The leap


When I was sixteen, resolute in the face of my mother’s objections, I went away, leaving my family, my animals, the place where I was born, and I set off for northern Italy.

In Turin I slept in cold, dark, wretched garages, with snow on the roof and water dripping inside. Sometimes I lived in dilapidated, filthy houses where there was no toilet, no drinking water, nothing at all, only a dirty mattress on the floor where you slept in your clothes beside strangers. Most of the time I worked on building sites.

My first love story, with a girl from Reggio Emilia,  ended painfully. She was semiliterate and so was I: we had no future. And I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to study.

In spite of the industrial atmosphere of the city and the tough life I led there I liked Turin: it opened my eyes, awoke in me a taste for life and for a world that I was impatient to discover.

In the army anyone who had not completed elementary school had to attend classes, so that included me. While I was learning Italian, I taught myself French with the aid of a bilingual dictionary- Ghiotti if I remember well- and I read as much as I could of whatever I could lay hands on or my army companions lent me: comics, books, newspapers, magazines. I read greedily and I loved stories about people’s experiences. I used to look up any words I didn’t understand in a dictionary. Shortly before the end of my military service, the army teacher presented me with my school leaving report, saying:  “At least this’ll help you get a job as a dustman!”

One evening in Paris, a few years later, I was in a drugstore near the Arc de Triomphe, where I used to go to eat on Saturday evenings before going to the cinema (my reward to myself after a week of work and study), I decided to have a look around the shop which was enormous and sold all kinds of things. I gazed at it all with longing. Everything seemed to shine, everything seemed unreal, fantastic, of another world. My wanderings gradually led me to the bookshop where I picked up “Lettre ouverte à un jeune homme”, by André Maurois. I read the back cover, the first page, I browsed through it, reading bits here and there, and the more I read the more I was aware how reading had enslaved me. I went to the checkout and bought it. That evening I didn’t go to the cinema. I went back home and, still fully clothed, threw myself down on the bed with that book in my hand and I didn’t get up until I’d finished reading it.

In the day I worked, in the evening I went to school. I wanted to become a surveyor and then to go on to study engineering. I wanted to get a degree, I wanted to make money, buy myself a Mercedes and, thus armed, with degree, money and Mercedes, go first to Trieste to show that army teacher that I had not become a dustman (I have nothing but respect for dustmen today but at that time I felt differently) and then go back to my village to show my family what I had achieved.

But that’s not how it turned out. That evening in Paris, after reading “Lettre ouverte à un jeune homme”, the murky world that uncle Carlo had made me aware of when I was not much more than a child returned to haunt me. All those unanswerable questions swarmed back into my mind. André Maurois’s book had set me thinking, had made me realize that what I was studying at school was not going to help me penetrate the mysteries of existence. As well as that it had strengthened my convictions as to the direction I intended to give my life. In fact that very evening I stopped wanting to be an engineer, stopped wanting to make money, stopped wanting to buy myself a Mercedes, or go back to Trieste or to my village and I threw myself body and soul into the reading of books which satisfied the needs of my heart, and into studying languages and literature.

Later, as I grew older, I discovered that it was easier to study languages if you lived in the places where they were spoken. So that’s what I did. I proceeded to learn several languages and I travelled a lot. To learn English I went to Australia; to Germany for German; to Denmark for Danish; to Spain to learn Spanish. Whenever a new idea took hold of me I would leave whatever country I was in and set off for another without a penny to my name and without knowing a soul in the place I was going to. I arrived at my destination and, communicating as best I could, plunged straight in: first I looked for work, then somewhere to sleep, and finally a language school.

After a while I realized that even though I loved languages and literature very much they were not enough to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. I was aware that I was missing something, I was missing another kind of knowing, a knowing made of concrete, less abstract, contrived things. And that is how, albeit rather superficially, I came to add astronomy, biology and Darwinian evolution to my linguistic studies. I attended courses and lectures where and when I could. I read books on all these subjects, a lot of books, as many as I could borrow from libraries or could buy. All this reading, without me realizing it, had gradually stolen my brain: I was no longer myself.

I remember that in Australia, in the evening after work, I would travel miles and miles by bus on a long, straight rollercoaster of a road, to attend an anthropology course at the University of Monash. More than once on the way back, when I was dead tired, I would fall asleep and the bus driver, who knew where I had to get off, would give me a shake when we reached my stop and shout : “It’s time to wake up!”  Jolted awake by those words, I shot off the bus like a bullet.

Some years later at the University of Melbourne, at a seminar on the Big Bang, I met Roger, an American student from Kansas. We became friends. He worked too, but only part-time, and we used to get together sometimes. Roger was studying philosophy and he used to talk to me about it. In his opinion science explained how the world was made whereas philosophy taught us how to live and whether life had a meaning or not. It fascinated me to hear him speaking of these things. The more he spoke about it the more intrigued I became, I was enthralled. Thanks to Roger, whenever I could, I attended a philosophy course at the Council of Adult Education, and lectures and seminars held by philosophers who came to speak of their studies, work and research.

From Per una filosofia perenne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *