Angelopoulos & Camus on the Eloquence of Silence

Theodoros Angelopoulos silenceThe Greek film director Theodoros Angelopoulos is dead. On the TV the cameras pan across the crowd waiting outside a church in Athens. The presenters, not knowing when exactly the funeral service will begin, need to keep talking.

One of the presenters recalls a comment made by the Japanese film director Kourosawa. He said something to the effect that Angelopoulos had a rare talent for filming silence.

The adverts start. I can’t bear it. I switch the TV off.

I walk over to the window, look out at the cold hillside across the valley, and I watch and listen. It is not silence because through the closed window I can just make out the sound of the boy on the dirt road near the dry river bed. He is on his bicycle making the noise of a car engine as he cycles up and down the dirt road – something he regularly does at this time in the afternoon when he returns from school. And there is also the faint song of one or two birds that have not yet been shot.

I have no idea what Kourosawa meant or what silence might have been for Angelopoulos, but in my own silence I am filled with an incommunicable sense of the significance of things. Of that boy, of the hillside opposite, of these trees, of the grey clouds overhead and of those birds who have somehow escaped the rifles of the hunters.

And the significant things include things that are no more. Further down the valley from the boy is the small cottage Nikos lived in. I can’t see it. It is hidden behind a drop in the hillside. But I know it is there, and I know it is cold and empty. The absence of Nikos (who died last year) is still tangible.

And I am struck now by how this silence is so utterly different from the one that Albert Camus seemed to express.

For Camus language would seem to belong to the familiar world of convention and habit and illusion – a world which, at crucial moments, appears ridiculous. The sense of the absurd then wells up – “that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors”. At such moments, the only answer to the question: “What are you thinking?” is: “Nothing” – an utterance expressing the state of a soul for whom (as Camus puts it) “the void has become eloquent”.

And at such moments, what becomes clear for Camus in this “eloquent silence”? What becomes clear is that things are infinitely remote, foreign, alien and hostile.

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia…The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. …that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

With Camus and Angelopoulos we have a clash of silences. For Camus, beyond language there is nothing significant. For Angelopoulos (and here I have to guess, relying on an imagined similarity between his eloquent silence and mine) what is most significant is beyond language – something that moves us in rare moments when the chatter of life goes quiet, and we feel the need to at least attempt to say the unsayable, or if that seems completely futile, perhaps to film the unsayable.

Albert Camus in Bed with Thatcher?

Back in the 1980s my mother was a keen reader of the popular British women’s magazine “Woman’s Own”. On 23 December 1987 it published an interview with Margaret Thatcher (then the Conservative Prime Minister) in which she made the infamous statement that “there is no such thing as society”. It wasn’t more than a week or so later that I joined the communist party.

For years afterwards Thatcher would insist that her statement had been taken out of context, and there have been valiant efforts set the hermeneutic record straight. However, for some of us the utterance summed up in seven words a set of policies that included things like laying siege to long-established mining communities, selling off public housing, removing powers from local government, etc, etc. Doubtless Thatcher did incline from time to time towards an idea of the organically evolving society (the acceptable face of society for fierce neoliberal critics of rational social planning), but in practice the policies felt like a forced atomisation of society and an insistence that ever increasing areas of social life square up to the demands of the market and justify themselves solely in terms of their contribution to growth in the GDP.

Miners strike during the Thatchera era

There is no way – you might think – that Albert Camus would ever get into bed with a proponent of policies like these. I am not so sure. Perhaps I am missing something, but when I read “The Myth of Sisyphus” I see a thinly veiled attack on community life – something that (in its own small way) could have helped prepare the ground for the neo-liberal offensive launched later by the likes of Thatcher and Reagan.

No one will say a decisive “Yes” to the absurd unless they have seen through the kind of world of meaning that helps to give shape and structure to the life of a community. That framework of meaning has to be seen first as utterly contingent, and then, in its flimsy contingency, it has to seem to lose all weight, becoming one of those unbearably light bits of cultural flotsam that can later be blown away so easily by the winds of things like pop and fashion. In the process we become outsiders with respect to the settled communities of the past. To refer again to the phone booth scene near the beginning of “The Myth of Sisyphus” (where so much is crystallised) we stand like uprooted individuals outside the phone booth of life, in which the old gestures, habits, customs and beliefs (now mute because of the closed glass partition) seem empty, hollow, and absurd.

What would a society of atomised Sisyphean outsiders be if not a society dominated by money, the markets and the culture industry? How would their dealings with each other be mediated if not by the market? And how would they hold onto their outsiderliness if not by congregating in anonymous, high-rise urban blocks in cities where the economy is run according to impersonal principles of efficiency and precision and all qualities are ultimately reduced to calculable quantities? Economic fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (prophets of what amounts to a market totalitarianism) may, at first sight, appear to be worlds away from the philosophy of Albert Camus, but how else could a society of outsiders be instituted if not by following the Hayek-Friedman prescriptions that Margaret Thatcher was so dutifully following?

Admittedly, Camus’ sympathies were with the left, and he too had once been a member of the communist party. In his journalism in Algeria he wrote scathing critiques of the injustices suffered by the Berbers, for instance. However, my impression (and I stand to be corrected) is that Camus was moved by the suffering of individuals. Each suffering Berber was essentially another human being who deserved equal respect and dignity. What wasn’t an issue for Camus was, for instance, the threat to the Berber way of life or the integrity of Berber communities. In any case, there are no Berbers or Arabs in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, and Sisyphus himself belongs to no identifiable community. Since the gods are dead and since he recognises no particular community, Sisyphus can only be rolling the stone mindlessly up the hill for an impersonal imperative – an imperative as impersonal as the invisible hands of the market whose discipline was so savagely enforced by the likes of Thatcher.

Camus and the Death of Eros

A few of us are lucky to live in the countryside, and we can do things like walk up the hill on a winter’s morning to gather wood from the forest. It is a habit, but it doesn’t deserve the sort of denunciation that habits get in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Habits, according to Camus (and others) are supposed to deaden and conceal. By contast, my wood-gathering walks enliven and reveal. I guess the reason has to do with the erotic character of the experience – the profound pleasure of walking up the hillside in all weathers and gathering fuel in a way that feels more like an act of respect than one of abuse.

From Camus’ perspective the repetition of the act could only have a negative effect, allowing “the ridiculous character of habit” to set in. But this is wrong. The result is actually a positive one of establishing an identity between myself and this small expanse of countryside. The phrase “I know it like the back of my hand” hints at the way the land almost becomes an extension of the body.

Affirmative experiences like this throw a critical light on developments in modern urban society, where ugliness tends to prevail between the sheen of the shopping malls, and however often someone visits the latter I doubt whether they establish an erotic extension the self. In the city, both the shiny functional order of the palaces of commerce and the chaotic ugliness beyond  are equally alienating, and any discussion of alienation (going back to Camus’ starting point in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) would have to include them.

But where does Camus stand with respect to the de-eroticisation of everyday life? Sadly, he ends up affirming it. The problem goes back to the horrible lucidity that Camus insists on – a lucidity for which all meaning (including the significance of my favourite mountain paths) has to be seen as mere illusion – a whimsical nothingness projected onto bits of inhuman alterity. Meaning falls away, and we are left with a lucid gaze falling on an utterly meaningless, and unerotic, inhuman otherness – reality, according to this unappealing metaphysic.

And nothing could be less erotic than the world of Sisyphus. He, too, has a path up the hillside, but we are led to understand that the ascent of it can never be a pleasure. He has his rock – the perfect placeholder for Camus’ de-eroticised inhuman reality. Those of us who handle rocks know how sensuous they can be, but there is none of that in the myth of Sisyphus. So if we identify with Sisyphus (as I guess Camus wants us to) we end up saying “Yes” to the diminution of the erotic in everyday life, which means affirming an aspect of our alienation.

Why? What’s the pay off for the loss of a more profound engagement with the world we live in? Camus’ answer: lucidity. In other words: our lives are diminished, and we (with our Sisyphean acts of self-denial) have diminished them further, but we still have the Truth. Ah, what a consolation that is!

One-Dimensional Camus?

When all is said and done, despite a penetrating cultural self-consciousness that sees through all the inducements of modern society, does Camus not end up lending support to Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man?

To recap: Marcuse’s one-dimensional men are perfectly adjusted to the status quo – they see nothing beyond the horizons of the given. Of the two dimensions – actuality and potentiality – one-dimensional people miss the latter, and do not see that a very different order of things is both possible and desirable.  In short, they are happy cogs in the social machine.

Admittedly, Sisyphus is far from being an archetypal happy shopper – someone utterly lost in the gaudy play of our commercialised social imaginary – and if such a happy shopper picked up “The Myth of Sisyphus” by mistake he would realise the error before getting to the end of the first page and put the book down again.

That being said, what is the Sisyphean world if not uni-dimensional? If, as Camus says, we are to imagine that Sisyphus is reconciled to his fate, that can mean nothing other than a resounding “Yes” to the alienating social reality that Camus seemed to be so critical of at the beginning of the book.

Following Camus, we end up back with the happy shoppers. Scowling, we will look a bit out of place, but we will go along with the crowd since it seems there is nothing better to do.


Note: See this article for a good summary of Marcuse’s key idea.

Sisyphus and the Spring

I remember one occasion walking alone in the mountains during a hot Greek summer. I was thirsty. Then in a clearing I heard the sound of running water. Not much, but enough to make that unmistakeable sound. At the root of a tall tree the ground fell away and revealed a gash in the earth out of which the water ran.

As I drank, it dawned on me why so many tiny churches out in the Greek countryside are built next to springs. In many cases, the story must surely go back to some thirsty person in the dry season coming upon the spring and – like me – being overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude. It is a feeling that affects the knees. Instinctively one wants to kneel down and offer thanks. To what? To the spirit of the spring? And if I happened to live in the vicinity of that spring I would be moved to build something so that the water would flow more easily into whatever container people might bring, and while building I might want to add something to indicate how special the place is.

What would Sisyphus or Camus do at the spring? At brief moments in “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus shows that he is not always completely unmoved by things like springs out in the countryside. For instance, he says at one exceptional point that “the soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more [than all the theories that have failed to answer the question of the meaning of life]”.  Let me repeat that phrase: “the soft lines of the hills”. Camus holds that glinting phrase up, but then casts it aside and tramples it into the dust of his argument. Perversely, he then denies that the hills have any soft lines. The soft lines are only in us. They are illusory. Let us not be deceived, he insists. Be lucid (a ruthless lucidty – Camus’ foremost virtue) and see that the hills themselves are just lumps of earth. Our (absurd) life is the confrontation between our longing for soft lines and the irrational lumps of earth.

This theory of the absurd looks more and more like some terrible armour – armour that is impregnable to the faint sounds of the spring in the forest clearing. The absurd theoretician – having stripped the water of its soft lines and its music – sees only brute irrational liquid – liquid that is drunk by brute lips only to be excreted a short time later. Drinking and pissing. Drinking and pissing. No, nothing to be grateful for, and certainly no reason to build anything. Just a challenge. Can one live in this intellectual desert and affirm such a senseless cycle of ingestion and excretion – affirm the absurd?