Today I am in possession of three diplomas, two from universities and one from a college: one I obtained in Australia, at the Holmes College of Melbourne, one in Spain, from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and one in Italy from the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. I have no idea what they are worth. Perhaps nothing, perhaps they are just pieces of paper and nothing more. But I have never been interested in qualifications. Whenever I took an exam the challenge was always with myself. I wasn’t desperate to get a diploma, I was desperate for knowledge; it wasn’t for the professors that I racked my brains, but because I needed to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. I wanted to understand the world, I wanted to know languages, to understand peoples, life, everything. My motto was and still is: I don’t know, therefore I suffer.
At any rate, and without wishing to offend educational institutions, I regard myself as self-taught. I did not meet the writers and people who transformed me, formed me, opened my eyes and revolutionized my existence in schools or universities but in real life and in the course of my reading. The books that I have read and the experiences that I have had have been my teachers; they are what have given meaning to my life, illuminated it.
However, even if the diplomas I own are worthless, I paid a high price for them. I would say, a very high price. Before I obtained them I had to overcome obstacles, make sacrifices, give in to necessity, tolerate abuse. Often I was barely able to survive on the money I made from a range of humiliating jobs that were unpleasant and dangerous, degrading jobs which alienated me, deprived me of every ounce of energy, turned me into a commodity and a mediocre, common, cheap commodity at that.
It still makes my hair stand on end when I remember knocking down a high wall that wobbled perilously between two inhabited buildings in Paris. It had been left there for no apparent reason after the two blocks had been built. It was dangerous and could have collapsed at any moment, putting the lives of the people who lived there at risk and seriously damaging the apartments on the ground floor. The company in charge of the work had not found anyone willing to demolish it: it was too risky. So I did it.
Once, in Victoria, Australia, I spent two weeks alone under a fierce sun in an arid, lonely, snake-infested place digging the foundations of some silos with a spade and pickaxe. I remember that sometimes I would raise the pickaxe and swing it straight above my head, holding it motionless like that for a few moments while I looked up at the sky arching over me in all its immensity. That sight triggered a million thoughts, and especially made me feel comic, ridiculous, great. There I was, a mere atom in the universe, with a pick in my hands, covered with sweat and burnt by the sun, squinting at that marvellous infinity between one blow and the next. Then I would start to roar with laughter, to guffaw all by myself in the middle of those vast, remote plains. However, it was not long before the laughter turned into reflection, lengthy, solitary reflection which provided no answers to my questions.
I did these hard and dangerous jobs because it was a way of making more money. Sometimes in only two or three weeks I earned far more than I would have done if I’d worked in a factory for several months. This enabled me to pay for my studies, take private lessons, and meant that I could afford to take time off work whenever I had important exams to prepare.
When I earned myself the job of tour guide at Paris Vision in Paris it seemed unreal, a dream, I simply could not believe it. How had I, a semiliterate, starving shepherd boy from Calabria managed to get this far? How, how, how? I didn’t know how, but I had done it.
That evening, after hearing this wonderful news, I went home, my heart racing with excitement. I would dearly have loved to have been able to share my euphoria, that special, wonderful moment of my life with someone, someone who was close to me, but there was no one. Even though I knew people, I was alone. As soon as I had closed the door behind me I threw myself onto the bed, pressed my face into the pillow and I cried and cried and cried. Never before had crying been so heartfelt, so meaningful.
From then on the quality of my life changed radically, definitively, substantially: from then on my life was no longer a commodity at the service of those who can never get enough from you: my life now had meaning, it had become my property, it had become my life!