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Pier Paolo Pasolini had already earned himself a reputation as a writer, intellectual, filmmaker, activist, and provocateur by the time he took his first steps in the cultural mecca of the 20th century, New York City.

Born in Bologna, Italy, the 44-year-old, self-proclaimed “Catholic Marxist” had already aligned himself with the poor and disenfranchised, first realizing his political affinities when instinctively joining the Friulan peasants in protest against their bosses. Pasolini spent most of his childhood at his mother's birthplace in Friuli, where he learned the local dialect that he’d eventually incorporate into his groundbreaking poetry. He became a teacher in a local Communist party chapter until in 1949, rumors regarding his sexual proclivities led the group to expel him on charges of "moral and political unworthiness.” Nevertheless, he remained loyal to the Communist party for the entirety of his life.

In spite of the consistent criminalization of his sexuality, he’d already developed a reputation for hard-nosed critique and controversial cultural positions. He openly criticized the government, the Church, the right and the left. He deconstructed the machinations of politics and consumerism. He recognized the ongoing threat of authoritarianism, but also saw Italy and the rest of the Western world being led into a uniform, universal society by a new type of technocratic fascism, what he saw as a function of the media-fueled capitalist pursuit in its assertion of cultural homogeneity and materialist aspirations.

He’d already finished his novel Ragazzi di Vita (1955), which, based on his time spent as a youth in the Roman slums, addressed issues of the Roman lumpenproletariat, a term coined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 1840s that refers to the “lower strata” of society so often exploited by reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces. The book caused obscenity charges to be filed against Pasolini, the first of many instances in which his art provoked legal problems. Although exonerated, Pasolini remained a target of the tabloids.

He’d already published his poem "The Ashes of Gramsci,” a homage to the celebrated Italian Marxist philosopher and author, considered one of the most revolutionary poems to have emerged in Italy since the second world war. Though set in the cemetery, the poem’s focus visits various sites of Italian geography, an epic verse that championed the downtrodden of post-war Italy. Here, Pasolini sought to unite Gramsci’s legacy of Marxism with the poet’s own radical Catholicism, a complicated comingling with distinctive literary results.


In the circles of sarcophagi we do not
reveal the fate of the survivor,
of secular people, secular inscriptions
on these grey stones, low,
grand. Again passions
unbridled, free from scandal, burn
the bones of millionaires from mightier
nations; buzzing, almost decomposing,
the ironies of princes, of pederasts,
their bodies strewn in urns
incinerated, and unchaste.



“Pasolini’s great originality,” said Italian writer Alberto Moravia, “was that of writing a civil poetry of the left, excluding humanism and reattaching itself to European decadence.” Decadent in the sense of the late-19th-century artistic and literary movement, centered in Western Europe, that dealt with the eternal themes of transition, artifice, and above all, the duel ravages of time: desire and decay. It was a style epitomized by French literary giants like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud—the latter being the notorious enfant terrible who declared that one must make themselves a visionary through a prolonged and reasoned “derangement of the senses,” and who’s life and writings substantially impacted Pasolini’s own.

“Reading Rimbaud, reading Symbolist and Decadent poetry” explained Pasolini, “brought me mechanically, automatically, to the awareness that I was an anti-Fascist, and thus it had a positive political function for me. The other function was, on the other hand, a purely literary and aesthetic one.”

Indeed, by the time Pasolini landed on the eastern seaboard of the United States, he’d already have lent his literary bent to “the industry,” crafting dialogue in the Roman dialect for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; he’d already aroused scandal with his first film, Accattone (1961), a story of pimps, prostitutes and thieves set in Rome’s marginal quarters; already received acclaim for writing and directing the black-and-white scripture-inspired The Gospel According to Matthew (1964).

Then, at the beginning of October 1966, he found his way New York, a 10-day excursion arranged in part to attend the New York Film Festival for the screening of his film Uccellacci e uccellini (literally “Bad Birds and Little Birds” but translated in English as The Hawks and the Sparrows), a picaresque fable featuring the Italian comedian Totò working alongside Ninetto Davoli, the director's lover at the time.

The actors play an old man and his son, who are joined on their walk along the road of life by an inquisitive crow that questions them about philosophy and culture. The crow seems to be a Marxist, but that’s only if the men are Christians. And the men don't seem quite sure about that either. Put poignantly by film critic Roger Ebert in a 1969 review, Pasolini seems to be saying, “Hawks still eat sparrows, not matter what a hawk is, or a sparrow.”

Suffice it to say, Pasolini was deeply affected by the city’s vitality. His abbreviated stay was hectic and heavy. He spent an afternoon in the Village observing pro-Vietnam neo-Nazis assaulting peaceful protesters; a feverish night or two in Harlem socializing with Black Panthers; a few evenings in middleclass apartments engaged in heated discussion with disaffected intellectuals. He even had the requisite visitation with Greenwich bard Allen Ginsberg, with whom he immediately felt a sense of kinship. Impressed by the metropolis’s pseudo-melting pot of people, he proclaimed NYC “a magical, overwhelming, beautiful city.”

As Enzo Siciliano writes in Pasolini: A Biography, Pasolini “was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of novelty…The allure of the city, the unusual beauty… He was enchanted by the moral fervor of the protests underway in America, by the discovery of a democratic nature of the spirit.” Enthusiastic as he was, during his short stay he also realized the violent contradictions coexisting in the same city: the unbending consumerism, the apotheosis of certain pseudo-values, the fractious nature of its activism.

Three years lapsed between this first visit and Pasolini’s second in 1969. In the interim, he’d traveled the world, specifically Africa, in search of what remained of the primitive and sacred. A period of varied creative production, Pasolini was relentless, writing newspaper columns, authoring essays, publishing fiction and poetry, directing a film. Yet, in an interview with Giuseppe Cardillo in New York, one can’t help but note the lack of excitement he expressed for the grand experiment of America’s cultural epicenter.

The revolutionary spirit he had previously exalted was replaced by the sad understanding that consumerism had converted all into willing materialists; and that the bourgeoisie, with its materialist aspirations and elitist institutions, would lead to the destruction of cultures and traditions across the globe. In his search for a path forward, or rather, for valid tools of subversion and resistance, Pasolini dryly suggests the importance of theater and poetry, pointing to them as the most irreducible, least consumable, expressions of artistic creativity.

“They say the system eats everything and assimilates everything. That’s not true, there are things that the system cant assimilate and can’t digest. One of these, for example, is poetry because, as I see it, its unconsumable. One can read a book of poetry thousands of times and not consume it.”

Shortly before he was tragically and mysteriously murdered (or assassinated, according to some) in 1975, Pasolini published a revised and enlarged edition of his dialect poems, La nuova gioventu (The New Youth). In it he proclaims:

In a city, Trieste or Undine
along an avenue bordered by linden trees
in spring when the leaves
change color
I will fall dead
under a burning noonday sun
my eyes closing upon
the sky and its splendor.



Outspoken and subversive, Pasolini made no concessions, often deliberately enraging those in positions of power. Yet, Pasolini left three decades of amazing artistic production full of complex and rich themes that are as relevant today as they were then. Perhaps one of contemporary society’s last fearless public intellectuals, Pasolini was, in the words of the late American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag, "indisputably the most remarkable figure to have emerged in Italian arts and letters since the Second World War. Whatever he did once he did it had the quality of seeming necessary.

Tags: JacquesMarieMage , Pasolini

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