MAMI Day 2

An odd aspect of film festivals is that no matter how many films you watch in a day, and how entirely memorable they might each be, it’s always the last film that determines the note on which you end the day. Perhaps not unlike courses in a meal, where feeble desserts reverberate endlessly long after the plates have been cleared.

There is nothing feeble about Claire Denis’s latest, High Life, which, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now, is also set in space like so many other recent film offerings, but is unlike any of them in every other respect. This is to be expected because it’s Claire Denis, and we don’t have anyone else with her capacity to execute an image until its capacities have been exhausted, and it is turned inside-out with its face out in the world to see until you can’t see anything else. Take the closing scenes of Vendredi Soir and Beau Travail, or the dance sequence in 35 Shots of Rum, or Lola Créton walking in those heels in Bastards, or even the continual shots of Juliette Binoche’s face in Let the Sunshine In. Denis has always worked closely with the frays of loneliness in daily life, loneliness as a form of violence, and in that vein, High Life is about as far as she has gone, quite literally. It doesn’t get lonelier than outer space.

The film angered me when I first watched it this evening. I was simultaneously horrified and incredibly moved. Ostensibly, High Life is about Monte, a former prison-inmate-turned-space-experiment-guinea-pig, and his baby—eventually, teenage daughter—who are the only two survivors on a radioactive space ship in a distant solar system. Really, though, it’s about the perversities of the human body: bodies lactate, bleed, miscarry, tear, shit, spurt and give way, even in space. On a space ship where everyone is slowly losing their minds, both men and women are raped, inseminated and handled in equal parts with delicacy and hysteria. “Even here, black ones are the first to go,” says a black inmate on the ship. A mother lactates all over her naked body, crying, saying, “They got me, they got me”, over and over again.* (*-paraphrased)

I think I’m still angry. There’s an unexplained machismo to the sexual atrocities that feels like teeth being pulled off a bared jaw. Humans on this ship flatline from the moment they try to be anything other than human: they attack and rape each other, and then they all fall to their death, one after another like a stack of dominos. A scene involving Juliette Binoche and a “fuck box” is expertly filmed—never has a woman’s back been infused with more power—but Binoche’s Dr. Dibs is mostly a creepy doctor-turned-high-priestess who likes to harvest men’s semen for reasons that are inadequately explained by her quest for the “perfect being”.

After a while, it was wearying to watch them all go for each other the second they thought the others weren’t watching. I pulled myself back out of the film more often than not, because I couldn’t care about any of them. Giving up on the characters because you wish they’d all die sooner rather than later because isn’t it inevitable in another fucking solar system—that’s what nihilism feels like.

And yet, Denis does not make nihilist films. There’s much to appreciate in High Life about the clarity with which Denis addresses the complete loneliness of existing in a human body that knows its time is near. It was remarkable to watch, for instance, the violence of birth revealed so blankly. I was mesmerised by the dark emerald of the garden, where life seemed to return momentarily as the inmates worked their hands hard. The way the empty rooms glowed in red light, giving off the impression of a secret inner life that exists only when you aren’t looking, like a club lit up in UV light and shadows.

Most exquisite of all were Monte’s scenes with his child, and I cared about them to the point that I didn’t need or want the intense flashbacks that explained the history of the ship; these tender scenes with his daughter were almost (almost) an antidote to the spectacle of hyperviolent masculinity that characterises the rest of the film. He sews a broken arm off her red soft toy, he makes her laugh, he comforts her and he teaches her to walk, and he fears for her safety. When she gets her period for the first time, she is interested in the blood, but refreshingly not repulsed, as she has been socialised entirely around a single other human being—a man who is not repulsed either. A haunting scene involves father and daughter discovering their movement over another spaceship, hardly believing their luck at possibly finding human contact, only to discover howling dogs at the other end. “It would be cruel to abandon the dog,” says his daughter. “What do you know of cruelty?” asks Monte wearily.

These moments string up the film like fairy lights, because what Denis does best is help us remember that on the other side of an abandoned life is a parallel life that views human intimacy as desperately sacred. Denis gives us this, unfortunately with more restraint than ever before. I don’t know if I can bring myself to watch High Life again—the thought of it makes me sick, if I’m honest—but I know I will be thinking about it for a long while.

*

Rafiki, in heavy contrast to the Denis, is light, feather-shawl-falling-off-your-shoulders light, and so imaginatively edited as to let this lightness hover till the last frame. The film observes two young women falling in love in Nairobi as their fathers battle for the same seat in the local elections. Wanuri Kahiu’s world is made of teasing neon colours, a compelling all-female Kenyan soundtrack, lively feet and livelier glances. Women watch each other: at roadside shops, in courtyards, and in abandoned cars. I felt an instant, intense affection barreling towards Kena and Ziki, the two young women, from their very first encounters on screen. Their love is fierce, black, adoring; a dark rose perfume fading in a hot nightclub, bright fuschia flashes around a football game, kisses on upturned wrists, hair braiding in public. Their love is gracefully worn, in a land where it is granted no grace.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a romantic couple on screen enjoy their love so much. Ziki and Kena couldn’t be more different from each other; extrovert Ziki is doe-eyed, sharply dressed, distracted and moves like a dancer even when there’s nobody to dance for, while Kena skulks, shyly watching Ziki from afar, riding motorbikes with the boys when she isn’t playing a very good midfield. Ziki is openly demonstrative of her affection, whereas Kena wants only to touch her away from all prying eyes.

But Kahiu asks us to watch the two women through each other’s eyes. When wide-eyed Kena watches Ziki dance for her, we watch with her. And when Ziki tells Kena that she’s going to be a doctor, not a nurse, because that’s how good her grades are, nothing feels easier or more possible in the world. Their love feels effortless, until it doesn’t, but the film remains so throughout.

Amongst the many, many memorable scenes in the film, one in particular has washed over me all day. Ziki and Kena are on a date-ish excursion, which quickly turns into an all-night affair. They enter a club, laughing, cheeks flushed, and are suddenly cast in UV light. In the neon darkness, their world blooms instantly, and their love is suddenly visible. Kena and Ziki look at each other for a long while.

This time, I could not pull myself away. Later on the train home, I thought of Fred Moten in his poem “elizabeth cotten/nahum chandler”:

‘this is the music of my own head and you can hear it in the way I sound when I come away from that for you, twisted away in being folded up when I move away from that to turn my lines out for the other line inside. but let me stop beginning to let you come to this openness I hope for. hopefully it’s forming itself from behind against just about every other folding you could think of just for you.’

An ultraviolet love. The least lonely of them all.

I didn’t write much this year: a recurring theme, it seems. Would a doctoral dissertation count? Perhaps. I finished writing, defending, and correcting one this year. It appears as a mirage; a parallel life, occasionally shimmering at the surface, where I crank away at academic pursuits, yearning for some sort of yield; I’m not entirely sure what. But to unpack that is a life’s work, and I don’t quite know how to talk about the infinite ways in which I have been changed by the thesis. No matter. We are here to play.

What, then, have I written: I do occasional essays for BLink, The Hindu Business Line‘s Saturday magazine. I reviewed Alexandra Kleeman’s terrifying and beautiful book,You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and I did so at an odd time in life, when my conceived limits of edibility and appetite were perhaps carelessly extant. I wrote soon after–again, yes, again–about the Neapolitan quartet; it has taken a lot of writing about Ferrante to enable a coalition of my–you wouldn’t believe!–feelings about her, and I still don’t think I’ve said everything I’ve wanted to say. I had a lot of fun delving into a particular cyber violet, #663366, for WEBSAFE2K16, an internet memory project by the very lovely Jo Livingstone. The Cambridge History of Indian Poetry in English, for which I wrote a chapter on Melanie Silgardo and Manohar Shetty’s poetry, was also out earlier this year. I want to say so much more about that volume, most of all about how important it is as an introduction to Indian English poetry, that provocative category that we always seem to be settling for in want of a more suitable identity. May there be many, many more books recentering, let’s say it, Indian English. I’m currently reading Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, in dozy little gasps of time, and maybe I will write about that too.

It has been a year of learning to harbour suspicions against empathy, and empathy politics. I did not think it would be so hard, and I do not, still, hold it to be at odds with the perils of Sedgwickian paranoid reading. I trust her, and I hold that. Liz Kinnamon’s essay on ‘the male sentimental’ figure is one that I’ve re-read many times this year (I couldn’t watch more than five minutes of Love, as it was insufferable: full disclosure. What a contrast Verhoeven’s Elle–a film I hope to say much more about here–is to that). It cautions us of trusting the premise of empathy–via Saidiya Hartman, whom I am starting to feel indebted to–by flagging its cruel appropriations:

In 2008, Bush Jr. presented a Medal of Honor to the parents of a Navy Seal who died in Iraq during the War on Terror. After giving a brief overview of the Seal’s heroism, Bush paused, contorted his face, and made a clunky gesture for the parents to come onstage and accept the medal. He was attempting to visualize his grief in that delay and he continued to do so when the parents arrived onstage. As the mother stood next to him in a pastel pink suit and they waited while a female voice announced the award, Bush made a theater of empathizing with her. Within the space of a few seconds, Bush can be seen tapping her on the leg so that she turns to him to make eye contact. Directly after she smiles and then turns away to face the audience, Bush turns back and takes a finger to the corner of his eye in what looks like the wiping away of a tear (1:19). Bush had gotten her attention to flaunt his emotional reaction to the loss of her son. A few moments later someone hands Bush the medal, and when he passes it over to the parents, they look down soberly at the wooden box that now stands in for their son. These two brief anecdotes of U.S. presidential action by a father and a son call attention to the way in which a peculiar legacy of male sentimentality is woven into the fabric of U.S. Empire, colonialism, and war.

What is it they say? Never forget.

On Three-Quarters of the Neapolitan Novels

I have some thoughts I want to put down quickly, mostly out of fear that I will forget. I am still reading the Neapolitan novels—I am nearly finished with book three, and slightly giddy at the prospect of book four—I am even considering an immediate re-read although I don’t think that is an indulgence suited for the moment. The Neapolitan quartet is, broadly, about the lives of two women, Lenù, or Elena, and Lila, or Lina to everyone but Lenù, from the age of eight to, I don’t know, sixty perhaps, and how they unfold in the city of Naples. It’s a saga, in the primary sense of the word, and Ferrante’s technical skill and the politics of her anonymity are more intricately noted here, and here.

I am not interested in that. But I hardly know where to begin. There is too much to say, with a great deal of both anguish and intrigue at the quartet prompting this impulse. Mostly, what I want to say is about care, I think, on this whole business of neoliberal self-care, which is an industry that I am increasingly viewing as serving to alienate various feminisms from each other to the point that after the kale, selfie and lipstick jokes are out of the way, we probably really should still be standing there in killjoy mode with our battered Lemys to ask what self-care means when it isn’t being co-opted by capitalism. I have no answers, but I suspect Ferrante does.

First of all—and I would like to extend what Dayna Tortorici has written about this with respect to Ferrante’s other novels here, to the Neapolitan novels—it is the premise of the place of work in the lives of both women, Lila and Lenù, and in the lives of the women they grow up around and engage with. Work is what saves them, even from themselves. “Work — routine — is a detergent for the mind, lifting the stain of another person’s unwelcome encroachment,” writes Tortorici. You see this over and over again with Lenù and Lila.

This work isn’t necessarily well-paid or skilled work, it is sometimes zero-hours-minimum-wage that may make rent. If for Lenù–and this is a reading I am reluctant to camp with–work is a manner of getting ahead of Lila, and it isn’t although she will have us believe so then for Lila it is the thing that keeps her alive, moving ahead, almost against life in order to feel it when she attempts to violate her everyday, if not with it.

This is not noteworthy in itself; others are better positioned to write about Italian feminist politics of the time; the changing nature of housework, feminism with, against or within fascism, etc. What is remarkable at least in as much as these are novels, works of fiction, is that this work is positioned to “lift” what Tortorici calls the “stain” of another person; these people are frequently men, men who treat women like scum, liberal educated men and illiterate gangsters and late-blooming communists and economic geographers who get away with all that violence: intellectual, physical, emotional. The men v/s work divide is pure genius in as much as the latter becomes essential by the middle of book two in a way that the former never has been to both women; if this wasn’t clear before in the diverging paths that Lenù and Lila took, it is clear as fucking daylight now, and we’d do well as readers to give in to it. Ferrante is clear: the work we do will save us from men, whom we are tricked into needing but don’t need, by the way.

This is the second fantastic aspect of her novels; from the very beginning, we are taught to eye these men warily. All of them. No exceptions, not even nice boy Enzo. This is some terrifyingly efficacious coaching in re-reading fiction, where the rug is pulled from under your little feminist feet because Ferrante quietly cultivates this storm inside you as a reader, so by the time you’ve finished My Brilliant Friend, and The Story of a New Name a few days later, and have nearly read all of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in one sitting the day after that, you are not reading against the novel, as Eve Sedgwick would caution you about, but, against all odds, with it. In other words, these are feminist novels, the protagonists are women, and a happy ending, should there even be one, will be about the women. And it may well be about them escaping men, and we would do well do know that.

It’s been a while since I trusted fiction so productively, held it close to my heart so keenly.

I want to acknowledge too that it is more complex than I seem to be allowing for here; Lila’s work at the sausage factory is literally a crash course in how patriarchy controls, sexualises and dehumanises labour, particularly women’s labour. You work for the men who will oppress you in order to escape the men who will oppress you, etc. Here is Silvia Federici on the intersections: “Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the waged work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home” (2004: 94). But you root for Lenù and Lila, you worry about the men in their lives, as Ferrante has trained you to, because she is writing unabashedly with that very agenda. It is not an accident that these men emerge as cultivated monsters, it is Ferrante’s deliberate, ringing voice from page one of My Brilliant Friend asking that you recognise this, in the novels, in your friendships, around you, asking that you respect the value and place of work and female friendships in your life because they will—or can—save you when men cannot, or at least they will kill you in ways you prefer. Here is Lila on Michele Solara, a man who has pursued her since they were children (which is putting it mildly):

Once, she thought, he asked me to become his lover, But that’s not what he really wants, there’s something else, something that doesn’t have to do with sex and that not even he can explain. He’s obsessed, it’s like a superstition. Maybe he thinks that I have a power and that that power is indispensable to him. He wants it but he can’t get it, and it makes him suffer, it’s a thing he can’t take from me by force.

The question I found myself asking constantly, even as the days went by in the novel: what does it mean to be treated well by a man? That he doesn’t hit us, or abuse us in any form; yes, all that. But also perhaps that he doesn’t patronise us, that the emotional walls that he builds as a man for us to scale—this is literally a line from book 2—explode, like Lila’s boundaries, as soon as they are built? If I give him sex will he let me be, but equally, will he let me be, live, write, if I don’t? Are we all replaceable simulacra in the lives of a man, like the women are in Nino Sarratore’s life? Does abstaining from abuse mean we are being treated well, or that we are being treated as merely human? When our standards are so low, both in professional patriarchy and in our private lives, is there a difference?

Lenù and Lila don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because they see, however dimly, how they can be valued, they see the magnificent potential that grows within them to realise their best self in treating a beloved with self-reflexive love, because they both treat each other like that. Solara is not alone in recognising that power in Lila, Lenù—and most of Naples, let’s be honest—knows it too. The difference is that Solara wants to harness it, like Lila were some kind of animal whose genetic and social properties are a cure for his eternal inadequacy. Lila and Lenù are the worst for each other, because they see through each other–or so Lenù writes–but they also treat each other better than any man could. Lenù knows this, Lila doesn’t, or she doesn’t explicitly according to Lenù as of book 3, a real fucking tragedy if you happen to be looking for one. Is self-care also about acknowledging care that arrives, bruised, having jerked itself out of patriarchy’s bloody hands? Is self-care about recognising how the power in a woman so beloved to you can be a safeguard for your own struggles with womanhood? I don’t say this as a logical extension of mere care, but without wanting to give away anymore, there is an essay waiting to happen on Lenù and Lila as lesbian lovers, naturally.

Which is possibly why, even as I devoured them, the novels have been so hard to read. It is easy to recognise some form of man or another in the books from literature, culture, the world around you—the names read off an endless scroll, I should think—but more importantly, it is easier to recognise the women friends, whom one has inevitably lost to men. Lila’s disappearance—which opens the series and almost justifies the telling of the story, oddly reminiscent of the disappearance at the end in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart—is much more than a metaphor, it is a validation and reclaiming of the constant disappearing of women through history. I had to put the books down then, and think: What has Ferrante put her finger on that is unsettling me in this moment? And then, if I had the energy: How does she do it?

A third, brief point: most of Ferrante’s women in the Neapolitan quartet struggle with mental health issues. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how deftly and openly Ferrante works with this reality. No glamorising, no shame. Just the unnerving reality of having to endure, god, endure, will the triumph of having endured ever diminish? That it is frequently complicated by its intersections with patriarchy and sexual politics is not a coincidence, thank god. The novels are “realist” in as much as they aren’t fantasy, but Lila’s “dissolving boundaries”—which I have chosen to read as a kind of breakdown, especially by book three—mess with the question of autobiography and world-building, if not genre itself. Lila has breakdowns, then, but Lenù’s struggle against emptiness and her continuous anxiety are performative of this struggle too. The deceptive first-person that dictates the quartet: once you get past the guise of autobiography, you are left with the voice of a woman you cannot trust, even as you trust the stories being told by her.

A last, related, perhaps inadequate point to conclude this, to return to the neoliberal politics of care. Artist Hannah Black is spot on when she muses aloud, in an interview about self-care: “Don’t you think that is like, pure capitalist reification though, in the sense of like, making a thing of a thing that is just a thing?” Yes, indeed. We arrive at writing, particularly in the realm of women’s writing, as a form of self-care, matrixed within the neoliberal project of patriarchy but also slipping out of it ever so often. The Neapolitan novels are fundamentally about women who write. I would stack them up there right with Joanna Russ, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno and Gayatri Spivak. Ferrante is part of that legacy; the books are about lots of things, but they are also mostly about what it means to be a woman who makes sense of the world through writing, for herself, for capitalist consumption, and how both can be redeeming and forms of complex, unrelenting care in their own ways.

I welcome this, and I hold it at an arm’s length because, well, no, it’s too much. Some of us are women who write for a living, it’s easier to deal with that when we pretend it’s happening to Lenù and Lila, not us. Lenù expands her world by making her way uncertainly through it; her writing enables her to stay on the supposedly ethnographic outside. For Lila, writing is a way through the world; writing the world out in her diaries and letters so that her disappearance is not just the absence of herself and every trace of her, but also everything that could have been known about her. The potential of it, because we cannot stop thinking of writing as holding the keys to understanding the (w)hole of someone. Lili Loofburrow, in a gut-wrenching essay about her sister’s suicide and how the Neapolitan novels helped her make sense of her sister’s absence: “Within the affective system Ferrante sketches out in the Neapolitan novels, erasure is an aesthetic as well as an intimate act.” Here is Lenù the narrator, in book three:

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.

Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential. I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought […]

Perhaps it is testament to Ferrante’s writing that we forget that but isn’t this how we live our lives? I don’t know what book four will bring but Lenù’s desperate and skillful narration of chosen details of her friendship with Lila so the latter can be embalmed, in a manner of speaking, is self-care in the most basic sense; not the kind where a thing is made of a thing that is just a thing, but the thing that we have to remind ourselves is a thing so we can carry on doing it. And the difference is important. Lili is right, Lenù’s narration could be viewed as a kind of retrospective violence in so far as it is the opposite of what Lila so fiercely desired; it stops Lila from disappearing completely. A story narrated once, twice, eight times, to ourselves, to others: at what point does it stop being “true” and start being real? There are stories we tell ourselves in order to enable survival, which we sometimes call care, self or otherwise. Lenù’s story of their lives is one that is consistently generous and, at its best, demonstrates the ugly politics of care—and its utterly tender failures.