Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Lover

Marguerite Duras' strange tale of love, called The Lover, left me thinking but thinking of something that I could not name, a feeling vague, a thought strange, some misgivings, some unvoiced doubts, in short a feeling of having read an incomplete tale but perhaps more complete than any. Thus, I confused, and a little worn out at the end of this novella. This is the first Duras novel I have read though I am familiar with her work as a movie writer, her Hiroshima mon amour such brilliance.

The lover is a story narrated by a grown up woman, perhaps Duras herself, who tells us of her love affair with a older Chinese man, when she was 15, when he was more than 12 years older than her, she white, he Chinese, she poor, he so rich, both in Indochina, she from the conquering race, he from the subdued, she so innocent, he so much in love, she so unloving, he so much in passion. Thus what begins by chance is a torrid passionate affair, away from the frozen eyes of her family, his family, their surroundings, society. They meet secretly, they make love, she writhes in passion, he suffocates in love, they both are sick, of passion, with love. But secrets are always found it, how long can secrets be kept in a room, and thus our narrator begins her cunning deception of hers, shielding him, herself, her family.

After reading this novel and during it, I felt that the love affair in itself is not Duras' central worry for the main bulk is devoted towards a tortured relationship that exists between our narrator, her mother and her two brothers, one young and the other older. The older brother is a figure of hate, he has been the family's black sheep, he is a petty thief, a liar, a swindler, without feelings or emotions but loved to the exclusion of everyone by his mother. This is a sore point, a point of friction between our narrator and her mother, even now, at a distance, when everyone is dead and time has flown, people have left, gone down the rivers of time, wars have been won and lost, hearts broken, bodies ravaged, death done and seen.

The love affair is not casual but at the periphery of this family, whose two male members have succumbed to poverty and a useless life, whose mother figure, having tried and lost everything is a defeated figure and this young woman, our protagonist is in a sulky, torrid affair with this Chinese man, older, richer. Her love seems to be a displacement, an act of revenge against her family. However, whilst inside this affair, she discovers herself but is sure that she does not love him. This is not much emphasized and attention is given mostly towards her mother, for in spite of her outwardly manifest hatred, she loves her mother, would do anything for her.

This white family in Indochina, reduced to poverty, feel united in a fundamental shame at having to live. "We are on the side of society that have reduced her to despair". Because of that, "we hate life, we hate ourselves". In descriptions of colonial societies, one must not forget the families of those who colonize, for some of them live many estranged and double and desperate lives. Because here there is a position, an attitude, the young girl seduced by an older Chinese, for her because of love, for everyone else because of his money. It is this double pain of her life, she torn between who she is and who she should be, he between a spate of identities too.

I am not sure she actually loves him but then I have never been sure what love is. He is terribly lonely because of this love for her, not because he is not in love, she is lonely too, she doesn't say why. "He moans, he weeps, in dreadful love". But his love is weak too, he cannot stand up to his father. She does not want to stand up to her mother, she leaves for Paris, he stays behind, they part, love comes to an end, a river is crossed forever, everything ends. He has got married, she too is with child, "let him feel Love's first violence", she says. And years later, in Paris, he calls her, telling her that he never stopped loving her, that he w'd love her until death.

This novel flicks before us as a movie would, or rather as images for there are so many devices here, of present narration, past and future, flashbacks, dreams, scenes that constantly change and merge, fuse and dissolve and then we are again, with our narrator, in the present, in an unknown place, crossing the Mekong, decades back, with her lover, in a hotel room, as she writhes in ecstasy and as she now remembers him with pain. Duras has not written a simple tale of love but a complex one filled with questions about motherhood and relationships, fidelity, race, culture and love and the interplay these have on people in difficult situations, away from a familiar habitat, in roles they are uncomfortable with, especially if they are poor, destitute and different. The writing style I much admired for Duras is a prose poet, her style is sonorous, hypnotic and descriptive without lapsing into any boring platitudes. There are many quotable passages and this novel is eminently great. Below, one of the many I liked.

"The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light. The night lit up everything, all the country on either bank of the river as far as the eye could reach. Every night was different, each one had a name as long as it lasted. Their sound was that of the dogs, the country dogs baying at mystery. They answered one another from village to village, until the time and space of the night were utterly consumed".

Monday, January 28, 2008


If we decide to pass a judgement on Woyzeck ( that is if we have a right to ), we can only do so from an external point of view, from the outside, for he is not accessible, even to his doctor, who thinks he is too philosophical. Either Woyzeck is sane and his experiences quite normal, though slightly out of the ordinary, may be mystical or else he is deranged, with a fixed idea, suffering as his doctor is quite sure with "aberratio partialis mentalis" and thus foreign to us. The case of Woyzeck is a curious one, the movie is quite brilliant and the play by Buchner simply one of the best in any language permitted.

Woyzeck, a soldier and husband, father and a crazed man is aloof, estranged and at a distance from everyone. His officer observes that Woyzeck has a "hunted look" always and advises him to "pace" life. But Woyzeck is a troubled man, given in to visions, hearing voices, having premonitions and harbouring strange ideas. He is thus being treated, with a diet of peas only, to be followed by mutton. And when Woyzeck is told of his wife's infidelity, and he spies and sees her with a Superior officer, Woyzeck hears voices again, commanding him to commit the ultimate offence, to kill his wife. That he does and ends with blood on his hands, throwing the knife into a pool of water, mad with rage and grief.

Woyzeck is a strange man but is he actually mad? Should we be sympathetic towards him for we know that his wife is unfaithful to him? However that is not enough for him to kill someone, even if it is a crime of passion, even if such crimes are prepared in inaccessible regions of the heart. Woyzeck is betrayed but isn't he already at a distance from his wife, from his surroundings? Isn't Woyzeck not fit to be in the company of drum-majors and pseudo-scientists, on a treatment regime of peas? Should not Woyzeck be called a misfit if not a real philosopher, isn't he a thinking man and thus condemned?

Woyzeck's visions and reflections are unintelligible, his language allusive and his actions cryptic. He claims that "flames are raging through the heavens" and he can hear "a distant roar like mighty trumpets", he talks of nature and claims that "when the sun is high up, the world is bursting into flames and that it is all in the mushrooms". And he is in hell, he feels it, a hell that we don't know of. "Everything is going round in circles", he says. In short, he "feels hot". Thus Woyzeck and his experiences can be understood only if we make an effort but in the end the murder, the act of passion creates a wedge. He is quick to recognize that, shouting at the people who might think so, calling them murderers too, questioning their hypocrisy.
Is he an existential hero or a plain murderer, a rejected lover or a deceived man, a poet, a philosopher or is he only ill, hiding behind the moon and poetic expressions, an interesting psychological case, one who would interest modern forensic experts? I cannot decide.

Woyzeck, the play by Buchner is fragmentary but in whatever shape it is, it is a stroke of genius, written in a language that suits theatre adaptation admirably and thus makes it such a drama. And the movie, another collaboration between Kinski and Herzog is Kinski's tour de force, a performance that elevates acting to sublime arts. Herzog thinks that any English translation is at best watery but it will do for us. Kinski and the absolute fidelity between the play and the movie makes it a sincere adaptation and shows Herzog's admiration towards Buchner. In whatever order Woyzeck is watched or read, it remains a piece of art that defies time and space.Since I read the play last year and watched the movie only recently, I must admit that I thought I was reading it again. A great movie and a great play.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Now, Fitzcarraldo, an Irish emigre in Peru, "conquistador of the useless", after many unsuccessful business enterprises, gatecrashes into an opera house, with his mistress, hands bandaged and bleeding, demanding to see his beloved Caruso perform, in the heart of Peruvian wilderness, in the forest, beside the forest, among the natives. And from there, comes the desire to build an opera house, in this wilderness and invite the best of Europe to perform, at any cost, at whatever it takes, for this is the only thing that must be done.

Fitzcarraldo, one of the great collaborations between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog is a feat in cinematic brilliance, a movie that exists on its own, without many comparisons, and open to different interpretations, depending on your dominant mood. And those familiar with Kinski see the same brilliance, the touch of genius that is characteristic of this great actor. So, Fitzcarraldo, now raving with an obsessive desire for his opera, must have money to realize his dream, money that is insufficient from his manufacturing ice and since this drama is at the turn of the 20th century, Peru divided between rubber dons, he decides to join this grand exploitation of the rubber trees, to finance his dreams. He is helped to buy a ship for this expedition by his mistress( who runs a brothel) and after assorting a motley crew, he sets off, down the amazon,
towards Pongo das Mortes, towards the rubber trees, an area savaged by native Indians, unenthusiastic about the civilizing whites.

We are thus witnessing a drama, an adventure, as this ship heaves and rolls on with Fitzcarraldo, with his obsessive drive commanding a nervous crew, as they enter the dangerous Indian territory. The crew flee, just three persons stay back with Fitzcarraldo as they are surrounded by the natives. However, in a strange reversal, they turn to be his helpers as he decides to cut through a mountain and the ship is dragged through it, into the raging torrents, where finally lost, it flounders and Fitzcarraldo is back, lost and defeated.

This movie can be seen, seen for the sheer delights of a tropical kind, especially as the ship, surrounded by invisible hums rolls into the heart of fear. And also for the great technical qualities, the immensity of effort as Herzog battled to steer the ship through forest and rock. But who is Fitzcarraldo and what does he want? He desires an opera house and Caruso, in the wildest Peruvian jungles, he claims to be "the spectacle of the forest". Realizing the difficulties, he declares that he will "move a mountain". He has no concerns for anyone except himself. He loves his opera, his music, he does not believe in anything else. Apart from that, I thought, as he steered his ship, that I was in the heart of darkness, Conrad's apology to imperialism, for it is impossible not to see the parallels, this great civilizing mission, this operatic imperialism, this conversion.

As the invisible chants get louder and menacing, Fitzcarraldo takes his gramaphone out and blares his opera at the forest, at the invisible, deadly natives. In its very execution, this scene is comic and shows his desperation, but the humming stops, the noise abates, as they listen, listen and as a reverence to a superior expression, they obey. Is not this a kind of imperial motif, Fitzcarraldo acting through opera, bearing on the soul of the unconverted, crushing him through music, through wails. I saw parallels towards apocalypse now as napalm and classical music blare along with cowboy hats and nauseating accents, as the very marauding face of imperialism is softened through music. Herzog declared his disinterest in the native situation, his story is that of fitzcarraldo's obsession and as I
said earlier, we can accept that. The ship, a tool, the rubber dons, exploiters, the natives defeated and naked, these are familiar stories. However, one cannot but question Fitzcarraldo, for one should ask and question his blindness towards his surroundings.

The creator cannot distance himself from his created, from his actions. Herzog, the artist must bear responsibility for the savagery that he does not justify nor condemn. The ship, cutting through forests and mountains is an imperial adventure, that he makes clear. However, the opera, the opera house and its silencing the natives is one too. We see the last image of Fitzcarraldo, on his ship that he has now sold, to finance a last performance, with an expensive cigar; he stands, surveying, burning, fuming. He is a megalomaniac, his desire is manic and even in his defeat, he is rigid and proud. Fitzcarraldo is a dangerous man, who only loves himself, and as he smokes his cigar, we are reminded that this is kinski, in a performance that unsettles the viewer. Kinski smoulders on the screen, unpredictable and mercurial, raging and fighting and when we see him as the movie begins, he is already breathless, tired, bloodied and brilliant. Within a few minutes, we are in the vicinity of genius.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Came to me

Came to me -

In the dawn, afraid.

What of?
Her father's

I kissed her twice.
On her moist mouth.

What, then?
How was it?

Rudaki 870-940/41, from the Persian.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Through a Glass Darkly

One of the outstanding qualities of Through a glass darkly is the hermetic closeness of the world we see and very immediately, right from the first moment, as we watch four people swimming towards an island, an island that sets the setting for a minimalist monochrome, breakdown of senses, minds, bodies and walls. Even though film critics do not consider this Bergman movie as one of his very best and certainly not like wild strawberries, yet I felt in it the same qualities as in the seventh seal, the sea, the sea, Max Von Sydow, the running after God and yes, love sometimes.

Essentially, we watch frames and images and the lasting impressions after watching a movie are images that stay with us after time has flinched us, betrayed us. surely, here, we have some moments where the imagination of a great artist achieves a level of craft that borders on genius. This movie sustains an aura, an atmosphere and perhaps its greatest quality again is the lack of prelude, the quick drawing in of the viewer into this island world that is so tight with four people, Karin played by the the beautiful Harriet Anderson, psychotic and charming, with her mood swinging from moment to moment, her husband Martin, who is a figure tormented, torn between understanding her illness and loving her, her father, who has returned and is struggling to complete a novel, having left Karin and her younger brother, who has written a few plays and an opera, but wants his father to talk to him.

Karin's illness is essentially the thing around which the movie circles, her figure, her personality, which we are told is disintegrating. She hears voices, is commanded by unseen voices and is tormented between two worlds, one a supposedly normal one, the other a psychotic world of sensations and hallucinations. The intimate nature of her illness does not oppress us, we want to see more, but the understanding of a breakdown is conveyed quite well. And yet, Karin is a lonely figure, surrounded by a lonelier husband, a distant father fighting his own solitude, rising from the remains of a suicide attempt, his wife having lost and succumbed to an illness like Karin's. The incestuous play between Karin and her brother is not hidden, for Karin indulges in it in a way that goes with her persona, baffling her brother, who in a moment of Karin's madness, loses control. That moment is perhaps, I think, a defining moment in this movie, a fact acknowledged by Karin and her brother.

One of the important aspects of this movie is the setting, for where we to encounter them in a city, in a flat, in an opulent house, the madness might have seemed overplayed. The lack of colour adds an ethereal quality, the only house on an unnamed island, the sea, the sea gulls, the jetty, them, us, the silence, the words, the poetry and subliminal solitude, heartbreak and suffering. By Bergman's own account, this is a movie about conquered certainty, about God and love. The epilogue says that God and love are the same, as Karin, in an image that is stunning beautiful, after her breakdown, dons her dark glasses and her coat, and leaves for the city, for an institution and the camera does not follow her but lingers as she leaves the room and then we don't see her again. It is a triumph, this scene, for it is entirely credible and realistic and can happen. After she is gone, Minus and his father talk, talk of love and God, and both hope that she is surrounded by God, and Minus leaves for a run, while his father decides to cook.

Karin's illness, though not named, is perhaps not Bergman's central concern in this movie, for it interplays with his other sensibilities, mostly relying on faith. However, this platitude of God and love being the same seemed less convincing in the setting of the final moments, though I don't have any credible alternatives to the same. I felt that the atmosphere, which is so important here, is a crucial element of this movie, drawing us in to this world where Karin questions the legitimacy of suffering and being divided between two worlds. However, Karin is trying her best to make sense of a world that cannot be understood, even through a split vision and not just because of it. The title of the movie is important too, with a religious connotation but Bergman's characters usually are quite quiet, almost capable of further suffering, with an inner reserve and humility in being patient.

Karin's husband, played by Von Sydow, is the essential sufferer, cast on this island, in a life torn between love and madness, between solitude and a lack of passion. His ascetic refrain is a different way of responding to this isolation, this unknowing of life, while Karin and Minus are actively grappling with demons. Their father is now living a philosophy that warrants a peculiar harmony in itself, whether I understood it or not. This movie is a quiet masterpiece, and it is an ode to realism, of cinema and it decorating life and the unique religious solitude of isolated and grim places. Harriet Anderson's performance is the highlight of a great movie and her bare and fragile world enhances the fragility of these four characters and of life itself.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Southern Dawn

Written by Pasolini, this is one of best poems on Palestine, or whatever remains of it.

I was walking near the hotel in the evening
when four or five boys appeared
on the field's tiger fur,
with no cliff, ditch, vegetation
to take cover from possible bullets--for
Israel was there, on the same tiger fur
specked with cement-block houses, useless
walls, like all slums.
I happened on them at that absurd point
far from street, hotel,
border. It was one of countless such
friendships, which last an evening
then torture the rest of your life. They,
disinherited and, what's more, sons
(possessing the knowledge the disinherited
have of evil-burglary, robbery, lying--
and the naive ideal sons have
of feeling consecrated to the world),
deep in their eyes, right off, was the old
light of love, almost gratitude.
And talking, talking till
night came( already one was embracing me,
saying now he hated me, now, no, he loved me,
loved me ) they told me everything about themselves,
every simple thing. These were gods
or sons of gods, mysteriously shooting because
of a hate that would push them down from
the clay hills like bloodthirsty bridegrooms upon
the invading kibbutzim on the other side of Jerusalem ....
These ragged urchins, who sleep in open air now
at the edge of a slum field--
with elder brothers, soldiers armed with
old rifles, mustached like those
destined to die the ancient deaths of mercenaries--
These are the Jordanians, terror of Israel,
weeping before my eyes
the ancient grief of refugees. One of them,
sworn to a hate that's already almost bourgeois ( to blackmailing
moralism,, to nationalism that has paled with neurotic
fury ), sings to me the old refrain
learned from his radio, from his kings--
another, in his rags, listens, agreeing,
while puppylike he presses close to me,
not showing, in a slum field
of the Jordan's desert, in the world,
anything but love's poor simple feeling.

Translated by Norman Macafee.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Saddest thing is Silence

The saddest thing is silence, and when noiseless rain falls, as it is now, silence seems to engulf everything, me reduced to dust, each fabric of my existence quivering with fatal stabs to my essence, a thing I cannot name, touch, see or remember being taught.
The most significant rain that fell on me years ago was loud, in a flood of chatter and bravery, for love seemed possible and the world looked benign, even death and destruction seemed plausible, a place where logic could reason and seek a reasonable answer from.

One hides behind faces, behind the caustic wit of friendly shoulders, friends seem to be around everywhere, friendship seems eternal, the only natural thing that can save, save from all inner storms, embarrassing slips and shy dreams. The rain that fell years ago was warm, getting wet was a bliss, the skin glistened with water, pouring down from friendly skies.
Then friends dwindled into the mist of future tense, into promises of future meetings, without hint or shades of doubt, with the certain certainties of real promises, those that lie shattered, ones that will never rise again, for further rain has sunk them into oblivion, into a storm of mirrors.

The hints half guessed, the promises half made, the words and poems read aloud and fought for, names scratched on trees, on desks, on rocky cliffs, on benches in public places, the writers covered and discovered, left unread, new words added to a raw dictionary, like the moon's rictus, like yes, I do, Yes, I know, Yes let this rain fall, it is sweet.
And then just so suddenly, an enormous silence, where even the saddest music seemed heavy with doubt, the faintest reminder of the days past so dull, so odious, so painful. And rain fell, but this rain was different, for the skies did not open, only a wound, only now, only then, sometimes.

And the saddest rain is falling now, as I attempted to write "the saddest lines", but I tried so hard, my heart stopped, memories flooded in, oh, I trembled with desire but desirous of memories, for forgotten conversations, for faces that surely must be older as I saw everything so clearly and what did I see, just nothing.
And so, now, as this soundless rain outside is tearing me to bits, I want this silent rain to fall all night, so that tomorrow everything could be wet, wet and awful, soft and damp, flushed and clean, a little dark, a bit bright, as my eyes shake this sadness, and I dream of sadder lines, ones I could not write tonight, so I wrote this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Year is Like a Thousand Years Ago

The year is like a thousand years ago,
we carry the jug and whip behind the cow,
we reap and know nothing of winter,
we drink cider and know nothing,
soon we will be forgotten
and these verses will fall like snow outside the house.

The year is like a thousand years ago,
we peer into the woods as if into the cowshed of the world,
we spin lies and weave baskets for apples and pears,
we sleep while our muddy shoes
rot outside the door.

The year is like a thousand years ago,
we know nothing,
we know nothing about the end,
about submerged cities, about the stream in which horses
and men are drowning.

Thomas Bernhard, Under the Iron of the Moon

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Later, He Thought

This is the third post in perhaps a few where I intend to describe states of mind or mood, the first two here and here. I must mention this so charming response to what I previously wrote.

Later, after having being released from the strange grasp his mind had gripped him in, he thought how could love be called love if love could end. He realized he could not close that world down just by closing his eyes. She was still there with her long dark brown hair and her eyelashes wet. He had not dared to touch the impression she had left behind on the sofa, seeing in that confused pattern the fabric of her voice. He was struck by the decisive tide of some moments, of how an act of annihilation could also be an act of affirmation, for who knows how these things take shape in one's mind, a thing over which he had no control, as he had never understood it. What he found unsettling was the finality of spoken words, the abstract world of gestures, the unclear meaning of what had been spoken, the words still unformed, in thoughts, buried in places he could never see or name, for coming to an end also meant the beginning of something else.

He wanted desperately to see himself through her eyes, even if she had decided to close them. How could love be called love if it can be forgotten, he thought. Strangely, why had he never thought of that before? It was important to know how she left the room, when she left him. He wanted to see her thoughts and wanted her to see his sky, with its bright stars and the irritating moon, his nausea and his world through her, and simultaneously her world too, at the same time, together.

He did not want poetry but an answer, he sought her mind but not her heart, he wanted a concrete stone to rub his existence on, a certain light in a mist of words. It was absurd to live without knowing what she had felt, when she had gone down those stairs, without words, while he had leant out, staring at his sky. He wanted to see. Suddenly, yes, suddenly, he felt so alone.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Perhaps the whole art of Alain Resnais lies in inducing in the viewer a dulling of the senses, a hypnotic paralysis, a ease that disconcerts and creates a calm dread, stirrings in the mind, troubled thoughts and a feeling akin to the characters that grapple with similiar feelings on the screen. Hiroshima Mon Amour bears a few resemblances to Last Year In Marienbad but I thought that it is more accessible, nearer to the viewer and more possible in a strange way.

A french actress playing a nurse's role in a movie about peace falls in love with a Japanese man in Hiroshima and during the few hours they have together, she reminisces about an earlier love, when she was growing up in a town in France during the war. It seems that the actress, played by Emanuelle Riva and the Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) have fallen in love as they attempt to make sense of their present relation in the context of their past. The first image of the movie itself is a brilliant painting, a twisted collage of grappling limbs, skin festooned, covered with boils, disfigured and scarred, remains of a post nuclear nightmare, and then the skin regains its lustre, as we see a woman's hands caress and pierce a man's back, but nothing more, nothing less, only her voice, her sonorous rhythm, her voice as she speaks to this man, as she disagrees, as she tells him, "Everything, I know everything" and as he disagrees and says "Nothing, you know nothing".

Her aim is to "reconstruct and describe", since there is nothing else, as she deconstructs her love in war time France, with a German soldier, an enemy, her secret meetings, their discovery, his death, her shame. She remembers now, to remember everything, as she has never before, as she has forgotten, as she remembers again, her love, those days, meetings in barns, ruins and rooms, and now in Hiroshima, she remembers, the destruction of a city, its plunder, the ten thousand suns shining in the city, its total destruction, she remembers a beautiful day in Paris when Hiroshima burned. Thus we are witness to her memory as the couple grapple with each other, in passion and with words, as she longs and remembers, as he listens and suffers, in a strange fit of jealousy, he resents her earlier love, he wishes her dead in France, he wishes he never met her, and she, she says, "Take the glass, make me drink, I am beginning to forget you".

The effect that we witness, as Resnais' movies usually achieve, is to not see anything critically but be a part of that atmosphere, those emotions as our own memories peel away, like the skin of those dead and undead in Hiroshima. "You are killing me, you are good to me", she says to him, as we hear from her and also witness a confusion of the past into the present, unsure whether she is talking of her past or of the present, as Hiroshima merges into Nevers, image after image, the rivers, the people, the peaceful scenery of Nevers into the garish newly built Hiroshima, her German lover into the Japanese architect, her old self into the new. "One thinks one knows but one never does", she says. So what can we know? The confusion of the viewer is not the director's trick but a realistic expectation, for how can we really know what has happened to people we even claim to know? "In a few years, when I’ll have forgotten you ... I'll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this adventure as of the horror of oblivion".

Hiroshima Mon Amour may perhaps be a meditation on love or memory or desire, or the fragility of memories, acts of forgetting, conscious or unconscious, desire merging into memory, memory of a desire, a mixture of all these, a commingling of images, what came first, memory or this killing desire or whatever. "How good it is to be with somebody, sometimes", she says. And one knows exactly what it means, as we see the enigmatically beautiful Riva, fighting with herself, we see her melancholic eyes and remember her sad hands, her beautiful fingers, the intonation of her voice, the poetry of her words, its calm but killing effect, we see her remember, as she reminds us that all memory leads to forgetting, that Hiroshima too will be forgotten, like her lover was, like she had, and as the Japanese man had reminded her, "Nothing, you know nothing" of Hiroshima, on a beautiful day in Paris, when it burned.

This movie is generally regarded as a complete work of art and critics have grappled with it, some labelling it as the most important film in the post war era. That is a question for serious film critics. I see this movie as a lavish canvas of love, on which the desperately beautiful Riva weaves a magical image of burning desire and seething memory, against a sonorous background of hypnotic music, a poetic screenplay and melancholic images. One must watch all Resnais movies again and again, to fully realize the art of hypnosis and the unsettling fiction of memory. And life. Us.

Friday, January 11, 2008


To the pantheon of Pasolini's illustrious movies like Mamma Roma and Teorema, I am now adding Accattone, a movie that I hadn't watched till now, for in Accattone, all of Pasolini's poetic, philosophical, religious and social concerns find expression. Accattone is not just a movie, it is a statement, a work of cinema that celebrates protest without declining into rhetoric.

Vittorio, called Accattone, is a pimp who earns his living by exploiting Maddelena. In addition however, he supports a poor woman called Nannina and her kids, who live with him. Accattone has left his wife and son and is living the life of a no good person, by his own acknowledgement a cardboard man, a bum. However, Accattone's life turns for the worse when Maddelena goes to prison after being beaten by his cronies and Accattone finds himself begging and starving, as his only source of income is gone. He meets Stella, a sensitively beautiful girl, poor, innocent and hapless, to whom he admits his love. However, Accattone is not unwilling to pawn her too and bring her to the streets. Stella resists, Accattone feels rage at his own doings and decides to change and work. It is hard work for a man who hasn't worked ever and he decides to common robbery. In the end, fleeing from the law on a stolen bike, Accattone meets an accident and dies.

The prosaic summary above is only the skeleton around which Pasolini weaves his magical craftsmanship. I felt I was actually seeing the Weeping of the excavator, one of his great poems. This movie, centred around the borgates, slums and shanty towns, is the place where Pasolini found a fruition, an expression, a mark, a sentence that he could read, a sentence that could be read aloud, in a world immediately after the war, where bums roam in a tragic, sad, seedy, poor and very unromantic circumstances. This movie, based on Pasolini's own apprenticeship in the borgates and on his novel, A Violent Life has all the essentials that characterize his cinema.

But who is Accattone? We find in him a figure for whom we must desperately try to see a shade, an idea of grace. Yet, in a weirdly suspicious way, his face, his demeanour sets him apart from the hoods he hangs with, for there is a tragic air of fragility around Accattone, for he breaks down every time he breaks the established laws, even after stealing his son's chain. While he prostitutes Maddelena and coerces Stella into the same, we hanker after an image of some goodness in his heart, hoping he might turn, change, give up. But these are ignoble aims for the naive viewer, the passive reader, as this is a world at the edges where rage and passion have mixed into poverty and art.

The images in Accattone are the ones Pasolini writes about,

"bored marketplaces, down sad streets
near the river docks between shacks
and warehouses mixed with the last fields.........
stupendous miserable city, you taught me what joyful ferocious men
learn as kids,
the little things in which the greatness
of life is discovered in peace,
how to be tough and ready
in the confusion of the streets..........
to defend myself, to offend,
to have the world before my eyes.........
they are not brothers to me,
and yet they are true brothers, with passions of men who,
light-hearted, inconsistent,
live entire experiences unknown to me"........

It will not do to romanticize Accattone, but he is a romantic! This man, who doesn't think twice about stealing and begging rather than work, is a person who is destined to be a saint. He wants sainthood, he prays for it, he has a bizarre vision of his own burial, where he wants his grave in the sun, not shade, in a landscape of biblical intensity. When Stella confesses that her mother prostituted herself to bring her up, Vittorio says that she should make a monument to her. You are lucky, he tells Stella, not to know things. Accattone knows things, he has seen the world, he hangs around, trying to make spaghetti with starvation sauce. I am not suggesting that poverty is romantic, but with Pasolini, we are in the grip of a landscape that transformes the slums and shanties into a sacrosanct world, a mythic world of grace based on sordidness.

This sordid affair is not actually the doing of people like Accattone but exists in spite of all these bums, hanging and wasting outside their familiar haunts, in very similar conditions in different landscapes across cultures that are united by the poetry of poverty. The technical aspects of this movie show the future promise of his emerging craft and the background score, jazzy at times, is like a festering sword into myriad wounds. The Bach sequence is well known, as Accattone grapples and fights on a dusty street. Social protest on its own is not enough. One needs to delve into the causes, to seek out of the ordinary seediness of life a poetry that liquifies hovels and shanty existence into a modicum of grace. Hence the Bach, the black and white visions, religious symbols, acts of grace. We leave Accatone lying dead on the street and wonder what happened to the other bums, Stella and those shanty places. I am not sure but I think I know. Accattone is a tragic figure and Accattone is a tragedy.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Blessings Of Insomnia

The extract below is from E. M. Cioran's On the heights of despair. Recently, Antonia wrote about insomnia, calling it morning, so I thought this might soothe.

"Just as ecstacy purifies you of the particular and the contingent, leaving nothing except light and darkness, so insomnia kills off the multiplicity and diversity of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions. What strangely enchanted tunes gush forth during those sleepless nights! Their flowing tones are bewitching, but there is a note of regret in this melodic surge which keeps it short of ecstacy. What kind of regret? It is hard to say, because insomnia is so complex that one cannot tell what the loss is. Or maybe the loss is infinite. During wakeful nights, the presence of a single thought, or feeling, reigns supreme. It becomes the source of the night's mysterious music. Thus transformed, the thoughts of wakeful nights are mild enough to stir depths of universal anxiety in man's soul. Death itself, although still hideous, acquires in the night a sort of implacable transparency, an illusory and musical character. Nevertheless, the sadness of this universal night is like the sadness of oriental music, in which the mystery of death is more dominant than that of love".

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A State Of Mind

Last month, I attempted a short piece, wherein I wanted to depict a mood, a pose. What follows below is a continuation, another attempt to speak, to convey a state.

He kept on looking at the sky long after she was gone. However, he soon realized that he was not looking at anything. He was staring but not seeing anything. He felt like being stuck there and then quite suddenly bored. He was somehow acutely aware of his own existence. He turned his back to the window and his eyes caught the impression that she had left behind on the soft chair in the corner. He felt he could not remember her face, only her long dark brown hair, and her eyelashes, which strangely appeared wet. He felt distracted and looked around his room, at the read, half-read and unread books on the shelves. He took a step forward and automatically lit up a cigarette. He suddenly seemed distant from himself and from his surroundings. He went towards the framed mirror on the near wall and looked at himself. He had not changed. He saw his face and thought it might not be his. His actions appeared mechanical somehow. He was aware of his breathing and his heart beating. He went back towards the window and leant out again, at the sky. The stars were still there and the moon was shining bright, fleeing across bits of cloud. He thought he saw faces and strange patterns on them, an old woman's face, a crooked nose, a heart. He had a feeling as if time had stopped and he was being strangled. He felt estranged from everything. He was suddenly frightened, anxious. He desperately wanted to think of something but could not think of anything.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Lord Chandos Letter

The Lord Chandos letter is a fictional letter written by Philipp, Lord Chandos to the English philosopher Francis Bacon. Written by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, it is one of the few prose pieces that Hofmannsthal wrote before giving up writing. In its brevity, style and general concerns, this short piece of prose writing shines on its own, conveying in a few pages what ordinary writers might take volumes to do. I only read it last night in silent admiration.

Let us examine this letter. Lord chandos laments his laziness in writing to Bacon of late but says that he might not be the same person Bacon knew before, one capable of rhetoric but what use is rhetoric for "it is not equal to getting at the heart of things"; he remembers projects that he had envisaged, literary ones but now "they dance before me like miserable mosquitoes on a dim wall no longer illuminated by the bright sun of a happy time". He speaks about his efforts in understanding mythic and fairy tales, "his wanting to disappear into them and speak out of them with their tongues". Lord Chandos' plan was to assemble a book that would negate all books, a collection of wisdom and "aphorisms, reflections and intellectual baubles and call it Nosce te ipsum".

Lord Chandos has lived a life where "the mental world is not opposed to the physical", a life where solitude and barbarism balance each other. However this has only led to the present "faintheartedness", which he initially thought was a symbol, perhaps a prelude to a religious experience. And then Lord Chandos declares his "inability to think or speak coherently. In brief, this is my case".
Lord Chandos writes that he has "lost the ability to use words" and construct and convey abstract thoughts, which instead "disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms". Dreading conversation altogether, he stopped speaking, as "everything broke into pieces". To avoid all this, Lord Chandos sought the stoics, Seneca and Cicero, but he felt "terribly lonely in their company".

These experiences have however led Lord Chandos to see what was formerly not sought, the ordinary things of life, the ones taken for granted, "a watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard" and so on. These ordinary things "present a sublime and moving aura", and what he actually felt was "Carthage in flames". Insignificant creatures, small things, his own feelings, his harmony have allowed an insight into his relationship with all of existence, "a feeling that cannot be conveyed in rational language". This new joy will come from "a lonely shepherd's fire and not from contemplating a starry sky". Lord Chandos has discovered "a feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more fluid and passionate than words, leading to myself in some way, into the most profound peace".

What does the letter actually say? The most obvious one, an everyday one for ordinary mortals too, is the impossibility of conveying through words, the inner states of our experiences, the shifting sands, the hourly tidal movements in our minds. The most acute writer or the most sensitive minds even are unable to convey that which is inexpressible through speech. Conrad wrote that it is "impossible to convey the given life sensation of a single epoch of our existence....we live and we die alone". Thus words which mean a lot to us are mostly dry, bare of the actual meat of our innermost hearts.
This letter is usually seen as a symptom of literature sickness though that is an extreme generalization. Hoffmannsthal's letter is more than that. It is more reflective of a moral, a metaphysical crisis, an agonised cry at the loss of a previously loved object( I am not suggesting any classic psychoanalytic loss-object-love-hate complex), the loss is that of a moral rather than a physical symbol, the fragmentation and dissolution of life, lives, and for the comforting memory of former times which always seem better.

Hoffmannsthal was one of the Viennese intellectuals- Jung Wien- perhaps its most distinguished. This letter must be seen in light of the events that were unfolding in Vienna, the coming to the end of an empire, political and social changes, other tempests, soon to come mass concentration camps and war. Karl Kraus described those days as "the last days of the end of the world". This letter thus raises concerns that the most uncompromising intellect, like that of Kraus had already raised, a refusal to acknowledge a crisis stemming from change and an inability through language to speak about it. The other aspect was Hoffmansthal's whole enquiry whether art could exist for arts sake, for the aesthetic quality alone or whether any art form should be an instrument of social change. Without actually participating, expressing and then becoming a symbol of its times, any art form existing just for its own sake, in a vacant limbo, speaks of hypocrisy. This was the original critique that Kraus had shown of his contemporaries, which included the brilliant Hoffmansthal too.

Along with this letter, this collection has a few other prose pieces and they all express in a language that is extremely poetic, the concerns of this letter. There is an impending sense of doom, destruction and dissolution. Nothing concrete is expressed, no fears are clearly shown and yet, the atmospheric quality of his writing grips the reader in a mood of forlorn misgivings for within a few sentences, we expect breakdown, not only of language but of the inner mind. This is wonderfully captured in the Tale of the 672nd night, Tale of the veiled woman, The village in the mountains amongst others. One can clearly understand the influence of Hoffmansthal on the coming generation of Austrian writers, in particular Bernhard but without the latter's masochistic nihilism.

The fact that this letter was written after a crisis of language suggests that it was not a crisis of language but more a crisis of its meaning for the letter is simply brilliantly written.Lord Chandos' letter forces us to examine the deeper meanings of life......not just day to day psychological games or crimes of passion or artistic or political concerns but the heart of the matter, which is the concern of most metaphysical prisoners. However, what I want to know is why was the letter addressed to Francis Bacon?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Julia Kristeva's Possessions

Julia Kristeva is a professional psychoanalyst, critic and philosopher, and the combination can be irksome if the product is a novel. I was in the mood to read a tale of murder, detection, clues and suspects, so I picked Possessions. As a tale of detection, it falls flat on itself, but as a text of psychoanalysis and related themes, Kristeva's prose blends myth with poetry. In that sense, it is a find for me, but overall, my feelings are slightly mixed. Kristeva has coined the term semanalyse, a combination of semiotics and psychoanalysis, the former unknown as yet to me, the latter that mythic, faulty edifice, remnant of Greek myth and western logic, that haunts common imagination.

The setting is Santa Varvara, a place where east meets west, more east than west. I thought the flavour was her native Bulgaria, for there were open hints towards that. A murder has been committed and we have a headless body, a decapitation. The victim is a professional translator called Gloria, recently commissioned to translate Shakespeare's sonnets. Our detective cum journalist, Stephanie Delacour is visiting Santa Varvara and happens to have dined with the victim hours before alongwith a few close friends of Gloria's. Thus we have a few suspects, Christie style and Rilsky, the official detective is surely going to go on the wrong trail.Among her close friends is her disabled sons speech therapist, a journalist. her assistant and a few close friends and her maid has disappeared too! So while the official effort is towards finding the maid, Delacour is theorizing in a different way.

Thus begins a narrative in her Delacour's own head, as she talks about the melancholic severed head of John the Baptist to Caravaggio, "of Isaac, innocent as blue beard, shrieking in the grip of an Abraham deaf and blind to the finger of the Angel "to other paintings, as myth and psychoanalytic theories are woven together. Delacour then weaves a portrait of Gloria through herself, talking about Gloria's difficulties as a wife, then as a single mother, her dyslexic son, her attractive figure, her passions, and into this Delacour then speaks of her own place, as a woman, as a lover, of Santa Varvara, with intrigue, greed, murder as less risque possibilities. For the next hundred pages, detection is subservient to psycho -therapeutic theories, of her own dreams and nightmares" from where the mother doll disports herself, from a hiding place of negative orgies, clammy furies".

The first half of the novel is very readable, with Gloria unravelled through a text that flourishes with defense complexes and Freudian and Lacanian analyses. The murdered woman's head is thus a fetish and the immediacy is ignored and what we have is a hunt for some mentally ill patients, who have escaped from an institution. Thus Gloria's death is blamed on mismanagement of a psychiatric institute, and their management and on politicians and even the republic's president. There is also a feeling that maybe Gloria invited this decapitation. A failure of analysis or any therapy, in my opinion is the controlling nature of the therapist, for the assumption that there is a fault pattern in the patients thinking is the basis of any therapy. What is ignored is the mix of Greek myth and modern cognitive techniques and in their midst, a scientific discipline like psychiatry, a branch of medicine, is trammelled, dusted into oblivion.

"All passion is homosexual", Kristeva writes. There are other confident platitudes, which make no sense. "Devotion is a kind of devouring, if you can't rely on the person you love, don't rely on anyone and Self-denial is a delusion of grandeur disguising trauma". Thus we have trauma's, Delacour's, Gloria's, her son's, his speech therapist and so on. The decapitated head, an atrocious crime, is thus a clue to their childhood traumas, which are as unknown to us as to the main players. There is a bit of forensic pathology too, but Delacour's narration is woven with analysing not only speech but movement. Thus, as we hear alibis and testimonies and this........"His complexion has gone blotchy and red. Could he be sexually aroused?"

Regarding the style, Kristeva's text sometimes borders on the poetic and some passages blend raw concepts with lilting prose. This novel is, as I fathom, a psychoanalytic-philosophical text rather than a conventional tale, though it is written in the guise of a novel. There are many themes, mostly feminist, some politics, even the scare of missing nuclear materials ( to Iraq or Iran!), sexual jealousy, childhood fears, unadvised liaisons, inconsequential lusts, hidden motives, slips of tongue, euphemisms, clues mostly inside, all hidden. The relationship between Gloria and her son, between her son and her therapist, between Gloria and Delacour, Delacour and her paintings, to the official Rilsky and his love for Menuhin are the bases for further detective insights. when the murderer confesses to the killing but not to the decapitation, Delacour is not surprised but neither is the reader.

We do not find the head, though we chase serial killers, who are actually not killers for the act has been performed by one of the inner circle, which true to Poirot fashion, we knew. This is not a satisfying tale but a good text on the workings inside. To be fair, as a philosophical work, it actually is quite lucid, in a language that sometimes glistens with the pain of reaching out, the sweat of loss and the realization of an anxiety that is occasionally obedient to language. I intend to read more Kristeva and then form any opinion. Till then, I am willing to try find out about my own trauma's. To end, a passage that perhaps expresses what i felt is a contradiction within this work but an honest declaration too.

"Our access to what other people experience, whether they are men or women, living or dead, is bound to be fragmentary, limited to the vestiges they leave behind in colour, sounds or words. We cannot apprehend them unless we are lucky enough to be able to forget our own preoccupations, large or small, and to touch not another body, nor even another name hiding in - or outside ourselves, but a vibration that is usually unattainable and that no personal pronoun can convey".

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Fear Eats The Soul

I saw 2007 to the dregs with Fassbinder's Ali : Fear eats the soul and it was a very melancholic note to begin another day. Fassbinder occupies a distinct position in European cinema, and for those who have watched him perform in his movies and his interviews, his presence is a mix of intellectual fury and cinematic melancholy and symbolic shards are not his mien.

Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter in Germany, meets an middle aged woman Emmi in a bar. Out of pity and curiosity at her loneliness, he offers to dance with her which she accepts. Thus begins a friendship which quickly leads to love and marriage. However, Ali is not accepted by Emmi's grown up children and her neighbours. She is ridiculed and faces social ostracising, and in an attempt to escape this, the couple go on a holiday hoping that things will change. On returning back, things seem to change as Ali finds his old loneliness returning yet Emmi finds a positive change in her neighbours. Feeling like a showpiece when Emmi's friends see him at home, Ali returns to his old bar, gambles but eventually, their estranged marriage finds its way back home.

This movie is a unique one not just because of its theme or story but its treatment of those. It does not just mention things but cuts into the heart of things. We find two things at the outset.....a lonely guest worker and what he represents....a difficult low paid job in a hostile city, an immigration complex which feeds paranoia, a sense of not belonging to a new culture and a sense of duty towards the job at hand, to send money home. Ali is thus a lonely man and like other such people, he immediately senses the aura of desperate loneliness around Emmi. Emmi lives alone, her children are married, her husband is dead and she remembers belonging to the Nazi party, as every one did. She lives the life of lower class sensibility, which is at least less conformist than bourgeois affectation. For Ali's advances find her breaking her silence and isolation, for no one talks to her.

Thus both individuals are similar though different apparently. Ali is the foreigner, not so black but an outsider still while Emmi is now an outsider because she knows him and has married him. However, the bar owner, with whom Ali occasionally sleeps is not pointed at because that relation is covered with the film of respectable hypocrisy. Emmi senses Ali's isolation in a genuine effort of finding a person to love, to surmount her isolation. Maybe Emmi's love is not really so, only a response to her silence but then what is love? Emmi does not know how to make couscous and reminds Ali of adapting to life in Germany which estranges them temporarily till they rediscover their love. Thus both know their differences as well as their affinities for these reveal to themselves as they live them.

Fassbinder's unique success lies in allowing his characters and situations develop into significant questions, into the workings of psychology, the inner changing needs where hypocrisy and selfishness feed paranoia and racism. Fassbinder, unlike other European directors who have skirted with similar themes does not play or flirt with ideas but pores deep into raging fires. The product is a movie of intense humanity and angry underpinnings yet all balanced with the unique orange glows of the bar where Ali and Emmi meet. Emmi, played by Brigitte Mira is easily a winner, for she brings a deep humanity and a sense of expectation to her role. Ali, played by El hadi Ben Salem, Fassbinder's partner is equally well done. There is also a silent melancholy at work here, with the orange bar, the bar-owners spent, exhausted sultriness and the melancholic wails of an Arabic song setting the tone. Throughout the movie, one senses a precarious togetherness between Ali and Emmi, for they are under siege, surrounded by an urban pessimism, Ali's foreignness, Emmi's colour and age, social prejudice, inherent bias, desperate loves, and on their very lives hangs a sword, a German master Arab dog world as Ali sees it.

Think much, cry much, says Ali and that reflects the immigrant position, for he is resigned to be unhappy, for happiness is not always fun. Emmi understands that Ali is younger than him and is ready to allow indiscreet relations too. Ali's bar friends, Germans themselves, do not wince at Ali and Emmi as much as the others do, for they seem less shocked at this union. This position does look strange but shows a movement within the circles, a degree of Ali's acceptability. Recurrent stress ulcers, Emmi is reminded at a hospital where Ali is being treated, is the fate of guest workers, them. But Emmi is resolved that Ali will not suffer a similar fate. Fassbinder ends the movie on a positive note though his and the world in general is surrounded by darkness.
In Europe now, Arab immigrants in particular and immigrants generally are the outsiders, foreign, opposing established social and environmental European values. One can ask questions and like this one, in 1975, a critique of some mores can produce solutions. Without blaming anyone, one can see Europe approaching the earlier climate of antisemitism, which only some decades ago led to annihilation and war. This is not a paranoid assertion but recognition of a unique fear, which eats the soul.