Monday, March 26, 2012

"In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology," edited by Jack Hirschman: the traps we make for ourselves

Even in the anything-goes decade of the 1970s the work of film-maker, author and playwright Pier Paolo Pasolini appeared over-the-top. His art was too much for some, who found his open homosexuality too challenging, and yet his Communist politics didn't go far enough for others. His life and work didn't hew to perceived boundaries, and his polemics challenged even revolutionary ideologues to the point of anger.

In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology presents the first translations of much of Pasolini's work in English, and although the book covers a dizzying amount of ground from poetry to polemics, it's a valuable resource toward an understanding of the Italian multi-media artist, who relished confronting realism with firebrand idealism and constantly questioned the effect of mainstream culture on human values.

This constant shift toward extremes of thought kept even his admirers off balance, and it may not be unrelated that his murder at the age of 53 remains a mystery of unresolved motive, an un-captured assailant, and a creative life cut short just at the point of a robust middle-age. Many point to his final essay, "What Is This Coup? I Know," as a cause of his final confrontation between art and life in a polarized and very politicized Italy.

These personal politics make Pasolini's inscrutable creativity a great source of intellectual challenge and interest for his translators and others interested in Pasolini's creative process. He was willing to consider many ideas in his desire to understand the simple thing that art creates: a reaction, no matter how inexplicable or iinescapable. Jack Hirschman, himself a multi-faceted artist, has edited these translations not so much with an eye toward easy comprehension (which Pasolini himself would likely abhor) but with a depth of feeling in the language, a sorting-out of ideas.

Class-consciousness, to get into the head of an American, needs a long, twisting road, an immensely complex operation: it needs the mediation of idealism, let’s say the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois variety, which for every American gives meaning to his entire life and which he absolutely cannot disregard. There they call it spiritualism. But both idealism in our interpretation and spiritualism in theirs are two ambiguous and incorrect words.
Better, perhaps, it’s about the moralism (Anglo-Saxon in origin and naively adopted by the other Americans) that rules and shapes the facts of life, and that, in literature for instance — even the popular kind — is exactly the opposite of realism. Americans always need to idealize in the arts (especially at the level of average taste; for instance, the “illustrative” representation of their lives and their cities in their popular movies are forms of an immediate need to idealize).

The poems, essays and reviews feature an array of translators. Pasolini's earliest poetry -- strong, declarative, youthful -- is translated from the Friulian by Lucia Gazzino ("I leave my image to the conscience of the rich ... Long live the courage and the sorrow and the innocence of the poor!"). A growing disillusionment in a poem from 1960, "The Rage," is captured by musician Jonathan Richman ("I can't pretend now that I don't know the world / or that I don't know how it wants me.")

Because he was also a film-maker much of Pasolini's writing is visually evocative: this is especially so of autobiographical poems that circle about ideas of youth and vulnerability but also the enthusiasm of the young ("I'm insatiable about our life / because something unique in the world can never be exhausted," he writes to one lover.)

I know, because I wake up with so much strength in my head:

the strength to suck up the new, sweet

power of daylight woken ahead of me,

and to express the absolute, already attained in secret and

in peace, with the most naked words: it's grief, my pain

that always has a reason, is never without an object,

is not neuroses, it's anger, disappointment,

it's fear, it's fury that physically bleeds

in my chest and throat.

Ah, morning! I know it, it's summertime, steady

as a sea, in it's freshness

the city's ready for an entire day,

and its noises are sheer and deeply grieving

like human beings become cool

doves, gentle elephants ... animals in life ...

(Summer, 1961)

As his poetry -- and world-view -- matures to a kind of wary disenchantment in the political upheavals that never really seem to change anything, he attaches a deepening mistrust of the right wing in politics. But he also faulted the hippie culture for losing its energy as it spread into a bourgeois mainstream of "hipness" and "cool" ideas that were co-opted into advertising and the culture at large.

Yet he held fast to his cantankerous heroes for their indomitable spirit: Ezra Pound, for one, even though he had ardently supported Fascism during the war -- and after it, as well. This is, after reading several of the essays here, a provocative stance meant as a pin-prick to easy categorization. Many of his more blatantly acid judgements ("Neruda is a bad poet") read as asides to a larger arguments rather than generalities by themselves.

Reading the twisting and ideological essays in translation, one might understand the difficulty in determining Pasolini's intent and his expression. Philosophical word-play and semantics can spring their own traps in any language. Since the writer himself was walking an ideological balance-beam of ideas it is uncertain whether the often complex result is Pasolini's thought, or the individual translator's effect of the phrasing he chooses. This is less so in the poetry, which offers itself a wider field of meaning.

The individual concerns of Pasolini's essays -- fascism, racism, intolerance, poverty -- remain universal though his targets are specific: the very first essay included, "Civil War," is a Pasolini blast aimed at racism of all kinds: "It is racist hatred -- that is, nothing less than the exterior aspect of the deep aberration of every conservatism and every fascism."

It would be more than interesting to read what the agent-provocateur would make of recent political uprisings, as well as the latest outrages by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, and what's about to happen as we peer with one eye covered into the future. A reader has a pretty firm idea it would be best to keep our wits about us.

His last observation -- "we're all in danger" -- was made in a final interview hours before he died in a mysterious assault, and it acts as an ultimate warning and a final lesson to watch out for all the traps, to be wary of the comfortable solutions that seem not to threaten us, but to enfold us in their easy choices. In our own creative life, and in our culture of affluence, many times these are traps we make for ourselves.

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