“A Terribly Lurking Interlocutor”: Giovanni Mastroianni, Historian and Philologist of Twentieth Century Philosophy

Il filo rosso. Dialoghi etico-politici col mio tempo, published in 2018 by Guida and edited by Nicola Siciliani De Cumis and Luigi Spina, offers us a substantial collection of texts by Giovanni Mastroianni: as many as fifty collected in the section Saggi e note, seven in the  Testi e traduzioni one and two in the Appendix to conclude the volume of two tomes. This is a selection of texts published between 1976 and 2011 in a wide variety of journals, part of the rich bibliography of Mastroianni, consisting of over 200 entries and present in the first volume. The two editors worked on the selection together with the author: as Siciliani De Cumis and Spina tell us in the Preface, the “author himself had contributed to the “last operations of preparation of the typescript for printing” until a few weeks before his death, completely blind and, as long as it was possible, with the collaboration of a trusted typist and the “targeted” help of a large group of friends and students” (p. 10).

Introducing Giovanni Mastroianni in advance – especially in the presence of such an articulated work that offers a very wide diachronic view, showing the variety of interests that have marked his intellectual path – is a complex operation. Let’s start with a back cover presentation: Mastroianni was the translator of The Theory of Historical Materialism. Popular text of Marxist sociology by Nikolaj Ivanovič Bucharin, of two science fiction novels by Aleksandr Bogdanov (The Red Star and The Engineer Menni) and author of several texts, including Theory of artistic and literary historiography in B. Croce, Antonio Labriola e la filosofia in Italia, Da Croce a Gramsci, Studi sovietici di filosofia italiana, Cultura e società in Calabria tra l’Otto e il Novecento, Vico e la rivoluzione, Gramsci e il diamat, La filosofia in Russia prima della Rivoluzione: I “Voprosy filosofii i psichologii”, Pensatori russiani del Novecento, Ipotesi su Bachtin.

Browsing through the two volumes of the work published by Guida, what immediately strikes the reader is the constancy and impressiveness of a presence in the Italian philosophical debate that spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. The first occurrence in the bibliography is the volume Teoria della storiografia artistica e letteraria in B. Croce (1947), a work that attracted the attention of Croce himself, with whom Mastroianni began an exchange of letters, later published as an appendix to a volume of 1972. This exchange, interrupted only a few years later with the death of the Neapolitan philosopher, was fundamental for Mastroianni’s philosophical and intellectual formation, as emerges from the reading of the many essays in which Croce is an ever-present interlocutor, testifying to a common ground of glances: on all the authors or issues to which Mastroianni decided to devote his painstaking study – and which almost always found a marginal space in anthologies and histories of philosophy – there was almost always some writing by Croce that dealt with them and with which Mastroianni confronted himself.

Two biographical elements of Mastroianni are essential to understand his intellectual and philosophical path: born in Catanzaro in 1921, Mastroianni always remained tied to his land, first teaching at the Liceo Classico Galluppi in Catanzaro, then becoming Headmaster of the Liceo scientifico “L. Siciliani” in Catanzaro, and then moving to the University of Calabria where he taught Philosophy of Politics for seventeen years. This bond was not limited to the professional realization of Mastroianni but found ample echo in his study interests: he dedicated a consistent part of his writings to Calabrian philosophers and intellectuals, as we will see better later on. Moreover, Mastroianni took part in the Russian campaign, soon distancing himself from his youthful adhesion to Fascism; that experience, however, allowed him to learn the Russian language, which gave him direct access to the Russian philosophical debate, which he practiced with constancy until the end of his days.

photo credit Roberto Scarfone (ANSA)

Browsing through the index of Il filo rosso, Mastroianni’s interest in Antonio Gramsci and his writings is immediately evident. The author of the Quaderni, wrote Mastroianni, “found himself being, and at the same time not being able to be, husband and father. Likewise, he was and was no longer a politician, he was and was not yet the philosopher and historian he had decided to become” (p. 257).

In these few words it is possible to see all the curiosity and fascination that Gramsci and his writings aroused in Mastroianni, his intention to give autonomy and independence to Marxism and the extreme attempt to establish a coherence between theory and political activity. In the approach of the scholar – openly inspired by Gramsci and Garin – “philology […] is not actually subordinate to interpretation, but insofar as it is part of it, or rather it is the same thing” (p. 325): in his numerous essays on Gramsci, Mastroianni focuses on the relationship between Gramsci and the many authors with whom he was confronted and from whose synthesis he drew the originality of his theory (Croce and idealism, Labriola, Marx, Ricardo, Hegel, American pragmatism, Sorel and Bergson, Bucharin, etc.).

Placing Gramsci at the center of the many debates of his time for Mastroianni means starting from the idea that “in the early years of the twentieth century, in which Gramsci was formed, there was a much richer, more varied philosophical culture” compared to a picture “that was then simplified in Croce’s and Gentile’s reconstructions”” (p. 229). The first two Gramscian essays in the anthology are from 1979, the last from 2011, respectively four years after the publication of the Gerratana edition and seven years after the publication of the first volumes of the National Edition of Gramsci’s writings. Both circumstances are greeted by Mastroianni more as an opportunity to pose new questions of a philological nature regarding Gramsci’s work than as a means of resolving past questions: he always takes part in this debate with a lively contentious attitude. The relationship between Gramsci and Bucharin is emblematic, on which Mastroianni strenuously supports the thesis according to which “Gramsci, in prison, did not have Bucharin’s book in his hands” (p. 232) and, “in the forcibly more reflective phase of the Prison Notebooks, he did not criticize Bucharin’s philosophy, but rather the use made of it in the International” (p. 235).

In numerous writings Mastroianni returns moreover on the famous intention – manifested by Gramsci in the letter to Tania of March 19, 1927 – to “do something “für ewig”, according to a complex conception of Goethe, that”, Gramsci writes, “I remember very much having tormented our Pascoli”. Our author does not reduce the perturbing significance that such an intention may have aroused first of all in Gramsci himself and that reverberates in the reader disoriented in front of the manifestation of such an intention by a hyper-political thinker; in front of such an enigma Mastroianni hypothesizes that “the Prison Notebooks were not born from the ‘prisoner’s concern’ in the name of the two poets, but from their overcoming” (pp. 670-71).

Engaged in the reconstruction of a genealogy of Italian Marxism that would avoid shortcuts already traced, Mastroianni devoted much attention to Antonio Labriola; in particular, an essay published in 2006 and written on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Neapolitan philosopher is relevant. According to Mastroianni, Labriola had grasped the aspect of historical materialism as a “philosophical tendency in the general view of life and the world” (p. 717), a filiation of the Hegelian dialectic, renamed by Labriola “genetic conception […] that conceives things not as they are […] but as they become” (p. 713). The centrality of Labriola as the first Italian historical materialist, with whom all subsequent thinkers would necessarily have to reckon, is underlined by Mastroianni in a detailed examination of the references to Labriola contained in the writings of Croce, Gentile, Togliatti and Gramsci, in which the recognition of the importance of Labriola’s legacy alternates with hasty dismissals or misunderstandings.

Eugenio Garin is an author repeatedly quoted in Mastroianni’s writings in what appears to be an uninterrupted dialogue like the one with Croce, with the remarkable difference that Garin was a contemporary of Mastroianni and the dialogue between the two, besides being the result of a constant reading of the texts, has been prolonged in time. In a 2007 essay – three years after Garin’s death – Mastroianni proposes a selection of excerpts from a long correspondence with his friend and colleague.  (p. 789); the far from diplomatic critique of what was happening in the universities crossed by the student movement is accompanied by a profound travail of an intellectual who declares that he struggles to understand the change taking place in Italian society and in the university. Another topic of discussion between the two is the new perspectives opened up to Gramscian studies by the Gerratana edition, which made it possible to historicize the work and thought of its author, taking advantage of the many sources. Worthy of note is an aside with which Garin justifies the delay in answering Mastroianni’s letters, providing in very few lines a precious portrait of the latter: “I have not written to you because with you we need to be very careful. You are an interlocutor terribly in ambush, and one cannot indulge in careless abandon” (p. 792).

Numerous, as briefly mentioned in the two biographical references, are the essays dedicated to Calabrian philosophy and social sciences in the 19th and early 20th century: pages that have been little investigated by an external philosophical and sociological historiography, to which Mastroianni contributed to give back a theoretical and scientific dignity without any provincialism. “Calabria was in this period the place of origin of some of the protagonists of Italian philosophy” (p. 393), writes Mastroianni in a 1997 paper. Names absent from the histories of philosophical and sociological thought or present in rare and brief sections are the object of the always punctilious and careful philological work, which reconstructs biographies, long bibliographies, correspondence and reception, each time bringing out an intellectual and scientific itinerary that is anything but marginal. Mastroianni’s attention focuses above all on Francesco Fiorentino and Francesco Acri, whose thoughts “took definitive shape” under the Risorgimento uprisings: the former “drew from them the confirmation of a philosophical despair that was more and more comprehensive and consequent, with no other remedy in morals and politics than the guidance of religion”; the latter “passed impetuously from Gioberti to Spaventa”, linking “the hold of his Kantianism and Hegelism to the results of 1860” (p. 807). Alongside them, however, there are important pages dedicated to Felice Tocco, Fausto Squillace, Pasquale Rossi, Antonino De Bella, Alfonso Sturaro and Vincenzo Vivaldi. To them and to their writings Mastroianni dedicates the same rigor dedicated to Gramsci, Croce, Labriola, Gentile, Bachtin, Bucharin, Dostojevski etc..

Mastroianni followed passionately the Russian philosophical debate, strong of the already mentioned direct access that the knowledge of the Russian language allowed him. From these writings emerges Mastroianni’s strong curiosity towards a tradition “forbidden for a long time and then opposed and controlled in its teaching by the Tsarist governments and by the Church” – and then in new forms under Stalin and Brezhnev – that had to learn to “look elsewhere for its spaces” (p. 203), continuously encroaching on literature and theology. This was an ideal scenario for a scholar who, faced with the sedimentation that marginalized or confined the importance of single authors or entire philosophical traditions, reacted by searching for the implicit or denied philosophical content. This interest is not confined to the debate contemporary to him but also questions its origins, starting with Solov’ëv, the “first Russian philosopher” (p. 182) animated by a Christian radicalism and an anomalous idealism. Mastroianni challenges the confinement of Solov’ëv in the role of theologian or literary critic, considered as limiting for a thinker who went through the second half of the 19th century outlining an original theoretical profile in a debate in which materialism, positivism and nihilism were gaining ground. Mastroianni has dedicated his attention to this complex and controversial legacy over the years, analyzing Solov’ëv’s reception in Western countries, in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, the publication of the Soviet national edition of his writings and the enthusiastic reading he proposed of the Italian Risorgimento.

Bachtin, who was defined by Mastroianni in a text published in Belfagor in 1998 as “the most suggestive of Russian thinkers of the century” (p. 421), captures the scholar’s attention also for his complex biographical story, made up of an arrest, a condemnation and a long marginalization, as well as for the philological puzzle connected to the attribution of some of his works signed by Medvedev and Vološinov. The comparison with Bacthin revolves first of all around the work Art and Responsibility, in which the Russian philosopher theorizes for the first time in a complete way the theme of the unification of art and life, an instance that in the following works he will extend to the whole cultural sphere against the narrowness of the special logics inherent in every form of knowledge, exercising “the pride of his own inescapable individual responsibility” (p. 439). Mastroianni emphasizes Bacthin’s nature as a critic of the “philosophical” approach as such” (p. 596), an aspect that led him to approach Hegelian dialectics and Husserlian phenomenology, but also to recognize the limits of both; to recognize the relevance of Kirkegaard and Nietzsche; to criticize historical materialism for its theoretical frailties and at the same time to acknowledge its merit of building a world in which there is room for determined human action. Mastroianni challenges an image of Bachtin that forces him into the limits of the aesthetic philosopher and literary critic, emphasizing instead the theoretical quality of his aesthetics and literary criticism. The main temptation that provokes that separation between art and life, between knowledge and life, putting the theme of responsibility on the back burner, is identified by Bachtin precisely in “aestheticism”: art “because of its greater similarity, or proximity, to true reality […] offers the most seductive and dangerous model”, as it transforms the author into a hero, “free, therefore, from the burden of responsibility” (p. 930). This comparison with the theme of responsibility elaborated by Bachtin will be fundamental for the development of Mastroianni’s thought and writings.

Essential in this exploration of Russian philosophy is the figure of Dostojevski, with whose works the two Russian authors to whom Mastroianni is most dedicated – Solov’ëv and Bacthin – have dealt extensively. Mastroianni goes through this production, reading in it an important junction for the two authors: for Solov’ëv, the punctum dolens of Dostoevsky’s work is the call “to share in universal brotherhood the inevitable contradictory nature of existence, and the tormenting suspicion of its lack of meaning” (p. 558); for Bachtin the authorial polyphony of Dostoevski, whose characters were, in Bachtin’s own words, “living beings, independent of him, with whom he stands on equal footing” (p. 441).

In addition to this submerged tradition, of which he was a profound connoisseur, Mastroianni dealt with its reception in contemporary Russia – which in the years of Perestroika took on the connotations of a “transformist reappropriation” (p. 225) – critically analyzing volumes of the history of Russian philosophy, collective anthologies, conference proceedings, critical editions of individual authors, etc..

The activity of philologist and translator has represented an important part of Mastroianni’s intellectual journey. An important proof of this are both the translations by Mastroianni himself contained in the second section of the work, and the contributions in which Mastroianni analyzes and reviews the translation of philosophical texts, not failing to criticize their general structure or single choices: for example, the Russian translation of Vico’s Scienza nuova of 1940-41 or, above all, the Italian translation of Bucharin’s Theory of Historical Materialism published by Nuova Italia in 1977. The reception of Vico’s works represented another constant in Mastroianni’s intellectual journey, which also led him to take an interest in the Marxian reception of Vico, questioning the importance that the French translation – attributed to Cristina Trivulzio di Belgioioso – had in delineating the Vico profile known to Marx.

The attention dedicated by Mastroianni to single phrases present in the works of the authors he studied – and that we have already evoked with the Gramscian reference to “für ewig” – is even more evident in an essay dedicated to the art historian Aby Warburg, in which his substantial scientific production is not investigated but a dictum attributed to him – “The good God is in the detail” – and contained in notes, correspondence and anecdotes of meetings and dialogues in which Warburg was the protagonist; another essay is dedicated to the relationship between Warburg and Croce and focuses largely on the discussion of this saying. A perfect metaphor for the curiosity and attention that Mastroianni reserved for apparently insignificant details in the biography and writings of the authors to whom he dedicated his studies, this motto is the object of a meticulous investigation that ranges from its theological and philosophical implications to its numerous literary references, and finally to its use in advertising.

The profile that emerges from these two substantial volumes is – even before that of a historian of philosophy, a political philosopher or a rigorous philologist – that of a passionate collector of books. The essays are always punctuated by long quotations taken from the works studied, commented in detail by Mastroianni, who is keen to never take the words of the authors studied out of context; the reviews of translations, of new editions of classics of philosophical thought, of anthologies, the attention paid to the debates held in magazines, in conferences of which he read and commented on the proceedings, treating them as if they were the greatest classics of thought, bring out the awareness that words, books and magazines that contain them, were for Mastroianni the only instrument of work and that therefore they deserved an almost sacred respect, which was expressed in a exhausting struggle and never pacified in solutions and interpretations of convenience.

An essay by the historian of philosophy Daniela Steila recently published in Slavia, a quarterly magazine of culture, traces a very accurate profile of Mastroianni as a scholar of the Russian world; in the memories of the author emerges the gratitude for the deep generosity of Mastroianni, never met in person but extremely generous in listening and advice dispensed in long phone calls and letters starting from the years in which the scholar began her research path with her PhD. What I read in this essay struck me very much: when I began to read Il filo rosso I had the opportunity to confront myself with my friend Michele Filippini, historian of political doctrines and scholar of Gramsci and populist theory; a few years ago I read for the first time in Michele’s text A Politics of the Mass. Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution of Society, a problematization of Gramsci’s reading of Bucharin; I told him about these two tomes by Mastroianni, telling him that I found a reading similar to his on this issue. Michele, hearing the name of Mastroianni, immediately remembered that he had written him an email to discuss the relationship Gramsci-Bucharin, receiving an enthusiastic response, full of advice and encouragement. I tell this anecdote because, together with what Steila said, it contributes to tracing the profile of a scholar who was as rigorous in his method as he was generous with the young researchers who sought him out to confront him, practicing a far from obvious curiosity for the contributions coming from the generations following his own; as a further confirmation of this, the above-mentioned text by Michele is quoted by Mastroianni in the short preface to Il filo rosso, written a few months before his death among the works “still hanging on a provisional impression”, recognizing him, however, the merit of having grasped the importance of “the equation historical materialism = Hegel + David Ricardo” in Gramsci’s thought (p. 34). The chat with Michele and the knowledge of this anecdote helped me to approach an author who, by virtue of the monumentality of his production and the rigor that emerges in each of his writings, instilled in me a certain reverential awe.

In conclusion, what is surprising, in front of a scholar at the same time author of such an impressive production and so constantly present in the Italian philosophical debate of the second half of the twentieth century, is the relative oblivion in which he seems to have been confined. Four years after his death, none of his main works is published and on the market in a new edition; doing a search on Google, the scenario that emerges is discouraging: not an article dedicated by any national newspaper, not a page on Wikipedia that summarizes, even briefly and roughly, the life and works.  All this obviously represents a wound, but as Mastroianni has taught us with his long philosophical and intellectual militancy, there is no liquidation that cannot be investigated and overturned by scholars who are not content to follow the roads already beaten, who decide to open forgotten or hastily dismissed texts, recognizing them the dignity they deserve through the only instrument available: that hand-to-hand with texts and words practiced with all the philological and theoretical rigor possible. The publication of Il filo rosso is a hopeful sign, and we hope that it will arouse the interest and curiosity of many.

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