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Tuesday, June 16, 2015


There are two ways to drive from Amherst, MA to Boston:  the southern route, along the Massachusetts Turnpike, and the northern route, along route 2.  Since route 2, which takes about an hour and a half, runs right past the inner Boston suburb of Belmont, that was my usual choice during the seven years that I commuted from Belmont to Amherst.  [My first wife had been appointed to a professorship at MIT in the Humanities Department, so we moved to the Boston area.]  One day, as I was on my way home, I fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road onto the wide grassy divider.  I was jolted awake and got back onto the road without damage to myself or the car, but I was terrified by what had happened and made an appointment at the Sleep Clinic at Peter Bent Brigham, one of the classy Boston hospitals.  They wired me up and had me spend all night at the clinic, sleeping while they measured lord knows what.  The verdict was that I was not getting enough of the right kind of sleep.  The problem, they decided, was that my facial and bodily tics and twitches, with which I have been afflicted since childhood, were jolting me to less restful levels of sleep during the night.  The chief specialist [who was, as I recall, about eight months pregnant] said that there were some powerful drugs that could control the tics, but their side effects were rather scary, and she thought that if I had made it to my fifties with the tics, they were probably not a good idea.  Instead, she suggested that I stop drinking many cups of regular coffee every day, since the caffeine was almost certainly interfering with my sleep.  So over a three or four week period, I weaned myself off caf and onto decaf, and I have been drinking nothing but decaf ever since.

After that wakeup call [as we may perhaps label it], I began to realize that the problem manifested itself in many other ways besides nodding off at the wheel.  I had never really thought much about the fact that all my life, I have found my eyelids growing heavy when I read [but not when I write – maybe that is why I write more than I read!]  It occurred to me that normal people can probably sit reading a book for an hour without having to shut their eyes and take little naps.  When I started playing lots of card games on my computer, I noticed something really odd.  Quite often, when I reach that point in a game of FreeCell or Spider Solitaire at which one move remains to win the game, I fall asleep for a few moments.  When I wake up and look at the game, I see that it requires one last move, which I then make.  The tiny nap is automatic, and I have no awareness until after the fact that I have nodded off.

Is this narcolepsy?  Well, the specialist did not use that term, and a little Googling tells me that I do not have many of the standard symptoms of that condition.  Some of the stories about people with narcolepsy are really bizarre, like the young newspaper reporter who would fall asleep while interviewing someone or the grade school teacher who had to excuse herself periodically and go to the ladies’ room, where she would sit on the toilet and nod off for a few moments before returning to her class.

The tics and twitches, by the way, are a source of great embarrassment to me.  My friends and family say they hardly notice them, but they are just being kind.  On the handful of occasions when I have seen myself on television, I have been mortified.  In my entire life, only one person has been open and honest enough to comment on the twitches – a little boy in the Northampton Cub Scout Troop of which I was Cubmaster for three years, who came up to me after a meeting once and asked, naively, “Mr. Wolff, why do you make funny faces?”


classtruggle said...

It is in such personal reflections that readers such as myself are reminded of the power of truth and honesty. There is much value in these personal stories, giving one insight into the experiences of people whose works we've either read about or whose visions we have shared. Sometimes the trauma that is caused by feelings of inferiority, self doubt or incompetence can result in one spending more time alone, thus contributing to the sense of separateness from others. In other cases, it can lead to empowerment and a desire to help others, in spite of the strongest repressive forces and limitations set by personal circumstances.

Take the personal stories of Gramsci’s childhood which give insight into the person he would later become.For those who do not know, Gramsci was born in the village of Ales, on the island of Sardinia (where he remained until he was 20 years old), one of the poorest regions of Italy, in 1891. When he was only four, due to an accident involving a nanny, he slipped and fell down some high stairs. The haemorrhaging lasted for days and for the next several months he lingered between life and death. As he recalled many years later: “The doctors had given me up for dead, and until about 1914 my mother kept the small coffin and little dress I was supposed to be buried in.” By the time he reached six years old, his hunchback and stunted growth (his adult height was shorter than five feet) became a source of misery and hopelessness, particularly in a society that was very cruel and unsympathetic.

As a child, the humiliation, harassment, and persecution took its toll on him but it also taught him to be resilient and determined in the face of great adversity. He remembered an experience from his childhood that awoken in him a sense of an overwhelming power in himself:

“When I was a child the boys of the town never came near me except to make fun of me. I was almost always alone. Sometimes, finding me by chance among them, they hurled themselves against me, and not only with words. One day – and while he told me this his great eyes shone with an inner light - … they started to throw stones at me with more violence than usual, with the evilness which is found among children and the weak. I lost patience, and grabbing stones I too started to defend myself with such energy that my attackers were put to flight. Mario, I succeeded in beating them: I terrified them to such an extent that from that day they respected me and no longer annoyed me. I ran to my mother … and told her of my first victorious battle: she kissed me tenderly and it was the best prize that I could have wanted”

classtruggle said...

There is no doubt that Gramsci witnessed enormous, pain, oppression, and cruelty in the world while growing up. For example, when he was eight, he saw something that impressed him and that had a profound impact on his thinking and outlook:

“It is all a matter of comparing one’s own life with something worse and consoling oneself with the relativity of human fortunes. When I was eight or nine I had an experience which came clearly to mind when I read your advice. I used to know a family in a little village near mine: father, mother and sons: they were small landowners and had an inn. Very energetic people, especially the woman. I knew (I had heard) that besides the sons we knew, this woman had another son nobody had seen, who was spoken of in whispers, as if he were a great disgrace for the mother, an idiot, a monster or worse. I remember that my mother referred to this woman often as a martyr, who made great sacrifices for this son, and put up with great sorrows. One Sunday morning about ten, I was sent to this woman’s: I had to deliver some crocheting and get the money. I found her shutting the door, dressed up to go out to mass, she had a hamper under her arm. On seeing me she hesitated then decided. She told me to accompany her to a certain place, and that she would take delivery and give me the money on our return. She took me out of the village, into an orchard filled with rubbish and plaster; in one corner there was a sort of pig sty, about four feet high, and windowless, with only a strong door. She opened the door and I could hear an animal-like howling. Inside was her son, a robust boy of 18, who couldn’t stand up and hence scraped along on his seat to the door, as far as he was permitted to move by a chain linked to his waist and attached to the ring in the wall. He was covered with filth, and his eyes shone red, like those of a nocturnal animal. His mother dumped the contents of her basket – a mixed mess of household leftovers – into a stone trough. She filled another trough with water, and we left. I said nothing to my mother about what I had seen, so great an impression it had made on me, and so convinced was I that nobody would believe me. Nor when I later heard of the misery which had befallen that poor mother, did I interrupt to talk of the misery of the poor human wreck who had such a mother”

classtruggle said...

The physical and mental suffering that plagued him from early childhood to late adulthood, also allowed him to rebuild his life according to a new vision. The sequence of events during the earlier part of Gramsci’s life motivated and inspired him to pursue his vision of a future society, a vision driven by compassion and tireless determination. It is for this reason that Gramsci’s mature thought cannot be separated from his experiences with poverty, ignorance and brutality in rural Sardinia. “My entire intellectual formation was of a polemical nature” he wrote in the darkness of his prison cell where he was held, “so that it is impossible for me to think ‘disinterestedly’ or to study for the sake of studying.” [Many of you will remember that C Wright Mills suggests that the essential elements of what he calls the sociological imagination is our ability to understand the connections between private troubles and public issues].

In short, because of these experiences, Gramsci went on to lead an extraordinary life and produced a magnificent body of work that is unique within the Marxist literature. He was a committed communist, and an outstanding Marxist philosopher, “the most original thinker produced in the West since 1917” in the words of the late, great, Eric Hobsbawm.