Monday, December 27, 2010

The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet

Jean Genet is my new discovery. A french writer, but formost a criminal, from 1930's. The book that I am reading right now is called 'The Thief's Journal'. With Jean Genet I experience the other side of the morality, which we, the common people, usually call immorality. Genet was the first homosexual to write openly about it. Both his homosexuality and crime are his literary subjects.

'Only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style' - Susan Sontag.

I am sure there are many writings around the web describing Jean Genet and his life. So here I will just offer some shorts pieces from 'The Thief's Journal'. These are the quotes that I most identified with or that I found beautiful.

'I bit Lucien until blood flowed. I was hoping to make his scream; his insensitivity conquered me. But I know that I would go so far as to rip my friend's flesh and lose myself in an irreparable carnage wherein I would preserve my reason and know the exaltation of the fall.
p. 145

'I did not slap anyone, but my voice was so shaken that I realised how angry was. In order to pull myself together, I robbed one of the officers that very same night.'
p. 68

'If I attempt to recompose with words what my attitude was at the time, the reader will be no more taken in than I. We know that our language is incapable of recalling even the pale reflection of those bygone, foreign states. The same would be true of this entire journal if it were to be the notation of what I was. I shall therefore make clear that it is meant to indicate what I am today, as I write it. It is not a quest of time gone by, but a work of art whose pretext-subject in my former life. It will be a present fixed with the help of the past, and not vice versa. Let the reader therefore understand that the facts were what I say they were, but the interpretation that I give them is what I am - now.'
p. 71

'In the hands of a poor man, coins are no longer the sign of wealth but of its opposite. No doubt I robbed some rich hidalgo in passing - rarely, for they know how to protect themselves - but such thefts had no effect on my soul. I shall speak of the others I committed against other beggars.'
p. 77

'During the morning walk in the yard, I was asked the same question, but I knew nothing about the health of the Princess of Piedmont, the king's daughter-in-law (the question concerned her). I learned later that she was pregnant and that the amnesty which is always granted upon the birth of a royal child depended on the child's sex.'
p. 107

'Neither by the recital nor the interlacing or overlapping of the facts - and I don't know what they are, which limits them in time and space - nor by their interpretation, which, without destroying them, creates new ones, can I discover the key, nor, by means of them, my own key. I undertook, with a baroque intention, to cite a few, pretending to omit those - the first which make up the apparent texture of my life - which are the knots of the glistering threads. If France is an emotion communicated from artist to artist - a relay of neurons, so to speak - then to the very end I am only a string of tinglings, the first of which are beyond my range. The prongs of a boat hook that had been dug into a drowned man to pull him out of a stream made me suffer in my child's body. Could it really be that people searched for corpses with harpoons? I roamed about the countryside, delighted to discover in the wheat or beneath the firs the bodies of drowned men to whom I accorded the most incredible obsequies. Can I say that it was the past - or that it was the future? Everything has already been caught, until my death, in an ice flow of being: my trembling when a piece of rough trade asks me to brown him (I discover that his desire is his trembling) during a Carnival night; at twilight, the view from a sand dune of Arab warriors surrendering to French generals; the back of my hand placed on a soldier's basket, but especially the sly way in which the soldier looks at it; suddenly I see the ocean between two houses in Biarritz; I am escaping from the reformatory, taking tiny steps, frightened not at the idea of being caught but of being the prey of freedom; straddling the enormous prick of a blond legionnaire, I am carried twenty yards along the ramparts; not the handsome football player, nor his foot, not his shoe, but the ball, then ceasing to be the ball and becoming a "kick-off", and I cease being that to become the idea that goes from the foot to th ball; in a cell, unknown thieves call me Jean; when at night I walk barefoot in my sandals across fields of snow at the Austrian border, I shall not flinch, but then I say to myself, this painful moment must conquer with the beauty of my life, I refuse to let this moment and all the others be waste matter; using their suffering I project myself to the mind's heaven. Some negros are giving me food on the Bordeaux docks; a distinguished poet raises hands to his forehead; a German solder is killed in the Russian snows and his brother writes to inform me; a boy from Toulouse helps me ransack the rooms of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of my regiment in Brest: he dies in prison; I am talking of someone - and while doing so, the time to smell roses, to hear one evening in prison the gang bound for the penal colony singing, to fall in love with a white-gloved acrobat - dead since the beginning of time, that is, fixed, for I refuse to live for any other end than the very one which I found to contain the first misfortune: that my life must be a legend, in other words, legible, and the reading of it must give birth to a certain new emotion which I call poetry. I am no longer anything, only a pretext.'
p. 117

'Later on , when, without refusing to get excited about a handsome boy, I applied the same detachment, when I allowed myself to be aroused, and when, refusing the emotion the right to rule me, I examined it with the same lucidity, I realized what my love was; on the basis of this awareness I established relationships with the world; this was the birth of intelligence.'
p. 181

'Robert went with us to a café. The joyousness of the event and its simplicity set my head spinning. I was no longer at Robert's side, nor even at Stilitano's. I was scattering myself to all corners of the worlds and was registering a hundred details which burst into light stars, I no longer know which. But when I accompanied Lucien for the first time, I had the same feeling of absence. I was listening to a housewife bargaining over a geranium.
"I'd like to have a plant in the house. . . " she was saying, "a nice plant. . . ."
This need for possessions, which made her want to have a plant of her own, chosen, with its roots and earth, from among the infinity of plants, did not surprise me. The woman's remark made clear to me the sense of ownership.
"She'll water her plant," I said to myself. "She'll buy it a majolica flowerpot. She'll put it out in the sun. She'll cherish it. . . ."
Lucien was walking at my side. The only live things I had ever owned were lovely pricks, whose roots were buried in black moss. I cherished several such, and I wanted them in all the flower of their strength. Those plants were my pride. Such was my fervor that their bearers themselves were amazed at their unwonted beauty. Nevertheless, each remained fastened, by a mysterious and solid base, to the male whose chief branch it was he owned it more than I did. It was his. Some flies were buzzing around Lucien. My hand mentally made the gesture of chasing them away. This plant was going to belong to me."
p. 139

more to come up

Monday, September 6, 2010

on escaping separateness

A fragment from Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving, The Theory of Love

… the human race in its infancy still feels one with nature. The soil, the animals, the plants are still man’s world. He identifies himself with animals, and this is expressed by the wearing of animal masks, by the worshipping of a totem animal or animal gods. But the more the human race emerges from these primary bonds, the more it separates itself from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find new ways of escaping separateness.

One way of achieving this aim lies in all kinds of orgiastic states. These may have the form of an auto-induced trance, sometimes with the help of drugs. Many rituals of primitive tribes offer a vivid picture of this type of solution. In a transitory state of exaltation the world outside disappears, and with it he feeling of separateness from it. Inasmuch as these rituals are practised in common, an experience of fusion with the group is added which makes this solution all the more effective.

All forms of orgiastic union have three characteristics: they are intense, even violent; they occur in the total personality, mind and body; they are transitory and periodical. Exactly the opposite holds true for that form of union which is by far the most frequent solution chosen by man in the past and in the present: the union based on conformity with the group, its customs, practices and beliefs. Here again we find a considerable development.

In a primitive society the group is small; it consists of those with whom one shares blood and soil. With the growing development of culture, the group enlarges; it becomes the citizenry of a polis, the citizenry of a large state, the members of a church. Even the poor Roman felt pride because he could say ‘civis romanus sum’; Rome and the Empire were his family, his home, his world. Also in contemporary Western society the union wit the group is the prevalent way of overcoming separateness. It is a union in which the individual self disappears to a large extent, and where the aim is to belong to the herd. If I am like everybody else, if I have no feelings or thoughts which make me different, if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved; saved from the frightening experience of aloneness. The dictatorial systems use threats and terror to induce this conformity; the democratic countries, suggestions and propaganda. There is, indeed, one great difference between the two systems. In the democracies non-conformity is possible, and, in fact, by no means entirely absent; in the totalitarian systems, only a few unusual heroes and martyrs can be expected to refuse obedience. But in spite of this difference the democratic societies show an overwhelming degree of conformity. The reason lies in the fact that there has to be an answer to the quest for union, and if there is no other or better way, they the union of herd conformity becomes the predominant one. One can only understand the power of the fear to be different, the fear to be only a few steps away from the herd, if one understands the depths of the need not to be separated. Sometimes this fear of non-conformity is rationalised as fear of practical dangers which could threaten the non-conformist. But actually, people want to conform to a much higher degree than they are forced to conform, at least in the Western democracies.

Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking – and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority. The consensus of all serves as a proof for the correctness of ‘their’ ideas. Since there is still a need to feel some individuality, such need is satisfied with regard to minor differences; the initials on the handbag of the sweater, the name plate of the bank teller, the belonging to the Democratic as against the Republican party, to the Elks instead of to the Shriners become the expression of individual differences. The advertising slogan ‘it is different’ shows up this pathetic need for difference, when in reality there is hardly any left.

This increasing tendency for the elimination of differences is closely related to the concept and the experience of equality, as it is developing in the most advanced industrial societies. Equality had meant, in a religious context, that we are all God’s children, that we all share in the same human-divine substance, that we are all one. It meant also that the very differences between individuals must be respected, that while it is true that we are all one, it is also true that each one of us is a unique entity, is a cosmos by itself. Such conviction of the uniqueness o the individual is expressed for instance in the Talmudic statement: ‘Whosoever saves a single life is as if he had saved the whole world; whosoever destroys a single life is as if he had destroyed the whole world.’ Equality as a condition for the development of individuality was also the meaning of the conception of the philosophy of the Western Enlightenment. It meant (most clearly formulated by Kant) that no man must be the means for the ends of another man. That all men are equal inasmuch as they are ends, and only ends, and never means to each other. Following the ideas of the Enlightenment, Socialist thinkers of various schools defined equality as abolition of exploitation, of the use of man by man, regardless of whether this use were cruel or ‘human’.

In contemporary capitalist society the meaning of equality has been transformed. By equality one refers to the equality of automatons; of men who have lost their individuality. Equality today means ‘sameness’, rather than ‘oneness’. It is the sameness of abstractions, of the men who work in the same jobs, who have the same amusements, who read the same newspapers, who have the same feelings and the same ideas. In this respect one must also look with some scepticism at some achievements which are usually praised as signs of our progress, such as the equality of women. Needless to say I am not speaking against the equality of women, but the positive aspects of this tendency for equality must not deceive one. It is part of the trend towards the elimination of differences. Equality is bought at the very price: women are equal because they are not different any more. The proposition of Enlightenment philosophy, l’âme n’a pas de sexe, the soul has no sex, has become the general practice. The polarity of the sexes is disappearing, and with it erotic love, which is based on this polarity. Men and women become the same, not equals as opposite poles. Contemporary society preaches this ideal of unindividualised equality because it need human atoms, each one the same, to make them function in a mass aggregation, smoothly, without friction, all obeying the same commands, yet everybody being convinced that he is following his own desires. Just as modern mass production requires the standardisation of commodities, so the social process requires standardisation of man, and this standardisation is called ‘equality’.

Union by conformity is not intense and violent; it is calm, dictated by routine, and for this very reason often is insufficient to pacify the anxiety of separateness. The incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive sexualism, and suicide in contemporary Western society are symptoms of this relative failure of herd conformity. Furthermore, this solution concerns mainly the mind and not the body, and for this reason too is lacking in comparison with the orgiastic solutions. Herd conformity has only one advantage; it is permanent, and not spasmodic. The individual is introduced into the conformity pattern at the age of three of four, and subsequently never loses his contact with the herd. Even his funeral, which he anticipates as his last great social affair, is in strict conformance with the pattern.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

John Berger on Pirosmani

This is an extract from the essay On the Banks of the Sava by an acclaimed art critic John Berger written in 1972. The essay appears in the collection entitled The Sense of Sight.

In Russian cities the food displayed in shop windows often consists of painted wooden models, wooden chops, chickens, eggs. From a distance they sometimes look more convincing than real food because their colours are unusually vivid and distinct. The wooden meat is either lean (red) or fat (cream-coloured). There was a painter from Georgia towards the end of the last century called Pirosmanishvili who spent most of his life going from one tavern in Tiflis to another, painting inn signs. Many of them were of food. I have never seen paintings more expressive of hunger - or rather, of the dream provoked by hunger. Tabletops like the earth and on the cheeses and joints of meat like huge buildings. Even the women he painted look edible, like Easter cakes. In Pirosmanishvili's work the Russian tradition of painting wooden models of food for shop windows found its only genius and master. Why is it that the real lamb hanging at the back of the butcher's in Obrenovac unexpectedly, without premeditations, reminds me of his painting?

Friday, July 23, 2010

One Night in Strasbourg - an essay by John Berger

I find this piece of writing simple and at the same time extraordinary. It is very visual and emotional, as almost everything John Berger writes. Fantastic thoughts about passion from his book The Sense of Sight. I hope he will not be angry if I post it here.

The Kiss by Edvard Munch

I had gone to the cinema. When I came out it was cold and wet. You could just make out the cathedral spire against the sky.

Between the cathedral and the station there are many cheap brasseries and cafés. I went into one where there was a crow in a cage, hung beside the bottles behind the counter. At that time I was thinking about a scenario for a film and this had led me to try to analyse the nature of passion. I had written some notes in a school exercise book which had squares instead of lines on its pages. I had bought the book in a village shop. Now with my back to the stove in the café in Strasbourg and a glass of tea and rum on the table in front of me, I began to read what I had written.

The beloved represents the self's potential. The self's potential for action is to be loved by the beloved again and again. Active and passive become reversibele. Love creates the space for love. The love of the beloved 'completes' - as thought one were talking of a single action instead of two - the love of the lover.

The waitress as sat down to eat her supper. She has long straw-coloured hair.

With all those with whom we are not in love we have too much in common to be in love. Passion is only for the opposite. There is no companionship in passion. But passion can confer the same freedom on both lovers. And their shared experience of this freedom - a freedom which is itself is astral and cold - may give rise between them to an incomparable tenderness. Each time, the reawakening of desire is the reconstituting of the opposite.

A man comes in who clearly comes in every night. About sixty. A state office employee. He goes up to talk to the crow in the cage. He speaks a bird language to it.

The modalities of the opposition cannot easily be seen by a third person. What is more, they are continually being transformed within the lovers' subjective relationship. Each new experience, each fresh aspect revealed of the other's character, makes it necessary to redefine the lines of opposition. This is a continual imaginative process. When it ceases, there is no more passion. To conceive of the loved one as all that the self is no means that together the lovers form a totality. Together they can be anything and everything. This is the promise which passion makes to the imagination. And because of this promise the imagination works tirelessly drawing and re-drawing the lines of the opposition.

I pay the waitress with straw-coloured hair, nod to the habitué who talked to the crow and start to walk to the station. No stars. there is twenty minutes to wait for the train. I look around the large closed booking hall. Three men are sheltering in it. A man is tanding up asleep against the ticket counter, his head resting against a poster of a Loire chateau. Another man, head in his knees, is sitting asleep on the footplate of a weighing machine. Its rubber covering is warmer than the floor. Because a weight has been registered but no money put in and the wight not printed on a card, two lights on the face of the machine flick on and off, ceaselessly demanding a fifty-centime coin. The most fortunate of the three is on the floor with his back pressed against the only radiator. On his head is a bright red knitted hat. The soles of his shoes have holes in them the size of eggcups. In his sleep he scratches his stomach.

Lovers incorporate the whole world into their totality. All the classic images of love poetry bear this out. The poet's love is 'demonstrated' by the river, the forest, the sky, the minerals in the earth, the silk worm, the stars, the frog, the owl, the moon.

The man on the floor pulls up his knees to his stomach.

The aspiration towards such 'correspondence' is expressed by poetry, but it is created by passion. Passion aspires to include the world in the act of love. To want to make love in the sea, flying through the sky, in this city, in that field, on sand, with leaves, with salt, with oil, with fruit, in the snow, etc., is not to need new stimuli but to express a truth which is inseparable from the passion.

The man with red cap has sat up and clambered to his feet. The man from the Chateau takes his place by the radiator without a word. As he walks to the exit, the man with the red cap stops to adjust his trousers, which are halfway down his hips. He unclasps his belt and pulls up several shirts and a vest. His stomach and torso are tattooed. He beckons to me to come over. He is fat, his skin unexpectedly soft-looking. The tattoos show couples making love in many different ways: their outlines are in black, their sexual organs in red. Across his stomach and flanks the figures are as crowded as those in Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment'. The man shivers. 'What can you expect?' he says; he doesn't bother to put the coin in his pocket but holds it in his fist until he reaches the café opposite.

The lovers' totality extends, in a different manner, to include the social world. Every action, when it is voluntary, is undertaken in the name of the beloved. What the lover then changes in the world is an expression of his passion.

The man in the red cap is going into the café opposite.

Yet passion is a privilege. An economic and cultural one.

The train comes in. I get into a compartment where two men are sitting either side of the window. One is young with a round face and dark eyes; the second is about my age. We say good evening. Outside the rain is turning to snow. I find a pencil in my pocket: I want to write a few more lines.

Some attitudes are incompatible with passion. This is not a question of temperament. A cautious man, a mean man, a dishonest woman, a lethargic woman, a cantankerous couple may all be capable of passion. What makes a person refuse passion - or be incapable of pursuing a passion which has already been born, thus transforming it into a mere obsession - is his or her refusal to totality. Within the lover's totality - as within any - there is the unknown: the unknown which is also conjured up by death, chaos, extremity. Those who are conditioned to treat the unknown as something exterior to themselves against which they must continually take measures and be on guard, may refuse passion. This is not a question of fearing the unknown. Everyone fears it. It is a question of where the unknown is located. Our culture encourages us to locate it outside ourselves. Always. Even disease is thought as coming from outside. To locate the unknown as being out there is incompatible with passion.

The young man, who is a Spaniard, suggests that I take his seat by the window where there is a small folding table on which it will be easier to write. They are going to Mulhouse where they work in the same factory. The older one had been there for seven years. His family are in Bilbao.

The totality of passion overlays 9or undermines) the world. Lovers have one another with this world. )As one might say with their hears or with caresses.) The world is the form of their passion and all the events which they experience or imagine are the imagery of their passion. This is why passion is ready to risk life. Life appears to be only its form.

The older Spaniard, who is my age, is working on a piece fo paper torn from the still cover of a magazine. With his large thumbs and nicotine-stained fingers he is carefully tearing small pieces out of it. The younger man watches him with the pride of an impresario: he has seen him do this before. But there is no audience for this act. It is gratuitous, in the small hours of the morning. As the older man tears at the paper, he makes the silhouetter of a figure . . . head, shoulders, bottom, feet. He folds the figure lengthways and sideways. Then very delicately he tears a pice out of its center and folds the whole again. It has become a man, four inches hight. When he pulls the folds open a penis tands up erect. When closes them, the penis goes down. Because I am looking, he shows it to me. Otherwise hw wouldn't have done so. The three of us smile. He says he can make it better than that. Almost gently he crumples the figure up in his hand. Under the folding table is an ashtray. He throws the figure into the ashtray, letting the lid close with a sharp clack. Then, with folded arms, he stares out of the window into the night.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

happiness - She Came to Stay - episode

Françoise followed the gypsy who produced a little piece of light-colored wood from her pocket.

"I'll tell you a secret. There's a dark young man in your life, you're very much in love with him, but you're not happy with him because of a blonde girl. This is a charm. You must put it into a small handkerchief and keep if on you for three days and then you'll be happy with the young man. I wouldn't give it to everybody, for this is a very precious charm; but I'l give it to you for a hundred franks."

"No thank you," said Françoise. "I don't want the charm. Here's something for forture."

The woman seized the coin. "A hundred francs for happiness is nothing. How much do you want to pay for your happiness, twenty francs?"

"Nothing at all," Françoise said. She went back and sad down beside Gerbert.

"What did she tell you?"
"Just a lot of twaddle," Françoise smiled. "She offered me happiness for twenty francs, but I found that too dear, if as you say, it's nothing but a word."
"I didn't say that!" Gerbert said, startled to have involved himself to such an extent.
"Perhaps it's true," said Françoise. "With Pierre one uses so many words, but what exactly lies behind them?"
She was seized by a sudden anguish, so violent that she wanted to scream. It was as if the the world had suddenly become a void; there was nothing more to fear, but nothing to love either. There was absolutely nothing. She was going to meet Pierre, they would exchange meaningless phrases, and then they would part. If Pierre's and Xavière's friendship was not more than a mirage, then neither did her love for Pierre and Pierre's love for her exist. There was nothing but an infinite accumulation of meaningless moments, nothing but a chaotic seething of flesh and thoughts, with death looming at the end.
"Let's go," she said abruptly.

an episode from She Came to Stay by Simone de Beaovoir

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tropic of Cancer - the beginning

These are the very first lines of one of my favorite books Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

'I am living at the Villa Gorghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, towards the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.'

from Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, 1934

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller (small extract from the beginning)

...'By God, yes, I like it,' I was saying to myself over and over as I stood at the rail taking in the movement and the hubbub. i leaned back and looked up at the sky. i had never seen a sky like this before. It was magnificent. I felt completely detached from Europe. i had entered a new realm as a free man - everything had conjoined to make the experience unique and fructifying. Christ, I was happy. But for the first time n my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It's good to be just plain happy; it's a little better to know that you're happy; but to understand that you're happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well. that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it. And that's how I was - except that i didn't have the power or the courage to kill myself then and there. It was good, too, that I didn't do myself in because there were even greater moments to come, something beyond bliss even, something which if anyone had tried to describe to me I would probably not have believed. I didn't know then that i would one day stand and Mycenae, or at the Phaestos, or that i would wake up one morning and looking through a port hole see with my own eyes the place I had written about in a book, but which i never knew existed nor bore the same name as the one I had given it in my imagination. Marvellous things happen to one in Greece - marvellous good things which can happen to one nowhere else on earth. Somehow, almost as if He were nodding, Greece still remains under the protection of the Creator. Men may go about their puny, ineffectual bedevilment, even in Greece, but God's magic is still at work and, no matter what the race of man my do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct - and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time.'

a small extract from The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Imagining Reality (extracts from essays on documentary filmmaking)

I recommend Imagining Reality, a magnificent collection of essays constructing a history of documentary filmmaking, to those interested in documentary films as well as the history of mankind of the 20th century. As far as I can perceive it, the book unveils some extraordinary details of human brutality and the filmmaking that has tried to cope with it. The essays open for discussion on the ambiguity of documentary as a form.
(Imagining Reality edited by Mark Cousins & Kevin Macdonald)

I'll print in here some extracts from various essays that I've found important.

Editing as a Four-Way Conversation
Frederick Wiseman

Now that the shooting of Zoo is over and I stare at the rushes - 100 hours of ilm hanging on the editing room wall, a different series of choices emerges. This great glop of material which represents the externally recorded memory of my experience of making the film of necessity incomplete. The memories no preserved on film float somewhat in my mind as fragments available for recall, unavailable for inclusion but of great importance in the mining and shifting process known as editing. This editorial process which is sometimes deductive, sometimes associational, sometimes non-logical and sometimes a failure, is occasionally boring and often exciting. The crucial element for me is to try to think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience.

History is the Theme of All my Films
An interview with Emile de Antonio
Q: How do you perceive your audience? Who are you making film for, and what sort of political impact can your films have?
A: A great American, Walt Whitman, said that to have great poetry, you must have great audience. Since I'm interested in history, I'm obviously interested in what happens to my films over the long haul. Anyone who makes film want them to be seen, and I would do anything except change my films to reach a larger audience. But in America and most western capitalist countries, films - from its earliest, nickelodeon days up to the most sophisticated mind control today through television - has been seen as an opiate, as entertainment. As the old Hollywood saw has it, 'If you have a message, use Western Union.' Well, all my films have messages, but I don't want to send them by Western Union.

Roger & Me
Roger Ebert
(the essay is about Roger and Me, a film by Michael Moor. This extract and therefore part from the film very much reminds me of modern Georgia)
Denied access to Smith (chairman of General Motors), Roger and Me pokes around elsewhere in Flint (birthplace of General Motors). It follows a deputy sheriff on his rounds as he evicts unemployed auto workers. It covers a 'Flint Pride' parade that marches depressingly past the boarded-up store windows of downtown. It listens to enthusiastic spokesmen for Auto World, as indoor amusement part where Flint citizens can visit a replica of their downtown as it used to look before the boards were up. It listens as a civic booster boasts that Flint's new Hyatt Hotel has escalator and 'bit plants' in the lobby - just like the Hyatts in Atlanta and Chicago. The hotel and amusement park are supposed to create a tourism industry for Flint, but the biggest convention booked into the hotel is the state Scrabble tournament, and when Auto World goes out of business, the rueful Chamber od Commerce0type speculates that asking people to come to Flint for Auto World 'is sort of like asking them to come to Alaska for Exxon World'. Many celebrities wander through the film, brought to Flint by big fees to cheer people up. Anita Bryant sings, Pat Boone suggests that the unemployed workers might become Amway distributors, and Ronald Reagan has pizza with the jobless, but forgets to pick up the check.

Jean Rouch
Interviewed by G. Roy-Leven
Q: Let me ask you what you think about Grierson's definition of documentary: 'the creative treatment of actuality'

JR: I think that to make a film is to tell a story. An ethnographic book tells a story; bad ethnographic books, bad theses are accumulations of documents. Good ethnology is a theory and a brilliant exposition of this theory - and that's what a film is. That is, you have something to say. I go in the subway, I look at it and I note that the subway is dirty and that the people are bored - that's not a film. I go on the subway and I say to myself, 'These people are bored, why? What's happening, what are they doing here? Why do they accept it? Why don't they smash the subway? Why do they sit here going ove the same route every day? At that moment you can make a film.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ways of Seeing by John Berger (extract on feminine nudity in painting)

This is part of a chapter from Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which I found adorable. This extract here is for those who cannot have this small book and for those who will want to have if after reading this. Since illustrations are very important in understanding the context, I, in most cases, indicated the title and the author which you can google and match the text.


According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible. He if found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell of aura.
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But his has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room of whilst she is envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she prepares to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it. That part of a woman’s self which is the surveyor treats the part which is the surveyed so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence. Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not ‘permissible’ within her presence. Every one of her actions – whatever its direct purpose or motivation – is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated. If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotions of anger and so of how she would with it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger. If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look as women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself if male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

In one category of European oil painting women were the principal, ever-recurring subject. That category is the nude. In the nudes of European painting we can discover some of the criteria and conventions by which women have been seen and judged as sights.
The first nudes in the tradition depicted Adam and Eve. It is worth referring to the story as told in Genesis:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons . . . And the Lord God called unto the man and said unto him, ‘Where are thou?’ And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself . . . .
Unto the woman God said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.’

What is striking about this story? They became aware of being naked because, as a result of eating the apple, each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder.

The second striking fact is that the woman is blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God.

In the medieval tradition the story was often illustrated, scene following scene, as a strip cartoon.

(illustration: Fall and Expulsion from Paradise by Pol de Limbourg, early 15th century)

During the Renaissance the narrative sequence disappeared, and the single moment depicted became the moment of shame. The couple wear fig-leaves or make a modest gesture with their hands. But now their shame is not so much in relation to one another as to the spectator.

(illustration: Adam and Eve by Mabuse, early 16th centry)

Later the shame becomes a kind of display.

(illustratons: the couple by Max Slevogt 1868-1932 / advertisement for underwear)

When the tradition of painting became more secular, other themes also offered the opportunity of painting nudes. But in them all there remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator.

She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her.

Often – as with the favorite subject of Susannah and the Elders – this is the actual theme of the picture. We join the Elders to spy on Susannah taking her bath. She looks back at us looking at her.

(illustration: Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto)

In another version of the subject by Tintoretto, Susannah is looking at herself in a mirror. Thus she joins the spectators of herself.

(illustration: Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto)

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical.

(illustraiont: Vanity by Memling 1435-1494)

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

The Judgment of Paris was another theme with the same inwritten idea of a man or men looking at naked women.

(illustration: The Judgment of Paris by Cranach 1472-1553)

But a further element is now added. The element of judgment, Paris awards the apple to the woman he finds most beautiful. Thus Beauty becomes competitive. (Today The Judgment of Paris has become the Beauty Contest.) Thos who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful. Those who are, are given the prize.

(illustration: The judgment of Paris by Rubens 1577-1640)

The prize is to be owned by a judge – that is to say to be available for him. Charles the Second commissioned a secret painting from Lely. It is a highly typical image of the tradition. Nominally it might be a Venus and Cupid. In fact it is a portrait of one of the King’s mistresses, Nell Gwynne. It shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked.

(illustration: Nell Gwynne by Lely 1618-1680)

This nakedness in not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is a sign of her submission to the owner’s feeling or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.) The painting, when the King showed it to others, demonstrated this submission and his guests envied him.

It is worth noticing that in other Non-European traditions – in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine in this way. And if, in these traditions, the theme of a work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other.

(illustrations: Rajasthan 18th century / Vishnu and Lakshmi 11th century / Mochica pottery)

We can now begin to see the difference between nakedness and nudity in the European tradition. In his book on The Nude Kenneth Clark maintains that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art. According to him, a nude is not the starting point of a painting, but a way of seeing which the painting achieves. To some degree, this is true – although the way of seen ‘a nude’ is not necessarily confined to art: there are also nude photographs, nude poses, nude gestures. What is true is that the nude is always conventionalized – and the authority for its conventions derives from a certain tradition of art.

What do these conventions mean? What does a nude signify? It is not sufficient to answer these questions merely in terms of the art-form, for it is quite clear that the nude also relates to lived sexuality.
To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
To be naked is to be without disguise.
To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.
In the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there. It is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger – with his clothes still on.
Consider the Allegory of Time and Love by Bronzino.

(illustration: Venus, Cupid Time and Love by Bronzino 1503-1372)

The complicated symbolism which lies behind this painting need not concern us now because it does not affect its sexual appeal – at the first degree. Before it is anything else, this is a painting of sexual provocation.
The painting was sent as a present from the Grand Duke of Florence to the King of France. The boy kneeling on the cushion and kissing the woman is Cupid. She is Venus. But the way her body is arranged has nothing to do with their kissing. Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. (Here and in the European tradition generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman’s body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion. The woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may fee. That he has the monopoly of such passion.) Women are there to feed the appétit, not to have any of their own.
Compare the expression of these two women:

(illustrations: La Grand Odalisque by Ingres 1789-1867 / naked women from a magazine)

One the model for a famous painting by Ingres and the other a model for a photograph in a girlie magazine.

Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case? It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

What is the sexual function of nakedness in reality? Clothes encumber contact and movement. But it would seem that nakedness has a positive visual value in its own right: we want to see the other naked: the other delivers to us the sight of themselves and we seize upon it – sometimes quite regardless of whether it is for the first time or the hundredth. What does this sight of the other mean to us, how does it, at that instant of total disclosure, affect our desire?
The nakedness act as a confirmation and provokes a very strong sense of relief. She is a woman like any other: or he is a man like any other: we are overwhelmed by the marvelous simplicity of the familiar sexual mechanism.
We did not, of course, consciously expect this to be otherwise: unconscious homosexual desires (or unconscious heterosexual desires if the couple concerned are homosexual) may have led each to half expect something different. But the ‘relief’ can be explained without recourse to the unconscious.
We did not expect them to be otherwise, but the urgency and complexity of our feelings bred a sense of uniqueness which the sight of the other, as she is or as he is, now dispels. They are more like the rest of their sex than they are different. In this revelation lies the warm and friendly – as opposed to cold and impersonal – anonymity of nakedness.
One could express this differently: at the moment of nakedness first perceived, an element of banality enters: an element that exists only because we need it.
Up to that instant the other was more or less mysterious. Etiquettes of modesty are not merely puritan or sentimental: it is reasonable to recognize a loss of mystery. And the explanation of this loss of mystery may be largely visual. The focus of perception shifts from eyes, mouth, shoulders, hands – all of which are capable of such subtleties of expression that the personality expressed by them is manifold – it shifts from these to the sexual parts, whose formation suggests an utterly compelling but single process. The other is reduced or elevated – whichever you prefer – to their primary sexual category: male or female. Our relief is the relief of finding an unquestionable reality to whose direct demands our earlier highly complex awareness must now yield.
We need the banality which we find in the first instant to disclosure because it grounds us in reality. But it does more than that. This reality, by promising the familiar, proverbial mechanism of sex, offers, at the same time, the possibility of shared subjectivity of sex.
The loss of mystery occurs simultaneously with the offering of the means for creating a shared mystery. The sequence is: subjective – objective – subjective to the power of two.
We can now understand the difficulty of creating a static image of sexual nakedness. In lived sexual experience nakedness is a process rather than a state. If one moment of that process is isolated, its image will seem banal and its banality, instead of serving as a bridge between two intense imaginative states, will be chilling. This is one reason why expressive photographs of the naked are even rarer than paintings. To easy solution for the photographer is to turn the figure into a nude which, by generalizing both sight and viewer and making sexuality unspecific, turns desire into fantasy.

Let us examine an exceptional painted image of nakedness. It is a painting by Rubens of his young second wife whom he married when he himself was relatively old.

(illustration: Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat by Rubens 1577-1640)

We see her in the act of turning, her fur about to slip off her shoulders. Clearly she will not remain as she is for more than a second. In a superficial sense her images is as instantaneous as a photograph’s. But, in a more profound sense, the painting ‘contains’ time and its experience. It is easy to imagine that a moment ago before she pulled the fur round her shoulders, she was entirely naked. The consecutive stages up to and away from the moment of total disclosure have been transcended. She can belong to any or all of them simultaneously.
Her body confronts us, not as an immediate sight, but as experience – the painter’s experience. Whey? There are superficial anecdotal reasons: her disheveled hair, the expression of her eyes directed towards him, the tenderness with which the exaggerated susceptibility of her skin has been painted. But the profound reason is a formal one. Her appearance has been literally re-cast by the painter’s subjectivity. Beneath the fur that she holds across herself, the upper part of her body and legs can never meet. There is a displacement sideways of about nine inches: her thighs, in order to join on to her hips, are at least nine inches too far to the left.
Rubens probably did not plan this: the spectator may not consciously notice it. In itself it is unimportant. What matters is what it permits. It permits the body to become impossibly dynamic. Its coherence is no longer within itself but within the experience of the painter. More, precisely, it permits the upper and lower halves of the body to rotate separately, and in opposite direction, round the sexual centre which is hidden: the torso turning to the right, the legs to the left. At the same time this hidden sexual centre is connected by means of the dark fur coat to all the surrounding darkness in the picture, so that she is turning both around and within the dark which has been made a metaphor for her sex.
Apart from the necessity of transcending the single instant and of admitting subjectivity, there is, as we have seen, one further element which is essential for any great sexual image of the naked. This is the element of banality which must be undisguised but not chilling. It is this which distinguishes between voyeur and lover. Here such banality is to be found in Ruben’s compulsive painting of the fat softness of Helene Fourment’s flesh which continually breaks every ideal convention of form and (to him) continually offers the promise of her extraordinary particularity.

The nude in European oil painting is usually presented as an admirable expression of the European humanist spirit. This spirit was inseparable from individualism. And without the development of a highly conscious individualism the exceptions to the tradition (extremely personal images of the naked), would never have been painted. Yet the tradition contained a contradiction which it could not itself resolve. A few individual artists intuitively recognized this and resolved the contradiction in their own terms, but their solutions could never enter the tradition’s cultural terms.
The contradiction can be stated simply. On the one hand the individualism of the artist, the thinker, the patron, the owner: on the other hand, the person who is the object of their activities – the woman – treated as a thing or an abstraction.

(illustration: Man Drawing Reclining Woman by Dürer 1471-1528)

Dürer believed that the ideal nude ought to be constructed by taking the face of one body, the breasts of another, the legs of a third, the shoulders of a fourth, the hands of a fifth – and so on.

(illustration: woodcut by Dürer)

The result would glorify Man. But exercise presumed a remarkable indifference to who any one person really was.

In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.
In modern art the category of the nude has become less important. Artists themselves began to question it. In this, as in many other respects, Manet represented a turning point. If one compares his Olympia with Titian’s original, one sees a woman, cast in the traditional role, beginning to question that role, somewhat defiantly.

(illustrations: The Venus of Urbino by Titian C 1487-1576 / Olympia by Manet 1832-1883)

The ideal was broken. But there was little to replace it except the ‘realism’ of the prostitute – who became the quintessential woman of early avant-garde twentieth-century painting. (Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, German Expressionism, etc.) In academic painting the tradition continued.

Today the attitudes and values which informed that tradition are expressed through other more widely diffused media – advertising, journalism, television.

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubts that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.