It does justice to Plato’s beautiful aphorism that time is the moving image of eternity.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (1945)
Word is that Alain Resnais, the great French New Wave auteur who passed away last March at the ripe, old age of ninety-one, but who had remained an active filmmaker to the very end, was at the time of his death “working” on a shot-for-shot “remake” of Je t’aime, je t’aime, his feverish 1968 tongue-in-cheek exploration of his two enduring themes, time and memory. I put “working” and “remake” in quotes because Resnais, by all accounts, meant “shot-for-shot” still more literally than Gus Van Sant did in executing his widely panned 1998 shot-for-shot re-shoot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from 1960. Resnais, in contrast to Van Sant, was working with his own material, and so he had a luxury unavailable to Van Sant: The shot-for-shot remake of Je t’aime, je t’aime was to be nothing more than a release of the same, exact film that came out in 1968, with, at most, a new date rolled out at the end of the credits.
But what, on Van Sant’s part, may have appeared something of a pointless joke that took itself too seriously was, in the hands of Resnais, this contemporary master of time and memory, nothing less than a perfect parting shot, which—his unfortunate passing in the interim notwithstanding—we will have the glorious opportunity to experience just as it was conceived and intended when the “new” version of Je t’aime, je t’aime hits theaters. Resnais had laid the groundwork by first working with archival houses to secure a preparatory re-release of the “original” film (which I was lucky enough to catch at Film Forum in New York in February 2014), the idea being that one should view the re-release as a film made in 1968 and, some months later, perhaps, the shot-for-shot “remake” as a film made in 2014.
The ultimate irony of this approach is that we are routinely treated, with no irony intended, to a steady stream of remasters and re-releases which record labels and movie studios market by means of the sundry nominal, cosmetic touchups they use to justify the accompanying price tag. Resnais steered clear of such empty gestures. In what may well have been a conscious channeling of Jorge Luís Borges’s fictional literary critic Pierre Menard, who, as Borges tells it, rewrote Don Quixote verbatim, but from his own twentieth-century perspective, altering in the process not Cervantes’s words but, rather, their meaning, Resnais’s “remake” is transparent in being about nothing other than itself, or, rather, about the distance between itself and its earlier self. To get a handle on what exactly that distance is, and, more important, why it should matter to us all, even to those who have never heard of this film and its legendary director—still better known for such art-house sensations as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961)—permit me to take a brief excursion into the film itself.
Souvenir of a Scene
With nothing to lose, protagonist Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is strapped into a clunky, experimental time machine, having been solicited as a human guinea pig upon leaving the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. The scientists promise him that he will go exactly one year into the past and relive a single minute of his life, but the machine malfunctions, and we follow Claude as he leaps, swims, flies, skips forward, and doubles back across many jumbled moments from much of the foregoing decade of his life—his workaday existence, his travels, miscellaneous happenings and amorous philanderings, but principally, his intense seven-year relationship with Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot).
For a film that is a collage of moments, it is appropriate that Catrine, even more than Claude, lives in the moment and yet is unable to free herself of the unhappy consciousness that every joyful moment will end, until, at last, Claude kills her, or, rather, mercifully lets her die in peace when he sees her sleeping with a rare smile on her face and chooses to do nothing about the gas that has been left turned on in the room, with the fire certain to burn out. But roughly two-thirds of the way into this compact ninety-four-minute masterpiece, Resnais musters this transcendent gem, a scene I would rank, despite its apparent simplicity, as one of the greatest in all of cinema. It is a moment in which the rush of time stops, in which what Claude and Catrine—and we, through them—undergo is not merely an episode, but an episode reflected upon and transformed into an experience.
They are in a room together. He goes somewhere past the camera and (presumably) turns on a phonograph, and music comes on. He sits down next to her, both of them facing forward, toward us, without looking directly at us. He listens. She listens too, but also watches him listening, revealing a hint of a smile, her experience of the music mediated by the dynamic succession of more-or-less inscrutable reactions he displays: bemusement, fascination, uncertainty, pleasant surprise. We watch them both looking and listening. We do not and cannot know what the music means to them. It does not matter. We do not need to know because we see all we need to see in the actors’ supremely nuanced expressions.
The scene lasts ten or fifteen seconds at most, but packaged into this magical frame is an answer to time’s depredations. It is not the sad, spirit-sapping answer Claude later gives us when he allows Catrine to die with a peaceful smile forever fixed on her face, but the best answer we humans have devised: Art cannot stop time, and yet can arrest, extend, and distend it, allowing us to linger in the moment through which we are living because we are called upon to stop and notice details and aspects we would normally overlook or because we recognize with a double consciousness as we attend not merely to the content of our perceptions but also to their form.
As no less a master of such transformations than Marcel Proust put it, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Or as the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote in “Art as Technique” (1925), “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” For Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists, art slows the world’s mad rush by means of what they call “estrangement,” or what I prefer to think of as perceptual stickiness of every sort—difficulty, beauty, ugliness, novelty, surprise, emotional impact and the like. The result is that we pause to contemplate, as we do when we stroll through a museum, slowing our normal walking pace and then coming to a full stop before a painting we find striking. Thus, though we may not have on offer Faust’s option of selling our souls to the Devil to stop time in order to relish a moment of beauty and never let it go, what we have is art, so that we can, at the very least, incline in that same direction.
Or, rather, Claude and Catrine had art. What we have left is an open question. For it to stop for us the life-destroying, all-consuming forward march of time, art—unlike Emily Dickinson’s kindly Grim Reaper—first needs us to stop for it. We need to stop, sit down, listen to the music, and feel transported.
In watching the Je t’aime, je t’aime of 2014, we can begin to see how far we have come. The remake is a tour de force. From the unrestored colors of this beautifully faded print to the decadent beachfronts, free and easy sexual mores, unrestrained fashions, and campy sci-fi constructions, everything perfectly evokes the style and tenor of the original film’s epoch, which now, for us—and surely as it did for Resnais, all the more—cannot help but call forth feelings of bittersweet nostalgia.
Measuring How Much We Have Lost
But in “remaking” the film in Menardian fashion, Resnais must just as surely have felt a second level of nostalgia, for Je t’aime, je t’aime itself, as he could doubtless recall in his return to the material a good deal of what he experienced in making it the first time around. It is fitting, then, that this is a film about a time machine, about the protagonist’s agreeing to take part in an experiment that promises to return to him a single episode, a single minute of his life. If the 1968 version of the film depicts a time machine, then the 2014 version is the time machine. The original Je t’aime, je t’aime is the episode in Resnais’s life, in his career as a filmmaker, that it promises to restore. It transports Resnais, taking Claude Ridder and us along for the ride, a second time around. Of course, just like its analogue in the film, this larger time machine malfunctions, as memory always will, restoring not a single episode but an entire era—its loves, longings, and aspirations.
Reflecting back, we can take the measure of how much of these and much else we have lost. In making a film now in which the protagonist sets out to recapture a relationship, with its many moments marked by the bitter tinge of the ephemeral, Resnais strikes a chord that resonates more jarringly today than it did when it was first struck in the late 1960s. Bombarded by overstimulating, superficial entertainments, nonstop distractions, and meaningless communications that intrude upon us incessantly, we are, more than ever, losing the capacity to linger and reflect, to be in the moment we are supposed to be experiencing. It is a central irony of the 2014 remake that a film about that ephemerality of time seems (in takes that feel long compared to those to which we are now accustomed) so imbued with moments that appear to luxuriate in themselves, in which the characters are fully immersed and invested, in which that sense of now is forever is palpable, and which, therefore, does justice to Plato’s beautiful aphorism that time is the moving image of eternity. These are moments worth remembering, worth recapturing—moments whose loss means something. About our own frantic, fractured lives, we can hardly say the same.
At no point in the 2014 film is this distance between then and now more viscerally apparent than in that scene I have already described, in which Claude and Catrine simply sit and listen and enjoy. We do not, as a rule, do that kind of thing anymore. Which brings me to my larger point: Increasingly, we do not, as a rule, do art anymore, and certainly not in the way we once experienced it, in pairs, in groups, in nations, or in civilizations, at roughly the same time, fostering a sense of collective identity and cultivating a common core of meaningful human experience. Instead, we are, each of us, usually off in our very small worlds, plugged in to our own media streams, our own tailored devices. In this sense, the 2014 Je t’aime, je t’aime’s nostalgia for itself is also nostalgia for art, for the heady days of the 1960s when art still mattered.
Art, to thrive, requires that now-vanishing common tradition. There can be no doubt, for instance, that works of art influence one another and are conceived in response to one another, indeed, to such an extent that they are, in many ways, less about the world than about their own precursors, about their creator’s relationship to the works that exerted a formative influence on his or her aesthetic consciousness, as T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, and others have argued. The artist is spurred into being as a creator not merely by living in the world but by experiencing certain of the great creations of the past that, without his complicity, inspire, form, and deform the young maker’s ill-defined strivings.
The Unraveling of Art
If that much is true, then it logically follows that in order to understand, interpret, and enjoy works of art beyond the most superficial level, it is essential to know and understand those earlier works to which they are responding. One cannot fully appreciate Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, for instance, without knowing something of the history of art and its typical mode of exhibition, since these were facts to which Duchamp was explicitly responding. Nor can one fathom abstraction as anything more than a pretty (or, as the case may be, ugly) arrangements of colors and shapes if one does not understand the stepwise developments that led to this extreme.
The “natural,” spontaneous mode of artistic expression in the visual arts, if such a thing ever existed, was permanently lost to us after the first cave paintings made their appearance on the scene, and surely (in the West) after the Greeks sculpted their seemingly perfect exemplars of natural human forms and proportions. Everything afterward was necessarily a response to these works. In the Western literary arts, Homer set the stage for all that was to come, and even when the “belated” works that came after (to use Harold Bloom’s evocative term) were not, like The Aeneid or Ulysses, explicit responses to Homer, they were implicit responses or responses filtered through other responses, in the same sense that we might trace a single line of descent from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Milton to Wordsworth, and so on.
If you are unfamiliar with the kind of poetry to which Wordsworth and Coleridge set out to respond (and which they aspired to revise radically) in their Lyrical Ballads, how can you possibly understand why these poems are great, or even, on the most basic level, what they are really about? Every great work of art necessarily contains the history of that art form within it, as its very language. The artist, whether he wills it or not, invokes this common tradition to communicate.
What happens, then, when that common tradition begins to unravel, when too many streams are inundating us at once, when every year more and more undigested and unfiltered aesthetic productions make their entrance and then disappear into the void, even as the audience for many of these works is shrinking, as much-publicized recent studies suggesting dramatic declines in reading rates have suggested? The goal of being well read (or well versed in any art form) is, as the Stanford literary theorist Franco Moretti has argued,11x Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review (January–February 2000), http://newleftreview.org/II/1/franco-moretti-conjectures-on-world-literature; see also Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013). one to which critics, much less amateurs, can no longer realistically aspire.
In his 2013 book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa presents a compelling argument that acceleration is the defining feature of modernization. He invokes and expands upon political philosopher Hermann Lübbe’s notion of the “contraction of the present”22x Hermann Lübbe, “The Contraction of the Present,” High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman eds. (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2009), 159–178. as the result of an increasing social and cultural “rate of obsolescence” or a growing sociocultural “compression of innovation,” so that, as the pace of innovation in every realm of endeavor escalates, the time horizon of any single given experience, its relevance to the present moment, is constantly shrinking, and we find ourselves under constant pressure to keep up or become obsolete ourselves. “The temporal structures of late modernity,” Rosa explains, “seem to be characterized in large measure by fragmentation, i.e., by the breaking down of series of actions and experiences into ever smaller sequences with shrinking windows of attention.”
Though the aesthetic realm is not Rosa’s principal focus, his point applies to aesthetic experience as much as any other: “If we dedicate a constant proportion of our time budget to reading books, listening to CDs, and answering e-mails, then the average length of time we can devote to each book, CD, or e-mail drops in line with the number of books and CDs we acquire (or borrow) per unit of time or the number of e-mails we receive and send,” he writes.
This development is problematic, because in order to make our experiences our own, we must have the time and opportunity to reflect upon them. That becomes impossible when modernity’s nonstop, simultaneously flowing streams of experience inundate daily life. When these “decontextualized, mutually unconnected but highly stimulating sequences of events” overtake us, “lived events remain episodic. They are no longer linked to each other, to history, and to one’s own individual identity.”
Going Nowhere Fast
Contemporary society is, therefore, “rich in lived events but devoid of experience” (emphasis added) because “it becomes difficult to integrate developments into cultural world pictures, narratives, educational institutions, and patterns of interpretation.” We get, instead, “the increasing fluidity and ephemerality of fashions, goods, work processes, ideas, and images.” We get “not the end of the world, but the end of meaning.” We get the experience of “frenetic standstill,” the state where “nothing remains the way it is while at the same time nothing essential changes.” Life, Rosa explains, “can no longer be understood as directed motion and narratively reconstructed in the sense of a history of progress or development. Life doesn’t head anywhere; in the end, it goes nowhere (very fast).”
In the past, when significant aesthetic events were few and far between, and civilization’s collective memory was long and enduring, we could sometimes rekindle the flame of artistic expression by rediscovering and building upon the works of distant epochs, the way, during the Renaissance or the period of Neoclassicism, artists found their footing through their newfound nostalgia for antiquity, while the nineteenth-century Gothic revival reached back into the cauldron of the Middle Ages. Contrast this with the aesthetic stagnation (Rosa’s “frenetic standstill”) we experience today, when, on account of an ever-changing succession of styles and an ever-shortening collective historical memory (Lübbe’s “contraction of the present”), modes of music or fashion from the 1980s and 1990s, revived under the tongue-in-cheek label of “old school,” are enjoying uninspiring, short-lived comebacks a mere generation later (like aging rockers getting it back into gear for a nostalgia tour) simply because new generations of would-be-creators are discovering their parents’ style—or, just as often, because the powers-that-be realize nostalgia sells.
When our common aesthetic heritage fragments and devolves into ever-accumulating clusters of inconsequential sound bites and megabytes, the wheels spinning round and round without ever touching the ground, it is no longer possible to have an aesthetic tradition that is meaningfully cumulative or progressive. The ceaseless flow of time may once have seemed to be reflected fittingly by Heraclitus’s maxim that “you cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.” Our sense of time is now more readily captured in the notion of Heraclitus’s still more radical follower Cratylus, who held that you cannot step into the same river even once. Time moves forward, and anything we say about it is already false by the time we say it.
When we have had no time to digest a more-or-less unitary set of “Great Works” and cultivate our palates sufficiently to ready ourselves, in our capacities as prospective creators and auditors, to preserve and refresh our cultural legacy, we are left with pop culture, the kind that requires no cultivation, no tradition, no steeping in the Great Works as a prerequisite to understanding and appreciating its offerings. And, with time, even the bursting bubbles of saccharine fizz that pop culture offers start to look more and more alike, coming in a steadily decreasing variety of flavors.
Art’s downfall was, perhaps, preordained. Art needs time. It slows us down and relies on us, as a culture, to move forward slowly enough to appreciate it, incorporate it, and build upon it. But the very same progress of human civilization that gave birth to art and enabled its flowering, as it proceeds further in its development, increasingly becomes art’s deadliest enemy. While art expects the perceiver to think and linger, civilization, as Alfred North Whitehead wrote in 1911, “advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”33x Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics (Seaside, WA: Watchmaker Publishing, 2011), 61 (originally published 1911). Here, Rosa’s conception of the dangers of accelerating time is apt. Below a certain speed threshold, he argues, the progress of events is sufficiently slow that such progress is not yet apparent, and the prevailing conception of time at this stage of our development, as Oswald Spengler, among others, has observed, is cyclical. Life is an unchanging eternity.
It is only when things speed up past a certain critical threshold that people start believing in their own ability to influence the flow of events, and so the sense of time and civilization as an unfolding trajectory of progress can emerge. This is the time when art can come into its own, within which a critical mass of creators can spur each other on to ever greater heights in their quest for mastery in the elaboration of their chosen form of communication with an educated audience.
Beyond that threshold, however, when the pace of change accelerates to the point where knowledge and experience become obsolete within less than a single generation, when everyone becomes a creator, albeit an insignificant creator, even as no one is paying much attention to any particular creation because the educated audience, inundated by noise, has lost its bearings and faded to so many weak signals in a sea of static—small, fragmented pockets of culture, isolated interest groups representing every possible cultural allegiance and affiliation—then the “frenetic standstill” takes hold.
The sense of civilization as repetitive rather than progressive re-emerges, but the repetition this time around is not that slow, foreordained eternal cycle that prevailed in the ancient world, but, rather, a sense of chaos and fragmentation, in which, at any point, anything might emerge or vanish on the world stage or where the hypermodern and the primitive might come to coexist side by side all at once, with no sense of a causal nexus in which a prior stage of affairs gives rise to the next in a certain sensible, if not predetermined, order. The results, whether in the political realm or in the cultural realm, will be anomie, apathy, stasis, and collapse.
Toward a New Criticism
Considered in this light, the statement Resnais made in releasing the same film again becomes even stronger and more sweeping, in being a comment upon itself, art speaking about art and having nothing new to say. Je t’aime, je t’aime—the repetition in the title, now more richly ironic than when it merely referred to the moments of love and enchantment that begin and end and repeat but never endure, necessarily implicates the dire state of all our art forms, which, dying away in a society that has no time left for gathering and reflecting, are, with all our remakes, remasters, reboots, refrains, retreads, revivals, re-releases, and reprises, turning into pure exercises in nostalgia about their own past, and their less glorious recent past at that. No wonder, then, that, as the literary theorist Gérard Genette suggests, “paratexts” such as epigraphs, forewords, afterwords, supplemental resources, interviews, blogs, tweets, and diaries have come to eclipse the main text in their significance.44xGérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997). We have no content left to us, only comments, and even those comments have vanishingly little to add.
The problem has no obvious solution. Barring a world-shattering cataclysm, the pace of life will continue to accelerate, and art will only fall farther and farther behind. Our remaining peninsulas of art that already seem conspicuous when they jut out too far into the fizzy sea of pop culture will be engulfed by time and turn into “islands of deceleration,” to use Rosa’s apt phrase, doomed—like Thomas Mann’s time-defying Berghof sanatorium in The Magic Mountain—to succumb eventually to the maelstrom.
We are at the inception of a new dark age, and it is time to start fleeing to the monasteries once again. But this dark age is more insidious than the last, for this time around art and culture will be lost in a sea of mass ignorance not by virtue of information loss but, rather, information overload. Yet the mission of those for whom the loss is a tragedy will be the same: to gather the works worth preserving, sail to those far-off “islands of deceleration,” and, in our monastic calm, preserve and study the Tradition, holding out against the deluge until it subsides. The good news is that dark ages usually end, and I have every confidence that what re-emerges in the new enlightenment will be even better than what we had before. The bad news is that there’s a reason they’re called dark ages, and for those living through them, the distant, uncertain hope of salvation may offer only meager consolation for the trials of an extended barbarism.
Although I can offer no easy way out, I will end with a somewhat whimsical minor measure to address one facet of the issue. What I propose is a new form of literary criticism calculated to combat the “contraction of the present,” the increasing irrelevance of past experience to the exigencies of the present moment. It is an entirely ahistorical form of criticism, even an anti-historical form, the polar inverse of those Marxist or New Historicist critical approaches that, by rooting the creator firmly in his economic, social, and political milieu reveal what are, in my view, often interesting but inessential aspects of a particular artist’s creative process at the cost of limiting, contextualizing, and circumscribing great artistic creations, suggesting unintentionally that those works of art spring from and are most relevant to the concerns of a particular place and time no longer our own. Such approaches play directly into the “contraction of the present” by accentuating the perceived irrelevance of our earlier accomplishments.
The obvious solution is a form of criticism that takes the opposite tack, treating the Great Works as though they were quite literally created yesterday. One can do this with art because, unlike scientific discoveries that are wholly superseded or even falsified by those that come later, no great work of art has ever been wholly superseded, much less falsified. It is only lesser works that suffer this fate, while their greater counterparts, especially when championed by worthy interpreters, remain perpetually relevant. We are, in our current cultural predicament, in dire need of such champions willing to bring the timeliness of these works to the fore, not in some moralistic or pedantic way, such as the “Ten Life Lessons One Can Still Learn from The Divine Comedy,” but in a way that brings those works to life for new generations primed to jump on every passing bandwagon without realizing that the bandwagon is just the hastily repainted caboose of a grand old train that has been chugging along now for a few millennia.
This new critical approach, which I call the Menardian mode of interpretation (in tribute, of course, to Monsieur Menard, Borges’s influential, albeit fictional, hero), will take different forms, depending on the work it takes for its subject. The critic will, for example, forthrightly ask the reader to join him in imagining that a 10,000-year-old cave painting was just recently wrought and to proceed to consider aspects such as its influences and its significance. Or, if the work is sufficiently (but undeservedly) obscure, the critic will flat-out lie, present it as newly minted, then go on to review it as one would review any new arrival on the scene. Or—yet a third variant—the critic could opt for a hybrid approach of his devising that suits the present purposes, such as indulging in a smaller act of prevarication and suggesting that a creator had slightly revised or simply re-released an old work. Like any critical approach, this one would suit some works better than others, but the space for interpretative creativity abounds, and I have confidence that the results would often be both surprising and enlightening in tracing out interesting connections and coming upon the occasional revelation, making a jumble of chronology for the sake of rescuing the tradition and highlighting its continuing relevance, its unvanquishable influence.
If one of the latter two variants of the technique (the ones calling for the writer to deceive the reader) is employed, there will then inevitably arise the question of whether to tack on a big “reveal” at the very end for the sake of everyone’s peace of mind, or else to take one’s cue from art itself and allow the reader to sustain the illusion. But here, too, there is a middle way. There is, after all, in these overly explicit times, a benefit, if only in the way of a show of good form, to leaving the reader with one foot still lodged in the time machine, to returning only most of the way back to the realities of the present’s “frenetic standstill,” to allowing something significant to be hinted at, implied even, and yet—like a second, too insistent “I love you” after one has already been plainly and passionately expressed—in the final analysis, tactfully left unsaid.