In chapter 15 of Seminar XI, Lacan introduces the mysterious notion of the “lamella”: the libido as an organ without body, the incorporeal and for that very reason indestructible life substance that persists beyond the circuit of generation and corruption.(1) It is no accident that commentaries on this passage are rare (for all practical purposes nonexistent); the Lacan with whom we are confronted in this passage does not have a lot in common with the usual figure of Lacan which reigns in the domain of cultural studies. The Lacan of the lamella is “Another Lacan,” as Jacques-Alain Miller put it, a Lacan of drive not desire, of the real not the symbolic.- -Slavoj Zizek, "Slavoj Zizek on David Lynch"
How are we to approach this notion of lamella? Let us risk a detour. If, today, the term “post-modernism” is of any theoretical use, then lamella is a post-modern notion par excellence—-the shift from the Lacan of the symbolic to the Lacan of the real is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. For that reason, one should not be surprised that lamella is the central preoccupation of the person whose work epitomizes post-modernism in cinema, David Lynch. And, in order to expose as clearly as possible Lynch’s Post-modernism, let us risk an additional detour via those who were, in all probability, the first post-modernists avant la letter: the Pre-Raphaelites.
In art history, the Pre-Raphaelites function as the paradoxical border case of avant-garde overlapping with kitsch. They were first perceived as bearers of an anti-traditionalist revolution in painting, breaking with the entire tradition from the Renaissance onwards, only to be devalued shortly thereafter—with the rise of Impressionism in France—as the very epitome of damp Victorian pseudo-romantic kitsch. This low rating lasted till the 1960s, i.e., until the emergence of post-modernism. How was it, then, that they became “readable” only retroactively, from the post-modernist paradigm?
In this respect, the crucial painter is William Holman Hunt, usually dismissed as the first Pre-Raphealite to sell out to the establishment, becoming a well-paid producer of sweetish religious paintings (The Triumph of the Innocents, etc.). However, a closer look unmistakably confronts us with an uncanny, deeply disturbing dimension of his work; his paintings produce a kind of uneasiness or indeterminate feeling that, in spite of their idyllic and elevated “official” content, there is something amiss.
Let us take the Hireling Shepherd, apparently a simple pastoral idyll depicting a shepherd engaged in seducing a country-girl, and for that reason neglecting to care for a flock of sheep (an obvious allegory of the Church neglecting its lambs). The longer we observe the painting, the more we become aware of a great number of details that bear witness to Hunt’s intense relationship to enjoyment, to life-substance, i.e., to his disgust at sexuality. The shepherd is muscular, dull, crude, and rudely voluptuous; the cunning gaze of the girl indicates a sly, vulgarly manipulative exploitation of one’s own sexual attraction; the all too vivacious reds and greens mark the entire painting with a repulsive tone, as if we were dealing with turgid, overripe, putrid nature. It is similar to Isabella and the Pot of Basil where numbers details belie the “official” Tragic-religious content (the snake-like head, the skulls on the brim of the vase, etc.). The sexuality radiated by the painting is damp, “unwholesome,” and permeated with the decay of death, and it plunges us into the universe of David Lynch, the filmmaker.
Lynch’s entire “ontology” is based upon the discordance or contrast between reality, observed from a safe distance, and the absolute proximity of the real. His elementary procedure consists in moving forward from an establishing shot of reality to a disturbing proximity which renders visible the disgusting substance of enjoyment, the crawling and twinkling of indestructible life—in short, the lamella. Suffice it to recall the opening sequence of Blue Velvet. After the shots that epitomize the idyllic small American town and the father’s stroke while he waters the lawn (when he collapses, the jet of water uncannily recalls surreal, heavy urination), the camera approaches the grass surface and depicts the bursting life, the crawling of insects and beetles, their rattling and devouring of grass. At the very beginning of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, we encounter the opposite technique which produces the same effect. First we see abstract white protoplasmic shapes floating in a blue background, a kind of elementary form of life in its primordial twinkling; then the camera slowly moves away and we become aware that what we were seeing was an extreme close-up of a TV screen.(2) Therein lies the fundamental feature of post-modern hyperrealism: the very over-proximity to reality brings about the “loss of reality.” Uncanny details stick out and perturb the pacifying effect of the overall picture.(3)
The second feature, closely linked to the first, is contained in the very designation “Pre-Raphaelitism”: the reaffirmation of rendering things as they “really are,” not yet distorted by the rules of academic painting first established by Raphael. However, the Pre-Raphaelites’ own practice belies this naive ideology of returning to the “natural” way of painting. The first thing that strikes the eye in their paintings is the feature which necessarily appears to us, accustomed to modern perspective-realism, as a sign of clumsiness. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings are somehow flat, lacking the “depth” of space organized along the perspective lines which meet in an infinite point; it is as if the very “reality” they depict were not a “true” reality but rather structured as a relief. Another aspect of this same feature is the “dollish,” mechanically composite, artificial quality of the depicted individuals: they somehow lack the abyssal depth of personality we usually associate with the notion of “subject.” The designation “Pre-Raphaelitism” is thus to be taken literally, as an indication of the shift from Renaissance perspectivism to the “closed” medieval universe.
In Lynch’s films, the “flatness” of the depicted reality responsible for the cancellation of infinite perspective openness finds its precise correlate or counterpart at the level of sound. Let us return to the opening sequence of Blue Velvet: its crucial feature is the uncanny noise that emerges when we approach the real. This noise is difficult to locate in reality. In order to determine its status, one is tempted to evoke contemporary cosmology which speaks of noises at the borders of the universe; these noises are not simply internal to the universe—-they are remainders or last echoes of the Big Bang that created the universe itself. The ontological status of this noise is more interesting than it may appear, since it subverts the fundamental notion of the “open,” infinite universe that defines the space of Newtonian physics. That is to say, the modern notion of the “open” universe is based on the hypothesis that every positive entity (noise, matter) occupies some (empty) space; it hinges on the difference between space as void and positive entities which occupy it, “fill it out.” Space is here phenomenologically conceived as something that exists prior to the entities which “fill it out.” If we destroy or remove the matter that occupies a given space, this space as void remains. The primordial noise, the last remainder of the Big Bang, is on the contrary constitutive of space itself: it is not a noise “in” space, but a noise that keeps space open as such. If, therefore, we were to erase this noise, we would not get the “empty space” which was filled out by it. Space itself, the receptacle for every “inner-worldly” entity, would vanish. This noise is, in a sense, the “sound of silence.” Along the same lines, the fundamental noise in Lynch’s films is not simply caused by objects that are part of reality; rather, it forms the ontological horizon or frame of reality itself, i.e., the texture that holds reality together. Were this noise to be eradicated, reality itself would collapse, from the “open” infinite universe of Cartesian-Newtonian physics, we are thus back to the pre-modern “closed” universe, encircled, bounded, by a fundamental “noise.”
We encounter this same noise in the nightmare sequence of The Elephant Man. It transgresses the borderline that separates interior from exterior, i.e., the extreme externality of a machine uncannily coincides with the utmost intimacy of the bodily interior, with the rhythm of heart palpitations. This noise also appears after the camera enters the hole in the elephant-man’s hood, which stands for the gaze. The reversal of reality into the real corresponds to the reversal of the look (the subject looking at reality) into gaze, i.e., it occurs when we enter the “black hole,” the crack in the texture of reality.
What we encounter in this “black hole” is simply the body stripped of its skin. That is to say, Lynch perturbs our most elementary phenomenological relationship to the living body, which is based on the radical line of separation between the surface of the skin and what is beneath it. Let us recall the uncanniness, and even disgust, we experience when we endeavor to imagine what goes on just under the surface of a beautiful naked body—muscles, glands, veins, etc. In short, our relating to the body implies the suspension of what lies beneath the surface, and this suspension is an effect of the symbolic order—-it can occur only insofar as bodily reality is struc-tured by language. In the symbolic order, we are not really naked even when we are without clothes, since skin itself functions as the “dress of the flesh.”(4) This suspension excludes the real of the life-substance, its palpitation; one of the definitions of the Lacanian real is that it is the flayed, skinned body, the palpitation of raw, skinless red flesh.
How, then, does Lynch perturb our most elementary phenomenological relationship to the bodily surface? By means of the voice, of a word which “kills,” which corrodes or breaks through the skin surface and directly cuts into the raw flesh-in short, by means of a word whose status is that of a real. This feature is at its most expressive in Lynch’s version of Herbert’s Dune. Suffice it to recall members of the space-guild who, because of their over-indulging in “spice,” the mysterious drug around which the story turns, become distorted beings with gigantic heads, worm-like creatures made of skinless, raw flesh, indestructible life-substance, a pure embodiment of enjoyment.
Another case of similar distortion is the corrupted kingdom of the evil Baron Harkonnen where we see faces whose surface is distorted in an uncanny way—sewn-up eyes and ears, etc. The face of the Baron himself is full of disgusting protuberances, “sprouts of enjoyment,” in which the inside of the body breaks through the surface. The unique scene, where the Baron attacks a young boy in an ambiguous oral-homoerotic way, also plays on this ambiguity of the relationship of the inside and the surface. The Baron attacks him by pulling out his heart-cork, so that blood starts to squirt out. (What we have here is Lynch’s typical child-fantasy notion of a human body as a balloon, a form made of inflated skin, with no substance behind it.) The skulls of the servants of the space-guild also start to crack when they run out of spice—-again a case of distorted, fractured surfaces. What is crucial here is the correlation between these cracks in the skull and the distorted voice: the guild-servant actually utters unintelligible whispers which are transformed into articulated speech only by means of the microphone or, in Lacanian terms, by passing through the medium of the Other. This delay—i.e., the fact that the sounds we utter are not speech in an immediate way, but only through the intervention of the external, machine-like, symbolic order—-is usually concealed; it is rendered visible only when the relationship between surface
and its beyond is perturbed.
In Twin Peaks, the dwarf in the Red Lodge speaks an incomprehensible, distorted English, rendered intelligible only with the help of subtitles that play the role of the microphone, i.e., the medium of the Other. What we have here is the hidden reversal of the Derridian critique of logocentrism in which the voice functions as the medium of illusory self-transparency and self-presence: the obscene, cruel, superego-like, incomprehensible, impenetrable, traumatic dimension of the voice which is a kind of foreign body perturbing the balance of our lives.(5)
The relationship to surface is also perturbed in the case of Paul’s—Dune’s hero’s—mystical experience of drinking the “water of life.” (Mysticism, of course, stands for the encounter with the real.) Here, again, the inside endeavors to invade the surface—blood drips not only from Paul’s eyes but also from the mouth of his mother and sister, who are aware of his ordeal by direct, non-symbolic, empathy. (The ruler’s counselors, the “living computers” who are able to read others’ thoughts and see into the future, also have strange blood-like stains around their lips.) Finally, there is the voice of Paul Atreid himself, which has a directly physical impact. By raising his voice, he is able not only to derange his adversary, but even to blow up the hardest rock. At the end of the film, Paul raises his voice and shouts back at the old priestess who tried directly to penetrate his mind; as Paul himself says, his word can kill, i.e., his speech is not only a symbolic act but can directly cut into the real. The disintegration of the “normal” relationship of bodily surface and its underside is strictly correlative to the change in the status of speech, to the emergence of a word which operates directly at the level of the real.
There is another crucial feature of this last scene. The old priestess reacts to Paul’s words in an exaggerated, almost theatrical way, so that it is not clear if she is reacting to his actual words or to the distorted, overblown way she perceives his words. In short, the “normal” relationship between cause (Paul’s words) and effect (the woman’s reaction to it) is perturbed here; it is as if there is a gap separating them, as if the effect never fits or corresponds to its alleged cause. The usual way to read this gap would be to conceive of it as an index of woman’s hysteria: women are not able to perceive clearly external causes, they always project into them their own distorted vision of them. Michel Chion, however, provides here a true stroke of genius and proposes a rather different reading of this disturbance.(6) One is tempted to “order” his rather non-systematic way of proceeding in his book on Lynch, by arranging it into three consecutive steps.
1) Chion’s starting point is the gap or discord between action and reaction that is always at work in Lynch’s films: when a subject—as a rule a man—addresses a woman or “electrocutes” her in some other way, the woman’s reaction is always somehow incommensurate with the “impulse” she receives. What is at stake in this incommensurability is a kind of short-circuit between cause and effect: their relationship is never “pure” or linear. We can never be quite certain to what extent the effect itself retroactively “colored” its own cause. We encounter here the logic of anamorphosis presented in an exemplary way in Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act II, Scene II) by the words of the Queen’s faithful servant Bushby:The incommensurability between cause and effect thus results from the anamorphic perspective of the subject who distorts the “real” preceding cause, so that his act (his reaction to this cause) is never a direct effect of the cause, but rather a consequence of his distorted perception of the cause.
Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon,In her answer to Bushby, the Queen herself locates her fears in the context of causes and effects:
Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Finds shapes of grief more than himself to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what is not.
… conceit is still deriv’d
From some forefather grief; mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief;
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve:
‘Tis in reversion that I do possess;
But what it is, that is not yet known; what
I cannot name; ’tis nameless woe, I wot.(7)
2) Chion’s next step consists of a “crazy” gesture worthy of the most daring Freudian interpretation: he proposes that the fundamental matrix, the paradigmatic case, of this discord between action and reaction is sexual (non)relationship between man and woman. In sexual activity, men “do certain things to women,” and the question to be raised is: is woman’s enjoyment reducible to an effect, is it a simple consequence of what men do to her? From the good old days of Marxist hegemony, one may perhaps be reminded of the vulgar, materialist, “reductionistic” endeavors to explain the genesis of the notion of causality on the basis of human practice, of man’s active relating to his environs: we arrive at the notion of causality by generalizing the experience of how, every time we accomplish a certain gesture, the same effect occurs in reality. Chion proposes an even more radical reductionism: the elementary matrix of the relationship between cause and effect is offered by the sexual relationship. In the last analysis, the irreducible gap that separates an effect from its cause amounts to the fact that “not all of feminine enjoyment is an effect of the masculine cause.” This “not-all” has to be conceived precisely in the sense of the Lacanian logic of not-all (pas-tout)(8): it in no way entails that a part of feminine enjoyment is not the effect of what men do to a woman. In other words, “not-all” designates inconsistency and not incompleteness: in the reaction of a woman, there is always something unforeseen. A woman never reacts as expected—all of a sudden, she does not react to something that, up to that time, infallibly aroused her, yet she is aroused by something that a man does in passing, inadvertently Woman is not fully submitted to the causal link. With her, this linear order of causality breaks down or, to quote Nicholas Cage when, in Lynch’s Wild at Heart, he is surprised by an unexpected reaction of Laura Dern’s: “The way your mind works is God’s own private mystery.”
3) The last step is in itself twofold: a further specification or narrowing-down, followed by a generalization. Why is it precisely woman who, by way of her incommensurate reaction to man’s impulse, breaks asunder the causal chain? The specific feature which seems reducible to a link in the causal chain, yet actually suspends and inverts it, is feminine depression—woman’s suicidal propensity to slide into permanent lethargy. Man bombards woman with shocks in order to stir her out of this depression.
At the center of Blue Velvet (and of all of Lynch’s opus), there is the enigma of woman’s depression. That the fatal Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini) is depressed goes without saying, since the reasons for it seem obvious: her child and husband were kidnapped by cruel Frank (Denis Hopper), who even cut off her husband’s ear, and he blackmails Dorothy by exacting sexual favors as the price for keeping her husband and child alive. The causal link seems thus clear and unambiguous. Frank is the cause of all troubles, he broke into the happy family and provoked the trauma; Dorothy’s masochistic enjoyment is a simple after-effect of this initial shock—the victim is so bewildered and thrown off by the sadistic violence she is subjected to, that she “identifies with the aggressor” and sets out to imitate his game. However, a detailed analysis of the most famous scene from Blue Velvet—the sadomasochistic sexual play between Dorothy and Frank, observed by Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) while he is hiding in the closet—requires us to reverse the entire perspective. The crucial question to be asked here is: for whom is this scene staged?
The first answer seems obvious: for Jeffrey. Isn’t it an exemplary case of achild witnessing parental coitus? Isn’t Jeffrey reduced to a pure gaze present at the act of his own conception (the elementary matrix of fantasy)? This interpretation can be supported by two peculiar features of what Jeffrey sees: Dorothy stuffing blue velvet into Frank’s mouth, and Frank putting an oxygen-mask on his mouth and then breathing heavily. Aren’t both of these visual hallucinations based on what the child hears? When eaves-dropping on parental coitus, the child hears hollow speaking and heavy, gasping breathing; he or she imagines that there must be something in the father’s mouth (perhaps part of the sheet, since he is in bed), or that he is breathing through a mask.(9) Yet what this reading leaves out is the crucial fact that the sadomasochistic game is thoroughly Staged and theatrical. Both of them—not only Dorothy who knows that Jeffrey is watching since she put him in the closet—act (or even overact) as if they knew they were being observed. Jeffrey is not an unobserved, accidental witness to a secret ritual; the ritual is, from the outset staged for his gaze. From this perspective, the true organizer of the game seems be Frank. His noisy, theatrical manner, bordering on the comical and recalling the movie-image of a villain, bears witness to the fact that he is desperately trying to fascinate and impress the third gaze. In order to prove what? The key is perhaps offered by Frank’s obsessive repeating to Dorothy: “Don’t you look at me!” Why shouldn’t she? There is only one answer possible: since there is nothing to see. There is no erection to see, since Frank is impotent.
Read this way, the scene acquires quite a different meaning: Frank and Dorothy feign a wild sexual act in order to conceal from the child the fact that his father is impotent; all Frank’s shouting and swearing, his comical- spectacular imitation of coital gestures, is designed to mask its opposite. In traditional terms, the accent shifts from voyeurism: Jeffrey’s gaze is but an element in the exhibitionist’s scenario. Instead of a son witnessing parental coitus, the father desperately attempts to convince his son of his potency.
There is, however, a third possible reading, centered on Dorothy. What I have in mind here are not anti-feminist commonplaces about feminine masochism, claiming that women secretly enjoy being brutally mistreated, etc. My point is rather the following: what if—bearing in mind that, with woman, the linear causal link is suspended, and even reversed—depression is the original fact? What if depression comes first, and all subsequent activity—i.e., Frank’s terrorizing of Dorothy—far from being its cause, is rather a desperate “therapeutic” attempt to prevent her from sliding into the abyss of absolute depression, a kind of “electroshock” therapy which endeavors to attract her attention? The crudeness of his “treatment” (the kidnapping of husband and son; the cutting off of the husband’s ear; the required participation in the sadistic sexual game) simply corresponds to the depth of her depression; only such rude shocks can keep her active.
In this sense, Lynch can be said to be a true anti-Weininger. In Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, the paradigm of modern anti-feminism, woman proposes herself to man, endeavoring to attract and fascinate his gaze and thus drag him down from spiritual heights into the lowliness of sexual debauchery. For Weininger, the “original fact” is man’s spirituality, whereas his fascination with woman results from his Fall; for Lynch, the “original fact” is woman’s depression, her sliding into the abyss of self-annihilation and absolute lethargy, whereas man, on the contrary, proposes himself to woman as the object of her gaze. Man “bombards” her with shocks in order to arouse her attention and thereby shake her out of her numbness in short, in order to reinclude or reinstate her in the “proper” order of causality.
The tradition of such a stiff, lethargic woman aroused from her numbness by a man’s call was alive and well in the nineteenth century. Suffice it to recall here Kundry from Wagner’s Parsifal who, at the beginning of Act II and Act III, is awakened from a catatonic sleep (first through Klingsor’s rude summons, then through Gurnemanz’s kind care). And from “real” life, consider the unique figure of Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris and the mistress of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The famous photo of Jane Morris from 1865 presents a depressive woman, deeply absorbed in her thoughts, who seems to await man’s impulse to shake her from her lethargy; this photo perhaps offers the closest approach to what Wagner had in mind when he created this figure of Kundry.(10)
What is of crucial importance is the universal, formal structure at work here: the “normal” relationship between cause and effect is inverted. The “effect” is the original fact, which comes first, and what appears as its cause—the shocks which allegedly set in motion the depression—is actually a reaction to this effect, a struggle against depression. The logic is once again that of a “not-all.” “Not-all” of depression results from the causes which trigger it; yet at the same time there is nothing, no element of depression, which is not triggered by some external active cause. In other words, everything in depression is an effect-everything except depression as such, i.e., except the form of depression. The status of depression is thus strictly “transcendental”: depression provides the a priori frame within which causes can act the way they do.(11)
It may appear that I have simply reproduced the most common prejudice about female depression, i.e., the notion of a woman who can be aroused only by a man’s stimulation. There is, however, another way to look at it. Doesn’t the elementary structure of subjectivity consist in the fact that not-all of the subject is determined by the causal chain? Isn’t the subject the very gap that separates the cause from its effect? Doesn’t it emerge precisely insofar as the relationship between cause and effect cannot be accounted for?(12) In other words, what is this feminine depression that suspends the causal link, the causal enchainment of our acts to external stimuli, if not the founding gesture of subjectivity, the primordial act of freedom, of breaking up our insertion into the nexus of causes and effects.(13) The philosophical name for this “depression” is absolute negativity, i.e., what Hegel called “the night of the world,” the withdrawal of the subject into itself . In short, woman, not man, is the subject par excellence. And the link between depression and the bursting of the indestructible life-substance is also clear: depression and withdrawal-into-self is the primordial act of retreat, of acquiring a distance from the indestructible life-substance, which makes it appear as a repulsive scintillation.
In conclusion, emphasis should be laid on the inherent political dimension of this notion of enjoyment, i.e., on the way the lamella, this kernel of enjoyment, functions as a political factor. Let us approach this dimension by way of one of the enigmas of cultural life in post-Socialist Eastern Europe: why does Milan Kundera even now, after the victory of democracy, suffer a kind of excommunication in Bohemia? His works are rarely Published, the media pass over them in silence, and everybody is somehow embarrassed to speak about him. In order to justify such treatment, one rakes up old stories about his hidden collaboration with the Communist regime, about his taking refuge in private pleasures and avoiding the righteous battle á la Havel, etc. However, the roots of this resistance are deeper—Kundera conveys a message unbearable to “normalized” democratic consciousness.
In a first approach, the fundamental axis that structures the universe of his works seems to be the opposition between the puffy, pretentious Pathos of official Socialist ideology and the islands of everyday private life, its small joys and pleasures, laughter and tears, beyond the reach of ideology. These islands enable us to assume a distance that renders visible the ideological ritual in its vain, ridiculous pretentiousness and grotesque meaninglessness: it is not worth the trouble to recalcitrate against the official ideology with pathetic speeches on freedom and democracy. Sooner or later, this leads to a new version of the “Big March,” of ideological obsession. If Kundera is reduced to this attitude, it is easy to dismiss him by confronting him with Vaclav Havel’s fundamental “Althusserian” insight into how the ultimate conformist attitude is an “apolitical” distance which, while publicly obeying the imposed ritual, privately indulges in cynical irony. It is not sufficient to ascertain that the ideological ritual is a mere appearance which nobody takes seriously; this appearance is essential in its very capacity of appearance, which is why one has to take a risk and refuse to participate in the public ritual. (See Havel’s famous example, from his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” of a common man, a greengrocer, who of course does not believe in Socialism, and yet, when the occasion demands it, dutifully decorates the windows of his store with official Party slogans, etc.)
One therefore has to go further by taking into account the fact that there is no way to simply step out of ideology. The private indulgence in cynicism and the obsession with private pleasures are all ways in which totalitarian ideology is at work in “non-ideological” everyday life; life is determined by ideology, and ideology is “present in it in the mode of absence,” if we may resort to this syntagm from the heroic epoch of structuralism. The depolitization of the private sphere in late Socialist societies is “compulsive,” marked by the fundamental prohibition of free political discussion; for that reason, it always functions as an avoidance of what is truly at stake’ This accounts for the feature which immediately strikes the eye in Kundera’s novels: the depoliticized private sphere is in no way the free domain of innocent Pleasures. There is always something damp, claustrophobic, inauthentic, and even desperate in this striving for sex and other pleasures. In this respect, the lesson of Kundera’s novels is the exact opposite of a naive reliance on the innocent private sphere: totalitarian Socialist ideology vitiates from within the very sphere of privacy in which we take refuge.
This, however, is far from being all there is to it. We must take another step here, since the lesson we learn from Kundera is even more ambiguous. Notwithstanding the dampness of the private sphere, the fact remains that the totalitarian situation gave rise to a series of phenomena attested to by numerous chronicles of everyday life in the Socialist East. In reaction to totalitarian ideological domination, there was not only a cynical escape into the “good life” of private pleasures, but also an extraordinary flourishing of authentic friendship, visits, dinners, passionate intellectual conversations in closed societies—features which usually fascinated visitors from the West. The Problem, of course, is that there is no way to draw a clear-cut line between the two sides: they are the front and back of the same coin which is why, with the advent of democracy, they both disappear. It is to Kundera’s credit that he does not conceal this ambiguity: the spirit of “Middle Europe,” of authentic friendship and intellectual sociability, survived in Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland only as a form of resistance against totalitarian ideological domination.
Perhaps yet another step can be ventured here. The very subordination to the Socialist order brought about a specific enjoyment, not only the enjoyment provided by our awareness of living in a universe in which here IS no uncertainty since the System has (or claims to have) an answer for everything, but above all enjoying the very stupidity of the System—relishing the emptiness of official rituals and the worn-out stylistic figures of the predominant ideological discourse. (Suffice it to recall here the extent to which certain key Stalinist syntagms became ironic figures of speech even among Western intellectuals: “objective responsibility,” etc. “Stalinism” confronts us with what Lacan designated as the imbecility inherent in the signifier.) The contemporary Russian composer Alfred Schnittke succeeded in exposing this feature in his opera Life with an Idiot. The opera tells the story of an ordinary married man (known as “I”) who, as a punishment imposed by the Party, is forced to bring someone from an insane asylum to live with his family. The idiot, Vava, who has the appearance of a normal, bearded, bespectacled intellectual and prattles meaningless political phrases all the time, soon shows his true colors as an obscene intruder by first having sex with I’s wife and then with I himself. Insofar as we are living in a universe of language, we are condemned to this imbecility: we can assume a minimal distance from it, thus rendering it more bearable, but we can never get rid of it.
The ambiguity of Kundera’s universe in which Socialist “repression” creates the conditions for authentic happiness is perhaps best rendered at the end of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philip Kaufman’s unjustly depreciated film version of the novel resorts to a temporal displacement that successfully condenses the end of Kundera’s novel. Late at night, the hero, a dissident doctor exiled to the Czech countryside, returns home with his wife from a dance in a small nearby town; the last sight of them is a point-of-view shot of the dark macadam road illuminated by the lights of their truck. The film suddenly cuts to California a couple of weeks later; their friend Sabina, who lives there as a sculptor, receives a letter informing her of their death in a traffic accident while returning home from a dance, and comments that “they must have been happy at the time of their death.” The film then cuts back to the previous scene, a simple continuation of the point-of-view shot, from the driver’s seat, of the road into which our gaze penetrates.
The sublime effect of this last shot results from a temporal displacement: it hinges on the coexistence of the spectator’s knowledge that the hero and his wife are already dead, with their forward-moving gaze on a strangely illuminated road. The point is not only that the allure of this strange illumination acquires the meaning of death, but rather that this last point-of-view shot belongs to people who are still alive, although we know that they are already dead. After the flash-forward to California informing us of their death, the hero and his wife dwell in the domain “between two deaths”,the same shot which was, prior to the flash-forward, a simple point-of-view shot of living subjects, now renders the gaze of the “living dead.”1. See pp. 197-198. For a reading of this passage, see chapter 5 of Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993.
2. The same procedure was applied by Tim Burton in the outstanding credits-sequence of Batman: the camera errs along nondescript, winding, unsmooth metal funnels; after it gradually backs off and acquires a “normal” distance from its object, it becomes clear what this object actually is: the tiny Batman badge.
3. The counte to this Lynchian attitude is perhaps the philosophy of Leibniz: Leibniz was fascinated by microscopes because they confirmed to him that what appears from the “normal,” everyday point of view to be a lifeless object, is actually full of life. One has but to take a closer look at it, i.e., to observe the object from absolute proximity: under the lens of a microscope, one can perceive the wild crawling of innumerable tiny living things. Cf. chapter 2 of Miran Bozovic, Der grosse Andere: Gotteskonzepte in der Philosophie der Neuzeil, Vienna and Berlin, Turia und Kant, 1993.
4. The exception is provided here by the naked body of Isabella Rossellini towards the end of Blue Velvet: when, after the endured nightmare, she leaves the house and approaches Jeffrey, it is as if a body belonging to another, dark, nightly, infernal realm all of a sudden found itself in our “normal” daily universe, out of its own element, like a stranded octopus or some other creature from the deep sea-a wounded, exposed body whose material presence exerts an almost unbearable pressure on us.
5. It was Chaplin’s Great Dictator which already bore witness to a homologous disturbance in the relationship between the voice and the written word: the spoken word (the speeches of the dictator Hynkel) is obscene, incomprehensible, and absolutely incommensurate with the written word.
6. See Michel Chion, David Lynch, Paris, Cahiers du Cinema, 1992, especially pp. 108-117 and 227-228.
7. For a more detailed reading of these lines from Richard II, see chapter 1 of Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991.
8. As to this logic, see Lacan’s Seminar XX.
9. In the analysis of films, it is therefore crucial to expose homogeneous, continuous, diegetic reality as a product of “secondary elaboration,” i.e., to discern in it the part of (symbolic) reality and the part of fantasy hallucination. Suffice it to recall Home Alone. The entire film hinges on the fact that the boy’s family—his proper intersubjectfve environs, his Other—and the two burglars that threaten him when the family is away never cross paths. The burglars enter the scene when the boy finds himself alone, and when, at the end of the film, the family returns home, all traces of the burglars’ presence almost magically evaporate, although, as a result of their confrontation with the boy, practically the entire house should lie in ruins. The very fact that the burglars’ existence is not acknowledged by the Other, undoubtedly bears witness to the fact that we are dealing with the boy’s fantasy. The moment the two burglars enter the scene, we change terrain and jump from social reality into the fantasy universe in which there is neither death nor guilt; into the universe of silent slapstick pictures and cartoons, in which a heap of iron falls on your head, yet all you feel is a slight bump; in which a gallon of gasoline explodes on your head, yet the only damage you suffer is that some of your hair is burned. Perhaps this is how one has to conceive of Macaulay Culkin’s notorious scream: not as an expression of his fear of the burglars, but rather as an expression of his horror at the prospect of being thrown (again) into his own fantasy universe.
10. One also encounters this motif of a woman shaken out of her lethargic numbness where one would not normally look for it—in Henry James’ Aspern Papers, for example. The narrator forces his way into a decaying Venetian palazzo, the home of two ladies, an old American who was in her youth, ages ago, a mistress of the great American poet Aspem, and her somewhat younger niece. He uses every possible ruse to obtain the object of his desire: a bundle of Aspem’s unknown love letters carefully kept by the old lady. What he fails to take into account, obsessed as he is by the object of his desire, is his own impact on life in the decaying palazzo; he brings with him a spirit of vivacity which awakens the two ladies from their lethargic vegetation and even stirs up, in the younger one, sexual lust.
11. The logic here is exactly homologous to that articulated by Deleuze apropos of the Freudian duality of the pleasure (and reality) principle and its “beyond,” the death-drive. (What is the depression of Lynch’s heroines if not a manifestation of the death drive?) Freud’s point is not that there are phenomena that cannot be accounted for by the pleasure and reality pn`nciple (it is easy for him to demonstrate, apropos of every example of “pleasure in pain,” apparently running counter to the pleasure principle, the hidden narcissistic gain conveyed by the renunciation of pleasure), but rather that, in order to account !or the verg functioning of the pleasure and real/lg principles, we are obliged to posit the more fundamental dimension of the “death drive” and the compulsion-to-repeat which hold open the space where the pleasure principle can exert its rule. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” in Masochism, New York, Zone Books, 1991.
12. This “unaccountability” is what Freud was aiming at with his concept of overdetermination: a contingent external cause can trigger unforeseen catastrophic consequences by stirring up the trauma which always already glows under the ashes, i.e., “insisting” in the unconscious.
13. This suspension of linear causality is at the same time the constitutive feature of the symbolic order. In this respect, the case of Jon Elster is very instructive. Within the framework of the “objective” socio-psychological apProach, Elsfer endeavors to isolate the specific level of mechanism, located between a merely descriptive or narrative ideographic method and the construction of general theories: “A mechanism is a specific causal pattern that can be recognized after the event but rarely foreseen. . . . It is less than a theory, but a great deal more than a description” (Jon Elster, Political Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 3 and 5).