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  • Reading Dante ImpoliticallyGramsci’s Contrapuntal Criticism of Inferno 10
  • Stefano Selenu

“Se per questo cieco carcere vai per altezza d’ingegno…”

—Dante, Inferno 10.58–59

“from those who want to consciously and explicitly profess it, this historical materialism requires a certain curious manner of humility”

—Antonio Labriola

The relevance of Dante’s position in Gramsci’s thought has not been adequately clarified by scholars. There is no extended research on the role and meaning of Dante in the larger framework of Gramsci’s writings. Most discussions focus on Gramsci’s reading of Inferno 10 and are limited to why and how Gramsci read that canto, or what his reading could suggest to us about his aesthetics, hermeneutic philosophy, and theory of art.1

Recently, new hypotheses have been proposed to look at Gramsci’s notes on Canto 10 from a political perspective. According to Italian scholars Angelo Rossi and Giuseppe Vacca, in order to avoid surveillance, Gramsci—in secret cooperation with Palmiro Togliatti (the leading figure of the Italian Communists), Tania Schucht (Gramsci’s sister-in-law), and his friend Piero Sraffa (then professor of economics at Cambridge University)—had to find new means of political communication with Togliatti and the Party while in exile. Even his interest in Inferno 10 has been seen as an encrypted code for communicating with the communists abroad.2 [End Page 209]

The key used by proponents of this interpretation is a letter that Sraffa sent to Togliatti on May 4, 1932, which opens by referring to Gramsci’s reflections on Inferno 10 and closes by saying that they should find new topics “whose political content could be allowed to pass under the veil of literature.”3 The cryptological hypothesis warrants debate. Giuseppe Vacca, himself a sustainer of this approach, appears to fear falling into a storiografia del fatto (historiography of facts)4 that would reduce Gramsci’s complex body of writings to a completely pragmatic reading. Indeed, Vacca claims, “Gramsci’s letters deal with complex topics of history of culture and philosophy of praxis, and it would be a mistake to reduce their importance and depth to politics in the strict sense.”5 Gramsci’s writings entail “a mobile and complex thought that discourages every form of ‘essayism’ aimed at turning it to the necessities of the immediate political and cultural struggles.”6 This is certainly true for the few—but extremely rich—pages on Dante that he left both in his Prison Notebooks and Letters.

The advocates of the cryptological approach have found in Gramsci’s reading of Dante a scheme through which the prisoner wanted to communicate to Togliatti that he should not be considered similar to Farinata. The most evident reason for them is political: “Egli aveva ben presente la tentazione del partito di imporgli il paradigma Farinata, cioè di presentarlo come quegli che di fronte al fascismo ‘non mutò aspetto, né mosse collo, né piegò sua costa’ [Gramsci was well aware of his party’s temptation to impose the Farinata paradigm on him, to present him as one who, faced with Fascism, ‘did not change aspect and stayed still and impassible’].”7 In addition, Vacca and Rossi have argued that the notes on Dante were inserted in a context “certainly not dedicated to the exegesis of Dante.”8 Yet no previous contextual framework encloses Gramsci’s notes on Inferno 10. In fact, they do not follow other notes, but instead open Notebook 4. The appearance of Notebook 4 in current editions of Gramsci’s writings that follow Valentino Gerratana’s critical edition (Q 4, §78–88) might mislead readers in this regard.9 Its current presentation can prevent readers from grasping the innovative and unique aspects of those notes. From a compositional standpoint, they are critical because, for the first time, Gramsci appears to have a clear idea of how to organize the notebook. He divides it into two parts, the first on Dante (pages 1r–7v), the second on miscellaneous [End Page 210] topics (page 8r and following).10 Gramsci’s singular decisiveness here suggests that his ideas on Dante were well prepared beforehand.

Executed as an organized unity, these notes are multilayered in terms of...


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