Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Diegetic Philosophy: Dostoyevsky and Godard

When watching this week’s screening of Vivre sa Vie I was struck by the relationship between two sequences. First, we had the beautiful scene in the café when Nana has a drink with Yvette. Here Nana extols a philosophy of personal responsibility and freedom of action—“if I am raise my hand it is my responsibility, if I am sad it is my responsibility.” (I quote from memory, not being able to find an English translation online.) She articulates (at least at this moment in the film) a pleasure in her freedom of movement, her ability to interact with a complicated and fascinating world at her own discretion. What follows this speech is a joyful demonstration of this fact as Godard uses shot-counter-shot to give us Nana’s wandering gaze, over the song "Ma Môme."

This sequence perfectly brings together Nana’s declaration of independence and the pleasures of cinematic scopophilia, specifically in a cinema that does not obey the demands of a rigorous narrative. What unlimited joys there can be in viewing that which does not demand anything of you! The sequence aptly finishes with the sight of Yvette and Raoul, ending both Nana’s reverie and the audience’s respite from the story.

Alternatively, we have the montage sequence when Nana is initiated into the life of a prostitute. Here Nana asks a series of questions about her new position and is answered by the authoritative voice of Raoul. Along with Nana we learn of recent legislation, economic incentives, statistical factoids, and daily routines relating to the lives of prostitutes in France at this time. Here we have a counterpoint to Nana’s vision of personal freedom. It is interesting to note the use of montage here, as opposed to classical narrative techniques in the previously discussed sequence, where the potential for rigidity in Eisenstein’s dialectical montage becomes nightmarishly apparent. Nana is a member of a group who, like all groups, can be assembled as a set of functions rather than a collection of individual members. The freedom of bodily movement, of new and entrepreneurial interactions with the world, here seems crushed by the human’s integration into the reigning dispositif (to use Foucault’s terminology). Can our choices truly be described as free when they are so constrained by and funneled through the interests of power? How can one reconcile these positions? 


I won’t try to answer this question here. Instead I would like to address this technique of raising two opposing positions within the trajectory of a narrative. Godard is certainly not the first to deploy this technique. I would argue that what Godard does with film has its roots, at least partially, in what Dostoyevsky does with the novel.

As is clear to anyone who reads him, Dostoyevsky uses his narratives, their characters and events, to grapple with issues larger than their plot-points. In his five major novels, as well as many short stories, Dostoyevsky lays out rigorous treatises on such issues as justice, political action, spirituality, and the individual in relation to society. Each piece can be considered an essay in novel form. But, unlike the run of the mill position piece, Dostoyevsky’s narratives are flexible enough to allow for multiple conflicting perspectives to emerge. (For a greater expounding on this position listen to Hubert Dreyfus’ meticulous breakdown of The Brothers Karamazov over the span of 11 classes here). As his stories progress a complex web of arguments and counterarguments is created producing a nuance in argument rarely allowed under the demanding rubric of academic writing. By intertwining character development and philosophical reflection Dostoyevsky crafts a marvelous tone, where the positions argued are wrapped up in the lives of the personalities who argue them.

All of which brings us back to Vivre sa Vie. If we watch Nana’s final demise with horror, it certainly is related to the horror we feel when we read of the revolutionaries' spiral towards destruction in Dostoyevsky’s The Demons. It is a horror that is not only driven by our empathy for the characters involved, or the dreadful violence that these events depict, but also by what these events say about the prospects of the human race as a whole. Both Godard and Dostoyevsky’s works drive home their climaxes with the drama of a great tragedy along with the gravity of a well-argued conclusion. 

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa


  1. Marvelous post, Ben. Your point about Nana's remarks to Yvette, and their relation to the images that follow (rendered through POV cutting) is compelling. I wonder though why the parallel scene to this one for you is the later montage scene rather than the one that immediately precedes this one: Nana's first "date," also presented to us through a POV structure. See my earlier post on "Découpage in VIVRE SA VIE" (September 20, 2010) for a brief study of this scene. Together they raise interesting questions about the POV structure itself and different ways of embodying/inhabiting it (or inviting the viewer to participate in it).


  2. I also think it could be interesting to utilize the arguments of Bakhtin and his circle in regards Dostoevsky to Godard. See, in particular, V.N. Voloshinov's excellent study of Free Indirect Discourse in MARXISM AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE. These writers are interested in the way the voice of the author-narrator and the voice of the characters often blend or merge in Dostoevsky producing not a purely indirect discourse (words of the author-narraor) or a purely direct discourse (words of a character) but a free indirect discourse between author-narrator-character. We get something akin to this in VIVRE SA VIE where Godard's own existential ruminations are articulated not only by his wife Anna Karina, who speaks them for him, but also in his experimentation with cinematic form (such as his use of POV shots, where we come to share the perspective of the character as well as with the camera).