Georges Didi-Huberman | Hells? (On Pier Paolo Pasolini)


Well before he described the great light of Paradise shining out in all its eschatological glory, Dante decided to reserve a quiet but significant fate, in the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno, for the “tiny light” of those glowing worms, the fireflies. The poet is observing the eighth bolgia of hell, a political bolgia if ever there was one, since we can recognize a few eminent citizens of Florence gathered there, among others, all under the same condemnation as evil counselors. The entire space is scattered—constellated, infested—with small flames that look like fireflies, just like those that people see in the countryside on fine summer nights, flitting here and there, on the whim of their quiet, passing, intermittent wonder:

As many fireflies (in the season when
the one who lights the world hides his face least,
in the hour when the flies yield to mosquitoes)

as the peasant on the hillside at his ease
sees, flickering in the valley down below,
where perhaps he gathers grapes or tills the soil—

with just so many flames all the eighth bolgia
shone brilliantly, as I became aware.1

In Paradise, the great light beams out in sublime concentric circles: a cosmic light in glorious expansion. Here, though, the lucciole wander feebly—as if a light could whimper—in a sort of dark pocket, that pocket of sins made so that “each [flame] steals its sinner” (ogne fiamma un peccatore invola).2 Here the great light does not shine; there are only shadows, where the “evil counselors” and corrupt politicians crackle faintly. In his famous drawings for The Divine Comedy, Sandro Botticelli includes minuscule faces, grimacing and imploring within languid spirals of infernal sparks. But because he halts before plunging all of this in shadow, the artist fails to represent the lucciole as Dante describes them: the white vellum is only a neutral background where the “fireflies” stand out in black: dry, immobile, and absurd outlines.3

In any case, this is the miserable “glory” of the damned: not the brilliance of well-earned celestial joys but rather the small, painful glimmer of wrongs, dragging along under accusations and punishments without end. Like the opposite of moths consumed in the ecstatic instant of their contact with flame, these glowing worms of hell are poor “flies of fire”—fireflies, as the French lucioles are called in English—who bear within their very bodies an eternal, tormenting burn. Pliny the Elder was once troubled by a sort of fly, called pyrallis or pyrausta, that could fly only in the fire: “So long as it remains in the fire it will live, but if it comes out and flies a little distance from it, it will instantly die.”4 Suddenly the lives of fireflies seem foreign, troubling, as if made from the surviving matter—luminescent but pale, weak, often greenish—of ghosts. Faint flames or lost souls. No surprise that one may suspect, in the uncertain flight of fireflies in the night, something like a meeting of miniature phantoms, strange beings whose intentions may or may not be good.5

The story I want to sketch out—the question I want to construct— begins in Bologna, in the last days of January or the first days of February 1941. A young man, nineteen years old, registered at the College of Literature, discovers all of modern poetry, from Hölderlin to Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, along with Freudian psychoanalysis and existentialist philosophy. He doesn’t forget his Dante, of course. But now he rereads The Divine Comedy with fresh eyes: less for the compositional perfection of the great poem than for its labyrinthine variety; less for the beauty and unity of its language than for the exuberance of its forms, its twists, its appeals to dialect, to slang, to wordplay, to intersections; less for its imagination of celestial entities than for its descriptions of earthly things and human passions. Less, then, for its great luce than for its innumerable and erratic lucciole.

That student is Pier Paolo Pasolini. If he goes back to Dante now for a reading—a rereading that will never cease—it’s in large part because of his discovery of Erich Auerbach’s history of literary mimesis, as set forth in the masterful essay Dante: Poet of the Secular World.6 If Pasolini reimagines the human Commedia beyond schoolroom teachings and Tuscan nationalism, this is also because of those “figurative flashes,” as he later writes, that he experiences in Roberto Longhi’s seminars on the “primitive” painters of Florence, from Giotto to Masaccio and Masolino. The great art historian contrasts Masaccio’s whole humanist vision, such as his use of cast shadows, with Dante’s many reflections on the human shadow and the divine light.7 But even in this period of triumphant fascism, when speaking to his students, Longhi does not omit much more contemporary—and more political—shadows and lights, such as those found in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion or Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Apart from all that, the young Pier Paolo plays attaccante (striker) for the university soccer team, which will emerge victorious that year from its intercollegiate championship match.8

Apart from all that—though very nearby—the war is raging. The dictators are talking: on January 19, 1941, Benito Mussolini meets Hitler at the Berghof; then, on February 12, he tries to convince General Franco to take an active role in the global conflict. On January 24, British troops begin their recapture of East Africa, held by the Italians: the British occupy Benghazi on February 6, while the Free French Army embarks on its campaign in Libya. On February 8, the English fleet bombards the port of Genoa. These are the days and nights of late January 1941. Let’s imagine something like a complete inversion of the relationship between luce and lucciole. On one side, propagandist spotlights halo the fascist dictator in a blinding light. But the powerful spotlights of antiaircraft defenses, too, are chasing the enemy though the shadows of the sky, in “chase scenes”—as they’re called in the theater—as watchtowers hunt the enemy through the darkness of the camps. This is a time when the “evil counselors” are in their full and luminous glory, while resistants of all kinds, active or “passive,” transform into fireflies, fleeing to make themselves as secret as possible even as they continue to send out their signals. So Dante’s universe is completely inverted: now, hell is out in the daylight, with its corrupt politicians glorious and overexposed. As for the lucciole, they’re trying to escape as best they can, from the threat, from the condemnation that, from now on, will crush their existence.

This is the context in which Pasolini writes a letter to his boy- hood friend Franco Farolfi, between January 31 and February 1, 1941. Small stories in the larger history. Stories of bodies and desires, stories of souls and private doubts in the larger confusion, the century’s larger turmoil. “I am marvelously idiotic— but in the way the gestures of someone who has won the lottery are idiotic—at least the stomach-ache is beginning to go away, and so I feel myself prey to euphoria.”9 Already, then, there are both prey (in Italian, preda; for example, one says preda di guerra for the “spoils of war”) and euphoria. Already there is that pincer movement, with its painful combination of law and desire, guilt and transgression, accepted anguish and controlled pleasure: small lights of life, with their heavy shadows and their painful forced consequences. Which is what the very next lines in Pasolini’s letter to his friend show. The young humanist mentions what he calls the parténai—from the Greek word parthenos, indicating virginity—writing,

As for virginities I pass long hours of languor and extremely vague dreams which I alternate with mean, stupid attempts at action and with periods of extreme indifference. Three days ago Pariah and I went down to the den of a merry prostitute where the big tits and the breath of naked forty-year-olds made us think with nostalgia of the lidos of innocent childhood. Then we peed dejectedly.10

Words from a young man deep in shadow, seeking his way through la selva oscura and the moving glimmers and flashes of desire (lucciola, in Italian slang, designates the prostitute but also that mysterious feminine presence in the old movie theaters that Pasolini no doubt visited often: the “usherette” armed with her little flashlight to guide the spectator among the rows of seats in the dark). Between euphoria and prey, pleasure and error, dreams and despair, this young man waits for a light to appear, at least the trace of a lucciola, if not the kingdom of luce. And that is exactly what happens (and even justifies the story). Love and friendship, passions that for Pasolini were absolutely linked, are suddenly embodied in the night, in the form of a cloud of fireflies:

Friendship is a very nice thing. The night I am telling you about we ate at Paderno and then in the complete  darkness we climbed up towards Pieve del Pino—we saw an immense number of fireflies which made clumps of fire among the clumps of bushes and we envied them because they loved each other, because they were seeking each other with amorous flights and lights while we were arid and all males in artificial peregrinations.

Then I thought how beautiful friendship is and the bands of twenty year old youths who laugh with their innocent male voices and take no notice of the world around them, continuing along their lives, filling the night with their shouts. Theirs is a potential masculinity. Everything in them turns to laughter, to bursts of laughter. Never does their virile enthusiasm appear so clear and overwhelming as when they seem to have become once more innocent children because their complete and joyous youth is still present in their bodies.11

Here, then, are the lucciole, raised up as impersonal lyrical bodies for that joi d’amor the troubadours sang about so long ago. Plunged in the great guilty night, men sometimes let their desires shine out, let out their shouts of joy, their laughter, like so many flashes of innocence. No doubt, in the situation Pasolini describes, there is a sort of breakdown relative to heterosexual desire (since fireflies are male and female, lighting up to call to each other and calling to each other to copulate, to reproduce). But what remains essential, in the comparison established between flashes of animal desire and bursts of laughter or shouts of human friendship, is that innocent and powerful joy that appears as an alternative in these times of triumphant fascism, whether too dark or too well lit. Pasolini even indicates, very specifically, that art and poetry also offer such flashes, at once erotic, joyous, and inventive. “[It’s the same] when they are talking about Art or Poetry,” he says of these luminous young people and their “virile enthusiasm” in the midst of the night. “I have seen—and I saw myself in the same way—young men talking about Cézanne and it seemed as if they were talking about one of their love affairs, with a shining and troubled look.”12

Pasolini’s letter ends and culminates with the violent contrast between this exception of innocent joy, which receives and radiates the light of desire, and the rule of a guilt-ridden reality, a world of terror that materializes here as the interrogating rays of two spotlights and the terrifying barks of guard dogs
in the night:

That is how we were that night—we clambered up the sides of the hills among the undergrowth which was dead and their death seemed alive, we made our way through orchards and trees laden with black cherries and reached the top of a high hill. From there one could see two very distinct and fierce searchlights very far off—mechanical eyes from which there was no escape, and then we were seized by terror at being discovered while dogs barked and we felt guilty and fled along the brow, the crest of the hill. Then we found another grassy patch—a circle so small that six pines a little apart were sufficient to encompass it. There we lay down wrapped in blankets and talking pleasantly together we heard the wind beating and raging in the woods and we did not know where we were nor what places were around us. At the first signs of light (which is something unutterably beautiful) we drank the last drop from our bottles of wine. The sun was like a green pearl. I stripped off my clothes and danced in honour of the light—I was all white, while the others wrapped up in their blankets like peones [Spanish peasants] trembled in the wind.13

One could say that, in this final scene, Pasolini strips naked as a worm, affirming at once his animal humility—close to the soil, the earth, the vegetation—and the beauty of his young body. But, “all white” in the brilliance of the rising sun, he dances like a glowing worm, like a firefly or a “green pearl.” An erratic glimmer, certainly, but a living glimmer, the flash of desire and poetry incarnate. Pasolini’s entire body of literary, cinematographic, and political work seems to be shot through with such moments of exception, moments in which human beings become fireflies—luminescent beings, dancing, erratic, elusive, and resistant as they are—before our amazed eyes. The examples are innumerable: one has only to think of Ninetto Davoli’s aimless dance in The Sequence of the Paper Flower in 1968, the young man’s luminous grace standing out against a busy Roman street, and even more against the haunting background of some of the darkest images in history: bombardments intercut with antiaircraft spotlights, “glorious” visions of corrupt politicians juxtaposed with the war’s somber mass graves. In the end, we know, the firefly-man will be crushed under an absurd divine judgment:

Innocence is a sin, innocence is a sin [you understand?]. And the innocents will be punished because they no longer have the right to be innocent. I cannot forgive those who walk through injustice, war, horror and chaos with a happy smile of innocence on their face. There are millions of innocents like you all over the world who want to disappear from history rather than shed their innocence. And I have to kill them even if I know they can’t help it. I damn them like the barren fig tree. Die, die, die.14

Of this celestial condemnation, sweet Ninetto clearly understands nothing. He just asks, more innocently than ever, “What?” before crumpling in a position that exactly reproduces a cadaver in films from the Vietnam War. The firefly is dead, its movement and light lost in the political history of our dark moment, which condemns its innocence to death.

The question of fireflies, then, is political and historical before all else. In his article on Pasolinian politics, which does not fail to mention Pasolini’s 1941 letter, Jean-Paul Cunier is correct in saying that the Bolognese youth’s innocent beauty is no “simple question of aesthetics and discursive form, [for its] stakes are enormous. It is a matter of separating political thought from its discursive matrix” and, in this way, arriving at that crucial place where the political becomes incarnate, in the body, movements, and desires of each person.15 It goes without saying—not only because Pasolini repeated it for years but also because we can have this experience every day—that the fireflies’ dance, this moment of grace that resists in the world of terror, is the most fleeting, the most fragile thing there is. But Pasolini, followed by a number of his commentators, went even further: he actually theorized, or affirmed as a historical thesis, the fireflies’ disappearance.

February 1, 1975—that is, thirty-four years to the day, or rather to the night, after his beautiful letter on the fireflies’ appearance, and exactly nine months before he was brutally murdered in the dead of night on the beach in Ostia—Pasolini publishes an article in the Corriere della sera newspaper about the political situation of the time. The text is titled Il vuoto del potere in Italia, but it would later be republished in the Scritti corsari under the soon-to-be famous title L’articulo delle lucciole, “The fireflies article.”16 Yet I would argue that this is, above all, the death notice for the fireflies. It consists of a funeral lament on the moment, in Italy, of the disappearance of fireflies, those human signals of innocence annihilated by the night—or by the “fierce” brilliance of spotlights—of triumphant fascism.

The thesis is this: it’s a mistake to believe that the fascism of the 1930s and 1940s was defeated. Mussolini was executed, of course—hanged by his feet in the Plaza Loreto in Milan in an “infamous” staging, characteristic of Italy’s oldest political customs.17 But from the ruins of that fascism, another fascism was born, a new terror that, in Pasolini’s view, was even deeper and more devastating. On one hand, “the democratic-Christian regime was the pure and simple continuation of the Fascist regime”; on the other hand, “something” happened in the middle of the 1960s, “something” that made way for the emergence of a “radically, totally, and unforeseeably new type of fascism.”18 The first phase of the process was marked by “police violence and disregard for the constitution,” all of it drenched in “atrocious, stupid and repressive State conformity,” against which “intellectuals and opposition of this period cherished ridiculous illusions” of political reversal.19

The second phase of this historical process began, according to Pasolini, at the very moment that “the most advanced and critical intellectuals did not realize that ‘the fireflies were disappearing.’”20 In the words that this polemicist—or rather provocateur, as Pasolini is usually called—brings together, all his violence is assembled, constructed [montée] with all the care of the poet. The polemicist does not hesitate to speak of “genocide,” justifying his choice on this occasion with a reference to Karl Marx, on the bourgeoisie crushing the proletariat.21 As for the poet, he deploys the ancient, lyrical, and delicate—that is, the autobiographical—image of fireflies:

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 phenomenon. There were no fireflies left after a few years. Today this is a somewhat poignant recollection of the past.22

The return to this poetico-ecological image is not in any sense an attempt to soften the violence of the phenomenon that Pasolini is diagnosing. Rather, it’s a way to insist on the anthropological dimension—in his eyes, the most profound and radical dimension—of the political process in question. Pasolini uses the hyperbolic word genocide in this period to designate more precisely a general movement of cultural decay, which he clarifies frequently with the expression “cultural genocide.” The idea that a deeper fascism had supplanted Mussolinian gestures appears clearly in 1969, in Pasolini’s interviews with Jean Duflot.23 Later, in a 1973 article titled “Acculturation and Acculturation,” the filmmaker explains his idea: in the time of historical fascism, it was still possible to resist—that is, to light up the darkness with a few glimmers of thought, by rereading Dante’s Inferno, for example, but also by discovering dialect poetry or, very simply, by observing the fireflies’ dance in Bologna in 1941. “Fascism proposed a model, a reactionary and monumental model, but it remained a dead end. Various individual cultures (peasants, workers, the subproletariat) continued undisturbed in identifying with their models, for repression was limited to obtaining their adherence in words. In our day, however, adherence to the models that the center imposes is total and unconditional. We reject true cultural models. The renunciation is complete.”24

In 1974, Pasolini fully develops his theme of “cultural genocide.” The “true fascism,” he says, is one that takes over the values, the souls, the languages, the gestures, the bodies of the people.25 It’s that which “leads, without executions or mass killings, to the suppression of large portions of society itself,” which is why this genocide must be called “that [total] assimilation of the quality and the way of life of the bourgeoisie.”26 In 1975, just as he writes his text on the fireflies’ disappearance, the filmmaker has also taken up the motif—the tragic and apocalyptic motif—of the disappearance of the human at the heart of contemporary society: “All I want is that you look around and take notice of the tragedy. What is the tragedy? It’s that there are no longer any human beings; there are only some strange machines that bump up against each other.”27

It’s necessary to understand that the improbable, minuscule splendor of fireflies, in Pasolini’s eyes—eyes skilled in the contemplation of a face or the selection of just the right movements of his friends’ and actors’ bodies—is a metaphor for nothing other than humanity in its essence, humanity reduced to the simplest of its powers: to send us a sign in the night. Does Pasolini see, then, his contemporary environment as a night that would finally devour, subjugate, or reduce the differences formed in darkness by those luminous flashes of fireflies in search of love? This last image, I believe, is not yet quite right. It’s not actually into the night that the fireflies have disappeared. When the night is darkest, we’re capable of seizing on the faintest glimmer, and even the expiration of light remains visible to us in its trace, however tenuous. No, the fireflies disappeared in the blinding glare of the “fierce” spotlights: spotlights from watchtowers, on political talk shows, in sports stadiums, on television screens. As for those “strange machines that bump up against each other,” they’re nothing but the overexposed bodies, with their stereotypes of desire, that confront each other in the bright light of sitcoms—so very distant from the quiet, the hesitant, the innocent fireflies, those “memories of the past, not without pain.”

In his text on fireflies, Pasolini’s protest inextricably blends the aesthetic and political, if not the economical, aspects of this “void of power” that he observes in contemporary society, this overexposed power of the void and of indifference, all transformed into commodities. “I could see with ‘my senses,’” he says, to give an empirical, sensorial, and even poetic character to his analysis, “how the power of a consumption-based society modeled and deformed the conscience of the Italian people, finally arriving at an irreversible degradation.”28 The truly tragic and harrowing character of such a protest comes from the fact that Pasolini found himself forced, in these last years of his life, to renounce the very thing that had constituted the source of all his poetic, cinematographic, and political energy.

That source was his love of the people, which markedly transforms Pasolini’s narratives of the 1950s and all his films from the 1960s. It flows through his poetic adoption of regional dialects,29 the foregrounding of the subproletariat in works such as Stories from the City of God or The Long Road of Sand,30 the depiction of suburban poverty in films like Accattone— contemporary, by the way, to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth—Mamma Roma or La Ricotta.31 In his theoretical essays, on the other hand, Pasolini tries to show the specific power of popular cultures in order to recognize the true capacity of historical, thus political, resistance, of their anthropological work of survival: “Slang, tattoos, laws of silence, mannerisms, social structures and the entire system of relations with power remain unaltered,” he says, for example, regarding Neapolitan culture. “Even the revolutionary era of consumption—that which has radically changed the relations between a centralized culture belonging to power and working-class cultures—has only left the Neapolitan working-class culture a little more isolated.”32

One day, when asked whether, as an artist of the Left, he felt nostalgic for the times of Bertolt Brecht or French “engaged” literature, Pasolini responded in these terms: “No! My nostalgia [is] for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord.”33 An anarchist way, it seems, of disconnecting political resistance from a simple party organization. A way of conceiving emancipation differently than through a single model of accession to wealth and power. A way of considering memory—slang, tattoos, mannerisms belonging to a given population—and thus the desire that comes with it, as so many political powers, as so many protests, capable of reconfiguring the future. This involved a certain “mythification” of the working class, of course. But in his view, the myth—what Pasolini often called the “power of the past” and what can be seen at work in films like Oedipus Rex and Medea—was actually a part of the revolutionary energy belonging to the poor, to the degraded people of the usual political game.34

For this is what is doomed, in the “disappearance of fire- flies,” to failure and despair. In the image of fireflies, Pasolini sees a whole reality of working-class people in the process of disappearing. If “the language of things changed” in a catastrophic way, as the filmmaker says in his Lutheran Letters, it is primarily because “the spirit of the people disappeared.”35 And we could say that here we have a question of light, a question of apparition. Thus the significance, the rightness of his appeal to fireflies. From this perspective, Pasolini seems to follow in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and in the zones of reflection, closer to him, explored by Guy Debord.

Benjamin, we recall, articulates his entire political theory beginning with an argument on the reciprocal apparition and presentation of peoples and of powers. “The crisis of democracy can be understood as a crisis in the conditions governing the public presentation of politicians,” he writes in 1935, in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.”36 As to the “society of the spectacle” that Guy Debord attacked, it arises with the unification of a world “basking in the perpetual warmth of its own glory,” whether that glory is a generalized negation and separation between “living human beings” and their own capacity to appear otherwise than under the domination—the raw, cruel, fierce light—of the commodity.37 Beginning in 1958 in a text titled “Televisual Neo-Capitalism,” Pasolini had already determined the extent to which the light of the small screen was destroying exposition itself and, along with it, the dignity of the working classes: “[television] not only does not attempt to elevate the cultural level of the lower layers, but provokes in them an almost agonizing inferiority.”38

This is why “there are no longer any human beings,” no more fireflies either, in our cities as in the country. This is why, in that final year of 1975, the filmmaker must “renounce” his Trilogy of Life and, in a manner, “suicide” his own love of the people in a few extremely violent lines in “Disappearance of the Fireflies”:

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 to 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.39

A love now uprooted, annihilated, exterminated. “I would give all of Montedison . . . for a firefly,” Pasolini concludes.40 But the fireflies have disappeared in this time of industrial and consumerist dictatorship, when each and every person ends up exhibiting himself like a product in a window—a way, precisely, of not appearing. A way of bartering civil dignity for the infinite profits of the spectacle. The spotlights have invaded the entire social space; no longer will anyone escape their “fierce mechanical eyes.” And worst of all, everyone seems happy, believing he can “make himself beautiful again” by taking advantage of this triumphant industry of political exhibition.

Hell. Doesn’t all this sound like the description of a nightmare? Yet Pasolini insists on telling us: this is really reality, our contemporary reality, this political reality so obvious that nobody wants to see it for what it is but that the “senses” of the poet, the seer, the prophet, receive so powerfully. The brutality of Pasolini’s language is equaled only by the delicacy of his perception, confronted by an infinitely more brutal reality. But are cries and lamentations—“The fireflies are dead!”—the only response to this reality? Beyond the hypersensitive “senses” of the poet, we understand that such a description also implies “sense” or meaning: the very significance, not only literary but also philosophical, of what the word “hell” could mean, a few centuries after Dante. In his political texts and until his final film, Salò, Pasolini tried to present and represent to us that new reality of the circle of “frauds” or the bolgia of “evil counselors,” not to mention the “luxurious,” the “violent,” and other “falsifiers.” What he describes as a fascist domain is thus a hell made real, from which nothing can escape, to which we are all now condemned. Guilty or innocent, no matter: damned in every case. God is dead; the “frauds” and “evil counselors” have taken advantage of his absence to claim his throne of Supreme Judgment. From now on, they’re the ones who decide the end time.

The doomsayers, the prophets of misery, are delirious and demoralizing in the eyes of some, fascinating visionaries in the eyes of others. It’s easy to reprove Pasolini’s tone, his apocalyptic accents, his exaggerations and hyperbole, his provocations. But how can we not prove vulnerable [éprouver] to his nagging fear when everything in Italy today—to speak only of Italy— everything seems to correspond more and more exactly to the rebellious filmmaker’s infernal description? This is why a commentator on Pasolini may approve of that description, to the point of paraphrase, to the point of overkill: “Then doubtless yes: this world is fascist and it is more so than the previous, because it is total regimentation even of the depths of the soul; it is more so than any other, because it no longer leaves any possible exteriority to a domain of despotism without limits, without direction and without control. . . . Today . . . this characteristic, now exorbitant in its power in the time of market totalitarianism, is so widely assimilated that artistic production is primarily a merciless competition for the chance to get recuperated.”41

Said another way—by another of his attentive readers— the “disaster” that Pasolini diagnoses would be described as “infinitely more advanced than was supposed by the process that inspired the three films from the early 70s [The Trilogy of Life]. In fact, in 1975 it is no longer possible to oppose ‘innocent bodies’ to cultural and commercial massification, to the trivialization of all reality, for the very good reason that the culture industry has taken hold of bodies, of sex, of desire, and injected them into the consumerist machine. The illusion of the refuge of memory, of the buoy of resistance stuck in the deep straits of popular culture, is dissolved. The more or less pagan lines of flight drawn in the films composing the Trilogy are cut off, and it’s as if there were no longer any margins or external limits to the territory of consumption; consumption is a power, a machine whose energy endlessly absorbs its own negativity and reabsorbs, without interruption or rest, even that which claims to oppose it.”42

The fireflies have disappeared, which means the culture, in which Pasolini had until then recognized a practice—whether a folk practice or an avant-garde one—of resistance, has itself become a tool of totalitarian barbarity, confined as it is now within the commodified, prostitutional domain of generalized tolerance; “Pasolini’s prophecy—realized—finally comes down to one phrase: culture is not what protects us from barbarity and what must be protected from barbarity; culture is the very space in which the new barbarity’s intelligent forms flourish. Pasolini’s argument is very different from that of Adorno and his followers, who thought that it was necessary to defend high culture and avant-garde art against mass culture; the Scritti corsari are rather a manifesto, arguing for the defense of political spaces, political forms (debate, polemics, struggle) against cultural homogenization. Against the general regime of cultural tolerance.”43

Here, then, is Pasolini proved, approved, extended, outdone. The apocalypse continues apace. Our current “civilization and its discontents” is heading in this direction, it seems, and most often, this is the way we experience it. But it’s one thing to point out the totalitarian machine and another to concede its total and definitive victory so quickly. Is the world so totally enslaved as our current “evil counselors” dream—as they plan, program, and try to convince us—that it is? To postulate this is, in fact, to give credence to what the machine tries to make us believe. To see nothing but the black night or the blinding glare of spotlights. To act defeated: to be convinced that the machine is finishing its work without rest or resistance. To see only the whole. And thus not to see the space—though it may be interstitial, intermittent, nomadic, improbably located—of openings, of possibilities, of flashes, in spite of all.

The question is crucial and no doubt complex. So there will be no dogmatic answer to this question, by which I mean, no general, radical, total answer. There will only be signs, singularities, fragments—brief, weakly luminous flashes. Fireflies, to use our current expression. But what have they become today, those light signals that Pasolini announced in 1941 and then sadly renounced in 1975? What are their chances of apparition or their zones of erasure; what are their powers, their fragilities? What part of reality—as opposed to a whole—can the image of fireflies address today?



1 Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), XXVI:25–32, 189–90.
2 Alighieri, XXVI:42, 190.
3 Sandro Botticelli, Drawings for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2000), 108–9.
4 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. John Bostock (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855), XI:42.
5 See, notably, Pierre Lemonnier, Le Sabbat des lucioles: Sorcellerie, chamanisme et imaginaire cannibale en Nouvelle-Guinée (Paris: Stock, 2006).
6 Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, trans. Michael Dirda (New York: New York Review of Books, 2007).
7 R. Longhi, “Gli affreschi del Carmine, Masaccio e Dante,” in Opere complete, VIII-1: Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio e altri studi sul Quattrocento, 1910–1967 (Florence: Sansoni, 1975), 67–70. See also Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Qu’est-ce qu’un maître?” and “Sur Roberto Longhi,” in Écrits sur la peinture, trans. H. Joubert-Laurencin (Paris: Carré, 1997), 77–86.
8 See Nico Naldini, introduction to The Letters of Pier Paolo Pasolini, vol. 1, 1940–1954, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, trans. Stuart Hood, ed. Nico Naldini (London: Quartet Books, 1992), 17.
9 Pasolini, Letters, 1:121. 89
10 Pasolini.
11 Pasolini.
12 Pasolini, 121–22.
13 Pasolini, 122. [Brackets in Stuart Hood’s translation.—T.N.]
14 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Sequence of the Paper Flower,” in Love and Anger, cited in David Ward, A Poetics of Resistance (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995), 146.
15 Jean-Paul Cunier, “La disparition des lucioles,” Lignes 18 (2005): 72.
16 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “L’articulo delle lucciole,” in Saggi sulla politica e sulla società, ed. W. Siti and S. De Laude (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1999), 404–11; also in Scritti corsari (Milan: Garzanti, 1977). “Disappearance of the Fireflies,” trans. Christopher Mott, in Diagonal Thoughts, ed. Stoffel Debuysere (Brussels, June 23, 2014),
17 On the tradition of “infamous images,” see Gherardo Ortalli, La pittura infamante nei secoli XIII–XVI (Rome: Società Editoriale Jouvence, 1979). S. Y. Edgerton, Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985). In La Rabbia, Pasolini lingers on a torture scene of this kind.
18 Pasolini, “Disappearance of the Fireflies.”
19 Pasolini.
20 Pasolini.
21 Pasolini.
22 Pasolini.
23 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “D’un fascisme à l’autre,” in Entretiens avec Jean Duflot (Paris: Gutenberg, 2007), 173–83.
24 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Acculturation et acculturation,” in Écrits corsaires, trans. French by P. Guilhon (Paris: Flammarion, 2005), 49.
25 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Le veritable fascisme,” in Écrits corsaires, 76–82.
26 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Le génocide,” in Écrits corsaires, 261.
27 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “We’re All in Danger,” interview with Furio Colombo, trans. Pasquale Verdicchio, in In Danger, ed. Jack Hirschman (San Francisco: City Lights, 2010), 235.
28 Pasolini, “Disappearance of the Fireflies.”
29 Pier Paolo Pasolini, La meglio gioventù: Poesie friulane (1941–1953), Tutte le poesie, ed. Walter Siti (Milan: Arnoldo Monda- dori, 2003); Pasolini, “La poesia dialettale del Novecento,” in Saggi sulla letturatura e sull’arte, ed. W. Siti and S. De Laude (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1999), 713–857; Pasolini, “La poesia popolare italiana,” in Saggi sulla letturatura e sull’arte, 859–993. See also K. von Hofer, Funktionen des Dialekts in der italianischen Gegenwartsliteratur: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1971); M. Teodonio, ed., Pasoloni tra friulano e romanesco (Rome: Centro Studi Giuseppe Gioachino Belli- Editore Colombo, 1997); F. Cadel, La lingua dei desideri: Il dialetto secondo Pier Paolo Pasolini (Lecce, Italy: Piero Manni, 2002).
30 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Stories from the City of God, trans. Marina Harss (New York: Handsel Books, 2003); Pasolini, The Long Road of Sand (London: Contrasto Books, 2015).
31 See, notably, E. Siciliano, ed., Pasolini e Roma (Rome-Cinisello Balsamo: Museo di Roma in Trastavere-Silvana Editoriale, 2005).
32 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Les gens cultivés et la culture populaire,” in Écrits corsaires, 235–236; see also Pasolini, “Étroitesse de l’histoire et immensité du monde paysan,” in Écrits corsaires, 83–88.
33 Pasolini, “We’re All in Danger,” 239.
34 See, notably, Adelio Ferrerro, “La ricerca dei popoli perduti e il presente come orrore,” in Il cinema di Pier Paolo Pasolini (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1977), 109–55; see also R. Schérer, “L’alliance de l’archaïque et de la révolution,” in Passages Pasoliniens (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2006), 17–30.
35 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lutheran Letters, trans. Stuart Hood (Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet New Press, 1987), 35–36.
36 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 49n24.
37 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 2012), 15–16.
38 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Néo-capitalisme télévisuel,” trans. to French by C. Michel and H. Joubert-Laurencin, in Contre la télévision (Besançon: Les Solitaires intempestifs, 2003), 22.
39 Pasolini, “Disappearance of the Fireflies.”
40 Pasolini.
41 Cunier, “Disparition des lucioles,” 78–79.
42 Alain Brossat, “De l’inconvénient d’être prophète dans un monde cynique et désenchanté,” Lignes 18 (2005): 47–48.
43 Brossat, 62.



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