There are two comments that might help us move towards understanding Godard's perplexing Notre Musique. One comes from Julia Kristeva and the other from Arthur Schopenhauer. "The solemnity", Kristeva says in Black Sun, of "forgiveness is best displayed in the conception Dostoyevsky elaborates in connection with the meaning of melancholia: between suffering and acting out, aesthetic activity constitutes forgiveness." Meanwhile, Schopenhauer believes "The deep relationship which music has to the true nature of all things also explains the fact that suitable music played to any scene, activity, event or circumstance seems to divulge the most secret meaning of that occasion, and to play the part of its most accurate and clearest commentator." These comments haven't been casually chosen: Godard talks about the significance of Dostoyevsky's Kirilov in a Sight and Sound interview around the time of the film's release, and James S. Williams, writing on Godard's use of music in his work in Forever Godard, says, "it is as if Godard were absolving himself of any knowledge of music, as if his wide-ranging use of the western musical canon were simply instinctive and beyond analysis."
Let's propose though that what Godard wants to do in Notre Musique is explore the former, the forgiveness of melancholy, and does so within the latter, within the possibility of music removing from our lives the articulatas, the separating of selves from others, though not in quite the way we might expect. For, in the first instance, Godard doesn't want to offer a straightforward Christianity here, just as Kristeva proposes a complex Christianity present in Dostoyevsky. As she says, any forgiveness "understood as connivance with degradation, moral softening and refusal of power is perhaps only the image one has of decadent Christianity." She believes however that "on the other hand, the solemnity of forgiveness - as it functions in theological tradition and as it is rehabilitated in aesthetic experience, which identifies with abjection in order to traverse it, name it, expend it - is inherent in the economy of psychic rebirth." What Godard offers is a work that explores the permutations of war without the necessity of victims and culprits, without the victim being resolutely altered by an ongoing anger, or the culprit irresolvably affected by an ongoing guilt. In this three stage study of being and war, Godard opens with a section called Hell, follows with the main body of the film, Purgatory, and ends with little more than a coda, which falls under the rubric of Paradise.
At one stage in Purgatory, the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish explains one of the possibilities residing in forgiveness: a comprehension of the other, the enemy, as allowing oneself an identity. "Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you [the Israelis] are our enemy. So we have the misfortune of having Israel as the enemy. And we have the good fortune of having Israel as our enemy." What does this provocative statement mean? Darwish goes on to insist that neither a victim nor a defeat can be gauged in military terms, and this connects with another statement made by someone else who says, "Why aren't revolutions started by the most humane people?" and another replies, "Because humane people don't start revolutions. They start libraries." This is an apparently facile statement, but taking into account Kristeva's comment at the beginning of this piece, we might more usefully propose it is a way of dealing with melancholy, a means of sublimating anger into not action but language, and not into any old words, but words that can create art, or defend art. But that is not what usually happens. "That's why we give the floor to those who are invited to speak as victims," a character says, "the world is now split in two, between those who line up on the side of misery, and those for whom this public display provides a daily dose of moral comfort to their domination." It's then suggested that we always discuss the key to the problem, never the lock." Godard is proposing that we look at the lock, that we look for a solution to the problem, rather than endlessly getting caught up in culprit/victim dichotomies.
Thus we should be wary of those who believe Godard is being both vague and nave. Instead he's trying to be specific and optimistically sophisticated. He's interested in specifically moving towards a first principle of human interaction and sublimating aggression, and, in proposing a means in which man can do so, arrives at sophisticated optimism. It's when we think of Kristeva, and also another writer, a writer who proved central to Godard's Eloge de l'amour, Simone Weil, that we can move towards comprehending Godard's philosophical sophistication. Kristeva proposes that "forgiveness is ahistorical. It breaks the concatenation of causes and effects, crimes and punishment, it stays the time of actions. A strange space opens up in a timelessness that is not one of the primitive unconscious, but its counterpart - its sublimation with full knowledge of the facts, a loving harmony that is aware of its violences but accommodates them, elsewhere." Weil, meanwhile, says in Gravity and Grace, "the past and the future hinder the wholesome effect of affliction by providing an unlimited field for imaginary elevation." Taking these comments into account we can see how Godard wants to suggest a world where time doesn't heals all wounds, but where the very presence of time creates and/or exacerbates wounds. When Weil says "when pain and weariness reach the point of causing a sense of perpetuity to be born in the soul, through contemplating this perpetuity with acceptance and love, we are snatched away into eternity", it's the possibility of eternity in relation to violence that interests Godard. It wouldn't be enough to give something time, because if the survivors of the Balkan crisis were to accept that time heals their wounds, then what about the Palestinians, what about the Afghans, and the Iraqis? One wound heals and another suppurates. But is it useful to think that it is through anger that time will heal a wound, and in anger, in so physiologically singular a reaction as anger, one recovers from loss? Time can go through the various stages of helplessness, frustration, anger and revenge. Even if this revenge isn't direct - an eye for an eye - it can take various forms of indirectness: the person who has inflicted pain upon you can be jailed, or maybe the victim can become a verbal aggressor, a guiltless automaton: changed by the atrocities done to him, he becomes righteously one dimensional, and ripe for what Godard proposes when he has a character insists that there are those who line up on the side of misery, exposing their pain and anguish, and the other side, the victimless, who can less feel guilt than identify with the anger of the victimised. Thus instead of moving towards the sort of forgiveness both Kristeva and Weil talk about, we move towards a two way anger: The victim and those identifying with victimhood. Anger isn't internalised by the guilty and becomes melancholic realisation and empathic comprehension; it becomes accusation and sympathy for the accusers. The anger continues as the victims feel unavenged, and the guilty remain without feeling. Surely what one would want to achieve, humanly, is for the guilty to feel the victim's loss that for which they are responsible, and their own melancholy in relation to the pain caused, and for the victim to feel the melancholia of the guilty who must, inevitably, suffer rather than be punished, for their crimes.This is a tall ontological order in a world usually preoccupied with hysterical anger, but from the wider perspective offered by writers like Kristeva and Weil it is surely much the more useful.
In an essay on 'Godard's Two Historiographies' Junji Hori offers a comment from Alain Bergala that in Godard's work there is "a refusal, to choose between the two great polarities of cinema: ontology or language, the screen as window or the screen as frame, the being-there of things or montage." It is maybe the difference between being on the one hand and its compartmentalisation on the other. It is as though Godard believes in montage because it is impossible to think oneness: that the Bazinian long-take is all very well, but the world is constantly being sub-divided, and posssibly the only way to return to oneness is by subdivision. This may seem like a needlessly complex and impossible paradox, but is it not easier to show the interconnectedness of things that suggest oneness, than to subdivide the world into the lengthy singular units of time Bazin proposed? We can think of the anti-Bazinian comments central character Edgar makes in Eloge de L'amour when he says as we look at a landscape we always have another landscape in mind - we are always comparing, contrasting. We do not singularise things. But this is just one way of looking at the world, a problematic brilliantly explored in Borges's great short story, The Aleph, where the narrator says, "I arrive not at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass...I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity?" Thus on the one hand there is the Bazinian approach, nicely encapsulated in Bazin's belief that we should "take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and ugliness" or the, if you like, alephic approach, where all the cruelty in the world cannot be laid bare because it is impossible to capture the simultaneity of the cruel. It can merely be suggested. This is Godard's own ineffable core, his own attempt at ahistorical forgiveness. When Borges proposes the infinite pity, Godard wants to try to capture the simultaneity of that infiniteness, and does so through utilising a conflict not in its intensity (the way anything from The Battle of Algiers to Welcome to Sarajevo will adrenalise a political event to make us feel the thereness of the crisis), but in its reflective possibilities. Thus Godard will think it perfectly justifiable to film the Balkan conflict (Forever Mozart) in his own admittedly expansive garden in Switzerland. He wants to show not the conflict but the principle underlying the conflict. Or in Godardian terms: not the conflict, but conflict, not the Bazinian, but the Borgesian.
To help us further we can usefully quote Robert Wicks' essay, 'Literary Truth as Dreamlike Expression...' on connections between Foucault and Borges, and the notion of "the perennial philosophy", a notion central, Wicks' believes, to a perverse optimism in that most pessimistic of philosophers, the philosopher we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Schopenhauer. "This perennial philosophy is a generic, alienation reducing philosophical outlook which identifies the essence of an individual person with the essence of the universe as a whole, and which maintains that enlightenment, absolute knowledge, and most importantly wisdom, naturally arise in anyone who directly experiences his or her true (ie. Universal) self, and hence, understands the identity between the inner self and the wider` infinite totality." This is where for Godard the victim is a problem, because by becoming an angry victim, as opposed to a Kristevan approach that searches for a creative melancholy of forgiveness, the person becomes trapped in their own "shot". They fail to become both the shot and the counter/ shot at the same time. They become, if you like, a Bazinian victim: a victim caught in the shot that shows the cruelty of the world and their victimhood. This is partly what Godard proposes when he talks about the shot/counter-shot in the lecture in Sarajevo that sets the film in motion. Usually the shot/counter- shot suggests opposition, but Godard initially proposes connection. As he shows two images from Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday he says there isn't really any difference because for Hawks there is no difference between men and women. What Godard seems to be saying is that Hawks - a famous director of male worlds - can film in such a way that the shot/counter-shot dissolves the boundaries of male and female. In the film we could say what salvages the Grant/Russell marriage is not sexual difference but emotional similarity - they are both obsessed with getting a news story, and their reunification as a couple comes through their chasing of that scoop. Sexual difference is not central; what counts is their initial emotional conflict sublimated into a broader singularity of purpose.Later in the same lecture Godard shows two photographs from 1948. In one we see Israeli's going into the water to reach the Holy Land; in the other, Palestinians going into the same water to drown. One man's hope is another man's hopelessness is the clich, but it is only a clich if we use it as a clich, if we refuse the emotional coordinates that makes us both the hopeful man and the drowning man.
How can we be both the drowning man and the hopeful man at the same time (since surely the Israelis and the Palestinians have ostensibly the same goal - peace in the area in which they live)? How can we incorporate not only self but other also? This is what Wicks' proposes redeems Schopenhauer from his pessimism. Wicks reckons once we 'negate "the principle of individual-creating reality within oneself - when one negates the vital forces of one's self-centredness - one advances in the direction of pure emptiness, or pure detachment, or a kind of death-in-life, that allegedly parallels the experience of mystics, saints, prophets and visionaries from a variety of religious backgrounds." But of course the most frequent way to achieve this mystical feeling is through the oneness of a thing, through say meditating in a concentrated way on an object, on being at one with nature. Godard's oneness is not in any way conventional - he wants to achieve oneness through a multiplicit despair that somehow allows for a distinct completeness. For if Edgar in Eloge d'lamour is right from Godard's point of view that we can only understand one thing by comparison with another, then it's as though the oneness of one thing is a form of denial: it needs the comparative to gain meaningfulness.
This is perhaps even what it means to be human, in a social sense of the term, if we take into account certain comments W. G. Sebald makes in his book Campo Santo. Here in an article on Peter Handke's Kaspar, he talks about Kaspar's ability to be totally unhistorical, his distance from language gives him the sort of ahistoricism we may hope to find through Buddhist oneness, but that may really be just a false consciousness for those of us who have already been inculcated in language, who have the semiotic capacity for memory. What Godard wants to suggest is that we must use this semiotic capacity to maximum effect, to obliterate assumption, clich and easy dichotomy from our thinking, to think with 90 per cent of our brain capacity, as Jean-Michel Frodon once proposed of Godard himself. Godard's thinking on political conflict is contained by thinking on cinematic conflict - on the sort of shot/counter-shot that need not only increase the tension but finally dissipate it. One acknowledges conflict, a la His Girl Friday, but removes it through a deeper understanding of shared interests. (When we mention Weil and Kristeva, we do so partly because this shared interest is fundamentally human - the shared interest of a species).
Thus Godard cannot make a film on an event, but instead about an event: he must obliterate the singularity of an event for the possibilities of meditating upon one within the flux of time. If we look at Terry George's film on the Rwandan situation, Hotel Rwanda, we can see how George wants the event to be singular but the viewer's emotional reactions to be simultaneously collective and universalizing. As viewers we are all supposed to be engaged in the everyman emotional response of the central character, a manager of a luxury hotel. Initially we see him as selectively selfish - what matters is family; beyond that isn't his business. Yet of course members of his own family are part of the Tutsi minority and so when the Hutus start murdering members of the minority, the dichotomy of family/non family no longer holds. The demarcation is between Hutus and Tutsis. As a Hutu he himself would be safe, but what about his wife and children? So what happens is that Paul looks after various Tutsis in the hotel, with minimum help from the UN and the outside world. The film becomes much more about the making of a hero than addressing an atrocity. This makes dramatic sense - Hotel Rwanda holds to Aristotle's unity of time and space, and possesses a strong character to lead us through events that would otherwise be too complex to allow for identification, narrative development and emotional catharsis.
But then that would be Godard's point: the events are too complex for identification, narrative development and emotional catharsis. We're betraying the event not only by singularizing it, but also by dramatizing it. Godard moves in the other direction: desingularise and de-dramatize. He wants to suggest the echoes with other crises, so that though his film is set in Sarajevo he thinks nothing of having Darwish talking about the Palestinian crisis over the Balkan crisis: it's like a shot/counter-shot: the Balkans and Palestine, but a shot and counter-shot not in the same time frame, but time frames slightly overlapping. Godard's a filmmaker who understands that time and space do not always get their meaning from conjunction but of course frequently from disjunction, from our insights decentring external perception and generating internal insight. To make a film about Rwanda that insistently sets itself in the one location, and suggests, during the viewing experience, that Rwanda is the only crisis in history, the film wants to insist on an emotional singularity. Godard instead searches out an ontological pluralism, which means that any emotional response generated will be somehow between events rather than through an event. When we think of the conventional shot/counter-shot, we think of the way the viewer is sutured into the narrative: after all absolutely central to the notion of the shot/counter-shot is the spatial demand, the one hundred and eighty degree rule. One character looks at another character within the one hundred and eighty degree space that will mean the following shot will match with the previous shot, so that a character in the first shot will be looking at another character within his eye-line and not beyond it.
If Godard generally cares little for such filmic conventions, it is because he has never respected space as a given in time, no matter if, as Alain Bergala very usefully proposed, Godard always works from a pre-existent reality (in opposition say to Raul Ruiz who frequently will work from an artificial studio bound mise en scene). This may surprise us, because Godard less than almost any filmmaker seems to respect space as a given. But much of this 'disrespect' lies in the editing, in the rejection of shot/counter-shot if you like. We can see this for example in a scene from Godard's Weekend, where Juliet Berto's character insults a tractor driver. Usually we would expect the conflict to be illustrated through shot/counter-shots between the tractor driver and Berto. But instead the argument is covered in one shot, but the film cuts away to various members of the proletariat looking on. However, they aren't it seems looking at the scene, as we usually find in the reaction-shot device Godard ostensibly uses. No, instead Godard cuts away to break up the singular impression of time and space. It is as though Berto and the tractor driver's argument is taking place in one time zone, but the reaction to the argument in another. Certainly the proletariat looking on are in the same general mise-en-scene as Berto and the tractor driver, but their responses seem to be to a different event altogether. Thus we can see how Godard respects pre-existent reality, in terms of space, but does not respect it in terms of time. This is because Godard is interested much more in capturing experience that exists between temporal zones rather than showing people singularly involved in one.
This can even help explain Godard's use of music in his films. Often it is claimed Godard uses music in a deliberately distancing, Brechtian manner. That is certainly true, but needn't be the whole story. Again we might think of Weekend and a moment where Mireille Darc looks like she's going to shoot a shepherd and the music dramatically strikes up. The music though is likely less to engage us in the scene than distance us from the events, as though it were attending to a scene different from the one that we're watching. If we were simply to suggest that all Godard's music were Brechtian, however, then where would that leave the music in, say Eloge de l'Amour, where the music suggests an emotional reflectiveness that contains the film's story of a young man who has strong, albeit ambiguous retrospective feelings for a woman who has taken her own life? There is nothing in the music to make us believe it is distancing; which may leave us wondering what the common link is between the music in Weekend and the music in Eloge de l'amour. Perhaps it lies not in distancing devices, per se, but in an emotional reflectiveness that contextualises a multi-temporal world. Thus the music in Weekend proposes a drama that is not exclusively on the screen but somewhere else, and the music in Eloge de l'amour may allude to the melancholy Edgar feels concerning the character of Berthe, but does not exclusively locate itself as a singular emotion to a singular event.
James S. Williams in some ways makes a similar point in relation to Godard's use of camera and movement in Nouvelle vague. In an essay specifically on Godard's use of music, Williams quotes a passage: "They had the impression of having already lived all that. And their words seemed to stop short in the traces of other words before. They paid no attention to what they were doing, but rather to the difference that meant their current actions were of the present, and that similar actions had been of the past..." Accompanying this passage is the piece 'Trauermusik' by Paul Hindemith, a piece, Williams believes, that allows Godard to transcend "...time and being itself." (Forever Godard) This idea is very different from a distanciated use of music, and returns us to one of our original quotes, Schopenhauer's notion that music contains an occasion's deepest meaning. But this needn't be the most secret meaning as a given, but a meaning that is covered up: and covered over by the singular response. When Godard uses a score it is never of course cue music: Godard refuses to use music that demands we cue into the emotional tone of a scene the way Spielberg or even Hitchcock might: Spielberg knows in each scene the response he wants to extract from the viewer. Frequently in Jaws it will be a sense of suspense, in E.T. the lachrymose, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a feeling of excitement. The music covers the scene, overlays it to direct our responses. Godard uses music though to uncover a scene, to suggest there is always something in a scene outwith or underneath the scene itself. Even when Godard uses music that would seem absolutely consistent with the scene and situation, as with the Mao song in La Chinoise, we can't take it at face value because it mocks the very values the characters are pursuing. But not in an obviously cynical way; much more in a reflective manner that says any revolutionary impulse always contains numerous other impulses simultaneously: it's Godard's need to mock the very thing one takes seriously as if it's the counter-shot to a single mode of thinking. If Schopenhauer believes music contains an occasion's deepest meaning, perhaps it's because it allows us to be multiple simultaneously - it allows us the alephic feelings of simultaneity over consecutiveness. For if we believe language and music are in opposition to each other, central to this dichotomy is that language cannot suggest the simultaneous. As Borges says in his story, "Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful." Perhaps for Borges music could have more appropriately caught this feeling of informational vertigo, but then does music too easily capture simultaneity, and does Godard wants music merely to serve as no more than an aspect of this simultaneousness?
In other words, do we too often allow music an uncomplicated multiplicity where Godard searches out a complicated simultaneity? It is as though Godard wants to reverse the conventional approach to music, by forcing it to share some of the partiality of being over the belief that it can serve the completeness of being. Thus whether the music is apparently Brechtian - as in Weekend - or capable of transcending time and being itself as Williams sees it Nouvelle vague - we have to see this as a partial revelation of being. It cannot answer the problem of being for us by revealing an occasion's deepest meaning, but instead works with the partiality language insists upon. It brings to mind the scene in Two or Three Things I know About Her when a voice over asks why this tree over another: it is another example of Godard as the great director of partiality, the great director of a perennial philosophy that insists we do not just live in the moment but must also be peripherally aware of all the other moments, all the other pasts, presents and potentialities in being.
For many of course this type of state is mentally precarious - even young Edgar in Eloge de l'Amour reckons he has too much memory - and is it not partly what kills Berthe in the same film: as though the memory of her grandparents' duplicity during the resistance, her parents' suicide and her own failure to stop her grandparents selling their story to Hollywood is too much for her to live with? But there is no hint in Godard's work that he wants to contract memory; the sort of contraction that most films practise by singularizing an event; no he believes being lies in a constant sense of expansion, but that we must find health within this expansiveness.
However, where might this expansiveness lie? In art would be the most immediate answer, since does not art allow for alternative selves, hypotheses, fantasies etc? But perhaps not everybody can be an artist, or that if this were Godard's proposition he would be more utopian than most single-minded optimists. He would just be offering multiply-minded optimism in its place. More useful would be to take into account Foucault's comments in an interview that "we have to create ourselves as a work of art" mentioned in a piece in The Foucault Reader. So instead of having to create art; we would instead be creating ourselves, giving texture and meaning first and foremost to our own being, creating out of ourselves not an enclosed 'I' but an open, flexible mode that allows us always to sense what we are not, and to know that our being is always other than what it is: in Godard's terms, that we are both Palestinian and Israeli.
Now for some there are essentially two poles, those of being or nothingness, in Sartre's formulation, or, in John Fowles': I-ness and 'nobodiness'. For Fowles this nobodiness haunts us all and forces us into selfness: "nobodiness is the enemy of the camp." (The Aristos) But in Godard there seems the proposal of between-ness, a state between being and nothingness: that just as it could be this tree or that tree; one could be this person or that person. It's of course an advanced variation on but for the grace of God go I, but there is no guarantee of God, only memory, empathy and the constant cues of being. How can we train ourselves in this grace without necessarily a God, and is Godard's work an exemplary example of it? In films that are ostensibly light - like A bout de souffle, bande a part and parts of Weekend - or more obviously heavy work - Contempt, Eloge de l'Amourand Notre musique - it as though Godard wants to train our being in this grace without the certitude of God. It is this very grace without God that Kristeva broaches in our other initial quote, where aesthetic activity suggests forgiveness. But, taking into account our claim above, this need not be an aesthetics of art-creation, but an aesthetics of being creation. We achieve forgiveness as if through creativity but not as a creative act but as an ontological act. If we look at art not as the ultimate expression of humanity, but as an expression of being contained within an aesthetic form, we can see art, no matter its significance, as merely a branch of ontology. We may not all be artists, but are we not all capable of being, if you like, ontologists, beings capable of reaching into the otherness that augments rather than dilutes our self?
If this is the case, then we could add that Godard himself is first and foremost an ontologist and secondly an artist, that if so often his films are films in the making (Contempt, Numero deux, Passion, Forever Mozart, Eloge de l'amour) then is it because Godard doesn't want to make an art work over offering an ontology? There may be this fear in Godard of the completed art work sharing the same problem as most music: it too readily singularises. By making films that are subjunctive, Godard accepts the provisionality of the art work, but at the same time proposes the artist himself as first and foremost an investigator into the state of being. Obviously and finally all great artists are ontologists, their work is always more significant than their immediate subject and the time in which it is created. But Godard more than most investigates this very process, and works hard to make sure that process becomes part of the art work. When Paul Coates in The Story of the Lost Reflection proposed that Godard's films are always 'failures', and that he quickly moves onto the next film to make up for the failings in the last one, he is only half right. Godard's failure is the failure of art to say everything simultaneously, and so Godard, even if each of his works is crammed with references, speculations, hypotheses and quotations, must move onto the next film, where there is always more being awaiting examination. The failure, from a certain perspective, is not Godard's, it is art and life's.
Notre musique thus applies this perspective, this perspectivism to war - to Bosnia and Palestine - and demands neither aggression nor pacifism, just as it demands neither being or nothingness. Such an approach is never more present than in the perplexing ending, but to explain and explore that would be for another time, another article...
© Tony McKibbin