Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

Concert at the Corner

The boy with the violin case came around the corner. On time, as always.  Head bowed, feet dragging on the sidewalk, the case drooping by his side, as always. He approached A__’s gang, scattered on the sidewalk, oblivious to their presence.

Till A__ spoke.


The boy looked up, alarm running through his body quickly and efficiently, flushing his cheeks and warming his ears, bringing him to attention. He had dreaded this confrontation, accepting its inevitability, and yet was no less stricken by fear when it finally arrived.

“What’s in that case?”

“My violin.”

“Yeah? What’s it for?”

“I play music on it’.

“Yeah. Well, play it for us, maestro. Let’s see what you got.”

It wasn’t an invitation to play; it was a message indicating the penalties for refusing to play. An elementary inference.

The boy picked up the violin. Lessons for the day had ended a while ago; his performances hadn’t. And his taskmaster in the chambers he had left behind was, despite his gruffness, brusqueness and peremptory commands, an infinitely less demanding audience than this one.

He began to play, drawing the bow across the violin’s strings. He always wrapped himself around the strange new beast–violin plus bow–that emerged when horsehairs made contact with catgut, but today, he held on to its familiar shape just a little tighter. As if it could protect him from the beating that lay close by in his future.

He picked the longest composition he knew, the Spring Sonata that would go on and on for twenty-two minutes. He’d enjoy them while it lasted.

The notes rang out clearly and sharply; they moved down the street and around it; they floated up around the gang’s ears.

They reached A__ too. He had heard violins before. He had heard their sound. Sometimes his uncle, his mother’s brother, who lived crosstown and visited for dinner when his father didn’t mind, played the violin as accompaniment to a meal he had finished quicker than the others.

The sound was familiar but still novel. At home, his uncle often played over the sounds of dinner: plates and spoons clanking, babies crying, men shouting, women chattering. At home, the violin was background music, just one more component of an inchoate sound that filled their home in the evenings. It was never allowed to stand out, always relegated to a humble plebeian standing.

This was different.

A__’s gang stood on the street corner, not moving. The maestro stood next to them, playing, not daring to look up. Eye contact might break the spell, might dispel the mood. It was not a chance he was willing to take.

A__ was motionless. He wanted the music to stop. He wanted to get on with the rest of the act: the smashing of the violin on the sidewalk, the flinging of the bow across the street, the punch in the face and the kick in the pants that would propel that little whiner home.

He remained motionless.

The sonata ran out. The boy added a flourish or two and then stopped. The bow came off the strings; the violin dropped to his side.

A__’s boys stared at him, awaiting directives for their deployment.

A__ finally spoke.

“Go home.”

Birthdays, Coincidences, and Divination

I was born on the 156th anniversary of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s expulsion–on grounds of atheism–from Oxford. (Thomas Jefferson Hogg, his collaborator on The Necessity of Atheismwas expelled with him; the two were accused of ‘contumacy in refusing certain answers put to them’ by the master and fellows of University College.) My birthday is also, remarkably enough: the 189th anniversary of Beethoven‘s first public concert; the 140th anniversary of his death;  the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune (though there seems to be some disagreement about the exact date); and the 43rd anniversary of the premiere of George Bernard Shaw‘s ‘Saint Joan‘ in London. Among other things.

A very distinguished list, I’m sure you will agree. Unfortunately, closer examination of the ‘among other things’ reveals my birthday to also be: the 41st anniversary of the first lip-reading tournament in the US and the 30th anniversary of the day spinach growers in Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye. The chuckles that these events might provoke are quickly silenced by noting that my birthday is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of seven hundred Jews from Lvov in Poland at the Belzec concentration camp, and the departure of the first ‘Eichmann transport’ to Auschwitz.

My birth date, through history, appears to have played host to, in equal measure, the sublime, the sordid, the ridiculous, and the horrifying. There seems to a similar pattern in my birth anniversaries: my 4th birthday was marked by the Bangladeshi declaration of independence (which kicked off a genocidal crackdown by the West Pakistani Army on the Bengali populace) and the ascendance of the ‘Benny Hill Show‘ to the top rank in television ratings in the United Kingdom; my 12th by the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; and so on. You get the picture: there really isn’t one. My birth date and my birthday is like all the other days of the year, undistinguished and memorable in its own particular way.

An inquiry into, and examination of, the coincidental occurrence of events in world history on the date of one’s birth is an old fascination of ours; it remains a species of divination, an inspection of cosmic tea-leaves, a close reading of the universe’s entrails that tempts and afflicts many of us, sometimes, I suspect, even the hard-headed ones. Could something, possibly, just possibly, connect us to this strange list of events? Could there perhaps be a historical pattern that I am part of? Am I the bodily manifestation of some global world-historical-process? It can engender grandiose idiocy too: Have I inherited some of the intellectual talents of Shelley, Beethoven, Shaw? These are lovely, deluded, tempting thoughts, strategies to grant of possible meaning to a life that otherwise may appear destined for insignificance. The relationship with astrology is, of course, unmistakable; that is precisely what that popular pseudo-science set out to do, to convince us that there was some deeper meaning to the date of our birth, over and above the circumstances leading to the coupling of our parents.

Still, some virtue may be found in such pursuits: if nothing else, it may provoke further reading on a matter that catches our eye, and also remind us that the calendar stretches out long into the past before us, and will continue to do so into the future, long after we are capable of noting the coincidence of our birth anniversaries with events of historical interest.