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A Sleepless Dream

Religion and Religion Critique in Pasolini’s Teorema
Marc De Kesel

Résumé

Religion plays a crucial role in the critical dimension of Pasolini’s movies (The Gospel according to St-Matthew, Teorema, Medea, Notes for an African Oresteia, and others). Yet the religion performed there is a thoroughly ‘pagan’ religion, a religion that is itself not critical at all. The question to be raised is why Pasolini does not refer to the ‘monotheistic’ kind of religion, which is critical – and even religion critical – in its core. The article tries to develop an answer to that question by means of patient and profound reflection upon Pasolini’s definition of ‘God’ (in Teorema) as “a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken”.

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… the warmer, more alive the gentle body
that anoints you with semen and then leaves,
the colder and deadlier the beloved desert around you;
this is what fills you with joy like a miraculous wind …
[Pasolini 2009, p. 118; 2014a, p. 386]

Now she is like Pietro, possessed by a dream born within her,
without being understood or admitted to. To realize it she too
must therefore act before making a decision.
[Pasolini 1992, p. 31-32 (Pasolini’s italics.)]

1. Like a dream

  • 1 Original text: “ … come un sogno che non lascia dormire e da cui non ci si può risvegliare” [Pasoli (...)

1“… like a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken.”[Pasolini 1992, p. 72]1

2It is a quote taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, the novel version, chapter 27, entitled “The Jews set out…”. In the movie (1967), this ‘chapter’ is rendered by a series of shots of the desert, spread out over the entire narrative. The image at the background of the credit titles shows an empty desert landscape; it is the same desert we see again and again in brief shots punctuating the different episodes; and at the very end, when one of the characters runs naked while screaming desperately, it is obviously in that same desert.

3The thing which is “like a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken”, is the desert. It is, more precisely, the way the Biblical people, in their Exodus out of Egypt while wandering through the Sinai, experienced that desert: as Oneness.

… walking across this vastness, it was as if one were always in the same place, coming again on the same dune, after a mile or a hundred miles, with the same wrinkles, all identical, drawn by the wind, not distinguishing any difference between the horizon to the north and that to the south, a little stone placed on the profile of a dune appearing to be equally vast whether in front or behind and all the ravines dug out of the arid color of coal always the same ravines – the Jews began to form the Idea of Oneness. They became aware of it the first day after walking fifty miles into the desert; they were engulfed by it on the second day after having covered another fifty miles without anything having changed. Until they had no other idea than that. The Oneness [L’Unicità] of the desert was like a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken. [Pasolini 1992, p. 72]

4That Oneness, however, is not only present in the metaphor of the desert as the film’s cinematographic frame. It is also the central theme of the movie as well. And, what’s more, it is the hallmark of the main character.

5A wealthy bourgeois family in Milan welcomes a young visitor, who soon, unwillingly, conquers the heart of each of the family members: the one of Paolo, the man-businessman, of Lucia, his wife, of their son and daughter, Pietro and Odetta, and even of the maiden Emilia. The visitor, who remains unnamed throughout the entire movie, engages himself in a genuine erotic relation with each of them separately. The absolute generosity of his love breaks the common sense “bourgeois” world in which each of his beloved ones is locked up.

6The visitor’s love is a genuine ‘rebellious’ one, not least because – as the film suggests – he is the representative of the Oneness that the cinematographic frame puts forward in the break between every episode. The intense love-experience of each of the family members turns out to be “like a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken”. This summarizes what each of them says in their last private conversation with the guest, just before his departure [Pasolini 1992, p. 81-91]. And, indeed, once the visitor left, none of them succeeds in overcoming the obsession for his or her One and Only Lover. It seems as if the visitor embodied to each of them the real life that they always had missed and that, once he left, could only be lived as a dream, a dream both preventing one from sleeping and inhibiting one to waken from it.

2. Christ?

  • 2 At the end of the novel Teorema when Paolo runs desperate through the desert, he says: “As once for (...)
  • 3 Maurizio Viano speaks of a “messianic visitation”. [Viano 1993, p. 199]
  • 4 In a 1966 interview with the French television, when he explains the movie that will be released so (...)
  • 5 According to Luca Caminati, Paolo’s screaming in the desert alludes to Isaiah 40: 3. This text anno (...)

7It is difficult not to read this plot as a kind of modern rephrasing of the Biblical story of the Jews wrestling with their God in the Sinai Desert2, or as a contemporary version of the messianic event as described in the Christian Gospels3. Who else is the visitor than a kind of Christ-Messiah who, coming from a radical, divine Elsewhere, enters into the banality of an earthly Here and Now, bringing mankind a message of universal Love? The only thing Pasolini adds is the unambiguous, typically modern emphasis on the erotic character of that love. The love-preaching Christ has taken the shape of lover. And his story is a modern one, also in the sense that it tells what happens to us, now the Divine Lover has left us. Or, which amounts to the same thing: it tells us in what state we are left after the ‘dead of God’. Each of the family members represents a way to deal with that loss: Pietro, the son, seeks a solution in art; Lucia, his mother, in erotic experiences mixed up with religious feelings4. Odetta, her daughter, doesn’t succeed at all: she becomes psychotic and ends up in psychiatry. And if Emilia, the maid, seems to do better, it is not without falling into a kind of madness as well, more precisely a religious madness. Returning to the farm where she was born, she becomes the centre of a ‘vulgar’ religious cult, which includes a set of miracles, a levitation even and – when according to her own will, she is buried alive – the emergence of a source of holy water flooding out of her weeping eyes. In a way Paolo, the father, summarizes the failure of all those desperate attempts. In the last minutes of the movie, after we are told that he offered his factory to the workers, we see him stripping off his clothes (i.e. his bourgeois identity) and ending up naked, screaming in the impossible Oneness of the desert5.

8The story is perfectly readable as a modern rewriting of man’s encounter with Jesus, the son of God who taught us what love is and who, once gone, left us with impossible nostalgia for that very love. In the same years he worked on Teorema, Pasolini wrote the script for a (never realized) movie on Saint Paul [Pasolini 2014b]. There, not unlike the characters in Teorema, Paul too is touched by an encounter with the same Oneness that progressively takes possession over him to the extent that, at the end, he fades away in madness. Here, the encounter is undoubtedly the one with Christ. Also the passage in Teorema on the Jew’s experience of the Oneness is immediately followed by an evocation of Paul as worked out in the screenplay [Pasolini 1992, p. 73-76]. All this supports the plausibility of reading Teorema as a provocative allegoric rewriting of the gospel for a modern audience.

9Yet, when asked whether the visitor in Teorema refers to the Christ of his Vangelio secundo Mateo (The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 1964), Pasolini’s answer is negative:

  • 6 In another interview, in French, he says: “C’est l’histoire de la visitation de Dieu selon la tradi (...)

The character cannot be identified with Christ; rather with God, God the Father (or a messenger who represents the Father). It is an Old Testament, not a New Testament visitor. [Stack 1969, p. 162; Testa 1994, p. 197]6

10This reply seems not really denying the reading of the visitor as Messiah/Christ. For what else is Christ than “a messenger who represents the Father”, the Messiah announced in the “Old Testament”? In another interview, however, Pasolini is clearer about his denial of the reference to Christ in Teorema.

Originally, I intended the visitor to be a fertility god, the typical god of preindustrial religion, the sun-god, the Biblical god, God the Father. Naturally, when confronted with things as they were, I had to abandon my original idea and so I made Terence Stamp [who plays the stranger] into a generically ultra-terrestrial and metaphysical apparition: he could be the Devil, or a mixture of God and the Devil. The point is that he is something authentic and unstoppable. [Stack 1969, p. 156-157; Testa 1994, p. 197-198]

11A fertility god, the typical god of preindustrial religion, the sun-god, the Biblical god, God the Father.” Apparently, in the mind of Pasolini, the different types of ‘God’ mentioned here are equivalent. They are at least equivalent in relation to the ‘industrial’, which seems to be the real demarcation line of his judgment. It is ‘industry’ – and, as he never stopped repeating, follow-ups of it as capitalism, neo-capitalism and consumerism – that marks the demarcation line, also with respect to religion. All religions of the time before ‘industry’ had that ‘rebellious’, anti-bourgeois and, therefore, emancipating force, which has been (and is still being) repressed by capitalism, neo-capitalism and consumerism – phenomena he invariably characterizes as fascist.

12But what then is “religion” in the mind of Pasolini? Why a “fertility god” and a “sun-god” equal a “Biblical God”? Why is the difference between pagan and monotheistic religion neglected here?

13The question is more interesting than it might seem at first sight, for Pasolini describes the Biblical God precisely in the way in which that God is often distinguished from “fertility gods” and other pagan divinities. And, what is more, the Biblical God and his monotheistic religion contain a radical criticism with respect to pagan religion and its gods. How then, can both types of religion, monotheism and non-monotheism share a common critical potentiality? And why, in the eyes of Pasolini, the monotheistic critique with respect to paganism does not matter here?

3. Monotheism

  • 7 In fact, there has been an earlier monotheism, namely in Egypt, introduced by the pharaoh Amenhotep (...)

14What then, from the perspective of the Biblical God, can be criticized in the “fertility gods” of paganism? That they are not true. Truth: this is what monotheism has introduced into the field of religion. And this introduction – dating from the 8th to the 6th century BC, and occurring in only one small nation – that of the Hebrews – changed the very definition of religiosity and religion [Assmann 2009]7.

15For the religions existing before the rise of monotheism, or contemporary to it, the question whether the gods were true or not, was not an issue at all. They just were there – as simple as that. They were not true or good per se, nor was it necessary to believe in them and to acknowledge their existence [Veyne 1988]. They represented the dark realm beyond the limit of life, a kind of immanent beyond, a realm where dead and life, good and bad, truth and untruth were mixed up. From there, these gods intervened in the domain of the mortals where life was strictly separated from death, good from bad, true from false. It was from there, too, that life as such was given.

16Life was considered as a gift coming from an inner worldly ‘beyond’ from where the immortals address the gift of life to the mortals and make it fertile. And this is the reason why those mortals addressed them counter-gifts – in the shape of sacrifices, rites, prayers, processions, in short ‘religion’.

17Monotheistic religions see things radically differently. No one explains it better than Pasolini. The novel version of Teorema, more precisely the chapter entitled ‘The Jews set out…’, presents a genuine theory on the origin of monotheism. The environment in which monotheism must have had its origin is not nature’s fertility (as is the case in all other religions), but barren desert, so Pasolini explains. It has its place of origin in the context of a nomadic people, and did not emerge from the life they had in the oases, but from what they experienced during their journeys through the desert. There, an unnatural Oneness dominated everything, a Monotony neglecting the realm of differences so typical for nature’s life (the difference between life and death, man and woman, summer and winter, et cetera). It is this Oneness that began to possess them, and became an obsession to them. This impenetrable monotony resulted in an idea of the divine as radically different from nature, as profoundly unnatural, precisely because of its Oneness, Non-Difference, its inflexible, rigid ‘mono’ character. And this Oneness became so to say an alternative, unnatural “second nature”.

The habit of the ideal of Oneness which the desert assumed in the senses, projecting itself like something that does not change in the inner being of whoever crosses it and without being able to emerge from it any longer (although it is entirely open) and however great the efforts he makes cannot forget it even for an instant – the habit has become almost a second nature, coexisting with the first and little by little corroded it, destroyed it, took its place – just as thirst little by little kills the body that suffers from it. [Pasolini 1992, p. 72-73]

18It is strange that Pasolini does not read this experience of Oneness as the origin of ‘truth’. For what else is truth – introduced (or even, as Nietzsche claims, ‘invented’) as dominant paradigm in man’s relation to reality in the 6th century BC – than the Oneness that distinguishes itself from the chaotic realm of difference so characteristic for the nature we deal with in everyday life. It is a similar kind of Oneness that intelligent men in Antique Greece translated as ‘truth’ and that marked the beginning of what one can call the Western ‘regime of truth’. That ‘regime’ realized itself as philosophy, mathematics, and science, and dominates our civilization till now. It is the introduction of a ‘second nature’, not marked by the chaotic realm of differences that hallmarks so to say ‘natural nature’. And in the same period (or a bit earlier) and in a different place though not that far from Greece (Jerusalem and Babylon), other intelligent men introduced a similar truth, be it this time in a religious context. Before worshipping a god, so Isaiah, Jeremiah and others warned, one has to investigate whether or not it is a true god, for only a true God is God; only the God that coincides with the One and Only Truth is worth to be considered divine and to be worshipped [Assmann 2010, p. 12 ff].

19Monotheism, just like philosophy, is a regime of truth. The monotheistic experience of the Oneness implies a criticism towards ‘normal’ gods who are to be denounced as idols, i.e. false, non-true gods. It implies an attitude of constant criticism even towards the monotheist’s own claim. Never can he leave behind the critical reflex of suspecting the God he worships, for it might be a false one, a god produced by his own imagination and thus denying the truth, which says that only God is God.

20This reference to truth, this criterion to approach the God one worships in terms of true or false, this critical way of dealing with the divine, which is so typical for monotheism, is not what religion is about, according to Pasolini. And yet for him, too, religion has a highly critical potential as well as a genuine truth-value, concealing a truth already denied by ancient rationalism and which modern rationalism negates even more.

21So, what, according to Pasolini, is precisely the critical potential of religion, what is its truth-value, and why, despite his own suggestion in that chapter in Teorema, this critical potential has nothing to do with the critical core of monotheism?

4. Pasolini’s religion

22What then, according to Pasolini, is religion? How exactly does he define it? The answer is everywhere in his oeuvre, and Teorema is no exception. The way Emilia, the maiden, copes with the loss caused by the departure of the visitor makes it unambiguously explicit.

  • 8 So tells the movie. The novel adds another miracle. Once Emilia is buried, people (workmen, proleta (...)

23When after the departure of the visitor, she has left the Milanese family and has returned to her home farm in the countryside, she does not enter the house. Instead, she installs herself on a bench, keeping silent and avoiding any direct contact with her fellows. Straightaway, those fellows accept her strange behaviour, soon followed by the people from the village that comes to honour her. When they bring a sick child to her attention, she heals it simply by making the sign of the cross. When she – still on her bench – is offered a dinner, she refuses and indicates nettles as the food she prefers. “It’s a scandal,” they say, but they accept it – just like they accept her hair colouring green – as a sign of saintliness. The next episode we see a genuine ‘levitation’: Emilia is literally hanging thirty feet above the ground, worshipped by a crowd kneeling down in prayer. At the end of the movie, we see her leaving the farm in the company of an old woman, marching till they arrive at the suburbs of Milan. Emilia’s eyes got filled with tears. In an embankment, with the help of her company, she buries herself alive, keeping on weeping tears. “I am not here to die, but to weep”, she tells to the old woman, “and I do not weep tears out of sorrow: these form a source, and not a source of sorrow. Go, go now.”8.

24This is religion according to Pasolini. It is not a matter of doctrine or personally convinced beliefs. Neither is it a matter of critical attitude towards the divine object one worships. It is religion as it is lived in the most uncritical and non-reflected way, an archaic cultic way of dealing with reality full of mysterious gestures, weird saints and incomprehensible miracles. Pasolini’s religion is radically ‘popular’, ‘vulgar’ even. In a posthumously published text, he fulminates against the fact that contemporary religions have become skeptical with regard to miracles.

Western religion, impregnated by laicism and considering itself revolutionary with respect to his own clerical spirit (which is a mistake), tends to show itself skeptical and ironic with respect to miracles. Yet, miracles are religion. A saint who does no fly, who does not disappear and has no magic influence on natural phenomena, is no saint; or it is a western saint full of moral and prosaic problems, not purely religious. [Pasolini 2003, p. 42; my translation]

25Despite the massive reference to the Bible (to the “Old Testament”, as he declares in the interview mentioned above, and to Christ and Saint Paul), it is clear that the religion Pasolini puts forward is certainly not monotheistic in the sense as defined earlier in this essay. The Christian religion he shows in his movies (as in the case of Emilia) is drastically ‘paganized’. It is a religion totally absorbed by the illiterate, “peasant universe”, as he writes in one is his “Corsair Writings”:

In the peasant universe, Christ has been assimilated to one of the thousand Adonises and the thousand Proserpines that existed and that denied real time, i.e. history. The time of the agrarian gods, who are similar to Christ, is a ‘sacred’ or ‘liturgical’ time, with a cyclic character, an eternal retour. [Pasolini 1975a, p. 128; my translation]

26Pasolini’s religion, even in its Christian version, is not guided by a religion critical attitude: examining whether the God one believes in is a true god and whether sacred rites one performs are truly sacred. Emilia questions nothing; neither do the people who worship her. Emilia gradually becomes a saint in her local community, we hear no critical remark, and even no remark at all. We hear barely a word spoken. She takes her saintliness upon her without any hesitation, without the slightest sign of reflection, without questions. And so do the peasants and farmers of her village who come and worship her. No reference to truth is made; no reference to critical thinking either.

27Are truth and criticism, then, absent in Emilia’s (i.e. Pasolini’s) religion? Absolutely not. As performed in this movie – and confirmed in countless other passages in his oeuvre and in his interviews – it is clear that religion is not simply criticized as an “illusion” or some kind of “opium of the people”, as one might expect from a declared Marxist. Pasolini is too much a Gramscian not to recognize the ‘popular’ – including ‘religious’ – culture of peasants and workmen as an emancipatory force of primordial order. However popular, vulgar, archaic, unreflective and non-doctrinal religion may be, it conceals a ‘truth’: not some true dimension hidden under the surface of its doctrine and practice (a way to give consolation to the peasants’ and workmen’s deplorable situation), but a massive, absolute truth: one that offers an alternative for the false paths contemporary society follows. But what then, is that kind of true pagan religion that Pasolini has in mind?

28Let us first find out what to him is false religion, or, what amounts to the same thing, what is false in the religion as it is actually lived in his day. In Teorema, the novel, one of the chapters questions the “saintliness” of Emilia, as opposed to the ‘unsaint’ religion that dominates the contemporary “petty-bourgeois” culture [Pasolini 1992, p. 152-157]. This religion is a thoroughly moral one in which “every religious experience is reduced to moral experience” [Pasolini 1992, p. 154]. “Every old religious situation is automatically transformed […] into a simple case of conscience” [Pasolini 1992, p. 195; italics by Pasolini]. Or, as he puts it a few lines further: they have “(in the best of cases) reduced religion to a code of behavior” [Pasolini 1992, p. 156]. Modern religion has turned “bourgeois”; it tries to leave behind the realm of ‘holy fables’, obscure rituals and indefensible miracles, and turns itself into an enlightened addendum to moral conduct. It is not a matter of social rites but of personal consciousness, and its reason of existence is helping the bourgeoisie dealing with its consciousness.

29Pasolini’s Teorema precisely declares that this religion does not contain the solution for the crisis of modernity as put forward in both the novel and film. The encounter with the visitor confronts each of the characters with a truth so different and so authentic that he or she soon realizes to be completely unable to deal with it. Each of them lives, so to say, a religious experience, an encounter with the unseen purity of an unknown god, be it in a modern version, which implied the experience of the ‘death of God’ (the loss of the visitor). And each of them fails in integrating that experience in his or her life. Except, one, so Pasolini clearly suggests: Emilia, the maiden – read: the ‘subproletariat’, the mass of peasants silently resisting modern bourgeois culture. The chapter, in the novel Teorema, on Emilia’s “sainthood” ends with the following suggestive questions:

So, while this peasant saint can be saved even if in a historical backwater, no member of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, can be saved either as an individual or as a collective whole? As an individual, because he no longer has a soul but a conscience – a noble one perhaps, but by its very nature coarse and limited; as a collective whole, because his history is running out without leaving traces, turning from being the history of the first industries to being the history of the complete industrialization of the world?

But the new type of religion which will be born then (and one can already see the first signs of it in the most advanced nations) will have nothing to do with this shit (excuse the word), which is the bourgeois, capitalist or socialist world which we live? [Pasolini 1992, p. 156-157]

  • 9 “When I talked about the bourgeoisie I am not really talking about a social class, but rather a rea (...)

30Only the ‘vulgar’, ‘pagan’ peasant religion has the critical force to put forward an alternative for the dominant bourgeois culture, which Pasolini defines not simply as a “social class”, but as a “real and concrete disease” perverting all classes9.

  • 10 Pasolini speaks of “religioni contadine” (peasant religions); see the famous poem Profezia (Prophec (...)

31Yet, Pasolini’s suggestive questions are not without ambiguity. The only thing in “the bourgeois, capitalist or socialist world which we live” that can save us is the kind of peasant religion10 as exemplified in the way Emilia deals with the loss after the leaving of the visitor. But that religion does not seem to stand a chance of doing this, since everyone on the planet seems doomed to become bourgeois. And yet, the last question suggests, “a new type of religion” will emerge from that bourgeois world which is radically different from that world. So, will the ‘pagan true religion’ really be able to save us from the bourgeois condition we are in? Pasolini’s text leaves it unclear if this is possible at all.

5. “Tutto è santo

32Yet, again, what does Pasolini precisely mean by the kind of “peasant religion” to which he ascribes the messianic role of saving us from the bourgeois condition we are in? How must we understand a religion as exemplified in what occurred to Emilia when she has returned to her home farm?

33Another example from Pasolini’s filmography can help here. Take for instance the passage in Medea (1969) that evokes life in the ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek) land of Colchis where the main character is a priestess of a religion centred on the Golden Fleece. Like in the movie scenes on Emilia’s religion in Teorema, those twenty minutes in Medea are almost without spoken words. Things happen in a perfectly ritual way, nobody explains or questions anything, not even when, in the climax of the scene, a young man got ritually killed, his body cut into pieces, his flesh spread all over the fields and buried there (so that the plants can grow, we later learn), after which the bones of the sacrificed body are burned in a ‘holocaust’ that wakens up the dead and, for a limited time, overthrows the political order of the community (we see the people spitting in the faces of the royal family and humiliating the priestess and her religion). It is a fascinating evocation of ‘archaic, peasant religion’, and it is obviously put forward as the ‘true, pagan religion’: the ‘real’, (because) mythical truth opposed to the rational truth of the Greek, of Jason, Medea’s antagonist, whose unreal truth will tragically destroy the real, ‘religious’ truth Medea and her religion deal with. The movie is about Medea’s vengeance, i.e. the revenge of the ‘mythos’ – the true pagan religion – taken on unreligious rationality – the ‘logos’ – of the Greek.

34The evocation of the ‘true, pagan religion’ remains without words. While words were uttered in order to explaining that religion in the scenes before, when the education of the young Jason was evoked. There, Jason’s mythical teacher, the centaur Chiron, explains his pupil’s mythological genealogy. “Quite a complex story,” he concludes at the end of his difficult explanations, “for it is made of real things, not of ideas” [Pasolini 2007, p. 138; my translation]. The next scene concludes Jason’s ‘pagan’ education and reveals the hallmark of what Pasolini means by genuine ‘religion’. Looking out over a beautiful lagoon, the centaur recites:

  • 11 Pasolini’s idea of the sacred is influenced by the work of the Italian ethnologist and anthropologi (...)

All is holy, all is holy, all is holy. Nothing is natural in nature, my boy; keep that in mind. When nature will look natural to you, it will be the end of everything – and something new will begin. […] Tell me, is there the slightest thing around here that is not unnatural? That is not inhabited by a god? […] At every spot you look, a god is hiding! And if, by accident, he is not there, he left signs of his sacred presence, be it the silence, or the smell of grass, or the freshness of tender waters … Yes, all is holy, but holiness is a malediction as well. God’s love, but at the same time hate. [Pasolini 2007, p. 139; my translation]11

35For Pasolini, true religion is not a matter of transcendence. Precisely not. It is a radically immanent relation to reality as it happens before our eyes – not the reality in so far as we make it an object of our ideas or empirical observations, but reality as it speaks for itself. Reality, not as the ‘nature’ to which we reduced it in our logical, ‘natural’ sciences, but nature as, from that perspective, it appears ‘unnatural’. Religion is an intense relation to a nature that does not speak our language, our ‘logos’, but the language of reality itself. It lets speak nature as such, nature in so far as it is not fixed to the logical definitions we force it into, but as it speaks ‘mythically’, i.e. in terms not subjected to the rule of non-contradiction and other ‘logical’ restrictions. Reality is not what it seems, it is always something else, it is not life solely, it is always death as well; it is not good solely, but also bad and malicious. A way to express that ambiguity – that incurable difference within the heart of reality – is to acknowledge the presence of the divine in all that exists, to recognize a god in every corner of the universe and to read the places where you see no god as signs that god has been there.

  • 12 Pasolini’s reference here is, among others, the work of Mircea Iliade and his analyse of “agrarian (...)

36So, the idea that all is divine and holy does not mean that all is good (as modern moralizing religions believe), but that all is good and bad at the same time, that “holiness is a malediction as well”, that life is death also, that killing a young man is at the same time honouring life’s constant rebirth. “Resurrection” is a central term in Pasolini’s vocabulary on religion. But it is precisely not Christian resurrection, i.e. a final victory over death. On the contrary, it is the affirmation of death as that out of which again and again life is being reborn12. At the end of ‘Jason’s education’, the centaur – who now has become a normal man (since Jason has left the ‘mythical’ phase of childhood) – summarizes all this in a “definitive lesson”:

  • 13 Pasolini’s italics; translation Stefania Benini [Benini 2015, p. 24-25].

What man saw in grain, discovering agriculture, what man learned from this link, what he understood from the example of the seeds that lose their form in the ground in order to be reborn, all this presented the definitive lesson. Resurrection, my boy. [Pasolini 2007, p. 141]13

37This is the “lesson” that modern religions and contemporary bourgeois culture has neglected. That neglect is the central topic of Pasolini’s Medea interpretation. It is embodied there in Jason who, leaving the mythical and embracing the logical, destroys the truly religious non-Greek culture (Colchis) – just like two millennia later, the enlightened West will destroy the ‘primitive’, mythical, religious rest of the World – the ‘Third World’ as it was commonly named in Pasolini’s time. In the lines immediately following the last quote, the centaur utters his last words to Jason:

  • 14 Translation Stefania Benini [Benini 2015, p. 25].

But now the final lesson is no longer useful. What you see in grain, what you understand of the rebirth of seed has no meaning for you, like a distant memory that no longer concerns you. There is actually no God. [Pasolini 2007, p. 141]14

38Jason has become an adult, a Greek (read: rational) free citizen, or, in a broader sense, a western, modern man: dropping ‘mythos’ and embracing ‘logos’. And even if he would embrace religion, it will be a logical religion, one that denies reality as an epiphany of divine ambiguity and ambiguous divinity.

6. “Spasm of thought”

39Where do we find the kind of ‘true pagan religion’ Pasolini puts forward? We know already the topoi of his preference: mythical antiquity and peasant religious culture persisting in contemporary petty bourgeois modernity. But most obviously it is present in the very way he describes mythical antiquity and contemporary peasant culture. The core of what Pasolinian ‘religion’ is about is most obviously present in Pasolini’s own work, in his poetry, novels, columns, and movies– in short, in the ‘poetics’ of his entire artistic production.

40It is, first of all, present in his poetry – the basis of all the forms of art he practised. Poetry is “religious” in the sense that it lets speak reality as such, reality before it is integrated in the ‘good/bad’, ‘fiction/real’ framework. Already his early poetry tried to let reality speak as it was expressed in the peasants’ lives in Friuli, the region in Northern Italy where he spent a large time of his childhood. It was by writing poems in those peasants’ language that he left behind the hermetic poetics he first admired so much. “It was through Friulian that I came to understand some of the real world of peasantry,” he declares in an interview [Stack 1969, p. 16]. The peasants’ proper language brought him to reality, just as the language of Rome’s suburbs was at the basis of his novels of the fifties. Language through which reality speaks: unmediated, unfiltered, unpolished – a language that decodes the ‘code’ of reality itself [Pasolini 1988, p. 256-257]. A ‘diary poem’ from the late fifties illustrates this strikingly:

As in a spasm of thought,
a flash, I suddenly see people
as real. Sordid … innocent … and unable
to step out their fusion with the world.
– the world in which they are living …
I, who saw them born in my own birth,
was never able, as in a dream, to think
of them even as my kind
But in the future …

  • 15 For a different version of the poem, see Bestemmia. Tutte le poesie [Pasoloni 1993, p. 2034].

Come in uno spasimo del pensiero
balenante, quali sono vedo a un tratto
gli uomini. Sordidi, innocenti, ed incapaci
a uscire dalla fusione con il mondo
il loro mondo, di cui sono i vivi …
Io, che nascendo li ho visti nati, mai
fui capace, come in un sogno, a crederli
semplicemente la mia specie.
Ma nel futuro … [Pasolini 2014a, p. 145; 2009, p. 753]15

  • 16 “Language of Reality” is a concept from Pasolini’s film theory, as explained in Heretical Empiricis (...)

41Poetry is thinking, a spontaneous, uncontrolled way of thinking, not discursively, not logically, but mythically: “as in a spasm of thought”, in a “flash”. Only this kind of thinking gives access to people “as real”, “as they are” (“quali sono”). Only this “flash” allows the “Language of Reality” to speak16. And when he characterizes those real people “innocent”, it is not because they are without evil (for they are with it), but because they are not contaminated by it – they are what they are, irrespective of whether they are right or wrong, good or evil. His “spasm of thought” is the metaphor for an act of thinking that does not judge: it does not split up what it sees in true or false, moral or immoral. His ‘thought flash’ does not even split what it sees from the surrounding world in which it appears. It sees people “unable to / step out of the fusion with their world”. Remember the images in Teorema of the peasants looking at Emilia eating nettles or performing miracles; remember the people of Cholcis assisting at the human sacrifice ritual and spitting in the face of the royal family. We literally see people in “fusion with their world”. The images Pasolini shoots of them are taken by such a “spasm of thought”, such a “flash”. He definitely remains a poet while making movies.

42Yet, as we read at the end of the poem, what the poet – or the novelist and the cineaste – sees in that “spasm of thought”, he cannot really make it his. He cannot appropriate it. On the one hand, he immediately realizes that he himself is ‘co-original’ with the people he sees “as real”, that their locus is there where he himself is born. But he is, on the other hand, aware that he cannot “think / of them […] as [his] kind”. His “spasm of thought” gives access to the real. And yet, not really: though what he sees is absolutely real, he only knows it “as in a dream”. He cannot include it in his discursive, logical thinking: what he sees, although undoubtedly real, never surpasses the status of a “dream”.

43What the poet – in poem, novel and film – writes or shows when he allows “the Language of Reality” to speak, is a “dream”.

44This is not just a detail in the poetics of Pasolini’s writing and cinema. And since the mission of poetry and cinema is to fight the globalizing bourgeois ideology, it is neither just a detail in his critique of ideology. For what if what cinema (and poetry in general) shows is nothing but a “dream”: a “dream” showing us “people / as real” and telling us the “Language of Reality”, but a dream nevertheless? How can a dream that does not succeed in overcoming being a dream save us from the totalitarian bourgeoisie we are currently living in? What is the critical potentiality and efficiency of such a dream?

45It must be so difficult a question that one easily forgets it. As Pasolini himself for instance did. At least, this is what his documentary movie, Notes Towards an African Orestes (Appunti per un'Orestiade Africana, 1970), seems to illustrate quite strikingly.

7. Playing …

46Notes Towards an African Orestes prepares cinematographically a future film on the Oresteia. Pasolini explains therein that he will – as he had done in earlier films as King Oedipus (1968), Medea, and even in The Gospel according to St. Matthew (1964) – put an ancient myth explicitly in a non-western, mythical, ‘religious’ context. However, in the Notes he does more. He puts it in a context where the mythical is recently left behind: the majority of the African countries has recently obtained again independence and by then for the first time really – i.e. also politically – enter the Western world. It is not a coincidence that he puts precisely the Oresteia in that context. This trilogy by Aeschylus (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) ends with the entrance of the ‘mythical’ Orestes into the ‘logical’ world of Athens – Athens being the image of the ‘rational’ regime (under the protection of Athena, the goddess of rationality) that replaces the old mythical, religious and ‘irrational’ regime. Orestes killed his mother (Clytemnestra) because she, secretly living with her lover, had killed his father (Agamemnon) by his return from the Trojan War. Orestes had to flee for the Erinyes who took the side of Clytemnestra. Protected by Apollo, Orestes hardly escapes the incessant vengeance of those ancient goddesses. It is Athena who puts an end to the whole story. When, still haunted and tortured by the Erinyes, Orestes arrives in her town, Athena puts him before a jury of men, with Apollo as his defender and the Erinyes as his attorney. When only with a very narrow majority Orestes gets acquitted, Athena convinces the Erinyes to accept the verdict and to stay in Athens, where, so she promises, they will be worshipped by the citizens, but not as (sad) Erinyes, but as (good) Eumenides.

47It is exactly what, according to Pasolini, happens in Africa: black Orestes, the ancient mythical man, enters modern rational ‘Athens’. And Aeschylus’s story also tells what has to be brought about in Africa: the Erinyes – the name for the ancient, mythical, feudal-like set of cultural and political practices – have to change into Eumenides – symbolizing modern, rational and democratic practices. From Aeschylus’s tragedy Pasolini learns that this is possible, that the ‘mythical can change into the ‘rational’ – which means, so he specifies, that the latter can be integrated in the former without losing its singularity. How precisely this change – this ‘joint venture’ between mythical and rational – will take place remains unclear in the Notes Towards an African Orestes. One can notice that Pasolini’s suggestions are not without a certain naiveté. At the end of the documentary film, he illustrates his thesis with two examples: a matrimonial feast in Dodoma (Tanganyika) and, before that, a ritual dance by people of a Wa-gogo tribe (Tanzania). He comments on the dance as follows:

  • 17 Translation from the French subtitles [Pasolini 1975b].

In the past – past, let’s say, only until a few years ago – it was a rite with precise, religious, maybe cosmogonic significations. Now, you see, the Wa-gogo people, who before did these gestures as for real, repeat them light-heartedly, as a play (depriving them of their antique, sacred meaning), as mere pleasure. This can be the metaphor of the transformation of the Erinyes into Eumenides.17

48The least one can say is that, as a solution for the becoming bourgeois of the planet, it does not sound really convincing. Is what Pasolini in fact shows not the becoming ‘folkore’ of mythical culture, and, consequently, its changing into a commodity for consumerist capitalism? Is this ‘playing’ not the most efficient way to neutralize the critical force that is hidden in ancient religion and in its rites and myths?

8. … or sleeplessly dreaming

  • 18 See the questions from the chapter on “sainthood” quoted above [Pasolini 1992, p. 156].

49Here, it can be instructive to remember the passage on Emilia’s religion in Teorema. The whole scene is put forward as one of the possible answers to the traumatic impasse of bourgeois culture, and more precisely as the answer that did not radically fail, in contrast to Paolo’s, Lucia’s, Pietro’s, and Odetta’s18. Did Emilia’s solution not fail? In fact, the movie does not give a really clear answer to that question. It gives at least not the answer the Notes Towards an African Orestes give to that question. What, if the events occurring in the village after Emilia’s arrival – the miracle with the boy, the greening of her hair, the levitation, the self-burial and metamorphosis in a source – what if all this is “as a play”? What if it is but a “light-heartedly” repetition of something that has lost its original seriousness and meaning?

50What Pasolini says about Africa and Africans, would he ever say that about Italy and its peasant culture? Playing that culture, playing a peasant that does not exist anymore: would he acknowledge this as a force able to really fight the becoming bourgeois of all Italians? It is not quite what the movie scene of Emilia’s religion suggests. Her religion is not played. It is real.

51Is it? Is the religion surrounding Emilia in Teorema real? It is shown as real. It is played as real – in the movie. And is, then, that movie capable of fighting the evil of globalized bourgeoisie – or, as Pasolini suggests in his Notes, to integrate that ancient religion into the modern world? Is film – or poetry, literature, art – the equivalent of the dance he observed in Tanzania while making his Notes?

52Not exactly. At least, this is not how Pasolini seems to consider it in the larger part of his oeuvre. There, the place of film/poetry in modern bourgeois culture is not the one of a dance, but of a dream, more precisely the “dream” we read in one of his ‘diary poems’, the ‘dream’ that blocks the poet (cineaste) from really entering the real reality he sees in the “flash”, the “spasm of thought”, that confronts him with the “people / as real” – people in which he immediately recognizes his true non-alienated self while nonetheless remaining unable to catch both those people and his own self, except “as in a dream”. This is what the poet/cineaste can offer us in the “Language of Reality”, as he shows in the ‘Emilia religion’ in Teorema, for instance, or in the ‘Colchis religion’ in Medea.

53It is the “dream” that punctuates Teorema as the movie’s basic cinematographic motive and that, at the same time, expresses its central issue: the “dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot waken”. That kind of dream is not exactly “lightheartedly”. It is rather an obsession, even while dancing. For, certainly, the “dream” of cinema is a kind of dance or play. It is cinema, which one goes to see on Saturday night in order to enjoy it. But with his cinematographic “dream”, Pasolini does not exactly want to enjoy you. He wants to confront the bourgeois you (and all cinema visitors) are with a “dream that allows [you] no sleep and from which [you] cannot waken”.

54Unlike the “dance”, this obsessional “dream” activates – and keeps on activating – the kind of ancient agrarian religion as a critical potential with respect to the modern bourgeois world it is situated in. If it is integrated at all, it is so in a profoundly ‘rebellious’ way, in a way that it obstructs integration.

55It is here that one meets the ‘monotheistic’ dimension of Pasolini’s critique of ideology. The religion he shows is definitely not the inherently critical monotheistic religion, but the radically different, pagan one. This uncritical pagan religion, however, is invested in a critical strategy. It is not simply the answer and solution to the problematic bourgeois condition that is globally put into place; it is what obstructs – or at least postpones – those solutions. Taking the form of an obsessional ‘sleepless dream’, it criticizes any so-called realization of that dream. The truth in the name of which it performs its criticism, is a “dream” that keeps you awake in your sleep and hinders you to awaken from it.

56Notes Towards an African Orestes end, as we saw, in a somewhat naïve optimism that mythos and logos, ancient religion and modern culture, could join one another in a non-problematic, light-hearted “dance”. And yet, the ultimate words of the movie reveal a less naïve idea about what such “integration” means: not so much the solution as the acknowledgment of the problems, of the inherently problematic nature of life – of the fact that there is “nothing natural in nature”, as Pasolini expressed it in Medea. The Notes conclude (or avoid conclusion) as follows:

  • 19 Translation from the French subtitles [Pasolini 1975b].

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    Notes

    1 Original text: “ … come un sogno che non lascia dormire e da cui non ci si può risvegliare” [Pasolini 1968, p. 88].

    2 At the end of the novel Teorema when Paolo runs desperate through the desert, he says: “As once for the people of Israel or the Apostle Paul, the desert appears now to me as that part of reality that is alone indispensable. Or better still as the reality quite stripped (except of its essence) just as a person imagines it who lives and sometimes thinks it but without being a philosopher. In fact, all around, there is nothing except what is necessary: the earth, the sky and the body of a man. However mad, abysmal or ethereal the dark horizon may be, its line is ONE: and any of its points is the same as any other point.” [Pasolini 1992, p. 174]

    3 Maurizio Viano speaks of a “messianic visitation”. [Viano 1993, p. 199]

    4 In a 1966 interview with the French television, when he explains the movie that will be released soon (Teorema), Pasolini declares (in French): “la mère mélange l’image de Dieu véritable qu’était ce jeune-là avec l’image de Dieu conventionnel, catholique” [Pasolini 1966].

    5 According to Luca Caminati, Paolo’s screaming in the desert alludes to Isaiah 40: 3. This text announces the coming of the Messiah (and is quoted in the Gospel of Saint Mathew 3:3): “The voice or him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (King James Version). Caminati only quotes, in the Latin of the Vulgate: “vox clamantis in deserto” [Caminati 2009, p. 376].

    6 In another interview, in French, he says: “C’est l’histoire de la visitation de Dieu selon la tradition biblique” – quoted from the television program Pasolini l’arrabiato [Pasolini 1966].

    7 In fact, there has been an earlier monotheism, namely in Egypt, introduced by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (14th century BC) and repressed immediately after his death. But the basis of today’s monotheistic religions is the Jewish monotheist culture that found its definite shape before and during the Babylonian Exile (beginning of the 6th century BC).

    8 So tells the movie. The novel adds another miracle. Once Emilia is buried, people (workmen, proletarians) in the apartments around the embankment take notice of it. A group of them brings a wounded boy to the source: “No sooner does the water begin to wash the blood from the flesh than the wound also begins to heal; in a few seconds the cut closes and the blood stops flowing” [Pasolini 1992, p. 163].

    9 “When I talked about the bourgeoisie I am not really talking about a social class, but rather a real and concrete disease. A very contagious disease: so much that it contaminated almost all those who fight against it: northern workers, southern immigrant workers, members of the bourgeoisie opposing the current government, and the ‘solitaries’ (like myself).” Pasolini, quoted in “The Amphibolic Nature of Pasolini’s Theorem(s)” [Caminati 2009, p. 372].

    10 Pasolini speaks of “religioni contadine” (peasant religions); see the famous poem Profezia (Prophecy); [Pasolini 1991, p. 98; 2014a, p. 374-375].

    11 Pasolini’s idea of the sacred is influenced by the work of the Italian ethnologist and anthropologist Ernesto de Martino. See for instance Angela Biancafiori [Biancafiori 2010].

    12 Pasolini’s reference here is, among others, the work of Mircea Iliade and his analyse of “agrarian rites” [Eliade 1974, p. 280-309].

    13 Pasolini’s italics; translation Stefania Benini [Benini 2015, p. 24-25].

    14 Translation Stefania Benini [Benini 2015, p. 25].

    15 For a different version of the poem, see Bestemmia. Tutte le poesie [Pasoloni 1993, p. 2034].

    16 “Language of Reality” is a concept from Pasolini’s film theory, as explained in Heretical Empiricism. Under the surface of verbal language, of the one of discourse and logical thought, there is a nonverbal language, the language inherent to reality itself. Cinema allows, so Pasolini argues, reality itself to speak. Speaking the “language of Reality”, poetry, cinema and art in general overcome the ideological – petty bourgeois-like, fascist, capitalist – limits of the “Language of the imagined Reality.” See, for instance Heretical Empiricism [Pasolini 1988, p. 261-263].

    17 Translation from the French subtitles [Pasolini 1975b].

    18 See the questions from the chapter on “sainthood” quoted above [Pasolini 1992, p. 156].

    19 Translation from the French subtitles [Pasolini 1975b].

    20 For a different translation, see Poetry [Pasolini 1991, p. 122]. French translation in Pasolini. Séminaire dirigé par Maria Atonietta Macciocchi [Macchiochi 1980, p. 269-270].

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    Marc De Kesel, « A Sleepless Dream », ThéoRèmes [En ligne], 10 | 2017, mis en ligne le 24 décembre 2016, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/theoremes/917 ; DOI : 10.4000/theoremes.917

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    Marc De Kesel

    Saint-Paul University, Ottawa

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