Pasolini, Fo, and Welcoming Our Overlords

As my Italian literature workshop draws to a close, we’ve finally made it up to the 20th-century authors, among them, the multifaceted pair of provocateurs, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Dario Fo.


In the years before his unsolved murder in 1975, Pasolini – poet, novelist, filmmaker, essayist and critic – was aghast at the changes being wrought in the Italy of his time. Comparing it with the fascist regime of his youth, Pasolini considered the “democratic regime” that followed it eminently more successful at uniformizing the nation into a generic monoculture. interviewed for a RAI television documentary in the year before his death, he lamented that the culture of consumerism was “destroying our different, specific realities, stripping reality from the different ways of being human that Italy has historically produced in such differentiated ways. Its this acculturation that is destroying Italy for real. I can say without a doubt that true fascism is precisely the power of the consumer civilization that is destroying Italy.” And it was all happening so fast that people weren’t even noticing. “It’s like a nightmare in which we have witnessed Italy crumbling all around us, disappearing. Perhaps now we are awakening from this nightmare only to look around and find out that there’s nothing we can do anymore.” Forty years later, history has borne his prophecy out, with the added straitjacket of a common currency and a from-here-to-eternity austerity program.

Pasolini had grown up in the countryside, in the town of Casarsa, and spoke and wrote in the region’s Friuli dialect. Upon his move to Rome, he studiously learned the dialect of the capital city, walking the streets of the working-class neighborhoods known as the borgate, notebook in hand, jotting down notes and asking questions. So proficient did he become in the dialect of his adopted city that he was hired to write Roman dialogue for Federico Fellini’s film Le notti di Cabiria. Once he stepped behind the camera himself, his own early films were scripted in the dialect. But at the time of his interview with the RAI, the borgate were being razed to make way for overpasses and the nation’s plethora of dialects – the linguistic expression of the “different ways of being human” quoted above – were under threat from the standardizing force of television. What clearly galled Pasolini the most was that, unlike the overt tools of social control fascism had employed, consumerism was accepted gladly, willingly, with open arms literally grasping for more.

Dario Fo

Such sentiments are echoed in Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a farsical reenactment of the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, the Italian anarchist who fell to his death from the fourth-story window of a Milan police building after being falsely accused of the Piazza Fontana bank bombing in 1969. Towards the end of the play, the main character – a “maniac” who has wormed his way into police headquarters pretending to be a judge – differentiates between Italy and the countries of northern Europe and the United States. In Italy, he says, crude methods (such as the dumping of Pinelli out a window or, conceivably, Pasolini’s own murder) were still being employed to keep the truth from getting out. In more “social-democratic” societies, however, scandals – be it the Profumo affair in Britain or the crimes of Vietnam (or today, Iraq) in the US – were free to come out in the open…and nothing happened more than “a little liberatory burp to remove their social indigestion.” Although Pasolini and Fo labeled the Italian government of their time in somewhat different ways, the underlying analogy was the same: the blunt, coercive methods once seen to be necessary to keep a stopper on things become less necessary in an advanced consumer society, where people accept being controlled as a matter of course. Or rather, have been stripped of the very traits that once needed controlling. In today’s world, the US National Security Agency spies on people the world over, and a majority of Americans are a-OK with that.

And amongst those aren’t, I would wager a guess that a good many, like Pasolini in the throes of his valedictory fatalism, feel that the nightmare has become so entrenched that there is nothing to do about it anymore.


The Power of Uncertainty

A couple of nights ago, I saw the movie Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa, for the first time. The central event of the film is the death of a samurai in the woods. But what made the film so epoch-making when it came out in 1950 was not the event in itself, precisely because there is no “in itself”: the film presents four plausible versions of what happened, told by two participants (a bandit and the samurai’s wife), an outside eyewitness (a passing woodcutter), and even the dead man himself told through a medium. And Kurosawa, thankfully, does not engage in the director’s prerogative of collapsing the quantum field of multiple possibilities into one authorized reality, but rather lets us roam freely through the uncertainty. Although he does provide us with a “resolution” of sorts – at the film’s conclusion, the woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby even though he already has six children at home, providing some proof of humanity’s potential for goodness despite the atrocity in the woods drummed into us by four different tellings – the resolution is a false one, a palliative, and, existing as it does only in the frame story, is practically extra-diagetic. The woodcutter, his companion the priest and we the viewers may be mollified by the scene with the baby, but the death of the samurai is no nearer to the solution that it will never have.

The ability of narrative art to provide aesthetic satisfaction while daring to remain in the uncertainty zone is an important element in contemporary fiction. This authorial refusal to “tie things up” is one of the hardest things for average readers to accept, and, in the more artless cases, smacks to them of laziness. And rightly so. We may have left the era of the well-made play long behind, but if the author wants to ask us to assume the psychological cost of remaining in a state of ambiguity with respect to the narrative playing out in front of us on the stage, screen, or page, they’d better damn well make it worth our while. In Rashomon, the uncertainty ties us in compassion to the woodcutter, who, right from the beginning, while staring out at the rain, a party to the multiple versions of the killing, states over and over that he “just doesn’t understand”. That he is later the one who adopts the baby makes the conclusion, well, all the more satisfying of a palliative.

rashomon woodcutter

Sometimes, however, we are not even administered a palliative. In the Italian literature course I’m currently teaching, we recently read the story Qualcosa era successo (“Something Had Happened”) by Dino Buzzati. The terse title is remarkably descriptive: not only had “something” happened, but, whatever it was, it had already happened before the events taking place in the story, a nightmarish train trip up the entire Italian peninsula while hordes of people outside the windows flee in the opposite direction from some unnamed apocalypse the train’s passengers are heading helplessly into. When the train arrives at the deserted train station at the end of the line (I immediately thought of Milan’s Stazione Centrale, but even that is left undetermined), all the terrified passengers discover is the shadow of a train worker slipping out of view and, then, the voice of a single woman screaming for help. Her shouts bounce off the glass ceiling of the station with the “empty sonority of those places abandoned forever.”

I would argue that the fact that neither we nor the train’s passengers know what they’re heading towards heightens the dual effect of anguish and excitement. Buzzati is masterful at ratcheting up the tension as the train hurtles north: first, a single girl receiving news from someone running towards her, then several people running through a field, then people in building windows hurriedly packing their bags, then a boy shaking a newspaper at the train that a passenger only manages to grab a tiny fragment of, and so on until they arrive at the deserted station. If we knew what the actual cataclysm in question were, the story would be more like Bradbury’s “The Highway“, where the road fills with cars heading north from Mexico to the United States at the outset of an atomic war. Bradbury’s story is fine in its own right, and has stayed with me all these years since I read it in eighth grade, but I believe Buzzati’s story, precisely because it forces us to participate in an uncertainty that is not based on the outcome of concrete, future events but, rather, is built into the very parameters of the world he has created, cuts deeper.


Uncertainty is the revelation of our times. Schrödinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead, the position and momentum of a particle can never be known at the same time, the very foundations of all that classical mechanics taught was real have dissolved into an amorphous mass of mere tendencies. We can either look to literature as an escape into a world of a truly fictional certainty where we can all just sit back and push the catharsis button on our consoles. Or we can see it as a guide into a new world where the ontological decision-making is more democratic, one which must be, at least partially, of our own fashioning. As an anonymous English author wrote in the 14th century, only by entering voluntarily into a cloud of unknowing may we approach the divine.

A (Silent) Window into the Past

Genoa 1916

Note: after a hiatus in which I was buckling down to finish my new book, I am back at my blog and hope to be more consistent from here on out. Today’s story is a good one to start back on, I think.

Something truly amazing happened in my Italian literature workshop last week. I’ve designed it in the format of a survey course, so after a long sojourn with Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pico della Mirandella and Machiavelli and the Renaissance writers, we’ve slowly made our way up to 19th century romanticism. After a couple of sessions spent soaking in the lyrical pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, we took a breather and turned to some of the stories Edmondo De Amicis included in his children’s novel Heart: Diary of a Child.

Mind you, I am no fan of De Amicis. I tried to read Heart several years ago and the sheer weight of so much moralizing forced me to put it down. But I was keen to include an example of children’s literature in the course, and one of the stories I chose, “From the Apennines to the Andes,” was ideal for introducing the topic of the Italian diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw the emigration of some 16 million Italians to countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia.

My grandmother, Giuseppina Veronesi née Cosmini, was among those 16 million. Born in the village of Roncaglia in the Italian Alps, she emigrated together with her grandmother in 1916 to join her parents, who had sailed on ahead to an uncertain future in Connecticut. I have copies of their exit documents, which showed that they were given permission by the government to emigrate due to their comprovata poverta’, that is, demonstrated poverty. The story she told me as a child was gripping: when she and her grandmother made their way to Genoa to board the ship to New York, the shipping company representative asked if they would be willing to give up their berths to a young couple that had to reach New York by a certain date in order to board a connecting ship bound for California.

“But we don’t have any money,” my great-great-grandmother said.

“We’ll pay for your room and board. There’s another ship leaving in just three days,” said the company representative.

My great-great-grandmother agreed. What they did not know, during their short hiatus, was that the ship they were to have traveled on was sunk by a U-boat. This was World War I, recall, and the Atlantic Ocean was yet another battlefield. The two boarded their new ship three days later and traveled without incident to New York, only to find nobody waiting for them: my distraught great-grandfather had received news of the sinking of the original ship but, when he did not find his daughter and mother-in-law’s names on the list of the ship’s manifest, did not know what to think or where to turn. After several days spent on Ellis Island, the situation was resolved, happily in the case of my grandmother, tragically in the case of that young couple. History’s wheel of fortune. I had meditated for years on that story, told it many times and made the obligatory visit to Ellis Island, all the while wondering what it would have been like for a girl of seven, who spoke only the dialect of the village she had almost certainly never left, to have experienced such a dramatic uprooting.

In the De Amicis story, a boy of 13 sets off on his own to Argentina to search for his mother, who had traveled to Buenos Aires to work as a domestic but whose letters to her family back home had abruptly ceased arriving. When he arrives, he finds that the family his mother was working for is no longer there. This sets off an odyssey which takes the penniless boy from the capital to the cities of Rosario and Cordoba, all the way to a villa outside of the remote city of San Miguel de Tucumán, where his mother is gravely ill. The surprise arrival of her son convinces her to undergo the operation she has been resisting and – children’s story, after all – she is saved. As I read on, I began to see several parallels between this story and my grandmother’s: the departure from Genoa as a child, the hoped-for reunion with her mother, the unforseen difficulties along the way that hold up the reencounter. But the most startling parallel of all was yet to come.

While researching the story in order to present it to the class, I discovered that a silent movie version of the story existed. The title was the same, Dagli Appennini alle Ande, and when I looked at the year it was made, I was astonished to find that it was 1916! The same year as my grandmother’s emigration. And, what is more, the first scene of the movie takes place in the same port of Genoa she departed from (I can only hope that it was filmed on site)! I found myself looking at the most unexpected window into history: same year, same port, the same view young Giuseppina would have had upon boarding the ship, the same view of the port of Genova receding into the distance. For all I know, my grandmother and her grandmother could have strolled by as extras during their three-day layover. And, thanks to the good graces of the Bologna Cineteca’s film archive, the movie can be seen right here. Even if you don’t have a relative that traveled from Genoa in 1916, it’s a valuable piece of cinema history that’s well worth a viewing.

On Workshops, Italian Literature and the Birth of the Short Story

Amongst the most pleasurable aspects of the life I’ve created for myself here in Oaxaca are the literature workshops I get to give in this venerable building, the Biblioteca Henestrosa, so named because it houses the book collection of Oaxaca’s centenarian writer Andrés Henestrosa, chronicler of indigenous legends and transcriber of the Zapotec language to the Latin alphabet. Here are a pair of photos, one of the exterior and the other of the room where I give my workshops:

Biblioteca_Andres_Henestrosa-300x199  biblio henestrosa interior

The workshop I’m kicking off this year with is called “A Tour of Italian literature”, what in the States would be known as a survey course. And at four hours a week over four months, 64 hours of class time in total, it really is more of a course than a workshop. But without the bureaucracy, the grading and the diplomas. The students are there because they want to be and for the love of learning, not because they expect to get something else out of it, be it course credits or a certificate: such a salutary difference from my days at the University. And the mixture of ages and experience – from college students to retirees, breaking up the artificial and isolating segregation by age our schools are so proficient at – adds a spirit of camaraderie and generational exchange to the educational mix. I love it.

Besides paying me to give the workshops (thus making it free for the students), the Biblioteca also has a great team of graphic designers making up the posters that go up around town promoting their events. Here, incidentally, is the poster for my workshop:

CARTEL The first question that confronts anyone when designing a course that purports to cover so much ground is, simply, where to start? With Dante’s dolce stil nuovo, with Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura? I did, in fact, start with a sonnet, but one with quite a distinct tone: “S’i fosse foco” by Cecco Angioleri. Here it is, with English translation, commentary and as set to music by Fabrizio de André, whose song “Fiume Sand Creek” song I referenced in my earlier post, A Sand Creek Moment.  This English translation of it admirably attempts to reproduce both the rhyme scheme and a consistent 10-syllable meter:

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

If I were Pope, I’d have a lot of fun
with how I’d make all Christians work for me;
If I were emperor, then you’d really see –
I’d have the head cut off of everyone.

If I were death, then I’d go to my father;
If I were life, I’d not abide with him;
And so, and so, would I do to my mother.

If I were Cecco – as in fact I am –
I’d chase the young and pretty girls; to others
Would I leave the lame or wrinkled dam.

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

My choice for starting with Angioleri’s famous sonnet was hardly a disinterested one: like De André, I love the irreverence and iconoclasm of it. Such a far cry from our standard notions of the Medieval era as a time of piety, plainsong and popes burning heretics at the stake. It was effective in catching the attention of my students right out of the starting gate, as well (and, to be fair, plenty of Italian lit anthologies start with it, so my choice was hardly original). From there, continuing in a straight line of irreverence, Boccaccio’s Decameron – that racy, bawdy treasure trove of tales that became an instant bestseller amongst the rising Florentine merchant class – presented itself as the next logical choice. Here are nuns organizing a schedule to make love with their gardener; an overprotected young girl persuading her parents to let her sleep out on the roof in order to rendez-vous with her lover; a sinner convincing a friar on his deathbed that he was a saint and becoming posthumously venerated as such; a man returning from the afterlife to visit his best friend in order to inform him that sleeping with your comadre doesn’t count as a sin; a lascivious priest attempting to transform a credulous peasant’s wife into a mare by fondling her and ultimately, “pinning a tail on her”… You get the idea. In choosing which of the hundred stories to assign, I was guided by the ones Pier Paolo Pasolini chose when making his film version of The Decameron, which we subsequently watched.

As Mario Vargas Llosa says in his account of the literary pilgrimage he made to Boccaccio’s hometown of Certaldo, it was the Black Death that got this bookish intellectual, Latinist, Hellenist, and yes, even theologian, to put down his books and not only to get out into the street to learn the stories of the people, but to write them down in their language: the Tuscan of Florence, later to become known to us as “Italian”. Thus, classical learning and a thorough understanding of medieval verse became wedded to a corpus of popular storytelling stretching back through the Arab world to ancient India. And the back of Latin had been broken to allow literature in “vulgar” languages to flourish. The Western short story had been born.

Let others begin with Heaven and Hell, divine allegory and lyric yearning. I’m following Boccaccio’s lead, out the door and into the street; see what kind of trouble I can get into.