Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Question in Bodies #9: Listen. Listen.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

And third time in a row, we're back to Salò. I keep coming back to it, like I'm picking a scab. I have to. But I can't do it directly.

Just, take this away: this is the truth.

In blood. It begins in blood.

I listened to the first song on Scott Walker's Tilt album over and over that night. It was 12th January, 2013; the Christmas decorations had just come down and it was cold, the cold that insinuates into your joints, and me there leaving the open mic poetry night at Mozarts Bar in my old, tatty duffel coat (RIP), in the scarf I'd found, sodden, on Cambridge Street years before, and although it was nearly eleven, I walked in the opposite direction from home and went to a flat in Mount Pleasant, for which I had a key, and where I got on my hands and knees and scrubbed a dried pool of blood, just under two weeks old, a deep red aftermath, from the carpet. I scrubbed and scrubbed, until the small hours, until the blood stain was hard to see without more than a glance.

I remember the smell of it, mixed up in the detergent. The way it stained my hands.

Scott Walker's "Farmer in the City" is about the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is gnomic, it is dense, it sounds almost comic when it starts, the plaintive voice of a cattle auctioneer calling out over a deep drone:
Do I hear
I'll give you
The song finally resolves into a thing of stunning beauty, the strings, at first minimal, gaining gaining gradual shades of richness, of feeling. It rises like tears.
The thought it carries, of an outsider at home, an outsider here.
And I used to be a citizen
And I never felt the pressure
And I knew nothing of the horses,
Nothing of the thresher.
Paolo, take me with you...
It returns to the cattle market. It ends with the cattle market.
Do I hear
I'll give you
Pasolini's last film was Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. He had made Theorem, a strange, dreamlike film where a young man seduces every member of a rich Italian family, male and female, transforming each of them in different ways. Among his films was his beautiful, politically charged Gospel According to Saint Matthew. And he had made a series of joyous, bawdy takes on medieval literature: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron. Someone had made a soft porn sequel to one of these celebrations of life and he made Salò almost as a challenge to them. Sequelise this, vultures.

Salò is one of those very few films made immeasurably greater by its contempt for its source material (Starship Troopers falls into that category, and I can't think of anything else that does). The Marquis de Sade's libertines ride out of 18th century France and into 1940s Italy, becoming fascist grandees. They take their kidnapped victims to the castle of Salò (the book's Château of Silling is far away) and there they subject them to every kind of humiliation, every imaginable perversion of desire. Sade's story is a fascist story, says Pasolini: capitulate to fascism and the fascists will rape you, deny you the right to love, and make you eat your own shit and like it. And then they'll torture you to death.

Love is a lie in the castle of Salò. Identity becomes subsumed to power, and innocence provides no defence. The fascist grandees of Salò don't have mercy or pity or decency because they don't need it: they're rich. They don't have to follow moral codes, because they don't need to: they have power. They don't need love: they have the freedom and the time to do whatever the hell they want however they want.

To power, human identity is a commodity, a thing to be bought or sold. The self is only a thing allowed to the man – and it's nearly always a man, isn't it? – who has the wealth and the power and the connections and the free time and the absolute lack of compassion or love necessary to make phallocentric fascism workable. The poor and the powerless and the "weak" – the people who do not have the will to use up and discard others' bodies and selves as chattels without value beyond their use for pleasure – don't get to have selves.

Pasolini's castle of Salò is the ultimate destination of libertarianism; it is the dream of objectivism; it is the worst place that transhumanism can go; it is freedom from. Freedom from laws and morals and restrictions. Freedom from our duties to each other as social creatures. It's the NRA. It's the alt-right. It's capitalism unrestricted, and freedom from does not permit and does not tolerate freedom to. No freedom to have life, or liberty, no right to pursue happiness. No right to health, no right to not be shot. No freedom to survive, unmolested by the grinding engines of power and wealth. Even the freedom to suicide is stolen, and whatever you might consider to be the morality of that act, it's an expression of freedom, the assertion that a person has autonomy over their own body, the free choice whether to live or die.

The theft of every choice we have, that is the reality of power. Power by its nature steals. The powerful are thieves.

Sometimes I get accused of hating the wealthy, of being too hung up with class. Consider: there are people, the Nigel Farages and the Donald Trumps and the Jacob Rees-Moggs and the Elon Musks and the others, who sit on vast amounts of money and food that they don't need, that rots beneath them while others starve outside their door, and they don't have the basic human compassion or decency to share. They prefer to hoard, bloated scaly dragons on their useless piles of gold (and in the West, the dragon with its hoard and its hunger for virgins is a metaphor for Satan, who, as the Lord of the Underworld, is wealth incarnate) while children cling to malnourished lives by the narrowest of threads, while the sick and the disabled are driven to their deaths – I don't mean this figuratively, I am quite literal here, quite serious, quite precise – by systems devised and upheld by these very people to prevent their rotting heaps of lucre from falling out of their hands, because it would be the most terrible thing in the world for the poor to cease to be poor, because then the power of our rulers would be obsolete.

Of course I am an enemy of these people. I cannot be otherwise.

If it seems unfair, if the reality of power as a theft of life is an offence to everything we hold as decent, that's how it should be. It is an offence. It is a moral outrage. We are told that our masters are benevolent. That they rule over us wisely.

If they were benevolent, they wouldn't be our masters.

That's how Pasolini feels too, that's the message he's giving in Salò. Here are the powerful, and here is the fascism to which power tends, and here is what it does to the undeserving innocent. Be offended. Be outraged. Power is an evil.

Salò is a howl of rage.

You come out of watching it shattered, shaking, sickened. It is a great work of art. I never want to see it again. It is a great work of art. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. It is a great work of art.

It ends in blood. There's no justice, no salvation for the victim. Only blood. Power demands blood. Power shall have it.

It wasn't long after making Salò that Pasolini's life ended, in blood. A young man Pasolini had solicited for sex confessed to having beaten him to death; years later the man would claim that a gang of Italian neofascists had done it and he had only been the patsy. A tool of the engines of power.

Pasolini, lying in a pool of his own blood.

In blood is where I began.

In blood seems a good place to finish.

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  1. I have seen it said that Sade intended his works to be taken in exactly this way, as a condemnation of power - at one point in one of his novels one character tells an innocent young woman 'the only person who has a right to take pleasure in your body is you'.

    I confess I don't particularly want to find out which interpretation of Sade is correct for myself.

    1. A good place to start is Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman. You still have to forge through to the end, but Carter is On Your Side.


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