Roots & routes

Pasolini's poem, "The weeping excavator", still stands as a symbol of destructiveness in today's society ruled by money and greed

Those, in the English-speaking world, who have heard of Pier Paolo Pasolini, are most likely to know of him as a director of controversial films. However, Pasolini, who was born in Bologna in 1922 and murdered in the outskirts of Rome in 1975, started his creative life as a writer of poetry and prose.

His work often reflected his struggle to reconcile his contradictions: he was gay and maintained his faithfulness to Catholic values, and for much of his life he also adhered to Marxism. An enduring leitmotif of Pasolini’s art is his lament for the destruction of the traditional values enshrined in the proletarian and peasant Italy of his childhood by the tide of post-war capitalism and the consumerism brought in its wake (which he considered an “anthropological genocide”).

One of his best-known poetry collections, Le ceneri di Gramsci (Gramsci’s Ashes), published in 1957, reflects his experiences during the difficult years of his early adulthood. He lived a hand to mouth existence in a borgata (outer slum) of Rome, on the border, as it were, between the old village-centred peasant Italy and the new Italy represented by the encroaching city limits with its silent peripheries entombed within indifferent concrete walls.

This collection contains a long poem titled Il pianto della scavatrice (The Weeping Excavator) whose themes are somewhat reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. In Pasolini’s poem the excavator screeches a lament as it bulldozes the old world. Though a symbol of relentless change, the excavator itself weeps over the mortal wounds that is inflicting, as if aware of the suffering that this change will inevitably bring.

Concerned now with our destruction of the environment and global warming we are finally becoming cognisant of the wounds that Pasolini so presciently decried before his tragic demise. Were he alive today, he would continue to denounce, as was his wont, the contradictions of our collective soul.

The other day I saw a silent bulldozer that had just torn down what I knew to have been a perfectly good and well-maintained house. With its inert blade turned downwards, it appeared to be weeping over the destruction it had wrought.

I looked at the splintered beams and the contorted metal sheeting that had once sheltered and warmed an entire family. I began to wonder what this house had once represented. I was not only thinking of the human labour, the sacrifices and the capital needed to build it. For me the house also embedded the human experiences accumulated over the course of its history etched in the memories of its inhabitants and into the house’s every fibre. This house represented a ‘sacrifice’ in this word’s original meaning of ‘to make sacred’. It is the human investment in any object that makes it ‘sacred’.

Human labour is also part of nature because we belong to the natural world. When we destroy human artefacts, we are also destroying, along with natural resources, the human effort invested into making them.

With dark foreboding I began to meditate on whether this mechanism of destruction by people is also applied to people themselves. I have seen many people cast aside as soon as they failed to keep up with machines or working practice.

Apparently, in today’s capitalist economy we must continue to destroy in order to turn a profit by ‘rebuilding’ or replacing. It is but a slower version of what happens in war.

This process reduces anything with human or natural value to a simple monetary equation. Human labour, skills and culture, natural resources, are all subject to quantification in the form of money. Is this not in reality an extreme form of impoverishment, a reductio ad pecuniam that makes a mockery of everything that is human and worth living for? For if time is money, money is not time, nor is it true wealth.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this distortion of human society lies in the fact that European culture has historically practised a distinction between matter and spirit. We are taught that we can freely deal with the former without tainting the latter. We consider nature not as a system of sentient beings but as inert matter from which we can take as we please. We refuse to see being in animals or in vegetation. We reduce both to the status of raw materials for our factories. Our slaughtering of food animals, for instance, bears none of the respect and consideration accorded to the animals in traditional societies in recognition of their imminent sacrifice. It is simply machine killing, akin to contemporary warfare. We treat nature, including the nature that abides in humans, as materials from which to draw a profit. Consequently, we all become interchangeable and disposable G.I.s or General Issue, mass-produced products of a system.

If instead we contest this separation between matter and spirit and begin to see the one as emanating from the other as part of an inseparable whole, then we begin to realise that we are actually living in a charnel house. We begin to understand the indigenous people who have always been acutely aware that to destroy nature and human effort is to destroy ourselves. By abandoning ‘sacrifice’, the ‘making sacred’ that derives from our respect for what we make and do, we reduce human effort to valueless dust.

Gerardo Papalia
Dr. Gerardo Papalia is a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has completed degrees in Italy and Australia and has taught in universities in both countries. He is a specialist in the study of the history and culture of the Italian diaspora in Australia which he analyses through post-structuralist theoretical approaches. His publications cover a wide range of disciplines including history, cinematography, religious belief, literature and cultural hybridity.

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