From Mon Mar 13 13:00:19 2006
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: The gospel according to Pasolini
Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2006 18:14:24 +0100 (CET)

‘It is intolerable to be tolerated’: The gospel according to Pasolini

By Guy Scarpetta, Le Monde diplomatique, March 2006

The 30th anniversary of the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini revived interest in his work. The writer and filmmaker was a maverick and rebel who foresaw both the domination of mainstream culture and the commodification of 1960s dissent.

The 30th anniversary of the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, brutally murdered on 2 November 1975 near the beach at Ostia, close to Rome, was marked by many publications, testifying to the fascination that this film director, poet, novelist and critic still inspires (1).

The unsolved mystery of his end generated a myth of Pasolini the persecuted heretic, “angel of evil”, the last great cursed genius. But it is time to move beyond the cliches and see him for what he really was: a formidable and unique example of a politically committed thinker, working in an astonishing variety of media. The idea of the intellectuel engagé, once so beloved of the French, is now an unfashionable concept, especially among those whose undeclared aim is to defend the status quo. So it is important to explain how it applies to Pasolini. He was not a partisan intellectual, defending a political group's particular line. Nor did he fit Antonio Gramsci's categorisation of the organic intellectual, whose role is to promote the cultural hegemony of a historical bloc seeking power. Nor was he a Jean-Paul Sartre figure: a campaigning thinker purporting to understand and explain the meaning of history, and subordinating personal expression to collective struggle.

Pasolini undoubtedly saw himself as a defender of the poor, the downtrodden and the repressed. For him the task of the thinker was to subvert the values of the dominant class; its whole conception of the world could be brought to crisis point through the exploration of the unsaid, by going beneath the surface of established representations. In this endeavour, the established views of leftwing politics should receive the same treatment as those of the ruling class. The intellectual should bring to light what the social and cultural consensus of the time suppressed, although never at the expense of his own individuality.

Pasolini had been a committed communist as a student. He never completely rejected this position, but sought constantly to overcome or move beyond what he called progressive conformism. So while official, institutional Italian communism focused mainly on the organised, urban working class, Pasolini turned his attention to peasant communities and the underclass living on the outskirts of Italian cities. The same instinct lay behind his interest in the third world, where he saw a new consciousness already emerging “in forms that run against both Marxist rationalism and bourgeois rationalism”. He also admired the Black Panthers for “throwing their bodies into the struggle”, along with other movements of the radical American left he felt had broken free of classical revolutionary schemata.

Pasolini applied his unconventional and heterodox interpretation of Marxism to all his cultural and artistic work as well as his theoretical writings. He was quick to realise when the progressive postwar culture that emerged from the struggle against fascism had run out of steam: “The era of Brecht and Rossellini is over,” he wrote. But that did not mean embracing the purism and formalism of 1960s literary avant-gardes, such as the Gruppo 63 poets in Italy. He disapproved of their abstract, inoffensive, purely linguistic concerns, and dismissed them as prisoners of a petit bourgeois lifestyle. Behind their anti-naturalist proclamations lay “terror in the face of reality”. Pasolini's key contention was that political and intellectual commitment had to come from direct experience. It necessitated a certain way of life, throwing the whole self, emotionally and physically, into the surrounding reality. This spirit is everywhere in Pasolini's work: in his lyrical, ambiguous, and shocking poetry, in his novels and films.

For Pasolini, the cinema was a form of writing more directly in touch with reality, a means of translating the real into a language. It was also a means of denaturalising reality, cutting life's single long take into shots and sequences. Even his most neo-realist films, such as Accattone (1961), are characterised by slight pauses between lines of dialogue and lingering shots intended to stick in the mind as tableaux. His films are, in this sense, explicitly fetishist. This attitude is the foundation of what is undoubtedly one of the most audacious and striking bodies of cinematic work ever produced, an authentic cinéma d’auteur (or as he liked to call it, a cinema of poetry). It is also full of contradictions: at once primitive and mannerist, realist (in its warmth and its way of showing body language) and hyper-cultivated. Pasolini was always drawing elements from centuries of painting, literature and music into his impure mixture.

He applied tragedy to the urban underclass in Accattone and Mamma Roma (1962). In Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), he revived the myths of a barbarous, pre-classical Greece. He restored to the Christ narrative its violence and subversive import in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964). With Theorem (1968), Hawks and Sparrows (1966) and Pigsty (1969) he constructed bizarre parabolas, mixing grace with obscenity to shatter conformism. He looked at bourgeois culture's popular antecedents in The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972), and at its oriental counterpart in Flowers of the Arabian Nights (1974). In his last film, Salň, or the 120 D ays of Sodom (1976), he projected the Marquis de Sade's stories of sexual brutality on to the dying days of Italian fascism. The enigmatic beauty of these films retains all its disturbing power.

Pasolini is sometimes described as a reactionary. He was not. He did, however, hold certain views that most of the modern or progressive community saw as indefensible. He disapproved of the 1968 student movements and was against abortion. But it is clear with hindsight that his contributions to these debates were mainly exercises in provocation. He wanted intellectuals of the conformist left, including his friends Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, to reveal the inoffensive, politically correct foundations of their “progressivism”.

More generally, though Pasolini idolised Arthur Rimbaud, he did not espouse Rimbaud's view that “one must be absolutely modern”. He used nostalgia, drawing support from the forces of the past to combat the destructive elements of the present. His work is shot through with nostalgia for real and imaginary pasts; for nature, for the maternal, for lost innocence, for rural life with its cultural and linguistic diversity threatened by progress. The same instinct colours his explorations of pre-bourgeois culture in Boccaccio and Chaucer and of the Orient in the Arabian Nights. It is consistant with his attraction to the third world and Rome's underclass.

Though more a progressive than a reactionary, Pasolini was not afraid to resist progress where it meant more oppression, conformism or uniformity. What distinguishes him from today's neo-reactionaries is his talent for transforming nostalgia into a critical force. The conservative aspects of his attitude are more valid now than in his time, when he was often isolated. To stand against modernity today can be revolutionary, since the neo-liberal consensus describes the direst backward steps, especially in social policy and welfare, as “modernisation”.

Pasolini now appears prodigiously ahead of his time in his understanding of how bourgeois culture perniciously absorbs and transforms all humanity to extend and strengthen its domination. To challenge this phenomenon had been part of the intention of the Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Flower of the Arabian Nights), in which he celebrated the guiltless sexual freedom of a popular world not yet subject to bourgeois puritanism. But not long after their release, he felt obliged to repudiate them, when he realised that sexual freedom had lost all its subversive power. The 1970s establishment had fully digested the sexual revolution and realised that it could even promote permissiveness: now that everyone was a consumer, sex was a product like any other. No longer taboo and therefore no longer sacred (Pasolini saw the commercialisation of human activities as profanation), sex had been absorbed into the new conformism of consumption.

Pasolini, being gay, was particularly sensitive to these issues. He dreaded the absorption of homosexuality into the norm, writing: “It is intolerable to be tolerated.” Far from wishing to belong to any gay community, Pasolini saw homosexuality as a challenge from society: “They have always condemned not so much the homosexual as such, but the writer whose homosexuality has not been cowed, not driven into conformism.” There is a more far-reaching observation behind Pasolini's attitude: economic power and media power had been conjoined, and the masters of the world were also masters of its representation. This has moved the people of the world ever closer to the status of a planetary middle class, uniform and profane.

Pasolini's starting point for this theme, as always, was a physical observation: the underclass of the Roman outskirts had begun to dream of acceptance into the norm. They were dressing like bourgeois students—jeans and long hair—and using the same slang. The third world, including Italy's own third world, the mezzogiorno, was trying to fit itself into the mould of western pseudo-universality. The mainstream seemed to be imposing its unique, exclusive model with the help of that instrument of homogenisation, television, which Pasolini hated. He described this process as “the brutal, totalitarian levelling of the world” and condemned “the degrading order of the horde”. The new power of the market and media was quietly succeeding where fascism had failed, reducing people to a mass of passive, alienated consumers.

This depressing vision has become ever more accurate over the last 30 years. Pasolini believed that resistance must be as much personal as political. The only way to confront this new order is to defend our own individual separateness, to be as wary of conformity in rebellion as of the powers that be.


(1) Forthcoming in English is Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death, edited by Bernhard Schwenk and Michael Semff, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2006. The first approved translation of Pasolini's repudiation of the Trilogy of Life can be found in an expanded edition of his Heretical Empiricism, New Academia, Washington DC, 2005.