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Kill yourself for a woman / Kill a woman for yourself. Cesare Pavese and the idea of sacrifice

Cesare Pavese: Italy as Inceldom

“It happens to everyone to meet a slut, but to a very few to meet a lovely and honest woman. 99 out of 100, women are sluts.” (Cesare Pavese, This Business of Living: Diaries 1935–1950, February 5, 1938)

Cesare Pavese (9 September 1908 – 27 August 1950) was an Italian poet and novelist. He commited suicide in 1950. Contemporary speculation attributed his tragedy to either an unhappy love affair with the American actress Constance Dowling or else his growing disillusionment with Italian politics. His Diaries stands with James Joyce’s Letters and André Gide’s Journals as one of the great literary testament of the twentieth century.

The interpretations given to his tragic gesture are indicative of the idolatries of our times: present-day critics see a voluntary martyrdom of the artist in search of an inspiration in his sentimental failures (but Pavese was always skeptical about his pseudo-romantic experiences: “You were lucky enough to meet an exceptional slut […]. Any would-be poet would pay for that, and you’re complaining?”). Due to the predominant mentality, it becomes impossible to contemplate, even in the most sweetened way possible, women responsibility in all of this.

The accusation of misogyny is therefore used more and more frequently, with the alibi that the poet was the first to blame, liquidating his own internal torture (“A misogynist you were, and still are”, January 26, 1938), leaving himself vulnerable to critics:

“The only circumstance in which a woman is inferior to herself, must be just when she has her period. Who knows the calendar of women, he also knows the way to take them. Which is also a double meaning – so much the better.” (April 26, 1936)

“There is nothing more stupid than thinking one can make a conquest of a woman by showing off one’s own cleverness. Cleverness cannot compete with beauty in such a matter, for the simple reason that it does not arouse sexual excitement; beauty does. At the most, one may win her in that way when one’s abilities seem a means of acquiring power, riches, social position—advantages that, by yielding, she will also enjoy. But cleverness itself, like an immense impersonal machine, leaves any woman quite unaffected, a truth you must not forget.” (August 31, 1940)

Of course it is difficult to abstract a “sentimental” dimension from all the rest: even behind the obsessive search for the “wrong woman”, there is a lucid vision of the world, which contemplates him in the guise of a “born slave”. A failure from birth, a man unable to marry the woman and, through her, living the life: “You are always forgetting that you were born a slave. You think you are always been wronged. But can a slave be wronged?” (February 20, 1938); “You have the soul of a slave, not a saint” (April 12, 1947).

The world is in fact dominated by the Olympians: “You are not born an Olympian and never will be one. Your efforts are futile, for a man who has once succumbed to turmoil, may do so again. It is a problem of engineering. Every bridge has a limited span. Beyond that, it would collapse.” (January 15, 1938).

The category of “Olympians” includes Shakepeare and Goethe (because they have “hard balls”, they have “a judicious mean of coping with the turmoil of passion that leaves them immune”), the “men of action”, the women who make social life (“slutting it up” in the words of the poet), generally those who are successful even in the most restricted social circle – therefore women are considered as “men of action”: “Women are utterly, fundamentally, indifferent to poetry. In this they are like men of action, and all women are ‘men of action'” (October 14, 1940).

“Olympians” are also the comrades of the Italian Communist Party, those who corroborate the idea of “the impossibility of human fellowship”, thus certifying that “there are servants and master, not equals” (October 15, 1940). For Pavese “Gods are the others, individuals who are self-sufficient, supreme, seen from the outside” (January 6, 1946).

Overwhelmed by this ruthless dichotomy, the poet acknowledges the impossibility of conquering a woman as a “despicable price to pay for the pre-established harmony” (January 24, 1938). A destiny shared with one of his character (from “The houses”, Feria d’agosto), a man which is led to believe that one day “women will run after him”, but who finally remains alone and spends his Sundays envying married friends.

The writer, as we said, wasn’t unaware of his condition (“Let us be frank. If Cesare Pavese were to appear before you, talk to you, try to make friends with you, are you sure you would not find him objectionable?” May 6, 1938). The last pages of his diary are a ruthless account of his immaturity: “My heart throbs; I tremble, I cannot stop sighing. Is it possible at my age?” (March 9, 1950);  “At the first onset of [Venus], I have fallen back into the quicksand” (August 17, 1950).

An immaturity whose opposite represents “all”, as shown by the dedication to Constance Dowling (“Ripeness is all”, King Lear) from the last novel The Moon and the Bonfires. Not even the American actress, as an extreme manifestation of the White Goddess, allowed him to achieve adulthood.

Why is there no salvation at all? Pavese could easily have found a solution for less poetic “urgencies”. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as himself observe: “To anyone who likes to cum in pussy: just pay” (April 17, 1946). In his “end times” he had even become somewhat skeptical about the regenerative qualities of sex:

“Fundamentally, the pleasure of screwing is no more than that of eating. If there were embargos on eating, as there are on screwing, a whole ideology would come into existence, a passion of eating, with standards of chivalry. This ecstasy they talk about—the vision, the dreams evoked by a screwing—is no more than the pleasure of biting into a medlar or a grape fresh from the vine. One can do without it.” (December 5, 1949)

If Pavese’s sexual torments had not represented the symptoms of an incurable hopelessness, he would have even found himself “advantaged” (as an intellectual); reading the diaries, however, it is easy to understand why such a resolution would have disgusted him: the writer cannot sublimate his powerlessness in art, since for him not having a woman means being totally separated from life and therefore from the “muses”: “This much is certain: you can have anything in life except a wife to call you ‘her man.’ And till now all your life was based on that hope.” (January 5, 1938).

Now that there’s nothing left to lose, we must ask the most uncomfortable question: why did Pavese sacrifice himself and not one of the “ninety-nine sluts” he had the misfortune to come across? The poet poses the question in terms of a dilemma, predictably opting for suicide: “Is it conceivable to murder someone in order to count for something in his life? Then it is conceivable to kill oneself so as to count for something in one’s own life” (January 16, 1938).

In his writings, however, the urge to “settle the score” with the feminine world persistently occurs, not only in the context of a private confession: “Seeing them embrace and undress and know how they do it, what they say, how far they go. Isn’t this the state of mind in which crimes are committed?” (January 26, 1938); “Any other man would have already killer her by now” (March 26, 1938). Maybe these are just typically Pavesian tropes about he the connivance between sex and death. In The Devil in the Hills (1948), for example, he writes:

“Pieretto started talking about blood. He said that the taste for the the wildness is the taste for shedding blood. ‘Love is made to hurt, to shed blood,’ he explained. ‘The bourgeois who marries and demands a virgin also wants to get away with this desire’.”

The theme is connected to the urge to “deflower” the whole earth, a task reserved for “sacrificers”, in the guise of “the bourgeoisie”, savages, or even the American people, which “not even in a desert leave you alone”. The latter quote comes from the his last masterpiece The moon and the bonfires (1950), in which sex blood and sacrifice interpenetrate in very inspired pages:

“Now I knew why so often a strangled girl was found in a car or in a room or at the bottom of an alley. Why even these people wanted to throw themselves on the grass, to get along with the toads, to be the owner of a piece of land as long as a woman, and to sleep there without fear? And yet it was a big country, there was enough for everyone. There were women, there was land, there was money. But no one had enough, no one, however much he settled, and the countryside, even the vineyards, looked like public gardens, artificial flowerbeds like you see at the stations, or else uncultivated parched lands, cast-iron mountains, It wasn’t a country where a man could settle down and rest his head and say to the others: ‘Here I am for good or ill. For good or ill let me live in peace.’ This was what frightened. The people didn’t even know one another; when you crossed the mountains you saw at every turn that no one had ever settled there or put a hand on them. That was why they would beat with a drunk man and put him in prison and leave him for dead. And it wasn’t only their drinking that was bad but their women, too. Then one day one of them wanted to touch something, to make his name, and so he strangled a woman, shot her in her sleep, bashed in her head with a spanner.”

Even the “Olympians” could still kill themselves out of love, without betraying privileged status: a case that struck the author was that of a school friend, “a young man of the past, in love with heroic, beautiful and courageous novel, which I love almost as if I were a woman”, who committed suicide together with his fiancée (“It annoys me not having done it before him”).

A suicide for love, however, remains a weakness for Pavese, something that “disappointed seamstresses” usually do, as one of the female characters from Women on Their Own (1949) says: “Only maids or seamstresses want to kill themselves after a night of love.” On the contrary, suicide itself is seen as a manifestation of strength and determination:

“Why not seek death of one’s own free will, asserting one’s right to choose, giving it some significance? Instead of passively let it happen? Why not? Here’s the reason. One always puts off the decision, feeling (or hoping) that one more day, one more hour of life, might also prove an opportunity of asserting our freedom of choice, which we should lose by seeking death. In short, because one thinks—and I speak for myself—that there is plenty of time. So the day of natural death comes, and we have missed the great opportunity of performing, for a specific reason, the most important act in life.” (November 30, 1937)

In any case, he could have given a magical meaning to the “sacrifice” of a woman, such as the Romanian legend of the master builder Manole (Meșterul Manole):

Prince Radu the Black (Radu Negru) wanted to build the most beautiful monastery in the country, so he hired Master Manole, the best mason of those times, along with his 9 men. During construction, because the walls of the monastery would continuously crumble, the Prince threatened to kill Manole and his workers.
Desperate about the way construction went, one night Manole had a dream in which he was told that, for the monastery to be built, he had to incorporate into its walls some person very loved by him or his masons. He told his masons about his dream, and they agreed that the first wife who would come there with lunch for her husband the following day should be the one to be built into the walls of the monastery so that their art would last.
The next day, Manole looked over the hills and sadly saw his wife, Ana (who was pregnant), coming from afar. He prayed to God to start rain and storm in order for her to stop her trip or go back home. But her love was stronger than the storm, and she kept going. He prayed again, but nothing could stop her. When she arrived, Manole and the builders told her that they wanted to play a little game, which involved building walls around her body. She accepted happily, but she soon realized that this was no game and implored Manole to let her go. But he had to keep his promise. And that was how the beautiful monastery was built.
When the monastery was completed, the Prince asked the builders if they could ever make a similarly splendid building. Manole and his masons told the Prince that they surely could always build an even greater building. Hearing that and fearing they’ll build a bigger and more beautiful building for someone else, the Prince had them all stranded on the roof so that they would perish and never build something to match it. They fashioned wooden wings and tried to fly off the roof. But, one by one, they all fell to the ground. A well of clear water, named after Manole, is believed to mark the spot where Manole himself fell.” (Wikipedia)

By burying his wife alive in the monastery, Manole gives to his creation a soul “through a human sacrifice of foundation, a violent death “(Mircea Eliade).

Through such a ritual Pavese would have succeeded (obviously from his point of view, which, however, was not only “his”, but characteristic of a broad cultural milieu) not only by deflowering the earth (and thus “inherit it”), but also by entering in that “wonderful life” from which he felt “cut off” (as he wrote in one of the last letters to the umpteenth woman who refused him: “I can tell you that I never woke up with a woman by my side, that who I loved has never taken me seriously, and that I ignore the look of gratitude that a woman gives to a man?”).

Pavese could therefore take advantage of powerful cultural, ideological and even “religious” impulses to commit murder. It would be naive to think that the elites with whom he came into contact would have portrayed themselves horrified, instead of providing to justify it. If he did not, and because he was really a victim, and talking about it today as if an alleged misogyny (or any other new “sin”) automatically made him executioner, is a way to martyr him again, and for ever.

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