Notes on Mekas, Marker, and memory

Last night, watching Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, as on other occasions I’ve found my face flickering in the temporal mysteries of his images, I couldn’t bear facing the film directly. Not for a lack of attention or interest in his child-like sincerity, nor for a dearth of endearment in the the careful slurring of his words and silences – in the whirl of an eye that fragments the past the moment it’s uncovered – rather, I couldn’t sustain a gaze for if I truly fell into his spell I believed and still believe that I wouldn’t return.

Remember that scene at the very beginning of Sans soleil, where Chris Marker presents us with an image of happiness that is so totalizing in its Medusa-like rapture that it can only be seen in the “long black leader” that follows it, in its traces, in its reverberations?

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.

Of course the film Joan of Arc describes is this very one. Alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. But it’s also another film. A film of course he’ll never make. It’s a sci-fi film. He even gives it a title, Sans soleil. But it’s a film that like the happiness in the picture only exists in the margins, in the traces, in the echoes and reverberations of something which, the moment you see it, it shatters. Or do you shatter? The moment you see it, it petrifies, it collapses, and its life escapes. Or does yours?

In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it’s a year later. He’s walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.

Why this cut in time, he asks, this connection of memories?

He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.

Someone who has lost forgetting. If an image of happiness escapes into the margins in the wake of its weight, an image of unhappiness is precisely imageless, enduring only in shadows, in traces. It cannot be gathered into a frame, nor can it be imagined, hanged on a wall, hung on a tree. The unhappiness of the past is unimaginable precisely because it is not yet past.

The past is not yet past because it cannot be forgotten.

The past is a ghost, a spirit, a spectre that the present has not exorcised.

Not to forget the past is not yet to remember it.

To remember the past is for it to become past, to pass away.

But the past is a lingering pain, non-memories of injustice that can only be remembered, that is, can only be forgotten, the moment our present becomes an answer to the grievances which questions like the wind searches through us its answer. The classic moral of ghost-stories: the purgatory of unresolved pain. Neither remembered nor forgotten. Inbetween. In the interstices of time.

This is why the images of the past are not images per se. The moment they fit into a frame and hung on a wall, the past becomes a genetic justification for the present which consigns them to a past that is not properly past.

The mystical Mekas, like Marker and his non-images of the Zone – those that “at least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality” – can access this past, not yet past, but exceedingly past. But I can’t sustain his gaze. So I tweeted:

and then:

and again:

When Mekas appears in his own films he has the look of those Icelandic children, or the women in the marketplaces of Bissau and Cape Verde who stare with equality: “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.”

I wrote that there’s something so mercurial in Mekas’ eyes when in image he looks past the camera, something that’s more cunning and knowing, more clever than the lilting naïveté of his absent eyes through which we watch his films.

This look is capable of overcoming the immense distance of time. Like the nativity of film in La jetée, where from still images emerges a look, a gesture, and a touch that reaches across times, Mekas sees more when he’s seen than when he’s seeing.

The reminisces of the journey to Lithuania, to a home that’s still there but inhabited only by a cat, are numbered 1 through 100. Mekas calls them glimpses. They do not grasp the past. They’re not supposed to. The past isn’t something that can be grasped. They intimate in a peripheral voice. They point to. They gesture. Swirlingly sparse, they fragment.

But something spills over the edges of the frames and the void between them. Time isn’t numbered. There are gaps. There are interstices. Mekas’ voice that so sincerely searches for the right word where there is none, thus his lilting, slurring, silencing, speaks through the parentheses, spills over, weaves through.

The borders of the frame and the manner in which Mekas sets them as seeing and flees them when seen work like less like Husserl’s phenomenological bracketing and more like the brackets in that chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse called “Time Passes.”

Consider:

[Here Mr Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.]

And that emphatic condemnation of poetry:

[Mr Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

Even though the brackets quite literally gather the past into their embrace, what they gather is an offstage objectivity whose matter of fact tone is nothing more than a silence.

A peripheral voice, a parenthetical voice.

An intimation of.

A gesturing towards.

A Gesualdo madrigal, a Bruckner mass.

And a Čiurlionis prelude.

some thoughts on Spinoza, suicide, anorexia, vegetarianism, Chris Kraus, and Simone Weil

Is suicide a choice? It seems that, more than life, suicide can be decided, and even life, if it is a choice, is so only as one of the many answers to the question that suicide poses. Yet, to say that suicide is a choice, that is, a decision, the enacting of a will, decisively, is to say further that death too is a possibility that can be wrenched into being.

Which death?

Listen to the last lines (though what are the last lines if a postscript follows…?) of Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death:

Comme si la mort hors de lui ne pouvait désormais que se heurter à la mort en lui. “Je suis vivant. Non, tu es mort. /// As if the death outside of me could henceforth only collide with the death inside of me. “You are alive. No, you are dead.”

Who speaks here? The voice comes from the outside where there is only death and only collision, but inside of the quotation marks there is the confusion of life and death, a you, not an I.

To say that suicide is a choice is to confuse one death for another. The death that makes me for the death I make. I am insofar as my death precedes me. I am insofar as my death recedes from my grasp. I am insofar as I make this death into an act. I am insofar as I am conscious of me disappearing.

Yet, this death I meet meets me, this death I grasp grasps me, such that, in the final instance, “I” neither kill myself nor die, since this death is not mine, for it has no relation to me. In the fnal instance, I am only consciousness disappearing, I am not, consciousness, only, disappearing. While, for Blanchot I who kill myself am not I who is killed, for the latter is an other, for Spinoza, I who am killed by myself am not I who kills, for the latter is an other.

A suicide between absolute activity – a voluntary death, a willed death, a last will and testament to oneself – and absolute passivity – a suicide victim, victim of whom? no one, no one at all, only the inanimate matter through which power penetrates. A suicide between.

I want to stop here for a moment, because the examples that Spinoza includes in the scholiastic demonstration of the impossibility of suicide – that i) no one can kill themselves from the necessity of their being and that ii) when one does kill oneself one must be an other to oneself without being able to cognize this otherness – are strange.

Before that strange sentence:

Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in mind.

                                                                                    : there’s Seneca and anorexia.

Only a side note on Seneca. Nowhere in Tacitus (presumably Spinoza’s source) is his death qualified as a voluntary death, the Latin formulation of suicide. Seneca remains implacable when asked if he’s contemplating suicide, his death follows from a sentence not a will. Further, Spinoza adds to the source that Seneca “chooses a lesser evil to avoid a greater,” where a greater evil than death is impossible to imagine in the framework of the affects.

Anorexia, then. Which is implicitly gendered.

There are a few ways to formulate the sexual difference of transcendence and the language used to describe it.

1)

Genevieve Lloyd picks up on the framing of Spinoza’s conatus as only a human desire in her discussion of The Ethics in relation to its possible grounding of environemtnal ethics. One passage she focuses on is when Spinoza determines “man’s” rights over the beasts because our power or virtue is far greater than theirs. Although Spinoza doesn’t deny that animals “feel,” our natures are not compatible in essence only in power over.

Incidentally, this is why I am always wary of discussions of power – whether Nietzsche’s will to power or Spinoza’s concatenation of equivalences with power is essence is virtue, etc. – for even when someone like Deleuze tries to avoid misinterpretation by insisting that the will to power does not mean a desire to dominate, nor the desire for power, it seems to me that power is never neutral. Power is always encoded within the constraints of one who wields it.

So, while with Spinoza we can think of a shifting scale of individuality by which one could, in encouraging identification with an ecosystem, shift ecological actions away from the human as existing above an environment towards actions within an ecosystem as an ecosystem, there is still a codified hierarchy of power. A greater or less than of reality that rings radical in a theory of immanence is still recoded into an ideological dimension of power as oppression.

One of these instances in Spinoza is when he notes that “it is clear that the requirement to refrain from slaughtering beasts is founded on groundless superstition and womanish compassion rather than on sound reason.”

The insistence of “womanish compassion,” is especially revealing. Vegetarianism is not merely an ethical or political choice, but, like with the character of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, it is not a choice at all. But neither is it a passivity considered as being constrained by external forces or determination. To say either choice or constraint in this case is to reduce becoming-vegetal into a masculine binary of domination.

Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’

As Sadie Plant says of that “specular” economy (referring to Irigaray, another theorist of the vegetal), the patriarchy is an ecomony, not a construction or an order, but the exchange first and foundingly of women as commodities. Yeong-hye escapes by becoming vegetal, becoming a body with neither organs nor sex, but a substance as light as it is fed on light.

Of course this desirelessness is seen as passivity by the men in her life who are enraged by the neutrality of her existence, taking what they see as passivity as an acquiescence to their power, as an invitation to rape, to dominate, to destroy, though all of these men are disgusted by their violence, because of the silence in response to it, because her passivity is not in relation to them, which of course makes them all the more violent.

Starving is always seen as starving for attention, as if such a lack is always in reference to a refusal to be penetrated which incites rage and entices rape.

Chris Kraus rhapsodizes this in relation to the alien body and Simone Weil, among others. One of Weil’s nicknames was “the Martian.” Another was “le vierge rouge.” Kraus in one passage of Aliens and Anorexia compiles patronizing characterizations of our mystic.

“Nancy Houston faults Weil for the denial of the body. She pities her because she never fucked, and therefore must’ve suffered from a lack of self-esteem.” … “According to Weil’s English editor/biographer, Richard Rees, she identifies the chief value of the human soul as a state of utter impersonality. And yet, as her friend-enemy Simone de Beauvoir would later argue in The Second Sex, the female self, because it is primarily defined by gender, can never be perceived impersonally.” … “In his 1991 biography of Weil, the scholar Thomas Nevin writes: “Her intellectual rigor, her relentless, never concessive way of arguing a position, her quest for the pure, worked as a mechanism for distancing herself as others might see her, as a woman.” … “In an extraordinarily patronizing introduction to Mary McCarthy’s translation of Weil’s monograph, The Iliad – A Poem of Force, Weil’s brother Ande notes that if only she had combed her hair, worn stockings and high heels, the world might have taken her more seriously.”

For Georges Bataille, who included her as a character he couldn’t fuck but whose depressive nature attracts him as a “talking-whore” in his work The Blue of Noon, writes six years after her death that her work was “immoral, trite, irrelevant, and paradoxical.”

“The bibliographic sourcebook to Weil’s work, published by UC Santa Cruz in 1992, describes her as an ‘anorexic philosopher’ who died of self-starvation at the age of 34.”

“A self-loathing and self-starving adrogyne.”

John Berger writes of her in a text called, Anti-gyne

Perversely, for Kraus all of the literature surrounding anorexia “is based on the unshakable belief that the formation of a gender-based identity is still the primary animating goal in the becoming of a person, if that person is a girl.”

Even the female psychotherapists “lead the pack in nailing down the anorexig girl as a simpering solipsitic dog: Marlene Boskind-White, Bulimarexia: ‘Anorexics have a disproportionate concern with pleasing others, particularly men, a reliance on others to validate their sense of self-worth. They have devoted their lives to fulfilling the feminine role.’ Anorexica are merely ‘starving for attention’ (Cherry O’Neill) and ‘as a group, they are manipulative and deceitful’ (Hilde Bruch).”

“No one considers that eating might be more or less than what it seems. At best, the anorexic is blocked in an infantile struggle to attain a separation from her mother. At worst, she is passive-aggressively shunning the ‘female’ state and role. At any rate, all these readings deny the possibility of a psychic-intellectual equation between a culture’s food and the entire social order. Anorexia is a malady experienced by girls and it’s still impossible to imagine girls moving outside themselves and acting through the culture. All these texts are based on the belief that a well-adjusted, boundaried sense of self is the only worthy female goal.”

2)

Anorexia – in Greek, without desire – is the figure of a gendered transcendence. For even Spinoza’s beatitude consists of detaching one’s mind from the thought of the outside. It is not a denial of the body as much as in Spinoza it is a rearranging of affects from external determination to self-determination, just as anorexia is not a denial of the body as such but only a recoding of its masculine inscriptions, an erasure of the sexual transcription of the female body. It need to be emphasized that this is not in relation to man or his desire, it is an erasure of his desire, which is why it must be foreclosed.

I would like to say so much more – especially about Simone Weil and decreation as a transcendence that includes a gendered desire without defining it in relation to a hegemonous and neutral masculinity, but I’m now drinking by a fire.

I’ll close with the opening of Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia:

……zzzzz……

This is Ulrike Meinhof speaking to the inhabi-

tants of Earth. You must make your death public.

On the night of May 9th 1976 in a special iso-

lation cell of the Stammheim Prison where I was

confined without sentence by order of the Chief

Prosecutor of the Federal Republic of Germany,

as co-leader of the Red Army Fraction….

zzzzzzzz

As the rope was tightening around my neck,

moment of losing my mind, suddenly I lose my

perception but regained all my consciousness

and discernment. An Alien made love with me.

If it is true as certain newspapers write, that

traces of sperm were found on my dress, these

could be the traces of intercourse.

After making love, I could state that my con-

sciousness went on functioning in a new and

uninjured body.

Afterward the Alien took me to a special planet

which belongs to Andromedas. The society

there treats time and space with intensity, gen-

tleness, discipline and freedom. Over…

Compare this with the last entry in Simone Weil’s diary:

He entered my room and said: “Poor creature, you who understand nothing, who know nothing. Come with me and I will teach you things which you do not suspect.” I followed him.

He took me into a church. It was new and ugly. He led me up to the altar and said: “Kneel down.” I said: “I have not been baptised.” He said: “Fall down on your knees before this place, in love, and before the place where lies the truth.” I obeyed.

He brought me out and made me climb up to a garret. Through the open window one could see the whole city spread out, some wooden scaffolding, and the river, on which boats were being unloaded. The garret was empty, except for a table and two chairs. He bade me to be seated.

We were alone. He spoke. From time to time someone would enter, mingle in the conversation, then leave again.

Winter had gone; spring had not yet come. The branches of the trees lay bare, without buds, in the cold air full of sunshine.

The light of day would arise, shine forth in splendour, and fade away; then the moon and the stars would enter through the window. And then once more the dawn would come up.

At times he would fall silent, take some bread from a cupboard, and we would share it. This bread really had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste again.

He would pour out some wine for me, and some for himself—wine which tasted of the sun and of the soil upon which this city was built.

At other times we would stretch ourselves out on the floor of the garret, and sweet sleep would enfold me. Then I would wake and drink in the light of the sun.

He had promised to teach me, but he did not teach me anything. We talked about all kinds of things, in a desultory way, as do old friends.

One day he said to me: “Now go.” I fell down before him, I clasped his knees, I implored him not to drive me away. But he threw me out on the stairs. I went down unconscious of anything, my heart as in shreds. I wandered along the streets. Then I realised I had no idea where this house stood.

I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come for me by mistake. My place is not in that garret. It can be anywhere—in a prison cell, in one of those middle-class drawing-rooms full of knick-knacks and red plush, in the waiting-room of a station—anywhere, except in that garret.

Sometimes I cannot help trying, fearfully and remorsefully, to repeat to myself a part of what he said to me. How am I to know if I remember rightly? He is not there to tell me.

I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of all, he loves me.

The editors of the diary notes that “unclassable mass of fragments follow.”