The Absurd and the Paradoxical
What, cinematically, might we call a private thinker? Let’s first of all say a little about an article by Gilles Deleuze that proposes what a private thinker might be in philosophical terms. In a short piece written on Jean-Paul Sartre, in the mid-sixties, Deleuze distinguishes between what he calls “private thinkers” and “public professors”, but Sartre isn’t the only private thinker Deleuze invokes – he also mentions Nietzsche, “who in his day had ceased to be a professor to become a private thinker,” and also of course Spinoza, who turned down the post of a public professorship “to work with his circle of friends and students…”
What we are proposing here, though, is a certain type or resistance and subjectivity present in filmic characters, characters who function a little like private thinkers because they somehow are unwilling or incapable of allowing their public persona or their career to dictate their existence. Now this doesn’t mean we’re just looking at characters that drop out of, or turn down work in, educational institutions, as with Spinoza and Nietzsche, but very loosely characters that drop out of their areas of expertise and appear to be pursuing much more their private concerns over their public careers. Characters who immediately come to mind include Jack Nicholson’s reporter in The Passenger, Rudiger Vogler’s photographer in Alice in the Cities, Daniel Duval’s architect in Le Vent de la Nuit, Jack Nicholson’s “failed” musician in Five Easy Pieces, Marcello Mastroianni’s schoolteacher in The Bee Keeper, Bruno Ganz’s picture framer in The American Friend, and the filmmaker played by Tomas Milian in Identification of a Woman. Now what is consistent in the private thinkers Deleuze invokes, and the protagonists in these half a dozen-plus films, is a free-form aspect to thinking. Whether the philosopher pursues this through refusing an institutional post, or the character through rejecting his professional expertise, the point is the degree man and thought are not given nouns but perceiving verbs. These are thinkers or characters that want to, or find themselves unavoidably, constantly changing their phenomenological landscape.
In some ways a number of the characters here hardly pass for thinkers at all – Jonathan in The American Friend is so lacking in thought, so weak of character, that he is absorbed into a murderous milieu as he finds himself puppeteered by the various people around him; and yet Wenders’ point seems to be that this is still a perverse gesture of freedom against the onslaught of conventionality. If we take Sartre’s dictum that to “start doing something we don’t want to do we start to become somebody else” and turn it on initself – turn it from an existential self-direction, to an aimless form of releasing the social being, then we can see how this undetermined freefall can create a curious type of weakness. We notice it in Deleuze’s proposal where he says “it is this belief that makes the unthought the specific power of thought, through the absurd, by virtue of the absurd. Artaud never understood powerlessness to think as a simple inferiority which would strike us in relation to thought. It is part of thought, so that we should make our way of thinking from it, without claiming to be restoring an all-powerful thought.”
Thus Jonathan’s picture restorer becomes a hit man after being told that he doesn’t have long to live; and, by taking out a gangster, will be able to leave his wife and child some money after he’s gone. But this doesn’t lead to self-definition, as though to leave one’s profession and move towards another will be an act of purposefulessness. No, even though Jonathan then involves himself in other murders, there is always this sense of the absurd as he finds himself adopting another identity half-heartedly. When he helps the American friend of the title, Mr Ripley, dispatch a couple of gangsters on a train, he’s like a giggling schoolboy amazed at the audacity of his own actions.
Now at the beginning of the film Jonathan makes it clear he has little time for Ripley – when they’re introduced Jonathan disdainfully says that he knows about him – and later in the film Ripley reminds Jonathan of his initial disdain. When Jonathan asks Ripley why he got him involved, Ripley reminds him of what he said when they first met. “Is that all?”, Jonathan asks, and this reveals the simplicity and complexity of Ripley’s motives at the same time. It is as though Ripley is no more grounded than Jonathan, but that he detests something in Jonathan’s self-assurance, and wants to show how little we are ourselves, how little we know ourselves and are thus finally in no position to judge others. Wenders’ film is very much in this sense a work of displacement, a displacement echoed in numerous ways throughout the film and filming. Wenders’ editing often gives us no geographical precision, so that one minute Ripley is in the States and the next minute in Germany, with Wenders eschewing the sort of transitions that would clearly locate us in space. He also takes a Patricia Highsmith novel and removes from it the perverse yet nevertheless categorical motivational drives we find in other adaptations, especially Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, but also Plein Soleil, The Talented Mr Ripley and Ripley’s Game. It is as though the film must capture the air of a perceivable absence rather than a perversity of motive.
Sure Ripley is a man of motive so perverse that we can never really locate it within the film, but even more The American Friend seems to capture the vagueness of Jonathan as he has a mannequin-like quality of both a structural and existential absence. He neither conforms to social rules once the co-ordinates are removed, and thus has a strangely removed relationship once he’s befriended by Ripley, but neither is there an existential assertiveness kicking in to propel him forward. Jonathan is in this sense not so much the family man who becomes existential outsider, but the man who becomes a mannequin in the Kleist sense of the term. It is this the theorist Slavoj Zizek focuses upon when saying “what does a puppet (more precisely: a marionette) stand for as a subjective stance? Now for Kleist the marionette has a certain perfection absent from man, because the marionette is controlled by one fixed point.” Zizek reckons that for Kleist this means “marionettes thus symbolise beings of an innocent, pristine nature: they respond naturally and gracefully to divine guidance, in contrast to ordinary humans, who have to struggle constantly with their ineradicable propensity to evil, which is the price they have to pay for their freedom.” For Kleist they thus “represent a state of grace, a paradise lost to man, whose wilful “free” self-assertions make him self-conscious.” However, is there not also an automatic quality that could just as easily incorporate evil as readily as good, and is this what we see at work in The American Friend?
At this point it might be useful to again invoke Deleuze, and something he sees in the work again of Artaud: “a recognition of powerlessness, which does not yet have a bearing on cinema, but on the contrary defines the real object-subject of cinema. What cinema advances is not the power of thought but its ‘impower’…” Deleuze believes that the “essence of cinema – which is not the majority of films – has thought as its higher purpose, nothing but thought and its functioning.” So the question isn’t whether we should see the private thinker as a thinker per se (which suggests a high degree of albeit internal agency), but that there lies in the automaton/mannequin quality an absence of conventional being that can release a possible new being. Whether the new being created is one of graceful values – as proposed by Zizek through Kleist – or the disgraceful values we may believe Jonathan possesses here, what matters most is the fresh possibilities that can come out of being.
Certainly there are private thinkers who move towards a coherent perspective, and we’ll see how a few of the characters in this essay partly manage this, but there are others, who are nevertheless private thinkers, who cannot or will not create out of the void a strongly existential self. Jonathan with his mannequin qualities is an extreme example of this. This is the existential gamble, if you like, of the private thinker. It is like a combination of Sartre’s comment above, attached to a Kierkergaardian leap, where we must do something with our lives to escape from our present condition. Maybe for Jonathan his abrupt immersion into the world of crime functions as an escape from the disease that is killing him, but there is also a curious liberation from values: isn’t there an arrogant, smug aspect to the Jonathan we find at the beginning of the film, a quality he completely loses, healthily, even if it’s replaced by a murderousness that we might be inclined to call unhealthy?
This is central to the absurd dimension present in the film, but absurdity is also central to the protagonists of a number of the other films of private thought also. What could be more absurd after all than the ending of The Bee Keeper, where the central character, Spyros, who has dropped out of teaching and hits the road with the intention of devoting his life to bee-keeping, then, when he does so, immediately gets eaten alive by the very bees to whom he chosen to devote his existence? In this Theo Angelopoulos film the director wants an absurd element to permeate the work, as if any decision outside the conventional will almost inevitably create an absurdity in one’s existence. It is of course a point Camus makes in The Myth of Sisyphus, when he says, on the absurd man, “all systems of morality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it.” But central to the absurd element is the way the moral co-ordinates are removed. There is little sense that a character’s existence can be legitimized any longer by social codes. The American Friend could hardly conclude with Jonathan realizing the error of his ways, and this is central to all the films mentioned here: the degree to which the characters have removed themselves from a clear system of values. But how does this make for absurdity? Let’s say sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t – but that it usually leads to absurdity and, if not, to the paradoxical; sometimes the combination of both.
For let us say that the absurd and the paradoxical are the two conditions of the private thinker – we see the two in Nietzsche, where the philosopher revels in his own paradoxes through works like The Gay Science and The Will to Power, where he says in the latter “The conceptual ban on contradiction proceeds from the assumption…that the concept not only designates the essence of a thing but comprehends it…Logic is an attempt to comprehend actuality by means of a scheme of being we have ourselves proposed.” The paradoxical allows us to break the stern reasoning process because what logic demands and what feelings insist upon are not always one and the same. Someone might love their family but at the same time want to leave them, and while on the impersonal level of logic this is a contradiction, on an emotional level this is much more paradoxical. Thus Nietzsche suggests logic offers us a system that cannot contain the chaos of the emotions but is nevertheless what we expect it to do. But of course often this paradoxical aspect will be perceived as absurdity, may even allow the paradoxical person to absorb the absurd as though the brain becomes too tired to fight this constant emotional and logical dichotomy, and then allows the private thoughts to become publicly expressed as absurdities. Certainly it’s been said Nietzsche was becoming clinically mad when he offered statements like “why am I so Clever” and that his readers had yet to be born. These are statements that aren’t just absurd, but they require a certain type of clarity, or clarification – but the clarity they require is a socio-logical one: modesty is a general given; arrogance of such magnitude, if allowed, should be explained. Sometimes Nietzsche would explain his arrogant proclamations; sometimes not. But if one doesn’t, their paradoxical nature will not be received as paradoxical but chiefly as absurd. Once the socio-logic and the sort of values Camus mentions when he says that generally, socially, our actions have cause and effect and a moral dimension are removed, what are we left with? Now both Jonathan and Spyros are generally absurd because their capacity to express is limited, and so the filmmakers couch their existential aloneness, their private thinking, in the absurd discourse. Whether this takes the form of Jonathan giggling after the murders, or, say, Spyros driving his truck into a plate-glass window as an act of jealousy after he finds himself attracted to a much younger woman to whom he’s giving a lift across Greece, the absurd element is foremost.
But a character who more clearly combines both elements is Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces. Here we see a man constantly grappling with the absurd but trying hard to work out of it, trying to explain and explore his existence to try and find an authenticity that will resolve his ennui. This middle-class man from a family of musicians we initially see escaping his environs by dropping down a class, through taking up with a working class girl and working on the oil fields. However, it seems whatever class he finds himself in, the absurd dimension becomes manifest. Whether he falls out with people and gets into a fight at the oil fields, or whether, later, quietly losing his temper with an academic friend of the family back at his parents’ home, Dupea is a character who cannot find a place within the socio-logic. Sometimes he can explain himself, as he does when telling the academic that she has no right to refer to the working class woman he’s with (namely his girlfriend), that she is such and such a type, but by the same token he seems less to be defending his girlfriend than attacking the woman, and in the process catches himself in a paradox: has he not turned his own girlfriend into a type by the very fact of defending her? Would the only healthy resolution lie in her defending herself, and does he not take for granted in some way that she is incapable of doing so? Later in the film, in another act of paradoxical behaviour, Dupea ends up grappling with the male nurse who’s looking after Bobby’s decrepit father: he’s not happy that the nurse is having a fling with his own sister, even though Bobby has just embarked on an affair with his brother’s wife. Here Bobby is very much caught in paradoxical absurdity, similar to bad faith but subtly different. In bad faith we expect, in Sartre’s words, for a paradox to arise: “It appears then that I must be in good faith, at least to the extent that I am conscious of my bad faith. But then this whole psychic system is cynically annihilated. We must agree in fact that if I deliberately and cynically attempt to lie to myself, I fail completely in this undertaking.” What happens is that characters like Bobby Dupea are caught in what Sartre suggests is a ‘metastable’ condition, a state where bad faith is precarious, shuttling between good faith and bad faith, but in this instance there is a very consistent struggle to work towards good faith. Thus if bad faith is a common realization of human foibles and compromise, in Bobby Dupea it’s a slightly different one. His search for authenticity is not at all a bourgeois compromise, it is instead a search for authenticity that constantly founders. So often it’s this shift between the two states that can lead to paradoxical absurdity. Bobby wants to be authentic, but in his attempt hurts those around him and fails to achieve authenticity on the terms he so demands of himself.
This is not a problem for Jonathan, nor really for Spyros, for they are close to unequivocally absurd characters. Jonathan because he allows his identity to be radically altered by the milieu in which he finds himself, and the beekeeper by drifting off into an absurd fixation for a young woman. What we see in Jonathan and Spyros is an absurd lightness of being, where an identity is in crisis and then gets immediately swept along by the charm of another. This is very different from the form of private thinking on show in Five Easy Pieces, where Bobby doesn’t just grapple with other people – evidenced in the two fights in the film – but also with his own constantly fluctuating consciousness and conscience. Dupea’s always fighting with himself socio-logically, or with the problem of what Heidegger would call Met-sein, a being with others, and psycho-logically, a Desein, a psycho-logic that demands a fidelity to some more basic notion of being: a being for oneself.
In Five Easy Pieces Dupea foregoes a vocational identity as he searches out a more individuating existence. If he’s the purest of our private thinkers it lies not just in his consistent refusal of conventional bad faith, but also that he never seems to have predicated his adult identity on a careerist sense of self. After all Bobby is from a family of musicians, and though he seems to play the piano more than efficiently, he is driven towards some other, more immediate mode of existence. Many of the private thinkers we’re addressing here also share this need to find an individuating existence, but from slightly different places. Some are vocational and professional, as we may assume of the filmmaker in Identification of a Woman, Jonathan in The American Friend, the architect in Le vent de la nuit to be, others seem first and foremost professional, evident in the leading characters in The Passenger (a reporter), Alice in the Cities (a journalist) and The Bee Keeper (a school teacher). Certainly all these private thinkers eventually feel that their vocation or profession can’t prop up their identities, so what is interesting is the way in which they resist their old identities and build for themselves new ones.
There is, we sense, some irrevocable break in their being that would make it difficult for a third party to describe them accurately. This is evident for example in The Passenger, where at the end of the film after the central character David Locke is found dead in his Spanish hotel room, his wife states she never knew the man she sees lying dead on the bed. This is an enigmatic comment, but makes a certain type of sense: after all Locke had changed his name to Robertson, after taking on the identity of a dead gun-runner, and if he’s chosen to have nothing more to do with his wife (he’s taken up with a lovely young woman known in the film simply as the Girl), then why shouldn’t she deny any knowledge of him? We may decide she’s acting out of petulance, but we might also say that she curiously respects his shift in being, and allows the Girl to take responsibility for knowing him. Immediately afterwards the Girl is asked if she knows the dead man and she says yes. In some ways this scene may appear heavy – because the wife decides she doesn’t know the man she must clearly recognize – but it contains of course an existential lightness, but this time a lightness very different from that present in The American Friend and The Bee Keeper. The wife accepts the degree Locke wanted to escape his identity, and allows him this period of existential grace in the moment of his death. Sure, at a later stage she will have to accept that it is her husband who is dead, but not quite yet.
There is however nothing really absurd in The Passenger: it is a genuine film of paradox: a man who works as a TV journalist in Africa takes the identity of a man who sells guns to third world nations. Locke moves from being a passive reporter to an active gun-runner, but his decision to shift to a life of gun-running has barely been a decision at all. He simply takes up somebody else’s identity and quite literally runs with it. Certainly he seems to want a more active role in African politics, but this active role comes about through actively becoming somebody else but passively being the somebody else he becomes. Even if we go to the extreme measure of taking on somebody else’s identity, we’re still left with their Mitsein, their sociological accumulation, their being with others.
If The Passenger wants to address the difficulty of formulating for oneself an identity in life that can nevertheless lead to one’s death, and the paradoxical problematic therein, Le vent de la nuit addresses the difficulty of formulating for oneself an after death, an attempt at a suicide that would be nothing more than a suicide: that one’s being in death would not also have to incorporate the being with others. But how can the central character Serge achieve this? He may on the one hand want to take his own life because he feels his own life has lost its meaning – there is talk about how the world has changed though Serge has not, and that his wife committed suicide some time before. Serge is a survivor from May ’68, and the film clearly shows the significance of this event on his existence. Indeed so much so that we may wonder if his status as a figure of ’68 and his apparent high-profile as an architect, would lead to interpretations of his suicide being anything but private. Serge may be searching out a very intimate death, but would it unavoidably contain a public echo? Serge presumably realises, as he befriends a young arts student with whom he drives around Europe, that his suicide will be read as another act of self-annihilation by a figure of ’68. The private thinker who searches out a private death cannot guarantee that death will be private, and this is part of the paradoxical problem Serge finds himself caught within. This is the paradox of the private thinker with a public profile. As he drives around with young Paul, Paul is constantly trying to pigeon-hole Serge as a key figure, as a hero, as a man who knows who he is and contains a life-force partly because he’s been through important political events. No matter Serge’s occasional proclamations, no matter if he insists he lives in the world as it was and not how it is, Paul superimposes an heroic status upon him. But we might surmise Serge neither wants heroic status nor tragic status, but first and foremost an intimate one, a private life leading to a private death. But just as David Locke cannot escape his identity, nor escape the identity of the man whose identity he then adopts, such is their accumulated existence, so Serge cannot escape simply into death. His suicide will carry a significance and this makes death paradoxical. How can he guarantee his death remains a death on his own intimate terms and not on broader public ones?
It might be useful here to bring in the very thinker who set this whole article in motion, Gilles Deleuze, and Deleuze’s own suicide, while in his seventies and in ill-health, by defenestration. In an issue of the Anglo-French magazine Iris, a former student of Deleuze’s addresses his suicide. The student insists the act had nothing to with a disillusionment with his work, but simply that Deleuze was a man who was in immense pain and who could no longer keep writing, and decided that his body should destroy itself. But of course many read into this not just Deleuze’s bodily destruction, but that this was also Deleuze making a statement about his own broader collapse. Thus we can perhaps see why for a private thinker, there would be an especially paradoxical problem if there is a desire to die, on the one hand, and a desire not to signify with that death on the other. Now obviously there are many, loosely private thinkers whose deaths do carry a signifying force, whether it be a suicidal death, a slow or fast martyred demise, or an heroic death. We might think of Jesus’s death as the execution of the private thinker, from the point of view of the Jews, whose beliefs he contradicted. But then there is the much slower, self-martyring death of a Simone Weil, who worked herself into an early demise by putting her fragile physical health at danger by taking menial jobs and working long and exhausting hours in various forms of employment. Her private thought demanded she escape from bourgeois expectation, and led to an early grave. We could also mention Van Gogh, whose suicide didn’t seem in any way to contradict the tortured, life and tortured style of his work. So what we’re saying is that in each of the instances mentioned there was no paradox involved in the demise: The life and death coincided and were not antithetical. That would seem clearly not to be the case with Deleuze, and perhaps equally not the case with Serge, even if Serge does want to die for more metaphysical reasons: clearly there is some pain within him that is not first and foremost physical. But does he want his death to be read as a sign of the failure of ’68, or as that of a man who loved his wife and wants to die? The director Philippe Garrel, because he’s working with the paradoxical rather than the absurd problematic, wants Serge’s suicide to be “the radical decision exemplified”, but troublesomely so. When Garrel talks of the radical decision, it is the decision of all decisions, the most existentially free of choices, but we nevertheless have no say over its final meaning in the world beyond us. That will be left for those who choose to interpret our act.
Thus, by looking at Five Easy Pieces, The Passenger and Le vent de la nuit, we can see a paradoxical problematic by degrees. For Dupea there is the problem of escaping from a familial background which helped him develop a gift for music, but in rejecting the family he feels he also has to reject the art: as Dupea plays Chopin to his brother’s wife, the camera pans round the room in the family home showing signs of musical achievement throughout the family’s history. It somehow seems more authentic for Dupea to play what he sees as an easy Chopin piece and then seduce the wife, rather than choosing something much more difficult and that will stretch him musically. Why this is so the film never finally explains, but it must surely lie in having a gift for music that could define his being, but so inextricably connected is music to his gifted family, that the gift allows him almost no existential self-definition at all. Better it seems to work on oil rigs and to escape both the family and the gift, than to settle into familial expectation. This is the film’s existential paradox.
In The Passenger the existential paradox is slightly different. There is no sense that Locke is anything but a self-made man, a successful reporter who has simply become disillusioned with the job that he does. At one stage in the film when he is interviewing an African tribal chief, the chief instead of just answering questions, turns the camera on Locke and asks a few questions himself. Has Locke been travelling too smoothly in one sociological direction, has he failed to ask himself phenomenological questions and settled instead for a careerist assumption? This is the first time in his life that he’s really asked himself the thinking question Albert Camus proposes: “thinking is learning all over again how to see, how to direct one’s consciousness, making of every image a privileged place…” Locke chooses to do so however by changing his very identity, and so if we can say that Bobby’s paradox comes about through trying to be his own man to the detriment of his own gift, Locke’s paradox stems from a belief in self-definition that comes from losing his defined self for that of another. He certainly escapes from his own life, but is never quite in control of the life he adopts.
But Serge’s paradox is still more problematic. He wants to die but cannot guarantee the terms of that death. Are there people who continue living because they cannot accept the way their death will be read if they take their own life? What could be more paradoxical than “the radical decision exemplified” not taken because though one chooses how and when to die, one cannot dictate the terms – the perception – of that death? How much freedom can we claim for ourselves if even our self-dictated death is re-interpreted? Does Serge wonder when he takes these car journeys with Paul, that Paul is the next generation awaiting to define the previous generation’s actions? As Paul is disdainful of the suicide attempt of his older lover (a woman close to Serge’s age), Serge may wonder how disdainful the young man might be of his own suicide. On the one hand, through his elliptical comments about his wife, through to his trip to Berlin to see his wife’s grave in the city, to the picture we see earlier in the film and that is shown face down in the closing shot, there is clearly a desire to join his wife in death. But is there also a desire not to allow his suicide to become interpreted as an acceptance of defeat?
For let us look at the Serge we’re presented with here. He’s at the very least a reasonably successful, quite well-respected architect who was a figure in ’68: so much so that he retreated with other figures of the movement to an Italian coastal town following the period, and was later arrested and jailed. But it seems he’s accepted the limitations of the times, has a decent flat in Paris, drives a nice car, and pursues a conventional career. He may internally claim that he lives in the world as it was rather than it is, but from the outside he surely passes for a successful specimen of late capitalism. His suicide may just as readily be read as that of a figure of ’68 who made it but couldn’t quite cope with the harsh realities of modern existence, no matter if he milked some of its advantages, and thus took his own life. Where for Serge his suicide seems very much to be connected to the failure of ‘68 and the death of his spouse, maybe it will be read as a more general failure. How can we guarantee even in our own self-annihilation, the self that will be surmised thereafter?
So whether we escape from familial expectation, from our career or from our very own life, a hermeneutic, an interpretation of our existence, be it living or dead, continues, leaves traces. Bobby is still enmeshed in the family, the gun-runner is still a gun runner even if he dies and another man takes his identity, and Serge cannot define the terms of his own death. This problem of self-definition escaping one’s grasp may not concern a public thinker, a thinker who is much more given to accepting his place in the flux of being, but will surely haunt one who is trying to create an authentic, loosely self-defined existence out of the amorphous being available to them.
Thus we might return to Deleuze’s article and his comments on Sartre’s rejection of the Noble Prize, and also Kundera’s comments on certain absurd deaths, like Robert Musil’s – who died of a heart attack whilst exercising. In each instance we get close to the problem of self-definition in life and death for the private thinker. Kundera talks of immortality not in the sense of an immortal soul, but instead “in those who after their death remain in the memory of posterity.” Kundera believes “everyone can achieve immortality to a smaller or greater degree, of shorter and longer duration, and the idea already starts occupying people’s minds in early youth.” But would it not occupy the mind of a private thinker very differently from that of a public one? The public thinker we could say accepts life as it is, accepts the Mitsein aspect of existence and believes any immortality he achieves will be consistent with the terms of his social being. But the much more Dasein driven private thinker, the private thinker who has tried to escape the social conventions, would probably be wary of the social terms being applied to his death. Thus from the social point of view Nietzsche has to go mad because his very private thinking went too far (more or less the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s perspective), or Deleuze had to kill himself because finally his beliefs were untenable, a point angrily addressed by Deleuze’s ex-student in Iris magazine. How to give dignity and meaning to one’s own death without an absurd or misinterpretive reading taking over? In the latter category we have Deleuze’s dsuicide, in the former, Kundera would say, we have Robert Musil’s. As Kundera explains “No novelist is dearer to me than Robert Musil. He died one morning while lifting weights. When I lift them myself, I keep anxiously checking my pulse and I am afraid of dropping dead, for to die with a weight in my hand like my revered author would make an epigone so unbelievable, frenetic and fanatical as immediately to assure me of ridiculous immortality.”
When Deleuze talks of Sartre choosing not to accept the Nobel Prize, he doesn’t sees it as a gesture of petulance, but as a self-defining attempt to map out his being in the world and with others. As Deleuze says, “His refusal of the Nobel Prize is good news. Finally someone is not trying to explain what a delicious paradox it is for a writer, for a private thinker, to accept honours and public representations.” Sure, he says, “the clever few are already trying to make Sartre contradict himself: they attribute to him feelings of vexation at having the prize come too late; they object that, in any case, he represents something; they remind him, at any rate, his success was and remains bourgeois.” What Deleuze seems to so admire here is Sartre’s simplicity: the simple no. One cannot guarantee such a gesture won’t be seen as absurd, but central to the private thinker, or at least the paradoxical thinker as we’ve defined it, is his or her willingness to justify and explore and explain that position. As Deleuze goes on to say, of people arguing over and projecting upon Sartre’s reasons for the refusal: “We shouldn’t get too involved. Sartre is a formidable polemicist.” Ostensibly we may decide Sartre’s gesture is idiotic: he is offered the highest prize available in literature, and a huge sum of money to boot, and he rejects the prize and the money. But from a certain point of view this makes perfect sense. Who wants public reward, an institutional reward, for private thinking?
It was this very position that another private thinker, Soren Kierkegaard dealt with in his work and life when saying, “There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side.” However he sees another view of life: “which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case, even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd – a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd – untruth would at once be in evidence.” This isn’t to say Sartre’s position is as extreme as Kierkegaard’s (he was involved in the collective Resistance, supported Communism), but he does share a certain existential suspicion, a sense that the group cannot judge readily the actions of the individual, whether positively or negatively, perhaps because the crowd works with givens, the existentialist is always looking for self-definition. Whether that be in life, and the interpretation of decisions he makes, or death, where the interpretation continues but with the thinker of course in no position to fight the readings on his existence. In each instance, whether, in life or in death, there is the question of one’s private thoughts meeting the public domain, the domain of Mitsein over Dasien.
Yet from this perspective, can we call Alice in the Cities and Identification of a Woman private thinking films? Yes, if we accept that the notion of private thinking does not exclude another, but merely refuses the conventions of otherness becoming oneness, refuses to accept that we must inevitably become whole through another. This then isn’t a Kierkergaardian and Heideggerian extreme aloneness Martin Buber sees in these philosophers’ work, nor is it the sort of isolation and aloneness we see in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka’s life, where, to varying degrees, they predicated their aloneness in the realm of a certain type of paradoxical integrity. A Kakfa diary entry comes to mind. “I do not envy particular married couples, I simply envy all married couples together; and even when I do envy one couple only, it is the happiness of married life in general, in all its infinite variety, that I envy – the happiness to be found in one marriage, even in the likeliest case, would probably plunge me into despair.” This is the paradoxical thinker holding onto a notion of integrity that can never quite be explicated but can certainly be felt. But what about the private thinker who very ambivalently wants something, whether that is the reluctant yet meaningful low-key companionship of Philip and the young girl in Alice in the Cities, or the director in Identification of a Woman who goes in search of a missing lover? If the former feels increasingly comfortable with a surrogate daughter, and the latter cannot stop thinking of his ex, can they preserve the integrity of the private thinker? If Deleuze proposes that central to private thinking is the absence of a clear public role, an institutional role, should that stretch to the rejection of partners, children etc. as the private thinker becomes increasingly self-contained?
We could say there is a key difference between the Deleuzian private thinker – no matter Sartre’s long term relationship with Simone de Beauvoir; it was one that always based itself on two individual thinkers occupying not the same flat but no more than the same city – and the cinematic figure we’ve been exploring. That the former lives for oneself; the latter the difficulty of living with or without another. Of course some will say that this is inevitable – cinema demands a narrative development, and relationships in one form or another prove extremely useful to narrative evolution. Even in the films we have explored here, The American Friend revolves around friendship, The Bee Keeper, a burgeoning relationship, The Passenger likewise, Le vent de la nuit on a reluctant friendship, Five Easy Pieces on loosely two relationships. But we can also say that cinema allows for the exploration of a certain existential perspective that Buber addresses: to adopt and paraphrase the title of his book, a perspective between man and man, but also man and woman, man and child. Now for Buber “there is certainly something which comes to a man in the course of his life only by a kind of grace, and many will say that they do not know it; but even he to whom it has not come has it in his existence as a constitutive principle, because the conscious or unconscious lack of it plays an essential part in determining the nature and character of his existence.” Buber believes, though, many will acquire relations they will not make real, and thus they “squander the most precious, irreplaceable and irrecoverable material; they pass their life by.” So for Buber the fullness of being lies in the way we can potentially “participate in one another’s lives”, but for Heidegger the free self knows nothing of an “essential relation”. According to Buber, Heidegger allows for connective existence, leading Buber to say that “it looks as though Heidegger fully knew and acknowledged that a relation to others is essential. But this is not actually the case.” He sees Heidegger’s notion of connection that of solicitude, which means that it does not become mutually essential, but merely that of one man helping another, one who is strong helping another who is less strong: this is solicitude. So for Heidegger, according to Buber, man’s existence lies in solicitude, but for Buber there is an essential relation which is primal. Cinema, with its interest in narrative, even relatively distinctive, uncliched cinema that we focus upon here, can utilise this problem very interestingly as it can ask two important questions at the same time. One is covert: how do we find ways to utilise narrative without relying on the conventions of narrative? And out of it can come a more overt question, what sort of relationships can private thinking characters accommodate?
This is a question that has frequently preoccupied Wim Wenders, whether that be the wary friendship that evolves between the two characters in Kings of the Road, the friendship that destroys the family in The American Friend, or the difficulty of sustaining a relationship in Paris, Texas. As Peter Lev suggests in his book Euro-American Cinema, though the writer of Paris Texas, Sam Shepard, and lead actor Harry Dean Stanton, wanted a different ending, with Shepard suggesting that father and son continue travelling, and Stanton that the family should reunite, Wenders thought that it was more emotionally logical to end with Stanton’s Travis leaving his son with the wife he left years before. In this film where Travis wanders aimlessly around the desert at the beginning , having spent a period of time in the wilderness, and where he spends the rest of the film re-negotiating with a social world, nevertheless familial union would be too difficult for a man alone. As Wenders explained, Travis feels the same problematic jealousy when he meets up again with his wife that he felt years before and that was partly responsible for him leaving her then. The best he can do is give the son back to the mother, and return to being alone. Is this solicitude, we might, ask, a Western trope that suggests man is somehow too individualistic, too at one with the desert or the open road, to commit to family life, but can nevertheless contribute as Ethan does at the end of The Searchers by rescuing his niece, or Travis does here by returning his son to the mother? For Heidegger, such men would be objects “not of “care” but of “carefulness”, solicitude; moreover they are this by nature, existentially, even when he passes them by and does not trouble about them, when they “do not concern” him…”” Buber goes on to say “such a relation can share in essential life only when it derives its significance from being the effect of a relation which is essential in itself – such as that between mother and child.”
For the men in Wenders’ films, though, there is no such intrinsic bond it seems, though it can very usefully serve as a distraction from career expectations, and existential indecisiveness. This is the very purpose Alice serves for the central character in Alice in the Cities, where Philip Winter finds himself looking after a young girl who’s left at the airport by her mother, with whom Philip has casually slept, and now Philip is expected to search out the girl’s grandmother once back in Germany. At this stage in Winter’s life futility hits – earlier in the film he falls out with his editor over an article he should have written, with Winter more interested in taking photographs than writing text.
Now there is no sense that Philip wants to adopt the girl, but in his solicitude towards her she can allow Philip to feel tenderness without committing to it, and this is an aspect perhaps central to the private thinker, because though he may want to feel, he does not want to commit to these feelings, does not want to turn them into the relatively public domain of the couple, the relationship, the marriage. In a passage in Love and Garbage, Ivan Klima may say that what Kafka probably longed for more than anything else was a human encounter, but he also says later on that “Kafka endeavoured to be honest in his writing, in his profession, and in his love. At the same time he realised, or at least suspected, that a person who wants to live honestly chooses torture and renunciation, a monastic life devoted to a single God, and sacrifices everything to it.” There is often this sense in the private thinker that continuous affection and self-definition are incompatible, and yet few private thinking films have been completely devoid of a hint at a relationship with the opposite sex, or, as in Alice in the Cities’ case, with a child. Even in Wenders’ most homosocially focused film, Kings of the Road, there is Bruno’s brief entanglement with a woman whose family owns the cinema of a small town, and the talk near the end of the film where the character of Peter accuses cinema repair owner Bruno of being too self-absorbed and self-protective to commit to a relationship. But hints of affection are often the most the characters can offer – even if we sense an obsessive streak for a female character in the films, like Spiros’s for the young woman in The Beekeeper, or the filmmaker at the centre of Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman.
In Antonioni’s film the central character, Niccolo, wants simultaneously to pursue a relationship with a mysterious, wealthy young woman, and make a film vaguely based around the notion of an ideal woman. It is as if though the very mysteriousness of the woman allows Niccolo to forgo many of the aspects of his perceived project perhaps because he is already living it, living the sort of narrative tension he may wish to create in art; finding it in life robs him of aesthetic urgency. From this point of view it would make perfect sense that at the end of the film he decides instead that he will pursue a science fiction project. By pursuing the futuristic he might be able to avoid the replication of narrative in film and in life. Has Niccolo been caught in the same sort of impossible mutuality Kafka felt when Klima suggests that Kafka could not believe he could be both a writer and a lover, but for Niccolo this problem resides in the eclipsing of love for narrative, that the narrative of love, the pursuit of the mysterious object, petrifies his aesthetic urge. The filmmaker perhaps needs a relationship with women that will not interfere with his existential mode, most fruitfully explored through the creative act, but must work through the woman, must create not Buber’s ontic sharing, but a variation of Heidegger’s solicitude. This would be the sort of solicitude based on observation more than consideration, a comprehension that is probably central to the notion of the actrice fetiche present in Godard and Anna Karina, Garrel and Nico, and, of course, Antonioni with Monica Vitti in the early sixties. The filmmaker doe not pursue the ontic equality Buber proposes, but uses the woman to explore sides of his own being. This is what Antonioni meant, it seems, when he said “I always attach a great deal of importance to my female characters because I think I know women better than men…Female psychology seems much better able to filter reality and condense it. But even if women do play the most important role in my plots, it is always the man who determines the ‘sense’ of the film.” Identification of a Woman investigates what happens when a woman is central to a man’s imaginary life, to his fretting and worrying over where she is and what she is doing, but not furthering his creative existence. If the man pursues too readily a communion with a woman who is perhaps finally impossible to commune with, either because of his resistant nature or hers, then futility is inevitable. This could be the futility expressed by Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces as he seduces his brother’s wife but knows he can’t commit to anything, or to the director in Identification of a Woman who must realise that the woman he pursues will remain an enigma, and that perhaps his interest lies in her very enigmatic status anyway.
The private thinking character seems unable to settle into bourgeois comfort and expectation and must find a way of protecting, however absurdly, his psychic space. Whether this takes the form of absurdity or the paradoxical in relation to thinking, to one’s own life and death, or in a relationship with another, we cannot take the private thinker at face value, at public value, but must search out an intricate genealogy of choices that have been made through a constantly evolving self-existence. Solipsistic, selfish, self-regarding, some might say, but would these not be public assumptions rather than private explorations?