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.
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.
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,
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Language (which barely chimes
a note in your fine
morning song in dialect)
and time (which your childlike,
uplifts) are the two walls
between which I entered the world,
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.
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.
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.
- Engels, Friedrich (1987-01-29). The Condition of the Working Class in England (Classics) (Kindle Locations 536-545). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.