Theater of Cruelty

A revolutionary language

Camilla Shams
Camilla Chams
Chams has previously translated Pasolini's book of poems Asken's poet into Norwegian and is a research fellow at the University of Oslo.
PASOLINI / MODERN TIMES prints here the translator's foreword, in connection with our review of Pier Paolo Pasolin's Sao Paolo (Paulus).


St. Paul was published posthumously in 1977. Like several of Pier Paolo Pasolini's literary works from the same period, it is an unfinished work. Unlike the books The Divine Mimesis (1975) Petroleum (2005) and poet delle ceneri (2010), is St. Paul a script draft for an unrealized film. This gives the text an unfinished feel, but also makes it an example of what Pasolini himself refers to as the ambiguity of art. It presupposes that two opposing forces pull the artwork in separate directions in a way that makes unity impossible. For Pasolini, the ambiguity is a positive force, but he does not hide that in this case it can "make an unprepared reader dizzy".

Already in May 1966, Pasolini sends a synopsis for the film to Don Emilio Cordero – the director of the Catholic film company Sampaolofilm. In a letter to Cordero, he expresses that he has worked obsessively to get "these few pages" in place, but also that "the obsessive joy, the one that arises when the urge to create" has made itself felt, also in work on this project. Just two years earlier, in 1964, Pasolini had experienced international recognition for his faithful film adaptation of Gospel of Matthew. Pasolini is therefore disappointed when Lamb is doubtful about the project, about the film's many "practical obstacles". At the same time, Cordero encourages Pasolini not to give up, and answers Pasolini's letter with one of Paul's holy answers: "You should not mourn like the others, those who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4, 13).

In 1968, however, Pasolini writes to Cordero again. He now refers to the film as "our theological film" and emphasizes the project's ideological and cultural criticism. Because "here, in reality, the story of two Pauls is told", writes Pasolini – "the apostle and the priest". While Pasolini embraces the apostle, he is relentless in his criticism of the priest. Awaiting specialists in the field who will be able to guarantee absolute fidelity to Paul's thinking, Pasolini reworked the script until 1974. The many changes are explained in the Italian publisher's note to the text. But it is not inconceivable that the film project ran aground for reasons other than the purely practical. Pasolini's relentless criticism of the priest may be one, his homoerotic references another.

Apostles Paul however, occupied Pasolini for a longer time, not only as a historical-religious figure, but as a figure through whom he could read his own and contemporary history. Because the two share more than the same first name. The obvious analogy nevertheless made it possible for him to retell his own story into a story of the sacred. For it must be added to the script's genesis that Pasolini, despite being banned from the Italian Communist Party for life, remained faithful to Marxism for life. Pasolini's Marxism must nevertheless be characterized as unorthodox in the sense that it is based as much on feelings, moral instincts and pre-Christian traditions as on the leading ideological reasoning of the party. Marx, Gramsci, Freud and Jung clearly belong to his intellectual presuppositions, but how decisive they were for his poetic and political practice is more unclear. The Bible, on the other hand, Pasolini could hardly do without.

For him, therefore, the sacred was not connected to the church or the liturgy, but to the language, and to the people and places where it was used. In addition, it was a last surviving hope in the fight against a mass culture without a historical consciousness. Although Pasolini considered himself anti-Church, it was a personal tragedy for him to discover that the Roman underclass – the one he had pressed to his bosom, and sought comfort and love from – was moving away from Christian moral standards, adopting the patterns of the bourgeoisie and lost what appealed to him— vitalityand the creative language.

For the first time since the collection of Italy in 1861, in 1964 one could speak of a national language in Italy. According to Pasolini, the economic miracle had created an anthropological change in the people, so profound that it blurred what for him until then had been a decisive distinction between oral and written language, town and country, upper class and lower class, the sacred and the profane. As an extension of these changes, Pasolini realized that his attempt to bring the Roman characters from novels that Life boys (1955) and A violent life (1959), to films like Beggar (1961) Mom Rome (1962) and ricotta cheese (1963) had failed. It was this tragedy that led him into an existential and artistic crisis, and which in 1966 again brought him to the Bible and to the discovery of New York, the American protest movement and beat poetry. The meeting with it the American left became what the Roman lower class had previously meant to him – a complete erotic and artistic freedom. Because it is here among the student and protest movement, jazz musicians and beat poets, that Pasolini sought refuge from "the Pope's wretched mood", and that a revolutionary language was reawakened to life.

Among the student and protest movement, jazz musicians and beat poets.

With the linguistic investigation as his foremost literary method, Pasolini attempts in the film script about Paul to reintroduce the sacred. He does this by letting the 'topical' questions of his day stand side by side with Paul's 'holy' answers, by mixing oral and written language, the sacred and the profane. This is how he resumes the debate about the Italian the vernacular, about which language one writes best in, as well as the thread from Mircea Eliade's research – about man's encounter with the sacred.

Because in the script about Paul, Pasolini follows in Eliade's footsteps when he sets out to convey the countless forms and creative power of the sacred. But just as he himself thought it would be up to the viewer to resolve the contradictions between the sacred and the profane, as well as to determine whether the film is a hymn to the church or to the sacred, it will be up to the reader of this translation, to determine whether it preserves precisely these contradictions. Because even though Pasolini states in his synopsis for the film that none of the words Paul says will be made up or added, he has obviously made a selection. A biblical expert will quickly see that Pasolini provides many, although far from all, references, and that these go a long way to underlining his ideological and poetic, as well as erotic, points. We do not know which Bible translation Pasolini himself had at hand. This has at times made the translation convoluted, albeit in keeping with Pasolini's ambiguous poetics. With that said, in the translation from Italian to Norwegian, I have, as far as possible, made use of the Norwegian Bible translation from 2011. If one goes to the English translation of St. Paul, are many, but far from all the omitted Bible references added. I myself have chosen to follow Pasolini's example, not to 'hide' the omitted references, but out of fidelity to the text.

Although Pasolini is today best known as a filmmaker, and several of his political attitudes appear not only prophetic, but mildly reactionary, in the film script about Paul, he introduces not only the reader to the sacred, but himself as a mouthpiece for the people. Because "if the poet's role becomes increasingly less significant", he writes in his autobiographical poem The poet's ashes, "is it not then necessary to bring the spoken language into a language of conventions, in order to free it, so that it once again becomes alive in the mind of the reader?" Because "if the reader himself does not know how to enter into a dialogue with reality", he continues, "isn't it the poet's humble role to bring reality to life so that he sees it again? If this is the case, then why not meditate on it in silence – as a saint, not as a literate?»

And it's a long way from what Pasolini does when he does this film scriptbrings Paul's life and work to his time, and leaves the word , d again ring in our ears.

See also ours review of the book.
Reproduced with permission of the translator
and Existenz publishing house.

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