Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

1925

Probably Woolf’s most widely-read novel, Mrs. Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s Ulysses in its multiple subjectivities, its urban exploration, and its one-day setting. As opposed to the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is usually described as hinging on free indirect discourse. This allows a jumping and flowing between subjectivities, but with an emphasis on the ambiguity of the third-person intercostal phrases that occur as mutually observed objects become nexus points for multiple viewers.

To me, it seems that while the object is the occasion for memory or perspectival change in Woolf, it proliferates in Joyce. That is, whereas the surfaces of Woolf’s world are points of contact with other people and with a deep store of memory, in Joyce, even for the more worldly Bloom (let alone the philosophical Stephen), they are occasions to ruminate and multiply associations. One of the most profound set of images for this in the novel comes with the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, who never meet. Both of them imagine connectedness with other people through trees – materially rooted and reaching at the same time, but imagine loneliness and depression through silent seas – not present but in the mind. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa goes to the window, she is able to imagine his death with her body first – a visceral giving on to his subjectivity in a wonderful moment of genuine sympathy, sadly absent between many characters who actually do know each other.

Woolf’s free indirect discourse also gives itself over to the characters in a sort of democratic consensus. On the novel’s first page:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when… 3.

This is echoed again in the last line, as Peter’s perspective opens outward: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” 194. The continuous present of Woolf’s past tense, as well as the lack of chapters, encourages the reader to process the novel as an accumulation of thought, of the “atoms as they fall,” as Woolf writes in “Modern Fiction.”

E. M. Forster writes of the “shimmering fabric of mysticism” in the novel, “required like most writers to choose between the surface and depths as a basis of her operations, she chooses the surface and then burrows in as far as she can,” perhaps a reference to Woolf’s own imagining of her characters as caves with tunnels connecting them. I’m also interested in the nascent split subject in this novel, especially Clarissa. Woolf and other modernist writers point to women, specifically, as always split. I will conclude the passage where Clarissa pulls the parts of her self together in the mirror alone:

“That was her self – pointed; dart like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives” 37.

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James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

E.M. Forster, “Aspects of the Novel”

1927

For Forster, the novel has not been adequately critiqued, partly because the tools we have to critique it are disorganized and problematic.

Forster likens Woolf to Sterne – both are “fantasists” who “start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again.” He does this to undermine chronology in literary study. He refers to Eliot’s tradition but says the novel is spongier and more difficult to pin down. Its seven traits are story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

Story: We live life by two times: actual and valued. The good novel succeeds in creating suspense for us – the desire to know what happens. This is important because life is lived sequentially, by anticipation. War and Peace exhilarates us by extending over space as well as time. (It’s interesting that he and Henry James would disagree on this so completely, given that he critiques James, who called Tolstoy’s novel “a loose baggy monster.”)

People: Characters are not people – they are like people. They spend far too much time in love and far too little time cooking and eating. We can know these people with more perfect clairvoyance and intimacy than our own friends by the author’s words. A character is real when we feel the author knows everything about him. Dickens writes flat characters, but they vibrate with vitality in their environment and against each other. A flat character is marked through the text in the same way by one characteristic and does not change. Round characters (in James and Austen) have the capacity to live outside the pages of the book they are in. They can surprise us.

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.”

Plot: Plot is a sequence of events given causality. The balance between plot and character is difficult, as the first must surprise and the second must run smooth – be believable. The reader must also have intelligence and memory to piece together facets of the reading experience across time.

Fantasy & Prophecy: Fantasy favors writers more interested in the world than the individual. Prophecy is the attendance of intangible infinity to the everyday (not the same as symbolism, with its concrete meanings).

Pattern & Rhythm: A novel’s pattern is its geometric shape – a circle, etc. The hourglass figure of The Ambassadors consists in the two characters switching places (Chad and Strether). For Forster, this pattern is too forced, achieved “at the cost of life,” and therefore “Beautifully done, but not worth doing.” If story satisfies curiosity and plot intelligence, then pattern satisfies aesthetics. Rhythm is a motif, an “almost-agent” in the text that arises at the right moments of the writer writing; rather than being planned, it “stitches the book from the inside.”

“Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that? Is there not something of it [that can bring us to] a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

“The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyze his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.”

“All history, all our experience, teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance like jugglers if it is to remain; if it is constant it is no longer a human relationship but a social habit, the emphasis in it has passed from love to marriage.”

 

Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading”

1969

“Books are objects. On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility… Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? They appear to be lit up with that hope. Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others” 1320.

“It would never occur to me to walk around a sewing machine or to look at the under side of a plate [feminized objects!]. I am quite satisfied with the face they present to me. But statues make me want to circle around them… Isn’t it because they give me the illusion that there is something in them which, from a different angle, I might be able to see? Neither vase nor statue seems fully revealed by the unbroken perimeter of its surfaces. In addition to its surfaces it must have an interior… the entrance to a secret chamber. But there is no such entrance” 1320. [think Heidegger and Husserl – the atomization of the object is infinite – also, the illusion of depth – the interface of surface and “depth.”]

“It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled-up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it… You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” 1321.

“I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case, the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself… to think what it thinks and feel what it feels” 1321.

“It is as if [the object] no longer existed, as long as I read the book… no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist… not in the paper object. Nor, surely, in external space… my innermost self… [the objects in it, like fish in an aquarium] need the shelter I provide: they are dependent on my consciousness… in order to exist as mental objects, they must relinquish their existence as real objects” 1321.

“On the one hand, this is cause for regret… I deliver myself… to the omnipotence of fiction… I become the prey of language… [which] surrounds me with its unreality. On the other hand, the transmutation through language of reality into a fictional equivalent has undeniable advantages. The universe of fiction is infinitely more elastic than the world of objective reality… They are objects, but subjectified objects. In short, since everything has become part of my mind, thanks to the intervention of language, the opposition between the subject and its objects has been considerably attenuated… I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects… They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject… I am thinking the thoughts of another… as my very own… I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him” 1322.

“Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them and shelters them… the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but feel what I read… Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another… within me” 1323 [facile, also absorption, feminizing]

“The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author, either in the disordered totality of his outer experiences, or in the aggregate, better organized and concentrated totality, which is the one of his writings… what matters to me is to live, from the inside, in a certain identity with the work and the work alone… Nothing external to the work could possibly share the extraordinary claim which the work now exerts on me” 1324.

“Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal… a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects” 1325.

“This astonished consciousness is in fact the consciousness of the critic… an uncertain movement of the mind toward an object which remains hidden. Whereas in the perfect identification of two consciousnesses, each sees itself reflected in the other, in this instance the critical consciousness can, at best, attempt but to draw closer to a reality which must remain forever veiled… since sight, the most intellectual of the five senses… against a basic opacity, the critical mind must approach its goal blindly, through the tactile exploration of surfaces… the material world which separates the critical mind from its object” 1326.

“The critics linguistic apparatus can… bring him closer to the work under consideration, or can remove him from it indefinitely… he can approximate very closely the work in question, thanks to a verbal mimesis which transposes into the critic’s language the sensuous themes of the work. Or else he can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power ont he part of the subject… [the object’s] infinite distance from the subject” 1328.

The first is complicity (union without comprehension), the second is disinterestedness (comprehension without union). He proposes the idea “not of practicing them simultaneously, which would be impossible, but at least of combining them through a kind of reciprocation and alternation” 1329. (A dialectic?) This is “a critical method having as guiding principle the relation between subject and object” 1332.

dir. Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner”

1982

Ridley Scott’s futuristic post-human adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” an assasin who is neither exactly vigilante nor part of the legal institutional framework, hired to kill “replicants” who have tried to return to Earth to live from the planet where they are slaves. As he falls in love with Rachel and tries to teach (program?) her about love even though he is supposed to kill her, the film leads us to question whether Deck himself, like Rachel, Pris, Zora, and Roy, is himself a replicant. The mixture of film noir and 1980s corporate culture with an imagined ‘future’ another 40 years hence (now almost the present!) suggests a concern not so much with the traditional noir anxiety about gender (though that is present as well), but humanity itself.

The “simulation city” of Scott’s imagination also has the dark, steamy fog and cramping light and space effects of film noir, where Rachel plays Joan Crawford to Dex’s Humphrey Bogart. It is carceral, hierarchized, and Foucauldian in its ‘futurism’ (not only in its surveillance, but in the brief lifespans of the “lower class” of replicants, which reminds me of what Foucault says about the bourgeois “cult of life” and trying to live forever). While the machines breathe and flicker like humans, naturalized, the humans are mechanical, robotic, unrecognizable in their humanity. The presentation of space renders the horizontality of LA as verticality, but often flatly – the opening scenes present the buildings as cutouts against the smog, the flying craft move in gridlike patterns (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “striated space”), and the advertisements playing on the sides of high-rises are like the opening credits of Mad Men – massive plays on surface and the Jamesonian sublime (many of the products are real, too – like Coke). This LA has illegible foods and surfaces, saturated as it is with a melange of “Asian” cultures – bicycles, noodles, and characters from numerous Oriental languages.

The film engages intertextually with a wide range of other materials. As a reworking of Shelley’s Frankenstein, it at least materializes women (which that novel does not – Dr. Frankenstein throws the component female parts into the sea in a trunk). But it parallels the classic novel in presenting the rejected spawn of the scientist’s mind as “human” – returning in this case to beg for more life. His queer, campy brand of aestheticized violence and superhuman capabilities remind me of Omar in David Simon’s TV series The Wire, and like the gay murderer of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Scott provides another model for homosexual masculinity than effeteness. Many of the female characters are strikingly robotic and, in Pris’ case (Daryl Hannah as a sex slave), unintelligent, suggesting that men have “programmed” them that way, both literally and metaphorically. Like Pynchon’s Pierce Inverarity, who lives on “as a paranoia,” Tyrell’s death fails even to dent the monolith of social change is corporation has wrought.

It would be interesting to think about how the original ending of the film – with the unicorn sequence revealing Deck as a replicant and the fantasy of “driving away” into the country would act in conversation with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, an urban tale focused on the many nodes of city space, as well as its resistant fringes (the underbelly of the city, too). This “resolved” ending is more 50s, or 80s-conservativist, and the more ambiguous end of the origami unicorn and uncertain escape seem more 40s, or noir, in tone.

The film interests me in terms of surfaces in a number of ways. First, it challenges the status and even the value of memory as a source of depth, as it was in many modernist works. Like the “unicorn sequence” that suggests Deckard’s “memory” is false as well, all the replicants are “implanted” with memories from a computer database, which they believe to be their own, but which are fabrications. Deckard’s name also has the ring of Descartes, or “deck-of-cards” – you might connect this to the crisis of the cogito, ergo sum in the film or to Eliot’s The Waste Land and the shuffling of pieces in and out of persona. Pris and Roy’s insistence on styling themselves is a sort of queer-empowered surface rendering of Foucault’s ideas about self-fashioning. Roy speaks largely in song lyrics, and the cheesy, melodramatic flight of the dove at his death makes him (his body) into a work of art in a paradoxically humanizing mode. The replicants also squat in an empty building like artists as well. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go seems to have faith that art is redemptive, whereas that is a subject for contemplation and distress in Scott’s universe.

 

dir. John Stahl, “Imitation of Life”

1934

In this first version of Fanny Hurst’s novel, released just a year after the book, white Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in black Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter Peola as live-in help. Bea markets Delilah’s pancake recipe, literally making her “the face” (like Aunt Jemima) of the business (this unfolds in the film through 2-dimensional renderings of Delilah’s smiling face that are continually flipped over – like pancakes – emphasizing their flatness). Jessie falls in love with Stephen, Bea’s beau, and they play out a comical “Boxer and the Bobby Soxer” routine before Bea refuses him, prioritizing her daughter’s feelings, and promises to come find him when Jessie has recovered. Like the Sirk film, the early version ends with the same grand funeral for Delilah, who dies of a broken heart after Peola abandons her, but here we see Peola “accept her race” and return to her Negro college. (See Lauren Berlant on both films.)

 

dir. Chantal Ackerman, “Jeanne Dielman”

1975

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a 1975 film by director Chantal Ackerman. 3 hours and 20 minutes in length, the film shows 3 days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian widow and housewife with one grown son, a university student, who sleeps at home and for whom Jeanne is still financially responsible. Jeanne fills her days from morning to night with the same routine she kept when her husband was alive, going to the market, making tea at a certain time, making particular meals on certain days (Ackerman said in an interview that “she didn’t need a man to go on living in that same way because she was so imprinted”). To make ends meet, she babysits for the neighbor in the morning and sleeps with men between 5 and 5:30 on weekday evenings. On the second day, Jeanne begins to “slip up” and make small mistakes in her routine (dropping a spoon, overcooking the potatoes), which rattles her. On the third day, she ends up with a span of free time because of some more slip-ups and sits in her living room in a restless panic. In the final sequence of the film, she reluctantly orgasms during sex with her client, fixes her hair in the mirror, takes a pair of scissors from the drawer, and stabs her customer to death.

The film is a little over the top in its feminist twist on Lacan (Ackerman said that her “unconscious” starts to come through when Jeanne’s schedule deteriorates and she makes her “slip-ups”), but it is a fascinating exploration of what “the female gaze” is, or what women are outside of their symbolic or exhibitionist value for men. The tiresome repetition with a difference is reminiscent of Stein, though the payoff in the ending here is much more shocking. This is certainly another ‘flat’ film in its shooting, though not in exactly the same way as some of the others. There are very few long shots or closeups in Jeanne Dielman; instead, most of the action unfolds in the mid-range shot typical of TV. The camera is conspicuous through its very lack of movement – we become aware of it because it does not follow Jeanne’s face. It is often positioned so that she is exactly at the center of a head-on meatloaf-mashing session, directly overhead during sex, or squarely off to the side of the kitchen, where she enters in and out of the frame as she continues her routine. It is this very passivity (itself a “feminine trait”) that makes us aware of how little of a woman’s world a movie actually shows, and absorbs us (again, in a yonic mode) in the non-action the film portrays.

dir. Mary Herron, “American Psycho”

2000

Mary Herron’s production of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel expertly nips and tucks the 400-page novel and makes of it a neat and resonant feature film. Starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (Owen), Chloe Sevigny as secretary Jean, Samantha Mathis as Courtney, and Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn. The way in which the film renders the flatness of the novel is partly by Patrick’s monotone voiceover, as well as a successful integration of the kinds of intermittent repetition that typify the novel’s prose: reworkings of the same bogus, overdone, expensive foods at the latest restaurant, Patrick’s dull informative lectures on the discographies of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston and the emptied-out lyrics of their meaningless love ballads, and, perhaps most insistently, Patrick’s “I have to go return some videotapes.” These are interspersed with routine depictions of extreme violence (Herron often cuts from the initial stab to the aftermath, with slightly more dramatic elisions than in the novel). As Namwali Serpell points out, these repetitions do not so much build to a cathartic climax as build to more repetition.

Patrick’s splitting of the world into atomized parts, places, and strata extends to his extreme splitting apart of female bodies, but this seems only the final and most perfect realization of the American cinema’s own desire to use the male gaze to synecdochize the female body beyond recognition into a series of disjointed fetishes (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality”). It has been suggested that the film is a feminist reworking of the novel, but I think the novel is, in a sense, already feminist, at least in the sense that its baroque excess invites no other interpretation so much as parody. We are gagging with disgust, but probably also with laughter. The novel’s famous puns (“Mostly murders and executions” is heard as “Mostly mergers and acquisitions”) remind me of Nabokov’s misheard phrases as well (Quilty: “Where the devil’d you get her?… I said the weather’s getting better”). Herron plays these to great effect in a picture of American surface and corporate culture that is just overperformed enough (Evelyn’s party, where everyone says “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”)  to resonate as satire.

Her excision of certain key moments of violence is also a way of letting us feel our temptation to witness those missing reels of film – diegetically, too, since Bateman films all of his sexcapades and murders. In emptying out the film of portions of the sequences of gore, she also interrupts the suture of the horror film, and forces us to jump from one moment uncomfortably into another. Herron told Christian Bale to think of the character “not in terms of psychology, but rather as a collection of impulses and modes.” Like Foucault’s model of power, then, perhaps the best response to such horror is an art that is large and proliferative enough to respond in kind – a faceted one. She has said in an interview:

[Christian Bale and I] talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

(In an interesting detail, in the novel, Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise in the elevator one day because he lives in the same building.) The eeriest aspect of both novel and film is not that Jason Bateman is secretly another person (one who either really kills people or really fantasizes about it all the time), but that he is openly so (at least in the imagined narrative he gives us), and that no one hears or sees him. Whether he has actually killed anyone or not, his thoughts irrupt the surface of his speech often enough to disturb. One of the cleverest shots of the film is the mid-range shot of Jason in the mirror after the opening sequence (knives and food), when he is detailing his morning cleansing routine to us. He describes his face mask and tells us that he is “simply not there.” As he says this, he peels a perfectly transparent mask from his face, encapsulating the way in which surface is content in this story.

The end of the film makes it even more tempting to see the murders as imaginary, perhaps because the special effects of the taxi murder scene are so familiar from Hollywood that we are prepared to read them immediately as false. As in Psycho, the facile psychological explanation at the end of the film does not ameliorate our horror in watching Mrs. Bates’ face dance over Norman’s and realizing that he killed those girls. In a similar way, the realization that Patrick Bateman (whose name carries the “Bate” of Bates and the “man” of Norman) may not have committed the crimes he describes is not enough to erase the ghastly experience of having imagined that he did  right alongside him. 

Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

1981

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) kind of make you wonder if Silvan Tomkins was thinking about him when he wrote about shame as the most vital and pronounced affect (along with its counterparts humiliation, contempt, and disgust). Shame is a sort of engine driving Carver’s work, which has also been called “dirty realism” (like that of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Beattie). He pursues the problems of ordinary working-class and middle-class Americans, as well as social outcasts and misfits (he’d be interesting to compare with Flannery O’Connor in this sense).  I’ll just be writing on the eponymous story of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, of which there are two versions – one more prolix, the other significantly cut down (by editor Gordon Lish) to something more muscular and streamlined (in other words, Carver:Lish :: Eliot:Pound).

It seems like Carver’s first version of the story, “Beginners” is concerned with the consciousness of the “real” vs. the “unreal,” in terms of both affection and phenomenological experience (“You’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing,” Herb says of the bloody accident). The flattening edits remove this consciousness from the prose, taking away, in turn, the characters’ consciousness of real and mediated experience – at least insofar as it is available for the reader to decipher. The depths are obscured, so that the edited story almost invites us to project (we can say this of Hemingway, Nabokov, Ellis, and a number of other “flat” writers as well). The main character loses, too, his cathartic moment of crying at the window, which is also the loss, to the second story, of the American pastoral. The tension between Terri and Herb is stronger than the original Laura and Nick.

Carver even talked about Lish’s edits in cardiologist’s terms – as a “surgery” Lish performed on his work, and worried that “my heart can’t take it.” Lish, for his part, seems to have wielded his higher class and more “literary” background over Carver and promised him that his edits would protect the writer from exposing too much, or appearing to lack craft. It is debatable which version is better; the original is more psychically complex, while the edited one has a sharper finish.

“BEGINNERS”

21 pages in length, the story begins in medias res in an odd tone that is both familiar and unspecific: “My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 927. Herb and Terri are the friends, Nick and Laura are the narrator and his wife. Terri claims her ex loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended up killing himself. Herb insists, “you know that’s not love,” and later “if you call that love, you can have it.” Herb’s example of true love, which he delivers as he gets drunker and tells Terri “Now just shut up for a minute. Okay?” is of an old couple badly injured in a car accident, which he invites the others to imagine based on the movies they’ve seen. They looked like “phony actors,” but this was “the real thing,” a parallel to the anxiety of performance surrounding love in the story as well 938. The old man says the last thought before the accident was the sadness of never seeing Anna again, and he is missing her in his recovery as well: “he pined for her. I nver knew what that word meant before” 940. As the couple are reunited, both Laura and Terri beg that the story end happily. They are both fine, Herb confirms as “The light seemed to be draining out of the room” 943. Herb’s desire to “carry off” Laura and his interest in vassals and knights demonstrates his confusion between chivalry and control, or perhaps the very fine line by which they are separated. Herb leaves to call his kids and Terri lets on that she’s worried about him because he’s suicidal. This reminds her of Carl, and she reveals that was once secretly pregnant with Carl’s baby, and that Herb himself performed the abortion. As Laura begins to comfort Terri, Nick pulls away to look out at the window, and we get an almost cinematic slow zoom outward: “I looked out… I looked past… I looked past… gate open… beyond… field of wild grass… another field… interstate connecting Albuquerque.” He sees the changed light and the blue sky like “the blue you see in tropical postcards.” His heart rate increases, then slows at Laura’s “penetrating” gaze when he turns around, which says to him “Don’t worry, we’ll get past this… That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway”. He looks back out, wishing there were horses to fix on: “I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.”

“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE”

Cut down to just 12 pages, the edit of Carver’s original story switches to Mel (not Herb) McGinnis, and Terri’s ex is now Ed (not Carl). It begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 310. It’s interesting that the story is subtler about both women’s weight, but somehow Terri is vulnerable to abuse at least partly because she is “bone-thin,” it seems. Nick treats the question of whether he loves Laura much more plainly and flatly here, which actually makes it seem faker, paradoxically. When he begins the story of the old couple, Mel whispers, “Just shut up for once in your life,” which again seems harsher than the original. The story is shorter, and Mel is rougher with it:
He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? … the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife” 320. Mel’s thoughts about killing his wife here are also more equated to the violence of Ed – a stronger endorsement of the suspicion that he beats Terri. Mel doesn’t call his kids and the narrator’s heartbeat gets fast, but without resolution: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” This ending almost makes it feel like a stage play – we look at all of them as the lights dim, no resolution.

dir. Mike Nichols, “The Graduate”

1967

Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who has just arrived home for the summer after completing his degree back East with accolades. He arrives in Pasadena to a dull series of parties and repeated conversations with his parents’ friends, all the while paralyzed about what to do with his life. He repeats his need to “just think – you know? Think!” to several other characters, but no one seems to hear him. The film begins its insistence on flattening gestures very early, denying the viewer any way in to the depth perception we normally seek (reminds me of The Master, 2012). Many such shots involve water and its silencing, suspending effects. In one shot, Ben is seated in front of a fishtank, as though his head were inside it. In another, he tries out the scuba gear his parents have given him as a gift, and the shot of him jumping into the water (all we can hear is his labored breathing through tubes) is devoid of the plunging sensation we expect (the getup would also be interesting in conversation with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” – here the absurdity of entering a swimming pool that way). Ebert’s 1967 review claims “the film itself reacts” to the humorous moments, rather than the actors, and one of the wonderful things about this “flat” shooting style is how aware it makes us of the camera, of the very suture the film is performing (instead of an “over the shoulder” shot with Mrs. Robinson, a “through the leg” shot), which parallels the deadening visual landscape of American suburban life (think American Beauty, 1999).

Ben is soon “seduced” by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, and they begin an affair that slows the pace of his life even further – to a tepid crawl. The montage of this affair is almost 2 songs in length, and begins with a long sequence of overhead shots of Hoffman floating in the pool or laying out on the diving board, shot from above to achieve the same effect of flatness. in both cases. He moves in and out of the Taft Hotel Room, even jumping out of the pool and straight into bed with Mrs. Robinson in one expertly done cut. Nichols also atomizes suburban space, focusing on the isolating, separate interiors of different rooms in hotels and houses by using different music for each. The repetitive, entrancing songs of Simon & Garfunkel are extradiegetic, whereas the sort of elevator music in each room that mildly titillates with an old-fashioned faux-sensuality are diegetic. These rhythms are echoed in the hotel room number, 568 – almost like a 5, 6, 7, 8 of a subdued 60s jazz group with all the radicalness sucked out of it (the affair is again tied to water through the initial interaction in the bar, portrayed as reflected in the shimmering glass of the coffee table).

The affair is so devoid of feeling that it actually makes the sex scenes fascinating to watch. The film, which Linda Williams mentions as one of the first popular films to exit the “long adolescence” of Hollywood movies and show that sex actually happened, deals with sex in such a frank, clinical way that the viewer hardly misses its explicitness – the absence of true scandal seems to come with the territory of this flat “love” affair. Ben and Mrs. Robinson (whom he never addresses any other way, emphasizing both her age and status as property of her husband) always have sex in the dark, and Ben’s attempts to make conversation with her fail repeatedly: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she says. He finds out she majored in art after she says she isn’t interested in it, and he says, “I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years.” “Kind of,” she says. The scene develops vital sympathy in us for Mrs. Robinson – we learn she married her husband because she was pregnant with Elaine and that they now sleep in separate bedrooms. It is also in this scene that they have a terrific fight over Ben taking Elaine out on a date sometime, in which Ben calls Mrs. Robinson “a broken down alcoholic” and refers to the affair as “the sickest, most perverted thing that’s ever happened to me.” They make up, but tenuously and with no further conversation.

When Mrs. Braddock confronts Ben about the affair, too, it is in a steamy bathroom, which eliminates the points of perspective in the background, leaving us with a confused image of Ben, his mother, and the mirror. When he cuts himself, it initiates a kind of transition in the film – a sharpness that dissipates some of the steam and will emerge fully when Ben’s parents ask him to take Elaine Robinson out on a date, despite her mother’s explicit instructions to Ben to the contrary. The date starts off badly, with a shades-wearing Ben dragging Elaine to a strip club, where what should be a cloying scene is somehow remarkably touching through the eyes of the anxious, overperforming Ben: as the stripper (who looks a lot like Elaine) wiggles her tassle-pastied breasts over Elaine’s head, a single tear slides down the girl’s cheek. Ben chases her out, kisses her, and the talk begins to flow over burgers at the drive-in. They spend most of the night out and begin to fall in love: “You’re the first thing in so long that I’ve liked, the first person I could stand to be with,” says Ben.

When Elaine discovers that Ben’s affair with a married woman is with her mother, she of course freaks out and Mrs. Robinson says a cool “goodbye” to him as he rushes from the Robinson house. With this rupture, however, comes a brief moment of depth and color, where we see Ben juxtaposed against the fish tank (but clearly behind it and off to the side) and then in an upstairs window looking down at the pool. These shots restore a sense of depth and perspective to the world we’ve seen Ben in. Ultimately, he announces to his parents that he’s getting married to Elaine, though “to be perfectly honest she doesn’t even like me,” and drives to Berkeley to find her.

In the next few scenes, Ben stalks Elaine, who eventually comes to his apartment to confront him about “raping” her mother. The casualness with which this term is used is striking and pretty funny. They begin seeing each other again and toying with the idea of marriage (clearly the only outcome they can imagine for their feelings given their mutual upbringing), but Elaine writes Ben a letter one day saying “it could never be” because of her father. Pretty soon the father awaits Ben in his room and confronts him, insisting that he must have something against him in order to go after his women. “We might just as well have been shaking hands,” Ben says of his affair with the mother, whereas he insists, “I love your daughter.”

The final few scenes are a drawn-out process of Ben driving from Berkeley to Pasadena to Berkeley to Santa Barbara to track down Elaine on her wedding day to Carl. Not only are all the musical overtures by Simon & Garfunkel, but the repeated use of “Scarborough Fair” for one direction of driving and “Mrs. Robinson” for the other wear out our senses and literally parallel Ben’s schizophrenic emotions (“she once was a true love of mine” vs. “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson). He arrives at the church after the wedding kiss (“He’s too late!” snarls Mrs. Robinson), but as he bangs on the upstairs window (yet another exchange of point-of-view shots from each of their perspectives, emphasizing depth, rather than flatness), Elaine cries back “Ben!” and rushes to the door. In the funniest scene of the movie, Ben and Elaine fight off the congregation with a crucifix, which they also use to bar the doors and make an escape on a yellow schoolbus. “It’s too late!” Mrs. Robinson shouts at her daughter, slapping her. “Not for me!” responds Elaine. In the final sequence of the film, their elation gives way to a sort of affectless, individual, inward introspection of what they have done, and the final shot shows the bus from the back winding down the road with his head and her veil visible through the window. While there is no guarantee that their love will last, the affirming and relieving power of the end of the film lies in their decision to act and to choose, rather than to continue the script of what is expected, or, as Ben claimed of his affair, let it “happen to me” with no accounting for his own actions.