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).

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