Revisionist Tragedy: Luhrmann’s Gatsby and the Knight of Faith

May 18, 2013 at 11:52 am | Posted in fiction, film, love | 1 Comment

I liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — the visual extravagance was eminently appropriate, the movie was surprisingly willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, and I even liked the controversial hip-hop soundtrack, which I thought added to the dizzying disorientation of the party scenes and also marked the movie unmistakably as an artifact of the present moment rather than a “faithful” reconstruction of history. I’m just going to take issue with one little bit of the movie today, and that’s the end, where Gatsby dies (spoiler alert!) while waiting for a telephone call from Daisy. In the movie and the book both, Nick leaves Gatsby the morning after the accident promising to call him later, and Gatsby says “I suppose Daisy’ll call too,” and expects Nick to corroborate this hope. Then, in the movie, we see Gatsby waiting by the telephone, and having the telephone brought out to the pool, intercut with Nick moping at his office and with Daisy sitting by her own telephone, presumably thinking about calling Gatsby and taking him up on his offer of a life together. Finally the phone rings at Gatsby’s pool, and he thinks (and says) “Daisy!” as he climbs hopeful and starry-eyed up the pool ladder, only to be shot in the back and to fall backwards in stunned slow motion. After he’s dead it’s revealed that it was only Nick on the phone, worried about Gatsby.

It had been a long time since I’d last read The Great Gatsby cover to cover, but I was pretty darn sure this last gasp of hope, the ringing phone that might have been Daisy, was not in the book. And indeed it is not — at least, not exactly. Furthermore, I recognized this revisionist ending — it’s a version of the ending of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where Juliet wakes up from the sleep-drug before rather than after Romeo dies from the poison he’s just downed, allowing for the two of them to have an agonizing few seconds of “OH SHIIIIIIIT” eye-contact before Romeo succumbs. And that, of course, was also DiCaprio. So here we have, for the second time, Luhrmann giving DiCaprio an unauthorized minor revision to the source material in which his character sees both love and death in the same moment — the sudden, surprising promise of the one being unraveled before his eyes by the imminent certainty of the other.

In R + J, it’s certainly not in the original script, but it’s at least a choice a director could legitimately make — it involves no alteration to the spoken words. In Gatsby, it’s part of a pattern in which Luhrmann alters the text to remove ambiguities and make Gatsby more purely into a symbol of undying, incorruptible hope. Significantly, Luhrmann leaves out the punchline in what turn out to be Nick’s final words to Gatsby:

“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, [because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.]”

The excision of the remark in brackets from the film’s narration is one of many small ways in which the film gives us a Nick who is more thoroughly starry-eyed about Gatsby than is the character in the book. The invented scene with the telephone call is another, more significant revision in this vein. First of all, the book is cagier about what phone call Gatsby is even waiting for. He certainly says to Nick that he hopes Daisy will call, but when Nick tries to call Gatsby he never gets through and is told that the line is being held open “for Detroit” — whereas in the movie, we see Gatsby specifically telling his butler not to take Detroit’s call, as well as shots of Daisy thinking about calling (which the book never gives us reason to think that she does). The book doesn’t actually “show” Gatsby’s death, but here’s Nick’s imagining of Gatsby’s final moments:

 “No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

This is nearly the opposite of the scene in the movie — not only does no call come, but Nick thinks that Gatsby has finally lost hope, and rather than a final glorious moment of possibility, Gatsby’s death is imagined as almost being caused by giving up on hope. Letting go of hope has caused formerly lovely sights to become “frightening” and “grotesque,” and it is this terrible “new world” that sends forth the ghost-like form of Gatsby’s murderer in the final line here. Luhrmann, on the other hand, prefers Gatsby to remain a perfect, unspoiled symbol of hope until the end. His revision of this scene makes melodramatic tragedy out of Gatsby’s vision of love snatched away by death, and backs away from the deeper tragedy that Fitzgerald draws, of the world’s very animating soul draining out as hope dims.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Gatsby to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who says to himself that even though his love is impossible, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” The thing about the knight of faith, though, is that he has first to accept that his love is really not possible in this world, and I don’t think Luhrmann’s Gatsby ever gets there. For one thing, Luhrmann takes away the condition that the love be thoroughly impossible by showing those scenes of Daisy with the telephone, thinking about calling. She even reaches for the phone at one point, and the camera cuts back to Gatsby’s phone ringing, and his emergence from the pool only to be shot, allowing viewers to think along with Gatsby that this is in fact Daisy calling. The slow-motion tragedy of Gatsby falling back into the pool is the moment of Romeo seeing his future with Juliet being drawn away from him by the tunnel of his own death — it’s not until afterwards that viewers get the punchline that it was just Nick on the phone. Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will call is not at all unreasonable or absurd in the movie, which takes away some of its poignancy.

To be honest, I’m not sure that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby qualifies as a true knight of faith, either. Kierkegaard explains that “childlike simplicity and innocence” can also account for impossible hope that is just naïveté rather than true faith based on the renunciation of earthly possibility. But Fitzgerald’s vision of Gatsby is nonetheless darker and more complex than Luhrmann’s, and Gatsby’s last moments are an experience of a dead, empty world left lifeless when hope has gone: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”. What’s striking about these lines is the transformation of natural beauty into uncanny horror. And is Gatsby himself one of these “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? If so, it’s another transformation, from a vision of himself as drawing strength and vigor from his dream to one of himself barely clinging to life through it. Another line of Kierkegaard’s comes to mind: “Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything.” It’s as though Gatsby’s faith has been giving him the world up until this moment, and now suddenly the world is taken away — even though it’s still in front of his face. It’s not just Daisy who vanishes in this tragedy, but everything — and not because of Gatsby’s death, but because he wretchedly remains alive. Fortunately, this world of shadows sends forth its avenging angel.

Ritual and Melancholia

January 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Posted in affect, film, gender, love, repetition, ritual | 1 Comment

As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”

The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.

American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.

One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.

In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.

J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.

One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.

It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.

On Violence and Dreaming

November 20, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Posted in ethics, excess, film, political, violence | 2 Comments

The spectacle of police officers at UC Davis pepper-spraying peaceful, seated students last week has, rightly, caused an outraged uproar both within and outside the Occupy movement. Bob Ostertag, a Davis professor, has pointed out that even in prison riots, prison guards are forbidden to use pepper spray on seated prisoners because they are “not considered to be an imminent threat,” and that when prison guards plan to use pepper spray they are required to have medical personnel on the scene to treat the victims. Today, as a means of welcoming this blog back to the land of the living (after my year-long bout with finishing my dissertation), I plan to investigate the significance of the Davis police’s actions in my customarily roundabout way.

Last night, I watched Chris Marker’s La jetée, a 1962 short French dystopian film about time travel, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film inspired by La jetée that, as you probably recall, stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Both films take place in a dystopian future where humanity has been forced to live underground due to the ruination of the earth’s surface — in La jetée, the cause is nuclear war, and in 12 Monkeys it’s a viral epidemic. In both films, the protagonist is forcefully “volunteered” by the draconian government of the survivors and is made to participate in time-travel experiments designed to help humanity out of its desperate situation. In La jetée, the protagonist is sent back in time on a series of short visits, where he befriends a woman seemingly tolerant of his tendency to literally appear and disappear unpredictably. These visits to the past are eventually revealed to be mere rehearsals for the real work at hand: once the protagonist has proven that he is mentally stable enough to handle time travel, he is sent to the distant future to beg help from the more technologically advanced society that he finds there. These future people equip him with technology to save his people, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the protagonist is sentenced to death by his draconian government now that he has served his purpose. The people from the future offer to help him escape to their time permanently, but he asks instead to be sent back to the past to live out his days with the woman he met there. The people from the future do this for him, but he is pursued by an agent from the draconian government of the present who guns him down as soon as he gets back to the past. (I am concealing the biggest plot twist from you out of the goodness of my heart.)

12 Monkeys, being a feature-length studio film from the 1990s rather than a short auteur film from the 1960s, makes many changes and complicates the plot immensely. But the change that bothered me the most is that the circumstances of the hero’s death are entirely different. Bruce Willis is killed not in the midst of trying to build a life with the woman he loves, but in the midst of trying to save the world from the very government for whom he has been forced to work. He discovers that the plague which wiped out the world was aided and abetted by the draconian government that sent him back in time in the first place, and is shot by agents of that government while trying to stop the man who will spread the disease. What bothered me so much about this change is that it actually takes the teeth out of the original film’s criticism of the power of the state. It is not very difficult to imagine a corrupt government trying to protect itself by executing people who are actively trying to bring it down. But what makes the ending of La jetée so shocking is that the protagonist is not trying to bring down the government at all — all he wants is to be left alone and allowed to pursue his own happiness. The state evidently views these desires themselves as a threat, since they are in excess of its instrumental plans for this citizen.

Viewing these films now, in what some are calling the “American Autumn” as a corollary to this year’s “Arab Spring,” I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Occupy movement and the power of the state that has recently been flexed in order to quash it. The powers that be wish they were fighting Bruce Willis, an enemy trying actively to bring them down. If they were, they’d have a much stronger case about the need to use force against the protestors. But in fact, the protestors are much more like the nameless protagonist of La jetée. The Occupy movement’s continued refusal to produce concrete demands has made it clear that — for now, at least — what the movement is about is the occupations themselves. Members of the movement talk enthusiastically about the communities built at the occupation sites: they have libraries, social services, first aid, and many other communal resources. Many people who have been living at the occupations report that the Occupy movement is one of the first communities in which they’ve truly felt at home. What they want, in other words, is to be left alone and allowed to pursue their own happiness.

This is not, however, an insular or apolitical demand — as the fascist government in La jetée realized, and as our own government may also be realizing. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, which were generally set up out in the wilderness away from population centers, the occupations are in our town squares and parks, in our faces every day. As Matt Taibbi recently explained in Rolling Stone, the movement at its heart is about “going on strike from one’s own culture”:

This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.

This idea is, ultimately, much more radical than a list of concrete demands such as “increase regulation on the banks” and “remove money from politics” could ever encompass. The Occupy movement points to the fact that daring to dream of a better and more free life than the one offered by the current economico-political regime is a deep and dangerous threat to the powers that prop up that regime. This is why the government in La jetée had to kill the protagonist of that film, and it’s why the police in Zucotti Park, Oakland, Seattle, and UC Davis feel authorized to use viciously violent force on peaceful protestors. Our challenge, then, is to continue to dream — both because and in spite of the opposition.

On Plots and Plotting: The Golden Bowl and All About Eve

May 24, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Posted in fiction, film, gender | 3 Comments

I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.

Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.

In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.

But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.

What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.

Animal Passion: Bataille, Agamben, and Grizzly Man

March 21, 2007 at 11:37 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, excess, film, materiality, mysticism, no-self, the animal, weil | 9 Comments

“And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
looking
at everything and never from!
It floods us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and we decay.

Who’s turned us around like this,
so that whatever we do, we always have
the look of someone going away? Just as a man
on the last hill showing him his whole valley
one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers —
so we live, and are forever leaving.”

— Rainer Marie Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy

Something has been troubling me in all this talk of ecstatic self-forgetting. In order to make Bataille and Weil play nice with each other, I had to sand off some of their rough edges. In particular, I had to paint both Bataille’s abandon and Weil’s obedience as essentially mental states; in the foregoing post, these writers resemble nothing so much as a Buddhist monk and nun who, in their quite distinct ways, are striving to quiet the chatter of conscious thought and to replace it with the profound silence of the sacred. As a Buddhist sympathizer, I respect a lot of things about Weil’s ethics of attention, but the weakest link in her chain is the way that attention translates into action — all she can say is that “the actions that follow [attention] will be automatic.” There is a troubling refusal of responsibility here that seems to have to do with Weil’s discomfort in her own embodiedness; we have already seen, in my post on Weilian self-sacrifice, the fierceness with which she deprives herself of necessities in the name of ethics, but her wish to be “decreated” is more profound than a wish for death — it is a wish, as her term suggests, to undo her own creation. She writes, “When I am in any place, I disturb the silence of heaven and earth by my breathing and the beating of my heart.” She wishes, in short, to not have a body, and this creates a problem in terms of engaging with the physical world — her efforts at ethical action, as outlined in that earlier post, are often bizarre, unsuccessful, and misunderstood. Ultimately they are fatal. (Though they retain, as I argued, a symbolic value.)

In Bataille, the disconnect between mind/soul and body is just as profound, but since he values the body and not the soul, we encounter Weil’s difficulty reversed, as in a mirror: the blind spot in his thinking is how to get from action to attention, from ecstatic bodily practice to reflective morality. Bataille is not even really interested in reflective morality; the closest he comes is to argue for the continual overthrow of moral systems in favor of a continual quest for the authentically contradictory promptings of the deepest self. My problem with this is not so much that this ‘deepest self’ disappears into the bodily (though it could be said that this is another escape from responsibility), but rather with the particular way in which Bataille mobilizes the category of the animal in order to describe the embodied aspects of personhood.

Last time, I described Bataille’s sense of humans as “discontinuous” beings, fundamentally alone in their heads. This is imagined, in Erotism and especially in Theory of Religion, in contrast to the “continuity,” the immanence and immediacy, of the animal world, for which he argues we have a deep nostalgia. We imagine that animals “exist in the world like water in water,” and we experience ourselves as lacking this feeling: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy.” Bataille’s pursuit of the experience of sovereignty is the quest to “lose his head” and give himself over to the animal within.

This account of the animal world resonates with us because it does sound true, it does recall a feeling we can empathize with. Animals are frequently evoked, in literature and film, as figures of Edenic innocence or of blind necessity — and either way, we see in their unselfconsciousness a state we envy. Rilke, in the poem excerpted in the epigraph, describes this nostalgia: “All other creatures look into the Open / with their whole eyes. But our eyes, / turned inward, are set all around it like snares.” The problem, as in Bataille, is self-consciousness; if only we could rid ourselves of it, we could exist “in that pure space . . . in which flowers endlessly open,” we could reside in “Nowhere without No.”

Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal follows Heidegger in exposing this imagined nostalgia as an utter fabrication. Where Rilke and Bataille see the animal’s experience as one of glorious harmony with its surroundings, Agamben and Heidegger see it as one of blindness and incomprehension. Agamben cites zoologist Jakob von Uexküll on the experience of the tick, who is blind, deaf, and ultimately responsive to only three things: the smell of butyric acid, contained in the sweat of all mammals, which causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward; the temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, which indicates that she has in fact fallen on a mammal; and the typology of mammal skin, which she navigates in order to find the least hairy spot from which to suck her meal.

The animal is, in Heidegger’s terms, “captivated” by those few phenomena that trigger its behaviors. He explains that a stone is “worldless,” while an animal is “poor in world” — it is open to certain specific phenomena, but it cannot recognize them as such. The tick has no knowledge of the dog, or its sweat, or butyric acid; it just responds automatically to a signal. The problem is that we don’t want to think of animals as mechanisms; waterfalls obey the laws of physics, but animals behave, even if they cannot act. Heidegger calls them “poor in world” to indicate the degree to which we humans project ourselves onto them; rather than seeing, as Bataille does, humanity as constituted by a lack of animal immediacy, Heidegger reverses the terms. We can think of animals, he argues, only in terms of a subtraction from ourselves: animals lack the uniquely human understanding of beings as beings.

The temptation to romanticize this lack is great. Agamben writes, “The tick is immediately united to these three elements in an intense and passionate relationship the likes of which we might never find in the relations that bind man to his apparently much richer world. The tick is this relationship; she lives only in and for it.” But is being a relationship the same thing as having a passionate relationship? The answer is an unequivocal “no,” and this is what Bataillean romanticizations of the animal obscure. When we speak of “animal passion,” we anthropomorphize the animal; for passion to be involved, there must first be a recognition of subject and object, which puts us squarely in the realm of the human.

At times, Bataille acknowledges this. Near the beginning of Theory of Religion, he admits that there is a “sticky temptation of poetry” about the animal, because “In a sense, I know this depth: it is my own.” Annie Dillard, in an essay called “Living Like Weasels,” succumbs to precisely this temptation: she valorizes the weasel’s instinct to bite and hold, offering an image of an eagle shot out of the sky with a weasel skull attached to its neck. The weasel, attacked by the eagle, must have fought back and almost won, and its corpse must have dangled from the eagle for weeks. Dillard, of course, turns this grim scenario into a moral imperative:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

This is a beautiful metaphor for passion, but it cannot be said that the weasel feels passion. The danger here is that we believe these metaphors, and they trick us into facile ways of thinking about our own relationship to the animal part of us: our bodies. Bataille seeks, in his mystical practice, to liberate himself from conscious thought and obey his animal instincts, but this is never in fact possible. Agamben puts it this way: “While mystical knowledge is essentially the experience of a nonknowledge and of a concealment as such, the animal cannot comport itself toward the not open.” In other words, an animal doesn’t know that it doesn’t know itself, whereas a human can never quite escape her self-awareness. The terms of the comparison are always ours, because the animal doesn’t have terms.

Timothy Treadwell, subject of the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, provides a vivid example of one way this mistake can be fatal. He spent thirteen summers in remotest Alaska, living with and filming grizzly bears, until inevitably he was killed and eaten by them. This is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first three minutes of the movie and is plastered all over the preview — in fact, Treadwell’s death is what makes this a film worth watching and not just another nature show. Treadwell loves the bears; he names them all, he pets them, he mourns their deaths, and at several different points in the film he works himself into a frenzy about trappers and poachers and the encroachment of civilization: “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends! In love with my animal friends. I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f-ed over, which so sucks.”

He is sympathetic because of his passion. It is animal passion, in the mistaken sense evoked by the passage from Dillard — the bears are Treadwell’s one necessity, and he is holding onto them even though they might be his death. In fact, it often seems that he devotes himself to the bears because they might be his death. One of the people interviewed in the film is a woman whose house in Kodiak, Alaska was always the last place Treadwell stayed when he was on his way out into the wilderness; she reports that every year, as he would set out, he would tell her that if he didn’t come back, she shouldn’t be sad, because he had died doing what he loved.

But the bears, as director Werner Herzog reminds us, cannot love him back:

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.

The problem with romanticization of the animal is that it does not allow us to see the radical closedness of the animal. People like Treadwell, Dillard, Rilke, and Bataille fancy that they are getting in touch with something “primal,” originary, and authentic within the human when they embrace their “animal” passions, but in fact, this is a profound rejection of what is most animal-like within us. The animal is that which does not know itself; it is the truly unknowable, blindly biological forces that, terrifyingly, motivate us at the core.

The problem I have with both Weil and Bataille, then, is that whether you value the mind over the body or the body over the mind, you are still failing to deal adequately with the dual, always contradictory nature of the human. Treadwell becomes a reverse Ahab, proving that to embrace the animal is just as fatal as to reject it.

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