Friday, January 13, 2012

The Skin I Live In: Almodóvar meets Seneca

Elena Anaya and a blurry Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live In

This week, with my friend Selena, I went to see the latest film by Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In. On my way by ferry to the cinema, I read a short essay on the Stoic philosopher, politician and playwright Seneca, who served the emperor Nero as tutor and advisor, and was ordered by him to commit suicide in 65 CE. As chance would have it, this turned out to be the perfect prelude to viewing Almodóvar’s film.

Most critics have not known quite what to make of The Skin I Live In, admitting that they enjoyed it, but at the same time complaining that it seems cold, and lacks the compassion that usually characterizes Almodóvar’s work. It seems to me that this confusion clears if The Skin I Live In is read as a drama in the spirit of Stoic tragedy. It is not designed to elicit compassion, but rather to generate what the Stoics called apatheia. In doing so, it is a salutory alternative to mainstream cinema that stickily endorses revenge rather than letting us see it, clearly and even joyfully, for what it is.

The apatheia cultivated by the Stoic is an attitude of happy indifference toward external events, designed to free one from passions, particularly anger and grief, that might otherwise arise in the face of undesirable changes in fortune. Seneca tells us that the person who achieves this emotional control is rare; the Stoic sage is like a phoenix, appearing perhaps once every five hundred years. He gives us no portraits of such exemplary figures in his tragedies, but swings to the opposite extreme, depicting the extremes of human passion, cruelty and suffering, to the point where some readers, including Erasmus and Diderot, have (mistakenly) speculated that playwright and the philosopher must have been two different men.

A contemporary rewriting of Seneca’s drama, Thyestes is showing as part of the Sydney Festival – the story involves bitter sibling rivalry for power, sexual infidelity, murder, and, the pièce de résistance, cannibalism, with Thyestes lured by his brother, Atreus, to unwittingly consume the cooked flesh of his own children. This might be read as a heavy-handed moral warning about the dangers of giving in to the lust for power (or haute cuisine), but Seneca’s dramatic style is far from such earnest didacticism.

There are didactic Stoic voices in his plays: nurses and advisors counsel Stoic dispassion – but their message is typically distorted and thrown back in their faces by the passionate and the powerful. And the spectator can only feel grateful for this, since his gory tales of greed, deception and violent revenge are undeniably enjoyable. As we see outrages, betrayals and acts of violence piling upon another with the kind of flamboyant excess that was later imitated by the playwrights of the Elizabethan era in England, the mood in the audience typically becomes increasingly cheerful and serene.

Perhaps Seneca is training us in Stoic indifference, not by providing us with impossibly tranquil models to imitate, but by parading extreme fluctuations of human emotion at such a rate that we cannot sustain a passionate response ourselves, but let go of any personal distress and settle into an engaged, but calm and light-hearted mood. This, it seems to me, is close to the apatheia the Stoics sought, which is misunderstood if it is seen as involving cold detachment from worldly life.

by Louise Bourgeois
Almodóvar’s film achieves a similar effect. It tells a fantastical tale about a plastic surgeon who uses transgenesis to create living skin, and experiments with it, illegally, on an extremely beautiful and flexible young woman who is living as a prisoner in his house. The story proceeds, and turns back on itself, via narrative twists involving rape, madness and murder, and secretive, violent family relations. As in the Thyestes, a major motive for the characters’ actions is the desire for revenge, which is depicted without moralistic judgment or justification. This being Almodóvar, there are also fabulous clothes, beautiful people, quirky jokes, gender puzzles and many appreciative references to the work of other artists, particularly that of the French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

In suggesting that Almodóvar’s film, like Seneca’s play, is likely to produce a response of apatheia, it should be clear that I’m not suggesting that it will put you in an ‘apathetic’ state – the connotations of the English word are quite different. It would be more apt to wonder whether the pleasure to be had from watching family members destroy one another isn’t uncomfortably close to the disreputable emotion of schadenfreude – malicious joy taken in the suffering of others.

A disturbing amount of contemporary film and literature seems to depend for its impact on stirring up nasty emotions, particularly that of morally justified vengefulness: we are encouraged to take pleasure in the suffering of certain characters because they “deserve” it, and to share in the vindictive joy of the ultimately triumphant hero, or often heroine, as she takes her revenge – I’d put Verhoeven’s film Black Book in this category, to take just one example. But such moralistic vindictiveness is not schadenfreude, and it is at the other end of the emotional spectrum from apatheia.

Schadenfreude is not moralistic. On the contrary, it is an amoral, even a guilty, or at least naughty pleasure. We know that morally, we’re not supposed to react to the suffering of others with delight; schadenfreude is never self-righteous, it is a joy that bubbles up, often in spite of efforts to appear more appropriately sober and sympathetically concerned. It can have a malicious, even sadistic edge, but it can also be quite innocent, the kind of spontaneous joy that makes us laugh at slapstick – or take pleasure in watching events driven by the worst elements of human nature unfold with relentless, unstoppable logic, on stage or on screen.

In part, such pleasure may come from feeling that we are safe on the shore, watching a shipwreck in the distance – most troubles of our own are mere soap-bubbles in comparison to the suffering of Thyestes. But if the Stoic playwright succeeds, then our enjoyment will extend to include our own suffering, regarded as part of a grand spectacle that can be watched with interest and calm delight.

After seeing The Skin I Live In, I left the cinema in high spirits. My book of Seneca’s essays remained unopened on the ferry ride that took me back across the harbour. Instead of reading, I sat outside and let the wind blow my hair about while I admired the delicate, luminous shades of lilac and purple produced in the evening sky by gleams of late, golden light between the clouds, and their undulating reflections in water stirred into wide ripples by the movement of the ferry. I felt a buoyant and expansive pleasure in the beauty of nature, an enjoyment that strangely enough – and Stoically enough - seemed connected to having just watched a stylish film about the hyperbolic suffering wreaked by the human desire for power and revenge. 

Louise Bourgeois 1911-2010

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Magic Mountain

Something odd is happening to me. I have started reading Thomas Mann’s great work, The Magic Mountain, or to give it its original title, Der Zauberberg. I’m told that the adjective “zauber” has slightly different connotations to the English “magic.” There are no cute, Disney-influenced overtones to the German word. Rather, it implies sorcery, possibly of a menacing kind.

Early after beginning the novel, I was overcome by sleepiness, and ended up dozing away most of an afternoon, waking flushed and groggy, feeling rather unwell. I forced myself out of the house for a short walk, did some meditation at a nearby Buddhist monastery, and took a longer walk through the bush to get home, enchanted by the magical sight of a fluffy baby lyrebird on the way. Feeling better after this excursion, I presumed I had just been exhausted after Christmas and New Years revels, and that the heat of the summer day had finished me off.

But the next day, when I took out the novel, something similar happened. I didn’t sleep so long this time, but woke with a strange pain in my left shoulder. This time, I thought some more strenuous exercise might be in order, so I went to the local swim centre and did my usual twenty laps in the outdoor pool. Towards the end of my swim, I started to feel congested. There was a sharp, prickling sensation in my chest. The sky clouded over and started to spit at me. I had to interrupt a lap to cough.

Having looked up the word “sputum” in the dictionary earlier in the day (it is of some importance in the novel) I wondered, while continuing to swim, if I was bringing up sputum, or merely phlegm. Would I soon need to carry around a flat bottle with me for the purpose of collecting samples for later examination by medical experts? It was a whimsical, if also disgusting thought – I was imagining myself as one of the consumptive patients living in the sanatorium described in Mann’s novel, set in the German Alps, a good deal higher than the Australian Blue Mountains where I live.

The routine of (largely horizontal) life in the fictional International Sanatorium Berghof is constructed around mealtimes, of which there are five daily: early breakfast, second breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea, and supper. The food is sumptuous and beautifully prepared. At the table where the main character of the novel, Hans Castorp is seated, the dishes are served by a dining attendant who also happens to be a dwarf.

Thomas Mann
I write this having first consumed my own “second breakfast” for the day, which consisted of an omelette with fresh sage and goats curd, à la Bill Granger, and a roast dandelion soy latte, with honey. I prepared and served this meal myself, which suggests that I am playing both the role of hero, or anti-hero (Castorp is defined by his mediocrity, supplemented with a penchant for philosophical musings – about time, mostly), and that of the dwarf who serves him. This confusion, or amalgamation of roles, can be put down to the fact that I am living in the early twenty-first century, under conditions of advanced capitalism and liberal democracy, whereas Mann’s characters belong to the period before the First World War.

In his novel, the appearance of a dwarf waitress is cause for a slight shock, and heightened politeness on Castorp’s part, quickly fading into simple acceptance of her presence as part of the peculiar status quo in the Berghof. This detail in the novel reminds me of stories I heard a few years ago about how a law firm in Sydney hired dwarves to serve the drinks at its staff Christmas party. I wonder if the organisers were aware that in light of Mann’s famous novel, this suggested that the partners of the firm were not only morally decadent, but likely to be ravaged by internal disease, beneath their flush, rosy-cheeked exteriors. Kim Kardashian might also like to take note.

At this point, I feel a certain obligation to come up with some incisive philosophical observations, supported by cogent historical examples, about the changing symbolism of illness, perhaps drawing on Susan Sontag’s contrast between the spiritualization of consumptives, who were seen to draw closer to God as their illness progressed, and the more recent attitude toward cancer patients, who are likely to feel blamed for their own illness, in line with what I would not hesitate to call the hyperbolic concept of personal responsibility that dominates contemporary Western culture. I might add to this analysis some consideration of AIDS and its interpretation via discourses of sin, messianic catastrophe and redemption (as illustrated in playwright Tony Kushner's Angels in America), and spare some thought for those forms of illness which remain unfigured in any major cultural tropes, negative or positive, and consequently fail to attract significant research funding leading to better treatment… 

But I find that lassitude is overtaking me, and realise that I have only a short time to wrap myself in a blanket (the weather here in the mountains having once again turned unseasonably cold) and take a quick kip on the couch before it will be time to meet my friend Nigel for lunch.