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How To Live With Stones

An Open Letter to Subcommandante Marcos in the Mountains of Southeast Mexico

January 04, 1998|JOHN BERGER | John Berger is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including "Ways of Seeing," "Into Their Labours" and "G.," for which he won the Booker Prize in 1972

You described seven pieces of a puzzle that can never fit together. Each piece is as heavy with reality as granite. The puzzle is the product of the new world order imposed by neoliberalism. The fourth world war, you say, has already begun, and the contestants fighting for their market territories are causing devastation everywhere. The end of our century has become another Dark Age. Indeed.

Six pieces of the puzzle, which you found, explain the darkness. The last, the seventh, refers to the pockets of resistance that have formed or are forming: the Zapatistas in the Chiapas, Southeast Mexico, and others across the globe, not necessarily armed, each struggle adapted to its own geographic or social terrain.

I want to say something about these pockets. My observations may seem remote, but, as you say, "A world can contain many worlds, can contain all worlds."

The least dogmatic of our century's thinkers about revolution was Antonio Gramsci, no? His lack of dogmatism came from a kind of patience. This patience had absolutely nothing to do with indolence or complacency. (The fact that his major work was written in the prison in which the Italian Fascists kept him for eight years, until he was dying at the age of 46, testifies to its urgency.)

His special patience came from a sense of a practice that will never end. He saw close-up, and sometimes directed the political struggles of his time, but he never forgot the background of an unfolding drama whose span covers incalculable ages. It was perhaps this which prevented Gramsci from becoming, like many other revolutionaries, a millennialist. He believed in hope rather than promises, and hope is a long affair. We can hear it in his words:

"If we think about it, we see that in asking the question, what is man?, we want to ask: What can man become? Which means: Can he master his own destiny, can he make himself, can he give form to his own life? Let us say then that man is a process, and precisely, the process of his own acts."

Gramsci went to school, from the age of 6 until 12, in the small town of Ghilarza in central Sardinia. He was born in Ales, a village nearby. When he was 4, he fell to the floor as he was being carried, and this accident led to a spinal malformation that permanently undermined his health. He did not leave Sardinia until he was 20. I believe the island gave him or inspired in him his special sense of time.

In the hinterland around Ghilarza, as in many parts of the island, the thing you feel most strongly is the presence of the stones. First and foremost, it is a place of stones, and--in the sky above--of gray hooded crows. Every tanca--pasture--and every cork-oak plantation has at least one, often several, piles of stones, and each pile is the size of a large freight truck. These stones have been gathered and stacked together recently so that the soil, dry and poor as it is, can nevertheless be worked. The stones are large, the smallest would weigh half a ton. There are granites (red and black), schist, limestone, sandstone and several darkish volcanic rocks like basalt. In certain tancas, the gathered boulders are long rather than round, so they have been piled together like poles and the pile has a triangular shape like that of an immense, stone, wigwam.

Endless and ageless dry-stone walls separate the tancas, border the gravel roads, enclose pens for the sheep or, having fallen apart after centuries of use, suggest ruined labyrinths. There are also little pyramid piles of smaller stones no larger than fists. Toward the west rise very ancient limestone mountains.

Everywhere a stone is touching a stone. And here, over this pitiless ground, one approaches something delicate: There is a way of placing one stone on another that irrefutably announces a human act, as distinct from a natural hazard.

And this may make one remember that to mark a place with a cairn constituted a kind of naming and was probably among the first signs used by man.

"Knowledge is power," wrote Gramsci, "but the question is complicated by something else: namely that it is not enough to know a set of relations existing at a given moment as if they were a given system, one also needs to know them genetically--that's to say the story of their formation, because every individual is not only a synthesis of existing relations, but also the history of those relations, which means the resume of all the past."

On account of its strategic position in the western Mediterranean and on account of its mineral deposits--lead, zinc, tin, silver--Sardinia has been invaded and its coast line occupied during four millenniums. The first invaders were the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Pisans, the Spanish, the House of Savoy and finally modern mainland Italy.

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