“There is a dark, mad mystery in some human hearts, which sometimes, during the tyranny of a usurper mood, leads them to be all eagerness to cast off the most intense beloved bond, as a hindrance to the attainment of whatever transcendental object that usurper mood so tyrannically suggests.” So says the narrator in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities. This dark, mad mystery, this ‘chaos of the organs’, as Elfriede Jelinek would say, and not just of the heart, is really what we’re trying to search out here. Both Melville and Jelinek pinpoint the problem well, because what we’re looking for is neither a world of reason nor a world of transcendence, but a world closer to the tissue of life, to the nervous system, the organs, the flesh. Central to abjection explored in Pola X and other films of its moment (including The Piano Teacher, adapted from Jelinek’s book, In My Skin and La vie nouvelle) is the body, as though abjection’s purpose were to find in the body a philosophy, a psychology, an ethic, an epistemology, a mode of being that answers to its own chaos.
We could say abjection finally isn’t too far removed from Spinoza when Gilles Deleuze quotes him saying, “The surprising thing is the body…we do no yet know what a body is capable of…”, but Spinoza also says, on ‘The Foundations of The Moral Life’, “The primary foundation of virtue is the preservation of our being according to the guidance of reason.” It is not in abject cinema where we find Spinoza most fully expressed, but more in other films like I’m Going Home, Va Savoir, A Summer’s Tale, in films where Spinoza and Foucault meet: where the body and mind retain their subjectivity, but move towards greater amplitude through reasoned thought. Now this isn’t generally abjection’s concern: its purpose is to create a fresh energy force usually out of certain types of dead energy. Often we find the characters in abjection caught in a stultified state: here in Pola X Pierre has a safe life living in luxury at his family mansion. In The Piano Teacher there’s little luxury as Erika lives at home with her mum, but it is a constrained, expectant life from which she needs to escape. In Seul contre tous, the butcher’s life is very far from luxurious but again he’s caught in a dead energy state that he tries to extricate himself from as he lives with his partner and his partner’s mum.
If we see abjection, like nausea but for very different reasons, as an ostensibly ‘pessimistic’ narrative mode, we do so because of the degree of dead energy the mode is trying to work out from. So caught in what Robert Pirsig would call, in Lila, ‘static forces’, the self finds any method available to create dynamic energy. These terms, static and dynamic are used by Pirsig as he makes sense of an A. N. Whitehead statement: “Mankind is driven forward by dim apprehensions of things too obscure for its existing language.” Dynamic energy demands we try and make sense of these dim apprehensions; while static forces insist we settle for the language we already have, the values we already live by. Now if someone can’t live any more by these static forces, and at the same time doesn’t have the spiritual well-being or the intellectual werewithal to move beyond these forces, but must move forward nevertheless, then abjection is a strong possibility.
What is interesting about Pierre (Guillaime Depardieu) in Pola X is that he would seem to have both the well-being and the intellectual capacity to escape the abject state. He comes from a hugely wealthy family and lives on a tranquil country estate, and he’s already published a novel under a pen-name that’s been the book of his generation. But as he says, in the rundown apartment he’s staying in with the long lost half-sister, Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva), with whom he’s in love, he’s a different Pierre now. “I want to see what’s hidden and live my hidden life to the full.” But he doesn’t seem to have the inner resources to live and explore this inner life to its utmost. It’s as though the gap between the chaos of the organs and the givens of language is too great, and Pola X is, if you like, the study of one man’s fall, the way he falls through the gap. Thus when his cousin on more than one occasion calls the ‘new’ Pierre an imposture, and his publisher insists he shouldn’t attempt profundity, that his genius is for the superficial, they’re right from a certain point of view. Where has this new Pierre come from – what underpins it? When Pierre appears on television and reveals his true identity he can barely articulate a word. The articulacy of his former self – Aladdin – may be undoubted, but he’s yet to learn a whole new language of the self, the self that argues against and not for society. At one stage his publisher quotes Musil: “One can’t resent one’s era without being swiftly punished by it.” We could expand this and say one can’t expect the respect of one’s era if one tries to find language contrary to it and fails to find that language. When we talk of inner resources what we mean is partly the ability to find the language that will express more than one’s immediate culture, that will allow for Whitehead’s dim apprehension to be apprehensible. If finally abjection is so concerned with organs and fluids, then it lies in their pre-linguistic status, so that characters who don’t have the inner linguistic resources to make sense of that dim apprehension of the world, settle instead for the inner nature of the body.
So often in abjection we see the body exposed, fucking, sniffing, touching, self-mutilating, threatening to destroy itself or destroy the body of another, but not in an epistemologically searching state, but out of a certain blindness and despair. It’s this condition Phil Powrie sees central to another example of abject cinema, Seul contre tous, when he quotes Calvin Thomas saying the anxious subject “collapses all those heterogeneous processes for which bodies are sites – fecal, urinal, seminal, fetal, menstrual, glottal, lingual – into an undifferentiated and abject flux.”
Central of course to the whole area of abjection has been Julia Kristeva, and most especially her book Powers of Horror, and her contrast between the Lacanian symbolic order and abjection. In the symbolic order we have our signified being, but beyond that lies the abject state of the body – the fluids of menstruation, vomit and defecation that makes us one. For our purposes, though, Kristeva will be seen more as part of a genealogy that includes Simone Weil and Heidegger, so that Kristeva’s useful comments about the centrality of the body serves as just an aspect of the problem raised. Weil’s ideas of affliction, and Heidegger’s notion of self-showing, seem more generally pertinent, more useful in exploring what we want from states of abjection here.
What is it Pierre wants from the transformation that takes him from wealthy aristo-dandy and very much part of this symbolic order, to street detritus? First of all he wants to love his half-sister; this is his drive. But then it’s as if he needs a context in which to love her, a value system that contextualizes and justifies this love. This can’t be found in the values in which he’s been brought up, and they can’t be found in the upmarket hotels and parties in Paris to which he’s usually invited. At one stage a taxi driver says Isabelle and her companions smell, and Pierre gets angry. At another Pierre tries to book them all into a hotel and gets rejected. The more the abject life manifests itself, manifesting itself as rejection, the more Pierre feels the need to create a justifiable existence from the depths, from a value system that can incorporate the abject, the rejected, the desperate. What’s interesting is that to some degree other characters succeed much more readily than Pierre. First of all there’s Isabelle’s incantatory monologue about the horrors she’s witnessed in her life, as she and Pierre first meet in the darkened forest. Later Isabelle and Pierre stay in a disused warehouse with other émigrés, including an avant-garde composer, The Chief (Sharunus Bartas), whose music again suggests an incantatory disorder.
We may notice in each a certain abject acceptance, that central to their inner resource, to their articulation of abjection, is resignation. Pierre may want to see what’s hidden, but can he really resign himself to abjection, or does he still fight the world with the values by which he’s been brought up? Certainly Pierre goes through the film looking increasingly dishevelled, distraught and angry, but does he achieve abjection? The second novel he writes seems again to stem from this need to articulate, where maybe what is central to a genuinely abject condition is one’s inability to function according to the rules of the signifying chain. In her broken French and her complete disregard for syntax and rhythm, Isabelle’s monologue succeeds where Pierre’s flailing fails. For where Pierre’s anger still seems to come from morality and privilege, and the intensity of the anger coming from the two rubbing up against each other, Isabelle’s comes from the body – from the tired haul from one part of the world to another, from the exhaustion of speaking another’s language, from the resignation of constant rejection. Isabelle speaks an abject discourse just as Bartas produces an abject music, a music not of harmony and beauty, but of impending chaos, a music of a nervous system that does not trust sense.
We can see the film is performative as well though: that the well-bred Carax is trying not so much to make an abject film, but a film aware of the collision between the exploration of abjection and the very abject state. This obviously ties in with Carax’s previous film, where in Les Amants du pont neuf he ambivalently explored the nature of homelessness. In each instance we sense a becoming state at work in Carax, becoming in the context in which Deleuze would use it, so that the films explore becoming-abject; becoming-homeless, and explores them in such a way that the tension between non-abjection and abjection; non-homelessness and homelessness are confronted. This liminal state allows us to become another, but we should not pretend we can simply become another just by force of will, or by an initially superior state to the other. So just because Pierre wills himself towards abjection, and comes from a superior position, with descending surely easier than ascendance, then this doesn’t necessarily allow one to become another.
What is perhaps required is a combination of inner strength and outer weakness. The inner strength is the drive towards something; the outer weakness, the willingness to allow that drive to reconfigure external identity, for the drive to dictate terms to the signifying chain that places our identity in the world. Now for most of us this reconfiguration is too immediately traumatizing, our too conscious self would never accept the traumatic shift, but one of the advantages from this point of view of abjection is that by pursuing the drives of the body we may arrive at a state by which we’ve destroyed the social self. The trauma of the changing social self is hardly felt next to the anaesthetising needs of the body. We are in our abject state little more than a nervous system, in need of sex, of drugs, of alcohol, but always seeing our social self as secondary to our biological demands. This is a becoming state, but a sort of becoming nothing, a being of nothingness, where if we put any human being in that state, that degree of nervous tension, they will react in the same way. From this position there are no motivated decisions to be made, no subjectivity to be applied. If abjection’s so often drawn to this type of condition, it lies in the achievement of non-being.
This radical abjection isn’t however where Carax’s interests lie. He wants to shows us a man for whom abjection is a lesson the world should learn. It is the purpose behind his second novel, and Carax tries to find a position that’s somewhere between Pierre and The Chief and Isabelle, as though he feels Pierre’s take is too superimposing, and his own incorporates both – an approach that allows us to see the abject aspect of The Chief and Isabelle, the relative failure of Pierre, and the liminal art work that is Pola X. The critic Jean-Michel Frodon believed “the gulf between the lyrical abstraction of the novel and that which is inevitably figurative in the film was too great, or Carax did not find all the bridges over this abyss.” But maybe this is Carax’s ploy: the title is Pola (Pierre ou les ambiguities) plus an x factor, the very abyss perhaps that Carax feels his work explores as it bridges not just the worlds of book and film, but also the conventional articulacy of Pierre and the neo-articulacy of Isabelle and The Chief. Carax is himself in some way a usurper on a world that he seems to want to allude to rather than pretend he understands. This is perhaps evident in his casting of both Golubeva as Isabelle, and Bartas as the punkish musician. Bartas is a Lithuanian filmmaker responsible for films that work much more from silence and despair: films like Three Days and The Corridor, both of which suggest a world post-something – more than post-communist, certainly, but not quite post-apocalyptic, their liminal status lies in Bartas’s ability to capture the aftermath of minor catastrophe as meaning collapses and language seems too much a gesture towards a signification in which one can no longer believe. In many of his films he’s cast Golubeva as a more or less catatonic presence. While it’s of course too much to expect an audience to read Bartas and Golubeva’s casting symbolically, there is nevertheless in their casting an off-centred-ness Carax achieves. Golubeva with her heavy eye-lids, pre-Raphaelite mouth and yet strangely distortedly disturbed features, indicates someone slowly, subtly transformed by an ugly world: she’s like a portrait of a beautiful woman subliminally altered by the artist’s own despair. Bartas is more conventional looking, even arrogantly handsome and coolly Aryan as he disdainfully accepts the world as it is and not as he wishes it to be. But he still suggests an otherness, an ethereal, other-worldly quality that contains disorder on its own terms. All the audience needs to comprehend, really, is the degree to which figuratively – to use Frodon’s term – they hint at a world very different to Pierre’s.
How this figuration is achieved – whether we want to claim it as ethnically or culturally present, or just a manifestation of a certain type of cinema evident in the former Soviet bloc – isn’t really the issue. What counts is that it hints at a different world to which Golubeva and Bartas fit, whilst Depardieu doesn’t. This then is abjection as incomprehension, as our identificatory character freefalls into an abject state and finds himself stranded. It is true, as we suggested at the beginning of this piece, that Pierre wants to cast off the world from which he has come, but abjection is a foreign land: people do things differently there. Pola X is if anything an attempt to understand how different this world happens to be by creating the maximum freefall possibility: from huge wealth to abject poverty, but in the process to show the velocity of the fall, a velocity aspect that generally separates abjection as manifested in western cinema, and abjection present in the former eastern bloc. In Seul contre tous, The Piano Teacher, A vendre and also Don’t Forget You’re going to Die, there’s a personal velocity at work that emphasises the self-trajectory of chaos and despair. In Bartas’ films most especially, but so some degree in the world of the damned present in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s work, and German filmmaker Fred Kelemen’s, as well as Mira Kurotova’s The Asthenic Syndrome and Sokurov’s The Whispering Pages, there is a sense that self-defining velocity has nothing to with the despair generated; that it’s the difference in the western film of leaving your house for a hovel (more or less Pierre’s situation) and in the eastern bloc films of sheltering under a bush after the roof’s been blown off your hovel. This is why we talk of Weil and Heidegger, thinkers much less relevant to the geneaology of despair found in Bartas and Tarr, but pertinent to the western films. In Weil there’s this idea of self-motivated despair. “Nothing in the world can rob us of the power to say ‘I’. Nothing except extreme affliction. Nothing is worse than extreme affliction which destroys the ‘I’ from outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves.” (Gravity and Grace) Pola X is the most extreme example of that capacity to choose even if, taking on board Melville’s comment, that choice is minimized by the sheer force of an interior necessity. We feel though that Pierre’s anger, his decision to cast off his pen name Aladdin, to go on a talk show and try and express a different language, are all based on a belief in choice, in failing to understand the state of resignation. Resignation is a state without velocity, even a state that doesn’t quite comprehend temporality. It’s as though when Isabelle speaks she speaks not just in broken French, as we conventionally perceive it, but almost in a mosaic French, a fragmentary language that resembles the chaos of a world that can’t be constructed in temporal order, but in a fractured manner in which order is secondary to the feeling of the void.
Within this take on abject velocity and abject resignation it makes sense that Pierre would move towards murder and Isabelle towards suicide, and that Pierre’s murder of his cousin would be an ostentatious killing that consists of blowing his cousin’s brains away against a window that shatters on impact, and that Isabelle would simply walk straight out in front of an oncoming ambulance. It’s in some ways the Dostoyevskian problem couched in The Possessed: does one move towards self-annihilation or the annihilation of others? Is one Kirilov or Verhovensky cum Stravrogin? In the former instance any revolutionary or original, distinctive activity is essentially passive, a position that says I do not believe in this ideological world but neither do I have the means to alter it – do with me what you will. But the other position is constantly fighting for a notion of freedom within this world, however abjectly one pursues it. In The Outsider Colin Wilson gives a good example of this abject energy when he comments on a passage from Henry Miller where Miller tells the story of having sex with a girl on a crowded dance floor with nobody present noticing. For Wilson this says something about the psychology of revolutionary mentality, something to do, we must presume, with the violation of the norm, but, in Miller’s case, not in the broader social sense of a terrorist action that insistently announces itself; but in the specific, micro-social sense of a private action pulled off publicly but one retaining its privacy. This is close perhaps to Heidegger’s self-showing, and the necessity of the private act being revealed, or hidden within the revealing, publicly. Whether one commits a terrorist act, which is essentially what Pierre’s killing of his cousin happens to be, a publicly revealing act – La Pianiste Erika Kohut’s self inflicted wounding at the end of the film – or Miller’s private/public sex act, they all seem to fit with Heidegger’s notion of self-showing. Here he says “essentially nothing else stands “behind” the phenonema of phenomenology. Nevertheless, what is to become a phenomenon can be concealed. And precisely because phenomena are at first and for the most part not given phenomenology is needed.” (Basic Writings)
What we have in the terrorist action in all its manifestations is a fresh event to reveal staleness, a dynamic energy announcing itself against static energy. Now the state of abject resignation doesn’t search for new energy, though it may find a fresh perspective within its dead energy, as we’ve suggested is the case with Isabelle and her use of the French language. She reinterprets it out of her very tiredness and despair. In some ways she’s more original in her abjection than Pierre, who out of his incomprehension immediately moves towards a messianic role. Pierre’s self-showing demands he tell the world about his new found state, and thus he turns up on television. But, as we suggested earlier, Pierre hasn’t developed the inner resources, the evolution of an interior language based on the chaos of the organs to articulate the void when he goes on television to express his new being. Pierre here is a good example – if far from an obvious one – of Foucault’s idea of not speaking for others. It is as though he has not become abject enough to speak the language of abjection – the heavy, unsyntactical, fatigue ridden language of Isabelle – but it is in many ways because he’s not yet fully been expelled from society that he is invited on to television. Neither any longer conventionally articulate enough, nor quite capable of the broken language of Isabelle, his TV appearance is a no-man’s land performance of stranded expression. He can’t achieve what Julia Kristeva in Black Sun, once called, in relation to Marguerite Duras, ‘an aesthetics of awkwardness’. As Kristeva says “the affected rhetoric of literature and even the common rhetoric of everyday speech always seem somewhat festive. How can one speak the truth of pain, if not by holding in check the rhetorical celebration, warping it, making it grate, strain and limp?”
Thus we can see that Pierre’s publisher would say that he should stick to the zeitgeist literature he’s been creating – how can he realistically move between conventional literature and abject despair without a lengthy apprenticeship in the depths? Now of course this doesn’t necessarily mean he has to live despairingly, but his cognitive make-up should at least have been responsive to this world. It seems however that hasn’t been the case: despair it appears has only occasionally come in nightmares, as he dreamt of a haunted face that turns out to be Isabelle’s, and which invaded his happy consciousness. Abjection, if we take into account what we have been saying about Isabelle and The Chief, and also Duras’s aesthetics of awkwardness, is a language that, however perversely, needs to be learnt to be expressed. Is part of the film’s tragedy that Pierre doesn’t understand this apprenticeship, and instead immediately assumes a mastery that leaves him stranded between two worlds. When Frodon talks about bridges and abysses this makes sense in relation to Pierre more than to the film. Carax seems to understand the problem, and uses Pierre to illustrate it.
Subsequently, when Garin Dowd says in Leos Carax we should see the film as a draft, we should see “that not finding the bridges is surely part of Carax’s aim…” but an aim present because of Carax’s incomprehension of abjection. Obviously though when we talk of Carax here we are not talking of Leos Carax, born in 1963 and his psychological make-up per se, but much more a certain cultural position Carax represents as a consciousness, and his attempt to explore the limits of that cultural consciousness through an extreme example of it: namely Pierre. Instead of necessarily seeing the film as an act of despair as Pierre spiral into a world of chaos that results in his downfall, we can just as easily see Pola X as a study in the failure to become abject. If we accept that Pierre’s literary talent remains in the realm of ‘rhetorical celebration’, his consciousness throughout his life has barely addressed misery, and his anger is finally more terrroristic than abject, then at the end of the film he might be approaching the abject, might soon possess the disconnected cadences of an Isabelle, a repetitive despairing rhythm of The Chief’s music, but to see Pierre as still to become abject helps make sense of the film. It helps makes sense of the descent into an abjection that is in fact barely abject at all. Instead of seeing Pola X as an examination in abjection; better to ask the question: how would someone with almost no abject aspect in his life move towards such a state?
Really what Pierre pursues is the chaos of the organs from the conformity of a life, but the gesture can’t help but come across as slightly petulant, and thus the imposturing is the gap between the life he has lead and the life he wants to lead. When he says to Isabelle that he wishes to see what’s hidden and live his hidden life to its full, it is clear he wants to widen that crack of despair, but he is saying it to a woman for whom it is no epistemological desire, but a day to day given of reality. Her affliction lacks that element of choice proposed by Weil, but that needn’t necessarily lead us to see Pierre as a fake, even though we claim him an impostor. He is an imposter in a world that he does not really understand, but it is a world he wants to comprehend. And it is in this move towards comprehension that he may understand the nature of his being.
When Melville uses the word usurper he talks of a usurper mood, a mood has overtaken Pierre, certainly, but we could hardly claim Isabelle’s state is a mood – it’s not so much that a mood has overtaken her, as a world has overcome her. It’s the difference between an emotion that comes from inside oneself (from Pierre’s nightmares) and a nightmare that is the actual world that’s been destroyed around you. This is the world of impersonal affliction versus personal affliction. This isn’t a qualitative judgement that says Pierre’s pain is insignificant next to Isabelle’s, but it is to insist on the pain’s difference. This is exactly what Weil is suggesting when she writes on the notion of affliction as a choice one can make. If Pierre’s finally an imposter it’s because he can’t make sense of that personal affliction: he can’t write the novel he needs to write, can’t articulate this mood when given the opportunity on television.
So what we can say is that the film doesn’t explore an entropic despair that inevitably leads to Pierre’s fall, but that he maybe misunderstands the nature of his affliction. He can’t finally share Isabelle’s affliction but he could perhaps comprehend it from his own pain. We might in conclusion compare this ontological mismatch with another couple of films that search out the differences between characters who connect. In Hiroshima mon amour, the young woman’s pain is much more singular than the Japanese man’s but by the same token much more grievous: her Nazi lover was killed at the end of the war; the Japanese man’s city was destroyed. In Le vent de la nuit, Serge is categorically suicidal whilst Helene is trying to find a reason not to die. In each instance we see an arrangement, a meeting of two minds that might hardly pass for optimistic but in some ways works. It moves people from one place to another. But that isn’t what happens here: Pierre murders his cousin and Isabelle walks in front of a moving vehicle. One ends up inevitably imprisoned, the other dead. It’s not then that Pierre pursues despair but that he doesn’t comprehend, can’t quite find a form for that usurper mood. Carax’s exploration then is a curious cautionary tale about a central character who, given the possibility of personal affliction, instead pursues much more an impersonal affliction. Instead of possibly dragging Isabelle out of her despair, he pretends he is equal to it. Carax, on the other hand, realises he is not, that the art work he produces is an enquiry into the difficulty of trying to comprehend abject states.