Pebbles and Waves
A Phantasmal Essay on the Act of Walking with an Analysis of Jean Renoir’s The River (1951)
“The prince asked her who she was and how she had got there. She looked gently and yet ever so sadly up at him with her deep blue eyes, for she could not speak. He took her by the hand and led her up to his castle. And just as the witch had warned, every step felt as though she were walking on sharp knives. But she suffered it gladly. Gracefully as a bubble rising in the water, she walked beside the prince; and everyone who saw her wondered how she could walk so lightly.”
Is there a moment of walking more sublime than these first few graceful but extremely painful steps of the little mermaid who just sacrificed her fishtail and immortality for human form, mortality and love? If anything, here we have an origin story of the act of walking, and we learn from the story that walking is not a movement of ease, contemplation and solitude: walking is a movement of excruciating pains, a movement of longing (when she looked gently and sadly up at him) and a movement of human connection (when he holds her hand, him with princely indifference and her childlike intensity). Walking is constant falling – falling on the ground, falling in love.
I had known the story of the little mermaid since childhood, but these thoughts came to me only in a morning when I sat alone by the waves of Lake Ontario on an almost empty beach after futile attempts at swimming in the icy lake and after painful walks on the lakeshore pebbles. The escaping walk from water to decks over all those pebbles on barefoot, to my surprise, was almost as hard as surviving the cold water. I suddenly realized that Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the mermaid’s transformation is not mere fantasy: it is physical experience.
Such physical experience of pains comes from the clash of two worlds. Chilling water of the sea where mermaids and mermen swim freely is a forbidden space for humanity whereas humanity’s landmass is forbidden to those sea creatures. This is a beautiful separation and a beautiful symmetry, but under such symmetry there is lively continuity that generates pains: the sea roars, and the waves flushes to the shore. Walking on the shore on those pebbles, big or little, one is walking on a liminal space between the two worlds that are dangerously separated, dangerously continuous, and dangerously in love.
“Her sisters’ gardens were filled with all sorts of things that they collected from shipwrecks, but she had only a marble status of a boy in hers.”
The love story of the little mermaid blinds us from the fact that mermaids are no other than sirens. It is their singing that wrecked many a ship from which they acquired their collections. The Little Mermaid, upon inspection, is the story of Odysseus retold from the perspective of a siren – the little mermaid – who emerges from the sea and walks to Odysseus, now a prince in his castle. This fairy tale prince has no use of heroism as described by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno in The Dialectics of the Enlightenment:
“Like the heroes of all true novels later on, Odysseus loses himself in order to find himself; the estrangement from nature that he brings about is realized in the process of the abandonment to nature he contends with in each adventure; and ironically, when he, inexorable, returns home, the inexorable force he commands itself triumphs as the judge and avenger of the legacy of the powers from which he escaped.”
Odysseus’ heroism demonstrates reason’s courage to embrace the unreasonable. The moment when Odysseus had his sailors tie him to a mast so he could fully emerge himself in the ecstasy of sirens’ songs without irreversibly losing his rationality (and physical existence), Horkheimer and Adorno told us, was the beginning of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is not all about rationality. It is rationality immersed in irrationality.
Here there is an intriguing contradiction between expanse and depth. From the sea of irrationality, one sees spreading contour of the land of rationality. From the land of rationality, one sees unending waves of the sea of irrationality to the horizon. Their separation by the shore is clearly visible, but their seismic entanglement in the depth of the sea and in the depth of the land are not.
Do the pebbles under my bare feet translate such deep conflicts and struggles through the feeling of pain? Is it the pain that inspired sirens’ singing, or Odysseus’ adventure?
(From expanse to depth: a look at the sea/land dualism)
(Comparing two perceptions of duality: aerial view and side view)
When the sea quiets down, when the nature is harnessed by civilization, epics become fairy tales. Again, The Little Mermaid is the story of Odysseus written from the perspective of sirens, only this time Odysseus is no longer an adventurous hero but a charming prince who shaved his lumberjack beard, put on a wig and wears all the powders on his face, and who danced with the nameless girl with footsteps ever so light without knowing her pains. As such, the ambiguous hybridity of a siren or a mermaid has to be replaced by a definite form of humanity. The mythological origins of things must be concealed. And an Odysseus must sacrifices his primitive ecstasies for courtly music and the sound of chit-chat. The lightly graceful steps of the little mermaid and the hand of our late Odysseus – the prince – extends to her marks a sense of victory of the Enlightenment over nature as well as human nature. Physical pains on the tips of the little mermaid’s feet, after all, are not visible or audible. The key is to maintain the straight line of the walk, avoiding the verticality of falls – or transcendence. A sense of music turns into a sense of geometry. The waves of the sea turn into the pathways of the land.
Andersen published The Little Mermaid in 1837, tailing the turn of the century between 1700s and 1800s. Story-telling of total transformation reverses its direction seven decades later in the end of a second and most well-known fin-de-siècle period when Kafka’s Gregor Samsa woke up to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect in Metamorphosis (1915). If the little mermaid’s walking reverse Odysseus’ verticality – tied to a mast – into a straight horizontal line, Gregor Samsa’s crawling with his many feet return to the earlier verticality when he jumps from the ceiling to the floor.
(a vertical Odysseus)
“And without considering that he still was not familiar with how well he could move about in his present state, or that his speech still might not – or probably would not – be understood, he let go of the door; pushed himself through the opening; tried to reach the chief clerk on the landing who, ridiculously, was holding on to the banister with both hands; but Gregor fell immediately over and, with a little scream as he sought something to hold onto, landed on his numerous little legs. Hardly had that happened than, for the first time that day, he began to feel alright with his body; the little legs had the solid ground under them; to his pleasure, they did exactly as he told them; they were even making the effort to carry him where he wanted to go; and he was soon believing that all his sorrows would soon be finally at an end. He held back the urge to move but swayed from side to side as he crouched there on the floor.”
(Verticality at turn of the century)
Homer, Hans Christian Andersen and Kafka told the same story again and again: as mythology, as fairy tale, as novella. In the retelling, the physical movements of both Odysseus and sirens are constantly changing vertically as well as horizontally: if in The Little Mermaid our siren walks towards Odysseus and music, in Metamorphosis Odysseus – this time an anthropomorphic bug – walks towards the music played on violin by the siren – his sister Grete Samsa – in the living room. Unlike the original Odysseus, Gregor Samsa has no one to restrain him to a mast. Such freedom in the privacy of a bedroom turns out to be deadly when Gregor is not embraced by deadly passion of sirens but by deadly indifference of his sister:
“He soon made the discovery that he could no longer move at all. This was no surprise to him, it seemed rather that being able to actually move around on those spindly little legs until then was unnatural … He remained in this state of empty and peaceful rumination until he heard the clock tower strike three in the morning. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils.”
In all the three Odysseus stories, there are six key elements: walking, speech, music, pains, eroticism and hybridity. Those elements are expressed in different ways, and in every version, at least one of those elements is hidden in one way or another. Let’s review how the six elements are presented in the three versions.
The little mermaid’s maiden steps with which this little essay begins entails pains and eroticism, both invisible to the prince who can neither perceive her pains nor her love – he treated her as a child. The act of walking is also accompanied by the loss of speech. In Andersen’s original story, the price the little mermaid paid for acquiring human legs are her tongue which was cut off by the witch “so that she became dumb, and would never again speak or sing.” Here we have three characteristics of modern civilization: by silencing sirens’ music we protect ourselves from the dangerous enchantment; by denying the possibility of speech of the other, we control discourse; by recognizing her elegance while ignoring her pains and disfiguring), we turn the nature (and the “other”) primarily into a visual being that as separate from us as the sea separated from the land as perceived in a flat dualism in aerial view as opposed to a rhizome-like triadism from side view.
(dualism from the aerial view)
(triadism from the side view)
As a result, The Little Mermaid, a 19th-century story explicitly endorses horizontalism in its depiction of the sea creature acquiring walking legs – is also a story of rejecting the ambiguity and hybridity of a mermaid that is half human and half fish in favor of a definite form of a mortal human.
Such rejection of ambiguity, however, was undermined by the presence of music in the story: in the beginning of The Little Mermaid, mermen and mermaids danced “to the music of their own sweet singing” which “no one on earth has such a lovely voice as theirs” – and among those mermen and mermaids, our heroine “sang more sweetly than them all”. The mistake the little mermaid made is that she fell for the music from human’s side when in her first trip to the sea surface she “lied in the moonlight, on a sandbank … to listen to the sounds of music, the noise of carriages and the voices of human beings”. Music is the element that turns sirens into an adventurous Odysseus and turns Odysseus into a siren. Music mitigates the difference between nature and culture. Music brings back hybridity unsuspectingly.
From the perspective of traditional or Freudian literary analysis, music’s role in the Andersen story might be purely decorative and not nearly as substantial as the loss of tongue which some Freudians perceive as an expression of castration fear. Such oversight will not occur in any analysis of the story of Odysseus and sirens in which music’s role is overwhelming.
This is not to say there is nothing to hide in the original Odysseus. What is concealed here is the act of walking that is central to The Little Mermaid story. For Homer, the little mermaid’s light steps are described as a monumental voyage when the Odysseus’ ship sails through the sea where the sirens are singing. In such smooth movement of sailing on the surface of water, it can be discerned, Odysseus is actually turning into a swimming merman: the inevitable swaying and quivering of a walker becomes the almost flying-like exuberance. The key mechanism here is that of a hidden hybridity: by tying himself to the ship, Odysseus becomes a sea creature that is half human and half fish, or, half culture and half nature. And we know from the moment he is tied, his speech is not to be understood anymore – just like that of the little mermaid:
“But if you’re keen to hear them,
make your crew tie you down in your swift ship.
Stand there with hands and feet lashed to the mast.
They must attach the rope ends there as well.
Then you can hear both Sirens as they sing.
You’ll enjoy their song. If you start to beg
your men, or order them, to let you go,
make sure they lash you there with still more rope.”
The element of walking is reimagined as ship’s sailing, which is an hybrid of walking and swimming: the rationality has waves of irrationality under it; and the horizontally moving Odysseus in his hybridity with the tall standing mast acquires an aura of verticality. The pain of Odysseus is not mentioned. But the imagery of a man whose hands and feet are lashed to a standing wooden structure evokes a religious and historical scene appearing many centuries later. In that scene where such a structure is changed from moving on the sea to standing still on the land, pains and sufferings become everything.
Now let’s take a detour out of all three versions of Odysseus to where the three authors stand: we see interesting changes of narrative voices. In the original Odysseus as quoted above, we have explicit use of second person. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the unequivocal third person is used. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, however, is in essence written in first person despite its ostensible third person voice.
Pain as a mythological element and myth’s narrative voice or point of view mitigates each other: the more ambiguous of a viewpoint is, the clearer the depiction of pain is. This mental configuration of ambiguity is deeply related to the physical configuration of hybridity, both are subject to two different analysis as shown in the previous diagrams: the aerial view of dualism and the side view of triadism.
In the three versions of Odysseus, there are three degrees of hybridity: nonhuman (such as Gregor Samsa as an unambiguous bug), human-nonhuman hybridity (such as mermaids, or, Odysseus’ hybridization with the ship mast), and human (as the little mermaid after her acquisition of legs). This triad itself is a dualism of the ambiguous and the unambiguous. Humans and nonhumans on the two ends of the spectrum are unambiguous beings while everything in between, including mermaid, belong to the ambiguous. It’s noteworthy that unlike other dualisms, the binary ambiguity and unambiguity are continuous: the change from unambiguity to ambiguity is itself ambiguous and often not discernable.
Such binary opposition with three parts, or, triadic dualism, is what in the relationship between pains and narrative voice: in the third person narrative (The Little Mermaid) and the first person narrative (Metamorphosis), pains are most clearly discerned and spoken of. But in the second person narrative (Odysseus) when the spoken voice is dialogical, the pain is somehow mitigated, giving way temporally to the pleasure of music. Both little mermaid and Gregor Samsa live in a terrifying state of solitude and loneliness: for little mermaid, such terror comes from the fact that no one knows she is not truly a human being; for Gregor Samsa, that no one knows that he is. By contrast, the ancient epic is full of dialogues. Narrative voice, as meta-speech to a story, brings truth and pains together or apart.
Five of the six elements in the three versions of Odysseus can also be summarized in this table:
(Click for clearer table)
A sixth element, eroticism, is framed differently in three versions: in the original Odysseus, it is unequivocally erotic and its danger is explicitly identified; in The Little Mermaid, it is re-framed as romantic love; in Metamorphosis – if we discount the incest theory – such love becomes more universal and humane.
To conclude, we have such a tentative theorem: The act of walking is an horizontal and Enlightened translation of the verticality of mythology. Such translation is subject to the rule of triadic dualism, or the concentric dualism in which 2 and 3 conflate (see the diagram below). Such conflation is accompanied by both physical hybridity and mental ambiguity. Both physical hybridity and mental ambiguity are expressed in the idea of the individual and the collective in which the changing perspective and dialogues occur.
(In a concentric circle such as this, there are two circles but three segments: the external, the peripheral and the core)
Such concentric circle, for the purpose of this essay, can be translated into a diagram of six hexagons:
Such analysis and diagram will inevitably be viewed as contrived, unless we take into the account that they are not merely derived from texts themselves but from simple and highly personal physical experiences, such as when I was walking painfully and slowly on the pebbles by the Lake Ontario. The six analytical elements were put together by a particular physical movement at a particular moment at a particular place. This multitude of particularities was underwritten by mythology such as the three versions of Odysseus.
Of all the six elements the act of walking has no doubt the primary importance: it is walking that unites time, space, physicality, personal thoughts and mythology all at once. Walking upstanding but horizontally, the first physical sign of humanity occurred more than four million years ago, is not only evolutionarily and anthropologically profound but also philosophically rich. The trail of footprints early hominins left on the vast savannah in East Africa is the first philosophers’ walk. Following this train of thought, we will find endless variations that I predict will encompass the entire structure of human thoughts – at least this was how I wished when I was walking painfully on the pebbles by lakeshore and contemplates the fictional walk of the little mermaid. Before I have the chance to push more rigorous formal analysis, I probably need to return to more focused study of a particular text or a situation. Please allow me to begin with Jean Renoir’s 1951 film, The River.
Of all arts, cinema has the most explicit relationship with the act of walking. A narrative film can be tentatively defined as a sequence of different characters walking on a two-dimensional surface either simultaneously or alternatively with a certain duration. In rare cases, such “walking” is confined to that of one single character. In even rarer cases, the sequence has only one segment or “take”, as in Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. The analysis of such special cases often reveals to us the fundamentally philosophical nature of filmmaking which is made explicit by the virtuosity of a particular filmmaker such as Sokurov’s use of single-take technique. Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, The River, however, achieves a philosophical height by applying more conventional cinematic techniques.
The River is an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel of the same name. It focuses on three young English women living in colonial India and their infatuation with a melancholy young man visiting from America. The coming-of-age story is melodramatic with popular appeal. The setting of colonial India in the early 20th century is often orientalist, especially when India’s “timelessness” is constantly evoked. It is the film’s structural complexity combined with its exquisite ethnographic sensibility that bestows profundity upon conventional materials suitable for a Hollywood production.
The story is told from the perspective of the teenage girl Harriet, Rumer Godden’s alter-ego. Her father is the manager of a British-owned jute mill, a sweatshop employing many native laborers. Living in an upper middle-class English idleness with her mother, five sisters, a younger brother and an Indian nanny, her daily routine includes spending time in her own “secret closet” writing diary and playdates with the family friends Valerie, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and Melanie, the Indo-English mixed daughter of a relatively poor English settler. The idleness, associated with young girls’ adolescent innocence, is disturbed by the visit of a charming but melancholy young man, Captain John, who as the girls soon discovered lost a leg in an unknown war and walks with a slight limp on a false leg. The young women from this three English families all respond to the young man with intense interest but in different ways. The red-haired Valerie is the oldest and ferocious in her pursuit of Captain John who returns the passion with frustration. The mixed Melanie, played by Indian classical dancer and theosophist Radha Burnier (who is in fact fully Indian), in her tender sympathy for Captain John is fully aware of the cultural gap between them – the subdued love and deep understanding between her and Captain John is one of the high points of the film. The innocent love our teenage protagonist Harriet for Captain John carries the film’s narrative forward.
Such a plot seems to have been directly lifted from Jane Austen, only Jean Renoir gave the story an open ending when none of the girls eventually married Captain John. Such openness is enabled by the inherent hybridity of the film: despite being melodrama, The River was shot on location in India and uses extensive ethnographic footages. Such hybridity creates and ambiguity and openness matching the relocation and re-scaling of an Austen vehicle to the edge between the modern and the traditional, the West and the East. Such hybridity and ambiguity also come from the filmmaker Renoir’s unique French sensibility that evokes a fin-de-siècle milieu. Such evocation can be detected in the formalism the film adheres to under the disguise of an English narrative. The analysis of this film echoes the previous analysis of Odysseus, The Little Mermaid and Metamorphosis and their six key elements: walk, speech, music, pains, eroticism and hybridity.
The formalism the film adheres to is made visually clear in the opening scene of the film:
The symbolic meaning of a concentric circle is discussed in my short paper on Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. It will be developed in my coming paper Anthropology and Diagram. In the above sequence I will only draw readers’ attention to the network relationship between the closed concentric circle in the center of the image and spirals on its periphery which is its development. The former suggests perfection and the latter suggests ambiguity, hybridity and openness. This dualism is connected by curved rhizome-like lines.
The scene is immediately cut into the Ganges where native men are making their livings on boat:
Renoir is famous for his use of ethnographic footages in this melodramatic film, which is shot on location in India. Achieving the same level of dramatic lucidity as his earlier masterpiece The Rules of the Game, a comedy of manners, he nevertheless rendered symbolic dualism clear in this film – almost to the degree of cruelty: the river is strictly associated with the natives while the English drama of the film is carried out almost entirely on land in the guarded garden. Such demarcation is broken twice in the film by two children: Harriet’s young brother who will die in the wild woods outside the English garden in his imitation of copra charming, and Harriet herself who will run away to the river after her brother’s death where she will experience her first kiss from Captain John when he came to rescue.
Like the little mermaid’s painful walks, Captain John’s hidden limp is the gravity center of the film. Often seen sitting down, he never rejects a dance invitation and tries to dance as gracefully as he could. Such coolness is only lost when Valerie taunts him by forcing him to play flying disc.
The binary river and land opposition in the film’s spatial layout is symbolic and ethnographic. It, however, is not historic if we consider the British Empire being a sea-faring one. Captain John’s limp, on the other hand, is not only symbolic and ethnographic, it is only historical.
It is noteworthy that the filmmaker never relates in the film in which war Captain John, an American, lost his leg. The fact that the male protagonist is an American probably comes from commercial considerations (Jean Renoir had been working in Hollywood until this film). The setting of the film in British India, however, suggests the war is the Frist World War in which Americans have actually less participation but profound to the French intellectual life.
(French WWI veterans in hybridity)
John: “I’m going anyway … “
Melanie: “Where are you going?”
John: “Any place … from China to Peru.”
Melanie: “It makes no difference?”
John: “No. It’s the same story everywhere … I’m a stranger! You know what that means, a stranger?!”
(Melanie sits down)
John: “I refused to be bound by this (he pats his false leg). I’m a normal man in any country.”
(Melanie looks at John intensely and solemnly):
“Where will you find a country of one-legged men?”
(Melanie lowers her head):
“It’s not you whom I don’t like.”
The hybridity of Captain John, physically in his prosthetics and spiritually in his quest for the meaning of life and love around the world, echoes the hybridity of Melanie who both physically and mentally embodies an Indian modernity. She is one of the river mermaids walks onto the land of a modern India. Often in her speechlessness, she questions her hybridity and ambiguity. The way she looks at Captain John is the way the little mermaid looks at the prince, only she understands that Captain John is as much an hybrid as her. History of the other meets history of the imperial self in unconsumed eroticism between the two.
The subdued love between Captain John and Melanie, central to the spirit of the film, is only a passing event in the “body” or the narrative of the film. Similarly, Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to Dance which implies young women’s infatuation with Captain John and appears throughout the film (see the clip above), is only interrupted once by a stunning sequence of the classical Indian dance about the Goddess Lady Radha’s devotion to Lord Krishna as performed by Melanie in a story. The sequence appears in the film as a story – written by the young Harriet and read to Captain John – within the story.
The ambiguity and hybridity created in the details of the film are supported by its formal rigor, in particular its shifting and consolidating perspectives. In the mythological dance sequence related above Melanie’s spiritual alliance is revealed. The mythology, however, is re-framed as a fairy tale written by a teenage girl.
In a more stunning sequence – which is probably the most philosophically rich sequence in the entire history of cinema – we see the characters walking across the landscape, alternatingly following each other, and eventually “becoming” each other. It’s when temporality and spatiality achieve the highest degree of consolidation. The music used in the sequence, fittingly, is alternatively Indian classical music with its intensity and Invitation to Dance with its airy lightness. In under just five minutes, the erotic tension brought on by this walking of the four characters reach its climax and relief – eventually, it declares the end of the age of innocence.
(Melanie suddenly stands up and leaves Captain John)
(Harriet is watching Melanie while Valerie is watching both Harriet and Melanie from behind the wall)
(Melanie is followed by Captain John who is followed by Harriet who is followed by Valerie)
(Half way through, Valerie is followed by a hidden Harriet)
(Captain John follows and eventually lose Melanie)
(They passionately embrace each other …)
(…while Melanie and Harriet watch together from behind)
(Harriet to herself: “The kiss on those lips fascinated and terrified me. It was my first kiss – received by another person.”)
(Captain John: “Don’t cry. I’m going but I’m coming back.”)
(Valerie: “I’m crying not because you are going. I’m crying because it is going … it was a dream, but you make it real.”)
The entire scene, symmetrical to the veranda scene earlier above, is here in its entirety:
The end of youth is framed in a circular way by three young women of different ages, different characters and different cultural inclinations walking alternatively in the garden until they meet this end. But that mystic “it” is passing around them like the changing center of an extended concentric circle: it looks solid yet it is ultimately empty. It is here with the self yet it eventually spirals away. The film ends with a death and a birth: the tragic death of Harriet’s young brother whose body lying in beautiful sunshine in utter calmness and sweetness without any trace of pain and without ever knowing the agony of being an adult; and the birth of her baby sister in mother’s agony. The film, which tells the story of these young women in the duration of one year, achieves the full circle of life here.
This sprawling essay begins with my physical experience of walking on the pebbles of lakeshore beaches which prompted a sudden understanding of the story of The Little Mermaid in my pains. It looks into the erotically painful nature of the act of walking with its philosophical and anthropological nuances. I used six keywords to summarize this momentary thinking: walking, speech, music, pains, eroticism and hybridity. Like an imagined hexagonal tent that attempts to shade everything on the beaches, this six keywords are used by me to analyse totalities including the artificial totality of great piece of art work such as Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The River. Such effervescent but unstable sensibility, there is no doubt, must in the future gives way to rigorous formal analysis as done by Claude Levi-Strauss or in the concrete engagement with the world beyond arts as many great philosophers, anthropologists, engineers and information specialists have been doing and are doing.
Jean Renoir The River (1951) Full Film