Interview with Luciano Canfora

Tiziano Colombi

Dear Professor Canfora, you represent a type intellectual that is rather unusual in the contemporary landscape: we could even say that you are unique. You have been able, throughout your writings, to marry your interest in classical Greek culture with the most lucid analysis of contemporary politics, passing through Roman history, the Renaissance (Convertire Casaubon), your passion for Gramsci and your aversion to Fascism, to arrive at our current political struggles: I remember, for example, you cutting off Matteo Salvini, who you define, with extreme linguistic precision, as fascistoid, and not fascist.

Interviewing you on the topic of language, which the 9th edition of DiverCity is dedicated to, means, in a sense, retracing the arc of your interests and life. And it means trying to limit the scope of this research, linked to memory, to ideological language and political language. So let’s start with Socrates’ Apologia, one of the first political speeches of the Greek polis, which had such a strong formative influence on intellectuals of all epochs (we need only think of Danton’s readings while in jail). On the first page of the Apologia, Socrates presents himself as a seventy-year-old simpleton who appears, for the first time, in court. However, over the course of two pages (circa 52 lines), an impressive range of words can be found that express different aspects of ‘speaking’ (to pronounce, declare, enunciate, say, speak well, describe, to have heard, roar, etc.). The text is a masterpiece of rhetorical expertise by the young and talented Plato, equipped with a great gift for language, considering that Socrates’ Apologia may have been his first text.

After this long introduction … can I ask you what point language is at today? 

There is this fact: our country was, until the middle of the last century, a country that was to a large extent behind in that process of creating literacy through schooling that other countries, such as England, France and Germany, had already dealt with in the nineteenth century. It has been estimated that in 1950, literacy rates in Italy, particularly in the south and in the countryside in the north were equivalent to those found in Czarist Russia. It took another twenty years after that to achieve the use of the so-called universal language, that is, a common language that is spoken and understood by all, beyond various regional dialects. The involvement of some of the poorest segments of the population occurred, in part, thanks to cinema (which, however, was still too elitist), but mostly through the advent of television, as Tullio De Mauro has documented extensively in his work titled, É la televisione che ha unificato il linguaggio della nazione (It Was Television that Unified the Language of the Nation). How so? By simplifying, trivialising. This is a moral problem. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? For oligarchs, a bad thing, of course. They say: the quality of literary language has been lost, the prerogative of a chosen few. For utopians it’s a good thing: everyone should speak well/correctly, but so be it. A dear friend, Beniamino Placido, pointed out that, on television, if an unusual term is used, the host will immediately interrupt and translate, paraphrasing the term as if the audience were not capable of understanding. It is a fact that spoken language tends to be that which can be heard in TV series, from actors; less the language of the news and the in-depth shows, which, in reality, are not watched by many.

You have reflected widely on the use of language by old and modern dictatorships (it is no coincidence that Athens was defined by Plato as a ‘theatre-ocracy’): when and how did these avail themselves of mass communication as tools to use (mis)information as a method of manipulation? What do you think of current political discourse?

Politicians talk to each other. And they use newspapers to send each other messages. That’s the function of daily newspapers: they have no other function anymore. In fact, sales are declining. It would be useful to re-read or re-listen to some speeches made by politicians of the past: they are built according to the typical rhetorical structure of Demosthenes and Cicero – which, on the one hand, was learned on the school benches in secondary school and in the lecture halls at university; and on the other hand it emerged from the study of great statesmen. It’s only in the last twenty years that it has degenerated. From reasoning we have passed to insults. We have lost our capacity to reason. Another, no less irritating thing, is the enormous influence of models: the United States, of which we are a protectorate, today represent the vanguard of banality. American politicians, during a political meeting, produce sentences that are composed, at most, of subject, predicate, direct object. Then they stop and wait for their adversaries’ reactions. This is because they know that their audience doesn’t understand any more than this. Donald Trump has reached the lowest point: he only emits invective: ‘Fauci is an idiot.’ This statement is disconcerting, given that Fauci is the director of the very agency charged by Congress with managing the epidemic. It must be said that this decadence of language touches all areas of life. It also has effects on fiction. It sometimes happens to me that I read fiction and notice that the prose has, except in some rare unfashionable cases, adapted to spoken language.

An antidote could be to remember Giosué Carducci’s old suggestion: ‘Translate from French, from Latin.’ The work of transporting terms from one language to another, in fact, forces one to reflect on word choice and you rediscover the etymological or semantic value of the word.

What do you think of the political language of the so-called ‘populists’?

Calling those politicians populists is a euphemism and, above all, a mistake. As Umberto Eco clearly said in his last book published by the Il Mulino publishing house, Fascismo eterno, the Right is fascist. The Right uses demagoguery. Demagoguery based on the misunderstanding that a restricted group is interested in ‘the people’. The right, in fact, is nationalist and against immigrants, Jews and anyone else who ‘takes bread from our people’ (tolga il pane). That is the nucleus of Fascism. And this is where a problem arises: journalists are frightened. They’re afraid of using the correct term, fascist, and replace it with another term: populist, for reasons of, let’s say prudishness. In reality, populism was a nineteenth-century movement that was completely different, inspired by communitarian and religious motives. I agree with the definition of it provided by Vittorio Zucconi, immediately after the election results: we are faced with fascist pulsations. If we go back to the end of the Roman Republic, and the beginnings of the empire, we are struck by the affair concerning Ovid. The poet, censured by Augustus for reasons that remain obscure, organises the return of his books to Rome which, at the entrance to the library, are rejected (even!) by a statue that represents liberty. It is interesting how Augustus’s cultural programme included an increase in the number of public libraries and, at the same time, greater censorship of books that did not please the Prince. As Leo Löwenthal said, the history of humankind is nothing but the struggle for memory and the book is, at the end of the day, the victim of this struggle. 

In your opinion, are books still that powerful today?

As far as fiction is concerned, I would say definitely not. Except in rare cases and indirectly. For example, there was the famous case of Salman Rushdie. The same can be said for literary essays. It suffices to say that for a publisher, a print run of 1500-2000 copies is considered good. It’s laughable.

So what then, Professor, is power really afraid of? 

Power is afraid of the press. And it wants to control mass media.

With regard to the power of books and of education, what do you say to the political class which, during the Covid-19 lockdown, confirmed its notable lack of interest in schools?

Online learning imposed itself, during this phase, but one hopes it is a transitory phase. Naturally, online learning does nothing but accentuate the difficulties of those children who come from disadvantaged families, which are not capable of supporting their children’s learning, denying those children the universal right to an education, independently of which social class they belong to.

But the problem certainly didn’t arise in the last few months, because of Covid-19. The real problem is the historical debasement of school: think only of the unfortunate merging of history and geography into a demented subject termed geo-history; the chronic attempts to reduce teaching hours, of adopting textbooks that are not used because they are poor and sometimes puerile. I don’t think there is a real diabolical plot at the root of this. But if there were, it would tend to render citizens as defenceless as possible. This is the reason for the decline in the quality of content. And then there are pedagogists who do nefarious things to justify this system, to diminish its gravity, alleging educational theories and not concentrating on the specific content. I like to think of Umberto Eco, again, who at a lyceum in Turin, staged a trial in which he himself represented the defence (the whole text can be read in Difesa del liceo). The argument in favour of high school concentrated on the value of the Lyceum, as a place that can shape students’ young consciences. I was called to testify and emphasised the importance of teaching philosophy and history as the basis of critical thinking. 

With regard to philosophy of history, let us return to the nineteenth century, to Gramsci and those famous letters from prison. In a way that is very similar to other people who were persecuted, his sacrifice in fascist prisons made him a potent symbol for the generations that came after the Republic was founded. One of these letters is striking because of its tone and subject matter: 

To His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of the Government, Rome. 

In December of last year, Your Excellency granted, given the catastrophic conditions of my health, that I be admitted to this clinic, in the custody of the Carabinieri … Because I meet the legal and disciplinary conditions indicated by article 176 of the Criminal Code to qualify for parole, I beg your Excellency to intervene so that I can be granted a condition of existence that allows me the opportunity to mitigate, if not to completely reverse the more acute forms of my illness, which for four years has been demolishing my nervous system and making my existence a constant torture. Parole, police confinement, confined treatment, what I beg you to grant me is the end of the conditions of reclusion in the narrow sense, with its forms of guarding and daytime nocturnal surveillance, at all hours, which prevents tranquillity and rest, which are necessary in my case to stop the torturous progressive demolition of my physical and psychic organism. Article 191 of the prison regulation requires that the offender who applies for admission to probation indicates the municipality where, in case the application is accepted, he intends to establish his residence. Given the special conditions special of my case, I ask that you grant me, in case this request is accepted, to consult a doctor, since I cannot but reside in a clinic or next to a specialized clinic. With thanks and regards. 

Antonio Gramsci

– Formia, Cusumano Clinic, 24 September 1934

How is it possible, in your opinion, that Antonio Gramsci expressed himself like this in a letter addressed to the Duce? 

This letter by Gramsci is part of a file containing letters that are held by the Archivio di Stato and were happily found by Costanzo Casucci. There are also other very interesting ones. I remember one, for example, in which Gramsci writes to the penitantiary administration to complain about not having received some books he had requested. The problem here is two-fold. The image of Gramsci was deformed by the deafening rhetoric of the post-war period. Just think, Gramsci did not actually die in prison, as is commonly asserted. He actually died in one of the most exclusive clinics in Rome, where he was confined. On the other hand, this luxurious treatment – the heavy condition of house arrest notwithstanding – was made possible only by money that came from the USSR.

The second issue, which is more general and exemplifies the concept of philosophy of history insofar as it is a reconstruction of the formation of ideas over time, is that in 1934, Antonio Gramsci expressed himself in this manner towards his jailor and archenemy, Benito Mussolini, and he should not be judged on the basis of what happened subsequently, which obviously influences how we assess it (but which could not be known to Gramsci or anyone else at that point in 1934).

To conclude this interview, I would like to ask you for your views on the topic of our magazine: diversity and inclusion. 

In 1993, Robert Hughes published The Culture of Complaint, a very important book that took stock of so-called political correctness in the United States. It is interesting how the author, who is Australian, reconstructs its development: political correctness is a linguistic attempt to reconcile the American aspiration of guaranteeing equal opportunities to all and the realisation that there are resounding differences between citizens in terms of demographics, wealth, origins, etc., with all the contradictory consequences that this entails. 

This is exactly what DiverCity is about. This subject matter has been manifesting forcefully in Anglo-Saxon countries for the past 50 years and is now also beginning to assert itself in Italy, to the extent that one has the impression that in certain environments, it’s actually fashionable. What does an intellectual with your background and historical perspective make of this? Why do you believe that, in this historic moment –  afflicted, among other things, by the first global pandemic – this subject has taken root and become such a sensitive issue? Are we faced with simple linguistic hypocrisy? 

The subject matter, diversity and inclusion, is a very noble thing when it refers to individual liberty, but it can be misleading when applied to social bodies, understood as social classes. I’ll give an example: a worker at Ilva is clearly different from the owner of Ilva. But if, in order to respect diversity between them, each of them remains in their social condition, then that is no good. It creates a false syllogism that Aristotle would have called a paralogism. That is, an intermediate term that has a double meaning inserts itself into the reasoning. One good example of syllogism is well-known: humans are mortal; Socrates is mortal; Socrates is human. A well-known paralogism is: a circle is a geometric shape; poems are circular (in Greek, circle is kuklon, that is, circle as well as Epic Cycle); poems are geometric shapes. I therefore find the focus on terms used to defined groups misleading, especially if the aim is not to resolve inequality but to resolve real differences with the introduction of reasoning based on false syllogisms, like the aforementioned paralogism. I repeat: diversity and inclusion is a very important cultural movement where it concerns the claiming and guaranteeing or even hastening the granting of individual rights, but it is not as effective if it aims to solve the problem of real inequalities between social classes. The risk is that the problem ends up being masked by the famous fig leaf.