Suffering or joy? (I)

The splitting of the film ‘Nymphomaniac’ into parts, out of commercial reasons, is generating a “tromp l’oeil,” a certain distortion of perspective. Lars von Trier’s films in general have two “parts,” their dialectical drama being a sliding from paradise to inferno. In this latest film, “paradisiacal” is the illusion of “perpetual orgy,” that hedonistic utopia that has been haunting our imaginary for well over half a century. We are still sensitive to the perspective of Marcuse, who saw “revolution” as a refusal of repressive societies that usually inhibit creative energies based on Eros. As generous as the image of a civilization that would no longer be in conflict with the creativity/aesthetics/liberty characteristic of transfiguring eroticism can be, an ethics capable of implementing it in the concreteness of life is not devoid of contradictions. To stake excessively on the benefits (even social) of satisfied pleasure entails instituting a narcotic regime.

In other words, “perpetual orgy” entails abuse. An abuse that abuses (the lead female character’s loss of erotic sensitiveness is also symbolical) and that cultivates a kind of moral autism. Preoccupation for the daily hit makes you insensitive to the “social” implications of your own gestures. It seems melodramatic, but the scene featuring the hysteria of the cheated wife (an admirable Uma Thurman) has a more brutal pendant at the end, when the young “heiress” of the vocation of nymphomaniac brutally humiliates her for her belated jealousy. To the extent to which Eros is blind, what do we do with the moral complications into which his “carelessness” throws us? Are they just a tolerable accident? Even the old Freud had sensed that the situation is rather insoluble, that a certain fundamental discomfort is intrinsic to civilization. It’s true however that he didn’t reach such a conclusion out of an excess of moral sensibility, but rather out of a Schopenhauerian scepticism. Lars von Trier dares, provocatively, to stress some of the dilemmas of the patriarch of psychoanalysis: incest, sadism, polymorphic sexuality, pedophilia. But his overall outlook remains a dark one in which sexuality is rather a curse, because its promises are deceiving, bringing suffering instead of joy. Like the old man to whom the heroine recounts her own life, the director is “an atheist interested in religion,” who has a blasphemic vision convergent with that of a Christian theologian. The nymphomaniac’s downfall apparently comes with age, with physiological decrepitude, with the implosion of a vital sensitivity. But in an essential way, at fault is not the “body” but the “demon,” because an existential curiosity is always at play: to taste the whipping of your own dignity, to seduce a husband with an ambiguous conjugal affection, to abuse the candor of a child, to let yourself in the hands of “dangerous people,” to hold the reins of several “studs,” etc. An example of fundamental convergence with a certain Christian vision is precisely the “passion” of Jesus, the heroine being whipped also on the “Roman model,” as a bonus (on Christmas Day, not by chance) from her “dominator.” The orgasm thus becomes a kind of Resurrection, a joy that follows suffering. What is nevertheless correct in such an association is the fundamental ambiguity of suffering. Historically speaking, suffering has been pedagogically justified in multiple ways. Even the Communists believed the camps to be places for reeducation, good to transform souls. The Christians did not think the same about the “penitences,” often imposed beyond the voluntary ones. And the calamities (wars, plagues, natural catastrophes) were seen by some as “purifying.” This “hygienic” mentality has in fact hidden countless crimes and abuses. To whip a masochist is not a gesture of charity. And to find moral justifications to your own sadism and lust for power is just a diabolic trick. Why did Christianity stress such urges, conferring to them perfect “theological” alibis?
In one of his comments, the old man in the film (a tolerant and scholarly Jew) talks about the difference between the spirituality of the Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Church, summed up in the stress placed on suffering and the one placed on joy. The Orthodox theologians that will venture to see such a scandalous film will quiver with pleasure when seeing this passage. Because the resonance of such an argument in the mind of a director like Lars von Trier proves marketing success.

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