The Hateful Self
Born in 1974 and dead in 2001, Boris Ryzhy was a poet of his generation in more ways than most, and director Aliona van der Horst explores the singularity of a life while at the same time detailing how he was merely one member of a lost generation. She also digs deep enough in the spare hour-long running time to tap into the a priori philosophical notion of wretchedness as couched by Pascal and explored so frequently by Levinas, and also offer a romantic notion of the poet colliding with the Russian soul.
In relation to Romanticism and the Russian soul, at one moment in the film Boris's wife Irina says that he was so full of love and feeling towards her that he would tremble with passion, while at another, in television archive footage, Ryzhy says "I think that being a poet is tragic". Echoing Wordsworth's, 'The Excursion' "the good die first/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust/Burn to the socket", a Ryzhy poem talks of a figure going to a gypsy woman who tells him he will not live long, that he isn't made for longevity. When Wordsworth in his 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads', asks what is a poet, he answers: "he is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with a lively sensibility more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind." Such a statement is echoed in the film by a friend who says Ryzhy "was a stranger everywhere", as he neither quite fitted into the rough, violent milieu of his friends who in the nineties couldn't get jobs after university and moved into underground crime, nor in the intellectual scene either. Though Ryzhy was the son of a geophysicist, the family lived on an estate where most of the people were poor, and one poet friend says Ryzhy could never reconcile the two worlds: his father, chauffeur-driven to and from work; the dispossessed that had little to live for beyond an alcoholic stupor.
The film gives no explanation as to why Ryzhy hanged himself at the age of twenty six, and the film's interest lies less in the frustrated absence of the answer than the sorrowful nature of the question that is contained within a constant sense of enquiry. The lack of a single answer can allow for the multiplication of possibilities. If a documentary too readily searches out an answer for the taking of one's own life (the recent The Bridge for example), the larger questions of existence, both immediate and general, get ignored. Boris Ryzhy is not a film about the circumstantial nature of suicide, for we have to look elsewhere to know that Ryzhy took drugs and was depressive, but about the precipitouspossibility of suicide in which circumstances merely nudge us over that precipice one has already approached.
There is a feeling that Ryzhy was a precipitous suicide, bringing to mind Cesare Pavese's comment that a suicide is born and not made, and yet equally the film explores the locale out of which a suicide can come: not so much the circumstances - which suggests financial worries, job loss, relationship difficulties, drug abuses etc. - as the milieu, or one's age. This brings to mind another Pavese comment in This Business of Living. "...the fact remains that to want to kill oneself is to want one's death to be significant." Van der Horst's film may not unravel the reason for Ryzhy's suicide, but she arrives at what is much more pertinent: the significance of his death. The circumstantial may reveal the reason for a demise, but the precipitous within the context of the milieu can explore suicide in a much more comprehensive manner than the suicide of circumstances. In The Bridge, central to the problem was that as it worked in a handful of stories about people who kill themselves by jumping off The Golden Gate Bridge, each death felt no more than a case study investigation into the circumstances of their life and their eventual demise. Boris Ryzhy focuses on the one life but at the same time manages to incorporate the problem of the guilt of the individual within the context of the human, and also the human in the context of the age: in this instance Russia during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is an ambitious project for a film that comes in at little over an hour, and yet even within this short running time, the film still allows for interview dead ends: for Ryzhy's son's self-filmed fights at school shot on his mobile phone, and images of alcoholics drunkenly falling over. In one attempted interview, the director and the poet's sister bang on the door of someone living in the housing estate in which Ryzhy lived, and as they stand there after the person answering it briefly goes back inside the apartment, the sister whispers to the filmmaker that the person living there has been inside for murder. As she then tries to persuade the murderer to talk, when he returns to the front door, we watch a weary and wary face, someone whom we don't doubt has committed and witnessed appalling deeds, and that in many ways is likely to be at his most eloquent half shutting the front door on the camera. Other people interviewed are less interested in answering questions than asking them as they wonder what this camera crew happens to be doing on their estate.
The film creates a performative relevance out of the apparently irrelevant, out of interviews that go nowhere as the film nevertheless is clearly going somewhere. The same is true when we see Boris's son Artyom doing pull ups in the playground, and informing the documentarist that he hasn't been training much lately. This is clearly a sink or swim environment, and later the son admits that he's a bully, but insists that the alternative would be to be bullied himself: "if you don't fight you get beaten up". When we see the drunks who can hardly stand, it is as though we're seeing the future that awaits the boy if he doesn't look after himself, and that in doing so it will clearly be to the detriment of others. In one scene we see a montage of headstones, where we realize Ryzhy's generation isn't so much lost as buried, as numerous people his own age have clearly been killed in gang related situations: will it be a fate Artyom might meet also we may be inclined to wonder.
In many a documentary about an artist this might seem beside the point, but Van der Horst's film is interested in wretchedness within a specific context. We use the term wretchedness as Pascal defines it in Pensees when saying, "man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched. A tree does not know it is wretched", and also some observations of Levinas's in Entre Nous, including "the self is the very crisis of the being of beings in the human. A crisis of being, not because the meaning of this verb would also have to be understood in its secret semantics and would call on ontology, but because I myself already ask myself if my being is justified." Does this realization of wretchedness become all the more pronounced in situations where our selfishness is survivalist, as even Artyom seems to realize here?
Partly why Van der Horst's film is interesting is that it brings together two apparent incompatibles in the same life: the romantic and the wretched, the glory of the young death consistent with Chatterton and commemorated by Wordsworth as "the marvellous boy...that perished in his pride", and the self as defined by Levinas when he says "all men are responsible for one another and I more than anyone else." In the first instance we have the romantic image of a proud death as Chatterton dies of self-poisoning as he cannot survive on the terms upon which he has chosen to live. But these would seem to be selfishterms consistent with the self as centre of the world, as opposed to the wretched self which assumes its centrality in relation to suffering and not egotism. While at one moment in an interview Boris may say that he thinks being a poet is tragic, at another a friend talks of Boris suffering for the world around him: Boris suffered guilt not towards an individual but for being alive. Though the romantic and the wretched are in certain aspects consistent, they are also as we've suggested quite different ways of looking at the world. In the romantic approach one is at the centre of the universe as a threatened ego; in the other at the centre of the universe as a fragile self. If in the loosely romantic approach we have determined self-definition; in the latter we have the possibility of self-abnegation.
If the romantic approach is consistent with George Bernard Shaw's comment that "the true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art", the wretched can be encapsulated in the life and ethos of spiritual philosopher Simone Weil, another thinker in the Pascal/Levinas tradition. Here Weil would frequently take on work that had nothing to do with writing, including working on farms and in factories. In his introduction to her book Gravity and Grace, Gustave Thibon says, on one farm she "worked there for more than a month with heroic regularity, always refusing, in spite of the fact that she was delicate and unaccustomed to the task, to spend shorter hours at it than the sturdy peasants who surrounded her." Afterwards she wondered whether "I had not died and fallen into hell without noticing, and whether hell did not consist of working eternally in a vineyard." Katinka Manson in her book Short Lives, talks of Weil's exhausting work in factories, and mentions Weil's observation that "as I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul."
Some might read such strenuous efforts at sharing briefly the work load of the working class as a sort of spiritual tourism, a precursor to the eco-tourism of today and an issue of alleviating one's conscience while never quite sharing the long term toil of the worker. As Manson notes, after one three month stint in a Renault plant, Weil's parents came to her aid and took her to Portugal to recuperate. But as Weil would say "I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness". The point of doing hard labour here isn't especially to prove one is capable of it; but to prove in one's incapacity as a worker the difficult task of the farm-hand and the factory employee, and to understand the sort of thought and feelings that can come out of minds deprived of the cultural and spiritual possibilities Weil could otherwise take for granted.
Here one works not only on one's art, but finds the limits of one's self as one realizes the efforts involved by some in allowing other people to be creative. If the Shavian romantic will do anything to avoid the graft of the worker, Weil's wretched figure will do the work to validate their inner being, not to the detriment of it. The real luxury for Weil isn't in that she could walk out of the factory gates, and not return; it resided more in the luxury of recognizing one's own afflicted state, one's own wretched being from the inside. "Nothing is worse than extreme affliction which destroys the 'I' from the outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves."
Weil's comment is from a certain point of view similar to Pavese's ideas about the suicide's notion of choice. The suicide chooses how they will die; the afflicted chooses how they will suffer. In each instance, though, in Pavese's and Weil's, does the suicide and the affliction take place in a personal realm that makes Pavese's suicide single-minded and Weil's death from exhaustion singular? Is Ryzhy's death more complex? This is not at all to say Ryzhy was a more complicated person than Pavese or Weil; more to say that his situation was more complicated, and that is why the film astutely decides not to offer a biographical approach but a loosely sociological one. The opening of the film might be about interviewing members of Boris's family, but its attentive interest in the milieu shows that anything they have to say is not necessarily more important than what the filmmaker wants to show us. Even the film's most articulate and open interviewee, a fellow and apparently reasonably successful poet, lives in a block of flats which don't look much more salubrious than many of the others. We notice though in a couple of shots that in at least one room the poet has an extensive library, an inner world, perhaps, to counter the outer reality that leaves people fighting against each other rather than trying to comprehend one another's suffering: which is exactly what the poet does as he explores what he perceives Boris's concerns happened to be.
The director (who also made Voices of Bam, about the aftermath of the titular, ancient Iranian village destroyed by an earthquake) manages to make documentaries about people that open up to more than the individual, and while in Boris Ryzhy it is the wife's suffering and the son's future we could fret over, it is the poet friend who explores well the bigger problem of spiritual survival. If the romantic views the spirit chiefly as energy, as life force, the wretched is more likely to view spirit as debilitation, as a problem of that self in the world. When Levinas quotes Pascal's idea of the self as hateful, and also Pascal's notion of having 'a place in the sun', and regards this as the "beginning and the prototype of the usurpation of the whole earth", Levinas goes on to say this is the "fear for all the violence and murder my existing, despite its intentional and conscious innocence, can bring about." Where the romantic believes in the sovereign right of the ego, the wretched is more interested in its collapse: that a lucid awareness of one's being can be recognized in the disintegration of that ego.
It is through the latter instead of the former that the director shapes her film, and this seems consistent with many a Russian work over the last twenty years that has explored the damaged state of the soul, from Hands and '4' to Don't Move, Die and rise Again! and The Asthenic Syndrome. Though James Rice in his piece on the film in Edinburgh Film Catalogue (2009) says Boris Ryzhy is more personal than Voices of Bam, he also notes the film's "acutely compositional, masterly edited scenes that establish a hallucinatory sense of place." What for Rice is hallucinatory, we're calling wretched, as van der Horst wonders how one can survive spiritually in such a world. It is true that it seems most have searched out the spirit as life force, and there is of course the moment the film explores what happened to so many of Boris's university class mates who, unable to find work in their fields after studying, entered the underworld and often ended up literally six feet under.
Boris of course also ends up a dead man, but the film's ambiguous sense of enquiry is equal it seems to the ambiguous nature of the man himself. At one stage the documentary enquires into the scar that Boris had down one side of his face, and though it came about from a childhood accident, Ryzhy was happy to create fictitious stories around its presence. At school Boris "was hitting or hit", while at one moment in an interview he says "if you weren't fighting you were still part of it." The scar could offer the hard man look if necessary, with Boris offering a Byronic flamboyance as the romantically war-wounded, but this would seem to say more about Ryzhy's love of the ambiguous than for the heroic. Neither fitting into the world of the gangster nor the intellectual, this can lead to a crisis of identity, or the fluidity of self in the face of others' perceptions.
Yet what interests the director is that for all Boris's fluidity and mystery, his life and death still makes sense within the milieu in which he lived. His poetry reflected the world he came from, and many of the poems touch upon the underworld, but there is also a wretched questioning of that milieu, and it is this questioning that van der Horst pursues as she accumulates fragile images equal to the fragility of place evident in Voices of Bam. In the earlier documentary the crumbling buildings and the crumpled faces were products of a sudden earthquake; in Boris Ryzhy they are the result of years of social and political despair. In the earlier film what might be taken to be the cruel hand of 'God' (one survivor asks, "what did God want to show me?") would here appear to be the elaborate work of the 'devil', and we might muse over why such terms, whether one cares to take them literally or not, can help explain the difference between the two works.
One expects from the deity a directness that however horrific needn't damage the soul; it may maim, kill and destroy places, but our perception of God is that of a being who may allow for awesome destruction but that its purpose is to destroy the body to protect the soul. This is basically the meaning of the story behind Sodom and Gomorrah as the Lord "rained on Sodom and Gomor'rah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven", and the opposite in the story of Adam and Eve, where the innocuous insidiousness of the devil can create mischief through an apple. This is obviously not to compare the biblical with the actual, suggesting say that Bam has anything in common with Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course not, but it is to enquire into the nature of a city obliterated externally and a place destroyed internally. It makes sense Rice would talk about Boris Ryzhy as a more personal film: part of that personal element resides in the responsibility upon the characters for their own existence as opposed to the unavoidable nature of destruction by an earthquake.
This isn't to pass judgement on the people in the film; more to try and understand the typeof despair the documentary taps into. While many of the characters have sold their soul to the devil of gangsterdom, the film wonders what other options are available. Where Bam was destroyed, those left living could share a belief in God, even if they might wonder, as the woman above, what God wanted to show them. It is still the idea of God; where in Boris Ryhzy the question could more readily be: what has the devil done to us? The film isn't only a more personal work than Voices of Bam; out of its more personalized perspective it explores the problem of how responsible one happens to be for the society in which one finds oneself. It isn't simply the problem of nature visiting upon them a catastrophe, but more human nature, forced with the difficulties of survival in a post-Perestroika age, taking the path of least moral resistance.
As the film explores Ryzhy's life, so we might muse over how the devil finds work when there is little by way of gainful employment. In an article on Russia during glasnost, John Pilger in Distant Voices notes that a "survey published the other day says that two thirds of girls aged sixteen and seventeen would rather consider prostitution than face a life a hard as their mothers." The economist Joseph Stiglitz observes in Globalization and its Discontents that in the post Soviet years "Russia has gotten the worst of all possible words - an enormous decline in output and an enormous increase in inequality." These are issues of relative control out of a hopeless situation, as people decide how they will make a living in a society collapsing. One of the tragedies the film explores is that no single incident falls upon the people, but that it is the accumulation of individual choice and social despair. It looks at the space between personal decision making and inevitable misery, between the self-making myth of the romantic notion of self-definition, and the unavoidable reality of a natural disaster from which one has no control.
But what if the figure is simultaneously aware of the romantic ideal and the wretched ideal, and lives in a society where pursuing self-definition is damaging to the soul, and pursuing the wretched in such a situation is the only way of living in good faith. It is as if such a suicide is not about getting closer to God, but instead escaping the clutches of the devil. If Voices of Bam finally came down on the side of the lord in its pursuit of human goodness, the much more pessimistic Boris Ryzhy proposes nothing more optimistic than the escape from the evil society in which Ryzhy found himself, as the romantic ideal he pursued seemed to give way to the wretched figure. It as if Rhyzy perhaps finally believed that man is indeed always, potentially, hateful.
© Tony McKibbin