by Nash Croker
Susan Sontag tells me that Vivre Sa Vie is a ‘demonstration’, so I will demonstrate for you the life that I live. If a film can be ‘proof’, then so too can this essay.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1964)
For all the sexuality, Jean Luc Godard explicates a musing on the problem of language in his 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie. As we watch a ‘demonstration’ of Nana (Anna Karina) living her life in twelve tableaux; leaving her husband, attempting acting, entering sex work, and ultimately being murdered - Godard interrupts with several textual allusions. From Dreyer’s 1928 classic La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc, to Poe’s The Oval Portrait (1842), it is difficult to see how these textual references do not comment upon the action of the film, at least to forebode Nana’s death with a wink and a nod to the well-versed viewer. Godard is undoubtedly a writerly film maker. Much can be said to the way his films lack interpretation or analysis of the ‘proof’ he exhibits. Yet, so much as he shows with his own camera, he tells with his use of texts.
Before her eventual death, Nana embarks on a debate with the philosopher Brice Parain in a cafe. Unlike the others, this interjection into the plot does not appear to comment on the events of the film in so far as it is a commentary on film itself. She asks if one can live without words, but talking is thinking and thinking talking, for Parain there is no life without thought and thus - words. One then cannot speak well without first speaking poorly. Crucial less to Nana and more to Godard, is the problem of language explored in this Parisian conference. Language itself is a poor imitation of the profundity of thought, yet thought can only be expressed in language. Godard’s films may be full of language, but they typically lack an overbearing commentary or authorial voice. Instead the ideas expressed span in scope well beyond the film itself. Godard as director, then explores the problem of language through film itself. The 90-minutes or so he creates can never truly encapsulate his vision and the ideas entertained within them. Like language, Godard’s films are a formidable if poor imitation of ideas. In their own way, his use of texts help to bridge this fact, interjecting others’ ideas into his own to expand his film beyond the film itself.
More so than an attempt at reconciling Sontag’s view of a film that cannot not feel like a morbid moral to his own wife - she will die for living her life - however, is the application of the problem of language to subjectivity. Nana’s philosophical debate is part of Godard’s musing on prostitution - passionless sex - as a betrayal of consciousness just like language. Like Nana’s (Karina’s?) life, the link is cut short, but it is better explored in another favourite; Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Here, the problem of language becomes that of the problem of subjectivity. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is a celebrated actor, yet midway through a performance she stops. This ‘breakdown’ leaves her silent and in the care of Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse. Elisabet’s career is in the performance of roles, but what then or who is she? Her realisation of her own performative existence (that we are all acting out roles) becomes her ‘breakdown’ into silence. Language is a betrayal of consciousness, is a betrayal of her consciousness - so she shuts up.
Yet, to not speak is to deny oneself an existence in the world. Spivak’s ‘Subaltern’ springs to mind. Speaking is a primary route to sociability, it is how many of us communicate with others. Yet to be social requires not just a voice and thus language, but a subjectivity through which to make oneself legible to another. Language demands a subject just as sociability requires subjectivity. As Elisabet retreats into silence she becomes increasingly lonely, separated from her husband, swept off to an island in the sole care of her nurse.
But by now it has already become clear that it is Alma who is the real patient. Elisabet’s ‘breakdown’ occurs before the fact of Bergman’s film. Encased in Elisabet’s silence Alma opens up about her truth. She likes her job and her husband, but there is always other enticing possibility beyond the comfort of the role she has drifted into. While she has reassurance and respectability in this path, this social security comes at the cost of subjectivity. As she recounts the frivolous pleasure of a spontaneous beachside orgy we are made more aware of the costly marital sex she had later that same night. The weight of subjectivity chosen by and for her elucidates her breakdown, facilitated by Elisabet’s silence and her own words.
“I’m so tired of subjectivity”
- Jenny Hval, Female Vampire (2016)
This problem of subjectivity, however, is really a problem of love. Love requires sociability and thus subjectivity. To give oneself to another requires one to be someone or something to give. To be legible in the eyes of a lover is to have a subjectivity that they can perceive. Do we love our image of our partner or who they really are? As Fanon’s ‘Fact of Blackness’ makes plain, these social subjectivities are a stifling process of assuming the role of ‘Other’. Too often to claim subjectivity, to be legible in the eyes of a lover, is to deny one’s self, is a betrayal of consciousness. Love then is just another process of ‘Othering’. Yet to refuse, as Elisabet Vogler’s fictional existence shows, is to be lonely, to be no one.
Crucially, Bergman’s film takes a turn. Alone on the island, these almost indistinguishable women stray into one. Sat opposite on a table, Alma recounts in horrific detail the tale of Elisabet’s motherhood. Twice. The second time we see Elisabet’s anguish at the revelations of her innermost conscience from some other who had no means of knowing. In this moment the two consciousnesses become one as Alma essentially speaks for Elisabet. Alma violently recoils, claiming not to be like her, slapping and then sucking the blood Elisabet’s pressured nails released on herself. If there is consummation of love in Persona it is in this violent scene, fighting is fucking for two queer subjects trapped in the confines of their subjectivity - it is through fighting and breaking norms that queer identity is reified.
It is this bleeding of consciousness, however, that seems to offer something on love. Alma becomes Elisabet by truly understanding her from within, she inhabits Elisabet’s consciousness. Elisabet then comes to recognise herself through someone else. She has silenced herself to not betray her consciousness, but now her consciousness has betrayed her through another - Alma. The subjectivity expressed in Alma’s account of Elisabet may be traumatic for her to hear, but only so far because it is true. The subjectivity is not false, she is interpolating herself through another. Love then, as a bleeding of consciousness, as an understanding without words, speaking through each other, is to interpolate one's own self. Love in Persona is less about becoming, and more about recognising and identifying yourself through someone else. Elisabet hails herself through Alma. Love acts as desubjectification; taking off “the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
“...I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation”
- Susan Sontag, Journals and Notebooks (1964-1980)
So much of existing in this world is a process of (dis)identification. Forming the self through identifying what I am not; heterosexual, gendered, white, american. Yet when you exist in a state inbetween legible subjectivities this process is doubled to challenge even the possibility of belonging; not heterosexual not homoseuxual, not male not female, not white not brown. To exist then is to embody a constant process of self-transformation. One does not then take up subjectivity or reject it, but search for recognition in another’s identification of myself as between legible subjectivities.
In this way, love is life and death. In love I am not seeking myself, but identifying myself through another - I belong in and to them. I long for another to see me for who I am. Love is about learning to love yourself through another because you cannot love yourself alone - because if we are not recognised, if we do not speak, then do we really exist?
Godard’s film opens with an epigraph from the French philosopher Montaigne: “Lend yourself to others and give yourself to yourself.” There is something to love and the search for it in this quote. Back to Parain in the cafe, Nana must fail before she finds what she is after, there is no going straight for the truth. Love then, too, is a constant project of self-actualisation and self-realisation. One that involves failure but through the right eyes may unerringly be true. If belonging is what we seek, then perhaps we can find it in love.