Saturday, May 31, 2008

The (Dis)enchantments Of Love

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) - Untitled (under the skin, thin skin, skin deep, thick skin, skin tight, skinned alive), 2003

1. Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.

2. Discredited by modern opinion, love's sentimentality must be assumed by the amorous subject as a powerful transgression which leaves him alone and exposed; by a reversal of values, then, it is this sentimentality which today constitutes love's obscenity.

Roland Barthes

Musique Du Jour: I've Got You Under My Skin, The Sun Spots and This Is Not A Love Song, Nouvelle Vague

Addendum XI

Cruel, But Not To Be Kind

Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Soper) and Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend) in The Heiress, 1949 (d. William Wyler)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Art Is Creation's Unfinished Business

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): How To Remake A Mountain In 12 Easy Steps

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Chemin de Valcros, 1878-1879

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Montbriand, c. 1882

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Montbriand, 1882-1885

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1885-1890

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, near Gardanne, c. 1887

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1887

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1888-1890

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1890-1895

Montagne Sainte-Victoire above the Route du Tholonet, 1896-1898

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves, 1902-06

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Château Noir, 1904

Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Château Noir, 1904

I remain in the grip of sense-perceptions and, in spite of my age, riveted to painting.

Paul Cézanne (Aix, 27th June, 1904)

Musique Du Jour: Itaipu, Philip Glass

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Replay VII

A Freudian Photo Finish (Redux)

Man Ray (1890-1976) - La Marquise Casati, 1922

The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

Walter Benjamin

Musique Du Jour: I Put A Spell On You, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, Marilyn Manson, Clearance Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker and Pete Townsend

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Six Images In Search Of A Censor

Untitled (If Bill Henson's Images Are "Kiddie Porn", So Are These)

Correggio - Danaë, 1530

Bronzino - Venus, Cupid and Time (1545)

Alessandro Allori - Venus and Cupid

Caravaggio - Amor Vincit Omnia, c. 1601-2

Caesar van Everdingen - Bacchus with Nymphs and Cupid, c. 1660

Claude-Augustin Cayot - Cupid and Psyche, 1706

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Would You Like To Leave A Message?

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) - Untitled (Question), 1991

Direct address has been a consistent tactic in my work, regardless of the medium that I'm working in. I try to deal with the complexities of power and social life, but as far as the visual presentation goes I purposely avoid a high degree of difficulty. I want people to be drawn into the space of the work. And a lot of people are like me in that they have relatively short attention spans. So I shoot for the window of opportunity.

Barbara Kruger

Musique Du Jour: America is Waiting, Brian Eno and David Byrne

Monday, May 26, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Seven

Ophelia's Last Dance (Redux)

John Everett Millais (1829-1896) - Ophelia, 1851-2

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears.

, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, Shakespeare

In this painting Millais renounced accepted conventions for Shakespearean tragedy by attempting a literal realisation of Gertrude's speech in Hamlet in which the queen reports the suicide of Ophelia. Widely regarded as one of the "most marvellously and completely accurate and elaborate studies of nature ever made by the hand of man", Ophelia has come to epitomise Pre-Raphaelite vision. Between July and November 1851 Millais and Hunt worked together at Ewell near Kingston in Surrey painting landscape backgrounds for their respective pictures Ophelia and The Hireling Shepherd. It was only upon his return to London in December that Millais introduced the figure of Ophelia thus significantly reversing the standard academic procedure of subordinating background elements to the main human drama. Millais's method differed in another respect in that, apart from a few preliminary studies, he evolved the composition on the canvas itself, painting a small section at a time direct from the motif. This decision relates partly to the artist's adoption of a white ground upon which he painted in wet for the plants which further accounts for the extraordinary luminosity of the colour, particularly the verdant green, a compound of chrome yellow and Prussian blue.

It has been estimated that at Ewell Millais and Hunt between them expended approximately fifteen hundred hours painting landscapes, far more time than they gave to the figures themselves, which also explains why Ophelia appears subsumed by the claustrophobic luxuriance of the vegetation that surrounds her. This plein air approach inevitably involved considerable perseverance and, as Millais relayed in his correspondence with Mrs Thomas Combe, he not only had to contend with accusations of trespassing, but also with the wind, the threat of a bull, the annoyance of flies and two swans who persisted in watching him from the very spot he wished to paint. By enduring such physical and mental discomforts in order to abide by the Pre-Raphaelite principle of scrupulous observation, Millais could aptly be classed as a naturalist of both field and closet varieties. Indeed analogies have been drawn between the disposition of specimens within the frame and the viewing practices of naturalists, especially their practice of exhibiting plants in cabinets or Wardian cases: "the moss and flowers and vegetable details, are positively mirrored as in a glass. The waterlily is the botanical study of a Linnaeus", declared the Atheneum; while the painter's son recalled that perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid to Ophelia was when "a certain professor of Botany, being unable to take his class into the country and lecture from the objects before him, took them to the Guildhall, where this work was being exhibited, and discoursed to them upon the flowers and plants before them, which were, he said, as instructive as nature herself".

Millais's knowledge of plants developed as he worked on the composition and was encouraged by certain friends, among them Mrs Combe, and Tennyson who advised Millais that the daffodils included were inconsistent with the summer flowers elsewhere in the painting, causing the artist to delete them. Although its inordinate concentration on natural detail could be seen as an extension of the botanical particularities in Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Ariel. Ophelia is more radical in its near-sightedness, denying spatial recession and any suggestion of environment or atmosphere. It is the individuality of each specimen that matters rather than specificity of site, so that compared with traditional landscape conventions Ophelia has appeared paradoxically "unnatural" to some. P.G. Hamerton, for example, noting that the leaves looked artificial as if "cut out of sheet metal painted green". Moreover, in maximising the clarity of each object, light and shaded areas are accorded equal importance, resulting in an all-over two-dimensionality that negates any sense of hierarchical organisation. By according the plants equal status with the protagonist, Millais was exposing himself to accusations of bathos and mere imitation; Richard Redgrave for one criticised the work for its "laborious idleness" implying that no thought or invention had gone into the composition. Indeed the sheer sentience and abundance of detail virtually neutralises any feeling of tragedy.

It is precisely Millas's awareness of the fragility and transience of existence that lends Ophelia its poignancy, a quality imparted through both a naturalness and an unnaturalness of vision. More recently the writer Carol Christ has discussed Ophelia in terms of its "morbid intensity of vision", and ultimately it is the equalising but scattered focus that creates the disturbing sense of decomposition which provides such an appropriate visual equivalent for the morbidity of the subject.

A. Smith (in Pre-Raphealite Vision: Truth to Nature, 2004)

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, we're both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Leonard Cohen

Musique Du Jour: Kindertotenlieder: 'Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle flammen', Gustav Mahler

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Six

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) - La Femme Inconnue (Redux)

Summer Interior, 1909

Eleven A.M., 1926

Automat, 1927

Hotel Room, 1931

Room in New York, 1932

Morning Sun, 1952

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.

Carl Gustav Jung

Musique du Jour: Pink Martini, Everywhere

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Five

The Corpse of Everything But Existence Itself (Redux)

György Eszter (Peter Fitz) - Werckmeister Harmonies (d. Bela Tarr, 2000)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

From The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, 1922

Musique Du Jour: Orovela, Tsinandali Choir

Friday, May 23, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Four

The Bodies of Christ (Redux)

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1522 (above) and Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506), Cristo in scruto, c. 1480 (below)

'In 1522 (the underlying coat bears the date 1521) Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) painted a disturbing picture, the Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which may be seen at the Basel Museum. The painting apparently made a tremendous impression on Dostoevsky. At the very outset of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin attempted to speak of it, but to no avail; only through a new polyphonic twist of the plot did he see a reproduction of it in Rogozhin's house and, "struck by a sudden thought", he exclaimed: "That picture . . . that picture! Why, some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!" A little later, Ippolit, a peripheral character who nevertheless seems, in many respects, to be the narrator's and Myshkin's double, gave a striking account of it: "The picture depicted Christ, who has just been taken from the Cross. I believe that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, whether in the Cross or taken down from the Cross, as still retaining a shade of extraordinary beauty on His face; that beauty they strive to preserve even in His moments of greatest agony. In Rogozhin's picture there was no trace of beauty. It was a faithful representation of the dead body of a man who had undergone unbearable torments before Crucifixion, been wounded, tortured, beaten by the guards, beaten by the people, when He carried the Cross and fell under its weight, and, at last, had suffered the agony of Crucifixion, lasting for six hours (according to my calculation, at least). It is true, it is the face of a man who had only just been taken from the Cross - that is, still retaining a great deal of warmth and life; rigor mortis had not yet set in, so that there is still a look of suffering on the face of the dead man, as though He were still feeling it (that has been well caught by the artist); on the other hand, His face has not been spared in the least; it is nature itself, and, indeed, any man's corpse would look like that after much suffering. I know that the Christian church laid it down in the first few centuries of its existence that Christ really did suffer and that the Passion was not symbolic. His body on the Cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. But, strange to say, as one looks at the dead body of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself the peculiar, and interesting question: if such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples, by His future chief apostles, by the women who followed Him and stood by the Cross, by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, then how could they possibly believe, as they looked at the corpse, that that martyr would rise again? Here one cannot help being struck with the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who overcame nature during His lifetime and whom nature obeyed, who said Talitha cumi! and the damsel arose, who cried, Lazarus come forth! and the dead man came forth? Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable and dumb beast, or to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, some huge engine of the latest design, which has endlessly seized, cut to pieces and swallowed up - impassively and unfeelingly - a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously. The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs in one fell blow. They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away, within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him. And if, on the eve of the Crucifixion, the Master could have seen what He would look like when taken from the Cross, would He have mounted the Cross and died as He did? This question, too, you can't help asking yourself as you look at the picture.""

Holbein's painting represents a corpse stretched out by itself on a slab covered with a cloth that is hardly draped. Life-size, the painted corpse is seen from the side, its head slightly turned toward the viewer, the hair spread out on the sheet. The right arm is in full view, resting alongside the emaciated, tortured body, and the hand protrudes slightly from the slab. The rounded chest suggests a triangle within the very low, elongated rectangle of the recess that constitutes the painting's frame. the chest bears the bloody mark of a spear, and the hand shows the stigmata of the Crucifixion, which stiffen the outstretched middle finger. Imprints of nails mark Christ's feet. The martyr's face bears the expression of hopeless grief; the empty stare, the sharp-lined profile, the dull blue-green complexion are those of a man who is truly dead, of Christ taken by the Father ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") and without the promise of Resurrection.

The unadorned representation of human death, the well-nigh anatomical stripping of the corpse conveys to viewers an unbearable anguish before the death of God, which here is mingled with our own death because there isn't the slightest suggestion of transcendency. What is more, Hans Holbein has given up all architectural or compositional fancy. The tombstone weighs down on the upper portion of the painting, which is merely twelve inches high, and intensifies the feeling of permanent death: this corpse will never rise again. The pall itself, reduced to a minimum of folds, emphasises, through that economy of motion, the feeling of stiffness and stony cold.

The viewer's gaze penetrates this closed-in coffin from below and, following the painting from left to right, stops at the stone set against the corpse's feet, sloping at a wide angle toward the spectators.

What was the purpose of a painting with such peculiar dimensions? Does the Dead Christ belong to the altar that Holbein did for Hans Oberried in 1520-21, in which the two outside wings depicted the Passion and the centre was saved for the Nativity and the Adoration? There is nothing to support such a hypothesis, which, however, is not implausible when one takes into account a few features it shares with the outside wings of the altar that was partially destroyed during iconoclastic outbursts in Basel.

Among the various interpretations given by critics, one stands out and seems today the most plausible. The painting was done for a predella that remained independent and was to be positioned above the visitors as they filed in, from the side and the left (for instance from the church's central nave toward the souther aisle). In the Upper Rhine region, there are churches that contain funerary recesses where sculpted Christly bodies are displayed. Might Holbein's work be a painterly transposition of such recumbent statues? According to one hypothesis, this Dead Christ was the covering for a sacred tomb open only on Good Friday and closed for the rest of the year. Finally, relying on X rays of the painting, Fridtjof Zschokke has shown that the Dead Christ was initially located in a semicircular recess, like the section of a tube. That location corresponds to the date inscribed next to the right foot and the signature: H. H. DXXI. One year later, Holbein substituted the arched recess with the rectangular one and signed above the feet: MDXXII H. H.

Italian iconography embellishes, or at least ennobles, Christ's face during the Passion; but above all, it surrounds Christ with figures that are plunged not only in grief but also in the certainty of the Resurrection, as if to suggest the attitude we too should adopt when facing the Passion. Holbein, on the contrary, leaves the corpse strangely alone. It is perhaps this isolation - an act of composition - that endows the painting with its major melancholy burden, more so than its delineation or colouring. To be sure, Christ's suffering is expressed through three components inherent in line and colour: the head bent backward, the contortion of the right hand bearing the stigmata, the position of the feet - the whole being bonded by means of a dark palette of greys, greens and browns. Nevertheless, such realism, harrowing on account of its very parsimony, is emphasised to the utmost through the painting's composition and location: a body stretched out alone, situated above the viewers and separated from them.

Cut off from us by its base but without any possibility for the gaze to extend to Heaven because the ceiling in the recess comes down low, Holbein's Dead Christ is inaccessible, distant and without a beyond. It is a way of looking at mankind from afar, even in death. Just as Erasmus saw folly from a distance. It is a vision that opens out not onto glory but to endurance. Another, a new, morality resides in this painting.

Christ's dereliction is here at its worst: forsaken by the Father, He is apart from all of us. Unless Holbein, whose mind, pungent as it was, does appear to have led him across the threshold of atheism, wanted to include us personally, humans, aliens, spectators that we are, in this crucial moment of Christ's life. With no intermediary, suggestion or indoctrination, whether pictorial or theological, other than our ability to imagine death, we are led to collapse in the horror of the caesura that is death or to dream of an invisible beyond. Does Holbein forsake us, as Christ, for an instant, had imagine Himself forsaken? Or does he, on the contrary, invite us to change the Christly tomb into a living tomb, to participate in the painted death and thus and thus include it in our own life? In order to live with it and make it live, for if the living body in opposition to the rigid corpse is a dancing body, doesn't our life, through identification with death, become a "dance macabre", in keeping with Holbein's other well-known vision?

This enclosed recess, this well-isolated coffin simultaneously rejects us and invites us. Indeed, the corpse fills the entire field of the painting, without any laboured reference to the Passion. Our gaze follows the slightest physical detail: it is, as it were, nailed, crucified and riveted to the hand placed at the centre of the composition. Should we attempt to avert our gaze, it is quickly stopped, locked in on the distressed face or the feet propped against the black stone. And yet this walling-in allows for two prospects.

On the one hand, there is the insertion of the signature, MDXXII H. H., at Christ's feet. Placing the painter's name, to which was often added that of the donor, in that position was common at the time. It is nevertheless possible that in abiding by that code Holbein inserted himself into the drama of the dead body. A sign of humility: the artist throwing himself at God's feet? Or a sign of equality? The painter's name is not lower than Christ's body - they are both at the same level, jammed into the recess, united in man's death, in death as the essential sign of mankind, of which the only surviving evidence is the ephemeral creation of a picture drawn here in 1521 and 1522!

We have, on the other hand, this hair and this hand that extend beyond the base as if they might slide over toward us, as if the frame could not hold back the corpse. The frame dates precisely from the end of the sixteenth century and includes a narrow edging, bearing the inscription Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum, which encroaches on the painting. The edging, which seems nonetheless always to have been part of Holbein's painting, includes, between the words of the inscription, five angels bearing the instruments of the martyrdom: the shaft, the crown of thorns, the scourge, the flogging column, the cross. Integrated afterward in that symbolic framework, Holbein's painting recovers the evangelical meaning that it did not insistently contain in itself, and which probably legitimised it in the eyes of its purchasers.

Even if Holbein's painting had originally been conceived as a predella for an altarpiece, it remained alone; no other panel was added to it. Such isolation, as splendid as it is gloomy, avoided Christian symbolism as much as the surfeit of German Gothic style, which combined painting and sculpture but also added wings to altarpieces, aiming for syncretism and the imparting of motion to figures. In the face of that tradition, which directly preceded him, Holbein isolated, pruned, condensed and reduced.

Holbein's originality, then, lies in this vision of Christly death that is devoid of pathos and is intimate on account of its very banality. Humanisation thus reached its highest point: the point at which glory is obliterated though the image. When the dismal brushes against the nondescript, the most disturbing sign is the most ordinary one. In contrast to Gothic enthusiasm, humanism and parsimony were the inverted products of melancholia.

. . .

Finally, Mantegna's famous Cristo in scruto (c. 1480, at the Brera Museum in Milan) may be considered the precursor of the quasi-anatomical vision of the dead Christ. With the soles of the feet turned toward the viewers and the foreshortened perspective, Mantegna's corpse imposes itself with a brutality that verges on the obscene. Nevertheless, the two women who appear in the upper left hand corner of this painting introduce the grief and the compassion that Holbein puts aside precisely by banishing them from sight or else creating them with no mediator other than the invisible appeal to our all-too-human identification with the dead Son . . . And yet, always heedful of the Gothic spirit, Holbein maintains grief while humanising it, without following the Italian path of negating pain and glorifying the arrogance of the flesh or the beauty of the beyond. Holbein is in another dimension: he makes commonplace the Passion of the Crucified Christ in order to make it more accessible to us. Such a humanising gesture, which is not without a modicum of irony toward transcendence, suggests a tremendous amount of mercy with respect to our death.'

From Holbein's Dead Christ by Julia Kristeva

Musique Du Jour: 'Erbarme Dich' (from the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244), J. S. Bach

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Three

Death by Philosophy (Redux)

Exhibit A: A Deadly Thirst

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) - The Death of Socrates (1787)

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest - whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest of ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because the judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding.

Albert Camus

Exhibit B: The Fatal Game

Edouard Manet (1832-1883) - Suicide, 1877

Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here . . . with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that the experience had "undermined" him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man's heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from the light . . .

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in a melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let's not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that "is not worth the trouble". Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognised, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognised, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.

Albert Camus

Exhibit C: The Burning Question

Thich Quang Duc (June 11th, 1963)

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of his own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.

The subject of this essay is precisely this relationship between the absurd and suicide, the exact degree to which suicide is a solution to the absurd. The principle can be established that for a man who does not cheat, what he believes to be true must determine his action. Belief in the absurdity of existence must then dictate his conduct. It is legitimate to wonder, clearly and without false pathos, whether a conclusion of this importance requires forsaking as rapidly as possible an incomprehensible condition. I am speaking, of course, of men inclined to be in harmony with themselves.

Stated clearly, this problem may seem both simple and insoluble. But it is wrongly assumed that simple questions involve answers that are no less simple and that the evidence implies evidence. A priori and and reversing the terms of the problem, just as one does or does not kill oneself, it seems that there are but two philosophical solutions, either yes or no. This would be too easy. But allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning. Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also that those who answer "no" act as if they thought "yes". As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think "yes" in one way or another. On the other hand, it often happens that those who commit suicide were assured of the meaning of life. These contradictions are constant. It may even be said that they have never been as on this point where, on the contrary, logic seems so desirable. It is a commonplace to compare philosophical theories and the behaviour of those who profess them . . . Schopenhauer is often cited, as a fit subject for laughter, because he praised suicide while seated at a well-set table. This is no subject for joking. That way of not taking the tragic seriously is not grievous, but it helps to judge a man.

In the face of such contradictions and obscurities must we conclude that there is no relationship between the opinion one has about life and the act one commits to leave it? Let us not exaggerate in this direction. In a man's attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world the body's judgement is as good as the mind's, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body retains its irreparable lead. In short, the essence of that contradiction lies in what I shall call the act of eluding because it is both less and more than diversion in the Pascalian sense. Eluding is the invariable game. The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion that constitutes the third theme of this essay, is hope. Hope for another life one must "deserve" or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it . . .

Albert Camus

Musique Du Jour: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Diamanda Galas

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Seven Kinds Of Sadness: Part Two

The Cinema of Sorrows (Redux)

The Age of Innocence - d. Martin Scorsese (1993)

You Came Late And Your Beloved Is Lost

I began work on this essay with the impulse to downplay things like acting, character, story, theme - usually assumed as the privileged vessels of emotion - and to look elsewhere, at purely formal, non-representational elements of film style and language. Like most categorical, schematic distinctions, this one turned out to be false and misleading. Ultimately, it is a waste of time to set abstract against concrete, form against content, signifier against signified. In the films that move us, that take us somewhere in the truest sense, there is no distinction between these levels, only the deepest, inseparable fusion. This is an economy of form and content, as equal partners, that we are not yet used to: every so-called 'device' can absorb and express feeling; can move and transform the impulses and concerns of the film; can carry us, frame by frame, through thick and thin, to some place we haven't quite been or seen or heard before.

The film is just about to end. It is a sad film where things turn out badly. A voluptuously melancholic film, a hushed, pained, romantic melodrama full of mutual misunderstandings, missed connections and masochistic stupidities. The world ends, drains away, in the concluding four-minute scene of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. Poor Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis): he came late, and his beloved is lost. Newland is the sad anti-hero, so moving, but also so difficult and troubling, because he doesn't move much at all, in any sense: as the film draws to its magisterial ending, Newland takes refuge in cryptic statements of denial, lines like "she never asked me" and "just say I'm old fashioned, that should be enough".

So much flows in and out of this final scene, so much gathered and dispersed - even the birds who, in the final shot, circle up high and then gather in a spot on the ground which Newland, obliviously, walks through and disturbs. Most spectacularly, the centrepiece of the four minutes is a theatre of memory: Newland gets to replay, in his mind, and at last put right, the moment that once upon a time stymied him for the rest of his long and uneventful life. He wished for the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) to turn around before that Murnau-like boat passed and, if so, all would be well with the world, and between them as lovers. It didn't happen then, and now it happens with tremendous yearning but with no joy: Newland looks assaulted, wounded by that harsh, reflected light that causes him to blink, and sends him into fantasy-land with his eyes wide shut.

But these shots, while encapsulating a character and his destiny, also soar high and far from him; they constitute, like Almodóvar's apparition of a title, a gesture. Light, flicker, rapid montage, superimposition, a spectator and a vision: this is one of those privileged passages, also gone in less than sixty seconds, when the cinema all of a sudden bears witness to itself, reflecting on its powers of creation and destruction, as if to declare its hand at the dark or light heart of all our fantasy projections.

That constitutes the obvious fireworks in the scene. But its force is channelled and amplified by the more seemingly ordinary material on either side. Newland's son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), for instance, is the reality-principle in the scene. All he talks about and embodies are facts of place (on the third floor) and time (almost six o'clock), etiquettes of social reasonableness (she won't understand). Ted is a comfortably dressed, chipper guy; his jaunty walk and his movements briskly set-up a shot-reverse shot, low-high angle volley. That's his function and his form: to secure an orderly progression of elements. Newland on the other hand, walks slowly, in fact he's a log. For most of the scene, he barely moves more than a couple of feet's distance - and that's essentially in order to sit down.

Scorsese has a found a street setting here that can centre Newland perfectly in the frame, wrap around him, like he's one of those trees rooted to the spot; or maybe some insect, since we almost always view him here from above. In this setting, once again bodies become ritually like objects, and the non-human is invested with presence. All the sadness of the entire movie flows around Newland in this strangely truncated street space, of which we deliberately see very little. Again, this space has a static, solemn, church-like air. All it offers, finally, is a back exit: the exit into off-screen oblivion and anonymity that Newland will duly, gratefully take, as extras walk on by, as Elmer Bernstein's music finishes, and the film takes us to the sharply wrenching but also deeply satisfying void of a black and soundless screen for some long seconds - the only place we can bear to be right now, right here.

The voice-over narration (spoken by Joanne Woodward) is sparse, located only in the first moments of the scene. Appropriately, this narration speaks, in its few words, about the mystery, grace and pathos of being moved inexpressibly. At the very end, for Scorsese, there are only images and sounds, a gesture and a place, and then nothingness: things, feelings, that words (even the best chosen words) can no longer express. The duration of the final, long-held, static shot, the closing cadences of the music, the black screen - are these signs of an excess, a melodramatic overflowing? I don't figure so. They are the signs of an artistry and a richness, a hyper-saturation of mood, feeling and meaning taken to the point of ecstasy. A delirious enchantment.

From Delirious Enchantment by Adrian Martin

Indeed, one might conclude that the melancholic identification permits the loss of the object in the external world precisely because it provides a way to preserve the object as part of the ego and, hence, to avert the loss as a complete loss. Here we see that letting the object go means, paradoxically, not full abandonment of the object but transferring the status of the object from external to internal. Giving up the object becomes possible only on the condition of a melancholic internalisation or, what might for our purposes turn out to be even more important, a melancholic incorporation.

If in melancholia loss is refused, it is not for that reason abolished. Internalisation preserves loss in the psyche; more precisely, the internalisation of loss is part of the mechanism of its refusal. If the object can no longer exist in the external world, it will then exist internally, and that internalisation will be a way to disavow the loss, to keep it at bay, to stay or postpone the recognition and suffering of loss.

From Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification by Judith Butler

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

Anatole France

Musique Du Jour: Prelude (Op. 28), Frederic Chopin