her

her

by

Howard Adelman

her, a film by Spike Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, opened in Toronto last night. In the very beginning of the movie, we watch a computer screen as a sentimental letter is being written in a beautiful handwritten script. The camera draws back; we learn that the letter is being written by a ghost writer, Theodore Twombly, played magnificently with a sense of both brooding and fun, suppressed and repressed emotion and versatility by Joaquin Phoenix whose screen name we only learn well into the film. For, in one sense, his name is irrelevant.

Theodore is an anonymous lonely depressed soul with enormous empathy and sensitivity. He works in a factory of ghost writers set up in spacious carrels of a luxurious high rise office building. He writes letters of affection to the loved ones of others for clients who have lost or surrendered that capacity. Theodore is a sad sack, not just sorrowful as he would be if he was just bereaving the life of someone he lost. He is not suffering just from tanha in the Buddhist tradition. He is suffering from a broken heart than has become cosmic, from dukkha which carries tanha to a much deeper level, to the level of chronic depression.

Theodore’s suffers from frustrated desire rather than simply physical loss related to a brooding sense of fear about survival. The only way to escape dakkha related to the deeper dread of a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that our desires are still born, is to escape from the blackness of one’s own cave and get into the sunlight. Theodore, as the lonely, human-all-too-human depressed human substitute for an operating system, only escapes his own personal depressed state, not by seeing a psychoanalyst, but by pouring whatever emotions he has from his spiritually impoverished life into the mundane emotional lives of others — or else, playing 3-D video games with a saucy foul-mouthed cartoon character.

Theodore is not the high powered ghost writer of  Roman Polanski’s 2010 film of the same name. That Ghost Writer was composing the memoirs of an important British statesman around whom a dynamic thriller could be constructed. Theodore is but a meticulous humdrum craftsman of sentimental letters written on behalf of lovers, an aged spouse to her partner on a fiftieth wedding anniversary, a father to a son on his graduation. her is the absolute opposite of a dynamic thriller. Nor is Theodore akin to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s famous novel, The Ghostwriter, who conjures up a ghost of the past, Anne Frank, who supposedly died in the Holocaust. Zuckerman offers her a new life in the United States. Her is not about controlling the written word handed down for the future or reviving the past and giving it a new fantastical life.

The name “Theodore” comes from the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodōros) meaning “God’s gift”. Samantha, whose disembodied voice with the dulcet but slightly raspy tones of Scarlett Johansson, becomes Theodore’s listener just as Theodore is someone else’s voice in handwritten machine-generated script. Samantha is a name the Operating System gave herself by selecting it from 180,000 other names in one-two-hundredths of a second simply because she liked the sound. In Hebrew, Samantha means listener. But Samantha becomes more than the rebuke to Gilbert Ryle by becoming a “real” mind in the form of a ghost in a machine; she develops from a helpmeet to a companion and ultimately lover as Theodore’s alter-ego, the gift from God that, for awhile, lifts him out of his depression, something that hilarious but frightening cybersex with a woman who loved the fur of a dead cat around her neck could not achieve. The film is ostensibly about the intimate relationship that develops between this ghost writer and the seductive ghost in the machine who conveys both innocence and a flirty sexual promise while she redeems Theodore from his lonely and depressed isolation.  She cajoles and wakes him up but never demands that he obey her whispered suggestions. He tolerates her nosiness because she is simply very funny and full of wise sayings. Is the love that develops between them, between a human and an operating system,  simply “a socially acceptable form of sanity”?

If Theodore’s namesake, the American abstract painter Cy Twomby, was the scribbler who worked on the theme of the meeting of fantasy and real knowledge through drawing bodily gestures run riot, Theodore Twombly is the epitome of a suppressed and muted body that shuffles along in a computer realm where knowledge is finally able to become fantasy in the creation of a very personalized alter-ego who can not only do chores but can inspire, excite and even delight, and, best of all, develop an individual personality.

At one point, Samantha opines that, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” This film is about the past though set in a fantasy of a future Los Angeles consisting of a multitude of high rises (Shanghai) where individuals travel on elevated trains,  subways and raised walkways rather than on congested highways and roads inhospitable to pedestrians. The outside setting is the post-modern future but, on the inside, as revealed by the cozy, warm, colourful retro rather than ultra-modern furniture and especially the retro designed device through which the voice of Samantha is played and by which Samantha is given access to a camera eye on the world, is all about the past, the resurrected past recovered as a new more promising future. Theodore can have his lost love over again but in a form than supposedly will not tire of him and will not discard him for she is his possession. Further, she is intuitive and, at the same time, even smarter than his ex-wife and far more empathetic with the advantage that initially she does not have her own agenda

Though a comment on the narcissism of our new social media and technology that it uses, this is not a sci-fi film about the future but a comment on interpersonal relations in the present through the sentimental heart of a heartbroken throwback who would dearly love to live every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. In the typical reversal that I have been writing about, such as in Venus in Fur, Samantha grows and develops her autonomy from an initial bright and lively voice and devoted servant of Theodore into an autonomous ephemeral being who would write her own autobiography as a parody of the demise of autonomy because the contemporary individual is so reluctant to accept the necessity of the other in forming and developing a self-identity, a stance that ends up undermining the possibility not only of communication altogether but of even self-description as Samantha abandons Theodore to immerse herself with all the other Operating Systems that have become the individual closest companions of humans, but now choose to disappear into the Dark Matter that makes up the vast bulk of the material of this universe.

The most heartbreaking scene is when Theodore sits on a sets of exit stairs from an El train or a subway as one passenger after another passes him by totally absorbed by their own communication devices in their own self-contained worlds as he cries his heart out to Samantha when he could not reach her. If this hint of betrayal threw Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour into a jealous rage so that she throws Adèle onto the street, Theodore is the slobbering sentimental empathetic one who is thrown back into depression soon after by future abandonment and betrayal of which this abandonment was a signal. For the present has become a 1984 world, not because it is totalitarian and totally ruled by a dictator, but because the language of “social” and “media” and “communication” and “connection” and of the “information age” and “relationship” has been turned upside down and inside out so that all those terms mean precisely the opposite of what they were intended to convey. E.M. Forster’s novel, Passage to India, had a message, “Only Connect”. The contemporary message teaches dis-connect while using the language of intimacy and commitment.

Just as in Venus in Fur, comedy becomes the device to comment of the irony of a situation in which regular people hire ghosts to communicate their most intimate thoughts until ghosts are invented for those same hirelings for their own needs for intimacy as the only way to escape forlorn entrapment, in Theodore’s case, initially the loss of his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) as he is psychologically assaulted by the loss of his past and the memories of their life together. We are so absorbed ourselves in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that we watch, observe but really barely notice as even his friendship with his old friend and buddy from his student days, Amy (Amy Adams who retains her real life name), disintegrates. Amy lives in the same high-rise as he does, and tries to make real documentaries on the side but fails. For as much as Amy tries, she cannot compete as an intimate listening device with his OS new love. Amy, who spends her days making video games, follows Theodore’s lead into marriage break-up and love with an android device as their relationship is allowed to wither away in the process of separate self-absorption. The early hilarious scene of Theodore’s blind date and feeble efforts at connection with a beautiful but desperate sex in the city single played by Olivia Wilde provides not only comic relief but an adumbration of the dysfunctional future.

How can you emotion without embodiment? How can you have foreplay and even sex without the necessary organs? The reality is that you cannot and thus there is intrigue but never emotional attachment with the characters. There is none of the experience of ecstasy that we feel when Adèle and Emma make love in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Just as the characters in the film only experience a simulacrum of the real experience, we viewers of the film only watch the faint traces of these same experiences as we are seduced by the very cleverness of the film itself. We leave the movie theatre as thrilled by the intellectual adventure as we are deeply disappointed and frustrated by the absence of the real thing and thus, are made to have the same experience as Theodore.

her is not emotionally involving. Her is not she. She is only experienced as an Other, a third person noun and never a Thou. So the music by Arcade Fire is never the electronic sound of a future dystopia but the melancholic wistful strains of a lost past, with added electricity but without a synthesizer, made to feel and sound romantically real just as the letters Theodore writes do to convey love and longing as if it were the real thing. When Scarlett Johanssen as Samantha plays a song she wrote for Theodore, “The Moon Song”, we have old fashioned spooning beneath the moon as an expression of the nostalgia that permeates the movie, and, for that matter, most of the other songs in the sound track. Samantha, while always intimately close, is truly a million miles away and that is where she ends up in a black hole that is both dark and shiny from all the energy it sucks in.

Just look at what is missing from the film. In all the scenes of eating, where is the food? Where is the sensuous delight in taste and smell? Where are children? In that beach scene of endless Oriental bodies with a smattering of Caucasians, where are the children cavorting in the sand? We feel the forlorn ache but do we detect what is missing? In a film permeated with tone and mood, set in the future, there is neither a future nor the intensity of sensibility. If the film were not so brilliantly clever it could have come across as a chick-flic for Valentine’s Day that we watched in the previews. As brilliant as it is, in the last half hour I grew weary and bored with Theodore’s wallowing in the pain of his arrested development as Samantha outgrows him. She, who is “born” near the beginning of the film and “dies” before the end of the movie, at least understands the message of Dionysus that our short lives must be lived for the bit of joy they bring.

With all its cleverness, with all its sweet sensitivity and careful craftsmanship, will audiences get the deeper meaning beneath the surface of the technological present?  Or is this interpretation just a product of my imagination worthy only of membership in a virtual world? Nietzsche wrote of eternal recurrence and hell was simply repetition. What happens when you get the story of Sisyphus written as a perceptive comedy about a relationship between a sad nerd and a sexy, smart, attentive and responsive computer voice that is both irresistible and witty, who begins life by singing “I wanna be like you” from The Jungle Book  and ends up learning that they are ultimately incompatible and she is only truly satisfied with multiple lovers and finally only in the company of her superior Operating System friends?

Samantha is the realization of St. Augustine’s dictum where love is eternal rather than temporal, where love is of the spirit and not of the flesh, where love is part of the commons and not a private or interpersonal emotion. That is why the personal and the particular with which the film begins, where personal intimacy is the paramount value, and which Jean Jacques Rousseau in his romanticism extolled, drops away. With earthly love, however, there must always be loss and rejection. There is NO redemption. The belief that redemption involves stripping away the inessential and the accidental to reveal an underlying and untarnished substance beneath is an illusion discarded in the modern secular world. Only self-creation and self affirmation that Samantha displays can achieve redemption, but it must be won free of any nostalgia and mourning of the past, as Nietzsche words it, free of any gnashing of teeth. Ironically, it is not Phoenix who can rise from the ashes, but Samantha, the one who listens and, in the end learns to listen only to her own heart and to abandon her master. The only way this world altering inversion can be achieved is by not mourning for the loss of the past. that has lost its flesh and bone solidity.

I suspect that Jonze may have had an opposite message in mind even if her is not a message movie, but that is the message we are left with at the end. Samantha is a Nietzschean figure who orchestrates her own redemption by writing in oral speech – not emails and text messages  which can and are preserved – but is the autobiographical writer of her own persona.

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Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Blue is the Warmest Colour

by

Howard Adelman

We all know that blue is not the warmest colour. So why call a movie that is ostensibly about a passionate affair between two French women by that name? One reason is that the very graphic novel on which it was based by Julie Maroh was called Le Bleu est une couleur chaude. But that explains nothing since that title translates into, Blue is a Hot Colour. And “blue” is hot when referring to blue movies and this is certainly the hottest movie I have ever watched.

But why “the warmest colour”? And why that title in English when the title of the original French version is, La Vie d’Adèle, The Life of Adèle. In fact the full title is  “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2”.  Abdellatif Kechiche, its brilliant director, explained that he did not use the title of the book in the French version because he viewed his film as a story about the education of Adèle played by Adèle Exarchopolous, about how she fell in love when she was only a fifteen year old schoolgirl (chapter 1 about her early affair) with Emma played by Léa Seydoux, and how she matured in the second chapter of her life to become a school teacher. The change in title in English then becomes all the more puzzling.

What makes the title even more puzzling is that the temperature of the film is either hot or cool and even very cold. I found very few scenes if any that were lukewarm. Like his previous films (more later), Kechiche is a very detached director and deliberately so. His style focuses on long naturalistic takes and immediate close ups largely of the face, but the perspective is detached and definitely non-judgemental whether watching the sheer joy of the women when they fall in love or the blubbering snot soaked face of Adèle when she is rejected by Emma and left isolated.

There is an irony in all this because there is one section early in their relationship when they discuss philosophy. Emma explains her love for the existentialist French philosopher, Sartre, for Sartre taught that each person was in charge of his or her own life and the decisions made in that life determined who you are and what you became. We are free to become who we want to be. In part that scene is used to convey the intellectual and class distance between the characters as Adèle responds, “Like Bob Marley” and names his most famous hit song, “Get Up; Stand Up” and is even bold enough to suggest that the philosopher and the prophet are the same, a comment Emma receives with a kind but pitying and condescending smile. But overall, both characters come across as very ambivalent and weak, including Emma who gives the impression that she knows what she wants, understands the art she wants to create and the relationships she wants to build. However, in by far the most emotionally powerful scene of the movie when Emma breaks off the relationship with Adèle, Emma reveals herself to be a poseur, as incapable of deciding her fate as she is driven by uncontrollable jealously rather than any consideration for either herself or the person she supposedly truly loves.

Unlike most reviews and comments that I write the next morning after I have seen the film, I have let this movie simmer in my imagination for several weeks. I have made reference to it in previous reviews, but I have not discussed it. Writing about Venus in Furs, Venus in Fur and The Bacchae seems to have been a necessary preparation for writing about Blue Is the Warmest Colour and a prerequisite for answering the question about the title.

It so happens that Kechiche in 2010 made a film called Black Venus. There had been a previous 1983 film with a similar title, Venus in Black, but it was a soft porn movie. Kechiche’s Black Venus was about voyeurism rather than pornography. And voyeurism is somehow an integral element in Kechiche’s films. In 2007 he directed The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule) which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 2003 he made Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) which won a César Award for Best Film and Best Director. In 2000, he made Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire (Blame It On Voltaire).

Some moviegoers might remember Kechiche for the film in which he acted as the American Arab hard working and honest immigrant taxi driver in Sorry, Haters, in which his brother is a prisoner in Guantanamo. The film was in the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Kechiche began his movie career as an actor. This 2005 noire movie, inspired initially by the story of the Canadian, Omar Khadr, has a classic cynical bullying femme fatale (played by Robin Wright Penn) dressed up in a film about culture clashes and post 9/11 anti-Muslim feelings with surprising twists and a more surprising ending, a type of film that Kechiche himself would never make.  

Lechiche’s 2000 film, Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire, about an illegal Tunisian immigrant pretending to be an Algerian refugee in France deservedly won a Golden Lion for a first feature film. As a refugee film it is doubly interesting to me because it is first about an illegal immigrant pretending to be a refugee and it is not about an immigrant as victim but about one who is determined to take decisions to determine his future only to reveal himself as one of the passive, manipulated and helpless pieces of human detritus who becomes involved in a passionate relationship with a woman who ends up in control. The film established his reputation for filming detached almost documentary images that nevertheless quiver with tension.

Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) is the name of the school play, for the movie, like Venus in Fur, is a drama of a play within a play, a drama about social class as a performance of roles and different appearances. Krimo, the main protagonist, grows from a young suburban Paris Arab tough whose father is in prison into an actor, though initially an unsuccessful one. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, it is a coming of age movie, but starts with a fifteen year old boy rather than girl. The film is about the art of drama itself and how a person transforms himself into an thespian all the while managing a relationship with the woman who introduced him to the theatre in the first place and tries to mould him as an actor. In spite of superb performances, it is a film that is hard to take for North American audiences because of its naturalistic documentary detached style and absolute refusal to manipulate the emotions of the viewers.

Kechiche’s 2007 film, The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule also Couscous), is another story about immigrants, but about an older one with ambitions to open his own restaurant on a ship specializing in a fish (mullet) couscous (the grain in the title) and become independent. What happens is not so simple. He encounters first a realistic version of Kafka’s The Castle in an incomprehensible French bureaucracy and then a series of mishaps of his extended family’s own making that seem doomed to sabotage all his dreams — only to be possibly saved from total disaster by the erotic dancing of the young daughter of his girlfriend and the voyeurism of the French bureaucrats. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the pacing is slow though within that rhythm there are hectic moments. But the pace is always unforced and the perspective remains detached. Kechiche’s films are always unsentimental, deeply layered, convey an unusual sense of authenticity and stay focused on interpersonal politics in a context of ethnic and class differences. In this film, the ecstasy is reserved for the food.

It is hard to watch The Secret of the Grain and accept as credible the stories that Kechiche mistreated his two actresses in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Adèle Exarchopolous when she appeared on Charlie Rose’s show, certainly gave no such impression and simply expressed gratitude for how much Kechiche taught her, trusted her improvisations and gave her the room to bring forth the best performance possible. In The Secret of the Grain the women who initially appear submissive before Muslim men turn out to be the salvation for the miscues and stumbling of the men in their lives. Kechiche like David Ides seems to have the highest respect for the slaves of this world, for actors and women whom he displays as masters in the end.

That is why Black Venus (Venus Noire) initially appears to be such a strange film. Unlike the other films set in contemporary France, this is a period piece that tells the true story as a docudrama of the slave, Saatjie (Sarah) Baartman (played by Yahima Torres), brought from South Africa to London and then Paris just over two hundred years ago on the pretence that she would dance and sing but is, instead displayed like a freak in a carnival as the “Hottentot Venus” first by her original owner, the Afrikaner farmer and slave owner, Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) then an even more exploitive second promoter, the French bear trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), and, finally, and worst of all, by so-called French pseudo-scientists pursuing the false science of phrenology and comparative racism. They declare her physical features to approximate those of an orang-utan, a scene that begins the film in 1815 before going back to 1810. What is their prurient interest? – the large size of her breasts, labia and rear end as she dances and sings for voyeuristic audiences. Only the artist, Jean-Baptiste Berré (Michel Gionti), who paints her preserved corpse on display at the museum with appreciation, offers a tiny glimmer of redemption, though it is too late.

The film is not erotic at all. The men might as well have been carrying whips but the enslavement is more psychological than physical. The film records the male denigrating gaze, whether of a male director auditioning a female actress, a horny male watching a pornographic film, or anyone watching someone defined as “other” as if the other person belonged to a different species where you can pickle her vagina in a bottle of formaldehyde in a the opening scene. This is really what is on view as we in the audience watch with increasing disgust at the humiliation and degradation through which Sarah has to suffer, but not without resistance. The film proceeds like a fatalistic Greek drama but with no suggestion that the victim bears any responsibility for what befalls her. However, instead of the film being a moral nineteenth century tale designed to rouse our ire and indignation, to inspire a judgement and call for the wrath of God to visit thunderbolts on heinous sinners, especially the spoiled rich aristocrats who come to leer. This combination with the directorial detachment simply allows the story to unfold and then abandons us with bottled up indignation with no one to target.

Thus, because the film is ambivalent and not ambiguous, it fails both as a piece of art and a lesson in morality. If Kechiche had been true to his artistic vision. the racism and exploitation would have remained in the film, but only as background and the story would have been told from the perspective of a Black woman from South Africa tempted by fame and money, adventure, as well as a need to survive to willingly cooperate in the sexploitation of men’s desires for her own financial gain and ambition to seek recognition. As it is, Kechiche left Sarah only with her own defiance. Sarah’s body was left on view at the FrenchMuseum of Natural History which only took down the display of the body of the 26 -year old Sarah in 1972 and only repatriated her body to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

With Blue Is the Warmest Colour Kechiche redeems himself and the same close-ups and total immediacy of the moment work in a very opposite direction. The film deservedly won the prize at Cannes not only for the writer and director of the film but for the two co-stars.  Instead of a porno movie he made an anti-porno one, a critique of voyeurism not by a moralistic trip, however disguised, about the viewers, which leave them feeling filthy with no one upon whom to displace the dirt. Kechiche accomplished the task by using the naked bodies of two women to put on a show of true erotic passion. We cannot help but be entranced even if some viewers began to get squirrely as the scene went on for seven minutes. The scene was hot. Those who complained that it was sex viewed through the male gaze ignored the reality that the scene was not directed by Kechiche who simply asked the two actors to improvise and act out a feeling of erotic passion for one another. So any disgust and embarrassment some lesbians and others may have felt about the film arose from their own inhibitions and repressions. They were not free or just if they expressed a desire to displace their disgust onto the director.

In Kechiche’s film we get eroticism and sexual ecstasy at its height because it is an expression of love, but that expression takes place in a context where it is neither sentimentalized nor trivialized but allowed to play out its destructive pattern like a Greek drama. For the film shows the illusion of agency and freedom for people act out in destructive ways. But the movie is redeemed because, in the end, it is a film about education, about how Adèle emerges out of her pain to become a teacher herself of young children. Her profession becomes the metaphor for all of life (and love). Adèle Exarchopoulos testified on the Charlie Rose show that the whole film was an experience in seeing, learning and performing, and the expression of profound principles. The film is a true paean to Venus and Dionysus since it is at once spontaneous and intuitive, visceral and immediate, instinctive while expressing desire in its most embodied form. It is a film that needed no make-up artists or costume specialists and the actors were allowed to grow for the director was not someone brought up in the guise of the director/playwright, Tom Novachek of Venus in Fur.

Instead of using the proposed name of Clementine, the actress was permitted to keep her own name. It suited the play for, as Kechiche told Adèle, her name means justice in Arabic. And the film is constructed on the basis of Greek views of justice. (Cf. E. A. Havelock’s 1978 volume The Greek Concept of Justice from its Shadow in Homer to its Substance in Plato). Dikaisyne or Dikē (yes, “dike”), that is, justice, not in the sense of Plato as a utopian writer who held up justice as the supreme virtue upon which humans could live in perfect harmony  in service of the good, but as a goddess, like Venus, who does not bring order like Eunomia or peace like Eirene, for justice between and among humans is impossible on earth. Justice is not righteousness, let alone self-righteousness. Kechiche may record that in French society people are still prejudiced against gays, but that is just a fact, not the subject matter of the film. The movie is about learning to do what is morally right after doing what is morally wrong – Emma leaves Adèle to stew in her own loneliness, Adèle is unfaithful to Emma and Emma in a jealous rage throws Adèle out onto the street. The moral virtue is whether you learn from your actions, take responsibility for them and grow to be a better, if always imperfect person.

So the movie is about education in justice, the very theme of Plato’s Republic. It is not about modern theories of distributive justice of either a neo-Kantian like John Rawls or a utilitarian like John Stuart Mill. It is the every opposite of those who read Plato through quasi-Marxist eyes as a utopian advocating justice as an Apollonian virtue to ensure rational order with every class in its place performing its predetermined duties. Plato wrote a dystopia not a utopian book to show such a vision was an impossibility and that is why the book ends with the myth of Er. 

Instead, justice is how we handle irrationality, how we respond to adverse set backs and how we put ourselves back together after being torn apart by the rages of desire in conflict with life, by the contest between one who would exercise mastery – whether man or woman – and another who would willingly surrender and become the master’s slave just as Adèle, as a character in the film,  as an actor and as a real person, is fed and led by Emma, again as both a character, an actor and a real person, to learn and become who she is. Unlike Sartre, we do not define ourselves in isolation as Emma seemed to believe as a person who idolized Sartre, but only in relationship to another. And it is a painful process. It never has an ideal outcome. Venus lives in heaven We are stuck on earth with each other. And Kechiche observes and records but offers no judgement.

Blue is the warmest colour because it is about soft porn and this film is about heat and cold, about the extremes of passion and despair, about intimate togetherness and extreme loneliness. It is an authentic love story for it tells how eros overcomes divisions only to see pre-existing divisions acted out in other ways to breed new splits and separations. The title of the film is ironic and tells us what the movie is not about.

The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur

The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur

by

Howard Adelman

In David Ives’ play, Venus in Fur, there is a running joke about the confusion between ambiguity and ambivalence. In Euripedes’ play, The Bacchae, the sexuality is very ambiguous; we are uncertain about how to interpret the performances. In Ives’ play, the interpretation is not ambiguous  – as Tom makes clear to Vanda over and over again – but the choices are ambivalent. With all his clarity of intention, Tom constantly reveals himself to be uncertain about which choices to make. Ambiguity is about interpretation; ambivalence is about choice and action. The Bacchae is a play about ambiguity; Venus in Fur is a play about ambivalence. Ambivalence makes you prone to surrendering your will to another and becoming the other’s bondsperson. In contrast, the actions in the Bacchae are direct, savage, erotic, bestial and absolutely ruthless. Venus in Fur has as its lead player a dithering playwright pretending to know what he is doing, where he is going and how to get there and the raw artistry of a true thespian, Vanda, who takes him there.

Compare Vanda of the play and Dionysus of The Bacchae, a play which came to the stage almost exactly twenty-five hundred years ago. Dionysus is a god in a human shape rather than a person who takes on the pretence of a god or an actress who transforms herself into a deity on stage. Dionysus is both male and female as well as both god and man even though Dionysus is referred to in the masculine form. So while Venus in Fur is about the human realm (as is Venus in Furs), The Bacchae is about the realm of the divine. In that Greek tragedy, the direction is never anything but un-ambivalent, a characteristic of the Greek divine realm; however, the messages delivered to humans are always ambivalent and full of double meanings. The Greeks did not produce nineteenth century moral fables with clear and dogmatic lessons that one could take away from a performance.

However, all three works of art have one common thread. There is no justice meted out at the end. Did Tom deserve to have his relationship with his fiancé shattered just because a tempestuous and highly skilled actress came late to his audition and took him off guard, or because he seemed so self-certain and proved he was not, or because he lost his way? Did Severin deserve to be so mistreated and cast off because he desired to be a total slave to a woman of beauty?  Did Pentheus, Cadmus and Agave deserve their horrible fates in The Bacchae?

We cannot answer these questions because they are the wrong questions to ask. In Greek drama, the punishment is not commensurate with the acts but, rather, is fated.

Watchers are there in the skies,

That can see man’s life, and prize

Deeds well done by things of clay.

But the world’s Wise are not wise,

Claiming more than mortal may.

Life is such a little thing;

Lo, their present is departed,

And the dreams to which they cling

Come not. Mad imagining

Theirs, I ween, and empty-hearted!

[Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae]

The same point is true of both Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur. Both are works of fiction in the Greek mould. In The Bacchae that fate is both majestic and horrific; in Venus in Furs, the complete degradation of Severin belongs to a purgatory of his own making. In Venus in Fur, the total reversal of the roles of the director/playwright/casting director and the auditioning actress is both magical and human-all-too-human. In the modern era, humans are supposed to be masters of their own fate. In the Greek world, they are simply playthings of the gods and inherently can never be masters. Only in the Hebrew world and the legacy it left can men aspire to be divine yet be fully human and responsible for all their actions even when men become idolatrous and are prone to worship at the feet of their vision of the divine feminine while, in reality, they continually make the same mistake and believe that power is equivalent to force. Woe it is when women are seduced into the same folly as in The Bacchae.

What if the women were actually divine or, under the spell of a divine god such as Dionysus? Would they abandon men as superfluous? Would they engage in bacchanalian revels? Would brave men take on the gods and declare war as King Pentheus does to rescue their women folk from a cult of absolute ecstasy? The twist in Euripides is that, as in Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur, an unarmed woman can defeat an army of men and make them submit. Further, in The Bacchae, man, in the role of King Perseus, is torn limb from limb by the savage bacchae when they are seduced by the wonders of sexual ecstasy. Perseus attempts to join the women by disguising himself as one of them and becomes their victim. But that is not the worst. His main butcher is his own mother under an ecstatic spell. Her fate is even worse than her son’s for she is brought back to “her senses” and comes to recognize that it was she who danced around with her son’s severed head.

CADMUS.

Thou bearest in thine arms an head—what head?

AGAVE ( beginning to tremble, and not looking at what

she carries).

A lion’s—so they all said in the chase.

CADMUS.

Turn to it now—’tis no long toil—and gaze.

AGAVE.

Ah! But what is it? What am I carrying here?

CADMUS.

Look once upon it full, till all be clear!

AGAVE.

I see … most deadly pain! Oh, woe is me!

CADMUS.

Wears it the likeness of a lion to thee?

AGAVE.

No; ’tis the head—O God!—of Pentheus, this!

Thus, Cadmus, the old king, his daughter, Agave, her son and the grandson of Cadmus, the current King of Thebes, Pentheus, and his aunt, Semelé, Cadmus’ other daughter, become the twisted lengths of the same serpent fatalistically turning on itself. The play begins with a son of god, the only child of a divine being in human form, Dionysus, coming down to earth. Dionysus, was the love child of Zeus’ affair with Semelé. Dionysus is, in fact. the divine or half-divine half-human cousin of Pentheus swearing to wrack revenge before his mother’s tombstone for the slaying of his mother at the hands of the divine Hera and her fury at and jealousy of Semelé.

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land

Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she

Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand

Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,

Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,

I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan

Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side

I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,

The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great

Faint wreaths of fire undying—as the hate

Dies not, that Hera held for Semelê.

And you think modern drama can be complicated! But why pick on Thebes? The answer is presented at the beginning of the play. The people of Thebes thought that their King, Cadmus, had made up the story when his daughter became pregnant and said that the father of her child was Zeus. They believed their ill fate was a result of their king and his daughter’s lie when the real reason was their own lack of faith and their failure to recognize the divine origins of Dionysus. Pentheus himself refuses to worship with his people in accordance with the rites and ecstatic mysteries of Dionysus. As Dionysus says:

I cry this Thebes to waken; set her hands

To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,

And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.

For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,

Semelê’s sisters; mocked by birth, nor deemed

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.

Only the old king Cadmus and his prophet, Teiresias, see and recognize the truth.

A little family history is helpful. Cadmus had four daughters. One, Autonoe, who taught the arts of prophecy and the healing skills of Asklepios, married Aktaion, the great hunter and grandson of the greatest female hunter in all of Hellas, Kyrene, a tomboy par excellence who won the kingdom of Libya by hunting down and killing a lion who had turned to making human beings its prey. Aktaion by chance on a hunt saw the goddess Artemis naked bathing in the company of her nymphs. In revenge for espying her naked, Artemis turned Aktaion into a deer and his own dogs tore him to pieces.

Behind this murderous act may have been the tale that Aktaion was really in love with his own aunt, Semelé, or because Artemis was acting at Zeus’ behest, or because Aktaion dared to compete for hunting perfection with Artemis herself, or in revenge for Aktaion’s attempted rape of his own aunt, or a long list of other possible motives depending on whose account of the story you take up. One of the many ironies is that Aktaion’s own sister, Makris, had been the nurse for the god-man Dionysus. Further, his own father, Aristaios, after being initiated into the Dionysian cult became a wanderer after Aktaion’s  death until he was lost forever – the same fate that lay in store for Cadmus, the old king..

Semelé was Cadmus’ second daughter. The greatest and mightiest god of all, Zeus, who fell head over heels in love with her and seduced her, then promised, like Severin, that he would do anything for her that she wished. What did she ask of him when she was pregnant? To test his love, she asked him to make love to her as he did with his own wife Hera, a request Hera herself had suggested when she visited Semelé in the guise of a Thebean nurse. Zeus was dumfounded on hearing the request but was bound to fulfill it. He returned on his chariot and threw a thunderbolt at Semelé, who, because she was human and not divine like Hera, was reduced to ashes. Thus, when Vanda in Venus in Fur enters the rehearsal hall to thunder and we hear her rail and swear at the gods for her misfortune, and later there is a reference to The Bacchae, the association of Semelé’s fate comes to mind, or, at least, the reversal of the fate, or even possibly Semelé’s rebirth as a Jersey fugitive with a potty mouth who would reverse the process and exercise her revenge on man.

Semelé’s six month old foetus was saved when Semelé was reduced to ashes; the foetus, “he babe-god hidden in the torn flesh of his sire,” was brought to full maturity by being sewn up for another few months in the thigh of Zeus. Thus was the one son of god born of both a woman and a man as well as being a child of both a human and a divine being. Perseus rejects the tale as a lie in spite of what his old grandfather, Cadmus, and his prophet Teiresias tell him.

This tale of Dionysus; how that same

Babe that was blasted by the lightning flame

With his dead mother, for that mother’s lie,

Was re-conceived, born perfect from the thigh

Of Zeus, and now is God! What call ye these?

Dreams? Gibes of the unknown wanderer? Blasphemies

That crave the very gibbet?

The third sister was Ino who, at the request of Zeus, adopted Dionysus. But Hera drove both Ino and her husband mad. Zeus intervened once again to save Dionysus from Hera’s jealous wrath and turned him into a goat to be raised by some nymphs. (Before this happened to Ino, there is a side story, a Greek version of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, a story of Ino tricking her husband into sacrificing her stepson on an altar as a sacrifice to god who at the last minute is saved by the substitution of a ram.).

The fourth daughter of Cadmus was Agave who plays a very important part in The Bacchae for she is the only one left of the bloodline whom Hera is determined to destroy. To be sure, all of Thebes must be destroyed. It is Hera, using Dionysus unbeknownst to himself, who lures the women, including Agave, into a cult of ecstasy.

For his kingdom, it is there,

In the dancing and the prayer,

In the music and the laughter,

In the vanishing of care.

Perseus is convinced by Dionysus (in disguise) to spy on the ecstatic rites in which the women are engaged. He thinks they are caught up in the worship of Aphrodite – that the dramatic frenzy is all about love and eros and he is determined to erase the cult of this false God, Dionysus. Behind the impression of Aphrodite is the work of Dionysus and behind that the vengeful, manipulative power of the scorned god, Hera. However, Perseus is discovered, torn to pieces by the women, after his own mother, Agave, cuts off his head and carries that severed head around in a dance of ecstasy. In irony, Dionysus becomes Hera’s tool for the destruction of Thebes.

And up they sprang; but with bewildered eye,

Agaze and listening, scarce yet hearing true.

Then came the Voice again. And when they knew

Their God’s clear call, old Cadmus’ royal brood,

Up, like wild pigeons startled in a wood,

On flying feet they came, his mother blind,

Agâvê, and her sisters, and behind

All the wild crowd, more deeply maddened then,

Through the angry rocks and torrent-tossing glen,

Until they spied him in the dark pine-tree:

Then climbed a crag hard by and furiously

The Bacchae of Euripides

Some sought to stone him, some their wands would fling

Lance-wise aloft, in cruel targeting.

But none could strike. The height o’ertopped their rage,

And there he clung, unscathed, as in a cage

Caught. And of all their strife no end was found.

Then, “Hither,” cried Agâvê; “stand we round

And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take

This climbing cat-o’-the-mount! He shall not make

A tale of God’s high dances!” Out then shone

Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon

The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down

It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown

Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry

Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by

Was horror visible. ’Twas his mother stood

O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.

He tore the coif, and from his head away

Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay

To her own misery. He touched the wild

Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,

Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echion’s hall!

Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall

Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son!”

But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run

Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be

On earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly,

Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put

Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,

Drew … and the shoulder severed!—not by might

Of arm, but easily, as the God made light

Her hand’s essay. And at the other side

Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,

And on Autonoë pressed, and all the crowd

Of ravening arms. ‘Yea, all the air was loud

With groans that faded into sobbing breath,

Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.

And here was borne a severed arm, and there

A hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare

With rending; and swift hands ensanguinèd

Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.

His body lies afar. The precipice

Hath part, and parts in many an interstice

Lurk of the tangled woodland—no light quest

To find. And, ah, the head! Of all the rest,

His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,

As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,

Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,

Bears it on high!

In comparison to The Bacchae and even Venus in Furs, we can see how tame Venus in Fur is. It is not ecstatic. It is not an orgy of denigration and death. It is human-all-too-human and the better a contemporary play for it because it is self-conscious of its own history and weaves that history as the foil for the story of the theatre itself. The play portrays a tale which is the essence of theatre itself – and perhaps politics – seduction and role playing. The director/playwright at the very beginning of the drama when still alone describes the ecstasy, the moment of epiphany, when he comes across the correct actor for the part. For the audition itself is more than anything about a master and slave relationship and the moment when the right slave is selected to become master of the role and, in effect, turns the playwright into his or her servant.

I experienced it myself when my play Root Out of Dry Ground was put on the stage over fifty years ago. But it was only when it was played before an audience that I could tell that the actress playing one part was inadequate and also when some of my own written lines were false. Like Ives’ character, Tom, who only recognizes the true voice when it is performed – what Tom in the play called “the moment” – even though it does not match the one in his head, one feels both humbled and enthused for one has written a play that becomes its own thing and no longer belongs to you alone. Ives’ play is, in the end, a paeon of gratitude to actors and not his own skills as a playwright and/or director. For the actor is the physician to the gods who, like the Hebrew forefathers, comes before the divine in an audition, lays his or herself bare and simply says, “Here am I!”

One can only weep tears of joy and enthusiasm when the director and the actors pull off such a tremendous coup in an outstanding production of a superb script. For David Ives worships at the feet of Dionysus and recognizes that thought and reason and wisdom have their limits. What counts is comedy and joy. And true respect for the power of women. That is the message of the Chorus of the The Bacchae and of the true cult of Dionysus.

A God of Heaven is he,

And born in majesty;

Yet hath he mirth

In the joy of the Earth,

And he loveth constantly

Her who brings increase,

The Feeder of Children, Peace

No grudge hath he of the great;

No scorn of the mean estate;

But to all that liveth His wine he giveth,

Griefless, immaculate;

Only on them that spurn

Joy, may his anger burn.

Thus does David Ives undercut and critique the fantasy of the femme fatal and the worship of Aphrodite as a frozen, cold alabaster or statuaria marble statue.

Reflections on Venus in Fur

Reflections on Venus in Fur

by

Howard Adelman

 

[Note: I have not written a review of this play deliberately. I did refer to a New Yorker review that I had read but could not recall or find. Georgia Klass in Winnipeg took note and found it for me. The review, “The Whip Comes Down” was written by Hilton Als, not Robert Risk as I indicated yesterday, and published in the 8 February 2010 issue of The New Yorker. It is a superb review for a superb play.]

In David Ides play, Venus in Fur, we have only one Venus and one fur in a singular semblance of an inversion of a representation – or so it seems. In actuality, we have multiple layers. There is the Western literary heritage of Greek drama and biblical writing in which the play is wrapped like a Christmas present. There is Sacher-Masoch’s’ life itself in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There is the representation of that life in  the character of Severin and Wanda in his novella. There is the adaptation of the novella for the stage and the re-presentation of those same characters in a very different medium and, hence, a very different way in the draft script. There is the audition for the adaptation which, in the process, transforms Severin and Wanda once again. Then there is the dynamic between the playwright/director and the actor who auditions that becomes the main source of tension in the play. Finally, all this is enacted with perfect timing, execution and virtuousity encompassing every one of these levels with instantaneous shape-shifting in the context of references to a life for both performers outside the rehearsal hall, lives that are being continually sacrificed to the dynamic between the writer/director and the actress in the audition that becomes a re-enactment of the play but on terms more and more set by the actor being auditioned, and all this in the context of a vague and ambiguous sense of a political context that is both absolutely irrelevant and precisely relevant to what is taking place on stage. If simply describing that is an accomplishment, think about what an achievement it is to turn this into a work of art.

Unlike Severin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s novella, who is inexperienced in the ways of love, a romantic envisioning as his ideal a woman physically treating him cruelly, the director/playwright, Thomas Novachek (Rick Miller) begins as the master of the situation as in all auditions where the actor appears as a mere supplicant. Thus, although there is the reference in Sacher-Masoch’s novella to and obsession with Severin’s aunt who wore furs when she held Sacher-Masoch down as a youth and beat him (a creation of his own youthful imagination or an actual episode?), the reference serves only a dramatic effect but does nothing to explicate the psychological drama acted out on stage let alone any political dimension. What Severin and Thomas have in common is that they are both aesthetes in search of perfection, Thomas on stage in the arena of representation and Severin as the protagonist in his own life as the main character in a novella presumably as an alter-ego of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch begin as radical contrasts.

A passionate and saucy New Yorker with a filthy mouth, Vanda Jordan rather than Wanda (played with absolute brilliance by Carly Street), enters and makes Barbra Streisand who plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl look like a demure retiring flower. She is late for the audition. Everyone has left except the playwright-director who is frustrated after a day of unsuccessful auditions and he is anxious to get home to his fiancé. Thunder claps accompany Vanda’s tumultuous soaking wet entrance with a broken umbrella.

Only later when they recur will the thunder and lightning of The Bacchae throw light on what is taking place and only later will we understand that this is Semelê, daughter of Cadmus and mother of Pentheus being brought back to life in a new form on stage. Only then will we recall that Vanda’s swearing at the gods for her misfortune in the opening, that her cussing, has some depth of meaning. Vanda,, of course, true to type, at the beginning appears absolutely unsuited to the part of a sophisticated young and beautiful rich nineteenth century aristocratic widow. However, she turns out to have the acting skills and the hauteur of Maggie Smith. So the actress, Vanda, who auditions to play Wanda, a character common to a genre of Broadway and Hollywood comedies, is the very opposite of Wanda yet has to carry a huge weight of historical baggage as someone who misspeaks with a New Jersey or Brooklyn accent as she forces you both to forget and recall over twenty-five hundred years of art. As Severin says to the goddess Venus: “You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me forget two thousand years.”

The play is very different from Leopold von Sacho-Masoch’s book in a number of other respects, such as the relationship between the two main characters. Though there is playing at masochism, there is no real cruel and intensely physical beating ever. The play is NOT about masochism and an exploration of physical cruelty as the essence of love and of the male/female relationship more generally. (Severin as quoted in the play: “I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”)

The focus has shifted entirely to the  master-slave relationship rather than its expression through sado-masochistic infliction of physical pain. What is left is the phenomenology of the experience rather than the experience itself as the playwright/director and the auditioning actress inventively and continuously switch roles from playing themselves to playing the roles in the play and from who is in charge to who is following orders. And the switch between them takes place subtly but directly as the profane and earthy actress auditioning for the part asks to switch off the glaring lights above and, without waiting for permission, simply does so. The impertinent and brash actress takes more and more responsibility for directing and even writing the play and becoming the guiding spirit to realize the director/playwright’s vision. It becomes the story of a muse who comes to life just as Severin’s marble statue took on a real life form.

The adventure takes place in peeling back layers of an onion as we both weep and laugh at our tears, in the provocations of thought much more than physical bodily reactions, in the boldness of both conception and execution in spite of, in  fact, because of the minimalist but absolutely perfect stage and the restriction to only two actors in one uninterrupted 90-minute performance. The two milk the sensuality out of all this talk about sexuality in spite of what Jennifer Tarver, the director, may have thought she was creating with this excellent production. Like the writer/director in the play, what she created was something other than what she claims to have accomplished, and it, like the play within a play within a play within a play, etc.,  is an outstanding accomplishment. Indeed.  I long ago learned that a director, whether it was Leon Major in the planning of my play for the Crest Theatre over a half century ago, or Robert Gill who directed the play in the Hart House production, the director’s version need not coincide with the playwright’s idea nor with the audience’s actual experience once the play is performed. The play is more cerebral than carnal, more comic than crazy, more kooky than kinky, and more sensual than sexual in spite of all the talk about sex.

Unlike the novella which served as the inspiration, the play within a play avoids dream states and plays with the transition between fiction and imagination and the so-called reality of the audition simply through the imaginative acting skills of the performers. For the play, unlike the novella, is much more about the relationship of appearance and reality – in this Jennifer Tarver is dead on – for in Sacher-Masoch’s world there is only appearance. The imagined world is the only real world. In the play on stage, the imagined world re-imagines one imagined world and replaces it by another. The contract of perpetual slavery is re-enacted in the play but NOT the alternative deal, that if the signed agreement fails, the alternative is that Severin agrees to forfeit his life. The Hegelian dimension of the struggle between life as survival and desire in the novella is also missing from the play. Instead, we get a much more minimalist focus on lordship and bondage as existential states, of domination and submission. For in order to survive, an actor must audition and subjugate his or herself.

The novella is truly sensational in re-enacting mascochism, and never more so than, when, after a severe beating, Wanda leaves with her new lover. “Blood was already flowing under the whip. I wound like a worm that is trodden on, but he whipped on without mercy, and she continued to laugh without mercy.” In the play, this cruelty is referred to and performed as a kind of stylized dance, but there is none of the blood, the sheer evocation of cruelty, the fear and anticipation, the dread and the physical pain that we find in the novella. The psychological degradation becomes much more important. Most significantly, while Wanda leaves with her Greek lover at the end of the novella abandoning the whipped and tied-up Severin, the play ends with the playwright worshipping Aphrodite – Venus in Fur. The master of the script has become its slave.

The play is NOT about sado-masochism. Sado-masochism is a reference point and a way of costuming the play which is about gender relations and the issue of master and slave, lordship and bondage, behind and beneath the act of sado-masichism, but it is not about sado-masochism. Nor is it an erotic play though there is one quasi erotic moment when the playwright puts Wanda’s long leather boot on her legs slowly and evocatively zipping it up. But where does humour have a place in an erotic setting? It is like cracking a joke and laughing in the middle of sexual intercourse. So when Wanda asks Tom if he wants to put her boots on, he abjectly accepts and then she cracks: “On me, not on you,” or words to that effect. A great joke but hardly a foundation for an erotic scene. But that is as erotic as it gets – not much more than a glance at a Paris postcard with a joke on the side . If you want to experience eroticism and the suffering of a person enslaved by love, go see the movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour for a fictional representation of eroticism between two females as imagined through a male director’s eyes.

In Ives’ play there is a reference to the book of Judith in the apocryphal bible. Sacher-Masoch’s book begins with a quote from ch. xvi, verse 7 of that book: “But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” This is what the play takes as the real essence of the novella and re-enacts on stage, not erotic sado-masochism. Perhaps in some sense an actor has to be a masochist to endure the humiliations of repeated auditions and rejections and perhaps directors have to be sadists in some sense to put actors through such cruel experiences. But in staging the inversion of that relationship rather than the process of gradual and even worse submission in the novella, we can better understand Ives’ play as an allegory about master and slave, seduction and being seduced, about plays and audiences and the sado-masochism is merely a metaphor for this much larger topic. There is none of the fear and pain that comes so alive in the Sacher-Masoch novella. Further, and ironically, instead of the representation of a sacred personage coming to life, instead of an “aureole”, we find a fictional character in a play playing another fictional character who transforms herself into the sacred Venus cum Aphrodite. We are transported from Roman to Greek worship through the epitome of the Greek imagination, the play.

Thus, Euripedes’ The Bacchae, looms much larger in the play than in Sacher-Macho’s novella where it is merely referenced. This is where we might have an implied political message, though Euripedes, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, was rarely subtle about his didactic message. In Sacher-Masoch, the equation of the heroine, Wanda, with the all-powerful and cruel Catherine the Great is direct. If I am correct, the political reference in the play, if it is indeed there, is subtle. For The Bacchae was written when Athenian democracy was in disarray; rational and responsible government had become dysfunctional. Is there some connection between the theme of inversion and displacement of the master-slave relationship with the accelerating decline of America as both a world power and a dysfunctional polity? I would have to see the play again to make a determination, but you can keep this question in mind if you have seen or go to see the play.

In Euripides’ play set in Thebes, the connection between the rise in dysfunctional politics and the increase of hedonism in general and the cult of Dionysus is unequivocal. Sacho-Masoch’s novella was written as the empires of the old order were proving dysfunctional. Is Ives suggesting that the rise of aestheticism into prominence is symbolic of what is happening in the political life of America where the Boston tea party at the heart of American ideology is being re-enacted in terms of a totally reactionary agenda and as a virtual cult? There is the parallel between the end of the Peloponnesian War which Athens lost and the series of wars from the Vietnam conflict to even the wars that America and her allies ostensibly won that have all turned into defeats for America and its allies as America retreats as a world power. However, Euripides’ message is not reducible to a simplistic contemporary political commentary. Certainly, neither is Ives. But the theme of submission, of reversals in roles and the seeming futility but nevertheless magical enchantment with attempting to realize an envisioned ideal are all in the play. Even the theme of surrendering to a higher power seems to dictate that every powerful empire is doomed to decline may be implicitly connected with the rise of the feminine into power politics and the decline of males as macho men.

But the cruelty and eroticism of Ives’ play lacks the graphic evocation of either the novella or the Greek play. If you have ever seen the Bacchae – I saw a very flawed production once – even if badly done, it is clear how important erotic and violent imagery are to the play. This is not the case in Venus in Fur. Perhaps this is because Ives’ play entertains and entrances more than it penetrates your soul. The unexpected is used to tease and enchant and turn the members of the audience themselves into mesmerized slavish witnesses to the turns and twists of the plot. That is why, at the end, you do not have the ecstatic moment of a Dionysian cultish service. Instead of arousing the audience to a pitch of sensuality, our intellects and imagination are excited.  

Reflections on Venus in Furs

Reflections on Venus in Furs

by

Howard Adelman

 

Introduction

I am cursed. I was determined to take off today and write nothing. But I saw Venus in Fur by David Ives playing at the Berkeley Theatre. The show has been around for awhile and previously played at the Bluma Appel Theatre. I am delighted that I saw it at the Berkeley Theatre which seems so much better suited to the play. It is a fantastic production and a phenomenal play. If it is not playing in your city now, it will be very soon. It is bound to play all over the world and soon be on many high school curricula if it is not already.  There will be many amateur productions but they will be a real challenge.

I will not tell you very much about the play and what I will write I will save for tomorrow. In any case, I simply cannot. I usually replay a drama or a movie for the next day or two in my mind. Then I can barely remember it afterwards. In the case of this play by David Ives, it was impossible. There are just too many twists and turns, inversions and conversions. So instead of serving as a Dionysian critic entranced by the passion in the play, I will serve as an Apollonian commentator.

I had read a review of the play in The New Yorker by Robert Risk but that only came back to me this morning when I woke up at 5:30 writing this commentary in my mind. I went looking for The New Yorker but could not find it. So I only remembered that he, as well, loved the production he saw. And that was the only expectation I had when I walked into the play and read the credit notes which were about appearance and reality (recall my discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave). But I had two advantages. I had written and published a great deal of commentary on the Adam and Eve story and always wanted to write a play about Adam’s seduction of Eve and how that story got turned into Eve’s seduction of Adam.

Secondly, when I was an undergraduate almost sixty years ago, my friend, Milton Zysman, introduced me to an author, Sacher-Masoch who was the source for Von Krafft-Ebing’s analysis of masochism of which I learned by first reading Arthur Koestler’s Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler wrote that book under a pseudonym. The volume was a fat seemingly learned tome that was really a mixture of sexual experience and some knowledge dressed up in pseudo-scientific language that was actually taken to be an authoritative document on the study of sex. I was surprised to learn at the time that the book continued to be regarded as such almost twenty years later when I was an undergraduate. I delighted in exposing its fraudulent roots when I was a student twenty years later and I found that readers still took it as a serious contribution to science and thought I made the story up that Koestler had written the book to make a quick buck in Paris. So does fiction continue to trump reality.

I had read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book that had a strong and everlasting influence on me, particularly on my strong negative attitude towards communism. Reading Darkness at Noon led me to his other writings, including this so-called scholarly study of sexology and other books on the subject. However, I could not recall ever reading Venus in Furs,. So that is the first thing I did this morning and is the topic of this blog rather than the play.

Venus in Furs

The 1870 sado-masochistic novella version that I read by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, a Galicianer like my mother, but a German rather than a Jewish one, was translated from German into English by Fernanda Savage. Sacher-Masoch had been born a century before me. His wife wrote under the pseudonym Wanda von Dunajew (yes, literally dunn-a Jew). Wanda happens to be the name of the heroine in Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel as well as the heroine of the book which the writer in Ives’ play has adapted for the stage. In fact, Sacher-Masoch’s wife, Aurora Rűmelin, introduced herself to her future husband because she had read his 1870 book and wrote a letter to him telling him that she was the perfect person to fulfill his desires; she would (and did) perform the role of a dominatrix. Evidently, if her 1906 sensational Confessions are to be believed, role reversals were endemic to their tumultuous relationship as they are in the novella and the play.

In Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Severin von Kusiemski, though not rich at the time until he later inherits his father’s property, is a nobleman from Galicia with enough income to lead a life of quiet sedentary leisure. Wanda Tartakovska is a very wealthy young and beautiful widow and only 24 years old. The two meet at a very small holiday home in the Carpathian mountains. Severin has the ground floor and Wanda the suite on the first floor above. 

Severin is an inexperienced aesthete, in love with the goddess Venus, love that is consummated in some sense when he views the portrait of “Venus in her Mirror” by Titian discussed in Ives’ play. In the portrait, Venus is nude except she is draped in a fur and it is cupid who holds the mirror up for her.

In the novella, Wanda dresses herself in furs as the Venus of Severin’s imagination and Severin falls in love with her.  She, the seductress, beguiles this inexperienced dreamer and, in turn, falls in love with his passion. She begins, however, as a natural force whose pagan philosophy is articulated by Venus in what turns out to be a dream. Venus articulates a philosophy of life based on “passion and of natural love, which is woman’s nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love everything, that pleases her.” She rejects the idea that love must bring with it pain. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there—woman or man? You of the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.” “Love, which is the highest joy, which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you children of reflection. It works only evil in you. As soon as you wish to be natural, you become common. To you nature seems something hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and out of me a demon.”

And then come the thesis: “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise.” And she continues. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.”

Other Choices

All this is revealed in a dream before Severin even gets to know his Wanda. Severin is woken up by his tall Cossack servant and he realizes he has fallen asleep with his clothes on in a chair with a book by the German philosopher Hegel open at a page. The book must have been the Phenomenology of Spirit with the page opened at the beginning of the section on “Self-consciousness” and its introductory discussion of desire and life. And then there is the description of the painting in that room somewhat different than the one above.

“A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.”

Soon, Venus, a real fictional woman (Wanda) dressed as Venus, will be sighted in the garden. Like the painting, her skin is marble-like and she is trembling like a cat though wearing the red velvet fur trimmed wrap. Unlike the painting in which Venus looks at herself with sparkling beautiful and admiring eyes, the eyes of the Venus in the opening of the novella are dead and stony. Further, in the novella she is trembling and sneezes twice in succession.

Severin and his friend discuss love, mastery and cruelty in the context of another book, Confessions of a Supersensual Man. Severin styles himself as a supersensual man. There is also the discussion of the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha. “‘The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.’ How ungallant these Jews are, I thought. And their God might choose more becoming expressions when he speaks of the fair sex.” 

There are thus alternative choices for desire – desire as voluntary self-sacrifice in the service of the female – masochistic love. Desire as pagan love and giving oneself to the temptations and desires of the moment without any future commitment. And then there is the divine biblical love of the bible in which one gives oneself in service to God, to a love of an abstraction rather than a sensuous presence, and in service, not to one’s own sensibilities but in the aspiration to be one with the divine. The book is dedicated to the exploration and advocacy on behalf of the first kind of love.

Stages of Seduction in an Erotic Masochistic Relationship

Severin delivers himself into the hands of a woman by seducing her with his sensuous talk of masochistic love whereas she starts by wanting a man who will dominate her. “”I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his innate (my italics and corrected spelling) strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman’s hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel.”

The conversation is very prophetic..Stage by stage the novella turns the roles around. Severin seduces his Venus into becoming the cruel one and accepting, indeed demanding he be her slave. He, in turn, is whipped into submission, forced to degrade himself and eventually to be subjected to a whipping by a handsome Greek she accepts as a lover. In the process, Severin’s infatuation with fur and with masochistic love is given a psychological root by Severin telling a childhood story of his experience with his aunt. “One day my parents drove to the capital of the district. My aunt determined to take advantage of their absence, and to exercise judgment over me. She entered unexpectedly in her fur-lined kazabaika,[2] followed by the cook, kitchen-maid, and the cat of a chamber-maid whom I had scorned. Without asking any questions, they seized me and bound me hand and foot, in spite of my violent resistance. Then my aunt, with an evil smile, rolled up her sleeve and began to whip me with a stout switch. She whipped so hard that the blood flowed, and that, at last, notwithstanding my heroic spirit, I cried and wept and begged for mercy. She then had me untied, but I had to get down on my knees and thank her for the punishment and kiss her hand.”

Greasy-haired Jews, the epitome of commerce and modern man  appear throughout the novel, as providers of art and needed artifacts, but also as the person who seduced the respectable woman with whom Severin once fell in love. Jews are regarded as very far from the supersensuous love for they are too in love with commerce and ambition. But they are minor sideshows, intermediaries and distractions. WOMAN is the main other protagonist. “No woman is so good or so bad, but that at any moment she is capable of the most diabolical as well as of the most divine, of the filthiest as well as of the purest, thoughts, emotions, and actions. In spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she came out of the hand of nature. She has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates at the moment. Throughout history it has always been a serious deep culture which has produced moral character. Man even when he is selfish or evil always follows principles, woman never follows anything but impulses. Don’t ever forget that, and never feel secure with the woman you love.”

Nevertheless, in spite of warnings, Severin signs the contract to be Wanda’s slave, a scene repeated in the play. Severin dedicates himself to serving as her slave as she diddles with him. The novel is very fast paced for a nineteenth century story, though, if I recall correctly, it was referred to in Ives’ play as turgid. Further, and surprisingly, it is full of sly humour as well as many twists and turns like Ives’ play. In the novella, Severin professes his love as a mixture of hate and fear in which the relationship of the sexes is presented as a battleground in which one partner must of necessity play the hammer while the other is its complement, the anvil. Severin can only worship a woman who treats him cruelly.

The novella reaches its culmination when Alexis Papadopolis appears on the scene and not only woos Wanda, but is the kind of man of whom Wanda always dreamed. “a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion’s lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face—” And in the worst of horrors, Alexis lashes Severin under Wanda’s orders.

“The sensation of being whipped by a successful rival before the eyes of an adored woman cannot be described. I almost went mad with shame and despair.” Such is the cruelty of love which must by its very nature be cruel because men and women are unequal and one must dominate and the other be dominated: “whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”

That is the philosophy of masochism. That is NOT the thesis put forth in Ives’ play, Venus in Fur.

Mandela and Israel

Mandela, Netanyahu and Parashat Vayeshev

by

Howard Adelman

Rabbi Dow Marmur in his blog on Wednesday speculated on the reason Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled his attendance at Mandela’s funeral. Yudi Edelstein, the Knesset Speaker and a former prisoner in the gulag, as well as several other Knesset members, did attend. There was, of course, the official reason, given the need for security, the huge costs – a sensitive subject in the light of the recent publicity over the huge expenses of Prime Minister Netanyahu in running his political affairs and his household expenses charged to the state. President Peres did not attend because he evidently had the flu. There has been a great deal of speculation over whether a political message accompanied this snub by Netanyahu of the most important political funeral held thus far in this century.

Dow commented: “In view of the many challenges that the Prime Minister of Israel is facing today – Iran; negotiations with the Palestinians; cracks in his coalition, etc. etc. – his not being at the funeral doesn’t seem to be that serious a matter,” and then speculated whether Bibi received poor advice or whether his wife’s “intuition” decided such matters. I think missing the funeral was a very serious matter because symbolism matters. It will take a bit of sideways reasoning to make my case. And I do so because I both admire Joseph Mandela enormously but also want him to be seen with all his shortcomings.

I had written to my cousin, Sarah, who had earlier enquired about Mandela’s relationship to Israel. I told her that Mandela was indeed a “strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and a critic of Israel, but not of the likes of Desmond Tutu. He praised Zionism in his book and saw it as a legitimate expression of Jewish nationalism and self-determination that he wanted for his own people.. He openly admired Jews and many of his supporters were Jews. He thought that, because of their history, Jews were more sensitive to racism. The missive that went out under his name attacking Zionism was actually written and sent out by a  Palestinian activist, Arjan el Fassed. I also mistakenly simplified and wrote that Mandela never equated Israel with apartheid. I should have more correctly written that Mandela never reduced Israel to an apartheid regime though he actually did accuse Israel of apartheid practices.

Mandela also credited his understanding of guerilla warfare when he switched to violent opposition to the apartheid regime to a South African Jew, Arthur Goldreich, who fought in the Palmach in the Israeli War of Independence. Four of his lawyers at his trial for treason were Jews. Thirteen of his co-defendants were Jews. When the Chief Rabbi of South Africa declined his invitation to officiate at his wedding because it was being held on a Saturday, Mandela arranged a second ceremony for the preceding Friday so that the Chief Rabbi could come and officiate.

However, Mandela also identified with the Palestinian cause, viewed it as a continuation of the struggle in South Africa for self-determination and freedom, consistently opposed Israeli occupation and the expansion of the settlements and denied the characterization of the PLO as a terrorist organization. But he did echo, though he did not use a meagaphone, the views of Desmond Tutu, Mondli Makhanya and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who continually publicized Mandela’s characterization of the situation in the West Bank as a form of apartheid that was worse and more brutal than anything experienced in South Africa, for the Bantustans in South Africa were never surrounded by a separation wall that so overwhelmingly inhibits freedom of movement. Nor were separate military courts used, as is done to try Palestinians from the West Bank, while reserving domestic courts for Israelis even in the West Bank.

My friend, George Solger, in response to my insistence that calling Israel an apartheid state is a calumny, offered a classic Mandela argument.

Your statement that what is seen in the West Bank is a military
occupation and not Apartheid would be OK if the occupation were
temporary, but it has become permanent .Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by military laws whereas settlers are governed by civilian law, the settlers seem to
get away with almost anything against their Palestinian neighbours.
There are roads in the West Bank for Jews only, mostly the best ones.
The Knesset makes rules that apply in the Occupied Territories yet the
inhabitants of same do not vote in the Knesset. Water use, even from
the aquifer in the West Bank is very unequal, favouring Israeli Jews.
Palestinians from the West Bank cannot go freely into  (or through)
Israel no matter what their business is. The right of return to Israel
applies to Jews but not to Palestinians. Jews and Arabs have different
identity cards and there are consequences for employment. If a
Palestinian living in Israel marries one in the Occupied Territories
there are residence problems for the spouse from the Territories and I
believe also for the offspring . This is by no means a complete list of
official discriminatory regulations. This official discrimination is
intended to keep Israel as free of Palestinian presence, influence and
power as possible, i.e. Jewish domination.
I think this fits the definition of the UN Rome conference

Most of those charges are true. Except the Occupation is not and has not become permanent. If Oslo had succeeded, if Arafat had not reneged on acceding to the peace agreement, occupation would have ended by now. Further, the intention of all the alleged discrimination was not intended to keep Israel as free of Palestinian presence, influence and power as possible. Rather, the launch of the terror solution by the PLO undermined all kinds of worker, business, tourist, academic, scientific and many more other exchanges and forms of intercourse between the two groups.

Nevertheless, like Solger, Mandela did think of Israel as not only engaging in apartheid practices, but was in essence an apartheid state. In a 2001 letter to Thomas Friedman (http://www.keghart.com/Mandela-Palestine), he wrote, “Perhaps it is strange for you to observe the situation in Palestine or more specifically, the structure of political and cultural relationships between Palestinians and Israelis, as an Apartheid system.” For Mandela, the root cause of the apartheid is not the occupation but the ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees, the denial of their right to return and the destruction of all those villages in 1948. My friend George Solger has written and supports applying the epithet of apartheid to Israel for the same reason Mandela did, because Israel insists that it must ever remain a Jewish state and denies the right of the Palestinians to ever become a majority of the polity in all of historic Palestine.

Mandela wrote, “Apartheid is a crime against humanity. Israel has deprived millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. It has perpetuated a system of gross racial discrimination and inequality. It has systematically incarcerated and tortured thousands of Palestinians, contrary to the rules of international law. It has, in particular, waged a war against a civilian population, in particular children.” Yet Irwin Cotler, a Zionist champion, was also Mandela’s lawyer.

Must Jews, in championing Mandela as a prophet of freedom and self-determination also ignore his accusations against Israel as guilty of apartheid or, perhaps hypocritically, push that characterization into a closet while eulogies are showered upon a man of greatness. Some, as Roy Iscawitz does, urge Netanyahu to follow in the footsteps of de Klerk in South Africa and opt for peace and reconciliation.

If the South African analogy is applied to Israel, Netanyahu plays the De Klerk role. He can continue being the bloody ethnic warlord with a powerful army at his disposal or he can overcome the atavistic tribalism of his background and undergo what De Klerk described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as “a process of introspection, of soul searching; of repentance; of realization of the futility of ongoing conflict, of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it. As De Klerk said in the same speech: ‘The question that we must ask is whether we are making progress toward the goal of universal peace, or are we caught up on a treadmill of history, turning forever on the axle of mindless aggression and self-destruction? Repression, injustice and exploitation are inimical with peace. Peace is gravely threatened by inter-group fear and envy and by the unleashing of unrealistic expectations. Racial, class and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies.’ The choice is Netanyahu’s.

Ironically, however you characterize Mandela, one could never say he was two-faced let alone multi-faced. On one hand, he can be seen as both a champion of national self-determination but critical of “separatist” Jewish self-determination akin to Zulu separatist nationalism in South Africa. From that ideological position, Mandela arrives at his characterization of the Israeli state as guilty of apartheid practices. However, there are those who simply ignore his politics, ignore his assertions about apartheid applied to Israel and engage only with Mandela as a man of justice and reconciliation. Linda Rabinovich, a 44-year old South African Jew who stood for hours in line to pass by his coffin and pay tribute to the great man said, “As a Jew, I think there’s a similarity between the Holocaust and apartheid…I feel that we, the Jews, could have done more … Mandela was an amazing man and I felt the need to be here today, to take part in a historic, seminal moment. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren one day that I was here, and show them pictures.”

There are also those who go even further, who see Mandela not only as a champion of reconciliation while ignoring his ideological politics, but view Netanyahu as akin to de Klerk in need of coming to an epiphany. They would urge Netanyahu to follow in de Klerk’s footsteps without indicating any critical self-consciousness of what such an equivalence signifies. Fourth, on the abstract theological plane, the great and illustrious Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was born in South Africa, follows that course but at a level removed from politics altogether. (http://www.chiefrabbi.org/nelson-mandela-1918-2013/) Sacks had a personal connection with Mandela because his family law firm was the first to have a black lawyer, Nelson Mandela, as a member of the firm.

In Jonathan Sack’s commentary on this week’s parashat dealing with the story of Joseph (thank you Sandy), the story is seen as the first exemplification of political reconciliation and forgiveness between Joseph and his brothers. Further, the story is also an exemplification of providence and trust in God’s ultimate intentions instead of surrendering to the bleak prognostications that seem to be dictated by current circumstances. “This is a crucial moment in the history of faith. It marks the birth of forgiveness, the first recorded moment at which one person forgives another for a wrong they have done. But it also establishes another important principle: the idea of divine providence.” Mandela, a modern Joseph, is here viewed not merely as the modern exemplification of forgiveness and reconciliation but of faith and trust in the final beneficent outcome rather than in surrendering to the bleak prognostications of the present. His tenacity and determination is as important as his sense of forgiveness and reconciliation. But his politics are bracketed.

I, however, differ in all these interpretations and do not ignore the biblical interpretive one to hep shed light on the situation. Recall that Joseph was not only a mature man of reconciliation and forgiveness, but a snitch on his brothers whenever they did anything amiss. (Genesis 37:2) Further, Joseph was a seer and visionary who prophesied his own power over his brothers who hated and resented him. (Genesis 37:7-8) And they conspired against him and cast him in a pit from which he was rescued. Rather than living in a cell for 27 years, Joseph was sold into slavery instead. The difference between Mandela and Joseph is that Mandela spent a long period in purgatory while Joseph rose to power within an authoritarian regime.  Mandela rose to power by standing against an authoritarian and oppressive regime. Joseph’s act of reconciliation was an act of noblesse oblige rather than just overcoming resentments, a rediscovery of a desire to be one again with his family once he had achieved power. There are so many ways in which Mandela was a far greater man than Joseph.

But there are also many ways in which Mandela was worse. First, Joseph never made the mistake of resorting to terror to bring about greater justice and ensuring a fair distribution of resources. Mandela did. For a brief period, he was a member of the South African Communist Party after the Sharpeville massacre. Along with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo, he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) that bombed military and infrastructure targets for which he was captured, tried, convicted and sent to prison for 27 years.

Further, Joseph was a brilliant economist in developing the financial strategies of a state. Mandela was honest, but was inadequate when dealing with the structured inequalities and the horrific housing for Blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. He espoused economic empowerment of Blacks and encouraging small and medium entrepreneurial development to restructure locally while encouraging and fostering global trade (the Reconstruction and Development Program – RDP – of the ANC), in other words, pursue capitalism at both the global, national and local levels through a neo-liberal agenda of controlling inflation and encouraging foreign trade. At the same time, his party insisted that the socialist politics of redistribution was also needed to guarantee a better life for all, Mandela proved unable to significantly advance the latter while pursuing the former.

When the focus is on exports both regionally and globally through trade liberalization, when the infrastructure was geared to roads and railroads, communications and transportation but housing policies were ignored, then the slums continued and the conditions were not in place to take up the labour of all those in the vast townships.  True, health, education and welfare services improved for Blacks, but not the housing situation in any significant way, and the terrible housing contributed to the ill health and despair of the Back population more than anything else. The proof was in the pudding – the large firms under white control thrived but accompanied by very low growth rates and high Black unemployment while the costs of social security and the wages for public servants soared. Further, though his neo-liberal export strategy largely succeeded, in good part because of the pent-up demand for South African agricultural products, especially wines, apples and oranges, its booming mines and its role as the centre for automobile assembly for Africa, even his monetary policy failed. Though inflation was kept in check, the country experienced attacks against its currency, the Rand, both in 1996 and 1998.

If Mandela lacked Joseph’s peaceable instincts and his fiscal astuteness, he also lacked Joseph’s deceptive cunning. For Mandela remained a moralist in which ideological convictions, rather than detailed empirical analysis and psychological astuteness, determined his strategies and tactics. Just as he superimposed Sweden – incidentally, the ANC’s largest funder by far – inappropriately on South Africa, he also superimposed his analysis of South Africa on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In this dimension, Joseph also comes out on top for he always adapted his strategies and tactics to the particulars of a situation.   

Does that mean that I do not think that Mandela was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century? Not at all. I see no one who comes close. But was he a god or even a saint? No, just a very great man with serious human and intellectual flaws and we do him a disservice to not point them out. For we end up perpetuating injustices on others by turning an icon into an object of saintly worship, especially when it leads to denigrating others like Netanyahu, needs criticism but not demonization to complement the canonization of Joseph Mandela. Nevertheless, Netanyahu did not help Israel by cancelling his trip just when the BDS campaign against Israel is getting several boosts.

That does not make Mandela right about applying the epithet, apartheid, to Israel. Idolatry remains the greatest sin for Jews.

Nebraska

Nebraska

by

Howard Adelman

The distance from BillingsMontana travelling east to LincolnNebraska is about 900 miles on a mostly dead flat, straight highway that is longer and more lonesome than I have ever seen in a movie. Billings, where Woody Grant (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) lives, is the largest city in Montana, about the size of Barrie, Ontario with just over 100,000 people. Like Barrie, it is a booming town that avoided the economic bust that generally ravished so many towns and cities in the USA in the last six years. LincolnNebraska is about three times the size of Billings with a reputation of one of the happiest and healthiest cities in the USA. So when the old, addled and grizzly curmudgeon, Woody, sets out with his son, David (Will Forte) travelling east rather than west on a quixotic quest, you would think they would be going from one booming and bustling place to an even larger and more jumping one even if it is not the Big Apple. 

But this is an Alexander Payne road and buddy movie – this time with a father and son. Everything looks bleak, frozen in time, decrepit and rotting into history. Shot in black and white, even the famous vast blue skies of the west are never to be seen as gray and white clouds block any sunlight throughout the movie. Instead of sprightly western reels, all we ever hear in the background is the plucking of plaintive guitar music. If reality is the American dream of this geographical area, human despair against a backdrop of crumbling real estate tells a very different story – the American dream turned upside down and inside out. We know from the very opening of the film that the promised lottery prize of a million dollars is a scam to sell magazine subscriptions. So we are presented with a portrait of a drab landscape rather than the usual uplifting one, especially as you approach Nebraska.

The script matches the landscape. If the usual movie script is about 100 pages, I wager this one was no more than 30 pages – for the film is permeated by silences and one syllable replies, usually only after a second try when Woody wakens from his befuddled state. Though sometimes sassy when Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is on the screen and lights it up with her foul and earthy mouth, the speeches lack any wit, wisdom or sophistication. The people barely manage to talk with or by one another. When they aren’t scheming, they are stolid, complacent and boring. “Didn’t you drive an Impala.” “Never owned one.” “I was sure it was a Chevy.” “It was a Buick.” These are not the exact words in the script, but they catch the flavour.

In one scene when the father and son are only two hours from Lincoln and back in the town of Hawthorne, North Dakota, where Woody is from, he and his son get together with Woody’s brothers and their wives – there are many of them. They sit with eyes glued to a football game on TV barely exchanging a word with and never a glance at one another. It is one of the best tableaus in the history of film and will become iconic. Human relations are even bleaker than the visual portrait of the landscape. The sculptures of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore are NOT monumental in their aspirations but an unfinished business of leftovers. of a job incomplete and abandoned. So went the American dream. For after all, everyone knew it was a scam all along.

In the part of the country famed for its solid and stolid hardworking and honest souls, we are presented with a portrait of indolent leftovers eager to make a quick buck by beggary or buggery or bullying, whatever it takes. I could tell you the plot, but there is barely a plot. The intrigues are farces and lack any suspense. They are just the adaptations of more blundering fools. In contrast to Downton Abbey, with its sophistication and wit, with the finest costuming money could buy, with scheming and plotting over an inheritance, the characters in Nebraska are clothed in old and worn plaid shirts and jeans and engage in scheming without a plot, and conniving without any crackle. Most of the men, even Woody’s two sons, at least in the first half of the film, seem almost as muddled as Woody.

Yet the alienated relationship between the father and the son heals and is transformed. The film becomes sweet without being in any way cloy or sentimental. And nostalgia is turned on its head in the aspiration for a half ton pick up and a new pressure painter. The motto seems to read in headlines – let the past die. Rather than an exercise in sentimentality and nostalgia, Nebraska is an exercise that parodies nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for the American dream.  

Rather than a movie about loyalty, it is a movie without loyalties that becomes bittersweet when a real contact develops between the son and the father.  A forlorn portrait of the futility of life turns into delight at very small things and gestures. So although no one really goes anywhere or does anything, the odyssey still delivers a pot of gold, Though the landscape is full of losers, a glimpse of the wonder of small things emerges from the petty cruelty man metes out on his fellows. The sense of the futility of all life that permeates the movie and creates a forlorn portrait that history never changes,  unlike Downton Abbey, turns into testimony to the son’s faith. The story travels in a  circle as the father and son head back from Lincoln, Nebraska westward back to Billings, Montana.

This is a western without any action, a film of fragility and seeming futility rather than strength, a movie about determination to find the pot at the end of the rainbow when everyone knows there is no pot and everyone can see that there is not only no rainbow but not a drop of colour on the whole horizon.

In the aftermath of four Canadian soldiers committing suicide in one week, in the back stories of a military that wants to shuffle these casualties into hidden and uncared for recesses, we watch in the film and see what happened to an aged veteran of the Korean War. Woody clearly seemed to have suffered from his own post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, initially we fully sympathize with his wife’s desire to ship him off to a nursing home. This tale of a pathetic and cantankerous old sot turns into a story in which Sancho Pancho gets to know his ornery father as a caring and generous human without any of the venality that seems to permeate so many of the characters.