Roman letter 2 (On Gramsci and scattering)

17 luglio


I followed your note and went to Gramsci's grave today, quietly there amongst the other a-Catholics, the sleepy scarred cats, and that gray pyramid.

Like all good graves, it's smaller than you'd think, and at least partially in shadow.

He's one of the few writers I can imagine having fidelity to. I don't and won't, but the sheer fact of those scattered jailed papers, the gaps and ellipses, the writing up to, through, and past the point of counter-revolution. The coded language and counter-vocabulary that wasn't just cipher. It's the chance for faithfulness because it has to be construction, not a relationship to what's given, but a project of what won't give. (The blind mole, buried beneath the paper pile, tries astrolabes and sextants, cryptography and codiciles, and the mole falls in love with the weight from above.)

His ashes are there too, set in front. (The gravestone is then unnecessary, stuck over a head that didn't rot below but sits nearby, charred into that muddled ash of a whole body in a little stone box.)

A number of objects had been left on it, but only one was a flower, and even that grew from the end of a branch, yanked from a tree, the white underbark sharp at the break point.

There were:

30 small rocks.

A pendant of a silver angel with a hollow body.

Two pine cones.

Some coins, but not adding up to much more than .12 Euro. (I like to think the stone bristles beneath this wrong petty gesture, leaving money for Gramsci, and not much at that.)

A tiny note, written in tiny script.

I felt strangely ashamed about the last and didn't read it, as if there might be something deeply private in a letter to a long-dead Communist. Antonio, I dreamt of you again last night. The one where we're on the Sardinian beach. Come back, darling.

Forces are always unequal, and the time is never right. Always. And a war of movement and a war of position never meet, not even themselves, other than here, in the stone-still ashes, in the private apartments of the dead, after the fact.

On my way to the grave, to the Cimitero Accatolico per gli Stranieri al Testaccio, along the bleached brown walls, I walked past a church. I was in horror mood, and it was too, boxy mausoleum shape, lazy collapsing ornament, false windows of grey stone, nothing to look into past water stains. Triangle-topped heavy panel door flanked by columns, and one quarter of it opened slightly, black beyond. It should have been filled with murderous gnomes.

It was full of white petals.

I don't know what the occasion had been, what service or funeral or procession. But in that noon dusk inside, the center aisle up to the altar (beneath a ceiling gridded and marked) was scattered with petals, broken silk bones on the carpet, tossed out haphazard amongst the pews, a shapeless pattern creeping out in silence.

 The day before, at a street-side book vendor with a questionably excitable relationship to the legacy of Mussolini, I saw a book I'd never seen. L'arcipelago delle Stelle. The Archipelago of Stars. We've talked about the archipelago before (or at least it's hovered around our conversations). Something more determined than a constellation (for those flatten all distances to the shapes we want to see there, a flattery of correlation, stars that might be a near-universe apart in depth from us, but that glow enough to become a horse or an epoch or a war), something less constant than a continent. We were talking about chains of revolt, not touching, but materially bound by proximity, where it's clear than this curving sweep, this star-like spatter belongs together. Without seceding from the ocean that divides it from itself and divides it from the hubris of a unified, unbroken plane.

That church stained white is an archipelago, the things left on Gramsci's ash-box too. Scatters following trails. And isn't that the thing about hegemony, the thing that Gramsci understood before his death, that the power that wrecks us all is never monolithic, not a continent of lead or tar, but a scattering rain of ash that binds? Not the red archipelago's intimate link itself, but the flat gray of value and state, that says this and this and that and this are touched alike, at once, by the same falling material, even as it touches no two things alike, cuddling one to sleep while gutting another?

If that's the case, then now we are trudging through it all, bootless, drunk, restless, and lost.

I took only one photo in the church, though I was staggered and wanted more. I only took one because I wasn't alone. A man was working inside, cleaning. He was gathering up the white petals, now trash, now one more thing to deal with. He watched me, and I circulated quietly, faking reverence, trying to look at least partially Catholic. And not taking photos, imagining that he was some guardian of the faith, instead waiting for him to turn away to covertly take my only picture, where the petals bleed out into the roaring light outside.

That was the ash falling heavy on me, clogging my pores, choking my head. That pathetic assumption, my terribly bourgeois not-talking to him, assuming his investment, projecting that he and his job were equivalent, that because you pick up the detritus of a church ceremony you therefore want to guard the sanctity of that church, that it should remain opaque to all. That you give a shit, after all.

Or that I hadn't felt that same thick anger at falling into the trap of responding to the question, what do you do?, with the type of labor I did at whatever point of my life. (As if I could care if someone took a photo of the teddy bears and wine and books and pants I sold, the articles I wrote, the houses we built and painted, the essays I graded, the food I cooked, the holes I dug.)

But I didn't talk to him, I skulked about like a cowardly tourist, and I walked to the grave of a dead Communist where people left gifts not for him, but for themselves, for the sake of leaving.

And I don't know where or what to leave, what I would want Gramsci to want, what it would mean to give to the dead. But the question hangs, of that scattering backwards, wasting in reverse. No longer only what Gramsci or Luxemburg or Malatesta or Lenin or Kollontai or Saint-Juste can give us today, like there's a lodestone of tactics waiting, but what we put on the graves, what those tiny monolithic planes provide as backdrop for the archipelago. Brief humanless islands on a ground of the extinguished and irrecoverable.

If anything is worth anything in this dissolute unwept chain of gifts and losses, it's to shake off the pallor of the ash, to not care and to ask, to stop guessing what the one in the midst of working wants. Yes, labor is everything, it is the unfelt moon yanking us tidally about the ocean. Yet it is still also only a single island. It plays at being a continent, but it can be linked and unlinked from this other archipelago, the insistent clots dotting out into the black sea, points of dying, struggling, thinking puking, laughing, throwing, burning, writing, shielding, tearing, hating, swelling.



1 comment:

Savonarola said...


I read your missive after visiting, following an absence of years, a cemetery in north London, scattered with crosses, angels and urns all cast askew by roots and trees that seem to be at once dying and proliferating. Ironically, its most famous tenant is the founder of the Salvation Army - the secret name of the communist party for its nemeses liberal and theological... At the crossways of paths barely etched through the gothic greenery, some await company, others, from their tone and purpose, seem to be discussing matters political - later, as I sit reading about workerists battling against fumes and for autonomy in Porto Marghera, a communist Kurdish demo rolls through the narrow street, which is cordoned and uncordoned by council workers with movements so seamless that I imagine (or rather, remember, from my previous time in this neighbourhood) that it is a periodic occurrence.

You seem to be alone in mentioning Jemma's Arcipelago (only one copy in an Italian library...) but he was apparently the author of an adolescent adventure tale involving a crashed plane, a radioactive phenomenon and a hurricane, L'isola dimenticata, whose protagonists last words are: 'The island is coming towards me'. Perhaps, it's a whole archipelago.