The effort of understanding
By Rob van Gerwen
Lanzmann's Ban on Depiction
Abstract of the argument on this page
Claude Lanzmann criticised Steven Spielberg for trivialising the shoah in Schindler's List. But how does he argue his point? What are its consequences?
Lanzmann's Shoah and Spielberg's Schindler's List
In 1985, "Claude Lanzmann directed this 9 1/2 hour documentary of the shoah without using a single frame of archive footage" it says on the Internet Movie Database. In Shoah, Lanzmann presented a sequence of testimonials of survivors of the shoah without imposing a narrative. The survivors are interviewed and given the opportunity to tell their terrible tales for some twenty minutes. The film is intrusive. It is not possible to watch it without feeling implicated.
Spielberg, in contrast, presented a story in his Schindler's List (1993). IMDB summarises the plot thus: "Oskar Schindler uses Jews to start a factory in Poland during the war. He witnesses the horrors endured by the Jews, and starts to save them." This is a Hollywood film according to most criteria: it presents a story, has a happy ending, and is played by Hollywood actors, such as Ben Kingsley and Liam Neeson.
Lanzmann thinks that Spielberg has made a lot of fatal mistakes and publishes a critique of Schindler's List in the French journal Le Monde, which is then translated into English in The Guardian, in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad, etc.
No actor can play these lives
Lanzmann argues that actors are incapable to re-enact the experience of Jews, for one, because it is impossible to bring to life the normality of the procedure of murder.
In the philosophy of art, this issue has a long standing. It has to do with the idea that meaning is never produced 'transparently'. Whatever you say in whatever medium, the medium will influence the result. When a famous actor such as Ben Kingsley plays a Jewish victim, and a go-between between the Jews and Oskar Schindler who is played by another famous movie actor, Liam Neeson, it will prove difficult for the audience to empathize with their acting as transparently guiding one to the life of the real people being murdered. There is always a loss of meaning when someone's perspective is presented by someone else. Wouldn't we rather have a person represent his or her own perspective?
Think, in this context, of Avishai Margalit's notion of the moral witness. According to Margalit, the moral witness's subject is the evil deeds suffered by his group; its humiliation, and the depraved state of communities that comes with that. It is further assumed that the moral witness, really lived in the past, and testifies from acquaintance. As such, the crucial problem with Binjamin Wilkomirski's fake-testimony of his life as a child-survivor (in reality, he was from Switzerland and never incarcerated in any camp, and his real name was Bruno Grosjean) was the lacking embedding of the words he wrote in real experiences. His writing may have been very touching to his readership, but the mere fact that those moving effects were not due to the reality of the experiences but to literary techniques made him the reverse of a moral witness. Faking moral testimony undermines it.
Further, according to Margalit the witness' sincerity and authenticity show from the risk he takes by reporting. There is a scene in Lanzmann's Shoah that clearly illustrates this risk. It is in the interview with the man who, as a little boy had to sing German songs while floating in a boat on the river. Lanzmann returns to this man's home-town and there, he is seen standing on the entrance steps op a church where people flock together to visit a catholic service. There he stands, and has to listen how the people from his home-town fall over each other to show how much they cared for the little boy and how bad they felt when the deportations took place. As always in this film, the scene is shown to enable the viewer to judge for himself what to think of the solitude of this man, in the midst of so much enthusiasm. He is desperately seeking for a new community of readers. He takes the risk of telling his story---and, in this scene at least, looses.
The moral witness, also, cannot be a distant observer; he was implicated in the horror. As a consequence, he does not have to provide us with an objective detailed description. He does not explain the structure of events; we'll need historians to reconstruct that structure. To think that a moral witness can prove that particular crimes took place, so as to enable a court to judge individual criminals, is a misconception. The moral witness has a bigger role to play. He has a relevance to his community, not to science. The moral witness' testifies about what it was like (not objective structure).
This is a general argument, not quite yet connected with Lanzmann's further claim that something is morally wrong in the effort in Schindler's List. I shall get to that further claim.
In 1998, Gregory Currie argued, in Image and Mind (Cambridge University Press), that "A fiction does not have the kinds of properties-shape, size, colour-that could be represented pictorially." (p. 12). This sophisticated logical argument (a fictional entity does not exist, does not, therefore, possess perceptual properties, and cannot, therefore, be represented in a film) assumes that visual properties in a film somehow track the visual properties in the world it depicts. According to Currie, viewers see (in our example) Liam Neeson and must rebuild in their imagination the events that his character, Oskar Schindler, is supposed to experience.
But Lanzmann never protested that we are required to use our imagination while viewing Schindler's List. In contrast, he says that images kill the imagination, which implies that imagination is crucial. "Imagination: fiction or re-enactment?
Yet, Lanzmann's argument is connected to Currie's in that Lanzmann too thinks that there is or should be a measure of transparency of a film about the shoah with regard to what it depicts. He argues that actors cannot provide this transparency. Perhaps, two meanings of 'imagination' are at stake? Currie sees no problem in actors asking us to imagine the characters they play, whereas Lanzmann thinks that seeing events depicted (even though they are acted, and, therefore fictional, and therefore, require imagination) kills the imagination. Does Lanzmann mean that, indeed, we are asked to imagine the situations depicted in Schindler's List, but what we are thus asked to imagine is a fictionalised world, a narrative imposed on reality, instead of reality as it was. (More on narrativization).
The trouble with Schindler's List then seems to be that it presents a fiction while claiming to relate real events, and truthfully at that.
What type of imaginative activity is required for us to empathise with the reality of the shoah? An historical imagination: an effort to revitalise events from the past. Lanzmann assumes that such revitalisation, though it involves the imagination, does not fictionalise it. This assumes that imagination is needed for our communicative efforts in the first place, and that this, too, does not imply fictionalisation.
Quantity or psychology?
One of the problems that pester every discussion of this important issue of the representability of the shoah is the vastness of its horror. But that sounds too much, in my view, like a quantitative argument, and what we are looking for is qualitative arguments for non-representability.
To temporarily bracket that argument of vastness, let us look at the example of the film Oliver Stone (1991) directed on the life of the sixties rock band "The Doors", and their singer, Jim Morisson. Jim Morisson is played in this film by Val Kilmer, and in terms of convincingness he is brilliant. As it happens, he is so good in a sense, that whenever you see a video clip of one of the songs by "The Doors" you are often confused who is doing the singing: is it Kilmer or Morisson? This confusion is what interests me here. Looking at a character played by an actor what will his mental life be about? What goes on in his mind? And how do we know?
The thesis I have defended in response to Currie's logical argument is this: yes, literally speaking it is the actor that we see, but his mental life is not the actor's. The mental life of a character played by, say, Val Kilmer, is allotted to the character by a plethora of elements, such as the acting, the lighting, the narrative, the editing. The mental life is constructed in a joint effort and is in no way restricted to the mental life of the body of the actor. The psychological consistency of that mental life, therefore, becomes a function of the film, not of the person.
When we see real footage of Jim Morisson, even when he is up to no good and is merely being drunk and stoned at the same time and talking nonsense, his mental life is embedded in his personal history and not in a narrative imposed on that history---its expression in the person's gestures has the power to contradict any story that someone might have thought proper. That particular power is sacrificed by letting an actor take over, because the mental life presented by the actor is fully controlled by the representational mechanisms at work in the film.
Is being offended by this narrative reduction, merely a case of narcissist hurt of a viewer who cannot bear larger truths about the relevant person, or is something more profound at stake here? Something essential with regard to how we share reality as communicating moral persons?"the body expresses the mind; what a represented body expresses, however, depends on the nature of the representation.
Der Untergang (2004)
This exact same argument holds against the recent film about Hitler's last days. It is not, that we may not humanise Hitler---we may!
[But can we produce a film consistent with Hitler's psychological make-up; can one tell a story about a psychopath? John McNaughton, for one, in Henry. Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) did not think so.]
But to tell Hitler's story through fictional re-enactment in film! Unlike a historiographic account of a humanised Hitler, which we can hold up to the light of what is left of reality (I do not deny the difficulty of doing this!), a fiction film by its reproductive efficiency necessarily distorts the documentary footage that is left.
This is not about Bruno Ganz being a flawed actor, has nothing to do with that. (I happen to be rather fond of Ganz, in Wim Wenders' Der Amerikanische Freund.)
Wenders on Der Untergang
According to Wim Wenders, in Die Zeit, the mistake in Der Untergang is its lacking a narrative attitude towards the events presented.
For Berys Gaut this criticism would count as a pro tanto aesthetical criticism, i.e. it is legitimate to hold it against a work that it endorses attitudes that you think are morally suspect or wrong.
Wenders has trouble finding out whose perspective is presented in the film. Is it the perspective of the innocent secretary Traudl, or is it the historian Joachim Fest's? Time and again it is evident that his point of view is presented. Thus it is the film of a person who has trouble understanding her own role in the fatal history, and who may be forgiven for her contribution. Yet the film, also presents the view of a person who has the overview of all the data.
One of the many moments where the failing moral attitude towards the narrative surfaces, according to Wenders, is after Hitler's suicide: why the decent avoided gaze? Why isn't it shown in all its gory detail? By not showing the suicides of Hitler and Goebbels, they are turned into mythical figures after all.
Finally, Wenders concludes that his criticism is not moral but aesthetic: Eichinger, the director, should not have picked the last heroic moments of Hitlerism.
I must say, I find it hard to follow through Wenders' argument. I see the strength and plausibility of some of his criticisms, but why are they aesthetic? Wenders would have served us better had he made his point clearer.
Forgacs, Free Fall
Forgacs shows us home movies---with their banal structuring---of members of a Jewish family in Hungary, whilst citing laws against Jews that are installed. The film recounts chronology, and what the audience gets is high discrepancy between the cosy family events and the imminence of horrible disasters. It is left to the audience to fill in the details.
Truth is stranger than fiction.
The morale of this film and Lanzmann's and Benigni's? What it was like can only be told through ellipsis, through intimation.
Footage of 9-11 attacks
Compare the footage taken by people who happened to be around when the aeroplanes flew into the World Trade Centre buildings, on September 11th, 2001. The images were chaotic, many were insignificant in terms of the story they told. These 'insignificant' images get filtered out in subsequent documentaries build around this real-life footage. Only the images that sustain the story that is being told, are used. 'Narrativisation' does away, however, with the feel of what it was like. A feeling that was shared on 9-11 all over the world, thanks to live-television. Images in themselves do not kill the imagination: editing does. Yet, in editing we shall find the way out, as intimation in a function of editing.
The narrative and the psychology
Getting back to Lanzmann's argument, we find that Lanzmann implies a thesis like the one just defended, on this issue: take a single Jew and have his life acted by Ben Kingsley, by all means a good actor, and the mental life of the Jew will not exceed the narrative that is imposed on his psychology by the film.
Yet, this is standard procedure in fiction film: no fiction film can do without characters the audience can identify with. A story that does not offer the possibility of empathetically zooming in to the life of its antagonists is, in our culture's views, an oxymoron. In fiction film, it is the characters who anchor the story, thus providing conceivably the best evidence that we are going to get.
Whatever else this need for identification means exactly, through it the story is attached to the characters' life-narratives, treating their lives as exemplary for the story. In documentary, this very strategy is problematic---assuming that real life events are not in themselves structured narratively, and do not revolve exclusively around singular individuals.
It would be foolish to treat particular Jewish lives as exemplary for the Shoah. This is bad enough as it is, but we are now capable to review another argument of Lanzmann's, that the shoah was not an event for individuals.
This is paradoxical. The shoah is too vast, both quantitatively and qualitatively, for any individual to grasp it or for any individual's life to be exemplary for it, nevertheless, surely, it is the experiences of individual victims and their individual relatives that should make us wary of each pretence of representation. It is in the name of the individuals that we discuss the non-representability of the whole.
None of the survivors in Shoah says "I"
Lanzmann does not merely protest Spielberg's effort to re-enact through acting the experience of some particular real-life person. His protest concerns the idea implied in that effort, that the shoah was an event experienced individually, or, reversely, that an individual experience of the shoah contains enough material to convey it. Lanzmann implies that no individual experience suffices to convey the shoah.
Lanzmann's exact words are: "None of the survivors in Shoah says "I". Nobody tells a personal tale: the barber does not tell how after three months in the camp he escaped from Treblinka, that didn't interest me and it didn't interest him. He says "we", he speaks for the dead, he is their spokesman.".
In fact, watching the barber Lanzmann refers to, I noticed he uses 'they' rather than 'we'. One gets the impression that his use of 'they' is, indeed, inclusive of all the barbers, not just the one, his friend, who, confronted with his own wife and sister, tried to stay a little longer with them, but couldn't say anything about what was going to happen to them. Abraham Bomba says "they tried to stay a little longer with them", as if he peripherally imagines the situation that is killing him while he remembers it for our sake. Is this his way, perhaps, of making the recounting of the events slightly more bearable?
Apparently, the issue is not whether or not he has the right to talk for others--evidently he has. But how, we might ask, did his personal experience become representative for the whole of what happened?
In this claim, Lanzmann could have referred to something Avishai Margalit recently called a 'moral witness', who, too, is viewed as speaking for others. (See, also, below)
Yet, how can a moral witness write about his or her personal experience (and authentically so) of the humiliation afflicted onto them and yet speak for other victims, dead or alive?
Which arguments do either of these authors, Lanzmann or Margalit, present so as make the switch from personal experience to being representative for the group, from the subjective to --for lack of objectivity-- the intersubjective?
Fiction about facts
In all this it is assumed that what is at issue is a film trying to tell the truth about historical events and the method to be used for that. Documentary footage is out of the question, Lanzmann thinks, and so is fictional re-enactment, hence his:
If I had found an existing film-a secret film because filming was highly forbidden-shot by an SS-man, that shows how 3000 Jews, men, women, children die together, choking, in a gas chamber or crematorium, then not only would I not have shown it, I would have destroyed it. I cannot say why. It speaks for itself.
La Vita e Bella
Would Lanzmann object to Roberto Benigni's La Vita e Bella (1997)? Why would he? Perhaps, because the film tells a fictional story about the Shoah? In a way, Benigni fictionalises the experience of a fictional person, but in this he allegorises his story. We see the funny stories he tells his son, to ward him off of the horrible truth. Benigni implicates the audience. He implicitly requires us to tell the real stories ourselves.
The Hollywood approach, as in the Holocaust television series, pretends to be telling the truth about real events in a direct way.
What is at stake?
The issue at stake appears to not only pertain to the representation of the shoah; it concerns all so-called 'faction', fiction about facts.
There is a 15 minute sequence in Shoah that has the Israeli barber Abraham Bomba tell us how he, and fellow barbers were forced to cut hundreds of women's hair, minutes before they were going into the gas chamber. Let us look at the ways of representing in this sequence.
There is documentary depicting in it: we see the real Bomba in a real barber shop in Israel. This reality is brought to the fore by small incidents such as cars passing by, Bomba's being disturbed by their noise when someone enters the shop, the look on the face of the man Bomba is cutting. The filming of these events is 'respectful': the camera moves slowly, there is hardly any editing, and whatever editing is in the sequence is not motivated narratively, but more like the editing that we know of live television. The sole motivation seems to be to show the most important events, and, sometimes (not too often), to enliven the imagery. The camera zooms in to the face of Abraham Bomba in his most difficult minutes, when he feels incapable to relate the rest of his 'story'. (Such 'zooming in' is, I think, a typical Western, Hollywood method. If this were a Japanese film, the camera would most probably have zoomed out, out of respect for the person's turbulent experience. Connected with this, is the realisation that Lanzmann (who does the interviewing) insists even though Bomba is clearly suffering).
There is no documentary footing of the events related by Bomba, though. Bomba's representation is done linguistically, though description.
However, when Bomba starts telling what happened when his colleague was confronted with his own wife and sister, he drops silent, cannot proceed, on account of his memory of the pain. This silence takes up almost half of the whole sequence, and it is its most telling part.
A Moral Witness
I used to think this is a clear example of intimation. Bomba has provided enough data for the audience to imagine just what had been going on in that particular situation. In fact, when after a few minutes, Bomba resumes his talking and tells the story, this is almost disappointing. But something deeper is at stake here, something to do with the representation of the unrepresentable. Something described by Avishai Margalit.
We experience in this sequence of events, how Abraham Bomba, in his silence, becomes what he is: a moral witness. He is back there in the gas chamber, confronted with the women he has to cut the hair off.
Already by telling and not showing, the audience is allowed to imaginatively re-enact the events. Yet, the silence intimates even stronger---in fact it implicates the audience in the events, more so than the story does Bomba which relates after his silence. This, representing through omission, I call intimation. It makes the events related intimate for the audience. It is as thought the audience uses clues that are offered to concoct a personal experience, it allows them to put themselves in the others' shoes better. (Of course, there is more to be said about this, and I have done so in several places.) I'll leave it, for now, at the realisation that not-showing and not-telling can, in the right representational context, be the most telling of all. Of all types of representation, intimation activates the imagination the most.
Non-representability argument a category mistake
The argument that the shoah is non-representable, must be a category mistake: it cannot be depicted, but it can most certainly be intimated.
Lanzmann proves this by doing it.
Lanzmann and Lang
Claude Lanzmann argued (a.o.) that the Shoah cannot be represented ("depicted" he should have said, "photographically", I would want to add). He states this clearly in explaining what he would do had he found documentary footage.
Now if something cannot be represented, then surely it can be misrepresented. (Rather, every representation of it would be a misrepresentation.) This leads to the question Berel Lang addressed: Is it possible to Misrepresent the Holocaust? Lang critically responds to positions, defended at a symposium, that the nature of historical representations does not depend on facts but on the narrative chosen by the writer, because, arguably, there are no facts and everything in this area depends on interpretation. Lang disagrees with this relativism, and tries to defend some sort of historical realism. His thesis: yes, the holocaust can be misrepresented; some representations are bound to be wrong.
Perhaps now we can ask whether Lanzmann's resistance to representation of the shoah can be qualified. Perhaps, we can represent the holocaust (and is it too farfetched to say that Lanzmann himself proved the point: surely, he represented the holocaust), although, perhaps not by photographic footage (perhaps that is what Lanzmann meant, to begin with, when he said that he believed that there is a ban on depiction).
We see further corroboration (not: proof, of course) of this thesis in how Hotel Modern chose puppets in "Kamp"; how Art Spiegelman chose to draw a comic book, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats; and how Roberto Benigni used comedy in La vita e bella.
The role of the imagination
So, what is imagination's role? Why should it be a fatal objection to depiction "that it kills the imagination"?
Surely, this idea attributes a power to the imagination different from its power to fantasise, as it cannot be the latter power--to produce non-existent, fictional worlds--that Lanzmann brings in to criticise Spielberg. Apparently, imagination holds a power, too, that is crucial for the conveyal of life events. (Or maybe only of the shoah? But why then restrict the power to that one conglomerate of events and not to the events that partake in it and make it so horrible?)
Lanzmann's remark contains a thesis about certain subjects for pictures, subjects that need the imagination ... to come to life. Why do we hardly feel this issue to pertain to the depiction of animals per se? We are satisfied with pictures showing animals 'doing their thing': lions chasing and eating an antelope, for instance.
The Moral Witness
The Peculiar Contribution (of Lanzmann and Margalit)
We'd best work with a distinction between, on the one hand, the epistemology of the narrative and, on the other, the sincerity of testimonials of experiential memories that anchor the narrative---liberating the moral witness from having to answer epistemological challenges, the truth of a witnesses testimony is allowed to be idiosyncratic, because what it arguably does is contribute an idiosyncratic corroboration (a verification), on request by historiography. The criteria the moral witness answers to are moral (with an eye to their own future audiences and the deceased others from the past); as well as psychological (with an eye to their real, and truthful, authentic memories).
The ambiguity at stake in one witness speaking on behalf of the many can now be readily understood. Margalit means: no moral witness should claim to be telling the whole historical narrative (the one historiography is after) as they are not experts in that. Of course, they are not---not normally at least. And thus Margalit comes to require the moral witness to relate their personal stories.
The fact that Lanzmann says that 'his' witnesses never say "I", but say "we", can be seen to expand on Margalit's point of view: when Abraham Bomba, the barber, says "I had to cut the hair of these women", although that is a statement describing what he as a person had to do, he is already talking about the others--the women whose hair he had to cut, and whom he tried to console but could not on account of the SS and kapos--and for the others--the other barbers who were ordered to behave similarly.
There is no way to tell a personal story without representing yourself and your actions as socially embedded. The fact that according to Lanzmann nobody in the film says "I", merely goes to show how much the witnesses are conscious of their social embedding. How could they not be?
In fact, Abram Bomba, when regaining his posture switches from "I" and "him" to "they"! "What could they do?" he asks, referring to his friend but including himself and the others, asking for a God's eye point of view on the situation. "They tried to talk to him and the husband of his sister. They could not tell him this was the last time they stay alive, because behind them was the German Nazis, SS, and they knew that if they said a word, not only the wife and the woman, who were dead already, but also they would share the same thing with them. In a way, they tried to do the best for them, with a second longer, a minute longer, just to hug them and kiss them, because they knew they would never see them again."
Representing a token of a type
"But how can he tell what the holocaust was, if he is telling the story of a German who saved 1300 Jews, while the overwhelming majority of the Jews was not saved? Even when he shows the moment of the deportation to the Cracau ghetto, or the camp officer shooting at the deported, how can he do justice, even then, to the normalcy of the procedure of murder, the machinery of the extermination? It did not go like that for everyone. In Treblinka, or in Auschwitz, the possibility of salvation was inconceivable." (Lanzmann).
This concerns the following issue: is a representation of one particular event necessarily representative for its universalised variety, in our case the whole story of the holocaust? What is it that makes us think that, in the present case, our answer should be "no"?
Surely, a film about a particular love affair (say, Kramer vs. Kramer) is not automatically held to be representative for all love affairs, nor even only for all affairs in Western, or even, North American culture? We treat it as the depiction of the affair of two individuals.
What would our response be if someone were to critique Kramer vs. Kramer for giving the wrong picture of other love affairs, or of love, generally. To us, that might seem overstated. Yet, with regard to the shoah, this kind of critique does seem to be appropriate.
What is the conceptual relation between representing a token of a type, and being representative for the type?
Schindler is an individual making autonomous choices to do this or that, a liberty not available to those in the camps. To tell the story of an individual is to tell the story of a human being making autonomous choices. That, too, is at stake when Lanzmann objects to Spielberg.
Nuit et Brouillard
Jean Cayrol, in Nuit et Brouillard, in contrast, does speak in more generalising terms about what happened, and does exactly not refer to his personal predicament. He may be a moral witness, but he does not speak as one. Instead, he can be argued to abuse his status as a moral witness, to authorise his more general descriptions. In fact, according to the hierarchy of witnesses set up by Margalit, and thinking of his objection against the suggestion by Primo Levi that political prisoners were more suited to provide a survey of the events, Cayrol was a political prisoner, so his status as a moral witness is somewhat arguable.
For instance, one could argue that Cayrol had more of a say in his imprisonment than any Jew had, because the latter fell victim to a generalised racial theory.
Lions and antelopes
We don't feel the need to understand better what a lion or an antelope are going through when the former rips the latter to pieces. Obviously, the lion is providing for his meal, and all thoughts in his mind (if that) seem to circle around the near future where he and his kin will eat the antelope. The antelope's thoughts seem not to exceed the motivation for running, the fear for his near future of dying.
A person who is chased through the streets of New York by a street gang may have these same considerations. But probably he will have a lot more thoughts and feelings and these will widen his semantic circle far beyond the near future. This person will be thinking about the police, his family, his life plans, the people he loves, etc. In a person's mind a larger moral world comes to life. To represent a person's experiences, therefore, implies the necessity of bringing that moral world to life, with all the idiosyncrasies that motivate its episodes.
There is no easy way for doing this, notwithstanding the widespread conviction that there is no real problem here that cannot be tackled by having the camera zoom in on the face of the relevant person.
There you have it, if that person is an actor, then zooming in will be of no help at all.
Our culture and representation
Our culture's trust in our powers of representation is a believe in the communicability of feeling. (See Kant's Critique of Judgement (preferably, use the Pluhar translation) for this position).
In art, we celebrate our powers to convey experiences. Here, we research these powers to convey the mental life inherent in a person's embodied presence. Art is about representation, it is not necessarily itself representational. (See the later Nietzsche). One of the consequences for this is the unavailability of artistic means for the news on television. Trying to intimate the mental life of say a victim of some battle, by editing means, immediately tempers with the reality-proving powers of the camera. Put differently, no news broadcast could use a scene from Schindler's List to tell us about the shoah.
Lanzmann's crucial argument, which I haven't addressed yet, seems to be that one cannot pretend to be conveying the reality of the shoah by showing real footage of some event that was part of it, as such footage would evidently not show everything, and would, on account of that, seem to reduce the vast quantity of the shoah. The quantity of the 'normality of the procedure of murder', the vast quantity of considerations haunting its victims' mental lives.
Lanzmann refers to the 'normality' instead, which suggests that in his eyes the quantity somewhere down the line has changed into a quality, or, that thinking about this in quantitative terms is inadequate. I find it hard to speak in Lanzmannian spirit here, as I think that the issue at stake concerns the conveyal of any individual's mind. It is just that we should be very wary when such a huge drama as the shoah is at stake, even more than in the case of conveying the Stalin murdering machine. In the end I see what Lanzmann means when he says, "I cannot say why. It speaks for itself." But I have nevertheless tried to say a few things more.
Iconoclasm and other aesthetic dilemmas
Can it be that the non-representability of the shoah is merely a rehearsal of the ban on depiction, revitalised on account of technological reproducing techniques of depiction?
Lanzmann mentions that he would have destroyed a film showing the gassing of people, had he found it, but would he have destroyed it when he had found it during the war? Wouldn't that have been an immoral thing to do, instead of sending it around the world?
Why does it say in the Bible (King James version, Exodus 20:4.):
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
The ban on depiction holds a warning against the production of pictures that pretend to convey what it was like. One can easily see how that pretence has increased with the advent of film and photography.
The Heizel stadium incident
In an article on television, "Television as an Art" (2002e), I describe the tragic events in the tumbling down of the Brussels Heizel soccer stadium, in the 80s, which was broadcast live on television, showing how in reality people died under the weight of other people and debris. Should these events have been broadcast? Should they even have been recorded? Why not?
Millions of people from all over the world saw how individuals were killed under the weight of falling debris and tumbling people.
How should we formulate the cameraman's dilemma: should or shouldn't he film these events? Obviously, people all over the world have a right to know what is happening (they have a right to being told about the 'news'), but does this include broadcasting an intimate event such as a particular individual's dying?
Depending on how you are willing to formulate the dilemma, this is conceived of as either an aesthetic or an ethical dilemma, or perhaps, as an aesthetico-ethical dilemma: a dilemma with both aesthetic components (regarding the powers and limits of representation) and ethical ones (respecting the intimacy of certain events), and how the representing relates to the intimacy.
Even though one can, perhaps, argue that certain things ought not to be turned into works of art (or representations, for that matter), does this entitle one to actual iconoclasm--like Protestants thought in earlier times? What extra arguments would have to be supplied to justify the destruction of art?
- Should or shouldn't the Taliban have destroyed the big Buddha sculptures, like they did? (Why?) The same with regard to their ban on music.
The challenge seems to be: to find the proper formulation of some set of alternatives so that it becomes clear that a dilemma is at stake.
Von Hagens' plastinates
What to do with Von Hagens' plastinates (the plastified corpses)? If there is a dilemma here, who might it be a dilemma for, and: in regard of which choice (between doing what or what?)?
- Certainly not for Von hagens, who rejoices his powers to manipulate human corpses.
- Not, perhaps, for the body-spenders, as they have filled out a form, making a clear-cut decision, and, what's more: they are not around for the emotional test: they are not going to feel remorse or guilt.
- What about other people involved: such as the ones who want to mourn the deceased, and do not want to share this mourning with just about anybody who paid a ticket at the museum entrance.
- What about ... people who hold certain moral principles (if one must call them that) regarding the remains of dead people, and the possibility they hold for the surviving relatives to get to grips with their death?
- What about humanity? (Isn't humanity justified in protesting cannibalism, even if cannibals only eat the enemies they defeated?)
The trouble with Von Hagens
Two criteria seem at stake in the question whether or not we should introduce Von Hagens' plastinates into art.
One is to do with the moral limits of art: can just about anything be the material for a work of art?
The other one has to do, more straightforwardly, with how we think we ought to treat persons.
New rituals for the dead
As to the second issue: What would change for us, if we were to change our rituals with the dead so as to include Hagenian plastinates among them? So, assuming all the legal paraphernalia are correctly applied, your father dies, he wrote a Spendeformular, and you respect his last will. So, a plastinate is erected, say, in Rodinesque or Brancusian style, in a museum for modern art. How will you henceforth remember your father? By visiting the museum and looking at a work by Von Hagens, in his style (assuming he has one)? And are you willing to share your father's corpse with the rest of the audience? I.e, are you ready to share your father's corpse as material for an authentic Von Hagens?
What comes next?
Suppose we give up all resistance against Von Hagens's plastinates being exhibited as art, arguing that nothing's wrong as long as the people submitting their corpses fill out correctly the so-called Spendeformulare. [I do not think the legal part of the story (the forms making things legitimate) is more than a frame within which all the important issues remain unsolved, but let us for the time being, forget about its flaws.] What, then, can we expect next?
Wouldn't the next logical step be, assuming that we want works of art to engage their audiences, someone who fills out a form exhibiting his corpse in a museum of art, without it being plastinated, arguing that the plastination-process turns the corpse into too neat an object. So, this artist contributes the process of the decaying of his corpse to art history. Wouldn't' that comprise even greater art than Von Hagens' plastinates?
Spielberg and Riefenstahl
I know it is all wrong to refer to Spielberg and Riefenstahl in the same breath, as their intentions were diametrically opposed, notwithstanding Riefenstahl's remarks that she merely documented what happened and had no intention to produce a propaganda film (the film clearly contradicts this contention). Rest assured that my comparison is for the sake of the argument.
Spielberg individualises his characters. He also fictionalises them. Combined, these make a wrong. [Benigni fictionalises too, but he de-individualises by humour.]
Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will de-individualises, i.e. she presents all people as non-psychological creatures, mere pawns of the whole. Even Hitler she de-individualises. Her images, though, are real. Combined these two, too, make a wrong.
Disentangling the paradoxes of fictional emotions and of horror
In recent philosophical discussion, two paradoxes are distinguished. However, distinguishing them points to flaws in the prevalent analysis of the experience of fictional works of art, which I have termed an ontological fallacy.
The paradox, here, is: why would we feel real emotions when we are so blatantly aware of the unreality of the events we empathise with? Surely, we don't want to interfere here, so how are our emotions real?
I have argued that the emotions are real even though the beliefs they are based on do not involve a claim as to the real existence of their objects.
It is, I argued, not part of the essence of emotions to involve a believe in the existence of their object. With regard to represented objects (whether real or fictional), we do not believe we can interfere in the situations, long before we realise whether or not the depicted events are supposed to be real or fictional. In fact, we already know we are not going to be capable of interfering when we enter the theatre, i.e. long before we see what is represented to us.
This is an a priori defining property of representations and forms part of the peculiar phenomenological specifications of our perceptions of any instance of them.
The paradox here, is: why would we enjoy watching events that in reality we abhor? This, I think is a conceptual, not a psychological question. Psychologically speaking no mystery is involved here: we can be jealous of victims to great disasters, because, we think, falling victim to disaster means feeling alive in the extreme, and that is fascinating in itself. Only conceptually there seems to be a paradox, which makes it a philosophical paradox to begin with: apparently, it is part of the meaning of the terms involved that together they lead to paradox. 'Being a victim' is defined as something bad, to be avoided, unpleasant. 'Enjoying something' is defined as a good thing, nice, something to be sought after. How can you desire being a victim and suffering?
These concepts' being thus defined their combination may puzzle us, but in psychological practice all sorts of combinations are understandable, hence they are intelligible, hence something is wrong with the conceptualisation.
If one were to go through the trouble of defining horror, i.e. of seeking its essence, a good way to proceed is by contrasting it with other apparently similar phenomena. What immediately jumps to mind is films about psychopaths, human monsters, such as The Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, Henry. Portrait of a Serial Killer, or Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez-vous). These can be viewed as horror-movies only if the psychopath's motivational force is conceived of as non-moral, non-psychological even, i.e. only if the psychopath is portrayed as an animal, and in light of that.
Secondly, one might distinguish horror movies from disaster movies, such as The Towering Inferno, or The Day After, where people are victims of disasters they cannot control. This comparison points us to a similarity and a difference. The difference is that the disaster induced on the victims in a horror movie must be caused by living, or better, self-moving, i.e. intentional creatures, not by causal circumstances as fire or tidal waves. We know from 'disaster-tourism' that people are fascinated by natural disasters, as long as they are safe from being their victims.
This brings to mind the aesthetic category of the sublime, which according to theorists like Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and Jean-François Lyotard, involves the subject in situations he or she experiences to be dangerous or merely too vast to grasp. At the same time, however, the subject feels capable to rationally master them.
[On a side note, whereas, originally, the sublime has obvious religious connotations, but applied to horror movies becomes rather vulgar. Think about it.]
A tentative definition
Horror movies are about victims of creatures acting upon them, but conceived of as natural disasters, rather than as moral agents.
How does believing the existence of the object of the emotion comes into play? There are gradations here:
1. If the fearful thing is standing in front of us, ready to strike, one will probably act according to one's emotion of fear.
2. Disaster tourism assumes that there is no present danger, or that when it is there, one is safe from it.
3. This is similar to our active choice for bungee jumping, zorbing, etc. experiences. The danger is acute, yet it isn't.
4. Watching films showing disasters from close-by, with make-believe real victims, has one advantage over 2, in that it gives one information about being a real victim, yet there is the disadvantage of not at all being physically near to the disaster. The experience is wholly in our minds.
5. Watching moral agents afflict disaster onto victims involves empathetic experiences on top.
Existential claims with regard to what is not presently there before our egocentrically perceiving bodies, are consequential to our imagination. If you believe something shown in a film really happened one is bound to imagine oneself as included in the events in a somewhat more bodily, and less cognitive spirit from when one believes it is all just a figment of some author's mind, however plausible it be.
"Art simply is not philosophy. One can enjoy horror movies as analogous to natural disasters, thus as events pointing to human finitude. Horror movies make us ponder our vulnerability. There is not much more than that in them, nor, by the way, in natural disaster movies. Why would it be paradoxical to want to enjoy the feeling of things one is bound to feel in such circumstances, without really being at risk? The fact that it doesn't run very deep, or, in other words, that it is of a rather religious, otherworldly nature, does not seem decisive. Once psychology, morality, and their psychological reality enter into our experiences, all paradox evaporates.
Conclusions on the paradoxes of fictional emotions and of horror
The question of why we enjoy horror movies is, then, to be split into two. We apparently enjoy watching how people, i.e. moral agents with a psychology, fall victim to uncontrollable non-moral disasters. Why are we fascinated by victimhood, jealous about it at times? This really is a psychological question.
Our enjoying films about moral evil, in contrast, points not only to a fascination for being a victim, but, maybe, rather to one for criminality: how can a moral agent choose to be motivated to do evil? Could our enjoyment be about finding out subtle things about these motivations? With 'subtle', I mean: the psychological reality of these immoral motivations? Art simply is not philosophy.
ReferencesBurke, Edmund. 1958 (1757). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Carroll, Noell. 2002b. “Why Horror?” In Arguing about art. Contemporary Philosophical Debates. Second edition, edited by Alex Neill and Aron Ridley, 275-294. London: Routledge. Freeland, Cynthia A. 1998. “Realist Horror.” In Aesthetics. The Big Questions, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer, 283-93. Oxford: Blackwell. Gaut, Berys. 2002. “The Paradox of Horror.” In Arguing about art. Contemporary Philosophical Debates. Second edition, edited by Alex Neill and Aron Ridley, 295-308. London: Routledge. Gaut, Berys. 1998a. “The Ethical Criticism of Art.” In Aesthetics and Ethics, edited by Jerrold Levinson, 182-203. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. Gerwen, Rob van. 2002. 'Television as an Art. On Humiliation-TV.' Ruth Lorand (ed.) Television: Aesthetic Reflections. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 161-80. Gerwen, Rob van. 2002. “De ontologische drogreden in de analytische esthetica.” Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte 94:109-123. [Reworking into English underway] Kant, Immanuel. 1987 (1790)a. Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft). Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (orig: Berlin und Libau: Lagarde und Friederich). Lang, Berel. 1995. “Is It Possible to Misrepresent the Holocaust?” History and Theory 34:84–89. Lanzmann, Claude. 1994. “Schindler’s List is an impossible story.” (my tr. from NRC Handelsblad 26/03/1994:11).Lyotard, Jean-François. 2000. “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” In The Continental Aesthetics Reader, edited by Clive Cazeaux, 453-64. London and New York: Routledge. Sabri, Mustafa, 'A Topic of Dispute in Islam: Music'. Beyan-ul-Haq, issue: 63, year: 2, vol: 3, 1910. internet Wenders, Wim. 2004. “Tja, dan wollen wir mal.” DIE ZEIT 44:49-50.
» 9-11, footage
» actor (fictionalizes), → and empathy
» ban on depiction
» Benigni, Roberto (La Vita e Bella)
» Bible, Exodus 20-4
» Bomba, Abraham, → idem
» cameraman's dilemma
» culture, our
» Currie, Gregory (Image and Mind)
» aesthetic dilemmas
» empathy, → with animals
» fiction, → fictionalization, → empathy, → truth, → about facts
» fictional emotions, paradox of
» Forgacs, Peter (Free Fall)
» Ganz, Bruno
» Hagens, Günther von, → idem, → idem
» Heizel stadium disaster
» Hitler humanized, → de-individualized
» horror, enjoying
» imagination, → idem
» intimation, → idem
» Kant, Immanuel
» Kingsley, Ben
» Lang, Berel » Lanzmann, Claude, ff.
» live-television, → idem
» Margalit, Avishai, → idem
» McNaughton, John (Henry. Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986))
» mental life (psychological coherence)
» moral witness, → idem, → idem
» Morisson, Jim, → idem
» narrativization, → idem, → idem
» Neeson, Liam
» non-representability category mistake
» Nuit et Brouillard
» paradox (individual and the whole)
» paradoxes of fictional emotions and enjoying horror
» protestant iconoclasm
» psychology, represented
» quantity or psychology
» Riefenstahl, Leni (Triumph of the Will)
» Schindler's List
» Spielberg, Stephen, ff.
» Stone, Oliver (The Doors)
» survivor as individual
» Untergang, Der (2004)