To be radical does not mean to be extremist, it’s the opposite. An interview with Toni Negri

Who knows which novels Toni Negri reads, Domenico Gallo asked me, I don’t think I have ever heard anything about that. Let’s ask him! we decided, and Toni Negri answered our questions with great kindness and a bit of fun. Thank you!

Which was the novelist or the novel that influenced your growing mature? The novel of your youth?

There was not a novelist in my youth. I remember that when I was 10-11, in the den we took shelter from bombings in Padova, “sfollati” [evacuees], we were called that way at that time, my parents brought some children’s books. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. My mother bound them in blue, like Simplicissimus, by Hans Jakob Grimmelshausen, and Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam – I read them shortly after, I didn’t understand them so much, but they are still in my mind. Afterwards, in my teens a quick passing through the Russians, the English classics (above all, Charles Dickens), and then the Americans (Ernest Hemingway especially), but there was not a writer or a novel that became my livre de chevet. And when I got to high school, philosophical and political essays replaced novels. So there was a fast passage through the novel. My mother didn’t want me to read novels in the evening during the week because I would have gone on too much and got tired, so I read on Saturdays and Sundays, and during the holidays, sometimes like a madman. War and Peace night and day, then, of course, Fëdor Dostoevskij at the same pace. But, that’s all, my link with the novel stops there. Then there are Thomas Mann and Robert Musil and many others, but they are swamped and mixed in the philosophical and political essays of the high school years, when that Teutonic “twentieth-century canon”, ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, was forced on me, well, I am still trying to remove its malign influence on my growing up – and on my generation … and it’s not over!

When thinking about your relationship with literature and poetry, two authors come immediately to me who had to deal with the end of a revolutionary hypothesis, and the way their work is connected with and gains experience of that “afterwards” in different and opposite ways. One of them is, of course, Giacomo Leopardi, and the understanding you give in Lenta ginestra. The other – I must admit that I don’t remember where you wrote about it, maybe in a footnote – is Stendhal.

No, the other one is not Stendhal, but Gustave Flaubert. As far as I’m concerned, Sentimental Education is a key book to understand at the same time the historicity of life and to construct the sense of the event, the perception of break. Flaubert rams into me the historical dimension of living, where the play of events opens up the possibility of choosing the ways of living. He is just the opposite of that Marcel Proust I have never been able to read. By reading Flaubert, I think I built up for the first time my maxim “Optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will” (just contrary to Antonio Gramsci’s), that has always been the guiding star of my acting – later I found confirmation in Spinoza’s “Caute”. Just because in the conflict and chaos of events reason must lead us with clearness of mind, hope and force, while will, doing, acting should always be ready to tactics and caution. Hence, my conviction that force is produced by reason and not by will. Which is to say that to be radical is the opposite of being extremist (and nothing offends me more than being considered an extremist, and nothing I hate more than extremists who claim to be radical and enlightened politicians). As to Leopardi, sure, he was the other great author who helped me to understand what it means focusing poetry on revolution and its defeat. The other two poets I go on reading are Friedrich Hölderlin e Dino Campana: it’s too difficult to explain why I love them so much … But let’s go back to Leopardi. Several scholars read him as a sort of Søren Kierkegaard for the lay conscience of Risorgimento Italy. Or as a Nietzsche mocking the happy destiny of humankind. But Leopardi is not like that, he is rather the positive discovery of Enlightenment and the optimism of human intellect, humiliated by a stepmother nature, but able to project towards the loving embrace of men, against the misery of religion, ideology and the political. In my opinion, Leopardi is an anti-Hegel: he understood that dialectics must be broken towards common values, negation must be directed against reactionary ideology and conformism – and that a broken dialectic opens towards love, the intellect that understands it, and to the common that organizes it in life.

Which was, instead, the novel o the novel-form that grasped the meaning of the time of our revolution, of our storming heaven?

I don’t know, really, don’t know. I have never been on the side of those who say:”this or that”, “more or less”, “here or there”, so finding, by addition or tricks, partly or completely, a relative or an ancestor to project the story of themselves upon. Even more in a revolutionary period like that I lived most of my life in. As far as I’m concerned, I was very bulimic, moving about in the passionate atmosphere of the 60s and 70s. I was touched by the Resistance literature above all. Il partigiano Johnny, by Beppe Fenoglio, remains a reference point for me. When I was a militant in ‘Classe operaia’, Isaac Babel was my favourite novelist together with Russian, Spanish and South-American revolutionary history and literatures – when I was in PotOp clearly Nanni Balestrini’s Vogliamo tutto. But – again – my problem has never been to find a novel to replace my responsibility to construct a political language matching my time. Neither I claimed I could do without it, wholly convinced that, as for my writings, they were just scribbles … So I followed a path that gave close attention to the way languages were constructed in my century, in my time – confident that we had to make sense of it. Our revolution came with and jointly with their revolution, and the revolution of multitudes and classes was, therefore, listening to the languages built up that way. I think this interest, this method of mine, were strengthened by the political radicalization of the 70s. I mean, the more I became radicalized, the more I looked not for a novel able to represent what I was feeling, living, but ways of saying, devices able to reproduce the passions I was living. I was interested mainly in linguistic invention. Hence a series of paradoxes for a communist … who preferred the early Louis-Ferdinand Céline to any other left-wing writer, just because his language was a revolutionary one. Or, in addition, who preferred reading Joseph Conrad, that is a classic language perfectly at the service of worlds going to dissolve. Or Herman Melville, whose language echoed the construction of always monstrous subjectivities, as it happened in the years of revolution. Or William Faulkner, whose absolute subjectification of language proved itself fully, as a realistic alternative to the two greatest writers of linguistic deconstruction I have ever met: James Joyce and his deep synthetic excavating of events and languages, and Ezra Pound, when botching new figures of a global language, so to speak, in extent. These notes and the insistence I put on these authors show you how far, in the second half of my life, I could get away from the Teutonic “twentieth-century canon” I mentioned earlier. I think it a fundamental passage that swept away that idolatry for “big politics”, “great culture”, “big Frankfurt”, in which I was raised in the twentieth-century canon. By now, with the wickedness that old age adds to the quietness of the one who lived his life entirely, I can finally feel really healthier, once I took that trash off my shelves.

When philosophy or politics asks literature, does not the risk arise of “violating” it, forcing it in other languages that weaken it, or, on the contrary, has literature the power to invent and build up different worlds, and anticipate and point to changes politics cannot imagine? For example, I’m thinking of Covid-19, and the way some particular literary genre has always been picturing catastrophes and epochal changes.

Catastrophism and utopia have never been my favourite ground. When reading, I need some distance from extreme or terroristic situations. I prefer catastrophe and utopia at the cinema – and not so much … But let’s go back to sci-fi literature: I read a lot of it when I was a prisoner, the classics, I mean, from Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert – The Dune-, from James Ballard to Philip Dick, through Ursula Le Guin. I read a lot of it, but in a strange way – isn’t reading in prison like looking at oneself from the “outside” while being “inside”, like extending the sense of self through an external image of oneself? Also as to utopian literature, the political and the academic ones, well, all the same happened to me, that is, looking from the outside. In prison, charged with insurrection and the idea of a life sentence hanging over you, you needn’t reading matter that encourages to build castles on empty air.

You too tried literature, I think of the crime story, “La pipa spezzata”, and of the theatre series “Trilogia della differenza”, mostly unpublished.

I answer the two questions together. I don’t understand exactly what people are talking about when referring to “a materialistic literature”. Does it consist in storytelling? I can’t imagine a strong materialistic attitude but in debating, discussing, struggling … probably only on the stage. To say theatre means dialectics. Dialectics was born, in Hegelian Phenomenology, from the theatrical dialogues Diderot creates for his characters. But there are different dialectics – the idealistic one that is in search of agreement and reconciles in the sublime, in the sovereign, in what stays over, and the materialistic one that gives you a horizon, a scene, a very concrete way of imagining, women and men struggling, loving and dying, If this is a materialistic literature, sure, I always go on sinking in this stuff. Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller are authors I get in touch with again and again. To put it more plainly: I always suffer their contagion. After all, theatre was a kind of experience I attempted for some years and also got an unexpected success. Basically in France. Why did I get so involved in theatrical writing? Because in my experience in theatre an essential theme in my philosophical reflection – the relationship between decision and event – could be focused properly within a sort of materialistic teleology – a constructive and dynamic one. Together with all the alternatives these decision-making processes are subjected to in the dialectic with the event and the linguistic crossings deriving from it. I think it was a pivotal point in my experience as a writer. As for the attempt at shaping something into a story, La pipa spezzata, for example, no, it came to nothing, a jail experience, when not only me, but tens of comrades in prison tried to dream up to be writers.

I was told that you haven’t read a novel for ten years. So isn’t there the novel of our time?

Maybe there is, of course, – I haven’t found it, if you mean a novel related to the twenty-first-century as, in the words of György Lukács, Honoré Balzac was to the bourgeois nineteenth-century. Quite different if you are talking about, as I said, new linguistic forms … I don’t read novels for laziness, for weariness, because I’m overloaded with other reading. I start reading novels and then stop. They usually bore me. When I say that I haven’t read a novel for twenty years, of course I’m lying: but surely I haven’t read anything that got into my head, whereas I could talk a lot about movies stuck in my mind.

Is perhaps Petrolio by Pier Paolo Pasolini the last novel you read? I ask you that after I listened to your speech in a lecture of ICI in Berlin, where you acknowledged that he understood that the world’s neo-capitalistic transformations had already taken place completely.

I had read again Petrolio just on that occasion. Well, it was exactly a good example of a way of writing that tried to break the canon of modernity, that is, to overcome the usual ambiguity between a world flattened on despair and a hope impossible to be fulfilled. Here the great effort of Pasolini is to force this ambiguity to face the collective body of metropolis and politics. It’s an attempt at going through the bodies, at narrating through the bodies. It’s not enough. That ambiguity must be overcome, that dialectic must be broken. Pasolini succeeds in that in Salò and maybe in other movies, but not in Petrolio. Petrolio urges you to choose, to deconstruct, but doesn’t go beyond that; it stops there. It’s not an unfinished book, it’s an imperfect project. It’s not a book of this era, but a book that only skimmed over it in some very beautiful pages – but now we need a language that enables us to go out of the present, to live a future where today’s poverty can be wholly removed. A “dolce stil novo” for terrible times.

Qui l’intervista in italiano