Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Tonight was strange. I was feeling better, than suddenly much worse, then somewhat better, than worse again. Sort of like our fish, only in a much milder way: she keeps turning on her side, floating, only to stir happily, in her cat-crippled fashion, whenever I try to figure out if she has broken through to the other side.

The strangeness of the night was greatly enhanced by my viewing of Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf, which Kim rented yesterday. She watched a good deal while I was over with her stepfather, then opted to start over from the beginning with me this evening so we could talk about it together. But her eyes gave out and she went to bed about 40% of the way through the film. Uncharacteristically, however, I watched the rest on my own.

For those of you who don't know, Haneke also directed the almost-impossible-to-watch and, for most people, impossible-to-watch-twice Funny Games and the better-received -- let's face it, I'm in a mood right now to dash it all -- The Piano Teacher. His latest is a deliberately minimal tale of life in a post-apocalyptic yet oddly bucolic French landscape.

I can't give the ending away, out of deference to Kim, but won't be compromising her pleasure to say that, for me, the film distilled A) The Diary of Anne Frank; B) Robert Bresson's Mouchette C) The Grapes of Wrath; and D) La Jetée into a powerful cinematic experience.

The dark post-9/11 times we're living in may not be good for many people, but they sure have been a boon to art. Of course, like Kim and other friends I've talked to, I feel that films like Time of the Wolf are almost too much to take in the present climate. They bring the fears we struggle to suppress to the surface. More abstractly, they fill the need for allegory that seems to accompany dark times.

In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin tries to explain why German plays from the years during and immediately following the disastrous Thirty Years War -- 1618-1648 -- seemed to critics of the 18th and 19th centuries to be so overburdened with clumsy correspondences. He outlines a link between that period and his own Weimar Republic, though, in the best allegorical fashion, he leaves it up to his readers to finish connecting the dots.

As I sat in silence, absorbing the intensity of Time of the Wolf, my thoughts returned again and again to the conclusion to Benjamin's argument. "Knowledge of good and evil," he writes, is, "the opposite of all factual knowledge. Related as it is to the depths of the subjective, it is basically only knowledge of evil." Why, you ask? Because, knowledge of evil, "has no object. There is no evil in the world. It arises in man himself, with the desire for knowledge, or rather for judgment." This means that, "knowledge of good, as knowledge, is secondary. It ensues from practice. Knowledge of evil -- as knowledge this is primary. It ensues from contemplation."

The Origin of German Tragic Drama is so abstract, so perversely difficult to comprehend, that I have wondered whether some of its higher-flying passages were lacking in substance. But the times we're living in and the art they're generating are slowly making them seem more concrete. Practical, even, as though they constituted a kind of rarified self-help manual:
In the very fall of man, the unity of guilt and signifying emerges as an abstraction. The allegorical has its existence in abstractions; as an abstraction, as a faculty of the spirit of language itself, it is at home in the Fall. For good and evil are unnameable, they are nameless entities, outside the language of names, in which man, in paradise, named things, and which he forsakes in the abyss of that problem. For languages the name is only a base in which the concrete elements have their roots. The abstract elements of language, however, have their roots in the evaluative word, the judgment. And while, in the earthly court, the uncertain subjectivity of judgment is firmly anchored in reality, with punishments, in the heavenly court the illusion of evil comes entirely into its own. Here the unconcealed subjectivity triumphs over every deceptive objectivity of justice, and is incorporated into divine omnipotence as a "work of supreme wisdom and primal love," as hell. It is not appearance, and, equally, it is not satiated being, but it is the reflection in reality of empty subjectivity in the good. In evil as such subjectivity grasps what is real in it, and sees it simply as its own reflection in God. In the allegorical image of the world, therefore, the subjective perspective is entirely absorbed in the economy of the whole.
Benjamin is writing from the perspective of the dramatists he has spent two hundred pages discussing here. What you see in this passage, then, is immanent critique, performed from inside a discourse looking out, rather than from the outside looking in. Because time in Benjamin has a way of wrinkling that would have delighted Madeline L'Engle, though, this immanent critique bends back on itself to become an expression of his attitude towards his own troubled times. It is in the darkest moments -- though those were still to come for Benjamin and the world he so ably represented -- that the possibility of redemption shines brightest.

Time of the Wolf, I think, is conveying a similar message. As in his earlier films, Haneke certainly seems intent on exploring the territory "beyond good and evil." This time, though, he allows room for hope, not only because of what does or doesn't happen in the plot, but because of how the picture invites us to recognize our own impulse to allegorize as both the foundation of our humanity and the passage to its transcendence.

Hmmm. I sat down here to write about how I recognized Beatrice Dalle's voice long before I recognized her face and ended up plunging into an abyss of apocalyptic theory. Maybe I'm running a fever. So I'll use a metaphor that Time of the Wolf once again makes literal: better hit the hay.

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