Pebbles and Waves




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:

017 018 019

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:

020 021

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.

023 024 025 026 027 028

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)

 His physical limitation is contrasted in the film by the fact that he is a restless global wanderer, a fact revealed in a subdued love scene with Melanie:




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?”


John: “It’s not only that … I think and think and can never stop … I thought you didn’t like me …”036

(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)


                                              (Valerie catches up with Captain John)                                                                                                                     043

(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.”)

046 047

(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


Sapiens, Crude and Refined


In the lounge of Kelly Library of St. Michael’s College where I spent a few hours every Tuesday afternoon before the Theories of Nature and Society seminar, there was a table in the back full of old books discarded by the library. Hardcovers were for sale for $1 each and softcovers could be as cheap as a quarter each. One afternoon I found a whole set of Encyclopaedia Britannica with all its pages as white as new and its leather jackets as soft and smooth. I flipped through the volumes and felt a tinge of sorrow for the encyclopaedia. The back lounge by the side of washrooms seemed to be where the once definite reference to total knowledge lost its authority.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has ceased printed version since 2012 and focused its attention solely on the internet version which is available for subscription for about $100 a year. The digital version, which used to be a clean and solemn counterpart of its authoritative print version, has since tried very hard to be playful. Every entry is accompanied by many colorful pictures, quizzes, games  and yellow bubbles which allow users to make comments (not many users have made comments however). By contrast, the simple design of Wikipedia has more dignity and seriousness with its emphasis on thoroughly documented collaborative effort of authoring.

We probably shall never judge a book by its cover. But there is no denying that just like the appearances of a person, the physical beauty of a book inspires curiosity or even admiration. The title of a book, like the eyes of a person, is the central part of a book’s physical beauty.

That’s why  I held Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, published in English just last month, with trembling hands that were touching its hardcover with sensual pleasure. It’s is not a pictorial book belonging to the fine arts category but the entire book is printed on thick white papers as if every page is an illustration. The title of the book is not only simple to the extreme but also audacious to the extreme: Sapiens.

I must admit that my trembling hands not only betrayed my excitement but also a touch of envy. Who is this Yuval Noah Harari? What gives him authority to write a book with such a title?

A simple Google Scholar search gave his academic writings in different peer-reviewed journals. It’s the difference between the first two journals “sorted by relevance” by Google Scholar that aroused my interest: War in History where Harari published Military Memoirs: A Historical Overview of the Genre from the Middle Ages to the Late Modern Era in 2007 and Review of General Psychology where Harari published Combat Flow: Military, Political, and Ethical Dimensions of Subjective Well-Being in War in 2008. In one-year span, Harari transited from military history for which he had been awarded PhD to psychology. From then on, he moved further form his home turf of medieval Europe and crusades to what is called “macro-history”. In 2011, the Hebrew edition of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published. The English version was published in this June and soon arrived in New York Times Bestseller list.

Harari’s CV shows that between traditional historiography and “macro-history” there is general psychology. Sapiens, meanwhile, begins with a part entitled The Cognitive Revolution. Its materials seemed to have been lifted from introductory physical anthropology and archaeology textbooks. The punch line of the chapter is “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology” (page 37). The point Harari tried to make, however, is not the mutual independence of history and biology but their continuity. Anthropology furnishes such view of continuity with materials. Psychology and cognitive sciences, meanwhile, is a quick route from multitudes of contingent evidence – exploding in the landscape of contemporary media – to the depth of archaic history.


Such quick transitions between contemporary news items to deep history, often crudely but beautifully presented, spread throughout the book which moves from cognitive revolution the agricultural revolution and to the scientific revolution. The book has a vision, but no rigorous scholarship and the style of writing is ultimately vulgar. For example, the section on the importance of trade in the ancient world ends with this sentence: “Osama Bin Laden, for all his hatred of American culture, American religion and American politics, was very fond of American dollars.” (page 172) and a portrait of the Pope is used to make the point that abstinence is what alpha male chooses in culture as opposed to in nature where “chimpanzee alpha males use their power to have sex with as many females as possible.” This is vulgar anthropology.


With my trembling hands, I know that even in such crudeness there is something deeply touching as if one heard such unanswerable questions being asked: “Where is the end of the universe? Why are we living on earth?”. Sometimes an idea rushed under our eyes by the author is even inspired and inspiring, such as his novel use of the concept of “intelligent design” which refers not to a (false) process paralleling Darwinian evolution but a process after Darwinian evolution. In fact, Harari refers to the trendy topics of posthumanism without actually uses the word. Instead, he either by carelessness or by design chooses a much maligned concept long considered to be anti-Darwinian.


Hariri’s so-called historiography is nothing less than a chronological presentation of different spheres of knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology to anthropology to historiography to the history of ideas and finally to the new design paradigm. In such popular writings, not just in Harari’s book, we encounter a desire for total knowledge disguised as total history.  But if such a book needs to be written, it should be written by a properly trained anthropologist. Only very few anthropologists, however, care for such popular fame wrapped in gilded books with beautiful bindings. Very few anthropologists care for a thundering title such as Sapiens, or The End of History, or Clashes of Civilizations. The closest thing to popular writing would be something like Imagined Community, which, I believe, has its share of crudeness.  

Are we on the edge of returning to the last fin-de-siècle between 1800s and 1900s when the quest of total knowledge and total history was embodied not only in widely popular works from H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History but also in the vast literature produced by anthropologists from James Frazer and E. B. Tylor to Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Such volumes are not only distinguished by their ambitious scope but also by their refined sensibilities and refined style, both missing from Harari’s Sapiens. But we shall not object to a young scholar – wherever he came from – to walk towards that direction. We – at least some of us – probably shall leave our fields for the moment and join his walks towards a new epistemic horizon.

“A Chivalrous Lady”, Inter-Annotation and Intertextuality



(Xia Nu 俠女 from Pu Songling 蒲松齡 Strange Tales from a Scholar’s Studio 聊齋誌異 Shanghai Classical Press 上海古籍出版社 1986 “Compound Annotation and Commentary Edition” – Click to examine the visual aspect of the text in detail.)


xianv 2

(Herbert A. Giles 1880 English Translation, donated to Internet Archive by University of Toronto Robarts Library)


(Martin Buber 1916 German Translation)

(“A Touch of Zen”, King Hu’s 1960s free adaptation of the original short story)

侃皮札記 (A Chinese translation of Susan Sontag Notes on Camp)

(1961) Against Interpretation




 世上的許多事物從未被賦予名稱。許多有名稱的事物又從未被詳加描述。時髦語彙中的所謂“侃皮”(Camp ,見文末譯者題解)情趣就是如此:它無可置疑地産生於當代。人們常用它來指稱某種品味上的成熟,然而它卻又與一般的所謂成熟品味不盡相同。

 與觀念不同,趣味是最難以討論的事物之一。但是人們之所以對“侃皮”的趣味諱而不談卻又另有原因:“侃皮”決非一種自然而然的情趣(如果說有這種東西的話),相反,它在本質上就是對不自然事物的愛好  對奇詭和誇張造作的事物,它格外欣賞。更有甚者,它具有秘教特徵  連都市小衆相聚,也要以之爲接頭隱語和識別同仁的標識。除了衣修午德(Christopher Isherwood)在他的小說《夜晚的世界》(The World in the Evening) 裏曾以兩頁的篇幅略加敍述外, 很難在其他出版物中找到對“侃皮”的討論。事實上,要談論“侃皮”就不得不違反它的秘密特性  只有當能有所教益,或能解決某些使人困惑的矛盾時,這麽做才值得。我對自己撰寫此文的辯詞,首先是自我啓蒙,其次還在於解決自己意識深處的尖銳矛盾:我深受侃皮之美吸引,卻又同樣強烈地對之感到厭惡。這就是爲何我有談論它的需要,也是爲何我有談論它的資格  那些全心全意、全盤照收侃皮趣味的人不可能對之作出分析,而只能有意無意地在自己身上展示出它的影響。那些在感動之餘,又深爲侃皮之美冒犯的人,卻可對它指手劃腳,勾勒出它的來龍去脈。

 儘管這裏我要講述的無非只是情趣問題  而且還是一種常刻意以輕佻態度對待嚴肅事物的情趣  我必須指出,這些問題其實極爲深刻重要。多數人認爲各人情趣之不同全出主觀愛好,理性與那種種神秘吸引力並無關係 (何況這種吸引力常是感官性的)。在待人接物時,在欣賞藝術作品時,他們都表現出這種對趣味問題漫不經心的態度,卻沒想到這實際上很天真  或更糟:看輕人的情趣就是看輕人自己,因爲,除純粹的機械反應外,人對周遭事物的所有自主反應都受他趣味的控制。可以說,沒有什麽比情趣問題更具決定性作用的了。我們在人際交往中的好惡取捨、我們對物品的視覺欣賞、我們對自己心態行止的感受和對善惡的判斷,都受個人趣味影響。才智實際上是也是趣味  對觀念的趣味。(必須指出,趣味的發展往往不平衡:比如,藝術品味高尚而又擅長擇友且思想深刻的人極爲罕見)


 如果一個人不得不用語言來說明感性問題  尤其是說明當代的一種生動有力的感性  他就必須靈活而有所保留(見作者原注一) 。劄記的寫作形式因此較之線性論證的論說文,更能捕捉這種難以言傳的內在意味。而且,長篇大論、有板有眼地談論它只能讓人感到臉紅,而且弄不好作者本人就會親手炮製一篇不甚高明的侃皮風格文章。




1. 總的說來,侃皮是唯美主義的一種:它把世界當作純粹審美物件來看待,但它所關注的,並非美本身,而是創作者技巧的精妙和風格的獨特。

2. 強調風格就必須忽略內容,或至少對之採取中立態度。很明顯,唯美的侃皮具有超然性。它有意避回避政治問題  或至少對政治意義擺出漠然的姿態。

3. 侃皮並不只是一種主觀態度  一種看待事物的方法 它同時還客觀存在於藝術作品和人類行爲本身之中,因此才有所謂“侃皮”的電影、服裝、家具、流行歌曲、小說、人物和建築。 上述區別很重要,因爲儘管我們能“侃皮地”看待一些東西,但並非所有事物都可被視爲侃皮,這還取決於事物本身有否相關特性。

4. 以下是信手拈來的一些經典侃皮藝術和工藝品: 

小說《朱萊卡.多蔔生》(Zuleika Dobson)

第凡尼燈具(Tiffany lamps)

專爲自動電影點播機拍攝的影片(Scopitone films)

洛杉磯日落大道上的布朗德比飯店(The Brown Derby restaurant)

《問詢者報》(The Enquirer)的標題和內文;

比德斯利(Aubrey Beardsley)的素描;

《天鵝湖》(Swan Lake)


維斯康蒂 (Visconti)導演的《莎樂美》(Salome)和《惜爲風塵女》(‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore)


舒得賽克導演的《金剛》( King Kong)

古巴流行歌手陸普(La Lupe)

林恩沃德(Lynn Ward)的木刻畫小說《上帝的選民》(God’s Man)

舊的戈登(Flash Gordon)漫畫;


費班克(Ronald Firbank)和康頓班內特(Ivy Compton-



5. 侃皮趣味在一些藝術形式中的表現特別突出。侃皮作品中的一大部分是服裝、家具和室內裝飾  侃皮藝術常是裝飾性藝術,它強調線條之悅目、外表之動人和風格之華麗,而對實質內容有所忽略。但是抽象的嚴肅音樂卻又很難具備侃皮之風,因爲藝術家無法把粗拙或過火的內容和意味豐富的形式加以對照。與此同時,一些藝術形式天然具備侃皮風。古典芭蕾、歌劇、電影這幾門藝術有此特點,已早爲人所知。這兩年來,流行音樂(後搖滾樂 法國人所謂的“耶耶”)亦入此道。影評(如“我看過的10部最佳電影”之類)則可能是傳佈侃皮趣味的最有力工具:人們畢竟還能毫不做作、興致勃勃前往電影院看電影!

6. 所謂“那東西太上檔次(或‘太重要’)了,不夠邊緣化,所以不可能真有‘侃皮’之風”的說法多少是有些道理的  我將在後文中再加說明。不管怎樣,科克多(Jean Cocteau )其人和他的不少作品都是道地侃皮,安德烈紀德(Andre Gide)的卻不是;理查斯特勞斯(Richard Strauss)的歌劇是,瓦格納(Richard Wagner)的卻不是;紐約叮噹巷(Tin Pan Alley)和利物浦的雜燴音樂是,爵士樂就不是。許多可列舉爲侃皮藝術品的東西,從“嚴肅”的審美角度來看,只是不高明的藝術,或是附庸風雅的俗物…… 雖然,此事不可一概而論:一些藝術作品儘管具有侃風,或不妨用侃皮審美眼光來加以欣賞 如路易費雅德(Louis Feuillade)導演的影片,但它們同時值得最嚴肅的敬仰和研究。


–  王爾德:《謊言的衰退》

 7. 侃皮物品和侃皮人物有精心修飾的痕迹。自然界的東西則不可能天生具有侃風…… 連所謂“鄉村侃皮”也是人工巧藝的産物  實際上,侃皮多産生於城市中。(可是它們又往往具有鄉村的安詳質樸氣質,同所謂田園詩格調相當。許多侃皮物品都呼應燕蔔蓀(William Empson)所謂的“都市牧歌”。)

 8.  侃皮從純粹風格的角度觀察世界。必須指出,侃皮看重的是一種特殊的風格,即對誇張、過火和角色客串的強調。最佳的例子就是所謂的“新藝術”(Art Nouveau)。“新藝術”具有最爲典型和成熟的侃皮風格。這種藝術往往把一件東西扮成另一件東西的樣子。比如,裝飾成鮮花怒放植株的燈飾和宛如岩洞的客廳,等等。一個出色的例子:埃克多吉瑪(Hector Guimard)1890年將巴黎地鐵入口處設計成鑄鐵蘭枝形。

9.  以侃皮眼光品鑒人物,正常個性中某些因素的過火和不足,都會受到賞識。因此,半男半女的儀態是極具代表性的侃皮風格。比如:拉菲爾前派(pre-Raphaelite) 繪畫和詩歌中那些體態苗條、矯揉造作、故作傷感的人物;“新藝術”燈飾和煙灰缸上凸刻的畫片和海報中那些細瘦、飄搖、難辨男女的人體;嘉寶(Greta Garbo)那令人難忘的頗帶陽剛之氣的空洞美。這裏,侃皮風充分利用了一種沒有引起普遍重視的真理:最成熟最完美的性感(連同最成熟最完美的性快樂)源自與自身性別的悖反。 雄健男子性格中的女性氣質令人感動,而娥娜多姿的美麗女子如帶男子氣,就更是美不勝收。乍看正好相反,實則如出一轍的侃皮作風,是將性別特徵和造作個人風格誇張。此類案例,很明顯,多數取自電影明星:如詹妮曼淑菲爾(Jayne Mansfield)、吉娜羅洛布裏奇達(Gina Lollobrigida)、簡羅素(Jane Russell)和弗吉妮亞馬約(Virginia Mayo)用做作的華麗和傷感來凸顯自己的女人味。史蒂夫裏弗斯(Steve Reeves)和維克多馬楚(Victor Mature)誇張的男子氣等等。還有就是在性格表現和儀態舉止方面風味與衆不同的貝蒂戴維斯(Bette Davis)、芭芭拉斯坦維克( Barbara Stanwyck)、塔魯拉班克海(Tallulah Bankhead)和愛德維奇費裏埃(Edwige Feuilliere)等。


 11. 侃皮是中性風格的勝利  在這種美學觀的審視下,“男”與“女”、“人”與“物”可彼此轉換。其實“風格”必然爲人工造作而成,因而歸根結底也不能不是中性的。人生和自然本身則無“風格”可言。

12.該問的問題並非:“爲何會有這種種矯情、造作和誇張?”該問的是:“爲何這一切竟散發著侃皮之美?”爲何莎士比亞的喜劇(《皆大歡喜》等)並無亦陰亦陽的氣息,而《玫瑰騎士》(Der Rosenkavalier) 卻有?

 13.十八世紀似乎是一個歷史分界線。我們可以在這個世紀的趣味中發現侃皮的雛形,如哥特式小說、“中國風”、諷刺畫、仿造的名勝古迹等等。但我們必須留意,那個時代人和自然的關係與現在頗爲不同。十八世紀的名士或者往就自然(如華爾浦爾(Horace Walpole)的草莓山莊),或將自然修修剪剪,令其人工化(如凡爾賽宮)。對古風,那時的人不遺餘力、亦步亦趨。相形之下,當代的侃皮風格情形就十分不同:自然或被嗤之以鼻,不管不顧,或索性被露骨的不自然所代替。對已逝去的時光,侃皮名士則極易憑感情用事。

 14. 當然,一部袖珍侃皮風格史大概可以從更早時代寫起:例如,樣式主義(Mannerism)大師蓬托爾莫(Pontormo)、囉索(Rosso)和卡拉瓦喬(Caravaggio),或是拉圖爾(Georges de La Tour)極具戲劇性的畫作,或是文學中的尤弗伊斯體(Euphuism)(黎裏等人是這種體裁文學的代表)。話雖這麽說,可靠的做法是把侃皮史的起點定在十七世紀晚期至十八世紀早期。那個歷史階段的人們深受精工修飾、華美外表、對稱美、悠遠的田園風光和驚險刺激的吸引。而那時的文學藝術已經形成傳統,即使在藝術或人生中表達情感衝動時,也要做到高雅而不失個性 比如說,短語警句和押韻對偶句式的談吐,誇張矯柔的儀態和音樂等等。這一歷史時期可謂侃皮之風的中盛期:蒲柏(Pope)、康格裏夫(Congreve)、華爾浦爾(Walpole),但斯威夫特(Swift)不在其列;法國的矯飾文學(les precieux)、慕尼黑的羅可可風格教堂;佩爾戈萊西(Pergolesi)和稍後莫札特(Mozart)的大部分作品。 然而到了十九世紀,原先在高雅藝術中通行的審美情趣成了一種特殊品味;它具備了某種孤僻、神秘乃至怪異的意味。只需就英格蘭一處看,侃皮風在十九世紀只陷於唯美主義之一隅 如伯恩瓊斯(Burne -Jones)、佩特(Pater)、羅斯金(Ruskin)、丁尼生(Tennyson)— 直到視覺和裝飾藝術中“新藝術”運動興起時,侃皮才在視覺和裝飾藝術中大放光彩,隨後在王爾德和費班克這樣噱頭十足的士人中找到理論家。

 15. 當然,侃皮未必是上述所說藝術現象唯一具有的特性。以“新藝術運動”爲例,一旦將之仔細分析,人們就不會把它和“侃皮”等量齊觀。但我們在作這樣的分析時,切不可忽視這一事實:即“新藝術運動”放任人們用“侃皮”美學來體驗其藝術。一方面,“新藝術”風格作品的具體內容很充實,甚至富含政治和道德意味  作爲一次革命性的藝術運動,它受到一種介於威廉莫裏斯(William Morris)和包豪斯團體(Bauhaus group)間的烏托邦理想的激勵,期望實現政治和審美的有機結合。與此同時,它又具備超脫、遊戲人生和唯美的特徵。這種兩重性在向我們揭示“新藝術”自身重要特性的同時,也揭示出“侃皮” 作爲將作品具體內容“過濾”掉的審美手段  的特點。

 16. 故而,那些能挖掘出兩重意義的事物,特別適合侃皮口味。然而這不是我們所熟悉的那種從字面意義和象徵意義對事物進行的雙重體味,而是把事物作爲有意義  任何意義  物件和純粹形式間的雙重欣賞。

 17. 這一點在人們口語中把侃皮用作一個動詞時,顯得格外明顯。侃皮作爲一種行爲,意味著作出模棱兩可、矯柔造作的誇張舉止和誘惑人的姿態;侃皮手勢總是十分曖昧,“圈內人”從中領會其含蓄意義,“圈外人”也能作出另一種較爲泛泛的詮釋。當這個從形容詞而來的動詞進一步變爲名詞(如說某人或某物是一個“侃皮”) 時,這種兩重性不但有所保留,而且有所發展。在有板有眼的公開意義以外,有心人還能體會到被指稱之物的特殊風趣。



 18. 我們必須對不自覺的侃皮和刻意做作出的侃皮作出區分。純侃皮風格總是在不經意中獲得的,而那些自知侃皮而有意爲之的(所謂“來侃皮一下!”),一般不那麽令人暢意。

 19. 最純粹的侃皮藝術是那些最嚴肅的藝術家在無意間創作出來的。那用蛇把燈飾盤繞起來作爲裝點的“新藝術”派藝人並非在開玩笑,也並非故意要以此取悅他人。他想借此熱誠表達的意思是:“看哪,這就是東方!”真正的侃皮不是刻意作出滑稽古怪的樣子。比如說,三十年代初華納公司歌舞片(如《第四十二街》、《淘金者》等等) 中巴士比伯克萊(Busby Berkeley)作的歌舞段落就是如此 而諾爾考沃德(Noel Coward)的劇本就正相反:它們故作侃皮。爲什麽歌劇的經典劇目往往具有如此令人滿意的侃皮風格?因爲揮筆按那些荒誕不經情節譜曲的作曲家們都把它們當真。我們毋須考察這些作曲家們具體的創作動機,作品本身就能說明一切。(把巴伯(Samuel Barber)的歌劇《凡妮莎》和一出十九世紀的經典歌劇加以比較,就可看出,前者的侃皮系刻意爲之,炮製痕迹凸顯,後者卻不然)

 20. 炮製侃皮的企圖也許總會對作品造成損害。《天堂之亂》(Trouble in Paradise )和《馬爾他之鷹》(The Maltese Falcon)之所以位居最完美的侃皮影片之列,和它們自始至終輕鬆自如的情調有關。而類似《夏娃逸事》(All About Eve )和《擊退魔鬼》(Beat the Devil)這些稍後攝製的電影在侃皮之醇厚程度上就差了一截  前者有些太自作聰明,後者則太瘋瘋顛顛  它們太想作出侃皮之態,結果手忙腳亂、弄巧成拙。我想,造成這種現象的內在機理還不全在是否有意爲之,而更在於侃皮風味中極其微妙、難以把握的嘲諷和自嘲的界限。希區柯克的作品就是說明這一點的最好例證。他一些影片中的自嘲不具應有的忱摯感情,卻不時流露出對自身主題和素材的輕視,其結果是,影片最終顯得勉強笨拙而很少有侃皮氛圍  《捉賊》(To Catch a Thief)、《後窗》(Rear Window)、《西北以西》(North by Northwest)幾片都是如此。另一方面,加內(Carne)《奇怪,真是奇怪!》(Drole de drame)、梅韋斯特(Mae West )和愛德華霍頓(Edward Everett Horton)在銀幕上的表演和部分“愚公秀”(Goon Show),都有上佳侃皮風味,哪怕是他們作品和表演中的自嘲,也散發著深深的自愛。

 21. 再強調一下:侃皮風味的高下有賴天真無邪的程度。這句話又可作以下理解:侃皮揭示出天真,同時,如果有可能的話,它還進一步要腐化天真。這主要就被認爲侃皮的人而言  因爲物品,無論它們受到侃皮之眼青睞與否,其自身性質不會發生變化。身具侃皮風格的人就不同了,一旦意識到觀衆喜歡自己的侃風,他們就會招搖過市,開始“侃皮侃皮!”了。梅韋斯特、比莉莉(Bea Lillie)、陸普、《救生艇》( Lifeboat)中的塔魯拉班克海(Tallulah Bankhead)、《夏娃逸事》中的貝蒂戴維斯等都屬此例。(順便說下,有些人還會懵懵懂懂被拉下水,變成侃皮典型。比如,費裏尼(Fellini)在拍《甜蜜的生活》(La Dolce Vita) 時就對愛克柏(Anita Ekberg)做了手腳)

 22. 如果我們不採取那麽嚴格的標準的話,可以說,上好侃皮要麽徹頭徹尾出自天然,要麽完完全全是有自覺意識的(此時其人半真半假的“侃皮侃皮”)。王爾德的箴言就屬此例。



 23. 純粹的侃皮(或說純真的侃皮) 中最要緊的因素是它的嚴肅性 一種失敗的嚴肅性。當然並非所有嚴肅而失敗的東西都侃皮:只有那些把誇張、奇想、熱情和天真恰到好處結合起來的才是。

 24. 有些作品只能被視爲差勁而非侃皮的原因在於,它們從一開始就不夠野心勃勃,沒有向真正異乎尋常境界邁進的勇氣 (相形之下,“那可真是過分!”、“太妙了!”、“真不可思議!”等等,則是表達侃皮激情的標準用語)

 25. 華麗而誇張正是侃皮的標誌  比如說,一個女人身著由三百萬根羽毛製成的華美衣服,或者卡羅克裏維立(Carlo Crivelli)的油畫 畫中鑲嵌著真正的珠寶 而且用錯視法畫出的昆蟲和石縫極爲逼真。又例如,史騰堡(Steinberg)在美國導演的六部瑪琳迪特裏希(Marlene Dietrich)主演的影片都極爲唯美而侃皮,其中以《魔鬼是個女人》(The Devil Is a Woman)一片爲甚。不僅侃皮作品風格,而且其表現出的創作雄心也十分突兀。高蒂(Gaudi)爲巴塞羅納設計的美麗奇詭的建築不僅因其風格的不同凡響而可被視爲侃皮,更重要的是,他在他的藝術中那種一夫當關、頂天立地的勇氣  這在他的聖家大教堂(Sagrada Familia)中最生動地體現出來。

 26. 侃皮是那種莊嚴自任卻又並不可將之太當真的藝術,因爲,畢竟它“太過火了”。《泰特斯安德洛尼克斯》(Titus Andronicus)和《奇妙的插曲》(Strange Interlude)近乎侃皮 (或不妨將二者視爲侃皮);至於戴高樂在公開公衆場合的舉止和談吐,一般就是再道地不過的侃皮了

 27. 與此同時,一件藝術作品卻也會因爲過火得恰到好處,而錯失純正侃皮的地位。愛森斯坦(Eisenstein)的影片之所以很少侃皮,正由於儘管它們十分誇張,但這種誇張又不多不少地實現預定的戲劇效果,而沒有真的“過頭”。其實只需再“多”那麽一點兒,它們原可是了不起的侃皮藝術作品  尤其是《伊凡雷帝》第一和第二部(Ivan the Terrible I & II)。布萊克(Blake)的素描和油畫作品也屬此類情形:它們稀奇古怪、矯揉造作,卻稱不上“侃”。另一方面,深受布萊克影響的“新藝術”(Art Nouveau)倒是侃風濃厚。

 還有,那些華美誇張但缺乏熱情和誠意的作品決非侃皮。侃皮也必然出自那些不可遏制的內心情感。沒有真情實感,只能有僞侃皮。換言之,它們不過是一種四平八穩、只供點綴的的時髦玩意而已  其中不少已經相當接近于“侃皮,而且十分誘人:如達利(Dali)新潮的幻想作品,還有阿爾比科可(Albicocco)的影片《金眼女孩》(The Girl with the Golden Eyes)中那種做作的細膩氛圍  而造作和侃皮決不可混爲一談。

 28. 再重復一遍,侃皮要義在於試圖作出不同反響的事  而這裏所謂的“不同反響”,主要指外表之華美而言,並非指不同凡響的能力或付出超人的努力。所以,一個優雅或誇張的手勢可以是侃皮,而李普利(Ripley)“信不信由你”節目中的那些東西就很少具有侃皮意味。它們要麽是長得稀奇古怪的東西(長兩個腦袋的公雞、十字架形的茄子等),要麽是那些要求付出巨大努力的勞動成果(一個人倒立著從這裏走到中國、一個女人在針尖上刻下《新約全書》等)。它們缺乏直接了當的視覺美和戲劇性,而那才是展示出侃皮超絕意義的要緊之處。

 29. 像《在海灘上》(On the Beach)這樣的影片和《小城故事》(Winesburg, Ohio)、《喪鐘爲誰而鳴》(For Whom the Bell Tolls)這些小說糟到可笑的程度,但沒有糟到有享用價值的地步  它們費力地擺出不凡的姿態,然而卻缺少想象力。可是,影片《花花公子》(The Prodiga)、《參孫和大利拉》(Samson and Delilah)、主角爲超級英雄馬其斯特(Maciste)的一系列義大利彩色巨片和無數日本科幻片(《大怪獸》、《地球防衛軍》、《H-Man》等),儘管粗俗不堪、毫無藝術品味,但相對而言,它們較不虛假、勉強,在展開幻想時也更奔放、更極端,所以竟頗爲感人而且還有娛樂價值。

 30. 當然,托時間之賜,侃皮經典也在不斷變化中。前面我講的那些“費力地擺出不凡的姿態,然而卻缺少想象力”的作品,將來可能透露出它們的侃皮價值。由於它們的年代離我們不遠,我們無法賞識其中與我們自己日常夢幻過於接近的想象成分,而通常那些不屬於我們的幻想才更令我們感動。

 31. 這就是爲何那些深受侃皮審美家推崇的作品往往是些老式過時的東西。這並非因其舊而愛之,而是因爲老化、消褪、悖時使得我們能夠與它們保持必要距離,甚至油然産生同情心。一件藝術品在處理重大的當代主題時如果失敗,可能會讓我們感到憤怒。但時間在流逝中改變了這種情況;它把藝術品從道德重壓下解放出來,送交侃皮趣味處理…… 時間的另一效用是:去除藝術中陳腐因素的庸俗之氣 ,使之顯得奇幻有趣  陳腐庸俗只能是對時新口味而言。那些現在津津有味聽魯迪瓦利(Rudy Vallee) — 英國流行樂隊The Temperance Seven 最近將他的老歌重新翻唱  的人們在這位歌手全盛時絕對會被其歌曲的庸鄙觸犯。

 歸根結底,是否侃皮並非不取決於事物是否老古董,而取決於我們與之的距離;保持一定距離使我們不致因爲它在藝術上的失敗而惱怒,相反,還會因此發現它格外令人賞心悅目。時間的功效不可預測。或許方法演技(Method acting) — 詹姆斯迪恩(James Dean)、羅得史泰格(Rod Steiger)、瓦倫比蒂(Warren Beatty) 這些演員的法寶  有朝一日也會成爲侃皮審美物件,一如魯比基勒(Ruby Keeler)和莎拉伯恩哈特(Sarah Bernhardt)現在享受的地位一般。但也許不會出現這種情況。

 32. 侃皮是對所謂“個性性格”的擡高。只有那些有能力招搖自己個性的人才能體會到這一點。成功的例子包括:路伊福勒(Loie Fuller)、德米爾(Cecil B. De Mille)、克裏維立和戴高樂等。年事已高的瑪莎格拉漢(Martha Graham)舉手投足間從不忘記時時提醒他人:她不是別人,而是瑪莎格拉漢 …… 這一點在偉大的侃皮偶像嘉寶(Greta Garb)身上就再清楚不過了:嘉寶作爲演員之拙劣(至少可以說,她的表演缺乏深度),竟使她的美更光彩奪目  她因此永遠是她本人。

 33. 侃皮美學所欣賞的是所謂“瞬間個性”(這點的的確確很有十八世紀古風)。相應地,個性的發展則令其無動於衷。在侃皮人士看來,個性是連續不斷的華彩表演,表演的主角必須始終讓人感到新鮮有趣。這種態度,實際上是侃皮意識將人生經驗戲劇化的關鍵。這也是爲何歌劇和芭蕾是侃皮美之寶藏:這兩種藝術形式都不著重發展人物形像的複雜性,而侃皮之美不致因這種發展而減色。而在歌劇劇目中,比如說,有人物個性發展的《茶花女》( La Traviata )就不如卻完全沒有人物發展的《遊吟詩人》(Il Trovatore)“侃”。



 34. 侃皮美學不和一般審美觀爭論考察物件的優劣:它不聲稱對方所謂的美是醜,或醜其實是美。它提供一套完全不同的、有補充性的標準來探討藝術和人生。

 35. 我們通常以藝術作品的深度和莊嚴的藝術成就來判斷它的價值。我們讚賞其藝術之精湛和創作動機之深刻。我們希望看到二者彼此相稱。實際上,我們以此來衡量《伊利亞得》(The Iliad)、阿裏斯托芬(Aristophanes)的劇本、《賦格的藝術》(The Art of the Fugue)、《米德鎮的春天》(Middlemarch)、倫勃朗(Rembrandt)的油畫、沙特爾大教堂(Chartres)、多恩(Donne)的詩歌、《神曲》(The Divine Comedy)、貝多芬(Beethoven)的四重奏…… 而在歷史人物中,我們以上述標準衡量蘇格拉底(Socrates)、耶穌(Jesus)、聖芳濟(St. Francis)、拿破侖(Napoleon)、薩佛納羅拉(Savonarola),等等。簡言之,這是上層文化的萬神殿,真、美和嚴肅在此得到供奉。

 36. 但除了上層文化中或悲劇式或喜劇式的莊嚴格調和衡量歷史人物所用的崇高準則外,還有其他創造性的意識形態。只對此類高雅文化表示尊重的態度其實是自欺欺人的,同人的真實經驗和情感不相符合。



 37. 上層藝術本質上是道德性的。當代先鋒派藝術則從道德和審美激情的矛盾中獲得力量。侃皮則是唯美的。

 38. 在侃皮之眼看來,世界是一系列純粹審美經驗。它是風格戰勝內容、審美戰勝對道德倫理之考量、冷嘲戰勝悲劇感情的具體表現。

 39. 侃皮和悲劇正相反。就侃皮藝術家之對待自己的藝術而言,侃皮並不缺乏嚴肅性,而且也有感人肺腑的力量。但其中的悲傷之情只是整體色調的組成部分。實際上,正是一種悲痛感使亨利詹姆斯(Henry James)的作品 如《歐洲人》( The Europeans)、《尷尬年代》( The Awkward Age)、《鴿翼》(,The Wings of the Dove) — 具備侃皮之美 ,但是其中並無悲劇可言。

 40. 風格就是一切。比如說,熱內(Genet)的思想觀念符合侃皮真義。他說:“優雅與否是行爲好壞的唯一標準”( 見作者原注二),正和王爾德所謂的“對要緊的事來說,最關鍵的不在於真誠性,而在於風格”幾乎表達了相同的意思。但最終決定藝術作品是否侃皮的,還是藝術風格。《溫德米夫人的扇子》(Lady Windemere’s Fan)和《芭巴拉少校》(Major Barbara)中儘管談論的是道德和政治,但很侃皮,這不僅是因爲這些觀念新奇,也因爲藝術家使用了俏皮風趣的手法。相形之下,熱內在《百花夫人》(Our Lady of the Flowers )中表達的是侃皮思想,但表達方式太過一本正經、太崇高和太嚴肅,以至於這本書本身談不上侃皮。

 41. 其實,侃皮的關鍵正在于將傳統的藝術嚴肅性的主流地位取而代之。它反對一本正經,它充滿戲謔。更準確地說,侃皮和“嚴肅性”有一種全新而複雜的關係:我們可以嚴肅看待輕佻事物,同時也不妨輕佻地看待嚴肅事物。

 42. 我們之所以爲侃皮所吸引,是因爲我們意識到,人生與藝術光是“真誠”是遠遠不夠的  所謂真誠的人可能無非只是思想狹隘的庸人罷了。

 43. 超越嚴肅的傳統手段  諷刺  今天看來力道不足。今日各類文化滲透媒介,使受衆變得成熟和挑剔。對他們而言,侃皮提供了新的標準:形式的巧妙和富於戲劇性。

 44. 侃皮倡議以一種喜劇眼光看世界。但這不是那種刻薄的論辯性的喜劇。如果說悲劇是對人生最高度的介入,喜劇則是有意爲之的低介入,是游離其外的手段。



 45. 超凡脫俗是精英階層的特權。舊時貴族在文化領域中的說話權到十九世紀爲所謂“哥兒”取代,而“侃皮”則是當代“哥兒文化”的具體表現。侃皮是對這個問題的答復:如何在大衆文化的時代作一個公子哥兒。

 46. 哥兒”們往往嬌生慣養。對周圍事物,他們要麽擺出不屑的姿態,要麽滿臉倦容。他尋求奇珍異寶,對大衆所好之物則無動於衷。(比如:於斯曼(Huysmans)《背道》中的埃桑迪斯;佩特筆下的享樂主義者梅榴絲(Marius the Epicurean) ;瓦萊裏(Valery)的“趣味先生”)。趣味的高尚對“哥兒”是件重要的大事。

 侃皮高人的樂趣則更有創意。他不在拉丁詩歌或佳釀或天鵝絨外套中找尋快樂,卻沈醉於最粗鄙、最尋常的大衆文化中。物件自身的用途不妨礙他對它的享用,因爲他自有一套辦法。侃皮  大衆文化時代的公子哥兒審美趣味  不考量物件之珍稀與否。 侃皮口味不因其爲批量複製品而受到影響。

 47. 王爾德本人就是個過度型的人物。他剛到倫敦時頭戴天鵝絨貝雷帽、身穿絲邊襯衫和棉絨馬褲,腳上還有一雙黑絲襪,而且終其一生,其個人趣味也從未離老式公子哥兒的行頭太遠。他的保守主義充分體現在《道連格雷的畫像》(The Picture of Dorian Gray)…… 然而另一方面,他的許多作風又暗示了他性格中更現代的一面。侃皮審美中的一個重要因素 等同看待各種事物  就是最早由王爾德將之確定的。證據包括:他宣稱要讓自己“配得上”他的青花瓷器;他表示門把手可以和油畫一樣令人讚賞,等等。當他煞有介事地宣佈領帶、“插花眼”(boutonniere)和椅子的重要性時,王爾德其實已經在預示民主的侃皮精神的即將到來。

 48. 老式“哥兒”憎惡粗俗之物。新式“哥兒” 侃皮愛好者  則正好相反。那些使前者惱怒或厭煩的東西,讓後者欣喜和愉快不已。前者愛用灑過香水的手絹掩住鼻孔,而且動不動就會暈厥過去,後者卻陶醉在熏天臭氣中,還對自己堅強的神經感到自豪。

 49. 無疑這是了不起的壯舉。但是歸根結底,這種壯舉是由於哥兒們不耐煩悶的生活而作出的。侃皮趣味和煩悶二者間的深刻聯繫不可低估。侃皮只能存在于富裕社會,只能存在於富足的社會階層中,因爲只有那個階層的人,才能體驗到富裕帶來的病態心理。



 50. 所謂貴族地位既是就權力而言,也是就文化而言。侃皮趣味其實是高雅趣味史的組成部分。但既然傳統意義上的貴族不復存在,他們所特有的雅趣何所依存?答案是:社會上有一群人自發自命地形成趣味貴族,而他們多爲同性戀者。

 51. 我必須對侃皮趣味和同性戀之間的關係作出解釋。說侃皮趣味即是同性戀趣味並不正確,但無疑二者有密切關係且有共通之處。這好比並非所有自由主義者是猶太人,但猶太人確實普遍傾向於自由主義和社會改革。因此,儘管並非所有同性戀者有侃皮趣味,但大致而言,同性戀人群構成侃皮隊伍之先鋒和侃皮藝術的知音。我這裏並非隨意將猶太人和同性戀者相提並論:二者確實是當代城市文化中的傑出創造性團體,而且他們影響的,還是最深刻的一種創造力:感性 (sensibility)。現代感性的兩種先鋒力量,一是猶太人嚴肅的道德追求,一是同性戀者的唯美和超然。

 52. 同性戀者之自比貴族也與猶太人的例子有類似之處。一種意識形態總是服務於鼓吹它的特殊團體。猶太自由主義是自我認可的一種姿態,而侃皮趣味也有宣傳功能。無庸贅述,上述二者的取向正好相反。猶太人寄望通過鼓吹道德良知來使他們自己融入現代社會,而同性戀者則通過鼓吹美學趣味來達到同一目的,只是他們所推銷的侃皮趣味恰巧是消融傳統道德的溶劑:它消除了人們胸襟中的道德義憤,還對遊戲人生的態度推波助瀾。

53. 無論如何,即便同性戀者恰好是侃皮風格的作俑者,侃皮趣味還是遠比同性戀趣味範圍要廣。很明顯,侃皮把人生視作戲臺的隱喻特別適合同性戀者們闡釋自身的一些特別情況,並爲之辯解(侃皮主張切勿太過一本正經,也正好與同性戀者想永葆青春的欲望相符)。然而,即使侃皮沒有被他們發明,也遲早會被另外一群人發明的,因爲貴族化的文化態度不會消逝而只會用愈來愈頑強的態度—- 和愈來愈巧妙的手段,實現自身。侃皮對風格的講究,是在風格問題自身已經過時的時候出現的(現代的社會每一新風格,如果不明顯屬於歷史陳迹,總以反風格粉墨登場)



 54. 侃皮生髮於以下這個了不起的發現:高雅情趣並非爲上層文化專有。侃皮提出:高尚品味並非僅是高尚品味,還包括對不高尚情調的高尚品味(熱內在《百花夫人》中曾討論過這一點)。學會高雅地體驗低級趣味可以使人體驗到解放的快感,而固執地把持“嚴肅文化”不放的人會失去許多享受快樂的機會,或不妨說,他會因要價過高而失去市場。侃皮給高雅品味帶去大膽而機智的享樂主義色彩,它給本來就趣味高雅的人送來額外快樂,令他不致沈溺於惱怒不快中。它對人的消化系統有好處。

 55. 最重要的是,侃皮趣味是一種享受和欣賞的方式,而非評判方法。侃皮寬宏大量,因爲它開朗奔放。它只不過表面上有時有些惡毒、刻薄而已(即使它的刻薄也充滿溫情,不是毫不留情的那種)。更何況侃皮並不指摘嚴肅格調。對那些真正嚴肅藝術的成就,它絕不冷嘲熱諷。只不過它還另外發現,在某些熱誠的失敗中也一樣包含著崇高的藝術價值而已。

 56. 侃皮趣味其實是一種愛的感情,一種對人性本身的愛。它沈醉於人性中那不嘗的痛苦激情,而不對之作任何道德判斷。任何東西只要能打動它,就會得到它的認同。如果人們對被他們稱作“侃皮”的人或物抱以一笑,他們不是在嘲諷,而是在表示欣賞。侃皮是種溫存的感情。

 (這裏不妨把侃皮和一般的波普藝術作比較:儘管二者有時相同,有時有關聯,但依然十分不同 波普藝術較平易、較枯燥,也教嚴肅和冷漠。與侃皮相比,波普藝術歸根結底是虛無主義的。)

 57. 侃皮將對人性的愛移情於特定物件或個人風格。如果少了這種愛,則不會有侃皮,這就是爲何《小城風雨》(Peyton Place)這本書和蒂許曼大廈(Tishman Building)只是冒充風雅的俗物,而非侃皮。

 58.  侃皮美學的終極信條是:這太糟了,因此它也太棒了 當然,這也只在一定條件下才是如此,而這些條件,我已經在上面的劄記中大致加以勾勒。



(作者原注一) 時代的內在感性不僅至關重要,而且最易消逝得無影無蹤。我們可能通過研究智識的歷史來認識時代的思想觀念,或通過研究社會史來認識它的行爲特徵,與此同時,對這種內在感知力卻全不觸及。在歷史研究中對此有所發掘 的情況  如赫伊津哈(Huizinga)對中世紀的研究和費弗爾(Febvre)對十六世紀法國的研究 —-是極爲罕見的。

 (作者原注二) 薩特在《聖熱內》(Saint Genet)中的說法是:“優雅是一種行爲舉止的特質。這種特質盡可能多地把存在轉化爲表像。”





Camp ”自上世紀五六十年代以來,已經漸漸進入日常英語,日顯重要,但是不但其語源不詳,其語義也不甚清楚 從某種意義上來說,正是這點給當時三十歲出頭的桑塔格以充分的發揮餘地。在日常口語中,此詞常和西方城市同性戀亞文化聯繫在一起:人們常用它來表達對同性戀亞文化中那些誇張、詼諧、甚至顯而易見有庸俗情調的事物的讚賞態度。但是正如桑塔格在這篇著名文章中指出的那樣,“Camp”一詞具有遠遠超越同性戀者圈子的文化價值。


我把“Camp ”譯爲“侃皮”有以下幾個理由:()“皮”字取自同是六十年代重要文化現象的“嬉皮”(hippie) 之“皮”;() “侃”字除發音接近外,還取其“和樂”之義 (《漢書·韋賢傳》:“我徒侃爾,樂亦在而。”)。西方同性戀者現在一般被稱爲“gay”。這個詞原來也是“快樂”的意思。








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A Century of Cinema – A Multimedia Marginalia

Cinema’s 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline. [Sontag wrote this essay in the last decade of her life. It can be viewed as an autobiography disguised as a biography of cinema]. [Here Sontag refers to Hollywood’s blockbuster age since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws and subsequent rise of big-budget productions, the fixation on box office and the rise of multiplex] It’s not that you can’t look forward anymore to new films that you can admire. But such films not only have to be exceptions — that’s true of great achievements in any art. They have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world — which is to say, everywhere. [Cultural globalization is alluded to] And ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, are astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative film-making, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes. Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art. [Sontag betrays herself with the use of three keywords: “derivative”, “recombinatory”, “decadent”. She would have, should have and actually had celebrated the derivative, the recombinatory and the decadent, which is said to be the essence of a postmodern sensibility emerging since the 1960s when Sontag came to fame. Jean-Luc Goddard’s absolutely brilliant feature debut À bout de souffle, which Sontag had wrote about, is such a derivative piece of cinema following Hollywood ganster and noir film tradition and celebrating thugs and nihilism, see the film below]


Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia — the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life. [The word “book” shall not be treated as merely rhetoric. It can be viewed as a statement on the “meta” nature of film and its ultimate marginality. Cinema can be compared to architecture (or “structure”) as much as music: it contains “things” and stands between inside and the outside. See the “Totality” essay and notes on Frank Gehry].



As many people have noted, the start of movie making a hundred years ago was, conveniently, a double start. In roughly the year 1895, two kinds of films were made, two modes of what cinema could be seemed to emerge: cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life (the Lumiere brothers) and cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy (Melies). But this is not a true opposition. The whole point is that, for those first audiences, the very transcription of the most banal reality — the Lumiere brothers filming “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” — was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder. [This is simple, true and profound. Cinema is quick switch between the banal and the fantastic, or use an unfortunate anthropological cliché, “make the familiar unfamiliar, and make the unfamiliar familiar”. One of my barometers to test if a film is worthwhile or not is to see if the physical perceptions of the street scene has changed after I watched the film. Some pervasively “boring” films, such as Goddard’s (relative) recent film Film socialisme (2010) could change a person’s perception of everyday life immediately and profoundly. Also see my entry.]

Everything in cinema begins with that moment, 100 years ago, when the train pulled into the station. People took movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move toward them. Until the advent of television emptied the movie theaters, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive. Example: It looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining. But whatever you took home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives . . . faces. This is a larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. Even more than what you appropriated for yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie — and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. [Discuss: “Film is monumental in nature.”] The experience of “going to the movies” was part of it. To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. It’s not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers. [Sontag here is more or less subconsciously paring two profoundly anthropological dualisms: the sacred vs. the profane and the public vs. the domestic. Her argument requires reconsideration when the screen has moved on to smartphones, tablets, wearables such as new smart watches and goggles and soon, with the new cyborg, neurological and medical proress, into human bodies. The entire “sacred monumentality” argument more or less depends on how individuals’ bodies are regulated with regard to an art form, being architecture or cinema screens. What’s philosophically profound is the question that whether the restraint of individual body is a prerequisite to experience the sacred. Can walking be actually a necessary procedure to the sacred. I believe early Christian liturgy could shed light on this ultra-postmodern topic.]

No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater. The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention. Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theater, on disco walls and on megascreens hanging above sports arenas. The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment. [Is the fear of ubiquity a fear of God? Because God is ubiquitous.]

In the first years there was, essentially, no difference between these two forms. [There weren’t two forms to begin with] And all films of the silent era — from the masterpieces of Feuillade, D. W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Pabst, Murnau and King Vidor to the most formula-ridden melodramas and comedies — are on a very high artistic level, compared with most of what was to follow. [Familiar lament of a past Golden Age] With the coming of sound, the image making lost much of its brilliance and poetry, and commercial standards tightened. This way of making movies — the Hollywood system — dominated film making for about 25 years (roughly from 1930 to 1955). The most original directors, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, were defeated by the system and eventually went into artistic exile in Europe — where more or less the same quality-defeating system was now in place, with lower budgets; only in France were a large number of superb films produced throughout this period. [Not just in France, but again Sontag was writing her autobiography – disguised as a “biography” of film – here.] Then, in the mid-1950’s, vanguard ideas took hold again, rooted in the idea of cinema as a craft pioneered by the Italian films of the immediate postwar period. A dazzling number of original, passionate films of the highest seriousness got made. [Passionate, serious, seriously passionate and passionately serious are something distinguish Sontag and her milieu of intellectuals. Such milieu there is still vestige.]

It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself. Cinephilia had first become visible in the 1950’s in France: its forum was the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (followed by similarly fervent magazines in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden, the United States and Canada). [Glad that Canada was tagged along here: Sontag was an occasional visitor to Cinematheque Ontario (Now TIFF Cinematheque) in the basement of AGO.]  Its temples, as it spread throughout Europe and the Americas, were the many cinematheques and clubs specializing in films from the past and directors’ retrospectives that sprang up. The 1960’s and early 1970’s was the feverish age of movie-going, with the full-time cinephile always hoping to find a seat as close as possible to the big screen, ideally the third row center. “One can’t live without Rossellini,” declares a character in Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” (1964) — and means it. [“The full-time cinephile” here is completely self-referential. One of the most hardcore cinephiles here in Toronto was Cinematheque Ontario’s programmer James Quandt (a Robert Bresson specialist). He prefer to sit left-side seats ideally on the fourth to the screen.]

For some 15 years there were new masterpieces every month. How far away that era seems now. To be sure, there was always a conflict between cinema as an industry and cinema as an art, cinema as routine and cinema as experiment. But the conflict was not such as to make impossible the making of wonderful films, sometimes within and sometimes outside of mainstream cinema. Now the balance has tipped decisively in favor of cinema as an industry. The great cinema of the 1960’s and 1970’s has been thoroughly repudiated. Already in the 1970’s Hollywood was plagiarizing and rendering banal the innovations in narrative method and in the editing of successful new European and ever-marginal independent American films. Then came the catastrophic rise in production costs in the 1980’s, which secured the worldwide reimposition of industry standards of making and distributing films on a far more coercive, this time truly global scale. Soaring producton costs meant that a film had to make a lot of money right away, in the first month of its release, if it was to be profitable at all — a trend that favored the blockbuster over the low-budget film, although most blockbusters were flops and there were always a few “small” films that surprised everyone by their appeal. The theatrical release time of movies became shorter and shorter (like the shelf life of books in bookstores); many movies were designed to go directly into video. Movie theaters continued to close — many towns no longer have even one — as movies became, mainly, one of a variety of habit-forming home entertainments. [Only if Sontag had lived another ten years, she would know she happened to be living in a transitional age in the 1990s.]

In this country, [the U.S.] the lowering of expectations for quality and the inflation of expectations for profit have made it virtually impossible for artistically ambitious American directors, like Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader, to work at their best level. Abroad, the result can be seen in the melancholy fate of some of the greatest directors of the last decades. What place is there today for a maverick like Hans- Jurgen Syberberg, who has stopped making films altogether, or for the great Godard, who now makes films about the history of film, on video? [Read here for Roger Ebert’s comments on Goddard]  Consider some other cases. The internationalizing of financing and therefore of casts were disastrous for Andrei Tarkovsky in the last two films of his stupendous (and tragically abbreviated) career. And how will Aleksandr Sokurov find the money to go on making his sublime films, under the rude conditions of Russian capitalism ? [I suspect Sokurov is not very far from both Yeltsin and Putin, like other Russian greats such as Valerie Gergiev (who appeared in Sokurov’s elegiac imperial fantasy Russian Ark) – it’s naïve to assume art and power (feudal, imperial or capitalist) are independent of each other. If there had been Medici, Italian Renaissance would be entirely different]

Predictably, the love of cinema has waned. People still like going to the movies, and some people still care about and expect something special, necessary from a film. And wonderful films are still being made: Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” Gianni Amelio’s “Lamerica,” Fred Kelemen’s “Fate.” But you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past). Cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. [I doubt people are paying attention to cinephilia at all] For cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences. Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood remake of Godard’s “Breathless” cannot be as good as the original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry, like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It is precisely this notion that has been defeated.

If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love. [Odd closure: “new kind of cine-love”, not “new cine-love” or “resurrection of cine-love.”]

 Five decades before Sontag wrote this obituary of cinema, Horkheimer and Adorno wrote the obituary of culture – in which film itself (not just commercial films) was seen as the culprit. Immediately after the publication of their famous chapter on culture industry, the cinephile culture Sontag talked about appeared. In a way, their pessimistic piece unintentionally heralded a new optimistic age. So what about the Sontag piece?  


The Place of Cinema in General History (After Romain Rolland)

Cinema is only now beginning to take the place due to it in general history. It seems a strange thing that concepts of the evolution of man’s soul should have been formed while one of the strongest expressions of that soul has been ignored. But we know what difficulty the other arts have had in obtaining recognition in general history, even when they were more favored and easier of approach by the general mind, Is it so long ago that this did not apply to the history of literature and science and philosophy and, indeed, the whole of human thought? Yet the political life of a nation is only a superficial part of its being; in order to learn its inner life the source of its actions we must penetrate to its very soul by way of its literature, its philosophy, and its art, where the ideas, the passions, and the dreams of its people are reflected.

We know that history may find resources in literature; we know the kind of help, for example, that Corneille’s poetry and Descartes’ philosophy may bring to the understanding of the Treaty of Westphalia; or, again, what a dead letter the Revolution of 89 might be if we were not acquainted with the thought of the Encyclopaedists and eighteenth-century salons.

Nor do we forget the valuable information that the plastic arts give us about different epochs, for in them we behold an age’s very countenance – its type, its gestures, its dress, its fashions, indeed its whole daily life. What a storehouse for history! One thing hangs to another: political revolutions have their counterpart in artistic revolutions; the life of a nation is an organism in which all is bound together – economic phenomena and artistic phenomena alike. In the resemblances and differences of Gothic monuments a Viollet-le-Duc could trace the great highways of commerce in the twelfth century. The study of some detail of architecture – a belfry, for instance, would show the progress of royalty in France, the thought of the Ile-de-France imposing a peculiar construction upon provincial schools from the time of Philip Augustus onward. But the great service that art renders history is to bring it close to the soul of an epoch and so let it touch the springs of emotion. On the surface, literature and philosophy may seem to give us more definitive information by reducing the characteristics of an age to precise formulas. On the other hand, this artificial simplification may leave us with inelastic and impoverished ideas. Art is modeled on life, and it has an almost greater value than literature because its domain is infinitely more extended. We have six centuries of art in France, and yet we are often content to judge the French spirit by four centuries of literature. Further, our medieval art, for example, can show us the life of the provinces, about which our classical literature has hardly anything to say. Few countries are composed of elements more disparate than ours. Our races, traditions, and social life are varied and show evidence of the influence of Italians, Spanish, Germans, Swiss, English, Flemish, and inhabitants of other countries. A strong political unity has dissolved these antagonistic elements and established an average and an equilibrium in the civilizations that clashed about us. But if such a unity is apparent in our literature, the multiple nuances of our personality have become very blurred. Art gives us a much richer image of French genius. It is not like a grisaille but like a cathedral window where all the colors of earth and sky blend. It is not a simple picture but like those rose windows which are the product of the purely French art of the Ile-de-France and Champagne. And I say to myself: Here is a people whose characteristics are said to be reason and not imagination, common sense and not fancy, drawing and not coloring; yet this is the people who created those mystical east-windows!

And so it is that acquaintance with the arts enlarges and gives life to the image one has formed of a people from their literature alone.

Now by turning to cinema, a young if not the youngest of all arts.  May we extend this idea still further?

Unlike great paintings, sculptures and architectures which are more often associated with wealth, prestige and landmarks than not, and unlike music which perplexes those who have no feeling for it, film seems to be the most accessible, most democratic and most obvious of all arts, and the closest to everyday reality. Its capability of documentation, thus, is obvious. But it is also a such young art with just over the age of an individual’s life-span. What help can history possibly draw from this trove of treasure of the present if we want to look into the deep past?

Well, first of all it is not true that cinema is so young an art, for she has an undoubted relationship with both plastic arts and literature, with the theater, and with the life of an epoch. It begins its life as imitations and an extensions of theatre, literature, painting, sculpture and music while acquiring unique characters of its own. It borrows its contents from these other arts in adaptation. No one can fail to see that a history of film will throw light on the ways and manners of society extending back to many centuries by way of film adaptations from all the others. A film project, when dealing with historical subjects, is often a unique opportunities to do research as well as to reconstruct the past. A filmmaker is not entirely separable from an archaeologist. The demand for cinematic art to recreate total details and the impossibility to do so create a tension that naturally invites those who are making and those who are watching films to be reflexive about the nature of history. The presentism of the cinematic art heralds its historicism.

It constantly happens that the arts influence one another, that they intermingle, or that, as a result of their natural evolution, they overflow their boundaries and invade the domains of neighboring arts. “Good painting is music, a melody,” said Michelangelo, at a time when painting was giving precedence to music, when Italian music was extricating itself, so to speak, from the very decadence of other arts. Lessing, on the other hand, defended the boundary between poetry and plastic arts in his treatise Laocoon – the question of merging nevertheless remains however. The doors between the arts are not closely shut as many theorists would pretend, and one art is constantly opening upon another. Arts may extend and find their consummation in other arts; when the mind has exhausted one form, it seeks and finds a more complete expression in another. Thus is a knowledge of the history of music often necessary to the history of the plastic arts, the history of literature necessary to the history of music, and so on. Film’s importance in general cultural history is just becoming significant when more and more literary and classical scholars turn their eyes to this relatively young form of art.

Art as social documents is one thing. Art as symptoms of inspiration is another. The essence of the great interest of art lies in the way it reveals the true feeling of the soul, the secrets of its inner life, and the world of passion that has long accumulated and fermented there before surging up to the surface. Very often, thanks to its depth and spontaneity, music is the first indication of tendencies which later translate themselves into words, and afterward into deeds. The Eroica Symphony anticipated by more than ten years the awakening of the German nation. The Meistersinger and Siegfried proclaimed ten years before-hand the imperial triumph of Germany. There are even cases where music is the only witness of a whole inner life which never reaches the surface. Theatre and literature’s participation in social movements are also well-established. Does cinema, a highly industrialised form of art, possesses similar individual aspirations?

If art always shows us the continuity of life in apparent death, the flowering of an eternal spirit amidst the ruin of the world. How then should one write the history of these times if one neglected some of their essential characteristics? How should one understand them if one ignored their true inner force? And who knows but that such an omission might falsify not only the aspect of one period of history but the whole of history itself? Who knows if the words “Renaissance” and “De-cadence” do not arise, is in the preceding example, from our limited view of a single aspect of things? An art may decline, but does Art itself ever die? Does it not rather have its metamorphoses and its adaptations to environment? It is quite evident, at any rate, that in a ruined kingdom, wrecked by war or revolution, creative force could express itself in architecture only with difficulty; for architecture needs money and new structures, besides prosperity and confidence in the future. One might even say that the plastic arts in general have need of luxury and leisure, of refined society, and of a certain equilibrium in civilization, in order to develop themselves fully. But when material conditions are harder, when life is bitter, starved, and harassed with care, when the opportunity of outside development is withheld, then the spirit is forced back upon itself, and its eternal need of happiness drives it to other outlets; its expression of beauty is changed and takes a less external character, and it seeks refuge in more intimate arts, such as poetry and music. It never dies – that I believe with all my heart. There is no death or new birth of the spirit there, for its light has never been extinguished; it has died down only to blaze anew somewhere else. And so it goes from one art to another, as from one people to another. If you study only one art you will naturally be led to think that there are interruptions in its life, a cessation of its heartbeats. On the other hand, if you look at art as a whole, you will feel the stream of its eternal life.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is pessimistically said that affluence and progress will necessarily lead to corruption and vulgarization and an art form as materially demanding as filmmaking cannot retain any true spirit of individuality. But the same reasoning can be applied to architecture and indeed the entire legacy of religious and imperial art in the past two millennia, which we know is not the case.

That is why I believe that for the foundation of all general history we need a sort of comparative history of all forms of art; the omission of a single form risks the blurring of the whole picture. History should have the living unity of the spirit of humanity for its object and should maintain the cohesion of all its thought.


Philosophical Friendship in Rabinow’s Fiction

(1977) Friendship and Fieldwork in Morocco

reflections-on-fieldwork-in-morocco-paul-rabinow-paperback-cover-artIs Paul Rabinow a water-down Michel Foucault from French to English? In any case, at least in this short selection the Moroccan peasants all live and think like Parisian philosophers you see in a Jean-Luc Godard or a Jacques Rivette film. And as just mostly boring with flashes of brilliance – that are significant. So let me talk about the brilliance, as seen in the young wise peasant Ben Mohammed who may just as well be a fictional figure. As opposed to one of the so-called multivocal interlocutors, Ben Mohammed is no less than a peasant Socrates to give Rabinow cryptic messages on the future of anthropology, which:

  1. must return to its amateur beginning;
  2. must abandon its church and return to its original form as primitive religion;
  3. must be artistic and aesthetic.


A Woman Going Native: Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend


(1967) Stranger and Friend (selections)stranger-friend-way-anthropologist-hortense-powdermaker-paperback-cover-art

With clarity and a touch of gentle humor , Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend (1966) as seen in those selections emits a classical sensibility seen in her mentor Malinowski’s writing (Argonaut), in addition to their common narrative richness. The autobiographical details and the juxtaposition of different locales, however, evokes two Frenchmen: Michel Leris (L’homme d’age) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes tropiques). But she is neither an anthropologist as anti-hero (Leiris) or an anthropologist as hero (Levi-Strauss). She is somewhere in between. She serves as a connection between the British and the American, the Anglo-American and the French, the 1900s and the 1960s, the masculine and the feminine. And she doesn’t retreat from the sublime when she portrays a large and beautifully-proportioned primitive man in his most sentimental moment, a sense of the sublime I encountered the past summer in Zhang Nuanxin’s 1980s masterpiece, Sacrifice of Youth.



A Quick Note on James Clifford’s On Ethnographic Authority


(1988) The Predicament of Culture


[Full text of On Ethnographic Authority]

A long overdue reading. It turns out that James Clifford is not an original thinker nor a brilliant writer as I had hoped. He is somehow lost in his own “multivocal” neutrality and “writing practice”. On Ethnographic Authority, as an essay, thus turns out to be a Siamese twin of a bibliography of (really) important books and an index of trendy jargon. Nevertheless, such a bibliography and such an index are exactly the things I need at the moment.

Occasionally there is brilliance – however left unexplored – such as the importance of turn-of-the-century and the post-WWII as a new beginning. 1988, when this book was published, is probably still too early to require to be fully aware of the contemporary world’s historical significance. The following critiques are inevitably ahistoric and unfair. Notwithstanding, please allow me to make these  points:

• The Said critique: as Said’s criticism of Geertz, the so-called “multivocal” is no more than a smoke screen.
• The cohesion problem: allowing a disparity of voices and paradigms  assumes a creative unification in aesthetics and style, as in the cinematic “auteurs” (Tarkovsky and Sokurov)_or in the musical term Clifford repeatedly uses, “polyphony”.

The undue territories James Clifford is still too far away from are:

• History of anthropology as history of music
• Ethnography-writing as film-making (and vice versa)
• The importance of Claude Lévi-Strauss