Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Walker builds Inwardness on a Dark Night

© Shamoni Sarkar

  When, as we say, we come to our senses and reflect on ourselves, we come back to ourselves from things without ever abandoning our stay among things. Indeed, the loss of rapport with things that occurs in states of depression would be wholly impossible if even such a state were not still what it is as a human state: that is, a staying with things. Only if this stay already characterizes human being can the things among which we are also fail to speak to us, fail to concern us any longer. (Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking”, pg.155)

What does a “stay among things” mean when I abandon my stay among immediate things of care at home to take a stroll through buildings and lights at night? On a walk, I choose to “stay” casually– linger, breeze through– among things that do not really make up a destination. The church with the whitewashed exterior, for example, is a site for this breezy care. So are the red party lights hanging outside someone’s home. I stay with them and other nocturnal city things for an hour or two, and then return home.

The nightwalk could be a turn “inward”, away from things demanding consistent care. A chance to be one’s own company among things that don’t matter. But these things that don’t matter become the objects of casual contemplation for the inward-turning walker. She thinks mostly about her “self”, but her senses remain alert to the red light and white church and safe dark street. Contemplation is casual, but it still consists of things with some import. The walker has not stopped staying among things. In fact, they construct her inward-turning nature. Even inwardness needs a construction aided by things that are not purely of one’s self.

But then what makes the walker “more” inward now than when she’s occupied with things closer to her? Could it be that a closeness to things (including to people) eliminates the sort of breezy freedom that inwardness seems to need? Or is the question not about inwardness at all, but about how to negotiate that “human state” of “staying with things”? Maybe inwardness is this state of negotiation. When the walker is at home occupied (perhaps over-occupied) with things of direct relevance and concern in her life, she can still turn inward. She can do so by staying alert and awake to the things occupying her– by being conscious of how she is in the middle of being occupied by them. So inwardness cannot really be contingent on the presence or absence of things. Instead, it seems to depend on how those things take control of a person– how they devour her or structure her life. Maybe the walker has let herself be too devoured, and so needs to experience the irrelevance of things on her walk alone in the dark. She needs to remind herself that her inwardness still exists, in spite of things, and because of them.

If her inwardness exists because of things, then the lights and the streets cannot really be “irrelevant”. They must have some “role” in the walker’s relation to things, perhaps not as individual units, but in their consolidated existence as part of her turning away to turn inward. It is after all the church, in its whiteness and bigness in the black night, which catches her attention. Briefly, she looks out for what “denomination” it is, and thinks that god might be quite content being housed in a place like this, at the crossing of three large diagonal streets but sufficiently set off from all of them. Thinking of churches and gods, she turns into a quiet, empty residential street with little light. Suddenly, there are strings of red party lights on someone’s front door. The house itself is relatively still. The walker gets flashes of the mouse she saw seconds earlier on the street, and the sex shop with purple lights that seemed to have closed early. Small doses of seediness to balance out the night. It is breezy, and casually indulgent, inspired by a small curiosity. But it cannot be irrelevant because the walker needed to do it, and she needed to step out of home, at night, to do so. Her small thoughts about them put her mind in perspective: she exists even outside of the things closer to her that she needs to abandon from time to time. Her inwardness can escape itself, modify itself, but never disappear. She will always know, for better or for worse, when things succeed or fail to speak to her.

Heidegger says that in states of depression, things “fail to speak to us”. Did things of the home fail to speak to the walker because she was too occupied with them? Were they speaking to her too much, to the point that they eventually stopped? It is this self-initiated stopping point that seems to be so important. We live in closeness with things, we build our lives around them, and they speak to us. Then suddenly they do not, and we often become sick, or lonely, or absent from everything we did before.

This happens on a much smaller scale in the case of the nocturnal walk. Things familiar to the walker stop speaking to her because they have been speaking too much, too hard, too long. She realizes this and abandons them for a time. This isn’t, however, a “loss of rapport” with things in such a definitive, final way. In fact, if it were, the walker might even have remained indoors, continuing to stay with failures of speech. Instead, she chooses to let be for a while the failures and the things associated with them, and turns to things that have meaning outside of her. If she had decided to stay home, it is very possible that her inwardness might have become self-perpetuating. Lost with itself, it might have been difficult for inwardness to return to a dialogue with things of any sort, and it would have become unproductive and stagnant. The walk at night is a resistance to stagnation– an acknowledgment of the unavoidable interfaces of attempted turns, momentary failures, and recovery speeches. The walker is not giving anything up and turning elsewhere. In fact, there is no “turn” at all. She is simply playing with and testing the way she is in the aggregate of her surroundings, so that they all keep changing with each other, and stay fresh.




Friday, March 28, 2014

Wandering in Argentina I: Godman at Plaza Once

© Shamoni Sarkar

The Godman was dressed in a suit, had round glasses and flaming eyes. He ran on a high down the lines of people waiting for different routes of bus 129. I was waiting for the highway bus because it was the quickest way home. Godman came to the middle of my line and looked everyone up and down (but first he looked at their faces). I heard “Jesus”, I heard “señor”, and I heard “amor”. I was wearing a red sweater over my pink dress and I knew Godman would come to me. He stopped next to me and spoke inches away from my ear about señor Jesus Christ and amor. I looked into his eyes and almost smiled, and his flaming eyes grew wilder. I felt the guilt of looking away. Everyone else was doing it too but I felt the guilt of it. The young mother in front of me put an arm around her son and pulled him closer to her, trying to tell him that he too should look away. Godman kept talking to my ear and to my cold indifference to remind me that I was indifferent. The little son in front of me moved a semi-step away from his mother and looked at Godman to size him up. I was watching the son now. His face had a gentle mischief, and he had the longest eyelashes in the world. Godman noticed him too and met his eyes. “I shall continue to speak even when people do not listen to me. Only the children will understand what I am saying now. The older ones– the ones who don’t listen– will never understand,” he bellowed. “Isn’t that true?” He asked the boy softly in a moment only the two of them shared. The boy shrugged. Godman laughed loudly, patted him on the shoulder and told him he was “beautiful.” Now reaffirmed, he continued down the line and the gentle son watched him walk away.   

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ruins of Unfinished Assaults

Gargoyles on Woodchester Mansion, Woodchester Park, Gloucestershire by Steve Walker/ Creative Commons                                            
© Shamoni Sarkar

In the months leading up to the new year in the Indian state of West Bengal, a sixteen-year-old girl’s life was calculatedly taken away by two sets of people: those who should have protected her simply as a person (her only friend in a new neighbourhood, and the neighbours themselves), and those whose legal duty it was to protect her right to life (politicians, doctors, and the local police). Both sets of people violated her, at times with combined force. She was gangraped twice. The first time was with the pure intent to assault, and the second with intent to silence. The third assault came from the police, with the intent to cover up and minimize trouble (trouble that might be caused to them). The fourth assault was by failed politicians, with the intent to make quick gains from death. The result was an assaulted human body in an expedient chain of associations and intentions– a collective failure of every possible kind of human civility, and an even bigger collective failure to act.

The girl had recently migrated to the city with her parents from another state, because the future looked better for them there. She had made one friend in her neighbourhood– a fish trader named Chhotu. In October, Chhotu and five of his friends raped the girl in a deserted house and left her in the fields. Her parents found her many hours later. After she filed a complaint with the police the next day, the same gang of boys intercepted her and her father on the road, abducted her and raped her again, this time leaving her on the railroad tracks, clearly wishing for her to slowly die. The six perpetrators were arrested over the next ten days. But back at home, their friends in the area, as also some of the neighbours, began to taunt the girl and her family. They were forced to move to another part of the city. But the landlady there happened to be the mother of a friend of one of the rapists. She suggested that the family leave because their daughter’s presence was soiling the neighbourhood, and she made sure they were verbally abused everyday. Her son and some of his accomplices made frequent visits to the house, threatening the family with violent consequences if they did not withdraw their police complaint. On December 23rd, the girl was found in flames in her house while her mother had gone to the market. She died of 70% burn injuries eight days later. Initial reports had claimed she had killed herself, but in her final statement to the police, she named the two men who set her on fire, and now her death has officially become a murder.

After death, there was a frighteningly petty tussle over who was entitled to guard the body and for what reasons. The police have been accused of rushing the body to the crematorium without the permission of the parents, to avoid protests from angry people. But then the labour arm of the state’s opposition party hijacked the hearse from the crematorium to use as bait for their “protest march”. They shouted that the party in power was behind the crime and all its consequences. In defiance, they held on to the body of the girl in the hearse because they could give her family what the ruling party had not. The police were incapable of controlling the situation, and the labourers’ protest ran its full course. The body of the girl had been conveniently claimed and made to move long distances for more than a day before it was allowed to disintegrate legally, with some sort of peaceful finality.

A rape is an assault on a body’s basic right to feel freely. The perversity of its violence comes from the fact that the assaulted person is always made to feel in a way inherently responsible for her/his own sense of victimhood and pain. Simply by being victims of rape, their bodies become receptacles for what should be their attackers’ guilt. This particular case is built on a chain of transferred guilt and responsibility. The girl was consistently reminded of her “responsibility” for the circumstances of what had been done to her. Ensuring that she felt every stage of what had been done to her without there being an “end” was a process initiated by the two rapes and continued after her death. The six boys did not rape and kill, but they raped, taunted and teased. Neighbours did not drive the family out physically, but they whispered and connived. So, the act of not “completing” their crimes took on more criminality than the crimes themselves.  

After the girl’s death, the police, the doctors and the politicians left their crimes “open-ended” as well: The police were inept so they just scolded and then gave up to see what happened; the doctors apparently showed no urgency to admit a patient with 70% burns on her body; and finally the labour union did everything in the name of justice for the family but ended up staging a self-indulgent charade in which the cause of the charade– a young girl’s life– became a little prop. After this, the least bit of humaneness possible would be an uneventful– hopefully even peaceful– cremation. But even this was rushed, stalled, and eventually carried out as a tired formality.

In the middle of these perversely prolonged crimes, the young girl herself was the only person who acted and took accountability for it. She filed a rape complaint, made an effort to adapt to new living spaces against the odds, and named the men who set her on fire even if she probably knew that she wouldn’t survive their attack. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to believe that even after being raped, threatened, burned and taken up as a false cause, her body was silently in control of its own sense of existence.         

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the city with dogs: brief responses to a road accident

dog and the guy with him by It'sGreg/ Commons

© Shamoni Sarkar

The light had just changed to the white walking man, telling pedestrians they could now move. At some point a few seconds earlier, a puppy had run onto the street and was hit silently on its head by a passing car. When I turned around, a man was holding up the last rushes of traffic while he lifted the puppy’s stunned body with one hand and placed it gently on the sidewalk. He had a dog of his own– more robust than the one that had been hit. It came close and whimpered to its companion to hang in there. There was a large crowd by now, standing around with confused urgency. Where on earth was its owner? The puppy was breathing with effort. Slow spots of blood came from its temple. It couldn’t move its head, so its eyes pointed straight up at the crowd.

Then one of the owners appeared. “Is she okay?” He asked with little conviction. He bent down to look at her with real care and guilt, but this was clearly unfamiliar territory, and he didn’t know how to proceed.  
“It’s my ex-wife’s dog. She’s a few blocks away. She’s just coming.”
He had found himself the accidental owner.

For the first five minutes, the puppy was resilient. Then she went to the bathroom on the street. Her insides were slowly letting go. She had understood that this was a big deal. People fetched some cardboard and made her a bed.     

It was decided that the ex-husband would get into the first taxi we saw and take the dog to the nearest animal hospital (which people would look up for him on their phones), and we would send his ex-wife there when she arrived at the scene.

At first the cardboard didn’t fit through the taxi door, but finally the task was completed with elegance. The ex-wife was almost there, so the man chose to wait. He guarded her spot for her– in the backseat, next to her dog. The driver was patient. Seconds later, a woman came running down the block. She was petite and spontaneous– a distinct contrast from her ex-husband, whose large frame contained many hesitancies. They crossed each other when he moved to the front passenger seat and she threw herself into the back. She embraced her dog, protecting its life. We waved the taxi away and breathed out our best wishes after it.

My insides had trembled when I saw the puppy lying there at the edge of the sidewalk, scared stiff, staring up at us and imploring. I imagined the violence inside its nimble body– the internal bleeding, the slowing heart rate, the mess. I felt sad, inside and outside. My guess was that other people felt the same way, and that this is what drove them to think on their feet and help out. A small, dying dog was all that was needed for so much human concern. But at the end, the people that came forward to help didn’t do so because of some grand duty to humankind. There was an accident, and it needed prompt attention. From then on, small moments of carelessness and bigger ones of precision moved everything forward. The matter-of-factness of everything actually felt wrong to me for a short while. It was as if I had been cheated of feeling something bigger. But this was a lofty, unfair expectation, because there really was no better way things could have turned out.  

There was one thing that made people give so much of themselves while still keeping a distance– something about the fact that the victim was, after all, a dog. It was someone’s pet– a living object of that person’s affection. So it was at a strange halfway point between losing, for example, a toy, and losing an actual person. A dog is not just a toy, and so people acted out of care and respect for the life of the dog itself. But, more importantly, they acted out of care for another human being’s capacity to care for a life. Having found themselves in this emotional middle ground, they were genuinely involved, but also strangely detached. They were not rescuing a person, but an animal that holds the value of a person for another person.

The ex-husband had found himself in that same strange middle ground of having to take charge of something that was of crucial importance to someone else he was close to. (But this didn’t mean he didn’t care for the dog himself, and he meant every word when he apologized profusely to her every time she whimpered in pain.)  

But shouldn’t the situation have a completely different meaning for the ex-wife? Pet dogs bring out sides of us that often nobody else sees– we are playful, childish, and excessively affectionate and loving. Pet ownership gives us these privileges. But can this really be the same as loving one’s own child or a family member? Pets do bring out special things in people, but they are still pets and people still own them; they are living possessions that we have chosen to love selectively. So losing one’s pet must be fundamentally different from losing a person one loved.

But then, what if the ex-wife lived alone and only looked forward to her dog’s company at the end of the day? What if she had formed such a strong bond with it that it knew secrets about her that nobody else did? What if her dog was the strongest presence in her life, and she needed it more than she needed any other human being? Would it still be a relationship of ownership and loving faithfulness? Or would it be something quite different– something very human?      


Monday, August 6, 2012

Irrationality and the Artist: What we can learn from Werner Herzog

© Shamoni Sarkar
This year, I saw and heard Werner Herzog live, twice in two months. Anyone that knows his work would say at this point: “Isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t writing about a madman kill his madness, and then what’s the point?” But there is a point. If there weren’t, Herzog himself would not have agreed to talk about his madness to enthralled audiences in formal settings. If there weren’t a point, he probably wouldn’t be making films. In director Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, his closing words are “We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be like cows in a field.”

How does artistic genius or productivity relate to irrationality, and how exactly can irrationality be articulated? Is articulation of irrationality not counter-productive? The first time I saw Herzog was at Amherst College in New England, on March 24th, 2012. He screened excerpts from Into the Abyss, his newest documentary on death-row inmates in Texas. While his conversations with the inmate Hank Skinner were sad and illuminating, I felt that Herzog was trying to get too much out of Skinner; his questions were too well framed. For example, he asked Skinner to talk about time and how he related to the whole idea of the movement of time while sitting in death row. But as soon as he transitioned to scenes in which he is driving through the Texan countryside, he did not speak but instead let his camera do the work. But as viewers we could still sense his presence in the scene, and we knew he was still controlling it. Even back inside the prison, when he allowed Skinner to do the talking, the scene was more effective. In a way, when he stepped back, Herzog allowed the cruel irrationality of his subject blossom. But when he tried to attach too many words to it, the real feeling went away. In this case, too much articulation harmed the mysteriously powerful effect Skinner and his setting already had.  

Perhaps because we were a room full of students at Amherst College, Herzog seemed much more ‘normal’ than what I had expected him to be. Maybe because I was another immature fan, I expected to see the kind of manic director that made Aguirre: the Wrath of God. In that film, Herzog sticks with his lead character Don Lope de Aguirre as he leads his men into the deadly interiors of the Amazon in search of El Dorado (a search that is ultimately futile). One by one, his men are struck by arrows shot by Indian tribes from ashore. The last to be struck is Aguirre’s own daughter, and she falls limply into his arms and dies. He is the last one standing, and as he surveys the scene of death around him, an army of monkeys climbs onto the raft, claiming it for their own. Aguirre is deluded by now, but not enough to let go of his savage ambition. “I am the wrath of God,” he declares to no one, staring into the distance with mad eyes. He vows to find gold in El Dorado, and recapture most of the lands of New Spain for himself, to rule like a king. “Who else is with me?” he asks the dead and the monkeys. As the camera pans around the ruins on the raft, we hear the music of Aguirre by the band Popol Vuh, the same music that opens the film as the seekers of El Dorado climb down a dangerous mountain. The music is hauntingly epic and lamenting— it laments fallen heroes and the impending death of a dream. In Aguirre, there are many fallen heroes, and Lope de Aguirre is one of them. In the first scene, the music eulogizes every one of them. But in the last, it is played for Aguirre only— for what he is and for what has become of him. It does not pity him, but rather it understands him and feels sad. Again, Herzog speaks for Aguirre through music, landscape and images of madness. It is very likely that he sees something of himself in Aguirre’s irrational but dedicated drive, and so the film is as much an introspective project as a work of fiction.  

So why did I not see Herzog the crazed director that evening at Amherst College? It was not just because of the over-articulation in Into the Abyss, but something about the lecture itself. It seemed that Herzog had come here to give advice and not to converse. Instead of letting himself unfold, he again articulated too much. It seemed like he was moderating his own personality because someone had told him to be safe. However, the advice was often beautiful, and there were three sentences that I will always remember:

1. Psychoanalysis was the mistake of the 20th century
2. It is a mistake to scrutinize the self
3. If your soul is dark, let it be dark

Although these three statements befit Herzog, it was difficult for me not to question them. Is not what Herzog was doing in this lecture, and through the characters in his films, a form of self-scrutiny? And does not this prove that it is an unavoidable process for any artist, and perhaps not even a process they have control over? What exactly did he mean when he said to allow the soul to “be dark”? Incomprehensible darkness may make up most of the soul, and allowing it to flourish produces many great things. But is not the basic function of psychoanalysis to make us aware of the dark parts of our soul, and not, as Herzog seemed to imply, to get rid of them? And only once an artist becomes aware of or acknowledges the darker part of his soul can he begin to articulate himself.

Everyone must have darker shades in themselves that they cannot or choose not to explain, and these are the parts we would call irrational. What makes artists act on their irrationality? Herzog is also known to have eaten his own shoe, and plotted to kill his lead actor Klaus Kinski, who plays the role of Aguirre (incidentally Kinski too hatched his own plot to kill Herzog). Do even these irrational tendencies somehow make his artistic personality more whole, or are they just the childish, self-indulgent behavior of a man that believes he is entitled to it? It is too much to say that as an artist, his irrational self is more powerful or extreme than a regular person’s, or that it is in any way special. But perhaps his self-awareness, or his compulsion to act and to make is stronger.  

Burden of Dreams is about the making of Fitzcarraldo, another Herzog film about a man driven by unreasonable desire. Fitzcarraldo wants to pull a boat overland from one river of the Amazon to another, so that he can construct an opera house on the other side. The project is threatened from the beginning. For the shooting of the film, Herzog actually wants to perform this action of pulling a boat overland— a stunt that apparently carries a 70% risk of causing casualties. “I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions or no people like lions,” he says at one point.

Herzog knowingly risks not only his own safety but also that of his crew, and he cannot quite explain why. In apophthegm 154 in Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “everything absolute belongs to pathology”. Nietzsche’s absolutes are “evasion” and “joyous distrust”— tendencies that make a person go against norms. To embrace these tendencies is a sign of health— bodily as much as mental health. A strong, powerful person will find that his body and mind are in tune with a common urge— the urge to make, destroy and digress. By becoming Fitzcarraldo and filming against the wishes of nature, Herzog is putting himself to the test physically as well as mentally, and he is willing to take himself to the extreme. Irrationality is as much a bodily experience as an intellectual one.   

There are irrational compulsions, inspiration, self-knowledge, and risk-taking, but to produce a complete body of work, something has to bring these together, or it would be too simple. For Nietzsche, sensuous experience could blossom into intellectual activity, provided the person maintains a “cruelty of the intellectual conscience and taste”. Then artistic conscience too must be relentless and cruel so that it can acknowledge lack of knowledge, darkness and risk, to show what can be learnt from these things, and ask even more questions. So the artistic conscience is what stretches uncertainty to its limits to show what is beyond.

The second time I heard Werner Herzog was at the Whitney museum in New York, where he spoke more substantively about his own artistic process. He talked about the importance of craftsmanship in every kind of creative activity, and the value of study and technique. “I have always tried to decipher signs”, he told us. He reads “signs” in music and painting and learns from them. Making movies allowed him to learn from the world, putting together images, sounds and words. He may not know why he chooses the stories that he does, and he cannot quite explain much of his behavior as a director, but he knows for sure that his work is not fruitless. He does not work to come to some sort of conclusion or find answers, but to learn more and more about the possibilities of his craft— a process of learning that is most probably infinite. For Nietzsche, a real artist must be rigorously inquisitive, have complete faith to form, and pursue the unintelligible without guilt.

However, like the intellectual conscience, guilt too brings discipline to the spirit. Aguirre and Fitcarraldo do not feel guilt and drive themselves to ruin, but Herzog their creator does feel guilt. Maybe he even feels guilty on their behalf. He eventually completes Fitzcarraldo, but his later words betray something resembling guilt. Talking to Les Blank about the extent to which he had taken himself and his crew, he says, “No one can convince me to be happy about it when I am finished.” At most public appearances, he is a sort of role model or example to emulate, and so he is probably required to present a nice, easy version of himself.  He must not seem too crazed among impressionable young people or interviewees who help keep him in the public eye. But more importantly, he talks to students, museum visitors and documentary filmmakers because it forces him to keep evaluating his work so that he knows where to take it next. It helps him to stay productive.   

So why did it bother me that Herzog articulated too much in Into the Abyss, or advised too much at Amherst College? Possibly because I didn’t want him to censor himself; I wanted to see a mad artist in the flesh. But then I realized how childish this was. It is more likely that his innate irrationality is deeper and more complicated— to the extent that it affects the way he looks at life and his relationships with people. So I would never see an artist’s madness so easily in the space of two hours. To see Herzog ‘in the flesh’, I would have to go back to his films, and I would find the irrationality in the faces, in the landscapes and in the music. I would see the cruelty of his intellectual conscience. But I will still never be able to separate the real man from the ‘nicer’ man, because maybe they need each other and so will co-exist, separately and together.        

Friday, July 6, 2012

Neverending Faces: A Brief Visit to La Plata, Argentina

© Shamoni Sarkar

Whoever thought absence could have such a presence in so many different ways? “Absence” is a word that Severo Sarduy uses repeatedly in La Simulación, his collection of essays on metaphor. The absence that he speaks of is the absence of a fixed essence, or a referent. He seems to be saying that our world is filled with copies, representations and re-representations that make us feel that we have lost track of their origins (or our origins). Then he goes on to make an even stronger statement: There is no origin; there never was.

Thinking about origins and absences reminded me of my day trip to the city of La Plata in Argentina in October 2011. La Plata is a city that was built for a purpose. By the late 1800s, Buenos Aires Province was expanding too quickly for the government to control. Buenos Aires City was at the time both the provincial and national capital, but this dual responsibility was gradually taking a toll on the distribution of administrative duties. The governor Dardo Rocha founded La Plata in 1882, naming it the new capital of Buenos Aires Province.

The city was one of the first few in the world to be “rationally planned”. Unlike other cities, it was not a space that grew and evolved organically. Instead, it was “built” from scratch on a large plot of previously barren land. The dimensions of the city were clearly mapped out. It was to be a uniform grid. Streets would not be named but numbered (streets in Buenos Aires are named after generals, politicians or other Latin American cities). There were to be small plazas with “espacios verdes” (green spaces) every six blocks. One long diagonal would cut across the city, while Street #32 would encircle it, forming its periphery. La Plata is sometimes popularly referred to as “The City of Jules Verne”. Some believe that its design was inspired by the utopian city France-Ville in Verne’s 1879 novel The Begum’s Fortune. In the story, public health and sanitation were priorities in the design of France-Ville. Like France-Ville, La Plata was to be a truly modern city— rationally ordered, clean, and existing for the good of the citizens only. The term coined in the 19th century for this kind of engineering was ‘hygienism’.

Sarduy speaks of the ideas of recreation and copy when he speaks of the Latin American Baroque. For example, in the art of the Americas, he says, one sees an attempt to assimilate the religious and mythological codes found in Spanish Renaissance painting and reproduce it as something different— something that transgresses the limits of the ‘original’. But the new work retains all the while evidence of the intent— of the struggle to break away. It retains the presence of what preceded it. Likewise, new urban utopias (like La Plata) and the incorporation of rationality too are forms of a Baroque ideal because they attempt to recreate. Although they do not seem to be influenced by the old, as is the art that Sarduy speaks of earlier, they nevertheless recreate themselves because they see the necessity to be something new, unshackled from history. Sarduy’s assertion that neither originals nor copies really exist seems strangely encouraging when seen in the context of the Latin American city. But if there is no original, what do we have? Sarduy thinks that all we have is ambiguity, struggle and incompletion. And he sees potential in incompletion— grey space for the creation of new things.

But as I walked down the streets of La Plata, the air felt different from the way it did in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires’s grandeur and rustiness were natural and palpable. Remnants of Europe left in the architecture were given new life by the swagger of the city around it. In La Plata, I felt like I was walking through a slightly mythical space— space that existed in dimensions but whose physical presence one could not feel. Someone told me that La Plata was constructed as a city that did not change with the progression of time. Reading Sarduy on absence reminded me of my visit to this city because it seemed ‘absent’ in both space and time. But it wasn’t a sense of absence that pushed me away. Rather, I felt the urge to take in more. There was a sense there that could be touched and defined. I just had to come upon it suddenly.

According to Sarduy, portraiture and mimesis are ways for human beings to leave their imprint on the world; in portraits people tend to leave signs of what makes them human— dark eyes, the shape of the face, or ways of dressing. The canvas not only immortalizes the human form, but also gives it wholeness and a truth. But for Sarduy, the wholeness of form can never be reached. The only truth exists in hints and fragments. 

This idea that wholeness can never be achieved, and that our repeated attempts to assert our selves are futile made me wonder if the same could be said not just about Art but about cities as well. I could now look back on La Plata in a different light, and consider why I went there in the first place. One of the main clandestine torture centers during the years of the dictatorship in Argentina had been in this city. There is now a criminal court there that tries cases of human rights violations that occurred during those years. On that particular October day, I had gone to attend the witness testimony of María Isabel Chorobik de Mariani, the founder of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo). It was the first testimony in a trial that was going to last for the next several months. Mariani grew up in La Plata in a house of musicians and architects (creative people were the preferred target of the military, she told us). From the night of November 24th, 1976 onwards, she would go on to see the deaths of her son and daughter-in-law, and the disappearance of her granddaughter Clara Anahí. During the years that she searched for her grandchild, she founded the organization to help other women who were also searching for lost loved ones. She continues to search for Clara today. She put whatever energy she had left into the running of her organization so that other women could see that collectively, there was a way.

Strangely, I did not note down the names of the ‘accused’ that she named in her testimony, nor any other official details. I was too lost in the sound of the flow of her words. For most of the time, I felt like I was watching the staging of a tragi-comedy. Mariani had an extraordinary, matter-of-fact sense of humor, and it was as if she felt entitled to use it after having gone through so much without humor. Also ironically funny were the adolescent scribbles on the backs of the chairs that made everything seem so trivial. One of them said ‘Blink 182’, bringing back my boy-band memories, and then I looked around and realized that many others in the ‘audience’ were also part of the punk-rock generation. For a few seconds, I even felt like none of us had any right to be there. On the platform, I saw the 26 accused sitting on the far left, well-dressed, with calm faces, as if they had long retired from ordinary jobs. None of them stirred as Mariani narrated calmly the sequence of events of those years. She had her back to them, but there was very little space between her chair and their section of the platform. I was convinced that this part of the room was filled with the most anger and violence. At one point, Mariani had to pause after recounting to the jury (and to us) one of the more difficult parts of her testimony. The audience, who had so far been hypnotized by her composure and her incredible story, suddenly broke into applause, offering their admiration and encouragement to keep going. The policemen lining the front stirred, as if expecting us to start a riot. But calm ensued.

I had to leave early to go back to Buenos Aires— back to the real world of classes and chaos.

We were once told about the “logic of fear” adopted by the military government. I tried to figure out what this could mean. Was it that the environment of fear was so pervasive inside and outside the torture chambers that it had reached the point that no other way of controlling things was possible anymore? Were torturer and tortured locked in some kind of silent agreement that order would be maintained only through fear and obedience? And was this why it was logical? However, there was no logic in Mariani’s trial, but only a sense of theater, fragments of history, and the slightly unbelievable physical presence of those involved in that history. La Plata was a rational utopia that hosted an irrational, non-utopian event. What did it mean hosting trials from such an important period in history in La Plata in particular? Was it not a way for people to leave an imprint of themselves in a new space, to conserve traces of their history to give the new space a ‘truth’?

La Plata is the true Baroque city— it searches for a truth through order and rationality. Having a criminal court there is like painting a portrait of history, also to immortalize a truth. But perhaps Sarduy would say that even then it is still only constructed from diverse fragmentary representations from different times. But I think La Plata does receive a strange kind of wholeness by being so new while at the same time giving voice to the old. However, it is a wholeness that is unstable and could break up into fragments at any point. Despite this disconcerting sense, why did I still want to go back? Was it a perverse wish to be caught between the perfect grid and the imperfect history again? Or did I actually want to come away with something concrete and good?

I wouldn’t know, unless I went back.                  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Truth about Acting

© Shamoni Sarkar

          The bright red lipstick matches the red beret. The black leather jacket balances out the redness and gives everything an air of casual coolness. I step out of the house feeling like one of Woody Allen’s breezy new heroines.

        Then I see Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Suddenly I am self-aware— aware of everything that goes on inside my head as I put together my looks for different occasions. My look is done, undone and redone, until it fits with a mood: relaxed, worried, thoughtful, or Woody Allenesque. When the look complements the inner mood, I hear a voice of approval, and then I’m ready to go. I construct little film stills of myself ever so often. I am my own actress.

         But what is the point of all this acting?  

         In Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Liv Ullman’s character Marianne reads aloud to her husband Johan from her diary. She has written of a childhood spent on being pleasing and obedient to her parents, but completely ignorant of who she was or what to make of her own life. The greatest deception, she writes, came at puberty, when her mind was flooded with thoughts of sex and secret wishes to become an actress. At her father’s insistence she finally became a lawyer, but, like everything else she had done in her life, her lawyer self was also an act. Even in her relationships with men, she invented herself, because she did not know what to present to them otherwise. When she finishes reading the entry she looks over at Johan, only to find him fast asleep on their couch. If acting is a lie, then Marianne has been lying her whole life. Now, when she finally reveals the truth about her lies, there is no one awake to acknowledge her.

       Sherman’s film stills are also all about acting: trial runs, dressing up and recreating oneself. But, like Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage, she uses acting to get at a truth (or many truths). At first though, the film stills are deceptive. Each of them reveals itself to us at two levels: as a photograph and as cinema. As a photograph, each film still has a mood. Untitled 56 (1980) evokes “icy” or “cold contemplation”. The woman looks into the mirror, and her reflection looks back at us. We want to know what she is thinking, and whether she is using the mirror to validate her thoughts. But it is Sherman framing herself and posing for us. It is Sherman acting the part of a cold, contemplative woman. She has created everything that makes the photograph. But then what is true about it? Is she not doing exactly what Marianne says she has been doing her entire life— playing roles and acting?  

     At this point of doubt, the photograph becomes cinema by taking on a story. This woman could be plotting murder! I am reminded of the icy blonde heroines in Alfred Hitchcock movies. The Sherman of Untitled 56 could very possibly be a version of a Hitchcockian heroine— she is beautiful, someone who always gets what she wants, but who is generally unpopular and is about to unwittingly fall into a bad situation.



      Almost all the film stills have elements running through them that we have learned to read from the cinema. They all have pointers that originate in fiction. For example, there are waiting women such as in Untitled 50 (1979) and Untitled 15 (1978). We also recognize and articulate that they are different kinds of waiting. The waiting woman in Untitled 50 seems wealthy but lonely. We assume that she is waiting for an uncaring husband to come home. But she seems disinterested and bored as well, waiting only because there is nothing better to do. In Untitled 15, the high heels, the short dress and the necklace with a cross all suggest a young small-town girl that has come to the city to chase her dreams. As she looks down from her window, she could be looking out for a man, for a friend or just for the dreams that she came to follow. There are many other pointers in the film stills, both concrete and suggestive. Though they exist in real life, we learn to identify them on screen. One notes short black hair, bonnets, staircases from which women look down or up, and shadows. They give the story to the initial mood set up in the photograph, turning it into cinema.

        When we see the film still as a whole, i.e. as one-dimensional mood and cinema coming together, we realize that we cannot really separate the camera from life, or acting from truth. We associate Sherman’s film stills with other filmic moments we have seen and probably did not even consciously remember. The cinema seems to be our only filter. In fact, even if we were not told that they were “film stills”, we would still associate them with cinematic images.

       But then is the mood fictional as well? Don’t we at least know, from our own lives, about the pain of waiting or the discomfort of coldness? And don’t we then make cinema by giving stories to these vague, but true, moods? So in a way, isn’t it all true, including the cinema? And so it would seem that Sherman is getting at the truth, or rather a truth, in each film still.   

      This still does not answer the question of why we dress up, or imagine ourselves in a certain way. Why do we want to dress up our moods? The search for a truth does not seem like a plausible reason because we cannot explain why we lie (or act) to get to it. We do not know why Marianne would need to write in her diary about her life of acting, or even why she would want to read it out to Johan. The only way she is able to get at her truth is by admitting that she has been acting. But does this revelation mean that she has stopped acting? And if she has not stopped acting, she has not been able to find that elusive truth.

      In an interview with New York Magazine, Cindy Sherman says that she wanted to “try on” all her film still roles. She herself is unsure about why she did them, but she wonders if maybe she actually did want to be her characters and not be herself. However, she also says that she was uncomfortable with the idea of going to work dressed like her characters, because she felt she wouldn’t be wearing her “normal armor”. “Normal” suggests that there is a real Cindy Sherman, but “armor” once again suggests dressing up. Perhaps there is a certain Cindy Sherman she is most comfortable being, if she were to choose among all the other possible Cindy Shermans. And maybe this is the self she wears when she is not dressing herself up for her art.      

      If one looks at Untitled 56 again, one notices the way the side of Sherman’s face is framed, as if she handled the light in such a way that it looks like a part of her hair. But of course it isn’t, because one can see through its transparency to the way her hair actually curls, away from her face. And then, one notices the circular black object near her chin, which looks like a flashlight. Perhaps the light from that, and the natural light from the sun (which illuminates a part of the hair) create the effect that we see. But one can only guess. What is clear, though, is that Sherman has ‘played’ with the photograph. She starts from a truth, whether it is a mood, or a certain mannerism, gives it a story, and then turns it into something completely different in the photograph, by introducing something unnatural into it. But there is always a truth in them, or in her, which never gets lost. This is why she is able to keep working and changing roles, without letting go of her mysterious core. Similarly, there is something true about Marianne (a certain way of being perhaps) that she must have recognized in herself, or else she would not have been able to admit that she had been acting.

        Maybe the answer is that we want to know all of our possibilities, and so we allow life and screen to overlap, sometimes to the extent that we cannot differentiate between them. We want to know how we can dress up our truths because we do not want to remain static. But even if we resign ourselves to this answer, questions still remain. Do we really have a truth to dress up? If so, could it ever be lost under the layers of costume?