Interview - Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
In connection with her exhibition
New Museum, New York
April 20 – June 12, 2016
by Natasha Kurchanova
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz is an artist from San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose work explores recuperation from trauma, regeneration, affect, and the possibilities of creating alternatives to habitual modes of communication through close attention to day-to-day interactions with people far removed from post-modern lifestyles. Her installation at The New Museum features a three-channel video (That which identifies them like the eye of the Cyclops), a 16mm black-and-white film (Black Beach/Horse/Camp/The Dead/Forces), and a collection of masks used for performances. These are all parts of a larger project that involves people the artist knows well. In the video, these people are three women – an artist, a farmer, and a singer – who lead lives shaped by their practices of reflection, care, and affective existence. In the film, they are people living on Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico that was used as a military base by the US Navy for 60 years before the troops were withdrawn in early 2003. Still highly polluted and peppered with unexploded bombs, the island is slowly recovering from its traumatic history. Muñoz’s interventions into the lives of people on the island are an intrinsic part of this process. The affinity to psychoanalysis comes not only from the projects’ interest in trauma, affect, and reflective states, but also from the artist’s talk with Patricia Gherovici on April 21, 2016, in which, among other things, they discussed Jacques Lacan’s concept of the sinthome as a process of creation and its connection to Muñoz's artistic practice.
Natasha Kurchanova: I would like to begin by asking you to describe your project exhibited upstairs – a three-channel video and a film.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: I am working on a long film. I always thought about making a long film and everything else was going to happen in relation to it. I was not going to control it and keep it to one hour and forty-five minutes. I am still working on it, and it will take about a year to finish. It is loosely based on a 1969 novel by Monique Wittig called Les Guérrillères. This novel has always interested me because of the ways in which it thinks through formal experimentation and language to prefigure another kind of politics. I was influenced by the book’s ideas and proposed ways of action, but never thought that I would do anything with it. I could not get away from it, however. This project is the realization of my reading of Wittig’s book.
The way that I have developed my process over the last 10 years relies on direct observation. From the outside it may appear ethnographic because I devote long periods of time to observation and documentation. What begins to happen afterward is more of a shared, imaginary ethnography in which my subjects and I are constructing things together. I may propose a structure and ask the person I film to respond to it. It can be just a conversation, or it can follow a script I would have written. We write it together; we perform and re-perform it. There is a range of strategies that I have used in this process. All of them can be described as a kind of “playing.” In my video, for example, I am beginning my observation and documentation not from imagined, mythical women, but from the women I know. I am interested in the tension between the universal female subject that we construct and in rooting this subject in specific subjectivities through this process of intervention. The very practical way that I started this project was through observing, following, documenting the lives of five women, three of whom you see in the video. The project has grown and changed a lot, I have added more people; I am still in the process of documentation. The exhibition upstairs is the first iteration of the questions that the project asks, such as: What does it mean to create a new language? Are we thinking about substance? Are we thinking about form? What is the relationship between the two? Also, there is the question about the meaning of creation of new language and the wish to start from nothing, which we all know is impossible. What does this wish do?
Upstairs, there is a three-channel video installation that addresses the questions that I mentioned. The women that appear in them are the ones with whom I have been working. There are other things as well – a series of objects and masks, which are props in the longer film I am producing. There is also another film, which is unrelated to this longer project, although it has obvious links to it. It’s a 16-mm footage that I shot in Vieques, Puerto Rico, which is a place that was used as a bombing range by the US military for 60 years. There was a civil disobedience movement in Puerto Rico about this island for 30 or 40 years, but in 2000 it all came to a head. In 2003 the US Navy finally closed the base. Now Vieques is a Superfund site filled with unexploded bombs both at sea and on the bombing range itself. I am interested in how one thinks about a place like that, and in the relationship between the history of the place and an image, which does not show any of these underlying political conflicts or toxicity. What could be that relationship? Is there any possibility of thinking about it in terms of representation? I favor a different approach to the question: What does image do next to this reality as opposed to representing it as it is.
NK: Many of your ideas remind me of the Russian avant-garde: going to zero, breaking the frame, relating material to form and representation … You want to break the frame because you wish to restructure the dichotomy between the work and the spectator by foregrounding the relationship between the maker and the subject. Is this the ethnographic function of your work?
BSM: I talked about this a little bit in my presentation with Patricia [Gherovici]. When I began visiting the former Navy base on Vieques to find out what it was possible to see there after military occupation and what it was possible to think when you think through a camera, I realized that it was unrealizable for me to get away from the position of seeing a nostalgic ruin of the traces of military presence. It was impossible in a very material way not to feel monumentality of the place. It takes 10 minutes to walk from one end of a dock to another because the dock was made for submarines. How do you stand there anymore without always feeling that you are standing on a dock made for submarines? How do you imagine anything else? The place is changing now; there are no subs coming in and out, the turtles are coming back, but you are still standing on a dock. As I look through the camera lens, the lines that I see enforce the monumentality of the space and of the domain that the rational plane of the camera creates; it refers to traditional landscape and aerial military photography. All of that is embedded in the lens, in the machine, in the way of looking. One of the ways I thought was necessary to begin to think differently was literally to break the camera, break the rational frame. How can you see in a way that does not reproduce the idea of monumentality and the idea of ruin? So I started folding up that space, breaking it in different ways, and seeing what happens. This is similar to Monique Wittig’s breaking of familiar language in Les Guérrillères. We cannot start with the same language because it obscures things that we are accustomed not to see and not to think about. What can we do formally and materially to correct this? Even if we do not know what needs to be seen, just as we do not know what needs to be said, at the very least we can start breaking up those familiar faces and investigating the gaps that appear as a result of this process.
That’s one way in which I was breaking the frame. For me, it was a productive thinking process. I think about what happens when fishermen start coming in and use the dock for their boats. That activity brings change to the place, adapting it to a different use. So, this relationship is a different one, a body relationship. People would come in and start having memories not only of the times when this dock was used by military, but also … of the types of fish that used to be in abundance here 60 years ago, for example. In this way, a new piece of knowledge would emerge from this place. This knowledge also starts breaking down the previous history. This is one way I am thinking about this. Another way concerns not so much breaking the frame, but removing the emphasis on the position of the spectator and the idea of a film or a work of art as something that produces meaning or communicates. I am interested in thinking of other analogous forms, such as ritual or clinical psychoanalysis, in which, instead of having a spectator and a production of meaning, there are many different positions and many different ways of relating to the work. For example, when someone is dancing in a group of people, it becomes part of the work, a ritual. There are many things that are going on there that have nothing to do with meaning. They are about collective feeling, personal transformation … My recent visits to Haiti helped me think about ritual. I do not know very much about the place, but I recognized right away that in Haitian rituals, the spectator does not have an important position. One has to recognize that the work has an aesthetic and materiality, but it takes a different form. So, my work is not only about breaking the frame formally, but also [about] saying that spectatorship is not the only position from which it is possible to view artmaking, art practice, aesthetics, [the] relationship between material and semiotics. What happens when you start to think from a different position than master-spectator? The fact that there are other ways of looking and relating to a work of art could open up other than “expert” ways of thinking about it?
NK: I was thinking about the title of your work, Song/Strategy/Sign in relation to the possible analogy you mentioned between psychoanalysis and your art practice, which roughly corresponds to the Lacanian tripartite division of the psyche into the realms of the Real/Imaginary/Symbolic. In your conversation with Patricia Gherovici, you traced this parallel along the lines that both psychoanalysis and art offer the prospect of individual transformation. The example you gave was the Lacanian concept of the sinthome. Could you elaborate on how you see this connection?
BSM: I am not an expert in psychoanalysis and my relationship to it is very limited. I have always been interested in the work of Lygia Clark; Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik wrote most about this artist. I came to psychoanalysis by reading Rolnik and understanding Lygia Clark through her writings. She uses therapy and anti-therapy as a model for her work. I started reading Felix Guattari because Rolnik refers to him and his ideas of micro-politics. So in my understanding of psychoanalysis, I do not go from Freud to Lacan, but move backwards and try to find the originating ideas. Another major factor in my attraction to psychoanalysis was the fact that it is primarily a clinical practice and not only a theoretical deliberation. I am interested in what happens between two people, especially when one has a political understanding of the situation. I am interested in how one person interacts with the other in a way that allows you to see the production of subjectivity. To me it’s like a puzzle, which I am trying to understand by talking to psychoanalysts and people who know this practice. I just began the process of analysis, so I am not familiar with it from my own history. I see the analogy between psychoanalysis and what I am doing in that there is a strange relationship between me and the people with whom I am working. It is a kind of relationship that is not easily codified, unlike doctor/patient; contractor/client … Rather, it is unstable. So, I think about psychoanalysis from a practical viewpoint rather than a theoretical one. As I start reading more, there are definitely things that I find interesting.
NK: So, you are more interested in the potential for transformation that psychoanalysis offers?
BSM: Yes, and in the relationship between psychoanalytic practice involving two people and collective transformation. In his texts, Guattari talks a lot about this practice, calling this process subjectivation.
NK: A possibility of developing a new kind of relationship between an individual and a collective also ties into Wittig’s novel, since she writes about women as a collective, but she periodically interrupts the narrative to list the women individually by name.
BSM: In Les Guérrillères, the women are all autonomous individuals and all have proper names, which are printed in all caps in columns and are dispersed in clusters throughout the book. Wittig is weaving the ideas of the collective into the novel’s fabric, but these ideas are coming from sensorial, autonomous, material subjects. This is done through language.
NK: This is what you are trying to do as well. In your work, however, you are also investigating the in-between spaces that language cannot quite express because the spaces where subjectivities are created may be ambiguous. Can you talk about them?
BSM: Language that I have been taught is insufficient to think about the fullness of human experience. It is very limited in this respect. I do not think that language orders the world completely. There are creations of subjectivity that happen without naming. They concern the relationships between us and objects, for example. They involve material forms and systems. Most of these relationships are not named – we do not have a language for them. This does not mean that we need to name them all. We are living at a time when different subjectivities become part of a dominant sameness. I feel a pressing need in whatever way I can to mute and break this process by figuring out other subjectivities that do not have language. In terms of my work, I do not want to recuperate, retrace backwards, and go to structures of thinking that we have lost. We have lost many things, but [we] cannot go back to those nostalgic ruins. However, we can aggressively create new possibilities. This is what I am interested in, even if it means doing it through random breakage without knowing the result in advance. A lot of what I do comes out of uncertain premises, not [by] prefiguring the end result, but realizing that I have to go through the place I do not know.
NK: Where do the masks come in here? Is it also about the collective and the individual -- about the space that you cannot translate into language?
BSM: This is a point that I do not know how to describe well. I always think about it in terms offered by Roland Barthes in The Third Meaning, where he talks about informational and symbolic meanings. The third meaning has to do with the way the light falls on the face, and the way something appears in the body and the face that is sensorial, making it impossible to name. The masks are defacements – because most of them do not cover the face completely, but do some work of obscuring it – are about becoming something else. I am interested in them because I cannot quite describe something that takes place in-between the specificity of the face and the wish to obscure and be something else.
NK: You are talking about representation?
BSM: Yes, representation, but with no assigned meaning. If there is a black mask, no one knows what it means exactly.
NK: It sounds like this practice can be in some way therapeutic and be used to help recuperate from trauma. In this way it could also be similar to psychoanalysis.
BSM: I have been thinking about this a lot because I am interested in the work of Lygia Clark and because I recognize that in my work there are moments when I am performing a therapeutic action, where there is this kind of relationship between myself and the person with whom I am working. However, if therapy means “correcting” anything, then what I am doing is certainly not therapy. My goal is not to normalize people, but rather make everyone abnormal, so that we could break references that make our experiences be considered abnormal. In the end, the work becomes larger than the relationship between me and my subject, opening up to other positions. In this context, therapy becomes not individual, but collective in the sense that it is therapy for me as well as for my immediate subject, the collective, and the viewer a well. Is it therapy or anti-therapy? I am not sure. Anti-therapy would be the process in which we all recognize the normal path.
NK: The people you consider “normal” may call your project utopian. What would be your answer to them? What do you think about utopias in general?
BSM: I have always been interested in the idea of utopia, in the moment of a wish to create a new structure, while recognizing that it is an impossible task, that it has failure built into it. The wish itself is very important, however, and cannot be ignored, because the desire alone does something. I am interested in this desire of utopia as a dramatic desire for transformation. It is important to be reformist versus dramatic and total. Even if you do not get there, the intention puts a lot of wheels in motion.
NK: Concerning your experiments in creating a new kind of visual language, you are using the documentary genre in a novel way. In one of your interviews you mentioned Trinh Minh-ha’s work as your inspiration and said that you came to feminism through art because Trinh used documentary in an artistic way.
BSM: Trinh Minh-ha’s work influenced me a lot. When she was making her videos, she was looking at a culture very different from her own and experimenting with it. She was not looking at it from a logical point of view to understand how it worked, but rather she wanted to think with it. Her subjectivity is very present in the film. She did it in a very interesting way, perhaps because she did not have the point of view of a universal European subject. Her films are complicating the position of the viewer and the maker as not someone with authority, but someone who stands next to it. This idea of standing next to authority has been very important for me for many years. What I think about when I am working with someone else is really seeing with that person, not seeing through them or being a vehicle for them. I am not someone who lets someone’s subjectivity pass through me. The only thing I can do is come to the point of contact, rub against the other, and go do something else … For me, that moment is very important. Maybe Minh-ha’s transversal feminism influenced me; maybe many things, such as anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist thinking, directed against Western domination. All these things are complicating each other. Formal experimentation in Minh-ha’s films was also very important for me.
NK: How do you suggest we view your work if it is not addressed to the spectator? What’s a good way to approach your work?
BSM: That’s a question I ask myself because I feel like the context of the museum, the gallery, and the screening is only one moment in the production of the work and not the only moment that can be experienced. I definitely think that there was a work that was made already when they were shooting. I have to learn what it does in an exhibition space. I do not have full knowledge of it still. I can tell you how I relate to it. For me it is almost impossible to think about it outside of the meanings of the museum itself. The museum points to the spectator and treats the spectator position as the most important. This is why my work here constantly points to the idea of spectatorship. Ivelisse Jiménez, whom you see in the video working with plastic sheets, is a painter. She creates things between sculpture and painting. When we look at the video we are looking at her looking. For me, it captures the moment of what the museum does with spectators. She is thinking about looking as a possibility of creating a new language, what it all means. If we are looking at her looking, and the museum adds its own environment centered on spectatorship, then we observe three levels of thinking about spectatorship and the relationship between looking and creation of new language. The process is more complicated than what I describe because when we are looking we are not thinking about what it means, but what it does sensorially as well.
NK: Your work has many different levels, literally and metaphorically. The scene that you just mentioned appears on one screen only, while on the other screens we see a collective of women engaged in a completely different activity. We really do need a language of some sort to contextualize everything.
BSM: The level depends on where you are. Because if you show that work in San Juan, there are many things that are already understood and do not need context. There are social messages that can be transmitted through the imagery, not language. This is something that happens to me a lot. For example, in La Cueva Negra, the lushness of the landscape means something different than in Puerto Rico or in London. In Puerto Rico, this greenery refers to an everyday, quotidian, not remarkable, certainly not paradise-like landscape, while in London it has different attributes. The work that language has to do placing everything in historical context needs to be done here, but not there. The more you get away from a person or people, the more you need the remedial work of language.
NK: For me, it is very interesting to encounter your work, and I have never been to Puerto Rico and am familiar only superficially with its history and its people. The images that you showed were mesmerizing, especially the ones in the film, which you chose to make in black-and-white. When I was looking at them, I wanted to find out more. I wanted to read something that would explain to me the things I was seeing.
BSM: I always struggle with the question of how much to say and how much context to give to the viewer. Many things that I film are beautiful accidents, such as, in the black-and-white film, the man on the beach performing his rituals and the boy playing with the skeleton exactly his size. It is beautiful because it is an accidental moment and not because he grew up in the place where death through history is omnipresent. This accidental moment for me has a lot of meaning. I know that when we were shooting that scene, the moment was very charged to the point that it was almost surreal, but I do not know how to transmit this charge because I am not talking just about information, but about affect. It’s this affective knowledge that I do not know how to transmit. It’s very different being there and thinking about the affective and sensorial life of this place. Charlie, the man who is performing the ritual, is on the beach all the time; he has a need to do this every day. I can’t help but think that this has something to do with the history of the place and with the fact that he is one of 12 or 13 brothers and sisters who are displaced throughout the Caribbean, so he has a very real, material relationship with history. All of this is not in the silent film. What we have in the film is the image that rubs off against his history. I am not sure about how to give this context to the audience that comes to the museum.
NK: This is another example of the importance of the audience for you. This film would look and be understood completely differently if it were shown in Vieques, for example.
BSM: It was important for me to show this work in the museum in the context of Les Guérrillères. I do not think so much in terms of a whole or complete work or of it being autonomous because the ideological structure that allows you to think of the work as autonomous is not present in the place where I live. A seemingly disparate nature of my artmaking makes this exhibition not a whole, unified thing, but a process that has other works happening alongside it. On June 2, I am going to stage a performance with the masks you see upstairs. Macha Colón, a performer in the video, will come from Puerto Rico to take part in it.
Film Review - Frances Ha
Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to get your attention.
by Julie Futrell
At a time when hysteria has all but disappeared from clinical discourse and Lacan’s question of where all the great hysterics have gone seems particularly timely, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig respond in their 2012 film, Frances Ha, that she is as alive and dissatisfied as ever. Indeed, the film—directed by Baumbach—captures hysteria at its finest, following twenty-something Frances as she trips and stumbles (literally and figuratively) through life in Manhattan in her struggle to ascertain her own desire and place with regard to the Other. Both a coming-of-age account as well as a love story, Frances Ha explores themes of gender, sexuality, identity, castration, and the inevitable conflicts that women face in contemporary culture when navigating the transition to adulthood.
Frances (played by Gerwig) is a quirky, guileless, self-conscious, deliciously self-deprecating want-to-be dancer who is painfully unaware of how her refusal to grow up betrays an underlying discomfort with her feminine sexuality and the concomitant creative function it enables. Frances attempts to locate her identity by fusing with others in an imaginary relation, whether that be via her best friend, Sophie, or new roommate, Benji. Frances’s numerous declarations that she and Sophie are “the same person but with different hair” attests to her desire for a dyadic relationship that lacks nothing. Indeed, Frances goes so far as to describe love between two people as a “secret world that exists in public that no one else knows about.” Frances longs for such an imaginary world and consequently is stuck always playing the role of object for the Other. When Sophie suddenly moves out of their shared apartment, Frances is left unsure of what to do or who to be. The film portrays her desperately attaching to one person after another—both male and female—as she attempts to find her identity through identification. In one poignant scene, Frances impulsively travels to Paris for two short days, and then spends the duration of her time there waiting for a friend who lives in the city to phone. When the friend fails to call, we see Frances immobilized—unable to move or act without an Other.
Intimately tied up with her inability to ascertain her desire is Frances’s rejection of her own sexuality. Frances only has one romantic attachment the entire film, and this quickly ends when the man invites her to move in with him. The rest of the film portrays Frances either in a beaten-up leather jacket or in clothing that largely serves to cover and shield rather than to express. Frances deflects men’s romantic attention (despite being heterosexual) preferring instead to just be “one of the guys,” rather than sexually engaging with them, causing Benji to deem her “undateable.” The question of her femininity is one that, though she remains consciously unaware of it, unconsciously is quite predominant in Frances’s struggles.
The rejection of her femininity, as well as of her own castration, results in Frances’s inability to make a choice for herself and a fixation of her creative capacities. Nowhere is this more evident than when the contract with her dance company is terminated and her mentor encourages Frances to begin choreographing her own work. Frances refuses and instead returns to her old college where she lives in the dorms and works for the summer. We see here a desire to return to an earlier time and an attendant refusal to embrace womanhood. When Frances runs into an estranged and engaged Sophie on the college campus, she is briefly given her night of fantasy: Sophie and Frances lay side-by-side in the dorm room bed reminiscing, and a drunken Sophie tells Frances that she is leaving her fiancé so that she and Frances can once again be close. When Frances awakens to a note from Sophie apologizing for her drunkenness and explaining that she has left to return to her fiancé, Frances runs into the street screaming Sophie’s name.
When we next see Frances, she is professionally and expressively dressed, working with her old mentor and choreographing her own material. We see her in her own apartment—not on someone’s couch or in a dorm. In one of the final scenes of the film, we see the many people of Frances’s life all gathered together to watch one of her choreographed pieces. She has created something, made something that is hers. As she catches Sophie’s gaze from across the room after the show has ended, there is no longer a sense of competition or fusion, but rather, a beautiful acknowledgment of difference and the sexuality that can emerge once that difference has been recognized and accepted. Frances’s move toward creativity implies a move from the imaginary toward the symbolic—a move from identity through fusion toward identity through her symbolic achievements. In a sense, Frances no longer needs to be the phallus because she can now sometimes just have the phallus via her creative work—that is, she can feel powerful through what she creates rather than through over-identification with men or excessive attachment to the desire of the Other.
The last scene of the movie finds Frances sitting at her own desk writing her name on a piece of paper to insert into the display slot on her mailbox. We see her write her name in full, yet when it comes time to fit the paper into the slot on the mailbox, it is too long. Frances carefully folds the paper to a size that will fit and what fits is the name, “Frances Ha.” The moment eloquently captures many of the themes of the film. It first and foremost indicates a claiming of her own name—a naming of herself that is closely connected to her newfound ability to create rather than simply model her identity after others. It furthermore denotes a certain castration that has occurred for Frances. Her last name has been cut short—there is something lacking from it. Yet strangely, the name, because of its very castration, is fitting of the quirky, humorous Frances. She is Frances Ha. In the moment where she puts her name in the display slot, we see a Frances who has accepted lack and who has embraced what that very lack provides—a space for something novel to come into being. Frances’s desire has thus been freed to move and play, no longer captured by the image of the Other.
Perhaps Baumbach and Gerwig’s film feels so timely because it is so out-of-time. Hysteria has been relegated to the annals of history as an antiquated phenomenon—laughable to the many who see in it nothing more than unscientific Freudian quackery. Yet, there is something more to the “Ha,” in Frances’ name, something laughable in itself—Ha Ha—something that suggests that, quite possibly, the joke is on us. That, perhaps our very urgency to forget the great hysteric has unknowingly revealed our own discomfort with the feminine, the unknown, and with lack. Perhaps therein lies the joke. For, what does the hysteric remind us of most if not that the unconscious is alive, well…and laughing?
Julie Futrell is completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. At themoment, she finds herself equally obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis, hysteria, and all things jazz or blues related.
Film Review - Hannah Arendt
by Dr. Jessica Datema
Hannah Arendt is an impossible film about an impossible trial that demonstrates the impossibility of “understanding” or “explaining” the Holocaust.
“It was perhaps the bitter experience of life’s tricks that prepared her (rather late…) for being seized by the grande passion which indeed is no less rare than a chef-d’oeuvre. Storytelling, at any rate, is what in the end made her wise—and incidentally, not a ‘witch’ ‘siren,’ or ‘sibyl’, as her entourage admiringly thought” (Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 109).
“Worlds are made wherever those decisions of our history … are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, there the ‘world worlds.” Heidegger, “Origin of the Work of Art. “
Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt focuses on the controversies that resurfaced when Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann. After experiencing the Holocaust first hand, Arendt was curious to finally study a Nazi, “in zie flesh.” She accepted the job of writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker in 1961 The film is not comprehensive and reduces Arendt’s major philosophical works to one tiny chapter. Still, the film Hannah Arendt is worthwhile, in particular, because it shows the difficulties of representing trauma in history and biography.
Hannah Arendt rarely spoke about her own Holocaust experience in public. As a biopic, the film explores the private realm that Arendt believed was separate from public action and politics. Arendt thought it indulgent or inappropriate to speak of personal suffering. She believed one is much more opaque to oneself than to others. Since storytellers can be less overtly political they are better biographers than politicians in preserving history. In this sense, the film reexamines history through the story of Hannah Arendt. It draws out the deep personal pains and friendships that the philosopher herself refused to discuss.
In agreeing to make Hannah Arendt, the filmmaker engages in an act of friendship and aims to show what Arendt could not say. One feminist critic explains how for Arendt the creative work of biography is an act of friendship (Minnich 287-305). The film shows that otherness of the subject that Arendt says, “appears so clearly and unmistakably to others [but] remains hidden to the person themselves” (Human Condition, 179). Arendt was uncomfortable about intrusions into her own personal life, so a filmmaker, Von Trotta took up the task.
Hannah Arendt is also a depiction of Arendt’s deep abiding friendships with women, shown in her ties with Mary McCarthy and Lotte Köhler. Lotte was her assistant and eventually became her literary executor. Lotte helps with handling the execution and subsequent criticism of Arendt’s article. She also reminds her mentor in the film that, “God gave us family, but thank God we can choose our own friends.” This advice proves helpful after Arendt’s “frienemies’” reactions to her New Yorker piece.
The famous novelist Mary McCarthy had a productive intellectual friendship with Arendt, as recorded in their correspondence. When Arendt’s Eichmann piece was released, McCarthy mightily defended her friend against the critics. The film depicts McCarthy and Arendt as an odd couple. McCarthy embodies an “American” literary lewdness that contrasts with Arendt as a dignified European intellectual. Arendt corrects Mary’s German and Mary corrects Arendt’s English in several funny scenes including one where Arendt chides McCarthy: “We Germans don’t marry all our lovers.” Ultimately, these differences were insignificant since Arendt and McCarthy bonded, their tie being that they were both went in and out of fashion with New York intellectuals. McCarthy published The Group the same year Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). These two very different books caused very similar levels of fuss in the literary and intellectual worlds. Both women felt betrayed by unfriendly reviews of publications run by people they considered allies.
A friend in the German television industry suggested to Von Trotta that she make a biopic on Arendt. For ten years Von Trotta refused until she was able to find some Gegner, or dramatic antagonist for Arendt. Hannah Arendt is not just a film about a writer and philosopher. Its action centers on the Eichmann trail, but also brings up Arendt’s own Holocaust experience. Originally, the director wanted to call the film The Controversy but was persuaded otherwise (Weigel). As it stands, the title is a misnomer. All the hesitancies and delays in making the film go with the difficulties inherent in the representation of trauma.
The film is set in New York in the early 1960s after Arendt’s assimilation when she is supposedly peacefully situated in an upper West Side apartment. The slightly shabby clutter of her apartment signals the proximity of an unassimilated traumatic history. Stockpiles of paper and books surround her desk where two key photographs of Martin Heidegger and Heinrich Blücher reside. Their juxtaposition indicates that Arendt is not fully settled in. This unsettledness allows her to remember and consider issues of being an exile upon thought. The side by side photos of Blücher— as her current husband— and Heidegger as her former lover—harken back to what Sigmund Freud calls, an “Other time and place.”
Like Freud, Arendt believed her theoretical works indirectly speak about life. Arendt’s refusal of autobiography sounds strikingly like Freud’s: “The public has no claim to learn any more of my personal affairs—my struggles, my disappointments, and my successes. I have in any case been more open and frank in some of my writings (such as The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychology of Everyday Life) than people usually are who describe their lives for their contemporaries or for posterity.” (Freud, 83-84). Arendt stresses the separation and connection of the public and private in a way that’s similar to Freud’s idea of the conscious and unconscious realms. Both admit the overlap of one realm into the other, but are explained differently. Arendt believed the overlap (of private into public) occurs through a creative action that produces something politically new that she calls an event of natality.
While Arendt acknowledges that past experience may emerge in her writing, she never actually uses the word “trauma.” Her views of violence are contradictory due to the disavowal of trauma in her own life and work. “Crimes against humanity” is the closest she gets to acknowledging trauma in relation to genocide (we note: not as personal). Arendt did theorize violence and held a tiered view of it as begetting either silence or action depending upon its origin. In On Violence she links violence with power as a vehicle of silencing. Yet with the Eichmann trial— as with any testimony of trauma— she is engaged in a paradoxical attempt to re-present Nazi violence.
Some of Arendt’s works seems to suggest that violence can be sublimated through political or aesthetic action. Action is a way of working through private trauma by “making” it into a public discourse. Arendt indicates this happening in her own work in an unusual 1966 retrospective statement on the Origins of Totalitarianism:
With the defeat of Nazi Germany part of the story had come to an end. This seemed the first appropriate moment to try to tell and understand what happened… Still in grief and sorrow, and hence with a tendency to lament, but no longer in speechless outrage and impotent horror. It was, at any rate, the first possible moment to articulate and to elaborate the question with which my generation had been forced to live for the better part of its life: What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened? (preface to part three, The Origins of Totalitarianism).
The film shows Arendt caught up in the impossibility of representing any Nazi Germany experience.
Covering the Eichmann trial allows Arendt to engage in a displaced sublimation. Cathy Caruth describes how in trauma there is a delay between experience and knowing. This delay also occurs in Arendt’s view as a gap between action and understanding, such that the latter only follows (après coup) from the former. Arendt’s view of understanding is like “the traumatic event, it is not experienced as it occurs. It is only fully evident only after the fact or as displaced into an Other place, an Other time” (Trauma, Explorations in Memory, 8.). Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trail is an exposure to real historic events that could not be understood as they occurred.
Seyla Benhabib gives a larger overview than the film for interpreting Arendt’s own political engagements. She divides Arendt’s life into three political phases. The first, during 1926 to 1941, Arendt was a student in Heidelberg and met Kurt Blumenfeld, the German Zionist leader. She was deeply impressed by him and began collaboratively documenting anti-Semitism and the exclusion of Jews from German professional associations. In the 1930s when the Gestapo arrested Arendt, she was forced to leave Germany and escaped with her mother to Paris.
During the second phase of Arendt’s political life (1941-1960s), she immigrated with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, to New York in 1941. During the early 1940s, Arendt was also actively working on Jewish issues as a writer in New York. Hannah and Heinrich became renowned intellectuals, covering current events such as Israel and Palestine. During this period Arendt worked with Martin Buber to conceive of something she referred to as the “Jewish homeland.” Their utopian vision was for a federation of Jewish people who would elect councils to guide and govern Jews at the United Nations. When some Zionists believed the “homeland” idea was too utopian, Arendt’s disputes with them started to build.
The third political phase started in the 1960s when Arendt enjoyed what Benhabib calls ”citizenship in a new republic” (Thinking in Dark Times, 56). Celebrating the sixties in America, Arendt called the student revolution a “new beginning.” Civil rights movements, student protests, and kibbutzim settlements all constituted a moment of “natality” in politics (On Violence 17-19). This is perhaps why she felt strong enough to revisit the subject by covering the Eichmann trail during this period.
It is interesting to note that Arendt also wrote On Revolution in the sixties when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. With these works, Arendt initiated new discourse on revolution, violence, and genocide. Both texts initiated seismic shifts in cultural discourse, which are still trenchant. The film bookmarks these shifts—and their relation to our own political moment—by juxtaposing Arendt’s real life and history.
Arendt’s “involvement” in Zionism, particularly during the early period did not mitigate the criticism during the Eichmann controversy. Von Trotta shows Arendt traveling to Jerusalem for the trial like a survivor returning to the scene of a crime. She stays with her now old friend Kurt Blumenfeld, but it is immediately apparent they aren’t getting along. His family teases Arendt about not having children. Still, these gibes are serious and foreshadow forthcoming criticism of Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Arendt is silent in most of the trial scenes. The court case opens with a rousing speech about the dead of Auschwitz in Yiddish. The speech is heavily dramatic and a kind of re-inauguration moment for Israel. Testimonies are not about Eichmann but history in general. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s “not thinking” offends Israelis who want to characterize him as a Faust, Mephisto, or der Teufel—radically evil. Ironically, with Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s own view of evil as banal changes from her earlier view of it as radical in On Totalitarianism. Her reconsideration of genocide through Eichmann inflames Jewish leaders, including her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, who eventually rejects Arendt on his deathbed.
Criticism of Arendt’s Eichmann piece called her insensitive or a “talking head.” These critics stressed her identity as a Jew, and perhaps as an arrogant woman, but choose to overlook her identity as a trained philosopher. The uproar following Arendt’s report on Eichmann was motivated to a great extent by a sense of racial and ethnic betrayal more than philosophical disagreement. Her connection to other “white male philosophers“ didn’t help.
The film depicts Hans Jonas as a ringleader of the critics. He had been Arendt’s competitor since attending university with her in Heidelberg. At University, he observed that Arendt was “Heidegger’s favorite.” Jonas studied with the same professors without the same favor but finally received his Doctor of Philosophy at Marburg. Jonas also immigrates to American and ended up being a colleague of Arendt at the New School. He— like many other European Jewish intellectual refugees—transports the European grievances into America. In truth, the criticism of Arendt as “lacking emotion” is not all wrong. This lack of emotion makes her a strong philosopher but is also a mask that marks her past trauma.
The mask of Arendt’s Holocaust experience is exposed a bit in the film. In one scene where Arendt is lecturing, a student asks if she was ever in the Nazi camps. Arendt gives a harrowing description of how the French treated her and other German-Jewish refugees at a Nazi detention camp (lager) named Gurs in France. In this place, she said, the women became hopeless and stopped washing themselves. Moreover, one evening Arendt herself lost all hope. She describes how it was raining all day and their straw mats for sleeping were disintegrating. Arendt says she was at this point Sehr Müde (so tired), a euphemism for suicide. The film shows Arendt talking instead of showing any actual images of women in the camps. The pain of Arendt’s situation is magnified by the recollection juxtaposed with her current life.
The classroom scene relates to another where she discusses Gur with her husband. Arendt tells Blücher her survival only came from imagining his rescue. The film shows Arendt recalling herself as a younger woman making the decision not to die. It conveys her vulnerability in considering suicide but ultimate deciding not to, unlike Walter Benjamin and so many of her other European colleagues. The film is a reminder that Arendt and many other intellectuals did not just write about genocide, they were also its victims and survivors.
The philosopher explains to the class how she barely escaped with Blücher to America. Another student asked: Professor, what did you think of America when you first arrived? Arendt enthusiastically responds that she thought it was “Paradise” in an unusual display of filmic patriotism. This scene seems almost disingenuous in its nationalism until one considers the eyes of a German-Jewish intellectual refugee coming from European genocide.
As a New York film, Hannah Arendt is a reminder that America, and especially New York City, was once a safe haven and capital for intellectual refugees. The scene that portrays America as “paradise” contrasts with current disillusioned views that come from restrictions on immigration and assimilation. It also brings up how supposedly safe Western or Catholic countries (with the Pope’s permission) gave the Nazis passage. The movie begins with Eichmann getting caught in South America, after he followed a “rat line” from Genoa to Buenos Aires.
Arendt’s New Yorker article puts Holocaust discourse on the map in the United States. Before this piece, what happened to Jews during Nazi Germany was not a matter of general public discourse. Moreover, in initiating the dialogue, Arendt suffered from a re-traumatizing herself. Hannah Arendt is an impossible film about an impossible trial that demonstrates the impossibility of “understanding” or “explaining” the Holocaust. Still, Arendt’s view was that action precedes understanding. Thus she felt it her responsibility to act, even if she could not envision all the outcomes of an Eichmann engagement.
In addition to the first hand experience, Hannah Arendt displays the philosopher’s expert ability to capture a Zeitgeist. Arendt seizes on Eichmann’s description of himself as a “rump roast” being grilled up on charges to make a connection between genocide and malaise. Actual footage shows the Nazi sitting in a glass cage like a ghost, bored and unconcerned. In portraying Eichmann as antagonist, the film refuses to pit Arendt up against an “evil” Nazi. As the director mentions in an interview: “I never had any thought of putting him up on screen, embodied by an actor, so people could say, ‘Wow, what a performance!” (Weigel, 3) Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt as up against an ideology and history, not another actor. The film’s use of documentary footage underscores Arendt’s battle with ideology as the real “glass cage” of history.
In covering Eichmann, Arendt does not “explain” a single person. Instead, she considers the whole cultural philosophy out of which the Nazi is born, and asks how someone like him could even exist. Eichmann’s unconcern is related to what Heidegger calls ontological care— in German Sorge. This care constitutes the very core of our being in the world as activated. Since he followed orders without concern for or against the Jews, Eichmann is part of a modern corporate culture of malaise. Arendt diagnoses him as one of a “rump roast” generation of unconcerned workers who just “follows orders.”
Several flashback scenes with depict Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger and his influential philosophy of Denken. She connects Eichmann and his banal type of evil to a lack of thought rooted in unconcern. Arendt’s writing begins to flow after flashbacks, not only to Heidegger, but also to the trial. In one she sits on a velvet chaise lounge smoking and recalls the judge asks Eichmann: “Are you an idiot are you an imbecile?” In Eichmann’s responses, Arendt sees no trace of Satanic greatness. He was not even an imbecile. He was simply unable to think. Arendt says it is sheer thoughtlessness, which is not the same as stupidity, which leads to great evil.
Instead of viewing the human as a thinking substance (res extensa) Arendt views thinking as a performative act. It is a way of engaging with, or caring for, the world. This view comes from Heidegger’s ontology of denken, and the philosophical question, “What does it mean to be as thinking?” Denken presupposes the infinitive “to be” as the underlying question. It revises such that thinking isn’t reducible to any object or a material body. Rather, it is an activity of being that activates humanity itself. The film shows how Arendt grapples with a politics of care in her own lifetime even while Heidegger refused. It also gives a glimpse of what it would be like to have a trusted professor turn into a professing Nazi.
The Heidegger relationship is an unspoken trauma that frames Arendt’s life and career. It is another topic about which she refused to speak. Scenes with Heidegger are imagined in the film as reveries. From classroom to bedroom, the couple is portrayed as a bit clichéd. Still, it is difficult to know if this dullness is due to Arendt’s time with Heidegger being a more “childish” moment, or if it is a feature of the film itself. The film depicts Heidegger’s betrayal of Arendt as a larger betrayal of academia, and particularly German academia. Scenes of the philosophers walking in Europe show the stakes of intellectuals deciding to immigrate or stay.
While Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s philosophy into her public work, what happened with him privately remains unspoken. Mary McCarthy tries to get Arendt to speak of Heidegger in a scene when she visits Arendt in the country. Their friendship reveals the depth and limits of dialogue itself. At one point playing pool, McCarthy presses Arendt on Heidegger with the game: “Fill in the blank Heidegger was the greatest ____ in my life..?” Of course the blank remains since some things are beyond speech. Still, Arendt does say: “There are some things that are stronger than human beings.”
This answer reveals nothing obvious but, reading between the lines, it suggests that philosophy was Arendt’s first love, not Heidegger. The “thing love” that Arendt speaks about is her love for life that came through writing and philosophy. Philosophy allows Arendt to sublimate her traumatic experience. It helped her survive, love, and work through a life stripped bare—with meditation, contemplation, and walks through the woods.
After Arendt’s New Yorker article is published and the pillory intensifies, she escapes to the country. McCarthy pled with her to respond to the critics, but she refuses to explain herself “to these dimwits.” Arendt surely didn’t anticipate the degree of criticism received after her New Yorker piece. Still, the philosopher became adept at moving in and out of cultural favor. Mary McCarthy’s visit encourages Arendt to return to New York and eventually “explain” her Eichmann piece, but as a lecture to her students at the New School. This culminating speech is a rousing event that comes at the end of the film. It is not only significant for what Arendt says, but mainly for the act of speaking itself.
Arendt’s struggle with the possibility of speaking at all is a primary subject of the film. The final speech refuses to make the Eichmann trail simply about Judaism. Instead, it is an opportunity to consider the meaning of the “human” in the twentieth century. In her remarkable end lecture, Arendt reiterates how people who refuse to claim their role in political systems do the greatest evil. Jewish leaders give insight into the total moral collapse of modern society, not just the Nazis. The Holocaust shows how the Nazi camps— and the phenomenon of genocide in general — strips humanity of the human. With Eichmann, Arendt says the modern degradation of humanity does not come through “radical evil.” Rather, it comes through a shocking social mediocrity where people follow orders and refuse to think (about war, surveillance, or their work). Her final lecture reiterates that the greatest insult of the Holocaust was the idea that Jews were not human. Arendt calls Eichmann’s crimes “crimes against humanity” not “crimes against Jews” since Jews are first and foremost human.
In a 1943 essay entitled “We Refugees,” she comes closest to describing her own situation. Arendt describes the Jewish German refugee as generally optimistic but sometimes, she “imagines that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved” (Menorah Journal, republished in The Pariah as Rebel, 77). In this essay and others, Arendt uses the phrase “conscious pariah” to describe a person who chooses to go against the grain and embrace the painful abnormality of their situation. While Arendt does not name herself, the term certainly applies to any Jewish–German refugee. Moreover with the Eichmann trial, Arendt embraces her refugee status more than her identity as a comfortably assimilated American. Eichmann in Jerusalem did not surface Arendt’s unconscious repressed since trauma is never assimilated. However, it made Arendt into a pariah from sublimating an impossible history itself.
Hannah Arendt shows how the philosopher consciously makes herself into a pariah to initiate a new discourse on the Holocaust. Indeed, as with recent cases of whistle blowers in the US, these individuals embrace their ‘pariahdom’ to initiate a once taboo discourse. Moreover, their position is not necessarily to convey a “message” or explain, “what happened.” It is rather to “change the record of history.” These individuals reference what has been left out of political discourse by making themselves into an outcast. Moreover, they act politically to initiate free speech on topics that were previously unspeakable. Hannah Arendt makes the decision to witness what has been left out and eradicated from history. The film is a reminder that the conscious- pariah inaugurates the possibility of an Other historical discourse that is not yet entirely determined.
Dr. Jessica Datema is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bergen Community College with a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Philosophy from Binghamton University (SUNY). Datema is a published poet and has written articles on modernism, psychoanalysis and literary theory. Most recently she co-edited the book Wretched Refuge: Immigrants and Itinerants in the Postmodern. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a book project entitled: A Modernist Influenced Hard-Boiled Poetics.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. New York; London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
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—-. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. Print.
Arendt, Hannah, and Ron H Feldman. “The Pariah as Rebel: We Refugees.” The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. New York: Grove Press : distributed by Random House, 1978. 55–67. Print.
Barnouw, Dagmar. Visible Spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Print.
Benhabib, Seyla. “Hannah Arendt’s Political Engagements.” Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. 55–61. Print.
—-. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996. Print.
Bernstein, Richard J. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. Print.
Caruth, Cathy. “Lying and History.” Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. 79–92. Print.
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—-. What Is Called Thinking? New York: Perennial Library, 1968. Print.
Mailer, Norman. “The Mary McCarthy Case.” The New York Review of Books 17 Oct. 1963. The New York Review of Books. Web. 2 Sept. 2013.
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Schlöndorff, Volker, and Margarethe von Trotta. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. 1975. Film.
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Film Review - Fill the Void / Lemale et ha halal
by Manya Steinkoler
Rama Burshtein’s first film, Lemale et ha’halal” translated from the Hebrew as Fill the Void is beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted. It won seven Ophir awards and a variety of international prizes and honorable mentions. The film highlights the close Haredi family ties as the repeated tight shots depict the lack distance between the characters, especially between mothers and daughters. The beauty and intimacy is worth a closer look.
The filmmaker not only invites us to the table where food is served and charity is given to the poor and needy, but into a world of religious joy in the many scenes of celebratory song and dance. In a particularly beautiful scene, she invites us into the synagogue to witness a circumcision ceremony from above, a Divine perspective, but also one must note, from the women’s segregated section of the synagogue, a perspective we sometimes share with the female members of the community by way of Burshtein’s camera.
Like the women confined to their “section” of the synagogue, everyone has a place in this marginal world: the unmarried woman with no arms, the homely girl no man wants to marry, the complaining old woman who is unable to purchase a stove by herself, and even the greedy man plagued by his mentally ill wife are not deprived of the Rabbi’s indulgence. They will all find a place or discover that they already belong in the community. The question that we are forced to ask from a modern secular perspective is at what price do we have such a place?
The characters wrestle with deeply felt personal emotions amidst complex family and social dynamics. The audience is taken out of our secular world and shown a kind of intimacy and belonging that we could only feel nostalgic for in our modern, urban lives. I overheard the elderly New York man sitting beside me at the movie theater remark to his wife, “Who would have thought that we would have to become Hassidim nowadays in order to be happy!” The wife replied was silent for a moment, the audience was weeping and then replied – still moved by the film and wiping her eyes: “So you can read books and I can wash the kitchen floor?” It is to this response – both weeping and critiquing that this review is faithful.
The American critical reception of the film has been positive yet notably tepid in terms of meaningful critique. A.O. Scott of the New York Times sees a “young person figuring herself out” in the Hassidic community as “accessible and thrilling.” For the Jewish Week’s George Robinson, Rama Burshtein has “the power of an Otto Preminger” and calls the film “stunningly poised.” Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times focused primarily on the plot of the arranged marriage and the threat to Shira’s “free choice.” Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, more ambiguously and coolly noted that “Burshtein gets taut and subtle performances, but also cuts the characters off from the wider world even more decisively than they do themselves.” The critics mention the tight shots of the closed community, as well as the intense personal conflict of a religious young woman. These seem to most New York audience members as I listened to them speak after the film, a sentimental, rather wistful longing for family, community and communal responsibility. While the film is most sentimental with regard to these two points, it is at the same time, most problematic and disturbing. And the way it is both sentimental and disturbing warrants more critical commentary.
The story: Shira Mendelman, aged 19, is thinking about getting married as Rivka Mendelman (her mother) takes a cell phone call from the local matchmaker, Mrs. Striecher. The pair proceed to the dairy section of the local supermarket to spy on the eligible Pinchas Miller who is standing in front of the milk. Shira looks at him and nods in approval; she likes him! Mazal Tov!
It is Purim and we see the holiday festivities at the home of Rabbi Aaron and Rivka Mendleman. Shira’s elder sister Esther is nine months pregnant. At the holiday celebration, Yochai, Esther’s husband, becomes drunk (it is permitted by Jewish law to be drunk on Purim) and movingly professes his love to his pregnant wife. Charity is given by the father, Rabbi Aaron to the needy, as they address their personal and financial problems to him. After the evening’s celebration, disturbing rock and roll music creeps in from the neighborhood. I remark upon this detail since it is one of the only times in the film that we are made aware that there is an outside world, one that differs greatly from the world we are watching; disturbing, dissonant “music” intrudes on the safe world of this traditional community who sing centuries-old Purim niggunim (religious tunes). Indeed, the fact that this story takes place in the Haredi community in Tel-Aviv is largely ignored except for the passing trucks and street signs we see in Hebrew. It seems as though it could be the Haredi community anywhere. As the loud rock and roll music from outside the home insists, Esther collapses in the bathroom. It seems rock and roll has adverse effects on pregnant Hassidic women. Esther dies and is survived by her infant son, Mordechai. We soon learn that Pinchas Miller will marry someone else and a year later, it is Yochai, the single father, who will require Mrs. Streicher’s matchmaking attentions.
Rivka Mendelman, the mother of Shira and of the deceased Esther, hears that Mrs. Streicher intends to match Yochai with a widowed mother in Belgium. Afraid she will be deprived of her infant grandson and son-in-law, her eyes fall on her youngest daughter, Shira. The remainder of the film will depict Shira’s ambivalence, as she vacillates back and forth between an initial “no” - Yochay is her sister’s husband, after all—to a weak “yes,”—“for the sake of the family” - that quickly turns into a “no” once again when the chief rabbi tenderly tells Shira that she is allowed to, indeed, expected to, express her true feelings when taking her marriage vows. She then says “No” to marrying her dead sister’s husband. Not long after, however, Shira will change her mind yet again to a “final yes,” in a private note she pens to the head rabbi. (This note-writing is the Hassidic practice of kvitel, which entails the writing of prayer notes to the Rabbi. It is through this kvitel to the rabbi that she is able to say “yes” to Yochai. I remark on this because the “writing” rather than speaking the yes puts it in the place of prayer and thus of jouissance - a source of the division that Shira was plagued with due to the oedipally interdicted nature of this match). A wedding scene follows, with long close ups of a nervously praying bride, full of her personal kvitel in her prayer book on her lap. A very brief final scene follows of the couple arriving home after the wedding. We are left with an ambiguous closing shot of a terrified and anxious bride hovering nervously, backing up against the wall of her new home.
Taking over her sister’s position as wife and mother is initially impossible for Shira. It is an oedipal interdiction that she cannot overcome, one that has structured her desire, allowing her to dream of her own future without conscious envy of her sister. (One is reminded of Freud’s case of Elisabeth von R. and her hysteric outbreak due to the death of her sister and her desire for her brother-in-law). This oedipal interdiction is made obvious many times in the film and is consistent all the way to the final shot of anxiety and trepidation in the newlywed home.
While not subject to hysterical somaticizations and symptoms, Shira Mendelman is nevertheless ambivalent and melancholic, mourning the loss of her sister and of the life she had dreamed of for herself with Pinchas of the dairy section. The drama of the film moves from Shira’s original “no,” to her agreement to marry Yochai in obedience to her parent’s wishes, to a “no” of her own, supported by the rabbi, to a final “yes of her own,” made possible via the kvitel to the rabbi. This final “desire of her own,” is luckily for all, exactly the one that is expected of her by her parents and by the community.
While there has been much simplistic “critical” affirmation of “Shira’s choice” in the reviews surrounding the film, in my view, this superficial enthusiasm marks an ersatz feminism fueled by liberal guilt and embarrassment at criticizing the religious right. There has been no critical discussion of this “choice” as an ideological one. It is through Shira’s “choice,” after all, that the community stays together in Israel, the Holy Land and a fate of dispersal is avoided. Shira’s choice is made to satisfy her mother; it was initially her mother’s idea.
One point worth mentioning is that this “yes” cannot happen without Yochai’s intervention, one that Shira originally had to denounce and flee. Yochai places his own desire on the line. Importantly, we never see Shira’s desire even once; we will only know about her ‘yes’ by way of her private and secret letter to the rabbi. Initially, Yochai is angered and humiliated when he is unsuccessful in his solicitations. Earlier in the film, we saw him movingly declare his life-long love for her sister, Esther, and a year later, with Esther gone, he is rather easily suggestible and sexually interested in Shira. The idea that this nineteen year old could say “no” to him - “no” to him insofar as he is a man—comes as a surprise. Here the film ably and sensitively tells us psychological truths. Shira is only able to finally say “yes” because she was once able to say “no” and defend her desire vis-à-vis her sister. Moreover, Yochai can only become desirable once he was shown to be lacking phallically, i.e., castrated, no longer expecting that Shira would embrace him now that he is suddenly available and she can take her sister’s place. What is at stake is Shira’s own subjective division, and it remains at stake throughout the film to the very end as she is pinned against the wall, anxious, praying and trembling installed in her “proper place at home.” The mother’s desire to keep the family together is supported by Yochai’s interest in Shira. In the scenes with Yochai and Shira, Burshtein manages – and hats off to her here—to depict a Hassidic man as masculine. Yochai takes a risk approaching a woman, in coming literally “too close to her,” as Shira will anxiously protest, putting out her hand in defense, “you are too close.” It seems that with all the physical proximity in the film, one finds a clear limit, and it is Shira’s. The limit is the oedipal transgression, the law is the one that structures the unconscious and repression as such. There is one “closeness” that Shira, at least to begin with, says “no” to. In these “seduction” scenes, Yochai is an important addendum to popular images of Hassidic men. He is not a good rabbinic father, nor is he a perverse frequenter of prostitutes, or a double-dealing crook; Yochai desires a woman and loves her as a man in terms of the law. He takes one woman (at a time) as his symptom, meaning he is able to replace the woman he loves with another one.
At the same time that we laud such innovations that counter our inherited stereotypes of Hassidic men, Filling the Void aims at much more than a difficult family romance as its ideological and symbolic underpinnings have deeper roots.
Esther Mendelman dies on Purim, the very day when the Jews celebrate Queen Esther’s saving them from impending destruction. The Purim story tells of a time when the future of the Jews was threatened. In the Mendelman family, the threat is the dissolution of the family unit; Yochai and Mordechai will be taken away from their grandmother Rivka, a fate unbearable for her. The threat is transposed from the “evil other outside” threatening the community, to the idea that the threat could be inside the community. We note that the threat to the community is concomitant with a threat to the mother. This destructive threat can be seen in the film on two fronts: destruction by way of modernity and secularism (the rock and roll music that kills Esther); and the threat of Diaspora. Concomitant with leaving the mother, Yochai could leave the Holy Land for—Belgium, the Diaspora! – (the place that the potential new wife proposed by the matchmaker lives). It will become Shira’s job to protect the family from this threat.
The threat of the Diaspora unites the family story with a less evident religious one and a more important, political one. This is made most dramatically apparent by the memorable music that underlines this point. At key dramatic moments of decision making, lush music overtakes Shira (whose name means “song” in Hebrew). Awash in pathos in a melancholic dirge while playing her accordion, in one scene she ignores all the kindergarten children for whom she is playing. This dirge transforms, however, into the major musical event of the film, a modern choral rendition of “If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand.” The tune of the psalm is so melodic, so memorable, that many audience members left the theater humming it to the closing credits.
The moving song is a metonym for Shira (song) herself. It serves as the dramatic antithesis to the “disturbing rock and roll” that intruded from the neighbors, the “musical outside” that “killed” her sister. Shira is identified with the “good music” that is nationalistic and ideological - the music that preserves and doesn’t kill. Shira is identified with the good music insofar as her name means song and insofar as the song for Jerusalem becomes aligned with close ups of her. We might recall that on Purim, the congregation makes a loud noise to cover over the name of the evil Haman, the man responsible for trying to destroy the Jews. Noise is used to “cover over” the mentioning of his name, as a way of “erasing” his name. Here, “beautiful music” and religious ideology “covers” the threat of Rock and Roll, the threat of modernity, of the secular world. Moreover, by way of this song, Shira (song), her family, and the Haredi community, become Israel (Jerusalem); it is not Esther who thus saves Mordechai (the story of Purim) but Shira who saves the threatened nation of Israel (from modernity and Diaspora) by marrying Yochai. Shira literally becomes the “song” by which “God lives” (Yochai means God lives); the family is kept together and the place in Israel (with God) is ensured. The symbolic names and the repeated moving music underline the less evident religious-political message; in Shira’s “choice” to “fill the void” and take her sister’s place, “Jerusalem is not forgotten.” Married to song, the couple, “Shira and Yochai,” become a metaphor for art that glorifies God, and perhaps for Burshtein’s film itself. Shira’s choice re-establishes community and continuity where there was loss; the void is filled, as the title of the film promises. Shira takes her sister’s place; Rivka’s wish has been fulfilled; Jerusalem is not forgotten. A young woman stands trembling and terrified against the wall of her new home.
. . .
“Chalal” (void) is an interesting word in Hebrew. It means “space” or “void” and seems to have a variety of etymological origins, one of which is the Arabic, “breach.” Strong’s Biblical Concordance suggests two principal Biblical meanings: commencement, beginning, void, piercing, cavity, and vacuum; and in another series, wounding, making oneself sick, and profanation.
The notion of “void” in Hassidic thought has its origins on Lurianic Kabbalah. The Hassidic movement is inspired by the Kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum where we learn that in creating the world, God, as Infinite, put himself aside. He thereby created a space for finite beings and thus for human choice. It is here that the notion of “free will” has a role in Lurianic thought. In the Chassidic interpretation and tradition based on this thought, by way of this void, God opens the way for love. This is called “chalal hapanui.” Contracted Divine space is where human creation and agency (through speech) can come into being. In this idea, interestingly, all the meanings of the word “chalal” come together: beginning, profanation (the mortal and finite), and vacuum (God’s retreat). God, “HaMakom” (in Hebrew, the place) is not the void. He is the Other that guarantees the void as constructed by His love for human beings. The more one is open to Divine Love, the more one’s choices will coincide with the Infinite itself. Shira’s “filling the void” while deeply personal, read in the religious context, is a destined choice, one “in tune” with God’s love for his people. In such a reading, the more she loves, the more her choice is God’s choice for his people. Such a literal and religiously inspired “filling of the void” is a reading lost on the secular audience but very present for a religious one. Shira’s choice is both hers and God’s at the same time. And the notion of family-community- and state achieve perfection in the Holy Land inhabited by God’s chosen people. We leave the theater singing, weeping, wishing for the good old days of tight-knit communities, charity giving and good ole tonal choral singing…
In Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell’s famous text, The Anti Enlightenment, he argues vociferously against thinkers who require obedience, especially as regards the difficult work of the democratic state and just social action. In an article in Ha’aretz in 2011, bewailing the Israeli turn to the right and the passing of discriminatory ethnic laws in Israel fueled by the Orthodox right wing, he states that while the right is “marginalized all over Europe, Israel risks becoming an anachronistic state…where ethnic inequality has become a legal norm.” He continues in this regard: “The disgraceful flight from a confrontation with the right in the Knesset will not soon be forgotten, and the center’s moral bankruptcy will be recorded as a disgrace.” He continues with a statement not for the right - but for his readers: “The greatest enemies of democracy and the sources of fascism’s strength have always been - not the radical right’s independent power—but the opportunism, conformism and cowardice of the center” (Ha’aretz, April 1, 2011). His words should cause us to reflect: why have no critics commented on the ideological position of this movie? Why because it focuses on a young woman and its director is a Hassidic Jew, must we all keep our mouths shut? Why is it suddenly a “feminist choice” (according to one critic) to marry your sister’s husband and keep the family together in Israel?
In an article written the following November, Sternhell will ask tauntingly whether Israel still needs democracy. He states provocatively that there is “nothing holy about democracy” (Ha’aretz, November, 2011). Sternhell has been outspoken about the occlusion of democratic process and promise due to the institution of religious law. An attempt on his life was made because of his outspoken position.
Psalm 137: If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.
The question of the division of the city, of the right to share the holy city, of an Israeli state as a modern state amongst other nations, of a Palestinian state, of the occupied territories, of the settlements, of citizenship with equal rights for non-Jews…
…Is there a catchy tune for something as unholy as democracy? What song do we sing when our choices have no guarantee and the void is not filled by our acts and our words but constituted by them?
In a closing reflection, I would like to place a lecture of Jacques Lacan beside our last shot of the new bride, as she is backed up against the wall of her new home. “Up against the wall,” conforming to a domestic, religious and maternal injunction that goes against her subjective division, Shira prays as her husband/brother-in-law enters the room to hang his hat, a shtreimel.
Je parle aux Murs, (I speak to the walls) is a series of lectures Jacques Lacan gave at the St Anne Hospital in 1971-72 in which he addresses the “savoir,” or, “knowledge” of the psychoanalyst. Lacan speaks, he tells us, “to the walls,” suggesting that despite his enormous popularity as a lecturer, “no one is listening to him.” The wall is thus the other who listens as well as a limit internal to language, a limit to understanding and “shared meaning.” In this sense it is the opposite of the “shared meaning” of ideological injunctions or national or religious “destinies.” For Lacan, we cannot exit the “wall” of castration, constituted by speech. “Common sense” is a narcissistic ruse, i.e., a form of the refusal of knowledge of the Real of which ideology and religion are prime examples. Far from “filling the void,” Lacan tells us that the void is engendered by speech and refers to Plato’s cave and to the origins of language and creation ex-nihilo. What he calls the Real, the excess of signification that eludes language, is what limits shared meaning, and concerns a “knowledge” particular to the psychoanalyst and particular to each speaking subject in analysis. In these lectures, Lacan tells us that the passion for ignorance takes as its mainspring not wanting to know anything about this “Real.” He adds provocatively that in his lectures he “gives reason, at least, to the walls” (or we could say - he shows that the walls are right, that they have a reason). Playing on the homophony between “reason” with réson,” evoking the walls he speaks to as “echoing,” or resonating, he suggests that walls echo by way of a cave. Via Plato, Lacan refers to the cavernous space of the object a - of the voice in the speech, of the resonance in speech of what is not speech, of the body and the Real. This resonance concerns the analytic encounter in its absolute singularity - a singularity that cannot finally be overcome by way of ideology or conformity. It concerns the origin of language as the cry, the origin of song, of what invents and maintains the void.
So we take leave of Shira at the wall in her new home. Lacan is not talking to her, but to the wall, to what she stands against, only to tremble. Her terror shows that religion and ideology have not solved her dilemma; they have not resolved the problem: what does Shira want? They have only placed her there, married, “up against the wall.” The trembling overtakes her, a jouissance of her body despite the “right answer,” and one that all the praying at the walls in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can only petrify, if not augment in a regretful, parochial moralism.
Fill the Void shows how the woman is made use of in order to sustain the Other as a source of meaning’s guarantee, the very opposite of the way Lacan theorizes the feminine in his seminar, Encore. There he shows that feminine jouissance concerns the lack in the Other, and that the phallus is a semblance. She doesn’t fill the void, but shows that the Other is “not all.” The film shows how the feminine is sacrificed to make “meaning.” Luckily, the film maker was wise enough to leave us with her protagonist trembling at this sacrifice.
About Town - Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and John Zorn
by Vanessa Sinclair
This year two of the most influential experimental/ avant-garde artists of our time, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and John Zorn, are having retrospectives of their work. Both based in New York, these two creative forces have been relentlessly testing the limits and pushing the boundaries of conceptualizations of art and music for decades.
This summer the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg is exhibiting over 100 pieces of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s work in a retrospective entitled S/HE IS HER/E. With focus on the Pandrogeny project that Genesis embarked on with wife Lady Jaye, the exhibition covers he/r career from the late 1960’s until today, revealing the progression of the work as it unfolded over decades culminating in merger of the artists’ selves into The Pandrogyne.
Breyer P-Orridge began as a performance artist in the late 1960’s. He/r group COUM Transmissions performed public actions across Britain. Known for pushing the limits of their bodies and minds, the artists were once called the “Wreckers of Civilization.” Exploring conceptions of gender, identity and the imposition of societal structures upon the self, the group challenged traditional notions of sexuality while entering into the realm of the taboo. In its many incarnations, Breyer P-Orridge’s work has always questioned societal norms exposing pervasive systems inherent in culture, which serve to control, constricting thought and creativity. Noting that in every civilization, society and tribal structure there have been laws governing sexuality, suggesting that the powers that be have a vested interest in suppressing sexuality and its intrinsic power. Breyer P-Orridge has stated that freedom is taken away when there is a threat; sexuality posits a threat to control and should therefore be investigated and liberated.
Seeing the artist’s position in society as a signifier of the ability to short circuit all of those filters of social control we inherit long enough to create space for a new vision to come through, Breyer P-Orridge seeks to inspire others to wake up, disrupt and cut-up. Heavily influenced by the work of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, Breyer P-Orridge implements the method of the cut-up first utilized by Dada in the early twentieth century. In much the same way that Burroughs and Gysin discovered the combination of their work melded into what they termed the Third Mind, Breyer P-Orridge took this a step further by subjecting this to the Real of the body. Through body modification via surgical procedures and hormones, combined with the development of similar speech patterns and mannerism, Breyer P-Orridge sought to cut up their individual identities in order to come together more fully as one, the pandrogyne.
“We’d gone as far as we could of melding our mindsm of mimicking
clothing and so on, but it wasn’t enough. We wanted to make a statement
to the world that there is no limit to the way imagination is expressed.
The body is just more material. It’s just stuff, It’s not sacred. It’s not green,
It’s not fresh water. It’s just stuff. And we all play with it – makeup, contact
lenses, facial hair, no hair, clothing, dressing up – but we thought, “What
would happen if we became as much as possible physical mirrors of each
Defying categorization, the couple chose the term Pandrogeny as reflective of the inclusivity of sexuality. In the early 1970’s, Breyer P-Orridge wrote an essay entitled Panthropology, a reflection on the fluidity of sexuality, a young man’s commentary on the irrelevance of the object of his desire. Breyer P-Orridge explores the ratio of the masculine and feminine in all of us, constantly in a state of flux. “We are not heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transsexual. We are simply sexual.”
Concurrently, composer John Zorn is celebrating his 60th birthday this year with an array of events being held across the city, country and the world. With influences ranging from classical, jazz and pop to experimental, improv and hardcore, Zorn has been breaking the boundaries of music for decades. The venues showcasing Zorn’s work are just as varied as the compositions themselves. Sacred Voices was presented in correlation with the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim as part of their Works & Process series. Performed by six female vocalists in the rotunda of the museum, the pieces created a sense of the teetering on edge of the abyss, being pulled into the enveloping oceanic feeling of void, intriguing and alluring yet unnerving in its disorientation.
The ethereal beauty of these female vocalists was also showcased at Lincoln Center, along with a performance of Zorn’s groundbreaking Hermetic Organ. Displaying the range of Zorn’s artistic ability, The Complete String Quartets presented a cacophony of sound, highlighting the disruption of sharp aural movement as it dislocates one’s senses, disturbing the usual flow of harmony in exchange for a heightened awareness of one’s environment and expectations. In much the same way that Breyer P-Orridge utilizes the cut-up, Zorn short-circuits the typical, forcing the audience to remain attentive to every note, every movement. Disrupting supposition, Zorn creates a the space for something to be formed anew in much the same way as we use scansion in the analytic situation.
Zorn started his independent record label, Tzadik, in 1995 as a not-for-profit organization, showcasing new talent and veteran experimental musicians alike. Ten years later he opened a complementary venue, The Stone, in which all earnings from admission go directly to the performers. Set in a curatorial style, artists are given the ability to invite whomever they desire, providing opportunity for an eclectic range of ever changing musicians to interact and collaborate. Recently, the venue has moved towards an artist-in- residence model wherein each is given a week to perform twice a night for the week. In June, the Secret Chiefs 3 from Northern California enjoyed a stint at The Stone. Playing twelve different sets throughout the week, one such performance focused on the concept of tessellation. Originally applied to mosaic tile-work, tessellation as applied to music involves the slight rotation of one tile, or in this case note, causing the form to cascade affecting the pieces around it, causing a cascade of sound culminating into an ever changing, seemingly endless flow of patterns, which in this case went on for an hour and a half, sending the audience into a trance, challenging the notion of conventional music and heightening the impact of the innovation of sound.
Vanessa Sinclair PsyD is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York.
Film Review - Augustine, (2012) Alice Winocour
by Manya Steinkoler
Augustine, (2012) Alice Winocour, dir. Featuring: Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni.
It is surprising that a film about Augustine, the great hysteric immortalized in the extensive photographs and case presentations of the neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology Jean-Martin Charcot, was not made earlier. Alice Winocour’s suggestive and rich treatment of this story - a story foundational for the history of psychoanalysis and ultimately determinative for Freud’s revolutionary understanding of hysteria—highlights the importance of the gaze and the medical model of illness as intimately tied to the great flourishing of late 19th century hysterical madness.As such, the story of Augustine is innately cinematic. A dramatic plea to be seen and heard, of the unconscious on display, ‘hard at work’ in her body, the hysteric’s “andere schauplatz” is featured center stage in a theater where she feels right at home - the grand medical amphitheater of La Salpétrière.
The camera opens to a scene of crabs boiling in a pot in the bourgeois kitchen where Augustine is employed as a maid. The crab is being boiled alive among its fellows, and as its shell cannot protect it from the scorching water, despite the fact that the shell is what it had evolved to shield it from environmental changes, it flails its crab arms about as Augustine stares, mesmerized, only to be urged away from this scene back to her duties, serving the guests at the dinner table. The film begins then, with Augustine’s gaze, one we are asked as viewers to identify with as we stare with the camera, straight into the boiling pot. Augustine will be identified with this g aze as she becomes fascinated with the other’s fascination with the question of woman. We recall throughout the film the way the woman comes to “exist” for a man as she embodies the object of fantasy for him. When Lacan would elevate hysteria to the level of a discourse, he did so because hysteria is “invented” in terms of the desire of the Other.
We might recall that the crab never walks simply forward but is known for its sideways path and circuitous movement; one cannot know which way the wily creature will proceed. Further, the crab symbolizes the moon, itself a symbol of the feminine, due to the menstrual cycle. In the very first scene in the boiling kitchen pot, the lower-class maid gazes fixedly at the dying animals destined to be consumed. Quite a bit before we are asked to visit the hospital, we are already smack in the scene of hysteria: is this a legitimate story…or is it just a pot boiler? Augustine serves the food and begins to tremble while pouring the wine. Just prior to her wrist-trembling, the camera - once again identified with her gaze - ever so briefly pans by a man seated at the table who glances at her. This glance - so ephemeral - of the well dressed man at the table - is an erotic one. It is what sets her off, making her shake - as will the gazes of the herd of medical doctors in the amphitheatre, and of course, of their alpha master, Jean-Martin Charcot.
Thus we see from the very first scene, something of Augustine’s desire and of her identification. As object of the gaze, the troubled servant embodies personal, cultural and class-based expectations; the feminine animal is to be looked at and she is meant to perform. Appended to this gaze, the source of her jouissance, are the spasms of real death of the crab and the sexual “petit mort” she will embody in her dramatic “crises.” In other words, her “spasms” are performed for the one who looks at her; she is the subject of this fascinated gaze, one that she finds in the master, Charcot, as the very gaze she identifies with in her interest in the question of woman. These dramatically performed “crises” required such flexibility and strength that the actress Soko had to be specially trained for during months with yoga and dance teachers, as well as special effects coordinators. It seems it is hard work to “be” a hysteric!
The result is that Augustine will explode into convulsions, pulling the table cloth off the exquisitely set dinner table in what will seem to be a frightening and mystifying epileptic fit, resulting in her hospitalization at the Salpétrière. This “mad” gesture, an “accident” of aggression towards the dinner guests and toward her employer aims at the world she cannot belong to, except as an object of the gaze. This is emphasized in the film as we see the annoyance, perhaps even disgust and lack of care shown to the convulsing maid on the dining room floor. We further underline also that her “accidental gesture” also prevents the poor crabs from being eaten since the dinner was spoiled by her convulsive fit just before it could be enjoyed by the guests who will have to go hungry. The erotic gaze of the dinner guest is narratively transformed into Charcot’s gaze, one for whom Augustine will continue to perform, a fact that Winocour does not cease to underline, with his drawings, photographing, staring, and looking through a magnifying glass.
From the very first scene then, we see the importance of the object gaze for the hysteric interms of posing the question of the woman - and “parading” this question before the master, the one Lacan tells us that the hysteric seeks in order to “reign over him,” a sentence with which we could read the entire film.
The inclusion of the depiction of the other women in the Salpétrière hospital in the form of short vignettes is both current and effective making us consider hysteria as relevant to our contemporary moment as well. These short clips serve to underline the contemporary nature of hysteria, foregrounding the women patients as a speaking beings, not just as “objects” to be seen: one cuts, one is strikingly modern and seems to be taken from any college campus today, one is anorexic, one silent, one melancholic, one verbose, another morose, and then there is Augustine, the queen bee, with her dramatic convulsions, underlining the gaze that animates her, the one all the doctors in the audience are blind to.
The Freudian thesis that speech is central and that the “schauplatz” is “anderer,” is depicted filmicly by the consistent chiaroscuro - especially present in all of the domestic scenes which emphasize the role of the unseen, stressing the blind spot in Charcot’s medical approach, in the master’s certainty that he has “cracked the riddle” of the famously dark continent, one he thinks he can know without knowing himself. The chiaroscuro shows rather that the riddle has cracked him.
The theme of the “performing animal” so precious to science is underlined by Winocour by the presence of Charcot’s pet monkey, one that he keeps, rather significantly, chained to his working desk. The fact that Charcot is the “chained monkey” as well, is a fact utterly lost on him. We see that the monkey is part of the Charcot family and is present at the physician’s dinner with his wife, elegantly played by Chiara Mastroianni. Clearly the monkey is not “in” either member of the socially ambitious bourgeois couple’s circle - and yet, the monkey is so often present - and is used as the go-between in the beginning of the seduction scenes between Charcot and Augustine, embodying symbolically, the otherness of the drives.
The animal is further touched upon by the use of the feather that Augustine wears in her hair or carries in her hand when performing her spasms for the on-looking doctors. The feather starts to move and then - boom - a full-on possession crisis ensues - beginning with the trembling feather - she comes in ecstatic orgasm madly on the floor before all. The ticklish aspect of the feather as a symbol is completely ignored - as is its role in 19th century sex toys and games, as well as its denoting a bird in a cage - or here, a hysteric in a medical theater.
The greatest delight of the film is in the “mystery of Augustine’s cure” which “allows her” to finally perform her hysteria as a performance in the ultimate staging of the “legitimacy of Charcot’s findings” in the medical amphitheatre. What happens? Augustine is cured on the very day that she has to show herself to the world as ill! The very day that Charcot will be assured of his place as a master for all time!
Significantly, she is being dressed by attendants preparing her for her great appearance, the one that Charcot has been working up to diligently, that will secure him a place in medical history. For this event, the famous patient is dressed in a beautiful blue dress. Her hair is carefully coiffed; she is like a great actress, or a royal personage. Looking at herself in the mirror - now in the place of the bourgeois woman - the well dressed, upper class woman, she runs out of the room as fast as she can! About to get what she thought she wanted, she runs away and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs. She uses her arms and legs to help break her fall and—lo and behold! Her paralyzed hand is cured! Oh my goodness! She can use her hand! Miracle of miracles! She is cured!
Why does she run from herself all beautifully dressed? Why does she run from the performance so awaited for? What was unbearable to see in the mirror for her? Why is it in falling that she is cured? Perhaps it is not only Charcot who has to fall from his place of master, but Augustine, who must cede her place of privileged object.
Now cured, of her paralysis at least, she will return to the theater to “perform” her illness.The highlight of the film, in my view, is the quick glance she darts at Charcot when she is in an extreme inverted back bend in front of the academy of physicians. “I am pretending!” her glance says. “See? I am cured!” …and of course, the subtext is markedly clear: “You are an idiot!”
Initially, the mystery of Augustine’s crises trigger the production of the master’s knowledge, and at the end of the film, the performed crisis unmasks the fact that the knowledge of the master is ersatz, a phallic defense against his own jouissance. The master does not know - and Augustine the maid has gone all the way to the top to find this out, questioning the “most prominent expert” in the world on the matter. Feather in her cap!
We note then the place where there is knowing, is in the field of the transference. The important notion of transference and in this instance (and in that of Studies on Hysteria), of counter-transference, so important to Anna O. and Breuer and the first work with hysterics is underscored as the center of the drama of the hysteric’s question. Moreover, the inclusion of the gaze in the fabric and narrative of the film gives reason to the operation of Lacan’s invention of the objet a in his understanding of transference elaborated throughout his career.
The problem of the film is the inclusion of the hypothetical and invented last scene - where Charcot and Augustine supposedly “give in” to their sexual passion for one another after the “presentation” of the case, the case that is finally in its proper place as theater, and one known now to Charcot as theater, whose aim was to show the master’s lack. While the sex at such a point might make narrative sense - i.e., now that he is lacking, the master, exposed, can fuck the woman, at the same time, to think that phallic jouissance in the final scene is an “answer” to the hysteric’s question is another way to obfuscate it. As an explanation, it does not leave us - or the characters—with an enigma, and suggests that this “momentary passionate indulgence” is an “answer” to the enigma. In my estimation, there is something “sold out” about the inclusion of this scene. As though “something has to happen.” If not, if there is no “sex,” well, what is the modern audience to think? Where is all this going? Isn’t that the point? Didn’t he always just want to fuck her and vice versa? And where does that leave us?
Perhaps Winocour gets duped by the hysteric’s demand—as though exposing Charcot as a man was an answer to the question and not the beginning of another one. Supposedly, after the sexual interlude, Augustine walks away, now cured of her blindness and paralysis and “curing” Charcot of his blindness and “paralysis” in turn. In order to be cured - Augustine needed to know that the answer and the cure - was also an enigma. After all, she is just as mystified to why she can use her hand as she was as to why she couldn’t. All answers fail to answer the question of the hysteric. Speech cannot answer her question, but the film makes us think there is an answer in jouissance ; it does not help us see this jouissance as a failure of an answer, something that might be helpful in the era when we are “supposed” to enjoy.
We are glad that this obscure maid who lived over a century ago has inspired an interesting new film. And yet, in homage, like Breton, I can’t help but want to return to her august name in opening up a question that visual media can never exhaust. After all, in his surrealist manifesto, Augustine inaugurated the “greatest poetic discovery of the late 19th century” and one whose poetic energy remains, like her dramatic ampitheaterical performances, flexible, adaptable, inventive, and mysterious still.