Article by Lucia Senesi
Translated by Edward Dormandy
“Although they possess such moral qualities, “men of destiny” are always a danger to democracy.”
Pietro Nenni on Charles de Gaulle
I should have been able to sense that Pablo Iglesias has more than one idea of what cinema is and how it moves from his comment on Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida: Marvellous and savagely political. Come to think of it, it would be difficult to express himself better in just four words. In any case, Iglesias knows plenty when it comes to cinema and literature and, with a tenacity that seems to be aimed at refuting Philip Roth [In his book, I Married a Communist, Philip Roth refers to politics as “the great generalizer” and to literature as “the great particularizer”, adding that they are not reconcilable for precisely that reason.], he is determined to interweave them in a systematic – if not obsessive – manner. On Saturday 30 January 2015, in (a packed) Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, he said: “Damn those who want to convert our culture into merchandise”. I read one of his articles in which he gives a good explanation of what he means by “merchandise” and “culture”, and I decided to quote it, so that you understand that the statement “I couldn’t care less about “uniting the left”. We are for popular unity, a broader concept” was the least that we should have expected from someone of that ilk.
As irreverent as he is, and as much as he ignores political correctness, he does not just criticise the left – where he was educated – but also goes after the likes of Kubrick, everyone’s darling. Now, I need to include an explanation here for those who are either non-cinephiles or unfamiliar with the works of Kubrick, as it is never nice to exclude people from conversations. You need to imagine that Kubrick is, for film-makers, a bit like the Bible is for Christians, the Quran for Muslims, Das Capital for communists, or The Second Sex for feminists. In particular, to debate Kubrick’s Lolita with a film-maker is to enter dangerous territory, making a discussion about the dogma of the virginity of Mary in a religious confraternity seem like a walk in the park. I don’t know if I am making myself clear… It really irritates them. The last time that I debated Kubrick with someone was last March, in Paris: it was my director of photography. I told myself: of course, if we have to work together, go for honesty! I took a deep breath and said: “you know Michel, in the end, I didn’t think Kubrick’s Lolita was a great adaptation of the book, and it isn’t actually a film that particularly changed my life”. We were at his house, he was drinking a glass of wine, and he gave me a questioning glance – like when you’re half asleep and you hear someone speak but you want to convince yourself that it’s a dream – and said: “What?”. I went on: “No, I meant, in the end, between you and me, Kubrick isn’t even one of my favourite authors…”. Now, you need to know that Michel is a semi-martyr, the decent, composed boy that all parents would want to see marry their own daughters. But right then, discussing Kubrick, Michel turned purple; it was as if he had transformed into My Hyde, and he shouted at me: “Now you tell me one thing that you like about Kubrick, right now! And it can’t be anything intellectual, got it? I want to know one thing about Kubrick that excites you, something visceral. Tell me what excites you about Kubrick!”. I swear, that’s what he said. I was so dumbfounded that I remember his precise words.
This is all to give you an idea of how delicate the subject is. Moreover, Iglesias proposes some really simple things, like examining the conditions under which Policy is created, such as conflict, the struggle for meaning, and also being able to create a map of the power relationships that goes beyond interactions between institutions (state, collective organisations, etc.) and are found in spaces delimited by the subsumption of culture and by the bios in the logic of accumulation and its hegemonic institutionalisation. Oh, I forgot to mention that this is an academic article, so the language is necessarily very technical, but I promise that it is not the usual empty, prosaic, unbearable gushings of a champagne socialist. With a little patience, we’ll make our way through the terminology and get to the point:
Therefore, it should be noted that Iglesias is more of a feminist than not only myself, which isn’t hard, but also radical feminists: “Perhaps the two feminists were too indulgent in describing the most violent disciplinary process that capitalist logic – and not only commercial interests – imposes on so many women.” So, we are talking about women and capitalist logic, but what exactly does he mean, and what kind of logic is he referring to? One which seeks to impose or define a concept of body and, moreover, does it biopolitically. Iglesias explains clearly that here the body is understood to be object of the application of power; that is, the place where power is manifested. Capitalism (which Iglesias gives an initial capital) therefore attacks the spaces of what he calls human subjectivity, and also operates in the mental sphere, conditioning human beings to be orientated in a certain way, as instructed by the market. Iglesias defines it as the heterosexual market, and links it to countries incorrectly categorised as developing. It would be interesting to digress again, at this juncture, in order to discuss the difference between progress and development, which is described expertly (in my opinion) by Pasolini; I would discuss this at length, but you can find it here. In any case, it is no coincidence that I mention Pasolini, because he was the very first person in Italy to attempt this kind of socio-political approach to explain the phenomenon of young people being transformed by consumer society, through advertising material. It could therefore be said that Iglesias analyses the sexual use of girls and young women in advertising, whereas Pasolini observes a real and true marketisation of the bodies and souls of adolescents, male and female alike. In other words, the difference lies in the fact that while Iglesias simply says that Capitalism makes the female body the object of power, Pasolini describes – and then presents on screen (in Salò) – the objective marketisation of adolescent bodies and souls (whether male or female) by capitalist culture and by Power, with a capital P. In his own words:
“I’m writing “Power” with capital P (…) only because I sincerely don’t know what such Power consists of and who represents it. I simply know that it exists. I no longer recognize it in the Vatican, neither in the powerful Christian Democrats, nor in the Army. I no longer recognize it even in big business (…). I also recognize certain characteristics of this new faceless Power (…) above all, its eagerness, cosmic so to speak, to carry out a “Development” at any cost, by producing and consuming.”
So Pasolini and Iglesias are actually talking about the same thing; it’s just that Pasolini was writing in 1974 and Iglesias in 2011. But let’s continue with Pasolini for a moment:
“Therefore, deciding to let the hair grow down to the shoulders, or cutting the hair and growing mustaches (echoing 19th-century style), deciding to wear a headband or to pull the hat down over the eyes, deciding whether to dream of a Ferrari or a Porsche, following television programs attentively, knowing the titles of a few bestsellers, wearing overbearingly fashionable pants and T-shirts, having obsessive relationships with girls kept as ornaments at one’s side but at the same time demanding their freedom, etc., etc., etc., – all of these examples are cultural acts.”
And one more, then I promise I’ll leave you in peace:
“No fascist centralism managed to do what the centralism of consumer society did. […] A neo-secular hedonism, blindly unaware of any humanist value and blindly removed from the human sciences.”
However, as Iglesias says (via Preciado’s thinking), the biggest problem comes when what is being sold is not just the product itself, but the idea of the sexual connection between consumer and product. While it is possible that Iglesias may not have been aware of Pasolini’s writings up until this point, I do not understand how he now manages to ignore Salò (and I refuse to believe that he hasn’t seen it) which, as stated, depicts the marketisation of bodies, precisely as defined above. We need to return to the words of Pasolini again:
“In fact (this is said by one of the protagonists of my next film, taken from De Sade and situated in the Republic of Salò): In a society where everything is forbidden, one can do everything: in a society where something is permitted one can only do that one thing.” What does a permissive society permit? It permits the proliferation of the heterosexual couple. This occurs as a function of consumerist hedonism: something which accentuates the social moment of intercourse to its most extreme limit. It also imposes an obligation: those who are not part of a couple are not modern human beings, like those who do not drink Petrus or Cynar. And it also imposes a precociousness that makes us neurotic. Young boys and girls who have barely reached puberty – necessarily within the space of permissiveness that sends normality into a state of paroxysm – have an experience of sex that removes their every anxiety in that same sexual field, and, in other fields, removes any possibility of sublimation. One could say (as a ridiculous fascist slogan once said) that repressive societies needed soldiers, and also saints and artists: whereas permissive society needs nothing other than consumers.”
So, for a certain type of feminism, what Iglesias says is truly a double-edged sword. Citing Merkin, he says that this process of commercialisation does not allude to the body but to subjectivity, to the idea of how a woman should be and how she should act. And isn’t this, perhaps, the same thing that certain feminists do when they attempt to explain to men how they should be and how they should act? It is still psychological violence. A certain type of capitalism seeks to homogenise women in order to control them, a certain type of feminism seeks to homogenise men in order to subjugate them and also, therefore, ultimately control them.
So now let’s move on to Lolita, and try to understand how and why Iglesias uses her to illustrate his point. Firstly, we have his two theories, which maintain:
1. That Kubrick’s version of the film has little to do with Nabokov’s novel, and also that the main theme of the novel is paedophilia, whereas the main theme of the film is the male desire for Lolita’s incarnate femininity. In fact, according to Iglesias, Kubrick’s Lolita created a model femme fatale which then became hegemonic in contemporary post-Fordist societies.
2. That Kubrick’s Lolita is fully aware that her power is in the beauty that she incarnates, and she uses it to win her freedom, understood to be the freedom to choose. This second theory, he admits, is rather ambitious. (As if the first one were not!)
But let’s put Iglesias on standby to reflect for a moment. The main theme of Nabovok’s novel is paedophilia?! The fundamental theme, were his precise words. We would need to ask him what he means by this, because if you were to ask me, I would say that Lolita is definitely not a novel about paedophilia. It is a novel about life, but also the inevitability of destiny, and love, however sick, immoral and wrong it is. Alright, I concede, it is also certainly a novel about guilt and also the ways in which that guilt is paid for, in terms of pain and suffering and solitude. It is a densely psychological, subtle novel, with a complicated play-off between responsibilities, in which guilt and innocence are two sides of the same coin. No, I would say decisively that paedophilia is merely an incidental theme, a pretext. Moreover, even Nabokov appeared to agree with this in 1956, when he wrote:
“(…) And when I thus think of Lolita, I seem always to pick out for special delectation such images as Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying “waterproof,” or Lolita in slow motion advancing towards Humbert’s gifts, (…) These are the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted–although I realize very clearly that these and other scenes will be skimmed over or not noticed, or never even reached, by those who begin reading the book under the impression that it is something on the lines of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Les Amours de Milord Grosvit. That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions. It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author.”
And it might also be useful for us to recall Alfred Döblin’s reflections (on Berlin Alexanderplatz):
“I will simply say that the medical profession has given me the possibility of getting close to criminals. In fact, years ago I did some work for a criminological observation department, where I came to make some interesting observations, worthy of analysis. While treating these men, and many others like them, free, I was able to observe a characteristic aspect of the society in which we live: the absence of a clearly defined divide between criminals and non-criminals.”
However, Iglesias is right to point out the irony of the Oscar nomination for Lolita in the category of best screenplay adapted from a pre-existing work (we call it “non-original”) when it is clear that Kubrick had no intention of creating an adaptation. Now I ask you this: why do films taken from a book so often disappoint us? Because the director does not respect the plot? I wouldn’t say so. I would say that it’s because the director, being an auteur himself, often chooses to give his characters a different human dimension from that which is assigned to them by the writer, and chooses to look at them from another point of view. This makes us feel betrayed; we no longer encounter the characters that we knew, who moved us so much, with whom we empathised, and then we are disappointed. However, this does not happen with films such as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, or James Franco’s As I Lay Dying, despite the fact that we have read and loved the books by Jelinek and Faulkner. Why? Because the directors chose to align themselves (so to speak – they will throttle me if they hear me say that they align themselves!) with the “human vision” of the writers, and the actors themselves have the ability to give life to those same characters. Isabelle Huppert is Erika, precisely as Jelinek had described her, as is also the case with Benoît Magimel playing Walter Klemmer and Annie Girardot playing Erika’s mother, and every actor playing Faulkner’s characters in Franco’s film.
Now, one more thing needs to be said in Kubrick’s defence: no actress would have been able to be Nabokov’s Lolita. As Iglesias also points out, Nabokov’s Lolita is a little girl, she can be cruel, vulgar, selfish, but she always remains a little girl. Kubrick’s Lolita, on the other hand, is precisely the femme fatale that ignites the male fantasy. But we will return to that in a moment. Let us remember why, among other things, J.D. Salinger repeatedly refused to sell the rights to The Catcher in the Rye.
“Not to mention, God help us all, the immeasurably risky business of using actors. Have you ever seen a child actress sitting crosslegged on a bed and looking right? I’m sure not. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn’t nearly be enough. It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it. And, I might add, I don’t think any director can tell him.”
As I see it, this discourse is also absolutely valid for Nabokov’s Lolita who, far from being the passive object of a paedophile’s fantasy, as Iglesias sees it, has a strong-willed and ambivalent personality that would have been impossible (and violent) to bring out of a girl who does not possess it, and criminal to accentuate it in a girl who does. We will never understand the difference between the book and the film unless we get our heads around the fact that while Kubrick – having to make a choice – portrays the physical inferiority of the pathetic Humbert compared with Lolita’s incarnate femininity, Nabokov is much more interested in the psychological side of the issue. Nabokov’s Humbert becomes psychologically dependent on his nymphet in such a way that can only remind us of Proust. And if we look closely, the process of “falling in love” is also the same: the nymphets in whom Humbert declares his interest, just like the Proust’s young girls in flower, are first and foremost an indistinct group from which Lolita or Albertine then jumps out, with the protagonist’s life taking a turn for the worst, as demanded by literary convention. Moreover, just like Albertine, Lolita has a complicated personality: she is deceitful, duplicitous, calculating and elusive: “I went on pacing up and down, struggling with nameless thoughts, trying to plan some way of tackling her duplicity”. And again: “But I was weak, I was not wise, my schoolgirl nymphet had me in thrall. With the human element dwindling, the passion, the tenderness, and the torture only increased; and of this she took advantage”.
Just like Proust, Nabokov is interested in representing the psycho-physical inferiority that love imposes on the lover, but certainly not the beloved. “By permitting Lolita to study acting I had, fond fool, suffered her to cultivate deceit. (…) it was really a matter of learning to betray me.” Indeed, the fact that he wanted to reference Albertine was made quite clear when he wrote: “This book is about Lolita; and now that I have reached the part which might be called “Dolorès Disparue,”, there would be little sense in analysing the three empty years that followed”. Note that Albertine disparue is the title of the sixth volume of Recherche. Humbert, just like Marcel in Recherche, becomes psychologically dependent on his nymphet Lolita; he starts to live for her. Moreover, he observes her, studies her, traps her, and builds a gilded world for her, allowing her to forget that she is an animal in a cage.
Lolita and Albertine are happy enough to be maintained by their lovers, and have no misgivings about deceiving them; on the other hand, their lovers try to buy them with money, security and wellbeing. And this is where the boundary between victim and tormenter disappears. In the words of Costanza Salvi, whose words were chosen by Iglesias as the epigraph to his article: “Lolita is more of a tormentor that preys on the power of the adult/father/male figure”. Lolita resembles Albertine, but in a certain way she also resembles Phaedra, and it is for this reason that Nabokov’s work almost borrows from the Greek tragedy in which everything responds to a destiny ultimately settles the score. This is how Marguerite Yourcenar describes the psychology of Phaedra:
“She leaves her country as she gives up on her dreams; she disowns her family as she erases her memories. Among people for whom innocence is a crime, she contemplates – disgusted – what she will sooner or later become. Her destiny horrifies her, viewed from the outside (…) She distractedly marries Theseus (…) In Theseus’ bed, she tastes the bitter pleasure of deceiving the one she loves [Hippolytus] in reality, while in her imagination she deceives someone she does not love [Theseus]. She has not seen him [Hippolytus] since the principal scene in the third act; it is because of him that she is dead; it is because of her that he did not live; he owes her nothing but death; she owes him inextinguishable fits of agony. She is entitled to blame him for the crime, her own suspected immortality on the lips of the poets who will use her to express their incestuous aspirations, as much as a driver lying in the road with a fractured skull can accuse the tree that he crashed into. As is the case for every victim, he was the executioner.”
And from this passage we can return to Iglesias’ analysis: whereas Nabokov’s Lolita, quite unwittingly, like Phaedra, uses her lover to emancipate herself, and deceives him, having adapted (in a certain sense) to the world and the hypocrisy of its rules (“Among people for whom innocence is a crime”), Kubrick’s Lolita is fully aware that her power is in the beauty that she incarnates. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out: “For the young girl, erotic transcendence, consists in becoming prey in order to gain her ends. She becomes an object, and she sees herself as object; she discovers this new aspect of her being with surprise”. One could say that Kubrick’s Lolita takes this object (that is, herself, her body, the beauty that she incarnates) and uses it to win her freedom, as noted by Iglesias, who adds: “Kubrick’s Lolita – vulgar, simple and cynical – is not so far removed from a certain type of feminism that is radical and peripheral, but also wears high heels (…) she must survive, but she does not possess sufficient cultural resources to self-theorise. This is why she will fight with the only resource she has; that which was given to her by society through the eyes of Humbert and the viewer”.
As we have already said, the Humbert from the film is also different from the Humbert in the book: Nabokov’s character loves Lolita come what may. It does not matter if this love is sick, what we must take into consideration is the fact that this love, ignited by physical attraction, is then transposed into the psychological realm, with the physical aspect no longer being important (Proust again); and to quote Nabokov:
“You see, I loved her. It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight. (…) I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, (…) No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn–even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.”
Even when Lolita admits to having deceived him, Humbert says he felt no resentment, nothing except pain and sickness. Ultimately, he loves her so much that he sets her free, accepts full responsibility and gifts her a large sum of money. Lolita, on the other hand, remains in her superficial and cruel dimension and, when given the money, asks: “you mean you will give us [us] that money only if I go with you to a motel. Is that what you mean?” “No,” I said, “you got it all wrong. I want you to leave your incidental Dick, and this awful hole, and come to live with me, and die with me, and everything with me (words to that effect).”
On the other hand, Kubrick’s Humbert is pathetic, as Iglesias puts it. Kubrick makes a specific directorial decision to emphasise the physical aspect and leave the phycological aspect behind: it could be argued that his entire ideology is encompassed in that initial shot where Humbert is servilely painting the toenails of the beautiful and scornful Lo.
Naturally, one can only feel sorry for this kind of man; and, to quote Pasolini, there is nothing that is less of an aphrodisiac than pity. As Delanoë-Brun observes: “Humbert, passé au crible kubricien, apparait comme un nouvel avatar de l’homme objet, progressivement privé de tout controle sur l’histoire”. Whereas Sue Lyon starts to own the game and the scene at this point, and she does it so easily, with a glance, a pose, a tantrum, walking a certain way, or flicking her hair – the language of the femme fatale. Iglesias writes: “Kubrick’s genius lies in the fact that he does not allow Humbert to be seen from afar, to be judged as a sick man or a criminal, and thus he forces the viewer to experience an inevitable empathy, because his Lolita incarnates an objective object of desire for any heterosexual male in today’s world”. Furthermore, Iglesias also says that even the mother’s character exacerbates the prerequisite of beauty linked to the concept of youth, which does not feature in the novel [this is true]. Nabokov stresses that the relationship between Charlotte and Lolita was abnormally cold. Kubrick, on the other hand, creates a more complex character that is also probably more akin to contemporary women who, suffocated by the notion of looking young at any cost, have been the first to establish competitive relationships with their daughters. Iglesias correctly points out that Charlotte’s joke Es mi culpa si me siento joven? (Is it my fault if I feel young?) does not appear in the novel, just as the theme of jealousy is also completely absent. To quote Iglesias again: “In the novel, Charlotte does not adore her daughter, but tries to protect her, whereas in the film, Charlotte feels only resentment for a Lolita with whom she cannot compete”.
Only at the end of the film do we encounter a more human Lolita, weighed down by her pregnancy and by daily life, as an adult. But the prevailing model, naturally, is still the one we have been watching for two and a quarter hours of the film. Iglesias says: “What we have here is the hetero-patriarchal structure identifying femininity with extreme youth which, with the intervention of new biopolitical technologies (medical, pharmacological, communicative and cultural) that control subjectivity, will become hegemonic over the years”. And “aesthetic” clinics and treatments – he goes on – are used to modulate women’s bodies, in line with that model of extreme youth imposed by the market.
So is it all Kubrick’s fault? Of course not. If we only allow artists to express themselves according to moral codes, we may as well say goodbye to all masterpieces created throughout the history of humanity: from Euripides’ tragedies to the films of Fellini. It is true that the language of audio-visual media is infinitely more invasive than that of literature, so it is only natural for what we watch to condition us. We should probably learn to organise less rallies and create more places for meeting and discussion. We should also admit that living means making mistakes and gaining experience, and so demanding that people (especially adolescents) remove themselves from certain mechanisms on the basis of our intellectual discourse is foolish and hypocritical. Furthermore, what is reality? “Reality”, to quote Nabokov again, is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes”.
And then we should stop creating additional, pointless conflicts; for example, pointing out that the heterosexual market has been putting pressure on women for 45 years, but on men for just 15, is something which – taking it to be true – has no purpose and teaches us nothing; it is just a useless “by the way” which completely distracts from the problem. One only needs to see certain adverts to realise that the unrestrained use of young male bodies is no less homogenising/conformist and violent than that which affects their female contemporaries. Moreover, if this model has been imposed, responsibility also lies with those who have not been able to create alternative models and so, all things considered, none of us is innocent. To cite Camus, in philosophy as in politics: “No excuses ever, for anyone. […] When we will all be guilty, it will be democracy”.
Pablo Iglesias concluded his lecture on Saturday by quoting Antonio Machado and Don Quixote. Now allow me to just say something for us: perhaps it is time to do away with “men of destiny”; the fact that there are people like Pablo Iglesias makes us happy, and rightly so, but we must not lose sight of our logical and critical dimension; after all, this is what they teach themselves. Pablo Iglesias is not Don Quixote at all; Don Quixote was a solitary hero, followed only by Sancho Panza; Don Quixote was Alekos Panagulis, not Pablo Iglesias. Naturally, this does not mean anything. Iglesias has countless followers, and so much the better. He said: “We dream like Don Quixote, but we actually believe in our dream”. What this is trying to say is that we are trying to be practical – a context quite unfamiliar among the left that we know. Antonio Machado was in fact one of Pasolini’s favourite poets. In 1937, he wrote an essay on the defence and diffusion of culture, and then he wrote: “And today I say: It is true, we need to daydream”. So yes, in this sense, we continue to dream… but we remain wide awake.