The Gospel (according to Primitive Accumulation)

Civilization

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew proves that realism is the only mode in which the extraordinary can be conveyed. Reality is the only true site of the extraordinary’s existence. This means, paradoxically, that realism is our only access to the miraculous; any other way of achieving this amounts to what Karl Marx has called the “nursery tale” of theology. Take, for example, the opening scenes of Pasolini’s film: they represent the opening scenes of Matthew’s gospel, i.e. the revelation that Mary is pregnant from the Lord. The film begins with an exchange of gazes: Mary is looking at Joseph, and Joseph at Mary; Mary is looking down—clearly something is not the way it should be. The camera moves back, and the viewer sees that Mary is pregnant. When Joseph realizes what Mary’s gaze is telling him, he walks away from her, back into town, where he is visited by an angel who explains the situation (Mary is pregnant from the Lord!). There are no special effects: the angel is just a human being whose long hair is waving in the wind. Joseph returns to Mary’s house, and once again no words are exchanged. There are only gazes: Mary smiles, and so does Joseph. There is a barely perceptible nod on his part indicating that he has accepted the situation, that he accepts the child as the Lord’s. All of these scenes are represented realistically, without any attempt to imitate the miraculous; and yet, it is this extreme realism that conveys a sense of the extraordinary, providing access to the true miracle that is conveyed here.

This mode of representation entirely reverses one’s understanding of the miracle. As has been noted in several recent discussions of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (see for example Eric Santner’s Psychotheology of Everyday Life), a miracle is usually understood to be what suspends the order of the everyday. Think, for example, of Carl Schmitt’s understanding of the miracle as an exceptional situation or state. It is an event that breaks with the ordinary. Rosenzweig, however, sought to break with that understanding, and instead theorized the miracle as the miracle of the everyday; he was interested in the extraordinariness of the ordinary. As Bonnie Honig puts it in her book Emergency Politics, for Rosenzweig “[t]he miracle is not … about the contravention of everyday patterns of existence or laws of nature. It is a sign of divine providence that is experienced as such and that opens us up, both to providence and to the everyday. It allows or solicits us to experience the everyday as miracle, the ordinary as calling for acknowledgment, or receptivity or gratitude; it calls us to experience the apparently steadfast as contingent and as could have been otherwise. And it calls for us to experience the contingent as steadfast, as fated, willed, foreseen or, at least (in more secular terms) significant. It calls for what we now call mindfulness”. Such a position immanentizes the transcendental tie of religion, and reorients humanity’s investment in the above and beyond towards the everyday reality of the neighborhood.

References: Pasolini, Pier Paolo. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Titanus Distribuzione, 1964); Honig, Bonnie. Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. Image: Dan Davis, What We Call Civilization, oil on canvas, 80 cm x 90 cm, 2010.

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