From Stanford Italian Review. “Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poetics of Heresy.” Ed Beverly Allen. II,2. Fall 1982. 100-102
Salo does not please fascists. On another side, since Sade has become for some of us a kind of precious patrimony, many cry out: Sade has nothing to do with fascism! Finally, the remainder, neither fascist nor Sadean, have an immutable and convenient doctrine that finds Sade boring. Pasolini’s film therefore can win no one’s adherence. However, quite obviously, it hits us somewhere. Where?
In Salo, what touches is the letter. Pasolini has shot his scenes to the letter, the way that they had been decrite [described] (I do not say “ecrites” [“written”]) by Sade; hence these scenes have the sad, frozen and rigorous beauty of large encyclopedic sheets. To make someone eat excrement? To enucleate an eye? To put needles in a dish? You see it all: the plate, the turd, the smearing, the package of needles (bought at the Upim of Salo), the grain of polenta; as the saying goes you are spared nothing (the motto itself of the letter). At such a degree of rigour, it is eventually not Pasolini’s world that is bared, but our glance: our glance stripped naked, such is the effect of the letter. In Pasolini’s film (this, I believe, was his very own thing) there is no symbolism: on the one hand a gross analogy (fascism, sadism) and on the other, the letter, scrupulous, insistent, displayed, over-polished like a primitive painting: allegory and letter, but never symbol, metaphor, interpretation (the same, but gracious, language in Teorema).
However, the letter has a curious, unexpected effect. One could believe that the letter does serve truth, reality. Not at all: the letter distorts the objects of conscience on which we are obliged to take a position. Remaining faithful to the letter of Sadean scenes, Pasolini comes to the point of distorting the object-Sade and the object-fascism: therefore it is with good reason that Sadeans and politicians are indignant and disapprove.
The Sadeans (the readers delighted with Sade’s text) will never recognize Sade in Pasolini’s film. The reason for this is general: Sade can in no way be represented. Just as there is no portrait of Sade (except an imaginary one), there is no possible image of Sade’s universe: the latter, because of an imperious decision made by the writer Sade, is entirely given over to the power of ecriture. And if this is so, there exists undoubtedly a privileged agreement between ecriture and phantasm: both are perforated; the phantasm is not the dream, it does not follow the continuity, whether contorted or not, of a story; and ecriture is not painting, it does not follow the plenitude of the object: the phantasm can only be written in script, and not in description. That is why Sade will never be acceptable in the movies, and, from a Sadean point of view (from the point of view of the Sadean text), Pasolini could only commit an error – which he did stubbornly (to follow the letter is to be stubborn).
From a political point of view, Sade too was mistaken. Fascism is too serious and too insidious a danger to be treated by simple analogy, the fascist masters coming “simply” to take the place of the libertines. Fascism is a coercive object: it forces us to think it accurately, analytically, philosophically. All that art can do with it, if it deals with it, is to make fascism believable, to show off (demontrer) how it happens not to show (montrer) what it resembles; in brief, I see no other way to treat it than a la Brecht. Or, better yet: it is a responsibility to present this fascism as a perversion; who will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salo: “I am really not like them, I am not fascist, since I do not like shit.”
In short, Pasolini did twice what he was not supposed to do. From the point of view of its worth, his film loses on both sides, for all that which fantasizes (irrealise) fascism is bad; and all that which figures (realise) Sade is bad.
And yet, all the same…? If, all the same, on the level of the affect, there were some Sade in fascism (a commonplace thing) and, even more, if there were some fascism in Sade? Some fascism does not mean: fascism. There is the “fascism-system” and there is the “fascism-substance.” For as much as the system requires a precise analysis, a reasoned discrimination which must forbid us to treat any kind of oppression as fascism, so much the substance can circulate everywhere; because the latter, in fact, is only one of the modes in which political “reason” happens to color the death drive which, in Freud’s words, can never be seen, unless tainted with some kind of fantasmagoria. Salo arouses this substance, starting from a political analogy which has here but a signatory effect.
A flop of figuration (both of Sade and of the fascist system), Pasolini’s film has worth as obscure recognition, poorly mastered within each of us, but surely bothersome: it bothers everybody, for, on account of Pasolini’s own naivete, it prevents anybody from getting cleared through customs. That is why I wonder if, at the end of a long concatenation of errors, Pasolini’s Salo is not, all things considered, a properly Sadean object: absolutely irredeemable: no one indeed, so it seems, can redeem it.
- originally published in Le Monde, June 16, 1976
Translated by Verena Conley