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Ancient Myths in the Making of Culture


Małgorzata Budzowska and Jadwiga Czerwińska

The reception of Mediterranean Antiquity heritage is one of the dominant research areas in contemporary classical studies. This issue has constituted the scope of the conference Reception of Ancient Myths in Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Culture, which took place at the University of Łódź (Poland) in November 2013. The volume consists of the selected articles based on the conference papers. They are divided into the main chapters: Literature, Visual and Performing Arts and Philosophy as well as Anthropology. The authors consider different methods of reception of ancient myths focusing on various cultural phenomena: literature, fine arts, theatre, cinema and pop culture.
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The Story of Orestes as a Reflection of the Transformations of Modern Society in Pylades by Pier Paolo Pasolini

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Agnieszka Liszka-Drążkiewicz

The Story of Orestes as a Reflection of the Transformations of Modern Society in Pylades by Pier Paolo Pasolini

In my paper I examine the presence of some mythical themes in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s artistic output. I focus mainly on his play Pylades, but I also make frequent references to Pasolini’s other works. In Pylades, Pasolini retells Orestes’ story after the events depicted in Oresteia. This text is not merely an adaptation of the myth but a comment on the contemporary social reality of post-war Italy, and a reflection of both social and psychological transformations which took place in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. In Pylades Pasolini concentrates on the conflicts between the main characters, Orestes, Electra and Pylades, and uses them to stress the antithesis between the archaic culture, based on religion, and the new one, focused on democracy, rationality and individual responsibility. In this conflict the author tries to depict the contrasts of his own social and political reality. By retelling this mythical history Pasolini shows the impossibility of reconciling the past and the future, the two different ways of living, which, when pursued on their own, can became extreme and dangerous.

The aim of the following paper is to analyse Pier Paolo Pasolini’s reinterpretations of ancient myths, mainly of the story of Orestes, as well as to present new meanings which are attributed by the Italian author to the Aeschylus’ tragedies of the Oresteia.

Born in 1922 in Bologna, Pier Paolo Pasolini received a classical education, based not only on the knowledge of ancient literatures and art but also on very high linguistic competences in languages. In fact, Italian secondary education before the Second World War guaranteed fluency in Latin and a considerably high level of competence in Greek. It is also evident how much the lectures on ancient texts influenced Pasolini when we consider how often he returned in his own works to the themes and motifs known from Greek and Latin literature, and that every time he did it with a strong belief that in mythological stories even his contemporaries may find the reflection of their own fate and condition (according to Pasolini, mainly of the its social aspects).

In fact, as Massimo Fusillo puts it, in Pasolini’s works we can identify three main mythological themes: that of Oedipus, Orestes and finally Medea. Fusillo also claims that while stories of Oedipus and Medea gain in Pasolini’s interpretation a profoundly anthropological meaning, the one of Orestes becomes, on ← 231 | 232 → the contrary, primarily a political narration (Fusillo 2007: 139). This interest is particularly visible from the 1960’s when Pasolini begins to translate some texts from the ancient (mainly Latin) literatures. In 1960 he translated a small fragment of Sophocles’ Antigone, but his most complete and most known translation is probably his version of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus published in 1963 with the Italian title Il vantone (Siciliano 2005: 506). For the purposes of the present paper the most important is of course Pasolini’s other translation, that of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, presented on the stage of the Greek Theatre of Syracuse in 1960, directed by one of the most famous Italian actors of the time, Vittorio Gassman. The director’s decision to entrust the translation to Pasolini was a consequence of the information that the poet was at the time working on the Italian version of Virgil’s Aeneid, which meant he was interested in ancient literature in general (Pasolini 2001b: 1007). For Pasolini, the proposal to render one of the most important Greek tragedies in his language was both tempting and extremely difficult to accomplish because, as he put it himself in his Note from the translator: ‘Aeschylus is not Virgil and Greek in not Latin’ (Pasolini 2001: 1007). In other words, Pasolini was convinced that his linguistic skills were considerably more limited in Greek than in Latin. In addition to this, he also had little time to finish the translation because of some previous commissions and obligations to complete before moving to Gassman’s proposal. He decided, therefore, to base his translation not only on the original Greek version, but to use some of the versions available in modern languages known to him. He used the French version by Paul Mazon (1925) as well as the English one by W. G. Headlam and G. Thomson (1938) and finally the Italian version translated by Mario Untersteiner (1947). Pasolini’s translation is strongly based on the French one (Fusillo 2007: 147) even though his version sometimes is very distant from it as well. It is visible, however, that his Oresteia is, first of all, his own poetic vision and reinterpretation of Aeschylus’ text, and not a faithful translation.

In Pasolini’s version of Oresteia we can see a tendency which is also present and equally important in his own works inspired by classical myths: he seeks to make his text more modern and to show its main problems as being close to the contemporary readers. Thus, in Oresteia the poet omits or transforms certain mythological elements: in his text Zeus becomes simply ‘God’, ‘temple’ is translated as ‘church’, ‘Dike’ is called ‘Love’ and ‘Moyra’ is identified with ‘Death’ (Fusillo 2007: 148–149). In his own play Pylades, Pasolini goes further: he narrates the story of Orestes’ life after the conclusion of the events described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

Before we examine more thoroughly Pasolini’s reinterpretation of Orestes’ myth, it would be useful to see how he rewrites two other mythological themes: ← 232 | 233 → the stories of Oedipus and Medea. The story of Oedipus is very important to Pasolini; he returns to this theme in many of his texts, but it becomes most prominent in his film Oedipus Rex (1967) and in a play published posthumously, entitled Affabulazione (1977). The new approach to Sophocles’ tragedy is mainly due to Pasolini’s knowledge of Freud’s and – maybe less obviously – Marx’ works. In Oedipus Rex the director focuses on the relations between father and son and he does so in consideration of Freud’s Oedipus’ complex. To achieve this he introduces a narrative frame in which he then inserts the proper story of the king of Thebes. The film begins with a Prologue in which we see a family: mother, father and a little son in a small Italian town in the 1920’s. We can observe a difficult relationship between father and son, based on envy and competition, and the one between mother and son which is full of love and tenderness. In the Epilogue the director shows instead the Italy of the 1960’s and an old, blind man who wanders through a city (Pasolini’s native Bologna) playing the flute, guided by a young boy (portrayed by Ninetto Davoli). Besides an overtly autobiographical meaning, the film contains another, social message: it shows the problem of power which then becomes identified with the father, Laius, and it alludes to the social changes in Italy which took place between the 1920s (Prologue) and the 1960s (Epilogue) (Casarino 1992: 32). Another reinterpretation of the Oedipus myth is the play Affabulazione, also strongly inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, which examines the Laius complex and its social consequences in the modern world.

Another myth, essential for Pasolini’s works, is that of Medea. Like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex before, here it’s Euripides’ Medea that constitutes the basis for the director’s work. The tragedy is a strong inspiration for Pasolini, but his film from 1970 focuses predominantly on anthropological and not individual issues. It examines the cultural differences between two worlds represented respectively by Medea (portrayed by Maria Callas) and by Jason. While the first comes from a barbaric community, based on pagan cults, the other is a part of a modern and civilized society, in which rationalism and pragmatism dominate. Pasolini sees a similar conflict in his own time, in which old, rural cultures were being supplanted by a modern, Americanized model of society. The same problem appears in Pylades.

Pylades is inspired by the ancient tragedy, not only in its content but also in its form. Here, as in other his plays, Pasolini introduces a division of the text into episodes instead of acts and scenes, as well as having the Chorus, which frequently comments on current events and situation. In Pylades Orestes, liberated from his punishment and the presence of Erinyes by the decision of the Athenian Areopagus, returns to Argos with his friend, with whom he seeks to introduce in his land a new political order in spite of his sister Electra’s opposition. In Pasolini’s play, those ← 233 | 234 → three characters, Orestes, Pylades and Electra, and their reciprocal relations constitute the axis of the story. The three protagonists become representatives of three different ideological attitudes, which are characteristic more of Pasolini’s contemporaries than to ancient Greeks.

Orestes, captivated by the new political solutions seen in Athens, brings to Argos democracy and the cult of the goddess Athena, and with them he introduces the new attitude of rationalism and pragmatism. The transformation is very quick and sudden but it is also very simple: instead of the tyrannical reign of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus in the few past years, there begins a new democratic government based on the participation of all of the citizens. But with this modification the old beliefs are discarded and previously praised gods are substituted by Athena, which in Pylades is identified with the Reason. By reconstructing in this way the story of Orestes after his return to Argos, Pasolini alludes in quite an obvious manner to an equally sudden and violent social transformations which took place in his own times, in post-war Italy.

It is worth remembering that before the Second World War Italy was one of the poorest countries of Europe: its economy was based mainly on agriculture, and its industry definitely less developed than those of other countries, such as Germany or France and limited only to certain, mainly northern regions. Italian society was predominantly Roman Catholic, but its Catholicism often showed bore many resemblances to the previous pagan beliefs. In this society there was also ‘tyrannical power’ identified with fascism, a power that enslaves, but – and this point is crucial to Pasolini’s opinions – is not able to influence the mentality, beliefs or sense of the community of the citizens (Pasolini 1999: 290–291). The post-war events brought very significant changes: not only was there a collapse of the fascist regime followed by the introduction of democracy, but there were many serious economic transformations as well – the reconstruction, necessary after the war, fluently mutated into the economic boom: industries flourished, and production and consumption levels rose significantly. Captivating visions of modern American society became a reality in Italy, as well as in other western countries. If we return to Pylades, we shall see a similar description of the situation in Argos after the transformations initiated by Orestes. The Chorus says:

Il reddito di ciascuno di noi è cresciuto del doppio.

I commerci della nostra città si sono moltiplicati:

I nostri prodotti si impongono nei mercati del mondo (…)

Le vecchie case sono state abbattute,

e nuovi palazzi si alzano tra le superstiti capanne. (…)

Ogni nuovo guadagno è un nuovo passo

che ci allontana dall’ingiustizia dei vecchi Dei. (Pasolini 2001a: 375) ← 234 | 235 →

It is precisely this ‘injustice of the old Gods’ or, more correctly, their mere existence that constitutes another problem which Pasolini analyses while writing apparently about mythical Argos. We can agree with Irene Berti who claims that Pylades is a reflection upon modern democracy and the inevitable corruption of power (Berti 2008: 111).

Besides economic changes he perceives much more profound transformations of people’s mentality and values. In fact, these transformations began many years earlier, mainly during the Enlightenment period, but it was in the 1960’s when they seemed to emerge in the whole of society. What troubles Pasolini most is the domination of rationalism, the complete trust in reason and the abandonment of old views and values. He seems to come close to the opinion expressed by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, that the reason which was supposed to overthrow the reign of superstition, blind faith, became a myth itself and even more, it became a tyrant (Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 18–19). In Pylades, Athena and her representative, Orestes, become, in fact, very similar to the overthrown tyrants. Very often in his works Pasolini reflects upon the disappearing of sacrum in contemporary society, and upon the fact that people abandon their former traditions and old forms of religiosity which do not seem civilized enough, in other words upon the transformation of religion into an institution. It is one of the main problems featured in Pylades.

Another important character in Pasolini’s play is Electra. At first she is seen mainly as Orestes’ opponent, the incarnation of a completely different ideology. Even though she helped Orestes kill Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra, which makes her an accomplice in the matricide, she has a very different approach to the past. Regardless of her negative feelings for their mother, she feels it necessary to remember her and consequently she becomes obsessively attached to old traditions. She tells her brother:

Io ho odiato nostra madre, lo sai,

più di quanto tu stesso l’abbia odiata.

Ma, adesso ch’è morta, è tornata Regina.

Essa ha preso il suo posto tra coloro

che dominarono la terra; e che la dominano (Pasolini 2001a: 370)

For Pasolini, Electra symbolises above all the attachment to the past. The past, which in the case of Italy, as mentioned before, was not perfect or flawless. For the author, the concept of tradition is closely related to a simple, rustic religiosity, to the values passed down from generation to generation, to the riches of cultures and languages of little communities. Nevertheless, he does not deny that in the case of his country the past also means social inequality, the difficult situation of ← 235 | 236 → women, underdevelopment and obscurantism, and finally the tyranny of fascism. In his Pylades Pasolini does not idealize Electra, on the contrary, he underlines her obstinacy and her rejection of the future and of the new government, her violent rebellion against Orestes and he shows them all as her main limitations. At the same time, by using this construction of Electra, the author shows a similar, if opposite, limitation of Orestes’ attitude. She is blinded by the past as much as he is by the future.

Finally, the third and the most important character in the play is Pylades, who regardless of his initial faithfulness to Orestes, begins very quickly to discover some negative aspects of his ‘transition from barbarism to civilisation’ (Thomson 1973: 292). In contrast to Orestes, he sees some positive features of Electra’s approach; he is confident one cannot simply and completely forget one’s past as Athena would want them to, and that one cannot be subordinated to and dependent on Reason alone. Pylades also ‘sees that to remove the past from the collective consciousness is also to remove the possibility of any opposition to the new regime’ (Ward 1995: 159). It is also Pylades who discovers that the wealth resulting from the political transformation does not include everyone, that somewhere, on the margins of society, somewhere in the forests around Argos, there are those who are not able to adjust to the new reality and that they live in hiding. Pylades’ critical remarks, directed to Orestes, are misinterpreted and considered treason. Pylades is judged and sentenced to exile.

There could be no doubt about the fact that Pylades is the character closest to the author himself. He reflects the author’s ‘idiosyncrasies and contradictions: existentialist nihilism, revolutionary aspirations, the treason of his bourgeois origins’ (Berti 2008: 110). Just like Pasolini, Pylades hates the world he comes from and the mentality in which he was brought up, but he remains a stranger between the people he loves: the poor and simple. He ‘feels all the alienation of his own condition, exclusion from the simple world of the peasants who support him, the world he would like to belong to, but he cannot’ (Berti 2008: 107). Pylades is thus destined to lose, because of his being an intellectual and not able to identify himself entirely with other social groups. Berti says also that while the main task of the intellectual is to decipher reality, in the case of Pylades time is against him, because when he is finally able to understand the reality, his revelations will already be old (Berti 2008: 107). In other words, reason is not able to describe the reality.

The Italian writer perceived the contemporary social reality in a similar way as his protagonist: he appreciated the changes which had taken place but at the same time he firmly criticised some tendencies he considered dangerous and potentially fatal. He used to warn his contemporaries against a too violent and too radical detachment from the past. Pasolini’s critics was often misinterpreted as ← 236 | 237 → this behaviour pure sentimentalism, or worse, as a reactionary attitude and a hidden sympathy for the fascists. But in fact, like Pylades Pasolini hoped to create a synthesis of those two extreme attitudes, to find a way between the fanaticism of Orestes and the fanaticism of Electra. Just like Pylades, he simply wanted to turn ‘the past into an ideological weapon that can be turned against the homologizing power structures of the present regime’ (Ward 1995: 159). One of the researchers of Pasolini’s work, Massimo Fusillo, whose studies focus mainly on the importance and the role of ancient culture in the poet’s artistic output, claims that during the process of translating Aeschylus’ Oresteia Pasolini believed in the possibility of realizing such a synthesis, but a couple of years later, during the editing of Pylades, this particular hope disappeared completely (Fusillo 2007: 27).

In fact, in the play Pylades tries to become a leader of the revolution against the new de facto sovereign, to lead those who had been excluded and marginalised to fight. Despite Pylades’ good will, the revolution turns out to be impossible: his followers are only a small group of poor people, and even some of them leave him when the news of Orestes and Electra’s new arrangement and alliance reaches them. Unfortunately, the agreement is not of the kind Pylades himself would approve of: it is not a step towards the future, moderate and conscious of the past, with respect for tradition, but instead it turns out to be something one could describe as a distribution of competences. Electra, allied with the Furies, and Orestes, follower of the cult of Athena, divide their power. Orestes says:

Quanto al potere non posso però concederti

proprio la parità: ti chiedo solo la concessione

di un voto: quello di Atena,

lo stesso voto, che a parità di voti contrari

e favorevoli, un giorno mi ha salvato la vita.

Lascerai dunque che Atena, se vuole, si sieda

tra il numero uguale dei miei deputati e dei tuoi.

Electra answers him:

Le Furie nel tempio, Atena nel parlamento;

lo accetto. (Pasolini 2001a: 415)

The power has been divided between the two of them, but at the same time their two attitudes have been separated. The synthesis between the past and the future is realised under the sign of the Americanised consumerist society (Berti 2008: 109). For Pylades and his vision there is no space left and he has to admit his failure. He is guilty and responsible for the situation because he sought power and realised too late that in fact he wanted to build a new monument instead of the previous one, and to introduce a new type of corrupted power, just like Orestes had done before (Fusillo 2007: 171). ← 237 | 238 →

In Pylades Pasolini continues his political interpretation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia which is seen as an illustration of the transition from a tribal society to a democratic system in which the people gain new equality, taken from them first by the aristocratic regime and then by Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra’s tyranny (Fusillo 2007: 143). Such a vision is very close to the interpretation of Oresteia proposed by George Thomson in his Aeschylus and Athens, a study which was probably known to Pasolini (its fragments were published with the text of Pasolini’s translation of Oresteia) (Fusillo 2007: 143). This political transition is underlined by Pasolini in his Pylades by the presence of the Erinyes. They stand for the old, tribal community in which the ties of blood, and especially the relationship between mother and child, was considered stronger than marriage (Thomson 1973: 279). The transformation of the Erinyes into Eumenides described in Pylades is identified with the sublimation of the primitive fury. In this element, taken directly from Aeschylus, Pasolini once again declares his views and indicates his most important enemy: the exaggerated rationalism of the modern capitalistic society which tries to eliminate some of the basic experiences of the human condition (Fusillo 2007: 20), such as faith. The force and importance of these feelings is showed in Pasolini’s play when some of the Eumenides transform back into Erinyes. This crisis is solved by Athena who returns to Argos triumphantly and allows the alliance between Orestes and Electra. Pylades can only demonstrate his will to remain excluded from their modern world.

We can certainly say that in his play Pasolini uses the Orestes myth and that he does it deliberately. He adds to it and to its continuation some new, contemporary contents, which – as it happens – are mainly of a political nature. It is courageous behaviour, even if it happens very often in Pasolini’s work. We might remember here his film Oedipus Rex, strongly influenced not only by the Freudian, but also by the Marxist interpretation of the story. This kind of political addressing of the myth was partially a consequence of the interests of the artist himself, who at the time was strongly focused on such problems as social transformations and the nature and mechanisms of power; it was partially a result of his knowledge of ancient literature. We can certainly see in his texts the influence of the conception of political meaning of the Orestes myth, as depicted in George Thomson’s work, Aeschylus and Athens. The conviction that the Aeschylus trilogy is primarily a transcription of political transformations becomes to Pasolini a basis for his own, original play. ← 238 | 239 →


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