Gramsci, a maxim by Rivarol and unread books (Prison notebooks, 23, 4)

This is the transcript of the lecture given by the director of the Gramsci centre for the humanities, Massimo Mastrogregori, to the students of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Storici, San Marino last June 24, on the theme: Gramsci, Rivarol and the unread books (Quaderni del carcere, 23, 4). Below you will find a discussion with the students of the Scuola and a comment by Prof. Fabio Frosini of the University of Urbino, whom we thank very much for intervening later in the discussion.

I

To praise a book, it is not at all necessary to open it; but, if you have decided to criticize it, it is always wise to read it. At least as long as the author is alive…

This maxim of Rivarol can make the pair with another one I found while I was preparing this chat with you. Oscar Wilde said: if I have to write a book review, I beware of reading it, it’s so easy to be influenced…

Today we are thinking about some qualities, perhaps a little mysterious, of reading and non-reading. Above all we are also interested in the relationship between this maxim and Gramsci’s thought, who transcribed it twice in his notebooks, at the beginning of his prison work in 1929, then in 1934.

So: to praise a book it is not at all necessary to open it, to criticize it it is always wise to read it. We are in the dimension of taking a position – to praise, to criticize – therefore in a public dimension, not in the closeness of our office.

Taking a position in public: in written form or in a conversation. Rivarol, author of the second half of the eighteenth century, belongs to the civilization of conversation: it is more likely that he was referring to something that is said, rather than something written. To praise, to criticize: they are two opposites, two possibilities that open up in a kind of market of public discussion about books.

Such a market, or common space for public discussion of books, has borders, rules – somebody spoke of a customs: to make books pass through means to relaunch the ideas that are inside them, to amplify them, to promote them; on the contrary, to criticize – to the limit of the “stroncatura”, of the refusal to admit those books in the common space – means to block, to diminish, to silence those ideas.

It is interesting: in this maxim of Rivarol’s, the stance we are talking about, precedes any contact with the book. First of all he admits, or suggests, that we may not even open it, if we want to praise it. This would exclude any contact. Then he says: if it has been decided to criticise it: a previous decision, partly even independent of the book in the strict sense of the word, whether it is an object of paper or immaterial. Evidently he is not talking about the book in the strict sense.

There are forces at work around that object: the taste of the time, the name of the author, the school, or the party, or the group or bunch to which the author belongs. There are relationships of power or prestige, reasons, in part mysterious, of attraction, or repulsion, that help or prevent any contact with the book.

If this is the case – a previous decision, perhaps motivated, on whether or not to meet the book – let us carefully record what Rivarol proposes to do with the book. Apart from not opening it – the non-reading – he says that it is always prudent to read it, if we want to talk about it badly.

There are, of course, many ways to read. Without following the path of the semiologists like Eco or the sociology of reading, very sophisticated analyses, let’s limit ourselves in this conversation to some empirical observations. On the one hand there is the integral, total listening, the extreme attention to the parts and to the whole, to the letter and to the spirit – similar to the scientific exploration of a territory, perhaps to draw an exact map of it, or to cultivate it intensively, or even to control it militarily. On the other hand, there is the raid, the rapid passage, perhaps looting or petty theft, in an unknown area – like in an impenetrable forest, or in no man’s land.

Five figures, at least, represent the integral, total listening, or rather “tend” to it: the copyist, “the only true reader” according to the director of this school, Luciano Canfora; the philologist, who “builds”, and constitutes, the text, in the face of its movement, the inevitable uncertainties; the careful editor, to whom a text is entrusted to improve it; the translator, who has to rewrite it, to transport it into another linguistic world; the commentator, who has to explain it.

Quick passages, “predators”, do not need to say too much about them: we know them well, when we do not enter one of these five roles and maybe even when we do.

We visit, to give another example, the Aula Gotica dei Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome: in a couple of hours we look at the frescoes, with the utmost attention – but it will be very little compared to the work with the scalpel on the wall, day by day, for nine years, that is three thousand three hundred days, of the restorer who brought those frescoes to light.

As you see, the dry alternative between “reading” and “non-reading” is too poor. Then there is the question of the second reading, to which many authors allude. Gramsci himself refers to it (Quaderni, 21, 14): the common, popular reader merely reads once, attracted by the “ideological” contents, while only the second reading lets us enter the deeper dimension of artistic values (put simply). And I found a similar statement in a letter by V. Nabokov to Vera, dated 1939: only the second reading is the “real” one.

In this order of things, behaviors are not really free. Pierre Bayard is right – at the beginning of his book Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (2007) – to say that we reckon with three unwritten obligations: that of reading a certain number of essential texts; that of reading them in their entirety; that of not talking about them, except after reading them. As an anti-reader, Bayard gives useful suggestions on how to transgress these commandments.

II

In the national edition of Gramsci, in the footnote of the first notebook related to the maxim we are discussing, the editors write: “Antoine Rivaroli (1753-1801), known as the Count of Rivarol, French writer and journalist of Italian origin”. It’s a necessarily tight-knit annotation: let’s add something.

He was a very brilliant writer, Voltaire apparently called him the “French par excellence”, and Sainte-Beuve, even, the “god of conversation”. The hints I’ve made so far about the conversation are particularly appropriate for Rivarol because his actually published production is very limited, there was talk of his legendary laziness, associated with massive, perhaps excessive, readings. Famous, and still repeated today, is another of his maxims, probably self-critical: “not having done anything is a terrible advantage, but one should not abuse it”.

Not having done anything, in relation to unpublished books, that Rivarol could have prepared instead. But the conversation, in the Parisian salons, in the evening, at night, is something, indeed a lot: the invisible part of his work, a part not to be overlooked – as Ernst Jünger observes in the best profile available on Rivarol (1956).

He had a great interest in language as a historical phenomenon. Not only, at the beginning, as the author of an essay – awarded by the Berlin Academy – on the universality of the French language, but also, towards the end, as the creator and unique contributor to a dictionary of that language, then not even begun (the prospectus remains). He was also a translator of Dante’s Inferno.

There you have it: linguistic scholar, translator Рthere is here a point of contact with Gramsci, a linguist who trained at the school of Matteo Bartoli, then an apprentice translator at the very beginning of the Quaderni experience. Even the practice of journalism unites them, knowing how to react to events, to put in a brilliant, rapid, pointed form a speech about what happens (the first post-war period for Gramsci, the R̩volution for Rivarol) and also brings them closer, if you like, a certain antagonism towards the time in which they live РRivarol exiled, Gramsci imprisoned. Finally, they share a taste for conversation and philosophical criticism.

Certainly, the two authors belong to two trenches, to two completely opposite barricades: because the total distrust that Rivarol – lawyer defender of the monarchy in the face of the Révolution and for this reason exiled – has against the people is at the antipodes of the project of the communist Gramsci, whose main objective is to transform the people into the ruling class. (It is no coincidence that Rivarol’s name has always been much exploited by the French ultra-right, from Maurras to Le Pen).

But when does Gramsci meet Rivarol’s maxim? Gramsci’s relationship in prison with reading and non-reading, since November 1926, knows three distinct phases.

There is a first moment, which lasts from November 1926 until the beginning of 1929, in which he can only read, he is not allowed to write notes: it is the time when Gramsci “devours” books, magazines, newspapers (he is not particularly happy about it: he would rather “work”). However, there is no alternative: his request to be allowed to write in a cell is rejected. It must always be considered, in imagining his situation, the very strong pressure that the fascist regime exerts on him as a prisoner, from beginning to end: from the continuous surveillance, to the sleep interrupted by the noises of the guards, to the movements from one prison to another in extremely harsh conditions (and as is known he was certainly not in good health).

The second phase began in January-February 1929: in Turi, the warden Parmegiani authorized him, exceptionally, to write in his cell, on notebooks. It was work, at last; but the fruit of that work, to be communicated to the outside world, had to “jump” over the wall of a very tight surveillance. It is excluded, in fact, that the pages of the notebooks can be spread by the prisoner (while the authorities, instead, have access to them). There is something that Gramsci will filter into the letters he is allowed to write: what you read in them must also be addressed by deciphering the possible code.

For various reasons, since the summer of 1935, this work of writing the Notebooks seems to have come to an end: it is the third phase, very similar to the first – he continued, in fact, to read a lot, without writing anymore.

Having received permission to write in the notebooks, at the end of January 1929, Gramsci put himself in a state of cautious expectation, during which – perhaps out of caution towards the jailer who observed him, perhaps for other reasons – he mostly translated. At the beginning, therefore, for him to study is to translate: we are inside one of those figures, to which we have alluded, of intense, integral reading.

In the summer of 1929 he began to take notes in the Primo quaderno, on which he had drawn up a list of subjects to study the previous 8 February. One of the first notes is precisely Rivarol’s maxim.

Gramsci read it at the end of an article by Attilio Cabiati, which appeared in the March-April 1929 issue of “La Riforma sociale” (the discovery of this source is by Fabio Frosini). Cabiati reports the maxim, in controversy with Achille Loria. He accuses him, behind the screen of the quote, of not having read the book he wanted to criticize (by Cabiati himself). Loria, in the next issue, will reject the charge, disdainfully, punctiliously. How to prove, in fact, that a reading has (or has not) taken place?

III

To Gramsci the maxim of Rivarol will have sounded interesting for various reasons. First of all, he finds himself in a position to criticize books that he has not read, or could not read.

His prisoner condition greatly extends the natural – already very extensive – limits of every reader. Not only does the prison regulations, in fact, set a quantitative limit to his readings, but the authority can detain the books intended for him whenever it wishes, without ever handing them over to him.

After all, a book is not only pages, lines, heads, letters; books are also ideas, some of which are found around it, rather than inside it: his will therefore, in the eventual absence of the book itself, be a criticism of ideas.

Then he will have been attracted by that situation, the controversy of Cabiati with Achille Loria, economist and sociologist. And Rivarol’s maxim is connected with the criticism of “Lorianism”, the very serious sin to which Gramsci would like to dedicate a whole special notebook, and which consists in the lack of intellectual order and precise objectives to be achieved.

alt:"Antonio Gramsci and the maxim of Rivarol about unread books"

IV

Gramsci, on the other hand, has a clear understanding of what order is in intellectual matters, and what the objectives are to be achieved.

He found himself in the midst of a war for the liberation of humanity, he took a position from a young age for the Socialist Party, then, when the Russian revolution broke out, for the Communist Party, which he helped to found in Italy. Of course, he knows he has been defeated. But he also knows that this defeat could be temporary, the war could have a different outcome. In such a war for the liberation of humanity the people must become the ruling class, the workers and peasants must be transformed into new people, from passive to active. To achieve this result, the organization of culture is fundamental. For this transformation to take place, Gramsci says, an inner discipline is needed in everyone, and then a real collective willpower will be formed, not imposed from the outside, or from above. It will be formed within each of the fighters of this party-army.

In the notes of the Quaderni Gramsci considers it useful to build a kind of polemical ghost, a negative example of the lack of organization of culture, an illustrated manual of attitudes to avoid. The bad cultural organization receives, in fact, the name of “Lorianism”, a very serious defect of those who act like the Lorians, the imitators of the bad master Achille Loria: they are seriously interested in useless problems, they argue incoherently, maybe they do not read the books that criticize and above all deform historical materialism. Gramsci is concentrated on the figure of this sociologist economist, whom he does not esteem at all. He writes, at a certain point, that there is something unfair about his fury towards this person: all people also have different faces, different aspects. But the spectre of Lorianism will be useful, he says, to make workers and peasants understand quickly – much more quickly than with an institutional education, for which no time is available – what is the way not to follow.

In order to transform the cultural level of workers and peasants, to awaken them from their passivity, Gramsci drew up a publishing plan, which involved magazines, books, newspapers (cinema and radio, already developed in the 1920s and 1930s, did not receive much attention from him, unlike theatre, on which he reflected a lot, and music, which took up a certain amount of space).

The Quaderni are scattered with organizational notes on how magazines, book collections should be done, what they should talk about and how, sections and themes, how to deal with the publishing market.

It is a matter, Gramsci thinks, of building a new public, both of the readers he calls “ideological”, malleable, content sensitive, and “economic” readers, able to buy books and magazines (and I wonder if here our author is also thinking about attracting elements of the “middle class”, in this “new public”).

It is also, he says, about monitoring all the centres and intellectual movements present, not only in Italy, obviously. Such control will pass through the critique of books – exhaustive reviews, in a given field; and the reviews will be different, depending on whether the public has to read that particular book, or on the contrary cannot access it.

Finally, it is a question of looking for the “erroneous concepts that circulate without control and censorship” in the literature to which the workers’ and farmers’ movement refers, to study well the products of “groups and small groups characterized by particular ideological and psychological reasons”. To arrive at a “unified national elaboration of a homogeneous collective consciousness”. A “homogeneous” cultural centre will be in charge of “rectifying the individual prisms” through which “the same ray of light” will pass.

But where is the general, the strategist who is outlining this battle plan? He is locked in a cell in Turi and cannot communicate with the outside world. He had made enormous efforts to go from a small town in the province of Cagliari to a cultural capital like Turin, and then to big cities like Moscow, like Vienna, like Rome. Now the defeat has plunged him again, in strict detention, into a small village in the south – which he will leave only because he is too sick, and will end his days in a Roman clinic. Then, as on the roller coaster, high up, far away, global author, worldwide, thanks to the gradual “redemption” of his work, thanks to the relaunch curated by Togliatti and Giulio Einaudi. Will that battle plan have helped anyone?

V

I’d go to some sort of recap at this point. Why is Gramsci’s meeting with Rivarol’s maxim interesting? Because the non-reading – which Rivarol cynically admits, and which Gramsci had to practice out of necessity – makes us reflect on the “boundaries” of the book. And we wonder how the space in which we “meet” books is made: a universe of unread books looms over it.

An amusing description of such a space can be found at the beginning of Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore di Calvino (1979).

You saw in a newspaper that came out Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, a new book by Italo Calvino that has not published any book for several years. You went to the bookstore and bought the book. You did well.

Already in the window of the bookstore you spotted the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trace you made your way into the store through the dense barrier of the Books That You Didn’t Read that were frowning at you from the counters and shelves trying to intimidate you. But you know that you must not let yourself be intimidated, that among them are the Books That You Can Do Less Than Read, the Books Made For Other Uses That Read, the Books Already Read Without Even Needing To Open Them As They Belong To The Category Of The Already Read Before They Were Written […] the Books That Inspire A Sudden Curiosity, Frenetic And Not Clearly Justifiable […].

The list goes on for a long time: the writer liked the lists, and we can also mention another one, that of the reasons why you read the classics: at number 9 we find that “the classics are books that when you really read them you find them as new books” (Why Read the Classics, 1981).

The “problem of unread books” is an opportunity to understand – in a more operational than historical dimension – how to create a common space, a common background, a library that is collective and not just the individual library of each of us.

In such a space coexist non-readings, half-readings, first readings, whole readings: it would make no sense to restrict it to “real readers”. It is a heterogeneous, mixed, spurious space: we find ourselves in a certain sense at the antipodes of Gramsci, who wanted it homogeneous, centralized, because it was designed for the revolutionary battle.

Since we don’t belong to any liberation army, I think, we find ourselves in a very different situation (this doesn’t mean we don’t have goals to reach!): and here I would stop, to listen to your observations and questions.

VI

Discussion

Sergio Brillante: The Gerratana edition does not include, in the note, the source of Rivarol’s maxim, which had not been found. I wanted some clarification on this detail, and also to know if there are connections that “link” Rivarol’s quotation to other texts in the Quaderni.

M. M.: It’s true, the discovery of this source is relatively recent. Togliatti-Platone had made Rivarol’s maxim one of the “scattered notes” in the volume Passato e presente (on the other hand, in the index of names, Rivarol did not appear). Gerratana, in the critical edition, had not identified the source. As I said, it was Fabio Frosini, in 1991, who found the controversy Cabiati-Loria of 1929, speaking about it in his Gramsci e la filosofia (2003). It is also right, as you suggest, to try to insert the Rivarol quotation in a network of references.

Rivarol’s maxim, in fact, is not isolated. Both when it first appeared (Primo quaderno), and when it was copied in 1934 in the special notebook on literary criticism, it is flanked, or almost flanked, by another note on what is meant by the “originality” of a work.

In fact, from the following issue of “La Riforma sociale”, Gramsci extracts a quotation by Luigi Einaudi, which he copies, again in the Primo quaderno, a few pages away from Rivarol’s maxim (paragraphs 6 and 11 respectively).

Einaudi’s lines on originality, Gramsci notes, are not original at all and are the result of a careless reading: they derive from Croce’s book on historical materialism, in particular from an essay critical of Loria’s theories (him again). A book that the prisoner has in front of him and can quote in full. In the Notebooks, Gramsci will copy that short text by Croce, which he likes very much, four times in all. The last one, in Notebook 23, just after Rivarol’s maxim.

That maxim, in short, is implicitly part of a small constellation of contents, which return several times in the Quaderni: Loria does not read the books he criticizes; Einaudi, who is wrong to “accredit”, very often and willingly, Loria’s work, is a careless reader of Croce’s (but he is also an eavesdropper of historical materialism); Croce, who criticizes Loria, makes the right distinctions on what is “original”.

Giulia Beccaria: In the note preceding that of the Rivarol quotation, Gramsci mistreats Ungaretti a bit, at the head of a “gang” of rather mediocre poets: it’s true then, as you said earlier, that in the Quaderni you find more criticism than praise… 

M.M.: Of course, more criticism than praise, because it is above all, as I mentioned before, a matter of finding and eliminating the “wrong concepts”, widespread at an ideological level in the party-army that needs to be formed. As for Ungaretti, the question of Gramsci’s “tastes” is part of a more general problem. Having turned his notebooks and notes into a real book entailed risks, with respect to which Gramsci’s “cautions” were very explicit (on this there is an essay by G. Cospito). The political orientation of his literary “canon” was strong, but there was also, perhaps in Ungaretti’s case, a personal dimension, a personal limit, if you will. How twentieth-century is Gramsci’s culture and how much, instead, nineteenth-century? Think of the note, in which he says he is quite a stranger to Freud, to psychoanalysis and not knowing the writers he considers linked to it, Svevo, Proust, Joyce (Quaderni, 1, 33). Croce was twenty-five years older than Gramsci, it’s true, but, to give a different example, he was almost completely extraneous to cinema as a language: a personal, and at the same time historical, limit of his culture: his daughters tried to move him from that position, but nothing, the philosopher stood still. So, even in Gramsci’s case, perhaps some of his interests – for the foreign detective novel, for example – exceeded the “chronological” limits of his tastes, other interests less so.

Andrea Beghini: What about “unread books”, or books whose ideas are known, or known only by “anthological” excerpts, but not complete texts – doesn’t this description correspond to what happens in school, in classical high school for example, where training revolves around a canon of works and authors, which students cannot really read?

M.M.: The observation seems to me right: in classical high school, for better or for worse, an “encyclopedia” of ideas of classical, medieval, modern authors, etc., is built in the students’ minds over the five years. – authors who are not read, with a few exceptions. This is an example of a “collective library”, of which one explores, in the best cases, precisely the “situation” of the individual books in relation to the others, which make up the repertoire, and one learns to “orient oneself” in this network of relationships. Certainly this collective library partly overlaps with the “individual libraries” of the students, whatever they may be at the present time. In this last regard, I would ask how the “encyclopedia” conceived by Gentile a hundred years ago can be revolutionized, or even just changed, but it is a minefield, I think. But this is a very interesting aspect of the “problem of unread books” – you did very well to raise it.

alt:"A comment by Fabio Frosin about the maxim of Rivarol"

A maxim of Rivarol: a comment by Fabio Frosini

I accept with great pleasure the invitation of Massimo Mastrogregori to intervene, albeit in a “deferred” form, in this conversation on a Gramscian quotation.

However, first of all I must confess my embarrassment, because I already know that I will only be able to give quick hints of what I would like to say, and not because I have in my “warehouse” large data to communicate, but because the “laboratory” in which I was invited to enter has put me in contact with a series of issues that, in turn, have aroused in me others, in a series of implications to which a rapid intervention cannot do justice.

But, having made this premise, and wanting to offer a contribution to the discussion, I will nevertheless try to outline some points and cues, which seem particularly relevant to me, and to do so I will try to focus on two distinct but connected perspectives: first of all the author of the sentence, Rivarol, and then the refunctionalisation – or rather, as you will see, the refunctionalisations of the quotation within the dynamic and evolving architecture of the Quaderni.

On the author of the phrase taken – as we have seen – from an indirect source, I have little to add to what Mastrogregori has already written. However, I would like at least to insist that this is not an “author” of Gramsci. An author, I mean, how could he be (so as not to stray too far from the era in which Rivarol lived) a Voltaire. While Gramsci shows, not only in the Quaderni, but since the years in Turin, that he has a fairly accurate knowledge of the latter, the Count of Rivaroli never falls under his pen, nor can one imagine that he had any familiarity with him, even in the absence of explicit references, because – and here we have to resort to a somewhat slippery inductive element – Gramsci’s culture is not really that of a Settecentista, nor, above all, that of an admirer of the “Enlightenment”. In fact, in the eyes of Gramsci (who owed his image of that French cultural current largely to Croce), “enlightenment” meant above all abstract rationalism, anti-historical democratism, ineffective humanitarianism, etc., and so on. He read it backwards, starting from the radical-socialist and Masonic tradition of the Third Republic, that is, it came to him through the partisan mediation of the Sorel de Les illusions du progrès.

Thus, while references to Voltaire – scattered in writings ranging from 1917 to the Quaderni – attest to a genuine interest in the author of Candide and his criticism of progressive optimism; on the complex of philosophes and their practical heirs, the revolutionary Jacobins, Gramsci remained silent or expressed himself in a negative way for a long time. It is only with the reading of Le Bolchévisme et le Jacobinisme by Albert Mathiez (Paris, Colin, 1920), which he had translated and published in episodes in 1921 in “L’Ordine Nuovo”, that his image of the Jacobins changed radically, acquiring the positive inflection that was to be developed in the Quaderni (where there is – let it be said incidentally – also a powerful reappraisal of the Enlightenment). And in another book by the French historian, La Révolution française (tome I, Paris, Colin, 1922, available to the prisoner in Turi prison), Gramsci could find a characterization of Rivarol as a bitter opponent of the revolution and proponent of the “violent counter-revolution” (p. 105).

I do not believe, however, that such a quick nod has been imprinted on his memory. After all, Rivarol was known more for his undisputed aphoristic abilities than for his political ideas. And it was probably in this capacity that Gramsci had at least heard of him.

What is most striking, however, in the manner in which the quote is taken and transferred from the source – Cabiati, which we will quickly consider later – to the Quaderni, is its initially extravagant character. Gramsci, as has been mentioned, transcribes the passage a first time in one of the very first texts of the Notebooks – § 6 of Notebook 1 – in a form that makes it a completely atypical text. As is well known, almost all paragraphs of the Quaderni are preceded by an underlined title, a title that can inscribe the note in a section (or sub-section), or represent an individual “label”, as happens in the texts preceding and following what we are considering. The latter, instead, has no title:

“To praise a book it is not at all necessary to open it; but, if you have decided to criticize it, it is always prudent to read it. At least as long as the author is alive…” – Rivarol.

This indicates that Gramsci, reading the article by Attilio Cabiati (Costi comparati e valore internazionale, “La Riforma Sociale”, a. XXXVI, fasc. 3-4, March-April 1929, pp. 210-12, the passage is on p. 212) is struck by the aphorism, he notes it, without however determining its destination. It is a free note, linked only to the name of its author, but placed at the end, however, as an informative element, and not to characterize the text, which therefore counts for itself, for its “pure” content.

In this way, I move on to discuss my second point, that is, the way in which Rivarol’s sentence is refunctionalized by Gramsci. Who was he thinking about when he transcribed it? Evidently Achille Loria, as it is inevitable, given the source. Loria will in fact become a polemical target shortly afterwards, in § 25, where however Gramsci takes up the substance of one of his articles of many years before (Pietà per la scienza del prof. Loria, “Avanti!”, Cronache torinesi, 16 December 1915) that in turn reproposed the criticisms made to the Mantuan economist by Benedetto Croce and Friedrich Engels. In short, there is a long history behind the controversy engaged by Gramsci, and one can even suppose that Rivarol’s aphorism contributed to rekindle that ancient polemical intention and to germinate the idea of Lorianism (an expression coined in § 31 of Notebook 1 and used as a heading starting from § 36).

But evidently the thought does not go exclusively to Loria, if it is true that the second draft, slightly modified, finds its place not in Quaderno 28 (Lorianism) but in 23 (Literary criticism). Where, however, it should be noted, with a significant inversion the text receives a title:

A maxim by Rivarol. “To praise a book it is not at all necessary to open it; but, if you have decided to criticize it, it is always prudent to read it. At least as long as the author is alive…”.

In this way this erratic “maxim” finds a place, which clarifies and therefore limits its scope to a question (as has adequately emerged during the discussion) of read and unread books, and especially of ideological skirmishes within the national literary culture. In this way a noteworthy fact occurs. While the first draft maintained a sort of balance between the sentence and the author, precisely because the aphorism was left undetermined in its functionality, the second draft marginalizes the author, who only serves to “categorize” the text, and focuses all attention on the way the “maxim” manages to illuminate certain aspects of the cultural battle, with its customs and malpractices. The unity of the passage is thus broken, and this makes it possible to reduce it to a single meaning.

We can then think – I take up here some of Mastrogregori’s considerations – that in that rapid reprise in Quaderno 1 Gramsci thought about Loria, but also, in a more indeterminate way, about reading and not reading as conditioned facts, imposed from the outside. Isn’t the quote from Rivarol second hand, a quote of which Gramsci doesn’t know the precise origin? He appropriates this phrase, as he does in many other cases, without denouncing the (tortuous) path that led to it (and often giving enormous headaches to his commentators). In doing so, however, he gives it an openness that stimulates further thoughts. One of them concerns the external conditioning of reading, imposed by the strict prison rules.

But that is not all. In fact, if we reread Cabiati’s article, we see that the controversy with Loria revolves around the Ricardian notion of “comparative costs”. Well, it is a concept that will have a certain development in the Quaderni, which goes in the same direction as Cabiati, intended to deny the possibility of an analysis of the value produced in a single national space as if it were independent from the international market. A development, in short, that places the Marxian concept of world market at the base of the economic analysis and that to do so draws all the consequences from the theory, elaborated by Ricardo, of “comparative costs”.

Ricardo receives in the Quaderni an extraordinary importance: not only his theory of “comparative costs” (for which I refer to Giuliano Guzzone, Gramsci and the criticism of political economy. From the debate on liberalism to the paradigm of “translatability”, Rome, Viella, 2018, pp. 169-71), but the whole of its elaboration, placed by Gramsci at the base of praxis philosophy for the philosophical values implicit in it, more than for the theory of value. The problem is, however, that even in this case, Ricardo’s direct reading probably never happened: Gramsci learns of his thought through the mediation of various secondary sources, and from them he draws the stimulus to develop a completely new reading of the link between the thought of the English economist and that of the author of Il capitale. But since it is praise (of Ricardo) and not criticism, one can think, with Rivarol, that this has a certain justification.

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