A 1971 interview with a pessimistic Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which he discusses consumer society, the emptiness of success, television as an authoritarian mass medium, eroticism, the conformism of the intellectuals, and his enigmatic relation with the Gospel.
Pier Paolo Pasolini Interviewed by Enzo Biagi for the Italian television network RAI on July 27, 19711
EB: You wrote: “On the existential plane I am a universal dissident. My hopeless distrust of all historical societies leads me to a form of apocalyptic anarchy.” What kind of world do you envision?
PP: For a while, when I was young, I believed in the revolution just like the young people today. Then I began to believe in it a little bit less. Right now, I am apocalyptic. I see before me a dreadful world, one that is becoming more and more horrible. I have no hopes. So I don’t even have the slightest notion of a future world.
EB: It seems to me that you no longer have any faith in parties.
PP: No. If you say that I don’t have any faith in the parties then you consider me to be someone who has renounced politics, but I have not. Instead, I am tending towards an anarchist form, rather than towards the ideological choice of one or another party, but it is not that I don’t have any faith in parties.
EB: Why do you think that the bourgeoisie is triumphant?
PP: The bourgeoisie is triumphant because neo-capitalist society is the real bourgeois revolution. Consumerist civilization is the real bourgeois revolution. I see no other alternatives, because even in the Soviet world, in reality, the characteristic of man is not so much that of having carried out the revolution and living it, but that of being a consumer. The industrial revolution is leveling the whole world.
EB: You are always fighting against hypocrisy. What are the taboos that you seek to destroy: sexual prejudices, escapism, the lack of sincerity in social relations?
PP: Well, that is what I did ten years ago. Now I don’t talk about those things anymore because I don’t believe in them. The word “hope” has been excised from my vocabulary. Therefore, I continue to fight for partial truths, from moment to moment, hour to hour, month to month, but I don’t propose any long-term programs, because I don’t believe in them anymore.
EB: You have no hopes?
EB: This society that you don’t love, when it comes right down to it, has made you successful, it has made you notorious….
PP: Success is nothing. Success is just the other side of persecution. And, besides, success is always something ugly for a man. It can exalt him, at a particular moment, it can give him minor satisfactions or flatter his vanity, but in reality, almost immediately after he acquires it he understands that it is an ugly thing. For example, the fact that I have found my friends here, in the world of television, is not a beautiful thing. By chance we have managed to go beyond the microphones and the cameras and reconstruct something that is in a sense real and sincere: but as a situation it is ugly, it is false.
EB: Why? What’s so abnormal about it?
PP: Because television is a mass medium, which can only alienate us.
EB: But, besides advertising and all that, this medium is now bringing your words to people’s homes. We are speaking freely, without any inhibitions.
PP: No, that’s not true.
EB: Yes, it is true. You can say anything you want.
PP: No, I cannot say anything I want.
EB: Why not?
PP: No, I can’t, because I would be accused of contempt under the Italian fascist code. In reality I can’t say just anything. And besides, objectively speaking, considering the ingenuousness or imprudence of certain spectators, I myself would not want to say certain things. But apart from that, it is the mass medium itself: at the moment when someone listens to us speaking from his TV screen he has a relation of subordinate to superior towards us, which is a totally anti-democratic relation.
EB: I think that in certain cases it is a relation between equals: why can’t it be a relation between equals?
PP: Some spectators, due to their position of social privilege, can be cultural equals…. But in general the words that descend from the TV screen descend from on high, even the most democratic words, even the most sincere words. The entirety of the “thing that is seen” on the screen always and inevitably acquires an authoritarian air, because it is delivered as if from a lectern. Speech delivered from the screen is always ex cathedra speech, even when it is disguised as democratic.
EB: Many years ago, because of your book Ragazzi di Vita, you were one of the first Italian writers to be tried for obscenity in a court of law: in retrospect, what do you think of certain contemporary writers of erotic books and the flood of eroticism in the cinema, in the bookstores and on the magazine stands?
PP: As far as I am concerned, eroticism in life is a very beautiful thing, and in art, too: it is an element that has a right to be in a work of art like any other. The important thing is that it should not be vulgar. But by vulgarity I don’t mean the kind of vulgarity that most people think of when they use that term, but a racist disposition in the way that one observes the object of Eros. For example, women in films and comic strips are presented in a racist way, as if they were inferior beings … therefore, they are viewed in a racist way. Therefore, in that case, Eros is a purely commercial, vulgar thing.
EB: How is it possible for a Marxist like you to find inspiration for your works from the sayings of the Gospel or the testimonies of the disciples of Christ?
PP: Obviously, the way I look at the things of the world, at objects, is not natural, it is not secular: to some extent I take things as miraculous. Every object is miraculous for me: my worldview—in an always amorphous way, let’s say—is not strictly in accordance with any religion, but is somehow religious. That is why I instill this way of looking at the world in my works, too.
EB: Do you derive consolation from the Gospel?
PP: No, I am not looking for consolation. In a human way, now and then, I seek some small happiness, some small satisfaction, but consolations are always rhetorical, insincere, unreal…. Are you talking about the Gospel of Christ? No, in this case the word “consolation” is totally excluded. For me, the Gospel is a very great intellectual work, a very great work of reflection that is not consolatory: it fills, it integrates, its regenerates … but as for consolation, what does it have to do with consolation? “Consolation” is a word like “hope”.
EB: According to you, Italian intellectuals have succumbed to too many conformist attitudes: tell me about some of them, cite some cases….
PP: Conformism can be summarized in a single aspect: that of uncritically accepting—because if it were critical one might even admit, or even believe that it was inevitable—integration.
EB: Don’t you accept it, too?
PP: Yes, but critically (as you see, I am prepared). That is, I cannot not accept it, of course: I must necessarily be a consumer, because I, too, have to wear clothing, I have to live; not only that, but I have to write and make films and therefore I have to have editors, producers….
EB: Therefore, you, too, produce for consumption.
PP: My production consists in criticizing the society that to a certain degree allows me, at least for now, to produce in a certain way.
EB: Society has always been madly in love with those who produced for it while saying that they do not love it.
PP: Yes, that’s true: maybe nice bourgeois ladies like a little rough treatment now and then, too. Society tries to assimilate and integrate, there can be no doubt about that: this is an operation that it must perform to defend itself. But it is not always successful, sometimes there are processes of refusal. Actually, this is so often the case that we cannot speak of poetry as a commodity: I produce, but I produce a commodity that in reality cannot be consumed and for that reason there is a strange relation between me and the consumers. Just imagine that, somewhere in Lombardy, they invent a certain kind of shoe that never wears out, and that a Milanese industrialist manufactures these shoes: just think of the revolution that would take place in the valley of the Po, at least in the shoe manufacturing sector. I produce a commodity, poetry, that cannot be consumed: I will die, my publisher will die, we will all die, our whole society will die, capitalism will die, but the poetry will remain, inconsumable.
Translated from the Spanish in September 2018. Spanish translation by Esteban Nicotra.
- 1This interview was recorded but not broadcast, due to accusations that Pasolini was guilty of “encouraging insubordination” and disseminating “anti-national propaganda” because of his association with the radical leftist group, Lotta Continua.