A COUPLE OF FILMS DEFYING MODERN ISOLATIONISM: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse

Posted by on December 9th, 2009 at 3:01 PM

Two unnervingly and sublimely beautiful films can be mustered to illustrate the provincial metaphysical limitations of all that “bourgeois individualism” has ever taken for granted as normal, natural and ultimate: in The Double Life of Veronique (1991) a young woman’s life is transfigured and haunted when she finds her Doppelganger in another city, a variant-existence that makes her suffer spiritual “culture-shock,” an eerie “ideaquake” of realizing that all that she has taken as “unique” and “proprietary” and eternally “unreduplicable” about herself is actually just figments of some ineffable recombinatorial alphabet.  This is precisely the kind of experience that “sublime” signified from its origins, an overpowering experience like the Alps or the Grand Canyon or Chartres or Beethoven’s Choral Symphony that makes poignant the finiteness and pathos of the self-enclosed, self-immersed ego.  “Veronica”—the “true icon” or “image”—lives a realization she cannot reason about, that we are “members one of another” and finitude or mutual exclusion is not the ultimate truth of what we essentially are.  Ironically she has spent her life as a singer in a choir, “harmonizing” with others by her performances; but there is for her a most “significant other” with whom she has been mystically harmonized just by her very being.

—And in L’Eclisse (1962), a couple of lovers modulate imperceptibly from one “world” (the “public,” with its formalisms and regular rituals for behavior and attitude) into its alterity (the “private,” the inner realm of delicious hungers and mutual absorption of one into another).  The primordial truth Antonioni is articulating is that humans have forever occupied not little individual pustules of projected self-interest (as they all too naturally or idiotistically seem to themselves) but rather superordinate or enclosing/encompassing gestalten, modal spheres such as “nature,” “society,” “religion,” “art,” etc.  It is these spheres that make a self-correcting and “sane” whole possible, a balancing superorganism or matrix.  Our petty acts and desires and fickle consensual suppositions in no way legislate for what is ultimately true, what constitutes the firmament of our existence.  What actually exists as an order of principles is founded on imperceptible transfinite modalities, higher-order enclosures in which we participate, that make communication, language, intelligence, political disputation, economic consensus, religious piety, etc. practically and subjectively possible.  Even apes, dogs, lions, squirrels, fish, ants, etc. have their supervening “cultures,” their tacit possibilities of coordinating with one another:  nothing that lives is utterly as mute and insensate and reductive as a stone.

Life coheres not just into organisms but also into families, clans, villages, towns, cities, nations, civilizations, and so forth.  Humans are the “victims” or “beneficiaries” of a kind of gathering Logos or principle of animating-gravitational cohesion that, by ideological design, moderns have made themselves grossly incompetent even to perceive.  Little wonder that this contagious atomizing imbecility has progressed as far as it has toward the ruin of the whole planet’s organ-systems, its spheres or gestalten of living coordination.  From primitive and ancient times, nature was understood as a vast domain of subtle sympatheticism, truly a planetary “soul” of “hidden harmonics” that the Greeks recognized as a mother-goddess, Gaia.  “Together” or “with,” just like “we,”are only mechanically or verbalistically meaningful terms to moderns, nothing that we can comprehend as principles that point to other modes of coherence and essentializing culture.

Like planets orbiting some unknown anchorage, one of Antonioni’s worlds eclipses the other in an Armageddon-like either/or of great empires, of gravitational fields of implacable one-sidedness.  William Arrowsmith has called Antonioni “the poet of images,” but the Italian master at his pinnacle is truly an Olympian “poet” as Homer or Shakespeare or Yeats was, the oracle of an entire civilizational order, that is, the most intense focus of the transfinite meaning of a whole orchestrated way of existing.  In the year that I first saw L’Eclisse, shortly after it was produced, my understanding of “public” and “private” realms had been freshly charged and challenged by Hannah Arendt’s great work, The Human Condition, but Antonioni was clearly bringing to both “worlds” different tissues of experience and meaning from hers (the political versus the household or economic).  The stock market, “private” or idiotist to Arendt, is “public” or regimentarian to Antonioni, but in L’Eclisse, in the realm of love as in that of lucre, massive astronomical bodies move in obedience to the mysteries and miseries of gravitation.  As the later ancients saw the ballet of “atoms and the void”—particles conjoining and dispersing according to the world-forces of attraction and repulsion—so Antonioni observes humans, now become worlds unto themselves yet also obedient to superordinate powers, uncomprehendingly merging and then alienated and destined to disjoin.

Both these films are available in the Criterion Collection.

[©2009 Kenneth Smith]

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2 Responses to “A COUPLE OF FILMS DEFYING MODERN ISOLATIONISM: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse”

  1. Uland says:

    ” The primordial truth Antonioni is articulating is that humans have forever occupied not little individual pustules of projected self-interest (as they all too naturally or idiotistically seem to themselves) but rather superordinate or enclosing/encompassing gestalten, modal spheres such as “nature,” “society,” “religion,” “art,” etc. It is these spheres that make a self-correcting and “sane” whole possible, a balancing superorganism or matrix. ”

    How, though, do these “spheres” make “sanity” possible? Isn’t sanity itself defined by these same institutional power centers? In other words, isn’t “insanity” fundamentally that which our social organs — each policed and “run” by a power-elite— cannot countenance, or see as a threat to their power?

    “Our petty acts and desires and fickle consensual suppositions in no way legislate for what is ultimately true, what constitutes the firmament of our existence. What actually exists as an order of principles is founded on imperceptible transfinite modalities, higher-order enclosures in which we participate, that make communication, language, intelligence, political disputation, economic consensus, religious piety, etc. practically and subjectively possible. ”

    If they are imperceptible, how can they be described as actualities? Which magically endowed philosopher-king will describe for us the nature of these “modalities”, and how best to “participate” in them? How would we insure that they aren’t pursuing their self-interest?

    Would you volunteer to describe these for us? Or are you just some sort of middle-man?

  2. Two of my very favorite films. Nice essay. No idea what it meant… but if the CC ever tire of utilizing Zizek’s horseshit in their DVD booklets, at least they’ll know where to look for a replacement.