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Cultural cohesion, p.65
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.65

           Clive James
 

  Pasolini, however, did have to be a Marxist. Though never much concerned with elaborating a coherent social analysis, he never gave up on the class war. That became part of his tragedy, because the class he championed finally realized its only ambition, which was to be absorbed by the class he attacked. But at the time he was a recognized type of radical intellectual, valued even by the non-radical because of his dazzling verbal bravura, forgiven his excesses because he was such an adornment to the scene—a word hard to avoid, considering the theatricality of Italian political discussion. Again, Mr. Schwartz might have made more of just how much forgiveness was required: “He knew nothing about Stalin’s purges” is a needless concession to Pasolini’s wilful obtuseness. Italian Communist intellectuals knew all about Stalin. The best of them were trying to establish a brand of communism that left him out—the hope that we later learned to call Euro-Communism, or Socialism with a Human Face. The best possible construction to put on Pasolini’s polemical writings is that he was trying to do this, too. He had a promising model to follow—Gramsci, about whom Pasolini wrote the most sustained of his many remarkable poetic works, The Ashes of Gramsci.

  Later on, in the flower-power phase of the 1960s, Gramsci became a hero to thousands of young revolutionaries scattered all over the world; some of them even read a few selected pages, usually from the letters he had written in a Fascist prison. Pasolini got in early and read everything Gramsci wrote. Pasolini promised his hero’s shade that the struggle would continue. What he couldn’t promise was a solution to the problem posed by the fact that communism in practice had turned out to need as much coercive apparatus as Fascism. At least part of Gramsci’s undoubted charm was that he had died in jail without ever having to take part in the application of those theories he had elaborated with such humane subtlety. There was no guarantee that had he done so he would not have turned out like George Lukacs, Hungary’s visionary turned cultural commissar—or, to go back to the beginning, Lunacharsky in the Soviet Union, who in 1929 was obliged to crack down on the same avant-garde artists he had previously encouraged.

  Gramsci’s seductive vision of justice could not have been brought about without unlimited state power. Neither could Pasolini’s, and with him there was even less justification for believing it could. But plenty of Pasolini’s admirers knew that. They knew him to be wrong but still they marvelled. The Ashes of Gramsci told them that they were dealing with a prodigy. Mr. Schwartz forgets to mention one of the things that made the message clear: Le Ceneri di Gramsci is written in a version of terza rima, the same measure as the Divine Comedy. Pasolini cast his wild revolutionary document in the most hallowed of strict forms as a guarantee of national continuity. There is more truth than the author seems to realize in Mr. Schwartz’s solemn assurance: “At poem’s end, poet and Italy are one.” (“Poem’s end” is an erstwhile Time-style construction that our author has unfortunately resurrected, employing it not quite often enough to reduce the reader to tether’s end, just often enough to arouse the dreadful suspicion that a tin ear for English might be hearing Italian the same way.)

  . . .

  Pasolini the writer had established himself beyond question, if not beyond criticism. Bourgeois intellectuals who knew that his politics were nonsense still knew that he was a prodigy. He had ample evidence for his theories about a bourgeois conspiracy against spontaneity and social justice: busted on a morals charge, he was hounded for his perversity by Christian Democrat politicians and their attendant newspapers. Neo-­Fascists joined in with delight. But the more awkward truth, for him, was that there was such a thing as an independent, middle-of-the-road intelligentsia, which was perfectly capable of recognizing that he was a classic case in the best sense as well as the worst. He himself was no faddist when it came to critical allegiances. When the name of Roland Barthes came up, Pasolini said that although he admired Barthes’s work he would give it all up for a page of Gianfranco Contini or Roberto Longhi. As a student in Bologna, Pasolini had sat at Longhi’s feet when the great teacher of art history made a case for the historical continuity of inspiration beyond the reach of any ideology. As for the philologist Contini, he was Pasolini’s true conscience, as he was for a greater poet, Eugenio Montale, and for almost every other prominent artist in the post-war period. In the first marvellous years of his career, Pasolini reported to Contini by letter like a truant son to the father he had never had. Contini, the least radical of men, a true cultural conservative for whom learning was the world—and who mastered more of the world’s learning than any other scholar—understood the tension in Pasolini between the irreconcilable forces of social rage and creative ambition. But so did many people less qualified. Pasolini was so obviously a star, and stars are on fire.

  . . .

  Pasolini loved stardom, which for a champion of the common man is always bound to present a contradiction. It can be reconciled, but it takes humour, and humour was not conspicuously among his gifts. It it had been, he might have been funnier about his need for an ever bigger stage. He preferred to believe that it was a political necessity. The movies reached people who couldn’t read. While his literary reputation was still building up, Pasolini was already preparing to compromise it by contributing to the screenplays of the famous directors, which in Italy have traditionally been group efforts. In 1957, he wrote scenes for Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria. Fellini gave him his first car, a Fiat 600, as part payment. The tiny macchina can be seen as the germ of a dangerous taste, but Pasolini didn’t really need much encouragement beyond the thrill of being in on the most glamorous artistic activity available. The lowlife scenes of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita were also written by Pasolini. In that so wonderfully, so easily symbolic moment when Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimée are shown by the prostitute across the plank in her flooded basement room Pasolini’s harsh knowledge of the periphery underlies Fellini’s humanity.

  Having so resonantly played backseat driver, Pasolini was bound to grab the wheel. Accattone, his début movie as a director, in 1961, was the world of Una Vita Violenta made noisomely accessible to all, with no punches pulled, even in the casting: the bad teeth on display were the genuine article. The only star associated with the movie was Pasolini himself. The result was a triumph. Condemned out of hand by all the right people, it was a scandalous artistic success that was widely seen to spring from an even more scandalous reality. By a paradox whose consequences he would never cease trying to talk his way out of, Pasolini gained immediate and universal acceptance as the first fully authenticated multi-media genius ever to wear dark glasses indoors and a silk shirt undone to the third button.His subject matter was life beyond the margin; he himself was no more marginal than the Pope. How to reconcile this anomaly?

  He couldn’t, but he made a great try. If Mr. Schwartz had gone lighter on inessential detail he might have found room for a few paragraphs pointing out what a continuous thrill it was to be in or near Italy when the film directors were all living in each other’s pockets, poaching each other’s personnel and turning out movies that struck you even at the time as memories to be kept, partly because the people who made them so obviously had memories of their own. The glaring difference between the Italian cinema and the French New Wave was that the Italians hadn’t sent boys to do a man’s work. Quite apart from the international big guns like Fellini and Visconti and Antonioni, there was a whole row of domestic household names who could get the tragic recent history of their country even into their comedies. Anyone who wanted to know what really happened to young Italian deserters who ran away from German machine guns could have found out from Comencini’s Tutti a Casa, a comic vehicle for Alberto Sordi which nevertheless brought out the full tragedy of the collapsing Fascist farce. Most of these directors were social democrats—moderates, if you like, or bourgeois liberals, if you insist—but they could produce a socially responsible cinema, and there was at least one Marxist, Gillo Pontecorvo, who left Pasolini’s Marxism looking like the caprice it was. Pontecorvo’s
The Battle of Algiers was a political film in the way Pasolini’s films never were.

  But everyone at the time knew that Pasolini’s role was to remain unpredictable by refusing to mature. He carried a licence to shoot his mouth off out of season, forever making statements because he could never make sense. Italian cinema had room for just one Godard-style head case, and Pasolini was it. The special exemption he held in the literary world also applied, on a larger scale, in the more spectacular world of the movies. Almost every film he made was indicted, sequestered, banned from the festival, reinstated, fought over, laughed at—above all, talked about. If he hadn’t scandalized them, people would have been disappointed.

  He was a spoiled child given a camera for his birthday, who made home movies about what had spoiled him. Oedipus Rex was an obvious love poem to his mother, played by Silvana Mangano at her most iconically beautiful, with Pasolini’s alter ego Franco Citti in the title role. Starring in Medea, Maria Callas was his mother all over again: statuesque, mad about Jason, ready to kill anyone for him, including her own sons. In Teorema, Terence Stamp played Pasolini himself, the sexually omnipotent stranger who penetrated the bourgeois household and everyone in it, as if the plot of Jerome K. Jerome’s play The Passing of the Third-Floor Back had been given a monkey-gland injection. Stamp, looking more beautiful than Mangano and Callas put together, was almost credible as the avatar before whom the whole household lined up seriatim to be ravished and transfigured. An earlier choice for the role, Lee Van Cleef, might have made disbelief harder to suspend. The early choices for the role of Jesus Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew were similarly unpromising. Jack Kerouac was one, Allen Ginsberg was another, and there was even a dizzy moment when Yevtushenko was considered. But Pasolini saw sense, cast a strikingly good-looking unknown and made his best film, the one that shocked even the Marxists. It took the Gospel straight. Under the influence of Pope John XXIII, the Curia had decided that the occasional venture into the mass media need not be ruled out. The Franciscans put up the money for the movie on the sole condition that Pasolini’s script stuck to the book. Pasolini might have done so anyway. Matthew’s Christ comes with a sword. It was the way Pasolini saw himself: the man from nowhere, speaking authentic speech, potent beyond containment, loving the poor, transfiguring them by his touch. Authenticity was aided by the contractual and temporal impossibility of Christ’s castigating the bourgeoisie, consumerism, American-style false tolerance, etc. All He was allowed to do was cleanse the temple, which will always need cleansing. As a Biblical film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew has no peers and only one plausible emulator I can think of—Bruce Beresford’s 1985 King David. That film, much derided even by Beresford himself, has something of the same startling, self-contained feeling of being there where it all began, away from here where it all ends. Recast and given the budget to finish the big scenes that were cut short when bad weather chewed up its shooting time, King David might have come even closer to the Pasolini film Beresford so admired when it came out, in 1964. But Hollywood was a bad place for Beresford to start from. To that extent Pasolini was right about American consumerism. He was just wrong about the Italian bourgeoisie, from which came the independent producers who backed his movies not just because they hoped to make money—always a gamble with a director out to get banned if he could—but because they respected his gift. The Franciscans respected it, too. Modern Italian society was more complex and fruitful than Pasolini ever allowed. He wasn’t sufficiently impressed by how it had given rise to him. He was too busy being impressed with himself.

  It did him in, in the end. History caught up with him in the late 1960s, when the student rebellion outflanked him. His reaction to the student revolutionaries was the same as de Gaulle’s. Vi odio cari studenti: I hate you, darling students. Pasolini cheered the police for hitting them. At least the police were poor, whereas the students were figli di papà, sons of daddy—in a word, bourgeois.

  But by then it was becoming evident even to Pasolini that the class war was over and the bourgeoisie had won it. Belief in the socialist state was draining away in the West because it was already dead in the East. The only course left was to clean up democracy. Pasolini didn’t take defeat gracefully. Using the regular front-page platform given him by the country’s leading newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, he railed against every aspect of the new reforming spirit. He condemned abortion, divorce, even gay rights. He could have been preaching from the Reverend Criswell’s pulpit in Dallas, except that he still considered himself the true Left. All this new stuff was just “the American type of modernist tolerance.” The bourgeoisie was just boxing clever.

  This was foolish, but there was worse to come. He condemned the poor, too. They had failed him, the way the Germans failed Hitler. Like many social commentators who love people by the class, Pasolini had never been much good at loving them one by one: apart from his sainted mother, he froze out everybody in the end—he was the authentic Brechtian iceman. But in the last phase he did the same thing even to his collective paragon, the poor people of the borgata. His undoubted passion for their way of life had always been riven by a contradiction. He thought they were authentic, speaking a tongue unspoiled by suave hypocrisy, honest in their animal lust. If all this had been true it would have been a good case for keeping them poor. But he also said that the slums they lived in were capitalism self-condemned, “truly and really concentration camps.” (Pasolini also habitually trivialized the word “genocide,” thereby pioneering the unfortunate current practice of squandering the language appropriate to an absolute evil on a relative one.)

  The tension between these two attitudes was fruitful for him as long as they could be held in balance. When it became evident, however, that the only wish of the poor was to join the consumers he despised, Pasolini could find no recourse except to enrol them among his enemies. In his three, increasingly dreadful last movies, his ideal pre-bourgeois world of freely available sex is successively discovered in Boccaccio, Chaucer and de Sade. The trilogy makes painful viewing. Escapism is too dignified a word. Pasolini was fleeing into a past that never existed from a present he couldn’t face. In a notorious front-page piece for the Corriere he dismissed his once beloved Roman sub-proletariat as having succumbed to “a degeneration of bodies and sex organs.” Pasolini even had the gall to suggest that education was ruining them. For the admirer of Gramsci it was a sad betrayal. Gramsci had always been delighted by any evidence of his proletarians’ improving themselves. Pasolini wanted them to stay the way they were. When they showed signs of independent life, he lost interest in them.

  Perhaps too kindly, Mr. Schwartz doesn’t make much of the possibility that they were losing interest in Pasolini. One of the most famous men in the country, recognizable at a glance, he still drove by night into the territory of the Violent Life. But time was ticking by. Once, the car and the clothes would have been enough. Now he needed his fame. What next? Charlus with his rouged cheeks? Aschenbach with his rinse? Rage, rage against the dyeing of the hair. Luckily, Pasolini never had to face the sad, slow twilight of the predator gone weak in the hams. He died the way he had lived, dramatically.

  He had always thought that life was like that: drama. It was the belief that made him the kind of Communist who sounds like a Fascist. His politics were an insult to his intelligence. But there was a saving grace. The Italians are cursed with a language so seductive it can gloss over anything; Pasolini could always make it reveal more than it concealed, even when he talked tripe. He cut through the mellifluous uproar to speak the unspeakable. Pasolini’s matchless ability to be irritating in every way meant that he was also irritating in the ways that count. Beneath Pasolini’s politics lay his perceptions, and some of those remain permanently true. Free societies feel free to waste human lives, pushing them to the edge and calling them part of the landscape. The better we are at telling ourselves that this is inevitable, the more we still need telling that it won’t do.

  The New Yorker,
December 28, 1992, and January 4, 1993;

  later included in Even As We Speak, 2001

  POSTSCRIPT

  When I was at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, my other seat of education was Florence, where my future wife was enrolled for a doctorate at the university. I was never enrolled anywhere except at a bar near the Bargello, but I learned the language, read in it hungrily and loved the life. This piece and the next were two of the long-term fruits. There is nothing like submission to another culture for getting a handle on one’s own. At the time, the brightest foreign scholars in Florence were American graduate students. I was lucky enough to make friends with several of them, and was always impressed by how they could range in their talk from Pontormo to U.S. foreign policy during the course of a single flask of chianti. But when they went home they were claimed by the university system that had paid for their time abroad, and their civilized knowledge was soaked up by the learned quarterlies. What was good for academic learning was bad for literary journalism until the advent of the New York Review of Books, which gave the scholars who had something extra to say a chance to go moonlighting, with excellent results.

 
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