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.

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