Pier Paolo Pasolini was an Italian poet, novelist and film-maker, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1975 in an as-yet-unsolved murder case. Hailed by many as one of the great intellectual voices of post-war Europe, throughout his life and work Pasolini spoke out against the Vatican and the Mafia, as well as the alienating effect of mass media and globalised economics on the marginalised in society.
First published in Italy in 1975 by the publishing house Einaudi, La Divina Mimesis was Pasolini’s attempt to rewrite Dante’s Divine Comedy for his own time. In this translated segment, translated by Bruce Merry and first published by The London Magazine in our Oct/Nov 1976 issue, Virgil-Pasolini leads Dante-Pasolini through an anonymous part of post-industrial Italy.
Transcribed in full below:
Pasolini-Dante, accompanied by Pasolini-Virgil, meets a particular category of sinner: conformists, petit-bourgeois, men of culture..
(from Pasolini’s ‘Preface’: ‘I have decided to publish these pages as a “document”, but also to annoy my “enemies”. By offering them one more reason for scorning me, I am presenting them with a further reason for going to hell. A yellowed iconography: these pages are intended to carry the logic not so much of illustrative material as of a perfectly readable “visual poetry”.)
A brand-new sign-post, its pole tinted with acrylic blue and its board coloured red, bore this somewhat depressing inscription: ‘Organization for implementing infernal punishments (OIPI) zone for the excessively continent, or reductive sector I. Conformity.’
‘In this zone,’ said my guide, rather self-consciously, as usual, since he was terrified of falling back on the vulgar idiom of information, a degradation that normally impeded his tongue causing it to crumble in his throat, ‘in this zone you shall not be seeing punishments, in a figurative sense, as it were. Petit-bourgeois conformists have committed collectively what are in fact even more atrocious sins than that of being conformist. In other words conformity was the necessary foundation, the indispensable premise to their sins. It was because of conformity that a whole train of practising religious people, right-thinkers utterly dedicated to work and the family, ended up by making their arm-chair covers from the skin of gassed Jews.’ Practically exhausted by this boutade, somehow conformist in its own way, in other words lacking the impetus of a scandalous novelty — the direct product of the Resistant culture which he was perfectly aware had now reached fully institutionalized status — my guide fell silent for a bit, and, frowningly absorbed in his awareness of the punishment, drew a tubeful of Optalidon from the pocket of his trousers and swallowed a pill from it. ‘Those who are condemned to suffer here, under these notice-boards,’ he continued explaining, ‘were not petit-bourgeois in any other sense than imposition by birth or social categorization, etc. Actually, they possessed the necessary tools, so to speak, for an understanding of their “sin”. In other words, they knew how to avoid being middle-class, but they didn’t do it.’
We walked along the picturesque highway, high over the marshland. The white metal railings, the agile little causeways over the slush, imposing blocks of concrete on and under which flourished a thick and irresistible growth of wild grasses laced by nettle. ‘In this place,’ my leader observed laconically, ‘the only punishment is having to be there.’
A horizontal bar, like the ones at the railway crossings on built-up roads, or the frontier posts between different nations, was lowered across our path with red and white stripes, hardly defined by paint and still smelling of it. Behind the barrier the highway opened up and became wider. It turned into an immense cemented square, typical of the open areas which lie in front of sports stadiums or swimming baths, designed to park cars on, thousands and thousands of cars, but at that characteristic hour in which there’s no football game, when the twilight reigns supreme, and there is void with the twilight. Naught else but concrete and immensity, filled by the melancholy of the retreating sun which near-blindingly strikes everything near by, while things in the distance are nuanced into a spectral luminosity that makes them vaguely defined and limitless.
Near the lowered barrier, there was a cemented construction, fairly elegant and sober in appearance; further back, towards the expanse of marsh-land, you could even detect the hint of an English sort of garden, a garden nonetheless which had the legalized sadness of all state institutions. In front of this building — a customs post or barracks block — were the lady demons. Yes: in the new zone, as in the area under the OIPI, an experimental programme was under way for the female Police sections of hell. Evidently the relative mildness of the sinners confined to this section was the justification for the experiment. Mostly the sinners here were men of learning or the arts, people who usually stayed silent in times of danger, people who spoke, but did no more than speak, in periods of relative peace. The lady demons, like all initiates at the novice stage, took their responsibility very seriously. Their eyes were full of black hostile light, practically worse than their duties clearly made them all fiercer. They conceived immediate hatred for us pilgrims because of the exceptional situation in which they had to deal with us. For example, they had to raise the barriers to admit two rank outsiders. They opened to us, and we entered the square, and endless parking lot without a single automobile, lost in the penumbra.
Gathered here was a vast crowd of people, all grouped together, the kind of confluence you find in a divided and scattered form during those long evenings when the street lamps are slow to come on, collected in city squares or parks, under the summertime chestnut trees of riverside pavements, on the balconies of penthouse flats amid rubber plants, in the open spaces of road-side bars, in front of the book-stalls in high-class parts of town. Or you meet them inside private houses, assembled in the atmosphere of a dinner-party or for post-prandial cordialities when the window are left wide open over the darkness of a twilight that has only just fallen and is threateningly dulcet in tone.
These people seemed like the kind of travellers who have just turned up from capital cities, metropolises such as Rome, London, Paris or large provincial cities: so they huddled together, murmuring in the shadows.
‘Hi, Pasolini!’, I heard someone calling to me, in the way guests greet each other in the throng of a cocktail party with that elaborate politeness typical of such occasions. That attractively enunciated ‘Hi, Pasolini’ was especially delightful. Indeed, it had the authentic sweetness of a special moment. Clearly I wasn’t in the sector set aside for Hypocrites. In fact they were in a group of women. Or rather, of ladies. So I looked at them with myopic gaze, a habitual glance which my normal shyness made rather bored, restless, somehow unrecognizable in my non-recognition of them.
‘All these persons’, said the Master, ‘sinned almost instinctively against the greatness of the world. Universal reductiveness occurred as a kind of defence mechanism in them. Ah,’ he sighed, ‘they were incapable of relating to each other the story of the grand bewitchment, of playing the chivalric roles of a Roland or a Don Quixote.’ Here my guide smiled, once again worn out by his generous inability to have recourse to contemporary idiom. ‘Therefore they became, as it were, a Crucible of Reductiveness.’ At this his mouth tautened in the kind of smile familiar at coffee bar conversation, my poor Master, fearless in his adoption of banality at the level of High Culture and Grand Passion. He went on out of pure politeness, out of a disinterested love of knowledge for its own sake: ‘This is a sin that has sprung up with the middle classes as a result of general industrialization, since the colonial agrandizement. Previously, we may say that a petite bourgeoisie was, well, petite: it: it was little without wishing to be. In short all these persons were afraid of greatness and so instinctively they failed to be religious. Reductiveness, a general spirit of reduction, is lack of religion. This is the great sin of the epoch of hatred. Indeed, in no other part of hell will you see so many people. It’s the masses, my friend! It’s the masses who have chosen as their religion the desire to have no religion. But they don’t know this.’
Along came a lady demon with our beer. In hostile fashion she placed it on the table, with the purchase slip, and went away. ‘You’ll have noticed the large amount of women here. This was bound to happen. In woman, reductiveness, they say, is as old as the human species. Women tend to defend their kind, poor dears, as well as themselves. That is why conformity in the fair sex partakes of a certain greatness. Basically it is their special religion. But as for men!’ At this remark his eyes flooded with a melancholy spasm similar to sheer physical pain. It was easy to recognise the fluency with which his heart sensed agony. The destiny of those males who had succeeded in taking with them to the grave their bourgeois littleness intact, their Crucible of Reductiveness, evidently disconcerted my Master.
‘Well, what really gives my heart torment in all this is the thought of how much hatred was needful for these individuals to safeguard their feebleness. The ones you have seen merely limited themselves to defending their pusillanimity. Yet never in human history have such dreadful sins been witnessed as those committed by the middle classes in this century to defend their own right to hate greatness. I’m thinking of Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz and Mauthausen.’ Here once again his genuine indignation seemed somehow humbled and discoloured by the process of ageing to which he had succumbed with the passing years. But the vibrancy of this indignation was there, and with it, within it, all true poetry became possible.
In this fashion we fell silent, for a long while, emotionally lost in our musings which resulted in the repetition, in special circumstances or privileged states of mind, of some old but still viable truth. It was difficult to interrupt the communion which had been established between us by such a mild and cognitive indignance. Any additional phrase would have been a superfluous condiment.
But all enchantments must necessarily be interrupted, even the bewitching spell of mildness and cognition, which are the most sacred known to Man. One has to follow the example of Christ in the Gospels: the minute an enchantment was firmly established, like the contemplative pause after a word which could be queried endlessly or pondered in silence, Christ immediately established a second enchantment, which almost cruelly removed all chance of peace.
‘After this Motel, we move on into a separate sector of the zone for Reductives, set apart as you shall see. Here we will encounter, it is true, a number of other Reductives, or over-continent sinners, but the mistaken ways in them have found a compensating explanation or conscience; they are somehow elevated to the dignity of religion. Nevertheless it is a degraded form of religion, because, as you will easily understand, it was required to attribute greatness to one portion of reality only at the cost of sacrificing another. Now, however, it is time to wend our way.’
Fervently, with his typical gestures that suggested an anguished sportsman, my guide got up, turned his back to the Motel and set out along the highway, with its kerb-stones, its central hedge, sidewalks and white lines that were sometimes continuous, at other moments broken like the overtaking sections of a motorway; there were emergency lay-bys, elegant bridgeways raised over the sordid and decrepit mud canals of our itinerary.
Gradually, as we came closer to the frontier with its barrier and police edifice, the air grew more and more dark. We gained the impression of night falling suddenly with the speed of a storm. Everything was swallowed up in darkness and once scarcely had time to spot the signpost. This was the customary OIPI board, this time followed by writing: ‘Autonomous sector reserved for thinking beings: both the irrational and rational.’
The dividing bars were raised in total darkness to the light of sinister torches by the lady demons encased in the fierce silence of novitiates. Then we left behind our shoulders the winking darts of that borderland luminosity. By now we were proceeding in a blackness like the tomb.
The other main nuance of the sin of normality (or continence), after that of conformity, is vulgarity. The precise meaning of this term may demand specification, before entering the new sector of the vulgar, behind their lowered barriers, surrounded by discontented female devils, with their eyes askant. Vulgarity is the full-blown moment of high conformity.
The locale that met our eyes was hardly very different from the one we had just left. In the kingdom of the shades it is naturally more difficult to pinpoint the differences that you could detect between Rome and Milan. Yet here the green of the scenery and the grey of the sky suggested Northern Italy. The crowd was quiet and respectable, slightly provincial in demeanour, and it raised a gentle buzz of conversation, sprinkled with occasional murmurs of laughter. Beyond them one could perceive the rustling of the great peasant dike, the rive Po in the dry season. In this kind of ambience at Rome (for example at a reception in the Government Palace with the cheeky light of afternoon penetrating the great windows) there is always a dirty Levantine touch which tends to make the heart contract with agony. But here it was different. In Rome, at the Quirinal Palace, a conformist can always exhibit, whether he wants to or not, his defects and miseries. He may show, like a leper, his wretched pustulent amorality, and hence perhaps he can evoke a smile or a sigh of compassion. The vulgar types of Northern Italy, on the contrary, are moral. What is repellent in them is precisely the element of consent and legality which is incorporated in their solid tradition-based moralism.
Translated by Bruce Merry, 1976.