Don Quixote: Sad Countenances
Sprinkling Events in which Formerly is Today
Miguel de Cervantés Saavedra (1547-1616) wrote one of the world’s primary best-sellers after experiencing five years of captivity as a slave in Algiers (1575-1580). The novel, in two parts – the first published in 1605, the second in 1615 – at first sight reads like a parody of medieval epics and romances, and as a precursor of later novels that mock adventure stories, such as eighteenth-century Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (Denis Diderot, 1765-70) and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Lawrence Sterne, 1759). But it also resonates with postmodern novels of the twentieth century. Most importantly, and for us, the motivation that drives the project, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha stands out in its intensity and creative expression of prolonged hopelessness. If such a literary work has achieved and retained the world-wide status as a masterpiece it has, it is first of all because it has not lost any of its actuality. Every epoch knows of such situations that push human beings out of humanity. Formerly, in deep history, things happened that still happen, or happen again, today. Hence the motto, “formerly is today”.
The novel carries not only the traces of the absurdity and madness that suggest the inevitably traumatic state in which its creator must have been locked, upon his return to Spain, in the stories told, but also foregrounds this consequence of war and captivity in the madness of its literary form. The sheer-endless stream of “adventures” makes all film adaptations more or less hopeless endeavours. One can barely read, let alone watch all those pointless attempts to help others, the aftermath of which involves cruelty and pain. If we nevertheless seek to make an audio-visual work based on the novel, it is because the aftermath of violence, of hopeless stagnation in situations of which the end is not in sight, needs and deserves exploration, so that viewers can learn from it for dealing with their own experiences as well as those hinted at by others in their surroundings.
The challenge to make a video project based on Don Quixote appeals to two desires. First, the current situation of the world makes a deeper, creative reflection on trauma and its assault on human subjectivity, an urgent task for art. The insights the novel harbours uniquely connect to other experiences of war, violence, and captivity. Second, as a mostly narrative medium, film seems the least apt to do justice to the turbulent incoherence, repetitiveness, and incongruous “adventures” told in the novel; yet due to its capacity for audio-visualization, a well-thought-through video project can explore and transgress the limits of what can be seen, shown, narrated, and witnessed. Wittgenstein’s ending of his Tractatus (1921), “Of what one cannot speak, one should keep silent” was modified later into “Of what one cannot speak, one can still show”. The importance of showing is to enable witnessing as an engaged activity against the indifference of the world.
In order to do justice to the peculiar, cyclic, perhaps even “hysterical” form of the novel while pursuing these two goals, only an equally “incoherent”, episodic artwork can be effective. But this artwork must exceed a plain similarity. In view of the need for witnessing, such a form enables viewers to construct their own story, and connect it to what they have seen around them. Thus, we aim to turn the hysteria of endless story-telling into a reflection on communication beyond the boundaries madness draws around its captive subjects, and instead, open up their subjectivity; briefly, to bring Cervantes closer to Proust. To achieve this, we expect that the creation and production of singular installation pieces facilitates experimenting with the episodic nature of the literary masterpiece. These pieces, which we call “scenes”, are presentations of situations. To give insight into the stagnation that characterises the adventures, these pieces are predominantly descriptive. Any attempt at narrative is “stuttering”, recurring, without any sense of development, and often, the images will not match the dialogues.
What French psychoanalyst and theorist of madness, Françoise Davoine, calls, citing Fernand Braudel: “poussières d’événements” (2006: 43-4) is the motto of this work’s form: sprinkling situations, moments, over the stage or throughout the gallery space. Thus, the tenuous line of a single narrative yields to an installation that will put the visitor in the position of making her own narrative out of what is there, while witnessing the events. Witnessing is adequate to the state of trauma presented in the pieces, and to the need to stretch out a hand to, instead of turning away from people hurt so deeply. The trauma incurred by Cervantes after almost drowning, then being held in captivity as a slave without any sense of an ending to his disempowered state and his suffering, has been beautifully traced, narrated, and explained by Colombian literary-historical scholar María Antonia Garcés. This traumatic state looms over the entire project, and determines its form. Therefore, we want to try something we never do: completely merging the author’s biography, the main character’s ostensive and much commented-upon madness, and the main character of the one narrative unit we select for a narrative element, “The Captive’s Story”, as three incarnations of the desperate attempt to recover from the world’s most horrid crime: to destroy the subjectivity of others by violence – from war to rape to captivity. The abbreviation DQ, thus, identifies that hybrid figure.
The form of these pieces is experimental in many different ways, so that a contemporary aesthetic can reach out to, and touch, a situation of long ago. Long, enduring shots predominate, preferably 5-8 minutes per shot, then speed up, until it gets too fast to follow. Sound-wise, some are quiet, some loud. As far as possible, they consist of single-shot pieces and remain, as far as possible, uncut. Another experimental form concerns the dynamic relationship between visibility and invisibility, image and writing. A frequent deployment of voice-off without synchronicity with the images – also a novelty in our work – foregrounds this tension. The actor Mathieu Montanier, co-initiator of the project, is visible, but so will the letters of inscriptions, in association with other texts, to foreground the nature of video-graphy as a form of writing. Hence, through experimenting with possible forms of the art of video, we seek to invent new forms for the formlessness of trauma.
In order to include, while questioning it, the narrativity that is, after all, the novel’s primary mode, even if deceptively so, “The Captive’s Tale” (DQ I, ch. 39-41) is the narrative heart of it all. Its centrality is ambivalent; it is the one “captivating” story of captivity, but it is also just one among many. It is an embedded novella, with a plot of sorts, but it makes little sense on its own. The beloved woman and saviour of the captive, Zoraida, who prefers to call herself Maria, is the constantly present but veiled woman. Veiled, that is, until she unveils herself, of her own volition. The Captive is played by the same actor who plays Don Quixote. This piece has the same reduced length as the other ones, and hence, it is as central as it is elusive. This allows viewers to reflect on, and decide, how they consider narrative itself as a predominant cultural mode, what disappears from sight if that predominance continues, and what the other modes can contribute to enrich it.
Mathieu Montanier in A Long History of Madness
In addition to a thorough study of Cervantes’s novel, we collaborate as closely as possible with Françoise Davoine, psychoanalyst of trauma and madness, and with the biographer María Antonia Garcés, who wrote her masterful, thoroughly documented book after having been held captive herself by Colombian terrorists. With the former, we already worked for the production of the film and installation project Mère Folle, 2008-11, which has been re-titled A Long History of Madness. Since then, Davoine has published two books on Don Quixote as a source for insights into trauma and the possibility to “cure” it analytically. Garcés as a literary scholar will be helping with the delicate task to stay “loyal” – rather than “faithful” – to Cervantes’s work, not in spite of but due to the modifications of form. Rather than an “adaptation”, the work we aim to make is a response, a mode of turning an historical object into an interlocutor with suggestions for today’s world.
My previous film project with Michelle Williams Gamaker explored the unspeakable but tenacious remnants of romantic sensibility that still hold back women today, combined with the emotional tentacles of capitalism that bring families to bankruptcy. The film is presented in a beautiful DVD package, consisting of the DVD with the film, another DVD with lots of extras, and a book with explanatory text and lots of photographs.
Inspired by Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary, the unspoken cultural politics of the cultivation of craving compelled us to pursue our search for what in contemporary society is still being silenced. Having made films on issues around migration, such as the status of “illegal” immigrants, enforced identities, unnoticed cultural transformations and the loss of domestic life, we have turned to “madness” as the last frontier that separates people living in the same social environment.
All along, the films were motivated by a strong sense of implication. We established a relationship of trust with our subjects, so that the films thrived on intimacy and emanated a sense of collaboration, a feeling of being in the situations together. Then, we felt, the next step was to examine how social silencing affects us all, so that no groups exist exempt from negative social pressures. All emancipation movements in the world cannot fight the constant pressure to believe in those forces that keep society normalised. The forces of romantic love that continuously reformats lives into nuclear families, go hand in hand with those of late capitalism that pushes people towards the purchase of unnecessary goods and in the end, unsolvable debt. The two conspire to make especially women vulnerable to this relentless road to frustration, leading to the endangerment of their lives, or at least, their wellbeing. One hundred and fifty years ago, Flaubert prophetically described that current crux of disillusionment and financial crisis in exact detail.
We reconsider Flaubert’s prophetic vision of the tenacity of this conspiracy of forces, of the complicity between religiously informed family ideology and capitalist cultivation of desire for luxury, to understand how it still works today. We firmly positioned it in the present Western world, in our own environment. We aim to probe the way this works, without leaving anyone aloof from such pressures as do damage to individual lives as well as to society.
The project has been widely exhibited, beginning in the museum Sztuki Lodz, Poland, and we had a successful Première at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. We were dreaming of a very visual film, with as little dialogue as possible, and so we did. We wanted to repeat the pleasure of working with two fantastic actors, Marja Skaffari (Finland) and Thomas Germaine (France). Marja, who is such a brilliant Sissi in A Long History of Madness, enacts the constantly increasing frustration generated by the lures of unattainable bliss in the life of Emma. Thomas, who has enacted three different men in A Long History of Madness, here plays another triplet, the husband and the two lovers, in other words, all those disappointing men in Madame B.’s life. Mathieu Montanier, one of the Fools in the Madness film, brilliantly plays the nasty, but also frustrated pharmacist Homais. The three are here in a press photograph taken on Åland, Summer 2012.
The most recent full display has been the integration of Madame B with paintings by Edvard Much in the Munch Museum Oslo. This is extensively documented Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness.
In order to fund these projects, such as the one presented her on the left, now in production, I request donations. For donations of €25 or more, you receive a copy of the special DVD package, consisting of a DVD with the film, another one with lots of extras, and in-between a small book with text and photographs. For 40 or more you receive in addition a copy of the DVD box of A Long History of Madness. This box contains the 120-minutes film, and a second disc with 140 minutes of various bonus items, including a serious introduction to the film, a hilarious “Making of” segment, interviews between the main actors, and scenes that didn’t make it into the film.
Appeal for Contributions
As is well known, making films is very expensive. I don’t have the patience to hunt for a producer - it takes years. But after my enforced retirement I lost access to the little funding I had through academic awards. So, the question is, how to make the new project?
How to become a supporter of my film work:
1) Make a donation by bank transfer to:
Gustav Mahlerlaan 10
1082 PP Amsterdam
2) Send me an e-mail detailing your support (date of transfer, reference and amount), so that I know to send you the DVD when it is done. Please include your postal address in your message, which can be sent to: Mieke.G.Bal@gmail.com
We are very grateful for your support!
2015 | TBD mins | Colour | theoretical fiction
By Mieke Bal
Genre: Theoretical Fiction
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
René is wide awake due to his sister Jeanne’s harp music.
The great French philosopher René Descartes died in Stockholm, as a consequence of the insistence of young Swedish Queen Kristina that he visit her, a bit against his will. Once there, they didn’t see each other much. Although Kristina’s philosophical interest was genuine enough, he was more or less there in a decorative function, as an honorific presence to adorn Christina’s ambitious project of creating an Academy that would put Sweden’s intellectual elite on the European map. But in the chilly palace he caught a flu that deteriorated into pneumonia, and he passed away. He left Western thought with a burden and a treasure. The burden: a misconstrued dualistic tradition that he really cannot be blamed for. The treasure: a decisive advance in rational thought that, precisely, did not excise the body; nor religion for that matter, as later Enlightenment thought would carry it on. The dialectical relationship between reason and a certain kind of madness was not enough recognized.
Both Kristina and Descartes caused a lot of waves during their lifetime. They both had a rather tough beginning in life. Christina became a queen at age 5, after her father’s death on the battlefield, with a mother in desolate mourning for the rest of her life, who didn’t care much for the daughter who should have been a son. René lost his mother at age 1 and barely saw his father, who was too busy pursuing his career elsewhere. These childhood situations of orphan-like loneliness predict adult turmoil. And so it happened. For more about the content, see Reasonable Doubt
I made a five-screen installation, in which episodes, thoughts, monologues and encounters in the life of each, alternate, without really, or barely crossing. The challenge was to avoid sensational fictions, even a linear narrative, yet compose gripping image sequences and especially for Descartes, engaging monologues and/or performances based on quotations from his work. Instead of having the usual voice-over reading the quotes, I staged the thinker in the process of thinking, without actually uttering the quote. For Kristina, much of the imagery are performances of memories of major events of her life. I wanted to decline the historicist approach of the biopic and instead bring the thoughts and resistances of both that remain valid, into the present. Showing behavioral moments that converge without bringing them together more than fleetingly, the two people don’t meet “really” – there is no follow-up togetherness that could have alleviated their respective isolation. Their intelligence was not enough. Once an affection-orphan, you remain so, whatever the gifts and talents, riches and friends you have.
Instead of reconstructing a remote history, I wanted to sketch portraits of two characters that were both extraordinary enough to be considered eccentric, even slightly “mad”, and that left a deep impression, perhaps because we all know such people or recognize them in ourselves. They each have a specific kind of power over the other, and over their surroundings – Kristina, the power of her royalty, hence, of class; and René, the power of his mind and the respect it received. But they don’t have that much power over themselves. At the heart of their personality and life is a profound insecurity; but then, this can also be creative of invention and originality. Both have lots of opportunities and talents, but suffer from a tendency to passivity, restlessness, fits of anger, aggression, arrogance, and escapism. They were both “interesting people” yet very lonely and fearful, always. Descartes died in desolation, shivering with cold and fever, at Kristina’s castle, while she was more preoccupied with her own pursuits. The comfort of others fleetingly helps, but they are incapable of responding in way that make it endure. For Descartes the performance is future-oriented; for Kristina, past-oriented. So, the actual meeting in Kristina’s palace is also a crossing of two timelines.
For Kristina as a child I have cast Astrid Törneroos. For Descartes as a child and his sister Jeanne, Ambroise and Olympe Lefèbvre have played. For the older Kristina looking back at her life and her missed encounters, I cast once more the Finnish actress Marja Skaffari. She is older than Christina, and her enactments will work like memories, not “real time” acting. French actor Thomas Gemaine played Descartes. His performance foregrounds the process of thinking. Symmetrical to Kristina’s looking back, he performed the stage before the ideas take the shape we know. I have worked with both before; they are brilliant.
For Kristina’s primary location I got permission to film in Nieborów Palace, Poland. Descartes comes there, and dies, supported by a member of the palace’s staff who offers his friendship, but too late. For Descartes, I have sought out several places, both modest and a bit pompous, wavering between historical and contemporary, in the Netherlands. The small living room in the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam is available to us. I also found a garden where he conducted his botanical experiments, and sought to be alone to think, experience his body as connected to nature, and use his microscope.
Most of all, the two characters are seen walking. Kristina on the grounds of the Palace, René in a private garden, woods, beaches. Music is important, and eclectically selected; music of all times. Some of it baroque, but I staged Kristina imagining future musical styles. She tried to assign to Descartes the task of composing an opera. He declined but did write a libretto. I had the collaboration of a quartet of musicians from Kraków, Con Affetto, thanks to a brilliant co-producer in Kraków, cultural theorist Roma Sendyka.
A young violinist who appears in the images as Descartes’ friend, Reinier Schouten. One of the members of Con affetto doubles as Kristina’s young companion Ebba/Bella. Contemporary composer Raj Hoogland participated on Descartes’ side, along with singer Dzifa Kusenuh. Abel Streefland, who plays young Spinoza, doubles as a household cellist. Ilja Nieuwland plays Descartes’ friend of his younger years, Isaac Beeckman. The cast is reduced to a minimum; the main point is the portraits of the two main characters. Both will be surrounded by people: René by men, Kristina by women. As both main characters suffer from a “complexe d’abandon”, the relationships with these people wavers between friend, enemy, rival, object of jealousy, lover. The performance of their own bodily existence as well as of their relationships to others, to their immediate surroundings, and to nature is the most important part of the work.
A Long History of Madness
I will be brief on this project, which has its own website. This was our first endeavor into fiction, and thanks to an enormous group of participants who all contributed their insights and talents, we pulled if off. It was finished in 2011. The theoretical issue was: what can a society that drives people to madness, do to help those touched by it, without locking them up and drugging them down? Many exhibitions have been derived from this film, presented on the exhibitions page, from Saying It to Landscapes of Madness.
For Dr Françoise Davoine, Parisian psychoanalyst, this question becomes disturbingly real as one of her patients, Ariste, dies. Davoine is abducted and put on trial by mediaeval fools and through the course of one hellish day - across several centuries and countries – must argue her case for exoneration.
As the journey forces Dr Davoine to question her own life, via a mix of fiction, documentary and theory, A Long History of Madness takes the viewer on a one-of-a-kind journey into the minds of the ‘mad’ and those designated to cure them.
For more information visit the film’s official website.
The text below is already out of date; the project is finished. I leave it here until I embark on a new project.
In a next step of the video work in theoretical fictions I have embarked on a very ambitious project with Jeannette Christensen on An Aesthetic of Interruption: Stagnation and Acceleration. This is a project of “artistic Research” that integrates art making with analyzing. In the framework of that project I have developed, with French theatre actor Mathieu Montanier, a video installation that will be my contribution to the Interruption project.