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On Crying In Theaters
The week before I watched Chloé Zhao’s Eternals and read Amitava Kumar's A Time Outside This Time and I have not felt more grateful and more afraid of being a human
An anecdote my professor told me about the Khmer Rouge, the brutal Communist regime in Cambodia between 1975-79, comes to mind. There was a complete shroud of oblivion over Cambodia for those years — no one knew what was going on, we still don’t know the whole story. Overnight the cities were emptied and the men, women, children were hounded to the countryside to perform agriculture. Currency was burned. Men with glasses, suspected of being academics and thus critics, were killed. Time was re-ordained, christened Year 0. Marriage was arranged by the state — men standing in one line, women in the other, and then under the orders of the leader, coupled off. A uniform was forced upon the citizenry — black unisex pajamas. Families were separated, sent off to different rural corners of the country. A total disorientation of the human spirit. Over a million died — more than 60% of which were executed and laid to rest in mass graves, flesh fumbling into fertilizer. The genocidal purge ended in 1979 when Vietnam overthrew them.
But then, my professor noted, when the men, women, children of the city — those who survived, those who didn’t migrate through the cracks of the border — tried to occupy whatever houses they could, a curious problem emerged. Often, they would find themselves neighbours of the same men who had hacked and tortured their relatives, lovers, friends, children. The seed of their despair was living a thin wall away. But life had to go on, didn’t it?
There is this bizarre meaninglessness that modern life has come to embrace. A maddening whiplash that allows for revenge and neighbourly toleration to coincide. To see in murderers, a neighbour, and in neighbours, a hollowed out family. This is, possibly, what philosopher Hannah Arendt called, in the context of Nazis packing off Jews into concentration camps, “the banality of evil” — to perform evil without being evil, performing it like a chore, with moral indifference but total comforting subservience to a leader. Like a cloak that can be shrugged off, not a personality trait that animates the spirit. That the men and women, thoughtless cogs in the machinery of mass murder, were “terrifyingly normal… neither perverted nor sadistic”. They were lost. And they found meaning or convenience in murder.
This is, also terrifyingly, not so different from the moral crisis we are stumbling in the dark through today, where violence, gossip, philosophy, photography, and memes are flattened out into the infinite scroll of social media. Think of the moment you scrolled past news of murder, what came before, what came after. Another journalist who is jailed for raising the country’s consciousness towards the burned mosques in Tripura. Another cricket match. Another census enumerating churches with a threatening eye. Another half-hearted Eternals pan. When I had read The Stranger by Albert Camus I was completely disillusioned by the main character — someone who can kill someone, unwittingly, and yet feel no remorse. (I finished the book at 7 a.m. in a humid but chilly Bhubaneswar morning, burned through my coffee, walked to my office, ten minutes away, and that was when I decided I had to leave Economics for something else, for over time it bled the same shoulder-shirking indifference into my life, where I was more convinced by farmers as data points on my computer than farmers whose stories I would shrug off through interviews.)
How different is seeing everyday violence and not feeling that immediate surge of disgust and despair, from performing violence and not feeling that immediate burst of remorse? How close are we to being immune to not just spectating murder but performing it? I had seen a man beat up a woman on the road as the auto I was in drove by. My cousin was mad that we drove on. My aunt said we shouldn’t get involved. We didn’t stop, though I knew we should have. Even if we did, what would I have done?
Amitava Kumar’s novel A Time Outside This Time, follows an author at a retreat working on a novel on the chaos and dishonesty of the post-truth mileu as the pandemic seeps into the edges of everyday violence. In an interview with The Hindu he said, “You can’t save the world. But you must record it,” and this book is a record of our time — the lies, the lynching, the lassitude . It is also testament to the fact that news, obituaries, experiments, gossip, all of this swirls around our life without puncturing us to action. To be constantly plugged into the despair around the world is thus, to recognize that one should feel moved by this despair, moved enough to act against it, and yet, we remain unmoved. Didn’t the political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s research note that only 3.5% of a population is needed for a successful revolution? So what’s the delay? Why am I writing this newsletter instead of … instead of doing what? Kumar recognizes the silence after the question. In the very first page he notes, “All my projects [are] seeded in guilt.”
I guess I am trying to ask how far performing violence is to not being disgusted by it. They are not the same, that is true. But aren’t they adjacent? Don’t they spring from the same well of indifference? Can we not, like the narrator The Stranger, perform violence without hate?
When Albert Camus (you need to pronounce it Al-beh Keh-moo if you find yourself at a posh dinner table) came to New York in 1946 for his first ever American tour — an official government trip to promote French culture — he was to give a speech at Columbia. The anthropologist Lévi-Strauss asked him to speak on “exclusively literary topics, please”. Camus replied, “I never thought my talks in the US would be of a political nature. Of course I can talk of strictly literary matters, but I really don’t think any of the artistic problems of the day can be considered apart from their human consequences.”
He spoke on “The Human Crisis”, about a generation “whose intelligence and hearts were formed during the terrible years, when, like their country, they were nourished on shame and lived by rebellion… to believe in nothing, and yet, to rebel.” A generation which contemplates “death and torture with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity… Human suffering is a boring obligation…. Human suffering is no longer a scandal.” Isn’t that exactly where we are today, too? If the post-war years of America were reflected in how artists moved away from figuration towards abstract expressionism — Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock — throwing paint at the canvas in a desperate plea for meaning among the rubble of post-war madness, a chromatic scream at a blank canvas, how will this moment manifest? If it is more memoirs or fiction that reads like non fiction, then fuck that.
The twin problem of the human condition, at least as I see it, is that we can neither be persuaded against our beliefs nor do we want to be humiliated for them. (Chekhov said that about humiliation, I think, that it is important that no human being be humiliated.) How then, to learn, to turn over ideologies? To become someone, something different?
But there is some hope to be had if we look at the sweep of history. That while every generation thinks it is in the moral twilight of human civilization, life still endures, somehow. That we can fixate on the putrid moral condition of the contemporary world — Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time, which cites Abramović — and yet be provided with the comfort of a larger frame of human civilization, a comfort to press up our weary heads against — Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. For as Kumar notes in his book, Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, believed that the earliest inkling of civilization is a healed femur, suggestive of care, “Compassion … is the first sign”.
One evening — there was pesto, wine, fairy lights, ice-bursts, humid air, a cherry red ceramic apple-shaped ashtray — trying to convince a friend to watch Eternals, I told him, and I realized the truth of what I was telling him as I was saying it, to watch the eyes of the actors. The director Chloé Zhao fills them with ambiguous intention. When lovers glare, there is some permutation of pain and pleasure. She allows a moment to breathe, not filling it with meaning or plot, but atmosphere and ether-like intention. To tap into it, you need to anchor yourself somewhere. The story — the go-to anchor for most critics, and this would explain the negative reviews — is not the place for Eternals has a tepid, even lazy story. 10 super heroes come back to save a civilization. What’s new? For me, the anchor was the eyes. They would brim with so many things that need to be said, but never get said because the discerning node connecting thought and speech short circuits itself in overwhelmed anticipation. Towards the end, in the theater, I cried.
It wasn’t a stream of tears, but I could feel a moistness slowly bulging over my eyes, like a thick, dense drop of dew that could any moment detach itself from the eyes. Two characters hold hands — the man is looking away, towards the sky, the woman comes from behind and fits her hand in his. The sun is about to set or rise, that golden air thick, honey light fighting to assert itself among the loose fiber of the man’s sweater, between strands of her hair. They have been here before, together. It was more than a thousand years ago. They had kissed. They had fucked. They had parted. They are here again. He’s Ikarus, who will fly too close to the sun. He’ll melt away in guilt. She is Sersi, who can transform a red bus into rose petals, a falling statue into sand dust, and yet can’t transform her feelings into form. For him, duty is love. For her, empathy is. The tension in the story that tests their love is how they see love, and how empathy and duty can often push two, very different ideas of justice to war. She wants to save the Earth, he wants to fulfil the duty for which he was sent to Earth. They realize they are standing on opposite banks of an ideological river.
The moment that truly broke me, however, the defining moment of the film, was when one of the Eternals, a forever-teenage girl, is asked if she would trade in all her powers — her ability to summon, shift, and disappear and her DNA that prevents ageing — in order to be a human who ages, to be able to grow up enough to not just assert her lust and consent confidently, but to insist on it being returned.
In a heartbeat, she gave up all the centuries she could have lived through just to be able to get her heart broken, and fester into ashen death. Isn’t that something?
I am currently reading the Chilean writer Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand The World, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, where he fictionalizes the lives of men (just men) who opened up the world with inventions and ideas — the singularity, Prussian blue, the atom — that would later be morphed by that very world into weapons — cyanide, bombs, insanity. A story of how “discovery brings destruction”. Very rarely have I read prose that reads like a fever dream, I feel like I am floating in the magic of the words, yet grounded by the despair of its meaning. In the chapter on German physicist Karl Schwarzschild — who provided the first exact solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity, according to this version, from his meditations on the battlefield of the First World War — he mentions the singularity, that moment when mass of an object becomes so concentrated, so dense that space and time would be deformed, a “metaphysical delirium”.
On the trenches, staring at dead horses and men in gas masks, he realized that “if the singularity were ever to exist, it would endure until the end of the universe”. To be eternal, that is. And that would be “to neither grow nor diminish, but remain eternally as it was. Unlike all other things, it was immune to becoming...” And that is what the teenager, the superhero yearns for. Not to be — as you would if you were a superhero, born to crisp perfection and with certain intention — but to become. It was this state of eternal being that Schwarzschild worried about, but not for too long. Soon, he would be diagnosed with pemphigus, when “the body fails to recognize its own cells and attacks them violently”, and within months he died.
These are the days I am brought back to a story from the epic Mahabharata. I wish I could remember the details. I remember the scene. A man falls into a hole dug into the earth, and as he is falling, he grabs onto a stray branch so he doesn’t fall to the ground with a bone breaking thud. As he hangs, he hears a choir-like hiss, and when he looks down, realizes that the hole he fell into is in fact, a snake pit. His heart beats in fear, dew-like sweat emerging on his forehead. Under the pressure of his grip he begins to feel the branch slowly giving way, letting loose from the soil it is moored in. The beating becomes palpable, thudding against his rib cage, causing ripples on the skin across his chest. When, defeated, he looks up, he sees a pregnant beehive, bursting with sweet, fragrant, golden honey. Like wine spilling from a full glass, honey leaks from the hive. He reaches his tongue out, like the barren arms of an autumnal tree, and as the drop plops onto his fleshy tongue, he can feel the sweetness suffuse his entire body. That moment, we are told, is life.
I am taking a break for a week and a half, traveling South to old temples. So, the next you’ll see me in your inbox is in two weeks. In the interim, fatten my subscriber count please? Like, share, write to me.