Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Number You Have Called Is Not Available: Time and the Work of Poetry

The Number You Have Called Is Not Available: Time and the Work of Poetry


  In spite of my personal distaste for the shady politicking of a man whom Dryden called “a well-mannered court slave”, I have admired the poetry of Horace, particularly his Odes, ever since as a schoolboy I struggled with translating him; I discovered, to my chagrin and, later, delight, that my English often floundered in wordiness and muddle where his Latin was crisp in expression, nuanced in meaning, and grammatically supple inside an unyielding metrical shell.
 “Up to this day”, wrote Nietzsche, “I have not had an artistic delight in any poet similar to that which, from the beginning, an Ode of Horace gave me”, and he goes on to praise “[t]his mosaic of words, in which every word, by sound, by placing, and by meaning, spreads its influence to the right, to the left, and over the whole.” In the hands of Horace, the flexibility of Latin syntax allows for a verbal structure where the poet is in absolute control of the order in which the reader receives perceptions and the order in which meanings unfold;  and all the while, the sentences are prevented from flying into dissolution by the exigencies of the meter.

Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni,
trahuntque siccas machinae carinas.
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni;
nec prata canis albicant pruinis.

These opening lines from Odes I, 4 were translated as follows by one of Horace’s best modern translators, David Ferry:               

 Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
 Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
 Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
 Down to the water; in winter stables the cattle
 Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
 They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
 The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.[1]

Now, you don’t need much Latin to see that the English strophe is considerably longer , that there are words and phrases here that are not to be found in the original. Yet, Ferry, in my opinion, made the right critical decision to amplify the Latin, to tease out its implications in an English that uses the resources of the free verse line to catch some of the syntactical complexity of the Latin.
 There are some things, though, which operate at an almost unconscious verbal level in the Latin and which would probably be impossible to get into English and still produce a coherent poem.  Take, for example, Horace’s opening line  Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni : by placing the verb solvitur (“is dissolved”) as the first word in the line not only does Horace emphasise the change from winter’s stagnation to spring’s movement, but the verb also echoes the word sol (“sun”) and brings warmth and heat into the poem from its first syllable. Horace does things like this all over the place, and his serious verbal play must surely be one of the reasons why poets and poetry readers in every generation for the past couple of millennia have been compelled to return to him and learn from him.
 An unkind reader, though, might say that Horace’s enduring  attraction has more to do with how accessibly commonplace are the sentiments in much of his poetry and the ease with which his outlook can be assimilated to the ideological needs of empires, ancient and modern.  It is a viewpoint with which I have some sympathy, and yet I can’t think of it as being anything like the whole story.
  For years lines like those above have accompanied me as, by mid-March, with the daffodils igniting along the edges of my fields and skunk cabbage thrusting its spathes out of the drainage ditches, I pull the shovels and saws and clippers and mower from their storage shed and survey what needs to be done: the vegetable beds need to be weeded and planted, the small meadow needs  mowing, blackberry vines and salmonberry branches need to be cut back, perhaps a small tree needs to be cut down. In my mind the pleasures of the poetry and the pleasure of the manual labor can sometimes overlap each other so much that I can almost persuade myself that Voltaire’s Candide was literally right when he said that to be happy “We must cultivate our garden”.
 Almost. It is a fantasy to think of my garden as being too much more than a hobby. Should my potato crop fail the consequence for me would be annoyance, not starvation. If the weather turns suddenly cold and rainy I can just put off that weeding I’d planned to do. If my shoulder aches because of over-zealous digging or chopping, I can simply stop. The economics of my life are connected to the city, to a university, to the global connectivity of the internet, to my wife’s business as a glass artist. My rural life could not exist without these, and at their best they mutually enrich each other. The worst temptation of the rural part of my life is that it sometimes gives the illusion of retreat.
 Horace often writes about the pleasures of his own farm in the Sabine hills. He, of course, was not a farmer— the Sabine farm was a fairly large country estate bestowed on him by his phenomenally wealthy patron Maecenas; it was run by slaves and had additional income from five tenanted properties. The secure space from which he was able to compose poems, to philosophize, and to satirize the pretensions of some of the Roman elite was underwritten by slavery and more generally by the transfer of wealth from the expansion of the empire under Augustus. Horace is always up front about how much his good life as a poet is dependent on Maecenas, but still his celebration of the stoic virtue of equanimity can seem inauthentic when read against the background of his security; in Ode 3, 16 he addresses Maecenas:

             The more a man will deny to himself, so much
             the more is given by the gods: stripping myself,
            I seek the camp that knows no greed, a deserter
            longing to leave the wealthy side,


a more glorious master of things I reject
than if I were said to have buried in my barns
harvests from all the plowed fields of Apulia,
and had no good of all my goods.

A brook with clear water, a few wooded acres,
and confidence in my crops: a happier life
than fertile Africa's glittering governor
was given -- not that he knows it.

Although no Calabrian bees bring me honey,
and no wine is mellowing for me
in Formian jars, and no fleeces of mine
grow full in the pastures of Gaul,

still poverty stays away, with all its troubles,
and if I wanted more, you would not refuse it.
As my desire for things is lessened, I stretch my
little income even further

than if I were to join Alyattes' kingdom
to the plains of Phrygia. For men who seek much,
much is never there; a man is well off when the god
gives him, with frugal hand, just enough.[2]

 Clearly, what constitutes “just enough”  and “little income” is relative.  Similarly when we read in Odes 1, 1:

No treasures could talk the man who happily
breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe on the family farm
into plowing the Myrtoan Sea, a shivering sailor.
The trader, scared by rough-housing winds and waves,
sings in praise of the peaceful country town
where he was born; soon he refits his ships,
a lower standard of living is not for him...[3]

one is inclined to scoff at the phrase  “happily breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe”, given that Horace was not known to have broken much earth with his own hands, happily or otherwise; there were slaves for that.
 And yet. Time and again Horace returns to the themes of frugality, of country living, of friendship, of love, of pleasure, of poetry, of work, of transience. Obviously these are not themes particular to him, but once we know how he expressed them in his own particular way, in a sweet and compelling pithiness, his lines have the ability to structure our own thoughts and feelings on these things, to become part of the process by which we begin to live an examined life.  “Carpe diem”—seize the day;  “eram quod es, eris quod sum”—I was what you are, you’ll be what I am; “Dulce est desipere in loco”—it’s lovely to kick back at the right time; “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” – I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze; “Populus me sibilat at mihi plaudo ipse domi” – people hiss at me but I applaud myself at home; “Nunc est bibendum” – now it’s time for a drinking spree;  “Ibit, ibit eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit” – whoever loses his wallet will go wherever you wish; “Omnes una manet nox”—the same night awaits us all...
Commonplaces? No doubt. But they niggle at you, and I want to suggest that read a certain way, paying attention to both their art and their import, the dulce and the utile,  many of Horace’s poems have a special relevance for us (hyper)moderns and our prospect of living a good life. And the reason for this is that underlying these poems is an attitude towards Time which is radically different from that of the early 21st century, no matter where we live; radically different and radically connected to poetic language itself.
 I am borrowing here some ideas from Italian theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi who in several books, but especially in ‘The Soul At Work’[Semiotext(e), 2009] and  ‘The Uprising’ [Semiotext(e), 2012], provides a number of conceptual tools for thinking about this strange, new world of ours.  According to Berardi the technosocial mutations which first appeared  a generation ago (he has in mind the ways in which production became highly automated, and the networking of humans and computers), these technosocial mutations produced irreversible changes in how we live. In Berardi’s analysis language itself is absolutely crucial to contemporary capitalism, and he uses  the term semiocapitalism to describe the centrality of the semiological dimension of production. “Semiocapitalism takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value. In the sphere of digital production, exploitation is exerted essentially on the semiotic flux produced by human time at work”(‘The Soul At Work’, p.21-22).  In our time, he says,

 “[t]he present emerging uneasiness originates from a situation of
communication overload, since we, the assembly line, once linking
workers through the movements of a mechanical apparatus, have been
replaced by the digital telecommunications network, which links people
through symbols. Productive life is overloaded with symbols that
not only have an operational value, but also an affective,
emotional, imperative or dissuasive one. These signs cannot work without
unleashing chains of interpretation, decoding, and conscious responses.
The constant mobilization of attention is essential to the productive function:
the energies engaged by the productive system are essentially creative, affective
and communicational.
 Each producer of semiotic flows is also a consumer of them, and each
user is part of the productive process: all exits are also an entry, and
every receiver is also a transmitter.
 We can have access to the modalities of digital telecommunication
 from everywhere and at all times, and in fact we have to, since this
is the only way to participate in the labor market. We can reach every
point in the world but, more importantly, we can be reached from
any point in the world. Under these conditions privacy and its possiblities
are abolished...
 Everywhere attention is under siege.
 Not silence but uninterrupted noise...a cognitive space overloaded with
nervous incentives to act: this is the alienation of our times.”
(‘The Soul At Work’, p.107-108)

 When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer
recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their inter-
changeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now
real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time
has no rights.
               Meanwhile, the human machine is there, pulsating and available,
like a brain-sprawl in waiting. The extension of time is
meticulously cellular: cells of productive time can be mobilized in
punctual, casual and fragmentary forms. The recombination of
these fragments is automatically realized in the digital networks.
The mobile phone makes possible the connection between the
needs of semio-capital and the mobilization of the living labor of
cyber-space. The ringtone of the mobile phone calls the workers to
reconnect their abstract time to the reticular flows. (The Soul At Work, p.192-193)

   We are all caught up in this in obvious ways and in ways that are far from obvious:
  I am having dinner with friends at my house; it’s late in the evening, the food has been good, the wine has flowed, the conversation is bright and challenging; someone’s cell phone goes off—she apologizes, she’s “on call” this weekend, she talks for a few minutes and then returns and says she has to leave because of a “network issue” in Mumbai.  Or a friend who teaches an online class on Psychology tells me how he opens his email some mornings and finds irate messages from a student who is annoyed at having waited half a day for an answer to a question; the email was sent at midnight in my friend’s time zone, he gets up at 7a.m., and is at his desk shortly after 8a.m. Clearly he sleeps too much.
 Less obvious, perhaps, are the ways in which these “reticular flows” impact workers who are not part of the contemporary “cognitariat”, the “knowledge” workers. Take, for example, a contractor who builds houses around Portland, Oregon. He and his crew have skills as carpenters, concrete-pourers, electricians, etc., without which nothing would get built. However, when the so-called housing bubble burst in the USA around 2008, and this contractor finds himself with no work, and even goes out of business, the destruction of his livelihood is directly related to forces operating within the cognitive economy. I’m actually making a stronger point here than simply saying he fell victim to a downturn in the business cycle; I’m saying that the economic collapse was caused by the financialization of the economy operated by the cognitariat according to semiocapital’s own, internal, abstract logic, indifferent to consequences outside of itself. Berardi puts it like this: “In the world of financial capitalism, accumulation no longer passes through the production of goods, but goes straight to its monetary goal, extracting value from the pure circulation of money, from the virtualization of life and intelligence” (‘The Uprising’, p. 23-24). Thus the actual value of the physical and mental skills of the carpenter (or the barista, or the cab-driver) gets entangled in a virtual system for which the “real” economy is only relevant to the degree to which its products and operations can themselves be digitized and virtualized. The physical house or physical cup of coffee doesn’t matter—it’s the mortgage on the house, “bundled” with other mortgages into an abstract financial “instrument” which can circulate digitally, that matters; it’s the credit card charge for the coffee, combined with all the other charges that produce financial assets which can then be used by a bank for loaning and trading, entering into digital circulation, that matter. The cognitariat itself, of course, are just specialized functionaries in all of this; even when operating as managers, they are not in any sense in control.
 In the universe of semiocapitalism there are three things to which we stand in a completely different relationship than that of human beings even fifty years ago: space, time, and language. (I almost laugh, rereading that last sentence, a little voice in my head saying “oh, is that all?”). In The Uprising Berardi comments on how members of the cognitariat don’t need to be in any specific place physically to perform their labor.  Because of networked technologies, cognitive labor can be done from any location.  And “socially necessary labor time”, that hardy Marxist perennial, has become cellular.  The capitalist no longer needs to buy workers’ time in totality: he just buys cells of time, as needed, just-in-time.
 It is worth thinking about the specific consequences of this revolution in the experience of time for our real, everyday lives. Helga Nowotny in her wonderful book  Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1994) uses the word Eigenzeit, “self-time” or “proper time” to analyze the individual’s relationship to the various time regimes that have come into existence with technological shifts. There are a large number of these time regimes—natural time, clock time, personal time, biological time, social time etc. And each of these has its own logic and scale: this is proper time. In earlier, simpler societies, all time was collective, a proper time shared by all members of a coherent community. In postmodern society, people have many different individual proper times, and they do not mesh easily with each other either in an individual’s life or collectively in social life. All kinds of strategies have to be used to coordinate them, but, like the example of my friend at dinner, they are not all equal when it comes to chosing between their demands. One of the consequences of the contemporary networked, just-in-time world, Nowotny says is that “Time in which empathy, affection and solidarity can be expressed only through personal presence is on the retreat.... All time of caring, occasions for mutual joy or mourning, time which is qualitatively tied to particular individuals . .. are simply remnants.” I don’t believe this is overstated.
 What interests me about Berardi in all of this is that he enunciates our contemporary sense of economic precariousness and collective sensuous impoverishment in terms that open a space for poetry as a vital tool of resistance.  In contrast to the semiotic flux exploited by semiocapitalism, “Poetic language is the occupation of the space of communication by words which escape the order of exchangeability”.  Poetry, Berardi says,  “is language's excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable”.
 Anyone who engages with and has grown to love poetry will understand the almost gravitational pull of that excess, the ways in which a good poem can undo one’s pragmatic automatism towards reading and language, can summon your best acts of attentive listening, can persuade you, for the duration of the poem (and perhaps longer), of the rightness of its vision, no matter how uneasily that vision meshes with your own habitual orientation towards the world. The poem is always demanding an answer, your answer to the question of who you are, eliciting a sense that in you there’s more than you; in face of the poem, you are exposed—because the order of language which is your deepest reality exposes itself. And sometimes, even, because of this, “you must change your life”.
 Berardi quotes Félix Guattari’s assertion in Chaosmosis that in the conditions of neoliberal globalization with its fake celebration of individuality
[s]ubjectivity is standardized through a communication which evacuates as much as possible trans-semiotic and amodal enunciative compositions. Thus it slips towards the progressive effacement of polysemy, prosody, gesture, mimicry and posture, to the profit of a language rigorously subjected to scriptural machines and their mass media avatars. In its extreme contemporary forms it amounts to an exchange of information tokens calculable as bits and reproducible on computers.
 This might almost be thought of as the genuinely “perverse other” of poetry, the letters that kill as opposed to the “spirit” that gives life: Slavoj Žižek says that “the pervert’s universe is the universe of pure symbolic order, of the signifier’s game running its course, unencumbered by the real of human finitude.” In poetry, though, the signifier with its games is always looking over its shoulder towards the “real of human finitude”;  “polysemy, prosody, gesture, mimicry and posture” , these are the stuff of poetry, the non-Euclidian coordinates of that space which is the human lifeworld uttering itself in all its individual and collective struggles to be, to know, to become.
 Berardi, by the way, when he says things like “Only the conscious mobilization of the erotic body of the general intellect, only the poetic revitalization of language, will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy”, is quite unconvincing, to me, at least, as a theoretician of actual political praxis. Is he not just giving us an updated version of the Romantic critique of “progress” and industrialization?  One recalls Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse that
“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end”.
 Nevertheless, I would argue that one of the things the romantic critique did best was to actually articulate in sensuous detail the trauma of the advent of modernity. That articulation, though partial and often backward-looking, is surely a necessary precursor to the dialectical understanding of alienation. What Berardi does, and why I’ve referenced some of his ideas at length, is articulate the fact that there is, structurally, a linguistic/symbolic engine driving the present state of capitalist crisis, and he identifies in very compelling ways the range of socially and personally destructive consequences which accompany this. And if that is so, poetry, we can agree with him, can be one remarkable tool, one spanner in the works of pure exchangeability, illuminating  the semiotic exchange process as such and imagining its alternative through language which radically contests its operation.  But surely this must be accompanied by the other tools of political praxis—organization, agitation, building solidarity etc. Berardi might argue that the systematic fragmentation of social groups through the workings of the system itself make these latter very difficult or impossible. I think he’s wrong about that, but even if he were right, poetry couldn’t possibly replace these other forms of praxis which is what he seems sometimes to suggest, at least in The Uprising. Poetry can make things happen; but very obviously it’s not the only practice that can make things happen and  doesn’t make the same things happen, either.
 What does poetry accomplish, what can it accomplish? In The Uprising Berardi uses such phrases as “poetry is the erotic body of language” and “poetry opens the doors of perception to singularity”. I wonder if what lies behind these lovely characterizations of poetry and all his earlier struggle to understand what semiocapitalism is doing to us is the sense of a special kind of Eigenzeit, to use Nowotny’s word, the self-time, the proper time of the experience of the poem as such.
 How to describe the proper time of the poem’s experience? I think it is the time which actively removes itself from the possibility of depersonalized exchange and in so doing asserts the priority of time “qualitatively tied to particular individuals”; or, to use a central concept of Giorgio Agamben, the proper time of the poem is inoperativeness in its linguistic dimension. To write a poem or to engage fully as a reader with a poem is to actively interrupt at the level of language the coercive time regime that valorizes instantaneity, simultaneity, generality, and seamless exchangeability; it is to be inoperative, to be use-less to the work of semiocapitalism. A poem is the hardest un-work, the unworking  of the linguistic homogeneity of semiocapitalism and the repersonalizing  of time.
 I love how Berardi and Geert Lovink declare in their manifesto A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software that
“we have lost the pleasure of being together. Thirty years of precariousness and competition have destroyed social solidarity. Media virtualization has destroyed the empathy among bodies, the pleasure of touching each other, and the pleasure of living in urban spaces. We have lost the pleasure of love, because too much time is devoted to work and virtual exchange. The large army of lovers have to wake up...Our intelligence has been submitted to algorithmic power in exchange for a handful of shitty money and a virtual life.” [4]
 A poem by itself is not going to change that situtation, but it is a way of reactivating the language that allows us to ask questions about the contours and meaning of our feelings, our desires, our thoughts, our conversations, our identities, our bodies, the hours of our days. I cannot exist on this earth without being enmeshed somehow in the global economy of semiocapitalism, but that is not the meaning of my existence. The time of the poem is a time where my attention is not commoditized and cellular; the time of the poem is where I’m given time to reframe my cognitive space in ways that allow my communal lifeworld the eloquence of its standing forth in all its sensual thickness, its history, its potential.  As Rilke in his 9th Duino Elegy wrote:

Here is the time for the sayablehere is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

 This is the poem’s proper time, and it is desperately vital to live inside it from time to time; because as Rilke says in the same poem

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?

  This is the poem’s No! to the language of counter and signal, an intense and questioning Bartleby among the blips. This is the time that ought to be on our side.
 It often amazes me how unaware the culture at large is of the ultimate consequences of being structured by language that is reduced to bits of information (which is not the same as “truth” or “fact”) and instantaneous exchangeability. But Paul Celan has warned us in poems that smash the circuits of “blipspeak” in order to expose their ubiquity, and help us find our way out:

Die fleissigen
Bodenschätze, häuslich,

die geheizte Synkope

das nicht zu enträtselnde
Halljahr,

die vollverglasten
Spinnen-Altäre im alles-
überragenden Flachbau,

die Zwischenlaute
(noch immer?),
die Schattenpalaver,

die Ängste, eisgerecht,
flugklar,

der barock ummantelte,
spracheschluckende Duschraum,
semantisch durchleuchtet,

die unbeschriebene Wand
einer Stehzelle:

hier

leb dich
querdurch, ohne Uhr.
The industrious
mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

the not-to-be-deciphered
jubilee,

the completely glassed in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?)
the shadowpalavers, 
the anxieties, icetrue,
flightclear,

the baroque cloaked,
languageswallowing showerroom,
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell:

here

live yourself
straightthrough, without clock. (trans. by Pierre Joris)

 To spend time with this poem is to be drawn into undoing  the linguistic complicities leading to the industrial production of death in “the concentrationary universe”, where human beings are an expendable resource no different from coal or iron.  Here, time itself is marked not by the hours of the clock but is out of joint and dissolves into a timeless anxiety. The icy, paradoxically obfuscating clarity of the language that efficiently orders the turning of humans into smoke is really an anti-language, blanking out, swallowing up the semantic richness of individuals and their speech communities. Inmates are numbers, minerals are numbers--  the foundations of a homey world whose existence relies on their destruction, whose warmth conceals the chill of impersonal killing, whose idle talk wards off the reality of what is happening. Celan’s poem is an education in listening for the meanings beyond the deafening noise of our own time.
 Today, where I live, it is raining after almost a week of snowstorms and icestorms. I have had to split firewood this morning since I’ve used up a lot of the smaller logs over the last few days in keeping the house warm. I have some nice dry alder and fir stowed away in the back of the woodshed and when I pull it out the air takes on an earthy, loamy smell. Then, as I split the logs, there comes the satisfying crack of wood and the tang of fir sap rising from the small pile. But the rain isn’t letting up, and soon I am uncomfortably warm and wet. A varied thrush calls nearby.
 Today I have Paul Celan’s words with me as I work. I mull over his lines “das nicht zu enträtselnde/
Halljahr” which defeat my basic German, and in translation trouble my understanding: the compound “Halljahr” more literally means something like “echo-year”, but structurally it mimics “Jobeljahr” (Jubliee) and echoes its sound. And I am led to the word’s evocation of fake celebration, of an anniversary that memorializes an empty, inhuman time. And so I am led back to this time of now, this work of splitting firewood in the rain, this life which right now, today is full and rich through the senses of the body and the senses of words. The time of the poem has intersected my private time and I am infinitely richer for it.
 Already I am thinking about tomorrow’s work  when I have classes to teach, emails to write, meetings, a long commute. Until then, I have turned off my cell phone; I admit I worry that I might miss an important call, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Someone who calls my number will hear a standardized message saying something like “The number you have called is not available...” I am working, though. And I am unworking. I am thinking of Horace, the poet in whose name time itself, as he well knew, is inscribed: Hora, meaning “hour”.
Dum loquimur, fugerit inuida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
While we’re speaking the envious age is flying off:
Seize the day, don’t put much trust in tomorrow.

Today, that might be much more radical and dangerous than Horace could ever have imagined.

(c) Ger Killeen



[1] David Ferry, ‘The Odes of Horace’, 1997, p.15
[2] http://www.as.miami.edu/personal/corax/horace.carm.html
[3] http://www.as.miami.edu/personal/corax/horace.engl.html
[4] http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/32852

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Gravity without Grace: The Prologue to Lars von Trier’s 'Antichrist'

Gravity without Grace:  The Prologue to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist
“None of it is any use.”[i]

Prologue
  As a cinematic experience, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) opens with a short prologue which is texturally different from the rest of the film and is referenced in a brief flashback near the film’s end. Shot in black-and-white and in slow-motion, the sequence of scenes which make up this Prologue are themselves soundless, while an aria from Handel’s ‘Rinaldo’ is the foregrounded musical accompaniment to the unfolding narrative. In this brief reflection I will look closely at the Prologue, identifying some important image sequences and their significance. Beyond this, I want to argue that the Prologue, more than just setting the film off on its specific narrative arc, identifies a central philosophical problem whose unrealized (and unrealizable) resolution is the crucial matrix of the rest of the film’s characteristically violent narratives of attempted existential integration. By using and developing some concepts drawn from the work of Jacques Lacan I will argue that Antichrist keeps alive the issue of the extent to which the Western psyche was, and remains, Christianized:  the film confronts us with the West’s Christian unconscious, the obscene underside of the anima naturaliter christiana: the corpus naturaliter paganum. For von Trier, that confrontation reveals the cost of the Western world’s religious solution to the mystery of contingency.

1.

 With the turning on of a shower faucet by a male hand, the Prologue to Antichrist opens onto a world where the human and the non-human are subject to the same pitiless mechanical forces. “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are having sex in the shower and for a few brief moments it is easy to see this as a conventional film trope of an idealized romantic, sexually fulfilling relationship. Very quickly, though, the film cuts to a close-up, quasi-pornographic image of penetration, before cutting back to a more visually coy image of the couple in the throes of intercourse.
 The image of penetration framed by less explicit shots stands out as an unsettling instance of the kind of visual excess which has been considered widely in film studies on the basis of various versions of Lacan’s theory of the gaze, especially that of Slavoj Žižek in his analysis of pornography. The Lacanian gaze, as elaborated in Seminar XI, is, in Žižek’s formulation, “on the side of the object, it stands for the blind spot in the field of the visible from which the picture itself photographs the spectator”.[ii] So, what the spectator at first  thinks of as a safe position from which to view the object is transformed into the uncanny position that is the constitutive condition of the human subject: a fissured subject that is both the site of looking and an object looked-at from a point he cannot see. As a consequence, the gaze stages the real of desire in the subject, the desire to be gazed at: just as the gaze emanates from outside of the subject, so does the object of desire; the gaze is actually the object a, the object-cause of desire in the field of the visual.
 Žižek points out that the antimony between the eye and the gaze is abolished in pornography because in pornography there is no blind spot from which the gaze can emanate. Pornography is “the genre supposed to ‘show everything,’ to hide nothing, to register ‘all’ with an objective camera and offer it to our view.”  Or as Todd McGowan puts it: “ pornography assumes that the objet petit a (in the form of the gaze) is an actual object that one can see rather than a distortion in the fabric of the social reality that one must see in the process of distortion itself. Thus, this direct rendering of the objet petit a fails because there is no actual object that one might pin down and display. In fact, the oft-noted tedium of the porn film stems from its obfuscation of the objet petit a in the effort to expose it. Pornography fails because the gaze, the objet petit a in the field of the visible, is irreducible to the field of the visible itself.”[iii]
 By contrast, sex scenes in a non-pornographic film hold back from “showing it all” precisely in order to elicit the gaze, to depict as far as possible the real of desire which is not located in any object. “The films that actually enable us to recognize the gaze do so by making it visible as a distortion in this field.” [iv] For the pornographic film, by not cutting away and by showing everything, "[t]he sexual act...function[s] as an intrusion of the real undermining the consistency of th[e film’s diegetic] reality."[v] (Žižek 2000: 527)
 In the Prologue to Antichrist the brief pornographic moment of “showing everything” is the first of a series of images where the viewer is confronted by the intrusion of the real in the midst of images where we also recognize the complex dynamics of the gaze. The viewer’s introduction to He and She are separate head shots where each looks out directly from the screen, implicating us almost immediately in the film’s diegetic reality in a way that is both voyeuristically compelling and deeply unsettling: we gaze at them, and though we can certainly read their gazes as being directed at each other, they are also gazing at us; we too are the objects of unknowable desires, perceptions and judgements in the same way that they are for us.
 The pornographic intrusion at this point proves to be doubly unsettling. First, it undoes any claim the film might make to enact the logic of desire in any kind of satisfying way or with any kind of provisional closure—the boundary has already been overstepped, and any subsequent intimations of the gaze as object a will remain haunted by this. Additionally, though, by shaking the consistency of the film’s reality so early in the narrative, it hints at a self-critique of a major part of Cinema’s implied cultural functioning (including  this film’s pre-release playing up of its Horror genre) as providing some degree of fantasmatic satisfaction.
 I will return to and elaborate on this in a moment, but right now I want to continue by first examining a cluster of images whose conjunction, I think, is crucial to this film’s philosophical stance,  and next, identify those places in the Prologue where von Trier’s cinematic renderings of the gaze operate to assert the gaze’s own philosophical implications, implications which are deeply congruent with that stance.






 Even in those initial moments when He and then She gaze out at us, they share the screen with the falling water-drops of the shower which are emphatically present in the image due to the lighting of the scenes and the slow-motion technique. Before He and She are shown as having sex, the film cuts to the bathroom’s ventilation fan sucking in the steam from the shower, and then cuts again to the livingroom window blown open by a gust of wind, beyond which we see the snow falling thickly. In all these cases the slow-motion allows the camera to linger on the physical movement, the mechanical falling of water and snow, the centrifugal spin of the fan, the opening of the window and the blowing about of the curtains. When the image of sexual penetration makes its brief appearance, it too takes on the character of a pneumatic back and forth. In fact, from now on in the Prologue virtually every scene in this elaborate montage will contain an image which emphasises motion and the physics of motion, the ineluctable operation of gravity: a tumbler with a toothbrush get knocked over in the shower by He and She; She’s foot kicks around the bathroom scale (a real measure of gravity with an actual cold numerical value); as they move from room to room in the throes of passion, He and She knock over their child’s (Nick) wooden picture-puzzle; in the laundry room their copulation is a counterpoint to the turning of the washing machine; our first view of the child’s bedroom shows us a cartoonish mobile of the moon and stars rotating over his cot, and ragdoll bear tied to a helium balloon  floating in the foreground; pages on a table by the window are scattered by the wind; back in their own bedroom, She’s foot kicks over a bottle and spills its contents as she makes love with He. This is the way the physical universe operates—impersonal forces set objects in motion with inevitable physical results.




 Spliced into this exemplary litany of Newtonian motion, however, are some scenes which begin to evoke the traumatic dimension of the accidental. Undoubtedly, kicking over and spilling a bottle of water might be an “accident”, but it is a qualitatively different kind of accident than some of the others presented: the child-gate “accidentally” left unlatched and the, perhaps, inadvertant muting of the electronic child-monitor. On the pure physical level these accidents of omission set the same kind of wheels in motion as the former, but their consequences happen to be radically different. In this case they lead up to Nick falling out the window to his death. They lead to the traumatic irruption of the real into reality.
 Lacan, in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, discusses accident/chance in terms of a distinction drawn from Aristotle between chance for subjects, tuché, and chance for objects, automaton. His point here is to give a thoroughly psychoanalytic account of the concept of causality and to distinguish cause from law (both scientific laws and moral laws).  In cause, he says,
“there is always something anti-conceptual, something indefinite. The phases of the moon are the cause of tides - we know this from experience, we know that the word cause is correctly used here. Or again, miasmas are the cause of fever - that doesn’t mean anything either, there is a hole, and something that oscillates in the interval. In short, there is only cause in something that doesn’t work”.[vi] Fundamentally, automaton refers to the “automatic, lawlike, regulated stringing together of the subject’s signifiers in the unconscious”[vii], and so it concerns the process of repetition as well as the law of that process whose precondition is the evasion of cause: as though the signifying chain had been set in motion like a line of dominos falling. What automaton evades is the lack that sets the whole process going; it evades, in a word, the real.
 By contrast Tuché, according to Malcolm Bowie, “is in one sense very simple: it is a tile falling on to the head of a passer-by, a person from Porlock bringing a creative trance prematurely to its end, or, to take one of Lacan’s own examples, a knock on the door that interrupts a dream" [viii]. These examples demonstrate the countless ways that the real can manifest itself in reality, the chance encounters, interruptions and accidents which foreground “something that doesn’t work”, traumas that function as the cause of a sequence, intimations of a structural lack in the symbolic order that we call reality. As Stephen Ross puts it:
 “...the real, though never directly encountered (except perhaps in death), is everywhere felt in the radical contingency of daily life...[I]t  forms the lie-giving truth that underwrites both of the remaining orders, the imaginary and the symbolic. In their basis upon and opposition to the real, then, these two latter orders have it built into their very fabric (if only by the vehemence of its exclusion), and we are compelled to read any disruption in either order as potentially an irruption of the real (even if it is masked in some way)”.[ix]
 
In the Prologue, the automatic operation of the laws of gravity turn into the Lacanian tuché when the little boy, Nick, entranced by the swirling snow, climbs up to the sill of the blown-open window, loses his balance and falls to his death. In the sheer physics of falling, the child’s body plunging to the ground is no different from the falling of his toy bear along with him. But for He and She it is a traumatic undoing of the structure of their world, an irruption of the radically unsymbolizable order of the real, the cause of all that follows in their lives. Von Trier neatly evokes the inability of the symbolic, the order of language, to encompass the encounter with the real by having Nic as he climbs on the table by the window swipe away the three emblematic ornamental figurines embossed with the names Grief, Pain, and Despair.


These are the only instances of language in the Prologue’s diegetic reality, with the book behind them being metonymic for all written culture. (They subsequently become the chapter titles for the next three parts of the film, and are obliquely connected with a constellation named ‘The Three Beggars’ later on. Their dismissal at the literal hand of Nick, who is the locus of trauma and the irruption of the real, prefigures what I will later contend is the film’s radical skepticism about the capacity of narrative and metanarrative to provide existential succour.)
 And so, the snow comes down, the washing machine comes to the end of its cycle, the great sex exhausts itself, the child falls to his death. There are laws of motion, there is the inescapable irruption of the real; there is a cause but there is no “why”, no answer. Just the truth of contingency.

2.
 Beyond what I am essentially claiming above is the Prologue’s main theme, it is important to return for a moment to the issue of how the gaze, in its specific cinematic manifestations in this part of the film, structurally upholds that theme. In fact, from a strictly philosophical viewpoint, I want to contend that the Prologue as such enacts the epistemology of the Lacanian gaze rather than just exemplifying it.
 In the Prologue’s montage there is a remarkable number of different camera angles and shot positions. As viewers, these implicate us in different ways in the narrative, of course, as they structurally position us in relation to seeing and being seen; and the rapidity in shifts of position (underlined by the slow-motion) create a kind of anxiety as the camera cuts from mid-shots to close-ups, and eye-level views to high angle views to bird’s eye views in quick succession.
 I have already mentioned the ways in which the gazes of He and She, and the early pornographic cut-in function to unsettle us as viewers and problematize our narrative pleasure. One other gaze adds significantly to this unease: there is Nick’s turning away from the primal scene of his parents having sex to look at and move to the open window where the snow is falling, but, as he turns, intersecting the viewer with his gaze and smile. As viewers we have already intimated the danger of the open window and the child’s turn towards us casts us into a position of helplessness in the face of an unfolding disaster. We will watch his death take place in the filmic reality, but his gaze, engaging us, alerts us to the constant presence of the real in our reality, behind the back of the symbolic, as it were.
 But quite brilliantly von Trier chooses almost this precise moment in the film to use as a flashback late in Chapter 3, ‘Despair’. In the Prologue as Nick turns away from his parents the camera focus shifts from them to him; in the flashback, black-and-white and in slow-motion like the Prologue, the camera, in silence, cuts to a close-up of She’s face as she actually sees her son climbing on the table by the window just before he falls; her gaze of supressed horror meets our’s directly and contrasts radically with the Prologue’s last shot of her face, one of post-orgasmic satisfaction. (The two scenes together function like a portrayal of Freudian Nachträglichkeit where the only way She can try to integrate the trauma of the past event of death into the symbolic is to construct it, or “remember” it, as her failure, to see herself as blameworthy for being engaged in sex rather than confront the real in the tuché. And thus, in a terrible parody of the sex scene in the Prologue She masturbates using her unconscious, castrated husband’s hand, and then punishes herself by cutting off her own clitoris.)


 Taken together, the original scene and the flashback are remarkably congruent with the epistemological implications of the Lacanian concept of the gaze as such. We might call the Prologue’s production of anxiety and affective excess the production of an extreme “epistemological wobble” in that it works to constantly undermine any possible subject position that might fantasize itself as immune to the real of the gaze. For Lacan, of course, the human subject is split by its symbolic constitution into the imaginary ego and the subject of the unconscious;  and the discourse of the symbolic has the character of a signifying chain, so that the subject in the symbolic is also reduced to the signifier. Consequently, the meaning of the subject of the signifier does not encompass the subject of the unconscious, so the subject is alienated from its (own) subject of the unconscious. The splitting that occurs within the subject by its subjection to the signifying constitution of the Other has consequences for the subject’s perception as well. In the act of perception too the subject is split, since objects are perceived by the ego, the subject of the signifier, and desired by the subject of the unconscious. According to Lacan since the subject is an effect of the signifier, and thus constitutionally split, the subject has to constantly reconstruct and reassure itself through its discourses.
 In theory derived from Lacan the term suture is used to describe the process of the construction and incorporation of the subject in discourse, the means by which the subject recognizes the discourse as its own, and attempts to secure a degree of coherence within the discourse. Stephen Heath elaborates it as follows:
“[T]he "I" is a division but joins all the same. The stand-in is the lack in the structure but nevertheless, simultaneously, the possibility of a coherence, of the filling in. At the end of the suturing function is the ego, the "me": "it's me!", the little linguistic scenario of the ego - that I am the only one who can say. Can say insofar as I am one. The ego is not to be confused with the subject: it is the fixed point of imaginary projection and identification, where the subject as such is always on the side of the symbolic, the latter the order of its very constitution: but then, precisely, there is no ego without a subject, terrain of its necessity and its hold: function of the symbolic, suture is towards the imaginary, the moment of junction - standing in, a taking place, a something, a some one there.”[x]
 In strict Lacanian terms suture thus refers to the stitching of the imaginary, symbolic and real registers, with the seam separating the real from reality, closing off the unconscious from conscious discourse. Suture thus prevents the subject from losing its status as a subject, prevents it from falling into the void of the real, which would be falling into psychosis. But suture also has a narrower epistemological dimension in that it names a kind of closure, a sewing up of the subject’s fictional place within ideology and providing the subject with a false impression of plenitude and coherence.
 In film studies suture has been elaborated in terms of how formal, technical operations in the construction of the film narrative relate to the production of meanings and the creation of subject-positions for the viewer. Kaja Silverman writes that
“... cinematic coherence and plentitude emerge through multiple cuts and negations. Each image is defined through its differences from those that surround it syntagmatically and those it paradigmatically implies ("this but not that"), as well as through its denial of any discourse but its own. Each positive cinematic assertion represents an imaginary conversion of a whole series of negative ones. This castrating coherence, this definition of a discursive position for the viewing subject which necessitates not only its loss of being but the repudiation of alternative discourses, is one of the chief aims of the system of suture...Most classic cinematic texts go to great lengths to cover over these "cuts."” [xi]
 In the case of the Prologue to ‘Antichrist’, von Trier goes to great lengths to not cover over these cuts. While the Prologue has coherence at the level of plot, that coherence stands in an ironic relationship to the film’s foregrounding of its own suturing process, its own fictional construction.
 In addition to the cuts between images I talked about earlier, the Prologue also emphasizes its manipulation of the viewer’s subject position by a constant shifting of camera angles; remarkably, though, some of these camera angles are also the means by which the viewer is forced to question her own habitual subject position in her own habitual discourse as the subject of ideology. They work to make the gaze of the real inescapable, to unhinge the comforts of the viewer’s own suturing discourse.
These are the camera angles that place the viewer in an “impossible” subject position, and the most disturbing of them occur around the scenes of the child’s fall.
 When Nick first steps out onto the window ledge we view him from above, from a position which encompasses his viewpoint but is not identical with it, and is physically impossible within the diegetic reality of the film.


 The film then cuts to a medium close-up of the child just as he loses his balance and begins to fall; this shot is from an equally impossible angle—eye-level, outside the window. Very quickly the film cuts to a high-angle close-up of She’s face in the throes of sexual pleasure before cutting back to the falling child, shot from the same angle as before. Variations on this outside/inside shot sequence with similar camera angles occur over the next two minutes, all in all adding up to thirteen cuts which the slow-motion seems to achingly prolong.
I want to think about this for a moment using one of Žižek’s formulations of “the elementary logic of suture” as he writes about it in The Fright of Real Tears.[xii]  "Firstly”, he says, “the spectator is confronted with a shot, finds pleasure in it in an immediate, imaginary way, and is absorbed by it". Here we can think of some of the shots of She and He having sex. “Then, this full immersion is undermined by the awareness of the frame as such: what I see is only a part, and I do not master what I see. I am in a passive position, the show is run by the Absent One (or, rather, Other) who manipulates images behind my back”. On one level the many cuts, the black-and-white, and the soundtrack work this way. “What then follows is a complementary shot which renders the place from which the Absent One is looking, allocating this place to its fictional owner, one of the protagonists”. This, however, is where von Trier adds a significant complication. This “place from which the Absent One is looking” cannot be the place of one of the protagonists. It is a profoundly empty place rendered in the impossible camera angles and positions. It is the God’s-eye view of Nick falling and of his fall. It is a place the viewer occupies briefly with radical unease, realizing  the impossibility of that occupation by any subject. And then realizing it as the last trick of suture—it is a position occupied by God. Except that it’s empty. And then we see the gaze of the real: the amorphous stain of Nick’s physical death in the snow before which we are helpless.


3.
 Two aspects of the Prologue which I have only mentioned in passing now need some further comment— its being filmed in black-and-white and slow-motion, and the music which constitutes the soundtrack.
 One one level both the technique and the music foreground the artificiality of the filmic construct, and thus can be seen as part of the process by which the actuality and function of the suture is revealed. Beyond this, however, I think, once again, that these formal decisions have a specific philosophical import, intimating a philosophical anthropology which arguably the rest of the film exemplifies and displays. I will turn once more to Žižek to articulate what’s involved here.
 Obviously any black-and-white film with a musical soundtrack but without speakers will reference the early years of cinema and evoke a certain formalistic nostalgia, successfully commodified, for example, in Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011).  However von Trier’s cinematic stance here is far more ironic given the content and the highly sophisticated set of filmic techniques. In Enjoy Your Symptom[xiii], Žižek comments on how historically the introduction of voice into cinema “changes the whole economy of desire, the innocent vulgar vitality of the silent movie is lost, we enter the realm of double sense, hidden meaning, repressed desire—the very presence of the voice changes the visual surface into something delusive, into a lure[.]” And quoting Pascal Bonitzer (“Film was joyous, innocent and dirty. It will become obsessive, fetishistic, and ice-cold”), he concludes that “film was Chaplinesque, it will become Hitchcockian”. I don’t think it’s too much to say that von Trier’s Prologue is a Hitchcockian film in a Chaplinesque mask. Chaplin’s world, to quote Bonitzer again, is a “world of pure gesticularity...the protagonists are generally immortal...violence is universal and without consequences, there is no guilt”. In the Prologue it is as if von Trier negates this statement and tarries with the negation: gesticularity contracts into grimace, violent death is central, and everyone is guilty.
 It must be noted too that the absence of voice in the diegesis is only an apparent absence. For the soundtrack’s dominating sonic presence is not simply music but song which synchronizes with the narrative and declares in full Baroque gorgeousness:

Lascia ch'io pianga
Let me weep
Mia cruda sorte,
for my cruel fate
E che sospiri
And sigh
La libertà.
after freedom
Il duolo infranga
May sorrow break
Queste ritorte,
these ropes
De' miei martiri
of my sufferings
Sol per pietà.
out of pity
 It is easy to see how the words of this aria from Act II, Scene 2 of Handel’s Rinaldo serve as a lament by the parents for tragic death of their son, perhaps especially on the part of She. Better, perhaps, is to see them as a lament for the human condition in general, the inevitable traumatic encounter with the real which is the fate and lot of everyone.
 There is also, however, the specific context of the opera from which it’s taken: set during the First Crusade, and based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, it narrates the tale of Christian forces led by their general, Goffredo, and the heroic knight Rinaldo, as they lay siege to Jerusalem to conquer its Muslim king, Argante. King Argante is allied with and enamored of Armida, the queen of Damascus, who is a sorceress. Goffredo has promised Rinaldo the hand of his daughter Almirena once Jerusalem falls. Through her magical powers Armida knows that the Christian armies will be defeated if they are without Rinaldo, and so while Rinaldo and Almirena are rejoicing in their love in a beautiful garden, Armida magically appears and takes Almirena from Rinaldo's arms, summoning up monsters to subdue him when he tries to resist. In Rinaldo’s search for Almirena he is brought by a mermaid to Armida’s enchanted castle. There King Argante, having seen Almirena, falls madly in love with her, and, as she sings the above aria lamenting her fate, he promises to free her. Meanwhile, Rinaldo confronts Armida and demands the return of Almirena, but the sorceress is struck with love for him and offers herself to him. When he rejects her, she transforms herself into the likeness of Almirena. He is temporarily bewitched, but comes to his senses and spurns her. He escapes and she is torn between love for him and the desire for revenge. Argante happens upon her while she is disguised as Almirena and promises again to liberate her. She reproaches him for his faithlessness and he defies her, only to be overcome by her superior magical powers.
 It is remarkable how this part of the tortuous opera plot (there is much more, including the eventual conversion of Armida to Christianity after her defeat through “good” magic) will eventually map onto the main narrative of the film in a darkly parodistic way—like Rinaldo, the main plot of Antichrist will employ elements of love, desire, revenge, the monstrous, the supernatural, a quasi-magical place set apart, and the figure of the sorceress. But the melodrama of Rinaldo’s plot and the sumptuosness of its music are twisted into affective excess, graphic violence, and the unmusic of Nature, the cries of animals and acorns clattering on a roof.
 I am arguing that the clash of the two narratives, prepared for here in the Prologue, exposes the universalizing thrust of western Christian culture as endless grandiose suturing, a melodramatic metanarrative of redemption through sanctioned violence against any Other. And yet it is always and forever accompanied by its obscene opposite and complement. There is Christ and there is Antichrist, the one encompassing  the Logos, the masculine, the Lacanian “subject supposed to know”, scientific rationality, consciousness, Culture; the other encompassing the female, unreason, the unconscious, prejudice, emotion, Nature.  But furthermore, I want to suggest that the entire constitution of the Prologue will not allow a simple and simplistic overturning of this set of binaries, privileging one over the other; rather, by allowing the appearance of the gaze of the real, by exposing sutural strategies, and undoing our pleasure in a product of high culture, the Prologue espouses a deep skepticism towards any fundamental coherence, closure or plenitude. At best, it is an “adoration of the question”[xiv]; at worst “None of it is any use”, and “Chaos reigns”[xv]. There is gravity, but there is no grace to redeem it.

4.
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain...
(John Donne)

 All the foregoing is really but a prolegomena to engaging with the rest of Antichrist. And if anything, this reading of the Prologue should head off any sense that this is a misogynistic film: the binaries mentioned above and which thread throughout the film’s narrative are highlighted as gendered, not because one element or the other is in-itself gendered but because in the discourses of western Culture, in the Christian “answer” (and its Platonic precursor) they are structured that way. Luce Irigaray has argued that the Western philosophical tradition has privileged the concept of “presence” which then underwrites the concepts of Being, Truth, and God, among others, which are then themselves privileged over other elements of the metaphysical system.[xvi] These become the positive terms in a set of binaries where the second term is negative, such as Presence/Absence, Being/Nothing, Truth/Error, Identity/Difference, and Masculine/Feminine. If Antichrist presents, for example, madness as feminine, it is only because it is acknowledging that the world has still not managed to integrate the deconstruction of such a binary into its notions of either madness or the feminine. The old hierarchy reigns and enforces its structural valorization of the masculine and rationality as it represses its anxiety at female jouissance. In Antichrist He, the therapist, enlightened “subject supposed to know”, can’t even hear She’s effort to undo such a binary and its valorization (no matter which term is the positive); their dialogue proceeds as follows:
 She: I discovered something else in my material than I expected. If human nature is evil, then that goes as well...for the nature of...
He: Of the women? Female nature?
She: The nature of all the sisters. Women do not control their own bodies -Nature does. I have it in writing in my books.
He: The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women. But you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those texts, that was your thesis. Instead you're embracing it. Do you know what you're saying
She: Forget it.
 “Women do not control their own bodies—Nature does”: the corollary to that, of course, is that neither do men control their own bodies; Nature, neither masculine nor feminine, does. But that is unhearable by He.
  Žižek once wrote that
 All ‘culture’ is in a way a reaction-formation, an attempt to limit, canalize--
to cultivate th[e] imbalance, th[e] traumatic kernel, th[e] radical antagonism
through which man cuts his umbilical cord with nature, with animal
homeostasis. It is not only that the aim is no longer to abolish this drive
antagonism, but the aspiration to abolish it is precisely the source of
totalitarian temptation: the greatest mass murders and holocausts have
always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a
New Man without antagonistic tension.[xvii]
 In Antichrist, in the last scene, He, having killed and burned She, walks away from Eden and meets, coming up the hill towards him crowds of women, and because their faces are blurred, he is no longer the object of the female gaze; they pass him by and he passes among them unconcerned, eating berries in a Nature open for his needs, bright, and unthreatening. This New Man is still the Old, the one who burned witches, the one who sacrifices “Truth for the sake of knowledge.”[xviii]






[i] Last words of Antichrist
[ii] Žižek, Slavoj. “Looking Awry” In Stam and Miller (eds) Film and Theory an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 524-538
[iii] McGowan, Todd, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan. SUNY Press, 2008, p.28
[iv] McGowan, ibid.
[v] Žižek, ibid.
[vi]Lacan, Jacques, Seminar XI, W.W. Norton, 1998, p. 21
[vii] Fink, Bruce, ‘The Real Cause of Repetition’ in Reading  Seminar XI, ed. Feldstein, Fink, Jaanus, SUNY Press, 1995, p.225
[viii] Bowie, Malcolm, Lacan, Harvard Univ. Press, 1993, p.103
[ix] Ross, Stephen, ‘AVery Brief Introduction to Lacan’, online article, http://web.uvic.ca/~saross/lacan.html
[x] http://www.lacan.com/symptom8_articles/heath8.html
[xi] Silverman, Kaja, The Subject of Semiotics , New York: Oxford University Press, I983, p. 204
[xii] Žižek, Slavoj,  The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieślowski Between Theory and Post-Theory, London: BFI Publishing, 2001, p.32
[xiii] Žižek, Slavoj, Enjoy Your Symptom, Routledge, 2008, p. 2
[xiv] Hegel
[xv]Dialogue from Antichrist  available at http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/a/antichrist-script-transcript-chaos-reigns.html
[xvi] Irigiray, Luce, Speculum of the Other Woman, Cornell University Press, 1995.
[xvii] Žižek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 2008, p. xxviii
[xviii] This meditation originates in various conversations I had with my friend and colleague David Denny whose own paper ‘A Postmodern Family Romance: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist’ is a brilliant reading of the film as a whole.

All film stills are ©IFC Films and are used for scholarly illustrative purposes only.

©Ger Killeen 2014