The fervent rake, the austere sage,
Both grow enamored, as years pass,
With cats' soft force in proud home's cage,
Like they, oft cold in sloth's morass.
With knowledge carnal and of book,
They seek the silent shadow's gloom,
Where Erebus their thralldom took
For messengers of coming doom.
And when asleep, their noblesse beams
As Sphinxes stretched in lonesome night,
Who seem to rest in endless dreams;
And magic sparks caress their spine,
And mystic pupils are gilded bright
With obscure hints of pelage fine.
The fervent rake, the austere sage,
One of the most puzzling things about adolescence is the division between the in-crowd and the rabble. Puzzling, I should add, only when you are a confirmed member of the latter grouping; the popular and the admired comport themselves as if their unquestionable status were captioned by this famous motto. The more attentive among the uncool, however, quickly notice that the difference lies in not what is said and done but in the actor himself. The silliest pun can become a shibboleth, the stupidest gesture a signal, the cruelest prank an indication of superiority. What is particularly remarkable about adolescence and its conspiracies is how uncompromisingly bland the stratagems behind them seem once we reach adulthood. Not one joke, not a single sadistic moment will be worth a farthing to a mature and confident twentysomething who sees through cliques and clucks as any of us now should. How odd then that so many of adolescence's wicked games continue undeterred well into our greying years, and how many poor saps remain the subject of their colleagues' scorn. Which brings us to this charming film.
Our hero is François Pignon (the perfectly cast Daniel Auteuil), even if his heroism should be immediately questioned and harpooned. Though a cognate with "pinion," there is a certain contempt with which his surname is pronounced that English does not quite contain, but which suggests a cross between an irritating clink and an onion. Pignon is divorced from a loathsome shrew (Alexandra Vandernoot), whose one good deed in her entire existence may very well have been the birth of their son, Franck. The problem is that Franck, like the rest of humanity apparently, is convinced his father is an incorrigible loser. For his part Pignon definitely provides him with ample evidence. His job at a rubber factory in the accounting department has been for twenty years his only steady beam in a life of avalanches and cave-ins, if one considers his daily parking and coffee debacles to constitute a success. Nevertheless, it is not hard to detect that Pignon is a kind man, as are most pariahs if only because they cannot afford or do not know how to effectuate any other type of behavior. Pignon grins and bears his cruel fate because he has never really managed to succeed at anything. Were he in some isolated, underdeveloped village in an impoverished or war-ravaged nation with little hope of escape, we would hardly begrudge him his despair; but with a fine income, a modest but nice apartment, and a healthy existence in one of the richest countries in the world, the problem lies to a great extent with him.
Why does Pignon come to the office every day and succumb to his co-workers' sneers and taunts as if he deserved them? Why do all the men at his job think him unmanly and all the women think him boring? Perhaps because when one is insecure but wishes to conceal such misgivings and fears – and most of us huddle under that large circus tent – nothing makes one more liverish than a fool who accepts his insecurities and does nothing to combat or hide them. In other words, we hate this person because he comes off as the worst and most cowardly manifestation of ourselves. Pignon draws the ire most readily of the neckless thug Félix Santini (Gérard Dépardieu). Santini mysteriously holds the position of head of personnel, something akin to a human resources director, even though his hobbies are rugby and the belittlement of lesser beings. Since sports and cruelty are the time-honored pursuits of all high school jock bullies, Santini fulfils a stereotype that allows us to despise him and gravitate towards Pignon. While Santini smashes in his co-workers' teeth in another bone-crushing practice session, Pignon finds and adopts an adorable kitten who turns up one day on his balcony – just as, I might add, he was considering an unforgivable sin. And why such self-loathing? Because Pignon just discovered that, after twenty servile years, his neck is slated for the guillotine.
The kitten will be traced to a new neighbor, Jean-Pierre Belone (Michel Aumont), who just so happens to be a retired labor psychologist. For some people, work and its associated routines are coterminous, in which case retirement results in complete severance from the tasks of yesteryear; for others, of course, they will always practice what they have practiced until their last, wheezing breaths. Belone is someone who likes listening to people's problems because he truly believes there is no quandary he cannot solve. He understands Pignon's predicament all too well, having likely sat through months of such twaddle in humoring whiny patients, but this time something about the misery of his neighbor summons the altruist from within him and he offers Pignon a very odd piece of advice: spread the rumor that he is gay. The reasoning, in our politically correct days, might be obvious enough; but a rubber factory by definition boasts a clientele that, well, likes its rubbers: firing a man who has just outed himself would then be nothing less than a public relations nightmare. Belone goes one giant step further when he recommends that Pignon anonymously send touched-up photos to his workplace (Belone already has a template in mind). The gambit is taken, the pawn sacrificed (Pignon also has some affinity with the French word for this least powerful of chess-pieces), and Pignon goes into work not having changed a hair on his pointy head yet having assumed a shift of mythic proportions. The women at work, especially the dishy Ms. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque), are irrationally drawn to the clandestine Pignon as if he were an island to be discovered. Santini's transformation is even more radical and provides the film with some of its most impeccable humor, as does a certain parade that Franck happens to catch on television, imbuing him with newly-found respect for his father – and further complications need not be mentioned.
The Closet exploits one of the great premises of fiction: that the person so easily pigeonholed might be playing a master role. In past times, the secret involved subterfuge and espionage, but we have moved on from such undeservedly romantic notions of what lies in the heart of men. Now the secret may be sexuality; it may even be, as a metaphor for the wickedness of the twentieth century, that the person in question is actually of another religion, whose revelation would transform his public image irreversibly. A literary critic might underscore the need for any ambitious work to sustain at least two wholly plausible readings to be memorable and worthwhile, yet to the skeptical mind another question surely arises. Is not every human form a mixture of multiple themes, multiple vices, regret and joy, or are we all just simple beasts consigned to simple boxes for future filing? How about the erstwhile cool cats that all too often seem to have peaked during those same dominating years? Filed away in a factory closet that, presumably, no one would ever find.
Nineteen years ago I took advantage of a scantness of interest among my fellow grad students and began learning this language. That same year I devoted five glorious weeks to Czech grammar, Prague cobblestones, and a host of books that could only really be read at high summer, when the sun set reluctantly and the clear paved streets reflected the immaculate evenings of our eternity. And an early autumn later – the thirtieth anniversary of this watershed – roaming around this bookstore, I happened upon a copy of this "quasi-novel" whose first tale generously blends fact into its fiction.
Our protagonist is the mildly esteemed Henry Bech, a Jew, a sexagenarian, and, if he were to have died upon arriving in 1986 Prague, an odd practicant of twentieth-century American literature. Bech has had one recent and now-failed marriage, written many books including one bestseller, and bumbled about various parts of the world for book signings and conferences in that mediocre and inoffensive way unique to minor writers. Why is Bech a minor writer? Because he cannot relate in the least to the famous quote by this Argentine about the writer of genius and being right? Because he believes "the purpose of the writer is to amuse himself, to indulge himself, [and] to get his books into print with as little editorial smudging as he can"? Perhaps because each of his novels, by his own attestation, feeds off a trend of the time, or at least an historically successful trend that allows it to appear timely and topical? Without fear of perjury, it can be said that all these factors apply to one degree or another. When Bech meets a Czech man of letters once tortured and jailed for writing "like Saki, arch harmless little things," he can "think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant." When he considers his own works, he finds them all as plain and aseptic as his own life. Therein lies no danger, no regret, no anxiety. His books all linger untouched on shelves, like dust and termites – or, for that matter, Bech himself. For that reason Bech becomes quite excited, if that is really the right word, about his visit to the American Ambassador and his trophy wife only a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution.
The plot unravels as do so many works of Updike's: by a permanent discomfort between life's givers and life's takers. While Bech is most certainly the giver – he has committed his every moment to inscribing the world with its little tragedies – the Ambassador belongs to that boisterous back-slapping network of executives and executors from which many political appointments are drawn. Normally one might scoff at a businessman's ability to run an embassy since an embassy is neither moneymaking nor subject to the same elastic mobility that defines the private sector. But this Ambassador has one distinct qualification for the job: he speaks Czech, albeit humorously, a remnant of his childhood. Those who delve into the relationship between historical fact and the lilac bubble of fiction will surely note that the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s was indeed a businessman of Czech descent. In the story, the conceit allows for one very telling circumstance: Henry Bech, an emotional and absent-minded intellectual, if a bit ignorant about medieval Europe, often finds himself at the linguistic mercy of a man whom his liberal sensibilities would never allow him to approach. Bech is also the guest of the Ambassador's dishy blonde wife, and their conversations, awkward owing to her attractiveness and Bech's lack of sexual gumption, indicate that money really does make some people happy. The Ambassador, "an exceptionally short and peppy man," takes Bech to a Jewish cemetery, where his ebullient manners lead both his wife and his distinguished guest to blush. And we also get at some of Bech's malaise:
For a Jew, to move through post-war Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all – up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides. In the center of old Prague the clock of the Jewish Town Hall .... still runs backwards, to the amusement of tourists from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Later, Bech will address a student forum of eager English-speaking fans and learn that they do not value his longest and most difficult novel because, well, it is too greatly about his ethnicity and less about the rest of the world. An undertaker will also remind him, in what might easily have been a chat in Soviet Russia, that Kafka was not Czech, at least not by the strict Socialist categories that some people recall all too easily.
As Bech at Bay progresses – the five parts thrive alone, yet form an oddly cohesive whole – a startling announcement is made about our protagonist's career. The announcement is stunning because hitherto few had really heard of Henry Bech, and his general anonymity was for him more soothing than a symbol of frustration. His Czech book signings are characterized by long, unpronounceable names laden with every diacritic imaginable, and he dreams of moments when everyone in this small and delicate country could simply read his books in the original English, write him loving fan mail, and dispense with this whole Iron Curtain charade. A charade because everyone knew that hope and freedom would eventually triumph, that the whole wall would crumble and be trampled underfoot, and that once-proscribed writers would regain their rightful spots within the Czech canon. One fan, of Roma stock, even gives him a copy of a tome from samizdat:
It felt lighter, placed in Bech's hands, that he had expected from the thickness of it. Only the right-hand pages held words; the left-hand held mirrored ghosts of words, the other side showing through. He had been returned to some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.
Bech falls in love with the book without being able to read a word, and even lusts briefly after this young gypsy, the opposite of another lust, the Ambassador's leggy wife. The only difference between this Bech, now sixty-three and hardly spry, and a younger Bech is in physical prowess since Bech has never been one to collect women like a philatelist pursues stamps. "To live a week with Henry Bech is to fall in love with him," says the Ambassador's wife. What a shame no one ever grants him that much time.
When prairies, Lord, breathe but cold words,
And ravaged hamlets sleep in peace,
And angelus bells hang unheard,
Upon unflowered, waning leas,
Let fall from your grey monstrous skies
That dear and tasty raven flesh.
Strange army of malicious cries,
The frigid winds attack your nests!
Along the yellowed rivers' roll
Upon the Calvary's broad bend,
Above the gullies and the holes,
Disperse and rally, foe or friend!
Upon the fields of France they feed,
Where sleep the dead of yesteryear,
And thousands swirl in wintry greed
So that each passer-by may fear!
Be now the herald of our yoke,
Our black funereal bird of harm!
O holy saints atop the oak,
Lost masts amidst the evening charm,
Leave warblers of the month of May
To those led on by woods' retreat,
Bestride the grass they aim to stay
A sad and futureless defeat.
This film may initially strike us as little more than a compost of noir elements, yet we will be proven wrong. It begins with a cow legend, a half-beast, half-child tale of parturition with elements that once might have suggested a demonic presence and are now only translated by computerized minds as a provincial kind of sexism. Some cleansing acts are carried out and then we are assured: "Since that time there has been no trouble with cows or women." After this odd introduction we are subsequently informed that the story is based on true events. If this is so, gentle reader, let me be the first to cancel any future trips to southern Denmark. True enough, I don't really mean that last part (Denmark has always been for me a heaven on our brittle earth), so maybe I can simply eliminate a few select swampy patches on the Jutland map.
Our protagonist is Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a handsome, lonesome, still youngish Copenhagen cop with a broad suggestible streak. Suggestibility implies a certain absence of self-confidence, common enough in someone attractive (perhaps his appearance has long since masked his foolishness; perhaps he has pursued his sensual privileges and neglected his mind). Nevertheless, we tend to think that his looks emerged well after adolescence, which explains why he has never really exited that period. In keeping with noir prototypes, Robert is introduced to us with a checkered past that no one, he least of all, wishes to talk about. His infraction will be clarified to some extent much later in the film, but his penance will be as a small-town bailiff. "Nothing really happens here," says his superior as he drives Robert to his temporary new home, "and if something does happen, you just report it to me." Robert gives that nervous nod endemic among people who tend to talk themselves into trouble and lets the comment sit. Importantly, the village in question also lies next to a hateful bog – a pit of sin in more than one sense – although one wonders whether any bog has ever enjoyed a glittering reputation.
Ah yes, southern Denmark. As a long-time speaker of what may be termed rigsdansk (standard Danish), I am still astounded by the panoply of dialects in such a snug little place. Robert's shibboleth is the squeaky greeting "morning" (møjn), a noise which at one point even the cat seems to produce. And certainly, a conspiracy of noir circumstances seems to be afoot: suspicious locals on every corner stare at Robert as if he were a pink elephant; his bike is almost run over more than once by a determined truck; the stillness of the always-deserted streets screams western with, in good western tradition, Robert as both lawmaker and outlaw; and, of course, the appearance of the requisite femme fatale Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen). Ingerlise is walking and talking bad news; she is also, by Danish standards, not particularly fetching. Yet she is alluring in that way that some women have of being able to be completely enthralled by what a man is saying. Ingerlise seems to confirm our fears of genre compliance with a litany of femme fatale characteristics: the implication that she is undersexed; the further implication that she is misunderstood, if not reviled by the community (Ingerlise is from Åbenrå, and thus also an outsider) for her sensuality or other careless lusts; and the very direct declaration that her bloated boar of a husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) batters her whenever he thinks she deserves it. Scars suggest this might be a weekly event. Just when Robert, who is very intrigued despite his better judgment, asks for more information about a certain bicycle dealer who disappeared a few years back, Ingerlise overtly pauses then lets her bike tumble to the ground for Robert to retrieve (in romances past, this may have been a glove or handkerchief). We now know for certain that Robert will eventually possess Ingerlise, that the boar will eventually learn of their little escapade one way or another, and that all this could have been rather easily avoided if Robert weren't so predisposed to cutting corners.
Which brings us to another dirty little secret. It is no spoiler to reveal that Robert has a wife in Copenhagen, as well as a beloved daughter whom he hasn't seen in months. "And why haven't you," asks a perfectly logical Ingerlise, who also has a daughter in the eight-to-ten-year range. That would be because Robert's daughter believes her father to be in Australia, "the farthest possible country," and also very much a symbolic southernmost purgatory. As our film skids down some curious slopes, we cannot but notice Robert compensating for his own estranged family by seeking to aid another wife and child in need of a good father (one could even imagine Ingerlise's daughter's ubiquitous red jacket making Jørgen into more of a wolf than a boar). Jørgen, a natural-born bully, senses the fear and vulnerability in the newcomer and pushes him to the usual lengths of oneupmanship until one incredibly unfortunate (and improbable) night almost leads the men to join forces. Ingerlise finds every public meeting place possible to carry on their intensifying flirtation, and tongues wag because this is some of the juiciest scandal in, well, perhaps weeks now. The details and double-talk propel the players to the middle of the film and the turning point in everyone's existence. I can't remember the last time I ever saw anyone withdraw ignition keys from a moving car, but the thoughtful viewer might wish to consider the vehicle and its driver with similar empathy.
There is also a quack of a doctor who "barked up Ingerlise's tree" a while back, a store owner who has a special storage area for his long-fingered clients, and a priest who can be identified only by his frilly collar. In a town this small, however, the intervention of any one of the characters cannot be considered anything less than formulary. Terribly Happy plays as the best type of western, that is, the kind that forsakes the silly invincibility of isolation that informs most films of that genre for the ravenous despair of noir. And while the twanging nonsense of its soundtrack jangles the nerves and earns it a half to three-quarters demerit, the tone is correct: Robert has been shipped to a zone of amoral actions and players. It will become his task to determine whether these persons are immoral, which involves consistency, or whether they do actually propone an ad hoc understanding of human motives and words. If they are structurally evil, they can be judged and, in principle, reformed; on the other hand, should they be merely anarchic hoodlums ready for a scrap to the death at any given moment, then there is little Robert or anyone else can do for them. The worst part about this type of noir is not that you cannot know the truth, but that no one wishes you to know it; you are not an initiate into the global conspiracy, and this little village might as well be its own planet orbiting our greater realm. Even if its main inhabitant and actor might be a large pool of slime.
Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crowd, perched as spirits, not beasts. You are not ruled by your emotions. It is not only possible, it is easily achievable that we do away with all negative emotional impulses and bring man back to his inherent state of perfect.
It is August 1945 and the worst has happened, but not the very worst. Several parts of the world, specifically those parts that have controlled time and history's recording of time, have almost obliterated each other, only to decide that life in whatever form was superior to an endless horizon of death. America, that paladin of democracy and initiative, will take credit for saving the world from fascism; yet America itself played only a limited role. America, you see, is the sole country on this nearly-destroyed earth where anyone can become anything; history is not as important to us as opportunity; and truth, to a certain type of American, will not be vitiated by philosophy or even basic ethics. Truth, like history, like life itself, is simply another opportunity. And a very American notion of truth informs this fine film.
Our title character will comprise a chapter in the rather sorry existence of a man called Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The war was won and Freddie, young and unsung, was on the most winning side, that of America; yet early scenes indicate that while his physical well-being was more or less maintained, his psyche was irreparably damaged. Freddie may also be familiar to anyone who thinks that alcoholism is a disease and not a choice, but that small point is ultimately irrelevant. What his tattered mind requires is something to distract him long enough for him to drink himself to death. For Freddie Quell no other option remains. His trinity of violence, sex, and drink would interest even the most casual psychologist were it not for the fact that he is not by any measure an interesting person. Subjected to those fake ink blots of fake minds with fake symbols (a blot even cameos in one of the film's posters), he does what any hard-core alcoholic would do when confronted with one of society's innumerable banalities: he contemplates his next drink. Still-frame the shots from this interview, and you see that Phoenix reverts to the same expression again and again, much like a soldier standing in position. That look is one of somewhat timid disbelief, because that is precisely what he is, a timid disbeliever, which could mean that within his soul lurks profound and unexplored spirituality – or perhaps simply profound and unexplored emptiness. "I suffer," he says, attempting a romantic rebaptism of his addiction, "from what people in your line of work call nostalgia," but he doesn't quite complete the story. So when a discharged Freddie Quell moves on to postwar work as a department store photographer, we cannot take our eyes off his skinny back, curved inward like a hollow shell, or a sail to be blown by the wind. And the wind will come in the plump and stately shape of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Who is Lancaster Dodd? He presents himself like many charlatans, as a man of broad, Renaissance-like talent and titles, so you may never quite answer that question to your satisfaction. Which is precisely Dodd's intent: to persist as an unfinished mystery. The promises that writers of suspense foist upon their readers, premonitions of danger, hints at a nobler past, memories of childhood and of loss, all these blossom amidst Lancaster Dodd's variegated gardens. Perhaps appropriately, then, it is after farm worker Freddie runs through field after lush field (in a spectacular scene that would have been even greater had it been protracted) that he finds the boat Alethia. Alethia, of course, is Greek for truth, yet that fateful evening, Alethia is occupied by one of those fancy, footloose boat parties that are supposed to celebrate life but really end up celebrating the owner of the boat. We see the boat in profile, almost like a blueprint, as Freddie climbs aboard to be awoken later and told by a pretty young girl, a guardian angel, "you're safe, you're at sea," which is usually where one is not safe. Yet the telltale line is Dodd’s own greeting: "You seem so familiar to me.” Freddie chuckles because he does not understand what Dodd is really saying: make me into whomever you need – a father, brother, lover, friend, or priest – it matters little. His claims of having met Freddie in a previous life will find closure, if such closure is truly possible, in the film’s last scenes which are perfectly logical and glorious in their restraint. But until then, it is Dodd’s self-appointed task (one of his books is subtitled, “A gift to Homo Sapiens”) to show Freddie and other malleable sorts that the truth promulgated by The Cause – a suitably vague name for a hopelessly vague organization – is, if not wholly true, then more interesting and revealing than any other truth floating about. He achieves this end through séances the likes of which would not persuade many educated people, as well as recordings such as the one quoted (in full, although it repeats interminably) at the beginning of this review. The psychobabble we witness – and it is most assuredly psychobabble of a very destructive kind – has a narrator, Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who speaks in that slow, deliberate tone reserved for certain foreigners, pedants, and those of waning mental health. If Lancaster Dodd is the face of The Cause, then Peggy Dodd is its treasurer, chief executive officer, and, as aspersed hints indicate, perhaps even the real "master" (she remains pregnant throughout, as if a new world full of ideas were about to hatch). So when she declares that "we record everything through all lifetimes" (at this time a "hypnotized" patient is recalling her parents having sex after she had already been conceived, an embryonic epiphany), we know we have stumbled upon a cult. The only question, of course, is who is really running the show.
Anyone with a fair knowledge of post-war American religious trends will likely identify the most obvious paradigm for The Cause, a topic I will not belabor because, as it were, it doesn't really matter. That is not to say that Dodd's loosely-knit band represents every cult at every time, but rather, should it be forced to percolate through allegoristic filters, every cult in the wake of an unfathomable and horrendous ordeal (according to the director, the film was partly inspired by the theory that religiousness spikes after a war). As such, while The Cause certainly seems like a huckster's paradise, we are not particularly convinced one way or the other. All we can say for sure is that its adherents do not agree on what the Cause really is, in no small part because Dodd does not allow for any degree of what trendy minds like to call 'demystification.' Three examples should suffice: Dodd's initial interview of Freddie, dubbed "informal processing," which may be the film's strongest scene; the very middle, when Freddie, who is obsessed with womanly charms like so many a teenage boy, is beset by a sort of vision; and a later scene in which the two men are jailed overnight in adjoining cells, and Freddie cruelly tells Dodd what he thinks of his labors. The last scene seems like a watershed, but because the participants are drunk and rowdy, it is dismissed shortly thereafter as a misunderstanding; the initial interview likewise suggests that we are going to get to know Freddie Quell very intimately, but Freddie Quell is a talented fibber; which leaves that odd mid-film scene. Especially odd, because if we are to understand the vision as emanating solely from Freddie's mind, then he has already given up on the cult's promise to feed, clothe, and house him, not to mention provide him with a surrogate family. Considering how little he has in life, this abandonment might seem very rash indeed – unless Freddie Quell is not quite the simpleton he appears to be.
Although released to much critical acclaim, The Master has endured from its scattered disbelievers one uniform complaint: that of dullness and uneventfulness, an assessment both rash and predictable. Anderson’s film certainly has few events, if by events we mean explosions of human bodies inwardly or outwardly, or of historical happenings, of which the film makes little fanfare because Freddie Quell is not Freddie Gump. He has no symbolic agenda as an everyman or holy fool; he is simply a cipher who may merit redemption, but whose main aim is to extend the mortal pleasure of drunkenness. As such, the film is intentionally opaque because the movement it depicts is intentionally opaque, and The Master is mesmerizing, hollow, and well-acted and crafted just like the Dodds appear to have scripts for every occasion. The film's genius resides, however, in Freddie Quell's unconventional transformation. Instead of evolving, as would befit almost every other tale, from a sad sack into a fervent acolyte who will be disappointed with the cult's shortcomings, try to escape, and be confronted with his priests' mercilessness, Freddie undergoes a completely different change: he reverts to the person he was before the war. Since I have purposefully not described the pre-war Freddie, nothing is spoiled by this revelation. Phoenix manages by some technique hitherto unknown to man to cloak his natural wit and vibrancy in a dull glaze without either overacting or underacting, rendering this shift not only believable, but the best possible resolution. And if Freddie's final interlocutor is any indication, then there will always be opportunities for the Lancaster Dodds of the world. For even if we cannot recall any predecessors, we can surely imagine them.
Now let us close this overly long parenthesis, which we had to open to show to what degree conceptual thought has to be reformed and sometimes even discarded to be able to arrive at a more intuitive philosophical approach. We said that this philosophy will most often turn away from the social vision of the object already created; instead, it will ask us to participate mentally in the act of creation. It will place us, therefore, on this particular spot, in the direction of the divine. As it were, it is quite human that the labor of individual thought would accept its insertion into social thought and use preexisting ideas like any other tool furnished by the community. Yet there is already something quasi-divine in the effort, however humble, of a mind who reinserts itself into the life force which generates societies that generate ideas.
This effort will exorcize certain ghosts of problems which have plagued the metaphysicist, that is to say, each one of us. I am talking about those alarming and insoluble problems which have more to do with that which is not than with that which is. Such is the problem of the origin of being: "How can it be that something – material, mind, God – exists? There must have been a cause, and a cause of a cause, and so on indefinitely." And so we continue from cause to cause; and if we stop it is not because our reason does not look beyond, but rather because our imagination closes its eyes, as if above an abyss, to escape the vertigo. And so persists the problem of order in general: "Why should there be an ordered reality in which our thought is recovered as if in a mirror? Why isn't the world incoherent?" I say that these problems refer to that which is not more than with that which is. We would never be surprised, as it were, that something exists – material, mind, God – if we did not implicitly admit that it would be possible for nothing to exist. We figure – or better, we think we figure – that being came to fill a void and that nothingness logically preceded being: primordial reality – what we call material, mind, or God – would then add itself to this, a scenario which remains incomprehensible. Similarly, we would never ask why order exists if we did not think we had conceived of a disorder which would submit to reality and which, consequently, would precede it, at least ideally. Thus order would need to be explained, whereas disorder rightly would not require explanation.
This is the point of view that we risk taking as long as we only seek to understand. But let us try additionally to create (apparently, we can only do that through thought). When we dilate our will which we tend to reabsorb into our thoughts and sympathize more with the creative effort, these incredible problems retreat, diminish, and disappear. And that is because we sense that divinely creative willpower or thought is too rich and full, in its immensity of reality, for the idea of an absence of order or an absence of being to be able only to graze it. Representing the possibility of absolute disorder, and even more so of nothingness, would mean saying that it could not be the being of everything, and that would be a weakness incompatible with its nature, which is force. The more we consider the matter, the more abnormal and morbid seem the doubts which torment a normal and sane man. Let us recall the doubter that closes his window then returns to verify the closing, then verifies the verification, and so forth. If we were to ask him his reasons, he would reply that he could have reopened the window each time he tried as best he could to close it. And if he is a philosopher, he would intellectually transpose the hesitation in his behavior into this formulation of the problem: "How can one be sure, definitely sure, that one has done what one wanted to do?" But the truth is that his power to act is wronged, and here is where he suffers: he only had a semi-desire to carry out the act and that is why the act leaves him with nothing more than semi-certainty. Now can we solve the problem this man has given himself? Apparently not, but we will not give him such a problem: herein lies our superiority. At first glance, I would be able to believe that there is more in him than in me because both of us close the window, yet it is only he who raises a philosophical question. But the question with which he tasks himself is in reality nothing more than a negative; it is not more, but less; it is a deficit of willpower. This is precisely the effect that certain "big problems" have upon us when we place ourselves in the context of creative thought. They tend towards zero as we approach this context, being nothing more than the distance between the context and ourselves. And so we discover the illusion of the person who thinks he is doing more by tasking himself with such questions than by not tasking himself. It is very much like imagining that there is more in a half-consumed bottle than in a full bottle because the latter only contains wine, whereas the former contains both wine and emptiness.
But as soon as we intuitively perceive the truth, our reason resurfaces, corrects itself, and intellectually formulates its mistake. It has received the suggestion; it provides the check. Just like the diver on the ocean floor will feel and touch the wreck pointed out to him by the pilot high up the air, so will our reason immersed in the conceptual environment verify from point to point, through contact, analytically, what had been the object of a synthetic and supraintellectual vision. Without any warning from outside, the thought of a possible illusion would not have even grazed it because the illusion made up part of its nature. Shaken from its sleep, it will analyze the ideas of disorder, of nothingness and its congenerics. And it will recognize – if only for a moment, as the illusion will then immediately appear dispelled – that we cannot suppress an arrangement without another arrangement's taking its place, or replace one material without the substitution of another. Therefore "disorder" and "nothingness" really denote a presence – the presence of a thing or an order that does not interest us, which disappoints our effort or our attention. And it is our disappointment that is expressed when we call this presence an absence. In such a case, talking about the absence of all order and of all things – that is to say, of absolute disorder and absolute nothingness – would mean saying words devoid of sense, flatus vocis, since a suppression is simply a substitution envisaged on one of two sides, and the abolition of all order or of all things is a substitution of one side, the idea that has as much existence as that of a round square. So when the philosopher speaks of chaos and nothingness, he is doing nothing more than moving into the order of speculation – taken to the absolute and emptied there of all sense, of all effective content – two ideas made for practice which would then refer to a determined type of material or order, but not to all order and not to all material. From this point of view, what is to become of the two problems of the origin of order and the origin of being? They vanish; they vanish because they are only asked if we imagine being and order as "occurring," and consequently if we imagine nothingness and disorder as possible or at least conceivable. As it were, they are nothing more than words, a mirage of ideas.
May reason be penetrated by this conviction and be delivered from this obsession – only then will human thought breathe. It will no longer task itself with questions which retard its further progress.* It witnesses these difficulties vanish one by one, such as, for example, ancient Skepticism and modern criticism. It may also arrive at the side of Kantian philosophy and the "theories of knowledge" which emanate from Kantianism – and it doesn't stop there. As such, the very aim of The Critique of Pure Reason is to explain how a defined order can add itself to materials that are allegedly incoherent. And we know the price that we would pay for such an explanation: the human mind would impose its form on a "sensitive diversity" emanating from who knows where; the order which we find in things would be that which we ourselves impose. As a result, science would be legitimate but relative to our ability to know, and metaphysics would be impossible because there would be no knowledge beyond that of science. In this way, the human mind would be relegated to a corner like a schoolchild told to stand in the corner in punishment, prohibited from turning his head to see reality in the way it really exists. And there's nothing more natural if we have not noticed that the idea of absolute disorder is contradictory or, better, non-existent, a simple word by which we designate an oscillation of mind between two different orders. From this point of view, it is absurd to suppose that disorder logically or chronologically precedes order. The merit of Kantianism is to have developed this idea in all its consequences and presented it in its most systematic form, that of a natural illusion. But it has conserved it: Kantianism is in fact based upon this concept. Shed this illusion and we immediately bring back the human mind by science and metaphysics, by knowledge and by the absolute.
Thus we return to our starting point. We said that we needed to take philosophy to a higher level of precision, to place it in a position to resolve more specific problems, to make it an auxiliary and, if needed, a reformer of positive science. No more big system which embraces everything possible and sometimes also the impossible! Let us content ourselves with the real, material and mind. But let us also ask our theory to encompass the real so tightly that nothing, no other interpretation may slip between them. There will therefore be only one philosophy like there is only one science. Both will be created by means of a collective and progressive effort. And it is true that a perfection of the philosophical method will be imposed, symmetric and complementary to that which science once obtained.
* When we recommend a state of soul in which such problems vanish, let it be understood that we are only doing this to the problems which give us vertigo because they put us in the presence of the void. The quasi-animalistic condition of a being who never asks himself a single question is another matter, as is the semi-divine state of a mind who is not tempted to evoke, by an effect of human infirmity, artificial problems. For this privileged way of thinking the problem is always at the point of arising but is always arrested, whereby what is properly intellectual is stopped by its intellectual equivalent which sparks its intuition. The illusion is neither analyzed nor dissipated because it is not declared; yet it would be if it were declared; and these two antagonistic possibilities which are of an intellectual order are cancelled intellectually for not leaving room for anything apart from an intuition of the real. In the two cases we have cited it is the analysis of the ideas of disorder and nothingness which provide the intellectual equivalent of the intellectualist illusion.
No secrets and no sadness came,
Nor wisest will of destiny;
Encounters always left the same
Harsh print of battle's enmity.
This morning yet I guessed the hour,
That minute when you would return;
And my contorted hands did burn
In prickly, faint fear of your power.
The tablecloth, so bright in hue,
Was crumpled by dry fingers mine;
And it was then that I first knew
How baleful was this earth divine.
My eyes were often on the solemn old clock over the chimneypiece, which was my sole accomplice in keeping tryst in this iniquitous venture. The sky favored my design, and darkened all things with a sea of clouds.
We may concur with the above quote, taken from this novella, apart from the first five words of the second sentence. If it is sometimes impossible to detect from a first-person narrative whether or not the narrator is observant, awake, or even sane, a careful writer will allow him enough interaction with the world, often in dialogue with other characters, for the reader to make that assessment. In The Room in the Dragon Volant, this assessment is ultimately unkind; but the story, like its female protagonist, pulls us towards an eddy with irresistible charm.
Our time is that "eventful year, 1815," and our protagonist the aforementioned Mr. Beckett, an Englishman of twenty-three. As the tale begins he finds himself the heir to a decent fortune and elects to gallivant around France, a country whose language he speaks smoothly and correctly, and thereby to add to the "philosophical throng" of young people who hoped "to improve their minds by foreign travel" (a most admirable goal). We will learn a lot about Richard Beckett, especially about his weaknesses, the most egregious of which was supposed to have been purged from the European spirit around the year of Beckett's birth – but no matter. The first glance into his values, on the occasion of his helping a horse-drawn coach in distress, does not reassure us:
The arms that were emblazoned on the panel were peculiar; I remember especially one device – it was the figure of a stork, painted in carmine, upon what the heralds call a 'field or.' The bird was standing upon one leg, and in the other claw held a stone. This is, I believe, the emblem of vigilance. Its oddity struck me, and remained impressed upon my memory. There were supporters besides, but I forget what they were. The courtly manners of these people, the style of their servants, the elegance of their traveling carriage, and the supporters to their arms, satisfied me that they were noble. The lady, you may be sure, was not the less interesting on that account. What a fascination a title exercises upon the imagination! I do not mean on that of snobs or moral flunkies. Superiority of rank is a powerful and genuine influence in love. The idea of superior refinement is associated with it. The careless notice of the squire tells more upon the heart of the pretty milk-maid than years of honest Dobbin's manly devotion, and so on and up. It is an unjust world!
Beckett may not wish to be associated with "moral flunkies," but his subsequent actions make that comparison inevitable. The coach will turn out to belong to a certain Count de St. Alyre, and a much younger woman, "the daughter or wife, it matters not which." That "it matters not which" to our narrator, when it should very much matter, is justified to our incredulous ears by a series of statements on the Countess's misery and the rumored wickedness of her keeper. And so it is to this "beautiful Countess, with the patience of an angel and the beauty of a Venus and the accomplishments of all the Muses," that the idealistic and ingenuous Beckett will recur – but not before he makes the acquaintance of someone he would like to forget, a ghostly soldier called Colonel Gaillarde.
I have not mentioned the plot because the plot is so standard as to be better off left unscrutinized. Gaillarde and another fellow, a Marquis who claims to be incognito for reasons that may satisfy Beckett but should not satisfy us, hover in our hero's vicinity as he makes one bad decision after another. Le Fanu was an amazingly prolific writer who is remembered now mostly for this tale, which somehow has never done it for me. Surely, like everything he composed, Carmilla is a prolonged victory of style; yet, any story that allows supernatural elements to defeat the efforts of man must be of extraordinary interest, a point in which Le Fanu's lady vampire falls short. The real delight in a work like The Room in the Dragon Volant is how a very plain and pleasing plot whose secrets are discernible to even a callow reader can still remain so delicious. Beckett trusts the Marquis from the very beginning because of a mild confidence trick that would admittedly fool much greater minds; but after a bizarre sequence in a coach that could only spell doom for our protagonist, the Marquis inexplicably remains in his good books (perhaps this conceit is merely an attempt to record the sensations as they occurred at the time, since Beckett informs us he is now an old man reminiscing about his twenty-fourth year). Towards the middle of his adventure, Beckett is urged at a masked ball to consult an oracle on his innermost desires – as if they weren't stenciled in boldface on his sleeve, but anyway. The result is one of the novella's finest passages:
I had been trying to see the person who sat in the palanquin. I had only once an opportunity of a tolerably steady peep. What I saw was singular. The oracle was dressed, as I have said, very richly, in the Chinese fashion. He was a figure altogether on a larger scale than the interpreter, who stood outside. The features seemed to me large and heavy, and the head was carried with a downward inclination! The eyes were closed, and the chin rested on the breast of his embroidered pelisse. The face seemed fixed, and the very image of apathy. Its character and pose seemed an exaggerated repetition of the immobility of the figure who communicated with the noisy outer world. This face looked blood-red; but that was caused, I concluded, by the light entering through the red silk curtains. All this struck me almost at a glance; I had not many seconds in which to make my observation. The ground was now clear, and the Marquis said, 'Go forward, my friend.'
Go forward, indeed. Without giving much away, including what the oracle intuits regarding our gullible Englishman, we note that this scene more than any other explains Mr. Beckett's failings, although Beckett may not see it that way, despite the decades of hindsight that his narrative affords him. That leaves, I suppose, only one last thing unaccounted for, namely the airworthy lizard of our title. So if I were to tell you that the dragon were nothing more than a haunted hotel, I think you would be more than a little disappointed. Just don't ask why Beckett, even with his solid French, does not see the multifaceted humor in an individual being called Pierre de la Roche St. Amand. Or why he doesn't notice that he and the young Frenchman are precisely the same age.
The scare tales of contemporary cinema and, presumably, contemporary fiction (I am swathed in blissful ignorance with regard to the latter) have lost much of the creeping dread that makes us remember one story and discard another. The main impetus for such erosion is the lack of credence with which these stories are imbued – that is to say, we cannot believe them for a second since that time is far longer than their authors mulled the possibility of their truth. Admittedly, many modern monsters are either fantastic or the brainchild of sciences not yet available. For this reason they possess no enchantment, no hint of black lore, no glimmer of arcane and ancient wisdom: they are only there because they are abnormal, inhuman, often bloody and revolting, and all of this makes us want to stay home and count our blessings (or, nowadays, our silverware) that we are, in fact, normal and not under the spell of some sadistic fiend. That's all well and good, if more than a bit dull. True terror lurks in nightmares, hints of old evil, and shadowy landscapes where our destinies seem to be drawn ever so faintly against the night sky. All of which perfectly apply to this masterpiece of horror.
The title of the story is a well-known poem by this Scottish bard, so it's no coincidence that the destination of our protagonist – a professor of ontography by the name of Parkins – is a fictitious seaside hamlet called Burnstow. A dull and stolid soul with no belief whatsoever in the supernatural, Parkins's aim in traveling northward is to improve his golf game; but in the curiously self-conscious prologue, Parkins is briefed by a colleague that he would do well to visit the Templars' preceptory which, with the progressing tides, "must be down quite close to the beach now." Parkins is intrigued by the opportunity of trying his hand at something new since, according to our narrator, "few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously." Parkins then starts complaining that the only rooms untenanted at this low point of the season have two twin beds. "I don't quite fancy having an empty bed," he quips, quite unaware of the silliness of his observation, and certain facets of his mentality are elucidated through other remarks, punctuated by a comment from the author:
In repeating the above dialogue I have tried to give the impression which it made on me, that Parkins was something of an old woman – rather hen-like perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect. Whether or not the reader has gathered so much, that was the character which Parkins had.
This small addition allows us to pity Parkins, a somewhat arrogant boor, and sympathize with what will inevitably befall him. He indeed reaches Burnstow and wanders his way to the glorious ruins of the Templars, although a Colonel, another guest at the boarding-house, warns him not to breathe in the Papist fumes too deeply. After poking about the site with unfeigned glee, he comes across an object "of man's making – a metal tube about four inches long, and evidently of some considerable age." This he takes with him as he walks back past the golf courses and jetties to his boarding house for some repose.
As he walks backs, he espies a figure, "a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress." He returns to his room and discovers that the tube he pilfered is bronze and, more surprisingly, a sort of whistle. He cleans it and finds the following inscriptions:
FLE QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT
Parkins's grade-school Latin is able to render the second inscription correctly as "Who is this who comes?" (the first, which I will leave to your imagination or dictionary, should be read as "Fur – flabis, flebis!"), and decides that the easiest way to solve this conundrum is to blow the whistle:
He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles around. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird's wing somewhere outside the dark panes.
This is just the beginning of Parkins's ghastly stay. James was not kind to those with no imagination, especially if they were resistant to considering things or phenomena that could not be accounted for by the rudiments of modern science. As such, James gives Parkins poor Latin (James was a classically trained scholar); compares him to a member of this Hebrew sect known for their unimaginative and prudish adherence to legal stipulations (which Parkins doesn't even know whether the Old Testament mentions); has the events of the story take place near the Feast day of this apostle, perhaps the first empiricist; and enjoins that, "in his unenlightened days [Parkins] had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of ... particularly of one which catches most people's fancy at some time of their childhood." Yet it is the Colonel who best summarizes Parkins's plight: "It's no use talking, I'm well aware, but I expect that with you it's a case of live and learn." At least he's got one part right.
Like momentary shade of fall days past,
I wish to keep the germ of their ill ease,
This yellow leaf against the roadside leas,
This purest day, with shade its main repast;
Because these shades comprise burst beauty's seam,
Because these days hold peaceful agitation,
They bear, they lend to final inspiration,
The remnants of a dissipating dream.
Like the momentary shade of fall days past,
How one wishes to retain their early alarm,
And this yellow leaf fallen on the road,
And this clear day, so filled with shadows.
Because the shades of day are beauty’s surfeit,
Because these days are of a peaceful anxiousness,
They bear, they lend to final inspirations,The surfeit of a dissipating dream.
Before we come to the first verses of the Eastern Jewish poets I would like to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that you understand a great deal more of our idiom than you think.
I don't have any real worries about the effect it will have on each one of you tonight, yet I want the effect to be liberated if it is supposed to be so. This cannot occur, however, if many among you remain so afraid of our idiom as to summon this fear to your features and gestures. I do not speak of those who arrogantly oppose it. But fear of our idiom, fear coupled with a certain resistance on this basis is, in the end, quite understandable.
Were we to take a cautiously fleeting glance at our circumstances in Western Europe, this would be our position. Everything, so to speak, in its turn. We live in rather harmonious contentment; we get along when necessary; we do without one another when we see fit, and even in such conditions we still get along. From such order then who could understand the confusion our idiom presents and who would have any desire to do so?
Our idiom is the newest European language, only about four hundred years old and, in many ways, much newer. It still has not formed locutions with the clarity that we need. Its expression is short and fast. It has no grammar texts. Enthusiasts try to write grammars but our idiom is continuously being spoken and modified; it cannot rest. People cannot let it sit and pose for grammarians to depict. It is composed solely of foreign words. Yet these words also do not lie inert within the language, they display the haste and liveliness with which they were introduced. The migrations of peoples have filtered our idiom from one end to another. All this German, Hebrew, French, English, Slavic, Dutch, Rumanian, and even Latin is accepted into our idiom with unheedful curiosity; there is already enough power behind it to hold the languages together in this state. Thus no reasonable person would think of making this idiom into a world language, as close as it might actually come to being one. Only the cant of thieves enjoys extracting individual words because it has more use for them than for locutions and phrases. And because our idiom has long since been a language held in contempt.
Amidst this linguistic back-and-forth one does find some elements of known language rules. For example, our idiom originates from that time in which Middle High German passed into New High German. There were choices in the forms to employ, with Middle High German taking one form and our idiom the other. Or perhaps we could say that our idiom developed Middle High German forms with more logical consistence than did Modern German. One example is our idiom's rendition of "we are," mir seien (New High German: wir sind), a more natural development from Middle High German's sîn. Or we could say that our idiom stuck to Middle High German forms despite the rise of Modern German. Once a word entered the ghetto, it did not hasten to leave. For that reason we are left with forms such as Kerzlach, Blümlach, and Liedlach (New High German: Kerzchen, Blümchen, Liedchen, diminutives of candles, flowers, and songs, respectively).
And now into this language structure of rule and randomness flow dialects of our idiom. True enough, all our idiom can be said to be comprised of dialect, even the written language, if one actually has mastered the idiom in its written form. With all this evidence I feel that I have, at least provisionally, convinced most of you, ladies and gentleman, that you would not understand a word of our idiom.
Expect no help from the explanation of the compositions. If you cannot understand our idiom at this point no cursory explanation would be of aid. At best you would understand the explanation and note that it dealt with a difficult matter. Everything will run in this vein. For example, I can say to you:
Mr. Löwy will now, as he actually will, read to you three poems. First, "Die Grine" by Rosenfeld. These Grine are the German Greens, the Greenhorns, the new settlers in America. These Jewish emigrants proceed with their sullied luggage in a small group through a New York street. A crowd gathers, of course, stares at them in amazement, follows them, and then laughs. From this perspective our agitated poet then extrapolates these street scenes to include Jewry and mankind. One has the impression that as our poet speaks this same group of emigrants stumbles, although they remain quite far and out of earshot.
The second poem is by Frug and called "Sand and stars" (Sand und Sterne). In a bitter interpretation of a Biblical promise, we are likened to the sand beside the sea and the stars in the sky. And while we are certainly stepped on like the sand, when will the part about the stars come true?
The third poem is by Frischmann and called "The night is still" (Die Nacht ist still). One night a young couple chances upon a prudish scholar who is going to temple. Startled and fearing that have been betrayed, they then calm and comfort one another.
Now you see that such explanations have done no good.
On the basis of these clarifications you would look in the readings for what you already know – and what really is present you would not see. Fortunately, everyone who knows German can also understand our idiom since, quite broadly speaking, the external comprehensibility of our idiom is formed from German. This is an advantage over all other languages on earth, but there is quite rightly also a disadvantage: it appears to be almost impossible to translate our idiom into German. The connections between the two are so tender and meaningful that they do not need to be torn apart right away. Whenever our idiom is translated into German, only something insubstantial remains. Now, translate our idiom into French and some of it can be conveyed to the French, but in German this would be destroyed. Toit for example is not tot, nor does Blüt mean Blut.
But it is not only through German that you, ladies and gentleman, can understand our idiom – you may come a step closer. Not too long ago, at least, arose the reliable business language of German Jews. You can find this language whether you live in town or in the country; you can find it more in the East or the West as a closer or more distant precursor of our idiom, and many gradations have remained. For that reason the historical development of our idiom could have been traced as much in the depths of history as in the surface of the present time.
And you will come very close to our idiom when you consider that within you lies not only knowledge but power – power which allows you to understand our idiom in a sensitive manner. Only here can an explanation help; only here can information calm you so that you no longer feel excluded; only here would you be able to realize you cannot complain that you do not understand our idiom. This is paramount since with every complaint, our understanding and sympathy weaken. If you were not to move at all you would suddenly find yourself amidst our idiom. Once you have understood it – and our idiom is everything: words, Hasidic melodies, and the very essence of this Eastern Jewish actor – you will no longer be able to recall your previous peace of mind. And once you have sensed the true unity within our idiom, so strong that you become afraid – no longer of the idiom, but of yourself – you will not be able to bear these fears alone. You will not be able to bear them alone unless you also gain confidence from this idiom, confidence that can withstand this fear because it is stronger. Enjoy it as best you can! And if you lose this confidence tomorrow or later – and how could it remain in your memory from one single evening of readings! – then I hope that you will also have lost your fears. Because, after all, we do not wish to punish you.