Stories from the City of God: Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966 by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Edited by Walter Siti, translated by Marina Harss. Other Press, 232 pages, $24.
February 9, 2004        

The afterlife of Italian poet, novelist, critic, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini brings to mind some familiar lines from Auden’s “In Memory of WB Yeats”:

Time that is intolerant Of the brave and innocent … Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives …

has doted on Pasolini’s friends, countrymen, and sometime antagonists Eugenio Montale and Italo Calvino but has 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. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” Auden continued, addressing Yeats. 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 anyone else among his contemporaries. But political passion overwhelmed aesthetic concentration, and so, outside Italy at any rate, he has forfeited literary immortality.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in 1922 in Bologna. The family spent summers with relatives 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 foremost 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 months of the 1950s as a walker in the city, discovering the slum districts and absorbing romanesco, the Roman 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 postwar Italy’s “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 postwar constitution. He was regularly invited to speak or write in various Communist forums and 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, Alberto Moravia, the Italian prime minister, and thousands of others – he was murdered by a teenage boy he had picked up.

His life was a maelstrom of contradictions: the anarchical Communist; the anticlerical 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 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.” His molten temperament made aesthetic reserve, rhetorical restraint, or analytical detachment impossible. And besides, so much seemed to him at stake: not merely institutional change but the extinction of a form of life, the paganism of rural Southern Italy and of the “paleoindustrial” Roman borgate, where adolescents had “barely even heard of the Madonna” but at least lived and judged from firsthand rather than predigested experience.

“I have become convinced,” he wrote near the end of his life, “that poverty and backwardness are not by any means the worst of ills.” Has the (partial) conquest of premodern poverty and servitude been worth the price in psychic stability and in physical rootedness, spontaneity, and grace? In one form or another, this question has troubled a great many modern intellectuals. Along with its blessings, modernity has entailed, or at least been accompanied by, a vast blight of uniformity and superficiality. The disappearance of the dialects, with their unique rhythms and nuances, destroyed by “the horrendous language of television news, advertising, official statements,” was Pasolini’s first clue, which he followed up brilliantly, even if sometimes eccentrically (as in his pronouncement that the sex organs of the Roman underclass had decayed from one generation to the next). Consumerism, he warned, is “a genuine anthropological cataclysm,” threatening to eclipse “the grace of obscure centuries, the scandalous revolutionary force of the past.”

He raged against television, not only for homogenizing language and deadening imagination but also for fostering a meaningless, weightless sexual permissiveness. “It is television,” he charged, “which has brought to a close the age of pietà and begun the age of hedone.” Many people were astonished by this, coming from the avatar of cinematic sensuality. What he meant, as biographer Barth David Schwartz put it (in his magnificent Pasolini Requiem), is that “the demystification of sex has passed directly into its predictable and obligatory merchandising,” leaving most people – or so he judged – neither freer nor wiser nor happier.

It was not always clear – in fact, it was scarcely ever clear – exactly what Pasolini opposed to the depredations of “progress.” (Calvino once wrote that debating him was “like hailing a racing car driver circling the track, to ask for a ride.”) He admitted freely that he was often too impatient and too exasperated to make sense, that he only had time and strength to articulate “the full force of cold rejection, of desperate useless denunciation.” Here is a typically maddening and illuminating specimen of Pasolini’s sublime, crackpot antimodernism:

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 the 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 woman’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.

Daft, of course. Still, I’m not sure that Michel Foucault, who spent the last decade of his life assembling immense, arid tomes about sexuality, produced in them a more suggestive paragraph.

Pasolini called himself “the most ancient of the ancients and the most modern of the moderns.” What he meant by that, and what he hoped to accomplish, is hinted at in another remarkable passage, a comment on the Oresteia:
After Athena’s intervention, the Furies – 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 Curse-makers into Blessing- givers. Italian Marxists have not, I repeat, posed themselves this problem … 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, notice, but one that is “new,” i.e., free, egalitarian, fully modern.

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.” Nor has anyone since. Instead, what Norman Mailer had written a few years earlier about D. H. Lawrence in The Prisoner of Sex now seems true of Pasolini: “The world has been technologized and technologized twice again in the forty years since his death, the citizens are technologized as well. … What he was asking for had been too hard for him, it is more than hard for us; his life was, yes, a torture, and we draw back in fear, for we would not know how to try to burn by such a light.”

Stories from the City of God is a small garland of narratives and essays that chronicles Pasolini’s ambivalent relationship with Rome. In the stories, most of the protagonists are young boys from the slums. The youngest of them, an urchin whom Pasolini befriends at a public beach, is innocent, generous, trusting. All the rest are hustlers. (“Hustlers” is actually the meaning of ragazzi di vita, which is the Italian title of Pasolini’s first novel, The Ragazzi.) Some are amusing, like Romoletto, who steals a big fish at the fish market, finds that it’s rotten, and figures out how to sell it anyway. For the most part, though, they’re not particularly clever or vital. What interests Pasolini, more than their beauty or wit, is their pathos. Their bodies have not yet thickened, their intelligence narrowed, or their sympathies withered, but they are afflicted nonetheless by a dim sense that all this is inevitable. The book opens with a lovely sketch of a nameless Trastevere boy, a chestnut vendor. (“Trastevere” means “across the Tiber,” where the slums are.) “I would like to understand,” Pasolini writes, “the mechanics by which the Trastevere – pounding, shapeless, idle – lives inside of him.” “Trastevere Boy” was written in 1950; by the end of the decade Pasolini had fulfilled his ambition. The best of the stories here is the longest, “Terracina.” Luciano and Marcello steal a couple of bicycles and ride out to the fishing village of the title, where Marcello has relatives. Uncle Zocculitte takes them on as assistants. The age-old routines of Mediterranean fishermen are briefly but vividly described against the charmed background of sea and bay, which are separated by the stony promontory of Circeo, where Circe bewitched Ulysses. Luciano is also bewitched, but unlike Ulysses he doesn’t escape. He takes the boat out alone one Sunday and foolishly, longing for a first taste of freedom, passes beyond the promontory into the open sea, where a gale blows the boat over. Terracina is an idyll, but Trastevere is a fate. “Women of Rome,” seven short vignettes written in 1960 to accompany a book of photographs, is more trenchant and melancholy, less tentative and wistful, than the sketches of ten years before. There is a brief portrait of Anna Magnani at a party, as elemental and magnetic as onscreen. There is another couple walking down the street, this one pre-consumerist, their handclasp signifying a “right of ownership,” in which she is “silently, sadly complicitous.” There are open-air fruit sellers, “strong as mules, hard as stone, ill-humored.” And with good reason: “Their lives are limited to two or three things: a small, dark house, old as the Colosseum, in a dark alley behind the Campo dei Fiori … two, three or four children, half boys and half girls, half toddlers and half adolescents, perhaps one of them in the army; and a husband with a beat-up car, who speaks as if he had a boiling hot battery in his throat, red in the face and pasty-skinned, with a face so wide you can fit a whole village in it.” It was by no means only Rome’s ragazzi that Pasolini knew, cared about, and despaired over. The essays or “chronicles” in this collection are slight but marvelous. They are mostly short reports for newspapers or magazines: some humorous, like “The Disappearing Wild Game of the Roman Countryside,” about the travails of hunters at the hands of the Italian bureaucracy, and “The Corpse’ll Stink All Week Long!”, about styles of soccer fandom; others on slang, the postwar literati, urban renewal, and (naturally) the psychology of the ragazzi di vita. There is a powerful trio of pieces on new and old Roman shantytowns (written for the Communist journal Vie nuove, where PCI leader Togliatti had once tried unsuccessfully to bar him from appearing because “such a man is unfit for family readers”); an uncharacteristically solemn but moving report on the funeral of a well-known labor leader, tens of thousands of workers silently raising and lowering their fists as the coffin plods down the Corso d’Italia behind a band; and a witty throwaway “day in the life” piece about being cheated by film producers and party-hopping with his friend Moravia. In Marina Harss’s lively translation, these “chronicles” are more concrete and colorful than the furious polemics of Pasolini’s last years (only a few of which are available in English, as Lutheran Letters (Carcanet, 1983), translated by Stuart Hood), to which they make an excellent prelude.

The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia – wry, skeptical, reserved – could not have been more different from Pasolini. One might have expected antipathy. And in fact, they often disagreed. But they understood each other. After one or another of Pasolini’s provocations, an editor asked Sciascia for a response. Pasolini “may be wrong,” Sciascia replied, he “may contradict himself,” but he knows “how to think with a freedom which very few people today even aspire to.” Exactly. Like Lawrence, Pasolini had no truck with common sense or conventional wisdom, and he paid the price. The deepest fear of any intellectual is making a fool of oneself. Pasolini was fearless.