April 25 is the commemorative day for the final liberation of Italy from fascist rule. It is the occasion for memorials of various stripes. On the left, it is the Partisans who stand at the heart of collective memory.
In Italy as elsewhere in Europe, the Communist and Socialist parties were the main forces in the resistance. Their memorial day carried a powerful memory of the sacrifices made by those who fought, moment of liberation and the possibilities that seemed open then. But, as the years passed, European society was marked not so much simply by Cold War restoration as by a whirlwind of neocapitalist transformation. With spectacular economic growth, urbanisation, motorisation and the birth of consumer society, a social and economic revolution had arrived. But, not the one that was imagined in 1945. The commemoration of the liberation and the radical and revolutionary tradition thus took on an increasingly ambiguous and bittersweet aspect.
No one reflected on this transition more urgently than the polymath, poet, filmmaker, activist, critic Pier Paolo Pasolini.
On April 25, 1945, Pasolini was 23. He had been, as he described himself, a partisan without arms. His brother who had joined the liberal-socialist partisans associated with the Party of Action, was killed in an ambush by Communist-aligned partisans. Piero Paolo Pasolini himself went on to join the Communist Party but was expelled. The party was scandalised by his open homosexuality and left Pasolini to face relentless legal persecution.
The collection of poems that earned Pasolini fame in 1957 was, not for nothing, entitled, Gramsci’s Ashes.
For Gramsci’s Ashes and much more, I highly recommend The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini with a truly marvellous introduction by Stephen Sartarelli which merits a long essay all of its own. As he makes clear, Pasolini sought to weave the very forces of history and history’s disintegration into his poetry. Pasolini’s struggle was to “remain ‘equal to a present reality [attualità] that one does not possess ideologically.’” A struggle made all the more difficult by the fact that history itself was disintegrating and taking on new forms in the face of the onslaught of neo-capitalism.
In the poem Victory, written on April 25 1964, Pasolini reflects in a haunting fashion on the appearance of the ghosts of the Partisans amongst the transformed world of “postwar” Italy.
The poem is available in translation, online at the ZNetwork website.
by Pier Paolo Pasolini
translated by Norman MacAfee with Luciano Martinengo
Where are the weapons?
I have only those of my reason
and in my violence there is no place
for even the trace of an act that is not
intellectual. Is it laughable
if, suggested by my dream on this
gray morning, which the dead can see
and other dead too will see but for us
is just another morning,
I scream words of struggle?
Who knows what will become of me
at noon, but the old poet is “ab joy”
who speaks like a lark or a starling or
a young man longing to die.
Where are the weapons? The old days
will not return, I know; the red
Aprils of youth are gone.
Only a dream, of joy, can open
a season of armed pain.
I who was an unarmed Partisan,
mystical, beardless, nameless,
now I sense in life the horribly
perfumed seed of the Resistance.
In the morning the leaves are still
as they once were on the Tagliamento
and Livenza — it is not a storm coming
or the night falling. It is the absence
of life, contemplating itself,
distanced from itself, intent on
understanding those terrible yet serene
forces that still fill it — aroma of April!
an armed youth for each blade of grass,
each a volunteer longing to die.
. . . . . . . . .
Good. I wake up and — for the first time
in my life I want to take up arms.
Absurd to say it in poetry
— and to four friends from Rome, two from Parma
who will understand me in this nostalgia
ideally translated from the German, in this archeological
calm, which contemplates a sunny, depopulated
Italy, home of barbaric Partisans who descend
the Alps and Apennines, down the ancient roads. . .
My fury comes only at the dawn.
At noon I will be with my countrymen
at work, at meals, at reality, which raises
the flag, white today, of General Destinies.
And you, communists, my comrades/noncomrades,
shadows of comrades, estranged first cousins
lost in the present as well as the distant,
unimagined days of the future, you, nameless
fathers who have heard calls that
I thought were like mine, which
burn now like fires abandoned
on cold plains, along sleeping
rivers, on bomb-quarried mountains. . . .
. . . . . . . . .
I take upon myself all the blame (my old
vocation, unconfessed, easy work)
for our desperate weakness,
because of which millions of us,
all with a life in common, could not
persist to the end. It is over,
let us sing along, tralala: They are falling,
fewer and fewer, the last leaves of
the War and the martyred victory,
destroyed little by little by what
would become reality,
not only dear Reaction but also the birth of
beautiful social-democracy, tralala.
I take (with pleasure) on myself the guilt
for having left everything as it was:
for the defeat, for the distrust, for the dirty
hopes of the Bitter Years, tralla.
And I will take upon myself the tormenting
pain of the darkest nostalgia,
which summons up regretted things
with such truth as to almost
resurrect them or reconstruct the shattered
conditions that made them necessary (trallallallalla). . . .
. . . . . . . . .
Where have the weapons gone, peaceful
productive Italy, you who have no importance in the world?
In this servile tranquility, which justifies
yesterday’s boom, today’s bust — from the sublime
to the ridiculous and in the most perfect solitude,
j’accuse! Not, calm down, the Government or the Latifundia
or the Monopolies — but rather their high priests,
Italy’s intellectuals, all of them,
even those who rightly call themselves
my good friends. These must have been the worst
years of their lives: for having accepted
a reality that did not exist. The result
of this conniving, of this embezzling of ideals,
is that the real reality now has no poets.
(I? I am desiccated, obsolete.)
Now that Togliatti has exited amid
the echoes from the last bloody strikes,
old, in the company of the prophets,
who, alas, were right — I dream of weapons
hidden in the mud, the elegiac mud
where children play and old fathers toil —
while from the gravestones melancholy falls,
the lists of names crack,
the doors of the tombs explode,
and the young corpses in the overcoats
they wore in those years, the loose-fitting
trousers, the military cap on their Partisan’s
hair, descend, along the walls
where the markets stand, down the paths
that join the town’s vegetable gardens
to the hillsides. They descend from their graves, young men
whose eyes hold something other than love:
a secret madness, of men who fight
as though called by a destiny different from their own.
With that secret that is no longer a secret,
they descend, silent, in the dawning sun,
and, though so close to death, theirs is the happy tread
of those who will journey far in the world.
But they are the inhabitants of the mountains, of the wild
shores of the Po, of the remotest places
on the coldest plains. What are they doing here?
They have come back, and no one can stop them. They do not hide
their weapons, which they hold without grief or joy,
and no one looks at them, as though blinded by shame
at that obscene flashing of guns, at that tread of vultures
which descend to their obscure duty in the sunlight.
. . . . . . . . .
Who has the courage to tell them
that the ideal secretly burning in their eyes
is finished, belongs to another time, that the children
of their brothers have not fought for years,
and that a cruelly new history has produced
other ideals, quietly corrupting them?. . .
Rough like poor barbarians, they will touch
the new things that in these two decades human
cruelty has procured, things incapable of moving
those who seek justice. . . .
But let us celebrate, let us open the bottles
of the good wine of the Cooperative. . . .
To always new victories, and new Bastilles!
Rafosco, Bacò. . . . Long life!
To your health, old friend! Strength, comrade!
And best wishes to the beautiful party!
From beyond the vineyards, from beyond the farm ponds
comes the sun: from the empty graves,
from the white gravestones, from that distant time.
But now that they are here, violent, absurd,
with the strange voices of emigrants,
hanged from lampposts, strangled by garrotes,
who will lead them in the new struggle?
Togliatti himself is finally old,
as he wanted to be all his life,
and he holds alarmed in his breast,
like a pope, all the love we have for him,
though stunted by epic affection,
loyalty that accepts even the most inhuman
fruit of a scorched lucidity, tenacious as a scabie.
“All politics is Realpolitik,” warring
soul, with your delicate anger!
You do not recognize a soul other than this one
which has all the prose of the clever man,
of the revolutionary devoted to the honest
common man (even the complicity
with the assassins of the Bitter Years grafted
onto protector classicism, which makes
the communist respectable): you do not recognize the heart
that becomes slave to its enemy, and goes
where the enemy goes, led by a history
that is the history of both, and makes them, deep down,
perversely, brothers; you do not recognize the fears
of a consciousness that, by struggling with the world,
shares the rules of the struggle over the centuries,
as through a pessimism into which hopes
drown to become more virile. Joyous
with a joy that knows no hidden agenda,
this army — blind in the blind
sunlight — of dead young men comes
and waits. If their father, their leader, absorbed
in a mysterious debate with Power and bound
by its dialectics, which history renews ceaselessly —
if he abandons them,
in the white mountains, on the serene plains,
little by little in the barbaric breasts
of the sons, hate becomes love of hate,
burning only in them, the few, the chosen.
Ah, Desperation that knows no laws!
Ah, Anarchy, free love
of Holiness, with your valiant songs!
. . . . . . . . .
I take also upon myself the guilt for trying
betraying, for struggling surrendering,
for accepting the good as the lesser evil,
symmetrical antinomies that I hold
in my fist like old habits. . . .
All the problems of man, with their awful statements
of ambiguity (the knot of solitudes
of the ego that feels itself dying
and does not want to come before God naked):
all this I take upon myself, so that I can understand,
from the inside, the fruit of this ambiguity:
a beloved man, in this uncalculated
April, from whom a thousand youths
fallen from the world beyond await, trusting, a sign
that has the force of a faith without pity,
to consecrate their humble rage.
Pining away within Nenni is the uncertainty
with which he re-entered the game, and the skillful
coherence, the accepted greatness,
with which he renounced epic affection,
though his soul could claim title
to it: and, exiting a Brechtian stage
into the shadows of the backstage,
where he learns new words for reality, the uncertain
hero breaks at great cost to himself the chain
that bound him, like an old idol, to the people,
giving a new grief to his old age.
The young Cervis, my brother Guido,
the young men of Reggio killed in 1960,
with their chaste and strong and faithful
eyes, source of the holy light,
look to him, and await his old words.
But, a hero by now divided, he lacks
by now a voice that touches the heart:
he appeals to the reason that is not reason,
to the sad sister of reason, which wants
to understand the reality within reality, with a passion
that refuses any extremism, any temerity.
What to say to them? That reality has a new tension,
which is what it is, and by now one has
no other course than to accept it. . . .
That the revolution becomes a desert
if it is always without victory. . . that it may not be
too late for those who want to win, but not with the violence
of the old, desperate weapons. . . .
That one must sacrifice coherence
to the incoherence of life, attempt a creator
dialogue, even if that goes against our conscience.
That the reality of even this small, stingy
State is greater than us, is always an awesome thing:
and one must be part of it, however bitter that is. . . .
But how do you expect them to be reasonable,
this band of anxious men who left — as
the songs say — home, bride,
life itself, specifically in the name of Reason?
. . . . . . . . .
But there may be a part of Nenni’s soul that wants
to say to these comrades — come from the world beyond,
in military clothes, with holes in the soles
of their bourgeois shoes, and their youth
innocently thirsting for blood —
to shout: “Where are the weapons? Come on, let’s
go, get them, in the haystacks, in the earth,
don’t you see that nothing has changed?
Those who were weeping still weep.
Those of you who have pure and innocent hearts,
go and speak in the middle of the slums,
in the housing projects of the poor,
who behind their walls and their alleys
hide the shameful plague, the passivity of those
who know they are cut off from the days of the future.
Those of you who have a heart
devoted to accursed lucidity,
go into the factories and schools
to remind the people that nothing in these years has
changed the quality of knowing, eternal pretext,
sweet and useless form of Power, never of truth.
Those of you who obey an honest
old imperative of religion
go among the children who grow
with hearts empty of real passion,
to remind them that the new evil
is still and always the division of the world. Finally,
those of you to whom a sad accident of birth
in families without hope gave the thick shoulders, the curly
hair of the criminal, dark cheekbones, eyes without pity —
go, to start with, to the Crespis, to the Agnellis,
to the Vallettas, to the potentates of the companies
that brought Europe to the shores of the Po:
and for each of them comes the hour that has no
equal to what they have and what they hate.
Those who have stolen from the common good
precious capital and whom no law can
punish, well, then, go and tie them up with the rope
of massacres. At the end of the Piazzale Loreto
there are still, repainted, a few
gas pumps, red in the quiet
sunlight of the springtime that returns
with its destiny: It is time to make it again a burial ground!”
. . . . . . . . .
They are leaving . . . Help! They are turning away,
their backs beneath the heroic coats
of beggars and deserters. . . . How serene are
the mountains they return to, so lightly
the submachine guns tap their hips, to the tread
of the sun setting on the intact
forms of life, which has become what it was before
to its very depths. Help, they are going away! — back to their
silent worlds in Marzabotto or Via Tasso. . . .
With the broken head, our head, humble
treasure of the family, big head of the second-born,
my brother resumes his bloody sleep, alone
among the dried leaves, in the serene
retreats of a wood in the pre-Alps, lost in
the golden peace of an interminable Sunday. . . .
. . . . . . . . .
And yet, this is a day of victory.
Translation copyright © 1982, 2005 by Norman MacAfee
Copyright © 1964 by Aldo Garzanti Editore
This article was originally published on Adam Tooze’s blog.