— Let’s go.
But Rosenthal can only limp along behind Maréchal, slowing them down even further.— You coming or what?
Extinction looms, yet their bickering seems comic.
— We’re out of food. Might as well give up now.
In a burst of rancor and recrimination, they split up. The gimpy Rosenthal slumps on a rock, while Maréchal makes his own way across the barren heights. Eventually, however, he reappears at Rosenthal’s side.
— Why’d you come back?
Maréchal helps Rosenthal to his feet. They go on.
Exigency has stripped all fullness of character from these two; somehow they are bound to each other, but it has less to do with personal psychology or even, finally, with shared history than it does with sheer existential necessity: they have become a pseudocouple.
Of course, they were not a pseudocouple earlier in the film, nor will they be by the film’s end, but there are moments during this bleakly comic sequence when viewers might be forgiven for thinking they’re watching a cinema adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and moreover one that somehow managed to get filmed a dozen or so years before the play was written. The impression is so strong that when Maréchal and Rosenthal finally reach safe harbor, it doesn’t seem like they’ve escaped German soldiers or starvation so much as they have some condition of interminability that must be the deep grammar of such wasteland trials. A fissure opens up in Jean Renoir’s generous humanism through which a rather starker vision appears, one that parallels Beckett’s in situation, costume, dialogue, setting, and, in flickering moments, sensibility. Even the names Maréchal and Rosenthal have the rhyming lilt of Beckett’s first pseudocouple, Mercier and Camier, who served as a sort of dry run for Didi and Gogo.
Surely I can’t be the first person to have noticed this. I check the indexes in the Beckett biographies, but there’s no reference to the film or the director. Googling a variety of Beckett-Renoir search terms, however, nets me a couple of related hits. Yes, it’s been suggested before that this sequence in Grand Illusion may have influenced Godot.
But now that I think of it, the term “influence” doesn’t do justice to my experience. It had seemed, during that sequence anyway, that Renoir had quite simply been displaced – or had graciously given way – and the film inhabited instead by the Beckett of Godot. During Maréchal and Rosenthal’s trek, Beckett was primary, Renoir came after. To put it another way: Renoir was influenced by Beckett.
I’d heard of this strange phenomenon before, but I had to wrack my brains for a while until I could remember where. Before Harold Bloom became the windbag that inflated such volumes as The Western Canon, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and How to Read and Why, he was an idiosyncratic late-Romantic Freudo-gnostic who wrote a very interesting book called The Anxiety of Influence. The book outlines six “revisionary ratios” or literary ju-jitsu techniques whereby “strong” poets have been able to defeat their precursors and transform mere “influence” into original art. One of these is apophrades, or, The Return of the Dead, of which Bloom writes:
The apophrades, the dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to inhabit their former houses, come to the strongest poets, but with the very strongest there is a grand and final revisionary movement that purifies even this last influx. Yeats and Stevens, the strongest poets of our century, and Browning and Dickinson, the strongest of the later nineteenth century, can give us vivid instances of this most cunning of revisionary ratios. For all of them achieve a style that captures and oddly retains priority over their precursors, so that the tyranny of time almost is overturned, and one can believe, for startled moments, that they are being imitated by their ancestors.
In this observation, I want to distinguish the phenomenon from the witty insight of Borges, that artists create their precursors, as for instance the Kafka of Borges creates the Browning of Borges. I mean something more drastic and (presumably) absurd, which is the triumph of having so stationed the precursor, in one’s own work, that particular passages in his work seem to be not presages of one’s own advent, but rather to be indebted to one’s own achievement, and even (necessarily) to be lessened by one’s greater splendor. The mighty dead return, but they return in our colors, and speaking in our voices, at least in part, at least in moments, moments that testify to our persistence, and not to their own.We’ve probably all had the experience, and not only with poetry, of reading a writer’s work and suddenly coming upon lines or a passage which really seems to have been written by a later writer, to be in fact the very sort of material which properly belongs to that later figure. And clearly this phenomenon can cross boundaries of genre and even of medium. But while Beckett may or may not have seen Grand Illusion in the time between its first release in 1937 and its seizure by the Nazis as “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1” in 1940, I don’t think that he can be said to have suffered any anxiety of influence in relation to Renoir such that he would have felt compelled to engage the director’s work in one of Bloom’s revisionary wrestling matches. Beckett’s contest was with Joyce, and it wasn’t until the precursor had died that he could even begin to undertake his revisionary purgation, eschewing the encyclopedic for a sort of via negativa, the way of ignorance, of not-knowing and of failure. The appearance of Godot in Renoir’s Grand Illusion is one measure of the paradoxical “success” of that venture.