In 1975, just months before he was brutally murdered near Ostia, Pier Paolo Pasolini makes a striking diagnosis: “In the early 1960s, because of the air pollution, and most importantly, because of the water pollution in the countryside (the blue rivers and the clear ditches), the fireflies have begun to disappear.”1
The fireflies, for Pasolini, symbolised the alternative space embodied by the Friulian and Roman working classes that he had documented so passionately in his poems, novels, and films of the 1950s and early ‘60s. It was these fireflies, mostly beautiful peasants and boys from the suburbs, that he could no longer find in the booming Italy of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
During and leading up to the period usually referred to as that of the “second Pasolini” (the post-1968 years), Pasolini saw himself forced to go to what was then still called the “Third World”. In these recently independent and formerly colonial African and Asian nations, Pasolini could still find fireflies. They had not yet been touched by the physical and metonymical air and water pollution brought forth by the advance of industrial capital at home. Toward the end of his life, however, he would realise that his new-found alternative was disappearing, that the same structures of increasingly globalised capital which he had identified at home in Italy were starting to envelop the rest of the world. The only avenue left to follow, Pasolini would argue, was that of a desperate poetics and politics of the unfinished.
When Pasolini and his friends Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante travelled to India in 1961, they were not innocent tourists. They were there under the auspices of two international organisations and the Indian government. Alberto Moravia, who just a year earlier had been elected president of the literary human rights organisation PEN International, had been invited by the Indian affiliate of PEN to attend a conference in honor of the Indian poet, writer, and painter Rabindranath Tagore.2 Pasolini’s first trip to postcolonial India, then, was not undertaken in an exoticist vein often found in travel literature of the time. Neither can it be read as a discursively orientalist move in the Saïdian sense, as underpinning the remnants of a historically colonial power structure. As Luca Caminati has shown in his Orientalismo eretico3, it was rather an example of cultural diplomacy, a real exchange between Western and non-Western writers and intellectuals.
At the historic Bandung Conference in 1955 the participating Third World nations had tried to imagine alternative ways of working together in the bipolar world of the Cold War. The event marked the birth of the Non-Alignment Movement, and left its mark on a generation of writers, artists, and filmmakers. The aftermath of what was known as the “spirit of Bandung” would also capture the imagination of Western intellectuals. The highpoint of this interest was marked by the heated days of the late sixties and early seventies, when engaged artists and intellectuals like Pasolini, disillusioned with the course of events in the Soviet Union, increasingly flocked to non-aligned countries like Ghana, Yemen, or China in search of an alternative.
In 1961, in an article for Vie Nuove, Pasolini discusses his own interest in the Third World for the first time, specifically with reference to Bandung. For Pasolini, the Italy of the early 1960s was still a place marked by the same divides that could be outlined between the metropoles and their former colonies. The extensive inequalities of the postcolonial world reminded Pasolini of the gap between the industrialised North and the rural South of Italy. “Bandung is the capital of three quarters of the world”, he writes on the pages of Vie Nuove, “it is also the capital of half of Italy.”4
Pasolini is indirectly referring here to what has been called the “orientalisation” of Italy. As a nation with little colonial experience and strong internal inequalities, Italy – at least it’s southern half – was in a direct dialogue with Bandung. Pasolini’s engagement with the developing world, then, is quintessentially Pasolinian: the Italian sottoproletariato and the people he found in India and Africa for him are part of one and the same entity, or to use Silvia Mazzini’s words from a recent article, a “transnational subproletariat”.5
Bandung would return a few years later in a recently translated poem, “L’uomo di Bandung”, or “Bandung Man” in the English translation by Gordon Brown:
Davidson ‘Nbiguini is a Kikuyu.
All that links him to Revi is the line of the Tropics:
for there is no bond to tie them
—unless a mind’s eye seeks it out—
the sons of Aversa, or of Kerala, or of Africa.
Goodness links Davidson to Revi… the goodness
of the huts of the Kenyan mountains,
lost who knows where, in what waters, what sunlight.6
The two characters we encounter here, Davidson and Revi, are characters from two of Pasolini’s earlier projects: Davidson is the name of a young African boy, the main character of the screenplay The Savage Father (Il padre selvaggio) of 1962, a film that was never shot; Revi on the other hand is a young Indian boy whom we encounter for the first time in his travelogue The Scent of India (L’odore dell’India, 1962). In a certain sense, Revi and Davidson are a miniature Bandung: they symbolise a universalist conference attended here by the odd one out, the western intellectual Pasolini. For Pasolini, the Italian sottoproletariato and the Third World formed a single, essentially humanist-universalist continuum of which the idealized male body – the “Bandung Man” embodied by the central character Revi in The Scent of India and Davidson in The Savage Father – was the main locus.
Strikingly, for Pasolini, this universalist third world continuum represented by “Bandung Man” included Black America. In Pasolini’s eyes, the black ghettos of America, the slums of Black Africa, the streets of Delhi, and the Friulian countryside evoked one and the same phenomenon. “The Black problem [in America]”, Pasolini writes in an article written immediately after his first trip to New York in 1966, “is a Third World problem”.7
In his film Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana (Notes for an African Orestes 1971), which like Appunti per un film sull’India (Notes for a Film on India, 1968), consists of cinematographic notes, or drafts for films to be made in the future8, Pasolini again makes direct connections between the Third World – in this case, Africa – and Black America. Afro-America, Pasolini insisted, saw itself as a part of the new universalist brotherhood of Asian and African nations. The film, like the drafts, was to be shot on location in Uganda and Tanzania, and was envisioned as an adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In a lengthy interlude, Pasolini serves us over twelve minutes of funky jazz in a dark Roman basement, with the well-known African-American dancer Archie Savage as one of the band’s singers. Pasolini tells us that the African-American origins of jazz make this band ideal for the role of the chorus in his future adaptation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon—a clin d’oeil in other words to the ancient, mythical, even pre-historic qualities ascribed by Pasolini to the Third World.9
The documentary opens on the streets of an unspecified African city, described by Pasolini as the capital of a pro-China African nation touched by the spirit of Bandung, as illustrated by the Chinese propaganda materials he finds on the streets. China, it turns out, would have a presence throughout the documentary. Towards the end of the film we meet the main character of Orestes as he undergoes a metamorphosis. He turns into what was known as an évolué, an educated colonial subject that sets out on a pilgrimage to what Pasolini calls the “temple of Apollo”, the newly constructed university of Dar-es-Salaam. The university, Pasolini tells us, was funded by a Bandung-era grant from the People’s Republic.
China’s involvement, as a self-declared Third World nation, with the other “filo-cinese” non-aligned nations of the Bandung Conference was essentially one based on large construction projects executed by immigrant Chinese laborers in exchange for direct access to natural resources – an approach to so-called “humanitarian aid” that China has been turning into a reality in Africa to this very day. It was an approach Pasolini clearly deplored.
Pasolini would return to this question in his later filmic appeal to Unesco, Le mura di Sana’a (The Walls of Sana’a, 1971). The film features a number of scenes of Chinese migrant laborers building a road through the Yemenite desert which, Pasolini warns, will bring with it the inevitable destruction of an important world heritage site. Along with the bodies of these Chinese workers, shots of Chinese canned foods as well as a monument with Chinese inscriptions erected to commemorate the building of the road, signal the significance of China’s presence in Africa. Pasolini’s understanding of China’s engagement with the Third World in the context of Bandung, in other words, is an early testimony of this prolonged history.
In the last section of the documentary, Pasolini goes as far as comparing the Chinese construction projects in Sana’a to the destruction brought to the Italian town of Orte.10 A city like Orte, much like Sana’a, symbolised in Pasolini’s eyes an uncorrupted remnant from the past that could offer refuge amid the onslaught of global capital. The Chinese road with its construction workers and consumer products that had so suddenly arrived in Yemen, was for Pasolini to be located on the exact same wavelength as the modern apartment buildings that were polluting the views of medieval Orte. For the increasingly pessimistic Pasolini of the 1970s, Bandung no longer offered the kind of inspiring alternative it once did. Bandung, a bitter Pasolini suggested, was starting to be enveloped by global capital.
If the documentaries hint at a more pessimistic Pasolini, in the earlier travelogue L’odore dell’India (The Scent of India, 1962) we still find an intellectual captured by the promise of the Third World. Pasolini does indeed describe scenes of Bandung-era cultural diplomacy, though he avoids direct political commentary. Yugoslavian delegates at a reception at the Cuban embassy on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Cuban revolution, for instance, are described as “all with their glass of whisky in their hand, all lined up as on a print, indulging in a pleasant babble of conversation amidst the rather cold spring air”11, a young bourgeois Indian intellectual as “clothed in the European style, curiously ugly, who laughs with the voice of a crackling grammophone”12, and finally the mysterious quality of the whole country that was India in Pasolini’s eyes, as a “rebus, in which one can arrive at the top with patience.”13
What is most striking about The Scent of India, however, is Pasolini’s return to his idiosyncratic trope of the universalist continuum between Revi and Davidson in his “Bandung Man” poem. Descriptions of beautiful Indian boys and scenes are often rendered metaphorically by contrasting them with what in Pasolini’s eyes would be their Italian equivalent. A Muslim boy seeking his fortune in Bombay is compared to a “Calabrian boy” who has just arrived in Rome, “in a city where he knows no one, doesn’t have a house, must arrange a bed just as it happens, and eat when he can.”14 The streets of India are metaphorised as the “outskirts of Rome”15, the aimless roaming around of homeless Indian boys is “a little bit as one sees at Naples.”16 In Pasolini’s mind, the Friulian peasant boys, the Roman ragazzi di vita, Neapolitan streetkids like his character Gennariello, and the boys he meets in India are all part of the same universally found species: fireflies.
It was a continuum that would return in his landmark poem “Profezia” (“Prophecy”, 1964), significantly dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre.17 In Prophecy, Pasolini reiterates a story he has told before, namely that of the boy “Alì with the blue eyes”, a story Sartre would have passed on to him. Pasolini not only draws a direct parallel between Africa and rural Calabria, he even goes as far as making an uncanny prediction of future immigration waves. Alì, Pasolini writes, “will come down from Algeria, on sail boats and row boats. With him there will be thousands of men with tiny bodies and the eyes of the poor dogs of their fathers. […] They will bring their grandmothers and their donkeys, on triremes stolen in colonial ports.”18 These newly arrived immigrants, Pasolini argues, will resuscitate the blandness of modern life in Calabria, where “the time of television” had solidly settled. Their arrival is hailed in other words as salutary, as a breath of fresh air for the fireflies whose survival was increasingly threatened on Pasolini’s side of the Mediterranean.
Seven years later, in his Notes for a Film on India, a progressively pessimistic Pasolini gives us an image of an untouched, pure Third World which undergoes a metamorphosis, a formerly utopian space that is slowly transformed into a dystopia. He suggests that modernisation and industrial development, both the results of late colonisation, are at the heart of the disappearance of the fireflies beyond Italy. The Third World is no longer, as it had been before 1968, an untouched utopian space that can provide an alternative to the engaged intellectual. The universalism inherent to the ideals of Bandung seemed no longer viable.
Particularly telling is the scene of his encounter with a local official concerned with dahlit or untouchable rights, who takes Pasolini on a “hunt for an untouchable” after a discussion of the problem of overpopulation and the recently voted sterilisation law. “Eccolo!”, or “There he is!”, Pasolini exclaims when they finally find one, only to immediately ask this boy whether or not he believes he could one day be the president of an independent India. To which the boy enthusiastically replies in the affirmative. The firefly cocoon constructed by Pasolini had become asphyxiating. The boy was dreaming of a future access to the structures of upward mobility offered by the modern, democratic nation state.
In the shots that follow, Pasolini takes his viewer to the rural village of Bhavati, which, it turns out, is not far away from a Fiat-Dodge factory. The India we encounter here, the India of the late sixties, a self-confident postcolonial nation that was embracing modernity, western democracy, and capitalism, was in Pasolini’s eyes doomed to become equally as polluted as Italy, equally as unlikely to still provide an environment where fireflies could thrive. Perhaps, Pasolini seems to suggest, his “Bandung Man”, like the fireflies, was evermore at risk of becoming extinct.
The notebook-like structure of Pasolini’s Third-Worldist documentaries takes on a deeper significance here. The Pasolini of the last years left much of his work deliberately unfinished.19 The openness of the work of art offered the only viable alternative for the engaged intellectual surrounded by the onslaught of global capitalism. By deliberately leaving the Indian and African documentaries unfinished, Pasolini gives his audience the tools to imagine a different world.
- “Nei primi anni sessanta a causa dell’inquinamento dell’aria, e sopratutto, in campagna, a causa dell’inquinamento dell’acqua (gli azzurri fiumi e le rogge transparenti) sono cominciate a scomparire le lucciole.” in Pier Paolo Pasolini, “L’articolo delle lucciole”, in Scritti corsari (Milano: Garzanti, 1975), p. 160 (own translation). ↩
- In a letter to Moravia, a conference organizer had written: “As part of the celebration, we have planned symposia on the different aspects of Tagore’s rich and varied contributions to the literature, thought, and culture of the world. (…) You will also find the large number of Indian writers who will gather at the Conference very keen and enthusiastic (…) and responsive to you.” in Debesh Das, Letter on All-India Bengali Literary Conference (Unesco) letterhead, addressed to Alberto Moravia dated December 23, 1960. Courtesy Associazione Fondo Alberto Moravia. ↩
- See Luca Caminati, Orientalismo eretico: Pier Paolo Pasolini e il cinema del Terzo Mondo (Milano: Mondadori, 2007). ↩
- “Bandung è la capitale di tre quarti del mondo, è la capitale anche di metà Italia.” In Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Bandung capitale di mezza Italia,” Le belle bandiere (Trento: l’Unità, 1991), p. 119 (own translation). ↩
- Silvia Mazzini, “Pasolini and India: De- and Re-Construction of a Myth”, in Luca de Blasi et al. (ed.), The Scandal of Self-Contradiction: Pasolini’s Multiple Subjectivities, Geographies, Traditions (Vienna/Berlin: Verlag Turia+Kant, 2012), pp. 137-138. ↩
- Pasolini, “Bandung Man”, trans. Gordon Brown, in Luca de Blasi et al. (eds.), The Scandal of Self-Contradiction, op. cit., p. 283. “Davidson ‘Nbiguini, è un kikuyu. // Non lo lega a Revi che la linea dei Tropici: // perché uno non sa dell’altro // – se non nella coscienza di chi cerca – // i figli di Aversa, o del Kerala, o dell’Africa. // Lo lega a Revi la bontà… La bontà // delle capanne del Kenia montagnoso, // chissà dove perdute, a che acque, a che sole.” In Pasolini, “L’uomo di Bandung”, Bestemmia: Tutte le poesie (Milano: Garzanti, 1993), pp. 1774-1775. ↩
- Pasolini, “Civil War”, in Jack Hirschman (ed.), In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology (San Francisco: City Lights, 2010), p. 19. “Il problema negro (…) è un problema del Terzo Mondo.” In Pasolini, “Guerra civile”, Saggi sulla letteratura e sull’arte, vol. I., ed. Walter Siti et al. (Milan: Mondadori, 1999), p. 1433. ↩
- It was a filmic technique that would return in his “Appunti” or “Notes”, which together make up his last novel Petrolio, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Pantheon, 1997; Torino: Einaudi, 1992). ↩
- Manuele Gragnolati, in a recent article on the Notes for an African Orestes, reminds us that the text of the 12-minute performance is that of Cassandra’s dream in the first installment of Aeschylus’ trilogy. See Manuele Gragnolati, “Analogy and Difference: Multistable Figures in Pasolini’s Appunti per un’Orestiade africana”, in Luca di Blasi et al (eds.), The Scandal of Self-Contradiction, op. cit., pp. 119-134. ↩
- The scenes would return in his 1974 documentary La forma della città (The Form of the City). ↩
- Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Scent of India, trans. David Price (London: Olive Press, 1984), p. 21. Abbreviated hereafter as SI. “Tutti col loro bicchiere di whisky in mano, schierati come in una stampa, in un affabile cicaleccio, nell’aria di primavera un po’ gelida”, in Pier Paolo Pasolini, L’odore dell’India (Parma: Ugo Guanda, 1990), p. 23. Abbreviated hereafter as OI. ↩
- SI 57. “Vestita all’europea, stranamente bruttina, che ride con la voce di un cattivo grammofono”, OI 66. ↩
- SI 53. “Un rebus, di cui, con la pazienza, si può venire a capo”, OI 61. ↩
- SI 17. “In una città dove non ha nessuno, dove non ha casa, e deve arrangiarsi a dormire come capita, a mangiare quando può”, OI 17. ↩
- SI 22. “Periferia romana”, OI 25. ↩
- SI 27. “Un po’ come si vede a Napoli”, OI 31. ↩
- The dedication is significant because of Sartre’s well-known, if controversial anti-colonial engagement. His preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is of course a case in point. ↩
- “Alì dagli Occhi Azzurri // uno dei tanti figli di figli, // scenderà da Algeri, su navi // a vela e a remi. Saranno// con lui miglaia di uomini// coi corpicini di poveri cani dei padri // (…) Porteranno le nonne e gli asini, sulle triremi rubate ai porti coloniali.” In Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Profezia”, Bestemmia (1993), p. 697. ↩
- As mentioned above, his posthumous novel Petrolio is the best example of this late poetics. Even in a stylistically closed and finished filmic environment like Salò (1975), art offers the only exit from Pasolini’s huis clos. I am thinking in particular of the scene of the two guards dancing together. ↩