Saturday, August 3, 2013

Love and Death: Blue Jasmine, Jean Améry, and Stella

I have long been a fan of Woody Allen films, and it is because of my fandom that I was able to be with my cat Stella when she died yesterday.

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I probably learned more about what it means to be Jewish from watching Woody Allen than I did from years of Hebrew School (in fact, South Park's Jewbilee episode would probably rank higher than Hebrew School as well).  What I also learned from watching Woody Allen though was the importance of the relationship between love and death (and not only because of his great movie Love and Death).

Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, centers around the disintegration of Cate Blanchett's Jasmine following the downfall of her husband, Alec Baldwin as the Bernie Madoff-esque Hal.  It has not gone unnoticed that this film closely resembles Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, so much so that I have since been referring to it as Midnight in Tennessee Williams.
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In many ways Jasmine "depends on the kindness of strangers," and yet, more a Jean-Jacques Rousseau than a Blanche DuBois, Jasmine turns against these strangers at every turn.  This is most likely because to her, these strangers do not exist.  Throughout the film Jasmine relives moments of her time with Hal, a reliving that is so visceral that she re-enacts those moments to anyone who may or may not be present.

Comedically, this makes for many entertaining situations of confusion where those around her, unaware of her condition, are conscripted into a sort of bemused Greek chorus to her Penelope-esque lamentations.  Philosophically, this represents the world as it is experienced by those caught up in personal grief and tragedy.  As Jean Améry attempted to convey in his At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, to be tortured is to lose one's "trust in the world," to no longer "feel at home in the world," or, in other words, to become exiled.  This exile however is experienced not only in the wounds of the torture, but, vitally, in the experience of those around you telling you to essentially "forgive and forget," to "move on," both of which are simply nicer ways of saying "get over it already!"

Similarly, Jasmine is repeatedly told by her sister and by her sister's fiancé and his friends that she needs to "move on."  Though she is willing to go along with this for a time—whether in the form of daring to work for a living or, more realistically but just as absurdly impossible, finding a new Hal—Jasmine no longer lives in the world of work or of romance and is thus incapable of moving on.  Rather, like Améry, she has become fused with her suffering and is unable and unwilling to allow time to heal her wounds.  As Améry writes,
“In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral. Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time-sense, which is also called the 'natural' one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character. Man has the right and privilege to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about. What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect.”
There is thus an air of dread pervading Blue Jasmine, as the audience knows consciously what Jasmine knows unconsciously: time is not on Jasmine's side.  But we do not and should not mourn for Jasmine lest we become like those strangers she talks at throughout the film.  Rather we must appreciate this dark side of the world and stop telling those Jasmine, like Améry, or now, like myself, to look on the "bright side" instead.

Having lost Stella, named of course after Streetcar, I now similarly feel riveted to the moment of her death.  I am both here, now, writing this, and not here, not now, hearing Stella meowing for food while her claws click as she circles our fake wood floors.  When we came home from the vet yesterday I immediately went into "bright side" mode, started focusing on her no longer suffering from her stomach cancer, and began removing from sight the various remembrances of her death and of her life.  But this mode was soon overtaken by what Améry called "resentment."  I sobbed uncontrollably like a scared child as Stella was dying and I do not want to forget that pain or let that wound heal.

We were here for Stella's death because Woody Allen's film opened the Traverse City Film Festival, which meant we went up to Traverse City earlier than we had originally planned.  I am grateful that I was here to share that horrible moment with Stella.  A part of me died yesterday, a part of me named Stella, a part of me that will die anew each day.  Améry knew this pain, Jasmine knew this pain, and now I know this pain: What happened, happened.

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