The White Ribbon

I went to see Haneke’s The White Ribbon last night. It’s fair to say I felt rather ambivalent about it. According to Haneke:

"In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they’re looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery." Does ideological belief remove the need to ask questions? "Of course. The less intelligent I am, the more easily I follow someone who is going to give me the answers."

It is partly for this reason, one assumes, that Haneke’s work never offers one simple answer where several complicated enigmas will do. As a director, he believes firmly that a film should pose more problems than it solves; his ideal viewer is "one who leaves with questions". Does he find it irritating when people who have seen his films ask him what happened next? "It’s not at all irritating because it’s a normal question. I say: take a look at the film, let it go through your head, consider what you want to think about it. People always want answers, but only liars have the answers. Politicians have answers." Later, he confesses that the only thing he watches on television is the weather forecast, because "that’s the only thing that is not a lie".

It’s certainly true that The White Ribbon is far from being monologic as a film. The pastor’s authoritarian approach with his children results in one stabbing his pet bird, while another offers his father a tamed bird upon seeing how upset his father is. The pastor’s puritannical morality contrasts with the Doctor’s adultery and lust for his daughter. Both contrast to the somewhat sentimental story of the Teacher’s love for Eva. However, the fact remains that the film does have a central premise to it concerning the origins of violence. The film is not depicting events defy meaning, in the manner of Kafka. It is depicting a didactic view of German society, seen as authoritarian, brutal and repressive, whether in denying sexual pleasure, in beating and abusing children or in treating workers with callous disregard. The children depicted represent the generation that went onto become Nazis. The point is not especially subtle and contrary to Haneke’s view that the subject matter is universal it seems difficult to see the same script being filmed in contemporary Germany. The themes would simply not translate for the most part. In another interview, Haneke notes that:

"Automatically when you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator. If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent."

I am unsure a film can easily be both manipulative and open-ended.

I’ve also just finished reading Mishima’s Runaway Horses, a novel that does tend rather more towards the dialogic; "he has excluded a number of contradictions…he sacrifices all perspective.. what the book lacks is contrast". Based around the central thesis that its central character, Isao is the reincarnation of the protagonist of Spring Snow, I assumed that Mishima is alluding to Nietzsche’s idea of the external recurrence. As with Nietzsche, the idea is far from being without problems. Just as the idea of the superman and the eternal recurrence seem to alternate and compete in Thus Sprach Zarathustra (since the eternal recurrence is a nihilistic concept wherein existence is simply a chaotic flux that is far from being susceptible to the individual will) so they do here. Where Kiyoaki in Spring Snow was destroyed by his Schopenhauerian willlessness, his inability to master and shape his desires, Isao is a model of the superman with all its fascistic implications made overt. Nonetheless, both return to the same fate ("the irony of the human will’s relationship to history.. every strong willed person was in the last analysis frustrated"), in spite of Honda’s attempts to save them in both novels.

Over the years I’ve found myself increasingly unenthused by Orwell’s writings and The Road to Wigan Pier has not proved to offer any startling exception to this. Orwell begins with a description of a working class guest house that caricatures its owners as dirty and disgusting stereotypes; "it gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all… they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world." Later in the same text, after complaining of black thumbprints left by the guest house owners on food, Orwell has the temerity to speak of the middle-class delusion that the working classes are dirty; "dirtiness is healthy and natural and cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a luxury." Orwell then claims to have overcome his own middle-class revulsion without any apparent trace of irony. In part, much of this appears attributable to the fact the guest house owners simply aren’t the right sort of working class people a good communist was apparently supposed to feel solidarity with, unlike the hagiographic (Stakhanovite ?) description of the miners that follows, in contrast to other figures like ‘Nancy poets.’ Northern working class heterosexuality is elevated above Southern middle class homosexuality. Middle class life is ‘sickly’, ‘debilitating’, ‘soft’ and ‘repulsive.’ But again, Orwell goes on to suggest that such ideas are pure mythology; "that the North is inhabited by real people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites." In fairness, Orwell’s views on this subject are admitted to be ambivalent; "soembody who grasps that what is usually called progress entails degeneracy and who nevertheless is in favour of progress." I’m not sure that this does much to mitigate the view though. The final closing peroration is perhaps the part I mostly intensely disliked; with the war with the fascist states imminent what is uppermost in Orwell’s mind is to "attract the man who means business and you have got to drive away the mealy mouthed liberal who wants foreign fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully." In one line, you can see clearly how communism did so much in ensuring the hegemony of fascism in much of Europe, but the idea that fascism was in many respects a reaction against communism or that liberalism would survive either of them, was not one that you’d find entertained here.

The recent novels of JM Coetzee operate on a relatively simple premise, taking a scenario that deals with the life of a character deliberately framed to resemble the author, only for the autobiographical aspects to be deconstructed as fiction. In the case of Foe, the principal works in reverse, with Defoe’s narration of Robinson Crusoe, itself a text that sought to depict itself as being a literal account, being deconstructed as a work of artifice that did not correspond to Coetzee’s account of events; one work of fiction being unmasked by another. For example, Foe tells Susan that while she wants the narration to only dwell on the island "it is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then end," thus showing how artifice is imposed on a mundane reality. The voiceless Friday epitomises how narrative and meaning can be imposed; "Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being rehsaped day by day in conformance with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal." By contrast, Susan says that "I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her desire." Of course, as Susan has to rely on her male ‘muse’ to tell her story, the novel has the paradox that Friday’s silence is better resistant to having his story imposed than her tale; "but noe all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left." Coetzee’s device of deconstructing Defoe’s text allows him to pose the question of what happens to the text if the author has been removed in true Barthesian style; "have we thereby lost our freedoms?…do we of necessity become puppets… do not suppose that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief."

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Orientalism

Orientalism is an exhibition at the Tate dedicated to European painting of the Middle East, one of the latest in a quite long series of exhibitions at various London institutions dealing with the Middle East. The first room announces that the theme is rather predictably inspired by Edward Said, although it admits that Said has become a controversial figure. This seems a pity, as much of the exhibition does go a long way to undermining Said’s case. It shows paintings by people who had effectively gone native, were motivated by mysticism or who were opposed to imperialism or who were simply motivated by a love of the exotic. Although Said’s case that the West depicted the Orient as a decadent, barbaric other (as in Byron’s poetry) is validated to some extent (as with the many pictures of the harem or slave market, although it’s interesting to note that a French painting is the only one to explicitly sexualise the slaves, to the apparent disapproval of a British Empire that was banning such practices), he fails to perceive that as nineteenth century civilisation grew increasingly grey and industrialised, its writers and artists increasingly sought refuge in their own medieval past or in other places unpolluted by modernity. Ruskin sought this in Venice, the likes of Wilkie and Holman Hunt in the Orient. With the ruins of Rome already excavated and familiar, novelty dictated that the ruins of Egypt and Jordan were the next to be discovered. Equally, if the West was decadent, much of the appeal was that Westerners wanted to lose their inhibitions. Figures like Lewis and Leighton often came to show Western figures in Oriental settings.

The exhibition begins with portraiture; the daughter of English merchants who had grown up in Turkey shown in Western dress, the painter John Frederick Lewis depicting himself as a carpet seller in the bazaar, figures like Holman Hunt and Wortley Montagu in Eastern clothing. The depiction of Islam by Lewis is especially sympathetic, with his paintings showing himself at prayer in the Mosque. I’m interested in Wilkie’s portrait of the Ottoman Sultan, shown in mostly Westernised dress. It seems to be forgotten that cultural interchange worked both ways, with foreigners dressing as Arabs and vice versa; again, Said’s account assumes that orientalism can only be an imperialist ploy rather than a form of cultural exchange; the most clearly imperial portrait here, of Napoleon in Egypt, is notable for the stark contrast between the Eastern setting and the Western attire of the dictator. Something similar is at work in the painting of European explorers, dressed in Roman togas, rediscovering the ruins of Petra with their Arab guides. The nearest there is to a validation of Said’s theories is an Augustus John painting of TE Lawrence in Bedouin clothes, although Lawrence was a poor sort of imperialist at best.

The later paintings move onto the subject of religion. During the course of the nineteenth century, wealthy westerners financed the establishment of Jewish homes and collective farms in Jerusalem, which accordingly grew more and more Judaicised. Figures like Holman Hunt grew increasingly interested in Judaism, leading to support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. His painting of The Scapegoat combines both Christian and Jewish themes, although much of his painting of Jersualem and its churches is more straightforwardly christian. It has to be said that the most interesting paintings (and some of the most numerous) in the exhibition are of architecture and landscapes though. For instance, Lord Leighton’s paintings of Algiers and Damascus, Frederick Lewis depicting the bazaars of Cairo, Edward Lear’s view of Constantinople from a cypress filled cemetery or the pyramids from a tree lined avenue, Holman Hunt showing the pyramids reflected in the Nile (he didn’t care for them much and managed to make them look like Silbury Hill) David Robert’s depiction of the ruins of Petra, Baalbec, Philae and Karnak. Judging from this, it’s very clear that both Lear and Roberts are very much underrated as artists.

As an exhibition, there’s more cultural and historical interest than artistic here. None of the paintings are poor but few are masterpieces. To take a few that stood out, there’s Stanley Spencer’s paintings of mosques in Sarajevo, Bomberg’s modernist painting of Jerusalem, Dadd’s strange concatenation of Bedouin tribes and Roman soldiers into a strangely symmetrical painting an allegory whose meaning is forever lost. Before, I leave I take the opportunity to have a look at The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. It fills an entire wall of the gallery and is easily the finest masterpiece that I saw that day. It’s a pity I’ll probably never see it again.

Like Said’s Magnum Opus, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is an interesting text, if not one I can bring myself to entirely agree with. The second section discusses the history of the nude, with its tendency to depict women as passive objects of the male gaze. It’s difficult not to sympathise with much of this argument (especially that non-Western traditions have not focussed exclusively on the passive image of a woman), but it still seems rather limited. The nude in the likes of Cranach or Titian heralds the vanquishing of the medieval prohibition of sexuality, a reawakening of the sensual and physical (it’s interesting to note that there’s absolutely no discussion of the role of religion in Western art in Berger). A figure like the Rokeby Venus, as Camille Paglia might argue, surely has its own power and is difficult to solely characterise as passive. More generally, Berger’s argument seems to have been undone by the passage of time and the increased sexualisation of the male body; Germaine Greer is surely right to argue that women, as much as heterosexual men, have a right to this form of visual pleasure.

The third section is probably the one I most agree with. Berger argues that the physicality of oil painting was ideal both for the depiction of material objects, whether still lives or other forms of property (e.g. land in Constable or animals in Stubbs) and for the establishment of the oil painting as a form of property in its own right. Berger counterposes this to the ethereal figures in Blake’s engravings. Berger does deal with an aspect of the Western tradition I have little liking of here, but it seems a little strained all the same; I can’t say I would swap the physicality of a Vermeer with its pleasure in the physical world for a medieval triptych especially gladly. Equally, given the prominence of the romantic depiction of nature from Rosa and Ruisdael to Holman Hunt and David Friedrich, the argument that nature is not present except as property seems frankly ludicrous.

The final section deals with the transition from oil painting to colour photography in advertising, from the wealth and status of the elite to the promotion of wealth and status to the lower echelons. The argument is a familiar one, revolving around the role of advertising in manufacturing false wants by associating certain products with sexuality or status. I tend to suspect that this argument requires one to accept the Marxist idea of false consciousness (as Popper pointed out a mechanism that simply dismisses any obstacle to Marx’s account of social history as being an aberration); Berger certainly speaks of advertising as a form of force rather than a form of consent.

By contrast, Susan Sontag’s On Photography is considerably more appealing to me. Noting that a photograph is essentially an accidental and serendipitous combination of how light interacts with chemicals, Sontag sees it as a way of seizing aspects of the world than a composed artform. Sontag accordingly disdains the rigid compositions of Weston in favour of Atget’s more disorderly ‘captures.’ Where Berger’s approach is Marxist, Sontag sees photography’s overthrow of the distinction between high and low art as being essentially akin to surrealism. The only problem is one of period. Digital photography is rather less accidental than the film cameras Sontag was writing about. Techniques like high dynamic range photography or photoshop manipulation mean that photography becomes rather more akin to painting, which Sontag had seen as imitating photography. Of course, there’s also a movement towards using older cameras, even pinhole ones, although the element of ‘historical slumming’ to this often seems a counterpart to more modern ways of aestheticising photographs, even to the extent of photoshopping marks and flaws onto the image.

Donald Richie’s Japan Journals rather reminded me of Forster’s accounts of Italy, Ozpotek’s Turkey or the North Africa of Bowles, Burroughs and Orton. It’s an odd sub-genre whereby the Western gay male looks for sexual liberation in a culture that lacks Western moral inhibitions or the mechanised and staid nature of Western society. In a lot of cases, the culture in question was a patriarchal one where homosexuality could be hidden within broader homosocial social structures. It’s also a partly obsolescent sub-genre given that moral inhibitions are now more likely to be considerably stronger in Tangiers than in London. Perhaps, this is as well given the connotations of imperialism and economic exploitation in it alongside the escape from Western mores. "You seem to have deserted Japan in favour of the Third World," a friend tells him as his attentions turn from the Japanese to immigrant workers. "It was not I that deserted Japan," he writes, "but Japan that deserted the Third World . . . It was the Third World in Japan that so appealed to lubricious me, and now that Japan is more First World than even the USA, the appeal is no longer there. That makes me that figure of fun, the garden-variety colonial imperialistic predator." As Japan westernises, Richie begins peevish complaints against the ignorance of sexual indifference of Japanese youth, with friends departing for less affluent Thailand.

In this context, Japan is an odd example, having gone from being a traditional patriarchal society to a modern Westernised society where Richie documents the rise of women’s rights. While Japan lacked the traditional opprobrium directed against homosexuality in the West, it nonetheless remains more conservative than a modern Western society. Richie is suspicious of the elevation of sexual preference to a component of social identity but there is something rather tragic in an existence of cruising and losing his lovers to marriage (Mishima’s widow and children living in permanent denial as to his homosexuality). On the one hand, Richie documents the role of the transvestite performer in Japanese theatre, festivals undertaken by mostly nude men, fishermen who worked nude, carpenter’s dancing women’s dances and on the other he documents Yukio Mishima’s hyper-masculinised identity and his identification with western classicism and the figure of Saint Sebastian in preference to Japanese models. Richie notes that "a dandy, far from being the individual eccentric he is often though to be, is really a strict conformist.. the dandy is no rebel, and no true reformer or renegade was ever a dandy. Maybe that is why society is no tolerant of dandies." However, Richie elsewhere notes that the bricolage Mishima constructed his identity from is that of the Western rebel, as with Brando. The version of homosexuality preferred in Japan is an unthreatening one that hardly seemed to fit Mishima’s identity, leading to him becoming more conformist and conservative than Japanese society itself (Richie notes that Mishima’s suicide says nothing about contemporary Japan). Mishima is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Tom of Finland cartoon. Richie’s position in Japan is that of gaijin but notes that Japanese society would otherwise be far more oppressive than that of the society he had fled. Richie repeatedly decries the conformity of Japanese society, its absence of intellectuals or individuals. Nonetheless, his attitudes to sexuality belong to the age of Proust and Forster who only seemed capable of finding stronger heterosexual men arousing.

Reading Soseki’s I am a Cat it occurs to me that Soseki is veering between two extremes. On the one hand, his feline protagonist serves to dismiss all humans as vicious and depraved. On the other, his principal human character serves to dismiss westernising tendencies in Japan. The two are linked by being increasingly marginalised voices (the cat describes his master as being superior to his fellows by being weka minded, just as he is described as a runt in comparison to all the other cats he knows) but they only intersect at certain points. For example, Sneaze is told that "the ways of our ancestors are much wiser and more effective than the ways of Europe.. the craving for satisfaction remains unrealised, the quest for the ideal eternally unrealised." This advice comes from a character dismissed as nearly insane and dangerous and Sneaze is ridiculed for his adoption of this viewpoint. Sneaze eventually seems to agree with his cat by dismissing all of his friends as lunatic, irrespective of their philosophical views. Nonetheless, this does not stop Soseki ending the novel with the theme of suicide as a harbinger of increased westernisation; "this overweening consciousness of self never lets up.. word such as serenity and self composure have become no more than so many meaningless strokes of a writing brush."

Viridiana surprised me as a film. Having seen An Andalusian Dog, The Golden Age and The Exterminating Angel before I was expecting something more self consciously surreal. Although the symmetry of its structure and some of its allegorical references are clear enough, it’s still essentially cast in a realist vein. I found myself frequenting comparing it The Exterminating Angel where the bourgeoisie are trapped at their dinner party as an act of metaphysical revenge in the class war. Here, the film ends with Viridiana playing cards with the wealthy land owner, her project to house the poor having miserably failed. The dinner party here as the paupers invade the house is almost a parody of its counterpart in The Exterminating Angel.

I’ve often thought that authors like Sterne, Voltaire and Diderot are the nearest approximation to the modern playfulness of authors like Perec, Nabokov and Calvino. Reading Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew reminded me rather of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees or The Beggar’s Opera; in satirising modern vices they also implicitly undermine modern ideas of virtue. Diderot’s habit is persistently to make a statement and then undermine, as with his disingenuous endorsement of Rameau; "the famous musician who has delivered us from the plainsong of Lully, who has written so many unintelligible visions.. not a word of which he or anyone else has understood." The narrator frequently denounces his interlocutor, but only to receive the response that he is the rule not the exception; "there’s nothing degrading in doing the same as everyone else. I didn’t invent them and I should be incompetent if I didn’t conform… a thief happy to be among wealthy thieves." Instead the emphasis shifts from personal to public vice; "what a bloody awful economy, some men with bursting stomachs others clamour with hunger."