Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nostalgia for Texture, 4

Third attempt at theory.

Back to the problem of nylons. – Nostalgia for texture is fundamentally erotic. It’s driven by a desire for tactility, a desire to touch something that can no longer be touched; its peculiar paradox seems to be the construction of simulacra of touching precisely via the medium felt to prevent the touching. The lost object (or the object felt to be lost) is, I think, The Breast.

If I’m going to capitalize that, I suppose I shall need a theory to take things further; but which? My best guess is Lacan, but I’ve never been able to stand him long enough to understand him. There’s Piaget’s distinction between the sucked breast and the seen breast – as far as I understand it, the point here (as with Lacan?) is that human individuation occurs concurrently with a transition from an infantile feeling of physical identity with the mother (of which the breast is, or becomes, a metonym) to a sense of non-identity confirmed by the distancing quality of sight – but although I like this distinction as a heuristic, I don’t know Piaget’s theory (or his rep) well enough to follow it through to further theoretical consequences. In a bit, I’ll see what I can do with Alois Riegl’s distinction of haptic from optic styles in art… From this much alone, though, it’s clear that nostalgia for texture is psychologically regressive, involving a fantasy of identity with (or in) an object of desire perceived as lost in a transition to exile; Eden again. Where then has technological change been conceived as an expulsion from the garden? Prometheus, probably; which brings me to Goethe’s Faust in his study.

A few paragraphs from the same as-yet-incomplete elsewhere as before:

The Faust legend has been a means of expressing anxiety about sexuality since its conflation, by 1587, with the legend of Cyprian of Antioch, whose use of the Devil’s help to win his pious beloved Justina seems to have introduced the Helena theme to the scholar’s tragedy.[1] Characterizing the Faust legend as “l’expression la plus parfaite de la Réforme,” in which we see accumulated many of its ideological traits – “la censure de l’imaginaire, la culpabilité intrinsèque de la nature et de son instrument principal: la femme,” Ioan Couliano observes, for one, the degree to which such anxiety is registered culturally, in Reformation Europe, by a trend in fashion to hide and flatten Nature’s favored metonym, the female breast; and, for another, by a surge of ambivalent interest in magic; a combination that would inform the European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2] Jane Brown identifies the same fashion trend in late sixteenth-century paintings of women, connecting it not with magic but with anxieties produced by the process of secularization as it affected the problem of representation.[3] But secularization and early modern thinking on magic are linked phenomena, and if the one informs what Brown calls “the persistence of allegory” in later literature, so does the other.[4]

The first study scene (“Nacht”) of Goethe’s Faust expresses related concerns, using similar tropes. “Welch Schauspiel! aber ach! ein Schauspiel nur!” Faust declaims in frustration, having sought direct contact with Nature in signs – in this case, a printed sign, in a book, of the Macrocosm. “Wo faß ich dich, unendliche Natur?/ Euch Brüste, wo? Ihr Quellen alles Lebens, /An denen Himmel und Erde hängt,/ Dahin die welke Brust sich drängt – / Ihr quellt, ihr tränkt, und schmacht ich so vergebens?” Oddly, Faust has just turned to books, directly following (indeed, as if in answer to) a violent rejection of them: “Weh! steck ich in dem Kerker noch? Verfluchtes, dumpfes Mauerloch! Wo selbst das liebe Himmelslicht/ Trüb durch gemalte Scheiben bricht” – this an image of media generally – “Beschränkt mit diesem Bücherhauf,/ Den Würme nagen, Staub bedeckt,/ […] Das ist deine Welt! Das heißt eine Welt!” Just as Goethe’s Werther, rejecting an early offer to have his books sent to him, can protest, paradoxically, that his heart “doch genug aus sich selbst [braust],” then declare: “Ich brauche Wiegengesang, und den habe ich in Fülle gefunden in meinem Homer”;[5] and just as Werther, later, can soothe a soul troubled by social rejection with a carriage ride out to a sunset accompanied by Wetstein’s Homer,[6] so also does Faust find himself looking to printed signs in the very act of seeking to escape them.


This would be another example of the paradox that has nostalgia seeking fulfillment in simulacra of (sensual) experience produced by the very technologies perceived to be blocking access to such experience.

To continue.

Marlowe’s Faustus, too, has a problem with text: “I’ll burn my books!”[7] This, his last-ditch effort to avoid hell, ends a final monologue whose central theme is not books, but what seems a problem of individuation. This Faust, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven”; he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy,/ For when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found.”[8] The extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism; precisely, Faustus’s loneliness.[9] “He is not well with being over-solitary,” observes one of his students. The comment applies to both Fausts, Marlowe's and Goethe's. The connection, for both, of such loneliness with the problem of books is characteristic generally of German (perhaps European) reactions to media revolutions at two (or, perhaps, four) distinct points in history. One of these – Marlowe’s context and that of the Faust legend’s origins – is the sixteenth-century print revolution, occasioned by the invention of movable type around 1450 and greatly accelerated by Humanist scholarship and the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, in the 1520s and after. Another is the last third of the eighteenth century, the moment in which the German Mittelstand – Werther’s class – began to define itself as such, above all by construing itself as a reading (and book-buying and -publishing) public. In both eras, the positive value of printed texts as a medium of social and individual self-construction trailed a shadow in anxieties about the downside, the dangers of alienation in printing and reading.

From another sketch I wrote recently.

By the end of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe no longer needs the Good and Bad Angels of the morality tradition: they have changed fully from theological exteriorizations of conscience to moments of inward psychology, voices in Faustus’s head. What these voices enunciate is a terror of selfhood, of radical individuation; and what Faustus answers them with is a fantasy of dissolution, of de-individuation. If here selfhood is coded in terms of ethical conflict with God the Father, dissolution is cast as a flight from the angry father into the womb of Nature, the primal mother. Faustus, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven” (V.ii.86-90); he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy, for when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements,/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.103-105, 111-112). To repeat: the extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism.[10] The phantasmatic retreat to a state of non-differentiation in nature, coded female – with which the German romantics, too, answered their sense of the “fragmentary” quality of modern culture, which they blamed partly on Protestantism – is here articulated specifically in terms of a series of bodily fluids: implicitly, blood and tears; explicitly, milk and saliva. The aporia of Calvinist predestination is phrased in terms of a choice between bloods: Faustus’s own, used to seal the pact with the Devil, and Christ’s which could redeem him. This choice between bloods cannot be resolved without aid of tears: “Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears,/ Tears falling from repentant heaviness/ Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness” (V.i.39-41). Tears, a sign of repentance at an emotional level (not just the volitional, as are both bloods) are not forthcoming; in his desperation, unaided by tears, Faustus turns first to a vaporization of blood in what is implicitly the Milky Way: “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!/ One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!” (V.ii.74-75) and finally to images of integration into the natural water cycle: “O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.111-112). Between these two fantasies of escape, we see Faustus distracted – seduced – by the saliva of a succubus, of womanhood marked as false, whorish, demonic: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. [They kiss.]/ Her lips sucks forth my soul. See, where it flies!” (V.i.92-93) Tears and milk are the answer; blood and saliva are not. The difference seems one between a regression to primal unity – psychologically, the preverbal oneness of mother and child, so often imagined as a return to Nature (as Isis, she of the many breasts)[11] – and the problematic entrapment in the guilts of family (blood) and sexuality (saliva, etc.)[12] attendant on the development to individuated selfhood. “O, would that I had never seen Württemberg, never read book!” (V.ii.19-20). This recalls Nietzsche, quoting Silenus, companion of Dionysus: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.”[13] The problem, however, is not being born. It’s what comes after: the fall into language (“I’ll burn my books!”) and hence into selfhood and the Oedipal “law of the father” (Freud). From here (so it seems to Faustus), there is no way back to the mother, to the breast, to Nature, to Paradise.

Final reflection.

I suppose that it’s no coincidence that Condillac’s ideal armature for the sensations was a (statue of a) nude woman, or that in Pygmalion Rousseau’s Galatea convinces herself of her individual selfhood by an act of touch:

Galathée se touche, et dit :


Pygmalion, transporté


Galathée se touchant encore

C'est moi.


Ravissante illusion qui passes jusqu'à mes oreilles, ah ! n'abandonne jamais mes sens.

Galathée fait quelques pas et touche un marbre

Ce n'est plus moi.

(Pygmalion, dans une agitation, dans des transports qu'il a peine à contenir, suit tous ses mouvements, l'écoute, l'observe avec une avide attention qui lui permet à peine de respirer. Galathée s'avance vers lui et le regarde ; il se lève précipitamment, lui tend les bras, et la regarde avec extase. Elle pose une main sur lui ; il tressaille, prend cette main, la porte à son coeur, et la couvre d'ardents baisers.)

Galathée, avec un soupir.

Ah ! encore moi.

Rousseau’s fantasy, typically, resolves the non-identity involved in individuation with an identity recovered in erotic love for one’s own work of art; a Narcissist’s move that, equally typically, Goethe came to deplore. Why? (This will take some explaining, but it's a key point.) In any case, such regression, although Goethe felt it (see Werther) was not for him (see Werther). It’s not for me either, though the pull is strong…

In this context, it might be worth finding out how often early filmmakers used the conceit of the living statue; there are three examples in the Austrian Film Archive’s collection of early pornography Saturn, Filme 1906-1910: Die erotischen Anfänge der österreichischen Kinematografie, but I expect there’d have been many more. I must ask Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek… Hauke Lange-Fuchs counts 160 silent Faust films between 1890 (a Zoopraxinoscope series) and 1933 (Faust im Film, 28-30). Méliès alone seems to have made five or six.

[1] That is, if one doesn’t include the accusations of sodomy levelled against the historical Faust in 1507 and 1532. Bates I and VI. On Faust & Cyprian see Ioan Peter Couliano, Éros et magie à la renaissance 1484 (Paris: Flammarion, 1984), 282-291. Note Aby Warburg’s inclusion of the “Raub der Helena” theme in his Mnemosyne-Atlas, as an “Antike Vorprägung” of the ninfa fiorentina (WIA, Kasten 12; Mnemosyne-Atlas, Tafeln 24.8, 33.63, 33.9, 35.2, 35.5, 35.72, 35.81, 35.92, 37.19, 37.20, 3.23, 37.24, 38.92) and hence as a Pathosformel for anxiety about women and the dangers they signify. See also Ernst Gombrich, Roberto Calasso & Ulrich Raulff on the ninfa.

[2] Ioan Couliano, Éros et magie à la Renaissance, 282-291. On connections of anxieties about breastfeeding with accusations of witchcraft in the early modern period, see Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995), 18, 52, 66, 72-73, 156.

[3] Jane K. Brown, The Persistence of Allegory, 9. See also Hans Blumenberg, “Weltverlust und demiurgische Selbstbestimmung,” Säkularisierung und Selbstbehauptung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), 158-166.

[4] Recent work on Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926) – in parts, a reworking of the Faust theme – has made clear the extent to which anxieties about media change and the slippage of signs remain linked with gender anxieties in the cinema’s early years, while tending (in Lang) to allegory. See especially Tom Gunning’s chapter on Metropolis in The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: British Film Institute, 2000), and Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autumn 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[5] Werther, Erstes Buch, Brief des 13. Mai

[6] Werther, Zweites Buch, Brief des 15. März; see Hans Rudolf Vaget, Dilettantismus und Meisterschaft. Zum Problem des Dilettantismus bei Goethe: Praxis, Theorie, Zeitkritik (Munich: Winkler, 1971), 51.

[7] “Am Ende plant er, wie jeder schwarze oder weiße literarische Magier der Renaissance einschließlich Faustus, seine Bücher zu zerstören.” Jane K. Brown, Ironie und Objektivität 108.

[8] Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, A-text, act 5.

[9] Max Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104; Pauline Honderich, “John Calvin and Doctor Faustus,” The Modern Language Review 68.1 (Jan., 1973), 1-13

[10] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104

[11] See Pierre Hadot, Le Voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).

[12] Note to self: There might be more to do here with the psychoanalysis of succubi. See Ernest Jones, “Incubus and Incubation,” On the Nightmare (London: International Psycho-Analytic Society/Hogarth Press, 1951), 82-97.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 42.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nostalgia for Texture, 3

All sorts of things, kind of mixed up

It seems that my problem goes further back than I thought. I found this passage from Plato’s Phaedrus on the last page of Tom Gunning’s excellent book on Fritz Lang:

Socrates. At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Phaedrus 274b-277a, Jowett trans.]

Perhaps this explains an ambivalence I’ve often had about taking snapshots while travelling: I find not only that I tend to remember best the things I take photos of, but also that I forget everything else; if I don’t take pictures, I have equally hazy access to everything, but more access overall. The photos I’m probably most ambivalent about are the ones I had my friend Eric take of me burying my father, in 2006. I felt odd at the time about asking him to take them: is it right to photograph a funeral? – On the one hand, why not? On the other, my sense that there’s some taboo here suggests there’s a reason why not… In any case, I regret it. Now, when I see myself burying my father, I see myself from behind, and I have to struggle to recall what I saw with my eyes. More: I can’t seem to bring myself to look at those pictures; not because they remind me of my father’s death, but because they intensify my feeling of loss by making me feel that beyond losing him, my bad call on documenting his funeral made me lose memories of him. – Yet I can’t bring myself to erase them.

Of course, moving through places with a camera can be a way of seeing them better. This is how I spent my week in Japan, which I wanted really to see (Kinoglaz):

Walter Benjamin has a nice passage on what I think must be the same subject, in his essay on motifs in Baudelaire (though he’s thinking of Proust, with help from Bergson and Freud and Theodor Reik): “’The function of memory [Gedächtnis],’ Reik writes, ‘is to protect our impressions; reminiscence [Erinnerung] aims at their dissolution. Memory is essentially conservative; reminiscence, destructive.’ Freud’s fundamental thought, on which these remarks are based, is the assumption that ‘emerging consciousness takes the place of a memory trace.’ Therefore, ‘it would be the special characteristic of consciousness that, unlike what happens in all other systems of the psyche, the excitatory process does not leave behind a permanent change in its elements, but expires, as it were, in the phenomenon of becoming conscious.’ The basic formula of this hypothesis is that ‘becoming conscious and leaving behind a memory trace are incompatible processes within one and the same system.’ Rather, vestiges of memory are “often most powerful and enduring when the incident which left them behind was one that never entered consciousness” [Benjamin, Selected Writings, 1938-1940, 317]. To return to my photographs: I’m reminded how much it bothered me when once I overheard someone exclaim of a glorious sunset out a train window: “That would make such a lovely postcard!”

(The train window as archetype of the cinematic frame: Schivelbusch, Gunning, Kirby.)

NB: A cliché -- that's the French word for photograph -- is dead language.

My father collected porcelain and ancient ceramics – vases, terracottas – among many other things. Massively, compulsively. When I inherited his collection, I tried to understand why. I knew that he’d been obsessed with the thought of death all his life, since nearly dying of illness as a child; a large part of what he’d collected had been terracotta figurines of Harpocrates, the Graeco-Egyptian child Horus, protector of children. I imagine all this was a metonym, for him, of the triumph of life over death. Death is entropy threatening form: the form we call life, and the forms we give life, which we sometimes call beauty. Beauty is specially fragile in flesh and in clay. What better symbol of triumph than the two-foot intact terracotta Venus from third-century Asia Minor that I now have on my shelf? – After he died, things broke. My cats attacked the katchinas, thinking them birds, and one of them knocked over the signed Chaim Gross. One brilliant porcelain figurine lost a finger, and one of the two iridescent glass candlesticks shattered. The dishwasher leached color from the Deco juice glasses, and a housecleaner snapped the Jugendstil flower plate from its ill-advised spring holder on the wall. Glasses, plates, mugs seemed to perish at more than their usual rate. At one point I had the idea of filling a large square glass cube with the pieces and shards and calling it “Everything That Has Broken Since My Father Died,” but I’d already thrown out too much. The collection could never become complete: I couldn’t make a new wholeness out of the shards, and it was my fault. (At least it was my fault: a sense of guilt can reframe even chaos as one’s own creation. Perhaps this description already does the trick.)

What’s death got to do with it? It would take more than I’ve got at present to properly put together the Phaedrus-love-death-beauty-Gustav von Aschenbach chain…but I’m thinking maybe I should, for that’s probably where the logic is. Perhaps I’ll turn for the moment instead to Noël Burch’s argument (made with help from Baudrillard’s L’échange symbolique et la mort and Bazin’s essay on the ontology of the photographic image) that at the heart of the realist representational practices codified around 1910 in classical narrative cinema there lies a systematic denial of mortality, the fulfillment, in media practice, of what Burch calls the “great Frankensteinian dream of the nineteenth century: the recreation of life, the symbolic triumph over death” [Life to those Shadows, 12]. Which brings me back to Gunning, who, citing Burch a page before Plato, concludes: “Rather than denying death through a simulacrum of life, cinema as a historical machine at its best allows us to mourn life and time’s passing, experiencing again that evanescent beauty which Baudelaire saw as the particular domain of the modern arts. Lang understood that every image of life includes the spectre of death” [The Films of Fritz Lang, 479]. – A good conclusion, but not my conclusion: I need to go further.

When I get depressed, I find I can’t finish sentences: my mind fogs over and loses the thread, I forget how the thoughts hang together, I can't handle syntax, the words feel dull and senseless, the phrases not mine, none of it worth the breath, the breath not worth it either. On the other hand, my writing style, when things are working, tends to the baroque, or at least the Tacitean-Germanic, parentheses, carefully borrowed rhythms, Chinese-box sentences, prepositional spatialities matched to metaphors and etymologies, punctuation in place, a perfect machine, everything works, I make sure it works. – Playing chicken with entropy, that’s how it seems to me: and I mean to win. If I can still form such sentences, then I have won over – what? Depression, entropy, death. They’re all the same, of course: melancholia (Freud) a death-wish turned inward. – I wonder: Could this explain certain styles, as Benjamin thought asthma explained Proust’s? Thomas Bernhard’s, W.G. Sebald’s, Robert Burton’s, Sir Thomas Browne’s, Benjamin’s maybe too? (I should ask Sheherazade.)

Re: Burton, I have to admit, we also see eye-to-eye on the matter of footnotes. (This has been held against me.) The more you can tether your words to reality, the more you can take it with you…

“Das hat geheiße, Mensch sei natürlich, du bist geschaffe Staub, Sand, Dreck. Willst du mehr sein als Staub, Sand, Dreck?” (Woyzeck, Sc. 3)

Then there’s the way Dziga Vertov suddenly freezes the moving image in The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). What he stops is a sequence in which the cameraman films a party of well-dressed people in a horse-drawn carriage: the horse freezes in mid-air. Although there’s a later horse-freeze that strikes me as a nod to Edweard Muybridge, this one is creepy, a creepiness heightened by what the Alloy Orchestra does in their soundtrack, an effect hard to describe and which, when once I asked them about it, they couldn’t explain… though they did say they’d based the music on Vertov’s notes, so maybe it’s legit to read intention from that.

In any case, Vlada Petric identifies the passengers as old or new bourgeois, in the latter case possibly beneficiaries of the NEP policies criticized in the film (Constructivism in Film, 108-9); if this is so, then the freeze may have a meaning beyond the device-baring lesson in filmmaking that Vertov and Svilova make of it. Elsewhere in the film, in the accelerated montage that ends what Petric calls the “working hands” sequence, we see the heads of NEP bourgeois, male and female, having their Czar Nicholas-style beards trimmed or their hair cut intercut with shots of an axe being sharpened on a wheel, a gun, a straight razor being stropped… the message, not very subtle: off with their heads!

The difference (or one difference) between film and photography is that when we watch a film, what we watch seems, for the duration, alive, animated, even if we know that the actors are dead (the immortality promised by cinema and the phonograph). Once we take a photograph, we’ve made a memory: the life-moment photographed is instantly dead (the American Indians got that one right). With that freeze on the NEP-carriage, Vertov declares the pastness & death of the bourgeoisie as effectively as with that axe: look, these people are dead: the Kinocs’ Kino-Eye has made them dead.

In his found-footage film Decasia (2002), Bill Morrison does something similar with his signature decayed-nitrate bloom, only here it’s not still vs. motion photography, but film stock as mortal material vs. moving image as something appearing alive. There’s a sequence early on in the film, from a Japanese silent, where we see a window emerge from a whirling mess of surface decay; at the window, a woman in kimono; a moment, and she is covered again by the whorls. Every time I watch that sequence, I feel an urgent need to reach back behind the surface decay and rescue the woman, the living image, from death, from the death of nitrate, the mortality of the material (Rebecca with Lossless again). That it provokes this is the way Decasia is elegy, in more or less the same vein as Paolo Cherchi Usai's The Death of Cinema (02001).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nosferatu in 2010

(This is a short intro I gave on November 4 to a screening at BU of F.W. Murnau's film Nosferatu (1922), with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra:)

Well, here we are, in the Year of the Vampire, looking back 90 years (or, OK, 88) to 1922, the year in which Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau made Nosferatu. I recently checked on a favorite website of mine -- -- to find, a little to my surprise, that Nosferatu was far and away the most often downloaded film in the archive, with 305,000+ downloads exceeding the next movie, a Charlie Chaplin short, by 110,000 downloads. So here's a principle I'd like to work with: When one historical moment finds interest in another, or in a particular figure or theme or trope, one can surmise there's a reason. In this case, I think there are many. The short way to put this is to suggest that Germans in 1922 were worried about quite a few of the same things we're worried about today, and that our obsession with vampires reflects some common anxieties; mutatis mutandis, of course, with differences, but still. So what were they preoccupied with, those interwar Germans, in 1922? Let me see...

• first, a galloping inflation, which would soon turn to hyperinflation, the kind you've possibly heard of, where people would rush after work to spend their paycheck because it would be worth much less in the morning, a loaf of bread cost a wheelbarrow full of bills, and it was cheaper to wallpaper rooms with currency than with wallpaper;

• second, an abiding political insecurity following Germany's defeat in the First World War, accompanied by a pronounced lack of faith in the liberal government of the postwar Weimar Republic -- a lack of faith on both the right and the left that left the Republic without support when the Nazis mounted their challenge against it;

• next, a marked descent of large segments of the white-collar middle class into relative penury, partly but not only on account of the great inflation -- an impoverishment that in effect proletarianized them, while at the same time the general culture encouraged a lifestyle they could afford less and less;

• then, a reorganization of gender roles in the wake of mobilization, which drew men from the factories and women into them, accompanied by a culturally widespread feeling of emasculation provoked not only by defeat in the war, but also by the reduction to absurdity of traditional notions of heroism by the new realities of mechanized war;

• and then: new explorations of sexual life in the cities -- hetero, homo, paid, unpaid, sado-maso-vanilla-and-other, with drugs and without, in public and private, in life and art; which earned Berlin, especially, the nickname "Capital City of Sin" (plus a lot of interest, often critical, also prurient, in the press), and led to a thematic oppositions, in film and elsewhere, of wholesome country life versus urban decadence; all this accompanied by an angry and highly politicized debate around the legalization of homosexuality;

• and, finally, a tendency toward scapegoating and mass psychosis, which hangs together with all the above.

(Does any of this sound familiar?)

For the people of Germany felt that their blood was being sucked dry: that their strength -- their financial, political, social, and sexual strength was being drained, by forces beyond their control and their understanding. They felt that they were victims, and what do people do when they feel that they're victims? They look for culprits to blame. But when the forces are faceless -- as they normally are, with such complex things as a world economy or modern politics -- people look to put a face on them, and then try to burn it at the stake. It's no accident that nearly half the films I show in my course on Weimar cinema include scenes of mass psychosis and scapegoating: Caligari in 1920, Nosferatu in 1922, Murnau's The Last Laugh in 1924, Fritz Lang's Metropolis in 1926 and his M in 1931... and there are others. In Nosferatu, we have one answer to the question: Who is doing this to us?

Now, we all know who was burned at the stake, back then. Who has come incognito from a foreign land & bought real estate across the street & set up shop in our cities & sucked our blood (and the blood of our women) & brought disease, epidemic (another dominant trope of the times, Murnau's and ours), and caused terror in the land? For the enemy is among us... and he's invisible, and he's a vampire, and he's killing us silently, and he controls everything, and he's like an epidemic, and he's like rats and spiders. He's also sexually perverse, as you will see clearly if you look at whose blood Nosferatu drinks, if you carefully read body language, and if you think just a little about the sex life of the protagonists, Hutter and Ellen. A threat best killed. Not coincidentally, these are all images we find attached to, yes, Jews, in Fritz Hippler's film The Eternal Jew, a really awful piece of Nazi propaganda from 1940, which I will spare you tonight.

I won't spin this out any longer; I think you can do that yourselves. I just want to add that if this is all in the film, it's not as an argument: I don't think that Murnau has axes to grind; with few exceptions, axe-grinding art is boring, it doesn't last. What he's done is tap a coherent symbolic vocabulary, invented in 1897 by one Bram Stoker, to show us an image of certain recurrent fears of the modern age. And frankly, I think they're still scary. The fears themselves, not so much the things we're afraid of. --

I'd like quickly to add one note on the Alloy Orchestra, who will be playing the music tonight. It's rare enough that one sees silent films these days, unless maybe you're me. It's rarer still to see them accompanied by live music -- which is, after all, how all of them used to be shown. There's a small coterie of makers of music for silent film, who I imagine all know each other and meet at obscure silent-film music conferences to hash out the intelligent things they say in the liner notes of their DVDs. In my opinion, the Alloy Orchestra is among the very most special of these special people. I will confess that I have watched Dziga Vertov's film The Man With the Movie Camera at least fifteen times with their soundtrack, and heard them do it once live; it still gives me goosebumps at all the right moments; it's a work of genius. I expect that tonight the goosebumps will be even higher. Let's welcome the Alloy Orchestra, and enter the vampire...