Tuesday Night (Vilnius) – 10.07.03 – Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

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Tuesday Night (Vilnius) – 10.07.03 – Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
0. About the Fascism Series
1. About this Tuesday
2. PDF link to Marquis de Sade “ the 120 Days of Sodom”
3. more links to Pasolini’s Salo
4. The Fireflies Article by Pier Paolo Pasolini
5. Interview w/ Gary Indiana
6. Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom By Gary Indiana
7. Sade-Pasolini by Roland Barthes
0. About the Fascism Series
In this series we will be working with a collection of films, texts, presentations that will allow us to address and discuss fascism.
How does fascism manifest itself? In other words: How to recognize fascism? And possibly, How to understand fascism?
It is not about fascism as a closed notion and as something we know, but rather a questioning of where and how to recognize the many faces and mechanisms of fascism.
For example, we can ask with Agamben: what is the link between democracy and Totalitarianism? And Is Totalinariarism intrinsic to democracy? Does the separation of humanitarian and political concerns interminably reproduce the conditions which allow for fascism to resurface? And on the other hand, what is to be done with the ever increasing biopolitical encroachments/moves of modern states?

Link to Agamben /Homo Sacer reading #2 in Vilnius

Link to Agamben /Homo Sacer reading #1 in New York

1. About this Tuesday
What: Analysis, Discussion and excerpts from Salo
Who: Analysisby Rytis Juodeika
When: 7:00 pm
Where: Contemporary Art Centre (Vilnius)
About Rytis Juodeika :
fields of studies: philosophy, film studies, anthropology
locations of studies: Invisible College Lithuania, Vilnius University, Russian
Academy of Sciences Institute of Philosophy Department of Philosophical Anthropology (Moscow)
recent materials (unreleased): David Lynch as Cartographer, Jim Jarmusch
and the Hollow, David Cronenberg and the Transformation of the Body Image //
Screening and noting 120 days of Sodoma..
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film was based loosely on the work of the Marquis de Sade and the experiences of fascism in Italy during WWII. Film director, poet, theoretician, homosexual, catholic, communist, murdered, Pasolini with “Salo or 120 of Sodoma” gave a shock that still hasn’t lost it’s power even though more than 30 years passed since “Salo” appeared. The alchemy of two elements from different centuries, the potion made from the quill of the Age of Reason (script by Marquis!) and the boundless political power represented in Italian nazi mode produced the queer seeing experience, where elements of reason, lust, will, power, desire, disgust and disability to watch appear. Not everyone can bear it. The proposal is to bear it together. We have faced the case of limits.
2. PDF link to Marquis de Sade “ the 120 Days of Sodom”
(in zipped format = 866kb)
(in pdf format = 1.6mb)
3. more links to Pasolini’s Salo
4. The Fireflies Article by Pier Paolo Pasolini
The Fireflies Article
by Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy)
Pier Paolo Pasolini “The distinction between adjective and substantive fascism goes back to nothing less than the newspaper il Politecnico, in other words, directly after the war”. Thus begins Franco Fortini’s work on fascism (l’Europeo, 26-12-1974), a writing based on principles that I fully and completely subscribe to. I cannot, however, agree with his tendentious beginning. Indeed, the distinction between the “fascisms” made in il Politecnico is neither pertinent nor current. It was still valid up until some ten years ago, when the Christian-Democrat regime was the pure and simple extension of the fascist regime.
However, ten or so years ago, an “event” occurred. It was something that did not exist, nor was it foreseeable, not only in the Politecnico era, but even up to a year before the thing happened, or in fact, as we shall see, while the thing was happening.
The true confrontation between the two fascisms cannot therefore chronologically be the fascist fascism in the form of Christian-Democrat fascism, but the confrontation between fascist fascism with a fascism that was born of this event, a totally, radically and unforeseeably new type of fascism that occurred some ten years ago.
Since I am a writer and I get involved in controversy, or at least in discussions with other writers, allow me to provide a poetic-literary definition of this phenomena that occurred in Italy during that time. This will serve to simplify and shorten our subject, and probably to better understand it.
At the beginning of the sixties, the fireflies began to disappear in our nation, due to pollution of the air, and the azure rivers and limpid canals, above all in the countryside. This was a stunning and searing phenomena. There were no fireflies left after a few years. Today this is a somewhat poignant recollection of the past—a man of that time with such a souvenir cannot be young among the young of today and can therefore not have the wonderful regrets of those times.
The event that occurred some ten years ago we shall now call the “disappearance of the fireflies”.
The Christian-Democrat regime passed through two completely different phases that not only cannot be set off against each other—which would imply a certain degree of continuity between them—but which also have become flatly immeasurable, from an historic viewpoint.
The first phase of this regime, which the radicals have always rightly called it, is the phase beginning with the end of the war and extending to the extinction of the fireflies. The second goes from the extinction of the fireflies to the present day. We shall discuss them in order.
Before the extinction of the fireflies. Christian-Democrat fascism is a total and absolute extension of fascist fascism. I will not deal with certain subjects which were discussed at the time, perhaps in Politecnico. They include the lost opportunity for purification, the continuation of the codes [2], police brutality and disregard for the constitution. In addition, I will stop at that event that subsequently passed for a retrospective historical conscience, which was that the democracy that anti-fascist Christian-Democrats put forth in opposition to the fascist dictatorship was unabashedly categorical.
It was based on an absolute majority of votes obtained from wide strata of the middle classes and huge masses of the peasantry, oriented by the Vatican. This participation by the Vatican could only be possible if it was based on a totally repressive regime. In this type of world, the “values” that counted were those upheld by fascism, meaning Church, family, country, obedience, discipline, order, saving and morality. These values, as under fascism, were “genuine”, in other words they formed part of the specific and concrete cultures that were the basis of the ancient agricultural and palaeo-industrial traditions in Italy. However, from the moment they were elevated to the status of national “values”, they lost all reality, becoming atrocious, stupid and repressive State conformity characteristics, the conformity of fascist and Christian-Democrat power. We are not speaking of provincialism, of the vulgarity and ignorance of the élites [3] who, on a level different from the masses, were the same throughout fascism and the initial phase of the Christian-Democrat regime. The paradigm of this ignorance was the pragmatism and the formalism of the Vatican.
All this seems clear and uncontestable today because intellectuals and the opposition of the period cherished ridiculous illusions. They hoped that all that they were seeing was not completely true and that true democracy really counted for something.
Before moving to the second phase, I must devote a paragraph to the transition.
While the fireflies were disappearing. During this period, the distinction between fascism and the Politecnico fascism was still in effect. Neither the large country that was forming within the nation, that is, the peasant and working class masses being organized by the PCI (Italian Communist Party) nor the most advanced and critical intellectuals saw that the fireflies were becoming extinct. They understood sociology quite well—which during those years had caused a crisis in the Marxist analytical method—but their understanding was not yet tested by life experience and was essentially theoretical. No one could perceive what historical reality concerning the immediate future was evolving, nor link what was then called well-being with the development concept which was to bring about for the first time fully in Italy the ‘genocide’ described by Marx in his Manifesto.
After the extinction of the fireflies. The nationalized and therefore falsified “values” of the old agricultural-based and palaeo-capitalistic world suddenly were no longer important. Church, country, family, obedience, order, savings, morality, none of it was important any more. They didn’t even survive in the form of false values. They remained within the reduced clerical-fascism order and even the M.S.I. repudiated them. “Values” for a new type of civilization replaced them, which were completely apart from the peasant and palaeo-industrial society. This phenomena had already been experienced by other countries. However, in Italy, it was completely unique because it involved the first true unification of our country. In other countries this unification was superimposed logically over monarchic or bourgeois and industrial revolution-imposed unifications. Perhaps the only precedent to the Italian trauma produced by the clash between pluralist archaism and industrial equalization was pre-Hitler Germany. In that country also, the values of different specific cultures were destroyed by the violent recognition process of industrialization, with the consequence of producing those gigantic hordes who had neither the ancient peasant or artisan roots or not even a modern bourgeois background, and who made up the savage, abnormal and unpredictable bodies of Nazi troops.
Something similar is now occurring in Italy, with even greater violence in that the industrialization of the sixties and seventies was also a decisive mutation compared to that in Germany fifty years ago. As we all know, we are not now facing a new age, but rather a new era of human history, with human history seen in periods of one thousand years. The Italian people could not have behaved worse than they did in confronting this historic trauma. Over a period of several years they have become, especially in the Center-South, a degenerate, ridiculous, monstrous and criminal population – one need only go into the street to understand this. Of course, in order to understand the changes in people, you have understand the people themselves. To my detriment, I liked them, the Italian population, both outside of the power systems—in fact in desperate opposition to them—and outside of populist and humanitarian systems. I felt real love for them, rooted in my personality. I could see with my “senses” how the power of a consumption-based society modeled and deformed the conscience of the Italian people, finally arriving at an irreversible degradation. This was something that did not occur in the fascist fascism period, during which individual behavior was totally disassociated from the conscience. The totalitarian power repeated incessantly its injunctions on behavior modification in vain, since the conscience no longer entered into play. The fascist models were only masks that were donned and removed in turn. When the fascist fascism movement fell, everything returned to its previous order. This occurred also in Portugal. After forty years of fascism, the Portuguese celebrate D the 1st of May as if the last one celebrated was the preceding one.
As such it is ridiculous for Fortini to backdate the distinction between fascism and the fascism prevalent to directly after the war. The distinction between fascist fascism and the fascism of the second phase of the Christian-Democrat regime has no grounds for comparison in our history, and not only in our history but probably in all history.
I do not write this article to debate this subject, even though it is one very near to me. I write for a very different reason, which I will now outline.
All my readers will certainly have observed change in Christian-Democrat officials. Over several months they have become funereal. It is true that they continue to dispense radiant smiles of an incredible sincerity. Their eyes exude an honest, blissful spark of good will, when they aren’t betraying a mocking, spirited cunning. This, apparently, pleases voters as much as genuine good will. Furthermore, our officials continue imperturbably to release incomprehensible verbiage into the atmosphere, or float the flatus vocis of their habitual stereotyped promises.
In reality, all these things actually are masks. I am sure that, if they were removed we wouldn’t even see a heap of bones and ashes. There would be nothing, just emptiness. The reason for this is simple because in Italy today, there is a dramatic power void. However, the important thing is that the void is not of a legislative or executive nature, it is not a void in the power of governing or even in political power of any traditional description. It is a power void in itself.
How did this void come about? Or rather, “How is it that the people in power came to this?”
The explanation for this is also simple. The Christian-Democrat power base went from the “fireflies” stage to the “fireflies extinction” phase” without realizing it. However quasi-criminal this may appear, their unconsciousness in this matter was based on one absolute issue, which was that they had no inkling that the power that they held and exercised did not follow a normal pattern of evolution but rather was undergoing a radical change of form.
They were deceived into thinking that in their regime nothing would really changed and that, for example, they would always be able to rely on the Vatican’s support. They didn’t realize that the power they continued to exercise had no further use for the Vatican, which was a center of the poor, backward peasantry. They had the illusion that they would always be able to count on a nationalist army, just as their fascist predecessors did. They did not see that the power that they continued to exercise was already maneuvering to establish the basis for new transnational armies, almost like a technocratic police force. The same can be said with regard to the family, which was relegated to saving and upholding morality and which had no means of maintaining these traditions during the transition from fascism. Today the power of the consumer society has imposed radical changes on this institution, with the acceptance of divorce and now potentially anything else without limit, or at least within the limits allowed by the the permissiveness of the new power scheme, which is more totalitarian because it is violently aggregate.
Christian-Democrat politicians accepted all this, all the while believing that they were administrating it. They did not realize that it amounted to “something else” that was not only immeasurable with respect to themselves but also with all forms of civilization. As always (see. Gramsci), the only symptoms of this occurred in language. During the transition phase – meaning, the “extinction of the fireflies” – Christian-Democrat rulers changed their way of communicating almost abruptly, adopting a completely new language that was as incomprehensible as Latin. This was especially true of Aldo Moro. Through a puzzling correlation, the one who seems to be the least involved of all in the horrible acts perpetuated between 1969 to the present, whose purpose was to retain power at all costs. Up to now, this goal has been formally achieved.
I say ‘formally’ because, and I repeat, in reality, Christian-Democrat officials are keeping the void hidden behind their smiles and automated movements. The real power works without them and they hold in their hands only a useless apparatus. The only real thing about them are their mournful three-piece suits.
Nonetheless, in history the void cannot remain in existence. The only way to assert it is in the abstract or reasoning on the basis of absurdity. It is likely that the void that I speak of is already being filled by a crisis or an event that cannot avoid ravaging the entire country. The morbid expectation of a coup d’état is a hint of this. As if it amounted only to replacing a group of people that have governed us terribly for thirty years, bringing Italy to economic, ecological, urban and anthropological disaster! In reality, the false replacement of these “pig-headed people” by other “pig-headed people”—who will be not less, but more lugubriously carnavalesque—brought on by the artificial reinforcement of the old fascist apparatus, would do nothing. Should this occur, it is clear that the “troupe” would be Nazi, virtually be its composition. The real power, which for ten years the “pig-headed people” have exercised without comprehending reality, that is something that could already have filled the void. This would also render useless the possible participation in the government of the greater communist country that evolved during the degradation of Italy, because it is not a question of governing. We formulate abstract images of this real power, which are basically apocalyptic. We have no idea what form it would take in directly replacing those who used it and took it for a simple modernization of techniques. At any rate, as for me, should that interest the reader, let it be clearly understood. I would give the entire Montedison, even though it be a multinational company, for a firefly.
1. In Écrits corsaires, Flammarion, coll. « Champs Contre-Champs », 1987, pp.180-189. This text was published on February 1, 1975 in Corriere della sera under the title “The Power Void in Italy”. 2. Allusion to the Rocco code (translator’s note) 3. In French in the text
to read more please go to
5. Interview w/ Gary Indiana
Rob White: Salò was made in 1975, the year, as you point out in the book, of Jaws. Clearly cinema has moved on and in retrospect it’s clear that Salò was a swansong of some kind. Does it seem dated to you now?
Gary Indiana: Salò doesn’t seem dated to me, probably because there weren’t imitations of it, and a lot of what it shows is still upsetting to people. Also, the film is a period film, and elaborately stylised, so it doesn’t date the way a contemporary drama, slice-of-life sort of film automatically dates as society evolves. As there isn’t any realism in Salò its reality hasn’t become superannuated. It’s hard to endorse the idea that cinema has moved on. There isn’t a single predominating tendency in cinema now. I would guess however that some of the tics of 60s and 70s auteur cinema like Pasolini’s might annoy a contemporary audience: holding the camera a really long time on an extra’s face, messing up sight lines, that sort of thing. I probably overstated the importance of Jaws in the book. I would guess that Star Wars had an even more baleful influence on things. Incidentally, I just saw a film called Deep Blue Sea that makes Jaws, intellectually speaking, look like The Age of Louis XIV.
Pasolini’s murder prevented him making films that might have qualified Salò, or revealed more fully its relationship to his earlier work. Is this a problem?
The problem is only there in the sense that Pasolini’s murder and this particular film were so readily linked, and eclipsed the rest of Pasolini’s work, in a certain journalistic kind of discussion. Salò is a satire of consumer society and perfectly consistent with Pasolini’s other films and his polemical writings. What he saw as an extreme spiritual crisis in modern society demanded this particular form, and these extremely unnerving images.
The murder also had the effect of linking Salò to extreme gay sexual behaviour. But is Salò a gay film? Is it specifically tied to the mid-70s, the time of Mapplethorpe, Fassbinder, Foucault?
Salò has a lot of homoerotic imagery and shows numerous homosexual acts – I’m not sure what a ‘gay’ film is, what I think of as a ‘gay’ film would be something by Almodovar, an intelligent person whose work doesn’t interest me at all. Certainly you can find things in common between Pasolini, Mapplethorpe, Fassbinder, and Foucault, an exploration of subject matter considered ‘extreme’ by conventionally minded people, but if we speak of the 70s (and I dislike this kind of decade-ism, though like everyone I’m guilty of it), remember that everyone was testing the edges of acceptable content, in films as disparate as Caligula and The Eyes of Laura Mars. Some of that exploration reflected a deep questioning of normative sexual behavior and other values and some of it was strictly about fashion.
The relationship of Salò to Italian fascism has been questioned, and it does seem like the link is made quite perfunctorily. To what extent do you see the film as relating to the historical phenomenon of fascism?
What’s depicted in the film is a situation of total control over certain individuals by other individuals. These controlling individuals represent the apparatus of the state: clergy, banking, etc. In Salò the model of totalitarianism has been given a kind of desublimated lubricity that’s never found in totalitarian regimes, which are invariably puritanical. Yet the appeal of fascism is an erotic one, and Pasolini wanted to show this as an explicit thing, the power to control another person’s body, to use it sexually while destroying it, to get sexual pleasure from another person’s suffering. Salò tries to explain fascism as this physical expression of the will to power, and to lure the viewer into complicity by showing a lot of stunningly gorgeous, naked teenagers. So we become accomplices to this horror by virtue of our own desire to keep looking, to keep cruising these adorable kids.
Opposition to the censorship of Salò has often concentrated on the extent to which the film makes us face up to fascism or to other, more contemporary abuses of power. Do you agree with this? And, in any case, does Salò need to be justified in this way?
I think the censorship really is based on puritanical phobias rather than any conscious attempt to stifle a critique of fascism. Fascism is in the bloodstream of a certain kind of moralist, but the main thing is this silly idea that people shouldn’t look at naked bodies, depictions of sex, etcetera, etecetera, because it’s ‘harmful’, and behind that is the question, harmful to what? I don’t think Salò, or any other film, should have to justify itself by having an agenda of social criticism. There is nothing wrong with pornography. I don’t happen to even agree that it’s harmful to children. Most censorship efforts today claim to be protecting children. If people cared about children, they would look into child labor at Nike factories in China, or the places in Mexico where Disney has its costumes fabricated by children earning thirty cents an hour.
Your writing deals fairly unblinkingly with violence, including sexual violence, and yet is also full of social conscience of a kind (radical, leftwing, antimainstream) that Pasolini displayed too. Do you see any parallels?
I couldn’t possibly compare myself to Pasolini. I’m not anywhere near as prolific, I’m not the kind of artist who is all over the map, continually producing things. I rather envy the situation of artists and writers in Europe, where, if you’re a novelist or a filmmaker and write a play, the play gets published in a nice edition by a small press, in America you can forget about that. Very, very few American writers are treated as serious artists in the European manner, and the ones who are have been around for fifty years, queening it over the rest of us. Very few American writers ever get to see a uniform edition of their work, or have all their work in print. Publishers simply do not support writers on the basis of their literary worth, it’s all about money, period. Even if your editors believe in what you do very strongly, they have a bottom line that they’re more responsible to than they are to you.
I don’t really think of my own work in terms of ‘radical, leftwing, antimainstream’, this is how other people characterise it. (I am also routinely accused of having a grotesque imagination, usually for describing things I find in the newspaper.) I think a certain way quite naturally and my sympathies have always been with the unfortunate, I have that in common with Pasolini. On the other hand, I would never resort to the kind of faux-naiveté you find in a lot of Pasolini’s work, I could never carry that off and anyway I don’t like it. And I think I have a much better sense of humour than he did, I’m not at all taken with Pasolini’s ‘bawdy’ side: as I said in the book, it usually looks bogus. I admire Pasolini’s humanity and I certainly would feel lucky to achieve in my life one-tenth of what he did, but I am, quite sincerely, allergic to the grandiosity of the artist-as-public-conscience as well as the artist-as-pop-star, these are roles that require a certain degree of self-delusion and a great deal of relentless self-promotion.
You say in the book that writing it, and rewatching the film for it, made you change your mind about Salò. How, finally, would you assess it?
Actually, I said that watching all of Pasolini’s movies again after some years, I changed my opinion about some of them, but in fact Salò seemed very much the same as when I first saw it: if there were such a thing as an ugly jewel, or an ugly butterfly, that would be the way to describe it. It’s one of the few films that really burns a hole in the medium, that you can’t really categorise or reduce to a schematic; it’s just a very weird and arresting picture, and somehow more like a great painting than a great movie, like Uccello’s Profanation of the Host or Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. I think its analysis of consumer society has become an absolutely standard one, which is to say, one that many thinking people accept as valid, but if this analysis were present to us all the time, in the bald terms Pasolini presents it in, we would simply go mad and be unable to do anything about anything. So it reflects a spiritual and intellectual impasse that Pasolini might have found his way out of, had he lived; now that I think of it, it does catch the spirit of that particular time, the suffocation of the mid-70s, the dead utopian hopes, the pointless fucking around.
Gary Indiana has been described by the Guardian as ‘one of the most important chroniclers of the American psyche’. ‘One reads Mr. Indiana’s … work with astonishment at his talent’ (New York Times). Born in 1950 in New England he now lives in New York and Los Angeles. After two collections of short stories, Scar Tissue (1987) and White Trash Boulevard (1988), he published his first novel, Horse Crazy, in 1988, followed by Gone Tomorrow (1993), Rent Boy (1994) and a pair of books about ‘true crimes’, Resentment: A Comedy (1997), based on the trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez, and Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (1999). From 1985 to 1988 he was Art Critic for the Village Voice, and a collection of his critical writing, Let It Bleed: Essays 1985-1995, was published in 1996. His play Roy Cohn/Jack Smith was filmed by Jill Godmillow in 1994. He has acted in more than 20 films and played The Voice of the Radio in Neil Bartlett’s London production of Genet’s Splendid’s. He is currently working on a new novel, Depraved Indifference, due out next year. He will pay a rare visit to London to attend the BFI/ICA conference on Salo on 29 and 30 September.
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6. Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom By Gary Indiana
Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom
By Gary Indiana
London: BFI Publishing, 2000 ISBN 0-85170-807-2. 96 pp., $10.36, (pbk) “Just because it’s a holiday. And in protest I want to die
of humiliation. I want them to find me dead
with my penis sticking out, my trousers spotted with white
sperm, among the millet plants covered with blood-red liquid.
I am convinced that also the last acts, to which
I alone, the actor, am witness, in a river
that no one comes to — will, eventually,
acquire a meaning”
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Bestia da stile”)
In spite of these as well as other explicit and prophetic lines, critics and intellectuals, especially Italian ones, have been timid to assess the role of the body and of homosexual desire in Pasolini’s work. The thriving contemporary revival of Pasolini studies in Italy has rarely shown willingness to come to terms with the author’s sexuality. Instead, from the far left to the post-fascists, everyone is busy fabricating his/her own Pasolini. Catholics say he was a pious man at heart, neglecting to account for the challenges that his works brought to Catholic moralistic beliefs and to the bigoted policies of the governing Christian Democratic Party. Left-wing scholars and politicians are willing to claim Pasolini as part of their own anti-fascist tradition, although they are not so enthusiastic to remember his expulsion from the Italian Communist Party on the grounds of his homosexuality. In an extreme effort to achieve an aesthetic restyling to follow their political one, post-fascists have increasingly become keen to count Pasolini as one of their own fold. His nostalgia for that 1930s rural Italy in which he lived as a boy, they claim, includes also the fascist regime that governed the country at that time. Pasolini’s ashes are highly contested material. Gary Indiana’s study of Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom , the director’s last film, is refreshingly different from the dogmatic approaches sketched above. Its iconoclastic analysis of the film and of the director’s public persona is challenging and thought-provoking although it is not devoid of its own shortcomings.
Indiana states from the very beginning of his monograph on Salò , published in the BFI Modern Classics series and copiously illustrated with stills from the film, that his notes on the film and the director will probably not win him any friends among film scholars or Pasolini experts. He then proceeds with a disclaimer on his ability to assess the film and the director within their own historical contexts: “I am not fluent in Italian, so there are myriad nuances in Pasolini’s work that I can neither perceive nor contextualise” (9). Indiana’s project is to “personalise” his encounter with Pasolini and Salò , and thus to declare finally what has remained submerged in decades of official criticism that has made the director a figure with a “sacred aura”, “an object of research, a desiccated collection of ‘meanings'”: “the camera eye in Pasolini’s films conveyed a blatant sexual interest in his male actors” at a time when “erotic interest in the male body was still elaborately dissembled in most movies” (10).
Indiana’s discussion of Pasolini’s sexuality and of the role of homosexual desire in his movies is daring and convincing, and is the best part of the study. Indiana’s personalised Pasolini turns out to be a homosexual who “used his sexual difference as a tool of analysis, a goad to empathy” (15). The director’s sexual identity, Indiana perceptively remarks, “is rarely reflected in his work as a source of pleasure”; on the contrary, it “inflects his work with melancholy and morbidity” (16). Indiana’s logical and sound conclusion is that “it would be healthier, and in the end better for Pasolini’s legacy, not to insist so much on his saintliness” (18). Indeed, the main significance of this legacy is “its ability to flush … racism into the open, revealing the limits of repressive tolerance — that social threshold of shock that says, We’ll accept you if you become like us, love like us, talk like us, believe like us, hate like us (15, Indiana’s emphases).
Yet, Indiana is not simply turning Pasolini from Saint of the Official Intelligentsia to Saint Queer. His approach is willing to expose clearly Pasolini’s own shortcomings, in particular what the critic spots as the major “laughable contradiction” both in the director’s work and his public persona between his “self-righteous polemics on behalf of the oppressed, particularly on behalf of urban street youth” (a gendered concern that privileges the boys over the girls) and “the fact that he perfectly fits the cliché of the rich fag European director, in sunglasses and Alfa-Romeo, prowling midnight Roman streets for juvenile cock” (17). Indiana’s critique also encompasses Pasolini’s own stance against the middle-classes, a stance that the critic finds located in utopian pleasure, in his longing for “the pre-industrial, the rustic, the anti-modern” and thus “bitterly useless”, representing as it does, “a refusal of reality that … has less to do with actually trying to change things than with proving the virtuousness of the attack” (18). All this reads persuasively enough, and yet, at times, Indiana tantalisingly downplays the resonance of Pasolini’s polemics in his own time and falls into the trap of supporting his refreshing critique with cultural stereotypes that don’t do justice to either his own or Pasolini’s complexity. For example, when he reads Salò as a repudiation of Pasolini’s previous Trilogy of Life ( Decameron ,Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights ), Indiana cites among his evidence the tired cliché that “the ideological volte-face has always been commonplace among Italian writers” (30).
Perhaps because I enjoyed so much the part of Indiana’s book on Pasolini’s persona, I found the analysis of Salò slightly disappointing, especially towards the final pages of the book, when the author switches to a descriptive rather than analytical mode, with an almost scene-by-scene account of the movie. Salò is first set within the context of Pasolini’s production, as a repudiation of the Trilogy of Life and a return to the more political cinema represented by Theorem and Pigsty . Adapting Sade to the last days of Italian fascism and the Republic of Salò, the film portrays the tortures carried out by a group of fascist libertine officials on local youngsters whom they use to try out a wide variety of sexual perversions, a metaphor of the worst excesses of the regime. Interestingly, Indiana suggests we read the movie as pointing out that the victims of the tortures are themselves implicated “in fascism’s horrors — by their class, their lack of resistance, virtually by their ability to be slaughtered” (37), thus mirroring the general complicity of the Italian people “sleepwalking in a grand deception” throughout the regime (41). Because the victims’ passivity is stressed throughout, Salò “engages voyeurism rather than empathy” (57), a conclusion which left-wing intellectuals who privilege Pasolini’s anti-fascism may find problematic.
Complementing this reading, Indiana also suggests that “Pasolini’s specific agenda of ‘perversion’ comments on the sexual landscape of the 70s” (45) when the claim for a visibility of “extreme sexuality” was part of the “emphasis on ‘lifestyle’ as a fashion choice” and “sadomasochism and its affectation had become chic” (46). Therefore, Salò is presented as a movie with a split, double narrative moving between a meditation on fascism and a documentary on homosexual cruising.
The (in)famous scenes of shit-eating are explained by Indiana following Pasolini’s suggestion that they represent a metaphor for capitalism and consumer society. The consumption of people’s waste could not be more precise “as a model of capitalism … suggesting as it does the exhaustion of less toxic forms of nourishment as well as a reversion to cannibalism” (79). This is what prompts Indiana to arrive at his final definition of Salò as “a metaphor of feudalism as reinvented by the multinational corporation, the military coup d’état and the mediation of all reality via the symbolic” (90).
Indiana’s multi-layered reading of the movie is original and provocative. Yet, at times, its richness detracts from a clear overall thesis on Salò that can keep all these different layers together, although the reader is warned from the beginning of the book that Indiana is not so much interested in a coherent narrative as in a flow of notes on the movie. Another more important problem is that Indiana seems to be aware of the difficulty of divorcing his discussion of the movie from Italian cultural and historical contexts, and yet these contexts are never fully explored. While Indiana’s lack of concern with things Italian may be refreshing when he discusses Pasolini’s persona, it is damaging when the critic resorts to broad generalisations such as that “it can be fairly said that ordinary life in Italy under fascism … was infinitely less oppressive than ordinary life in Germany under Hitler” or that “Italy in the 20s had a more open press than the United States did, fairer labour laws and a more inclusive spectrum of political parties” (37). Here Indiana risks reproducing that nostalgia for the past that he finds so annoying in Pasolini and seems unaware that the consolidation of the fascist regime through the late 1920s and 1930s had on its agenda precisely the suppression of the open press and the inclusive spectrum of political parties. Also, the critic acknowledges Pasolini’s lifelong dialogue with the Italian Communist Party and tries to make such dialogue relevant for Salò. Yet, such a complex issue would have deserved more than the half page which is devoted to it in conjunction with another thorny matter in Pasolini studies, the condemnation of the 1968 students’ movement (85).
In spite of these very few objections, Indiana’s Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom is certainly a must read for everyone interested in Pasolini and a book that will hopefully contribute to an appreciation of the director that finally enables his contradictions as well as with his own sexuality to come out.
A Review by Luca Prono
The University of Nottingham, UK.
7. Sade-Pasolini by Roland Barthes
by Roland Barthes
Salò does not please fascists. On another side, since Sade has become for some of us a kind of precious patrimony, many cry out: Sade has nothing to do with fascism! Finally, the remainder, neither fascist nor Sadean, have an immutable and convenient doctrine that finds Sade boring. Pasolini’s film therefore can win no one’s adherence. However, quite obviously, it hits us somewhere. Where?
In Salò, what touches is the letter. Pasolini has shot his scenes to the letter, the way they had been dectrite [described] (I do not say “ecrites” [“written”]) by Sade; hence these scenes have the sad, frozen and rigorous beauty of large encyclopedic sheets. To make someone eat excrement? To enucleate an eye? To put needles in a dish? You see it all: the plate, the turd, the smearing, the package of needles (bought at the Upim of Salò), the grain of polenta; as the saying goes you are spared nothing (the motto itself of the letter). At such a degree of rigor, it is eventually not Pasolini’s world that is bared, but our glance: our glance, stripped naked, such is the effect of the letter. In Pasolini’s film (this, I believe, was his very own thing) there is no symbolism: on the one hand a gross analogy (fascism, sadism) and on the other, the letter, scrupulous, insistent, displayed, over-polished like a primitive painting: allegory and letter, but never symbol, metaphor, interpretation (the same, but gracious, language in Teorema).
However, the letter has a curious, unexpected effect. One could believe that the letter does serve truth, reality. Not at all: the letter distorts the objects of conscience on which we are obliged to take a position. Remaining faithful to the letter of Sadean scenes, Pasolini comes to the point of distorting the object-Sade and the object-fascism: therefore it is with good reason that Sadeans and politicians are indignant and disapprove.
The Sadeans (the readers delighted with Sade’s text) will never recognize Sade in Pasolini’s film. The reason for this is general: Sade can in no way be represented. Just as there is no portrait of Sade (except an imaginary one), there is no possible image of Sade’s universe: the latter, because of an imperious decision made by the writer Sade, is entirely given over to the power of ecriture. And if this is so, there exists undoubtedly a privileged agreement between ecriture and phantasm: both are perforated; the phantasm is not the dream, it does not follow the continuity, whether contorted or not, of a story; and ecriture is not painting, it does not follow the plenitude of the object: the phantasm can only be written in script, and not in description. That is why Sade will never be acceptable in the movies, and, from a Sadean point of view (from the point of view of the Sadean text), Pasolini could only commit an error – which he did stubbornly (to follow the letter is to be stubborn).
From a political point of view, Sade too was mistaken Fascism is too serious and too insidious a danger to be treated by simple analogy, the fascist masters coming “simply” to take the place of the libertines. Fascism is a coercive object: it forces us to think it accurately, analytically, philosophically. All that art can do with it, if it deals with it, is to make fascism believable, to show off (demontrer) how it happens not to show (montrer) what it resembles; in brief, I see no other way to treat it than a la Brecht. Or, better yet: it is a responsibility to present this fascism as a perversion; who will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salò: “I am really not like them, I am not a fascist, since I do not like shit.”
In short, Pasolini did twice what he was not supposed to do. From the point of view of it worth, his film loses on both sides, for all that which fantasizes (irrealise) fascism is bad; and all that which figures (realise) Sade is bad.
And yet, all the same …? If, all the same, on the level of the affect, there were some Sade in fascism (a commonplace thing) and, even more, if there were some fascism in Sade? Some fascism does not mean: fascism. There is the “fascist-system” and there is the “fascism-substance.” For as much as the system requires a precise analysis, a reasoned discrimination which must forbid us to treat any kind of oppression as fascism, so much the substance can circulate everywhere; because the latter, in fact, is only one of the modes in which political “reason” happens to color the death drive which, in Freud’s words, can never be seen, unless tainted with some kind of fantasmagoria. Salò arouses this substance, starting from a political analogy which has here but a signatory effect.
A flop of figuration (both of Sade and of the fascist system), Pasolini’s film has worth as obscure recognition, poorly mastered within each of us, but surely bothersome: it bothers everybody, for, on account of Pasolini’s own naivete, it prevents anybody from getting cleared through customs. That is why I wonder if, at the end of a long concatenation of errors, Pasolini’s Salò is not, all things considered, a properly Sadean object: absolutely irredeemable: no one indeed, so it seems, can redeem it.
First appeared in Le Monde, June 16, 1976. Also in Beverley Allen Poetics of Heresy. (translated by Verena Conley.) Copyright resides with authors and representatives.