“They ran in urine smell of shadow, they ran in clean ice smell of moon.”
When asked some years ago how her sci-fi collaboration with Claire Denis was going, Zadie Smith sighed and said that it wasn’t: it seems the two women turned out to have very different ideas about what science fiction was for. Zadie Smith left the project wanting a funnier scenario, still believing in the notional humor of trying to imagine the future, again.
Claire Denis, on the other hand, is not noted for her humor. The movie in question, High Life, is not funny, although it is bizarre. The strange does make us laugh sometimes. We laugh for lots of reasons.
Sometimes we reject the bizarre: we just get up and walk out of the darkened theater—as did several of the audience on the day I felt myself almost alone with Claire Denis’s carceral cosmonauts: Robert Pattinson the longest surviving member of a crew rejected from earth (the downbeat way to imagine being shot off into space toward a black hole, testing their sanity and fertility: not the best of the best, but the worst of the worst: maybe just the least of the least). The complement of prisoners includes mad scientist and killer succubus Juliette Binoche, grounded Andre 3000/Benjamin, psychotic Lars Eidinger, catatonic Mia Goth…
…And, ultimately, the obligatory baby much sci-fi seems unable to dispense with, somehow the theoretically least-shackled genre in thrall to the Gospels: from 2001’s star child through Children of Men and Blade Runner 2049, there’s a savior-baby as MacGuffin. As though events back here on earth in the present haven’t already long since disproven the I believe the children are our future as any motivation whatsoever.
Sometimes it can seem like the 1980s were the last time that nearly any sci-fi of any budget pretended to envision a future, rather than only a present with better gadgets. Denis does do this (star baby notwithstanding) among other things, she doesn’t care much about gadgets.
But forget the baby: the whole of High Life isn’t what interests me here—although like most Claire Denis the whole movie is a fascinating mess/maybe masterpiece—but instead just an odd, earthbound minute-and-a-half sequence of images embedded in the movie, midway along the cast’s hellscape. In this one sequence, we’re back on earth, maybe in Mia Goth’s mind, maybe just in some sort of collective memory all shared by these rejects-in-space.
What do we get? On a train, a rash of images: kids sleeping on cardboard in the open bed of a gondola car. A boy in red climbing between cars with the ground coursing by. A daredevil leaning back off the last car, staring into the camera, flipping us all off. A girl—not Mia Goth, but akin to Mia Goth—staring out at whatever is on offer on the path she hasn’t chosen in the vehicle she can’t control.Most memories die and most objects are lost, many by design. Most photographs are discarded and most digital photographs are never glanced at a second time.
With these images, dear reader, I sat up in my seat. Felt more than before that this movie belonged to me: for I recognized, I remembered these images, and (aside from a Pinterest board and an article in Italian at the time and a recent Reddit thread) nothing has much shaken that absurd first feeling they were implanted only for me: for Claire Denis had recreated at least four of photographer Mike Brodie’s images of kids hopping rides on trains, collected in 2013 into a beautiful monograph, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. Like tableaux vivants within the movie, they were also like memories that weren’t just yours, that somehow someone knew. That made you doubt and believe at the same time.
Why does—what about High Life changes when—Claire Denis grafts Mike Brodie’s photographs into the body of her film, in an intrusion worthy of her sometime collaborator Jean-Luc Nancy? That is, what purpose did these photographs serve as they pantomime the earthly memory of life that these one-way ticket carceral cosmonauts carry, and do—or more likely—do not pass along?
Most memories die and most objects are lost, many by design. Most photographs are discarded and most digital photographs are never glanced at a second time: the 1s and 0s behind their pixels degrade into true nothing. That digital dark more like the death of the self embedded in meat than any proposed digital immortality is yet like life or consciousness or religion.
Writing about High Life for Film Comment, Nick Pinkerton (wonderfully) name-checked Cat Power’s You Are Free and the song, “Names.” Pinkerton wrote that friends wanted her to cut the song from the album. She resisted. Pinkerton maintains she was right (and is right himself: the song is the album’s beating heart) and compared the song to High Life’s earthbound interlude, its violation of the film’s otherwise totalizing unity. It’s not an idle comparison, for the youthful hobos in Brodie’s photographs transposed into Claire Denis’s movie seem distant cousins to the people Cat Power used to know: addicts and victims of sexual abuse and violence.
But the comparison is more than just one-to-one: the song’s relentless simplicity as it rolls out a litany of people the narrator knew who didn’t make it or who were destroyed as much by the things they had to do to be strong enough to survive as by the things they had to survive themselves: a vision of negative survival, transformation, something we’re unused to in this moment when even negative transformation is presented as an upswing, a branding (Cruella, The Joker). Sometimes trauma is just traumatic.
The photos occupy a strangely consistent place in the playbook of Claire Denis (and as Mike Brodie’s photos do in contemporary photography): intruders against good aesthetic sense and unity, poster children for the murder-your-darlings crowd. For Claire Denis loves these gestures: Denis Lavant’s odd jerky dancing to Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” as the coda of Beau Travail, Beatrice Dalle and her dogs in a similar role in L’Intrus. Gerard Depardieu and Juliette Binoche finding just one more scene and dialogue underneath the credits of Un beau soleil intérieur, less like an MCU end credits scene than a blooper reel that changes the ending.
I kept thinking about those photos, stranded in High Life, and what they did or didn’t mean—it’s that kind of movie. Tina K., a writer I know only in that Twitter-way, put it together like so, just recently, apropos of nothing, “Is it me or is High Life a film that you watch by yourself and never talk to anyone about but frequently reflect on it with a thousand-yard stare on your face?”
“The light flattened the landscape without darkening it.”
I thought of the pictures whenever I saw trains, of course, and I saw trains mostly when I was driving. And I drove my country while my country was finally dying. But what I really wanted was to walk, like a silent actuarial ghost, through the living rooms of each of the houses slipping by. I imagined some of them I knew.
For decorating schemes change so rarely, almost never for many-maybe-most (despite the hysterical chorus on film, television, our feeds), or only in such small ways that I knew I would know the rooms from my childhood: dark paneling, small pictures in small frames lonely like unmelted patches of snow on huge empty walls. I hoped that I would be able to see the terminal past, the parts I loved in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” that were always bitter, too bitter for an American readership rich in the belief they were all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. How Gray could write a poem that negates some of the oldest functions of poetry, could really just say right out: I can see and remember this, but that doesn’t stop the forgetting: the ode dies, too.
For that’s where we find ourselves in the heads I win, tails you lose of the American exception, right? Insisting we were all individuals, but when asked if we were individuals, insisting we were just like everybody else. Words without any binding meaning and so never requiring us to behave in any manner beyond what was right in front of us at that moment, nor to make any of it cohere afterward: the only working definition of what freedom has meant in this country. We were not that old travelogue cliché, a land of contradiction… we were, we are, only a land of chronology.
And, in my mind, that pushes past the sequences Claire Denis gives us, all the way to the picaresque proper. I wanted to look into each living room, peeling the roof back, as the devil Asmodeus does to 18th-century Madrid on behalf of Zambullo in Alain-René Le Sage’s The Devil Upon Two Sticks.
Peter Brooks brought this moment from a 1707 novel into the mix to say something I’ve forgotten about Realism. For me, the haunting idea was to be able to see into every room, of being the intruder. The intruder, an idea I was already drawn to, but was renovated entirely for me by Jean-Luc Nancy, who wrote for Claire Denis, who borrowed from Mike Brodie—this essay has a nursery rhyme singsong I can’t quite get away from.
That we want to exist without anything except chronology hints perhaps we think that chronology isn’t subject to revision. Le Sage’s most famous novel was once famous: Gil Blas, not at all coincidentally admired by two American mythologists of the West, that hyper-chronological, ahistorical construct, perforated by trains. Mark Twain swore by Gil Blas, and more strangely, Louis L’Amour, too.
Indeed, because L’Amour was the great spinner rack bard of the West (as resurrected by Goldwater and Reagan and everyone in between). And I can’t pass by his Le Sage experience without filling it in a little further: he was working up a traveling stake with a self-professed bad job skinning dead cattle in East Texas. Already we’re in some version of the marginal, right? Somewhere oddly adjacent to Brodie’s train tramps, Denis’s carceral cosmonauts, although L’Amour would, as the formerly marginal sometimes do, play his distance from the metaphorical firelight both ways.
Then though, he’d hoard mesquite roots to stoke up the very real campfire to the level of a reading light after everyone else was asleep and so read the thousand-ish page picaresque novel twice through. The copy of Gil Blas, “I had found abandoned in the laundry of a tourist court in Plainview, Texas. Whether it was left by intent or accident, I could not know, but it was my good fortune.”
“What someone else in my position might have done I am not sure. Very likely, when they paid off such a job as I had, they might have gone on a three-day drunk. What I did was get a room in a small hotel and take three showers a day, finding my way, in between times, to the library, where I began reading John Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and when I finished that, I went west.”
Not to say that the picaresque by itself is a great illusion-maker: the other ingredient is usually something that enforces a chronology beyond our control and trains, prisons, disasters, and children all have a special place in that romance. They take us to Crusoe’s island, where all we must do is react and survive: we can put aside for the moment any consideration of what we should do overall.
We hear this echoed in the perpetual plea to concentrate on the matter at hand at election time from the neoliberal standard bearers, and—since election time is now perpetual—we are perpetually asked to abandon questions of systemic change, to live in the helplessness of a Rube Goldberg now.
What a child means then, (yes, sorry, I can’t quite seem to forget the child) is that there is another time, one that we won’t reach, a better time where things will be different. We don’t have to build that time, but our children will see it. Which is why not having children is unforgivable. Which is why outliving your child has become the great nightmare. Or, as Jacques Derrida puts it in The Postcard, which I have to read as I would read a novel because I can’t read it any other way, “As long as you don’t know what a child is, you won’t know what a fantasy is, nor of course, by the same token, what knowledge is.”
In High Life, Denis begins in this place: the cosmonaut baby, with Pattinson as caretaker and unbeknownst to him, father, is—so to speak—along for the ride. He finds himself alone with the child on the ship, keeping it afloat, so to speak. We flash back to the ship when it was full and terrifying, a prison and a laboratory. The trip was always a trip to nowhere, only this time, straightforwardly in a straight line out, not back, and not in several dozen carceral, sequential orbits around the sun.
Whenever sci-fi removes these narrative backstops (solar years, orbits, seasons), the genre’s practitioners have to instead dance with and solve a kind of narrative heat death. Certainly, I was more interested in the mad scientist obsession—embodied in a bonkers Binoche performance—that produced the baby, than the baby itself. Once the baby and then child dominates the film, it inevitably becomes a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too narrative device with too much gravitational pull: an escape hatch, procrastination on two sticks.
But if we don’t acknowledge how hard it actually is to jump the tracks, we’re nowhere.
“At this point we would raise up one more hallucination, and have a great fleet slowly coming in to shore, smokeless, with no smudge of smoke across the clear horizon, and only the steam of the kitchen galley rising from each ship. That, and a distant noise that no one living has ever heard, of an entire fleet trimming sail.”
Of Blade Runner’s myriad intuited truths, truths The New York Times ignores every time it prints another but-what-are-they-saying-in-the-diners? story, one of the testiest is that the individual can have so little to identify them as such, that their memories can seem shared, indeed that they want them to seem shared, that they wish to announce a fierce individualism by reciting a worn-out talking point spoon-fed to them, a memory conveyed in images and language that did not exist when they lived through its referent.
Even if you think it’s a cliché, it’s good to note that all those moments (lost in time) like tears in rain cuts both ways: look at the usually unmentioned bemused smile Rutger Hauer chose to accompany those (his) words. The most disconcerting thing about the execrable Blade Runner 2046 was how hard it worked to bring the original Blade Runner back into the fold, to forget that it was too bad she wouldn’t live but then again who does, to make it a tame little movie about heroes, chosen ones, and the importance of childbirth. We don’t deserve sci-fi most of the time.
Which brings us to Claire Denis. These accusations all, in a sense, stand against High Life, but, like Rutger Hauer’s face, his actual performance as he says the words, the minutes she puts onscreen and photographs embedded in those minutes do strange things to our sense of what the prison ship means, the child means. The images are left unowned (a parenthetical without a sentence?) and so they spread to all, mimicking what movies do to audiences in the first place.
Recycling memories that are collective and offering them to the audience as ours is one of the neat tricks of cinema but sets off alarms, too, when that recognition is reproduced here, side by side, as though I’m making some sort of accusation of plagiarism (I’m not).
Something in the Joseph Campbell industrial complex does chafe, though, hoping to hang onto the individuality on the screen rather than surrender to the collective in the audience, that reproduction not of Blade Runner’s attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (maybe even Poussin’s redeemed rapist Orion) but instead the spider that built the web outside the bedroom window, the spider you never told anyone about, that is, not Roy but Rachel.Denis eschewed kitsch and humor in High Life and turned her back on alien body horror to return to the bodies we find ourselves in.
But it should be noted that Brodie’s photos are much superior to their recreation(s) in High Life, most particularly this one (below) a signature image if ever there was. The actor in the film is not endangering himself (nor would I wish him to) and so his smile’s bravado achieves something odd: a Hollywood moment in a Claire Denis film. The original is truly a Thomas-Gray-until-and-maybe-even-after-we-saw-it feeling: risking your life for nothing, for a photo, a genial stupidity still here/then untouched by the different calculus of the same thing as a selfie.
So, too, the originals are dirty in a way cinema pretty much cannot do: grime worked into skin over time. When Terrence Malick was shooting The Thin Red Line on the northern coast of Australia, the actors had to slither out of their tropically funked up uniforms at the end of each day. The uniforms were sprayed to kill actual fungus, etc. then hung up overnight in plastic. The next morning the actors would have to slither back into their own cold grime and sweat, trying and failing to reproduce the epic ferment of tropical warfare, but instead something strange and new.
In the original book, Mike Brodie’s slightly lewd eye is part of the point: he sometimes seems as eager to gross himself out, as if he is some theoretical viewer (worth noting that when the pictures were taken—and, again, now—Brodie wasn’t a photographer, just another of the kids on the train, a kid with a camera). Or to do that thing where he says, I can look at this, can you? And that’s part of what draws High Life into the book’s orbit. The grotesqueries of the space story are body horror without any H.R. Giger proxies, rape and insemination and forced pregnancy and painkillers and death. Even the peaceful composted fate of Andre 3000 belongs somewhere in this. The body horror is the friends we made along the way.
Worth noting that Denis eschewed kitsch and humor in High Life and turned her back on alien body horror to return to the bodies we find ourselves in, sufficient, after all, for all manner of discomfort. But, as mentioned, Denis also largely dispenses with tech, arguably what has been all along and, since the 80s, over time, the most reactionary aspect of science fiction. The spaceship in High Life looks more like a dreary medical suite, grimmer in its way than the industrial grime of Ridley Scott’s “Nostromo.”
The borrowed-from-Brodie photographs are the closest thing to this world, even if (like much of the world, we have never seen it, never slept rough, never hopped trains). Stolen by photography, stolen again by the movie, they become like all memories (rag and bone shop) intruders.
“I stood upon a bridge, a palace and a prison on each hand.”
–J.M.W. Turner, misquoting Byron
So, I drove my dying country until I reached the Keystone Arches, just north of Chester, Massachusetts. They are, no joke, the work of Whistler’s Father, George Washington Whistler. And, aside from a maintained trail and some fine and well-written signage, they stand curiously alone, isolated, world-historical arches of victories not celebrated but enabled, along this narrow stretch of the West Branch of the Westfield River.
For Whistler’s Father was not only the engineer who said what if we put a whistle on the front of US trains? (again, I do not kid) but came to build, in the early years of locomotion, dry-laid stone bridges as an experiment to see if rivers could be used by trains to traverse difficult ground, grades, mountains, mountain ranges… the West. In this case they were simply trying to link Boston to Albany (the place names of the oldest frontiers always shock us a bit).
A newspaper columnist out of Boston speaks a little toward my space train tramps when he wrote that such a railroad would be as useful as a railroad to the moon. Instead, of course, the route, this forgotten spot, and the tech it represented, changed everything. Why are newspapers in every era so prone to promote Thomas L. Friedman mediocrities, Bourdieu’s doxosophers—he who is a technician of opinion, but is not wise—and leave them operating at such high levels no matter how low their batting averages sink?
George Washington Whistler’s success was instrumental in opening the West to large-scale European settlement and, of course, millions died. He went to Russia, built much the same for the czar and died of cholera. But not before he helped to open Central Asia to Russian imperial designs, and ultimately Siberia itself. All with accompanying body counts.
Of course, Whistler was outraged to discover he was using serf labor: like so many morally upstanding avatars of tech, he believed not only in his own goodness but the goodness—or at least neutrality—of progress itself.
You can visit these arches and you should. They are both grand, scruffy… and rather mundane. We have normalized them long since so that what they enabled seems a given. But to those whom the intruders were brought to? What a terrible dream.
I walked them much as I had driven. I stood on their scraggly, weedy, unrailed heights and looked down. And when I came to the long end of the trail to the turnaround I looked out onto the modern CSX line (though Whistler’s arches carried trains long after his time and into living memory) where a not very long freight train began to rush by.
On it were the usual, spectacular Thomas Gray, artist-once-known murals of graffiti, but with something I hadn’t seen: the functional #s of CSX simply blocked and spray-painted over the beautiful chaos. I snapped a few photos.
Train jumping is not just trespass but a passage through spaces closed (in theory) to all, but in a practice of malign neglect, open. And, like right-of-way in the countryside in the UK, graffiti can be read not as an assertion of freedom but of concurrent authority (growing up I helped my father on the weekends with contract surveying work, and so became used to moving through private land and spaces to which I had no specific or ongoing right, an oddly rare experience in this country, I realize as an adult).
Yet as I watched the train roll by coming from the direction of Albany, headed east toward Boston, I thought about how the original charter of Massachusetts defined no western border but proceeded on theoretically, optimistically, and indefinitely, perhaps only stopping at the Pacific. Although by the time the question could’ve practically been raised—via Whistler’s arches and much else—New York’s own claims, among many others, made the question moot.
I often think of that absurd, perpetual, low-ceilinged Massachusetts as one of the most vertiginous examples of colonial hubris, one that really reaches through our historical numbness. Think of how the theoretical strip of the Bay State stretched across the country through the Great Plains and how generations of, say, the Sioux, lived and died without ever knowing that someone somewhere believed that their living and dying and renovating their own world around feral horses… was partly taking place in Massachusetts.
Since moral correctness assumes that one receives the stranger by effacing his strangeness at the threshold it would have thus never have us receive him.
–Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Intrus
That this is a very French way of conceiving the whole—in terms of the demand for absorption—can make it seem of little use in the United States, say, where the other is best deported, annihilated, isolated, and so on without any understanding of an obligation to try to fit the much too-static but, for the French, at least theoretically available cloth of the social contract onto the intruder.
In his remarkable essay considering the other in terms of his own heart transplant, L’Intrus, Jean-Luc Nancy throws the idea of the whole out with the bathwater… only to have it land at his feet. In her movie, derived from the essay and of the same name, Denis keeps tossing narrative skeins through the whole of the two plus hours, as though Ariadne were walking along, hucking different balls of yarn down every twist and turn of the Labyrinth.
But it does maybe point us back toward a conception of the whole that Denis’s Starship of Fools would seem to ask of us: that the ad hoc juvenile prosperity and utopia of Brodie’s trains, or of any of the various illusions that persuaded the houses I drove past on the way to the Keystone Arches to be where they were in what was a frontier and is still a remote corner of Western Massachusetts: colonial, agrarian, immigrant several waves/times over, country, silent majority, hippie retreats, artists colonies, Alice’s restaurant, white flight, big trucks, welcome escapes from NYC… and so on.
The illusion that you can be outside or inside but free of the whole. How much of all the resistance on offer has been dissipated in that belief? I recall reading Philip Fisher on Benito Cereno, where he posits that the events Amaso Delano witnesses, the relationship between Babo and Cereno, were too terrible to be absorbed into the body politic… and then I remembered that the story was told in official documents: the body politic is doing just fine, thanks for asking.
Or how a friend idly asked what it meant to have a foreign body inside oneself (this long before I’d read Jean-Luc Nancy) and I tried to explain how different it was to have a bullet lodged in your abdomen vs. swallowing a bullet. After all, the tract from mouth to anus is a kind of dermis, lined with tissue that is as much exterior as interior. We present skin whenever we can. The intruder safely ushered, exploited, digested, discarded. Whereas the heart transplant that enabled Nancy’s essay and Denis’s movie was truly inside, truly an intruder.
Even that is too bright a line: simple organisms, both present and ancestral, dispensed with this sophistication of control: prey simply allowed to pass through the walls of the organism, digested in the totality of the predator, a sort of biological ghost. Organelles with specific functions circulating in that tiny cosmos. As is still the case when hands form in the womb with the appearance of wedges or scoops until the mysterious script in lysomes self-destructs the tissue between fingers and fingers float free.
I read L’Intrus as literature, as a short story, as a prose poem: to read it as philosophy remains above my pay grade. And it is a beautiful, sinuous short story, sporting many worthy twists in sentences you can wander in (happily lost) for days. I don’t entirely care what is meant.
To read any text in this way puts me somewhat in the wrong writing now—and relies on a definition of fiction so expansive as be without borders at all: a friend of mine is prone to saying that avant-garde fiction is little more than unlikely juxtapositions in no particular sequence. And this would be a worthy criticism in some world, but not in this one, where nothing is more likely to make a misery of one’s life than an overdependence on narratives of causation.
And there’s Corot, whose words landed demonstrably hard for, at least, Odilon Redon, when the former advised, “place an unknown next to a known.”
This could be the governing aesthetic, too, of the film Claire Denis made when she read Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay. The late Michel Subor plays an aging hitman living a simple albeit paranoid existence in the rural Jura of France, who seeks and receives a heart transplant, rejects one son and is rejected by another, cares for and abandons two beautiful dogs, travels to Tahiti, dies. Oh, and yes, Beatrice Dalle pilots a dog team and sled numinously toward the camera. Dialogue is minimal—then essential—and the film’s poetic progressions make L’Intrus my favorite of all her films. That, and how she read and filmed the story she saw (but was not there) in the essay.
When she introduced L’Intrus at Metrograph in 2020, Denis said her film reminded her of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and reported that Nancy’s own verdict included the statement, “You never did an adaptation of the book. You adopted the book. That’s different.”
For me, the essay is also, in my own, private misreading, one of the great extrapolations of the hoary old creative writing cliché, to wit: there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town.
“Better for me to apply myself to things more apparent than words.”
“So it is that the synchronic historian works against himself: winner loses, as Sartre liked to put it: the more airtight the synchronic system laid in place all around us, the more surely history itself evaporates in the process, and along with it any possibility of political agency or collective anti-systemic praxis.”
–Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future
No one would ever accuse Francis Fukuyama of being a centrist in the strict sense, but at the moment when he declared history over and done, it was the right not the left entering into a new dynamic state. His message resonated generationally and offered a triumphal arch and a rotary to encircle it: it is the perpetual motion machine, the loop, the binary approach (ask for votes or ask for money) that dominates the center right that has co-opted the left so that for all the lies offered on the right, it is really the left where everyone labors—not to lie—but to avoid the truth: history has not ended, democracy has failed, we are trapped—as we have been throughout the, let’s face it, rather brief interval of this republic—with a cult around whose insanity our very constitution was written, no less absurd a whole than the endless borders of Massachusetts. The only time our malevolent secret sharers seemed to be losing in an absolute sense was when they abandoned gaming the system itself and went to war. Since that peace, they have never lost for long. If one moment sets them back, they have but to wait. And our side, the other side, is chained to an illusion, a totality. And so we too often insist on the equilibrium of that whole, even
as we are cast again and again as the intruders within it.
Walter Benjamin put forward the arcade and its fellow traveler, the Parisian catacomb, as places into and out of a static present, and Claire Denis offers the Black Hole as an ending to High Life not just as a deus ex machina but to underscore how little there is to stay for, how much reason there is to take the chance offered by this symbol of science’s transcendence. If only to understand how ready so much of humanity is and has always been to believe there is another reality—that this is the worst timeline, to use the phrase of the moment—and that the wager is not only worth it… but the only real choice. The moment before we necessarily lose sight of those taking the leap through… not unlike the way Brodie’s photographs—at least those Denis transcribed—offer the kids on the trains frozen in tolerable moments, better moments. We never have to see even one second beyond.
Likewise, per the tension in Robert Pattinson’s space Crusoe-like stature, angling toward the escape of the ending, the black hole, the belief that Paris was possessed of an endless, endlessly connected series of tunnels, miraculously linking Saint Sulpice to Versailles, traversing rivers and escaping detection (although prosecutors then searched for them as assiduously as prosecutors in the 80s searched for Satanic cults among daycare providers) the internet has proven the hellscape, the whole, by which all reason is defeated: the porousness of the landscape it provides means no backstop, no reason, no proof.
Escape—the idea that we can, even or especially by means of a disaster—bears a large part of the blame for science fiction’s rightward progression: as Benjamin’s crowdsource notes in The Arcades Project, literature has always looked at the present and imagined apocalypse. Daudet stands upon heights and sees Paris laid waste no differently than classical authors envisioning the desertion of palatial streets and stadia, no differently than our continually re-upped CGI eradication of all these annoying fellow-feeling folk, with whom we jostle for salvation.
Art, too. “La Reve,” Corot’s 1870 vision of Paris as a total ruin, painted from the painter’s own dream, is among his most haunting works, not least because so many of his paintings are visions of peaceful wholes.
Concurrently, the attraction of forms of radical withdrawal and of silence, silence disrupted not only by participant observers like Mike Brodie or Thomas Gray, with the resulting long tail of a mass audience and consideration, ask questions that boomerang as persistently and inanely as Sunday School metaphysics: could Christ still have saved us all if he had died unknown? The Mormons said no, with their wonderfully batshit postcards of Christ apparitional before the Incas, the long latitudinal reach of that moment. Could we all be saved by actions that Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” christened as ineffectual, some mute, inglorious Milton, some village Hampden, some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood…? Could they even be most effectual unknown? Silent but unwithdrawn?
Are we, the we theoretically reading this, intruding and observing everywhere, hounds to the hunters of our own shifts and changes and progressions? We know technology seems to will this with one mind, be it search algorithms or citation collapse, period tracking apps or facial recognition software, even the food delivery robots waiting patiently (for now) at the crosswalks.
Is our dissidence not just accounted for… but part of the accounting—and, as it stands, reactionary on its face? Does it stop therefore what can never get started? Are our better impulses little better than the man in the old joke, his repeated attempts to see whether the refrigerator light has gone off when the door is shut?
Anyway, I saw some photographs I thought only I remembered, recreated inside a film.
L’Intrus is screening the weekend of September 30 through October 2 at Metrograph in New York City.