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Death by Fire and Death by Ice

Another Treefingers transplant.

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charming poem by Robert Frost ponders whether the world will end in fire or in ice.  For a first death, Frost sides with fire, but for a second death, he concedes that “for destruc­tion ice / is also great / and would suffice.” Fire and ice in Frost’s poem are linked respectively with desire and hate, but this is hardly the only way of conceiving the issue. Heat and coldness are not so much opposite qualities as opposite ends of a quantitative continuum: temperature is in fact a measure of the extent to which certain particles are moving. The more movement, the higher the temperature. In this sense, a death by fire is a death by extreme movement, by too much movement, whereas death by ice is death by the cessation of movement altogether. Here I want to suggest that Béla Tarr’s work addresses Frost’s question in more or less these terms, and comes down definitively on the side of death by ice. I will look at this specifically in his films Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000) and A torinói ló (The Turin Horse, 2011). [There are spoilers, and I presume familiarity with the films.]

The defining characteristic of Tarr’s films is that they are slow, but even next to the rest of his films, The Turin Horse is particularly unhurried. Complaints about the film fixate on this: not only is it slow, but nothing happens in all its interminable lethargy. It is a silly criticism, but it gets the facts more or less right. In one striking scene, however, something does threaten to happen. A man walks into the house (of the father and daughter that the film follows) and requests a bottle of brandy. As the daughter refills his bottle, he pontificates on how a mysterious “they” has brought everything to ruin. God takes place in a “ghastly creation” of a debased world, debased because they have touched everything, and everything they have touched, they debase. Meanwhile, the excellent and noble accept this change, refuse to fight, until finally they are brought to the realization they don’t exist.

Here are dealings, movement, change. Underhanded, slow, methodical, to be sure, and not the burning of fire (indeed the image of fire is used, but to describe the excellent, who are distinguished), but it is movement and change nonetheless. But with the father’s “come off it, that’s rubbish”, the prophet of doom leaves, and we are left with only the father and daughter inside the house, and the world outside it. What we find in the remainder of the film (and in what came before) is that this man’s conspiracy theory is far too elaborate and far too interesting to be the truth. In reality there is no “they”, but only the world itself, with its horrible wind. It is this wind that is the agent of death in the film, and it works not by change but by enforcing stasis. In the second scene of the film, we see the father and daughter hitch a cart to the horse and try to ride into town, only to immediately be forced by the wind to unhitch the cart and try again later. The wind forces them to stay inside, and prevents their moving anywhere else. (It is interesting in light of this function that wind, the more it moves, serves only more effectively to cool, and not to heat.)

In the first scene, by contrast, we see the father riding in the cart as the horse draws it along—here is movement. But even in this scene we see the sorry state of the horse, which clearly cannot go on much further. The ensuing film serves to snuff out what movement still remained in this opening scene, starting with the second scene in which the attempt to venture further than a few meters from the house is stymied. Having forced them into the house, Tarr sets about eliminating all other movement. By the final scene, all movement ceases: we see the father and daughter sitting at the table, each with a raw potato in front of them for dinner. The daughter is already motionless, while the father moves slightly, peeling the potato and feebly urging the daughter to eat (“we have to eat!”). But he, too, gives up, and the film ends with what might as well be a painting, the two figures motionless as the screen gradually fades to black. It is death by ice.

In Werckmeister Harmonies, the alternative to such a death is even more fully fleshed out—and thereby even more fully rejected. In the opening scene, we see a bar that is full of movement as Valuska uses drunk men as a representation of the Copernican system. Gradually, the whole bar gets involved, until the bartender kicks out the “tubs of lard.” Here is the first sign that movement will be stopped, but it is, as Valuska says, not yet over.

From that moment on, this sign seems to be disregarded, and Tarr seems to favor death by fire. A travelling exhibit comes to town, featuring a dead whale and a character known only as the Prince, who incites people to riot by a strange, incomprehensible power. The Prince starts just such a riot in the town, sparking brutality as hundreds of townsmen pillage a hospital, beating patients and destroying property. The destructive power of fire is, of course, invoked alongside this brute violence. The film seems to be favoring death by fire—certainly it is giving it a fair shake. But an equally incomprehensible power puts a stop to this violence (this I will not give away), and it is not heard from again.

Which is not to say that its aftermath does not exist; naturally the film explores that aftermath. It is there that we see Tarr’s conviction that the world will end in the cessation of movement, and not in the destruction caused by too much movement, assert itself. Throughout the film, there are numerous shots or portions of shots in which an inanimate object is placed in the center of the shot. It is not called attention to, necessarily, but it is there and after a while you pick up on the trend. In the aftermath of the riot, we see Valuska mindlessly persecuted, forced to flee, until, finally, he ends up in what I take to be a psychiatric ward. Here we see him sitting motionless on a bed (though he is still emitting sounds, as if humming a melody of some sort), framed in the center of the shot. After being primed by the shots that came before, we have no choice but to see him as reduced to being all but an inanimate object. It is, again, death by ice.

This is not just a case of ice triumphing over fire. It is more sinister than that, for the riot, that apparent agent of death by fire, is in fact converted into an agent of death by ice. Just as the movement of the wind in The Turin Horse led to the cessation of motion of the father and daughter, so the riot in Werckmeister Harmonies is ultimately a contribution to the death by ice of Valuska. Tarr thus does not simply come down on the side of ice; he makes room for fire. But he makes room for fire only as the agent of ice, and that, if anything, is more horrifying.

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Treefingers: Béla Tarr

I have a new essay on Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Werckmeister Harmonies over at projecttreefingers.

Poetry and the thawing wind

2013/06/23 4 comments

This post will be much more rewarding if you first read and reflect upon Robert Frost’s poem “To the Thawing Wind”. (It will also be more rewarding if you’ve read either of James Joyce’s last two novels, but I won’t insist on that one.)

In a variety of posts, I’ve tried to push the notion of art as a serious form of inquiry into the possibilities of being alive and human in various times and conditions, following up on a rich suggestion by David Foster Wallace. I urge this in opposition to the positions of those such as Alexander Rosenberg, who argues that fiction is merely fun, but makes no contribution to knowledge. While Rosenberg might not see it as such, I think this amounts to a denigration of art, amounts to seeing it as dispensable, alongside attempts to make sense of what art offers to us. He mitigates this conclusion by suggesting that, while science and naturalistic philosophy can do without art, that does not mean human beings can do without it. I think this is exactly backwards. While science may be able to do without art (Catharine Z. Elgin has argue to the contrary, though I found her position rather lukewarm), insofar as a naturalistic philosophy wants to address the Kantian question “what should I do” (or its Nietzschean/Deleuzean variants, phrased in terms of modes of existence), it must take art seriously. On the flip side, human beings may be able to do without art—and this we learn from art itself. Indeed, part of what it means for a naturalistic philosophy to take art seriously is to recognize the very real possibility that we could entirely do without art.

This post is my exploration of this possibility, through the explicit lens of Frost and the implicit lens of Joyce. The Frost poem linked at the start of this post explores the idea explicitly. The poet invokes the thawing wind of spring, which will bring the birds & the flowers and will free the brown earth from white snow. These tasks of the wind at first seem like orders—do this, do that, do the other—but they are soon revealed to be more like acknowledgments of the wind’s busy schedule. Why acknowledge these impersonal tasks of the wind? Because the poet has a personal request, a favor the wind can do for him, a favor that he needs the wind to do for him. “But whate’er you do tonight, / bathe my window, make it flow, / Melt it as the ice will go”.

What happens when the wind melts the window? It will “Run the rattling pages o’er; / Scatter poems on the floor; / Turn the poet out of door.” What the poet is invoking the wind to do is precisely to disrupt his poetry, to turn him outside so that he might experience nature directly. This happens when nature bursts into his surroundings, his shelter. We can imagine the wind not granting his request, with the result that he stays inside. He is inviting nature to confront him, to give him no choice in the matter, for if he can choose he will stay in, working on his poems. I cannot help but see here a pun in Robert Frost writing a poem about the thawing wind turning the poet out of door: what is the object of the wind’s thawing but the frost? With this pun in mind, the real request is that the wind thaw not only the ground but also the poet.

Why should the poet imagine nature disrupting poetry? If one function of art is exploring modes of existence, possibilities for being alive, then a fundamental problem that art must face is the distinction between recognizing a possibility and fulfilling it. To know that such and such possibility for being human exists is not to manifest that possibility in your own life. Seen in this way, then, art is an intermediary, and we can imagine skipping over it, moving directly into the mode of existence it envisions. “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” Emerson wrote (“The American Scholar”). Experiencing a poem about the richness of nature is not experiencing the richness of nature. Nor, to impale Emerson on his own sword, is reading an essay about “Nature”. I imagine Emerson walking willingly and with great dignity onto this sword he has prepared.

Reflection on the content of works of art may make this more plausible. The modes of existence explored by art are rarely modes of existence in which one is wrapped up in art. Here I want to take Joyce as an example. I have long considered writing a post, half serious and half in jest, titled “Joyce’s (elitist) undermining of elitism.” Literature has always been for the elite (in social status, which of course I do not confuse with real worth) in that (written) literature is by default accessible primarily to the literate. Even with the increase in literacy (part of) the world now enjoys, there is still literature that confines itself to the elite. Joyce falls into this camp: his work, at least his later work, is accessible only to those willing not just to read it but to study it, to struggle through it.

While this is indisputably the case, we must nonetheless consider the nature of Joyce’s characters, particularly his heroes. Leopold Bloom is an intelligent and educated man, to be sure, but to call him “erudite” would be going too far. He is not the type of person who would read Ulysses, though he might use its pages for toilet paper. (Not out of disrespect, mind!) Yet he is, more clearly than anyone else in Joyce’s oeuvre, healthy. Stephen Dedalus certainly is not; he is much more likely to read Ulysses than Bloom. Nor is Gabriel Conroy—indeed, all of the characters of Dubliners are paralyzed in one way or another. I confess, my forays into Finnegans Wake are insufficient to say whether HCE or ALP can be called healthy. Probably they can. What matters, in any event, is that Leopold Bloom is cast again and again in heroic terms in a book that he would almost surely never read.

If we want to give the book its due, then I think we have to take this fact into account. Ulysses is an exploration of a mode of existence—Bloom’s—that does not have time for or interest in books like Ulysses. What does that say about the readers of Ulysses? That they are not Leopold Bloom, for one. And what does that mean? It means that, in recognizing the heroism of Bloom, we have to recognize as the flip side of that the possibility that Ulysses is dispensable. When we consider the juxtaposition in the book of Bloom and Stephen—Stephen who would read Ulysses and develop crazy theories about it, as he did for Hamlet—this thought should only strengthen.

Of course, I do not believe that art should stop existing. Nor did Joyce see no need for Ulysses, nor did Frost disavow his own poetry. The very fact of their art’s existence speaks against that belief. What these two examples (and, though I discussed it less, the example also of Emerson’s corpus) reveal is that art exists in a strange tension with the thought of its disappearance—indeed it may be the secret task of art to make us, as readers, viewers, listeners, etc., mindful of the possibility of its disappearance. Mindful of this possibility, moreover, not as a loss, but as a gain.

[I must acknowledge the influence of Richard Poirier on this post—his book The Renewal of Literature first got me to take seriously the idea of the disappearance of literature. The discovery of this idea in the poetry of Frost and of its implicit presence in Joyce, as well as its relation to Rosenberg, however, are my own.]