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Lust for Life | The Nation

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Lust for Life

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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:

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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After Athena's intervention, the Furies--unbridled, archaic, instinctive, out of nature--also survive: and they too are gods, they are immortal.... They must be transformed while leaving their irrationality intact: mutated, 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: "In the end I am angry at the silence that has always surrounded me.... No one has intervened to help me forward and 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."

A small garland of narratives and essays, Stories From the City of God 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 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 were.) "I would like to understand," Pasolini writes, "the mechanisms by which the Trastevere--shapeless, pounding, 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 (the star of his 1962 film Mamma Roma) 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, women "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 could fit all of Terracina 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 party leader Palmiro Togliatti had once tried unsuccessfully to bar Pasolini 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, a 1983 volume translated by Stuart Hood), to which they make an excellent prelude.

As with other inspired fools, Pasolini's audacity may be his chief legacy. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia--wry, skeptical, reserved--could not have been more different. 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. Sounding foolish is most intellectuals' deepest fear. Pasolini was fearless.

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