Books Reviews

Review: The Divine Mimesis

By: Thomas Sanfilip


It’s a short walk from Rome’s Stazione Centrale to the Museo Nazionale Romano where some of the greatest archaeological collections reside of Roman and Greek sculpture discovered in the city and surrounding neighborhoods, though a walk in the museum’s inner courtyard is perhaps a more profound journey into the past. Set along its walkways are worn and shattered fragments of ancient limestone columns and sculpture streaked over with decades of Roman car exhaust. An arm reaches out without a body, its fingers cramped and frozen. There a torso’s struggle to retain some semblance of human form. Fluted columns that once held up porticos inside the homes of Roman families have turned into indistinguishable stones acidifying in the sun, under rain.

Life is a heap of insignificant and ironical ruins,” poet, writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini said. “The learning of history has sense only if one projects into the future the possibility of a real historical culture. Otherwise ideas go bad.”

This observation goes a long way in explaining Pasolini’s unique way of approaching the inherent contradictions that have become the defining image of modern culture even as it continues to limp forward into the 21st century under the guise of genuine advancement. And like the physical symbols of a once great empire decaying in the sun, so Pasolini in The Divine Mimesis, one of his last poetic works finalized before his unexpected death in 1975,

demythologizes his own persona as if in final sacrifice to those gods of falsity and lies that thrive under the banner of so-called authenticity.

Unfortunately, Pasolini’s work thrives on context, and in more ways than one cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the socio/political reference points of 20th century Italian history. There is a tendency to build too much context these days around literary works, past and present, helping to create I think an even greater cultural divide in the West that is already fragmented along an infinite number of economic, political, social, sexual, religious and ethnic lines. The challenge for new readers of Pasolini is to find a way to breach these barriers in order to reach the essence of his poetic accomplishment. In this case, translator Thomas E. Peterson’s updated 1980 translation in this smart, new edition by Contra Mundum Press has brought greater dimension and textual accuracy into sharper focus. The Divine Mimesis is studied and precise, and carries over into his treatment of the work as a whole to good form.

Fortunately, Peterson’s is a carefully constructed translation that establishes a measured pacing from the very opening. He allows the salient elements of the work to come forth without forcing conventional poetic features in English to surface in order recreate an artificial vernacular simply for color and effect. He maintains a simple, unforced resonance in the text that falls somewhere between the academic’s taste for precision and the experienced reader’s desire for the new and experiential. Alessandro Segalini’s exceptional typographic design for the book enhances Pasolini’s work in typographic choice and book design. It is rare these days to see such dynamic interaction with a literary text, but Segalini’s aesthetic choices in font and layout allow Peterson’s translation to rise from the page in an elegance and beauty reminiscent of scriptural touches, but reconceived by Segalini who applies a wholly advanced typographic mindset. He breathed new life aesthetically into the average-sized 5 x 8 paperback, achieving remarkable results of refinement and taste rare in mass book production.

But in spite of the book’s admirable physical features, Peterson admits that the work’s many allusions and a style of “extreme semantic compression & understatement” all present a challenge to the reader. In addition, he points out that there are added challenges of comprehending the work’s “civic & linguistic positions” and to “ascertain the ethical universe it proposes, and how that aligns with Dante’s.” Nonetheless, engaging Pasolini’s ambiguities and circumambient attacks on his own disavowed persona is a venture worth taking.

I think the difficulty in appreciating Pasolini’s poetic sensibilities ultimately lies in his insistence on historicity and its attendant political trappings as a starting point to aggressive self-analysis that in The Divine Mimesis is paradoxically both cloying and compelling at the same time. The result is a highly intensified mix of clashing impressions that take on interesting side avenues of self-evisceration. His intent is to strip away any pretense of self-deception that would obscure the true self struggling to be born out of the refuse of his own past self-creation.

Who can indicate the moment when reason begins to sleep, or better to desire its own end? Who can determine the circumstances in which it begins to depart, or return to where reason was not, abandoning the road he had believed to be right for so many years, out of passion, ingenuousness, conformism?

For Pasolini, everything is a race toward life or decay or both at once. This makes for an impressive display of poetic consciousness unafraid of consequences and for which Pasolini deserves to be more widely read. But for the redemption he manages to find amid the squalor and disillusionment of modern living, what distinguishes Pasolini from all other poets is his endless, if not fruitless struggle with an aestheticism he insists is a creation of capitalist values. Even when one thinks he has gone beyond an avowedly Marxist rationale and reached a new aesthetic, he returns to the paradigm again and again to justify an unrelenting self-examination of his own psyche.

Each of us is physically the figure of a buyer, and our anxieties are the anxieties of this figure . . . The world of men as we know them in our life, shaped by the majority, is a world of buyers. Everything we use to display ourselves is bought.

Though modeled after Dante’s Inferno, one senses in The Divine Mimesis resistance to follow the natural evolution of poetic sensitivity whereby beauty is ultimately reaffirmed as an integral component of the human experience. It is therefore a strange paradox that he is able to elevate poetically his own existential reduction into a startling form of poetic beauty. Pasolini descends into his own animality, tracking his transformation from leopard to lion to she-wolf in full Dantesque garb, alternately viewing himself in shock and relief at the history of his own evolution over time. But unlike Dante, the poet’s fate is without redemption. He drafts a harsh picture of his persona in past and present terms.

I sang of the split in consciousness, of one who has fled his destroyed city, and goes toward a city that should already have been built. And who, in the pain of destruction mixed with hope of the new foundation, darkly exaggerates his mandate.

What is most fascinating about The Divine Mimesis is how Pasolini builds a textual discourse out of fragmentation, building a new poetic aestheticism out of spiritual decay. He associates this break down with the increasing homogenization of language whereby all dialects are eventually watered down and lose authenticity. This process of decay he traces directly to capitalism, an economic system that in his view eventually perverts everything from sexual relations between people to the basic values of the culture at large.

Repeat the word ‘sex’ into infinity: what sense will it have in the end? . . . The world becomes an object of sexual desire, it is no longer a world, but a place of only one feeling. This feeling repeats itself, and with itself it repeats the world, until finally by accumulation it is annihilated.

The purposeful fragmentary quality of The Divine Mimesis creates in the end its own completeness, and accepting the ambivilance of Pasolini’s persona opens the door to experiencing his real poetic achievement. As translator Thomas E. Peterson points out, though published after Pasolini’s death in 1975, the manuscript was finalized by Pasolini before he died and should be treated as a poetic work rather than merely a literary exercise in self-analysis. Peterson’s translation smartly encompasses all the allusive personal, cultural and historical elements interacting throughout the text, though not intruding or obfuscating the work’s power by affecting a stylization that would have diluted its effect.

Ironically, when Pasolini releases himself from inner restraints and tension, his poetic sensibilities are riveting and profoundly modern in ways different than any other 20th century poet. He cuts more sharply and decisively through the shallow detritus of the modern world without falling into an ultimate self-negation. Given the upheavals and political warfare that erupted during and after the Second World War in Italy between the partisan left and the Fascists, including his brother’s partisan death at the hands of the latter, it is reasonable to assume that Pasolini’s resentment of social and political structures impacted the aestheticism he rebukes, embraces and laments all at the same time.

On the other hand, Pasolini was smart enough to realize that aestheticism cannot save a society sinking further and further into disillusionment and self-delusion, though the articulation of beauty as a cultural and aesthetic value has been in my view the redemptive answer to every cultural setback to Western culture starting with the ancient Greeks and reaching its apogee in the Italian Renaissance. The Divine Mimesis fascinates precisely because he poeticizes the remnants of this distorted aestheticism that has filtered down to us from the past. He reveals the full effects of this aestheticism on his private and public image as an artist. And it is from this position that he endeavors in The Divine Mimesis to lay out the deconstructed elements of his personality.

I saw the color of those cheeks: he, my Conscience, surely had poor digestion: or perhaps his stomach or liver wasn’t right. Or he was exhausted. Or all these together. So much fatigue, and so much passion, for one who, during the course of an entire day, would not experience a single moment of sincerity.

Thus, the descent of the soul as dramatized by Dante’s Divine Comedy was a perfect allegorical choice for Pasolini reborn out of the trajectory of his own life. In Pasolini’s hands, transformation takes on a formalistic venture that pares away artifice and leaves in its wake a more compelling self-analysis that manages to avoid extreme narcissism.

In a letter written in 1950 after expulsion from a teaching job, Pasolini wrote, “If it is possible to speak with constraint of a case like mine: perhaps I have done so, in part, in my poems . . . And if you think of the etymology of ‘ambiguous,’ you will see that he who lives a double life can only be ambiguous.”

The Divine Mimesis traces such lines of ambiguity with unrelenting style and courage without ranging too far from the improbable and contrived. The experimental quality of Pasolini’s text affirms both the dynamism of his self-absorption and the partially realized success of his own deconstruction, a difficult and treacherous path for a poet to take, but one in the end that may prove redemptive, as Pasolini lays out in The Divine Mimesis, by resolve alone.

  1. 1st quote of Pasolini from Lutheran Letters by Pasolini, translated by Stuart Hood (Carcanet, 1987) p.51 and 108
  2. 2nd quote of Pasolini from Pier Paolo Pasolini by Pia Friedrich (Univ. of Washington, 1982) p. 8

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