To begin with a tangent: one of the things that I love about the Times Literary Supplement is how dutiful they are about getting experts to review books in their fields, so that instead of, for example, hearing praise for the wonderfully informative, picturesque prose of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, as happened in countless American publications, you get to hear how badly Menand’s book misrepresented the pragmatic philosophical tradition, as Bruce Wilshire discussed at length, concluding:
Menand’s failure to grasp the purport and consequences of distinctively philosophical ideas becomes damagingly clear. What is the meaning of truth, persons, groups, reality, matter, mind, the meaning of meaning itself, the meaning of “pragmatism” itself? James’s pragmatic theories of meaning and truth depend on his metaphysics of radical empiricism or pure experience, but references to this metaphysics are absent in Menand, and so James’s pragmatism cannot be grasped. Neither can Dewey’s, nor Peirce’s.
It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. Menand provides interesting and valuable historical knowledge often overlooked by “pure” philosophers, touching on important thinkers such as Chauncey Wright, Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, Randolph Bourne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthur Bentley, Edward Ross, Learned Hand and many others. But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand’s valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves. It is not safe to assume that even many learned, educated, or inquiring people possess this knowledge and discipline.
Right on, Mr. Wilshire. (Sorry, the article is not publicly available, but it’s in the subscriber archive of the TLS.) More recently, Stephen Greenblatt picked a fight with Alastair Fowler, who had slammed Will in the World, over seventeenth century European population statistics, and Fowler came out the more knowledgeable winner.
The point is that there is often a real difference between presenting one’s experience of a work and critiquing the work itself, and often people present themselves as qualified to do both when they can actually only do the first. So I fess up: I don’t know enough about life in the Soviet Union during perestroika to claim that I truly understand Kira Muratova‘s The Asthenic Syndrome. But then, I’m not sure that Jonathan Rosenbaum does, either. He describes the first forty-five minutes of the film in detail, then throws up his hands, declaring:
Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.
Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of The Asthenic Syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.
(Now I don’t have to feel so bad about discussing the film.) I disagree with Rosenbaum; the movie has a very specific context and makes allusions within it, and speaking to some Russian friends after the movie, it was clear that they were both essential to the film and presented only by allusion. The film is bereft of political (or even markedly cultural) references, yet unlike Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director or the work of Bela Tarr, which also deal in elusive allegories, Muratova’s film exists within a very definite time and space, that of Gorbachev-era perestroika in the Soviet Union.
If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? Rosenbaum sees it as a general critique of politics and systems, but that is to deny its overwhelming sense of specificity. Muratova made a film for Soviets, and to reduce it to a series of abstract statements, as Rosenbaum does, sells it severely short. Without the context, the film is simply an ugly, abstract meditation on nothing in particular, one that can be used in assorted political contexts, but which lacks much innate value. Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.
The film proceeds for its first segment as Rosenbaum describes: a washed-out, black and white portrait of a woman, Natasha, grieving after her husband has died. But the actress playing Natasha is so hysterically over-the-top, and so unrealistic and disconnected in her mood swings as to be off-putting. So it comes as a relief forty-five minutes in when, with absolutely no prior indication, the camera pulls back to reveal that the film so far has been a film within a film. Everything is now in color, and an audience is bored with this art-house movie, not bothering to question the actress who played Natasha, who is the special guest. Eventually only one man is left in the theater, our hero Nikolai, who has fallen asleep.
Nikolai, it turns out, has some kind of (highly symbolic) narcolepsy, and spends much of the film asleep. He teaches, but rarely displays any emotion beyond resignation and exhaustion. He is clearly the opposite of Natasha, almost comically so. He wanders in a world filled with unpleasant people throwing decadent parties where the party game of the hour is to pose two nude people to make a scene depicting “love.” Nikolai repositions himself and a woman to, pace Kafka, appear to be lying next to each other in a coffin.
So it proceeds. The visuals are mostly drab and underplayed, and the extras in particular make a point of not intruding with much visible emotion. This is, evidently, a portrait of society in despair, a society which has lost a principle of order, albeit a cruel, totalitarian one, and is lost. Historically speaking, given the popularity of Putin’s return-to-authoritarianism regime, Muratova’s vision seems quite prescient.
Yet the relation of the two parts puzzles me. The film-within-a-film, never named, is so artificial as to even be considered a “bad film,” and thus something being rejected; certainly it seems to have no resonance for any of the “real” characters. But the balance of the opposites–lack of affect vs. hysteria–makes it out to be something more complicated. My tentative conclusion is that the film-within-the-film is intentionally designed to have an alienating effect, to be so extreme as to push the audience into the corner of the narcoleptic who is the film’s true protagonist. The old violent extremes, Muratova seems to say, have vanished and are no longer relevant, but that means that there is no revenge to be had, no purgation of anger for the descendents of the victims of Stalin. Rather, the rug has just been pulled out from under them, and they are left in an unregulated void.
I was intrigued by The Asthenic Syndrome, but often confused, sometimes bored, and rarely moved. (An anomalous, memorable sequence of a unlikable old matron ineptly playing the trumpet is a notable exception.) But this film was not made for me. It is a portrait of a unique situation that I never experienced, and it does not go out of its way to generalize or polemicize, though it has its strong opinions. It is of its time in a way that Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies is not, yet that gives it a strength that allows it to easily best Angelopoulos’s tepid, feeble Ulysses’ Gaze, which is more concerned with making a pompous statement than capturing life.