Abstracting Narratives

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel boldly says that History can be abstracted and thus summarized quickly as really the history of freedom. I’ve been thinking lately about how powerful this Hegelian method of thinking through abstraction can be.

What gives me pause in works of art are the moments where there is a stillness. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but what I mean by stillness here has to do with the idea of abstraction, or rather–in an almost naïve way–losing track of the unnecessary intricacies of a narrative. The narratives become abstracted and we go to a different perspective, where one can feel the undercurrent of humanity and life flowing. In an interview with Libération, filmmaker Chris Marker stated, “Ce qui me passionne, c’est l’Histoire, et la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent” (“What interests me is History, and the cross-section of History in the present”). The filmmakers within the movement of Le Groupe Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) such as Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda were focusing on this perspective of “la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent.”

Still from Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7

Still from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

A great example of the Left Bank’s approach can be seen in comparing two different approaches to the simple narrative of two people falling in love in Paris. One need only compare Jean-Luc Godard’s famous À bout de souffle (1960) to Varda’s relatively overlooked Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). Frankly, besides Godard’s technique in editing, I think À bout de souffle can be mostly discarded as a self-obsessed, narrow-minded artifact of the 60s. Varda’s Cléo, on the other hand, while telling almost the same story, is able to cut deeper to the heart of human existence. The historical consciousness of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wouldn’t be successfully realized in the hands of those on the the Right Bank, better known as the Nouvelle Vague.

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek points out the power of this naïve abstraction:

How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of a blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision (279-280).

Still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

I feel that there is a great affinity between the American filmmaker Terrence Malick and the Left Bank. One of Malick’s films gives us the chance to inspect another interesting comparison with films more contemporary than those above: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Both storylines occur over a short period of time during the second World War, although they take place in different fronts: one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Saving Private Ryan seemed to have garnered more acclaim as a war film, whereas The Thin Red Line seems like something else. In a conversation recently with a friend who angrily denounced The Thin Red Line for having no real story, I ended up exclaiming, “Yes, exactly! There is no story!” Although the film is about the taking of Guadalcanal told from the perspective of several U.S. soldiers, the film is more about life. This is not to say that Malick can’t tell a story, but rather that Malick’s story dwells so much on existence that it becomes more of a meditation–a stasis that moves, rather than a story arch, in which a main character(s) encounters an “inciting incident” that calls him to action so that he may overcome an obstacle, which is then resolved in a dénouement. What is the ending of The Thin Red Line? What is the “inciting incident”?

Appropriately, Hegel-scholar Robert Pippen has written about this abstraction in Malick’s film. In “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Pippin writes,

In all of Terrence Malick’s five films, various genre conventions of Hollywood movies like these are invoked and structure much of the narration. This is especially true of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which has many of the elements of a Hollywood World War II movie. But, as in his other films, these genre conventions create expectations and suggest explanations that are then undermined, refused, left open, made to seem irrelevant, made mysterious, or even ironized.

The implication is unavoidable that, therefore, these conventions about motivation and value are no longer available, no longer credible, and the viewer has to struggle to find some point of orientation. This sense of being lost, once these conventions are invoked and then refused, is the main effect on any viewer and seems a major point of the film itself (249).

[…] since the voice-overs are unattributed by visual cues or anything else, the thoughts seem to float in logical space, as if they could visit any character or be shared by, be thought by, anyone (252).

I really still need to see Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas above correspond to that film too.

One thought on “Abstracting Narratives

  1. Pingback: The Guardian on Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason | Louis Sterrett: Blog

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