Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

It’s a romantic tale: a young communist struggling against an authoritarian regime is arrested on a treason charge.   A dramatic trial follows, and he is consigned to a long sentence, separated from his wife and family.  In prison, he rallies his comrades, organizing education sessions.   It could be the story of Nelson Mandela, except that this would-be revolutionary came from a poor family, not aristocratic stock.   And while Mandela’s tragedy had a redemptive ending, that of Antonio Gramsci ended in tragedy.

Antonio Gramsci, born in Ales, Sardinia on 22 January 1981, was the son of a minor civil servant, of Albanian descent.  As a child, he was frail, and he grew up stunted and hunchbacked.  The family attributed his disability to him being dropped by a servant.  But it seems rather to have been the result of Pott’s disease (tuberculosis of the bones).

Gramsci’s hard childhood became harder when his father was imprisoned for alleged administrative irregularities.  “Nino” had to leave school at the age of 12 and work in the local tax office,  continuing his studies in the evenings.  Later, he was able to finish the final three years of secondary school, and he then went to sixth form in Cagliarii, where he lodged with his brother Gennaro.  Around this time, he began to read socialist magazines and meet other young people for political discussions.  Aged 19, he published his first political article in a Sardinian daily.  The following year, he won a scholarship to the University of Turin, where he enrolled as a student of Letters.  He was lonely, broke and exhausted, but he made friends with Angelo Tasca and Palmiro Togliatti, two other future leaders of the Italian left.

Despite his ill-health, he continued with his studies, but by 1916, he was as devoted to journalism as to research.  Turin was a hot-bed of trades unionism and socialism: he wrote theatre reviews, articles critical of the war and of nationalism.   His intellectual and political life would always be as much about culture as about revolution.

The Russian revolution filled Gramsci and other socialists with hope and excitement, although a popular uprising in Turin in 1917 was easily crushed, and all the revolutionary leaders were arrested.  Gramsci was now secretary of the Turin section of the Italian Socialist Party.   The following two years, the Biennio Rosso, were a time of revolutionary fervor in northern Italy, and Gramsci was at the forefront.   He was one of the founders of L’Ordine Nuovo, a socialist review, which operated under the slogan: “Educate yourselves because we'll need all your intelligence. Stir yourselves because we'll need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we'll need all your strength.”  In 1919, Gramsci was briefly arrested.  The factory council movement – echoing the Russian Soviets – spread through Turin  and other northern industrial cities.  In April 1920 a general strike was observed in Turin, but not in the rest of the country.  In 1921, Gramsci was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party.  The following year, in poor health, he travelled to Moscow as a delegate to the Communist International.

Shortly after arrival, illhealth forced Gramsci to spend time in the Serebranyi Bor Sanatorium, where he met his future wife, Julia Schucht, a Russian violinist.

Back in Italy, Mussolini’s Fascists came into power that autumn.  L’Ordine Nuovo was shut down and communists and socialists in Turin were violently assaulted.  Executive committee members of the PCI were arrested, and a warrant was issued for Gramsci.

In April 1924, Gramsci was elected to the Italian Parliament.  Trusting to his immunity as a deputy, Gramsci returned to Italy after a two year absence.   Gramsci spoke about the need for unity of the left, in the face of the Fascist threat.  Matteotti, a Socialist deputy who had denounced Mussolini in the parliament, was murdered by Fascist thugs.  By now, the Communist Party was organizing clandestinely through cells and its leaders were meeting in secret.  In 1925, Gramsci made his only parliamentary speech, criticizing the banning of opposition groups.

In 1926, Julia, who was expecting their second child (Giuliano) returned to Moscow.  Unlike other Communist leaders, Gramsci remained in Italy.  He wrote a letter to the Russian Communist Party to criticize the split between Stalin and Trotsky, saying “today you risk destroying your own handiwork”, but in Moscow Togliatti suppressed the letter. 

On 8 November Gramsci was arrested by the Fascists, as part of a crack down after an assassination attempt against Mussolini.  He was charged under a new law on public security and sentenced to five years imprisonment.   He was sent to the Italian island of Ustica with other political prisoners. Here he started classes for the other inmates.  His friend Pierro Sraffa, an economist, opened an account at a Milan bookshop so that Gramsci could be supplied with the books he needed to continue his work in prison.

In 1927, Gramsci was moved back to the mainland, eventually ending up in Milan. Subject to illness and insomnia, he was interrogated many times.  His sister in law Tatiana Schucht moved to Milan in order to be able to help him.

In May 1928, Gramsci and 21 other PCI leaders faced a show trial.  Chillingly, the Prosecutor declared of Gramsci: “We must prevent this brain from functioning for 20 years.”  He received one of the heaviest sentences of 20 years, 4 months and 5 days.  First, he was sent to prison in Turi, near Bari, where he was imprisoned in crowded conditions.  He was now suffering from a uremic disorder which left him unable to walk.

In January 1929, he was given permission to write in his cell, and on 8 February he began the first of his famous Prison Notebooks.  He would write notes on politics, culture and history.  Here, he developed his famous notion of hegemony.  By this he referred to the way that a regime governed not just be coercion, but also by winning consent.  He was one of the first to understand the role of the battle of ideas, and the need to create what he called a “counter hegemony”, based on cultural struggle.  He also developed his notion of “organic intellectuals”, by which he meant people from the working class, as opposed to traditional intellectuals of academia.   These ideas make him one of the few Marxist writers who still influences contemporary thinking, decades after the fall of communism.

As well as Gramsci’s theoretical writings, he also wrote letters to his family and his friends, sometimes scolding, sometimes passionate, often touching, as when he shared memories of his Sardinian childhood with his two sons, the younger of whom he would never meet.

Over the years, successive appeals reduced Gramsci’s sentence and improved his access to books and newspapers.  But his suffering continued as his health deteriorated.  When his mother died in 1932, the news was withheld from him because his family did not want to further undermine his well-being.  Tatiana continued to visit Gramsci and provide him with assistance.  Meanwhile his wife, her sister, was unwell in Moscow.  In 1933, Gramsci was moved to the prison hospital of Formia.  In 1935, as his health continued to deteriorate, he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome.

In 1937, Gramsci’s reduced sentence expired on 21 April.  His plan had been to return to Sardinia when his health improved.  But on the evening of 25 April, he suffered a stroke.   Two days later, he died, with Tatiana at his bedside.  He was buried in Rome, after a funeral which was attended by a few friends and many more secret policemen. 

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks had been smuggled out of his prison cell and taken out of Italy for safe keeping.  Later, his writings would be strongly influential in the development of western Marxism and the postwar political strategy of Eurocommunism which repudiated violent revolution in favour of democratic struggle and cultural action.

Gramsci is by no means the only disabled revolutionary in history.  The French revolution had Jean-Paul Marat with his skin diseases and Georges Couthon with his paraplegia.  Another Marxist, Che Guevara, had severe asthma.  But I find Gramsci especially admirable, not just because of his heroism in the face of repression and illhealth, but also because of his humanity.  He was no Leninist centralist trying to seize power, but a libertarian socialist committed to popular consent.  He was not a tiresome political obsessive, but someone with wide ranging interests in folklore and literature.  I’ve still got my own black notebook from 1991, where I’ve written down quotations from his letters show how he is one of the most poetic of revolutionaries:

“The cycle of the seasons, the progression of the solstices and the equinoxes, I feel them as if they were flesh of my flesh; the rose is living and will certainly flower, because the heat leads in the cold, and under the snow the first violets are already trembling.  In short, time has seemed to me a thing of flesh, ever since space ceased to exist for me.” (To Tatiana, July 1 1929)

“When a man has no chance of making plans for the future, he continually chews over the past, analyzing it.  Gradually he gets to understand it better in all its aspects.  He thinks especially of all the stupidities he has committed, of hios own acts of weakness, of everything it would have een better to do or leave undone or the things he was in duty bound to do or leave undone.” (To Guilia, February 9 1931)

Gramsci had a fondness for quotations, which I share. His own favourite saying was “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, a thought which has always inspired me.  In that notebook I also wrote down a quotation which expresses Gramsci’s unblinking realism:  “Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now”.   Although I was once a student communist, I no longer share Gramsci’s Marxist analysis.  This does not stop me admiring his courage or his intellectual achievements.  

Radio 4 Great Lives

Monday, June 23, 2014

Garrincha (1933–1983)

"a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too." (Mel Hopkins, Wales full back)

Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in Pau Grande, Brazil, in total poverty, the grandson of slaves.  He was barely educated, and went on to lead a fairly disastrous life, dying of alcoholism before his fiftieth birthday.  The one thing he could do was play football.  Dribbling, corners, free kicks, people asked whether he was from another planet, such were his skills.  He could even head the ball, despite his shortness.  On four separate occasions in his career, he scored direct from a corner.  With Pele, he was probably the greatest soccer player that Brazil has ever known, and he even has a soccer stadium named after him.   And he was born disabled.

It was his sister who named him Garrincha, after he was born with a deformed spine and a left leg six centimeters shorter than his right: he was always small for his age, and his right leg bent outwards and his left leg bent inwards.  To fans, he was known as Alegria do Povo, “joy of the people” or Anjo de Pernas Tortas, “angel with bent legs”.  And it was watching Garrincha that fans first started chanting “Ole”, the bullfighting cry, as he feinted and tricked defenders with those extraordinary and unpredictable legs.
He was 20 when he joined Botafogo, scoring a hat trick in his first team debut.   Before that, he had been playing for his factory team.  He went on to score 232 goals in 581 matches during his twelve years playing for the club.  

He didn’t play in the 1954 World Cup.  But his reputation for extraordinary dribbling meant that he was in the squad for the next competition, held in Sweden in 1958: he played with a 17 year old named Pelé, and Brazil went on to win its first World Cup.  Brazil would never lose a match with both Pelé and Garrincha on the team.

Four years later in Chile, Pelé was injured early, and so Garrincha got the solo glory, knocking out England with two goals in the quarters and repeating his feat against Chile in the semis.  The British press described him as "Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one."  Again, Brazil won the Cup, and Garrincha was named best player of the tournament, and won the Golden Boot as leading goalscorer.  He also got the girl, as a glamorous samba singer entered the team dressing room after the match to embrace him in the shower (she would later become wife number two).  
In 1966, luckily for England, Garrincha had problems with his knee, and Brazil lost to Hungary – his only defeat in 55 internationals.

Off the pitch, Garrincha partied as hard as he played.  He is said to have lost his virginity aged 12, to a goat.  Later he drove over his father while drunk.  The father was also a drunk, and cachaca was Garrincha’s undoing too.  Women were often the casualties, including the mother-in-law whom he killed in a drunken car accident in 1969, and her daughter, his second wife Elza Soares, that samba singer, who left him after he attacked her in 1977.  He had at least 14 children, including impregnating local girls when he went on tour with his team. 

As with George Best and Paul Gascoigne, it's questionable whether the sins of a genius should be forgiven. In Brazil, a dismal domestic record did not prevent you becoming a superstar, with the stadium in Brasilia being named after him in 1974.  When he died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1983, once again a pauper, thousands of fans came to view his body at the Maracanã stadium and pay their respects to the man who had won them their first two World Cups.

As the South American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy. When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other.”

Link: Garrincha in action

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)

“There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty)

Ludwig Wittgenstein has always been one of my favourite philosophers, so naturally I was intrigued, on reading the wonderful biography by Ray Monk, to learn about his older brother, Paul.  The Wittgenstein family were Austrian and extremely rich, and their home was visited by many famous composers and cultural figures – Brahms, Mahler, Strauss etc.  

All the children were musical and ambitious.   However, their father Karl wanted them to go into the family manufacturing business, rather than taking an artistic path.   But grandmother Fanny was a patron of musicians, and so she encouraged Paul when he showed particular signs of musical talent.  

In 1913, after his father’s death, he gave a successful debut concert, albeit after renting the hall and paying for the orchestra himself.  

At the outbreak of war, however, he joined up with the Austrian army, and served on the Russian front.  During fighting in Ukraine he was shot in the arm and captured by the Russians.  His right arm had to be amputated, which must have felt like the end of his career.  Hearing the news, Ludwig wrote in his diary: “I keep having to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly lost his career! How terrible. What philosophy is needed to get over it! If only this can be achieved in any other way than suicide!”  (Three of their siblings did indeed kill themselves).

However, recovering in a prison-of-war camp in Omsk, Paul was undaunted, writing to his former teacher to ask him to compose a piano concerto for just the left hand.  He drew the outline of a piano keyboard on a wooden crate, and practiced playing it seven hours a day, to the bemusement of other prisoners.  “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another”  he later said. He was probably inspired by another Austrian, Leopold Godowsky, who taught piano at the Imperial Academy of Music, and who had both transcribed and commissioned pieces for the left hand in order to improve students’ technique.  He would have known also of Count Géza Zichy, one of Liszt’s students, who became the world’s first professional one-armed pianist after a hunting accident.  

After the war, Wittgenstein continued as a pianist, arranging pieces for the left hand and playing pieces that he had commissioned.  He did not want to be known simply as a freak or receive sympathy.  By commissioning work by famous composers, he would generate respect and become a famous performer.

Here the Wittgenstein wealth came in handy.  He commissioned work from leading composers including Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Korngold and many others, and always insisted on exclusive performing rights.  Unfortunately, his tastes were for nineteenth century style Romantic music, not the avant garde compositions favoured by people like Hindemith.   Those pieces he did not like, he did not play, and some were not discovered and performed until after his death, for example the work by Hindemith finally premiered in 2004.  In 1931 he wrote to Prokofiev:

“Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note in it, and I will not play it.”

Another pianist who had lost his arm in the War was to play that piece for the first time in 1956.  Wittgenstein also fell out badly with Ravel, because he made his own changes to the new Concerto in D for the Left Hand, without any consultation. 

The musician Ivan Ilic has suggested that Wittgenstein may not have been familiar with the actual work of the composers whom he commissioned, being guided instead by their prestige, saying 
“If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.”  
Prokofiev said of him, “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand.” 
It may be that Paul Wittgenstein would never have become a famous piano player if it had not been for his unusual circumstances.   His family certainly felt embarrassed by him, feeling he brought shame to the Wittgenstein name and wishing he would give up performing.

Paul emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938.  The Wittgenstein family were originally Jewish, although they had been Christians for three generations on the paternal side and two on the maternal side.  To the Nazis, they were still of course Jews.   The sisters of Paul and Ludwig insisted on staying in Vienna, believing that no one would dare to disturb their privileged existence.  In practice, Paul had to bribe the Nazi regime to leave his sisters alone.  The Wittgensteins were one of the most wealthy private families in Europe, with assets of $6 billion, and this all went to protecting the two sisters in their Vienna palace.

Paul Wittgenstein died in New York City in 1961, after becoming an American citizen and continuing his career of playing and teaching music.  While in America, he commissioned a piece from Benjamin Britten in 1942, but, predictably, did not like it.  Whatever Wittgenstein’s own tastes and talent, disabled pianists have good reason to thank him for his determination and contribution to expanding the repertoire.  Other pianists lacking the use of two hands, like Leon Fleisher, have since followed his lead and played his commissions.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Leslie Banks (1890-1952)

To begin with, you want to be a parson, and after a good education at Glenalmond College and Keble College Oxford, you seem to be right on track.  But then, a change of plan:  after a while in an office job in shipping, the stage beckons, following some good experiences in amateur theatricals.  All’s goes well at first, with tours of North America, and your first performance on the West End stage.  But then war breaks out: you join up with the Essex Regiment. 

The Regiment serves during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.  As soon as the troops go over the top, they come under heavy artillery and machine gun bombardment, and then get bogged down in no man’s land.  The order comes to recommence the attack: it’s impossible, and the surviving soldiers retreat and regroup.  Later, the names of 949 officers and men of the Essex Regiment are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial, their final resting places unknown.

You survive, but with injuries.  You recover, but your face is left badly scarred and partly paralysed.  At first, it seems to be a major handicap, putting paid to your ambition to play romantic leading roles.  But after the war, you join the Birmingham Repertory Company and by 1921, you are back in the West End theatre.   On stage, you discover that you can either show the unblemished side of your face – for the kinder roles -  or the scarred side, for the melodramatic roles.

In 1932, you begin your film career.   With your large bulk and your contorted features, you become known for playing gruff and menacing parts, such as the diabolic hunter of human prey in The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  Hitchcock casts you in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  In Fire Over England (1937), you play the Earl of Leicester, and meet Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) provides you with a leading role as an eccentric detective, who is called in to solve the crime when one of the opposing players drops dead, poisoned.

In the propaganda film, Went the Day Well (1942), you play the squire who turns out to be treacherous, during the nightmare scenario of a German invasion by paratroopers (the film also has the first performance by Thora Hird).   At the time, Picturegoer says “The subtle change from the quiet squire to the dangerous, scheming Nazi agent is put over by Leslie in an extremely clever and polished way. This perfectly rounded character study shows Leslie at his very best and is again proof of the versatility and abundant talent of this accomplished artist.”  
Half a century afterwards, this chilling classic would be listed as one of the 100 Best War Films, and summed up by The Independent: "It subtly captures an immemorial quality of English rural life—the church, the local gossip, the sense of community—and that streak of native 'pluck' that people believed would see off Hitler".   
For Ealing, you make Ships with Wings (1941), celebrating the Fleet Air Arm.  Later, you serve as the Chorus in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), another morale-booster, intended to inspire the country after D-Day. 
It’s a good life: marriage to another actor, three daughters, plenty of work.  You’re not a typical actor: you dislike giving interviews, you wriggle out of praise, you don’t like talking about yourself.  You continue performing until 1950, when you are awarded the CBE for services to theatre.  Two years later, you die after suffering a stroke while out for a walk.  Went the life well?