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Antonio Gramsci: A Cultural Base for Positive Action

In Being a World Citizen, Democracy, Europe, Literature, Social Rights, Solidarity, The former Soviet Union, The Search for Peace on January 24, 2021 at 7:54 PM

By René Wadlow

Antonio Gramsci (January 22, 1891 – April 24, 1937) was an Italian Socialist and then Communist editor who is best known for his notebooks of reflections that he wrote while in prison. (1) Gramsci grew up on the Italian island of Sardinia and saw the poor conditions of the impoverished peasants there. He studied just before the First World War at the University of Turin at a time when industry, especially the Fiat auto company was starting. Gramsci became concerned with the conditions of the new industrial working class. When the First World War started, he was asked to join a new Socialist newspaper that had started in Turin.

Antonio Gramsci

In 1921, in part due to the Russian Revolution, the Italian Communist Party was born. Some of the Socialists, including Gramsci, joined the new party, and Gramsci became an editor of the Communist newspaper. In 1922, he went to Russia as a delegate of the Italian Communist Party to a convention of Communist Parties from different parts of the world.

Also in 1922, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party came to power and quickly began a crackdown on the Communists and other opposition movements. In 1926, after a failed attempt on Mussolini’s life, there was a massive crackdown on Communists. Although he had nothing to do with the effort to kill Mussolini, but as a Communist deputy to the national Parliament, Gramsci was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His health, which had never been strong, deteriorated in prison. On April 27, 1937 he died, aged 46.

While in prison, he wrote his ideas in notebooks which were censored by the prison authorities. Then the notebooks were passed on to family members. Gramsci had to be careful about how he expressed his ideas. The notebooks were published only after the end of the Second World War and the defeat of the Fascist government. Thus, Gramsci was never able to discuss or clarify his views. Nevertheless, his prison writings have been widely read and discussed.

Benito Mussolini

The concept most associated with Gramsci is the idea of “hegemony”. Hegemony is constructed through a complex series of struggles. Hegemony cannot be constructed once and for all since the balance of social forces on which it rests is continually evolving. Class structures related to the mode of production is obviously one area of struggle – the core of the Marxist approach. However, what is new in Gramsci is his emphasis on the cultural, ideological, and moral dimensions of the struggle for hegemony.

For Gramsci, hegemony cannot be economic alone. There must be a cultural battle to transform the popular mentality. He asks, “How it happens that in all periods, there co-exist many systems and currents of philosophical thought and how these currents are born, how they are diffused and why in the process of diffusion they fracture along certain lines and in certain directions.”

Gramsci was particularly interested in the French Revolution and its follow up. Why were the revolutionary ideas not permanently in power but rather were replaced by those of Napoleon, only to return later? Gramsci put an emphasis on what is called today “the civil society” – all the groups and forces not directly related to government: government administration, the military, the police.  There can be a control of the government, but such control: can be replaced if the civil society’s values and zeitgeist (world view) are not modified in depth. There is a slow evolution of mentalities from one value system to another. For progress to be permanent, one needs to influence and then control those institutions – education, culture, religion, folklore – that create the popular zeitgeist. He was unable to return to the USSR to see how Stalin developed the idea of hegemony.

The intellectual contribution of Gramsci has continued in the work of Edward Said on how the West developed its ideas about the Middle East. (2) Likewise, his influence is strong in India in what are called “subaltern studies” – what those people left out of official histories think. As someone noted, “I believe firmly that the history of ideas is the key to the history of deeds.”

Notes

(1) Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks (three volumes) (New York: Columbia University Press); Antonio Gramsci, Prison Letters (London: Pluto Press, 1996)

(2) See Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994)

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Pitirim Sorokin: The Renewal of Humanity

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Cultural Bridges, Democracy, Europe, Literature, The former Soviet Union, The Search for Peace on January 24, 2021 at 7:26 PM

By René Wadlow

Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) whose birth anniversary we mark on January 21, was concerned, especially in the period after the Second World War, with the relation between the values and attitudes of the individual and their impact on the wider society. His key study Society, Culture and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics (1947) traced the relations between the development of the personality, the wider cultural values in which the personality was formed, and the structures of the society.

Pitirim Sorokin

The two World Wars convinced him that humanity was in a period of transition, that the guideline of earlier times had broken down and had not yet been replaced by a new set of values and motivations. To bring about real renewal, one had to work at the same time on the individual personality, on cultural values as created by art, literature, education, and on the social framework. One had to work on all three at once, not one after the other as some who hope that inner peace will produce outer peace. In his Reconstruction of Humanity (1948), he stressed the fact that “if we want to raise the moral standards of large populations, we must change correspondingly the mind and behavior of the individuals making up these populations, and their social institutions and their cultures.”

Sorokin was born in a rural area in the north of Russia. Both his parents died when he was young. He had to work in handicraft trades in order to go to the University of St. Petersburg where his intelligence was noted, and he received scholarships to carry out his studies in law and in the then new academic discipline of sociology. After obtaining his doctorate, he was asked to create the first Department of Sociology at the University of St. Petersburg. However, the study of the nature of society was a dangerous undertaking, and he was imprisoned three times by the Tsarist regime.

He was among the social reformers that led to the first phase of the Russian Revolution in 1917. He served as private secretary to Aleksandr Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government and Sorokin was the editor of the government newspaper. When Kerensky was overthrown by Lenin, Sorokin became part of a highly vocal anti-Bolshevik faction, leading to his arrest and condemnation to death in 1923. At the last moment, after a number of his cell mates had been executed, Lenin modified the penalty to exile, and Sorokin left the USSR, never to return. His revolutionary activities are well-described in his autobiography A Long Journey (1963).

Aleksandr Kerensky

He went to the United States and taught at the University of Minnesota (1924-1930) where he carried out important empirical studies on social mobility, especially rural to urban migration. These studies were undertaken at a time when sociology was becoming increasingly recognized as a specific discipline. Sorokin was invited to teach at Harvard University where the Department of Social Ethics was transformed into the Department of Sociology with Sorokin as its head. He continued teaching sociology at Harvard until his retirement in 1955 when the Harvard Research Center in Creative Altruism was created so that he could continue his research and writing.

Of the three pillars that make up society − personality, culture, and social structure − personality may be the easiest to modify. Therefore, he turned his attention to how a loving or altruistic personality could be developed. He noted that in slightly different terms: love, compassion, sympathy, mercy, benevolence, reverence, Eros, Agape and mutual aid − all affirm supreme love as the highest moral value and its imperatives as the universal and perennial moral commandments. He stressed the fact that an ego-transcending altruistic transformation is not possible without a corresponding change in the structure of one’s ego, values and norms of conduct. Such changes have to be brought about by the individual himself, by his own effortful thinking, meditation, volition and self-analysis. He was strongly attracted to yoga which acted on the body, mind, and spirit.

Sorokin believed that love or compassion must be universal if it were to provide a basis for social reconstruction. Partial love, he said, can be worse than indifference. “If unselfish love does not extend over the whole of mankind, if it is confined within one group − a given family, tribe, nation, race, religious denomination, political party, trade union, caste, social class or any part of humanity − in such an in-group altruism tends to generate an out-group antagonism. And the more intense and exclusive the in-group solidarity of its members, the more unavoidable are the clashes between the group and the rest of humanity.

Sorokin was especially interested in the processes by which societies change cultural orientations, particularly the violent societies he knew, the USSR and the USA. As he wrote renewal “demands a complete change of contemporary mentality, a fundamental transformation of our system of values and the profoundest modification of our conduct toward other men, cultural values and the world at large. All this cannot be achieved without the incessant, strenuous active efforts on the part of every individual.”

Notes

For a biography see: B. V. Johnston, Pitirim A. Sorokin: An Intellectual Biography (University Press of Kansas, 1995)

For an overview of his writings see: Frank Cowell, History, Civilization and Culture: An Introduction to the Historical and Social Philosophy of Pitirim A. Sorokin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952)

For Sorokin’s late work on the role of altruism see: P. A. Sorokin, The Ways and Power of Love (Boston, Beacon Press, 1954) A new reprint was published by Templeton Press in 2002

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Khalil Gibran: The Forerunner

In Arts, Being a World Citizen, Literature, Middle East & North Africa, Spirituality, The Search for Peace on January 6, 2021 at 11:06 PM

By René Wadlow

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), the Lebanese poet whose birth anniversary we mark on January 6, was a person who saw signs in advance of later events or trends. The Forerunner is the title of one of his books, though less known than his major work The Prophet. As he wrote, “Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.”

Khalil Gibran

Lebanon is a country rich in legend and Biblical references. It is the traditional birthplace of the god Tanmuz and his sister Ishtar. Tammuz is a god who represents the yearly cycle of growth, decay and revival of life, who annually dies and rises again from the dead – a forerunner of Jesus. Ishtar is a goddess who creates the link between earth and heaven – the forerunner of Mary, mother rather than sister of Jesus, but who plays the same symbolic role. As Gibran wrote “Mother (woman), our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, our strength in weakness. She is the source of love, mercy, sympathy, and forgiveness … I am indebted for all that I call ‘I’ to women, ever since I was an infant. Women opened the wisdom of my eyes and the doors of my spirit. Had it not been for the woman – mother – the woman – sister – and the woman – friend – I would be sleeping among those who seek the tranquility of the world with their snoring.”

To Ishtar, for Gibran, the Great God placed deep within her “discernment to see what cannot be seen … Then the Great God smiled and wept, looked with love boundless and eternal.”

Yet, like Jesus, Gibran was moved by women but never married and was not known to be in a sexual relation with women. Gibran felt that Jesus was his elder brother. The life of the soul, My brother “is surrounded by solitude and isolation. Were it not for this solitude and that isolation, you would not be you, and I would not be me. Were it not for this solitude and isolation, I would imagine that I was speaking when I heard your voice, and when I saw your face, I would imagine myself looking into a mirror.”

For Gibran, Jesus died “that the Kingdom of Heaven might be preached, that man might attain that consciousness of beauty and goodness within himself. He came to make the human heart a temple; the soul an alter, and the mind a priest. And when a storm rises, it is your singing and your praises that I hear.” (1)

Like Jesus, Gibran was at odds with the established conservative institutions, the clergy and the politicians of his day, those concerned to preserve their inherited power and privileges. He sought out of his experience a general critique of society, concentrating on the hypocrisy of its religious institutions, the injustice of its political institutions and the narrow outlook of its ordinary citizens.

However, Gibran saw his role as a poet and not as a prophet. As he wrote “I am a poet am a stranger in this world. I write in verse life’s prose, and in prose life’s verse. Thus, I am a stranger, and will remain a stranger until death snatches me away and carries me to my homeland … Do not despair, for beyond the injustices of this world, beyond matter, beyond the clouds, beyond all things is a power which is all justice, all kindness, all tenderness, all love. Beauty is the stairway to the thrown of a reality that does not wound…Jerusalem proved unable to kill the Nazarene, for he is alive forever; nor could Athens execute Socrates for he is immoral. Nor shall derision prove powerful against those who listen to humanity or those who follow in the footsteps of divinity, for they shall live forever. Forever.”

Notes:

1) See Khalil Gibran. Jesus. The Son of Man (London: Penguin Books, 1993) This is the longest of Gibran’s books. It was first published in 1928. Through the device of imagining what Jesus’ contemporaries who knew him, Gibran portrays Jesus as a multi-faceted being, a mirror of different individuals’ strengths, convictions and weaknesses.

2) The painting that accompanies the article by Khalil Gibran.

3) Also from Rene Wadlow in Ovi magazine:

Khalil Gibran: Spirits Rebellious & Khalil Gibran: The Foundations of Love

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Velimir Khlebnikov (November 9, 1885 – June 28, 1922): The Futurian and World Citizen

In Being a World Citizen, Cultural Bridges, Literature, Poetry, Spirituality, The former Soviet Union, The Search for Peace on November 9, 2020 at 1:02 PM

By René Wadlow

Let Planet Earth be sovereign at last. Planet Earth alone will be our sovereign song.

Velimir Khlebnikov.

Velimir Khlebnikov was a shooting star of Russian culture in the years just prior to the start of the First World War. He was part of a small creative circle of poets, painters and writers who wanted to leave the old behind and to set the stage for the future such as the abstract painter Kazimir Malevich. They called themselves “The Futurians”. They were interested in being avenues for the Spirit which they saw at work in peasent life and in shamans’ visions; however, the Spirit was very lacking in the works of the ruling nobility and commercial elite.

As Charlotte Douglas notes in her study of Khlebnikov “To tune mankind into harmony with the universe – that was Khlebnikov’s vocation. He wanted to make the Planet Earth fit for the future, to free it from the deadly gravitational pull of everyday lying and pretense, from the tyranny of petty human instincts and the slow death of comfort and complacency.” (1)

Khlebnikov wrote “Old ones! You are holding back the fast advance of humanity. You are preventing the boiling locomotive of youth from crossing the mountain that lies in its path. We have broken the locks and see what your freight cars contain: tombstones for the young.”

The Futurian movement as such lasted from 1911 until 1915 when its members were dispersed by the start of the World War, the 1917 revolutions and the civil war. Khlebnikov died in 1922 just as Stalin was consolidating his power. Stalin would put an end to artistic creativity.

The Futurians were concerned that Russia should play a creative role in the world, but they were also world citizens who wanted to create a world-wide network of creative scientists, artists and thinkers who would have a strong impact on world events. As Khlebnikov wrote in his manifesto To the Artists of the World We have long been searching for a program that would act something like a lens capable of focusing the combined rays of the work of the artist and the work of the thinker toward a single point where they might join in a common task and be able to ignite even the cold essence of ice and turn it to a blazing bonfire. Such a program, the lens capable of directing together your fiery courage and the cold intellect of the thinkers has now been discovered.”

The appeal for such a creative, politically relevant network was written in early 1919 when much of the world was starting to recover from World War I. However, Russia was sinking into a destructive civil war. The Futurians were dispersed to many different areas and were never able to create such a network. The vision of a new network is now a challenge that we must meet.

Note

1) Charlotte Douglas (Ed.) The King of Time: Velimir Khlebnikov (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Khalil Gibran: The Foundations of Love

In Being a World Citizen, Cultural Bridges, Literature, Middle East & North Africa, Poetry, The Search for Peace on December 18, 2018 at 7:26 AM

By René Wadlow

Life without love is like a tree without blossom and fruit. And love without beauty is like flowers without scent and fruits without seed… For Love is the only flower that grows and blossoms without the aid of seasons… Love is a rose, its heart opens at dawn.”

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) the Lebanese poet, whose birth anniversary we mark on January 6, in many ways represents the deeper spirit of Lebanon though he lived most of his life outside the country: in Paris as an art student and in the USA where he started to write directly in English. His best known book The Prophet was written directly in English.

In “My Birthday”, written in Paris on January 6, 1908 Gibran wrote “Thus have I walked round the sun twenty and five times. And I know not how many times the moon has encircled me. Yet I have not unveiled the secrets of life, neither have I known the hidden things of darkness… Much have I loved in these five and twenty years. And much that I have loved is hateful to people, and much that I have hated is by them admired… I have loved freedom, and my love has grown with the growth of my knowledge of the bondage of people to falsehood and deceit… Love is the only freedom in the world because it so elevates the spirit that the laws of humanity and the phenomena of nature do not alter its course.”

In a vision that was correct, he added in the 1908 birthday essay “And today, today I stand in remembrance as a tired wayfarer who stands mid-way on the ascending road.” He died in 1931 at the age of 48. (1)

For Gibran, Love and Beauty are the foundations of existence. As he wrote in an essay which gave the title to the book “A Tear and a Smile” Then my heart drew near to wisdom, the daughter of Love and Beauty, saying ‘Give me wisdom that I may carry it to humankind’. She answered ‘Say that happiness begins in the holy of holies of the spirit and comes not from without.

A Tear and a Smile sums up well Gibran’s attitude toward life which is always made up of contrasts: light and dark, knowledge and doubt.

How beautiful is life, beloved.
Tis like the heart of a poet,
Full of light and spirit,
How harsh is life, beloved
Tis like an evildoer’s heart
Full of guilt and fear.

In “The Hymn of Man”, nearly a credo of his views, he stresses the ‘both/and’ of contrasts:

I have hearkened to the teachings of Confucius and listened to the wisdom of Brahma, and sat beside the Buddha beneath the tree of knowledge. Behold me now contending with ignorance and unbelieving.

I have borne the harshness of insatiable conquerors, and felt the oppression of tyrants and the bondage of the powerful. Yet I am strong to do the battle with the days.

I was,
And I am.
So shall I be to the end of Time.
For I am without end.

(1) Quotations are from Khalil Gibran A Tear and A Smile. Translated from the Arabic by H.M. Nahmad (London: William Heinemann, 1930)

Painting: Age of Women by Khalil Gibran

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008): A Black Orpheus

In Anticolonialism, Human Rights, Literature on April 7, 2011 at 10:29 PM

AIME CESAIRE (1913 – 2008): A BLACK ORPHEUS

By René Wadlow


My negritude is not a stone,

nor deafness flung out against the clamor

of the day

my negritude is not a white speck of dead water

on the dead eye of the earth

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral.


Return to My Native Land


On April 6, 2011, Aimé Césaire was honored by the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the Pantheon, a monument in Paris where persons who have contributed to French political culture are honored. Aimé Césaire, the Martinique poet and political figure, was a cultural bridge builder between the West Indies, Europe and Africa. A poet, teacher, and political figure, he had been mayor of the capital city, Fort-de-France for 56 years from 1945 to 2001, and a member of the French Parliament without a break from 1945 to 1993 — the French political system allowing a person to be a member of the national parliament and an elected local official at the same time. First elected to Parliament as a member of the Communist Party, he had left the Party in 1956 when he felt that the Communist Party did not put anti-colonialism at the center of its efforts.

The Communist Party’s position was that colonialism would end by itself once the workers had come to power. Césaire went on to form a local political party which existed only in Martinique and was largely his political machine for creating municipal jobs. Césaire faced a massive rural to urban migration on the 400,000 person West Indian department of France. One answer to unemployment was to create municipal posts largely paid for from the central government budget — a ready pool of steady political supporters. Césaire also did much to develop cultural activities from his mayor’s office— encouraging theater, music and handicrafts.

Aimé Césaire’s wider fame was due to his poetry and his plays — all with political implications, but heavily influenced by images from the subconscious. Thus it was that André Breton (1896-1966) writer and ideologue of the Surrealists saw in Césaire a kindred soul and became a champion of Césaire’s writing. Breton had been interested in African art and culture, by its sense of motion, color and myth. Breton often projected his own ideas onto African culture seeing it as spontaneous and mystical when much African art is, in fact, conventional and material. Nevertheless, Breton, who spent some of the Second World War years in Martinique, was able to interest many French writers and painters in African culture. It was Breton who encouraged Jean Paul Sartre to do an early anthology of African and West Indian poetry – Black Orpheus and to write an important introduction stressing the revolutionary character of the poems.

Aimé Césaire’s parents placed high value on education — his father was a civil servant who encouraged his children to read and to take school seriously. Thus Césaire ranked first in his secondary school class and received a scholarship in 1931 to go to France to study at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure — a university-level institution which trains university professors and elite secondary school teachers. He was in the same class with Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Leon Damas. They, along with Birago Diop also from Senegal, started a publication in Paris L’étudiant noir (The Black Student) as an expression of African culture. One of Césaire’s styles in poetry was to string together every cliché that the French used when speaking about Africa and turning these largely negative views into complements. Thus he and Senghor took the most commonly used term for Blacks, Nègre, which was not an insult but which incorporated all the clichés about Africans and West Indians and put a positive light upon the term. Thus negritude became the term for a large group of French-speaking Africans and French-speaking West Indians – including Haiti – writers. They stressed the positive aspects of African society but also the pain and agony in the experience of Black people, especially slavery and colonialism.

In 1938, just as he finished his university studies, Césaire took a few weeks’ vacation on the coast of Yugoslavia. There he wrote in a burst of energy his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of the Return to My Native Land), his best known series of poems. In 1939, he returned to Martinique having married another teacher from Martinique who was also trained in Paris. Both started teaching at the major secondary school of Martinique and started being politically active. However, by 1940, Martinique was under the control of the Vichy government of France and political activity was firmly discouraged. Thus Césaire concentrated on his writing. He met André Breton who spent the war years in the USA. Breton encouraged an interest in the history and culture of Haiti. While Haiti is physically close to Martinique, Haitian history and culture is often overlooked — if not looked down upon — in Martinique. Césaire wrote on the Haitian independence leader Toussaint Louverture as a hero, and later a play in 1963 La Tragédie du roi Christophe largely influenced by the early years of the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier.

Aimé Césaire (1913-2008)

With the end of the Second World War, the French Communist Party had one third of the seats in the Parliament of the newly created Fourth Republic. The French Communists were looking for potential candidates from Martinique where the Party was not particularly well structured. They turned to young, educated persons who had a local base. Césaire, with his Paris education and as a popular teacher at the major secondary school fitted that bill. He was elected the same year both to Parliament and to the town hall. When in Paris, he took an active part in cultural life, especially with African students and young intellectuals. In 1947, along with the Senegalese Alioune Diop and Senghor, he founded the journal Présence africaine which later became also a publisher of books and the leading voice of the negritude movement.

As the French Communist Party had a rule of tight party discipline, Césaire played no independent role in the French Parliament until he left the Party in 1956. However, his 1950 Discours sur le Colonialisme, at the same time violent and satiric became the most widely read anti-colonial tract of the times, calling attention to the deep cultural roots of colonial attitudes. After 1956, most of his efforts in Parliament were devoted to socio-economic development for Martinique. His strong anti-colonial efforts were made outside Parliament, especially in the cultural sphere. Nevertheless, as a member of Parliament he could open doors that poets do not usually enter.

Césaire, who read English well, was interested in the writings of Langston Hughes whose poems were close in spirit and style. He translated into French some of the poems of the Negro poet Sterling A. Brown.

In the 1960s, Césaire turned increasingly to writing plays, especially on the history of Haiti, as the earliest independent State of the West Indies. These were verse plays as the actors’ dialogues were nearly poems. As the French African colonies became independent in the 1960s, he stressed that the end of colonialism was not enough but that colonial culture had to be replaced by a new culture, a culture of the universal, a culture of renewal. “It is a universal, rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars that are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.”

 

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to  the United Nations Office in Geneva of the Association of World  Citizens.

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