ON THE MORNING of November 2, 1975, the body of Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, "front-page intellectual," movie director and enfant terrible of the Communist Party as well as of the Catholic church, was found in a bleak playing field at the Ostia seaplane basin west of Rome, where the night before he had been savagely murdered by a male hustler (or hustlers) he had picked up in the Piazza dei Cinquecento. Sometimes life imitates art much too wantonly. The manner of Pasolini's death patently reflected the ambience of his novels, early and late (Raggazzi di vita and Vas) and of the more sordid of his films, such as Accattone or SalMo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Enzo Siciliano, the author of this pungent personal history, encourages us to believe that Pasolini had long had an appointment in Samarra, that his death was less fortuitous than steadily invoked, for years, by the victim himself.
For although Pasolini was a self-confessed homosexual freebooter, only too willing to advertise his status in poems, in polemical essays and in the cinema, he was nonetheless assailed by a degree of guilt and increasingly by an attitude of fatality toward the consequences he was persistently inviting with his nocturnal cruising of the Roman ghettos. Siciliano begins his narrative at the end, in that wind-blown tract of the Ostia basin; then moves back into the tormented life story and returns finally to the crucial setting much like the method of a motion picture (though not one by Pasolini, who was never, in that medium, a formalist).
Pasolini was born in Bologna the year of Mussolini's march on Rome, 1922; after the defeat of the regime, his father, who had been a committed fascist, came home, in Pasolini's own words, "a sick veteran, poisoned by the defeat of the fascists within the nation and the defeat of the Italian language at home: a ferocious wreck, a tyrant with no remaining power, crazed by too much bad wine, more and more in love with my mother who had never loved him as much as he did her." Siciliano speculates that the young Pasolini's homosexual drive was an aspect of his disappointment with his father and a way of compensating for the affection he had never had from him by assuming, himself, a kind of father role among the ragazzi di vita. Since there is no single provenance to the homosexual condition, this disingenuous explanation may be as plausible as any.
Pasolini's earliest poetry was mainly written in the dialect of Friulia (significantly, his mother's birthplace); it restored the traditional, troubadour strain in Italian verse and was, in sentiment and prosody, lyrical and conservative; he hoped that by transmuting a local idiom into an acceptable poetic mode he could encourage the Friulian peasant to recognize his historical roots. A frequent error of the "land-based" intellectual is to believe that the people for whom he intends his poetry are the people who read it. Be that as it may, this loyalty to the Italian non-urban world remained at the root of all Pasolini's convictions thereafter, expressed not only in his art but also in his peculiar attachment to the Communists, his querulous but enduring membership in the Church and his unceasing hostility towards the Christian Democrats and their corrupting economic felicities.
Pasolini arrived in Rome in 1950, after his father's death, and some of Siciliano's most evocative writing describes the poet's introduction to "the deafening reality" of that eternal city, comparing his corruption by it, which is at the same time his "regeneration," with the experience 400 years earlier of Caravaggio, the brawling painter whose "young Bacchuses or little Saint Johns were petty thieves or tavern boys, his dead Madonna a pregnant whore who had drowned in the river . . ." Comparably, "the Baroque city par excellence seems to ensnare (Pasolini) the writer in its coils--it numbs him, possesses him, less through the swarming and shouting of its lowlife inhabitants than through the complexity of its style: the Borrominian volute . . . the marble opalescence of Bernini. Underneath oozed deadly torments." So much so, that as the Friulian dialect and subject shade into the Roman, the idylls of his earlier writings are transformed. "The most impassioned ecstacy appears side by side with sarcastic scribbling . . . These boys (in an expanded Roman version of a short story) first seen as possessing a haloed and honeyed charm, are flooded with a light that poisons them, little marble torsos dug from the mud, aggressive but sick, savage and marked by anemia." Henceforth this ambivalence was to characterize much of Pasolini's poetry, his fiction and his movies (so often peopled, as Siciliano puts it, by young males with shapely bodies and bad teeth).
If, for some readers, Siciliano's Baudelairean transfiguration of his subject is a gilding of the lily, they need to be reminded that for 25 years, inside the Italian situation, he was a witness to Pasolini's contentious participation in issues which seemed vital to Italian society: through political debate in the press, book reviews, stories and poems. Participation attracts attention; it does not confer stature. Yet the poems remain; in Siciliano's opinion, Pasolini was "the most original poet to appear on the Italian scene since Montale." Increasingly furnished with electrifying images from the puddled slums of Rome, haunted by degrading alliances, consistently deconstructed by a relinquishing of the tercet form, with a closer simulation of daily Roman speech, these verses are unnerving documents of self-division, self-condemnation and self-exaltation; of the outsider in extremis, hating all those not outside with him. (For an equally indispensable guide to Pasolini and his contemporaries, see also The New Italian Poetry, edited and translated by Lawrence R. Smith, University of California Press, 1981.)
Siciliano's evaluation of the Pasolini cinema is to my mind less persuasive, especially since it employs the kind of rosy euphemism which I thought had long since been abandoned in Europe, surviving only in the monastic left of America's university film departments. Pasolini adapted such masterpieces of the East and West as The Arabian Nights or The Decameron, "in order to reconceive the moments in which man--the new man, the juncture between archaic peasant ideals and humanistic values--had discovered himself as the moral agent of his own destiny." A lovely wrought-iron compliment but no substitute for seeing the films, themselves, which rarely suggest so elevated a conception. Impressive to look at when the landscapes, crumbling and immense, are Near Eastern (as in the Gospel story and in Medea), the essential Pasolini movie is a grotesque and belittling revision of history and myth.
Paradox and contradiction are the conspicuous elements of Pasolini's public speech during the '60s and '70s, when the nature of his radicalism was made clear to a generation which had misunderstood it. His fluctuating but never repudiated double loyalty to the Communists and to the Church, seemingly so baffling a combination, was postulated on the assumption that Communists and Catholics were the preservers of agrarian culture. The student demonstrators were dismayed by the poet's rejection of them: he who had written "Only a bloodbath can save the world/ from its bourgeois dreams," argued that their insurgence was nothing but a further franchise given to "the power of the new consumer society, which is completely irreligious, totalitarian, violent, falsely tolerant . . . and degrading." This was essentially the reason he gave for his begrudging view of the divorce referendum offered to the Italians in 1974, a victory, in his opinion, of the values "of consumption and of consequent modernistic tolerance of the American kind." To be sure, he appreciated modernistic tolerance when it absolved him of untoward sexual behavior or confirmed, in the courts, the opinion of his film producers (who profited from the publicity) that his movies were not pornographic but poetic. But he reached the limits of credence--though not of logic-- when, arguing against legalized abortion as a means of reducing the birth rate, he declared that the practice of homosexuality was a safer contraceptive! One must grant him a certain wry logic. Siciliano complained, on one occasion, that Pasolini's wilder messianic notions were derived from the lack of philosophic empiricism in his makeup. We might add that like all revolutionaries (and children), he lacked authentic irony.
During his last years, the poet-publicist, frustrated by the inability of the Church or the Party to stem the tide of corporate urbanization, veers between affirmation of Italy's need for a social rebirth and the part he might play in it, and almost total blackouts of the will, when he decides lugubriously that it's too late to save anyone from anything. He continues to preach the virtues of Communism and the vices of the Christian Democrats; he makes his last film, on the 120 days of Sodom; he plans another on the life of Saint Paul. And every evening, though not as frequently as of old, he takes leave of his friends at 11 o'clock to "disappear into the tunnels of his night." And Siciliano replays the inexorable last words. "Habits and passions won out, in the poet, over each repudiation, each utopia. Pier Paolo by now was a disfigured corpse that the dawn of November 2, 1975, slowly disclosed by a fade-in (as it is called in cinema jargon) on the hazy terrain of the Ostia seaplane basin."
Having lived in Italy, with the reservations a nervous Anglo-Saxon accumulates, I am reluctant to accept all of Siciliano's merciful interpretations of Pasolini's disordered life and thought. But I want to leave no doubt in the reader's mind that my quibbles do not sensibly diminish my admiration for the scope and the art of this biography. More than a personal history, Pasolini is the picture of an era. Siciliano has restored on the page the man who was destroyed in the flesh and, with him, the indecisive years from which, shaken to its foundations, the present-day Italy has not recovered.