Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine

Just as nature provides labor with the means of life in the sense that labor cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense, i.e., the means for the physical subsistence.

—Karl Marx, Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts, Paris, 1844

One of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about on this last trip to Italy (where I stayed at a 5-star resort, ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and tasted verticals of some of Southern Italy’s most famous wines) was Marx’s concept of alienation (estrangement), Gramsci’s concept of reification (objectification), and Pasolini’s “fear of naturalism” (“the natural being”) and the insight that they provide us in viewing the current global epicureanism as an expression of the bourgeoisie’s (and I count myself and you, my readers, as members of this privileged class) deep-seated yet unanswered yearning to cast off the yoke of consumerism.

Even though we know that sunlight is bad for us, we all know that wonderful feeling of feeling the sun on our skin, watching a sunset, or walking through a park on a bright summer day.

And even though we know it’s not bad for us, a view of verdant pastures or ancient olive groves somehow soothes us. The same way we enjoy reading Virgil’s Bucolics, viewing an 18th-century painting of a pastoral scene, or reading about “hardcore” natural winemaking in Spain on a favorite wine blog, food and wine writing allows us to escape the workaday din of the consumer-driven, globalized, and frighteningly reified world in which we live.

Sadly, in the post-second-world-war industrialized and globalized world, our bodies have become mere objects and the nutriments which give us life have become mere objects and we have lost touch with the pre-industrial expressions of the one and the other. Even as we consume “heirloom” food and wine products, as good and as healthy and as wholesome as they may taste, we cannot ignore (however much we would like to) the fact that the chain of supply that has delivered them to our dinner tables has rendered them into mere objects for consumption (it has reified them) by polluting the world with its carbon foot print as it couriers otherwise nutritious sustenance to consumers.

Marx would have called this “estrangement” (or “alienation” is some circles of Marxist parlance). There are very few among us who have any direct contact with the origins of the foods with which we nourish ourselves. As for Marx’s worker, food as become a mere object for us, even though it is the very substance that gives us life:

    The more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor — to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

From his jail cell, as he witnessed Mussolini and the fascists industrialize Italy (“the trains ran on time,” etc.) and promote an exodus from the countryside and a migration to the great urban centers (because they needed humanpower to populate the factories), Gramsci distilled Marx’s estrangement into his notion of the cultural hegemony, whereby the capitalist cultural model drives humanity to negate its humanness.

Pasolini took this notion a step further, I believe, when he wrote of the bourgeoisie’s “fear of naturalism” and the “natural being.” As he witnessed Italy’s youth embrace the materialism and aesthetic models of middle-class America (in part thanks to the Marshall Plan and in part thanks to the emergence — for the first time — of globalized media), abandoning the values of the generation who had come before them, he recognized that this was a result of consumerism’s revulsion toward the natural being and the natural world (this theme pervades Pasolini’s work, from his early Friulian poetry to his last films; Pasolini was born in 1922, the year Mussolini marched on Rome and rose to power, and he was assassinated by a Roman prostitute in 1975, at the peak of the Christian Democrats’ hold on power and the hegemony of its capitalist model, both economic and ethical).

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that food and wine writing represents can represent, however powerless, a subversion of the hegemony of consumerism in the world today. Whether we take joy in reading or writing about a farmer who casts off chemicals to grow grapes and shuns industrial yeast to make wines that “taste of place,” we are subconsciously repelling the yoke of consumerism as we attempt, however unaware, to recoup, recuperate, and recover the humanness that has been negated by the human condition in the industrialized and globalized world.

Food and wine and food and wine writing offer us a historically unique confluence of the objectification of the sensuous natural world and the means for living. Unlike the natural substances transformed by Marx’s worker as she/he worked in a pre-world-war factory (like iron used to build arms, for example), food and wine as Marxist objects in today’s world are at once the transformed object and a source of nourishment. As such, it gives us a historically unique opportunity to express our humanity through its exegesis (and in many cases, its worship and fetishization).

This is the reason why I continue to post here on my blog and this is the reason — I hope — why you’re reading. Thanks for making it this far into the post.

And buona domenica

Pappa col Pomodoro, Wertmüller, Rota, Pavone, and REVOLUTION!

Last night, on a happy quiet Saturday evening at home, I used the leftover stale bread from Paolo’s birthday party to make one of my favorite summertime dishes, Pappa col Pomodoro — the famous tomato bread soup of Tuscany.

And what a wondrous dish this workaday dish is! A text that can be deconstructed linguistically, literarily, ideologically, and gastronomically in so many delicious ways — including the Marxist reading in the video above.

Piddling around the internets on a lazy Sunday morning (after scrambling some eggs the way Tracie P likes them and before diving into my Sunday workload), I came across this fantastic video of 60s Italian pel di carota (carrot top) Rita Pavone, the great Italian director Lina Wertmüller (the first woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar), and the Italian composer Nino Rota (considered by some the greatest film composer of all time).

But what’s truly remarkable about this clip — above and beyond the fact that it was created by three of the greatest names in Italian film and music — is the Marxist and Leninist rhetoric of the song lyrics, Pavone’s Bolshevik costume and choreography, and the set inspired by the Russian revolution.

I’ve translated the lyrics for you:

    Long live Pappa
    Col Pomodoro
    Love live Pappa
    It’s a masterpiece
    Long live Pappa
    Col Pomodoro

    The history of the past
    Has finally taught us
    That a hungry people
    Will make a revolution
    That’s the reason we the hungry
    Have battled
    And so buon appetito
    Let’s eat!

    A belly that grumbles
    Is the cause of the conspiracy
    It’s the cause of the struggle
    Down with the boss!
    The soup’s on!
    And so we’ll all sing
    No sooner said than done, we want
    Pappa with Pomodoro

There’s no doubt that the performance resonated with Tuscan audiences of the era, when Tuscany was one of the strongholds of the Italian Communist Party and — together with Emilia-Romagna — home to the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union and China.

Berlusconi’s Italy is so ugly these days (did anyone follow the reaction to Berlusconi’s gaffe during his meeting with Obama during the G-8 gathering this week?). We often forget that there was a time in Italy not so long ago when a simple dish — one of its most proletarian — was inspiration for art and ideology by some of Italy’s greatest artists.