Lust for Life
Pasolini's 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 cinéaste; 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, working-class neighborhoods 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 ill." Has the (partial) conquest of premodern poverty and servitude been worth the price in psychic stability, 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 has been television," he charged, "which...has brought to a close the age of pity 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 had passed directly to 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 scarcely ever was--exactly what Pasolini offered as an alternative to the depredations of "progress." (Calvino once wrote that debating him was "like hailing down a Formula One racedriver in the middle of his circles on 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 by the duty permissiveness imposes on them--that is to say, the duty always and freely to make love. At the same time they are traumatized by the disappointment which their "sceptre" has produced in women, who formerly either were unfamiliar with 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 precocious couplings heterosexual from the onset of puberty. But 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 codification. 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 sublime archetype remains Athenian democracy). Consumerism has therefore finally humiliated the woman by creating for her another intimidating myth. The young males who walk along the street laying a 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 expression.
Daft, of course. Still, I'm not sure that Michel Foucault, who wrote several treatises about sexuality in the last decade of his life, produced in them a more suggestive paragraph.