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SOURCE: "Greatest Story Ever Told … by a Communist," in Film Comment, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 22-24.
[In the following review, Butcher asserts that "The Gospel According to St. Matthew is incomparably the most effective picture ever made on a scriptural theme."]
Almost from the beginning of the commercial cinema, it was discovered that the religious film, preferably a religious epic or spectacular, was one of the most foolproof formulas for box-office success. From the earliest Quo Vadis or Ben Hur, the religious picture has packed them in and even in this materialistic age still does.
Those interested in religion, and even those interested in the cinema, have become increasingly despondent about this. It was not, we felt, Cecil B. DeMille's ingredients of sex and scripture that were really going to fire people with the love of God. Indeed, most of the really good religious films have not been found among the great religious epics, though the most recent Ben Hur was pretty good of its kind. There have been pictures like Monsieur Vincent which, by the marvellous acting of Pierre Fresnay as St. Vincent de Paul and the solid worth of its presentation, really did make one feel that it was possible to recognise a saint when one met him. Or they have been raw, angry pictures like Cielo Sulla Palude, whose portrayal of St. Maria Goretti's ordeal was so realistic that it got itself banned from Ireland, simply for telling the facts of that most savage of stories. Or they have been challenging, provocative movies like Leon Morin, Priest, which brought into contemporary terms the problem of the priesthood in the modern world.
Recently, two major films have been made on the gospel story itself. It was perhaps hardly fair to The Greatest Story Ever Told that we saw it after we had seen (at the London Film Festival) Pier Paolo Pasolini's incomparably better The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The great ponderous American epic had a far less chance to shine beside the Italian work than had there been nothing but the disastrous King of Kings with which to compare it.
The two films—the one made in America by George Stevens at enormous cost and on an enormous scale with a vast cast of famous names, the other made in Italy at a fraction of the cost and on a scale which can almost be described as domestic—provide almost every contrast that one might care to make. And to my mind, excellent through the intentions of the Hollywood film undeniably are, there is absolutely no doubt that the Italian is not only a much better film, artistically and technically, but also certainly the more authentically religious work, for all that its director is an Italian communist! [author's italics]
That this judgment is not entirely personal prejudice is demonstrated by the fact that not only did the International Catholic Office of the Cinema (OCIC) award its prize to Pasolini's film, but the assembled officers of OCIC, gathered from all over the world in Assisi for their general annual meeting, gave it the Grand Prix, thus making it clear that they considered this picture to be, of all pictures produced in the year, the one which contributed most to the development of spiritual and human values, as well as being outstanding for its technical and artistic standards. Remarkable, you may well feel, that a specifically Catholic organization, meeting in Italy of all countries, felt strongly enough about a picture to make so controversial an award. But once you have...
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seen the film, you understand exactly why this revolutionary step was taken.
The commercial cinema has been making scriptural spectaculars for something like fifty years. While we were told in advance that The Greatest Story Ever Told was going to be different, except for the skilful use of modern techniques like Panavision, Cinerama and Technicolor, it is hardly any advance on the earlier pictures. The opening sequences of the Magi and the stable are really nothing like so good as the opening sequences in Ben Hur; while the camel caravan in the desert with the Christmas card star above it is unbelievably tasteless. Dedicated moviegoers may have found themselves wondering, as I did, whether the heavily symbolic line of crucified corpses on the road taken by Mary and Joseph could have been borrowed from the final shots of Spartacus. It must be agreed that some of the most valid sequences of this very, very long film were unashamedly borrowed, and borrowed from a category of film in which American directors hardly ever put a foot wrong—the western. So we smiled, but appreciatively, when the Roman soldiers were lined up in silhouette along a bluff, in the fashion of countless Indian marauders; and the murderous charge of Herod's troops upon the Innocents at play could have been duplicated from almost any Civil War film; and both these loans were at once effective and beautiful. Which is not what one could say about the vast blown-up buildings which housed Herod or Pilate or the Ark of the Covenant—they seemed to have been lifted from the architectural excesses which loaded the second (and inferior) half of Cleopatra.
Pasolini's film, on the other hand, came again and again with a salutary shock of surprise, starting with the very first sequence. Gospel was shot in a series of episodes in which the scale was clearly deliberately reduced. With neither the money nor the facilities to embark on farflung locations, Pasolini made his picture in the rock country of his own southern Italy, as bare and as austere as Stevens's American desert, but far more intimately related to the scale of men working for their living in an unkind land. Pasolini employs no stars. His Christ is a young Spanish student with a thin, stern face, wind-blown hair and a rare, sweet smile, but his performance is allowed to be more significant than the great Swedish actor von Sydow in the American epic. Pasolini has—quite naturally, considering his own background—treated the gospel more as a divinely-inspired document of social revolution than as a great panorama of historical events—the blind see, the lame walk and, above all, the poor have the gospel preached to them.
When we come to what Stevens made into great set-pieces—the entry into Jerusalem or the Last Supper—Pasolini makes them as domestic as he can. I have never seen any representation of the Last Supper which made one feel so immediately "This is how it must have been"—a gathering of tired men who love each other sit down to a meal in a humble room and, suddenly, become aware that this is something quite different from anything that has ever happened before.
And this, surely, is the true aim of a religious picture—that it should disconcert and dislocate the comfortable preconceptions of the believer and, at the same time, make the unbeliever feel that after all there is something valid and important in a story that he has dismissed as a pious convention. It was not for nothing that this intelligent and sensitive Italian Marxist dedicated his picture to "the memory of good Pope John" who achieved very much the same kind of breakthrough to the world, making even the most cynical acknowledge the tremendous power of sheer goodness and charity.
In my opinion, The Gospel According to St. Matthew is incomparably the most effective picture ever made on a scriptural theme, and it reduces the grandiose Greatest Story Ever Told, however good its intentions may have been, to the proportions of a conventional "holy picture."
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Pier Paolo Pasolini 1922–1975
Italian poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, critic, editor, short story writer, screenplay writer, film director, and actor.
The following entry presents criticism of Pasolini's work through 1997. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 20 and 37.
Although recognized outside his country primarily as a filmmaker, Pasolini was well known in Italy for the strong and controversial views on Marxism and religion he presented in his poetry, novels, and essays. Over the course of his career, his observations on Catholicism, communism, and the existing social order alternately pleased and angered conservatives and leftists alike. Central to Pasolini's life and works were his despair over Italy's impoverished conditions and his anger over the indifference of the materialistic bourgeoisie. Joseph P. Consoli, writing in Gay & Lesbian Literature, observes, "Without a doubt, the author's homosexuality, or as the Italians call it, inversion, contributed to Pasolini's predilection to view his subject matter from nonconforming, contrary, yet innovative, perspectives."
Pasolini was born March 5, 1922, in Bologna, Italy. His father was a career army officer, a fact which forced political awareness upon the boy at an early age. His childhood and early adult experiences in the poverty-stricken village of Casarsa, located in the province of Friuli, inspired his lifelong identification with the poor. Pasolini was called to military duty in September 1943 but escaped after just a week and returned to Casarsa, where he was strongly influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, the leading theoretician of Italian communism. Pasolini took a teaching position in a public school while engaging in frenetic intellectual and artistic pursuits, writing and publishing poetry in the Friulian dialect; these activities became his forms of resistance against Nazism and Fascism. In 1949, Pasolini was arrested and accused of "the corruption of minors and committing obscene acts in a public place." The charges were eventually dropped, but the ensuing scandal—Pasolini lost his teaching position and was expelled from the Italian Communist Party—forced him and his mother to move to Rome, where he became immersed in the slum life of that city.Pasolini was murdered the night of November 1-2, 1975; his death is considered an ironic end to a life spent absorbed in and concerned with the violent nature of contemporary society. Reports of his death often conflict, but most sources agree that the young man convicted of the crime struck Pasolini with a board and then ran over him with his own car. What is still debated is the killer's motive: some say he was an innocent boy who panicked when Pasolini propositioned him; other reports indicate that he was a street hustler who was picked up by Pasolini and then killed him, while still others theorize that the killer was an assassin sent by one or more of Pasolini's political enemies to murder him under embarrassing circumstances.
Pasolini has been called one of the most notable poets to have emerged during post-World War II Italy. He wrote his earliest poetry in the northern Italian peasantry's native Friulian language in the hope of creating a literature accessible to the poor. Pasolini rejected the official Italian language, believing it had been created by and for the bourgeoisie. These early poems appear in his first booklet of verse, Poesie a Casarsa (1942), and in an expanded and revised version, La meglio gioventu (1954). These works center on his renunciation of Catholicism and his endorsement of Marxism. Other early poems, along with some experiments in the tradition of religious poetry, are collected in his second volume, L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (1958). The poetry of Le ceneri di Gramsci (1957; The Ashes of Gramsci) and La religione del mio tempo (1961; The Religion of My Time) reflects, among other beliefs, Gramsci's idea of a "popular national literature." Pasolini's later poetry, Poesia in forma di rosa (1964) and Poesie (1970; Poems), is more autobiographical and confessional, yet the political concerns central to the majority of his works are still evident.
Pasolini's experiences in the Roman slums and his impressions of urban poverty inspired two novels: Ragazzi di vita (1955; The Ragazzi) and Una vita violenta (1959; A Violent Life). These highly controversial novels were largely responsible for Pasolini's notoriety. Here again, Pasolini rejected formal, official language in favor of dialect, in this case "a harsh, often crude and obscene, minimized Roman street vocabulary," Consoli explains. The Ragazzi centers on a group of youths whose poverty has led them to a life of violence, crime, and indiscriminate sex. Rejecting the official language of the bourgeoisie, Pasolini liberally utilizes Roman dialect and slang. Though free of authorial intrusion, the work is considered an indirect attack on the Italian establishment; its depiction of Italian young people was particularly shocking. Harshly realistic in its explicit language and political implications, The Ragazzi angered many factions of the community and resulted in Pasolini's prosecution for obscenity, of which he was acquitted. A Violent Life is the second book of his unfinished trilogy on street life. Similar in theme and milieu to The Ragazzi, A Violent Life was praised abroad for its realism and the characterization of its protagonist. After his death, two previously unpublished autobiographical novels, Amado mio and Atti impuri, were published under the title Amado mio in 1983. These works explore Pasolini's homosexuality and his emotional torment over what he saw as the disintegration of Italian society.
During the last fifteen years of his life, Pasolini made films in which he sought to combine his socialist sensibilities with a profound, nondenominational spirituality. His films were often anti-Catholic in their implications and controversial for their explicit sexual subject matter. Among his best-known films are Accattone (1961), adapted from Una vita violenta; Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964; The Gospel According to Saint Matthew); Teorema (1968; Theorem); and Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975; Salò: 120 Days of Sodom). Pasolini films traverse a constantly changing range of styles and contents, and his handling of the medium was at times coarse and graphic. He used nonprofessional actors and avoided many standards of the industry, choosing his subject matter from classical legends, tragedies, political diatribes, and other unconventional sources.
Critical reaction to Pasolini's work generally extends beyond its value as literature or film, considering also its implications for political and religious thought. "Pasolini was first a thinker, and then an artist," Consoli remarks, relating a comment from Stefano Casi, who said that despite the many genres in which he worked, "In reality only one definition can render with precision the area of cultural diligence attended to by Pasolini: intellectual." Critics tend to look for meanings and messages beyond the actual storylines of Pasolini's work, often interpreting them as evidence of his stance for or against a particular theory, practice, or governing body. The often conflicting messages of his various works led many to define him as indefinable: Edmund White described Pasolini as "a sort of Marxist and, off and on, a Communist, but his politics were too personal, too shifting and too adversarial to fit into any orthodoxy." Also common in critical discussion of Pasolini's work is the subject of obscenity: the graphic nature of much of his work is seen by some as crucial to its message and by others as gratuitous. Some critics have linked this issue with Pasolini's tendency toward impassive recording of events. Robert Crichton found "an almost perverse misplacement of emphasis" in The Ragazzi, noting that "pages are devoted to stealing six or eight cauliflowers and a paragraph or two to burning a boy at the stake." These critical themes followed Pasolini when he began to explore filmmaking, a transition which brought new complaints as well. Critics were divided over condemning Pasolini for his lack of technical skill or seeing his directorial style as brilliant in its simplicity. John Bragin wrote, "In contrast to most first films Accattone is completely free of technical experiment. It evokes the same tone of sanctity as much of Pasolini's poetry by its direct, frontal presentation of events and characters." Pasolini's third film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, won the approval of the International Catholic Office of the Cinema (OCIC), which awarded the film its Grand Prix in 1965, "thus making it clear," Maryvonne Butcher stated, "that they considered this picture to be, of all pictures produced in the year, the one which contributed most to the development of spiritual and human values, as well as being outstanding for its technical and artistic standards."
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SOURCE: "Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Interview with James Blue," in Film Comment, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall, 1965, pp. 25-32.
[In the following interview, Pasolini discusses how he approached his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew and explains his use of non-professional actors.]
[BLUE:] I have been wondering what I should ask you. Often I ask questions of directors that seem a little stupid, you see, but I don't want to avoid those, for finally the stupid questions are the ones to which I most want reply. I know that it will be difficult—I don't think I would be able to answer very well concerning my own films—but I hope that your replies help me to arrive at certain conclusions later. Have you understood?
[PASOLINI:] Yes, I understand.
You know I'm compiling a book on the directing of the non-actor. I am meeting many directors. The book is primarily a way for me to organize my own thinking and to take advantage of the experiences of other directors in order to see how I may be able to create more completely a kind of human existence in front of the camera, without the use of professional actors, and without falling into cinema conventions. The ideas I'm looking for have been discreetly developing for twenty years. So that's why I'm writing this book, to clarify my ideas. Have you understood?
Yes, very well.
Let me start with a question that may seem stupid—how do you create? Are you aware—even vaguely—of certain recurring processes? What helps you? What pushes you to create? When you want to work, what steps do you take to get started?
What is it that urges me to create. As far as film is concerned, there is no difference between film and literature and poetry—there is this same feeling that I have never gone into deeply. I began to write poetry when I was seven years old, and what it was that made me write poetry at the age of seven I have never understood. Perhaps it was the urge to express oneself and the urge to bear witness of the world and to partake in or to create an action in which we are involved, to engage oneself in that act.
Putting the question in that manner forces me to give you a vaguely spiritualistic answer … a bit irrational. It makes me feel a bit on the defensive.
Some artists collect information on a subject, like journalists. Do you do this?
Yes, there is this aspect, the documentary element. A naturalistic writer documents himself through his production. Because my writing, as Roland Barthe would say, contains naturalistic elements, it is evident therefore that it contains a great interest in living and documentary events. In my writing there are deliberate elements of a naturalistic type of realism and therefore the love for real things … a fusion of traditional academic elements and of contemporary literary movements.
What bought you to The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and once you had the idea, how did you start work on it? Why did you want to do it?
I recognized the desire to make The Gospel from a feeling I had. I opened the Bible by chance and began to read the first pages, the first lines of St. Matthew's Gospel, and the idea of making a film of it came to me. It's evident that this is a feeling, an impulse that is not clearly definable. Mulling over this feeling, this impulse, this irrational movement or experience, all my story began to become clear to me as well as my entire literary career.
Once you had this feeling, what did you look for to give it form, to make the feeling concrete?
I discovered first of all that there is an old latent religious streak in my poetry. I remember lines of poetry I wrote when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and they were of a religious nature. I realized, too, that much of my Marxism has a foundation that is irrational and mystical and religious. But the sum total of my psychological constitution tends to make me see things—not from the lyrical-documentary point of view—but rather from an epic point of view. There is something epic in my view of the world. And I suddenly had the idea of doing The Gospel, which would be a tale that can be defined metrically as Epic-lyric.
Although St. Matthew wrote without metrics, he would have the rhythm of epic and lyric production. And for this reason, I have renounced in the film any kind of realistic and naturalistic reconstruction. I completely abandoned any kind of archaeology and philology, which nevertheless interest me in themselves. I didn't want to make an historical reconstruction. I preferred to leave things in their religious state, that is, their mythical state. Epic-mythic.
Not desiring to reconstruct settings that were not philosophically exact—reconstructed on a sound stage by scene designers and technicians—and furthermore not wanting to reconstruct the ancient Jews, I was obliged to find everything—the characters and the ambiance—in reality. And so the rule that dominated the making of the film was the rule of analogy. That is, I found settings that were not reconstructions but that were analogous to ancient Palestine. The characters, too—I didn't reconstruct characters but tried to find individuals who were analogous. I was obliged to scour southern Italy, because I realized that the pre-industrial agricultural world, the still feudal area of southern Italy, was the historical setting analogous to ancient Palestine. One by one I found the settings that I needed for The Gospel. I took these Italian settings and used them to represent the originals. I took the city of Matera, and without changing it in any way, I used it to represent the ancient city of Jerusalem. Or the little caverns of the village between Lucania and Puglia are used exactly as they were, without any modifications, to represent Bethelehem. And I did the same thing for the characters. The chorus of background characters I chose from the faces of the peasants of Lucania and Puglia and Calabria.
How did you work with these non-actors to integrate them into a story that was not their own, although analogous to their own?
I didn't do anything. I didn't tell them anything. In fact, I didn't even tell them precisely what characters they were playing. Because I never chose an actor as an interpreter. I always chose an actor for what he is. That is, I never asked anyone to transform himself into anything other than what he is.
Naturally, things were a little more difficult with regard to the main actors. For example, the fellow who played Christ was a student from Barcelona. Except for telling him that he was playing the part of Christ, that's all I said. I never gave him any kind of preliminary speech. I never told him to transform himself into something else, to interpret, to feel that he was Christ. I always told him to be just what he was. I chose him because he was what he was, and I never for one moment wanted him to be anyone else other than what he was—that's why I chose him.
But to make your Spanish student move, breathe, speak, perform necessary actions—how did you obtain what you wished without telling him something?
Let me explain. It happened that in making The Gospel, the footage of the characters told me almost always the truth in a very dramatic fashion—that is, I had to cut a lot of scenes from The Gospel because I couldn't "mystify" them. They rang false. I don't know what it is, but the eye of the camera always manages to express the interior of a character. This interior essence can be masked through the ability of a professional actor, or it can be "mystified" through the ability of the director by means of cutting and divers tricks. In The Gospel I was never able to do this. What I mean to say is that the photogram or the image on the film filters through what that man is—in his true reality, as he is in life.
It is possible at times in movies that a man who is devious and shady can play the part of one who is naive and ingenuous. For example, I could have taken a professional and given him the part of one of the three magi—an unimportant part—and by the way it is clear that there is a deep candor in the souls of the three magi. But I didn't use professionals, and therefore I couldn't have their ability to transform themselves into others. I used real human beings, and so I made a mistake and misjudged a man psychologically. My error was immediately evident in the photographed image. There is another rather unpleasant example that has sprung to mind—for the two actors who played those possessed by the Devil,—I chose actors from the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome. I chose them in a hurry. Later, I had to cut the scene because it was obvious that they were two actors from the Centro Sperimentale.
In reality, my method consists simply of being sincere, honest, penetrating, precise in choosing men whose psychological essence is real and genuine. Once I've chosen them, then my work is immensely simplified. I don't have to do with them what I have to do with professional actors: tell them what they have to do and what they haven't to do and the sort of people they are supposed to represent and so forth. I simply tell them to say these words in a certain frame of mind and that's all. And they say them.
To get back to Christ, once I had chosen the person whose essence or interior was more or less that needed to play the part of Christ, I never obliged him to do any specific things. My suggestions were made one by one, instance by instance, moment by moment, scene by scene, action by action. I said to him "do this" and "get angry." I didn't even tell him how. I simply said "you're getting angry" and he got angry in the way he usually got angry and I didn't intervene in any way.
My work is facilitated by the fact that I never shoot entire scenes. Being a "non-professional" director I've always had to "invent" a technique that consists of shooting only a very brief bit at one time. Always in little bits—I never shoot a scene continuously. And so even if I'm using a non-actor lacking the technique of an actor, he's able to sustain the part—the illusion—because the takes are so brief. And if he doesn't have the technical ability of an actor, at least he doesn't get lost, he doesn't freeze up.
Although I was able to find characters analogous to the wise men or to an angel or to Saint Joseph, it was extremely difficult to find a character analogous to Jesus Christ. And so I had to be content with finding someone who at least came close to resembling Christ externally and interiorly, but actually I had to construct Christ in the cutting room.
Although other directors make tests, I never make them. I had to make one for Christ, though—not for myself—but for the producer who wanted a certain guarantee. When I choose actors, instinctively I choose someone who knows how to act. It's a kind of instinct that so far hasn't betrayed me except in very minor and very special cases. So far I've chosen Franco Citti for Accattone and Ettore Garofolo for the boy in Mamma Roma. In La Ricotta, a young boy from the slums of Rome. I've always guessed right, that from the very moment in which I chose the face that seemed to me exact for the character, instinctively he reveals himself a potential actor. When I choose non-actors, I choose potential actors.
Naturally, Christ was a more difficult thing for me than Franco Citti because Franco, after all, was to play a part that was more or less himself. First of all, this young Spanish student at the beginning was inhibited about playing the part of Christ—he wasn't even a believer. And so the first problem was that I had playing Christ a fellow who didn't even believe in Christ. Naturally this caused inhibitions. This young student wasn't an extrovert or a simple, normal type of person. He was psychologically very complex, and for this reason it was difficult the first few days to get him to win out over his timidity, his restraint, his inhibitions, while for the other actors I didn't have this problem. The very minute I put them in front of the camera, they acted the way I wanted them to.
What did you do with your Spanish non-believing non-actor to get the results you wanted?
Nothing really. I simply appealed to his good will. He was a very intelligent and a very cultured young man who became bound to me by the friendship that grew up between us in those few days—however, he had the basis of an ideological background and a rather strong desire to be useful to me. It was by this means that he succeeded in overcoming his timidity.
As far as the rest goes, I had him perform in very small segments, one at a time, without even preparing them first. I would suggest the expressions while he acted. Inasmuch as we were shooting without sound, I could talk to an actor while he was performing. It was a little bit like a sculptor who makes a sculpture with little improvised blows of the chisel. While the actor was acting, I said to him "Look here"—and I told him each expression, one by one, and he followed them almost mechanically. I shot everything that way. He had the speech memorized more or less, and he began to say it. He had to—for example—take ten steps forward, or move, or look at someone. I never told him beforehand, except in a very vague way, what it was all about, and gradually as he performed, I said "now look at me … now look down there with an angry expression … now your expression softens … look toward me and soften your expression slowly, very slowly. Now look at me!" And so while the camera rolled, I told him these things. I prepared the action beforehand, in a very vague way, so that he would know more or less what he was supposed to do and where he was supposed to go. Whatever the nuances, the little movements, I suggested to him one by one. Prior to the shot, I gave him general movements and told him more or less what he was supposed to do. Then I explained these things more precisely while we shot. Once in a while I would surprise him—I would say to him "Now look at me with a sweet expression on your face." And while he did this I would say suddenly "Now get angry!" And he obeyed me.
Didn't this request make him attempt to imitate the way an actor he had seen got angry?
No. Actors would be tempted to do this, but one who is not an actor—for example, those whom I chose—would never do this. It's not possible, because they have never confronted themselves with the technical problems of an actor—that is, he doesn't have a technical idea of "anger," he has a natural and genuine idea of anger.
I've done this rather often in other films. For example, I would have the person say a line that was not what it was supposed to be in the text. If he was supposed to say "I hate you," I would have him say "Good Morning," and then when I dubbed I would put in "I hate you." Normally, I should have said to him, "All right now, say 'I hate you' as if you were saying 'good morning.'" But this is pretty complicated reasoning for a person who is not an actor. So I simply tell him to say "Good morning," and then in the dubbing I put in his mouth "I hate you."
For dubbing, do you use non-actors or professionals?
I do both. That is, I take non-actors who generally reveal themselves to be splendid dubbers. For Christ I was obliged to use a professional actor, so it depends on the circumstances. More than anything else, I try to balance everything out between the professional and non-professional performances. For instance, the boy in Mamma Roma did his own dubbing. But Franco Citti could not do his own dubbing, for even though he was bravissimo his voice was rather unpleasant. So I had him dub another character.
If you don't give the non-actor much explanation of character, do you at least tell him the story?
Yes, I do, in two words. Just out of curiosity. But I never go into a serious discussion with him. If he has any doubts … if he says to me "what do I have to do here," I try to explain to him. But always point by point, particular by particular, never the whole thing.
Do you add expressive gestures, which are not normally a part of the non-actor's personal comportment?
No, I never have him do gestures that are not his. I always let him use the gestures that are natural to him. I tell him what he has to do—for example, slap someone or pick up a glass—but I let him do this with the gestures that are natural to him. I never intervene regarding his gestures.
If I want to underline some act, I do so with my own means, with technical means—with the camera, with the shot, with editing. I don't have him emphasize it. Actually, I am very careful not to indicate to him the "intention," because these "intentions" are the phony part of the actor.
Do you trick at all, in order to produce emotional responses?
Up to now it has never happened. If it were necessary, I'd do it. It's never happened to me because my actors do not have petit-bourgeois inhibitions. They don't care. They do what I tell them, generously. Franco Citti, Ettore Garofolo, the protagonist of La Ricotta, and my Christ as well—they gave of themselves completely, blindly. They don't have that conventionality or false modesty of hypocrites, so I've never had to do this. However, if I had to trick, I'd do it.
Do you see a way of directing the bourgeois-class person who is a non-actor?
I was faced with this problem filming The Gospel. Whereas in my other films my characters were all "of the people," for The Gospel I had some characters who were not. The Apostles, for example, belonged to the ruling classes of their time, and so obeying my usual rule of analogy, I was obliged to take members of the present-day ruling class. Because the Apostles were people who were definitely out of the ordinary, I chose intellectuals—from the bourgeoisie, yes—but intellectuals.
Although these non-actors as Apostles were intellectuals, the fact that they had to play intellectuals removed, not instinctively but consciously, the inhibition of which you spoke. However, in the case of one's having to use bourgeois actors who are not intellectuals, I think that you can get what you want from them, too. All you have to do is love them.
How did you work with the intellectuals to rid them of their inhibitions?
The process was identical with that for the lower-class performers. With the former naturally, I used a language that was on a more elevated level. But my methods were the same.
Do you feel the need of knowing your people a long time before shooting, to make friends with them, to learn their natural gestures in order to use them later?
I had known Franco Citti for years, because he was the brother of a friend. I knew his character more or less. On the other hand, Ettore Garofolo of Mamma Roma—I saw him once in a bar where he was working as a waiter. I wrote my whole script around him without speaking to him further. Because I preferred not to know him. I took him and began to shoot after having seen him for just that one minute. I don't like to make an organized and calculated effort to know someone. If you can intuit a person, you know him already.
Generally I have very precisely in mind what I'm going to do. Because I've written the script myself, I've already organized the scene in a given way. I see the scene not only as a director but also with the different eyes of the scriptwriter. In addition, I choose the settings. I go to these places and make an adjustment of what I've written in my script to fit the place where we are going to shoot. And so when I go to shoot, I more or less know already how the scene is going to go.
I did this for every film except The Gospel. With The Gospel, the thing was so delicate that it would have been easy to fall into the ridiculous and the banal and the typical costume film genre. The dangers were so many that it wasn't possible to foresee them all. And it being so difficult, we had to shoot three or four times more material than necessary. In effect, most of the scenes I created in the cutting room. I shot the whole Gospel with two cameras. I shot every scene from two or three angles, amassing three or four times more material than necessary. It was as if I had done a documentary on the life of Christ. By chance. With the moviola, I constructed the scene.
Did you seek a particular style in the framing, and was this possible with two cameras going?
Yes, I always have a rather clear idea of the shot I want, a kind of shot that is almost natural to me. But with The Gospel I wanted to break away from this technique because of a very complicated problem. In two words it's this: I had a very precise style or technique with which I had experimented in Accattone, in Mamma Roma and in the preceding films, a style which is, as I said before, fundamentally religious and epic by its very nature. And so I thought that my style—possessing naturally these qualities of sacredness and epicness—would go well with The Gospel also. But in practice, that was not the case. Because in The Gospel this sacredness and epic quality became a prison, false and insincere, and so I had to reconstruct my whole technique and forget everything I knew, everything that I had learned with Accattone and Mamma Roma, and begin from the beginning. I relied on chance, on confusion, and so forth.
All this was due to the fact that I am not a believer. In Accattone, I myself could tell a story in the first-person because I was the author and I believed in that story, but I could not tell the story of Christ—making him the son of God—with myself as the author of this story, because I'm not a believer. So I didn't work as an author. And so this forced me to tell the story of Christ indirectly, as seen through the eyes of one who does believe. And as always when one tells something indirectly, the style changes. While the style of a story told directly has certain characteristics, the style of a story told indirectly has other characteristics. That is, if in literature I am describing Rome in my own words, I describe it in one style. But if I describe Rome—using the words of some Roman character—the result is a completely different style because of the dialect, the popular language, and so forth. The style of my preceding films was a simple style—almost straightforward, almost hieratic—while the style of The Gospel is chaotic, complex, disordered. Despite this difference in style, I shot all my films in little pieces all the same. Except the frame, the point of view, the movement of the extras were changed.
I have read that you have said that you have trouble with actors. Why is that?
I wouldn't like people to take this too literally, not in a dogmatic way. In La Ricotta I used Orson Welles and I got along beautifully with him. In the film I'm making now I'm going to use Totò, a popular Italian comic, and I'm sure everything will work out fine. When I say I don't work well with actors I'm uttering a relative truth—I want to be sure that this is clear. My difficulty lies in the fact that I'm not a professional director, and so I haven't learned the cinematographic techniques. And that which I have learned least of all is what they call the "technique of the actor." I don't know what kind of language to use to express myself to the actor. And in this sense, I'm not capable of working with actors.
After your directing experiences with Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma and Orson Welles in La Ricotta, what have you learned about using professional actors as distinct from non-actors?
The principal difference is that the actor has an art of his own. He has his own way of expressing himself, his own technique which seeks to add itself to mine—and I cannot succeed in amalgamating the two. Being an author, I could not conceive of writing a book together with someone else, and so the presence of an actor is like the presence of another author in the film.
With Welles, how did you get a result you felt was fruitful?
For two reasons—first of all in La Ricotta Welles did not play another character. He played himself. What he really did was a caricature of himself. And also because Welles, in addition to being an actor, is also an intellectual—so in reality, I used him as an intellectual director rather than as an actor. Because he's an extremely intelligent man, he understood this right away and there was no problem. He brought it off well. It was a very brief and simple part, with no great complications. I told him my intention and I let him do as he pleased. He understood what I wanted immediately and did it in a manner that was completely satisfying to me.
With Magnani, it was much more difficult. Because she is an actress in the true sense of the word. She has a whole baggage of technical and expressive notions into which I was unable to enter, because it was the first time I had any kind of contact with an actor. At present, I've had a little bit of experience and at least can face the problem—but at that time, I couldn't even face it.
Now that you have experience, have you thought how you may overcome this acting "baggage" of the professional performer? You said you are using Totò in your next film—have you reflected upon your way of directing him?
Yes, I think the way to get around this problem is to use the fact that they are actors. Just as with a non-actor I use a whole series of things unexpected and unforeseen—leaving them to their own vital confusion (for example, when I tell them to say "Good morning" instead of "I hate you"), leaving them to the ambiguousness of their being—so I must use the actor specifically for his actor's baggage. If I try to use an actor as if he were not an actor, I would be wrong. Because in the cinema—at least in my cinema—the truth always comes out sooner or later. On the other hand, if I use an actor knowing that he is an actor, and therefore using him for that which he is and not for that which he is not, I hope to succeed. Naturally, the character whom he interprets must be adapted to this idea.
It just happens that the characters in my new film are all ambiguous characters who have something real, human, profound about them, and at the same time something invented, absurd, clownish and fable-like. The double nature of the actor, Totò-man and Totò-Clown, this double nature can be used by me for my character. In Totò himself this double nature—man and clown, or man and actor—functions because it corresponds to the double nature of the character in the film.
Do you plan to explain to Totò this double nature you've outlined?
Yes, of course. As soon as I met him I explained that I needed a character just like himself. I needed a Neapolitan. Someone profoundly human, who has at the same time this art that is clownish and abstract. Yes, I told him right away.
Are you not afraid that now that he knows, Totò will try to play both the clown and the human being?
No, I told him to make him feel freer. Because I saw that he would worry about it. It's the first time that he has worked on a film that has this kind of ideological content. Of course, he has made several good films, but they were always on an artistic level, without political commitment. So probably he was a little worried. In order to leave him completely free, I told him—so that he could go on doing what he had always done, so he won't have to do anything different.
Do you rehearse a lot or do you shoot immediately?
I never rehearse. I shoot right away.
Does this impose simple camera work?
My camera movements are very simple. For The Gospel, I used camera movements that were a little more complicated, but I never use a dolly, for example. I've always shot in pieces. Shot by shot. A few pans and very simple tracking shots but nothing more.
What are your observations about the aesthetic and technical characteristics of film as you have gained experience?
My lack of professional experience has not encouraged me to invent. Rather it has urged me to "re-invent." For instance, I never studied at the Centro Sperimentale or any other school, and so when the time came for me to shoot a panoramic shot, for me it was like the first time in the history of cinema that a panorama was shot. And so I re-invented the panoramic.
Only a person with a great deal of professional experience is capable of inventing technically. As far as technical inventions go, I have never made any. I may have invented a given style—in fact, my films are recognizable for a particular style—but style does not always imply technical inventions. Godard is full of technical inventions. In Alphaville there are four or five things that are completely invented—for example those shots printed in negative. Certain technical rule-breakings of Godard are the result of a pains-taking personal study.
As for me, I never dared to try experiments of this kind, because I have no technical background. And so my first step was to simplify the technique. This is contradictory, because as a writer I tend to be extremely complicated—that is, my written page is technically very complex. While I was writing Una Vita Violenta—technically very complex—I was shooting Accattone, which was technically very simple. This is the principal limitation of my cinematic career, because I believe that an author must have complete knowledge of all his technical instruments. A partial knowledge is a limitation. Therefore, at this particular moment, I believe that the first period of my cinematic work is about to close. And the second period is about to start, in which I will be a professional director also as far as technique in concerned.
But what have you discovered about film in an aesthetic sense?
Well, to tell the truth, the only thing I discovered is the pleasure of discovery.
You're talking like Godard now.
I answered like Godard because the question is impossible to answer. Look, if I believed in a teleology of the cinema, in a teleology of development, if I believed in an end-goal of development, in progress as improvement … but I don't believe in a "bettering," an improvement. I think that one grows, but one does not improve. "Improving" seems to me an hypocritical alibi. Now, believing in the pure growth of each one of us, I see the development of my style as a continuous modification about which I can say nothing.
How do you conceive the structure of your films, what makes them move from one end to another?
It's too demanding a question. For the moment it's impossible to answer. But I would like for you to read in Cahiers an article I wrote. This question implies not only an examination of my films and my conscience, it brings up the question of my Marxism and my whole cultural struggle during the 1950's. The question is too vast. It's impossible.
But let me say this now in a very schematic fashion. At this point, the cinema is dividing itself into really two large trunks, and these two different types of films correspond to what we already have in literature: that is, one type on a high level and another type on a low level. While cinema production until now has given us films of both a high and low level, the distribution apparatus has been the same for both. But now the organization or structure of the cinema industry is starting to differentiate … the cinéma d'essai is becoming more important and will soon represent a channel for distribution through which certain films will be distributed, whereas the remainder of the distribution will take place normally. This will bring about the birth of two completely different cinemas. The high level of cinema—that is, the cinéma d'essai—will cater to a selected public and will have its own history. And the other level will have its own story.
In this important change, the selection of non-actors will be one of the most important structural aspects. Probably the structure of this high level cinema will be modified by the fact that no longer will there be an industrial organization hanging over it. And so all kinds of experiments will be possible, including that of using non-actors, and this will transform the cinema even stylistically.
In Cahiers, do you speak of aesthetic structure?
The structure of cinema has a special unity. If the structuralist critic were to describe the structural characteristics of the cinema, he would not distinguish a story cinema from a non-story cinema. I don't believe that this story distinction affects the structure of cinema; rather it affects the super-structure—I mean the style. The lack or the presence of a story is not a structural factor. I know that some of the French structuralists have attempted to analyse the cinema, but I don't believe that they have succeeded in making these distinctions.
Literature is unique, it has unity. Literary structures are unique and include both prose and poetry. Nevertheless, there is a language of prose and a language of poetry, although the literary structure is one. In the same way, the cinema will have these distinctions. Obviously, the structure of cinema is one. The structural laws regarding any film are more or less the same. A banal western or a film by Godard have structures that are fundamentally the same. A certain rapport with the spectator, a certain way of photographing and framing are the identical elements of all films.
The difference is this: the film of Godard is written according to the typical characteristics of poetic language; whereas the common cinema is written according to the typical characteristics of prose language. For example, the lack of story is simply the prevalence of poetic language over prose language. It isn't true that there isn't a story; there is a story, but instead of being narrated in its integrality, it is narrated elliptically, with spurts of imagination, fantasy, allusion. It is narrated in a distorted way—however, there is a story.
Fundamentally, the distinction to be made is between a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry. However, the cinema of poetry is not necessarily poetic. Often one may adopt the tenets and canons of the cinema of poetry and yet make a bad and pretentious film. Another director may adopt the tenets and canons of the prose film—that is, he could narrate a story—and yet he creates poetry.
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Poesie a Casarsa (poetry) 1942Poesie (poetry) 1945Suite furlan (poetry) 1947Poesie dialettale del Novecento [with Mario dell'Arco] (essays) 1952Le ceneri di Gramsci [The Ashes of Gramsci] (poetry) 1954Ragazzi di vita [The Ragazzi] (novel) 1955L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (poetry) 1958Una vita violenta [A Violent Life] (novel) 1959Passione e ideologia (1948–1958) (poetry) 1960La religione del mio tempo (poetry) 1961Accattone [Beggar] (screenplay) 1961Il sogno di una cosa [A Dream of Something] (novel) 1962L'odore dell'India [The Scent of India] (travel journal) 1962Mamma Roma (screenplay) 1962Il Vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to Matthew; edited by Giacorno Gambetti] (screenplay) 1964Poesia in forma di rosa (poetry) 1964Poesie dimenticate (poetry) 1965Potentissima signora [with Laura Betti] (poetry) 1965Ali dagli occhi azzurri [Roman Nights and Other Stories] (short stories) 1965Uccellacci e uccellini [The Hawks and the Sparrows] (screenplay) 1966Edipo re [Oedipus Rex; edited by Gambetti] (screenplay) 1967Teorema (novel and film adaptation) 1968Medea (screenplay) 1970Poesie (poetry) 1970Trasumanar e organizzar (poetry) 1971Empirismo eretico [Heretical Empiricism] (essays) 1972Calderon (play) 1973Tal cour di un frut: Nel cuore di un fanciullo (poetry) 1974La nuovo gioventù: Poesie friulane, 1941–1974 (poetry) 1975Trilogia della vita [Trilogy of Life] (Il Decameron, I racconti di Canterbury [Canterbury Tales], Il fiore delle Mille e una notte [Arabian Nights]) (screenplays) 1975Scritti corsari (essays) 1975Le poesie (poetry) 1975Petrolio (unfinished novel) 1992
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SOURCE: "Ragazzi Will Be Ragazzi, and Sometimes They'll Be Scugnizzi," in The New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1968, pp. 4, 44.
[In the following review, Crichton criticizes The Ragazzi, asserting that "there is a sensation of the writing being fashioned because the style is fashionable, that it is an artifice, not an art, a stylization and not a style."]
Thirteen years ago, when this book was published in Italy, it set off a storm of controversy. There were those who wished to do to the author what was done to Mussolini: up by the heels in some vacant lot in the shabby outskirts of town, Pasolini country. American readers today will be puzzled about the reasons for the uproar. By present standards The Ragazzi conceivably could be merchandised as one of those hip "young adult" novels coming into vogue.
There isn't much to be puzzled about. As Luigi Barzini has documented, the Italians have perfected the ability to deceive themselves about the reality of life around them to a form of art. Someone else has pointed out (me, in fact) that if the mass of Italian peasants ever allowed themselves to face what the future held in store for them there would be lines of people outside graveyards demanding to be buried.
Because of this need for self-deception, the first condition imposed on Italian writers is that they make life bearable and acceptable. To his credit, Pasolini chose not to do this. He wrote, instead, about the ragazzi, the street urchins of Rome, specifically the ones who came to age in the disjointed and disillusioning years after the war, the way they were. Pasolini's ragazzi lie and steal. They are cruel and cynical; they despise authority, mock the church, experience sexual intercourse while still in short pants. Worst of all, they actually use all those words that everyone in Italy hears them use every hour of the day.
So the roof fell in. Pasolini had broken the code. In fairness to critics the use of the title word was partly to blame. Ragazzi actually means "kids," and the term thus implies that the book is a picture of all Italian youth. Pasolini is actually writing about a sub-breed—the deserted, desperate, homeless waifs of Italy known as scugnizzi. The word derives from the verb scugnare, which means "to gyrate, to spin around like a top," which is marvelously descriptive.
Pasolini, then, deserves credit for courage, but a nagging question remains: Does his book have any value or meaning for Americans today? The answer is, not very much. Part of the reason for this lies in the form of the book, and part in the author's approach.
This is not a novel, but a loosely connected series of sketches, verbal pictures, unresolved short stories and fragments of life, sometimes revolving around a boy named Riccetto, sometimes around his friends and sometimes around no one in particular. There is no effort to transfigure experience or to make any of it meaningful, even that which is meaningless. The result is an imbalanced mass of behavioristic description, whose intent is not to re-create a human being or a life, but to expose a condition of life.
This in itself needn't have been fatal if the approach had been different. Pasolini seems to be saying that one can't question, one can't reflect, probe, comment; one can only record. While reading his book, I had the distinct image of the author trailing his subject through the weeds of the vacant lots where most of the scenes take place—hand-held camera whirring quietly, recording, recording, but always only the surface of things, life as seen through a strip of film darkly. It came as no surprise to learn that the publisher compares his work with the neo-realist films (Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief) that came out of Italy just after the war, or that Pasolini has spent the major part of his energies in film making during the last ten years.
Pasolini's book, "the non-committed" novel, represents a kind of writing that continues to have an effect on American writers and intellectuals, is generally considered "serious" (it rarely contains any humor) and is rewarded with a highly inflated respect. Because the author is really a camera, because the writing is really notes for a future producer, the prose often lacks energy, becomes secondary. To cover this lapse of literary imagination, however, writers have discovered the winning effect of what used to be thought of as "existential" prose. More recently, it has come to be known as a sort of "white style," where everything is impersonal, dry, devoid of emotion, not abstract in the way of Kafka, but transparent in the way of film.
There is always the sensation of a lens between the matter and the beholder. The effect, worked at, is one of flatness. The tone is down, everything down, always down, very fashionably down—and that is ultimately, the word for the style, fashionable.
Years ago, I ended a short story this way: "They told him she was dead. He went out into the hall. It was bright in the hall. He noticed one of the bulbs was out. Someone would have to fix that bulb. Outside it was cold. It hadn't been cold before but now it was cold. He noticed the leaves were falling. Someone was going to have to rake those leaves." Down, man! Bulbs going out, repetitive words, leaves falling. As much attention paid to a blank bulb as a human death. The writing is what I term "ostentatious simplicity."
There is almost a perverse misplacement of emphasis in this fashionable writing. In The Ragazzi, pages are devoted to stealing six or eight cauliflowers and a paragraph or two to burning a boy at the stake.
There are a few writers who use these techniques in a legitimate way. I think of Cesare Pavese and Tomasso Landolfi, both simple and quiet, almost as if in protest to their loquacious countrymen. For some reason their writing is genuine, there is the hint of genius operating and the simplicity of the prose strikes one as stemming from compressed intelligence.
But for the others—and for this novel—there is a sensation of the writing being fashioned because the style is fashionable, that it is an artifice, not an art, a stylization and not a style. Here is the end of Pasolini's book. It's about as bad as the end of my short story:
"There wasn't even a car going by, or one of the old buses that ran through that section. In the enormous silence, all you could hear was a tank, lost somewhere beyond the playing fields in Ponte Mammolo, plowing up the horizon with its roar."
Some silence! Some tank! Some book!
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SOURCE: "Gadda, Pasolini, and Experimentalism: Form or Ideology?" in From Verismo to Experimentalism: Essays on the Modern Italian Novel, edited by Sergio Pacifici, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 246-69.
[In the following excerpt, Ragusa compares the works of Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda and explores each writer's relationship with experimentalism.]
The subject of this essay is threefold—threefold precisely in the sense which the title implies of simply juxtaposing the names of two writers and a concept rather than relating them more closely at a deeper level. To do full justice to the complex development of Carlo Emilio Gadda, to the equally complex but entirely different development of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and to the multiple aspects of linguistic and structural experimentation in Italian literature, three distinct and quite extensive studies would be required.
The connection between Gadda and Pasolini is not genetic. Although to the hasty reader the two are united by their rejection of the traditional literary language and their tapping of the dialect resources of Italy, it cannot truly be maintained that the older writer is a necessary premise for the younger, as Virgil was for Dante, Mallarmé for Valéry, or Shakespeare for Manzoni. Pasolini's work, which ranges from lyric to philosophical poetry, from political to literary journalism, from travel reports to film scenarios, is not patterned on the example—the Italians would say "the lesson"—of Gadda, who made his debut in 1926 in the pages of the review Solaria with literary essays and narrative fragments that owe much to the hermeticism of that time.
But though the connection is not a genetic one, it exists. And it exists primarily by virtue of the concept of experimentalism. The term was first used by the Romance philologist Gianfranco Contini in his studies of early Italian literature. It was then chosen by Pasolini to describe an important, and to him determining, aspect of the poetic production of the Fifties. And finally it was adopted by the new avant-garde, the so-called Gruppo 63. This group of writers—this "new literary generation," as their mentor Luciano Anceschi called them—first gathered together in 1963 at a noisy literary congress in Palermo which reminded many of the participants of the fuss and fanfare raised half a century earlier by the futurists. The writers of Gruppo 63 were convinced that, as one of their exponents put it, the literature of the future would be marked by experimentation with form and not with subject matter, that is, by a new use of the means of expression rather than by raising to literary dignity—as was done in naturalism, for instance—subjects that had formerly been avoided. Angelo Guglielmi, one of the theoreticians of the group wrote:
Up to now language has tried to reflect reality as in a mirror. Henceforth language must take its place at the very heart of reality and instead of being a mirror must become a faithful recording machine. Or, as a second solution, language must remain outside and look in at reality as through a filter, so that objects will appear in distorted, surrealistic, or hallucinatory images and forms, and thus once again be capable of revealing their hidden meanings.
In the new literature, then, and in the experimental novel, as it was soon to be called, language would no longer state and describe, but mimic and express. Pasolini made a similar distinction in the 1956 article "Il neo-sperimentalismo" referred to above, when he opposed the "stylistic syndrome of the new 'committed' writers" to "pathological, expressionistic neo-experimentalism." But while both uses of language, the mimetic and the expressionistic, appear true and revolutionary innovations with respect to its conventional use in narrative to reflect the chronology of events in terms of logical discourse, only the second, the expressionistic, actually represents a total subversion of the accepted social and psychological structures. Only the expressionistic use of language, in the words of another critic, concerns itself with "the perceptual level, with the way in which time and space are conceived, how objects are seen, how feelings are recognized and designated, how syntax is articulated." Or to return to the connection between Gadda and Pasolini, only Gadda—for reasons that I hope will become clear in the course of this essay—is recognized by the new avant-garde, whether it thinks of itself as politically committed or uncommitted, as a true and authentic forerunner.
There are certain obvious differences between Gadda and Pasolini, a consideration of which will, I believe, place the discussion of their work in a better perspective. The first—and it is no mean one—concerns the generation to which each belongs. Gadda was born in 1893; Pasolini, in 1922. Both, upon reaching manhood, found themselves on the threshold of war. But though some historians like to link the two World Wars, seeing in the second merely a continuation of the first, they were in fact quite dissimilar, both in the manner of fighting and in the changes which each brought to the social environment. Gadda fought in the First World War; he was captured and spent a long time in a prison camp made famous in the history of Italian literature because he had as barracks mates Ugo Betti, destined to become Italy's most important playwright after Pirandello, and Bonaventura Tecchi, who became a writer and scholar of repute and held the chair of German literature at the University of Rome until his death in 1968. During his early years Gadda witnessed and lived through that collapse of old and well-established values which characterizes the transition period between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The world that is reflected in most of his works is that of the stable fin de siècle bourgeoisie, specifically of the Milanese upper classes—whose children were taken to play in the park of the Castello; who were concerned with keeping their houses in immaculate order; who built summer villas among the hills of the Brianza, the gentle countryside north of Milan immortalized by Manzoni; and whose family memories included the still vivid recollections of Hapsburg rule, felt not so much finished and done with as simply removed in time.
Pasolini, instead, spent his childhood following his army officer father from one military post in northern Italy to another. In 1943 while he was studying at the University of Bologna, he was evacuated, as were thousands of other civilians all over Europe. He was sent to Casarsa, the village in the Friuli from which his mother came. There, in that northeastern corner of Italy close to the Yugoslav border, he watched the Partisan warfare, which was as distinctive of the later years of the Second World War in occupied Europe as trench warfare had been of the First. Pasolini's earliest works were poems in Friulian, inspired by his love for the simple, instinctive peasant life of a rural region that progress had bypassed, the same region that a century earlier served as the setting for Nievo's wonderful contes champêtres. But Pasolini's interest in dialect poetry was not limited to his practice of it. A number of essays attest to his broader view, and in 1955 he published an important anthology of Italian dialect poetry, Canzoniere italiano. Its long introductory essay combines scholarly competence with a Marxian interpretation of the relationship of folk and art poetry, dwelling on the reasons for the progressive disappearance of folk poetry in the awakening class consciousness of the backward peasant populations on their way to urban proletariat status. Marxism, of course, is a doctrine that played no role in the formation of Gadda, whose whole orientation was away from the political and economic problems of society and toward those of the individual and collective psyche. Indeed, in the figures of Freud and Marx, we have as good symbols as any to epitomize the historico-cultural differences in the situation we have been discussing.
The second difference between Gadda and Pasolini concerns their temperaments. There seems to be something eternally young in Pasolini, and this impression is borne out by his restless seeking for always new avenues of expression: from poetry to militant journalism, from the novel to cinema. Gadda, by contrast, was born old, old and weary, with a tendency to pessimism, to bitter humor, to foreseeing catastrophes and therefore treading lightly. In the self-portrait which Pasolini contributed in 1960 to a volume of autobiographies by contemporary Italian writers, he speaks of his daily routine, and especially of his tireless wanderings through Rome, the city to which he moved in 1950:
I spend the greater part of my life beyond the edges of the city, or as a bad neo-realist poet imitating the hermetics would say, beyond the city's end-stations. I love life with such violence and such intensity that no good can come of it. I am speaking of the physical side of life: the sun, the grass, youth. It is an addiction more terrible than cocaine. It doesn't cost anything, and it is available in boundless quantities. I devour it ravenously…. How it will all end, I don't know….
In his contribution to the same volume, Gadda wrote:
By temperament I am rather inclined to solitude, incapable as I am of chattering vivaciously, uninterested in mundane social life. I approach my fellow-men and associate with them with a certain amount of difficulty and hesitation; the hesitation and difficulty increase, the more virtuous they are. In the presence of another human being I feel like a student at an examination. Instead, in my leisure hours I take pleasure in clarifying some "algebra" to myself. This tires me less than a drawing-room conversation where I am forced to appear witty and intelligent without being either.
The juxtaposition of the two passages suggests that we are dealing with two personalities that would have manifested opposite characteristics even if the external circumstances of their lives had been identical. Gadda and Pasolini were not only born into different historical times; they were born as two completely different psychological types. The two facts that psychoanalytically inclined critics would pounce on and magnify—that Gadda and Pasolini both lost a dearly loved and not easily forgotten older brother through war, and that each had a typically ambivalent relation to his parents—turn out to be insignificant and nondetermining in the light of the broad attitudes toward life which make the one man a misanthrope and the other—if I may be permitted to give the word its etymological meaning—a philanthrope. This divergence in basic personality traits is of necessity reflected in the manner in which each faces his task as a writer.
During a recent trip to the United States, the novelist Italo Calvino told of a radio talk on the building industry which Gadda was once asked to give. It seems that he spoke first, with scientific precision, of houses built of reinforced concrete and how it is impossible to insulate them against noise. He then went on to the physiological effects of noise on the nervous system. And finally in a display of verbal fireworks he burst forth against the noises of city life themselves. A similar mounting progression is recalled by Gadda in the self-portrait from which I quoted earlier. He speaks there of the many "philosophical meditations," all written in excellent prose (i.e., conventional style), which he has stored away at home and which are survivals of a time when he had not yet devoted himself to narrative writing. He then mentions the effects the experience of the war had on him: how because of it he turned from philosophy to the vicissitudes of human life and found himself torn between a strong predisposition to give expression exclusively to his lyric and satirical veins and an equally strong desire to understand his fellowmen by "noting down events." Finally he acknowledges that for him writing is often a means of "seeking vengeance" for the injuries inflicted on men by fate: "So that my storytelling often manifests the resentful tone of the person who speaks while holding back his wrath, his indignation." The anecdote and the self-analysis reveal that Gadda did not choose the narrative style which is most closely associated with his name because he was incapable of expressing himself in any other way. Rather he chose it—or it chose him, a formulation closer, as we shall see, to his view of the polarization of tensions which determines the relationship between the writer and his subject—because it alone could give shape to the noumental reality, that "algebra" of the universe, which he pursues. On this last point, it might be fruitful to consider carefully the answer Gadda gave when in 1950 he was asked for his opinion on the then triumphant school of neorealism. He voiced his lack of sympathy for its basic assumptions in these terms:
It is all well and good to tell me that a volley of machine gun fire is reality. But what I expect from the novel is that behind those seven ounces of lead there be some tragic tension, some consecution at work, a mystery, perhaps the reason for the fact, or the absence of reasons…. The fact by itself, the object by itself, is but the dead body of reality, the—pardon the expression—fecal residue of history. I would therefore want the poetics of neo-realism to be extended to include a nouminous dimension.
The search for the nouminous dimension is what gives its peculiar form to Eros e Priapo (Da furore a cenene), 1967 [Eros and Priapus (From Frenzy to Ashes)], Gadda's most recently published work. In spite of what the jacket blurb claims, this is not an antinovel—except if we are ready to make of this expression a catchall for everything that we cannot define otherwise; nor is it a piece of historical writing, history being the complement to fiction as a narrative mode. Eros e Priapo, an indictment of the Fascist era, might be called a psychoanalysis of history, conceived as a scientific research problem with theorems and propositions, but conducted with a virulence and an emotional involvement which allow for no other conclusion than the one already implied in the premise. Specifically, it is an exposé of the pathology of exhibitionistic narcissism and its effects on an audience (in this case the Italian people under fascism), seen with the devastating clarity and single-mindedness of an individual who could never be a consenting and participating member of that audience. Early in the book Gadda states that his purpose in writing it is to induce self-knowledge, for "only an act of knowledge can bring about the resurrection of the Italian people, if indeed resurrection can even be attempted from so horrendous a ruin."
The two novels of Gadda's I am about to discuss also deal with knowledge. The first is a detective novel manqué, which means that the quest for the specific knowledge which is its objective is eventually foiled. The second proclaims by its very title that knowledge is its subject, and it is in fact a meditatìon on anguish and not the dramatization of that feeling through a story. Both novels can also be said to deal with ruin, "frenzy and ashes." In the first, crime upsets the social order and allows all the baseness and vileness that usually lies hidden under the mantle of convention to rise to the surface. In the second, it is mental disease, il male oscuro (the dark evil), which muddies the waters and breaches that moral order which appeases the savage drives in man and makes civilized living possible. In neither novel do we reach the stage of "resurrection," that is, of catharsis. They are both unfinished, perhaps unfinishable….
For all its being rooted in historical and geographical reality, Quer pasticciaccio is a novel that has left naturalism behind. Not that Gadda's imagination is not nature-bound, as is attested by his strongly concrete and sensual vocabulary. As a matter of fact, he seems to take contact with the world almost exclusively through the senses. His verbal ingenuity, his creative facility, remind one often of the physical pleasure of "mouthing" words, an extension of the joys of the palate, of his self-confessed gluttony. There is a magnificent passage to be mentioned in this connection, an unforgettable episode in La cognizione del dolore which shows the principal character gorging himself on an enormous lobster. It is carried off with such Rabelaisean gusto that it reveals the hand of the man both attracted and repelled, but essentially fascinated, by "oral" excess. Excess of this kind leads inevitably to deformation, and the world Gadda writes about is deformed by his singular, eccentric—I am tempted to say, in this connection, artistic as opposed to moralistic—vision. In this sense Gadda has gone well beyond naturalism in its literary-historical definition. Like the expressionists in the very years when he began to write, he must have felt at one time that it was senseless to set about "reproducing" the world as it is, that it is indeed impossible to do so, given the absence of any permanent rapport between the individual and reality.
Much of what we have said about Quer pasticciaccio also holds true for La cognizione, but generally to a more concentrated degree. Quer pasticciaccio is an unfinished work; La cognizione is not only unfinished but also fragmentary. In Quer pasticciaccio the creation of suspense inherent in the detective story is constantly undercut by the author's pursuit of the verbal and other associations that come his way. In La cognizione the story line at one point breaks down completely. (It is taken up again in Part Two, both parts of the book dealing with the same subject matter in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.) Quer pasticciaccio goes deep into the amalgam of petty crime, violence, and unspoken wrongs; La cognizione adds to these the horror of unresolved guilt. In Quer pasticciaccio the setting is not only recognizable as Rome, it actually is Rome; in La cognizione the setting is recognizable as Lombardy, but is actually, within the fiction of the book, the imaginary South American country of Maradagàl. In Quer pasticciaccio the principal character, who is searching for the nouminous reality of life, is a stand-in for the author; in La cognizione the principal character is even closer to being the author himself (he is a war veteran, has lost a brother in the war, and suffers from a mysterious malady which renders life bitter and unendurable), although he hides under the fictional identity of Gonzalo Pirobutirro d'Eltino, hidalgo and engineer of Maradagàl. La cognizione has one quality which Quer pasticciaccio lacks: it is a book about suffering, and its vehemence is therefore frequently softened to elegy. It is a more human book built around a truly tragic if monstrous character.
More even than Quer pasticciaccio it is a book for connoisseurs, with hardly a word in it that is not intended to call to mind another word, to refer to some cultural or literary experience of Italian history. While the ordinary reader can approach the Rome of Quer pasticciaccio, find his way in it, and move among familiar monuments, only a learned and sophisticated reader will be able to identify in the landscape of Maradagàl not merely the landscape of the Brianza, but the landscape of the Brianza as seen in Manzoni's I promessi sposi. Failure to note connections such as this one would seriously impede not only the comprehension but the enjoyment of the book. It is essential, for instance, that in the passage which describes the mountain Serruchòn the reader be able to detect beneath Gadda's words the counterpoint of Manzoni's description of the same—or is it another?—mountain, the Resegone. Gadda plants an open clue by referring to the Resegone by name; but it is not sufficient to recognize the source intellectually, it must also be savored esthetically by "close" and expert reading. La cognizione del dolore is a book that clamors for an annotated edition, to make explicit its wonderful richness of references, its extraordinary abundance. The English translator of Quer pasticciaccio, William Weaver, has done something of this in his edition of That Awful Mess. Unfortunately, his explanatory notes are limited almost exclusively to historical and political references, thus magnifying the element of anti-Fascist satire which is present in the book, but which by this treatment receives undue emphasis at the expense of the subtler, more literary aspects of the work of this most literary, most idiosyncratic and socially alienated of contemporary Italian writers.
In reviewing Quer pasticciaccio in 1958, Pasolini recognized in it a stylistic versatility which, he said, would make a critic like Spitzer as exhilarated—and the comparison is his—as a mouse in a chunk of cheese. Pasolini analyzed briefly four basically different uses of dialect in the book; pointed to the extraordinary range of its syntactical forms, even coining the word hypertaxis to place beside the more usual parataxis and hypotaxis for describing Gadda's "monstrous syntactical jungle"; and compared Manzoni's and Gadda's use of tenses as a key to their respective narrative techniques. As can be seen, his is a most competent and expert approach, a far cry from the run-of-the-mill practice of journalistic reviewing, which looks for little more than a novel's relationship to everyday reality. As a reader of Gadda, Pasolini certainly ranks with the best. In an earlier review of a collection of Gadda short stories, Novelle dal Ducato in fiamme, 1953 (Stories from the Duchy Aflame), he had surveyed, again with economy and concentration, the nineteenth and twentieth century literary precedents to which Gadda owes aspects of his style: the "art prose" movement of the Twenties, which treated prose as though it were poetry and against which specifically the neorealists reacted; Verga's "narrated interior monologue"; Manzoni's continuing orientation to the Lombard components of his culture, even under the surface aspiration to national unity; the social satire and irony of the Roman dialect poet Belli; and the post-Romantic avant-garde movement of the Piedmontese and Lombard scapigliati, whose truly revolutionary experimentation with linguistic and literary forms is barely beginning to be studied. In view of the breadth and depth of Pasolini's understanding of Gadda and of his admiration for what he calls "that very great mind and heart," it is all the more interesting to note his formulation of the latter's shortcomings. I pass here from the context of esthetics and literary craftsmanship to that of ideology and from the novelist Gadda to the novelist Pasolini.
Speaking of Pasolini earlier, I referred briefly to the role played by the partisan movement in the formation of his basic sympathies and convictions. The struggle for liberation from fascism during the later stages of the War was felt by the more idealistic and committed of its exponents as the beginning of a new era in Italian history, the harbinger of a social revolution which would finally wipe out all class and regional inequalities. This feeling of buoyancy persisted in spite of many disappointments and delays until roughly the time of the Hungarian uprising, an event which seriously shook confidence in the Communist solution to Italy's problems. Pasolini's political optimism, nurtured in the successful defeat of fascism, combined with his personal responsiveness to others and his acceptance of Marxism as a unifying ideological structure for judging progress, enabled him to focus on what he sees as the reactionary side of Gadda's position. [In a review of Quer pasticciaccio,] Pasolini presents Gadda as simultaneously accepting and rejecting the social reality of Italy as created by the middle classes in the wake of the Risorgimento. The resultant ambivalence caused that feeling of despondent anguish and that "tragically mixed and obsessive style" which are the marks of Gadda's helpless and ever renewed fury at finding institutions which are potentially good turned into organizations which are actually bad. "Gadda belongs to an historical time," Pasolini concludes, "when it was impossible to see the world—this magma of disorder, corruption, hypocrisy, stupidity, and injustice—in a perspective of hope."
The full significance of this statement becomes apparent when we examine Pasolini's two novels, Ragazzi di vita … and Una vita violenta…. In both Pasolini would like to see the world "in a perspective of hope" but both of them fall short of being true documents, the first of the "magma of disorder … and injustice" which must be destroyed, the second of the awakening of the social consciousness through which this destruction will be effected.
Ragazzi di vita is a novel because it deals with a group of fictional characters, the course of whose life we follow during a determined period of time. But it could just as easily be conceived of as a series of vignettes or episodes only loosely related to one another, whose main function is the representation of a milieu rather than the construction and revelation of a character. Ragazzi di vita came out at the height of the neorealistic vogue and was read at first as a document of the desperate conditions of the Roman subproletariat in the disconsolate slums springing up with unbelievable rapidity on the outskirts of the city.
The documentary aspect of the book appeared to be underlined by the glossary of dialect terms and underworld jargon which Pasolini provides at the end. To some readers the list seems incomplete and insufficient, although it is true, as Pasolini claims in his covering note, that comprehension of the story or of any one episode of it is not really impeded by the inability to translate into standard Italian every one of the rude, vulgar, obscene expressions which occur in the speech of its protagonists. Pasolini feels that no reader coming upon these words for the first time could fail to grasp their meaning through intuition of the context in which they are used. And indeed the dialogue which makes up so much of the book is little more than a string of curses, cries, expletives, urgings, exclamations—the typical "conversational" exchanges which occur when people do not speak to one another but simply, almost by the accident of propinquity, share common experiences.
Dialogue in novels has often been used to discuss important philosophical problems or to introduce the author's personal convictions. Nothing could be further from Pasolini's practice. His message is never entrusted to the words of his characters. Rather it is implicit in his representation of selected conditions, or, in some rare cases, in his own narrated third-person comment on what he is telling. Thus, for instance, there is an episode toward the end of Ragazzi di vita in which one of the protagonists returns to the factory area which had figured in the opening pages. Almost everything is changed: the buildings and grounds are now shining with cleanliness and order, and a new, unbroken wire fence surrounds them. Only the watchman's hut is still the same: it continues to be used as an abusive public latrine. "That was the only spot that Riccetto found familiar," Pasolini unobtrusively comments, "exactly as it was when the war had just ended."
The time span covered by Ragazzi di vita goes from the liberation of Rome in 1944 to the early Fifties. Riccetto, who might be considered the principal character if for no other reason than that he is most frequently on stage, lives through the years of his adolescence: he is eleven and receiving his first communion when the story begins, eighteen and having served a three-year term in jail when it ends. In noting with precision the exact limits of the historical situation which serves as background, Pasolini is fulfilling one of the desiderata of the esthetics of neorealism, which calls for the concrete rooting of fiction in a definite and verifiable reality. But Ragazzi di vita is in no sense an historical novel. It has nothing of Pratolini's Metello where historical events are made part of the plot. Nor do historical events shape its story as they do, in however muted a manner, in Verga's I Malavoglia, for instance. Ragazzi di vita gives back the "color" of a time only in an episodic, allusive manner. Thus we have in the early pages of the book the description of the pilfering of food and other necessities characteristic of day-to-day existence in occupied Rome. There is reference to the emergency housing of the homeless and the destitute—as a matter of fact, Riccetto's mother is killed in the collapse of an old school building which had been turned to this use. And there is an endless stream of "things," objects of all sorts from sewer lids to automobile tires to articles of furniture, which at one time or another fetched a good price on the market of stolen goods. We have, in other words, the landscape made familiar by films such as Bicycle Thief, but without the underlying ethic of that film which dealt with a man's effort to make good, to find his place in society through his work. The protagonists of Ragazzi di vita do, from time to time, work. They sometimes have money, not necessarily honestly come by. And that money quickly slips out of their fingers again, for they do not consider it as a means of insuring security, of building a place for themselves in society—witness the amusing episode at Ostia, where the fifty-thousand lire that Riccetto had just stolen from swindlers for whom he was working are with a Boccacioesque twist in turn stolen from him.
The truth of the matter is that Riccetto and his friends are outsiders, typical juvenile delinquents unable and unwilling to make the compromises necessary to find their way into a social order, and that it is therefore difficult to consider their stories as representative of a socio-historical condition. Though Ragazzi di vita can be read as a Marxist indictment of the capitalist society which makes lives such as it describes possible, it is in no way an example of socialist realism, for it sets up no exemplary hero who through his awareness of the dynamics of social change can become the potential founder of a new order. Ragazzi di vita is the representation of a nether world no less absolute than that of Quer pasticciaccio. No broad and happy roads leads out of this world, toward that triumph of reason which Marxist writers, mindful of their Enlightenment origins, like to prognosticate.
But if the vision of the road leading to the transformed society is missing in Ragazzi di vita, it is not because Pasolini, as we have seen in his review of Quer pasticciaccio, does not consciously believe in its existence. It is simply that he has lost sight of it while telling his story, while exploring with loving attention the teeming life of the Roman underworld. For that underworld has a vitality for him, a gay insouciance, a forceful optimistic élan, a joie de vivre, that obscures its horror. As one of the gang exults, referring to the company that finds itself associated in petty crime one epic night at the Villa Borghese: "Two from Tiburtino, one from Acqua Bullicante, two from Primaville, one deserter, and Picchio here from Valle dell'Inferno: why, we could band together and found the League of the Suburbs of Rome!" One hears echoes of the exploits of the Three Musketeers, of the Chevaliers de la Table Ronde of ballad fame, of all the merry bands that have roamed the face of the earth, recklessly following where adventure called….
The first reviewers of Ragazzi di vita singled out its social nihilism and its literary estheticism for special criticism. Pasolini's insistence on a monotonous and unrepresentative segment of the Roman subproletariat seemed to them a deformation and a stylization of reality which went counter to the fundamental documentary intention of neorealism. Moreover, an episode such as the one in which the thoughts of a couple of mongrel dogs during a fight are recorded as though spoken in the same dialect used by the human protagonists of the book was cited as a clamorous instance of that flight from naturalistic objectivity to decadent self-indulgence which was also underlined by the picaresque aspects of the novel.
In an essay on Italian dialect poetry which he had written some years earlier, Pasolini had already implicitly defended his narrative approach in Ragazzi di vita. In speaking of the Roman poet, Gioacchino Belli, the nineteenth century interpreter of the feelings and opinions of the city's unruly populace, he emphasized, as many other observers had done, the uniqueness of the Roman citizenry, those descendants of the plebs of antiquity, who in the midst of splendid testimonials of their past have always lived and continue to live outside of history, that is, outside the awareness and the dynamics of change. To the ideal of progress conceived in terms of social betterment, these people substitute the excitement of life lived exclusively for the moment, the happy-go-lucky acceptance of whatever opportunities, however slight and brief, chance offers them. To represent this "aristocratic Roman proletariat"—the expression is Pasolini's—in their saga of roguish adventure is thus, Pasolini claimed, to reflect the "real" Rome, the Rome that rebels against the political and economic structures of bourgeois society not by taking a conscious position against them but by simply ignoring them. And to use the Roman dialect to record the inner content of the fictional lives of these people (dialect is used only in the dialogue parts of the book and in some rare cases of stream of consciousness) is to apply the general rule later formulated by Pasolini in his answer to a questionnaire on the novel sponsored by the periodical Nuovi argomenti: "If the character and milieu chosen by the novelist are proletariat, let him use dialect in part or wholly; if they are middle-class, let him use the koiné. In this way he cannot go wrong." By koiné Pasolini means the uniform, nondialect Italian usage of the petite bourgeoisie as formed by the unification of Italy, or, to use Gramsci's description, the language of the bureaucrats who effectively united the new state at the administrative level but left the Italy of regions and city districts virtually untouched. Ragazzi di vita, it should be remembered, was written and is set in the period immediately preceding the new levelling and cohesive forces of Italy's "economic miracle," which were to do so much to destroy the nation's compartmentalized subcultures and to turn large segments of its proletariat into a middle class—without, however, the contributions of Marxism.
Pasolini's second novel, Una vita violenta is in part an answer to the more justified objections raised against Ragazzi di vita. Pasolini, a convinced and avowed Marxist, was especially sensitive to the critics who took him to task for ideological inadequacy, for having escaped into the private world of a kind of eternal adolescence and primitiveness instead of attempting to represent the awakening social consciousness of the masses on their way to claim their place in the sun. Thus Tommaso Puzzilli, the protagonist of Una vita violenta, is seen as more fully rounded than [Ragazzi di vita's] Riccetto and is made to undergo a political education which changes his initial heedless spontaneity into a sense of responsibility toward others. Whether the book for all its orthodox intentions is as successful as its predecessor is questionable. My own feeling is that the first part of Una vita violenta is more effective than the second and that the episodes most strongly reminiscent of Ragazzi di vita are what saves it from being a completely pedestrian and unimaginative illustration of a thesis.
Tommaso is at the beginning just another Riccetto. He too lives in a Hooverville on the outskirts of Rome. He too is involved with the other boys of his district in a number of wild exploits, such as stealing a car and holding up a hapless gas station attendant one night. He too meets a girl to whom he becomes engaged and with whom he plays the role of the proper young fiancé: the descriptions of their Sunday outings are peculiarly and unexpectedly condescending, but I believe unwittingly so. There are other episodes in the first part of the book which mark a departure from Ragazzi di vita: Tommasino's participation in a "rumble" staged by a group of Fascist sympathizers, and the revolt of the women of Pietralata against the police, who are rounding up their suspect husbands and sons. But the most striking innovation has to do with technique. It is in a flashback at the beginning of Part Two that we are told of the Puzzillis' coming to Rome as refugees during the war, of how they were forced to leave the country, where their land and animals and the father's job as caretaker in the public schools had permitted them to live quite comfortably, much better than they now live in Rome. Still, in the long run they turn out to be more fortunate then many of their new neighbors, for they are assigned an apartment in the complex of public housing being built in the no-man's-land of Pietralata. It is to this apartment that Tommaso returns after his stint in jail for having stabbed a heckler during a street fight, and it is at this point that the thrust of the narrative changes.
Tommaso appears to have left his adolescence behind him. He finds work and becomes a respectable member of society—so much so that he averts his eyes when he happens upon an ex-companion who has not succeeded as he has, but has become a crippled beggar huddling on a street in Rome. At the beginning of this turning point, however, Pasolini introduces the theme of death. First there is the brief report of the sudden death of Tommasino's two baby brothers, an episode which makes a strong appeal for sympathy from the reader by bringing into view the injustices and deprivations which reduce human life to the level of animal, or even insect, life. Then there are the first symptoms of Tommasino's tuberculosis, which eventually leads him to a long stay in a city hospital. There he meets and learns to admire and respect a group of Communists who are organizing and supporting the hospital attendants in a strike. Tommasino joins the party upon his release. But the story is now rapidly approaching the end. Tommasino dies in a new tubercular attack, brought on by his trying to save a prostitute during a flood.
As can be seen, Pasolini's intention in Una vita violenta was to write a novel which would follow the classical pattern by being the complete and exemplary story of a central character. In this respect Una vita violenta is not different from the social novels of the nineteenth century, from Zola, for instance. But while Pasolini is excellent at catching the "feeling" of the life of his protagonists, he is less successful with the concreteness of historical background. He leaves the reader with strong sense impressions: unpleasant odors, rough and dirty textures, deformed limbs, blemished skins, rotting clothing, mud, heaps of garbage. But there is little or nothing in the book which will help a future reader to reconstruct the complexity of an epoch. Pasolini's talent is lyrical and sentimental, not narrative and historical. That is why the episode of the "talking" dogs, tucked away in the flow of euphoric slang, is the real clue to the quality of his art….
Now, while for Gadda one could certainly speak of vision autre, the deformation and excess of a disordered psyche which gives his expression such virulence, there can be no question that for neither Gadda nor Pasolini has writing a novel ever been equivalent to constructing a game. They are both fundamentally earnest and moralistic in their approach to art. They have a message to transmit, easily recognizable in Pasolini, less so in Gadda. The themes they treat undoubtedly present only divergences if we examine them in the context of one another's work. But when we look at Gadda and Pasolini from a certain distance, from the perspective of the new new experimentalism, for instance, we can only conclude that the themes they treat are the old ones—crime, guilt, death—and that the feeling of revulsion for the fault in nature that both writers' experience derives from the traditional, classic view of man in his relation to other men and to the world about him.
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Consoli, Joseph P. Essay on Pasolini in Gay & Lesbian Literature, St. James Press, 19, pp. 291-94.
Presents an overview of Pasolini's life and career, including consideration of his homosexuality and its impact on his work.
Bongie, Chris. "A Postscript to Transgression: The Exotic Legacy of Pier Paolo Pasolini." In his Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism, and the Fin de Siècle, pp. 188-228. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Analyzes Pasolini's relationship with the Third World in his work.
Capozzi, Frank. "Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Introduction to the Translations." Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 5, No. 1-2 (Fall/Winter 1981–82): 109-13.
Provides a brief overview of Pasolini's life and career.
Casarino, Cesare. "Oedipus Exploded: Pasolini and the Myth of Modernization." October, No. 59 (Winter 1992): 27-47.
States that "Pasolini in Edipo Re, rather than rewriting the myth of Oedipus, writes a myth of the myth of Oedipus: the focus shifts from Oedipus to the myth itself as a narrative practice."
Michalczyk, John J. "Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Epical-Religious Cinema of Political Sexuality." In his The Italian Political Filmmakers, pp. 64-107. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.
Discusses Pasoiini's aesthetic and personal evolution and the provocative nature of his work.
Pivato, Joseph. "Cultural Differences." Canadian Literature, No. 138/139 (Fall/Winter 1993): pp. 146-47.
Favorably reviews Antonio Mazza's translation of some of Pasolini's selected poetry.
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SOURCE: "Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poetry as a Compensation," in Film Society Review, Vol. 4, No. 5, January, 1969, pp. 12-18.
[In the following essay, Bragin discusses examples of Pasolini's work in the genres of the novel, film, and poetry.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in Bologna in 1922. His father was a government official and Pasolini travelled constantly as a boy, mastering many of the Northern Italian dialects. He attended the University of Bologna until the war forced him to flee to his mother's home in Casarsa, where he remained until 1949, writing his first fiction. In 1949 he moved to Rome, where he taught literature. Because of his poor financial status he was forced to live in the borgata, slum suburbs, which became the major source of subject matter for his writings and films.
Since that time he has continued writing both poetry and prose, as well as literary criticism and linguistic analysis. He wrote a column for the Italian Communist Party's popular weekly magazine Vie Nuove in which he answered questions from readers about his work, and about art and politics in general.
Before making his directorial debut in 1961 with Accattone (the word is Roman slang for scrounger) Pasolini had collaborated on scripts and conceived ideas for Federico Fellini, Mauro Bolognini and several other directors. With his first film it was immediately apparent that Pasolini was not just a fine writer turned dilettante film director, his succeeding work has established him as a major figure in contemporary film-making.
Up until 1961 Pasolini was one of many Italian artists firmly devoted to the causes and organization of the Italian Communist Party. Since then, he has become gradually estranged from their ranks, but without the spiritual crisis which led his forerunner Cesare Pavese to commit suicide. (Pasolini's own crisis of 1961 is discussed later in this article.) The creative expression of these men is deeply rooted in a tradition which stretches back to the ancient Etruscan civilization—a period of almost uninterrupted activity longer than in any other country of the Western world. This sense of artistic tradition is one of the main reasons why Italian artists of the Left have not fallen prey to the deadly style of Socialist Realism which has encumbered so many American and Soviet artists. Even the post-War Italian cinema was not Realist, per se, but Neo-Realist. That is, it treated the social and economic chaos of Italian society from a fragmented, lyric point of view which was neither doctrinaire nor exploitive of the physical and spiritual squalor.
This sense of history has contributed to the development of the Party and its members by modifying and softening doctrinaire Marxism and producing Italy's peculiar brand of modern Communism. (A Communism that flourishes in the Italian sun, and which is far different from the Communism of the snows of Moscow and the Asian desolations to the east.)
Besides the sense of artistic continuity in Italy there is the all-pervasive influence of the Catholic Church. Even professed atheists like Pasolini have a firmly indoctrinated past of religious mystery and of Christ as man's sole salvation. For most Italian artists—of the Right or Left—the structure of the Church in Italy and its dogma influence their work. The metaphysical doctrines of the Catholic Church have been a compelling force for almost 2000 years.
The tendency toward dependence on religious mystery has been greater for Pasolini than for most other members of the artistic Left. In Pasolini's spiritual and political crisis, exemplified by Accattone made in 1961, this aspect of Pasolini came forward more strongly than in any of his previous writings. His swing from rationality to mystery to rationality can be traced through his novels, poetry and films from 1959 to 1965.
Pasolini's novel Una Vita Violenta deals with the same subject matter as his first two films: the slum suburbs of Rome and the young men who inhabit them, pimps, thieves, scroungers and deadbeats. They are a modern breed pre-occupied with all the modern as well as traditional pleasures which they indulge in without the conventional financial means to do so. The gap between the squalor and hopelessness of their lives in the borgata and the growing economic miracle within the city aggravates their plight. The consciousness of a better life only worsens their state of mind and, combined with a pagan sense of Christian morality, produces strange codes of behavior often ending in violence, brutality and death.
When one of the group becomes separated from his fellows it is a sure sign that a crisis is growing for him. Whether it is the crisis which causes the separation, or the separation the crisis is hard to say. The exact dividing line is blurred so that social, personal and ultimately spiritual causes intermix to determine the fate and destiny of the character. At the point when the character comes fully into view, out from under social and individual games, Pasolini is faced with a naked soul who has only two possible roads confronting him: salvation or death.
In the novel Tommaso finds salvation through the Communist Party. For Pasolini the Hungarian uprising was an indication of the falling away of the Moscow-centered Stalinist strangle-hold over satellite parties, and the beginning of the end of Stalinism within the parties themselves. It represented the growing self-sufficiency of these parties, their organic re-birth into individual groups tailored to deal with the specific problems of their own cultures. Pasolini viewed the PCI (Italian Communist Party) as the most advanced of these, and the vehicle for Tommaso's climb out of an oblivion of poverty and squalor. Tommaso leaves the chaotic world of the slum sub-proletariat to join the ranks of the Party as a member of the working class. From there he will undoubtedly rise to higher echelons within the Party, and greater positive influence within the society as a whole.
Accattone never makes it. He tries to work, but cannot stand the physical strain. In the end he dies in a motorcycle crash, pursued by the police for being a thief. Pasolini describes the story of Tommaso as "drama," the story of Accattone as a "tragedy." What was to happen to Pasolini in two years (between 1959 and 1961) and why this sealed the tragic fate of Accattone will be presented after a brief review of Pasolini's poetry.
Pasolini's three main collections of poetry are Le Ceneri Di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci), La Religione del Mio Tempo and Poesia in Forma di Rosa. The first deals with the passing of the period in Italian history dominated by the highly respected, fiery leader of the PCI, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was not only a major figure in the Italian underground during World War II, but also a major literary critic as well. He was an important influence on Pasolini both politically and artistically. Gramsci was a much more militant advocate of international Marxist-Leninism than his successor Palmiro Togliatti, and Pasolini's book looks with nostalgia, tempered with the realization of the need for change, at the passing of the period dominated by Gramsci. Today, Party head Luigi Longo seems to be in the same relation to Togliatti that Togliatti was to Gramsci, so much so that one Italian film critic called Pasolini's fourth feature, Uccellacci E Uccellini (released in the U.S. as The Hawks and The Sparrows), "The Ashes of Togliatti!"
In his next two collections Pasolini works with several ideas. He deals with the theory of ideology, and the practical effects of ideologies on the sub-proletarian culture of his novels and films. One of the most virulent examples of this is the first poem in Poesia in Forma di Rosa, a harsh and ironic treatment of the cliché of Italian-style motherhood. Influenced strongly by the crystaline images of Godard's film, Contempt, Pasolini opens another poem in the collection ("Una Disperata Vitalita," "A Desperate Vitality") with verses comparing his surrealistic thoughts and feelings to Godard's images. The fragility of the pictures evoked in the poem express the contingent nature of life which exists for the upper classes who live on "the highways of Latin neocapitalism." A more brittle, but no less terminal malady than that suffered by the world of Accattone.
In general these poems crystalize and magnify incidents, emotions and ideas which occur in his novels. Pasolini isolates them, dealing with them intensely and in depth. The result marks an important aspect in Pasolini's artistic and spiritual development, and strongly affects his particular use of the film medium.
In dealing specifically and at length with one or a few facets of his longer works Pasolini lifts each subject from its context and works it with a near-religious love, putting it directly, forcefully and frontally to the reader. His poetry evokes universal, religious and ritualistic feelings. The bits of concrete realism (usually of sub-proletarian life) are infused with an aura of reverence by the very nature of poetic expression. But more importantly Pasolini is not primarily interested in socio-historic context as an explanation or justification for the thoughts and actions in his work. Even when a poem deals directly with a contemporary event in which Pasolini is a highly partisan actor, he approaches it poetically on an artistically instinctive level which, although it may not render exact answers on how to act in a particular situation, provides in Pasolini's words "poetry as a compensation."
Pasolini writes in a fresh, direct style so that even those emotions or ideas which might at first appear pedantic, transient or clichéd are presented with moving force and conviction. It is this quality which dominates Pasolini's first film.
When Pasolini began work on this film he was a complete neophyte in film technique. Although he knew nothing about the craft of film-making, not even the terminology, he had a feeling for the film image from his earlier script collaborations. Because the directors he had worked with had only partially realized his ideas, he decided to try his own hand at film-making.
When confronted with the actual task of direction he decided to limit himself technically in order to gain control of the medium. He attempted to do this by using only two focal length lenses (one for full shots and one for closeups), several limited variations on tracking shots and slow, smooth pans; and direct simple staging and composition. In contrast to most first films Accattone is completely free of technical experiment. It evokes the same tone of sanctity as much of Pasolini's poetry by its direct, frontal presentation of events and characters.
The overall structure of the film, its editing, the balance between scenes and sequences, and Pasolini's control of the development and movement of the film with a sense for the organic whole is missing. The film tends to sprawl all over. It is not Pasolini's masterful handling of the film medium, as with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, but his attitude towards the subject matter, his deep love and understanding of the characters and their plight, which is the binding force on the film.
Pasolini was faced with a deep political and spiritual crisis at this time in his life. So much so that no solution within the context of the life of Accattone seemed possible. No such internal, contextual solution as the Communist Party was for Tommaso. Pasolini describes the crisis of the summer of 1961 and the Tambroni government:
Everything in my country, in those months, seemed to have fallen back into its everlasting, uniform greyness, of superstition, of servileness and of useless vitality.
He described the life of the sub-proletariat in
its material and moral misery, its ferocious and useless irony, its scattered, demonic anxiety, its contemptuous laziness, its idealized sensuality, and, together with all of this its atavistic, superstitious, pagan Catholicism. That's why he [Accattone] dreams of dying and going to Paradise.
In the film Pasolini does not even remotely concern himself with political, economic, or social ideologies. No one, not even the director, offers Accattone the alternative of either the Party or any other system of reform. The only redemption is found in the external factor of the director's guiding hand. Through his love, Pasolini reaffirms the humanity and very existence of Accattone and the other characters. (The external imposition of Bach's music on the sound track, which at first may seem trite, works because of Pasolini's honesty, and his direct use of the music to comment on the characters and mold our reactions to them. The music is the director's own 'narrating voice.')
In 1961 Pasolini had hit bottom ideologically, but his will to tackle a new medium, to come to grips with it and have it speak his mind and convey his deepest feelings, created a directness and strength that has not been paralleled in his film work since then. Pasolini quotes from Dante in the titles to Accattone:
The Angel of God took me and Satan cried out, "Why do you rob me? You take for yourself the eternal part of him for one little tear which takes him from me…."
The poet in relation to his film is analagous to God in relation to his creation.
Pasolini's self-imposed technical limitations were not consciously done to obtain this sanctifying stylistic effect through which the director finally, though externally, redeems Accattone. Pasolini felt the need to control a medium which could be all too complex for a neophyte, and was influenced in his visual style by the painter Masaccio and Carl Dreyer's Passion de Jeanne D'Arc. It was Italian film critics who first commented on what Pasolini had fully accomplished. For once they put aside their ideological demands and came up with illuminating statements which, as is a principle function of criticism lead the viewer to a closer understanding of how a work expresses its creator's ideas and feelings. This affected Pasolini deeply, for he saw its truth and realized that this quality was one which had dominated much of his writing as well.
Pasolini's realization of this aspect of his work, and his growing familiarity with the techniques of film-making are the two most important factors in his next three films: Mamma Roma, La Ricotta (The Milk-Cheese), and Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew).
The prime fault with Mamma Roma is that Pasolini, in his continuing ideological crisis, self-consciously and awkwardly applied the style of Accattone in an attempt to redeem his next main character as well, Richard Roud wrote:
What impressed in last year's Accattone was the exciting feeling of directness, of a story that was bursting to be told, and of a tragedy that was inherent in the social environment and psychology of the characters. Mamma Roma is burdened with a complicated and melodramatic plot: an ex-whore is forced to abandon her vegetable barrow because her ex-pimp, needing more money than his new wife can provide, threatens to reveal to Mamma Roma's illegitimate son that his mother has been a whore, etc. Thus Mamma Roma's cry of protest, "Whose fault is it?" is seriously weakened by the contingent nature of the drama. When a story is so dependent on chance complications, tragedy and social comment go out the window, and one is left with Anna Magnani up to her old tricks … There are some telling moments—Magnani teaching her son to dance the tango, the boy's "crucifixion" and death—but the promise of Accattone has not been fulfilled.
The last scenes of the boy strapped to a table and foreshortened by a wide angle lens, recreating Mantegna's Cristo Morto (Dead Christ), is not a "telling moment" in the sense Roud means. It is a telling example of Pasolini's failure in this film. The boy, contrary to Roud's statement, does not die in the film. He is seen intercut with his mother, Magnani, about to commit suicide herself. Each time we return to the boy he is becoming more and more like a mad dog. There is no relief for him, not even the release of death as there was for Accattone.
Pasolini pushed and forced all the stylistic elements of Accattone into his desperate struggle to redeem the boy. He conscientiously applied his slow pans, few lenses, sacred music (Vivaldi), and recreations of religious paintings to create an atmosphere of mystic redemption. But he lost control. The stylistic devices do not grow from the story, but are enforced on it.
In the few scenes of the film such as the wedding at the beginning and the dancing lesson, where Pasolini is most interested in a finely drawn portrait of the characters and situations, he succeeds as well as, if not better than, in Accattone. There is the same kind of simplicity here that keynotes Ermanno Olmi's work, notably the opening dance hall sequence in his film I Fidanzati (The Fiancés). Pasolini creates a joy and love that is neither morbid nor frustrated by social or psychological circumstances.
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SOURCE: "Pier Paolo Pasolini: Biciclettone," in Modern Languages, March, 1969, pp. 11-3.
[In the following review, O'Neill discusses Pasolini's Biciclettone as an introduction to the themes and style found in his other novels.]
One of the most interesting and original personalities of postwar Italian literature is Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, film director and critic, and novelist.
Such is the complexity and development of the spiritual and intellectual capacities of Pasolini, such is the difficulty of language in his novels, written to a great extent not in Italian but in the Romanesco 'gangster' dialect of the capital's slums, that it is not easy for the philologically untrained reader of Italian literature to appreciate them as much as they deserve to be. Despite these difficulties, Pasolini's novellaBiciclettone should be read, not only as a good example of that genre in which Italy has always been so strong, but also as an excellent introduction to the more complex novels of Pasolini, for in this novella we have in nuce all the thematic and stylistic material which will find development in the novels.
The short story is essentially a description of the meeting of the Narrator with the young boy Nando, and of the sympathetic and spontaneous friendship that develops between them because he, the Narrator, has shown this young boy from the slums of Rome a kindness which is all the more poignant because, given his personal situation—he is unemployed—he is unable to do anything of a more concrete nature.
Perhaps the most important point is the obvious sympathy Pasolini has for this young lad, a sympathy which mirrors a deep vein of humanity in the author. This comes across in the actions and general attitude of the Narrator who, although obviously not to be confused with Pasolini himself, has this in common with him. For example, the Narrator goes out of his way to please Nando and though he is not a good diver: 'Feci un qualsiasi mediocre caposotto'; on being requested for a running dive he complies willingly: 'Non l'avevo mai fatto, ma per accontentarlo mi ci provai'. Or again when Nando offers him the magazine Europeo, he takes it 'per fargli piacere'. This sympathy, although evident in the attitude of the Narrator, is even more marked in his presentation of the make up of Nando, both physical and spiritual. He is first of all described to us physically. Note the forceful evocative adjectives used: 'Magro' (lack of food?); 'storcinatello' (from illness—lack of medical care?); 'faccina' (perhaps wasted away—emphasised by 'stenta' and later on by the 'ghiandola in suppurazione'). Note also the affectionate use of the diminutive 'ragazzino' and the neat descriptive detail: 'con un ciuffo biondo' and 'una grande bocca sorrideva senza sosta'. Later on he again returns to the physical facts: 'Aveva le spalle scottate, come se fosse la febbre ad arrosarle, invece del sole'. Note also how he describes his arms: 'braccini'—that is, pitiful little arms. The thought of the slum where Nando lives also touches him very deeply: '… e pensai alla baracca dove viveva. Gli tolsi la cuffia carezzando gli il ciuffo …' The sympathy of the Narrator for Nando comes out across the simple narration of the facts.
We are given a wonderful picture of this young lad. Hesitant at the beginning: 'Egli mi guardava obliquamente', wanting to be asked—his joy at being pushed on the swing—his opening up and his overcoming of his inhibitions: '… e questa volta non si limitò a guardarmi'. The presentation of this rather self-conscious, shy young lad: 'incerto, ridendo e facendosi rosso', is very natural.
But perhaps the most important feature of Nando is his resignation to his state of life:
'Quant'è bella—disse, mettendosela in testa.—Noi siamo poveri, mia se fossimo ricchi mia mamma me la comprerebbe, la cuffia.
—Siete poveri?—gli chiesi.
—Si, abitiamo nelle baracche di via Casilina.'
It would seem that Nando bears his poverty with a philosophical patience due undoubtedly to his youth. It is a poverty which as yet has not corrupted him. Yet this seemingly philosophical resignation of Nando; this lack of bitterness on his part is not only due to his age but also and especially to his peculiar situation with regard to 'society'. There is no bitterness or corruption in Nando because these come from society, and he lives outside society—on the margins of society. According to Pasolini, and the idea came to him through Antonio Gramsci, a founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 and 'lately recognised as one of the most important Marxist theoreticians of the twentieth century', society consists of three classes: aristocracy, bourgeoisie, working class—all people who, living in society, have a consciousness of their historical existence and therefore are capable of a moral and intellectual development, which will, of course, vary in degree depending on the class and on the individual. In addition to these classes, however, there is also the 'sottoproletariato'—the subproletarian strata, those who live on the margins of society, who have no consciousness of their historical existence and who are incapable of moral and intellectual development. What we have in this case is a strata that lives its life at the level of pure instinct. What we have from Pasolini in the case of Nando is a depiction of this pure existence and a great admiration for it. It is a modern version of the Romantic concept of the noble savage, with instinct the equivalent to purity. In the novels this instinctive living will be seen mainly through its explosion into violence, and in the mind of Pasolini the violence will be rendered the equivalent of purity.
If one considers the style of the novella, one word at once springs to mind—Neorealism. With Pasolini, as with Pavese (and with Pavese we think of the great influence of the Americans in post-1945 Italian prose writings), what we have is not the smooth flowing style of the 'bello scrivere' of the Fascist period—the writing for writing's sake of the Prosa d'Arte—but bare essential prose with short sentences, brief annotations, light brush strokes. The events are merely recounted as they happen; there is no attempt to embellish them. The novella consists of a series of little scenes with one thing happening after another as in a film.
Along with this bare essential style there is also, predominant in the novella, the use of dialogue. This, of course, is another feature of Neorealism but one that is handled extremely well by Pasolini. The whole tone of the exchange between Nando and the Narrator is very convincing and realistic. Kept down to a minimum, it is little more than a series of questions and answers, and yet it puts across to the reader a whole range of emotions from amazement to disappointment in a way that is completely natural.
Another feature, not so much in evidence here as in the novels, is the use of dialect. This again goes back to the Gramscian concept of a national-popular literature. According to Pasolini, if a literature is to be popular it must be written to a great extent in the language of the people. How, he asks, can one possibly claim adherence to reality in the depiction of the character if the transcription of that character is in terms of a literary language whose usage is restricted to a social and cultured minority? Pasolini, however, does not restrict his use of dialect to the transcription of dialogue but also, following on from Verga, (the Verga of Vita dei Campi and I Malavoglia) tends to describe through his characters' minds, a use, suo modo, of the 'discorso libero indiretto' of the great Sicilian writer. Thus, scenic impressions and descriptions are to a great extent contaminated by dialect although written in a highly literary language.
In a country like Italy, struggling as it still is with the vexed Questione della Lingua, the linguistic innovations of Pasolini have caused no small degree of controversy. In his enthusiasm Pasolini has perhaps gone to an extreme, and people have rightly pointed out the limitations of such an overwhelming use of dialect. What he does with his use of Romanesco is to transfer the restriction of the language from one social group to another. Instead of widening the horizons of the language through a careful and positive use of dialect, he has, if anything, restricted them through an arbitrary and in many ways negative use of it. In the novels, for example, his use of dialect is not popular, not of the people, but is rather the 'gergo' or slang of the Roman 'malavita', an element which of its nature is ever changing and hence incapable of any linguistic permanency or stability.
And yet in spite of these restrictions, the linguistic balance sheet of Pasolini is far from being 'in the red'. Even critics who deny all else cannot deny his highly original and literary style. Who, for example, can fail to recognise his poetic ability (and Pasolini stands high as a poet in his own right) to clothe a word with richly complex symbolic meanings? Who can fail to appreciate the imagery and comparison that he draws from the animal kingdom? Thus, for example, in Biciclettone: 'In mezzora lo spiazzo di sabbia tra il muraglione e il galleggiante fu un verminaio' where 'verminaio' not only conveys to us that the strip of sand was crawling with people but also through its link with 'verme' tells us something about these people—viz. that they come from a very low social strata. So too in Biciclettone we have the affectionate use of 'cagnolino' which comes up again and again like a leit-motif and which gives us the picture of the little boy trotting behind the Narrator just like a little dog.
But all this imagery is of little importance compared with Pasolini's ability (and again the name of Verga springs to mind) to convey his deeply felt sympathy through a prose style, bare and brilliant. And the sympathy strikes us all the more because it remains under control.
Even in the last paragraph, where the impersonality of the Narrator is completely abandoned, the sympathy does not flow out in a rhetorical torrent of cheap sentimentalism, but remains simple, and in its simplicity all the more moving.
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SOURCE: "Not Forgetting the Artist," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3673, July 21, 1972, p. 833.
[In the following review, the critic states that Pasolini's "Empirismo eretico is the record of the intellectual activity of an individual struggling with a protean culture which changed form just as he seemed to be about to comprehend it."]
Pier Paolo Pasolini is best known internationally as a film director, but he is also a novelist and poet of considerable talent and a notorious publicist and intellectual provocateur. Much of his non-fictional writing is devoted to the task of explaining and theorizing his artistic activity proper. Thus he has written at length about the language question, still a live issue in Italy, about literature and about the semiology of the cinema.
But there is in this and in his other writing a secondary aspect also, not simply a justification by the author for doing what he does, but a more personal justification for being who he is. This aspect of Signor Pasolini's public demeanour can be, and has been, dismissed as mere narcissism. Why for example does he insist on casting himself in the role of "The Artist" in his film of the Decameron? And why does he have to insert passages of infantile sexual autobiography in an essay on language whose prevailing tone is scientific and pseudo-objective?
Taken as a whole, however, these recurrent interventions by the author in a work, whether a film or a poem or an essay, which he has produced and, so to speak, rendered external to himself, can be seen to have an aesthetic purpose. They are a reminder that a work of art, or even of science, is not merely an object, but is an act of expression by an author who does not cease to exist and to be himself once the act is completed. And at the same time, because the author in question is Signor Pasolini and not someone else, the interventions are structured to represent a challenge to the cultural orthodoxy, including the Marxist counter-orthodoxy, judged by Signor Pasolini to have grown impersonal and desiccated and therefore moribund.
Empirismo eretico brings together the corpus of Signor Pasolini's nonfictional writing over the past ten years. Taken singly, few of the essays in the book stand out as being of independent importance. The essays on the cinema, which employ semiological techniques in defence of a curious theory of ultra-realism ("the written language of reality") form a section on their own. There is also a brilliant interpretation of the Vanni Fucci episode in Dante's Inferno and an ingenious attempt to categorize the literary style of contemporary writers in relation to what Signor Pasolini aptly calls the koinè, the featureless standard language approved by grammarians and diffused by radio announcers. But most of the writings on language, which seemed so prophetic when they first came out, have lost their force with the failure of neocapitalism to attain the cultural hegemony which Pasolini prematurely attributed to it in the mid-1960s. What survives in these essays is the personal aspect, the cry of pain for the loss of the maternal world embodied in the peasantry and the lumpenproletariat, submerged under the weight of patriarchal technocracy.
That the personal, the social and the would-be scientific can be so jumbled together within the confines of a single essay is a notable achievement. More remarkable still, however, is the way the pieces in Empirismo eretico actually cohere to form a book. Empirismo eretico is the record of the intellectual activity of an individual struggling with a protean culture which changed form just as he seemed to be about to comprehend it. Failure, in this context, is often as significant as success, and it is to Signor Pasolini's credit that he has even dared to republish the atrocious poem "The Communist Party to Youth" which he wrote on the occasion of a battle between student demonstrators and police in 1968. The "apologia" for the poem, half critical and half justification, which he appends to the new edition, is unfortunately totally unconvincing and disingenuous. But perhaps for that very reason, as Sartre suggested of Baudelaire, it is most authentically Pasolini.
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SOURCE: "Pasolini Leaves a Literary Legacy," in Village Voice, Vol. XX, No. 46, November 17, 1975, p. 127.
[In the following essay, Sarris discusses Pasolini's career and gruesome death.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini, the 53-year-old film director, was murdered last week near Rome. His confessed killer, 17-year-old Giuseppe Pelosi, says that he rejected Mr. Pasolini's sexual advances, beat him unconscious with a piece of wooden fencing, and then ran over him in Pasolini's own sportscar.
The gruesome murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini was more violent and more senseless than anything he had ever conceived in his films. He died on the edge of an abyss he had attempted to explore in Accattone back in 1961. The eponymous protagonist of Accattone was no mere middle-class "vitellone" with time on his hands. Pasolini's characters, unlike Fellini's, were hopelessly mired in the lower depths. Indeed, Accattone might have been the cinematic prototype of 17-year-old Giuseppe Pelosi, the alleged real-life murderer of Pasolini. The Times quoted Michelangelo Antonioni to this effect: "In the end, he (Pasolini) was the victim of his own characters—a perfect tragedy foreseen in its different aspects—withoutknowing that one day it would end up overcoming him."
I was struck also by a quotation in the Times from Pasolini's October 18 column (a regular feature) in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera in which he blamed television for "having ended the era of compassion and initiated the era of hedonism." In this context, Giuseppe Pelosi may turn out to be less an underprivileged Accattone of the '70s than a child of television. It may be suggested also that Pasolini was fatally attracted to the amoral dealers in "rough trade". Pasolini would have been the last person to sentimentalize or even rationalize his own restless homosexuality. As a Marxist theoretician, he might have derived some dark humor from his belonging to a relatively privileged class of exploiter as he cruised in his silver Alfa Romeo, never suspecting what a murderous metaphor for the class struggle this vehicle would turn out to be. But to live at all in these times is to live dangerously. Hence, on the last night of his life Pasolini spoke at dinner with friends of the violence and criminality engulfing Rome. A premonition or a persistent refrain? We shall never know. When I read of Pasolini's death I felt as if a whole chain of senseless murders (and one, particularly, of a child of dear friends) represented a global plague which our civilization would never survive. It had simply become a race between the unruly crazies and the uniformed bullies to see which form of fearsome tyranny would do us in first: anarchy or totalitarianism.
Back in 1967 I wrote of Pasolini in "Interviews with Film Directors": "Pier Paolo Pasolini comes to the cinema from literature, and his films tend to follow a literary schema. Nonetheless, Pasolini has emerged as one of the most articulate and erudite theoreticians of the cinema. Consciously a classicist and a humanist, Pasolini is nonetheless sensitive to the achievements of the formalists in the cinema. His career thus far demonstrates the path a literary artist can follow in the cinema. In addition, Pasolini has evolved a unique blend of Marxist historical consciousness and Christian compassion."
The word "compassion" came very easily when one thought of Pasolini. On the few occasions I met him he struck me as a gentle, thoughtful, unsuspicious soul. I was dazzled by his lucid lecture on semiotics at the Pesaro Film Festival in 1964 or 1965, and by his appraisal of Godard, Antonioni, and Bertolucci on that occasion. I am not qualified to evaluate his ultimate significance as a poet, novelist, and journalist. As a film-maker, he generally seemed too theoretical for my taste. His films were too often amalgams of painting and literature rather than authentic cinema in their own right. Hence, his images were often as segmented as the flight of Zeno's arrow.
Pasolini fully understood the problem. "We might say that the selection of actors, of expressions, of clothing, of place, of lighting—all these are the various components of the overall vocabulary; they are, so to speak, the nouns, the verbs, the adjectives, the adverbs, while the choice of camera movements, of framing, etc., is the syntax itself, the rhythmical arrangement of the various components into one complete sentence. In speaking or writing, this can be done with extreme rapidity—the words and the syntax, or the meter, spring forward almost simultaneously. But in cinematic expression, a kind of interruption takes place, a pause. The 'words' pile up in front of you unmercifully, almost brutally, then wait there to be formed into a complete 'sentence' by the mind behind the camera that sets up the particular shot (syntax)."
There should be a Pasolini retrospective as soon as possible so that we may reappraise Accattone, Mama Roma, RoGoPaG, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Hawks and the Sparrows, Teorema, The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Oedipus Rex, Medea, The Canterbury Tales, and the recently completed The 120 Days of Sodoma. It would not bring him back, but it would help keep his spirit alive. I, personally, shall miss the presence of Pasolini's elegant mind on this planet.
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SOURCE: "Pier Paolo Pasolini's Dialect Poetry," in Forum Italicum, Vol. IX, No. 4, December, 1975, pp. 343-67.
[In the following essay, O'Neill traces the influences, themes, and stylistic devices of Pasolini's dialect poetry.]
Perhaps the best synthesis of the world of Pasolini's dialect poetry is that given, unconsciously, by the author himself in the important 1952 essay on La poesia dialettale del Novecento, talking of the Triestine poet, Giotti:
Una povera storia, infinitamente più nuda e deserta che nei crepuscolari, poiché nella sua angoscia non c'è compiacimento o ripensamento da favola decadente, ma come un interno terrore, una nozione della morte e del disfacimento del mondo, delle cose care e degli affetti, che ha quasi un remoto accento leopardiano.
The "mondo" of which Pasolini speaks is that of Friuli, specifically Casarsa, the birthplace of his mother, to where his family had been evacuated in 1943, and where he remained until 1949, when, he moved, definitively, to Rome. But the Casarsa of Pasolini is not a precise, well-defined geographical location; it is not, in a word, realistically described and recognisable as such, like, say, the Tuscany or Umbria of Luzi: rather it has become, to adopt an expression of Silone's, the poet's paese dell'anima. Casarsa is not part of the geographical world, but rather the symbol of a world complete in itself, an absolute (and therefore perfect) idyllic world of youth and innocence: in the words of the poet himself, it is the world of "coloro che egli amava con dolcezza e violenza, torbidamente e candidamente," a "vita rustica, resa epica da una carica accorante di nostalgia"—"il calore puro e accecante dell'adolescenza." In this respect the dedica speaks clearly:
Fontana di aga dal me país. A no è aga pí fres-cia che tal me país. Fontana di rustic amòur.
(Fontana d'acqua del mio paese. Non c'è acqua più fresca che nel mio paese. Fontana di rustico amore).
His poetry will be a celebration of the "paìs" in the absolute sense to which we have alluded, and the "fontana di rustic amòur," with its "aga fres-cia"—a recurring motif in the early poetry, perhaps of Machadian derivation—the concrete symbol of a world of innocence and purity, untrammeled by complications.
So too, just as Casarsa is his paese dell'anima, its young inhabitants—given in the infinite and evocative variations of the dialects: nini (fanciullo), fi (ragazzo), zòvin (giovane), soranèl (ragazetto), fantassùt (giovinetto), donzel (giovinetto), frut (fanciullo)—are also simply, to use Ellot's term, objective correlatives of the poet himself, loaded with the emotion that is his, deriving from the consciousness he has of the fleeting nature of the world and its inhabitants which he contemplates. In this sense, the diminutive "fantassùt," used vocatively at the beginning of Ploja tai cunfins (Pioggia sui confini), can legitimately be compared to the "corpo fanciulletto" of Foscolo's A Zacinto, and, perhaps more so, to the "fanciullo mio" of Leopardi's Il sabato del villaggio, both of which perform the same poetic function as Pasolini's "fantassùt"—that is to say, they are persons representing a state of innocence, of unawareness, and are attractive precisely because of these qualities, but at the same time they are poetically intensified by the awareness, as we shall see shortly, of a different reality on the part of the poet.
This nostalgic, memorial evocation of an idyllic, perfect world of youth and innocence, such as permeates Pasolini's early dialect poetry, is, of course, more than understandable in the climate of the early forties in Italy. Pasolini, to an extent, explains it himself in the concluding pages of La poesia dialettale del Novecento, where, talking of the regress from language to dialect in his own poetry, he says it was:
causato da ragioni più complesse, sia all'interno che all'esterno: compiersi da una lingua (l'italiano) a un'altra lingua (il friulano) divenuta oggetto di accorata nostalgia, sensuale in origine (in tutta l'estensione e la profondità dell'attributo) ma coincidente poi con la nostalgia di chi viva—e lo sappia—in una civiltà giunta a una sua crisi linguistica, al desolato, e violento, "je ne sais plus parler" rimbaudiano.
The civilisation in linguistic crisis which, given the strong link in Pasolini between language and society, indicates a civilisation in crisis tout court, was, of course, that of fascism which, thanks to Mussolini's tactics, starting with the anti-Semitic legislation of the summer of 1938, and continuing with the Rome-Berlin pact of the following year, was gradually drawing closer in form and outlook to Hitler's Germany. Pasolini's withdrawal into the Casarsa of his youth is, in its way, a withdrawal from the unacceptable reality of fascist Italy, a rejection of history. It too is part of that "evasività," which he attributes to Solmi, "che coincide, in parte, con quella ermetica dell'anteguerra."
Nor, besides this evident political cause, is his choice of subject matter strange in the light of the vogue in Italy at that period of two masterpieces in the literature of adolescence, Alain-Fournier's Le grand Meaulnes and Raymond Radiguet's Le diable au corps. Nor, as we shall discuss later, is there to be excluded the possible influence of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, whose memorial evocation of the Castille of his youth—Mi juventud, veinte años en tierra de Castilla—is not dissimilar in intention, and, on occasions, in style and vocabulary, to the Casarsa of Pasolini.
In the last analysis, however, neither political cause nor literary affinity completely explain Pasolini's choice of subject matter. His evocation of an adolescent world would seem to have deeper, perhaps more psychological roots, for, on examination, it can be seen to be a constant in his works. The ragazzi di vita of the 'Roman' novels, in fact, although influenced by the Neapolitan Russo, and particularly by the Roman Belli, are still basically the frutin who populate his early poetry. It would seem to us that Pasolini himself wished to stress the constant importance the world of adolescence had for him, when, in reprinting his dialect poems in 1954, he chose as their title La meglio gioventù, stressing thereby his belief in it—youth—as the best period of one's life, conscious as he was then that, alas, it was—in the words of the canto popolare he was citing—"soto tera."
If the early dialect poetry of Pasolini, however, were simply a highly lyrical, descriptive evocation of youth, it is doubtful whether it would be able to hold our attention as it does. In fact, the world of youth and innocence evoked by the poet is, in many respects, only the framework of the collection, its "povera storia," to use his own expression. As we have already indicated, the various youths who pass through his poetry are the objective correlatives of the poet himself. The objective world of Casarsa is simply one side of the coin. On the other side there stands the poet himself, remembering and endowing that world with a richness, complexity and ambiguity that is his. The "carica accorante di nostalgia" is counterbalanced by the consciousness or awareness of reality that he has. The awareness of what he is (reality), compared with what they are (nostalgia), brings in the consciousness of change, and, ultimately, of death. What we have, in effect, is a repetition of a well-known Leopardian situation, typical of the grandi idilli: namely, the nostalgic evocation of a situation, which nostalgic evocation contains within itself the consciousness of its being no more. From this nostalgia, which is not an escape from reality but rather a sublimation of it, there derives that "nozione della morte e del disfacimento del mondo, delle cose care e degli affetti" that Pasolini sees in Giotti, and which we believe mirrors accurately his own poetry.
An examination of the opening poems from his first collection will illustrate this situation of nostalgia-consciousness. It is well illustrated in the volume's first poem following the dedica, "Il nini muart" (Il fanciullo morto):
Sera imbarlumida, tal fossál a cres l'aga, na fèmina plena a ciamina pel ciamp. Jo ti recuardi, Narcìs, ti vèvis il colòur de la sera, quand li ciampanis a sùnin di muart.
(Sera luminosa, nel fosso cresce l'acqua, una donna incinta cammina per il campo. Io ti ricordo, Narciso, avevi il colore delia sera, quando le campane suonano a morto.).
The poem is divided into two tercets. The first one presents us with a simple scene, evoked with a few impressionistic strokes, reminiscent of Pascoli's Myricae, against which there stands out the "fèmina plena," symbol, like the water running in the ditch, of life. What at first sight may seem a simple, descriptive piece, takes on its full significance in the light of the second tercet, for there the poet's memory, through the unifying element of the "colòur / de la sera," leads to his awareness that that life, mirrored in the first tercet, cannot be separated from its necessary counterpart, death, and it is the awareness of death, inherent in that incipient life, that takes the first tercet (and the complete poem) beyond the bounds of a merely descriptive piece, and makes it, instead, a poetic vehicle for the intense emotion of the poet.
A similar situation is to be found in the poem immediately following, "Ploja tai cunfins" (Pioggia sui confini):
Fantassùt, al plòuf il Sèil tai spolèrs dal to paìs, tal to vis de rosa e mèil pluvisìn al nas il mèis. Il soreli scur di fun sot li branchis dai moràrs al ti brusa e sui cunfins tu i ti ciantis, sòul, i muàrs. Fantassùt, al rit il Sèil tai barcòns dal to paìs, tal to vis di sanc e fièi serenàt al mòur il mèis.
(Giovinetto, piove il Cielo sui focolari del tuo paese, sul tuo viso di rosa e miele, nuvoloso nasce il mese. Il sole scuro di fumo, sotto i rami del gelseto, ti brucia e sui confini, tu solo, canti i morti. Giovinetto, ride il Cielo sui balconi del tuo paese, sul tuo viso di sangue e fiele, rasserenato muore il mese.)
In this poem, with its three quatrains of ottonari rhyming ABAB, CDCD, ABAB, the reader is once again confronted with the presence of life in the form of the "vis di rosa e mèil," standing out in contrast with the natural scene, the dismal, raining first day of the month, and here also, as in "Il nini muart," with its "sera imbarlumida" as a mirror of death, the nascent month already contains within itself, in the adjective "pluvisìn," underscored in the "soreli scur di fun" of the second quatrain, a premonition of what is to come. And so, with the inevitable passing of time, the life of the fantassùt wastes away, the initial "vis di rosa e mèil" becomes, with a neat assonance between "mèil" and "fièl," its opposite, "vis di sanc e fièl," contrasting with the "serenàt" of the month in the same way it had in the opening quatrain.
As a final example, let us examine the next poem, "Dili":
Ti jos, Dili, ta li cassis a plòuf. I cians si scunìssin pal plan verdùt. Ti jos, nini, tai nustris cuàrps, la fres-cia rosada dal timp pierdùt.
(Vedi, Dilio, sulle acacie piove. I cani si sfiatano per il piano verdino. Vedi, fanciullo, sui nostri corpi la fresca rugiada del tempo perduto.)
Here too we have the same procedure as in "Il nini muart": the evocation of the scene in the first tercet through a few impressionistic strokes, and the completion of that initial scene by the awareness of the poet in the second tercet, with its beautiful image of the "fres-cia rosada," of the fleeting nature of that scene and everything in it, including himself and Dilio, underlined by the rhyme between "verdùt" of the first tercet—the greenness and freshness of youth—and the truncated "pierdut" of the last line of the poem.
These opening poems, with their nostalgia-cum-consciousness situation centred on a life-death cycle, are exemplary in that they clearly delineate, right from the outset, what will be one of the constants in Pasolini's work. Usually reflected against a backcloth of seasonal change, the inevitable passing of time occurs again and again in Poesie a Casarsu. If one were to sum up the predominant sentiment present in these poems, one could do no better than cite—perhaps ironically—Pasolini himself, who, talking of Luzi's Onore del vero, said that the Florentine poet—and the judgment describes perfectly his own early poetry:
si trova in possesso di una grande ricchezza, di un capitale inesauribile: la coscienza della morte. Profondamente originale e profondamente ovvio, il suo messaggio poetico non è che un "memento mori."
This consciousness of life being a "memento mori" has two results. On the one hand, the perfect, innocent world of youth, the "calore puro e accecante dell'adolescenza" evoked with the "carica accorante di nostalgia," subject as it is to the laws of time, will gradually be subjected to maturity, that is to say, to the imperfect, the impure, the corrupt which infiltrate it. This was already to be seen in Ploja tal cunfins, in the change from the "vis di rosa e mèil" to the "vis di sanc e fiel." More than a direct mutation from one state to another, however, more often than not there is a state of coexistence, indicative perhaps of the unwillingness of the author, although only too aware of the reality of the situation, to abandon the intensely loved world of his youth. Thus in "O me donzel" (O me giovinetto), the poet can define himself as a "lontàn frut peciadòur" (lontano fanciullo peccatore), where the first adjective and the noun are the attributes of innocent youth (or of nostalgia), whereas the second adjective is that of corrupt maturity (or reality). To this same category belong the "ridi scunfuartàt" (riso sconsolato) of the same poem—taken up in the "ridi pens" (grave riso) of "David"—and the autodefinition of the poet in "Vilota" as an "antic soranel" (antico ragazzetto). This coexistence of youth-maturity, innocence-corruption, adumbrated in the poetry in dialect, will be developed fully in the Italian poems of L'Usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica.
On the other hand, even if there is present a consciousness of progression towards maturity and corruption, and even if this progression is only reluctantly accepted by the poet, who would prefer that his chosen world remain unchanged in its youthful innocence, there is also an increasing awareness on the poet's part that so to wish is to deny the march of history, of progress. The deliverance from maturity is at the same time a condemnation to a stunted existence. This dilemma, which will never really be resolved and which will appear constantly in all Pasolini's works, is present already in his Poesie a Casarsa.
Symptomatic of this is the poem "Tornant al pais" (Tornando al paese), constructed on a dialogue between the poet and a fantassuta in the town to which he now returns:
Fantassuta, se i fatu sblanciada dongia il fòuc, coma una plantuta svampida tal tramònt? 'Jo i impiji vecius stecs e il fun al svuala scur disìnt che tal me mond il vivi ai è sigur.' Ma a chel fòuc ch'al nulìs a mi mancia il rispìr, e i vorès essi il vint ch'al mòur tal pais. (I) ................ A fiesta a bat a glons il me país misdì. Ma pai pras se silensi ch'a puarta la ciampana! Sempre chè tu ti sos, ciampana, e cun passiòn jo i torni a la to vòus. 'Il timp a no'l si mòuf: jot il ridi dai paris, coma tai rams la ploja, tai vuj dai so frutins.' (III)
(Giovinetta, cosa fai sbiancata presso il fuoco, come una pianticina che sfuma al tramonto? 'Io accendo vecchi sterpi, e il fumo vola oscuro, a dire che nel mio mondo il vivere è sicuro.' Ma a quel fuoco che profuma mi manca il respiro, e vorrei essere il vento che muore nel paese … Festoso nel mio paese rintocca il mezzogiorno. Ma sui prati che silenzio porta la campana! Sempre la stessa tu sei, campana, e con sgomento ritorno alla tua voce. 'Il tempo non si muove; guarda il riso dei padri, come nei rami la pioggia, negli occhi dei fanciulli.')
Here, in the opening stanza, we have the first sign of the awareness on the poet's part of the stunted existence of his beloved Casarsa in the contrast between the affectionately evoked "fantassuta" lighting the "vecius stecs" to indicate that "il vivi al è sigùr," and the poet who, although attracted by the fire, by its perfume, is also choked by its smoke. This awareness is heightened in the third stanza where the realisation that the bell ringing out across the town and the fields is that same bell of many years ago, brings home to the poet the fact that time has stood still for the folk of Casarsa. This realisation, however, is no longer a source of joy but rather a source of "passiòn" (sgomento), because the poet realises, in the words of the young girl, that "nualtris si vif, / a si vif quiès e muàrs" (noi si vive, si vive quieti e morti), where the adjective to be stressed is not so much "quiès" as "muàrs."
This awareness of condemnation inherent in the perfect, unchanging world of the Friuli, already hinted at in the poems of the first collection, will become progressively deeper in the volumes following. In "La not di maj" (La notte di maggio), for example, of Suite furlana, the sense of time precipitating has become much more intense, and as a result of this the elegiac world of the first poems, "clar e fer" (chiaro e fermo), lightly covered with "la fres-cia rosada / dal timp pierdùt," is now reflected in the "rèit / di rujs insanganadis" (rete / di rughe sanguinose) of the young boy grown old as "ains scurìs / e nos dismintiadis / e passiòns soteradis" (anni oscuri / e notti dimenticate / e passioni sepolte), in a word, "Vita senza distìn, puartada via cu'l cuarp" (Vita senza destino, portato via col corpo).
The dilemma is perhaps presented in its clearest terms in the poem "Mostru o pavea" (mostro o farfalla), with its two series of contrasting terms. On the one hand, there is the butterfly, "pavea di serèn" (farfalla di sereno), symbol of youthful innocence—"Pavea selesta sensa ombrenis" (Farfalla celeste senza ombre) which "A pausa viola ta li me violis / tal grin da li vualvis oris" (Si posa viola tra le mie viole, nel grembo delle ore uguali). On the other hand, the same butterfly is seen as a "mostru di seren" (mostro di sereno) which "mi cres / coma una nula" (mi cresce come una nube) and which "va cuntra di dut, fòut di dut, / al sporcia i flòurs di me frut" (va contro di tutto, fuori di tutto, sporca i fiori di me fanciullo). But perhaps the most telling lines of the poem are the final ones:
No, al è un mostru di speransa tal vagu disperàt di Ciasarsa: al mi fai no essi un omp cu'l nut suspièt di no vej mai vivùt.
(No, è un mostro di speranza nel vuoto disperato di Casarsa: mi fa non essere un uomo col nudo sospetto di non aver mai vissuto.)
Here there is quite evidently the awareness of the harsh reality of the situation (vagu disperàt di Ciasarsa), and, along with this realisation, the consciousness of the stunted nature of a childhood not allowed to develop to maturity (nut / suspièt di no vej mai vivùt), but also, in spite of this, the inability of the poet to accept that reality, resulting in that sineciosi—"mostru di speransa"—that we have already seen to be a constant in his poetry.
The awareness of the existence of a different world from that of his youthful Friuli, a world of movement reflecting not only the cycle of life but also that of progress, and which therefore puts his Friuli in a completely different light, however contrasted it may be, as we have seen, does nevertheless exist. And if proof were needed, it could be gleaned from the faint but noticeable insertion into his early poetry—of its nature essentially and highly lyrical: a poetry of mood, for the most part fragmentary and impressionistic—of a certain narrative tendency—in, for example, "Pastorela di Narcis" (Pastorella di Narciso)—and, along with this a certain linguistic realism such as we find, for example, in the third stanza of "Il diaul cu la mari" (Il diavolo con la madre):
Bessòul al pompa l'aga, al glutàr di aga ch'a cola cun un amàr sunsàr tal giàtu; e al pissa sot li stelis de la not lissa.
(Solo, pompa l'acqua, una sorsata d'acqua che cade con un amaro strepito nel rigagnolo; e piscia sotto le stelle della notte liscia.)
The tendency towards a narrative discourse, influenced no doubt by the poetry of Pavese and by the polemical, strongly realistic programmes of the numerous and, for the most part, ephemeral riviste di poesia of the post-war period, particularly La strada, was continued in the poems of Romancero. The poetry from being, as we have seen, prevalently fragmentary and impressionistic, tends now to the longer, narrative structure, rendered frequently, rhythmically, by a popular movement based to a great extent on repetition, exclamation, invocation, such as in Spiritual. This tendency towards a narrative structure is accompanied by a much clearer tendency towards objectivity in which the protagonists of the poems exist in their own right and not simply as projections of the poet himself. Along with this, the dichotomy innocence-maturity, which we have seen on occasions of awareness configured as exclusion-inclusion in society in progress, is now, frequently, seen in a polemical note of poor-rich, whether it be in the anguished questions posed in "Fiesta":
Aleluja aleluja aleluja! Cui sìntia la vòus dai Anzuj? Cui sàia la possiòn di un puòr? Cui sìntia il ciant dai Anzuj? E cui sàia il me nòn: Chin Cianòr? Cui ghi cròdia ai Anzuj?
(Aleluja aleluja aleluja! Chi sente la voce degli angeli? E chi sa il tormento di un povero? Chi sente il canto degli Angeli? E chi sa il mio nome: Chino Canòr? Chi crede negli Angeli?)
or, perhaps more clearly, in the contrast between Chino Canòr and the others, the "siòrs" (signori), emphasized polemically through repetition, in the concluding lines of the same poem:
Aleluja aleluja aleluja! Li ciampanis a sunin pai siòrs, jo i sint altris ciampanis: ciampanis vissinis pai siòrs, par me ciampanis lontanis coma i siòrs.
(Aleluja aleluja aleluja! Le campane suonano per i ricchi, io sento altre campane: campane vicine per i ricchi, per me campane lontane come i ricchi.)
And, as a result of this, the "dis perdut" become "dis robat" (giorni rubati) where, in the poem of that title, beauty, innocence and youth are now seen not as eternal but rather as an all too fleeting prelude to the harsh reality of maturity:
Nos ch'i sin puòrs i vin puòc timp de zoventùt e de belessa: mond, te pòus stà sensa de nos. Sclafs da la nàssita i sin nos! Pavèjs ch'a no àn mai vut belessa muartis ta la galeta dal timp.
(Noi che siamo poveri abbiamo poco tempo di gioventù, e di bellezza: mondo, tu puoi stare senza di noi. Schiavi della nascita siamo noi! Farfalle che non hanno mai avuto bellezza, morte nel bozzolo del tempo.)
This tragic note, accompanied by a polemical anti-bourgeois tone, is best expressed in the naked realism, contrasting with the unfulfilled dreams, of "Vegnerà el vero Cristo":
No gò corajo de ver sogni: il blù e l'onto de la tuta, no altro tal me cuòr de operajo. Mort par quatro franchi, operajo, il cuòr, ti te gà odià la tuta e pers i to più veri sogni. El jera un fiol ch'el veva sogni, un fiol blù come la tuta. Vegnerà el vero Cristo, operajo. a insegnarte a ver veri sogni.
(Non ho coraggio di avere sogni: il blu e l'unto della tuta, non altro nel mio cuore di operaio. Morto per due soldi, operaio, il cuore, hai odiato la tuta e perso i tuoi più veri sogni. Era un ragazzo che aveva sogni, un ragazzo blu con la tuta. Verrà il vero Cristo, operaio, a insegnarti ad avere veri sogni.)
This tendency to an ever-increasing awareness of a reality outside of himself, alternating between acceptance and rejection, accompanied, stylistically, by a movement from the lyricism of the early Friulan villotta to the larger, epico-narrative dimension in the later poems, culminating in the novel Il sogno di una cosa of 1949–50, is undoubtedly a reflection (or result) of the increasing ideological concern in Pasolini—the discovery of Marx and Gramsci in 1949—as well as a reflection of the study in those same years of dialect and popular literature, leading to the publication of La poesia dialettale del Novecento in 1952, and La poesia popolare italiana in 1955.
This thematic, stylistic development, which we have tried to document in the dialect poems from the early Poesie a Casarsa to those written in Rome in the early fifties—coeval, as we have seen, with his fundamental critical studies of those years, and also, in part, it may be added, with the first 'Roman' novel, Ragazzi di vita—is accompanied by a similar development in Pasolini's use of dialect and his attitude towards it to which we should now like briefly to direct our attention.
Pasolini himself has briefly but succinctly described the evolution of his use of dialect in two documents which, taken together, provide the reader with all the necessary details. These documents are the already cited autobiographical pages at the conclusion of La poesia dialettale del Novecento, and the nota added to the various volumes of dialect poetry gathered together and reprinted in 1954 with the collective title of La meglio gioventù.
We already examined some years ago the importance given by Pasolini to dialect in his novels—how, briefly, its adoption was an attempt, a conscious attempt to resolve the linguistic impasse in which the literary language found itself in the immediate post-war period. In this respect, his claim that his regress to dialect was "coincidente … con la nostalgia di chi viva—e lo sappia—in una civiltà giunta a una sua crisi linguistica" is wholly acceptable. In addition to his novels, the 1953 poems of Romancero should also be included in this category, for there too the dialect is undoubtedly used, to adopt the poet's own expression, "nella intera sua istituzionalità." In many respects, however, these poems are the least interesting, the fruit of his research into dialect and popular literature rather than of his lyrical inspiration. What interests us more particularly here is his use of dialect not in these later poems where, under the ideological impetus of Gramsci and his concept of a "letteratura nazionale-popolare," Pasolini is already in the process of developing those ideas on language which will permeate his critical work in the fifties and have their practical fruits in the two 'Roman' novels, but rather his use of it in the early Poesie a Casarsa. When Pasolini states in the cited nota that "là—in the first edition, that is to say—la 'violenza' linguistica (cui accennavo in una noticina) tendeva a fare del parlato casarsese insieme una koinè friulana e una specie di linguaggio assoluto, inesistente in natura, mentre qui il casarsese è riadottato neila intera sua istituzionalità," what he says of his use of dialect in the first edition may be true, but what he says of it in the second, namely that it is "riadottato nella intera sua istituzionalità" is, I feel, resultant on hindsight rather than on a radical change in the function of the casarsese dialect used. What, then, if not "nella intera sua istituzionalità," is the way Pasolini uses dialect in these first poems, and why is it so?
Why he uses it, of course, is easily explained. To the absolute and perfect idyllic world of youth and innocence there corresponds the absolute and perfect expression of dialect. The private, unchanging world of the poet requires a private, immutable language in order to adequately reflect the poet's chosen world of youth and innocence. In this respect the regress "da un parlante—the poet—a un parlante presumibilmente più puro, più felice" (italics mine) is quite understandable.
More important than why he uses it, however, is how he uses it, and, here again, the poet, perhaps, as I have suggested, with hindsight, lucidly accounts for his use of it. This, he recognises, was "sensuale in origine (in tutta l'estensione e la profondità dell'attributo)" and as such had implicit in it both "un eccesso di ingenuità" and—undoubtedly more important—"un eccesso di squisitezza" with, later on, "qualche prevedibile involuzione verso più pericolose zone letterarie (per es. Mallarmé e gli Spagnuoli)." It was undoubtedly this sensual, exquisite use of dialect by him that made it, as he says in the nota, "una specie di linguaggio assoluto, inesistente in natura," if one likes, Pasolini's equivalent of what Pascoli in Addio calls a "lingua di gitane, / una lingua che più non si sa." This absolute, inexistent, if one likes, ideal rather than real nature of the dialect is evidenced by the second paragraph of the original noticina, where the poet calls upon the non-Friuian reader to pay particular attention to certain words, which, he says, "nel testo italiano, ho variamente tradotti, ma che, in realtà, restano intraducibili."
If further confirmation of the sensual, exquisite nature of the dialect were required, it would be sufficient to note how Pasolini does not really, as he says, move from dialect in its sensual, exquisite aspects to dialect "nella intera sua istituzionalità," that is to say, from its hermetic, allusive qualities to its more realistic aspects in the period 1947–49, but rather how he deepens or extends the sensual, exquisite element by multiplying the choice of dialects. Thus, to the original friulano di Casarsa, which was itself, as he admitted in the original noticina, not "quello genuino, ma quello dolcemente intriso di veneto che si parla nella sponda destra del Tagliamento," there are added the Friulan of Valvasone, of Cordenons, of Cordovado, of Gleris and Bannia, as well as the Venetian dialects of Pordenone and Caorle, all used in the poems of 1947–49, and published in the 1949 edition, Dov'è la mia patria by the Academiuta at Casarsa. I also feel that his adoption of popular poetic forms, such as the Friulan villotta in the earlier poems, and, later on, the Piedmontese epico-lyrical canzoni, comes into the same category, that is to say, it is dictated by purely aesthetic considerations rather than a desire to adhere more closely to reality.
The sensual, exquisite, evocative musical qualities of the dialect and the poet's treatment of it ("… non poche sono le violenze che gli ho usato per costringerlo ad un metro e a una dizione poetica") reveal close affinities both with the Symbolists and the Parnassians, a concern with heightened language and form, in a word, an adherence to littèrature. As such Pasolini would clearly enter into that category of Italian literature, which, taking up a note of Gramsci, he defines as "una letteratura d'élites intellettuali, la cui storia stilistica è una storia d'individui protetti, nell'inventio, da una koinè già 'per letteratura,' da una parte, e dall'altra da una condizione sociale preservante l'io nelia sua passione estetica a coltivare o le abnormità di tipo religioso o intimistico o l'otium classicheggiante o squisito." In other words, Pasolini too, at least at the outset of his literary career, belongs to "la torre d'avorio ermetica, implicante un'orgogliosa e in fondo condiscente religione delle lettere."
That this is so can be confirmed by the numerous influences which can be traced in his early poetry—corresponding, it may be said, to the main stages of the development of contemporary Italian poetry outlined by Luciano Anceschi in his Le poetiche del Novecento in Italia—and which range from Pascoli, through the crepuscolari, to Ungaretti and Montale, through Quasimodo and the Hermetics, to external literary influences, in the case of his early poetry, especially, I would suggest, that of Antonio Machado.
The all-pervading influence is, of course, that of Pascoli. Pasolini's interest in the poet of San Mauro and the influence of his poetry on him started early and can be quite clearly documented. From his tesi di laurea to the article in Convivium in 1947, and again in the opening number of Officina in 1955, Pascoli forms a constant obbligato in the critical writings of Pasolini and remains just as strongly an influence in Le ceneri di Gramsci as in the early poetry.
In his early poetry, of course, in addition to certain metrical borrowings, it is easy to see the link between Pasolini's world of youth and innocence and Pascoli's poetica del fanciullino. It is undoubtedly from this theory—and its practical results in poetry—that Pasolini's early verse derives its rich, detailed, impressionistic mixture of sound and colour that is so common in Pascoli's Myricae.
However, Pasolini's poetry is much more than a simple mimesis, much more, that is, than a simple external repetition of Pascolian stylistic features. Rather it is a conscious adoption of one of those features, what he calls "il particolare," which merits examination in some detail since it confirms, while stressing its Pascolian origin, what I individuated in the opening pages of this paper as Pasolini's use of the objective correlative. The source of Pasolini's theorization of this aspect of Pascoli's poiesis is his 1947 Convivium article "Pascoli e Montale." This essay, which is one of his earliest, is, perhaps because of its dating, almost as penetrating and acute as his slightly later one on Ungaretti, since both are singularly free from the strait jacket of ideology which was to characterize to a great extent his later essays of the fifties. Starting, as his mentor, Contini, would have done, from the individual word—in this case, the distinctly Pascolian vocabulary, frullo, voio, grembo, adopted in Montale's poem, In limine: "Il frullo che tu senti non è un volo / ma il commuoversi dell'eterno grembo"—Pasolini moves out to examine Pascoli's limited, because unconscious, use of "il particolare," especially its visual qualities, in the Myricae and the better poems of the Canti di Castelvecchio; and then goes on to examine how Montale, in the wake of the lesson of Symbolism, develops consciously what Pascoli had used unconsciously. He then illustrates how the "stupendo" in Pascoli, which was to all intents and purposes simply one of the aspects of the poetica del fanciullino, is, for the most part, innovative merely in language and not in substance, and how it is only in the better of his poems, that is in those "legati a un particolare visivo o, insomma, fisico, in cui si innesta una 'metafisica' tutta di parole," that he manages to do what Montale will later consciously and constantly do. In the second half of this essay, centered on a telling comparison between Pascoli's Vischio and Montale's Casa dei doganieri, he defines the "metafisica" of the "particolare" as:
… lo scaturire improvviso nella coscienza di un pensiero, che era stato elaborato nel subconsciente, al contatto di un "riflesso condizionato," scelto e riconosciuto tra i simboli del mondo esteso; è il substrato emotivo che viene tratto alla luce secondo un canone puramente estetico.
I feel it is quite evident from this definition, from what he later individuates in both Pascoli and Montale as "la distensione del loro attimo lirico nella memoria, uno storicizzarsi della loro emozione," the similarity with the objectified, emotive, memorial movement which I have already analysed in some of Pasolini's own early poems.
Pascoli, in addition to providing the source of the Montalian element in Pasolini's poetry, is also the ultimate source of his crepuscular element, to wit, his sense of death. Starting from "Il giorno dei morti" of the Myricae, to the "estate fredda dei morti" of Novembre, and "il vanire e lo sfiorire, / e i crisantemi, il fiore della morte" of I gattici, Pascoli's poetry is continually permeated with a sense of death, of time inexorably passing, perhaps best summed up in the final lines of Il ritardo:
Oh! tardi! Il nido ch'è due nidi al cuore, la fame in mezzo a tante cose morte; e l'anno è morto, ed anche il giorno muore, e il tuono muglia, e il vento urla più forte, e l'acqua fruscia, ed è già notte oscura, e quello ch'era non sarà mai più.
It is precisely this "interno terrore," this "nozione della morte e del disfacimento del mondo"—to use the poet's own terms from his essay on Giotti—, deriving from Pascoli, that Pasolini has in common not only with the poet of San Mauro but also with the crepuscolari, especially, I would say, with Corazzini, and which, as I have indicated earlier, is an indispensable complement to the world of adolescence evoked in the early poems.
The influence of Pascoli, and, through him, of the crepuscolari and Montale, can, as I would hope to have demonstrated, be fairly well substantiated from the text themselves, and is, as in the essays, the predominant influence. The influence of Ungaretti, and of Quasimodo and the strictly Hermetic line, is, although present, much more evanescent, and, consequently, more difficult to pin down with precision.
In general terms I would say that if the highly lyrical, fragmentary and impressionistic poetry of the early years, completely lacking in any narrative structure, is, in the final analysis, also derivative from Pascoli, where with the Myricae there was initiated that process of disintegration of the poetic form which was to characterize Italian poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is also, in no small part, a reflection of the hermetic, allusive nature of poetry in the thirties and forties, and as such, along with his choice of subject-matter (adolescence) and language (dialect), is a reaction against the incursions of the fascist régime on the autonomy of art.
More specifically the Hermetic influence is to be seen in specific images, consciously or unconsciously derivative from the Hermetic poets, and also, on occasions, in a daring use of language, again typical of the early Hermetics.
In the first category, that of the derivative image, one could include, for example, the first two stanzas of "Aleluja" where, in the first, the dying goldfinch echoes Ungaretti's "Ma non morire di lamento / come un cardellino accecato" of Agonia, while, in the second, the image of the "fanciullo di luce" (frut di lus) would seem to be a direct borrowing from the opening lines of the 57 poem of Onofri's Vincere il drago!: "Con un'arancia in mano, abita il prato / un fanciullo di luce e d'aria tenue." "La Domenica Uliva," the final poem of the first volume, although prefaced in its first edition with the opening lines of Ungaretti's La madre, would in its dialogue between mother and son seem modelled rather on Quasimodo's Laude 29 aprile 1945. Similarly, in the next volume, Suite furlana, the introduction of a realistic note in, for example, Ciants di un muart (Canti di un morto), with its precise date, "vuei XIII Zenar MCMXLIV" (oggi XIII gennaio MCMXLIV), would seem modelied on a similar technique used by Quasimodo in that same period in Giorno dopo giorno: in, for example, the titles of such poems as 19 gennaio 1944, Milano, agosto 1943, Anno Domini MCMXLVII.
In the second category, that of a daring use of language, individual combinations of adjective and noun as, for example, in "colòur smarit" (colore smarrito) of "Ciant da li ciampanis" (Canto delle campane) belong to that typically Hermetic combination one frequently finds in Luzi's Avvento notturno, such as, for example, the "vie pensierose" of Passi, and the "albero increscioso" of Periodo; as do poems such as the Lengas dai frus di sera (Linguaggi dei fanciulli di sera) and, especially I would say, the complete section of Lieder.
What, finally, of the influence of the contemporary Spanish poets, especially, I would suggest, Machado? That he was familiar with the Spanish poets in general is clear from that autobiographical-critical page I have already quoted, where he talks about "qualche prevedibile involuzione verso più pericolose zone letterarie (per es. Mallarmè e gli Spagnoli)"; that he was familiar, perhaps more especially, with Machado we can gather from the direct quotation from the Spanish poet's Retrato which prefaced Suite furlana. To be more specific, however, is somewhat hazardous. To be sure, in Pasolini's early poems the time of day that recurs most frequently is the evening, and this is very similar to the tarde of Machado. The very description of the evening given by Pasolini in "Il nini muart": "Sera imbarlumida" (Sera luminosa) may even be a direct calque of Machado's "!Oh tarde luminosa!," the opening line of Poem LXXVI. Similarly the frequent recurrence of the fountain as a leit-motif in his early poetry—the "fontana di aga dal me paìs" of the Dedica—may betray a Machadian influence as may the equally frequent recurrence of bells, although, in this latter case, their frequent presence in both Corazzini and, needless to say, Pascoli, makes any precise location of sources very difficult. The great wealth of visual detail that one finds in Machado's poetry and which is also evident in Pasolini's turns up frequently in Pascoli, so that it may not be inappropriate to say that Pasolini is attracted to and influenced by Machado precisely because of the Pascolian qualities of the Spanish poet's verse. In addition to this—and in more general terms—it may simply be that he is attracted to a poet who, regardless of differences that undoubtedly exist in detail, is, in his general development, very close to him: both poets' early work is, in many respects, based on a contrast between a past happiness and a present bitterness, centered around a memorial evocation of youthful innocence, mìrrored or identified with a precise geographical location: in Pasolini, Friuli with its "vita rustica, resa epica da una carica accorante di nostalgia;" in Machado, the province of Soria:
En la desesperanza y en la melancolía de tu recuerdo, Soria, mi corazón se abreva, Tierra de alma, toda, hacia la tierra mía, por los floridos valles, mi corazón te lleva.
And just as Pasolini was to move, if ever so slightly, from an evocative, memorial poetry to verse in a more realistic vein as a result of the effect upon him of the Resistance, so too Machado, as a result of the Spanish Civil War, moved towards a more engagé poetry.
Perhaps, in conclusion, the best summation of Poesie a Casarsa, thematically and stylistically, is provided by the concluding lines of Maria Luisa Spaziani's Sera di vento:
Vorrei cogliervi tutte, o mie nel tempo ebbre, sfogliate voci lungo l'arida corona dell'inverno, e ricomporvi in musica, parole sopra uno stelo eterno.
—that is to say, the voices of youthful innocence, recollected in the winter of maturity, and translated and rescued from the laws of time in the style and form of poetry.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3655
SOURCE: "Re-Reading Pasolini's Essays on Cinema," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. XXI and XXII, No. 82-3, Fall/Winter, 1980–81, pp. 159-66.
[In the following essay, de Lauretis asserts that "for Pasolini cinema is precisely writing in images, not to describe (portray) reality or fantasy, but to inscribe them as representations."]
That Pier Paolo Pasolini was a man of contradiction, and a figure in excess of its cultural ground, is worth repeating. Time and again the "scandal of contradiction" has been found to mar his politics and his poetics, his personal and public life—though not, ironically, his death. For tragic irony composes and resolves all contradictions, recasting them in the terms of narrativization, of dialectical opposition, of a final coherence of discourse which then allows itself the privilege of excess as an esthetic plus, a something more. Yet, is it not that very scandal, and the possible truth of contradiction, that draws us to Pasolini? Contradiction as—precisely—excessive, irreducible to the dominant ideological scenarios.
Some said he could not be a theorist because he was an artist, and there may be truth in that, though we would much prefer to think one could be both. He was a homosexual but could not be claimed as fellow by gay liberation; nor was his communism acceptable to the Italian Communist Party. As a poet and a writer of literature, his use of language and dialect strove, it has been said, toward a form of "representation which goes beyond the word, beyond the page," exceeding language and "obeying rules that are heteronomous to literature." What he intended as realism in his (early) films was not really realism, it was argued, due to his "wilful disregard of the constructive nature of the editing process," or to his obsessive, even regressive preoccupation with reality, physicality, corporality, narcissistic sensuality. But most of all—and on this nearly everyone agrees—Pasolini was not a semiologist. Here again, it seems, reality got in the way. Nevertheless he was deeply interested in semiology, for a time, and that interest, concurrent as it was with cinema, prompted his interventions on questions of film theory which are still very much at issue today. Thus I would disagree with the assessment (made in 1974; however) that "Pasolini's theoretical writings on cinema are of little or no use for the development of a scientific semiology of the cinema, nor for film theory and/or film criticism." Or rather, I would disagree with the latter part of the statement, since "the development of a scientific semiology of the cinema," which never was Pasolini's concern, is no longer a concern at all: it is a moot case. But the value of some of his views on the relation of cinema to reality and to what he called human action (I will call it social practice), the value of his observations for current theoretical work in and on cinema is what I will address myself to in this paper.
A growing concern of film theory, in the past decade, has been to understand the working of the cinematic apparatus as a social technology, a relation of the technical and the social. If film as a textual system and cinema as a language were the theoretical objects of classical semiology in the sixties, during the early to mid-seventies, in response to the feminist critique of representation and other political issues, these hypotheses were displaced and film theory began to address questions of sexuality, identification, subjectivity, spectatorship, and the effectivity of various practices of cinema in that respect. Psychoanalysis, with its attention to the signifier and its articulation of subject processes across the imaginary and the symbolic registers, provided an important theoretical framework, a discourse which addressed those questions, albeit in its own specificity. What is necessary for film theory, at the present moment, is an understanding of the interrelations or mediations between the systems of determinations embedded in cinema as a social technology (systems of pre-construction of meaning, codes, technical availability and access), its institutional orders of coherence (the various discourses on cinema), and practices—social practices as well as practices of cinema. Such understanding requires an exploration of the conditions of possibility of those practices and discourses, in and against those systems of determinations. An understanding, then, of the contradictions, the breaking points, the areas of rupture and excess, the limits of those systems. Central to this project is the question of cinematic signification: on the one hand, the articulation of meaning to image, language and sound (Pasolini's insistence on the "audio-visuality" of cinema: "cinema is not the image, it is an audio-visual technique in which the word and the sound have the same importance as the image"); on the other hand, the question of cinema's productive relations, of representation as "the process of the engagement of subjectivity in meaning" and of the ideological as "the constant political institution of the productive terms of representation." These questions may be usefully posed, initially, by retracing something of the history of semiotics from the debate on cinematic articulation which took place during the mid-sixties around the Mostra del Nuovo Cinema in Pesaro; and by re-reading some of Pasolini's unorthodox, "naive" or "idealist" statements, as they were called, in light of later developments in semiotics, as well as the current concerns of film theory.
The debate on articulation in the early years of semiology seemed to crystallize an opposition between linguistic and iconic signs, between verbal language and visual images, their difference being thought of as inherent in two irreducible modes of perception, signification and communication: mediated, coded, symbolic—the former, verbal language; while the latter, iconism, appeared to be immediate, natural, directly linked to reality. On the possibility of determining an articulation (preferably a double articulation) for the cinematic signs hinged cinema's status as a semiotic system, a language. Although a narrow linguistic notion of articulation has proved to be something of a theoretical liability and is no longer adequate to the concerns of film theory, it may be useful to revisit the terms of the argument and its development over the years. For the question "what is cinematic articulation, how is cinema articulated, what does it articulate?" is still very much at issue.
According to Metz's first paper on the topic, "Le cinéma: langue ou langage?" a position which he later revised, cinema could only be described as a language without a code, lacking altogether the second articulation, at the phonemic level; in the cinematic image, wrote Metz, "meaning is naturally derived from the signifier as a whole, without resorting to a code." Pasolini, on the other hand, in his now famous paper "La lingua seritta della realtà," reprinted with all his other writings on cinema in Empirismo eretico, argued that cinema was a language with a double articulation, though unlike verbal language, in fact more like written language, in which the minimal units were the various objects in the frame or shot (inquadratura); these he called "cinèmi," by analogy with fonemi, phonemes. The cinèmi combine into larger units, the shots, which are the basic significant units of cinema, corresponding to the morphemes of verbal language. In this way, for Pasolini, cinema articulates reality precisely by means of its second articulation: the selection and combination of real, profilmic objects or events (faces, landscapes, gestures, etc.) in a shot; and it is these profilmic and pre-filmic objects or events ("oggetti, forme o atti della realtà"), which are already cultural objects, that constitute the paradigm of cinema, its storehouse of significant images, of image-signs (im-segni).
I cinèmi hanno questa stessa caratteristica di obbligatorietà: non possiamo che scegliere che i cinèmi che ci sono, ossia gli oggetti, le forme e gli atti della realtà che noi cogliamo coi sensi. A differenza di fonemi, però, che sono pochi, i cinèmi sono infiniti, o almeno innumerevoli.
Yet, contended Eco, another participant in the debate, the objects in the frame do not have the same status as the phonemes of verbal language. Even leaving aside the problem of the qualitative difference between objects and their photographic image (a difference central to semiotics, for the real object, the referent, is neither the signified nor the signifier but "the material precondition of any coding process," as Garroni put it), the objects in the frame are already meaningful units, thus more like morphemes. In fact, within the idea of cinema as a system of signs—an idea that Eco himself rightfully suspected of metaphysical complicity—the "code of cinema" could be better described as having not two, nor one, but three articulations (which he designated as semes, iconic signs, and figurae).
However, the notion of a triple articulation of the image does not account for the "phenomenon" cinema. For the "phenomenon," the events of cinema are not the photogram, the still image, but at the very least the shot (again, Pasolini's emphasis on inquadratura), images in motion which construct not only linear movement but also a depth, an accumulation of time and space that is essential to the meaning, the reading of the image(s). And this spatiotemporal relation is what Pasolini tentatively called "ritmema" in a short paper of 1971 entitled "Teoria delle giunte" ("A theory of splicing," i.e. of montage). At the conclusion of this phase of the debate, summarized in La struttura assente, Eco admitted that, even though cinema as a language could be said to possess a triple articulation, film as discourse is constructed on, and puts into play, many other codes—verbal, iconographic, stylistic, perceptual, narrative …
With the shift from the notion of language to the notion of discourse began to appear the limitations, theoretical and ideological, of the semiological analysis. First, the determination of an articulated code (single, double, triple or whatever), even if possible, would offer neither an ontological nor an epistemological guarantee of the event, of what cinema is—to cite the title of a famous book. For indeed one never encounters "cinema" or "language," but practices of language, practices of cinema, which is what Pasolini was talking about: cinema-as-signifying-practice, not cinema-as-system. Secondly, that notion of articulation, concerned as it was with the homogeneity of the theoretical object, and "vitiated [in Pasolini's phrase] by the linguistic mould," was predicated on an imaginary if not "metaphysical" unity of cinema as system, independent, that is, of a viewing situation. Thus it tended to hide or make non-pertinent the other components of the signifying process; for example, to hide the fact that cinematic signification and signification in general are not systemic but rather discursive processes, that they not only engage and overlay multiple codes but also involve distinct communicative situations, particular conditions of reception, enunciation and address, and thus, crucially, the notion of spectatorship—the positioning of spectators in and by the film, in and by cinema. In this sense, for example, Claire Johnston writes, "feminist film practice can no longer be seen simply in terms of the effectivity of a system of representation, but rather as a production of and by subjects already in social practices which always involve heterogeneous and often contradictory positions in ideologies … Real readers are subjects in history rather than mere subjects of a single text." In short, spectators are not, as it were, either in the film-text or simply outside the film-text; rather, we might say, they intersect the film, as they are intersected by cinema.
Semiotics, too, has moved along these lines, to some extent, toward the analysis of reading processes and text pragmatics. Eco's own critique of iconism, by displacing the notion of articulation, as well as the classical notion of sign, to a much less central position in his Theory of Semiotics, argues that there is no such thing as an iconic sign; there are only visual texts, whose pertinent features are established—if at all—by the context. And it is a code that "decides on what level of complexity it will single out its own pertinent features."
Let me go back from these recent semiotic positions to some of Pasolini's statements, perhaps too easily dismissed as unsemiotic, scientifically improper, because—as he ironically put it—"so extravagantly interdisciplinary." His often quoted slogan, "cinema is the language of reality," was in part provocatively outrageous, in part very earnestly asserted. To be exact, the words he used (it is the title of his 1966 essay) are the following: cinema is "the written language of reality," "la lingua scritta della realtà;" by which he meant that, as the invention of the alphabet and the technology of writing revolutionized society by "revealing" language to men (men, this is the word he used, I will not revise), making them conscious of spoken language and thus instituting a cultural consciousness of thought as representation (while earlier thought and speech must have appeared as natural), cinema is a kind of "writing" (scrittura) of reality, that is to say, the conscious representation of human action, hence "the written language of action." For Pasolini human action, human intervention in the real is the first and foremost expression of men, their primary "language," primary not (or not just) in the sense of originary or pre-historic, but primary to the extent that it encompasses all other "languages"—verbal, gestual, iconic, musical, etc. In this sense he says, what Lenin has left us—the transformation of social structures and their cultural consequences—is "a great poem of action." But
From Lenin's great action poem to the short pages of action prose of a Fiat worker or a petty government official, life is undoubtedly moving away from the classical humanistic ideals and is becoming lost in pragma. Cinema (with the other audio-visual techniques) seems to be the written language of this pragma. But this may be its salvation, precisely because it expresses it from within: being produced out of this pragma [cinema] reproduces it.
Another statement: cinema, like poetry (he means poetic writing, again, poetry as a practice of language) is "translinguistic." It encodes human action in a grammar, a set of conventions, a vehicle; but as soon as it is perceived, heard, received by a reader-spectator, the convention is discarded and action (reality) is "recreated as a dynamics of feelings, affects, passions, ideas" in that reader-spectator. Thus in living, in practical existence, in our actions, "we represent ourselves, we perform ourselves, and watch others representing-performing-enactingthemselves [rappresentare in Italian conveys all of these]. Human reality is this double representation in which we are at once actors and spectators: a gigantic happening, if you will." Cinema, then, is "but the 'written' [recorded, stored] moment of a natural and total language, which is our action in the real."
It is easy to see why Pasolini's arguments could have been so easily dismissed. He himself, only half-jokingly, asked: "What horrible sins are crouching in my philosophy?" and named the "monstrous" juxtaposition of irrationalism and pragmatism, religion and action, and other "fascist" aspects of our civilization. I should like to suggest, however, that an unconventional, less literal or narrow reading of Pasolini's pronouncements (for such they undoubtedly were), one that would accept his provocations and work on the contradictions of his heretical empiricism, could be very helpful to resist, if not to counter, the more subtle seduction of a logicosemiotic humanism.
This is not the place, nor is there time, for an extensive reading of essays, articles, screenplay notations, interventions and interviews spanning nearly a decade; or to consider the originality of his insights with regard to, for example, the function of montage as "negative duration" in the construction of a "physio-psychological" continuity for the spectator; or the qualities of "physicality" (fisicità) and oniricità, the dreamlike state film induces in the spectator—insights which he tried to couch in the terms of the theoretical discourse of semiology (and they didn't fit) but which several years later, recast in psychoanalytic terms, were to become central to films theory's concern with visual pleasure, spectatorship, and the complex nexus of imaging and meaning that Metz was to locate in "the imaginary signifier." That relation of image and language in cinema, wrote Pasolini in 1965, is in the film and before the film: "un complesso mondo di immagini significative—sia quelle mimiche o ambientali che corredano i linsegni, sia quelle dei ricordi e dei sogni—che prefigura e si propone come fondamento 'strumentale' della comunicazione cinematografica," a complex nexus of significant images (imaginary signifiers?) which pre-figures cinematic communication as its instrumental foundation. What Pasolini touches upon here is possibly one of the most important and most difficult problems confronting cinematic theory and iconic, as well as verbal, signification: the question of inner speech, of forms of "imagist, sensual, pre-logical thinking" already posed by Eikhenbaum and Eisenstein in the twenties about the relation of language to sensory perception, of what Freud called word-presentation and thing-presentation in the interplay of primary and secondary processes. A question that, clearly, could not be answered by semiology—but through no fault, no limitation, of Pasolini's.
I will take up just a few other points. First, Pasolini imagines cinema as the conscious representation of social practice (he calls it action, reality—reality as human practice). This is exactly, and explicitly, what many independent filmmakers are in fact doing or trying to do today. Pasolini, of course, speaks as a filmmaker—en poète, as he said; he is concerned with film as expression, with the practice of cinema as the occasion of a direct encounter with reality, not merely personal and yet subjective; he is not specifically taking on, as they are, cinema as institution, as a social technology which produces or reproduces meanings, values and images for the spectators. But he is keenly aware, nevertheless, in the passages I quoted and elsewhere, that cinema's writing, its representation of human action, institutes "a cultural consciousness" of that encounter with reality. Which is why he says, and this is my second point, cinema, like poetry, is translinguistic: it exceeds the moment of the inscription, the technical apparatus, to become "a dynamics of feelings, affects, passions, ideas" in the moment of reception. Cinema and poetry, that is, are not languages (grammars, articulatory mechanisms) but discourses and practices of language, modes of representing—signifyingpractices, we would say; he said "the written language of pragma." The emphasis on the subjective in three of the four terms, "feelings, affects, passions, ideas," cannot be construed as an emphasis on the merely 'personal,' that is to say, an individual's existential or idiosyncratic response to the film; on the contrary, it points to the current notion of spectatorship as a site of productive relations, of the engagement of subjectivity in meaning, values and imaging, and therefore suggests that the subjective processes which cinema instigates are "culturally conscious," that cinema's binding of fantasy to images institutes, for the spectator, forms of subjectivity which are themselves, unequivocally, social.
I could go on recontextualizing, intertextualizing, overtextualizing Pasolini's extravagant statements. But I shall instead conclude going back to semiotics, where it all started—not only my reading of Pasolini's text but also the theoretical discourse on cinema through which I have been reading it. Pasolini's use of semiology, aberrant as it might have seemed, was in fact prophetic. The notion of im-segno proposed in the 1965 essays "Il cinema di poesia" and "La sceneggiatura come 'struttura che vuol essere altra struttura'" is much closer to Eco's notion of sign-function than anyone would have suspected, way back then. And so is Pasolini's attempt to define the "reader's collaboration" in the sceno-testo, the screenplay as text-in-movement, as diachronic structure or structure-in-process—another of his scandalous contradictions, yet no longer so if we compare it with Eco's recent reformulation of the notion of open text. As for the question of cinematic articulation and iconism, the context of cinema, as Pasolini outlines it, the context which makes certain "features" pertinent and thus produces meaning and subjectivity, is not only a discursive context or a textual co-text (linguistic or iconic); it is the context of social practice, that human action which cinematic representation articulates and inscribes from both sides of the screen, so to speak, for both filmmakers and spectators as subjects in history. And therefore cinema's iconicity, its complex overlay of visual, aural, linguistic and other coding processes, does remain an issue for semiotics and for film theory; it should not be too quickly cast aside as irrelevant, false or superseded. For at least two reasons. On one front, it is important to pursue the question of iconic representation and of its productive terms in the relations of meaning, as a sort of theoretical resistance: to oppose the trend toward an increasing grammatization of discursive and textual operations, toward, that is, logico-mathematical formalization. On another front, it continues to be necessary to reclaim iconicity (including above all visual pleasure and the attendant questions of identification and subjectivity) not so much from the domain of the natural or from an immediacy of referential reality, but for the ideological; to wrench the visual from its vision, as it were—Salò, the film one simply can not see, or cannot simply see: one must decide, choose, will oneself to see it, to look at it, to listen to it, to stay in one's chair, not to get up and leave. No spell binds us to such a film; the questioning of vision, in its most literal terms, and the violence with which such questioning imposes itself on the spectator, belie the comfortable belief in an innocence of images that would make them "allegory and literality, but no symbol, metaphor or interpretation … Fantasy can only be written (says Barthes, speaking of Sade), not portrayed." But for Pasolini cinema is precisely writing in images, not to describe (portray) reality or fantasy, but to inscribe them as representations; to reclaim the imaginary of the image for the symbolic of cinema (as Metz might say). In that essay of 1966 Pasolini insisted, "bisogna ideologizzare." Ideologize, he said. Fourteen years later, we still need to.
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SOURCE: "'I Am a Free Man': Pasolini's Poetry in America," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. XXI and XXII, No. 82-83, Fall/Winter, 1980–81, pp. 99-105.
[In the following essay, MacAfee discusses the relationship between Pasolini's poetry and American culture and art.]
Pasolini's Italian poems were made as civil poems, in bright contrast to the then still dominant mode of poetic discourse, hermeticism—whose style was, I think, a function of its poets living under the growth and success of fascism. Pasolini's Italian poems, from 1954 to his death, are discourse appropriate to a post-fascist society, and fully use a climate of freer speech. Pasolini's long civil poems link him to Whitman and Pound and Ginsberg, but he is a real original—and just as the films of this film-poet have had roughest going in America, of all the non-Communist world, the poems will also upset some ideas about what a poem can't be—but I think the soil is already prepared by the three aforementioned American poets, and that Pasolini's poetry and career will have a deep effect on American poetry, and thus on American life.
American poetry 1980 is at a point of particular opportunity. For at least ten years a network of poetry queries and magazines has been in the process of organizing itself. The outlets are there for publishing good and great work, as well as the usual vast amount of mediocre writings. But hermeticisms of all kinds abound, and an unworkable hermetic esthetic has hold of most of the organs that publish poetry. The poet is still at the outskirts of the society, however. And Pasolini's example of gaining and maintaining a central place as poet in the society will I hope be noted by all poets.
I think his poetry will in fact have an effect on ours similar to its impact on Italian poetry, because American poetry takes its cues largely from master poets who are hermetics (Whitman, Pound, and Ginsberg excepted) rather than civil poets. Though Pound supported fascism and Pasolini his own form of "never-orthodox" Marxism, it was special versions of each, and both poets share many qualities—most importantly, they included politics in their poetry, and they were tireless in promoting the well-being of culture.
In 1968 Pasolini interviewed Pound for Italian television. Excerpts of the interview have been published in Ezra Pound in Italy. Pasolini's aunt has told me Pasolini drew a sketch of Pound while they talked. Giuseppe Zigaina, a painter and great friend of Pasolini, tells me there may be three such sketches. Alas they seem to have been lost or mislaid perhaps in some book in some trunk in Venice or Casarsa. But what a document in modern poetry and art they would be!
Pasolini begins the interview by quoting Pound's early poem "A Pact"—"I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—/ I have detested you long enough. / I come to you as a grown child / Who has had a pigheaded father; / I am old enough now to make friends. / It was you that broke the new wood, / Now is a time for carving. / We have one sap and one root—/ Let there be commerce between us." Pasolini is offering a peace between the never-orthodox Marxist and the former sympathizer with fascism, between generational and other differences (heterosexual, homosexual, American, Italian), in other words, building quite a bridge. Pound replies, over the decades, and by using Latin, for all to hear who have ears to hear, for the centuries: "All right—Friends! Pax tibi. Pax mundi." Pasolini quotes from Canto 67 "Woe to them that conquer with armies and whose only right is their power." Then asks: "These are pacifist verses. Would you like to participate in one of the demonstrations that are taking place in America to help the world remain at peace?" Pound: "I think the intentions are good, but I don't think these demonstrations are the right answer. I see things from another angle. As I wrote in a draft for a recent Canto: 'When one's friends hate one another / how can there be peace in the world.'"
The editor's synopsis of the interview concludes: "On Pasolini's asking was Pound thinking of himself when he wrote: 'The young Dumas weeps because the young Dumas has tears'—he replied: 'No, by the "young Dumas" I was not thinking of myself. In the Pisan Cantos I wrote: "Tard, très tard, je t'ai connue, la tristesse / I have been hard as youth sixty years."'"
Pound writes in the book's introduction: "It was my first talk with Pasolini—enjoyable if a bit one-sided because of me. I would like to meet him in an atmosphere less bristling with question marks." I doubt if they met again, since Pound's famous silence was then in progress—a decade-long silence that ended with his death in 1972, in Venice. But beneath the surface testiness, it was a fruitful, noble encounter.
Seven years after it, in 1975, Pasolini, in Salò's final bloody minutes, quotes Pound's Canto 99 as though it were being played over fascist radio (even though it was written in 1949—Pasolini knew this; genius makes its own rules): "The whole tribe is from one man's body / The father's word is compassion / The son's filiality." Meanwhile on the screen, enraged father-torturers rape, mutilate, and murder their young victims. It is a particularly rich and plentiful moment in one of cinema's truly revolutionary works. It is a moment of splendid poetry (thesis) and terrible images (antithesis) that are memory's images of terrible times, the last days of fascism. Thesis and antithesis with no synthesis is a typical Pasolini situation. Question marks and questions end long poems and long films. The reference to "compassion" as the father's word is an echo of Pound's own self-criticism in the interview: "I have been hard as youth sixty years." The reference is as well a hommage: the lines are indeed splendid.
Salò is the ultimate post-hermetic poem. Pasolini said to his publisher that if it were shown, there would be no more censorship. Although its distributor withheld it for two years from American audiences, it finally was released in 1977 and continues to be shown with regularity in the repertory houses. As for censorship in general, perhaps Salò is the last major case; I haven't heard of another one. (In fact, another, more insidious kind of censorship is and has been practiced in the last ten years in the United States and that is the self-censorship by such corporations as United Artists, which withheld Salò for two years without giving any valid reason. United Artists is owned by the giant Transmerica Corporation, and most of its releases start with the motto "Entertainment from Transmerica" but not Salò). The film has had a strange life here and has not been reviewed by most of the weekly and monthly middlebrow critics who have helped create an audience of semiserious filmgoers (Sarris, Kael) and has been dismissed by most of the daily reviewers here (and has thus been subjected to the press's self-censorship: turn away whenever anything serious approaches), but serious pieces have appeared in art, film, literary, and political journals: The New York Arts Journal, Cineaste, Film Comment, Boss, and the latest issue of October.
More than anything else, what sets it and most of Pasolini's work apart from ways of thinking that collide with Power, the power of the superpowers, for example, is the element of homosexuality. Much of the critical antipathy to Pasolini's films here has been because of this. I am sure several of the critics who so hate Pasolini are closet homosexuals, but the great majority of them are heterosexuals. Pasolini made an effort to be honest about his homosexuality, if for no other reason than to avoid the blackmail inevitable to those who have something to hide. The boys and young men he was attracted to had mythic status for him; as he writes in a late poem, "A boy in his first loves is none other than the fecundity of the world." Two subproletarian boys spark the long poem "The Religion of My Time" from 1959 which is one of the great visions of Italy and the world at that time. His relations with peasant and sub-proletarian males were completely in line with his politics. His behavior as lover of them and memorializer of them in film and poem causes a whole group hitherto almost unseen in art to be brought forward. I would like to read a rather long excerpt from the long poem, "A Desperate Vitality," written in 1963, which illustrates the method well: the poet has been interviewed by a newspaper reporter. The poem is filled with cinematic touches, with references to Godard's film Contempt (based on a story by Alberto Moravia then being filmed in Rome; one of the first lines is: "As in a film by Godard"): the reporter asks "What's the function of the Marxist?" The poet answers and the politics and homosexuality are brought together.
nibbling her ballpoint—"What's the function of the Marxist?" And she gets ready to take notes. "With … the delicacy of the bacteriologist … I'd say [I stammer, seized by impulses of death] to move masses such as Napoleonic, Stalinist armies … with billions of annexings … so that … the masses that call themselves conservative [of the Past] lose it, while the revolutionary masses acquire it, rebuilding it in the act of defeating it … It is because of the Instinct of Conservation that I'm a communist! A move on which depends life and death, through the centuries forever and ever To do it little by little, as when an army engineer unscrews the safety catch of an unexploded bomb, and, for a moment, can remain in the world (with its modern city blocks, all around him, in the sunlight) or be erased from it forever: an inconceivable distance between the two horns! A move to be made bit by bit, stretching the neck, stooping, wrinkling the belly, biting one's lips or squinting like a bocce player who, twisting his body, seeks to dominate the course of his throw, to rectify it toward a solution that will map out life through the centuries."
Life through the centuries … This then is what was being hinted at—last evening … stunned in the brief segment of its wailing— by that distant train … That train that was wailing, disconsolate, as though astonished to exist (and, at the same time, resigned—because every act of life is a segment already marked in a line that is life itself, clear only in dreams) that train was wailing, and the act of wailing —unthinkably distant, beyond the Appian Ways and Centocelles of the world— was joining another act: chance union, monstrous, bizarre and so private that behind the line of my eyes, which were perhaps closed, it is possible to know of it … My act is love, but lost in the misery of a body granted miraculously in the stress of hiding, gasping alongside a gloomy railroad track, stalking a muddy countryside farmed by giants … Life through the centuries … like a star falling beyond the sky of gigantic ruins, beyond the properties of the Caetanis or Torlonias, beyond the Tuscolanas and Capannellas of the world— this mechanical wail was saying: life through the centuries … And my senses were there to listen to it. I was stroking a disheveled dusty head, blond, as life would have it, of the shape that destiny desires, the agile tender body of a colt, the rough material of garments that have known a mother's care: I was performing an act of love, but my senses were there, listening: life through the centuries … Then the blond head of destiny disappeared through a hole, and the hole filled with the white sky of night, until against the strip of sky appeared another head of hair, another nape, black, perhaps, or brown; and I, in a cave lost in the heart of the estates of the Caetanis or Torlonias among ruins built by 17th-century giants in the immense days of the carnival, I was there with my senses to listen … life through the centuries … Over and over in the hole, as the pale night dispersed beyond the Casilinas of the world, disappeared and reappeared the head of destiny, with the sweetness now of the southern mother, now of the alcoholic father, always the same dear little head, disheveled and dusty or already combed up by the vanity of a working-class youth: and I, I was there with my senses to listen to the voice of another love —life through the centuries— which was rising most pure into the sky.
(A fascist victory) She looks at me pityingly And … but, then you … [worldly smile, greedy, conscious of its greed and its captivating ostentation—eyes and teeth sparkling and with a slight hesitating infantile contempt toward herself]—then you, you're very unhappy!" "Ah (I must admit) I'm in a state of confusion, signorina."
There are two loves, then: of the boy ("a boy in his first loves is none other than the fecundity of the world"—that is, the future) and "another love: life through the centuries"—which is the same as the "fecundity of the world."
In another 1963 poem, "Plan of Future Works," Pasolini expressed the need for an alliance of minorities, and, as a homosexual and outsider, his solidarity with other outcast groups—such as blacks and Jews. Since Pasolini was an outsider, and grew more and more self-reliant, his relationship with homosexuality in Italy was different from what it might be here today. The drawing of homosexuals into a political and social group is part self-protection. Pasolini didn't have this kind of group situation in his Italy till late in his life, and by then he was such an opposer it is doubtful he would have joined for long. In America this tension between individual and group is usually tilted toward the individual, which makes organizing homosexuals difficult. But the less regulated homosexual life in Italy is fraught with the dangers of having a sexual life outside the homosexual circle. He seems to have been most attracted to young heterosexuals. This linked him to the general life in Italy—the point at which young men have left their parents and have not yet become parents, but will, as their mark of virility. His killer's reason for the murder is that he didn't want to be sodomized. Pelosi's refusal and subsequent crime and lenient punishment dovetail nicely. Sexually conventional or at least hypocritical society nods its head understandingly and gives the killer nine years.
I have seemed to stray far away from the original starting point, which was Pasolini's departure from hermeticism, and his celebration of free speech. But a true coming out from hermeticism entailed this other, homosexual, coming out.
I can only guess how Pasolini's poems will affect American poetry and culture, since only a few of the poems have appeared in magazines; only once our selection is published—next fall—will we really be able to talk about effects.
I will conclude with a few general thoughts on the poems.
Pasolini tends to concentrate not on things, as many moderns have—from Rilke to William Carlos Williams to Charles Simic—but rather on a general portrayal of the world—or at least an Italy not misrepresentative of the world in its conflicts and ideologies. And on a world full of people, whether the handsome teenagers maturing into mediocrity in "Reality" or the vulgar interviewer in "A Desperate Vitality."
Cinema as a mass art has affected all the other arts—the novel, the still photograph—and poetry has not been immune. Hart, Crane, Pound, Williams are early examples. Pasolini is the child not just of poetry but also of film. He wrote his first poem at seven and came into contact with both arts earlier than that. The films have outbursts of poetry—often verbal, as in Porcilè, when Julian reveals his manias, in verse: and visual, in a directness that isn't documentary, in a subjectivity (the handheld camera). In the poems we have not only the obvious references of a film director in "A Desperate Vitality" but also the cinematic techniques in that poem's jump cuts, in the quick breathtaking shots of landscapes in "The Ashes of Gramsci" and the whole section of landscape writing in "The Tears of the Excavator" of 1956—a section that would be perhaps better filmed than written.
Pasolini, as word poet and film poet, dragged poetry further out of the cloister than any other great poet this century. In the poem "Reality," he defines the title word as the "practical end of my poetry" and later in a 1968 interview talks of his coming to film as an "explosion of my love for reality." In a sense his film poetry was the "practical end" of his verse poetry. His poetry will bring some shibboleths into American poetry: "reality," for one; another: "class struggle." The 3-decade-long debate he had with Marxism humanized the poetry. This type of debate has been almost impossible in American poetry because of the bias against ideas—especially Marxist ideas—in poetry and in society at large, which most poetry merely reflects.
A further link between Pasolini and Americans is their common effort at creating roots. His earliest published poems were in the dialect of Friuli; he founded an Institute of Friulian Language to further the regional culture in 1946, he later edited anthologies of regional folk songs.
The structure of the long poems is astounding. A poem like the 30-page "Religion of My Time" holds together amazingly well. Perhaps only in his last two films—Arabian Nights and Salò—are the structural feats as astonishing.
I would like to conclude my reading from "Reality," another major poem from 1963, the poem from which the line "I am a free man" comes—but the poem is too long to be read in its entirety—it takes at least 20 minutes—and yet too cohesive to be excerpted. I will only say that three pages after the line "I am a free man," there is this line, which should be taken much more as a simple description of the toll taken on one who is free than as a prophecy: "Free with a freedom that's massacred me."
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SOURCE: "Pasolini's Gramsci," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 96, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 120-37.
[In the following essay, Sillanpoa analyzes the relationship between Pasolini and the writings of Antonio Gramsci.]
When discussing those who perhaps most influenced the thought of the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, novelist, critic and filmmaker, one critic recently spoke of 'il suo Gramsci." Implied in this possessive is the highly personal interpretation that Pasolini attached to the example and writings of Antonio Gramsci, revolutionary political theorist whose famous notebooks survived their author's death in 1937 after eleven years of Fascist imprisonment. What follows attempts to qualify this implication through a survey of Pasolini's writings directly linked to a reading of Gramsci. Demonstration should emerge to bolster those claims of a subjective interpretation whose ultimate complexity can best be described generally as a curious admixture of confraternity and contradiction.
The closing section of L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica, containing verse composed between 1943 and 1949, carries the subtitle, La scoperta di Marx. War and the Italian Partisan response had transformed Pasolini, leading him to the conviction that life demands "qualcos'altro che amore / per il proprio destino." For the young Pasolini, that "something other" prompted a probe into an alternative world view, grounded in reason, synthesized in Marx, and calling for a commitment to popular political struggle. Within a short period of time, this newly explored world view began to intrude upon the sentimental universe of the poet's earlier verse, linguistically and thematically circumscribed by his maternal Friuli.
Pasolini's idiolect thus evolved into the idiom of a wider historical and class perspective, but without ever causing the poet to dismiss his previous experience. Pasolini's topocentric perspective widened, that is, and allowed the peasant world of Friuli, a world of primitive innocence and religious fatality, to assume even greater mythic proportions in the course of this investigation of a Marxist rationalism. During these years, first as a witness to Partisan struggles, and then as a sympathizer to the uprisings of Friulan day laborers, Pasolini participated in the local politics of the Italian Communist Party. But also in these years, he helped found, together with other young Friulans, the Academiuta de lengua furlana, a small circle dedicated to the philological study and social diffusion of Friulan language and culture. Thus Pasolini's early formation joined a sentimental attachment to the linguistic and cultural environment of his adolescence to an examination of Marxist rationalism and political ideology.
Pasolini says his introduction to Marx took place early: "In Friuli ho letto Gramsci e Marx." This particular pairing suggests, however, that his introduction was only nominally Marxist. Paolo Volponi reports, in fact, that Pasolini himself once confessed: "Sono un marxista che ha letto poco Marx. Ho letto di più Gramsci." Moreover, the Gramsci read during this period in Friuli must have been the Gramsci of the Lettere dal carcere, for, with the sole exception of Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, it wasn't until 1949 (when Pasolini had already been in Rome for a year) that the first of the other major texts of the Quaderni del carcere began appearing in print. This observation contends that this Marxist formation was really a Gramscian one, and it underscores the special character of the Gramsci first encountered by Pasolini. To a great degree this Gramsci was, and essentially continued to be, the pathetic hero of the prison letters, only in part counterbalanced by the figure of the revolutionary theorist of political and cultural praxis.
Nevertheless, in 1948 Pasolini was forced to abandon his region and his people under personal and political circumstances that left deep scars. Amid the disinherited of Rome's shantytowns (borgate), he felt painfully torn from the world of his youth. That emotional and ethical energy previously nourished through his contact with Friuli was thus diverted to these emarginated urban poor who, lured by the promises of postwar industrial reconstruction, were leaving behind their Southern agrarian communities to find themselves amid the wretched conditions of those inhabiting the periphery of many large Italian cities. The poet's myth of an a-temporal and a-rational Friuli was hence transferred to the neo-primitive and socially incohesive topography of Rome's dispossessed. Pasolini's presence among these poor of the Roman borgate, his passion for their dialect and street-wise slang, his fascination with their desperate vitalism and what he considered their pre-political rebelliousness, supplanted his poeticized concept of Friuli. Ragazzi di vita, Pasolini's celebrated novel begun in 1950 and published in 1955, emerged from this newly uncovered social and linguistic reality.
At the same time, some of the verse Pasolini composed while in Rome marked the survival of his passionate attachment to the locus amoenus of his youth, through memories populated by farm hands and shepherd boys at ease in the fields, mountains and wind-washed village squares of his mythic Friuli. Once removed from his native setting and confronted with the back-street humanity of Rome's periphery, however, Pasolini found it difficult to reconcile the poetic concepts of his earlier work to the expressive demands of his present writings. While Friuli quite often appeared in his verse as a natural utopia, by contrast, the Roman borgate of his novels Ragazzi di vita and Una vita violenta seem an inferno of degradation and disassociation. In his esthetic treatment of the socially downtrodden, Pasolini nonetheless tempered this hellish world with residues of primitive purity and adolescent innocence present beneath the coarse language and brutal(ized) faces of its inhabitants. In the end, death triumphs over the instinctual guile and bruised grace of these ragazzi di vita, as the novelist underscores the social and political pathos of this cast-off race and class. But, as just stated, Pasolini never dismissed the primordial virtues of a simpler world, and so it is in Rome during the early 1950's that he came to believe his primitive innocents the victims of a Neocapitalism that he claimed would eventually destroy the very humanity of these people as it swept away time-honored linguistic and social patterns.
In truth, that afore-mentionedrupture in Pasolini's poetry had already manifested itself to some extent at the time of his "discovery of Marx." One such example can be found in "Testament Coran," a part of the verse in dialect written between 1947 and 1952. Here Pasolini depicts a young peasant in Friuli who joins the Partisans and is then captured and hung by the Nazis. While dying, the boy-soldier commits his image to the conscience of the rich, as he sadly salutes the courage, pain, and innocence of the poor.
Similarly, the underlying evangelism of Poesie a Casarsa gradually replaced a traditional peasant demand for an avenging afterlife with a here-and-now vindication. In one poem, now part of La meglio gioventù containing all of Pasolini's verse in dialect, the peasants' figure of Christ crucified, index of a future retribution, takes on the workclothes and identity of a laborer who promises more than an atonement to come.
To repeat, the passage of Pasolini's rhapsodized race from a natural-religious state to an historical-political one was greatly influenced by the catalytic intrusion of external events. The esthetic and sensual aura of a poeticized Friuli gave way to the cruel incandescence of the War and Resistance and stirred the poet's ethical consciousness. The Resistance, above all, deeply affected Pasolini (as it did an entire generation), modifying his poetic sensibility. In 1957, when censuring what he considered the political quietism of many writers during Fascism, Pasolini remarked:
La Resistenza ha soprattutto insegnato a credere nuovamente nella storia, dopo le introversioni evasive ed estetizzanti di un ventennio di poesia.
One must then see this 'historical lesson' in conjunction with the poet's turn to Gramsci, for throughout the 1950's, the example of the Sardinian revolutionary played an important role in defining Pasolini's pronounced conflict between the pull of a visceral and esthetic passion and a call to rational, ideological exactitude. It was precisely this conflict that became the ferment of much of Pasolini's later works.
Although the volume's title poem was actually composed in 1954, Le ceneri di Gramsci was published in 1957. These poems, written in Italian (and not in dialect) occupy a special place in postwar Italian literature, for they signal a significant departure from pre- (and post-) war Hermeticism.
Contesting the Hermetics' mystique of the word, Pasolini models his verse on a rejuvenation of certain traditional stylistic modes (e.g., adjectivization; the terzina, reminiscent of post-Dantean didactic and satirical verse; the poemetto, evoking the Romantic-patriotic poetry of the Risorgimento), motivated by the desire for a return to a 'civil' poetry that might effectively challenge the Hermetic postulates of absolute self-expression and pure lyricism. At the same time, Pasolini's 'civil' poetry shares little with various strains of postwar prose à thèse, nor does it confuse reportage with poetic expression. Instead, his verse proceeds from a conflict experienced between public commitment and poetic predilection—instinct and reason. Within a context based on seemingly irreconcilable antitheses Gramsci represents a world of reason and ideological precision both guiding and goading the poet. This world clashes with Pasolini's visceral-irrational feelings that ultimately precede his ideology. Thus, Le ceneri di Gramsci records a struggle between reason (Gramsci) and passion (Pasolini).
A note to the text establishes Rome as the location of the collection's title poem: specifically, the Testaccio (working-class) quarter; the English cemetery; Gramsci's grave. It is an "autunnale / maggio" in the mid-1950's, a decade once anticipated with hope by the Resistance: "la fine del decennio in cui ci appare / tra la macerie finito il profondo / e ingenuo sforzo di rifare la vita." The poet, "capitato / per caso" into Rome's cemetery for non-Catholics, finds there a "mortale / pace" that shuts out the industrious clatter of the nearby proletarian neighborhood, providing a proper situation for his colloquy with Gramsci. This setting lends an immediate air of elegy that reduces all color and contour to an achromatic grey in a meeting of the living dead: "e noi morti ugualmente, con te, nell'umido / giardino."
From the beginning, then, the poem's metaphoric progression rests on a series of contrasts. The juxtaposition of the cemetery's quiet to the frenzy of the surrounding neighborhood is the first in succeeding analogical contrasts that culminate in the poet's self-reflexion and refraction in his hero—who is simultaneously his antagonist. Attraction and repulsion result from Pasolini's thirst for vitalistic passion and Gramsci's somber reminder of the need for rational articulation:
con la tua magra mano delineavi l'ideale che illumina (…) questo silenzio. (…) Lo scandalo del contraddirmi, dell'essere con te e contro te; con te nel cuore, in luce, contro te nelle buie viscere; del mio paterno stato traditore —nel pensiero, in un'ombra di azione— mi so ad esso attaccato nel calore degli istinti, dell'estetica passione
For Pasolini, Gramsci's "rigore" denoting the antithesis of his own "violento / e ingenuo amore sensuale," has "scisso / (…) il mondo" into opposing poles. Nonetheless, it soon becomes clear that despite the poet's insistence on living "nel non volere / del tramontato dopoguerra," of surviving through a refusal to choose between passion and reason ("sussisto / perché non scelgo"), a decision has really already been made:
Mi chiederai tu, morto disadorno d'abbandonare questa disperata passione di essere nel mondo?
Elegy renders Pasolini's evocation of Gramsci the commemoration of a lost ideal, for Gramsci, as person and precept, undergoes a figurative transformation. The force of "Le ceneri di Gramsci" is discharged through an extension of personal conflict ("con te nel cuore, / in luce, contro te nelle buie viscere") to a general, and generational, crisis ("e noi / morti ugualmente, con te"). In bemoaning the loss of the hopes and ideals of the Resistance, Pasolini indirectly censures the pis-aller of the 1950's, while implying that the 'committed' poet and critic of his times must paradoxically operate within and without conventional political structures. Gramsci, meanwhile, must necessarily remain a luminary ("in luce"), iconically remote and ideally distant from the poet's inner torment: "Lì tu stai, bandito e con dura eleganza / non cattolica, elencato tra estranei / morti: Le ceneri di Gramsci." Thus Pasolini's Gramsci lives only insofar as he is 'ashes'; insofar as his presence is experienced emblematically and at a defining distance. Without this figure, Pasolini's visceral passion would have no ballast. Gramsci is thus made to assume the role of an ideological counterpoise, keeping in check the grip of the poet's "calore / degli istinti" and "estetica passione."
As for the torment that lies outside, Pasolini identifies with the humble poor:
Come i poveri povero, mi attacco come loro a umilianti speranze come loro per vivere mi batto ogni giorno.
But the poet's poor are the poor of a pre-proletarian state championed for their inbred and sacred vitalism: "come / d'un popolo di animali, nel cui arcano / orgasmo non ci sia altra passione / che per l'operare quotidiano." Hence, again addressing Gramsci, Pasolini declares himself:
attratto da una vita proletaria a te anteriore, è per me religione la sua allegria, non la millenaria sua lotta: la sua natura, non la sua coscienza
Moreover, Pasolini's apostrophe here is to a "giovane,"… "non padre, ma umile / fratello." One should note that in an article of 1957, the year of the publication of Le ceneri di Gramsci, Pasolini called the Sardinian a "maestro." But here the emphasis on Gramsci's 'youth', his evocation as 'brother', and the strange erotic attraction that takes hold of the poet at graveside ("ebbra simbiosi / d'adolescente di sesso con la morte") suggest a commutation of Pasolini's emblem. In effect, it appears that the poet is impressing on Gramsci the figure and force of his own dead brother, tragic youthful martyr to the Resistance. This commutation gives rise to a fundamental ambiguity surrounding the image of Gramsci as master and luminary and as shadow of the poet's dead young brother. Meanwhile, it should be observed that the one clear bibliographical allusion to Gramsci focuses on the latter's presumed stoic character:
sento quale torto —qui nella quiete delle tombe—e insieme quale ragione—nell'inquieta sorte nostra—tu avessi stilando le supreme pagine nei giorni del tuo assassinio.
From the above it appears that pathos insures Gramsci's longevity. In fact, in yet another essay published the same year as the poem, Pasolini asserted that:
(…) su qualsiasi altro, domina nella nostra vita politica lo spirito di Gramsci: del Gramsci 'carcerato', tanto più libero quanto più segregato dal mondo, fuori dal mondo, in una situazione suo malgrado leopardiana, ridotto a puro ed eroico pensiero.
Here, as in the poem, Pasolini elevates Gramsci to a symbolic, and hence metahistorical, plane. What he terms a reduction to "puro ed eroico pensiero" is really a dilation of the human and historical Gramsci (political revolutionary, jailed party leader, and philosopher of praxis) to an ideal interlocutor and rational censor. Pasolini's search to construct a 'civil' poetry requires this sort of Gramsci responding to the poet's existential and cognitive needs for such an ideal and exacting interlocutor, by necessity remote and at odds with his own inner feelings.
At the same time, however, Pasolini's 'sanctified' Gramsci shared little with official hagiographies, such as those of Togliatti and other PCI ideologues of the 1950's. Pasolini's 'saint' is to be debated, even cursed, with no intent of making his "puro ed eroico pensiero" conform to the immediate dictates of party tactics. In addition, when reflecting on the extra-literary dimension of the Gramsci-Pasolinirelationship, one should consider what the Sardinian revolutionary must have meant to the young poet. When expelled from his beloved region to find himself practically friendless amidst the depressing reality of the Roman borgate, that is, Pasolini must have seen Gramsci—the jailed Gramsci, suspected by party leaders in the 1930's for his poiemically unorthodox views and scorned even by fellow Communist inmates for his refusal to adhere uncritically to Togliatti's official line—as a kindred spirit, as well as a beacon to his banishment and bewilderment ("con te nel cuore / in luce").
Together with his central presence to this collection of poetry, Gramsci likewise appears later throughout Pasolini's critical writings. He is cited frequently in the essays of Passione e ideologia (1948–1958) and Empirismo eretico (1964–1971), while his influence can be felt in many of the polemics of Scritti corsari (1973–1975).
A look at Pasolini's literary and cultural criticism calls for a distinction, nevertheless, between what Gramsci continues to represent, and how extracts from the latter's writings serve as supports or counterpoints to Pasolini's analysis. Without such a distinction, a reading of Pasolini's treatment of Gramsci could result in the annotation of contradictions, on the surface devoid of any internal connection or (ideo-)logic.
"Non posso accettare nulla del mondo dove vivo," Pasolini once claimed in a newspaper interview. This held true for all cultural and literary, as well as social and political, questions. The one constant in Pasolini's criticism is its refusal to adhere for any length of time to solicited or self-imposed canons. As Dario Bellezza notes: "La sua voglia di contraddire e contraddirsi era l'unica sua folle coerenza." And Gianni Scalia, who collaborated with Pasolini during the years of the review, "Officina," often referred to him as an "intellettuale disorganico,"—in contrast to Gramsci's celebrated notion of the "intellettuale organico"—, while dubbing him a "poeta civile, etico-politico, in contraddizione perenne (…) tra irrazionalità esistenziale e razionalità storica, impegno e autonomia, cuore e critica."
As for Gramsci's influence, Pasolini's essays provide ample testimony of a constantly shifting critical attitude that never abandons, however, an appeal to the lessons of the "maestro." When not discussing specific authors and works, Passione e ideologia (the title itself evinces a continuation of the conflict expressed poetically in "Le ceneri di Gramsci") studies the problem of language (dialect and standard Italian), the 'questione della lingua' in Italian literature, and a whole area of sociolinguistics. Working from a methodological framework at times defined as "gramscismo-stilistico." Pasolini, almost alone among contemporary critics, staunchly defended spoken and literary dialect against the assaults of an imposed national idiom that he believed came more and more to serve the ends of Neocapitalism. Those assaults, he contended, were masked as the needs for a progressive national unity to be forged through modern technological and social channels (e.g., compulsory education; the mass media; etc.).
In Passione e ideologia's "Un secolo di studi sulla poesia popolare" (a part of his acclaimed philological anthology, "La poesia popolare italiana"), Pasolini often summons Gramsci's Letteratura e vita nazionale from the Quaderni del carcere, while nevertheless declaring foreign to his own linguistic and poetic beliefs the Gramscian notion of a national-popular literature. That is, although he basically agrees with Gramsci's demand for a popular literature, Pasolini cannot reconcile that Sardinian's analytical model with his own ideas on literature. Gramsci's examination of feuilletons, popular melodrama, detective and adventure stories, etc., says Pasolini, corresponds to what "oggi si definisce 'cultura di massa'," which he in turn excoriates as consumer society's manipulation of taste to the detriment of authentic popular (i.e., dialect) culture. For want of adequate means of research, and despite his "passione e chiarezza innevativa," Gramsci "sfiora appena" the problem of popular-dialectical poetry. Thus, to no small degree, Gramsci is to be held responsible for the "inopia di studi marxisti postgramsciani sull'argomento," Pasolini concludes.
In "La confusione degli stili," Pasolini maintains that Gramsci "non spiega quale dovrebbe essere la ricerca di uno scrittore che volesse celare in un'opera l'ideale nazional-popolare." Addressing himself to the problem of literature's language, he raises the point after having asked how it is ever possible to think that "le concrezioni letterarie del concetto di 'nazional-popolare' si debbano realizzare in una simile lingua, creazione appunto deila borghesia conservatrice." But in addition to all this, he does concede that all of Letteratura e vita nazionale hinges positively on the axiom that every time the language question arises, in one way or another, a whole spectrum of other problems are about to surface.
This paraphrase of Gramsci seems exactly the issue that distinguishes Gramsci's position from that of Pasolini. The Sardinian's argument is motivated by a holistic (i.e., political) overview since problems of language, literature, etc., are studied and analyzed as integral parts of a complex of sociopolitical factors and functions. Pasolini, on the other hand, regards socio-political and cultural problems as reflections of the gradual surrender of that mythicized social and linguistic universe that he desires to defend. Gramsci sees socio-cultural problems through politics; his analysis is of the cultural institutions and structures 'materially' at work in Western industrial civilization, and how these can be used politically to promote a revolutionary new cultural hegemony. For Pasolini, (Neo-) capitalist society is a moral category—a malum—to be rejected tout court in the name of a purer (pre-industrial) one threatened with extinction.
Just the same, Pasolini is not given to simple nostalgia. In later writings, his attachment to a pre-proletarian cosmos evolved into a complex longing nourished on the trenchant criticism that his particular brand of 'Marxism' elicited: "Rimpiango l'immenso universo contadino e operaio prima dello Sviluppo: universo transnazionale nella cultura, internazionale nella scelta marxista." Despite admitting the difficulty in defining this new and corrupting power that has "manipolato e radicalmente (antropologicamente) cambiato le grandi masse contadine e proletarie italiane," Pasolini's scorn for contemporary reality ("io considero peggiore il totalitarismo del capitalismo del consumo che il totalitarismo del vecchio potere") is never presented as a politically scientific measure: "L'ordine in cui elenco questi mondi riguarda l'importanza della mia esperienza personale, non la loro importanza oggettiva."
For Gramsci, meanwhile, the intellectual who 'goes to the people' seeking contact and inspiration for a new literature to emerge from the "humus della cultura popolare cosi come è, coi suoi gusti, le sue tendenze ecc., col suo mondo morale e intellettuale sia pure arretrato e convenzionale," does so with the aim of articulating moral and intellectual needs for an eventual emancipation of the masses from just such a "humus." Hence, over all, Gramsci appears to advocate education, while Pasolini seems to demand a 'preservation' of the subaltern classes.
Pasolini is operating, nevertheless, in an artistic and cultural climate very different from that of Gramsci. His defense of a waning popular-dialectical culture is thus a polemical response to both contemporary mass culture and the elitism he considered inherent in present-day literary avant-gardes. In "La libertà stilistica," he examined his own poetic which a year earlier, on the pages of "Officina," he had defined as "neo-sperimentalismo." His position, he maintained, stood midway between an adulation of tradition and an untempered celebration of novelty, animated by a "spirito filologico (…) strumento di una diversa cultura (…) che non può accettare nessuna forma storica e pratica di ideologia" in the spirit of the imprisoned Gramsci, "tanto più libero quanto più segregato dal mondo (…), ridotto a puro ed eroico pensiero." Pasolini then advances his "neo-sperimentalismo" as the stylistic and thematic countertype to the "poetare (…) mistico, irrazionale e squisito" of 'pure poetry', as well as to an opposing tendency which he claims lowers all expressive language to the "livello della prosa, ossia del razionale, del logico, dello storico."
In terms of stylistic appraisal, Pasolini appears correct in his critique of the literary (but also, politico-cultural) shortcomings of any rigid 'hermeticism' or codified 'neorealism'. But as regards the political role assigned by Gramsci to the intellectual, he seems to bypass the significance of a proposed interaction bent on destroying 'una tradizione di casta, che non è mai stata rotta da un forte movimento politico o nazionale dal basso." Gramsci's comprehensive definition of 'political' suggests that this 'coming from below' be concerned primarily with the genesis and destination of any literary-cultural reform, and how such might foster an active co-participation, while Pasolini appears to treat the writer-public relationship in a conventionally vertical manner. Although Pasolini would agree with Gramsci that a 'new art' cannot be created "dall'esterno (pretendendo un'arte didascalica, a tesi, moralistica), ma dall'intimo, perché si modifica tutto l'uomo in quanto si modificano i suoi sentimenti, le sue concezioni e i rapporti di cui l'uomo è l'espressione necessaria," he presents an excessively internalized premise for the realization of any 'new culture' that might give rise to a 'new art':
Oggi una nuova cultura, ossia una nuova interpretazione intera della realtà, esiste, e non certamente nei nostri estremi tentativi di borghesi d'avanguardia (…) esiste, in potenza, nel pensiero marxista; in potenza ché l'attuazione è da prospettare nei giorni in cui il pensiero marxista sarà (se è questo il destino) prassi marxista (…). Ma benché in forma potenziale, esiste, agisce, già oggi, se quel pensiero marxista determina, nei nostri paesi occidentali, una lotta politica e quindi una crisi nella società e nell'individuo: esiste dentro di noi, sia che aderiamo, sia che la neghiamo; e proprio in questo nostro impotente aderirvi, e in questo nostro impotente negarla.
Pasolini's preference for a methodology based on antitheses—an extension of the passion-ideology dichotomy—is manifest in the essays of Empirismo eretico. Here Pasolini stresses the incompatibility of Neocapitalism's "linguaggio tecnocratico" with its attendant "prevalere del fine comunicativo sul fine espressivo," and the poetic demands of literary expression. Chances for a possible "lingua nazionale attraverso operazioni letterarie" have been undermined by a politico-linguistic levelling to the degree that, at present, shaping language is not "letteratura, ma la tecnica." The sweeping power of technological and consumer society, says Pasolini, is actually affecting "mutazioni antropologiche" threatening to flatten Italian linguistic and social civilization into a sterile conformity. For him, "la cultura tecnocratica-tecnologica (…) contesta e si accinge a mettere fuori gioco, tutto il passato classico e classicistico dell'uomo: ossia l'umanesimo." Marxism, while exploiting certain positive contributions of Neocapitalism's neo-language, "come 'parte' specializzata e ellittica (…) contiene in sé evidentemente un futuro umanistico e espressivo." To define Marxism in terms of a poetic prolepsis and simultaneous guardianship of popular speech and culture appears to underscore further Pasolini's mythic conception of a pre-industrial artist/public relationship.
Then again using Gramsci as theoretical support, Pasolini argues the necessity of bringing together in harmony two contrasting linguistic modes: "irrazionalismo contadino piccolo-borghese del Terzo mondo (ivi compreso il Sud italiano) e razionalismo capitalistico liberale." He advances this notion as the possible cure for a current anomaly whereby "il discorso di un comunista, in quanto espressione di una profonda e vasta spinta dal basso, e in quanto improntato da uno spirito fondamentalmente scientifico, tende a una sintesi dell'italiano, e si pone come fondamentalmente comunicativo." According to this critique, today's Italian Marxists function more as technical 'administrators' than as popular 'humanists.'
For the Marxist writer, instead, a genuine linguistic synthesis should thus be realized by applying to literature the Gramscian notion of the national-popular; i.e., the concomitance of two linguistic ways of being in the world: that of the committed intellectual, and that of the 'common man', in a "'contaminatio' di 'stile sublime' e di 'stile umile'." One is led to wonder to what degree Pasolini would endorse Gramsci's idea of the national-popular as only the first step towards an ultimate emancipation from conventional linguistic and cultural hierarchies. At the same time, one must again admit that the situation from which Gramsci's analysis proceeds differs greatly from the one that Pasolini contests. Gramsci was interested in the entry of the Italian agricultural and proletarian masses into the mainstream of Western thought and culture: in a radical democratization of culture. Pasolini, instead, champions a refusal by these same masses of a society grounded in the false values of consumerism and conformity qua liberation. After, in the mid and late 1960's, Pasolini took stock of the actual situation of his chosen people and realized to what an extent those "anthropological mutations" so long prophesized had taken place. The result of his awareness was a bitter anguish, an intensified attack on all causes of such "mutations," and a turn to the Third World as final possible repository for his mythic primitive purity.
"Dal laboratorio," meanwhile, deals almost exclusively with the question of oral and written expression in Gramsci. For Pasolini, Gramsci's language underwent a profound transformation in "falsa liberazione" (i.e., from a native Sardinian) in the slow acquisition of an Italian passing from an initial "enfasi espressivo-umanitaria," through a "fase francesizzante" in Turin, and arriving at true maturity at the time of the "Ordine Nuovo." Such a transformation was due to a "lungo e quasi religioso tirocinio di razionalità." "Tutte le pagine giovanili di Gramsci sono scritte in un brutto italiano," charges Pasolini. And even after Gramsci's acquisition of a mature and exact rational prose, maintains Pasolini in a contradictory manner, such language, "analizzata freddamente (…) può apparire ancora (…) 'brutta': cioè umiliata dal grigiore manualistico, dal gergo politico, dalla lingua delle traduzioni, da un incancellabile fondo professionale e francesizzante. Ma tutto ciò è reso irrilevante dalla sua funzionalià che la rende, in qualche modo, assoluta."
Then Pasolini passes to a (hypothetical?) discussion of Gramsci's oral expression. He points to the three fundamental characteristics of Gramsci's pronunciation (i.e., Sardinian-dialectical, Piedmontese-dialectical, and bureacratic-professional petty bourgeoise) as "tutti elementi immensamente inferiori di livello alla 'lingua scritta'." For this reason, "l'incertezza, la povertà, la miseria, la genericità della lingua orale di Gramsci (…) non è proporzionata alla sicurezza, alla richezza, all'assolutezza di molte sue pagine scritte."
In truth, it is impossible to pinpoint with any great accuracy the linguistic criteria guiding Pasolini's contradictory critique of Gramsci. Nonetheless, it would appear that behind his observations stand those antithetical poles of expressive versus communicative language found throughout the essays of Empirismo eretico. If this be the case, then Pasolini errs through excess in regard to Gramsci whose sole aim was notional (self-) clarification, and not connotational, or polysemous, (self-) expression.
In fact, these two contrasting voices in Gramsci: one a determined and self-conscious appropriation of rational-scientific discourse; the other, an ever-present, however submerged, irrational (or better, pre-rational) dialectical expressiveness, are reconciled in extremis, claims Pasolini, through a syncretic correlation that unites Gramsci's two linguistic and experiential situations:
Solo nelle lettere dal carcere, verso la fine della sua vita, egli riesce a far coincidere irrazionalismo e esercizio della ragione: ma non si tratta però dell'irrazionalismo che alona o segue, come per impeto sentimentale o rabbia polemica, la ragione del pensiero politico.(…) Si tratta, piuttosto, verso la fine della sua vita, di dar voce di racconto o evocazione anche a fatti più umili e casuali della vita, a quel tanto di misterioso e di irrazionale che ogni vita ha in abbondanza, e che è la 'poeticità naturale' della vita. Allora l'abitudine razionalistica che ha dominato la lingua (…) a contatto con quell'elemento irrazionale dominato (…) si colora di una pateticità (…)
This passage could lead to the observation that though every poet be an ideologue despite claims to the contrary, the opposite is not necessarily true. It does, in any event, substantiate the initially made contention that the Gramsci of Pasolini remained first and foremost the pathetic hero of the prison letters. Complexity arises, however, from the fact that, in effect, this Gramsci functioned as an emblematic composite: Gramsci victim and hero of the Lettere dal carcere merging with Gramsci the author of the Quaderni, iconic symbol of reason urging the poet's self-proclaimed "ossessivo bisogno di tornare al marxismo—ossia all'unica ideologia che mi protegga dalla perdita della realtà." And these two aspects of Pasolini's Gramsci coincide with the poet's problematic inner conflict of reason with passion.
Thus, in his tireless attack on Neocapitalism's damage to popular speech and culture, together with his diffidence for what he considered the verbal pyrotechnics of much of the 1960's neo-avantgarde, Pasolini deliberately planted his criticism in contradiction and controversy. Throughout, Gramsci remained a preferential point of confrontation between the demands of a visceral estheticism and objectively formulated dissent. Pasolini's unorthodox interpretation of Gramsci, based on a positive heresy, has nonetheless guaranteed the revolutionary theorist of praxis a place in contemporary Italian culture beyond the schematic exegesis of many official tacticians. Since his death, moreover, that culture is in want of a poet-polemicist as uniquely uncompromising and authentically ambivalent as was Pasolini.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1403
SOURCE: "Movies and Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, June 27, 1982, pp. 8-9, 14.
[In the following review, White discusses Enzo Siciliano's biography of Pasolini, Pasolini's work, and Pasolini's similarities to Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini was violently murdered near Rome on Nov. 2, 1975. He was only 54 years old, but he had managed to produce a lifetime of work in several genres. The publication of a translation of the first biography of him, by Enzo Siciliano, and a volume of translations by Norman MacAfee of Pasolini's best poems remind us what an extraordinary man he was.
He had gained fame first as a poet in the dialect of his native region, Friuli—the area north of Venice that extends into Yugoslavia. Soon he switched to Italian, in which he went on to publish more than 40 volumes of poetry, fiction, travel notes and cultural and political criticism.
But it was as a film maker that he won international fame. His first feature, Accattone, was released in 1961. Three years later he made his spare, smoldering Gospel According to Saint Matthew. His biggest successes at the box office (at least in Europe) comprised The Trilogy of Life, of which the best was the innocent, spontaneous and delectable Arabian Nights. His last film, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, was surely his masterpiece, an appalling study of sadism in the last days of Italian Fascist rule. No film has come closer to genuine Satanism; Salò seems as much a transgression against decency as a condemnation of evil.
The man behind this work was an enigma. Pasolini led an exemplary life in the sense that he embodied most of the contradictions troubling modern Italy. He was a sort of Marxist and, off and on, a Communist, but his politics were too personal, too shifting and too adversarial to fit into any orthodoxy. He was an atheist, but two of his films (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and Teorema) received awards from Catholic organizations. Moreover, he had a devout respect for what he considered "divine" in human beings (youth, the body, spontaneity). He was a big-city sophisticate and moved easily in international film circles but, like his exact contemporary, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima (also a globetrotting cosmopolite), Pasolini rejected the glossy consumer culture that had made him famous in favor of the standards of an earlier, more rigid and more traditional society.
The greatest social change in the industrial world since World War II has been a shift away from conservation to consumption and, in the consumers themselves, a corresponding movement away from an ethic of self-sacrifice to a hedonistic code of self-fulfillment. Both Pasolini and Mishima opposed this fitful, always painful and disruptive process. Both of them had a utopian vision of an earlier, more honorable, more disciplined time. Thus Pasolini argued against the liberalization of the abortion law on the grounds that sacrificing procreation to pleasure is a way of "Americanizing" sex, making it into a diversion. More broadly, Pasolini bitterly ridiculed the "economic miracle" that quadrupled Italian income in the 1960's but also polluted the nation's shores and countryside, led to wholesale migrations of workers out of southern Italy and created a tacky mass culture. Similarly, Mishima scorned the industrialization (Westernization) of Japan.
To be sure, most political theorists would say that Pasolini was on the left and Mishima on the right. Pasolini felt that the Italian Communist Party was the only decent, uncorrupted, longsighted and humane political organization in the country. Indeed, he was from a poor family, and his own early years of deprivation made him champion the poor everywhere, not only in Italy but also throughout the third world (he wrote a book about India and another about Africa). By contrast, Mishima was from an upper-class family, and he committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) in the name of emperor worship and a return to a feudal code (he even had a private army).
In short, Mishima was a fascist and Pasolini a communist. But underneath that ambiguous distinction one can detect strong affinities between them. Both were powerhouses who almost hysterically produced works in many genres: Mishima wrote plays, novels and poems and practiced body building and martial arts. Pasolini was tireless throughout his adulthood, typically tossing off a novel while shooting a film. Both men were homosexuals who were remarkably well integrated into heterosexual social circles and who worked overtime in order to transcend the isolation imposed on them by their sexual identity. Mishima was married, though he was quite public about his homosexuality; Pasolini's great friendships were with the actress Laura Betti, the singer Maria Callas and the novelists Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, all of them heterosexual.
Given the cult of machismo in Italy, Pasolini's candor was a tribute to his feistiness. He had been hounded out of Friuli (and out of the Communist Party) on charges of corrupting the morals of three teen-age boys. He and his mother fled to Rome, where over the years he was subjected to other legal actions. But none of these efforts to repress him silenced Pasolini; he referred quite openly to his homosexuality in his regular newspaper columns and employed it as a theme in many of his films. But my point is that though both Pasolini and Mishima were frankly, even scandalously, homosexual (Mishima's first book is the semiautobiographical Confessions of a Mask), neither man withdrew from the world into the gay subculture of Tokyo or Rome. Both were determined to be dominant figures of their national artistic and intellectual life, and both succeeded publicly, although neither could ever overcome private feelings of alienation.
Finally, one should point out that both men died violent deaths—Mishima by his own hand, Pasolini in a ghastly encounter with a young Roman hustler who beat him and then ran over his body with an automobile. The facts of Pasolini's murder remain cloudy. At the time, Communists insisted that several Fascists had killed him for political motives and then covered up the crime (and discredited Pasolini) by staging the event as a sordid encounter with a prostitute. Those who didn't interpret his death politically interpreted it morally as though the excesses of Salò had invited just such violence. Surrendering to paranoia or blaming the victim seem to be the only possible responses to what probably (and more horribly) was merely random violence.
Was Pasolini a great artist? His Gospel According to Saint Matthew is a radical and original reimagining of the Christ story in the terms of peasant culture, filmed in a corresponding visual style of poverty. Salò is great for its unforgettable assault on the senses and sensibilities of the viewer. Of his copious writings, his poems seem the most likely to endure. In the United States we have become used to a poetry that is subjective, dreamlike, mysterious, obvious only in its agitated or exalted state of emotion. Pasolini wrote poems of a very different sort. His poems, which have been translated now with clarity, ingenuity and fidelity by Norman MacAfee, are chatty letters to the world, by turns confessional and polemical.
Of the confessional poems, the most convincing is "The Tears of the Excavator," in which Pasolini recalls his years as a poor schoolteacher when he lived in a shantytown outside Rome. Of the polemical poems, "A Desperate Vitality" will shock Americans with its explicit references to names and political jargon: "as in a film by Godard—rediscovery / of romanticism in the seat of / neocapitalistic cynicism and cruelty." This is not the vatic tone of American lyricism. Indeed, an American who reads Enzo Siciliano's biography of Pasolini is struck by how much Pasolini was immersed in ideology. To us, a writer is political only peripherally, when he or she makes political pronouncements. But Pasolini worked in a milieu where an artist was supposed to situate each of his works in an ideological context and to have a ready opinion on every occasion about Freud, Marx and Lévi-Strauss.
Mr. Siciliano himself is the same sort of intellectual. At times the American reader feels daunted when encountering such a sentence as "The conflict, in essence, was between a residue of traditional humanism to be revitalized through Marxist historicism and neopositivist sociological thinking imbued with existential inhibitions." No matter. Mr. Siciliano tells the fascinating facts clearly enough and with sympathy (he was a friend of Pasolini's); the story is steadily absorbing.
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SOURCE: "Poet, Martyr, Myth," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 3, July 24-31, 1982, pp. 86-8.
[In the following review, Stille analyzes Pasolini's relationship with Italian society and politics.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini, probably the most famous writer of postwar Italy, is best known in America for his lurid X-rated movies Arabian Nights and 'Salo,' the 120 Days of Sodom. An immensely gifted poet, novelist, film director, literary critic and social commentator, Pasolini was a tangle of contradictions—Communist and Catholic, artist and ideologue, celebrity and outcast, homosexual and rigid traditionalist.
No single work can convey his importance in Italy as a public figure and a national myth: the bête noire of the right (and sometimes of the left) and, for millions of young people, a cult figure whose actions and opinions were the subject of great controversy. Pasolini's murder in 1975, apparently by a teen-age male prostitute, divided the country. For the right it was a fitting end for a man with pernicious habits and violent ideas. For the left it was a martyrdom, perhaps even a political assassination.
Both detractors and admirers agree on one point: Pasolini's death was the moral of a story of deep national significance. He, more than anyone else, embodied the enormous contrasts and dislocations of postwar Italy, a backward peasant nation lurching into the twentieth century, a democracy with a historical memory formed by Fascism.
It is appropriate that Enzo Siciliano's biography Pasolini should be published simultaneously with the first Italian-English edition of Pasolini's poetry. The biography is not merely an aid to understanding the poetry; indeed, it is more likely that the poems will serve as an aid to the biography, for Pasolini's most important artistic creation was his life. A longtime friend and follower, Siciliano has written a book that is more of a contribution to the Pasolini myth than a dispassionate analysis of it. However, he has collected a wealth of material from many sources, including Pasolini's unpublished letters and papers. Despite his worshipful tone, Siciliano does let the material speak for itself, and it is fascinating.
This most political of artists began his career as a lyric poet. Born in 1922 (the year Mussolini took power), Pasolini came of age during World War II. When his father, a Fascist army officer, was taken prisoner, the family moved to his mother's village in the remote region of Friuli near the Yugoslav border. Young Pasolini was fascinated by the ancient peasant civilization and by its dialect: "It was possible in ten minutes by bicycle to pass from one linguistic area to another more archaic by fifty or a hundred years." Influenced by Rimbaud and the decadent poets, he saw the Friulian dialect as a "language of pure poetry"; because of its unfamiliarity to most Italians, it would "prolong the lag between sound and meaning." Some critics believe that Pasolini's early lyrics, published in 1942, are his highest poetic achievement.
Poems omits this early verse. While the Friulian dialect would arguably lose too much in translation to make inclusion worthwhile, one misses a selection from his second book, The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, which was written in standard Italian. Instead, Poems concentrates on the mature "public verse" that Pasolini wrote after moving to Rome in 1949. This is a curious mixture of political and personal confession, of ideological speechifying shot through with flashes of brilliance, with, every now and then, moments of equilibrium when political and personal passions coincide with great force. His first major success, "The Ashes of Gramsci," presents his paradoxical public persona:
The scandal of contradicting myself, of being with you and against you; with you in my heart, in light, but against you in the dark viscera …
At his best, Pasolini created an outrageous synthesis of Christian imagery, Marxism and private despair. The suffering of Italy was transformed into his own personal Calvary:
For one crucified to his tormenting rationality, butchered by puritanism, nothing makes sense anymore but an aristocratic and alas unpopular opposition. The revolution is now just a sentiment. ("Plan of Future Works")
Pasolini did not live up to his potential as a poet, and clearly he knew it. "Oh practical end of my poetry!" he wrote. "To this I'm reduced: when I write / poetry, it's to defend myself, to fight, / compromising myself, renouncing / all my ancient dignity; thus / my defenseless elegiac heart comes / to shame me …" ("Reality"). But his early lyric inspiration never entirely left his poetry and redeems even his harsher polemics.
In 1949 Pasolini was forced to flee in disgrace from Friuli. He had been accused of corrupting minors and was expelled from the Communist Party. In Rome, he transferred his fascination with Friulian civilization to the violent and gregarious world of the subproletariat in which he lived during his first desperately poor years there. Pasolini's life among the new rootless underclass of Southern peasants was central to his career. With the ear of a linguist and the sensitivity of an anthropologist, he observed the mingling of the cutthroat ethics of the street with the naïve, easygoing ways of the country. Here he found sexual freedom, friendship, material for much of his work and a laboratory in which he watched Italy's social changes played out before him.
His shocking novel about this world. Ragazzi di Vita, made Pasolini famous overnight. Outraged, the government tried to suppress the book, as it would his first movie, Accattone. The move to Rome also put Pasolini into the mainstream of Italian culture. During the 1950s, he became friends with the best writers of his generation: Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani and Italo Calvino.
The beginning of Pasolini's career coincides with the end of Italian neo-Realism—the films of Rossellini, De Sica and the early Fellini (Pasolini wrote the dialogue in Roman dialect for Fellini's Nights of Cabiria). But there is a tough, gritty, unsentimental quality that distinguishes Pasolini from the neo-Realists. Fellini's Cabiria was a whore with a heart of gold; Pasolini's Accattone, the story of an opportunistic, cynical pimp, neither justifies nor condemns its subject.
With Pasolini's growing celebrity in the 1960s, both his work and his life became a source of scandal. The openings of his films were followed by obscenity trials, and their showings disrupted by gangs of neofascist thugs. He was indicted (falsely) for robbery. All this exacerbated his persecution complex, his sense, as a homosexual, of being a pariah; but it also gratified his narcissism and stimulated his need to provoke the public. "By now," writes Siciliano, "Pier Paolo's sense of being alive was inextricably bound up with his provocatory relationship with the public. Irresistibly he ended up coinciding with his public image."
His literary production dropped off; he never completed a novel after 1960. He grew apart from many of his literary friends. His movies were increasingly dominated by his sexual and political obsessions. By the early 1970s he was in a state of crisis. His artistic inspiration was drying up, and he was convinced that everything he loved in Italian life was being destroyed. His one steady lover had left him, and there was a new psychopathic brutality in the life of the Roman slums. He was badly beaten up several times.
Out of this despair, Pasolini forged a second career as a polemicist, writing front-page articles for Italy's largest newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera. With his genius for capturing in a phrase an entire mood or situation, Pasolini, perhaps more than any other intellectual, defined the political vocabulary of the New Left in Italy.
He became the spokesman for Italy's new marginal groups—an entire generation of jobless university graduates, the masses of displaced peasants who crowded the factory towns of the north—a dangerous class, unassimilated by society, which formed the extraparliamentary left. Unlike the perpetually optimistic Communists, Pasolini foresaw that the victory of consumer capitalism and the destruction of traditional Italian culture were inevitable. He also appealed to a conservative nostalgia for agrarian life and old values. He offered rebellion, "pure opposition," rather than social revolution: "I can no longer believe in revolution, but I can't help being on the side of the young people who are fighting for it." He was particularly sensitive to the linguistic, cultural and behavioral shifts that to him were signals of "the new barbarism," and he cleverly pointed out the ways in which fascist cultural and rhetorical patterns had been subtly transformed in the postwar period. In the first years after World War II, "the values which counted were the same as under fascism": church, country, family, obedience, order and morality. The profound changes took place during the economic boom of the 1960s, which he described in a beautiful article, "The Disappearance of the Fireflies."
Consumer society was, according to Pasolini, a new and more insidious form of fascism which had succeeded, where Mussolini's fascism had failed, in unifying Italy for the first time in history. Mass communication and mass consumption were quickly leveling the wide cultural and linguistic differences between the various regions: "No country has possessed like ours such a quantity of 'particular and real cultures,' such a quantity of 'little homelands'—no country, that is, in which there was later such an overwhelming 'development.'" For Pasolini, the new consumer society was characterized by self-indulgence, materialism, sexual license, drugs, conformism and violence, values he termed "cultural genocide."
Pasolini's equation of fascism with the corrupt and inefficient Christian Democratic rule became the stock in trade of the extraparliamentary left. Indeed, Pasolini's Swiftian suggestion that the leadership of the Christian Democrats be placed on trial for cultural genocide was literally carried out by the Red Brigades, with the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. (The Red Brigades skipped the line in which Pasolini wrote that the trial of the Christian Democrats "is only a metaphor.") Much of the ideology of the far-left group Autonomia, with its anti-industrial orientation and its support for "spontaneous" rebellion, also drew on Pasolini's antiprogressive rhetoric.
Such groups overlooked Pasolini's equally sharp criticism of the left, particularly of the student movement. Believing that the students had little to do with the proletariat they claimed to represent, Pasolini insisted that they behaved with the dogmatism, intolerance and hatred of the Fascist Squadri: "So many Catholics, in becoming Communists, bring with them Faith and Hope, while neglecting, without realizing it, Charity. This is how fascism of the left is born." Pasolini's articles on "fascism of the left" and on the horrifying spread of violence among the young seem uncannily prophetic in light of the prevalence of terrorism in Italy today and in light of his own gruesome murder at the hands of one of the ragazzi di vita he had described so often. Pasolini was brilliant diagnostician of Italian diseases because he himself suffered from them: a critic of the far left, he was its unwitting prophet. While he condemned the violence of the Roman subproletariat, he was erotically attracted to it. He was one of those "unconscious Christians" of the left, whose apocalyptic vision could be resolved only through the crucifixion that was his murder.
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SOURCE: "Pasolini: Complex Life, Bloody Death," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 25, 1982, p. 7.
[In the following review, Steele considers a biography of Pasolini written by Enzo Siciliano and a collection of Pasolini's poetry, asserting that understanding Pasolini's work "is a possible, difficult and liberating task."]
In November, 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini's savagely maimed body was found near a shantytown outside Rome. Giuseppe Pelosi, a 17-year-old male prostitute, was quickly arrested, tried and convicted of the brutal murder. Yet a multitude of evidence suggests that Pelosi did not act alone: Pasolini's friends and his biographer assume that he was assassinated by the Italian ultra-right, to whom his life, work and influence were anathema. Thus in death as in life, the scandal and controversy surrounding Pasolini threaten to obscure his extraordinary and multifaceted accomplishments.
Indeed, politically motivated threats and turmoil marked Pasolini's career. At 27, he faced a legal charge of "corrupting minors"; public rumor aroused the interest of the police. Within days, he was both expelled from the Communist Party and dismissed from his teaching position. The charges eventually were dropped, but he had long since, in his own words, "escaped to Rome with my mother, as in a novel." In Rome he produced more than 50 books and directed nearly 20 feature films, as well as issuing a flood of critical journalism of the highest quality, ranging from fashion to philology to politics. He was a liberating force in Italian literature and film, as an artist and as a (usually) successful defendant in court against persistent charges of obscenity and blasphemy.
Biographer Siciliano has performed a heroic labor in portraying this complex figure. Two major obstacles, however, present themselves. One is the writing itself, a frenetic, convoluted, didactic prose that sometimes seems more interested in thematically unifying the meaning of Pasolini's life than in the life itself. Siciliano is better at describing the works, although their vast bulk and scope sometimes dictate an overview too insubstantial for the interpretive load that accompanies it.
The other obstacle is the common one among biographers—assuming homosexual orientation to be a deformative, rather than formative, influence. That first scandal propelled Pasolini into the center of Italian politics and culture, where he was long overdue. Once in Rome, the lives and rhythms of the Roman underclass youths to whom he was so drawn were central to his poetic and film achievements. In these and many other ways, homosexuality seems to have been the underlying drive powering, even unifying his personal and political temperaments. Siciliano depicts all this but is unwilling or unable to draw the logical inferences.
Given these caveats, there is a great compensation: Random House simultaneously presents a selection of Pasolini's poetry. Here is the unmediated voice, full of discouragement, sensual joy, unhappiness, idealism. The poetry vaults past interpretation into a life of its own. The artist/politician knew what life and death for him were: "Death is not in not being able to communicate but in no longer being able to be understood." Understanding the life may be beyond us. Understanding the work, fortunately, is a possible, difficult and liberating task; both books help.
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SOURCE: "Poet into Man," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4149, October 8, 1982, p. 1105.
[In the following review, Thompson discusses Pasolini's Poems and Enzo Siciliano's biography of the poet and filmmaker.]
As a poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini was an arch-traditionalist; as a man, a "politikon zoon", he was a radical romantic whom disillusion drove to despair. The man frustrated the poet and forced him, first, to relinquish his traditional means in favour of a freer approach to poetry, and later, to abandon his poetry—ostensibly, at least—for the cinema.
The present volume of Poems, as the translators state, represents about a sixth of Pasolini's published work in Italian and none of his early lyrics in the Friulan dialect. It is based on a selection Pasolini himself made for an edition in 1970, and includes his introduction to this volume as an appendix. Certainly, making a first, rigorous choice from among the works of such a wide-ranging poet is an exceedingly difficult task, and, while this selection is inclusive, showing the move from rational public poet to tortured private man, the picture it presents is inevitably incomplete. Quite rightly, the long title poems of his first two collections, "The Ashes of Gramsci" and "The Religion of My Time" have been included, but the translators have preferred the agonized "A Desperate Vitality" from Poesia in forma di rosa, rather than that poem itself, and some shorter poems from his last volume Trasumanar e organizzar.
What kind of a poet emerges? As may be expected of a writer who also painted, and later turned to film, a very visual one; the two long poems in terza rima are intense metaphysical meditations, but firmly located in time and place. A visit to the grave of Antonio Gramsci in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome is the setting for a scrupulously honest self-examination in the course of which the rational Communist finds that he does not want his beloved working class to change, to lose its traditional vital qualities; "Two days of fever" give rise to a scrutiny of his concepts of religion and love, where he remembers his earlier Catholicism, contrasting it with his present Marxism. In both poems, descriptions of his environment amplify and extend his state of mind. But, unlike the ermetici, Pasolini is not locked inside himself; the problems he examines, albeit from a personal, even private point of view, are universal: society, religion, social change. As most critics agree, Pasolini's great contribution was the creation of "una poesia civile", the rational argument of a civilized mind. But the adjective also carries the meaning of "civil": his is a public poetry, even if there is no consensus of acceptance by the public. After the strenuous effort to arrive at these well-reasoned, balanced poems of the 1950s, he changed direction, turning inwards to become a "kinetic poet": his subjective reactions are given first place, making for an engaging warmth, until they become the agony of his later years. However, in both modes, Pasolini was a skilled prosodist—especially in his resurrection of Dante's terza rima—who twisted and broke the rules to great effect. Naturally, this causes problems for the translator and MacAfee, while his versions are "correct", ignores this important aspect of a "civil (ized) poem".
Reviewing Pasolini's first small book, of dialect poetry in the Corriere di Lugarno in 1943, Gianfranco Contini, then a young professor, hit a prophetic note in remarking on the "scandal" which it introduced into the "annals of dialect literature". The scandal was in trying to use dialect for the expression of honest, personal sentiment rather than as a medium for folk tales.
Contini's review is noted by Enzo Siciliano in his excellent biography, which, while giving a sensitive appreciation of his literary and cinematographic production, amply chronicles Pasolini's own personal struggles. These centred on his homosexuality, which caused scandal enough in the 1940s and 50s. In 1950, when he was twenty-eight, it led to his being expelled from his posts as schoolteacher and local Communist Party secretary in Friuli, and with his mother he fled to Rome. There he sought work as a teacher until scriptwriting in the burgeoning film industry enabled him to concentrate on writing. His two novels, Ragazzi di vita and Una vita violenta, brought him fame, and more scandal, mainly because of their use of obscenity, but also because of his accurate descriptions of living conditions in the borgate, the shanty towns around Rome, which the reading public was either unaware of or refused to acknowledge. Given the opportunities of the day and the contacts he had already established in Cinecittà, it seemed a simple step to make a film himself, and Accattone, the story of a young pimp who can find no place in the world, was actually set in these desolate outskirts. It was the first of many films in which a young man is stigmatized or martyred, whether it be Oedipus or Christ or Ettore (Mamma Roma). In the polemics of his last years, which were confined to the Italian political scene, Pasolini appeared to offer himself up in the same way as his heroes.
According to Dario Bellezza, Pasolini's one-time literary secretary and friend (and himself a poet), Pasolini's last scandal was in "choosing" his death. In Morte di Pasolini Bellezza examines the prefigurations of it in his poetry, especially in the Poesia in forma di rosa volume, where the poet leaves his earlier rationality behind; the poetry becomes a cry de profundis and the figure of a "poeta martirizzato" constantly appears. In his biography, Siciliano presents the detailed evidence and hypotheses surrounding Pasolini's death (he was found beaten and crushed to death in Ostia in 1975), and casts doubt on the court's final decision. Though not ignoring the doubts or the contradictory evidence, Bellezza is more concerned to present a picture of a man who was looking for death; a man who, well into middle age, should have been reaching some stasis, but who was more than ever tormented by his sexual instincts and who felt betrayed by the new liberality and the embourgeoisification of the proletarian youths he desired. It is a very convincing portrait.
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SOURCE: "Boys in Their Mystery," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4162, January 7, 1983, p. 23.
[In the following review, Robey discusses two of Pasolini's novels, Amado mio and Atti impuri, that were published posthumously and asserts that "The two texts are very close in style and subject-matter … and quite different from the author's later work."]
At his death Pasolini left two unpublished novels among his papers, both of them dating from the late 1940s, when he lived in Friuli. Amado mio—scarcely more than a long novella—is the shorter and more polished of the two. Pasolini seems to have continued working on it after he moved to Rome in 1950, and to have contemplated publishing it in the early 1970s; the version edited in this volume by Concetta D'Angeli is the most recent of four successive drafts. Atti impuri, which is also published here for the first time, is considerably longer. It exists in only one manuscript, probably written before the move to Rome, and left in a far from finished state. It contains a number of inconsistencies and contradictions, some of which, notably the oscillation between first and third-person narrative, have been ironed out by the editor, while others have been allowed to stand.
The two texts are very close in style and subject-matter—Pasolini also left a common preface for them among his papers—and quite different from the author's later work. They are written in a conventional narrative form far removed from the dazzling, disruptive impasto of literary Italian and dialect or slang in the subsequent Roman novels; at this early stage Pasolini reserved dialect for his lyric poetry alone. They are both about homosexual love, more exactly a young man's love for adolescent boys. And they are both substantially autobiographical, indeed confessional—particularly Atti impuri, which in the manuscript was written mainly in the first person, is partially in diary form, incorporates large sections of Pasolini's own diaries and has a protagonist in almost every respect indistinguishable from Pasolini himself. In the later novels, in contrast, homosexuality is a very minor theme, and the tone is predominantly objective. Nowhere else, in fact, either in writing or on film, did the author expose his private inclinations and feelings as much as they are exposed in this book.
Nevertheless the book's interest is not purely documentary, nor indeed is it pornographic. Each novel centres on the seduction, after initial resistance, of a Friulan country boy, but scabrous though this subject may sound, the focus is definitely emotional rather than erotic. The protagonists' homosexual feelings are described with a relentless, compelling analytical thoroughness, a thoroughness that sometimes verges on irony, especially in Amado mio, where the narrative is in the third person, the pace is more rapid and the tone more cynical. They are obsessive, tortured feelings, though on account of their ferocity, not on account of a sense of guilt. They oscillate between violent extremes of vindictiveness and affection, and lead repeatedly to humiliation and despair, quite unlike the self-contained hedonism of Gide, whom Pasolini seems to have had particularly in mind as he wrote.
The novels are therefore far from being an apology for homosexual love, even though they contain no explicit criticism of it. Moreover while the potential sexual attractions of adolescent boys are expressed with considerable lyrical force, they appear to be such as to guarantee the frustration of the lover's desires. What excites Pasolini's protagonists is precisely what is lost through seduction: the boys' innocence and naturalness, and also their "mystery", as he calls it, their absorption in a closed adolescent world inaccessible to an older man, especially, perhaps, to an intellectual. One can understand easily enough why in each novel the object of desire seems always to elude the lover's grasp, condemning him to the constant, compulsive repetition of the same vain attempt at satisfaction.
The innocence, naturalness and "mystery" of adolescents is also a central theme of Pasolini's three later novels, Ragazzi di vita, Una vita violenta and Il sogno di una cosa. There, however, they are the subject of a more detached, much less egotistical kind of celebration, rather than the target of a character's desire; art seems to have been distanced from life, acquiring in the process a far more original and revelatory character. Interesting and powerful though the two early novels are, it is thus not hard to imagine why Pasolini never published them.
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SOURCE: A review of Les dernières parole d'un impie: Entre-tiens avec Jean Duflot, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, p. 267.
[In the following review, Greenberg states that Pasolini's Les dernières parole d'un impie "is part autobiography, part analysis, part remembrance, part explanation, part (self-) justification."]
As Duflot remarks, this series of interviews with Pasolini (including several just prior to his death) is not only in a sense a political and spiritual (and artistic or, better, poetic) last will and testament. Les dernières paroles d'un impie is also an exegesis, by the best possible exegete, of the Passion of Pasolini (1922–75).
The book is part autobiography, part analysis, part remembrance, part explanation, part (self-)justification. Pasolini felt himself to be—and was, as were all his characters—an outsider, an exclus; allergic to most of modern civilization, feeling himself hated "racially," he was obsessed with exclusion, marginality. His Dernières paroles goes a long way toward showing how much of this role of pariah was self-induced and espoused due to deliberate provocation, and how much to the incomprehension and fear of others.
The book covers a lot of ground—from the Friulian soil of his early poems to (nearly) the beach at Ostia where he met his death. All is fertile ground, showing the continuity he believes to underlie evolution: nothing in man or in history is ever completely destroyed; each step goes beyond its predecessor, but the present is superimposed on the past; man is the sum of his parts and his pasts. The sacred is juxtaposed with the desacralized—multi-leveled, as is his work.
Pasolini discusses his fascination with language, with languages, with varied modes of communication, and offers in each case detailed reasonings to explain his sense of semiology and his own semiology of the cinema. He returns always, of course, to the cinema—as "poetry," as the written language of action, of the living, of reality—and to myth, its other face. In doing a film, he says, he fixes on an object, a face, a landscape, as though within it the sacred were about to explode. One might treat this book in the same manner.
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SOURCE: A review of Amado mio, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer, 1983, p. 443.
[In the following review, Fantazzi discusses Pasolini's early novels, Amado mio and Atti impuri.]
Preceding the completed novella Amado mio is another slightly longer piece, Atti impuri, which lay in more fragmentary state among the writer's papers. It is fitting that they appear together, for Pier Paolo Pasolini had written a single preface for both of them, which is published in an appendix. The tone of these notes by the author is very hesitant and apologetic, pleading for comprehension of the "abnormal" love presented. In the incomplete pages of the first early reminiscences the author vacillates between the first and third persons in the various drafts, but the editor chooses to use only the first person in a diaristic fashion. The tale is one of ephebic love, idyllic afternoon frolics in the cornfields or along the banks of a river in Friuli. Among the playmates of the protagonist are a priapic shepherd named Bruno, a lad with the very peasant name of Nisiuti and a girl named Dina, who tries in vain to deliver him from his "diversity."
Amado mio, which takes its title from the hit song of the 1950s film Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth, is a more polished work with almost a mythical quality even in the names of the lovers: Desiderio (or Desi) and lasìs. It has some good moments of lyricism, bathed in an aura of innocence. At one point Pasolini quotes Foscolo: "Guilt is purified by the ardor of passion and shame embellishes the admission of lust." Such ingenuous outpourings are not for all tastes.
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SOURCE: "Reading Pasolini Today," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 143-8.
[In the following essay, Greene discusses Enzo Siciliano's Pasolini: A Biography, Paul Willeman's Pier Paolo Pasolini, Beverly Allen's Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poetics of Heresy, and Pasolini's Poems translated by Norman MacAfee.]
Poet, novelist, critic, essayist, political polemicist, Pasolini was virtually unique among contemporary filmmakers in the variety of his activities. Fortunately, the publication of these recent volumes begins to give the English-speaking world a glimpse into the range of his interests and a context within which to place his films. At first, the very disparate approaches represented here (critical articles by and about him, a biography, translations of his poems) would seem to preclude any general remarks. And then, one begins to sense that to some extent at least, and of course with certain exceptions, the approaches correspond to national preoccupations. Most striking of all is probably the way Italian writers are drawn, again and again, to the character of Pasolini himself and to the vital role that he played in Italian culture and politics (and in Italy, the two are closely linked) for nearly thirty years. But even here, approaches vary greatly, ranging from Andrea Zanzotto's highly theoretical piece entitled "Pedagogy" (in The Poetics of Heresy) to the fairly sensationalist biography by the writer, and former friend of Pasolini, Enzo Siciliano. Siciliano sets the tone of his book in its opening chapter which delves—exhaustively—into the horrible manner in which Pasolini met his death in 1976. (Although Pasolini apparently died at the hands of a young homosexual pickup, Siciliano, like others, questions whether this death was the result of some kind of conspiracy.) By opening his book in such a manner, Siciliano immediately calls to mind the way the Italian press played upon Pasolini's gruesome death and, in so doing, he raises one of the very issues that came to haunt Pasolini in the 1970s: the role played by the media in modern consumer society. Discussing this issue, Andrea Zanzotto writes: "What happened later … just after his death, on his body mistaken for a pile of refuse by the woman who saw it first, demonstrates once again, if demonstrations ever were necessary, the degree to which the media are most of all—or perhaps exclusively—violence … Pasolini was killed once again by the deprivation of silence, by the vile din surrounding his death, by a monstrous, slavering turbidity of, 'information-by redundance.'"
But Pasolini's death, as Siciliano is eager to make clear, was only the last in a series of scandals the director provoked as much by the way he lived (his open homosexuality) as by what he wrote and filmed. (It was rare indeed that a Pasolini film didn't encounter censorship difficulties.) Siciliano's detailed explorations of these scandals, his relentless probing into Pasolini's sexual proclivities (he is unaccountably fascinated by Pasolini's friendship with women), his need to "explain" and in some sense defend Pasolini's homosexuality lend what must surely be an inadvertent anti-gay tone to the book. Yet one must ask whether Siciliano is totally to blame for the tone of scandal-mongering and gossip one finds in his book. For wasn't Pasolini, torn as he was by contradictions, both a fierce opponent of the debasement provoked by a consumer society that would feed on everything and, at the same time, a man who chose to play out his life upon that stage that was Rome, subject to its gossip, fearful lest he lose the public eye? Didn't his need to be the "victim" of society extend to a willingness to be the victim of a sensationalist press? And if the early "scandals" he experienced (which began when he lost his teaching post in Friuli and was virtually forced to flee to Rome in 1947) were traumatic and by no means his own doing, by the 1970s it seemed that he needed to take unpopular positions for reasons that were psychological (his need to be a victim and to remain in the public eye) as well as ideological (he was always to maintain that any position taken by the majority, even the left-wing majority, had to be questioned).
Nonetheless, even those readers who might be disturbed by the tone and emphasis of Siciliano's book should, I think, be grateful for the wealth of details it offers us concerning both Pasolini's life and the various cultural/political contexts in which he found himself: the postwar years in Friuli, his ins and outs with the Communist Party, his position in the literary and cinematic circles of Rome. Without a knowledge of much of the material presented by Siciliano it would be hard to fully understand, for example, Zanzotto's more abstract reading, or decoding, of Pasolini's life which, for him, revolves about a pedagogical drive: not only did Pasolini begin as a teacher, but in his writings he assumed the role of the public "praeceptor." Even a film like Salò, in Zanzotto's words, "gravitates … around the problem of a 'genealogy of morals.'" And, finally, Zanzotto gives a pedagogical reading of Pasolini's death, remarking that: "But this death has burned every halo of guilt (real or imaginary) that surrounded Pasolini. Stripped of everything, made a victim and nothing but a victim, even he, in the most barbarically 'distracted,' or most barbarically cynical way, even he appears to us in the horrible showdown to which he would have wished to summon people so that they could confront themselves. In his death there existed a situation in which all are obliged to 'know,' and also to recognize themselves; there was pedagogy: true pedagogy, which is always an event and not a word." And if this reading seems too symbolic, just as that of Siciliano seems too preoccupied with the theme of conspiracy, it may be because both men, like so many who admired or loved Pasolini, feel pressed by the desire to make this death mean something: otherwise, its existential absurdity is too overwhelming.
If, for the most part, Italian critics are inexorably drawn towards Pasolini the man, and the role he played in Italian life, foreign critics, understandably more removed from these concerns, tend to focus on his films and on some of the principal theoretical and political issues raised by his work. This is true, by and large, of the British critics (represented in the BFI booklet on Pasolini) who seem particularly concerned with the political and semiological issues raised by Pasolini's films and writings. Given Pasolini's urge to attack majority opinion at the cost of taking extreme positions, it hardly comes as a surprise that many of the political positions he took—especially in the late 1960s and 1970s—were deeply problematical. Hence, in those years, when leftist ideology had, in some sense, become "official" in Italy, when the economic boom of the 1960s had changed the face of the country, his rejection of modern consumer society and his hatred of neocapitalism made him turn toward the Third World, toward the peasantry, toward mythic and archaic civilizations. Just when others ardently embraced political filmmaking, Pasolini turned his back on the contemporary world in films like Teorema, Medea, Porcile and Edipo Re. Not surprisingly, he became the target of leftists who labeled his behavior "nostalgic" and "regressive." And this is the view shared by at least half of the British critics who qualify Pasolini's attitude with terms such as "right-wing anarchism," "anachronistic" and "regressive fixations."
However tempting and somehow justified such terms may be, I do not think they provide an adequate measure of the complexity of Pasolini's thought. To begin with, they ignore, or gloss over the fact that no one was more aware of such problems, of his own inner contradictions, than Pasolini himself: again and again, he was to describe the pull within him between what he called "reason" (rational thought, history, Marxism) and "passion" (a visceral attraction to myth, to archaic or peasant civilizations, to the irrational). Nor do they acknowledge that the extreme positions he struck often had the salutary function of questioning accepted modes of thought, on the left as well as on the right. Certainly, his despair at contemporary civilization, his conviction that real change was impossible in a world dominated by technology and mass consumerism, are far more widely shared today than in the political climate of the late 1960s. And his deep distrust of any "power" or "ideology" has become one of the dominant themes in the work of another great iconoclast, Michel Foucault. Lastly, as Zanzotto remarks, can we even take all the attitudes he struck at face value: "Absurd to think of a Pasolini dreaming of the return to a peasant civilization taken as a block, or even taken as a preeminent indication; much further back than any antiquity was that which he 'remembered' via peasant or third-world civilization, a 'then' that was enough to justify his idea of a 'revolutionary force which is in the past' (an idea misunderstood, as were other of his themes outside the manuals in fashion, as being reactionary). It was a simple matter of a past understood as a metaphor for the first dawn. Infinitely far back and always in the future."
Equally as provocative as his politics were Pasolini's theoretical writings on cinema in which, again and again, in opposition to Metz and other semiologists, he voiced his conviction that cinema was not, as they claimed, a linguistic system but rather, the "language of reality." This attitude, too, has let him in for several severe remarks on the part of some of the critics in the BFI booklet: one calls his essentially anti-semiological stance the "latest incarnation of his regressive series of subversions of the institution of language." To be fair, some of the critics do point out that Pasolini's attempt somehow to capture reality through both verbal language and cinema must be seen as a poet's attempt to embrace a desperately loved reality. (In this respect, Pasolini was very close to the Rimbaud he so loved in his youth, the Rimbaud who wrote ecstatically "J'ai embrassé l'aube.") But above and beyond his personal needs, it also seems that as semiology has given way to and/or incorporated the multiple readings of a Derrida or the psychoanalysis of a Lacan, Pasolini's investigation and espousal of the poetic, oneric quality of cinema appears that much more interesting and less easily dismissable.
The essays in the BFI booklet are at their best, I think, not when they somehow judge, or seek to disprove, the extreme stands taken by Pasolini, but when they analyze—at times with acute sensitivity—the films themselves or Pasolini's cinematic style. One reads with pleasure Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's analysis of the ways in which Pasolini breaks with what could be called "classical" narrative or Noel Purdon's analysis of how geometric structures and color operate within Pasolini's films. Of great polemical interest are the opposing positions taken by Nowell-Smith and Richard Dyer on the images of homosexuality within Pasolini's films. While Nowell-Smith feels that Pasolini's films are radically different from most cinema in that "there is no privileged role attributed to the male heterosexual vision," Richard Dyer argues that the erotic depiction of attractive young men is essentially a self-oppressive view of gayness which "reinforces the image of male-sexuality-as-activity, just as relentlessly as the standard images of women enforce the concept of female-sexuality-as-passivity."
Whereas the BFI essays are devoted essentially to Pasolini's films, the essays found in the more recent volume, published after Pasolini's death, entitled The Poetics of Heresy (edited by Beverly Allen who has also done a number of the translations) range over the whole of Pasolini's work and, for the most part, are informed by current theoretical preoccupations inspired by Derrida, Lacan, narratology, etc. This often means that many of the most problematical issues raised by Pasolini's work are given radically new readings. This is the case, for example, of Pasolini's desire—given such short shrift by the British critics—to create a poetics, and later a cinema, able to encompass reality. Here, in a piece entitled "The Word Beside itself," Stefano Agosti analyzes the way this desire informs Pasolini's poetics. Beginning with the dialectic, if you will, between the Subject and Discourse, he notes that the desire to encompass reality meant that Pasolini ranged over the "utmost range of contents (niveau de l'énoncé)" as well as "the full involvement of the Subject in its own discourse (niveau de l'énonciation)." And, in addition to the "plurality of the contents expressed and of the discursive typologies employed," his efforts to capture reality as much as possible led Pasolini to "processes of homologation (of mimesis) between discourse structures and the structures of reality" through, for example, "mimesis of temporal duration and of spatial continuity (viewing time)." Although Agosti's analysis of these mimetic structures principally bears upon Pasolini's poetry, a number of his remarks concerning Pasolini's cinema are highly suggestive and certainly offer a way out of the narrow arena of semiotics which, for Pasolini, can constitute only a dead end.
Probably the greatest percentage of articles in this anthology (some of them written by Italian men of letters such as Italo Calvino and Leonardo Scasia) attempt to come to terms with Pasolini's last film, Salò (based on Sade's 120 Days in Sodom) whose cold-blooded scenes of cruelty and horror distressed many of Pasolini's most ardent admirers. One of the most disturbing aspects of the film was probably, as Calvino puts it, the explicit analogy between Sadian sadism and the historical phenomenon of Italian Fascism. (The film takes place in Salò, the last stronghold of Italian Fascism, while its frightful torturers are clearly Fascists.) In Calvino's eyes, the horror of Fascism was so great, and is still so vivid in the minds of those who lived it, that "it cannot serve as background to a symbolic and imaginary horror constantly outside the probable such as is present in Sade's work." Roland Barthes agrees with this, but goes even further, objecting to Pasolini's mimetic depiction of Fascism (he believes that "Fascism is a coercive object [which] forces us to think it accurately, analytically, philosophically" and, as such, should be treated in a Brechtian manner) and to his literal transcription of Sade. This last objection is hardly surprising given the fact that much of Barthes' own work on Sade revolves about his passionate conviction that the only reality for Sade was "écriture"; hence, any depiction of his libertinage, which is essentially a "fact of language," can only betray it.
The most complex reading of this film is probably that of Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit who limit themselves to the film, excluding both historical factors as well as extra-textual ones (i.e., the relationship between Sade's text and Pasolini's film). In their effort to see how violence works within the textual system, they begin by examining the relationship between representation and sadism ("Sexual excitement must be represented before it can be felt; or, more exactly, it is the representation of an alienated commotion") and then proceed to analyze the relationship between sadism and narration asserting that Sade's "calculation, preparation and control of climaxes" is also a narrative strategy in that "the climactic significances of narrative are made possible by a rigidly hierarchical organization of people and events into major and minor roles." But whereas most narrative tends to "sequester" violence, a sequestration which endows it with fascination at the same time that it allows us to reject it, Pasolini refuses such strategies with the result that he "deprives us of the narrative luxury of isolating the obscene or violent act and rejecting it." And here they come to the crux of the unease created in the spectator by the film, for once violence is no longer sequestered, but rather, theatricalized and surrounded by verbal narratives, it becomes an entertaining spectacle, such that a complicity is established between the viewer and the Fascist libertines. At this point, it would seem that the spectator is right to feel uneasy. But Bersani and Dutoit do not let matters rest here: proceeding with their complex argument, they seem to conclude that, paradoxically, "the morality of the scene consists in our having been compelled to see the nonmoral nature of our interest in violence." Subtle and intricate as their argument is, I'm not sure that their conclusion is entirely borne out by the reactions of most spectators who, appalled by the violence of the film they are viewing, are not likely to question their own interest in violence.
Whether or not one agrees with the piece by Bersani and Dutoit, like most of the articles in The Poetics of Heresy (which also contains a good bibliography), it is highly intelligent—brilliant at times—intent on seeing Pasolini in a new critical light, removed from the arena of moralistic judgments which have plagued his work from the beginning. And the challenge of the critical pieces in this anthology is matched by a number of Pasolini's own articles made accessible here for the first time in English. The Poetics of Heresy opens, in fact, with an essay entitled "The End of the Avant-Garde" which shows Pasolini at his maddening best, making us re-think assumptions taken for granted. Here is Pasolini, in 1966 and hence at the heyday of Structuralism, taking on both Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes for being essentially content-oriented in their notion of literary structure; here, too, at a time when the left-wing avant-garde lionized Brecht and eschewed realism, is Pasolini arguing paradoxically that the avant-garde really represented a new Classicism ("from an avant-garde text I learn nothing of the author who composed it, except precisely, that he is an author. And this is how Italian literature's ancient, incurable classicism is perpetuated") and that its "terror" of naturalism was really a "terror, taboo and obsession for reality." But perhaps the most provocative part of this essay, which characteristically interweaves literature, culture, and politics, resides in the way he groups together some very disparate forces which, in his eyes, contradict "both Marxist rationalism and bourgeois rationalism." For here, he includes not only the growing revolt within the bosom of the bourgeoisie (and here, as so often, he was prophetic since this revolt was to erupt two years later), the presence of the Third World, but also "the uninterrupted presence of Nazism as the only true bourgeois ideology (for instance, rural America, Dallas, etc. etc.)."
The provocations in this essay of the 1960s have a force, a vitality which contrasts—a bit sadly, I think—with the more disillusioned and bitter tone of his writings of the 1970s. Having lost all belief—for both personal and political reasons—in the possibility of real change, he seemed to feel it necessary to question those measures of reform which the left hailed as a victory. Two of his most important "interventions" of the 1970s—which voice his reactions to the passage, first, of a political bill granting divorce and to a later one allowing abortion—are included in The Poetics of Heresy. Although he based his objections on ideological grounds—for him, the passage of the divorce bill indicated a new consensus of power as clerical and paleo-industrial Italy gave way before the "hedonistic ideology of consumerism," while the bill granting abortion suggested a "false tolerance" which still did not permit sexual diversity—one wonders if his ire didn't stem as much from his need to hold the spotlight as from his conviction that all these liberalized laws were made by, and for, the heterosexual world from which he was forever excluded.
Although the tone of these pieces seems bitter, Pasolini's most personal despair is reserved for his poems. And it is in his poems—those interspersed throughout the volume of The Poetics of Heresy, as well as those selected and translated by Norman MacAfee, that Pasolini's most intimate voice is found. But—as befits his pre-romantic conception of the poet as a public figure—Pasolini's intimacy is deeply embedded in a web of political and social allusions; like his "interventions," many of the poems were written in response to precise events. Happily, the notes provided by Norman MacAfee clarify many of these allusions which would otherwise remain mysterious for the Anglo-Saxon reader. Lastly, as one who knows firsthand the immense difficulty of translating Pasolini's poetry, I have nothing but admiration for the high literary quality of the translations in these two collections. Together with his other writings, they constitute a valuable addition to the corpus of Pasolini's work now available in English.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400
SOURCE: "Consumerism Rampant," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4234, May 25, 1984, p. 596.
[In the following review, Thompson discusses the themes present in Pasolini's Lutheran Letters which he states focuses on the moral state of Italy since Mussolini.]
Lutheran Letters is a posthumous collection of the provocative articles which Pasolini started writing for the Corriere della sera in March, 1975; a series which spread to the weekly Il Mondo and which he continued up to the time of his death. The last piece in the collection is the address Pasolini was to have delivered at a Radical Party Congress in Florence two days after his body was found at Ostia: his appearance would have marked a return to the party political sphere from which he had been absent for over twenty-five years.
He was also planning the publication of his "Lutheran Letters" at the time of his death: the title is his and among his papers were found sketches for further articles rounding out the proposed collection. As the title would suggest, Pasolini is concerned with the moral state of the nation, examining the cultural and political changes that have occurred in Italy since Mussolini and the immediate post-war period, and, as he sees it, the loss of values which occurred in the neo-capitalist 1950s and 60s. From being almost a traditional peasant society in 1945, Italy underwent not so much an Industrial, as a Consumer Revolution, which, according to Pasolini's individualistic Marxist analysis, brought about the loss of traditional values among the lower classes and a homogenization of the middle strata, based on bourgeois self-interest. He launches a bitter attack against the crime wave among the young, linking it to the overwhelming pressure exerted on them to be good middle-class consumers: they either overreach in their urge for acquisition or drop out into the underworld of drugs in a search for an alternative.
Pasolini has two striking "modest proposals" to stop the rot: the suspension of obligatory secondary education and of television until a satisfactory effort is made to reverse the cultural regression. The collection also contains an essay which calls for the whole Government to be put on trial for corruption. Apart from its political interest, Lutheran Letters is also the record of a sensitive artist's reaction to the consequences of profound social change and many of the themes in his prose, poetry and films are here treated in a very different manner.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7182
SOURCE: "Pasolini: His Poems, His Body," in Parnassus, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1984, pp. 103-26.
[In the following review, Ahern provides an overview of Pasolini's life and poetry.]
It is easy to forget that Pier Paolo Pasolini is a major poet. Between 1950 and his death in 1975 he published four volumes of vigorous criticism—social, political, cultural, linguistic, and literary. Some of these pieces, just a few years after newspaper publication, have already found their way into anthologies. He wrote or directed over two dozen compelling, highly personal movies. He translated Aeschylus and Plautus, and wrote four plays of his own. He edited two anthologies of poetry in Italian dialects. He produced two linguistically remarkable novels. Given the bulk of his work and the notoriety of his life and death, it is easy to overlook his five volumes of Italian verse and his single volume in the Friulano dialect. The two-decade time lag between Italian and American culture puts us at a further disadvantage. Montale's essays, for example, appeared here only two years ago. It will probably take as long before we have Pasolini's or Calvino's essays in English. Now, at last, nine years after his murder, we have Norman MacAfee's able translation of a sixth of the Italian poetry, fourteen important long poems, a hundred pages of translation, and another hundred of Italian text. Previously we relied on versions scattered in specialized journals or in The New Italian Poetry. At the same time we have been given Enzo Siciliano's exemplary biography which allows us to recreate the context in which these poems were born. Most of the information about Pasolini's life which follows derives from this splendid book.
Pasolini was the adored son of an adored mother. His tolerated, absent father was a career military man, a patriot and enthusiastic Fascist. In his childhood the family moved every two or three years, spending summers in Friuli, his mother's region, a pastoral oasis in northeastern Italy between Venice and Udine. Just before the Second World War he studied at the University of Bologna with Roberto Longhi, the art historian, and various eminent philologists. A curious, enterprising student and a born organizer, had he followed the course of least resistance—something this courageous man rarely chose—he would have become a great poet-philologist like Poliziano, Leopardi, Carducci, or Pascoli. He spent the war in Friuli where he set up a private school at home. His students wrote poems in Friulano, learned the Latin names of plants, memorized the witty didactic verses he composed for them, and listened to him read Verga, Chekhov, Black Spirituals, and The Spoon River Anthology. He bicycled through the countryside, scientifically collecting its speech, which changed every few kilometers, as if his mother's mother tongue were the primal language and Friuli Eden. Summers he swam with other boys in the Tagliamento and sometimes made love to them on the white stones of the river bed. Winters were for remorse. Much later he would recall the "terrible, anxious sweetness that took my guts and consumed them from my sixteenth to my thirtieth year." He practised an aesthete's liturgical, uninstitutional Catholicism. Friends noticed an innate puritanism. His younger brother, after fighting with the partisans, was traitorously murdered by rival Communist partisans. Like young intellectuals all over the peninsula, Pasolini joined the Communist Party soon after the war. He turned out brilliant propaganda posters for it in Italian and Friulano, became its local secretary, secured a regular job in a state high school, organized a lively film club. Then a priest blackmailed him: either resign the party or his love affairs with boys would be revealed. He ignored the threat. The police were informed. Newsboys hawked the story on the piazza. The Party expelled him as "morally and politically untrustworthy." He lost his teaching job. He and his family faced despair and hysteria. One bleak winter dawn in 1949 the twenty-seven-year-old ex-school teacher escaped to Rome with his mother.
In these years he wrote many poems in various Friulano dialects—a choice Americans unfamiliar with Italy might find quixotic. When Italy attained national unity in 1870 eighty percent of its population spoke a dialect as the mother tongue, and sometimes, but not always, Italian as a second language. These dialects are as old as Italian and like it derive from Latin. They are not ignorant, fallen forms of Italian, but regional languages, sometimes with literatures of their own, which larger linguistic groups term "dialects." The Fascists repressed the dialects in favor of Italian more vigorously than even the first national governments. Poets and writers found themselves in a bind. Before the twentieth century, Italian was primarily a written language of Tuscan origin, static and insulated from daily life, a literary language in the worst sense. In the nineteenth century many writers, such as Manzoni and Verga, mastered Italian after childhood. The milanesi, for example, snickered at Verga's peculiar, heavily accented Italian, literally translated from Sicilian. Patriotism and the desire for large audiences led most writers to choose Italian, but they still found it difficult to create a living literature in a language few readers did their living in. For Pasolini, whose mother tongue was in fact Italian, the publication of poetry in Friulano between 1942 and 1954 was a polemical gesture. To convey some idea of these poems (MacAfee includes no dialect poetry) here are three:
Sera imbarlumida, tal fossàl a cres l'aga, na fèmina plena a ciamina pal ciamb. Jo it recuardi, Narcís, it vèvis il colòur da la sera, quand li ciampanis a súnin di muàrt. ("Il nini muàrt")
Luminous evening, in the ditch the water rises, a pregnant woman walks through the field. I remember you, Narcissus, you had the color of evening, when the bells toll death. ("The Dead Lad")
Xe Domenega! Mi son so'o in una barcheta sul Lemene. El Burín el xè de veudo. Tuti i fa festa e mi so'o meso nuo sul cuòr del Lemene scaldo i me strassi al solo de veudo. No go un scheo, son paron so'o dei mei cavei de oro sul Lemene pien de pissígoe de veudo. El xe pien de pecai el me cuòr so'o. ("El cuòr su l'aqua")
It is Sunday! I am alone in a small boat on the Lemene. The Borino seems velvet. Everyone is celebrating and I alone, half-naked in the heart of the Lemene, warm my rags in the velvet sun. I don't have a cent. I own only my golden hair on the Lemene full of little velvet fish. Full of sins is my solitary heart. ("The Heart on the Water")
Vuei a è Domènia, doman a is mòur, vuei mi vistís di seda e di amòur. Vuei a è Domènia, pai pras com frescs piès a sàltin frutíns lizèirs lai scarpès. Ciantànt al me spieli ciantànt mi petèni. Al rit tal me vuli il Diàul peciadòur. Sunàit, mes ciampanis, paràilu indavòur! "Sunàn, ma se i vuàrditu ciantànt tai to pras?" I vitardi il soreli di muartis estàs, i vuardi la ploja li fuèjs, i gris. I vuardi il me cuàrp di quan' ch'i eri frut, li tristia Domèniis, il vivi pierdùt. "Vuei it vistíssin la seda e l'amòur, vuei a è Domènia domàn a is mòur." ("Li letanis dal biel fi," III)
Today is Sunday, tomorrow you die, today I dress in silk and love. Today is Sunday, through the fields with cool feet young boys are jumping light in their shoes. Singing to my mirror, singing, I comb my hair. The sinning Devil laughs in my eye. Ring, my bells, drive him back! "We are ringing, but what are you looking at as you sing in your meadows?" I am looking at the sun of dead summers. I am looking at rain, leaves, crickets. I am looking at my body when I was a young boy, the sad Sunday, the living that is lost. "Today they shall dress you with silk and love. Today is Sunday, tomorrow you die." ("The Litanies of the Beautiful Boy," III)
Pasolini chose dialect not to get a better grip on reality, but as an absolutely pure language, not found in nature, "which no one knows any more." His choice was neither provincial nor folkloric. He worried Friulano into a delicious music similar to that of the Parnassians and Symbolists. The spectre of Giovanni Pascoli's equally artificial but less decadent lyrics haunt these poems. Their ideal public could never have consisted of Friulano peasants. The enormous range of literary references, the rhyme schemes drawn from literatures far removed in time and space, the falsely ingenuous sensibility are simply too alien. To be savored fully these poems demand the most refined literary palate. Their ideal reader would register the pervasive influence of Antonio Machado's lyrical evocation of Castile, and hear behind "O sera imbarlumida" in "Il nini muàrt" (which Pasolini renders in Italian as "O sera luminosa") Machado's "O tarde luminosa!" (Poem LXXVII). The bodies of doomed kouroi dominate all these precious anthems. At the heart of this timeless, fatherless world lies a Friulan Adonis—a fantassút, a fanciullino, Osiris, Narcissus, Jesus, and the adolescent poet himself—whose mother's rapt attention (the true ideal audience?) will modulate into mourning at the inevitable death of her sterile, parthogenetic son. His obscurely necessary sacrifice does not renew the world.
Rome, mediterranean, pagan, and urban, had little in common with sub-Alpine, Christian, and rural Friuli. A hot, hard, restless, invigorating city. Pasolini faced desperate poverty with courage and energy. His middle-class mother worked as a maid, while he took a modest teaching job in a distant shanty town. He declaimed Ungaretti and Dante to dirt-poor, thirteen-year-old sub-proletarians. He threw himself into furious literary activity, making friendships with Bassani, Gadda, Morante, and Moravia. He vied with the poet Sandro Penna in compiling lists of his conquests. Rome was a "muscular city of virile egotism" with no room for humility or forgiveness. Endless, willing, dialect-speaking boys could be had for a few lire. To buy them he sold his patiently acquired library of Greek and Latin authors. He transformed texts into life, and life back into texts. Fanatic linguist that he was, preternaturally sensitive to the most ephemeral permutations of Roman dialect, he stalked his boy informants, notebook in hand, lured by their language and their bodies. He worked as an extra at Cinecittà, quit teaching, became a script-writer, moved to a decent petit bourgeois apartment with his mother. His redundant, world-hating father joined them in 1952. Six years later he had drunk himself to death. Pasolini became a notorious public figure. He won prizes, was tried for obscenity, pornography, and offending religion. It was the happiest, most fertile period of his life. He was, he thought, inventing a new poetic language, rooted in history and part of its slow rush towards revolution. Expelled from Eden into time, his happy fall brought him to Rome in a moment of national crisis, whose witness and protagonist he chose to become.
After the war Italy suffered an intellectual and an economic upheaval. The rapid industrialization of an agricultural society produced the Boom or Economic Miracle. Intellectuals threw off the idealism and liberalism of Benedetto Croce for Antonio Gramsci's very original, very Italian Marxism. Mussolini had kept Gramsci, a founder of the Italian Communist Party, in prison from 1926 to 1933. The post-war publication of the noble letters which he wrote in prison established him as the supreme materialist intellectual, deeply committed to bringing Marxist revolution to the peninsula and martyred in the attempt. In prison he also filled dozens of notebooks with powerful essays on many topics, especially Italian history and culture since 1870. Most intellectuals, Communist or not, accepted the substance of this massive revision of the Italian past. Gramsci argued that in Italy the party should first attain cultural hegemony and only then attempt to implement the revolution. The post-war Communist Party accepted this argument, and bestowed great prominence on intellectuals. At the same time, however, great material prosperity and the logic of Cold War politics made the dream of revolution recede further into the future, provoking a malaise in even the most committed intellectuals. Their recently discovered prophet had not foreseen this economic counter-revolution.
Narcissus woke to find himself a revolutionary intellectual. In 1957 he printed his elegy for Gramsci, "The Ashes of Gramsci," which he had composed two years before. It sold out immediately, and has since been rarely out of print. The preceding generation of poets, Montale, Ungaretti, and the Hermeticists, adopted a diffident, marginal stance before the world. They scrutinized the text of nature, not civilization: clouds, waves, the play of light and wind on water. Pasolini broke with all that. He took history and society as his texts. He composed his non-transcendental graveyard poem in the terza rima of Dante, Pascoli, and the civic poets of the Risorgimento, replacing full rhyme with assonance and eye-rhyme. He fashioned a tense, broken, adjective-laden narrative in violation of the abstemious Hermetic precepts, mixing the exquisite with the ordinary. He assumed the persona of a national poet measuring his private passions against a dead heroic thinker who represents perfect historical consciousness.
The scene: nightfall in the English Cemetery in Rome where Gramsci is buried with others whom Italian society excluded. Shelley, who is also buried there, is invoked as representing high, non-revolutionary nineteenth-century culture. Surrounding the cemetery is the teeming, sub-proletarian, historically unconscious neighborhood of Testaccio. The poem is a meditation on passion and ideology, pleasure and praxis: it neither embraces nor challenges Marxism. The poet establishes a permanent tension between the movements of history and individual desire. Marxism is one term in his oxymoron, he is the other. He enriches the vocabulary and syntax of contemporary spoken Italian with the lexica of bible, church, and historical materialism. At times divergent semantic charges converge powerfully in single words. Coscienza denotes historical and class consciousness, ethical and religious conscience, and consciousness broadly understood. "Le ceneri di Gramsci" is a prosaic, gnomic, memorable dialogue between light and dark, heart and guts (viscere).
Ed ecco qui me stesso … povero, vestito dei panni che i poveri adocchiano in vetrine dal rozzo splendore, e che ba sbiadito la sporcizia delle più sperdute strade, delle panche dei tram, da cui stranito è il mio giorno: mentre sempre più rade bo di queste vacanze, nel tormento del mantenermi in vita: e se mi accade di amare il mondo non è che per violento e ingenuo amore sensuale così come, confuso adolescente, un tempo l'odiai, se in esso mi feriva il male borghese di me borghese: e ora, scisso —con te—il mondo, oggetto non appare di rancore e quasi di mistico disprezzo, la parte che ne ha il potere? Eppure senza il tuo rigore, sussisto perché non scelgo. Vivo nel non volere del tramontato dopoguerra: amando il mondo che odio—nella sua miseria sprezzante e perso—per un oscuro scandalo della coscienza…. ("Le ceneri di Gramsci," III)
And here am I … poor, dressed in clothes that the poor admire in store windows for their crude splendors and that filthy back streets and tram benches (which daze my day) have faded; while, less and less often, these moments come to me to interrupt my torment of staying alive; and if I happen to love the world, it's a naive violent sensual love, just as I hated it when I was a confused adolescent and its bourgeois evils wounded my bourgeois self; and now, divided— with you—doesn't the world—or at least that part which holds power—seem worthy only of rancor and an almost mystical contempt? Yet without your rigor I survive because I do not choose. I live in the non-will of the dead post-war years: loving the world I hate, scorning it, lost in its wretchedness—in an obscure scandal of consciousness….
(According to Siciliano, Pasolini in this period took three trams to reach his distant school and dressed like the poor boys he pursued. Narcissus traded in velvet for glad rags.) The poet annexes the cultural and economic crises of the nation to the pulsating tension of his own moral and intellectual conflicts, and then expresses these contrary forces in breathless, seemingly artless discourse which is barely saved from rant by Latinate precision ("senza il tuo rigore sussisto"—'without your rigor I survive') in the midst of willfully banal fixed phrases ("le più sperdute strade"—'the most out of the way streets') and by the ghost of broken hypermetric hendecasyllables which haunts his prose into poetry. If his awesome self-dramatization succeeds, it is because we finally accept the outrageous language. Nor has he forgotten the lyricism of the Friulano verse. In the poem's famed apophatic opening he politicizes the chaste silence, subtle coloring, and luscious epithets of the Decadents and Hermeticists, while abandoning their terseness for manic wordiness.
Non è di maggio questa impura aria che il buio giardino straniero fa ancora più buio, o l'abbaglia con cieche schiarite … questo cielo di bave sopra gli attici giallini che in semicerchi immensi fanno velo alle curve del Tevere, ai turchini monti del Lazio … Spande una mortale pace, disamorata come i nostri destini, tra le vecchie muraglie l'autunnale maggio. In esso c'è il grigiore del mondo la fine del decennio in cui ci appare tra le macerie finito il profondo e ingenuo sforzo di rifare la vita; il silenzio, fradicio e infecondo … ("Le ceneri di Gramsci," I)
It isn't May-like, this impure air which darkens the foreigners' dark garden still more, then dazzles it with blinding sunlight … this foam- streaked sky above the ocher roof terraces which in vast semicircles veil Tiber's curves and Latium's cobalt mountains…. Inside the ancient walls the autumnal May diffuses a deathly peace, disquieting like our destinies, and holds the whole world's dismay, the finish of the decade that saw the profound naive struggle to make life over collapse in ruins; silence, humid, fruitless …
Pasolini moved from script-writing to directing. His first feature-length movie, Accattone, caused a scandal when it appeared in 1961. Moving pictures brought him far larger audiences and incomes than printed words. He continued to write poems. He collected the early poems in Italian in The Nightingale of the Catholic Church. The Religion of My Time carried on the enterprise begun in The Ashes of Gramsci. Now that he was a filmmaker, he could not easily play the national poet with a rare, albeit Marxist, sensibility. In Poems in the Shape of a Rose he included a poem in the form of a filmscript of an interview with a French journalist, the Cobra, a cautionary fictionalization of the reader as well brought up, middle-class ignoramus. The poem is "in cursus"—the rhetorical name for solemn rhythmical medieval Latin prose—a phrase which MacAfee incorrectly renders as "in progress." He also mistranslates "clausola," in the poem's final section in accountant-like terms as "end of statement." In the art of cursus, a clausola is a sentence's concluding cadence. The translator misses the deliberate mixture of ancient and cinematic rhetorics.
(Senza dissolvenza, a stacco netto, mi rappresento in un atto—privo di precedenti storici—di "industria culturale.") lo volontariamente martirizzato … e, lei di fronte, sul divano: campo e contracampo, a rapidi flash, "Lei—so che pensa, guardandomi, in più domestica-italica M.F. sempre alla Godard—lei, specie di Tennessee!", il cobra col golfino di lana (col cobra subordinato che screma in silenzio magnesio). Poi forte: "Mi dice che cosa sta scrivendo?" "Versi, versi, scrivo! versi! (maledetta cretina, versi che lei non capisce priva com'è di cognizioni metriche! Versi!) VERSI NON PIÙ IN TERZINE! Capisce? Questo è quello che importa: non più in terzine! Sono tornato tout court al magmal Il Neo-capitalismo ha vinto, sono sul marciapiede come poeta, ah [singhiozzo] e come cittadino [altro singhiozzo]." E il cobra con il biro: "Il titolo della Sua opera?" "Non so … [Egli parla ora sommesso come intimidito, rivestendo la parte che il colloquio, accettato, gli impone di fare: come sta poco a stingere la sua grinta in un muso di mammarolo condannato a morte] … (from "Una disperata vitalità," III)
(Without a dissolve, in a sharp cut, I portray myself in an act—without historical precedents— of "cultural industry.") I, voluntarily martyred … and she in front of me, on the couch: shot and countershot in rapid flashes, "You"—I know what she's thinking, looking at me, a more domestic-Italian Masculine-Feminine, always à la Godard—"you, sort of a Tennessee!" the cobra in the light wool sweater (and the subordinate cobra gliding in magnesium silence). Then aloud: "Tell me what you're writing?" "Poems, poems, I'm writing! Poems! (stupid idiot, poems she wouldn't understand, lacking as she is in metric knowledge! Poems!) POEMS NO LONGER IN TERCETS! Do you understand? This is what's important: no longer in tercets! I have gone back, plain and simple, to the magma! Neocapitalism won, I've been kicked out on the street as a poet [boo-hoo] and citizen [another boo-hoo]." And the cobra with the ballpoint: "The title of your work?" "I don't know … [He speaks softly now, as though intimidated, assuming the role the interview, once accepted, imposes on him: how little it takes for his sinister mug to fade into the face of a mama's boy condemned to death] … (from "A Desperate Vitality," III)
This poem, a self-deprecating apology for abandoning terza rima, written partially in terza rima, attempts to exercise the poet's bad conscience at abandoning full-time dedication to writing and poetry to become a movie director and media personality. The usual systematic contamination of styles and media (singhiozzo, singhiozzo, sob, sob, is comic strip language) does not produce a convincing poem. The merciless self-portrait ("sinister mug," thinning hair) and self-revelation (masturbation until he bled) do not efface the disingenuousness in characterizing himself as success's "voluntary martyr on a couch."
MacAfee's otherwise strong plain translation suffers from occasional errors. The Cinquecento is the sixteenth rather than the fourteenth century. Deludere means to disappoint or deceive, not to undeceive. Treni refers to threnodies, such as the Lamentations of Jeremiah; MacAfee confuses it with its homonym, which means "trains." The traditional English equivalent of the liturgical formula nei secoli dei secoli is "world without end" not "through the centuries forever and ever." Crisma is "chrism," oil used in various church ceremonies, not "baptism."
MacAfee also garbles allusions to Dante's poetry or allows them to slip by unnoticed. Pasolini identified with Dante as prophet, poet, outsider, and fearless confounder of styles and genres. To use the famous distinction of Gianfranco Contini, which he loved to cite, he wanted to be a plurilinguistic poet like Dante, rather than a monolinguistic one like Petrarch. When Pasolini refers to the Bourgeois "il cui pane certo non sa di sale," 'whose bread certainly does not taste salty,' he is remembering a prophecy which Dante put in the Comedy that in exile he would no longer eat the unsalted bread of Florence. MacAfee mistranslates the line as "The Bourgeois for whom no salt tears pour" and provides no note. Nor does he indicate that "libito far licito," 'making lust licit' occurs in Inferno 5, 56, where it describes how Queen Semiramis legalized incest, and so prefigured the lustful Francesca. Pasolini's application of these words to himself constitutes a criticism of Dante's Christianity as well as an uneasy self-condemnation. "Legitimating my desire" is a misleading translation because it suggests that lust can be made legitimate. Dante's words suggest just the opposite. Likewise, when the poet applies to himself a famous description of Dante's Virgil, "fioco per lungo silenzio," many American readers need a note to point this out. In "The Poetry of Tradition," the last poem which MacAfee translates, Pasolini criticizes the generation of 1968 as ignorant of the poetry of tradition (like the Cobra), and so capable of creating only bureaucracy and organization: "Che organizzar significar per verba non si porìa," 'Because organization cannot be signified in words.' Here the allusion is to "… transumanar per verba / non si porìa," whose first word, a famous neologism, meaning "passing beyond humanity," he replaces with the quasi-bureaucratic, quasi-Marxist "organizzar." Because this poem appears in a volume whose title is Transumanar e organizzar, the reader who knows the poetry of tradition can hardly miss the allusion. The title must be read as the usual oxymoron joining Catholic transcendence and Marxist praxis. MacAfee gives the American reader (who cannot be counted upon to know the poetry of Italian tradition) no help. He destroys the tension of the title by suppressing the crucial conjunction. His translation, To Transfigure, To Organize, suggests that these two operations are equivalents rather than possible contraries. In general, however, this is a sound, accurate translation. I hope that MacAfee one day will provide us with a much-needed second volume, twice as long as this one, with extensive selections from The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, "L'Appennino," "L'umile Italia," "La rabbia," the splendid epigrams in The Religion of My Time, "The Sonnet Hobby," and the elegy for Robert Kennedy. We also need a separate, complete version of all the poems in Friulano as they appear in the disturbing, double version called La nuova gioventù.
In the Sixties Pasolini became rich and almost happy. He and his mother moved to better lodgings. He met the love of his life, Ninetto Davoli, a fifteen-year-old Calabrian from a Roman slum. The curly-haired, hoarse-voiced, wise-cracking, joyous boy spoke an odd amalgamation of dialects which delighted him. Ninetto's shout the first time he saw snow, "Hè-eh, Hè-eh, Heeeeeeeh," seemed to him proto-Greek, a pure Adamic tongue. That same year Pasolini, the atheist Catholic, who thought Christ divine but not the Son of God, shot the Gospel of St. Matthew, using non-professional actors. Enzo Siciliano played Simon, Ninetto an innocent child ("of such is the Kingdom of Heaven"), and his mother was Mary. The Catholics gave him prizes. Others questioned whether Pasolini's humanist, socialist Christ with a permanent slow burn takes away the sins of the world when he sheds his blood.
One night in 1966 in a Roman trattoria Pasolini collapsed in a pool of his own blood when an undetected stomach ulcer hemorrhaged. His body showed signs of aging and softening. After convalescence he toughened it in workouts, and dressed it in levis, sleeveless T-shirts and desert boots. 1968 was the year of crisis. In a verse pamphlet to the students who revolted that May, he sided with the Police (the sons of the poor) against the students (the sons of the Bourgeois). His new film, Teorema, received poor notices. In it a Ninetto-like anghelos-herald (Terence Stamp) carnally seduced an entire middle-class Milanese household—a cool allegory of how the Sacred, in the form of an erotically irresistible young male, bursts into the stultified life of the Bourgeoisie.
Pasolini feared that his domination over cultural life was waning. In Palermo in 1963 an "avant-garde" of university professors had attempted to unseat Italy's leading writers, including Pasolini and Calvino. They drew unflattering comparisons between the truly "experimental" poetry of Ezra Pound and that of Pasolini. In this period he worked on a Dantean pastiche, The Divine Mimesis (posthumously published in unfinished form in 1975), whose manuscript he claimed had been found on the corpse of a poet "beaten to death with a stick in Palermo in 1963." At the Venice premier of Teorema in 1968 he contrived to interview an ailing Ezra Pound in a bold attempt to win his public support. The two poets shared a love of Italy's landscape and literature, as well as eccentric political beliefs, a knack for cultural organization, and a tendency to rant. No interchange occurred. Chastened, humble, courteous, Pound left his tempus tacendi long enough to affirm the failure and incoherence of a life dedicated to poetry. This was exactly what Pasolini feared most, and would have none of it. Shortly before his own death seven years later he would repudiate a large part, if not all, of his work.
His love for Ninetto deepened and eventually excluded sex. Never did he interrupt his nightly hunt for boys. Fear of separation haunts his single happy love poem:
… prendo con paura l'aereo per un luogo lontano. Della nostra vita sono insaziabile, perché una cosa unica al mondo non può essere mai esaurita. (from "Uno dei tanti epiloghi")
… I fearfully take the plane for a distant place. I'm insatiable for our life, because something unique in all the world can never be exhausted. (from "One of Many Epilogs")
His literary life was also moving toward a crisis. His final, slack book of verse, Transumanar e organizzar, received few and poor notices. His own review of it conceded its "falsity, insincerity and awkwardness," but not its "unreality." He observed that "an Oedipal terror of coming to know and admit determines the strange unhappy fortune of this book and probably of all Pasolini's work." Oedipal jealousy probably led him to attack Montale's Satura, which had received far more favorable reviews that year. For Pasolini's generation Montale had been the supreme poet. His brother Guido joined the Resistance with Montale's poems in his pocket. In that same period, Pasolini's contemporary, Italo Calvino, had committed poem after poem from Ossi di seppia to memory, as did so many others. Now Pasolini accused Satura of being an "anti-Marxist tract … based wholly on the naturalness of power"—an odd charge from someone who had never really read Marx and had recently announced he no longer believed in revolution. Pasolini also hinted that Montale was a coward. Montale replied in two bitter epigrams which addressed Pasolini as Malvolio, the dour puritan hypocrite of Twelfth Night. Did Montale know, one wonders, that William Savage Landor had dispatched a similar epigram to Wordsworth, addressing him too as Malvolio?
Con quale agilità rimescolari materialismo storico e pauperismo evangelico, pornografia e riscatto, nausea per l'odore di trifola, il denaro che ti giungeva. (from Eugenio Montale, "Lettera a Malvolio")
With what ease you stirred together historic materialism and evangelical poverty, pornography and redemption, nausea at the smell of truffles, the money that came to you.
Montale spoke for many of Pasolini's critics when he blamed on him "the conceptual phocomelia" of the recent past. Pasolini's was the hour, he said, when "honor and indecency, joined in a single pact, founded the permanent oxymoron."
In his late forties the decline of sexual desire tormented him. He continued working out but in his films took delight in showing the full age of his body in walk-on parts as Giotto and Chaucer. In Spring 1971 he went to Romania for Gerovital anti-aging treatments, accompanied by Alberto Moravia and Ninetto, now twenty-four and girl-crazy. There he completed the second film in The Trilogy of Life, The Canterbury Tales. The Trilogy, a box office success and critical failure, made him richer still. Its ostensible theme was the destruction of stagnant middle-class values by angelic, child-like subproletarians from the Third World or a storybook past. When he shot the Canterbury Tales in Bath, Ninetto played the Chaplinesque Perkin, a charming thief of brides from grooms and food from babies. Ninetto's announcement of his marriage broke Pasolini's heart. His black despair exasperated his closest friends. In a Shakespearean sonnet sequence, "The Sonnet Hobby," he called his faithless beloved his "Lord," and made him a "her," accused of "vile betrayal" after eight years of love. He was inconsolable.
Siciliano says that in this period Pasolini engaged in "severely masochistic practices," and argued that artistic creation was essentially sadomasochistic. Grave doubts about the revolutionary power of sex crept into the Trilogy's last film, The Arabian Nights. Aziz (played by the recently married Ninetto) breaks the heart of his girlfriend Aziza and causes her death when he nonchalantly abandons her. He soon finds a crazy new girlfriend and betrays her as well. When she tries to kill him, he remembers some magic words which Aziza had taught him. They so placate the new girlfriend that she merely ties a string around his testicles and rips them off. Several times in this final film homosexuality is presented as a terrifying phenomenon. Its covert themes subvert the overt themes of the entire trilogy. The criminal selfishness of beautiful young men continued to obsess Pasolini. In June 1975, a few months after finishing the Trilogy of Life and a few months before his death, he repudiated it and, by implication, much earlier work, in words of astonishing ferocity:
Sincerity and necessity drove me to represent bodies and their culminating symbol, the sex organ…. I now hate bodies and sex organs…. The young people and boys of the Roman subproletariat … if they are now human garbage were already such before….
Hatred consumed him: hatred for himself, his boys, his utopian political visions. He revised many poems in Friulano and published them with the originals in La nuova gioventù (The New Youth) in Spring 1975. More than savage palinodes, they are an assault on the corpus of his verse. In the poem that follows—original first, then revision—his village's mulberry plantation (silkworms feed on mulberry leaves) has been covered with asphalt, people live in new apartment houses, no smoke rises from the hearths of the old houses. The poet, now just the 'spirit' of a boy rather than a real boy, hates his ancestors instead of singing them, and befouls his face: shit instead of roses, piss instead of blood. Sadism now touched the securest part of his literary corpus, as it did his actual body.
Fantassút, al plòuf il Sèil tai spolers dal to país, tal to vis di rosa e mèil pluvisín al nas il mèis. Il soreli scur di fun sot li branchis dai moràrs al it brusa e sui confins tu i il ciantis, sòul, i muars. Fantassút, al rit il Sèil tai barcòns dal to país, tal to vis di sanc e fièl serenàl al mòur il mèis. ("Ploja tai cunfins")
Lad, Heaven rains on the hearths of your town, on your face of rose and honey in drizzle the month is born. The sun, dark with smoke, beneath the mulberry branches burns you, and on all the borders you alone sing the dead. Lad, Heaven smiles on the balconies of your town, on your face of blood and gall, the month dies clear and bright. ("Rain on the Borders")
Spirt di frut, al plòuf il Sèil tai spolers di un muàrt país, tal to vis di merda e mèil pluvisin a nas un mèis. II soreli blanc e lustri sora asfàlt e ciasis novis al it introna, e fòur di dut non i it às pí amòur pai muàrs. Spirt di frut, al rit il Sèil ta un país sensa pí fun, tal to vis di pis e fèil, mai nassút, al mòur un mèis. ("Ploja fòur di dut")
Spirit of a boy, Heaven rains on the hearths of a dead town, on your face of shit and honey in drizzle the month is born. The sun, white and glistening, over the asphalt and new houses, stuns you, and you, outside of everything, have no more love for the dead. Spirit of a boy, Heaven smiles on a town with no more smoke: in your face of piss and gall, the month, never born, dies. ("Rain Outside of Everything")
After 1968 when he said he would "throw his body into the struggle," the poet in him began to die. His greatest work, the Friulan poems, The Ashes of Gramsei and The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, was behind him. Filmmaking, journalism, and his lonely, prophetic politics took all his energy. Never had he seen his poems as making up a body of work exempt from the mortality of his actual body. Rather he looked upon them as extensions of that body and filled them with images of recently or soon-to-be-slaughtered bodies, all of which were eventually his. He had decided to be the "lamb slain from the foundation of the world." He appears really to have believed that the death of his body could make a difference in the world which no poem could ever hope to. Who dare criticize him for choosing physical courage over the humility of the poet's craft?
He felt that he was on the verge of some radical change. His voice took on a vehement, prophetic, conservative tone. As Eros failed him, fidelity and social order became urgent concerns. In his last two or three years he tried to be St. Paul and Luther, flogging the world for its degradation. His dazzling, scandalous, unconvincing jeremiads appeared on the front pages of the Corriere della sera and other newspapers. Under Neo-Capitalism Italy had suffered an anthropological transformation, he said. Sexual permissiveness, abortion, television, and obligatory school (both of which he proposed outlawing) had murdered the Sacred. The only form of contraception he recommended wholeheartedly was homosexuality. Kidnappings, petty crime, and terrorism made life unbearable. "The night," he said, "is as deserted and sinister as in the blackest centuries of the past." He now found the poor Roman boys he had once courted so fraternally to be violent and calculating thieves. He underestimated the barriers which his age and wealth created. A lack of Gramscian rigor had undermined his work and was pushing it toward incoherence. His poetic and political vision was finally based on his body's experience. He played awakening Bourgeois Italy, while his subproletarian boys were messengers of liberation from a mythic, pre-conscious world. The incompatibility of this vision with any kind of Marxism never troubled him. Nor had he meditated deeply enough on Eros to understand why no artist dare denigrate it and hope to continue creating.
In the winter and spring of 1975 he filmed a version of De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom set in the last days of the Fascist Republic of Salò. Four libertines incarcerate, torture, and finally murder a group of attractive, acquiescent young people. Shot in a dead frigid light, their bodies take on a dreadful gray pallor. The libertines ban heterosexuality in favor of homosexuality—the most "mortal" and "ambiguous" gesture which the human race can make, according to characters in the film. In the disquieting final scene, as the young people go to their deaths, one of them shouts Christ's words on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Two young Fascist soldiers, out of uniform, but in all respects similar to the victims, dance an indifferent fox trot together, while discussing their girlfriends. The repudiation of the young as "human garbage" has passed from prose to film. Ben Lawton traces an evolving rejection of homosexuality and the proletariat in the Trilogy of Life and Salò. Pasolini expounded but never fully accepted such ideas. His desire to break with old habits, Siciliano tells us, did not succeed. That fall he was assaulted more than once during his late-night forays. In October he had himself photographed at home, naked, in various poses remarkable for their ordinariness. He wanted the pictures of his slender, strong body to illustrate his long, unfinished, still-unpublishednovel, Vas. Two weeks later Salò premiered to the consternation of many friends and supporters. The subtle Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia feared it might drive some viewers to the nunnery. Barthes called it "absolutely unredeemable."
On the night of All Souls, November 2, which in Italy is the Feast of the Dead, he picked up a hustler named Pino the Frog at the train station, and drove him to a garbage-strewn field in a shanty town north of Rome, near the sea. The boy hit Pasolini's head with a plank until it opened and brain matter spattered the plank. The beating almost detached an ear from the head. He kicked the scrotum hard, then drove over the body. Pasolini died of internal and external hemorrhages. Some people believe that groups opposed to Pasolini's politics hired the boy to entrap and murder him. The audience of his poems, novels, essays, and films knew this scene and this event before they read about it in the newspapers. The very condignity of Pasolini's death and works raised suspicions. Ninetto identified the body for the police. Early the next morning reporters waited outside his house until his almost-senile mother let out a high wail of grief on being given the news—Isis mourning Osiris, Mary mourning Jesus. Life validated Art.
Pasolini's death conferred on his poetry a retroactive coherence that almost nullified the retroactive meaninglessness of his "Repudiation of the Trilogy of Life" five months earlier. The closure which his death provided his texts resembles that given to the Hebrew Scriptures by Jesus' death—it cries out for and resists interpretation. Sciascia said that the Catholic elements in it annihilate the anarchic ones. Does he mean, one wonders, that Pasolini's death was a sacrifice like Jesus'? These lines from an early poem in The Nightingale of the Catholic Church will not be read today as they were first read over thirty years ago. In them Christ looks upon his crucifiers as would a sexually excited homosexual masochist:
Cristo, il tuo corpo di giovinetta è crocefisso da due stranieri. Sono due vivi ragazzi e rosse hanno le spalle, l'occhio celeste. Battono i chiodi e il drappo trema sopra il Tuo rentre … (from "La passione")
Christ, your young girl's body is crucified by two foreigners. They are two living boys and have red shoulders, blue eyes. They hammer in the nails and the cloth quivers over Thy belly …
There are those who argue that the linguistic sign is by origin and forever sacrificial. The word "stands for" what it represents as a sacrificial victim "stands for" the people. Following this line of thought, poetry, as the highest form of language, is ipso facto its most violent manifestation. Thus Pasolini's death was more than just thematically implicit in his poetry. His whole poetic career can be seen as a doomed struggle with the violence of poetic language. Hence his attempt to transform Friulano into an ahistoric Adamic tongue, and his fascination with Ninetto's joyous howl on first seeing snow. Acoustic signifiers with no assignable signifieds imply a non-violent because non-signifying language. Unfallen tongues bespeak no bloodshed. Pasolini's tragedy was never to have found an untragic language. Yet whatever relations one posits between language and violence, Pasolini's violent death does not redeem his poetry, even though it seals forever its union with his life. His poems, films, essays, novels, articles, and interviews are microtexts which together constitute a single persona, or macrotext. As the central man of the central decades of this century in Italy, he compels us to read his poems. Could they be detached from his life (and it is exactly this that his death will not allow), to be read only for themselves, we would find them less compelling. Nothing, not even a poet's blood, quite replaces craft.
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SOURCE: A review of A Violent Life, in The New York Times Books Review, November 3, 1985, p. 38.
[In the following review, Rice states that Pasolini's Marxism is evident in his novel A Violent Life, but asserts that in addition to the political overtones, "Tommaso's story has its own profound and cumulative power; his world boils with life created by Pasolini's relentless use of dialogue and vivid detail."]
It begins as a guided tour of hell. Tommaso, the protagonist of A Violent Life, grows up in a stinking shantytown on the outskirts of Rome shortly after World War II. Half-starved children play in sand littered with human excrement beside a river foully polluted, their everyday speech a litany of curses, taunts and threats. As a young man Tommaso becomes a thief, a bully and a sometime hustler, a homosexual prostitute. He and his vicious companions rob at random, sometimes beating their victims, their goal being to get no more than a few thousand lire with which to buy food, drink or the company of a woman. They are without talent, ambition or hope.
Even when Tommaso courts a respectable young woman, he seethes with resentment and hatred as he makes his crude advances in the darkness of a cheap movie house—the same hatred he feels for the "queens" or "faggots" he tries to hustle, or for his companions who remain unimpressed with him no matter what he does. He is in fact a pathetically ordinary young man who elicits little or no interest from anyone save his mother and his lackluster girlfriend, and the indifference he endures is emphasized by the author almost as much as the hunger and poverty he suffers all of his life.
But halfway through this gritty, dark and absorbing narrative, Tommaso is changed by unexpected good fortune. After serving time in prison for murder, he returns home to find his family living not in a stinking hovel but in a Government-financed house. A new optimism is born in him, a new tolerance for respectability; he gets a job and contemplates marriage to his girlfriend.
Then a strike in the Government hospital to which he is confined for treatment of tuberculosis brings him in contact with political activists. He is forced into displaying courage and then praised for it; it is perhaps the first real recognition he has ever known. And courage will later lead him to genuine altruism and his eventual death at the novel's end.
The political overtones are blatant. One doesn't have to know that Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was as celebrated during his lifetime for his politics as for his films, fiction and poetry, was a Marxist to see the statement being made here. Tommaso is not unredeemable. What he might have become, if he had been given half a chance, will never be known.
But this novel is a great deal more than the sum of its political ideas. It is not devitalized by or dependent on Marxist philosophy. Tommaso's story has its own profound and cumulative power; his world boils with life created by Pasolini's relentless use of dialogue and vivid detail.
Nothing is asserted that is not proven. You see and hear these people as they drink, quarrel and make love. And in the novel's larger moments—the brutal police raids on the shantytown and the Government hospital—his attention to detail invariably enlivens the grand scheme.
One doesn't come to like Tommaso. But a finer, more interesting feeling is evoked. When he faces his last moments with the same toughness that he has displayed all along, there is more than a touch of tragedy. It very nearly takes the breath away.
The novel raises two questions, however. The first has to do with the inevitable problems met in translations. The narrative, echoing the voice of its characters, is sprinkled with phrases like "good as gold" and "on the ball" and "it was no joke." And I can not help but wonder, are these English clichés really the equivalent of the original Italian? Or has freshness been sacrificed for words an English or American reader will more easily understand? Whatever the case, these tired expressions do not detract much from the impact of the book.
My second question has more to do with the artistic validity of the book. A Violent Life is about illiterate and inarticulate people and it purports to show them as they see themselves. Does it represent an informed and truly realistic insight into the nature of these people? Or is it a grossly exaggerated view of their brutality created by one who was never a part of them, a view that might be as romantic in its excess as a cloying sentimental approach? On the basis of the text alone I would say the question is impossible to answer, at least for this American reader. The milieu is simply too foreign, the poverty too oppressive, the minds of the characters too different from our own. Yet the question is of enormous importance, surely, even if all political considerations are put aside.
What can be said with certainty is that the novel not only works as a novel, it overwhelms. In fact, I found the effect of A Violent Life so strong that I have little desire to be reserved with my praise. Not since Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn have I read a work so muscular and sublimely ugly, one that elicited so much revulsion and compassion at the same time. The endless violence of its petty characters transcends time and place and becomes a symphony of human struggle similar in impact to Martin Scorsese's masterly film, Raging Bull.
It probably should be mentioned here that Pasolini was murdered in 1975 at the age of 53 by a young man who some say was much like the young men described in this book.
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SOURCE: "Focused on the Body," in The New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1986, p. 12.
[In the following review, Brunette lauds John Shepley's translation of Pasolini's Arabian Nights and Other Stories.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini was much more than an avant-garde film director who enjoyed thumbing his nose at middle-class audiences. A theorist of culture and a poet both in standard Italian and in his native Friulian dialect, he was also a writer of powerful and disturbing fiction. His talents in this last field are brilliantly demonstrated in Arabian Nights. The language of these five stories, all published between 1950 and 1965, is lush and overripe, like the images of his films. Always focused on the body, these stories are nevertheless dense with thought. Even his intensely physical descriptions of characters are curiously abstract as well, as though they were being recorded by a camera, from the outside. Plot disappears and time is shuffled like a deck of cards, made spatial and affective. Precisely evoked emotion and sensation organize these tales more than chronology or narrative thrust.
Several of the stories are so strong, so raw in their homoeroticism, that one is dumbfounded to discover that the earliest was written more than 35 years ago. Pasolini's characteristic style is a kind of supercharged realism. In some stories it becomes surrealistic; in others the realism is so stylized that every detail of the terrain seems, as in a Dürer engraving, filled with meaning beyond its brute existence. His principal subject is the articulation of a landscape, usually a Roman slum, and though his humans sometimes seem accidental features, his vision is always a moral one.
At times Pasolini is the ironic, detached observer as in "Studies on the Life of Testaccio," a superb sketch of a working-class gang in a Roman suburb, filled with psychological insight into the calculating cruelty that motivates the warped lives of the gang members. At other times he inserts himself as the "author" in search of sexual fulfillment; here his restless prose seems almost mad with desire, paralleling Pasolini's own relentless sexuality and the charged aimlessness of the young boys he describes. The final story, "Rital and Raton," shows the author overtly rejecting both the demands of a shocked bourgeoisie and those of the moralistic Communist Party to which he belonged—to the party's great embarrassment—for many years. Suggesting an early Jean-Luc Godard film in prose, the story is a montage of fact, fiction, quotes from Roland Barthes, political polemic, an appearance by Mr. Godard himself and autobiographical rumination. It constitutes a powerful meditation on language, marginality, racism, and sex, and their interrelationships. Though written more than 20 years ago, it is a nearly paradigmatic postmodern text.
John Shepley's translation of these stories is a triumph. Rendered into a dense, visceral English, it is startlingly true to the lushness of the Italian original.
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SOURCE: "Between Sin and Scandal," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4385, April 17, 1987, p. 408.
[In the following review, McCarthy discusses what Pasolini's Lettere 1940–1954 reveals about the themes found in his work.]
This first volume of Pasolini's collected letters covers the period from his undergraduate years, and recounts the apprenticeship, persecution and tribulations of a writer who continues to hypnotize Italian intellectuals. In his Cronologia Nico Naldini has filled in some of the gaps in Enzo Siciliano's biography. Although Siciliano's judgments on Pasolini's life were generally correct, his book lacked detail. Drawing on Pasolini's unpublished diaries, the Quaderni rossi, Naldini provides much information on the Friulan years and in particular on Pasolini's homosexuality.
The volume opens in June 1940, and the Bologna period, 1940–43, reveals a young writer who was reaching maturity during the last years of Fascism. Pasolini's father was an army officer and an admirer of Mussolini, while Pasolini, who was born in 1922, had known nothing but Fascist rule. The first signs of his revolt were cultural. He and his friends admired artists who were distrusted by the régime: J. M. Synge, the American novelists from Melville to Erskine Caldwell, and French film directors like Jean Renoir. The Bologna painter Giorgio Morandi was the model of an artist who paid no attention to Fascist aesthetics. But most of all Pasolini, who had been writing poetry since he was seven, read Ungaretti and Montale.
Many of these early letters deal with the magazine Il Setaccio, which Pasolini helped to edit in 1942–43. Whereas the mainstream intellectuals of what historians call "second-generation" or "left-wing" Fascism—such as Elio Vittorini or Renato Guttuso—were calling for a committed culture, Pasolini seems to take a non-political stance. But in fact he too was groping for some sort of populism, as he demonstrates when he argues that Ungaretti is not just the poet of an élite but offers broad ethical lessons. Meanwhile the pessimistic tone of Il Setaccio reflected the view that the war was lost, that Fascism was bankrupt and that there would be no "second generation".
A political awareness which was frustrated under Mussolini could grow after the Duce was overthrown in July 1943. By now Pasolini's father was in an Allied prisoner-of-war camp and the family had retreated to his mother's home in Casarsa, which lies on the Tagliamento river in Friuli. Pasolini, whose first poems in the Friulan dialect, Poesie a Casarsa, had appeared in 1942, found teaching jobs and scoured the countryside studying the various brands of dialect that the peasants used. From his letters it emerges that he rejected the conservative notion of a fixed Friulan language, stressing instead that newcomers like himself could re-invent the language and raise dialect poetry to the level of avant-garde writing. He also saw the Friulan language as the culture of an oppressed peasantry which could be politically awakened if its language were re-emphasized. This led Pasolini to join the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) in 1947 and to become the secretary of his cell.
Behind his decision there lay a riddle that this volume does nothing to resolve. Pasolini's brother, Guido, who had joined the non-Communist partisans, was killed in February 1945 by a Communist unit. While historians agree that the reasons for the Porzùs massacre were complex, there was no doubt in Guido's mind that the Communists wanted to destroy his unit because it was resisting not merely the Nazis but Yugoslav penetration into Friuli. A letter which he wrote to Pier Paolo, and which is published in the Cronologia, describes what Guido perceived as a PCI concession to Tito. Whatever Pasolini's admiration for the PCI as the voice of the peasantry in the land struggles of the post-war years, it seems surprising that he should have set aside this letter.
In 1943 Pasolini had his first homosexual experience. In the Bologna letters there are many references to girls but after brief courtships Pasolini pulls back. The Quaderni rossi explain why: a powerful erotic attraction to boys, which was a source of ecstasy, guilt and frustration. It provided the energy for the entire Friulan adventure, guiding Pasolini to reject conventional ideas about beauty, language and the social order. To say this is not, of course, to reduce his achievements to a series of sublimations. His dialect poetry is good, according to critics like Gianfranco Contini. But Pasolini's identity was caught up with his homosexuality: he notes that even the act of writing poetry confirmed him in his sense of being "abnormal".
In 1949 he was arrested and accused of interfering with minors. Christian Democrat newspapers exploited the case, Pasolini lost his teaching post, Friuli turned against him and he was expelled from the PCI. "I remain and shall remain a Communist", he replied and for the rest of his life he sought ties with the PCI, which is a further puzzle. His father, who had returned from the war as a paranoid alcoholic, made home life so intolerable that in January 1950 Pasolini and his mother fled to Rome.
He spent the next years in poverty, eking out a living by teaching and journalism. Yet, while one does not wish to belittle his hardships, one cannot helping feeling—as he himself writes—that Rome was a further liberation. He could now live somewhat more openly, while the boys of the Rome subproletariat offered him experiences that were sexually and sometimes emotionally rich.
Once more his homoerotic urge led him to literary and political discoveries, Ragazzi di vita is not a conventional realistic novel that describes the Rome slums; instead it reconstructs the world as the slum-dwellers see it. It was also a political statement in that the subproletariat was an affront both to Christian Democrat notions of progress and to the Communist myth of a rational working class. Pasolini was castigated by both sides and brought to trial for obscenity.
This volume of letters ends on a misleadingly calm note. By 1954 Pasolini was on the brink of success and yet his life was not really changing. The reason for this lies in his homosexuality. After the Friulan disgrace he writes that "I have never accepted my sin, I have never come to terms with my nature". Italian advocates of gay rights sometimes criticize Pasolini because he is of scant use to them in their campaign to present homosexuality as a normal and happy form of human behaviour, but the special interest of his case is that he lived his homosexuality as a necessary sin—"I was obliged to sin", he writes.
His religious sense, which surprised some of his admirers when it found objective expression in the film The Gospel According to Matthew, had its origins in his predicament. Unable to deny or to accept his homosexuality, he sought refuge in Christian notions that the man who is scorned by his fellows is especially dear to God, that suffering redeems both the sufferer and others and that the bearer of scandal is playing his part in a divine plan.
Whether this is sound theology or a private mythology, it led Pasolini into headlong confrontations with Italian society. It also explains why it is misleading to present him merely as a victim who was persecuted and destroyed by prejudice. But Pasolini did not passively acquiesce in his own destruction. By his books, his films and most of all his public persona he challenged Italian society, and whenever it showed signs of tolerance, he challenged the tolerance in order to reveal the oppression that lay beneath. Pasolini did not want us to forgive or accept him; he wanted us to keep worrying about ourselves and about what constitutes our normality.
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SOURCE: "Double Trouble," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 23, 1997, p. 9.
[In the following review, Armstrong calls Pasolini's Petrolio "maddeningly incoherent and self-contradictory."]
Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975 by a 17-year-old male hooker. This book—written between 1972 and 1974—was not published in Italy until 1992. Had the author lived longer than his 53 years, Petrolio would never have been published anywhere. It is the first draft of a book that, as Pasolini said in a letter to his pal, the widely read novelist Alberto Moravia, he hoped would eventually be issued in only a limited edition. This sprawling draft of what might have developed into a novel culls "documentation" from the overheated Italian press relating to the nefarious doings of Italy's political bosses, the Christian Democrats and the fascists in particular. The dark nature of the material also raised questions concerning his death.
Pasolini's killer did not convince the film director's friends and admirers that he acted alone. Ergo, fascist thugs had followed the Marxist Pasolini and the youth to a deserted place outside Rome and they may have done the actual killing. (The argument was that Pasolini was too smart and too athletic to be subdued by a kid armed with a wooden plank.) The aura of mystery surrounding his death probably convinced the Italian publishers to give this very botchy draft a try.
But publishing it has proved a disservice to all. It is maddeningly incoherent and self-contradictory. The time-frame is not linear, which would not have been a problem if, at the end, the pieces fell into place. Alas, they never do.
Pasolini's letter to Moravia, which was never mailed and is included in the book, reveals some of his high ambitions for this unfinished work. He mentions planning to insert quotes from the classic Greek texts (for example, the "beginning lines from the Oresteia"). He also envisioned his work as a "monumental work, a modern Satyricon."
Carlo, the principal character, is a "Catholic of the left wing" with a top position in the state-owned oil refinery company. Another Carlo in the novel is the same man but with a different personality. Oh, good, the reader may think: What we have here is another "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" leitmotif! Pasolini says that he will call them Carlo I and Carlo II. Later on, he opts for Carlo and Karl. Pasolini soon forgets to distinguish between the two, and the reader is left adrift and, in my particular case, angry. For the sake of this review, I will give the two Carlos their numbers.
Carlo I, "a wealthy cultivated engineer" of 35, starts off, interestingly enough, by seducing and having sex with his mother: he then goes on to expose himself to her servant girls. His hand is seldom far from his crotch. Carlo II lives in the slums of Rome. He is unwashed and seeks out cheap female whores.
We follow Carlo I to a literary salon where Pasolini gives us a neat sketch of Moravia and himself, though not identified as such: "Timid, and so more aggressive, an aggressiveness mixed with natural sweetness…. He did not seem to feel at all at ease; if anything, he seemed to feel he had been placed there by his success and his stormy reputation."
Is there any chance that, with the alleged collapse of Communism in the Western world, no one will ever again dismiss his or her adversary as being "bourgeois"? Pasolini, a purer Marxist than most members of the Italian Communist Party, writes of "stairs smelling of bourgeois wax" and of a worker who "was clearly distinguishable by his physical presence alone, from a bourgeois, as a mechanic from a student, a left-wing intellectual from one of the right, an academic from a writer. Confusion was not possible."
At one moment, Carlo I looks in a mirror and realizes that he has two large breasts and that his penis has vanished. On the next page, Carlo II goes to a dump heap outside Rome where someone has set up 20 working-class boys for him to sexually service. The first five or six encounters are described in vivid detail. This is hard-core stuff. And how does the reader know if this is No. 1 or No. 2 out there amid the garbage? Pasolini offers one clue: One of the boys compliments Carlo on his servicing by saying "Bravo!" Had it been Carlo I, with those breasts and that vulva, it would have been "Brava!"
Apparently, the reader is expected to understand that Carlo I's painless and almost instantaneous sex change takes place when his alter-ego is being possessed by the 20 boys. Later, he looks in that mirror again and still sees the breasts, but when he is importuned by a handsome Sicilian restaurant worker in Rome (Pasolini suggests that Carlo I is in the pay of the fascists and that blackmail is the motive for this sexual liaison), he manages to sexually satisfy the youth as an anatomical male. The youth then vanishes forever from these pages. In reflection, Carlo I muses: "If boys of the people were supposed to have penises bigger and more powerful than those of their masters, who are farther from nature, then that penis (his one-night-stand's) confirmed a common and current conviction." This is certainly in keeping with Pasolini's own view of Marxism.
When the young Pasolini applied for his Communist Party card, he put down "intellectual" on the line asking for his occupation. Fair enough, in a country where even journalists are classified in that category. He was a screenwriter once for Fellini; he wrote a series of intelligent, coherent political columns for the once staid Milan paper, Il Corriere della Sera. He directed numerous films, but I would consider only two low-budget ones worthy: The Hawks and the Sparrows and The Gospel According to St. Matthew, perhaps the best film about Jesus ever made and the one least likely to become dated. Pasolini's last film, completed a few days before his murder, was Salo—the 120 Days of Sodom. It was about the last-ditch stand of depraved Italian fascists in the last days of the German occupation.
Translator Ann Goldstein was heroic, in her herculean undertaking. But twice she has a character smelling the scent of "lime" trees. As once the owner of Italy's only lime tree (imported from Los Angeles) I think she meant "linden" (Tilia europea).
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SOURCE: "Courting Contradiction," in The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1997.
[In the following review of Petrolio, Eberstadt asserts that "all of Pasolini's most passionate opinions—from the sanctity of poverty to the vileness of heterosexual couples—have been folded together in this messy, harsh austerely intelligent phantasmagoria-cum-political treatise [Petrolio]."]
In 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini—philologist, film maker, poet, novelist and political essayist—was murdered on a wintry beach near Rome by a teen-age hustler with unknown accomplices. Throughout his fervidly productive career, Pasolini had courted contradiction. He was an open homosexual who deplored sexual permissiveness, divorce and the legalization of abortion; a radical who despised the student protesters of 1968; a Marxist who elegized rural tradition and believed that "internationalism" equaled cultural genocide; a professed nonbeliever who—in films like Teorema and The Gospel According to St. Matthew—produced very powerful religious art. At the time of his still unsolved murder, Pasolini was under siege from both left and right as a gadfly, a self-deluded messiah.
Pasolini has aged better than his critics. Today he is acknowledged as one of the great firebrand prophets of 20th-century European culture. International festivals are devoted to his movies; his analysis of the rottenness of Italian politics and the resurgence of Fascism in Europe appears ever more prescient; even his demands that the Christian Democrats, among others in Italy, be put in the dock have been realized. In 1993 Giulio Andreotti (the former Prime Minister, now on trial for consorting with the Mafia) confessed, as a Corriere della Sera headline put it: "Pasolini was right!"
Pasolini's life was stamped with the same obstinate originality as his work. Born in Bologna in 1922, the son of a Fascist army officer and a Friulian schoolteacher, at 20 Pasolini published his first book of poems in a Friulian dialect very much of his own concoction. After two decades of the Fascist project of "Italianization," this young poet's decision to launch his career in dialect stood as a provocatively countercultural profession of faith. Having made his name as a poet and scholar of "regionalism," Pasolini—now transplanted to Rome—won overnight fame for his novels and films of the 1960's; they documented in street dialect the forgotten, violent underworld of prostitutes, pimps and petty pickpockets living in Rome's outlying projects. It is part of Pasolini's humanistic mission that much as he reworked the Christian Gospels and Greek tragedies in contemporary Calabria, Tanzania or Yemen—landscapes where ancient rites were still intact—so in his novels and in films like Mamma Roma and Accattone, he sought to show Jesus or Mary Magdalen in the faces of broken hoodlums.
Pasolini's late work is altogether less tender in its intonations, less redemptive in its import. By the early 70's, he had become convinced that Italy's distinctive peasant cultures—"the great world of Masses and tabernacles, of sacred woods and slavery, of poverty and the return of the seasons," whose urban remnants his art had celebrated—were being systematically annihilated. Supplanting them was the new ideology of what he called "consumeristic hedonism," which had transmuted the country's once proud working classes into a homogeneous generation of "gray, fearful neurotics," unmanned by false freedoms, sedated by prosperity. In apocalyptic newspaper columns, Pasolini condemned Italy's politicians, who had substituted "the penitentiary of consumerism" for traditional values, and who were using terrorism to shore up their rule.
Power—specifically, Italy's amoral interlacing of state, business and party politics—is the subject of his posthumous novel, Petrolio, now making its first appearance in English. Petrolio, which Pasolini also named "Vas" or "Vessel," is a roughly 500-page "preamble" to a novel, a dense complex of notes left unfinished at his death.
Set in Italy in the politically violent early 70's, it features a man and his double. Carlo 1, a left-wing Roman Catholic from Turin's upper bourgeoisie, is an engineer employed in the higher reaches of ENI, Italy's gas and oil company. To hasten his professional ascent, Carlo 1 makes a strategic alliance with the Mafia and the Neo-Fascists. Carlo 2 is the engineer's lower-class "twin." If Carlo 1—flabby, colorless—represents power in all its portentous mediocrity, Carlo 2 embodies a sexual vocation so consuming that in Pasolini's vocabulary it amounts to a martyrdom. While Carlo 1 tours the Persian Gulf on an ENI delegation, attends a Roman literary salon or dines with Mafia members of Parliament, Carlo 2 seduces his own mother, his grandmother, three sisters and, having assumed female form, has sex with 20 boys in a field. When Carlo 2 disappears, Carlo 1—unmoored by the loss of his erotic Mr. Hyde—abjures careerism, castrates himself, joins Eastern mystery cults and becomes a holy man.
Petrolio for the most part renounces the novel's formal consolations and sleights of hand: flesh-and-blood characters, an overarching structure, "the wonderful illusion of a story that unfolds on its own," as Pasolini puts it in an accompanying letter to the novelist Alberto Moravia. But despite its refusal to ingratiate, Petrolio is full of raw beauty and an otherworldly strangeness.
All of Pasolini's most passionate opinions—from the sanctity of poverty to the vileness of heterosexual couples—have been folded together in this messy, harsh, austerely intelligent phantasmagoria-cum-political treatise. There are terrorist bombings, C.I.A. plots, Decameron-style fables told in a time of plague, allegorical interventions from angels and devils with names like "Pragma," "Porsche," "the Take," "Fridge." There is a resetting of "Medea" in contemporary Iran: Jason and the Argonauts are oilmen drilling for the modern-day "Golden Fleece" and the chorus consists of bored diplomats' wives gossiping around the swimming pool of the Teheran Hilton. There is a mini-epic devoted to ENI's chief executives, delineating in Homeric style their home-towns, genealogies, hobbies and a tax-evading web of "subsidiaries." (It is a tribute to Pasolini's worldliness that 20 years after his death, the financial misdeeds and illegal government alliances of ENI detailed in this novel were making front-page news in Italy.)
This is a book in which the mundane is shown as diabolical, and the atrocious is made lovely: in the orgy that Carlo 2, after becoming female, stages with 20 youths, each of the 20 sets of male genitals is catalogued with elegance, spirit and tender appreciation. For readers unfamiliar with Pasolini, this half-finished anti-novel—scatological, hectoring, frequently obscure—makes a forbidding introduction. For those who persevere, Petrolio offers a trove of searingly beautiful apercus and images, a caustic compendium of this modern-day Jeremiah's last thoughts on class, anthropology, sex, psychoanalysis and male hairstyles. Petrolio reveals its author as the grateful possessor of a Mediterranean culture stretching from Homer through Apollonius of Tyana and Petronius, and on to Dante and Leopardi—a salty humanistic tradition to which Pasolini, chaser of slum boys, lover of flashy sports cars, castigator of the powerful, was the fitting heir.