But who ... who will always send you white roses
on your birthday now? The vase will be empty, the little
breath of my life that blew around you once a year will
die away as well! Beloved, listen, I beg you ... it is the first
and last thing I ask you ... do it for me every year on your
birthday, which is a day when people think of themselves -
buy some roses and put them in a vase.
- Stefan Zweig, "Letter from an Unknown Woman"
and in that knowledge he sensed a tenderness / lying there like the whole of creation.
- Rilke, "From the Life of a Saint"
David Foster Wallace once noted that when we think about killing ourselves, most of us reflexively think of shooting ourselves in the head (he, of course, hung himself, but I tend to think of this as a matter of desperation and available resources). Indeed it is the thinking that torments - especially, pace Heidegger, when it eddies, when it doubles back habitually on itself, when it refuses, pace Nietzsche, to have done with what ought be considered dealt with. Who could blame us for - at our worst, when the chips are down - considering taking out the computer? Even the gravest of physical infirmities is compounded, made all the worse, by our having to think, exasperatingly, unto death, from within it. And grieving is a matter of thinking. When we observe animals in a state of grief - the mother grieving her dead or missing cubs, for example - I cannot help but conclude that we are also observing something like evidence of something like thinking. We cannot have done with the loved one who has moved on or passed away. Perhaps it is a place or a whole entire life-within-our-own-life (a microlife - that time we lived in Boston, say, or that time we lived with Veronica, who is now married to a dentist in Vancouver) that we grieve. It is not only an inability to have done with what ought be considered dealt with, but, as is popularly understood, an inability to let go. My central concern for some time has been with domains of love and domains of desire. A question is raised: is this inability to let go a problem related to love or to desire? My answer may seem surprising. When letting go becomes a problem, it is always as a matter of desire, precisely because letting go was always at-least-partially-consciously built into love in the first place. As always, desire is perhaps central to my world even at a cosmological level. Indeed, my tendency is to take Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire and stretch it into a teleology. I will reduce my whole world at its most essential to drives, flows, coursings, intensities, excitations. Desire. Desire desiring to go where desiring desires to go. And when we desire - when I desire - at its basis this is tantamount to a compulsion to devour, possess (even if in the context of radical instability), go after, and draw into my coursing that which it would please me to have join me. When I desire something - truly, madly, beyond reason, for the sake of having it, simply because I desire it - all at once I find space and time an obstacle. And though I do not understand space and time, not adequately comprehending advanced physics, I nonetheless know I am creaturily beholden to them. By the time I find myself desiring something or someone, both myself and the object of desire are already moving, already changing, and somewhere right away it is breaking my fucking heart. This is the core of the bittersweet in Sappho and Anne Carson. And there is always the threat that we will be driven mad by the fact that nothing can ever be possessed. Both love and desire are grappling with finitude and the insatiable. The difference is that love - adult love - knows it and is founded on it. Love is, above all, a matter of comportment in relation to desire. Love has struck me for a long time as a monumentally complicated set of concepts about which we are habitually lazy - we say "I love you" and mean all kinds of goddamn things - and for some time I thought I understood it best, paradoxically, having grown up a staunch atheist, in relation to the supplicant's love before God. And I had my ideal supplicant. It was Jeanne d'Arc. More to the point, it was Jeanne as represented in two movies, Carl Theodor Dreyer's La passion de Jeanne d'Arc and Robert Bresson's Procès de Jeanne d'Arc. Jeanne is the supplicant. She gets on her knees, having devoted herself to faith and service, and asks to be shown the way. When she sees that the way is toward an unimaginably awful death, she finds her way through anguish and terror to acceptance and surrender. Supplication and surrender also exist in romantic love. We supplicate by giving ourselves to the beloved and asking that he or she give his or herself to us as well. We surrender by acknowledging finitude; that we are already losing one another. Devotion is always a giving of ourselves that has to end. Ideally it would end cleanly in surrender and acceptance. It seldom does. Our brains and our desire upend us. We want to cradle the object of desire for an infinite moment that will never recede, and that is the root of our folly. The supplicant. Is the ultimate amorous mimesis for Jeanne on her knees in prayer not the suitor on his knees proposing marriage? But marriage. It seems like an institution more suited to the corrupting influence of phallic desire than to the reification of love (as a concept, if not necessarily as a social practice). After all, institutions exist in order to regulate anarchic forces, and in the case of marriage what is often being explicitly regulated is female sexuality. It is not only a phallic institution, but originally a feudal one, involving a trade in young people. A marriage is a thing in which a great many women could be said to have found themselves confined, and it is very much a characteristic of phallic desire that it seeks to confine. The finest work of fiction we have on the subject of a woman held in a man's captivity is Proust's The Prisoner, the section of In Search of Lost Time in which Albertine is held hostage by the narrator Marcel's paranoid jealousy. (Chantal Akerman adapted The Prisoner as La captive in 2000, and it is very much as far as I am concerned one of the very greatest films ever made, but I would be diverting my course even further if I were to go on about it (as it ought to be gone on about).) It is notable that no novelist has anatomized this state of affair more masterfully than Proust, precisely because it is Proust, along with Rilke, who has written most eloquently of love as something transitory that occurs, and occurs with an unparallelled capacity to move us, between two people who happen to be passing in separate directions. Suffice it to say that phallic desire is always trying to put the bodies that excite it in confinement. Marriage can be a metaphor or symbol for such confinement, but the cinema effortlessly offers bolder and more unforgiving ones. There is of course the cold and cruel castle of terrors Pasolini translates from de Sade into fascist Italy by way of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, where the profanation and desecration of beautiful young bodies becomes an almost-unthinkable comedy of fascism-as-impotence. An even better example, and far less frequently discussed, is Alain Robbe-Grillet's Successive Slidings of Pleasure, where Anicée Alvina plays a sexualized prisoner, potential perpetrator of a kinky lesbian sex murder, who serves as a wildly unstable object of desire for all of the men (and, you know, nuns or whatever) in the film - indeed sex object before the capital-S State itself. She cannot be contained precisely because she continues to assert her own twisted sexuality in captivity and because as long as she remains a part of the erotic equation, we are promised a world of chaos and entropy. There are scenes where she is covered in red paint and leaves sanguine prints of her own body on the white walls. We are given a reenactment of the anthropometries of Yves Klein. But red, not blue. Red like menstrual blood. Red like the blood that is not on Lady Macbeth's hands but nonetheless is (which is very different from saying 'the blood that Lady Macbeth hallucinates she has on her hands'). The investigators and the bumbling sleuths, the captors as well, embody phallic desire. The woman and the crime, the site of meaning in a world that refuses to cohere to a regime of meaning, is the feminine. This is a film about a sick and distorted phallic desire, but also about resistance to it; emancipatory sexuality, forces that destabilize. The appeal for me is purely erotico-political. This stuff, though it may titillate or radicalize or both, cannot make me cry. Love can make me cry. Love in the movies can make me cry. And the best part about love in the movies is that it can do so without threatening to destroy my desiring mind. Real life can offer me no such promise. When I try to love in my own life, my thinking can occasionally go off the fucking rails. I usually start thinking about love and desire, as I think about most important things, from a peaceful and abstracted place. I woke up one morning last week. Peaceful. I immediately found myself thinking of Hitchcock's Notorious. I think about Notorious now and then. And when I think about Notorious, I think about the kiss. If you can even call it a kiss. The embrace, kissing and talking ... the stupor. I remember a dream I had a number of years ago. It left a significant imprint upon my psyche. In the dream I met a woman. It had been a long time since I had felt safe giving myself over to a relationship in waking life, but in this dream I was in this new glorious relationship, and I was full of unimaginable elation and purpose. We were to be married. At the wedding I spoke to my beloved and her female friend about Hitchcock. I asked them what their favourite Hitchcock was. They both named a Hitchcock movie that does not actually exist in real life. I told them, the happiest moment in my life, that my favourite was Notorious, because: the kiss. Years later I awake, again thinking about the kissing. Of course, this kissing happens on a hotel balcony and in a hotel room in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics happened to be occurring at that very moment. I had to throw the movie on to appease myself. We first meet Alicia Huberman, a circumspect, guarded, and composed woman, played by the luminescent Ingrid Bergman, as an American judge is passing sentence upon her Nazi father. When we next see her she is drunk and getting drunker, holding court at home with a bevy of guests, letting her guard down. One of her guests is a stranger: Devlin, as rendered by Cary Grant. When Alicia meets Devlin her guard is down, she is drunk, and though she is immediately clearly attracted to this man, she was already in a kind of swoon. The protracted kiss later in the film is also a kind of yielding swoon. It was apparently shot the way it was - the kiss being interrupted for bits of dialogue, the lovers moving from the balcony into the hotel room - because the production code had rules about how long a couple could kiss uninterrupted, and Hitchcock merely found a way to sustain these insane sexual pyrotechnics for as long as possible. It remains truly one of the greatest set-pieces in all cinema. It should be noted, however, that what we are watching is of course primarily desire rather than love. Desire doesn't only desire to possess, desire can also desire to capitulate, to yield. What is remarkable about Bergman's yielding swoon, however, is that it is so heartbreaking and moving. It were as though she were breaking through something substantial, in a kind of sustained amorous inebriation, in order to finally give of herself. Perhaps, then, there is something of love in this. This giving. And then the story has her in a sense martyr herself. Devlin is a secret agent working for American intelligence and he suddenly finds himself having to persuade Alicia, for whom he is falling, to infiltrate a group of Nazi conspirators in Rio in order to subvert their plans. To do so she must marry one of the members. A sham marriage. Alicia concedes, not because of some deep political conviction, but ultimately because of a kind of giving that has been rudely set off course. Implicit in this is the knowledge that what she and Devlin had on that balcony in Rio was something transitory, but something that will always have mattered, and will always inform what is to come. Here the subject of love enters the picture. Eventually Devlin will rescue Alicia from her faux husband and mother-in-law's plot to poison her, the ruse having been uncovered, and this time Devlin will heroically carry Alicia out of the lair of Nazis draped in his arms like a bride over the threshold. Alicia is basically dying at this point and is unquestionably in full swoon. Although Notorious is a total masterpiece, it strikes me as unsatisfactory as an investigation of love. It has something of love to it, though: desire + mutual aid (plus the characters are at times admirably prepared to give one another space, something love by necessity absolutely permits). This giving that love entails: how shall we elucidate it? I remember seeing Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty when it came out in 1996. I was a teenager. I really didn't care that much for the movie, but I recall even now being tremendously struck by a line declared by one of the actresses: I remember it explicitly as "there is no love; there is only proof of love." The line hit me hard. Interestingly enough, Bertolucci's next feature, 1998's Besieged, was explicitly about that sentiment, and it was a movie that meant a lot to me. The internet attributes the "there is no love; there are only proofs of love" quote to both Pierre Reverdy and Jean Cocteau, but I can swear I remember reading an interview with Bertolucci around at the time of Besieged, where, mentioning the quote, he says he got the line from Pasolini. Besieged, if it is about love, is about love as a selfless giving without hope of reward. Dedication. David Thewlis's Jason is prepared to give Thandie Newton's Shandurai, who is nominally his maid, anything to show her his love. This ultimately includes rescuing her husband from political imprisonment in Africa, and returning him to her. The ultimate "proof of love" in cinema, however, would have to be the central, organizing letter in Letter from an Unknown Woman. Max Ophüls's 1948 Hollywood film is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's incredibly powerful work of short fiction (really somewhere between short story and novella) of the same name. The letter in the movie is the central object (object of proof) within the work as well as the central organizing agent of the narrative. In Zweig's prose piece it is the bulk of the text itself. This is a rare example of a film adaptation improving upon the already-masterful prose piece it adapts (the other example I can think of at this moment is Cronenberg's Crash). The reason the film is superior is actually because the vision is more encompassing and dense, but also because the feelings and the sentiment are writ upon flesh and in the gaze. Absence is physically powerful. The "incorporeal and passionate" woman of the prose fiction, becomes a living ghost and heartrending after-image (in both the Zweig and the Ophüls, which diverge in so many ways, we are to understand that this letter was written by a woman who is deceased by the time it is read). The letter is a proof, testament to a love - a consummate, devout, and consuming love, born of impossible-seeming (even monstrous) desire - about which the man who is reading the letter, and is its intended recipient, remained unaware the entire time it coursed through his world. I have always thought that alcohol is an unspoken agent in this story. I think of the man who receives the letter (R., a famous novelist, in the Zweig, Stefan Brand, a famous composer, in the Ophüls movie) as a heedless libertine who has failed to recognize the woman who loves him the two times she has reentered his life, not only because of the abundance of lovers he has had, but because his life has been lived in inebriation and dissipation. Regardless, it is the letter of a dead woman that opens his eyes to a profound devotion to which he was blind. The movie again is far more powerful because it ends with Stefan Brand deciding to offer himself up to likely death in a duel with an it-is-said-extremely-adept-in-such-matters gentleman that he had originally intended to avoid - a mortal responsibility he had sought to shirk. The only way Brand can do justice to the revelation he has experienced, and the love which now informs his life, is to offer up that life in somnolent capitulation. In the movie we see in love the passage toward two deaths. However, the Zweig prose piece does something better than the movie (apart from refusing to sanitize the level of debasement to which the letter-writer allows herself to sink in service to the amorous object): it demonstrates more directly that the the love of the woman for the man to whom she writes is born of a desire and a pursuit which is actually deeply aberrant and totally fucked up. Indeed if love exists here in the giving and in the farewell, there is a twisted and self-destructive desire implicit throughout in the silent pursuit and the overwhelming pining existence to which the woman has subjected herself. There is something else I love in the Zweig: the white roses. The writer of the letter has been buying R. white roses every year on his birthday, just like the white rose he has no recollection of having given her on their first night together lo those many years before. She implores R to continue buying himself roses on his birthday as homage to the love that now newly informs his world. A gift, then, a proof, that refuses to stop giving, to stop proving, for the duration of R.'s life. Though those we love are passing away from us, they will have always been there. We remain ghosts, traces, proofs, even when both parties have been extinguished as living beings, as desiring consciousness in flow. What of lasting reciprocal love? What are we to make of it? Where are we to find it? Not in Letter from an Unknown Woman, of course. There are not a lot of movies about lasting amorous relationships that can make me cry. But there is at least one, and it is one that when I announce my abiding passion for I tend to be met met with incredulous perplexity in my interlocutors. It is David Fincher's F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation (the original was decidedly not a great work of literature) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie I hold to be the greatest love story in recent memory - indeed one of the greatest ever. Benjamin (remarkably rendered by Brad Pitt) is aging backwards, that is from old man to little boy. Benjamin expresses the core tragedy of his predicament when he asserts that he is "getting younger, all alone." He is. But we are each of of us getting older on our own. Ideally we experience transitory and deep connection during that time. Benjamin's is a biological reversal, but in fascinating ways it also informs how he develops mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. His love for Daisy, then, which he carries with him for most of his life, is a love complicated by what Daisy herself calls "kismat." This is fate as compromised by incongruent realities. Because the couple are aging in opposite directions, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button offers a unique distillation of the idea of lovers on separate trajectories (though we absolutely mustn't forget that all lovers are on such trajectories). Indeed it is in the middle that true amorous reciprocity exists. Daisy herself says it: though they have always loved one another, they have spent most of their lives unable to be together, and they are "meeting in the middle." Part of what is so moving about this movie to me as I enter my late thirties, is that it presents middle age as the ideal time for romantic love (how many Hollywood movies do that !?!). Death hovers over all love. Over all desire as well, though desire I find often seeks to dispel this fact. Benjamin is reared in a halfway house for senior citizens approaching death. Death is an ever-present fixture in his early life. It is one of the residents of the house who first lays out the conditions of love for him: "We’re meant to lose the people we love," she avers, "how else would we know how important they are to us?" But the love will always have been loved. It remains imprinted on the spirit of the All, it leaves its ghosts, traces, and proofs. And it is carried to the grave by the second one to arrive there. Desire in many cases does a serviceable job of momentarily replicating the infinite moment it seeks to entrench, perhaps in a single embrace (as upon the balcony in Notorious, a balcony to which I cannot stop returning). And art. Great art itself approximates immortality. This is represented slyly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a moment after Benjamin returns from World War Two and reconnects with Daisy. Together they look at Rudyard Kipling's Old Man Kangaroo at five in the afternoon, from a book that meant something to them when they were very little and their love was something all together far more impossible. The image on the page remains the same. It always will. They do not. They encounter it from the standpoint of two distinct new vantages. These are two people alone together on their separate trajectories, catching their curious reflection in the river of time. That is love.
Old Man Kangaroo