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Catastrophe and Utopia
Ghare Baire, or the Household Goddess
Future mysteries will arise from the ruins of today's. —LOUIS ARAGON, Paris Peasant
REDEMPTIVE HISTORY/REFLEXIVE CINEMA
On July 25, 1915, the New York Times reviewed a biography of Rabindranath Tagore that quotes the poet advancing the following contrast between European and Indian women:
In Europe homes are disappearing and hotels are increasing in number. When we notice that men are happy with their horses, dogs, guns, and pipes and clubs for gambling, we feel quite safe to conclude that women's lives are being broken up.... Our women make our homes smile with sweetness, tenderness, and love.... We are quite happy with our household goddesses, and they themselves have never told us of their "miserable condition." Why, then, should the meddlers from beyond the seas feel so bad about the imagined sorrows of our women? People make mistakes in imagining too much as to what would make others happy or unhappy. If perchance the fishes were to become philanthropists their tender hearts would find satisfaction only in drowning the entire human race in the depths of water.
The reviewer notes that Tagore seems to have possessed "sparkle and depth," although nothing is said about his droll assessment that "in Europe homes are disappearing." Close to a century later, it remains unclear whether these words would meet with anything other than dismissal. For some contemporary readers a sense of humor might not be enough to overlook Tagore's paternalism toward the "household goddesses" who apparently made Indian homes "smile with sweetness." Others might find it implausible to suggest that non-Western women enjoyed any advantages over their European counterparts, then or now. Still, the fact that times have changed, or that a feminist recasting of "the woman question" has made the notion of the happy housewife somewhat risible, does not negate the enduring resonance of Tagore's provocation: what makes women happy?
If Sigmund Freud's preference was to shift this question onto the unconscious territory of "what a woman wants," then we would have to say that the sexualized subjectivity at the heart of his approach retains only minimal contact with the philosophical problem that occupied Tagore: to wit, the thinking that civilizational discontent does not foreclose on the possibility of utopia, no matter how limited the terms of conceptualizing the search for a happier place. For Freud the answer to happiness was rooted in the unconscious and its directional imperatives—where happiness is a contingency of subjective being whose ends are only achieved negatively, with "civilization" or the "super-ego" performing the break between desire and social satisfaction. It is this notion of civilization with which Tagore takes issue; indeed, this is the import of his provocation. On his satirical take, if the European subject-as-fish wants to "drown" Indians in a sea of universalizing pretensions, it is in part because schemas about happiness and its objects are mutually unintelligible across cultures, Freud's assertions notwithstanding. But despite their dissimilar views about what makes people happy, Tagore and Freud agreed about the power of storytelling to contribute to it. In both their accounts stories are seen to exert a real force on consciousness, including on the experience of happiness. From this convergence of otherwise divergent worldviews we may glean that insofar as stories everywhere provide insight into incommensurable contingencies of desire and meaning, their incommensurability nonetheless touches on something that can be said to represent a universal form of experience. Moreover, we can only begin to take account of this generality if we get past binarisms such as East/West or primitive self/modern society, which have become, to borrow a phrase from a now-unfashionable Marxist lexicon, bad abstractions.
To shift the discussion of happiness from the terrain of the unconscious onto the site of sociality, then, we may propose that stories are not just the expression of sublimated desires in life (a la Freud) but experiential confrontations with death—taken as the denial of futurity. As such, they are inversely related to the possibility of happiness, and these confrontations recur in consoling, compensating, or conceptualizing guises within narrative at large. Death, as the terminus of life, is the ultimate contingency that storytelling seeks to keep at bay and in doing so relates to a collective vision of utopia disconnected from the individualized Freudian opposition of the life instinct/death drive [Lebenstriebe/Todestriebe]. Put in different terms, aesthetic experience universally pertains to imagining the experience of death in life as a necessary aspect of imagining a better, happier life itself. From this chiasmic perspective the opening "once upon a time" or concluding "lived happily ever after" of stories is not merely the fabulation of a mythic past or fantastical future but also a spatiotemporal animation of ideals of happiness, emergence, and freedom and their reverse coin: misery, unfreedom, or death. Together, these circumscribe the present and place limits on the possibility of conceiving happiness. Consequently, the utopian imagination—in every location in which it finds expression—has to contend with both privileged and negative registers of experience and emotion not only in order to distinguish between them but also to show their interdependence in configuring what is yet to come.
That the future is imagined through the past and present is, obviously, a familiar proposition, though perhaps it is fair to say that we are more accustomed to literary representations of this turn in hopeful terms that render the future as an ideal or perfected time. But a negative and dialectical (though not dystopic) possibility of conceiving the utopian as catastrophic is also available, even if it is a road less traveled in conventional assimilations of this genre. In addition, then, to positive conceptions of utopia, we also find examples of shifts in temporality in story and history that stem from incident or "turn" (strophe), disruption or counterturn (antistrophe), and a denouement or final turn that includes disaster (catastrophe). Persisting from classical Greek times, this latter configuration has, in various traditions and cross-cultural manifestations, come to represent the core of a critical conception of utopic possibilities—a utopia against the grain, so to speak. In Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), written in 1915 and translated into English in 1919 by his nephew, with assistance from himself, Tagore attempted to give form to the darker side of utopia, centering his exploration of happiness, life, and death, as well as envy, resentment, and betrayal, on the formulaic vehicle of a domestic triangle but with critical reversals in place about its meaning.
The standard reading of Tagore's novel has largely, if not to say exclusively, rested on seeing it as a meditation on nationalism and womanhood, with critics jostling to endorse or rebuke his deployment of the figure of woman as allegory of the nation. In this vein critics have either praised Ghare Baire as a reflexive palimpsest of nationhood and womanhood or regarded it as symptomatic of the patriarchal fixation on women as bearers of tradition. In either case, what has largely been missed is the text's contrary imagining of historical emergence via a reflexive if conventional plot. Part of the reason for this elision has to do with difficulties in the mode of translation, whereby Tagore's elaborately layered views are flattened out into a simple correspondence between woman and nation. A more fundamental problem stems from the author's resort to the device of the atmakatha (autobiography or personal story), the literary expression of nineteenth-century bourgeois individualism par excellence, which lends itself too easily to quick analogies between voice, idea, and objectivity. And, although a broader contemplation of the novel is the subject of a different discussion, I would contend that in its constellated, allegorical form Tagore conveys a more radical set of meanings about the contradictions of nationalist consciousness than later interpretations, usually offered on the hackneyed terms of the personal and/as the political, women and/as the nation, and so on, have suggested.
Although it may not seem to be borne out yet, the focus of this chapter is on Satyajit Ray's 1984 cinematic translation of Ghare Baire rather than on the novel. But I have begun by alluding to the literary precedent because I want to flag the notion that the full complexity of Ray's revision can only be comprehended once it is set off against Tagore's earlier foray into the problem of catastrophe and utopia. The discussion that follows is structured largely as a series of contrapuntal readings of the novel and the film, although my goal is not to argue about appropriation or adaptation as such. Rather, I want to pursue a line of thought about dialectical reversal, and from this perspective, the fact that Tagore's novel serves as the filmic text's literary-historical precedent is a way to understand the film's own actuality. I submit that the specificities of cinematic form and meaning make it possible to examine what the film can do that the novel cannot, so the reason to read the two versions against each other has to do with wanting to resituate the novel by the retrospective light shed on it in Ray's film—as opposed to the other way around.
To say this, however, is to insist that the film's reality is discontinuous from the moment of Tagore's writing—which is an obvious enough statement, though it seems to require belaboring given the conventional assumption that Ray simply adapted Tagore's novel for the screen and, in effect, dealt with the same material. It is also to propose that the reality of the film does not pertain to its narration of the past (that is, the film is not a document of or about history) but to a conjunctural way of thinking about the past. In other words, the film is a contemporary statement, suggesting that, as an utterance in the world, it shares more with us as readers than it does with Tagore's context. In this sense it reflects a shift in the historical frame of reference that separates what came before India's independence in 1947 from its emergence thereafter. Recognizing this shift is, for reasons that I elaborate below, only made possible in the act of interpretive retrospection.
We can begin to think about the matter by first accepting that as an utterance the film belongs to our own historical moment. This, too, is less a chronological point than an epistemological given, even if almost three decades have elapsed since its release in 1984. But since historical temporality is a semantically driven field (that is to say, it depends for its meaning on organizing concepts that shape time), one can see that the film belongs to our time by juxtaposing it to the novel, which by the same token, reveals itself as the product of a different spatiotemporal regime. One might even go so far as to suggest that the novel now needs the filmic mediation to be understood, not in the sense of being comprehended as such but in the more restricted sense of offering a historical standpoint. All of this turns on our use of the term conjuncture, for if the conjunctural is taken as an episodic emphasis on history (characterized by what the Annales historians call "medium-term" developments such as the French Revolution or romanticism or post-Independence India), Ray's text, as well as any current discussion of it, must be seen as contained with a discursive framework that is distinct from the one Tagore both occupied and fictionalized. The former conjuncture—Ray's and ours—has been determined by the historical fallout of decolonization and the crisis of postcolonial life in ways that Tagore did not live to witness. Thus only in this specific sense is it possible to take the full measure of the film's retroactive sensibility, a mode of seeing that it correspondingly urges on viewers. From this vantage point the complications of Tagore's utopianism are only legible après coup, although they help to refocus on the vicissitudes of post-Independence Indian history elaborated by Ray in an altogether different parsing of the meaning of utopia.
Part of Ray's experimentalism lies in the ways that his revision expresses a utopianism that is not only different from Tagore's but that can only be described as catastrophic, since this is the sole vantage point left from which to articulate anything resembling a critical conception of emergence, both cinematic and historical. Tagore, in his novelistic rendering of the dilemmas of nationalism, could not foresee how the future—our present—would unfold. Nevertheless, his vision of possibilities and impossibilities exemplifies a certain kind of gamble on historical futures, however unrealized. This is because the present is not only given by what came before; it also enables any prospect of what is to come. Thus the past and future have something in common: the bond of the present, in turn revealing that conceptions of history depend on a temporal orientation to the future and, crucially, vice versa. Such a consciousness of the recursive structure, as well as the conceptual organization of historical time, is what the intellectual historian Reinhart Koselleck amalgamated into the phrase "futures past" (vergangene Zukunft), reflecting that any given present is at the same time a "former future." According to Koselleck all conceptions of modernity, revolution, emergence, and so forth depend on a temporal orientation, whether that is brought up to the surface or not. To the degree that a "future past" is self-consciously articulated within or by a particular account of history, it exposes the tacit normativity of temporal understanding and expresses what he argues is a truly novel, modern attitude toward time (Neuzeit) that only took shape in the past two hundred years.
As much as we have learned to value the idea of an order of things in which, as Michel Foucault has popularized, all history is a history of the present, Koselleck's more radical contention is that from the standpoint of the past two centuries, all history is a history of the future. That is to say, historical intelligibility is only given by a predictive sense about a course taken or, for that matter, not taken. I find his argument quite compelling (even if it has not acquired the authority of Foucault's notions) because it rearticulates synchrony and diachrony without collapsing the two—a move that, despite the rhetoric about attention to historicity within forms of poststructuralist criticism, has rendered the task of interpretation presentist in essence. Koselleck, on the other hand, makes it possible to suggest that if modernity is thought of as underwritten by a temporal sensibility in which conceptions of the future dissimulate their reliance on a present and a past, we can then consider representations, including cinematic ones, in terms of the extent to which this relationship is made legible in the present. Such an epistemological framework lends a specifically diachronic perspective to interpretive activity, one that in the context of film theory and criticism opens up an entirely new way of looking at a "slice of life" in the cuts of celluloid. In contrast with much of what is standard reading practice in ciné-semiotics—with its all-too-convenient "bracketing" of the temporality of interpretation, as well as the cinematic text's existence within history—this way of interrogating the frame or the shot recontextualizes what is the otherwise decontextualized moment of analysis by reinserting the text into history (instead of the well-rehearsed notion of putting history into the text informing much of what goes in the name of conventional literary, cultural, or film history).
If the past, present, and future have always to be considered in terms of each other, and, moreover, if they constitute a perspective on the passage of time itself, the key is to distinguish the anticipatory formulations in a given account or a given text from those that are retrospective or those that remain bound to their own time. Such a form of reflexive consciousness about temporality is, precisely, the token by which it can be proposed that Tagore's novel and Ray's film are projections into the future (as opposed to representations of the past) inasmuch as they articulate unfolding landscapes of cognition and recognition. Each text attains its relative reflexivity to the degree that self-understanding about historical emergence is marked in various ways by them. Particularly in Ray's case, this involves doubling back to account for historical desiderata, as well as their negation in the post-Independence era. Accordingly, one of the considerations for this discussion is to distinguish between Tagore's and Ray's respective visions of the future in order to determine how the conceptual category of a "catastrophic utopia" is revised in the shift from Tagore's worldview to Ray's critical negation of it.
Excerpted from Cinema, Emergence, and the Films of Satyajit Ray by Keya Ganguly. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Introduction: The Light of the New Moon
1. Catastrophe and Utopia: Ghare Baire, or the Household Goddess
2. The (Un)moving Image: Visuality and the Modern in Charulata
3. Devi: Documenting the Decadent, Incarnating the Modern
4. The Music Room Revisited: Jalsaghar, Attraction, Perception
5. Take Two: Mahanagar and Cinematic Imperfection
6. Cinema and Universality: Apur Sansar
Conclusion: Lateness and Cinema