Staying in Touch With Home, for Better or Worse

February 16, 2011 By James Dao

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Forget the drones, laser-guided bombs and eye-popping satellite imagery. For the average soldier, the most significant change to modern warfare might just boil down to instant chatting.

Consider these scenes from northern Afghanistan:

A gunner inside an armored vehicle types furiously on a BlackBerry, so engrossed in text-messaging his girlfriend in the United States that he has forgotten to watch for enemy movement.

A medic watches her computer screen with something approaching rapture as her 2-year-old son in Florida scrambles in and out of view before planting wet kisses on the camera lens, 7,500 miles away.

A squad leader who has just finished directing gunfire against insurgents finds a quiet place inside his combat outpost, whips out his iPhone and dashes off an instant message to his wife back home. “All is well,” he tells her, adding, “It’s been busy.”

The communication gap that once kept troops from staying looped into the joyful, depressing, prosaic or sordid details of home life has all but disappeared. With advances in cellular technology, wider Internet access and the infectious use of social networking sites like Facebook, troops in combat zones can now communicate with home nearly around the clock. They can partake in births and birthdays in real time. They can check sports scores, take online college courses and even manage businesses and stock portfolios. But there is a drawback: they can no longer tune out problems like faulty dishwashers and unpaid electric bills, wayward children and failing relationships, as they once could.

The Pentagon, which for years resisted allowing unfettered Internet access on military computers because of cyber-security concerns, has now embraced the revolution, saying instant communication is a huge morale boost for troops and their families. But military officials quietly acknowledge a downside to the connectivity.

Some commanders worry that troops are playing with iPhones and BlackBerrys (as well as Game Boys and MP3 players) when they should be working, though such devices are strictly forbidden on foot patrols. More common are concerns that the problems of home are seeping inexorably into frontline life, creating distractions for people who should be focusing on staying safe.

“It’s powerful for good, but it can also be powerful for bad when you’re hearing near real time about problems at home,” said Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the Army’s suicide prevention task force. “It forces you to literally keep your head in two games at one time when your head should be in just one game, in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

It took the military several years to come to terms with both the cyber-security and safety issues. Initially, the Pentagon banned access to social networking sites. But when officials realized that they were falling behind the times and angering young Web-savvy troops, they conducted a study and determined there was more to be gained by allowing access. Classified-network computers still have no access to social networking sites.

To see the upside of a well-connected force, one need look no further than the Morale, Welfare and Recreation building, fondly known as the M.W.R., at Forward Operating Base Kunduz, home to the First Battalion, 87th Infantry for the past year. In more than 40 plywood cubicles that are available all day, soldiers sit in front of computer terminals or talk on telephones, all of them connected to home. There is virtually no privacy, so the arguments over money and children, the love talk and baby talk, are clearly audible in one cacophonous symphony of chat.

Pfc. Briana Smith, 23, medic and bubbly single mother, is regularly in the M.W.R. checking up on her 2-year-old son, Daniel, who is living with her parents in Tampa. She tries to call home daily and routinely logs onto Facebook to check in with family and friends. And at least once a week, she uses video conferencing on Skype to visit with Daniel. The close communication thrills her, but can leave a pang, too. “I can’t be involved in the everyday things,” she said. “I only get to see the little tidbits of his life. It’s good to see, but it’s a little heartbreaking at times.”

The Internet connections and phones are not all free. Though troops do not pay to use computers in the M.W.R., they do pay for the phone calls. And those soldiers who bring their own cellphones pay fees that typically start at $70 and frequently run as high as $300 a month. A few chatty soldiers have received bills for more than $10,000 when their texting spun out of control.

To veterans from previous generations, it all seems like something out of science fiction. George Moody, whose son, Billy, is a gunner with the battalion in Kunduz, spent 25 years in the Navy, deploying on ships that were at sea for months at a time. Letters home to his girlfriend and now wife, Mary Jo, sometimes took six weeks to arrive. Now Mr. Moody, 49, has the family computer programmed to play reveille as loudly as possible whenever Billy logs onto Skype in Kunduz. With an eight-and-a-half-hour difference between Afghanistan and their home in Ashville, N.C., he and his wife are waking after midnight almost every day. “It’s like having a baby again, because we’re back to getting up at 1:30, 2 in the morning to talk to him,” Mr. Moody said. “But we could not live with ourselves if we could not talk to him when he wanted to talk.”

The easy communication can relieve fears — but also stoke them. Once families become used to hearing from troops daily, lapses in communication can send imaginations racing.Christina Narewski communicates daily with her husband, Staff Sgt. Francisco Narewski, by Skype or instant messaging on their BlackBerrys. But when he does not call back quickly, she frets. “It’s an anxiety just waiting to hear from him again, just waiting to hear when he gets back,” she said.

Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg, a psychologist and founder of a group, Give an Hour, that provides counseling to troops and their families, called the connectivity “a mixed blessing” when couples spend too much time waiting for calls or excessively discussing problems that cannot be repaired long distance. “It’s just stress, stress, stress,” she said. “I talked to a mom who was counting the minutes between calls from her son. I gently told her that may not be good for either one of them. It is a burden.” The ability to keep tabs on people at almost any hour can also be dangerous for soldiers suspicious of their lovers or spouses. “It’s nothing to go ask your friend: ‘What was she doing last night?’ ” Pfc. Billy Moody said. “They might tell you one thing, she tells you another, and the next thing you know, there’s drama.”

Specialist Kyle Schulz, for instance, learned via cellphone that his girlfriend was taking up with another man. The news sent him into an emotional tailspin — until he rekindled his relationship with an old girlfriend, by cellphone and Facebook. They later discussed marriage, also on Facebook, until that relationship, too, flickered out. “In a way I kind of think I had too much communication,” Specialist Schulz, 22, said, “because the more I know back home about what’s going on, the less that I am concentrating out here. And it could potentially hurt me or other people.”

In extreme cases, breakups over cellphones or Facebook have sent soldiers to suicide counseling, or worse. In one case involving a different battalion, a soldier in Iraq killed himself in 2009 after spending hours tracking his girlfriend’s movements and then arguing with her and her sister via cellphone and MySpace.

Half an hour after the soldier, Chancellor Keesling, shot himself, his girlfriend sent him an e-mail asking to make u“. Chance knew exactly who his girlfriend had gone out with and where she was,” said his father, Gregg Keesling. “She stopped taking his calls, and that is what really sent him into the spiral.”In Kunduz, the battalion chaplain, Capt. Tony Hampton, said he often advises soldiers to shut off the phone and stay away from the computers when tensions are brewing with loved ones back home. Take some time to think, he counsels. Write a letter. He doubts anyone listens.

“The access is too easy for them and they just can’t rest,” he said. “This is the microwave generation. They need it, and they need it fast.”

i heart

i heart

Love in Hiroshima Mon Amour

Love and catastrophe: filming the sublime in Hiroshima mon amour, Reni Celeste       

Originally published in Studies in French Cinema Volume 3 Number 3 (2003).


This essay studies two scenes from Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima mon amour (1959) alongside the concept of the sublime in order to take film from a discussion of desire to one of love. Love is understood according to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s description, as an infinite alterity, rather than as totality or unity. Though Levinas insists on a separation between love and tragedy, and argues that the work of art cannot achieve the ethical, I argue that Resnais’s film expresses a sublime achievement by staging, or representing, the infinite tragically through failure and betrayal.

'Desire' is no small word in narrative film theory. Besides being the engine of the popular film plot it has been modern film theory's deepest obsession. Is it possible to move from a discourse of desire to one of love? A discourse of desire understands the film screen as corresponding to deep psychoanalytic structures of the desiring spectator. Desire in psychoanalysis locates a fundamental lack established in infantile experience (Freud) and language (Lacan), and posits the film screen as a potential site of resolution. Love, as I will define it, corresponds to the quest towards an infinite difference. To understand the cinema according to love is to attempt to frame the infinite. Can the film screen make this transition from desire to love - is the infinite something that can appear? The question of the sublime posed be Kant bears a similarity: can reason surpass the limits of the human faculties when one encounters what is beyond representation? I will employ Kant's concept of the sublime alongside two scenes of loss and retrieval in Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (1959), to argue that film can present the unpresentable and achieve love.

         The Platonic version of love has traditionally been understood as a quest for the universal, the same, or the one. Love is classically depicted in terms of identity: desire strives to transform difference into unity. Emmanuel Levinas proposes a challenge to this regime that also represents a challenge to the traditional understanding of philosophy or metaphysics. As he writes in Time and the Other: ‘I have precisely wanted to contest the idea that the relationship with the other is fusion. The relationship with the Other is the absence of the other; not absence pure and simple, not the absence of pure nothingness, but absence in a horizon of the future, an absence that is time’ (Levinas 1987: 90). For Levinas love is infinity rather than totality. To this ethical infinity of the Other, Levinas opposes the realm of representation, or art. In order to undermine the equivalence in deconstruction between being and image that ultimately destabilized all ethical and truth claims, Levinas insisted in his early writings on a strict division between art and ethics. Art is incapable of the infinite because it is ultimately without time, and can deliver no future. In his essay ‘Reality and its Shadow’, he described art in terms of tragedy: a frozen nightmare of repetition that he referrred to as l’entre temps, or the meanwhile. ‘Every art work is in the end, a statue - a stoppage of time’ (Levinas 1989: 137). He includes cinema, theatre, music and the so-called time-based arts. To achieve love is to break out of the province of tragedy and the work of art. This description of both art and love implies a critical separation between two concepts that have been historically intertwined: tragedy and love.

         I will write in accordance with Levinas’s understanding of philosophy and love as well as his conviction that love exceeds the fram of representation, desire and exchange. I also understand love to be the single most important achievement for Being, and agree that the ethical is deeply bound to love as difference. What distinguishes my position from that of Levinas is that I insist on the classic inseparability of love and tragedy. I will argue that, despite his refusal, representation is capable of love as he has defined it. In order to do this I will have recourse to the sublime, a concept that emerged in Enlightenment aesthetics and has since revealed itself to indicate the ultimate challenge to reason - a challenge that despite Kant’s insistence on nature, was ultimately waged in the work of art. I will make my case for film in two steps. First, I will give an explanation of the sublime and consider why it has become such an important concept for postmodern philosophy. Next, I will argue through an analysis of Hiroshima mon amour that tragic film achieves the sublime by framing the experience of the infinite - in this case love and catastrophe. 

The return of the sublime

The sublime, alongside tragedy, is one of the most important concepts pertaining to the relation of art and thought. The significance of the concept of the sublime for philosophy can be traced to Kant’s thrid Critique, where along with beauty it served the role of bridging theoretical and pratical reason (Kant 1987). Kant describes the sublime as an experience of astonishment, first noted by Edmund Burke, whereby pleasure and pain are experienced simultaneously when confronted with grand and excessive displays of nature. Though Kant did not speak of tragedy, this structure in which success and nobility is asserted through failure is analogous to the structure of tragedy. Not only is the sublime a tragic structure, but also tragedy is a sublime experience. Tragedy has been described by Friedrich Schelling as the drama, or the staging, of the sublime experience (Schelling 1989).

         The sublime however is not a mere psychological experience. Though Kant considered his discovery secondary to the concept of beauty because it described an experience rather than something that could be said of the object itself, he noted that we can attribute two kinds of agitation generated by the sublime to the object itself, and ‘hence present the object as sublime in these two ways’ (Kant 1987: 100). These two forms of agitation are the mathematical and the dynamical. This extends the sublime from being a merely subjectivist phenomenon to being transcendental in the Kantian sense.

         The first component of the sublime, the mathematical, is concerned with size, or as Kant describes it, that which is absolutely large, where absolute refers to what is large beyond comparison. Thus Kant concludes: ‘Nothing that can be called an object of the senses is to be called sublime’ (Kant 1987: 106). Imagination is our power to estimate the magnitude of things in the world of sense, yet when it strives to embrace this absolute largeness it comes upon its limitations and fails because absolute largeness is not a magnitude, but a boundlessness. This failure causes the sensation of displeasure, but the situation also simultaneously ushers in reason, in the form of the awareness that our ability to think this infinite as a whole, points to our possession of a supersensible power, and this superiority of reason is experienced as pleasure. Paradoxically, this ability of the mind to apprehend the unlimited as totality is only brought to awareness aesthetically as the experience of an inability. The pleasure of the sublime is only possible by means of displeasure and failure.

         The second component of the sublime is the dynamical, or what Kant sometimes refers to simply as might. An object of nature generates the experience of the dynamically sublime when it reveals a might that has no dominance over us (Kant 1987: 119). The deep gorges, raging streams and massive mountains instil a terror and amazement in us, but if we judge from a safe place we are not actually afraid or cowering before a dominant power. Once again, Kant argues that our fear in the face of the unbounded nature actually provokes our sense of superiority and independence to nature, and thus our strength before it. The might of nature in comparison to our fragile being makes us recognize our physical impotence and vulnerability, but at the same time it reveals an ability we possess to judge ourselves apart from nature. To take the astonishing immensity and force of nature as an object of our mind is to reveal our minds as larger and greater. As Kant says: ‘Hence nature is here called sublime merely because it elevates our imagination, [making] it exhibit those cases where the mind can come to feel its own sublimity, which lies in is vocation and elevates it even above nature’ (Kant 1987: 121).

         Kant’s isolation of the sublime to nature is essential to the larger goals at stake for him in this concept. His insistence on the superiority of the mind over nature, and of the superiority of reason over imagination, cannot be fully understood without reference to the relation of the sublime to moral feelings. For Kant, the mind has a purpose that transcends nature, and that purpose is the apprehension of the supersensible as the grounds for moral judgements. This disussion is taken up in ‘S29 On the Modality of a Judgment about the Sublime in Nature’ (Kant 1987: 124-40). Insofar as the analytic of the sublime concerns itself with the relationship between reason and sensibilty, it stands at the junction between metaphysics and scepticism, and calls forth the question not only of the possibility of knowledge, but also the limits of reason. Recent interest in the sublime indicates that in the midst of postmodern scepticism and the death sentence waged on metaphysics by almost all major philosophies in the past century, the question of surpassing ultimate limits has once again become critical. 1

         The most influential re-reading of the sublime may be Lyotard’s, because he understands it to exemplify the postmodern problematic. Lyotard discussed the sublime in his earllier work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, where he argued that modern art found its impetus ‘in the aesthetic of the sublime’ (Lyotard 1984: 77). In this text he distinguished modern art from postmodern art in terms of their various responses to the possibility of presentation. Modern aesthetics ‘allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents’, whereas the postmodern aesthetic ‘puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself’ (Lyotard 1984: 81). Both modern and postmodern art revolve around the problem posed by the sublime: how can art present the unpresentable? Lyotard and others have found in the Kantian conception of the sublime the fissure of modern thought, uncovering the very condition of twentieth-century thought - an obsession with the limits of knowledge. Though postmodern interpretations of the sublime see it as the very limit of reason, rather than as victory, in the notion of the sublime Kant did not uncover, as he believed, a mere appendix to beauty but the most rigorous and astonishing feature of philosphy itself - the aporia, a point of infinite possibilities, to which we can return repeatedly without resolution.

         In both the sublime and the tragic, contradiction and negative presentation are invoked as an aesthetic form of truth that stands superior to logic and inseperable from the ethical. Human dignity and nobility only reach their full height in the failure of the system, because through the realization (reason) of this failure a larger victory is asserted negatively, that of the hegemony of reason. When Friedrich Schelling asks how the Greeks were able to beat the contradictions of their tragedy, he finds his answer in the idea of tragedy as supreme justice. The Greek hero is condemned to play out the struggle between the opposing equalities of freedom and necessity, and to asset the hegemony of freedom through its very loss. For Schelling, drama is the highest art because of its sublime achievement (Schelling 1989: 247, 253). Hiroshima mon amour presents a modern case.

1 The sublime is the subject of no less than three recent titles; see Crowther 1989, Makkreel 1990, and Lyotard 1991.

Hiroshima mon amour

Hiroshima mon amour is a film that proclaims that history will not be possessed, and then proceeds to reflect the shadow of historical truth through the confession of this limitation in narrative cinema. Commissioned to do a documentary film on Hiroshima, Alain Resnais instead made a feature-length drama that questions the very possibility of documenting history. If classical aesthetics in the German idealist tradition situates the question of art within a philosophy of identity, here the same paradoxes are marked within a philosophy of difference. Can the frame present what lies beyond the realm of the sensible: love, catastrophe, and historical truth. Can a film image be considered a presentation? How film presents absence is the broader question of Hiroshima mon amour.

         In his biography of Alain Resnais, James Monaco describes the film this way: ‘Hiroshima mon amour is two films, often working against each other’ (Monaco 1979: 49). It is this point of strife that gives the film its metaphysical and erotic tension. The film takes as its centre the question of love and catastrophe, contact and disruption, the play of opposites touching and recoiling, but it does so in a manner in which opposing forces are not conflated upon one another in equivalence, or reconciled and unified. For example, it consists of a dialogue between two nameless lovers, one French and one Japanese; it is set between two cities in two nations; it involves two sets of lovers existing in two different moments of time; it questions the distinction and commingling of fact and fiction; and it brings into friction the image and the word, the horrible and the beautiful. In this film love and catastrophe are shown to coexist, but in a relation of perpetual strife that refuses totality.

         The plot of the film is fairly simple. A French actress has an adulterous affair with a Japanese man while filming a peace documentary on Hiroshima on location. The affair regenerates a memory of a lost German lover from her youth in an occupied France. The film thematizes the problem of telling or presentation across all levels of articulation, image, music and text, through the figure of betrayal. The first manner in which these themes become cinematic is in the structure of the film’s temporality. The temporality of this film is both brief and vast. On the one hand the film transpires within the claustrophobic confines of an adulterous love affair that lasts less than two days; and on the other it takes up the vast territory of history and memory as it struggles to revive lost episodes of trauma and loss from the war thirteen years before. That the latter is filtered through the confines of the former sets the stage of recollection as a prison. The adulterous affair exists as a space without space. Its illegitimacy relegates it to the realm of secrecy and transgression. From this position, a desire that refuses fulfilment, it stands in for love. And from this void, ironically, emerges the portal through which the past (truth) may be reanimated as fiction (lies) within the limited confines of a screen.

         Despite remaining nameless, the French actress and the Japanese architect will be both distinctly developed characters and universals. He tells her she reminds him of every woman, and she asks if he is entirely Japanese. She confides that adultery is nothing new for her, that she has a weakness for men. She is comfortable with lies, but has no reason to lie to him. She can at times be both completely honest and dishonest. She feeds on reinvention, re-creation, fiction, and yet is tormented by a desire for truth. Above all, she seeks freedom, and finds it only through secrets. No one has all the pieces to her, and so she is not possessed. This is her greatest loneliness and her greatest freedom. This stranger will be the only one to whom she has ever spoken the story of her dead German lover. The architect, on the other hand, is a realist, a man who builds and occupies structures. Just as the film focuses during the prelude on the architectonic in its portrayal of urban construction and reconstruction, he too will open up the dichotomy between structure and history, position and its absence.

         Through its manipulation of time and space, this film seeks to create a space of disclosure. This requires that the ineffable be given a position. This position that denies position must in some sense always come as a betrayal. The film acknowledges itself as this betrayal and in so doing redeems itself. I would like to reveal this betrayal by focusing on two scenes of radical loss: the fifteen-minute prelude, which tries to reanimate the catastrophe of Hiroshima, and the flashback of the German soldier, in which the French actress tries to reanimate her lost love.

The prelude

From the first shot, the image is marked by an unsettling ambiguity. A piano plays, the screen is dark, and slowly light emerges, revealing glistening flesh, body parts moving in time with melancholic piano notes. The image provokes the viewer to draw closer, to struggle against confusion, to make out in the darkness what is too dim and unclear to understand. Is the flesh loving, or is it dying? Are these the limbs of lovers entwined, and the sweat of sex, or is it the final movements of a dying, damaged body? The film’s title asserts the only evidence one has to comprehend the image - the words Hiroshima and mon amour - each seemingly signifying in different directions. These bodies are not given faces unil fifteen minutes into the film, but even when they will be clearly identified as lovers, they will go unnamed throughout the film, and despite the film’s probing into their histories, she will simply be the French actress, and he the Japanese architect.

         Overlaying this opening image is the commencement of the dialogue between the lovers that bears a resemblance to an incantation or musical exchange. The voices loom over the images; the male asserting total negation, the female total affirmation. The sense of the entire dialogue is already encapsulated in their opening lines:

HE: You saw nothing in Hiroshima.

SHE: I saw everything. Everything… [original emphasis]

(Duras 1961: 15)

Her claim to total presence is negated not only by his repeated denial of everything she affirms, but also by the shots that accompany her claims: public spaces, architecture, the hospital, the museum. artefacts, photographs, and newsreels. What we see are images of a city reconstructed and obsessed with its lost history: children gazing at miniature reproductions of the city, artefacts behind glass in museum boxes (twisted iron, bicycle wheels, hair from the heads of anonymous women), and dramatized newsreels of the trauma following the explosion. While she seeks and speaks of actuality, the visuals show only mediation and loss. Gradually a relation other than strict opposition is brought to bear upon everything and nothing. The sensible trace is everything, all there is, and yet it indicates a lack, a nothing. Thus the lovers speak the same thing from opposing positions. As singular assertions, the claims bear no truth, becoming merely opposing metaphysical poles. It is the toccata and fugue of their dialogue that gives them their weight as aesthetic truth claims.

         The woman repeatedly relies upon official history to bolster her case. Beyond the museum reconstructions, there is the memory of the media documentation in process, of being witness to the making of history through newsreels. She insists, if not upon the credibility of the newsreel, at least upon the phenomenology of having seen the newsreels. Her voice becomes more urgent, and the images move frantically as well. The image track shows actual newsreels taken after 6 August 1945, crosscut with shots of the lovers in shadow:

SHE: I saw the newsreels. On the second day, History tells, I’m not making it up, on the second day certain species of animals rose again from the depths of the earth and from the ashes.

Dogs were photographed for all eternity.

I saw them.

I saw the newsreels.

I saw them.

On the first day.

On the second day.

On the third day.

The progression of days passing, each documented and archived for its developments and departure from the previous images, attests to a history, a linear mode of narrative captured for all eternity. But he interrupts:

HE: You saw nothing. Nothing.

Next we have the beginnings of the theme that brings the oppositions of the horrible and the beautiful into an uneasy alliance. As she speaks of beautiful flowers we see images of children, of gaping wounds being probed with instruments, burns, fingers missing, an eye being extracted:

SHE: … on the fifteenth day too.

Hiroshima was blanketed with flowers. There were cornflowers and gladiolas everywhere, and morning glories and day lilies that rose again from the ashes with an extraordinary vigour, quite unheard of for flowers till then. I didn’t make anything up.

HE: You made it all up.

SHE: Nothing.

Just as in love this illusion exists, this illusion of being able never to forget, so I was under the illusion that I would never forget Hirsohima.

Just as in love. [original emphasis]

(Duras 1961: 18-19)

The play in the texts between all and nothing leads into the first reference to love, which is presented through analogy. Love begins to be linked to catastrophe, and memory to illusion. It is here that the case she has made thus far to the preservation and possession of events begins to open onto its opposite and expose the wound opened by love and catastrophe.

         The film now expands from the private sufferings of individuals to the city as social phenomenon. Individuals will be destroyed, lives will be radically transformed, but it goes on. The city is shown now as an angry force and these larger public structures exhibit all the same torments as the private sphere. Newsreels show demonstrations, conflict, public speeches, and mass burials of food, but these visuals exist without narration, orchestrated only by the film music, as if to contest the classic documentary belief in the narrator’s omniscience and ability to control the meaning of the images. Unity and dispersal are shown to transpire on a variety of scales, connecting the private and the public, personal history and global history, the life of the person and the metropolis. These oppositions are not represented in an effort to assert a hierarchy, wherein one is diminished and the other heralded as the greater value, but to show their inseparability, and mutual entanglement.

         This entire prelude can be seen as an overlaying of desire and death upon the outline of the urban landscape, but the final moments conclude and highlight this project. The dialogue dissolves into a monologue of desire by the French actress accompanied by a monotonous, hypnotic tracking shot where the camera flows steadily down the city streets, across bridges, along train tracks. Her utterances and the visual movement resemble the moments of deep passion moving toward sexual climax, but we see no lovers, just streets, onlookers, details, bicyclists, things being passed as if seen from the handlebars of a bicycle. These images are haunted, appearing as if they had already been lost, or as if they were being remembered from deep within a dream. As we see these lost images passing rhythmically by, we hear her disembodied monologue addressing the lover:

SHE: …I meet you.

I remember you.

Who are you?

You’re so good for me.

How could I have known that this city was made to the size of love?

How could I have known that you were made to the size of my body?

You’re great. How wonderful. You’re great.

How slow all of a sudden.

And how sweet.

More than you can know.

You destroy me.

You’re so good for me.

Plenty of time.


Take me.

Deform me, make me ugly.

Why not you?

Why not you in this city and in this night so like the others you can’t tell the difference?


(Duras 1961: 25)

It is here that the impulses of desire are most explicitly linked to fatality and destruction. The Other is a phantasm that both redeems and destroys. It is the otherness of the lover that is coveted, but the goal of desire would be to appropriate that otherness, make it sameness, and absolve the radical threat to individuation. Ecstasy is shown to be the process of resisting, succumbing, and being deformed and transfigured in the embrace of the Other. To achieve love is in some way to interrupt the ambition of desire and embrace the ecstatic.

The betrayal of love

There has been much discussion regarding the transference that takes place in this film between the recounted love affair with the German soldier during the war and the love affair in the present with the Japanese architect. But rather than consider the complex psychological dynamics revealed in this act of recovery, I would like to look at how these two adulterous lovers come to signify the larger betrayal that functions in the filmic presentation of history.

         Firstly, the situation that commences the attempt at historical retrieval is adultery. The encounter between the French actress and the Japanese architect is secretive and discontinuous. It is a closed intimacy that does not extend outside their dialogue and this brief moment in time. It is as if they speak to themselves, into a closed box, or to the already dead. This setting highlights something essential about the community of two more universally. The language of lovers bears a certain exclusivity. The adulterous love is born within an even stricter secrecy; it was not intended to travel or be passed on. Each will carry its memory as a kind of loneliness and longing, just as she has carried her dead German lover as her deepest loneliness up to this point of confession, where she turns him into story and in doing so betrays him. To tell their secret, even within another secret, is to reduce it to language and representation.

         The affair with the German soldier during the German occupation of France was also by circumstance a deep social transgression held quiet between the lovers. Their encounters were hidden. We see them riding bicycles through a desolate countryside:

SHE: .At first we met in barns. Then among the ruins. And then in rooms. Like anywhere else.

(Duras 1961: 48)

Love is described as a secret place; one that opens up within solitude. It is the attempt to share a place that really permits of no communion, and the promise implicit in this effort is that this secret community is not be turned into public rhetoric or universalized. Whether one loves alone or one’s love is returned amounts to the same torment, the same loneliness, and the same impossibility. After her confession/betrayal we see the French actress battling with her solitude, entering her hotel, uncomfortable, at first unable to face herself and exiting the room, retracing her steps, then re-entering and finally coming to terms with the room. She goes to the sink to wash her face, as if seeking absolution, and looks into the mirror. What follows is a combination of speech and interior monologue:

SHE: You think you know. And then, no. You don’t.

In Nevers she has a German love when she was young …

We’ll go to Baravia, my love, and there we’ll marry.

She never went to Baravia. (Looking at herself in mirror)

I dare those who have never gone to Baravia to speak to her of love.

You were not yet quite dead.

I told our story.

I betrayed you tonight with this stranger.

I told our story.

It was, you see, a story that could be told.

For fourteen years I hadn’t found … the taste of an impossible love again.

Since Nevers.

Look how I’m forgetting you …

Look how I’ve forgotten you.

Look at me.

(Duras 1961: 73)

This is a disturbing and complicated shot. She takes herself as an object in the third person while looking at her reflection in a mirror, and she addresses her deceased lover directly from an interior voice. There is in this monologue an ‘I’, a ‘her’, a ‘you’, and a ‘we’. She asks the dead to take her as an object, to look at her, and to see on her exterior the signs of betrayal: as if oblivion, forgetfulness could be seen, as if the dead were capable of redeeming. Here she is neither herself nor another. Even solitude is divided, and she herself cannot be one. She has found another impossible love, not because her love for the Japanese architect will go unfulfilled due to circumstances, but because the ambition of desire (to share one’s solitude, to possess the other, to overcome individuation) is an impossible one. Love itself has thwarted desire. The object of love is destined to slip away and be lost to her. The only way she can remember him, or retain him, is by displacing him with others.

         When she recounts the public recrimination following the death of her soldier, she is unmoved by shame, by her family’s dishonour, by her shaved head. She can think of only one thing: his absence, his eternal absence, that her life continues, and his death continues, and that this border will never be breached. This otherness, this slipping away of the Other, is love itself. She waits and counts time in her cellar while he lays timeless in the grave. The encroaching oblivion of their encounter is hers alone to resist.

         In the cellar she screams out to her dead lover, but she know she is already losing him because she now possesses only a name:

SHE: Your German name. Only your name. I only have one memory left, your name.

(Duras 1961: 57)

The proper name here is divested of all its weight. It is just a name. A word. A signifier. Like the anonymity of the she and the he, and the movement of the film away from being simply a public discourse on Hiroshima (like the peace film and the demonstration within the film), there is here an attempt to get beyond language and traces. She follows this ambition for a real, viable memory through pain and blood, scratching her hands and fingernails against the rock walls of the cellar until they bleed, then licking off the blood. Pain holds you riveted to a spot and may even mark the body with a visible scar. It contests forgetfulness.

         The Japanese architect understands that his task is to stand in for the German lover, to revive him, and thus to ensure his own survival. He pries from the French actress her lost memories, and she gives her secrets. He will be the only one who knows her story, and this shared secret will be their bond. The retrieval of this fading story of love resembles the film itself in its ability to represent at both times a betrayal and redemption. In forgetting, one remembers. For example, he says to her in one of their final meetings:

HE: In a few years, when I’ll have forgotten you, and when other such adventures, from sheer habit, will happen to me, I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this adventure as the horror of oblivion. I already know it.

(Duras 1961: 68)

So, to have made the lost German lover into a story is to have betrayed him, to have made him into discourse and turned intimacy into mere narrative; but in so far as one presents the narrative as failure, just as in the sublime, there is a gain through the realization of loss. She will become nameless and forgotten a few years from now, but she will be remembered as ‘the symbol of love’s forgetfulness’. Likewise, Resnais’s work of art, Hiroshima mon amour, serves as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness, and in doing so indirectly achieves love.


Kant argues that reason remains victorious through its ability to recognize its limits in the sublime. Postmodern accounts have found in the sublime the fissure of reason that deems its exercise a failure and renders it tragic. If we understand Love as Levinas does, it is this very inability to possess the other that makes love the ultimate achievement of Being. He says in Time and the Other:

Can this relationship with the other through Eros be considered as a failure? Once again the answer is yes, if one adopts the terminology of current descriptions, if one wants to characterize the erotic with ‘grasping’, ‘possessing’. or ‘knowing’. But there is nothing of all this, or the failure of all this, in Eros. (Levinas 1987: 90)

Both Nietzsche and Levinas strove to rewrite philosophy, one through tragedy and one through love. Levinas’s thoughts on love reveal an opposition to a philosophy that defines itself through desire’s quest for totality, authority, and power. Instead he describes philosophy as the pursuit of Love, a transcendence that is ‘otherwise than being’, and can be described best in terms of the furture, the mystery to come. Though Levinas excluded tragedy from this future, I have argued for its inclusion. To bring together tragedy and love is to grant the work of art a sublime capability - the achievement of love.

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"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions."

Rainer Maria Rilke (via ineedyouso)

For the Funeral Too Distant

Mourners Gather on the Web

In an age of commemorating birthdays, weddings and anniversaries on Facebook and Twitter, it was perhaps inevitable that live Web-streaming funerals for friends and loved ones would be next.

It is no surprise that the deaths of celebrities, like Michael Jackson, or honored political figures, like the United States diplomat Richard Holbrooke, are promoted as international Web events. So, too, was the memorial service for the six people killed Jan. 8 in Tucson, which had thousands of viewers on the Web.

But now the once-private funerals and memorials of less-noted citizens are also going online.

Several software companies have created easy-to-use programs to help funeral homes cater to bereaved families. FuneralOne a one-stop shop for online memorials that is based in St. Clair, Mich., has seen the number of funeral homes offering Webcasts increase to 1,053 in 2010, from 126 in 2008 (it also sells digital tribute DVDs).

During that same period, Event by Wire, a competitor in Half Moon Bay, Calif., watched the number of funeral homes live-streaming services jump to 300 from 80. And this month, the Service Corporation International in Houston, which owns 2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries, including the venerable Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said it was conducting a pilot Webcasting program at 16 of its funeral homes.

Traveling to funerals was once an important family rite, but with greater secularity and a mobile population increasingly disconnected from original hometowns, watching a funeral online can seem better than not going to a funeral at all. Social media, too, have redrawn the communal barriers of what is acceptable when relating to parents, siblings, friends and acquaintances.

“We are in a YouTube society now,” said H. Joseph Joachim IV, founder of FuneralOne. “People are living more than ever online, and this reflects that.”

Some of the Web-streamed funerals reflect the large followings gathered by individuals. On Jan. 11, more than 7,000 people watched the Santa Ana, Calif., funeral of Debbie Friedman, an iconic singer whose music combined Jewish text with folk rhythm. It was seen on Ustream, a Web video service, with more than 20,000 viewing it on-demand in the days that followed.

“We intended to watch a few minutes, but ended up watching almost the whole thing,” said Noa Kushner, a rabbi in San Anselmo, Calif., and a fan of Ms. Friedman’s music, who watched the service with a friend at his office. “I was so moved.”

After Stefanie Spielman, a breast cancer activist and the wife of the popular National Football League player Chris Spielman, died in 2009, the Spielmans wanted a private ceremony attended by 900 friends and family members, said Lajos Szabo, the chief strategy officer at Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service in Columbus, Ohio, which arranged the funeral. But they also hoped to accommodate members of the public, who wanted to support the family in its grief. Streamed live and posted online, Ms. Spielman’s funeral has been viewed 4,663 times by 2,989 visitors since November 2009, according to FuneralOne.

Other Webcasts are more obscure, but no less appreciated. Two weeks ago, a friend of Ronald Rich, a volunteer firefighter in Wallace, N.C., died unexpectedly. When Mr. Rich called the mother of his friend to say he could not make the eight-hour drive to the funeral because a snowstorm threatened to close roads, he said the mother offered to send an e-mail invitation so he could watch the service online. Mr. Rich said he watched the funeral: first by himself and a second time with his girlfriend.

“It was comforting to me,” he said, adding that he planned to watch it again with fellow firefighters.

The technology to put funerals online has been around for a decade but was slow to catch on with an industry understandably sensitive to questions of etiquette. Some funeral directors eschew streaming funerals live because they do not want to replace a communal human experience with a solitary digital one, said John Reed, a past president of the National Funeral Directors Association. Other funeral directors worry that if the quality of the video is poor, it will reflect badly on the funeral home.

And the conversation about whether to stream a funeral online can be awkward, particularly if a grief-stricken family is wary of technology. Funeral directors are conservative, Mr. Reed said; privacy, even for the Facebook generation, is paramount. “We don’t jump on the first thing that comes along,” he said.

Still, some funeral directors offer the service for free (Mr. Reed is one of them) while others charge $100 to $300. If a family wants to keep the online service private, those invited get a password that allows access. (Mr. Joachim said 94 percent of the funerals his company Webcast were not password-protected.)

Not all real-life funeral attendees want their images captured online. Irene Dahl, an owner of Dahl Funeral Chapel in Bozeman, Mont., said a young man went to a funeral last year dressed as a woman and asked not to be filmed. “He did not want his mother to know,” Ms. Dahl said. “So we did not face the camera in his direction.”

Ms. Dahl said that nearly one-third of the ceremonies arranged by her funeral home last year — about 60 — were streamed live, at no extra charge. She became interested in this option after Dan Grumley, the chief executive of Event by Wire, visited her in 2008 and showed her how it worked.

“Being a funeral director is about helping people with their grief,” she said.

Russell Witek, the 14-year-old son of Karen Witek of Geneva, Ill., died of a brain tumor in 2009. The Conley Funeral Home in Elburn, Ill., offered to stream the funeral live to friends and family members. “We said, ‘Why not?’ ” Ms. Witek said. Her brother-in-law was working in the Middle East and could not attend. Russell’s home health nurse was out of town. “It was spring break,” Ms. Witek said.

She had met a number of friends on social media sites, including a patient-care support group and another for parents who home-schooled their children, and they could not attend, either. “I wanted them to experience it,” Ms. Witek said.

According to Conley Funeral Home, 186 people watched the funeral live on April 3, 2009, with an additional 511 watching it on-demand through Jan. 15.

Ms. Witek said her husband had watched the funeral more than once, “because he wanted to hear what was said that day,” but said she couldn’t bring herself to view it, except in parts. “After a child dies, you go into a fog.”

But for William Uzenski, the father of Nicholas Uzenski, a Marine serving in Afghanistan who was killed on Jan. 11, 2010, live Web-streaming has provided much comfort. Mr. Uzenski’s body was transported to his home, Bozeman, 10 days later. William Uzenski, himself a former Marine, said he wanted Nicholas’s military colleagues in Afghanistan to be able to watch the funeral. So Ms. Dahl arranged it through a military liaison who was assisting the family.

Ms. Dahl said that, unlike many streamed funerals, Nicholas Uzenski’s had three separate Webcasts and was invitation-only. The Webcasts included the arrival of his coffin at a local airport, the funeral and a graveside ceremony that his family said included a 21-gun salute. Ms. Dahl tracked virtual attendees. The funeral and the graveside ceremony were watched by 124 and 39 people, respectively, with the funeral viewed in 80 cities and 4 countries, including Afghanistan.

“Some e-mailed me,” Mr. Uzenski said. “Friends thanked us for sharing it with them. I do watch it again sometimes. I don’t know why, but I guess it’s healing.”



By Pascal Bruckner, from Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, published by Princeton University Press this month. Translated from the French by Steven Rendall.

In 1739 the young Comte de Mirabeau sent a letter to his friend the Marquis de Vauvenargues, reproaching him for living from day to day with- out having any plan for achieving happiness: “See here, my friend, you think all the time, you study, and nothing is beyond the scope of your ideas; and yet you never think for a moment about making a clear plan leading to what should be our only goal: happiness.” He went on to list the principles that guided his own conduct: ridding him- self of prejudices, preferring gaiety to moodiness, following his inclinations and at the same time purifying them. Mirabeau, who was the child of a time that thought it could reinvent the human being and do away with the plagues of the old regime, was concerned about his happiness the way people before him had been concerned about the salvation of their souls. And yet have we changed that much? Since the Enlightenment, we have been endlessly cataloguing misfortunes to be eradicated. Antiquity pinned its hopes on a refutation of suffering; Christianity pinned its hopes on suffering’s exaltation; we pin ours on its denial. We have to simulate energy and good humor in the hope that if we conceal affliction it will finally disappear by itself. We have banished it from our vocabulary just as we banish the unhappy, the wounded, and the dying who challenge our preju- dices, “break the mood.”

There is a terrible blindness in happiness. Just as trash, in the consumerist universe, ends up in- vading every space and reminding us of its existence in countless nauseating ways, so suffering, unable to express itself, has begun to proliferate, increasing our awareness of our vulnerability. The West’s error, in the second half of the twentieth century, was to give its people the mad hope that an end would soon be put to all calamities; famines, poverty, disease, and old age were supposed to disappear within a decade or two, and a humanity cleansed of its immemorial ailments would appear at the gateway to the third millennium having proudly eliminated the last traces of hell. Europe was supposed to become, as Susan Sontag put it, the sole place where tragedies would no longer occur.


Not only was this fairy tale not realized, but in a certain way it strengthened what it was supposed to eliminate. People had rightly denounced the culture of resignation propagated by churches and the bourgeoisie, especially in the nineteenth century. At that time, effort and endurance were considered normal, the price to be paid for sin or poverty, and pleasure was considered a rarity, for- bidden to the common people. But when hedonism is established as a necessity, death and suffering become pure absurdities, intolerable assaults on our rights. Hence the paradox: our societies have never talked so much about suffering as they have since becoming exclusively concerned with happiness.

Democracy is ambivalent about suffering; be- cause it rejects suffering, suffering is made the basis of rights that are always being newly discovered. Democracy’s great issues are first of all negative: reducing poverty, putting an end to inequality, fighting disease. A contradiction inheres in the designation of the problems we are trying to do away with: if all suffering gives someone a claim to a right and provides a foundation for the latter, physical and psychological pain gradually becomes the measure of all things. What was previously seen as a matter of course is now seen as unjust, arbitrary.


Because the modest expectations typical of former times have given way to rising desires, we live in a state of constant aspiration that is constantly disappointed: no one is ever loved, gratified, or rewarded enough. The more immoderate the ambition, the more meager the result seems, and the range of the intolerable never ceases to grow. Democracy, generating a perpetual dissatis- faction, turns into a system for recognizing com- plaints. It is through the legal profession, which has become, in the words of one jurist, “an immense labor union against suffering,” that suffer- ing has returned to public discourse; outlawing it ensures its continual renascence. Here the hunter is the prisoner of his quarry.


Thus we have arrived at a worrisome confusion of adversity and unhappiness: the obstacle is no longer the usual resistance that the world presents to our enterprises but a personal offense that de- serves compensation. We confound the painful and the unpleasant, the unfortunate and the arduous. Physical effort—except in its ludic form in sports— is banned; and hard labor and unpleasant tasks are left to immigrants (an immigrant is someone who does not measure his effort). Intellectual effort, too, has been annexed to the domain of oppression, as in those schools that, seeking to respect children’s sacrosanct freedom and spare them any vexation, don’t attempt to transmit anything: learning is assimilated to persecution.

Misfortune is no longer clearly delimited; it has invaded and conquered everything that is not pleasure in the strict sense, swallowing up conditions and emotions that were not previously as- sociated with it. As a result, we have lost certain senses of proportion. We enter into an intoxica- tion with pathos, which is no longer a strategy of distinction with respect to the bourgeois, as it was for the Romantics, but a reflexive lament, a philosophy of day-to-day despair. The contemporary hell is not knowing where pain begins or ends; pain takes all forms and extends to the very fact of living, thus reviving a religious postulate many had come to regard as quaint.


We know the famous alternative with which Voltaire confronts us in Candide: human beings are born “to live in the throes of anxiety or the lethargy of bore- dom.” So our only choice would be be- tween the horror of affliction and the monotony of peace and quiet. A terrible dilemma! In reality, our appetite for life re- quires adversities with which we can cope, that test our freedom without destroying it. We need obstacles that we can over- come and that spare us the double experi- ence of failure and insurmountable suffering. Good things that are obtained without effort have no value (which is why free merchandise attracts us less than it repels us; even a thief pays a price when he steals other people’s property). To the puerile dream of a life in which the greatest goals would be achieved without effort, we must reply that pleasure dies when the piquancy of resistance evaporates and every- thing is attained immediately. Pain is a salutary wake-up call, a vital function that confronts us with our limits. Only things that repulse us teach us anything; our projects divide the world into a field of activities, and therefore into potential failures and successes. A life without combats, without a burden, without effort of any kind, a life that is a straight line instead of Xenophon’s “steep slope,” would be a monument to languor.


by Michael Robbins, from the December issue of Poetry. Robbins’s first book of poems, Alien vs. Predator, will be published next year by Penguin.


The moon is my alibi.

My tenders throw hissy fits.

My scalp’s at the foot of the precipice.

My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar.

You can stand under my umbrella, Ella.


Who put pubic hair on my headphones?

Who put the ram in Ramallah?

I’m just sitting here spinning my spinning wheels—

where are the snow tires of tomorrow?


The llama is burning! My heart is an ovary!

Let’s chase dawn’s tail across state lines,

sing “Crimson and Clover” over and overy,

till wonders are taken for road signs.


My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.

The boys like the girls who like heavy metal.

On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom,

on Motörhead, Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem …


Before Punk Came Funk, a mixed-media, ink, and paint collage on Mylar, by Wangechi Mutu, whose work was exhibited in December at Gladstone Gallery, in New York City.

But if people attain humanity only through ordeal, we still need to distinguish the latter from penitence. Contrary to the idea that one must have greatly suffered in order to know human be- ings (Elias Canetti is supposed to have told George Steiner, “You will never write great books unless someday you experience a complete mental collapse”), suffering does not teach people anything. It makes them unhappy and bitter. “One has to have very little love for humanity to think that it is by being shattered that a life progresses,” said the French philosopher Bertrand Vergely. In oth- er words, the only defeats that are beneficial are the ones to which we can give meaning, that lead to broadening and leave us strengthened by an experience that seemed likely to engulf us (never mind Nietzsche’s “Whatever doesn’t kill me necessarily makes me stronger”). What is interesting about the biographies of common or famous people, with their alternating rises, falls, and resurrec- tions, is that they present ordinary individuals capable of showing exceptional courage in desper- ate situations, of finding a solution. The contemporary hero is a circumstantial hero propelled despite himself beyond the norms, an accidental fighter and not a professional brave. In the same way, sports fascinate us because they are played against destiny: they emphasize the precariousness of victory and of defeat.


Cicero noted that there are soldiers driven by pride and passion who can endure countless suf- ferings in combat but collapse when struck by an illness. We like constraints only when we impose them on ourselves and are prepared to expose ourselves to the worst dangers in order to achieve a superior goal. It is for each individual to set the threshold of pain beyond which he refuses to go. (What would a life be worth that had never been risked at least once, that had never experienced the exhilarating proximity of death in order to defy it?) “Good suffering” is suffering I declare to be necessary for my development, that I can convert into power and knowledge.

Alas, distress does not strike on command but bursts upon us, especially in the modern, trivial form of catastrophe represented by the accident. There would be no torment or grief if we could assign a reason and a meaning to all injuries. But we can’t, and that is why pain remains unnamable, atrocious, and neither makes us wiser nor teaches us anything. What an illusion is in the Stoic practice of praemeditatio, the anticipation of future ills the better to avoid them. Thinking that we can make death, illness, or privation easier to bear by preparing for them day and night is a sure way to poison our lives, to spoil the slightest pleasure by imagining its end. How much more lucid is a lack of foresight!


Among us there is not, and probably will never be again, the kind of wisdom with regard to suffering that existed among the ancients, because that wisdom presupposes a balance between the individual and the world, and this balance has long been absent, at least since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We bow our heads before sickness and aging, but this very temporary docility will be abandoned as soon as human ingenuity makes it possible to change previously accepted norms. How sad it is, for example, to think that one is going to die of a disease, a virus that will be curable in a few years—that one is leaving too early. Pain is a fact. We don’t need to make a religion out of it, and we can make only temporary armistices with the inevitable. There is in the world a great impatience with misfortune and suffering, be- cause the progress already realized makes the immensity of what remains to be done odious. What Cesare Pavese called the “bestiality” of distress prevents us from establishing relation- ships with it that are not chaotic and uneven. Any serenity in this matter would be merely the result of fatigue. What we are awkwardly groping toward today is an art of living that includes an acknowledgment of adversity but does not fall into the abyss of renunciation.