THE EXHAUSTION OF
KARL KRAUS IN THE
LAST DAYS OF MANKIND.
In a magnificent book entitled Karl Kraus en los últimos días de la humanidad [Karl Kraus in the Last Days of Mankind], recently published, Adan Kovacsics uses an innovative structure to talk about the Centre-European writer. A mixture of biography and essay, of text compilation and reflections on the currency of his thought, the volume is built fragmentarily, offering a huge puzzle that the reader must compose and solve. However, you might ask yourselves, does Kovacsics propose a conclusion? I’d say he proposes many, but one of the ones I’ve found more interesting has to do, of course, with language. The moral degradation of the in-between wars period, and obviously of Nazism, is for the author the origin of our times, something not very promising. And the reduction of language to an every time simpler mechanism, the loss of its values as a true reflector of thought, and for that reason the link that united them both, language and thought, up to a point in history, give shape to a still pervading state and which would agree with that film by Nicholas Klotz, La question humaine, on the world of contemporary companies understood as direct heiresses of Nazi methods.
But not only the Nazis were to blame, maybe they were only the tip of the iceberg of a much more complex situation. Kovacsics, for instance, portrays Kraus denouncing the progressive impoverishment of journalists’ language already in the years after World War I, something that, according to both, “had taken humanity to such a state of lack of imagination that it lead it to ‘an extermination war against itself’”. Was Nazism not only capitalism’s final solution to perpetuate itself, but also the involuntary product of certain liberal, even intellectual, classes that allowed the degradation of the social context up to the point of preparing the ground for any kind of totalitarianism, no matter how horrible? It’s a disturbing question and, I insist, one that makes the same sense today, most of all in a country such as ours. Everything is a result of that “emptying of the word” that Kovacsics refers to, something that was already ceasing to be what it had been before: “that which compromises man with himself and with the world.”
AN ESSAY ON FATIGUE.
Another book, Indisposición general. Ensayo sobre la fatiga [General Indisposition. An Essay on Fatigue], recently published as well, impels me to follow the same paths. Its author is Martí Peran, an Art Theory professor and essayist that here seems to agree with Byung-Chul Han and other denouncers of our current state of malaise. What is it about? About that fatigue that seems to have become chronic in all of us, and which, under the apparent logic of creativity and identity –also in the intellectual sphere: the author declares being part of all this madness–, hides an incessant productivity, a practical eulogy of capitalism, which has finally managed that we don’t stop working a single minute, not even when it seems that we’re taking care of ourselves, not even in our spare time, which is becoming more and more productive. Indeed, what Peran calls the “self-production of identity”, our opinions and photographs running around that mysterious place called the Internet, turns our free time into another type of social constructivism. Each individual manufactures him/herself to sell him/herself to a global market, not only a working market, but also a market of emotions. Pay attention to how Peran explains the nature of this new totalising (or totalitarian?) capitalism: “If industrial capitalism produced goods with an exchange value and post-Fordian capitalism oriented itself towards the production of subjectivity, today the surplus value is centred in the self-production of identity. The logic of self-exploitation of the subject has imposed its rules, having the subject occupied in itself full time. The rhetoric of entrepreneurship and ideological publicity are very clear about it. […] This new productive motto –make yourself– provokes a generalised nervous hyperactivity. Each moment we find ourselves under the obligation of taking infinite little decisions in all fields (work, emotional, social…) that supposedly confirm us and give us visibility, but which have become the new work force: noting closes and this guarantees a benefit generated by the constant action of restlessness. The subject is already mistaken with the never-ending movement of his own alienation.”
Before this situation, Peran says, the only possible solution is realising, in the sphere of individual imagination, an old aspiration of Nietzschean roots: taking life towards the external side of itself and expanding it, substituting old melancholy for the defence of our “right to fatigue”. Beyond this, however, we’re surprised by the similitude between the “exhaustion of language” painted by Kovacsics when analysing Kraus and the “general exhaustion” that seems to have settled in our contemporary societies for good. It was logical. In the same way in which language started talking too much when it ceased to make sense, bodies have started to produce too much when they have seen themselves pestered by the constant threat of programmed free time. What to do during our “spare time” but consume ourselves, become protagonists of TV programmes, of uncountable selfies, of celebrations that are linked one with the next, of our own emptiness that we mean to pass on to our children, who at the same time continue this logic with their friends, their lovers, their trips, their studies…? Will there ever be a possibility of rest for all of us? And still more important, that rest, from existing, will bring an idea of “disappearance”, of what David Le Breton calls “whiteness” in his book Desaparecer de sí [Disappearing from oneself] (“a state of absence from oneself, more or less pronounced”, “a certain bidding farewell of oneself, provoked by the difficulty of being oneself”) or will it take radical action to really change the meaning of this delirium? The good old dilemma: scepticism or revolution?
KNIGHT OF CUPS.
I think of Kovacsics’ and Peran’s books while I watch Knight of Cups, the last Terrence Malick film (still not premiered here). On the one hand, it closes the trilogy initiated by The Tree of Life and To the Wonder with absolute coherence because it proposes a spiritual vision of the world and of our own function in it with a vehemence and a conviction that will irritate some and captivate others, as already happened with the previous films. On the other, maybe the most important thing, we see the way in which Malick has ended up with a style resembling no other and, at the same time, taking roots in a great tradition of the history of film. How can we explain this apparent contradiction?
Knight of Cups can be easily summarised: someone wants to disappear, but life won’t allow him to. It’s Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood scriptwriter who has failed in all of his sentimental relationships and now roams about a city that looks like many others, looking for we don’t know what, maybe redemption, maybe death. But Malick refuses to expose this in a dramatic way; he renounces any kind of conventional explanation. The characters appear and disappear with no motives, in a way that could turn the urban landscape into a modified replica of the abstract and metaphorical settings of the sacramental acts, or maybe those cities that appear in Samuel Beckett’s novels, at the same time real and invented, or maybe the allegorical places included in The Divine Comedy, for example. In fact, we’re not seeing a realist adventure, but a dream-like one, an art form taking us back to the Middle Ages through film, and which has more to do with a moral parable than with narration. The women in Rick’s life (including Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman) don’t face him in home tableaux, and are neither put on the scene through arguments or tricky dialogues, although there’s a bit of that. However, what calls our attention even more is that it is all suggested through allusions to the past, a past that is at the same time included in the supposed present we are living, with the resulting disappearance of diegetic time in its more conventional sense. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is liberated, it won’t look in frames, but glide between human figures and objects granting visibility to the air among all of them, making Malick’s “floating style” more necessary than ever: we’re talking about bodies that could be souls and vice-versa, since Knight of Cups takes place in the limbo of atonement, in the purgatory of someone expecting the final decision on his fate.
But Malick’s style doesn’t come out of the blue, as I was saying, rather from a film heritage that he might not consciously borrow from, but which agrees with Walter Benjamin, and then Georges Didi-Huberman, when they talk about constellations of images, a concept at the same time used by Aby Warburg. I mean that I place a scene from Knight of Cups side by side with, for example, another from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte, and I can see the place certain elements come from. For example, the idea of the character roaming about, taken to the extreme by Malick, was already present in the Marcello Mastroianni of that film. And talking about Mastroianni, why not seeing Knight of Cups as Malick’s particular version around Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, another film about the world of film and its failures, in which someone roams about his present and his past without placing any importance on the borders between one and the other? Ingmar Bergman or 70s Carlos Saura tried it too, and it has become common ground of a certain kind of cinematographic narration. From the moment in which the shot ceases to exist, partly thanks to Lubezki, time delimitations that establish the unity of meaning cease to be important as well, and thus everything is allowed: more than appearing, the people who have had some importance in Rick’s life are invoked by his own thought, by a voice-over calling them, or simply mentioning them, and there they become present, no matter the time they belong to. In one go, we question the notions of “script”, “character”, “drama”, “space-time”… And we’re only left with a body-soul roaming around and around an infernal city that is at the same time the stage of his life, a mixture of people alive and death, love and indifference, trying to make sense of all of it.
I say all this because Knight of Cups could be the perfect representation of the current state of “exhaustion” or “fatigue”, of the “disappearance” and the “dissolution” we talked about at the beginning when mentioning the books by Adan Kovacsics and Martí Peran. The language of film is reaching a level of exhaustion very similar to what Karl Kraus defined. In many current films, shots are already devoid of meaning, for good or for bad. And in that, Malick’s film is convincing and crystal-clear: we shoot like this because we cannot do it any other way, but we’ll have to extract new meaning from these ruins of film language. And we do it this way because the character’s restlessness won’t allow us to do it any other way, his constant movement, this hyper-activity that has obliged him to construct himself all his life to find, at the end, that what’s left it’s only a de-construction of himself. The rest are non-connected fragments, glimpses. In this sense, one might accuse Malick of being a visionary, a fundamentalist, a spiritualist, but we can’t forget the radical critique of contemporary language and identity that a film such as Knight of Cups is doing. And neither that it does it from a point of view that is strictly moral, both in what refers to the ethics of image as to a rejection of a capitalist immorality present in the orgies it portrays, yes, but also in the roots of an economic system that has created all that existential unease.
Rick is tired, but he can’t stop walking, can’t stop roaming about the remnants of his life. Rick can no longer talk; he can’t use language if it isn’t in a monologue trying to establish links between the different episodes of his life, sometimes being unable to, trying to extract a kind of lesson. Films are also tired, but they resist. How can they do so? By re-assessing the language that they once defended. Is mise-en-scène still useful, that way of ordering life in a world in which any kind of moral order has disappeared? Is roaming the only thing the camera can now do, as Rick, looking for sparks of the former dazzling beauty that films used to be? Is disappearing the only solution, and thus renouncing to human nature? Be it as it may, Knight of Cups proves that films might have lost their narrative power, that they might not even be able to invent anything beyond what they already invented, but it also proves that there are other ways of capturing this, and that a film can be a theoretical treatise about it, in the same way that Kovacsics and Peran’s books could perfectly be films of our times, attempts of retrieving a language that, deep down, was once in the origin of film.