The Bond of the Furthest Apart
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The Bond of the Furthest Apart

Essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bresson, and Kafka

Sharon Cameron

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eBook - ePub

The Bond of the Furthest Apart

Essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bresson, and Kafka

Sharon Cameron

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About This Book

In the French filmmaker Robert Bresson's cinematography, the linkage of fragmented, dissimilar images challenges our assumption thatweknow either what things are in themselves orthe infinite ways in which they are entangled.The "bond" of Sharon Cameron's title refers to the astonishing connections found both within Bresson'sfilms and across literary works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Kafka, whose visionary rethinkingsof experience are akin to Bresson's in their resistance to all forms of abstraction and classification thatsegregate aspects of reality.Whether exploring Bresson's efforts to reassess thelimitsof human reason and will, Dostoevsky's subversions of Christian conventions, Tolstoy's incompatible beliefs about death, or Kafka's focus on creatures neither human nor animal, Cameron illuminates how the repeatedjuxtapositionof disparate, even antithetical, phenomena carves out new approaches to defining the essence of being, one where the very nature of fixed categories is brought into question. An innovative look at a classic French auteur and three giants of European literature, The Bond of the Furthest Apart will interest scholars of literature, film, ethics, aesthetics, and anyone drawn to an experimental venture in critical thought.

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Year
2017
ISBN
9780226414232

1

Animal Sentience: Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar

In Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar a young girl, who we discover is dying, looks on without expression, one might almost say without interest, or with interest dulled by her invalidism, from a supine position on a couch as the camera shifts to two still younger children, the objects of her attention: Marie and Jacques taking a pinch of salt to feed Balthazar, a baby donkey.1 In a second scene—while Marie and Jacques, on a swing, gaze infatuatedly at each other—again on the sidelines, the young girl sits upright on a stretcher and herself feeds the donkey salt. But the carefree mood of the beautiful summer day suddenly darkens when the girl, given a spoon of medicine by an attendant, puts her head in her hand and cries at its bitter taste (fig. 1.1).2 In a third scene the girl’s father bids farewell to her as she lies fully dressed, as if laid out for burial. As the attendant props up the body so that a rimmed hat can be removed, we see she isn’t dead, but has only fallen asleep in Sunday clothes (fig. 1.2). Although the girl is a minor character (whose actual death is reported later), what she models isn’t minor.3 She is the image of mourning at the taste of the bitter medicine. She is an image of death, which is the bitter medicine. She is at once a spectator looking on from the sidelines and the spectacle being regarded. Death is what the girl cries at when she takes the bitter medicine. Death is what she mimics when she falls asleep in her clothes. The scene in which the girl sleeps prefigures her death and recalls the tears she sheds at its anticipation. Yet the fate that is the dying girl’s is not in fact unique. Rather, its manifestations—the deaths of Arnold (the film’s vagabond), Marie’s father, and Balthazar—are those of the fate that is anyone’s, even as the versatility of these representations (death from illness, death from grief, death from drink, death from a bullet) resists universalizing. Moreover, the space of death occupied by the girl in her Sunday clothes is also occupied by Marie at the film’s end, kneeling and naked, with her back to the camera, after GĂ©rard’s gang has stripped and beaten her (fig. 1.3). These inverse images (dressed up and naked) are drawn together and linked to death by the objectification of the body in the lifelessness of the countenance immobilized by sleep and in the blankness of the naked back, which registers Marie’s effacement.4
FIGURE 1.1
FIGURE 1.2
FIGURE 1.3
I have begun by looking at images of sentience and its extinction (the dying girl, and Marie, in her nakedness, another dying girl), because they immediately indicate how Balthazar fastens images into a relation that subtends the film’s donkey story. Such representations of embodiment reveal Bresson’s film to be incongruously elemented of a reductive, yet enhanced, hence mysterious, materialism. To anticipate the strands my argument will draw together: in Bresson’s film, materialism radiates from all embodied forms—the human and the animal—revealing a similitude so unthinkable (so appalling to think) that resistance to the identification of human and animal bodies provokes cruelty to the animal, even as its beauty at other moments fascinates with an allure apparently devoid of human counterpart.
“Images will release their phosphorus only in aggregating,” Bresson wrote, capturing his belief that in cinematography, “an image must be transformed by contact with other images. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red.”5 The aesthetic of juxtaposition and recomposition is of particular interest in Au hasard Balthazar, in which a donkey is acquired by different owners at whose hands he suffers and ultimately dies, because through the filmic congruence of animal and human bodies that are brought into relation rhythmically rather than narratively, we are made to rethink the meaningfulness of distinctions that separate animal and human forms of embodiment—specifically, we are asked to rethink the roles of reason and will in making us who we are.6 One aspect of Bresson’s genius involves the decoupling and reassociation of images to form novel relations. It could be said of film in general that, in Steven Shaviro’s words, its “dematerialized images . . . are the raw contents of sensation, without the forms, horizons, and contexts that usually orient them. And this is how film crosses the threshold of a new kind of perception . . . non-intentional and asubjective.”7 But Bresson’s films italicize this fracturing and relinkage of images. Such “parcelling,” writes Gilles Deleuze of montage in the films of Bresson, Alain Resnais, BenoĂźt Jacquot, and AndrĂ© TĂ©chinĂ©, produces “a whole new system of rhythm. . . . Instead of one image after the other, there is one image plus another”—a strategy Bresson identified with unforeseen manifestations of extremity: “Dismantle and put together till one gets intensity” (N 55).8
What has not been remarked upon, however, is that this technique in which independent images are linked in a fragmented virtual space, visible in all Bresson’s films, has a specific effect in Au hasard Balthazar, where it becomes a resource for an exploration of the kinship between human and animal forms of embodiment. In the film’s transplanted images and in the radical ellipses between narrative sequences (which cross and become entangled without being integrated), characteristics that separate the animal from the human are at once scrupulously italicized and paradoxically weakened, or rather, notwithstanding such distinctions, the animal and the human are brought right up against each other for the spectator to examine the meaningfulness of such distinctions. In visually and aurally associating animal and human beings, Bresson participates in a debate about what kind of alterity animal and human beings reflectively constitute for one another. Bresson does not take up the question of the animal in relation to Martin Heidegger’s famous disparagement: “The stone . . . is worldless; . . . the animal is poor in world; . . . man is world-forming.”9 Nor does he engage in an effort like Jacques Derrida’s to reclaim an honor for the animal in which the latter’s difference is not “privation.”10 And, unlike Giorgio Agamben, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela, he does not explore the traces that affiliate the animal with the human or that bind discrete species in an alliance outside of filiation.11 (Needless to say, these characterizations of complex philosophical positions ought ideally to be elaborated.) Rather, as I explain, Bresson visually holds the animal up to the human in a series of rhythmic gestures without discursive argument. Or, if the film explores a common ground shared by the animal and the human, such a foundation could be specified in relation to the involuntary and to the “matter [men and women] are made of” (N 47) that compels it, to which Bresson inimitably discovers a corollary—even an essence—in the materiality of the animal.12
But I also want to suggest that in Balthazar the filmic proximity of animal and human forms of embodiment has a frictive relation to the film’s frame narrative.13 What is stunning about the contesting of the film’s narrative is that it is not any story that is challenged in Bresson’s Balthazar. Rather, insofar as the film begins with a mock baptism of the donkey and concludes with his brutal killing on a hillside surrounded by herds of sheep, the narrative puts into question the archetypal story of the crucifixion.14 The film’s Old Testament narrative of law and debt (there is a miser; the film’s two fathers quarrel over money; there is an accusation of larceny, a sudden inheritance, and, throughout, courts and police, who officiate over charges of murder and changes in monetary fortune) and its New Testament framework of crucifixion and salvation, alluded to at the film’s beginning and end, are, respectively, punctured and displaced by an investigation of the congruence between animal and human manifestations of embodiment and sentience that the film conducts rhythmically. While it is possible to describe the narrative as absorbing into a content the rhythmic elements I shall discuss—the donkey treated cruelly by its different owners ultimately dies a death so pitiless it could be regarded as a crucifixion—the film creates an aphony between these rhythmic congruences and the Christian frame so that they are unable to speak to each other. Let me press on why they cannot do so.
A death that can be redeemed suggested by the sacrificial frame (He died for all) is juxtaposed to and subsumed by the film’s multiple representations of a death that is nontransferable. In Balthazar “the non-relational character of death individualizes” being “down to itself” (as Heidegger formulates it).15 Yet, in a counterphilosophical claim, the film also curiously suggests that if no other can redeem or experience one’s death, death also lies beyond the bounds of one’s own experience. Death renders one passive to a fate that can’t be universalized, that can’t be transferred, and that also can’t be owned. It could even be said that Bresson’s attempt to recover the involuntary dictates that render the body will-less, discussed in the following pages, continually prefigures death as that state that only ultimately punctures the illusion of a body that is one’s own. In Balthazar the dying body is rendered as a singularity that belongs to no one. This anonymous state of dispossession is also the animal’s, is the donkey’s at the film’s end (where the mass of sheep overwhelms and visually negates the unique fate of a single lamb in their midst, contesting the Christian story at its most unambiguous). Starkly figured against the mass of moving sheep, Balthazar, a non-lamb, remains, like the girl on the sidelines, a solitary figure of unredeemed materiality. Such juxtapositions—which are, in Bresson’s special sense, rhythmic—lock animal and human forms of embodiment and sentience into relationship, penetrating the enigma of each outside of a common understanding of either.
By rhythm, Bresson understood the recurrence of sounds and images (and the camera’s movement between them) as they repeat and vary. Bresson elaborated: “Nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content to form and sense to rhythm” (N 68). The rhythms are all-powerful. “The meaning arrives last.”16 Rhythm, and even the special case of rhyme, is perceptible in the film’s title, hasard/Balthazar—in French a perfect syllabic homophone, putting the accident or hazard back in all characterization. It is perceptible in the constant cries “Marie, Marie” (whom Jean-Luc Godard called “another donkey”), at once a summons and a cry at the fact that the one who is summoned can’t be made to come and stay, and can’t be saved by the care that underscores the call’s urgency, as well as in Marie’s reiterated “Balthazar”—variously a greeting, a designation, an expression of love, and a powerless importuning.17 And the film rhymes objects in space; as has been much discussed, the camera is as interested in the expressiveness of legs, feet, arms, and torsos—which are disarticulated from the image of the whole body and juxtaposed to each other—as in the human countenance (fig. 1.4). Animal bodies are similarly fragmented and juxtaposed: thus, in the circus scenes the hind portions of donkey and horse are set against trailer cars in back of them (whose rear we also see)—constructions of matter, in their piecemeal appearance without compositional integrity (fig. 1.5). In Balthazar one point of this filmic disarticulation is to shatter and even demolish an illusory image of embodiment, one constructed by thought rather than one perceived as inhabited. In the reduction of human and animal bodies to isolated parts—to a crude materiality that is partialized—Bresson is reimagining forms of embodiment so that they appear as strange as they really are (and as they sometimes feel): unthinka...

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