“I have always had a weakness for donkeys.”
Two years ago I completed a series of short novels that I had begun thirty years before. Five of them are set in Boston; and five of them in California and one takes place almost entirely in Ireland on the brink of the Second World War; all of them focus on deracinated women, the youngest in Nod, the oldest in Indivisible. They add up to one body of work. When it was done, I knew it.
These books were failures on the marketplace so in fact their fates mimicked the fates of their subjects.
I can’t say that they were experiments but chops and grabs at moments in time, attempts at discovering emotional sequence—that is, the rhythm that flows between the arrival of a moment and its disappearance. They were like notes for another genre.
Years before I had read two books, Film Form and Film Sense, by Eisenstein, and these helped me legitimize the process I was already engaged in. In his chapter on montage he determined that the tonality of a work is established by a rhythmic relationship between its segments.
He noted that in music the distance of separation between intervals can be so great that it leads to a collapse inside the organic body of sound. However, its irregularity usually becomes its dynamism. Like a healthy human heartbeat, which has an intrinsic irregular system, the body of an artwork gets its vitality from a rhythm based in uncertainty. (Sick hearts have a dull regular thump.)
Eisenstein believed that there is a social mission for artists—that is, the purpose of any work is to “make manifest the contradictions of Being” and this way to harmonize them, if only temporarily, in the single mind of the viewer/reader.
His notes on juxtaposition and composition reassured me, because I was working already out of the very far and very near. I was aware of the wasteland of potential plot that lay outside the margins of my stories and the strange nature of choice in the construction of a narrative. I used to spread the final draft, sheet by sheet, on floors all over the house and move them around. This way an eruption of action became a self-contained section. But of course the floors and the air were bigger than all those papers.
Because of the accidents of when and where I grew up, some of the first movies I saw were made by Bergman, Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini and the French New Wave. Janus Films were premiered at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. They were all foreign and subtitled. Black and white and speckled with stars and radiant dust.
They were the remnants of the War, barely separable from the news that was broadcast in movie theaters along with the main feature, and the cartoons. The blurry subtitles, white on white, oddly selected from the conversation taking place on screen, would come to me as a kind of poetry, scraps fallen from the divine table of babbling tongues. These half-understood movies were the model of a contemporary fiction because the future inherent in my own stories was only half-known.
Weirdly I didn’t realize this. Instead I relentlessly pursued a written fiction that had as its model something foreign, half-expressed and highly visual, without ever asking: Is this an outline for a movie? Do I have to make the movie if I have just written it?
My novels were failures undoubtedly because they were not novels.
Conventional (and wonderful) narrative that knows where it is going is like a farmer setting out for the daily tread. It is a form of lifting and carrying to a pre-determined destination. My kind of story always had an uncertain goal, and it discovered itself only by shedding what it already knew. It ran without memory. No one learned from experience. In this sense each book was seeking a state of innocence.
The barn door creaks on its hinges. A prolonged rasping like the one you hear in working machinery. It is as if the use it is being put to is giving it a taste of suffering.
The depressive sound of a buzz-saw or an electric lawn mower. A refrigerator groaning at night. Or something like the bare winter trees forming a syntax that looks like a new sheet music.
It isn’t a barn door creaking after all. It is a donkey’s mechanistic bray.
Then the donkey comes out into the light and stands aside while the children play nearby. And this is the beginning of Au Hasard, Balthasar.
About this film the director Robert Bresson remarked in an interview: it is the life of a donkey going through the same steps that you find in a human life—infancy with its caresses, maturity, work, talent, the donkey who is put in a circus and then some time before dying has a transcendent period, and then he does die from the weight of human sins, and he carries gold to the frontiers.
Au Hasard, Balthasar was one of Bresson’s last two black and white films. A luminous pallor surges out of the screen, spreads over every face and form in the picture, it is the color of consciousness. The subtitles are ghostly and easily submerged in the background light. Squalor bleeds into this whiteness. Blends. The plot follows an erratic life-line until it is swallowed in bells and pale sheep.
This film and Mouchette were made in the days when the poverty of resources in film-making were complicit in the stories of human poverty and petty crime. There was no separation between equipment and intent. The sudden shifts in scene, the unschooled acting, and the engagement in a religious view that carries despair to its last point—where an illumination occurs as a convergence between chance and unexalted labor in the direction of love—have made Bresson’s work one of the few examples of art as conversion.
That is, the whole movie’s message, its method, its tools function in harmony. The donkey is the hero. He is the film. He seems as blind as chance. Only once is there a scene where the donkey is put in a circus to perform with other long-suffering animals and there is an unblinking exchange of glances among them.
Otherwise the film is at the end what it was at the beginning—astonished.
My decision to try making videos seven years before I stopped writing fiction was really a desire to escape words and face the world. First I bought a pixilated Fisher Price toy camcorder that I carried all around the outdoors with me, taking moving pictures of shadows, light, trees, etc. It was a completely private activity. And it rewarded me with the adamant silence of creation in its deep dream state.
I felt as if I was carrying a baby on my arm, a baby that was accumulating know-how and so I bought a heavier camcorder, a Sony, and took loads of pictures to store up for later use. A filmmaker friend began leading me around showing me how to use a super 8 camera and after awhile he and I together made a picture called What Nobody Saw. We had actors, we had a script, and we all roamed around together inventing according to our surroundings. The open-endedness of the process was pleasurable to me. Anything that happened only did so because it could.
Without words, the passage of birds, boats, buses, bags and planes stood in for words. As far as the eye could see, a logic was returned. But it wasn’t the logic of plot or premise. It was truly a combination of pre-determined relations and chance encounters.
Simone Weil once remarked, “The beings I love are creatures. They are born by chance.” It is this relationship to chance that seemed to me profound and pronounced in filming. It was a liberation from the backward-tendence of writing and rewriting. On film a donkey is just a donkey. Even if the fur on its back forms a Cross, it exists in time, is used up by time and labor, and lives in blind subjugation to its fate. It does not carry a necessary set of premises and arguments along with it.
Sentences and plots for a time seemed dangerous to me, an extension of closed potential, of socialization. My impulsiveness seemed to fizzle through excess scheming as the life of a nation does. When I had a chance to break free, the laws of grammar restrained me. Unfulfilled gestures and cries were excluded from this ”government of words.” It was what did NOT happen that haunted me in writing, the way the air is more solid than anything in it.
Work that could exist in and emerge from uncertainty, as some music does, seemed both more daring and more realistic than literature. It was like Eisenstein’s commitment to the intervals and separations that create form. The blindness that loads our days seemed to have a better chance of being grasped if it could, ironically, and without irony, be seen.
So I made some more short videos and am about to begin working again with my old pixilated camera whose batteries don’t work. I will be trapped by the need for a plug, a wall and a light from a window. I will play it back and see myriad unnoticed shadows, shapes and gestures from people who happen to pass by.
In this way I will be limited to chance and liberated by it. I believe this is the exact paradox that I am chasing, and always was.
BIO: Fanny Howe’s most recent novel is Indivisible (Semiotexte/MIT Press) and her short early fiction, Economics, was just published by Flood Editions. She has a new book of poems Gone from UC Press and a collection of essays due from the same press next Fall.