March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
“Mirror Image” (available online, at least for now, on YouTube) is the episode that Serling felt compelled to introduce the week before as a fine example of his ability to write meaty roles for women. Its star is Vera Miles, its director John Brahm; both have interesting backgrounds that blend to make this episode what it is.
Vera Miles starred as Lila Crane in Psycho, released a few months after this episode aired in February 1960. She had caught Hitchcock’s eye in the mid-’50s. The role that Kim Novak would make famous in Vertigo had been meant for Miles; but she was pregnant, and would wait a couple more years until she had her own chance at a doppelganger tale. She had a lovely, plain, open face, a kind of Everywoman quality, that makes her very effective in this episode.
John Brahm was a theatrical actor and director in Weimar Germany who fled to the U.S. with the rise of Hitler. There’s something very much like a stage play about this episode, and something of an Expressionist influence, as well. I love, for instance, the very simple set of the bus station, which is bracketed like the set for a modernist morality play by twin neon signs, bold, declarative, and emblematic of the content of the episode:
Yes: a lady, or ladies, with baggage. This would be a fine title for the next episode of the five, “Nightmare As a Child,” as well.
“Mirror Image” is a fine example of a TZ episode that takes a fairly simple premise — woman fears she’s been replaced by her evil doppelganger — and makes it memorable thanks to visual style, good writing, and a slow build of tension that keeps the viewer interested. The visual reveal of the doppelganger is especially effective.
As in “The Hitch-Hiker,” doom arrives in the mirror. More interestingly, there’s a gorgeous frame-within-frame composition here that calls back to “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” That earlier film also featured a woman looking at an image of her own self — with a very similar gesture, actually, though the roles are reversed: here the “real” self (in the process of being made fictive) is the horrified one, where earlier it was the “fictive” self (whose place would be taken by the real self by episode’s end). The sign above the doppelganger makes explicit a theme throughout these episodes: the baggage that these women carry is, at least in part, the image of the self, which threatens to overwhelm and usurp the life of the person, the individual.
This is also another episode about a single woman, Millicent Barnes, traveling on her own, and as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” one can see a not-so-subtle subtext that such independence leads only to trouble, or to madness. “Offhand, mister,” says the washroom attendant to her supposed knight-in-shining-armor, Paul, “I’d say she needed some looking after… if you know what I mean.” She means psychological help, or institutionalization, but she could mean so many other things, as well.
But as in “The Hitch-Hiker,” the tone and structure of the episode at least partly undercut that idea. Oddly, both of the episodes are split in two between light and dark halves. After Millicent sees her doppelganger on the bus and faints, the station manager turns off the lights. When Millicent recovers, she heads for the ladies’ room again, hoping against hope to catch her double again: in the mirror, in a stall, somewhere. She’s connected the neon “Ladies” sign with the idea of multiples of herself, just as we viewers have.
The ladies’ room, especially in its darkened state, seems a realm of the Freudian unconscious, a place from which bizarre symbol has irrupted into reality. And so Millicent is carted off by the police to the nut house.
But in the reality of “Mirror Image,” Millicent was right, not insane, and the same thing happens to Paul — his double flees to take over his life, leaving him in the dust, a truly wonderful smirk on his face. The shadows and rain-slicked streets of this sequence are beautiful, and obviously artificial, in the mode of expressionist cinema. And as in much expressionist cinema, the episode can be seen as a societal indictment as much as a comforting horror that reinforces norms.
November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Reading Molloy gave me that uncommon feeling — half exhilarating, half unsettling — of knowing I wasn’t getting it all, and enjoying it. (A lot of “known unknowns” here, as well as the inevitable “unknown unknowns,” to be Rumsfeldian about it.) It’s as layered, dense, and fecund as the soil in a very old graveyard. As Beckett/Molloy himself puts it, in a typically metafictional moment, “That movements of an extreme complexity were taking place seemed certain, and yet what a simple thing it seemed…”
In my last post I mentioned the insanity in the book as well as its “moments of clarity.” But — and I’m correcting myself here — this simplifying sane/insane dichotomy is precisely the kind that Molloy exists to complicate. Both Molloy and Moran exhibit signs of mental illness or at least temporary bouts of madness, but as in Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the telling of the tale complicates these signs, especially in Moran’s case. (See here for the first of my series of posts on Schreber’s book.) The lucidity with which the tale is told confuses the reader, who expects his narrator either honest and invisible or duplicitous and foregrounded, but not confused about his/her own state of mind, not carefully recollecting a deranged state of mind. In the case of Molloy, Beckett inserts an authorial meta-narrative, especially in the case of Molloy’s monologue, to further complicate matters.
As with Schreber’s Memoirs, difficulty in identifying objects and events as one kind of thing or another is a key sign of the protagonist’s illness — or, to view it from another angle, is the distinguishing characteristic that elevates the supposedly mad to a higher level of understanding. That nature resides on a continuum, rather than exclusively in the socially constructed either/or relationships to which we relegate it: this is Beckett’s point, and also something that would have struck, say, Victorians as the kind of thing you’d say before they cart you off to Bedlam.
There’s trouble with gender, of course. Moran at one point says his kneecap feels “like a clitoris”; Molloy finds himself dressed in a woman’s nightgown at one point, and confuses the gender even of his sexual partners. The body is a site of great confusion, as it is to Schreber: it really is “the body’s long madness,” as Molloy puts it, and it is unclear how much of the trouble that goes on here with toes, legs, eyes, and just about anything else is mental and how much physical.
But beyond that, Beckett muddles other dichotomies such as living/dead, conscious/dreaming, truth/lie, and self/other, as well as playing with tense to disrupt our sense of past, present, and future time within the narratives. It’s as yet unknown to me whether Beckett read and was fascinated by Schreber’s case, or if the resemblance between the books is an accident. I tend to think that Beckett must have read Schreber, what with the references to Moran’s “bellowing” here, a distinctive symptom from Schreber’s work. It is amazing how the material of Schreber’s tortured mental state is transmuted, though: some of the most beautiful, oneiric passages of Molloy could be seen as based on Schreber’s waking nightmare of God’s confusion of living and dead.
Molloy is a dream-book of sorts, taking part in dreams’ malleability and endless possibility but also in their maddening anxiety, tension, and relentless desire. Dreams make themselves up as they go along, just as Molloy seems to; and just as in dreams, it is never in fact clear who the “I” of the story is, or if there is an “I” at all. Are Molloy and Moran aspects of the same person on different quests, or opposing sides of a single archetype, or what? Do their tales simply simply partake of similar images and symbols as dreams tend to do? Or is the central false dichotomy author/reader — do we fail to recognize ourselves as the protagonists and joint creators, and the narrative our shared dream with the author?
March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.
Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not. More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw. That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.
Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai. That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable. Which is perfectly valid.
As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary. The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse. You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.
As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions. And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems. Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.
“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God. Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:
A clean, whitewashed, square room. How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square. There was one window, with a curtain — red…. And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual. Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life. Somehow life and death merged into one. Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it. Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.
The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence. It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions. But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”
I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well. If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist. There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories. Thank God.
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary). I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family. As he dies, at the end, we read the following:
He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:
“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…” He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.
Okay, fine. God will understand. But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged? Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him? And what are they to understand from “Forgo”? One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence? (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.) The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”
Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare. The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story. It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?
Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse. This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage. And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art. Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.” He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.” The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here. He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife. He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion. Moral or immoral? Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?
March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.
The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull. It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum. Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.
It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest. The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:
…everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients. But in my case the very reverse obtains. Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.
It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality. It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.
There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book. The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears. He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps. Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it. And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness. Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage? (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)
Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally. Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter. This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.
February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.