A new biography of the Italian poet, novelist, critic, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini brings to mind some familiar lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats:”
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent...
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives...
Time has doted on Pasolini’s friends, countrymen, and sometime antagonists Eugenio Montale and Italo Calvino, but neglected the once equally celebrated Pier Paolo. His films have never gone into full eclipse, but his poems, fiction, screenplays, literary criticism, and political commentary, which engaged all literate Europe during his lifetime, have seldom traveled across the Atlantic. Though the young Pasolini worshipped language, mad and ineffably wicked Italy eventually hurt him into idiosyncratic politics and extravagant rhetoric. He adopted one medium after another, fascinated at first by new formal possibilities and soon distracted into perfervid polemic. His preaching was sometimes inspired; it was also, inevitably, time-bound. He was braver and more innocent than Montale, Calvino, or virtually any one else among his contemporaries. But political passion overwhelmed aesthetic concentration, and so, with undoubted justice, he has forfeited literary immortality. Still, it was an admirable, even a glorious life and deserves no less in commemoration than Barth David Schwartz’s monumental “Pasolini Requiem”.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in 1922 at Casarsa, in Italy’s northeastern corner. The local peasantry spoke an ancient dialect, Friulian, in which Pasolini wrote his first poems and plays. Interest in dialects was reviving in mid 20th-century Italy, and Pasolini became one of the fore most practitioners and critics of Italian dialect poetry.
After the Second World War, with a degree from the University of Bologna, the beginnings of a literary reputation, and a secure job teaching secondary school, Pasolini was happy with provincial life. But for the first of many times, his uncontainable sexuality landed him al brodo--in the soup. Accused of paying for sex with teenage boys—his lifelong, unashamed practice—he was expelled from the Communist Party and forced to resign from public school teaching.
Self-exiled to the anonymity of Rome, he spent the first month of the 1950s as a walker in the city, discovering the slum districts of Trastevere and Testaccio and absorbing romanesco, the Ro man dialect. Though his work—teaching private school and freelance writing—was poorly paid and exhausting, his passion for the life and above all the ragazzi of the Roman streets was inexhaustible. By the end of the decade his novels (“The Ragazzi” and “A Violent Life”) and his first film (“Accatone”), full of vivid sex, colorful and often incomprehensible slang, and a murderous poverty that belied Italy’s postwar “economic miracle,” exploded him into national prominence, while “The Ashes of Gramsci” (1957), an anguished meditation in verse on the condition of Italy, was hailed by Calvino as “one of the most important facts of Italian postwar literature and certainly the most important in the field of poetry.”
His career thereafter was a dazzle of publicity and controversy. Anna Magnani and Maria Callas both emerged from legendary seclusion to make films with him. (Callas was also to fall in love with him, only to suffer bitterly when he could not reciprocate.) “The Gospel According to Matthew”, the first (perhaps the only) great religious film by a homosexual Marxist atheist, nonplussed both the Church and the Left. Alternating with the harsh realism and surrealistic symbolism of his contemporary subjects, he made film versions of the Oedipus story, “Medea”, an African “Oresteia”, the “Decameron”, the “Canterbury Tales”, and the “Arabian Nights”. He was arraigned for immorality thirty-three times, usually in connection with the banning of one or another of his films, an ordeal that provoked parliamentary protest and contributed to the liberalization of Italy’s constitution. He was regularly invited to speak or write in one or another Communist forums (the Italian Communist Party was much the largest and most influential organization of the postwar European Left) and as regularly denounced in others. The Corriere della Sera, Italy’s “New York Times” offered him an unprecedented front-page column.
In 1975, at the zenith of his fame and talent-his last year’s columns set all of newspaper-reading Italy on its ear and drew responses from Calvino, Alberlo Moravia, the Italian Prime Minister, and thousands of others--he was murdered by a teenage boy he had picked up.
His life was, as his biographer remarks, a “zigzag of contradictions”: the anarchical Communist; the anti-clerical Christian; the sexual revolutionary with grave reservations about legalizing divorce and abortion; the scholar of antique poetic forms who became an avant-garde cineaste; the cordial hater of the bourgeoisie and frequent target of its minions, who nevertheless scoffed at the student revolt of 1968 and instead defended the police; the notorious transgressor, almost the living negation, of traditional values, who nevertheless inveighed incessantly against “false modernity,” called for the abolition of television, compulsory education, and long hair, and told an interviewer that “the people I respect most are those who haven’t gone beyond the fourth grade.”
What explains Pasolini’s chaotic sensibility, if anything does, is (in his own words)”a violent load of vitality.” Aesthetic reserve, rhetorical restraint, analytical detachment were impossible. But then, reality too was a mess. Not merely what to do to avoid isolation on the one hand, massification and corruption on the other--but even how to feel. Has the (partial) conquest of premodern poverty and servitude been worth the price in psychic stability, in physical rootedness, spontaneity, and grace? These are questions that have troubled nearly all modem intellectuals. Along with blessings, modernity has established or at least been accompanied by a vast blight of uniformity and superficiality. The disappearance of the dialects, with their unique rhythms and nuances, was his clue, which Pasolini followed up brilliantly, even if sometimes fanatically (as in his pronouncement that the sex organs of the Roman underclass had decayed from one generation to the next). “Consumerism is a genuine anthropological cataclysm,” he proclaimed, invoking “the scandalous revolutionary force of the past.” It was a half-truth, but unquestionably the half his contemporaries (like ours) were more likely to lose sight of.
Here is a typically maddening and illuminating specimen of Pasolini’s sublime, crackpot antimodernisrn:
“Young males are traumatized nowadays by the duty permissiveness imposes on them— the duty always uninhibitedly to have sex. At the same time, they are traumatized by the disappointment which their “scepter” has produced in women, who formerly either were ignorant of it or made it the subject of myths while accepting it supinely. Besides, the education for and initiation into society which formerly took place in a platonically homosexual ambiance is now, because of premature couplings, heterosexual from the onset of puberty. Yet tire woman is still not in a position— given the legacy of thousands of years- to make a free pedagogic contribution; she still tends to favor definite rules, a code. And this today can only be a codification more conformist than ever, as is desired by bourgeois power, whereas the old self-education, between men and men or between women and women, obeyed popular rules (whose noble archetype remains Athenian democracy). Consumerism has therefore ended by humiliating the woman, creating for her another intimidating myth. The young males who walk along the street, their hand on the women’s shoulder with a protective air, or romantically clasping her hand, either make one laugh or cause a pang. Nothing is more insincere than the relationship to which that consumerist couple gives concrete, unwitting expression.”
Did Michel Foucault, who spent the last decade of his life assembling immense, arid tomes about sexuality, ever produce a more suggestive paragraph? Not for my money.
The comparison is worth pausing over. Foucault’s preeminence as a “theorist of transgression,” Nietzsche’s chief contemporary heir, has been taken for granted in the controversy over James Miller’s recent “The Passion of Michel Foucault”, while Pasolini is frequently portrayed as a clever, charismatic provocateur. But for all Miller’s efforts to present Foucault’s career as a “great Nietzchean quest,” Pasolini’s life and work seem to me to fit that description at least equally well. He was so much more full-blooded than Foucault, and large-hearted. Whatever else a Nietzchean hero must have, surely he or she must be endowed with “a violent load of vitality.” As between Pasolini and Foucault, there is not much doubt which approximated more closely to Nietzsche’s ideal of “the most exuberant, most living and most world-affirming man.”
He called himself “the most ancient of the ancients and the most modern of the modems.” I mean Pasolini, though it would be hard to come by a more apt characterization of Nietzsche (or Zarathustra). What Pasolini meant by this, what he hoped to accomplish, is hinted at in another remarkable passage (there are so many, so carelessly scattered, so incompletely worked out), a comment on the “Oresteia”:
“After Athena’s intervention, the Erynides—unbridled, archaic, instinctive, out of nature— also survive; and they too are gods, they are immortal. They cannot be transformed while leaving their irrationality just as it is; transformed, that is, from Cursemakers into Blessing-givers. Italian Marxists have not, I repeat, posed themselves this problem (and neither have—so far as I can tell— the Russians):…the transformation of Curses into Blessings, of the desperate, anarchical irrationalism of the bourgeoisie into an irrationalism. . . that is new.”
Not the old, premodern irrationalism, but one that is “new,” i.e., free, egalitarian, fully modern. This is only a hint, but a vital one. That irrationalism has survived— that it may well be “immortal”— can hardly be doubted by anyone who reads a newspaper or walks the streets. That it can be simply suppressed, quarantined, outgrown, or ignored is no longer even a plausible illusion. But how to transform the curse into a blessing is a question scarcely anyone now writing seems able to ask, let alone answer.
In his last column, published two days before his murder, Pasolini complained poignantly: “I am, finally, angry at the silence that has always surrounded me. . . No one has intervened to help me forward, to develop more thoroughly my attempts at an explanation.” There was always a lot of babble around Pasolini, but it might as well have been silence for all it really helped the discussion along. Let’s hope another eloquent, erudite, strident, scandalous, self-contradictory provocateur appears soon to take up a few of his innumerable hints.