Re-Writing the Myth, Rereading the Life: The Universalizing Game in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Edipo Re
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Re-Writing the Myth, Rereading the Life:
The Universalizing Game in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Edipo Re

In the nineteenth century, the Romantic artist, as exemplified in Byron or Wordsworth in England and Friedrich Schlegel in Germany, preferred to see himself as a self-defining microcosm who could build worlds out of his infinite creative possibilities. 1 In the twentieth century, the nineteenth century image of the Romantic artist-creator underwent a transition in virtually all Western cultures, producing a new image: the charismatic figure known as the European intellectual, who in his alienation from the realities of the common world, offered an image of the writer as creator of many kinds of writing, often in more than one medium or genre. These European intellectuals followed in the tradition of modernism, to stress the ways in which an individual’s mind created representations that could supplant traditional forms of perceiving the world. The European intellectual cut from this pattern thus has produced a generation of writing on writing, stressing how the artist’s agency reconstructs the words and symbols of culture, often in ways that show absences and gaps in the traditional, dominant representations of the world. The twentieth century, European intellectual was therefore less the creator than the critic and recreator of meanings for his culture. The exemplars of this image in France were, for instance, Jean Paul Sartre or Michael Foucault; in Germany, Günter Grass; in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel; and in Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini.

As a poet, novelist, essayist, film-maker, playwright, and altogether a highly controversial political figure, Pasolini was a particularly visible example of this type of intellectual, one of the consciences of post-war Italian society. He offered reflections on his own writing, on his sexuality, and on his society, leaving as his legacy not only an unparalleled body of films, [End Page 39] but also a body of self-reflexive criticism that allows us to consider him as the auteur or artist-creator of films, and also as a paradigmatic modern intellectual whose body of work pointed toward the alienation of meaning from itself—toward post-modernism and toward the critique of bourgeois traditions that was to characterize much of postwar Italian art, from Fellini through Wertmüller, Calvino, and Svevo.

Taking Pasolini as such a European intellectual, as an artist-creator in several genres who was attempting to critique and negotiate his way through his culture, 2 this essay will explore Pasolini’s introspective writings to see how they offer alternate readings of his filmic art. It will focus on the most overtly Freudian of his works, Edipo Re, to show how the “confessional” tone of this work is closely connected with the author’s constant questioning of cultural meanings (especially the tropes of the bourgeois family, as familiar from Freud’s work). Although Pasolini is most known from his films, his essayistic voice, as we shall see, has something of his own originality that has been overlooked in showing how he transforms a critique of bourgeois experience into a unique artistic construct. Moreover, as we shall see, his self-commentary allows us to reconsider his film as a case study of post-modernism in cinematography, where the internal cross-references between genres (especially essay, autobiography, and film) are revealed as particularly problematic, and where the borderlines between a reproductive and productive critique of bourgeois society (especially of its family stories) vanish.

By analyzing Pasolini’s very personal adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy through the lens provided by his essays and letters, I will point out the crucial differences between the two versions of Oedipus, that of the Greek tragedian and that of the European bourgeois intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, as they reveal his power as a self-constructed and self-referential intellectual voice and his goal of simultaneously reinstantiating and questioning central tropes of his culture.

Biography and Autobiography: The Site of Edipo Re

As Pasolini himself noted in very Freudian terms, Edipo Re is the most autobiographical of his films: [End Page 40]

In Edipo Re I recount the story of my own Oedipus complex. The little boy of the prologue is myself, his...