Thursday, 25 August 2011

Diamonds Always Arrive At Their Destination

If Slavoj Žižek watched Soviet comedy, he would have written this blog. I have only Žižek to thank for my recent Copernican insight that there are semiotic parallels between Edgar Allan Poe's seminal 1844 detective story "The Purloined Letter" and Leonid Gaidai's 1969 classic of Soviet slapstick, The Diamond Arm (Бриллиантовая рука), via Lacan's famous 'Seminar on "The Purloined Letter"'. If you haven't read Poe's story, read it here. If you haven't seen Gaidai's film, you can watch it here thanks to Mosfilm's YouTube channel. The Diamond Arm follows the tribulations  of Semion Semionovich Gorbunkov (played by Yuri Nikulin), a blithely middle-class Soviet citizen targeted by a desperate criminal gang. Gorbunkov is enjoying a Black Sea cruise (mysteriously expanded in retrospect to include various European capitals) on which he meets a new friend, Gena.

Strolling around Istanbul, the last stop on the itinerary (really Baku), Gorbunkov slips walking down a picturesque cobbled street, swears "Черт побери!" ("The Devil take it" - or, "Naughty melon!" in my dodgy subtitled version), and is promptly bundled up by a couple of Turkish shopkeepers who enthusiastically encase his arm in plaster of Paris. Little does Gorbunkov know that his pratfall and the "Черт побери!" formula are a recognition code agreed in advance between the Turks and a gang of Russian smugglers, since they have no common language. There is a fortune in diamonds inside the plaster cast, and Gorbunkov's new friend Gena is suddenly extremely solicitous about his health.  Why this film is wonderful, how richly it repays multiple watching, and how much it reveals about Soviet culture, I won't bother repeating. For those with access to JSTOR, Aleksandr Prokhorov discusses this film in Slavic Review (62:3, 2003, pp. 455-72). In a point that harks back to my previous blog post on wounded Soviet heroes, Prokhorov writes that '[in Gaidai's comedies] the positive hero ceases to be the major device of the socialist realist master plot and becomes a sight gag. The positive hero's body becomes more important than his function in the ideological narrative, and this body can be mutilated, fragmented, or augmented in order to generate physical jokes' (p. 469).  Poor Gorbunkov faces mutilation, fragmentation, and augmentation at various times in this film - all because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let's go back to Poe's "Purloined Letter". This is a personal letter, received by the Queen of France, which is niftily abstracted in the presence of both King and Queen by the 'lynx-eyed' Minister D--. The Minister observes that the letter is private, deduces that the Queen can't protest its theft for fear of alerting the King to its existence, and calmly puts a letter of his own on the table before picking up the Queen's letter - as if by mistake. He thus interrupts - or, as Lacan has it, 'diverts from its path' - the letter's journey from writer to recipient, with untold consequences for the Queen if its contents are made public. Now let's take Gorbunkov again. Substituting the cache of diamonds for the letter, Yuri Nikulin's character takes these on a detour from their intended destination, substituting his own arm for Gena's. When Gena arrives at the Turkish store minutes later and repeats the fall and the keywords, multiple times, he merely puzzles the Turks.

Only the original recognition code works; duplicating it endlessly won't save the situation. Similarly, although the Queen has already seen the contents of her letter, duplicating them won't help; she needs to have the original back. The signifier (the Russian curse, the scribbled note to the Queen) is more important than the message signified.

This is how Lacan sketches the triad of participants in that tense scene in the royal boudoir, designating a threefold hierarchy of seeing: 'The first is a glance that sees nothing: the King and the police. The second, a glance which sees that the first sees nothing and deludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides: the Queen, then the Minister. The third sees that the first two glances leave what should be hidden exposed to whoever would seize it: the Minister, and finally Dupin.' The Minister's big mistake is that (like the Queen) he assumes that nobody will see through his pretence of normality; of course, Dupin the amateur detective immediately spots the fraud and manages to repeat the Minister's trick, replacing the real letter with a mocking substitute. Or, in Lacanianese: 'So we are shown by the hero of the drama in the repetition of the very situation which his daring brought to a head, a first time, to his triumph. If he now succumbs to it, it is because he has shifted to the second position in the triad in which he was initially third, as well as the thief- and this by virtue of the object of his theft'. Will Lacan's threefold hierarchy work in The Diamond Arm? The first glance is that of Gorbunkov, the honest fool, who doesn't even notice a scuba diver tying fish onto the end of his rod because he's too busy not noticing that his best friend is trying to knock him out with a rock. He sees nothing. The second glance is Gena's: he knows Gorbunkov has the diamonds, but he doesn't realize that Gorbunkov knows they're there. And the third, omniscient glance is (this time around) that of the police, who know everything. The reversal in The Diamond Arm is less Gena's demotion from the second tier to the first (when Gorbunkov tells him that the police removed the diamonds from his cast long ago) than Gorbunkov's promotion to the third: in full knowledge that his cast is a fake, that his friend is an enemy, and that the police are strangely absent, he continues to resist.

Lacan's seminar on "The Purloined Letter" ends sonorously and mischievously: 'a letter always arrives at its destination'. This line provoked Derrida to point out (reasonably) that letters don't always reach their destination (otherwise we wouldn't have invented registered post), and Žižek to defend the Master by elaborating on his elaborations. Žižek's Enjoy Your Symptom explains that the letter/destination truism is simply a refutation of the anthropic principle, or as he can't resist rephrasing, 'the mechanism of teleological illusion'. We fantasize that things happen in a certain way because of a prior purpose or a future meaning (or both); in fact, things happen because they happen. The police were always on to Gena and his gang; the diamonds were always going to be confiscated; Gorbunkov's interruption of the delivery circuit between the Turks and the gang is no more than a cosmic whim, a giant happenstance, a detour on the postman's round.  

Yuri Nikulin sings "Песня про зайцев" ("Song about Hares")
That's why it's  rewarding to probe Žižek's second interpretation of the phrase 'a letter always arrives as its destination'. Here, analysing Chaplin's comedy City Lights, Žižek argues that the purpose of narrative is to destroy the symbolic bubble that we (and others) construct around our identities, and expose the Real-ity of who we are. 'The letter arrives at its destination when we are no longer "fillers" of the empty places in another's fantasy structure, i.e. when the other finally "opens his eyes" and realizes that the real letter is not the message we were supposed to carry but our being itself, the object in us that resists symbolization'. Gorbunkov recognizes Gena for who he is (not the convivial, sentimental friend but a dangerous robber); Gena recognizes Gorbunkov for who he is (i.e. not quite the fool he seemed); and Gena and his henchman Lyolik both see their mysterious Boss in the flesh for the first time. In the penultimate scene, Gorbunkov has been tied up in the boot of the gang's getaway car; as a police helicopter winches the car aloft, the boot cracks open and Gorbunkov plummets out. Has he 'paid the symbolic debt' (to use another Žižek formulation) by dying, another scenario for the postman's knock? Not quite: but the letter is on its way. In the final scene, as in the very first, we see Gorbunkov beaming amidst his adoring family, with the single difference that he now has a cast on his leg - for Real. A letter, you see, always arrives at its destination.

If you've read this far, try not to make a song and dance about it.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Memories of Paris: More Spleen Than Ideal

A chance trip to the market book stall this morning resulted in a delightful little World's Classics edition of 'Ghosts and Marvels' joining my collection; therefore today, I ask regular readers' indulgence for a non-Russian blog post.

Two of the ghost stories I read this morning brought back to me a vivid and rather sad period in my life, the summer I spent in Paris, aged nineteen. The first of these was a story called 'Le Bureau d'Échange des Maux' by Lord Dunsany, which is quite short and which you can read here. The second is a rarer tale from Harper's Monthly (1916), called 'Louquier's Third Act', by a Bryn Mawr bluestocking called Katharine Fullerton Gerould. (Don't you love the triply barrelled, polysyllabic names of American female writers from a century ago?) Lord Dunsany's story describes an imaginary bureau de change in a cul de sac off a 'mean street' in an 'unfashionable quarter of Paris', where people can pay to exchange evils. The narrator, for instance, exchanges his fear of seasickness for another man's fear that the lift will break down. Another customer, dying of poison, manages to exchange his imminent death for someone else's life - although we learn no details about the sort of life that might be. Clients pay twenty francs just to check for a compatible exchange, and fifty francs (each) to ratify the transaction. (Rudyard Kipling writes about an equally complex moral exchange in 'The Wish House' (1924), where love is bought by physical suffering).

When I arrived in Paris, fresh from my first year at university, I found myself accommodation easily enough - a room in an apartment on the Rue de Grenelle, owned by a friendly middle-class family who were soon to disappear en vacances - but I spent at least a week trawling small ads and trotting around Mexican cafes and Irish pubs, looking for work. I was always turned politely away, so it was quite a relief to be hired instantly by Monsieur Paul, a vaguely Levantine man of striking solidity (I use the word in the Chekhovian sense) who ran a tiny bureau de change in an arcade off the Rue de Rivoli, near the Tuileries. After a day's training, I was entrusted with counter work, counting up (mostly extraordinarily high piles of colourful lira), locking the safe, and processing negatives (one-day photos were another of Monsieur Paul's services). I even had the great thrill of signing a largely incomprehensible contract, and the subsequent dispatch of a form to my Rue de Grenelle address - the excitement of a personal letter in a new home! My co-workers were a succession of diminutive and ephemeral girls from other parts of Europe and Asia, and a very tall and robust Northern Irish girl whom I will call Dymphna, since I have forgotten her real name. The work wasn't hard, but the hours were long and the near-constant presence of Monsieur Paul was insidiously threatening. From the fact that few foreigners could pronounce his family name correctly, Monsieur Paul had extrapolated that all his subordinates should address him as such: the Hegelian dialectic was unsubtle. Dymphna, meanwhile, took an interest in my social life and invited me out to various Irish pubs and expat bars, where she cynically and efficiently got me drunk and then, sentimentally tipsy herself, abandoned me to stumble home down the long, shadowy boulevards. Being quite unworldly, I was impressed by the penumbral glamour of Dymphna's pancake eyeshadow, when she met me after work at the Jardin du Luxembourg metro; and moved to silent awe by the mawkish karaoke of one of her friends, in remission from cancer, whose white flounced dress and more than Rubenesque proportions seemed strangely inappropriate for the brink of extinction. Being naively dedicated, I soon won Monsieur Paul's approbation, and as much favour as he could give any of his slaves (an extra ten minutes for lunch-break). When a fellow Irishman came in one afternoon to change punts, and I distracted him from the truly punitive exchange rate that we offered by chatting about Gaelic football, Monsieur Paul was ecstatic: 'You snowed him', he said. The fact that cheer and chatter could be used to cheat someone, and that this cold-blooded manipulation could be praiseworthy, jarred on me so deeply that nobody noticed. Finally, my stock rose so high that, when one of the diminutive temps resigned without warning, Monsieur Paul ordered me to work full day shifts all weekend. I baulked. He threatened to fire me. I resigned. Dymphna, who saw her own weekend of karaoke and cocktails shimmering like a mirage, told me authoritatively that I would never hold anything down in my life if I walked out on my first job. I walked out on my first job, and moved to Shakespeare & Co. instead. Within a week another form arrived at the Rue de Grenelle; but I never got any wages from Monsieur Paul, then or later, having lasted just under two weeks.

'Such a man was mine host; but above all the evil of him lay in his eyes, which lay so still, so apathetic, that you would have sworn that he was drugged or dead; like lizards motionless on a wall they lay, then suddenly they darted, and all his cunning flamed up and revealed itself in what one moment before seemed no more than a sleepy and ordinary wicked old man,' says Dunsany's narrator of the owner of the Bureau de Maux. I was and remained afraid of Monsieur Paul; and, if I can justify my cowardice with a little metaphysics, his relentless commodification of everything utterly terrified me. The owner of the Bureau de Maux treats human suffering as bankable property:
'"Commodities" was the old man's terrible word, said with a gruesome smack of his heavy lips, for he took a pride in his business and evils to him were goods.' Dunsany's narrator knows beforehand that mortals who traffic with the devil always get short-changed; but his foreknowledge doesn't save him from being cheated, too. When he goes back to the shop (to make a new exchange, or to ask for his money back; we're not told which), he finds that it has disappeared: the two store-fronts it had separated now stand flush. I returned to the little bureau on the Rue de Rivoli just once, a few years later. I'm not sure what I had in mind - to protest the non-payment of all those francs I had earned on my long shifts, or to tell the customers that they were being cheated; but I saw Monsieur Paul's masterful profile, calm as an iguana, and I shrank away.

'Louquier's Third Act' is a ghost story in a different tradition: the subtle, psychological haunting at its centre is in between the paranoia of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw' (1898) and Fitz James O'Brien's 'What Was It?' (1859). I was intrigued by the unusual type of the main character's egoism. Louquier is an ordinary, pleasant, somewhat boring man, but he had one unusual recreation: the experience of strong emotion (sometimes vicarious, sometimes first-hand).

'[Louquier] could first isolate and then appreciate an emotion or a sensation--either in himself or in others. He loved the quiet dramas that take place within an individual nature; he could scent psychologic moments from afar. The twist of a mouth or the lift of an eyebrow meant to him unutterable things. He would carry home with him a gesture, a phrase, a twitch of the mask, and before his comfortable fire sit as in a parquet-box watching a gorgeous third act of his own creation. It should be said here that Louquier was usually right about his third acts and seldom mistook a curtain-raiser for a play. He had a flair. He rejected, at sight, the kind of human being to whom no spiritual adventures come; and could reconcile hysterical imitation a mile away. He despised emotion for emotion's sake. It might be as slight as you liked, but it must be the real thing.'

Unfortunately for an emotional connoisseur, Louquier installs himself in Winnipeg - not, according to Gerould, a place rich in emotional aftershocks. Neither his comfortable but ugly house, nor the dissonant syllables of the local river, facilitate aestheticism. But Louquier fights back: 'He had mapped out for himself a course of reading that included some notorious modern Frenchmen... He hoped, I fancy, to get a sensation out of reading Huysmans on the banks of the Assiniboine. Certainly any effect that Huysmans and Catulle Mendès could succeed in producing, in Winnipeg, would be a real effect, not meretriciously aided.' Here, in Louquier's naive solipsism - that well-intentioned determination to project one's imaginary world onto a co-opted reality - I recognized my nineteen-year-old self. The second half of that summer I spent trying to climb inside a Baudelaire poem. I tried to be a  flâneur; I worked, and sometimes slept, in the city's most famous and most eccentric bookshop; I lingered in the Latin Quarter, took a day trip to Chartres, fell asleep in the Louvre under a marble bust. But none of it worked: something was missing from Paris, or from me. Unlike Louquier, I didn't have a ghost in my house; instead, I had an American teenager renting the other room in the apartment. She manifested herself at more or less the usual time for haunting, and talked about nothing but her dress size, my dress size, men, how often we washed our hair, and what models ate. Without meaning to, she made me quite miserable, and everyone thought we were the best of friends. Through our landlords' daughter we met a group of young French people, who welcomed both of us. My American teenage haunt soon had a French boyfriend; I had a doomed and, too my mind, infinitely more refined crush on another boy, by day a security guard at a clothes shop, with an exquisite girlfriend called Marguerite. One fair, one dark, obviously in love, faultlessly kind, they made a perfect couple; except that sometimes, at parties, Marguerite would start weeping for no discernible reason. Doors would close; the boyfriend looked desperate; excuses were made to the foreigners. I dimly remember the expression on Marguerite's face, through her tears - as if she were seeing something for the first time - and I still wonder whether those were the tears of petty jealousy, or from too much cheap wine, or (as we then thought) some unspeakable monochrome fissure of mental illness, splitting the essentially happy world we shared into before and after?
I don't know what happened to Marguerite; and I won't spoil the story of what happens to Louquier. At the end of the summer I went back to university, and French remained (as I had intended) my minor language. Which is why my next blog post will be back to topics Russian - next time, cinema.
The other ghost story I read this morning was E.F. Benson's wonderful 'Negotium Perambulans' (1922), which pre-Lovecrafts Lovecraft. Fortunately, I see little in common between my own life and the events of that tale. At least, not as long as I keep all the lights on. All night.