Archive for July 2009
Lukács in The Theory of the Novel:
The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.
In Starbucks again, just about the same time as yesterday when I posted. There are American kids sitting across from me, Americans on their collegiate trip to Europe. He is trying to repair his rolling suitcase; the handle has come off and he’s bought some electrical tape.
The approximation of manhood, of male adulthood, that is taping a handle back to the place where it belongs, weaving the tape in and out into a silver X on a black bag, around and around and then giving it a strong tug to see if it will hold…. this is familiar. On our first trip to Europe, 1996, the key broke off in my luggage lock. We were staying in a shitty hotel on Rue Monsieur Le Prince, and I couldn’t think of the French word for hammer. Un mallet madame? Il faut que je utilise un mallet pour ouvrir le…. mon sac. She ignored us; I found a large stone in the Jardin du Luxembourg the next day and bashed the fucker open.
On our last trip to Europe before we had children, was it 2003, the wheel broke off my rolling bag as we made our way to the Earls Court Tube on our way to a flight to Ireland. My wife was to give a paper at a conference on television; I was to stalk around the city for several days and I did! But first, I had to purchase a new and incredibly expensive bag at the Left Luggage stall at Waterloo Station, a Left Luggage stall that I now see all the time while I stand around under the clock, waiting for my nights out to start.
What Lukács means to say, ultimately, maybe, is that you start by breaking your bag and then fixing it in Europe and you end by taking pictures of American kids whose bags are broken and then fixed. That’s just the sort of electrical tape that holds the thing together as a form. It’s bourgeois and subsumed with the melancholy of that class, its temporal dysfunction. And as such, like all bourgeois forms, especially the melancholic ones, it potentially repurposeable but only with great care and difficulty.
Having settled in at my old TCR Starbucks for the morning to work on the book – to finish work, the major overhaul anyway, on the second chapter. No anxiety, focused and clear-headed, have the right computer with me, table with a plug nearby and everything, typing away. And so I step outside for a cigarette having finished the first cup of coffee, and am almost through when via the peripheral bits of my pavement-gaze I see him coming at me. Youngish, early twenties, mentally-impaired though its unclear whether via disability or drug-use. Can I have a cigarette? It’s my last one. It’s my last one. But I’m homeless. I’m homeless. I’m homeless. Give me a cigarette, please.
Of course, it wasn’t my last one – it’s never my last one, as I never allow myself to run out of cigarettes. I stopped giving them out, giving anything out, shortly after I moved to New York when I was in grad school. The reason for this is relatively simple. In New York, the granted cigarette or change is often enough only a prelude to longer, more elaborate conversation with the grantee. Sometimes these longer conversations are simply annoying – you’ve given 50 cents, but now you’re going to hear the story of needing to get the bus back to see the blind mother, the broken eyeglasses, the friend in direr need than him. Sometimes it would turn threatening – the cigarette granted would mark you as a soft touch, and a slight suggestion of impending violence, so the logic goes, could yield a great windfall.
Just now, I said, Dude, it’s my last one. I have none to give. And I started to step, slowly then deliberately, back toward the glass front doors of the Starbucks. He followed, quite close behind, in my footsteps, as if to ensure that I hurry along. Right before I made it back in, I dropped the buttend of what I had been smoking, just a nub now, and without missing a stride he scooped the burning bit up off the pavement, stuck it in his mouth, and walked on downstreet. He never missed a stride.
With a slight but slow-subsiding tremor in my limbs, I joined the queue for another cup of coffee. When I returned to my table by the window, the one with the plug, I opened my laptop to the document that I was working on and OpenOffice helpfully notified me that I had misspelled choreography.
Lars von Trier is famous for never flying, and thus never visiting America, despite the fact that he’s set most of his recent films there. Some laugh about this; others compare him to Kafka when the latter is up to this sort of thing:
As Karl Rossmann, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.
Back to Antichrist: Americans do not as a rule own Scandinavian-style summer shacks deep in the woods, unreachable by car, and which they arrive at on weekends via train and then taxi and then hike. We don’t have trains like that, and if we did we likely wouldn’t have taxis like that either. We drive. This even goes for psychotherapist/grad student couples who live in Seattle, who would pull the Subaru up to the sidedoor of their cabin just like any other red-blooder USAer.
That said, there’s a way that Von Trier’s strange euro-goggling of America and my own meet. When I lived where I lived before London, my little rust belt burg, I extremely often coped with things by imagining that I was actually living in some sort of small, Mitteleuropean city. I’d tool around the autobahns (interstate highways) in my VW, shop at a food-coop where all the brands were not the brands that I grew up with, eat lunch outside at a wine-bar cafe, buy furniture at IKEA and the like. It was a coping mechanism that didn’t really work – there weren’t any trains to take anywhere, and no one spoke any interestingly baffling languages on the streets.
One of the ur/unwritten posts of this blog is a post that I have been meaning to write for years about the IKEA catalogue and notions of Europeanness. I wish there was someplace where I could look through back issues, as there’s one image in particular that’s stayed with me for years, but which I’ll never find again in all likelihood.
At one point, I thought somewhat seriously about buying a little plot of land on the shores of the prettier of the two Great Lakes in the vicinity and planting on it one of those prefab little cabins, the sort where a truck pulls up and dumps your parts and an instruction manual and then you work on it every weekend until its done. This seemed like a very Scandinavian idea to me – weekends at a remote cabin without utilities, on a lake without tourist infrastructre. Obviously, I never did it.
At any rate, please don’t laugh. We all cope with America whatever way we can – it takes a lot of coping, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person with self-made psycho-visual filters and screens devised for such uses…. But think about it for a second. Von Trier consistently sets his films in America because he wants to criticize this place that he has never visited, but in setting his films there without really knowing the place, he ends up creating a strange Euro-slanted America, the America that is the America of my dreams when I am stuck there, hating the place. Or even, in a certain limited sense, the America that I’d love to see happen.
Of course, I dreamed these little waking half dreams mostly on weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays, as that was when I had the most time to look around and to worry about what I was seeing.
Saturday night I went out back for a cigarette and smoked while listening to the kids next door. Parents are away, teenager is having a party. She has had parties for three straight nights. They go on about this or that and then suddenly, at one point a phrase slips through my mind: When I am 18 again I wonder if..
Ah dumb brain! Tragic paraphraxis! The entire history of religious belief as merely a prolongation of a mechanical fault in the wires. How much of life do we live with stuff like that floating about in the back parts, only barely audible, visible, legible? How often do we ignore it? And what sort of deformative effect does it have upon the stuff in the foreground?
K-punk has a really good post up that brilliantly ties together his recent honeymoon at Disneyland Paris (huh!) and Michael Jackson. It ends in the following way:
Postmodernity has meant the repudiation of the Father. Fathers are either absent, bad or ineffectual. Cosetted by the maternal superego, no-one wants to say no… no-one wants to pay the price of success….
But the problem isn’t that childhood is curtailed too early, it’s that it never ends… This is how Jackson exemplified our plight… To truly overcome the Father-Thing you would have to occupy its place, but who is willing or able to do that?
I have been wondering the same thing lately, but (of course) in a more personally-directed and much less abstract way. That is to say, I have been wondering about what it would take for me to “occupy [the] place” of the Father-Thing, once and for all.
My wife is going to start guestposting on my blog so watch out for that! She’s a better writer than I am, so this can only be to the good. Unless she chickens out. I wonder what will happen… Sorting out an account for her tonight.
We worked that out – that is to say, I hired her – while we sat on Primrose Hill Saturday, one kid asleep and the other not. We’d already done the Zoo, and later we’d have dinner at Marine Ices in Chalk Farm, which, I must say, makes pizza good enough to eat and is kid-friendly so there you go. We lolled, we were run into by our neighbor (the husband of the woman who’s becoming my wife’s best friend, it seems….), we talked about writing.
The other thing we talked about – our theme of the day, really – was our disgust and incomprehension at the way modern day men in big cities of the developed world comport themselves post, say, 25. In particular, we were serially shocked by what we already knew, all too well, which is that grown men dress stupidly, childishly. The tee-shirts! Tee-shirts with cartoon characters on them! Tee-shirts with very dumb jokes written on them! The Arsenal-wear and the Hotspur-wear!
There is a dad of a kid at my daughter’s school, a normal looking guy who is probably in his worklife a lawyer or tv executive or something, who on weekends dresses up in his favorite CBeebies t-shirt and rides a fucking scooter around the neighborhood. It’s more than just a getting in touch with my toddlers sort of thing, as it’s a relatively common site to see the family at the park, mom watching the kids in the playground, while dad scoots or skates around the other parts of the park, trying out moves on an apparatus that is his, that does not belong to his children but was probably some sort of father’s day present or something.
We talk, my wife and I, about the women attached to these men. We talk about the deformative effect this sort of thing must have upon their sex life. Maybe some women would find that sort of thing cute and boyish and thus warm and maybe from warm get to sexy. But I, imagining things through a woman’s eyes (do I imagine anything any other way? Les femmes, ces sont toutes moi) can’t quite work out the erotomath. On the other hand, I’m sure the kids love it… Until they start to really, really fucking hate it.
Disclosure: I adore athletic wear, officially branded merchandise. I love soccer jerseys and baseball hats – there is perhaps nothing I love more purely and simply, though of course, as posted recently, it’s probably not all that simple a love at base. I will further disclose that I have a rather large collection of the stuff hanging in my closet. But I do not wear it out! I am not a child! I used to wear a River Plate windbreaker when I lived in Brooklyn, but that just had I’ve just been to Buenos Aires hipster appeal, the most hipster appeal I could ever muster. But even this has been left hanging in the closet now that I’m, you know, fully adult.
Engels lived for a long, long time in Primrose Hill. See?
I had a hard time finding a bank machine tonight with funds available after the long drunken weekend (London’s not mine) and thus ended up wandering past Blockbuster (yep, they’re over here too, sadly), did a little doubletake misstep on the pavement, and headed inside to rent LVT’s The Idiots, which I’d never seen.
(Worth mentioning, and definitely fodder for another post, but I am one of those people who can and does fantasize themselves the world’s leading expert on certain novelists and one filmmaker on the basis of reading (or, in one case, seeing) one or two or maybe even three of their works. Not sure whether it’s a fox / hedgehog sort of thing, or just delusion. But I pull it off, and it works, and who knows, maybe in a few cases I’m not that wrong. I feel no responsibility to the oeuvre! What’s up with that? Another post, another post.)
Wow! What would it be to have the balls to waste your audience’s time for 95 minutes all in service of an astoundingly brilliant final 5 minute run? Un coeur simple meets Baader-Meinhof! A vertible cinematic thesis on the incisive question of the minor character.
We didn’t fail to note, as we watched it, that the male characters spent much of the film wearing really stupid T-Shirts. Is that part of the idiotic pose or not?
Today, we had a lovely picnic in the park and some wiffleball to boot (we use a bat that has a huge MLB logo on it, imported natch, so that the local yokels don’t think we’re playing fucking rounders.) We’re not – this is plastic baseball. My daughter has surprisingly sweet swing, liners to all fields, for a four-year old. She refuses to pitch to me or play catch so I guess it’s the American League for her, when it’s time. My broken finger, still untreated, forces me to throw with three rather than two fingers on the ball.
During and after the picnic we talked more about this whole “adulthood” and “child rearing” issue and decided that it’s impossible to speak publically about without sounding like a dick, generally a resentful dick. So perhaps we’ll leave it at that till next weekend.
The FT had lunch with Lars Von Trier this week…
Asked to “justify” the making of the film, he refused outright, reminding the members of the press that they were his guests, and attributing the work to “the hand of God”. And then, for good measure, he informed his audience straight-faced that he was “the best director in the world … and I am not so sure that God is the best God in the world.” Many artists cite divine inspiration for their work; not so many assert their overt disappointment at what their deity has to offer.
You know, as artist / divinity comparisons go, that’s not bad. I happen to think he is “the best director in the world,” and I certainly would agree with the God part, if there were a God.
LVT has four kids. I didn’t know this, and actually I was wondering in light of the child-death stuff in the film. But it makes sense… The first sign that She is going mad is an episode of phantom crying… And if you’re a parent, you totally understand the uncanny realness of that sort of thing. You’re sitting in your living room, having a drink, watching tv, when suddenly there it is clear as day. Somebody is crying, somewhere. You leave your seat, you go to the bottom of the stairs, and it is gone. I tend to think that it has to do with the attunement of your audial receptors to certain frequencies, frequencies that can be hit by other sounds but signal only child in trouble once you’ve got an infant.
Going through the process of having a couple of kids certainly does open up one aspect of the work that might be a bit harder for some to see. Or several aspects, actually. IT, who’s already written what looks to be a fairly definitive post on the film, labels the opening scene “almost comical” in her post. Here’s the full quote:
The moppet that dies in an almost comical opening scene manages to combine the trauma of the primal scene with the premature suicide of a little Oedipus in a matter of moments; the film is not about his death in any meaningful way, and the very creepy abuse – creepy because so utterly minimal – that we discover his mother has inflicted on him (routinely putting his shoes on the wrong feet leading to a mild distortion of the bones noted in the autopsy report but not deemed a significant factor in his death) says far more about Gainsbourg’s disturbed mind than it does about the child.
And it is comical, in a limited sense – the limited sense of the comical, always struck through with tragedy and gore, that pervades LVT’s work. The corpsestink grinning that he does is what makes him a properly (converted and now ex-)Catholic artist, and its really no wonder that the hacks keep comparing him to Bosch and the like.
The perfume-ad-quality of the sex bits of the montage, the obviousness of the primal scene moment (but these things do happen, don’t they?) and of the scenario in general might make you think comic, yes. But on the other hand, the child death isn’t played, I don’t think, primarily to comic effect, and it certainly won’t’t strike, from what I can tell, most parents who see the film that way. Rather, this is the very stuff of cliché, generic, yet all the more powerful for that, as it taps right into the deep parental anxiety, the nightmare dreams that I am sure all of us in the family way have and probably on a nightly basis. The reason why people worry about the height of the crib bar and install those awful fucking gates on their staircases (far more likely to kill you as you stumble to the toilet in the middle of the night than save your toddler), why I have to wear a jacket when I go outside to smoke (SIDS / smoke exposure), etc.
My own version of the dream is as stock as they come. I am getting myself and my daughters out the front door. The oldest one takes off out to the sidewalk, as she always does, and I am struggling and getting frustrated. I catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of her pink jacket disappearing between two parked cars. And then another car, this time moving, comes to a sudden stop in the street. There was a low thump, a thump knowable at once but which you only hear somehow a few seconds afterward and then likely forever and ever and ever after that. Stock, see… And just to get it from the other end of the montage (again, this is obvious, but I’ll go on anyway): There is almost nothing (sure, I mean there are some things, god) more psychologically disruptive to a couple’s sex life than the birth of a child. It’s not just a matter of having no time and the like. It’s that you’re constantly (if lucky!) sneaking away to steal a few minutes (can’t ask really for more than a few minutes) but once you’re there you don’t so much fuck as wait to get caught fucking. Phantom crying morphs into phantom footsteps and door creakings, and the funniest part of all is that even after you’ve stopped action several times because one of you has heard something, even then, with uncanny regularity just before the finish of things, then the door does in fact silently open, no footsteps at all, or if you’re lucky enough to have locks (there are other problems with having locks – Christ, do I have to explain everything on here? No but we should get some locks…) and everyone rolls away and covers up and curses under their breath and exchanges meaningful looks and takes care of the kid, who may or may not just have seen the scene (again? how many times can it still be primal?) that they talk about in the crazy-people books.
Sorry to be crude about it, but it’s like they somehow know when you’re about to, erm, finish. And really, why wouldn’t they – its a vexed issue for them on the wider level, the sibling thing. More partial gene carriers good, spliting up the family fortune very very bad, etc.
Anyway, all the reviewers who have kids seem to mention the disturbing power of the opening scene in what they write. From the FT piece again:
Forget the bloody mutilations, I say. As the father of a young son, it is the first 10 minutes that are the most unbearable to watch. “Yes,” he nods. “I have four children. You think that the more that you have, the easier it gets but that is not how it is. You worry more and more.”
I believe him on this score. And there’s more to it than that. The most bathetic thing in the scene, the way the kid’s little stuffed animal follows him down out the window, commits the same meters per second per second contortions on the way down, he’s not only playing yet another familiar, and familiarly evocative thing for parents, he’s setting up one of the major (and majorly ambivalent) rhymes of the work as a whole. The pacified animals that He sees at the end – animals that appear double-cooked in film, spliced in from some sort fading reel out of the archives labelled Bambi-vivant – represent a nature retamed, restuffed, a reversal of the children’s book trope of the stuffed toy come to life.
One last thing in this line. One of the things it’s principally about is the staggeringly heavy effect upon a couple of having an infant, in this case an infant that dies in the opening sequence of the film… But enough of the movie is invested in figuring out just what happened last summer, presumably the first full summer of the child’s life, that it remains a film about the fatal first two years of parenthood. All of a sudden, and despite all the good PC thoughts you were thinking when you decided to have the child, some very important things get set straight for you during the first few years of your first child’s life. The character axis of the film hits heavy on one of the most important things. He gets to keep working, gets to keep being the same indifferent rational machine-type being that he’s always been. She, on the other hand, gets all feral and animally. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, for both the male and female parties involved, the first time you see a new mother’s tits start to leak because it’s feeding time, a bit late for the feeding. Stigmata-y, except its animality rather than divinity that’s being revealed in the flow. The resentments that pass back and forth between the characters, but particular from her towards him, are familiar too. What else is She saying, other than something like I understand that this doesn’t accord with the rational plan for your life that you came up with when you were seventeen, but buddy, I’m bound up in something here and it’s calling the shots, not me. So get in line. What is that thing that’s calling the shots? “Nature” is one word for it, I suppose, but not quite the one I would want to use.
Under normal conditions, though, father and mother stay just too fucking busy to stop and fully consider the consequences of what has just been revealed to them, startlingly, about the way things really are vs. the way they’re talked about over shabby-elegant brunches on idle, childless Sunday mornings. But remove the child from the scene, and thus the busyness of parenting, and one might imagine all of this stuff coming back with a vengeance. We’ve been thrown out of Eden, and now lo and behold here were are again – except we’ve already learned the stuff about our nakedness, the fact that we’re more like the beast that we’ve named than the Guy who made us, as well as what the Guy said about bringing forth children in sorrow. There is an extra-therapeutic explanation for why She – despite the fact that motherhood seems not to have suited her – keeps jumping He for sex and why he keeps trying to resist her advances… It’s not him that’s throwing the thousand upon thousands of acorns on the roof of their place, it’s her…
I am going to keep writing about this film for a good while yet… I’ve not even started to say what I’d like to say about it. Despite the fact that IT seems slightly nostalgic for the hardy days of high child mortality and the survival only of the fittest of the brood (mourning the child becomes a bourgie “indulgence” in her post – as if they should just churn a few more out and see which ones can figure out how to use the can opener by themselves and certainly not waste time worrying over the ones that fall from the nest – where have we heard that sort of thing before, in another field of culture?) (UPDATE: IT has posted a response to this and adjusted her post slightly to remove the line I hammered on. I want to say that I feel pretty bad about what I did here… As I know very well that IT doesn’t support the things I’m saying here…) I’m extremely happy to live in a world where you have one or two or three and they’re likely to make it through to adulthood. But like most modern developments that I’m (we’re) happy about – like for instance sexual freedom in general, survival past the working prime, etc – this development undoubtly is no doubt deeply out of sync with ageold and hardwired instincts and not easily adjusted psychosocial patterns. We, as a species, are very good at getting better at things, and that’s perhaps our biggest problem – and the problem that the film brilliantly takes up.
I only admire artists who work with a palette smeared in received technicolor, generic cliché. The only two moves are overmuch and undercut, and the rhythm of performing those two moves is what makes up the dance, the only dance, that I am interested in. Stock images make us feel because our feelings are stock. There is no shame in this, save for the very shame of being human and thus thrown and programmed, not really ourselves except in the sense that we are everyone else too. I admire LVT, admire him ever so much, because he understands this. The chatterering types get locked into a cyclic reiteration of this is too much and he’s having one over on us. They’re right, but they don’t quite understand the underlying point, the fact that there’s no other way to do it, not anymore or perhaps it was always already the case.
One last thing from the FT interview, something that perhaps overturns the entire post in the very act of tying it all up. As it turns out, LVT himself is one of those Child Men that were bothering us this weekend:
Von Trier, 53, is dressed in what I take to be Danish summer casual style, T-shirt, cargo trousers and sandals, which suits his portly figure.
Cargo-trousers? Sandals? Summer casual?
Frederic Jameson has a piece called “Marx and Montage” in the current New Left Review. I saw an earlier version of this paper last year as the keynote at a conference in the US, where it didn’t go down all that well. This is tighter and better. It deals, via Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity, with Einsenstein’s rough plans to make a film of Marx’s Kapital. He deals with, among other things, what Joyce’s Ulysses had to do with Eisenstein’s Marx project…
Commentators—and not only Kluge himself—have fastened on the jotting, ‘a day in a man’s life’ as the evidence for believing Eisenstein to have imagined a plot sequence like that of Joyce’s Bloomsday. Later on, they note the addition of a second ‘plot line’, that of social reproduction and ‘the “house-wifely virtues” of a German worker’s wife’, along with the reminder: ‘throughout the entire picture the wife cooks soup for her returning husband’, the unspecified ‘man’ of the earlier sequence having logically enough become a worker. This alleged routine cross-cutting—to which one should probably add the day in the life of a capitalist or a merchant—is being ruminated at the very same historical moment when, as Annette Michelson points out, Dziga Vertov is filming Man with a Movie Camera.
It is true: ‘Joyce may be helpful for my purpose’, notes Eisenstein. But what follows is utterly different from the ‘day in the life of’ formula. For Eisenstein adds: ‘from a bowl of soup to the British vessels sunk by England’. What has happened is that we have forgotten the presence, in Ulysses, of chapters stylistically quite different from the day’s routine format. But Eisenstein has not: ‘In Joyce’s Ulysses there is a remarkable chapter of this kind, written in the manner of a scholastic catechism. Questions are asked and answers given’. But what is he referring to when he says, ‘of this kind’?
It is clear that Kluge already knows the answer, for in his filmic discussion of the notes, the pot of soup has become a water kettle, boiling away and whistling: the image recurs at several moments in the exposition (Eisenstein’s notes projected in graphics on the intertitles), in such a way that this plain object is ‘abstracted’ into the very symbol of energy. It boils impatiently, vehemently it demands to be used, to be harnessed, it is either the whistling signal for work, for work stoppage, for strikes, or else the motor-power of a whole factory, a machine for future production . . . Meanwhile, this is the very essence of the language of silent film, by insistence and repetition to transform their objects into larger-than-life symbols; a procedure intimately related to the close-up. But this is also what Joyce does in the catechism chapter; and Ulysses’s first great affirmation, the first thunderous ‘yes’, comes here and not in Molly’s closing words: it is the primal force of water streaming from the reservoir into Dublin and eventually finding its way indomitably to Bloom’s faucet. (In Eisenstein the equivalent would be the milk separator of The General Line.)
I’ll admit to being slightly confused by what Jameson has to say about Eisenstein’s use (or non-use) of Joyce in this piece. He wants to deny Ulysses centrality to the project, but it remains somewhat unclear how or why.
I feel as though, in my ample spare time, I’m about to go on an Eisenstein reading / watching run, as this aggregate fiction that I keep thinking and taking about might be something like an intensification of modernist montage aesthetics, an intensification that does something more than just make more of it, make it faster and more total.
(Very disappointed to have missed this last night, I must say….)
It’s going to take me a little while to get there, but I’m going to say something about Antichrist, which I saw today and loved. Bear with me for a minute though – there’s some introductory material to get through first…
Funny thing about art, the way it relies for its power on a failure of knowledge on the part of the artist, a failure of knowledge about herself or himself. Awhile back, Jane Dark posted a nice, crisp definition of the concept of the artistic political unconscious in one of my comment boxes:
The most compelling approach to “truth” in the novel is probably Jameson’s account of “the real of history” in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can’t be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.
The really nice thing about Jane’s definition is that he brings it forward as part of a list of “Some thoughts, not syllogistic, and based in part on extensive experience observing and teaching fiction writing.” What’s nice about that is that it focuses in on the problem of the political unconscious from a direction a bit different from that of Jameson in his book on the subject. That is, Jane stages it here as a problem of writing rather than simply one of reading, composition rather than interpretation. I hope Jane forgives me if I’m bending his comment away from what he was saying or would say, and whatever violence Jameson (rightly!) does to the truth-effect of literary art, it still seems true that one of the principle places from which a work draws its power (truth, “truth,” uncanniness, mysterious appeal, bend, break, heave, whatever) is the presence of this political or, slightly more broadly, ideological unconscious at work in/behind the text itself. And as Jane says (and his saying this is why I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating his comment in the direction I have) this unconscious is something that the artist can’t simply press into the work. In order to operate effectively, it can’t be chosen or even visible to the artist herself or himself. Unconsciouses are just that, unconscious.
So tempting to riff you all asleep on this point, but just one thought experiment for now. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a powerful (wish there was another word – there really isn’t though) novella in large part because it couldn’t come out and name and in naming critique the malign situation and system that it represents. If Heart of Darkness took the shape of either a political pamphlet polemicizing against the situation in the Belgian Congo or a fairy tale resolution of the problem of European imperialism in Africa, it might be a nicer work, but it wouldn’t be as interesting.
I suspect that I might get into a bit of trouble for saying all of this. I’ll admit being worried, and I’ll further encourage you to disagree with me. But if you do disagree, remember that you will be arguing for a work that tempts profound platitude, which is a different thing than just being boring, and will take some real explanation. Further, I understand that I am redeploying Jameson’s concept here in a radically simplified form. This is my version of the political unconscious – I understand Jameson’s very well, but I’d simply rather use this shorthand model for now.
So, as I said about the top, one of the funny things about art is that it relies perhaps as much on what the artist does not and really cannot know as it does upon things at hand, available for the artist to view. But we might go on to say that there’s something even funnier. And that is the fact that the artist, given what I’ve said above, might well find himself or herself in some deep shit were he or she to stumble upon, to discover, the unconscious material that’s been giving the work its power. If Conrad had, in the course of writing Heart of Darkness, become somehow enlightened about the political (and, I would argue, politico-personal) undercurrents that were informing his work, aesthetic disaster might well have ensued. Of course, another crop unconsciousness would grow up in its place, but there’s no guarantee that Conrad would have been the right man for the semi-articulation of the new one. Perhaps the creation of great art depends upon the fortuitous (non)emergence of just the writing sort of unconsciousness for just the right sort of writer.
I am quite sure that the politics of this piece, and the thoughts that inform it, are for sure political chaotic and perhaps deeply suspect. But I further believe that the politics of art are so complicated that no one else is getting them right, so I might as well try this out. So what the hell.
I believe that something like this even funnier turn of events, in which a strain of unconsciousness ceases to be unconscious and instead is directly and consciously dealt with on the level of thematics and plot, and thus screws up or at least severely problematizes the inner working of the piece or oeuvre as a whole, is fact what is afoot in Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist. The backstory: Von Trier has for quite awhile been accused of misogyny because of the treatment of women in his films. If I could summarize (or even develop, in some cases) the argument in this regard, the issue is that he makes us (or tries to make us) fall ever so deeply in love with his feminine characters – specifically with the “femininity” of his females, their spirit of (often sexual) self-sacrifice – and then systematically inserts them into positions of rawly violent abasement. One his raped to death on a fishing boat, another one hanged by the patriarchal state, and so on. In doing so, he not only plays into age old myths and stereotypes of the woman, but the acts of violence that he subjects them to work along the unclear line between we love women when they suffer and we love to make women suffer. Of course, that ambivalence isn’t all that strange – its a basepoint artistic trajectory, the ideological-affectual DNA of tragedy, for instance. Still, we know what the critics mean when they make this accusation, and its hard not to see Von Trier’s treatment of his female characters as deeply retrograde if (for me anyway) at the same time incredibly affect.
The somewhat frightening, destabilizing thought is that it’s effective because its retrograde. It may well be true that these films work for me because they work with characters and plots in a way that we’re not supposed to do anymore, but in a way that is all the more powerful because it breaks a sort of high art prohibition. Then again, before I get too self-accusatory here, one would have to be a wee bit naive not to realize that the sudden reassertion of gender normativity – in art, in clothes, in sex – is something that has an extremely widespread and especially contemporaneous effectiveness at present day. I’ll say no more, but maybe you know what I mean.
There are some discrete and vivid signs that this may in fact be the case when it comes to Antichrist. For instance, the papers have been chortling over the fact that Von Trier lists a “misogyny consultant” in the credits whose job, according to The Guardian, “was to ‘furnish ‘proof’ of ‘the fact’ that women are evil, beginning with Eve and the apple, through Shakespeare and in modern society'”. And just to turn the screw again, it turns out that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, listed simply as “She,” could well have been a good candidate for the consulting work. She is some sort of graduate student who has been driven a bit mad in the course of writing her thesis (tell us about it, right?) on gynocide. And, true to form, quite a bit of this “going mad” has to do with the fact that she, um, discovered in the course of her research that women are evil, and may in fact have deserved to be murdered. The logic behind this discovery is a little, well, complicatedly uncomplicated. We learn via some very fast talking between husband and wife that since a) everything human is natural and b) nature is evil that c) gynocide is natural and thus (?) that d) women, because part of nature, are evil too. I’m not sure that taking more time with this discussion would have shed all that much more light.
At any rate, we don’t even have to dig all that deeply into the film to see that the ostensibly unconscious or at least underdeveloped romantic misogyny of the earlier films has been drawn up out of the subtextual murk and pressed to the front of the stage for all to see. “She” is murderous and the early cliched self-blame that we reflexively want to talk away just as “He” does returns later with a vengeance. (Sorry for the spoilers, but evidence turns up mid-way that “She” was the softest, subtlest child abuser perhaps ever imagined – yet the very maternal softness of the abuse renders it rather mindbendingly fucked up – you’ll see what I mean when you see the film. I told my wife about it tonight, solid mom that she is, and it made her shiver…) Everything that was ambiguous and powerful in its ability to make us uncomfortable with the women in the earlier films is gone, melted away in the glare of the stagelights.
Now, retroactively, I’m wondering whether the reasons that the third part of the USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy, Wasington, hasn’t and likely won’t be made has something to do with all of this – he simply couldn’t put Grace through the ringer again.
All that said, I still really liked the film, and I want to say more about what’s good in it. Another post. The affectual energy does get translated elsewhere, and its not (or at least not primarily) simply into the gross-out stuff that you’ve read about – the cock spurting blood and the infamous cliterectomy, though it does have something to do with these things. The film seems to think that it’s shifting the issue to this question of “nature,” which I think isn’t quite right… More to come…
The last few lines of Anthony Lane’s review in this week’s New Yorker of the new Harry Potter and, weirdly, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:
Place Iannucci’s work beside the new Harry Potter film, and you get a perplexing report on the corroded state of the British imagination. The choice appears to be between a soaring escape into fantasy, where the actions of a teen-ager can be loaded with universal portent, and a descent into the rat-run of moral contamination, where the policies of a government are pushed through on a ruse. So much denial and self-hatred, for a small country, and behind them both the aggrieved memory of lost influence: what hope is there for the return of the steady, tolerant gaze?
Ouch. I mean, if we read recent American films as indices of national psycho-aesthetic pathologies, I’m sure we could come up an equally dismal either/or. Further, I’m not sure I agree with Lane’s choices for the two possibilities. The second one seems right, but I’d replace the “soaring escape into fantasy” bit with “nostalgic self-sifting and record collecting, where the remembered teenaged self and its tastes and traumas are forever loaded with universal portent…”
Sisyphus commented on my post from last night:
Why do I think that the real story of what’s going on is hidden in those ellipses?
Well, sure. And further, what’s going on not only between the dots and other punctuations marks but even between every single letter of every single word that I write on here, is the fact that I suffer from some sort of strange and intense malady that I can only call night loneliness. I’m not sure (for all the therapy and self-centric thought!) where it comes from, when it started, really anything at all about it and its etiology.
All of you, if you’re regular readers, are aware of the symptoms that come of this malady. Logorrhea, incessant posting – that is to say, compulsive writing that brings with it the possibility of communication almost instantly.
Recurrent dark fantasy, waking soft nightmare. I am alone in the world. I have never been alone, not really for a minute, so I have no idea what it would be like. But when I imagine it, I imagine a dingy flat with a futon and a television. And I imagine myself making dinner for myself alone, heating up things wrapped in plastic. Or perhaps not heating up anything at all, just not bothering with dinner. (I am one of those people, awful, who has to be reminded – no, really, implored – to eat, who simply will not eat if left to his own devices. I will smoke right through the hunger, smoke the hunger right into null.
Anyway, I am alone and when I come home from the office, I eat or don’t. Perhaps I make my way through the newspapers that I haven’t yet finished. And perhaps after that I check the internet to see if anyone has written. No one has, or only the wrong people have, people whom I don’t really want to write back. After that is done, I switch on the television, but there is nothing on and so I stare at the endless loop of news or some godforsaken sports highlight show. And then I go to sleep.
I do this every single night, without any variation at all, over the course of my life alone, over the course of my dark fantasy.
I have always stayed up late at night, for as long as I have been allowed to determine what time I go to bed. When I was a teenager, I would stay up well into the morning, sitting in my basement smoking and typing on a typewriter and sometimes chatting (Prodigy!) or talking on the phone. The basement, with its low hanging pooltable lamp sans pool table, must have reeked in the morning. I still today use aluminum cans for ashtrays.
Was there really a time when I did real work at night? Perhaps during college, when my wife and I lived in a two-room apartment across the street from a very very famous 19th-century female poet’s house. Two rooms, but no bedroom. We had a futon that we slept on in the living room; the other room was a kitchen. I remember being very, very happy, but also worried. Would I get into grad school? Would we live in New York? We wrote our papers together, night by night and day by day. There was a room in my college’s library that was ours – a little cubicle on the third floor that no one else seemed to know about. And our computers were shit, ancient and basically good for nothing but word processing. For fun, we went to movies once or twice a week. These were the glory days of the art house stuff, the moment when the conglomerates were just catching on to the profitability of the small picture.
But what did I do at night during college? And during the first years of grad school? It’s getting dimmer and dimmer. I don’t remember feeling particularly panicked. When we finally did get to New York, and our tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights, things start to get a bit clearer. At night, I sat in the kitchen with the window open, smoking and working on a novel. It was called The Amateurs, and was terrible. It was about a woman who became something of an amateur porn celebrity. It was terrible. I wrote it wanting primarily to make enough money to buy an apartment – this was 2001, 2002, and things like that seemed totally possible in the hopped-up, cash-rich mediascape of the only just then collapsing tech bubble.
People don’t talk about it all that much, except in the intimacy of parent-on-parent conversations, but one of the things that happens often enough when you have small kids is that dad gets ejected from the marital bed, finds some other place to sleep. This is because little kids sleep very badly, often enough, and often enough want to sleep with mom. Mom doesn’t sleep well to begin with, given all that’s going on at night, and so it’s just easier to settle into a separate bedrooms situation for the time being. It’s not good, and I’m sure that like everything else that has to do with parenting, we’re doing something very wrong, something that The Nanny would disapprove of were she to visit our North London terraced house.
If you have two children, as we do, there’s a strong possibility that just as you’ve gotten one child sorted out in the sleep department, the new one comes along and starts the cycle all over again.
Usually I get the lovely guestroom on the top floor. But when people are visiting, as my parents are now, I settle for the living room couch.
I have downloaded a shitload of films that my wife doesn’t want to watch. They include The Parallax View, Mysteries of the Organism, Crash, Gommorah, and a few others. I could easily settle down in my bed (wherever it is) and watch one of these a night, or watch until I get tired and save the rest for the next night. But I do not watch the films as that doesn’t feel enough like work to be tolerable. Blogging feels like work, work in the best sense.
When I was a very small child, or even a larger small child, I had a hard time sleeping. Obviously, there was no booze around to usher me into the arms of Oblivion. What I can remember, quite clearly, is the sound of the hockey games, the announcers of the hockey games, that my father would watch, night on night, downstairs. That and worrying about whether or not I was going to go to hell. The discovery of masturbation, when I was twelve, didn’t help with the later preoccupation, but this is cliché, rote, too boring to mention.
You can give yourself programs, plans, to accomplish at night. You could, for instance, work on learning a language, one lesson a night in a Teach Yourself book. They’re quite good – I have a smattering of Italian and Spanish (in addition to the French and German I took throughout university) because of them. For awhile, I knew enough Mandarian to do things like order dinner but now it’s gone. You could, alternately, work on a novel – promise yourself a certain page or word count per night. Or obsessively read 100 pages of something, night in night out.
But why can’t I just go to sleep, like a normal person? It’s a great mystery to me too. Some part of it has to be genetic, handed right down my mother’s side of the family. My maternal grandmother doesn’t go to sleep until she has to, and my mother was the same until the disease that she’s had (or that’s had her) since just before the time of my arrival on the scene has made it manditory that she goes to sleep at a decent time. When we’re all in Canada together, which is rare but does sometimes happen, my mother and my Nan will stay up extremely late, sitting and talking at the kitchen table. I have a sense that my first daughter has inherited the same gene – she’s just waiting, already at the age of four, for the minute that we stop monitoring her bedtime. She’s ten or so years away, and I can only imagine what she’s be up to at night when night’s are permitted her. Overly optimistic, but I’ll only be 43 when she’s 14, and perhaps just the same as I am now, and so perhaps we’ll be up together, typing into our computers, looking for the flash of light that makes all of this insomulence worthwhile, worth it. Overly optimistic – the words of a father of a four year old, I know.
The irony is, of course, that this condition requires at once a pining after late-night attention combined, perversely, with a drastic need to be alone for several hours after the sun has gone down.
At night, I can hear the trains – commuter trains and also the faster, longer ones bound for Yorkshire and then Edinburgh – rattle past my neighborhood. If I look through the window in my topmost bathroom, I can see the light standards illuminating the tracks.
Starting tomorrow, I will do something different with all of this, though I am still, as of now, not sure what.