Pier Paolo Pasolini: Discovering Marx

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In his poem Discovering Marx Pasolini quotes Maxim Gorky in his epigraph: “I know that intellectuals in their youth feel a truly physical attraction towards the people and believe this is love. But it is not love: it is a mechanical attraction to the mass.” I’ve not been able to discover this saying in the copies of Gorky at my disposal, but what is more interesting is this notion of a “mechanical attraction to the mass”. And, why would Pasolini, a avowed Marxist, use this as an epigraph?

My heresies aside what has always attracted me to Marx and Engels is not some mechanistic attraction to the masses in their writings, but the deep and abiding passion they’ve shown throughout their lives and writings as intellectuals with aligning themselves with the oppressed, the workers who in their era were enslaved in conditions of labor that demeaned them, made them ill, and kept them in a state of utter dejection and apathy. Lives of the oppressed are bound to degradation, defiance, and resentment where life is nothing more than one long struggle against the night. Nothing romantic about this rather if one reads Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England as I did in my youth one gains an insight into this world of the oppressed and oppression. That Engels was a disaffected intellectual, a member of that same middle-class he so hated, is beside the point. He was a man with his eyes wide open that saw human suffering around him in the streets where people lived and died, enslaved to a impersonal profit system that sought not their well-being but only the use-value they offered for surplus profit.

Engels was not interested in arm-chair philosophy, the abstract knowledge of scholars, but wanted to see with his own eyes the truth of peoples every-day lives lived in degradation and poverty, and at the mercy of a system of Church and State that treated them not as humans with dignity and rights, but as means to the end of profit. People had become as the proverbial saying has it “cogs in the machine” mere parts of a mechanistic system of profit, nothing more. Working people lose their dignity when they are forced into subservience and obedience to a system that treats them as worthless, as menial and under-valued denizens of the market, as less than zero on the scale of social equality. As if being born poor were natural, rather than an economic degradation to be countered and overcome. Here is Engels as his best:

……..

I wanted more than a mere abstract knowledge of my subject, I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your every-day life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so: I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain working men; I am both glad and proud of having done so. Glad, because thus I was induced to spend many a happy hour in obtaining a knowledge of the realities of life – many an hour, which else would have been wasted in fashionable talk and tiresome etiquette; proud, because thus I got an opportunity of doing justice to an oppressed and calumniated class of men who with all their faults and under all the disadvantages of their situation, yet command the respect of every one but an English money-monger; proud, too, because thus I was placed in a position to save the English people from the growing contempt which on the Continent has been the necessary consequence of the brutally selfish policy and general behaviour of your ruling middle class.1

One can sit and argue about the failure of Marxism all day long, but one cannot argue that the oppressed are not with us still. One can still affirm with Engels that what we must seek in our time is this great witness to the degradation, ” to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your every-day life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini is a contrarian rather than a dogmatist, he did not follow some communist party line, but fought rather for the truth as he saw it even if it led him to defend positions that others would harshly condemn. But I’m not interested in that dark history that is better left to those scholars in their towers, rather its the poetry of the oppressed I’m interested in, of Pasolini’s rendering of this life and light of his people into language, that middle-ground where the human registers its voice against the indifference of oppression.

I

Can this burdensome body
be born of a shadow
with the face of a girl

chaste as a violet?
Can an azure womb beget
a conscience – alone

in a populous world?
Out of time the son
is born, and in it he dies.

This notion of an “azure womb” brings one to both hermetic and alchemical or cabalistic lore. The blue womb of Binah in ancient Cabala as one of the Sephiroth, Binah translates to Understanding.  Binah is the womb of all, the perfect machine of creation that requires the energy of Chokmah to impregnate it,  and feed it’s sublime engine. This engine is one of contemplation, decision making,  and refinement.  Binah accepts all that comes to it, and organizes and refines it to perfection. Yet, here Pasolini seems to be asking if an ethical conscience can arise in the midst of an oppressed world of the masses (“populous world”).

Here the poet asks two questions of who? Us? Himself? God? Rhetorical? The first of the burden of the body, the pain of existence that falls under the shadow of time, which attaches itself to beauty, to the figure of a young girl – an almost La Vita Nuova, a link to that great precursor, Dante, and the courtly love poetry of tradition with the hint of “chaste as a violet”. Folklore says the violet connotes a love that is delicate. The sensibility of delicacy is also associated with the violet from ancient mythology. Roman and Greek myths recount a tragic story of one of the goddess Diana’s (Artemis) nymph companions, all of whom had sworn to stay maidens. The nymph was unrelentingly chased by Diana’s twin brother, Apollo, so that Diana changed the nymph into a violet to protect her. The modesty of the nymph is attributed to the violet. Violets, both the flower and the color inspired by it, have much meaning in Christianity. One important meaning associates the violet with Mary and modesty. Indeed, the religious name of Viola odorata is Our Lady’s Modesty. Violets also denote spiritual wisdom, humility and faithfulness.

II

In Mediterranean blood,
high romance of tongue,
and Christian stock

is the perfect outsider
born in the home
in a city of joy.

You were without religion
uncouth, O naïve bride,
infant mother.

This mixture of ancient paganism and Christianity, atheism, Marxism and love poetry and psalms, a poet as one without religion, an atheist is born among the divided worlds of the present and past – a singular stranger who will forge his own destiny in the midst of this “high romance” and “blood” of the soil. The affiliation to that which is neither blood nor romance, but is part of another outside influence, both atheistic and “uncouth”; neither natural nor part of the linkage to what binds one back upon self and nation.

The notion of the son (Christ-like?) being born in time and dying in time brings a sense of cycle rather than progression, of time as being bounded within a sphere; or, like the Ouroboros symbolizing self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things such as the phoenix which operate in cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. While first emerging in Ancient Egypt and India, the ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism, but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus. It is also often associated with Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Hinduism.

III

How did I fall
into a world of prose
when you were a sparrow

a skylark, your heart
mute to history, a rose,
O child mother of mine?

Will the order revealed
by your very existence
grant me a place in mankind?

Is this Sophia, Divine Wisdom the poet is addressing? An almost Gnostic sense of “being thrown” into being (Heidegger?). A prefiguration of all those textualists for whom language gives birth to self-as-representation. A self that does not precede its entry into, or fall into language? Is language a degradation, a false mirror, a hell where the self is imprisoned or misprisoned among the fragile cracks of a vast mirrored sea? And, is language that sea of history where the poet as both sparrow and skylark falls into the womb, a gift, a rose born of the mother of words? And, what order will be revealed? Is the place of Wisdom the place of the human? Will order and the human reside in this place, will mankind find its home or homelessness in language, communication?

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Here the poet retroactively appraises the truth of his being, and upbringing as the only course he could have been and taken; an echo of that world of passion and affect, the body of a heritage he would choose and that would choose him.

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Reason as failure, as adult, and expulsion from the Edenic world of passion and childhood, freedom and irresponsibility. A fallen world “run aground on the sound of a Noun,” on the sound of things that have become solid, substantive, real; all too real. Here, just here, the poet enters a new prison, the prison of Reason – that “marvelous gift” (ironic?). As if to become adult, enlightened is to be trapped between the innocence of childhood, and the dark echoes of one’s calling – one’s poetic knowledge which lies outside Reason in the realms of Imagination.

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Here we discover the tension between the man’s duty to his age, and his resistance to its implications, its repressions and moral obligations. The poet resisting such intrusive obligations seeks to live in the marvelous realms, the world of childhood and frivolity. And does time have weight? Is the gravity of time a weight the compels one, pangs one’s conscience, spurs one to duty, to moral action?

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Here one feels the ancient Gnostic worlds where life is an exile, a place of blindness and forgetting, whose realms offer no solace but rather the dark chambers of anguish and pessimism, not joy. This sense of being “blind” reminds one that the poet, like Saklas the Demiurge is Blind, too. Unable to remember the former worlds, bound to realms of exile and anguish the poet lost in a land where the natives, Autochthons, rule according to the laws of this realm and its powers.

VIII

Language (which barely chimes
a note in your fine
morning song in dialect)

and time (which your childlike,
steadfast devotion
uplifts) are the two walls

between which I entered the world,
seditious, possessed,
and with your gentle eyes.

Here the poet addresses himself or his othering-as-Self or subjectivation, who emerges from and is caught between the walls of language and time. This sense that “Language” is the official or coded world of sociality that cannot touch or know the dialect of this exiled one as if the worldly tongue of the autochthonous world was not even aware of an earlier “morning song”.  And “time” the burden of both before and after caught in the mesh of the present world’s time, the weight of time that causes so much anguish to the Heart, a wall that separates one from one’s exiled realms of childhood and spirit. Here in this darker world of language and time one is a rebel (“seditious”), and a daimon (“possessed”) who hides within the innocence of Apollonian beauty (“gentle eyes”). Already one senses the affiliation with the oppressed, both physically and spiritually. The poet comes as a rebel, possessed of a keen knowledge that will upset the order of language and time, awaken the sleepers from their autochthonous sleep, disturb them with strange images of another life, another world. A fusion of future and present need, utopian desire for something else, and elsewhere.

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The poet addresses his “mother”, language or time; or both? Sophia or the fleshly one of his birth into this realm, both or neither? Anomalous, not a subject, but an “object” – a restless phenomenon. Neither god nor actual son, an “anonymous presence” rather than a desolating or desolate “self”. Something born of language and time, that not of either one, a prisoner of the mirror lands of logical reason – yet, outside it, too. Here is the epiphany of incarnation that cannot be reduced to signs on a page; a dark habitation of life from elsewhere.

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Yet, here in the logic of worlds, formed of language and time one harbors no illusions of some “amor fatit” – a love of fate and destiny. No. One knows with a knowing from elsewhere that here in this bittersweet realm that there is an order beyond miracle and skepticism alike, a secret history where love, reason, and divinity shape us to desires that untie the grip of all vices and trivial stains. Here the poet affirms a history that is not “history”, but rather the inner necessity of another order of being not transcendent to this one, but rather immanent to its own logic. A history of history that leads from within toward a place of “pure love, force of reason and divinity”.

This equation of a materialist sacredness, or sacred materialism that seeks not some other world of spirit, but rather works within this fallen history of language and time to reconnect us to another history, one that is shaped by a hidden history of desire seems fitting for a poet who lived and practiced a life of “reason and divinity”. A Dionysian materialist who sought to resurrect the body in language and time, a body that could also die in language and time fulfilled within the boundaries of this strange realm of desire.

  1. Engels, Friedrich (1987-01-29). The Condition of the Working Class in England (Classics) (Kindle Locations 536-545). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

10 thoughts on “Pier Paolo Pasolini: Discovering Marx

  1. “One can still affirm with Engels that what we must seek in our time is this great witness to the degradation……”

    Interesting! I am repulsed by such things, resentful towards the alleged saviors of society who would so sacrificially come down to slum with the little people, bearing witness to our alleged degradation. Actually, there are some rather perverse sexual connotations behind that tale, the rather voyeuristic desire to celebrate one’s vast superiority by gleefully observing the “degraded and oppressed” masses.

    Color me rather unimpressed with the self serving “compassion” of someone like Marx.

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    • I think that’s to mistake the notion of as you say, “slum dwelling” with actual fellow compassion. The two are different. Marx and Engels didn’t live outside of the slum, but were two men who left their worlds and joined the others in trust.

      To misread their biographies is supercilious… All thinkers, even people like myself who came from lower working-class neighborhoods as a child use language and enter that realm of witness, even if we travel to other countries and witness degradation. Would you rather the intellection sit back in silence? Would you rather the poet just shut the fuck up? What else would you have those gifted with speech do? Hush up? Are speak for those who are caught in the meshes of degradation, who cannot speak for themselves because they are so overworked, bound to poverty, etc. So would you have the intellectual become degraded and poverty stricken to the point of living from hand to mouth, unable to speak or write?

      This notion of self-serving “compassion” of Marx? I doubt you’ve actually read in detail of their actual lives and biographies, right? Is what you know but the common drift you’ve been given of their lives by others? Have you spent time actually studying their work or lives? I doubt you’d come away with a notion of “self-serving” if you did. Marx and Engels could’ve lived nice comfortable middle-class lives that truly could have been self-serving, but chose otherwise.

      And who brought up this “savior of society” … neither of these two men saw themselves as saviors, but rather as fellow laborers against the social degradation of their time and era. Not as good-doers like progressive era democrats or reformists, who did see themselves as saviors.

      What irks me is your superficial knowledge and moralisms which seem petty and without foundation. What your spouting sounds like right-wing propaganda rather than factual knowledge and history.

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      • As I said you’re misreading these men’s lives… superficially with your moralisms, and some sort of high-minded antipathy toward what you deem as untrue “compassion”… What else is compassion but to reach out and touch another in pain and suffering? How else to go about it? Become Saint Teresa? There are many paths and works… There’s a great deal of difference between false compassion of philanthropists, church hand outs, etc. … and an activists stance against social degradation.

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      • “What else is compassion but to reach out and touch another in pain and suffering? ”

        It depends entirely on one’s motivation. A sadist for example, would be very pleased to “reach out and touch another in pain and suffering.” Compassion can be heavily rooted in narcissism.

        Do we ever ask if the little people enjoy being labeled “degraded and oppressed,” robbed of our own power, unable to even speak of our own experiences, always perceived through the eyes of pity, rather than the eyes of our dignity and humanity?

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      • “Little people”? You act as if compassion were some ugly and degrading aspect of life. Marx and Engels never robbed the poor of power, but rather sought ways to empower them … you’re on some strange high-horse moral venting for a non-brainer argument which seems totally off-base. Confusing a false right-wing narrative of Church and State with the original truth of Marx and Engels in their actual lives and writings. They never showed pity in your sense which would be to make people powerless, rather they lived in the world, ate with these people as equals … not as their betters. They had a sense of comradeship and self-empowerment rather than some strange message of disempowerment your trying to impugn.

        To hide the degradation and oppression or change the terms as if the use of these words “degradation” and “oppression” were false is to act as if such things are not even now being perpetrated upon the mass of humanity by those working in the systems of global capitalism. As if the wars around the world that are causing such massive migrations, slave labor, prostitution, disease, famine, etc. were just natural processes rather than man-made by greed for profit and land.

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      • “Little people”? You act as if compassion were some ugly and degrading aspect of life.”

        Yes indeed, it can be. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Some of the greatest evils in human history have been brought about by someone’s so called compassion.

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      • I give up. You’ve got an agenda at odds with what I’ve been saying, so you’re confusing fanaticism of Stalin with the actual work of Engels and Marx which is diametrically opposite of either Lenin or Stalinist Idealist Materialisms.

        Both Marx and Engels had their share of ills, but falling for moral idealism of the tyrannical kinds of fanaticism your speaking of belongs more to the Inquisition of the Catholic Church than to Nineteenth Century Marxism. That we’ve come a long way from even Marx in such thinkers as Badiou. Zizek, Negri, etc. is without doubt. Yes, Marx had issues with aspects of his economic theory, and there is a need to move past the Industrial age theories of the time, but you seem to be stuck in some moral valuation of their lives that just doesn’t hold water. It’s words your battling over, not the history of actual lives. You’re stuck in semantics, not life.

        Let’s just agree to disagree. 🙂 ok? I doubt I’m going to convince you of my argument, that’s obvious. I know what you’re getting at, but think its misplaced with these two specific individuals.

        And on a personal note: For most of my adult life I lived and worked in the lower scale of pay: roust-about, cook jobs, trucker, etc. till I bought a computer in the mid 90’s learned how to program on my own, got a job in the early age of the net, worked till I retired, and even now after medical bills I live on less that the poverty scale at under 15K a year on social security… but I still feel compassion for those around me at this level. So does that make me wrong? Would you condemn me for feeling compassion?

        After using up my savings on medical bills, I’ve scaled down to a point that I live border line every month. Is this poverty? I don’t know, but it feels like hell and desperation most of the time. But have I lost my dignity. Hell no… I keep on fighting, keep on digging in trying to make life better for myself and others around me. So if that’s false sense of compassion driving me then I guess I’ll stand condemned.

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  2. Always have had a soft spot for that compassion, determination and hope you speak of that you can just feel through the page. So far ahead of their time that many of their followers still haven’t caught up in that direction even if they expand on their theory academically…although few these days are as crassly racist, I suppose. Engels’ racist comments in a letter to Laura Marx about her Cuban husband Paul Lafargue, as well as comments made about Ferdinand Lasalle by Marx to Engels of an antiblack and racist nature (among other things, Said’s critique of Marx’ orientalism re: India in his book of the same name comes to mind as well) have always reminded me how not ahead of their time they could be. It’s funny how one can get anti-oppression so right in one crucial, or even multiple, area(s) and then miss out somehow in areas literally intertwined with where one has got it right!

    That said I’ve always been an anarchist, which I find tends to mean taking what’s useful and chucking the rest, even (especially!) with our own thinkers. You never see an anarchist call themselves a Godwinist or a Proudhonist or a Kropotkonist or a Bakuninist, and I think that’s one of those places Marxists, Leninists, Maoists and the like go a bit wrong. I’ve always jived better with Marxists who called themselves communists and socialists than those who put a theorist’s name front and center. And in all fairness, I similarly condemn Proudhon’s misogyny and Bakunin’s antisemitism and so on. But still, as with Marx and Engels, you do feel that sense of compassion bleed through in all these anti-capitalist thinkers, you can know from the facts they outline as well as simply FEEL they were on the right track (and today’s socio-economic and political climates confirm much of it as brilliantly predictive, if not outright prophetic) even if their socialization at the time bred some oppression deeper into the bone than the forms they critiqued.

    There is so much value in Marx and Engels that I just as much don’t understand those anarchists who chuck ’em out wholesale as those (particularly strong a tendency in Leninists and Maoists) who try and defend and explain away all instances of their error. People are people, they make mistakes, but you only need to defend what they got right! And for Marx and Engels, there was a lot more they got right than they got wrong, definitely more than enough to dive into their works again and again as capitalism attempts to mutate into a form far more lethal to most of us than it’s already been…but still largely within the framework they laid out (although these days it pays to augment with a little Deleuze and Foucault). If there’s going to be a future though, it’ll be fought and won by numbers the world has yet to see come out and fight alongside one another, with one another and for one another, and I doubt most of that great mass of people will have read much Deleuze. Failing that, we’re all walking hand-in-hand into cascading ecosystem collapse (hell, might be doing that no matter what at this point), but it’s nice to know some old dead guys got stuff mostly on target a few hundred years before the end, I guess?

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