From J.A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin, 1979)
He saw, through the man’s skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs, which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs—everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man’s voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system.
Possibly at some time in the past the man had been real and alive, but that was over, and the stealthy replacement had taken place, inch by inch, progressing insidiously from one organ to the next, and the entire structure was there to deceive others.
Life in the bleak Martian colonies bears a striking resemblance to business as usual on modern-day Earth…In the parched Martian colonies, grasping Arnie Kott is the chief of the powerful plumber’s union (based on the fifties Berkely Co-op Phil despised for its wrangling politics). The little guy, repairman Jack Bohlen, is a onetime schizophrenic who still lives with schizophrenia’s aftereffects. An autistic kid, Manfred Steiner, slipslides helplessly forward and backward in time, into realms of entropy and death.
He lay there for a hundred and twentythree years and then his artificial liver gave out and he fainted and died. By that time they had removed both his arms and legs up to the pelvis because those parts of him had decayed.
He didn’t use them anyhow. And without arms he didn’t try to pull the catheter out, and that pleased them.
I’m safe here at my office, away from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I almost certainly would not dare to write about it were it proximal. If the book were here with me, its text would infect me, and I’d replicate it in chunks here for you, dear reader, to sort out (or not sort out) as you wish (or do not wish).
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I’m almost finished with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is how I know that I’m not finished with Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m going to have to read it again. (I want to read it again).
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I’m about fifty pages from the last page—just got through/endured/delighted in/icked and acked at the Gross Suckling Conference, or, as I like to think of it, the alliterative abject dinner party.
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Gravity’s Rainbow is filled with more abject imagery than any novel I’ve ever read.
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I mean abjection here in the general sense of degradation, etc., but also in the specific sense that Julia Kristeva uses in Powers of Horror:
The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
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Forgive me for citing at such length, but perhaps Kristeva summarizes some aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow that deeply interests me: The core of the novel (the core that Pynchon atomizes, decentralizes, scatters like his main man Tyrone Slothrop)—the core of the novel rests on love and death, me and not-me: “How can I be without border?” The war and its corpses and rockets and dissolutions. Continue reading “A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow”
Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.
Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.
I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.
The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.
Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?
So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?
We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.
And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”
Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.
“If one did not wish to suffer Horror directly,” comments the Revd in his Day-Book, “one might either transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally,— the sex Entrepreneurs reasoning that the combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc’d intimacy might be Pleasurable,— that therefore might some dramatiz’d approach to death under such circumstances be pleasurable as well, with all squirming together in a serpent’s Nest of Limbs and Apertures and penises, immobiliz’d in a bondage of similarly bound bodies, lubricated with a gleaming mixture of their own shar’d sweat, piss, and feces, nothing to breathe but one another’s exhausted breaths, moving toward some single slow warm Explosion. . . .”
An abject passage from Ch. 14 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The entire chapter seems with unseemliness, as Cornelius Vroom forces Dixon to witness the debauchery of the Cape Dutch.
If you haven’t yet seen Too Many Cooks, Casper Kelly’s short film for Adult Swim, here it is:
Too Many Cooks compels and rewards/punishes its audience not because of its comedic elements, but rather for its horror. Kelly has made one of the finest little horror films I’ve ever seen.
The central techniques of Too Many Cooks–repetition, collage, and genre parody—are fairly obvious and wonderfully synthesized. The film relies on an understanding that its audience has a particular way of seeing. The intended audience of Too Many Cooks has:
1) An understanding and acceptance of the postmodern tradition of repeating a punchline (or set-up) past the point of humor. And–
2) A particular ironic vision that delights in seeing commercial TV genre conventions of yore skewered.
Too Many Cooks succeeds by disrupting both ways of seeing. Its audiovisual repetitions (oh my lord the song!) become insane tics in a horror story that the viewer did not expect to happen—despite a number of early clues.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe suggests that when “men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.” Let us substitute “Horror” for “Beauty” (Poe would not mind, I think) and we have a fair description of what the filmmakers behind Too Many Cooks have created: A short piece of art that, by its arrangement, editing, of particulars—including its audience’s preconceptions—creates the effect of horror.
That horror emanates from the secret protagonist of Too Many Cooks, a mad-eyed killer who haunts the film first from its peripheries before eventually overtaking it. (He bears a slight resemblance to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek).
The Killer is the organizing principle of Too Many Cooks. He’s right there from the beginning, a specter whose agency throughout the piece subverts audience expectations. It’s not the uber-Father (who begat too many Cooks) who is the film’s central figure, but the infanticidal Killer.
Here is the first time we see The Killer, just 20 seconds in. He’s there on the right, sweater-vested (like a dad):
And then a few seconds later, lurking on the Brady/Cosby/Bundy stairs, still obscure:
The Killer next shows up about 90 seconds in; this is, unless I’m wrong, the first time we see his visage. It’s also the moment when Too Many Cooks’s early joke on corny nineties sitcom intros really starts to wear thin—the filmmakers offer us repeated images of cooks as if to underscore the tedious point.
And there’s The Killer in the second family photo:
Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.
Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:
Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.
The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.
In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.
The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.
I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.
Julia Kristeva, defining abjection, in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffmann Baruch.
My attraction to film as a medium—i.e., a dead medium, as opposed to what they pompously called at the time a living spectacle—had undoubtedly been the first sign in me of a disinterest in, even a disgust for, the general public—and probably for mankind in general. I was working at that time on my sketches with a small video camera, fixed on a tripod and linked to a monitor on which I could control in real time my intonations, funny expressions, and gestures. I had always had a simple principle: if I burst out laughing at a given moment, it was this moment that had a good chance of making the audience laugh as well. Little by little, as I watched the cassettes, I became aware that I was suffering from a deeper and deeper malaise, sometimes bordering on nausea. Two weeks before the premiere, the reason for this malaise became clear to me: what I found more and more unbearable wasn’t even my face, nor was it the repetitive and predictable nature of certain standard impersonations that I was obliged to do: what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity. If man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centeredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.
The three-week run was a permanent calvary; for the first time, I truly experienced those notorious, atrocious tears of the clown; for the first time, I truly understood mankind. I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire sheet of Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces those, hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.
From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.
Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s classic The BFG begins with a dedication to the author’s daughter: “For Olivia: 20th April 1955 — 17th November 1962.”
If I had noticed the dedication when I first read The BFG as a child, I certainly didn’t think about it then. The slim sad range of those dates would have meant nothing to me, eager as I was to dig into a book about child-eating giants, secure in my own childish immortality. However, when I started reading the book with my daughter, the dedication howled out to me, thoroughly coloring the lens through which I read.
Had Olivia Twenty Dahl not died from measles encephalitis at only seven, had she continued to live to be alive now, she would be approaching her sixtieth birthday. But because she died as a seven-year-old little girl, she remained a seven-year-old little girl to me, the reader, who saw her spirit under every page.
I believe she remained a seven-year-old little girl for Dahl as well—at least in the imaginative world of The BFG where she is recast as the hero Sophie. Reading The BFG, it was impossible for me not to immediately connect Sophie to Olivia, those names with their Greek roots and their long O‘s. It was also impossible for me not to connect these two girls to my own daughter Zoe, who is also seven.
(Parenthetically, I’ll admit that biographical interpretation of literature is often a terrible practice—especially when combined with a touch of reader-response criticism—and that what I am doing here is not something I think advisable, let alone commendable. And yet the central affective power for me in reading The BFG—as an adult to my little girl—rests in my inescapable intuition that Dahl wrote the book to make his daughter live again, to live forever). Continue reading “The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Love Letter to His Lost Daughter”
And now, a note for those of you who consider this a vulgarly supernatural tale: It may well be that ambitious people of any stripe find themselves compelled to schematize the subjects of their solicitude into, say, Jews to be liquidated, or Jews to be saved. There might not be might not be time to learn the name of every Esther or Isaac who falls within Operation Reinhard’s purview. And the further those subjects (I mean objects) get altered in accordance with the purpose, the more problematic it becomes to perceive their irrelevantly human qualities. I quote the testimony of Michal Chilczuk, Polish People’s Army (he’d participated in the liberation of Sachsenhausen): But what I saw were people I call humans, but it was difficult to grasp that they were humans. What did Chilczuk mean by this? To put it aphoristically, a human skeleton is not human. It frightens us because it proves the truth of that gravestone epitaph so common in the age of Holbein: What I once was, so you are. What I am now, so you will be. The gaze of those dark, sharp-edged eye-sockets seems implacable, and the many teeth, which haunted Edgar Allan Poe, snarl much too nakedly, bereft of those festive pink ribbons of flesh we call “lips,” whose convolutions and involutions can express mirth, friendliness, even tenderness. A human skull’s smile is as menacing as a crocodile’s. Since death itself is nothing, the best our minds can do to represent it is through that expressionless face of bone which one day will be ours, and to which we cannot help imparting an expression. Under such circumstances, how can that expression be reassuring?
From William T. Vollmann’s novel Europe Central.
Yes, she could feel within herself the presence of a perfect animal. She resisted the idea of unleashing this animal one day. Perhaps for fear of causing some embarrassment or because she was afraid of some revelation… No, no — she repeated to herself- one mustn’t be afraid of being creative. Deep down, the animal probably repelled her because she still felt anxious to please and to be loved by someone as powerful as her dead aunt. Even if only to humiliate her afterwards and disown her without giving it another thought. For the best saying, as well as being the most recent was: goodness makes me want to vomit. Goodness was lukewarm and weak, it stank of raw meat that had been lying around for a long time without, however, becoming completely rotten. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned sufficiently to preserve it, a lump of lukewarm, stagnating meat.
From Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.
I have to move through Near to the Wild Heart very slowly—Lispector’s representation of her narrator’s shifts in consciousness is slippery, abstract, terrifying at times, often beautiful, alienating, complex. As in The Hour of the Star, there’s an intense vein of abjection that unifies the work—its narrator’s navigation of internal and external worlds—that simultaneously attracts and compels me.
It’s come to my attention that a rumor, of which I am the sole authority to its verity, has been pinging through the halls of our fine institution. He, the normal student, M—, enrolled in a program that would take at least one hundred years to complete—this being the exception, established by the Exceptional Student—supposedly reported to me that were it not for the existence of such an exception his “anxieties and pains” may have been relieved; the dream of graduation in just 99 years would not have evaporated. Red-rashed, he’d said, according to the halls, the normal student rushed a letter to the Advisory, only to be told to consult the framed statement on the wall that details the circumstances of this particular exception; he’d see it on his way to the Advisory, near the door to the infirmary, which often doubles as our morgue.—Before I continue, the Advisory, the governing body pro-tem, now entering its seventh century, having caught wind of this normal student’s experience, would have me preface this with the acknowledgment of said student’s discomforts, and their, let’s say, profound effects.
Read the rest of “Physiognomy of a Dog.”
I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.
We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.
“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”
Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.
The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.
Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”
Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.
Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance.
Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.
1. I’ve watched each of the first four episodes of the first season of True Detective at least twice now—compelled to do so, staying up later than I should have to do so.
2. Everything that follows is full of spoilers, although I won’t be discussing the plot heavily. Fair warning, okay? Also: The video clips in this riff are NSFW.
3. I wrote about True Detective after its first episode “The Long Bright Dark” zapped me with its philosophical dialogue and heavy tone. In particular, I was taken—am taken, like most viewers of the show, I suspect—with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a nihilist who intuits the illusory structure of consciousness.
4. “The Long Bright Dark” is one of the best first episodes of a TV show I’ve ever seen, its slow burn pointing toward a payoff that the fourth and most recent episode has already delivered (the climax of that episode (the so fucking-climactic climax), midway through the season, must surely be balanced (imbalanced) with some other, different climax in the season’s second half). I’ll admit though to a slight—very slight—disappointment in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” which feels at times overstuffed, as the showmakers compress so many of the plot points and back story that will propel the rest of the narrative.
5. “Seeing Things,” as its title implies, examines the ways that perspective (and blindness) inform our sense of identity. After four years as an undercover narco, Cohle experiences hallucinations—but he’s keenly aware of his hallucinations—he sees that what he sees is an illusion, but he also sees that what he sees is no less real, in a sense, for all its unreality. Cohle contrasts strongly here with Hart, who sees himself as a family man, a patriarch, a good guy—but he’s a philanderer and a bully. Even when confronted with his young daughter’s interest in aberrant sexual scenarios, his impulse is to look away. Hart’s paternalistic horror at finding an underage girl working in a sylvan brothel is contrary to Cohle’s intuition that the girl’s circumstances might be improved under the care of the madame. For Cohle, identity is always destabilized, an hallucination.
6. In one of the scenes set in 2012—the interrogation scenes–
–(Have I failed to discuss this structure? I have failed. I am sorry. Look, clearly the two detectives—one a rookie, green, callow, both black—clearly this pair, an othered version of Rust and Hart, seem intent to jam Cohle up, pin the 2012 murder on him. But Cohle knows that, knew it before he walked into the room. When he cuts the top off of his empty Lone Star tallboy and uses it as an ad hoc urinal, how else am I to read this, gentle reader, other than a territorial pissing?—he knows this terrain. He marks it—both with his piss (abject essence) and the weird little totem he sculpts from the aluminum scrap. Where was I? Oh).–
7. In one of the scenes set in 2012, Cohle, asked why he wanted to move from narcotics to homicide, paraphrases 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (Significantly, Cohle suspends the ultimate referent of that body, Christ). Asked what the verse might mean, Cohle says, “I was just trying to stay part of the body.” The body here—any body, all bodies (as the verse promises)—is an abject body, figured in the body of the victim that initiates the series, which thematically doubles the body of Cohle’s dead daughter. The verse promises that an individual can, via his or her (abject) body, find an identity.
8. But staying part of the body is hard, especially when the body is so goddamn stupid. The opening scenes of episode three, “The Locked Room,” seem to respond directly to Cohle’s biblical citation:
The scene also repeats the conversation Cohle and Rust have about identity in the first episode; again, Hart rejects Cohle, who seeks to reveal “our mutual illusions.”
9. The phrase “our mutual illusions” comes in the final climactic monologue of “The Locked Room,” where Cohle, in prose that could have come straight from Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, posits human existence as wholly abject, “a jury rig of presumption and dumb will . . . it was all . . . a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person”:
10. (As I wedged a Cormac McCarthy reference into point 9, I may as well wedge another one in here: The second episode of True Detective pretty much wholesale lifts the scene in No Country where Sheriff Ed Tom and his sheriff friend lament that folks don’t say “Yes sir” and “No ma’am” anymore).
11. If “The Locked Room” slowed the pace of True Detective, returned some of the moodiness and philosophy to this police procedural, then episode four, “Who Goes There,” synthesizes everything that’s come before it into a throttling, thrilling climax.
We see Hart fall low, fall apart; for the first time, he has to recognize what he has been hitherto unwilling to recognize—namely, his own blindness, his own pride. His entire identity has been wrapped up in the idea that he is a father and a law man, but his approach to both of these roles has been dishonest—he’s a cheater, an absent father, and a bully. But flashing his badge doesn’t get him that far in “Who Goes There.”
For Cohle, identity is fluid, discontinuous, and unstable. When he goes “undercover” as “Crash,” connecting back with a motorcycle gang in the hopes of finding the suspect in the murder case, he doesn’t put on a mask so much as he simply becomes a different version of himself (which is the same version).
The end of the episode plunges into a nightworld operating on Lynchian logic; to call it dark would be an understatement, and Hart, despite all his macho posturing, is unsteady here, stumbling even. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Hart sees that he cannot see.
12. The final moments of “Who Goes There” coalesce in a strange costume drama (Cohle as Crash in biker garb; the biker gang leering and lurid in cop blues). We’ve moved from the swampy, indeterminate bayou into the concrete box of the projects. No easy exit, but the terrain is somehow just as malleable for Agent Crash Cohle, who doesn’t so much command the screen as navigate it. The last shot of the episode is an uninterrupted slow burn that boils over, seers with a volitional energy that I haven’t seen on film since Children of Men. The scene reaches its end, the partners make their getaway from the scene of the crime, and the camera—via a helicopter shot—rises above the fray, its eye the eye of god, an impossible, inhuman perspective that surveys the whole indiscriminate mess: Seeing:
1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.” Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.
2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).
3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a we. Her attempts to represent love without abjection.
4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).
5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.
6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.
7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.
8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream Color. Like Her, Upstream Color explores the possibility of how an I might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).
9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.
10. In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.