the chorus in our heads…

The chorus in our heads


An angel’s rage

By John Berger (June 2006)


If I say he [Pier Paolo Pasolini] was like an angel, I can’t imagine anything more stupid being said about him. An angel painted by Cosimo Tura? No. There’s a St George by Tura which is his speaking likeness! He abhorred official saints and beatific angels. So why say it? Because his habitual and immense sadness allowed him to share jokes, and the look on his distressed face distributed laughter, guessing exactly who needed it most. And the more intimate his touch, the more lucid it became! He could whisper to people softly about the worst that was happening to them and they somehow suffered a little less, “for we never have despair without some small hope”.

* *

I think he doubted many things about himself, but never his gift of prophecy which was, perhaps, the one thing he would have liked to have doubted. Yet, since he was prophetic, he comes to our aid in what we are living today. I have just watched a film made in 1963. Astonishingly it was never publicly shown. It arrives like the proverbial message put in a bottle and washed up 40 years later on our beach.

* *

At that earlier time many people followed world events by watching, not the TV news, but newsreels in cinemas. In 1962 Gastone Ferranti, an Italian producer of such reels, had a bright idea. He would give the already notorious Pasolini access to his news archives from 1945-62, in order to answer the question: why was there everywhere in the world a fear of war? He could edit whatever material he chose, and write a voice-over commentary. The resulting one-hour film would hopefully boost the newsreel company’s prestige. The question was hot because, at that moment, the fear of yet another world war was indeed widespread. The nuclear warhead crisis between Cuba, the US and the USSR erupted in October 1962.

Pasolini, who had already made Accattone, Mamma Roma and La Ricotta, accepted for his own reasons, because he was in love with and at war with history. He made the film (2), and entitled it La Rabbia (Rage). When the producers saw it, they got cold feet and insisted that a second filmmaker, a notoriously right-wing journalist called Giovanni Guareschi, should now make a second part and that the two films should then be presented as one. As things turned out, neither was shown.

La Rabbia, I would say, is a film inspired by a fierce sense of endurance, not anger. Pasolini looks at what is happening in the world with unflinching lucidity. (There are angels drawn by Rembrandt who have the same gaze.) And he does so because reality is all we have to love. There’s nothing else.

His dismissal of the hypocrisies, half-truths and pretences of the greedy and powerful is total because they breed and foster ignorance, which is a form of blindness towards reality. Also because they shit on memory, including the memory of language itself, which is our first heritage.

Yet the reality he loved could not be simply endorsed, for at that moment it represented a too deep historical disappointment. The ancient hopes which flowered and opened out in 1945, after the defat of Fascism, had been betrayed.

The USSR had invaded Hungary. France had begun its cowardly war against Algeria. The coming to independence of the former African colonies was a macabre charade. [The prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice] Lumumba had been liquidated by the puppets of the CIA. Neo-capitalism was already planning its global take-over.

Yet despite this, what had been bequeathed was far too precious and too tough to abandon. Or, to put it another way, the unspoken ubiquitous demands of reality were impossible to ignore. The demand in a way a shawl was worn. In a young man’s face. In a street full of people demanding less injustice. In the laughter of their expectations and the recklessness of their jokes. From this came his rage of endurance.

* *

Pasolini’s answer to the original question was simple: the class struggle explains war.

The film ends with an imaginary soliloquy by [Soviet cosmonaut Yuri] Gagarin, after he has seen the planet from outer space, in which he observes that all men, seen from that distance away, are brothers who should renounce the planet’s bloody practices.

Essentially, however, the film is about experiences which both the question and answer leave aside. About the coldness of winter for the homeless. About the warmth that the remembering of revolutionary heroes can offer, about the irreconcilability of freedom and hate, about the peasant flair of Pope John XXIII whose eyes smile like a tortoise, about Stalin’s faults, which were our faults, about the devilish temptation of thinking any struggle is over, about the death of Marilyn Monroe and how beauty is all that remains from the stupidity of the past and the savagery of the future, about how nature and wealth are the same thing for the possessing classes, about our mothers and their hereditary tears, about the children of children of children, about the injustices that follow even a noble victory, about the little panic in the eyes of Sophia Loren when she watches a fisherman’s hands cutting open an eel . . .

The commentary over the black and white film is spoken by two anonymous voices; in fact, the voices of two of his friends: the painter Renato Guttuso and the writer Giorgio Bassani. One is like the voice of an urgent commentator, and the other the voice of someone who is half-historian and half-poet, a soothsayer’s voice. Among the major news items covered are the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Eisenhower running a second time for president, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Castro’s victory in Cuba.

The first voice informs us and the second one reminds us. Of what? Not exactly of the forgotten (it is more cunning), but rather of what we have chosen to forget, and such choices often begin in childhood. Pasolini forgot nothing from his childhood, hence the constant coexistence in what he seeks of pain and fun. We are made ashamed of our forgetting.

The two voices function like a Greek chorus. They cannot affect the outcome of what is being shown. They do not interpret. They question, listen, observe and then give voice to what the viewer may, more or less inarticulately, be feeling.

And they achieve this because they are aware that the language being shared by actors, chorus and viewer, is a depot of an age-long common experience. The language itself is complicit with our reactions. It cannot be cheated. The voices speak out, not to cap an argument, but because it would be shameful, given the length of human experience and pain, if what they had to say was not said. Should it go unsaid, the capacity for being human would be slightly diminished.

In Ancient Greece the chorus was made up, not of actors, but of male citizens, chosen for that year by the chorus-master, the choregus. They represented the city, they came from the agora, the forum. Yet as chorus they became the voices of several generations. When they spoke of what the public had already recognised, they were grandparents. When they gave voice to what the public felt but had been unable to articulate, they were the unborn.

All this Pasolini does single-handed with his two voices as he paces, enraged, between the ancient world, which will disappear with the last peasant, and the future world of ferocious calculation.

At several moments the film reminds us of the limits of rational explanation, and of the frequent vulgarity of terms like optimism and pessimism.

The best brains of Europe and the USA, it announces, are theoretically explaining what it means to die (fighting with Castro) in Cuba. Yet what it really means to die in Cuba — or Naples or Seville — can only be told with pity, in the light of a song and in the light of tears.

At another moment it proposes that all of us dream of the right to be like some of our ancestors were. And then adds: Only revolution can save the past.

* *

La Rabbia is a film of love. Yet its lucidity is comparable to that in Kafka’s aphorism: “The Good is, in a certain sense, comfortless.”

This is why I say Pasolini was like an angel.

The film lasts only an hour, an hour that was fashioned, measured, edited 40 years ago. And it is in such contrast to the news commentaries we watch and the information fed to us now that, when the hour is over, you tell yourself that it is not only animal and plant species which are being destroyed or made extinct today, but also set after set of our human priorities. The latter are systematically sprayed, not with pesticides, but with ethicides, agents that kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice.

Particularly targeted are those of our priorities which have evolved from the human need for sharing, bequeathing, consoling, mourning and hoping. And the ethicides are sprayed day and night by the mass news media.

The ethicides are perhaps less effective, less speedy than the controllers hoped, but they have succeeded in burying and covering up the imaginative space that any central public forum represents and requires. (Our forums are everywhere but for the moment they are marginal.) And on the wasteland of the covered-over forums, reminiscent of the wasteland on which he was assassinated by the Fascists, Pasolini joins us with his Rabbia, and his enduring example of how to carry the chorus in our heads.


(From the book  HOLD EVERYTHING DEAR : Dispatches on Survival and Resistance.)