November 24, 2008

The Return of the Dead

Watching Jean Renoir’s 1937 film Grand Illusion last night, I came upon a scene that arrested my attention with a shiver of the uncanny.  It’s near the start of the film’s final sequence, the trek of the escaped officers Maréchal (played by Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) from the German prisoner-of-war camp of Wintersborn to the Swiss border.  Unshaven and exhausted, in their ragged and mud-splattered coats and hats, they move through a desolate countryside like a couple of tramps.  Rising one cold morning from a ditch where they have huddled the night away, Maréchal says to Rosenthal, 

      — Let’s go.

But Rosenthal can only limp along behind Maréchal, slowing them down even further.                

— You coming or what?                        
— I’m doing the best I can.                         
— You and your foot.                         
— It’s not my fault! I slipped.                        
— You slipped!  That’s all I hear.

Extinction looms, yet their bickering seems comic.

      — We’re out of food.  Might as well give up now.                         
— Gladly.  I’ve had enough too.                         
— Had enough of me?
— Damn right!  If you only knew how you make me sick!

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?                         
— Come on.  Let’s go, fella.

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.   


LML said...

You have good taste in movies and books, Edmond.

Beckett's metaphysical reframing of slapstick comedy was certainly a distillation of something that already existed in the popular culture of his time. The effect on me is that I can't watch old comedy of the Marx Bros./Three Stooges variety without mentally editing the actors into Beckett characters. I can't believe I've missed the Grand Illusion connection. You make it sound so obvious.

Also, did you read the n+1 essay from an early issue (recently posted on their website, I think, for obvious reasons) about David Foster Wallace, in which the author makes a similar argument for DFW relative to his predecessors?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for the comment, LML - especially as it contains a compliment! And I'd add Buster Keaton to the Marx Bros. and Stooges and make it a Trinity. Keaton was even in Beckett's film, expressively entitled "Film," altho' if I remember correctly from what I read about it, in the Knowlson bio I think, it didn't sound like Keaton really "got" the project (not that I do, either).

I'll have to read the n+1 DFW article, thanks for the tip. By coincidence, I've just finished a post about DFW and the Wooden one, over at that other blog o' mine . . .

Richard said...

Don't forget Laurel & Hardy. (Though I admit I hadn't thought of them before reading Hugh Kenner's Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, but still... the connection seems obvious now.)

Edmond Caldwell said...

Yes, Laurel and Hardy must be added to the Trinity, which then becomes a barbershop quartet. Not to mention the fact that L&H are an actual (or virtual, at least) pseudocouple! Thanks…

Jacob Russell said...

I would begin by saying this is one of my favorite films, but am immediately chastened by your fine scolding of Wood on his DFW obit... as though I lend Renoir's work a greater measure of dignity by my unsolicited approval. So I will hide the thought as an indirect quote that exists only as an unrealized potential.

I read your piece with great pleasure... no sooner had you described the scene, before you made the connection explicit, than I heard Didi and Gogo. The association had not occured to me before. Waiting for Godot has taken deep root in my psyche (I played Lucky in a college "experimental theater" production in 1963.

I will forward a link to a friend who has a special love of this movie--who, in fact, introduced it to me.

BTW, did you see the post on Wood on Biographia Literaria? Though he seemed to have missed that Nigel is of the pro Wood sect, it was an interesting piece.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Oh no -- I didn't intend to dissuade anyone from honorable homage!

My first thought of when I read that you played Lucky in 1963 was that I would have been intimidated (or more correctly, even more intimidated than I'd be anyway) to be in a Beckett play while he was still alive. I'm not sure why that is, maybe just what I read about what an exacting director he could be (even though, obviously, someone else would be directing that production).

I have been thinking more about that sequence in Grand Illusion, though. About how there are no women and children in the film until the end, *after* the two officers have been through their Beckettian refugee purgatory. Before that it's all men, and all the men are warriors. Marechal and Rosenthal have to be stripped down to nothing in order to regain their common humanity -- it's essentially *anti-heroic* -- then they are fed and protected by the widow etc. It reminds me too of how Beckett never trumpeted his resistance activities, never seemed to give any quarter to conventional masculinist heroism. Ah well, not a conclusion, as you can see, just some random lines of inquiry...

Yes, there are consistently interesting posts at Blographia Literaria. I left a response to the first of the two James Wood posts, which made some good points but suffered from a weird inversion whereby Wood's detractors were suddenly somehow responsible for his current standing and needed therefore to explain themselves or be psychoanalyzed.... But there's a second "pro" Wood post that I'm off to read now.

Thanks for writing, Jacob,

Markus Wessendorf said...

This is interesting. I just googled "illusion jean renoir beckett godot" after watching Renoir's film. I was so struck by the similarities to "Waiting for Godot" that I wanted to see if someone else had noticed that, too... To me, the sequence suggestinh Renoir's influence on Beckett starts a little bit earlier, namely with the dialog between the von Stroheim character and his dying French friend--they are both talking about the "futility of existence." I was alert after that line...

Markus Wessendorf said...

This is interesting. I just googled "illusion jean renoir beckett godot" after watching Renoir's film. I was so struck by the similarities to "Waiting for Godot" that I wanted to see if someone else had noticed that, too... To me, the sequence suggestinh Renoir's influence on Beckett starts a little bit earlier, namely with the dialog between the von Stroheim character and his dying French friend--they are both talking about the "futility of existence." I was alert after that line...

Edmond Caldwell said...

In that case, you were alerted before I was; I hadn't made the connection until the more specifically 'Godot-like' scene... Thanks for the comment, Markus!

David said...

Thank you very much for sharing this observation. It accords very closely with my own experience on seeing the film for the first time and not knowing who had influenced whom. The landscapes of film and play were so evocative of oneanother. It will be interesting to see if there is any reference in SB's recently published Volume 2Letters which run to 1956.