Table of Contents
Capitolo 4
The Great Deception
The querelle des lucioles
Capitolo 4: The Great Deception

The querelle des lucioles

From Pasolini to Sciascia to Didi-Huberman (who identifies them with the very image of survival) fireflies continue to be a living metaphor – aesthetic, political and environmental – in various eras and fields of struggle

Francesco Zucconi

When he wrote Il vuoto di potere in Italia (‘The Italian Power Vacuum’), better known as the “streetwalker article”, for Pier Paolo Pasolini it had already been over for some time. The Casarsa della Delizia and the Bologna walks of the 1940s are long gone. Also gone were Ragazzi di vita (1955) and Una vita violenta (1959), not to mention his cinematic experiments on the fringes of the capital: Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), conceived as an artistic ethnography of forms of life and ways of living that were both simple and exuberant, and not yet compromised by consumer society. By the 1970s, Pasolini could only take note of the unstoppable, banal, violent modernisation of Italian society. But, already by the mid-1960s, his gaze (his camera) had left the Roman suburbs touched by the economic boom to go elsewhere: to Palestine, Morocco, India, Yemen.

The article published in February 1975 in the pages of the Corriere della Sera was a denunciation and an outburst, a black-and-white exposé of a conviction that had matured slowly and had been anticipated in a chiaroscuro series of poems, films and plays. As is often the case when Pasolini declared a stance, the reasoning begins with a crystal-clear phrase, with the recognition of a state of affairs: “In the early 1960s, because of air pollution, and, above all, in the countryside, because of water pollution (the blue rivers and the transparent ditches) fireflies began to disappear”.[1] The descriptive tone, the clear language, then abruptly changes, revealing the allegorical nature of the discourse: the fireflies stand for something else, for archaic forms of life, for the traditions of rural life, for that popular substratum that has characterised the country for centuries, before being destroyed by modernity, by factories and refrigerators, by large and small electrical appliances. Line after line, a polemical target emerges at which to launch an attack: political parties and intellectuals, but also civil society as a whole, accomplices of a “new power” based on the exaltation of technology and on an idea of progress based on economic development. The exposé finally mixes with the pain of those who yell it out, in an increasingly desperate cry: “I have therefore seen ‘with my senses’ the forced behaviour of consumer power recreate and deform the conscience of the Italian people, to the point of irreversible degradation. This had not happened during Fascism, a period in which behaviour was completely dissociated from conscience”.[2]

By the time he wrote this extraordinary metaphor of fireflies, Pasolini had just nine months left to live. He worked on Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975), the premiere of which he never got to attend, and continued to write. He sharpened his pen to denounce the degeneration of society and the extinction of the people. He repeated apocalyptic expressions already used in previous months such as “abjuration”, “anthropological mutation” and “cultural genocide”.

After Pasolini’s murder, Leonardo Sciascia was the first to take up the image of the wonderful fireflies. This was in 1978, in the opening words of L’affaire Moro, the pamphlet on the kidnapping and murder of the former president of the Christian Democrats, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades: “Last night, going out for a walk, I saw a firefly in the crack of a wall. I hadn’t seen one in this part of the countryside for at least forty years: and so at first I thought it was a bit of schist in the plaster used to wall up the stones or a sliver of mirror; and that the moonlight, embroidering itself among the foliage, was drawing those greenish reflections from it”.[3] The text continues with an explicit reference to Pasolini, “brotherly and distant”, and to the need to continue reflecting on what is happening in “this terrible country that Italy has become”. To reflect and denounce, but avoiding catastrophic tones, Sciascia seems to say between the lines, because anyone who claims to announce it as a prophet is very easily a symptom of the end.

From Dante to Leopardi and from Pasolini to Sciascia, the firefly has enchanted writers and poets. Today, more than ever, it seems to be an excellent theme for a course in comparative literature. But if we look at history and art theory, we come across the work of Georges Didi-Huberman and his attempt to focus on the issue of fireflies as a problem that is both aesthetic and political. For him too, reflecting on fireflies means bringing into play a biographical experience, the memory of a perception: “I myself lived in Rome a decade after Pasolini’s death. Even then there as, at a certain spot on the Pincian hill – a place called the ‘Bamboo Forest’ – a veritable community of fireflies […] the fireflies had not disappeared between 1984 and 1986, even in Rome, even in the urban heart of centralised power”.[4]

Survivance des lucioles was published in France in 2009 and was immediately translated into Italian and several other languages, including English. As in many of his other books, Didi-Huberman expresses a boundless intellectual love for Pasolini, yet from the first to the last page he never releases himself from his apocalyptic grip. He adopts a series of ploys to remove intellectual criticism from the absolutising tone (the idea that there is nothing more to do) that characterises Il vuoto di potere in Italia and other declarations of opinion of the period. From Pasolini, the target of the querelle then widened to Giorgio Agamben, author of one of the most enlightening philosophical trajectories of recent decades, but who was also inclined to subject the readers of his works to the “blinding light of an apocalyptic space and time”.[5]  Opening a theoretical comparison with Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg and Hannah Arendt, but also with the work of artists such as Renata Siqueira Bueno and Laura Waddington, Didi-Huberman not only argues that fireflies are not extinct, but also identifies the idea of survival in their very image. Considered from an aesthetic point of view, fireflies offer a valuable antidote to the “sense of the end”. It is precisely because of their shy nature, their ability to live at the edge, the exceptional and epiphanic nature of their appearances, the intermittent rhythm of their light…, for all these reasons, fireflies are what never ceases to survive. They stay when and where they want. It is pointless waiting for them. It is madness to expect to catch them. Those who hope to observe their glow must adopt a certain attitude: abandon all pessimism, that the night is too dark and big and who knows where and when they will appear; remain in wait, like those who are ready to appreciate the most elusive, the least of events; expect nothing spectacular, as this is not a safari or a show, but an immersive experience, the relationship between light and darkness. Conceiving fireflies as an attitude (in a certain sense, a method) to be adopted in artistic and social research therefore means relaunching the Pasolinian research of the 1950s and early 1960s: against the levelling power of neo-capitalism, which acts on bodies, gestures and forms of life, it is necessary to produce images, concludes Didi-Huberman, able to “organise our pessimism. Images to protest against the kingdom’s glory and its beams of hard light. Have the fireflies disappeared? Of course not. Some of them are very near to us – they brush against us in the dark; others have gone elsewhere, beyond the horizon, trying to reform their community, their minority, their shared desire”.[6]

Returning nowadays to the writings of Pasolini, Sciascia and Didi-Huberman means allowing oneself to be amazed, once again. But, above all, it means accepting a challenge: attempting a possible and necessary relaunch. Reading what is said both directly and between the lines, surprisingly none of the protagonists of the querelle des lucioles seems to address the ecological issue implied by the metaphor. Certainly, Pasolini opens the article by talking about air and water pollution and concludes by claiming that he would give “all of Montedison[7] for a firefly”, but the focus of the controversy lies elsewhere, on what fireflies mean, on the disappearance of his idea of ‘the people’. Sciascia’s is largely a tribute to Pasolini, a way of measuring a distance and what remains of it, the need to pick up the baton, to continue alone, in his own way, on the journey into the night of the Republic. For his part, Didi-Huberman rethinks Pasolini’s reflection in the theoretical and critical context of the beginning of the new millennium. From the very first pages he underlines the “poetic-ecological” character of the issue of fireflies, but the examples through which he develops his reasoning mostly refer to historical themes centred on man and his problems: the shock of modernity and the crisis of experience, the relationship between media and society, the migratory phenomena interpreted as “sparks of humanity”. By concentrating on the name of the firefly, on the firefly as metaphor and allegory, we may have missed something. Considering fireflies for the light they emit, and identifying this light as a symptom of matters largely unrelated to the biological and social life of beetles, the question of body and environment, of their reciprocity, is missing.

What are, or can fireflies be, then, in the contemporary era, in the awareness of global warming, in the need to deconstruct anthropocentrism, in the affirmation of the environmental humanities and therefore of reflection on the relationship between media and the environment? How to interpret them, or rather, how to try to stop interpreting them? How do we leave allegory behind or, at least, how do we let their figurative and medial power express itself in reference to new themes and problems?

These are questions that can be answered by adopting different approaches, which sometimes intertwine but more often, in the name of common goals, contradict each other. Looking at Bruno Latour and his attempt to reflect on Gaia in order to repoliticise the image of the world, we might count fireflies among the militants and absentee members of the “Parliament of things”, a political body in which human and non-human demands can be represented.[8] Or perhaps, in the words of Timothy Morton, we could consider fireflies as entities, particularly elusive elements of the “hyper-object” that is the earth’s biosphere in the Anthropocene.[9] Or, extending Karen Pinkus’s reflection, we could conceive of the luciferin protein and the luciferase enzyme, from which fireflies’ luminescence is released, as fuel: a source of energy, a force in power, like coffee, whale oil, the Golden Fleece and other substances, real and fantastic, capable of fuelling literary imagination and critical thought.[10]

Asking questions and venturing hypotheses of this kind does not mean subjecting to green washing all the thinking of intellectuals, whose strength lies in anachronism, in their ability to remain contemporary precisely by avoiding trends. On the contrary, it is only by holding together the various stages of reasoning (a sort of history of metaphors, an archaeology of the figural as an instrument of poetic and political intelligence) that it becomes possible to make the querelle des lucioles relevant to the present time.

From Pasolini’s observation of the effects of the economic boom, to the survival of gestures of pathos in the bodies of migrants crossing the borders of Europe, highlighted by Didi-Huberman, to the affirmation of a new environmentalism without the reassuring idea of Nature, fireflies are something increasingly concrete, corporeal and material, and yet they never stop referring to something other than themselves. They are a living metaphor, or rather, they are life and metaphor. They survive and unite; they create alliances. They weave an invisible thread that runs through different seasons and themes of struggle, in a field that is becoming increasingly vast, increasingly impersonal.

It’s easy to get lost, even easier to get knocked down. But somewhere, the fireflies…

[1] P.P. Pasolini, Il vuoto di potere in Italia, “Corriere della Sera”, 1 February 1975, in Scritti corsari, Garzanti, Milan 2000, p. 130.
[2] Ivi, p. 134.
[3] L. Sciascia, L’affaire Moro, Adelphi, Milan 1994, pp. 12-13.
[4] G. Didi-Huberman, Survivance des lucioles, Minuit, Paris 2009.
[5] Ivi, p. 48.
[6] Ivi, pp. 95-96.
[7] Montedison was a major Italian chemicals multinational of the time.
[8] B. Latour, Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique, La Découverte, Paris 2015.
[9] T. Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013.
[10] K. Pinkus, Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2016.

Francesco Zucconi

Francesco Zucconi is a researcher at the Iuav University of Venice, an associate member of the Centre d’Histoire et de Théorie des Arts, Ehess, and a fellow at the Institut des Migrations in Paris. He is the author of several books and articles on film theory, media and contemporary visual culture.