Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mary Douglas - Purity and Danger (1966)

At times I condemn the modern self-helpish propensity to locate the self as both the source of all problems and the source of their solution. There's a narcissism here which I find problematic, and a political propensity to elide the defining impact of external conditions (particularly those outside the immediate family). But at the same time, the issues that we face as individuals are very much issues that are created by the post/modern condition, with its focus on identity, information flows, internal an external surveillance, and distance technologies; and as such, they need to be dealt with at this level. Also, approaching issues either as external (change yourself) or external (change the situation) is not a zero sum equation - rather, what's needed is a recognition that, in order to implement positive change, both these strategies need to be adopted in permeable concert and applied where they're possible - that is, to think outside the defining binary structures of Western (and perhaps human) thought, to exist in the permeable, liminal zones in which one doesn't strive for control in terms of mastery and lack of necessary connection, in which security is maintained by adaptability, not by inflexibility, in which one doesn't fear the contamination of the internal by the external and vice versa - in which one welcomes, in fact, the mingling and dissolving of these binaries.

Mary Douglas, the social anthropologist, has just died at the age of 86. I would highly recommend her book Purity and Danger (1966) to anyone who wants to understand the way in which modern society constructs the boundaries and oppositions which I mention above, and which demonstrates the construction of the dangers of contamination and pollution which maintain them. The work, and Douglas herself, is most famous for her fascinating analysis of the meaning of the prohibitions of Leviticus (which she later rethought, concluding that God cares equally for those creatures which 'man' must abominate); but the work goes far beyond this to demonstrate the way in which 'dirt', and hence pollution, contamination, defilement, is not an objective fact but rather a manifestation of a system in which matter is out of place - and that the fear of contamination is a fear of lack of control, of the inevitable permeability of boundaried and binaried systems into the construction of which huge social and individual labour is put.

For me, it's been a foundational text, both in terms of my academic work, and in terms of my understanding of my own self and my relationship to others and to the social, my understanding of desire and fear (each in the broadest sense) as manifestations of my person/ality. And, as I do with foundational texts, I've returned to seeing how central these ideas are to an understanding of those on my own individual level. This kind of work on the self, particularly in tumultuous externally-imposed (or, it might be better to say, unchosen) circumstances, is difficult: it helps to be clearheaded, which, for me at least, has been a struggle in itself, but one in which I've made a lot of progress (having not touched any substance of possible abuse stronger than caffeine and cocoa for, oh, about three months now); it involves taking risks and the fear and psychic discomfort that that entails - but they pay off amply; and (incidentally, since we love binaries so much, why do only trinities feel complete?) it involves the willpower to make change, while at the same time giving up the fantasy of total control. Most of all, it helps to have a hand to hold on that journey (the presence of which inevitably alters and defines its course), a beckoning finger to show where you can choose to be led, a companion in both fear and joy, a safe place when the difficulties seem overwhelming... possibilities are the bastard children of circumstance, but it's what we choose to do with them that relates to and creates both who we are - and who we become.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Querelle (1982)

Fassbinder's Querelle is a film I'd been meaning to watch for a long time. It left me, however, vaguely disappointed. It's a gorgeous film, resplendent in dark smouldering colours, shot entirely on evocative sets with heavy-handedly metaphorical scenery. The music is also well done, with classical themes both accompanying and contrasting the stylised, dark and violent action; as well as Madame Lysiane's (an excellent Jeanne Moreau) Piaf-esque musical version of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, a haunting refrain which accompanies us throughout the film.

However, one is left asking what this book adds to Genet's masterful, erotic and bewildering Querelle de Brest (it is specifically noted that this is a film about Genet's novel, but for all intents and purposes it is an adaptation). Brad David is certainly attractive as Querelle; but to my mind he loses Querelle's vulnerability, and this could be a metaphor for the work overall. The strong presence of the abject in Genet's novel, of shit and stench and dirt, is transmuted into a Pierre et Giles vision in which dirt is only present when it highlights perfection. Genet's stylised dialogue sits oddly in (this) film, as do the highly stylised ritual fight scenes which stray into absurdity. Genet's heady fusion of the emotional, the erotic, the intellectual, the abject, of the slums and the ivory towers, becomes awkward; while any rendering of his unreliable and ever-shifting authorial voice, always a hallmark of his work, is not attempted. The decision to insert slabs of text between scenes (not, it should be added in fairness, in any way intended to further the plot) seems already an admission of failure to fully translate the work into its new medium.

Overall, then, I would class this work a failure, in that it transmutes Genet's complex work into little more than a piece of homoerotic kitsch; nonetheless, an interesting failure, when considered as a piece of more than usually complex, and visually arresting camp kitsch.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Stephen O'Shea - The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars (2000)

As someone whose field of study deals with the worst elements of human behaviour en masse, I often think that, much as I wouldn't want to be, I've become inured, at least to some degree, to the acts which people will perpetrate upon each other in the name not only of power, but of abstract ideology. This book was a reminder of how capable of being shocked and filled with incomprehension I remain.

TPH is perhaps one of the best-written works of popular history I've come across - by no means a doorstop, it reads easily and compulsively without losing its usefulness as a detailed historical account with useful academic references.

The narrative deals with the Cathars, a heretical Medieval Christian group, their ascendancy in Languedoc in what is now southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Crusades organised by the Pope to destroy them and, in the process, the region, and the aftermath of their destruction. This episode (now incorporated in works such as Eco's The Name of the Rose, and, lamentably, the mythology of works like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) is fascinating for its exploration of Catharism, something like a mix between Protestantism and Eastern religions. This was a more-or-less dualist belief holding that life on Earth was in fact Hell, and that the material world was a creation of a dark force, identified with the false God of the Old Testament; and that, therefore, the Catholic Church itself, in its materialism and power hungriness, was an extreme manifestation of evil. Reincarnation eventually allowed the person who lived a good life to escape this Hell-as-earth. Cathar 'perfects' could be female as well as male, and renounced the material, including monetary wealth, meat, and sexual relationships; while 'credentes', or believers, were free from the restrictions placed upon individuals by the Church (sex only within marriage, the paying of tithes, the threat of excommunication, and so forth).

Understandably, Catharism (similar believers included the Bogomils in Eastern Europe, from whom the term 'bugger' eventually derives due to Church descriptions of their proclivities) gained a growing following, strongest in the Languedoc area. And this is where the subject begins to shape the present. Successive Popes, (the first, ironically, Innocent III, followed by Gregory IX) organised Crusades from Northern Europe to crush the Cathars and their regional strongholds. This included hideous mass mutilations, burnings, and the mass murder of entire towns. The Cathar wars shaped the states of Europe as we know them today, defining Languedoc as a part of France as it fell under Northern control, rather than, as could otherwise have been, an area incorporating Languedoc and Aragon in Northern Spain. The aftermath of the ultimate victory of the Catholic Church played out in the establishment of the Inquisition, and of both the Franciscan and Dominican orders; and, argue some, instituted the same 'persecuting society' in which we live today.

The senselessness of the wanton destruction and murder, the crushing of a relatively benign and culturally flowering feudal troubadour culture as well as a decentralised system of governance, and the chillingly relentless persecution of a sect which seems, to modern eyes light years ahead of other belief systems at the time, brings one to ask how anyone could believe that this would be what the biblical Jesus wanted, and to meditate on the fact that the content of systems of belief is not particularly important; the nature of human society ensures that they will be used for the same ends, that is the violent establishment of domination. Nonetheless, despite not being much of a Francophile, this book incited in me the desire to visit the landscapes over which the narrative roams; and so, as a reading experience, horror is tempered with romance and fascination. Recommended for anyone interested in the medieval period, in organised religion and dissent, in French or Western European history... or simply for a work which is at the same time edifying, horrifying, and fascinating.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Essays On Dolls - Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke (1994)

This slim volume, in Penguin's Syrens series, collects three essays: von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810), Baudelaire's The Philosophy of Toys (1853), and Rilke's Dolls: On the wax dolls of Lotte Pritzel (1913/14). It's a remarkable collection, demonstrating the casual yet weighty essay style which in our age has become the realm of the polemicist alone.

von Kleist's conversational, but dense, essay, concerns a master dancer's discussion of marionettes, dolls which are attached to those who manipulate them only by one string placed at the centre of gravity. The joy of these dolls, says the dancer, is that they are unselfconscious, free from affectation, and weightless. Grace (and here we see a confluence of divine grace, and gracefulness), argues Kleist, exists in opposition to thought. In the human form, it can only be reconciled in the inanimate (the soulless), or the divine (the infinite soul).

Baudelaire takes us from a childhood experience in a rich woman's fantasyland of toys, to a discussion of the way in which playing with toys is the first expression of abstraction and imagination (though Baudelaire excludes from this those children who 'merely' recreate adult situations - and here there is a certain misogyny in evidence in his scorn for female children playing at childish women - and also excludes 'men-children' who collect, rather than play with, their toys - a problematic argument, to my mind, since this might be read as a symptom either of anxiety or of possessiveness, but not, certainly, as a lack of creativity). But the ultimate desire of a child is to see the soul of a toy, and for this reason, at some time or another, the child breaks the toy. Just as playing marks the beginning of abstraction and imagination, so the failure to find the soul gives the first sensation of stupor and melancholy. And so, we might conclude, imagination and creativity are inextricably linked with disappointment and melancholy...

Rilke takes us to darker places yet. He begins with an examination of the dolls, made for artistic exhibition to adults, of Lotte Pritzel - these, according to Idris Parry, the editor and translator, were elongated, emaciated figures dressed in weird gauzy costumes suggestive of dance, decadence, and a Beardsley-esque atmosphere of eroticism and melancholy.

This is Rilke's introduction to his argument on the way in which dolls, in contrast to other everyday objects which gain by their integration into human life, are 'gruesome foreign bodies' on which our affection is entirely squandered, dense repositories of forgetfulness, so devoid of imagination that, at an age in which it was impossible to truly interact with other humans but only to lose ourselves in them, they can be used to establish distance between the self and the external world, as they become repositories for split or opposing parts of that self as it expands. But we rage at these creatures, because they do not need us, and we have wasted our affection on them (and the doll's lack of response gives us the lovely thought that silence confers considerable importance in a world where both destiny and God 'have become famous mainly by not speaking to us'). The doll helps the child become used to things; but it also inspires the first bitterness of wasted tenderness. Of all toys, the doll is soulless, or rather the self is uncertain whether the doll's soul resides in the self or in the doll; dolls have a quality of not being present. They are thus kept in existence only by a monumental mental effort combining anxiety and magnanimity, but we can never entirely detach ourselves from this experience of the uncertainty of the other, our desire to create them, our rage at the fact that they will never return what we gave in the spirit of expectations with which we gave it. And these adult dolls of Pritzel's? They are are dolls who have 'entered into all the unrealities of their own lives', have become an unnerving symbol only of the permanent sensuality of the doll, 'into which nothing flows and from which nothing escapes'.

These reflections on creation in our own image essentially concern the constructed nature of the self and the sensual, the physical, the material and its relation to the soul or the spirit. They inform our understanding not only of their subject but of works from Coppelia to Hans Bellmer's Doll, and the perennial fear of dolls and mannequins expressed in films from House of Wax to Child's Play. It's no coincidence that that most of the earliest examples of works of creativity are human forms, or that man made god make man in his own image...