Monday, October 23, 2017

The Logos Club by Laurent Binet

They enter a magnificent room constructed entirely in wood, designed as a circular amphitheater, decorated with wooden statues of famous anatomists and doctors with a white marble slab at its center where copses used to be dissected. At the back of the room, two statues of flayed men, both in wood, support a tray holding a statue of a woman in a thick dress that Bayard supposes to be an allegory of medicine but who if she had her eyes blind-folded could also be justice incarnate . . .

It is gone midnight. The session begins: a voice rings out. It’s Bifo who speaks first, the man from Radio Alice who set Bologna ablaze in ’77. He quotes  a Petrarch canzone that Machiavelli used in the conclusion of The Prince:
Virtue against fury shall advance the fight,
And it in the combat soon shall put to flight:
For the old Roman valor is not dead,
Nor in the Italians breasts extinguished.

The melody of a patriotic anthem arises within the circular amphitheater. Bifo draws the first subject, a line by Gramsci:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new can not be born.”

The two candidates stand either side of the dissecting table, below the audience, as at the center of an arena. Standing, it is easier for them to turn around and address the whole room . . . the marble table glows supernaturally white.

The first candidate – a young man with an Apulian accent, open-shirted, big silver belt buckle begins.

If the dominant class has lost consentement – in other words if it is no longer dirigeante [management] but merely dominante and the only power it holds is of coercition – this signifies precisely that the great masses are detached from traditional ideologies, that they no longer believe in what they believed before . . . it is precisely this interregnum that encourages the birth of what Gramsci called a great variety of morbid symptoms.

The young duelist rotates slowly, declaiming to the whole room. We know exactly what morbid phenomena Gramsci was alluding to. Don’t we? It is the same one that menaces us today. He leaves a pause. He shouts “Fascismo!

By leading his audience to conjure the idea before he pronounces the word, it is as if, at this instant, he delivers the thought of all his listeners telepathically, creating a sort of collective mental communion by the power of suggestion. The idea of fascism crosses the room like  a silent wave. The young duelist has at least achieved one essential objective: setting the agenda of the debate. And, into the bargain, dramatizing it as intensely as possible: the fascist danger, the still fertile womb, etc.

And yet there is a difference between the situation in today and Gramsci’s era. Today we no longer live under the threat of fascism. Fascism is already established in the heart of the government. It writhes there like larvae. Fascism is no longer the catastrophic consequence of a state in crisis and a dominant class that has lost control of the masses. It is no longer the sanction of the ruling class but its insidious recourse, its extension, designed to contain the advance of progressive forces. This is no longer fascism supported openly but a sinking, shadowy, ashamed fascism, a fascism not of soldiers but shifty politicians, not a party of youth but a fascism of old people, a fascism of secret, dubious sects made up of aging spies in the pay of racist bosses who want to preserve the status quo but who are suffocating Italy inside a deadly cocoon. It is a cousin who makes embarrassing jokes during dinner but who we still invite to family meals. It is no longer Mussolini, it is the Freemasons of Propaganda Due.

There are boos from the audience. The young Apulian need only wrap up now: Incapable of imposing itself completely, but sufficiently established in every echelon of the  state machinery to prevent any change of government (he wisely says nothing about the historic compromise), fascism in its larval form is no longer the menace hovering over a never-ending crisis, but is the very condition of that crisis’s permanence. The crisis that has mired Italy for years will be resolved only when fascism is eradicated from the state. And for that, he says, raising his fist, “La lotta continua!”[the struggle continues!]


Although his opponent will offer a strong defense of the negrienne idea that the crisis is no longer a passing or possibly cyclical moment, the product of a dysfunctional or exhausted system, but the necessary engine of a mutant, polymorphic capitalism obliged to keep moving forward under pressure, citing as evidence the election of Thatcher and the imminent election of Reagan, he will be defeated by two votes to one. In the audience’s opinion, the two duelists will have put on a high quality show, justifying their rank of dialectician (the fourth of the seven levels.) But the young Apulian will certainly have drawn some advantage from speaking against fascism.

It’s the same thing for the next duel : “Cattolicesimo e marxismo.” (a great Italian classic.)

The first duelist talks about Saint Francis of Assisi, about mendicant orders, about Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Mathew, about worker priests, about liberation theology in South America, about Christ driving the money changers from the temple, and concludes by making Jesus the first authentic Marxist-Leninist.

Uproar in the amphitheater. Bianca applauds noisily. The scarf gang lights a joint. Stefano uncorks a bottle that he brought with him just in case.

The second duelist can talk all he wants about the opium of the people, about Franco and the Spanish Civil War, about Pius XII and Hitler, about the collusion between the Vatican and the Mafia, about the Inquisition, about the Counter-reformation, about the Crusades as the perfect example of an imperialist war, about the trials of Jan Hus, Bruno, and Galileo. But its hopeless. The audience is impassioned. Everyone gets to their feet and starts singing “Bella Ciao,” even though this has no connection with anything. With the crowd fully behind him, the first duelist wins by three votes to zero.

The next duel pits a young woman against an older man; the question is about soccer and the class struggle; Bianca explains to Simon that the country has been rocked by “Totonero,” a match-fixing scandal involving the players of Juventus, Lazio, Perugia . . . and also Bologna.

Once again, against all expectations, it is the young woman who wins by defending the idea that the players are proletarians like other workers and that the club bosses are stealing their hard work.

The night wears on, and the time is come for the digital duel. The silence of the statues – Gallienus, Hippocrates, the Italian anatomists, the flayed men, and the woman on the tray- contrasts with the agitation of the living. People smoke, drink, chat, eat picnics.

Bifo summons the duelists. A dialectician is challenging a peripatetician.

A man takes his place next to the dissecting table. It’s Antonini. And facing him, stiff-backed and severe with her immaculate bun, Luciano’s mother walks down the steps to the dissecting table.

Bifo draws the subject: “Gli intellettuali e il potere”. Intellectuals and power. It is the prerogative of the lower-ranked player to begin – the dialectician.

In order for the subject to be discussed, it is up to the first duelist to problematize it. In this case, that’s easy to work out: Are intellectuals the enemies or the allies of those in power? It’s simply a question of choosing. For or against? Antonini decides to criticize the caste to which he belongs, the caste that fills the amphitheater. Intellectuals as accomplices with those in power. Cosi sia.

Intellectuals: the functionaries of the superstructures that participate in the construction of the hegemony. So, Gramsci again: all men are intellectuals, true, but not all men serve the function of intellectuals in society, which consists in working for the spontaneous consent of the masses. Whether ‘organic” or “traditional,” the intellectual always belongs to an “economic-corporative” logic. Organic or traditional, he is always in the service of those in power, present, past, or future.

The salvation of the intellectual, according to Gramsci? Becoming one with the Party. Antonini laughs sardonically. But the Communist Party itself I so corrupt! How could it provide redemption for anyone these days? Compromesso storico, sto cazzo! Compromise leads to compromised principles.

The subversive intellectual? Ma fammi il piacere! He recites a phrase from another man’s film: “Think about what Suetonius did for the Caesars! You start with the ambition to denounce something and you end up an accomplice.”

Theatrical bow.
Prolonged applause.
It’s the old lady’s turn to speak.
“Io so.”

She to begins with a quotation, but she choses Pasolini. His now-legendary “J’accuse,’ published in the Corriere della Sera in 1974.

“I know the names of those responsible for the massacre of Milan in 1969. I know the names of those responsible for the massacre of Brescia and Bologna in 1974. I know the names of the important people who, with the aid of the CIA and the Greek colonels, and the Mafia, launched the anti Communist crusade, then tried to pretend they were anti-fascist. I know the names of those who, between two Masses, gave instructions and assured the protection of old generals, young neo-fascists, and ordinary criminals. I know the names of the serious and important people behind comic characters and drab characters. I know the names of serious and important people behind the tragic young people who have offered themselves as hired killers. I know all these names and I know all the crimes – the attacks on institutions and massacres –of which they are guilty.”

The old woman growls and her trembling voice rings out in the Archiginnasio.

“I know. But I have no proof. Not even any clues. I know because I am an intellectual, a writer, who strives to follow everything that happens, to read everything that is written on this subject, to imagine all that is unknown or shrouded in silence; who puts together disparate facts, gathering the fragmentary, disordered pieces of an entire, coherent political situation, who restores logic where randomness, madness, and mystery seems to reign.”

Less than a year after that article, Pasolini was found murdered, beaten to death on a beach in Ostia.

Gramsci dead in prison. Negri imprisoned. The world changes because intellectuals and those in power are at war with one another. The powerful win almost every battle, and the intellectuals pay with their lives or their freedom for having stood up to the powerful, and they bite the dust. But not always. And when the intellectual triumphs over the powerful, even posthumously, then the world changes. A man earns the name of intellectual when he gives voice to the voiceless.

Antonini, whose physical integrity is at stake, does not let her finish. He cites Foucault, who says we must “put an end to spokespeople.” Spokespeople do not speak for others, but in their place.

So the old woman responds straight away, insulting Foucault as senza coglioni: didn’t he refuse to intervene, here, in the parricide scandal that shook the whole country three years ago, just after publishing his book on the parricide of Pierre Riviere? What is the point of an intellectual if he doesn’t intervene in a matter that corresponds precisely to his field of expertise?

In response, Antonini says that Foucault, more than anyone else, has exposed the vanity of this posture, this way the intellectual has of (he quotes Foucault again) “giving a bit of seriousness to minor, unimportant disputes” Foucault defines himself as a researcher, not an intellectual. He belongs to the long-term goals of research, not to the agitation of polemic. He said: “Aren’t intellectuals hoping to give themselves greater importance through ideological struggle than they actually have.”

The old woman gasps. She spells it out: Every intellectual, if he correctly carries out the work of heuristic study for which he is qualified and that ought to be his vocation, even if he is in the service of those in power, works against the powerful because, as Lenin said (she turns around theatrically, her gaze sweeping the entire audience), the truth is always revolutionary. “La veritas e sempre rivoluzionaria!”

Take Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince for Lorenzo de Medici: he could hardly have been more of a courtesan. And yet . . . this work, often regarded as the height of political cynicism, is a definitive Marxist manifesto: “Because the aims of the people are more honest than those of the nobles, the nobles wishing to oppress the people, and the people wishing not to be oppressed.” In reality, he did not write The Prince for the Duke of Florence, because it has been published everywhere. By publishing The Prince, he reveals truths that would have remained hidden and reserved exclusively for the purposes of the powerful: so – it’s a a subversive act, a revolutionary act. He delivers the secrets of the Prince to the people. The arcana of political pragmatism stripped of fallacious divine and moral justifications. A decisive act in the liberation of humankind, as all acts of de-consecration are. Through his will to reveal, explain, expose, the intellectual makes war on the sacred. In this, he is always a liberator.

Antonini knows his classics. Machiavelli, he replies, had so little concept of the proletariat that he couldn’t even consider its condition, its needs, its aspirations. Hence, he also wrote: "And when neither their property not their honor is taken from them, the majority of men live content.” In his gilded age, he was incapable of imagining that the overwhelming majority of humankind was (and still is) absolutely lacking in property and honor, and could therefore not have them taken from them . .

The old woman says that this is the very beauty of the true intellectual: he does not need to want to be revolutionary in order to be revolutionary. He does not need to love or even know the people in order to serve them. He is naturally, necessarily Communist. .

Antonini snorts contemptuously that she will have to explain that to Heidegger.
The old woman says that he would do better top reread Malaparte.

Antonini talks about the concept of cattivo maestro, the bad master.

The old woman says that if there was a need to make clear with an adjective that the maestro is bad, that is because the maestro is essentially good.

It is clear there will be no knock-out in this bout, so Bifo whistles to signal the end of the duel.

The two adversaries stare each other,. Their features are hardened, their jaws tense, they are sweating, but the old woman’s bun is still immaculate.

The audience is divided, indecisive.

Bifo’s two fellow judges vote, one for Antonini, the other for Luciano’s mother.
Everyone waits for Bifo’s decision
Bifo votes for the old woman
Monica Vitti turns pales.
Sollers smiles.
Antonini does not flinch.
He places his hand on the dissecting table. One of the judges gets to his feet: a tall, very thin man, armed with a small, blue-bladed hatchet.

When the hatchet chops off Antonini’s finger, the echo of the severed bone mingles with that of the blade hitting marble and the director’s scream.

Monica Vitti bandages his hand with her gauze scarf while the judge respectfully picks up the finger and hands it to the actress.

Bifo proclaims loudly : “Onore agli arringatori.” The audience choruses: Honor to the duelists.
Luciano’s mother returns to sit down next to her son.

As at the end of a movie when the lights have not yet come back up, when the return to the real world is experienced as  a slow, hazy awakening, when the images are still dancing behind our eyes, several minutes pass before the first spectators, stretching their numb legs, stand up and leave the room.

The anatomical theater empties slowly. Bifo and his fellow judges gather pages of notes into cardboard folders then retire ceremoniously. The session of the Logos Club dissolves into the night.

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