Class 11

A challenging session, this last—I found it a compelling juxtaposition of works, as I prepared over the course of the week, but hard to read and view, in their different ways, both Vertigo and The Act of Killing. A lot of that difficulty derived I suspect from the juxtaposition of the categories of experience and of reenactment. Marx says that everything in history happens twice, yes?—first as tragedy, then as farce. What if that observation were to be adopted as a heuristic? Staging the past over again as farce, in order to understand the original tragedy?

That is more obviously the dynamic of The Act of Killing. It is such an original object that I found myself multiplying genres in an effort to come to grips with it: it is part truth and reconciliation process (albeit one-sided), part Ali G. interview (with all the attendant queasiness), part group analysis (Freudian, Reichian), but none of these exactly; and it has elements of all its film genres, western and detective noir and musical comedy spectacle; there are abounding subplots, including the discovery of the pleasures of performance and of drag. The lure of Hollywood was part of the pitch to the gangsters, but there is a Youtube DIY look to much of what they stage.

And who is it for? For the gangsters? And if so, what is it meant to do for them, to them? To punish them, by bringing them to an awareness of their crimes that could only be excruciating; to dismantle the defenses by which they have protected themselves from their actions? Or is there a therapeutic agenda, on the assumption that killing is a trauma for the killers, and that something like recovery must begin with narrativizing that trauma? (Therapeutic or redemptive, in something like the Christian terms that Graham suggested—taking Anwar’s retching as a kind of confession, and a sign of grace?) There is no denying that Anwar and Adi occupy the structural position of protagonists, and Anwar moves to the center of the film as we see him begin to suffer from the memory work of the reenactments, and particularly from taking the role of victim. Among the film’s many consequences is something like an improvement of historical consciousness for the killers. Is that its objective?

Or is it for the people of Indonesia? As a study in how a generation of killers, still in power, lives with their crimes; a study meant to provoke either a broader improvement in historical consciousness—there’s that phrase again, what happened, how did it happen—or some kind of pragmatic response, like a truth and reconciliation program? Jeewon’s question in class hangs over this warrant, especially what making the movie meant for the extras and bit players recruited to the more spectacular scenes. Are they worse off, for participating in reenactments of what many did not live through (which must have been scary for the children, or mysteriously exhilarating, or both); or are they somehow better for the knowledge, the kind of knowledge (experience?), that they got doing it? Who are we to judge? I wonder if there is an analogue that would help us think about this. Would the Americans among us participate in a reenactment of the Kent State shootings? If you had kids, would you bring them? If it was upsetting, confusing, for you, for them—would that still be better than living as you lived before, when you thought, presumably, less about public order, foreign war, the police state and the jumpy young men with guns who enforce it? And what if someone won an Oscar for that movie you were in? (What if the director were Danish? Or Indonesian?) Such thought experiments are ruined in advance by the asymmetries—but maybe not altogether.

Or, is the movie for us? The moviegoers? For the structure of the situation is of course not that we are reenactors, but that we are spectators of a reenactment. And so there are really at least three positions to account for, from the standpoint of historical consciousness: 1) those who lived through it, and are to live through it again; 2) those who are living it the first time as reenactors; and 3) those who watch (or read about etc.), and watch not only the simulation, but its effect on the simulators. Reenactment itself—doing it—is a complex mode of knowledge, putting your body in for other bodies, and we barely began to think it through. (What is a historically productive reenactment like?—clearly such occasions can be reduced to playing soldier, which is a long way from war; if reenactment is meant to produce historical consciousness, what are the proper tolerances of script and improvisation, of safety and exposure? There must be a whole poetics here…interesting to think, how would a pedagogy committed to teaching history by reenactments work, what would be its principles?) For us—the movie’s bet on experience was vicarious; does it propose for us a different way of knowing history? One that can be generalized? I find this a difficult question. We ought to come away with a sense of how the killings were structured and enabled by an American cinematic imaginary. Maybe we know a little better for having seen this movie how that works—and as Graham pointed out, that cinematic complicity stands in for a much wider military and financial complicity. When I think about how to put its method into practice, I think of casting Donald Rumsfeld as the prisoner in a waterboarding instructional video. But that’s just a kind of revenge fantasy, yes? Very close to very old notions of poetic justice, lex talionis, an eye for an eye—from which our civilized criminal justice system protects us, by translating specific crimes and their violences into metered incarceration?

It is a singular film. Very hard to say, there should be more like it; or, the tactics it uses should be more widely applied. That may be some measure of its claim to being a work of art—a work of art, a disturbing thing to say about it.

Easier to say about Sebald, I think, though Vertigo has its resistances too, including its documentary pretensions. You wouldn’t necessarily set it next to your DVD of The Act of Killing on a shelf, but there are some structural affinities: it is a reenactment of type 1) above, the self going back to the self-same scene; others are only obliquely involved, and as we observed in class, they are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the I; but we the readers, per type 3), are very much engaged in watching the reenactment and the response of the reenactor.

Historical experience in Vertigo is not the experience of the past in any simple, let alone sublime sense; it is the experience of being haunted by the past, the palimpsest that it makes with the present, and memory as the relation between them. Perhaps Sebald does for history something of what Barthes does for for reading, as a congenital skeptic of the myths of understanding that we bring to that chaotic practice: Sebald explores, almost phenomenologically, what it is like to think the past, what it is like to remember, to integrate memory, historiography, documentation.

The literary form that his experience takes is not particularly narrative; though it is not so much that narrative is transcended (in an alternative, redemptive organization, such as we see perfected, formally, by Ali Smith, and ramifying adventitiously in Kluge), as that it fails. The basic structure of the book seems to be palimpsest: most fundamentally,

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1980

       S’s trip from Vienna to Venice to Verona 1987

The same structure obtains of the 53-year-old Henri Beyle in Civitavecchia “attempting to revisit the tribulations of those days” (5) when he was 17, during Napoleon’s campaign in Italy. As though the vagaries of memory could be redeemed by an act of retracing your steps…

…except that representations of the past, the engravings Beyle will not purchase, “displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them” (8) (and here Beyle can no longer remember the Sistine Madonna in Dresden, because he has seen an engraving of it; and are we do think of the bombings of Dresden, which mean that same image is lost to Sebald, and to everyone?). Does Sebald propose a basic trade off between memory and understanding? Perhaps because memory always puts you back in the moment before you understood, before you could have understood, before you had the distance that makes for history; so memory is a refuge from understanding, and from history. “One could well end one’s life simply through thinking and retreating into one’s mind” (65); how much of this book is posthumous, S (let’s call the narrator S) as a ghost haunting his past. (Or like Dante, a man in the place of a ghost. There is lots of Dante here, as there is, incidentally, in Hong.)

Childhood—a register or analogue of history we have little explored—is also so important to the book. The move backward in time, from 1987 to 1980, is also a move back to the town of W., where S has not been since childhood, back to the inn that was his house (a palimpsest of home, and the various transitory spaces through which he moves). There is something about the basic predicament of childhood, of being surrounded by histories and forces that you do not understand, that seems to persist with S—a kind of passive immanence; where he is touchingly grateful for the care of adults (for example, the hand of the landlady on his forehead), but does not understand why they are so careful, any more than he understands anything else. They bequeath to him both mysteries of motive, and their habits of silence and suppressed curiosity. Childhood is the time when it makes sense not to know—and perhaps he goes back in order to escape the burden of making sense of the past.

The war, the Holocaust, are tidal forces, but almost never named. It has strange modes of metabolizing other kinds of history, like the near-primal-scene of the rape (is it a rape?) of Romana by the Hunter Schlag (German for strike or blow). The rape of the eternal city by the barbarian hunter? Of the romance world by the Teutonic? A first picture of desire, for S, as a historical rape—of that history-making sort that haunts so much Western mytho-history, Lucretia, Helen? And all S wants to do is to retreat into the ice house with Romana and slowly freeze to death (240). The book’s traffic with allegory is challenging. What about Fräulein Rauch (G. smoke), a figure of death, history, eros, who chronicles the disasters that have befallen W., in her tight green skirt; she makes S’s heart pound in his throat. She is also a figure of small kindnesses, helping students straighten their satchels (241). What a mystery, the past, and how we wish it would take care of us.

We talked in class about the limits of the book: is ours a moment when the melancholy historical consciousness of Mitteleuropa, wandering through the great old cities without encountering their migrants, can help us? Then again, if we are interested in difference—well, Sebald is different, and only growing more so. And while it would be difficult to recommend S’s form or reenactment as a historical practice, we who watch the reenactor, reading Sebald’s novel, if that is what this book is, may learn something about our own manifestly superior skills in forgetting.