The apparent choices of art are nothing but addictions,
pre-dispositions. The aesthetic is nothing but a return to
images that will allow nothing to take their place.
Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Out of a Book,’ The Mulberry Tree
Trauma has become the great change that makes change impossible.
It is the change that stops us changing. This is clearly an attractive
story for people who are beginning to feel that there is too much change.
Adam Phillips, ‘Paranoid Moderns,’ Side Effects
Trauma, Adam Phillips argues in the quotation above, is a way in which modern secular people smuggle the sacred back into their contingent lives. As he writes, ‘the notion of trauma helps us to go on believing that lives turn on significant events, and that we need to be able to recognize them as such.’ Trauma resolves the anguish of our insignificance by making contingent events meaningful. In a similar way, the Freudian compulsion to repeat often manifests itself in the subject’s attempt to transform an event which was intolerable to the ego into a character trait or personal destiny, a self-entombing response to what Phillips calls ‘the mess of contingency, and the contingency of mess.’ Crucially it is what we might describe as moments of trauma that most insistently remind us of this contingency, of our insignificance and coextensively of the insignificance of the sacralised traumatic moment.
The AIDS crisis and the work of the filmmaker Derek Jarman surrounding it, also invoke this dynamic of effacement. But what makes Jarman’s work so important is that aesthetically it drags all forms of representation into its masochistic self-erasure. It is no longer only masochistic subjects (women and gay men) who are erased by their own sexuality but in Jarman’s work, and this is intimately linked to the erotic and radical potential of male homosexuality, and the phallic subject—the patriarchs who are most responsible for the effacing of the suffering of AIDS patients. In Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media (1997), Simon Watney describes the British Governments ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign as having spoken to no one in particular whilst ignoring the needs of the group most affected by AIDS, the gay men who were subject to more extreme forms of punitive measures as the crisis continued. He later argues that there was no other minority in Britain of whom over 700 were either dead or dying from a disease could be so casually ignored: ‘if anyone still doubts that gay men are officially regarded, in our entirety, as a disposable constituency, they need read no further.’ In this way, Watney suggests that gay men are erased twice, first because of their unacceptable sexuality and second literally by their deaths. He describes the British public watching the AIDS crisis with undeniable satisfaction as ‘the long awaited and oft prophesied spectacle of degenerates finally burn[s] themselves out.’ AIDS was, and still is, not only a health crisis, but a crisis of representation, particularly with regard to memorial and remembrance, and especially for a gay population which had only just begun the task of ‘desublimating the inherited sexual guilt of a grotesquely homophobic society.’ AIDS, by once again associating sex with contagion (always a potent combination), transformed sexuality back into neurotic guilt. Perhaps what this return demonstrates is that the shame of homosexuality, and its enduring association with death, never quite disappeared. Homosexuality has been repressed by the right because it is too close to a pre-oedipal narcissism which can be neurotically imagined as a kind of death but actually, and more threateningly, reveals the pleasure of sexuality as a kind of dying to the self. Shame emerges as a mortification which stalls this ecstatic dying, an aim inhibited form of sexuality which immobilises our desire for temporary self-destruction.
In an era of homosexual politics traumatized by the re-emergence of death and by hysterical attempts to turn those most affected by an epidemic into its source, Jarman publically emerges against the grain of the historical moment. Jarman, who was diagnosed with AIDS himself in 1986, would in his life, work and death challenge the very notion of the AIDS epidemic as an irreparable trauma. This is not to say that those diagnosed with AIDS did not suffer, as previous writing on AIDS has shown they suffered both from the physical effects of the disease and the social and psychic shock evoked even by its name. In the documentary Derek Jarman: Life as Art (2004), the actor Tilda Swinton says of Jarman’s diagnosis, ‘devastating on one level though it was—I think as an artist he was elated.’ Jarman was quoted in the tabloids saying he was glad to have AIDS. Although other interviews and material from his diaries testify to his rage against the uncertainty of the disease, Jarman’s refusal to regret his diagnosis reveals a political understanding of the significance accorded to the epidemic and his refusal to endow it with meaning as retribution, inevitable given the immoral promiscuity of gays, as destiny or as trauma. It is in this refusal, most emphatically emblematized by his final film Blue (1993), that Jarman embraces self-erasure and it is in this embrace that Jarman’s artistic elation lies. It is finally in his abandonment of traumatic significance that Jarman acknowledges death as a relatively insignificant necessity of life.
Jarman’s pre-diagnosis films often draw on the imagery of death, especially as a disruption of cinema’s narcissistic endeavour. In 1985 he released The Angelic Conversation, an exploration of love and mortality depicting an affair between two men over which we hear the recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Its stop-motion photography draws attention to the inability of art to recapture time, and in this way the film exemplifies a connection Susan Sontag makes between the photograph and mortality. She writes that ‘precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ This link between desire and mortality was increasingly pertinent at a time when AIDS was a more fiercely unmanageable disease, and when it was felt that succumbing to one’s desire could literally lead to one’s death. Provocatively and appropriately, Jarman ends his film by freezing the moving image at the end of the couplet that closes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 104:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead.
Jarman was intent on giving death the place in culture that Freud, in Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, argues that it merits in order to avoid a displaced violence against the self and the other in the form of melancholia and sadism. But we could also read the film as typical of a certain tradition in cultural representations of same-sex male desire in which death is intimately associated with love. Still in this film we cannot think of same-sex male desire without the intrusion of death, something which has been inseparable from homosexuality since the late nineteenth century and especially since the publication of Oscar Wilde’s of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891. Jarman clearly saw Wilde as a queer forbearer; he is mentioned eight times in At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament (1992), and Jarman once attempted to have a statue erected in memorial of him. Wilde’s only novel and its association of homosexuality, narcissism and death is reflected in Jarman’s films in their preoccupation with the deathly narcissism of the image, with how desire and narcissism are inseparable, and the way in which in desiring one’s own reflection, one is always apparently at risk of disappearing into it. With a terrifying sense of this risk, the Manifesto of the London-based Gay Liberation Front, first published in 1971, bemoans the obsession with self-image in gay male culture: ‘some gay men have spent so much time staring at themselves in the mirror that they’ve become hypnotised by their own magnificence and have ended up by being made unable to see anyone else.’
Jarman seems to represent a similar psychological trajectory in his early work, but without the moral indictment. In his study of Jarman, Rowland Wymer points out the similarity of the two men in The Angelic Conversation, as well as other similar pairs such as the incestuous twin brothers, Angel and Sphinx, in Jubilee (1978). Wymer also cites the short film Arabia (1973) as an early example of Jarman’s excavation of the link between narcissism and death, in the film, a young man combs his hair whilst looking in a mirror, intermittently his face is replaced by a skull. There is a necessary theoretical distinction though between death itself and death as a signifier. Since, as Freud writes, we cannot imagine our own death, its presence in art must manifest latent content, or perhaps other states of being for which it has become a symbol. Wymer goes on to cite a passage on narcissism from Jarman’s Modern Nature:
Narcissus is derived not from the name of the young man who met his death vainly trying to embrace his reflection in crystal water, but from the Greek narkao (to benumb); though of course Narcissus benumbed by his own beauty, fell to his death embracing his shadow. Pliny says ‘Narce Narcissum dictum non a fabuloso puero,’ named Narcissus from narkê, not from the fabled boy. Socrates called the plant ‘crown of the infernal gods’ because the bulbs, if eaten, numbed the nervous system…Narcissus, narcotics, self-absorption: benumbed retreat into self.
Narcissism entails a threat to survival and to our relation to anything outside of ourselves. And for Jarman, as for Freud, sleep was another narcissistic state. But there is a transition in this passage from a narcissism in which one is completely absorbed in one’s own image, to a narcissism in which one is narcotised or benumbed to the image itself. In Jarman’s work, narcissism allows the individual to become undifferentiated from the world. A state that evokes the Freudian primary narcissism of the pre-subjective infant. It could be argued that Jarman’s work exists in this potential space between the individual and the environment in which Donald Winnicott locates both childhood play and cultural experience. A space in which the boundary between self and external is temporarily suspended, and the subject becomes unintegrated, no longer grasping at life but sharing in its objectless unobtainability, its insignificance or its limitless contingency.
Bersani and Narcissism
The work of Leo Bersani intersects with Jarman’s cinema both historically and in both thinkers’ respective explorations of this negative space with its analogous frustrations and potentialities. In their book on Jarman’s film Caravaggio (1986), Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit write, ‘Jarman has a favourite technical trick: shining into a mirror turned toward the camera, so that our seeing is blocked by an explosion of light.’ The mirror trick is most replete in Jarman’s early super-8 films. In The Art of Mirrors (1973), for example, three gothic figures move slowly in the background whilst one of them holds a circular mirror up to the camera. The glinting light reflecting from the mirror intermittently blinds the viewer to the screen’s image as a female figure moves imperceptibly closer. The mirror trick prefigures Jarman’s final film Blue (1993), in which he would dispense with image altogether, only showing the audience a slightly pulsating screen of Yves Klein’s blue accompanied by voiceover from actors Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry and John Quentin as well as Jarman himself. In Blue, it is as though Jarman confronts his audience with a narcissism that dispenses with image. Actually, self-conscious narcissism always seeks this dispensation in a desire for sameness which might be most fully imagined as the undifferentiated, indiscrete and objectless world which the subject habitually negates. In Intimacies (2008), Bersani draws on Plato’s description of desire in Phaedrus, in which lovers are impelled towards each other through a reciprocal recognition of their souls as belonging to the chorus of the same god. In this model, ego consolidated difference becomes the route to an unindividuated reciprocal sameness, as Bersani writes:
Remarkably, Plato’s Phaedrus breaks out of this field of knowability. Specifically, it undoes the opposition between active lover and passive loved one by instituting a kind of reciprocal self-recognition in which the very opposition between sameness and difference becomes irrelevant as a structuring category of being.
Bersani goes on to re-imagine the anteriority of the world of platonic forms as the psychically anterior world of the pre-individuated subject, which we might in turn name as pre-subjective infantile life. A desire for a narcissistically imagined object is impelled by a desire for sameness which eradicates this object as difference. Though our narcissism is grounded in a desire to exclude threatening difference, it is also an attempt to recreate what Bersani, quoting Socrates, goes on to describe as a non-exclusionary ‘friendly accord’ between what is internal to the subject and the external world. We can perceive a desire for the undifferentiated akin to this in Jarman’s description of narcissism not as self-love, but as the benumbing of a self forgetting its solipsistic individuality in sleep. The link between narcissism and sexuality has been used, and still is used, by religious and moral ‘authorities’ to deter gay men from their self-absorbed desires. A more active interaction with the outside world, they claim, which can often be translated as the order to take up a position of authoritative masculinity, will restore natural heterosexuality. In his 1987 essay, ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, Leo Bersani counters these presumptions by arguing that violence towards gay men manifests a fear of the narcotising of the self which Jarman describes: ‘male homosexuality advertises the risk of the sexual as the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self, and in so doing it proposes and dangerously represents jouissance as a mode of ascesis.’ Bersani’s critical intervention defines the sexual, or what Freud called the sexual which may not only manifest itself in what we think of as sex, as something intolerable to the self’s cohesion, a cohesion which always depends on keeping the accountable self in plain sight. This loss of the self to the sexual is what moral authorities must always be on guard against. Both Bersani and Jarman are engaged in a practice of relinquishing the self, though Jarman would come to this later than Bersani. Violence against homosexuality and homosexuals, which at the time of the publication of Bersani’s article and the release of most of Jarman’s films was intensified by AIDS, and the paranoid fear of contagion, arises to protect the moral authority of one’s statements. An authority which can only be ensured through the preservation and imposition of a never to be forgotten, ruptured or relinquished masculine self—the paragon of impervious subjectivity. What is so abhorrent about homosexuality to a conservative heterosexist culture, or to what Monique Wittig calls the straight mind, is its rupturing of the division between self and other.
Freud argues in Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915) that masochistic desire is also a retreat into narcissism, into self-absorption. Masochism then, would be a relation with the self and one’s pleasure that can dispense with the object, a position Freud associates with the feminine. It is this temporary disappearance of the self that the homophobe resists; to be fucked is to lose one’s masculine authority. Even for the gay man, Bersani suggests, to be penetrated evokes ambivalence in that it literalizes the homophobe’s desire to violently efface him: ‘it may be in the gay man’s rectum that he demolishes his own perhaps otherwise uncontrollable identification with a murderous judgement against him.’ In other words, in being penetrated, the gay man turns moral sadism, a foundational source of neurosis, into erotic masochism, and allows a release of neurotic energy via the sexual. There is always an excess in the sexual which outstrips the privileged differences of identity politics. It becomes difficult even to differentiate death from the loss of one’s proper, moral self and this, perhaps, is the origin of a distinctly narcotic narcissism. From a conservative and moralising perspective, a death from AIDS could be seen as the shaming consequence of allowing oneself to experience the pleasures of loss—the masochistic self-obliterating pleasure of penetration. Allowing oneself to be penetrated entails one’s death, and more radically, a desire for one’s death. As Freud suggests, it might not be our literal extinction which we fear but the shame and guilt that a diagnosis of disease and impending death arouses in those who suffer it which constitutes our fear of death: ‘there is only one possible explanation for the fear of death that arises in melancholia, namely that the ego gives up on itself because it feels to be hated and persecuted by the super-ego instead of loved. For the ego, therefore, “to live” means the same as “to be loved.”’ Guilt, which can be defined as fear of the judgement of others, is the fear of our own death. It is for this reason that Jarman embodies such an enviable psychic position, one that those who admire him often seek to emulate. Not only did Jarman dispense with the guilt surrounding his homosexuality, but in insistently claiming to be ‘dying of’ not ‘living with’ AIDS, he abandoned the shame of his own death.
Jarman’s refusal of shame is consistent with an abandonment of the self as an obtainable object, and simultaneously, of an obtainable real subjected to the ambitiously tyrannical demands of a morality unsatisfied with unconscious ambiguity. In Bersani and Dutoit’s book on Jarman’s Caravaggio, they describe the move towards the abandonment which Jarman makes in his final film Blue (1993), in which they argue, ‘the vicissitudes of HIV-infection become the empirical path to transcendence-through death, of course, but also to a kind of liberating spirituality in life.’ Here we can perceive the blend of the individual and collective (self and other) that Jarman’s life and his films so radically embodied. What is described as the ‘vicissitudes of HIV infection’ might be the shame and guilt that a diagnosis induces, but that Jarman refuses. In his book Dancing Ledge (1984), he writes, ‘on 22 December 1986, finding I was body positive, I set myself a target: I would disclose my secret and survive Margaret Thatcher.’ To disclose a secret is to refuse the self-destruction of guilt, Jarman writes in his published volume of journals, Modern Nature (1991), ‘I’ve always hated secrets, the canker that destroys.’ And this guilt, of course, would only be the internalisation of an externalised violence, the repression of which only ever leads to the intensification of violence, either as the melancholic self-destruction of guilt or the sadism of morality. Yet, as Bersani and Dutoit suggest, it is perhaps only through self-destruction that the subject can practice the ‘liberating spirituality’ which is the hallmark of Jarman’s cinema. In this sense, the only vicissitude of desire is its satisfaction. The consummation of desire may be too much, too excessive for the desiring self to bear.
In their earlier book, Arts of Impoverishment (1993), Bersani and Dutoit describe the pleasures of filmmaking and viewing; they write that ‘films make a seductive epistemological promise: the camera, we are led to believe, has procured scenes from the real for our voyeuristic pleasure.’ In refusing its viewer this pleasure, Blue, which instead presents the viewer with 75 minutes not of appropriable objects but of an undifferentiated blue, offers them another. This is the pleasure not of looking and knowing, which only emerges in the anxiety of absence as a defence against the desiring self, but of the relinquishment of desire as a form of visual perception and knowledge. If desire is relentlessly attaching itself to objects, then the objectless world that Jarman’s film presents is, if not an antidote to this, perhaps what in any case our narcissism, our desperate need to see the world as a reflection of our desire, always impels us towards. Bersani and Dutoit suggest that narcissism, either of identification or appropriation, within homosexuality or heterosexuality, manifests a desire for the undifferentiation of self and other:
Neither the self nor the other can be possessed as an object. We misrepresent the other as the self, and the self with which we seek to identify is in fact an alienated object. The fading away of both the subject and the object in relations of desire is, however, not simply the result of an epistemological misapprehension. We wish to suggest that this double disappearance is within the relation of desire itself. That is, it depends – perhaps primordially depends – on the narcissistic subject’s erotic aim of shattering the very totality it seeks to appropriate in the object.
For Bersani and Dutoit narcissism is a model for the misapprehension or non-distinguishing of self and other which is the very basis of desire, what instinct is aimed towards, and what Freud imagined, with considerable hesitation and inhibition, in his writing on the death drive. In Freud’s work, narcissistic desire drives some of our most idealised social bonds, even the most valorised forms of love. As he writes in ‘On Narcissism’ (1914), ‘real happy love corresponds to the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished.’ Freud even goes so far as to suggest in ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (1922) that ‘homosexual love is far more compatible with group ties, even when it takes the shape of uninhibited sexual impulsions.’ Although what Freud describes here could be the inhibited homosexuality of patriarchy, nonetheless he is suggesting that male homosexuality is a model for an undifferentiated un-self-conscious relation to the world. In this sense, homosexuality is modelled more closely than heterosexuality upon infantile life. Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that ‘the new-born child does not at first separate his ego from an outside world that is the source of the feelings flowing towards him.” For the infant, the other is not a separate entity but an extension of himself, responding to his desires within a solipsistic and yet illimitable world. Freud names the breast as the first separate object for the infant, the first object of desire and the first cause of frustration. But the primary relation between parents and infants is not defined by sexual difference, but by what Adam Phillips describes as mutually undisclosed, or undifferentiated, potential. In the midst of frustration and violence, there was the undefended undifferentiation of the infantile self and world, that Freud suggests is most palpable in the adult subject’s experience of the ‘oceanic,’ in which the self and the world once again as in infanthood coincide, a phenomenon which re-emerges in religious experience or in a sublime response to natural beauty. Freud describes the oceanic through a reference to the work of the German dramatist, Grabbe:
If I have understood my friend correctly, what he has in mind is the same as the consolation that an original and rather eccentric writer offers his hero before his freely chosen death, ‘We cannot fall out of this world.’ It is a feeling, then, of being indissolubly bound up with and belonging to the whole of the world outside of oneself.
Might Blue evince more strongly than any other film this sense of the oceanic in its viewer? To find solutions to the problems of desire, to find the object that desire seeks becomes a futile and paranoid effort in Blue. The subject/viewer of Jarman’s film is bound up with the world, indeed is undifferentiated from it and desire, which depends upon differentiation or lack, or on the subject’s moving towards a separate but apparently graspable object, becomes a tension and fantasy that it is temporarily impossible to sustain. As Jarman’s narrator tells us, ‘for Blue there are no boundaries or solutions.’
In our search for the undifferentiated, we are capable of extreme violence towards the other. Or, as Bersani and Dutoit suggest, violence towards the other may be the condition for a reciprocal undifferentiation that is desire’s aim. Importantly, it is not a complete relinquishment of desire, desire which is always a perverse appropriation, that Jarman’s film envisions. Blue begins with what we might describe as an aural tableau illustrating a scene of sadomasochism:
You say to the boy open your eyes
When he opens his eyes and sees the light
You make him cry out. Saying
O Blue come forth
O Blue arise
O Blue ascend
O Blue come in
Jarman’s tableau is comparable to Laplanchian sadist’s identification with the masochism of his suffering object. Especially in the line in which the ‘you’ the narrator refers to, the viewer perhaps, makes the boy cry out there is a palpable sense of the sexual. There is in the film, then, both the more expansive undifferentiated Blue, and the blue boy who allows himself to be inhabited by blue. Through such a move, Jarman represents the jouissance of masochism, or indeed of penetration, as an experience of the oceanic in which one is pleasurably and overwhelmingly inhabited by a world in which we are so completely, in spite of our defensive selfhood, bound up. Both masochism and masochism via sadism are routes to an experience of undifferentiated infantile psychic life, or to Bersani’s impersonal narcissism. As he and Dutoit write, ‘identification is sexualized by the ecstatic loss of the appropriated identity.’ Identification, or our ability to empathise, becomes an act of violence in which both the subject, and the indistinguishable object of our desires, are eradicated so that hate, which is driven towards an obliteration of the other, becomes indistinguishable from love. The instincts have no vicissitudes, Bersani and Dutoit tell us: ‘the confrontational nature of object relations is perhaps less the result of the subject’s insanely blaming the object for its own inescapable self-alienation than the precondition for that masochistic “sympathy” in which the subject will recreate the jouissance of self-loss.’ This conflation of love and hate, which is exemplified in the self-erasing sado-masochism of Blue, is particularly relevant to the homosexuality which Bersani and Dutoit discern in Caravaggio, and describe as an erotically inflected sadism in which both lovers compete for the maternal body. If the maternal body, though, is the first object that the infant is unable to distinguish from himself and therefore the body which is unconsciously always the oceanic itself, does this not suggest that there is a great potential in homosexual desire for practicing an oceanic relation to the world?
A crucial question emerges here around desire and maternal accessibility. If the subject’s violent hatred for the object is the precondition of masochistic sympathy and the jouissance of self-loss then the oedipal, whose triangulation of desire debars the object from the subject, is less a structure imposed upon us than a paranoid effect of the subject’s frustrated desire in the face of a more essential inaccessibility. In insisting upon an essentially ambivalent relation to the object, there is a possibility that a more structural analysis is lost and a history of oppression forgotten. The oedipal of course would always be an attempt to forestall consciousness of our violent desire and of its implications. Speaking in an interview published in his book Kicking the Pricks (1987), Jarman refers to The Angelic Conversation as a departure from previous films on gay desire which he says usually have a violent subtext. He refers specifically to the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which ends with the murder of the playwright by his partner Kenneth Halliwell. ‘I have seen very few films on male love which are gentle, they usually have a violent subtext-the violence you have to traverse before you make peace with yourself.’ What specific violence does the gay man have to traverse? Jarman writes of the paternal ‘destruction [that] hovers in the background of The Angelic Conversation; the radar, the surveillance, the feeling one is under psychic attack; of course we are under attack at the moment. In the background of The Angelic Conversation there is the surveillance of Nobodaddy.’ Footage of radar systems and their mechanical sounds pervade the film and hover over Jarman’s lovers, evoking the authoritarian gaze of the curiously non-existent ‘nobodaddy.’ In this way Jarman exposes the effect of a disciplinary masculinity on homosexuality. To argue, as Bersani and Dutoit do, that the Oedipus complex only literalizes an earlier relation to the inaccessible maternal body obscures the way that the imposition of masculinity, and more broadly of sexual difference, separates the male subject from the impersonal relation to the real that was possible between the infant and the mother. The individuated masculine subject has the impossible task of making his every relation to the real coincide with a signifying system which ensures his, and his repressive father figure’s (nobodaddy’s), unfuckable superiority. It is through this structural symbolic preservation of unfuckability that repressive social and political forces intervene in subjective life. A case in point would be Jarman’s years at boarding school, which he describes as lived under the strict surveillance of ‘heterosoc’—a masculine imposition from which Jarman was completely alienated. He writes, ‘smarting under this tortured system, the boys tortured each other, imposed valueless rules and codes of conduct, obeyed imaginary hierarchies where accidents of origin and caprice of nature were magnetised.’ Patriarchy emerges in response to a torturing system of morality intended to form members of a ruling elite. For Jarman, the patriarch ordinates the class system. Indeed, the imperative to obey the father, which is after all at the root of the oedipal narrative and perhaps our primary moral injunction, seems to be responsible for a considerable proportion of the violence towards the self and the other throughout history, particularly violence motivated by gender, race and, of course, sexuality. Jarman writes, ‘I hate the voice of my kind, I know who they are, brain-washed in mediocre public schools, brought up to rule over the oiks and wogs. I see through them, God damn them, God damn you all. This country stinks of platitude. The bomb dropped in this child’s eye.’ The bomb, emerging once again here in a knowing conflation of the individual and the historical, is a paternal metaphor; Jarman’s class-conscious father led RAF bombing campaigns over Germany in the war. The bomb links the inefficacy of perception with his father’s war trauma and its manifestation in the violence directed at his family. But whilst Jarman criticizes his father’s lack of perception, it is perhaps perception itself that Jarman’s art was finally to indict.
Jarman made Blue at a time when the effects of the virus had caused him to partially lose his sight. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film to countenance is its conflation of the losses of AIDS with a liberating absence of image emblematised by the blinding luminous blue that is all Jarman shows his viewer. In making the confrontational decision not to engage in a representation of the epidemic, the possibility of representation itself is challenged. For Jarman political and cultural responses to AIDS were representative failures. He was for example, highly critical of the AIDS quilt, begun in the United States in 1987 as a response to the lack of publically avowed grief for AIDS deaths, which he disliked for its spurious memorialising of victims of the epidemic. As we are told in Blue, ‘awareness is heightened by this but something else is lost. A sense of reality drowned in theatre.’ Does Jarman want us to see what is real, to ‘cleanse the gates of perception’ and comprehend the shallowness of charity doled out by the elite? Or is seeing the problem? Have the victims of the disease become too visible? Are their wasted bodies, depicted in the posters and broadcasts of AIDS campaigns, a forewarned punishment for sexual excess? The AIDS quilt shrouds reality, and the real suffering of the disease, in the rituals of memorialising melancholia. In this sense a challenge to representation is a challenge to the authenticity of mourning. For Jarman, the image of the AIDS patient is always viewed at once removed, in more than one sense, from the actuality of the suffering it depicts. How can we—and this is what Freud designates as the aim of mourning—reconcile ourselves to the real?
Blue is a film which at times seems resigned to interminable mourning in its refusal of the negated real, and at other times, exuberantly refuses to mourn and rejoices in asymbolic transience. At its most mournful, Tilda Swinton, taking over from the narrator’s voice whispers:
Fate is the strongest
Fate fated fatal
I resign myself to fate
To resign oneself to fate is to resign oneself to the last figure in the parental series, destiny: to give up on the contingent melee of life in favour of moral certainty. It is our fate to die at a predetermined time for our sins. AIDS, in a tradition of Christian predestination, is imagined as retribution. To resign oneself to fate is also to embrace a culture and a psychic economy of the deathly signifier. ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ Jarman’s narrator asks himself in the midst of mourning for his lost friends. The line is borrowed from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIII, in which the poet reassures himself of salvation on the day of final judgement. Jarman does not seek salvation though, rather he seeks to give death a place in the lives of his viewers. This gesture is crucial to the liberating spirituality which Blue gestures towards in its intangibility, an embrace of what death signifies—the absence at the heart of life. And this liberation is bound up with the process of mourning. Jarman’s ambivalence towards the AIDS quilt is a refusal of memorial and melancholia, of the shrouded preservation of the dead object, a stance which complements his refusal to appropriate the world through image in Blue. If the normal process of mourning is, as Freud argues in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), simply the ego’s giving up of the dead object induced by a desire to go on living, then institutionalised mourning is unnecessary. It is only because of our disavowed ambivalence, Freud argues, our love and hatred of the object, its ability to fall short of our desires and frustrate us, and our disavowed murderous intent towards it, that mourning becomes a melancholic ritual. A ritual involving the setting up of the object in the ego and on the body, and a turning of the self into an object of guilty self-derision. It is such an attack on the self that melancholia comprises; but at the same time, an ambivalent melancholia also seeks the loosening of the subject’s attachment to the lost object. Freud writes, ‘each single struggle of ambivalence loosens the fixation of the libido to the object by disparaging it, denigrating it and even as it were killing it.’ The object is set up in the subject so that it can be eroded through self-derision, in this way the subject avoids a direct attack on the object which would betray his disavowed murderous intent towards it and its threatening difference; murderousness towards the other then, is transformed via repression into an attack upon the self. The melancholic attempt to preserve the object is simultaneously an attempt to destroy it. This destruction can also be a kind of aesthetic practice. As Bowen writes in the epigraphical quotation, the aesthetic, like trauma, may be characterised by a fixation upon certain images, but our aesthetic fixation may also be an inhibited attempt to liberate ourselves from image: ‘the apparent choices of art are nothing but addictions, pre-dispositions. The aesthetic is nothing but a return to images that will allow nothing to take their place.’ The rituals of grief, like the AIDS quilt and Jarman’s last film, make up an artistic practice of mourning. But, unlike the more self-consciously memorialising rituals which tend to recognise deaths as unbearably conflicted traumas for those who mourn them, Jarman seems to recognise the desire for death in life and the relative insignificance of death itself, including his own.
In his description of Blue’s journey, Jarman excavates the dissolution of selfhood which art induces. Jarman describes the labyrinth before the city of Aqua Vitae (the ‘waters of life’) in which poets dig up eviscerating language:
The archaeology of sound has only just been perfected and the systematic cataloguing of words has until recently been undertaken in a haphazard way. Blue watched as a word or phrase materialised in scintillating sparks, a poetry of fire which cast everything into darkness with the brightness of its reflections.
The blue sparks of words act like the obliterating mirror trick in Jarman’s early films, erasing both the image and the self or selves apprehending it. Like melancholia, art is a more or less entombing response to the absence of the self but one which brings the subject unconsciously closer to its obscurely desired absence. The cataloguing of words recalls Jacques Derrida’s commentary on Freud’s death drive in Archive Fever (1995):
If there is no archive without consignation to an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction…The archive always works a priori against itself.
Just as the archive works against its own preservation, so too does love, as one of the most sublimated forms of the repetition compulsion, work against the preservation of the desired object. The opening tableau of Blue makes this clear. Blue has been inducted into his knowledge of art and life by the loving erotic sadism of the film’s narrating ‘you,’ the destruction he subsequently pursues is the ultimately liberating self-destruction which is found in art. The impasse of the death drive may be the condition through which a freedom from self-consciousness is found. Our unavoidably violent and loving relation to a world, which is not an extension of our narcissism, may be the route towards the eradication of this conflict between the self and the external. Bersani suggests this in Homos, ‘Masochistic jouissance is hardly a political corrective to the sadistic use of power, although the self-shattering I believe to be inherent in that jouissance, although it is the result of surrender to the master, also makes the subject unfindable as an object of discipline.’ The only escape from the sadistic use of power is into the masochism which sadism induces, or by an abandonment analogous to penetration in which one temporarily allows the non-differentiation of the self and the external. Cultural experience, as a form of play, is one of our most privileged forms of such abandonment. We cannot quite escape the sadism of the death drive, or the coherency which it imposes upon its objects. Yet, as Derrida shows, the death drive can lead to either sadistic conservation (conservatism, morality, guilt, shame or, put more simply, repression), like the cataloguing of words or the apparent perfection of formalist representation, or to the liberating dissolution of language which Jarman evokes in Blue. The film not only acknowledges death, but also sex as a practice of self-dissolution. A sort of death in life is Jarman’s obscured vision. This is the ethic of abandonment which Jarman’s work leaves us. If sadism, as Laplanche suggests, always obscures masochism it is necessary that we learn to experience masochism as integral to desire in order to avoid a sadism whose terminal aim would be to inflict the destruction we desire for ourselves upon every perceivable object except ourselves. There is no desire without this conflict. In Love’s Work (1995), another late twentieth century text by a writer facing death, Gillian Rose offers a view of love which contrasts with Jarman’s:
Exceptional, edgeless love effaces the risk of relation: that mix of exposure and reserve, of revelation and reticence. It commands the complete unveiling of the eyes, the transparency of the body. It denies that there is no love without power; that we are at the mercy of others and that we have others in our mercy. Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon. Instead of insinuating that illness may better prepare you for the earthly impossibilities, these enchiridions on Faith, Hope, and Love would condemn you to seek blissful, deathless, cosmic emptiness – the repose without revel.
Writing against alternative healing gurus, Rose suggests that those who argue for dissolving ‘the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self’ or for a translucidity ‘without inner or outer boundaries,’ valorise a spurious fantasy removed from real desire. Even when it collapses into narcissism, desire always depends on a distinction between subject and object. We can only have the other, indeed we can only want the other, as an indivisible part of the self because of their difference. In arguing for repose it is worth bearing in mind that repose is only attained through revel, through the conflict between sadism and masochism, or between what Rose describes as having the desired other at our mercy and being at the mercy of the desired other. Vicissitudes impel desire, we only seek masochism to escape the unbearable ineffectuality of our sadism.
Might Jarman make a similar revelation in Blue in relation to contemporary politics? The Yves Klein blue that Jarman’s film show us is a more brilliant Tory blue, the colour of the British conservative party. In a story, inserted into what is apparently an interview in Kicking the Pricks, Jarman describes what we can only assume is an imaginary encounter between his eleven-year-old self and a twenty-seven-year-old Margaret Thatcher at the hunt ball in Thatcher’s birth place, Grantham. When the young Thatcher asks Jarman to dance they discover they share a passion for gardening. Later, Jarman is made Minister of Horticulture in Thatcher’s cabinet and together they attempt to find or create the exalted blue rose. In their quest, they bankrupt the country, spending both the health and education budgets on planting blue flowers in every park in London. Eventually, by a series of experiments in which they cross-breed a rose called Peace with one called Hiroshima’s Children, they achieve the slate blue rose.
Jarman has been described as one of the most prominent left-wing cultural commentators on the Thatcher era. Why then does he align himself, at least imaginarily, with Thatcher’s vision? Tellingly, in this story Jarman denies that it was his teleological destiny to become a filmmaker. The story is apparently a response to the questions, ‘do you see it as inevitable that you ended up making films? Could you have taken a different path and saved us having to read this book?’ So the story of himself as Minister of Horticulture is the story of an alternative life, one which also reveals Jarman’s conservativism and the radical desire which might be the impetus of conservative politics. Jarman creates an image of Thatcher as someone determined to pursue a national fantasy at the cost of the nation. His story is also about the imposition of a divisive and self-serving capitalism sold to the public as a way of creating wealth, so that everyone could become middle-class and take on the nebulous ‘traditional values’ of Thatcher’s party. Destructive capitalism is imagined as a way of reaching the fantasmic quiescence of the true blue rose. Jarman had a transgressive aim in drawing similarities between himself and Thatcher. He too had a nostalgia for an earlier vision of Britain, which seems at times to have been a disguised nostalgia for his own childhood and his mother. Note the link between national and domestic fantasy in The Last of England, in which home video of a young Jarman with his mother is interrupted by footage of the bombing campaigns led by his father. What Jarman intimates in this is that repetition, or the desire to repeat that nostalgia manifests, is inseparable from the destructive drive or rather is aim-inhibited destruction. Again Blue ‘transcends the solemn geography of human limits’, and particularly, here, that solemn political geography which divides the left from the right. Both aim irrepressibly, either in the pursuit of utopian egalitarianism or destructive capitalism, towards sameness. As Freud writes in another context ‘the aim of all life is death.’ Despite this, or because of it, there is little room in politics for the consciousness of such violence. And this repression of what is most unacceptable within us impoverishes political life. As Jacqueline Rose, a writer heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, has recently argued in her book Women in Dark Times, ‘effective existence in the real world must come at the expense of the most painful forms of self-knowledge.’
It is with the blue flower as an emblem of sameness that Jarman ends his film: ‘I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.’ Though it seems strange to end his film with a ritualised act of mourning when he has been so concerned with addressing melancholic fatalism, it may be simply that for Jarman, all art fails to contain a world which it is impossible for the subject to appropriate except in fantasy. Art then must be a kind of mourning which may or may not be melancholic, but is always aimed towards the dissolution of forms rather than their preservation. Jarman says as much in a book about his garden at Dungeness when he writes, ‘the garden was made into an AIDS-related film but AIDS was too vast a subject to “film”. All the art failed. It was well intentioned but failed to turn the tragedy beyond the domestic.’ The ‘domestic’ might be read as the subjective or the personal, so that Jarman’s indictment of art is made in recognition of its inability to capture the universal. Interestingly, Jarman’s films with their splicing of home video footage and national fantasy, or indeed more universal meta-narratives as exemplified in The Garden (1990), often move casually between the intimate private life and a more universal public sphere. But it is usually the collapse of the meta-narrative that Jarman’s work represents. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is Tilda Swinton hacking at her wedding dress with scissors at the end of The Last of England (Figure 2), an ending which eviscerates her maternal status. Since it is the desire for the mother’s body, as Antony Easthope points out, which a totalizing history or meta-narrative manifests, Jarman’s ending obliterates the source of meta-narrative itself. The mother’s body would be that fantasmic locus of homecoming in meta-narrative, as well as the bearable location of deathly quiescence towards which we are drawn by Freud’s death instinct. It is in the womb, we imagine, that we lived without lack and therefore without desire. By metaphorically eviscerating the possibility of our symbolic return to the mother’s body, Jarman exposes us to the real conditions of life, outside the consolations of narrative.
Jarman’s indictment is one that encourages the viewer of Blue to look not only to the ritualized coherencies of art but to the incoherencies of the external world: ‘to be an astronaut of the void, leave the comfortable house that imprisons you. Remember to be going and to have are not eternal, fight the fear that engenders the beginning, the middle and the end.’ This is the void which Jarman attempts to present us with in Blue, but it is more often outside of the picture house that it can be found. If the cinematic image presents the viewer with a tangible and intelligible slice of the real, then it is only outside the cinema that an encounter with the real as intangible and unintelligible, void-like, can occur. Through Blue, Jarman demonstrates that such an abandonment of the scopophilic instinct, of desire as appropriation, is necessary to the cultivation of a less antagonistic relation to the world. Blue’s lack of narrative, character and image emblematises this abandonment. To leave the sanctified tomb of the self, we need a subjective practice of abandon, or what contemporary psychoanalysis refers to as the developmental achievement of masochism and we could also describe as the individual capacity to bear and take pleasure in the invasion of life.
It is in plants and gardening that Jarman found a worldly passion that allowed a temporary dissolution of desire’s antagonism. Bersani and Dutoit suggest that in his book about gardening, Jarman writes of ‘a quiet without language.’ The ‘quiet’ referred to is one which escapes signification. What Jarman excavates is the emptiness at the brink of which art and language always fail. Reading the book one is brought, via mortality, to the precipice of this immortal world. This is particularly true of the book’s poetry, in which Jarman remains committed to a transience which is the eternal condition of human life, a condition from which his own art is not excluded:
Though the watch spring breaks,
the batteries dry on the digits,
the sands of time never run dry:
they defy dread death.
I stand with my camera,
the film unwinding.
Is there nothing but mortality?
The rushes are quickly over,
I’m there with a second chance.
as the twelve apostles dance.
The spool of film on which a moment of time has been captured, defying dread death, is imagined as subject to the eternal condition of transience, in which everything is slipping through our grasp in the incessant rush of time. Reading the poems, one imagines Jarman at his Dungeness cottage on the border between land and sea, cultivating a garden which he does not expect to survive the encroaching waves that ceaselessly break over him in such a way as to dispel any faith in human efficacy:
A fathomless lethargy has swallowed me,
great waves of doubt broken me,
all my thoughts washed away.
Here narcotic narcissism or ‘fathomless lethargy’ is induced by a recognition of mortality and transience. An understanding of the provisionality of life and the self, which erodes the border between the subject and the external world, may be crucial to such an oceanic experience. It is only in misrecognising the self as immutable that such a border can be sustained. Faced everyday with the beauty of transience and the transience of beauty at Dungeness, Jarman gives up on the appropriative strategy of art, at least to the extent that the poems in the book only ever gesture towards the mutability which art cannot bear and the artist cannot escape. His garden is a testament to this, described paradoxically in one of his poems as both Gethsemane and Eden, as both a place of respite before death and earthly paradise.
In another pastoral setting, Freud’s ‘On Transience’ (1915) describes ‘a walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet.’ This short essay considers the mutability of everything to which the subject attaches itself. Whilst Freud argues that mutability should not deprive the object of its worth, he ends the essay with his hopes for what will come after the war, which has swept through Europe after the summer in which his walk with the poet took place. Freud writes, ‘when once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.’ Despite his challenge to the poet’s melancholy, Freud returns us to the same mournful subject position as the poet. He hopes that next time desire will ensure survival, even that mutability itself might ensure the preservation of an inexhaustible and inexhaustibly loved object.
The gardener though, rather than attempting to appropriate mutable life, is always having to bear with mutability so that gardening becomes a practice of humility as well as artistry in the face of perpetual change. In his garden, Jarman writes, he could ‘look at one plant for an hour, this brings me great peace. I stand motionless and stare.’ As Bersani and Dutoit write in their analysis of the work of Resnais, plants remain in one place continually but imperceptibly adapting to changes in their environment, whilst animals move towards objects as a function of desire and survival. Sexuality, with its admixtures of sadism and masochism (both ways of bearing with the traumatic real) depends on this will to survive; sadism would amount to a displacement of the destructive drive which emerges from the antagonism between the subject and the world, whilst masochism would be a way of bearing the world as in excess of desire by redirecting the destructive drive away from the world’s difference and towards the self. Eros and Thanatos, rather than being the basic instinctual antagonistic drives that Freud argues are at work in every organism, emerge as a result of the excess of desire and the excess of the external; or as methods of displacing excess which are ultimately intent upon abolishing it. The subject’s capacity for destruction emerges in response to the world’s incapacity to answer his desire. Destructive and self-destructive desires are necessitated by the division between the subject and its external objects, whilst such desire is also a futile attempt to remove this distinction. So the division between the subject and the object withstands the desire for what Rose calls ‘exceptional edgeless love,’ up to the point at which total destruction of the self or the other becomes possible.
But the stillness that Jarman finds in his garden might be imagined as the ultimate reduction toward which desire is drawn. There is, in this sense, something exemplary about shame as a mortification of the self. Excessive desire necessitates such mortification, without the supplementary force of social repression. It may be something like the incapacitation that we experience in shame, an affect which Eve Sedgwick argues is the interlining of pride and that allows us to bear desire’s prideful excesses, which Jarman experiences when looking at his plants. As Sedgwick writes: ‘shame floods into being as a moment, a disruptive moment, in a circuit of identity-constituting identificatory communication.’ This is not mortification as a preservation of the self or a forestalling of desire. Shame is a disruptive moment for personal identity, but also one which betrays a desire to rebuild a previously held communication with the world through identity; a moment in which the self becomes insufficient and the world excessive—far greater than the subject can hope to contain. To be static is to relinquish some of desire’s force, its hopes of containment, whilst desire remains unappeasable. Indeed, it is to give desire a freer reign over the self in that it can no longer be displaced onto external objects or exercised through power over those objects. In this way, what Jarman’s work inaugurates is a relinquishment, not of, but to desire. Looking at his plants, Jarman remains motionless but not mortified.
 Jarman’s canonization by the protest and performance group The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as well as his autobiographical At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament attest to the way in which Jarman’s life was styled by himself and others as one worth emulating.
 In Kicking the Pricks Jarman describes the war trauma suffered by his father and its impact on family life: ‘my father fought a hard war, he fought Hitler. Prosecuting the war with a violence that proved uncontainable. I don’t know how to solve that, but without men like my father the war would not have been won. After it was over he carried on the war.’ (1987, 107)
 The thesis of Lee Edelman’s book No Future (Duke University Press, 2004) influences this statement. In the book Edelman claims that a radical desire for sameness characterises all politics, and is especially exemplified in the conservative desire for stasis.
 We can also see Tilda Swinton’s tearing off of her wedding dress, of course, as a feminist statement. Recently in a Guardian article Jacqueline Rose has argued for a feminism which would be in sync with the attempts of Jarman, and Carter, to expose the real conditions of life. As Rose writes, ‘let feminism, then, be the place in our culture that asks everyone, women and men, to recognise the failure of the present dispensation – its stiff-backed control, its ruthless belief in its own mastery, its doomed attempt to bring the uncertainty of the world to heel.’ (‘We need a bold, scandalous feminism’, Guardian, 17 October 2014).
Oliver Penny is a doctoral candidate in the department of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, UK, where he is supervised by Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge and Dr. Clare Connors. His thesis reads British literature and film from late modernism to the 21st century in relation to theories of melancholia and the death drive from Freud to contemporary queer theory.