Pictures of Sun Ra often suggest chaotic hybridity: priestly futuristic costumes and sets, ancient Egypt and the planet Saturn forming a palimpsest of past and future utopias. His sound synthesized big band, swing, hard bop, reggae, Afropop, electronic music, and Walt Disney musicals. His references—expressed in his lyrics, poetry, and pamphlets—showcased this eclecticism too: Kabbalah, gnosticism, freemasonry, pan-Africanism, Zen. When he taught a course at the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, his syllabus included The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky, the nineteenth-century Russian medium; Henry Dumas, a brilliant poet gunned down by New York City Transit Police in 1968. He often cited George G.M. James’s Stolen Legacy (1954), which claimed that Greek philosophy had filched its ideas from Egyptian mythology.
In Sun Ra’s various writings and interviews, he always maintained that there was a metaphysical basis for what he called his “equations”: non sequitur chains of koans and runes, of numerology and etymology. He had a bit of the guru’s antiphony of the individual and the collective to him. Sun Ra was always gathering disciples, yet set himself apart from them. His biographer, John F. Szwed, quotes Sun Ra as saying, “I know what they’re talking about, but they don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m in the midst of what they’re doing but they’ve never been in the midst of what has been impressed upon my mind.” He was lone wolf and lupine leader, Anubis presiding over the vast nothing of the black world, the underworld, and outer space.
A person suffering from depression does not choose “how” to be depressed. The feeling simply comes in like a tide, washing your vision with a filter that renders everything you see not quite clear — Styron’s locked room again. But once you have lived with depression, one indeed has to choose “how” to live it. Scialabba chose a particular path, selecting relatively routine jobs and maintaining his literary life. Regular teaching or academic scholarship was, it seems, too much.
The book ends with Scialabba’s own advice for depressives. In contrast to the political and economic themes set forth in the earlier sections and the clinical diagnoses of the documentia, this last chapter is personal, with deeply compassionate advice both to the suffering and those who live with and care for them. Friends, food, water, rest, exercise, caregivers, and reading are ways to take control, and if all else seems lost, remember what he calls a truth “close to a scientific certainty; depressions virtually always end.”
Ever since Walter Benjamin observed, in the epilogue to his much-cited 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that the logic of fascism was toward “the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” Western artists have gravitated toward one of two paths. Many leftwing artists, suspicious not only of the aestheticization of politics but of any emotional appeal not immediately assimilable to their political purposes, have taken part in a counterattack that culminates, as Benjamin predicted it would, in the full “politicization of art”—that is, the reduction of art to agitprop. Liberals and many conservative writers have, on the other hand, predominantly done as Knausgaard recommended and tried to sequester aesthetics within the artistic sphere, even there taking care not to let things get out of hand.
An appreciation of the full spiritual force of movements like Nazism might encourage us to countenance a third alternative, one that acknowledged the centrality of symbolism and emotion to political life, and deployed them against the eroticized collectivism that is so evident in Riefenstahl’s film. This aesthetics would honor the triumph, we might say, not of the collective will, that threatening “we,” but of the individual conscience.
Midway through A Hidden Life is an arresting tableau: Hitler, again in grainy film footage, appears in uniform, playing with a little boy on the viewing deck of his retreat in the Bavarian mountains, the sun glittering off the mountainside behind him. The interlude—beautiful but haunting (haunting because beautiful)—underscores, just as the film’s opening does, the aesthetic and emotional appeal of the Nazi project. Malick does not shrink from this appeal, but neither does he allow it to shrink his own ambition as an artist. In a film that begins with Riefenstahl’s footage, the very worst that can ensue from the politicization of such ambitions is in full view. But A Hidden Life rather than being intimidated into modesty by fascist art, presents a countervailing utopia to the völkisch collectivist one, holding out the prospect of a different kind of “escape from the self.”
It is not incidental to Franz’s story that, for him, religion is still an open door. Christianity provides both the substance and the inspiration for the orienting world “beyond” politics in A Hidden Life. Of course, as the film depicts, plenty of churchgoing Christians were among Nazism’s most enthusiastic supporters. And conversely, the aesthetic power of Malick’s late films, even as they have grown more explicitly Christian in their imagery and message, is perfectly accessible to many of us who are not Christians. Christianity, in these films, is one among many educators of the moral sentiments, one among many reminders that ethical action is not dependent on “historical and political insight” and often will remain unmoved by it. Art can be another such educator.
That Tommaso verbalizes his own anxieties so plainly in these meetings helps us better comprehend his mania, his see-sawing between utter collapse and calm self-awareness. And yet Ferrara constructs the film itself as something of a Möbius strip, with no real signifiers of where Tommaso’s travails begin or where (or if) they might end. “Please, I need you,” Tommaso cries to wife and daughter in a genuine admission of need and love—yet what are we supposed to make of the fact that it happens as he’s chasing them down the street while wielding a broken floor lamp? Maybe Tommaso’s final dream, and the film’s closing scene, offers a clue: this moving tableau, something of a brief passion play held outside the Rome airport, recalls Dafoe’s performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, while hitting a level of spirituality that’s not uncommon in Ferrara’s work. It’s a signature image, revealing the director’s ability to blend cinematic, religious, and personal history into gratifyingly challenging art.
In their most successful works, artists like Wallace and Kaufman reassured their audiences that earnest emotion remained possible, even at the end of history. That these artists used so many postmodern techniques in the first place, however, testified to their sense that sincerity in an age of irony was no simple matter. In Kaufman’s triumvirate of early-career masterpieces—“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” from 2004—sincerity tended to come only after a harrowing journey into the back channels of the self. Famously, in “Being John Malkovich,” the actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich) dives into the supernatural “portal” that others have been using to tunnel into his brain and finds himself in a restaurant where the waiters, lounge singers, and even his own date all share his face and speak only one word: “Malkovich.” The scene is a terrifying depiction of the solipsistic imagination, and the viewer shares Malkovich’s relief when he is expelled from it. Later in the film, in another dazzling sequence, the two female leads, played by Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, chase each other through Malkovich’s subconscious, which appears as a parade of shameful childhood memories. In one, he stands at the foot of his parents’ bed while they have cartoonishly enthusiastic intercourse; in another, he is taunted by a bus full of schoolboys as urine dribbles onto his shoes.
This turns out to be a test run for my favorite sequence in any Kaufman film, which comes midway through “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel (Jim Carrey), having paid a company to “erase” his memory of his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) while he sleeps, changes his mind during the procedure. Trying to escape the company’s technicians, he drags Clementine off the “map” of their shared history and back to his childhood, where he hopes the erasers cannot follow. There we see Joel—still played by the adult Carrey—getting his arm twisted behind his back by some bullies in the park, hiding under his kitchen table, and almost being caught masturbating in his room by his mother. Eventually, the technicians bring Joel and Clementine back onto the map, the worlds of Joel’s childhood collapse like houses of cards, and the couple find themselves on the beach in Montauk, at the barbecue where they first met. “What do we do?” Clementine asks, knowing that the memory erasers will come for this, too. “Enjoy it,” Joel says.
Among other things, such scenes reveal something about Kaufman’s picture of the self. Inside each one of us, it seems, there is a reel of images running on loop. The loop contains our happiest moments and our saddest ones, and some negatives that are so shameful we can hardly bear to look. Typically, Kaufman’s characters are haunted by their most painful memories, which is what causes them to seek an escape from the “curse” of consciousness, as the beleaguered puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) calls it in “Being John Malkovich.” But, as Joel and Clementine learn in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” what is really accursed about consciousness is that the strip cannot be snipped: our painful memories are an indissoluble element in the same film as the happy ones.
In their wiser moments—as at the end of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Joel and Clementine decide to give their relationship another try, even knowing the disappointments in store—Kaufman’s characters come to understand their pain as a condition of self-expression: they emerge from the maze of the inner self intact and, at least for the moment, capable of genuine feeling. But a more unsettling possibility runs in parallel through the films, a band of unease about the porousness of self and other, past and present, real and imaginary. In “Being John Malkovich” and in Kaufman’s directorial début, in 2008, “Synecdoche, New York”—which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a death-obsessed director who embarks on a massive theatre project about his own life—what constitutes the “real” world is inflected and sometimes overwhelmed by the protagonist’s inner reel. In the animated film “Anomalisa,” which Kaufman co-directed with Duke Johnson, in 2015, Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru on a business trip to Cincinnati, suffers from an inability to hear the voices of others as anything but a grating echo of his own. Briefly released from his condition by a woman he meets in his hotel, then cruelly returned to it, he appears to us as a cautionary tale: not everyone who journeys into the depths of the self is able to find the way back.
One might expect to encounter in such a deeply philosophical work ruminations on the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq War, or of war itself. But that is not Beauchamp’s focus and probably never will be. From the hints he gives, one gets the sense that his feelings are mixed. But that is the terrain of another sort of writer. Beauchamp is less concerned with the questions of why we fight and whether we should—perhaps understanding that these are unanswerable—and more with how fighting teaches us something about how to live. This is a subject of surprisingly widespread relevance, and Did You Kill Anyone? is a sophisticated and soulful exploration of it from a writer who I suspect will be worth listening to for many years to come.
The popular twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper shared much in common with his fellow countryman Ernst Jünger: both served in World War I, though in different capacities; both became successful men of letters who wrote widely and voluminously for decades; both wrote popular philosophical discourses while eschewing many of the stultifying trappings of what Schopenhauer disparagingly referred to as “university professors” (though to be sure Pieper enjoyed a successful academic career as a professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Münster from 1950 to 1976); and both, for a time, were preoccupied with Jünger’s prognosis of a near-future in which the nineteenth-century concept of the bourgeois individual would be supplanted by the worker, who, neither individual nor mass man, would be the central figure in a technocratic society devoted to total work or mobilization. Although immensely critical of Jünger’s position regarding “the gradual metamorphosis of humanity into a ‘worldwide army of workers,’” Pieper nonetheless regarded that vision as sufficiently close to an emerging post–World War I reality as to represent a real and pressing exigence to the European tradition of liberality and freedom and, more generally, to an undiminished humanity that views the world as an integrative but non-functionalized whole.
Over against this process of transformation, through which perpetual, allencompassing movement comes to realize the progressive idealization of modernity, Pieper reasserts—rather unfashionably—the classical priority of leisure over work. In one of his most well-known works of cultural criticism, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), he employs a traditional metaphysics to promote what he considers genuine forms of human leisure—that is, leisure conceived not as mere free time or amusement, much less a restorative break between two work shifts, but as “a mental and spiritual attitude . . . an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul,” one consisting of inward calm, contemplative celebration, and an openness to suprahuman, life-giving forces.
The idea that a person’s relationship to the written word cannot be well understood as either “work” or “pleasure” seems destined to elude the bourgeois consciousness. But why? Minima Moralia 2.84 suggests one explanation:
'Work while you work, play while you play—this is a basic rule of repressive self-discipline. The parents for whom it was a matter of prestige that their children should bring home good reports, were the least disposed to let them read too long in the evening, or make what they took to be any kind of intellectual over-exertion. Through their folly spoke the genius of their class. '
The regime of “repressive self-discipline” is inculcated by the enforcement of strong boundaries between work and play, beginning in early childhood. Reading that slips the bonds of work and takes on the character of play is held as suspect. As the children grow older, such parents will try to direct their academic endeavors into channels that will “equip them for success” or make them “ready for their future” or whatever else occurs to marketing departments within the modern consumerist university.
Auerbach seems to imply that the Greeks supposed a subject can be exhausted by its surface expression. I think the fact that generations of storytellers passing along the tale which Homer eventually wrote down took the time to digress into a woman’s memory of another person’s childhood experience itself implies a sophisticated knowledge of the occluded depths which might be required to sustain the surface of things. What is the feel of the scar if not a rudimentary sort of anamnesis? And what is anamnesis if not a recognition of our participation in truth’s incarnation?
David Jones, painter, engraver, and writer, worked with as much self-conscious awareness as any other twentieth century author of how literary distortions of time can act as occasions of anamnesis. His written works, much like his later watercolors, lay various moments in time and space bunched up together along the same coordinates.
A mountain seen through a window and a teacup sitting on the table rub against one another. An English soldier in the trenches is simultaneously a Roman soldier in ancient Wales as well as Jack O’ The Green, wearing twigs and leaves as camouflage. The Battle of Mametz Wood is looked over and commented upon by Merlin. In sacrificing an anodyne perspective, Jones achieves, very much like Eliot, suggestions of a deeper wholeness beyond but nevertheless binding our experience of spatial and temporal order.
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