blatant sub-understandings, scenes capable of not making one forget my cognitive dream. In short, my oddities could not be recruited. And Abbagnano? First of all this was a self-recruitment, for other things of very difficult realization, and then it was short-lived. In any case it did not come with the castrating conditions of accepting a uniform. I was a strange young man, but I was always a young man ready to be fascinated by knowledge. Where was the high – or at least one of the high points there I wanted to go. I didn’t want to go all the way, I wanted to go further, further and further, even at the cost of wasting my life, as some say happened.
Even though I was living like an employee, I was not one to the end. At the time, the bank was handing out checks to private investigators. When it was my turn, a Dutch girl who worked in the personnel department would warn me to hide. That was the time when I was wildest. The slums of the poker game never saw me as much as in those fifteen days when I was under fire, and more of which I don’t count talking about. I surrounded myself with castaways, my colleagues weren’t, they hadn’t been shipwrecked because they’d never sailed – dead people don’t go on voyages. These castaways at least knew of a lived existence, they lived or had lived, even if at the moment they might find themselves with holes in their shoes, outcasts who found – and find – their moment when they are arrested or when they hang themselves.
The respectability of those who read Marx at the time (and even today) couldn’t help but block me. I remember that the height of their nonconformity was farting in public. I found them pitiful and cloying. The others, the existentialists, or those who thought they were, were softer, truer and more interesting, more eclectic, more attentive without ulterior motives, didn’t carry party cards in their pockets, were often really out of touch with the canons of the time and, in their unreal marginality, were outrageously alive.
Maybe I was also looking for happiness and good acceptance of life, in short, that progress which is a sign of success. And after having obtained it, I may have decided to set it on fire. I say may be, because no one is ever sure of their decisions, every choice, no matter how bold, always turns into its opposite. We always look at our life with small binoculars and we are never willing to shrink it. Have I sometimes shed the burden of my choices? I don’t know. I certainly have never been a follower of Marx or even an existentialist. I have always sought out my own readings and organized my own research, even while committing stupidity or circumnavigating the world to get to the next door.
Finding solutions in practical human activity was the Marxist project, I wanted to find knowledge for myself first, not having an application project looking for solutions. There was nothing incredible or difficult, nothing mysterious or extraordinary that didn’t attract me and seem within reach. All of this as an effect of my work, not as a gift from someone. There was no intensity that did not attract me and, at the same time, there was no logical demonstration that did not urge me to understand it, to make it my own. I was not a hieratic intuitive, I went everywhere outside of a single congenial alveo, entertaining myself without first seeking the seal of authenticity.
As I’ve already said I had no clear ideas about how chaos ruled the world instead of choices, but I knew it wasn’t a rural scene, there was an abyss towards which everything was pushing me and I had to acquire the knowledge to jump over it and go beyond. I didn’t know that that abyss already has us all inside it, it’s just a matter of not letting ourselves be suffocated by the slime.
The fascination of the unknown, the risk of finding nothing in fear but fear itself, the balance of truth captured once and for all, as the Marxists promised, the search for the forbidden detail, condemned by all, put on the index, as that which must never be accepted, all this world invited me to discover it at the risk of my credibility. After all, I only had my future to lose, and for a young person that’s price at hand. The more you have something, the less valuable you consider it to be.
After all, these essays, including the ones that were lost or not written, had a deep common sense, they were not, as one might think, my uncritical adherence to existentialism, on the contrary they were my bitter and salty thank you note to Abbagnano. They were all instantly – I realize this now more than then – antipositive, not negative or nullist, they were elsewhere quickly, and with an imperturbable operation of substitution. This is why I needed a superabundance of meanings, to dig into the embalming of reality, into the univocity of every happening. I made lists of meanings and correspondences just as ten years earlier I had compiled lists of the animals and trees found in Salgari’s books. I did not allow solutions to problems – something that in the essays is often said carefully – as if they were tedious tasks. I was not very attracted – perhaps because of a lack of understanding – by the sumptuous philosophical systems equipped with all the necessary equipment. I didn’t hunt for simulacra to destroy them, I simply ignored them.
I had not yet learned the art of insolence and yet I reacted strongly to attempts to condition me – see Octavian -, I had instead the fast execution so I could plan and execute without ambasms more projects, most of which filtered through the study. Was there a natural inclination to accumulate knowledge that assisted me, or was it perhaps the fruit of hard work itself? I don’t know. After all, I know little of those distant years and I try hard to remember – locked up in here – that speed of execution, those forty pages a day typed, but all I can recall are familiar scenes from a family to which I would soon become a stranger. They are always the same worker of the sentence, one after the other, ringing thousands of sequences. Do they have an intrinsic design logic or do they only respond to the need to complete my books left half-finished or lost along the way? I don’t know. For me, this repetition that I am creating here is essential, a counterpoint between two sets that are remote from each other, a tightrope walk, at times obsessive. But since I am not wary of my means, neither am I wary of my aims. Do I launch into wandering, project or way to save my life? Wandering through my thoughts until they are chaotic and at odds with each other, drawing turbulence perhaps never felt by me before. What do I do with my life? When it has been lived, wouldn’t it be better to throw it away like a rag?
Existentialism as a philosophy of crisis? Not really. Many people thought so, and so did I, but we weren’t thinking clearly. The world is falling more and more into the abyss of slaughter and philosophies are showing it the way. What’s the point of talking about a crisis? I have white hair and cold hands, I have lived a long time practically always facing a crisis in progress, or what others considered as such, I knew very well that the handling of massacres never goes into crisis, it renews itself and draws nourishment and strength from the philosophical lymph. Philosophers face history and trace its path afterwards, then their theories dig the beds of future rivers that will flow into the cave of horrors. Feeling oneself the interpreter of the crisis gave many people, at the time, the impression of being, but these were artificial lights projected onto a drawing, reality was elsewhere, in the courtyard the usual animals incompatible with knowledge were squawking. I would have needed another filter, not Abbagnano’s positive sweetenings, his rather clumsy pleasantries, his absurd claim to assign re-compositional tasks to philosophy. I needed other roads to take, still more difficult paths, not advice on how to buy. I found myself deciding to shift my gaze, to digress with tenacity, to reconstruct games of mirrors in order to ripple the canvas I wanted to draw. I was fascinated by the desolation, I observed it attentively while I dealt with knowledge, I surprised glimpses of humanity that could not be found in books, least of all in philosophers’ books.
It was not the crisis that fascinated me but the desolation of the world, its – and my – aridity, the inability to understand as knowledge increased. Why this unexpected contrast? Is there not something ulcerated in a bulimia that never ceases to gorge itself? The example is not accidental, swallowing knowledge is a form of defense against the world from which we feel attacked so, by swelling, we intimidate possible aggressors. And knowledge, as it accumulates, expands more and more within us, fills our naturalness like a disease boil and hurts us. Well, the fact is that we like this evil. We like to feel full, even if we are forced by the logic of things to admit that we are full of nothing. Ferocity is born from this nothingness, even murder and the cave of the lake of blood are fed by this nothingness. It could be objected that many ebetes, empty and lacking of cognitive content, are massacrators, indeed this is the common and recurrent model of the massacrator. I do not agree. These beasts – and here, in the arm, there are hundreds of specimens – are the unconscious expression of human ferocity, the bearer of knowledge is not, he carries out the massacres consciously, he is ferocious not because he is a beast but because he is a beast endowed with knowledge. I have spoken elsewhere about wisdom, I do not want to repeat myself. Limiting myself has never been possible.
My relationship with existentialism as it is investigated in these essays is opaque, it shows but does not demonstrate a disease of life, a continuous catastrophe that never stops feeding the massacre. It was not possible for me to move in any other direction and I intended to protect my work from any suspicious criticism against accumulation. I have never been ecumenically peaceful, so I thought I was laying down weapons not mere motions of the soul. Of course, like every young man, I had my impulses and my reluctance, the courage to learn and the fear of forgetting. I regularly hung the manifesto of irreducibility on my soul window, but only to make myself impenetrable; after all, the essential part of my life took place in this obstructive pouring of knowledge, as unstoppable as a flood.
These are the reasons why Marxism could not satisfy me and existentialism attracted me but it was not a plausible purpose to incorporate the war machine that I was. Both of them wanted to include me in their files as is the unstoppable inclination of every Church. To be fair, existentialism could not be considered a Church and I was not a desirable member, Marxism was a Church and I was sufficiently interesting for it. I needed to move, to undertake journeys, to vent my compressed anger, and breathing is not possible when you stay locked in a school or a party. I didn’t want the respectability that comes with these affiliations; my methodical pursuit of knowledge was itself unrespectable because it was unmarked by any of the dominant brands. Ultimately, and confusingly, I aspired to be myself, the most difficult desire and the most competitive project to achieve.
The close of the essay is a twist and a fall. In the attempt, after all not entirely unsuccessful, to hold two disparate things together, I needed to find an acceptable purpose and this could be no other, at the time, than civility. A misunderstood term or – even worse – abused in all political rants. But for me that term went in a different direction, positive anyway, but different. For me it was enough to know, it was a substantial part of my life, regulated almost entirely in this direction, to qualify culture as the dirty equivalent of civilization did not belong to me. It was a general outburst that didn’t go into the substance, didn’t have the capacity to do so. I put my feet in many traps, intuition and sometimes pulled me out of them, other times not, the better to act spontaneity, recklessness. But there was no disaster that could take me out of the game, I had read about the deadly disease, not experienced it, I was armored against all surprises, and this because of my stupid impudence. I had nothing accommodating or ecumenical but I was transparent about the efforts I was making, I filtered and gave to others what I was learning. Many around me were forced to admit that they had cashed in on my munificence. I didn’t mind, I often received punches in the face from those to whom I had given the most.
Existentialism communicated to me the fascination of universality in a strange way. I had learned it from De Ruggiero in the broadest way and from Abbagnano, who went back to Plato more out of shopkeeping necessity than out of conviction. So I went back to my readings to find correspondences and simple presences, traces and pretexts, explanations and smoke stacks. Occasions to retouch my convictions or to understand again, more deeply. To open up many paths, in dimensions that are always varied, to find myself always alone at the back of the room looking at the spectacle of the world with my eyes wide open. I was looking for the secret of this filamentous ramification of existentialism in philosophically disparate currents, I was looking for it and I had it before my eyes. Being is the only one that remains constant even though submerged or floating, even though it may sometimes seem distant – see Hegel. Life is this being, so all philosophies talk about life but won’t admit it. All the supplies of the blood lake cave come through this reticence.
It is just that life is the least accessible knowledge because it is in us fully, filling us completely even when external conditions are reduced to a trickle, as in this moment. No privileged road has yet been found, only secondary roads and all directed to distinguish it, life, from the darkness and cold of death, a discourse for anatomists. Life escapes this kind of clarification, it remains remote and suggests encrypted accounts. No secret, no veil to lift, no betrayal to avert, no esotericism.
Those who live must ask themselves the question whether they are really living their existence or whether it is only a progressive temporal approach to death, which will arrive punctually without warning. Playing hide and seek with appearances, he must from time to time take the road of life, realizing it, reflecting on it, in short, he must realize that he is living, not let the involuntary muscle of the heart continue to beat until it dies. But life does not want to submit itself calmly to the analytical difficulties of reflection, it reacts, it pretends to impose its rules without remorse. It wants to be heard not to be heard. It wants to subordinate knowledge not be known by it, reduced to the rank of object of study. And since philosophers all have the conviction that they live, here they are all without exception attributing different names to the same thing. What on earth could Hegel’s objective spirit be? In the post-war period I reflected on these analogies, systematically defused by philosophers, and felt their urgency. The epoch lacked them almost completely.
Being has always been the object of philosophy, and I have said so, but this search has not always been declared by the philosopher who developed it or simply understood by him. Sometimes the intuition flashed in many of them that they were on the wrong track and then they hastened to demonstrate that their intention was not a search for being. At other times they would devote all their love and investigative sagacity to appearing and would substitute it for being, as a compensatory effect. See Mounier.
Nothing is closer to silence than loquacity. The more words accumulate and, at times, the more they lose their poignancy, evade, slip over the context, flash pleasantly, play with each other and, in the end, no longer grant the philosopher the ability to say, an essential gift for those who should say what no one else says. The most daring conceptions, the highest bridges thrown over the abyss of meaning, do not hold and everything is swallowed up by banality. There is in this danger a limit to the use of the word, it cannot spread like wildfire covering the connective tissue of things, it must be kept under control, otherwise it becomes empty and sounds false. This happens to literati – and it is not so bad – and also to philosophers, but in the latter case the damage is much greater.
Behind this indispensable parsimony there is something to hide, or rather to say, and just to say it it is necessary that the words do not lose their relevance to things. Philosophy – as has happened in part to mathematics – has sometimes been cataphracted into technicalities that have suffocated it, making it not only difficult to understand – which is the lesser evil – but also unsuitable to tell reality. And this wandering elsewhere, in the eternal fields of appearance, talking about being, is much more serious. The jargon of the existentialists was there and it was heavy, even going so far as to engage the fabric of everyday life, as desirous as ever, in the postmodern period, of a patina of extemism which, as such, had to exist on the surface and not tasfomae anything. The order of reality had been upset and rearranged by the most frightening war event in history, and in the end more or less let it split into blocks and peripheral wars on which everyone tried to close their eyes. Existentialism itself suggested one of the most striking escapes, and so it was accepted by many philosophers. There were some terminological hesitations – for example, Heidegger – but in general all of them let go a fashion that brought readers and money, two unusual things for philosophy.
In many cases, as with Sartre, there was a suspicion of vacuity, but this did not come from a careful consideration of actual philosophical work, rather from the publishing success of novels and theater. In short, there was no way to fix exactly the caliber of a philosopher who wrote on bistro tables as I write now, and have written in the past, in prison alleys. To each his own. Absolutely unbearable were the attitudes of the epigones, disciples in fact unwanted by Sartre and scattered in the various nightclubs of the French capital, intent on enjoying illusions and appearances that, while not coming to replace being, certainly clouded it in a faith, in a critical indigence that even today, after so much time and after parallel experiences, such as that of Sixty-Eight, do not fail to impress me.