Books: Even As We Speak — Pier Paolo Pain in the Neck |
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Pier Paolo Pain in the Neck

Renaissance man is a description tossed around too lightly in modern times — actors get it if they can play the guitar — but for Pier Paolo Pasolini nothing less will do. From the moment he hit Rome after the Second World War until the moment his own car hit him in 1975, Pasolini single-handedly re-embodied about half the personnel of Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He was poet, novelist, scholar, intellectual, sexual adventurer, reforming zealot, creator of large-scale visual spectaculars — and all these things equally. To make a comparable impact, Raphael would have had to be elected Pope. To make a comparable exit, Michaelangelo would have had to fall out of the Sistine Ceiling. Pasolini was a front-page event in every field he entered, including death. A boy he picked up in his Alfa Romeo sports car ran him over with it and left him helpless in the dust. Beat that, Renaissance! Not even Cola di Rienzo got trampled by his own horse.

Pasolini’s sensational demise happened at Ostia, once the port where Julius Caesar took ship and Cleopatra came ashore. The ancient location widens Pasolini’s frame of reference still further, to include the whole of Italian history. He was such a national figure that it becomes easy to lose sight of the individual. In a new biography (Pasolini Requiem, Pantheon) Barth David Schwartz mercifully doesn’t, but his whopping book isn’t helped by the bad practice of cramming in all the incidental research to prove that it has been done. European reviewers like to call this an American habit, but really it is a virus with no respect for borders. A more specific stricture to place on Mr Schwartz might be that a prose style so devoid of verve is no fit instrument to evoke a hero who crackled with energy even when he was being stupid. But Mr Schwartz, though a plodder, plods briskly enough to make his subject breathe, and some of the specialized knowledge was well worth going to get. In addition to his prodigious archival burrowings and the conducting of interviews on the scale of a door-to-door electoral canvass, Mr Schwartz seems to have acquainted himself personally with the sexually ambiguous (though unambiguously violent) Roman low life that was Pasolini’s stamping ground, or prancing ground. The biographer is to be congratulated not least for coming out alive. The biographee, after all, got killed in there.

As for what he was doing in there, the first answer is obvious: he was cruising, although that word understates his predatory celerity. Better to say that he was pouncing. Quick off the mark and dressed to kill, he was a cheetah in dark glasses. In the borgata, the slumland of the Roman periphery, the population was mostly immigrants from the south who had come in search of prosperity and found misery. Petty theft and casual prostitution made up most of their economy. For a well-heeled and voraciously promiscuous homosexual like Pasolini, it was a dream come true. There were boys to be had for a pack of cigarettes or just a ride in his car.

He did his best to have them all. It remains astonishing, when you look at the shelf of books and rack of films signed with his name, that he found the energy to copulate even more prolifically than he created. People who knew him well were astonished, too. On location in North Africa for a film, his colleagues would retire exhausted to their tents after a long day and meet him coming out of his, all set to cruise the dunes.

But the spontaneous and seemingly everlasting abundance of sexual gratification was also the wellspring of his politics. The second and less obvious answer to the question of why he spent so much time in the lower depths was that he found them ethically preferable to the heights. He thought the truth was down there. Unlike other articulate, well-paid enemies of bourgeois society, Pasolini could actually point to an alternative. It wasn’t a pretty alternative, but that was one of the things he hated about the bourgeoisie — its concern with mere appearances.

He hated everything else about the bourgeoisie as well, but in that respect he holds little interest except as an especially flagrant example of the modern middle-class intellectual blindly favouring, against common reason and all the historical evidence, a totalitarian substitute for the society that produced him. Valued by the PCI, the Communist Party of Italy, for the publicity hr brought it, Pasolini was allowed more latitude than any other mouthpiece. He often spoke against Party doctrines, and used the space given him by the Party’s own newspapers to do so. But he was reliable, not to say predictable, in his denunciation of capitalism, neo-capitalism, consumerism, the bourgeoisie, bourgeois consumerism, bourgeois democracy, neo-capitalist democracy, consumerist democracy, and, for that matter, democracy itself, which he thought, or said he thought, could never achieve anything more than ‘false tolerance’ so long as it was infected by bourgeois consciousness.

It hardly needs saying that Pasolini had bourgeois origins himself: you don’t get that kind of stridency except from someone in a false position. Raised under Fascism in a small town in Friuli — a province in the north-east of the country, where it bends towards Trieste — young Pier Paolo, a natural student, picked up the firm grounding in the etymology of the Friulian dialect which underpinned his lifetime achievement as a scholar and master of the Italian language. But he picked up no grounding at all in the life of the proletariat. He never did a day’s manual labour then or later.

This is a standard pattern for revolutionary intellectuals and can’t usefully be called hypocrisy, since if there is such a thing as a proletarian consciousness then it is hard to see how any proletarian could escape from it without the help of the revolutionary intellectual — although just how the revolutionary intellectual manages to escape from bourgeois consciousness is a problem that better minds than Pasolini have never been able to solve without sleight of hand. On this point Pasolini never pretended to be analytical, or even consistent. He was content to be merely rhetorical, in a well-established Italian tradition by which political argument is conducted like grand opera, with the tenor, encouraged by the applause or even by the mere absence of abuse, advancing to the footlights to sing his aria all over again, da capo and con amore.

Another aria Pasolini kept reprising was a bit harder to forgive. Mr Schwartz could have done more to disabuse the unwary reader of the notion that Pasolini might have had something when he not only awarded himself credentials in the wartime resistance but claimed the resistance as the alma mater of the postwar revolutionary struggle. Pasolini’s resistance activities were confined mainly to writing obscure scholarly articles that the censors would have had to go out of their way even to find, let alone interpret. Again, there is no dishonour in this: people were shot for less. As in France, there was an understandable tendency in Italy after the war for people who had been helpless civilians during it to award themselves battle honours retroactively. Pasolini was just another schoolboy raised under the Fascist system who had the dubious luck to become a questioning adolescent at the precise moment when Fascism fell apart, and was thus able to convince himself that he had seen through it.

A more serious piece of mental legerdemain — and one that Mr Schwartz doesn’t do half enough to point out — was Pasolini’s lifelong pretence that the resistance was the prototype of the future Communist state, and for that very reason had been throttled by the ruthless forces of capitalism, bourgeois democracy, etc. Again as in France, most of the first and many of the bravest resistance fighters in Italy were indeed Communists. But the resistance movement soon became too broadly based to be called revolutionary; a better parallel is with Yugoslavia, Poland, or those other East European countries where not even opposition to the Nazis could unite the partisan movement, whose Communists regarded its bourgeois democrats as the real enemy, to be wiped out when the opportunity arose. This actually happened to Pasolini’s brother, an active partisan who was liquidated by a Communist kangaroo court busily anticipating the postwar Socialist order. In most respects ready to concede that Pasolini was so cold a fish that even his passions were impersonal, Mr Schwartz seems not to have fully grasped that Pasolini was callous about his brother, too, claiming his death as a sacrifice in a historic struggle that, since it existed only in the minds of intellectuals, was never truly historic but always, and only, literary.

It could be that Mr Schwartz, for all he undoubtedly knows about Italy now, doesn’t know quite enough about what it was like then. He is especially shaky in the crucial area of Italy’s messy emergence from the war. A reference to German ‘Junker 25 transports’ might just be a misprint for what they ought to be, Junkers 52 transports, but his apparent belief that a German bomber could be called a Macchi — famously an Italian aircraft company — undermines confidence in his knowledge of the period, especially since he is making such a parade of specific references in order to evoke it: ‘On April 6 [of 1944] Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo in Lyons arrested fifty-one Jews…’ etc. If this is meant to be an ironic comment on the terrible bedfellows Mussolini had acquired when he agreed to set up the Republic of Salò under German tutelage, it scarcely seems adequate. Why is there nothing about the Nazi assault on the Jews of Italy? It would not only have been more pertinent to the subject; it would have created a more realistic context against which Pasolini’s later vapourings about the revolutionary resistance could have been judged. That the Nazi attempt to render Italy judenrein was a comparative failure was due at least partly to the historic reluctance of the Italian people to follow fanatics of any stamp further than the parade ground. There were plenty of bourgeois elements, including the rank and file of the Church, who risked their lives to save Jews. Mr Schwartz might have made more of this, especially since Pasolini himself made so little.

Pasolini’s theatrical fantasies about a formative period of his own and his country’s history were not casual. Like Sartre’s quietly misleading suggestions that he had been a Resistance fighter in the thick of the action, they were fundamental to a political career of posturing histrionics. Pasolini never went as far as Sartre, although Mr Schwartz is kind to believe his claims of having escaped from the Germans in a hail of bullets. Pasolini’s story was that when the regiment into which he had been drafted was ordered by the Germans to surrender its arms he and a friend threw their rifles into a ditch ‘and then, in a burst of machine-gun fire, dove in after them’. The story continued, ‘We waited for the regiment to march off, and then made our escape. It was completely an instinctive and involuntary beginning to my resistance.’ Thus Pasolini, quoted by the English journalist Oswald Stack in 1970, and reprinted by Mr Schwartz without comment.

Well, it might have happened: German machine gunners missed, occasionally. A more plausible version is that Pasolini, like many others, managed to desert unnoticed in the confusion. Sartre let people believe that he had escaped from prison camp. In fact he had been allowed to go home. The heroism came later, in the telling of the tale. So it does for most of us. The best reason for not believing that there was any machine gunner, however, is that Pasolini said so little about the incident later on. If it had really happened there would have been essays, epic poems, movies, operas. A fabulist on Pasolini’s scale could never leave unexploited a fact that had actually occurred.

Pasolini respected facts. He just didn’t respect their context. You couldn’t take his word about the meaning of things. But in his early days in Rome he was unbeatable at pointing out things that other people — bourgeois people — preferred to ignore. For a while, he had the only game in town. Propelled by the postwar economic recovery, Roman high life regained all its old extravagance. Out at its edge, in the periferia, Roman low life grew ever more malodorous, and for the same reason: the wealth that fuelled the party had drawn the poor people to the glowing window. Pasolini’s mission was to remind the high life that the low life existed, to tell the dolce vita about the malavita.

He did it first as a novelist. His 1959 novel Una Vita Violenta has just been republished by Pantheon, as A Violent Life, in the 1968 translation by William Weaver, of whom it should be said that the international reputation of modern Italian literature wouldn’t be the same without him. Like Max Hayward with Russian, Weaver has been vital to the job of transmitting the cultural force of an off-trail language into the world’s consciousness. (It remains a terrible pity that Weaver didn’t find time to translate all of Primo Levi’s books instead of only a couple of them.) But not even Weaver could translate the full impact of Una Vita Violenta, because the book depends on the shock effect of being written ugly in a beautiful language. Though Weaver’s translation is rendered in the most faithfully squalid English, it is no more horrifying than Last Exit to Brooklyn, whereas it ought to turn the mind’s stomach like the invective of the damned in Dante’s Hell. Pasolini went searching for boys among the rubbish dumps and came back with a picture of how they lived. His Roman borgata was like a Rio favela without the flowers. In Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’s film about Rio, which was a worldwide art-house hit at about the same time, unquenchable poetry steams out of the garbage to meet the rising sun. In Pasolini’s novel there is just the garbage, and human beings are part of it. When a flood comes, one of the characters finds it within himself to punctuate a career of theft by acting selflessly. But that is the only note of hope. The book was designed as a kick in the teeth for Pasolini’s hated bourgeois enemy. It worked. His reputation as a teller of the awkward truth was rapidly established, and not only among the radical intelligentsia. After all, the awkward truth was true. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to spot it.

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 nonradical 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 nineteen sixties, 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 Scwartz 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 postwar 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. If 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 Mastroianni and Anouk 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 back-seat 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 multimedia 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 nineteen sixties, when the student rebellion outflanked him. His reaction to the student revolutionaries was the same as de Gaulle’s. Vi odio cari student: 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 so 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 attributes 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 too 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.

(New Yorker, 28 December, 1992 and 4 January, 1993)