ON THE ROAD
Pier Paolo Pasolini, St. Paul
(Verso Books, 2014)
I come to Pasolini’s St. Paul with the disenchantment of a romantic.
In 2012, I made a film about Pasolini1 inspired by his heresies, his spectacular excesses (the 400 blow jobs in the novel Petrolio), and his mosh-pit destruction of liberal politics (from pro-choice to sexual liberation). My disenchantment is due in no small part to my immersion in his polemical certainty, proffered at the end of his life in the mid-1970s, that no redemption or revolution can manifest without being absorbed and sold back to us through the machinations of consumer capitalism. Not sure redemption or revolution in the dollar bin is what I’d take anyway: I am suspicious of how I find its tawdry uselessness nostalgically attractive. I’m not even sure I can swallow Vaclav Havel’s parallel polis in which today’s revolutionary goes “off the grid” to grow kale in a community garden or stays in the street pitching a tent in Lower Manhattan. Then again, why not?
Despite Pasolini’s trenchant critique of social reality, his problematic insistence on something he calls “the sacred” forces me, despite my skepticism, to the altar of an “unrealized” Paul. In 1968, Pasolini released his film Teorema. Two years later, after a critique of that film from the Vatican made it impossible (as translator Elizabeth A. Castelli insists in her introduction to the book) to pursue the making of a film about St. Paul, he released Notes Towards an African Orestes. Pasolini’s St. Paul, now published by Verso in its first English translation, is the abandoned twin of these two films. Like Terence Stamp’s Stranger, Paul is the silent, provocative, sexualized saint; and like Pasolini himself (and his partial reflections), he’s also an intellectual whose apprehensions and projections fall on subjects outside his own class or race. Paul, like the split-protagonist Carlo from Petrolio (another of Pasolini’s unfinished works at his death), embodies his contradictions. Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus does not eradicate his Judaic roots, but complicates them, making Saul not a Christian but a Jewish heretic named Paul. And it is this Paul who will challenge not just Judaic Law, but the rationality of Law as such (though certain distinctive practices like circumcision obsess both Paul and Pasolini). Pasolini said:
a fall from the horse […] on the road to Damascus didn’t occur for the simple reason that I was dismounted from the horse and for a good long time already, dragged, still bound to the stirrup, striking my head on the dust, the stones, and the mud of the road of Damascus. Thus nothing happened: I didn’t fall because I had already fallen and dragged by this horse, let us say, of rationality, of the life of the world.2
The precision of Pasolini’s illogical, fragmentary, and asymmetrical sequencing in this book enacts the conflict of doubt and conviction as it wrestles in the endless mud bog of the apostolic project.
Pasolini’s St. Paul is a richly intertextual document that looks back to the New Testament and ahead to Paul’s contemporary rehabilitations like those of Alain Badiou (who wrote this volume’s forward).3 But this is also a document through which all of Pasolini’s films are figured explicitly, from the criminality of Accattone to the fascism of Salò (here transposed to Vichy France). In this sense, the “unfinished film” that this text outlines has already been made in the body of Pasolini’s work. Still, I wonder how this particular film might have been imaged. Certainly there could be no chance, following Salò, of realizing it in the archaic spirit or style of The Gospel According to Matthew. Especially since the Pauline film, like his last, rests on an indictment of a Fascism whose project is finally realized in the little “f” fascism of consumer capitalism, the homogenizing of all the diverse ways of being human.
One can therefore imagine this text as more of a road map (like Pasolini’s location scouting in Palestine for Matthew) for the intellectual whose thoughts are territories, bridges, walls, and quicksand. Not as if thought were bridges, walls, or quicksand, but literally as bridges, walls, and quicksand. The problem for the intellectual in social struggle is that thought without concretization appears as an absence: the reductions of topography that dissolve in GPS apps, invisible even in the cartography of those objects that descend from spindles in old classrooms, or those that open up with their folded creases on the carpeted living rooms or wooden dining tables of future travelers. This text has about it the craft and temporality of a maker. It summons its production to walk with a hand-held camera. Pasolini’s location-scouting documentaries express, in walking, how an individual becomes a social being: shaped, restricted, determined by things like bridges and walls but also by the gaze, glance, apprehension of others. That is, in being recognized as strange by another stranger, one dissolves.
St. Paul is such a journey. It careens from Vichy late 1930s to Memphis 1968; Greek robes interchangeable with double-breasted suits; quotations from the New Testament interrogated by intellectual dilations on the unambiguously troubling institution of the Church which Paul is of course credited with founding. Here Paul’s Rome is placed in New York, where Pasolini himself made his first trip in 1968. He was struck to
discover the most beautiful left wing that a Marxist today could discover. […] New York has many analogies with the ancient Rome of which Saint Paul speaks: the corruption, the hangers-on, the problem of the Blacks, of the drug addicts. And to all this Saint Paul gave a holy albeit scandalous answer.4
The Pauline church is not the diabolical creation of Luke and the other Apostles. According to Pasolini, it is the holy union between men (and women, I hope). But alas, this America, two weeks before the completion of Pasolini’s first full draft, will assassinate M.L.K. on a Memphis balcony, the same balcony where Pasolini’s Paul meets his end.
Pasolini’s text tries to unravel the cynical power-grip of oppositional thought housed in the binaries of us/them, white/black, man/woman, capitalist/anarchist, etc. This exercise makes for an exquisite film; a journey by which one becomes “nothing,” especially Paul.5 Like all good figuration, this text activates a “film” through its associative provocations precisely in the spaces/gaps between conjured images. In the book’s final “internal dissolve”—a lovely translation for the word of a temporal ellipsis in film that does not also depart the physicality of space—Paul remains an embodied contradiction, not achieving the redemptive transcendent state of disembodiment, but suspended in the liminality of an unoccupiable space. But like thought itself (and revolution), this project of unraveling certainty is in fact never finished. Which proposes the vital injunction of this text: despite or in spite of our cooptability, one still acts.
What value is there in the humility of service to others if conducted in the name of the Father? If one’s fatality is the only path towards redemption, salvation, or freedom the only reason to act is to fulfill a pre-ordained promise. One wants will—free or otherwise—not a puppet-master. In either case (will or fatalism), an act derives from an internal impulse (perhaps governed by its own laws) which, if left untempered by an interval of reflection, produces one act after another, but no justice.6 This book can then be seen as a meditation on a hope that cannot possibly hope. In the certainty of M.L.K., whose promise rings in the hollow failures of Obama, there is still a ringing, like the Pavlovian church bell that accompanies me as I leave the subway in Brooklyn.
The bell tolls to mark time—the fallacy of it, the profound material certainty of it. For the sublime both threatens and holds us. This is not the dime to the beggar because it doesn’t solve the problem of poverty and it is not the problem of poverty that demands a redistribution of wealth no matter how small. It is in the seemingly insignificant acts that make up each of our days, that together, cumulatively, slowly builds to one thing: death. A life’s meaning therefore only comes at its end in retroactive significance, confirming itself in the act of dying. And only in that existential commonality can the divisiveness of the categories, which we imagine to exist and to oppress us, also dissolve. When shooting stops and writing ends, when the actor turns to finally exit, only then can “redemption” or “revolution” manifest. In silence. In light. Now that is a film that should remain unfinished. Though I, like everyone, will be present for its inevitable release.
St. Paul is currently available from Verso Books.
- Pasolini’s Last Words (http://vimeo.com/52819837)
- In response to a question about the politico-religious implications of his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. “Una discussione del ‘64” in Saggi sulla politica e sulla società (Milan: Mondadori, 1999).
- Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
- This dialectical existentialism was explicated in the late 1930s of Vichy France through the work of Simone Weil (especially in Oppression and Liberty). There are other links here with Weil’s writings, which protest many of the same things: the Communist party, the Catholic Church, rational thought.
- “Un marxista a New York: Intervista di Oriana Fallaci,” L’Europeo, 13 ottobre 1966, reprinted in Saggi sulla politica a sulla societa. This dialectical existentialism was explicated in the late 1930s of Vichy France through the work of Simone Weil (especially in Oppression and Liberty). There are other links here with the Weil’s writings, which protest many of the same things: the Communist party, the Catholic Church, rational thought.
- Weil, again, from her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” “Where there is no room for reflection between the impulse or the act neither is there room for justice.”